“I Heard the Bells” Cinematography Production Diary

Steve Buckwalter

December 7, 2022

I Heard the Bells is the first feature film from Sight and Sound Films, and was a project that director Josh Enck and I started to talk about making at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, but it wasn’t until 2021 that we began testing for the shoot, and then Sight & Sound and MAKE/FILMS began really filming in earnest. It actually started as an experiment for Sight & Sound, and didn’t become a full fledged feature until part way through production. On top of that, for a variety of reasons we filmed over the course of a year, so our first shoot day was in February of 2021, and our last shoot day was in March of 2022.

Filming a movie is a huge team effort, and that’s the part that makes it fun. This diary isn’t meant to be a complete record of the making of the film, only what it was like to make it from my perspective, and even then, it probably only captures a small part of what it was like. But if you have any questions about anything, feel free to send me an email or comment on the post. Also, there were some days that I don’t have any bts, and some days that were just pickups so I skipped them.

Day 1 Cemeteries
We weren’t sure what our first day of filming was going to be, but when we decided that shooting in real snow would be way cheaper than faking it, it made sense to try to shoot this scene as soon as possible. So we planned carefully and then were ready to jump when we got some real snow, and the forecast for a few inches turned into quite a bit more! Jim Mundel joined us for both Movi and jib work, making for some indelible images on our first shoot day. For the first part, we put a Movi on a long piece of speed rail so that two people could carry it through the snow without disturbing the snow in front of the shot. For the second part of the day, Jim and the crew had to muscle an 18ft jib through a snowy cemetery to get it into place for a beautiful overhead shot of Henry finding his wife’s gravestone.

Fanny’s grave marker was actually 3D printed by Troy Thorne a few days before we shot, and Josh and I went and laid it in the cemetery the day before it snowed so that it would be buried. However finding once all the snow was there was a challenge! Standing there in the deep snow, Josh pointed at a little stick or piece of grass sticking up out of the snow and told Steve to dig there, and sure enough, that’s where it was.

Day 2 Train Station/Storefront
We were pretty ambitious on our second day, filming at the Strasburg Railroad as well as down the street in Strasburg for a storefront scene. At the railroad, the snow techs used a combination of cotton batting and rock salt for ground snow, and snow machines in the air. The sun came out for the second part of the scene courtesy of gaffer Mike Bland and some Maxibrutes and a 10k Fresnel, which was useful since it was actually raining for part of the day. The kind of cold miserable winter rain that had everyone huddling under tents between tents.

Photo credit: Jordan Graff

But I preferred that to the alternative, because it would have been impossible to deal with intermittent sun or even full sun throughout the day. Jim Mundel was back for more jib work at the beginning of the day filming the opening and closing shots, and then I went handheld shooting the scene from beginning to end once we had all of the blocking locked in. For the storefront, our great G&E team had to black out the street entirely to make sure we didn’t deal with streetlights and headlights, then we carefully built up the lighting inside the store and on the street to get the look we were looking for.

