[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 6: And Now, We Proudly Present…

Having had the opportunity to show LOVE IN AN ELEVATOR to my friends and family Saturday evening (and having survived said showing without any booing or flying rotten produce), I now offer up my short film for the world-at-large’s viewing pleasure (hopefully).

I must take a moment once again to thank my wonderful cast and crew for helping me take something from my brain and make it watchable.  I had a fantastic time, and I learned a ton, and it obviously would not have been possible without you guys.  So, Danny, Ashley, Mike, Danielle, and Kate: THANK YOU. You guys rock.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with a look at some of the shenanigans that went on behind the scenes at the shoot.

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[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 5: In the Can

If you were following me on twitter the weekend of September 18-19, you might have seen my flurry of tweets regarding the culmination of post-production on LOVE IN AN ELEVATOR.

I could have futzed around with it for many more hours, which could have spanned into days and weeks and probably months, but I realized I had very little to gain by doing so, and that the need to move on to other projects far outweighed my desire to fix certain issues.  After all, this was my first short film, created with the sole intent of gleaning an idea of how one goes about creating such things.  I wasn’t going for an Oscar or even for any festival submissions, so it was time to move on.  In allowing myself to do so, I knew I’d be chalking up some things to lessons learned.  Here are three items that jump to mind.


1) Reflections in glass make good excuses for philosophical reflection.

 

As I’ve touched upon before, I ran into a little snafu when, during a sort-of-pivotal shot, it turned out myself and a couple of other members of the crew were visible in the reflection of the glass doors behind my male lead.  After spending an embarrassing number of hours trying to figure out how to blur us, I finally decided it was time to let go of that dream and pretend it was purposeful.  And so, I present to you here my newly developed film-school analysis.

In this particular shot, the male lead is watching the female lead walk away from him, struggling with whether or not to call out to her, and ultimately deciding not to, all while be watched by a film crew, which symbolizes how we all have the choice to be observers or doers.  We can sit back and be an audience to life as it passes us by, or we can take action and change our destinies.  We can become the people others watch.

That works, right? Symbolism is way easier than After Effects.

Lesson Learned: Don’t shoot against reflective surfaces from an angle and/or time of day where you’ll be visible because then you will dump hours of your life trying to learn After Effects on your own and still fail and have to draw upon your creative writing skills instead to explain away the fact that you and your crew remain visible in a shot where you should not exist.

2) You can see temperature as much as you can feel it.

I was amazed in post-production to see how moving the camera up or down a matter of three or four feet or in and out of an open elevator completely changed the color of the shot.  I managed to fix it a little in post, but it again ended up being one of those things that I decided wasn’t worth futzing with more than I already had.  I’ve got no film school analysis on that one, but it’s definitely something I’d like to avoid as much as possible in the future.

Lesson Learned: Find a set that uses the same style of lighting in all locations, bring your own lighting, or don’t move your camera ever.  Alternatively, read your camera’s manual, as there are probably settings to help lessen that effect.  Also, consider finding a cinematographer if you are not one (I am so not).

3) There is more than one kind of Creative Commons License.

Imagine you’ve found music under a Creative Commons License that you really like.  You download it and spend a good eight hours arranging it for your short film, matching it up just so it enhances what’s happening on the screen.  You’re really happy with it.  And then, you go back to double-check the info for the credits, and you see you’ve used a piece with a non-derivative license.  You furiously google this term that has stricken fear into the very center of your heart.  You feel your soul deflating as you find that you have violated the terms of this particular sort of Creative Commons license by creating a new work, both by arranging it and setting it with video.  You pin your hopes on an e-mail sent to the owner of the piece, asking for permission.  You never hear back.  You cry and gnash your teeth and scream to the heavens, “WHY? WHY?!”  But it does no good.  You delete the music track, the mouse-click like the sound of a shotgun firing at your heart.  And you go back to the drawing board.

