How to Complete a Large Format Film on a Low Budget During a Pandemic

Mari Walker on the Set of See You Then
In a year where the film industry has faced its fair share of uncertainty, independent filmmakers face myriad new challenges to navigate.

This year, I was fortunate enough to direct my first feature, See You Then. In the making of this film, we were able to use film formats and technologies that would have been impossible even 5 years ago and it has allowed us to meet this moment as we face a changed world.

When my director of photography Jordan T. Parrott I first began discussing the look of See You Then, we wanted a camera that would provide us with a unique look for a sub-$250K independent film. It was after watching a trailer for Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk when the revelation of filming the movie in large format took hold.

I’ve always felt it was necessary to be specific with which cameras are used for each project. I’ve filmed shorts in vertical format, 16x9, Academy ratio, and 2.40, trying to cinematographically represent the themes of the film and from whose perspective we were filming. Since the film is almost entirely dialogue, we needed a visual way for the audience to emotionally engage in the material.

My biggest concern was with a standard formatted camera, the film wouldn’t have the same emotional impact—it would almost feel more like a play than a cinematic experience. Though the movie takes place over one night with almost exclusively two characters, the events that happen are deeply seismic to the characters and their understanding of the world. I felt it was essential to have this cinematic perspective. The camera also performs very well under low light capacities which was necessary for our film.

The film has a conversational structure similar to films like My Dinner with Andre and Medicine for Melancholy, but Jordan and I wanted to tell this deeply intimate story on an epic canvas. The Sony Venice 6K allowed for this stylistic choice. We were so fortunate that Alternative Rentals was able to give us time to review camera tests of various formats, lenses, and bodies. Jordan and I came to the conclusion that filming on the Venice with K35 lenses would be the ideal look. I was interested in a clean image, something the smooth K35 lenses provided. I didn’t want to hide the fact that this film was digital. Always look for camera houses and other equipment centers who are willing to go the extra mile. They can be godsends when you don’t have a massive prep budget that can accommodate camera tests.

'See You Then' Slate Tape
'See You Then' Slate Tape

One of the most important aspects of the cinematography was to be able to create a sense of formalism in the look. While in pre-production, I was greatly inspired by studio-styled films like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, where it was more focused on the actors' faces than the background. With the Venice and the K35’s, Jordan was able to achieve a narrow range of focus that allows the audience to focus almost exclusively on the characters. It also allowed us to have less set dressing in certain scenes, allowing us to save money during production. Additionally, the 3:2 large format aspect ratio worked well for 2 characters on-screen simultaneously. We were able to create a balanced image that didn’t feel too overstuffed. The intimacy of the aspect ratio also gave us the chance for our lights and sound equipment to get closer to the actors, something that I wasn’t able to do with my first narrative short, Swim.

Imagining See You Then in large format is one thing; actually filming in large format is another thing entirely. For one, the additional amount of money it costs to film large format can be very constraining to a small budget. If you choose to shoot with a large format camera, know that you will inevitably have to sacrifice other desired pieces of equipment or even an extra half-day of filming. Jordan and I had to give up a few Titan tubes for the final scenes, and the Cinefade, a system that allows you to slowly blur out the background of a shot, giving a sense of vertigo and isolation. Like every other part of the filmmaking process, you have to find your hills to die on and getting that Venice was my first big hill.

The data size alone was an uphill battle. We had to add additional cards to the camera order and we definitely underestimated the amount of hard drive space we’d need. Initially, we had hoped we would only need 2 20TB hard drives, but by the end of the film, we had added an additional 2 20TB drives. The cards also carry shorter capacity and thus the amount of time per take ended up being challenging for some of the longer dialogue portions we had in the film, of which there were many. There were a few times when the performers had reached a great rhythm and we had to cut earlier than expected. Being an editor throughout most of my career, there have been many times where I didn’t have footage to cover a cut or movement, so I’m the kind of director who likes to have an ample amount of coverage. 

Jordan and I wrote out a very detailed shot list in lieu of storyboards and I spent most nights as we were heading into production visualizing the film in my head. A great advantage of filming in 6K is being able to master in 4K, because it gives you a certain amount of latitude to reframe or add additional movement in post to amplify moments.

Our shallow depth of field also meant the camera team had their work cut out for them. Our 1st AC, Lauren Peele, had the immense responsibility of keeping everyone in focus, especially since we shot the film almost exclusively at night, something that might not have been possible before due to budgetary or technical restraints.

Filming at night continued to pose multiple challenges for the cast and crew but one of the most difficult was our inability to walk away from locations. Each morning, the crew had to pack up all of the equipment and load out, which built an extra layer of exhaustion. Three weeks of overnights will push any crew to their physical and mental limits, much less in the middle of an extremely cold January in Los Angeles. It’s essential to care for your crew and always give every member of your team respect and understanding, especially when they’re facing such difficult shooting conditions.

Behind the Scenes of See You Then
Behind the Scenes of 'See You Then'

When we finished filming the morning of February 1st, it felt like the whole year was ahead of us and things were looking bright. While on set we began to hear stories about COVID hitting Wuhan and later Italy and Spain, but I don’t think any of us expected it would affect our everyday lives to such an extreme degree.