The following is a synced up take of Scene 64F Take 1, the top being the footage from the camera, and the bottom being a shot from behind the scenes. For those who’ve never been on set before I’m going to walk through what’s happening. At the beginning you can hear 1st AD calling out “Roll camera”, since I started the video at the beginning of the camera roll, you don’t hear him call out “Roll sound” before that, but you always roll sound before camera. The slate gives you most of the information that the editor needs to know where the shot belongs. The bars of the slate at the top get clapped together to make an audio sync point since the sound and picture are being recorded separately. However, the timecode right beneath it is actually going to both the sound recorder and the camera as well, and that’s what is actually used to sync with, we just continue to clap the slate as a backup in the event that there is some issue with the timecode. The information directly below the time code, from left to right, is the card number, so that the editor can identify what card this clip is recorded on to, then the scene number, then the take number. Numbering the scenes is something that happens when you begin to schedule the movie, and once you do it, you want to avoid changing the numbers at all costs, because all of the different departments begin to use those scene numbers as identifiers and everyone needs to know what scene you’re working on. Underneath that you have the production companies and the director and the cinematographer. Then you have the frame rate (in this case 24 frames per second) and the date. At different times we’ll put other identifying information on the slate, because we slate every take, it’s a great place to bake in information. After the 1st AC and the sound recorder call out that they are rolling or speeding, the 2nd AC who is holding the slate calls out the scene and take number so that the editor also has a sound reference at the beginning of the sound file when it comes time to sync it. The sound recordist is also naming each clip by scene and take number, but we always like to have a backup of all of the information. This is where the lower clip starts, and you can see that there is a lot of fake snow blowing, but what’s harder to see is that it’s really raining as well. The camera is covered in plastic because the snow is soap foam and leaves a soapy residue on all of the gear, and I’m using something called an EZ Rig to move some of the weight of the camera from my arms to my hips. You can hear director Josh Enck cue Ernest and Henry to move, and then cue the background to move. Most of the time when you hear people being cued at different times, it’s because you want movement to time out a certain way. As the scene progresses you can see that Doug Horvat, the sound recordist, is following along with a microphone that is swaddled in rain coverings. There is also a grip following along behind me trying to make sure that I won’t collide with anyone, since it can be hard to stay aware of your surroundings and look at the shot. At about :33 you can also see one of the snow machines and fans on top of a ladder, with an operator blowing snow into the scene, there were at least three or four of these. You can’t see the source, but there were also a number of large foggers blowing fog into the scene, and at around 1:00 you can see some of the lights on standby that are due to fade up when Henry and Ernest find Charlie. At 1:07 you can see the rest of the setup on the platform and see how careful I had to be to frame all of that out. Additionally you can see the strip of cotton snow blanket that was laid down to cover the brick, and then supplemented next to the train by lots and lots of rock salt. This was the first take in this particular setup, and none of this take was actually used in the edit, for a number of reasons: having the camera down by my waist made the power line reflections in the window much more prominent, and also translated a lot of hip movement to the camera, the timing of the background actors didn’t work out correctly, because most of them were gone about half way through the shot, and the actor playing the Russian doctor had too much business with the book that was taking too long. So after making adjustments and fixing those various issues, we tried again and again and again, and that’s how you make a movie!

Days 3 and 4 – Longfellow Interiors
We did two days of winter interiors in June at Moonstone Manor, the location for our Longfellow House interiors. This was the first time that I really started to understand that I could push myself out of a scrappy “Independent Film” mindset and instead work in a way that gave us maximum control over our environment. Production designer Karen Harper and her amazing art team flipped three rooms of the house and my amazing G&E team tented the entire first floor so that we never had to worry about outside light or darkness. It didn’t matter if the clouds were over the sun, or where the sun was coming from, we just treated the house like a studio. We used M90’s through the windows on the north side of the house to give us the push we needed for daylight interiors, so it couldn’t be a complete tent out, instead, we made a giant light box that was framed with black, but you could still shoot the lights through it. It was important to me to have the intensity of M90s in order to give us a higher contrast level, since there something to me about wintry light that is harsher and brighter because of snow on the ground. The second day was a long day full of inserts (saved by a brand new 85mm Macro lens that was one of only a couple in the country at that time) and a big complicated lighting shift.

The first part of the day was night, and we made a bold decision to go for a theatrical, more saturated night time look. In the “morning” the M90’s were almost direct, just pushing through a 1/2 soft frost so that you couldn’t actually see them as a source. We also had Andy Schwartz there to fly the camera on steadicam for us for one of the last scenes in the film, shifting from the locked off night time shots, to the smooth tracking shots in the morning.

