From The Lens: How I Shot An Improvised Feature Film

I’ll admit that publishing a blog about improvising a film to an audience of professional screenwriters is a little scary… please don’t hate me! This style of filmmaking by no means replaces the need to write screenplays, and should obviously be recognized as an a-typical approach to filmmaking.

Truth is: There was a great deal of writing involved which I had the rare opportunity to take part in as a DP, and I think many screenwriters could appreciate this as a sort of exercise in storytelling.

With that disclaimer, let’s start from the beginning…

Our Canon prop camera poses next to my Panasonic AF-100 for a photo op.

Our Canon prop camera poses next to my Panasonic AF-100 for a photo op.

A year ago, my buddy M.D. Perkins (Mississippi based Director, Producer, and hardcore cinephile), approached me with a burning desire to shoot a feature, despite having no money and little time.  His solution was the crazy idea to spend seven days improvising a film. I had worked with Perkins on a few of his other films including Fallen Petals, and Becket 2, and his projects are always lots of fun, so I was excited about the prospect of working with him again.

Wait a minute, an improvised feature? In seven days!?

After hanging up the phone I began to question what I got myself into. You may have read about the importance I place on the script in my previous post Breaking Down A Screenplay As Director Of Photography. This project would definitely go against my typical approach, but I was very intrigued.

Over the course of a couple months, the basic structure of Corps of Discovery was developed and refined. Perkins built every aspect of the story he wanted to tell based on the people, places, and things that he had regular access to. This allowed him to easily cut production costs down, making the script fit his resources, rather than the other way around.

The synopsis: A story about two grown brothers, Lewis and Clark, who have not seen or spoken to each other in years. When Clark moves back home, Lewis seizes the chance to enlist his younger brother to help him shoot an adaptation of Tarzan in their parents’ backyard. Fueled by creativity yet hindered by money, the two brothers find that the movie highlights their unresolved tensions more than it settles them.

The bare bones of our story were pre-designed, but the details were left to be found on the fly. We planned to shoot the film in chronological order, so that we could clearly think about what would have to happen next in the story and what the audience would need to see. This also gave us the liberty to incorporate any new developments to that initial list of resources.

Perkins decided to write the first act of the film in more detail, because he felt that if he could get the first part right, the rest would play out properly. The second and third act consisted of a rough beat outline. In a sense, this gave us general coordinates to follow, but left the specific paths we chose open to spontaneity.

M.D. and Nate Perkins sit together for coffee.

M.D. and Nate Perkins sit together for coffee.

Not only was it unusual to be improvising an entire feature film, but Perkins also cast himself as the lead. “You will be my eyes,” he said to me in one of many e-mail exchanges. We anticipated that most times I would be the only person behind the camera, so I was entrusted to direct the director!

Most of the characters seemed to be based on real people in Perkins’s life. He played the role of Lewis, and his brother Nate Perkins played the role of Clark. Perkins’s wife, daughter, and parents all had roles in the film. Friends joined in for other occasional roles too. It all fit together very nicely.

Due to our budget restrictions, we stuck with the camera I had access to at the time: My Panasonic AF-100 with Canon L-Series zoom lenses. I wanted a smoother, classic look to the image because I felt that there were a lot of nostalgic elements within this story, so I rented a Black Promist 1/4 to diffuse the image a bit.

I also brought along a couple ND Grad filters to help us control exposure on the fly. I sometimes use these to create a gradient on a wall, or to properly expose hot spots like a bright sky, or a bright patch of sunlight.  This will only work on stationary shots though, because when movement is involved the gradation of the filter becomes noticeable.

We decided to shoot in black and white for practical for reasons at first. Perkins expressed to me that he would rather shoot without color, than to use it casually or arbitrarily. It was clear from the very beginning that we would not have access to any professional lighting equipment, and would have a very minimal crew, if any. In many ways, black and white photography is extremely forgiving, since we would not have to worry about the color temperatures of lights matching, or the color pallets of our art direction.

