Rough Cut

Today I got my first look at Moonlight Sonata footage, a rough cut that gives a general feel for how the thing will look, but also demonstrates that we have a long way to go to get to the finished product. We had planned to have the opening shot be a long, continuous steady-cam shot, but as fuego has combed through the takes it seems we don’t have one that really works from start to end. That’s not a disaster; there is plenty of footage to make Paul’s entrance into the café a nervous and disorienting time. Not all the takes in this cut are the ones I remember most fondly from shooting, but it’s about making all the parts work together.

Man, I sure wish we’d had more extras.

The cut did not even include the concert scene, so I don’t know how that is going to work, and the voiceovers aren’t there and the walking through Prague and all the audio post, so at this point all I can really report is that there are shots that look fantastic. The voiceover raw files are on their way to me; and I will be going through them and picking out the best takes over the next few days, and putting the bits together into seamless delivery. It’s a job that can take as much time as I’m willing to give it.

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

Cowboy Bob reflects on the contents of his glass

The underground bar looks great. Really really great. I was worried about the video noise I was seeing but at least on the version I have (far from big-screen quality but pretty good for a computer monitor) the noise is not a problem. Using the real audio and getting the music in comes much later, so I’m trying to not worry about that too much (yet).

A long way to go, but so far, so good!

Voice-Over Day

There was one remaining task for Moonlight Sonata that had to be done before I left Prague. We had to get actor, director, producer, and sound guy in the same place for an hour or three to get the voice-overs recorded. It turned out the only time all parties could be present was Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem but the night before was my (not yet documented) going-away party. Perhaps it was a good thing that there was something important to do the next day.

I resolved to bring donuts for everyone. There is a store near the metro station in my neighborhood with a sign saying DONUTKY, which I assumed was a czechification of the English word. Closer inspection of the sign, after four years of walking past it, showed that the sign said DOUTNIKY. Apparently that means “cigars”. Happily there was a shop filled with yummy baked things two doors away, and it had very donut-like items.

Apparently, what you might call a jelly donut (similar here but smaller and rounder) is in this country called by the name “horse poop” (in Czech, of course). My guess is that it has something to do with the shape. Dobrou chut’! (rhymes with ‘Bon Apetit!‘)

But I digress. I got to Brad Huff’s new studio on time, with donuts. We recorded the audio. Coaching someone in reading my words was educational; I became aware of cadences of long and short vowels and a flow I give my words that I had not been consciously aware of before. Sure, I like to make my writing sound good to the ear, but I hadn’t given any thought to just how I do that. Maybe that’s one reason I can spend so long on a single sentence. (Not here, of course, this is Muddled Ramblings.)

We recorded the sound, and after a great deal of confusion and uncertainty got copies to all parties who needed them. The data distribution chore ended up eating several hours of precious packing time, but it was by far the more important task.

Now the ones and zeroes are in the hands of the editor, and a rough cut should be in the works. I’m really, really excited about seeing it.

Shooting Old Ray

One thing about making a little movie on a very low budget: when you don’t pay the extras you never know what to expect. You really can’t twist elbows too hard, and since most of the people who show up are friends, you also don’t want the experience to be too bad. But there’s just no getting around the fact that being an extra in a movie is mostly about sitting around waiting.

In this case we managed to come up with some small compensation for the extras; we were shooting in a little blues club so we opened a tab for coffee and other beverages, including a keg of beer. We told the extras to be there at 3 in the afternoon, and we had no idea how many to expect. We were hoping for at least twenty, but we’d spread the word far and wide, so it was possible that the siren call of ‘free beer’ would bring in a lot more. Then again, it was also possible that no one would show up at all. No way to tell.

My day started much earlier. I woke up with the sun (pretty early these days) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided to use my Saturday morning to get a couple of errands done. There is no getting anything done in Strašnice on a Saturday morning, so I hopped tram 7 and headed for the shopping Mecca known as AndÄ›l. In that neighborhood there is a big electronics store, and I bought a nice little external hard drive that holds a whole bunch of ones and zeroes. This was going to make passing data to editors easier, and also reduce the weight I was going to have to lug back to the US when I moved.

New technology in hand, I considered what to do next. Breakfast sounded good. I decided to mosey down to the area we would be shooting that day and wander around, learning the streets a little better. Eventually I’d find a place to have breakfast and get another dose of caffeine in my bloodstream.

Yep, one week before I was to leave the city I’d lived in for four and a half years, I finally learned my way around the center. Part of the center, at any rate.

