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Behind the Scenes on an EPIC Short Film, 'Canis Belli'

12.13.11 @ 10:14AM Tags : , , , ,

This is a guest post by filmmaker Robin Schmidt a.k.a. El Skid.

A couple of weeks ago I shot what I hope will be my last short film. The shoot began on the 4th of November, which ought to be significant for this readership in landing the day after those double announcements from Canon and RED. While the blogotwitosphere was declaring war on itself over which camera was bestest, we were going to war producing a film about war, on the camera everyone is now keen to get close to: the Epic. Suffice it to say, our interest in what the Epic could offer us was more than a little spiced up by these announcements. These are great times for indie filmmakers, or maybe they’re not so good — I’d rather see filmmakers invest their cash in their productions than in the tools they make them with, but then I would say that, since that’s exactly what we’ve done.

But before we get into all that, why bother making a short film in the first place? Lots of young filmmakers are choosing to go straight into features, learning everything they can in over-stretched budgets, over-compressed schedules, emerging battered and bruised the other side but energized by the fight. The honest truth is this: all but the tiniest fraction of these indie features are utter crap. Fine efforts given the circumstances but utter crap nonetheless. For a long time the accepted truth was that it was better to hire a director who’d done a feature than one who hadn’t, regardless of how bad it was. Having the experience of a feature behind you is invaluable. I will never dispute that. However, there are more and more of us around these days, more competition for money, less money around and I’m pretty sure that what’s going to matter now is accolades.

I’ve worked in production for ten years and with my long-term directing/producing partner Gez Medinger, touched nearly all the spheres of production it’s possible to work in. We’re highly experienced, highly diverse and, apparently, highly unfundable. Firstly, funding bodies discount any work you might have done outside of drama as evidence of nothing more than an interesting sideline. Secondly, they have no taste in the UK (a cursory glance beyond the headline triumphs reveals that they clearly haven’t got a clue). Thirdly, we direct as a partnership, and that is as appealing as genital herpes to a funding body. The fact that film is a collaborative business relying as heavily on relationships as money seems to completely elude the good people of the funding mechanisms. They’d rather invest in a lonely soul toiling for bread in an attic garrett, pounding the keys of an old typewriter, than a solid, proven, directing partnership that has made a success of every genre its turned its hands to. In other words, it’s tough right now, very tough, to get funding, of any kind.

Gez and I made the decision to commit hard to drama last year, working on a number of ultra low budget, fast turnaround projects to work out the kinks of what we did, try out a few things, and get crucial experience of working with actors. Don’t kid yourself, drama is hard, very hard. We don’t just want to be there or there abouts, we want to be really good. And we know the kind of work we want to be known for. And that brings us to Canis Belli, a script initially written in 2006 and then brought to life, mainly by Gez, in Spring 2011. We wanted to do a festival film, the kind of piece that would set us apart from the myriad DSLR indie filmmakers now popping up everywhere. We wanted to do a piece that demonstrated the kind of drama we value which is this: drama which delivers a nuclear payload of emotional destruction. We like films that really stick the knife in and make you feel something.

Canis Belli is a period piece, set in the trenches of WWI:

Instantly alarm bells start ringing. How on earth are we going to do this? And that’s good. It’s hard to do period and that’s exactly why we wanted to do it. Short films always suffer from needing to establish a huge amount in a very short space of time which is why you invariably see films about breakups, holdups and kids. We didn’t want to do any of that, but most people have seen a decent number of war films and, by a singular stroke of luck, Gez happened to find the perfect location in Ipswich. And he managed to find it for the perfect price. In terms of making an impact at festivals, shooting a period piece set in the first world war is probably not going to hurt us. As close as just four weeks before we actually shot, there was no guarantee that we actually were going to shoot. We had to decide on what camera we were going to shoot, who we were going to cast, what lenses we were going to use, how much we were prepared to spend on it. And much much more…

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.’


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 48 COMMENTS

  • Seems like a cool project, but that is one of the most boring BTS ever.

    • yeah bts was meaning less. but I suppose that is what you get for instant bts. The film isn’t even done yet (i’m guessing since they started shooting nov4) so the BTS is a far after thought. but should have cut it in half, cuz that is all I was wiling to watch.