I actually scored my film a total of three times.  The second bit of music I found never matched up quite as well as I’d hoped it would, and so I went back to the drawing board a third time.  Both the second and third attempts, I made absolutely certain I was using music completely and truly in the public domain, via a glorious website called MusOpen.  If you’re in need of classical music recordings in the public domain, they’re an excellent place to get it.

Lesson Learned: Do your research and read carefully.


I know there are more lessons to be discovered yet, but my focus right now is on getting everything ready for my viewing party on Saturday.  I alternate between being excited, a ball of nerves, and just ready to have it all over and done with.  It’s probably a healthy mix, but it leaves little mental energy for deep reflection.  Next week I’ll be posting it online for those who want to see it, which will have me in another cocktail of excitement, nerves and fatigue, I’m sure.  But I can only focus on one near-meltdown at a time, so that one will have to wait until Sunday.

 

[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 4: Shoot Me Now

On May 22nd, with the help of four friends and one sister, we managed to shoot a short film.  It didn’t go perfectly, but I’d say it went nearly swimmingly, and for that I am thankful.  We kept the shoot to about four hours, despite a few hiccups.    Here’s a quick rundown of some lessons learned.

1.) Don’t trust yourself to remember everything in the morning, even if you have made a list, and even if you remember to reference said list.  I’d intended to purchase some food to be used for props during my Starbucks run.  It was on my list.  I had my list with me.  But when it came time to order, I had one and only one focus: needcoffeenow!  Luckily my crew was able to help me out, and we were able to grab some stuff at our location.  However, this also led to using a branded water bottle in many shots, when we’d made grand attempts at covering all other logos.  Things start slipping your mind when you have to think on the fly.

2.) Tell your Right-Hand Man to second-guess everything you say.  In this case, I called my sister, serving as my production designer, and asked if she’d printed the cat photo I’d requested the night before. This sent her into a frenzy, which included waking up our understandably grumpy and put-out mother at a much-too-early-for-Saturday hour — all this because my sister assumed that I wasn’t crazy.  What I’d really meant, instead of “cat photo,” was “dog photo,” which she had indeed printed the night before.

3.) Watch out for glass (and other reflective surfaces).  There are things you can’t see on a little viewfinder, like yourself in the reflection of the glass doors behind your two leads.  This ultimately leads to the weird, potentially-existential-crisis-inducing act of trying to erase yourself.  From video, of course.  But it could be a slippery slope.  (See? Existential crisis. Right there.)

4.) Divorce yourself from the movie in your head (and embrace humiliation).  One of my favorite scenes ended up happening because my lead actor was less than impressed with the aesthetic qualities of the leftover lunch I’d prepared for his character.  Because of his slightly-unwarranted disdain for my lunch-making abilities (the nerve!), we ended up with a scene that was funnier than what I’d written in the script.

5.) Get to know your tripod, camera, and other equipment.  I tried to get to know both of tripods, but we ended up only sharing a warm acquaintance. On set, this quickly turned into a contentious battle of wills, which resulted in my cast waiting around while I waged war with the pair three-legged monsters.  My camera and I got along pretty well, though there are a billion settings I didn’t really have time to explore that might have helped some of the color temperature differences I ran into in post-production.  The biggest disappointment was in my rigged-together dolly, which consisted of a skateboard, Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” books, and something else I can’t remember.  In the dolly’s defense, it would have worked quite well if I hadn’t needed to dolly out at an upward angle instead of straight back.  Because of this, I missed out on a couple of shots that would have added some visual interest to the film, but hey, that’s life.

6.) Before you have your actors do a wardrobe change, make sure you’ve filmed everything you want/need in Outfits No. 1.  The worst part about this is we’d already filmed what we thought were the last shots (in Outfits No. 2) and settled in for a relaxing lunch.  About two bites into my wrap, I realized I’d never gotten a couple of key shots I needed.  When I informed my leads that they’d need to change back and that we weren’t quite done, my lead actress, who is one of the sweetest and most adorable people I’ve ever known, actually almost scowled at me.  She’d probably deny it, but she did.  And it was deserved.  But them’s the breaks.

