P&P – Day 3 – Adventures with a Porta-Jib

While watching the trailer for “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre“, my musical short film adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, you will see me as the protagonist in a dark space, viewed from above. While I start to sing “Daylight”, the short film’s main theme, the camera slowly lowers and gets closer to me.

But then the scene/song gets interrupted by other images and music aggressively inserted into the middle of the trailer:

After all that aggressive music and snippets of alarming visuals from the full film, the trailer returns to the final strains of “Daylight”, a tight close-up …

… which leads to the camera receding back to a high vantage point before the trailer fades out of the shot to the title card.

These bookending moments in the trailer are part of the beginning and end of a two minute uncut shot that encompasses the complete version of “Daylight”. The shot is rendered in this particular style of black and white because the protagonist has been locked in a cell completely devoid of light, and this is the film’s visual representation of him being functionally blind, imagining himself and his surroundings in his mind’s eye.

Most of the film is edited in quick bursts of shots from different perspectives; making this one long held shot in wide-ranging fluid motion stand out even more than it might typically. Choosing to shoot the whole “Daylight” song this way was designed to make this sorrowful song as distinct visually from the rest of the film as it would be musically.

It was also important to me that the camera starts on high looking down at the protagonist when the song begins, slowly moves in towards the protagonist as he sings the first verses, continues on making some hovering maneuvers around him as the song progresses, then settles on a tight close-up before retreating back up and away for the conclusion.

Here are my storyboards for “Daylight”:

You may notice that a large chunk from the middle of “Daylight” and this unbroken shot is missing from the trailer. A little more than half, I would estimate. But what I do share in the trailer and these storyboards should give you a good enough idea of what we tried to accomplish with this shot.

My co-producer Henry Borriello often both extols and remonstrates how we would “push against the limits of what can be expected to be achieved” by an independent film production at our budget level. This shot might have been the greatest/worst example of that.

Jason Chua and me, looking at storyboards on set.

My Director of Photography Jason Chua and I spent many months going over this shot and what it would take, and cost, to achieve it. The main difficulty was my desire to start high and then end high again.

The solution that we could fit in our budget was a Porta-Jib, which we rented for Day 3 of our shoot.

Here is Jason and key grip Keisuke Nojima at the front end of our Porta-Jib.

And here is gaffer Ja’rel Ivory at the back end.

Now, on a different film with a real budget, the shot we went for would probably have been done with a more elaborate, more expensive, jib than the one we rented, maybe even using a crane, with specially trained operators hired just for that day. This is where Henry’s praise/criticism comes into play. We were pushing our luck trying to get this shot this way…

And much went wrong…

Jason setting up the shot with 1st AC Jennifer Liu; production assistant Peter Laboy is standing (sitting) in for me.
More setting up, this time with me on my mark.

The rental company gave us a porta-jib that was missing a crucial piece. Something called a spreader, which would allow the porta-jib to be moved effectively on wheels. Which was crucial if the camera was going to start diagonally up to the right of the protagonist, and end diagonally up to the left.

Still we had some time. The problem was discovered in the morning and this shot was scheduled for the late afternoon/evening. But when contacted the rental company feigned ignorance and didn’t have an extra spreader available that day.

The shot could not be postponed. The next day the set would need to be changed. Wee would not be able to return to this shot another day.

The crew ended up rigging a makeshift spreader using other equipment we had at hand.

More problems. The floor of the studio we were shooting in was somehow causing wobbles. So the crew built a ramp on which to roll the porta-jib on its jerry-rigged wheels.

Then the camera itself kept jiggling occasionally, ruining the take with momentary earthquakes during what needed to be a smoothly flowing shot. Luckily we had an A camera and a B camera. Jason switched out the camera in use on the porta-jib and figured out a way to operate the other camera more smoothly. It did however mean we had to make do with a different lens, effecting how high up from the portagonist the camera would appear to be at the beginning and end.

Not sure which crew member shared this pic but it amuses me…

All that is just the difficulty of overcoming various intruding technical challenges. The shot itself was a complicated piece of choreography with 6 distinct camera moves that required coordination between Jason and several crew members moving different parts of the porta-jib and focusing the lens, each to be timed and executed in specific segments. And it had to go perfectly from beginning to end.

Which it just never did.

That I had to perfectly lip-sync a two minute song and deliver emotionally was almost an after-thought.

Me on my mark in the cell. This is actually from a different shot in the film.

Really it would have been easier and maybe wiser to do the shot with a simpler camera set-up like the one you see Jason testing out for a different shot here. But it would have been impossible to get the height I wanted for both the beginning and the end of the shot this way. Believe me, Jason and I discussed ladders and hand-offs and what not, and concluded, to start high and end high, the porta-jib was our only option.

And it’s a better scene for all the effort. But it took a lot of effort. We went late into overtime that day. We shot 18 takes and only when we got to the 16th did we achieve anything close to usable. The 18th take was our best in the end, and the one we use in the film. Even so it was not perfect, and some post-production decisions had to be made to mitigate those imperfections. Nonetheless, I am very pleased with what you see in the completed film.

I’ll leave you with this shot of production assistant Peter Laboy on my mark for this shot while the crew is setting up. Note, by comparing this with the first shot at the top of this post, how perfectly he is emulating my body position for the shot.

Also how closely he matches the state of mind of the protagonist…

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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