Speaking of movies, I was on the set of Ender's Game last week to record my one line in the movie – a voiceover of a pilot making an announcement to his passengers.
Let me assure you that there is nothing exciting about being a spectator at the filming of a movie. It's hard work, it takes hours to shoot a 30-second scene, things are done over and over, and in between shots there's nothing but ... waiting.
However, if you're actually working, it can be intense and fascinating.
I sat, off-camera, reading my sole line, which comes in the middle of a scene between Harrison Ford as Col. Graff and Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin.
The scene does not come from the book – very few of the scenes in this movie do – so it was amusing when others asked me how it felt to have my book brought to life. My book was already alive in the mind of every reader. This is writer-director Gavin Hood's movie, so they were his words, and it was his scene.
So what I was concentrating on was how Ford and Butterfield worked with the lines, with the director, with the camera and with each other.
If you don't understand what you're seeing, it could look as if they were doing nothing at all. Their line readings were flat (by stage standards) and barely audible (boom mikes picked up sounds that were barely audible 10 feet away). They had almost no facial expressions.
And they were superb. Film acting, especially in closeup, is not about facial expressions. It's about what's going on behind the actors' eyes. And it's about timing.
The scene got more and more minimal as the takes went on. What had been an arm grab and a shrug became a mere touch on the shoulder and a single glance at the hand.
And the less they did, the better the scene became. What mattered was the timing – when Ford put his hand on Butterfield's shoulder, how long it took Butterfield to glance at the hand, how long before he looked away and when the hand was withdrawn.
When it comes time to edit the movie, the actors will have given the editor a vast menu of choices to get just the right effect.
On the set, however, it was wonderful to see how Ford and Butterfield responded to each other's timing. It was such a delicate dance – and they worked perfectly together.
Twice, I saw Ford give a tiny suggestion to Butterfield. The suggestion in both cases was excellent; and in both cases, Butterfield understood completely and executed perfectly.
The scene may or may not work as planned; for all I know, it might not end up in the movie. But if it's there, the audience will experience it as reality – we won't stop and think of all the many different ways it could have played.
But the actors thought of it, and almost every one of the different ways they played it worked well.
The odd thing is that Harrison Ford gets little credit for the brilliance of his acting, because he's so real that audiences think that's just how he is.
Nonsense. Ford is a very inward man; everything he does on screen is acting, it's all very, very hard to do, and the fact that you think he's just being himself tells you how outstanding an actor he is.
And Butterfield is showing himself to be, not a child actor, but an actor who happens to be young. I've always said that, as a director, I'd rather have smart actors than talented ones, because your smart actors listen and change, and with those who fancy themselves talented, you have to rely on chance to get your performance.
Butterfield is smart. That really helps when he's supposed to bring off a preternaturally intelligent character. Actors can easily play dumb, but I've never seen an actor bring off a character that is smarter than he is. He's convincing as Ender Wiggin, so if the movie doesn't work, it won't be Butterfield's fault.
Besides that intense time doing offscreen line readings while two fine actors were at work, I got a chance to explore the gorgeous sets designed and built by teams headed by production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Procter.
Again, they were not building anything from the book, so I wasn't seeing my ideas brought to life. Their job was to build the scenery dreamed up by Gavin Hood for his story, and they have done a wonderful job.
I love looking at well-designed sets – tough enough to be safe for the actors to work on, yet not wasting a dime on anything that won't show on camera. Haworth and Procter are a great team.
Haworth was art director on a few films you've heard of – Thor, TRON: Legacy, Avatar, both Transformers movies, Eagle Eye, Men in Black II, Mission Impossible III and many others. And Procter, though newer, worked with Haworth on the most recent of these.
The movie Ender's Game is going to look great.
But the real challenge has always been the freefall movement of the kids in the battle room. Traditional wire work, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Spider-Man, simply won't work in the battle room, because wires absolutely depend on gravity.
