'Dog in the Woods': How to Work with Animals and Special Effects on a Limited Budget
A curious dog finds more than she bargained for in this Slamdance short.
The domesticated life of a dog can be boring stuff. As you lay endlessly on the floor of the home of your owners, time passes and guests come and go, either greeting or stepping over you as they carry on their way. You don't understand the concept of time, and everything is so routine, so black and white.
Christian Chapman and Paul Jason Hoffman's Slamdance-premiering short, Dog in the Woods, takes this literally, presenting the day in the life of a dog who lives in a black and white world. Once the front door opens and she's able to escape, she wanders into a forest that mirrors as an interstitial purgatory between Earth and the galaxies above. What she sees is curiously frightening for her and intrinsically beautiful to us, the viewer.
Complete with impressive visual effects and an oddly comforting lead performance, Dog in the Woods looks 10 times its budget, creating a world in which everything is interconnected and begging to be discovered. Part science-fiction, part day-in-the-life of a curious canine, the short is an impressive achievement of independent craftsmanship.
As the film gets set to premiere this weekend, No Film School spoke with the two directors about their canine protagonist, working with VFX for the first time, and much more.
No Film School: How did the concept for this project come about? Had you been looking to tell a story from a canine's perspective?
Christian Chapman: We’ve always loved to brainstorm ideas that involve tapping into hidden worlds, so the challenge of imagining a dog’s experience was really exciting. The concept partially came from guilt. When you’ve left your dog couped-up at home and get into thinking about how bored they must be, waiting for you to return and let them out, just watching the door…it’s depressing.
I’ve always wondered why dogs love to go outside so fucking much. Anyone who has a dog knows, it’s not just about pooping. They get high off the outdoors. Their senses fire on all cylinders. They get to be wild. We wanted to visually illustrate the invisible world that dogs are obsessed with...which is the world of sound and smell. It was also about appreciating the mystical and interconnected, beautiful yet unforgiving qualities of nature that humans can also experience.
NFS: There are several shots where we're literally seeing things from the dog's POV. What discussions did you have about when to show a subjective camera angle vs an objective one?
Paul Jason Hoffman: Our goal was to immerse the audience in the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of our canine protagonist, Alice, without literally using the camera as a POV “dog cam.” We focused on our storyboard, soundscape, and VFX as tools to get into Alice’s mind. Not only did we storyboard shots at Alice’s height (25 inches), but we also chose to focus on factors of the environment that we thought would affect a dog more than a human. We frequently use close-ups, rather than wides, to evoke the moment-to-moment way dogs seem to live life, and the intense but fleeting focus they give to certain parts of their surroundings. For example, we use a close-up of noisy pipes under the floor to display Alice’s hyper-sensitive hearing.
Chapman: Sound design may have been an even more important device to tap into Alice’s perspective. We affected the sounds of flies buzzing, lights flickering, crickets chirping, etc. to make the audience feel Alice’s supersonic, hypersensitive hearing abilities. Inside, her amplified hearing is a curse. Outside, its a direct line to nature.
"A director is only as good as the sum of the treats in his pockets."
NFS: What are some of the challenges you faced directing a dog? Did it help that she was the pet of one of the directors?
Chapman: Many of the shots we storyboarded would have been a breeze to pull off with a human actor, but not so with Alice. She doesn’t naturally stare at the same thing for more than a few seconds at a time. She has a lot of trouble repeating her actions for multiple takes. Whenever she hits her “mark” during a moving shot, it’s pure luck. Even getting her to stay in a sitting position before she gets bored and lies down is a challenge.
We learned pretty quickly that words mean nothing to an untrained dog actress. A director is only as good as the sum of the treats in his pockets. Holding her attention was everything, so it was important to keep things interesting. Normal doggie biscuits quickly become ineffective, so we had to graduate to things from the fridge like Boar’s Head cracked pepper turkey and muenster cheese. PJ’s pockets got super gross. The hardest part was that, even though Alice is my dog, she would often get very suspicious of us while we were filming and abruptly leave set. We would be left with a perfectly planned and painstakingly built lighting and camera set-up (usually Home Depot lights, makeshift chinese lanterns, and a skateboard dolly on a plank of wood) and no actress.
You can’t reason with a dog by saying, “If you nail this last shot tonight, you get tomorrow off!” It was just Game Over, very often. During these failed shoots, we used to joke that we were part of a geeky local Meet-Up group called “Film Club” since we’d spend hours assembling the shots, and disassembling the shots, without ever recording anything because... recording isn’t the point, man! (You had to be there).
NFS: How did you come to the decision to present the dog's domestic life in black and white and her "adventures" outdoors in riveting color?
Hoffman: Color served as a much-needed narrative device for this dialogue-free film, by depicting Alice’s indoor home as a stark prison-like place from which she must escape, and the outdoors as a juicy, tantalizing, hyper-saturated world in which to seek freedom. Also, the use of black and white was a little nod to the common misconception that dogs can’t see color.
NFS: Were there any challenges, visually, when you had to merge the two together at certain moments in the film?
Hoffman: Compared to most of the effects, the process of merging the two worlds was a fairly simple rotoscoping task for our crew. These frames ended up being some of my favorites, mainly because they help emphasize our theme of confinement vs. freedom. For example, there’s a shot towards the end when Alice returns home and shares an embrace with her owner at the doorstep. We shined a strong, saturated blue light onto a magnolia tree in the background, and smaller lights onto green shrubs and the yellow/red entrance to get as much color in the outside world as possible. That way, it contrasted a lot with the black and white world.
"This particular effect, the 'Owl Sound,' lasts just a few seconds, but it took almost 30 drafts to complete."
NFS: Did you have a VFX team to collaborate with? How did you detail the initial concept for the world outdoors?
Hoffman: One of our main goals was to superimpose animated elements onto the live-action footage to turn the forest into a whimsical sensory playground for Alice. Since neither of us had ever worked with VFX before, we didn’t know that the VFX process would dwarf all other aspects of making this film in terms of time.
We started the VFX phase by drawing designs onto stills for each shot, and referencing photos and videos that inspired us. Then we scoured the internet for VFX artists who were affordable, fun to work with, and super-talented. We ended up teaming up with animators from all over the world (also a first for us)–Germany, Australia, Romania, India, Greece, Bulgaria, etc. Some of the work, such as tracking and rotoscoping, was fairly straightforward and quick to complete. However, some of the complicated, abstract particle effects required many rounds of revision and direction. It became a “new normal” to have serious Skype sessions with Australian VFX artist, Andy Thomas, to work out the details of something like an exploding jellyfish deer-antlered skeletal smoke cloud. This particular effect, the “Owl Sound," lasts just a few seconds, but it took almost 30 drafts to complete.
NFS: What editing system did you work on? Was this a choice due to the extensive visual effects on display?
Chapman: We used our very slow 2011 iMac running Adobe Premiere CC. The many layers of VFX made playback torturously laggy but we made it work.
NFS: Did you shoot on-location or in a studio? Why?
Hoffman: We shot this film entirely at Christian’s house in Connecticut, where we also edited, and where our lead actress, Alice, lives. It’s always a blessing to film at a free, accessible, photogenic location. Beyond that, we have shot several films on Christian’s property since middle school, and also produced an arts festival on the land, so we were really familiar with its benefits and obstacles.
Chapman: Since Alice is never really “acting,” we tried to make her actual experience as close to the fictional one as possible. We would set up a scene in a fresh area of the forest and call her into the shot, knowing the first take would almost definitely be the best, because she’s actually excited to see it, smell it, and investigate it. She’s a very sensitive creature, so a studio environment would have totally freaked her out.