Thursday, February 12, 2009

DAY TWELVE - "Am I Glad We Saved This For The Last Day," or "You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry!"

We've got another swordfight on the docket for today, and this one involves me. We're shooting the flashback scene where James Cranston first encounters the evil Druid Lord Thorn, played by yours truly. I start off the morning in a bad way, finding that my car won't start. Should've taken that ride in with Jeff, dammit! So I arrive on the set an hour late.  Add to that a 2 hour make-up job, and by the time afternoon rolls around Professor Jack's line, "Well at least we haven't seen Thorn yet" is particularly resonant.

Unlike yesterday's fight, which Dave and Aaron captured hand-held, today's battle will be shot with locked down cameras. With the help of Steve Tolin, who in addition to his Producer and Production Design duties also serves as our fight choreograper, Nathan and I have worked out a "fight loop" in which we repeat the same series of moves (kind of like a kata for two), which the cameras will capture from four different angles.  Jeff will then cut together the different vantage points to turn the two-minute fight into a much longer melee.

We were originally scheduled to shoot this fight on Day Three, but when Nathan got sick and missed the first day of shooting we did some rescheduling, and I made sure to save this fight scene for last. And man, did I need the extra time. Nathan and I have been practicing our moves throughout the week, but even with all the practice I don't feel comfortable with my performance today. It doesn't feel as good as it did in rehearsals. I seem to be tripping up, not moving as fluidly as I should. Maybe it's the mats on the floor, which I keep slipping off of during my "Obi-Wan circa Episode IV unmotivated spin." Or maybe it's the heavy cape.  Or the mask, which is difficult to see through. Or maybe I'm just making excuses for being no ace at stage combat.

In a way, this is payback for the crew. Yesterday I really let them have it. A few of them were moving around and making noise during a take, and I lost my cool and railed at them for about two minutes. It wasn't exactly a Christian Bale moment, but it definitely left an impression. So today the crew gets to watch me fumble through this fight scene, and bask in the glow of my embarrassment.

Jeff, Dave and Aaron have a different take on the proceedings. They tell me that from their viewpoint behind the cameras, the fight looks totally badass. When I watch a bit of the playback, I can see that it does indeed look cooler than it feels. And when Jeff assures me that it will look amazing once it's all cut together, I almost believe him.

And while "cool" may be the word Jeff uses to describe the action, I would certainly choose the opposite. This costume is hot, and the work-out I get while fighting in it causes me to work up quite a sweat - so much that when I remove my hood and mask during a break, the elaborate make-up job that Midian and Rachael did on my face and neck is completely gone! This stuff isn't water-soluble, but apparently sweat does a fine job of washing it away. The first time I got this make-up job done last week, I had to spend nearly an hour with a bottle of rubbing alcohol to get it all off. Who knew all I really had to do was run in place for fifteen minutes? So the make-up crew scrambles to re-do my make-up while the crew repositions the cameras, and Nathan and I go at it hot and heavy once again.

Near the end of the day, once all the fighting has been done, we move on to a shot that Jeff and Dave are calling the "hulk-out." One of the characters has been stung by a bug creature, and the idea is to show the beginning of his transformation into one of them by zooming in on his eyes as they change color. Just like when David Banner is about to turn into the Hulk in the old TV series. Or when Todd One is about to yell at the crew for moving around during a take.

The "hulk-eyes" shot requires some tricky lighting, and we are cutting it close to our time limit today. But our cinematographer Dave has been looking forward to this shot all day, and he wants to take his time and get it right. So right after the "hulk-out" is in the can, we haul out of the studio with three minutes to spare, finishing our second week of shooting just under the wire.

1. "On guard!"
2. "On guard?"
3. "Unga!"
4. Gotta watch my back!
5. Jeff and Aaron like what they see
6. That's a wrap? Point us toward the next adventure!

Friday, February 6, 2009

DAY ELEVEN - "Is He Really Going To Say It Like That?," or "The Leading Man's An Even Bigger Dork Than The Director!"

Today we are joined by Kori Mallon, yet another "Star of It Came From Yesterday," as we like to say. Kori gets a little lost on her way to the studio and calls for directions. She sounds a bit apprehensive, and wonders aloud if she's going to be attacked on the way here. And when the directions to the studio go something like, "Drive to the edge of the run-down town, walk across the railroad tracks and go behind the abandoned warehouse," one can hardly blame her.

