“A Silent Universe” is a blend of two things I profoundly appreciate: introspective cinema and science fiction. As Stories by the River took shape, we needed a first project that would help set the tone for what we’re seeking to do. “A Silent Universe” fit well with our hope of making both ambitious and thought-provoking short films. I had been toying with the script and idea for “A Silent Universe” for some time. And after seeing Terrence Malick’s magnificent film, The Tree of Life, in 2011, I felt there was a profound and moving conversation about what is at the core of humanity’s experience of God and the vastness of our universe. And I wanted to continue that conversation, if possible, in my own.
I have also found that it can be quite inspiring to work within set parameters and constraints. Contrary to what some people might tell you, having a set boundary of what is and is not possible actually frees our creativity to come up with the most innovative and story-driven solutions to our challenges. So one of the things that had come to mind for me some time in 2011 was the fact that I’d recently purchased a house with an old two-car garage. And my imagination had begun to explore possibilities of what I could do with that space in terms of telling a story in the form of a short film. Coupled with my love of science fiction, the story of “A Silence Universe” took shape and I embarked on writing and directing the film.
Shooting a dramatic science fiction short film of this nature was certainly no easy task. We had one weekend to shoot the film. Outside of a few time-lapse shots done beforehand and a few visual effects shots that were created entirely in post, everything had to be shot in a single weekend. We began shooting on Friday evening and wrapped shooting on Sunday night. Shooting took place during the final week of February 2012. So we needed to be prepared and shooting needed to happen quickly and organically if we had any hope of shooting such a dense script in two and a half days. Luckily, this is familiar territory for me as all of the short films I’ve directed and or produced have been ambitious films on limited schedules and budgets.
I brought on Teresa Hays (then Rhinehart) as my cinematographer and we opted to shoot the film on the Sony NEX-FS100, provided by Edge Infinity Studios. I had DPed a short film already on the FS100 and was impressed with the quality of the footage and the ease of use of the camera, especially after shooting so much on DSLRs (handy and affordable, but not exactly built for cinematography). For the film I had already DPed with the FS100, we had used an adaptor so we could use Nikkor F-mount DSLR lenses on the FS100’s native Sony E-mount. And while the results were good, I was looking for something even better. Specifically, I wanted to allow Teresa real control over the exposure and focus of each shot. I also wanted “A Silent Universe” to have a more classic cinematic look. And at the end of the day, 75% of how good your image looks is still the lenses you use.
We opted to rent a PL-mount adaptor and Zeiss SuperSpeed MK II cinema primes from Rule Boston Camera. These are fantastic film lenses that are regularly used on major motion pictures, such as all of the sequences in Argo that were shot in Pakistan which were shot with the Zeiss SuperSpeeds MK II. For “A Silent Universe,” we specifically rented the 18mm, 25mm, and 50mm lenses. Looking back, I do wish we would have also rented the 85mm, which I have rented for other projects since then. All of the SuperSpeeds are incredibly fast lenses at T1.3. And I’m a big fan of how these lenses respond to lens flares quite differently from standard DSLR lenses I’m so used to working with.
So our lensing choice allowed for significant low light sensitivity. This is where the FS100 shows one major disadvantage. Since the camera’s lowest ISO setting comes in at between 400 and 500 ISO and unlike the FS700 there are no built-in ND (neutral density) filters, the FS100 can in fact be too light sensitive. At times, it’s downright frustrating! But given that nearly all of our shooting would take place inside, we felt we could get away with this.
In hindsight, it would have been wise to rent ND filters we could have dropped into the matte box in front of the SuperSpeeds. Even in the darkness of my garage and given the fact that within the story, no electrical power is functioning in the world, the sensitivity of the FS100 combined with the SuperSpeeds made for very delicate work for our Gaffer, Walter Stone. It was so easy to overpower the scene with light. I don’t think we did a single take with the SuperSpeeds wide open to T1.3. I believe Teresa kept the lenses open to between T2 and T2.8 for most shots. I can think of a couple instances where we ended up at T4 to get the exposure right. And even this was a battle between dimming down or diffusing light sources in order to keep exposure at an appropriate level.