It took me a while to find a place for breakfast that appealed to me. Finally I stopped in at Subway for a meatball sandwich. Perfect. Sometimes that stuff really hits the spot. I cracked open my book, enjoyed the sandwich and a coke, and life was pretty good. When I was done it was still early for my scheduled meeting with fuego and the shooting crew, so I found a sunny place and kept reading. After a short time I got a message from fuego: “We should meet early and grab a bite to eat.”

We met at Chillilili’s (rhymes with chile Lily’s), just a few doors down from Blues Sklep, and fuego had a snack while I had tea. For the record, the people at Chilli Lili’s (spelling varies by signage) are really cool. fuego and I talked about this and that and the crew for the exterior shooting gathered. We wanted to get a few more beauty shots of the two walking through Prague, and we finally had found the right doorway to be the entrance to U Nikde.

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

There is a rule about shooting films on the streets of Prague. If you put your camera on the ground (by using a tripod, for instance), you must get a license first. I watched as the crew set up the camera on a tripod. “Um… how much is the fine?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later,” fuego said, but I could tell he was nervous. Finally, for the shot right at Charles Bridge, among throngs of tourists, they decided to go handheld and stay off the sticks. fuego was visibly relieved. The fine, it turns out, is 500,000 Kč, which even when divided by 20 remains an uncomfortably large number. Tomas and the rest figured they could pretend to be innocent film students if trouble arrived, while any non-czechs disappeared in the crowds. They neglected to mention this plan to me, though.

Exterior shots finally complete (the door worked out nicely), we went back to the bar, where preparations were already well under way. Extras were starting to arrive, and mill about, not needed yet and underfoot in that small place. The crew was assembling a large jib arm with remote head for the first shots, and soon the band arrived and began to set up while the art director (Soup Boy had no idea that would be him when he arrived) tried to dress up the stage area a bit. Zlato was our mule to bring munchies and other supplies from a nearby department store. Everyone was pitching in.

Still, we weren’t shooting yet. People were fiddling with the jib, and I assumed that was the cause of the delay. Perhaps the jib setup was behind schedule, but that wasn’t the real problem. It turns out the lighting guys had locked their keys in the van. They couldn’t get to their stuff. Ever-resourceful Steve tried to help, but eventually it became clear that a locksmith was going to be necessary. Meanwhile, no shooting. The band was getting bored, the extras were getting drunk, and I was getting more and more stressed out.

It took an hour and a half to get the lighting truck open. Yikes.

So then we shot, finally using the extras at about 7 pm, the time we had originally told them they would be able to leave. That was when the owner of the bar started to get pissed off. He was supposed to open at seven. While that wouldn’t have bothered us (more extras!) he didn’t think it was a good idea. I’d feel worse for him, but the extras and crew were buying far more than he would have sold to the first arrivals of the day. Still, his anger added to my stress.

In the end, we got most of what we needed. More extras would have been good, more time at the end to shoot some confusion and pandemonium and whatnot. The story may have to be tweaked a bit as a result; we’ll find out once we get a rough edit.

Rene Trossman and his band were helpful and professional the whole time, playing the same song over and over while we shot from different angles and featured different musicians. I’m pretty sure we got what we needed to make a good scene. We’ll find out soon enough.

After the main shoot the band took a break and we cleared out all the gear so the bar could open for business. Just a little later than scheduled Rene and the boys took the stage for their actual concert. We set up in the back and shot the first set for them, Soup Boy catching other angles handheld. Hopefully it’s footage they can use for their own promotion. I was worried that after all that shooting they wouldn’t have any energy left for the actual show, but I was wrong. They had an excellent gig, and we stayed to listen, eat pizza, and unwind. The owner eventually bought the last stragglers a round of something really nasty that he apparently thought was special. Makes for one of those half-hearted thank-yous.

Finally home, bed, and a gradual sigh as the stress went away. We have a film in the can, as they say.

A Slow Day

I’ve been waking up early lately. I’m not proud of this fact, but there you go. Six, six-thirty, sometimes earlier. I blame the sun. Wednesday night was my second late night in a row, and I resolved to sleep in on Thursday. I had no pressing engagements until noon, so it seemed like a good time for some extended shut-eye, if my body would allow it.

I was in that vague place between sleeping and waking the next morning when my phone rang briefly and stopped. Aargh. Still, I thought I’d better check who it was. I got up and fetched my phone, and noticed the time. 12:20. I was late for my noon meeting. I put on a different sweater than the day before to make it less obvious I was wearing the same clothes and staggered out into the day. I was unprepared for the rain that soon began to fall.

Soon enough I was in the friendly confines of Alex Bistro, a little place that’s the home of the best burgers in Prague (although this time it seemed a little salty for some reason). A thick 100% beef burger (not a given here, not at all) with fries for 95 crowns. You can do a lot worse in this town. Angelo and I had a pleasant lunch, as always (Angelo is good company), but I wasn’t exactly sparkling. In fact, it seemed a large part of my head was still off in the land of Nod.

