by John Krawlzik
INERTIA, OR LACK THEREOF
The objective was to tell the story in the most visual manner possible, short circuiting the higher language center of our brains, and delving into the moist, messy subconscious directly with images. Yuck. In part, I guess this approach was due to my negative reaction to many independent films that seem excessively dialogue driven. Blah, blah, blah....this is what I'm thinking, this is what I feel. Blah, blah, blah....
"Ascension" is about alienation, loneliness, longing and fear - elements that don't lend themselves to long, dialogue-driven sequences. The characters are completely bound by their own troubles and failings, and they can't fully understand the events that unfold around them. The film would push into an almost spiritual realm, with redemption and acceptance at its finale. Although these may seem like lofty ambitions for a low-budget independent movie, the idea reached obsessional stage, and it was time to move. Inertia is the true universal force - set an object in motion, and it requires twice as much gumption to stop it. But actually putting that object in motion...
A STARTAt first, I thought we might be able to produce the film on-location - using an abandoned factory, or some other technical-looking environment. I thought we could redress, add a little paint, and presto - a well-used space environment. Well, not only are uncontaminated abandoned factories few and far between, those willing to help out a struggling filmmaker in our part of the world were simply nonexistent.
An unexpected meeting proved to be the inertia-booster we needed. A friend of ours, Carol Clouse, had called out of the blue, asking if my wife and I would like to have lunch. We agreed. We had met Carol several years before when we had hired her company, 13th Floor Architects, to design the renovation of our business offices. Carol is an accomplished architect, designer and friend. She's also part owner of Reading Rocks, an indoor climbing gym, which would come in handy later on. As it happened, Carol had lost her mother just a few months previous. Many of her recent architectural jobs had been routine bread and butter-type stuff, and she said she was looking for a challenge; something to get lost in for a while. I carefully brought up the subject of "Ascension", and she immediately latched onto it, wanting to hear more about my design ideas, and the script. (I'm always very careful when I mention that we're making a movie. For some reason, in this town people react in one of two ways - they either nod politely and excuse themselves, or they ask if it's pornography, and if they can be involved.)
Much to my amazement, Carol began designing. She drew the entire Titan station as I imagined it. We had several grueling discussions about endless details - "Do these people take showers? Where do they keep their clothes? How do they make their meals? What are the walls made of?" Carol breathed life into the concepts that had existed on a printed page for almost 2 years. The really uncanny thing, is that she managed to come up with three dimensional designs that looked different, felt creepy, and most important, seemed hauntingly real.
NUTS AND BOLTS
Now the tough part. It's all fun and exciting to imagine these details, to dream up characters and situations, design sets, and think-up lighting schemes, but somehow, with no money, we had to get this on film. As I imagined it, the ultimate nirvana would be to construct the entire station in an open warehouse, and be able to move through the sets, room by room, hallway by hallway without cutting. This would give the viewer a real sense of geography, not to mention claustrophobia. This would also help the actors imagine that the environment was real, and not a cheap cardboard set. Okay, so let's say we manage to find a space for the right amount of money (practically none), who's going to build all this? Before I knew what was happening, I heard Carol say she could do it, with a little help from us and a few friends. We all nodded in agreement at this splendid idea - after all, I built a model boat trailer out of wood when I was 9 - it couldn't be that tough.
We found a large space with 17 foot ceilings, in a former home center. The building was now owned by a client of Carol's, who ran a medical supply store out of the middle of three huge slices of building. The space was reasonably quiet (except between the hours of 7AM and 6PM, when a monster HVAC system cranked air through overhead ducks into the store next door - but hey, we could shoot a lot without sound, and what we did with sound we could shoot on the weekends or at night), it was big, and we negotiated a fair price.
CASH: or THIS WON'T HURT A BIT
Let me digress for a moment to wail about budgets. We knew the cost was more than we could afford, but we figured that if we stretched production over a long enough period of time, the cash drain from our business wouldn't be that noticeable. Kind of like embezzling from yourself - this won't hurt a bit.
Do I think we made the right decision to build the station as a whole, swallowing the money and committing ourselves to endless construction hours? Of course. I believe the film has a coherent look and feel far beyond its meager cash resources. There were only two minor details we overlooked in our zealous haste to begin work on the film: The rented space had no bathroom, no running water, not even a close-by friendly bush or tree. The other minor problem was the complete lack of heat or air conditioning. We figured this wouldn't matter all that much, since our schedule called for set construction through the summer, shooting to begin by the middle of September, and a wrap party somewhere around Christmas. Ho Ho Ho.
IT'S BIGGER THAN WE THOUGHT
Carol had outlined the entire station floor plan in chalk, on the floor of the warehouse space. It squeezed in nicely between the doors, danced across the hanging air vents, and nestled snugly virtually wall to wall. This was neat. You could walk down a chalk hallway, check out the cabin facilities on your way through the gateway, and take a nice stroll up the spiral of the observation deck chalk stairs. But wait a minute. All this chalk had to be filled in with lots of wood, plastic, paint and sweat. Oh boy, maybe this might take a little longer then we planned. "When do think the sets will be finished Carol? We said we wanted to start shooting in September, right? When do you think the sets will be finished Carol?"
