Notes from The Director

I’ve been asked by a lot of people who has seen some part of our first film Shroud: how did you pull this off?

Well, I thought I would share with you how we did what we did for how little we had. Get some hot chocolate because I brought some notes.   

Jetrefilm.com

The Internet is any independent filmmaker’s first and most favored ally. As designers, this was the perfect opportunity to re-enforce our claims as visually daring—make gorgeous websites and support sites.

Coming into 2008 we have emboldened our online presence and afforded any potential investor, partner or distributor the chance to see just who we are. We are master designers who work as comfortably in print, as we do on the Internet or in film. Our images are stylish and captivating, our design engage both the mind and the imagination.

Our ambition for our site is nothing less than the declaration that a new force in filmmaking is now on the scene. Our production values are top shelf, and our stories are even better.

We’re here to make art. We’re here to make money. We’re here to stay.

Flixster.com

A powerful social networking destination for film and television professionals, we focused on Flixster.com shortly after completely our MySpace inaugural push and our 2008 website renovation.

YouTube.com

This video publishing website has literally reshaped media distribution through its open policy to all things video. YouTube.com has even reshaped the recent political debate for the 2008 presidential campaign and has become a focal point for independent and studio film, as well as television.

Our presence on YouTube is simple: upload our work and start talking about it. We are exciting about the growing interest in our film and look forward to leveraging that interest into selling might.

Gayla Partridge

Gayla Partridge (Austin, Texas) is as good a photographer as we have been privileged to meet. Gayla has an impeccable sense of style and art, as well as a full studio wherein she crafts the most sublime of images. Gayla did some work for Shroud at the request of Nicole Leigh, and the images have been at the forefront of our promotion of Shroud.

Though specialized in her genre of photography, if what she shoots is what you want—she is well worth it. Visit our portfolio at www.jetrefilm.com to see her amazing work. Seeing is believing.

Gayla, thank you for your impressive work.

Independent Film Resources

Fortunately for independent filmmakers, several websites exist to equip the dedicated director with vast online caches of easily accessible information. Immediate resources such as (www.variety.com) and BackStage West come to mind, but there are also Filmmaker Magazine (www.filmmakermagazine.com), Indie Slate (www.indieslate.com), Indie Wire (www.indiewire.com) and Indie Talk (www.indietalk.com).

Victoria’s Apparel

As the main character, Victoria Celestine was going to require some designer apparel. We decided early on to build all her clothes from scratch. We quickly agreed she would wear a mourning dress from the opening scene until she arrived in Shroud, at which point she was switch to some less drab. In Shroud Victoria appears in no less than eight changes of costume, so the wardrobe was a necessary investment. For the level of elegance we felt was essential for the character we hired the very talented Marty van Kleeck, a local designer.

Marty immediately understood the historical framing of the film and offered expert guidance as to the style of the dresses, the appropriate fabrics and even masterfully produced matching hats and purses. In all, Marty built three amazing dresses: 1) black mourning dress with hat and purse; 2) scarlet dress bodice with jacket and hat; and 3) the off the shoulder blue dress with matching hat.

In the end, Marty delivered the movie’s most impressive wardrobe on time, on budget and with a smile. Marty, amazing work!

Johnathan’s Journal

Given the historical, archaeological, arcane, occult and spiritual content of Johnathan’s detailed journal, there was just no way around having to build the book from scratch and manually bind it.

No easy way to do this: lots of searching on the Internet, frequent evenings at Barnes & Noble and hundreds of hours lounging at the local library.

We tapped the art departments at Design & Technology Consulting Services (www.dtcs.net) and Sandmerrick (www.Sandmerrick.com) for the copywriting, layout and design of Johnathan’s journal. Once the necessary text, symbols, indicia and illustrations were accumulated, recreated and generated, the designers compiled the entire journal in spreads in Adobe InDesign CS2.

Finally approved, we submitted it to Digital Document Services (www.ddsep.com) for printing. Afterwards we submitted it to Betty Barna of Kaligrafos (www.kaligrafos.com) for manual bindery.

On film the scores of pseudo-vintage documents played beautifully.

The Lyching Oak

Central to Shroud is the legend of Cinecusa, and central to his origin is a strange thing called The Lyching Oak. Believed cursed by the hundreds of souls hung on its branches, The Lyching Oak is as much a character as Victoria or Mayor Undercroft. For this reason, we had to find a tree that was spooky and unique enough so that when the audience see it for the first time on film, they’d say “Yep, that’s it.”

After about four months of searching, we slowly surrendered to the fact we were going to have to build it as a computer generated image (CGI). After some initial concepting and photomanipulations, we set up some meetings with Element X Creative (www.elementxcreative.com) to discuss the exact number of scenes required, as well as the effect of the tree being burned at the end of the script.

The very talented design team at Element X Creative met with us, listened to our needs, and guided us through the complex process of tree design, animation and effects in a timely and expert manner.

The Ninesabers Authority

We needed some official looking documentation and folios from The Ninesabers Authority, who are mentioned in the script. We contacted Holsapples Engravers (www.holsapples.com) and had a die made and had several inexpensive soft-bound journals embossed with the Ninesabers logo. We also had some stamps made as well, so we could do the whole red and black wax seal thing. They all turned out great.

Once the dies are made, you pay per item to emboss anything that will fit in the machine.

