Building “Building Something Bigger”

The theme of Rooftop’s 2013 festival is “Building Something Bigger.” In our 17th year, working with our presenting sponsor, AT&T, we made a concerted effort to make each and every event more elaborate, enhanced with live entertainment and exceptional activities. And Rooftop is more than just a film festival—we’re a community: with programs like the Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund, we’ve got our audience and filmmakers and industry partners all working together to build a better city through the medium of film. So I wanted to make a trailer which would play at every show expressing the energy and dynamics of all those ideas. Here’s what we came up with:

The Rooftop community really came through to put this together. The roof location (and an expansive studio in which to build) was given to us by Industry City, our newest venue for the festival. Matt Parker, who was one of the producers on Rooftop Film Fund grantee Beasts of the Southern Wild, loved the concept and agreed to bring his on team (Carly Hugo and Alexandra Pitz) to organize the shoot, and among other things he helped us land a rising star Director of Photography, Wyatt Garfield (The Woods, The Cold Lands, Ping Pong Summer). Acclaimed artist / filmmaker Brent Green (a Rooftop alum and Board Member) and Rooftop alum / co-conspirator Todd Chandler (Flood Tide) were excited to build The Machine (perhaps not knowing what they were getting into). Rooftop Filmmakers’ Fund sponsors DCTV and Eastern Effects, among others, donated scrap materials, and we lined up a dedicated crew. That was the easy part.

I wanted The Machine to grow in a way that was natural but unusual, with people seen as these ghostly worker bees, and the parts brought in by hand, but developing autonomy. I didn’t want it to be a typical speeded-up shot of people setting something up, nor a straight animation. It needed to have the feeling that a massive barely seen team was busily working to get this amazing locomotive running. In order to achieve the effect, we decided on a combination of time lapse and animation – which made for an incredibly complicated challenge.

Here are some production photos.

To circle the machine as it grows, to catch the sunset at the right time, and to land in the right place to see the projection (which is real!) at the desired duration (about a minute), we needed to figure out in advance exactly how many frames we wanted to shoot, schedule them so we’d take a picture at the right intervals, and measure exactly the camera move for each of these 1,500 shots. Wyatt (who could be a bridge engineer he’s so precise) put on the dolly track pieces of tape with marks at increments ranging from 1 inch to less than 1 centimeter, mapping out each move, accounting for speeding and slowing the movement as the intensity of the shot grew. While our camera assistant Abby Horton constantly checked focus and exposure, our patient grip Charlie Pearson moved the dolly bit by bit for 10 hours, the total duration the camera was “rolling.”

Because it’s a circular shot (or actually a combination of a straight push in followed by a circle and a “de-orbit” straight), we couldn’t lay all the track at once, lest the camera see it. So our hardy gaffer / grip crew of Rommel Genciana, Matt Cooney and Gabe Elder picked up and laid track as we moved. Oh, and if you notice, The Machine is on a bit of an ledge, so the track was going on and off that, and needed to be supported on apple boxes. Talk about engineering, their job really was building bridges.

In order to get the timing right of when pieces would come in, when actions would happen like the reels spinning or lights coming on, we had Crawford Watson take on a 1st A.D. role, counting frames and making notes on timing, shouting out each frame number all night to help us all with pacing. So I would say, let’s have these little red lights fly in two seconds after we get the base layer built, and Crawford would note frame numbers and we could use the count to estimate pace. For me, it was like choreographing an intricate dance piece-by-piece, in super slow motion. And because we were shooting continuously, with high res files, we couldn’t straight monitor the action—once an hour our DI tech Frank Sun would swap the memory cards out, and duck into the amazing industrial elevator control room (the glowing orange doorway in the back of the shot) and render a few seconds to check out. I was more nervous for that first preview than I was at any other point in the shoot, and I remember running back out to shout that it was working, giving an incredible sense of relief to everyone.

The most grueling part of the whole thing was for Brent and Todd, the sculptors. They had built the machine in the days leading up to the shoot, then numbered each piece, took photographs, and disassembled it, staging it all on the other (unseen) side of the roof, from where PAs Ali Ward, Margaret Rorison, Blaine Frohlich and Pierre Conti would ferry it as needed. In order to do the time lapse, we needed to take a shot every fifteen seconds, so the pace was unrelenting. To get that “ghosting” effect, we needed to take two-second exposures, with anyone in frame moving. We had a counter that would beep every fifteen seconds for two seconds, and in that time the PAs had to run on, deliver a piece, move some cables or lights to make The Machine seem “alive,” while during exposure the sculptors had to do a little dance. When they moved big pieces into frame, they would hold them in the air and quick step back and forth around them. As if building this thing wasn’t complicated and grueling enough, they had to do so with me setting their feet on fire four times a minute. It was an amazing accomplishment.

Our composer Paul Damian Hogan (who was in the Rooftop alum band Frances and has scored such films as The Central Park Effect and Sahkanaga) stopped by the shoot to get a feel for the piece, and when we talked we discussed the wide-open almost Western feel at the beginning, leading into a more industrial sound, with machinery clanging and a train chugging taking the place of the traditional film reels clicking. His eerie but powerful score was an immediate success.

The first look of the piece was spectacular, and we cheered when we watched the first playback on the roof that night, but we still had extensive color and vfx cleanup work to do. Spearheaded by Pierce Varous and Chris Kenny, the passionate folks out at Nice Dissolve (who worked on Rooftop Film Fund recipient Newlyweeds), post was conducted in Bushwick, Manhattan, and Portland Oregon, as different people worked on different components.

In all, it was a massive project, and I think the spirit of collaboration and energy is just as apparent in the making of as it is on screen. We hope you enjoy it, as it will set the tone for all 46 Rooftop events this summer. Keep building something bigger!

DIRECTOR: Mark Elijah Rosenberg
PRODUCERS: Matt Parker, Carly Hugo, Alexandra Pitz
SCULPTORS: Brent Green, Todd Chandler
MUSIC: Paul Damian Hogan

DI TECH: Frank Sun
GAFFER: Rommel Genciana
KEY GRIP: Matt Cooney
GRIP: Charlie Pearson
POST PRODUCTION: Pierce Varous, Chris Kenny [Nice Dissolve]
VFX: Nick Perkiss [Funnelbox] & Ben Federman
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS: Ali Ward, Margaret Rorison, Blaine Frohlich, Pierre Conti
THANKS: Will Chu, Dan Cooper, Chris Rice, Alison Benowitz, Isabel Stewart Robinson
PRODUCTION SERVICES: Richard Peete, Phil Pinto
VENUE: Michael Kohan, Jeff Fein, Brian Flanagan [Industry City]
PROPS: Eastern Effects, DCTV, L.E.S. Ecology Center, Film Biz Recycling, Build It Green
CAMERAS: Hand Held
LIGHTING & GRIP: Eastern Effects

(c) Rooftop Films 2013

[Final VFX & Color Correction Pending.]