Thursday, 21 March 2013

UNIVERSAL EARLog II Part 2: Day 4 (10)

The final day of the final reschedule of UNIVERSAL EAR: Banned Insubstance. It's Tuesday.

Today we are joined on set by Daniel Glynn who has been drafted in to play two roles: Linus, a disgraced former jockey (most character descriptions in this episode are prefixed by "disgraced former") and his disgraced former he-horse Gloria. In our excitement at Mush and Ravey's weekend work on Glynn's horse costume, we've completely forgotten to find him a jockey costume; we scour the area for a jockey shop to no avail, but a trip to Primark and a lucky tweet for a riding helmet see us right. We're against the clock today with Lockwood due to fly out of Manchester on the National Express at 15.00.

With every element now in place, we gather in the 'Zoom Room': a plywood-partitioned storage area of the Takk basement we have been using to perform our company anthem, Fat Larry's Band's Zoom, each morning before work - the idea being that the plywood will absorb unnecessary waves before they reach the paying customers upstairs. This precaution is particularly welcomed this morning as Glynn throws himself wholeheartedly into his performance, leaving no doubt as to his allegiance to the cause.

There is only one functioning movie light remaining, our other vintage bulbs having blown (and somebody didn't think to ebay 'new' ones as back-ups instead of waiting until we needed them as replacements). Boom shadows are almost unavoidable as I've fashioned our lone lamp into an unforgiving Mediterranean sun for today's horse stable scene; soundie Martin Salomonsen has no place to hide as miking from a distance tends to foreground the chatter, MacBook tapping and Scandi-pop from the cafe upstairs. Through a combination of Salomonsen's ingenuity and my turning a blind camera-eye to straying shadows, we line something workable up. There's something beautiful about an unintended boom-in-frame, like a dropped accent or a disappearing-reappearing wristwatch. If you want to see it as a negative thing, you aren't welcome in my cinema: such flaws are, in fact, wormholes into parallel extended filmiverses. Still, this isn't mentioned to Salomonsen as the set requires a certain (albeit upbeat) tension to operate.

The drama between Linus (a former sports-doper now strung out on street-dope) and Byrne (who wants to get his hands on the sports dope but recognises in Linus a tragic echo of his own degenerate brother, Santiago) is moving: Lockwood (playing Byrne), who has by now given up on pretending to have read the script, compares it to Shakespeare. Byrne tries the straight approach, flattery then empathy to get the required information from Linus until finally resorting to slapping the blissed-up wash-out repeatedly in the face. Still, by the end of the scene, they are in each others arms in one of the few non-libidinous shows of intimacy from Byrne that we've seen in the series so far.

With Linus and Byrne's scenes shot, the priority now is to get Byrne's scenes with Gloria the "mixed-up" horse before Lockwood has to leave for his coach. There is a delay as I struggle to frame a shot in which Gloria puts his hoof to his head in shame: deputy art director Mush has followed my precise instructions on which horse parts we need, and improvised beyond my wildest dreams in the execution of this horse-from-the-future (tigery!) costume, but there is a flaw in the plan: on creating the brief, I pictured the horse hoof, beak and ears as being worn by an actual horse, but as is to be worn by a person there is the difficult matter of framing out Glynn's human shoulder. The solution may be the closest thing Glynn has ever come to Yoga.

With the horse shot, we send Glynn on his lunch and casually set up a missing insert of Byrne first discovering the newspaper article which alerts him to the Linus-and-Gloria lead. It has been hand-drawn on the back of an unused (Lockwood's?) script this morning, by Takk Joe. Everything is ready, we've recreated our fine noir-window-frame set up from yesterday, when I decide that the light, that movie lamp with the one remaining vintage bulb, could be just a smidgen higher. In the farce that follows, the bulb is blown and we're left in the dark: Lockwood is sweating over the departure of his coach, I am overcome with self-loathing at having brought the production to its knees by simultaneously failing both as producer and cinematographer, and Salomonsen is philosophical - something along the lines of "it's in the nature of bulbs…"

Fortunately, this corner of the studio is brightly enough lit that we are able to get some, albeit unstylized, exposure for Lockwood's final shot. We pack him up and send him on his way. He has worked hard this weekend; he has ignored the script; he has seriously compromised the iconography of the character he has the honour to regularly personify by refusing to have his hair shorn into Harley Byrne's signature undercut for this episode. I suspect he won't get much sleep on that coach.

