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Short Film: Ghost Story

October 14, 2009

Today, the first of two new short films that are finally finished and released upon the world. Blog content FTW!

Earlier in the spring, I was asked to be a panelist on the “Comic Con Film School,” a workshop discussion that takes place in the mornings of the Con. The reason was that this year the coordinator of the panel wanted to do a special focus on “visual effects on a shoestring.”

Instead of doing a couple of isolated effects tests, we decided to make a short film that we could use to showcase the various points we planned to make about the production and post-production process. Sean, the coordinator, wrote the script for me to direct.

Before I go on, the film:

(Also a disclaimer: Comic Con does not endorse the contents of this film and was not involved in its production.)

The big challenge was that he wanted the effects to be stuff that anyone with an NLE could produce — in other words, things you didn’t need to fire up After Effects or Nuke to achieve.

This dictated the style of the film to an extent. With even basic motion tracking out of the question, I basically had to treat the film as though I was working with optical effects. That meant a locked-off camera for effects shots, with the exception of shots where the effect was only a single frame (i.e. the muzzle flashes).

Of course, there was no question this could be done. Until the last 15 years or so, this is the way it HAD to be done. It just wasn’t the way I’m used to working, which I saw as a growth opportunity.

The only cheat was that I created the “binoculars” matte in Photoshop — intentionally using the classic double-circle look even though, due to stereoscopic vision, that’s not the way it looks when you actually look through binoculars. Originally, it was supposed to be a sniper scope, but when it was all cut together we decided it didn’t make sense that she wouldn’t just shoot him if she had such a clear, clean shot.

You could, perhaps, also call a few digital tweaks “cheating.” For example, the shot where she fades away was shot in passes as a lock-off, composited with a split-screen, and then a digital zoom was added to give it a little life. Similarly, the shot where it’s booming down toward her and rotating was shot handheld, and the Smoothcam filter applied to make it, well, smooth.

I would argue, however, that a pre-digital professional production would have had access to motion control (for the zoom), and a proper boom arm (for the crane-and-tilt), so it evens out on that score. And it was still tools found only in Final Cut Pro, so it was still within the constraints in that regard.

I’m particularly proud of the (ideally) invisible edit in the shot at 1:30. When it was all shot and I was cutting it together, I felt that the first half of one take worked better than the second, where she fumbled the gun a little bit. There was another shot where her handling of the gun was great, but the camera on the first half was not as strong. Fortunately, the action as choreographed included Anthony providing a natural wipe across the frame. I used this to conceal an actual wipe transition. You probably see it now that I’ve pointed it out (but hopefully didn’t before). Even though the camera doesn’t exactly match in both shots, the momentum and energy does, and since Anthony’s clothes are flat black the seam line is less obvious, creating a single shot out of two exclusively in FCP.

The last choice to be made was the music. When we were making it, I had originally thought of it as a typical intense score — low, tense, steady strings, occasionally shot through with hints of other instruments like sounds in the darkness. It works for that, certainly. But Anthony made the case that it seemed too typical, and we combed through a royalty-free music library looking for alternatives.

Coming across this quiet, jazzy alternative to my original choice was like a bolt of lightning. The intense music made the whole thing feel overwrought and cheesy, but the jazz music changed the tone in a way that, somehow, made it all work, particularly in tandem with the narration. I hadn’t planned to make a noir-ish short, but when it came together it seemed impossible that it could have been otherwise.

I have to give the credit where due to Anthony for making me consider different music (although I didn’t use his favorite cue, which was a crazy pirate shanty and would also have altered the tone drastically).

Next post, I’ll talk about the finally-completed release version of the project we produced for last year’s 48 Hour Film Project.

  1. Argh. I’m so jealous of you and your awesomeness. Someday though, someday with enough experience under my belt and enough knowledge in my brain I’ll be able to do what you do. Right now I can’t even fathom how well you handle the film making process.

  2. Something else I’m also wondering. How was it like directing off of someone else’s script. Did you approach the material differently. Do you think it’s better to work this way or do you think you would always like to write your own stuff? Most times in the industry the director and the writer are not the same people.

    • Dorkman permalink

      Directing from someone else’s script wasn’t too different. I’d had time ahead of time to get a grasp of the material and so by the time we got to shooting there was not much difference in the process. Even directing from my own writing, I have to detach myself as writer from myself as director; I have to treat it like someone else’s script so I don’t fall in love with it.

      If I had trouble connecting with the material, I’d get/do a rewrite so that it worked for me, but if the script was good to go, I would be too.

  3. I love all the different technical points touched, very informative for those inclined about the inside scoop of the details in filmmaking.
    I am not sure if it is all that clear she is a ghost though (a kung fu ghost that is worried about bullets??)., but that is a creative artistic license within the script and nothing to do with the technical aspects represented.
    Very nice.

    • Dorkman permalink

      It’s a metaphor. She was supposed to be dead, but she wasn’t and she came back to kill him. He calls her a ghost for poetic effect.

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