Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What's A Bit?

Oh, yeah, I was that newbie that ruined the shot once. I was lucky, and given a second chance. I went on to have a great career. But I still ruined the shot. It'll haunt me forever. And since then, I've seen a handfull of newbies walk into trouble, in other, similar ways. Some made it through, some didn't.

We were installing a SPFX wall on a location. It was a cinderblock wall. We used a wood core and applied foam brick skins to it. In the center, an explosion was designed to blast through the wall. In this area, we used full size foam bricks; there was an opening in the wood frame to accomodate it.

As we were laying in the bricks, we were adding talcum powder inside, bettween the cracks, inside the wall so that when the explosion was triggered, there would be the effect of concrete dust coming out from the explosion. "Just put a bit in each crack", the head painter handed me the talc. I had never done this before.

I poured "a bit" in each crack as my partner installed the bricks. We added the mortar to the outer edges, and sealed up the wall. We painted it, it looked fantastic.

But the following day shit hit the fan. The shot was ruined. There was way too much talc in the cracks, and the explosion just looked like a big white cloud puff.

Why did this happen? Because I didn't ask, "What's a bit?"

Friday, July 27, 2012

Putting Out Fires

It's a common expression in film. And it doesn't necessarily refer to fire. One of the greatest challenges of filmmaking is the unbelievable orchestration of talents and industries that put it all together within just a few weeks. If you think about it, it's really amazing we pull it off at all.

There's always a mishap around the corner. Something no one forethought. There are just too many factors. Like the aproaching helicopter that accidentally fanned the spfx flames of the set, causing the whole set to burn down.

It reminded me of a disaster I watched go down in the shop. The set had called for a dozen or so 4'x8' sheets of brushed aluminum. The real stuff. It had to be shiny. It had been a budget squeeze; they were an important quality in the set.

The Painters had them all laying flat on the paint tables. They were varnishing them prior to construction installation. It was really important to varnish them first, because they were short on time, and it was much quicker and easier. The finish was tricky. It was super glossy.

As I was delivering some drawings, I paused to admire the vast shiny production. Then, WHOOOOOM! Someone from another department opened up the rolling double doors. A huge gust of autumn wind picked up all the dirt and leaves from outside, and in a big cloud of billowing dust, as if aimed right at them, it blasted the wet, super glossy panels with shit.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Oops, We Need to Build Over the Fire Lane

Studios have fire lane laws for safety. In the event of a fire, and limited vision, a person ought to be able to feel their way around the perimeter of the stage, and be able to safely escape without obstruction. Here, it varies from 4-5 feet. There have been many times when I have had to place sets closer together than I would have liked to, but I had to adhere to the regulations.

On one show, I was working with a 'think-outside-the-box' Designer. We had a studio that was just perfect for our set: it had a nice big opening. We needed to build a set with a practical exterior. In essence, we sandwiched the building entrance wall between the interior set and the exterior facade, so that we could build our own practical entrance.

But the set would have to cross over and block the fire lane. As it turned out, as long as we had a standard fire size door over the fire lane, the Fire Chief could pass the inspection.

We made them into "FIRE EXITS"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Damn That Paint Colour's Hard to Match

The trouble with painted location walls is they're usually aged already. I matched the colour and sheen, (my first hint: it was almost impossible to match) but the patches showed after the painters patched the walls. The wall aging and fading varied throughout the room, and it was impossible to get a true match.

There's no way out if a location owner isn't happy with the patch jobs. Often, after a shoot the painters need to fill the goudges the grips left in the wall (its always the grips). Sometimes, though the whole room doesn't need a repaint if the patches diddn't work out too well. A tip from a seasoned painter was just to paint the damaged walls. But I had to paint out the whole wall, or if there was a jog, just to the jog. Corner to corner.

Because of the way light plays on the walls, it works like magic. The eye doesn't pick up the subtle colour shift at a change in the wall angle.

Another tip was to muddy up a bit of the paint a little with a teeny tiny dab of diluted raw umber. It's the magic scenic dirt tint. Kills the hotness of a brand new colour. Seriously, its quicker to just paint the damn wall.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Should You Get An Agent?

