Things I learned in my first major production
Earlier this summer we finished major photography on a documentary on Mammoth Cave http://www.blackguidesofmammothcave.com/ There were just four of us on the shoot. Myself, my partner and filmmaker Phoebe Frear, Jerry Frear, and Steven Barnes. Steve was also a producer, but primarily served as the on screen talent for the shoot. Jerry Frear came along to help out and hauled gear, did miscellaneous tasks, and served as sound guy. This note is a list of observations on the process including things I knew ahead of time, and general points from the shoot itself.
1) Use the gear you have and don’t be a gear snob. I see posts by many people in groups who are gear snobs and won’t use anything cheap, homemade, or from a hardware store because it is beneath them. If you go out into the field, especially at a location like this hundreds of miles from home, go with the gear you have. If it does the job you need done, what does it matter how much it cost? We had a mixture of gear from BMPCC with expensive lenses, to a $4000 Allsteady 7 three axis gimbal, to stuff I picked up at the local dollar store. If we needed an extra tripod for something, I had the cheap one from Walmart or Staples I my trunk. I knew I wanted a close-up of a historical tombstone in a cemetery that was locked up. I threw a 500 mm mirror lens into my bag because that was the length needed for the shot and we didn’t have a long telephoto high end glass one. We wanted a shot of a train display with a slider. We mounted Phoebe’s slider on one of the tripods, Jerry and I braced the ends of the slider as Phoebe moved the camera. A good heavy tripod would have been better, but we didin’t have one with us at the moment, so we made do and got the shot with what we had.
2) Lights – you need them. We shot inside the cave and if you don’t realize it caves are dark. There isn’t convenient side lighting coming from out of scene wherever there is something worth showing in the shot. One story we were told was of a crew from a TV network who wanted to shoot a segment on the “Wild Cave Tour” in the cave and did not bring any lights. They assumed that there would be electric lights in place for them to shoot scenes. They went away with some shots from parts of the regular tourist trails where some minimal electric lights are present, but nothing from the Wild Cave Tour itself. We knew we were going to be miles back in the cave for some sequences where there were no lights and where there were no electric outlets, so we brought lights. Make a reasoned assessment of how much lighting will be available for your shot, then bring more lights than you think you will need. The trip back to Echo River was three miles one way, with electric lights available part for the first mile. I had been there before so I knew the passage was a fairly open and easy walk. I bought us all LED headlamps from Big Lots, some full sized LED flashlights from Big Lots and some mini LED flashlights to stick in our pockets if needed. (Are you sensing a theme?). If we were expecting crawls or something more intense, I would have gotten more heavy duty lights. There were no lights in the cave. For our shots we brought Phoebe’s two battery powered LED video lights (not sure what brand) and stands. I brought my two Newar CN-160 video lights and we cranked those suckers up to light the scenes. (You can’t really use flashlights in combo with the video lights because they make hot spots in the lighting where their beam hits.) In the historic section of the cave with minimal electric lights, we turned the lights on that were available. Vickie Carson (NPS) and I stuck the Coleman Lanterns we had where we thought they would be best, and laid out our video lights to add highlights where needed. The point is Lights, Lights, Lights – make sure you have them.
3) Work with talented people and let them do what they best. In this process I did the historical research, coordinated with the Park for permits, made the hotel arrangements. I wrote the script (Phoebe wrote revisions as well). I tried to make sure we got to where we needed to be with the right equipment when we got there. I made sure Steve knew what he was to say on camera and knew what he was to read as a narrator while at a location. Once there and the lights were placed and people in position, I let Phoebe do her thing. She directed lights to be adjusted to best work with what she saw in her camera. She moved Jerry where she needed him for the sound. She moved Steve around to get the placement just right. Then she did the interviews with Steve, and the retakes as needed. I tried to let her do her job without obsessing, which is hard for me. One of the major directors (maybe Tarentino?), was asked about how his films always had this signature look? How did he achieve it? He told the interviewer that he hired talented people. Early on he realized his job as a director was not to control every detail of every shot, but to coherently explain his vision for a scene and the look he wanted for the scene to the talented people he hired and then to let them make that look happen. His job was to explain his vision. Phoebe and I had worked on the script and had spent hours in the car driving to Kentucky talking about the shoot. We both knew what we wanted out of a scene, so she did not need me fussing over her. Besides I didn’t want her to kill me.
