WHAT LUCK? Shooting a puppet movie


WhatLuck Poster.jpg

86 page script, a Canon 5DMK2 and 8 shooting days.

I’d been talking with Jerrold Riddenoir, a writer/director friend of mine for almost 8 months about getting a really small crew together, with minimal camera and lighting gear and shooting his 86 page romantic comedy(set in Barstow, CA) over a couple weeks when our schedules lined up.

This past August things began to align themselves and we decided to set the shoot dates, but instead of being a 10 or 12 day shooting schedule, we really could only afford  to shoot for 8 days.  The entire cast and crew voluntered their time for free.  Without them this would not have been possible.  

What I failed to mentioned earlier was not only was this a romantic comedy, this was a romantic comedy where the male lead was going to be played by a puppet.  Jerrold has been working with puppets for years and the choice to make his lead a puppet really elevated the project from your typical indie film into something pretty unique.  I remember when Jerrold first mentioned that he was going use a puppet instead of an actor, he joked that he’d rather “make” a charater than go through the stress and drama of finding the right actor to play the main character, “John”.  I’ll admit that I was extremely skeptical and wasn’t sure where the direction of this project was taking.  In July I had the chance to shoot several commercials with Jerrold for a Glendale Hyundia dealership that involved a larger than life puppet character “Billy the Bully”.  That was my first introduction to shooting any kind of puppets.  What an amazing and different experience it was that just dealing with live actors.  After shooting those spots I really got onboard with trying to do this micro budget comedy starring a puppet.


Jerrold and I had many conversations on the look and the tone he wanted for WHAT LUCK?  Budget dictated that we would be shooting with the Canon 5DMK2.  I looked at this really as a challange, rather than complain about not having the “proper” gear.  One of the biggest choices I made that ended up effecting the final look of the movie was to shoot on older Vintage Nikon lenses as oppose to the typical L-series Canon glass.  

A couple days before we starting shooting I shot tests with Canon and Nikon glass and was able to convince Jerrold that the Nikons were still “sharp” enough for him, as that was one of his major concerns when we first discussed what lenses we would use.  We were fortunate enough to have a set of Canon L series as well as a set of vintage Nikor lenses at our disposal and after testing it became clear that the Nikors would give us that “indie” feel we were going for.  They were sharp without being too sharp, and they had a uniquely organic quailty to the fall off, as well as the center sharpness of each lens.

Before stepping into WHAT LUCK? I had shot a wide range of commericals, music videos and shorts with the 5DMK2 but this truely was going to be my first experience shooting an entire feautre on this tiny little DSLR.  It’s large 35mm full frame sensor size allows for incredibly shallow depth of field, which has been one of the growing trends in cinematography, the shallower the better.  For me it continues to come down to what type of story you are trying to tell and I often find having extreme shallow focus distracting.  While most people shoot wide open to take advantage of the shallow depth of field, I tend to shoot stopped down on the 5D, which aproximates the depth of field we’re use to seeing on 35mm film.  From experience I knew my target T-stop was going to be a 5.6/8, which often at times proved challanging given our limited lightng package, and by limited I literally mean, 2 Kinos, 2 Mole Fayes and 1K open face and several bounce boards and a 2x3 flag kit.

Also, because this was a comedy I knew I wanted to shoot at a slower ISO than usual for the 5D.  I shot all of our day exteriors with 100ISO and all interiors, both day and night at 320ISO.  The 5D is an extremely fast camera and is capable of pretty extreme high ISOs, most of the time I have no problem dialing the ISO to 1000 or even 3200, however because this was a comedy I new I wanted to try to get as clean an image as possible, so I really tried to force myself into never dialing the in camera ISO past 320ISO.


I’m not sure really where to begin in even attempting to describe the 6 day experience of shooting WHAT LUCK?.  We shot in the record hottest week of the summer in the middle of the high desert.  

We pulled homeless people from the local shelters and choregraphed them for our ending musical number.  

We called triple AAA to come out an tow one of our “picture” cars and convinced the driver to let us film it as it needed to be towed for a scene, as well as having the car towed back to the owners work, so it saved one of us from having the drive it back.  Later that same day we had to again call triple AAA, this time for real, as our equipment van blew a tire turning out of a parking lot.  This was also the same day the director fell ill with heat exhaustion.  

