Tuesday, February 8, 2011
ON THE SET: THE PARKING LOT
I landed at the Orange County Airport in LA at 8 p.m. California time.
My cousin Jon was already at the second film location—a parking garage in Irvine. As I waited for my bag to crawl out onto the baggage claim carousel, I imaged having to settle back for a long cab ride. However, the taxi ride lasted about five minutes.
The parking garage was right by the airport and it seemed like the driver made only a few turns before he pulled into a business complex. It looked pretty empty. Jon had said that the parking garage was behind the main office building.
There was definitely a parking garage, but I didn’t want to have the driver drop me off and then find out I was at the wrong one. There wasn’t a car in sight. The driver pulled into the first level of the garage and started going up the ramp. Second level—no cars. Third—no cars. And this driver was moving. He seemed in a hurry to get to the top. And to make things more interesting the taxi’s aerial was hitting the beams along the ceiling, thumping and thumping as we went along. So I’m thinking—if this is the right place, the film crew is probably in the middle of a shot and I’m going to ruin the shot just by arriving in this taxi that’s thwacking its way up to the top.
We came around to the fourth level and there were several cars.
“Stop, stop. This is fine. You can stop here. This is good.”
Finally, he stopped. There were a handful of people near a stairwell and of course they were all looking at me as I got out of the cab.
I was in the right place. Fortunately, it had taken them extra time to set up and they were still not ready for the first shot.
I met Jon on the stairs and he took me up to the top to show me the layout.
This place was not Jon’s first choice for this scene. He had found a worn-out looking lot somewhere else, with weeds growing up through the asphalt. But not long before shooting was to begin, they paved it—believe it or not. So Jon used this place instead.
Later, I got a shot of the parking garage from below. When I first arrived, they didn’t have the lighting up like it is in the photo. Once those were on, it was obvious there was a shoot going on up there.
Jon took me to the very end of the ramp.
The camera was already set up here, to get a shot of the ramp just over the edge.
The lighting crew set up the lights as well as large fabric screens to shape the light. At one point, the cinematographer (Libby Green) realized the lights were visible in the frame and they had to move them back about ten feet.
Jon explained how the first shot of the movie would be Alfred and Alma arriving in a car and coming to a stop. In order to get the right exposure of the city lights in the background, they would have to drive the car slow and then even slower.
At one point, Jon went with the actors and had them rehearse their scene inside the car.
It had taken quite a bit of time to set up all the equipment, bringing it up the elevator. Then there was additional time needed to do all the math required to figure out how fast the car should go in order to match the film speed as needed for the proper exposure. Jon had hoped to start filming by 8:00, but it was more like 9:30 before they took the first shot.
The monitor is called a “tap” and it shows what the camera sees. They usually place it so that it is out of the “eye-line” of the actors. It is distracting to them if they see people either watching them or moving around too much while their doing a take.
Jon would often stand at the tap as everyone got ready. The first assistant director (Andy) was the one who does all the yelling and prepping, freeing up the director (Jon) to focus on the upcoming take. Once everything is ready, the second director would come up to Jon and make sure he was ready for a take. Andy would yell, “Roll Camera!” Then Jon would call out “Action.”
Actually, there was more to it than that. The sound man would chime in as well as the cinematographer. But in general, Andy would get everyone focused. Then Jon would set things in motion and eventually say, “Cut.”
After the shot from above, they did a cool side shot, using a dolly on tracks to get a smooth movement as the car moved up to park.
The first several takes were directly through the front. It was three pages of dialogue and Jon had them do the whole thing in one take. His approach, which is very wise—and also commented on with admiration by the script supervisor—is to do the whole scene from several different angles. That way he would have multiple angles to choose from when it came time to edit.
Setting up each take too some time. Every time they had to move the camera, it took even longer. They put a black cloth on the hood of the car to prevent any glare.
The other guy wearing headphones is Jeff, the sound guy, who also happens to be the editor. Later, as the final shots were being made for “inserts” (I’ll explain that later), Jon consulted Jeff often to get his opinion as the editor. Jeff explained to me how placing mics in a car follows a standard procedure. There were hidden lapel mics, some on the visors and in the cup holder as well.
One interesting thing about being on the set was that only the director and the sound man had head phones. So for the most part I could only hear a faint murmuring or and occasional clear line through the window of the car. I pretty much knew what they were saying, but there would for the most part be a long silence as we watched them go through the three pages of dialogue. Then Jon would say, “Cut.”
The script supervisor is Jonathan who is from Louisville, Colorado. So we talked quite a bit. He is first year student at Chapman University.
Sometimes when they moved the camera, Jon and I would walk down the stairs to the snack table and get something to eat. A security guard was there, watching everything, Everyone once in a while, he would take a group on a bathroom run to the office building next door.
Once the whole scene was done several times from the front, Jon spent time doing several shot of just one actor doing to the whole scene again. From the side, from a back angle, etc.
By the way, you will notice everyone is wearing coats and hats. It was slightly cool when I first got there. By midnight, it was cold. But three, it was freezing.
Some of the shots took so long to set up, they started to worry they were going to run out of time. You always see in movies about movies that they’re worried about “losing the light.” In this case, they were worried the sun was going to come up.
Jon barely fit everything in—just in time. The last few shots were “inserts.” These are various close-ups that will be edited in later. Even though they could be filmed just about anywhere, it’s best to do the inserts at the location so that the lighting and tone match the rest of the scene.
Libby, the cinematographer, sat in a chair, holding up her wrist, so the camera can test the angle needed to get an insert of the heart monitor worn by the character Alma. Jon stood on the back of the dolly while they set it up--so the camera wouldn't topple forward.
They laid out a black carpet under the chair. The actress sat in the chair and the shot looked like she was still in the car. It worked really well.
By then it was about 5:30.
The crew broke down the equipment and started loading up. Jon stayed until everything was finished.
I had been awake at least 24 hours. Although the excitement of being on the set kept me plenty awake the whole night, I didn’t last very long after I saw a pillow.