Postapocalyptic Cinematography for “Phoenix 9”
As a Cinematographer, you define the look of a film. But sometimes, your creative support and your social abilities are equally important – such as when it comes to upholding your director’s vision in the face of a post-apocalyptic storm of unforeseen difficulties.
This is the Story of the Making Of of Phoenix 9.
The Story Before the Story
Many months ago, I get a Facebook message from a random German guy, who must have discovered my older blog through one of the German filmmaking and 3D-forums I distribute it in. He introduces himself as Amir Reichart and says he’s planning to direct an ambitious Sci-Fi short film in LA., to serve as a proof-of-concept for a feature film. I don’t think much further of it, since it seems like the team is already established, but offer my help in the production, getting people together etc. When I see serious ambition and rational expectations in filmmakers, I love to somehow be on board and contribute whatever I can.
Amir and his Screenwriter already have a Cinematographer on board who is slightly better – or at least, more experienced – than me. But just in case the DP doesn’t bring a Gaffer on board, I offer to maybe be the lead lighting technician on the shoot. I also give Amir a few contacts and LA-specific tips (he had made all of his films in Germany so far) in terms of crew and production. Then, for a while, I get only sporadic updates, and nearly forget about the project.
Now it is June; I am coincidentally in LA, sitting in Hiroki’s incredibly hot, air conditioning-free apartment. Amir asks me to meet him and Peer Gopfrich, his writer / producer; I coincidentally have a few days left before I have to return to Berkeley, so we set up a meeting in a Cafe. I order an overly fancy, overpriced coffee drink – a “Tomnccino” – and wait for the guys. They didn’t tell me why we are meeting, but judging from our past conversations, I anticipate we’ll be talking about me helping them out with some loose ends, or recommending some other people for various tasks. Maybe they even want me as a Gaffer, which would be an exciting reason to come back to LA one more time this summer.
Peer and Amir, both around 30, sit down with me. We converse in German – an increasingly rare privilege for me.
“So… Have you read the script?” – that one came unexpected. I remember an email, but thought they just wanted to meet for some general advice, not for actual feedback on the story.
Amir and Peer look at each other skeptically – this guy didn’t even do the basics, they must be thinking. Either way, Peer pitches the story to me; I interject with questions about the characters and the logic of the film’s world. Here is the logline for your quick enjoyment:
After he is done, Amir finally tells me what is going on. Their Cinematographer just jumped ship. This week, they already met with six other prospective Cinematographers they selected out of dozens of applicants – all people that come with top-of-the-line gear, a big load of music video credits, and some badass reels. The one answer they got from all of these six DPs at the initial meeting was along the lines of “Oh, I just really love SciFi. I do a lot of music videos nowadays, but I would love to expand more into narratives. Did I mention that I really love SciFi?”. All of these meetings lasted 30 minutes.
To the untrained eye, these might be solid statements of interest – but to Amir and Peer, this is the creative Sahara – a dead fish handshake asking about lighting budgets, not a Cinematographer that you can develop a vision with. People who are creatively not more than a dead fish handshake are “Stoepsel” – they are plugs that stop creativity from flowing.
Now, I am seemingly the last option – all the way at the end of the line. That being said, being bitter about that fact would just be foolish – it’s more of a stroke of luck that all these Cinematographers who are possibly more skilled and better equipped than me fell by the wayside for various reasons, and I have my moment of opportunity. Amir and Peer lay their cards on the table: they need someone they can collaborate with, someone who will voice their own opinion, someone who can relate to directorial decisions and storytelling – someone like me. Maybe me.
And that’s what I do for the rest of the meeting, feed back the creative energy, bounce ideas back and forth, try to understand where they are going with their short, trying to understand who they want the short to watch, what they want this short to do for themselves, what story they are trying to tell. Not only do I really like these guys, but they did a ton of research on how Sci-Fi shorts which are distributed online and have an immediate viral growth either make it our break it in the weeks after the release. Our meeting lasts nearly 3 hours, just about as long as all the other DP meetings combined.
We continue with tossing visual inspirations back and forth; Amir selects a few of my suggestions to communicate where his vision and my imagination overlap. In order to continue with the planning, it’s substantial for us to create a detailed shot list coupled with a story board – nothing less than that would be good enough on this scale. I end up volunteering myself to do the storyboards, which end up being quite a lot of work but immerse me deeper into the story and visualization of the film.
