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Behind The Scenes: An “On The Set” Production Diary

M. Galas

5:45am:.  I’m picked up by Anna Starzyk, a production assistant for the Esperanza Production’s short, "Apples."  Anna tells me she was an editor, but didn’t enjoy "sitting in a dark room with little personal contact."  She decided to “go back to square one,” focusing on location work.  "I’m happy to have PA jobs such as this, to get experience."  Unable to get into the parking structure at Hollywood Production Center, the day’s first location, I offer to run around the building.  I find a security guard who gets us in.  We’re closely followed by production designer Diane Hanamoto and the art department team.  To my surprise, the lighting team has already begun setting up.

6:30am:. 1st AD Vicki Goldsmith holds a meeting for all production assistants to go over on set etiquette, walkie talkie usage, and expectations of the day.   Meanwhile, costume designer Gwendolyn "Jak" Stukely is focused on costume details; ensuring name tags are correct for garage attendants and the lead’s pocket square fits perfectly.   I notice the pocket square is really a large silk swatch.  Jak shows me the extensive kit of supplies she grabbed the silk from.  She brings this kit with her to every set, "just in case the assistant doesn’t have a full kit." There’s pretty much something for any type of wardrobe need.  "Fake it till you make it," is what Jak says in response to these improvising tactics.


Executive producer Camillia Sanes is happy with the professional crew that was assembled for "Apples." 


"Everyone has been in the business," says Sanes.  "Everyone involved in this film came in due to past and present relationships.  We called in people who were right for the roles."


Added producer William Mueller, "One of the strongest characteristics of Esperanza is that there’s a family style to our operation.  We’re not just a company of workers, but an inner circle of professionals who love to make good movies.  The people who have come in through other business relationships are doing the work for the love of the film."


7:30am:  After the art department re-arranges the crews’ vehicles in the garage, a series of license plate numbers are covered with tape.  "This protects the driver of each car; the numbers can’t be copied by anyone watching the film," says set dresser Kayla Edwards. As director of photography  Imre Juhasz practices a dolly shot he’s conducted via a slow moving hatchback, director Gary Perez arrives on the set.  He checks in first with Jak and hair and makeup artist Octavio Solis, who’s painting a temporary tattoo on actor Efrain Figueroa.  "I’m first and foremost a makeup artist," says Solis.  "I started doing hair because I was loosing jobs."  Solis completes the tattoo in a matter of minutes.  "I practiced on my own arm during school making full tattoos."


8:15am:  Before shooting begins, an audio buzz is discovered that’s coming from the electrical circuitry.  A production assistant is sent to a nearby electronics store to obtain a converter while Juhasz works on lighting and movement.  Black fabric is applied to the hatchback’s break lights to prevent flares and shadows the camera is catching.


"We don’t take prep lightly," says Sanes.  "Although we always feel confident, we don’t get too relaxed.  There are always going to be some things that are out of our hands.  We put trust in the crew we’ve pulled together to develop solutions.  We deal with problems as they arise."


10:00am:  After Goldsmith announces Perez has left the set to use the men’s room, she’s informed such details don’t have to be mentioned.  When he returns, rehearsals resume and the second shot is set up.  Script supervisor Thuyen Tang takes out her digital camera and references continuity photos.  She then double-checks jewelry, tattoos and other details before taking photos for the new set up.  "I’m a project manager for a software company," says Tang.  "I like doing shorts in my spare time.  It’s a fun free-time activity."  Before the next shot, Juhasz and his camera assistant Matt Sanderson calibrate the monitor.  I notice they do this prior to every shot they take.  Meanwhile, any lighting equipment that is not being used is brought to the grip truck.  I notice a young lighting assistant is wearing what looks like gardening gloves.  "I have really short fingers," she says.  "I need something that will allow my hands to be nimble, and these are very tapered."


10:30am:  As the sun continues to change angles; Jahasz stays on top of the lighting team, making sure additional scrims are constructed to block the light.  The set still photographer, Lisa Boyle, arrives.  She’s excited to be trying out a sound box.  "This box completely silences the camera sound, so I can shoot pictures right by the sound equipment," says Boyle.  "It’s very cumbersome, though.  I’m also used to seeing the images as I take them, and I can’t see them because of the box."


11:00am:  Actor Bobby Cannavale arrives for a prop photo that will become instrumental in a future scene.  As Perez attends to the photo shoot, the crew prepares for outdoor takes.   BJ, the camera assistant, is busy double checking the Red cam batteries, as well as ensuring all the footage is secured on a hard drive.  "This is my third time working with the Red," says BJ.  "We’ve worked out a good system with 16 gig CF cards, that are holding most of the footage, and we back everything up on a hard drive."


As the crew prepares to capture the shots in a very uncontrolled outdoor environment, line producer Marc Ferrero is working with a few production assistants to locate a nearby facility to find a black diffuser that will properly fit the Red cam’s 4×5 matte box.  Despite the frustration of rental facilities’ limited weekend hours, Ferrero is happy to have pa’s that are working hard on this task.  "These young people are so amazing," says Ferrero.  "They’re just willing to do anything that’s necessary.  I love working with these kids; they have such enthusiasm for the craft.  It really gives me hope."