Lunch done, it was time to go to the bank and get some of the local currency. I don’t have ATM access anymore, so I have to go to one of the big banks in the center that has a money-changing desk. Only thing is, I’d forgotten my passport. No passport, no money. It was that sort of day. I went home.

Later I hopped a tram again to meet with fuego and Rene Trossman, who will be playing Old Ray Black on Saturday. It’s our last day of shooting and in some ways the most complicated, what with a band and live concert as well as the carefully staged shots during the afternoon. Rene had a lot more energy than I did, and the dude likes to chit-chat. It was an interesting conversation, touching on the experience of the American in Prague, the evolution of the blues scene here, and what it’s like to have a life that’s not that firmly attached to a location.

I left that meeting with a good feeling about the shoot on Saturday, and rode the tram home (Tram 11—tram of the dead.). My plan: grab my computer and a bite to eat, and visit Little Café Near Home to use the internet for a while and defer paying my tab until after a visit to the bank. Once home, however, and sated on leftover pizza from Pizzeria Roma (it was one of those nights) all those stairs and doors and the short walk were just too great an obstacle. I went to bed instead.

Now it is morning. I woke up early, managed to doze off again, and got to LCNH at about 8 a.m. Unfortunately, their Internet is down again. I have no money, so it’s difficult for me to go elsewhere. The good news is that my brain seems to be functioning again.

Your Support Matters!

Thanks to the those of you who have generously donated to help defray the (still rising) costs of making our little epic. I’m told the footage looks great. A lot of people are working for us at a discount, but let’s face it, making this thing isn’t cheap – a whole lot more not cheap than I had originally hoped. Then there’s post-production…

Special thanks to:

  • Philip and Barbara Seeger
  • Anonymous Donor
  • William Forman (aka Bill Bob’s Brother)
  • The Right Honourable Rev. Damen P. Dowse, D.D.
  • Jesse Kenyon
Support the arts! Someone’s got to do it.

You can get your name in the credits, too! For an explanation of what you get with each level of donation, the details are here.

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies.
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life?
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done.

Shooting Day 2

Setting up for and exterior shot

Setting up for an exterior shot

I ran into Cowboy Bob on the Metro, which I thought fortunate because I don’t know my way around the middle of Prague very well. It’s just not a place I’m tempted to go very often. There’s nothing there you can’t find in other neighborhoods for a lot less. Nothing, that is, except ancient architecture, narrow cobbled streets and all-around old-world atmosphere. For this part of the shoot, that’s what we were looking for.

Applying makup in the square

Applying makup in the square

A minimal crew (only about eight of us) gathered at the statue of Jan Hus, and after some caffeine and makeup we were on our way. The goal was to get as many guys-walking-down-little-streets shots as possible before U Sudu was available at 10:00. Our time would be very limited at the bar, so it was important not to waste any of it. It’s not uncommon to see kids running around making little movies around town, but I think we stood out, what with our big ol’ camera, another guy to do focus, and so forth.

It was a fun morning for those of us who didn’t have to carry the camera, and I got quite a few pictues in the good light. (There’s another guy in charge of taking good pictures.) All in all, a pleasant morning. Then it was off to our favorite subterranean bar. (They’re our favorite because they let us shoot there for free.) The gaffers were already unloading gear when we arrived, and Tomaš and fuego put their heads together to plan the first shot, handheld following the action, arranged to show off some of the cool ironwork. Then the shooting progressed lower and lower into the bowels of the bar.

measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Down in the depths, the bar had not been cleaned from the night before. There was broken glass here and there, dishes in the sink, straws strewn, sticky spots on the floor. Lenka did most of the cleanup, with some support from me.

Low-tech visual effects: we didn’t have a smoke machine, but the grip and gaffers had cigars, and would puff up a storm before each shot.

At 1 p.m. fuego said, “We have four more hours. It’s not going to be enough.” I wasn’t surprised to hear it, having seen enough filmmaking in my limited career to know that there are wide shots and coverage shots (shots featuring a particular actor) with lenses of varying lengths, then there are shots to show the details (money hitting a counter, things like that), and so a fairly simple scene can several different camera setups. In general it’s the setup that takes time; lights have to be adjusted, focus figured out for each stage of the shot, and so forth.

Once again I was grateful to have so many experienced people on the crew. They had worked together before, knew what they were doing, and got us set up each time with a minimum of fuss. The time saved meant more setups, more shots, and better coverage. Not to mention that these guys were creating some visually dramatic stuff while they were at it.