While I am on a trip through Sequoia and Yosemite, the project is constantly on my mind; the storyboards are partially done, 2/3 scenes are completed. Amir asks me to come to LA two weeks prior to the shoot’s starting date. That would make “Phoenix 9” by far the most pre-produced film I’ve worked on as a Cinematographer so far. Good, so I show up at Peer’s house 11 days before the start of the shoot. No Hilton, no luxury – a nice folding bed you can find on camping grounds is my nightly place of rest. Once Robert arrives – the VFX supervisor, also a German expatriate, just like Peer but in Shanghai and Vancouver – we are four German speaking dudes in one place of harmony. I find out that Robert is from Eastern Germany, and so I make up the funny-sounding overly-East-German pronunciation of his name, namely “Roebard”, and he takes the soon-to-be running joke with humor. Only my snoring interrupts the harmony, so I get exiled down into the living room. And even if the daily food consists of Bagels for Breakfast and In-n-Out-burger for dinner, we keep dreaming big.
One of the evenings during preproduction, we watch a documentary titled “Lost In La Mancha“. It’s a great feature-length behind-the-scenes documentation of Terry Gilliam‘s failed “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” project, which basically stalled in the middle of a $30 million production. After the film is over, we share some laughs – “That can’t happen to us!” – in retrospective, that is quite ironic, since we had no idea what scary challenges would lie ahead.
Back to the story – I watch Peer and Amir put all of their life savings into their dream; an admirable example for what true filmmaking means: squeezing your last drop of blood into your dreams, and turning them into reality. The budget estimates keep increasing, people keep dropping out of the project and get replaced by far better people with higher ambitions. Since I am staying with Peer, Amir and Robert I get to witness a lot more of the producing, story development, crew management and other kinds of challenges that a Cinematographer usually only witnesses on the periphery.
And just like I experienced it with Hiroki and myself, I see a great creative team in Peer and Amir – two guys who met playing tennis a few years back and were able to sustain a creative partnership over the following years, working together on creating a story, a vision – all that across the Atlantic Ocean. And now, they reunite geographically in LA and make their dream come true, with everything they’ve got.
In terms of Cinematography, there are quite a few challenges in preproduction. The desert location turns out to be the most amazing desert I have seen so far in California (Imperial Dunes, they shot Star Wars here), but like any desert it happens to also be one of the sunniest places. In order to match the film’s story of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Amir wishes to create a cloudy, desolated look in this ever-sunny place. The biggest diffuser I can realistically get my hands on is a 20×20 silk, so diffusing a few square miles of desert is not an option. Waiting for a cloudy day won’t work either, so my only option is backlighting every single shot where we see multiple characters, diffusing medium shots where characters face the sun, and shooting close to sunset – hoping the audience won’t figure out the visual betrayal I’ve committed.
Then, we have seven characters to deal with. In terms of blocking and lighting, I have to use scale for the actual equipment used, and have to get creative on the pre-visualization of their blocking. I remember a touch-based software called Shot Designer that I saw a while back; I reinstall it, play a bit with it and am convinced: When it’s about seven characters moving around independently in a tight space like the basement of Phoenix 9, a paper drawing will never suffice. I pay $20 and buy the software – one of the best buying decision I made in the last few years.
To show you how necessary Shot Designer was, check out Day 1 and 2 of Shooting “Phoenix 9”:
The blocking aspect is probably the biggest challenge in preproduction. I draw storyboards for the entirety of the film, so Amir and myself are on the same page after we finish the shot list over Skype.
I come up with a lighting scheme that mostly involves Tungsten Fresnels; on one of the last prep days, Gaffer Rafael suggests to get KinoFlos instead to save space, power and gels. A great idea – I’m on board.
We have a meeting with the costume designer Ami Goodheart, who flew in from New York only for this project, together with two assistants. Her costumes are beyond badass, I am completely blown away by the level of detail and amount of work and experimentation that went into each costume. I had a similar spit-out-the-drink experience when Amir first told me about her involvement and showed me her website. There’s nothing more important than having good production design, costumes and makeup – I can only film what is actually in front of the lens. In the weeks leading up to the production, I went back and forth with Amy via email and phone a few times on specific clothing design issues or questions of how our two departments can collaborate best – it makes me realize that I know too little about costumes and need to learn more about material science and its surrounding relevant areas of knowledge.
