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

DAY FIVE – “Nathan’s Big Day,” or “Set the Stargate to A2”

So today is "James Day." We're shooting all of the scenes that involve James Cranston (Nathan Hollabaugh) doing things by himself. Or, more accurately, doing things with his imaginary friends: namely, the Bugmen and The Link. Of course, in a few months these friends will no longer be imaginary. On a separate day we'll be shooting Chuckie multiple times in the Bug Suit and then combining all the shots to create a veritable army of Bugmen. As for The Link, the spectral figure at the center of the film's evildoings, she hasn't been cast yet. Jeff plans on shooting all of her scenes later, after principal photography is completed, and then inserting her ghostly figure into the various scenes in which she appears.

We get some shots of Nathan weilding his sword and being chased by the not-yet-existant Army of Bugmen, then move on to various moments of him interacting with The Link. To create the effect of the ethereal blue flame in which The Link appears, we use something our cinematographer Dave is calling the "Stargate." Apparently on the TV show Stargate, the shimmering light which emanates from the show's titular device is created by simply shaking a large silver Flex-fill in front of a light. So whenever we need to simulate the glow of The Link's flame, Dave calls out for the "Stargate." Actually, I once saw an interview with Richard Dean Anderson in which he referred to the Stargate as "television's greatest prop." What? I always thought TV's greatest prop was MacGyver's Swiss Army knife. Or his mullet.

(Okay, set the cheap-shot mullet joke counter to 1.)

However, I'm not sure how the operation of this key effect fell into the hands of our bumbling grip Rasul. You may recall "Ras al Ghul" and his racket jacket. He has since been leaving the noisy coat at home, although he keeps forgetting to leave his Clouseau-like clumsiness with it. Whenever we hear a crash or a thud resonating throughout the stage, we can usually expect to turn around and see Ras at the center of the ruckus. At one point this afternoon, something falls loudly in the middle of a take and everyone in the room shouts "Ras!" Rasul is not even in the room at the time. But hey, once you get a reputation...

At lunchtime, Dennis and I head out on a secret mission. Ever since getting sick from the catered food on Tuesday, Dennis has been sneaking off and getting his own meals from the outside world. Today, Jeff and I decide to get in on that action. We plan to go to a local burger joint called A & W, but we have to keep this little off-campus excursion on the down-low. The way the quality (and temperature) of the on-set food has been diving, we'd be bombarded with lunch orders from half the crew if they knew where we were going. We've already aroused some suspicion. A couple of the grips overhear Jeff whispering that he wants the "A2," which is one of A & W's combo meals. Within minutes, the crew is abuzz trying to figure out what the lighting set-up is for Shot A2. Dave flips through the storyboards looking for Shot A2. Now I have to figure out a way to convince them they're just hearing things, and that A2 doesn't exist. Well, only in Jeff's belly.

1. The old "hand popping up from the grave" trick
2. Steve waves for the camera as Chuck and Matt watch
3. Nathan meditates before a take; slatework by Matt Torti
4. Nathan has a bit of trouble sheathing his sword
5. Touching up one of the bad guys: when you look that scary, the director will hold your sword and your coffee

Saturday, January 3, 2009

DAY FOUR - “Percepto-Vision,” or “The Bugman Cometh”

Today is "Percepto Day." We have to shoot all of the scenes involving the villainous criminal mastermind Percepto today, as his alter-ego, actor David Santiago, is only available for one day. And that's a lot of scenes. This means that for time-saving purposes, we must split up one key sequence in which Professor Jack and his crew confront Percepto and his giant robot (or "robut," to use the proper 1940s pronunciation. And we do). So today we only shoot half of the scene: the half that includes shots of Percepto and his dimwitted sidekick Bigsby, played to the hammy hilt by Richard Melvin. We'll shoot the half that involves Jack and his team next week, and the two halves will be combined in post so that all of the characters will appear to be in the same room at the same time, even in the same shot. That's one nice advantage of shooting against a green screen. Shots can be combined, overlapped, blended, shrunk - you name it - so that everything fits together in a way that looks like the actors are really standing together and talking to one another, as opposed to standing alone and talking to, well, me.

Since the other actors aren't actually here today, I end up reading most of their lines offscreen while David looks off into nothingness and pretends to be trading quips with them. Percepto's dialogue is a bit tricky, as the character speaks in constant alliteration. A typical line: "Primarily, a precautious person would perpetrate a plan to deny the opposition permittance onto the premises." David does a great job with this material, and is an excellent sport. I knew he'd be agreeable when he emailed me last week stating, "10 a.m. is a very civilized call time." And Percepto is a very civilized villain, although we mustn't forget that beneath the gentlemanly veneer is pure evil, as cameraman Aaron reminds us later in the day. As we shoot a scene in which Percepto is in his prison cell and the wall crumbles away behind him, David wonders why he wouldn't turn around to see his escape route before erupting into laughter. Could be because we're running behind and don't have time to set up a reverse shot. But Aaron's answer is better: "Because you're so evil, you don't even need to turn around."

Aside from his innate evilness, Percepto is also characterized by his metallic eyepiece which shoots out a red beam when he is feeling particularly evil. Ironically, this eye covering causes Percepto to lose his depth perception. David gets around the set just fine, through, laughing all the way. In fact, Jeff likes David's diabolical laugh so much that he wants it to run on a loop over the entire end credits. We'll see.

Today also sees the first appearance of the "Bugman," as played by scenic and make-up guy Chuckie Hendershot squeezed into a custom costume designed and built by Steve Tolin. At the producers' request, I cannot post any photos of the bug suit at this time. So you'll have to settle for a picture of Chuckie in more casual attire (above). He is quite possibly the skinniest man I've ever met, which makes him ideal for slipping in and out of the rather constricting monster costume. I suspect that Steve keeps Chuckie locked in his basement, feeding him only scraps, lest he gain a couple of pounds and no longer be able to fit the suit.

But Chuckie's miniature size isn't the only reason he's perfect as the Bugman. Once inside the costume, he is every bit the actor as anyone else performing in front of the cameras. He creates the distinct walk and the head and arm movements for the creature, which add much character and menace. One feature of the costume that Chuckie can't control are the jowls or mandibles, which Steve operates by remote control, like a radio-controlled car. However, today there seem to be some conflicting signals in the air: at one point the creature's jaws go haywire before Steve can even press a button. We wonder if the studio managers upstairs are turning radio knobs and having a laugh at us.

Chuckie isn't the only crew member to suit up and jump in front of the camera today. The actor originally cast as the deranged scientist Dr. Haskin can't make it this evening. So Joe Tolin, our key environmental design artist, steps into the character's shoes (as well as the rest of his costume) to play the spaced-out doctor.

An article about our shoot appears in today's edition a local newspaper called the McKeesport Times. Yesterday, a mild-mannered reporter visited the set, took a few photos and interviewed Jeff, Nathan and Steve about the movie. And today, his article misquoted them all. Actually, he just really oversimplified everything. To say that the piece was written in layman's terms would be an insult to laymen. As Jeff put it, the article "was written for people who've never heard of movies." And to use some more '40s vernacular, see you in the funny papers.

1. Percepto, a.k.a. David Santiago
2. Percepto on his throne, as soundguy Chris lowers the boom
3. David and Jeff discuss how tall Percepto's giant "robut" will be.
4. The hapless homeless henchman, Bigsby.
5. "Chuckie," out of uniform
6. Joe Tolin as Dr. Byron Haskin