Kori plays the afore-mentioned "haaanndmaiden" (see Day Three) whom Professor Jack attempts to woo. And she's a little taken aback by Jeff's idiosyncratic delivery of the dialogue. I'm not sure if he explained to her that he's basing his performance on '30s and '40s serial heroes such as Flash Gordon and Commando Cody, with a dash of George Reeves' Clark Kent thrown in for good measure. At first Kori can't keep a straight face during Jeff's intentionally stilted and hammy delivery. But it isn't long before the "1940s movie accent" seeps into her own speech, and soon enough our handmaiden is a regular Lois Lane.

At one point, Kori asks Jeff and I if we're brothers. We pretend to be insulted. (At least I think we're pretending.) But when Nathan Hollabaugh arrives it becomes evident that Jeff could not have found a more fitting actor to play his older bro.  It turns out Nathan is an even bigger sci fi and pop culture geek than Jeff, which is really saying something.  Jeff swears he had no idea when he cast him. But whether he's explaining an episode of "The Thundercats" to the make-up girls, or extolling the virtues of Chuck Heston's performance in "Omega Man" to our financier, Nathan makes it clear that our director has met his match in the dork department.

It actually works out quite well for the production that the two speak the same language. All Jeff has to do is start giving a direction, and Nathan will anxiously complete his thought with an, "Oh, it's like Obi-Wan's stance in 'Sith!'" or "Oh, like the beginning of Star Trek IV when the probe is going (makes probe sounds)!" But my favorite Nathan geek-out moment is when we're about to roll on a scene between him and Kori, and right before action he looks out at the crew and asks, "Does anybody remember when John Schneider was trying to sell the General Lee, and he wanted to make it real clear that he didn't need the money?" This is followed by the quietest five seconds this set has ever experienced. Our soundman Chris must be in heaven. Ras al Ghul must be in another room.

The second half of the day is dedicated to shooting the first of two swordfights featured in the movie. This particular fight has been carefully choreographed, but not storyboarded. So our Director of Photography Dave and 2nd camera operator Aaron are shooting this scene hand-held, each focusing on one of the combatants and following him throughout the melee. There have been very few shots involving camera movement in this film, mainly due to its nature of being shot against a green screen where the scenic environments will be digitally created later. For any shot with a camera move, little round stickers called "tracking dots" need to be placed on the background screen along the line that the camera will be moving. The dots will allow Jeff and Steve to move the digital environments in post-production to match the camera movement in the shot. However, for this swordfight scene, the cameras are not moving neatly along any prescribed paths. Dave and Aaron just move around and capture as many moments of the clash from as many angles as they can. And so, tracking dots are everywhere. And our cameramen's footwork must be as fancy as the actors' as they bounce around the set capturing all the swashbuckling action.

1. Kori Mallon...
2. ... Star of "It Came From Yesterday"
3. Nathan fights the bad guy
4. Those goggles are a bit of a handicap, no?
5. Steve Tolin with the Brothers Cranston

Sunday, February 1, 2009

DAY TEN - "Nayli Gets Real," or "The Gloves Are Off!"

We're calling today "Penny Day" since we're shooting the rest of Nayli's stuff. The recurring question of the day is whether or not she should have her purse in each scene. Nayli, who has grown quite attached to her character by this point, is ever-willing to assert her take on how things ought to be. "In reality, I would not take my purse up on the roof," she says. Or, "In reality, I would leave my purse on the plane." My favorite is, "In reality, I would turn to the left."

In reality?

"Um, Nayli," Jeff reminds her. "We're making a movie about giant bug creatures set in the 1940s and filled with characters who look and act like cartoons." Oh. Yeah.

Later we shoot the penultimate scene of the movie, in which Penny plants a big kiss on one of the heroes. (Just which hero is the recipient of said kiss will have to remain a secret for now.) I am told by the make-up crew that we have to save the kiss for the last shot of the day, and that we can do it only once. Midian explains that it will take up to twenty minutes to clean off the lipstick between takes. Say what? Midian is an accomplished veteran of horror films, where they do take after take of people getting splattered with blood and guts. But it's gonna take 20 minutes to wipe some Revlon off a guy's chin?

But what do I know? I keep my mouth shut, Nayli keeps hers puckered, and we get the kiss in one take. And while I'm commenting on other departments that I probably have no business commenting on, I think I'll take this opportunity to highlight a few of our cast and crew who have yet to appear (or haven't appeared much) in this blog. As we near the end of principal photography, I feel the need to ensure that everyone involved shows up in the bugblogosphere at least once. And so...

Bill Sewak, our General Adams, gets the Cast Punctuality Award. On each of his shooting days, Bill manages to beat everyone inside the building, even though most of us get here before the doors are unlocked. When those doors open, somehow Bill is already inside waiting for us. Even on the days he isn't required on set, I half-expect to find Bill sitting on the greenroom sofa when I walk in in the morning.

Our Director of Photography, David Cooper, deserves more mention. Dave actually has a daily presence on this blog in that he's the man who's been taking the behind-the-scenes photos posted here for your viewing pleasure. Dave comes to us from the world of still photography. This is actually his very first motion picture, although you'd never know it, as he runs the set like he's an old pro. In fact, I'm pretty sure most of the crew have no idea that Dave's a rookie. There is a series of billboards hanging around Pittsburgh advertising a local attorney, whose motto is "The Gloves Are Off." Accordingly, the ads feature photos of boxing gloves, boxing rings, and other fight-related imagery. And Dave is the man who took those photos. So, whenever things get tense on the set, Jeff will usually turn to Dave and announce, "The Gloves Are Off!" Dave will usually have no comment.

Then there's Matt Torti, our 2nd A.D. and this crew's version of The Shadow. Matt can usually be found tucked away in one of the remote corners of the studio between scenes, but he never fails to suddenly appear out of the darkness at just the moment we need him, slate in hand. He also never fails to catch my eye with an appropriately bemused smirk whenever Ras al Ghul does something inane.

I should also mention our 2nd 2nd, Mia Dreamer. She's doing this for free - she just called Steve Tolin one day and "begged him for a job," and so he gave her an internship. And I must say she's been doing a fine job. I would definitely ask her to work for free again.

Our three-man grip crew also deserves a strong shout-out. The grips are the unsung heroes of any production: they do all the heavy lifting and suffer though much with little reward. And Ras al Ghul has been a particularly good sport since becoming the crew's whipping boy. (Although he does walk headlong into most of the jokes of which he becomes the butt. That is, when he's not walking into a lightstand.) So thanks, Ras, for suffering the slings and arrows of the crew. Thanks, Dennis, for suffering through the dangerous food. And thanks, Chuck, for suffering through Dennis and Ras.

And last but not least, I've got to give a word to Chris Pharris, who isn't even a member of our crew, technically. He's sort of along for the ride, accompanying the film's financier (whose identity I've been asked to keep anonymous) whenever he visits the set. But Chris has never been shy about jumping in and lending a hand. Lately his main job has been to "lock down" the set, which means he stands by the door of the stage and tells everyone outside to be quiet right before we roll cameras. It's the kind of job that fresh-faced film students fall over one another to get on a big Hollywood set. But on this little movie, it's a lot harder to pretend that it's anything more than a b*tch chore. And to Chris's credit, he hasn't b*tched about it once. He's also shooting a behind-the-scenes documentary on the production, although I wonder how much good footage he's been able to get when I'm constantly telling him to put down the damn camera and lock up the set.

1. Nayli has a rare hatless moment
2. The Crew takes a break to review footage
3. Mighty Altopiedi
4. Dennis ponders where to sneak off for lunch today
5. Our crew: Ras, Matt, Dennis, Chuck, Mia, and Chris

Saturday, January 31, 2009

DAY NINE: “Fire In The Hole!,” or “Who You Callin’ a Mook?”

While yesterday was very dialogue-intensive, today is action action action. We begin with the "other side" of the big fight between the Electric Club and Percepto's giant robut. We shot Percepto's side last week, so today I get to read the alliterative antagonist's lines off-camera as the heroes talk tough and brandish their weapons (or in Penny's case, her purse). Since Jack uses old flint-lock pirate pistols and Buddy carries a Tommy Gun, the firing effects of their weapons will be added in post-production, so Jeff and Joel only pretend to be shooting. It actually becomes a bit of a chore to get Jeff to stop making "Tchoo! Tchoo!" sounds with his mouth whenever he fires his guns.

