Friday, March 30, 2012

Stupidity on Set: A Production's Greatest Wildcard

The set-building stage of the production has several stupidities that I keep seeing over and over again.
Crew misusing toxic chemicals around unsuspecting crew members: I once was sprayed in the face with stay-put. Now I'll probably grow horns. Oh wait, looks like I already am;)

Electrical and air cords all over the place: Once I saw a 12 step ladder get tangled up in a cable and it fell over, hitting a crew member in the head.

Crew ignoring painters tape across a set entrance: The floor's wet; they just painted it.

One of the saddest stupidities I keep seeing, however, is that one of being stupidly stubborn. Like the ratings system that is stubbornly resisting change, like the pot prohibition that is stubbornly preventing a viable economy: A design decision that is resisting a necesary revision because of, dare I say it, ego?

A  Designer that refuses to alter a design to accomodate shootoff issues, will most certainly cost the production an extra cost either in stand-by renovations or in post. A good Set Designer will be able to illustrate a shootoff issue on paper well before construction begins. If in doubt, ask the Set Designer for a camera section. Stupid extra production costs hurt.

It happens all the time.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Model of a Set That Caused A Massive Repaint

When I started in the Art Dept, I worked as an Art Dept Assistant for years. I was fortunate to have reeceived several model making assignments. Models are particularly useful when building an organic set, like a cave, that would otherwise be hard to draw.
One model in particular was, however,  a hard lesson learned.

I had built this beautiful model and painted it. The Designer approved it and it went to the shop. Later he told me that it needed to be repainted to look like a different rock type. I went down to the shop to paint it as asked. I based out the model in black and left it to dry before adding my light greys. My own personal model method.

Then 'Film" happened. I can't remember exactly the string of events, but I diddn't get back to the model in time.

Suddenly I had one very upset Designer on my hands and a full size black set on the stage.

Models are great. But here's what I learned: make sure they are right when you leave them in the shop. Shop people take our designs very literally. And painters can cover a large area in no time with a spray machine.

 Right: My Model before the damned revision

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Helvetica is the Ikea of Fonts

Helvetica is the Ikea of fonts. It has its place; selectively. It sends a strong message. Its safe, its generic, its proven acceptable design, its corporate. But unless thats the message being conveyed in a scene; thats not what filmmaking is about. Avoid it like you avoid Comic Sans.

Fonts are important. If any of you have ever gone font hunting online, especially when trying to find 'that font', you know the thick forest of font I speak of.

Fonts can give away your period set in an instant. Likewise they can give away fake road signs. They can make a piece of artwork or graphic look amateur or professional. Sometimes we don't realise it; sometimes it just comes across as odd. Or bad design. Fonts are a look. The look is of an era. They need to belong. Sometimes they need to be recreated; sometimes you can closely fake them.

There's alot of free fonts out there. Be sure to check they are royalty-free/public domain if you are using them on a production.

Its really important to research the fonts you will be using for your project. Its easy to be fooled by an old-looking font if you aren't well rehearsed in font theory.

 Its one of those "little things".

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rant: Why I Love The Colour Copier

Its the new Art Dept Hi-Lo-Budget must have. A colour copier. If you can master it, it will prove to be a valuable ally in achieving the seemingly impossible. So much so, I think having one's own colour Copier/Fax/Scanner would be a great asset.

During my experiment in finding out how lousy an Art Director I was, I had great opportunity to work on Lo-Budget under crewed gigs. I noticed how the colour copier was being used for so many more things than one would initially assume. Not only that, the scanner was an indispensable tool for all the pre-production departments who needed to share reference materials etc.

We made newspaper articles and printed them; just big enough to cover a 1/4 of a double-page size, good enough for the c/u. We printed obsolete wallpaper to patch damage done at a location. We colour copied the ground for covering up markers for the animal scenes. Last minute signage, spray glued to foam-core. Last minute Brochures...

Sometimes visual reference is the quickest and most direct way to convey a description of something. Most of us in the Art Dept have scanners. For the many crew that don't, the ability to quickly scan and email an image to a supplier saves an immense amount of time over the long run.

Sometimes, however, the networked copier can become easily abused. 100 8.5x11 reference images are so easy to send to print. Often, while printing, someone else sends artwork. The prints get mixed up. Someone grabs someone else's. They re-print... it happens easily. A visible and comical 'Lost & Found" box actually is quite effective, btw.

More and more Productions are choosing to go digitally with websites. As a Set Designer I think this is great; just don't make access limited to elite crew, please. Access to all the location photos allows us to go in and look carefully for missing bits of information or measurements without having to go back to the Location.

One last perk? At the end of the show, I used to have to make a trip to the repro shop in order to get some nice prints of my work. Now I just hit send.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Art Director. The Toughest Role

The one constant throughout my career was transience. I worked with so many different Art Depts. I noticed after a while a common problem. The Art Directors were often questionable. Questionable in the way that they weren't doing a good job managing their crew.

It also looked like a tough job. Stuck in the office, no creativity, blame, late nights, all-nighters...

I was educated about the "Peter Principle" early on in my career. I think it may be part of the reason.
But the apparent general Art Dept problem hinted of more.

Most people enter the Art Dept because they are Artists. The Art Director on a large Production has a non-creative role. Most think that the logical path to breaking into Production Design is via Art Directing. This isn't true because of the Peter Principle. Combine the two scenarios and you've got a bunch of wanna-be creative Designer types playing the role of Art Director. (A better route is Art Assistant or Set Dec)

Good Art Directors don't want to be the Designer (hence rare), they want to make it happen seamlessly. They are good at their job. Therefore their heart and soul is into their position. Good Art Directors need to be mature enough to promote the lower talent around them without feeling threatened. Good Art Directors do this easily because they are secure that they play a valuable non-creative management role. They are indispensable.

If you're playing Art Director and you know you suck at it, don't do it. It will do your career more harm than good. Art Directors are a different charachter/personality than most Artists/Designers. Good Production Designers know this, hire accordingly and are those Designers that end up holding onto their Art Directors for years.

You're as good as your team.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Crash Course on Pencil Theory

Lead = Its actually Graphite.

We all use HB pencils. HB=Hard Black.

This is the mid range of pencil hardness/blacknes. The softer the lead, the blacker the pencil, the harder the lead the lighter the grey.

Generally soft range leads: 4B, 3B, 2B and B are usually found in an Artists tool kit, while B, HB, H, 2H, 3H and 4H are Draftsperson's tools. Soft leads are smudgy, lending themselves more to Art. It isn't cool to have smudgy draftings.

Line weight refers to the thickness of the line. Because 4H pencils can be kept the sharpest, and because they are the lightest, 4H would typically be used for .03-5 light construction lines. 3H, a shade dark enough to solidly print, yet still hard enough becomes the .05 dimenson lines and the note leaders. Some hatches are effective in 3H. 2H is for overall detail object lines, hatch, preliminary draft; .05 - .07. H is for hard object lines (openings), notes and render shading. .07-.09. HB should only be used selectively as it smudges. I use it for ground lines, overall object lines and titles.

Most Draftspersons operate on a 3 pencil range. Less will never look professional. 

Before mechanical pencils were invented the Draftsperson had to create the line weights by hand using hard/soft pencil techniques. The skill level a Draftsperson had in mastering line weights largely defined their success.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How I Learned The Hard Way How Not To Colour Copy

Shit. It always happens when theres a last minute rush job.

I learned the hard way not to colour copy multiple full colour brochures without alternating images.

It was a Friday night brainwave from one of my favourite Producers, one I wouldn't want to let down in a million years. I loved this guy. Of course I'll whip up a brilliant brochure at 6:00pm Friday night for an 8 am Saturday shoot.

Burnt out after a full week, the designing took all evening and into Saturday am.

After a frantic last minute graphic designing session, complete with shuttle/to set/from set approvals and disapprovals,
with less than an hour before the brochure was scheduled to shoot, I was given a final OK.

So then I completely blew it. I printed all of the side A's. The copier gummed up and after only printing about 8 copies it began spitting nasty blobs all over the prints. I had no time to go to a copy shop. There was nothing I could do to fix the copier. It was beyond me.

On Monday when the photocopy technician came to fix the copier, he told me that when copying multiple full colour images, to always alternate the image so that the same-colour inks dont collect repeatedly in the same spot on the rollers.

Luckily for me, We had the approved brochure. We used the salvageable single-sidded ones for BG.

