Building DIY film sets

Even though I’ve been making films for years, I’ve always assumed that building sets was basically impossible. Like it would cost thousands of dollars or something. So I’ve always worked with existing locations.

I’ll try and dress them up as best I can, but obviously you run into limitations.

The biggest limitation for me is usually that whatever the location is, it’s something that is used for something besides the movie, probably some kind of living space, either yours or someone else’s.  If someone is letting me use their space, I’ll definitely try to be as courteous as possible.  Even if it’s your own space, you kind of have to move quickly and don’t get a lot of time to make sure that everything is right for the scene.

When I was shooting “Black Weeds”, I lived in a house with a bunch of roommates, and filmed everything there.  As you can probably guess, the house was a pretty big mess all the time, especially the kitchen.  A fair amount of the movie takes place in the kitchen, and I tried to clean it and dress it for the movie.  But after a while, I just pushed stuff out of the way, just outside of the edge of the frame.  For most of those shots, if you panned the camera a few inches, it would look like a very different kitchen!

I think it’s kind of good training to shoot this way.  It’s important to remember that the only thing that really matters to the movie is what actually happens inside the frame.

Anyway, when planning the scenes for “CD-Trip”, I thought I would look into what it would take to build some sets.  For one, I want to have more control of the production design.  I also want to have more flexibility in terms of camera placement – when you have an artificial set you can put the camera past where walls should be, and potentially move walls around as needed.  When you’re shooting in a small room, you pretty much have to stick to wide-angle lenses, and placement choices are much more limited.  Finally, I also just want to try it out on a small scale, to see how it works out – how hard it is, how expensive, etc.  It’s undoubtedly something that’s going to be important to know something about when working on bigger, future projects.

I don’t really know anything about construction or woodworking, but I figured it can’t be that expensive to put a couple of smallish walls up.  Luckily, an artist friend of mine, Andrew Alba, knows how to build stuff and was interested in helping out!

The hard part is finding a location with enough space to build it.  I looked a little bit into renting some kind of warehouse or studio space.  There’s definitely some available space around, but I couldn’t find any place that didn’t seem like overkill for this smallish project.  Andrew offered up his backyard – and that was the plan for a while.  The obvious downsides to shooting outside would be temperature, having to shoot late at night in order to control the lighting, and possibly bugs.

But then an opportunity came up for a house rental that I moved into.  There’s a decently sized basement, with just enough room to fit a really small set.  So here it is!

We used really cheap paneling, and ended up with three walls for around $100 not including labor. I found the door, some carpet scraps, and other odds and ends at a local home improvement thrift store called the Re-Store.

Now it’s just a matter of finding the right wall decorations (so far I’ve used some wallpaper I found on Ebay, but I may experiment with other ideas), and setting up the props and dressing.

To save money, I’m planning to use the same walls for three different ‘locations’. As I type this I’ve finished filming with the first, and am now in the process of figuring out the dressing for the second one!

Shooting on film

I didn’t mention it in my last post, but I’m shooting “CD-Trip” on 16mm film! I’ve always loved the look of 16mm, and I’ve had a little bit of experience with it from a class I took. Even so, I’d always assumed that it wasn’t really feasible to do it on my own. But I want to put as much as I can into the project so I’ve saved up some money for this film, and film has turned out to be a viable option.

When I first started conceiving of the project I knew I wanted to do something different than I’d been doing. One idea was to shoot on DV – this would fit the late 1990’s content in a way, but it definitely looks pretty shoddy, and I don’t think that’s what I really want. The other idea was to rent a fancy digital camera – like a RED or something like that. And the last idea – the idea I barely would let myself think – was to shoot on 16mm…

First step of research was to look at rental houses. There are two rental houses I know of in Utah: Redman, which is what the big productions use, and I know requires insurance, and Underfunded Film Productions, which doesn’t require insurance, and is priced for low budget types like me. UFP rents RED cameras for $550-$700 / day. They are also down in Utah County (about 45 minutes drive away for me). They have all kinds of lights and other gear for rent as well. Renting could be nice, because you would get access to whatever you need, but you’d have to really plan your shoots to be all at once. In my experience, it’s somewhat difficult to get cast and crew to commit to much more than one day at a time. But I figured my shoot could take place over 3 weekends if I really worked to get everything together. So rental price would be in the ballpark of at least $3000.