      • Totally, all our energy went into making the film. However, if you check the title of the video it’s called ‘On-set’ footage, not ‘Behind the scenes.’ I’ve made a ton of BTS films for the BBC and this is not anything of the sort. There’s tons of ‘on-set’ footage on and that’s all we were after. I’ve seen plenty of this kind of ‘meaningless’ footage on commercial dvd’s, and personally, I get a huge amount from it. I learn something completely different from simply watching people work than hearing them talk about their work.

        • Thanks for doing this. Personally I like the on set stuff. If the internet has become the arm chair film school then its important to have real footage like this, just as if you were standing there holding a cup of earl grey for the director. There’s nothing to replace the purely observational experience but clips like this help. You get an idea of crew numbers, interaction, positioning, workflow and just how much time and effort it takes to get a few seconds of footage.


    • Not a very enlightening comment.

      Seriously guys… it’s the first in a series. Take it easy.

    • As Ryan says, this is the first in a series, if all you’re interested in what settings we used on the EPIC then this probably isn’t a post for you, but if you’re interested in seeing how quickly we put together a period shoot then you might indeed get something out of it.

  • Got high hopes for this one, for sure. Both film, and Robin.

    If anyone’s interested, I’m also in post production on my period EPIC short film. Take a look for screenshots, behind the scenes, VFX tests:

    /shameless plug

  • Panasonic AF300 S35mm on 12.13.11 @ 2:00PM

    I like the dog .. lol

  • very nice production!!

  • As a novice to filmaking I found the behind the scenes (I hate fucking anagrams) to be very enlightening. Without there even being much cohesion to the edit for it I was able to learn quite a few things about productions of this nature. I wish more productions showed the raw work behind the production rather than some “edited with purpose” expose of what happens behind the lens. Good luck and hope your film turns out great.

  • Is it just me or has nofilmschool started sounding like it’s thumbing its nose at DSLR film shooters? Just saying : )

    • Looks great, can’t wait to see the final product.

    • JC Monaghan on 12.13.11 @ 9:12PM

      Being a DSLR film-maker surely isn’t anyone’s endgame? I know that my endgame is to be a film-maker, just a film-maker. Right now I’m (apparently) a DSLR film-maker because I’m limited by my available budgets, not because I want to be, but as soon as I can afford to I’ll shoot on a camera which is designed to be filmed with.

      It’s a constant battle between me and my 7D to get a usable image, I have to limit myself creatively to avoid the flaws of filming with a camera not designed to be filmed with – aliasing, moire, rolling shutter, separate sound, etc.

      It seems alien to me that someone would think that aspiring to greater things (I’m referring to shedding creative constraints, not buying fancier cameras!) is a bad thing?

      • Don’t let other people define who you are. If have the chops, than you are a film-maker.

      • errr, how is seperate sound a flaw??? isn’t that the norm of high end work?

        • True, not so much a flaw as a challenge, but it’s a pretty major one.

        • JC Monaghan on 12.14.11 @ 10:03AM

          Yeah, sorry. I shouldn’t have said that separate sound is a flaw, I should’ve said it’s a massive pain in the arse.

          • On larger shoots you run dual system sound regardless. You can run it into the camera if you want, but the sound crew tends to want to have it to their own control, without any of the additional compressing or limiting that the camera may add.

            And without a separate sound recording, we wouldn’t have great bits like Christian Bale’s behind the scenes freakout! :)

      • Why would you define yourself through technology? That seems at odds with being an artist. There are a few pros working with DSLR’s who are producing some really nice stuff, Shane Hurlbut comes to mind and Danfung Dennis who was just nominated for an academy award.

        There seems to be this prevailing attitude that in order to be a ‘filmmaker’ you need to upgrade to a non DSLR camera, this is wrong you need to upgrade your craft.

        A part of this problem maybe that we just haven’t seen that many examples of good filmmaking with DSLR’s. Camera reviews and two minute clips on Vimeo don’t really count but there are a few exceptions.

