Thursday, November 20, 2008

Special Effects and San Francisco!

I am back in Regina after a whirlwind week in San Francisco (and yes, I took the above mandatory Golden Gate Bridge shot on the trip).

It was a fantastic week! I got to work with Don Wood again (the actor playing Tom Sukanen), as well as David Cramer and Stephen Pocock (actors from the bar scene we shot last year in San Francisco). They're all good friends so it's always a treat. I also got to get back on set with Sisu DP Andrew Schlussel, which is always super fun, and audio engineer Brian Webb, which, as it turns out, is also always fun. I also got to work with Sisu Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Andrews in person for the first time; all of our collaboration so far has been through email and other internet technology. Brian's great too. The wonderful folks at Expression College for Digital Arts are helping on post production in many ways, from visual to audio.

an untextured render of the CG ship modeled by Nic Dunbeck and tricked out by texture artist Luke Graves

First, Brian Andrews, Andrew Schlussel and I met to go over the shots we needed to get. We spent about an hour in the Ray Harryhausen Lab at the Expression making sure we were all in agreement about what needed to be done on the green screen. Because our dolly shot was the mirror movement to the actual animation, it was kind of an abstract brain puzzle, and we had to talk it through a few times. Here's where my background in mime comes in handy...

l to r: Visual Effects Supervisor Brian Andrews, Director of Photography Andrew Schlussel, Writer/Director/Producer Chrystene Ells

It was a little complicated figuring out the dolly move...

...even with boards and the model we spent a lot of time in discussion before getting to the set.

Setting up the shoot was fun; I really love being on set and after all these months alone in front of the computer editing it was great to feel like part of a team again, even though we were just a tiny crew of three and Don was the only talent.

"Hang on, can we look at those plans just ONE MORE TIME?"

"I THINK I remember how to set up a light..."

"...or do I?"

"Done! Wait, there are three more??"

We were trying to match this shot of Don from the summer 2007 shoot in Saskatchewan, not only in how Don was posing, but also in terms of lighting and even the costume. We spent some time getting the asymmetrical suspender clips just right...

... while Brian measured out the green screen and made gaffer's tape marks for reference markers that will come in handy during the match move work later.

The scene is one where the CG ship banks to the left and then sails off with Tom on board, so we had a dolly move that went straight back from Don on the green screen, then veered camera left away from the action.

The DP always gets the cush jobs.

I cut the footage we shot into the rough edit and I think it's going to work. Of course ultimately the green will be removed and the footage of Don, as well as the animation of the ship, will be composited (superimposed) over an actual environment. Sneak peak of the raw footage below; check it out!

We also did a very nice pick-up shot that we never quite got satisfactorily on set, of Tom out on the prairie against a black evening sky, which we cheated by shooting against black duvateen (thanks, Roy).

Night sky, right? Right! It's movie magic!

Other friends dropped by as well, and is often the case on shoots, empty hands were given work, so Roy Miles, Cat Foster and Brandon Foster all carried gear and helped with shots. And those who stayed long enough got burritos! Sorry, no pictures of lunch. We were all too busy devouring Mexican food. But here's what they looked like (mmm...):

There's nothing in Regina like a Bay Area burrito.

The shoot went from 9 am to 3:30 p.m., and then Don and I relocated to the Sound Department to work on audio. We could only book the studio from 4pm until midnight, so we were only half done with our day by the time we got started on audio. David Cramer and Stephen Pocock joined us, while Brian and Andrew went home (after Andrew transferred all of the morning's footage to DVDs for me).

"If we nail it before midnight, will you let us out before our coach turns into a pumpkin?"

We needed to re-record the dialogue from the bar scene we shot last year in San Francisco, primarily because of the fire trucks that were doing drills on the half-hour down the block.

l to r: Stephen Pocock (bartender), David Cramer (old man), Don Wood (Tom Sukanen), Brian Webb (audio engineer extraordinaire)

It was great to see Brian Webb again, who ran the audio on location, and to meet Justin, who I hope will be continuing to help out with the audio over the next couple of months.

Justin Valerio is AWESOME.

"Now if you actors can stop being FUNNY for just ONE MINUTE we might get out of here in 8 hours!"

You can tell by the intense looks of concentration how tough this is.

But when you're just standing around watching yourself in the movies, how tough can it be?

