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Take a Little Time – SHOOTING

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The Take a Little Time shoot was a blur, but one of such creativity, focus, and joy—I’ll never forget these five days in October 2020. And that was the first big decision made, early in the fall semester: shooting my entire senior film project between a Friday and a Tuesday. This was to minimize potential COVID exposures from outside the cast/crew bubble, and get the thing wrapped as soon as possible in case the school shut down on short notice. It could’ve been a Monday to a Friday, Tuesday to Saturday, whatever worked best with all the schedules involved. In fact, one of the last (and best) things to happen to the production on the week of was the restaurant location changing their availability a few days before we were to shoot there, on Thursday 10/1. Fortunately, we were able to move those scenes to Tuesday 10/6, which unlocked a much-needed extra day to prepare before the shoot:

I spent that Thursday evening doing one last round of test shoots with gaffer Nick Yelesin and 1st AC Colin Wyka, for the following night’s first setup—the final shot of the film, the dolly pullback at sunset while the two characters finish reading the essay and dig in on dinner. We didn’t want to organize reshoots in COVID, the schedule Lilly Adams assembled worked best doing that shot first of everything, and so it had to go perfectly as the sun was setting on our first and only chance to get such a crucial shot. So we worked through different lighting setups that Thursday night, taking dozens of test runs with the C200 on the dolly track.

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Colin practices with the wireless follow focus as actors run lines and lights go up.

These test shots ran well past the sunset, and we struck everything only 80% sure it would work when we were doing it live on Friday night (a big issue was placing the lights so they didn’t reflect in the giant glass panels I wanted to feature in the shot). I spent the rest of that night pulling final strings together—with how packed each day was going to be, we really had to have as much ready to go as possible before we started, for the entire film. I woke up on Friday with some errands still to run and an apartment to dress before call time—and then the actual blur kicked in.

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DAY 1: FRIDAY OCT. 2

First up: that sunset dolly shot. The crew arrived at 5PM, and Nick immediately led others in recreating our final lighting layout from the night before. I built out the camera/dolly rig with Colin, and we ran through the motions a few times before the cast arrived so he could get acquainted with the focus pulls involved. Over with editor Jared Knorr, I walked through what would become our bread-and-butter CFAST card routine that weekend. I wanted to shoot in 4K RAW to give colorist (and, for the shoot, boom mic guy) Bryan Stanley as much to work with as possible, and the C200 needed CFAST cards for that. Within our hybrid GoFundMe/Film School Grant budget, I could either buy one 128GB card (16 mins of footage), or two 64GB cards (8 mins each). I went with the two 64s so Jared could load one onto our hard drives while we were filming with the other, and then we’d swap cards, and then repeat. That decision made some shoots, like the second half of Saturday as well as Tuesday morning, possible at all, since we wouldn’t have finished in time if we had to stop shooting every time our only card filled up.

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Jared would take the full card, copy it to one hard drive, copy it to a second hard drive (a failsafe since we were constantly wiping the cards every cycle), and finally, drag the clips into Premiere to check for any corruption (a suggestion from COMM 438 professor Maura Shea). I set up the chart above that Jared slowly filled out over the shoot, as various hard drives filled up—I just needed to see every clip safe in two locations before we wiped the card. Fortunately, that whole process for one card took about as long as it took to shoot 8 minutes of footage, with all the time in between takes and whatnot.

Anyway. The actors arrived, I worked through their characters for the scene again (from our previous Zoom rehearsals), and we got underway! I wanted to get as many takes in as we could before the sun set, and as it got lower in the sky we ripped the ND filter gels off the window and kept rolling a little longer—one of these last takes ended up in the final film. For how bumpy and hectic the frenzied final days leading up to the shoot were, I couldn’t have asked for this first setup to go any smoother…and that’s when I started having hope.

