Living and Breathing Film

Written by Talya Phelps, (Vassar College) Student Correspondent CET Film in Prague, Fall 2017

When I was little and waiting in the car for my mom to run an errand, I would blast the radio and stare out the window, watching the rain roll down the pane and fantasizing that I was in an angsty teen movie.


Delicious brunch at The Farm, a hip spot near our apartments

A decade later, moving through my days in Prague, I still sense cinematic elements at every turn. As a tram zooms past me on the platform, I notice how the sound of warning bells travels from my left ear to my right, reminding me that I will need to adjust sound when I edit my group’s short film, shifting the stereo speakers’ output so that dialogue seems to go from one side of the viewer to the other. As I peek through the office door to see if our professor is ready to consult about the changes to our script, I think about our storyboard and wonder how to best render the final shot, which is framed through a doorway. As I dial my parents on FaceTime, I observe how the overhead light in my bedroom hits my features, and note that the diffuse quality of my bedside lamp would be more flattering for a close-up.

Since returning from October break, my group of three has been immersed in preparations for shooting our seven-minute film, an absurd comedy about beleaguered housewife Petra and her grotesquely dull husband Ondrej, whom she attempts to murder with help from her scheming confidante Draha—who is wrapped up in her own plot, unbeknownst to Petra. Although our final draft of the script has gone through countless rounds of editing and is unrecognizable compared to our original concept, we have maintained a shared vision of our actors and location, which we are beginning to see come to life. Arriving at our first location scouting appointment in the Hostavice neighborhood of Prague’s outlying 14th district, I was initially put off by the rows of ticky-tacky houses and the inauspicious exterior of the Airbnb we were scheduled to see. As soon as our gracious host let us in, however, I was struck by how well the home matched the image in my mind’s eye. I could picture Petra painstakingly arranging each piece of mismatched yet charming decor, and Draha striding in and eyeing the cobwebbed chandelier with an upturned nose and supercilious eye.

Cobweb lighting

Details from our shooting location

While my groupmates measured the length and width of each room, I wandered about snapping photos from as many angles as I could. I quickly discovered that the bathroom was minuscule—a concern for our movie, since a pivotal scene takes place there, and there was barely enough floor space to fit the massive film camera, not to mention the three of us, our actors, our production manager, and our camera assistant. We had to get creative: We plan to stand outside the house and film the scene through the bathroom window.

By the end of the week, we confirmed the location, and storyboarding commenced in earnest. The moment I tried to put pencil to paper and sketch out the first scene, I suddenly forgot everything I had ever seen in countless hours of television and movies, and everything I’ve ever learned in film class besides. What does an over-the-shoulder dialogue sequence actually look like? Is it weird to hear someone’s voice if you can’t see their mouth? What’s the ideal ratio of wide shots to close-ups, and are medium shots even worth using? Can you tilt and pan at the same time? Slowly, my co-director of photography and I struggled through the script, creating an (extremely rough) draft.

Details from the bedroom of our shooting location

If I had thought storyboarding was an unfamiliar task, our first day of casting felt 10 times more foreign. My previous casting experiences have basically been limited to strong-arming whichever friends were available at that particular moment. To further complicate matters, most of our prospective actors speak only Czech. Since we are pulling from an older demographic of Czechs who didn’t learn English in school, this is unsurprising, but it means that we have to communicate our questions and thoughts through our production manager. Nevertheless, my day was brightened when we auditioned our first Ondrej, a jovial fellow whose casting photo depicted him in knight’s attire, delightedly brandishing a sword.

As I write this, two and half weeks remain before my groupmates and I pack up for our three-day location shoot. The fact that we’re shooting with actual film and we only have 11 minutes of it to use per day puts the pressure on even more, but I am glad for this fact—it means that our storyboard will have to be polished to perfection before we step onto the set. Since I’m living and breathing film, it’s natural to think of my abroad experience as following a classical story arc, in which case I’m approaching the climactic moment. Our film has a surprise ending; I’m hoping my story will be just as much fun, if a little more predictable.