One of the main concerns I had was the amount of sunlight that would come through the garage door windows. Production Designer, Chaz Sutherland, offered up an elegant and simple solution. He covered the windows on the two garage doors with newspaper. In fact, he carefully aged the newspapers page so they would have a yellowed look. Then he poked holes and ripped them in places. The aesthetic was quite pleasing and made perfect sense with the run-down nature of the garage we wanted to play up in the story.
As far as lighting, this offered us great control over the light coming in from outside. First of all, by covering the windows with the newspaper, Chaz effectively did two things to the light coming in from outside: one, he knocked back the intensity of the light by several stops; two, he diffused what light did come through the newspaper, making for a nice soft fill light that could bathe the inside of our garage set in an excellent ambiance during the day or night. And in spots where we wanted to break up the light and accentuate things with harder “sunlight” or “moonlight” coming in from outside, we poked holes or ripped the newspapers.
This simple approach in the dressing of the set really informed how we approched the lighting. And to help combat the changing angle of the sun throughout the days, Walter, our gaffer, placed a 1K and 2K Fresnel just outside the garage blasting light at the garage door windows.
For the night scenes, we pumped “blue” light through the garage door windows. Given that there are shots in the film of a full moon up in the sky with few clouds, we felt justified in being able to be somewhat aggressive with our implied moonlight. Walter also implied holes in the garage ceiling, setting up small instruments to cast pools of “moon-light” on the set. He even rigged up a “window” above the stairs to the crawl space above the garage by setting up a cardboard “window frame” and shining a hard light through it to cast the appropriate shadows below. I’m impressed with the work he and Teresa did and it really made those night scenes moody and dark while still allowing the audience to see what was happening.
During the sequence when an alien ship does a fly-by inspection of the garage, Walter brought his van up my driveway and parked it in front of my garage. Then, climbing on top of it, he set up the 8’ ProAm camera jib I own. Then we mounted a 750w SourceFour Par I own onto the jip head where normal people tend to mount a camera. This was actually a very early idea that had popped into my head even as I worked on the script. A few years before, I had seen a similar trick employed on a feature film I was Assistant Directing. In fact, it was my same jib and SourceFour that the DP in that film used to create a real-time “time-lapse” shot of an old film camera on a coffee table as the “sun” sets outside. Really, the light source just moved quickly in a smooth sweep down (on the jib) and the shadow of the old film camera sitting on the coffee table grew longer. It legitimately feels like a time lapse shot that took an hour and half to shoot. But it was done shot in seconds.
With this in mind, I toyed with idea of what else could be done by moving light sources. I love my 750 SouceFour. Give it’s design, it’s light out-put is significant, closer to what most 1K lights put out. It’s also relatively light and inexpensive, which makes it an ideal instrument to bolt to a jib and fly around.
Having the SouceFour on the jip arm on top of the van meant that Walter could swing that SourceFour up and down and left and right with quite a range. We could have opted to pan a stationary light across the garage door windows. But the problem with this is that light behaves differently if it is being pivoted from a single point or if it is actually moving through the air (just as shot looks different if you pan the camera left versus trucking left on a dolly track). The effect I wanted was that of a small alien ship hovering just outside the garage and actually floating left and right as it inspects buildings for any signs of remaining human life. By putting the light on the jib, we could actually float that light up and down and back and forth, giving it real dynamic movement. It not only looked more compelling in the shots of the garage doors, it made the reaction shots of actors Scott Peercy and Joseph Metcalfe as the light washes past them in complex and shifting patterns all the more other-worldly and frightening. To top off the sequence, for the shots of the light leaking through the garage ceiling, Walter climbed into the crawl space above the a garage and walked around with a light pointed down through the wooden floor’s cracks.
In the final sequence of the film, I often joke with people that the rain effect is what cost us the most money. But in reality, the rain is quite real. We had no control over it and when it came time to shoot the final shot of the film (ironically shot on the first night), we had two options: we could try to hide it, or we could embrace. And embrace it we did. In fact, the rain in the final shot became the whole bases of the sound mix for the final scene as we hear thunder and rain in increasing intensity throughout that final scene
I had already intended for there to be a strong light source outside the garage during the final shot. It was described as such in the script, in fact. Of course, rain or fog or smoke are always most visible on camera when they are backlit. Sticking with the plan of having a powerful light source outside the garage shining in meant that every single drop of rain would glisten on and be quite visible given on camera. After all, we would be strongly backlighting the rain. So we embraced the rain. In the end, the rain adds so much to the emotional impact of the closing of the film that I sincerely thank God for it. We could never have planned for it and we certainly didn’t have the budget to make artificial rain.