Soon after striking that shot, Lilly led the crew in using Jake Mayer’s pickup truck to move everything needed for the late-night sequence over to the alley. Meanwhile, a skeleton crew of myself and Bryan run-and-gunned the cooking shots with Mark and MaryKate. We lit the room with a gel’d IKAN light, and I played with a LitraPro to get some flares and glow spilling in from the edges of frame. Lilly had cooked the pasta used in the dolly shot, and I was attempting to recreate the recipe on camera, but we were rushed and I didn’t know exactly what she had done…so with the footage we needed captured, the rest of us headed over to the alley, leaving the kitchen looking like this:

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There actually was one shot that showed this monstrosity…the entire COMM 438 class begged us to drop it.

The alley shot was interesting in that I’d done a ton of prep ahead of time on it—test shoots at every combo of ISO and f-stop, consulting with professor Rod Bingaman on how Nick might gaff it, and even clearning it with the nearest house in the alley to plug our HMI in—and it still took about two hours to set up. Carson Spence’s idea to throw a cardboard box out the back of the truck, which had sparked some last-second plot development, meant while Nick was hanging said HMI, I was coordinating the closest thing in the film to a stunt with Lilly and Jake Mayer, who’d be driving the truck.

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Lilly telling me that we shouldn’t dangle someone out the back of a moving pickup truck…
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…me telling Lilly that we should.

Here’s how it shook out: Nick, Colin, Jake, Lilly and I were all linked by walkie-talkies. Nick and Colin checked (and, if mid-shot, held) traffic in the right spots and would signal a green light when clear. I’d start rolling, panning down from the black night sky and eventually down to eye-level in the alley, calling for Mark to start walking just before I arrived. After he’d kicked the red Solo cup (which was just there in the alley, in that exact spot, when we got there that night), I called for Jake to start gunning it on the cross street. I racked the focus to the intersection just as I knew he’d be entering the frame—then at the moment Jake felt was right, he yelled to signal Lilly. Lilly, this entire time, was wedged in between “moving boxes” in the truck bed, which were weighed down by sandbags inside. MaryKate, sitting in the backseat of the truck, was holding Lilly’s ankle with a deathgrip through the back window. On Jake’s cue, Lilly dropped the back door of the truck bed and threw the designated box out. Somehow, we nailed it on the fourth take:

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Getting the rest of the alley shots after that was much more straightforward, with a few things of note. My laptop, which we had around all shoot to load CFAST cards over, died out in the freezing temperatures while we were getting THE shot. So we had to guess, an hour later, which direction the box was facing when it fell and the shattered potted plant spilled out—and we guessed wrong, but nothing I couldn’t correct in After Effects. Despite not having playback, I did remember the unrelated car driving down the alley beyond our reach in the good take. Since that car was long gone, I had Lilly drive my car to the same spot where the car was when I knew we’d cut in close, so there’s at least a continuity of out-of-focus taillights in the film:

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To get the boca’d taillights to disappear in the distance as Mark turns to watch, we again timed it live via walkie-talkie with Jake in his truck. My biggest regret of the night was showing Mark’s face so much in the side angle, since I totally intended not to show it straight-on until Smitty’s first epiphany in the antique store. However, everything else that night—the dolly sunset shot, the truck drop shot—had gone so beautifully, and the vibes on set were immaculate following such early and effortless victories, that I was more than happy accepting that as the biggest loss of the night. I got back to my apartment with all the equipment past 1:30AM, finding the place as we’d left it—a disaster. My roommate Casey Woodford stayed up for a couple more hours out of the kindness of his heart, helping me clean, reorganize equipment/supplies, and completely rearrange the furniture for the next shot of the shoot, the one-take mirror reflection scene. I don’t know what I would’ve done without his help, because with it, I went to bed past 4AM…

DAY 2: SATURDAY OCT. 3

…and woke up at 8AM Saturday to let Nick in downstairs. Although we’d test shot this scene before, he had talked with Rod and Maura and felt he could improve the lighting plan—so we were going to test this in the hour we had before everyone else’s call times. Using, among other lights, a soft throw from a Chinese lantern ball, we got the look right just in time. This is the shot where I attached the dolly handle at a 90º angle, so Lilly could pull it parallel to the track/floor, stay below the left couch, and out of the shot. She pulled, I rode along panning the camera mounted on baby legs, and Colin followed from the side, wirelessly pulling focus and watching on an IKAN monitor.

