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Behind the Scenes on 'Canis Belli,' an EPIC Short Film (Part 3)

05.2.12 @ 1:25PM Tags : , , , , ,

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.

Anamorphic lenses

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.’


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Description image 20 COMMENTS

  • Michael Soomon on 05.2.12 @ 1:46PM

    Awesome work guys. You should update us on what festivals this makes it into. I would love to see it.

  • “Cry havoc and let slip the Dogs of war” is a like spoken by Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. I’m unfamiliar with the ‘Dog of war’ line in Henry V. Is it one of Henry’s speeches or the Chorus? The pictures look great. Congrats. Hope you guys find an audience for this.

  • Michael Locke on 05.2.12 @ 3:47PM

    I remember you from way back (well, 2-3 years), posting questions on Creative Cow. I thought “El Skid” was risky (skiddish-sp, on the skids, etc.). Way to make something happen, with high standards and bold choices. Working for that chance…

    • Well there you go then! The proof’s in the pudding, if no-one likes the film then it hasn’t done its job, but if we do get somewhere with it then the risk was worth it. Still, nothing ventured nothing gained and all that.

  • “… we were keen to present a different vision of war…” Ever see Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” or “Letters from Iwo Jima”? Very similar to your camera work, maybe you should have done a bit more research into that!!

    • Very true, but the majority of visceral war films these days tend to have that shaky handheld feel. Also, a vision of war isn’t limited to camerawork, at least I hope not….

  • You could have shot it on a Sony f3 with S-log and a 444 recorder. Much more Alexa-like image and it can shoot in the dark.

    • Oh… and I meant to say the trailer looks great! Congrats.

      • Robin Schmidt on 05.3.12 @ 1:00AM

        I’m actually not that fond of the way the F3 comes out and it’s almost certainly simply familiarity withe the Fs100 which I own, you can trace the lineage of the two cameras through the way they look. The big thing is that the F3 has wretchedly poor over crank options. We needed 120fps at least for our do, I’d have even preferred the 200 that the fs700 gives you, so the F3 was never in the frame. Our DP had access to both Epic and Alexa and I have no regrets over our choice f camera. It crashed a couple of times at the end but restart time s very quick compared to te frustrating downtime with the RED One

        • I would love to hear more about what exactly you mean when you say you are “not fond of the way the F3 comes out”. I’ve evangelized this camera on NFS considerably as a low cost option to the Alexa. I realize it’s a bit off topic in this post (kind of camera specific) but, I’m still curious. I’m assuming you mean the look of the image but, if you have a moment, could you put into a few words just what is it about the F3 you don’t like?

          • No doubt the F3 is a very handy camera but I find the images come out a little lifeless. Even graded it feels very much like all Sony products, safe and correct but a little short on inspiration. It’s a weird thing to say I know but I never look at F3 or Fs100 rushes and think, wow. With grading of course they come alive, but Alexa, even ungraded just looks beautiful.

  • There’s a lot to like even in the trailer and that’s really saying something given the slower pacing where, unlike so many trailers, you get a 3 frame snippet before a cut, and another snippet, and so on until you feel like seizing and biting off your own tongue. Good on ya!

    Totally 100% right about the score. Totally right about the actors looking great. I’m looking forward to seeing the final piece (I backspaced out “product” because it should really be more than the sum of an admission and it sounds like you give at least two rat’s asses)!

    From a technical standpoint I’m interested in how you dealt with attaining separation between actors and the background of the trench which frequently, just by sheer virtue of their small size, isn’t really far enough away to go all velvety without working at some obscenely hard to focus aperture. So far though it looks like (and I’ve watched it a few times now) you guys did a good job minding your foreground elements and shooting things as far away from perpendicular as possible. So, like I said, I’m looking forward to seeing it!

    Good luck in the festivals! Maybe I can catch this at SXSW next year?

    • Oops. It’s 2:25am so forgive the clumsy wording. This should read:

      “There’s a lot to like even in the trailer and that’s really saying something given that the slower pacing lets the viewer’s critical eye examine the image more closely, where by contrast most trailers can hide mask their quality (or lack of) with 3 frame snippets before a cut, and another 3 frame snippet, and so on until you feel like seizing and biting off your own tongue.”

      Also wanted to add that I noticed the titles right away and thought it was a nice touch being different. I especially liked the closing JUMBO titles and probably would have dialed up the size of the others (though it’s easy for anyone to armchair quarterback that stuff, so no fault on anyone really) too, though to a lesser degree obviously. Then again maybe the final title card and credit titles would lose their weight, typeface pun intended.

      Anyhow, to bed with me. Good job keeping me up too late admiring your work. Dick. ;-)

      • It’s funny, a trailer for a short film is such an odd thing to cut as you have so much less to work with to create the tease. Fast cut trailers are fine for many films but this isn’t really one of them. Jumbo titles are very important, we wanted the titles to feel like the Kitchener poster, big, in your face, like a big gun pounding down. All this stuff matters deeply to the end impression of the film which needed to grab you and make you feel uncomfortable. We’ll see how successful we’ve been in the final reckoning I guess.

  • That’s pretty amazing. Hope to catch the short film in the festival circuit.

  • damn cool post