In the end, I am quite impressed with the resourcefulness of my crew and with the results of the Sony FS100 and Zeiss SuperSpeeds. In fact, we have used that exact combo again for two other films: “Melt” and “Playing with Ice.” My hat is off to everyone on the crew who worked so hard to complete such an ambitious shooting schedule in a single weekend!
You can see the final results of our hard work on “A Silent Universe” by streaming or buying the movie here: https://storiesbytheriver.org/videos/silent-universe/
[box type=”info”]Technical Specs:
2nd Unit / B-Camera
[/box]by Mikel J. Wisler, director, co-writer, and producer of “A Silent Universe.”
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So you’ve got yourself a job on a film set. That’s great news. Even if it is unpaid, that’s still great news. In fact, most first time film gigs are unpaid production assistant work, or intern work. This is to be expected. It’s a means to get your foot in the door. After all, if you have no experience working on a film set, you have little bargaining power, frankly. That is, unless you possess a specific set of skills (like make-up design, or set design, or costumes, or special effects) that you have acquired in other work—such as the theatre—that makes you a bit of a hot commodity to a given production. Most of us, however, don’t start off that way. And that’s to be expected. So embrace that and get in there. There is a very specific flow to working on most film sets, and being able to be introduced to it without the added stress of being the head of a specific department is usually a good way to go.
After a semester of learning theory, of shooting student projects, of staring at my computer screen wondering where the next page for my feature script for screenwriting class was going to come from, of immersing my mind in the history of Hollywood, it was the most satisfying thing to just be on a set, with a very specific job, and watch people who knew a whole hell of a lot more than I did at the time do their thing. I was the production’s dolly grip. And seeing as the camera spent an awful lot of time on the dolly, I was pretty busy.
I would call this experience my first real film set experience. And, as I have alluded to already, after a semester of studying filmmaking, this was a wonderfully solidifying experience for what I’d been learning—for what at the time was only beginning to germinate in my mind: that film is a magical medium of collaboration and careful execution; that no one person makes a film, but one can sure break a film; that the process is as much a part of the storytelling as the final experience of viewing the film.
This is why I feel it is important to get onto film sets and work as much as you can afford to (obviously you can’t just keep taking unpaid work if you are to pay the bills). But those first few times of working on a set are so highly educational that the experience is worth so much more that mere cash. For one thing, if you prove yourself a worthwhile crewmember, you’re very likely to be invited to work on more films, hopefully in paid capacities at some point. But also, if you are hoping to become a filmmaker yourself, watching and understanding the process is so very important.
Hands-on learning in filmmaking is invaluable. Weather you get that through making short films and student projects, or by working on crews for short and feature films, what you can learn will only make you a better filmmaker. And I really mean that. I’ve worked on a wide range of projects, some great, some quite short of greatness. What the good projects show you are the right ways of accomplishing things. What the not-so-good projects show you are the pitfalls to avoid. An astute new filmmaker makes careful mental notes (or even literal notes) of these things and seeks to incorporate the good and evade the bad in her own projects.
In fact, it is for this very reason that I pity the poor unenlightened soul that decides to embark on any sort of ambitious filmmaking venture without first amassing some experience by working on film projects (either by making doable short films or working on the crew of experienced filmmakers). Don’t kind yourself. Filmmaking is art, business, and teamwork all rolled into one. Those are all distinctly different aspects of the process of filmmaking that no one person fully grasps alone (and certainly not on their first project). And because of that, no one—and I mean, not a one of you out there reading this blog—is a born filmmaker. Sorry, but you’re not. I’m not. None us are. Martin Scorsese wasn’t either!
So embrace the learning experience! Don’t be in such a hurry to become a filmmaker that you destroy your film career before it starts. So if you need more experience, seek out those opportunities to gain that experience. And if you do get such an opportunity, here are some helpful tips to help you make the most of it.
