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November 2013 - Filmstigator

Michael Curtis

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November 6, 2013

Director’s Log for “GIFT” – Part One

November 6, 2013 | By | No Comments

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I’m happy and relieved to announce that we’ve completed production on “GIFT,” our first narrative short film for Filmstigator.  We were able to stay on the original schedule and get all of the scenes shot in 6 days.  Those 6 days were spread out over three, non-consecutive weekends.  It was a lot of work, and there were a few times I didn’t think we were going to make it, but somehow we did.

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Even with a sun shield on monitors, full sun can make watching takes problematic. I often just turned off my director’s monitor and watched the actors up close. I like working this way best anyway.

I had planned to provide updates while we were still shooting, but I quickly realized how “optimistic” that idea was.  There were too many other things demanding immediate attention.  Because I am both producer and director on “GIFT,” virtually anything that happened or needed to happen on the film involved me personally in one way or another.  The same was true for Melissa Bowers, our first-time AD who was also serving as script supervisor.  Now that production is over I’d like to review how it went and talk about challenges we encountered along the way.

In the last post, I mentioned that our first weekend of shooting was at Jekyll Island off the Georgia Coast.  It’s a beautiful place, and we were shooting nothing but exteriors the whole weekend.  We were quite fortunate with weather.  Across the board I have to say we really got lucky with great weather throughout production.

A few days prior to the Jekyll weekend, the sound guy asked me about a contingency plan in case of rain.  “There isn’t one,” I told him.  “Welcome to indie filmmaking.”

I was joking around, of course, but rain was in many ways not my main concern at Jekyll.  The bigger challenge was actually going to be sun.  We had a lot of shots to get, and we wanted the light to be as lovely as possible.  That meant shooting primarily at sunrise and sunset—Golden Hour.  We had to transgress that ideal more than I wanted to, but ultimately I think it worked out OK for us.

But being on the ocean involves an even bigger challenge than sunlight.  You also have to account for the movement of tides.  We were shooting on Jekyll’s picturesque Driftwood Beach, and that location is only accessible at low to moderate tide levels—so our location would literally be submerged at high tide.  Talk about limiting your shoot day!

We needed low tides occurring at the right time of day (sunrise, sunset).  These things don’t go together very often, as it turns out.  Tides gradually shift over about a 12-hour period, and the tides move a little later each day.  So I’d carefully chosen the one weekend in September that would be optimal in terms of low tides and golden hour light.  If we’d had rain on that weekend, we might have had to wait as much as a month for those times and tides to line up again.  That is some crazy pressure to put on the production, but that’s how it was.

I just had to think positively and expect clear skies that weekend.  And that’s what we got.

It is cliché, I know, but you really have to stay positive.  This is difficult when you’re stressed and sleep-deprived, but being positive has an energy that can be very helpful to yourself and your entire crew.  Some days I did OK at this, and other days I failed miserably.  Next time will be better.

Laugh at yourself.  The crew and actors already think you’re crazy anyway. A sane person would not attempt so much with so little.

The rain stayed away, and the tides were in our favor.  But on our second day of shooting, we really wanted to be set up and ready to roll our first take right as the sun was coming up over the sea.  That meant traversing to our location in the dark—while the tide was still going out.

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Blocking out a scene with actor Katherine Shepler at Jekyll Island

Jekyll Island is a favorite nesting site to a variety of sea turtles, and it is a protected beach.  You can’t just drive production vehicles across the sand.  Vehicles are not allowed on the beach.  So we had to carry all of our gear to set by hand or on rolling carts.

To add to the challenge, there are fallen trees all over Driftwood Beach—which is precisely why I wanted to shoot there.  Visually, it’s spectacular.  Practically, it’s a nightmare.

That Sunday morning we had to schlep our gear about a mile to our location by flashlight, picking our way through fallen trees and waves.  Low tide was five hours away, so the tide was still slowly going out, and a good bit of the beach was still under water. We’d get 50 feet or so along our route, and then there’d be a fallen tree we couldn’t get our carts around.  So we’d all converge on the cart—weighted down with thousands of dollars worth of gear—and lift it by brute force over the obstacle to get it going again.  This happened numerous times for each of the carts we had with us.

Amazingly, not only did we get all the gear to our location, we managed to roll on our first take just as the sun rose over the horizon.  It all worked out.  I was really stunned at how awesome the crew was.  I mean, if folks were ever going to balk, that would have been a perfectly reasonable time for it to happen.  But they didn’t.  Everyone teamed up, overcame the unexpected challenge, and made it happen.  And this was before we even shot anything that day.  It was very humbling to be directing and producing a project with that level of commitment from everyone involved.

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People say it’s hard working with child actors. I have to say I really enjoyed working with our two child leads, Royce Mann & Katherine Shepler. They worked really hard throughout rehearsals and production. Top notch talent.

After our epic battle with sand and sea and fallen tree, the day’s shoot seemed pretty straightforward.  We got all the footage we needed and made both our days at Jekyll.

One thing that I think might surprise folks who are not filmmakers is how much work has to go into production before you actually shoot.  I’m talking about pre-production, of course.  Sometimes actual shooting is almost a relief once you get to it compared to the stress and race-to-the-wire preparation with schedules, costumes, props, storyboards, permits, locations, and shot lists and everything else that has to be squared away by the time shooting starts.  Ultimately one of the biggest production challenges we faced was simple sleep-deprivation.  I’ll talk more about those sorts of challenges in the next post.

What about you guys?  Any crazy production stories you want to share?  Let’s us hear your favorite on-set war stories.

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