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Weekly Alibi Movie Miracles on a Shoestring

Local filmmakers blaze a trail with "Trailblazers."

By Jan Parisi

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  "Every day is a miracle," says Line Producer Kate Black. "With no money, these people have a huge generosity of spirit and a huge amount of creativity." And just who are these generous, creative people? They are the cast and crew of Trailblazers.

Trailblazers was shot earlier this year, mostly outdoors around the Albuquerque area. This low-budget effort was written by Miram Langer, a former employee of the now-defunct wilderness program Pathfinders, which operated out of Corrales until it was shut down last summer. Langer spun her experiences into this story of a young woman working at a wilderness camp for troubled teenagers. For a local film, Trailblazers is an extremely professional production utilizing crews who worked on TV shows like "Earth II" and "The Lazarus Man," among others.

"It's a miracle to get a second or a minute on film," Black says. "The crew, mostly locals, has stepped up into their positions. They are doing it down to the last person. And they're doing it for a fifth or a sixth of what they're normally paid."

In addition to a crew, a movie needs equipment. Lighting needs netting to filter, reflectors to bounce and flags to block. Sound needs windscreens to curb outside noise. Chip Touhey, the film's assistant director, reveals: "With little money, you have to find ways to make the dollars stretch. You have to find solutions that in Hollywood you can throw money at. Instead of a crane, you put a camera on a ladder." The crew makes due with what's available, using sticks instead of tripods and high hats rather than mounts for camera setups.

The cast who aren't in the scenes ask what help they can be. "It's interesting helping out and learning the technical side," says Josh Gilman, who plays Gordon. "Being a character is more exhausting; you have to plan something out, bring that character to life, try and make it real. That's a harder job. But I like both aspects."

Shooting a film outdoors encompasses many obstacles. A major influence is the weather. Bindle Stiff Productions, the company behind Trailblazers, planned a summer shoot because of the sunny New Mexico weather--which, unfortunately did not hold this last summer. A day early in the Trailblazers shoot reveals some of the trials and tribulations of moviemaking.

With cameras, lighting equipment and sound mics positioned strategically on the side of a Placitas hill and the cast staged in a climbing scene, the rain comes. The crew races to cover the equipment while the cast tears off their backpacks and scrambles down the hill towards the "moho," the motorhome-turned-cast lounge/makeup trailer/dressing room.

When the rain eases up, Assistant Director Touhey radios all to return to the hillside. It takes 20 minutes to set up and reposition everyone. Makeup is retouched. Costume, camera and lighting crews check their notes to find out exactly where they had been stopped. Checking and positioning are done, and finally all is ready. But the radios scream, "No go!" The rain resumes, making for a frustrating day of shooting.

The Jemez shoot, not long after, is just the opposite. The weather is ideal. At 7 a.m., everyone gathers at the Jemez Pueblo Civic Center for a homemade breakfast of scrambled eggs and the like. Many of the cast and crew find the coffee a necessity. It's nearing the second week of shooting, and everyone's exhausted. Sarah Morgan, who plays Miranda, admits, "It takes a lot of energy to do it in a three-week period."

By 8 a.m., rehearsal starts on the Pueblo lands. The coffee seems to be working. After just one hour, the cast and crew are eager, smiling and moving around like a finely tuned machine. Under the cottonwood trees, Director Alex Pratt and Director of Photography Bruce Lewis map out the best camera angles for the upcoming fight scene.

At 9:15, Lewis asks for the first take of the master shots. It's a wrap by 9:22 a.m. Next are the individual shots, or--as us laymen know them--the close-ups. That takes until noon.

After all of this work, one would think it was time for a big break and lunch, but not for this crew. The morning is very productive, but they're running behind schedule. They methodically set up the river scene.

A makeshift wooden dock is weighed and balanced next to the steep river bed. Lewis and two camerawomen with heavy equipment kneel down on this platform. Safety men--which are really half the crew substituting--stand in the chilled water yelling instructions to the cast, making sure everyone knows what to do if one of the cast falls into the water as they cross the river with their backpacks. Safety lines are there if any one of them is pulled down by the current.

As all of this is being organized, the lighting crew are placing a 12-by-12-foot lighting griff behind the wooden dock to bounce the sun out of the camera lens. It's taking about 30 minutes just to set up. The griff starts to catch some water in the lower corner. The crew tries feverishly to pull it out when, suddenly, the frame begins to bend. All that can be done is to let the massive reflector fall into the water and then drag it out. Lewis yells: "No one is hurt. All is well." The crew laughs with a sigh of relief and then go to replacing one of the poles in the frame as if it's standard routine. The shoot begins. The cast starts the crossing of the river; it's a wrap and finally time for lunch.

Lewis sums up the shoot: "I have worked a few low-budget films, and I think this is the best organized and has the greatest depth. This director is technically proficient. We have a good assistant director, and that makes a big difference. And we have gotten what we need when we needed it."

Trailblazers is now in editing and aiming itself for the independent film festivals this winter.

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