What You Should Expect On Set:
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that the production we’re talking about here is a pretty good-sized production with a mostly experienced crew. A few years ago, after I’d directed several short films of my own, I got the chance to work as a production assistant on the set of a feature film being shot on 35mm, with SAG actors, and an experienced crew. I was there for the duration, day one to wrap. This experience was so educational that it has allowed me to take some big steps forward in my own filmmaking, as well as taking on tasks such as being the 1st Assistant Direction (in charge of running a set) for a feature film the following year. Without this experience, I highly doubt I’d be where I am today.
With that in mind, here’s some advice I’d share with anyone walking on to a set for the first time to be an intern or production assistant:
1. Jump in with both feet. Interns and production assistants (often the same thing) are there to help things move along and keep production going. So be prepared to take on the menial tasks. In fact, jump at the opportunity. It only took two days on the set of that first feature film for myself and my friend Dan to become known as the “Uber Interns.” If it needed done, we were on it! It didn’t matter if it was helping to move gear, set dress a location, fetch a cast member from the trailer, or make a Starbucks run. We were there, we were willing, and we did it with diligence.
2. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. You’re going to mess up. Get over it right now. In fact, the best thing you can do is to take full responsibility for your mistakes. If you do something wrong (and I made loads of mistakes on that first feature), admit it. Own up to it. Apologize and ask how you can help correct that mistake. In my experience, most people on film crews are quite willing to forgive you for a mistake and to help you understand how the process works and how you can avoid the same mistake again.
3. Now avoid repeating those mistakes! You’ll find that most people on a set are quite gracious. But don’t push your luck. When I was the 1st AD for a feature film, I had one particular individual who was simply not on top of his work, and he cost us precious time on the set waiting for him to get his act together. Eventually he was fired. He kept making the same mistakes. He was quite apologetic about it. But in the end, if there’s no change in such a person’s behavior, nothing is being learned. It’s not worth the production’s time (and time = $ on set for sure) to keep someone like that around. Don’t let that be you!
4. Don’t expect to always be around the action. As a crewmember at the bottom of the pecking order, you might be spending most of a night stopping traffic during takes and you may not be anywhere near the actual shooting. Don’t let this get you down. The work you are doing is making the filmmaking process for this project possible. So do it to the best of your ability. Trust me, it will be noticed. And if you do well with the menial tasks, it won’t be long before bigger and better responsibilities are entrusted to you. But you have to be prepared to earn that trust!
5. Ask questions. When appropriate (and be sure you know when it is and isn’t appropriate), engage people above you on the crew in conversation and ask them questions about their jobs. It’s amazing what you can learn (things like if you plug in the banded cable from the generator into the distro box in the wrong order, you can electrocute yourself to a quite dead crisp). Learn all you can. In fact, don’t pretend like you know more that you do. If someone asks you to do something, say, to grab a half CTB and some C-47s, and you haven’t a clue what those are, just say so. This is an opportunity to learn. You’ll actually help thing move along faster if you just admit you don’t know what those are rather than walking out to the grip truck and standing there like idiot hoping some voice from heaven will tell you that CTB is a blue gel and that C-47s are just regular dumb old clothes pins. In fact, there are so many specific names for the vast variety of tools and techniques used in filmmaking that even with several years of experience I find that I’m still learning an awful lot every time I go on set. Even on projects that I’ve been the cinematographer for I’ve had to stop at times and ask my gaffer or grips for a clarification on what they’re talking about. So, the lesson here is, don’t let pride get in the way of learning.
7. Keep a good attitude. If you have a positive attitude, this will be noticed and appreciated. And remember that a positive attitude doesn’t mean always being talkative. There are times to talk and joke around with your new friends on a set, and there are times when that is not at all appropriate. So, common sense here is the name of the game. And know that filmmaking is an awful lot of “hurry up and wait.” You’ll be scrambling to rig up a light, or finish set dressing, and then suddenly you have nothing to do while actual takes are being shot. It's just how it works. But through it all, keep a good attitude and work hard.
Okay, so those are more or less my basic seven things I’d suggest you keep in mind if you’re setting foot on a set for the first time. If you manage to do those, you’ll be in pretty good shape. You’ll be in a great position to learn more through the experience. I certainly hope you have a great experience and that you learn a lot. Don’t be afraid to have a little notebook with you so you can jot down observations during down times on set. And ultimately, have fun. You’re helping make a movie. How cool is that?
[by Mkel J. Wisler. Originally published on www.mikelwisler.blogspot.com on February 26, 2009.]