Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Project Movie: Part 1 - Last Year

This is the start of a series about the movies my church makes for Christmas. I got in on the ground floor last year and got to have a hand in almost every aspect of the process. This post is the story of last year's production and the series will continue as we start work on a new one for this year.
A little over a year ago I started mixing at the church where I now work full time as a contracted audio engineer. I would show up for rehearsals and services and that's about it. Eventually they hired me on and as my start date approached I got a call from my boss the worship pastor. He wanted to know what my experience was with acting. I had done some in high school and had been working in theatre ever since as a tech and audio engineer. I figured since I had long hair and a beard at the time he was just fishing for an extra shepherd or maybe a wise man for the Christmas production.

I couldn't have been more wrong. It turned out he had me in mind for a lead role, playing as a sort of Ghost of Christmas Past/Present/Future in the form of a homeless guy, street vendor and church janitor that served to straighten out a young girl's understanding of the holiday.  There were only two speaking roles in the show and I was one of them! (yikes) Fortunately my co-star was good looking and a really good actress so that took some of the heat off of me. I could just be goofy and awkward and mostly myself in my roles.  But that's not the part I want to write about.

It was the middle of November and we had an opening night date just five weeks away. For solid crew we had my boss who wrote the story, a woman from the church who turned it into a script, a hired cinematographer, myself, and my boss' wife as what amounted to a production manager.  There were a few others who contributed in the technical aspects and many, many more who helped out with driving, set decoration, and played as extras, but the core crew was those five people.

That meant that any time I wasn't on camera I was helping with logistics, electrics, production audio, set decoration, catering and anything else that came to hand. A few feverish days over about two weeks had all the footage in the can (without a single flake of snow, darn it!) and we were into post production. Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of pre-planning on the tech side and this was the point where we started to feel like we had taken on about twice as much work as a group that size could handle. We pressed on though.

While starting to look into projection options for the big night, and planning out lighting and staging, my boss and the cinematographer go to work in Adobe Premier and started cutting scenes together and matching up the production audio.  That went on for quite some time and we started to realize not only the limitations of the platform but also the limitations of only having two tracks of lav mic audio to work with. The whole movie was shot on a pair of DSLRs which did have audio but in general it wasn't useable. There was also an SD camera that we used to record production audio but it was limited to just the two tracks. We spent a good deal of time flying in room tones and ambient sounds to try and get some feel of the spaces in there and chalked it up to learning experience with an eye toward doing better next year.

Eventually the whole thing was cut together, including a few segments that were to play in time with live music. Here's the setup for the performance. The house band would be set up stage right, and a living room set on stage left. Above it all on the cyc would be where the movie played. The action started with the girl interacting with her family and then leaving in a huff. At this point the movie would roll and the audience would see video where they had never seen it before. The room had two rear projection screens that were used every Sunday, but twenty five foot wide HD was going to be a real surprise and a treat.

As the movie wound on, there was a click track synched to it that the band could hear, along with audible directions so they would know when to start and keep in time to the video. The ensemble was huge. Drums, bass, upright, electric and acoustic guitars, keys, bells, multiple vocalists and a small choir. I pulled twenty-four tracks from the live mix, plus another four of the live actors and that was to be mixed down, along with footage from the live event and turned into a DVD.

As the last couple weeks wore on everyone was getting pretty worn but we managed to keep our spirits up as we got ever closer to having a finished product.  By opening night we were well rehearsed and had a crew of six on production, several camera operators and a few others helping out. We played to a packed house two nights in a row (about 2000 total attendance) and got enough good footage to go ahead with the DVD.

All this was on top of a production with a full set the week before we went on, and the start of a new sermon series with a new set and lighting right after we closed. You just about couldn't walk for all the set pieces and Christmas decorations laying around. You may also have tripped over a comatose crew member at times as well.

After a brief rest we got back in the editing bay and started matching up the mixed down performance audio with the movie and the scenes recently cut from the live event. It went really well for being something pretty far out of the experience of all involved.  There were quite a few late nights spent around a Mac. But at last we had it all together and my boss, the cinematographer and I spent one long evening going over it all and tweaking.

With a master in hand we kept the office overheated for a week with the duplication machine running nonstop.  Cases were ordered and our graphic designer came up with a cover based on the poster artwork. My boss showed me some things he liked about other DVD back covers and I made one up with some still shots and all the pertinent information. We shipped 300 copies just after Christmas which is a pretty good percentage in my humble opinion.

Having learned a ton about the process by jumping in with both feet. We made sure that all along the way we were making notes on how to do things better next time around. So here we sit at the beginning of May and the script is almost finished. In a couple of weeks production meetings start and then shortly we'll have to commit to the methods that we'll be using this year. We won't be compressing the whole process into such a short time so I'll be out on shoots as soon as June or July.

In the next post I'll get into what I've got in mind for the audio. Till then Brethren of the Knob and Fader, any advice you have about production audio or post work would be very welcome. Hit the comments section or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter (links at upper right). Oh, and here's a link to the project, it's on Vimeo in HD in its entirety.

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