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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shooting The Proposal - a machinimator’s view of live action

Shortly before Christmas, I told you about FML Film Club, which I’m hoping will get me into making movies on a regular basis. My plan was to make a short Moviestorm film every month and take it along to be critiqued by other local film-makers. In the event, it didn’t work out quite like that. Instead, I found myself roped into a live action film crew with a bunch of people I didn’t know. Since my experience with live action film-making is pretty much zero, I volunteered to write the script, and offered to let them shoot the film at my house.

Over on my personal blog, I wrote a bit about the pre-production side of it. (You can also see The Table, the test film I made to take to the initial meeting to show people what FML Film Club was all about.) Pre-production on a live action shoot is nothing like pre-production for machinima. Everything has to be prepared in advance, and it all has to be absolutely ready for the day. It’s not a flexible work schedule. Even though we were only making a two-minute film, pre-production on The Proposal took longer than the six hours it took me to make The Table start to finish.

In fact, just setting up the equipment for the shoot took longer than it took to make The Table. There were seven of us in the crew. We started at 1pm, and we were more or less ready to shoot by the time the actors arrived at 2pm. I was also slightly surprised by how much all the kit was worth. I’m used to people who are worried about paying for machinima software that costs under $100 - by contrast, the camera and rig they brought was worth thousands, and they didn’t consider it particularly expensive. By the time you add in the sound gear, laptops, monitors, lights and everything else, it totalled up to a sizeable outlay, and that excluded all the editing, VFX and audio software they’re planning to use for post-production.

The entire approach to live action filming is completely different to what I’ve been used to. When I film a scene in Moviestorm, I set up the choreography and work on that until the entire scene plays as if it were on a theatre set. I then add as many cameras as I need to get whatever shots I want, and I’m effectively editing as I film. All my dialogue is recorded in advance, and I’ve preselected the best takes. There’s no hard line between post-production and pre-production. If I don’t like how it’s coming out in my final edit I can go back and change the sets or the costumes, change the actors, or reshoot at any time.

By contrast, live action filming is a much more rigid discipline. Everything you need has to be shot on the day. If you didn’t get what you wanted, there’s no coming back later - at least not without a lot of hassle - so every shot has to be perfect before you shift the camera and lights move on, no matter how many takes you need. At least that’s the theory - the director wants to get it right, meanwhile the cast and crew are getting fed up, and the first assistant director - me - is keeping an eye on the clock to make sure you can finish the shoot before you lose the light.

And getting that perfect shot takes a lot longer than you would think. We were plagued by extraneous sounds. With two nearby airports, aircraft noise was a constant problem, and whenever the planes stopped, the local dogs would start up. The sun was fickle too: with intermittent cloud, we kept having issues trying to match the lighting, and towards the end of the shoot, the sun started going behind the trees and casting unwanted shadows. Continuity was something I’ve never really had to pay attention to, but I soon became aware how important it was. We’d have to go back and check exactly when Tara smoothed her hair or which hand John was holding the ring in. And with every retake, the script drifted slightly from what was written, and we’d have to note down all the variations and decide whether to reshoot to get the line perfect or use the new version.  Each take has a noticeable set-up time as well. You have to get everyone in place, make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, then there’s the startup ritual before anything happens. “Quiet on the set, this is for picture… Sound… (Speed)... Camera… (Speed)... Slate… (Scene 1, Echo, Take 3… click)... [pause until Zak’s happy…] Action!) All in all, it was a slow, painstaking, and often frustrating process, just to get a few seconds of footage each time. And that, let’s remember, was with a minimal cast and crew. I reckon the shoot, from setup to getting the gear back in the cars and breaking out the beer and pizza, added up to 36 hours.

None of those problems face the machinimator. Once you’ve got your dialogue and choreography in place, you can guarantee it’ll be the same every time, no matter what angle you shoot it from or how many times you retake it. You don’t care about the weather, and you don’t have to worry about dogs. And you can stop whenever you want and take a break without wasting everyone else’s time. Yes, there are frustrations working in machinima, but overall it’s an unbelievably fast and painless way to make movies.

The thing that struck me most was how cumbersome it was working off a shot list rather than an animated storyboard. We knew what shots we were planning to get, but without a rough cut, we didn’t really know how long each shot would be, exactly when it would start and finish, and we were only guessing how well it would cut together. We knew, for example, we wanted a 2-shot at one point, but we were deciding on the fly exactly how to frame that. We were effectively relying on shooting plenty of footage and giving Dan, our editor, enough to work with. And meanwhile, the cast and most of the crew are standing around waiting to be needed. In retrospect, I could have made an animatic with Moviestorm in the hour while they were setting up, and we’d all have had a much easier time of it. That’s definitely something we’ll try next month and see how much difference it makes.

Our editor Dan now has two weeks to assemble the footage, add sound and music, put on titles and credits, and deliver the finished film in time for February’s club meeting. I’m looking forward to the results.

It was a lot of fun working with a live action crew, and I’m definitely going to do it again next month. I learned a lot from the experience, and I met some great people. I also learned to appreciate the ease and simplicity of machinima.

(4) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/18 at 10:46 AM

Interesting and insightful comparison.  More pictures next time please (they bring the experience to life). 

Made me think perhaps the 48 hour Machinima contest should be more like a 6 or 12 hour contest in relation to the amount of time and work necessary for live action.

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/18 at 06:21 PM

Hey Matt-

Do you think I have many regrets of retiring from my career in Live Action film?  Machinima is far more civilized!

Great blog


(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/18 at 07:35 PM

I do sympathise. Smolbag’s soap, Love Patrol has a cast of 50 or so (including extras). They start shooting at 5am finish at 6PM or so 5 days a week for about 3 months to shoot 10 episodes. Crew and actors are all well and truly “over it” by the end. But they still do it again the following year wink

Matt Kelland on 01/19 at 08:56 AM

That’s an interesting point about the 48 hour film contest. However, it still takes a similar amount of actual time to make machinima as it does to make this type of film. It’s just that it can be done by one person instead of ten or twenty.

And yes, I’ll try to get more pictures next time - but hopefully soon I’ll be able to post the finished movie!

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