Tom Ramcigam (magicmarmot) wrote,
Tom Ramcigam

Mooovie magic

Among the many other things in my life, my primary passion is making movies. I hesitate to call it filmmaking because of all the film snobs out there who insist that it's not real unless it's shot on long expensive strips of photochemically sensitive plastic, but I am far less sensitive to the medium and more about the process. Besides, the entire industry is heading the way of the electron.

I don't have large budgets to work with. The last movie capped out at just over $5000 for everything including the purchase of the camera. For those of you playing along at home, that's around the same amount that a Holywood studio movie spends daily on craft services.

My specialty is the technical side of filmmaking. I've been a photographer for 30 years, and a DP for almost ten. I'm pretty damn good at it, and it fits in well with other things that I do (sound, effects makeup, prop and set building). I work most often with a group called Stone Soup Films, and I'm putting the final touches on our first feature, "Pray for Daylight". We've been in production for almost a year, and are scheduled for a June release. So far that's actually on track, though it does make for some exhausting nights.

Among the jobs I've had on this movie: co-producer, second unit director, visual effects supervisor, director of photography, gaffer, sound recordist, prop maker, and I think bottle washer.

My current hat is as the post-production supervisor. Since we've already shot all the footage and have a final locked edit, my job is to clean up all the little things like sound effects, dialogue replacement, visual effects and enhancements, color and exposure correction, Foley, and all of those nifty little things that take a really freakin' long time.

We had to do ADR (essentially dialogue re-recording) for parts of the movie because we shot almost entirely on location, and some of the locations brought with them rather unique challenges in sound. The happy news is that the ADR sessions went really well, and the dialogue works in place. I can't take all the credit for it because the actors did a phenomenal job matching delivery and energy and even at times improving the scene. Unfortunately we couldn't get all of the actors in to cover all of the dialogue, so I had to step in and actually imitate their voices in a couple of places. The fun part is that it worked so well that nobody notices, and that's ultimately the coolest.

My focus the past couple of days has been primarily in visual effects. This isn't a particularly effects-intensive movie in the way that you'd think; there aren't a lot of explosions or spaceships or anything. Most of the effects are enhancements; for instance, we did not use actual firearms in the movie for safety reasons. I made several prop guns make of urethane foam that were designed to be dropped, kicked, hit, and generally abused as necessary, but our "hero" gun was a metal Glock replica gas-blowback gun. It looks fabulous on camera, except from the front where you can see the barrel, when it becomes really obvious that it's not a "real" gun. In those shots I was able to actually track the motion of the end of the barrel and digitally replace it with a real-looking hole. It's a subtle thing, but it really adds to the tension of the scene.

Another example is when one of the characters shoots and causes damage to a plaster wall: we were in a location that for some reason wouldn't let us actually shoot a hole in the wall, so I had to add it digitally. Again, it's kind of subtle in the scene, but it enhances the drama.

Most of the other work is dealing with things like camera stabilization. Since we were using what I consider to be a rather cheap and lightweight camera, it exposed us to some issues of camera shake. That's not always a bad thing-- sometimes the cinema verite quality works in a shot-- but in these cases it was really distracting. Last night I spent a couple of hours having to deconstruct an edited scene back to the original source footage and sttempt to stabilize the clips, and it has some unique challenges. It was shot handheld, first on a train platform, then on the train itself. Granted, being able to take a small handycam and shoot unobtrusively made it so that we could actually get the shot, which we couldn't have done with a big film crew and equipment, but ultimately for me it meant that we not only had camera shake, there was some element of rotation as well.

Happily, I have a nifty little program called Combustion that has tools to help fix this kind of thing. Unfortunately I also had a series of crashes that made me frustrated for about an hour before I was able to actually get the process down and get fixed footage on a couple of the clips. I managed to get two of the five clips stabilized before I had to stop for sleep, and I'll work on the rest tonight. Those pose their own difficulties, mostly trying to find a reference that's stable and observable enough to track, but when it works, it's stunning.

One shot in particular was taken from a previous short film as a flashback. It's a rerverse dolly shot on a rooftop looking out over a cityscape, and it's a beautiful shot that is marred by a couple of bumps. I was able to not only stabilize the footage, but I was able to replace a section of the cityscape to help it appear even more stable. There are some limitations, particularly working with footage from a DV camera, but it's pretty cool that this technology is available to me on my desktop.

Most of what I do with color correction happens on a shot-by-shot basis. I fiddle with things like exposure curves and glow-out to enhance the action or focus on a particular character or action in the scene. It's so fine that I can actually do things like target the reflections in an actor's eyes and add a subtle soft glow to them to change their mood. Usually it's more trying to make the effect look more like film (deepening the blacks, adjusting gamma, etc.) but it's also really nice for enhancing closeups.

This weekend is pretty much chock-full of stuff I need to do. I still have several scenes that need final fixing, I have to record the sound of a vehicle starting and driving off (in a very specific way), record the sound of somebody falling off a couch and running in socks on a carpeted floor, track and replace the safety end of a prop sword with a pointy bit, and a bunch of other more mundane stuff, but I can see the end.

And it looks pretty cool.

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