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Take a Little Time – Equipment/Test Shoots

If you’ve been reading through these articles (which, thank you!), you’ve definitely picked up on how large a factor COVID was in the story behind Take a Little Time. The single department that definitely benefitted from this objectively devastating situation was equipment, and our ability to test shoot. Why? As an exemplary employee of the Penn State Film Equipment Room, let me tell you:

Typically, you get equipment out for 2 days. Like, Monday-Wednesday. Friday-Monday, there’s a bonus day in there, if you check out over the weekend. You can get an extension from a professor to work around a specific shoot schedule, but we could never check, say, a Canon C200 out for an entire semester. Until COVID:

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That’s me on September 11, 2020, about to head out with the C200 kit (zoom lens included), tripod, wireless lav mics, and a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic kit including a ZOOM H6 recorder. None of that got returned until November 30th, and that is a beautiful thing.

They did that to reduce human traffic flow around the checkout counter for gear that could be allocated long-term. For specific lights, mounts, grip, primes, and the like, it was still two-days-or-special-permission. More on that later. As I was about to DP both Take a Little Time and Pulling Daisies in the same month (October 2020), getting to play with the C200 so early on ahead of the shoot was fun, functional, and all-around fantastic. Here I am headed out at 1AM to test various alley locations:

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I need to retire this hoodie after the film launches…
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Some notes were taken down to the decimal in my phone, others were pictures like…focus over THERE.

At each spot, I captured stills at different ISOs, f-stops, and color temperatures, keeping detailed notes as I went along. Since I only had the zoom lens out long-term, I knew I’d have a little leeway with the eventual primes when it came to grain, but for playing with composition it was great! I could check any spot at 24, 35, 50, and 85mm and just write down which was what (had to use the imagination for the 14, though). A picture containing dark, close

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This is a process I repeated for most key angles/shots at most of our major locations. A few weeks after initially scouting the Mad Mex kitchen, I went back with the C200 to test the important angles and the water reflections (which were in the shot list from the beginning—were they possible?):

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It’s here I’ll mention that the underwater shots are courtesy of my brother Matt, of Cheez-It film fame, lending me his GoPro Hero 4 Black for the semester. I was able to watch a live feed streamed to my phone while holding the unit underwater in the sink, and it shot 4K to match the rest of the film. (More in the shooting article about the 4K of it all.)

The same day Lilly and I raided Goodwill, we set her living room up for the climactic temptation scene, with Lilly and her roommate Greta standing (or rather, sitting) in:

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The pizza box was our silverware set…
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…and my credit card was the wad of cash.

Armed with these stills, I was able to have some in-depth gaffing conversations between my cinematography professor Rod Bingaman, my gaffer Nick Yelesin, and equipment room supervisor Mike Zelazny (of dolly-building royalty). We talked about which lights would work best under which camera settings, where to throw the HMI from in the alley shot, and so on.

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One such test still, pulled up at Innovation Park for discussion.

Then, Nick and I started checking out lights for individual weekends to walk through lighting each of these spots, ahead of the shoot. A massive reason we were able to wrap the entire film in 5 days is simply how much time we’d already spent working these shots out before any actors, props, or mics got involved. When we were happy with a setup, we’d document every stand placement, gel throw, and color temp before striking for the next shot. Here’s a test run of the one-take mirror scene in my apartment, with my roommates Casey and Noah holding it down:

As the shoot approached, I took my 1st AC Colin Wyka out to Bellefonte to run through things in the antique shop. He was going to be pulling focus on the first shot in that scene, a tracking dolly shot aimed backwards at the characters through a series of mirrors:

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Now…pulling focus. Every C200 kit at Penn State comes with a 15mm rod follow focus wheel, the kind you have to be next to the camera to operate. That would’ve been okay, if not inconvenient, for the many dolly shots pushing in/out in my film. But like I said, I was concurrently DP’ing Pulling Daisies, where Lilly was also going to have similar dolly shots, as well as some jib crane VFX shots I designed. The camera was going to be 20 feet in the air at times there—no good for manual follow-focusing. Since Take a Little Time’s GoFundMe was doing well (we can still use donations for festival submissions, if you feel so inclined!), I invested in a wireless follow focus system compatible with the same rod mounts in the PSU kits:

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The tidiest the kit would ever be packed again.
Testing the wireless follow focus rig at work.

Mike Zelazny rigged a gold mount battery to hang from the same light stand supporting the IKAN monitor getting feed via the C200’s HDMI out. The battery powered both the monitor and the follow focus remote for hours, and so this became our bread and butter for both shoots. The lens motor itself plugged into a TripAdvisor-brand USB battery bank I grabbed on clearance at Staples, and that thing powered every focus pull on both of our films without needing to be charged once!

So Colin and I practiced some of the more complex moves ahead of the shoot, so he could get a feel for the response of the wireless system. When everything was set and all we had to do was shoot, Lilly and I managed to fit what felt like half the equipment room (it wasn’t) into our two cramped cars, and checked it out for the duration of the 5-day shoot.

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Downside of working at the equipment room; scanning your own massive checkout barcode by individual barcode.
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Splitting the load between two undersized cars.
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Equipment and props laid out in my apartment the day before shooting.
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My roommates, absolutely FASCINATED by the slate.
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Bryan Stanley’s van, loaded up outside the antique store in Bellefonte, PA.

After Monday’s shoot at the antique shop, we returned anything we didn’t need for the last day at Mad Mex, since Lilly and I would both be arriving to our Tuesday morning shift straight from wrapping. This worked out great, and not a single piece was missing upon return.

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Snapchatting from the back kitchen during test shoots.

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