Friday, October 3, 2008

Amor e Morte - live action short film

After some hesitation to go public with it, I decided to just do it. I finally uploaded my very first live action short film project, which was co-created with my brother Jay: Amor e Morte.

I wanted to share with everyone the experience on working with live action in this post, being always part of the world of animation. Is quite a long read, but I hope is interesting and helpful to you.

In an attempt to learn more about direction and cinematography, we came up with this little initiative to get ourselves a camera, use as much stuff we had laying around at home as we could, and just shoot something between us, trying not to make out of it a hollywood production with dozens of people but instead keeping it to ourselves (for obvious reasons that don't need explaining).

It all started with my brother's curiosity to explore digital video editing, and make such experience worthwhile. I coincided with him into making something meaningful and dig our hands fully on a practical task to get some knowledge out of it. It has proved to be much better than if you sat for hours listening to someone explaining it with theories.

Jay also has full credit on the creative idea: he suggested the simple settings and the simple characters: two contestants playing chess sounded very ideal. But when the two characters started to get a bit more complicated (death being one of them), the story demanded a deeper meaning. We suggested a backstory for the main character, which would give him the reason to be playing with death and would romanticize the film: the loss of his beloved one, which has triggered his deppresive behaviour and has pushed him to the realms of a suicidal and self demeaning world. Such backstory needed to be very intimate and personal though, but it couldn't be replacing the game with death itself, in terms of relevance.

With help from my uncle and sci-fi writerAnil Menon we developed a short script for the two characers who were going to appear, and we started boarding as soon as we were happy with the script. Ideas kept bouncing around between us though, just till we actually started to film. I drew my version, Jay drew his, and added to these we drew random ideas too. At the end we compiled everything, went through the bunch of doodles, and decided to re-draw a final version with everything organised on scenes.

The character development process came along with the script writing. Since there were only two characters, and both me and Jay were handling the thing ourselves, we decided to split the task. He had a chance to get more creative with his impersonation of death, which I think he successfully managed to pull off. Direct references for this included Bergman's Seventh Seal, Ledger's Joker acting from Dark Knight, and the 1994 "The Crow" film. As for the main protagonist, we made the mistake of not really managing to pull off the most out of him (well, I did, since I was the actor :P). It ended being too plain and monotonous, and hence that feeling of "desperation" wasn't truly felt. But there was a nice contrast between the two which was present at some points and gave flavour to their face to face encounter. The reference for him was my own self and experiences, nothing beats that I guess (how corny!).

Jay's version of death was somehow contemporary: not to extravagant, not too stereotypical neither (we totally avoided the whole "Grim Reaper" imagery, although I do admit I was tempted to give him a scythe!), and slightly elegant. However, by doing this, we were fearing the audience would not know who this character is meant to be. Contrary to our thoughts and luckily for us, everyone who has seen the film so far has had no doubt Jay was death, something I'm very happy about.

As for my character, we gave him a ring, to help us explain the backstory he carried with him. I admit we have not succeeded in this at all, because people keep asking us what's the whole point with the ring disappearing, and why the character talks about "her" in the first place. The reason why it disappears is because it resembles how he is coming back to his own self after gaining confidence accepting his destiny of having lost the game, but without giving up on his beliefs and persona. He was brought to that game because of was dragging him to death. This argument was the hardest thing to portray on a 3 minute film though, hence the incongruent result at the end.

Here are the final storyboard pages:

Once you watch the film, and follow the boards, you'll notice the almost identical scheme we followed. The main reason for this was time: we made this whole film, from preproduction to post, in only a month. We decided to have things as clear and concise as possible beforehand.

It was somehow "familiar" how some of our approaches were very similar to an animation production: workflow, staging, direction and character development. I always knew the principles of visual storytelling and cinematography are fundamentally the same, but in practicality I never had experienced it before, which was quite intriguing. I remember reading sometime about how Hitchcock used to also thing about his staging in terms of silhouettes with his characters, and would try to force a certain pose in certain shot. We unknowingly did the same thing, I think.

In the schedule we made, we allocated a week and a half for planning, two days for material gathering and scenario setup, and two days for filming, so we didn't really have time to go through a library of rushes, have dozens of takes of the same shot, and experiment a lot with camera. Our approach had to be as direct and well thought as realistically possible.

After the planning was established, our next worry was the setting...where would we shoot this? It was an experimental thing, it required a background full of void and darkness. But we couldn't think of any place we could possibly use. We ended up deciding on our garage at home (how typical) and go for a home made green-screen setup, mainly for financial reasons. We thought this would give us the flexibility to stylise our film, being such a low budget project, and would also allow us to set an appropriate world for our story to take place in, since it had such a surreal atmosphere.

But we didn't realise how hard it would actually be to properly light subjects so that silhuettes were clear enough to have a clean chroma key. Lighting is such an essential tool in film making, we unfortunately had only one light stand and a few bulbs to create our own setup (one of which blew up due to the intense heat!). Grading and color correction also were hard jobs. We wanted the "washed out", ink contrast of the recent Frank Miller's movies like 300 and Sin City, to give it a very graphic style. But the footage for it needs to be clean and well lit, which unfortunately wasn't in our case. We ended up going for a hybrid between this extreme and a "cheaper" look, leaving the noise of the HD footage of our Panasonic HDC-SD9, which most likely appeared due to our lack of knowledge in treating AVCHD native formats on a suitable editor. Apple's iMovie and Final Cut Pro seem to handle them quite well though, which is amazing. As for us (Windows users), we went with the software that came with the camera and ended up having to convert to MPG2.

Here are some comparisons between original and comped shots. Some of the lighting was truly poor, but I'll leave that to you to judge:

I'm happy with the staging and silhouette in this shot. Not keen on the lighting though, which had to fake and contrast a bit more in post. Lesson learned: lights must be good FROM THE RAW FOOTAGE!!

Seemingly easy shot to key the greenscreen from, but prooved harder due to the spilling of green on his jacket and hat...hence the noisy and grainy borders. Lesson learned: rim lights are very important for creation of successfull silhouettes.

Again, lots of green spilling on Jay's arm in this shot...hence the little transparency at the end which can be seen on the final footage. Lesson learned: always avoid green spilling by good lighting!!

This is all I can afford to write by now, more to come soon. I hope is useful to anyone out there, since this is is all from a newbie´s point of view. See you next time!!

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