        • I don’t think anyone should define themselves through technology… but in order to pick the best tool for the job (and use it correctly), you have to be educated about it. I still have my DSLR and am going to use that for some shoots… the RED for others. Neither “defines” me. And I think we’ve seen plenty of good DSLR films…

          • The ‘best tool for the job’ phrase is used a lot these days. I interpret this as the ‘job’ is paid and you have to select the right tool. So when I say there is a lack of DSLR films that are good examples of paid work I mean just this. Yes, there are plenty of nice clips on Vimeo that look beautiful but are you going to get paid to make them outside of companies like Kessler?

            Of course my assumption is that most want to make a living as a filmmaker, but given the clips we celebrate and the obsession with gear, I feel that this message misleads people into thinking all you need is the latest equipment and a Vimeo account to make it. The reality is of course much different.

            So of all the good DSLR films you have seen I’d like to know what was good about them and why? Were they good because they sold 1000 sliders? Were they good because they told a story, highlighted a social issue, evoked some emotion or visually developed a character? How did they get you closer to being a full time filmmaker?

          • They were good because they told a story well. Tiny Furniture, Rubber, Hell and Back Again, Like Crazy…

    • I guess it depends what you’re looking for from the site. I’ve always enjoyed reading it because Ryan’s development seems to be heading down the same path as mine, questioning the same kinds of things, looking for the same kinds of opportunities. DSLRs have been a massive bonus in terms of wringing the necks of our crippling budgets but I don’t think it’s wrong at all to talk about the next step, pushing forward and bridging the gap to more mainstream professional work. Don’t get me wrong I love DSLRs and continue to shoot on them, but for this job, the camera was only as important as the script, the actors, the production design, the production management, the hair and makeup etc…. Not more, not less.

  • Ryan Elliott on 12.13.11 @ 6:46PM

    It looks amazing! did a fantastic job doing the recreation

  • “I shot what I hope will be my last short film” – why? Many well known directors still shoot shorts because they realize how powerful the format can be.

    Many believe that you aren’t a true filmmaker until you shoot a feature, which is utter bull. You make a film for the story, and if the story demands a film of a feature length’s duration then so be it – but if it doesn’t then don’t stretch it. Shorts aren’t taken seriously enough, which is a shame – because it can be such a powerful medium.

    Starting your article with “I shot what I hope will be my last short film” wasn’t a good choice – rather contradictory actually,

    • Hi Kyle, you raise a very good point and it’s worth addressing because it’s a very real problem. I have no issue with the format at all, in fact I really like short form, it’s challenging and liberating, but equally it’s very frustrating. Pulling the funds together to shoot a piece that isn’t just done on a wing and a prayer, that you actually have some control over, is a pretty painful business. We funded this one ourselves and I won’t see any financial return on the outlay. None. That’s absolutely fine, but I can’t continue to self-fund. The funding schemes in the UK have all but disappeared in the last two years with only a very few projects seeing any large scale financial support, so you have to do it yourself. If I could make a career shooting short films then that would be fine, but really my career options are TV or feature films. I would take either. The counter argument is that, with all the gear we now have you should be able to shoot way more for way less. Yes. And no. The camera doesn’t operate itself, you still need people and HR costs money. I refuse to ask people work for free. I’m perfectly capable of ‘slumming’ it shooting on a shoestring, but you know what, I’ve done it, and it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I directed a one hour pilot for another production company last summer and, while learning a huge amount, the biggest lesson I learned is that I never ever want to work like that ever again.

      So, starting my article with ‘I shot what I hope will be my last short film’ is no slight on the short film medium, merely a statement of intent regarding a career in which I hope to be earning a living doing what I love, not squeezing it in at weekends funded out of my own pocket. Far from being contradictory, I hope you see that this is a big gamble/investment in my own future, in which I can at least continue to work in drama.

      • I completely understand. But, hopefully, you won’t brush off shorts forever – maybe once you’ve made it big you’ll rediscover its power.

        If advertisements never replaced cinema’s supporting program then maybe shorts would have still been a viable investment/endeavor. Sad really.

