About the Straight 8
This year I decided, rather abruptly, to enter the Straight 8 2017 Film Festival held by CineLab in London. Each year I see the festival come and go and each year I think about entering but somehow don’t pull the trigger (so to speak). But this year, I saw that I *might* have enough time to put an idea together so before thinking about it too much I paid my entry fee.
Luckily, I already had one roll of 500T sitting around. So I quickly went to work piecing together a concept that was bubbling in my mind.
For those unfamiliar with Straight 8 festivals it works like this: using a single roll of Super 8 film you shoot your film from beginning to end without edits, without takes, without the opportunity to reshoot anything. Once you start shooting, that’s it – what you capture is what you capture and there is no changing it. The film is sent off for processing and digitizing. Meanwhile, a soundtrack is put together, thankfully, editing is involved with the soundtrack but because there is no picture for reference it is difficult (if not impossible) to completely synch up audio and visual. The soundtrack is submitted as a digital audio file.
The film and audio is placed together and the first time the film premieres is the first time it is seen, in full, by any audience or even the filmmaker!
This makes the film creation process that much more exciting, unpredictable, experimental, and…risky.
I began in earnest putting my script together, documenting shots, proposing run times for each scene. My method of pre-production involves a lot of brainstorming, keeping random notes, writing anything down that comes to mind and then sorting it out as I come back to those notes again and again. Old ideas dissolve and new ideas take shape.
As I found this happening naturally, I decided that was what this film would be about – things taking shape, changing, and reemerging as new things. A constant continuous process of change; changing forms. I began to tie this concept to a couple of visual ideas – the process of making something by hand – in this case the forging of an original art piece from it’s early stage as a wax sculpture to that of the human and natural environment. Tying these two worlds together of the human-made vs. the natural environment, the common thread being that we are all part of a “process.”
For this idea I wanted an original soundtrack. I immediately jumped to wanting a cello piece – the cello has a certain power and mood about it that is unique and carries a certain weight that is appealing. I began asking friends about people who played cello and where I might be able to find someone to create an original score – in a short amount of time! But it seemed a tall order to find someone who could commit their time and energy to something like this on such short notice. I began looking online and quickly remembered using Fiverr for a couple of past graphic design projects so I began exploring there for a person that might be able to accomplish what I wanted. I posted a request and within hours received a number of replies from various composers and musicians about what they could offer. After sorting through the offers and listening to sample works I selected one that I felt could best achieve what I was looking for.
I was lucky enough to find a young Venezuelan composer to complete the score in less than 7 days! Here is a sample of the music:
In the midst of conceptualizing the idea I wrote a narration – sort of a spoken essay or long-form poem. It materialized as free-form writing, ideas popping into my head that became the “story.” I didn’t spend a lot of time writing and re-writing as I wanted to embrace the idea of “the first take” even in this part of the process. So not a lot of revisions. I used Fiverr again to seek out some talent to narrate the story. I found someone and received a version back pretty quickly. I made a couple of suggestions and received another version back.
Ultimately, I wasn’t getting exactly the tone I was looking for so I decided to do the narration myself. It took me several takes and I ended up revising the script a little bit more. The best takes were recorded in my clothes closet using an R-09 Edirol (the same one I’ve had for years now – in fact, the batteries are starting to rust out the inside).
I used Audacity to cut the audio and shifted things around a bit more. Final running time for the audio was 3:23 (about 3 min long but that’s fine).
My first roll ended up being used on another -related- project so I purchased a second roll. (I have the first roll and will be posting that footage as part of another project which covers more of the interior of the Crucible Foundry and the molding process for the soon-to-be bronze belt buckle that Rick Sinnett designed.) It is the wax positive of that piece that I chose to use for my Straight 8 project.
Principle photography took place over a period of three days. The first day took place at the Crucible in Norman. One of the most important – if not THE most important shot – is the first three seconds of the film because it has to display a unique ID number that identifies this cartridge, this film, as a valid submission. If the ID number is not in the first three seconds, you’re disqualified! So I made sure to open with that shot. I continued with a fade-in on an exterior interactive/movable sculpture and then moved inside for a few more select shots.
The second day of shooting, about a week later, took place in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oklahoma. This is one of my favorite places to visit so shooting there would be fun. I rounded up a couple of friends and fellow staff members, Virginia and Baylor, to be actors.
I wanted some interesting shots so I played around with a stop-motion idea and a moving time lapse scene. After a couple of hours and multiple locations I wrapped up the day.
Day three of shooting was back at The Crucible location in the sculpture garden again for a final shot that would wrap things up where they began. Not knowing exactly when the film would run out was challenging.
It is not so far removed to try and shoot Super 8 film in one take. In fact, I try to approach filmmaking with the idea of using as few takes as possible because, frankly, film is expensive and every unusable shot is wasted film. But this was my first foray into zero editing where planning is everything and time-keeping is critical. Probably the biggest mistake I made was purposefully ejecting the film cartridge just prior to my second day of shooting. There is always a cool effect when a cartridge is exposed – sort of a flash effect – so I thought it would be cool to include one. What I didn’t take into account was that my in camera run-time counter would reset once I opened the cartridge door! In fact, I realized I’d made an even bigger mistake from the very beginning when I didn’t have a designated stopwatch or time keeper. So I had true way to measure how much I’d shot and how much film was left.
Having a larger crew – or should I say – having a crew at all, would have been helpful. Even a couple of people to help me keep things on track, to keep time, to help with equipment, etc.
Thoughts on the Process
It’s difficult to say with a film like this if it’s going to be good or bad. The best you can do is try to make as few mistakes as possible and hope for the best. A number of things can always screw up what might be a good film: poor focus, bad lighting, shutter-speed settings could be off and affect your color (such as I encountered with my first run of 500T film that was very yellow because I failed to engage the correct setting). I managed to accidentally pull the trigger at least twice that I’m aware of – so who knows what those frames will look like. And I’m pretty sure some of the close-up shots are going to pretty damn blurry.
Everything is easily critiqued on a project like this….in retrospect. But fortunately, film shot in this manner has its value rooted square in the moment. That defining moment when the decision is made to pull the trigger and just go-with-it, for better or worse. I guess therein lies the reason for participating in something like this. Yes, it puts boundaries on what you can and cannot do but those boundaries require you to rise to the occasion and put forth your best effort without room for do-overs, re-shoots, re-takes, or previews.
I can see that for some professionals that call themselves filmmakers but are really videomakers (doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?) that process would be too restricting or cumbersome for their current “workflow.” But to me the thought of capturing something that is un-perfect and trying your best to dial-in everything leading up to the shot, and then once it is done, it is done – that it is both exciting and nerve-wracking all the same.
I guess that I hope the film is good but then again what is good anyway? Good seems to only be another individual’s judgement placed on the work. So whether what ends up as the finished product on screen is worthy or not is not for me to decide. What was good was the process of creating this project from start to finish. In that respect, I learned a lot and reinforced the idea that making film is a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
The Final Film
As of this writing the final film has been submitted and the soundtrack as well. At this point it’s a waiting game. Once the film digitized and the assembled with the audio track it will be placed online – at which point I will reference it from here for everyone to see.
My film was selected to show at the Straight 8 Film Festival in London!
Show is Sunday, July 9 at Picturehouse Central