Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Everybody's an Expert

Everybody's an expert. Especially me.

This week I had a job as the antique consultant for a tv-movie being shot here by the Hallmark people. One of the key props is an antique box purchased by our heroine and given to a key character.

There are lots of keys in movie making.

In Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote that: "there are no small decisions in film making".

This is key. Movies don't just happen, they get made. And this mean decisions. Lots of decisions. Maybe even millions of decisions. And in spite of what many critics, both professional and armchair, seem to think, the people involved are a pretty bright bunch.

The basics of movie making, in no particular order, are these:

A movie begins with an idea.

The writer takes this idea, this fleeting notion of a concept, and puts it on paper. It ain't that easy. You try coming up with a hundred and twenty pages of pure gold. The writer has to make up a story, create a bunch of people, put words in their mouths, ideas in their heads and then has them do stuff. All of this is to make you want to know what happens next. And if you care about the people it's all happening to, even better. And if the words coming out of their mouths move you to tears, to laughter, to dark thoughts, there's the gold.

The producer finds the money to make this happen; puts together a team to make this happen. In other words, the producer finds a way to make all of this happen. In spite of all the producer credits you might see in a movie's credits, there's usually only one real PRODUCER.

The director is entrusted with the vision. The director has already seen this entire movie. In his head. Shot by shot.

The production designer's job is to make sure you can look at this thing for two hours; that nothing you see jars you back to reality and that everything you see on screen just looks right.

Everything in the movie must propel the story forward. We must want to know how the story ends and not get bogged down with nit picking: "Look, there's a watch on the chariot driver's wrist in ancient Rome."

And that was my job on this project.

Was this antique box (remember the box from the first paragraph) right for the story.
They weren't going to use an actual antique box. The movie box was being built by the props department, so the colour, shape, size and so on needed to be accurate. Because out in audience-land everybody's an expert, and these experts love to write letters. Sure, there are mistakes, glitches, anachronisms in almost every picture. There are even websites that point these things out. They're fun to spot, but movie makers work hard to avoid them; they do do the due diligence.

For my presentation for the producer, director, production designer, props department and the builder, I'd done my homework. I'd photographed and
photocopied lots of reference boxes and brought in a stack of books, all laid out on the conference table, opened to an appropriate page. With more pages ready underneath; lots of little yellow post-it's peeking out.

The props department, the people who had actually hired me to spout my expertise, had provided a number of antique boxes for people to handle, examine, pick up, smell, heft, turn over.

And they did.

In movie land, as in kindergarten, this is called "show & tell".

I showed and telled and I was grilled. This was a pretty astute group and the questions were the right kinds of questions to ask. Will the actress have trouble handling the size of the box? Which colors and designs would be historically accurate? What shapes are there to work with? What if we did this...? Could we do this instead...? Would it be wrong to...?

I was asked to justify my answers.

And since the box is discovered overpainted and will have to be stripped to its original state during the picture, the builder will have to make at least four identical boxes, three of them then painted and partially stripped, to correspond to the various stripping stages. And to allow for takes, mistakes and reshoots on one key scene, there should be at least four identical lids for box number two.

My prep for this meeting took about five hours. The meeting took another two. All for a box that's not the most important thing in the story.

No small decisions in movie making. I should know, I'm the expert.

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