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AGENT MX-Z3RO—Making an Independent Movie (Part 4)

Only published comments... Mar 30 2011, 12:00 AM by Thomas Graham

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Alexander Graham Bell


“The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.”

Robert Burns


As I mentioned in a previous blog, we had many planning meetings before our first day of shooting. All the shots were planned out with the director, director of photography, and the first assistant director (see the call sheet). We knew that shooting more than 30 setups per day over five consecutive days would be pushing the envelope, and that some shots would likely be chopped off the list. We forged ahead with the plan, based on budget and remained optimistic.


Getting the paperwork for permits and insurance proved to be extremely challenging. In fact, the 24 hours before shooting, we very nearly had a catastrophic problem with picking up the grip truck, camera truck, and dolly for rental because we didn’t have the right version of verbiage on the insurance documents. Our legal and insurance team at Avid did a fantastic job, but this was not their normal situation—as we don’t make movies every day!


So Billy Sullivan (our line producer) and I were at the grip rental place 15 minutes before closing to pick up the two trucks, on the phone with our insurance agent, getting docs emailed back and forth. Ultimately, the grip house was very cool and let us go ahead, with no time to spare. We then had to call the dolly rental facility and beg them to stay open an extra 15 minutes so we could make it there. We almost didn’t make it… After that, we needed to go to the camera prep house to load the Sony F35 cameras on the second truck (which our DP and his assistants had been prepping for a full two days to make sure everything would run). We then had to go get some more camera mounts and carts at the assistant’s house and then to someone else’s place to rent the dolly tracks and then still drive one hour east of Los Angeles to our first location: Fontana, CA.


Driving a 3-ton box truck around LA in traffic is not my idea of fun, but it had to be done to get this show off the ground. I had driven big trucks before in my college summers for the Gas Company, but never in LA traffic— and with such expensive contents! I’ll never forget that because the truck’s passenger door had some previous damage, and driving on the freeway at 60 mph was like riding in a squealing wind tunnel—not to mention, the truck wasn’t easy to handle!


The whistling door on my grip truck!


Once we arrived at the hotel at about 10:00 pm, we thought, where and how do we park these big trucks? Even though we’d lock them, you’d still want to park them backend–to-backend to add a double layer of protection to anyone trying to get the gates down and the doors open. So we found a whole row of spaces under some lights and maneuvered the box trucks into place. We triple checked the locks and backed them tightly together for the night.


The last day of principal photography and the camera truck. Left to right: 1st AD David Beglin, 1st AC Chloe Weaver, Agent Zero actor Gunner Wright, DP Parker Tolifson, director Brian Barnhart, and audio consultant Scott Wood.


As I crawled into bed at the hotel that night, exhausted from all the stress and days efforts, I realized how truly fragile every production is to the slightest thing going wrong and having it utterly derail a very expensive project. The next day, I discussed this with my good friend and colleague Gabe (Avid’s executive producer of multimedia), and he agreed, telling me of a documentary called Lost In La Mancha, which profiles Terry Gilliam’s attempt at making a movie that had so many things go wrong, it ultimately got shut down by the insurance company.


Well, the morning of November 9th arrived bright and early. Billy and I grabbed some coffee and drove to our first location (for the next two days)—the Center Stage Theatre in Fontana—a beautiful venue for dinner theatre shows and other live performances We pulled in at 6:55 am and sure enough, the entire crew was there outside, ready and waiting to dive in and unload these trucks. My worries and heart lifted—we were finally under way!


Everyone efficiently set up for the first scene to shoot: the big, lip-sync theme song with dance number. We laid the dolly tracks in parallel with the front of the stage and mounted camera A on the dolly as shown below. We set camera B on a tripod at Stage Left.


First day of shooting, setting up for the theme song stage shot. Left to right: 1st AC (camera A) Chloe Weaver, DP Parker Tolifson, and dolly grip Greg Lefevre.


We felt that a multi-camera shoot was important to capture the big theme song opening and the visual intricacies of our multi-actor setup for a card game scene. This plan would allow for less pick-up and insert shots and save time if we had camera A always focus on the actors’ faces and dialog in a medium or wide shot, while camera B would be allowed to go close, roam, and catch hand movements with chips, smoking, the controllers, and so on. It may require a bit more setup time, but would pay off in the long run.


Shot out of sequence – the end of the card game on day 1 Camera B on Left, Camera A on Dolly on the right, two camera setup. Left to right : Cam B Operator: Matt Irwin, Production Sound Mixer Jim Machowski, Actor Gunner Wright, 2nd Asst. Camera Mark Wessling , Actor Jose Joquin, DP Parker Tolifson and 1st Camera A Asst. Chloe Weaver.


For the big theme song shoot, we designed the setup to have the music running on a sync-sound playback from a Pro Tools rig, with audio sent out to the left channel and time code out to the right, which then fed to both cameras. This would allow us to easily sync up each camera and each take for cutting in Media Composer.


The production audio mixer and the camera crews struggled to get the time code fed into both cameras at the proper level. Both cameras were slightly different models and had different menus to dig through, further complicating things. The clock ticked on and over an hour and a half went by without rolling a single frame of picture. Prior to the shoot date, we had a one-hour call to plan this specific scenario carefully with camera crew and sound team and then, for whatever reason, it just wouldn’t work. We pulled the plug and went for the old fashioned method of two sound clicks on the audio playback in the front and then using the sound slate to synchronize the visuals.


Scott Wood, our audio consultant and longtime Avid colleague and friend, leaned over and said, “No worries, we can always fix it later in post!”

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About Thomas Graham

Avid marketing manager for Post Audio and Pro Mixing, I am also a veteran engineer/recordist/editor. I've worked on music scores for dozens of feature films, including Ice Age, Collateral, and The Spirit.

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