Hello Peter and thank you for sitting down and chatting with Lights Film School Online about your short film “The Camera”. Before we jump into the interview let’s allow our blog readers to watch your 8 minute short film below.
You shot this short film on the Canon Rebel t2i for a shockingly low budget. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you approached creatively producing this film? More specifically, did you take your budget into consideration during your writing stage? If so, how did that impact your narrative decision making?
Basically I started with a set of limitations: I had to be able to shoot it with my current equipment (the Canon t2i and a couple of lenses), I had to shoot it on my vacation (since that’s when I’d have time), and I had to keep it low-cost. So those formed the boundaries for the story. Beyond that, I’ve always loved films about regular people with a mysterious undercurrent, and I love working with light. So I wanted to come up with a concept that would not only work within limitations, but use them to my advantage.
I didn’t start with a specific budget number, although if I had it would have been quite low. One of my main goals was to simply explore whether this was something I enjoyed and was good at, and I don’t think you generally need to make a large financial investment to get a sense for that (I want to outgrow what I have before buying anything new). So from the beginning I didn’t want to spend much money. I also had some informal photography experience, so I thought I could make it look pretty good without much of a budget. In the end, I spent about $50 to cover the Polaroid film props.
The location was a character in and of itself. Did you have access to the location before you started writing or did you find this location after your script was completed?
Everything was shot in Nags Head, a smallish town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I grew up vacationing there, so I knew it well and didn’t really have to do location scouting. At the outset I knew I wanted a story I could shoot there — it was always part of the plan.
The outdoor shots in the beginning were shot behind Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the east coast. If you stay away from power lines, it looks like the middle of nowhere. The interior shots were in my family’s old vacation home (although the exterior shot of the house was a different one down the street that didn’t have beach toys and laundry, and it looked like it could be in the middle of nowhere). The outdoor shots at the end were on my family’s property.
You mentioned that you made this film because you had a constant fear of failure. You have a love for all elements of filmmaking but this is the first short film you’ve ever completed. Many filmmakers are in that exact same position, having a love for film, but not wanting to work on a film because the thought of publishing their work for the world to see makes them feel too vulnerable. So now you can tell us…. Was it really that scary?
I wouldn’t say fighting fear of failure was the main reason I made it, but it was definitely an important one. I realized I’d always wanted to make a film, but was held back by fear of wasting my time, people rejecting it, and discouragement if it didn’t work out.
Last year I started reading Scott Belsky’s (founder of Behance.net and the 99% Conference) book, “Making Ideas Happen”, in which he argues that the problem with designers, filmmakers, writers, etc. is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of execution. I realized that rather than flitting from project to project (giving up when it got hard), I needed to pick a project and stick it out until it was finished.
So I decided I’d just do it and see what happened. I also realized that I didn’t have much to lose except my pride; if it bombed, I would learn from my mistakes and get better at it, or realize I’m just not talented to do this. Either way that’s a valuable experience.
I ended up using some of Belsky’s techniques for sticking it out like setting a deadline and publicizing it for accountability, and that helped a lot. I was also really inspired by my friends from Vinegar Hill Creative who make a podcast on filmmaking and the creative process called “New American Storytellers” (highly recommended).
One of my hopes was that it would inspire other artists to just try and finish their ideas; take the step and see what happens. You might not “make it”, but you’ll learn something, and that’s worth it.
And what was that “fear” specifically? Is it the audience’s potential reaction? The reaction from peers? Your own insecurities with your technical abilities? I’m curious because I think many filmmakers drag their feet due to this very common feeling. Publishing your work really exposes you to the world so it’s no wonder this is such a common feeling. It’s just something we don’t talk about much in an industry full of egomaniacal personalities.
Basically all of that. I’d just add: fear of wasting my time on something that doesn’t go anywhere. But it’s a mistake to think we can figure everything out and then do it right the first time. We learn by doing. So I’m learning to do more things, and learn more from the process.
It was my first film, and I discovered that as I got out there and did it, my filmmaker friends and many others were super supportive — many of them much better filmmakers than me (check out Vinegar Hill or VsTheBrain and you’ll see what I mean). And as I worked at it, we had conversations and critique sessions that only would have come up if I was actually making something.
More than that, as a Christian, I’m learning that my identity is in Jesus now, not my ego or my accomplishments. So that’s freeing me up to be vulnerable, be creative, learn from my mistakes, and focus on making something that will bring joy to others rather than make me look good. Still very much a work in progress.
Now let’s talk about your relationship to the sun. In many of your outdoor shots you have a low hanging sun giving your shots beautiful shadows and textures. However, you have quite a few outdoor shots. Did you feel rushed for time to get that particular style of natural lighting while the sun is going down?
Definitely. The shots in the beginning were on one evening, with a few pickup shots on another day. The shots for the end (on the beach) were shot on the last day of my vacation, and we were leaving that night. So we had to get it done. Abbie (the actress / my sister) and I were frantically rushing around trying to hit all the shots before the light was gone. And you only get about 30 good minutes to shoot at sunset.
What would have you done is the weather was different on that day? Say for instance cloudy? Would have you still shot those outdoor scenes? How did you take weather into consideration while pre-planning your shoot?