I had alerted Mark and Jake that, of all their lines, these were some of the most important to memorize in one go. Their individual practice as a result (Jake told me how he had his buddy in Philly act as Smitty so he could run the scene live before arriving in State College) made it, simply, fun to rehearse it a few ways with them before shooting for real. As would be a theme throughout the five days, everyone on both the cast and crew had done so much prep ahead of the shoot that although the scheduling was packed in incredibly ambitiously, very few moments ever dragged repeatedly for someone to get something just right. We were simply able to mesh our preparations together creatively, having such a good time while we were at it!

What’s playing on the TV? That’s Nick’s COMM 337 documentary, Path of the Pagan. We didn’t have the rights to much else, and my roommate Colin Williams was kind enough to lend his MacBook to the set for this shot. My laptop was busy being used to load CFAST cards, so Nick logged into PSU Box on Willis’ laptop and we streamed it to our Apple TV.

We rounded out before lunch by shooting the additional apartment interior shots for the ending sequence, all the quick shots involving the liquor collection. I poured the wine from last night’s dinner shot back into the bottle to show Marykate pulling it out of the crate “unopened”…and then that moment of that shot ended up being cut anyway, months later in March 2021. Some broke for lunch, while others ferried equipment over to Lilly’s apartment for the climactic temptation scene between Mark and Zeke (Winitsky; “Vincent”).

We’d done two rounds of test shoots here prior to the day of…and both times, the ambient lighting in the room was drastically different depending on what the Happy Valley sun was doing. On the day of the shoot, it was possibly the worst forecast we could’ve braced for: spotty clouds with the sun going in and out. After a lengthy setup session, I knew we had to just start rolling—whatever the sun did, it was going to set in a few short hours, and the entire film hung on wrapping this scene in its entirety on this one afternoon.

Once I’d set the camera up for the 2-shot master angle, I was able to run the scene with Mark and Zeke while Nick continued to lead the gaffing setup. They’d never met in person before, and the only prep they’d done together on the scene to that point had been over Zoom. I’d talked individually with each of them in the week leading up to the shoot about little things I wanted to bring out in each moment, and now as we were all together I tied those threads together between them, and they made it gel beautifully. While the sun cooperated, we ran the 2-shot more times than we probably needed. I knew the closeups were going to get hectic the closer we got to sundown, so I wanted as much master coverage as possible to help the edit—and looking back following post, there are a couple moments in the scene that only exist in the film thanks to that bounty of coverage.

Then we went in for the closeups. As with the entire film, I’d lined the script and built a shot list out of it, including the order I planned to shoot in so as to be most efficient. But two things threw a wrench into that perfect order—the sun shifting constantly, and the wireless follow focus spazzing out. I was nowhere near as familiar with it as I’d end up being by the time we wrapped Pulling Daisies 26 days later, and with sunset fast approaching I didn’t want to waste any time messing with it. So while the plan had been for Colin to pull focus while I operated the C200 on a chameleon shoulder mount, I ended up two-handing the whole rig and working through the shot list on the fly.

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The numbered shots here…
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…populate over here.

Jared had to leave at lunch, so while we were at my apartment he trained MaryKate on the CFAST transfer/swap process. She was only needed for one single shot that morning at my place, but stuck around and absolutely crushed the CFAST role while we were racing against the sun to get the scene in at Lilly’s—she’s the only reason we wrapped with a silver of daylight to spare!

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There she goes.

When I started doing the camerawork by hand, the delightful set atmosphere we’d enjoyed since Friday evening suddenly shifted to one of focus and anticipation—everyone was thinking two steps ahead, doing exactly what was needed without hesitation, and remaining locked in like that until the last shot was checked off the list. I plopped down on Lilly’s futon, exhausted and drenched in sweat, and might’ve dozed off while Bryan recorded some celebratory room tone. As a crew, we pulled off some more technical shots both before and after this moment, but I’m the most proud of everyone for how they stepped up to beat the sun. Some bits of this scene are the grainiest of the whole film (even after Bryan’s Herculean coloring work, which got them to at least match across the board) given the shifts in sunlight as we went down the stretch…but we got the scene. The plot tracks. And none of that was a given, so I was practically floating over my body aches as we loaded the equipment back to my apartment. I took an accidental nap while backing up the ZOOM H6 audio files that night, re-organized equipment once again, and got some more sleep before…

