Description image

The Visual Anatomy of a Scene: 'One Click Away' Part 4

This article is a continuation of the series “Visual Anatomy of a Scene”. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. This post will conclude the series about the “One Click Away” project. I’ll discuss some creative visual illusions that we created “in camera” for the project. Although techniques involving green screen compositing are often the best solution to creating visual effects, I like to consider “in camera” effects whenever possible because they usually feel more organic and real.

Cheating Perspective

One of our most interesting challenges was how to shoot the scene where the man lying in bed at night is attacked by hands coming from beneath the covers (4:39). See featured photo at top of blog post. From the beginning, the director, Jason Satterlund and I wanted to create this effect live. Discussing this approach with the art director, Vince DeFelice, it was obvious that a fake bed with holes in the mattress (to allow hands and arms to protrude) would need to be built. I had several concerns with making this work. First, it would be very claustrophobic for two actresses to work on top of each other underneath a bed with normal clearance.  More space could be built underneath a fake bed, but it was important that the actresses be able to get maximum extension of their arms through the bed.  This would require them to be as close to the bottom of the bed as possible.

Female "choker" in position behind the re-oriented bed.

I began to ponder how we could raise the actresses up closer to the bottom of the bed without squishing them – and still provide some brief relief between takes. I was discussing with Vince the crazy idea of renting a warehouse pallet jack that could be raised and lowered as needed, when Jason blurted out “what if we built the bed against a wall instead of on the floor?” This was a brilliant solution that solved several problems at once. The cost of building the set against the wall (as if it were the floor) was no more expensive or significantly time consuming to build than a normal oriented set.  With Vince’s 90-degree design, the hand-grabbing actresses would stand behind the “bottom” of the bed. It would still be a little crowded, but they could press their bodies forward and get maximum extension of their arms. Between takes they could relax without being subjected to the discomforts of gravity.

Set re-orientation allows for "dolly back" to replace "crane up."

This clever change of perspective also saved us the cost of renting a long jib arm and a wireless remote follow focus for only one shot.  With the bed built upright against the wall, we could create the illusion of a high angle crane-up from our subjects by using our existing dolly instead of a jib arm. Our subjects simply stood upright and leaned against the bed. As a bonus, the dolly shot proved to be much easier than a jib shot to execute and repeat with consistency.

Art Director, Vince DeFelice, staples bedding in place to "cheat" gravity.

There was only one additional art direction challenge to overcome to complete the illusion. Vince had to fight gravity and create realistic folds and wrinkles in the sheets and comforter and then staple them in place – thus cheating the direction of gravity. Fortunately, Jason also anticipated this issue and cast a couple with short hair.  Long hair would necessitate extra hair styling including taping hair to the bed. Ouch!

Textured Moonlight

When discussing the mood of the lighting for this scene, Jason and I agreed that moonlight streaming through a window would feel appropriately lonely and moody. The use of “moonlight” as a light source in films is a stylized convention that audiences have learned to accept in films even though it doesn’t look realistic. Simulating real moonlight accurately would be much too dark and visually boring. Therefore, our challenge is to create moonlight that feels psychologically real. I find that a large swath of uninterrupted moonlight tends to feel more artificial, so I wanted to break up the moonlight coming through the “off camera” window.  I considered using a tree branch shadow, but thought that might be a bit cliché. Instead, I asked Vince for a piece of lace material (with a large pattern) that could simulate a window curtain.

For the moonlight, I used a 2K fresnel light with ½ CTB (color temperature blue) gel. I backed the light about 30 feet from the fake window curtain in order to get very sharp shadow patterns on the actor’s face. I did have to tilt my brain 90 degrees to get the angle of the light correct for the tilted set. When placing the light, it seemed like the wrong angle until I looked at the set through the camera. To finish the lighting, I added just a slight hint of ½ blue overall fill light by bouncing a gelled 1K fresnel into a 4 x 4 sheet of foam core. During the take, I had a grip gently move the lace curtain as if a breeze were blowing. It’s a subtle effect, but I think the slight movement and the “texture” of the light pattern added to the creepiness of the scene.

Split desktop allows room for attacker. Blue computer glow created by two Rosco light pads taped to front side of monitor.

