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Making the Lovecraft Short Film – Post Production

Although we haven’t finished all our shooting yet, post production is well underway.  That might seem counter intuitive but when making a short independent film without a big crew, you do whatever you can to keep the project moving forward.  Since many of the scenes are already shot, I can edit them together now, and add in the remaining scenes when they are finished.

The editing is being done with the Adobe Creative Suite.  Adobe CC is the editor used, After Effects for special effects and titles, Audition for audio work, and probably Speedgrade for the color grading (so far Magic Bullet Looks has been used to create the temporary color grading to give an idea of the final atmosphere of the different shots.).  I vastly, vastly prefer the current Creative Suite over Final Cut, and if you do editing every day for a living, you probably feel the same way.  Without going into huge detail, the ability of even a slower computer to play back high quality video in real time with no rendering is a big selling point for people starting out (less of an issue when you have super powered editing computers).  I can easily drop in any resolution footage, throw on effects and transitions, and play through it with no rendering at all.  The integration with AE is another huge selling point – no rendering the project then exporting it out to a huge lossless format (to keep resolution) which takes forever, import into composting program (you will probably be using AE anyway since it is much better than Final Cut’s offering), make your changes, export it out again to lossless format, and finally re-import back into your editor. None of that nonsense – in Premiere I can click on my clip, select import as AE Comp, and there it is in After Effects.  Any changes I make show up on the Premiere timeline as I make them.  There’s a host of other reasons, but suffice to say that it isn’t the Adobe suite of the old days, and with a decade of experience using both suites, my choice was very easy to make.  On to a quick overview of my post production process!

First you have to organize your media, which in most cases will involve naming of clips, marking of in and out points, etc.  I think everyone has a different way of doing this, but if you work with a team you’ll all need to be on the same page.  Since I’m doing the editing myself, I can be messy and inefficient if I want to.  Since some of our scenes are shot in the RAW format of the Canon 5d Mark III, special work was needed to get them into our editor.  These clips are made possible by the creators of Magic Lantern, and are not supported fully by Premiere or anyone else.  A few tricks, such as turning the files into a DNG sequence and creating proxies to preview the footage with in your editor make working with RAW files easier.  Definitely check out the Magic Lantern forums if you plan on working with RAW footage, because the post process workflow is much much harder than simply dropping files into your editor.

If the scene has speaking, I do the syncing of the audio first.  We used a boom mic hooked up to a Tascam with XLR input to record the sound.  Syncing up the high quality audio was easy with the help of the slate, making the loud “clap” sound that we all know from the movies.

Since each shot has multiple takes, I spent a great deal of time going through each one and finding the best.  This part is a lot of fun, since you also get to see the outtakes.  Here is where you mix and match the shots to start creating the scene you storyboarded out long ago.

Although we have multiple cameras, we shot each scene with just one.  It’s easy to spend countless hours re-editing and adjusting a scene, trying to find the perfect balance of time between shots, the perfect place to cut, trying to trim a little off here and little off there.  I’ll revisit a scene and make adjustments after some time has passed, looking at it with fresh eyes and trying to get the very most out of each scene.

At this point I did some preliminary work on the music, although this is not my specialty.  We are hoping to hire someone to do the score (that will depend on funding from Kickstarter) but in the meantime, this helps set the tone and pacing of the scenes.  I also added sound effects where necessary, i.e. gunshots, doors opening, footsteps – these things are all recorded separately from the video in order to get them in high quality.  That means they need to be added in during post production to make sure the scene feels alive.

Moving on from there, I did some preliminary color grading.  As mentioned above I used Magic Bullet Looks, primarily the 3 color wheel, to adjust the highlights, midtones, and shadows, creating the atmosphere and look of the scenes as a rough guideline.  This helps me in the editing as I can get a feel for the final look of the film, and will also provide a starting point when I begin the final color grading with Speedgrade.  Magic Bullet is a great tool for color grading and probably more than adequate enough, but I’ve never used Speedgrade before and I want to see what it offers, being a tailor made application just for color grading.

Next up is the effects – although this could also be done earlier in the process.  In AE I did things such as motion tracking the shot, adding masks to effect lighting and color, creating the special effects (I can’t go into detail without giving anything away) and more.  There is a lot of time to be spent in this part of the process, and it of course varies tremendously depending on what type of effect I am creating for the scene.  There is a scene where I used camera tracking and added in stars and mist and you wouldn’t have any idea that it wasn’t really there, thanks to lots of careful masking, feathering, and some great video of mist keyed in over the shot.  After the film is released I’ll go into much more detail on how I made the different effects, some of which are extremely involved.