12:30pm:  The challenges of shooting outdoors with heavier traffic and uncooperative pedestrians starts to take a toll and the shoot’s off schedule.  The wardrobe assistant has come out to provide extra assistance with crowd control.  "The actors and crew are great with continuity, but the street scenes are challenging because you can’t control the continuity," says Tang. 


"There’s a great importance of keeping a positive, calm demeanor on the set," says associate producer Marta McGonagle.  "Everyone on the set feeds off the energy of the staff.  Bill and I have developed a few tricks to bring the energy to a relaxing place, including our own secret code word.  Overall, for me it’s a real joy to be working on a lower budget production.  You don’t have to take yourself so seriously; that is, you can have fun with the production as you do jobs a producer normally wouldn’t do."


1:15pm:  The crew switches back to an interior shot.  In the holding area, actress Patrizia Milano is discussing her character’s hairstyle.  "Gary wanted to do more of a J. Lo bun, but Octavio suggested a French braid, based on my hair length and face structure," says Milano.  "We both felt the braid would be more appropriate for my character.  As an actor, you really have to have the ability to adapt to the character, and not see yourself looking back at you when you look in the mirror.  Style helps you do this."


1:45pm:  Actor Jeremiah Birkett nails his performance, allowing the crew to wrap the interior shot.  Everyone breaks for lunch.  Lidia Ramierez and her assistant have put together a spread including salmon, chicken, butternut squash, broccoli, grilled veggies, two different quiches, salad, vitel thonne, potatoes as well as apple pie, lemon cream puffs, chocolate cake and an assortment of fruit.  "I make everything from scratch," says Lidia.  "I think it’s important that everyone can find something they like, and that they enjoy the flavors they are eating.  It helps to keep people’s energy level up.  That’s my goal."


2:30pm:  As the next scene gets set up, all free hands help sound mixer Ernest Saunders III look for a silver power conveyor.  The device is found while Perez and the camera crew prepare for another outdoor take.  After reviewing the scene, Juhasz feels car movement isn’t clear enough.  On the next take Perez forgets to yell action so all actors can hear.  The one shot take turned into a four shot take.  As some crew members become overzealous in trying to help give cues and direction, Perez firmly reminds everyone: "Only one person on this set gets to yell action."


Perez, who wrote “Apples,” petitioned to direct the film when Esperenza optioned it.  Although he had no previous directing experience, Sanes felt confident he could handle the job.


"Gary had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do," says Sanes.  "He’s been in the business for over twenty years.  He speaks the language and communicates his needs.  I believed in what he could bring to the table as a director, and really wanted to foster that."  Added Mueller, "He had such an artistic vision of what he wanted.  We knew if we got an experienced DP, we would be in good hands with Gary."


4:00pm:  While the lighting team deal with daylight flooding the car in an outdoor scene, the art department must figure out how to hide a large "Hollywood Production Center" sign that’s painted on the garage wall prior to the next shot.  They rearrange some vans and load a few boxes on top of one, concealing the offending sign.  With that dilemma averted, they begin discussing set needs for the next day’s shoot. As the temperature rises, Solis applies silicone powder to the actors.  "It removes most of the oil on the face.  Around the base of the hairline I’ll use a fragrance-free antiperspirant."   Jak has arrived on set with a can of hairspray, which she applies to shiny surfaces, like badges or sunglasses, to cut away the glare.  With a list of shots to complete and time getting tighter, Ferreno and Goldsmith contemplate some scenes that could be cut. Sanes, Mueller and McGonagle want to avoid this.  "Issues of creative vision need to be achieved," says Sanes.  Meanwhile, the camera can be seen in the actor’s sunglasses, and Perez works with Tang to resolve this.  They have the actor raise his hands which blocks the reflection, and shooting continues.


4:45:  While rehearsing a scene, Perez is starting to appear tense.  The crew picks up a level of focus and attention to quicken the pace.  When it’s discovered that the slate’s been marked with the incorrect scene , everyone quietly accepts responsibility and the production continues forward.


Finding a crew that could work together well and handle stress was a priority for Sanes.  “We did intensive interviews.”


Adds Mueller, "Having good people with good personalities working on our set was really important.  In order for the production to be a good experience, it becomes important to have many talented people who can get along.  We looked for a balance between personality and creativity."


5:30pm:  Bill is predicting the production will still end on time.  As the shoot returns to the interior, individuals who’ve been parking in the lot are starting to leave and they are angry they can’t use the normal exit.  A number of production assistants are placed along the driving route, either halting cars if a take is in progress, or redirecting them to an alternative exit


6:15pm:  Anything that’s not being used is being packed up by any extra hands in all departments, breaking the crew into a skeleton on-set crew.  Two shots remain with a looming 7:30pm load-out time.


7:45pm:  Working on the last scene. a shot of the parking lot attendants is being cheated.  However, the arm of the lot gate doesn’t go down because a car hasn’t actually driven over it.  With everything packed up except for what is currently on set, clean up is almost completed.


7:58pm:  Day one concludes with everyone exiting within the next fifteen minutes.


Although "Apples" is not feature length, Sanes stresses the process of making this film was just as detailed and professional as any length film.


"There’s a real danger in short films," says Sanes.  "Some people find them easy to dismiss.  There has to be a respect for the process of film making, and the people involved.  What we are doing is telling a big story in a short period of time.  All the factors of a feature apply."