Stills from Emily
I recently wrapped production on a new short film, Emily. The project came about while Stella and I were texting about her demo reel, and before I knew it, we had decided to shoot a whole new film over her spring break.
I've described this film as an "experimental nonlinear drama." It will have an experimental feel to it for sure, but for me, the big experiment was letting go of much of the planning I normally put into projects. My comfort zone is having a script, a storyboard, a shot list and a solid production schedule. This film had none of that. All dialog would be improvised. Locations weren't locked in until uncomfortably close to filming. Same with cast and crew. I wanted to keep the story flexible so we could make use of the locations, people and weather we would have access to during the week.
That said, I did spent the month and a half of lead time feverishly writing and rewriting an outline for this story. It changed forms many times until ultimately landing on a strong concept that fits the style I had in mind and leaned on the strengths of this unusual (for me) filming process.
The result was a list of scenes I wanted to film with characters that I felt a connection to. Each scene had a start and end point, and it was largely up to the actors to find their way through each take. This was incredibly fun and challenging, especially for a huge blow-out fight between a mother and daughter that spanned several rooms of a house.
I'm getting off track. I really just came here to share some stills and focus on the visual language of the film. I made a strong effort to adhere to a minimal and deliberate color palette for each scene, leaning heavily on black, white, gray and red. I used non-traditional composition on several shots, always with purpose. And I got lucky and found some wonderful shots that I did not plan.
I'm going to wait to get into editing until well after the excitement of production has faded. But I grabbed a few stills and wanted to walk through some of the decisions that went into creating them. These are in the order we filmed.
The first thing we filmed was a dream sequence under a canopy of white sheets. Logistically this was a little more complicated than I imagined, not just because of the three hours I spent ironing king-size bed sheets. It got hot and stuffy quickly, so we had to strategically position the sheets and a series of support stands between each setup. A series of soft boxes provided illumination through the sheets.
At some point the dream sequence in the first shot turns into a nightmare. I wanted the lights to dramatically change to red mid-shot. I figured this would be easy enough in post, but I came up with an easy way to do this practically. As the dream turned uneasy, I reduced the number of soft boxes lighting the sheets from 3 to 1, eventually removing the final soft box and lighting the sheets with a single hard light. Then when it needed to turn red, an assistant was near the light and held up a stack of red filters. The effect is so much better than what it would have looked like with a simple color shift in post.
For this scene, Emily was running up a staircase to escape something below. I wanted a shaky feel to this, so I just ran up the stairs backwards in front of her. I also filmed a reverse angle chasing her. I had to pay special attention to the camera height and angle, and we shot several takes just to be safe. This was a fun way to incorporate this parking garage, which has been a favorite of many Springfield photographers over the years. They're talking about tearing it down soon, so I'm going to use it all I can before it's gone.
This was one of the earliest shots I had visualized for the film, and this scene is critical to the narrative. But it's March, and the lake water is almost freezing. After spending too much time researching the safety hazards of being submerged in cold water, I let Stella decide if she wanted to do this. And of course she did. So we filmed this at dusk last Thursday night. The shot is exactly what I wanted, and Stella nailed it (and thawed out by the next day).
There's a fun little scene where Emily is on stage in a spotlight reading from a script. This is exactly the shot I wanted, but I didn't know how to make the spotlight at first. None of my lights are focused enough to give that clear circular edge (even when using a cutout). But I recently did a photo shoot using an old school overhead projector, and I realized, hey, that has a very focused bright light. So I just cut a circle out of some black poster board and mounted the projector up high. Worked like a charm, except that ladybugs kept landing on the projector and casting their shadow into frame. New film union position idea: ladybug handler.
Mary Young played Emily's mom. During an intense argument between the two, I landed on this shot of Mary. The normal way to frame a person is to put them left or right and have them look across the frame in the opposite direction. It can feel uncomfortable if you break this rule, and this scene was a good opportunity to do just that. So the reverse of Emily has her on the right side of the frame looking right. I also consciously moved the height of the camera relative to the eyes of the subject to change the feeling of superiority throughout the scene. So near the beginning, we see Mary from below, and she looks powerful. By the end of the fight, she is defeated, and the frame changes to a higher angle.
Arlin Peebles plays the role of Emily's acting professor in a scene that takes place during class. This scene serves as an establishing scene of sorts for Emily's character. Lighting the space was difficult - I used three hard lights in a triangle pattern up high pointed at a center of action in the classroom. A circle of students stood watching a small scene play out in the center. The shadows were extremely difficult to avoid, especially with a steadicam shot that moves slowly around the middle. I made sure to shoot plenty of coverage with normal handheld angles to help with editing.
This is one of my favorite shots of the film. I was lucky to have Rich Saal agree to play the role of Emily's psychiatrist, and he let us transform his house into a movie set for a day. This is another example of uncomfortable framing, putting Emily on the right side of the frame with her also looking to the right. The camera is also above her with a little head room, making her appear small. The room had a lot of natural light, but I added a gelled, diffused tungsten light to the left of camera to give the light a little more of a dramatic feel (I also have a close-up angle for coverage, and she's on the left side of that shot, which will make it a bit more interesting when cutting between them). I spent so much time looking for a good sweater for this scene and was happy to find this one on the clearance rack at Kohl's. We bought so many costume pieces for this film.
This is the reverse shot from the scene above. I framed up Rich more traditionally, and the camera is at his eye level, cutting off his head slightly. I love the chair he's sitting in. They moved it down from their second floor just se we could use it in this shot. I will definitely be shooting more films at Saal Studios.
This was a bonus shot that I wouldn't have dared to plan. It was on the last night of filming, and we had two other things to film at dusk. But as we were setting up the bathroom mirror scene, I remembered that I wanted to find some angles through glass. So I stepped on the back deck and was happy to find the sky still had a bit of color. So we quickly filmed this angle before switching to interior shots that were more planned. One fun note is that Stella had to stand to the right of the sink in order to be seen in the mirror. So in this shot, she's actually looking at the wall, not her reflection.
This was the last scene we filmed, which is a fun bookend when you scroll back up to the first still in the blog, which was the first thing we filmed. Same location, same set. Just a completely different lighting setup. I used blue gels on tungsten lights and kept the white balance set to 3300K. There's very little color correction done to this in post. We also had another light set up to the right side of the frame that doubled as a night light, which was brighter and more yellow. There isn't much blue in the film, but I love the few times we were able to bring it in.
Anyway, that's it for now. It's on to other projects, and someday I will start editing this, hopefully with a premiere in or around June.