Monday, October 25, 2010

Aaah! We're talking like the script!

Earlier today, Mark revealed that he's now asking for "a picture of the landscape" from people.

Since we started rehearsals, it has been hard not to fall in to the back-and-forth rhythms of Ken Kaissar's fabulous and quirky dialog.

It seems the bug is spreading: I'm uploading a large file, the completed locked picture, for the composer to use as a guide when creating our music. It's taking a long time, so I sent him an email to let him know. This was his response:

A)That makes a lot of sense, can't slow down the upload.
B) Oh sure, he's right.
C) He is?
D) Of course he is, these things take time.
A) Yes, he's right; and time is important. I mean after all, all we have is time.
B) Exactly.
C) 100% right.
D) So what do we do now.
C) Donuts?
D) Oh sure, eating donuts is a great time passer.
C) Right.
D) Donuts it is.
A) Good.

Thanks, Leon!
-Arnon Shorr

Monday, October 18, 2010

30 pages in two days... again!

Today, our seventh shoot day, we wrapped another grueling pair of days. They were challenges, but they were planned challenges, and we beat the odds.

Some background: The general rule of thumb, I am told, is that Hollywood movies aim to cover two to three pages of a script in their average shoot day. Television shows, which have a cumulative running time that far exceeds a typical film's two hours, tend to shoot faster, covering six, sometimes eight script pages a day.

Sheer financial necessity often forces independent productions to cover more ground in less time. Actors, crew, equipment and facilities often charge by the week or by the day, making each additional production day an instantly expensive proposition. "A Modest Suggestion", for example, which is scripted just short of one hundred pages, was scheduled for ten shoot days, roughly ten pages per day. This turned out to be merely an average -- some days would require much more of our cast and crew.

We had set ourselves up with an additional challenge: we had scheduled a lengthy, difficult scene for our first and second shoot days. On top of that, our second day included an additional scene at a different location (which means the cast and crew showed up in one place, shot for a while, then re-located en-mass to our studio). We had roughly thirty pages to cover.

The first days of a shoot are notoriously unstable. Talented people in numerous disciplines are thrown together, often for the first time, in an attempt to create meticulously detailed puzzle pieces, the individual shots that will eventually combine to form a motion picture. Everyone has their own way of doing their job, and their own expectations of how everyone else should do theirs. It can be a challenge on any production, and it usually means the going is slow, sometimes flawed, and often frustrating.

We had our fair share of frustrations on our first day. For me, a lot of it involved learning the rhythms of such a large, compartmentalized crew. I also had to learn how to communicate my careful planning to the crew and production team -- my storyboards and shot lists have made production move very smoothly, but on day one, I still hadn't figured out how to express my meticulous plans to the people around me who needed to understand them. By lunch, we had fallen behind schedule significantly, and I was instructed that I'd have to speed things up.

I tweaked the shot list frantically during our lunch break. When we were called back on the set, I felt the tension mount as the lights went up, the camera rolled in to position, and the microphones swung over the actors' heads. The shot list was organized a bit better, and the cast and crew seemed to have a better sense of each others' patterns and needs. Perhaps lunch had helped them all relax in to the job? Somehow, we got very close to completing our shots that day. We had fallen behind, and we pushed an hour in to overtime, but we got close.

That night, I sat down with our first assistant director to review what remained of our scene. There was a lot left to cover, and we'd only have half a day to cover it, since there was that other location shoot in the morning. We shuffled, tweaked, and shifted shots around, trying to figure out the most efficient order in which to get what we needed. We came up with a new shot list and called it a night.

The next day, on the set, as actors pulled in, and as the crew started rigging their gear, I frantically hacked at the shot list, changing and shuffling our shooting order again and again, continuing to streamline the day's plan.

On set, the team seemed better prepared for the day. By know, they had gone through a busy day together, and had learned a lot about each other. The first day was like oil in the joints, making day 2 flow very smoothly. Needless to say, we caught ourselves up and finished shooting that big scene by the time we wrapped our second day. In those two days, we had covered roughly thirty pages.

