Director's Pass: Out the Window (part 1)

I’m inaugurating a new series on the blog called Director’s Pass—a way to take you behind current productions and show you pieces of work in progress.

On Saturday we started principal photography on my semester-long independent study: Out the Window, written by Ethan Holbrook. Ethan posted an early draft of the script on his blog; you can read his comments and download the script here. This is the second script Ethan offered me, and I instantly connected with the characters. I had originally wanted to make more of a zany comedy since I’ve been so preoccupied by intense character drama lately, but this offered me an opportunity for characterization (and subtle humor) that I couldn’t refuse.

Early this semester I brought Matt Kane (of 11:32 PM and Who is Landyn Banx? and countless other projects) on to DP the film. After discussing the look of the movie with him, I came to the conclusion that I needed to shoot on film, even though I couldn’t really afford it. Turns out that, using some fuzzy math, I could (just about) afford it as long as I used short ends and unused film stock from other projects and limited myself to only two or three takes of every scene, and I could even spring for a transfer to high-definition (I’ve always found it silly to shoot in gorgeous 16mm and then scan it to standard-definition video for editing). This is thanks due in major part to a donation of nearly 800 feet of film from Sayer Frey, my editing/documentary professor and faculty adviser for this project. This saved me nearly $200, but unfortunately most of the film was on 100-foot reels, rather than 400-foot cores (more on this later).

Matt checks the framing for an exterior shot. We are shooting with the Arri 16SR, MCAD’s one and only sync-sound camera.

A few weeks ago I had a casting call to select the proper actors to fill the roles. I had a general idea who I wanted for most of the roles, but they all needed to be cast perfectly, so I wanted to keep my options open. I ultimately arrived at the following cast:

  • Val: Jesse Griffith, who played Dr. I. Learned Scholar in my Intro final two years ago (I promised him that this time around he would not have to wear a plastic animal on any part of his body)
  • Jerry: Mike Burns, who starred in 11:32 PM last spring (an won a much-deserved award for it)
  • Rachel: Melissa Hoppe, a gem culled from the auditions. I hadn’t worked with Melissa before but was attracted to both her understanding of the character and her responsiveness to direction
  • Don: Jim Westcott, seasoned actor and all-around great guy, he played Elder Paul in Higher Purpose last semester.
  • Lucy: Amity Carlson, whom I discovered from her performance as an extra in Higher Purpose; her improvised exit message blew me away and I’ve been wanting to work with her again ever since.

Fake magic hour—Lookit that dappling! You think that’s just some happy accident? No f’n’ way! that’s 1650 watts of light and some custom-made branchalorises! Also, note the nice, art-directed kitty headstone. Both thanks to modern renaissance man and miracle worker Matt Kane.

It was at this point that I made a tactical mistake. “Minneapolis is literally nothing but suburbs,” I said to myself. “Surely it will be easy to find a house to use as a location.” Turns out that yes, there are lots of houses in Minneapolis, but no, nobody was all that eager to let a film crew into theirs. And so it was that I became panicked, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, until only a day before our first shoot, when Brandon Boulay, another MCAD film major, agreed to let us into his home, in return for which we agreed not to poop on the carpet.

Our first shooting day was Saturday the 27th, and we had three scenes to get between the hours of 3:00 and 10:00 P.M. Furthermore, my goal was to nail everything on the first take, and Jesse and Mike hadn’t had time to rehearse together until the day of the shoot, so we had a lot of rehearsal to do. Luckily, Matt was more than up to the task of spearheading the crew while I handled the actors.

As a side-story, I was helping Matt shoot a lighting assignment in the studio the other day. He turned a light on, moved it back a foot or two, looked at the lighting, said “f-2.8 and a half,” then walked up in front of the camera, and took a meter reading. It was f-2.8 and a half. It was at that moment when I realized that I made a good decision by not pursuing a career in cinematography.

Anyway, not to kill the suspense, but the shoot went well. We got what we needed in the time allotted, and it looked real pretty, and Mike and Jesse both gave great performances.