I have no idea what I would have done. Thanksfully it didn’t come to that! I just figured since I was at the location for a week on my vacation, I’d have enough chances.
Now lets talk about your indoor lighting. In these examples you’re still only using the natural light that is coming in from outdoors. What I love about your location is that there seems to be an abundance of windows so you naturally get these beautiful rim lights here and there which give the impression you have a lighting kit with you… but as we know you don’t. So you must have had an understanding of the relationship of the sun to each particular room you were shooting in. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you approached shooting indoors to take full advantage of the natural light coming in through the windows?
I ended up shooting the indoor scenes in early afternoon, since it was pretty dark in there and we needed the extra mid-day sunlight. The great thing is that the mid-day sun shines really brightly on the sand, which reflects onto the shutters, which reflects into the house. So it’s all indirect lighting, but enough for those great natural rimlights. For one or two shots I used a shop light I borrowed just to fill in some shadows.
I don’t know much about formal lighting, so I tried to get just enough light (opening / closing windows and such) to give it the mysterious mood, and then tried to adjust the ISO and aperture to avoid as much noise as possible. This is terrible advice, but mostly I just winged it and adjusted on the fly while looking at the camera screen.
The design elements in the location are incredible. You really managed to add a lot of production value to your film based on these elements alone. The beautiful wood paneling, the old foggy mirrors, patterned beadspreads, hand painted wooden furniture, blowing translucent curtains and so on. Where all of these elements pre-existing in the environment or did you move things around or bring your own furniture in?
The house was built in the 1930’s, I believe, and my grandparents bought and furnished it in the early 60’s. Everything you see was already there except for the wooden chest, which I just moved from somewhere else in the house. My siblings were gracious enough to let me invade their space for a few hours and remove the evidence of vacationers.
In terms of wardrobe choices you managed to pick an outfit for your main character that fits into both your interior and exterior shots. How much work was put into making these specific choices. And since you didn’t have a wardrobe budget I’m assuming you used clothes you had available to you at that time?
I actually didn’t even think about that. My sister is an aspiring fashion designer, so I just told her the feel of the story and character I was going for, and she picked it out. I thought it worked well, so we went with it. She’s got a good eye.
How did you go about casting Abbie Lewis for this film?
She’s my sister, and for a while she’d been interested in trying out acting. She also had a lot of great ideas for refining the story and getting the right shots, so it was great to have her involved. I didn’t have any money to pay actors, so I didn’t have many options — good thing in this case! I thought she had a really thoughtful, nuanced performance (I over-directed her in a scene or two though).
You also cast Gabe Lewis as the “boy”. I got the impression that these two were siblings reconnecting in an old family summer home. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this story came to life?
Given my limitations (shot during my vacation, virtually no budget, using the beach house as a location), I wanted to come up with a story that captured that sense of quiet mystery that I love so much in other stories (C.S. Lewis does this beautifully in his books, which I grew up with). I was also inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s early films — he’s gotten a lot of bad press (deservedly so for his recent films), but there are few filmmakers who know how to capture mystery and quiet beauty like he does.
I didn’t have any audio equipment, and wasn’t sure I was ready to direct dialogue yet (and didn’t have the time to write it), so I also decided to come up a story that could be told without words. Originally it was going to be more of a music video (no other sound), but once I got to post I realized that wasn’t working, so I had to add it in with a mixture of sound effects and custom foley.
So I just thought about what I could with those boundaries, and tried to brainstorm ways to work in a twist of some kind within the setting. Through some talks with my family I thought of the camera idea — kind of a parallel reality. It was intentionally somewhat ambiguous, but the basic story is about loneliness and reconnecting with someone you care about.
You used Final Cut Pro X for editing this film. What was your experience like editing this film? How long did editing take you?
I’m not sure exactly how long it took; initially I started with iMovie, and then realized it couldn’t handle 1080p or 24p video. So I downloaded the free 30-day trial version of Final Cut Pro X a month before my deadline (which also motivated me to get it done), re-cut the whole thing, color corrected/graded it, added the sound and score, and exported the final video before it expired.
Overall I was impressed with Final Cut Pro X. Apparently it’s been redesigned for people like me — amateur filmmakers — so it did everything I needed it to do, and pretty intuitively (if a little buggy). I learned a lot in the editing process, and got lots of advice from very skilled and very generous friends like Mitchell Thorson, Andrew and Carissa Gallo (of VsTheBrain), Kyle Drexler (of Wandering Hat), and the great guys at Vinegar Hill Creative.
I do plan on buying FCPX (especially since the trial is expired now and I can’t do anything), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m currently trying to come up with an idea for another short.
How long did this project take you from idea conceptualization to the final film?
About a year and a half, including slacking off in the middle. From the point where I basically started over after getting FCPX, it took a month (including editing, sound, scoring, color correcting, and grading). There’s more I could have done to make it better, but I’m realizing that part of maturing as an artist is learning to absorb the lessons and move on.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Peter. We all really appreciate your insight and we thank you for creating such a beautiful short film and proving that you don’t need truck loads of lights to create breathtaking images!
Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the opportunity to share what I learned! I hope it inspires someone to make their own!
Sign up below to get instant access to over 1 hour's worth of high quality free filmmaking tutorials that will have an instant impact on the quality of your film and documentary projects.