03 Dec Dancing in the Sky
happy late Thanksgiving! hopefully your’s was as full of good company and great food as mine. I still have a little apple pie left… and I’m really looking forward to eating that for breakfast later.
BUT, I didn’t come here to wax poetic about food, I came here to tell you about my brand new short film – SKYDANCERS.
I’ve been working on this film for a while.… but before getting into how it was made, I want you to watch it. it’s only 2 minutes and 40 seconds, so go ahead–
the genesis of the project was pretty simple. the last few years I’ve had a strange fascination with those inflatable tube men you see out in front of oil change places, Halloween stores, and car dealerships.
they are just so weird. as the flap and flop around they have an insane smile plastered across their faces and it made me wonder “what are they thinking?” that led me to the question “if they think, are they sentient?” which of course pointed me to the notion that they were really a captured alien species we’d enslaved to do our advertising.
with that odd idea in mind, I began to research famous “freedom” speeches. I read Giuseppe Garibaldi “Encouraging his soldiers,” Malcolm X’s “The Black Revolution,” and Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight On The Beaches.” but the one that I drew the most inspiration from was Patrick Henry’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech. I used it as a starting point and modified it as needed for the Skydancers’ special circumstances.
after writing the script the next order of business was to find the dancers. they seem to be EVERYWHERE… except of course when you are trying to film them. I took a day off from writing to location scout. this consisted of driving in a criss-cross pattern through the San Fernando valley for HOURS. I think I drove about 200 miles that day… and never left Los Angeles. it was a little mind-numbing, but I found enough dancers to move ahead. I scheduled a shoot date with my cinematographer, (and talented director) Justin Mitchell and hoped the dancers would still be there.
this guy on the high-bike was talking about an upcoming altercation with a motorcycle gang.
it got up to 105º while we were shooting. I could feel the hot pavement through my shoes.
next up was recording the narration. I had a couple different projects I needed voiceover (VO) for, so I needed to find an actor that could do multiple characters. I listened to a few reels that people submitted. most were decent, but the stand out performer was Nick Shakoour. a fellow SFSU alum, Nick and I had met at a school mixer and I was excited for the chance to work with him.
like most serious VO artists, Nick has his own recording setup, which makes things very convenient. I drove over and we recorded: trailer narration for NATURAL ‘STACHE (a screenplay I wrote), an announcer for the Portland Beard & Mustache Competition, and finally for SKYDANCERS. it was so much fun to hear Nick switch between the different voices. he would go into the booth, clear his throat and lock in. all of a sudden I’d be hearing a different person through the headphones.
I also got to operate the ProTools rig. which consisted of hitting “start” & “stop.” haha
we still needed to shoot the visual effects plates, that is – the live action elements that would be combined together to make the final shot (you know, the one where they are shooting lasers out of their eyes…) but before that – I had a trip scheduled to visit Teal in Ann Arbor. I knew there was going to be a fair amount of “sitting around while Teal did homework” time, which makes sense, since well, she is getting a Phd in Statistics. but I was prepared. I had my laptop and the sound files from the recording – so I used the time to edit the audio for SKYDANCERS.
after returning to LA, the search for a green screen stage tall enough to shoot a dancer resumed. but, the stages that had the height to fit even a small dancer were, shall we say – “cost prohibitive.” fortunately, Justin was able to wrangle a deal with the nice folks over at Evidence Film Studios. (seriously you use their space, they are super friendly and helpful. and also rent cameras!) they had an opening in their schedule, a green screen, and space outside. so I got the appropriate grip equipment, hired a grip to use said equipment, and rented a dancer.
side note: the company that rents the dancers, Magic Jump Rentals, also has bouncy castles and they both drop-off and pickup your orders. how cool is that??
after getting the pieces I needed for the final VFX shot, the next challenge was finding a VFX artist. you always have to remember the “better, faster, cheaper” triangle when making films. especially low budget short films. you only get to have two of them. since I had no deadline, I opted to go the “better/cheaper” route.
the downside of this strategy was that it took over six months to get the shot done. but the end result was totally worth the wait. my good friend (and talented director) Lex Halaby put me in touch with an artist he’d recently worked with, Sabour Amirazodi. it was amazing to get the chance to work with someone so creative and talented, he did things in the shot I didn’t even know were possible. but, as it was a low budget job, and he was giving me a great rate, the time came for him to hand over the project.
luckily for me, my good friend (and talented director) John Wynn was there to help.
side note: do you see a theme here?
double side note: I’ve edited for all three of these director-friends. #collaborations!
John is a VFX mastermind. he was able to take an already great shot and make it even better through the wonders of compositing. and in the process teach me some things about visual effects. this is an area I need to learn more about and I was incredibly grateful. sitting there watching him work, troubleshoot, and experiment was like getting a masterclass in VFX… and it only cost me a shawarma. (if you are ever in the Valley, Joe’s Falafel is the best.)
somewhere in this series of events I also edited the film.
with the shot finished the final step was music, sound design, and mixing. John put me in touch with Nathaniel Smith, a composer he’d recently worked with (maybe I owe John more than a shawarma?). in little time at all Nathaniel had composed an amazing piece of music. it hit all the right emotional beats and its energy helped drive the narrative of the story forward. you know, it’s really remarkable how much of a difference music makes and how if can provide an emotional background for a piece. but that’s a whole other blog…
with score in hand, I took the project to Steve Romero. he’s mixed and designed almost every project I’ve done in the last five years from THE REAL LUKE to CERTIFIED to APT. 5 and I have to say it is such a pleasure working with him. by this time he has a pretty good idea of what I like and honestly, I mostly get out of his way and let him do his thing.
side note: that’s actually a great strategy for directing in general. find talented people, give them guidance, get out of their way, then adjust as needed. but that’s another larger topic…
here’s what his timeline look like for the piece – you can see how much more complicated the design was for the final shot.
and that’s about it. thanks to the hard work of some incredibly talented people, I was able to make an absurd short film. hope you enjoyed the play-by-play journey.
are there any parts of the process you want to know more about? got questions for any of my crew? let me know in the comments below!