'MadCap: New York' - How We Shot A Feature (Sort Of) In Five Days - My #DPNotes Features by Cybel Martin
June 5, 2013 6:11 PM
“DP Notes” is a new type of article I’m trying out for Shadow & Act. I’m in the midst of some very fun jobs and thought I could use specific examples from these shoots to show you how I approach each job.
Case Study #1 “MadCap: New York”. A musical shot in 5 days. The original concept and approach was indeed "simple". A woman traveled from borough to borough seeking artistic inspiration. Filmed in one borough per day for a total of five shooting days. We'd ask a bunch of artist friends to participate. They’d encounter and perform for our protagonist during her journey. It would be unscripted but with definite plot points. We "knew" several musician friends would say no & we'd end up with maybe five people. Wrong. The interest exploded. Creative influences doubled and then tripled.
Origins: My director, Deborah Goodwin and I have been prepping another feature of hers, called “She Lives”. Developing the look for her film has been a wonderful collaboration. As you all know, the process from script to screen in the US is a lengthy one. At some point in April, I was having lunch with a dear friend and fellow DP, Frank Sun. He offered a hard to refuse deal for his Canon 5D Mark III. Around the same time, another good friend/filmmaker, Asli Dukan, hooked me up with a bunch of Zeiss Prime Lenses. I reached out to a bunch of directors, including Deborah, saying we should shoot something with the 5D and lenses. Something fun.
I knew for me, inspired by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Oversimplification of Her Beauty”, I wanted to shoot something less conventional. Deborah and I met for lunch and came up with the original concept mentioned above. We agreed on feature length to give it more distribution possibilities. Our only rule was that every decision be “joyous”.
What we didn't anticipate was the power of our own inspiration and how many people would want to be involved. From that first lunch to the first day of shooting, the idea evolved and evolved (and still is).
Deborah currently describes the film as “a hybrid-docu-dialogue with music! Talking & listening across the five boroughs to artists as they reframe their reasons for staying in New York City”. What follows are some details on our process and how our film (hopefully) is evolving from being clever to being beautiful.
We had one month to prep. I pitched the idea of shooting B/W. I was inspired by an article on “Frances Ha”, and the industry “wisdom” that no one will finance a B/W film. What better time to do it than now? I showed Deborah examples of the old "Calvin Klein “Eternity” ads. A look flaunting the blown-out whites would naturally take advantage of the Canon’s limitations (remember: turn a limitation into an aesthetic). Deborah showed me images from my idol, photographer Roy DeCarvara “The Sound I Saw” and his spirit is all over "MadCap". We also agreed to shoot B/W and not create the look in post. Collectively we all loved the idea of the old days of indie-film : having to commit to black/white. I knew magical moments can happen for me when I encounter what others call creative restrictions. Plus, as I’ll explain shortly, I didn’t have a DIT person. This was the easiest way to show Deborah immediately what images I was creating.
At our next production meeting, Deborah and I brainstormed with producer Erin Washington. Together, we pooled our resources to find other crew members, musicians and shooting locations that would make the film special.
Since there was no script nor locations locked down, I couldn’t do my usual pre-production. What I did do was watch films that I thought could help me “troubleshoot in prep”. Our narrative had morphed from one protagonist to several people representing one character, akin to “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” or “I’m Not There.” We discussed our “take-aways” from each film: what strategy we believed the filmmaker used to pull it off: shooting a feature in limited time, shooting B/W, working with musicians or multiple protagonists. Some of the films I studied were Slacker, She’s Gotta Have It, No One Knows About Persian Cats, Mala Noche, Tickets, Down By Law, Man Bites Dog, Two Lane Blacktop and Chronicle of a Summer.
Biggest lesson learned in prep: My iPhone was acting erratic (no one could hear me speak) and I had to rely on text message. After noting how communication was breaking down and our joyous film was turning into a “job”, I realized I had to hear the voice of my director/crew/producer during each step of production to gauge their concerns and brainstorm on solutions.
Inspired by the film “Chronicle of a Summer”, Deborah wanted to let the story emerge from our interactions with the musicians. The idea of a single protagonist became several protagonist became several real people protagonist. This is where the film began to drift from narrative to documentary and I had my next big lesson: defining a film (narrative, doc, commercial) was getting in my way. I needed to focus on capturing the authentic moment. The moments that speak to the audience’s heart, regardless if it’s an actor, man on the street or model holding a Pepsi. (Someone told me I sounded like Tarkovsky and that made my day).
