Filmmakers Will Blank and Jake Bradbury decided to get together one day a week to conceptualize and shoot a film, just for the hell of it. In the process, they found it to be a potent cure for struggling filmmaker malaise.
After having been friends on and off since they became video sensations in college, Blank and Bradbury reached a point that most of us face – being stuck in a soul-crushing job and not getting to make films.
Actually, they tried for as long as they could to prevent that from happening, even dedicating an entire year to entering film contests. (Once, they won an electric meat smoker!) Eventually, they made successful short films, too, but by the time the money and energy wore off, it was time to get to the grind. Then, nine to five jobs in the industry and not getting to do anymore cool solo stuff.
And it could have been still going that way, if they hadn’t met up one Sunday and decided, f*ck it, let’s shoot something so detailed it’s good, but so short it’s possible! The result? A comic short-short series of 16 films shot in 16 days about loneliness in the modern age called 20th Century Faux. Here's my favorite:
Blank and Bradbury sat down with No Film School to explain their motivations and how other filmmakers can try to do the same. (And why you should!)
NFS: There's something really interesting about having this limit of a film that you come up with that can be enclosed into one day. Beyond what made you laugh, is there a way that you would know what idea would be possible within this one day?
Blank: There were a couple of different approaches to coming up with ideas, and one of them was to look around the room, generally my house, and pick a prop, essentially, and then try to weave a story around the prop. So for The Wizard, which is the one where Jake gets punched in the face repeatedly by me...
Bradbury: A crowd favorite.
Blank: ...I had just bought that PS VR headset, and Jake pointed it out and was like, “Yo, why don't we, you know, why don't we try doing something with that?” And then the other way was just talking about what happened to us this week. You know, just small interactions that we would have with people at work, or out in the world.
Bradbury: We were always interested in taking mundane things but making them hyper-realistic. We wanted to take these small, little things and blow them up into giant moments. It just kind of makes the audience, and us, more aware of those moments.
NFS: What would you say is the bare bones of what you needed, that you required for your production?
Bradbury: Well, we both owned equipment and our DP Alejandro Wilkins, who's an amazing DP, has equipment as well. We have a camera, we have a shotgun microphone, we have some lights, maybe a 1 x 1, maybe a light panel, but really we make do with whatever we have on hand that day.
Blank: Sometimes it's literally just the camera. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is the one where I'm waving at Tracy, that one was literally just the camera and there was no sound. After the fact, I recorded all of the foley separately. And that was even an aesthetic choice because it makes the sound so much more crisp and present than if you're just trying to blast on set with a shotgun mic. So it didn't take much.
Bradbury: I'm glad we're getting to be able to talk to you, because part of what we wanted was this idea of, "Yeah you can just go out and do it." We're so used to a world where we have to plan for months to do something. We have to get the funding together, we have to get the actors together, to get the big crew together. But to just come together and make something, it's so fun. It made me fall in love with filmmaking.
In terms of crew, it was literally whoever would show up that day. So sometimes we had two people, sometimes we had five, at most.
Blank: Whoever wanted to be on camera, however we could fit them into the story that was being constructed, everybody was a player.
Bradbury: How High was just basically people coming over and us being like, “You're going to be in a piece now.”
Blank: Yeah, and they didn't even know that when they came over.
Bradbury: One of my favorite things to do when I'm hanging out with people is making a movie because it's such a great bonding experience. You get to hang out, and something comes out of it.
NFS: After shooting a concept in one day, what was the process like editing it? Was it still just as much fun? Were there problems? Did you still constrain yourself to parameters, like, to finish editing in a certain amount of time or anything?
Blank: There were rules in the production but there were no rules or constraints in the post-production, and that was really the hard part. I assistant edit during the day, and so I'm already grinding it out in front of a computer. And then I would hit the weekend, and I would need one day to do laundry and get groceries and have the basics of my life covered.
