I’ve been slow to post to my blog over the last month as I’ve been in the thick of production for PSYCHOSYNTHESIS (Formerly WHITE CROW) – my next feature film, which I couldn’t be more excited for. Now that we’ve finally wrapped production (!!!), I wanted to talk about something that was central to the entire experience – breaking away from today’s filmmaking trends.
If there was one goal I had when I set out to make this film, it was to create something wholly original that would not fall into convention. I didn’t want this film to look, sound, or feel like anything else I had made, or anything else out there period. I wanted to try new ideas, experiment, and take risks. And in some cases, this meant working against many of the filmmaking trends that have become commonplace in today’s filmmaking landscape.
Although today’s independent films generally look better than they ever have before – thanks to lower cost/higher end gear and better educational resources – they are becoming a lot less identifiable. Certain trends (mostly camera related) have taken over indie film sets in recent years, which has caused so many productions to “feel the same”, and lack unique artistry…
As an easy example – take the anamorphic look. It wasn’t long ago that shooting anamorphic was reserved for higher-end productions that were going after a very specific, stylized look. But now that it’s become cheaper and more accessible, anamorphic has become more mainstream and less eventful.
This is surely a result of some people’s belief that anamorphic = high end. Just as some people believe newer gear = better gear and more pixels = better pixels. But of course, none of these hold any truth.
No filmmaking trend is inherently bad of course… Certainly not anamorphic (which is perfect for some films). It’s just that the overuse and standardization of any filmmaking technique can make things a little boring… In my opinion, at least.
In the spirit of breaking away from these types of trends, I decided to put some measures into place that would allow this project to skip to it’s own beat. It wasn’t about being different just for the sake of it, it was about doing what was best for this very particular movie. And not letting any “conventional wisdom” of how to make a film, get in the way of making the most original film we could.
The first decision that really set the tone in this regard, was the choice to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. I wanted to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that would play into the story’s themes and genre, and the constraints of 4:3 made for a perfect canvas.
The 4:3 ratio also served as a constant reminder that we had committed to making artful choices through and through.
Every time I would look at the monitor (with my incredibly talented DP, Matteo Bertoli), that square-ish format would present itself. It would open up new visual opportunities and create new challenges, both of which were helpful to the overall process. We couldn’t simply rely on our old bag of tricks. Every shot was a new adventure.
If you’re wondering about our setup, we shot in 4:3 natively on my Arri Alexa Classic Plus that I purchased recently from Arri’s CPO program. Using the Alexa Classic was an unconventional choice in and of itself, considering most ultra-low budget productions opt to shoot on RED, often believing it to be more economical. This is especially true in a city like Los Angeles, where you can rent a RED package for next to nothing, and get all the latest bells and whistles, like 8K recording.
But shooting on Alexa can be just as economical, and will deliver superior quality – as long as ultra high resolution isn’t your thing. Yes, renting the latest Alexa 65 or SXT is going to run you more than a RED, but the Classic’s are now incredibly affordable at rental houses, and deliver the same incredible images they always have.
It comes down to personal preference, but for me, I’ll take 2K on an Alexa Classic over 8K on a RED any day. I don’t mean this as a knock on RED – they make some badass cameras that have served me well on many shoots… Not to mention they’re doing their part in pushing the technical boundaries of digital cinema, so I have to respect that!
But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I want the most organic, filmic, image I can possibly get while shooting digitally… And that’s exactly what the Alexa delivers. I couldn’t care less what resolution the camera shoots in, all that matters is what the final image looks like to my eye.
I’ve been watching back our 2K footage on my 5K monitor all week, and it looks amazing – Never for a second did I regret not having more pixels.
I’m also now experiencing one of the other side benefits of shooting in 2K on the Alexa: a much smoother workflow in post. I’ve become so accustomed to cutting 4K, 6K, and now 8K footage (and dealing with more complex workflows), that it’s been a dream to go back to 2K. I feel more creative while editing… Not at all bogged down by technical hangups, just able to work swiftly and keep my mind in the story.
And our post-workflow was made even simpler as we chose to shoot in ProRes HQ, not ARRIRAW. This allowed us to keep our file sizes way down, and avoid wasting time (and money) dealing with storage issues. It’s far more common to shoot in RAW these days (especially on a feature), but in our case it just didn’t make sense to go that route.
