Simple Math: Breakdown

The River Knows: Simple Math

The sequel to “The Ghost Under the Bridge” is “The River Knows: Simple Math”, where we pick up the story after Det. Day discovers there may or may not be something quite right with his head, with the introduction of Arnold Manley and his strange coin that is capable of doing so much more…

The script for “Simple Math”: the genesis of the sequel was first and foremost to establish Manley as a character in this world; plus when I used Dennis Scullard as the homeless man, I saw something about his character and his acting where I thought that it would be interesting to see if I could expand upon his role. And behold: the homeless man in “Ghost” became a secret agent that Manley reported to.

Casting: I had talked to Murray Farnell to play Arnold Manley way back in February 2012 and he was interested at that time. Murray has an extensive theatrical and improvisational background, and I love improv. Murray was a real pleasure to work with.

The first segment of “Simple Math”, in the “jail-cell bank vault” was actually shot last; the last segment was shot first at Omand’s Park, about mid-October. I wanted to shoot at dusk to take advantage of the light and it was by chance that it was a slightly overcast evening, meaning the light was diffuse and the shadows, long. I brought along a slider kit along with two lav mic packs (a sony UHF and a Samson micro), my magic lantern-bricked t2i, ART preamp, Z96 LED light, and Varavon armour cage. The ART preamp was a real find, as it allowed me to pop in 2 mono lines right into my magic-lanterned t2i for about $60 with beautiful preamp clean gain. The sony is a great lav; the samson, not so much, although quite frankly I think it has to do with the relatively cheaper lav microphone the samson came with. I’m thinking about buying a new lav mic for the samson, which otherwise is an interesting lav UHF mic pack on its own. It’s only got two channels, it’s pretty cheap-looking, but very small and compact. Unfortunately it can’t run right into the t2i on its own, it has to be preamped. My Varavon cage is very versatile, well-built, has just the right amount of inserts for extra equipment attachments, is not too heavy. I use my z96 LED light a lot as well, given the right circumstances. It works best when working about 5-10 feet from your talent in somewhat dark conditions and gives just the right amount of fill light to highlight the face and enunciate the eyes. You would probably need a little more accentuating light for “noir” work than just using the z96 but otherwise it works as advertised.

I worked on some slider shots, which were alright but I realized they weren’t going to add much to the scene. I tend to work fast and want to move from angle to angle fairly quickly and if there isn’t going to be payoff in a shot that will take more setup and execution time, then I’m not going to spend time on it.

Lenses: I pretty much use the 17-50mm 2.8 Tamron 90% of the time rather than my Sigma 30mm 1.4. While the Sigma is better in low light, it isn’t sharper. The bokeh is slightly better than the Tamron but not enough to justify changing lenses from a zoom to a prime. I noticed as well taht The Tamron is able to absorb the Z96 LED light quite well whereas with the Sigma the highs, even in dark lighting, tend to get blown out. I also like to add that I like shooting all the way open and rarely adjust my aperture.

The second scene, in the bank vault, was a little more difficult to arrange as I had to find, well…a jail. Something with bars. Unfortunately the location I wanted–the Vaughn jail cell–was closed and is pretty much condemned. So I needed to find a replacement. I knew there were a few old vintage buildings in Winnipeg’s Exchange that used to serve as banks, as well as the odd building that used to house old insurance companies. Those places have all sorts of vintage-looking bank vaults. I  know for a fact an innocuous-looking building on Broadway used to house one of the oldest insurance companies in Canada, and had in its basement a surprisingly huge vault that could have easily served as a set for many a bank robbery scene in film. Alas it was torn out. In any case, I was looking everywhere–anywhere–and was on the point of rewriting the scene when a location came through last-minute–the Millenium Centre on Main St.  Big kudos to Jonathan Couchman for letting me in the building. The Millenium Centre used to house a bank and it’s a gorgeous building. Currently it is used as an events place for the city as a stop-gap measure to prevent it being torn down, which would be a very sad day if that occurred.

