My phone rang on an evening in the late summer of 2000 while I was directing a Children’s Hospital commercial in Kansas City. It was Tim Bourne, a Hollywood Line Producer. He asked me if I had read the script he sent me a week ago. I said, “Tim, I really haven’t had the chance because I have been slammed with casting and location scouts.” He told me that Charles Stone III was very interested in having me shoot his film called “DrumLine.” I told Tim that I did not really see myself shooting a marching band movie. He asked me, “Where are you staying?” I gave him the address of my hotel and he said that a VHS tape would be coming my way that I should check out. The next night I came in exhausted from my first day of shooting and truly not in the mood to watch any video of college musicians drumming. I ordered the media kit from the hotel and soon a TV came in on a cart with a VHS deck on the bottom shelf – very old school. I put the tape in and laid on the bed, going over the call sheet for the next day and not really paying attention until I heard it: BANG! A cadence that was powerful, inventive, and visual. My eyes were drawn to the screen and my worry over the following day’s shoot vaporized. I called Tim. He answered and said, “so you saw the tape.” I said, “HOLY SMOKES, these musicians are amazing. I never knew this style of marching bands existed.” He explained that this was show style and halftime at the football games was game time. Tim said, “I was just at a game yesterday and the attendance at kick off was 500 people. Attendance at halftime swelled to over 6,000. They come for the bands.” I said “I’m in.” Five days later I landed in Atlanta to start location scouting and preparations. We would be shooting in universities that had show style marching band programs and using their music rooms, fields, and stadiums to bring this amazing and inspirational story to life.
The first scene that jumped off of the page was the dawn sequence where all the new band members show up at 4:45am to begin their first day as crab drummers in white t-shirts. How was I going to pull off a 4 page scene at dawn? Dawn only lasts 30 minutes with enough light to expose the fastest film stock. After we finished scouting the interiors of Clarke Atlanta University, we wandered onto where the practice field would be. I surveyed the field, and took particular notice of its orientation to the sun. Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. I quickly asked the Assistant Director Doug Torres if he felt that the schedule could handle shooting the dawn sequence over 3 days. He looked at me like I was crazy. “What are you talking about?” he asked. I told him that my idea was to come in before dawn and shoot the first day dawn scene, then head inside or continue to shoot exteriors all day. Then we would shoot the sequence again at the end of the day. He said that he would consider the idea, but that it did not seem likely to happen.
I had 4 weeks of prep on “DrumLine” and one of those 4 weeks would be back in Pasadena welcoming my son Myles into the world. By the time I returned Doug had figured a way to do the sequence over 3 days, delivering 60 minutes of dawn a day, and a total of 3 hours to shoot this 4 page scene. I felt it would be possible, but I would need 3 cameras running the whole time with a fourth one to be able to leap frog ahead. We would do master shots and CU’s at the same time. Our sound mixer was not happy with this concept, so we reached a compromise. Wide and medium shots would be done at the same time, then we would go in for close ups. If the head room, the area above a person’s head, was close to being the same in a medium and a C.U., we could do them simultaneously because we could get the boom mic in at the same height for both shots.
The first day, we scheduled the opening shot and Dr. Lee’s speech to the crabs. I knew this would be something that we could pull off quickly, and that the scene would really get everyone’s blood flowing. Additionally, we built the crane the day before so that it was waiting and ready to roll.
One camera was placed on a Giraffe crane with a 4-1 Panavision Primo Zoom so that we could get a wide shot and a close up without having to take the time to change prime lenses. We rehearsed the move beforehand and had enough light to expose the film so that the minute the light was right, we rolled 3 cameras.
A second camera was on a long lens stack on the horn players with a Panavision Primo 11-1 Zoom, then the third camera was on a ECU of the horns with a Panavision Primo 3-1 Zoom.
The crane would start up high with the horn players behind Orlando Jones playing Dr. Lee who was in the F.G. As we boomed down, the camera moved into a low angle wide that revealed the A & T banner and the stands of the stadium behind him.