Due to the fluid nature of our movement through the location and the limited space, I wasn’t able to watch a monitor as we shot, so I still haven’t gotten the full effect, but fuego assures me it’s good. For much of the day my role was alternately acting coach and furniture mover. I was also in charge of getting some munchies — and apple juice. There is whiskey in our story (Old Ray Black was a bourbon man), but whiskey is expensive and after a few takes the actors would be turning green, so we substituted apple juice. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) drank a lot of apple juice. By the end he was starting to feel a little queasy even with the benign juice.

Time keeps on Slippin’ into the Future, as Steve Miller pointed out, and the crew was working to get us all the shots we needed, but at the end, we were forced to compromise, and take it on faith that (for instance) the wide shot with Paul sitting down was a good as it looked to fuego, so no coverage shot of that was necessary. I wished later that I’d written down more notes about each shot, because in several of the wide takes there’s a bad chair noise when he sits. The last one was good, though, so I hope that’s the take fuego is relying on.

setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

Setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

You have no idea how many things can go wrong in a take. There’s the obvious problem of the actor missing on the performance, but in fact what you are hoping is that the actor’s performance is good when all the other shit actually works. Were I in the position to hire actors, I would choose consistent actors over great ones.

Although, I just did hire actors, didn’t I? There’s one line delivered brilliantly in rehearsal that never popped as well in performance, but fuego was really pleased with the performance of the line on camera, on more than one take. He just didn’t have the rehearsal to compare it to. And maybe on camera there were subtleties I could not pick up.

There’s a moment of transformation, when Cowboy Bob leans back, knows his job is done, and gets up to leave. fuego proved his chops as a director right there, once the lenses and the lights and the angles were figured out he guided the actor through the timing of this gradual transformation. While rolling he said “now look across at Paul… smile a little… lean back…” Past all the technical details it was all about telling a good story. Budget, crew, schedule, time left to film in the location — all details. Story is the thing. That’s what the business is about, in the end, a story well told. fuego’s a storyteller.

Early in this game fuego said, “here’s how we take over the world,” and my little project became an effort to make something really spectacular. I hope we succeed. fuego’s put a lot of his personal credibility on this script, and on what we can make of it. I’ve improved as a performance coach this time, but I could have done better. The nitty gritty details, I want nothing to do with. I want to watch the monitor, watch the actors, help them be awesome. I want my story to come to life. In film that is an incredible team effort.

Miki and fuego

Miki and fuego

In the novel biz, we laugh at the people who are worried that someone will steal their idea. An idea is nothing; it’s all about execution. No one will steal your writing. Or at least if they do it’s easy to trace. The importance of execution applies in the movie biz as well but the execution is a massive collaboration in which the writing is important but there’s a lot more. The original script is little more than a template. Two crews with the same script will end up with different movies.

The day ended, and fuego canceled the evening exterior shots. I think the stress of getting what we needed down there, and the weight of being director, tired him out. We were loading our stuff out (a bit late), we were in a bar, and it was a chance for me to buy beers for everyone. A moment not to miss. (Though now that I think of it, fuego picked up a big part of the tab.)

So we enjoyed the evening when really we should have been shooting, relaxed, and hung out. I was all right with that, and as Executive Producer, it’s my call. Apparently.

Shooting Day 1

I woke up early this morning, really early. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Today was the first day of shooting “Moonlight Sonata”, and I have to admit that I was pretty excited. It’s been a long and winding road, as Paul McCartney used to say every once in a while.

My first job of the day was clearly defined: making copies. I was waiting outside Copy General when it opened at 8, and I think the people there were a little surprised to have someone there at the crack of opening on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. But there I was and without any grumbling they followed my instructions to the letter — except that the guy was so sure I had asked for three of something at some point he had a hard time accepting other numbers. Nevertheless he was friendly and helpful and I got what I needed. I tromped up to Zvonařka and the crews were already hard at it.

The first shot of the day was the most complicated, a long steadycam shot, and there was a hitch. The steadycam rig was an elaborate piece of equipment but it was home-grown and there were problems getting it to work with the Red. (More on the Red later.) We were delayed getting started, and our time using the main room of the restaurant was limited. Yikes.

There were some positive aspects, however. One of my regrets with “Pirates of the White Sand” was not spending enough time with some of the actors, coaching them and challenging them to bring more to their roles. Steadycam delays today meant idle actors, and these guys were all for running the lines, discussing deliveries and timing, and just being professional. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) had the most complicated lines today, and there were a couple I was worried about. He was a bit nervous himself, but then he would nail the line dead cold, adding nuances I hadn’t thought of before. Likewise Curt (rhymes with Paul the Piano Player) showed a range of expression within the boundaries of a fairly introverted guy.

