Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Making of "It's All in Your Head"

Last Wednesday, the red carpet rolled out and the world had premiered for it "It's All in Your Head," my first film since I became the head of THP Studios.

Obviously, I was trying to have a little fun, showcase the acting chops of my daughter, and roll my eyes at how aggressive toy makers will be to prevent 7 year-old girls and their guardians from cashing in a five-fingered discount on their product.

Originally, the content of my short film was going to be only a written description in my Easter post.  But I realized that a written description of the security tabs inserted into the heads of the Disney Princess dolls would lack the vividness of an actual video record of my ripping one of those tabs from the head of a princesses.  So the idea of a separate, video post was born.

I planned just to film myself pulling the tab from the head, when the part of my brain that likes to play make-believe started to holler.  It suggested something more plot driven, and pointed out that it might be fun to give my younger daughter, THPK-2, a chance to finally break into blog-dom with a starring role in a video post.  It would take just a few minutes to cut and paste some clips of THPK-2 in between shots of a princess, creating a "dialogue" of sorts.  I wrote the script in my head, then sketched out the "X-ray" of the Princess with the security tab embedded in her hair.

Then I told my younger daughter that I wanted her to dress up like a doctor and let me video her.

At first, she was excited but cautious.  But after I got her costume and headed down to the main floor, she flipped.  She became VERY resistant to letting me film her.  I tried every persuasive tactic I could think of:
-this will be fun--we're just pretending, playing dress up--you don't even need to pretend I'm here
-I won't tell anyone about the video; people may watch it, but I will make no special effort to promote it
-after I film you, you can film me
-after I film you, you can see the tape and decide if you still don't want me to use it
-you can play Wii afterwards
-people who watch it will like it, and it will make them happy to see you

And on and on.  She was crying, and would not budge.

So, a couple of days later, I recast the part of the doctor with my older daughter, THPK-1.  She was very compliant.  I filmed her making a few facial expressions and reciting a couple of lines, and she impressed me with her ability to be coached.  Movies recast their leads all the time, but a good director can still pull things together--I was well on my way.

I had already pulled the tabs out of the heads of most of the princess dolls, so for the part of the princess, I had to choose between a couple whose tabs were still embedded.  Jasmine won the casting call (the stub of her tab was the longest and would provide the best grip).

I filmed her still shots and then prepped for the surgery scene.  It's surprisingly difficult to film down on something in a steady manner without the use of a tripod, which we don't own.  I ended up using this, attaching the camera to the top tier with twist ties and reaching around with my hands to perform the operation:

Imagine it without the bananas

The awkwardness of this position was accentuated when I couldn't get the darn tab out of Jasmine's head.  The others popped out so smoothly.  One by one, I would grab the stub, secure the head with my other hand, and pull as hard as I could, and POP!  Out of a hole no bigger than a millimeter would come the cross bar to the T-tab that I was pulling by the vertical stub.  Great theater, to be sure.

But now that I was filming, I couldn't get Jasmine's tab out.  I tried different pliers, and tried squeezing her head in different shapes.  When my left hand got tired, I tried using my right.  I'm wearing this powdered, plastic gloves and my hands are getting all sweaty and cramped while I'm reaching around this fruit basket.  The protruding nub kept breaking off in the pliers, little by little, until there was only a tiny bit left that I couldn't even grip with the pliers.

I had to switch to plan B.  I would find another brown-haired Princess who could wear Jasmine's clothes and double for her for this scene.  But the only one other Princess who still had a tab stuck in her head was Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog".

OK, plan C: I would work a little movie magic.  Instead of replacing Jasmine with Tiana and re-shooting the still scenes (no biggie, really) and the X-ray scene (slightly more annoying), I would just remove Tiana's tab off-camera, then film myself PRETENDING to yank Jasmine's tab out of her head, then--off camera, again--quickly insert Tiana's tab into the pliers and bring those pliers back into the shot, passing the tab off as Jasmine's.

It worked.  I would edit the shots to make the transition smoother, and everyone would be happy, and my movie would NOT end up like this, the subject of documentaries like this.

I did most of the quick cutting and arranging in less than an hour, making Jasmine's and THPK-1's dialogue look at least semi-legitimate.  Then I looked through the uploaded rough video footage for the tab-switcheroo scene.  Then I looked some more.  The video reached the point where I pretended to yank the tab out of Jasmine, but when I expected the pliers to come back into frame holding (what I knew to be) Tiana's tab, they didn't.  What I think happened was this: I was so excited about the switcheroo idea and the execution of it, I forgot to make sure that the pliers came back into the shot.  And they didn't.

Freakin' a.  This is when movie studios "pull the plug", writing off millions of dollars as sunk costs.  Me?  I had already replaced the female lead, created a tripod, filmed and preliminarily edited most of the footage.  And now I don't have a 2-second clip of a stupid little plastic security tab, which was the whole reason for filming this in the first place?

So tab-hunting I went.  I found every doll we own, and not a single one had a plastic tab in it.  The princess dolls had all already been operated on.  I looked around in the family room, where I had initially pulled out most of the tabs Easter morning.  I looked under the couch and between the cushions.  Nothing.  I had already vacuumed them all up about a week before.

"Wait a second..."  I realized I had vacuumed them up, but that I had not changed the vacuum bag for several weeks.  It was time to count the cost.  All I needed was one stupid little tab, and I could finish my film.

What question did I need to ask?  "Should an ostensibly responsible grown-up, father of 2, ever really find himself sifting through vacuumed up debris looking for a plastic security tab so he can finish his silent movie starring his 6-year-old daughter and his 5-year-old daughter's Disney princess doll?"  Or should I ask myself, "What would Scorsese do?  Or Coppola?  Or Ed Wood?"  It was decided.

The next question was would my search be as easy as popping the top off the shop vac, or would I have to go deeper than that?  Here's a visual answer:

Yup, that's the vacuum bag of our upright, cut open from top to bottom, like a slain deer waiting to be gutted.  I reacquainted myself with the powdered plastic gloves I had used for the on-camera operation and began to sift.  Within minutes, I had found not one, but two plastic tabs.  The movie was saved.

A bit more editing, and I was home free.  So the tab that you see in the film is not only NOT the actual tab from Jasmine's head, but was pulled out of a full vacuum bag a few days after the initial filming.

THPK-1 had made enough expressions for me to add a couple of extra dialogue boxes that I hadn't initially planned on (trivia: "Hawaii Five-0" narrowly beat out "House, M.D.," "Harry's Law," and "Cougartown" as the show that the doctor wanted to watch).  I added the music and the credits, and THPK-1 was well on her way to becoming an internet star.

By the way, when I showed the girls the movie, they both liked it.  THPK-2 said, "Daddy, I think I do like this.  I'll do it."  It's not exactly Tom Selleck missing out on Indiana Jones, but the message is the same: too late.  Unless, of course, there's a sequel.  Hmm...

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