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May 15, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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How to Spend $100,000

Last year a group of four young women—Claris Jacobs, Minnie Grace, and sisters Elsie and Sally Bollinger—submitted an application to NZ On Air (NZOA) with the hope of acquiring funding for a new project. The group, who banded together a few years ago as The Candle Wasters, already had two successful web-series under their belts, and they had designs on a third. Their previous projects, the YouTube Shakespeare adaptations Nothing Much To Do and Lovely Little Losers, racked up over four million episode views between them, and the group was eager to find out what their track record was worth. Their new pitch was for a web-series adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be called Bright Summer Night. (As clarified for me later: “Not Bright Summer Nights. Not Bright Summer’s Night. No possessives.”). The new series was an ambitious step for the group. Leaving behind the confessional video-diary style of their first two series, they planned a slicker, more professional shoot. They would hire an experienced director of photography, and would limit the series to ten tight episodes of five or six minutes each, a reduction from the seventy-odd instalments of both Nothing and Losers. They applied for the whole $100,000 available from NZOA’s Digital Media Fund (DMF), and expected to see maybe a part of it, enough to cover some of the costs of production. To their surprise, they were approved for the full amount.

I showed up to the set one afternoon in April, on a day most of the way through the three week shoot for Bright Summer Night. The call time was noon, a later start than most days, because there was an outdoor scene scheduled which required the crew to keep filming until late that night. All going well, the eleven or twelve hours on set for the cast and crew would yield about three or four minutes of footage in the final cut. The shoot had been months in the preparing, and the logistics were immense. After their approval for funding last year, the team split off into production roles and began putting together a shoot. They had brought on board an experienced producer, Bevin Linkhorn, to help produce and another frequent collaborator, Robbie Nicol, also joined them as an honorary Candle Waster. Dividing the job of writing scripts between them, the Wasters took charge of two episodes each. Then Elsie and Sally took on the role of directing the shoot, Claris became the production designer, and Minnie joined Bevin as a producer. Robbie was in charge of continuity (of all the jobs on set, this was probably the one I envied the least), and Jen Smith stepped into the notoriously fearsome role of first assistant director. Later, an open call for auditions received over two hundred responses.

The series was being shot on location, at Robbie’s house in the green back blocks of Kelburn. The place had been emptied of occupants, and transformed into a film set version of a party-stricken flat. True to its title, the story of Bright Summer Night takes place over the course of a single night at a particularly dramatic student rager, so all the windows of the house had been blacked out, and fairy lights were strung up from anywhere that would hold them. As the shoot moved between all the different rooms of the house, the behind-the-scenes arrangements (dressing room, monitor suite) shuffled around to accommodate the cameras and lights. There wasn’t a space left in the two-storey house that hadn’t been co-opted for the production at some point. When I arrived I asked where I could plant myself without getting in the way, and was directed to a seat in the hallway, which was about the only free space there was anyway. The day’s shoot was taking place in the upstairs rooms, and while Sally and the lighting team were setting up for the first scene of the day, the other crew members were making sure they had everything in order for when they got the call. Robbie scrutinised some complicated-looking continuity forms, and Minnie was on a laptop, occasionally talking into a walkie-talkie microphone attached to an earpiece. Elsie, who wasn’t directing until later in the evening, had started to edit the previous day’s scenes. I asked how many people were in the crew and they looked between each other, unsure. Robbie offered: “Ten? Five? Twenty?” He shrugged. “I dunno. It’s not my job.” Elsie counted off the different roles, and arrived at about fifteen. I asked if I could go upstairs to check out the scene in preparation, and Minnie passed on the question to her walkie-talkie. The answer came back from Jen, and Minnie relayed it. “Not right now. She’ll say when.”

It was quiet downstairs. People were mostly absorbed in the details of their own jobs. On a film set there seems to be one of everyone, each with their own highly specific task. Somehow an amazing ecosystem emerges out of it all, like a big, elaborate trust fall. In the quiet I thought of that way that someone described war, as something like, “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.” I knew that as the day went on, and the tight schedule was either abided or not, stress levels would inch up, but at the moment there was relative peace. The only panic was when Chloe from unit (responsible for the production’s food and drinks) announced they had run out of all but plant milk, though she soon found a runner to go down to the supermarket to get some normal milk and a crisis was averted.

Eventually the crew finished their preparations, and the filming began. I went upstairs and took a seat in the corner of the room, with a view of the monitor. The action was happening in the next room over behind a mostly-closed door. Gathered around the screen, the production team watched the camera feed closely. Robbie scribbled constant notes in his folder and consulted his stopwatch,  occasionally snapping a photo of the screen with his phone. The actors on the monitor were sitting on a couch, having a heart-to-heart. There was no sound from the monitor though, and all I could hear was what made it through from the other side of the door. One of the characters, played by Maddie Adams, seemed worried about something that had happened at the party and her friend, played by Kalisha Wasasala, was reassuring her. “He thinks you’re hot.” Maddie sighed. Sally was happy with the shot after a few takes, and the crew reset for a different angle. Someone in the room moved a prop speaker to fit the new frame, and Robbie winced. Jen saw him and smiled, yelling into the room, “you’re getting on continuity’s bad side!”

