It All Starts with a Story
In 1982, Woman’s Day held a contest in which readers were invited to submit short essays on their favorite holiday traditions. Out of thousands of entries, a touching true story from Nancy Gavin won and was published in the Dec. 14 issue that year.
As her essay states, “it all began” because Nancy’s husband, Mike, hated Christmas—specifically, the commercialization of the holiday. So one year, she anonymously made a generous donation of wrestling gear to an inner city school, wrote about it in a letter, sealed the letter in a blank white envelope, then placed it on their tree as Mike’s gift. He was thrilled, and so began a family tradition.
The emotional climax of the story comes when we learn that Mike died of cancer a number of years later. During the next Christmas, not only did Nancy still put a white envelope on the tree in his memory, but each of their three kids did too—each unbeknownst to the other.
My client discovered the story about 5 or 6 years ago and was so moved by it it started The White Envelope Project, a nonprofit that encourages others to emulate the Gavin family tradition during the holiday season. The company has since changed its name to Giving101 and has expanded its scope to provide a way for anyone to easily give to any charity anywhere. (Check out here).
One of the ideas I pitched that helped me land the gig was that the story “world” would be very simple. Nancy, the narrator, would be speaking to the camera in a high-key set (i.e., similar to the background in the famous “I’m a Mac; I’m a PC” commercials). We’d then cut to b-roll scenes she describes while telling the story. The scenes would also be on a high-key set, with a very spartan set design. The only thing you would see in each scene would be significant items that stood out in the narrator’s mind (the tree, the envelope, the chair she sat in, etc.). The simple set also happened to serve a great logistical purpose since there was neither budget nor time to build the kind of sets the script would traditionally require.
Due to lack of time, the greatest challenge I had on this project was preproduction. The final version had to be completed by Dec. 6, which meant the client needed my first cut by Nov. 30. The contract wasn’t signed and the retainer paid until after Nov. 1. That left fewer than 30 days to recruit cast and crew, find a location, shoot, and edit. To make matters worse, for a week of that time I was booked for another client gig out of town and 2 weeks after that I was traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday (with principal photography literally in between). It was going to take all of my social media and technological savvy to pull this production off. I want to share with you how we made it happen in the hopes that it will give you ideas and inspiration for your own time-sensitive, challenging productions. Note that except for the lead role, all the cast and crew members were volunteers who wanted to participate in a special project for a nonprofit organization doing such special work.
Assembling a Crew
Many of the smaller shoots we do require just one crew member—me. I knew that would not be the case for this project, so I reached out primarily to the closest resource available: the media team at my church. I sent an email to all the “usual suspects” on the team describing the shoot and the planned shoot days.
I also reached out to local Atlanta filmmaker Brandon McCormick of Whitestone Motion Pictures. Brandon’s shoots are as close to Hollywood as one can get without actually being in Tinsel Town. He shoots on the Sony F900 CineAlta HD film camera (same kind of camera George Lucas used to shoot the Star Wars prequels), he works with a composer/co-producer who writes original music, and he has department heads and teams for every major area of film production. I knew he could hook me up. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, a big part of success in this business is “who you know.”)
However, the person who became one of the most important players on the team was a woman I brought in as an associate producer. Cherie had reached out to me months before via a referral from a mutual friend at my church. She expressed an interest in the filmmaking process, so this was a perfect opportunity for her. While I was out of town, she was crucial in handling much of the legwork and phone calls to secure props, actors, and locations.
Props, Location, and Set Design
As I mentioned earlier, the use of the high-key set and simple set design served both a creative as well as a logistical purpose. Nevertheless, it was still a challenge finding all the props we needed in such a short time period. For the location, we used a local studio with a large CYC (pronounced “sike”) wall. A CYC wall is an all-white wall with a floor that curves where the wall meets the floor, thereby giving you an infinite-looking background. Frankly, there were parts of the script I could not shoot because we were unable to find the right set or props. But in other areas we scored big. For instance, we needed a department store Santa and we ended up finding a professional Santa who just happened to have an ornate Santa chair. Also, the person we cast to be the wrestling ref was a real referee with regulation gear and full referee attire.
