This post was written by Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite.
I can’t remember who said it. Maybe it’s apocryphal. Or quoted by so many that its origin is lost to time. But I can tell you that it’s never a more daunting task than when you’re standing in the middle of the desert, surrounded by horizon and sand, with nothing but places to put the camera.
It was a realization my co-writer/director, Chris Cullari, and I came to on the first day of our director’s scout for The Aviary . We’d locked locations, shot-listed most of the script, and Chris had drawn indecipherable doodles he called “storyboards” for some of the more complex sequences, but it wasn’t until we were faced with the reality of shooting with an infinite horizon that the difficulty of the task before us really set in.
It was overwhelming. But in a way, that was perfect. “Overwhelming” is exactly what we were trying to capture. Here’s how we did it.
A set with no walls
The first task in creating the visual language of The Aviary with our cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, CSC, was in selecting the locations. We knew that our daytime exteriors would be shot with natural light, so the aesthetics of those locations became a key tool to help us express mood. After scouting every type of desert within driving distance of Los Angeles, we settled on two properties near Acton, CA.
The first, Bloom Ranch, an operating lilac and honey ranch (that sells the best trail mix we’ve ever tasted), provided us with our looks for acts one and two—vast fields of dead, golden grass that transitioned to washes of sunbaked sand. These locations symbolized the women's journey from the comfortable—if decidedly unsafe—environs of The Aviary campus, to a harsher climate that reflects their increasing despair.
As we scouted, we paid close attention to two key elements—which direction we were facing (since south would always provide us with the best light), and which areas of the ranch gave us multiple looks from different perspectives. In other words, could we shoot a scene with a beautiful wide in front of a mountain, then make a quarter turn and shoot a lengthy walk and talk along a ridge without actually having to move any gear? It was in these moments that we felt the first pangs of terror. Would this cut together? Would people feel the distance? Would they believe our desert? Or would they know we barely moved? If the madness of the journey is that everything feels the same, does it even matter?
The questions quickly became as philosophical as they did practical.
The writer/directors becoming one with the elements. Credit: Andrew MillerWe felt strongly about introducing natural elements such as bushes and taller grass to break up the frame and close in on the women before they stumbled across Calvary Hill—the abandoned mission that the women find near the beginning of the second act. We’d originally written the location as an abandoned diner, but when we saw the collection of old stone buildings that dotted Bloom from the late 19th century, the idea of a mission struck us as what it should’ve been all along. Here we were writing a story about women fleeing a cult, and their only shelter is the remains of a group that came before.
We may never know what happened at Calvary Hill or what caused it to be abandoned (well, we know), but it came to signify the loss of faith that Jillian and Blair are wrestling with, a reminder that leaders and followers have been with us since the first prophets spoke to the gods.
Since a lot changes for the women at Calvary Hill, we knew it was important to establish the subtle patterns in blocking and framing that help tell the story of just whose perspective we’re seeing the story from before they arrived. With the help of our intrepid Steadicam operator, Joel Marsh (more on this king later), we decided to firmly plant the audience alongside Jillian and Blair as a third person on the journey.
However, that doesn’t mean our camera’s perspective stays neutral. Quite the opposite. In writing and then in shot listing we talked about which scenes felt rooted in which character’s perspective, and how to reflect that through framing and blocking.
“We tried to play with foreground and background to help show the power dynamic and which character’s perspective we were in, in each scene. Sometimes as a shift would happen emotionally, we would see a physical change of who was walking in front of who and now taking up the foreground of the shot,” Smolkin says.
The Synthesis eyeline as introduced by Seth (Chris Messina). Credit: Saban Films
“At the same time, we played with eyelines in this way too. The Synthesis sequences were shot static, deliberately center framed with an eye line right to camera. When we wanted to feel like Seth and Synthesis were fully in their head (for example in the scene where Blair and Jillian are in the chapel sitting on the benches arguing) we see a match in framing and eyelines to the Synthesis scenes. As the scene shifts emotionally, Jillian moves over to the bench next to Blair and our eyelines become wider and we move to more extreme french over angles in handheld.”
Other times, we would tie the camera to the character whose perspective we’re saying is objective reality in the scene and let her scene partner move towards and away from her in a slippery dance. None of these storytelling tools are Marvel-level special effects, but the cumulative effect (we hope) is a story that is complex and engaging, but never confusing.
Despite a movie mostly free of rooms or walls or furniture or anything that an actor or director might rely on to help shape the movement of a scene—we learned to listen to the story, because the story always knows best.