Eventually the three goofballs in the booth settled down and then we got some serious work done.

The actors did a great job! ADR is not easy; you have to match your onscreen lip movement, as well as the timing and performance, as precisely as possible, but if anything I think we have some line interpretations that are even better than the originals. Justin and Brian W. are terrific to work with and even took over directing Don's ADR work when I went out with Stephen to get -- yes -- our second meal of the day of burritos.

It was a long day, and by midnight I was pretty exhausted. Don had to be twice as tired as I was; he was performing all day long.

In addition to the green screen shoot and the audio work, Brian A. and Andrew sponsored a pizza party for students at Expression, both to give those who are already working on the project an idea of what the whole film is about, and also to recruit a few new students for the final push on the visual effects side of things. I did a 30-minute talk on the film and screened a few scenes, which was a little painful for me because the sound is rough and none of the effects shots are plugged in yet, but we got a good response and a few new digital artists came on board, which is terrific.

The rest of the trip was great; even though this is a production journal and not a personal one I just want to mention that I also got to see many wonderful friends who I really miss a lot, including my old pals from those lucrative puppeteering days, Howie and Mark at ILM (George Lucas' effects house in San Francisco, Industrial Light and Magic), where I took a few obligatory photos...

the awesome Yoda fountain at the ILM main entrance

hanging out with Han

"Are you my mummy?"

Now it's back to Regina and full throttle back into post production. Audio and 2D animation, here I come! Meanwhile, the CG work is going full tilt at Expression College, Dave Lawlor and friends are working on the score here in Regina, and I am in the process of lining up some audio voice recordings of Russian and Finnish native speakers. The Toronto Finnish Theatre Company very generously prepared some voice-over auditions that could be heard online, and will be contributing airfare to the film to fly an actress to Regina for the recording session. Brian Webb and Justin Valerio have graciously offered to help with the surround sound audio mix, which is incredible news and a huge weight lifted, and Roy Miles has ideas about color correction when the time comes. This is also a big piece of the puzzle and something I know nothing about.

As usual, Team Sisu continues to grow and I can only be in awe of how Tom Sukanen's story has inspired so many people to contribute to this film. If anything it has become much bigger than my own personal project and is a true collaboration, as well as an interdisciplinary and international art project. It's a new way of looking at it for me and I feel ever more humbled by the amount of love and energy and money and time that has come from so many different people and places.

I just hope that in my final job of tying everything together I can produce a film that everyone will be proud to be part of.

Until next time, SISU!!!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Post Production, or, The Lost Summer

Since the last post, things have gotten very quiet, but I am busier than ever with work on the film. We have entered the phase known as post-production, and since I am now pretty much down to a team of one here in Regina, with the excitement of the big shoots over, I basically missed summer. And fall. And, maybe not as bad, it looks like winter might pass too with my barely noticing it. I have spent months losing track of time in the edit suite, cutting and recutting and tweaking and finessing the film. Of course, Gerald is always there, and Raul too, and my other supervisors Mary and Leesa are incredibly supportive, but still, post production is lonely. Editing itself is a bittersweet experience: the time that passes as long hours vanish in moving clips around and waiting for renders is marked primarily by shining gem-like moments of sheer exuberance and voids of black despair. Since May there have been five major edits and unnumerable tweaks on a scene-by-scene process that included tightening, cutting, some pick-up shots, and eventually, rewriting the first 12 minutes of the script with the footage that we had.

I have decided that there are only four kinds of footage in editing:
  1. footage you got as planned
  2. footage you planned for but turned out completely wrong and is unusable
  3. footage you wish you got but didn't
  4. footage you didn't even mean to get but ends up being crucial (like the gems from between takes, or when Andrew went leaping across a pitch black night field to catch a clear shot of the lemon-yellow full moon and the dwindling tangerine sunset lighting it up)
There aren't even any pictures to share of me sitting in my editing suite working away, so you'll have to use your imagination! Anyway, I finally have the live action sections of the film very close to how I want them, which took many months longer than I had anticipated. Getting to the end of the film is a rush, and each pass I have taken on the edit over the past six months has made it better and better. Now it's on to animation, effects, and post audio.

