By Mark Harris, October 30th, 2010

Taking some more hiatus from the software side of things, I wanted to continue talking about some filmmaking techniques.

THE LOST CHILDREN is a pretty ambitious story to attempt on a low budget. It has aliens and hidden lairs and a massacre. These things are not easily accomplished on a budget as low as ours. It’s only due to the dedication of my cast and crew, and the help from some friends, that this film is possible at all.

Lessons in art direction

I am blessed to have an Art Director who is an artist in his own right. He’s a perfectionist, not because he’s well paid, but because he takes pride in his work. This film could not have been done without him. We learned a while back that art direction is often the most critical piece left out of micro-budget films. So this post is to encourage everyone to think about it.

Lesson 1: Location, location, location

When you’re able to get hold of good locations, your art direction is handled for you. And in ways you could never ever accomplish on a small budget. We needed an abandoned insane asylum from the 19th Century. We would never be able to fake this. So we had to find one. We wound up using an abandoned prison in Philadelphia.

Prison Cell 1
Prison Cell

All of this stuff was in the place when we got there. The only art direction we added were props specific to our story. But when we got in and saw the location, we realized nothing else would need to be done. We got miles and miles of production value for free. Or I should say, included in the location fee.

Likewise with the location below. Clearly we would never be able to fake or build an observatory. But again, miles of production value built in.

Josh Observatory
Josh at the Observatory

Sub-Lesson 1.1: Cinematography is 50% art direction

Many in the low-budget film community obsess over cameras. They should be obsessed with art direction. If you have budget for either a RED and a so-so art director, or an AF-100 and a good art director, always, always, always, always choose the latter. What you point the camera at in the first place buys you a lot of cinematography. Again, on micro-budget productions this is a way to get more production value out of your budget.

Sub-Lesson 1.2: The city is already art directed

If you are lucky enough to be living and working in NYC, you have the world’s greatest backlot at your fingertips. Permits are free. You can shoot all over the place. On a low budget, you get a lot of production value for next to nothing:

Bklyn Heights shot from an early short
Bklyn Heights shot from an early short

The same lesson can be applied to any city you live in. I know in Ohio where my mom lives, many small towns have some great main-streets, old factories, barns. Use them.

Lesson 2: Be specific

Just as in scripts and acting, and everything else, the choices you make in art direction should be specific to the story. On our set, you could walk into Jared’s office, examine the things on his shelves and desk, and never know it was a movie. Each and every thing in this set has meaning to the character and story.

Jared's Office Detail

This symbol is very specifically designed, each element having a meaning:

K'Taan Symbol
K’Taan Symbol

And this is becoming more important than ever, as your movie may move beyond the screen into other media. There might be some little thing on screen that winds up playing out more in shorts, the website, etc. So you have to know exactly what that thing is. Take the time to make every detail very specific.

Lesson 3: Smoke it up!

A little fog goes a long way. We’ve been using this for a long time. Now fog machines can be purchased at any halloween store. Hell, I got mine at a $.99 store in Brooklyn. They can also be purchased at places like Guitar World. They go for about $40 now, and they will come in sooooo handy.

El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store
El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store

Professionals use something called a hazer, which more evenly spreads the smoke. So when you crank up your el-cheapo smoke machine, make sure you have a big piece of cardboard around to waft it into an even pattern.

Now, you can use this fog for a couple of things. First off, it can help make your location look creepy as hell. But it can also be used like the Hollywood people use it, to diffuse light and give depth and atmosphere to a location:

Blade Runner Master of Haze
Blade Runner Master of Haze

Blade Runner is of course an extreme example, but I just saw the hazer used on the HBO show “Bored to Death”. In the Old Town bar. Once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. And it’s an effect you can apply yourself for very little money.

Or you can use it just to make yourself look like a bad-ass:

Bad-ass Mark
Bad-ass Mark

Makin’ guts: Practical effects on set

One scene in THE LOST CHILDREN involves a massacre. This means blood and goop and guts. The fun stuff. These things can be composited in after the fact, and I have seen some low budget films do that. But I don’t really have that skillset in house, so it would raise the budget. It was much more cost effective to do these EFX on set.

I had researched a bunch of tutorials on the web, and you can find them too with Google. But the technique I settled on for making our entrails, is this:

1) Get some skin-colored liquid latex and paper towels. This latex can be had from Halloween shops, or of course professional make-up suppliers. But these days, it seems like Halloween shops have nearly everything you need for a film.

Ben Nye Liquid Latex
Ben Nye Liquid Latex

2) Get a paint brush and some pretty smooth surface. I’ve seen plexi-glass recommended, but I used a shelf from Ikea. It’s laminated, so will not soak up the liquid latex, yet allows for some imperfections. In all things guts, imperfections are your friends. Paint the liquid latex over your surface. It can be pretty thin. Don’t sweat trying to make it smooth and perfect, just get a good membrane laid down.

3) Then get a hair dryer and blow that stuff dry. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting there all day.

4) When it’s dry it will look like rubber. It might seem like it got transparent, but don’t worry about that, it’s all good. Take the paper towels and roll them up into sort of thin sausages. The length can vary. Again, not perfect is perfect.

5) Once you have the paper towel sausages, put them on one edge of the latex and roll the latex over them, as if the latex is the sausage casing. Roll it up until your paper towels are contained in the latex casing. Use several paper towel sausages so that you get some intersect points, as illustrated in the photo below.

6) Repeat until you have all the guts you need. This can be time consuming, even with the hair-dryer, so make sure to give yourself enough time. I think I spent about 8 hrs making the guts I needed for…2 people. But you can re-use them in several shots, I think. I don’t know how they keep, because we only needed them for one shoot-day.

You can add more layers of latex, if you like. I think we did two per entrail. But the end result looks like this. See how it looks like there are three sections? That’s due to three paper towel sausages.

Latex guts
Latex guts

Now, add some blood mixture, tear open a shirt, and Voila! Actually, I had made a sort of…plastic-bag-bed-gut-holder under the actor’s shirt, so he wouldn’t have to sit there with it on his skin. It also made clean-up easier, which saves time on set. Reads great on camera and gives people a jump. Even on set, people walking into the room would jump when they saw this.

Skulls: Everyone has one, but how often do you get to play with it?

One of our shots involves a pile of skulls. This is one department where Halloween stores will not save you. If they do have skulls real enough to pass muster, they will cost you an arm and a leg. Okay, bad joke. Instead, I found a great website: http://www.skeleton-factory.com. You want bones, they got ‘em. And cheap. Here you can buy skulls of many qualities at various prices. I chose the cheapest, knowing that the fog and the muck, etc would cover up any imperfections. These run $8.95 each. I got 10 for our shoot.

$8.95 life-sized skull
Insert Yorick joke here.

Rip all the hardware off. You will need to sandpaper some ridges, maybe putty up some cracks, spray paint them. depending on how they will be seen. But if you don’t mind putting in a little elbow grease, these are a fantastic solution for the micro-budget filmmaker. Here’s how they came  out in the film:

Skulls in shot
Skulls in shot

Okay, that’s it for now. Send questions if you have them. I am talking to my art director about writing something as well, detailing some more of his processes.

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Posted in The Lost Children creative collaboration production journal

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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  • This is cool! And so interested! Are u have more posts like this? Plese tell me, thanks

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