Monday, April 12, 2010

Spook Hunt Scene 4 notes - the perils of microbudget filmmaking

It was 1:30 am Saturday morning.  We had just finished almost five hours of shooting.  Everyone else had gone home and I was transferring and backing up all the media to hard drives.  I pulled up a couple shots to see how they looked and my heart sank to the pit of my stomach.  There was practically nothing there - no usable image at all.  There just was not enough light.

 (Yep - that's my master shot - enough to make a grown man cry)

 (...and there's Charles' close-up Charles?  Charles? anybody there?)

Writer/Director Todd Miro was really pissed off that Producer/Prop Master Todd Miro had slacked on his duties.

This last shoot for Spook Hunt really hammered home to me how much I've been juggling on this project.  I've been wearing the multiple hats of:

Post Production Coordinator
Digital Media Wrangler
Sound Recordist
Production Manager
Craft Services
Set Design
Location Manager
Script Supervisor
Prop Master
Stunt Coordinator

Not to mention, running and maintaining my post-production business, Miro Digital Arts (finishing editing and sound mixing for the latest Goldman Prize videos), and oh yeah, being a father and husband too.

Something had to give - and it finally did Friday night.

Unfortunately, I would not have the services of my DP Rob Weiner for this shoot, as he was in London actually making money.  Not only did I lose his skills and eyes, I lost his camera package as well, so I had spent the last couple of weeks scrambling to find a new Canon 7D, lens, tripod, wireless mics and another Zoom H4n digital audio recorder.

Thankfully, my buddy Eduardo Silva stepped up and took over duties as DP.  I was able to borrow a Canon 7D from another friend, John Pattillo, and my good pal Kristin Nelder procured a wireless mic package and tripod from her work.  It's always important to have a great group of friends to rely on.

The one thing I failed to realize until the last day before the shoot was that with Rob Weiner gone, I not only had to scramble for production gear, but I had lost a major prop and my main lighting source for the movie.

A flashlight.

Rob's son Ben had lent us his high-powered LED flashlight for the last shoot and it had worked great - providing just enough light to bounce off the ceiling and walls to provide a nice dramatic effect on the actors.

But I no longer had that flashlight and I thought the flashlight that I did have (regular Mag-Lite) would be good enough.  Big mistake.

To make matters worse, the scene we'd be shooting would be the most complex scene yet.  It would require me to be essentially "acting" in the scene with the actors, Rob Sandusky and Charles Yoakum.  I would be activating sound cues that they would need to respond to.  I wanted to loosely structure the scene and allow them to improvise in order to capture their real responses on camera.  The problem was that it is extremely challenging for actors to improvise while still keeping their responses short and concise.  I mean, this is just one scene of about ten or so in a short movie.  If it ends up running 4 or 5 minutes it's not really usable.  It's got to run more like 2-3 minutes.

Not only that, but to make things even more difficult on Rob & Charles, I was asking them not only to improvise the scene (keep it short, but hit all the beats),  I was also depending on them to operate the night-vision POV camera and provide all the lighting for the scene by moving the flashlight around.  So, I'm giving direction (and they are having to focus) on not just their performances, but on the framing of the POV cam and on the quality of the lighting based on whether the flashlight is aimed at the pillow, or the bedspread, or the wall, or the ceiling.

It was a lot for all of us to juggle.

Again, this is where it's good to have friends.  Eduardo and Kris were invaluable in making this all happen.  It became obvious that we needed a lot more rehearsal time for the scene, so we just sat there and ran through it until we got all the cues timed out and their performances nailed down.  Kris was very good at offering suggestions that steered the scene where it needed to go.

By the time we started rolling cameras again it was probably 11:00 or so.  I was so focused on getting the scene right and hitting my sound cues (triggered from a laptop just offscreen) that I really didn't pay enough attention to the actual images being recorded.  Rule number one when working with digital media and monitors is to play back a couple of takes on a monitor you trust to make sure you are actually recording a usable image.  In my haste to get the scene done and everyone home at a reasonable hour I never did that.  I had been relying on the monitor that Eduardo had provided, and although it looked dark, I though I could push it in post.  I didn't want to admit that Producer/Prop Master Todd had made a major f@&k-up by not getting another LED flashlight.

After we had shot the scene with the Canon 7D in multiple setups (master shot and close-ups of the actors), we still needed to run through the scene a couple of times with only the POV cam.  You see, much of the movie is seen through their night-vision POV camera as they explore the house at night.  Although I have them roll that camera as I am getting the shots for the main camera, most of that footage is unusable as the night vision often aims at the main camera and can see us all crouching in the dark.
(Gee, d'ya think anyone will notice me?)

So, it becomes necessary to run a couple of "clean" takes where we clear all of the gear (and crew) out of the room and let Rob and Charles go at it alone.

  (ahhhh - that's better)

Flash forward to 1:45 am Saturday morning as I slump in my chair, realizing that most of the shoot is unusable.  Just before I stumble off to bed, a broken and defeated man, I remember to check the last two takes of the POV cam and to my relief they are great - great performances and usable footage.

Armed with this small victory, I vow to do better tomorrow - I will buy a new flashlight.

(a flashlight, a flashlight - my kingdom for a flashlight!)

It's now Saturday evening and the gang are all back it my place ready to shoot the next scene. We are all pretty groggy - it's almost like they never left.  I have to break the news - "Well, the good news (always tell good news first) is that those last two POV takes were great - I have everything I need to tell the story from those takes if I had to.  The bad news is that everything from the main camera is pretty much unusable."  I pull up a couple of shots for them to see and they kinda laugh at how bad it is.

I offer them a choice - we can either move on to the next scheduled scene or we can try to fix my mess from last night.  I show them the brand-new LED flashlight.  They are troopers.  They want to fix the scene.  Since we had rehearsed so much the night before and it is all fresh in our minds, we nail the scene in just a few takes.  Everything I needed from the scene is now on my hard drive.

(oh, there you are Charles)

It's good to have friends like these...


  1. Definition of DUD. Sorry, man.

  2. Whoo... I'm glad I'm not a film maker. All of that, I'd have gave up. X|

  3. awww I love a happy ending! what a night... what a great group of friends you have !