Onward

Throughout this (extra long) Christmas break, I’ve spent a significant amount of time reflecting over the past semester and all the things I’ve learned. And since this blog’s theme is, already, heavily influenced by my life at film school, I want to share some of the most important lessons I learned while directing and producing my first film as a grad student at NYU Tisch. At the bottom of this post I’ll tell you what’s next on my list of projects.

You can read an earlier posts about the film HERE


Starring the talented Sonya Vai. Photo: Avi Kabir.

It turns out that writing, producing and directing a 16mm film without color, dialogue or music, shot outside, without lights, with only two rolls of film and on a budget that barely made it to three figures was … a challenge, and here’s why:

Screenshot of actress Sonya Vai in action. DP: Qiying Lin.

1. You learn to respect the light
Shooting on film as opposed to digital sounds really cool (to film nerds anyway), but it’s actually an art of its own. Not only do you have to pretend to be a blind surgeon doing a heart transplant when loading the film into the camera mag. Because the light will kill your precious (and very expensive) film stock, you have to do the whole loading inside a light-proof changing bag that has decades of grad student-sweat inside it. You can’t see what your hands are doing, and knowing that even the tiniest light ray will ruin your film, your budget and your dignity only adds to the pressure of performing an already hard task.

Lin demonstrates how the infamous “changing bag” works. 

2. The camera shows no mercy
The Arriflex SR camera from the 1950s is a tough cookie, and YOU have to do everything your digital camera does for you. (WARNING! Technical terms ahead) We had to use light-meter to get the aperture right, neutral density filters to control the light and measuring tapes to get the focus right. It was easily a 2-3 person job to just get the camera ready for each shot.

Ready to roll: Getting the camera ready for each take was a mission of its own. Sonya Vai, Qiying Lin and me. Photo: Avi Kabir.

3. Non-human actors …
The first thing they tell you when you become a grad film student at NYU is:
“We don’t recommend you work with kids or animals. They WILL slow down your production.” So … what did I do? Well, I wrote a script with a pigeon in a leading role. Writing one is easy, finding one is not. I think I talked to every casting agency for animals in New York City (yes, they exist), and I must have visited every bird rescue center and every pet store on Manhattan before I stumbled upon Eddie in Brooklyn. As a pigeon enthusiast and with 80 pet pigeons, he turned out to be an angel in disguise. He showed up with his beautiful white dove, Cleopatra, for free, and he didn’t even want coffee or an umbrella in the storm. What a trooper!

Sonya and Cleopatra’s first interaction was interrupted by the sudden rain. Here with Eddie. Photo: Avi Kabir.

4. Adrenalin for days
You only get two rolls of film, which equals 22 minutes of actual recording time. That means we only got two attempts on each shot, sometimes just one — depending on the length of the action. Combine that with stormy winds, crazy rain and a ticking clock, and you have enough adrenalin for a week.

With director of photography, Qiying Lin. Photo: Avi Kabir.

5. Film is expensive
Some students bought extra rolls of film for a more relaxed shooting experience, but I had to prioritize spending that money on food for the remaining part of the semester. Oh well, the life of a starving artist in the big city.

Screenshot of “TENDER” with actors Sonya and Cleo. DP: Qiying Lin.

6. You have to feed your folks
The director pays for everything on his/her set, and there are rules for how often the cast and crew need to be fed. Thankfully I got everything donated from local stores and was able to shave $400 off my budget, yay!

Screenshot of “TENDER” with actors Sonya and Cleo. DP: Qiying Lin.

7. Rain, thunder, wind …
Our $75,000 worth of camera gear, our bodies and our food was soaked. The only dry creature on set was Cleopatra the bird. In retrospect I see that the rain made my film less bad; it worked with the story and I was pleasantly surprised with the effect it had on the tone of the film.

Not even the rain could interfere with the good moods on set. Here with Sonya, Avi Kabir, Lin and Jorge Sistos. Photo: Kai Torres.

I’m forever grateful for the amazing efforts by the very best, crew 7.

Assistant Director: Kai Torres.
Director of Photography: Qiying Lin.
Assistant Camera: Jorge Sistos.
Sound: Pepi Ginsberg.
Set Photographer and Swing: Avi Kabir.

All in all I’m very proud and happy with how it went, and I can’t wait to tackle our so-called “Spring Narrative film” in a few months. First, I just have to finish the documentary I’m making here in my hometown, and start writing a script for the spring and fly back to the US early next week.

I’ll tell you all about how the documentary is coming once I’m done with the final day of shooting — this coming Sunday.

PS! Some of you have asked if I will publish “TENDER” here, and I regret to inform you that it won’t be posted online. I’ll get back to you with more info.

Now I’ll go prep the equipment for this weekend.

Have a blessed day!
Maria

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