As the search for locations continues for SOS United States, I went to Newport yesterday for a day trip and took my drone (DJI Spark) in the hopes of producing some interesting shots. It was in Newport four years ago where I shot The Breakers along with various images of the ocean. While shooting The Breakers was a grand “Gilded Age” experience, it was practicing against the wind at the ocean that was the most important as I prepared to produce First Signal.
When I was directing First Signal in 2019, there were some particular drone shots that we had to get right. First, it was raising the drone to its recommended maximum of 400 ft to allow for a VFX spaceship to be inserted between the drone and the actors on the field. Then there was the lower shot of Major Sampson driving onto the field and General Reager arriving at Chièvres Air Base. Honestly, perhaps one of the most difficult to achieve for steadiness was the pull back shot when President Colton was sitting at the conference table.
Although inside shots have limited space to operate, the one thing they don’t have to contend with is wind. I count myself lucky that on the days we needed to use the drone when producing First Signal, the wind was minimal. While the DJI Spark can withstand speeds of up to 17 mph as it has wonderful stabilization technology, it really is impossible to tell wind speed at 400 ft from ground level. And the dreaded phrase you hear so many say during filming, “Fix it in post,” only goes so far when trying to steady an overly shaky shot.
My advice to anyone using a drone for professional purposes—practice! I know it sounds obvious, but so much must be taken into consideration as time is usually the one thing you don’t have much of when producing a film. As the DJI Spark battery only lasts 16 minutes, you really need to carefully plan your shots. Another recommendation is to have a couple of extra batteries. I learned the latter the hard way when practicing using only one battery. As an independent filmmaker you want to economize but given that the batteries take about an hour or so to recharge, that’s an hour lost on set.
In SOS United States there are a few drone shots that are not only sweeping but require careful timing (if anything owing to battery life). In SOS, we are flying along the ocean and then rise up to see the President of the United States addressing an audience on a battleship (I hope it’s the USS Massachusetts). While the shot itself won’t take more than a couple of minutes, it’s truly about getting everything ready for that call to action. When we do produce this scene, I’ll recommend two-three drones for redundancy. If one of them gets in the shot we decide to use, that drone can always be removed in post.
With time passing from First Signal’s release, the one thing that isn’t is profitability. While I love producing, I also don’t mind saying, I also love profits. I honestly didn’t know how First Signal was going to do in the VOD world on its release. There are so many films competing for eyeballs these days, but First Signal found an audience and broke through. To those that have supported this endeavor, my sincere thanks to all of you.
The Second Age
Since First Signal wrapped production in 2019 I have written the next two stories in the franchise – First Report and First Launch. While I could probably pull off First Report from my own resources, First Launch requires a substantive seven figure budget. With First Signal rapidly approaching a key VOD milestone, I’m also starting to receive more and more inquiries on when part two will go into production. Both developments are obviously good news and positive indicators that the story has been well received.
The production of First Report would in fact be the next two feature films in the franchise (it’s one story, but a 190-page script). Whether my next feature film is in the First World Universe or is SOS United States, the key is being able to develop and produce a product that exceeds the first. As a filmmaker I owe it to myself to raise the bar on quality and substance.
When I was visiting Newport yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember that First Signal was born out of my work at the Naval Justice School. It took an experience at a military base, to bring that project to life. Similarly, when I visit any of the Newport mansions, I see the sequel to First Signal clearly as President Colton resides at an estate in First Report.
As I was touring Rosecliff yesterday, I remember producing a photo shoot at this storied Gilded Age mansion with Nancy Kerrigan for my old figure skating magazine. It was about 20 years ago when, for a brief moment in time, I was producing at my favorite of all Newport mansions. Time will tell if President Colton exits the ballroom to the sweeping ocean front lawn and boards an awaiting Arctran.
But that is what this industry is all about – imagination. From coming up with an idea, committing it to paper and then bringing it to life on the silver screen is an experience like none other.
But until that next moment of pre-production arrives, it’s about experiences. As some may have noticed from this blog and my social media posts, I’ve been doing a fair amount of weekend day trips. While these are a nice getaway, they also open my eyes to the possibility of locations and other resources to bring the next story to life.
I mentioned to a colleague last month, that I’m at that stage where I am far enough out from my last feature film to start working on another, but I’m not going to rush the process either. Frankly, I’ve never quite understood those that jump from producing one project to another without properly releasing or marketing the final product. I understand the desire to produce, but isn’t it also about developing an audience?