Shooting Dr. Z's "American Dream" – Days 0-2

zee_portraitDay 0

Dr. Z calls me up and asks if I know of anyone who would like to work on his new film, a Cantonese-spoken drama called American Dream about a Hong Kong immigrant in America. He also asks for a cameraman with a 3-chip HD camera, which I say I have, and next thing I know I’m shooting his movie.

Day 1 – 08/29/2009

Went out to Emperor Palace on Balboa and met Z. I hadn’t seen him since we were shooting Ninja Gendai in the Richmond and ran into him in the same apartment building. Went upstairs in the back to set up and met the other cameraman, who’s using a Canon XHA1 (I’m using a Panasonic HVX200 with a Letus Extreme adaptor). We’re both shooting, which means possibly different formats in HD. A1 shoots HD on tape, mine on P2 cards, and I only have about 50 minutes’ worth, and we’ll have to bring in a laptop to dump footage. Plus, I tell Z it’s going to cost him more to edit HD. He decides to shoot on tape.

The other problem is our cameras don’t have the same image quality. I’m not sure how they are bare naked, but with the Letus the HVX makes the A1 look like a spud gun of a camera. Even though I’m only using two lenses right now (might be buying a third lens finally as of today), the Letus gives an enormous amount of life to whatever’s being shot. I lose a stop of light, but I don’t really care. The place is lit enough and it looks great.

Z knows what to shoot without even looking at the script. We fly through 7 or 8 pages of script with some actors who are today taking their first cracks at acting. They’re all speaking Canto, but from what I can understand Z lets them be natural and try the scene a few times before shooting. It’s fun, relaxed. Hiroshi, Evelyn, Lucas, Ed, Brandon, and Anne show up to be extras or helpers and experience a Dr. Z production.

Then the other cameraman has to do his scene, so I use his camera as a master shot. This is stupid. It takes forever and I’m sacrificing quality just to get extra coverage. They look relatively similar, but later on Z confirms that the HVX is the one he wants to stick with whenever possible. If he’s going to use both, make them in different scenes.

Fight scene, Z accidentally tags a guy in the head, who takes it like a champ. They hug, Z’s student splashes tea on a thug’s head, and the fight scene is over.

Later I shoot in a car, squished in the back seat trying to get a dialog while driving over the bay bridge. We get one try at it, since it’s a dusk shot. I realize when we get onto the bridge from Treasure Island that I’m sitting on the wrong side of the car, and I’m missing all the buildings on the other side… oh well. Obviously I can’t use the HVX in here because it’s an elephant, so the A1 has to do. It does pretty well in the dark.

After that we shoot in front of an apartment (supposed to be a hotel), and I use the A1 to get some night shots. I set up two work lights from far away, handheld by some extra grips standing around.

After it was over I thought back and realized how f*cking difficult it was to keep focus with the Letus. As good as it looks, it’s a 2-man operation for an amateur. But I don’t have another man, so I’ve gotta start learning how to find focus with this thing.

Day 2 – 09/04/2009

Random shots with Z all over San Francisco. We start at China beach, where we learn the limits of having only two lenses (24 and 50mm, I warned him in advance about this). He had no problem with the results, though. I do notice that the 24 looks a little worse than the 50. Might be the vibrating glass in the Letus “sees” too much of the wide angle. Or maybe it’s all just dirty. While getting shots Z and I talk about the HK film industry. The guy knows all the names too, so it’s cool.

Head over to Chrissy field where we shoot on a pier. Z tells me to make it look like a boat, so I rock the camera around handheld. It looks great. From here on I decide I should just be doing handheld since we’ll be way quicker like this. Z hires a guy Tony on the spot to be in the movie for twenty bucks. Tony’s unemployed, but he used to be a union carpenter. Best of luck, Tony. After that Z jumps into the bay and starts swimming around as if he’s just swam from a boat, so I have to frame out the pier so he looks like he went from the middle of the bay. I have him do the swim 3 or 4 times and he’s wearing this duffel bag that’s filling with water and probably adds 100 pounds of resistance against his efforts.

Chinatown, pay phone, city hall, Coit tower area, all over the place, handheld with the HVX. It must weigh 15-20 pounds. I opt to just carry it around and keep the lenses and batteries in my backpack. Around this time I’m starting to get used to pulling focus on the fly, and shooting in SD (on tape) means I have more focal leeway. In HD I’d have to do a “focus assist” which means pressing an extra button on the side, a pain in the ass if I don’t want to drop the whole thing on my foot… screw my foot, save the camera! I’ll sacrifice my foot!

Z treats me to two meals. He talks about his time in LA when he had a clinic and stuntmen would come in back when they were shooting Big Trouble in Little China. Pretty cool.

Finished around 9pm that night and it was great. Looking forward to more work with Dr. Z.