Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Fancy Camera Angle Calculator and Why I Never Use It

When I was starting out, fresh from Drafting School, all I ever dreamed of was being a Set Designer. I gathered all the tools, I was rapidly developing the greatest collection of tools and templates. This did not go unnoticed, in fact, I received several gifts to ad to my kit. One of them was a really nice Camera Angle calculator.

At first, I was overwhelmed with it, as I was undereducated when it came to understanding the camera angles. As I learned more about Camera Angles, I would pick it up and figure out how to use it.

By the time I was actually working as a Set Designer, I hadn't yet used the calculator. I had yet to design a complete set. But the day came: I was asked to calculate the backdrop needed on a set. I proudly pulled out my fancy calculator. The Art Director just stared at me. "What?" I asked.

"What are you doing?" He asked. I showed him my nice shiny calculator. He stared back, blankly and said: "And how the hell do you know what lenses and angles they are going to use?"

He had a legitimate point. In fact, I had indeed wondered that myself: It was part of the mystery of the gadget. He then educated me on the reality of designing for film & TV. He taught me how to calculate for (realistic) worst-case-scenarios. By covering every possible angle, regardless of what the camera's angle would be, the set would be covered. To this day, I use his methods. I still have my shiny calculator, and Its still never been used.

The bottom line is if you can see off the set, so can the camera.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Biggest Fan

We wanted a big fan in the set. A really big fan. The set was all about the fan. We spent almost 3 days looking for one. We wanted it for lighting: it had to be operational.

We also had no money. We found a few fans that were big, but they were too theatrical. In the end we decided to make one, with a 7 day episodic turnaround it was becoming urgent.

The Set Designer drew up the blades, and the carpenters rigged them on an axle with the help of spfx. It looked great, it was awesome, but it was static.

We had to come up with a motor to turn the fan on for shooting, but we could not resolve the noise issue in time. Merely hours before shooting, someone jokingly suggested to use a bike and a grip off camera. It was a brilliant idea. Not only did we have the fan up and running for camera, we were able to shoot it immediately because we had no more technical issues.

The fan not only was silent, we had the added benefit of being able to control the speed at which the fan gave off the most interesting shadows. It was an awesome solution.

Friday, June 22, 2012

There's Something Wrong If You Feel You Can't Go Pee

My old habits of sitting at the computer for 12 hours a day, like an OCD video game freak sucking back coffee and chocolate all day long had caught up to me. I was stressed and went to see my Doctor.

"Just say no to stress. Stress is an option." My doctor reminded me. She also told me that she has alot of film employees visit her with bladder infections, telling her that they feel that they can't go pee for lengthy periods. She told me how important it is to take time out to care for your health, even if it meand just walking away from your desk once an hour and stretching. Thats hard to do! We are all just human, and sometimes we find ourselves in a position where our health can become compromised due to our workplace.

For whatever reason, some folks find it hard to make a stand, and they get sick. Marriage is like film. Sometimes you feel you need to leave the one you love. But then it gets better. A new project. A better time. Ups and downs. But the downs shouldn't be too bad, or compromise your health.

The big picture arrives at some point. Are you the person who goes pee when you need to, regardless of whether or not you have been told to stay put? Or are you the person who waits and waits, because you want the next gig so bad? Is the biz causing you so much stress that you have other health problems? Unfortunately, the facts are that long term film employees generally have a shorter life span.

At what point do you make a change? We are lucky today. Today, walking away from the production line film industry does not necessarily mean the end of a film career. In fact, it can herald the beginning of endless new opportunities.

I remember the day I decided to make a change. I was in the craft service room. An "In Memoriam" poster was on the wall. It was my associate from 2 films ago. How sad. He was 47. He left 6 kids. I thought about what my Doctor said. I haddn't unlearned my bad habits. I was still revving high. I was not walking away from my desk every hour. I kept forgetting, procrastinating, "Just one more line..." 17 years of my life had just flown by, and all I did was work.  I had to stop and take stock. It was the scariest and most rewarding thing I ever did. I said no to the next gig. I had never done that! Was I crazy? The phone kept ringing. Every time I said no, I felt more confident that it was the right choice.

Some people sail through film, they take care of themselves, regardless of their schedules. They start the day at the gym. They are fit. They make fitness and health their priority, not the next gig. They not only last in the production line industry; they usually thrive. 

Health is everything.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The 4' Rule

Its not just me. Most Set Designers I know walk into their set for the first time and feel "Oooh, is it too small?"

Why does this always happen? A well seasoned Designer once taught me to always add an extra 4'-0" to the overall length and width of an average room. (I'm not talking about closet/small space sets: those are always shot with wild walls for shooting)

The reason is the Unit. The Unit will eat up at least 16 sq ft of room space. Even though you have accounted for the Unit on the stage, the crew on set will still need the space. The camera alone eats up at least 8 sq ft.

Its true. I never feel like a room is "too small" in a house. I only ever question the size of a set, because I have experienced an unhappy crew, I have seen how they shoot, the space they use. Its a rule that has served me well.

And no one has ever said to me afterwards, "Oooh, I think the set was too big."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Designing Destruction

Like the crumbling plaster brick wall, the signs of rot and damage are used to describe the age and history of our set. The Set Designer becomes the Architect of the rot. Their job is to design a believable set. Which walls are rotten or burned. Where the rot or fire etc. came from.

By illustrating the elevations, a Scenic Painter knows where to place the elements. Where the rot is located in the walls tells the audience about the building the set is in. Often the set being built is just a room. (A room in a bigger building. Or a single space.)

To ask a Scenic to place the aging elements based on a photo reference is a gamble. Although they are excellent at re-creating the look of the destruction, they often don't know the context of the room they are aging, nor do they all think about where the damage would come from in the building, or what the building exterior is made of. It is such an important step to add the scenic detail in decrepit elevations. Even just by Sharpie. It can so easily go so wrong. Its a really common oversight.

We don't go to school to learn how to destroy things. Architects and Draftspersons are trained to design structures that are meant to withstand the elements. Set Design often calls for decrepit. A Draftsperson coming into film from an Architectural or Engineering firm has been taught that they could be fired for adding illustrative elements to a drawing. Then they find they can become key players in designing destruction if they are in any way artistically inclined. They know "rot theory" and are good at it. Seek them out.

Its a complete reversal of what we have learned in school when we come to the Art Department.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Crumbling Plaster

Its a look we love. Exposed brick. Few Scenics can really master the look without creating a cartoon look.

The biggest problem I have stumbled on has not been the finish, or the technique. Often the scenic work is very well executed. The problem lies in the placement of the rot.

The plaster crumbles and rots due to moisture problems in the wall. This usually happens at the upper corners or the lower sections in the wall. Sometimes it occurs along a crack in the wall, where the plaster cracked when the building settled. It is rarely 'just in the midle of the wall'. There needs to be a story behind it.

Another tell tale sign of authentic broken-away plaster is the bricks that are eventually exposed, are often also partly rotten away. They were rotting behind the plaster for years before the plaster crumbled off. The mortar can even be proud, standing out like a protruding web.

There's great reference on line. Google Images: "brick+ crumbling plaster".  Have a look. Its actually pretty easy to tell which images are scenicly done, when you know what to look for.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

No Money and The Anti-Flat Set

When the money runs out, the flat building seems to be the first to go. I love a Designer that really thinks out of the box. More than that, I love  Producer who thinks out of the box. When there's no more money, creativity oozes from these people. They have great ideas and I love working with them. Designing awesome from nothing is the greatest challenge of all.

When there's no more money, there's often no more Location budget, and a Studio that can possibly be utilized more.

A Producer asked me once to design the back of the sets to be set walls. The effect was surprising. There was such an interesting feel to the ad-hoc set, that was fitting for the show. I don't think I could have designed such a set had I tried to think it up on my own. The nooks and crannies that occurred from the jacks, the strange irregular wall form that established the new set were so odd and bizarre: the Set had a fantastic sense of depth.