In studying black and white imagery, I really admired the work of photographer Cole Thompson. The contrast in his photography seemed well suited to Lewis’ personality.  Having worked with Cole in Death Valley and San Diego, I had some insight into how he likes to achieve contrast in his photos, and I found the techniques he taught me very useful for this film.

We also discussed aspect ratios right away.  Perkins has long preferred the format of 4:3 in his films.  When I suggested that a 16:9 aspect ratio would help to create horizontal space between characters, which could visually portray their distant relationships, he was convinced to give it a try. It also helped to compose some of the vast, horizontally oriented landscapes of Tupelo.

I found other ways to establish a visual style without a detailed script on hand, and to be honest it was a lot of fun to keep things open and general, instead of locked to specific moments or scenes.  My decisions could only be designed based simply on the characters.

In our story, Lewis has taken on a certain degree of stylization so that he can accomplish the goal of completing a film. When caught in an inspiring moment, I suggested shooting from low angle to evoke the heroic persona he has invented for himself.

Lewis makes a discovery.

Lewis makes a discovery.

Whenever Lewis makes a new discovery, or is entering new terrain, I suggested a repeated composition: With Lewis facing away from camera in the lower third of the frame, the shot becomes more about his environment, with him as an onlooker.  To me, this composition says “adventurer”, and “dreamer” simultaneously.

Clark finds himself at odds with his brother primarily because he has always done what he wanted to do.  He wanted to skateboard, so he skateboarded. He wanted to go to college, so he goes to college. I felt that we could establish their differences by trying to keep space between them in frame whenever possible. Clark is more real, and I felt he’d be better suited to more natural lighting than Lewis’ dynamic style.

Nate Perkins as Clark, and his light in frame.

Nate Perkins as Clark, and his light in frame.

We decided to try for a softer approach to Clark’s style. Whenever possible, we positioned lights in his frame, even with him. Perkins wrote very artfully in an e-mail discussing Clark’s style: “He has light with him.  It is genuine.  Lewis is different.  The light is outside him. The light is even at odds to him sometimes.”

Finally, I made the connecting flight in one of those tiny annoying airplanes, to Perkins’s hometown in Tupelo, Mississippi.  I hadn’t been there since the filming of Becket 2, and it was good to see that the airport was just as small, and the people were just as hospitable as they were a couple years back.

As soon as I arrived, Perkins was ready to begin. We started with a great scene where Lewis angrily decorates his parents’ car port after the disappointing realization that his brother delayed his visit by an extra night. It’s a scene where Lewis’ assertive personality begins to emerge, as he recklessly slaps ribbons all over a bland car port.

This was our first opportunity to use camera movement as a visual storytelling device. We decided to use a lot of looser movement in energetic scenes like this one. On the other hand, we used a lot of static, or smooth motion when scenes weren’t so emotionally intense.

I think we pulled this concept of expressive camera motion from a reference that Perkins introduced me to long ago: a brilliant film titled Soy Cuba. My favorite scene from this film is one where a farmer decides to destroy his sugar cane field. As he is cutting it down in rage, the camera swings violently with his arms, emphasizing the brutality of his actions.

While we didn’t have a professional light package available, we managed to put together a rough arsenal that worked well since color balance was not an issue. I managed to bring along my Litepanel 1×1, which can be powered by battery, so it was easy to run around with. We also used a combination of a few different Home Depot work lights for different purposes.  We had halogen work lights on stands, and clamp lights with high wattage bulbs inside. I also brought along my gels and black wrap, and a flexfill for controlling light as best I could.

Since we were embracing contrast, day interiors didn’t require much fill light to compensate for sunlit windows. Many times I simply let the available sunlight bounce around the room, and occasionally used my Lightpanel or a clamp light down a hallway or around a corner to add some definition here or there.

At night, I used a work light outside windows to create a “moonlight” effect, instead of leaving windows completely black.  I don’t like black windows in night scenes, because they basically just turn into mirrors (unless they’re open or covered). I used other clamp lights to bounce off of the ceiling, creating a nice soft ambient light that passed well as general house lighting.  Household lamps were also quite useful in strategically lighting spaces.

Tarshish the gorilla patiently teaches algebra.

