Adventurers at USC Film School
Graduate Production | Spring 2002


Update #3

A Chronicle of the 581A Semester

Topics discussed:

Lights, camera, action! .. at USC Graduate Film School

  • Painful Lessons
  • Student Filmmakers' Shooting Routine
  • A Peek at the Footage
  • Breakwater is about Divorce
  • Miscellaneous Items
  • Pursuing a Dream

Painful Lessons

Fade up & zoom in...

The crew realized their biggest mistake shortly after completing assembly of the track for the much anticipated dolly shot. With the sun approaching the horizon, the day's light became perfect for shooting the big scene. But it wasn't long until they realized that something was missing: the dolly.

The dolly is like the train that rides on the tracks. It holds the camera. It makes for a nice, smooth moving shot. They had gone to a lot of effort and expen$e to get that shot, renting a big U-Haul truck, and transporting a truckload of equipment from LA down to Laguna. Nancy (the producer) got up extra early, drove to the U-Haul truck rental location, then drove the monster truck to the dolly rental place. Then she fought LA traffic for an hour before heading south to Laguna.

In the end, with not enough daylight remaining to run for the dolly, they simply had to grab a handheld shot for the 'money scene'. Today they'll return the track, dolly and truck .. all for nought. Wendy is calling this a 'major blunder'. I don't think they're likely to repeat that mistake anytime soon.

Another mistake seems to be an overambitious schedule. They're discovering that a good rule of thumb is planning for 15 shots per (12-hour) shooting day. They had planned up to 30 shots for some days. The push to complete the scheduled shot-list led to rushed shots and tension at the end of a long day, as the sun sank and the tide rose.

The pressure of an overambitious schedule precipitated some personality conflicts on set. This is not entirely unexpected, as the crew works hard from early morning to late at night, day after day. After working with grade school kids in Laguna's public school system for many years, Wendy has developed an effective set of conflict resolution skills. She addressed the issues before the got out of hand. No blows were exchanged.

Because so much of the movie is being filmed at the beach, they've had to consult tide tables, and schedule their shots around the sea. It seems only fitting, since Neptune is one of the story's characters. At the end of each day, they race not only the setting sun, but also the rising tide. The best light for shooting is during the last hour of the day, called magic hour.

The school has a 'guideline' that requires giving students 12 hours off between shoots. So if today's shoot ends at 10PM (after all the equipment is schlepped up from the beach, loaded into their trucks, and schlepped back into the house), tomorrow's 'call time' shouldn't be scheduled before 10AM. I heard one student say, "This is only one of the rules that we have to bend if we want to get our shots."

They use heavy bags to fix the position of their equipment. Some bags are filled sand while others contain lead shot. Orange bags contain sand; black ones, lead pellets. You can definitely tell a difference. Black bags are smaller and heavier. Brian the Assistant Director ('AD' in industry lingo) said, "You have to admit that there's something ironic about lugging bags filled with sand across a beach." The second day the crew decided to bring along heavyweight plastic bags and fill them with sand, then empty the contents at the end of the day.

Since the school's insurance does not cover theft of equipment stored in a car/truck, they must schlep the equipment back into the house each night .. after they're wupped from the day's shoot .. only to schlep it back out a few hours later in the morning.

After several days of shooting, they have managed to track enough sand back from the beach that I'm tempted to put up a volleyball net in the living room. This way we'd be able to play beach volleyball indoors. I'm also happy that I'll be well-prepared, should heavy rains hit Southern California this spring. There's enough sand in the living room to build a formidable protective wall with sand bags.

Student Filmmakers' Shooting Routine

After all the equipment is unloaded off the trucks (3 or 4) and carried inside, the first thing everyone does is grab a beer. With the first sip, they usually utter some kind of expression, acknowledging the benevolence of a deity kind enough to provide them with such a divine beverage. Corona seems to be their favorite, as those always disappear first.

With a cold brew in hand, everyone breaks out their cel phone and begins catching up on their messages. I have never before seen a dozen people, all at once, talking on their cel phones. It surprised me that so many different signals didn't interfere with one another, as students bumped into each other while walking around the house.

During this time of catching-up, many students cycle through the computers, where they check email and type out a few messages. The all type remarkably fast.

Also during this time, some of them hit the shower and wash of the grime of a 15-hour day. The code is to leave your shoes outside the bathroom door, so that people will know that someone is showering. After a couple of days of working together, they no longer seem to mind entering the bathroom and depositing aromatic gifts while a fellow crew member showers .. a sign that they're truly becoming family. =)

The change to daylight savings time, which caused them to lose an hour of sleep, seems to have taken a toll. I've never seen Wendy hit the snooze button so many times. She usually takes a hot bath every night, but lately she's been saying, "I'm just going to bed." Despina, the DP, slept in her clothes on the couch. She didn't move when I threw a blanket on her.

