Making Movies

[This post is for "Da G-Playa" -- you know who you
are ;-)]

There are two types of people in this world -- those who know
what you mean when you say "Azeeeez!", and those who don't.

I'm currently working on my third independent film. (I say
"my" but it's not like I've written or directed or acted in them... I
just help out). Don't bother asking what they were called, because you won't
have heard of any of them.

Yet 🙂

The first film I worked on was shot in Melbourne, Australia and was entitled "The Thief." It was a short film directed by a
friend-of-a-sister-of-a-friend as a way to get into film school (The Victorian College of the Arts, like
many schools, likes you to have a "portfolio" of work to prove that
you have enough
to take up a place in the course). I got involved because my
friend's sister had a computer problem one night, and when I went around to fix
it the director (Yen)
was there working on his script. We got chatting about the script and stuff,
and I'd always wanted to work on a film "one day," so I got involved
in the shoot with the initial role of handling continuity. Well one thing
led to another and I ended up actually being a runner and a grip / lighting technician
for the shoot.

[Note that I'll be providing links to the IMDB Glossary for many terms here, but
they mainly apply to large productions; independent films tend to be staffed with
smaller volunteer crews who may not actually have any professional experience.
The roles are less clearly defined and people just end up doing whatever needs
to get done.]

As a grip I was basically responsible for taking orders from
the chief lighting technician (gaffer).
Put up a light here; run some cable there; strike (turn on) a light, turn it
off, turn it on again, move it left, up, back where it started; go get some ND
or a gel (things you put in front of lights to change their colour or reduce
their intensity). That kind of thing. I didn't have any kind of artistic input
into the film, but I did a lot of leg work and helped to Get Stuff Done.

The second film I worked on was Bullfights and Blackmail (working title: The 18th Suspect) where I was billed as
the Assistant Director. Most
people know that the Director
has overall artistic control of the film, but while the director is working
with the actors to get the
best performance, or with the Director
of Photography
(cinematographer) to get the right shot composition or other
crew members on the current shot, the AD is doing stuff like getting organised
for the next shot (making sure actors are ready; sets are dressed correctly; etc.)
and (at least in this small production) doing things that a script supervisor
might do such as making sure that all the angles for each scene have been shot;
that no lines of dialog have been skipped; and so on. Again there is no real
artistic input into the film, but it's grunt work that has to be done to let
the artistic people (director, actors, DP, etc.) get their jobs done, and
without it there'd be some pretty nasty holes in the final cut of the film 😉

Of course, because this was a short film I also did a whole
bunch of other stuff, including operating the camera crane,
"dressing" sets, and doing more grip work (including, for instance,
sticking lots of black plastic bags to the windows of a house to simulate night
time, along with all the stuff mentioned before -- unpacking, setting up,
moving, and taking down lights; putting up gels or scrims,
etc.). I also did random silly stuff like:

  • Hide
    behind (and catch) a door that the leading actress slammed open so that it
    didn't bounce back and hit her or make a loud noise
  • Wrangle a large plant
    that obscured an actor's face when shot from the front door of a house to
    the car on the driveway
  • Applying
    duct tape to the main actor's sweater so he didn't get carpet burn when
    dragged across the floor

I learnt a lot from the DP and the gaffer on that shoot, and
it was great fun working with the cast & crew.

The film I'm working on at the moment is actually a
feature-length action movie, which is a big change from the previous two (short
suspense / dramas). And I'm actually in charge of lighting (for some definition
of "in charge" 🙂 ) as well as the usual hands-on stuff like operating
the crane or being a dolly
or doing other random stuff. I even had a short speaking walk-on role in one scene
where I witness a crime and get knocked out by one of the bad guys... very
interesting and funny stuff happened after that, but you'll have to wait until
the movie is finished before I can tell you any more ;-).

But now I actually do stuff like decide where to put the
lights and how to mess around with creating depth and definition and other
artsy things. Of course I muddle through it for the most part (just like the JScript
), getting input from the director and another crew member who has
some formal training in lighting (but who is currently on vacation) but it's
kind of cool. I have some idea of what might look good and can play around with
the (very limited!) resources we have to try and get the best lighting for a
given scene.

At the most basic level, you want to use contrast to
differentiate foreground objects from background objects. Close one eye (so you
lose your stereoscopic
vision) and look around you. Notice how "flat" everything looks,
unless there is a noticeable difference in brightness between objects? (Try
this when you're a passenger in a car -- NOT
the driver! -- and notice how scary it suddenly becomes since you can't tell
how far away the car in front of you is). One common trick is to give actors a
"halo" effect by shining light on them from behind (more-or-less
facing towards the camera), called a "back light." If you look for it
in TV shows or movies, you'll see it all over the place. Another trick is to
have foreground lighting on the actor fade (eg) from left to right, but have
the background lighting fade from right to left, so you get contrast on both
sides but with some more variety (light-on-dark and dark-on-light). Maybe one
day I'll actually take some formal classes on the subject.

And that's it! I just thought I'd write this up since enough
people ask me what I do and now I can point them to this blog. I might even
send a link to my parents! 🙂

...And for those who don't know where "Azeeeez" comes
from, it is a reference to the brilliant movie The Fifth Element. An
archaeologist is trying to decipher some ancient hieroglyphics inside a temple,
and he has with him a child named "Aziz" who is supposed to be
reflecting light into the work area. Whenever Aziz falls asleep and lets the
reflector fall down, the archaeologist says "Azeeeez - LIGHT!"
Eventually he gets more light than he bargained for...

Comments (5)

  1. Eric Lippert says:

    > Maybe one day I’ll actually take some formal classes on the subject.

    Have you read "Grammar of the Film Language"? I’ll lend you my copy if you haven’t. It’s a good book for the budding AD/cinematographer.

  2. Siew Moi Khor says:

    I’ve never been involved in film productions but have crewed for stage productions quite a number of times. Fun stuff. Hope to get to see the films you’ve a hand in making one of these days. btw, you forgot to include funny "John Can Code" video shot 😉

  3. Peter Torr says:

    Thanks Eric. I took a first-year course entitled "Classic Hollywood Cinema" at Melbourne University and we studied some theory. I wanted to take additional classes, but they wouldn’t let me because I was an Engineering student and would be taking a seat away from a poor deserving Arts student… huh!

Skip to main content