I must build this set
So, Iâ€™m not a handyman by any stretch of the imagination. My comfort zone is seated squarely in a world where you can just hit undo if you get yourself into a pickle. You have to keep this in mind in order to fully appreciate the situation I found myself in last fall during the pre-production phase of my science fiction short.
Deployment Strategy is set 50 years in the future where artificial intelligence is a reality, deemed a possible threat to national security, and the government, as a result, regulates high level software development. Specialist James Lee has just joined the Department of Homeland Securityâ€™s Cyber Crime Division 9 and is sent on his first mission to detain a rogue programmer. Accompanied by a team of commandos, Lee makes his way through New York City airspace in a light infantry personnel carrier, the Dropship. Itâ€™s in the Dropship scene that Leeâ€™s character is fleshed out as are the rest of the teamâ€™s and itâ€™s the Dropship set that presented the largest construction task in my pre-production pipeline.
I wanted the Dropship interior to be rooted in a plausible, functional reality. I imagined that the ship was designed and used for the transportation of both personnel and light machinery. While soldiers would be lining both sides of the interior for the scene, I wanted it to also be a space that one could envision other forms of cargo being moved. Finally, as a military vehicle, I wanted it to have a bit of an armored appearance to create a sense of danger as the soldiers huddled together en route to their destination.
For research and inspiration, I turned to the World War II paratrooper plane interiors from the Band of Brothers DVD boxed set. I replayed episodes of Battlestar Galactica on my Tivo and took careful notice of the scenes inside the Raptor ships. I also took a closer look at footage of the Nebakanezer, Morpheusâ€™ ship in The Matrix. I really liked the weathered look of that ship. I put some concept art together that drew heavily on the look and feel of these films.
For materials, I grabbed two volunteer production assistants and headed over to Home Depot, an indie filmmakerâ€™s paradise for supplies. The idea was to purchase materials today and, over the next couple of weekends, build the set in my basement. Knowing next to nothing about construction, I relied on the recommendations of my PAâ€™s who had a lot of experience â€œbuilding stuff.â€ Since I knew nothing about building, I naturally relied on the wisdom of these 20 year old, media study majors. For the walls we purchased enough slabs of particle board to create a 5â€™ by 6â€™ three-walled room.
I then headed over to the lighting section to picked up some fluorescent tube lighting for the Dropshipâ€™s ceiling lights. I knew absolutely nothing about electrical wiring either, so I asked the sales person to give me everything he thought Iâ€™d need including tools since I only had a small hammer at home. I also grabbed two bulk head lights and a couple of battery-operated accent lights. The bulk heads sported metal protective grids over the glass and gave off a nice construction, utilitarian look. In sci-fi movies, there are always lights in the background blinking and doing stuff, so the I figured the mini accent lighting would be good for that.
I also spent time walking down the aisles just browsing materials and products that might create a functional feel to the set. I wanted to avoid having a simple boring square room. We found a product called Drycor which is used as an underlying support for carpeting to help prevent flood damage. The underside was molded plastic in the shape of beveled Xâ€™s. It was cheap and I thought with some paint work, it would look just like armored plating.
With Home Depot behind us, I dropped by the local 99 cent store and picked up a ton of plastic container lids of various sizes. My idea was to fasten the lids on the wall to give them more texture and to serve as either a different type of armor plating or drawers that contained supplies. Whenever I get stuck on art design, I always think about what the practical use of the set would deem necessary. If it was really used to transport people and cargo, what might a room like this need? Mini storage compartments, air vents, armor, maybe even a way for the personnel to talk to the pilot?
Ok, building day is upon us. My two PAâ€™s have been replaced by two other volunteers from the local theater company in town. Theyâ€™ve got experience building theater sets and are gung-ho about lending their talents to the production! Great stuff. The guys arrive, take one look at the particle board I bought, and roll their eyes. Particle board is way too heavy and shouldnâ€™t be used for walls, they say. If they canâ€™t be used for walls, what the heck are they for then?? I had already spent $300 on the board though and tell them that thereâ€™s no other option. We spend the day nailing boards together in my basement.
Once the walls were up, I spend a couple of week nights mounting the lids and the Drycor. Things are coming along, but I think I need more texture on the walls. So I go on a scavenger hunt throughout my house and pick up: some Chinese takeout container lids, an old network router and wires, and some plastic packaging a karaoke microphione came in. Letâ€™s toss those things on the wall! I screw them together and make them look like some communications hardware. I also mount a fire extinguisher and some vent covering. Both of these things add some functional character to the set which I like a lot.
The plastic container lids are a distracting neon green so I use my cameraâ€™s black and white settings to better visualize my progress as I work. My plan is to paint everything black and dry brush with silver paint. Dry brushing is a technique employed by model hobbyists whereby the brush is heavily soaked in paint and lightly pulled across the modelâ€™s surface. When done correctly, only the elevated sections of the surface are painted leaving the crevices untouched. The black base coat and silver highlights will recreate the look of weathered metal where dirt and grime creeps into crevices and the elevated surfaces are all scraped up from wear and tear.
Remember those â€œexperiencedâ€ PAâ€™s I had? They had suggested I use spray paint because it goes on faster and is easier to apply. Hereâ€™s what my experience told me: 1) It actually isnâ€™t faster, 2) After your third can, you finger feels like itâ€™s going to break off and 3) Spray painting in your basement with no ventilation might make you die. Uhhâ€¦and 4) inexperienced filmmakers who donâ€™t use a mask while spray painting may get paint particles in their nostril hairs and down the back of their throats and cough up black stuff for the next 3 days!! I go back to the Home Depot and buy the regular liquid paint in the cans!
The setâ€™s looking pretty good now! The dry brushing made everything look metallic. All bright, flimsy plastic is now armored plating. The heavy particle board that nearly gave me a hernia while mounting them looks fantastic. The grainy surface of the board once dry brushed looks very much like tough metal.
Just a couple more thingsâ€¦Letâ€™s do the lights! The mounting of the fixtures wasnâ€™t too difficult, but the wiring was a bit more complicated. Iâ€™m not experienced with this stuff so I had to follow the instructions the Home Depot guy gave me. Everything came out ok â€“ meaning the lights turned on. Iâ€™m not going to write much about how I wired things since I honestly donâ€™t know if I did it right and have a feeling it I wouldnâ€™t pass any inspection. All I can say is that the lights stayed on for the entire shoot and to be safe, I didnâ€™t allow anyone behind the set walls where the wires were rigged for safety.
The last task was the ceiling textures which were accomplished by dry brushing Styrofoam insulation covering. They were mounted with the help of my dad and brother, and set was completed four days after Christmas and three days before we filmed in it! The Dropship scene was a one day shoot. We relied almost entirely on the existing light sources I had rigged, and Patryk, our DP, filmed the entire scene handheld with added camera shake to create the appearance of turbulence.
In the end, the set cost me somewhere in the range of $600 dollars to build but provided at least 10 times that in production value. It was a key scene in the story and I believe it helped the actors immerse themselves in their roles and the film. Filmmaking is always a baptism by fire. You just have to do it and tackle every challenge the way you tackle a plot hole- with creativity and a never-say-die attitude. Good luck!