Pictured above: Location scouting for short, sci-fi film, “Skimmers.”
Preparation is Crucial:
Get Things Done Creatively Without Missing a Beat
Written by John Klein
Skimmers is a short, sci-fi film set in a future where fresh water, due to a catastrophic drought, has become such a scarce commodity that a black market has developed around its sale. Derron, a veteran of a forgotten civil war, is a Skimmer: a water smuggler syphoning water off the corporations who control the supply. When he receives an emergency message from his contact en route to his next pickup, he must face the horrible truth about the black market and come to terms with the kind of man he really is.
For an MFA student film that needed to be produced and shot with a rough cut screened at the end of the Spring 2015 quarter, such a script was probably needlessly ambitious. Having come into DePaul’s program with a fair amount of production experience, though, and having also written the script myself with specific locations and logistics in mind, I knew it could be done at a reasonable cost in a limited amount of time.
Or at least I thought I knew.
Several elements fell into place very quickly. Casting was a breeze, thanks to producer Savannah Larsen’s well-organized auditions and a flurry of enthusiastic yet subtle performers. I lined up a cinematographer, Greg Boris, who came recommended by another DP that I had worked with before, and at our first meeting he brought dozens of lookbook images to the table, instantly inspired by the wider aspect ratios and strong compositional and lighting choices of films like Blade Runner and Looper. It was a match made in dystopian heaven. We opted to shoot on the RED Epic at 5:1 compression with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, taking advantage of the raw color space knowing we would have to remove as much green as possible from the foliage in post- production.
Meanwhile, Savannah and I set to work finding a few very specific locations, namely a wind turbine that would serve as the primary meet-up place between Derron (Greg Hardigan) and his contact Mirielle (Emily LeClair). We traveled two hours outside Chicago to the wind farms along I-65 in Indiana – of course, on the one day we scouted, it poured rain – and magically stumbled across a local farmer who would allow us access to his farm which contained a pair of turbines along a dusty road. It was perfect. Too perfect.
Two days before the shoot, our location dropped out, courtesy of a one-minute phone call. We had researched RV costs, built our entire schedule – including our actors’ availabilities – around this location, and planned our equipment pickups to coordinate with this day of filming. Now, we were in full-on scramble mode as other locations now needed to shift around to compensate. From previous shoots, I knew of an abandoned factory structure in Gary that would work in a pinch, and had the number of the main contact already in my phone, so I booked it as a fail-safe and we went to work.
From that point on, every day was a constant reliance on serendipity. Will we have a location today? Will we be able to wrap up this five-page scene in six hours? Will there be enough parking for our cars? Would our production designer Gil Anderson be able to have the props ready to go in time? Would our actors wrap early enough to get home to relieve their kids’ babysitters? With the speed at which we had to secure new permits and juggle various schedules and re-arrange scenes and locations, none of these things were always guaranteed.
It’s a testament to one of the best run-and-gun crews I’ve ever worked with that not only did these things get done, they got done well and the time spent on set was a total blast. One day, as we were getting ready for a big dialogue scene involving Greg and Emily, the sun – after a full day of clouds – broke through the trees and gave us exactly one hour of usable, brilliant warm sunlight. The entire cast and crew, without missing a beat, rushed to every single mark and we shot a four-page scene with eight different setups of coverage in that single hour. When fate gives you a sunset, you use every bit of it.
The lesson: preparation is crucial. Because when everything hits the fan, that preparation and organization is what allows you to get creative and fly by the seat of your pants.
John Klein (www.windycitycamera.com) is a director, cinematographer, and producer in Chicago. His directorial work includes the award-winning short horror film, “Cry It Out,” and the feature films, “Happily After” and “Chrysalis”, and he’s lensed projects of all shapes and sizes, from the micro-budget web series, “Young Couple” to the Lifetime movie, “Nightlights”. He also teaches film production at DePaul University and Flashpoint Chicago.
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