Sunday, July 29, 2007

Production 1: Props (one)

We're three weeks away from the shoot now, and I've never felt quite like this. It's surreal to be this close to a dream I've had for over 15 years. I live each day in an increasingly strange state of terror, excitement, anticipation, faith, and a resignation to the knowledge that in spite of the checking and rechecking, the planning and replanning, the scheduling and the rescheduling, that something is going to go wrong, which however co-exists with a sort of sureness that everything will somehow turn out. These past 3 months I've been busier than I've been at any point in perhaps the past ten years, constantly working on some aspect of production, and lately not sleeping more than about four hours per night. But in and around the pressure is the constant feeling of love and wonder that has always been part of Tom's story for me, and an awareness of the incredible great fortune that is mine to be able to be on this journey.

The aspect of the work that grounds me the most lately, in and around wondering who will be setting up our lights, whether we should have pretzels or nuts on the Craft Services table, what we'll do if it rains on the one day Jonathan Bragagnolo will be returning from Ottawa for his scenes, and being terrified that we won't get all of the camera equipment that we need, is the time that I spend in my studio at the university, working on the specialty props that we can't find anywhere else. There's just something about the smell of wood, the feeling of brushing paint, the magic of watching something real take shape between your hands, that makes me feel right. It is incredibly relaxing to spend a day with my head bent to my work, hands busy. In many ways I feel a bond with Tom across time in this regard.

Being in the studio building props is like coming home for me. I hadn't realized before how happy I am doing it.

The wonderful studio I share with Barbara Meneley in the Visual Arts Department at the U of R.

Various props we've collected, paint, wood scraps, etc.

The back wall, which will be our antique photo studio for the vintage photo shoot.

Kristine Dowler, a BFA candidate in the Film and Video program at the University, has a real talent and an interest in building props and art directing for films. She is apprenticing in the props department on this film (in other words, we hang out in the studio together and build stuff) and she is doing an amazing job, learning quickly and making really beautiful little props of all kinds, with all different types of materials. She's fun to work with and talented and conscientious, and after about a week I handed over the Art Direction to her, a job which falls under that of Production Design, which will be handled by me and Raul.

As Art Director, Kristine will be in charge of the look of the sets and making sure that everything is the right period and looks good. She has done a lot of research (check out her blog) and I am sure will do a wonderful job. It's nice to feel that someone is thinking about that aspect of the shoot.

So, among the many props we need to beg, borrow, buy, and fabricate, are a few that we won't be able to find, or that need to have a certain look. First, there is a homemade stuffed toy horse, which is an important prop in the life of Tom's young son, Timo. Kristine and I talked about what it should look like, and started working on a paper pattern, which was altered with scissors and retaping until it had the right shape.

This first attempt of mine is much too boxy.

After correcting the shape in paper, Kristine turns the paper horse into a pattern, cuts out corresponding cloth pieces and goes to work.

Taking it home over the weekend, she brings the little horse together.

He just needs his eyes, mane, and tail, and then a little distressing: he belongs to a little boy who lives on a farm and is well loved, so a little dirtying is definitely in order.

There is a little wooden toy horse in one scene, which is being held by a little boy in the crowd. When he sees the boy holding the horse, Tom is reminded of his own son. I wanted the toy horse to look worn and homemade. I built this little horse with scraps from the woodshop, hot glue and baling wire. I used a jigsaw, a belt sander, and a drill.

The green spots are masking tape, where I don't want paint to go.

Sponged-on latex paint is sanded off and brown paint is rubbed in by hand to simulate dirt.

The addition of the leather strap completes the horse.

There is a large, antique wooden tool chest that figures prominently in the memories that Tom revisits throughout the film. It's not a real tool chest but one that sits on a workbench in his mind, and holds various memories. I wanted it to look like a toolkit and be at the same time reminiscent of a worn old treasure chest. Memories are treasures.

I started with this cheap Asian knock-off from an import store -- thanks for spotting it, Dauminique! It was pretty cheap-looking, covered with strips of fake leather and a paper-thin veneer of shiny laminate.

After pulling off all of the bells and whistles, I started covering the chest with lath.