It’ll be another month or two until I can see the footage (it has to go to Maryland for processing, then to California for transfer, and I’m holding onto all the film until I can send it out in one batch after we wrap), so I obviously can’t show you any of that. But our sound is digital (Ethan has been running sound, so he’s had the unenviable experience of seeing his beautiful script being torn apart by an arrogant director), so I can give you a little piece of that; this clip is from one of our last shots of the day, Val’s close-up in INT. VAL’S LIVING ROOM – NIGHT

So there you go. That was the 27th.

Coming up soon: Sunday the 28th: efficiency and emotional intensity!

19 thoughts on “Director's Pass: Out the Window (part 1)

  1. Well, Andrew, I think you did a fine job DPing for Tracy McKnightly. I’ll be sending you a clip for approval soon. And Ethan, I don’t know why you’re not asleep. Why am I not asleep? Is it night? What season is it? Is that metric or standard? DAMMIT I NEED TO GET SOME SOUP!

  2. Your story of Matt reminds me of my friend Christian from Casper. He’d walk around all day with Rosco and Gam books in his pockets, pointing out that, “Oh, that light is a perfect R33 (no color pink)” or, “The sun is looking very G470 (a kind of orangy-yellow) today.” It’d irk the shit out of him if you’d follow up with a, “No, you’ve got your SED all wrong. It’s totally an R333 (blush pink). Notice how the tricky curve pattern of these fluorescent lights tilts the green, making it seem closer to R33, when clearly it’s not.”

    Then there would be boxing matches, with intermissions to hold gel samples over various people’s arms (“See! Perfect match!” “No, that’s because Jason has a sunburn! Right Jason?!” “I want to go home.”).

    And don’t get me started about sound guys and frequencies.
    “It’s fucking 8250Hz you fuck! The presence is overwhelming!”
    “Fuck you, dickhead! You just think that because your mom dropped you on your stupid ass. It’s totally 7500Hz!”
    *Fist fights*

    …. Whew. I don’t think I’ve been away from theatre for QUITE long enough.

  3. Hey, Andrew. did you know that ‘branchalorises’, put through Google, produces a Google-whack to your website? You should be proud.

    Because apparently you just made up the word ‘branchalorises’.

  4. Close. ‘branchaloris’ is a made-up word (a combination of ‘branch’ and ‘cucaloris’), but I can’t take credit for making it up.

    See as proof the following excerpt from Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook by Harry C. Box, Focal Press, 2003:

    “A branchaloris is nothing more than a leafy branch found on the ground or broken off a bush and placed in front of a light on a c-stand. It breaks up the light, projects the shadows of branch and leaves onto the scene, and can be made to move naturally, as if in the wind.”

    The plural, however, may be my invention—it’s entirely possible that this is the first time in the history of written English that the branchaloris has been referred to in its plural form—but ‘branchalorises’ just makes more sense than ‘branchalori,’ which would only be appropriate were the singular spelled ‘branchalorus,’ which would be a transliteration from the root word. So I stand by my word and am humbled to be informed of this, exgfilms’ first Google-whack.

  5. Well, dammit. Now I have to purchase another book about a subject I already know about.

    Next you’ll be telling me that I can take, say, an umbrella and put it in front of a light and it’ll…like…soften the characteristic of the light in some way.

    On a side note, these are the first comments I’ve made on this site for more than…um…several months! Needless to say, reading the comments on Youtube videos and myspace pages had ruined the allure of passive-form internet dialogue memes for me.

  6. You know, I keep waiting for stage people to learn what soft light and fill are. On the other hand, I also keep waiting for film people to quit making up silly words for things. So it evens out.

    As a side note to your side note: you should write some of your own posts! We’re gradually building an audience, and I’ve got a regular (but silent) readership in Texas, for some reason!

    Speaking of Texas (and of tangents): Crawford is a very good documentary that I just saw last night. You can watch it for free on Hulu:

  7. I’ve always known what soft light and fill are. Whenever my Lighting Design teacher hears me talking about key and fill, he yells at me. And (gasp! starting a sentence with a conjunction!) the next time you hear someone talking about McCandless’ Method for Lighting, chew them out for me.

    As for people who we’re impatient with, I just keep waiting for photo people to…hmm…let me use the damn darkroom facility here in Greeley. Snobby putrescent photo people, with their ‘gradients’ ‘film developer’ and their ‘mandatory Art Majors’ and other crap…

    Also, my lighting design professor knows what a C47 is. I still call it a clothes pin. Everyone else can go %*@!!! themselves as far as that’s concerned.