Around this time I saw the film “Person to Person” at Sundance, which was shot on 16mm. It made me think again about looking into shooting on film, because it just looks so great! I started looking at cameras on Ebay, film prices at Kodak, and processing costs at film labs. Pricewise it seemed to be comparable or even less than renting a high end digital camera – granted this is assuming I keep a very low shooting ratio and don’t do very many takes. With good planning and rehearsal, I think I can get most shots in one or two takes.

So I decided to start heading down that path. After all, why spend a bunch of money on a digital look that I’m not that excited about when it’s comparable in price to get a film look that I’m way excited about? Plus I’d own my gear and be able to work at my own pace.

16mm cameras actually seem fairly cheap to buy, especially you’re not in a hurry. Not that many people are shooting on film these days, and I guess that means prices go down. I did some research on cameras good for low budgets and suitable for shooting sync sound, and came up with three options: Eclair NPR (used to shoot Texas Chainsaw Massacre!), Eclair ACL, and Cinema Products CP16-R. Then I set up Ebay watch notifications so I would be emailed as soon as anyone listed one. It took me a few months, but I ended up nabbing a CP16-R for just $380! (I was hoping for an NPR, but can’t argue with that price.)

Obviously you need to be careful with buying gear off of Ebay, but the price was so low that I figured it would be worth it even if I needed to spend some money on repairs for it.

Once I got the camera, I decided to shoot an initial 100 foot roll as a test. Of course I didn’t want to shoot my whole film without testing the camera, but I also would hate to waste film, so I picked out an outdoor scene from the script that seemed like it would be easy to film. That way if the film came back good, then I would have some actual usable footage. And if it came back bad, it wouldn’t be too much of a pain to reshoot.

From my film class experience, I already know the basic process of shooting and sending to a lab. In the class, we used a lab in Denver, but they appear to no longer be in business. I found a lab (Cinelab) in the Boston area that has good scanning facilities, so my plan was to send them the film and get 2K scans back, and just edit the film digitally. (In the film class we edited on film, and got film answer prints made. While that was amazing, it’s not practical for my purposes right now.)

Well, it took another couple of months for the lab to process the film (fewer labs in the country means they are all busier). But my footage came back looking great! There was a scratch going down part of it, but it went away after a little while, so I don’t think it’s something I need to worry about. So that was good enough for me, I bought the rest of the film stock I need, and have started shooting!

To save money, I’m planning to film everything else and send it to the lab all in one big batch. It’s strange to film scenes and know I’m not going to see how it turned out for months. It’s VERY different from the digital process I’m used to, but I think it’s had a positive effect even though it’s nerve racking! (I’ve attempted to film some of the rehearsals with my Sony T2i, to have some reference. But honestly there is always so much to think about while making a film, that it’s hard to be completely diligent about this.)

There are lots of pros and cons from a practical standpoint about shooting on film, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

New film, new blog, hi!

I’ve thought a lot about writing some kind of blog in the past, and have somewhat regretted not having done it.  Well, it seems like as good a time as any to start! My plan is to write about the different projects I have going on, my successes, failures, and everything in between!

Right now I’m in the middle of production on a new short film, which I guess I’m announcing publicly for the first time here.

It’s called “CD-Trip”, and it’s an idea that I’ve been working on for several years.  I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but I will say that it is a ‘period piece’ of sorts, set in the late 1990’s.  And it has something to do with computers.

I’m hopefully learning something from my past films.  The main thing I’m trying to do differently is shift the amount of time I spend in the different phases of production.

When I did “Black Weeds” and “I Have Fear”, I wasn’t keeping track of my hours (I am now), but I’m pretty sure I didn’t spend nearly enough time in pre-production.  In fact I didn’t even revise the scripts really, I pretty much shot the first drafts. I’d estimate the time spent in the three phases of production to look something like this:

On “Black Weeds” especially, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to fix everything in post.  I tried to reduce that for “I Have Fear”, but I still don’t think I spent enough time preparing, so for “CD-Trip” I’m hoping it will be more like this:


The first draft of the script was finished on June 25, 2015, but I’ve revised it several times already.  And now I’m about halfway into production, but still making small revisions. I think that’s bound to happen to some extent…  But either way, I’m already really glad that I’ve taken time to sit with the script for a while and revise it. I think the end product will be much better for it.