This post was written by Leonardo Dias.
In 2020, during the first quarantine, when toilet paper was selling like hotcakes, I was low on work and I thought, “Well, now is a good time to finally start working on a passion project or to learn a new skill!”
That feeling lasted for... two days. As soon as I laid my eyes on the “Isolation Challenge” on YouTube, I was hooked and couldn't stop thinking about it. Just to clarify, the “Isolation Filmmaking Competition” from YouTuber Garrett Sammons was a do-it-yourself international filmmaking challenge, the goal of which was to create an intro sequence for a fictitious TV show named Isolation.
The sequence had to be created by the filmmaker alone, and they had to be the only person on- and off-camera. An exception was stock footage, which was allowed.
For a “Jack-of-all-trades” like me, this type of challenge makes my eyes sparkle. Check out my sequence here.
Brainstorming the concept
At the time, I was watching Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) on Netflix, so their intro with a miniature model was very present in my mind. The Game of Thrones intro sequence, which uses a CG miniature model look-alike, was also at the back of my mind.
Since I have been an architecture student in the past, building a miniature model doesn't scare me. I've built several of them and I still had some balsa wood and cardboard leftovers lying around the house. So I started flirting with the possibility of making an intro based on a miniature, and I brainstormed possible stories.
The vast majority of intro sequences don't try to tell a story; they are there to convey the mood and to give us a hint of what's to come. I could have gone that route and just focused on building a miniature and making some beautiful B-roll shots of it. However, maybe because my brain is so wired to storytelling, most of my ideas contained some kind of narrative or punchline.
Credit: Leonardo DiasSo, after a while, I got my first decent idea: an architect (whose face we would never see) is building a miniature house and, at the end, he places vertical bars on the windows, so we see that he is, in fact, building a prison. It's obviously a metaphor for us being imprisoned in our own homes.
Soon, I got my second decent idea. A regular guy is doing his morning routine for what looks like a normal day of work, except, in the end, we see that he is working from home and he didn't even bother to dress below the belt. It was a more light-hearted comedic concept with a punchline.
This idea had a small problem, though. The apartment I was renting at the time was small, old, and pretty ugly. It didn't look cinematic at all.
The next day, I had my eureka moment. What if I combined both ideas?So the architect became more like a huge god-like figure. You could think of him as a personification of the virus, God, the government, or even 2020 itself, confining people to their homes.
Credit: Leonardo Dias
Building the Dollhouse
In order to pull this idea off, I had to chromakey all the shots of my remote worker character, which meant that almost all ofthe shots of the video would suddenly become VFX shots.
And I had to try to do all of this in about a week and a half, as the deadline was approaching. I took the challenge anyway and worked as hard as I could, with a few hours of sleep.
First came the storyboard, of course, and then the design of the miniature house. As an architect, I am used to thinking about aesthetics and functionality when designing a building, but this was a very different exercise. The only purpose of this house was to serve the story and the cinematography and, since this character is supposed to represent all of us, the house had to be neutral, with no personality. I didn’t want it to call attention to itself, so building a Frank Lloyd Wright “Falling Water” lookalike was out of the question.
Credit: Leonardo Dias
Therefore, I went for the archetype, the shape that every five-year-old child draws when asked to draw a house—the gabled roof house that looks almost like a pentagon. All the divisions were then organized so that they were all contiguous with the gable wall, which would be the missing piece of the puzzle. This way, in the last shot, we can have a global view of the house and recognize every division from before, until the whole building is suddenly closed, by the god-like architect, with one simple piece.
After building the miniature, which took me about two days, there was the shooting. I used a small collapsible chromakey backdrop, which was lit by two fluorescent heads with softboxes (one on each side, to try to eliminate shadows as best as I could). I lit myself with my Aputure 120D and Light Dome, using no fill light, and always placed it where I knew the windows of the miniature house would be.
The storyboard was crucial for piecing all of this together. All of the shots were filmed in my living room, including the bathroom ones, as it was the only location where I could place the backdrop far enough from me, so it could be lit separately. The miniature shots were also filmed there, and I used a slider for the last one, in order to achieve the pull-out move that pieces everything together.
Since I would be working with live-action footage in 2D planes, meaning no 3D, I couldn’t do some crazy rotating camera moves around the miniature house, unless I was able to replicate the same move when filming myself. Since that was impossible with my gear, the camera motion had to be very subtle, like slight pans or push-ins, so the illusion of the 2D planes wouldn’t be broken.
Credit: Leonardo Dias
Then, there was the editing—and that’s where it all went down the drain.
Each VFX shot would go more or less like this: key out the green and all the garbage around the talent (which, in this case, was me). Motion track the miniature shot. Place the talent in the miniature shot and scale it. Make it follow the track. Color match and, finally, add a bunch of more “compositing magic,” like light wraps and shadows.
I also faked some extra shallow depth of field by blurring some parts of the talent, so I could achieve a more macro look. Unfortunately, all of this editing was just too time-consuming and, in the end, I couldn't deliver a decent cut in time and missed the competition. I was really frustrated.
Finally, I forced myself to finish the video and spent about two more weeks polishing the edit.
I posted it online, got some pats on the back from friends and family; but not a lot of attention. I was tired, frustrated and I didn't want anything to do with it. I didn't want to make tutorials or “making of” videos, and I didn't even know if it was good enough to be shared online.
Credit: Leonardo DiasIt wasn't until now, one year later, that I decided to reopen the project folder and start doing some behind-the-scenes stuff. I posted this side-by-side comparison on Facebook, where I showed the original chroma shot and the final shot, and people loved it. Suddenly, I had people from Israel telling me they were really inspired by my work and wanted my advice! Things like that. What impressed audiences was understanding that it was done in such a frugal way, with gear everyone can afford.
That means you can do it too!
Thank you for reading!
My name is Leonardo Dias. I live in Lisbon, Portugal, and I am a creative. I use this vague word because it's pretty hard for me to define what I am and what I do. I abandoned a career in architecture to pursue the dreams of being a filmmaker. At the moment, it's corporate videography that pays my bills. As a hobby, I dance and act, which led me to some professional gigs in those fields. I've been part of the cast of dozens of children's theatre shows, I entered a talent show in national TV and I've even hosted live shows in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, speaking English. Plus, I've written two short stories that I'd like to turn into short films in the future. So, I could say that I am a videographer, filmmaker, dancer, actor and author... But that would be pretentious and an insult to those who have dedicated all their lives to master one of these arts. I'm more of a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”≠≠