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Making of: Spy Games (Pre-Production)

October 21, 2009

Last summer, we participated in the 48 Hour Film Project. The film missed the competition deadline, for reasons I’ll discuss when we talk about production, but I was personally so happy with the way project had come together that I wanted to finish it as a short in its own right.

But before we get into that, here’s the final short as uploaded to YouTube (this is not the version that was entered into the actual 48 Hour Film Project):

For those unfamiliar with how the 48 Hour Film Project works, you register for the competition and, on a designated weekend, everyone who is participating goes to a central location. Each team picks a genre out of a hat, and then all the teams are given common elements that must appear in their films. (The idea being that these elements ensure that there is no way these films could have been produced prior to the competition.) You then have 48 hours to write, produce, and post-produce the film, and then awards are doled out.

I picked “Spy” out of the hat for our genre — so far, so good. We can do spy.

Then they announced the required elements. The required line of dialogue was “Leave it to me, I’m a professional.” In a spy movie? That’s a freebie. No problem working that one in.

The required prop was (if I’m reconstructing it correctly based on what’s in the film) six or more potatoes. This one was…a little weirder, but we would still be able to figure something out.

And then, the required character: Ronald (or Rhonda) Donnellson, Game Host. And that’s when things went off the rails as far as producing something straightforward and easy.

I hurried back to homebase after getting the required elements, and we sat at the table for several hours trying to put something together. It was the damn Donnellson character that we couldn’t quite wedge into any of the ideas we had. The contest organizers had made sure to note that “Game Host” did not necessarily mean “Game Show Host,” but for some reason we just couldn’t shake the “show” thing from our minds. Eventually we just gave in, and settled on the concept that became the film — a game show that starts speaking directly to a guy and forces him to do crazy spy stuff.

After that, it took us a while to figure out why they were having him do spy stuff. What was the endgame? Where would this whole thing lead him? At the time, I wanted to do the most fucked-up, over-the-top thing we could think of (because how often do you really get to get away with that in a movie?), so I proposed that he should be put in the position where the game show tries to get him to kill a child. This seemed to be settled, so I sent everyone home to get some rest for the next day’s shoot while I wrote the script.

You can read the script, as written, here:

Spy Games Script

You’ll notice some differences between this script and the YouTube version of the film. For one thing, the opening scene is totally different. It includes what may be the worst line of dialogue I’ve ever written: “Daniel, there’s no crumbs, it’s potatoes!” Ouch. We’ll get into what happened with that a bit later.

For another difference between page and screen, on page 5 we have a fight scene. Originally, Daniel got the gun by fighting and disarming a security guard. This also explained why the guards arrive right at the end to apprehend him.

Due to time constraints, instead of doing the rigamarole of the key card and the fight scene, we decided during shooting to just have it be the gun inside the drawer and skip that intermediate step. It kind of doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it — why do they keep a loaded gun in a drawer in the middle of an office building? — but that’s more of a refrigerator logic issue than something that takes you out of the film.

When it comes to shooting a film, in my estimation there are essentially two ways to go about getting the footage in the can:

Method 1 is to shoot lots of coverage — a master shot, medium shots, over-the-shoulders, close-ups, reverses — and figure it out in the edit.

Method 2 is to plan out the shots in advance, essentially have the complete plan for how the scene will cut together, and only shoot the set-ups you know you intend to use. Both methods have their pros and cons, but I prefer to work pretty much entirely according to Method 2.

The “pros” are that each shot can be tailored toward the specific needs of each individual moment in the story, making for an all-around stronger product. You have more freedom to move the camera because you know what you need and that you’re getting it, as opposed to having to play it safe to make sure you get as much as possible. It also saves time in shooting because you’re only getting what you need — and if planned well, you can often combine multiple shots into one set-up with a well-placed camera move, condensing the shoot even more and adding some style points to boot. The actors don’t have to do quite so many takes of the same thing, keeping the performances fresh. And, since the shoot is already essentially “edited” before you even start shooting, in post it’s a simple matter of assembling everything in the intended order and picking the best takes. If well-planned, you can get a really good product out, lightning-fast.

This is still shooting coverage, to an extent — I almost always have the actors play out an entire scene from a given angle until I know that the angle isn’t going to be useful anymore (the character walks out of frame, etc.). But if I know that I’m never planning to cut to an over-the-shoulder, I don’t bother to shoot it, whereas more coverage-based filmmakers would still do so just for safety.

Of course, there are the “cons.” The biggest being the aforementioned “safety” issue. When you shoot the hell out of a scene and cover it from a dozen angles, it may be a little bland but it’s also safe — you know that no matter what, one of the half-dozen takes from the dozen set-ups will work at any given moment, and you should be able to salvage any moment or performance.

When you’re only shooting what you intend to use, on the other hand, and you discover that some moment doesn’t work or two shots you intended to cut together just don’t cut, you could be hosed. Then you have to dig around in the much-smaller collection of shots that you got, and hope you can find something to work with and patch over the problem area. Often this requires you to blow up a part of the image, flop it horizontally, and even occasionally run a shot in reverse to create a reaction you didn’t shoot and didn’t know you’d need.