Gear Pickup and a new Right Hand Man
“Phoenix 9” has probably been one of the craziest Cinematography experiences I had so far. Not just because it was probably the most elaborate project I ever worked on, but because it was a really big baby that was delivered under quite extreme circumstances. That makes this film quite precious to me, and I invested a crazy amount of time and energy into it because I believed in it as much as Amir and Peer did.
Although Peer never produced a real short film before, he handles all the tasks – hiring crew, reserving gear, getting real city permits, getting liability and equipment insurance, organizing transportation – like a boss. I am severely impressed by his impromptu skills of converting scheduling experience as a Tennis coach into solving logistical nightmares of the shoot. At the same time, right next to him is Amir, pulling some of the producing wagon while focusing on directing at the same time.
We are one day away from the shoot – Peer, Robert and myself are cruising through North Hollywood to pick up an equipment truck as well as the G&E gear. We drop Robert off at Wooden Nickel to wait for the gear while we go to grab the truck. Turns out that the truck rental place messed up and rented us a truck they don’t have. While the clock of a million other things is ticking, we are speeding through the thick air of the Valley in search of another truck option. After tons of failed attempts, we finally find a UHaul and grab the gear. While loading the gear, I get a phone call from my original Gaffer Raphael, who was part of location scouting and did some great job at tech-scouting and convincing me of using KinoFlos instead of Tungsten Fresnels for simulating skylight in our basement location. He tells me that he can’t make the shoot any more for family reasons – but organized a replacement, a guy named Jonathan, who I’ve never heard of. “Trust me, he is great.” I just stare straight at the big truck next to me that is being loaded.
Awesome. Now I have a random guy gaffing for me, that’s a big leap of faith – but I have no choice at this point. At least a replacement was organized, otherwise I’d be in a decent amount of trouble and wouldn’t be able to find someone good in less than 12 hours.
We are at a big mansion in Pasadena. A regular basement has been converted into an abandoned basement with some magical production design added. For reasons of storytelling, a hallway had to be closed off by a fake brick wall. I wrote to a bunch of people on facebook if they’d be willing to help out to prelight the set, so that on the day of the production we can fully concentrate on shooting rather than setting up. Gaffer Jonathan Williams is already there when I arrive, and some friends from Santa Monica College days show up too. Jonathan, the “replacement” has short hair, a ridiculously low voice, feels like a tough guy and has a tattoo on his neck that features a wavy strip of celluloid and sprocket holes, with writing underneath that says “Feel the Difference.”
Now, I like film as a medium although I’ve never shot on it, but this guy really LOVES film. I’m sure we will have some interesting discussions about digital VS. film. In the following hours, it turns out that we get along quite splendid. He builds some badass rigs which Raphael and me roughly planned, but goes beyond our initial plans and really excels with the rigs. While we work pretty fast with staging G&E and rigging, we see Production Design struggle with their insane task of having to pull up this huge fake brick wall to change the shape of the room. I pull some of my friends who volunteered to help and ask them to help PD. Once the lighting and rigs are done, I go over to help PD with their set construction. To my surprise, Jonathan volunteers to help them as well, although it’s not his job. When I ask him about why he helps PD despite having plenty of experience in the very segregated union jobs, he just laughs: “Maken’ movies, man.”
This guy is awesome.
We eventually leave quite late to get some sleep, while Production Design is still working on the set.
We have four shooting days ahead of us – Day 1&2 in the Pasadena basement, Day 3 at the Imperial Dunes, and Day 4 in a greenscreen studio.
Production – Day 1
When we arrive on set, PD is not finished, the location still looks like a construction site. Reed Johns, our amazingly dedicated Production Designer, worked nonstop through the night but the tasks need more manpower to complete. I ask some of my G&E department to go down and help, but a few people refuse, saying “That’s not my job man. I got hired to do G&E, not set construction.” While their sentiments are valid, this is not the way I work – but I can’t force them to do something they consider unethical. Jonathan volunteers again to help Production Design while I delegate camera setup to my 1st AC Jeanna and B Cam Operator Alex. I’ve worked with both of them for a long time, lived together with Alex for half a year – I always try to get key crew that I would trust with my life or imaginary children.
One of the actors got us access to a second RED camera – which turns out to be absolutely necessary to get the amount of coverage we would need. In retrospective, we shot 7.5 minutes of the final film (about 7.5 pages of dialogue and action) on each of the first two days, which is quite a lot for the quality level we were going for.
