In a year in which the film industry is faced with a certain amount of uncertainty, independent filmmakers face a myriad of new challenges.
This year I was lucky enough to make my first feature film, See You Then. In creating this film, we were able to use film formats and technology that would have been impossible 5 years ago, and it has enabled us to relive that moment when we are faced with a changed world.
When my cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott started discussing the look of See You Then, we wanted a camera that would give us a unique look for an independent film under $ 250,000. It was after watching a trailer for Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk when the revelation of filming the film in large format arrived.
I've always felt the need to determine exactly which cameras will be used with each project. I filmed short films in vertical format, 16×9, Academy ratio and 2.40 and tried to portray the themes of the film and from whose perspective we shot on film. Since the film is almost entirely a dialogue, we needed a visual way for the audience to engage emotionally with the material.
My main concern was a standard formatted camera. The movie wouldn't have the same emotional impact – it would almost feel more like a play than a cinematic experience. Although the film takes place over a night with almost entirely two characters, the events that happen are deeply seismic to the characters and their understanding of the world. I thought it was important to have that cinematic perspective. The camera also works very well in the low light capacities that were required for our film.
The film has a similar conversational structure to films like My Dinner with Andre and Medicine for Melancholy, but Jordan and I wanted to tell this deeply intimate story on an epic screen. The Sony Venice 6K made this stylistic choice possible. We were very fortunate that Alternative Rentals gave us time to review camera tests of various formats, lenses and housings. Jordan and I concluded that filming Venice with K35 lenses would be the ideal look. I was interested in a clean image, something the smooth K35 lenses provided. I didn't mean to hide the fact that this film was digital. Always look for camera houses and other equipment centers willing to go the extra mile. They can be a godsend if you don't have a huge prep budget to allow for camera testing.
One of the most important aspects of cinematography was to create a sense of formalism in appearance. During my preproduction, I was heavily inspired by studio-style films like David Lean's Brief Encounterwhere it was more focused on the actors' faces than the background. With the Venice and the K35, Jordan was able to achieve a narrow focus area that allows the audience to focus almost entirely on the characters. We were also able to have less set dressing in certain scenes, which saved us money during production. In addition, the large 3: 2 page format worked well for 2 characters on the screen at a time. We were able to create a balanced image that didn't feel too crowded. The intimacy of the aspect ratio also gave us the ability to bring our lighting and sound equipment closer to the actors, which I couldn't do with my first short film. swim.
Imagining See You Then in large format is one thing; In fact, filming in large format is a whole different matter. For one thing, the additional amount of money that filming large formats costs can severely limit a small budget. If you want to take photos with a large format camera, you inevitably have to forego other desired devices or even an additional half day of shooting. Jordan and I had to give up some titanium tubes for the final scenes, and the cinefade, a system that allows you to slowly blur the background of a shot, which gives a feeling of dizziness and isolation. Like any other part of filmmaking, you have to find your hills to die on, and Venice was my first big hill.
The data size alone was an uphill battle. We had to add additional cards to the camera order and we definitely underestimated the hard drive space required. At first we had hoped we would only need 2 20TB hard drives, but by the end of the movie we had added 2 more 20TB drives. The cards also have a shorter capacity, so the time per take for some of the longer dialogue segments we had in the film was a challenge, of which there were many. There were a few times when the cast had gotten to great rhythm and we had to cut earlier than expected. Since I've been an editor for most of my career, there have been many times when I didn't have footage to cut or move. So I'm a director who likes to provide plenty of coverage.
Jordan and I wrote a very detailed shot list instead of storyboards and spent most of the nights visualizing the movie in my head. A big advantage of filming in 6K is that you can master in 4K as you have some leeway to redesign the post or add extra movement to amplify moments.
Our shallow depth of field also meant that the camera crew had their work cut out for them. Our first AC, Lauren Peele, had the immense responsibility of keeping everyone in focus, especially since we shot the film almost exclusively at night, which may not have been possible before for financial or technical reasons.
Filming at night continued to pose numerous challenges for the cast and crew, but one of the most difficult was our inability to move from places. Every morning, the crew had to pack up and unload all of their equipment, adding an extra layer of exhaustion. Three weeks of overnight stays push every crew to their physical and mental limits, let alone in the middle of an extremely cold January in Los Angeles. It is important that you take care of your crew and always show respect and understanding for every member of your team, especially when faced with such difficult shooting conditions.
By the time we finished filming on the morning of February 1st, it seemed like the year was ahead of us and things were looking good. While we were on the set, we heard stories of COVID in Wuhan and later in Italy and Spain, but I don't think either of us expected this to affect our daily lives so extremely.