The Producer still loves me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Is Going On In Front Of The Greenscreen?

Its a question that a Set Designer sometimes needs to address. Sometimes the PD doesn't know that the height of the Scenery becomes a money decision, not a design choice.

When drafting a Facade of a building, for example, this is usually a non-issue. The building is tall, the Actors safely in front of the Scenery. The trouble arises with a scene like an Arctic Ice Floe, or a rocky hill.

When the film goes into Post and the Vfx Artists remove the green (or blue)  to replace it with a background, it is very easy when the greenscreen butts up to the static scenery. When an Actor is in front of the greenscreen, each frame must be rotoscoped around the changing actions of the Actor. This adds a huge amount of extra work in Post.

When you are drafting BG scenery for the greenscreen, find out what the shot will be. If the scenery needs to be taller than the Actor, its really important to do a shoot-off calculation based on the camera placement and the floorplan, to ensure the scenery is tall enough.

Sometimes it can be a bit shocking to find out your BG Ice Floes need to be 8-10 feet tall.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jog Alot

Whether on location, or on stage, I have learned to incorporate jogs in the set walls.

Jogs add charachter to otherwise bland and awkward spans. Joga are natural, normal and help to create a realistic feel in the set.

Jogs are also a huge asset for wilding manageable sized wall spans. The joints are easily concealed in the inside corner. A sillicone caulk can easily be cut and restored.

I usually call them up in economical sizes; the nominal flat width, or a minimal-waste size like 8", 12" etc.

Jogs also provide excellent natural paths for set dec conduits and wires.

Pilasters can also be used as a joggy type wall detail. The only difference being that if they were pilasters, they would be as structural.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Surprise! The Wallflower may be an Actor.

- The Pygmalion Effect: the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform -

"You'll never make it"

Most of us have heard this from someone at some point. Some of us hear it more. Those that are marginalized, small people, seemingly quiet people, Wallflowers,  you know the types.

Sometimes its true.

I am that person. I was expected to be stupid, and quiet. I played the quiet stupid role to make things easy. I wanted to get hired again. Speaking out caused trouble. I was a child Actor. Perhaps this enabled my pretence.

Regardless of their spirit, they are subjected to the Pygmalian Effect. For example,  I was often pulled aside and told to stop coming across as a smart ass. Instead, I was to merely hint at a problem, not point it out. I was terrible. I'm a geek. I'm outspoken. I can't help it. I see it as being part of a team. I couldn't 'get it'.

I had this problem because I too suffered from the Pygmalian Effect. I was a leader in a follower position. It almost broke me I stayed too long. I was acting a role that suited those around me. I developed low confidence, feelings of repression and general disrespect.

The truth was I needed to go stand up on my own. I needed to take the plunge and take a leader position, or get out. I had to believe I had the chops or find something else that could allow me to be who I was. With the support of the confidence a few key Filmmakers had in me, I took the door. I felt unready to take the lead at a full fledged union show level, but I felt that inevitably it was my only path.

This was when I discovered something really important about myself. I did go and get my own no-budget indie gig. I was really good at it! I blossomed. I came out of my shell. I was assertive. I became the real me. I felt it in my heart. Everyone loved my ideas, my confidence was completely restored. It was a huge rush.  I went home feeling like I was king of the world, and I wasn't paid a dime. Everything that was wrong with my career psychology was all of a sudden put right. I saw the light.

The lesson I want to share is this: If you are this small person, and you know in your heart you are a leader, and you are playing the low-expectation game, Don't ignore who you really are. Work towards it. Play the game if it makes life easier, but never give up on following who you really are.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Go Have A Picnic: Pick A Colour

Colour can look very different under different lighting.

In an unbelievable way. I have personally witnessed an entire room getting repainted, a Scenic Painter accused of using the wrong colour, and dumbfounded well seasoned professionals argue over it.

The problem arises under fluorescent lighting. Too often our offices and stages are lit under fluorescent work lights. In fact, the lighting used during filming is alot closer to natural sunlight. Its not always an issue. Sometimes its merely a slight disappointment or a delight.

