Make a No Budget Movie: Chapter Eight

Into the Wilderness
May 21st, 2011

I had one day to shoot Tom Cromwell’s Ranger clips, since he was leaving for Newfoundland the next day. To make things more difficult, I would have to shoot the clips after work. Luckily the weather cooperated, and it was a fine evening of golden sunlight, just the sort of light that photographers like. Rob, Tom, myself and a new cast member, Steve Mosher, left the Citadel after the gates closed and arrived at the location by six o’clock.

Pipe clenched in teeth, Tom marches into the wilderness. 
Steve winds up to strike

Tom had a new reproduction 18th century frock coat and waist coat that he was eager to put to use. I also gave him one of the three cheap wigs that I’d bought at a costume shop (mentioned in Chapter One). I bought the wigs because I was concerned about hair; everyone in the cast had short hair, even though long hair or the wearing of wigs was the norm for men in the 1700s. Some soldiers in ranger units did crop their hair in the field, but that wasn’t enough to explain why every one of my characters looked fresh from the barber. So I bought the wigs.

Tom’s wig was blond. With this “hair” tied back with a strip of black ribbon and a cocked hat on his head, he looked pretty good. He also brought a clay pipe, which was a nice touch, a little detail to add texture. Steve Mosher, who was playing one of the Acadian guerillas, also wore one of the wigs, this one black. Over this he wore a red French cap, like a light toque, which was Rob’s. His only other costume was a linen shirt. Under it he was wearing shorts and sneakers, so it was important that I shoot him from the waist up only.
Our first location that day was at the bottom of the trail, a partial clearing surrounded by tumbled slabs of slate and scrubby woods. In this scene, Noble addresses his assembled rangers. I decided to film all of his speech, adding a few shots of Rob together with Tom. I would then film the rest of the rangers in the same spot, again with Rob, at a later date.

The scene seemed to go fairly well. Rob was determined to memorize his lines and even ad-libbed a bit, which was good because it added some realism and allowed him to make some use of his knowledge of the historical period. Tom didn’t have to do much except stand and listen while puffing his pipe (though at one point I wanted him to spit, which he almost couldn’t do because his mouth was so dry). The one issue I encountered was a problem that would dog the entire production, and that was sound quality. A breeze started to freshen, which produced a lot of wind noise on my small camera-mounted shotgun microphone. I tried shielding the mic with my body, or my script, but I never completely solved the problem .
With the speech scene done, we moved into the woods. I shot clips of Tom marching past landmarks I would use later, then shot a complete scene in which his character spots a deer that Noble won’t let him shoot (I had a clip of a deer from a wildlife park that I thought I might be able to edit in). After that it was time for the fight scene.

I’d chosen a partial clearing at the bottom of a bluff for the film’s first big action scene. The idea was to use the real geography and imagine how an ambush might actually take place there. The basic idea was that Noble’s men, moving in single file, would be fired upon from the bluff on their left. As they turned to face the threat, they would be hit by more Acadians concealed in the brush behind them. Tom’s character would be the first casualty.

Two homemade props came into play here. The first was some fake blood that I’d made from ketchup and corn syrup, a recipe I’d found online. I didn’t think it looked all that convincing, but the second prop was more successful. This was a lightweight tomahawk I’d made from stuff I’d found in the kids’ craft box at home. The handle was just a roll of legal paper, painted dark reddish brown and wrapped with brown twine for grip. The head was cut from a slab of bright pink craft foam, a sort of sponge rubber, and spray painted silver. I’d based the design on pictures of real tomahawks from the period, and it looked pretty good. Plus you could really hit someone with it without hurting them.

The scene called for Steve’s character to leap out of concealment and hit Tom’s character in the neck with the tomahawk. Steve would then turn and run away, only to be shot down. The sequence was complex and required a lot of shots, which goes against the conventional wisdom in no budget filmmaking which says to avoid this sort of thing. I disagree. Just make sure you have a detailed shot list, get your shots quickly, and shoot them in chronological order.
Here’s how it went:

  • First shot: Tom peering into the woods towards the enemy on the bluff.
  • Second shot: Steve bursts from concealment and runs towards Tom.
  • Third shot: Tom looks back.
  • Fourth shot: Steve swings his tomahawk past the camera.
  • Fifth shot: Tom falls with Steve’s tomahawk in his neck.
  • Sixth shot: Steve jumps up and looks back for a second.
  • Seventh shot: Tom falls, spitting fake blood.
  • Eighth shot: Steve runs into the woods.
  • Ninth shot: Tom falls to the ground.

I was able to get through all of this in about ten minutes. I shot three takes of Steve following through his apparent tomahawk blow, but otherwise I just let the camera roll, knowing I could cut up the clips later and splice them together in the proper sequence.
That was it. The light was dying and we were done.

That night at home I went through what had become the standard process for the movie. After uploading the raw digital video clips (using Cineform intermediate, the only software I’d found that worked well with the HV20), I did a rough cut of all of the scenes I shot that day. If I had a complete scene, I would render it as a separate video file. Essentially I was building the movie in blocks. This is not how you usually make a movie – generally you shoot all principal photography, then you edit, then you add sound and special effects, and finally the score. But for a no budget production it’s better to use your time between shoots to do some of the post production. It was like making a few dozen short films and then cutting them together to make one longer film.

The “Tom kill” scene looked great. It was quick, it was violent, and the blood looked fine. It was exactly what I’d wanted and I was inspired. Now I really wanted to get going on what I considered the meat of the film: the Act II scenes of Noble’s Rangers trekking into the wilderness and encountering Le Renard’s men.

It was time to assemble the troops.