Courtesy of Wide Awake
Authentically Styled Civil War Movies
“We can move the car, but there’s a fence and a building down there, too. We’re not going to move those.” An assistant cameraman on the set of a Wide Awake Films production in Kansas City tells the director the problems he sees with a shot they are setting up. Though filmed in Missouri and by a Missouri film crew, the project is actually for the Virginia Historical Society, which is sponsoring a series of three projects for a traveling exhibit to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. This short film about why the Civil War happened will present the social, historical, and political events that led up to the first battle.
Shane Seley and Ed Leydecker founded Wide Awake Films in 2001. Headquartered in the City Market district of Kansas City, they specialize in historical films, and they have a passion for both accuracy and creativity. They are also successful in other film pursuits, producing commercials and corporate videos. But, no matter the project or the client, Shane and Ed hold firmly to the idea that it’s the story, not the storyteller, that matters most, although their award-winning film credits make it clear that how the story is told makes a difference, too.
The scale of today’s shoot is smaller than the crew sometimes tackles. While they have worked with crews of more than 300 and filmed entire Civil War reenactments, only about 10 people are gathered at the Alexander Majors Historic House in Kansas City. Alexander Majors founded the Pony Express in 1860, making his home on the Missouri-Kansas border a perfect backdrop for a film about the beginning of the Civil War—except for that car, and the fence, and the building seen through the window.
This scene involves an actress gazing out a window. Shane and the crew adjust the camera angle to avoid capturing a parking lot and storage building in the background, one small example of the challenge of making period films in a modern world.
But it’s the authentic feel from on-site shooting that led these channels to use Wide Awake’s historical stock footage: PBS, the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, A&E, Discovery Channel, TLC, BBC, and the Travel Channel. Wide Awake has produced interpretive films for museums such as Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield outside of Republic, the Jesse James Farm in Kearney, and Perryville State Historic Site in Kansas. The crew has received numerous honors. Their film, Bad Blood: The Border War that Triggered the Civil War, won two 2007 Emmy Awards, a 2008 Telly Award, and was named the Best History Program, by the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which distributes PBS programming nationwide.
“Sorry, someone without a muffler drove by.”
During scenes with audio, being quiet on the set is critical. But even when all 10 people in the room manage to hold in their coughs and avoid creaking the old wooden floors, there is nothing anyone can do to silence the busy highway only 100 yards or so from the front door of the house.
Shane says the hardest part about shooting historical films is that “you can have everything perfect and set up, but then a plane flies over. You just have to work around it.” But it isn’t just man-made elements that give them trouble; nature can also take its toll. Wearing wool clothing on a hot battlefield in July, as most Civil War soldiers actually did, is certainly not pleasant, so Shane dresses in costume while directing in such conditions, to be sure that he isn’t working the actors too hard.
Ed remembers another challenge the night before one shoot in Virginia when 90- to 100-mile-an-hour winds knocked down the entire set—tents, camps, portable toilets—and wreaked havoc upon thousands of reenactors. They stayed up all night rebuilding, and the shoot went on the next day as planned.
“Well, that’s the movie business!”
Shot at a historic home, filming meets unexpected issues. In the middle of one segment, a previous owner of the home stops by to see what is happening; she is concerned about items she had donated to the house. While Shane hollers, albeit nicely, for quiet, Production Coordinator Amanda Curtis is in the other room, quickly explaining that the crew has permission from the owners to film inside. Still, the shots taken in those hectic, confused few minutes are filled with background noise and have to be repeated. No one gets frustrated, though. They just smile, shake their heads knowingly, and laugh.
The atmosphere that allows for such success is far from the high pressure, tension-filled sets you might expect. The crew is relaxed and in a good mood the entire afternoon, making jokes and laughing. Shane says, “The key to this business is having a good time.” He explains that if they have “that kind of vibe, we always get good stuff.” That calmness may be part attitude, but it’s also part passion, as a love of history drives the entire process. Shane first began participating in reenactments as a young boy with his father, and the love grew from there. He also lived in Illinois for a time and first became interested in Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois native, while there, and that interest grew to include the Civil War.
“Are these vintage cobwebs?”
The crew spends a lot of time staging shots to make sure they have everything arranged just right. At one point, they turn an antique crib a quarter of a turn so it will fit better in a vertical shot, exposing some cobwebs that may have added to the home’s vintage charm, but would have taken away from the reality of the scene portrayed in the film. This joke is light-hearted, but also evidence of how well the crew has been trained to notice all aspects of a shot, even the faintest details of a barely visible spider web.
Ed and Shane say history is an ever important yet often overlooked part of life. “When the economy gets tough, people tend to forget history” and focus on everything that’s happening now. Wide Awake is able to visually bring an audience to a feeling that immerses them in a previous era so they can realize how difficult life was for soldiers and civilians at that time. Ed stresses this is so important because “we can never forget that where we are today is because so many people gave their lives.”
“Higg, we need you!”