The steadycam was finally ready and work commenced. Unfortunately the monitor wasn’t working, so I could not watch the feed. Also, I didn’t realize that the walkie-talkie I’d been given wasn’t a walkie-talkie at all, but a digital receiver for the audio. Later, when I learned that I could hear what was being recorded I was in a happy place.

But our time in the main room was limited, and we weren’t going to get the necessary shots and coverage in time, and the woman in charge of the place made it clear that it wasn’t her idea to let a bunch of film people in. In one case, when we identified the source of a nasty, persistent noise to be a mirror ball motor with no mirror ball on it, we asked if we could turn it off. “Impossible,” the woman said — a common Czech response when one doesn’t wish to be bothered. Happily, one of the gaffers found the magic switch. But I digress.

The woman in charge was getting increasingly uptight, as we were pushing in on the time she needed to prepare the place for paying customers. fuego pressed on, working with Tomaš, our director of photography, to get the shots we needed. I had spent the previous day twisting the arm of my former czech teacher to be the waitress, and I didn’t get to see her performance. Or hear it, because I still thought I had a walkie-talkie. How might I have affected her performance? I’m told she did well.

All around me people were doing stuff. Subtle stuff, like wrapping the compact fluorescent bulbs in the overhead fixtures with… I don’t know, some sort of softening stuff. Dolly tracks laid without a fuss, lenses swapped and data transferred, actors made non-shiny, water brought around to the crew.

Once we got off the steadycam the monitor was working correctly and with my headphones getting the audio I was able to stay out of the way and still get a really good feel for how things were going. I monitored the performances of the actors, listened for trouble, and every once in a while chimed in, either to call out “smoke!” to remind them to light the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, or to slide over while the crew was doing technical stuff to talk to the actors. “Like the hair a lot,” I said once, and people seemed to think my opinion was important (perhaps because they all agreed – it was a no-brainer).

I should probably have been looking for visual problems as well, but to be honest the stuff hitting my monitor was just plain blowing me away. It was a combination of things: the Red, bringing film qualities to video (not just resolution, but the whole feel), lighting, sound, and actors who may not nail the line every time but when they do… damn. And you only need the one. At one point fuego and Tomaš were watching the footage and were obviously pleased with the stuff coming out of the Red. “And this is raw,” fuego said, “we haven’t done anything to it yet.” Some of the credit for that has to go to gaffer and focus puller, to the dolly grip and all the others. You can’t fix bad focus in post. Yet in the end the Red proved worthy of all the business that went on around it, giving us raw footage that looks (to my eye) really damn good.

I’m excited.

I’m also a little scared. All the skill and technology in the world can’t fix a bad story (though Hollywood is striving to prove me wrong). Does my story hold up? Is the screenplay fuego and I created worthy of all this amazing talent? I sure hope so.

There was one other job I had today as producer. Paying people. This little project isn’t so little anymore, and I’ve ridden along because the value is increasing much more steeply than the cost. For example our boom guy knows how to point a microphone, and while he’s working for a song, it’s not free. Nor should it be. Several people on this production think they are working for free, and I’d really like to surprise them. You can help. (To be honest, I’ll do my best by these folks no matter what you do.)

Which brings us to this button:

I suppose there should be defined donation levels, with commensurate rewards. That’s how high-class beggars work, right? I’m inventing this as I type, so it’s subject to brothers and lawyers smacking me around and making me change things (one might say ‘subject to change without notice’ or something like that). Let’s try this:

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back. You can say “I believe in you guys”, and we will be honestly grateful for your vote of confidence.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies. Your name in the credits!
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts. Your name in the credits, recognition in any Web presence this film ever has, and a foot massage. I’m pretty good at foot massages.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend. You get a whole card in the credits, your name and/or logo (whatever you want) all alone right there for people to read. Plus, a foot massage. No, let’s make it TWO foot massages.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life? Tell us what you want. We’ll probably say yes.
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done. You’ll have to watch the movie to understand that one.
Support the arts (or, failing that, me). Someone’s got to do it.

I hate to end on such a mercenary note, but even while I was writing this episode I came to realize that I’m one of those people who wants to add to the human experience through art. In my case, it’s storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as a commercial artist, a guy who’s going to make things people will buy, which are no less art for that. Moonlight Sonata will never sell. It’s just cool. There’s a closeup of Curt that makes me chuckle, and a line by Steve that gives me chills. I don’t care what you bastards think. I like it.

Tomorrow: smoke and doubt below the streets of Prague. Don’t miss it!