Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What I Learned On Short Film #2

After the fun and success of my first short film, Happy Birthday, You’re a Zombie, I threw myself into Upon Reflection, a longer and more technical film.

The idea for this film came from a tutorial I watched on Indy Mogul about shooting a subject and their mirror reflection at different times then marrying them together; gives the illusion of two distinct subjects. The effect looked really cool so, I started feverishly writing notes and plotting and staring out the window until Upon Reflection was born.

As with my first attempt behind the camera, there was a score of lessons to be learned in the making of this, my second short film.

I was happy that everyone to whom I showed the script was impressed by it. This experience drove home that my wheelhouse is writing; I’m sure I’ve surpassed Gladwell’s supposed 10,000 hours of performance/practice. Even so, I have always maintained that writing is a craft never mastered so, consider my 10,000 hours extended to unlimited.

Karen Dance pours while Peter Campbell watches. A view of the high-tech equipment used on the shoot.
This attempt had me reaching out to actors, people who have been in stage or film productions before and it was clear that not everyone is at my ‘no budget’ level. Many of the actors I approached either had scheduling problems or were no longer working ‘gratis’. It was the best thing that could have happened because I ended up asking Peter Campbell, who originally was to play the lead detective, to take the lead of the man and his reflection. He was amazing! As were all of my performers. That is a certainty to which I will always cling; actors act – and they’re damned good at what they do.

I made the mistake of falling in love with certain locations and shots. I saw a large bathroom for the main scene and searched high and low for it. There was nothing available without taking the route of permits, insurance and paperwork. I stuck with that vision far too long which delayed the shoot for months; that and the lack of a committed actor for the lead. I also saw a crane/jib shot in the production and no matter how I tried to figure out a way to do it – rent or DIY – I couldn’t justify the cost. Still, I hung on to that shot and it cost me something more precious than money – it cost me time.
Karen Dance prepares to add the blood effects to Peter Campbell

If I ever again fall in love with a shot, I’ll make sure the calculation is done more rapidly; either find a way to shoot it or quickly move on to an alternative. Hell, I’d cut out shots before I’d stall myself like that again.

I lost control of my shoot. Before shoot day I finalize the script then create a shot list (I’m not a storyboard kind of guy). I stick to my shot list like a lifeline, that is, I did, until this shoot. I was challenged about many things, not the least of which was actor motivations. I saw this as a simple script to screen jump but I failed to see it from an actor’s point of view. That is one of the most important lessons I learned on the set of Upon Reflection; every actor needs to know what happened to their character leading up to any shot. I answered many questions I hadn’t considered while writing the script. To be candid, it threw me. I wasn’t prepared to be peppered with characterization questions. Time was fleeting and my shot list was abandoned in order to get the shoot completed on time. 
I give some instructions to my two detectives, Sandy Morrison and Jane Pokou
That was a mistake. A very big mistake. I failed to complete many shots and that left me scrambling in post to make up for them. There were places that needed close ups, one shots of a two shot conversation, blank spaces that were absolutely critical for the effects I needed – missed because I wasn’t prepared for what wasn’t written on the page. That will never happen again because every shoot from this day forward will start with a table read; a gathering of the actors to sit and go through the script so they can ask any questions they have before we get on set.

In keeping with my budgetary restraints, I wore many hats in the making of Upon Reflection: writer, director, cinematographer, camera operator, sound, lighting, props, continuity and editor. That was the biggest mistake of all, taking on so many roles that I couldn’t give them my full attention. My goal is to direct a feature that I’ve written. To do that, my focus has to be on the writing and directing. Upon Reflection was written to push me on both of those fronts but fell short because I took on too much responsibility. So, if you’re reading this and are looking to gain experience in lighting, cinematography, camera work, editing…anything other than writing and directing, then stay tuned for word on my next project. Trust me, if you work for food, I’ll be needing you.

Poor Peter had to endure the sun and a photo bombing from Sandy.
I lucked out on this film and was able to meet some new, talented people, Peter Campbell and Jane Pokou, who I hope to work with again. And, I was able to call on friends who’ve worked with me before and who did a tremendous job for me. Laura Marks continues to impress me with her acting. Karen Dance is an amazing makeup artist and I highly recommend her for any film. If not for Tony and Raquel Heayn, continuity would be terrible and I would have no stills of the production. They also helped set up all my sets. My wife not only acted in this film, she helped in so many ways. A great big thank you to everyone for all their help. I hope we can all work together again, soon. And, I know that I will learn just as much from my next project. 

Karen really does love what she does!
Sandy checking out Karen's excellent effects.
This is how Laura Marks studies her lines - on a smartphone. Very smart!

Tony Heayn looks on, ready to pounce into action for continuity, set up or breakdown.