Carol and friends worked through that hot summer - first framing everything, then moving on to rough surfacing, then detailing. My wife and business partner Lorrie and I helped whenever possible - painting, cutting, splattering, you name it. Of course this was all in our "spare" time. We had to keep our business profitable so we could feed our growing addiction, as we were now full-fledged celluloid junkies. For months prior to this time, I'd been collecting odd pieces of junk - old electronics, plastic containers, pipes, tubes, wire, thingamajigs, whatzits, and hoozywhats. A substantial pile began to accumulate in the basement at work. One day, I proudly loaded all this stuff into our van and drove it over to the emerging set. Much to my dismay, my cherished pile of junk barely made a dent in the massive space. A sad thought reverberated through my brain - we needed a lot more stuff.
Our regular hangouts became Lowes, Home Depot, and a variety of junk and material dealers. The trick was to find unusual or interesting-looking objects and materials that were just waiting to be reincarnated. For instance, "these paint trays would look great flipped upside down, painted white, and hung as cabinet doors". Or, "this attic vent stuff would look superb on the ceilings of our hallways." You get the idea.
SEEING THE LIGHT
The original concept was to have 90% of the lighting built into the sets themselves; as many practical fixtures as possible. That way, we could move quickly, finding angles and blocking scenes without the restriction of moving lights. Although a great idea, this never quite worked the way we envisioned. We used a lot of fluorescent fixtures, which we had to gel to correct for their green hue. This cut back the output of the lamp, which was marginal to begin with. In addition, we saved money by not installing actual lamp fixtures behind many of the light panels. We simply used a sheet of frost, and blasted the panel from behind with a 650 or 1K light. To get the proper modeling on our actor's faces though, we still ended up bringing in diffusion panels, foamcore and a slew of lights.
PEOPLE TO LIGHT
We cast the film in September. We wanted to use Paul Nolan, an actor out of the Philadelphia area in the lead. For the other two roles, our friends at Philadelphia Casting set up a limited casting session at a very reasonable price. Because there were only three roles, we felt that we could use SAG actors, and pay them on the low-low budget scale - necessitating full scale payment when the film was picked up for distribution. Unbelievably, the actors agreed to what amounted to about $75 a day. This small salary, coupled with an average 1 hour drive back and forth for each of them, made me realize the extent they must have believed in the project - either that or they just didn't realize what they were getting into.
Finally, by the end of October, we had one set ready to shoot. This was a month off of our original schedule, but we figured we could eat a month's rent on the building if we had to. The first scenes we shot were in Hayes’ cabin. Since everything was done MOS, we were able to shoot during the day, starting on Halloween.
We forged on, shooting mostly on weekends, and stealing occasional days during the week whenever our work schedules would permit. We slowly worked our way through the cabin scenes, and started the scenes in the galley around Thanksgiving. By this time, it was apparent that our original plan of wrapping by Christmas was wildly optimistic. One of the trickier scenes involved Hayes’ decent into the gateway room at the start of the film. A small platform was built directly over the set, whereby myself and an assistant could precariously perch to obtain an overhead shot of his decent. The only hitch in all this is that Paul Nolan, who portrayed Hayes, has a wicked fear of heights. The apprehension in his face as he carefully descends into the depths of the station was not a result of acting, but a result of his own sheer terror. Paul was a real trooper though, even showing up at Carol's indoor climbing gym to take a quick lesson in rappelling before the shoot.
Our original plan of having the entire station built as one flowing set, never really came together until the shooting was nearly finished. As it worked out, we would finish each set, then move in and shoot for a couple weeks as Carol frantically strove to finish the next one. To save money, we also skillfully cannibalized each set after shooting, using pieces and materials to complete the next set.
Shooting sync sound was always difficult. First, we had to schedule around the HVAC hum, and second, we were using the poor man's 35mm sound system - an old Arri 2C mounted snugly into a vintage 70's Cine60 sound blimp. Without the blimp, the camera often sounds like an old Messerschmitt running on 2 cylinders. But hermetically sealed within this state-of-the-art fiberglass and rubber enclosure, it sounds like a distant diesel locomotive with a 57 car haul. Suffice it to say, that blimp technology, sound recording, and set padding and soundproofing, progressed to a level akin to the spiritual arts over the course of the production. Film loop size, magazine selection, and even personal clothing selection was all meticulously scrutinized whenever sound recording was deemed necessary. But why, you might ask did we put up with such a seemingly primitive system? The answer's easy - money. I owned the camera and lenses as part of our commercial business, and camera rental costs for a production strung over an entire year would have been prohibitively expensive. Despite all the hassles however, the camera still produced a steady, silky 35mm image.