Day 5 Henry’s Bedroom Part 1
Henry’s bedroom is an important location in the film, and it was built in the back corner of an old barn. Thankfully I was able to light over the walls and through the window, although the window was difficult to work with since it was about 14ft off the ground. I used an HMI outside the window for setting sunlight, and Gemini LED’s for fill in the room. We also made the decision to put green screen outside the window because of a large leafy tree that was clearly visible in a scene that was supposed to be winter. But with the length of the scene and the window being in almost every shot, this was to prove consequential later on and ultimately it ended up being whited out, except for a few closeups.

The other scene we filmed this day was a recreation of a famous painting of Henry Longfellow by the artist George Healy. It was an interesting exercise trying to match the lighting from the portrait back into the scene, and a lot of fun. You can also tell that there are some days where we don’t have a lot of behind the scenes footage, so I’m showing you the main tool we used to visual scenes. Artemis Pro is an app for your iPhone that allows you to take pictures or video with a framing that matches that of your actual camera and lenses. It’s not perfect, and doesn’t show depth of field, but it was still incredibly useful and meant that Josh and I knew what our shots were going to be, and could communicate easily with all of the departments, and especially saved a lot of time on lens changes.

Day 6 Garden/Lake
It was important to Josh that the audience really feel a passage of time during the film since it takes place over three years, so some days were just about getting the characters out in nature to take advantage of the changing seasons.

You can see 1st AC Aaron Dienner in several of these bts pictures. A great AC is completely invisible, since no one sits at a movie and is impressed by the focus. And there is no “simple” or “easy” day for an AC, he has to carry a heavy camera and lenses through fields and make sure that even if his DP is in a constantly moving rowboat filming a constantly moving canoe, that the shot is still sharp. By all of those standards and more, Aaron is a fantastic camera assistant and a huge part of this movie.

Day 7 Chancellorsville
The first scene was just getting a shot of a kite falling to the ground. SFX rigged a kite on a lift that could be detached so that it would flutter to the ground on cue. The second scene that we filmed was Charlie confronting his commanding officer. Jim Mundel was back to shoot the opening shot of the scene, jibbing through the grass and up to the horse, then pushing on track over and past Charlie to reveal the general’s tent behind him, it’s one of the hardest shots that we did, both technically, laying track in the grass for a jib to ride on, and because the horse was afraid of the jib.

Photo credit: Kayla Davis

So we ended up having to change the shot a little from what it was going to be, to making it so that the horse handler could come in right next to the camera and then grab the bridle so that the horse wouldn’t shy away from the camera. The second part of the scene Josh really wanted me to lead the general out of his tent and back into the sunlight, so I had to do an iris pull as he came through the flap. Of course we had a tech malfunction with the remote, so I had to just grab the lens and do it myself while walking backward. The last scene was a campfire scene. Between lift failures and other issues, we ran out of time to light the scene how I had originally planned, and I ended up winging it a bit, but it ended up being one of my favorites scenes.

Day 8 Gettysburg
To get some of the civil war footage, we went to the Daniel Lady Farm in Gettysburg, PA where they stage civil war reenactments throughout the year. We used the opportunity it gave us to get some great backgrounds as well for a quick scene of one of our actors getting a letter, and then staged some work with cannons. While we were out in the field, we got word through Josh Muffley that a cavalry regiment was willing to take part, so they came out and gave us a couple spectacular shots as well. For the actual reenactment, I had to dress as a civil war soldier, and to be as small and compact as possible, used a RED Komodo as a hand held camera and marched around the field with the rest of the soldiers. It was a lot of fun actually, if a little stressful just trying to find shots that worked. I had to keep up with the soldiers and make sure that I wasn’t seeing sunglasses or spectators or other things in the background.

Day 9 Parade
In order to stage a recruitment parade we went to the Landis Valley Museum, where they have several older buildings surrounding a central square. Josh and I agree that it was one of our hardest days, for a lot of different reasons. There were over 100 extras, and a parade to block, and kids, and you have to make sure people have breaks, and there are story things that are happening quickly, but the sun is always moving! Daytime exteriors are some of the most challenging scenes to maintain lighting continuity, and something that I’m still learning how to do well.