That is, they allow actors to defy gravity, but the gravity is still there, revealed in every movement of the actors.
In the battle room, with gravity nullified, there is no up or down. Bodies have to move in ways dependent on inertia, not on gravity.
So I always assumed that the battle room would be filmed by animating the human figures and then pasting the actors' face onto the result, figuratively speaking.
The trouble is that there are certain fundamental problems that computer animations have not yet solved. There's the walking problem, for instance – most animations don't show footfalls, because it never looks real. Never.
Even using motion capture, there's something false in the way animated feet hit the ground and then flex and extend to move the person forward.
So there was going to be a constant challenge in showing the characters hitting walls and rebounding. It was going to be fake, and the best we could hope for was that in the editing, the falseness would be minimized.
But stunt coordinator Garrett Warren took what he learned from the weightless work he did on Avatar built on it.
There is a mechanism used for training gymnasts – a wheel they wear around their waists that allows them to rotate in space while suspended from wires. Warren used this on Avatar, which allows a great deal of apparent freedom of movement in space – once the computer artists have erased the wheel rig, you can't tell that there's any way a wire could have been attached.
But this is only the beginning. The illusion of freefall depends on the actors' moving correctly. Where gravity naturally draws their limbs downward, in zero-gravity the arms and legs and heads continue in the direction of the last movement, until something stops them.
For the most difficult stunts, Warren brought in dancers from Cirque de Soleil. Being gymnasts by training, they tend to be small – they can bring off the illusion of children's bodies.
And they have the strength and training to do constant movements and poses that defy gravity, without ever looking as if they're working hard.
But all the children playing these roles had to do wire work themselves. Fitted with the wheel rigs, they were being moved through space like puppets – and at every moment, they had to make sure their "nonvolitional" movements followed the rules of inertia-driven rather than gravity-driven motion.
It was agonizing. Human muscles aren't meant to work like that. And Warren was watching everything, playing it back again and again, catching any false movements.
Get it wrong? Then you do it again.
Oh, how these kids suffered! I'm sure many of them had times when they dreaded each day's work.
But human bodies adapt, and by the end of filming, they were all in superb physical shape. They were good at these dancelike movements. They had acquired a complete skill set, along with the required musculature, to perform an art that, with any luck, they will never have to use again.
Their suffering on the wires in the battle room helped them bond into a team. On the wires, there were no stars, no grunts. Everybody had to learn the same skills, do the same moves. They were equals.
So filming the battle room did the same job for the cast that the battle room itself was intended to do for the young students in the fictional Battle School – form them into cohesive teams.
These kids can take such pride in what they learned and what they accomplished. Everything that they were called on to do, they did – with style.
Here's the irony. Because Garrett Warren did his work so well, when you watch the movie, you won't ever think, Wow, that was so hard! It will simply look as if they're moving through null-gravity space. You'll be concentrating on the story and the people, not the techniques.
But if Garrett Warren doesn't get a special technical Oscar for his achievement on this film, then there truly ain't no justice. I've seen enough of the result to know that he has brought off the miracle of filming zero-gravity while still on planet Earth.
And almost everything you'll see in that battle room, real people did. The computers didn't animate it – they merely made the wires and rigs invisible.
That's my full report on everything I did and saw during my six hours on the set of the Ender's Game movie.
During those hours I saw, to my great pleasure, that it's a happy set – people enjoy their work and take pride in it.
That's very important to me. I've seen movie sets where the selfishness and stupidity of the director makes the experience hellish for everyone involved, or where casts and crews tear themselves apart with rivalries and resentments.
I wanted Ender's Game to be a joy to work on, so that the kids especially would take away good memories of their time involved in making the movie.
And, from what I could see, that's what the community of filmmakers have accomplished.
Sounds awesome. I'm particularly pleased that the sets and stunts are relying less on CGI and more on practical effects, and that the crew is having a good time as a cohesive team. Exciting times!