MAKE A DIFFERENCE: USE YOUR CRAFT
I’m not a director by trade; I’m a director of photography, but I love telling stories, especially for causes that I care about. A few months after my wife, Renee, and I adopted a dog, we decided to produce a short spot for the local chapter of SPCA to give back to a non-profit. We wanted to achieve something that stood apart from previous marketing endeavors by SPCA, that felt like a national spot, and not break our pocketbook.
Keeping all that in mind, Renee and I brainstormed and developed a short treatment: an aging, lonely, English professor connects with a miniature friend…and you can too. It wasn’t supposed to be overly funny or any sort of a hard sell. We wanted deadpan, vintage, and sorta cute…which is kinda what my Dad (yep that’s my Dad) and George (yep, that’s our dog) actually are if you put them together. We set about trying to determine what visual moments would best illustrate his loneliness and his connection with the pooch. Furthermore, we toyed with what little details could inform us about his and the dog’s character.
Here’s a list of guidelines, bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from here & there that especially apply when you’re trying to create something with a small crew & little budget. I creatively call these, “GUIDELINES FOR THE INDIE FILMMAKER.”
- Tell a good story.
Seems obvious, but figured it should be said.
- Good, cheap, fast – choose two.
This is really the greatest production phrase I’ve ever heard. And unfortunately, I always end up trying to choose cheap and good. Sometimes I only get cheap. While it took us one weekend to shoot, we both have full time jobs and it took about a week’s worth of evenings and a weekend or two to edit, color correct, record, mix, and sweeten the audio, etc…
- Filmmaking is all about juxtaposition (well, at least some of it is).
Given this, Renee and I tried to use that idea in a lot of ways. We tried to make my dad seem more deadpan by having a flurry of activity around him. We loved that George and my Dad are so different in size, so we tried to accentuate that. Additionally, we pushed the set-design colors to varying levels so that the passage of time & different activities seemed more obviously distinct. We even tried to fill the opening scene with lots of empty chairs, since the point of chairs is to seat people….sorta seemed sad to sit alone in a room full of empty chairs.
- The devil’s in the details.
We really tried hard to incorporate vintage items into the shoot to further express the quirky, cut-off-from-modern-society feel that makes my Dad’s character feel (I hope) so loveable. We’ve got a Polaroid Automatic 340 Land Camera strapped around his neck in the birthday scene along with vinyls in the background, an aluminum Christmas tree in the Christmas scene, my Dad’s glasses from high school, a Super Nintendo, used copies of Melville and Kafka, and an antique bed. Yes, we did indeed pull those suits out the back of my Dad’s closet…. All this helps make up a cohesive environment (I hope). Additionally, those books and the use of the school architecture were designed to show the English professor aspect of his life.
- Know your limitations. Create your story around those.
Since we knew we were trying to make a good and cheap spot, we had to know our limitations and cater our project specifically to them. 1) We had free gear, but only a tripod in terms of camera support, so that meant locked off shots or panning and tilting, especially since the DSLRs have the dreaded rolling shutter. And frankly, locked shots fit the mood of the piece. See, I’d originally thought about trying to get a jib for some of the shots, but the more I considered using it, the more I realized, we’re two people using my Dad’s borrowed time. Do we really need those shots/shot? I knew it’d add a lot of time to what we were doing, and it might not even be the right feel, so I nixed it. 2) I wasn’t using professional actors, so what story could I tell that let my actor be comfortable and natural? Oh, deadpan and sitting there? That’s who my Dad is. 3) We were making this for no money, so we used the locations we had—my parents house. This was great, because we dug around in their garage and ended up finding almost all the vintage items we used in the piece.
(Expanding the dynamic range of DSLRs: Keeping the camera locked off allowed me to expand the dynamic range of the 5d Mark II in one or two shots by re-exposing for the blow-out portions of the frame and then compositing the takes together.)
- Don’t take advantage of people.
These weren’t paid actors. They were my dog and my Dad, and we shot at my parents house. They weren’t getting anything out of this experience professionally; my Dad was just trying to be nice and help me out. Keep that in mind on your own projects, and try to make it fun. Respect the property where you’re shooting and respect the time and needs of the people you’re using (FOR FREE in this case). Do you really need another 10 takes or will that one do what it needs to? Do you need that shot or sequence? Because it means another three hours of this person’s free time. I cut a scene and series of shots we were going to try and grab because we started running low on time….and it’s probably better for it.
- Enjoy happy accidents.
