November 10, 2009
Roadshow stop: Set of Wood If
Roadshow role: Swing
There were military trucks everywhere. Police cars. Ambulances. There were even two tanks parked on the Clark St. Bridge. It was downtown Chicago, August 2007. Crowds of people lined the banks of the Chicago River to watch the action. Two helicopters buzzed past flying so low they were amidst the skyscrapers. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
The helicopters did another dive along the river. And two minutes later, again. Was it a terrorist attack? Was there an important political figure in town? Was the city under siege? Then I noticed the cameras. And it turns out, it was all three. They were filming a scene from the The Dark Knight. I stayed and watched the helicopters make their pass between the buildings for another hour. They shot the scene at least two dozen times. The scale of it all floored me. I see movies being filmed in Vancouver on a regular basis, but rarely do I spend more than a cursory glance to see how they’ve re-fashioned Gastown to resemble New York City, or if there’s an actor I might recognize. But this was such a grand, over the top production. I had never seen anything like it.
A year later, when The Dark Knight opened in theaters, I was eager to see the scene I witnessed. I figured from the amount of time, effort, and money devoted to shooting it, the scene would be pivotal to the movie, or at least part of an epic action sequence.
It was less than three seconds long.
The shot had no real relevance to the film. It was filler. Or what in the ‘biz’ would be called an ‘establishing shot’. Perhaps in one iteration of the film, it had more significance. But if so, it never made it out of the editing room.
For this next stop on the Roadshow, I had mostly forgotten my behind the scenes glimpse at The Dark Knight. But it all came back to me when I stepped on set—the cameras, the lights, the sound equipment. The big difference, of course, being I wasn’t on the set of a major blockbuster film. Quite the opposite. It was a short (two-minute) film being made for Bravo!FACT Presents, a branch of CTV that produces short films highlighting Canada and the arts. The short, Wood If, featured the Dr. Seuss meets Guillermo del Toro-style artwork and furniture of Judson Beaumont and his company Straight Line Designs.
There wasn’t a multi-million dollar budget, a crew of thousands, a 12-month filming schedule, or any on set divas. It had to be filmed over the course of three weekends with a budget of $15,000 and the crew, which was less than 20 people, were all volunteer. They weren’t paid for their long days or hard work, but did it because they believed in the film and in Judson’s art. Comparing the two productions seemed like an exercise in apples and oranges.
But there was one big similarity–shooting a film of any scale or budget requires a lot time and effort. A smaller production, however, doesn’t have the luxury to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into a three-second scene. Instead, they have to maximize each second of their day as they shoot on a limited budget with limited resources. Creativity, innovation, and dedication take the place of ample bankrolls.
Our first location was a 2800-square foot all-white sound stage. Judson, dressed in black, was being shot with one of his dressers. The white stage with its curved corners took away all depth perception and made Judson and the dresser appear to be floating in nothingness. The abstruse setting seemed an appropriate backdrop for Judsons’ playful and logic-defying furniture. The crew was filming a long shot, which had Judson walk towards his dresser, open a drawer, and then walk toward the camera. The scene had to be shot over and over again to ensure everything was just right: from Judson’s walk to the camera angle to the correct lighting to the optimal sound capture.
It was a lot of repetition. And a ton of ‘hurry up and wait’. But no one seemed to mind. It was just part of the process–and vital to the end result.
My role for the day was Swing–meaning I would help out wherever I was needed. There were only ten people on set that day, so an extra set of hands was in high demand. After shooting the scenes on the sound stage, we tore down the equipment, packed it into a half-ton truck and headed over to Judson’s workshop. At the workshop, I assumed the role of grip (or lug would be more appropriate) and spent the next two hours hauling equipment into Judson’s studio with one of the crew’s actual grips, Melissa Beaupre. And there was a ton of equipment to haul: cameras, cranes, dollies, lights, cables, scaffolds, electrical boxes. Just because a film is only two minutes long, doesn’t mean it needs any less equipment.
When all the equipment was unpacked and organized, Melissa and I watched from outside Judson’s office as the director, J.B. Sugar, and director of photography, Henry Chan, filmed Judson sketching. It was almost 6 pm and they had been going steady since 8 am. But there was no waning of enthusiasm. J.B. and Henry were keen to make their own art from the art being created in front of them. And they shot take after take to ensure they got it right.
There were no helicopters or tanks on this set. But it didn’t need these big price tag props. Because all day long there was an air of exhilaration of something big happening, something important being created. The crew was charged with the possibility of accurately portraying Judson’s spirited personality and artwork. And even though the process was slow going and ate up their weekends, the crew was driven by the prospect of playing a key role in the creation of this two-minute final product.
Writer / Director J.B. Sugar
Producer Liz Levine
Artist Judson Beaumont
Director of Photography Henry Chan
Steadicam Bob Findlay
1st AC Francis Kramer
2nd AC Jeremy Lundstrom
Assistant Director Matthew Blecha
Composer & Sound Recordist Dany Gagnon
Gaffer Rory Soderman
Key Grip Benoit Lamarche
Grip Melissa Beaupre
Grip Garrett Lalonde
Grip Richard Burton
Grip Dawson Oatt
Location Manager Oliver Rappard
First Aid/Craft Service/Props/F.A.C.S. Sara Quine
Driver Jameson Parker
Stills Photographer Kyla Day