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How I Shot That (LAFF Edition): Shooting a Cropdusting Plane for ‘Runoff’

How I Shot That (LAFF Edition): Shooting a Cropdusting Plane for 'Runoff'

Runoff” is director Kimberly Levin’s first feature film. It explores the struggles of the American farming community. She previously wrote and directed “Between Baronovskys,” a short film about an octogenarian
love triangle.

[Editor’s Note:
Indiewire reached out to filmmakers with films playing at the 20th LA
Film Festival (June 11-19) to ask them about how they shot their indie,
and what advice they had for other filmmakers. We’ll be posting their
responses throughout the run of the festival. Go HERE for the master
list.
]

What camera and
lens did you use?
We shot on
the Arri Alexa and used vintage Baltar lenses. Later, we developed unique LUTs
to reinforce the palette and look we established during production.

What
was the most difficult shoot on your movie and how did you pull it off?
We needed to shoot a
series of choreographed setups that involved a single-engine cropdusting plane,
an actor and a moving truck. We found this old-school pilot in rural Kentucky
who would fly for the experience of being in a film. The pilot, DP Hermes Marco
and I discussed how the shots should look and feel. As we went over the
storyboards the night before the shoot, it became clear that the challenges
were mounting. We needed to shoot multiple takes of three different setups. But
we had no way to talk to the pilot from the ground to make adjustments. And the
gas tank held only enough fuel for forty-five minutes of flight.

The next morning, a heavy blanket of fog rolled in, which the local farmers
said was unusual. Did I mention that this was the first day of production?
While we waited for the sun to break through, we sent a PA into the field to
practice a rudimentary communication system. We had two flags: red for repeat
the flight pattern and green for go to the next setup. We hoped we wouldn’t
need to make any adjustments.

When the fog finally lifted, the pilot came roaring over a hill, grazing the
field just above our heads. The plane nearly swept away the umbrella we were
using to shield the camera. We signaled the red flag and the pilot circled
around for another take. With each pass the pilot, like an actor, gave slight
variations in “performance” to give us different options. After seven more
takes, we had the shot. We waved the green flag for the next setup with only
twenty-five minutes of fuel left in the tank. We ran from the field and jumped
in the back of the pickup and waited until we heard the roar of the plane’s
engine. We tried to time the truck’s speed with that of the plane’s as it
crested the hill. The pilot swept over the truck and into the field. The timing
was nearly perfect on our first take, and we had the shot in three. With our
hearts racing, the PA waved the green flag and we sprinted to the final setup
with ten minutes to get it. As the yellow plane came over the hill and dusted
the green field, a cheer went up from the crew, and the farmers who had
gathered to see the spectacle celebrated with us. It had been forty-five
minutes of serendipity.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
One of my dear
friends who is also a filmmaker told me, “Just make it good.” It sounded flip
at first. What was the other option? Make it bad? But my friend is a Buddhist,
so I figured there had to be something to it. And it stuck with me. As a
filmmaker, there are so many decisions to make. Is this moment true to the
character? Does the logic square? Should I cross the 180 line here? Should we
use a wider lens? “Just make it good” is a liberating piece of advice, almost a
mantra that helped me to be freer and remember as long as the moment is strong,
deliberate and impassioned, then it’s probably working.

What advice do you
have for aspiring or first-time filmmakers?
The discipline is demanding, in a word. It will
ask a lot of you and those around you. Sleep and hygiene will be sacrificed, so
surround yourself with good-humored people. Find collaborators who challenge
you to become better.

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