Tech N9ne's newest album, Planet, came out during Sun's production week and I spun the entire album 4 times before the weekend was over. Click HERE to listen to Levitation by Tech N9ne feat. Nave Monjo from Tech's newest album PLANET (click for full album link) on Spotify!
*This article covers two grounds: a recollection of how an optimal film set is created and maintained, and stands as a thank you letter to every person who helped on this project, listened to me bitch for hours on end, or offered emotional support when I was losing my grip on reality while trying to put all the pieces in a row before production began.*
I want to make sure I don't lose any information from last weekend. This blog post is for both recollection and insight into how the weekend and workflow for my short film, Sun, consisted.
I will be transparent about my issues on set, and will also extol the amazing crew assembled to make Sun a reality.
There's a block of text I'm including which was originally posted on my Facebook page. It'll be noted in the text below by this green line marking the beginning and ending of that block of text.
If you've read that post, you may skip it without missing anything. And, if you've not previously seen the post, please read it here as it's part of the entire journey I went through while making Sun.
In this essay, I'll breakdown each day of production, February 28th - March 4th, as well as my feelings about people who talk the talk, but fail to walk when they're told it's time to move.
I want the people who dedicated themselves to the vision Kong Thao and myself had for Sun to know how important they are to me.
Giving someone your time for four days is not an easy thing to do, and this post will stand as a dedication to their belief in us as film makers. Here goes something...
Wednesday, February 28th, The Day Before Production Begins...
And, the day my stress really kicks in. I was staying at the set location, Pierce City, Mo., and was basically packing my entire existence into my van.
Thankfully, equipment was being picked up by others, so I could really focus on everything I needed to grab to be comfortable in a new home for several days.
I packed everything from a toothbrush to my own rolls of toilet paper to beer to seven pairs of socks. You can never have too many socks when filming a movie. Rule number one of filmmaking: pack too many socks for your shoot. I'm dead serious.
I managed to pack my bed in my van and braced myself for the journey. And, then... I sat in my driveway... staring intently at bushes across the street for something like five minutes, completely unsure if my frozenness was because I didn't pack enough clean underwear, or if I were proud to be making a movie for the first time in several months. It was likely both.
The set was around two hours away, and since I'd been working at my full-time job consistently throughout the last several weeks as well as preparing my camera crew of five, I hadn't really been sleeping well in the weeks leading up to production start.
Plus, I'd been visualizing the film for at the last five months. My brain was tired and I'd yet to even arrive at the location.
I made the journey just fine. It was an interesting drive. Much of the time, I listened to artists Run the Jewels and tried to focus on everything that wasn't the film itself. RTJ pumped me up. I felt like I was going to make something great.
I knew my mind needed a break, and I also knew I'd be spending the next four days breathing and assembling the film that was in my head. So, I jammed out on the way and meditated.
*Click HERE to watch the promotional video we shot for Sun and the successful Indiegogo campaign that backed our production!*
I was to arrive before everyone. My intention was to get my living area setup done then rest before everyone got there. Well, all was fine and well until I started thinking about being alone in the house.
Once I got to the property, the parents of Sun's director/writer/producer, Kong Thao, arrived and set up some toiletries they'd bought for us for the shoot. The house is traditional, definitely run down, and is also in the middle of a remodel.
So, half of the house was new, the other half looked like the house from The Conjuring. The attic was especially disturbing, though relatively uneventful a space, so long as you didn't dwell on how it looked like every horror movie you'd ever seen that took place in an attic.
Once Kong's parents left, isolation began to kick in. You see, I've never liked darkness and living in the country was something I hadn't done in about 7 years.
In all actuality, I didn't really like living in the country. It was the overall anonymity of the darkness that troubled me. The rural, Colonial-built, white-on-green trimmed house felt alive from the cracks and pops and cobwebs and dust.
I let my fear overtake me. And, by the time the first car arrived, I was in full panic mode. The black Cadillac, all long, low, and funeral-like pulling in could've been icing on the shit-cake, but it was instead my friend and Sun's Gaffer/Grip, Aaron Damron, who'd arrived ahead of schedule. I was rescued.
I rested and finally relaxed and Aaron and myself began what would be several talks about the film over the weekend.
Kong came with equipment and food, and went. I awoke the next morning to bacon in the refrigerator.
Thursday, March 1st, Production Day 1
I'd told everyone I'd make breakfast for the start of production and to bring an appetite. They didn't disappoint. I fried 3 pounds of bacon and 16 scrambled eggs. The crew of more than a dozen made short work of the food and production officially began in the kitchen of the house.