There is one bit of dialogue that trips things up for a minute. As Penny, Nayli is supposed to utter the following line to a cowering Bigsby: "Scurry on back to daddy, you no good mook!" Of course, in her Venezuelan accent, the line comes off as particularly hilarious, hardly the threat it was intended to be. Furthermore, our heroine has no idea what a "mook" is. No worries, Nayli. De Niro's character in "Mean Streets" didn't know what it was, either.

Nayli explains that she looked the word up online, and the definition she found was "a worthless, insignificant person." Jeff excitedly instructs her to substitute that definition for the word itself, and so Penny ends up exclaiming into the camera, "Scurry on back to daddy, you no good worthless insignificant person!"

Since David Santiago is not with us today, Steve Tolin fills in as Percepto in a shot where Buddy pulls the evil genius out of the rubble after the battle. Just how is Steve able to take the place of Percepto, you ask? Well, he suits up in his form-fitting green jumpsuit, which matches the color of the green screen we are shooting against, and thus will allow Jeff to replace Steve with David in post-production, just as he'll replace the green background with the walls of Percepto's lair. Well, theoretically.

In the afternoon we do a scene in which Flyboy does some shooting. Since Flyboy carries a standard-issue military pistol, Andy Blood is the only actor who actually gets to fire blanks on the set. Before firing each volley, Andy is instructed by Steve to shout "Fire in the hole." I've always wondered about this odd expression. The fire is evident enough, but why a hole? Why not fire in the field? Or fire in the sky? Fire on the mountain?

So I took a cue from Nayli and looked it up online. In case any of you are as curious as me, here's what that hub of knowledge known as Wikipedia has to say about Andy's favorite new idiom: "The first cannons were discharged, shot or exploded by placing a flaming torch to a small hole packed with gunpowder and leading to the main powder charge. This caused the main charge to explode, propelling the cannon ball to the enemy, or sometimes, blowing up the cannon and all standing nearby. Hence, 'fire in the hole' was both a command to the torch man, and a warning to all around. Over time cannons improved; they became safer, with no hole or fire needed. The command was reduced to 'fire,' while the term 'fire in the hole' became a general warning for the use of explosive weapons."

Andy invited some relatives to the set today to witness his gun-wielding heroics. Later on, he tells me that his guests enjoyed themselves and thought that everyone on the crew was very nice, "except for that one guy who was always shouting orders and telling people to hurry up." Um, well, I guess that means I'm doing my job okay...

1. Jeff strikes his best Han Solo pose
2. Jack's automated pistol reloaders, a Steve Tolin gizmo
3. The heroes, ready for less talk and more action
4. An "invisible man" crouches beside Buddy
5. Joel/Buddy has Green Jumpsuit Man collared

DAY EIGHT - “Wishin’ I Was Witcha in Wichita,” or “Paging Doctor Handskin”

Today we shoot all of the scenes that take place in Professor Jack's office. It's our heaviest dialogue day so far, and never has it been more apparent that this "soundstage" is neither soundproof nor suitably removed from trains, planes and traffic. About a half hour into shooting - when we're still trying to get clean takes of the same two lines - our youthful soundguy Chris looks as though he has aged five years before our eyes. At this rate, by the end of the day he'll be able to play the Cranston Brothers' dear old dad.

Chris is easily the quietest member of our crew. Then again, what self-respecting soundman would be anything but? Unfortunately, he is so quiet and mild-mannered that it's difficult for us to tell how he feels about each take. Whenever I ask him how a particular take sounds, the most demonstrative gesture I'll get from him is a nod or a grunt. Even the most hideous audio disturbance is acknowledged by little more than a frown and a grunt from Chris. So I quickly learn to grade his responses on what I call the Chris Curve: the frown-and-grunt combo means the sound sucks, a shrug means that it's usable but not great, a nod and raised eyebrow means it's pretty good, and the ever-so-rare grin means it's the audio equivalent of solid gold.

