Debutante Part 2: Pre-Production

In November, I wrote a blog post called “Debutante Part 1: The Conception,” and in that blog I promised that part two would eventually follow. Guess what day it is…

With the development and conceptual stuff out of the way, it’s only fitting that we find ourselves immersed in the ever-busy world of pre-production. If you are a client of Mountain Craft Productions, then you already know this: pre-production is everything. The chances of a film or video turning out are often directly proportional to how much time is spent working on logistics and creative decisions before you step onto set. With Debutante, this was especially true. It’s only an eight minute film, but it took many days and weeks to make everything come together in the right way. The film was conceptualized in the second weekend of July 2017. It only took a week or two after that for me to finalize the script, after which we cast the parts and had our table read with our cast in the same month. Finishing the writing and casting that quickly was slightly insane, but we were lucky because we were able to find good people very quickly and that enabled us to schedule a couple rehearsals, which is something you don’t always get time for on shoots like these. It also allowed us to shift gears more toward other production needs like locking down our location, props, and crew.

The filming location was one of the areas where we encountered difficulty. I thought I knew of the perfect place to shoot this film. I was fixated on it and was sure it was the most appropriate place for us to bring this film to life. After a promising phone call with the location owner, I was ultimately dragged along for weeks not knowing whether or not we were going to be able to secure the location for the shoot as I was finding it more and more difficult to get anyone to answer my calls. I wasted so much time doing this, that at one point in July I was convinced that Debutante was dead because we had no location. One thing I am continually thankful for, though, is the generous filmmaking/creative community in West Virginia. In our time of need, I had two different friends recommend to me that I should reach out to Riggs Commercial Realty to see if they could help me find a location. To be honest, I didn’t have hope that a commercial real estate company would care about our film or what we were trying to do. I was wrong. When I met Jennifer Pharr at Riggs I was suddenly filled with hope. Her excitement for what we were trying to do and her access to interesting properties in downtown Charleston led to not just one but multiple locations that could work for our film. After a scout of the available properties and a logistical meeting we settled on our two locations. Chelsea’s bedroom was to be shot in the Atlas Building on Quarrier Street and all of the other rooms would be shot at the Masonic Temple! There’s a lesson in this. Be looking for red flags and trust them. By the time that I was finally given a hard “no” by the owner of the location I was originally looking at, I had promised him hundreds of dollars, to pay a security guard to be present with us overnight, and free video production. I promised all these things to a guy who wouldn’t return my calls, texts, or emails. I should have been moving on instead. I’m so happy that I found Riggs because they not only were nicer and easier to work with, but they actually had a location that was better than the one I had in mind. Lesson learned. So here we were. Location secured. But there were just a few days to go before we were supposed to be shooting!

Here's a peek at pages from our shot list and shooting schedule:

Assembling our crew was a much easier task. We had a couple casualties in the week leading up to the shoot where we had to scramble to find replacements, but once again I have accepted that this resulted in an even better on-set atmosphere because we ended up with a fantastic crew of people that we trust and love to work with. Also, almost everyone on our crew was working for free. Given that fact, it has to be accepted when someone gets pulled in another direction or accepts a paying job. Ginger Basham joined us on set even though she had to arrive on crutches with a twisted ankle. She did hair and makeup on Debutante, and we were incredibly thankful to have her because she also pulled off our blood effect with confidence that we wouldn’t have had if we had to figure out how to do it ourselves. My 1st AC, Mikey D’Amico, was not only a dedicated and hardworking assistant to me, but he also drove over three hours to Charleston from Morgantown for our shoot and then drove back afterwards. I’m still in his debt for that. He was invaluable. Tyler Maxwell was our on-set stills photographer and he drove down from Fairmont to take great promotional photos for us which is a thing that is often overlooked. The rest of our on-set crew were equally as talented and hard working. Cass Berry knocked crafty out of the park, Josh Russell is always giving and a pleasure to work with and he helped us record sound, Josh Stapler jumped on board to assist my gaffer, Sheridan Cleland, who was the VIP on set in terms of sweat and creative contributions, and Corey Foster, my 2nd AC, is a fantastic guy and a joy to work with on set as well.

Here's a few side-by-side comparisons of pictures we took during our location scout versus their "Debutante" look:

I think we ended up visiting the Masonic Temple three times prior to our shoot. There was the initial scout, the walk-through with Ben to determine blocking and any script changes that would be needed to accommodate our new location, and then a tech-scout with my gaffer, Sheridan. The first shot of the film was going to be the first shot on our schedule since it was the hardest. The opening shot looks down the length of the hallway so we had to light the hallway, the deep background, and two adjoining rooms off to the right side which represented the kitchen and Chelsea’s bedroom. Neither of these doors on the right wall actually led to the rooms that they portrayed in the hallway scene, but they had to be lit with the colors that corresponded to the rooms they represented so that our geographical continuity would work. For example, in the opening shot we see our servant boy character walk up to the camera, place a tray down on the ground, and then we see his feet disappear into the kitchen, which is lit with dim green florescent lights. One of the lights flickers badly, and that effect can be seen on the hallway floor, which is where the shot is focused. In reality, though, Cody (who played the servant boy) was walking into an office with a desk, filing cabinets, and stacks of papers. Later, when we were actually shooting inside the kitchen, we had lighting and sound design that matched what we were seeing in the hallway. Without careful planning, we wouldn’t be able to pull off this constant trickery where it looks like we are going into one room but we are actually cutting to a location somewhere else.

As I’ve established, then, that opening shot required the entire hallway to be lit as well as the two offices to the right side of the frame. The reason that this shot was our most complicated, though, was that the shot then followed the servant boy’s feet as he walked into the large room where mother was doing her work. This large room also required a lot of lights. Since we were seeing both of these large locations in one single unbroken shot, we had to use every light I owned and then some on this one shot… for a total of 16 light fixtures! Once we had the first shot in the can, we moved on. With every new scene came a new lighting setup that required tweaks or a complete changing of the light. This, like everything, takes time.

We planned to shoot the whole film over the course of a single night and we didn’t have time to stand around discussing what the light should look like, so I created these schematics:

 

With the schematics in place, we had a definite blueprint for how the entire film would look. The schematics were specific and even outlined exactly which fixtures to use and which color of gel should be applied to them. Lots of things can go wrong on set, so figuring out the lighting plan during pre-production allowed us to have the time to tackle any unknowns that may come our way. Which leads me to this… that third schematic is for Chelsea’s room. If you’ve seen Debutante and you feel like the schematic for Chelsea’s room doesn’t look like what you remember in the film… you aren’t wrong. The day before we were scheduled to shoot our film, I got this text message...

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Our location for Chelsea's room was flooded. 

In our last installment of the Debutante blog series, we’ll go over the frantic, long, and tedious two days that were the production of Debutante and our solution to Chelsea's bedroom. Then, we’ll follow up with a couple notes about our post-production. Coming soon!