This is just a brief overview of the post production process.  As the film is finalized, I may do specialized versions of this guide – a step by step to color grading, for example, or a guide to removing background noise from your audio.  The best part of this process is that you get to re-make the film for the final time (remember that old quote that a film is made 3 times, well the final time is in editing).  When you bring those shots into your editor, you begin to rearrange them, you begin to work around some things that may be different from your original vision, and before you know it, things come together in a new way that you didn’t originally picture.  It’s an exciting process and I personally am enjoying watching The Crawling Chaos come to life.


Making the Lovecraft Film – Eldritch Equipment

When it comes to making an independent film, equipment often gets the short stick.  Since budget is usually a big concern, and anything involving film making is expensive, it can be tough to get exactly the stuff you want.  I see a lot of aspiring filmmakers save up and spend all their money on a nice camera, but in my opinion that is a mistake.  While the latest in DSLR cameras will be replaced with a newer model frequently, a good set of lenses will last you for decades.  A good set of sticks and lighting gear could last you a lifetime.

In our case, my goal from the beginning had been to amass as much professional gear as possible through my day job of running a video/photo production company.  By working full time doing commercials, events, etc I was able to justify purchasing the best gear out there, and when it came time to work on our film, I already had much of what I needed.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a list of equipment I want that reads like a rough draft of the never-ending story, but I’ve got a good base to build from.

Camera gear – Most of the film is shot on the Canon 5d Mark III, with some scenes shot in RAW format using Magic Lantern, and the others shot in 1920×1080 at 24fps with a custom neutral picture setting.  I’ll talk more about this when I get to post production discussions, but basically you want to shoot neutral so you can color grade the scene later on, preserving the most dynamic range with the original image.  Shooting RAW is amazing and gives you not only insane dynamic range, but tons of information for color grading and an extremely sharp image.  RAW with Magic Lantern gives many Canon cameras a massive upgrade when it comes to video quality.  There’s also HDR for video and a bunch of other stuff like being able to use zebras to check exposure, being able to monitor your sound, etc.  If you have a Canon 5d Mark III, 5d Mark II, 7D, 6D, 60D, and probably others – definitely do a search for Magic Lantern and check it out.

Lenses – Before I get into what lenses we are using, let me give the budget conscious some money saving tips.  If you are shooting a Canon DSLR like me, you can pick up some of the older, high quality manual focus lenses and use adapters (available all over, check out ebay) to attach them to your camera.  Do your research to make sure the mount you are looking at works, but the best place to start is with the Takumar or old Nikon 50mm 1.4 lenses.  For modern photography these may have drawbacks since they don’t autofocus, but for film we are manual focusing anyway – and these come with big smooth metal focus rings!  They also have a lot of character, and were among the sharpest and best lenses in their day.  I still shoot with several of these because I love the look.  You can find a lot of older lenses for cheap on ebay that will give your film a unique look and won’t break the bank.

That said, since my day job is photography and videography, and we have a team that needs top end gear, we own a lot of lenses.  For this film, we used primarily 2 lenses for the close ups: Canon 70-200 mk II with image stabilization and the 85mm 1.2 mk II.  Both amazing lenses, and you can hand hold the 70-200 thanks to the great image stabilization, although we didn’t need that so far for our film.  The 85 1.2 allows incredible bokeh (blurred background) and can shoot in even the darkest conditions.  For wider shots, the Canon 24 1.4 and 35 1.4 were the main lenses used, and the above mentioned manual Takumar 50mm 1.4 was in the mix too.  Any shots where we used the stabilizer to track a shot, it was most likely the 24 1.4 sitting up there.

Stuff to attach the camera to – Yeah, there’s a lot of different things you can sit your camera on, and they all serve different purposes.  A Blackbird Stabilizer got our smooth steadicam style shots. We used several different fluid head tripods including a huge Manfrotto (fluid head is the key here, if you can get smooth pans on a cheaper tripod then get it for now, and upgrade later).  A slider was used with a fluid head attached to it for a couple of interesting shots.  Initially we used a rig to hold the camera, with follow focus, monitor, rails, matte box, and all kinds of adjustable goodies.  While this is an amazing setup when you have a crew, it was a bit much to work with for just me doing the camerawork and pulling focus myself, but I hope to use this setup more for the remaining shots in the film.  We have a bunch of ND and Polarizer filters for the matte box, but since this is a pretty dark film we didn’t really get to use them so far.

