I know it’s been a few months (wow 4 already? geezum…) but I thought it would be great to leave a few thoughts about my first experience putting together a film. And yes, this is technically the ‘theatre’ section of my website, but whatever; it was adapted from one of my plays so shut up– who asked you Steve?
For those who don’t know, about a year ago Alex Schmidt and I thought that play from a couple years ago would make a great little film and were asking around to see if anyone would be interested in making it. Literally within a couple weeks of starting this search, Nick Douglas at Slacktory saw the filmed version of ‘The Following is Based on True Events (from a Video Game),’ then asked out of the blue how I would feel about adapting it as a short film for Slacktory. Awesome! I was nervous about doing so much myself, but knew if nothing else it would be a huge learning experience (surprise! It was).
We filmed it in January, then my year got crazy busy, and I did most of the editing/VFX in the month of August, trying to get it out before The Sims 4 but missing by a couple weeks. Still! What a thrill, and I’m all warm and fuzzy from the responses of the nearly ten thousand hits it has gotten (wow! that’s gotta be at least a thousand percent more people than those who saw the play version!) Anyway, I talked about some filmy stuff during the process at my friend’s website, Filmpunch here, but for myself and anyone who’s curious, here’s my pro and con list (also know as my Hoorah! and Blech…list) looking back at the whole process:
Stuff that worked well:
— using high quality lapel mics. That made a big difference! Nothing makes something visual seem unprofessional quicker than low-quality audio.
— playing with lines and ideas in the moment. It’s fun! And sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and something in the moment makes a scene far better than it was as written. For example, I liked all the ways we played with the puppet and the joke. Also the weird creepy angle through the chairs.
— using greenscreen to capture a lot of different angle. We were able to get a lot of cool shots and coverage that would have been hard or impossible without greenscreen.
— mix of real and digital props. It was fun making stuff appear and disappear. It also helped with aligning the backgrounds to have multiple real world things that defined the perspective. In the future, it would be cool also to have a virtual, greenscreened prop.
– rendering in 3ds max. Heck, I can’t believe I did it all in mental ray (vray is my preferred render engine). It was nice to have 3 layers– ambient occlusion, beauty pass, and global illumination pass. Blending those also gave me some nice options. And very subtle, but I was able to increase the intensity of the shadows while the night goes on. Hooray for things no one but me will notice!
— Keep GUI stuff as a separate layer. Admittedly, it was a little tricky to deal with some 1 or 2 second cuts done at the last minute to tighten the film, but there was a nice clarity of purpose to having this entire ‘second layer’ of story being independent of the rest of the film, and I think it kept the realtime-playback fairly smooth.
— use actors like TJ and Mike. It was really great to re-unite with these guys. Consummate professionals, they knew their lines, and we already had a rapport that made it very easy to have fun with them on set and still get stuff done within our allotted time. It’s nice to have some known quantities within a super-new process.
— use Production Assistants like Alex and Nick. Not only do both of these guys have more experience in film-making than me, but they’re also just sweet, generous patient guys. On the day of filming, Nick took care of audio, and Alex did odd jobs from fixing the green screen to running out to buy burgers (which are surprisingly hard to get at 10 AM). When I was deep in editing, they were both super helpful with getting me to make some hard choices. Surround yourself with good people and good things will happen.
Stuff I would do differently next time:
– tracking dots: either make them bigger or don’t have them at all. Tracking dots exist to replicate camera moves for chroma-keyed backdrops. I assumed they’d be easy to get rid of. BOY WAS I WRONG. I made them too small, and basically that meant that there was no ‘automatic’ way to get rid of them. In fact, I was trying to get rid of so many (using the 4D clone brush in After Effects), that in the end I seemed to overwhelm After Effects to the point where I had to render out the video, remove more, dots, and then repeat that again!
— rent or borrow higher quality cameras. I’d really like to work with true HD, and not have issues like an unfocused camera (though that was totally my fault.) Using something like a 4K camera also, for example, allows for some zooming/panning within a steady shot while still maintaining HD quality. On a similar note, it would be great to have a real cinematographer, you know, with a sense of composition and stuff like that (not my strong suit, never will be).
— don’t use real light… I kind of knew this would be a problem from the start, but we had a skylight in the apartment we were filming, and of course that light was inconsistent, sometimes changing drastically in a single shot.
— Only chroma key the final shots… I thought I was going to save myself some time by setting up the chroma key and digital backgrounds for ALL of my coverage (3+ hours with two cameras), and I figured that this would be great because instead of inserting the backgrounds for the same angle 5 times, I would only have to do it once per angle. The problem was there were all sorts of subtle little changes during the longer takes and background would get slightly (or a lot) off. Further, sometimes it was very difficult to identify the take I needed to fix something in, and I would end up fixing background elements for three or four takes that I was not actually using in the final cut. Further due to this, the Adobe After Effects files soon became too large and cumbersome to smoothly work with. Next time: lock the final cut without special fx, then one shot at a time go through and set it up. For the multiple takes, just copy the precomps across the different shots. And just… don’t make a lot of changes later! Front load the visual decisions.
— use the greenscreen techniques I learned on Starship Ickarus. I was brought onto the cracked.com web series Starship Ickarus at the same time I was working on my Sims film, and learned some super pro-tip methods of handling green screen (particularly regarding blur and green spill).
— actually get around to learning about color correcting. Admittedly, I think the result on this was fine– I don’t imagine a lay person is too distracted, but I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. It was basically– ah! that’s too dark… let’s adjust the levels. I also would have had a lot less green tint if I had used my Starship Ickarus techniques.
So weee! It was a lot of work, a great experience, and in the end I’m glad I put in those extra hours cleaning up tracking dots, even though it was a bit of a nightmare. And now, greenscreen is easy!