Making a Book Trailer (4): Filming the Refound

Filming was done primarily in early evenings during July. Tim Schafer, the cameraman, had to attend to his job as a news photographer during working hours, and in any case Pillai wanted to take advantage of the slant natural light available later in the day.

To pick up a theme—Stuff I Didn’t Know About—that runs through these posts, I was surprised by the camera Tim pulled out of his bag on the first day of shooting. I expected something like the cameras I’ve seen moviemakers and journalists use, not a 35 mm SLR. As Tim explained, however, the Canon Rebel T2i is capable of excellent visuals in movie mode. It is not meant for high-end sound recording, but that was no problem for our purposes, since we weren’t planning to include much diegetic sound. Tim’s camera was the means by which noises of the bathroom shower and Omar’s panting were captured—I’ll comment on these scenes in later posts—but most of the audio was obtained by other devices.

Tim began by taking still photographs to capture moments and investigate the light both inside and outside the house. It was great, he said, to see so much wildlife and vegetation, for there would be many opportunities to catch striking patterns of movement, light, and shadow as the sun filtered through the trees. Although most of these first images were exploratory, one shot did make it through the final cut, an extreme close-up of a painting over the fireplace.

When I saw this slice of the painting in the trailer, I did not recognize the object I saw. Was that rough surface, I wondered, the trunk of the old crab apple in the backyard, spray-painted blue by Consumers Energy to indicate that its branches needed to be trimmed away from power lines? In this instance I re-experienced one of the issues explored by the Companion: how our things become invisible to us, and re-visible through the attention of camera or words.

Timothy H. Schafer is a graduate of Michigan State University in creative writing and telecommunications. He also studied journalism at Wayne State. “I like my job at [television station] WLNS-TV, where I am a photographer, but I don’t watch the news much,” Tim says. “I still write some poetry. Jack Gilbert is probably my favorite poet. I don’t read as much as I’d like. I’d like to be a better cook.”

Pillai wanted to shoot a good deal of the footage in extreme close-up, using a macro lens. His idea, I believe, was to create an Expressionist sort of emotional intensity through such images. Several scenes in the finished trailer testify to the success of this approach.

The macro lens presents some technical problems, or to put it better, offers a different set of visual circumstances to work with. The depth of space within focus is shallow, so that any moving subject becomes blurred. This effect can be used to advantage, as in the scene in the trailer in which a solitary ant crawls over a rough, woody surface, most of the time out of focus, and only briefly in the lens’s sweet spot. My experience, as I watch this segment, is one of wanting that ant to crawl into focus so I can see it clearly. Here another concern of the Companion comes up: how to see things aright before it is too late.

The Companion mentions the “lady luck of language,” and the filming taught me something about the luck of the lens. You have an idea about what to shoot, Tim told me, and you try to capture something that’s available only for a moment. Before the scene of the lone ant occurred, we noticed many ants scurrying about a log that he tried to record but couldn’t get. Having moved on to other shots, he happened to spot our ant, set up his camera, and recorded the insect’s wandering motions. The ant struts and frets its seconds upon the stage, and then is seen no more, making a dramatic exit out of sight over the far edge of the wood.

More good fortune came our way with the stamps, which, as the Companion describes, were one of the final items Joel gave us. Pillai, ever interested in the river, thought to launch a page from a book of stamps that would float downstream and make an evocative subject. The sheet of paper, however, proved to be a frail watercraft and drifted half-submerged under the surface, where it couldn’t be filmed. Richard—formally co-producer of the trailer, less formally my husband—fished it out of the water, and Pillai tried again, with no better results. But this time the page got caught in a branch just off the riverbank twenty feet downstream. Trying not to touch the poison ivy, Tim crawled through the underbrush, set up his camera, and filmed individual stamps loosening from the page, another scene that appears in the final cut of the trailer.

Pillai and Tim, as I’ve said, wanted to use natural light. The egg coddler, another of Joel’s objects, had to be filmed inside if it was to appear in a logical setting. The filmmakers first tried the room’s electric lights, but, preferring something less artificial looking, lit candles, which flickered warmly in the coddler’s reflective porcelain. They filmed my hand as I removed the top of the coddler, to accompany the words in the voice-over: “After cooking his egg, did he hold the empty coddler in his hand, still warm like a living thing?” It is, I think, a powerful, expressive sequence.

Emphasis on the natural extended to use of the objects themselves, including binoculars. Tim shot many objects; with the binoculars, he wanted to shoot using the object. The resulting point of view, he mentioned, might connect to the point of view through or into the barrel of a gun (a post on the gun is on the way!). In the stationary shot in the trailer, this perspective isn’t an illusion created in editing; the shot was actually taken through binoculars.

In movies, the illusion of looking through binoculars is invoked by two circles of vision surrounded by black, as in the greatest of through-the-binoculars movies, Rear Window. Of course, two circles are not what you see through binoculars—you see a single circle. And that’s what you see in the trailer.

Not all of this happened on the first day of filming, but I recall the moment at the end of that day when Tim loaded his footage onto my computer. I saw things I had never seen before, though again and again the subjects had performed their acts before my eyes.

I watched on my monitor as an orange and white clownfish windsock that hangs from the back deck of the house turned slowly on its axis in a quiet current of air, as if bearing a hidden spirit.

The camera had done its magic and made me see.

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