And then I would have Sunday, which in theory should be my day off, to then figure out a piece that definitely, definitely did not always have all of the pieces we needed. Because we were shooting so quickly, we're not thinking things fully through. We try to get all the coverage we can on the day, but there were a lot of times when we got tired so we start cutting shots. And then we had to try to fit it together after the fact. Sometimes we'd come up with the better version after we saw the first edit and we're like, “Oh man, I wish it could be this way, or that way,” and then we would just aggressively manipulate the footage to be that new, better version.
Blank: And sometimes that was really painful to do, because it meant like, reversing footage.
Bradbury: We also had a couple where we had an idea for it, we executed that idea, and then we showed it to people, and they didn't get it, they were like, “This makes no sense.” So we had to redo the entire video in the edit room to do a different idea that worked better.
Blank: With the same footage! And so everything was coming together in the editing room, and it was often really painful, but also incredibly rewarding.
Bradbury: There were no failures, that's the thing. We only abandoned one video, which we may or may not release, because it's ridiculous. But all of them have their merit, and we never know which one is going to be people's favorites. That's my favorite part. We show them to a bunch of people and it's always a different one that's someone’s favorite. So that makes me feel like we're doing something good, and something right.
"...you’ve got to just let yourself suck."
NFS: I think when filmmakers read this, it's something that will sound exciting. There are so many of us who are either bogged down in our jobs or have a lofty, 90-minute period piece that we've got in our heads that we just never get around to making. But the idea of setting yourself this goal to do something short and achievable to refresh your creative process is very exciting. So based on what you’ve figured out, what do other filmmakers need to have or do or emulate to try this as an experiment themselves?
Blank: I think the camera is way less important than having the ability to record quality sound, and you can get a pretty decent shotgun mic for $200 bucks, I think, these days. I think what I've learned is that we could have shot a lot of these on an iPhone maybe but still using quality sound and trying to put together a coherent story...the edit, like, that's what makes it achievable.
Obviously there are a lot of shots in our stuff that requires a macro lens or something. But you know what, to be honest, you can get that on an iPhone. I just don't think you have to be super tied to shooting on anything. Actually, we shot "Any Given Sunday", which was the very first one, on a Red camera with Zeiss lenses, and we put all this money in because we were like, “Hey if we're going to do this little short wouldn't it be great if it had really great production value too?” And then between the others, they can't tell the difference. Like, it didn't really help us that much more, and it didn't look so much more amazing than my Black Magic, or another lower-end camera. I think that's, from a technical standpoint, what I think.
Bradbury: The one technical thing, I would say buy and play around with diopters. Diopters, you put them on the lenses and it’s like for macro photography, but it just throws the background out so much more, it blurs the background so much that it's just a really good technique.
Blank: It makes it look more cinematic. But from an ideation standpoint, of coming up with the ideas, you just gotta do it.
"It made me fall in love with filmmaking."
Bradbury: It's a muscle. Everybody has those friends who they hang out with and they're like, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did this, man?" You're just like, eating pizza, hanging out. And they only difference is that we know what it takes to make something, so we know how we can limit ourselves to make something then and there. So it has to be a small cast, it has to be no crowd scenes. You can shoot it right where you are, or in your neighborhood.
Bradbury: There are restrictions that we have learned throughout the years that we self-impose to make it happen. But in terms of ideas, just get together with your friends and sketch out a bunch of ideas that you can shoot immediately, and then treat it like a film. You know, go through the process. That means sound editing, that means mixing. You know, don't just put something out to put something out, because everyone can do that. Everyone can put something out to put something out. If you do this short little thing, but you paid really close attention to the details, then it'll elevate it, I think, above the rest of the stuff coming out.
Blank: The last thing, as far as ideas go, is I think you’ve got to just let yourself suck. It's funny because I've gotten that advice, I've read that advice, I've seen it. You have to understand that if you're a perfectionist and you're waiting for the perfect film to make something, you're robbing yourself of going through the process, determining what your aesthetics are, what you like, what you don't like. I was surprised at how much I defined my own aesthetic in running through these things with Jake. I realized what I gravitate towards as a filmmaker, and that was cool, and now I’m bringing it forward to everything that I do.
Thank you, Will and Jake!