The set gets really busy upstairs, while we paint, vacuum, shoot fake cobwebs, arrange props and finish the job downstairs. Eventually, the set is done. I use shot designer to show Kun (1st AD), Jeanna and Alex what Amir and me had come up with, so they know the full plan.The actors go downstairs with breathing masks – it has become very dusty at this point because of our aesthetic choice for a dust-covered basement – in order to do a blocking rehearsal. I notice that one of our actors is having some trouble breathing, but figure it will subside once we push some fresh air into the room and open some windows that won’t be in the shots.
I grab some breakfast and run into a very concerned Amir. “We might have to blow this whole thing off. One of our actors is experiencing some real health challenges because of the dust and heat.” Fuck. No, not now, everything is good to go. There’s gotta be a solution. We have a crisis meeting in the RV that Peer rented for the production. Our butts pressed against squeaky couches, we have a serious conversation with Kun Shin, the 1st AD.
Less than a week ago, the four of us sat in a nice Italian cafe in Culver City and went over shot lists and schedules with broad grins and casual jokes. Now, our expressions are stern and very focused, very serious. The entire project is hanging on a string at this point. All sorts of horror scenarios are laid out and discussed. Eventually, Amir makes an executive decision that we need to try it, so we decide that we will just start shooting until lunch and see how our actor’s health is doing after that part of the day. Back out of the RV, and Kun gets everybody to work.By this point, we are three hours behind schedule – before we even start shooting. I sit down with Amir and cross out and combine shots; together with Kun, we come up with a new schedule, new priorities, and then get in there and shoot. Kun keeps us on the tip of our toes – every minute counts now.
A good amount of the crew is wearing breathing masks because of all the dust, but I decide that loyalty is king and do as the actors and Amir – stay in the room without a mask. If the director and the DP are not wearing masks, then at least the actors don’t feel like they are being left to rot alone, but that they have important collaborators in the crew on their side.
The rest of the day goes surprisingly smooth, and the health troubles subside, possibly thanks to the calming words Amir gives in his directorial role to the actors. We have every single character move and camera move perfectly planned and written down, and get some kick-ass footage – I stand in awe in front of all these amazing people’s work in the other departments that now pay off once they are in front of the lens.
Production – Day 2
No major issues here – we finished the basement scenes, had some exciting times with stunt coordinator Lane Leavitt (who worked on Terminator 2, Drive, Shoot em Up and a ton of other Hollywood stuff), and – well, I can’t say too much here because it would give away the story of the film. Fact was, the growing pains of Day 1 were far away at this point and we got settled in. We finish shooting, and start loading the RV and truck right after – late into the night. Although exhausted, we have the footage in the can and are ready for the desert.
Production – Day 3
Four hours of sleep later, we meet in Santa Monica just around sunrise. Half of the Cast & Crew goes in a passenger van, the other half goes on the Camping RV. The destination is around 4 hours away, but we are ready to travel. A few minutes after we leave, Peer notices some weird sounds in the engine vicinity while driving. I look at Amir who makes the “WHY US” expression. The sword of Damocles is dangling right above our heads. We stop at a mechanic shop who recommends us to go to a truck mechanic shop half an hour south of his location. There’s no way we could remotely do that schedule-wise … we just have to trust our good old RV. We even give it a nickname in the hope that love will help – “Smooth Sam”, so he can take us safely to the desert and back.
For the next few hours driving out of LA, everything is fine. Jonathan and me have more bonding time – talking about passion, filmmaking careers, film VS. digital … all the geeky stuff – while Amy and her costume team pass out, Kun whistling happy tunes on the passenger seat, Peer driving the RV smooth and steady, and Amir and me going over some blocking and shot ideas.
When we get close to Palm Springs, the warm breeze turns into sweaty desert. We stop for some ice cream and keep going, but the engine starts sounding weird in the new environment. A few minutes later, it just dies and we pull to the side of the road. FUCK. Now we are stuck here, still at least an hour off the location, with a RV that turns out to be quite the nightmare. Smooth Sam turned rough on us. The engine is overly hot, pouring water into the system doesn’t help, and Sammy doesn’t want to come back to life. We are close to calling back the passenger van and finding some alternative truck rental thing in the area – which would create a logistical double nightmare – when I ask Kun for the Key. “Maybe if I pump the gas a bit or something it might work.”