Lens Compression and Precise Framing

Another challenging illusion was the scene where a young woman surfs the net. Suddenly, strong arms thrust out of the computer and attack the woman (5:18). We knew it would be hard to hide a body behind a computer screen. Initially, we assumed that we would have to cut a hole in a desktop to allow room for our attacker. During scouting, Jason and I used my Canon 60D camera as a portable video viewfinder to explore angles, etc. When we lined up a “mock shot” of someone sitting at a desk with a computer, I realized how little of the desk we actually needed to see to “sell” the shot. Rather than cut a hole in the desk, all we needed was a very slender desktop, just wide enough to hold the keyboard and the mouse. When we actually shot the scene, the computer monitor was placed on apple boxes closely behind the attacker at desk level. To give the illusion that the monitor was on the desktop closer to the subject, I backed up the camera and used a long lens (80mm) to compress the apparent distance between the monitor and the subject.

Precise framing and long lens compression helps "sell" the illusion. Shallow DOF helps obscure minimalist set.

The shallow depth of field of the long lens also helped to hide sketchy details of our background. We were shooting on a stage without a proper set for this scene. Originally, we planned to shoot the scene with a stylized “black limbo” background – but changed our mind when we saw it. Vince, our resourceful art director, quickly scrounged up a few elements to break up the black background. The practical lamp, in particular, adds a much-needed highlight to the background, which helps to add depth and reality. If you study the background carefully, you really don’t see much. We were counting on the brevity of the scene and the action to keep the viewer’s attention focused on the foreground.

We lit our subject with a 4’ quad kinoflo key light and a Kinoflo Diva 400 backlight – all tungsten balanced. For the subject’s fill light, we simulated light from a computer screen by using a couple of Rosco light pads which are thin panel LED lights (daylight balanced).  The light pads are extremely useful for tight areas because they are very thin (approx 1/3”) and are available in different dimensions. We simply paper taped them to the surface of the monitor. Most LED light panels are relatively bright, but rather specular and harsh in quality.  The Rosco light pads are not as bright, but much softer due to a unique “scoring” design that diffuses the LED’s. They are also dimmable, which allowed us to “pulse” the lights slightly to indicate screen changes.

This concludes the “Anatomy Series” for the “One Click Away” project. There are other projects that I would be happy to “dissect” in future posts if there is interest from readers.  What do you think? Are these detailed discussions of technique and craft helpful or educational?


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 19 COMMENTS

  • Jonathan Malko on 07.23.12 @ 1:49PM

    I’m glad you covered these effects, I was really scratching my head as to how you pulled them off so well.

    This is awesome. Thanks!

  • Randolph Sellars on 07.23.12 @ 2:56PM

    Jonathan & Mattbatt, glad you guys find the material helpful. I appreciate the feedback.

  • I enjoy the hell out of this article series. Do more please. A lot of articles on this site cover gear which is cool and important but I love seeing how it’s used and how you actually get the job done.

  • Randolph Sellars on 07.23.12 @ 4:50PM

    Jason, you got it. It make take a little while. I have to get permission from clients to use footage – not always feasible. Also, I’m in my busy season for freelance gigs in this market. I have some ideas for interesting projects and techniques to feature. Thanks for your interest!

  • Great series!most definitely do more.these tips and tricks are very helpful.i do hope you get the time and permission to do other others have said,what good is it to have all the cool gear and not know how to use it best?thanks blessed.

  • “The how to” is very exciting. More Tips & Tricks please…..real education as to how to use gear whilst devising scene creation. Great stuff…more please!

  • This series has been incredibly informative, not just in understanding this particular production but in how a professional tackles a vision.

    As provocative as the video itself.

    Thank You

    • Thanks guys for the feedback and encouragement. I plan to post more articles about the process of filmmaking. Please be patient waiting as I’m very busy with projects right now.

  • Randolph, thanks very much for being open enough and taking the time to write this series of articles. I found them very informative, and very inspiring.

    Can’t help but thinking about the ethics of the situation. Is there a line that video/film professionals, or artists, should not cross? How does each individual go about drawing that line?

    Certainly, I believe that if I’m Leni Riefenstahl, and some political party comes to me asking me to glorify them, then my hands aren’t clean if I make the film.

    So, if I personally disagree with the message of a video, I think I would have qualms about making it. But would professional ethics require that I agree to it? Compare to a doctor: if you’re against abortion, but someone wants one and there’s no possibility of referral, then do professional ethics require that you agree to it? What about if you’re a lawyer, and a person you know is guilty comes to you to ask you to defend them? Do you have to take on the job?

    I couldn’t help but think recently — one thing that makes me dislike commercial work, and inclines me towards doing weddings (despite the lower pay and associated nightmares), is that you’re potentially putting your creativity, and something of yourself, into the service of deceiving people and making a big corporation more money. You’re part of the whole con. If you like the product, then that takes away from the wrongness of it. If you dislike the product, or are neutral, then there’s a possible moral problem.