Photo credit: Jordan Graff

We were lucky to have the legendary steadicam operator Mike O’shea there to fly the camera for us, shooting one of my favorite shots in the movie, tracking with Charlie as he walks through the parade and over to the recruiting table. Like most great shots, it looks simple, but does a lot of storytelling and shows almost the whole set and all of the extras in one shot.

Day 10 Stable
We were still at Landis Valley Museum using their existing stone stable to film a scene of Charlie running away from home during a thunderstorm. I continued with the same saturated night time blue color, and then used Clay Paky Stormy units scattered around the set for lightning hits. Board op Ethan Smith was able to program a base of lightning, with some additional extra hits that he could trigger at key points of dialogue so that certain lines would be accentuated.

Ultimately the biggest surprise (that shouldn’t have been) was how much light I needed to push in just to get the rain to show up. Thankfully I had several Aputure 600d’s on standby that were spotted in is rain backlights depending on which way you’re looking. Overall I’m happy with the scene, it was crazy to get, but it all worked thanks to the sfx guys who figured out the rain and Ethan who figured out the lightning.

Day 13 Church
This was the first of several days that we filmed in this tiny but gorgeous church, Hope Episcopal Church in Manheim PA. On this day we pushed M18s through the side windows and a 4k in the large stain glass window at the front. I used tubes for hair lights and suspended a dana dolly above the pews for camera movement. The white walls were challenging, and ultimately I had to pull them down quite a bit in the grade. One of my favorite shots in the film is the reverse of Henry where he’s looking over his shoulder and the red door is behind him.

The key on his face is just natural light from the window, but he’s picking up a perfect edge from an HMI through the opposite window, and then there is another M18 pushing through a small stained glass window in the back of the church onto the stone archway. And then the top light is natural light coming through a round stained glass window above him. It also really shows off the Cooke 135 for the magical lens that it is! Lastly, here you can see a lot of pics of producer/writer/director Josh Enck, who provided strong leadership for the whole crew and sensitive direction for the actors and has crafted a wonderful film that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.

Day 14 Dining Room
Our amazing Art team had created a dining room set for us to shoot in our tiny studio/barn. The walls had an amazing green wallpaper so that they would just fall off wonderfully behind the actors, and the set wall behind the doorway was moveable so that I could get the intro shot that I wanted through the door frame, then turnaround and be able to see the actors exit. G&E hung a set of Quasar tubes over the table, and then we accented different elements on the walls.

There was always an ambient blue light in the background that is present without being powerful. However when we shot the later scenes by candlelight, that blue ambient became more prominent. The lightning was a single Aputure 600d outside the window, adjusted for whether we were looking at the window or being lit by it.

Day 15 Bell tower
We were using two different churches to stand in for the bell tower sequence at the beginning of the film, and fun locations are the best part of filmmaking. The first was an actual bell tower albeit a little closed off because the modern clock mechanism was next door. Everything for the shot had to actually come up through that tiny hole in the floor that the actor is using, including the portajib that I was using to marry the to the movement we were going to shoot later with the exterior bell tower shot.

Photo credit: Jordan Graff

The second location was the top floors of a historic Moravian church building that is closed off to the public, so it really feels like stepping through a portal back in time. Once again, everything had to come through a small hatch at the bottom of the stairs, but once you got up there you could see old wheelchairs and graffiti from the civil war. Titan tubes have made lighting scenes like these much easier than they used to be. We were battery powered for almost everything, the real choice is always how dark is dark and how bright is bright. The lantern was real flame, so in a way everything was centered around that exposure and making it match the aesthetic of the film.

