II. ON THE EDGE

(PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY)

Week 4

Monday, June 27

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Today we move into Grandpa’s room.

I’m here by 7 a.m. this morning, and manage to finish the 20 or so pages of notes by the time the "Movietime" crew arrives. A quick proofreading by Joe and John, and we run them off and hand them over. The "Movietime" crew sets up to film interviews, while our own crew prepares to shoot Grandpa.

The stage has already been fogged and mostly lit, and the art department has proven themselves again – it looks wonderful. Tom’s old make-up friend Shotgun Britton arrives to play Grandpa, and his funny, cantankerous manner keeps the whole crew laughing. A typical example: Matt Shakman, who has heard of Shotgun’s legendary status as a make-up man to such stars as Frank Sinatra and Rosalind Russell, approaches Shotgun and says, "I heard you’re a really great make-up man. You know, I think Tom Burman is the greatest special make-up effects man in the world."

Shotgun eyes Tom, and quips, "What, that fat sack’a shit?!"

Needless to say, Matt promptly convulses in laughter.

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We begin with Cindy descending the stairs to feed Grandpa, the only shot in the film for which we’ve rented a full-size Chapman crane. The shot is pulled off with surprising ease and speed, and we move on to the end scene, wherein the whole Hollowhead clan comes down to feed Grandpa and Crabneck.

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Between takes, the "Movietime" folks get little interviews taped, including one with Tom and me. Tom’s too serious and I keep glancing at the camera, but Nancy makes up for us when she gives them a tour of Miriam’s kitchen, and later Matt introduces Billy’s dog Spike (we’ve provided both dog puppet and puppeteer for the interview). It all goes well, and we look forward to seeing it when the film is released.

Another interesting visitor today is the newest member of the Life on the Edge family, matte artist Rob Stromberg. Ed, upon really getting in to the matte painting process, abruptly realized he probably wasn’t cut out to be a matte painter, so he brought in Rob. Rob’s experience includes Rambo III and the television show Captain Power, on which he met Ed. He leaves us a reel of his work, which we project that night with the dailies, and we decide immediately to strike a deal with him.

Grandpa’s room is finished around 7 p.m., then it’s back into the living room to pick up where we left off Saturday night – which means it’s back into the tube for me. Per my demands, though, a duct has been run to a fan, so I can get hit with blasts of air between takes (not when the camera is rolling though, due to the noise of the fan). It’s enough, and we wrap again about ten p.m.

It’s all worth it, though, when we see the dailies from Friday and Saturday. The chicken and the eye both look wonderful (strangely enough, I have a distinctive puppeting style, and can tell when they’ve stuck somebody else in the aquarium, as they’ve had to do on a few shots when I was tied up elsewhere).

When I get home, I realize I’ve just put in a 17-hour day.

Oh well...life on the edge.

Tuesday, June 28

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Today is pick-up day, and no, that doesn’t mean the Life on the Edge crew indulges in a mass orgy. It means we’ve compiled a list of all the shots so far that seem to be missing from otherwise completed sequences, things like an insert of Crabneck stomping Billy’s foot (and vice versa), an insert of the brackish pudding breathing, and various assorted close-ups, retakes and transitions. In the tradition of the Boy Scouts, I’m prepared today and have worn my most slime-able clothes, a precaution which proves to be well-founded, as I’m soon ordered back into my tube.

During a break between lighting set-ups, Tom, John, Neil, Mike and I discuss what we need to do to round out the opening pipe-travel sequence. Tom likes what we have already, but wants some additional shots giving a more three-dimensional feeling, as if you’re traveling in among pipes, not simply along them. The debate narrows down to one issue: Motion control or not to motion control? John thinks he could set up a great deal with an effects house, but Tom questions whether or not we could capture the "aged" feel with a model, such as we could at the cannery. Tom, Mike and I end up deciding to return to the cannery (oh boy) on Sunday with a video camera, so Tom himself can show us exactly what he wants on tape. In the meantime, Tom and Mike have come up with what seems like a brilliant solution to the question of how to handle the shot where we travel down the tube to Miriam’s mouth: We’ll lock down the camera, attach a length of flexible accordion tubing to the lens, and just fold up the tubing around the lens. When you do this with just your eyes, the illusion of movement is astonishing, and Marvin seems to think it might work with a camera as well – despite the fact that he has already had an expensive camera rig manufactured to travel down a large-scale tube.