    Check your email. I have something coming up I’d like your help with…

  8. Soft light? Fill? There is no such thing, Andrew. Those things turn into blobs and ugly shadows when you’re lighting from 60 feet away, and the audience can see everything. I’m still waiting for film people to light a scene 60×80 feet, with complex set pieces, and change that lighting and set in 15 seconds flat (with no cuts).

    By the way, Evan, McCandless was a GENIUS. I shall shout his name from the mountains.

    Also, I keep forgetting I’m an Adventure Education major now. Damn it. Fuck McCandless and his damn 45×45 method. And fuck Source Fours, Cinefoil, Gaff Tape, Gobos, ETC, Yamaha, and Colortrans while I’m at it.

  9. Greg, I’ll concede that fill is a no-no because stage lighting demands high contrast, but soft light can be plenty high-contrast and still cast soft shadows! It’s like you theater people (oh yes, you are one and you always will be no matter how you try to hide it, adventure education major) don’t know what diffusion and bounce are! Or how about this: how about motivating your lighting from practical sources? Huh?

    You want to see large-scale dynamic lighting? Eat it, Roger Deakins style! That there is a lighting diagram for five city blocks of night exteriors. 160 kilowatts of source-motivated low-key lighting.

    Oh, and you say anything mean about Roger Deakins and I WILL COME TO YOUR HOUSE AND BEAT YOU WITH A SHOVEL.

  10. Andrew, diffusion and bounce are irrelevant unless you feel like blinding the audience or making a flat, ugly scene. And practicals don’t work for SHIT. They’d be great if the audience were sitting on stage (like the perspective of a camera), but the audience is at LEAST 20 feet away, and often 50-100 feet. Practicals are useless in those situations, except as a set piece.

    I didn’t say you can’t light a large area. I said I want film people to change the lighting for a large area in a split second to an entirely different scene, about a dozen times. Doesn’t happen.

    And “source motivated” “low-key” lighting equals “audience can’t see shit.”

    Also, 160kW? Weak sauce. Broadway would hose that shit in a single show.

    En guarde!

  11. So Deakins and McCandless are untouchable, huh? But how about Gillette? My LD1 class has to read ‘Designing with Light’, G. Michael Gillette; a combination of knowing more than the teacher and just being lazy have prevented me from picking up the text, and I’ve decided I’ll only get it if either of you can testify to its worth. But I’m thinking of getting Box’s book based on your affiliation, Andrew.

    As for the application of practicals, I, ahem, ‘respectfully’ disagree with both of you. The majority of practicals fall under the Props or Scenic departments’ purview, and you should both know by now that scenic/production designers have notoriously tight asses when it comes to ‘atmosphere’. You can expect there to be nearly opaque lampshades on most things onstage, and most hanging lights have either been sprayed with a frosting agent or painted purple by the electrics staff in a vain attempt to reproduce R68 onstage. Silly little light monkeys.

    As for wide swaths of light instantaneously, I recommend both of you to discover the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, held in Boulder each summer. The outdoor thrust is easily 40-odd feet square, the rep plot is responsible for three shows, AND they have to accommodate waning light and magic hour trickery.

    (By the way, Greg, I disagree with you about McCandless. He may have furthered the art of stage lighting by proposing the first systematic approach to lighting a stage, but it only really works in practice if you’re a junior high school drama teacher. There’s no allowance for specific effect within the 45×45 frame, and most facilities are incapable of accommodating the front-left and -right systems anyway, because they have walls.)

  12. I’m out of my depth here talking about the whys and wherefores of lighting for stage, all I said (and what I meant when I mentioned practicals) was that I’m of the silly notion that all light comes from somewhere, and therefore should be motivated to look like it’s coming from somewhere, rather than just descending from on high—if a scene’s lighting is motivated by daylight coming through a window, that’s where the light should be coming from (and it should be balanced to 6500 Kelvin, and have all the same hardness and directionality qualities as the real-world source would have). Forgive me for being so obtuse.

  13. Oh, and I’m sorry, Andrew, but 16kW really isn’t that much. A typical light plot in a 400-seat proscenium encompasses between 60 to 90 individual light instruments. Each instrument typically carries either a 575W or 750W lamp, so you can expect a typical show to carry about 30-70kW+. There are even instruments that use 1k lamps or greater still in use in most theaters.

