It took a little while for the dust to settle, but I wanted to share a little more about the narrative shoot I directed a couple of weeks ago. It’s been five years since my last narrative project has been in front of audiences on the film festival circuit, the feature “Four Weeks, Four Hours.” In that time, I’ve been hard at work developing other projects, none of which got to the point where I was behind the camera.
Given that my last project was a character-driven survival story shot on location in brutal desert landscapes with a distinctly verité aesthetic, I’d been wanting to do something a little more effects and action-oriented for my next project. In casual conversation with folks at Autodesk during an event, I was lucky enough to pique their interest in putting up a bit of financing for a narrative short in exchange for use of some of the footage in a book I’m to write for Wiley about Smoke. Shocked at getting a yes after so much time laboring in solitude, I quickly shifted gears and got back into production mode on relatively short notice.
I kicked out the first draft of “The Place Where You Live” at the beginning of October. Showing it around to my usual suspects, it elicited an immediately great response, which gave me the confidence to put it forth as the project of interest, and to start putting together a production plan even as I refined the script through October. Happily, it was good enough to attract some great Twin Cities talent as I started assembling the cast and crew, the first two members of which included cinematographer Bo Hakala and actress Dawn Krosnowski.
The story is that of a professor of physics who is abducted by her counterpart from an alternate dimension–one in which her husband has died. Her doppleganger changes places with her in order to get her husband back again, leaving our hero struggling to rebuild the machine that opens the gateway between dimensions to regain the life that should be hers.
The story demanded two different sets that intersect via a “dimensional doorway.” My original idea, of securing a large enough stage so we could actually build two physically intersecting sets, ended up being impractical as I couldn’t afford the appropriate time with the necessary space. Searching for alternate solutions, I found another venue with two smaller stages that would suit the two sets I needed to create, but this would necessitate greenscreen compositing to join the two locations together. On the other hand, this more effects-driven two location approach would give me the freedom to do some crazier visuals, and the lower cost would give us more time to build the sets, so the answer was clear.
Moreover, a cheaper stage would allow us to secure it for a longer time in order to take the art direction farther. My wife Kaylynn Raschke is a stylist and set decorator (as well as actress and playwright) with over twenty years of experience who did wonders on my last film, so I naturally drafted her to slip into Production Designer mode to create the “high-energy physics lab” and “college professor office” sets. Given her additional background in narrative, Kaylynn brings a story-driven approach to her styling that I really appreciate. She also has amazing ways to stretch the ridiculously low budgets I have for art department expenses.
Working with a crew of builders and assistants over a week and a half, she created a pair of very distinct spaces that looked fantastic on camera.
While the sets were being built, I divided my time in late November and early December (with the shoot scheduled Dec 8-10th) filling holes in the crew, keeping on top of the details and logistics of key props and equipment needed, and working through the previsualization that would be critical for me to be able to direct the lead actress against both herself and her body double on two different sets within any single given scene.
Once the sets were underway, I modeled them with accurate dimensions in Google’s Sketchup 3D application, and then fit them together as they would be in the movie, as superimposed locations joined by a “doorway.” This diagram let me put together my shooting diagrams, and start figuring out how I wanted to use this dual location approach in my storyboards.
Previs using 3D models in Sketchup proved to be invaluable in letting me and Bo keep all of the differently joined angles in mind as the lighting and camera crews set up each position. Given the spaghetti-like order of the shot list we were using to maximize time, the four passes I spent putting the boards together myself ended up making it much easier to keep my director’s mind on the ball as we did a shot from Scene 2, then a reverse from scene 6 in different costume, then another shot from scene 8 in yet another costume, and so on during the two days of shooting on our sets.
The week before the shoot was also the week I found the body double, Emily Muyskens (special thanks to Moore Creative Talent in Minneapolis) who would substitute for the lead actresses alternate character in closeups. With both actresses now known quantities, Kaylynn put on her wardrobe hat and outfitted both women with matching costumes for the various stages the character and her doppleganger go through in the story. As a director/colorist, I really appreciate Kaylynn’s ability to keep the color choices for both set and costume in mind, an important consideration when you’re trying to create an overall look for a project.
Friday before the shoot was prelighting day (lighting and grip equipment was provided by Tasty Lighting Supply, with Michael Handley working the shoot as Gaffer). Much as I was struggling to keep the budget down, Bo wisely convinced me to spend the money and take the time on Friday to do some preliminary lighting setups. That also ended up being the day the big greenscreen was put up on the lab set, so it was a full afternoon, with Kaylynn working late to apply the final touches to the dressing of the lab set.
The giant green screen in the lab would facilitate a nice chunk of CG set extension to visualize “the machine,” the design of which had already been preliminarily worked out by New York-based illustrator Ryan Beckwith (with whom I’ve been laboring on Starship Detritus). Ryan does a lot of professional storyboarding for commercial spots and features as well, so he’s uniquely qualified to create set-friendly designs.