7.) Ask for what you need, even if you’re starting to annoy people.  If you’re not getting what you need from a shot, keep doing it and tweaking it until it works.  If you have to ask your actors to change back into their first outfits even though you thought the shoot was over, do it and get those shots.  If you have to ask your actors to crouch awkwardly on the floor of an elevator and deal with you leaning on them in order to get the angle you need, well, get down and get cozy.  If you need your production designer to run back to the room with all the props for the 87th time to grab something you forgot, tell them to get to it and chop-chop.  You can’t be timid when you’re directing.  You’re the boss, and you have to act like it.  That doesn’t mean you should be a jerkface about things; in fact, I’d highly recommend against it.  Be courteous. Be appreciative.  Listen to what your team.  But be firm.  I’d also recommend surrounding yourself with a cast & crew who support you and your vision.  Mine did.  They were a stellar bunch, and I’m super-crazy grateful to them.

That's a wrap!

8.) Do not take home the leftover craft service.  You will be stressed.  You will be exhausted.  This will lead you to eat it all (or at least way too much of it).  Or maybe that’s just me.

That’s it for now.  I’m done with the rough cut without music, though I still have to erase myself from those two reflective-glass shots and do some color correction.  The hardest task, I think, is going to be adding music, and that’s on the agenda this week and into next. 

If anyone has any relatively simple, step-by-step instructions on how to remove or otherwise smudge/sponge myself out from the background using Adobe Premiere/After Effects (I’m working in CS5), I will love you forever and ever.

[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 3: Spec to Shooting Draft

This pre-production stuff is no joke, people.  I’m itching to get back to writing, to be honest, as after spending about six hours on the shooting draft and shot list on Saturday, I’m starting to feel a little neurotic. 

But I’ll have to carry on as this is week leading up to the shoot.  On the to-do list:
1) Arrange for food for cast/crew, which I will call craft service so I can sound like a real filmmaker.
2) Work with my wardrobe/production designer to gather props and clothes.
3) Procure a scooter or similar low-to-the-ground-with-wheels item to use as a dolly.
4) Check in with cast/crew to make sure everyone’s still on board and comfortable with their roles.
5) Go over shooting draft/shot list/storyboards to make sure I haven’t forgotten something that could in turn derail my entire film shoot and thus filmmaking career before it’s even begun.

I’ve been attempting to document my reactions to the process on twitter with my very own hashtag, #LiaE

I’m going to try and keep it up during the shoot itself because I’d appreciate similar documentation from other short filmmakers.  There are so many things you can’t really grasp until you’re in the trenches yourself, but it’s nice to at least have a window, even if it’s dirty and foggy and smudged and only 140 characters at a time.

So, apropos to my middle tweet up there, as a writer of spec scripts, giving myself the opportunity to create a shooting draft was enlightening to say the least.  It forces you think about how words on a page translate to real-life and real-time staging.  Doing storyboards helped with this quite a bit, but it was, in a lot of ways, a macro version.  Plus it turns out I’m a terrible storyboard artist, as more than one of my drawings ended up becoming accidental stick-figure porn.

This is supposed to be two people moving from standing to sitting, not... well... nevermind.

Camera direction is something I’d thought about only vaguely before, so having to do it in a truly concrete manner kind of hurt my brain.  In a good way.  Sort of. 

In short, a shooting script has numbers associated with each scene heading, thus enabling easier reference for the production team.  I didn’t really have much to go off when creating my own shooting draft, so I decided to do what would be easiest and clearest for me and my team.  Because of this, I subdivided my major scenes with letters, e.g., 1A, 1B, 1C, etc.  Normally, you’d only use letters to denote a scene had been inserted in revisions, but, since I’m not dealing with that complex a production, I decided this would work best for me.  I also decided to add headings any time I needed to change camera shots (hence the A, B, & C bits to denote they’re part of the same scene).