When we were at the Bottomless Pit, I asked at one point for Vickie to turn the lights off so the scene would only be lit by the light lantern as we lowered and raised it up and down the pit on a rope. Jerry made some comment later about this being the only time he heard me ask for something. The comment took me aback. I know when we walked up on a scene I generally suggested where and from what direction it should be shot. I picked out shots I wanted to B-roll. We shot an intro at the Mammoth Cave sign outside of the Visitors Center. I wanted the motion and sound of the people walking around in the background to provide mood for the scene. It took more takes because of noise at inopportune times, but we got it done. I have video of me asking Steve to read the next paragraph in the sequence because they were going to be back-to-back in the completed video and I wanted the same background sound. In general at shot locations Steve would do an on camera section of a few lines, then the rest of the segment would be completed as a voice-over on top of stills or video. There was specific information that needed to be included. If in his on camera narration he varied from the script by a few words or a phrase, this was fine so long as everything was there and it sounded good. I know in one case there was a particular phrasing I wanted and I asked Steve to redo that line with that particular phrasing. When we did the long sequence with the Allsteady going down Gothic Avenue, I wanted the shot to start from behind the columns at the Bridal Altar formation. There were a couple of writings on the ceiling I pointed out that I wanted included in the shots….
So I guess this is a good thing. I did provide input on setting up shots and other aspects in the process, but in a non-confrontational way. We were collaborating rather than me trying to dictate my ideas to equal partner. Phoebe was receptive to the comments I made and I can’t think of anything I suggested that was not done. I do feel bothered that perhaps these contributions were not recognized as such.
4) Interviews. I am not Charlie Rose. In my first interview with Roger Brucker, I stuttered and stumbled through it. I still am not good, but I am getting better. But there are some comments about interviewing that need to be made. I wanted to do the interviews in such a way that my voice and questions can be edited out of the video. I asked the people to whom I was talking to paraphrase my questions as part of their answer, so that the response was self-contained. One thing I did for some people, and should have for everyone, was to send out a note outlining the questions I wanted to ask and relevant information (such as dates and names) that might come up in the interview. I was not trying any yellow journalism in which I wanted to catch a crooked politician in a lie, I wanted a smooth interview in which the response to the questions included the information I wanted to include in the video. Most people when they are interviewed have the deer in the headlight look, even those people who talk to the public on a daily basis. (I am sure I have that look as well.) If they have an idea of what questions you are going to ask this problem is ameliorated somewhat. I sat in a chair beside the camera, so that the person being interviewed was not forced to stare at the camera lens, but could look at me sitting there – a person to talk to rather than a camera. Go ahead and ask leading questions because it really helps if the interviewee actually understands what you are asking. Another tip is to ask them questions that are easy to answer intermixed with the more complex questions. Ask them about things that are of interest to them. One of the best responses from guide Jackie Wheet when interviewed was about an incident when the boat on Echo River was swamped by a rowdy party putting out all of the lights but the guide lamp. His face lit up when he said that a prominent politician yelled to the other people in the boat, to do exactly what the guide says or we are all surely going to die! It was a story he related to and certainly helped him over the tension of the rest of the interview. It may be bad form, but as an interviewer talk to the person you are interviewing. Add your own comments and observations occasionally as the interview progresses so that the interviewee can feel that it is a conversation with another person, rather than just him on the spot. Finally, not matter how carefully you prepare, there always is something that the person being interviewed wants to say that you did not ask them about. Always say something to the effect of “What question should I have asked you, but did not?” Is there something you want to add that we haven’t covered?” There always is something they want to add, and often is it something really good that you would have otherwise missed, if you hadn’t asked this open ended question.
5) Don’t freak out if something goes wrong, keep moving and find a way to fix it. There is no doubt that everything will not go perfectly. If you make a mistake acknowledge it and keep going. If someone else makes a mistake figure out how to make it work, how to fix it, or someway to redo whatever went wrong. Nobody is perfect. I think it was Dan Fouts, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, who was asked by a reporter “What do you say in the huddle to a receiver who drops a wide open pass?” Dan replied,” I don’t say anything to him because he didn’t drop it on purpose.” His goal was to move on to the next play. There are harsh words for people who display a lack of effort, but he knew nobody was perfect. Sometimes he threw a bad pass, sometimes a pass was dropped, or a block was missed. I think there needs to be some of the same mentality in filmmaking. Do the best you can, work hard, and don’t freak out when an honest mistake happens.