Day 1 of the shoot, Saturday, was lab set day, which was challenging for a variety of reasons. Much of the script takes place in the lab, and scenes with the “dimensional doorway” all look into the office set, so the camera setups had to be rigorously measured and kept track of so they could be aligned with matching plates to be shot the following day.
An additional complication was the need to balance the camera setups I wanted against multiple costume changes for each setup, since the actress was playing against herself in all scenes, and the double only worked in closeups that framed her face out. Miki Sautbine did a great job quick-changing hair and makeup, with Kaylynn doing double duty as wardrobe.
Molly Katagari also served double-duty as both Script Supervisor and Assistant Director, having done a masterful job of taking my shot list and hammering it into a daily schedule that allowed us to pack an incredibly ambitious amount of work into two long days.
With my previs boards to guide us, the majority of the day saw us slogging through all of the finicky effects shots in the lab, with Bo pulling out an amazing assortment of creative lighting techniques to bring Kaylynn’s set to life. I’ve never worked in lighting or grip (PA-ing in San Francisco didn’t really count), so my notes to Bo came from my colorist background as we discussed pools of light, where I wanted areas of shadow, and the general characteristics of the visuals that I wanted. Bo then took all of that five steps further utilizing an impressive variety of lighting instruments. I love being surprised, and Bo constantly presented me with visual options that contributed loads to the atmosphere.
We were shooting with a RED ONE MX. Not the most cutting edge choice, but when we discussed camera packages versus budget (it sucks to be both the director and the bean-counting producer at the same time), Bo suggested going for a more affordable camera in order to free up funds for better lenses. Having graded RED ONE MX footage for clients, I was comfortable with the choice, and definitely in favor of the clarity better glass would provide, in our case a set of Zeiss Super Speeds (the whole camera package was provided by CineMechanics).
I made it clear that I liked to shoot wide, and I’m a fan of composing shots with subjects at multiple levels of depth. We were on the same page there, and Bo used a set of 14mm to 85mm primes to great effect.
On top of that, I wanted to do one or two tricky shots. I obtained a chroma-green face mask in order to shoot plates with Dawn’s double for doing a head replacement. Honestly, it’s a brief moment and I wasn’t sure how well the composite would work, so I made sure to cover the same moment of dialog and action in a more conventional way as a closeup against Emily the body double. However, if it works, this’ll be a cool shot.
There were four lab scenes in particular; two involving effects, and two that were simply within the environment (albeit with the giant greenscreen that will be replaced with the CG “big physics machine”). As the shots trickled in, I kept saying as encouragingly as I could that things would speed up once we got out of the effects thicket, and it was nice to be proven right. After hours spent on collections of individual shots, we slid right through the non-effects scenes with some fantastic dolly work and nice overlapping angles of coverage at the end of the evening.
I started directing on 16mm, and there were plenty of times when we were down to a single 400′ reel, and every shot had to count. Those experiences, and my background editing video in the 90s and being given boxes of tapes to wade through, drilled the need for specificity and economy into me, so that even now, with stock effectively “free” thanks to endlessly swappable digital memory cards, I tend to keep the number of takes I shoot as low as possible, and I don’t generally let the camera run. Sure as hell makes logging and editing easier later.
That also requires a terrific camera crew (AC Chris Hadland, Key Grip Joe Gallup, with DP Bo Hakala operating were fantastic) and excellent talent, and I have to give a major shout out to Dawn Krosnowski for giving me the most one-take shots I’ve ever had on a project. As confusing as the shot ordering could be, she took my notes and nailed moment after moment. Between the excellent camera work and performances, after three days of shooting I ended up with only 10 reels and 400GB of RED .R3D media. I admit, I took a quiet joy in giving DIT Dmitry Futoryan little to do.
On day two we finished the lab shooting with the very last of the effects, some mirror shots that let us virtually pull the camera back to match its position in the office set, a very nifty bit of geometric trickery suggested by Bo weeks before. Since the green screen in the lab set was right against the wall, the only way to achieve the distance from camera to subject necessary for the matching office shot was to shoot an angled reflection, for which I had a 4′ by 7′ mirror custom-made the week before. It worked great, although matching the actress’ eyelines to material we’d not yet shot was challenging.
With that concluded, we moved into the Office set, which was being prelit and dressed even as we wrapped the lab. While there were more shots in the lab, we were aided by the fact that now we had actual matching plates to reference, and camera height/distance/angle measurements we could use, but still the finicky effects work consumed much of the day.
An added benefit of the Office set was more dialog. The Lab scenes involved few lines. Most of the conversations take place in the office, with the character chatting with people on heads-up video displays (to be added in later, that’s why she keeps pointing at the air). Production recordist Tom Colvin came equipped with a fantastic audio set-up, I wanted to shoot dual-system sound to keep the camera free of entanglements, and Tom did a great job using combined wireless and boom mics as necessary to capture ideal sound in our unusual environments.
