Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Behind "Cold October": The Making of a HDV Special Effects Short Film

I had already directed a fairly successful short film in the psychological thriller genre titled “Cellar Door,” (click here to read about making “Cellar Door”) so it may come as no surprise that I might want work in that genre again. However, I am prone to trying new things, especially as I develop as a new filmmaker. So, yes, I chose to work on another psychological thriller. Only this one would be quite different from “Cellar Door.”

Where “Cellar Door” was atmospheric, heavily influenced by the directing style of filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Wim Wenders, this new film would be faster, with more dialogue, more action, and . . . more special effects. This new project, “Cold October,” centered on the story of one man’s struggle with a sleep disorder that caused him to experience hallucinations. These hallucinations play a key role in the story and presented a new challenge for us. Just as on “Cellar Door,” Andrew Gilbert and I co-wrote the script and produced the film together. Gilbert worked behind the camera as the director of photography (which he also did on “Cellar”). Joining him in the camera depart was his sister, Ashley Gilbert, who often operated the camera for scenes in which Gilbert played an on-screen supporting role (Jeff, our protagonist’s best friend).

Much of what we learned on “Cellar Door” made “Cold October” possible (which is why I won’t detail all those items now, but if you are interested, you can read about it here). We used the same shooting process, shooting the film on HDV (High Definition Video), a compressed HD format that is recorded to Mini DV tapes. We used the same camera, the Sony HDR-FX1. We also used a program called DV Film Maker to take our footage, shot natively in 1080i60, and convert it to 1080p24 (that’s video with an HD resolution of 1,080 vertical pixels being converted from 60 interlaced frames per second to 24 progressive frames per second). This was the exact process we used on “Cellar” to achieve the cinematic cadence of film, which runs at 24 fps.

Still from the "Cold October" featuring Brittany Fried and Matthew Eaton.

One way we did differentiate between our shooting for “Cold October” and all our previous projects is that we chose to spend a little more money on our tape stock, purchasing Maxell Professional Mini DV tapes made specifically with HDV shooting in mind (Maxell DV-M63MASTER). The two main advantages we sought to tap into were a supposed decreased chance of tape dropout and higher signal to noise ratio. Based on how much footage we’d shot for “Cellar Door,” we purchased only ten reels (10 and 1/2 hours). We shot a total of about nine reels during principal photography, which spanned two weekends in October and November of 2007. The total cost of this shooting stock came to just over $63. That’s more than doubling the price I normally pay for Sony Premium Mini DV tapes I do all the rest of my shooting with. But, not a bad investment if one feels the results justify it. Keep in mind that this Maxell stock we used is still cheaper than the Sony HDV stock.

But, how do I feel this new stock performed? Well, as for the decreased chance of dropout, I wasn’t too impressed upon capturing the footage. For “Cellar Door,” which was shot using the Sony Premium tapes I usually use, I had no tape dropouts that I can recall. With “Cold October,” however, I did find three or four instances of tape dropout, which in HDV is problematic, because this means that at least 15 frames are ruined (due to the long GOP format of storing information 15 frames at a time). So, on that mark, I felt less than enthusiastic about the Maxell tapes. Sorry Maxell.

As for the higher signal to noise ratio, I think the tapes stood up to the hype. We had a cleaner image with “Cold October” than we did with “Cellar Door.” Now, no doubt, this is due in part to just how meticulously we checked and rechecked our exposure setting when shooting. We used both the zebra exposure stripes in camera (set to 80%) and a Minolta light meter calibrated to match with the gain settings on the FX1 (note that we did our best to always shoot with 0 dB gain due to increased noise levels when boosting the chip sensitivity). After our experiences of having to brighten underexposed shots in “Cellar” (a process that HDV is very ill-suited for due to the amount of compression) that introduced a fair amount of noise into our shots, we were determined not to make the same mistakes again. I think we succeeded. Combined with the higher signal to noise ratio of the Maxell tapes, I feel the overall clarity of colors and fairly clean blacks in the footage for “Cold October” does serve as an example of what more expensive HDV tape stocks like this can offer.

Much of the shooting process was the same as “Cellar Door।” We used many of the same lights, dolly, and crane. I did purchase a professional Manfrotto tripod before this production, which certainly made a big difference in panning and tiling shots, and was much more user-friendly than my previous set of sticks. I also was able to borrow some lighting gear from Evermore Pictures, one of the companies behind the feature film Silk Trees. The highlight of that borrowed gear was the three 2,000 watt Fresnels and stands we got to use. We didn’t have that kind of firepower in our lighting kit. Borrowing these lights was a good thing, considering the exterior night scenes we shot in which we needed those 2K Fresnels to simulate large streetlights, and even a bit of moonlight. We even stashed on 2K and one 750 Source Four par (equal in light output to most 1K instruments) outside the windows of the first floor apartment we were shooting in to create a sun-set effect for one of the dialogue scene. We drew the blind, letting them cast shadows along the walls. I’m quite pleased with the results—what I’ve labeled as my lighting homage to Casablanca (though it still doesn’t come anywhere as close to Casablanca as I might dream).