But first I did a little more shooting. At the end of the summer I actually got outside and for several evenings in a row I was out trying to capture just the right sunset for the end of the film. Every prairie sunset is completely unique and most of them are stunningly beautiful, but I never did get quite the one I wanted. Still, I have some pretty nice sunsets to choose from. This was a lonely series of shoots; sometimes it was just me and the dogs and sometimes Raul came along. Once Charlie was there, too. This is on a farm road just west of our house by 6 miles.

I'll watch for cars, Mama.

One, one beautiful sunset.

Two, two beautiful sunsets. How do you choose???

Shooting sunsets takes patience. There's just no rushing the actors.

Since I last posted I have also been doing some 2D animating. A lot of this is still in the experimenting stages, but I think I am getting closer all the time to what I want. The question is, will I have time to complete it? From completely digital processes to entirely traditional techniques, I have been searching for just the right 'look.' I don't know what it is, but I still think I'll know it when I see it. It had just better be sometime in the next three days, or I'll never get done. Here's a picture of my professor Gerald Saul and me trying out Flipbook with a sand animation test.

Pretty cool. If I have the time I really want to incorporate some sand animation in the film.

With the end of summer came the beginning of post audio. Before the first snowfall killed off the crickets and grasshoppers, I did some field recordings for the soundtrack, and I even got some audio of boat noises during an outing at Regina Lake with Kevin and Dauminique on their sailboat Kazumi. I have also spent quite a bit of time in the sound studio, and since I am lucky enough to be working with the amazing professor Charlie Fox in the New Media Studio Lab at the University of Regina this term, I will be there more frequently. Here are some pictures from some of the voice-over and foley work that has been done so far, and some of the awesome folks who have come down to help out.

"Whee! Audio is fun!"

"OK, quit smiling, Don. This is WORK, darn it!"

Don and I spent two days in the recording studio working on some voice-over and narration before he went back to San Francisco.

The lovely Megan Fries who plays Tom's mother came in to record some voice over as well. She has an incredible voice, but doesn't speak Finnish. As all of her lines were in Finnish, Megan got some coaching on Finnish pronunciation and gamely forged ahead with complicated Finnish poetry and narration. It'll be up to a real Finn now to tell us whether it'll work or not.

Other ADR and voice work that I have done so far includes elements of sound scapes that I'll need to create for the film, such as nurses talking and other sounds in the background to create the hospital soundscape, men and boys outside of the New York dockside bar, and the voices of people at the threshing party. Some of the folks who've already appeared in the film as actors came down to help out, including Wayne Slinn, Derek Finnick, Susan MacKay and Kelly Liberet.

Foley is fun, but as most things related to film are, it's also time-consuming. I am picky and detail-oriented so it ends up taking even longer. Basically, foley work is creating sound effects for the film that for whatever reason are not satisfactory on the initial live audio recording. In some cases the action was just too far away for the mic to pick it up, like someone walking away on a dirt road, and in others there were, oh, like FIVE fire trucks doing drills on the half-hour on the next block. In addition tiny sounds like rustling fabric, like when Tom turns his head on the pillow, must be added to give some scenes a sense of realism and immediacy. This will help to emphasize the difference between the dream scenes and the scenes where Tom is awake and aware. You'd never know all this work goes into audio when you're watching a film.

"Now, if the sound doesn't come in these two holes in the sides of my head, you have to be louder."

Kristine Dowler, Art Director (pictured), and Dauminique Napier, Line Producer, joined me for some foley work.

Believe it or not, Kristine's feet in a pair of Japanese tabe socks in coffee grounds sounds just like someone walking on a dirt road in their bare feet.

There are a significant number of scenes in the film that require 3D models, animation, compositing, particle effects and match moving. Brian Andrews of Ex'pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, California (where Raul and I used to teach) has taken on the role of Special Effects Supervisor, and students at the college are creating elements for the film as course work, or as additions for their reels. In a couple of weeks I will be going to San Francisco to do some Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR) with Don, Stephen and Dave from the November 2007 San Francisco shoot, as well as a greenscreen shoot with Don for the end of the film. I'll post pictures from that when I get back; it should be pretty cool.

We don't have any pictures of Dave Lawlor or Francis Marchildon (yet) but these two wonderful local musicians have joined Team Sisu to write and create the score for the entire film. As keeps happening with this project, the angels just drop down from the sky when we need them most. Dave is already working on some ideas for the various themes in the film and I can't wait to hear the first music!

