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The Tunnel

September 7, 2015

Time to stretch the memory muscles. We’re going back to the Fall 2014 semester, to the first project that kicked it off: The Tunnel – my first foray into the world of real, honest-to-god film; the physical strips of magic stuff that captures an image chemically rather than digitally. The Narrative Production class at the University had everyone shoot a short on film as the second assignment, providing the camera and gear for short but not the film, which we bought ourselves. And boy, the experience of shooting on traditional film remains to be one of the most unique set of challenges I’ve learned about so far, which I think contributed to The Tunnel being a little different compared to my other shorts – but more on that in a bit.

You can watch The Tunnel here:

It’s a dying medium, this film stuff, and working with it while it’s still around has always been a dream for me along with most filmmakers. Despite how expensive and uniquely demanding the medium is, 35mm film was (and still is) the golden visual standard to what all movies, for most of the history of the movie, are held to. For the class we used the 16mm size, which is smaller, cheaper, and carries less “resolution” than the cinematic 35mm standard (in laymen’s terms: granier). To make the project a little more complicated (and even cheaper), we used black-and-white “reversal” film, which is essentially the cheapest version of 16mm. And it looks pretty awful, mostly due to that type of film’s poor dynamic range response. Finally, the camera we used was a Bolex H-16. Yes, it’s as ancient as it looks. Instead of being powered by batteries, you had to crank it several times to wind up the internal motor, which was then capable of shooting for 30-second intervals on its own before requiring more cranking. Hooray.

This camera could document a war. In fact, it has several times.

No batteries, all metal design, practically indestructible, three different lenses on it at once; seems to me like the ultimate documentary camera.

The camera was both wonderful and terrible to use. You see all the endearing inventiveness of the analog era on display. Don’t want to wait for lens changes? Just have three of them on there at all time. Can’t edit your footage? There’s a built-in fader you can operate during a take. No batteries? You’re the battery. If you were shooting in direct sunlight, you had to be careful not to let too much light into the viewfinder, since that could over expose the frame you’re on in the camera. The viewfinder itself was horrible. It was prism-based (what?) so you only saw a fraction of the light hitting the film. The result was this often very dark image which was almost impossible to see through past f/16. Focusing was a challenge. The degrading C-mount lenses looked (and behaved) like little toys. The shutter speed control is actually your framerate/film speed control. You can’t adjust your shutter without speeding up or slowing down your footage. And, of course, the ISO is baked onto the particular roll of film you’re using. Finally, you have to know how to use a lightmeter, because the camera ain’t gonna tell you what exposure settings you need to be at.

Film likes to be cold. Make sure it heats back up before using.

Film stores better in the cold, so we kept it in the fridge. Make sure it warms back up before using!

So, there’s all that plus the more global limitations of shooting on film: no playback of what you just recorded, no real idea of what you just recorded other than what you (hopefully) wrote down when you finished recording, and a very limited amount of film, which basically means “don’t fuck up.” And since the camera was so old, it’s easy to overlook some exposure setting and haphazardly shoot a take that’s just too bright or dark. And it’s a permanent medium, you’re not getting that part of your film back, it’s gone. So film, by its nature, demands you treat it with a sort of “perfectionist” approach that shooting digital simply does not teach you. With film you have to plan each and every take, and make positive that each and every take is what you want it because the moment the record button is pushed, and the gears of the camera rattle the film through the gate, you are quite literally using up money. And in that respect, it becomes pretty cool to see how you, as a filmmaker, react to that kind of demand and pressure.

After shooting a test 100ft roll of 16mm film (which equates to two minutes, roughly) at the park, we got two rolls to shoot our short film project. The restrictions were similar to the class I took the semester prior, no dialogue and a max running time of roughly two minutes. I had a few ideas, but this time, unlike the class prior, all of our stories were presented and workshopped in the class. I presented three ideas, which I still have on my iPhone notes app: a collection of ‘documentary’ footage about some virulent disease spreading through campus and the ensuing military quarantine, a guy that has to cross a foreboding tunnel and encounters some dark force within it, and a girl driving to a dinner party that gets a blown-out tire and has to change it before continuing on.

