Monday, September 24, 2007

The Homebuilt Teleprompter

While recently shooting a bunch of PSA-style videos of Democratic candidates, I was faced with the problem of getting them to look natural while reading their prepared statements. Cue cards didn't look natural, so I decided to build a teleprompter so they could maintain "eye contact" with the camera.

First, I searched for a free teleprompter program. I found Prompt! 7.0, a low-cost software package with a very usable free version that allows scrolling reverse-text and white letters on a black background, which I'll explain. The download is available from

(click on any of these images for a much larger detail view)

I took an old milk crate, turned it over so the opening was facing down. Then I cut out one full side, leaving about an inch of the frame along the bottom to give it structural strength. Then I cut about a 6-inch diameter hole opposite it, for the camera. I took black construction paper and covered every square inch of the crate except for the holes.

As you can probably guess, I'm fond of that blue painter's tape for projects like this, because it doesn't leave any glue behind and it's very easy to peel off and reuse it.

I found an old picture frame in my basement and took out the glass. I put some plastic framing (it's silver here) around the glass to cover the sharp edges. Then I mounted the glass inside the box at a 45-degree angle. It's good to mount it in a way that allows you to adjust the angle slightly for fine tuning. The framing around the glass is just big enough inside the box to hold in place with friction, but I'm sure it's easy enough to come up with a reasonable mount if needed. This view is looking into the teleprompter from the actor's side, and the white square is the camera hole in the back. You can see the glass in it's frame inside the crate.

Run the Prompt! software on a computer. You can edit your text in it's built-in basic text editor. Once you're done, you can run the text reverse-image. (Update: I found out how to extend the text box to the bottom of the display, now it shows a full page of text)

We hooked up a separate flat screen and laid it on the table top. That way, we can watch and control the scrolling speed on the notebook while the flat screen is dedicated to the teleprompter.

The top of the flat screen is oriented towards your subject, so the glass that will be above it at the 45-degree angle will properly reflect and display the text. That's why you need to have the text in reverse-image in the flat screen, so it's readable when reflected in the glass.

Carefully place the box over the flat screen. You might have to change the angle of the box or the glass in order for your actor to read it. You also have to raise it up so they can read it easily. Position the camera through the hole in the back, and try to use black construction paper to matte out any places where light can get in around the lens.

Here's what the person sees. I left a little space around the camera to demonstrate where it is, but it works best when you block all the light from coming through.

Once you set the camera, you need to matte out any space around it where light might leak in, so your subject can read the reflected text easily.

This is the view through the camera hole with text projected on the screen. Because your set is lit so brightly, the text is too faint for the camera to pick up. But your actor can read the lines easily because the box is so dark.

Here I am using the cursor keys to vary the scrolling speed of the text. It's a bit of a trick to read along with the person talking when all the type is backwards. But the text is so big, you can pretty much follow along.

This was a fun little project, and it works surprisingly well. Many of our candidates aren't professional speakers, but their videos look great and we usually got it done in a couple of takes. Here's an example:

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pacino, De Niro filming in Milford

I wasn't able to be there while they were filming, but only about 1/2 mile from my house they were filming a scene for "Righteous Kill (2008)" in a little bar.

The Star Cafe is something of a dive (but don't call it "seedy") where I've drank a few Buds and listened to the occasional band, such as Long Island's "Good Rats".

Early on the day of filming, I drove by and shot this photo:

At first I thought they were fumigating the bar, but it turned out they covered the front windows and door because they were filming a night scene, and they needed to block out the daylight.

Below are newspaper photos of the actors at this location: Al Pacino, Donnie Walhberg, and Robert De Niro.

And here's a clip of a local newspaper account of the day's filming:
Pamela McLaughlin, Register Staff

MILFORD — The movie crew on Spring Street needed bullhorns to be heard Thursday, but Nicole Parsell was plenty loud enough without one.

"Ahhhhhh, I touched him; Al, Al, Al," Parsell swooned with such unbridled emotion that it’s a wonder they didn’t give her a role.

Parsell’s left hand indeed had been brushed by Academy Award-winning actor and eternal hunk Al Pacino when she stretched out her arms as he entered through the side door of Star Cafe on Bridgeport Avenue.

"He has some soft hands," said Parsell.

This wasn’t about "Scent of a Woman," but rather of a man; Parsell, who lives next door to the cafe, graciously shared her fortune by letting other women around her smell the cologne Pacino had left on her palm.

Pacino and Robert De Niro, another Academy Award-winner, were in Milford to shoot two scenes at the neighborhood bar for their upcoming movie "Righteous Kill," in which De Niro plays a police investigator on the hunt for a serial killer.

Community Development Director Robert Gregory, who spent years in community theater, played an extra sitting at the bar. Gregory, who is the city’s liaison to the Devon Revitalization Committee, said the movie is a great boon to that section of the city.

"This movie will become part of the folklore of Devon and Milford," he said. "That’s something you can’t pay for."

As early as 8 a.m. a small group of curious bystanders had gathered and all else looked as usual, except for black material obscuring the front entrance to the cafe. By 11 a.m. the place was bustling with spectators, film crews, wardrobe people, set designers and Equity actors sent in to play patrons and bar personnel.

The bar’s real crew members are normally night owls, but for this they were up with the roosters.

"I put on a little extra makeup — this is exciting," bartender Chris Burnaka said, hoping to get into a shot. She said the Star Cafe is portrayed as a "cop bar" in the movie. When asked if it was a cop bar in real life, Burnaka laughed, "No, normally they’re outside waiting for our customers."

Bar owner Ray Tooley, who also has a swing shift job at Metro-North working on the high-tension lines, said he took a sick day Thursday so he could attend the filming.

"I’d rather be sleeping," Tooley said. "If it was Sharon Stone, I’d be excited."

Tooley said he’s hoping if the movie’s a success, men will want to say, "I spilled a drink on my wife where Al Pacino sat."

The bar was chosen for the film, set in New York, by location manager Dave Diamond, who lives on the waterfront nearby. He sent his crew out looking at bars throughout the area, and Star Cafe was chosen for two conversation scenes because the inside of the bar is deep and wide. Diamond said he usually works in Los Angeles where film crews are common, and so it still amazes him that folks care to come out to watch.

The bar is clean inside — Tooley and the crew objected to the word seedy used in one press account — but has a definite everyman’s feel: pickled eggs for sale, lots of neon beer signs, three pool tables and lots of dark wood paneling and brick.

Burnaka said the crew wanted to move a string of beer bottle lights closer to the area of filming and when she offered to dust them first, the answer was, "No, they’re perfect!"

By 3 p.m. Pacino was still inside and a crowd of about 70 — by now standing behind police tape — waited excitedly for De Niro’s arrival. But then word came it wouldn’t be until evening because they were going to film until 10. By 7 p.m. the two superstars were inside shooting a scene together.

Another star, Donnie Wahlberg, also was on the set Thursday.

In the afternoon, Pacino signed autographs for a group in back of the bar, where he took breaks to make calls on his cell phone.

Kathy Smith wasn’t all too subtle in her quest to be noticed; she walked her grandson to the school bus stop wearing a white shirt that said "Sopranos" in big red letters and "Tony 1" on the back. Once he was gone, she made the corner her personal catwalk.

"I’m hoping if they see the Sopranos shirt they’ll want me sitting in the back of the bar sipping a beer," said Smith, who said she’s seen "The Godfather" at least 100 times and can finish the lines. "Even if they want to borrow it they can, but I want a picture of me and Robert De Niro. If I see him I’m going to yell, ‘Hey, Max Cady,’" she said, referring to De Niro’s role as a psychopath in "Cape Fear."