Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Production of films

The following text is excised from my PhD thesis based on notes from my committee. It's all about the production of our films over Covid. I thought it should live somewhere, so here it is.

1.1      Production techniques

Low-budget/no-budget films typically have similar production “cheats” compared to their bigger-budget brethren. The lighting for low-budget films typically relies more on practical lights and requires what little crew one has to each wear more than one “hat” in production. Individually, my producer Laura Schlachtmeyer and I have more than two decades of low-budget filmmaking. Together, we tend to divide our roles into lighting, sound, and art-direction. For the short “plays pandemical” films, we faced additional unique production challenges because of Covid restrictions. For A Pair of Shoes, Let the Darkness In, and Helsinki we used the actors’ own web cameras for picture while Schlachtmeyer and I were each on the Zoom conference call in our own apartments, and remote recorders with hidden lavaliere microphones that the actors operated themselves while the producer and I watched the feed from those cameras on Zoom teleconferencing and recorded using Zoom’s cloud-recording feature. Maduka Steady used his own microphone for A Pair of Shoes feeding a Tascam portable audio recorder. Tony Travostino used a Sanken COS11 microphone feeding a Zoom F1-LP audio recorder (“Zoom” is the name of the manufacturer of the audio recorder, the manufacturer is not related to the video conferencing company). For Let the Darkness In I delivered a camera and audio package to Christa Kimlicko-Jones, the actor who had to operate two cameras and the sound recorder fed by the hidden lavaliere microphone. Her cameras were her own web camera and a Panasonic GH-4 with a Panasonic/Zeiss 17-35mm f2.8 lens. The microphone was a DPA 4061 lavaliere feeding a Zoom audio recorder.

Figure 5.2-1 Christa Kimlicko-Jones' recording setup showing the producer Laura Schlachtmeyer in the Zoom call in progress.

For each of the short films, I composed the scores directly on my digital audio workstation (DAW) using virtual instruments and synthesizers. Using a DAW does not make the creation of a readable score a priority, although I was able to drop “markers” in the timeline that indicated the important parts of the films for spotting.

For both Flamingo and The Drowned Girl I operated camera using a geared head and a tripod. On Flamingo I shot on a Blackmagic Cinema 4K camera with a 1970’s 200mm Canon S.S.C. f4.0 lens to give it an extremely claustrophobic look. The camera also fed a laptop with a connection via Zoom teleconferencing so that producer Laura Schlachtmeyer could watch the performances in real-time while also acting as a script supervisor as she was able to speak to me and to actor Rebecca Kush through the laptop. I recorded the audio simultaneously to a Zoom F8 recorder and to the camera so the audio could be patched through Zoom teleconferencing such that Schlachtmeyer could hear the audio from the performance. Additionally, I had a microphone I could mute so I could speak directly to Schlachtmeyer but that microphone was not recorded. The DPA 4061 microphone for the talent was hard-wired and hidden in her bra.

I used my framework starting with pre-production of The Drowned Girl, reflecting on the overall narratology of the film, considering the “reality” of the narrative world, and the focalizors of the narrative. In production, I concentrated on the narrative levels and the realizations, decisions, and actions in particular scenes, giving notes to the actors to emphasize or elide over those moments. I created a complete picture edit of the film without any music cues. I then watched the entire film, carefully marking every narrative level change, realization (and reveal), decision, and action.  With the noteless score, I had marked the entire film in each of the dramatic moments (narrative level changes, realizations, decisions, and actions) giving the entire score a structure before composing began, thus carrying out the purpose behind developing the framework of this thesis.

On The Drowned Girl I operated the same Blackmagic camera however I used a Panasonic/Zeiss 17-35mm f2.8 lens for almost the entire shoot. Each set we shot on had at least one unique costume, all provided by the actor Annalisa Loeffler, making each day a fresh challenge with microphone and body mic placement. The recording was done with two microphones – a Sanken COS 11 fed a Sennheiser G4 transmitter which fed a Sennheiser G4 receiver which was recorded directly onto the camera, and a DPA 4061 microphone which fed a Zoom F1-LP recorder. The recorder and the transmitter were hidden on the actor’s body – usually in the small of her back but on occasion we used a thigh-rig (a band of elastic around the thigh, upon which would be clipped the transmitter and/or recorder). The microphones would sometimes be placed in the bra but could also be hidden high in her blouse or under her jacket. Two microphones were used to ensure we would be protected with a backup in the case of clothing rustle or radio dropouts. The underwater scenes were shot with a GoPro11 Black while I swam wearing snorkel gear below her. For the water “overlays” in parts of the film, I re-shot the movie through a glass flat-bottomed bowl of water placed on top of a computer monitor which played the film while I blew canned air over the water’s surface.

A camera on a tripod looking down at a bowl of water on a computer monitor.
Figure 5.2-2 Re-shooting the film through a bowl of water.

For other “rain” effects I shot a plate of glass with a black cloth behind it while spraying water on the glass with a spray bottle.

A camera aimed at a piece of glass in a shower.
Figure 5.2-3 Shooting the dripping-water effect for The Drowned Girl.

The music for The Drowned Girl was composed using the score writing program Dorico so that I could make a printed score for musicians to read. The score was recorded over two days in February of 2023 at the Bard College Conservatory by me. Laura Schlachtmeyer produced the session while I engineered and conducted. I designed a recording system using my Allen & Heath SQ5 mixer and the Samplitude digital audio workstation. I used a modified Decca Tree of an AEA R84 ribbon microphone as a center microphone and two Neumann KM183 omnidirectional microphones as the left-and-right. The harp was close-mic’ed with a custom-made U47 clone, the cello was close-mic’ed with an AKG C12A tube microphone, and a pair of AKG 460 microphones with CK-1 cardioid capsules was used on the piano.

Figure 5.2-4 System diagram of recording system for The Drowned Girl.

Monitoring was provided with a pair of Allen & Heath personal monitor mixes along with separate headphone amplifiers for the harpist, flautist, and producer (the conductor listened to the headphone mix created by the mixer itself.)

A group of people playing instruments in a church
Figure 5.2-5 Harp; Tammam Odeh, flute; Rea Ábel, piano; Pei-I Hsu, cello; Chris Van Zyl.

We hired four student musicians. On harp; Tammam Odeh, flute; Rea Ábel, piano; Pei-I Hsu, and cello; Chris Van Zyl. We recorded in the Bard College Chapel.

For the opening credits the music has words from a Goethe poem sung by the actor, Annalisa Loeffler, in my apartment during a lull in Covid restrictions. She was recorded with both an AEA R84 ribbon microphone and an AKG C12A tube microphone through Neve 1272 microphone preamps.

Figure 5.2-6 Annalisa Loeffler singing.

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