We just wrapped production on the indie feature, NANCY PLEASE. For the first week and a half we shot in New Rochelle where we took over two floors of a house that served as our protagonist’s apartment. The commute has been grueling. Our sound guy stayed on location, which saved him about two hours of commuting each day, but it also meant that he hadn’t left the house for literally eight days straight.
Shooting in small places can drive a production a little batty. We’ve put the camera in every crevice of the apartment: in closets, stairwells, doorways. A fair number of scenes are set in one unreasonably small bathroom. Shooting there was a tile puzzle where we slide crew, lights, actors, and equipment around to get everything and everybody into the right place. The one thing about small locations is that it can be tough to use long lenses, which I favor even in wide shots. Having trained in New York, I’ve certainly become skilled at lighting tiny apartments. For daylight or dim nighttime ambient scenes, I love lighting through windows whenever possible. Bringing a light into the room requires a lot of control to make it look natural. As a result, my key grip, Holly, my gaffer, “Beasely” and I were always looking for ways to bounce or hang lights outside from the roof or other windows.
I love using cloth diffusion especially, muslin. Bouncing off of it or lighting through it softens the light beautifully with great falloff. I’ll toss it on the floors to catch some bounce from the sun. I recently made a couple of batten strips using porcelain sockets and lumber, and am breaking them in on set. Cover them in muz and it gives a fantastic soft wrap around light. It’s my favorite light on set right now. When shooting on film, I especially love using unbleached muslin to help warm the light but with the Red, I feel like it introduces a yellow/slightly green hue that I don’t like in the light so I was favoring bleached muslin with 1/8th or ¼ CTO.
The pace of our shooting was intense. Banging out six to seven pages a day was not uncommon. Without a great crew with a great sense of humor, it would not have been impossible. Someone else gets credit for this metaphor but if you’ve made a short before, it’s a mad sprint for the week or weekend that you shoot. A feature is a marathon where you find a rhythm and have time to think about what you are doing and process things as you watch and discuss dailies. NANCY PLEASE’s schedule made me feel like we are sprinting a marathon. No feature ever has enough money or time as the nature of the process is to maximize your resources. But, with this schedule, every day was an accelerated push and the only rhythm we found was to move fast. We did a 7 7/8 page day with a company move and our record is a 9 page day with a big day interior scene, a night for day scene and a quick exterior shot. The page count may sound scary but we kept our setups to a minimum and were able to accomplish a lot. I tried to keep my lighting small and flexible so that we could move fast. Ideally on days where we were shooting daylight with a huge page count, I tried to shoot all natural light. But, with these short autumn days, we lose sunlight fast. Within our first week of production alone, we had already lost twenty minutes of daylight and there were times I needed to figure out a consistent look across scenes that were over five-pages long. We were always playing a bit of scheduling tetris to shoot scenes at the right time of day. One side of our house faced east and the other west. I tried to schedule scenes on certain sides of the house to get the right light but with varying degrees of success.
One location we shot at with long scenes was a school. Ideally I would light everything from outside so we wouldn’t have to move a jungle of equipment to turn around but we were on the second floor of a schoolhouse and weren’t able to bring our lights high enough outside the windows. So using HMIs inside became the plan, which can be hard to control. But we had a large classroom with room to spare, so we bounced them around off beadboard to augment what the sun would do. I like to think I’m not slow but on this film, I learned to light quicker and more efficiently but still get the look I want. Without time to think and with some locations coming in at the last second, lighting became instinctual.
The Cooke Speed Panchros are gorgeous. Each lens in the set has it’s own idiosyncrasies. I’ve fallen in love with their look. Our set is a little mismatched color wise with the 75mm being super warm, almost like shooting with an 85 filter.
Time to sleep and do some laundry.
Until next month, here is a clip from one of my favorite films, La Haine, directed by Matthieu Kassovitz. This shot in particular kills me, with the blocking and the camera move. The choreography of it is so simple but so effective, it always impresses me. Sorry, I could only find a French version without subtitles of the clip online.