Behind the Scenes on 'Canis Belli,' an EPIC Short Film (Part 3)
This is a guest post by filmmaker Robin Schmidt a.k.a. El Skid.
It’s been a while since I wrote part 1 and part 2 of this series and much has happened in between. For the indie filmmaker the camera buffet suddenly grew a few extra tables and it’s interesting to see which, if any, of the new cameras we’d have chosen to shoot on back in November in preference to the RED Epic.
The answer is actually none. As it happens the Epic was the perfect camera for us. For me, it’s still best to go for the best kit you can get hold of, beg, borrow, or steal, and the only other camera we might have considered was the ARRI Alexa. As much as I love being able to shoot ‘cinema’ with my cheap handycams, the fact we were shooting on Epic just made everyone a bit sharper on set. The Epic itself is actually too sharp. In many instances our DoP Ben Spence actually put filters in to pull some of that sharpness away as it can look too hyper-real. Film has a flattering quality, softening without losing resolution and the Epic can look a little too crisp. This effect is exacerbated by shooting anamorphic with all the extra vertical resolution you gain.
Our anamorphic lenses were Hawk V-Lites and they had some unusual properties. You see a distinct fall off in sharpness towards the edges of the frame and the bokeh isn’t the prettiest. However, they are incredibly kind to faces and our actors looked incredible. Canis Belli is a war film but there’s no fighting in it and we were shooting a lot of closeups. Each one a stunner.
Lighting wise we had very little with us, it was just a case of managing natural light with negative fill and the odd flag. This was as much for speed as for the fact we didn’t need actually need any since every scene was an exterior. The Epic may be many things, high speed wonder, 5K res monster, but a low light hero it is not. Shooting in the dead of winter our day pretty much came to an end at 4:30 and while a C300 could have happily shot for another half hour the Epic gave up the ghost far quicker. You just can’t push it. The V-lites are not the fastest lenses either but it was still a little frustrating to have to pack up when the FS100 shooting b-roll could see everything fine.
Dog of War
Canis Belli means ‘Dog of war’, a reference to the famous line in Henry V, and the of course the Frederick Forsyth novel. We had a dog on set. The old maxim ‘never work with animals’ echoes round your head in these moments. Our dog was film trained and very compliant, for about a minute at a time. You have to be realistic about what you can and can’t do and our visual FX team took a stack of photos to create a digital double for many of the shots. Can’t be helped, you just can’t expect a dog to sit still and play dead for five minute takes!
Almost everything in Canis Belli is shot on sticks. This was a deliberate decision. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan casts a very long shadow and we were keen to present a different vision of war that wasn’t about shaky camerawork and a hyper kinetic shutter. The camera department had the Epic on a Ronford Baker slider which made it easy to reframe a shot during a take, speeding us up and giving us an option on forward/back dollies as well, if required. The problem with a war film that’s as still as this is that your audience is now conditioned to hyper-kinetic shaky camerawork and everything feels a bit lifeless straight out of the camera.
This isn’t a problem so much as a challenge, leaning on sound design, music and editing to create the atmosphere you’re after. With large sensor camcorders filmmakers tend to place a heavy heavy burden on the camera to be the big cinematic element of their film. And there’s no doubt beautiful imagery is the most immediate and sensual element of the process, but the sound environment works in a much deeper and affective way and in our first few edits we were absurdly wide of the mark.
Finding the Music
Instinctively, when we conceived the film we knew we wanted it to have an old-fashioned sensibility, European, as if shot in the seventies. The temp music we were using in the first edits came from Man on Fire and it worked really well, but the film felt incredibly mainstream and predictable weirdly. Too comfortable for the viewer. The seventies saw an explosion in experimental filmmaking which has largely disappeared now. We wanted to inject some of that bravery into our film. So, massive titles, no dissolves, and heavy doses of atonal orchestral music. The Dawn of Man sequence in 2001 uses music by Ligeti and digging around on Spotify we found that Ligeti and Gorecki were the perfect match for the film. Sometimes it goes like that, the film just felt mundane and mainstream with the temp music but with the Ligeti suddenly it came alive, the edit fell into place and we had a chilling, unusual, powerful film that felt like the Canis Belli we’d originally wanted. You just have to listen to your instincts sometimes.
Canis Belli is a festival film and will be going out over the next 12 months. It represents a kind of manifesto for the kind of drama myself and Gez want to be known for. There are lots of shorts being made these days and we wanted to make something that stood out, that felt special and looked like we cared. I think we’ve succeeded.
For all posts from Robin on the production of 'Canis Belli,' click here.
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.’