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Process of Making a Historical Film / Case Study: A Midwife's Tale


Preproduction >Production< Postproduction

Shooting a Documentary
Director & Asst. Directors
Director of Photography
Gaffers & Grip

Production Design & Art
Costume, Hair & Makeup
Extras Casting

  Shooting the Documentary Sequences


Documentary shoots require minimal crews. In fact, the smaller the crew, the more invisible one can be. When we shot Laurel Ulrich for A Midwife's Tale, director Dick Rogers shot the camera himself most of the time, with an assistant camera, one gaffer, a sound person, and one production assistant. We shot footage of Laurel Ulrich in her husband's garden, picking beans and lettuce for dinner, using an electric ice cream maker, diapering her grandchild in paper diapers, playing piano while her husband sang, working in her office, and looking through documents at the archives. We even shot an Ulrich family gathering at the Lime Rock Race Track in Connecticut, where Laurel's son Nathan was driving his race car. Initially we thought we would intercut scenes of Laurel living her life with the scenes of Martha living hers, to flesh out Laurel's character, and to heighten the audience's awareness of the differences and similarities between Martha's world and Laurel's world. The scenes of Laurel figuring out Martha Ballard's life made it into the film, but Laurel's family life ended up being one strand too many for the film. The Ulrich family scenes ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.




Shooting the Dramatic Sequences

  Director and Assistant Directors

Call Sheet

Above: A call sheet for the parade scene.

"It's the film director's job to make sure everyone is making the same film," director Dick Rogers likes to point out. In addition to directing the actors during rehearsals and on set, directors work closely with all of the film departments to keep everyone "on the same page." Directors imagine the film before it's made. Many directors, like Dick, storyboard the picture, sketching what looks like a comic book version of the film. Others maximize their "coverage" (shooting the same scene from multiple angles), and decide how the film will be cut only when they get to the editing room. The assistant directors working directly under the director manage the logistics of daily operations on the set and schedule upcoming shooting days. Every night a call sheet is passed out for the next day's shoot, telling everyone where and when to report, how they will be transported to the set, what scenes will be shot, and what special equipment will be needed.



  Director of Photography and Camera Department


The director of photography (DP) works closely with the director. Having decided together what they want each shot to look like, the DP is then responsible for getting it onto film; deciding on film stocks, lenses, filters, lighting, etc. Peter Stein and Steve Poster, the DPs for the final film and the epidemic sequence of A Midwife's Tale, have both have been DPs on major motion pictures in L.A. They signed onto A Midwife's Tale because the subject matter and cinematic ambitions of the project appealed to them.



  Gaffers and Grips


Above: Gaffers light a scene.

Gaffers are in charge of lighting; grips are in charge of camera dollies and moving gear on the set. Using an assortment of electrical lights and filters and other equipment, gaffers can transform a wintry evening into what appears to be a blazing hot summer day. The best gaffers also make brilliant use of natural light. Grips know how to rig cameras to soar over a scene, zoom out or inch in slowly. Their gear includes camera dollies, ropes and a large assortment of pulleys. Gaffers and DPs oftentimes have relations that span dozens of films. Peter Stein and the gaffer on A Midwife's Tale, Bob Dracup, had worked together for 20 years. They could work in sync without ever needing to say much to one another.



  Production Designer and Art Department


Watching a good art department in action, one learns how many clever ways there are to alter a physical space convincingly using just foam board, putty, paint, and a few boards. Production designer Nancy Deren oversaw an art department that included carpenters, painters, gardeners, set decorators and set dressers. They built fake fireplaces, fake walls, and fake moldings when the real buildings at Kings Landing were not historically appropriate for Martha's world. They painted fake smoke stains, they planted fake gardens, and they transformed existing spaces in remarkable ways. A cavernous barn, for example, was transformed into two sets: it became the Hallowell Congregational Church for one scene, and then it became the store at Fort Western in another scene!

Furniture and household objects were borrowed from Kings Landing and other generous museums and historical societies all over New England. The prop department created replicas of Martha's diary booklets, of period newspapers, children's books, medical kits, and maps. A boat ride was faked using a pickup truck and smoke machines. And "rain" was created using garden hoses and fire trucks.



  Costume, Hair and Makeup

Photo image

Above: A makeup artist "ages" actress Kaiulani Lee.

In a period piece like A Midwife's Tale, costume, hair and makeup require extensive research. But you have to use the historical sources carefully. Looking at the portraits that survive from the period, you see the top ten percent of the population dressed up in their finest clothing, with many of their imperfections "improved" by the portrait painter. To figure out what the other ninety percent of the population might have looked like (on days when they did--and did not--look their best), the costume, hair, and makeup departments all had to extrapolate. How would most of the population adapt the styles of the day to their budgets? Which fashions were they aware of? Using information about 18th-century shipping and trading patterns, guessing about each individual character's feelings about fashion, and making inferences about personalities, the costume, hair, and makeup departments created a range of characters to inhabit the film's world. Some of Martha's family and neighbors (as portrayed in the film) attempted to keep up with the latest fashions. And others were decidedly old-fashioned in their choices. Some were quirky in their tastes. Others were strictly conventional.

Because we knew that the film would flop if the audience was aware of old-age makeup that was not convincing, this was one place we really splurged. Kaiulani was actually in her forties, but she had to age in the film from 50 to 77 years old. To age her and the other principal actors in A Midwife's Tale, we brought in special effects makeup artists from L.A. For the final scenes of the film, Kaiulani had to spend three hours in makeup getting her face and hands made old.



  Extras Casting

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Above: Actress Kailuani Lee cradles a newborn, one of several infant extras in A Midwife's Tale.

The extras in A Midwife's Tale were carefully chosen. We hired a calligrapher to double for Kaiulani for the close-ups of Martha Ballard writing in her diary. We were also determined to cast real newborns (not six or eight month old babies!) as newborns. The woman in charge of casting extras called every obstetrician, midwife, and very pregnant woman within a hundred mile radius and used her considerable charm (and some help from an experienced midwife) to convince these parents to let their newborns be part of the film. We hired local Fredericton townspeople as Martha's Hallowell neighbors (hundreds of people showed up for the open auditions advertised in the local newspaper). And there were quite a few sheep, turkeys, horses, oxen, and chickens, too.




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