Alternative Reality: Making Of and 3 days in the desert as a DP – Part 1

The English part starts below – the German content here is repeated down there.

Was sich Hiroki erst einmal in den Kopf gesetzt hat, das wird dann auch durchgesetzt: Als ich ihn damals vor fast zwei Jahren getroffen habe, erwähnte er bereits, dass er einen Actionfilm drehen wollte. In den folgenden 2 Jahren drehten wir unterschiedliche Filmprojekte und arbeiteten auf vielen anderen mit; als ich dann die Fortgeschrittene Filmproduktionsklasse belegte, fühlte ich mich reif genug, meinen ersten grossen Kurzfilm zu drehen – “Terminated“. Das war im Winter 2010, und Hiroki war der Director of Photography. Er selbst hatte in der Zwischenzeit allerdings noch kein grösseres Projekt am Laufen, plante und fantasierte aber – es gab Konzepte zu Meerjungfrauen im Pool und Kindern VS. Aliens, alle Projektideen und ansatzweise Drehbücher involvierten Kinder und Waffen. Drei Monate nachdem ich Terminated gedreht hatte und ohne Unterstützung durch eine Klasse war es dann auch für ihn soweit; ein Projekt war geboren: Alternative Reality.

Los geht’s; ich bin diesmal Director of Photography (fliegender Wechsel), und die vorläufige Crew ist 99% aus Japan. Ich kann zwar nur limitiert viel japanisch, (50-50, Gebrauchswörter-schmierige Perversitäten), aber kenne die meisten der Leute schon von anderen Projekten, sollte also kein Problem darstellen. Eines ist aber sicher: Die Japaner in LA sind um einiges besser organisiert als die Österreicher in Los Angeles, zumindest was internationale Studenten angeht. So sieht es dann auch aus, wenn es um “Dinge gratis bekommen” geht…:

(Das beste Beispiel für dieses Talent ist wohl, wie Hiroki die Location für Alternative Reality ergatterte (unteres Viertel des Artikels).

Casting

Hiroki zeigt vor dem Casting mir und meinem Mitbewohner Ryu das Skript; einige Englischprobleme tauchen auf, und Ryu nimmt sich der Korrektur derselben an. Als ich eines Tages heimkomme, sehe ich die zwei schäkernd herumkullern; sie haben anscheinend auf Ryu’s Anraten (er ging vor 10 Jahren auf eine Filmuni) die Charaktere leicht mehr mit Leben versetzt – das kann ja mal spannend werden. Ich als DP habe wenig mit dem Casting zu tun, Hiroki bittet mich aber, mitzukommen und mitzuentscheiden.

Die Story, im Groben: Zwei Jungs spielen ein Videospiel, ein schüchternes Mädchen kommt zum Mix dazu, und sie werden alle in das Spiel versetzt. Während die zwei Jungs gerade einmal überleben, taucht plötzlich ein komplett verändertes Mädchen auf …

Hiroki bekommt drei Räume von einer japanischen Kirche in unserer Nähe gratis als Castingräume zur Verfügung gestellt; einer zum Schauspieler-empfangen, einer zum Aufenthalt und einer als Castingraum. Es tauchen ein paar verschiedene Kinder auf, alle wie schon damals bei “Terminated” von LA Casting (der Link inkludiert eine Anleitung dazu).
Es gibt drei Rollen zu belegen:

  1. Ron – ein schüchterner Junge, der sich in Lisa verknallt
  2. Lisa – ein schwächliches Mädchen, das neu in der Stadt ist und alle überrascht
  3. Dutch – ein lauter Mini-Grobian, bester Freund von Ron, liebenswürdig-trollig

Nach ein paar komischen und untalentierten Kindern kommen dann die Kinder, die scheinbar perfekt zusammenpassen; zufällig genau gleichzeitig kommen zwei Kinder samt Eltern im Anhang – Kinder gehen immer mit Eltern zum Casting – und während dem Vorsprechen sieht man eine richtig geile Chemie zwischen den zwei Jungs. Super, Hiroki ist happy, Ryu sagt “they are exactly like I imagined it”, und irgendwer (war das ich?) schlägt vor, wir sollten uns ihre “Martial Arts Skills” anschauen.
“Just do as if you are fighting in a video game!”
“But we have no bad guys!”
“Just imagine them.”
“That’s not going to work well.”
“Fine, then we’ll play the bad guys!”

