Alternative Reality: Making Of and 3 days in the desert as a DP – Part 2

Ok, here we go with part two of the very English Making-Of of “Alternative Reality”, Hiroki’s film – seen from my perspective as the DP.

You can read Part 1 of the Making Of here.

Early Morning Takeoff

Often times, the success of a film shoot is determined by its call time (that’s when everyone has to show up on set). The call time was set for most of the crew at around 6AM – a good time to make the shoot feel special and intense before it even begins. Hiroki, Teru and me just have to wake up and roll downstairs, the rest of the crew arrives in the alleyway next to our house, ready to load equipment, crafts services (food), props and paperwork. Carpooling is of the essence here – and after about half an hour of loading, each car is either stuffed with stuff or with people – not an ounce of space left. Lancaster ahoi!

The crew meets just around sunrise in front of our apartment building in West Los Angeles.

The crew meets just around sunrise in front of our apartment building in West Los Angeles. (on this photo, you can only see a part of us)

Arrival at the beautiful half-abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere, close to middle-of-nothing Lancaster, California.

Arrival at the beautiful half-abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere, close to middle-of-nothing Lancaster, California.

Freshly arrived, Teru gets out of my car, overshadowed by the metal barn which had half of its roof shaking loosely in the wind.

Freshly arrived, Teru gets out of my car, overshadowed by the metal barn which had half of its roof shaking loosely in the wind.

Mike, the incredibly nice owner of the ranch, didn't just let us film there - he provided us with an entirely furnished, huge RV that even had a toilet. Luxury, if you ask me.

Mike, the incredibly nice owner of the ranch, didn't just let us film there - he provided us with an entirely furnished, huge RV that even had a toilet. Luxury, if you ask me.

Our home base seen from the outside. It looks old and rotten, but is the perfect place to make a safe haven for the production.

Our home base seen from the outside. It looks old and rotten, but is the perfect place to make a safe haven for the production.

Start of Production

One of the actors with a rifle - he plays one of the bad guys. Obviously. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

One of the actors, Yosuke, with a rifle - he plays one of the bad guys. Obviously. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

There are a few locations to cover on the ranch; we have two days budgeted for getting everything done.
On the first day, Hiroki wants to cover all the scenes that involve Casey (who is playing Lisa), so that she doesn’t have to stay two days for her relatively short appearance on the abandoned ranch.
First shooting location: Behind two abandoned RVs in the high grass; it’s a scene that appears in the later part of the movie, but is simpler to shoot, less to light and easier to get started in the unusual surrounding. The kids are excited, Makeup gets suddenly very busy with preparing the faces for outdoors use – a perfect opportunity to sweat all the powder away again -, I set up my tripod, and the rest of the team splits up: Some prepare the home base RV, the production design crew (including James who helped us with the props in Terminated and Eriko who danced for us in the flower fields) go over to a totally abandoned and flooded house to decorate a room to be the evil überboss’ room, another part of the crew prepares dolly tracks in that house as well. Hiroki and me scout a bit around for where the best location would be, quickly grab some breakfast and red vines and drum together sound, actors, Chika (1st AD), Makoto (2nd AD) and second camera (Teruaki, who always works with us) – everyone we need to start shooting.

I use two reflectors to pump light into the shadow-filled faces of the actors, modify the RV-outside to have better compositions and less noisy distractions and roll. “Roooorrrring” – I got that one from Hiroki and Teruaki, the japanese pronounciation is just more fun. Yuta helps me well by positioning and fixing the reflectors – we have a lack of sand bags, which makes the rather heavy reflector boards more dangerous and wind-sensitive, but we just use the surrounding logs and wood pieces to hold them in place better.

In one scene, the Casey, who is playing Lisa, is supposed to jump and punch the much taller bad guy – so, instead of using wires or greenscreen, we go for the hop-on-the-directors-shoulder routine, as you can see below. The choreography of the fight scene turns out to be difficult, even though rehearsed back in LA; we improvise and make use of the wide space with enough “playground”. Fistfights with kids can be difficult, unless the actors hate each other and really want to punch hard – on AR, they all liked each other, so it took a while to make the fighting look aggressive and powerful.

Jordan&Bryson - "Give me your lunch, you dirty bahsted. I would kill for a second hot dog" - Dutch is very hungry, you know. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Jordan&Bryson - "Give me your lunch, you dirty bahsted. I would kill for a second hot dog" - Dutch is very hungry, you know. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Parents of our young stars watching the spectacle from a safe distance - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Parents of our young stars watching the spectacle from a safe distance - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

As a director, you should always bow to your actors. Sometimes, you have to take that literally. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

As a director, you should always bow to your actors. Sometimes, you have to take that literally. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Chika, 1st AD, looking inside an abandoned house that is part of the film. As you can see, it was flooded months ago, and is now covered in an about 1ft thick layer of dirt.

Chika, 1st AD and responsible for getting us all that great equipment from her school ISMP, looking inside an abandoned house that is part of the film. As you can see, it was flooded months ago, and is now covered in an about 1ft thick layer of dirt.

The House of Robbers

On Day 1, we shot a living room scene where the kids are playing a video game called “House of Robbers”. To relieve our excitement about the house of robbers, we shoot the scenes in it on day 2. A timely challenge: The sun is starting to get lower, and the lighting changed inside the house from the last time we saw it in the morning. As we enter it in the afternoon, it is fully decorated with props we borrowed from the LA Opera (thanks James!), found or brought ourselves. James and Eriko put newspaper in front of one of the windows – a great way to prevent my image to blow out at the highlights and have a lower quality look – and set up a cool boss office in the smallest room apart from the toilet. The toilet is quite special – it is flooded with a foot of dirt, just like the rest of the house. You can see that toilet and other location scouting pictures on the bottom of the linked (German) article. If you don’t want to scroll, here is the personal homepage of that toilet.