After we wrapped production, I transferred the proxies onto my laptop with the plan to travel across the country and catch up with all of the friends and family I hadn’t had a chance to see over these past few years. Our team went our separate directions across the US and our plan was set in place to finish late-summer or early-fall to make a festival push in the winter and spring of 2021. I had spent the majority of my time in LA editing features and shorts across genres, so it was an easy decision for me to edit the film myself. After a month of editing, Mia Schulman (our producer and 1st AD) and I were able to squeeze in a single in-person review session before COVID hit LA and we went into full lockdown.

One of the major philosophies at Vanishing Angle, our production company, is a thorough vetting process for every project. From story development, all the way through post production, every project is reviewed by many trusted eyes to make sure the film is given the greatest chance at success. See You Then would be no different.

The script had been a part of the VA workshops since I first pitched the idea the summer of 2017. Subsequently, Kristen Uno and I brought a series of drafts to Vanishing Angle’s Funlab. These review sessions were essential to many of the necessary changes that were made to the script.

Behind the Scenes of 'See You Then'
Behind the Scenes of 'See You Then'

In a normal production year, the company’s screening room is filled most nights with projects filmmakers are showing to their friends, family, and investors. We had planned the same trajectory for See You Then, but of course when COVID hit, we made the easy decision to move all of the screenings into an online forum. Certainly, no one should risk the chance of death to review a film.

That being said, it certainly hasn’t made the post process easy. In college, I found a beautiful quote from François Truffaut: “The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a movie theater is to go down to the front and turn around, and look at all the uplifted faces, the light from the screen reflected upon them.” Without a live audience to view the film, you can really only be hopeful that the editorial choices you are making are having an impact on the audience. As much as one can write down thoughts and opinions about a film after they’ve seen it, an immediate in-person response in a theater can help guide how long a shot should be or when an important character reveal should occur. I’ve found myself living vicariously through groups or families who see the film together, so I can compare emotional reactions and pacing issues.

While the lack of immediate responses has been challenging, the silver lining has been the ability to bring in a number of people from all across the country and various time zones to speak about the film. Normally, almost all the screenings are for local filmmakers in Los Angeles. It’s been a great way to include many important team members who are spread across the country.

Throughout the post process on See You Then, I’ve been almost completely isolated. On other projects, investors, producers, or fellow filmmakers would often stop by during an edit session. This type of spontaneous collaboration can often unlock something that an editor can be stuck on for weeks, a pair of fresh eyes to focus on a specific moment. Over time, we’ve found ways for our producers to view the editing process live through FaceTime, and filming myself editing.

In many ways, this has felt like the most painterly experience I’ve had in the post process. Painting has often been described as a solitary occupation, something that doesn’t exist often in the film process past writing. The greatest challenge has been maintaining perspective, particularly with such character-oriented material.

As post has continued through the Summer and we began to bring on additional members of the post team, our team created work pods to make sure people have a limited amount of exposure to COVID. If someone were to get sick, we could trace back and make sure to contact anyone who may have been exposed. I’ve been able to meet with Robert Allaire, my composer, and Lara Salmon, who was our performance artist consultant and is also writing out the credits for the film.

Director Mari Walker and producer Mia Schulman on the set of See You Then
Director Mari Walker and producer Mia Schulman on the set of 'See You Then'

Like every independent film, our core See You Then team have had to wear multiple hats throughout production and have become even more prevalent in our COVID era. Without the ability to get Jordan back to Los Angeles to do pickups, much less any of our crew, I’ve taken on the role of picking up our B-roll shots with my Blackmagic 4K Pocket Camera. I can quickly slip out on my own and not have to worry about the safety of a whole crew or how to coordinate a cam op around a quarantined city. It’s been a relief to be able to have collaborators who are able to work their new schedules around to do additional work on the film. It’s a period that offers a lot of flexibility but this time period can be difficult for goal-oriented individuals.

As we’ve continued to move towards finishing post, we also have been working on raising our final investments for Wefunder. Our campaign is ending on the 26th of August, after an extremely tumultuous and unexpected year. 

Wefunder feels like a natural evolution while simultaneously a breath of fresh air. Instead of crowdfunding, it’s crowd investment, which means anybody putting money into it will own a part of the movie. Personally, I’ve found it a lot easier to ask for investmentwhere my job is to make money for other peoplethan for a donation, so I can give them a digital copy of the film and a T-shirt. I firmly believe that Wefunder is the way of the future and will allow many more minority filmmakers to find success in financing. 

We started the campaign last year as we were heading into soft prep on the film. Once early January hit, our time became split between Wefunder and making the film. After wrapping, our plan was to mark the completion of physical production with a big push at the beginning of March, which happened to coincide with the arrival of COVID in the states.

Thus began the delicate balance we tried to achieve of asking for investment while recognizing that many people were suffering under the storm of the pandemic. It only amplified when George Floyd was murdered this Summer, sending our country into a deeper social tailspin. Through our social media, we’ve tried to maintain a balance of asking for investment, and promoting organizations and places to donate.

'See You Then' Crew Photo
The 'See You Then' crew

Heading into the final stages of post and our Wefunder campaign, we are facing a unique moment in time when the economics of film festivals are being put into question and many streaming platforms are facing an upcoming drought of content. With no secure end in sight to the pandemic, we also have to face the reality that we may end up having a PVOD release with an extremely limited or nonexistent theater run. The advantage the film has is our large format aesthetic works just as perfectly at home as it does on a big screen. Between the themes and look of the film, I feel See You Then is uniquely suited to our challenging, divisive times.     

See You Then is raising funds on the crowd equity platform WeFunder until August 26th.

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