All-in-all, though, I think the benefits of shooting only what you need far outweigh the hazards. To mitigate these issues as much as possible, I’m very much a proponent of storyboarding the bejeezus out of the movie. A lot of filmmakers, especially amateur filmmakers, like to puff themselves up about having “the whole movie in my head” — meaning they don’t have any of it on paper. In my experience (and I used to do that too), that’s the pride that goeth before the fall. You may have the movie in your head, but when you get on set to shoot you forget that one crucial shot that you think you got because hey, you see it in your head. Also, your crew isn’t in your head, and doesn’t necessarily know what you’re going for without some kind of guidance.

I’ve got the movie on my head, but I want to get it on the screen, and to do that I feel like I need the intermediate stage of getting it on paper.

Given the time constraints on Spy Games, we had no time to fuck around with uncertainty to stroke my ego — we had to make sure we shot everything we’d need. So in this case it was even more important that we storyboard everything we could.[1]

The storyboarding process for what I shoot, generally, is that I sit down with paper and pencil and scrawl disproportionate chicken-scratch stick-men in a general layout of how I want the frame. I do this to work through the entire sequence and figure out how I’m going to put it together. Then I hand it off to Brian, a friend who can actually draw, and I sit with him to explain what my hieroglyphics mean. He then translates these ideas into the shots that I wanted to draw, but lacked the skill to do so.[2]

Spy Games Storyboards

I hadn’t looked at these in a while, until I pulled them out to scan them for this post, and I was genuinely struck by how closely the shots in the film hew to the plan on the page. In many cases, the only difference is that nearly all of them are flopped horizontally, due to the location not being set up exactly as we expected. The monitors would be on the wrong side of the cubicle, shooting down one direction wasn’t as interesting-looking as the other, etc. So we’d just swap screen direction and otherwise go with the plan.

Despite how important I think it is to have the movie essentially laid out on the page, I also think it’s important to have flexibility on the set. I don’t consider the storyboards to be set-in-stone. Rather, I think of them as a baseline — if we shoot straight from the boards, I can feel confident that the movie will work. If, on the other hand, we get on set and think of a better way to achieve something, I’m going to discard the plan and go with the better way. There are a few of those moments in the film and I’ll discuss them next time, which will be about the experience of production.

  1. The exceptions to my “storyboard everything” mantra, as you’ll see in the storyboards themselves, are montages and fight scenes. With montages, the best results I’ve found come from shooting a bunch of stuff and picking out the best moments. Regarding fight scenes, I always aim to make the camera essentially another participant in the choreography. I don’t shoot any coverage for fight scenes, and it’s the only part of the process I don’t plan in advance. On-set, I just find an angle that works for a cluster of moves, shoot only those moves, and move on. It lets the actors recover between takes and keeps the energy up for the entire fight, instead of petering out at the end as it would if I made them do it straight through over and over. I will probably have to change my process when I get into larger-scale productions with more serious lighting and set-dressing concerns, but as long as it works that’s the way I’m going to do it. Working that way, there’s obviously no point in trying to get something on paper, so I just skip over those sequences with the one-paper equivalent of a text card.
  2. The occasional streak of yellow highlighter is an artifact of the production process so we can monitor our progress. When we’ve got a shot in the can and it’s satisfactory, we hit it with the yellow highlighter so we can see how much we’ve done and how much we’ve got left. We were not as diligent with this production as we usually would be, hence only a handful of shots have the highlighter. We will also usually have a pink highlighter on hand, to mark off shots that we have decided not to shoot, for whatever reason.
  1. john10 permalink

    the guy on the tv kinda looked like obama, oh and great fil drokman really!

  2. Very nice. I like how the required elements were placed on the story.
    However the “potatoes” element, although well placed do not play any particular role (and is not easy to find one in relation with the other elements), may be hidding something inside one of the potatoes ,like the key under the speaker would have been better ( on second thought it might be a cheese idea).
    I could not agree more on the importance of storyboards. Scripts should be the essence of the film, storyboards the skeleton, shoot and production are the flesh and muscles :finally editing, sound, music and effects are the “coming to life” of a project.
    The Wachowski could finally pitch the idea and make “The Matrix” only with the the help of a powerful storyboard that was more like a comic or a graphic novel. So storyboards not only make sense artistically but also logistically specially in projects with challenging visuals.
    “Spy games” has a bit of flavor from “The Matrix” (Like the cubicles scene and the feel that the main character is on a “wilds goose chase” until things come together.
    It also has some elements resembling “the Bourne series” like having to shoot an unknown. Speaking of which I did enjoy your cameo.
    I think the first idea of having a child instead has some shocking value (interesting enough some time ago I was toying around with a similar idea but involving a hitman shooting a crib but things are not what they seem …) ,homewever in the context of the story (SPY games) I think I would have tilted the balance too much in favor of Daniel NOT pulling the trigger (he is a good guy after all). By having and adult instead the dilemma is a bit more balanced (as a matter of fact you will find some comments on Youtube saying they would have shoot YOU in a heart bit to save the love of their lifes . LOL ).
    Thanks for sharing Michael.

  3. Brandon permalink

    Where’s the next part!?!?

    And I think the loaded gun sitting in a drawer of an office building makes perfect sense– whoever put the tied up guy there stuck the loaded gun there too.

  4. Carniphage permalink

    Loved it.
    What I particularly liked was the story was constructed with stuff we all have to hand; an apartment, a TV, an office. etc


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  1. Making of: Spy Games (Post-Production and Reshoots) « Dorkman’s Blog

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