There comes a time when most people who want to make it as a Production Designer wonder about the Agent thing. I asked around about Agents when I first pondered it for myself. It seemed like the Agent's had the inside scoop on the positions that came up. and it seemed like all the PD's I knew had such an Agent.

But it was not an easy topic to research. I found tight lips. Secret Agents. No one wanted to share their information. "You don't need an Agent" was almost always tossed back at me. True. I diddn't at the time.

Of course the mystery only made me believe that it was the elusive Agent that would make it possible for me to pursue my dreams. I applied at Agencies. Most of them did not respond. One did. She was honest with me. A breath of fresh air. She reminded me, that I did not have any paid credits on my resume. No one would look at me. Free gigs are great experience, but they don't count when push comes to shove.

So how did people break in unless they had someone above the line that was somehow personally related to them? I became hung up on the obstacle. Then I met someone who set me free.

"Don't get an Agent" he replied. "I hate Agents". He said. He was an independent Producer. A very successful one. He was outside the box I knew, the box being the Studio system. The union rosters. The weekly paychecks and mortgage paying shows. Having only worked in that area of film, I was blinded by the reality of the system I was ensconced in. As I followed my independent path, and asked more independent filmmakers, I found this to be true of most of the independent producers whom I worked with. An Agent was just an extra body to maneuver around in order to make the film.

Yes, you need an Agent if you want to pursue the box system. The system demands it. Agents are a part of the structure. No, you don't if you, like me, are wandering down the independent aisle. At least, not at first. You do, however, need to do the Agent's work. You need to find those gigs, before they go looking for Production Designers. That's how you beat the competition.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Void Above the Crown: A Tip from Construction

I want to share a great tip that I got from the Construction Dept.

It is really difficult to construct a set on the stage and have the finished walls end up absolutely plumb. Usually it goes unnoticed. In a set with crown mouldings and ceiling flats, unfortunately it is a common problem that suddenly becomes visible.

Because the ceiling flats are wild (unsecured, for camera) and because they undergo installs and uninstalls, what often happens is the movement exacerbates the imperfections, causing a void or uneven gap where the crown is supposed to meet the flat. It never fits exactly like it did before it was removed.

The trick to reduce the obvious, is to install the crown 1/4" below the ceiling flat, establishing a deliberate void all around. The flats are supported by the walls, not the crown. It works, because the eye picks up void/absence-of-void, as opposed to smaller-void/bigger-void.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cheating & Why We Do It

Cheating is the fun part of Set Designing. There are many reasons we need to cheat a set. It is a common necessity when recreating a location set on the stage. Cheating is problem solving. It is creative solutions. It is tricking the eye; the object is to do so undetected by the viewer.

We use forced perspective to make a set look longer than it is, because the studio space is too small, or the build would be too expensive.

We cheat heights all the time. A fire escape outside the location window. We shoot the POV out of the window on location, then re-create the fire escape on the stage, to shoot the POV inside the window.

The upstairs of a set is usually on a 4' platform, so that we can build the last few steps as if to suggest to the viewer that the whole staircase was there. In fact, the handrail is dying into the studio floor. The downstairs set has a staircase, but there's an actor's access stair at the top of it.

Window sills are often cheated. On location they may be at 25" from the ground. On stage, we would need to raise it to 36" in order to avoid shooting the studio floor outside the window.

We cheat window reflections by gimballing the windows and mirrors. Sometimes you can really tell; gimballing can be tricky, depending on the depth of the gimbal and the exposure of the jambs.

The best cheaters rise to the top. A good cheat always saves the day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

3 Things To Look For While Shopping For Gak

When I was an Art Department Assistant, I was asked to shop for Gak. The Designer wanted me to bring back samples of items that could be used for Set Design. Most of the items I brought back remained on the Gak shelf, interesting, yet useless. The ones that he used had 3 things in common.

1. They were big. Small stuff is for Props. You can't cover large areas without alot of work, nor does the camera pick up the tiny details in the background.

2. They were cheap and readily available. The construction could go and buy 20 the next day, or within 48 hrs. He loved anything plastic!

3. They were perforated. Lighting is one f the greatest challenges with SpaceShip type sets. Bonus if you can light through the walls.

That being said, seek out your local industrial drainage supplier type yard. It's a gold mine for Gak.