When I was first starting out as a filmmaker I would constantly make little short films as a means to experiment with new techniques. I never went to film school, so instead I would write, direct and edit little experimental video projects whenever I could. Some of them turned out well, and others not so well… But I always learned something from them, and they each played their own part in my learning process and growth as a filmmaker.
These days, unfortunately I have much less free time than I did when I was starting out. Between my commercial work, and my longer term directorial projects (including an upcoming feature film), it’s become harder and harder to set aside a week or even a few days to just get out there and shoot something spontaneous. And while my needs from a creative development standpoint have certainly evolved over the years, my desire to shoot these small projects has never really gone away.
Thankfully though, last month a small window of time opened up that allowed me to get back to my roots, and shoot a fun no-budget short film. My goal going into this project above all else, was to experiment with a number of new techniques and approaches that I might later put to use on future productions.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been working with larger crews, which has been a lot of fun. That said, with this project I wanted to challenge myself to create a film where I did everything myself. This is by no means how I normally like to work (part of the reason I love film is because of the collaborative nature of the medium), but in this case I thought it would be an interesting challenge to do everything – from directing/DPing to sound and color – by myself. I was curious to see what would happen by working this way, and how the limitation of having no crew would affect the end product.
I also wanted to experiment with shooting something in a cinema verité style, and in this case that translated to blocking each scene so that virtually no coverage would be required. This is a style that I’ve been particularly drawn to for a while, but haven’t really had the opportunity to put into practice until now. Part of taking on this documentary-inspired approach meant that in addition to being my own DP I would also run my own audio, which I documented in this blog post from last week.
Camera-wise, I decided to shoot on the URSA Mini 4.6K – again as a means of experimentation. I’ve been shooting with the 4.6K for months, but I’ve mostly been using it on commercial or corporate projects, and wanted to put it to the test on a narrative shoot. Not to mention I was really eager to try out the new URSA 4.0 firmware, and even created a BTS video on it that will be released soon.
One final element I wanted to experiment with involved utilizing some new film grain that I created from scratch.
As many of you might know, I am a big fan of adding film grain to my footage, but I have never been a hundred percent satisfied with any of the film grain that I have access to in my library or through plugins. Recently, I decided to shoot some film grain on my own using 35mm film (which was scanned at 6K resolution), and I am currently in the process of developing a number of grain packs that I will release through NoamKroll.com soon. Some of these packs will offer clean film grain, and others will offer dirty film grain. On this film, I used the dirty grain which still has some dust, scratches, and hair on it, and even has some authentic 35mm flicker. I am very much looking forward to sharing the grain packs with all of you soon, and hope to release them within the next month.
Below are a couple of screen grabs from the film (blown up to show the grain). The first is clean, and the second uses my 35mm dirty grain scan. Please forgive the JPEG compression, which somewhat diminishes the effect of the grain structure:
Once I decided to go ahead with this project, everything moved very quickly. Knowing that I wanted to test out a lot of different things with this project – from a new type of shooting style, to the camera, to post-production techniques – I decided to write a minimalistic concept that would serve each of those needs.
To keep things simple, I set the entire film in one location and limited it to only two characters, as I knew this would make it easier for me while shooting as a one man crew. Within a day or two I had my locations and cast locked down, and I was ready to go. It also helped that I was working with two actors that I’ve collaborated with before – Timothy Lee DePriest and Flavia Watson – who in fact were both in my short film The Mechanic, a couple years back.
The shoot itself took place in Malibu, CA and was shot over the course of four hours beginning right around sunrise. Initially I thought we would need closer to 5 or 6 hours (as the script was about 5 pages), but since there was so little coverage, things moved very quickly. It really made me realize how much material you can shoot in such a small amount of time when you aren’t over-covering your scenes. Shooting 5 pages in one location can take four hours or four days. It all depends on how elaborate you want to get… But sometimes less is more, and for my personal taste, using less coverage often yields a much more interesting creative result.
My URSA Mini was rigged up primarily with the standard Blackmagic URSA accessories (EVF and Shoulder Kit), as well as my Zoom H6 audio recorder. I also attached a Chrosziel Mattebox with some IRND filters, but didn’t use a follow focus or any other accessories.
I had a full kit of vintage Zeiss Superspeeds (MK I) with me, but decided to shoot the whole film on a single lens – the 35mm. Knowing that I would be shooting with a very limited amount of time, and no AC to help me swap lenses, it just made sense to shoot everything on one lens. I considered shooting everything on the 50mm at one point, but ended up sticking with the 35mm since I knew it would be a bit more versatile.
These vintage superspeed lenses are absolutely incredible and really add a unique quality to digital footage. Sometimes they flare in a very unusual way, and some of the colors they produce are a bit unpredictable, but that’s the whole beauty of shooting on vintage glass.
When it came time to shoot our main dialogue scene, the fact that I was essentially only shooting a master (again, with no coverage) was pretty liberating. It didn’t matter if the actors changed their marks from take or take, or even improvised some lines. There was no continuity that had to be adhered to, so it was really great to be able to let the actors work and not get in their way, or have to cut a take short for strictly technical reasons. We shot at least 10 takes of the dialogue scene, which is far more than I would usually shoot. But because we were moving so quickly, we used the extra time we had to try out a bunch of different options for the scene. In the end, it was the very last take that made the cut.
With regards to the edit, I once again wanted to keep things as simple as possible. I have recently been using DaVinci Resolve 12.5 to edit most of my projects, but I wanted to challenge myself to both edit and color this film inside of FCP X. Normally I would either edit and color entirely inside of Resolve, or edit in FCP X (or Premiere) and then send the project to Resolve for color. But in this case my goal was to step out of my comfort zone and color the film using the very limited toolset available in FCP X.
Ordinarily I would want to have the full color control that Resolve gives me, but in this case I opted to treat the color as I would if I were color timing motion picture film. I wanted to make minor, overall corrections, and not focus too much on making everything perfect.
After coloring the footage in FCP X (giving it a low contrast, but natural look), I added my custom film grain to it. I will be sure to do a separate post on this in the future once the grain is publicly available, but for now I will say that I overlayed my “dirty” 35mm grain at 80%.
The film itself was shot entirely in ProResHQ at 23.98 in 4.6K 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Even with the color and grain added, it held up really well and I didn’t regret not shooting in RAW! If I had more CFast cards with me or at least some time to dump cards on set, I probably would have shot RAW just to be safe. But given my situation I opted for the extra record time, and didn’t feel like I took a hit in the image quality department at all.
That’s about it for now. The film is embedded below for you to check out!