Periscope Depth

and if you care to take a dare, I'll make a bet with you

I waited in the lobby of Marcelo and Greg’s place, juggling an 18-pack of Coors and about three liters of Diet Coke, until Greg came down to get me. “I had some ideas on the walk over,” I told Greg as he let me in.

“We’ve taken it in a … different direction since you left,” he said.

And indeed, I walked in on a vastly different conversation than the one I’d left. “Do we want to play Dave as a slacker who lucks into this?”, Marcelo asked Derek (our head writer) as I stocked the fridge. “Or as a douchebag who sets out to hustle the Devil?”

“Definitely douchebag,” Derek suggested. “The Devil’s our protagonist here.”

We had been given “Rent” as a theme and “Light Bulb” as a film element for our entry into the Boston Film Race at 10:00 PM, less than an hour ago. We had 24 hours to shoot a three and a half minute film that incorporated those elements, edit it into a presentable format, and return it to the drop-off point. Marcelo produced music, assisted with edits and oversaw the whole production. Greg and Derek wrote. I shot the film, using a camera belonging to one of Marcelo’s friends.

I stayed quiet through most of the Friday night discussion, watching a better idea than I could have come up with coalesce between Greg, Marcelo and Derek. Aside from interjecting an occasional idea (“what if the Devil’s canvassing for souls like a Greenpeace volunteer?”), I had nothing to add until Greg and Derek plotted out the beats. Then I got to work, turning an empty bedroom in Marcelo and Greg’s apartment into some semblance of a seedy poker den.

“The light bulb can be a bare bulb dangling from a fixture,” I suggested. “It’ll help convey the seediness.”

Saturday morning, we started rolling on our first scene – the poker game – at around 9:00 AM. I called “Action” on the first shot and began sweating – not due to nerves, but due to the flannel blankets blocking all sunlight and the 400-watt overhead spot that Dan S., our tech guy, had mounted. “No one touches this but me,” Dan established, donning a pair of thick padded gloves. “Unless you want to go to the hospital.” The lighting paid off, though, as the HD camera I shot with picked up gorgeous colors and crisp details. A pencil-thin beam of light glistened along the stem of a pair of mirror shades, and the lenses reflected the Devil.

I spent an hour and a half filming the same scene from a dozen different angles – a wide shot that included both players and the dealer, two-button shots of each player, extreme close-ups, low-angle shots from the edge of the table, close ups on cards, close ups on chips, close ups on the river. Finally, the battery exhausted, I aired out the room and called a wrap.

We shot one more scene at Marcelo and Greg’s apartment, then trucked to Greg’s office in the city. Every time we moved locations, I snatched minutes here and there to charge the camera battery. We only had one, and didn’t have an AC adapter. Also, as the afternoon grew later, I became less demanding with my coverage: settling for two takes instead of three, two angles on a scene instead of dozens, etc. We also started integrating sound into our shoot – the poker scene had been silent, music to be added later – with the aid of Dan’s boom mic, portable mixer and backup recorder.

Each of us started to drag in his own way as the day’s rain failed to materialize, cursing us with brutal humidity. Serpico’s head slumped forward as he rested in one of Greg’s office chair. Derek, who’d only had about an hour of sleep between writing and acting, started to get shaky. And I overlooked simple ways to film scenes (“have Derek walk toward the camera”) for bizarre ones (“put the camera on the tripod, extend one of the legs behind me, mount that leg on my shoulder, point the camera behind me but flip the viewscreen, and walk forward with Derek following me”). We staggered back to Marcelo and Greg’s at 3:30 – six and a half hours to go.

Lessons learned from this weekend filming marathon:

  • Storyboard. It’s not just for the pros! I shot twice as much footage as I needed for the poker scene – our big setpiece of the movie – because I had no clear vision. I knew that a poker scene should contain things like fingers drumming on hole cards or sweat beading on foreheads, but I didn’t know how much and in what order. If I had taken the time to lay out how the scene should unfold, I could have saved the production a much needed hour.

  • Gear. If an army marches on its stomach, a film crew sprints on its gear. Lacking a camera battery or an AC adapter probably cost us two and a half to three hours – waiting for the battery to recharge to shoot scenes, or losing an hour before we could upload footage. But it wasn’t all bad news – Dan’s pro light and sound gear, as well as his expertise, turned some good scenes into great ones.

  • Spell it Out. The final product tells an unconventional but accessible story. So far, the opinions of the crew, producers and first ones to see the (raw) product are split. Some people get what’s at stake early on; some don’t. (I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil more of the story than I already have) Writing or shooting with an eye toward informing the whole audience would have helped – especially since we only had three and a half minutes.

That laundry list aside, our final product fills me with pride. It’s the best marathon film I’ve been a part of yet and my second one with the Red Light District Attorneys. And I get a little better each time.