Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Arm Wrestlers

A few months ago my friend Miles was in Charleston for a few days with his friend Keefe and they wanted to shoot something. Originally I wrote a 10 page script about a prostitute but working out a multi-scene shoot on the fly just didn't happen. So we decided on doing a single scene. So I popped out a 4 pager about two guys in an arm wrestling match. This was an interesting shoot because the actors didn't have time to read the script before we started shooting. So we more or less wrote the script as we rehearsed the scene right before we shot it.

There were two things that stood out with this shoot. First, I decided on a whim to shoot it outside on my landlord/pal Zsolt's 2nd story patio. We already had the lights set up inside his living room, but it was really hot since it was summer and Zsolt is European so he doesn't believe in the inefficiency of AC. Plus one side of our vantage point outside was pure black as it was nighttime and the Zsolt's patio is on the second story.

The other thing that stood out was the process of shooting. We wanted to start shooting early. However it took hours to hash out a bare bones scene that the actors could make it through. And it still wasn't pretty. By the time we finally started shooting moral and expectations were pretty low. We did two takes of the master and it was horrible. At least that's how I felt at the time.

I once read about directing techniques in regards to working with actors. In this literature there was a suggestion to be conscious of which actor you choose to cover first. Actor A might be up and running at full force, and Actor B might need to warm up a bit in order to crank out their best stuff. So shooting closeups of Actor B first will yield a sub-par performance from him/her while spending all of Actor A's mojo while he/she isn't even being shot. And in this case, I began by covering Keefe first. Now, Keefe did an excellent job in this short, but he is a less experienced actor than Miles. More importantly, Miles and I have worked together a lot and this was my first time shooting with Keefe.

At the point when I switched from the master to covering Keefe, the scene just wasn't functioning right. If the actors weren't comfortable enough with the scene to start the shoot when we took the master, then why would they be when we moved to tighter shots? In hindsight it didn't matter (see below) but it's always regrettable to continue shooting something that isn't working. Fix it before moving on... but I was more focused on damage control at that point.

So we were doing tighter shots of Keefe, and it was just not working. He wasn't warmed up yet, and I, as the camera operator, wasn't warmed up either. A few more takes and there was a breaking point. Everything I had shot looked bad, the acting was bad, the pacing was bad, and everyone was aware of this. It became a joke to all of us. Of course going into it we should have known that even if it were a great script, putting something together on the fly always makes you vulnerable.

It was then that I more or less pulled the plug. If all we were doing was wasting time, then we needed to minimize the amount of it we were wasting. The goal changed to simply getting it done. All the while we were joking about how awful it was going to be. We more or less came to the conclusion that we'd be lucky to each come away with a few shots for our reels. We've all made terrible projects before. At a certain point, it's important to know when to just give up if something isn't going to turn out. We decided to get a few takes of Miles, call it quits and go to a bar.

Granted, this was first thing I'd shot since finishing Republic of Pete. At this point in the night, all I could think about was how pathetic it was to come off of a feature making something so amateurish, how I had failed to learn anything, etc. It was a really bad feeling: doubt of the worst degree. But when we switched to shooting Miles, something changed. As we were running through takes, I found a sweet spot on the lens. And Miles tried some things with the part. And voila, it suddenly went from a worst case scenario to something I could work with. But why?

The simple fact that we stopped caring is what allowed us to get it right. Without inhibitions, it stopped being a laborious pain in the ass, and started being fun and worthwhile.

What's really nice about shooting digital is that you can readily show people what you've shot. So right after I got a good angle, I showed it to the actors. And moral was boosted. So we finished up Miles and went back and grabbed more takes of a now warmed up and on point Keefe and finished it.

Granted, the sound is still awful. But I think all in all, the scene... well to just have any scene turn out is a success in this scenario... even with bad sound. Here is the end result:

Special thanks to Ryan Holderfield for hooking it up with a nasty lens, some lights, and some lighting skills. And of course thanks to Zsolt for letting us film in his house.

This post was written while taking a break from helping edit the Alvin Greene doc I helped out a couple of days on before the election. I'm in LA working on this until mid January, doing the LA thing (working a lot and drinking a lot of coffee). I still have a ton of pics that I'll eventually use for a few pic blogs about Alvin, but I'm still figuring out exactly what I think about him. And it's likely I'll be doing that for a long, long time.