6) Schedule breaks for yourself and actors (and to give yourself a chance to run back to the hotel for things you have forgotten). Things will be forgotten. People need bathroom breaks. They need something to drink. Schedule breaks. You can work long hours, but the mood and the effort put forth will be better if cast and crew know you are trying to treat them fairly. I scheduled a break in the middle of the 8 hour shoot in the Historic section of Mammoth Cave. I had forgotten a length of rope I needed for another shot. We had time in the schedule to run back to the hotel to grab the missing item, and time to grab a chicken pot pie for Steve at the drive through, before heading back to the park. This scheduled break saved the day.
7) If other people have ideas – listen and use their experience to get better shots and to make a better video. One example that comes to mind were suggestions made during the Historic Section shoot by Vickie Carson, Public Information Officer for the park. We were not the first people to shoot video in the cave (Just the best) and Vickie had ideas of what had made good shots in the past. She had ideas of where some of the video lights could be put to achieve a good effect in some shots based upon her experience. Of course we listened to her suggestions. They helped us make better shots. Not every suggestion you get will be useful, but it is worthwhile to listen anyway and take away from conversation anything that will help. I picked Steve Barnes up at the Louisville airport and spent the next hour and a half doing a monolog about the history of the cave and the people we were talking about in the video project. Steve’s ears perked up when I mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson. That was a writer who visited the cave whose name was widely recognizable. He suggested that having something by Emerson near the beginning of the video would increase its marketability. When we got back to the hotel, I looked up my Emerson material from the cave and added a segment from his writings to the script.
8) Expertise – if you have a low budget film project and someone brings their high end camera and video stabilization device to the shoot with them, first applaud. Then you must realize they probably know more about operating that particular piece of equipment and its capabilities that you do. Tell them what you want the shot to accomplish, then let them get the shot. Telling them things they already know about equipment you know little about isn’t particularly helpful. I did not fall into this trap, but being an obsessive control freak it wasn’t easy.
9) Sound continuity – not only must you strive to get good sound, think about how the bits of sound are going to fit together in the video. Shoot and record all of the footage, both on camera material and off camera narration, so that the background sound matches for segments that are juxtaposed in the film and are intended to represent the same location. We shot Steven’s on camera material at the Mammoth Cave sign, then we shot the next paragraph of off camera narration at the same location because it was intended to be a continuous piece when edited together. We did the same at the Old Guides Cemetery, at the cave entrance, and at the underground tuberculosis huts. Same position for the narrator and microphone so that the background sounds fit together.
10) Figure out how to use your GPS. I made a few wrong turns in various trips even though I a good with maps. I bought a GPS unit to avoid any wrong turns for the shoot this summer. It was funny, when I picked Steve Barnes up at the airport I punched in the location for the hotel Cave City and we headed off. The directions shown on the GPS unit did not match with what the road signs were indicated, but shrugged and followed the GPS directions. Unfortunately the GPS unit kept wanting to direct me back to the airport rather than where we wanted to go. I pulled of the side of the airport road to figure it out. Steve asked, “New unit?” “Yes.” So we both sat there for a few minutes pushing buttons until we figured out how to convince it to take us back to Cave City rather than to the airport once again. If you are going out into the field GPS is a great tool to have, both for in the car when driving, or when walking in the woods.
11) Be flexible in what you are doing, in terms of shot sequence or even specific shots. As I said before things don’t always mesh together as you originally planned, and you need to be flexible enough to make things work anyway. In this project I scheduled the shoot for the second weekend of August. I contacted people I wanted to interview, made arrangements for the permits. As the dates rolled around people I wanted to interview one after another had scheduling conflicts and could not be there on the dates originally planned. I had wanted Steven Barnes to do some of the interviews and to interact with the people being interviewed. If they were not going to be there when Steve and the rest of us were, that plan wasn’t going to work particularly well. I adapted. I went down on a separate trip and grabbed follow up interviews with Jerry Bransford. Greg Sorvig drove down from Indianapolis so I could interview him on this earlier trip. The plan for Steve to do some of these key interviews was abandoned because of these scheduling problems. We decided to not have him do any of the interviews. I did all of them instead, and Steven became an on camera and off camera narrator for the script. He did exceptionally well in the role. At the end of the shoot, after the final shots at the cave entrance, Steve suggested that since the other interviewees weren’t there, perhaps we could interview him. We jumped at the idea. We shot the interview in a quiet woodland setting a couple tenths of a mile away at a viewing platform at the entrance to Dixon Cave. We got some great stuff out of the interview. Be open to opportunities as they present themselves.