ALWAYS A JUNKIE
ASCENSION was shot almost exclusively on the new 500 speed Kodak Vision stock. A few early tests confirmed that the new film was sharp, grainless and truly had a 500 speed structure. This stock literally saved the day in many cases, allowing us to shoot the majority of the interiors at around 20 footcandles, sometimes using only one or two fluorescent bulbs as a key, or even a standard flashlight. But shooting on 35mm can be an expensive proposition, with new stock costs reaching almost 60 cents a foot. To circumvent this problem, we dealt with a short and medium end reseller. Lengths ranging from 150 to 800 feet could be obtained for as low as 20 cents a foot, making the raw stock costs nearly comparable to 16mm. As in the feeding of other less than reputable habits, the key is establishing a good rapport with your dealer. Since you have to buy the film as it becomes available, I would often receive mysterious phone calls after business hours that went something like this: "John, we have some good stuff coming in tomorrow. Can we count you in? If you don't buy it, I know others that will. It's like gold, it won't be here long... John?" Though shamed and disgusted with my weakness, I could never say no.
The lab set was pretty much my concoction. It wasn't ready until February, so we were now almost two months behind, with less than half of the movie in the can. All I remember about shooting in the lab, is being cold. Not having a heating source didn't seem like a big problem in July, but now it was. For lunch one day, we turned on a 1K light and blasted it at a table for warmth.
I knew that the scenes in the observation room were going to be difficult to shoot, so we slowly worked our way, scene by scene, upriver to that distant goal: in uncharted territory that wreaked of madness, sleep deprivation, and runaway film consumption.
As production dragged on, the winter changed to spring, bringing a welcome relief from the cold weather. We cut the film on an avid as the dailies came back from the lab. I must say that I was never disappointed in the quality of the film we were shooting, just the quantity.
IT'S A SMALL WORLD
By July, Carol had finished work on the station model, and we moved it into our cramped tabletop studio at Imageworks. The summer heat was beginning to get to us on the big set, and shooting the model at our business studio brought the welcome relief of air conditioning. To simulate the storm environment, we used lots of stage smoke, blasted with air compressors, fans, and even small bottles of dust-off. We were all enamored with the precise detail and craftsmanship that Carol brought to the model, allowing us to get in fairly tight and still come away with believable shots. Because our tabletop studio is only about 20 x 15 feet, we could quickly fill it up with stage smoke, to simulate the deadly atmosphere of Titan. We doubled the camera speed to obtain a slight slo-motion effect for larger scale. After I called cut, and the din of the roaring camera, smoke machine, fans and air blowers came to a stop, we would carefully find our way to the door - in smoke so thick you could barely make out your hand in front of you.
We wrapped production shooting on the observation deck set - the most painful and harrowing procedure yet. We put a small air-conditioner into one wall of the set, hoping that would be sufficient to tame the stifling heat inside. Although the word "sufficient" falls way short of what really happened, the air conditioner and myriad fans made it cool enough to support life between takes for each set-up. Rather than rely on uncertain and expensive post-production techniques to produce the storm outside the windows, we devised an elaborate human-powered system of smoke generators, fans, and boxes full of puffed rice cereal all designed to pummel the windows during a shot. The orange backdrop was a large cyclorama, erected from drywall, and creatively painted to represent the nebulous Titan landscape. Of course, all of this activity produced an unpleasant racket that made sound recording on these shots impossible. Wherever you see a window shot, we post-synced all the sound.
After a couple of slow, hot days on the set, one began to question the sanity of it all. Our actors would sit in front of industrial-strength fans between takes, and crew people came up with more and more intriguing and elaborate excuses for their absence. To add salt to the wound, I developed an intense inner ear infection at the start of shooting one sweltering Saturday morning. Sweating profusely, dizzy to the point of not being able to stand unassisted, and vomiting on everything and everyone in sight, my wife took me to the emergency room. I knew Id eventually be OK, but some of the crew were convinced I was suffering a heart attack, and that all their work on the film would be for naught. Although the infection cleared after a few days in bed, the setback wasn't exactly inspiration for a triumphant finish.
Shooting wrapped about mid-August. I did an assemblage of all the scenes, and further trimmed and fussed until I had to give it to our composer, Len Miller for scoring. I went on night shift editing, so that our on-line Avid system could still be used during the day for paying work. While Len worked on the score, I would review each scene, then carefully devise a list of sound effects and foley work that needed to be completed. Len would send the music cuts as they were finished, and we slowly built up the dense forest of sounds and music that envelopes the film. We wanted the music to be part of the sound, winding its way dreamlike through scenes, the audience not aware when sound effects blended into music and vice versa. We tried not to use music under dialogue scenes, as I dislike the forced emotionalism of this technique. All in all, I was quite happy with both the music and sound, as it added a depth and richness to the imagery that couldn't be achieved in any other way.
THE THIRD TRIMESTER
We premiered the first cut of the film for the cast and crew on - appropriately one year from the start of production, and again on Halloween day. We projected the film from our Digital Betacam video master (A negative cut was in the works) , and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
For months you think about, care for, faun over, and coddle this, this thing you're creating. Through the selfless efforts of many dedicated people, despite hardships and seemingly insurmountable problems, it somehow slides kicking and screaming from the warm, safe womb that's been its home for so long. Now it's out there, separated, for everyone to see. Watching it on premier night, gave me the creepy feeling that for better or worse, it was now an entity removed from me. I could help it along, maybe even spend more money and time trying to give it the right direction, but ultimately, it was there and I was here. It is true what they say: giving birth is a miracle..