Rain, A Mountain Pass, & 3 Days In A Cabin In The Woods
At the beginning 2016 I had the opportunity to take a vacation. Well, when I say vacation I really mean getting hired onto a destination film up in Azusa Canyon for 3 days where the cast and crew would be sharing lodging together making the thriller film, Solstice. So, a working vacation would be more accurate but any production that takes me away for a bit I view as a vacation. And getting to our location, would turn out to be quite an adventure in itself…
To start we couldn’t have had worse luck with the original shooting dates for production. Southern California was hit with a huge El Nino storm and our cast and crew literally became stuck on the only road to our location as Cal-Trans was constantly battling rock and mud slides on the road. We were still eager to film since 99% of the film takes place inside a cabin. But that was until a major mud slide washed out our road about 500ft from our location. With Cal-Trans bulldozers and work trucks literally blocking the way we had to head back down the mountain to draw up a new battle plan to pick different dates to film.
I still say though that the storm did bring out a fantastic sky and drive though the canyon!
So.. Let’s fast forward to a bit after we rescheduled and actually reached our location about a week later. When we did finally get to the turn off for our cabin we were created by the park rangers and a wrecking crew. Apparently some poor soul tried to cross the river below and their truck got swept away down stream.
We were told they were fine but their pick up, not so much…
The river level was a lot lower by the time it was our turn but it turned out I was still the only vehicle that had the capability to even cross it. (Yay Land Rover!) Which I wasn’t complaining at all about since I not only had all the camera gear but all the grip & electric as well! Everyone else crossed by walking across the rocks and daisy chaining the rest of the gear and bags for talent, crew, and production.
But after it all we finally made it!
Now, let’s dive into the details of the actual production.
The cabin itself was small, both from a logistical sense, maneuver blocking as well as placing camera and lighting.. To a physiological, because even though we were all sleeping there for the production there wasn’t any heat, running water, or working plumbing. Basically camping. Oh, and did I mention this was still right after the huge thunderstorms Southern California was drenched with by just a few days? I like to joke that our crew shared a similar mindset as our main character, a character who develops a bit of cabin fever and a psychological break down being hidden away from the world. And in the end I really feel it shows on screen, in a good way… So, let’s begin…
My Camera Package
Olympus Zuiko OM 28mm f2.8 & 50mm f1.8
That’s pretty much it. A very simple setup that I wanted to keep very light weight as I knew 90% of the film was going to be handheld and more on the wide lens due to the tight shooting spaces. I was very satisfied with this setup for the majority of the setups. The only exception would be 1 shot of an almost Wes Anderson style wide of our main character on the couch, which required us to cheat the living room set over by about five feet to align with one of the cabin’s windows so I could shoot from the outside to get the correct angle the director was going for.
For lighting, I had my 1 ton g&e package with us and I opted to use a lot of practicals as well as my Mole Mini’s as my go-to’s for my key. The cabin had 2 recessed ceiling lights that I swapped out bulbs to a pair of clear 200w, then used black wrap to create small snoots with a small piece of 250 to create a very nice soft source. I really love this trick and use it often when I get the chance, it really saved the day a few times when the main character would walk around the cabin and watching him enter and exit those pools of light was fantastic. All the practical lamps in the cabin also were swapped out for bulbs ranging from 38w-65w depending on what I needed them for and was usually augmented by one of my Mole Mini’s with a 2×3 frame of 250 in front.
Since the majority of the film takes place inside the cabin the challenge became keeping the shots dynamic enough to help keep the audience interested and I personally didn’t want to do a lot of the same setups for multiple scenes. I tried to achieve this by always trying to use different camera angles as the story progressed. But not only that, I also went for a more darker exposer as well. I purposely allowed my frame to go under by a stop or so. The goal I wanted to achieve by this, is that as our main character become more isolated mentally I wanted the audience to feel like he was retreating more and more to the darker parts of his mind.
Overall I was really satisfied for what my crew and I were able to accomplish in such close shooting conditions. Looking back I wish we had a Ronin or some type of gimbal for some exterior walking/running shots and maybe a little Honda 6500 genny to power lights for the few night exterior shots. But as with all budgets you have to work with what you’re given and I don’t feel not having that equipment really hampered us too much and in a way I also feel it actually helped push the isolated mindset of our character just a little bit more.
Finally, I’d just like to say that these smaller productions that really focus on good production value are always a pleasure to be apart of. The teamwork that comes out of it always makes for a close tight-knit group of professionals. Many of whom it was my first time meeting and I know i’ll be working with most of them again in the future.
So, I’ll leave you with a few more screen grabs of Solstice!