My favorite shot in the piece is the bedroom balloon explosion. That was a total accident. We were just throwing a lot of balloons around, and one of them hit the lighted candle and boom! George and my Dad had the exact same reaction and it really tied them together in a natural way which I loved. Also, the final shot just sort of happened as we were catching the shots of the school we realized it’d be a lot of fun to see the two of them walking together for a final moment. This turned out to be a great way to reveal the logo.
- Less is more.
I really think this applies to so much in filmmaking. It reminds me of a Gordon Willis quote, “If it feels wrong, you’re probably doing too much.” Sometimes lo-fi solutions are actually the best solution, particularly if you’re going for a rough, vintage, homemade feel. When I was trying to decide what sound would work for the paper snow-flakes scene, we actually recorded me just blowing across the microphone. Or for the stars stopmotion animation, Renee and I just peppered our bedroom ceiling with glow in the dark stars and took pictures as we moved them. In order to get a decent long-exposure before each frame we would wave a lamp underneath the stars. Obviously we didn’t do this evenly each time. This created a neat glowing, flickering effect. And those shooting star streaks were just our cell phones waved around during a couple frames. I loved how organic that turned out looking…sometimes simpler is better. Additionally, we were thinking about pursuing a 60 second spot…..with one more scene and taking a longer time to get to the same place. But 30 seconds told our story much more economically.
Just a reminder that no-budget doesn’t mean “free.” The only reason we were able to create this spot with no budget and give it to SPCA completely free of charge was we had a lot of “donations:” 1) free gear, 2) free time provided by actor(s), 3) free locations, 4) free props, 5) I was able to color correct, edit, and shoot the piece, 6) free access to editing software and compositing software, 7) time for the audio mixing and audio recording was donated. That amounts to a whole lot of FREE….
FOR YOU GEAR NUTS & HOW-TO FOLKS
Tech Specs: 5d Mark II, Nikon AI Lenses, AE Color Correction with After Effects, Cinegrain
We live in an amazing time where $2500 can get you such a great camera body (and who knows what cool story-telling tools will be released soon)…I mean sure it doesn’t compete with an $80,000 camera, but it’s $2500 and if you use it right, only film geeks would ever know.
Although the sets and wardrobe emphasized that boxy-feeling, we decided to use the camera to enhance that atmosphere. We utilized older Nikon AI lenses (rplens.com), mostly the 24mm, usually wide-open which gave us, edge softness, barrel distortion, and all the fun things that helped push the vintage feeling, as well as the perspective of a 24mm lens. I used the neutral profile and bumped the contrast down all the way and the sharpness down all the way. We pulled the saturation back some in post, but I kept an eye on it while we were shooting.
We used low ISOs 160, 320, maybe 640, but our goal was to keep a clean image in camera so that we could use Cinegrain’s 35mm vintage stock without any digital artifacts or noise. In my opinion, Cinegrain is the magic touch for taking the plasticy look out of digital images and making them look organic again. Our lighting was quite simple as we didn’t have a ton of units, and our goal was to enhance the natural lighting I was careful to keep the full dynamic range of the 5d and lit as precisely as possible for the compressed H.264. I feel this is vital to making DSLRs look like film. To keep it from feeling too soft and “clean” like in a studio, we intentionally tried to bring some hard light into the backgrounds, to remind us of the world outside sort of falling into this house. I color corrected and composited using a mixture of After Effects and magic bullet, eventually adding a hint of sharpness to counteract the overly soft image. (I love using images from Evan E. Richards blog as a helpful reference for production and post-production)
Lastly, don’t forget audio. The Vimeo Music Store was a god-send as it allowed us the opportunity to find a catchy, high-quality indie sound without having to specially hire an artist to create the music. Instead we paid a business license for a great deal. This is an awesome resource. My audio engineer, Aaren Neely, did a great job using sound effects and foley and our “awkward music cut” to maintain the quirky, cute emotion we were trying to achieve.
We had a blast creating this spot (our very first project we worked on together from start to finish). Certainly a ton of work by a lot of people goes into creating a :30 spot. And it was a joy to send it on it’s way to SPCA Cincinnati, only to find out they were interested in using it in their marketing, especially because it was different than previous advertisements they’d produced!
Director/DP: Nicholas Matthews
Producer/Art Design: Renee Matthews
Audio: Aaren Neely
WHO ARE WE?
Renee and Nicholas Matthews are a Cincinnati-based couple with a passion for story-telling. Nicholas is a director of photography who specializes in story-driven commercials, narrative films, and music videos. To see more of his work visit http://www.nicholasmatthewsfilm.