A blog about movies and filmmaking.

SPIN CYCLE – A Short Film

In filmmaking, Uncategorized on April 27, 2013 at 3:12 pm

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November? Really, it’s been that long since I posted anything? And it’s almost May. Well, fortunately I’m back with something new, and hopefully fun. That new thing is a short film. Shot in one day, with a crew of seven people (including me, and the two main actors). Granted, I’ve worked with crews that small before, but, so far this was the most successful effort with me at the helm.

With that said, I wanted to do a walk-through of what it took to make the movie. From idea conception to what I’m doing with it now. There’s some techno-babble in there for those of you that care, and hopefully it’s interesting enough for those that don’t.

Origin of the story

Spin Cycle was originally a short story I wrote, maybe in 2002, intended to be a comic book. It was also not called Spin Cycle. In-fact, it didn’t even have a name. Then in 2011, after losing my place in Los Angeles, spending the summer and autumn in New York, Oklahoma, and landing in Pittsburgh, the idea sprang up again as a possible short film. This lead to some rewriting, but nothing happened with it, with the exception of it gaining a name, SHOT IN THE DARK – which is based on the name of a coffee drink (the story took place in a coffee shop).

Jump to 2013, a move to Washington DC and joining a local Meetup group, DC FILMMAKERS. In the first meeting I attended, the organizer brought up the idea of doing some short productions to get people filming; to gain experience and hopefully promote the group. Along with other ideas tossed out, I mentioned Shot In The Dark and the reaction was mostly positive.

Pre-Production

Storyboards… Figured the opening wouldn’t give too much away.

At the next meeting, on March 12, it was decided that along with four other projects pitched, Shot In The Dark would be made with me directing. And it was here that I gained my crew. I’ll get more into them later, but since a number of them didn’t have any filmmaking experience (or very little), I wanted to make the whole thing as much of a learning experience as possible.

So, we set a filming date (March 24) and my casting director set out to get us some actors. We needed to get photos of the two main characters for use in a printed prop, develop the look, and most importantly, find a location.

That last thing was what brought about the change in title, and setting, for the movie. A coffee shop, being a place that people tend to gather – usually of warm and intimate lighting, and most importantly difficult to get use of in daylight hours – just isn’t conducive to a one day shoot, with minimal crew and no lighting equipment. Then I was inspired by another location in my neck of the woods. It’s bright, it’s usually vacant or at least not too busy, and it really worked for the premise of what the movie was: a laundromat. The one that I actually use to clean my clothes is almost always empty. So, I rewrote the story, switched details and sent it to the crew. Everyone liked the change, and we were off.

Learning from previous endeavors, I set out to gain permission (actually a written, signed document) for the location – which actually proved harder than I originally thought. There were no contact numbers/addresses in the entire place. After a couple days of internet searches (also with no luck), I decided to ask the laundromat’s neighbors if they knew who owned the business. Fortunately, the first door I knocked on gained me the answer – and the actual owner. The tall, ginger-jaired man was happy to give us permission as long as we were willing to work around anyone that came in to do their laundry. No worries on that front.

jacob_final_1

Unused image prop of the lead actor, for an abandoned part of the script.

Having nailed down the location, worked with my cinematographer on what camera we were going to use (his Canon 60d), created storyboards and call sheets, and worked up talent and location releases, the only thing left to deal with was the cast. The first couple people we’d set out to use, became unavailable, so I had an inspired choice to replace our lead actor – another member of the filmmaking group who was setting up his own directorial effort on another short. (I seemingly was inspired a lot on this shoot.) Our lead actress was brought in by the casting director, and she was perfect. The head shot she sent me was perfect for the prop we needed to develop too.

The male lead did not have such a head shot. He and I set up a time to meet and I’d take some photos for use later. We got some good shots. I sent them to our designer and she was off. (The result of which is seen to the right.)

The only thing left was selecting wardrobe and then shooting.

Production

With final wardrobe designs set to be made on the day of production, we set up a time to meet at my apartment to choose what the characters would wear before heading to the laundromat. With the exception of the female lead, who couldn’t make it, so I was a little anxious about what she’d show up in. Even though we’d discussed it over the phone and had sent photos of what she had available. But, everything worked out fine.

