Month: October, 2015

“9+1” Production Journal: Days 4 & 5

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Rigging master Chuto prepares a lift to provide our main lighting source for the scenes on location in the exercise club. 18K fresnel and 6K fresnel with warm sun color. Couldn’t have shot the scenes without this rig.

I keep reminding myself that shooting dramatic television is a marathon, not a sprint: it’s important to maintain perspective and understand that not every shot is going to be a masterpiece. On some days, delivering solid content to the editors and keeping the show on schedule are enough to qualify as success. But in the interest of growing from one’s mistakes, I’ll talk a bit about the difficulties we encountered today.

We shot multiple day interior scenes at an athletic club, both in the main training hall and in the dressing room. Generally speaking, gyms are difficult to make look good on camera, and gym dressing rooms are particularly challenging: they are usually small, windowless spaces with monotone palettes and low ceilings. It can be difficult to find interesting angles, the small space constrains camera movement, and lighting options are limited.

We ended day two with an unplanned night shoot: a dialog inside a car parked outside the gym. The potential was there for a great-looking scene, but miscommunication between myself and the director (and our general fatigue after two brutal days) led us to shoot dialog coverage that was less than it could have been. We were in our 15th hour, and this is a good example of how long days can corrode the creative process. The viewer doesn’t know or care what circumstances you shot it in—only the result is judged.

One thing I (re)learned today: if you want a dialog scene in a gym dressing room to look good, it’s best to build a set. If you absolutely must shoot on location, I would look for a large, old locker room, perhaps at an old university or military base, that has windows or high ceilings. The bigger and older the locker room, the better. You can always make a big room look smaller on camera, but it’s very difficult to shoot in small spaces. Windows would allow you to use haze (for a steam effect), and that could add a lot of texture to the imagery.

One thing I’m grateful for today: the director is finally starting to allow blocking rehearsals in our on-set practice. Doing a blocking rehearsal prior to lighting has been standard protocol on every professional shoot I’ve ever worked on, but on this shoot it’s been a challenge to get everyone on the same page. Blocking a scene allows you to do a quick run-through with actors so that everyone can see the movement and anticipate challenges. The actors then go through hair and makeup while we light the set. When you don’t block the scene first, chaos ensues because changing actor positions often requires new camera and lighting solutions. Block, light, rehearse, shoot: deviate from this protocol at your own peril.

In collaborative creative work there will always be some difficult days. But at the end of the week, the most important question is always the same: how can next week be better?

The view from Kostava Street: long hot showers after exhausting days at work, Abby’s loving smile. Onward.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 3

Myself (left) and our two camera operators on location near the Tbilisi Sea. Photo courtesy of Nino Jorjadze, one of Georgia’s most talented assistant directors.

Day Three was ultimately a successful day in terms of page count, but it got off to a bit of a slow start. I thought our first scene was going to be a simple high angle wide shot of a car pulling into a parking lot, but it became a bit more involved. I had tried to keep it simple because there was a crane involved and lots of reflections in the shot. Sometimes having great equipment can be a challenge in itself, because it creates the temptation to use it in ways that are more complex than the shot needs. The important thing is that we got what the director wanted and managed to make up for lost time later in the day. Our last shot during dusk will require some color work to make it match our day look (and perhaps a reshoot), but the core of the scene is in the can.

The lighting department showed some good hustle at the end of the day when we were frantically chasing the last of our light, but there could have been more preparation earlier in the day as far as power distribution. Typical protocol in Hollywood is that we lay power ahead of time to prepare for almost any lighting possibility at that location. Laying that much cable is time-consuming and thankless work (I did it for years), but it’s often what makes the difference between good lighting and great lighting. Something we’ll work on for future shoots.

One thing I’m grateful for today: our camera operators, Goglik and Merab. These guys are talented and totally reliable. I trust them completely, and this makes my job so much easier. I would have no reservations about sending either of them to work 2nd Unit, something that we’ll be talking more about in the coming weeks.

The view from Kostava Street: lazy Sunday and a loving dog. So great to spend time with Abby on my day off.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 2

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Most of Day Two involved shooting a lengthy dialog scene in a restaurant. Nothing too crazy: two people chatting at a table. We all wanted to shoot in the restaurant’s glass-enclosed veranda, and I embraced the sun through the window as part of our lighting (using our own lighting as well, of course). This strategy mostly worked, but no one anticipated that we would spend eight hours on that scene (I thought it would take us four hours). It was an important scene, so it’s good we took the time to get it right, but there wasn’t much I could do about the fact that the sun changed dramatically over the course of the day. One must work with the cards one is dealt. All in all I think we pulled it off, and the director is happy with the cinematography. Ended the day with a two-shot exterior scene where we managed to wrap just minutes before we lost our light. Everyone cheered. Crew morale is high, and that is really the most important thing on a shoot this size.

Tomorrow will be day exteriors all day, with lots of crane work. It’s an ambitious schedule, but as a group we are learning quickly how to work best together. All the departments are really a pleasure to work with, especially the guys and gals in camera, grip, and lighting. Kudos to our dolly grip Yura for his quick build today.

One thing I (re)learned today: never use new equipment on set before testing, even if you think you know it well.

One thing I am grateful for today: in the end the director agreed to my request that we shoot close-ups during the dialog scene.

The view from Kostava Street: homemade borsch and cloudy skies. Autumn is upon us.

“9+1” Production Journal: Day 1

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I’ve been hired as the Director of Photography on a episodic detective thriller shooting in Tbilisi, Georgia. After two months of prep, today was the first day of principal photography. I hope to make periodic journal entries to track our progress.

Day One was pretty good, all things considered. There were the usual small bumps and moments of miscommunication, but we’ve got a great team. Since we’ve already been scouting and shooting camera tests together for a few months, our group already feels like a family. On set we speak two languages: Russian and Georgian. My hope is that by the end of the shoot we’ll be operating almost entirely in Georgian.

I’m going to try to include one thing I learned and one thing I’m grateful for in each journal entry. A lot of the lessons I learn are mistakes I’ve already made many times. Today I was reminded of the value of a smoothly functioning video village (the area with the monitors that show what we’re shooting). There are a lot of people who are invested in how things look on screen—the production designer, make-up artists, costumers, set decorators, and of course the director. There’s usually a lot happening around the camera during a set-up, and a well-functioning video village allows us to move a lot of creative and logistical conversations away from the camera and into a less chaotic space, which allows the team on set to work faster and more comfortably. It also allows me to present the director with what I think are the best visual options for the shot. I welcome feedback of course, and together the director and I often come up with a better plan, but video village allows us to start with what I think is the best option.

What I’m grateful for today: it may sound trivial, but actors who are both professional and want to be part of the production family are really a pleasure to work with. Actors have a completely different perspective on the production process than I do, as we work on different sides of the lens, and sometimes these two worlds don’t always mix easily. On this show the interaction between crew and cast has been very warm. I look forward to great collaboration, and great friendship.

The view from Kostava Street: autumn rain and broad horizons. The future is bright.