Doing camera tests in the park, under some heavy-ass instagram filter for some reason.

Doing some glamorous camera tests in the park, under some heavy-ass instagram filters.

I ended up picking the tunnel idea because it was the only one out of three that had an existing location close to where I lived, and so it was a little easier to visualize. In hindsight, I would have much rather done the other two ideas for a variety of reasons. The quarantine idea would just been tons of fun, and would have taken a very cool aesthetic with the whole black-and-white 60s film look. It would have resembled some classified, authentic archival footage or some shit. There were going to be hazmat suit people, helicopters, grotesque biological transformations. It was going to be dope. There was going to be some really striking imagery. And the flat tire idea would have given me a much better opportunity to tell a story and convey an arc, as well as measure how well I can sell a day-in-the-life type film. It would have been an stripped down, relatable story that I was going to rigorously apply structure and theory to make a meaningful little short out of. The class wasn’t really sold on the quarantine idea, but liked the tunnel and the tire changing ideas. And for some reason, I went with this tunnel shit. Oh well.

The reason The Tunnel ended up being very vague and unexciting was because it simply wasn’t thought out. When it came to the actual shooting day, I still didn’t have much beyond the initial idea. I had rough shot list, but never quite settled on what the main character was actually going to encounter in that dark place. And since the planning was so haphazard, I didn’t have an actor. I called friends to play the characters an hour before shooting. No crew except me (so much for film forcing you to plan things), and in that sense, I suppose The Tunnel was surprisingly coherent. It really was the definition of winging it. We shot it sequentially, because I knew what happens at the beginning, more or less. But when it came time to build the suspense, in the tunnel, I don’t know, more shots of him walking? Scary noises? Oh wait let’s have the cyclist lady be lying further up the tunnel and imply some paranormal force got her. What paranormal force? What did it do to her? Why is it there? What does it look like? What does it have to do with the main character? I had no idea.

More shots of scared Wyatt looking at things. I think I settled on a Smoke Monster-esque type thing coalescing around her body, and a scary message written out in blood on the wall for post while shooting. At that point, we were running low on my last roll of film so I just told Wyatt to run out and close the piece on an image of the tunnel closing and swallowing him in there. Chilling? Sure, whatever. We wrapped after an hour of shooting in a parking garage, and the next day the footage was sent off to get developed and scanned.

The madness of coloring begins.

The madness of coloring in After Effects begins.

By that point, I knew that The Tunnel wasn’t going to be special. What I thought was going to be a cool horror piece ended up being too rushed and too poorly thought out to mean much. But, I wanted my only attempt at film to be unique to the class in some way, so at that point there was the (now hilarious) decision to digitally recolor, shot by shot, my 16mm black-and-white film in it’s entirety. And that’s when the fun started. We got the footage back, and for 4 long days, I rotoscoped elements in every shot of the movie so that I could artificially add color back into the image. Days of drawing and mainting shapes against the grass, clothes, skin, sky, and all the other shit that has color in a movie (i.e. everything). Podcasts, coffee, and rotoscoping. For a short film that was of dubious quality to begin with.

Then an important part of the film, the shot where we reveal the bloodied message on the wall and the smoke monster villain, was too dark to see shit. I couldn’t add VFX of a bloody message to a wall you can’t even see. Or a dark smoke monster. So the visual payoff, to further confuse the people watching who are already wondering what the hell is going on, was instead added to the shot of Molly, the recently deceased cyclist, by way of VFX’ing her head to look like some life-sized mannequin. It was the only thing I could think of that would be unsettling and add some kind of visual horror to it. The reality is, the shot’s too dark and grainy and fast to really tell what it was. So after the sound was designed and mixed, The Tunnel was finished.