In addition we are still trying to raise money. If there are any producers or executive producers out there who would like to come on board, please don't be shy! As we head down the homestretch with Sisu the next phase is rearing its head. Marketing and publicity are not cheap and we definitely need to start beating the bushes.

The film is scheduled for its premiere in April of 2009. There is a staggering amount of work to be done between now and then. Tom Sukanen continues to inspire me, and whenever I feel like I am so burned out I can't go on, I picture that image of him pulling the Sontiainen across the prairie with that one little horse...

So, until next time, SISU!!!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Winter shoot Day 01: Bridge

Over the winter Raul and I went out on a couple of B-Roll shoots, getting footage of snow and ice, dead wheat waving in the snow, and the shoot of young Tom (Zach Ford) playing with his toy boat in the icy water. But we were all looking forward to the big winter shoot when the crew would be together again. It was scheduled for the first week of March.

Don and Andrew were flying back up from San Francisco, and everyone was excited that Clara and Trevor would be joining us on set again. Kevin and Kristine would be there one day and of course the intrepid Dauminique was not only Line Producing but this time also providing all of the food! Wonderful Paul from the Sukanen Museum would be back with some beautiful antique vehicles, and officer Richard and his police car from the summer shoot, now properly labeled R.C.M.P., was coming too.

"Honest, Andrew! You'll LOVE the Saskatchewan winter. And I promise: these are ALL light days."

The first day didn't start off looking like too much fun.

Our breath mingles with the car exhaust and I wonder, is a winter shoot
really necessary in these days of convincing CG? Shouldn't we just all
spend the day indoors drinking hot chocolate laced with good Scotch??

As soon as we got to location, however, and started scoping out this really cool old bridge south of Moose Jaw, our spirits rose with the mercury as the dawn miraculously brought the second day of above-freezing temperatures in the past five months.

Andrew and Trevor discuss shots while Chrystene and Paul head down to check out the cars.

It was starting to feel like a set. We had a motorhome to keep the cast and crew warm and give folks a place to crash between takes, not to mention a kitchen for Dauminique's fantastic snacks and hot coffee! And there were various characters wandering around, like Constable Fisk...

Rod says these boots take an hour to get on and lace up.
They're very stylish but one has to wonder:
how many bad guys got away while the RCMP officer got his boots on? well as these tough guys ...

(L to R: Lorne Allen-Fries, Derek Finnik, Mike Staffen)

...and the make-up and hair department, Clara Edvi, along with this scruffy looking Tom Sukanen character (Don Wood)...

Clara knows exactly how to make Don look his worst. Perfect! well as the director and Brian Dueck, playing an old Vic Markkula.

I think I might have squeezed Brian just a little too hard...

Andrew set up for the first shot down below the bridge, and got great footage of the old cars pulling into the shot.

The vintage cars were really co-operative (thanks to the mechanical genius of Paul, Lorne and Richard) and executed their cues perfectly time after time.

I admit I got a little nervous whenever the hoods went up and the guys carried out mysterious little boxes full of wires and got very serious for long periods, but in spite of the chilly weather everything is going just perfectly.

Lorne sweet-talks the old Ford

We were shooting the arrest scene, where old Tom is taken away. It was a pretty emotional scene for all of us and I think there were more than a couple of tears on set.

A few last minute notes...

... and here we see the actor preparing.

Tom looks back at the cabins he has built...

Rod McLeod as Constable Fisk

Then the constable tucks him into the RCMP car and takes him away.

Lunch was fantastic! Tuna and egg salad sandwiches and delicious homemade soup, and lots of chips and homemade cookies. Jim's motorhome was a godsend.

Andrew liked his sandwich, honest, Dauminique!

After using it to get their beautiful truck back to its garage, Paul and Lorne graciously brought this trailer back to the set when I got the idea on the spot that we could use it for the last shot of the day, which is of Tom in the passenger seat being driven away. I don't know how we would have done it otherwise; as always, things just seemed to work like magic.

We lashed the camera to the side of the car, then Raul and I got in the back seat with the monitor, directing Andrew who was clinging to the window and riding on the trailer outside the driver's door. Lorne got in the truck and pulled us along at about 3 miles an hour. The footage was fantastic, just what we were looking for!

Good bye, Tom.

Tomorrow we're back at the good old Sukanen Museum. It's supposed to be cold. Hopefully we all survive!

Until next time....