We did this about 2 times and then zoomed into a 75mm and did Dr. Lee’s C.U. While repeating the boom down move so that the two shots could intercut gracefully. If I am going to go from wide to a C.U. and the camera is moving, I like to try and match the next cut with a slight move also. It helps the cut, and this scene was all about precision. The camera had to be elegant, graceful, and deliver military precision. Charles Stone III wanted it to have a military feel in both composition and design – graphic compositions that showed the exact marching drumlines of this incredible sub-culture of show style marching bands. Once we got the speech performance in the C.U., we quickly boomed the Giraffe crane out so that we could start the profile sequence of shots. This was timed perfectly because the sun was starting to rise in the BG, and it looked beautiful.
The camera that was on the 11-1 Zoom getting the medium shot of the horn players was all ready on a dolly with track ready to go so that when Dr. Lee moved off of the stage, we could move with him as he walked towards Devon Myles played by Nick Cannon.
The second camera was on a long lens compressed shot with a Primo Panavision 3-1 zoom of Dr. Lee and Devon in a 50/50 which is a film term for seeing 50 percent of each person in profile. This shot turned on once Dr. Lee settled at his mark because of our medium dolly shot which would glide right through the frame and settle just out of the frame of the 3-1 Zoom shot. Setting this shot sequence was like a ballet – having all cameras work together in unison. We had to remember we were working against the clock.
Our third camera was a low wide of 2 crabs in the F.G. And the rest of the crabs along with the beautiful sunrise in the BG.
The fourth camera was an over the shoulder C.U. of Dr. Lee talking to Devon. The OTS is a film term meaning you are over one character’s shoulder which tends to be blurred out of focus and the eye is directed to the one speaking. What I like about these shots is that it links the two characters together. This is so important in telling a story, plus it gives you an anchor in your F.G. for composition. After this shot, the sun was starting to crest the house line at the end of the football field and we had to pause and then pick back up where we left off the next morning.
If we started a sequence at dawn, I would continue to shoot that part at dawn on the next day to keep the light direction matching. You have light direction depending where the sun is rising or setting. If the sun is rising then the light direction is coming from the east where the hot sky is being created by the rising sun. If the sun is setting then the light direction is coming from the west, where the sun has just set. When we shot our sequences that would be grouped together would determine either shooting at dawn or dusk. I wanted to shoot the reverses at Dusk. I knew that we would have even less time at this location and we would also be running from an interior and trying to get set up quickly.
I would do some lighting assist with a 4 x 4 Bead Board /Silver Rosco Flex bounce to reflect the sky onto their faces. No lighting at all was used to shoot this sequence, it was all about shaping natural light and bouncing it just slightly to lift the eyes a bit. Shooting sequences at dawn and dusk is an art. The light is so fragile and you have to be really buttoned up and organized to pull it off. One of my mentors, Roger Deakins is a master at it. One of my favorite times to shoot is when there is fragile light to work with, and with the 5D you can gain another 20 to 30 minutes out of your dawn and dusk scenes by using the incredible light sensitivity of the camera. The 5D loves this light, and I have found that it delivers a unique look that I could never achieve with film.
As a filmmaker, you have to remember that best laid out plans will always change, and it is your job as a cinematographer to be light on your feet so that you can do what is necessary. We ended up going long on a scene the next day and lost our dusk subsequently, as well as doing the same thing again on the third day. This means that I just lost an hour of shooting time on a stressed schedule to pull a dawn sequence off. Doug, the A.D., came up to me and he said, ”It doesn’t look like we are going to make it again.” I asked him, “can we get one more sunrise?” Doug said, “we have a 3.5 page scene tomorrow with only eight hours of daylight.” (This was because we were shooting in the winter time.) I had to come up with a plan, and fast. I met with Charles that night for dinner and I pitched him my one shot steadicam idea for the introduction to each instrument being the most important part of the band. He agreed and we were back on schedule.
Here is a little extra: our one shot steadicam scene performed by George Billinger. He rocked it out.
Stay tuned for lighting series number 5!