A Doll’s House

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll's House while director Josh Hitchens looks on.

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll’s House while director Josh Hitchens looks on.

Earlier this month, Josh Hitchens directed a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, starring West Philly actors Jennifer Summerfield and Ryan Walters. The entire play was staged within the parlor of the Ebeneezer Maxwell Mansion, a preserved Victorian-era mansion up near Germantown. The photo above shows Jen,who plays Nora, and Peter Zielinski as Torvald, and the gent smiling in the background is director Josh Hitchens.

I know what you’re wondering: why was this photo not taken by Kyle Cassidy? Well, Kyle was busy taking cast photos, as well as prepping a project to capture the entire play on video. So he contacted a local who did this sort of thing a lot (yeah, me), and began laying groundwork to capture A Doll’s House in a way we hadn’t tried before. After the play completed its run, we’d go in with the cast and some cameras, and shoot the thing as close to an actual movie as we could.

This was going to be an epic job. Because we could get the mansion for only two days, a Thursday and a Sunday, six hours each. And not all of the actors could be there on each day: in fact, one actor could only be there on Sunday, another on Thursday, and a third could only come in very late Sunday. Actual movies usually take at least a month, sometimes three months, and we were going to do it in roughly twelve hours. So we had to move very, very quickly.

One thing that sped the process up a lot was that both Kyle and I were cameramen, so we could set up two cameras and shoot scenes simultaneously. We were both using Panasonics, and once we matched our settings for framerates and white balances, our footage matched pretty well. (The room was gorgeous enough to begin with. I mean, look at that still above. A little bit of fog, and it’d look like Geoffrey Unsworth shot it.) I used a third camera as a sound recorder, attaching a microphone to it and setting it on the floor as the actors performed. Kyle set me up with a fluid-head camera mount, which enabled some very smooth pans and tilts.

The still above was shot during a dress rehearsal, which I recorded so I could look it over and develop a shot list to follow. But it’s been my experience– on this and one other shoot– that shot lists go out the window very quickly. Sometimes the set isn’t as accommodating, sometimes the blocking requires it, but sometimes the note to “shoot from behind the Xmas tree and from the piano” just isn’t feasible. So Kyle and I scrambled to find angles that gave us enough to work with during the editing. There were two or three places which gave us great general coverage. One location made for gorgeous shots in particular scenes. Certain moments required putting the cameras close to the ground. Some scenes we relocated to other parts of the house. All of this was a contest between two points of view: both Kyle and I wanted the best images we could get, but we also faced the simple fact that even if we got great images, we’d have nothing if this was only 95% completed.

(I funked my responsibilities on a few occasions. Everyone else, including Kyle, had been living with this play for weeks, so they pretty much knew all of the blocking and dialogue. Me, I’d basically watched a movie I’d shot, only once or twice. So towards the end of the shooting sessions, I started to lose track of what was what, so I followed everyone else’s lead on what was going on. If I were an actual director, I’d have to be on top of this; but since the director job was Josh’s, with Kyle and I conferring on angles, and just about everyone else having been performing the play for the previous few weeks, my unpreparedness wasn’t too much of a detriment.)

And let’s be blunt about something. Shooting a movie isn’t easy for actors. Okay, it’s rough work for everyone. But would you like to be doing a scene, and you’re really getting into it, and suddenly you hear my nasal whine shout “Okay, cut, guys, I gotta shift the camera six inches to the left?” And then you gotta do it again? Everyone worked very hard, and everyone got along, but I kept thinking that everyone would much rather do the whole play in one continuous run like they’re USED to doing. But everyone put up with the (minimal) retakes, and everyone understood that some scenes required them simply for the camera angles.

(For example, there are several scenes where two people sit in chairs beside each other. It’d be ideal to cover those with three cameras: one simply facing both chairs, while the other two cameras shoot across each person’s shoulder at the opposite actor. It’s not easy to set that up so that the cameras don’t see each other. So, there’d be a take for the wide shot, and a take for the closeups. Get the idea?)

So how’d the shoot go? Well, we spent six hours on a Thursday and about seven on a Sunday, which means that we shot an entire movie within 15 hours. I’m reviewing the footage, and it looks wonderful; I’ve even edited a scene so that Kyle can build a Kickstarter to help finance this project. Contributors will receive either a DVD or a Blu-Ray of the project, which should be done by Christmas.

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