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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Adventures in Filmmaking: Making a List, Checking it Twice

Bunker Production Journal
November 11, 2011

Last time on Adventures in Filmmaking, I told you all about the awesome crew we’ve lined up to shoot my short film, Bunker, and promised that I’d write another journal entry about the art design and such. Then things got a little busy, what with going off to NYC a week before my shoot, but I thought I’d take a few minutes out of my day to catch up on this before I disappear into the netherworld of last-minute pre-production and shooting for two 12-hour days this weekend.

One of the things I see lacking on a lot of low-budget indie films is production design. I was reading an article in Filmmaker Magazine about how the economy and budget crunches are affecting below-the-line spending and how art direction is one of the areas taking a hit with this, and how more and more filmmakers are using their own furniture and such in their production design to save dollars. Certainly this has been the case with Bunker. We’re spending a lot of money on this film, for a short film (and we’re still looking at doing a crowd-funding thing to help defray some of our post costs, even though we’ve managed our expenses as well as I think we could have while getting the level of crew experience I wanted), but when it came down to the bottom line, I felt like I needed to focus our spending on those areas in which I have zero experience or knowledge (all the tech stuff, basically). If I wanted to get the best folks for those jobs, something was going to have to give.

I have enough background in both theater and visual design to feel comfortable handling the art direction for this project, although now that we’re getting close to shoot date I will add to that, I don’t think I would do this on a feature-length shoot. Juggling rehearsing actors, script rewrites, and much of the producing work of interviewing and hiring crew is a lot of work in and of itself, and taking on art direction on top of that was perhaps a wee bit insane, but things are coming along nicely at this point so all is well. I thought it might be useful to other low-budget indie directors, though, to hear what we did to make our art direction pop without spending a fortune. The end test, of course, will be the film itself and how it all comes together, but I’m happy with where we are at this point.

So without going into too much detail about the script at this point, from a visual standpoint I wanted the color in this film to really pop, with a stylized, vibrant design. As I was writing the script, I had in mind the house in which I wanted to shoot the film. My friends Donna and Michael have a very colorful house with a lot of things in it that I knew we could take advantage of, so as I wrote the script my visual eye was on making use of as many things that we already had as I could. Donna and Michael have these awesome pieces of furniture in their dining area — a bookcase and a large dresser that a huge fishtank sits on — that are stained with multiple, bright colors — deep purple, teal, bright orange, and green. I’ve had them in my head for years as being something I wanted to use in a film, and the Bunker script was a perfect opportunity. So those pieces, and the dark purple paint on a living room wall, became the defining points of our color palette, and I built the rest of the visual design around those elements, which in turn are defined by the characters and the backstory the actors and I built through the rehearsal process.

The next thing I did was to start using Pinterest to gather a collection of ideas that would help me fine-tune who these characters are. You can check out the Bunker artistic design right here, if you’re interested in seeing how I did that. So we had a house, and some elements, but the living room furniture that’s there now just isn’t right for who these characters are, so we needed to be able to clear that out and completely stage a set based on the script and characters. I wanted an orange couch, and miracle of miracles, my husband Mike’s ex and her partner have one and were willing to loan it to us. Hallelujah. I wanted some blue-green pieces to play off the teal, and I kept checking Freecycle and Craigslist until I happened to see someone list a blue-green couch and chair that have a very similar structure to the orange couch we already had. Sweet! Scored those for $80 for the pair of them.

We scored a vintage telephone table, also from Craigslist, for $15. The one thing I was agonizing over was that I really wanted two purple chairs, but they needed to look structurally like they belonged with the other pieces. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find perfect purple chairs? So I was bitching about this to a friend who runs a theater, and he just looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Why are you trying to find purple chairs? You’re not going to find them. Find chairs that are structurally what you want, and spray paint them … we do that all the time.”

Duh. I mean, it sounds simple enough, but I wouldn’t have thought of that if he hadn’t brought it up as an option. So back to Craiglist I went, and then I scored these awesome custom-made chairs that were very spendy once upon a time. They’d belonged to an older woman who was moving to an assisted living facility, and her daughter just wanted to get rid of them, so she sold them to me for five bucks for the pair. They aren’t quite done yet, we still have another coat of paint and some trim to put on them, but here’s what we started out with:

And here’s a pic one of the chairs getting close to being done (yes, they’re done now, but they’re already on set. More set pics later):

Now, the other way you can handle things like furniture is to rent pieces from a consignment store. In Seattle, at least, several of them will let you do this, but it generally costs you 10-20% of the listed price per day you have the pieces off the floor. So in this case, it cost us less to buy what we needed off Craigslist and get exactly what we wanted, as opposed to hoping they’d have it last minute. You can also buy stuff and then return it, and I know this is done a lot in this business, but for me, that just wasn’t something I was comfortable with. So this is how we’ve worked it.

The one thing I couldn’t find was exactly the right entertainment center for the living room, which I really wanted to reflect the existing stained pieces in the dining room. So I very sweetly persuaded Mike to design and build me what I wanted; they laid it out in CAD to design it, Mike built and stained it, looks stunning. It was a hell of a lot of work for him, though, so I don’t recommend you do this yourself unless you have a husband with many manly tools, the talent to pull it off, and the willingness to do that much work for you relatively cheerily.

We have an opening visual montage that’s crucial to setting up who these characters are without a lot of exposition, and there were particular elements I really wanted to have in place to establish that. One of the important pieces is a comic panel wedding invitation which features the characters as superheros (an idea I stole from my oldest daughter’s wedding). I commissioned the same artist and colorist who did the work for Meg’s wedding to do this for me, and it looks great. The female character, Danielle, is an artist getting ready for a gallery show, so I needed a slew of original paintings that I could get rights to use. Turns out, my brother-the-musician’s girlfriend, Winter, is an artist, and she very kindly is allowing us to borrow a ton of her oil paintings, which are visually, as it happens, perfect for who this character is and the kind of work she would create. My brother’s poster and album cover artist is letting us use some original screenprinted poster art, over which we are laying clear transparencies of band and venue names to create customized “show” posters that will adorn the walls. I raided my box of super cool, super vintage family photos (no, Mom, I didn’t cut any of them, I promise), spent $50 on a bunch of old picture frames at Goodwill, and have what I need to create the family photo wall I wanted for the hallway (which our friends very sweetly also let us paint orange). A friend who is a professional sewer made a bunch of custom slipcovers for throw pillows for us. And so on.

Bottom line: Without spending an actual fortune, and by asking creative friends very nicely to help us out, we will have exactly the artistic design I wanted this film to have. I’m excited about how it’s all coming together, and I think it’s going to look great on camera when we shoot this weekend. If you have creative ideas about how you’ve production designed your own indie film project, I’d love for you to share with the group. Now I have to go pick up my co-producer from the airport, and get back to the hectic last couple days of getting ready to shoot a film this weekend. Once we’re done shooting, we’ll be adding a before/after video montage and a bunch of stills from both the two days we’re spending on staging the set, and the actual film shoot, to the Bunker webpage, so you can get a better idea of all the work that went into making the set look just so.

Until then, have a great weekend, and I’ll see you on the flipside.

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