This first day of shooting was smooth, but there's always a groove to find in having that many people running around. It was definitely a frenetic and eventful start littered with people who had promised to help months ago and called that morning to quit. We scrambled to make workflow's easier with fewer people. It could've been a troubled start and a sign of things to come, but it turned out rather opposite. I cover the people who bailed day-of later in this essay.
Day 1 was really the best day for me to set the tonal quality of the film. I was going for somber, reserved, warm yet dark. The cinematography and overall look of the film will be something of a mix of Logan and Book of Eli, two films which inspired my wonderful director Kong to create the story we shot.
The film's title gives insight into the stylistic choices I offer as cinematographer. I wholly utilized the sun to create light and ambient quality to the scenes. We began by shooting the scenes into windows in the house, and adding as much tungsten coloration to any setup lights we had.
I think the film looks tremendous. Light and style are my workflow for the film, so take that comment about the look as is. We shot directly into the sun to create lens flares. Some people hate them and I totally get it. The TV series The Flash uses digital lens flares on-screen when no such light is actually seen on screen or in the periphery of the frame.
We didn't intend to shoot anything that needed to be fixed in post-production. The lighting was directional and came from a specific place in the film's world. The light came from a definable source. In my mind, the sun is a character of its own within the film. The sun is always lighting the hero's path. The sun is an emotional support for the hero.
The sun is the third most important character in Sun, behind the hero and the supporting actor. Day one wrapped with I think 2 hours remaining in our schedule, so we had plenty of time to relax, play video games, to get to know each other outside of who we'd worked with before.
Friday, March 2nd, Production Day 2
There is a positional hierarchy in filmmaking. It's like every job, in all honesty. The big difference is, when you're working for free, some people don't believe in setting those tiers of power into concrete understandings among the crew. The Executive Producer is the money person. As low-budget filmmakers, we often never have an EP. We pay to make these movies, not get paid. Not yet, at least.
The Producer, in many ways, is the #1 on a film set, though we often give the Director the #1 seat in small productions, as he/she is most often the leader of several other portions of the film, including writing and crew management. The latter perfectly describes this film set. Kong was the writer, producer and director, and his word was final below no one.
Where I fall in line is #2 as cinematographer. He and I began assembling this film in October of last year. He asked me about every person he hired before he made the decision.
He considers me his contomporary and I'm grateful for that. This film is as much mine as it is his, though I concede on decisions made because he's ultimately the person who has done the greatest amount of work to get the film made.
I really answer to the director only. It's his vision he's hired me to complete, after all. It's not as restrictive a creative position as it sounds. I have a specific style that Kong likes, and he hires me to fulfill his desires. I do the film the way I want to, and he signs off on the decisions. It's the Kong & Jed w/ Friends Show.
I will work on my friends projects and be only what they want me to be. I don't need a seat of power in order to be wooed by the idea of production. I just need to be treated fairly. But, who doesn't like having a little power?
Day 2 was a day where we had a #6 in power decide they'd try to usurp the power structure. I won't go into detail about who this person is, or what it is they do. This mention is really just for the crew to nod in agreement over and keep it moving. It became apparent after fifteen minutes of this person being on set, they had their own idea how we should run the show. We squashed that because that's what we do.
What happened after this person tried to take the power dynamic over was a deflation of ego. The 12 or so of us on set were deflated, shooting hard sequences in 30-degree weather, and were just wore out with the day.
We all had to be rallied to get back into the swing of things to finish the night. Kong came in with his wonderful voice and put his power firmly back into place, motivating all of us in the instance.
We started our day with character introduction shots outside when the weather was still good. The nature of the shoot that day was the intro's took place during the day and the big sequence took place at night. If I could've flipped those around knowing what I know now, I totally would have. The day might have been easier.
We started strong at 11am that day and we wrapped at 2am the following day. It was a grueling experience. Though, I do look back on the day fondly. That's a strange dichotomy.
To top the recap off, I had made it known to everyone that I was having heart arrhythmia for the first time.
And, to be on the lookout for anything I didn't immediately see happening to my skin or body would be what I needed from them for the day. I felt awful, though I was able to do my work.
I believe stress was the culprit in the pattering of my heart, and I've determined to see a doctor in the coming days. Have no fear, I'm getting healthcare checkups.
Saturday, March 3rd, Production Day 3
Saturday morning, I had what became affectionately referred to as "breakfast beers" while hanging out with our lead actor, Raymond Roberson, outside while we talked about our favorite movies as kids. It was at this time I received one righteous sunburn on my head.
The burn was so prominent it became the joke of the day when making fun of me. I not-so-secretly loved the attention. I'd had such a rough day on Friday, I went to bed immediately after we wrapped shooting for the day, so I determined myself to have two beers for breakfast, hence "breakfast beers".