I can imagine what a more vocal audio man would have to say about our noisy locale. Even so, the low-key Chris can't keep his thoughts entirely to himself. At the end of the day he turns to Jeff and says, "Next time, I'll do the location scouting."

Joel Ripka joins the cast today as Jack's sidekick, Buddy. Not only is this Joel's first day on the set, but he was just given the role less than 24 hours ago, as a last-minute replacement for another actor who had to drop out. So, "It Came From Yesterday" literally applies to Joel as he stands on the set desperately trying to recall the lengthy monologue he had to memorize overnight. After a number of interesting variations on a speech in which Buddy recounts a time he almost wet his pants while on a mission in Wichita, Joel finally nails it. Well, except for the final line. Instead of concluding with, "We'll take them nasty things on, dry pants and all!" he instead exclaims that they will confront their enemies with "wet pants and all!"

Now, I'm not usually one to break up from laughter on the set. In fact, our key grip Chuck was reportedly asking several members of the crew last week if they'd ever seen me smile. Naturally, after hearing this I made an extra effort to keep a straight and stoic face around Chuck. But today he must be astonished when I crack up - not once, but twice - during the office scene. The first time is on Joel's wet pants line. The second moment of unexpected comedy comes courtesy of Nayli, who inexplicably begins referring to the character of Dr. Haskin as "Dr. Handskin." I bite my tongue and try to maintain my composure, lest I ruin another take. That is, until I look over and see half the crew doubled over in laughter as well.

By day's end we make it through all of the office dialogue, despite the noisy traffic and noisy laughter. And I'm pleased to report that although the laughter got pretty uncontrollable for a bit, everyone leaves the studio with dry pants.

1. The view from Jack's office
2. Jeff and Steve "hold for sound" as Chris silently curses the traffic
3. Thumbs up for Joel Ripka, who joins the team as Buddy
4. Aaron and I have a laugh; Midian has a mere chuckle

Thursday, January 22, 2009

DAY SEVEN – “Lady Sings the Blues,” or “Keep Dreamin’!”

Week Two kicks off on a musical note. We begin with the nightclub scene, where bloodthirsty chanteuse Sunny Day shares a (rare) serious moment with Stan Maxx before pouring her heart out in song. There are two jazzy numbers for Sunny to sing: the first is upbeat and sassy (think the opening scene from "Temple of Doom," which is exactly what Jeff was thinking when he wrote the script), and the second is a slow, sultry ballad that Sunny sings exclusively for Stan.

The songs were written and orchestrated by Matt Tate, who is also writing the score for the movie. Steve Foland - Stan Maxx himself - contributed lyrics to the first tune. Erica Highberg - that's Sunny Day to you - has already recorded the vocal tracks in the studio (which looks an awful lot like her bedroom), so this morning she just needs to lip-sync. And she does a job that would make Jessica Simpson's mother proud. As a matter of fact, she is so convincing that for a moment Ras al Ghul actually thinks she is singing live!

Speaking of Ras, he has apparently found his A-game this week. He adds a nice touch with a rimlight on Erica's hair, completing her transformation into a bona fide 1940s lounge singer.

In addition to New Ras, there is another presence in the soundstage we haven't felt much until now: Steve Tolin, our production designer and producer. We usually don't see much of Steve on this side of the building - he's more often found in the prop shop tinkering away at one of his amazing contraptions. But today he is in the studio, huddled beside the cameramen, eyes glued to the monitor, making sure everything is perfect. Oh yeah, did I mention that Erica is Steve's fiance?

Our crew appears to have picked up a stray this week. Or wait, I think I'm supposed to call her an "intern." Her name is Mia Dreamer. I know, it sounds even more made-up than Andy Blood. She seems to be making a dreamer of our grip Dennis, but that's for a different blog...

This afternoon we shoot the Office Attack scene, in which Chuckie gets to suit up and knock Professor Jack around his office. It's a pretty complex action scene, with Jeff getting to hurl himself over a desk in a Shatner-worthy stunt. The scene takes us to the very end of the night, and we end up getting our last shots of Professor Jack wrestling with a Bugman in the fireplace just as the clock strikes ten. We run out into the cold snowy night, and Aaron and Ras find that their car's doors are frozen shut. Ras runs back toward the studio to get a cup of hot water to melt the ice. But just as he disappears around the corner, Aaron manages to get the car door open. "Should I call Ras back here?" I offer.