There is one final shot to get with Glynn alone: how long can it take to get this one shot? Quite long, attempting to again light the shot with just the studio's floating fluorescent tubes. Unable to get a flicker of recognition from Doris the Super 8 camera's internal light meter, we surround him with white cardboard and the Strig-Rig, shine our mobile phone torches at these and him, and finally, get some mechanical acknowledgement of our efforts when I hold my bicycle headlamp in my teeth and direct it straight at Glynn's face (one of my hands is holding a mobile torch and the other is needed to operate Doris).

Expect to see this one in cinematography textbooks in the near future

It's unconventional; it's unprofessional; it's probably ineffective. It's a wrap. The fourth episode of UNIVERSAL EAR has finished production. Next time I'd like to scale back the narrative and scale up the resources. The restrictions are becoming restrictive. Meanwhile, the rest of the afternoon is spent sweeping straw out of the studio, the rest of the day spent picking straw out of our hair. Byrne will be back.
Salomonsen, who were it not for his good nature might be pre-fixed "the long-suffering", attempts to mic a scene and be a lighting rig

Monday, 18 March 2013

UNIVERSAL EARLog II Part 2: Day 3 (9)

Monday, Day 3 of the Banned Insubstance reshoot in our temporary studio in the basement of Manchester's Takk coffee house.

The guest stars for this, the most expansive UNIVERSAL EAR episode so far, are starting to pile up: today we welcome Aidan Smith to the set - the Institute's staff composer, responsible for the soundtrack to our musical It's Nick's Birthday and the flea orchestra in A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear. He is to play Hector, another competitor in the Bash Walk event at the 2112 Olympid Games, who attempts to block hero Harley Byrne's progress with the quite legitimate use of a croquet mallet. It is not difficult to see that Smith has been awaiting his big chance to exorcise his inner actor: when he is directed to racewalk on the spot, he keeps enthusiastically speeding off out of shot. Our races are filmed on the spot for a reason: our original Nexus Art Cafe studio was too small for panning shots - or wide shots - and despite our new gaff being at least three times bigger, we've naturally nested into a Nexus-back-room-sized corner. 
By the end of the morning, he's standing where he's told, gnawing on his croquet mallet to intimidate his rivals and smeared with ketchup-blood, a statuesque vision of Extreme Future Sports beyond anything imagined in the likes of Rollerball or Death Race 2000.

Once Smith has turned in his performance and departed to put in a few hours at the library, just Lockwood, soundie Martin Salomonsen and myself remain on set. An efficient afternoon of pick-ups is planned, and instant progress is made when I inform Lockwood we are to start with three shots from the opening sequence, and he replies that we already filmed them last November. Did we? He has a good memory of it, or at least being in proximity to some of the props needed for this scene; I feel I must have had a good reason for scheduling them for today, but decide to trust my leading man. Instead, we erect a blue-screen studio that perhaps more closely resembles a padded cell, for our first attempt at chromakeying with Super 8. We'll see if it works when we get the footage back in a few months.

The most ambitious set-up of the day, however, involves shooting the reverse angles of the seduction scene we began last November. On that occasion, I had to body-double for Lockwood who was off sick; his character, hero Harley Byrne, confronts a corrupt National Olympid Committee official, Yolanda (played by Amanda Belantara) but is seduced before he can complete his line of questioning. Belantara has since skipped the country, so now we have Lockwood's face back for the reverse shots it falls to myself to once again step up as body double, albeit this time in place of someone half my size who looks much better in the required little red dress. (Although I still look pretty good, causing some introspection amongst the more or less heterosexual Lockwood and Salomonsen).

With me sitting on Lockwood's lap and Salomonsen's hands full of boom pole, this leaves no-one free to operate Doris, our Super 8 camera. Doris has no video monitor, just a tiny viewfinder, and no workable record lock, so Salomonsen body doubles as me body doubling as Belantara while I frame him up in a shot that I will be able to record myself when I retake my place from him on Lockwood's knee. It works: I even have a hand free to tune Lockwood's performance by fondling his pectorals, though I don't know how this will match with the rest of the scene as shot last year.

