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 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.’

Your Comment


Great look into things. I'm very impressed with the great art direction!

December 30, 2011 at 8:39AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I only know one adjective.

December 30, 2011 at 8:56AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Its a great adjective to use too.

Can't wait for the second part.

December 30, 2011 at 9:11AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Tyler F

This is actually the second post in the series, the first one dealt with the inception of the piece and the next one will look at the shoot itself.

Part 1 is here:

December 30, 2011 at 12:49PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


this was great! cant wait for the next post! wonder if we will see the film online at some point...

December 30, 2011 at 9:23AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Thanks very much! Unfortunately the festival circuit demands that films be kept strictly offline so the finished product won't be available for some time yet. Next post will feature a teaser trailer which should give an idea of what the film is going to be like. Best I can do unfortunately!

December 30, 2011 at 12:50PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Yeah, I liked this much more. Very informative! Thanks!

December 30, 2011 at 10:20AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Nice article, I have enjoyed both parts and look forward to the third.

Out of interest if you were not worried about the resolution in this case what was it about the anamorphic lenses that appealed to you for this film.

December 30, 2011 at 3:54PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


At a very basic level, there's a cinematic quality with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that I love. It's a very simple thing but it gives the work a grander sense of scale. Our story is about a lone soldier venturing out into a very dangerous place and the anamorphic frame creates a greater sense of isolation. It also gives you the opportunity to use some unusual framings such as short-sided frames and lots of negative space. We were trying to raise our film away from the usual short film fare and give it a sense of scale and importance. It's a small thing but it makes a difference.

December 31, 2011 at 1:01AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Wonderful article! I look forward to seeing some more from you.

December 30, 2011 at 4:23PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Jake Kilgore

I'd never normally do this as it's Koo's site but I write a ton of material for wideopencamera, more about filmmaking in general but just did a monster series on ways of making money from it.

Sorry Koo!

December 31, 2011 at 3:42AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Hah I have no issues with posting links to other sites!

December 31, 2011 at 9:38AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Ryan Koo

Top stuff. Of course after all this I'm wondering fiercely what the short's all about (aside from trench warfare and dogs of war). Can you give us any hints or is that off-limits until the teaser? And I hope and trust your last-minute casting worked out. Viva Canis!

December 31, 2011 at 1:11AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Lachlan Huddy

The film's about humanity in warfare and notions of honour being put to the test, that's pretty much all I can give away! The teaser should give you a bit more of an idea though

December 31, 2011 at 3:41AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I'd be very interested in learning more about anamorphic lenses in general. Having been brought up purely in the digital age and mainly on EF lenses designed for stills, I probably still have a long way to go :)
The lomos link was really interesting, vintage lenses are always a cool selling point.
Do you (or anyone else) know of a good place to learn about such archaic tech? :)
Looking forward to the next write up!

December 31, 2011 at 6:59PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


As it happens I do. Andrew Reid of eoshd has done a whole guide on shooting with these, and has done a pretty decent job of showing how they can be fitted to a GH2. There's a lot of bodging to be done but you can find out more about all that here:

It's a dark dark world you're entering, cold war engineering a go go!

January 1, 2012 at 4:18AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


The best ever behind the scenes 'fly on the wall' footage I ever saw is on the Frighteners DVD. Peter Jackson put together a 3 hour making-of and right in the middle of it he includes about 40 minutes of roving camera on his sets. This guy LOVES his behind-the-scenes features. I learned so much from that documentary. Interesting factoid: during the making of the documentary, his nacent King Kong project was shut down. He was doing it as a way of getting the disappointment off his mind.

January 5, 2012 at 5:08PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM



I love the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but I wonder why you choose to shoot with anamorphic lenses rather than adding black bars in post. I know you mentioned wanting to see the final product on set, but I have always shot full frame while using guides or tape on the monitor to block off the desired final ratio. I can think of several instances when re-framing in post has saved a shot when an actor moved out of frame or the camera was slow to react to action on screen. Additionally I found it interesting that David Fincher used a similar technique with "TGWTDT" mentioned here:
Though they are referring to center punching the image and re-framing from there.

Could you elaborate on why you felt like setting those hard parameters rather than working with the entire image in post worked better for your short?

January 6, 2012 at 2:42PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Jordan Owen