Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Tuner's Life 8

A while back I received a call from a Disney executive. There are a lot of vintage instruments in my shop so I receive these kinds of calls often. 

 This was a set purchaser who was working on an upcoming film pilot for Disney called Big Thunder.  The movie centers on a 19th century doctor who relocates himself and his family to a frontier mining town owned by a powerful but mysterious tycoon. The doctor and his family quickly realize that this town is not what it seems to be.

  Initially Disney was looking for a vintage player piano that had been electrified. However after looking at the shoot call sheet and the scene requirements I recommended that they use a manual pump player.

 Electrified players are convenient of course, but one of the problems is that when the unit is in operation the electrified player piano is limited when special effects are required. Of course the reproducing features the instrument has will work but these effects where not called for.

With this particular scene the director, Rob Bowman, wanted the music to play then falter off-key and slowly grind down to a halt. What would happen is the motor noise would overtake the sound of the song being played as the tempo was reduced.

The director took my recommendation and ordered the manual pump player for rental. Below is the scene.

SCENE TAKE;  Circa 1856 saloon scene

What was once a thriving town just minutes ago is completely devoid of people.  A lady’s dress-shoes nearby. A bag of groceries spilled next to it.

Seed spilling out over the back of an abandoned wagon. A rider- less horse gallops towards the man, right past him out of town…..

The man begins to hear the sound of a slightly off key piano. Playing what should be a jaunty tune, but is instead eerie…. The man heads towards the sound….. inside the saloon a steaming cup of coffee on the table….a spilled drink dripping off the bar onto the floor….and the player piano still playing slower and slower….END SCENE.

The camera and the cameramen were mounted a golf cart type vehicle and this unit had to roll close by the player piano forward into the saloon. This was why they had wanted an electric player piano. To sit at the piano and pump the pedals I would have been in the way. This would have meant I needed a dark green outfit to be edited out post production. 

Much easier and less expensive to do this another way.

In order to complete this scene I had to lie on the floor and work the pedals with my hands un-evenly so the song would distort and slow until the song become un-recognizable, then the song stops in the middle of the roll. 

We practiced for about 30 minutes having me lay on the floor and pump until the camera cart got to me then I would back off and let the cart roll by. 

3 final takes were called for due to mistakes or additions to the scene. These were done with the modern camera equipment. Then the scene was repeated using what is called a hand winder.

This is a camera used in the early days of moving pictures and is run manually with the winder on the side. It gives the film an old style flickering effect and uses the old beige colour scheme. Today we call this colour “sepia.”

A while later I heard that a second pilot shoot was ordered by ABC in January of 2013. The second shoot was done at a location in LA.

The set used for the initial pilot shoot was the 200 acre Virtue Studio Ranch owned by Danny Virtue located in Mission BC.  The set location was the old Bordertown set in Maple Ridge/ Pitt Meadows. Bordertown was a TV series that ran from 1989-91.

When working for the production side of a film shoot it is best to arrive early to iron out any small problems previous to the director and the director assistants coming on set. This way everything is ready to go when required.

While I was waiting for the shoot to commence I grabbed my digital camera and took some photos of the Bordertown set.  A lot of work was going on to make this a place called Golden Horseshoe, Wyoming circa 1856.

Here is a link to the photos I took of the film set. The location map, crew call sheet, and script for the saloon scene are all at the end of this photo set.

I have recently changed the way I load photo album links. Now you can click on the photo album link and this will automatically open in a new window.

Bordertown Film Set


  1. That was really interesting, Dan. In the pictures was that the piano you worked on? It looks really old!
    Your work is quite fascinating - I enjoy reading about it, in particular this bit here with you doing some work in the movies… too cool.

    I'm glad to see you out blogging.
    Cheers, Jenny

  2. Hi Jenny,
    My apologies for the late reply. Yes film work can be fun and interesting. The piano is one that I own and I keep it in original condition in case there is demand for a period piece as there was in this case.

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