ruminations on a series of unrelated events
Today we shot a walking/running scene for Back Space. Chelsea, our protagonist, (which is both the actor and the character’s name) has just been confronted by her publisher about something she has done. She leaves the office and tries to get a grip on the situation. Her walk turns into a run before she arrives at the location of the final scene. We shot in downtown Indy, on Alabama St, and then at a second location north of 38th street. It sounds like a rather simple shoot, shoot a woman running down the sidewalk, but it is remarkable how quickly something can become complex.
Yesterday someone loaned me a trike and I extended the back platform and strapped a stool to it. I planned to shoot backwards off the trike with Chelsea running toward camera. And this trick for getting our tracking shots worked for the most part. The difficulty was created by the fact that I wanted a very shallow depth of field to isolate Chelsea from her surroundings, (That works both psychologically for the character at that moment and practically because I hate background clutter and want to see her pop from a soft background.) So I put 7 stops of ND in front of the lens. Well when you are being ridden down a bumpy sidewalk, going in and out of sunlight and can hardly see the screen, it makes focussing a wide-open lens something of a challenge. Of course the trick is to keep the actor the same distance from the bike the whole time. Well that is way easier said the done. Geoff Coryell, who has done a lot of ACing on the film, rode the bike and of course he can’t keep looking backwards over his shoulder to gauge the distance. And Chelsea, who I thought would be the logical choice to gauge the distance, has to be in such a state of genuine emotion that she really can’t be thinking about something as banal and unemotional as her distance to the bike. So that leaves me telling Geoff “bike faster, now slower, now faster, now as fast as you can.” And of course all that is vague and time delayed. So it became very logistically challenging, and that doesn’t even take into consideration all the bumps. But after several runs down the street I had to convince myself that we had what I needed to make the scene work.
(After our first run down the block Chelsea mentioned that nobody was staying with the gear back where we started. When Geoff and I biked back we immediately noticed that the lens case was gone [with 2 expensive Zeiss lenses in it] and nobody was in sight running off with it. We immediately had heart attacks. Panic ensued as we tried to figure out which way to run. Geoff was off the bike about to take off running when Chelsea arrived and asked what was happening. We all told her in unison and she pointed to a doorway where she moved the case for safe keeping. Whew, complete relief. And then the bike did a wheelie with me strapped to the back holding the camera. Good times.)
Now it was time for Geoff (who graciously volunteered) to ride the trike north to 38th street while we drove. We found a nice shaded street to continue the action as the character ran from downtown urban to residential urban. I put on a longer lens, because apparently the already shallow depth of field wasn’t challenging enough for me, and we shot close-ups of face and feet running down a very bumpy sidewalk. I also got a nice full-body tracking shot down the street as Chelsea ran full speed (in boots.) All of this might sound really mechanical because it doesn’t mention the acting at all. Don’t be fooled into thinking someone running doesn’t involve acting. Like I already mentioned, her character was supposed to be pretty emotional. So Chelsea had the challenge of getting her head in that space and then holding on to those feelings as we got all technical on her and started rolling down the sidewalk. Unfortunately my concentration in shooting was more on whether she was framed well and in focus and not necessarily on the small details of her expressions. Of course we review the footage on set, but still it can be hard to really appreciate the performance in the moment while looking at it outside on a glarey monitor.
After I got home I sat with the camera and reviewed all the footage while trying to edit it in my head. It was then that I noticed some things. For one how genuine the performance felt. As a watched and re-watched the third take of Chelsea running down Alabama St, a chill went down my spine. Everything suddenly worked. There for a few precious moments it all came together, the performance, the movement, the focus, the framing. Everything gelled. And it felt more real to me than anything we’ve shot to date. Here was a raw take, not yet edited into the context of the film, yet it packed a tangible punch that truly resonated and exceeded what I hoped we would get. But I also noticed something strange about the color. Something was off, maybe everything didn’t gel after all. I realized Chelsea’s green sweater was gray, and her gray shirt was mauve, and her black pants were burgundy. And the grass was brown. How in the world didn’t I notice this on set? Because her skin tone looked pretty normal and that is what I look at. So what was going on here? I noticed bushes that I swore were green looked completely rusty. I returned to the location and yes indeed the bushes were green just like a thought. So I did a little investigating and learned that the Tiffen ND filters I was using actually aren’t that great. And while they block visible light, as an ND should, they leak a bit of infrared light. So with two thick ND filters in front of the lens I was really upping the light ratio in favor of infrared and consequently it sucked a lot of green of of the shots. Well, that might have been a happy accident the scene could actually use. While I might never have chosen to color grade the shots like that, the look has really grown on me and is easily justifiable in terms of what her character is going through. So maybe with a little color grading I can dial it in just right.