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