Total nonsense approach, but it can’t help to try. And voila, after pushing the gas pedal repeatedly and tinkering with the key position, the piece of shit RV comes back to life. We celebrate shortly, and get back on the road, picking up additional supplies and heading towards the dunes. Half an hour later, the engine dies again. We open the front, prop it up with some rods, reanimate Smooth Sam, and drive with an open engine compartment for a while, which helps the overheating issue. It dies again, and then again. We were scheduled to arrive in the desert around 12pm, now it is already 2:30pm. The passenger van is already at the location with 10 cast and crew, but nobody can get out of it since the tents and major food/drink resources are in our RV. Great. We had another car going to the set, so this car is being called back, and we load some of the food and drinks into said car. Being nearly three and a half hours delayed, we finally make it to the set. The lighting is great now – the sun is lower at the horizon so I get an easier backlight – but the schedule is way off and we will have to shoot faster, costing us precision.
In the end, we get all the shots in the can though, and I really love the footage. Instead of 5 hours of shooting we were only able to shoot 2.5, but kept all the important shots. Absolutely epic stuff. Seven people, dressed in amazing outfits, with some insane Sahara-esque backdrop behind them… I couldn’t ask for more. Although we took some stands and reflectors to set, we only end up using my foam core reflectors that I brought along for good luck. The drive back goes on and on because Smooth Sam actually turns out that he was Smooth “Piece of Shit” Sam in disguise. We arrive back in Santa Monica around 3am, and have to be ready to be on set only a few hours later for our last shooting day. This exhausting schedule would usually be a killer for crew morale, but at this point we all got so comfortable with each other and the vibe on set despite the unforeseeable difficulties is in best shape. Maken’ movies, man … as Jonathan would say.
A catchphrase that came about somewhere in the middle of Day 1 and Amir probably got increasingly annoyed by it – I kept saying “Given the circumstances, everything is going well”. But I was right in most cases – with all the Damocles swords hailing down from the sky at random, we dealt with it all really well, as a team.
Production – Day 4
The last day of shooting was my big fantasy of having a 20×20 silk on set, casting this great soft light in a greenscreen studio, with 4 2K Tungsten Fresnels rigged from the ceiling. I got explore the rest of the studio and find various corners and gear that I didn’t see on our tech scouting day. After about an hour of setup, Jonathan calls me over and shows me that the 2K shooting through a 1/2CTB gel and a full silk results in barely any light at all. It’s close to impossible to get half orange gel for the fluorescent pipes that light the greenscreen walls (they were pre-installed by the studio owners), and it would most likely be a waste of time. Crisis in my head.
Eventually, I recall the early recommendations from Raphael and Jonathan to use a KinoFlos in the basement rather than 2Ks. We have four KinoFlos in our stock, and the studio itself has one or two as well – so I ask Jonathan the rig Kinos on the ceiling, rather than the 2Ks and the 20×20. Et voila, what I learned from my Gaffers was completely correct – the lighting setup turns out to work just like I hoped. On this day, I learned that the FlexTrack dolly system is actually quite amazing and really fast to set up, and experiment with some really cool Glowstick-only setups. I can’t give anything further away, again – it would ruin the story for you.
At the end of the day, everything is in the can and I can feel a strong sense of accomplishment, pride, community and friendship spread out through the “It’s a Wrap” clapping and hugging. If I learned anything on this film, then it is that the two most important things in filmmaking are:
- Preproduction is everything.
- Work with the right people.
Also, not to forget: Most behind the Scenes Photos you can see here were taken by my SMC friend Sung Chau, who is a fantastic BTS Photographer and went around with us on all shooting days. More BTS Photos on the Phoenix 9 Facebook Page, and more information on the Phoenix 9 IMDB Page.
Now that the film is in post production, Peer already wrote a new short film which Amir is going to direct – a Sci-Fi story with a grand moral dilemma. If everything goes right and they get a grant from the German government, then we will be shooting it during Summer 2014 in Germany, again with myself on board as a Cinematographer. In retrospective, I learned so so so much from “Phoenix 9”, which you can probably get by reading the article. I wouldn’t miss this experience at any cost – every painful setback and scary holdup that we had to deal with, turned into more trust for each other at the end of the day, and some really good friendships came out of this film.
Maken’ movies, man.