  • Great article.keep them coming.and yeah,i love the on set stuff of guys working than just people talking about their work!but then again,if they do show the work and talk about it,thats even better.May be a bit longer and boring to others but am sure a few of us will be well informed and educated.

  • “Secondly, they have no taste in the UK (a cursory glance beyond the headline triumphs reveals that they clearly haven’t got a clue).”

    Care to elaborate?

    • Let’s start with this number. Cinema Extreme funded it, and while I don’t have the exact budget, they were funding up to a maximum of £50k. First time I saw this was during a Film Council showcase on the best work they’d produced that year. I may just be a complete idiot but one of the criteria of this scheme was that it ‘expects applicants to demonstrate how they will make a successful transition into cinematic storytelling, and how this film will enable them to take the step into directing features.’

      Now, I’m not saying all the work they were involved in was ass, but so much of it was underwhelming I just got fed up of bothering to apply anymore.

      • I’d have to agree with this view – unfortunately. I’ve seen some really great stuff produced under various UKFC funding schemes, but I’ve also seen far too many horrendous wastes of money. God knows how they can justify the amount that was spent on the films produced under some of these schemes – the film Robin has highlighted served no ‘cinematic storytelling’ purpose and simply provided its director with an expensive music video showreel.

        Admittedly, there may be some bias in my outlook as I’ve made many (unsuccessful!) applications for funding, and have also given up with that route. That may be telling me something, but it’s best not to dwell on that possibility! Not wishing to self-promote, but if anyone does want a watch of our latest (£350) epic, it’s here (and strong feedback is greatly appreciated!):

        Robin – how are you planning to use this film once it’s completed? Are you going down the festivals route? (and is this going to be detailed in another post…?)

        • Yeah, we definitely made the decision to play ball and do a ‘festival’ film, whatever that means. So, submitting to a select group of festivals with the aim of earning a few stripes along the way. There’s no guarantees in any of this but it’s just a necessary step to gaining cred. Hopefully I’ll be able to persuade Koo to let me do an update if/when we pick up some laurels.

  • Excellent post. I enjoyed the video too. Looking forward to updates.
    After just making a very long short film myself (low and behold it ran so long we now have to plan on entering it as a feature in many festivals), I appreciate the struggle that you detailed; although I’m based in Brooklyn, NY, we had to really plan things out and stay inventive in order to raise some money and get things done. I understand your whole mentality, and it is quite frustrating out there. We initially wrote the film as a longer short, it read well as a shorter script and we thought it would clock in at around 30 mins or less, but it ended up running over (you never know I guess). Competing with higher-money features in US festivals can be tough, and since this is our first ‘real’ project (and our most ambitious), we though shorts were the way to go. Either way it’s great when you are able to achieve something.

    The fact that you are shooting on location and seem to be telling a different kind of story in your short (war, WWII), I am excited to see the outcome, also because of how legit everything looks and that camera can’t hurt of course! The challenge of narrative in short form, as well as the period stuff, as well as everything else/problems too, will definitely keep helping you guys get better and better and more notice.

    • Forgot to say that shorts deserve more respect! And this is a brave and exciting project. I think you can help people to take shorts really seriously too.
      Good luck and all the best.

      • When you do this kind of film the first instinct is to default to Saving Private Ryan style. We didn;t do that and watching the first cut it felt like we really should have done. And yet, and yet, that’s about the sound design, the editing and the bravery in sticking to the original vision and idea. We know the story’s pretty good, but the edit has never felt so important with this one. We’ll be posting a little teaser with the next post as I think it’s important for people to see what exactly we were going for with the shot selection and the style in particular. Drama’s really tough… but really rewarding too.

  • Good job guys, all this work and all this posts keep me motivated!!!!

  • I also appreciate this. Thanks for posting. I guess since I enjoy production, and being a camera operator and a DP, I love the “on the set” environment, and appreciate when I see other filmmakers at work doing what they love doing, and working hard at achieving magic :)

  • Thanks for posting. I have a few questions.

    1. What camera slider did you use for the shoot?

    2. Did you shoot with the original Hawk V Anamorphics or the Lite version? And also did you shoot with the 1.3x squeeze or 2x and what are your impressions?

    Thanks again!