Gregg “Higg” Higginbotham, one of Wide Awake’s historical consultants, spends the afternoon setting up props and dressing the actors, or in his own words, “dandifying” them. Gregg also frequently portrays Frank James, brother and accomplice of Jesse, in reenactments. He also scours the house for the best rooms to set up shots and any historical artifacts that can be used as props. For a scene on the stairs, he looks to see if there is anything useful “stashed somewhere” that an actor can carry. He sees a tray, historically accurate of course, and some drinking glasses, but decides they would be too “squirrely” to carry down stairs. Instead, he selects a sturdier serving dish to set on the tray so as not to endanger any of the antiques. He also helps with costuming and has enough sets of clothing on hand to accommodate Shane’s decision to switch an actor from a rugged and dirty outdoor laborer to a spiffed-up household servant. That love and respect for history is shared by the entire crew but especially by its regular team. Ed points out that Wide Awake gets exceptional support from the talented and passionate people that often collaborate with him. The team—Jay Stevens of Parkville, Dan Hadley of Lee’s Summit, and Higg of Independence, are historical consultants, working to make sure costumes are accurate and finding the clothing, even down to a specific color. David Bears, also of Lee’s Summit, is a historical consultant but sometimes acts as assistant director of shoots where large numbers of actors are needed. Robbie Maupin from Lexington, along with his team of Midwest Performance Riders, helps out with horses.
“Here, I think you need more flour.”
For the shot of a slave girl working in the kitchen, Higg dusts flour on the table and the actress by taking small handfuls of store-bought flour from a Ziploc bag and throwing it all over the set and getting it on her apron, face, and hands. Amanda then pours about half of a water bottle into a large wooden bowl for the actress to begin mixing and kneading together with the flour. Higg gets a little carried away though, because Shane, after studying the monitor, asks the actress to brush off some of the heaviest flour from her dress and arms.
Ed and Shane’s love of history is especially significant here in Missouri. Missouri has been slower than eastern states to draw attention to its role in the Civil War, they say. Ed sees a growing demand for a more accurate history of this part of the country. Plus, he sees an opportunity for growth: “We haven’t embraced our history at such a high level. It’s not that our battles aren’t as exciting or interesting. We have the same amount of history; we just haven’t understood the value of historical tourism.”
“Roll camera! Speed! Clear frame please! ... I can still see you.”
A shot of an actor’s reflection in a mirror provides a few extra difficulties because everyone in the room has to make sure his or her reflection can’t also be seen in the shot. It takes several extra minutes for everyone to realize they were standing at the wrong angle, and even then, some move the wrong way at first—putting them in the shot even more directly. It isn’t just history that Shane is passionate about. Technology is also important to the Wide Awake crew, which is evident in the commitment to producing footage with top- of-the-line equipment. The monitor, a screen that displays what the camera is filming, is crucial to every shot, and all eyes in the room are fixed on the screen throughout the filming process. It’s more important to check what the camera is “seeing” rather than what bystanders see with naked eyes. Angle, lighting, and framing are all essential to ensuring the quality of the product.
“How is that movement going to affect your graphics?”
Keith Johnson, who is in charge of graphics for this project, looks on as Shane checks to make sure the shot he is getting will work well for Keith to manipulate in the animation process. For this project, some of the shots will begin as still animation and then be transformed to “come to life,” with the actors’ movements and voices.
For some shots, the actors are filmed in front of a green screen, a green backdrop placed behind the actors that allows a replacement background to be added digitally in the editing process. To use the green screen, the crew sets up the portable screen behind the carefully constructed desk set, making sure the actor’s head doesn’t stand higher than the screen. Then, they consider the actor’s every movement and position.
“Can you do British?” “Of course.”
Not all the actors Wide Awake uses have experience with historical projects, but the ones from this shoot know what they are doing. As Shane directs the shot, he asks for various changes to the accent and inflection of the lines. One actor easily switches his voice from that of a yelling southern plantation owner to an angry British whisper, after which Shane decides they should go with a unique and challenging blend of both.
Shane’s passion for his work keeps the energy level high on the set. He gets excited when watching shots come together, and those around him share in the enthusiasm. Amanda, who helps cast actors, explains how thrilled she gets when she finds someone new to include. She watches for actors that she’s seen in local plays and, for a film that portrayed Lincoln, she remembers calling a man someone had told her about and saying, “Hi, I heard you look like Lincoln.”
“Hey, you want to be in a shot?”
Today, the crew for the shoot is especially small, and the last shot requires several men to pose as extras. Almost the entire crew is recruited to kneel down and raise their right hands in front of the green screen as if voting. Even Shane, who is usually behind the camera, and the photographer for this story, are drafted to vote. And, since only one cameraman is left out of the shot, this writer also gets recruited to hold the monitor so he can see the shot as he records it.
Even though this shoot is relatively small, no one sees it as unimportant. Every detail is carefully considered. Shane says it’s an honor to bring the “Midwest work ethic” to this job in Virginia. And even though historical films may require a different set of considerations, Shane says they spend the same amount of time and energy on their corporate projects. Wide Awake’s commercial work has allowed them to work with major companies in the Kansas City area and beyond.
“It’s something we like to call ‘blending geekdoms.’ ”
Shane’s description of the crew’s balance between technology and history sums up the crew’s dedication. As much as they get excited talking about how different our lives are now from back then, discussing everything from indoor heating and outhouses to the amazingly small waist of a vintage wedding dress on display in the house, the crew also gushes about modern conveniences. They listen to a personalized Pandora Internet radio station at work and have been known to complete a difficult shot by setting up their beloved Viper Filmstream, a high-definition, digital film camera, on top of a Chevy suburban. If you ask any of them, they’d tell you they have the best job in the world because they get to combine their passions into one goal.
The result is their award-winning, hi-tech version of history.