Because I hadn’t really thought much about specific camera shots as I was writing it (which you wouldn’t include in a spec script anyway), it inflated the scenes a bit.  Here’s an excerpt from both drafts to compare:

Spec Draft

Shooting Draft

Getting that hammered out allowd me to create a shot list, which includes all scenes/shots in the order they’ll be filmed plus the shot type, any camera movement, props needed, and actors.  This will help us stay organized on Shoot Day.

So, that’s where the short film currently stands.  Saturday, we shoot.  And hopefully I will still be (mostly) sane come Sunday.

[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 2: Location, Location, Location

Back in March, I set forth my intentions to make a short film.  Well, so far, so good — good enough that I can report that, without a doubt, on May 22, barring any catastrophes, we will in fact be filming.

I’ve been able to secure a cast and crew (i.e., beg my friends and family to help me out), and we were able to find a date that worked.  Score one for Ditty.  Next up?

SECURING A LOCATION

I sent an e-mail to the office manager of the building I wanted to use.  It went something like this:

“I have a short film I’m planning to shoot in May that requires use of a couple of cubicles and an elevator, and I was hoping I might be able to use your facilities. I’m planning the shoot for a Saturday, so there would be no inconvenience to business as usual. I would also ensure that no confidential or company information was visible in any shot.  Is this something your team would allow?  I’d be happy to include a “special thanks” in the credits and answer any questions you might have about the film and crew.”

Unfortunately, my request was declined.  Score one for People Who Make Ditty Sad.  So, it became essential to move on to Plan B (and also to create a Plan C in case Plan B failed, too — I like to be as prepared as possible).

Plan B was to see if I could use the building where my lead actor and actress work.  Thankfully, we received approval for the date we had in mind, so now we’re good to go. If not getting my first choice of location is the only problem I encounter on this shoot, I will be one happy camper, folks.

PREPARING FOR THE VISIT

Because I hadn’t seen the specific places we’d be using for the scenes, I wanted to schedule a location visit well in advance of the shoot.  I asked for about an hourlong window of time, and I prepared a list of things I wanted to look for so I could use everyone’s time efficiently.

  1. Film issues: I wanted to take measurements (especially in the elevator), test movement and angles in the elevator, and test lighting.  I also wanted to get an idea of the cube layout and look at where exactly my single exterior shot would play best.
  2. Set Dressing: I wanted to check for anything that’ll need to be removed from or covered in the cubes for filming (logos, personal information, confidential information, etc.), and I wanted to get an idea of the props we’ll need to bring in.  I also wanted to see the color scheme we’d be working with.
  3. Logistics: I needed to check for outlets, any potential distractions, and any limitations on elevator use (is there an alarm that goes off if the door is held open too long?).  When it gets a little closer to the shoot date, I’ll also look up nearby businesses in case we need anything.

THE VISIT

In short, I found out everything I needed to find out, and I only used about 35 minutes of my hourlong time slot.  I pinpointed a few cubes I wanted to use and took some video so I can get an idea of how the colors play.  I chose cubes that didn’t back up to windows so I didn’t have to worry about the time of day for shooting or about any silhouetting.

We ran into the Guy In Charge of Facilities, which gave me the opportunity to ask about the elevator buzzer.  There is one, but he offered to give us the lock-open key for the shoot, which was serendipitous as it wasn’t something I’d considered.

It turns out that this key will be integral in getting decent shots, as there’s just not enough room in the elevator for the scenes to happen and for me to be in there filming.  A buzzer would have been annoying for the actors, though not a deal breaker as I was informed it doesn’t alert anyone or anything.  But this way we’ll have the best of both worlds.  There’s also an outlet maybe 20 feet from the elevator, which is great.

Also important, the lighting in each location we’ll be using, including the elevator, is completely workable.  I was worried about low lighting in the elevator specifically, since my camera gets a little grainy, but the elevator we’re using is well-lit, and the image looked fine in my test shots.

