Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bird's eye view - sort of

Making fiction films is a radically different process than making non-fiction films. In the former, you have nearly complete control over everything: everything that happens from start to finish, everything the characters say, what their expressions look like, what they wear, what the light looks like, whether they're standing in an office or in a field, what sounds you hear, and not only what you see but how you see it. A fiction filmmaker therefore hopes for occasional moments of the UNexpected --- happy accidents, random occurrences, unexpected surprises. They can make the difference between a good scene and a fantastic film moment.

Non-fiction filmmakers --- documentarians --- experience nearly the complete opposite. You have almost no idea what will happen or when, what a person will say, how they say it, what things look like and how anything appears on camera. It's understandable that the documentarian will long for what the fiction filmmaker has: a little bit of control. Control over ANYthing. Documentarians have a lot of patience, and can be comfortable with a large amount of unknowns and loose ends, but occasionally they just want to make something happen in just the right way. Filmmakers like us who have done some of both are either cursed or blessed (depending on your perspective) with a familiarity with both worlds, and with the insight that both worlds can inform each other.

All this to say: I thought of a really cool opening shot for the film.

We had been in contact with the Barnstormers, as you know if you've read other posts. They are the Fermilab radio controlled model airplane club. Monica had recently obtained a tiny remote video camera, and we kicked around the idea of attaching this camera to one of their planes and sending it aloft. I thought the perfect shot would be of the Fermilab hi-rise --- seen from an impossible bird's eye view, probably distorted, definitely strange-looking, possibly tainted by some static here or there. It would be the first image in the film; our introduction to Fermilab, as seen through a disembodied presence half in and half out of this world. Sort of like a subatomic particle. Later, as the film progressed, the viewer would be introduced to the Barnstormers, see the plane, and understand what the image had been.

So, on Thursday Monica and I met Alan Hahn and a Swedish physicist (unfortunately, I can't remember his name and don't have my notes as I write this, so will refer to him by the cryptic and slightly dramatic title of "the Swedish Physicist") over the lunch hour in a field on Fermilab's grounds near the cemetery. We were scheduled to meet the Barnstormers earlier in May, but were rained out. But Alan told us a couple of them head out there nearly every lunch hour during good weather, and as we pulled up at 12:30 the clouds were just starting to break.

The first thing we saw was a guy tuning up a dark blue plane that sounded like a swarm of hornets buzzing. He knelt beside it with a helper, revving it up. Finally, he dashed a few feet away and picked up a handle that was laying on the grass. His helper stayed beside the plane, holding it by the tail. The guy with the handle signaled, the helper let go, and the plane took off and started whizzing around in a circle with the guy in the center. I believe they called it "controlled line" flying. Anyway, he spun and spun in the circle, making the plane do loops and tricks. The helper trotted over to us, and it was Alan Hahn.

He and the Swedish Physicist were very excited to check out our remote video camera. They were confident they could get it onto the plane and into the air. We walked with them to a picnic table and I got footage of them as they pored over a yellow and white airplane on the ground, taping and strapping our camera to the plane with rubber bands, tape, and tiny bungee cords. Finally, they were ready. We stood back. Monica watched the video feed from the plane on the monitor and I filmed the flight. The Swedish Physicist twisted knobs and levers on his hand-held control. The little plane had a wingspan of about three feet, and it "taxied" down the close-mowed stretch of ground, did a nice 180 degree turn, and revved up its engine. It shot across the ground and was suddenly airborne. "We've got a picture!" Monica said.

By this time the sun was blazing, which made the colors bright as I had hoped. In short, it was perfect weather. However, as anyone who has spent much time behind the eyepiece of a video camera knows, it becomes extremely difficult to see what's going on in your camera in bright sunlight. The flip open screen becomes useless, so you must close it and mash the eyepiece cup to your eye, trying to block out all the other light as you struggle to see what's happening. Forget about trying to focus --- you must rely on the auto focus (although in light this bright most everything will be in focus anyway, since the iris is barely open). Then, your eye adjusts to that small, dark eyepiece, so that when you pull your head away you're blinded by the daylight.

I was too busy trying to negotiate the eyepiece to look at the video feed coming to our monitor from the tiny radio camera on the plane, but later I saw that the image was slightly fuzzy, shot through occasionally with static, and featured a blur in the center which was the rapidly spinning propeller. In short, just what I had expected. Alan directed the Swedish Physicist to turn the plane so that we could see the Fermilab hi-rise in the distance, which was the shot I had been looking for. Sure enough, there it was --- but for just a second or two, and tiny in the distance. I had visualized a long, slow, deliberate shot, but as Monica has pointed out several times there can be a huge gap between what you visualize and what you actually get on camera. Even between what you remember getting on camera and what's actually there. For example, both Monica and I visualized Leon Lederman's hands as he drew diagrams in the air during our interview, but for technical reasons the shot was much tighter and showed none of his hands waving. But that's part of the fun --- things also get captured that you don't remember, don't know at the time, and don't expect. That's why the editing room is such an enormously important place. We're grocery shopping now --- the editing process is where the cooking actually begins. Our job is to get all the ingredients we could possibly dream of needing, so that when the chef asks for paprika, we not only have it but can ask "Dried? Powdered? Chilean? Andean? Peruvian? Sweet? Red? White? or Hungarian?"

Near the end of the flight, the tiny engine suddenly cut out. "Stick only!" Alan called out. The Swedish Physicist did not panic. He brought the plane down, slowly, carefully, and it bounced once or twice and rolled to a perfect stop. The camera was unharmed, and they had to get back to work so we packed it all up as they sprayed down the plane with windex. We made plans to meet them again during their next actual Barnstormers club meeting, viewing this as more of a test flight. We all agreed that the camera ought to be strapped onto the wing rather than the fuselage, so we could get unobstructed views.

No comments: