Project Highlight: “Experimental”

Our cell phone connection was going in and out. She missed half of the story I pitched.

“Mackenzie…” I spoke with staccato enunciation, “we’re going to set the piano on fire.”

Once the image was in our heads, there was no going back. Mackenzie’s music video would have her seated at the piano bench, surrounded by trees and the ethereal density of the forest. Slowly, smoke and fire would pour from the keys, reflecting the smoldering emotions in her lyrics.

I learned a great deal about old pianos on this project, specifically: they are heavy. I mean really damn heavy. Numerous Craigslist postings for “free, u haul” pianos should have been a warning sign. When I finally contacted some “Piano Movers” (yes, different from regular “movers”) I was desperate and exhausted. I explained why I needed a piano moved from one person’s driveway to a forest 20 miles away; the movers laughed. As luck would have it, they already had a “junk” piano loaded in their truck, destined for the landfill. These are the serendipitous moments filmmaking is all about.

Once we got the piano into the woods, I felt the surge of confidence and creative energy that comes with such a breakthrough. Even better – it played. It was a little out of tune, but it played. Then, the drought broke.

The rain was a gift and a curse. Shooting this video during a state-wide burn ban beneath a stand of kindling crisp cedar trees was not something I wanted to do. So the rain was welcome. But, two weeks later, the keys on the piano were useless. It could have been the rain, or the freezing winter air, but this piano was now just a hunk of wood. Pressing a key required force, it was rough, then a horribly off-key note would ring out, and there the white hunk of wood stuck. In a great twist of irony, we put a kerosene heater at full blast beneath the keyboard thinking it was too cold, but had to back off for fears that the piano would… actually catch on fire.

3-fire

Realizing that the keyboard only mattered from a few camera angles, namely the closeups, we found the section of keyboard that worked best and “cheated” her fingers over to that section for the closeup.

Mackenzie is dedicated. It was a frigid winter morning; I was wearing four layers and thermal underwear. I was drinking coffee to defrost like the kids in those soup commercials. Mackenzie had to look stylish… she did not select her wardrobe for comfort. As we pulled layers of blankets from her lap and shoulders, pressed record with shivering fingers, and listened to the cacophony of de-tuned piano strings assault our eardrums and echo through the trees, I thought about how delightfully absurd our antics would look to anyone watching from the distance, and smiled.

You will be delighted to hear that the fire in this video volleys between real shots of the piano on fire and visual effects work I did in post, which kept our cast and crew safe and, actually left the piano in… not terrible shape. Current plans are to retire her deeper into the woods to become part of the Phillips’ annual haunted trail. Better than the landfill.

My cinematographer Jarod Phillips, and editor Trey Morrow, deserve so much credit for this video taking shape, as does Chris Cashon for his perfect subtle performance. But most of all, if you like the song, please check out Mackenzie Morrow’s bandcamp page to download it!

Starring Mackenzie Morrow & Chris Cashon
Music and Lyrics – Mackenzie Morrow
Music Producer – Kenny McWilliams
Director/Visual Effects – Aaron Pate
Cinematographer – Jarod Phillips
Editor – Trey Morrow
Pyrotechnicians – Drew Westmoreland, Michelle Lodise
Production Assistants – Emily Kelly, John Galloway, Michelle Lodise
Artist Support – Debbie Morrow, JT Perry
Makeup Artist – Dorothy Sanders
Special Thanks to Mark & Cheryl Phillips, Allyn & Thomas Onisto

Burn

It’s that time of year again. It’s Spring: when days get longer, sleeves get shorter, and we all get reminded that the ball of fire in the sky will burn us at the slightest opportunity. Last weekend I was reminded after an eight hour shooting day which began with a windy morning, so we didn’t feel the heat, and carried on through a pleasantly warm spring afternoon. Only later did I realize my forearms and my nose were scorched.

The burn-of-the-day award goes to the crew member who dutifully blocked the sun from our actors with a large bounce. This reflector is the two-sided type, such that the black side was facing our actors and the silver side was redirecting unwanted sunlight directly into the face of the grip holding it in place. In addition to potentially blinding a grip this way, we also bounced sun into every shadow of his face. The insides of his nostrils are probably burning.

Reflector

After witnessing a few on-set injuries over the years, I made a med-kit a permanent fixture in my camera bag. The latest addition is a small tube of sunscreen. Here are some extra tips for avoiding sun exposure on outdoor shoots:

  • Sun is harshest when it’s directly overhead (11am-1pm); most people try not to shoot at this hour for lighting reasons, but even if you’re taking lunch it’s still worth reminding everyone to get out of the sun for a moment.
  • Sunscreen is greasy! Bring hand towels to wipe hands after applying, especially for camera operators and grips who will be handling expensive equipment
  • Cloud cover does NOT prevent sunburn (as my mother reminds us every summer)
  • Reflected sun will burn too; keep this in mind when shooting around light concrete, snow, & sand, near mirrors and reflectors, etc.
  • A wide-brimmed hat is a great way to shade your face and neck, preventing burn and unwanted glare. As a camera operator, a large hat often keeps the sun out of my face and off of my camera.

If you have a good sun tip, or cautionary story, share it in a comment below!

Duct Tape, Safety, & Budget Faux Pas

This anecdote should illustrate a few matters of safety on a film set, as well as some budgetary implications arising from lack of preparation in the safety department.

When you need a solid scene of somebody’s arm getting hacked with a butcher knife, what’s the best prop to use? A real butcher knife! The initial plan was to swing carefully, far from our actors, using camera angles and make it look like they were closer. When we stepped into our tiny set, however, we quickly realized there was absolutely no room for handling a sharp blade, not at any speed or fashion which would produce a believable shot. It became immediately clear that we might actually injure one of our actors (or worse… the camera), and I’m here to tell you that eliminating the need for fake blood would not have made it worthwhile.

Solution:

A member of the production team went out with a cast member to pick up some materials, and came back with duct-tape, cardboard, and silver spray paint. The plan to cover the sharp part of the blade was a success: the speed at which this attacker-character swings the knife blurred the effect and the knife came out perfectly realistic in the final footage. Additionally, every time our knife prop banged into our victim-character’s knuckles, arm, torso… he didn’t die! In that sense, it was a success.

DuctTapeKnife

Cory duct-taping the knife on set, completely aware of the ironic wardrobe choice.

However, here’s the problem:

Duct tape, cardboard, and silver spray paint are all items I have back at home in my garage, making the entire (~$13) purchase an unnecessary and irresponsible expense. Furthermore, two layers of duct tape were sufficient to cover and dull the blade, so the cardboard purchase was super unnecessary. Given that the paint didn’t stick to the blade, there was no uniformity obtained by coating the entire prop. Since duct tape comes in “chrome,” purchasing it this way would have eliminated the need for paint (by far the most expensive item in the purchase), while still obtaining the gleaming effect needed.

Careful planning beforehand would have prevented the need to waste time and resources modifying this prop, allowing us to keep our actor’s arm and the money in our budget.