Thursday, January 31, 2008

It's a Wrap

Three years ago, the startup Anne was working for imploded in a giant mess of mismanagement. As bad as this was for financial and career reasons, the upshot was that we got a few nice pieces of electronics equipment free or cheap. One of those things was a Sony MiniDV video camera.

As soon as I got my hands on that, I started coming up with ideas for movies. Most of them were crap, but one of them had some legs (so to speak): Thaco's Last Stand.

(Those of you who are uber-geeks may recognize "Thaco" as a reference to 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where "THAC0" was an acronym which stood for "To hit armor class 0". Suffice it to say, it was a bass-ackwards way to figure out what you needed to roll to hit your opponent. The rest of you can go ahead and skip the rest of this post, as the gaming nerdery has just begun.)

The idea was this: we film a series of short episodes about a party of half-baked fantasy heroes, but only the parts in-between adventures, which is spent in the local tavern, Thaco's Last Stand.

If anyone ever watched the Tick live-action TV show, this might sound familiar. That show was great because it followed four semi-super-heroes around in their mundane everyday lives: getting a driver's license, having barbecues, hanging out at the diner. Almost never did they show any action. So picture that idea, but with D&D characters, and lots of jokes about the characters knowing the rules of the game.

(Not that it would ever come up, but the back story on Thaco is that he was a hero during the 2nd Edition days, when having a lower armor class was better and when 3rd Edition came around his low armor class made him extremely vulnerable and he got his legs chopped off by a goblin. So he retired from adventuring and opened up a bar.)

With a script written and actors attached, we needed a set. Since we would be filming in my garage, the requirements for the set were that it had to:
  • fit in the garage (7' clearance)
  • collapse neatly for storage
  • be able to stand in for the exterior and the interior of the tavern
  • not look too terribly cheesy
Yarry, Ken and Quint came over one day two and a half years ago to construct the set. While Quint and I designed, built, tested, redesigned and rebuilt the set support structures, Yarry and Ken cut and painted mattress foam to make faux stonework, painted the wall panels, and drank beer.

I'm really happy with the way the set turned out, especially the structure pieces. In fact, I'm going to donate them to the local Santa Cruz filmmakers club, Cinemar, if anyone wants them.

Yarry also painted the tavern sign, which totally rocks. I'm going to hang that up somewhere in the new house.

We had two rehearsals, one before the set was built, and one after. Both were filmed, and I edited them to practice editing and see how I wanted to do the shots. That was all in the summer/fall of 2005.

And then, the production went "on hiatus".

In November 2005, we all got laid off (well, those of us who worked for Nokia, which was most of us), so for the next few months everyone was scrambling around finding new jobs. Then we were settling into our new lifestyles (some people had long commutes over the hill) and we never got back together to do the final shoot.

I admit to much inertia on my part, as director/producer. We still needed to figure out two costumes, and I have no clue about costumes, so I kept dragging my feet. This went on for two and a half years.

Then, Anne and I made the decision to move. Now, all of a sudden we had a deadline - film or no film, we had to get rid of the set pieces before we moved.

Of course, trying to get everyone together to film proved to be challenging, especially with the holidays and all the crap we were doing for the move. But I had to try - not only would the sets go to waste, but people had actually invested money (to help pay for the set construction) and I would have had to pay them back.

Last weekend, we finally did it. It was exhausting: putting up the set outside for the outdoor shot, moving it inside for the indoor shot, moving everything around for the other indoor shot, making sure everyone has costumes and enough alcohol in them to get in front of a camera. But it came together. It took us six hours to shoot an hour's worth of footage, which will be edited into a fifteen-minute skit, which will probably be viewed by a total of seven people.

It's a shame that we won't be reusing the sets like we had planned (I had already come up with a few ideas for subsequent episodes), but hopefully someone else can take advantage of them. Having sat outside for two years, they did acquire a nice patina, lending some authenticity to the fantasy tavern illusion.

Overall, it was a great experience, and I hope to do it again. This was the first time I had written, directed and produced something myself. Usually, I have one or more partners (Matt, Quint) for the writing and producing part (although I usually get to do most of the directing as I try to stay behind the camera), so it was interesting trying to realize my own vision. Not that it was a solo endeavor. Not by a long shot, as the credits will attest. But I was the one driving it.

Lessons Learned
  • I like doing the writing, directing, cinematography, set building and editing, but I really need a production assistant for shoots. Someone who corrals the talent, makes sure everyone has what they need (caffeine, snacks, booze, costume, makeup, props), and is where they need to be. When I'm in the middle of creating my art, the last thing I want to do is manage people. I do that at work.
  • I need to write some stories that take place in the present day. Trying to make six pieces of plywood look like a fantasy tavern really limits your camera angles. On the other hand, the limited set made us be very creative.
  • I will kick the tripod over at least once per shoot. At least this time, I was quick enough to catch the camera.
  • Always - always - do a sound check. This I learned on previous shoots, and it paid off here. Unfortunately, right now my rig does not include a field mixer, so the mic plugs right into the camera, and I don't have a way to monitor the sound. So my sound checks consist of filming some test footage, then rewinding and listening to it.
Anyway, look for the final product on in the coming weeks (depending on how long it takes to get the special effects done). I'll post a link here as soon as it's up.


May said...

I always loved the fact that you and your homies were uber-nerds AND film geeks. Inspired by D&D and The Tick? You're my kind of people.

Can't wait to see what you put together. Hopefully you'll continue the dream in PA? I'll send you my resume and headshot for future films :)

NeoZAZmatt said...

I'm looking forward to seeing this! The still picutres really have me curious. Those alone look like your put more time, effort, and money into anything we did oh so many years ago...

Quint said...

Was awfully hard to dump Copperhead, Black Mamaba, California Mountain Snake, Cottonmouth, and Sidewinder into the dump after all that engineering we did. Was fun though, and we really should patent and sell that design.