"Nah," decides Aaron, closing the car door again. "Let's let him think he got it open. He deserves it."

1. Sunny Day strikes a pose
2. Mr. Tolin keeps an eye on things, over Jeff's shoulder
3. An interesting view of Sunny in action
4. Stan Maxx, Sunny Day, and... red wine in a martini glass?
5. Jeff directs Steve and Erica as Aaron waits patently
6. Professor Jack tinkers with some knobs in his office

Sunday, January 4, 2009

DAY SIX – “Attack of the Wigs,” or “Get this Bloody Bug off Me!”

This first Saturday of production is our biggest, busiest day yet. We have a load of extras coming in today to play students in the classroom scene. Actually, there are only five extras, but through the magic of cinema they will be multiplied and transformed into an entire classroom full of students. Oh, and let us not forget the magic of make-up and wigs. Midian has brought some reinforcements to the make-up room for the occasion; their first task is to dress and wig the students in a multitude of ways so that each one appears to be a multitude of students. (And yes, I just used "wig" as a verb.)

Turning five students into twenty is accomplished by a very simple yet time-consuming technique. The first rule is to set the camera and keep it perfectly still for the duration of the process. Then the students are photographed at one table in the classroom in one set of wigs. Then, the students cycle back through make-up to get different wigs, and come out again to be photographed at a different table in the classroom, and so on. Afterwards, each table of "different" students will be combined into one master shot of the classroom, and then laid over a shot of Professor Jack lecturing at the front of the room.

So it's merely a matter of wig shuffling in order to create the various student looks. For better or for worse, only two of the five extras are female, and most of our wigs are for women. So, the boys get to dress in drag for several of these shots. It's a good thing their backs are to the camera, because these guys make for some ugly female students. Professor Jack's school is an elite academic institution, and we are definitely reinforcing the old stereotype that the brainiest students are never the prettiest. I suppose that fits our 1940s setting just about right.

We get done playing musical wigs with the extras just in time for lunch, which is too soon for our wigmaster, Brian. He announces he has many more wigs in his arsenal that he hasn't had a chance to try on people yet. He even puts one of his favorites on himself and jumps in front of the camera. Brian is a great addition to our crew; plus, one can't help but have confidence in a wig expert who's bald.

After lunch it's time to put away the fake hair and bring out the fake blood. We are shooting the first part of the Hangar Attack sequence, in which a couple of students meet their grisly demise at the claws of the bugmen. Initially Jeff had decreed that there would be no blood in this movie, keeping consistent with its cartoonish '40s vibe. Well, this afternoon that decree went down the drain, along with a gallon or two of fake blood. The first student to perish is the luckless Daisy, played by Cecile Waltz. Cecile gets attacked by the small bug creature - one of Steve Tolin's puppet creations - and does a great spastic dance with the bug gnawing on her neck before going down. The second victim is Jeff's childhood friend Little Joe, whose character steps outside to enjoy a cigarette, only to be met by Chuckie the Bugman who makes it clear that lung cancer is the least of his worries.

The only character to survive the attack is Penny, played by our favorite international action star, Nayli. She survives the attack, but she doesn't quite survive her dialogue. At one point she has to utter the line, "That's a big ten-four,"and instead it comes out, "That's a big four-ten!" Everyone laughs, and a confused Nayli shrugs as if to say, "ten-four, four-ten, what's the damn difference?"

As expected, this is our longest day on the set so far. We go all the way to the 12-hour mark, and have to make a speedy exit in the end. If we're not out of the studio each night by 10 pm, we get charged an extra fee. So at 9:51 we are shooting the last take of Little Joe being devoured by bugmen, and at 10:00 sharp we are outside walking to our cars, with plenty of scrambling done inbetween. The only scrambling done tomorrow will possibly be to eggs, as this Sunday is our one day off during this two-week blitz of a film shoot.

1. Penny strikes a pose
2. Brian bloodies up Cecile
3. Spoiler alert: this character may not survive!
4. Nayli, Jeff, and Cecile
5. Little Joe, sans wig