I was up front that our stages, not being sound stages, were pretty poor acoustic environments, not least because we were in a band rehearsal area, and while the owner was fantastic and encouraged everyone to take the weekend off, there were still one or two bands that popped up at awkward times. However, the bands in attendance were lovely about giving us some space, and after reviewing the audio, it’s astonishingly usable, not the lease because of Tom’s efforts, so I’ve high hopes the need for dialog replacement will be minimal. I absolutely love having a dedicated sound professional on set.
Again, once we hit the “non-effects” scenes, things went much faster, but by then much of the day had been spent, and I was between a rock and a hard place in terms of being forced to go for a second long day with a crew that was already going the distance, and giving me low rates on top of that. I hate forcing long days, and I especially hate it when I feel like I’m not really paying for it. On the other hand, the producer in me needed to get those scenes, so as soon as I knew we’d be going long, I made sure to have a chat with the whole crew to see if there was anyone who wouldn’t be able to go along with the schedule.
Happily, everyone was incredibly professional and had a fantastic attitude, and a few pizzas made it possible to continue through the evening. However, not wanting to be a complete jackass, I got down with my boards between takes and started weeding out unnecessary coverage in order to make time without losing scenes (I’d cut the script down to the bare essentials in my fourth draft, so losing anything now would mean sacrificing story).
I managed to collapse some angles together and mentally edit a path through the remaining two scenes that would need only five shots, including close-up inserts necessary for my “Twilight Zone” style ending. What I didn’t know at the time (Kay mentioned it when I was reviewing my footage) was that, while I was cutting shots, the DP was stealing insert shots he knew I wanted in-between camera setups. I owe him a bottle of something nice.
Wrapping the office scene and packing up the grip truck ended up going even later than I’d anticipated (note to part-time producers, factor in how long it takes to load the grip truck!). It didn’t help that it started snowing that morning and it didn’t quit all day, which is one of the many benefits of shooting in Minnesota in the winter. Consequently, I punted the early call the following morning to let folks get a bit more sleep before the final on-location shoot.
The next morning, I got up early, checked my budget, grabbed my binder, and headed to the location to let the owner of the business we were shooting at know that the crew would be coming an hour later. Rewarding myself for getting through the effects scenes with a nice café mocha, I waited in front of the business. And waited. And waited. A few phone calls later, I was convinced that I somehow screwed the pooch with the owner on following up about the shoot, and gave some quick thought to how to change the scene to shoot in a new location. Luckily for me, Kaylynn’s and my house was just a few blocks away (in fact, the actresses for that day were already there), so as crew started showing up, I redirected everyone to the new location, and Kaylynn arranged for some heavy-duty snow-blowing to make a path in our yard through the previous day’s blizzard.
I later found out that the business owner’s phone had fallen into a snow drift the evening before, and he was subsequently snowed in that morning, so while he wanted to come and let us in, he was trapped at home and had no way of reaching me. I felt bad for him, but was pleased to learn that it wasn’t ultimately an oversight on my part! At any rate, by the time Bo arrived, I had my new plan of coverage for the scene, and added a few lines of changed dialog to account for the difference.
Honestly, the new location (our living room) once Kaylynn got done re-dressing it, ended up working much better for the project, lending a more intimate vibe to a scene between friends. And Bo and I were both relieved to be able to shoot a real scene with no effects nonsense dragging us down. Dawn was joined by Lana Rosario, and we wrapped the scene and the shoot after an honest half-day.
After that, there was much packing and writing of checks, and I was left with ten reels of fantastic footage that are crying out for editing and compositing, and a set that needed striking the following week. Ah, the glamour of independent filmmaking.
So that was our shoot. There’s still work to be done, in particular I’ve got a handful of establishing shots with the actress that I need to arrange, and I had to punt the reverse part of her conversation with the husband to another day (probably after the holidays), but the bulk of the project is in the can, and now the postproduction begins.
This movie has long since been finished, with a successful festival run. It’s now available on YouTube to watch. If you want more information about the postproduction process, check this out.
Grainy or not, image 13 is one of the best on-set stills I’ve ever seen. The person who took it could create an interesting making-of through exploring the relationship between your lead actress, her body double and the makeup artist.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not appropriate to go for the rare psychological element in this action-driven project. You might be better off making a video about handling the special effects in post. Whatever you decide, my little opinion is that being good at writing (be it a blog post or a Smoke book) shouldn’t prevent you from promoting your project in a more cinematic way. But congrats for having found a clever way of financing, it’s an inspiration to see how you manage to achieve on all fronts.
Excited to watch your movie. Maybe you can even make a tutorial on how you grade it.