In any case, for this particular scene, Manley has to interrogate a “detained” asset–code for an enemy spy. The “enemy” spies are the ones who kidnapped the teacher in “Ghost” and basically tortured her to death in some kind of Nazi-esque medical experiment, with paranormal overtones. Essentially, they wanted to make her a ghost–for what reasons shall be related in a future episode. Manley is instructed to interrogate the asset using his…special skills. Essentially Manley can use his coin to “reckon spells”. His actual abilities at this point are unknown, but at the very least Manley can manipulate physical objects–including human bodies and their functions–at a distance.

Here’s where the fun “special effects” came into play. I added some CGI to showcase Manley’s coin “at work”. But for the first scene, I wanted to explore some practical effects with some simple post trickery. The scene was, Manley would “open” the locked jail cell using his coin. Then, the “asset”, after discovering Manley’s intention was to torture him for information, would rush Manley, at which point Manley would use his coin again to throw the asset against the wall and pin him, as if by an invisible fist. Which is exactly what I did.

The jail cell-opening was itself pretty simple. Basically the actors used their feet to subtly nudge the jail cell open. The “invisible-fist” scene was a little more involved. What I did was, I got Murray to get out of frame but below Jay (the asset) and…shove his arm underneath his shirt. I then filmed Murray withdrawing his arm and moving it around grotesquely a la “Alien” a few takes, and then filmed the scenes with Murray and Jay–who pinned himself up against the wall–with a toque stuffed under Jay’s shirt to denote the presence of the “invisible fist”. Then I made sure I got enough coverage to get all the action shots I needed.

The rest I worked out in post. One of the goals with “Simple Math” and “Ghost” for that matter, was to explore and really push the audio aspect. Audio, when money for visual effects is severely lacking, can do a lot. The cell door unlocking, the electric hum of the coin denoting its strange power, the clash of metal as the asset is flung and pinned against the jail cell…really all of visual effects have their power coming from 90% of the audio effects. The visual editing itself was a breeze in comparison to how many layers of sound design I made for the audio effects. Basically with the “invisible fist”, I simple reversed the direction of Murray’s fist and sped up the relevant shots to make everything look smooth but violent at the same time.

I realized when I planned and then edited these shots, and used Hollywood films as a reference, that action sequences are edited by suggestion rather than outright presentation–the edits and the audio are edited tight and fast together to suggest action, but clean and slow enough through the suture to ensure that suggestion “makes sense”. For instance, just dissect an action scene or shooting scene in an action film, and note how quick the edits are to suggest the “impact” rather than show the entire delivery. Overall this movie was an interesting experiment, and hopefully people will enjoy it. FIN

“Smash Hit” Trailer

“Smash Hit” is a story about an unpopular, “un-pretty” athletic mean girl Lindsay and her tense relationship with her neo-hippie mother Sherry, whom she feels doesn’t pay her any attention. Along with her irrational crush on the high-school douchebag Zach and her competitive “frenemies” Candy and Beryl, Lindsay navigates the rough emotional roads of high school growing pains.

Check out the trailer below!

America, start depicting Canada right

“Due South”: a Canadian show catering to American stereotypes

I was watching an episode of “Shameless”, a Showtime show that itself is based on a UK drama/comedy about a drunkard father Frank Gallagher (played by William H. Macy) and his family forced to fend for themselves. In the second episode of the first season Frank, while passed out, gets deliberately dropped off in Toronto after pissing off his eldest daughter’s boyfriend. Frank wakes up in a clean park and sees something that isn’t right: two female joggers wearing Canada flags on their sweaters, Canadian flags on flagstaffs, and then the two female joggers complaining to an obvious red-suited Canadian Mountie riding on a horse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve watched an American stereotype of Canada in a television show–the continual references to “eh?”, the diatribes against our “socialist” health care system, how every Canadian loves, and is good at, hockey, how Quebec and Montreal are both regarded as strangely exotic and yet sexualized within the context of prostitutes, strippers and porn–and it’s always been mildly annoying. The fact of the matter is, if a significant percentage of American television shows are actually filmed in Canada, isn’t it time we forced these productions to depict Canada correctly?