Kong and I love to keep the air light. We love jokes, video games, beer and merriment.
By Saturday morning, I was both ecstatic we had two excellent days of footage in the bag, and also kind of depressed the weekend would soon be over.
I truly felt like I'd had a family reunion with nearly 30 people, some of which I'd only met that weekend.
The call sheet (intended workload form) for Saturday looked insane. It had the most intricate shooting schedule. We were shooting the climactic fight sequence which involved a two-camera shooting system to cover ground.
Because we wrapped Friday's shoot half an hour early and Saturday's call time was late afternoon, we all got some much needed rest. I was ready to tear through the day.
Because a friend dropped out of production an hour after Thursday's call time, and since he was one of our actors, we had to resource our tremendous talent pool and pull the gaffer over to act in a few scenes.
My workload increased since we now needed a gaffer. It's natural for me to gaff given the position I have as cinematographer.
The gaffer answers to the cinematographer, the cinematographer to the director, so goes the hierarchy. So, I am an adept gaffer by practice and I knew exactly what Kong wanted to see from my framing and colorization, so I jumped in and filled that role.
Joe Stearns, my camera operator, knows my "look". He understands the angles I want, the depth of field, and to what degree I want things focused. He is tremendously talented at operating a camera and he's an intent listener. We cooked our way through Saturday's production with the workflow set like it was.
Kong's dad fed us lo mein noodles and gave us some of his homemade lotus alcohol, some kind of clear liquor infused with a giant lotus flower.
It's a tremendous beverage, but don't drink more than a shot if ever you try it. It's a potent mix.
I was nervous about the fight choreography and couldn't eat. Our gaffer, Aaron, took initiative as now-actor for the film in place of the man that didn't show up Thursday. Using Aaron meant that I had to take over lighting the fight choreography.
My workload increased three-fold since Joe, my camera operator, needed to work directly off of my framing and colorization. It was a trying time, though we all made it.
This is a "forgive and never forget" moment, in my opinion. I forgive my friend for backing out, and I won't forget the 8 hours I worked as three people to replace the workflow he had promised to fulfill over four months ago when he signed on.
I don't take lightly being left because of emotional trouble or lack of money. There were at least a dozen crew members that could have picked the actor up and supported him during the production. Instead, he desired self-preservation, which I understand, and will not forget the choice he made to make an entire production scramble to replace him.
After we finished our last shot of the day, I laid down on the ground for five minutes and stared at the stars. That's all I could offer the world after working without stop in unison with others to get the scene shot.
The constellation Orion seems to always be what I see first when I gaze. I don't know if that's significant, but it feels like it should be. I took an extensive trip to the bathroom and then had some dinner. The third day was over.
Sunday, March 4th, Production Day 4
Day 4 was a much easier time in terms of workflow, yet provided its own set of challenges. We were all really happy to have completed three successful days of shooting and simultaneously all wanted to go home and sleep.
I am still feeling this strange dichotomy between wanting to wake up to a film shoot every morning, and being so glad I'm in bed with my puppy dog curled up against me. I can't imagine living a life without filmmaking anymore, and I'm also so glad for the breaks I get.
This day was cleanup and goodbyes. We managed to shoot two scenes and I believe 9 shots in just a couple of hours, without sacrificing my cinematography to do so.
We were all a little bit scatterbrained, though. I'm fairly positive some kind of spirit spoke into my ear during a shot we were taking in a shed. I am still bewildered by what I heard that no one else on set said they heard.
We wanted to party because of our accomplishments. I think I speak for the core group and my closest friends in saying, at the last moments of day 4, we were all damned sure we'd just made a movie that would begin to advance our careers in ways we couldn't possibly guess.
Well, that remains to be seen, as the film has yet to enter the editing phase. But, I stand confidently in the notion we did something truly spectacular.
I've seen in the actions of my friends backing out just how badly I want to make movies. When one of them is crippled by a personal issue, I turn away and back to film. When one is having a mental breakdown, I keep making the cinematography production log.
When a person doesn't show up because he never wanted to be there in the first place, I'm looking for someone who can do his job better and looking to them to be my next sound mixer. I hate to be this way.
But... I don't really hate to be this way. Living with their issues doesn't make my movie. I must prevail.
I have bigger goals than personal comfort and I have zero children as of this writing, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Or, think of it as pepper on ice cream. However you want to take it, do so accordingly.
If you couldn't tell, a common theme in my essay is how people stiffed the production because their lives got in the way.