With many digital cinema cameras, I would ONLY be comfortable shooting in RAW, especially for a feature. I don’t trust most camera manufacturer’s color science, and usually want to ensure I can fix any potential issues myself in post. So in that regard, RAW is often the only real choice.
But I’ve shot on Alexa long enough to know just how bulletproof the Arri color science is. The internal color processing is just so good, you don’t need to rely nearly as heavily on the RAW information to achieve the look you’re after. A lot of the heavy lifting is done for you in camera, so once you ingest your footage into the edit, only minor tweaks are needed to enhance the image. And for someone like me that obsesses over color, it’s a dream to work with.
I’ve never gone from production to post so seamlessly as I have with this production… Avoiding RAW (in this case) offered a true win-win scenario. The technology got out of our way on set, and we didn’t sacrifice image quality in any way.
Why would I spend more time on set and in post to work with a RAW format that wouldn’t benefit our final product? It may be more conventional to shoot in RAW, but it wouldn’t have been optimal for us.
This type of “best-of-both-worlds” mentality trickled over to countless other aspects of the production too. At every stage I wanted to have my cake and eat it too; To work quickly on set without sacrificing quality.
In addition to shooting 2K/ProRes, one of the other ways we achieved this was by working exclusively with Zoom lenses. Another choice that went against the grain, but created a win-win for us.
When you’re shooting 9 – 10 pages per day (as we were), there is no time left to spare. Shooting with zooms (The Angenieux Optimo 16-42 & 30-80), allowed us to fly from shot to shot, reducing set up time and increasing our output substantially. This translated to more footage in the can at the end of each day.
At the same time, the zoom lenses didn’t cause us to sacrifice quality in any way. While primes can offer superior technical performance, they just wouldn’t have offered the aesthetic quality that we needed for this project.
From early on, I had a distinct vision for the visual language of this film, which amongst other things, called for slow zooms to occur within certain shots. I wanted to visually represent the protagonist’s struggle – a partially disabled woman – by anchoring the camera to the tripod at all times to create a sense of immobility. There wasn’t a single handheld, dolly, or steadicam shot in the entire film. Instead, zooms were used to underscore key moments, allowing them to feel distinct without breaking our self imposed rule to never move the camera.
So while this choice (limiting camera movement) played against many of today’s conventions, it was the best choice for our film. Our shots were simpler to execute, but also more specifically aligned with the overall vision of the film. Less was more…
By keeping the Alexa on sticks at all times and working with a very simple shot list, we were also able to take more time with every setup. Rather than shooting 5 or 6 angles of coverage for an average scene, we might only shoot 2 or 3. We were going for quality over quantity, making sure every shot was just right, and avoiding rushing through anything important simply to get redundant coverage.
On paper, our production would look strange to some people. From the pace we worked at to the technical decisions that were made, every step we took went against many of today’s “standard practices”. But when was said and done, it worked for us, and the film is better off for it.
As I sit here in the editing room a few minutes into the assembly cut, I’m feeling more confident than ever about the path that we took. There’s still a long road ahead, and many weeks and months to be spent in the edit… But every piece of the puzzle feels cohesive, and the style of this film is unlike any I’ve ever made.
I took a lot of creative risks on this project. Some will work out better than others I’m sure, but I wouldn’t change any of them if I could do it over. At the very least, I know we shot for something unique, and that’s what matters most to me.
No two projects are alike, so I don’t mean to impose my process on anyone else’s film. If anything, what I hope you walk away with is the inspiration to truly dive into your story and approach it as the unique piece of art that it is. To explore every possible option, and only make choices based on your specific needs, and not what anyone else may be doing, or what is “in” at the moment.
Over the coming weeks and months I plan to share lots more about this experience here on the blog, newsletter, and on my podcast (which has been on hiatus, coming back early January). I also have loads of behind the scenes footage from our shoot that I’ll be sharing, some of which you will find on the PSYCHOSYNTHESIS Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts – so be sure to follow all three.
And feel free to let me know in the comments if there is anything in particular you’d like to hear about with regards to our process. I’ll do my best to answer any questions in future content pieces.
For now, here are a few screen grabs from the movie. All are totally unedited, just straight out of the Alexa with a Rec 709 LUT –