A look at why and how the film was directed.
Here’s a little BTS blog for our short film, “Taking”, for anyone who’s interested. Our main objective with this project was to practice filmmaking form - to take a relatively simple narrative and try to elevate it through execution. Here, I’ll detail a few a ways we tried to do that. It should be said that we did not have any money to make this film with - really nothing besides two small 160led lights, a dslr, a drone and a lot of help from some awesome people! This film was done in the spirit of “use what your momma gave you”. And that’s what we had. Don't bring our moms into this.
A little background:
My friend Gabriel was moving to Colorado, and we had been meeting to workshop film ideas. One day as we were meeting he said, “Why don’t we make a short film before I leave?” Why indeed. We started playing around with ideas - we settled on a scene that we really liked, then wrote in the context of that scene until we had our story. Once we had finally written a script, we met to figure out when we could shoot it. At that meeting we discovered that due to scheduling conflicts our only option was to get it done that weekend - four days later. Over the next four days we auditioned actors, scouted locations, and generally scrambled to get ready. The shoot kicked off at 3am on a Saturday morning, we shot some of our night scenes, then shot some of our morning scenes. We broke for the day, then met that evening at dusk to finish some of our “morning” scenes, shooting backwards as the light was fading, and then wrapped up our last bit of night shooting. In all, we blew through five locations in the span of twelve hours and managed to get ALMOST everything we needed. Once we got the film into editing we realized the story didn’t come together quite as well as it should, so we re-called the actors and got a few final shots to seal the plot up.
You could summarize our objectives for the short film into two main concentrations:
1) Establish a clear sense of "TONE".
2) Develop characters and character relationships without using dialogue.
Here are a few ways we tried to do that...
Movies are an audible medium. When studying film it’s easy to overlook that - so much of what you discuss and concentrate on in school is visual style - I think there are just a few directors that I would say have a “sonic style”. Due to our lack of visual resources to establish tone, we knew we would be leaning heavily on audio to help with this. We scoured soundtracks and songs trying to find a realm of influence, then decided what we liked and disliked - why these scores and soundtracks made us feel the way they did - then I got to work creating our own.
There are a lot of “transition” moments in the film - which can have a tendency to bog down the story elements and bore the viewer. To prevent this, we tried to reserve the soundtrack for moments with less importance, instead of moments of more importance. For instance, the music at the beginning of the film (as the thief is being introduced breaking into cars) is a bouncing string synth that constantly holds a note over low rumbles. The measure is speckled with a high, piercing string synth that drops on a stretched out, parallel syncopated pattern - making it seemingly random. Aside from this occasional shriek, every element that is introduced is a repeating pattern of one or two notes. The music doesn’t change to build, only more elements are introduced. The idea was to create an unsettling, driving, trance like theme that would carry the viewer into the top of the parking garage where we drop off into sudden silence. In this way, we hoped, the silence would actually be more suspenseful than if we had scored both scenes. Likewise, throughout the film silence is used in moments of importance or emotion, and music is used to prop up the silence so that it is more impactful.
Additionally, we layered the music with sounds relevant to the context of the film - in the opening music you can hear a car alarm slowed down 1,000 times. In the scene where the thief realizes he forgot his phone, and returns to the car, you can hear a dial tone slowed down 1,000 times.
We storyboarded our film before we began shooting -this helped us to get through our shoot quickly, but it also gave us time to look at our film visually before we started shooting. While there are several sequences with careful blocking throughout, here we’ll look at one particular scene where we used blocking to help establish tone.
The scene where the thief first discovers the body in the trunk, then leaves, then realizes he’s forgotten his phone, then decides to go back for it only to find he’s too late - this was an important sequence, but we wanted to try to cover it in an interesting way. The scene had to be suspenseful - but every way we thought to do it just seemed too heavy handed. Finally, we opted for the version we have - to show all of that action in one shot, and to build suspense through blocking.
