David Kotkin and Glenn Cutler are the filmmakers behind the horror short film Rachel, which tells the story of a grief-stricken alcoholic who is befriended by a little girl. When tragedy occurs, he must choose between his addiction and hunting a man-eating bull shark.

The movie is symbolic of the internal struggle to stop a self-destructive habit. The shark represents addiction and Rachel represents the best part of our inner self. Kotkin and Cutler had no formal filmmaking education before making the movie.

We spoke with the duo about shooting a film with a shark using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. You can watch their short below!

How did you make the shark look so real on such a low budget?

“David is a former high school art teacher and inventor, and we learned CGI animation. While David was drawing, I was looking up technical details of the computer program,” said Cutler. “We also spent a long time creating realistic practical props and taking lots of footage on the water using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and the DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone. From there, we used detailed masking techniques in editing."

Why did you choose to film with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera?

“Originally, we paid for a crew to shoot with an expensive rented camera but did not feel that the initial footage from the camera matched our vision for the story,” said Kotkin.“Within a week, we had gone through a large part of our entire budget. We thought we were toast, but then I remembered seeing clips online of the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and felt we should give it a try. We decided to focus on shooting it as a short film and couldn’t believe that the BMPCC was just as good as the more expensive camera. And, in some cases, was far better because of its mobility.”

Blackmagic liked the short film Rachel so much that Cutler and Kotkin were invited into the “Blackmagic Collective” to showcase their movie.

“One of the key things we focused on was good lighting. We can't stress this enough. We had good lighting in the morning for about an hour before sunrise and another hour in the evening before sunset. In between those two magic hours we spent most of our time editing, preparing props, and working on visual effects. DaVinci Resolve and the Pocket 4K let us be efficient as well as creative,” said Cutler.

Rachel_still_1'Rachel'Credit: David Kotkin and Glenn Cutler

"Hollywood has the money and talent to hire the best, but we didn't see this as a disadvantage,” said Kotkin. “We turned a weakness into a strength by learning and then doing everything ourselves from DP to lighting, sound, editing, and special effects. There was no creative disconnect that often occurs between hired crew members on an independent film."

Cutler and Kotkin did a lot of research to combine practical and special effects to make things look real and not fake. For example, when a leg gets bitten off in the film, they researched how the heart pumps blood through the body and arteries. They used this information in crafting a hand pump and surgical tube system to emulate blood squirting out of the severed femoral artery. 

Kotkin and Cutler also advise anyone filming on the water to start doing cardio and invest in a good set of flippers. The raft scenes were very difficult to shoot considering one of the two crew members was also an actor on the raft. Elements such as tides, wind, and rain can make things look beautiful but can be unpredictable.

Rachel_still_4_0'Rachel'Credit: David Kotkin and Glenn Cutler

“Sometimes David had to adjust the raft while the camera was still shooting. Maneuvers like this made filming arduous at times,” said Cutler.

“At one point our DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone landed in the water. We rescued it by immersing it in rice. We weren’t as lucky when our Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera fell into the water, necessitating the purchase of a new camera,” added Kotkin.

The filmmakers wanted things to look so realistic that serious injuries occurred on set. Cutler dislocated his shoulder in one scene while the five-year-old actress Rachel whose name bears the film’s title had to be rescued from the deep dark water just before the sun had come up. But their hard work paid off in Rachel winning best actress at Festi-Short du Printemps Anglophone, a short film festival in Avignon, France.

Why did you choose to film in black and white? 

“Shooting in black and white got us a richer look and made the water scenes darker and more ominous," said Kotkin. “There is also something very primitive about black and white that relates to man versus beast, a battle that has been around since the beginning of humanity."

Rachel_still_2'Rachel'Credit: David Kotkin and Glenn Cutler

How did you get such good contrast in the characters' faces?

“Honestly a lot of it was shooting at the right time of day so we got nice lights and darks. Then with editing, we were able to accentuate the contrast and make it extremely rich. One scene we nailed was Rachel moving down a hallway on a tricycle. You could just have her go into darkness, but the scene needed to be so much more emotional than that. She had to slowly get lost in the shadows. We used an editing technique to mask an area in the hallway and as she rides into it, we gradually darkened the area, so it looks like she disappears into the abyss,” Kotkin said.

How were you able to get such powerful sound and music in the film?

“David is excellent at mixing sound and music so while he was working on that, I was out recording actual sounds of birds and splashes or whatever I felt we needed," said Cutler.

The efforts paid off in Rachel winning best sound at Festi-Short in France as well as other awards for editing.

The two filmmakers are currently in the middle of shooting Bull, the full-length version of Rachel.

“We are considering reaching out to Richard Dreyfuss, one of the famed stars in the original 1975 movie Jaws, to have a part in our movie,” said Cutler. “Plus, the bull shark in our movie is tied to the rogue shark attacks of 1916 which became the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s book and subsequent movie Jaws, so it all comes back full circle."

"One of the things we are discussing is catching a real bull shark for the final battle,” added Kotkin. “If we pull it off, it could be one of the scariest shark scenes cinema has ever seen."