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AGENT MX-Z3RO—Making an Independent Movie (Part 5)

Only published comments... Jun 22 2011, 01:00 AM by Thomas Graham

“Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.” —James Cameron


“A lot of times you get credit for stuff in your movies you didn't intend to be there.” —Spike Lee


“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” —Jean-Luc Godard


When making an indie movie on a tight budget, everything is about maximizing opportunities and stretching your dollar as far as it will go… I’m stating the obvious, of course. We had one full week with the grip truck and dolly, and four days with two Sony F35 high-end cameras (the fifth and sixth day, we’d be down to one camera).


As I said in the last blog, 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. For the most part, we were able to cover everything on the list. But when we got to post/editorial, we came to the realization that some coverage had been missed (specifically, some close-ups), which Greg Babor (our Media Composer editor) said happens on every movie he works on. To compensate, he skillfully scaled, moved, and masked his way around the footage to manufacture some needed shots after the fact, while others had to be picked up… And thus we came to rely on another source of footage—more than originally planned: the DSLR camera as a 24/1080p video camera.


We had originally planned to use the Canon 5D and 7D to focus primarily on capturing behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and production stills (run by a separate duo). But since so many filmmakers these days are using DSLRs to capture footage, we decided it was a requirement to do so for our project to show how easily Media Composer can access these files and speed up everyone’s workflow.


So we wound up using the 5D and 7D to capture “security camera feeds” of the bad guys and Agent Z3RO, as he moves through the enemy lair, guided by his guardian angel remote agent. While the main crew was setting up the F35s, laying dolly tracks, setting up lighting, and other things, I would sneak off and borrow one of the grips, my “behind-the-scenes cinematographers,” and an actor or two, and go rogue as a B-Camera unit. We successfully set up and shot the security camera footage (all of which you can see in the first trailer, called “Surveillance,” and in the finished movie). Because the small cameras were easy to mount to C-stands, it made them ideal for shooting in tight places like an elevator.




Top—A still frame from the movie using the surveillance feed effect. Below—The same scene, but showing how we shot it using the Canon 5D. Left to right: DP Parker Tolifson, 2nd AC Andrew Pauling, Agent Zero actor Gunner Wright, and actor Julian Graham (with his hands up)—not sure who those dead bad guys on the floor are!


My “B-Camera unit” also ventured beyond the security camera footage and into the more freeing mode of capturing hand-held, more creative and adventurous shots, most of which were never used, but some were relied upon for filling in the gaps in coverage.


Ultimately, we ended up shooting the entire opening motorcycle and helicopter sequence with the 5D and 7D after it was determined—upon viewing the first editor’s assembly—that we needed to go back and shoot more footage to better tell the opening story of what Agent Z3RO’s mission is and how he gets on the rooftop to fight the bad guys. When our executive VP of marketing and exec producer of the project saw the cut, somewhere close to the end of the editorial process, he suggested an alternate ending that (IMHO) really helped the movie out. Again, the affordable, accessible, and capable Canon 7D came to the rescue to do one last pick-up shot (the last two close-up shots at the end of the movie, before the credits roll).

There was concern with the quality of matching the two formats, cameras, and lenses, and being an audio guy for the last 25 years, I hold deep respect for my DP and his critique, seeing it on the big screen at a proper color correction theater. But in the end, it really presented some fantastic opportunities, and gave us extra footage that we otherwise could not afford in time, money, or man-hours.


So, I’d like to share a few key things I learned in the shooting/re-shoot process. Some of my thoughts were later validated after I heard filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, at our Avid NAB booth, speak about their experiences:


1. A good idea can come from anyone/anywhere. Listen. Yes, you can get so close to something that you loose all objectivity. Kevin Smith mentioned that he has playbacks every morning for the entire crew, and that anyone can comment on what will make the movie better. Our ending is straight from the description by Avid EVP of Marketing, Ron Greenberg.


2. Same-day dailies and a Media Composer rough cut on set are optimal. Again, Kevin Smith mentioned that he feels he is more of an editor than a director. He knows how he wants to see the story cut together and literally does so all night after the day’s shoot. In our case, it was great to load the Compact Flash cards from the Canon DSLRs right into our laptops—minutes after it was shot—and take a look. The F35 cameras were shot to tape and there wasn’t any time for playbacks on set. And we couldn’t afford an elaborate transfer/dailies setup, so we waited quite some time before we ever saw the footage.


3. A multi-camera shoot is ideal. Our DP and director explained to me that you can’t always kill two shots at once with two cameras to speed things up due to lighting and other issues. But what you can get is some more creative coverage of the same shot of which you’d otherwise might have to do pick-ups. We proved this in spades with our poker game montage in the middle of the film.


4. Actors, who knew? I’ve always bagged on actors. They top ones get paid too damn much! But when watching the whole shooting process, I was struck by how much time is used for technical setups, dolly tracks, lighting, staging, props, lenses, measuring distances for focal lengths, sound issues and such. When all that finally gets ready to roll, the actors literally have one or two takes to make magic happen—in front of dozens of people, no less. I watched one actor (who only had a few simple lines in a scene), struggle once the cameras rolled, the slate was slated, and the director called “action.” He literally could not get it together and say his lines under pressure until after five or six takes, and Brian (our director) kept it rolling. When I brought this up with my colleagues afterwards, they mentioned directors like Paul Thomas Anderson who are very “actor-focused” and less “technically focused.” Such directors tend to let the actors rehearse over and over, forcing the crew to adjust on the fly and capture the actors’ rehearsals—once the magic happens, they’ve got it and can just tail slate it. If there’s another movie in my future, I’d like it to be tailored more towards this approach and a bit more “run and gun.”



Two-camera Sony F35 shot of the poker game. Left to right: Camera B operator Matt Irwin, 2nd AC Andrew Pauling, Agent Zero actor Gunner Wright, director Brian Barnhart, actor Jose Joquin, and 1st AC Chloe Weaver, measuring the distance from Camera A to Jose.


5. The first AD and the script supervisor are key. Dave “Beggy Begs” Beglin ran a tight ship as the first assistant director and did a fantastic job. Our DP told me in advance that this job is most likely the most important one to keep everyone on track and manage the day’s schedule of shooting. One job that we did not cover (and in retrospect, strongly wish we had) was a script supervisor. When we got to editorial, our notes on what coverage and takes we had was spotty at best, making everyone’s job in post much more difficult—’nuff said, lesson learned…



Shooting the epic opening hero shot on the rooftop. Left to right: Agent Zero actor Gunner Wright, DP Parker Tolifson, 1st AC Chloe Weaver, 2nd AC Andrew Pauling, and 1st AD David Beglin on the coms, barking orders!


Well, that’s all for now—next time I’ll focus a little bit more on the production audio side of the shoot. Until then, check out our first trailer for Agent MX-Z3RO: “Surveillance.”



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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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