How They Did It: First-Person POV Meets Post-Apocalyptic Downtown L.A. in Pandemic

Growing up a fan of first-person shooter video games, I’d always been fascinated by the concept of melding the single-character perspective into narrative storytelling.

When I came across the script for Pandemic (at the time titled Viral) on the 2012 Blood List and Hit List, I was immediately hooked and desperately wanted to make the film. Pandemic is set in the near future, where a virus of epic proportions has overtaken the planet. There are more infected than uninfected, and humanity is losing its grip on survival. Its only hope is finding a cure and keeping the infected contained. Lauren (Rachel Nichols) is a doctor, who, after the fall of New York, comes to Los Angeles to lead a team to hunt for and rescue uninfected survivors.

Producer Gabriel Cowan and I pursued the project for quite some time before we convinced Dustin T. Benson, the screenwriter, that we were the right team to bring his script to life. Aside from being in the style of a first-person shooter, the script was extremely ambitious from a logistical perspective, taking place in a quarantined New York City, which we later changed to Los Angeles.

We worked with Dustin on the script for over a year and, in the process, really delved into the world of point of view to understand how it could work in a narrative film, and how it could be used to enhance the experience without feeling like a gimmick. The research process was more extensive than usual because, in essence, we were having to invent our own rules of how not only the camera but also the editing would work in this new format. When would we stay in one point of view? When would we allow perspective shifts to other characters? How much should we feel the presence of our perspective in terms of sound design?

The first challenge we had to tackle was figuring out how we were logistically going to shoot the film. Working with cinematographer Mark Putnam, we tested many rigs in an attempt to unlock mobility while not sacrificing image quality. Most importantly, we were searching for a system we could use that would give weight to the camera movements so it felt like the human point of view rather than like shaky found footage. After many dead ends, we discovered Radiant Images, who specialize in creating helmet rigs. After much testing we settled on three different helmet systems that we would predominately use to shoot the film. We eventually ended up using a total of eight different types of cameras through filming process in order to accomplish the look and feel we were after.

Lauren (Rachel Nichols) in Pandemic

Lauren (Rachel Nichols) in Pandemic

The next challenge was to figure out how to work with the actors. When shooting point of view, the actors have to treat the camera like a character. They also have to teach their blocking and movements to the camera operators (who would dress in the character’s costume) so that the camera can mimic their actions. The cast was amazing and completely up to the task. The actors worked with our camera operators ad nauseam for each set-up to ensure the operators not only understood their movements but also their intent.

The final challenge was taking all the different technical processes we learned through our research and applying them to telling this ambitious story. With insane fight sequences, hundreds of extras, a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, intense blood gags and countless other challenges, it would have been easy to lose sight of what was at the heart of the film.

A scene that encompassed all of these difficult challenges is the moment where the team encounters a woman chained to the grate. It’s the first time our team exits the safety of the bus once in the contamination zone. The scene starts with the team noticing a woman, who looks uninfected, waving her arms frantically in the middle of the street. They pull over. She’s hysterically begging them to save her. They conduct a blood test and discover that she is, in fact, uninfected, so they grab her to take her back to the bus, but notice that her foot is chained to the grate. Realizing she is bait, they turn to run, but before they can, the woman is shot dead. Gunshots ring out. Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) returns fire while Lauren retreats to the bus. Gunner doesn’t get back in time and is forced to fight off a crowd of infected. Once he manages to break free, he runs from the crowd towards the bus as it drives away. Sprinting at full speed, Gunner is able to catch up. He leaps into the back of the bus just in time as our team speeds away.

Logistically, this scene involved a lot of moving pieces, and we only had from sun up to sundown to complete it. In that time, we had to close down a street in downtown Los Angeles, dress the street to look post-apocalyptic, choreograph an intense fight sequence involving a bus chase, shoot two other scenes, return the city street to how we found it, and wrap out before our permit expired.

A scene from Pandemic shot on location in downtown L.A.

A scene from Pandemic shot on location in downtown L.A.

Anticipation of shooting this scene gave me nightmares in the weeks leading up to the shoot. To give some perspective, we shot the entire film in 19 days, and we had two days where we shut down streets in downtown Los Angeles. These were our most expensive days. There was little room for error—so naturally, Murphy’s law took effect right at the beginning of the day.

On the day of the shoot, we arrived at set to discover the parking lot we’d booked (that we’d been told could hold our crew) was actually only big enough to fit a few of the trailers. This set us behind right from the get go. Luckily, our amazing production team swooped into action, finding other parking lots for our crew. After nearly an hour, our crew landed on set and was ready to get started.

The next step was transforming the city street. Our production designer, Yong OK-Lee, and her crew rushed around the street distressing the block as they went. An incredible quality of Yong is her attention to detail. If you watch the scene, you’ll notice that the street is covered in pieces of paper, all created by our production design team. Some were pamphlets on the virus, while others were newspaper articles or missing persons signs. For example, there’s a shot where Mekhi looks at a gate and we briefly see a giant wall of photos showing missing persons. Each one of these photos is unique.

Once the street was dressed, we began rehearsing the scene and had to figure out how to hide all the crew and traffic cones for the part where the bus approaches. We ended up having to shift the placement of the cars on the street to accommodate this. After we completed the first half of the scene, we gave the street to the stunt team who started working out the beats of the fight sequence.

The fight scene was very elaborate because it involved a massive street fight that evolves into a chase sequence involving the bus. The sequence ends with Mekhi’s character leaping into the moving bus. One of the obstacles was that the street was not long enough, so we had to time the stunt perfectly. The short street made it so that we had to figure out the exact speed the bus needed to drive while also figuring out when to accelerate and decelerate.

Once we were ready to role, our stunt coordinator, Van Ayasit, put on the camera rig and we went through the stunt sequence, which took over three minutes from action to cut. It was physically exhausting for Van and his team so the reset time was very long and we were really limited on the number of takes.

After the first two takes, we hadn’t really felt like we’d gotten it right, so we decided to give it one more try as we were quickly losing light. On the third take, everything clicked perfectly and we nailed it. We were all high-fiving each other and getting ready to move on when our first AC noticed that a wire on the camera rig had come loose during the take. When we checked the playback, we realized the camera hadn’t recorded the fight scene. We were back to phase one.

Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) in Pandemic

Gunner (Mekhi Phifer) running after a moving bus in Pandemic

It was a major bummer but we got over it and decided to give it one more try. The next take far surpassed any take that preceded it so it turned out that losing the footage was a blessing in disguise. We wrapped on the scene just as the sun set, and what had started out as a disastrous day turned out pretty darn great in the end.

Obviously, the technical aspects of making a film are a big part of the conversation. Ultimately, though, when you strip all the layers back, Pandemic is the story of a mother willing to do anything it takes to get her daughter back. The amazing team we had working tireless hours to bring the vision of the film to life never lost sight of that. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a talented crew and cast and am proud of what we were able to accomplish, in creating a film that integrates first-person perspective into the narrative while staying true to the story we set out to tell. MM

Tech Box

Cameras: Red Epic, SI-2K, Arri Alexa, GoPro Hero, Panasonic GH4, Canon EOS 7D, iPhone 6

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

Shooting Days: 19

Crew Size: 40

Pandemic opens in theaters April 1, 2016, and on VOD and iTunes April 5, 2016, courtesy of XLrator Media.

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