For my one exterior shot, the main entrance proved satisfactory.  There are logos on the doors, but they aren’t too visible from back where I’d like the shot to happen.  Worst case scenario, I can always cover them up pretty easily, aided by the fact that the doors are heavily tinted.

USING THE INFORMATION

Now that I have an idea of my actual set, I can start storyboarding and creating a shot list more effectively.  I’ve recruited my Sister the Artist as production and wardrobe designer; now she can take a look at the colors and start thinking about a look that will hopefully pop on video.  Basically, now I can start making a concrete plan for Shoot Day, which is both exciting and, if I think about it too much, nerve-wracking. But mostly in a good way.

Once Screnzy fades out, I’ll start working with more focus on the storyboards and shot lists.  So, if you’re interested in following this little adventure, look for more from me in May.

[Ditty Makes a Short Film] Part 1: Decisions

I have always been a writer.  In college, I made a few forays into the visual medium by force for class assignments.  I was lucky to run with a group of broadcasting majors, so I had enough guidance and assistance that what I attempted usually turned out well enough to get me an A.  On the couple of occasions that I had to direct something, it was both exhilarating and exhausting.  It was never my forte; mine was behind the computer screen, waging war with words.

So, more than half a decade later, despite my prior experiences (or maybe because of them — who knows?) I’ve decided the time has come for me to make a short film.  Maybe it was my sister’s and my silly Christmastime family feature, “Cat Destroys a Village,” that gave me the bug.  Maybe this is just the proper evolution for an unproduced screenwriter.  Either way, it’s happening.  And that was the first decision I had to make.

The next decision was, “What can I plausibly film on my own with basically no budget?”  The good thing about being both writer, director and producer is there’s no arguing over creative control.  The buck begins and stops with me.  So, I had to look at my resources.  I determined they included:

  • Friends I could coerce into being actors
  • Friends I could coerce into being crew/extras
  • A few potential sets, including my own home (definite), my own office (plausible), the homes and/or workplaces of any friends I could coerce into allowing/obtaining use of said homes/workplaces.

I also had to decide what I wanted to get out of the experience (see the link to Danny Stack’s post below).  I wanted to have something I could be proud of, but I also knew I should walk before I tried running.  So, while I’m not expecting an Oscar-calibre short by any stretch of the imagination, I am hoping I end up with something I can share with the world that says, “Hey, I can do more than make Christmas cat videos.”  (Though, I will say that getting a cat to perform according to script is not the easiest skill to hone, thankyouverymuch.)

Based on my resources and expectations, I came up with a story idea to work within my means.  I wrote it out and started scripting it.  I also began looking at what I’d need to buy and/or bum off friends & family and tallying up a budget for those items:

  • A video camera
  • Video editing software
  • A tripod
  • Possibly supplemental lighting
  • Food/caffeinated drinks to aid in coercion.

As I wrote the script, I had two particular friends in mind for the leads.  As it so happened, I had a dinner scheduled with one of them, and she just happened to have a strong pull with the other (as she happens to be his wife).  She liked my story idea, and she seemed eager to help (because she is a lovely human being), and she thought her husband would be in, too (because he is also a lovely human being).  She also mentioned that if my office location fell through, she was pretty sure we’d be able to use her office.

I started researching cameras and video editing software, including a call to my twitter friends for advice.  Many folks responded, and the supremely lovely Lara Greenway offered to give me some more detailed advice via e-mail.  After more research, I finally came across a deal last week and made my purchase.  I’ll save the camera and video editing software details for another post.

My next steps are to secure a location (sent that e-mail this morning), secure my actors and crew, and to storyboard and create a shot list based on my script.  More on that in future posts as well.

In the meantime, here are some excellent blog posts that helped me make the decision to actually do this thing:

I’m also currently reading the following books, which have not only supplemented my overall filmmaking knowledge base but have also greatly increased my understanding of screenwriting itself.