After we finished production, I transferred the proxies to my laptop with a plan to travel around the country and meet all of the friends and family I hadn't seen in the past few years. Our team went our separate directions in the US and our plan was set to end late summer or early fall for a festival push in winter and spring 2021. I'd spent most of my time in LA editing features and shorts across genres, so it was an easy decision for me to edit the film myself. After a month of editing, Mia Schulman (our producer and 1st AD) and I were able to get together in a single face-to-face review session before COVID reached LA and we were all on our way.
One of the main philosophies at Vanishing Angle, our manufacturing company, is a thorough review process for every project. From story development to post-production, every project is checked by many trusted eyes to make sure the film has the greatest chance of success. See you wouldn't be different.
The script has been part of the VA workshops since I first came up with the idea in the summer of 2017. Kristen Uno and I then brought a number of designs to Vanishing Angles Funlab. These review sessions were essential to many of the necessary changes that were made to the script.
Most evenings in a normal production year, the company's screening room is filled with projects that filmmakers show their friends, family, and investors. We had planned the same trajectory for See You Then. But when COVID hit we made the simple decision of course to move all screenings to an online forum. Certainly no one should risk the chance of death reviewing a movie.
That being said, it certainly didn't make the post process easy. In college I found a lovely quote from François Truffaut: “The nicest thing I've ever seen in a movie theater is walking up front and turning around and looking at all the raised faces, the light reflecting off the screen above them . "Without a live audience to see the movie, all you can hope for is that the editorial decisions you make will have an impact on the audience. As much as you can write down thoughts and opinions about a movie after you've seen it , an instant personal response in a theater can help determine how long a take should last or when an important character reveal should occur.I have lived vicariously through groups or families watching the movie together so I can get emotional responses and Can compare problems with pace.
While the lack of instant responses was challenging, the silver lining was the ability to get a number of people from across the country and different time zones to talk about the film. Usually almost all of the screenings for local filmmakers are in Los Angeles. It was a great way to involve a lot of key team members who are spread across the country.
I was almost completely isolated throughout the post process at See You Then. On other projects, investors, producers, or other filmmakers often stopped by during an editing session. This kind of on-the-fly collaboration can often unlock something an editor can hold on to for weeks, a pair of fresh eyes to focus on a specific moment. Over time, we've found ways for our producers to follow the editing process live via FaceTime and film myself.
In many ways, this was the most picturesque experience I've had in the post process. Painting has often been described as an individual profession, which is not often the case in the post-writing filming process. The biggest challenge was maintaining perspective, especially with such character-oriented materials.
As the post continued through the summer and we started adding additional members to the post team, our team created work pods to ensure people have limited exposure to COVID. If someone gets sick, we can trace back and make sure we contact anyone who may be exposed. I was able to meet up with Robert Allaire, my composer, and Lara Salmon, who was our consultant for performance artists and who also writes the credits for the film.
Like any independent film, our core is See You Then The team had to wear multiple hats throughout production and has become even more common in our COVID era. With no way of bringing Jordan back to Los Angeles to shoot, let alone part of our crew, I took on the role of recording our b-roll shots with my Blackmagic 4K Pocket Camera. I can quickly become self-employed and don't have to worry about the safety of an entire crew or the coordination of a tracking shot in a quarantined city. It was a relief to have staff able to edit their new schedules to do additional work on the film. It is a period that allows a lot of flexibility, but this period can be difficult for goal-oriented individuals.
As we continue to move towards the end position, we have also worked to increase our final investments in Wefunder. Our campaign ends on August 26th after an extremely turbulent and unexpected year.
Wefunder feels like a natural development and at the same time a breath of fresh air. Instead of crowdfunding, it's crowd-investing, which means that anyone who invests money owns part of the movie. Personally, I found it a lot easier to ask about investments– –where my job is to make money for other people– –than for a donation so I can give them a digital copy of the film and a t-shirt. I firmly believe that Wefunder is the way forward and that it will enable many more minority filmmakers to succeed in funding.
We started the campaign last year when we were on our way to gently prepare the film. As soon as the beginning of January came, our time was split between Wefunder and the shooting of the film. After packing, the plan was to mark the completion of physical production in early March with a big push that happened to coincide with the arrival of COVID in the states.
So began the delicate balance we wanted to achieve by asking for investment while realizing that many people were suffering from the storm of the pandemic. It only got worse when George Floyd was murdered that summer and our country got into deeper social conflict. Through our social media, we've tried to strike a balance between soliciting investments and promoting organizations and fundraising venues.
On the way to the final stages of the Post and our Wefunder campaign, we are facing a unique moment when the profitability of film festivals is being questioned and many streaming platforms are facing an impending content drought. With no sure end to the pandemic in sight, we must also face the reality that we may have a PVOD release with an extremely limited or nonexistent theatrical run. The advantage of the film is that our large format aesthetic works just as perfectly at home as it does on a big screen. Then I feel between the themes and the look of the film is uniquely suited to our challenging, divisive times.