Money problems rear their ugly heads again this afternoon, this time to tell us we are definitely over budget and may not have enough money to pay propwizard Steve Johnson to complete the Splat Spray game. He has already completed the target, but not the launcher – at this point, we may end up with a slingshot.

The bad news doesn’t end there. The dailies tonight are terrible. I don’t have a major objection to the surprisingly-bright lighting in Grandpa’s room, as most of the others do (to me, it looks kind of hellish), but the fact is, this is not the script I was a part of. My original conception of the end was that the Hollowheads would descend to the basement to feed both Grandpa and the comatose Crabneck; then, after they’ve left, Grandpa would reach over and begin to knead Crabneck’s thigh, as Crabneck’s expression goes slack with horror. The morale of the story, of course, was don’t be a lech or you might end up getting worse than you ever gave.

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Instead, what’s been shot is the Hollowheads descending the stairs, Henry mutters snidely, "Hope you’re hungry, Mr. Crabneck", and then we see Crabneck, obviously conscious and in agony, sobbing, while the Hollowheads smile down beatifically. Needless to say, every audience member in the world would feel like they’d been slapped in the face – first we spend 90 minutes building this family up as the epitome of kooky, somewhat naive sweetness, then in the last minute we reveal they are actually callous, cruel, ruthlessly ambitious monsters. There goes our word-of-mouth business...

I’m also bothered by what I perceive to be copping out on Grandpa’s copping feels. My original intent was that we would first see Grandpa, who is essentially nothing but a dead mass of pure libido, kneading Cindy’s thigh while she feeds him, and this would lead to our denouement and final joke. Instead, Tom thought it would be more disturbing to not really show what Grandpa is doing to Cindy, but only suggest it.

It doesn’t work.

I can only resolve to try to talk to my co-writer in the morning and find out if one of us has misunderstood the other’s conception of the script from the beginning.

Wednesday, June 29

How do I spell relief? P-I-C-K-U-P-S.

Tom assures me that there were simply a number of shots that were missed in the pressure to keep moving on Monday, including a shot of Crabneck looking happily glazed, one of the Hollowheads exiting the basement, an insert of Grandpa squeezing Crabneck’s thigh, and one of Grandpa attempting to squeeze Cindy. The boys in the art department are also intensely unhappy with the way Grandpa’s room looked on film, and they’re pushing to reshoot the entire scene, rather than just a few tight close-ups. This is ruled impractical, though, and we decide to try to fit the pick-ups in on Friday, since we officially lose Richard Portnow at the end of this week.

Shooting today takes place in the bathroom set, and it’s so cramped the rest of us can only sit outside the set, twiddling our thumbs. Even Tom must stand outside, observing on a monitor. Eventually they do remove one wall section to permit the camera easier access, but it still doesn’t allow visibility.

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The last shot of the night is in Bud’s bedroom, a long pan around to finish on Bud, playing his instrument. This time Andrew, laying flat on his back on the floor and reaching up through a tube, is puppeting the chicken, which has been fitted into the newly-finished instrument for the first time (for closer shots, it will take both Andrew and I to puppet, one doing the chicken and one doing the instrument, also equipped with cables). A "click-track" has been prepared, which is basically just a tape of the drums and bass of the song, and this is played back during the actual shooting, so Lightfield can move to the proper rhythm. The shot comes off beautifully, and we wrap thereafter.

The most interesting part of the dailies is not the fragmented pick-up shots from yesterday, but the cut-together footage of Cindy feeding Grandpa. The usual rule about only the director seeing edited scenes is put aside for this, so we can all see what works, what doesn’t, and how to fix it.

The scene plays better than I thought it would, but it still needs work. Mike Stuart and the other art department guys are begging us to reshoot the entire scene, or especially the master, and we start giving some serious thought to this.

Thurday, June 30

Back in the bathroom today, to finish up there. Interesting sidenote: Nancy Mette tells me the scene between mother and daughter in the bathroom is her favorite one (John Chavez expressed the same sentiment long ago).

Later in the afternoon, I tag along as John Chavez takes a friend on a tour of the Glen Glenn Sound Studios, where John spent three months working with and studying sound mixing and re-recording. We watch as a final dub is prepared by three mixers in the main screening room, and a fascinating process it is. I make a mental note to sit in on some of this stuff when it’s Life on the Edge up there on the screen before the control board.

