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Getting in the Mood


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 10 December 2003

The Vancouver Film and Television Trade Forum has been hit by the US terrorist attacks that took place earlier this month, with multiple last-minute cancellations by panellists.

Fortunately, today (26 September 2001), two local filmmakers stepped into the breach.

Robert McLachlan, director of photography on Final Destination, and made-for-television feature High Noon and production designer David Brisbin, who has worked with Gus Van Sant, among others, on My Personal Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, talked about how to imbue a film with that elusive ingredient mood.

It was an enlightening couple of hours, in which the importance of communication between director, DoP and PD was reiterated time and again.

Brisbin, who came to filmmaking after training in architecture, worked under Alexander Mackendrick (Man In The White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success, Whisky Galore), "an old goat... who pounded into me the whole concept of telling stories visually".

Talk to me

Brisbin sought to expel any ideas that the job of PD involved little more than arranging the furniture on set - although he suggested that budget-sensitive producers were in danger of being too dismissive of PDs. Directors, too, sometimes underestimate the importance of PDs.

Early in a project, Brisbin said, the PD, whose responsibility is the look of "everything but the characters' bodies", works much like a therapist to the director.

He pointed out that many directors cannot visualise exactly what they want and secondly articulate that vision. The PD, he said, must find out those "secret desires about how this movie should feel" so that the director can "deliver an atmosphere, deliver a world". The PD must find "a bridge between a story and the director's subconscious."

Brisbin said that when working with Gus Van Sant on his first major feature Drugstore Cowboy, the director was "sceptical" about what a PD could do for him, but had no choice as his contract with the studio stipulated he take on a PD.

"He knew how Drugstore Cowboy felt, but he didn't know how it looked," says Brisbin. Of the 150 or so different directors he has worked with Brisbin says he can only think of "a dozen" who don't need help with the visuals.

Build your palette

For Drugstore Cowboy, set in Seventies Portland, Oregon, he took hundreds of photos, pictures and imagery from around the city and built a "palette" with which the director could work. By the time the film was finished Van Sant was won over.

When Van Sant first brought Brisbin in for My Own Private Idaho he already had the visual materials for the film spread out on a table - a pile of gay porno magazines.

Brisbin added that the PD's job is not just ephemera, but that it involves a high level of technical and management skills for "the essential dirty nuts and bolts" - business-solving, organising the design crew, dressing scenery and protecting the director. "The director needs to be dealing with emotion into visuals. He does not need to be dealing with mechanics." Choosing the right people - for example scenic painters ("You cannot just fix a surface") - requires knowledge and experience.

He also stressed the importance of respecting the characters more than they respect the production designer. "The PD should be trying to knit everything together rather than taking a diagrammatic approach - this person blue, that person brown..."

Correct Visual Code

Robert McLachlan talked largely about his work on the remake of High Noon, shot on a "recycled" Western set in Calgary, Alberta. The story follows a sheriff who promised his young bride that he will quit his dangerous job and settle down for a quiet life. However, a vicious killer bent on revenge, is headed his way. Since none of the townsfolk will stand by their law man, he must face the killer and his gang alone.

Director Rod Hardy wanted to reflect the sheriff's sense of impending doom visually. Initially, says McLachlan, the problem was the town was too pretty, the surrounding rockie moutains too specatacular. So they repainted the town in shades of grey. They also treated the film in incremental degrees so that colour was gradually bled from the image to give it an increasingly monochromatic look as the story moves on.

Interior scenes were also shot using low sunlight adding a sense of gloom.

To give the sense of things closing in on the sheriff McLachlan used a longer telephoto lens as time went on. With the reduced depth of field the background disappeared, and the focus closes in on the sheriff.

McLachlan stressed the need for setting-up time with actors and where possible to have the set as complete as possible to make the actors feel at home.

In another salutary anecdote, McLachlan revealed that Final Destination was filmed using two different airport terminal sets - one for before and one for after a premonition where several teens cheat a death that they were supposed to go to.

The second set was meant to be smaller, more claustrophobic. However, even when McLachlan ran the film for us and pointed this out, few in the audience could tell the difference between the two sets.

The film was a commercial success, even if the expense of building an extra set was wasted.

Low budget filmmaking tips

Robert McLachlan: "Prepare well. It's critical to get the director, PD and DoP together. Also, the trouble with a big movie is that everyone is covering their ass. Where one light is needed they'll have a truckload of lights."

David Brisbin: "Find a couple of movies in the same ballpark and get any intelligent DoP to do a technical analysis of the films."

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