Most of us aspiring filmmakers don’t have the luxury of endless resources. But you shouldn’t let that stop you, especially not these days. What follows is a sort of production diary, detailing how my very small crew and I created a short film for less than two grand, and how this little film has started to create new opportunities for us. Particularly, I want to discuss what we learned on the technical side of making an ambitious and very visual short film for such a small price tag.
The Production Idea
"Cellar Door" happened fast. We came upon the idea when my good friend and long time film making partner, Andrew Gilbert, and I began speculating on what our next short film should be. We’d made a few shorts together, learned a lot, and made significant improvements each time. But up to this point, we hadn’t made a short that had gotten into a film festival or gained any real attention. I mentioned that I felt compelled to shoot something at an orchard I’d recently visited, which belonged to the grandparents of another good friend of mine. We both began spitting out ideas, quickly landing on something that stuck.
As we conceptualized "Cellar Door" it became clear that this short had to be very visual। Out of the 28 pages of our script, only six of them had dialogue। So we took an approach similar to that of a silent film (you’ll see the irony of this choice a little later) focusing on the visuals, because if the images weren't pleasing, then nobody would sit through the story.
The Production Gear
To make the film we saw in our minds, Gilbert and I set out to gather the equipment we needed for what little money we had. Some of the gear I already owned: a Sony HDR-FX1 camera, a G4 iMac with Final Cut Studio 1 and DV Film Maker. I’d also been given a PVC dolly and a "$14 Steadycam." But we didn’t have lights or stands. Dan Kirkman, another aspiring filmmaker and college friend joined the team in time to help shop for stands, spigots, and our last light. But first, he got our college’s theater department to give us their old 200 watt Par Cans.
I cannot stress how crucial good lighting is to getting the right look for your film. Taking the time to light your shots properly can make the difference between poor and high quality, no matter your shooting medium. In fact, many of my shorts suffered from poor lighting. It is something that has taken some experimentation, and some careful observation of professionals in action for me to be comfortable lighting scenes. For this reason I feel every aspiring filmmaker needs to do all he or she can to get on a real set and watch a professional cinematographer in action.
I had directed one short with Kirkman as the cinematographer ("A Day Like Any Other"), using a lot of dolly and steadicam shots, probably too much। I wanted to incorporate what we learned about movement into the shooting of "Cellar Door". So we bought an 8-foot ProAm crane from BargainCamera.com for around $400.
We scheduled five days for the shoot in early October 2006, securing our location, in Northern Indiana, where it was secluded enough not to be interrupted by traffic or trains.
We set up production headquarters at my parent’s house, about fifteen minutes from the set. This was helpful because we were able to use my brother-in-law's HD projector to screen dailies. I’m a dailies nut. I can’t imagine not being able to sit down and look through the footage shot that day. And since we were shooting in 1080i HDV, his projector was in the same resolution. And this paid off. We did catch some issues we couldn’t fix in post in a couple of shots and ended up fitting time into the remainder of production to re-shoot those particular shots.
The Gear In Action
We chose to shoot "Cellar Door" in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. To show us exactly what we would have after the crop, we created a sleeve to slip over the LCD monitor on the camera to show us what would be left in (being shot natively in 1.78:1). Now, some might argue against using HDV as not the brightest idea. To a great extent, I agree. I bought my FX1 early in the line-up of new HDV and HD prosumer cameras. It’s what I had to shoot with, so we were going to make the best of it.
The number one issue with HDV is compression. Forget about the number of pixels you end up with. Just compare one-chip and three-chip SD cameras. While the FX1 is a three-chip camera with an interlaced resolution of 1440 x 1080, it has one major characteristic that is both a huge blessing and a curse for the "no budget" filmmaker. It stores footage on MiniDV tapes. This is an advantage in that your recording time is limited only by your number of tapes. I get about an hour on my Sony Premiums. The problem is that in order to store this High Definition footage onto a MiniDV tape, the camera has to significantly compress the footage before it hits that tape. This is a very important point to keep in mind. That means if you decide to brighten footage in post which was underexposed, you will likely end up with artifacts or noise, particularly in the darker areas of your frame.
If you want to shoot a film on HDV, like we did, you need to consider yourself more-or-less married to the image you capture on set. We had several issues with changing weather and sunlight on set while shooting, and some of our shots came in too dark. We color corrected them to match with everything else, but unfortunately this also brought out a significant amount of noise in the frame. Blow that image up on a 24’ screen, and you start to get the picture.
A year later, we did shoot another short film, “Cold October,” on HDV. We were quite paranoid about exposure, constantly checking and double-checking our in camera zebras stripes and using a light meter. We got much better results (but more on that film in a different article). I’ve also learned to not always trust my LCD screen. Things tend to look a little brighter on screen than they do once I review the footage (be sure to check out my upcoming entry about light meters for an explanation as to why).
