- A post by Gabriel Long
A few weekends ago I filmed my Reach Film Fellowship film, Brothers, over two days at my family’s summer cabin in Eastern Pennsylvania. Before getting into the details of how it went and what lessons I learned, I have to acknowledge the amazing patience and dedication of my cast and crew. Every person on set was very professional and focused on the goal of making the best movie possible. I can take a little bit of credit for assembling a team of people who I thought would work well together, but in reality, I also got lucky. Without further ado, a few lessons from the field:
Visually, my family’s cabin was the perfect setting for my film. I needed a rural setting to fit the story, and it had to be a place where I could construct a sense of claustrophobia indoors balanced with a sense of freedom outdoors.
There were clear disadvantages to using this location. We were shooting in November and the cabin has no insulation or running water in the winter. Furthermore, shooting so far from the city meant that we needed to organize transportation, lodging, and plenty of food for everyone, and there woulnd’t be a chance to get pickups if anything went wrong.
The wooded setting of Gabriel Long's "Brothers" at dusk
Ultimately, though, the positives outweighed the negatives and we were very happy with the choice we made. Because the place belongs to my family, the price was right (free!), and I was able to give my production designer Yvette Granata and art director Brittin Richter a great deal of freedom. When we needed to cover up the outside of the screened-in porch with plastic to keep the set pieces from getting rained on, for example, I knew it was fine to use tacks to hold up the plastic and didn’t have to worry that we were making little holes in the outside of someone else’s house.
Storyboarding Helps (for me, anyway).
I’ve heard a lot of advice on both sides about storyboarding. Some people seem to think it’s the only way to plan a film and other people think it’s a total waste of time. I’m not sure why it’s a contentious topic, but I can say that storyboarding was tremendously helpful to me. The little pictures I draw would probably horrify a real storyboard artist, but I drew out every shot in the movie, and it helped me communicate exactly what I was imagining for the framing of each shot.
Every time we were switching setups, the easiest way for me to communicate with my cinematographer, Ben Conley, was with my storyboards. Rather than going through a long descriptive list, (“Well the frame’s around here, maybe use a 50mm lens, get a piece of that actor’s shoulder, probably eye level…” etc.), I could just show him the image and immediately he’d know what I wanted. From that initial frame we’d shift the camera to create the best shot we could, but it gave us a great starting point. Similarly, when I was scheduling before-hand with my AD and we were deciding which shots were must-haves, it was a lot easier to look at my little pictures than to explain the function of each shot.
Organization and Scheduling
Our schedule was admittedly a little nuts. We were shooting a 9-page script in two days with no extra days for pickups. Everything was shot in one location with only three actors, which kept the scope relatively manageable, but 4.5 pages per day is an ambitious goal regardless.
In advance of the shoot, I worked with Ben and my AD Nicole Karczewski to map out our shooting schedule as carefully as possible. Guiding all our decisions was the fact that I wanted to shoot in sequence. I felt it would help my two main actors, both of whom were young boys, understand the overall arc of the film as we progressed. We were able to schedule our shoot in order with the exception of one scene that comes towards the end of the film but had to be captured during our first and only night shoot on day 1.
A page of the "Brothers" shot list
For a script breakdown, I shot-listed and storyboarded (as mentioned above) the film with Ben, and noted on the script how I would cover each scene. It was a very low-budget system of organization, but it was simple, straightforward, and free. On a larger-scale movie it wouldn’t have been sufficient, but it worked well for the needs of this project. We also had the luxury of knowing that unlike on a large-scale shoot, communicating critical schedule information to cast and crew and coralling everyone was going to be simple. We were all staying together (in two nearby cabins that are winterized), eating meals together, and traveling to and from set together.
As we finalized our schedule, we kept in mind that we’d have to make changes to it on-the-fly when challenges arose. We identified which scenes would be the most challenging to capture well – especially those containing shots of complex actions and scenes that were dialogue-heavy. We built in extra time for those and also decided on streamlined approaches for achieving them.