When the short eventually screened to the small class, people thought the color was cool and the atmosphere was good. I did work a bit on the sound design and mix. As for the rest, well yeah. It wasn’t great. But I knew that from the beginning. I wasn’t in familiar territory I think, and the the way I approached the short reflected that. I was also still learning how the politics of class workshops worked as well, which I understand is a divisive issue in my program between my film friends. Some people hate it, others think it helps to a degree. It’s all fairly subjective, and everybody’s experience is so varied that I can’t really come to a consensus on it, but I will say I think you just have to take from class workshops what you can. And try to be as good of a communicator as possible. A lot of people will give you feedback on your ideas and maybe a handful of those people will have some helpful stuff to add. I don’t know. Maybe you don’t want to woo a bunch of strangers in a room and you just wanna make a godamned movie already. Maybe this is training for the eventual day you’ll have to woo a bunch of strangers in a room in order to make your movie. Maybe you acknowledge that but don’t understand why we need some practice pitch in order to be granted the privilege to direct our own film in the film class we paid for in film school where we are supposed to be learning about the craft. I digress, that’s a rant for another post.

I think I was able to shake it off fairly quickly, call it a learning experience, and move on. After all, we were still very much learning how to shoot on this crazy film stuff, and I wasn’t sure how a beginner black-and-white film could end up being great anyways. Well I was wrong. In another section of the same class, my friend Mark Hewitt was creating a killer short that I had the pleasure of helping on. You can peep that one right below:

Lord Peter ended up being my favorite 2nd project from that class that, to me, uses all the restrictions and tools that the class gives you to good effect and creatively tells a good story while doing it. I ended up operating the camera during the part in the film that takes place in the dark castle interior, which was a parking garage, and doing some minimal VFX work which you can see below.

The most CGI in the short was the shot above, where we needed a picture of a castle to look like it was alive and like we shot it with the same camera. I faked movement with the tree branches and birds, and I wanted to have the reflection of the water moving too but I think I was too short on time. In the end, I thought the shot blended fairly well in the edit after some heavy grading to match that tricky 16mm reversal grain and stock. Other shots include the shot with Lord Peter and the cat approaching from the gate, which had a visible car parked behind it. It needed to be over-exposed and painted out. Finally, there was the troll melting, and two digital pick-up shots which needed to look identical to the original film stock. The digital shots ended up sneaking in pretty well, although on a closer look now I can see some details in them that can be improved on.

The most fun I had on Lord Peter was shooting the underground sequence in my parking garage, trying to light the scene with iphones, car headlights, and portable LED arrays. It was a pretty zero budget/time shoot. I was operating a different film camera from the Bolex I used, since Mark was in another section of the class, called the CP-16. It was still old, but a lot more familiar and battery-powered. Somehow, we didn’t catch a car in the footage, and the darkness in garage combined with all the little reflections of light from the cars in the distance really made it look like a dark cavernous castle. I think we shot wide open and prayed the film would come back at least somewhat exposed. We were definitely very relieved when the footage came back okay. It’s pretty funny remembering how ragtag the parking lot shoot felt versus how it turned out in the final product. The troll character was just a dude in a mask with basketball shorts on and a cape but hey, the final product rocked and it’s still shown in the class to this day. On some exemplary status shit. So that’s cool!

Hey, if the film isn't good, at least the marketing is, heh.

And if the film isn’t good, at least the marketing is. Heh.

So that was The Tunnel, alongside Lord Peter, as my first foray into film work since the unofficial blog sabbatical. Hopefully that covers the extent of my experience with the two projects and all of their filminess. In the next post, we’ll be moving right along the timeline to my experiences with the third and final project in the class, as well as a few related projects which ended up being just as important.

I hope you enjoyed the post, whoever you are. It was a lot of words I just wrote. Congrats for reading it. I’ve got some other stuff to catch up on in the meantime.

Stay groovy.

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