The lights outside providing the "sun-set."
The final effect inside.

The Special Effects

Knowing the effects would present a new challenge, I performed several tests in advance. There is one scene in which, Henry, the main character played by Matthew Eaton, sees a woman’s face in the sink. Unlike other composite shots, which I’d done many times before, this shot needed to be locked into the environment of the sink. To add to the difficulty of the shot, I was determined to shoot it hand-held. Having just purchased a new 24-inch iMac 2.8 GHz Core 2 Due with 2 GB RAM and Final Cut Studio 2, I set about learning how to perform motion tracking in Apple’s Motion 3. After some testing (which you can see bellow) I was satisfied I could pull off the shot. And despite Gilbert’s cautious warnings that we should shoot an alternate version of the shot that would be completely still, we never did shoot more than a few hand-held takes of the shot into which the effect needed to be added. We just ran out of time. Which didn’t ultimately matter, since I’m a quite pleased with the motion tracking in the hand-held shot.

To get the footage of the young woman’s face in the sink, we had our lead actress, Brittany Fried (now Brittany Baughman—she got engaged during production) lay down in a bathtub filled with water. We locked the camera on the tripod, pointed down at her, and had her submerge and look out from bellow the surface. I later slowed the footage down using Motion’s Optical Flow slow motion. The final result is quite haunting. Optical Flow, like Time Remapping in Adobe After Effects, takes non-slow-motion footage and allows you to make smooth slow-motion shots by creating the missing frames. Normally, when slowing down regular footage, one tends to get a very jumpy image that stutters along quite abruptly. This happens because there are only 24 or 30 frames for each second of footage. Slowing that footage down means now that there are only 10 or 15 frames to show each second (or less if you really slow it down). To have smooth slow-motion, you need more frames so that even if the footage is played slowly, you are still watching at least 24 fps. That’s where Optical Flow comes in. It creates the frames in between the ones you already have, so that slow-motion playback is smooth. In essence, think of Optical Flow as borrowing from the one of the concepts for the special effects in The Matrix, which needed to create artificial missing frames between the actual frames shot for their special effects sequences in order to achieve a smooth slow-motion tracking shot around a character.

I used Optical Flow again for a time ramp shot in which the main character passes someone in a hallway and, becoming suspicious of this person, turns to look at him. At the turn, I slowed the footage down significantly. The shot was done at regular speed (60i fps before conversion to 24p). What I did then was to do the ramp effect in the shot with the footage still in its native 60i fps. That meant Optical Flow would be more accurate by needing to create fewer missing frames. We also shot this footage with a higher shutter speed, getting less motion blur on the character’s movements. Once the slow-motion effect was completed, I converted the shot to 24p using DV Film Maker and plugged it into the Final Cut sequence. The result is remarkable, I think. Optical Flow is a great tool for all of you out there, like me at the moment, who own a camera that is not able to shoot in high-speed frame rates for true slow-motion. Keep in mind that if you do this trick it is helpful to do some tests before hand, and establish an acceptable shutter speed for the shot you are trying to accomplish. Normally for shooting 60i footage that is going to be converted to 24p, I keep my camera at 1/60th of a second shutter speed. But if the motion you want to capture is fast and you want a clear slow-motion shot with lots of detail and little motion blur, then you need to bump up that shutter speed accordingly. You may find yourself shooting around 1/500th to 1/1,000th of a second, which is going to require more light or a wider aperture. But that’s nothing new if you’ve shot actual slow-motion footage before. Just the nature of the beast.

Some of the effects I like the most in the film are also pretty simple ones to accomplish, such as the shot of Emily (Brittany Fried) floating across a room in one of the main character’s hallucinations. It is simply a basic composite shot of the background without the action happening overlaid with Brittany standing on a dolly and being pulled through the shot. Simple trick, but effective. Of course, what makes the shot is Brittany’s acting, looking up while floating by and opening her mouth only to have water pour forth from it. Creepy and humorous at the same time, given the tone of the scene.

Another motion tracking shot I enjoy comes very early in the film, and is missed by most people. It’s just a simple detail in the frame. When Henry, the main character, walks into his kitchen at the start of the film, a note on the counter flutter and moves about unnaturally, then vanishes. The shot is tilting up and panning slightly right at the same time, so again, I had to motion track the movement in order to marry the note to the counter. Its a little detail that some people catch, and it helps establish how surrounded by his hallucinations Henry is.