There was never a boring day on set.  The original shooting schedule had us attempting to shoot 5 and 6 locations a day.  After we finished day one it became clear that we had to completely change the approach.  Jerrold, for all intense and purposes through out his original schedule and script and began to really focus on what his story was about.  We began to only focus on the love story of “John” and “Holly”, every scene that did not related specifically to there story was cut or rewritten.  It was defineatly an organic experience as far as starting the day with a wish list of scenes and situations and then going out and trying to shoot and capture as many of them as possible.  Whenever possible we would set up a second camera for our sit down conversation scenes.  This allowed the actors to freely improv and for the scenes to devolpe into something more than what was originally on the page.  This began crucial to our shooting style as it evolved from the beginning to the end.  Where we lost time shooting action, or shooting car scenes, we were able to make up time shooting two cameras and breeze through pages and pages dialogue.  This was essential since we had backed ourselves into a corner of having 6 days to complete the movie.

Because the 5DMK2 is such a small camera, both cameras were outfited with DVPRO rigs, which gave them a lot more stability.  Since almost the entire movie is shot handheld, the DVPRO rigs were an absolute necessity to getting a “big” camera feel.  Jerrold, the director, has a homemade dolly and homemade slider which we ended up using for some of the musical number or anytime we really wanted to slow down the pace of the film or get a more cinematic look.

One of the most dynamic and cinematic moments in the film that we shot, literally was concieved and thrown together in a matter of hours.  On the second day of production we found ourselves back at the director’s house before sunset, we had just finished shooting a scene in the bedroom when Jerrold came in and told me we were going to shoot a little montague sequence outside.  I was extremelly sketpical, I should have learned by now not to be surprised by anything on WHAT LUCK?, but I went outside none the less and quickly understood what Jerrold was wanting to capture.  We wanted to shoot a series of three vingettes that Jerrold would then edit together and then half an hour later we would use the edited vingettes and physically project them over the scenes we were going to be shooting after dinner that night.  I grabbed the crew, all three of them and quickly explained what we had to do and how we had to hustle to race the falling ambience in the sky.  Sometimes there is an indescribably energy on set where everyone is working in sync and everyone is in rythm with each other, racing to shoot these three vingettes as the sky was growing dark was one such moment.  For the most part I ended up throwing up a nice broad soft bounce little off from camera and supplementing with a nice hard edge, this warm bounced key combined with the blue and purple of the sky was truely amazing.  We must have shot the three different vingettes in less than half an hour, and they were then passed off to our asstistant director who also new how to use FCP, who then spent the next half hour transcoding the footage and splicing together a sweet little romantic montage of John and Holly (back when there realtionship was flourishing).  In the script, John late at night in his apartment decides to put a record on an reminisce about Holly, while he is reminiscing we had the background lights and lamps on dimmers and faded them out and faded in a projector which then projected images of John and Holly on the wall in John’s apartment.  I was amazed at how good it looks for our limited resources and the fact that we literally threw that scene together in a matter of hours.  I also believe we only shot one take of the actual scene with John in his apartment and you can bet that every single frame of it is in the finished film.  That scene to me was our greatest technical acheivement, by the pure speed at which we were able to accomplish the shooting, the editing and the projecting of a montage over a reallife scene.  It does truely go to show you what you can do with very limited gear, with the right skills, and the right mindset.


The race for the Slamdance deadline.  We finished shooting in Mid-August which gave Jerrold just a little less than a month to finish his film.  Within a week and a half after we wrapped production there was a rough cut. That all the department heads got together to watch and to give notes on.  Since the script was left at the door on the first day of production, Jerrold’s process in post became more about finding the story we had shot, rather than go scene by scene or page by page.  It’s refreshing to work with a director who is ego-less in terms of wanting response and feedback.  I found myself being brutally honest with my notes after the first screening and a lot of them he agreed with and the most recent version of the film I saw was 110% percent better than the first rough cut that we all watched together at The Chiodo Brother’s Studio (Associate Producers).  After watching the rough cut and seeing at how the negative looks right out of camera Jerrold and I have decided due to the Slamdance deadline that we are only going to have time for a scene to scene color correction, a basic one light pass so as everything matches and we’ll go in sometime in late September and do a proper color pass in a DI suite where we can really get detailed and add the final polish on the film.  It’s pretty amazing that I feel confident enough with the camera original that a simple one light pass will be fine for film festvial submissions.  

In conclusion, a camera is just one of the many tools you have at your disposal as a Director of Photography.  You’re not always going to be able to shoot on the medium or format of your choice, it is your job however to use the tools and resources available to you and capture the strongest and most compelling image possible, even if that happens to be a 5D and a bounce card.

written by John Matysiak