DAY 3: SUNDAY OCT. 4

…waking up at 7AM for day three. Jake Mayer brought his truck by my place, we loaded up with equipment, and met the rest of the gang at Lilly’s aunt and uncle’s house. We were able to stage things in the garage, and proceeded to have a blissful and breezy Sunday morning shoot. The biggest snag at the beginning was working through the geography of the scene, concerning the relationship between the camera, Mark and MaryKate, and the truck on the driveway (whose back door had to drop open on cue at one point). We tried several combinations of truck orientations, 2-shot angles, and bricks for MaryKate to stand on, and then it was off to the races.

The scene was simple enough, and this time we were essentially able to follow the shooting order I’d outlined in the shot list. Nick gaffed around the edges as needed, we had multiple snack breaks, and got it all done in a few hours. As Lilly’s pointed out since, we probably hung out more than we shot that day—and it didn’t impact a single aspect of the wider production. Everyone was just having such a good time being together after a summer of lockdown and a shaky start to the COVID Fall semester, no one was in a rush to leave, and so we worked and shot in tandem until we tore down and left around 3PM. This time, we were able to pre-load Bryan’s van with equipment for the following morning at the antique shop in Bellefonte, while I still took the camera gear and more sensitive equipment home. We were over halfway done, and I couldn’t have felt better about how things were going! I think a big reason the five day shoot schedule didn’t crash and burn was that, despite the five-consecutive-days bit, everyone did get most of those days to themselves individually around their call times and wraps on each. This all leaves us zooming ahead into…

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DAY 4: MONDAY OCT. 5

8AM call time for crew. 9 for cast. In that hour, we laid the dolly track down and I worked with Nick, Colin, and Lilly to rehearse the motions for the intro reflection tracking shot. I wanted to get this done as soon as possible, since it was one of two shots that didn’t use Rod (Egan, the appraiser). Once Mark and Jake arrived and I blocked with them (they’d have to walk slower than they felt they should, while selling that they were casually strolling in), we got that shot like it was nothing. Of all the more technical shots in the film, this was by far the quickest from first take to perfect take—all under ten minutes. We were all so giddy about it, too. You could feel the crew growing closer together as the shoot went on, slowly sharing more and more of a collective brain, and it’s a feeling I’ll be forever chasing in my career going forward now.

I then got the pleasure of working with Rod to work up the antique shop owner, off the foundation we had laid in our lone Zoom rehearsal. He was such a joy, and fantastic at continuity in his many prop-related motions as we worked through the angles on the shot list. With it being a Monday, although we had the shop to ourselves all day, there was some light background pressure to leave by noon so some people could get to class back down the highway in State College. I found some overlap in the coverage, and opened an editing dialogue with Jared. This is another reason it was so great having him on set the whole shoot—as he copied, backed up, and spot checked the footage, he was also combing through it for coverage and any editing concerns of his. We were able to quickly identify the most important shots to prioritize before noon, and ended up wrapping with time to spare and a couple extra shots I threw in on the fly. I can’t emphasize how professional every single person on set was—it almost felt too simple as we were, in a blink, tearing down our second-to-last shoot for Take a Little Time.

Having wrapped his truck the previous day, and himself following the antique store shoot, Jake Mayer was good to go back to Philly. His final act of service to the film was transporting about two thirds of the gear back to the Innovation Park equipment room, where Lilly and I checked back in everything we wouldn’t need the next morning for the Mad Mex kitchen shoot. Whether the shoot would be completed, given the apocalyptic ramifications of a single positive COVID test in a pool of a few dozen people (including roommates), was up in the air even as we wrapped the first several days. But now, we just had to get all the dishwashing shots in, between 6-9AM the following morning…and we’d have done it.