So, wie ich es immer in meinem Kopf gemacht habe: Imaginäre Waffe ziehen, losballern, getroffen werden, Geräusche imitieren. Zwei 12-jährige, ein 21-jähriger, ein 22-jähriger und ein 35-jähriger rennen durch das kleine Klassenzimmer und ballern sich die Seele aus dem Leib. “RATATATA you are dead!!” “Shit, a grenade” “BOOOOM” Trrrztrtrtrttrr” “Watch out!”
Nach kurzem Kindheitsausflug steht fest: Die zwei sind es, haben uns böse Jungs erfolgreich abgeknallt. Das Mädchen wählt Hiroki ein paar Abende später aus und macht ein paar Rehearsals mit der Gruppe – zu diesen komme ich wegen zu engem Zeitplan (irgendwann muss ich ja den Blog schreiben) leider nicht.

Equipment

Hiroki kennt ein sehr nettes Mädchen names Chika, die in einer kleinen Filmschule in Torrance (im Südwesten von LA) studiert hat; die Schule hat weniger als 10 Studenten pro Semester (k.A. wie das gehen soll…) und hat für diese Grösse recht coole Ausstattung: Dolly, Fluid Head Tripod, Diffuser, Reflektoren und ein paar kleines Lichtsets. Jedenfalls darf man als ehemaliger Student auf Lebenszeit diese Geräte ausborgen, wenn man in einer tragenden Rolle an einem Film arbeitet.  Chika ist AD (Assistant Director, sprich, Regieassistent) in “Alternative Reality”; das reicht, und wir borgen uns das ganze Equipment aus und schmeissen es in Makoto’s Jeep (er ist der 2. Regieassistent am Set). Geil, mein erster Film als DP, wo ich einen Dolly zur Verfügung habe.

……..

Whoops, Hiroki just walked in.
Me: “I am writing the blog post about Alternative Reality now!”
Hiroki: “Oh cool! Is it… in German?”
“Yeah, of course! But … I could write it in German too… if you want!”
“Eeeehm… well..”
“I’ll do it if you like!”
“Would be better, I guess!”

Now Hiroki is gone. Shit, I should stop offering things to people that they don’t ask for. Just caused myself half an hour more work. But … it is better that way. I guess.

Let’s do it again in English

Whatever Hiroki sets his mind to, eventually comes to life and does happen: When I met him almost two years ago, he was talking about making an action film. In the following two years we made various film projects and worked on numerous others in different positions; when I finally attended the Advanced Film Production Class I felt ready to do something big – that was my first serious short film, “Terminated“. That was in Winter 2010, and Hiroki was the Director of Photography. He himself didn’t have a big project under his belt as a director yet and was hoping to make one, it just took a little longer. Concepts involved mermaids and children Vs. Aliens; but all ideas and preliminary scripts had one thing in common: Children, and guns. Excellent combination. Three months after we finished shooting Terminated, it was Hiroki’s turn to make his first big short film project happen: Alternative Reality.

Here we go – now I am DP, Hiroki is directing, and 99% of the crew is from Japan. My Japanese is very limited (50-50, everyday language – creepy perversions that makes Japanese people giggle), but I know most of the crew from other films we worked on, so everything is going to be smooth. One thing is for sure: LA-based Japanese people are better organized and connected than Austrians in LA… at least on the international student level. This fact is important when it comes down to the independent filmmaker’s most important job: Getting shit for free.
(If you are asking yourself: Yes, it is also very important for an independent filmmaker to curse a lot. Sophisticated language is only for big-budget people, and as long as they can get away with it, independent filmmakers will always be foul-mouthed bastards!)