Consulting with Kristine, we agreed that it needed a lip around the base.

The first wash was a brown stain made of Burnt Umber gesso, a squirt of Burnt Sienna latex paint, and a bunch of water, which I rubbed into the wood while it was still wet.

The next coat was a dry-brushed irregular coat of various greens.

A little white-washing: touching cream-colored paint on here and there and rubbing it in.

Adding some black in the cracks and a couple of drips brings out the textures and begins to create the dirty, well-worn look I am trying for.

I sanded down the shiny new brass hinges we bought and rubbed black acrylic paint into the scratches in the metal.

I did the same to the front clasp. This picture is a little blurry but you get the idea.

The workbench, as I mentioned before, is a place in Tom's mind. It's kind of like my studio: a place where he feels 'at home.' The bench is littered with things you'd normally find on a workbench (tools, nails, wood scraps and shavings, bits of woodwork), but hiding in the clutter and dusted with sawdust are also elements of Tom's cultural history, represented by items from stories in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem which is scattered through the film. One of these is a harp made from the jawbone of a pike. I tried to find a salmon head locally but our fish store here only sells fillets, so we had to make our jawbone. I built the foundation, then handed it over to Kristine.

Wire and blue masking tape formed the structure.

Kristine added teeth made of plumber's epoxy putty, an awesome material that, once mixed, hardens in ten minutes. Work fast! Luckily, it's sandable, and after it set, K shaped the teeth with files and sand paper until she liked them.

This is a store-bought papier mache mix that I brought from the States. It's meant for little kids to use but I love it for props. Mix with water and start sculpting! It takes a day or so to thoroughly dry out but it sticks to almost anything and hardens to a sandable finish.

After the papier mache set, K sanded it and added a little more shape to it, then painted the whole thing with white Gesso to even it out.

The finishing touch is a subtle paint job that follows the rule of 'dark in the valleys and light on the hills,' a common technique in prop painting which helps to accentuate the 3-D quality of props to the 2-D eye of the camera. She also put a little Burnt Umber around the base of each tooth to distinguish it from the bone of the jaw. Now we just need to figure out how we want to string the harp strings across the teeth. What a gorgeous little prop this turned out to be!

A nautical telescope is an impossible thing to find on the prairies, even to rent. To buy they are astronomically expensive. There is a lot of variety in these telescopes, and Kristine found some lovely ones online. Here are a few from her research blog:

After giving up on finding our telescope, we went to a hardware store and bought a bunch of variously shaped brass and copper plumbing fittings for about $15, and I went to work with the hack saw.

I put the pieces together with plumber's epoxy putty and Crazy Glue.

Of course you won't really be able to see through it with the dowel down the middle, but it's a PROP. Here I am adding the leather to the main body of the telescope.

Et voila! It looks pretty good even close up, so will be fine for the camera. There's even a little lens in the end from an old video camera.

Another important prop is a small copper ship that Tom makes for his son, Timo. I bought this little toy boat at the Forum Marinum in Turku, Finland, thinking we might be able to start with it as a base. Again, maritime stuff isn't easy to find on the prairies so having a foundation helps cut down fabrication time.

After stripping off all of the masts and sails, Kristine thought the boat would look better with a keel, so I shaped a piece of wood and hotglued it to the base of the hull.

K starts building it up with paper and masking tape to give it some bulk.

K covers the keel with papier mache, this time made with strips of paper towel and wood glue.

The next layer is strips of paper that will simulate tiny plates of copper. This toy is probably too small to be actually built out of copper in this way, but it'll be pretty when it's done. Film is about suspension of disbelief, right??

Next K paints the little ship with an acrylic base loaded with copper powder.

This finish simulates metal, and in fact will interact with a patina wash to create the look of aged copper, like in the small test piece above. Although the picture is a little blurry, you can see the difference between the plain copper and the copper with the patina applied.

We're making good headway on the props but we're not done yet! There's still quite a bit to do and it's all I can to do keep from panicking when I look at the list. Watch this space for updates on new props and the finished versions of the ones that are incomplete as of this posting.

Until next time, Sisu!