The crew at work.
Director of photography Andrew Gilbert.

The final type of visual effects work I did for “Cold October” is the subtlest but the most time consuming. Since we shot the film on the Sony FX1 using its stock lens, having a selective depth of field was a hard thing to accomplish. When possible, we moved camera further from the subject and zoomed in. This give a bit of optical compression to the depth of field, and makes it easier to get the background out of focus. At times too, for close up shots, we would move the actors further away from the background. For one scene where Henry talks to Meagan (Rachel Cottom) outside, the actors were far enough apart that when doing over the shoulder shots, the shoulder in each frame was quite out of focus. This helped us have a more selective depth of field for that scene without any tricks.

But in other instances, this just didn’t happen. It is hard to have a selective depth of field with any stock zoom lens on a video camera, especially when doing wide shots. Thus, I went to work in Motion doing some rodoscope animation of mattes around characters in order to selectively place portions of shots a little more out of focus. This helped give the film a slightly more cinematic feel in places. Again, it’s subtle, but it’s one of those things you don’t want to call attention to. Selective depth of field is about guiding attention, not drawing attention to itself.

Color Correction

The final process the film went through for its look was color correction. For this we used Apple’s Color, which is part of the Final Cut Studio 2 bundle. Despite some early shaky reactions from at least one filmmaker I know who tested the program, I was quite pleased with the results. There are definitely things about Color that need some improvement (the lack of more than one “undo” and the inability to organize the windows anywhich way I want, just to name two that drive me crazy), so I look forward to subsequent versions of the program. Still, for the most part it was a pleasure to use.

We treated the footage with a cold color approach. We shot the footage usually slightly blue or neutral on set. The idea was to make the film a rather cold, bluish world in which Henry is fighting for his consciousness the whole time. We also increased the contrast in the footage—something that even with the CineGamma in the FX1, I always feel is needed in order to get a more film-like contrast. Especially when converting the footage from 60i to 24p, there’s a slight lightening of the footage that happens, so that even if you want the same level of contract and saturation you had before the conversion, you have to go back in and bump those things up in post. I think the only shots we didn’t increase the contrast in were night shots outside. According to one friend, Dan Kirkman, who was my cinematographer using the FX1 on the short film, “A Day Like Any Other,” that camera seems to generate the best shots outside at night if there are strong enough light sources. I think that mainly has to do with the built-in contrast in such shots.

Effects work done in Motion 3.
Editing in Final Cut Pro 6.

One important way we used Color was to add a bit of film grain to the whole movie. This grain was much more organic is nature, acting like the usual grain of an actual celluloid stock. It helped cover some of the noise that comes about when doing effects work to HDV. For all of you special effects enthusiasts out there, keep in mind that heavily compressed HD formats (while High Definition because of the number of pixels) lack significant color value information (that’s how they’re compressed). This makes them terrible candidates for heavy special effects work. In fact, I think I’m sort of crazy for trying. But then, what are you going to do when you’re boke? You do end up with digital noise in your frame. Our solution was to use the “key blur” tool in Color to help blur together digital artifacts on mostly solid colors, and to add the film grain over everything to blend things together in a more organic manner.

The film grain serves one more purpose. It was a subtle mood setter. I liked the way grain was used in the film Lost Souls. During more intense sequences of the film, the footage seemed to get grainer, adding a sort of tension to the action. So, we borrowed this idea and used it during Henry’s hallucinations. So, the more removed from reality Henry became, the more we increased the intensity of the grain effect. Again, it’s a subtle effect not meant to jump out at you. Sadly, it’s also an effect that’s totally lost to any of the viewers that have seen the film over the web during our special web-screening event. Web compression kills that kind of subtle detail. I even wonder how well one can pick up on it on DVD. But when we’ve projected the film in 1080i HD, that grain has looked great. I guess it’s just the nature of making a film with the big screen in mind.


In the end, I feel that for a film shot with an absolutely minimal budget on a compressed HD format, it does look good. I’ve seen a lot of short films out there, some made with the exact same camera, and I feel that “Cold October” looks better than most of those (but maybe I’m biased). I believe we took what we learned by making “Cellar Door” and improved upon it. While not a perfect film, I am proud of “Cold October” and am excited to see where it might gain some notice in the film festival world. The Ouat Media Film Festival Submission Service is currently submitting it to film festivals around the globe. We are in the early stages of the submission process, so it will still be a while before we know more about where “Cold October” might be playing.

Every filmmaking experience is something to build upon, and I’m privileged to be in the position of having two short films (drastically different in nature) completed and being submitted to film festival right now. Not long after completing post-production on “Cold October” I directed another short film called “Always Reaching.” This newer film too represents a major step forward technically for me, but that’s a different blog entry for later.

You can learn more about “Cold October” by going to

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