Mr. Null Makes a Movie, Part Two
by Christopher Null

Christopher Null is a long-established writer and media critic based in Austin, Texas. He was first published at the age of 11, completed his first novel at the age 19, and his first screenplay, Fringe, at 23. Chris has also written 2 other novels and just completed September Drift, his second full-length screenplay. In addition to writing, Null Set Productions (the film production company he began with his brother) produced its first offering, a live-action short film entitled Pressurecooker, this August. The company hopes to begin shooting Fringe in early 1997. Now 25, Chris has been covering the world of film and the cinema for almost 3 years. He is internationally syndicated as a writer (now in 5 countries and 4 different languages) and is also Contributing Editor for Film for Mike's Feedback magazine, an Austin, Texas monthly. Now, Chris's reviews and articles reach over 850,000 readers (that's four times the readership of Austin's daily newspaper).

When we last left our hero, he was anticipating the arrival of the processed
film from the lab. How would it look? No man could say.
Part one is available in the first issue of Eclectica

Now what do we do?

A week later than promised, the video dailies arrived from DuArt, our film processing lab in New York.

Actually, DuArt doesn't make promises. It's policy; they *never* make promises. They just "hint" about when the film or video "might" be ready. Never mind your schedule -- DuArt lives in a world of its own, oblivious to the outside. I didn't actually get to see the film right away. It was off at the editing facilities (read: a friend's house) where my brother Brad and co-editor Jana Huskey were already starting to figure out how to put this movie together. I quickly learned one thing:

It was not going to be an easy task.

While the sound turned out surprisingly well, it was the picture that was, well, not *quite* all I had expected. And let me try to list just a few of the problems we encountered, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Picture is out of focus.
  • Picture is underexposed.
  • Picture is overexposed.
  • Actors' lines are incorrect and/or unusable.
  • Crew member wandered into the shot.
  • Microphone wandered into the shot.
  • Actor wandered out of the shot.
  • Framing of image is unusable (only half of actor's head is in the shot; etc.).
  • Continuity is off (actor should be sitting, but he's kneeling; etc.).
  • Actor spilled pizza on himself (okay, that one's my fault).

...and the kicker...

  • Camera is running slow.

Knowing what I do now, I would give just about anything to avoid that last teensy little problem, but it was not to be. I'd estimate a third of the film we shot was almost completely worthless because it was, in industry parlance, "out of sync." A motion picture camera, ideally, runs at 24 frames per second. This is ideal because that's how fast the projector is going to be running when you show the film to an audience, so you'd better get pretty close that 24 fps figure. Some scenes in PRESSURECOOKER were exposed at the mind-boggling speed of 10 frames per second, which, when projected at 24 fps, looks so fast that it makes your average Charlie Chaplin movie look like a slow-motion replay.

Later I would discover the reason for this slow camera problem. For starters, when the batteries were getting weak, the slow-down would get progressively worse. (Again, I'll point out that *someone* should have been aware of this...) And then I find out much later that the crew that had rented this camera before us experienced a complete motor failure, only a few days before we got it! Maybe it was fixed, maybe it was replaced, I don't know, and I probably never will, but the amount of fuming that occurred between myself and my brother over this little issue does not need to be discussed in any more detail, largely because the makers of Mylanta, Tums, and Pepto-Bismol don't need any more of our money.

Out of the frying pan...

Now, we were on a low budget to start with, so we didn't have a lot of takes. Two, maybe, three max. None of this 54 takes to get it just *perfect*. No way. Coverage was extremely limited thanks to the slowness of setting up the shots, thus making us cut out much-needed angles. To sum up, we didn't have a lot of film to work with, and as the picture started to come together, it was clear that we were going to have to use some of the out-of-sync super-fast scenes and try to find some way to cover up the error.

Basically, this meant two things. First, entire scenes were cut. That was easy.

Secondly, there was dubbing. My co-star Dave Kaufman and I went in for ADR (additional dialogue recording) twice, trying to somehow speak our lines at double speed and still maintain the tone and feel of the part. But the work we did is nothing in comparison to that of Elizabeth Price, the tireless actress who played PRESSURECOOKER's version of Nurse Ratched. Elizabeth has some of the longest monologues in the film, and her scenes were unilaterally the worst out-of-sync. She drove down to Austin from Dallas, and I (the ruthless taskmaster) made her re-record virtually every line of dialogue she had. At double speed.

Elizabeth turned out to pretty damn good at the dubbing game. Now, my seven-line sentences kinda sorta match up to my lip movement. Elizabeth could almost match it up without even watching the video. She turned out to be so good that we enlisted her to re-record the sound of my character as a teenager (in flashback), letting our a blood-curdling scream. She was perfect, and if any would-be producers are reading this, you should call her for your next project, right now.

I was also introduced to the joys of foley artistry, the re-recording of certain noises like footsteps, chairs dragging, and fist punches. When you lose sync from a scene, you see, you don't just lose the dialogue, you lose *all* the audio. All of it. Everything going on has to be faked, which is commonplace for a big-budget movie (almost all the dialogue and sounds are re-recorded in a multi-million dollar film, and you can tell if you watch closely), but we hardly had the facilities for this. As it turned out, Jana's house was the perfect place to do the work. We just slapped a microphone on the floor and stomped around, dragged chairs here and there, and punched each other until it sounded right. I think it's some of the best work on the film -- with the exception of a punch to the face that sounds more like a knock on the door. Oh well.

I keep telling myself, "It's a low-budget movie. They don't even *want* it to look that good!" I still haven't figured out who *they* are.

. . . and into the fire

One month later, the editing is done. I had to re-shoot the titles and credits, which I think went well (although I've yet to see them on film), then the negative cutters put the film together the way we want it, and then the lab runs off the this-is-it-there's-no-turning-back-now-final copy.

Probably twenty people have seen the tape so far, and I've been surprised by the universally positive comments I've received. Then again, these are all my friends, so they *have* to say nice things. I mean, that's what I pay them for!

The movie is 13 minutes and 13 seconds long. I'm not yet sure if that's a horribly bad omen, but at least it's short enough that my dad doesn't fall asleep while watching it.

And now it's time for the real test of the film -- the film festival circuit, which consists of sending out loads of applications, videotapes, still photos, scripts, and apologies for the rough parts of the film, and not necessarily in English, either. (We're applying to film festivals in Germany, The Netherlands, and France this month alone -- eventually we'll try to get into fests in Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, and even Poland.) Eventually, someone will want to show our film in public, a Hollywood fat cat will see it, will instantly recognize the talent therein, and will sign me up to write and produce the next $120 million Bruce Willis action vehicle.

That's how it works, right?

It's yet to be seen if anyone important will recognize the unique charms of our little project. I'd almost lost sight of the original goal of this thing -- to make a splash in the film biz and learn exactly how a movie is made, from start to finish. The problem is there are thousands of crews out there just like ours, and they probably have enough money to rent a camera that works. As for me, I'll always have a special love-hate relationship with PRESSURECOOKER...

And I already know who to thank in my Oscar speech.

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