Looking back at when I first started filmmaking, I see that one of the most beneficial qualities I had was to never let myself get deterred by thoughts like “I can’t afford that” or “There is no way I’ll be able to do that with the tools I have access to.”
As an aspiring filmmaker, you have to be unstoppable, resourceful, think outside the box, and take risks. Figuring out new ways to create what you see in your imagination with minimal funding or resources will give you an upper hand when you finally get access to bigger/better resources, and it will challenge your creative mind in the ways you look at everyday objects.
Even the smallest details matter and can make or break an illusion.
One of my fondest memories is creating a beautiful drug lab for a little under $250. I was in high school at the time and barely had any money to cover the costs of my projects, but I had an extreme desire to make a fight scene inside of a drug lab for a short film. So my friends and I got together and we did.
That short fight scene was a turning point in my career. While my films today have far exceeded what we made on that day technically, it was the most incredible experience I had to date, in both education and application—and those friends turned into a full fledged production crew under my company Fractal Visuals.
Here’s the scene, and read on to learn how you, too, can create a believable drug lab.
Before I had studio space to work in, I used my garage for many projects. We set up clean room style walls using 6 mil plastic drop cloths from Home Depot. We hung the sheets using a combination of nylon rope and duct tape between the garage door support rails. To support the corners, I made concrete pillars that attached to 1 1/4 PVC pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling. This allowed the room to have a natural size and height.
The majority of set dec was purchased from home depot. We went around the store and bought anything that had some kind of interesting “drug lab” looking shape or color. Being a fairly seedy drug lab, I specifically targeted objects that looked mysterious and dangerous. While many of the set pieces we selected did not have any actual association to the production and distribution of cocaine, I wanted to give an impression that extended beyond the illegal activities depicted in the video and leave the audience to imagine what else could have been going on in the “lab.”
The next step was making kilogram bundles of cocaine. We opted to use 100 pounds of bread flour.
With a color palette that primarily consisted of white, between the plastic walls, clean suits, and cocaine, I knew we needed to add some color and contrast for a visually interesting set. Many of the pieces ended up coming from the cleaning aisles (bleach, floor cleaner, isopropyl alcohol, Windex, etc.), as those substances had the most colorful and unique shaped bottles. I also bought a few $1 spray paint cans and spray painted them all white because I liked the shape of the container and the impression of “mysterious unknown contents”. We also employed some food coloring to adjust the content’s shades to achieve the perfect colors.
Even the smallest details matter and can make or break an illusion. With the smaller props on the plastic table, we wanted to strike a balance between flashy (with the orange razor blades) and old and used (with the white plastic containers). Add a little dirt, duct tape “holding” broken things together and you’ve made a believable—if not a little slipshod—drug lab.
The next step was making kilogram bundles of cocaine. We opted to use 100 pounds of bread flour due to the low cost and fine texture, similar to cocaine. It is also easy to get massive quantities from Costco. Less easy is working with the fine powder, which proved very difficult.
We used Tupperware containers as a mold and placed in two layers of Saran wrap to encase the flour. Once the shape was formed, we finished off each kilo with a wrap of brown packaging tape. We had an awesome team of four guys and my sister working two hours to make 200 of those one-kilo packets.
By the end of the shoot, all but 30 were completely destroyed.
We built the set on January 4. Christmas decorations were hugely discounted at this point, and I saw an opportunity to get a large number of filler props for cheap. We went to Target and bought every stuffed Christmas item they had: pillows, dog toys, fake snow, etc. Before discovering the sale I had no intention of making the video Christmas themed, but it worked for our budget, and the tone of the video. The key takeaway is that you have to be flexible and open and to what you have access to. How can you make your existing resources work? In many cases, you will end up with better results than if you stayed in “the box.”
This was the first project I did that had a serious amount of martial arts choreography with someone who had training. My Martial Arts instructor, Master Ali Brown, and I got together and developed a fight that played well for both of our talents. I had already been training with him for many years, which allowed us to trust and be in tune with each other’s fighting style, as well as to know that we wouldn’t hurt each other.
If you don’t have martial arts training and want to choreograph a fight scene, you have two options: take martial arts classes, or hire a professional. Regardless of which you choose, practicing your choreography is key to making it look good and keeping it safe. Another defining factor in good choreography is confidence and comfort with the other fighters. Practice means days—not hours—of work if you’re inexperienced or uncomfortable with the other people.
My absolute favorite shot of the entire fight is when I throw the pack of flour into Master Brown’s face. The arc made by the white powder is beautiful, plays well on camera in slow motion and, incredibly, it was done on the first and only take. To get the right kind of trail from the throw, we made a small X in the center of the packet and I threw the packet as hard as I possibly could into his face while squeezing the packet enough to push the flour out of the hole. When his face made contact, the hole in the packet was enough of a weak point to “explode” on impact.
The most profound learning experience from that shoot was the need for safety on set. Training for years in martial arts meant that we were used to being hit. However, I didn’t expect fighting on concrete to be as difficult as it turned out to be. I had fought on concrete before, and taken many falls, but multiple takes landing the same way every time changes things. Once you hit that one spot on your elbow, hip, knee, and shoulder, and it starts to swell up, it just keeps getting more and more painful with each fall.
I learned two things that day: concrete really does hurt even if you’re experienced, and that I needed to invest in getting a crash pad. So I bought one the very next day. Sadly, it was too late for my elbows, hips, and shoulders, all of which were bruised and swollen for two months after we finished shooting. At the time it seemed worth every day of it, but looking back now I realize the value of minimizing injuries.
What may be “worth it” to you as a crew member or director may not be worth it for your actors.
Just keep in mind that what may be “worth it” to you as a crew member or director may not be worth it for your actors, so it’s always important to treat them with the highest level of care and respect, because without them, you have no movie. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is not to take proper care of your cast and crew.
Even actors with smaller roles like Ted (the guy that got kneed in the groin and head-smashed into the table) deserve to be treated well. To maintain continuity, Ted had to lay in the same position on the floor for three hours while we filmed. Ted turned purple because the concrete sucked the heat out of his body. As you progress in your career, you have to remember those people who showed up and laid on the ground for you because they want to help you succeed when you had no budget. Those are the people you never want to leave behind.
We made a mess on set: bread flour covered everything, including the camera equipment, and by the end of the shoot there was a stagnant cloud of bread flour in the air. Everything we ate for the next two days tasted like flour.
After the dust settled, we initiated the laborious process of sweeping up a few dozen pounds of flour from my garage floor. If you happen to use a space for your project that is owned by someone else, a good rule to live by is to always leave it better than you found it and keep true to your promises about when you plan to arrive and when you plan to leave. Communication is key to any good relationship, especially with people who can decide the fate of your film. You will make the owners happy and you will get to come back.
Now, go build a **fake** drug lab.