Make a No Budget Movie: Chapter Six

On Location at Last
April 2nd, 2011

My test scene had the exact affect I’d hoped it would. The people who saw it were excited, and, I think, had a little more faith in the project. The keenest were Jonathan and Jim, who were willing to start filming as soon as I could set a date. Realizing that waiting was no longer an option, I proposed a Friday afternoon when the three of us could get together. I would shoot all of the scenes that just featured Jonathan and Jim’s characters. If all went well, I declared for at least the third time, we would keep going.

It was the first week of August. Hot, high summer, the grass dry, the lakes low and the air a seared blue. The location was Uniacke Estate Park, a heritage house surrounded by woods, meadows and trails. Jim had done reenactments there before, and the staff were okay with our presence, although I was not completely satisfied that the place met my needs. One of the key scenes I wanted to shoot was one in which Jonathan, as Tom Saxon, accidentally meets Jim, as Joseph LaForest, at a river ford. There was a brook at Uniacke, but it was shallow and almost dry when we arrived.  Nevertheless, we forged ahead, determined to make it work.

Jonathan (left) and Jim meet at the brook.

I soon realized that my concerns about the location were completely unwarranted. The park offered a wide range of landscapes that looked fantastic through the lens of my camera. One scene featured Tom Saxon walking along the old road from Halifax to the town of Windsor. The only authentic section of that road still in existence ran through the park, so of course we had to use it. Because of the light, I asked Jonathan to walk in the wrong direction – from Windsor to Halifax. It just looked better.

I did encounter two problems that day, both unforeseen. The first was with my script. When we got to the brook scene, I shot three takes: one of Jonathan delivering his lines, one of Jim doing the same on his side of the brook, and a wide shot featuring them both. But as I coached my actors through their dialogue, I realized that it just didn’t work. The lines were difficult to say and something seemed missing. There was no time for a rewrite though. All I could do was finish the scene and hope that I could fix whatever was wrong later, in the edit. The second problem was with my action scene. I’d drawn up a shot list for a brief fight between Tom and Joseph, but no storyboard. When it came to filming the scene, I wasn’t sure exactly how to frame it. I tried a couple of things, but was never satisfied with the results.
Everything else went fine. So fine, that the problems soon seemed insignificant. Jim and Jonathan did their best with my inadequate dialogue, and I managed to shoot a score of clips for use throughout the body of the film, including several clips featuring Jim firing his musket. To achieve these last, we used a drastically reduced powder charge that would produce smoke and flame and little noise. This was to avoid creating random gun shots that might alarm other people in the park. We also shot some close ups with just the musket pan flashing, to create the illusion of a musket firing. I would add sound effects later.

After about three hours I had the raw materials for several big scenes: the meeting at the brook, a later scene in which Tom and Joseph have a conversation and build a little sympathy for each other, and a scene in which Tom discovers that he’s become separated from the Rangers and is lost. I also had lots of little bits for use in various scenes. I’d managed to get through every shot on my list. And we were all dog tired.

That evening I uploaded all of that day’s video and created separate folders for every numbered scene in the movie. Most of what I’d shot that afternoon was Scene 25, with bits of Scene 26 and several others. I cut as much of it together as I could, managing to smooth out some of the lame dialogue in the brook scene, but never really getting a satisfactory edit of the fight scene. Otherwise, the footage looked beautiful. The 24 frames per second video looked fantastic, like something between 16 mm and 35 mm film in quality, with that necessary cinematic distance between the audience and the images. The colours were vivid, the forest either green and lush or tangled and menacing, and the on-location sound of the wind in the trees and the twittering of summer birds was more evocative than anything I could have planned. The day had been a resounding success. There was no question that I would continue with the project, though from now on I would storyboard all complicated sequences.

With all of my scenes numbered and organized by character, though, the task seemed daunting. There was so much to do. There were over thirty scenes. So far I’d shot one and a half.

Next: Finishing the Blockhouse Scene