Anyway, by the point I see the office with the actors in there, swinging around their semi-automatic plastic rifles and real knives, I get the impression that three things are missing: A side light, a stronger backlight and an atmospheric smoke. We actually had the atmospheric smoke in mind and wanted to bring dry ice, but missed the last supermarket in the morning on the drive there, and it was about 40 minutes away from the location – everyone on set was too valuable in their respective jobs than they could have sacrificed one and a half hours to get a block of dry ice.

Dolly rails and track, water scale and various other equipment in front of the dirt-flooded, abandoned kitchen.

Dolly rails and track, water scale and various other equipment in front of the dirt-flooded, abandoned kitchen.

So, first the light – I ask two of the guys to bring the reflectors over; since the sunlight is getting lower, it is difficult to throw light into the house, but with a bit of patience and experimentation, we find a decent angle to reflect the sun. And for the atmosphere? Well, we are in a house that is covered in a foot thick layer of dirt – so dry it is cracked everywhere. I ask Hiroki – who is directing and doesn’t have to touch sensitive equipment – to pick up a load of dirt dust and throw it in the air, right before the take starts. And voila, the light rays suddenly show. I protect the camera with my body from the quickly moving dust cloud, and am only halfway successful – it took quite some cleaning to get it back to acceptable condition. Anyway, while Hiroki is throwing dust around and we all cough the hell out of ourselves, Yuta positions himself behind the Dolly – which he perfectly laid out in the old house – and pushes me through the door. That shot became part of my 2011 Cinematography Reel, where you can see it in motion.

A bunch of valuable $20 bills - we had to empty our bank accounts to make that scene. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

A bunch of valuable $20 bills - we had to empty our bank accounts to make that scene. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Myself standing on a dolly with a pretty heavy Manfrotto Tripod. Thanks to Yuta, who was the dolly grip/co-gaffer/lotsofjobs-dude, I could also move. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Myself standing on a dolly (borrowed from ISMP, thanks guys!) with a pretty heavy Manfrotto Tripod, stabilized by a bunch of sand bags. Thanks to Yuta, who was the dolly grip/co-gaffer/3rd camera/lotsofjobs-dude, I could also move. Thanks to Lorena for these excellent pants, by the way. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

A Screenshot from "Alternative Reality" - here the scene in the House of Robbers.

A Screenshot from "Alternative Reality" - here the scene in the House of Robbers. From left to right: Yosuke, Richard, Curt and James. You can see the light coming from the left and behind; both natural lights customized with relatively strong reflector boards.

Perfect, the main shots are done. Teruaki stays to do some more cool pickups, and in the meantime I head over to the other abandoned house to prepare a short hunting scene with Bryson aka “Dutch” and Curt aka “Machete Man”. The sun disappears behind the mountains, and we try to use areas that would be shadow-filled in bright daylight as well to upkeep lighting continuity.

Shot list of Day 1 - organization and preproduction is everything. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Shot list of Day 1 - organization and preproduction is everything. - Photo by Mizuki Yoshimitsu

Our location is full of cars from crew, cast and the parents of the cast - sometimes difficult to hide in the filming process.

End of Day 1: Our location is full of cars from crew, cast and the parents of the cast - sometimes difficult to hide in the filming process.

Dinner für Spinner without sun protection

“Spinner” is German and means crazy guy. We are kind of nuts, because a lot of us didn’t wear proper sun protection; something very easy to forget when you’re out in the desert but it feels more like an abandoned farm, and filming is so exciting that you forget about your skin. Especially Bryson forgot about that, and he probably has one of the fairest skin tones out there – well, on the end of Day 2 of shooting, his skin was hot red chili peppers. At that point, I am just glad I wore Lorena’s university baggy pants and a long-sleeved shirt, the only place I am burnt in is my face and neck.
We all take off from the farm and drive towards the comfy Motel 6 in pitch black night. The only thing I remember is a giant pot hole in the middle of the freeway exit, and my car – which has no suspension whatsoever, it’s like driving on stone tires – of course has to catch the pothole full-on. Some yummy dinner at Denny’s, and we all get drugged up with so many calories that we even forget our burnt faces, arms and legs.

One thing that needs to be mentioned: Somebody from the crew mentioned the word “epic” in the morning, so young Jordan picked up on it and made it his official trademark in just about anything he said outside lines – each sentence would contain at least one (or consist of) “epic!”.
“Oh my god, my arms are so sunburnt, ouch….” – “That’s so EPIC Bryson! The red is so strong, you know, the  color is… kind of epic!”
Became a total running joke on set.

The Team of Alternative Reality after a long day in the desert - sunburnt, hungry and happy.

The Team of Alternative Reality after a long day in the desert - sunburnt, hungry and happy. Mizuki (Set Photographer) and Makoto (Sound & 2nd AD) passed out face-down on the table before the dinner even arrived - that's what I call true dedication to your craft.

Day 3 – Sunday – is just around the corner, so a good night’s sleep is important for our young stars. We, the filmmaker room, stay up until 3AM or so, reviewing and downloading footage and making sure that we don’t have to reshoot anything tomorrow. Another long, sunny day is ahead of us – praise the Gods for Aloe Vera.

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.