    Recently, I was approached to make a video for a beauty queen. A vapid puff-piece — not outright untrue, but another useless thing in the world. After all, it wouldn’t make any difference in the world whether she won the competition or someone else did. Well, I went ahead and made the video, but can’t help feeling a bit dirty about it — partly the thought that this is what it’s come to, that I’m now putting my skills and creativity simply at the service of gratifying someone’s ego.

    Anyway, I do hope that you’re at least neutral on the issue of pornography, or are against it. I hope you haven’t compromised yourself by making a video to promote a position you disagree with.

    • Paper_bag, you bring up an interesting dilemma for freelance filmmakers. Whether or not to work on a project that you may disagree with is a personal decision that each filmmaker must make for themselves. I think there should be “lines” that we don’t cross for moral or ethical reasons – but that line may be different for each individual. I certainly don’t believe that there is any ethical code similar to law or medicine that compels any professional artist to accept a job that they don’t want to do for any reason. I don’t have any advice on how to “draw the line” other than following your gut and your conscious. I applaud you for having integrity and not wanting to work on projects that you don’t believe in. As a freelancer who has financial responsibilities, I often find the decision challenging because I may not agree 100% with my client or product. But I also don’t agree 100% with my friends or even my wife. Most of us agree on a few core values like murder and stealing – but beyond that, consensus drops. I usually look for “real harm” done versus a difference in opinion or lifestyle choice. The older I get, the more I see issues as having a lot more “gray area” and a lot less black & white, good or bad, right or wrong. Even though I have strongly held opinions on many issues, I try to keep an open mind and understand the other perspectives. So to use your example of the beauty queen video. Would I encourage my daughter to embrace that world? No. I agree with you that it is a frivolous activity. However, I would not feel bad about shooting the project for her. I don’t see any serious harm done. Individuals should be free to express themselves however they want – even if I think its silly. Looking at it from the beauty queen’s perspective, maybe this activity really helps enhance her self- esteem. Maybe she really enjoys doing this – it makes her happy. Maybe it’s her best chance to win a scholarship to college. Who am I to judge her and tell her this is wrong? By doing the project, I can support her with her dream – even if I think she should be doing something else to boost her self-esteem. I don’t feel like I’m compromising my core values. On the other hand, if I thought she was espousing a hateful message such as racism or homophobic discrimination, then I would pass on the project. But I also agree with you that we bare some responsibility for our actions as filmmakers. The Leni Riefenstahl example is a good one. She was found innocent of war crimes, but she certainly supported and aided the Nazi regime by making powerful and effective propaganda. I believe that she crossed moral and ethical lines with her choice. In retrospect, there was clear harm done. Should she or could she have seen it coming? What would have happened to her if she quit? There is the dilemma!

  • This series has been most helpful and greatly appreciated. Do keep ‘em coming! Thanks!

  • Thank you very much Randolph
    both helpful & educational .
    I m really interested for more project of you to dissect ….
    hope to see your new post soon.

  • Randolph,

    I recently showed this at our church as a service starter (instead of a countdown). Normally, people talk right through the beginning of our service even into the praise and worship portion catching up with old friends. When I showed this, not only did it get everyones attention very quickly but there wasn’t a sound in the auditorium other than the film’s own audio. When it ended there was DEAD silence until the associate pastor made his way up to the podium, having been asked to start the service with a prayer of forgiveness, before the praise team would get up to sing. As you probably know, Adultery is #8 on God’s top 10 list and Jesus said “To look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart.” so as a Christian, porn should be a BIG no-no (or is that no-know).

    Thanks for all the help.
    Keep up the great work.

  • i was really wondering how you came about this, its soo creative. i have really learnt alot from this but i will like to leran more on lightning techniques for effective video production, thanks, your doing well, am grateful

  • Randolph, this is a superb material!!! Thanks so much again. I really became a fun of your “Anatomy of a scene”. To me, it has been a great tool, to learn and to see how other professionals took his decisions and crafted his work. Please, if you have the spirit and generosity to share your knowledge and the way you craft other projects with us, do not let to doing it. We will be so happy and great full to you, I will be. Thanks again

  • Thank you Theophilus, Hamid, Daniel, Keke, Matias, and everyone for the kind words and encouragement. I will create more “Anatomy Posts.” Realistically, it won’t be until late August or September. I’m traveling to Ireland tomorrow for a project.

  • You have very nice blog here. Only one thing what I noticed, it was very hard to find it from google (at least with my search term). You should check this: I use it on my wp blogs. It will definately help you getting better ranking in google so more traffic :)

Description image1 pingbacks