Make a No Budget Movie: Chapter Seven

The Blockhouse Scene
April 17th, 2011

One consequence of early success was the obsolescence of my original long term plans. I no longer had time to recruit a large body of re-enactors to play the Acadians and Rangers. This meant that my opposing units weren’t going to look as big on film as I’d hoped, which I would regret later, but I was so excited now that filming was underway that I didn’t care.  My cast list was growing, and everyone on it was someone I had contact with every day. This meant efficient communications, which was worth a little reduction in scale. Not everyone who had expressed interest was a re-enactor, but between Rob Welch and myself and a few others, we were able to cobble together enough uniforms and equipment to outfit everybody. Some of the same hats and muskets would get used over and over, but since everyone was supposed to be wearing similar clothes anyway, that wasn’t a problem.

The cast was turning out to be one of the film’s strengths. Colin Nicolle signed on to play Noble’s second in command, Sergeant Parker. Parker was a foil for Noble, and with his natural air of calm dignity, Nicolle was perfect. Cliff Lee and Tom Cromwell, two other employees at the Citadel, also signed on to play whatever roles I could give them. Tom was just getting into reenacting as a hobby and had some of his own kit already, but unfortunately he was scheduled to leave for Newfoundland in a few days. If I wanted to use him, I had to move fast. Circumstances and available resources were again the driving forces behind my no budget production. I’d just had a successful location shoot. But now I would have to fall back onto some rather unorthodox methods to get what I wanted.

With Rob Welch’s help, I came up a small role for Tom, that of a regular army sentry standing outside the door to the blockhouse where Major Aldridge’s office was located.  Utilizing the clips of me as Major Aldridge from my test scene, I would reshoot the Noble clips with Rob, and also shoot the scenes with the sentry. And since we didn’t have time to gain access to the real blockhouse in Windsor before Tom had to leave, I decided to build a miniature set. This led to one of two composite special effects shots that were used in the movie. 
First, I found a wooden exterior door at the Citadel that looked like it could be a blockhouse door. I shot a quick clip with Tom standing in front of this door, talking to Rob. Then I took a digital picture of the door, printed it, cut it out, and pasted it to the front of a cardboard model blockhouse I built. This model was about seven inches tall and had only three sides. I then shot both Tom and Rob in front of my green screen (the plastic tablecloth I’d used in all the short films with my kids). This would do for the exterior shots. For the blockhouse interior, I used a board room at the Citadel with pine paneling on the walls. The paneling was old and varnished and didn’t quite match my pine board rec room set, but it was close enough, so that’s where I shot Rob’s clips as Noble sitting in Aldridge’s office. 

Finally, I set the cardboard blockhouse on a table on my back deck at home and erected a palisade of small twigs behind it. Rising behind the palisade were the tops of real trees in the yard behind mine. I filmed a few minutes of this set with the trees waving in the wind, then overlaid the green screen shots using FXHome, a compositing program I’d purchased a few months back to help me with a Star Wars fan film I’d made with my kids.

The finished scene looks like this: Rob, as Noble, walks along a grassy wall that is meant to be Fort Edward but is really the Citadel. Next there’s the special effects composite of Rob approaching the model blockhouse, where Tom is standing sentry. The scene cuts to the close up of Tom and Rob in front of the wooden door at the Citadel. Finally, Rob enters the door and the scene cuts to my set and Rob in the board room.

The scene worked, but there were a few problems. The clips of Rob in the board room were too dark and grainy, and though the effects clips looked great, there was something surreal about them, something cartoonish. I wanted the film to look more natural. I think now that, with a little more patience, I could have arranged to reshoot the entire scene in the real blockhouse, and that I could have found something else for Tom to do, but I was still feeling my way.

As it was, Tom wasn’t satisfied with his tiny role as a sentry. He wanted to be one of the Rangers. Again, circumstances forced me to act. I decided that we could go out to my main location in Purcell’s Cove the next day and shoot a series of clips with just Tom and Rob, clips that we could blend into the main footage later. I chose two scenes: Noble’s speech to his men, and the scene where the first ranger gets killed. That would be Tom.

It was time to go back to the woods and shoot another action scene.

Next: Into the Wilderness