Andrew Gilbert, who was the cinematographer for “Cellar Door” put our small light kit to good use. We often had the 750-watt SourceFour outside a window to give us “sunlight.” One rather long day, we even managed to convincingly create “sunlight” through a window even though the sun had set. The Par Cans provided us with fill and backlight in many cases. For many of the interior close-ups of Rachel Cottom, the lead actress, we used a Chinese Lantern Brenan Campbell (our AD and sound guy) brought onto set. It gave us nice soft light, making it easier to capture a soft and delicate look in close shots while giving a nice glow to her eyes.
A major consideration for Gilbert and myself was the color pallet of the film. The cabin and Rachel's hair are both red, which has always been a color video has struggled to recreate well. We chose to shoot this film with a very warm, or reddish, white balance. We wanted to give Rachel’s hair, the cabin, and even the earthy tones we had Rachel dressed in, more vibrancy on video. This also presented another nice advantage. When we shot a dream sequence for the film with a very cold, or blue-ish, pallet, we were better able to really set that scene apart from the rest of the film.
Another important consideration for us was to stay away from the in-camera frame effects (CineFrame). We shot all of our footage in the native HDV 60i frame rate. That way we could use DV Film Maker in post to convert the footage to true 24p (23.98 fps). But more on this in the section on post. I’ve also been told that when shooting in 60i and converting to 24p, one should always use 1/60 of a second shutter speed to better match the shutter speed of a 35mm motion picture camera. While I’m not convinced that you can’t get some pretty remarkable results in other shutter speeds, I love the results I’ve gotten at 1/60. So that’s how we shot all of “Cellar Door.”
One particular day, it started raining before we finished shooting the scenes with Jon Sabo (who played Jeremiah). One scene was written to take place on the back porch of the cabin. We moved it into the barn at the last minute, lit it to appear as if strong sunlight were coming in through the door, and shot the scene. But we still had one more long, climactic scene to the film in which we needed Jon to appear. We couldn’t shoot the whole scene that day, not in the rain. It wouldn’t match with the rest of the film. So, we waited for a break in the rain, ran out to part to of orchard, and shot all of shots Jon needed to appear in. With that, we cut him loose, wrapping his involvement in principal photography.
On the last day of production, a bright and sunny day, we had to shoot the rest of that scene, including a medium shot on Rachel that had to inner cut with shots of Jon, on an overcast day, standing by a soaked tree. We flew a small silk screen on a stand to defuse the harsh sunlight falling on Rachel, sprayed down the tree, and shot some takes. In the end, with Gilbert’s masterful color correction work, people have a hard time believing we didn’t shoot those shots on the same day.
Ninety percent of the sound we recorded on set was run into a portable Roland mixer with a hard drive. Brenan Campbell did most of the sound work. We did record some scene directly into the camera due to limitations on being able to use the Roland. However, most of that sound ended up being deleted from the film in favor of ADR work. But the sound we captured into the Roland was the foundation for all of the sound work we did for the film in post, which involved building an environment. It was time for us to learn a little about sound design.
The Gear in Post
With shooting completed in five days (minus some environment shots I grabbed at a later date), we began postproduction after a short break. Gilbert and I cut the film together on my iMac. We opted to do an off-line edit first, capturing the footage in SD. This way, we could experiment with different cuts of the film with little stress to my G4. One thing I tried to do was to reverse telecine the footage to 24p using Cinema Tools, a program that comes with Final Cut Pro. I did the reverse telecine to the SD footage so our cuts would be frame actuate when the footage was eventually brought in as HDV 1080p24 (that’s 1080 resolution with a frame rate of 24p). Unfortunately, this change in the frame rate confused Final Cut when it came time to batch capture the footage in HD. I managed to work around this problem, but have never bothered to use Cinema Tools since.
The first three cuts of the film were done in SD. Once we felt we were arriving at something close to a picture lock, I brought only the necessary footage into FCP. With that step completed, we now had a rough representation of our film in HD, but at the wrong frame rate. Remember, we shot in 60i and planned on converting to 24p. I set DV Film Maker to converting just the HD footage being used in the current cut of the film. The process took about four days, in which time my computer did nothing but convert footage.
Two things happen when you convert footage in DV Film Maker: One, the time code for each video clip from the footage is reset to zero. Two, the footage becomes about a half-stop lighter. This happens, as far as I can tell, because of the change from interlaced to progressive. The lightening of the footage can be a good thing. In the night scenes in the cabin, which were lit only by practical lanterns, we gained over-all latitude in the image. We could see just a little further into the shadows and more clearly the faces of Rachel and Matt Eaton. With a little color correction, we managed to get our other shots to look right.