We were all a bit amazed (and appreciative) by how many artists were excited and wanted to participate in our film. More artists meant more shooting days. The artists we were able to film were Illspokinn, Maiysha, Rabbit And The Hare, Hassan El-Gendi, Queen Esther, Peter Valentine and Derrin Maxwell. During our short production schedule, we managed to shoot in Park Slope, Bushwick, Harlem, Midtown and Staten Island. We had Queens, the Bronx and several more musicians scheduled when a film organization contacted Deborah and asked to see a cut of the film. That meant our 5 day schedule was cut to 4 so Deborah could rush off to work with our editor. "MadCap" was living up to its name.
Add to the "MadCapness”: I was shooting in Philly prior to "MadCap" and would leave for the Dominican Republic for another shoot as soon as we wrapped. Since "MadCap" was a love song to NYC, I figured on a way I could add more production value and visuals within our short production schedule. I bought a $30 weekly subway pass and shot b-roll each night after we wrapped. I grabbed the 5D, stuck a 50mm lens on it and walked around like my old days as a photography student. When an idea struck, I’d jump on a train and explore NYC. I shot anything that spoke to me. Lobsters in a tank in Chinatown. Handball players in the LES. That was super fun and gratifying, especially once I heard our editor, Henry Maduka Steady, was excited by my visual musings.
As I’ve mentioned before, I no longer want to hire people to work for free. There wasn’t a budget for "MadCap", so I took on Assistant Camera & Sound responsibilities. Ill Spokinn hooked us up with sound gear. The camera, accessories and lenses fit perfectly in a backpack provided by Frank. Once I got over the fact I looked like an awkward teenager, traipsing around NYC like this was quite efficient. I kept a list of all of the equipment in the backpack and checked/cleaned my inventory each night.
My original camera package was the 5D, lenses (Canon 70-200mm Canon, Zeiss Super Speeds:18mm, 25mm, 35mm & 50mm) and a monopod. After the first day of shooting, I got a better understanding of what was exciting Deborah aesthetically. By the end of the second day, we both were in love with the 35mm and 50mm lenses exclusively. The monopod came in handy when shooting interviews and the musicians singing accapella. The rest of the gear was left at home.
I had 2 CF cards totalling 96gb and could have definitely used more. Cards were given to the editor each night after we wrapped. Extra memory would have been ideal, not to shoot the artists but to handle all of my b-roll that had to be saved on cards not going to the editor.
You've heard the expression "write what you know". Since I had no crew and no lights, I employed the tactic "shoot what you know". I made decisions on lenses, shutter and exposure for each “scene”, the same way I approached shooting B/W stills. With each location, I found an angle on the talent that worked well with whatever the weather or available light was doing.
Highlights from our shoot: Three of the musicians are good friends of mine (Maiysha, Derrin and Queen) and I already adore their talent. It was a huge treat to be introduced to the other artists. Rabbit and the Hare’s studio rehearsal was AMAZING. Braving ticks and poison ivy in Staten Island to find the perfect location with Peter Valentine (his poetry and process is “wow”) was another treat. Meeting the nicest security guard ever in DUMBO while shooting Hassan is another great story. Maiysha chatting with Ill Spokinn, while Yette Bames did her make-up. Even just talking philosophic nonsense with my director while we sipped coffee and waited for Queen Esther to arrive at the Chipped Cup in Harlem was entertaining.
(Until it changes) “MadCap” is an expressionistic compilation of interviews with NYC based artists plus performances throughout the city. It was definitely the unpredictable and yet joyous thrill I was hoping for. Deborah (aka @GoodFilm) says the trailer will be released Independence Day Weekend. I’ll keep you updated on the next artists and locations we shoot, the post process, any surprises or things I wish I did differently.
Help From the Archives:
"Filming in NYC? Again? How to See It With Fresh Eyes When Working With a Limited Budget"
"5 Things Cinematographers Look For in a Director and Project Before Taking a Job"
View my work at Magic Eye Film, discuss film at @CybelDP.