I was working once in a large industrial south-facing building. There were a series of rooms connected that we were transforming into a Police Station. Only one of the rooms had direct sunlight,the others lit by fluorescents and spill from the exposed room. Even the spill wasn't enough to correct the colour change. Everyone on the survey had agreed that the back rooms had been mistakenly painted by a different colour, and the entire space was re-painted at huge expense.

It still looked the same.

Picking colours is a real challenge. I find that taking my Fan-Deck outside in the natural light tells me a much truer story for the upcoming shoot. And yes, I too have questioned some Designer's colour choices pre-shoot under shop lighting, only to be pleasantly surprised later on, seeing how much better the colours come together under the stage lighting. And vice-versa.

Its an art form picking good shooting colours. As a rule of thumb, if in doubt, go with a Heritage version of the colour you are looking for. They are Heritage colours for a reason.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rough Times

I love Anaglypta.

For those that aren't familiar with it, it is a white embossed wallpaper that comes ready to paint.
It is one of the perfect solutions to a rough wall, both on a recycled set and in a residence or office. It can hide a myriad of wall imperfections.

Its classy. Period.

You can do amazing things with scenic finishes that play with the embossed pattern.

It looks fabulous on film.

It's a clasic wall covering.

It is really easy to apply.

Did I say I love it?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dirt Matters

Caves are great. They can be made in several ways. They are a Lighting challenge. A Scenic's dream.

One element that always bothers me if it is not addressed, however, is the dirt floor. It is a very common oversight to finish the Scenic walls, dump barrels of dirt on the floor, rake it out and call it a day.

What you are left with is a very unnatural intersection between the floor and the walls. This will make your cave look faker than faux.

There's a really good n' dirty way to fix it.

With a hudson of scenic wash dampen the edge first; the dirt can then be rubbed into the lower 12-24 inches of the cave wall and feathered out. As the wash/dirt dries it will blend in nicely with the cave wall, and goes a long way to ease the dirt/wall transition, leaving a very natural look.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Stove That Gave It Away

Stoves also deserve a mention. When I see a modern day kitchen on TV and its not flanked by cabinets on either side, I think: Set.

In an old house it is quite common to see stoves placed anywhere in a kitchen, along a wall, standing alone, without cabinets either side.

In a modern home, however, there are building codes in effect. Depending on where you live, of course, they differ somewhat in detail, however there are some basic safety standards that apply to stove placement.

A stove requires a minimum 12" cabinet beside it in Canada; It may differ in your Country. The minimum distances for interior design are also listed usually in the Architectural Graphic Standards.

Stoves are easier to wild when they are not stuffed between cabinets.  It's a valid filming argument. Its a foresight that can easily be remedied though, with gliders under the stove.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Old Fridge

A Classic.

Every Set Decorator I know jumps at the opportunity to roll a beautiful classy 50's refrigerator onto the set. Even though it is a relatively unrealistic appliance these days, even as a gimick they are rarely still used.

They look great. I love them too. They add charachter.

But they deserve a post regarding Set Designing.

They have unusually thick doors. Depending on where the fridge will be located that can pose a problem. When the fridge is up against a wall, it will require adquate clearance to the wall for the door to open properly. If it is amongst cabinets, it will need to stand forward enough to open the door properly.

What you have to do is measure the fridge floorplan with its door open, to ensure the door action will not become an obvious sore spot in the action.

And that brings me to another Famous Lie: "We'll never open the fridge door on camera".....

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wild Times: When Scenery Flies

Usually, no matter how well a plan is thought out, shit happens.

I worked on a set once that was a house with a rather large central fireplace feature.The idea was to wild the fireplace to camera.

The set got built as planned, nothing unusual happened until they tried to wild the fireplace.

What was overlooked by the entire team, including yours truly, was the immense weight the fireplace aquired after all the scenic brick, spfx metal boxes were added to the construction. Adding to the dilemma was the carpet that was chosen to dress the set. It turned into an impossible wild; meanwhile the entire set had been built around it.

The solution was to fly the scenery, and uckily we were in a studio that had a roof system that could support the weight of the rigging.

When issues like this arise, it usually falls upon the Production Company to have the necessary Engineering inspections done to confirm the building can support the weight being supported from the roof trusses in the Studio. Sound Stages are designed for a rigging load, however, often the warehouses that lower budget films are shot in have either no existing load information on file, or are inadequate for the purpose.