Where necessary, I did without and got creative. For instance, one set we needed was bleachers. It was a crucial scene in the film, so we had to shoot it, yet nowhere could I find mini-bleachers to transport to the studio. It finally occurred to me: The whole set is more symbolic than literal anyway. We don’t need real bleachers. I just need to arrange the “fans” in the audience in such a way to represent onlookers at a wrestling match. So, I sat the first row on a small bench and had the back row stand.
I knew that for this film to work, I had to have an actress who could really act. I let the client know ahead of time to budget some amount of money to pay a “real” actor. (None of my fee was allocated to props or cast, so this would be extra money for them to kick in.) In addition to the people mentioned above, I also sent emails to local filmmakers and production companies who do high-profile corporate work where professional actors are required. Everyone who replied with casting agencies mentioned the same one or two companies. I had never worked with an agency before, so this was new. I spoke with a couple of agents about the project, and they sent out the script and production description to their list of qualified clients.
The other sources I tapped to recruit cast included my blog, the client’s website, my church, Cherie’s church, Facebook, and, of course, Twitter. In addition to the main role, there were about 20 other roles I needed to fill, mostly extras. I use Gmail to manage my email accounts, so I created a special filter to easily see and track emails that came in response to our recruiting efforts. That leads me to technology’s role in this process.
I can’t believe how much the process of filmmaking has changed in the 19 years since I first took film and video courses. Naturally, there are the advancements in shooting and editing technology. But equally groundbreaking has been the role social media and the web has played. Both were significant in my preproduction process for this film.
I wrote the film version of the script on Scripped, a free online screenwriting program. That way, no matter where I was, as long as I had an internet connection, I could work on it. Naturally, I blogged about the film, sending out an open call for cast and crew. The client also put a link on their site to a Google Docs form, then sent an email to their large database (which includes funders, by the way, so it was a tangential marketing benefit to get that exposure). I used Google Docs to create a spreadsheet to track names and contact info. I then shared the Google Doc with my associate producer Cherie, so she could add names and make necessary changes as well.
I used my Dropbox account to save head shots, other media, and PDF script versions I emailed to the client. Dropbox is a service that allows you to sync folders on your computer to your account online and with other computers. So in essence, you have a copy of that folder in multiple physical locations, as well as online (and with 2GB of space for free, that’s a lot of files you can store).
But perhaps the most interesting use of technology in this process was the auditions. Back in the day, you’d have to come in person to audition or send in an audition tape. Now you can just upload your audition “tape.” I sent all the actresses auditioning for the lead role a set of sides, which are excerpts from the script you want candidates to perform for their audition. You typically want to select a part of the script that will best showcase their acting range. I included the opening to the script as well as the part of the script where the actress would have to get emotional talking about the loss of her husband (in a perfect world, I wanted an actress talented enough to cry on cue).
Each candidate sent me her audition either via FlipShare or Vimeo or by uploading a video to our YouSendIt account. If you’re not already using YouSendIt (www.yousendit.com) to send or receive large files to clients, you should sign up today. There is a free version, but we use the pro subscription, which allows us to send files up to 2GB. It’s only $49 per year as of this writing.
I gave the actresses audition deadlines. However, one candidate wasn’t able to figure out how to work her video camera, so I had to do a “live” audition with her via Skype video chat. (If you’re keeping track, that makes nine different forms of online technology used in this preproduction process.) During the reading of the emotional scene she started crying. I thought she was crying because the script was so touching. But no, she was in character crying, believably, and on queue. By the time the client saw her performance (she ultimately got her teenage son to help her with the video stuff and sent me a recording), we all knew we had found our actress.
With the lead actress cast, it was on to production. Our first task was to create our high-key background.
When shooting on a high-key background, you have to blow out the background enough to get that bright white look, while at the same time exposing the subject enough so as not to make her a silhouette. The studio where we shot had all the lighting equipment we needed. Normally you’d have to rent from one place, then transport your equipment to the shooting location. It was extremely convenient having everything we needed right there.
