November 08, 2008

Things I didn't know last week - November 8th 2008

This is a post in a regular weekly series about things I've learned or come to realise during the previous week.

This week 'Why movies cost so much to make"

I'm in a movie this week (don't ask..) It's called "Easy Virtue" and stars Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristen Scott Thomas and Ben Barnes. It was released in the UK (and around a lot of Europe) yesterday. I went to see it at an early showing.

Now let me set the scene... this movie was billed as a 'small movie'. This meant it had a budget of less than $20m. It had a mostly English crew, a mostly English cast (apart from Jessica) and was shot mostly on location in stately homes in Cambridge, Nottingham, and Reading. Yes, it is a period piece so the costume budget was quite spectacular, but at the end of the day there were no huge special effects, sets or foreign locations to worry about. So why did it cost so much?

Let me tell you about one of the scenes I was in. Right at the beginning the heroine, Larita - played by Jessica Biel - is seen competing in and wining the Monte Carlo Grand Prix back in the late 1920's. Her car screams to a stop in the pit lane amidst hoards of screaming and adoring fans. She removes her helmet and sees John Whitaker - played by Ben Barnes - nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. Their eyes meet. There is electricity. Cut to - (Well it doesn't matter where we cut to, but needless to say it's another scene). That is the scene as it played in the cinema. It was shown in black and white 'jerky' motion to emulate the stock footage they had bought of the race, and it lasted about as long as it took you to read it - maybe slightly less if you're a quick reader.

That scene alone took half a day to film. In itself that's not too bad except that it wasn't shot in Monte Carlo. Heck, it wasn't even shot in a motor racing circuit. It was shot in a stable courtyard just outside Reading. With a bit of set dressing it was made to look like a pit lane. But that's not the expensive part. The "hoards of screaming and adoring fan's" were actually about 20 extras all dressed in period outfits. They were grouped together in front of green screen and filmed. Then they were moved around and shifted along to be filmed again. And again. And again. In post production this was all computer mapped together to look like a much larger crowd. A genuine Frasher-Nash BMW was hired for the day for Larita to drive into the pits (in actual fact Jessica drove it less then 30 feet from camera right to centre of frame). All of the footage was then processed to include an elaborate matte painting of Monte Carlo in the background. Each extra was paid a set amount for appearing as well as an amount for the costume fitting. The costumes needed to be rented, the crew paid (at one point I counted 40 crew members standing behind the cameras), the location needed to be hired as well as a place for the filming unit to be based (a 2 minute drive away). On top of this the matte painting needed to be done and all the CG effects needed adding.

All this for a scene that lasted barely 8 seconds..

That's right. A half days filming, 25 extras, CG special effects and a matte painting for a scene that lasted 8 seconds.

If this was a scene that was pivotal to the plot - say part of the denoument - I could understand it. But it's virtually the first scene you see (in fact the opening credits play over part of it). It's meant to indicate that the hero and heroine meet in France. It's not even part of a bigger scene where he wines and dines her before proposing. The movie pretty much cuts to them in evening dress, kissing, and then 'bam!' we're into the main part of the movie.

This is also not a particularly uncommon thing to happen. Take a later scene in the movie: It's set in a bordello in France. To shoot it they dressed a room in one of their stately homes (Englefield House) as a bordello, got several extras in, clothed them appropriately, filled the room with smoke and shot it. In the final film all you see is a door being opened, an actress appears at the door and says a line of dialogue. The room itself (and the actresses dressed in their fabulous bordello outfits) are not seen either. Total time - about 5 seconds.

Let's put this into context shall we. One of my all time favourite movies is The Godfather. It shot in Italy and on both coasts of the United States. It shot in downtown New York, had 35 credited main players and included the huge Wedding scene shot on Long Island. The budget for this back in 1971 when it was shot was estimated at $6m. Nowadays you can't get a reasonable Hollywood B list actor for that little. Granted the sands of time have eroded the value of that $6m to the point where today you would need to pay $60m to get the same value today (although in reality you wouldn't be able to make the Godfather today for $60m. As an example, Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho shot-for-shot remake cost $20m and the original cost $800,000 in 1960 - That's well above the inflationary price rise for the intervening years).

But over and above the high cost of star salary's or inflation, I've got to wonder if spending half a day shooting an elaborate 8 second CG heavy shot also contributes to why movies cost so much..?

P.S. I would encourage you to go and see "Easy Virtue". It's a very funny film and Jessica Biel is fabulous in it.

To see all the "Things I didn't know" posts, just click here.

1 comment:

  1. OOOO! Name drops!

    You're turning into a proper luvvie.


    PS. I got five days down in Chatham at the end of the month for SH. You there too? Cos I need to work out how I'm going to commute.