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HD Production: 24 Days in the Valley, Part I

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- September 29th, 2004

24 Days In The Valley: The Life And Times Of An HD Production In South Texas

If you have ever spent any time in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas during August, you know that we are few soldiers of salty blood; and I am sure you have felt the pain that the area serves all who dare to venture past such modern conveniences as air conditioning, or say, shade.

In a four part column, I will take you along for the ride for production of a narrative feature I shot in the Valley called Harvest Of Redemption, with all its pitfalls and glories. This week I'll introduce you to the area in which principal photography occurred.

I was hired to shoot a feature length narrative movie in the Rio Grande Valley for the month of August. I was hired by Director Javier Chapa of Virtual Films, which is based out of Los Angeles. He approached me with a period story set during the 1930s and 40s that follows the life of Oscar through the prejudiced machine of South Texas migrant workers. The script begins with Oscar as a young boy as a series of traumatic events change his life, including witnessing the murder of his father. The story was an interesting read, so I agreed to be the Director of Photography having never worked with the crew, or even been in the Texas Valley before.

The project was shot in High Definition on the Panasonic AJ-HDC27 VariCam, which was rented from a shop here in Austin called Martini Shot. Martini Shot is run by Blayne Gorum, who also signed on as the sound recordist and location mixer for the project. Little did we know the conditions of production that faced us in the hot South Texas landscape, conditions that would take a toll on both the equipment and crew.


Panasonic Varicam on location with Burro
(Click the image for a larger version)

"Apparently everything in South Texas wants you to bleed."


In between setups in a prickly pear patch
(Click on the image for a larger version)
These are the words I spoke after the first week of being in the terrain affectionately known as rattlesnake country. Every form of life has spikes or thorns on it, be it a nice shady tree that at first looks inviting but is later discovered to maim children, to the circling vultures that really just stopped by to watch someone die. Everything wants you to bleed. If we didn't have it bottled ourselves, I am sure the water we drank eventually would have produced spikes or splinters of some form.

Our Assistant Director (AD), Justin Crane, warned me and another crew member while scouting an abandoned school house as a possible location to "watch out for these," pointing to long planks of ceiling wood on the floor that were peppered with nails.

He immediately punctured his foot on a rusty nail in an attempt to show us what not to do. Justin got a tetanus shot a few hours later at the local hospital. He rejoined the production midway through our nights schedule of shooting only to be smacked in the face by yet another board as he walked around a corner and onto the set. Needless to say he was a bit frustrated by the lack of love received from many of our locations.

"Don't ever leave your drink unattended."

The wildlife also posed an interesting addition to the mix as 4 different types of ants were always on set. There were giant red ants, giant black ants, the regular little red ones, and finally the tiny red ones that according to one crew member, enjoy feasting on electronic components such as wires or circuitry.

The local area also seems to be a favorite vacation spot for yellow jackets, wasps, and killer bees, all of which spend summer in the Valley. Our AD, Justin Crane, was stung by a Hornet on one day, and on another day was almost stung in the mouth when he took a drink from his soda that had been left unattended. A bee crawled into his can unnoticed and was inside when he took the drink. It made friends with the ants that were also inside the can. It's nice to see interspecies relationships in action and in practice on set.

The bees were really an issue in one form of another. The production team was always on alert for killer bee hives or the hives' scouts. Rio Grande City is located on the Rio Grande River, directly across from Mexico. Being so far south, the local area had already been populated years ago by killer bee swarms. The major concern was for bee sting allergies, which many members of crew and talent had. The majority of locations were in remote locales that were prime spots for killer bee hives, so being aware was never a problem.

At one location, while we were scouting for an upcoming scene, Javier, the Director pointed to the sky and screamed; "Bees!" I looked up into the sky to see a black cloud buzzing directly in front of us and moving closer. We dropped all our equipment and immediately ran to a Suburban for cover. The Director and myself took cover in the front driver and passenger seats closing the doors with such quickness the bees never would have seen them open.

The Assitant Cameraman, Francisco, jumped in back and tried to close those doors but he happened to be sitting on a C-Stand, its one leg poking out the door and blocking it's closure. (A C-Stand for those not familiar with the term, is a heavy metal stand used for securing lights, bounce boards, and just about anything to it. Invariably the most common piece of equipment on any shoot.) He kept trying to frantically close the doors to hide from the swarm but the door still had an inch of light coming through, enough for bees to pass. We all looked at each other with panicked faces and Javier and I started screaming like little girls at Francisco to shut the doors even though it was impossible without having him have to exit the vehicle and reposition the C-Stand. We just stared at the open crack in the back door expecting a wave of buzzing stingers to pour trough and make their attack like in the 70's classic The Swarm. Thankfully the bees passed over head and left the area. We didn't leave the relative safety of the car until...much later.

"Hey look at the pretty dust storm."

Dust covered everything from the first day of the shoot through out principal photography. As soon as anything was exposed to an outside location it would be covered in a thick layer or tan colored dust. This wreaked havoc on the sound and camera department. Special attention was given to keeping the lens and other delicate areas of the camera clean. Despite our best efforts, dust entered everything. It's amazing the cringe one feels when turning the focus ring of a $30,000 Fujinon lens and hearing the crunching sound of fine silt within it. The camera really held up amazingly well in such harsh conditions, and we were never left without picture.

Towards the end of production, the daily wind speeds increased considerably so it was then necessary to keep the camera covered with a protective tarp. While shooting in a cotton field for one particular scene, between setups we were all looking at the far end of the field where a cotton harvester was slowly being closed in upon by a large dust tornado. It stretched some 300 ft. into the air and with an equally wide base. We were transfixed as we saw the harvester disappear into the swirling sand as we recited lines from Twister. It was pretty funny until we looked over our backs and saw our own dust tornado seconds from hitting us. It traveled right up the dirt road where we were parked on, hitting crew and talent, and pouring directly into the grip truck. This happened during the last week of production, so we weren't really surprised by anything at that point. Just another day in the RGC.


The tail end of the dust tornado
(Click on the image for a larger version)

In part II of this series, I'll look at more of the foibles and pitfalls that beset us while shooting in the Rio Grande Valley.


With five years in the entertainment industry, and three years writing for The Mac Observer, works passionately on various genres of film, including documentaries, narrative features, and shorts. He has two feature films under his belt as Director of Photography and Camera Operator, and his current role at TMO is to cover digital media and the film industry.

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