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DAY 5: TUESDAY OCT. 6

So we did it. Lilly pulled up to my apartment at 5:30AM, and helped load up what little equipment we needed, as well as a moving box’s worth of pots, pans, dishes, and utensils from Goodwill. We had a hard out of 9AM, with it being a functioning restaurant kitchen and all, and you could hear sounds of early morning prep cooking from the other side the room, and sound man Bryan couldn’t make it that morning…so I decided we’d just forego sound entirely, to move things along without having to slate.

Having learned the hard way on my Mad Mex test shoot how long the sink took to fill itself, I came prepared with a few gallons of Deer Park and a drain plug from Lowe’s. Mark and I worked through all the GoPro footage first, while the water would be cleanest. I synced my brother’s GoPro up to my phone via Bluetooth, so as I maneuvered it around under the surface of the sink I could watch a live feed (with just a few seconds of latency). While we did this at the sink, Colin led others in building out the dolly track, and I asked Jared to mark one side of the track with a Sharpie at even 4” intervals.

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Do you see the Sharpie lines on the left track pole?

Next, I worked through the shot list for anything handheld around the sink. Mark was an absolute trooper, never losing his patience as I had him re-do some very minuscule actions with sponges, spoons, soap, and the like. This was my laziest directing of the entire shoot, and I apologized up front to Mark about it, but we agreed we’d rather get everything the film needed to make sense in the cramped 3-hour window. For the two shots in the opening scene where Mark’s face is shown reflected in water, Nick had to blast him with a LitraPro to get it to show up on normally-exposed camera. This was fine for the very first shot, where Mark just had to “lean in” from a very unnatural angle to line up the reflection, while still bringing the dish in to spray in the normal location. For the tilt-down reflection shot, however, the light was much too hot on Mark’s face when we were still looking at him above the water. Nick pointed the light away while we were looking up ahead, then as I tilted down he swung it to hit Mark just before we picked him up again in the water, and it looks seamless.

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“That’s great, just draaag the sponge a little slower, ya know?”

All that left were the dolly shots. I first had Mark run through everything we had captured individually in the handhelds/closeups, just for coverage’s sake. We then got the only shot that MaryKate had to be there for that morning—which we cut from the film after a round of notes anyway, unfortunately. Finally…the timelapse shot. I played a metronome out loud from my phone, and Lilly watched for those Sharpie lines Jared had drawn as she pulled the dolly back. She made sure the dolly board passed a line with each beat of the metronome, a variation on the trick we used to get the him. circle shot. We shot Mark working at the sink at a faster tempo, then Nick carrying the dishes in (without Mark) at a quarter of that tempo—so when Nick’s take was sped up 4x, the shots should’ve generally overlapped nicely.

And just like that, it was all over. We had something like eight minutes to strike everything and get out, so while I helped with the bigger pieces of equipment I let the camera run on the sink draining—that’s what’s used at the end of the credits in the film. The last trace of our presence in the kitchen walked out the back door at 8:59AM, and Take a Little Time was wrapped!

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While we did leave to find we’d all received parking tickets, after pleading our student-filmmaking case to the front desk at the hotel that houses Mad Mex, they were waived—and that’s symbolic of the entire shoot. Everything that essentially did go wrong, ended up working out for the betterment of the film before long. I never had to sacrifice a shot I was devastated over, the entire shoot, and what we did get was so ridiculously encouraging. It was a surreal feeling to enter that shoot riding months of anxiety over whether COVID would destroy the whole thing on a whim—and to then have quite literally everything go perfectly. (It’s not perfect by any means, and I have pages of notes as to what can be improved next time around, but for what we knowingly bit off with those five days it all might as well have been perfect that Tuesday morning). I’m beyond proud of everyone, cast and crew, not only for what they did that weekend—which was art—but for all they did ahead of those five days that enabled it all to fuse together so wonderfully with the stakes being so high. I’ve never had such an affirming five days as a filmmaker, and although there was still Lilly’s Pulling Daisies shoot and the entirety of post on both films ahead of us, I’ve never felt as much relief as I did at 9:01AM, Tuesday, October 6 2020. The best word to describe it really might be magical.

Now onto post…

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