Making a Movie: My First Day On Set

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Making a Movie” is a series of columns that chronicles our attempt to make, market, and distribute a film with Stephen Tobolowsky in 2014. Our Kickstarter is still live and you can support our film project by going here.

On Wednesday, I woke up at 5:30 AM and spent the whole day shooting test footage for the film I’m working on with Stephen Tobolowsky. We had an ambitious schedule: between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., we were going to take one of Stephen’s stories and shoot different segments of it in four different locations (we plan to edit them together to form a single cohesive story). Later, at 8 p.m., Stephen performed a 45-minute story in front of a crowd of two dozen people in a local coffee shop, which we also filmed. Depending on how all the footage turns out, we may incorporate it into the final film.

I can now say that I have tasted the life of a filmmaker (actually, not even a full taste – more like an amuse-bouche) and it is definitely challenging as all get out.

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Some of you are probably thinking, “Wait a second. Didn’t you guys just launch your Kickstarter? It barely just ended! How are you already filming stuff?” And you’d be right. But this test shoot really came together as a result of a couple of factors: 1) Stephen was going to be in town this week, and we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to shoot something with him, and 2) we wanted a chance to experiment with different formats for the final film. This film was originally conceived of as a concert movie with Stephen performing in front of a live audience on stage, but with a couple extra shooting days, we had the opportunity to expand the original scope of this movie in some interesting ways, and we wanted to take it.

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Our production company for this project is Super Frog Saves Tokyo, and they have been exceptionally professional and energetic this entire time. They had the herculean task of pulling together all the resources necessary to make the shoot happen in a span of a couple weeks, including location scouting and crew. Our crew this week primarily consisted of a Red camera, a Movi operator plus his assistant, and a sound engineer.

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Side note: the Movi really is as magical as it looks. While it took two people to operate it smoothly, it allowed us to get some spectacular shots that would’ve been impossible without much more complicated setups. It is an exceptional piece of machinery, but it’s also exceptionally intricate with many moving parts and electronics.

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Stephen was (as always) a consummate professional who gave it his all for every single take. There were several moments throughout the day when the crew became completely enthralled by his storytelling. It made us all believe in the movie that we were making together. There’s nothing else like that feeling.

I found that the biggest challenge of making a movie is resource management — ensuring that the people and tools you have are being put to good use, and that you have enough time to get the shots you need. Because we were shooting on location (e.g. a supermarket, Seattle City Hall, etc.), there were multiple factors we could not control for, such as background noise and background lighting. Moreover, there were people wandering in and out of places that had to be controlled by extra crew (whenever possible). It didn’t take too long for me to start stressing that we might not get enough footage at each location.

Because of the way our day was structured, a delay at one location had a cascading effect, prompting delays at other locations and so on down the line. In order to make up the time, shortcuts sometimes needed to be taken. Maybe you only do two takes instead of three, or you don’t use a super elaborate lighting setup when you otherwise would have. Fortunately, we were able to hit all of our planned locations and only finish a half hour late. I credit our excellent producer for this miracle.

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Beyond this, the entire process was absolutely exhausting. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have to be tireless in front of the camera. But as my friend Dan Trachtenberg puts it: This isn’t a job. It’s a dream. Making a movie is all about using the short time you have to create something meaningful and beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of the stuff we’ve captured today and I think it passes both these tests. I look forward to showing it to you.

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