Day 16 Bedroom
Actor Steve Atherholt (Henry Longfellow) could finally shave his beard for the story, and that meant that we could keep working backward in the story, filming him recovering in bed right after he had been injured in a fire. I prefer to shoot with actors keyed from behind or the side, but some times for story it makes sense to have your actor facing the window away from the doorway. The actors barely make eye contact in the scene, so you can’t shoot traditional overs, and having a character lying in bed reduces your options even further. The other thing you always have to consider is who’s point of view the audience is seeing the scene through. Even though the previous scene is following the Reverend up the stairs to the bedroom, it would be rare to shoot a scene with the main character in it and have it not be from his point of view. As a counterfactual, we could have shot the scene over the Reverend’s shoulder, and cut in to closeup revererses of the Reverend. This would have distanced Henry from the audience and not allowed us to see his pain. My recollection is that Josh and I both saw immediately where the shot should actually be, allowing us to be in a wide shot to see all three actors, but having Henry close to the lens so that we could see his injuries and his emotional pain. Because of how the room had been set up in other scenes, that immediately takes away the decision of where your key is coming from. However, shooting with the light source behind the camera can be challenging, since it’s easy for the light to feel too flat. So we lit in layers, keeping the light soft on Henry in the foreground, and then pushing a slightly harder light on the men in the doorway, being careful to make it seem like it was coming from the window, when it was actually coming over the set wall, so that it could have more shape. Gaffer Tom Fanelle and Best Boy Grip Jeff Bell helped me to shape what could have been an ugly shot into something beautiful. We shot the scene racking with the dialogue, and in the end, most of the single take made it into the final edit.

Day 17 New Hope Church
We started this day filming flashbacks in the church. There was a lighting gag using a 4k HMI to blast light through the stained glass window of the church, but the main source was two 18k HMIs on a condor pushing light through the distressed walls and windows. On the first take, I was running backward while holding the camera at around knee height, and trying not to trip on all of the debris and rubble. So I hit the camera on one of the pews, and of course that’s the take that made it into the film. Throughout the morning, I thought that the sky was going to stay overcast, but the clouds actually burnt off fairly early. So we had Ultrabounces on one side of the church to block the views out of the window, and flags surrounding the sun facing side to try to keep the sun out while still not blacking out the window. The one hole we weren’t set up to control was the hole in the roof, and the sun came streaming in during one of the shots that we were shooting towards the back of the church. The sun being out did actually help us quite a bit for the shot in the afternoon.

A rare picture of Josh and I talking, which is strange because we talked all the time.

On the first page of the script was a line that read,
“The camera, high above the blown-out hole in the roof of New Hope Chapel, descends into the chapel toward the bell laying in the midst of rubble between the altar and the front row of pews.” This was a line that led to one of the most ambitious set pieces in the whole movie. I assumed that I would be dropping a camera on a cable, but I wasn’t sure about the best way to control it. I was put on to the idea of using a dolly by Kenny Morton, but it took Taavi Lehtimaki and rigging grips Joe Colyer and Mike Keeney to actually execute the setup.

They doubled the load so that the dolly track only had to be half as long as the drop, which ended up being over fifty feet. Jim Mundel was there to operate the remote head, and when we actually pulled it off I did some dancing on set!

Days 18 and 19 Backlot
This was two action packed days on the back lot with the ruined church in the background. The amazing SFX team dusted several acres with fake snow, and it looked amazing. It still had the same issues as working in real snow, where you had to be incredibly careful where you walked or moved, but at least they could come in and blow some more in to cover your tracks. We mainly used negative fill where necessary, and did our best to manage the patchy cloud cover, however the winter sun stays low throughout the day, and makes it a little easier.

Jim Mundel came with his Mantis Ultra Arm equipped camera car, and we filmed a series of action shots and then used it to quickly film several pages of dialogue with actors on horses.

