Behind the Scenes on 'Canis Belli,' an EPIC Short Film (Part 2)
This is a guest post by filmmaker Robin Schmidt a.k.a. El Skid.
The first part of this series brought out some strange, and unexpected reactions, mainly fuelled by the ‘on-set’ footage we put together. We didn’t shoot a behind the scenes doc because this is a short film, and, well, putting together a documentary that’s as long as the film itself seems like a bit of overkill. We will eventually shoot some interviews with the directors, the actors and the composer but these are purely for the festival packs and will be very very short. I spend a lot of time scouring makingof.com for ‘on-set’ footage of films because it gives me the best understanding of what’s actually going on. It’s nice to hear people talk about their choices but I like to see the set at work, observe the bodges and workarounds that crews come up with, and see how the director works. Some of you objected to the ‘on-set’ video. Cool. We look for different things! I’ll try and give you a bit more of what you want in this post...
Epic or Alexa? Which one would you pick? In this instance, you can have either. Our DOP Benedict Spence is part owner of an Epic and is invested in a rental house with Alexas. Which one? No-one has a bad word to say about the Alexa, the Epic has seen some high profile negativity and this site in particular blew up over the PB Double J incident. The Alexa is the solid choice, it can now shoot up to 120 fps, it shoots direct to ProRes, it’s universally praised for being the best alternative to film there has ever been. So, naturally, we chose the Epic. Why? It boiled down to the 120fps being available on the Epic but not on the Alexa we had at our disposal. I’m not fussed about the 5k vs 1080p debate. It makes no difference if your film is being screened at festivals on a dvd at 576. So, Epic it was. Just on a side note, our first choice was actually S16. The format is great, both Gez and I loved the look, and you can score incredible deals on the gear these days, but it was still going to cost us the best part of a grand more than using the Epic all told. So ultimately we made the decision it was better to put that budget up on screen. To add to that, we also had a decent number of visual FX shots to put in this film and the more we talked about it, the more we wanted to steer away from the gritty hand-held war film look so it ultimately wasn’t a difficult decision to make.
Next. Lenses. Very quickly we were looking at anamorphic lenses for a 2.35:1 final aspect ratio. Lots of filmmakers crop their films in the edit to achieve the same thing and it tends to make films look a bit more cinematic. At least with anamorphic lenses you’re shooting for the format and not binning useful picture real estate. A wider frame isolates your characters more and gives you lots of negative space which is precisely what we wanted. Really, there were only two choices, vintage Lomos or the Hawk V-Lites. The Lomos have a very distinct character to them and would have been my first choice but for one problem, namely that the set of Lomos available came with a widest lens of 50mm – not wide enough we felt to shoot in the cramped spaces of the trenches. So the Hawks (pictured) won it. A more modern lens, they deliver a really beautiful image with a very strange bokeh as you’ll be able to see from the images. It’s not what I’d call beautiful and you tend to get a very strange fall-off around the edges of the image. Watching the monitor on the day what you really noticed is how kind the lenses are to the human face. Everyone looked good on camera. Which is a nice place to start.
Budget, Casting, and Location (Problems)
As I mentioned in the first piece this was a rapid turnaround job for us with the unexpected filip of the perfect location prompting us to commit and get the film made in just over a month. Gez had found a purpose-built trench system with German and British lines, no-man’s land and a full complement of uniforms, weapons and period props. Lucky. Very lucky. The next problem was to populate the screen with the right cast. You hear this time and time again, casting is everything, and it’s the part of the process that I just hate. There are a lot of actors in London and many are very capable but that’s not what you’re after when you’ve got $8k of your own money invested in a project. After our first round of casting it was clear our lead character was nowhere to be found. We made the decision to aim higher and go for a ‘name’. You don’t audition people at this level, you call up, make an offer and then hope they go for it. Fortunately, a really good one said yes. He was a former child star who was starting out on his adult career and he was really, really good. Three days before we were to shoot he pulled out after winning a part in a major TV series.
Pull the plug, or carry on? The argument in favour of pulling the plug was a strong one, minimize our losses and wait for our actor to become available, we were going to be spending a lot of our own money and it made no sense to rush if we couldn’t get the right cast in place. Equally, when you’re in the thick of pre-production and you have the momentum going you want to see it through. Rescheduling wasn’t something Gez or I really wanted to contemplate. So we scheduled two more actors to audition last minute. Only one of them turned up. We cast him. Two days before the shoot. The next day, after a week of chasing our location contact, we were told there was a dispute over monies owed by the feature film that had been on set before us, and the location was being shut down indefinitely. It was 3pm and we were leaving at 6am the following morning. We asked our location contact to have one last try to persuade the landowner to make it possible for us to shoot. He agreed, but thought there was no possible way the landowner would change their mind. So the day before the shoot, at the critical call sheet sending-hour, we were 98% certain we were going to have to pull the plug, and end up $2k down on costs we’d already incurred. Until we knew for sure though, we were going to act as if. So when cast and crew rang, we told them all was great, despite expecting to have to call them back shortly and tell them it was off.
But at 4pm we got the call – somehow the right strings had been pulled and the landowner had agreed to let us film. Time to email that call sheet.
Next time, the Epic on set and low-light condundrums…
Stay tuned for more posts from Robin on the production of 'Canis Belli.'
I’m Robin Schmidt, also known in music video circles as El Skid. I’m a freelance director, editor and latterly cameraman, as well as doing all sorts of other bits and pieces like graphics and voiceovers. I’ve been working in music video, corporate and extreme sports up till now but my big love is drama, which is easily the toughest directing game to gain any kind of foothold in. Earlier this year I won the Bahamas 14 Islands Film Challenge and earned the right to work with Canon as a pro envoy for video and convergence (a fancy term for shooting on DSLRs). I was also named one of Moviescope Magazine’s ‘One to Watch.’