The best example for hustling is how Hiroki got his location… use google translate  to understand it (bottom fourth of article): How Hiroki got the Location for Alternative Reality

Casting

Before the casting, Hiroki shows me and my roommate Ryu the script – a “few” English issues come up, and Ryu adopts the script to make it into a charmingly vocal English screenplay. I come home a few days later and see the two of them laughing their asses off in our living rooms. Seemingly – based on Ryu’s suggested changes in the content of the script (he went to film schools a decade ago), the characters now behave more comical and have all sorts of quirky actions and lines. I’m stoked to see what they doctored around and changed.

The story is, roughly: Two boys are playing a video game, a girl that’s new in town joins them, they all get sucked into the video game and when the boys keep messing up and are close to annihilation, the girl appears in the game – and does something that is against all expectations.

Hiroki manages to get three rooms from a Japanese Church in LA for free – one to welcome the kids, one for them to stay in and eat some stuff, and one to actually do the casting. A few kids show up – all of them heard about the film at LA Casting, just like back then in “Terminated” (the Link includes a German introduction to LA Casting).
There is three roles to be cast:

  1. Ron – a shy boy who falls for Lisa, completely not convinced of himself
  2. Lisa – a little nerd girl who is new in town and surprises everyone
  3. Dutch – a loud mini-rowdie who is Ron’s best friend and very convinced of himself

After a few kids show up and don’t really convince us, two kids appear on the horizon of the room that seem to fit together like two puzzle pieces: Both arrive with their parents (at that age, kids always come to the casting with their parents), one for the role of Ron, the other one applying for Dutch. Hiroki lets them act together, and there is immediate Chemistry. Ryu keeps nodding, “Yes, those are like I imagined the characters!”
Hiroki, who  has the final and only say in this matter, really likes them. Someone (was it me?) comes up with the idea of asking the kids to show off their Martial Arts skills; to gunfight the thin air of or room.
“But we have no bad guys!”
“Just imagine them.”
“That’s not going to work well.”
“Fine, then we’ll play the bad guys!”

Being mentally stuck in Kindergarten gives me a total advantage: I just pull my imaginary AK47, jump over a chair and start shooting imaginary bullets. Two twelve-year-olds, a 21-year-old, a 22-year-old and a 35-year-old are running through a peaceful little classroom on the second  floor of a Japanese Church. “RATATATA you are dead!!” “Shit, a grenade” “BOOOOM” Trrrztrtrtrttrr” “Watch out!” Everything explodes, and we, the older and evil ones, drop dead one by one.
After this short trip back to the roots we are sure: These two are perfect, totally killed it. Hiroki chooses one of the girls that came to the casting a few evenings later and conducts a few rehearsals and meetings with them. I can’t attend this time due to schedule tightness (someone has to write this damn blog).

Equipment

Hiroki knows a very nice girl named Chika, who studied in a small film school in Torrance (Southwest of LA). The school only has a few students but has decent equipment –  Dolly, Fluid Head Tripod, Diffuser, Reflectors und a few lighting kits. All formers students are permitted to borrow equipment even after graduating – if they play a major role on set. Chika is the assistant director on Hiroki’s “Alternative Reality”, so we’re  all set and put the equipment into Makoto’s Jeep (he is an international student from SMC and is second assistant director on set. Awesome, my first film as a DP where I can play with a Dolly.

"I don't like diversity. ARRRR" - Hiroki picking up equipment.

"I don't like diversity. ARRRR" - Hiroki picking up equipment.

Equipment from the Japanese film school in LA - there's lighting packages, boxes full of grip equipment, a dolly with rails, diffusers, reflectors, light stands ... everything a low-budget short needs.

Equipment from the Japanese film school in LA - there's lighting packages, boxes full of grip equipment, a dolly with rails, diffusers, reflectors, light stands ... everything a low-budget short needs.