Lighting Gear – I won’t get too far into this, but suffice to say we have a ton of lighting and grip stuff.  C-stands, air-cushioned stands, gobos, diffusion of all kinds, open face lights, soft boxes, reflectors, white and black boards, clamps, all kinds of ways to attach small lights to ceilings and other random surfaces – basically a giant box of tricks.  I’d say the majority of that stuff didn’t get used just because there wasn’t time to play around with it, since I was also doing the lighting – getting the lighting set up just right can take forever, and when you are also getting the camera set up and directing the scene, well that’s a lot of time spread around.  Hopefully with some funding we can solve that problem by hiring some crew members so I can concentrate on the directing for future shots and films.  For the actual lights, we used everything – 1000w fresnel, 800w redhead, tons of smaller lights, even some LED goodies.  We’ve got so many lights that I won’t try to go through them specifically, but basically the 1000w was our biggest.  When we needed bigger and brighter, with stands that could go up 30 feet, I hit the rental place and picked up everything else.  I also had to rent a generator to go with those lights, so we could plug our equipment in when out in the forest, and I believe the model generator I got was a Honda 2000i.

Do you really need all this crap??  Surprisingly, we don’t even have all the stuff we need to finish the movie.  We need a dolly and dolly tracks, as well as a small jib. Not to mention more lighting gear, which I’ll probably have to rent.  There’s a million other things that every filmmaker would love to have.  Hopefully we can get enough support on Kickstarter to get what we need for the film, pay the crew members we need, rent what we can’t buy, and secure the locations necessary.  The good news is, any equipment we amass during this filming process we’ll already have when it’s time for the next film!

Lighting an Outdoor Night Scene – Adventures in the Dark

Another post about our short film based on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.  To see what scene I’m talking about, please check out the previous post (which also has some photos to illustrate the lighting).  This was by far the hardest part of our production (so far) and we still need a little more filming done at this location.

Without giving away too much, we needed an outdoor setting in the woods far from civilization, and it needed to be dark.  I found a location while scouting around the Redwoods near the Santa Cruz mountains that was pretty much in the middle of a forest.  It fit the other criteria for the shoot as well, so now we were faced with a new choice – should we film day for night (film during day and try to make it look like night in post processing) or go ahead and film at night?  After reviewing both options I decided day to night was not going to work for us.

I got some recommendations from a lighting master named Edwin (he has lit Hollywood films before such as Zodiac) on how to approach the scene.  Since this was something we hadn’t done before, I had to rent the equipment we’d need.  In the end, we primarily used 2 large (I believe 2000w) fresnel lights sitting up about 20-30 feet in the air on heavy duty stands, angled down and acting as our light.  One of them was lighting our actors while the other was just barely lighting the background, giving a hint of the creepy location. By shooting with a really low aperture I was able to capture great light from the candles our cultists were holding, which acted as the fill lights for them in many scenes.  The big fresnels being up high gave me some nice shadows and looked like perhaps a moon was lighting the scene.  We also used an LED light shot through diffusion, and a reflector held by one of the cast to act as a fill (and even a key light in some scenes that were supposed to look very dark).  These two would be shifted around depending on the angle of the scene, since moving the big fresnel lights was just not going to happen.

Wait, how the heck are we powering this stuff?  It wasn’t through the power of Cthugha the Living Flame, I had rented a generator to plug in our lights and that thing was running the whole time.  I should also note that we had one other light plugged in, but that was to light the area off camera so we wouldn’t fall down and hurt ourselves in the darkness.  With the lights off, it was completely pitch black out there.

Doesn’t sound so bad, just a couple of lights!  The reality is that these massive lights were up so high and were so hard to move on uneven terrain (the rental place was out of the stands with the adjustable leg for this type of situation) that once they were set up, we just didn’t have the time or resources to move them.  One of the fresnel lights actually had the lens shatter suddenly, in the middle of our filming.  Most likely it had already been cracked before we got there, and the heat had eventually gotten to it (the rental place made me pay for the lens, which was expensive, ouch!).  We continued to use it without the lens but that made it even harder to adjust.  With most of the crew actually in the scene as actors, whoever was not on camera would have to do the reflector for me.  With a full crew this would have been a much easier shoot, but you won’t find anyone willing to do that for free like my cast and crew of friends was willing to do.

Other problems associated with the shoot involve the sound of the generator – that thing is loud.  There was no way we could get any audio with that running right next to us, so we had to record audio separately and sync it with the lips in post.  Stumbling around in the dark was a problem, and I ended up not being able to set up a lot of the stuff I wanted to do because we were running out of time (it was probably close to 1 or 2am by the time we finished).  In the end, the footage came out great though, and the scene took on a life of its own.  It’s hard not to shoot something creepy and scary when you’re in such a genuinely creepy and scary place.