Days 20-24 Longfellow Interiors
This day kicked off another week of filming in Moonstone Manor. We actually had a day of prep to which was huge for us since it was a big job to come in and turn the historic house into a studio. Day 20 was a funeral scene in the parlor room, with a few shots in Henry’s study. Once again we tented out most of the house and then had 4k’s at the windows. I’m really proud of so many of these shots, I feel like the whole team in every department was really in sync and crafted some wonderful looks.

Days 21 and 22 were daytime interiors, but had to look very different from the rest of the film, for story reasons. Costume design played a big role in that, but so did lighting, both color and fill levels. I went into it having an idea of what I wanted, but Tom Fanelle and John Draus were a huge help in helping to find the ultimate look of where it landed. There were so many happy accidents in this scene, as well as thorny problems that had to be worked through. For days 23 and 24 we were now tented out completely for two days of night interiors. Three of the windows needed to be seen through, and two at least had to be clean of gear so that we could see falling snow through them. I made the choice to keep the windows far brighter than would be natural, but since this was the first time that we were going to be with the family for an extended period and was meant to be a warm and joyful scene, I felt like we could push reality pretty far. In the same way we actually pushed far more blue in the interior than would have been realistic, but it was the only way to keep the scene from being just a wash of orange. Having the color contrast in the lighting brought out all of the costumes and faces in a beautiful way. Mike O’Shea was back again for some amazing steadicam work where he had to dance around the family and then Henry and Fanny as they danced.

The scene was so long that it had a whole shifting arc of its own, and the camera movement and lighting had to shift with it, and then we had to maintain the look and feel over two long days of filming.

Day 25 Church
We were back at the church for a night shoot this time, filming the opening scene of the movie, although we had to do the first part during the day. So it meant blacking out the entire church, which made me very thankful for the small windows. Mike O’Shea was back again for more steadicam work, moving around the building and filming in almost every direction, so Taavi Lehtimaki was able to rig a lighting balloon in the ceiling to give us the warm glow that the scene needed without needing stands around.

For the exterior work Jeff Bell rigged an 8×8 Litemat on to a condor for us and then flew it out over the set as a moonlight source. Then for under the portico of the church we just rigged a couple of Titan tubes, and then had Titan tubes on stands that we walked around for different angles. The entire setup was running on wireless DMX, which was a huge time saver, since I was able to quickly adjust every light on the interior and exterior, and it all looked great.

Day 27 Banquet/Senator’s Office
On our second to last day of filming we took over two rooms of the Mt. Hope Estate and converted them to a banquet room and a Senator’s office respectively. For the senator’s office we shot it as a late night look, and since we were only shooting a corner of the room, it made it a lot easier.

Conversely, for the banquet room we were looking in every direction, and there were also mirrors on every wall. So Jeff Bell and his team of grips rigged a grid overhead using wall spreaders. The lights overhead were Litemat Spectrums, with Pixel Bricks for accent lights. Then we used Titan tubes and LED panels outside the windows to give them a blue exterior glow.

Day 28 Church
By a happy accident of scheduling, we were shooting the last scene of the film on the last day of the shoot. I set out wanting to tent out the windows this time because I wasn’t happy that we didn’t have the depth in the windows on the last shoot. So Jeff and his team tented it all out the day before the shoot, and then a storm came up on the day and began to tear it all apart. While we were furiously filming inside, they were heroically keeping it together outside. But first we actually had to shoot a flashback scene with Fanny, and brought out the party gels and mirrors and put together some of my favorite imagery from the whole film.

Then Jim Mundell came back for the last day to shoot an incredibly complicated ending shot that wrapped around Henry and then rose up into the ceiling to get matched into the shot of the bell tower. Lighting was a challenge because of shadows and that rising shot, and then because of a lightning storm outside I lost most of my exterior window lighting anyway, so it wasn’t ideal, but we got the shot in the can and I think it works thanks to some mid-shot dimming and Gaffer Tom Fanelle walking a Titan tube around behind the camera.

There is so much more detail that I could have talked about, and so many shots that I missed and people who contributed. If you have any other questions feel free to ask.