We got to location at around 1pm and loaded our gear into the place – working around a couple people that were actually doing their laundry. I set out to get the one vital necessity the location didn’t provide… Bathrooms.

DP & director planning...something.

DP & director (me) planning…something.

Luckily, just a few doors down is a pizza place (Pizza Roma) that not only allowed us to use their bathroom, but also provided needed props and lunch. Some nice guys there. And the pizza is pretty good too.

Now we were ready to go. We decided – since it was a nice, clear day – to shoot toward the windows first; to make the most of our daylight, and since the laundromat is fairly well-lit deeper into the place. So, this meant capturing close-ups and reaction shots for the lead actor. The one issue we really had to battle was fighting the sunlight. We didn’t really have a lighting kit – rookie mistake. My DP had two small LED lights, both meant for attaching to the top of a camera. They weren’t ideal, but all we had.

For some shots these lights worked alright for giving us a little edge to the front, but in certain moments it looks like the character leans in front of a small light. So, lesson learned – bring actual lights. Which is something I remedied soon after; I bought a small amount of lights to help in just this scenario, but too late for Spin Cycle.

We get through our initial setups. Covering most of my shotlist, ad-libbing some other moments. We then moved on to shooting into the laundromat, and the female lead. This is where things got a little more trying. As I had mentioned, just about anytime I’d gone past this location, it’s sitting empty. Or maybe one person is inside. On this day, we had endless people coming and going. At one point, up to four people (mostly couples) were trying to do their business as we did ours.

This was difficult because for one, we couldn’t control these people. So, as we had to do multiple takes, there was no continuity. Secondly, for certain shots I wanted the laundromat to seem empty – like our two main characters were the only ones in the world. For the most part, though, we managed just fine. People were willing to work with us. Move belongings, or themselves, if needed.

Our dolly setup. Fun, but not completely practical.

Our dolly. Fun, but not completely practical.

For equipment, we had only the 60D, the LED lights, a tripod, and a small steadicam. We wound up using the steadicam more than the DP probably would have liked – as originally we’d intended to use a dolly. But the one we had – which was actually just a set of wheels that snapped onto the bottom of the tripod – wasn’t totally conducive to how and where we were shooting. A couple of those shots are in the final film. But a lot of it is steadicam. This led us to doing a lot more takes than we might’ve needed, as trial and error over getting the angle, speed, and steadiness correct.

We also tried to run sound – as originally there were a couple lines of dialog. Using the Rode Videomic that I brought, we tried running it through my iPhone, which didn’t work, though I’d sworn it had previously. Next we tried running it straight into camera. The sound came out alright, but not great. Especially since there was the background noise (from the street just a pane of glass away, and from washing machines and dryers inside). So, in the edit, I just chose to drop the dialog – you can still slightly see the actors mouths move. It almost became a, dare I say it – inspired, and works almost better, without.

We finally wrapped about 7:30pm or so. Packed up the gear. Only my DP, Casting Director/Wardrobe person, and myself were finishing up, when we had the idea to shoot a final tracking shot out of the laundromat, featuring the Wardrobe person, for use under the closing credits. She had also played a recurring character in the rest of the film. So, it seemed appropriate to end the film on her as well. She’s just a lady doing her laundry. We did that a few times, needing to time out correctly the safety of going down the step from the shop and out into the street. (Yeah, we went out pretty far.) But overall, it’s probably one of my favorite shots/moments of the film.

And that was that. One day shoot. Five to six hours. Done. Then it was on to editing.

Post-Production

Originally we had an editor lined up to cut the short. In the end that person wasn’t able to commit, so I took on editing the short myself. My goal for the finished product was to be three minutes long. And I think the first cut was about three and a half to four. So, pretty right on. Some trimming. Excising a couple moments that I found just weren’t needed and I hit the sweet spot; with closing credits, 3:10. BOOM!

Editing setup...Made to look like I know what I'm doing.

Editing setup…Made to look like I know what I’m doing.

I used Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 on my 15″ Macbook Pro (from 2011). For color correcting, I only used the built-in Fast Color Corrector and 3-Way Color Corrector plugins. (After playing on my own, and severely muddied everything up – I found a good tutorial. **I lost the link… Sorry, all you wannabe color-correctors.) I didn’t want to go too stylized, or get too “cinematic” with my look as a lot of “amateur” filmmakers are doing with their DSLR footage. I wanted natural, warm, and to just focus on the story. Simple.

