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As is the case with so many student films, we didn’t really have enough money to make Spin the “right” way. I was very lucky to have received a production grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, but given all the locations, stunts and visual effects the script called for, I wasn’t at all sure it would be possible to make the movie on that budget. When my producer, Evan Finn, and I planned out the production we cut every corner we could, and in the end we came up with a way to do it. What follows are some notes on what we did and how we did it.

General

  • Instead of shooting on 35mm, we shot on Super-16mm film, which is about a quarter the price and looks nearly as good.
  • We edited and did all sound design using USC’s facilities, which were free (if you don’t count tuition).
  • We needed to get the movie into a computer for the visual effects work. We transferred the movie to HD24p videotape and then digitized that tape into my computer, which cost about a fifth what directly scanning the frames would have.
  • I did all the visual effects work myself.

Production

  • Spin was shot from June 29 to July 19, 2001.
  • All the scenes that take place in Ray and Kelly’s apartment were shot in Evan’s apartment. Though the scenes almost all take place at night, we shot them during the day. To achieve this we had to cover every window and door frame, which made the apartment into something like a kiln. We had a small window-mounted air conditioner which we ran furiously between takes, but during filming we needed silence on the set, and temperatures reached over a hundred degrees.
  • We couldn’t afford a rig to allow overhead shots in the apartment, so for the shots of Ray and Kelly in bed, we stood the bed up against a wall. We had to tape the pillows up and pin the sheets to the actors so they wouldn’t fall down.
  • While shooting in the lab location, which was a real physics lab at USC, we lost our makeup artist midway through the day. Evan made some panicked phone calls, and an hour later Christal Crumb was on set. She stayed with us for the rest of the shoot and did a terrific job.
  • The biggest production days were the bicycle scenes, which we shot on a stretch of road in Griffith Park overlooked by a fifty foot cliff. We spent two days getting all the non-stunt shots and then on the third day we brought all the fancy equipment out, including four cameras and a thirty foot crane. After several low-speed rehearsals, our stunt coordinator and stunt double, Brian Hite, put on his padding and got into Ray’s bike clothes. With stunt driver Hiro Koda behind the wheel of the car, we rolled all four cameras and Brian rode his bike full tilt into the car. The result was heart-stopping. He went flying over the hood, smashed into the ground and rolled fifty feet across the pavement. I was so shocked I forgot to call “Cut!” for several seconds. Finally we cut and there was complete silence. The medic went over to Brian and hunched over him. After a moment, Brian got up and gave me the thumbs up. A spontaneous cheer erupted from the crew. We shot two more variations on that stunt, and to my amazement and relief Brian emerged from it all unhurt. We had the crucial bicycle scenes.
  • The very last thing we shot was the scene where Ray falls asleep at the wheel. We got permission to shoot on a short section of freeway in Long Beach, and the Highway Patrol agreed to close it down for six hours when it would be least disruptive. So we had to get everything between 9pm and 3am. We hooked up Ray’s car (which bore a striking resemblance to my car) to a Shotmaker camera truck and headed out on the freeway. Once we had all the shots of Ray asleep at the wheel, we detached the car from the truck and got the crucial shot of the car nearly hitting the center divider. The script called for Ray to wake at the last second and swerve back, missing the divider. We didn’t have a stunt driver, so the assistant director, Chris Caron, volunteered to drive the car. When we actually shot it, he cut it so close that it looked as though he had actually hit the divider. At 3am on July 19, 2001, Spin was a wrap.

Post-production

  • With production complete, we took a break from the movie. I went off to work on another short film while we got the footage transferred and synchronized for editing. Manuel Bermúdez (who also played the driver) and Donald Joh did the bulk of the editing, and I worked on the “physics sequences”—the sections of the movie in which Ray replays the accident in his head. We finished editing in April of 2002.
  • Once we had the final cut, we transferred all the footage we would need for the finished film to HD24P video. Even though the movie is only fifteen minutes long, we had to transfer about forty-five minutes of footage, because I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d need to do the two split-screen sequences that happen late in the film. When we digitized all this video onto my computer it took up about 300GB of hard drive space.
  • While I worked on visual effects, Joe Dzuban worked on the sound design and Michael Cohen composed the intricate, harmonically complex score. Joe’s sound design was one of the most complex ever done at USC, with certain sections requiring over fifty tracks. In December 2002, we recorded the score with a string quartet made up of veteran classical musicians and, in a five-day session, Joe mixed the final 5.1 channel surround soundtrack.
  • I spent fourteen months working on the visual effects for Spin, the bulk of that time being spent on just two effects: the computer-generated brain flythroughs, and the split-screen sequence that takes place when Ray’s car is at the stop sign.
  • In production the shot where Ray swerves away from the freeway divider came out so well that it looks like the car could actually be hitting the divider. We added a scraping sound effect to help sell that, but I wanted to heighten the effect a little and I thought that if the car had scraped the concrete, it might make some sparks. I spent about a week tinkering with it and came up with a shower of sparks that I think adds to the impact of that moment.
  • My favorite effects in the movie are, I hope, invisible. My favorite example of this is in a shot that had bugged me since production. The movie was meant to take place somewhere in Northern California, but I didn’t want it to be too specific in terms of setting and I consciously avoided locations that were identifiable as Los Angeles. The section of Griffith Park where we shot the bicycle scenes was fairly anonymous except for one glaring problem: the Hollywood sign was clearly visible in the distance. We were able to frame it out almost entirely, but ended up with one shot where it was clearly visible. All through editing this irritated me, and I finally got a chance to do something about it during the effects work. I cut a hole where the sign was, and while I was at it I also cut out the big ugly radio towers on top of the mountain. I filled in the spaces with sections of mountain and sky, and ended up with the shot I had always wanted. The joys of digital filmmaking!
  • In August, 2003, I finally finished the last of the effects and the movie was done. We worked with Gilbert Yablon at Filmout Xpress to transfer the movie back to 35mm film. The transfer looks wonderful, and with the addition of simple color timing and Dolby Digital and DTS sound, we have a finished product that we are all extremely proud of.

David Marmor