The other thing we always had to listen to was our key light, co-AD, taskmaster, and center of our solar system—the sun.
On a perfect day, we were up and shooting to get a scene off before the sun was directly overhead. We’d move equipment and take lunch during the most direct high-noon light, shoot a second and third scene during the prime afternoon hours, then move into “magic hour” and “blue hour” work—which we had nearly every day. (The names here are deceiving. Neither of these periods lasts an hour. Depending on the time of year, it’s as little as 20 minutes. And guess what time of year it was! )
Pictured: a perfect day. Credit: Jennifer Raite
As Elie explains, “On bigger productions we would have fly swatters or large sails of diffusion to help control the sun and create shade so that we can keep lighting continuity consistent. But on this budget, we had to be clever and instead position our scenes in a way that would maximize lighting continuity and give us the look that served the story. Oftentimes, it was just the sun positioned where we wanted it for the scene and a bounce card.”
Keeping the schedule was not just a matter of making our days, but making each minute and hour count. Everyone in the cast and crew understood what we were up against. There was no room for error. As soon as we got to set and started shooting, the clock was ticking—and if you needed a reminder, all you had to do was look up.
While Chris and I had developed a range of ideas and adjustments to keep scenes feeling honest and fresh—and it was obvious from day one that Malin and Lorenza had come equally prepared—it was still miraculous to watch our cast deliver under that kind of sustained pressure. It was like watching figure skaters land a perfect 10. Every day. All day. For two weeks in a row.
Fire burn and LED bundle
Let’s talk about fire. It made sense for the story—the desert is cold at night, Jillian loves the outdoors—and it seemed like an asset to production. Firelight is beautiful and would help save us money on rentals. Right?
Wrong. What we failed to account for was how many safety precautions even the smallest of campfires (or the striking of a match!) require. Practical fire means gas lines so the flames can be controlled or turned off, a fire marshall, a fire technician, and a water truck on standby. And since water trucks aren’t built to go offroading, the campfire sets had to be within hose-length of a road.
Fake rainbow firelight for the finale. Credit: Jennifer Raite
When it came to creating the rainbow fire effect that signals Seth’s arrival, Chris and I found ourselves thwarted by our own attempt at cleverness. While we were writing, I found flammable bricks for sale on the internet that added an array of colors to natural flames. Due to the safety precautions and time, we never had a chance to properly test the bricks on camera, and sure enough, they didn’t add enough color to make a difference. The final look of the fire is a mix of the colored bricks, an LED panel set to “disco,” and subtle CG enhancements.
According to Elie, “The new Vortex 8 lights had just been released and CineLease was kind enough to let us use some of their first available units. Those—mixed with Astera Titan tubes and an iPad—allowed gaffer Victoria Chenoweth and I to create the desired color saturation, hue, and effect that we wanted for each scene.”
Getting technical. Credit: Saban Films
The New Mexico swap
While many of the scenes were designed with minimal coverage, there was one designed with none. In the film’s third act, as our leads are questioning what’s real, we wanted Seth’s presence in their mind to feel like it was bleeding into reality. We imagined him walking alongside them, whispering sour nothings in their ears through the most hellish piece of desert we could find.
Without a budget for visual FX in this scene, we had to do it practically, which meant employing an old film trick called the “ Texas Switch .” Coined for the sleight of hand when a western star’s stunt person would take a fall off a horse, drop out of frame, and the star (already on the ground beneath frame) would stand up and appear as if they’d taken the fall themselves, we employed three of these in a row.
We termed this the “New Mexico Swap,” or “the swappy swappy” if you want to get technical.
Again, due to the time constraints of the shoot, there was very little time to rehearse what had to be a dance between not just three actors, but our Steadicam op, Joel Marsh, who was our Ginger Rogers and had to do it all backward.
The slate at the end of a long day. Credit: Jennifer Raite
The slice of desert we found was unfortunately on a sandy incline, surrounded by gnarled, burnt-out trees. Of course, this was the hottest day of the shoot, in direct sunlight, so nerves were understandably frayed. The first few times we ran the scene, Seth’s movements never felt quite right. They were either too late or too early or telegraphed by the path of the Steadicam.
In one of the most remarkable instances of teamwork and camaraderie I’ve witnessed on set, each person involved kept their focus and their cool, whittling down problems in pacing and movement while keeping our vision for the shot in mind. Nine takes in, and we had it. The unbroken shot that would make the final cut.
To see the film for yourself, check out The Aviary on VOD now.