Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Day in the Life

"I read the news today, Oh Boy . . ."

(What Beatles album is that from? Oh my God/dess, I'm only 31 and going senile! Is it Sgt. Peppers? It is, right?)

Saturday marks the first big "all hands" meeting for the Women's Studies cast and crew, and Cindy and I are scrambling to get as much done as we can.

Things are going quite well. So well, in fact, that I wish Cindy and I could hire a third co-producer to take some of the workload off our shoulders. For the record, we don't have the funds, so unless you're willing to do a lot of unceremonious grunt work for free, don't even bother sending a resume. Besides, we have a pretty good system in place. Lots of work, but we're getting things done.

It's late and if I don't hurry this up, Tuesday will be over and it'll be the Wednesday blog which would make me sad since I've prided myself on not missing one so far. To that end, I'm simply listing off my to-do list for tomorrow which in a verite, "slice of life" manner, might be sort of interesting to the layman (or woman).

Then again, maybe I'm making excuses for not having much of a blog this week. The fact is simply that everything is pretty "nuts and bolts" right now, and not the glamorous filmmaking life that everybody keeps telling me independent filmmaking is. And really, by writing a blog about the things I have to do tomorrow, I'm killing two birds with one stone.

In the morning I have six phone calls to make: Four to potential locations, one to a potential script supervisor, the last to the insurance company who's covering the Women's Studies production. Depending on how these phone calls go could define the rest of my day, but let's assume that nothing from them needs any immediate action.

Afterwards, it's off to two locations we've already secured; one for the "initiation scene," the other a very cool field of flowers for a Melissa/Iris scene. Once there, I'll take pictures for our location photo log. On the way back, I'll check the company mailbox to see if the editing software and/or hardware pieces we ordered last week have arrived.

The afternoon will get me back to "the office" where I'll answer email and dig into various items of busywork including dealing with anything from the morning's phone calls. I'm also in the midst of prepping invites and schedule for a day player audition being held in two weeks. After I've had enough of that for awhile, I'll call Aaron the DP and we'll hopefully come to a consensus on a lighting kit we're wanting to order.

By that point, it'll be the evening and I'll take a bit of a break before coming back to "the office" before bed to maybe play around with storyboards or character notes for Saturday's meeting. Or maybe I'll just watch the new Harry Potter trailer over and over until I pass out from excitement.

If I actually get all that done, it'll be a good day. Hell, if I get half of it done, it'll be all right. Rereading it all just makes me want to go to bed, which I'm going to go do now.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sound Garden

I learned the hard way that sound can make or break a film. On my first short film, First Session, my original sound guy kind of flaked out on me, and I was left with a fast approaching deadline and virtually no soundtrack.

Sean RussellThankfully, I got introduced to Sean Russell who's not only an expert at putting out audio fires, but a creative mind and sincere professional who has been a blessing to work with. He's the sound master of Women's Studies, and understands the importance of audio to the cinematic experience. Not only that, his post-audio skills are, to coin a phrase, mad.

On a production full of PC/Avid technicians, Sean is also our lone Mac operator, for which he catches a lot of good natured flak, though sometimes I think he often gets the last laugh.

As the Women's Studies shoot dates roll closer, Sean has been busy prepping his sound recording gear as well as preparing for the eventual post process. I took some time recently and talked with him about his gear, work methods, and philosophy.

# # #

Sean, what drew you to sound work?

Sean Russell:
I first got into sound at a young age visiting my uncle Steve's studio at the age of eleven. I was into playing drums, and he recorded a small solo to tape for me and right there I was hooked. Some Years Later, I was playing in bands and handing tapes to sound guys every night asking them to tape our show from the board feed. Usually, those tapes sounded horrible, and I thought I could make a better sounding recording. That's how I slowly moved from making music to recording music, and later, my passion for post developed. And here I am.

A lot of independent filmmakers make the mistake of shortchanging their sound in both recording and post, why do you suppose that is?

I've always been taught that video with poor audio might as well be surveillance!

I guess mostly because the conscious focus of any film is the visual. I think most people always think of movies that way - the visual judgment of how they looked may have been more immediate then how they sounded. I would also suppose that with days, weeks, months of shooting a project (and trying to make it look as good as possible) you end up with no time (and budget) to get the film properly posted to a standard we're all used to. Most gear budgets are a lot like casting budgets - you spend the big money on the biggest feature. In gear terms, that might mean a really cool camera. With casting, it might mean spending a chunk of the budget to get a big celebrity. After you've spent a good amount of budget on the camera and associated peripherals, the sound department gets 'what's left over,' meaning, usually the location audio suffers, both in equipment and quality.