Artists across five boroughs give it up-- in interviews -- in this truth-telling documentary about living and working in New York. Is it sustainable? Is it worth it? Is this still the town to "make it"? Does it matter? We're talking to independent artists about their original works and what it takes to blaze a trail in the toughest, brightest, city that never sleeps. MadCap New York -- stay tuned!!!
Pictured here: indie duo "RabbitandtheHare".
Well, that would take wayyyy too looooong, but I did get to thinking about my "first" because it was exactly April 6th 1999 and I knew nothing. Nothing. NO THING. About what selling a script would mean, or how to do it. All I had was a consuming need to do it and it was all I could think about day or night while I worked in my little cubicle in the basement offices of CBS in children's development. My boss/mentor was Brian O'Neal and he was an amazing, accomplished, sports addicted guy's guy, who was beloved by CBS's Daytime Maven and Overseer at that time.
He gave me a job when I knew little about development and zero about the "day part" for kids. It was the days of Teenage Mutant Ninjas, Beakman's World, Timon & Pumba, Ace Ventura Pet Detective (and The Mask). And Tales from the Cryptkeeper, which was accepting pitches from freelancers as long as they could pay them as Canadians. Finally something I knew! I had a dual citizen foot in the crack in the door. I begged my boss to let me pitch and he told me to go away-- and come back with five ideas. "Work up five ideas, we'll pitch the best three and send them over." I don't remember anything after that, except that I danced in his office, and I did, and he vetted them, sent them off and the team at Cryptkeeper bought one.
The episode was titled "All Booked Up" the editor assigned was an awesome dude.
The first draft was dated April 6, 1999 -- it aired on May 15th, 1999. I remember being giddy at the speed. I type here-- it comes out there. I didn't really understand what had happened.
It's taken a looooong time to appreciate the take-away. But what I see now is my consuming enthusiasm and iron determination, bored into the universe of opportunity and yielded a crack in the professional dimension. My relationship with my boss was the critical mass that allowed that crack to widen and my passion for ideas and stories to test itself against the mettle of reality. Commerce. And it paid off. The part I get now, is that it's all wash and repeat from that point onward-- yet in order to do that you must maintain your consuming passion. And that's where the technique, the fortitude, the pacing comes in. The loooooong game. That's where it's at... always will be. Thank you Brian, and happy anniversary.
These are my totally unofficial and unedited notes from the recent TV master class-- which was a gift of tips, anecdotes & advice for writers attacking pilots of their own.
WRITER/SHOW RUNNER BLAKE MASTERS (Brotherhood, Underneath)
Television lives on the INTERESTING version of the scene. i.e. we’ve seen it all before before and we play to that familiarity but the trick is what’s the “interesting” spin on that familiarity.
In other words television is a long term relationship where a movie is a love affair
You want to create RENEWABLE RESOURCE stories. That’s why cop, doctor, lawyer shows WORK and stories about observers (like journalists) don’t. The client, the victim, the patient DRIVES A SERIES delivering “the closed end episode” Tom references.
Give your character an UNSOLVABLE INTERNAL conflict -- who's affects will be mirrored in the external goals of the story. e.g. Tony Soprano is an animal who wants to be a gentleman, but when push comes to shove behaves like an animal every time.
This is a RENEWABLE RESOURCE because he will never fail to be conflicted at every turn
REMINDER!!! DRAMA is a dialogue, not a monologue.
In TV the nobility or lack of nobility of the FIRST MOMENT we see our lead character (characters) their BEHAVIOR is what we fall in or out of love with. That sets the tone for the rest of the show.
A Network HOUR is really 44 mins (which we know) BUT think about ways to satisfy viewer in different ways: e.g. LOST gave us 22 minutes of actual forward story (central plot) which remained mysterious through the life of the series -- but compensated by giving us CATHARTIC BACKSTORY that added up to a satisfying 3 Act structure, that’s what really kept us coming back each week. You can’t write to cliff hanger... Masters’ points out that he doesn’t even write to the act breaks. You can go back (for Network) and figure out the “organic” place to cut to commercial, but it shouldn’t drive story choices.
MAKE SURE your pilot (and pitch too?) Delivers that TWIST on the original hook that’s going to keep you coming back.
It’s OK to steal structure.
(first timer on a series?) A certain level of ignorance going in can free you up to take good risks that pay off...
