Shooting Pickups for a feature film

Need to fix holes? PICKUPS

Every film, so far as I know, shoots pickups. I feel that when I describe to people what pickups are, and why we need them, I’m admitting to a certain failure in the film. But that’s definitely not the case. We’re pushing the ceiling of the film’s story to the highest it can be as opposed to polishing a shitcube.

We’ve finished the second cut of the film. Simeon’s been cranking on the visual effects and good gosh, I can’t tell you how exciting it is seeing the shots starting to be finished. There’s a sequence in the film’s climax that’s responsible for 50% of the film’s effects shots… and it’s looking gorgeous. Very emotional and exciting.

We screened the film for a couple of test audiences and questioned them after. A couple of the same questions were asked and we found that people felt a certain way at a similar part in the film. Which wasn’t what we were wanting at that moment. Sometimes people were figuring out the twists ahead of time which isn’t cool, and sometimes people were too far behind the eight ball, which isn’t ideal either.

Fine tuning the edit can get us so far, adding in additional dialogue for characters who are off screen, and re-ordering certain lines or scenes. Same with speeding the pace up throughout certain sequences, and slowing it down in others. Holding on a character for longer, or editing it so a character cuts another character off – these things make a huge difference in the audience’s perception of those characters, and therefore their expectation and desires for where the story is going.

Man filming on a windy cold beach
Simeon lining up a shot that I was dreading performing

While editing gives us massive control, there’s only so far the footage we have will take us. There were some questions being asked, and some thoughts people had, that we could’ve fixed with some heavy handed cutting, but we always knew there’d be a time to shoot some more scenes, so we decided to get it done. We gathered all the feedback we’ve received and I rematched the film twice back to back, on the second watch I’d pause and jot down what I thought might help shepherd the audience onto the track we want them to be on.

It was time to fly to Wellington. Nothing else for it. I booked a bus, then a plane, asked my friend Andy if I could stay with him again (legendary friends are imperative for this kind of filmmaking project), and organised where we’d shoot, when, and Simeon set to work prepping the gear.

One man filming another man swimming in a beach, yelling from the cold
Early morning dip on camera! Makes for fantastic footage

The beginning of our film opens with a scene that occurs later in the story, then we jump back in time to meet the characters before they’ve been affected by the story’s premise. The first time we meet Dan (the character I play, the sexy leading man), he’s in a very lonely time of his life. It’s not clear to him how isolated he is, he’s merely going through the motions and considers himself an ordinary person, free of the pesky moorings that relationships bring.

Coupled with a water motif, we open Dan’s story on a pier, with him looking into the water. Nice slow motion shots of water splashing over rocks and Dan looking moodily into the abyss, consternation playing on his perfectly sculpted face… It worked. It worked okay. It was satisfactory. But the original draft had Dan underwater. Swimming, alone on the beach. This way we’d work in some Wellington scenery and it’s a lot more visually interesting seeing your character doing something. Pickups! Perfect opportunity.

Of course, this meant I’d be getting in the water. And it needed to be early in the morning to work timeline-wise, and the lighting is great at that time. As a committed filmmaker and actor, I’d have little to no problem doing such an unpleasant thing. Wellington water is rarely warm. And film is forever.

Camera looking at a man from afar at a beach
The view from Simeon’s vantage point. A nice big wide shot.
Man with camera on a cliff
My view of Simeon’s vantage point

After drying off, we had a couple of close up shots to shoot of props, things we missed in the busyness of our principal photography shoot. Then, we picked up an amazing actor called Ralph Johnson, and had the beautiful Kelly Dentice join us to do makeup, and we got our only dialogue pickup scene.

We filmed it in the middle of the Wellington city, at Frank Kitts park, on a Saturday, while a market was going on. Families were everywhere, buskers were out in full force, and a large misty cloud loomed nearby. But like what happened throughout the entire shoot, our ducks lined themselves up in a uniform line and BANG BANG BANG, we were able to get exactly what we wanted.

Grubby man holding camera on a cloudy day
Ralph Johnson as Vagabond, a timely messenger character

Ralph took a train into the city wearing his own costume he’d organised. He looked amazing. A real trooper, and a fantastic actor. We loved working with him.

We got one more very important pickup too… but I can’t say what it was. It’s what the featured image on this post is of… at the waterside, of me, it’s an effects shot. Gosh, it’s exciting.

All up, pickups are a fantastic tool to help lift the film even higher. Our plot deals with psychological time travel and because of this, rides a fine line between an audience understanding and second guessing what’s happening or will happen. I’ve already edited in all the footage we got, and it’s given the whole film a fresh vibe. That’s something I really love about filmmaking, with every step of the process, the product transforms into a new beast, always stronger and more interesting.