Some of them are able to catch 40 winks on set, between shots. See here and here.

A Peek at the Footage

After the day's shoot, they connect a cable from the camera to a small monitor, and the entire crew huddles around to view what they call the dailies. I've seen only a small portion of the footage, cuz it's difficult to get near the monitor, but what I did see looked impressive. Really impressive. I've become excited about the project after seeing those few scenes. Despina (the 'DP') is taking pains to set up her shots and it shows.

They are shooting ~one hour of footage each day. So at the end of it all, they should have 9 or 10 hours worth of footage for Eric (the editor) to work with .. for a 12-minute film. While viewing the dailies, they whoop and holler whenever they see a shot they like. From the number of shouts, Eric should have plenty of good footage to work with.

When Eric showed up for one of the shoots, I asked him about the theory that editors shouldn't attend shoots .. so they can bring a fresh perspective to the editing station. He replied, "That's just an excuse we use when the shoot is in a lousy location. You can't beat a shoot on the beach in Laguna."

Eric will be editing the project with one of the Avids at school. He brings plenty of editing experience to the Breakwater project, having edited a few other films on Avids. Everyone seems confident in his editing abilities. Da Big Woo, as they call him, is from Colorado. Wendy feels fortunate to have him as a member of the crew. After Nancy, he was the next to join the Breakwater team.

Breakwater is about Divorce

Breakwater is about divorce .. a subject that many people, both adults and children, are all too familiar with. It's a pandemic issue in our society, especially here in Southern California. No one wants their marriage to fail, especially if they have kids.

Wendy did some research for her movie. Statistically, children from divorced homes experience higher divorce rates. It's almost as if it becomes a learned behavior. So parents often remain together despite mutual animosity 'for the kids'.

Divorce is an ugly subject and never a pleasant experience. Too many times they're downright traumatic. People who go thru them often don't have the skills to cope with the array of confusing emotions, and can least afford therapy to help them cope thru the challenging time. Children, who are least prepared to deal with divorce, are left with a shattered illusion of family integrity & security, and meaning of the consequences for their own lives and future relationships.

Instead of approaching divorce from the more tradition perspective (the parents'), Wendy is taking a look at its impact, both conscious and subconscious, from the child's point of view.

So it's not surprising that certain scenes are raising 'issues' for members of the cast & crew. For example, the night after shooting the breakup scene, where the mom & dad each removed their wedding bands, and placed them into a small box, then put the lid on, Lani became upset. I heard her in the crying in the back bedroom with Wendy. At first I thought she was laughing. She seemed surprised at the emotion welling up inside her.

Wendy's hope for the film, beyond merely creating a visually compelling story that entertains the viewer, is that it might somehow trigger a cathartic release for people who have unresolved issues related to divorce .. issues that they might not even be aware of. Freud found that consciousness can sometimes bring healing .. especially if people are able to talk about their pain.

Miscellaneous Items

I spoke with Jessica, the lead actress. She is originally from Puerto Rico, where she was born & raised. She moved to the Big Apple about 5 years ago. She moved from NYC to LA about 3 years ago. She speaks with no accent whatsoever. She and her husband Jay have an adorable 15-month old girl named Sky. A photo taken on location of her & her family is posted here.

I hear that Michael, the guy who is playing Jessica's boyfriend, adds just enough comic relief to the set, to take the edge of those tense times when everyone is stressed out. The call him 'Blue eyes'.

Wendy updated the Crew page to include links to photos, so you can match faces with positions and see who is doing what. The Photos page has also been updated to include links to photos from each day's shoot. Each page contains a link back to its 'Index' page, to help you navigate back home. The Breakwater home page is posted here.

Wendy uses this photo (30KB) as her new desktop.

Some people don't think that Jessica looks young enough to play a teenager, or that Lejla looks old enough to play her mom, or beat up enough to look like she's been going thru the emotion of a failing marriage.

Wendy is halfway done shooting Breakwater. Today the crew will build the cave set at the Zemeckis Digital Arts Center. They will use fake rocks that they made and painted last week. This is where they will shoot Friday, Saturday, Sunday & Monday. Monday will be the last day of shooting. This is also where they'll shoot the green screen scenes, which allow them to replace the green background with special effects .. with Jessica flying thru the air attached to cables suspended from the ceiling.

Special shout out to Bruce & Kathleen, who put up several crew members each night, as the wander across the street at midnight, and make their way to their house. Many thanks.

Pursuing a Dream

Wendy called one of her friends yesterday to ask a favor. The guy's wife answered the phone and after a short chat said, "It's so great to see someone going for their dreams," then handed the phone to her husband. When he got on the line, he said, "I knew right away who was calling, even before she told me, cuz you're the only one we know who's going for their dream."

Fade to black...