My professor, Carl, looked at the scene list for my senior thesis film and furrowed his eyebrows. When I told him it was going to be an hour-long black & white film, set in the 1940’s in Eastern Europe, with dialogue in three different languages, he looked at me as if he wasn’t sure if I was being serious.
I assured him that I wasn’t kidding, and I knew that he was thinking it would probably be another overly-ambitious senior film that would never be finished.
He poked his finger at the page.
“So how do you plan on doing this scene?”, he said. “The fire-bombed city scene.”
Now this was the pre-computer, pre-digital, in-camera-effects-only period of filmmaking. Green-screen and blue-screen work was serious money. The only option other than in-camera effects was optical printing, and he knew I couldn’t afford that on a student film budget.
“A miniature”, I said. “A really big miniature”.
“Uh huh”, he said, with a look that told me he thought I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing.
It took about three weeks to truck all the materials to the farm pond where I planned on filming the scene. When everything was finally at the site, we had accumulated over 200 discarded wood pallets, over 24 sheets of plywood of various types and random pieces of drywall and corrugated metal. Since all the materials were donated, I estimated that the final cost of the miniature was $150 based on the cost gas for the vehicles and fire accelerant, i.e. kerosine.
I’d staked out my camera position and estimated that I need a miniature that was about 130′ long to fill the frame from edge to edge when I was shooting with a medium length lens. I planned on a miniature scale of somewhere between 1:10 and 1:12.
My father and I would drag the plywood sheets close enough to the small house on the property to string an extension cord to jigsaw-out the +250 rough rectangle openings in the wood to simulate the windows of the buildings. Once they were staked in place, we stacked the hundreds of pallets behind the wall, just far enough away to keep the flames from setting the plywood on fire before I could finish filming.
When we were done stacking the pallets, we moved to the other side of the pond to look at the finished model.
It was really, really ugly.
There was no detail. No even a coat of paint on the raw wood. But I new that it would look good on film because I had three things going for me: a night shot, shallow depth of field, and black & white reversal film.
The night of the shoot I was nervous. Black & white reversal film is unforgiving. Instead of creating a negative, you’re creating a positive image. It’s like slide film for a cinema camera. Exposure-wise, you have about one f-stop of leeway as far as over or under exposure. You have about a 5 to 7 stop range from pure black to blown-out white. Beautiful contrast, no margin for error. Modern digital cameras, by comparison, will give you up to 15 stops of latitude. I had to re-shoot the opening sequence of the film twice because of a mislabeled ND filter that resulted in over-exposed footage.
This scene was a one-shot deal. There would be no reshoots. The five-person crew was in position.
I’d tried to do some test shots a few weeks before using a bonfire and my lighting plan, but the bonfire was not a good simulation for what would end up being 15-foot tall flames in the miniature.
I used the headlights of a car for the key light on the actress Liana. A fog machine, run by my cousin Greg, was positioned next to the car to give some depth to the background as well as to diffuse the illumination from the headlights. The Assistant Director, Jan, helped the actress into position in the water.
A pumper truck from the local fire department was positioned next to the pond. They showed up hoping to just see a good show, but were prepared for an interesting fire training exercise on the chance that the flames got out of hand.
The Technical Info
If your eyes glaze over reading technical data, you can skip this section and go to the next. I’ll try to keep this paragraph brief, but there are people who like to know this info.
I shot the scene using a Bolex H-16, a 16mm film camera that is spring driven. You have to hand wind the drive mechanism with a crank. It has a three-lens turret with 16mm/f1.8, 25mm/f1.4, and 75mm/f1.9 lenses. The 16 had too wide of an angle of view, so I decided to use the 25mm for the wide shots and the 75mm for the close-ups.
The H-16 did not have an external magazine, meaning that I was confined to a 100 foot roll of film. There would be no time to reload once the fire was started. This would give me 2 1/2 minutes of shooting time. I figured that the prime “flame activity” once the fire was started would last from three to five minutes before the flames would have consumed the majority of the wood and the flames would start to lose their visual impact.
I planned to wait until the flames had reached a peak and then start shooting, getting the wide shots with the 25mm out of the way first, and then switching to the 75mm lens for the close-ups when the fire would still give me great reflections in the water but not have the intensity that it did in the wider shots.
The 25mm, focused at 16 feet away, and with an f-stop setting of about 2.8, would give me a depth of field of about 20 feet total. The Kodak Tri-X 7266 film stock had an ASA of 200, so I had to shoot almost at full aperture to have enough light on the actress. I spot metered several times from her face to the fire after it started before I was sure about my exposure. The f-stop spread convinced me that the front of the miniature would be solid black and out of focus, devoid of detail.
The Fire Is Lit
The pallets had been soaked with 5 gallons of kerosine a few hours earlier in the hope that the fire would spread evenly when lit but not explode the way I thought they would if we had used gasoline.
When I gave the word to start the fire, it spread pretty quickly, but without a sudden burst of flame. Within a minute the flames were high above the top of the miniature and yelled for the soundman to start recording. I had rehearsed with Liana as to the sequence that we would follow and it went smoothly, without any stopping for head or tail slates.
The 100 foot roll ran through the camera quickly and when I heard the tail end run through the gate I knew I had better have gotten the scene. The flames were already far below the top of the facade.
Four weeks of work would translate into a minute of the finished film. The shooting schedule would continue for the next 8 months before we would be finished.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what I would do differently.