    Chew THEM apples. (Sour, bright M$*@F!$% apples!)

  14. Theatre isn’t about realistic lighting conditions! It’s about EMOTION, and how if you add a dash of R15 (Deep Straw) to a R355/R51 wash, it will express deep angsty-type misgivings in your protagonist.

    Just ask the student LDs here at UNC.

  15. Oh, you do NOT want to get started playing the wattage game with me. You may bump above 70KW in a show, but each instrument typically carries ~500-750W? Oh, WOW. A typical studio lighting instrument we use all the time here is called the “Junior Mole,” made by the Mole-Richardson company. That’s a 2KW tungsten source. That one’s called the JUNIOR. Mole’s line of tungsten fresnel instruments goes as high as 18KW (you know, for when you’re shooting outside and you need to overpower the sun). Then there’s the new industry-standard HMIs, which usually run around 2500W, but which put out an equivalent of 10K tungsten (~100 lumens per watt), and are pre-balanced to daylight, adding another stop or two in location lighting efficiency.

    Anyway, my point is that I am a lowly film student in the midwest, and it would not be outlandish for me to run a quarter of a megawatt of lighting for a larger studio shoot (increased-efficiency film emulsions usually make this unnecessary, but sometimes you just GOTTA have that deep focus).

  16. Now, deep focus – there’s something you just don’t see in theatre. I want deep focus in my shows, but unfortunately they don’t make SPF-200 stage makeup.

    I guess we’ll just have to make do with latex paint.

  17. Cripes! I missed part of the conversation because it shifted to page 2!

    I have ‘Designing With Light’ right here, and I can tell you that if you are TRULY interested in continuing the field and being a solid LD, it’s a great book. But it will not lead you towards innovation or good emotional featuring – so don’t think it’s perfect.
    Also, any good LD puts all practicals (and all BS functionaries) on their plot. Otherwise, inevitably the set designer will put really stupid lights in really stupid places, and cause havoc.
    Also, I totally agree about wide swaths of light – that’s what I was arguing with Andrew about. Theatre is capable of creative adjustability and multiple setups in a single location – film isn’t (well, it’s CAPABLE, but it doesn’t DO it).
    Also, how are you disagreeing with me about McCandless? I said he was a genius, and made some of the most important contributions to light designs EVER. I never said his method was perfect – besides, even he said that when faced with non-perfect scenarios, adaptations can and should be made.
    I agree that stage lighting isn’t about realism – it’s about emotion (depending on style, of course)

    If, on stage, we produced lighting that seems to be coming from the real source, it would look ugly as fuck to 3/4 of the audience. You film people have it easy, because all you need to look good is one tiny viewpoint (the camera). We need to worry about Grandma in the back of section E – if she complains, we get fucked.
    And let’s just drop this wattage thing here and now. It comes down to usage, I think. For example, in the 60’s, a mediumish-scale show on Broadway would push 250kW, if not more. And that was focused entirely on one stage, and was used for 10-30 different scenes with entirely different purposes and entirely different emotionality. These days, a medium show wouldn’t hesitate to use 1000 750W source-fours, while also adding 200 300W intelligent lights and another 200 1kW fill-lights, plus the 8-10, 2-5kW manned spots.
    We use massive lights, too (like our 2kW parcans (yes, PARCANS!) and 3-4kW manned spots), but we find them far less useful than a classy 250W StudioSpot intelligent light, which can be controlled like a dancing fairy on a winter’s night, providing each scene with soft, dazzling light in all sorts of places, shapes, sizes, and breakups. If you really need an 18kW light, YUR DOIN IT WRONG.
    Deep focus…. right…. it’s a good thing that the HUMAN EYE rocks the pants off of a CAMERA.

    Whew. This is getting intense. I’m so fucking glad I left theatre. So so so so so glad.

    Also, movies are awesome, and theatre shows blow. There. I said it.

  18. I’d like to alter my statement, actually. Going to a theater is nice, and can have a much more profound impact than a film. But “CAN” is the key word. Most theatre blows ass, and provides about as much impact as the thrown spleen of a baby rabbit. And usually they’re boring and poorly produced, too.

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