Planning to shoot your Indie feature digitally because it's cheaper than film? Not so fast. This Indie production loved both the look of film, and how much they saved.
If Hollywood was a housing development, the big studio productions would be rich, gated communities, and the low-budget Indie productions would be trailer parks -- making ends meet while dreaming of that big break.
We did not have deep pockets to make our independent film, but we had high aspirations in adapting an award-winning play for the big screen, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Park Housewife
. It was my job as line producer for Kestrel Films of Atlanta to squeeze all the quality I could from a limited budget with a 16 day shoot, and to the surprise of many, including me, found that Super16mm film could be less costly than digital.
The stage play of Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Park Housewife
(TTTPHW) was a West Coast hit, winning more than fourteen Los Angeles Theatre Awards, including Best Production, and Best Lead Performance for Beth Grant, playing Willi, the housewife of the title.
Her abusive husband won't let her get a job, one of her children is dead, and the other is outcast by her husband because he's gay. Her only friend, a large black woman who lives next door, worries constantly that Willi's husband will end up killing her. Similar to the chorus from classic Greek tragedies, a blues singer weaves songs into the action, commenting on Willi's predicament, urging her toward decisive action and her eventual freedom.
"While not all plays make successful films, this story resonates with so many people across many social strata that we were excited to make it our first feature," said producer Robert Readen, Jr., of Kestrel Films. "We were able to assemble the main cast from the LA stage play. The leading actress, Beth Grant, is my cousin, so we developed the project together with Tamera, and brought it to Atlanta to take advantage of the 30% tax incentive for film productions."
FILM, DIGITAL, AND PRICE
DP David Sanderson and Cameraman Alfeo Dixon view the monitor tap on the SR3A S16mm camera|
as they check the lighting and blocking.
As a veteran commercial and music video producer, I had worked in 35mm a lot, but more recently had transitioned to digital formats. We originally planned a RED Camera shoot, but that was costly, with the transcode times in post and archive concerns. Plus, digital cameras are always in demand, so rental shops don't need to price them aggressively. We were finding that digital simply exceeded our budget.
Then someone suggested we consider Super 16 film. Panavision had just opened a new office in Atlanta and their team could make the SR3A--S16mm package affordable. The DP loves shooting on film, and we find it makes us more disciplined when shooting film than with digital, so we found a way to make it work financially.
"When you consider that features like Black Swan, Hurt Locker
, and Leaving Las Vegas
were all S16, it was a simple decision from an aesthetic point of view," said DP David Sanderson when I spoke to him between takes on the Screen Gems Stage. "Plus, I find it faster and easier to light with the wide latitude of color negative than most digital cameras.
"For exteriors, I chose to use Kodak's 200T with an 81EF filter to add a grittier, 'burned out' look to enhance the feelings that the main character experiences from years of battling the Texas sun. Much of the film takes place inside an actual mobile trailer we pulled into a sound stage, so for interiors, I used 500T stock and lighted with practicals and sky lights that we created."
On the stage, there is a lot of Steadicam, which of course, was lighter in 16mm for our operator Afeo Dixon than most set-ups on the RED and ARRI Alexa camera. He used the older Modulus 3000 video transmitter system to send SD previews to the video village.
It was also interesting to see him block the shots on his iPhone using the viewfinder app Artemis, which sets the iPhone camera to match your frame format and lens. It's more accurate than the viewfinder alone, and images can be stored and shared -- even with your GPS info overlaid. So, we used some older technology mixed with the new.
Above, Steadicam operator Alfeo Dixon rehearses blocking with DP David Sanderson and lead actress Beth Grant. Coverage inside a real house trailer that was brought to the stage took detailed planning. The SR3A S16mm camera was monitored wirelessly through the video tap using the Modulus 3000 SD rig.
STOCK AND POST COSTS
The camera package was part of the answer, but we also had to consider stock costs and post. Janet Tiller at the local Kodak office worked with us on special pricing. They have a new program called Choices, designed for Indie film and television productions, allowing productions like ours to save when shooting film. They can compare 35mm 3-perf, and 2-perf, along with S16, and put us in contact with labs around the country for help budgeting.
With Kodak's help, we were able to secure special feature discounts on our 7219 500T and 7217 200T stocks. They also told us about a new, even less expensive stock that will be coming soon, more good news for indie filmmakers committed to working with film.
While the numbers for camera and stock were looking better, I was still unsure how we'd manage the post/transfer costs of a film shoot, but Joe Huggins, the Account Manager for Cinefilm, the Atlanta lab I've used for years, suggested a cost-effective dailies workflow.
After shooting location exteriors, a matching mobile home was purchased and moved to the Screen Gems Atlanta Sound Stage. A photo was taken on location and made into a vinyl mural from for scenes outside windows and doorways.
"Unlike most feature labs that transfer dailies to HDCAM SR tapes, which adds an expensive deck and tape stock to the costs, we can transfer best-light HD dailies direct to drive in ProRes 444 for editorial," Joe told us. "That lowers costs and avoids a second digitize stage. Plus, we don't sync the audio takes in telecine, which adds time to an expensive suite. We post-sync to the FCP timeline at a lower rate."
The workflow seemed fine, but my editor in LA had never worked that way before, as everyone went to tape first. We had a conference call with the lab and our editor, Luis Colina, and then it made sense to him.
"In features, I prefer to cut with Avid," Colina noted with some caution, "but ProRes 444 adds an image advantage to Final Cut Pro. It will look great for a TV buy or direct to Blu-ray, and we save on tape stock, especially since SR tape is hard to get out of Japan now. If we do need to make a film out for 35mm prints for theatrical release, the 4:4:4 color space will hold up better than DNxHD 422 on the big screen."
The other part of the post equation was how to reduce our DI costs. Cinefilm suggested that if we made our dailies look great, we could use that same HD "offline" to reduce the changes needed in the finals.
"We do a lot of dailies work for the major studios," remarked colorist John Petersen from console of his Spirit/DaVinci suite. "They want their dailies to be as close to their finals vision as possible.
"I spoke to the DP before the shoot, then visited the set at the start of production to be sure that I saw what he was seeing, and captured the look he wanted to achieve -- a 'natural' style, but with de-saturated feeling to match the mood of the lead character, whose life seemed 'washed out.' With accurate HD dailies, we can make final adjustments quickly to those same files in the final DI stage."
Director Del Shores rehearses a scene with lead actress Beth Grant inside an actual trailer as crews in the background check for continuity. Both artists were honored for their work on the original stage play in Lost Angeles, which garnered over 25 drama awards.
Veteran Writer/Director Del Shores, who was honored for both directing and writing the stage play, was delighted to be mastering on film. "I was an early pioneer in HD for features, when I shot Sordid Lives in 2000, which has now become a cult classic.
[Ed note: the film features Olivia Newton John, Beau Bridges, and TTTPHW's Beth Grant.]
"I've shot a lot of HD for television along with 35mm, but this is my first project in S16mm. I had worked with David, my DP, on another feature and trusted his advice. The HD dailies are great and they don't just look like film, they are film," he added with a smile.
REALITIES OF BUDGETS
The role of a producer is to find ways to help the director and DP maximize their creative goals, but you have to always keep them and yourself aware of the reality of budget limitations. In that sense, I guess I've always been a producer of "reality shows."
We've all seen the glamour and expensive lifestyles of the TV series The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Soon we will be able to contrast that with the film production of The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, coming soon to a theater -- or drive-in -- near you.