Tarshish the gorilla patiently teaches algebra.

The funnest part of our production, was the film within the film — Lewis’ adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, which he so creatively titled “Farzan of the Apes” to avoid copyright issues. Some notable scenes involved a gorilla named Tarshish (M.D. Perkins), who taught Farzan (Nate Perkins) everything from soccer to algebra. When Perkins made his first appearance in the monkey suit, he immediately became a character none of us had expected, with a strange and soft-spoken, slightly Scottish accent.  His off-the-cuff decision to contrast the grizzly looks of a gorilla with a delicate personality was the perfect comedic choice that made us all cringe in keeping our laughter silent through that first take.

Midway through our production week, we scheduled a light day to explore scenic shots of Tupelo. I had suggested this early on as a means to make sure we captured the environment of the film, so we spent some time exploring some very picturesque landscapes.

We were hiking through the Chickasaw Village Site (on the Natchez Trace) to get some rural landscape shots, when I started to feel concerned. I was seeing all these rich and beautiful colors, and I suddenly felt like I was missing so much by shooting in black and white.

It was then that Cole Thompson’s advice on black and white photography came back to me– When I remembered that I needed to look past the colors, and focus on contrast instead.  This was a new way of thinking for me. Where there is no more color contrast, only tonal contrast will help enhance the image.

Searching for tonal contrast and texture within the landscape helped me tremendously.  I found things like white trees against darker, green trees, which stood out well as a subject.  I tried to use the shapes and lines of the landscape as best as I could, and it really became a fun exercise for me.

Scenic landscapes of Chickasaw Village Site

Scenic landscapes of Chickasaw Village Site

Meanwhile, Perkins began to realize that the characters and story had changed as things progressed, and it was apparent to him that the story could not end with the original image he had in mind. Each day of shooting came with the task of trying to figure out where we were going to end this thing.

Finally, the night before our last production day, we talked out very plainly what made sense from a character perspective.  We talked about every beat of the story so far, every beat that could yet occur.  We talked about character motivation, intention and growth.  It was the characters that led the way, just as it would be in writing the script beforehand.

A serious discussion between brothers, in a dark kitchen.

A serious discussion between brothers, in a dark kitchen.

We wanted one of the central turning points of the film to stand out visually from the rest of our scenes, so we decided to take tonal contrast to the extreme by placing Lewis and Clark in darkness, and allowing “moonlight” to silhouette them during a very heartfelt talk in front of a large kitchen window.

This was our most complicated setup of the film.  We used every light we had to illuminate the leaves outside, to backlight tree trunks. Then we hung one light from the roof, aiming it through the window which created a dim spill light from the moon outside, and allowed us to put a rim on Lewis and Clark separating them from the shadows in the trees outside.

The difficult part was keeping any light from bouncing around the white kitchen, since I wanted to underexpose Lewis and Clark by at least four stops, yet the Home Depot lights were barely powerful enough for me to expose at an f/2.8 at 650 ISO.  It took a lot of tweaking to get things right, but we got it to work, and the results were just what we wanted.

On our last day of production, we really just wanted to have fun, but we were also missing an essential moment that kicks off Lewis’ excited filmmaking spree. Perkins got into his gorilla costume, and did something he doesn’t normally do: He danced, 80’s style.

The gorilla dance sequence is an absurd expression of the freedom and abandon with which Lewis embraces his dream of making a movie. This is probably one of the most stylized portions of the film, where I tried to mix in some aspects of music video cinematography with lots of push-ins and outs.  We planned out choreographed edits in advance, to create the illusion that there were multiple cameras in this house, filming him dancing away.

Perkins’s 4-year-old daughter, Evangeline, was overjoyed to witness this spectacular monkey show.

corps_monkey-dance

After a great week with the Perkins family and friends, it was time for me to head home.  Getting away from the hustle of New York to the tranquility of Tupelo was a refreshing break for me, and leaving this little town was bittersweet. Looking back at the project, I still miss it today but I also really value everything I learned from the experience.

Corps Of Discovery is awaiting funding to complete post-sound, and once complete, it will make its rounds in various festival circuits.

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