At the beginning of the shot we have clear spatial distinction - the thief on the left side of the frame and the car on the right. It was important that throughout the sequence the car and thief stay where they are in the frame. In this way, though we see the thief is getting further from the car, it doesn’t feel like he’s really getting away from it. Additionally, the car was parked under a bright light so as to keep it illuminated in the frame, where it stays just to the right of him. He walks for a while. This was important too. When we watch a film, we assume everything we’re being shown is important. When we experience long moments where seemingly nothing new is happening, it can sometimes make us a little more watchful, a little more expectant - the constant relation between the thief and the car, along with the long walk and rising music were utilized together to help create a feeling of tension. This could have been achieved with jump cuts and deep reaction shots - but overall I think this is a more interesting way to cover this action and in the end I believe it is actually more suspenseful than it would have been. Finally, the murderer is revealed - insomuch as he is revealed to us. The announcement of the man coming is the car beeping - this again plays much better at the end of this extended shot, I think, than it would have as one of many cuts. All in all this shot was pretty difficult to block - we had to organize the actors timing with our tracking shots, being careful not to cast shadows in the frame or on Esosa as the parking lot lights were all over the place, and keeping the camera relatively steady on our cheap little rig. After many attempts, we decided to try one last one - and it ended up being the shot we used.
It was an important challenge to us to try to tell a meaningful story about a person without using dialogue. One way we did this was by bringing in awesome actors - Esosa Omo played our thief, and did an amazing job communicating the character’s emotions, struggles and conflicts without saying a single word. However, from a film form perspective, we tried to help communicate our characters journey through production elements as well.
In the beginning of the film the character is physically shrouded to some degree (with a hat and jacket), to communicate that he is resilient and guarded. Additionally, he is lit mostly from behind, or his face is shrouded by shadows. The camera movements at the beginning of the film are much more stabilized also, helping to establish a cool precision as the character goes about his business.
By contrast, as the action rises and the character’s decisions start to spiral out of control - he physically sheds some of his clothes, additionally, we focus more on his face throughout the action, creating a greater sense of desperation and vulnerability. Finally, the camera movement becomes rougher and more “handheld” as we follow him, with the exception being moments of clarity- his ‘seeing’ the victim, something he’s been ignoring since he first saw her - facing her now only out of necessity and desperation, his decision to go back for her - in these moments the camera becomes still and resolved again. These are tactics we used to help convey character traits, feelings and transformation through production elements without the use of dialogue.
Lastly - we make the character's decisions seem more imminent based on how these decisions are physically represented in the frame. After the thief discovers he's left the phone, he chases after it. Act III begins with his phoning the police, then deciding to go after the phone himself. He faces three key moments of departure:
1) His initial search of the empty car. In this first instance of decision his motivations are selfish - essentially what they were when he first broke in - so his relation to the car is framed just as it was in the parking lot - he's making the same decision, he's just deciding to do it again.
2) After realizing the phone isn't there, he decides to pursue the murderer to recover it. One reason I liked the bridge location is that it was actually two bridges apart from each other. We parked the car in the center, and thereby tried to establish a sort of "threshold" which the thief has to cross. Thus far he's stayed within the realm of stealth, surveillance and relative safety - now he goes into the unknown. Though it's very brief, we tried to frame the bridge as a visual "threshold" that the thief is having to decide to cross. Esosa's performance in this shot really helps to sell that idea. To further this transition from "known" to "unknown" - the thief enters the bridge through "lead space" - we see where he's going as he goes, but he exits in "short space" - the camera does not know where he's going when he leaves.
Entering through the lead space (Upper)
Exiting through short space (Lower)
Moving through the threshold.
3) Finally, his last decision is foreshadowed in this wide shot: with the body to the right, the grave centered, and the thief stepping back. He steps back, away from the girl through the grave, revealing the final threshold he has to cross to rescue her.
All in all this was a super fun shoot and an awesome learning experience. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!