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iPontificateHD Production: 24 Days in the Valley, Part II


- October 5th, 2004

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

In part I of this series, I introduced you to the set of a narrative feature I shot in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas called Harvest Of Redemption. It's rough country that presents plenty of challenges to a film crew, and Part II completes my introduction to the areas where we filmed this digital video production.

"I drank 3 gallons of water today and haven't peed yet."

The sun in the South Texas Valley is unrelenting in its severity. It was absolutely brutal. Eighty percent of the film's locations were outside in the difficult terrain of brush country, including cotton fields, prickly pear fields, sorghum fields, citrus orchards, and sun baked bluffs in desolate valleys. These outdoor locations were integral characters to the story, as many scenes were of the manual labor of latin migrant workers or the harsh conditions in which they lived. Not too surprisingly, these locations offered us little respite from the sun.

Hiding from the sun in a sorghum field

We would hide 3 or 4 deep under cheap umbrellas purchased from the local WalMart; any patch of shade was coveted by all. Temperatures soared into the triple digits every day of production. I even became sunburned directly through my T-shirt, which has never happened to me before.

During a funeral scene at a cemetery, the lead actress collapsed from the heat and EMT was called immediately. She suffered no serious problems, but was finished for the day. We still had several scenes with her character, so we were forced to resort to a body double in order to complete the scheduled filming and to stay on track. That day the temperature reached 109 degrees with a heat index of over 114 degrees.

In order to prevent heat stroke and dehydration, Pedialyte and packets of Emergen-C were consumed in vast amounts by crew and talent. Having such dedication to the crew by our Production Assistants kept everyone in working order. They would practically force fluids into the crew even if the crew was too busy or involved to think about drinking. It's amazing when you continually consume giant quantities of fluids all day but never urinate. It's times like that when you know that the conditions are very extreme.

"Can you please tell the DEA plane to leave the area?"

Sunset in the Rio Grande Valley
Being so close to the Mexican border, there was always the potential of being caught between illegal immigrants, law enforcement, or drug smugglers. While we were out filming a death scene in a sorghum field, a small single engine Cessna began circling us overhead. It was impossible to roll while the plane was in the area because the engine noise was ruining our sound. Luckily a Border Patrol vehicle was on set watching us work and radioed the tower to find out who was in the plane. It turns out it was the DEA investigating who we were and keeping us under surveillance. According to Border Patrol, the land we were filming on had just been seized by Customs because the owner was a convicted drug smuggler, and we were of interest to the DEA.

Being in such remote areas we were constantly under some sort of watchful eye from above. On clear days the unmanned reconnaissance balloons hung silently in the air in patient vigil watching for drug smugglers or illegal immigrants. While filming another scene near the Rio Grande river, a group of 5 illegal immigrants walked though our set having just swam the river. They had their wet clothes in plastic bags and had changed into dry clothes after crossing. The group just looked at us as they walked calmly by and disappeared into the nearby neighborhood. We all looked at each other with strange expressions having never seen anything like that before.

On another day at the same location, an illegal immigrant somehow had crossed the river with a ten speed bicycle. He rode calmly up the dirt path from the river and into the distance. How exactly he managed to cross such a deep river with a bike was up for debate for many days.

24 Days of Eating Tex-Mex

The City of Rio Grande was totally accommodating to the production and crew. Our City Liaison, Mauro Villereal, secured locations, organized meals and was graciously on-call for any of our emergencies. The majority of the locations were abandoned buildings that the city owned, so getting permission to shoot was a breeze. If the location was a private residence or property, the owners would graciously allow our intrusion and were more than patient.

EXT Cotton Field

Being a period piece it was of the most importance to find authentic locations and vehicles in order to maintain the illusion of the past. Wardrobe and set dressing relied heavily on local antique dealers for period-compliant props and background dressing. It's amazing how difficult it can be to find a 30's era tractor in a small town of 2,000 residents. Through intense search, all vehicles and livestock were secured whether in running condition or not. Often times the grip department also doubled as propulsion for 80 year old vehicles not running, or we would have to coax a reluctant mule to pull a buggy.

The local Tex-Mex restaurant El Patio was where we ate the majority of our meals. The Fajitas Fandango or the Big River salad kept the crew nourished for the next day's scheduled shooting. If it weren't for the delicious and hearty meals El patio provided, our 18 hour days would have been spent mostly on our backs. After an entire month of eating Tex-Mex though, everyone was eager to return home and have other types of food.

Our lodgings were small budget in every respect, but what kept it interesting was the hotel in which we stayed. We were all lodged at La Borde House, a hotel constructed in 1899 by a French merchant. The rooms were very old but each room had it's own unique character and charm.

There is an interesting history with the hotel that included the occasional ghost or strange occurrence, which always kept us on our toes. This would have been a scarier proposition if we were living in the rooms alone, but each room was packed with crew members 3 bodies deep. I spent the month living on a cot at the foot of the bed where the Director and AD both shared the bed. It felt at times very much like being at camp, a very sweaty camp.

"Wouldn't have changed it for the world.."

Overall, despite the shoot being the hardest production I have ever been a part of, I wouldn't have changed anything. Being a very small budget production, the producers didn't have the luxury of hiring a full out experienced crew in all positions. After the first week though, everyone started to feel more comfortable in their roles and how they were helping the production. If we lost a crew member to work or other personal reasons, someone would always step up and fill the hole that was left by the departing crew members.

Harvest of Redemption Crew

Everyone worked hard, including my grip/electric department to whom I would like to give special thanks for making my shots possible. It really helps to have a dedicated crew who really believes in a project and will do anything to make it happen. Often times crew members on bigger budgeted sets have no personal drive for making the film a success. They often only do the bare essentials of their role because that is what they are being paid for. The Harvest of Redemption crew put productions like that to shame. Being paid nothing and doing the work of 4 people is a testament to the work ethic of everyone involved on our crew.

Join me next week for Part III of this series as I take readers into the technical side of this digital video production including issues and problems we encountered, and how we solved them on a limited budget.

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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