Another great idea that came from limited funds was to use a combination of cheaper materials, eg corrugate and fabric panels, and to combine them with lighting techniques. Custom Gobos excite me for this reason. A bland corrugate wall comes alive with wildfire paint or gobo patterns. It can be tricky to design a set based on lighting because of the action creating shadow. Its part of the challenge, and it can look incredible. The colours are fresh. The look is fresh. We're all happy to see something other than flats.

The sets always turn out awesome. Because they are extremely creative.  Of course, it depends on the set you are designing, and the nature of the show. Some sets demand flats, and there's just no other way.

Thats when the Production Office turns into the set!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What the Gloss? Its Distracting!

One of my biggest pet peeves is a glossy exterior brick wall. It looks so fake. How does it happen? Eggshell paint or a semi-mat, even mat glaze. It has too much sheen for an exterior brick wall. Bricks have no sheen. You can argue that an interior wall has been painted with a glaze, although its a weak argument, as I don't know that I've ever seen that in real life. So why does it happen... alot?

One of the reasons that scenics love to use a sheen in their wall finishes is the application of aging afterward. The aging treatments are alot easier to apply to a paint surface that has a sheen. It is alot easier to work with.

Another reason that they like the sheen is because the colour is richer with a sheen. A great example is the difference betwen a flat black and a slight gloss.

Its a trade-off. How important is the depth of colour in the scenic wall? My eyes are instantly drawn to the light reflecting off the bricks in the background of a film. When looking at an unglazed, flat scenic wall, I need to remind myself that the movie isn't about the wall.

I'd rather leave it flat. Good scenics can create good depth with colour. I'd rather forgo the rich depth of tone that would be attainable with a coat of gloss or eggshell finishes. Background scenery that distracts is a nuisance, and to me, colour depth is not worth distracting the audience over.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Art Needs Its Own Union or Guild

There's a reason that most major film unions and guilds have a designated chapter for the Art Department. In Vancouver, the Art Department is somewhat of a disaster, as a result of the lack of independence the Art Department has.

Let me explain. In Vancouver, the union covers all of the pre-production trades. Hence, the majority of members are in the shop trades. The Art Department therefore has little clout when it comes time for negotiations.
The nature of the industry also affects the nature of the operations. Everyone wants to be in the Art Department. And anyone, knowing the right person, can get hired, even though they are not a member.

The latest trend in Vancouver is to hire a young Art Director, a keener, and to expect them to perform multiple roles, or give them a lesser rate, once they have taken the position. This works because the Art Department has no clout. The Art Department members are considered replacable on a dime. The person being hired will only be replaced instantly if they protest.

Hence, the wages have slipped, and, believe it or not, it is not uncommon in Vancouver for the person who is washing buckets, to be earning more than the Art Director.

That was not a typo. Art Departments need their own unions & guilds. Kudos to the cities that have addressed this.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Wash It All or Just The Spots?

Sometimes picture vehicles show up at the last minute. In fact, it is not uncommon for a Graphic Artist to have to create graphics for a vehicle that hasn't even been seen, let alone approved.

At that moment when the scramble is on to apply the graphics to the vehicle in time for the shoot, the question of dirt on the vehicle could arise. Often, a last minute vehicle equals a dirty vehicle.

Too often the poor vinyl applicator is being asked to hurry up, and get tempted to just wipe off the areas where the graphics will go. If they only clean off the area where the graphics are being applied, it will show on camera, and you will hate it. If you dont clean the area, and try to apply the graphics over the dirt, they may fall off, and its going to be hard to burnish them without making streaks.

If it happened, the best fix is to wipe or wash the rest of the vehicle in the same manner that the vinyl area was prepped; it will blend it in. A dusting of baking soda/fly ash aging over helps too.

Sometimes the last minute vehicles are old, and have old paint. If the paint looks like it is chipping or flaking, its almost always best to try to apply the graphics over the dirt. Even waxing an old paintjob isn't enough to prevent the vinyl from lifting the old paint. When the paint gets pulled off with the vinyls, it almost always ends up costing the company somewhat of a vehicle repaint.

Sometimes an entire vehicle repaint, because of a few peeled flakes of old paint.