During a vacation last summer I met a young man and woman out testing a brand new camcorder. They were having a wonderful time, burning through tape and batteries at a prodigious rate. They shot buildings, landscapes, people, automobiles, animals-nothing went unrecorded.
We entered into conversation; he told me he was a teacher, intending to make videos for class. His first project, he said, would be a video about his local town. This would both give him an opportunity to experiment with the camera and provide an interesting project for the children.
The young woman had ambitions of her own. In college she’d been a member of a theater group and had enjoyed taking part in plays and revues. She was interested in scripts suitable for video use. Although scripts for stage plays exist worldwide, there are few written or published specifically for videomaking. I suggested they might have a go at writing their own.
They felt this was a job for professionals, that it would present too many problems.
It took me about three minutes to convince them otherwise.
Weilsian Weight Loss
Wells. Thumbing through the contents, I chose the story entitled “The Truth about Pyecraft.”
This is the tale of a gravitationally challenged man who downs some strange slimming brew and finds himself in real trouble. The recipe, given him by the narrator’s Hindu great-grandmother, is for “losing
weight”-and it certainly works. Though appearing as obese as ever, Pyecraft becomes lighter than air, floating about like a balloon.
As written, the story is a three-parter:
two men and a female housekeeper. The locations are two: a men’s club and Pyecraft’s apartment. But through rewriting and adapting, the plot could accommodate nearly any location and a cast of any size.
Making notes on the back of a beer mat the three of us got down to the exhilarating task of rewriting H.G. Wells.
Seeking to use school children as actors we changed the locations to the school’s science laboratory and the teacher’s lounge, with possible scenes outdoors.
We wrote out the heavy and centered instead around a child who brews a weird concoction in the chemistry lab. The swill is spilled over another student, who becomes lighter than air. Thus came the big question: how do you get someone to float around in the air?
Those wishing to stick to the original plot can transform a form of normal dimensions into a creature of gargantuan proportions through the use of oversized clothing stuffed with padding. Carefully positioned inside sleeves and trousers, partially inflated balloons will also give a bulging effect. if they squeak, stuff into socks or tights.
In a story involving a boy who floats around, there should be scenes in which he would appear to rise, accidentally letting go a chair or some other item of furniture. Here, moviemakers might employ a wire lift, a special piece of equipment comprised of a body harness, one or two thin steel cables and a set of reducing pulleys allowing the operator to lift a human being without effort.
However, it would probably be unwise to attempt such an operation without a proper rig. For school purposes, the director would have to use something simpler, something that would look convincing but not endanger the actor or leave him dangling on ropes.
Pyecraft could be lifted up on a short plank held by muscled handlers on either side of the frame. Whether the performer is standing or sitting the effect will connote instability, making the grabbing of furniture or other anchoring points appear suitably urgent.
A second ploy involves moving the scenery while the actor remains still. In this setup the actor stands, sits or lays on a table; the wall and a section of the ceiling is lowered on pulleys behind him. With the backing suitably counter-weighted it would move up and down as the actor pushed. Pyecraft would appear to be the one floating around under the ceiling. Laying on his back on a table his feet and hand movements would appear most convincing.
This scene could be shot in two ways. Train a tripodmounted camera on the actor while the wall is moved, or move the camera with the wall.
It would be easy to construct a simple rig supporting the camera and attached to the rising and lowering back flat. A steadying bar fastened to the back of the dummy wall could be held by someone out of shot to ensure the flat doesn’t swing or twist. Two pulleys and two lines will normally provide sufficient stability.
Attention must be paid to lighting. If the wall behind the actor is lowered then the lights must be lowered with it. This isn’t difficult to arrange, as lamps could be clamped to the rig that carries the camera. This will create some very dramatic shadows on the ceiling as the actor appears to float into view.
These sequences, which would be used as cut-ins edited with, say, shots of people staring upwards, would imply the actor was floating free.
The shots so far discussed all depend on seeing only part of Pyecraft; but, as the great Barnum said, you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Sooner or later, viewers will realize we’re cheating. So now’s the time to break free-to show the full Pyecraft crawling around the ceiling with nary a sign of rope or fixture to hold him there.
And how would this levitation be achieved? Unless we can convince the actor to inhale vast quantities of helium, we’ll have to use a trick. We’ll invert the set, positioning the camera upside down and reversing the lighting. Even the most blase youngster will find this operation fun.
The floor has now become the ceiling; it must therefore be properly papered. A couple of rolls of lining paper should suffice. If the floor is constructed of board or tile, it would be wise to lay down sheets of hardboard to provide a smooth surface.
Next comes the wall, which must be re-jigged. In a classroom this shouldn’t present too many problems, though a skirting board at floor level would have to be papered and painted to match the ceiling.
Remember too that a duplicate board similarly painted will have to be fixed under the real ceiling to provide continuity.
The real fun is in the creation of special props. There could, for instance, be a clock fixed upside down, or a shelf with a vase and some books glued to the underside.
Or imagine a hanging lamp suspended from the ceiling. On our inverted set it would have to stand up from the floor, would look great if the actor set it swinging.
On a TV or movie set this hanging light could be achieved with a stiffened flex and a rod of similar length extending below. When the lamp is pushed the counterweighted rod will cause it to swing in a lifelike fashion. This is only possible with a false floor/ceiling, a project probably beyond the budget of student videomakers.
An alternative involves fastening the light fitting to a fine nylon fishline, attaching the other end to a length of elastic. A weight fastened to the middle of the line could be thrown around, causing the lamp to swing.
There are great possibilities in an inverted bracket lamp or curtain rail breaking free as the unfortunate Pyecraft blunders about. In certain cases this can be achieved with a closeup of the actor’s foot kicking the object in the upsidedown set, then cutting to the prop as it crashes to the floor on the real set.
Gravity Can Get You Down
Other objects, such as a picture, can be elasticized to shoot upwards on the up-side-down set.
Items which must break away from their fixings can be secured with matchsticks fitted in tiny holes in the wall. A pair of tall stepladders are essential for aerial shots from the actor’s eyeline and closeups of Pyecraft in contact with elevated portions of the real room.
Though we’re supposedly looking up at a boy maneuvering around the ceiling, we must persistently think the other way around when shooting. Gravity being what it is, anything loose will hang downwards; thus, all clothing must be as tight as possible-no flapping garments, no waving tie.
In the Wells book alone lie other fascinating stories suitable for adaptation.
Think of concocting a script for “The Time Machine,” or “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.”
The point of a script based on a short story is the opportunity to create video without having to start entirely from scratch. Furthermore, it’s delicious fun.
Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.