This planning proved infinitely useful on set. For example, in one shot, one of the characters is swinging a baseball bat and accidentally breaks a painting. This was complicated from both a staging and prop perspective and I wanted to make sure that the effect of the moment was sufficiently dramatic. I had anticipated that getting the glass on the painting to shatter properly might be challenging, and it was. My actor is only 10 and the bat was a bit big for him, so he had trouble hitting the painting hard enough to really shatter the glass. Fortunately I had a backup plan. I covered the scene in a medium shot to capture the actor’s action up until the moment the bat hits the painting, but to capture the impact, I had the AD swing the bat and covered it with a close-up of the painting. This produced the dramatic effect I was looking for and we didn’t lose time having our actor keep repeating the action to get it just right.
There was no comparable back-up plan for the dialogue-heavy scenes. I simply had to get the right performances out of the actors. However, because Nicole and I were clear about where we needed to be in our schedule at any given point during the day, and Ben and I had discussed how we were covering each scene and why, if we started to run late I would know it right away and could start figuring out which shots to cut or combine. On the afternoon of the last day we were running behind, and I had planned to cover the aftermath of the painting breaking with three shots: a wide two-shot and close-ups of each actor. I discussed the remainging shots with Ben and Nicole, and we decided we could afford to cut one of the close-ups and get what we needed from the wide and the second close-up. I got what I needed from those two shots, and we were able to save 15 minutes by eliminating the third set-up.
Feeding People Well
Because of how much we were shooting and the small size of the crew, I was asking a lot of everyone in terms of endurance. The shoot was especially difficult because we were staying at the location, so no one got to go home at the end of day. I got a local chef to cater our meals and provide snacks and he did a really terrific job. The food was excellent and it made an enormous difference in terms of keeping people upbeat and energized.
Including Others in Decision-Making
As a director, it’s easy to make all the decisions yourself. It’s important to have a firm hand, and if you’re telling people exactly what you want, chances are they will give it to you. The risk is that if you give off the impression that you’re not interested in considering other viewpoints, then no one will offer any, and you will miss out on potentially great advice.
Gabriel Long and Gaffer Jesse Skough tweak their lighting setup
On the first day of shooting I was having trouble getting the performance I wanted from one of the actors. I really wanted him to portray a strong sense of fear throughout a particular interaction with the actor playing his brother. While we were changing setups from a wide shot to a close-up, my cinematographer quietly suggested that maybe I should try taking the place of the brother, off camera, and reading the brother’s lines. It was a great piece of advice. Reading with the actor gave me a much more direct connection with him and allowed the two of us to work together toward the performance I was looking for.
The Director Pitches In
On a low-budget project, the director is really the sole leader on set. He or she is often the writer, almost always a producer, and has the most to gain from the success of the project. A good producer or AD can help keep things moving, but in my experience the efficiency of a crew is directly related to how hard the director is working. Chances are that most people on set are getting paid little or nothing and many are probably helping out as a favor to the director, so it’s critical that he or she maintain a high level of energy and be willing to help out with whatever needs to be done. This may very well include PA-type work such as carrying set pieces or setting out food. If the director demonstrates a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the production on schedule, the rest of the crew will generally follow that lead regardless of their experience level or how much they are getting paid. Conversely, a director who thinks it’s below him or her to act like a PA when that’s what’s needed on set is unlikely to have a dedicated and hard-working crew.
RFF 2010 Fellow Gabriel Long (mentored by Laurie Collyer) has done extensive work in both narrative and documentary film. Two of his documentary projects were nationally broadcast by Current TV. Swimming New York City documents a swimming race around Governor’s Island, and The Art of Sticks offers a portrait of outdoor sculptor Patrick Doherty. He has also completed seven narrative short films, most recently Adán, which follows a schoolteacher as he travels from his home in Ecuador to New York City, trying to find a friend in the wake of a school shooting. Long recently moved to New York City where he works as an assistant director, editor, and writer. Check out the film’s blog, and stay updated on the film on Facebook, and Twitter!