It's easy to credit the shot list for something like this. Shot lists require discipline and organization, but not much art. Here's roughly how it works:

A movie or scene is composed of all sorts of shots -- individual camera angles that combine to convey a narrative. Think of the typical movie conversation between two characters. You start out seeing both of them talking. Then, you see one of them, saying something. Then, you cut to the other one, responding. Cut back to the first, with a retort, and back to the second, with a reaction. You might think that movies are shot like that, too: first, the wide shot of both actors, then a shot of one, saying one thing, then a shot of the other, saying the next thing, then back to the first actor, and so on. If we worked that way, we'd still be shooting that first day's scene. You see, every time you move the camera, you've got to worry about the lights, the set, continuity, etc. Everything has to be re-set, moved, turned around, or fixed up. It takes a while. Instead of working this way, most filmmakers will try to group the shots they get together. If, in our example, we get all of the first character's lines and reactions, then reset our camera just once for the other character's lines and reactions, we've only had to re-set things once, but we've got the same amount of footage.

That's the basic principle of shot-listing, as I see it. If the camera is pointed somewhere, you might as well get every possible shot you'll need from that angle before you move the camera somewhere else. Since the scenes in "A Modest Suggestion" are very long, and involve four or five characters moving a lot through the set, the shot-listing was complicated, and often required combining moments from the beginning of a scene with moments that take place ten minutes later, at the scene's conclusion. Jumping back and forth across these scenes is not easy, and that's one of the places we got lucky.

Our actors have been absolutely incredible. Their careful preparations gave them such a keen understanding of their characters and of their scenes that they could almost instantly glide in to and out of each moment. They may try to be modest about it, but their preparations paid off. The shot list was arranged in such a way that we didn't have to reset the cameras, but that would have been meaningless if it had taken us ten minutes to remind the actors of how their characters should behave and interact every time we jumped across a scene. Because of their preparation, the shot list worked.

The crew was also fantastic, especially once I learned how to communicate my shot list to them. There are still a few kinks to iron out, but at this point, it doesn't take two minutes for me to explain a shot before the camera is moved, the lights adjusted, and the sound team brainstorms the best microphone placement. Once we're up for a shot, we're up for everything else that needs to be shot from that position -- that sequence of shots is called a setup. The shot list makes it possible to get through setups quickly, but the crew is the bridge from one setup to the next. The shot list reduces the number of times we have to reset the camera, but when we do, the crew makes that process flow like water.

Now that we are a week in to the production, it happened again. We just wrapped another 30-page pair of shoot days. This time around, our shot list was more carefully refined -- I had been working on it with the 1st Assistant Director since late last week. The actors were even better prepared, having worked together in character for what adds up to roughly half the movie. And the crew, of course, had become a family -- a very functional family!

So, with two shoot days to go, I am already looking back at what we've accomplished with a great deal of pride. 30 pages in two days is an enormous accomplishment, and we've done it twice. Don't let anyone tell you it's impossible! But don't try it without careful preparation, or without a brilliant, hard-working, dedicated team at your side.

-Arnon Shorr

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day 4

So far so good, actually amazing! We’ve been now on the set for four days, not straight because we had one day off on Wed, and today we completed day four of shooting! Being on a set of a feature film and living the motion with such nice people is almost like having a new family. It’s not a job; it’s not a vacation, nor a hello and bye at the local supermarket, but an experience. A production team works like a functional body; everyone has its productivity task and makes sure the final product is special and perfect. For me, these are good days, and days to remember.
– Israel Orange (Producer’s Perspective)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mountain Climbed - By Israel Orange, Producer

Often, after watching a film I would wonder, what is the magic of film that creates a masterpiece? What makes a film so special? I can NOT say I have a clear answer to that yet, but what I do know after working tirelessly on our film is that a ginormous amount of work goes into every single film, every single minute of every single scene, every single frame; lots of effort, time, finances, meetings, people, artists, thoughts, props, heart, blood & soul, go into every second of every piece of footage shot. Eight months ago, I sat with Arnon (director) talking about this project, wondering, how in the world can we make this happen? How can we cross this humongous bridge with only a dream? Is it really possible? How can it be done? We sat together for hours, day after day, sipped LOTS of coffee, tea and chocolate milk, and planed endlessly, creating a budget, a time frame, a schedule; modifying, revising, clarifying, pushing meeting after meeting, not relenting! By every means, it was not an easy process and no easy task. But today I felt proud; a feeling that was gripping. Literally! Today, as I watched Arnon for the first time on the set, sitting with these amazing actors, in the boardroom, directing this new film, I had a sense of calm, a feeling of awe, knowing that every minute, every meeting, and every effort that went into this project was so truly worth it. These are really exciting days for me! – Israel Orange, Producer.

