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Physical Production In Cinematic Storytelling

A sometimes overlooked and under-appreciated aspect of the film industry

This last week has undoubtedly been the highlight of the program.

When I first became interested in filmmaking, I used to track projects through all stages of development. Concept, development, the greenlight, pre-production, post-production, marketing and distribution. I got to experience most of this process condensed into one week.

The primary project in my Warner Bros. class consists of everyone writing scripts, the class as a whole picking the best four, deciding who does what, and then producing them. We had our first meeting at Warner Bros. Studios where we choose the scripts.

On the bus back, writers and executive producers along with the rest of the unassigned crew began to negotiate who would do what. I had to go around and talk to the writers and executive producers to try to attach myself as a producer to a certain project. It was cool seeing all the dealmaking and discussions that took place in just 30 minutes.

My production, on which I served as a producer and assistant director, decided to do a full rewrite and we had to wait until the following Monday to get the greenlight on the new draft. We changed the entire script from a love story in an abandoned city, to a post apocalyptic western about a social worker who continues to fight for the good of others even when the world has turned to anarchy. That left us only a few days to cast, prepare a storyboard, shot-list, acquire props and set dec, take care of paperwork, rehearse, find extra help, hire a stunt coordinator, schedule, and shoot on the backlot.

Both mornings I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get catering and run last-minute errands to be prepared for a full day on the backlot. We generally got to the set at 8 a.m. where we set up base camp, unloaded the grip truck, dressed the set, set up the Red Epics (cameras), blocked, lit, and shot the scenes for the day. We dressed the entire set (city street and alley), and by 5 p.m. the streets had to be totally cleaned and we had to be packed up and ready to go.

My teachers said that filmmaking is about managing personalities. Communication and getting the people to be on the same page and efficiently work together is the biggest challenge. Setting up the camera, shooting, holding the boom mic, editing; thats the easy part. They weren’t kidding. The biggest challenges that occurred during the production were interpersonal issues (like people being late, people bickering, miscommunications, lack of organization) and not physical challenges.

Everyone is important, from the director, to the camera operator, to the boom operator, to the grip, to the caterer. If anyone messes up or is behind schedule, the whole production is affected, and as a producer/AD, I had to make sure problems like these were avoided. Effective and concise communication between production members and healthy morale is essential.

I have to admit, shooting on multi-million dollar sets where movies such as “Spider-Man,” “Minority Report,” Batman and videos for music groups LMFAO and The Beastie Boys were shot was pretty exciting. As we were producing the film, tour busses passed by to look at the sets. The summer before I was a part of this tour, I remember thinking how amazing it would be to be a part of a production at Warner Bros. A year later, it became a reality.

However, the surreal nature soon faded once the grind of production kicked in. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity, but things are different once you’re a part of things. To whom much is given, much is expected, and it’s much less glamorous being a part of film production as it is observing it.

I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. We were out in the sun in 90-degree heat all day for both days, and my refusal to wear sunscreen resulted in bad burns on both days and me nearly passing out from dehydration.

Both days we almost didn’t have food and water for the cast and crew. We had a four-person crew and a stunt coordinator for a five-actor showdown that resulted in a game of cat and mouse throughout the whole set. By the skin of our teeth we got takes from all the essential shots. Both nights, I got less than four hours sleep, and struggled to operate at full efficiency

While it still sounds fun — and it is — it can be a little draining, both physically and mentally. “Filmmaking is full of long hours and dirty gritty work,” points out my professor. “There isn’t much glamor involved.” Both days I was covered in grime and had a considerable amount of scratches and bruises on my body.

A few weeks ago, my professor also pointed out something that I had never before realized. Production isn’t as artistic as people perceive it. If things are done properly, all the artistic elements — such as story, dialogue, visual style, and shots — should be planned out in pre-production. By the time to shoot rolls around, the day should be scheduled and all that needs to be done is execute all the artistic elements.

Lugging around C-stands, cameras, lights, and capturing crisp dialogue and quality shots don’t deal with art as much as they do with adequate planning, superb organization and timely execution. As soon as production is over, the art resumes with post-production.

My passion for visual storytelling comes in the development and production of stories from an idea in people’s heads to an onscreen reality. That’s why I don’t mind all the paperwork, meetings, discussion, negotiation, permits and paperwork. Rather than seeing it as an inconvenience, I see it as getting one step closer to professionally producing a project that can potentially be distributed at festivals or elsewhere.

For me, tedious duties are actually enjoyable because in a ways you are “parenting” a project to the point where it becomes an “adult,” and lives out its own life in front of others.

When I get to meet people like Fred Andrews — the production designer for “Pretty Little Liars,” who works 14 to 16 hours a day and throughout weekends, controls pretty much all of the below the line budget, and is still cheerful and grateful to be a part of the industry — it is inspiring but also slightly intimidating as it sets a high benchmark for aspiring filmmakers like me.

Once again, the preconceived notions have been stripped away, and I’ve received a more honest look at another aspect of visual storytelling; physical production. It’s very humbling to see all the work that has to go into a production just to get a finished product delivered. Just so any problems, even minor ones, don’t to stick out like a sore thumb.

Production takes so much work, and seeing it firsthand during my time at the University of Southern California has really set the bar. But it’s something I want to aspire to. Even during my most tired and stressed moments, moments where I might have failed, I still wanted to press on, learn from my mistakes, and do better the next time around. In the end, cinematic storytelling is such a powerful medium, and it’s something, despite all my shortcomings and all the challenges involved, I will continue to strive to be a part of.

Photo: University of Southern California student Adam Barnard and others shooting “The Social Worker” at Warner Bros. Studios.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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