Every day of this shoot we've managed to complete the shotlist ahead of time. Granted, there have been shots cut, in one case half a scene (yesterday, when we were running out of Super 8 stock with no shops open and it being UNIVERSAL EAR villain-actress Tuesday Betts' last day on set) but never due to time restraints. If one ignores the fact that we already passed the end of the original schedule last November, one might almost claim we are "getting better". Or at least "getting quicker". This is just one of several worrying trends that suggest the UNIVERSAL EAR project needs a whole new set of techniques next time we tool up. Another being that whether he's dropped into a padded blue-screen studio or fondled by his director, Lockwood is starting to look all too comfortable.

UNIVERSAL EARLog II Part 2: Day 2 (8)

 Above photos credit: Rachel Ravey

Words to follow...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

UNIVERSAL EARLog II Part 2: Day 1 (7)

It's always a worry when we welcome new collaborators to the set. I try hard to prepare them in advance for the adjustments they will have to make but only experience truly does the job.

Our new sound recordist, Martin Salomonsen, has also had the luxury of a briefing from his predecessor "On The" Mike Cacioppo, who has fled the country with the episode's guest star Amanda Belantara. (Luckily we already got her shots). Thus, when Martin is the first person on set and I arrive apologizing that it's become apparent he will be working against tremendous noise from our host cafe Takk upstairs, he takes it in his stride. With a bit of schedule re-jigging, we decide we can incorporate the Northern Quarter's chattering, MacBook-tapping hipsters as 22nd century Olympid Games-goers.

Mush, however, who has joined us as unofficial art department head, casually mentions that she used to do this sort of thing "for real" and politely asks if we always just make it up as we go along. Mush's first job of the day is to make the Institute's contract starlet Tuesday Betts look like Ernest Borgnine. Mr Borgnine is the inspiration behind the disguise Bett's character 'Being' adopts for this episode of UNIVERSAL EAR. This is precisely the experience it takes to recalibrate our new artist to the Institute's way of doing things. With a bit of patience, a bit of fleece, a pair of tights and some tit tape, the job is soon a good'un.

Further illustrating for Mush the improvised nature to our schedule, Executive Producer Sugden arrives out of the blue with 5-year old Rudie, the latest in a line of UNIVERSAL EAR child labour. Rudie nearly misses out on his big break though when he proves too short to show up on any of his cameo walk-throughs. Rudie's main role on set today will be to keep our adrenalin up by repeatedly donkey-kicking a rubber ball prop (meant as a punch bag) at our last functioning movie light and at Doris herself, our now legendary Super 8 camera.

We're nearly thrown when I unwrap a brand new, foil-sealed Super 8 cartridge and find it's already been 'Exposed'. Betts speculates that perhaps it contains the missing Egyptian episode despite no mortal hands (outside of the Kodak organisation) ever having touched this virgin film. We'll find out in time as I managed to muddle it with our legitimately-exposed cartridge so will now have to get both processed. 

Somehow, all the above-noted instability is transformed into action and despite not firing our first shot off until halfway through the day, for the first time ever we manage to get every shot on the list made before kicking-out time. Perhaps it was something to do with creative entropy and strange energy. Perhaps because we saved time on hairdressing when no-good sell-out Lockwood insisted on preserving his hair and jeopardising the iconic look of UNIVERSAL EAR hero Harley Byrne in the name of some big-time commercial shoot next week. Either way, we're surely due for a big post-pride fall on Day 2.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Unedited Finale Reel from It's Nick's Birthday with live accompaniment in Manchester

Lurid unedited rushes from the finale of our musical It's Nick's Birthday will play with live musical accompaniment at Video Jam in Manchester this Sunday. Please attend.
WHERE: Antwerp Mansion, Rusholme, M14 5RF
WHEN: Sunday 17th March 2013, 19.00
COST: £2
NOTES: Live soundtrack by a mystery guest musician


Monday, 4 March 2013

It's Nick's Birthday: our Super 8 musical is now online

Following its transcontinental festival run, our homemade musical is now available to watch online in full.
Written & directed by Graeme Cole with award-winning music by Aidan Smith, It's Nick's Birthday follows four friends as they waste a precious day failing to communicate - except, perhaps, on a level that only Nick can bring himself to acknowledge.
Further details, festival list, awards, credits and so-called Extras can be located here.