I will let go of my issues with them soon. Just know I was challenged emotionally by these folks, people I thought had my best interest at heart, people I thought shared in my love of filmmaking, when they lied to me and the production about being on set, or just simply made a decision to stay home because it felt more comfortable.
I'm glad I have my mom to bounce my life issues across. My production was plagued with flaky people in front of and behind the camera. Not the people you will come to find in the credits/in front of the camera by the time the film is debuted, to be clear.
We had a sound engineer locked for four months until the day before production started. He called and said he'd never taken off work and just couldn't be on set. Well, that's fine. Get paid, that's the game. But, he signed on in November and quit less than 24 hours before we started shooting, as well as using a false promise to get the time off.
A producer that signed on early never really... produced anything. Kong did that, as well as write and direct and run sound and slate and d.i.t. and catering.
I was set designer, cinematographer and slate and wardrobe designer.
Let me start by saying Kong and I need people, and we are well equipped to fulfill our vision, even when people don't show up. If it took us 40 days to shoot a movie and it was just us and a couple actors, we'd find a way. It's not like that for us because it's more like a core group of six that will ride AND die for each other, and then all these other spectacular humans who wanna jump on, too.
The difference between a clique and a family is inclusion.
We lost two actors, one early in the game, a few weeks ago, because he didn't get time off. I get that. Another actor contacted me an hour after call time (start of production) on Thursday with a who's who of bad circumstances. Yeah, I get that, too. But... an hour after call time? That's not hot.
We had another person who's job in the film industry required more than he'd anticipated and his four-day workflow clocked in at a thin 7 hours of time spent on set. He's a hard worker and money is what we're all working toward. I just wish he'd been more clear on not being part of production on Thursday, Saturday or Sunday, instead of leaving us guessing until the final hour.
I don't dwell a lot on paying attention to the bulls*it people do to others. I mean, it's in my mind a lot, though. It certainly calls into question my relationship going forward from how they treated not just me, but 20 other people by not showing up.
What they said they'd do and how we had to all cover that work, that added time and man hours in their absence. I'd describe one such instance from the weekend, but after I broke it down to every moving part, I glossed over. And, I know it would be savantly hyper-focused and uninteresting, so I'll spare anyone reading this.
The gravity of being a flake, or being required to work and having other duties to fulfill in your life isn't lost on me. I think the real reasons why they didn't show up are mixed. It's not wholly "I have this problem", "I have to work", or "I'm unreliable". It's more like "My belief in whatever you're doing doesn't outweigh my need to do whatever I want", or "man, this sounds cool, but I'd rather go to work and get paid". Again, I'm playing the grey area as much as I can here because I understand all parties circumstances or excuses.
I said all that to say, my mom reminds me that I don't have to rely on those people anymore, and to focus more on the people who didn't let their laziness, life occurrences, or indifference get in the way.
I won't lump making money into this, so just mentioning those whose work got in the way of their promises is just to show the example of how vastly different reasons for breaking promises can find you when you need that person the most.
The reality is: we did the work without them, and I'll likely not think to call them again, regardless if it were an excuse, life expectancy or their job that stopped them. I, of course, do not put these people in league with other who have to cancel due to tragedies that take place. I don't make promises I don't intend to keep. And, if I have to back out, I do it before the day-of/after the expected workflow is required.
Money waits for no man, and neither will I. There's someone hungrier to work and better equipped in the world. My mom teaches me this every day by reminding me to leave them behind and find the good ones.
Cheers to the good ones.
Kong and I love that so many people went to bat for our film. I'm in the process of writing a thank-you letter to the crew, so please know I have taken the time to speak on the good things as well as the bad.
I never want to leave people with the impression that I dwell on the negative. I am a pessimist by nature, and I fight that by living a dichotomous life, stuck somewhere between the negative and the positive.
I am confident Sun will become something I stand and look at in many years and say with my friends "look at what we accomplished". It was a truly engaging experience. I left so much out of this recollection, and those memories are for me in many ways.
I didn't use my cell phone much during production other than to get a hold of people that I needed immediately, or to check on my family at home.
Kong and I held a filmmaking camp in The Middle of Nowhere, Missouri, and came out on the other end a stronger, more resilient, more focused team, with a hell of a lot of new family members.
We put on a clinic of masterful cinematography and human behavior through our willingness to complete a vision.
We maintained the repore of the crew by being calm, kind, and compassionate.
We hope to see this film make its way into South By Southwest Film Festival or Sundance some day. If, in the very least, we get attention that meets our expectations, we will be satisfied. But, we will never be complacent in our accomplishments.
We will never be complicit in the decisions we make that affect others. And, we're going to keep making movies together for as far as I can see into this bright future of ours.
We will prevail. Vive la cinema.