Around 6:30 p.m., they finally start shooting the pick-ups in Grandpa’s room. Pippa has decided that we needn’t shoot the whole sequence again, but we can keep the art boys happy and reshoot the master, plus other shots pointed towards the back of the set. The lighting has been brought way down, as have the colors; the formerly vivid blues and reds have now been muted and replaced by dark orange and yellows. In addition, texture has been added to the background by way of more pipes and cutous to suggest even more pipes and tubes. The shots tonight are of Grandpa and Crabneck, and I am edge112.jpg - 21355 Bytesimmeasurably relieved to see the missing shots being done, along with some new inspirations (Bari has "sewn" Crabneck’s missing fingers back on crudely as part of his make-up). We even try a number of variations on the ending, including several in which the mutilated half of Crabneck’s face has been covered by a dainty little cap-cum-bandage, although this idea is later abandoned.

The last shot of the night (which we don’t get to until nearly 11:00) is a reverse angle of Crabneck’s fingers being cut, this one illustrating Miriam’s point-of-view as Crabneck advances. If anything, this angle is even more complicated than the previous one: Richard’s right hand has been made up by Bari with the prosthetic stumps, and he’s holding the fake hand, with pre-severed fingers attached, in front of that. Monofilament has been attached to each of the fingers on the fake hand, so that at the right moment Andrew, crouching out of frame, can pull the fingers away and sent them flying. The last element is me, crouching beneath the camera, trying to swing the knife just right, so that it passes close enough in front of the false fingers and appears to actually cut them, but being sure that only the knife, never my hand, is visible. After the fingers have been "cut", Richard will lower his hand out of frame, drop the fake hand, and raise his hand with the prosthetic stumps back up into frame. On top of all this, because of the problem involved in reattaching the fingers of the fake hand once they’ve been pulled off, we really have to get it in one take.

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Tom blocks the finger cutting with Nancy, then steps out to let Richard take over

We spend a half-hour rehearsing the moves over and over, choreographing with the camera, and finally we decide to go for it.

And glory hallelujah, it works perfectly! We get a round of applause, and break for the day about midnight.

Friday, July 1

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A late call today is followed by innumerable delays as we finish up the pick-ups in Grandpa’s room. Lights keep blowing out, the steam effects don’t work, etc. The stage is sweltering – it’s in the nineties today, and we can’t turn on the air conditioning because it would disperse the steam.

We break at 4 p.m. to see the dailies we missed due to last night’s late wrap, and the dailies make up for the delays today. The bathroom scenes are a riot, and the mother-daughter discussion of softening jelly deftly plays between hilarity and poignancy. And the new footage of Grandpa’s room is a revelation – the set looks splendid, and the ending now has the funny, poetic justice I’d always envisioned. Even our new finger-cutting looks as great on film as it did in person.

Then it’s back to Grandpa’s room, where shooting continues at a snail’s pace. I occupy much of my time watching Matt working out at the Splat Spray game launcher, which was, thankfully, financed to completion. Matt has quickly gotten frighteningly good – as Tom says, he could probably hold off a SWAT team for an hour. Now we just need to be sure Joshua Miller becomes equally as skilled.

We finally wrap, having managed to pick up a few last shots in the kitchen, but overall this has been a depressingly-slow day.

Saturday, July 2

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The mood is real up today, partly because we have the next two days off, and partly because of something fun going on at the back of the stage: Our still photographer Melissa Moseley has set up an honest-to-goodness portrait studio back there, and spends most the day shooting 2 ¼" "glamour"-style portraits. The cast is having a ball, especially when the five Hollowheads edge115.jpg - 17895 Bytesall get together for the family sessions – if we’d filmed these scenes and put them in the movie, you’d have gotten a look at the Hollowheads dancing around and grabbing each other in ways that probably would’ve earned us an "R" rating!

It’s another day of pick-ups, in the kitchen today. It proceeds smoothly, thank goodness, even if it does go late (11:30) into the night. The finale shot is fabulous, as Marvin, doing his own hand-held camera operation, tracks Miriam and Henry all around the kitchen while Miriam tries to prepare dinner and Henry goes on about how Mr. Crabneck invited himself over for dinner. Watching the monitor, Marvin’s operation is so smooth that it’s hard to believe it’s not Steadicam.

The unhappy note of the day is that it’s the last for both Richard Portnow and John Glover. As each completes his last shot, they’re given a huge round of applause, lots of hugs (in John’s case, they’re extremely naughty hugs), and demands for a speech. Richard complies with a final, "Nyah!"

Two last interesting news items today: We have decided to build a model for the opening tube montage, thus negating the need for any further trips to the cannery; and shooting has been officially extended to July 12. I’m hardly surprised – earlier in the day, I’d gone through the script, and discovered there’s an entire third we haven’t touched.

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