Tuesday, May 08, 2007

3,000 Decisions

Brad Bird described his experience directing The Incredibles as a series of surreal daily meetings with animators where he'd make constant, and mundane, decisions: "How tall should this table be?" they'd ask him. "What color wood? Do you want any decorations on it? Oh, you want candles? How many candles? Are they halfway lit? What color are they?" And so on. For months. Then one day Brad gets to work one day and the film is almost entirely done. He said it was like "throwing tiny pebbles every day into this massive bottomless pit and then one day you look in the pit and it's suddenly full."

On Sunday, I directed In Double Dutch and I felt like Brad Bird: by end of day, I had made close to 2,800 to 3,000 decisions, and in any given minute, I had as many as 10-12 different people asking me how I wanted something done. With that kind of hectic pace, there's no time for sugar-coated etiquette—it's about how quickly information gets communicated: "How about we do this..." becomes "I want you here." It's not about being prickly, it's about economy of words under deadline. It's business. In fact, it's so easy for people to get their feathers ruffled using this dictatorial tone that I try very hard to build morale among cast and crew by creating a highly organized shoot, by respecting deadlines (well, as much as possible!), and choosing to work with playful people who know when to hunker down. Overall, I try very hard to make sure everyone enjoys each other's company during down time. Then, when say I want something, everyone knows the "please" is understood.

Yet no good shoot goes unpunished... our original location fell through less than 36 hours before we rolled the first take. Having already rented our equipment, it was too late to postpone the shoot. So I had to throw out all my carefully planned blocking diagrams and camera setups and improvise on a set I wasn't familiar with. Fortunately, 7 weeks of rehearsals and years of filmmaking experience worked in my favor... I'm confident we got all the shots we needed without ever crossing the line. Any pickup shots we still need are merely par for the course—no director I've worked with has ever shot everything they needed on the actual shoot day, and even if they did, the editor draws up a list of shots they need to complete their rough cut.

Losing a location so close to the shoot day also reminds me how important it is to have "reaction plans" prepared so you don't react in panic mode. For the same reason, stockbrokers are told to brainstorm every conceivable nightmare scenario ahead of time and then draw out a sensible plan of action—instead of acting out of fear in the moment, they simply grab their "reaction playbook" and work their way down the list of action items. For a filmmaker, the nightmare scenarios are, What happens if my sound guy gets into a car accident and all his equipment is destroyed? What do I do if someone trips over the tripod and drops the camera? Whom do I call if someone gets injured on set? Knowing in advance what to do if any of your cast or crew can't make it to set really helps offset a high blood pressure.

Video footage coming soon of the shoot. Stay tuned.

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