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by Craig Tollis

In mid-June I had the opportunity to co-direct, with Elisabeth Andre from the OffOffPeachtree Theatre, Budd Harbis's comedy short Tonky. Elisabeth was excited about the possibilities of Budd's script, which revolves around the dysfunctional meeting of long-lost relatives at the reading of a will. Both of us had wanted to direct a short for some time, so she invited me to pool our resources. The challenge: to put together a professional looking short film on next to no budget.

Elisabeth drew on her experience directing theatre. I drew on mine as an editor and crew member in television and independent film. The complementary partnership worked well. As Elisabeth put it, "one of us being actor/character driven, and the other visually/technically."

Technical and visual elements, which were my responsibility on this shoot, are not traditionally thought of as the critical elements of directing. But as important as performance is, it doesn't matter unless the camera sees it. And it doesn't have an impact unless the camera sees it in the right way. It becomes exponentially harder for your actors to hold the audience's attention if they aren't being supported by the way your shooting looks and feels. We are, after all, making motion pictures, and the nature and quality of those pictures is an integral part of the audience's experience.

For an ultra-low-budget short we had an additional challenge - as director you are frequently responsible for technical issues that, on a big budget project with a large crew, would be delegated to somebody else, maybe an entire department. In any case, the director is always the ultimate decider on issues that will effect the technical quality of the film. I've been on too many Indie shoots where inexperienced directors have created technical problems, and harmed the quality of their end product, because they ignored or didn't understand the recommendations of the crew.

In the end, understanding technical issues helps you know what is possible, what can be done well, and how to do it. That makes all the difference in what kind of result you'll get.

Tonky was deliberately ambitious, which is part of what grabbed me about the script. Ambitious, but doable. Probably. We had cars, guns, animals, children, a "music video" section and, ok, not an actual fight but at least a bit of a tussle. I wanted to push us to see if we could make all these elements work - and in three days. I learned a lot from the experience - both what went well and where we slipped up. And, yes, I made a lot of the same old mistakes that, as an editor, I've warned Indie directors about again and again.

Same Ol' Mistakes:

  • Basically, have your act together technically. This is the simplest element to control on the set and the most frustrating if you mess it up. We'll be able to edit around the few camera and sound issues we had during the shoot, but they could have been avoided by following the basics every time: always monitor your sound at the recorder, and don't rely on the camera viewfinder - use a separate monitor whenever you can.
  • Think about how your scenes start and end. Make sure action is continuous in and out of them if it would be in real life. We were pretty careful about this but we still ended up with one scene where the actors don't really look like they're leaving one room and entering the next.
  • Roll long. I can't believe I fell for this one, since I've agonized over it so many times in edit sessions. Always let a scene play out several seconds longer than you think you'll need. That gives you space in the edit to transition out of it, or cover passage of time. On set, it's hard to judge this, and there's a tendency to call "cut" too quickly once dialog or primary action ends.
  • Don't try to do too much. For logistical reasons, I ended up helping with lighting and sound as well as co-directing and operating the B camera. I won't do that again if I can avoid it. It's natural to want to have a hand in everything that's happening on your set, but you'll spread yourself too thin and lose your focus on what you, the director, are really supposed to be paying attention to. Our shoot worked because Elisabeth was co-directing - setting up the scenes, working with the actors, keeping an eye on the monitor - otherwise it all would have fallen apart in a screaming heap (maybe literally).

What worked, and worked well:

  • Pre-production and organization. We skimped a bit, but basically took the time to get things together. Julie, our producer, made sure everything was lined up and locked down. There's a temptation to think you'll be able to wing-it on set and get by, but trust me, no matter how much you plan ahead there'll be enough unexpected things happen to keep you busy with creative, and not so creative decisions.
  • The Two Camera Boogie. Joe Binford, an assistant editor on Warner Bros.'s We Are Marshall used this term to describe the shooting arrangement used on that movie. We decided to try it on Tonky, with a pair of Sony HVR-Z1Us, rather than the traditional single-camera film-style approach. I loved it. It not only cuts down your shooting time, but you're guaranteed that your action will match between at least two shots. The biggest things to watch out for are lighting and composition. Physically placing cameras and lights is much more of a pain when you have to see things from two places, and you can't "cheat" your actors' blocking as much. Scott, our DP, used a minimalist lighting style, which kept down the number of instruments and worked well with the two camera set ups.
  • Keep on schedule. For me, part of the professional challenge of this production was to stay on schedule. We had actors and extras who needed to come and go at specific times, and shooting in somebody's home over three days meant we had to start and break at reasonable hours. After a wobbly beginning on the first scene, we kept things pretty much together. Julie was firm about keeping the schedule under control, and actually I found it somewhat of a relief. It's less stressful, for me anyway, to shoot the best scene you can shoot in 90-minutes, rather than to obsess indefinitely over whether or not you got it perfectly right and trying to push it. It's also more realistic.
  • We just clicked as a team. All the actors were great. We worked to create a positive attitude on set and I think it paid off in the time and effort everyone was willing to put into the production. The dictatorial director bit is a losing game. You're much better off when everybody is on your side.

Big Picture on the Little Picture

Working on this project has given me huge respect for comedy actors. In particular, the challenges of shooting good physical comedy. What seems straight forward is not necessarily easy to communicate or to perform physically when you to need to hit specific marks and play to the camera. In many ways the physical scenes were more challenging to shoot than the dialog. In either case, as a director you are always dependent on the talent and skills of your actors to bring a scene alive and make it funny.

Co-director Elisabeth notes the difference between working on a theatre production, where you have four to six weeks to rehearse with the actors and create the world of the play and this short, where we spent maybe six days with the actors in total, including the casting session. For her, the essential element is for the actor to remain truthful to the character through out the performance. "The role of the film director", she says, "is to see that the actor on the screen is expressing the truth and being spontaneous but it is not as intimate as theatre nor as solitary."

Until we get the done with the final cut you'll have to trust me that things went well. Or you could take the word of screenwriter Budd Harbis, also known as John White when he's not writing or performing: "They really brought the story to life with their performances, hard work, and technical expertise."

John also credits Elisabeth, "who immediately 'got' the story, believed in it, and had the tenacity and perseverance to see this project through to completion."

I have to add my appreciation to Elisabeth for her role in making this happen, and including me in the project. This was an entirely a collaborative effort and hopefully the hard work of everyone, down to the folks who put on the food, schlepped the lights or just stood guard on doors and driveways, will show through in the final product.

Chris Bartelski is at work on original music and sound design for Tonky, which we hope to start submitting to festivals in September. Wish us luck!

Screenplay by Budd Harbis
Directed by Elisabeth Andre and Craig Tollis
Produced by Julie Shaer
Director of Photography,
Scott Hedeen

Starring Vaughn Williams, Budd Harbis, Sandra Dorsey, David Ramsey, Walt Frazier