American television and movie production companies and networks have been successfully lobbied by African-American and Latino-American cultural interest groups to reduce or stop depicting all gangsters and criminals as black or latino (think about it: lately in mainstream movies marketed towards kids and adults, have you ever seen criminals as anything other than white?) because they believe perpetuating these stereotypes is harmful. Then why should the depiction of Canada and Canadians be any different?

For example, in the “Shameless” episode, the big obvious stereotype is that Mounties still wear their stereotypical red serge uniforms, as if we are still stuck in the late 1800’s. As well, Mounties are part of the federal police force or RCMP and do not have jurisdiction in our major Canadian cities. Or that we continually say “eh?” Or that we love hockey (I don’t, sorry). Or that we are continually “nice”.

The annoying thing is when we have academics who defend American stereotypes of other nations. Check out this article for instance, which is a paper a Canadian academic student wrote on the how Canada is depicted on “How I Met Your Mother” through their Canadian character. While the author admits that the writers for “How I Met Your Mother” initially told Cobie Smulders, who plays the Canadian on the show, that they would make her character Canadian in order to play with and break down Canadian stereotypes, indeed the exact opposite occurred, where the main writer for the show admitted it was the basis for tasteless jokes. While the author of this paper goes on to argue that even if the tasteless jokes about being Canadian abound in the show, at the same time some presentation of Canadian-ness is a good thing rather than being totally absent; and furthermore, these jokes are ok because underlying them is a love for Cobie Smulders Canadian character Robin. The overall argument is that however difference is depicted, the overall goal of the depiction is to explore difference rather than perpetuate negative stereotypes.

I would argue that that this argument is naive and white-washes what these writers of these American shows are actually doing. Sure, Americans make fun of themselves as much as other parts of the world, i.e. the hick from the South with the heavy drawl, the snobby North-easterner, the Minnesotan dialect and naivety. But let’s call this type of humor for what it is: mockery, the lowest common denominator of humor. When difference between people is used as the basis of humor, it indicates an insecurity and an attempt to reassert power in the dynamic by reducing the Other to something controllable, contextualized, and ultimately “safe”. But at the same time good writers know that what they write, especially when it is shot and seen by millions of people around the nation and the world, has an impact on the perception of a particular set of people. And in fact, it is a slippery slope to outright racism, where the only mark of demarcation between mockery and prejudice is the extent to which people hold onto their stereotype to define the other person, or know innately that the Other person is a more complicated being and, to a great degree, cannot be defined.

So what’s the point? Balance. If you’re a writer and you’re going to mock someone, make sure you mock yourself at the same time. If you’re a writer and want to use stereotypes to make cheap jokes, make sure at some point you deflate or destroy those stereotypes as well. While there are some Canadian writers for these shows who would argue that when they make jokes, they’re doing it in some kind of post-modern, winking way, like “these Americans are stupid anyways so we’ll just write what they expect and we’ll laugh on the inside”, it still admits that they are catering to American stereotypes and in fact, on some level are gutless enough to make their writing safe to appease their American bosses. So that argument doesn’t fly with me.

For example, I still remember an Archie comic book segment where Archie’s jalopy breaks down in the country and a hick country girl helps him fix his car. Archie jokes with Jughead that he’s going to show this hick country girl a good time by taking her out on a date, and dazzle her with the few bucks he’s got. In a complete turnaround, the girl dresses up in expensive clothes, showcases her farm as a complicated piece of social machinery, drives an expensive sports car, and actually gives Archie money on the date. Archie is left aghast at his former ignorance. So when I cite an Archie comic, of all places, where stereotypes become inversed, it merely showcases that writing smart isn’t limited to art house films. Writing smart is a choice. While I think the writers of “How I Met My Mother” are reveling in their exploration of Robin’s “Canadian-ness”, I do think they could be doing it in a smarter way. The author of the academic paper seems to highlight examples of when the writers do exactly this, but frankly the examples are still maudlin and the basis of the humor is still mockery, even if the “human-ness” of Robin is purported to underline the humor and thus somehow justify its mockery.

What we should do on the Canadian side is withhold our tax credits to these American productions if they continue to portray these insipid Canadian stereotypes. And the least these American production companies can do is at least depict Canadian police officers in their correct uniform when they have a Canadian location written in the story. The least you can be is accurate.