As I said, the “key” for lighting this kind of set is blowing out the background. For this shoot we used four 4k softbox throw lights. To light the main actress we used a Diva 400 KinoFlo as a key light and a Westcott softbox as a fill. (Kino Flos are very popular lighting sources in the corporate video world. Check out www.kinoflo.com.)
It’s very important to get your key right in camera the first time; otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time in post trying to fix parts of the background that aren’t perfectly white or bright enough. The more light you can throw on the background, the better. You can aid that by moving the light source closer to the white background. The challenge there is making sure the lights don’t get in your shot.
You want the depth of field deep enough so that if the subject moves a little, she doesn’t go out of focus. But you want to keep it shallow enough to aid in blowing out your background. I shot at an aperture of between ƒ/4.5 and ƒ/5.6 with the main actress. For scenes with larger groups of people, I stopped down to ƒ/8.
For audio I used my Sennheiser ME 66 shotgun on a rented boom pole and mic holder. As a backup, I also used my Sennheiser G2 wireless lav system, wiring the lav underneath the actress’s black turtleneck.
I was shooting with a DSLR, so I recorded sound into my Zoom H4N and used a slate to sync. Every now and then we had to stop for a plane flying over or a train going by (such is the lot if your set is in an industrial area). Other than that, capturing great audio was a snap.
There are a few directorial things I had to keep in mind on this set. First was eyeline. Every scene was shot in the same location on the set. When there were shots that had to be cut together with other shots and the eyeline had to be maintained so as not to break the 180-degree line rule, I made a note on my shot list about where to have the actors looking.
Directing child actors was part of this piece as well. There’s a running joke in the movie business that the two worst things to direct are kids and animals. With kids, the secrets are 1) getting down to their level (literally); 2) encouraging them by showing your excitement at their participation; 3) making it seem like each of their takes was great (even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted); and 4) giving them freedom to interpret a character however comes naturally to them.
There’s one last subtlety in the direction I wanted to share. It was how we did what I call the “verklempt” scene. When Kenley (our actress) first does the scene where she talks about her husband dying, I had her start to cry at the beginning of that section. Then I had her try it a little differently. I told her to stay strong up to where she talks about losing her husband, but when she gets to the part about her kids each putting a white envelope on the tree for their dad, then lose it. It’s amazing what a little change like that does for the performance. Being a mother herself, she got so emotional that after we cut, it took her a while to collect herself. The scene in the final film is the first take of that version.
There isn’t much to add about the postproduction process except to say that I had a great collaboration with the client. Their creative director was very open about what he did and didn’t like about the first cut.
Actually, his only critiques were about font usage, a couple of the transitions, and music. We tried a few different songs. At one point, they wanted all non-Christmas songs, but I felt strongly we needed at least two of the songs to be recognizable holiday tunes.
Ultimately, they trusted my direction and felt I made the right choice in the end. The music came from Triple Scoop Music as well as Incompetech.com. (The latter site is by musician Kevin MacLeod, who has a large selection of instrumental music for which he grants full rights in exchange for a modest $5 donation and credit. It’s a great resource if you ever need inexpensive royalty-free tunes. He has a great selection of silent film-style music.)
Commercial film production is ready and available to the enterprising small event video producer. Shooting and editing commercial work isn’t the mundane or dull work of the past, with stuffy talking-head videos, cheesy late-night cable spots, or promo videos for products or services you’d never use. It is possible to find meaningful commercial work on a small scale that allows your creativity to flow, while providing that true film production and script-to-screen experience. Start by learning what’s involved, then proactively pursue it, and in everything you do now, instill the crucial sensibilities of storytelling and excellence.
Ron Dawson (ron at daredreamer.net) is president of Dare Dreamer Media, a new media marketing and video production agency. He and his wife, Tasra, are co-authors of the Peachpit Press book ReFocus: Cutting-Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business. Ron is a two-tome EventDV 25 all-star and writes about filmmaking and business on his blog, Bladeronner.com.