For sound, there’s a couple moments where I used the in-camera sound for background noise – running washing machines and dryers – and I actually went back to the laundromat and recorded a wild-track of quarters coming out of the coin machine. Which, amazingly enough, actually came out the best when we fudged it and I had my girlfriend throw the quarters into the coin pit. Almost as a mistake I also kept recording as she gathered the coins and played with them (I was just continuously recording between attempts.) which fit PERFECTLY with the moment I needed. And somehow, even matches what’s on-screen. Not bad for an unplanned foley session.

Lastly, was the music. For some reason I love to cut my shorts to Booker T & the MG’s song, “Green Onions.” Just that steady rhythm with it’s peppy groove. It says “fun” to me, which is what these things are trying to be. Naturally, though, I can’t use that song for the finished film as I don’t have the rights to it. And wasn’t really looking to try and get them. So, a friend pointed me to The Free Music Archive.

I did some searching and found an artist who matched the tone of what I was looking for really well. The song I decided on had the repetitiveness I was looking for, but also built-upon the base sound, to fit each segment of the movie. So, each segment of the movie sounds just a bit different. I’ve actually used the artists’ music on another video I’ve already shot. (And the song is used in the trailer, below.) One other fun thing that proved to me this music was perfect, is that there’s a moment in the movie where a character takes a sip of coffee. And in the song – just naturally occurring in that exact moment – there’s this sound that almost sounds like someone sipping from a cup. If you catch it, when you eventually see it, know that that is from the MUSIC and not a foley sound effect.

So, with the song I wanted, finalizing color correction to get everything to look continuous and of the same shade, I went through for one more trimming session. The final film is now 2:59. Perfect.

Finished?

Something that came up at the time I finished shooting was the discovery of the looming early deadline for the DC Short Film Festival. With the option of either submitting through Withoutabox and getting the movie on IMDB (I never checked if it was a qualifying festival for that.) or through the contest, itself, and receive a discounted fee. I went with the cheaper fee, with the idea that if we were to be accepted I could then submit to other festivals and get us that coveted IMDB page; to reward my amazing crew with their names on the most influential film credit website.

So, that was the deadline to shoot for. And I made it, with hours to spare. (What kind of film is done with plenty of time before it’s due?) I believe the fee was $45 and we should find out by July whether we made it in or not. (Crossed fingers.)

The cast & crew.

The cast & crew.

After that, we had a private screening with the filmmaking group. It was actually a screening night for all the films that had been co-opted for this endeavor. Spin Cycle was chosen to show first, partially because I was early to the meeting and also because we were the only film that had actually gotten completed by the time the meeting happened (at least until others showed up later – of which only one more was finished).

The movie played and the atmosphere was almost one of a classroom, where everyone sat quietly scrutinizing what they were seeing. It was a little disturbing to me, as no one laughed. Afterwards there was the obligatory applause and people said they liked it. There weren’t really any comments or suggestions about improving it or what was missing. Then we moved on to the next film. I was a little disappointed, honestly. I’d hoped for a little more of a reaction. But, was happy with people telling me they did like it.

Later, some of the other people that showed up late wanted to see it – since they’d missed the first showing. So, I took them into another room and they watched it. There, laughs slipped out in what I saw as appropriate moments. Vindication!!

So, now we wait. I can’t show you the movie until either it’s been rejected from the film festival, or after it’s shown there. Instead, I have a trailer for your entertainment. And I’ll keep you up-to-date on what happens.

I want to finally send out a big THANK YOU to my crew and cast on this shoot. Jae Shim, Audrey Elizabeth Emmett, Jacob Zverina, Carrie Daniel, Esther Oh, Patrick McCleary, and Brian Frankel. They really made the shoot fun, quick, and helped me envision the movie in pretty much every way I wanted.

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  1. I love the new music, John, and the trailer looks great! Congratulations again to everyone involved!

    • Totally missed this before. Thanks Shaula. Your support has been much appreciated… In-fact, I meant to insert your name into the THANK YOU credits.. Maybe in the Director’s Cut. 🙂

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