In the wake of this year's controversial presidential election, director Luke Neumann found that filmmaking offered much needed catharsis and perspective in a time when fear, anxiety, anger, and civil unrest are at a staggering high. His short film Henosis speaks to the result of such an intensely polarizing political battle—a nation divided between party lines, outrage and frustration against fellow countrymen, and a lack of understanding for those across both sides of the aisle.
But the political message isn't the only compelling thing about this short film. No Film School got the chance to speak with Neumann about the stripped-down production of his powerful film, which was not only made entirely by Neumann and his wife Marika, but was shot in three different desert locations on RED's new Epic-W with just a single LED light and reflector for lighting.
NFS: Can you give us a little background into what motivated you and your wife Marika to make Henosis?
Luke Neumann: The 2016 election. In the weeks leading up to it, the noise just got louder and louder. No one seeing eye to eye, no one respecting people with differing opinions. Henosis was very cathartic for us. As fairly non-political people, we try to listen to every side and give merit to every opinion, including Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, non-political people, and yes—even Trump supporters. Cohesion is a pipe dream unless a mutual respect is given. It goes for all sides and all parties. People turned into animals during this election season. The short was our plea to maybe see the middle ground.
NFS: Seeing the "middle ground" is important in everyday life, but it can also be important in filmmaking. Do you agree?
Neumann: Absolutely. If your goal is to tell an honest story then you can't be too biased in any one direction. It's always good to try on the other shoe, no matter how stinky the other person's feet are.
NFS: Do you think this divisiveness between opposing political sides will change the filmmaking environment? Has it already?
Neumann: This might be naive of me, but I think the filmmaking crowd is generally a step ahead of the average person in this department. The craft itself grooms us to be open to new ideas, to sympathize with the antagonist and to find flaws in the protagonist. I don't think it will change the filmmaking crowd at all, in fact I think it will cause them to be more involved. It certainly did with us.
NFS: After some googling I learned "henosis" is an ancient Greek word that means "oneness" or "unity." How does that theme play into your short?
Neumann: It is about achieving unity, or at least attempting to. The "N" and the "O" were scaled up in the title to suggest that it is more about how we (the United States) currently have no henosis. No unity whatsoever.
NFS: Did you have a big crew, or did you keep it simple?
Neumann: Just the two of us, actually, in front of and behind the camera.
NFS: What was your stylistic approach to the cinematography?
Neumann: We wanted to keep camera movement to a minimum up until the ending, so that when it cuts to the drone shot in the forest, the viewer is almost caught off guard by the amount of movement there. The static shots throughout also helped invoke feelings of loneliness and repetition. For lighting, we kept it simple. We used an Aputure LS1S with a V Mount battery and then just a reflector/bounce.
NFS: You shot in three different desert locations. How did you prepare for that?
Neumann: Most of the planning revolved around lighting and weather. We lucked out on the salt flats as it had just finished raining but there wasn't enough moisture to make the ground soggy (which can happen in the winter). If we didn't have the right weather/lighting, we would drive on to the next location or call it a night at a nearby hotel. If we could have filmed it all in Death Valley we would have, but our pale Oregonian skin could only take so much.
NFS: How did you prepare for shooting in the middle of nowhere with access to little, if any, electricity?
Neumann: Charging batteries in the car while we drove in between locations and then making sure everything was charged at night was key. We also had to transfer footage from time to time via a laptop in the car just so we had space for the next location. We only had one 256GB card with us.
NFS: You shot the film on RED's new Epic-W, which features the 8K Helium 35mm sensor. What was that like?
Neumann: It's surprisingly good in low light. I was a little worried that punching in to 6K to get 60fps would bring a noticeable loss in image quality, but it didn't. The noise is still very manageable at the lower resolutions.
NFS: Did you see a major difference in image quality?
Neumann: Honestly? No. I mean, we have been using RED cameras for four years now. In our minds, all of their cameras have produced great images for us—these just had more resolution.
NFS: What are a few pros and cons to shooting on the Epic-W?
Neumann: Pros: Improved low light performance, LUTs in camera, proxies, and the chance to future proof the short so much that it could help put our unborn kids through college someday. Cons: Price?
NFS: Did you edit the film yourself? If so, what was your post workflow like?
Neumann: Yes, we did all of the editing, music, and grading. We edited the proxies (2K ProRes) in Premiere Pro CC 2017, then re-attached the .r3d files for grading in After Effects CC 2017. We exported that as an 8K Quicktime file with MPEG4 encoding for YouTube. The final video was about 11GB. The song was probably the toughest phase of post. It went through quite a few variations before it felt right. In a video like this, the song is almost as important as any of the visuals, in my opinion.
NFS: What advice would you give filmmakers who might want to make a politically charged film?
Neumann: Speak from the heart. What makes sense to you and what doesn't? Too many of us give our opinions away on social media. I have read very passionate and heartfelt opinions that just get lost in the fray. If you have something to say and you feel very strongly about it—use the skills you have developed to tell it a different way.