After a few more shots, and some vigilant updates from Jen about exactly how many minutes were left in the schedule, the scene was finished on time. We got kicked out again as the crew began setting up for a new scene in the room we were in. I went back downstairs and stepped outside, and took a minute to readjust to the daylight from the faux nighttime indoors. Just outside the front door, on the path that leads down to the road, Chloe was setting up the unit table. There were big jugs for hot water and coffee, endless Nice biscuits and Oreos, and now, thankfully, proper milk. The beginnings of a spread for the lunch break—which today would be closer to dinner—were coming together. Burgers were on the menu, with heaps of trimmings and vegan alternatives. The presence of a unit on the production took me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The funding from NZOA didn’t just allow for the Candle Wasters to shoot for professionalism, it actually obliged them to. The guidelines for the DMF submissions say that everyone involved in the webseries project should be contracted under industry approved contracts, which means that if you take the NZOA money, everyone you use has to get fed and paid. As huge an amount as it sounds, even $100,000 wasn’t enough to pay everyone their usual rates, but a dose of goodwill made up the shortfall. Personnel costs took up the biggest chunk of the budget, and the evidence of this was everywhere: the coffee-fetching, the patient waiting around, the respected hierarchies. People weren’t just playing along for the free refreshments and the chance at internet fame; they were there because they wanted to do their job. There was something kind of strange, and really cool, about seeing all these young people get to take themselves seriously, and be taken seriously, while doing what they loved doing. There were high school students working on set, alongside older, experienced professionals, and the earnestness of everyone’s commitment made a perfect leveller.

I had been warned earlier in the day that if I hung around the set for too long, I would find myself cast as an extra. (Extras are the one exception to the “industry approved contracts” rule, and the production couldn’t get enough of them). But I didn’t take the warning seriously enough, and soon I was hustled away to the dressing room to get into costume. I was to play an anonymous partygoer, dressed in fairy wings and a floral headband to fit the theme of the fictional party, and my job was to stand around in the background and fill out the shot. Sitting in the makeup chair, I was asked which colour glitter—gold, purple, or white—I’d prefer on my face. After some initial concern from the dressing room chorus that white might look too much like sweat, Claris smeared a chapstick over my cheekbones and tastefully dabbed me with fine body glitter. Properly costumed, I went upstairs to await my direction. I was handed a plastic cup of green juice by the art director, Nic, and I chatted quietly with the other extras while Sally choreographed the actors and discussed framing with the director of photography. I put my cup down next to some others on a side table and ran downstairs to get my camera. I came back up and started taking photos, and when I realised I didn’t have my cup anymore it was too late. The little side table where I put it was now the centre of attention, with the two main actors of the scene sitting either side of it. The crew was lining up their shot, with my misplaced drink in the middle of it, and Jen called for silence. I found Robbie and whispered to him, “I left my cup on that table.” He laughed and shook his head, then walked through the scene like it was nothing and retrieved it for me. My heart rate slowed back down. With my cup safely back in hand, I went to other side of the room for a different angle to photograph. I put my cup on the piano while I undid my camera case, and Jen saw me and muttered in a low voice, “oh you are not putting your cup there.” I apologised and picked it up again, and awkwardly opened the camera case while holding my cup as well, trying not to spill anything.

A little later when my scene began, I was instructed to stand near the fireplace and pretend to be at a party. I remembered a lesson from drama class that the most convincing way to act drunk is actually to act sober, so I leaned against the mantelpiece in the background and swayed slightly. It was a brief shot. It had one character, played by Jack Buchanan, say goodbye to some friends and then introduce himself to Maddie’s character as she plonked herself down next to him. A few takes later the crew rearranged for a different angle, and a slightly earlier part of the scene. In this new part I had to join a throng of hectic dancers, which I dutifully did even though the thought of being documented on the internet trying to look rhythmically coordinated filled me with dread. When the scene was done and people started dispersing for their late lunch, I told Jen I was going to take off my fairy wings because my bit was done, and she said “when you think you can take your wings off, that’s when they tell you to put them back on.” Sure enough, I was soon bribed with free food to stay for the last of the day’s indoor scenes, which was being filmed after the break. Even though I wanted to go home because I thought I’d already scribbled down enough notes to eke out a decent article, I gave in to the bribes and stayed.

When the final indoor scene began after lunch, stress mounted for the higher-ups when a shot took longer than expected to get. It was more complicated than the others, with a couple of character entrances and exits, and a double layer of action. Two main characters were arguing bitterly while a third in the background slowly pushed a glass full of milk off the edge of the bench. The deadline approached when the crew would have to start setting up outside to film, and it became clear that they weren’t going to fit in all the shots inside that were scheduled. While the cast and crew waited on their orders, there was a hushed discussion about what shots could be possibly filmed later or, if it came to it, dropped. Everyone dealt with the stress differently, and the team variously paced, or stayed meditatively still, or slumped into armchairs in resignation. Robbie joined Sally in solidarity and said, cheerfully, “yep this is the most stressful moment so far.” In consultation with the director of photography, the Wasters settled on a compromise. Sally walked back into the scene and corralled the crew and actors to hurry them through one last take. “Our lack of time is unfortunate,” she announced with a smile, then she launched into the newly hatched plan. Everyone listened patiently, and then they got down to work.

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