12) Time management. I had to apply to Mammoth Cave for a video shooting permit many, many months ahead of time. In the application you were required to indicate where you would be shooting and a time schedule for the shoot. In put in the application an unreasonably tight shooting schedule that included every place I thought we might want to get video. Vickie made me tone it down some, but still I had lots of bells and whistles in the permit application. When we got down to the cave and got a better feel for the time for some of the shots after the Echo River trip, Phoebe, Jerry, and I went over the script and created a less ambitious shooting plan, but one that included all of the key elements we needed to shoot. We dropped some scenes that would have been really cool, but really did not fit well into the narrative structure of the films and their inclusion would have required more time than we had available. In some cases a particular location will only be available for a set amount of time. That was our situation. We needed to pare down our ambitions to something we could actually do in the time allotted. I swapped one scene for another that would be quicker to shoot. I had wanted to shoot the beginning of the corkscrew passage at its bottom. Its discovery by one of the guides enabled them to take visitors from the lower reaches of the cave, through the corkscrew, back to the upper levels of the cave without backtracking several miles of trails. We were not going to have time to get to the bottom of the corkscrew. It was important to the story of one guide in particular. What we could do however, was to spend ten minutes to grab video shots of the upper end of the corkscrew to add the historical stills we already had collected.
13) Weather. If you are going to be shooting outside, weather is always a consideration. It isn’t always bad weather that can cause problems. My plan was if the weather was good, to shoot the surface shots needed on Saturday so they would be done no matter what weather happened on Sunday. Everybody thought this was a good plan. It was. There was an unforeseen problem. I had asked Steven to dress well, but not in a suit for his on camera work, both on the surface and in the cave. He brought a nice long sleeved shirt and vest to wear, and it looked great. It would be warm enough for the in cave stuff that he would not need another jacket. The look would be consistent. However, it was a beautiful, sunny day. It was hot. It was humid. Steve was roasting wearing the outfit on the surface. We grabbed two scenes and then I decided to bag it for the day so he did not suffer from heat stroke. Fortunately the weather the next day was good, and we were able to get the surface footage we needed then. So good weather caused us a problem.
14) B-roll. Don’t forget or blow off the B-roll. Phoebe conscientiously shot B-roll at whatever location we were shooting. If I made a suggestion for a B-roll shot, Phoebe shot it. If Jerry made a suggestion, Phoebe shot it. If Vickie made a suggestion, Phoebe shot it. This is how it should be done. B-roll is always good to have because you are going to need it at some point before the editing is complete. If someone had an idea, the idea was shot. It is not like we were paying for film stock. It is video. The footage is essentially free and all it takes is a few moments of time to shoot it. We also did ambient sound at various locations in long enough durations to fill in the annoying gaps sometimes that often occur during editing. Get ambient sound, always.
14.5) Edited/Addendum. I wanted add this observation to the previously published blog. When we arrived in Cave City for the shoot, it was pretty hectic and stressful for me. I was on the phone and emailing people about interviews. I was talking with the NPS about our permits and potential scheduling problems as they were dealing with illness among the guide ranks. I was editing and revising last minute changes to the script. Phoebe was editing and revising my edits and revisions. After one round of the revisions Jerry said he go would get copies printed. A few minutes later he reappeared with the magically printed documents. I guess the hotel had printer services that could be used by guests. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal to someone reading this blog, but for me it was. If something needed printed, Jerry would take care of it. It was one thing in the maelstrom of stress of last minute preparations I did not need to worry about. It was something I could delegate and never give it a second thought. That was a big deal for me.
15) Work with people whose goal is to make things go smoothly. Steven Barnes was very professional throughout the entire process. He knew ahead of time that our crew would be just three people. I tried to present ourselves and our limited experience when inviting him to participate in process in the best light, but he understood he was not working with a full blown experienced and professional crew as he had worked with in Hollywood. He said that his goal in the process was to make everything go as smoothly as possible. Professionalism was reflected in his actions. When he was doing his on camera narration, if a correction was needed in what was said, or if Phoebe asked for another take, Steve simply nodded and did it again. I can’t emphasize enough how much his goal of making things go smoothly actually made things go smoothly. These are the kind of people you need to find to work with, and the kind of person you need to be yourself when working on a project.
These are my thoughts and observations.
Edward Forrest Frank