“Maybe we can borrow some equipment from SMC too. I am editing with Carrasco right now…” – said, done. We meet this tall guy Vlad, a student of Carrasco’s and surprisingly one of the only people I know who read my shoulder mount tutorial. So surprising, that he built one himself. When we tell him about Hiroki’s project, he’s all up for it and vouches for us in front of Carrasco – not knowing what shady crazy Jacuzza-Nazis we actually are. Great, now that we have a student of his class on board we have access to the limited but quality equipment that SMC has to offer. Coincidentally, Mikel – an old friend of mine and insane stuntman from Germany (yes mate!) – decides it’s a good idea to store his fine selection of plastic guns and rifles at our place – perfect, now Hiroki’s idea has even some fake firepower in its back pocket. And well, a week later or so, we load our cars with equipment and crew; Maktoto, second assistant director, provides the most loading space in his jeep.

Day 1 – Welcome to the Casa with the self-built Slider

Day 1 of shooting happens on a Friday in one of Hiroki’s friend’s parent’s house. We bring something that we just finished building last night – a self-built slider (a 3 foot long double rail that lets a train slide along the tracks – with the camera mounted on top of that vehicle). As usual, a  tutorial for that thing will follow.
Anyway, we have the three kids from the casting, Hiroki directs them – a little language barrier is noticable that decreases throughout the shoot and, like in Terminated, we swing on the same wavelength (it’s a German expression, no complaining please kids), so whatever one of us thinks, the other is already doing it. “Can you put the camera … yeah, exactly, right there.”
How romantic.

Myself with our slider. A roll of Velcro under the lens pushes the camera into a horizontal orientation, while the slider as a whole is tilted downwards.

Myself with our slider. A roll of Velcro under the lens pushes the camera into a horizontal orientation, while the slider as a whole is tilted downwards. Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu.

The 7D, unshakeably mounted on the DIY slider for 5-10 bucks.

The 7D, unshakeably mounted on the DIY slider for 5-10 bucks.

The slider comes in handy to add production value, and one of the living room shots, where the kids are playing the fate-steering video game, actually found its way into my Cinematography Reel. The scene’s lighting is simple: Two damn shiny reflectors bouncing the more-and-more disappearing sunlight into the living room, and a 650-Watt light shining through the window. Nicely enough, the window is so bright, that the 650-Watt light with its barn doors disappears in a white shine right behind the kids. Teruaki is doing second camera – as usual, he does it well and reinforces his position as our go-to guy for additional camera work. What’s probably the funnest thing of all is to see the script actually taking shape in the actors and their performance. Even when I am DP on set, I constantly observe the interaction between director and actors… and as a DP, you are usually close enough to hear what the director does with his actors. Not just what he says – what he does, or how he says things, that’s usually the important part.

Hiroki Kamada on his set, directing one of our talented youngsters, who is playing "Ron".

Hiroki Kamada on his set, directing one of our talented youngsters, who is playing "Ron". Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu.

The living rom lighting setup - the sun via two reflectors plus a 650 Watt Incandescent ARRI Fresnel in the windows - makes it all nice and bright, just like a harmless action comedy beginning needs it... or something along these lines.

The living rom lighting setup - the sun via two reflectors plus a 650 Watt Incandescent ARRI Fresnel in the windows - makes it all nice and bright, just like a harmless action comedy beginning needs it... or something along these lines. I felt like the boys just sitting on the floor would look not isolated enough, and Hiroki liked the idea - hence we ended up with this pretty carpet.

Without a change in setup - here a closeup of one of the characters. If some of you wonder about the bokeh (blurry highlights in the background) - it's caused by my 50mm 1.8 M42-mount lens from the 1980s.

Without a change in setup - here a closeup of one of the characters. If some of you wonder about the unusual bokeh (blurry highlights in the background) - it's caused by my 50mm 1.8 M42-mount lens from the 1980s.

It’s a relatively short and uncomplicated day, we wrap just around sunset, pack our cars, sleep the crap out of ourselves, wake up at 5AM or so – and off we go into the Mojave desert – we’ve been there once and twice. This time to another motel in another nice location, right around the corner of Gorman, where we shot the pretty flower fields with dancing girls.

And because you already read “so much”, I’ll leave part 2 for later.

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.