Reflections: Day One

Things are running like clockwork. Here's how I know:

Yesterday, we did a "tech scout" ("tech recce" is another term for it), basically me visiting our locations with the DP, AD, producer, making sure we have a sense of how to tackle them when the time comes.

Our office hallway location was nice, but there were stirrings of trouble. By the time we got home from the trip, an email awaited us: the major Jewish association that owns the building and that coordinates the financing for the organizations housed therein decided they didn't want to have anything to do with our film, so, we can't shoot there.

You'd think a major Jewish organization would be interested in supporting Jewish artists, especially when those artists are tackling such important subjects as anti-Semitism and bigotry. But no, they didn't want to make waves. Fine.

What does this have to do with us running like clockwork?

Today, I showed up on the set for our first rehearsal. The actors arrived, and we got started. We worked 'til lunch, took a break, and worked some more, refining and polishing the lively banter that characterizes so much of this film. Eventually, five o'clock rolled by. Actors went home, and things got quiet.

I sat down with our DP, Rich Waganer, and with our production coordinator, Stacie Jones Gentzler, to talk through the day. While I was working with the actors, they were busily discussing solutions to our location problem. They presented me with options, we picked one, and that was that!

Losing a location just days before the shoot can be very hard to recover from for a little indie film. Since we've got so much of the project's needs already lined-up, and since we have the right people on board, ready to tackle any challenge the moment it presents itself, we were able to recover very quickly, without missing a beat. For me, the amazing revelation is that I didn't really have to do anything. I could trust my producer, my production coordinator, and the rest of the team to step in and solve the problem while I was busy with the rehearsals themselves.

I've never been able to pull myself away from parts of a production like that before. Making short films, I've always had to wear every hat, and to be the chief troubleshooter for every department (mostly because there weren't really departments, just well-meaning folks lending a hand). This isn't to belittle all the fantastic people I've worked with before, of course! It's just that somehow, here, our team seems to have formed in such a way that everyone can independently work to support the production. People are solving problems, troubleshooting, addressing issues, and making things happen without too much of a push from the top. The best part is, we seem to all be making the same movie.

I couldn't ask for anything more from my team. I'm looking forward to the collaborative adventure that the next few weeks have in store.

-Arnon Shorr

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On the Verge

As we creep closer and closer to the start of production, I've been doing my best to keep a level head about everything. I don't want to get too excited -- the movie isn't a movie yet, and it won't be a movie for a while. There's still lots of work to be done before we get to that point.

But, yesterday, I had a brief emotional moment when I walked in to the studio. The set, its walls built up, its paint dry, with some pieces of furniture already in place, looked fantastic. What's more, it looked like all the sketches, models and diagrams that have been floating around my apartment for the past several months. When I walked in to that set for the first time, I couldn't contain the sense that 'this is really happening'.

There's something very powerful about building and shooting in a set. So far, almost everything I've worked on has involved shooting on-location, with minimal adjustments to the rooms being used. Now, for the first time, I've been able to dictate the dimensions and demeanor of the space, and through that, of the film itself. I determined (with help, of course), the colors (which are very intentional, and meant to go entirely un-noticed), the shapes, the very furnishings of the space that encompasses so much of this story. I won't know 'til the film is ready if I've done it right, but it's thrilling to know that on this film, more than any I've shot before, will consist entirely of products of the combined imaginations of my team -- products that I need to coordinate for the screen.

Tomorrow, when the actors step in to that space for their first rehearsal, I'll really get a taste of what I've been preparing for all these months. Think I'll be on cloud 9? It'll be far below me. But of course, there's more work to be done. It's not a movie yet!