In big productions, the location audio recorded isn't as big a deal, with 90% of most audio being replaced after principal photography is over. In post, the usual culprit is the timeline - too many projects hit post past deadline, need the audio yesterday, and don't have time to take time! I've been in this position many times - perhaps more times than not. Proper audio is the difference between a well-shot film with a good plot going over well, or just being well-shot with a good plot. So much of the audio for film is subconscious, and it's amazing what the human ear can perceive as being 'false' or 'fake' if the audio isn't up to par. It's my job to make it seem like there almost wasn't a 'sound guy' or 'post tech' tweaking stuff, as most people are pretty fuzzy about the process anyway.

A lot of films which could have failed, succeed because of fantastic audio. Lucas's THX-1138 is one that comes to mind.

Yes, films which 'could have failed' ...hmmm, there are so many that come to mind... anyone remember Armageddon? Man that was a bad movie, but the soundtrack - whew! The audio in general was top-notch. It's amazing sometimes what the Re-Recording mixers on a movie can do. You mentioned THX-1138 - I would even go so far as the first Star Wars movie. Have you seen cuts without audio? Complete Velveeta. Even the people making the movie thought it would tank - but then they saw it with all of Ben's audio behind it, John's music on it, and - WOW! What a great film! It's the subconscious element of sound to work almost behind the scenes on our senses while our eyes process the film itself. I think good sound makes the film believable - and allows the suspension of disbelief we all must experience to walk out of the film saying to each other 'that was a good movie.'

I agree wholeheartedly. The aural experience enhances the visual one, and is just as important in making the audience lose themselves in the movie. What are some of the things you like to do to heighten that experience?

Secret tips, eh? OK, well, there are general rules, 'see a sound, hear a sound,' that kind of thing. A lot of sounds that we typically hear on movies aren't actually realistic - but most of the time, our brain agrees with the delivery and there's no argument that would give pause. The easiest example in modern cinema is probably gun effects. On TV, when the bad guy cocks his 9-mil, you're usually hearing a 12-gauge shotgun sample. There might be other samples layered with that, but you almost never actually hear the 9-mil itself, it's just not believable. The same can be said for the firings of the guns - many guns in real life make more of a 'pop' sound then a 'boom' sound - but you rarely hear that, because it doesn't build the same way. It's not what we're 'used' to hearing on a movie.

I think it's mostly trying to make sure that the layers that make up an effect or sequence don't stick out independently enough to defeat the stack. It's also about the timing of the sequence, and build up musically coming in or going out.

Give the gear heads a little taste of what your rig is like, for both production and post.

Production audio is mostly Sennheiser shotgun mics feeding Lunatecs recorded 24-bit / 48 kHz to Compact Flash. It's usually a simple chain to get the clearest idea of dialog, location room tones/background loops, and general other sound gathering techniques that might comprise of 15%-20% of the actual audio in the movie.

When you get to Post, everything moves into ProTools and you begin 're-cutting' the film from the ground up - before music and final dialog mixing. Once you get the main beds down, you begin all the obvious effects, and things like the SPL transient designer are a must for making things 'bigger.' Much of the actual effects and editing is handled strictly in the DAW now, with the integration of ProTools and Avid.

Last question: What does your world sound like?

Good question. That's a question I've always wanted to ask those that came before me. I've always been fascinated with the human perception of sound and how people hear differently. I suppose my world sounds not unlike everyone else's. I am forever trying to be more conscientious about what I am perceiving, and how much I'm hearing something as opposed to how much I'm feeling it - or perceiving that I'm feeling it.

Connecting to the undercurrent of emotion that a piece is portraying and supporting that feeling is my main goal. It's my connection with that feeling that allows direction to the technical aspect of my job to come up with something that will enhance rather than distract the point of the story, whether it be in song or film.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Script Doctor

The "how, when, who, what, and where" of the Women's Studies production is really coming together nicely. We've got a lot of elements in place and have started to bang out something that resembles a shooting schedule. This weekend will be the big design meeting with Art Director Stephanie Petagno to finalize some costume designs and the like. At the end of the month I'll kick off the first rehearsal with the actors, a true milestone.