It is the first problem that presents the biggest annoyance with this particular workflow. Since the time code is set back to zero for each clip of video (each take), we had to manually insert into a new time line the footage one shot at a time. Final Cut (and any NLE worth anything) relies on the time code to take a project from offline to online. So, we basically had to re-cut the film using our original time line as a reference. If you have a computer capable of this I would recommend converting all the footage to 24p first, then cutting the film (which is what we got to do for our next short). But never convert your final cut to 24p because you’ll end up with frame blending in places due to the way DV Film Maker averages frames (this will look like a one-frame cross fade instead of a cut, and will happen periodically throughout your project).
Once we arrived at a picture lock, Gilbert and I worked on color correcting the film. Almost everything went through at lest a slight enhancement or adjustment to make sure each shot cut seamlessly with the next. One little trick up our sleeve was to use an effect called the Proc Amp in Final Cut. It allows us to play with contrast with a high degree of control. We used it in nearly every shot of the film to get the blacks in each frame to look darker. We did use the Cinematone setting in the FX1, which does provide a more film-like response to light and dark areas. Still, it is very hard for video to have any similar latitude to film (especially due to the lightening of the footage when converting it in DV Film Maker).
Along with the color correction, we also applied effects to different sequences according to need. As I mentioned before, there is a dream sequence in the film. I liked how cold the colors were in the footage, but I wanted to give it one more distinct layer that would set it apart from the rest of the film. So I took the cut of the dream sequence into Motion 2, and applied a slight gloom glow effect to it. Too much of the effect can make your footage start to look more like Scanner Darkly than a Terrance Malick film (which is more of what I was going for). I also took the final revelation sequence of the film, where things start to click together for Rachel’s character, and applied a glow to the highlights—using Motion 2 again.
For sound we used a small studio owned by Bruce Wolfe. This is where we did all our ADR work. Campbell and I also used a Mini Disk recorder and the Audio-Technica ATR55 mic we used on set to record foley. We used some rather unique sounds, like the creaking of a door played through a large cardboard tube and slowed down, to create an eerie environment. We used several layers of wind sounds to create the world of the orchard, a seemingly quiet and yet constantly whispering place.
When needed, we jumped into Soundtrack Pro for specific work, but stuck with making the final mix in Final Cut. Some of the sounds had to be cleaned up, such as the scene we moved into the barn due to rain. In the end, if you listen closely, mixed in with some sounds of outside breeze, is the sound of light rain falling on the large metallic barn. Over all, I feel like we finally did something with sound that was effective. But it was a lot more work than I’d originally thought. In making the film so strongly visual and with so little dialogue, it became all the more important that the sound compliment the images and enhance the experience of watching the film. In some ways, making a quiet film is harder than one filled with talking. The funny thing is, before “Cellar Door,” I hadn’t made a film with a sound mix that I was proud of. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have someone focused completely on sound. It can be the difference between cheese and believability.
Once Greg Shearon had finished his work on the soundtrack for the film, Campbell and I did a final mix of the whole film at my sister’s place. We hooked up Final Cut right into the surround system, and Brenan and I spent a 12-hour session finalizing the mix at full volume. This was the first time I had a chance to do this, and I think it really paid off. My only complaint about the final sound mix for “Cellar Door” is that it could be louder. One way to help with this is when running off a master tape of the film with bars and tone at the top, I made sure the tone played back at –24dB rather than the usual –12dB.
In the end, we made a film that seems to have caught some people’s eyes. In fact, I was contacted out of the blue by international distribution company, Ouat Media (pronounced “what”), out of Canada. They saw the preview for “Cellar Door” on the Internet and wanted to see more. They have sold the film now to Movieola, a cable station in Canada, and continue to pitch the film to places around the globe. “Cellar Door” also won the 2007 Cinephile Film Arts Award, and was featured in the 2008 Indiana Festival of Independent Film and Video and the 2008 Indiana University South Bend Independent Video and Filmmaker’s Festival. Because of the high production value of the film, we’ve caught a lot of people’s eyes and that has opened up new opportunities for us.
The most important thing for me is that I feel like we made something that really showcases the potential we have as filmmakers. Gilbert’s camera work and lighting really made this film beautiful, exciting, and frightening at the right times. Campbell’s sound work made the film one complete and cohesive whole, with mood and atmosphere। Sure, there are technical shortcomings in the film, and I take full responsibility for them as the director। But the important thing is that we pushed ourselves into a new place as filmmakers. There were times we honestly didn’t know if we could pull it off. And yet, here we are. So, if there is anything I hope you can take away from this, it is that you should stick with it, make several shorts, and push yourself to try things that maybe other people say won’t work. The important thing to is to learn, to improve, and to do what you love.
See the Preview:
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For more about “Cellar Door”, including a preview and a behind the scenes documentary, go to: http://cellardoorfilm.webs.com
This article was originally written by Mikel J. Wisler, then published on IndieFilmer.com in 2007 under the title of “The New Workflow in No-Budget Shorts: How to Make the Most of What Little You’ve Got.” Revised and posted here by Mikel J. Wisler. © Mikel J. Wisler 2007-2008.