Saturday, December 20, 2008

Microbudget Filmmaking: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I'm listening to the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky's 2006 film The Fountain as I write this; you might go and find a copy of that excellent soundtrack for yourself.

A lot of people ask me, "so, how's that movie you've been working on going?" Now, I've worked on two other movies in the last couple years, but we all know what they're asking about: Vagabond Lane. Even last night while visiting with my mother, she asked me how it was coming. Apparently, people are getting tired of waiting.

Which is funny, because they were tired of waiting six months after principle photography was done, so... yeah.

In 1962 some filmmakers in England made a movie called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I remember about 18 years ago I saw a print of this in a film class I was taking at U of I, and - for some reason - it stuck.

Why? Because it was so, "good?" Not to my mind at that time (but I'm sure it deserves a further viewing; I was a film idiot back then); I slept through half of it. And yet... almost 20 years later it has still claimed it's small bit of grey matter in my mind. Maybe it's the title, and all the things that are associated with the connotations that the phrase, "long distance runner" imply.

For my purposes here, I'll attempt to make a parallel between microbudget filmmaking and long distance running.

About three months ago I witnessed an epic fail at a local film festival. I don't think anyone involved with the train wreck that occurred would debate whether or not the event in question was an epic fail or not, but just to be nice, I won't mention any names. In a nutshell, a locally produced microbudget film missed it's deadline for the festival and had to show a bunk rough edit off a lo-res DVD. Needless to say, it was painful watching this flick, a pain that was only overshadowed by the pain I felt watching those filmmakers I liked that had worked on this project squirm with embarrassment. However, with every failure comes a moment where one can choose to learn something - even when that moment happens to someone else.

The thing I learned was that, as a filmmaker with limited resources and no money to my name, I'd better take the approach that this is a metaphorical marathon that I'm running, not a sprint. Since I'm overseeing every aspect of Vagabond Lane - a movie that has missed a number of self-set deadlines already - I'm stuck with a couple realities:

Since I have no money, all I have is time.

And there you have it. By it's own definition, a microbudget film has no funds, thus forcing the question, "how does one make a quality film with no money?"

Answer: Take the time to make sure everything in the film is a good as it possibly can be.

My daughter - she's 12 now - and I were discussing this very thing between hands of Uno at our favorite coffee shop. She asked me what I had been working on the night before, and we ended up in a conversation about compositing for film.

(Yeah, she has a pretty developed idea about what goes on in movies; in her notebook she carries a Behind-The-Scenes book about the production of one of the Narnia movies, and she's always showing it to her friends between discussions of Twilight plot lines...)

Yet I digress. The point of our conversation was that I was working on THIS SCENE in my movie that was taking A LOT OF TIME - which was frustrating - but I DEALT WITH IT because I DIDN'T WANT MY MOVIE LOOKING LIKE CRAP.

Here, I'll show you what we discussed.

In Vagabond Lane, our heroine - Carrie - ends up in a Hell-like place where she is forced to dig potato-ish things called woobles. In this place she meets an innocent named Simon (played by Ben Kemper with an unbelievable sincerity), and they talk in the shed where the child slaves of the bad guy get to spend their remaining days like so much cattle. Now, aside from the fact that my camera operators shot the scene on two cameras at different frame rates (an issue I'm still fighting to resolve, but a light is shining on that issue and I think I've defeated it), my set designer failed me miserably. That this woman still has a head attached to her upper torso is testament to either the fact that I have incredible self-control over my own anger, or that her head was so far lodged up her nether-regions that I couldn't find it to tear it from her shoulders.

So here's the shot: Carrie (played by Chelsea Sheets) is in the open-faced shed next to one of the interior walls. Slide one shows the raw footage.

Not a bad shot; the lighting's good, there's a nice sense of light/dark symbolism in the composition, and you can't tell from the shot that there's a jet plane flying directly overhead every 45 minutes. However, there's a problem: if you look to the wall behind Carrie's head, my set designer obviously didn't take into consideration that this shed was supposed to look like a weathered cattle shelter, not like something recently bought from Home Depot, with MADE IN CANADA stamps all over the darn press-board.

Now, in the mythology of the film, I can get away with this, because there's this "magical realism" aspect to the film where it makes perfect sense in the confines of the story that this old P.O.S. shed actually did have parts bought at the Home Depot at the Nexus of the Universe, but ... really? Do I really want that crap in my film? Hmm...

In the edit of the film, I have to do some serious filter work, and in slide two is that same shot of the shed wall, and now those damn ink stamps are coming out of Carrie's left-hand ear:

Hunh. That looks like crap. Really bad crap. Crap crap crap. Maybe the set "designer" should have spent more than a week working on this stuff...

So, yeah. Since we didn't have time to fix this problem at the shoot, I've had to relegate it to post-production work, which is a pain in the tuckus. So what do I do? Well, for starters, I try to blend in/remove the wood-stamps as best I can, to no avail. Ultimately, I decide that I have to just make it a bit less conspicuous, and the best way to do that is to tart up the place with even more graffiti. To do this, I first have to mask off the offending area, as in Slide Three:

Notice that the dark masked area doesn't cover the entire wall; the reason for this is that Carrie's head AND THE CAMERA are also moving in the scene, and I can't have her head drifting in and out of the dead zone of the masked area. Since this is a short scene, I feel I can get away with a "general fix", as opposed to a "detailed fix" - which would take me considerably more time, and is always an option down the road, should I feel that this shot is too distracting.

Anyway, I've got the masked area, now I need something to fill it with that's gonna make the wall look less like it came from the local lumberyard. Off to trusty ol' Photoshop I go, and put together a plate of random graffiti that I think looks kinda' cool:

This gets slapped behind the masked shot of Carrie and...

Hey! That doesn't look bad at all! I can buy into the idea that these kids have been drawing for generations on this stupid shelter, it doesn't look like INDUSTRIAL WOOD STAMP coming out of Carrie's ear, and it's only distracting if it's being looked for.

So yeah... phew! Crisis averted, right? Not quite. Remember how I said that the camera and Carrie are moving in this scene? Yeah. That means that the plate I put behind the original plate needs to sync up and move in the same directions and speed as the "real" wall. Now, there's lots of ways to screw this up, but the only sure-fire way to deal with it is one frame at a time, and that kind of sucks. How much does that suck? Well, this particular shot is three seconds long. At 24 frames per second, that comes down to 78 frames that I have to painstakingly adjust - or else the illusion is broken, and the person who plopped down his 10 bucks in the theater feels robbed.

So, bottom line: how long did that three second shot take me to do?

Roughly 40 hours.

Yeah, this microbudget filmmaking stuff isn't really a sprint now, is it...

Lesson learned: if you have no money, then make sure you spend time instead. And if you do neither... well, yeah. We won't go there, since I've already made enough of those movies.