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  • Writer's pictureDave Ellis

Shooting 359

Pre-Production

Because it was conceived as a film that could be produced during the pandemic, "359" was always planned as a green screen production. Since I didn't have any of the things I needed to shoot on green screen, I went on Amazon and ordered a basic green screen kit. It's simple, but mostly adequate.


As soon as it arrived, I shot some test footage myself with static and animated backgrounds I found on the Internet. It turns out that, as long as you light the background well and get the worst of the wrinkles out of the green backdrop, it's not terribly difficult. My initial tests were shot on my iPhone 11 and composited using iMovie on my iMac. (The "i's" have it.)

One thing I discovered about the backdrop that came with my green screen kit was that the cloth wrinkled very easily and, at just 8.5 feet, was too narrow. The frame that came with the kit was wide enough to accommodate a 10-foot backdrop, so I bought a bigger one. This one is a slightly lighter material that doesn't wrinkle as badly. Definitely worth the extra investment.


As I've mentioned previously, the original plan was to ship or deliver the green screen and lights to each actor and have them shoot their parts using their own phones one at a time as I directed over Zoom. I dragged my feet long enough that the pandemic lockdowns were lifted before I started shooting, so I ended up shooting the whole thing in my garage. That meant I needed some additional equipment:

  • A lighting kit. I chose one with LED panel lights that allow you to control both the brightness and color temperature.

  • A wireless microphone plus a mount so that I could put it on a tripod.

  • A phone frame/mount for my iPhone 11 so it could be easily mounted on a tripod.

Finally, I had my studio. Because of the nature of "359," I didn't have to worry about moving the camera or having the actors move around. Everyone was shot looking directly into camera and pretending to work off-screen controls. That meant I could set things up the same way for every actor, with nothing to adjust but the lighting.

Not a lot to look at...but you don't need anything fancy to get the job done.


In addition to the hardware, I invested in two pieces of production software for the shoot:

  • Perfect Green Screen. If you're shooting a green screen film, this app is about the best $5 you'll ever spend. Even lighting on the green screen makes your life SO much easier when you're editing, and this app ensures that the light is even. Just frame up the green screen on the phone and the app shows you where all the hot and dim spots are. Just adjust the lighting until everything's smooth and you're good to go.

  • Filmic Pro. Although you can shoot on a smartphone using the native camera functionality, there are a lot of features and adjustments available on pro cameras that are not available on a phone. Filmic pro turns your smartphone into a reasonable facsimile of a professional video camera. I purchased it for around $30...but, unfortunately, they've gone to a subscription model since then. Still...it's worth looking into.

Lighting

I'm not going to talk much about lighting because that ended up being a mixed bag for me. There are two parts to lighting a green screen film:

  • Lighting the green screen. The reason the green screen kit comes with lights is that lighting the background separately from the actor(s) is crucial to avoiding shadows and getting a good key color. I nailed that for the most part (mostly thanks to the Perfect Green Screen app).

  • Lighting the actors. The less said about this, the better. When I shot the scenes, I thought I had done a pretty good job but, as I found in the edit, my lighting was all over the place. Too hot for the most part, but really uneven over all. Luckily, there are a lot of adjustments you can make in post production, so it turned out...okay. Let's just say I'll be doing some lighting practice between now and my next film.

Shooting

Like the test footage, I shot the entire film on my iPhone 11 (using the Filmic Pro app). The capabilities of today's smartphones leave the cameras I used in college (even the ones in the college TV studio) in the dust. You can accomplish a lot without buying a pro camera.


Because every character was alone in their own escape pod, they never physically interact. Each actor was shot separately, with someone off-camera feeding them the lines that they were playing off of and reacting to. The most challenging part of this was that everyone had long stretches of time where they were just reacting to what other characters were saying without lines of their own.


I shot all of the principal photography (which is to say the WHOLE FILM) in two days. Day 1 (September 19, 2021) was Sarah Johnson (Boyd) and Doug (Frazier). Shooting in pairs helped me behind the scenes. Whoever wasn't on camera was reading lines and acting as script supervisor. A good script supervisor is CRUCIAL. They're the ones who keep track of the takes (taking notes to indicate which were good, which were changed, etc.), make sure the lines are being delivered correctly, and that the director is getting all of the scene coverage they need.

Doug and Sarah were both excellent script supervisors. Doug saved my bacon by pointing out that we had missed a section of reactions for Sarah--thanks to his observational skills, I avoided pick-up shots. He was so good that I brought him back on the second shoot day.


Kira, who plays Margaret Bergen, never appears on camera. (She lives out of state.) At any rate, her character was always supposed to be audio-only. Kira recorded her lines with me over Zoom, on May 8, 2022.


We didn't shoot Sarah Zammiello (Webber) and Adam (Zahn) until eight months after Sarah J. and Doug wrapped (May 21 2022). I had marked all of the spots on the floor for the lights, green screen, tripod, chairs, etc. so I was able to get everything set up in more or less the exact same way even with the time lag. Again, because the actors never physically interact, the eight month gap didn't have any effect on the final film.


In all cases, the actors sat in a bar stool in front of an off-camera table that gave them a physical surface to interact with (as well as a place to put the script and the clapboard). Every scene was slated with a clapboard (as you can see in the outtakes). This isn't just to be all fancy and professional. I ended up with hundreds of takes across the four actors, and having a visual cue at the start of each take with the scene and take number is vital to being able to organize shots for editing.


Directing

Some of the best directors I've been lucky enough to observe on set are really subtle when it comes to directing the actors. That's my approach as well. I think that it's easy--especially when doing sci-fi and fantasy--to fall into a trap of encouraging (or allowing) actors to over-perform. What you end up with is either super stiff, super stilted, or way over the top in a way that takes you out of the story.

I had a pretty simple approach: just be yourself and pretend you're in your character's situation. This is your character's history. You're trapped in an escape pod, and this is what is happening to you. React as if it's YOU that all of this is happening to. Respond as if the other characters are talking to YOU. I think it worked out well...in no small part because the folks I was lucky enough to have in my cast were actually pretty good actors.


One other thing--I wasn't being all Aaron Sorkin about the script. He famously doesn't let anyone deviate by even a word. Sometimes, different phrasing is more natural. Sometimes, the line as written in the script is awkward and easier to say in a different way. For me, as long as the general gist of the scene is delivered, nitpicking the wording isn't necessary. (And that's speaking as the writer as well.)


All in all, the filming went very smoothly. Both days, we got a TON of work done with time to spare. Kudos to the cast and thanks for being awesome!


Next up...editing!

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