Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Travails Of Making Timely Sketch Comedy

Friday night some friends helped me shoot a political satire. We wanted to get it up online this weekend for the run up to Super Tuesday, but it may never see the light of day owing to legitimate concerns of our employer (who did not participate in its production, but has a right to approve or deny our side projects).

It was good fun anyway.

It's not much of a film, per se, but rather it's a skit committed to tape. There are only 3 shot setups, and they're all medium shots with fairly poorly thought out options for cutting (my fault -- I wanted to compress shooting time and keep the actors lines fresh, so I didn't instruct them to leave many pregnant pauses or other actions to cut on). The actors ultimately saved the day by finally declaring that they could do the entire piece (over 5 minutes) in one continuous take. In about ten heroic attempts, the pulled off at least two successful reads. They also did a version of the last two pages that omitted the most potentially offensive material (a satire of the crypto-racist underpinnings of a certain kind of political argument). Since I'd given them almost no time to learn the material, I was very impressed. My DP did a credible job with what he was given to work with, which was basically noting -- it's just static shots of two people talking at a water cooler.

Anu and I thought of the idea Wednesday, wrote it Thursday night, and gave it to the actors on Friday. That didn't leave much time for preparation, and we spent 4 of the 8 hours shooting it rehearsing and dealing with technical issues caused by scrambling to get everything together too quickly. The piece is about the text and the performance, not the visuals, but it definitely was another lesson in the difficulties of extremely rapid filmmaking. It also pointed out what a Director truly needs to be thinking about (performance first, then shot design in conjunction with the DP), and why producers are such critical partners in the creative process. I should have delegated more of dealing with practical and technical issues to someone else, and focused on bouncing between my actors and my DP.

We gave up shooting some shots that would have made the piece less static and more visually interest, because it was 2AM and we had to shoot the angles we had so many times because I'd tortured the actors with 6 pages of very dense, yet rhythymic, dialog. What we gave up was close-ups / over-the-shoulder shots. We shouldn't have done that. But, I felt obligated to let my fabulous crew, who responded to my crazy call to "make a short tomorrow," go home and have a weekend with their families. Given either two or three more shooting hours, we would have nailed that. I could try to fake it with cropped push-ins in Digital Fusion or Shake, but MiniDV isn't much of an image to work with to begin with so I'm reluctant to push it.

Preparation is always key to successful filmmaking. I need to replace the missing items in my kit, and work with my DP and others to always keep the proper cables, power supplies, and so on with our gear. We could have done all our shots had we spent less time dealing with the equipment. If you're going to do run-and-gun or any other style of fast filmmaking, make sure your kit is complete and well organized.

All in all, I still like the piece, but it's not much of a film. It's more like a hurriedly put together sketch from a low-budget TV comedy show (the TV feel is further created by the lighting, which was as flat as we could get in our short setup time so we could move the camera with minimal adjustment of lights). None of this reflects on the talent of my crew, but on the following decisions: (1) do the whole thing very fast, (2) focus on the text and performance, and let other things go by the wayside, and (3) let the cast and crew go home. The entire project came together in about 14 hours -- which will increase to about 20 or so if I decide to go ahead and try to edit the 3 setups into some kind of a shot flow rather than sticking with one of the end-to-end takes (but those were so impressive, I feel a compunction to want to use one).

Everyone was a joy to work with, and I hope they will join me in further filmmaking (or, as in this case, skitmaking) pursuits.


Seth Hanisek said...

I would love to read the script and/or see the film, if you are interested in either thoughtful feedback or mindless praise (I do both equally well). I can ensure discretion, should that be a factor.