I almost forgot to mention, the location was probably about half a mile or more from the closest place I could park – and uphill, on uneven terrain.  We all pushed and carried massive amounts of equipment up to the shooting location while it was still light, and it was a brutal and exhausting experience.  I felt terrible that I didn’t even end up using much of the equipment.  Such heavy items included lots of huge, unwieldy lighting stands, a massive generator, tons of lights, heavy tripods, sandbags (yeah, basically just heavy weight to be slung over the shoulder), camera rig, lots of lenses, and more.  If that wasn’t bad enough, when we finished our shoot we had to carry it all back down in complete darkness.  Using our phones and flashlights to light the path, we took down all but one light and the generator (so we could still see our gear) and had one person light the way.  The final trip was so physically exhausting that one of our cultists actually had to stop to throw up on the way, but he was such a trooper that he went right back to carrying equipment as soon as he finished.  I can’t thank these guys enough, they really went above and beyond!

Oh, and let’s not forget the giant spiders.  During the day we didn’t see much, but once it got dark these huge, spindly legged things came from everywhere.  They were mostly 3-4 inches across counting the legs, which is plenty big enough.  When I reached in to one of my bags in the darkness to find a lens cap, and instead found a huge spider sitting inside it, well that was pretty unpleasant.  After that I had everyone check each open container thoroughly with flashlight to make sure I wasn’t loading any more of these monsters into my vehicle.  We also passed through a bunch of loud croaking toads in the darkness, probably some relatives of Tsathoggua just showing us their support.  To top it all off, it was actually one of our actors birthdays that night.  I thought we would have finished much, much earlier and then went out to celebrate with him, but instead he got manual labor and darkness as his gift (I’ll make it up to you next time buddy!).  At least we had an adventure that none of us will soon forget.  Surrounded by trees and spiders in the dead of night, with nobody around for miles – just the all encompassing darkness.  I’m sure we’re all excited to go film a couple extra shots out there that we still need…

More Photos from our Lovecraft Short Film

He seems like a nice guy

He seems like a nice guy

Cultists in the middle of a ritual, no doubt summoning something Lovecraftian

Cultists in the middle of a ritual, no doubt summoning something Lovecraftian

Some cultists putting in work during a midnight ritual.  As you can see, they are out in some creepy looking forest in the middle of nowhere, lighting their ritual candles.  That wicked looking knife can only be for some nefarious purpose.  This scene was as intense to film as it will be to watch.  Our cast and crew will never forget the pitch black forest and the monstrous spiders that crawled into all our gear while we were filming.  More details on this shoot coming later, including lighting setup and the adventure we had making this scene.

Making a Short Film – Camera Work

When working on our short Lovecraft inspired film “The Crawling Chaos” I had a lot of ideas for how I wanted everything to look.  Storyboarding was important of course, and I made detailed storyboards for the whole film, many including shadows and lighting.  At the end of the day though, especially when producing a film without a huge budget, you are going to be making changes on the fly.  Sets might not be laid out the way you pictured, weather and schedule may not be what you hoped, and some shots may not be practical without the proper equipment.

The basic idea behind our cinematography was to keep it engrossing and non distracting.  If it were an action flick or something with epic sweeping fantasy, stylish camera work could lend a lot to the overall experience.  For comedy, the camera work isn’t going to matter as much and can be more static, since the situation and the dialogue are going to be creating the laughs.  For horror the goals are different, and often what is not on camera will be creating the fear.  We wanted to find the best shots to create tension and convey the proper mood, but keep the camera work from being distracting so that the viewer stays in the scene and gets absorbed in the mystery.

I utilized a combination of camera techniques to try and achieve this, from tight shots on a wide angle (handheld and stabilizer shots, bring you close to feel the emotion but slight distortion from wide angle is unsettling) to longer lenses on a tripod or shoulder mounted rig with wide apertures that separate the subject from the background, creating that bokeh (blurry background) that we commonly associate with film.  We used a slider and a tripod for many of our shots to add that cinematic quality, while keeping the pace tense right up until the action starts.  With strange angles and extreme close ups thrown in to help with the unsettling mood, most of what we set out to do has been accomplished.

Some of the shots, such as an establishing shot of a forest, definitely need some more polished movement to make them look cinematic and professional.  For this reason, one of the things we are hoping to purchase with Kickstarter funds is a jib or small crane (or if we don’t meet stretch goals, we can just rent them with the crowdfunded money.  Buying would be better for future films though!).  This will allow us to do several shots that are in the storyboards but that we haven’t been able to shoot yet.  We also hope to add a dolly for a few long tracking shots where it is essential to keep the shot moving to keep the tension building, not cutting away to give the viewer a breather.  These shots will add huge production quality to a movie that already looks great, and bring us one step closer to finishing this film.  Once that happens, you can check out the camera work for yourselves, and we can take what we’ve learned and apply it to our next film!


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