*Production note: re: SOUND as an inventive way to expand the perception of an episode, one of the more cost effective solutions to creating tension/mystery/danger etc. e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson, or Lynch’s use of sound...
** Anecdote re: the pitch/sale of UNDERNEATH which sold first to FX then didn’t get picked up and wound up at Showtime-- you are stronger with a HOT PITCH that’s got a pilot ready. Because if they love your pitch and its hot, you can bet someone else is working up the same type of pitch and already has a script. PITCH it like it just occurred you-- then close the deal with a script they aren’t expecting... that’s leverage otherwise you just have the hot idea that gets bumped-- BIRD IN THE HAND etc...
JUST READ “UNDERNEATH” PILOT. Familiar yet original and a satisfying pilot-- unlike so many that you read, where you get craft and wink wink, you know this is going to get better after we get all the required front loading done. This is really good storytelling and seamless craft. And towards the end really had that surprise scare factor that he talked about in his interview-- that TWIST on the original hook that’s going to keep you coming back.
WRITER/ SHOW RUNNER ED BERNERO (The Eye (sci-fi western) The Punisher and CRIMINAL MINDS & 3rd WATCH)
- On Development process (at Network) Too many voices too early in the development process can kill the project.
Bernero does one spec a year (to generate original series)
He likes to think of episode 100 not episode 1
Without the “family” on a TV show-- the audience seems to subconsciously reject the show no matte what the premise. In terms of characters you want to think of the ASPIRATIONAL family while retaining conflict. Thought that was a great way to put it, in other words this ain’t your family-- it’s the WHAT IF my family... fill in the blank. It’s the exploration of a family dynamic.
Establish the BOX or HOME of the series before you go “outside the box”
Dig into that pilot for several episodes until you establish a recognizable rhythm.
On the whole premise (or ORIGIN story) for a pilot. Not taboo. CRIMINAL MINDS started as a premise pilot and evolved...
ON BACKSTORY: As LITTLE backstory as is necessary to the storytelling!
He mentions Hitchcock’s REFRIGERATOR MOMENT, the moment when you’ve finished watching the show (movie) and you’re getting something out of the fridge and thinking back on the story and recalling some moment and it’s like, “hey, that didn’t really make sense”. THESE MOMENTS are OK to write as long as there’s a solid core to rely on in the storytelling. We spend too much time explaining every moment to death. (Interesting US TV/vs. BRIT series or European film)
You can fall into the world (of the show), if the core characters are firmly defined and IMMEDIATELY identifiable. The cohesion of stories and characters will deepen over time.
HOW and WHAT you learn in a scene/and through the life of the show relies on the manner in which characters ACT & REACT in conflict, under pressure. That’s drama.
Do your VOMIT DRAFT then refine. He doesn’t feel that you can nail the “big thematic” questions on your first pass, those have to reveal themselves through revisions and fine tuning.
Each character has a POV (sounds ridiculously obvious-- but that’s the element to track again and again)
Make sure each character SERVES THE FUNCTION they have been given.
Bernero doesn’t outline working on spec (interesting!) he writes ACT 1 & 2 then the ENDING so that the 3rd Act fits. Let’s the characters speak to him.
THERE’S NO ACT BREAK that’s going to keep folks from turning the channel. Let it go.
It’s easy to change (the position of) ACT BREAKS if you stay flexible. (DON’T WRITE TO ACT BREAKS reason #2)
PUT YOUR GOOD IDEAS in the pilot. Don’t save them for episodes that may never come.
Varied approach to the formula of a series: e.g. A story resolves and B story could go un-resolved from one episode to the next. Could apply to procedural also.
WHAT COMPRISES THE DRAMATIC scene? As many pieces of information in the scene as possible-- GET IN at an interesting or unexpected moment (though these usually are first to get cut, ha!) and get out at the HIGH POINT. Characters revelations are based on information.
TRACK EACH SCENE by character throughout the draft to justify and invest their choices with real humanity. Deepen their connection to the overall storyline.
*Also mentioned that in terms of what he’s looking for in a writer as a show runner is can you write to the specific tone of his show, if you sent in a LAW & ORDER spec for example-- did it capture the tone. Because that’s what he’s going to rely on you to do.
Deborah Goodwin -