To that end, I spent part of the weekend working on what will be my final revision of the Women's Studies script, the "blue" script. (Once we started production, the script went from being the fourth draft to the "white" script. Since this is a production draft, it's gotten upgraded to "blue.") There will be other minor rewrites as location needs or storyboards require changes to be made. Still, from a certain point of view this is my last chance as a writer to craft the story before I hand it off for the actors and allow them to turn my words into their words.

I like to think I'm not one of "those" writer/directors. You know, the type that has to micro-manage every line delivery because the actor "just isn't capturing the vibe I intended." To me, a script is a blueprint. The actors, camera and sound crew, and art director are like the carpenters, electricians and pipe-fitters. The director is the foreman, and in this case, the foreman just happens to also be the guy who drew up the floor plans. But the foreman doesn't tell the carpenters every detail of how to put up the walls. He lets them use their own method and is just there to make sure evrything comes together as intended.

I come from an acting background, so my attitude towards actors is to give them enough space to discover their own countries, yet give them enough guidence so they don't get lost. I want them to find aspects of the script to claim for themsleves. If they need to take the words I've written and alter them slightly to make them their own, I'm down with that.

I like working with actors. A lot of directors have troubles with actors because their main tool is emotion, and to really get down and dig deep with them requires everyone to look inside their hearts and reveal truths they might not ordinarily want to share. It takes a lot of trust between actors and a director to really make the emotional discoveries, and trust just can't be given. It has to be earned.

Writing is like that too. I have respect for anyone who writes something and puts it out there for others to see. It takes a great deal of courage to expose your inner thoughts in that way, be it a poem, a novel, or a script. What if people don't like it? Or even worse, don't get it? That's the biggest fear I have, I think; a fear that people will read or see what I've written and just look at me in that queer way that says, "I don't understand what you're trying to say?" And yet there are times when I'm in the midst of creation that I myself don't quite understand what I'm trying to say. I only know I have to say it.

Another part of me feels a bit of loss at letting the Women's Studies script go into the arms of others because I've spent the better part of the last two years with it, constantly turning it over in my head. I still will of course, though once we start shooting, I'll lose the option to change anything. Film is immortal. Once an image is captured, it's always captured. You can only have so many takes before you simply have to choose one and live with it.

The consolation to it all is that I really like this script, and can't wait to share it. As great a blueprint I think it is, I think it's going to make an even better movie. And it'll do so not because of my singular voice, but the varied tones and tambours of the cast and crew's voices, singing together in harmony.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"You Don't Want No Drama"

I was sent this video of Alanis Morrisette singing "My Humps" and I'm totally obsessed with her version of the song.

And it's crazily apt because that fickle mistress Women's Studies, she's got me spending all my money on her, and spending time on her. (She's make making me work. Making me work, work. Making me work.)

A few points of interest:

--Crew: We hired our editor, Jim McGivney, who will be in charge of piecing together this crazy vision of mine. In addition to cutting together Ningen Manga Productions' short films First Session and Under the Bed, Jim's a filmmaker in his own right. More on his sweet Irish arse can be found at his MySpace page. (He's the one who sent me the above video. Damn him.) In addition, we've been interviewing other crew members and trying to work it all out.

--Gear, gear, and more gear . . . We're talking through and purchasing the various HD systems that will be working on the Women's Studies set, which I hope to keep as paperless as possible. Tapeless too, since the camera we're shooting with uses P2 capture technology. Therefore ours will be a set full of laptops. One for capturing, one for tweaking scopes, exposure, time-code, and monitoring, and one for all our production documentation. That doesn't include Sound Master Sean Russell's audio rig which is a totally different, yet awesome, beast. (More on Sean and sound will be featured in a blog later this month.) In the middle of the month we're having a big, long studio test of the production gear to work out any bugs.

--Locations: We've got a few locked in, are in talks for others, and the search goes on for others still. The progress here has been amazing, especially after I put out a semi-public call for some of our harder to find locales. The lesson? Never try to do it all yourself.

--Casting: We've had some private auditions for the remaining roles of "Zack" and "Sharon." (Not "private" like that. Get your head out the gutter.) We're having more in the next couple weeks. May will see our last big audition to fill out supporting and day player roles.

Some small "second-unit" shooting will begin in June and we're currently on target for principal photography to start in July.

Well, as long as I stop babbling and get back to work.