As with the other documentation, we created the Ninesabers logo in Adobe Illustrator CS2 and submitted all die files in PDF to the respective vendors electronically (email). The turnaround time was less than a week. In all, we produced almost fifty original documents that looked great.

Replica 19th Century Documentation

We didn’t want Shroud to be enslaved to authenticity, so we painstakingly created scores of files in Adobe Illustrator CS2. These files were percussion cap & ball receipts, train tickets, ship manifests, barber shop appointment cards. We used classic fonts like Centaur, Cezanne, Trajan and other antique families to help retrofit the layouts.

As for printing the documents, we used our Dell 3100CN color laser printer which did a great job.

Photographic distressing was handled in Adobe Photoshop CS2 through any dozen filters (film, grain, noise, threshold, layer effects, etc.).

As far as the varying paper stocks, we went to several paper vendors—principally Xpedex Paper Supply and O-Kay Paper (both in Dallas) and bought several sheets of off-white linens, card stocks and parchments.

We distressed the edges with Xacto blades, fine grain sandpaper and a whole lot of folding. You know, sometimes you must to fold, spindle and mutilate.

For drying the paper we simply baked the paper very carefully in an oven at low temperatures to get that slightly burnt look. For anything more direct, we just took a lighter to some pages to show abuse.

All other things in the journal were bought at Michael’s like pressed flowers, ribbon book marks, old padlock keys, tassels, etc.

Plate Armor

In the script, Victoria discovers a suit of 16th century plate armor. We were surprised to learn that our allotted budget for armor would have gotten a full suit off the Internet. The only problem would have been the armor would not have been fitted, and it would have been for a man.

So, we approached my friend Patrick Thaden (www.thadenarmory.com) who worked with me on my 20-minute short film Knightsilver and he agreed the necessary armor could be built from scratch for the same amount that we were going to pay for an Internet suit.

Patrick was pretty busy, but explained he definitely wanted to work on the project. Further, he had been in correspondence with another superb armor-maker Ugo Serrano (www.ugoserrano.com) who had worked on Witchblade and The Chronicles of Riddick. I think they have been chatting on the Internet forum Armour Archive (www.armourarchive.org) for about four years and had never met, let alone work on a project together.

Patrick pitched the Shroud armor concept to Ugo who signed up. Patrick promptly flew him from Los Angeles to Dallas and they banged everything out in about 4.5 days.

I had provided some basic armor concepts, but really differed to Patrick on this project. What can I say? He showed me a nice picture of a nice suit of armor in a nice book. “It’s gonna look like that,” he said. “Swell,” I think was my remarkably articulate response.

We got Nicole down to Denton, Texas to get measured and they were off.

Past that I was pretty much hands-off. And therein lies wisdom: it is so cool to have talented people who know (better than you) exactly what has to happen. People like Patrick and Ugo make a director’s job so easy. These guys are fire-and-forget wonder-workers. The first time I saw the armor was when it was finished.

Sold!

It looked great. Only the top part of the armor was built as the bottom part of the costume is a black leather battle skirt which fell under the purview of our seamstress Ms. Jenny.

We brought Nicole back down for sizing and the armor was spot on. We took a few snapshots of the armor under interior and exterior lighting just to be sure it would photograph well and that was it.

Once the armor was finished, I took it to our office. The only part of the armor that needed a little art direction was the straps that hold the suit together.

Originally Patrick had just laced it together with leather strips. So I went to Michael’s (arts and crafts) and far about $40 bought all the leather straps and silver beads needed to visually enhance the armor. The black leather straps came in a single 25-foot spool and the beads are just plastic. The only problem we encountered with the armor was the straps broke during some of the high energy combat sequences. So on our next film, the Tolkienesque war film Vangelis, we’re paying for real leather, latches and buckles.

Horses & Wranglers

When doing a western you are invariably confronted with the issue of horses. Now due to our small budget, we initially didn’t have a lot of scenes with horses and we were going to explain this away very cleverly in the script.

However, we happened to be in the right state. Texas is a huge state with hundreds of miles of open range, but we didn’t even have to go that far. Fort Worth, Texas is about 30 miles west of Dallas and boasts one of the largest Civil War re-enactment communities in North America. A few phones and we quickly located hundreds of re-enactors who all had their own apparel and props.

Additionally, being Texas we found several Old West re-enactors with their own period-correct apparel, weaponry and horses.

For Shroud we needed six total horses plus a covered wagon. Once we looked, we found everything and very affordably too. They were all in Fort Worth, so instead of trying to move them to Austin to film in Willieville, we simply found another ranch near Weatherford (Wahoo Ranch) and film the horses scenes there. The two old west towns will be spliced together in editing. This solution allowed us to have all the horses, wagon and wranglers locally and avoid the punishing costs of transporting them and their horses and their property to Austin, food and lodging.

So it worked out pretty well.

19th Century Tallships

Again, our own state turned out to be our best location. Texas has a coast – a lot of it. We simply Googled 19th century ships in Texas and immediately the beautiful Elissa popped up.

Being a ship, of course, she’s in Galveston, so that was determined that shot was to be a weekend unto itself since its about 5 hours from Dallas to Galveston. Strangely, it is the shortest shot in the entire film, but it was decided that Victoria’s journey from England to American simply could not be hinted at. So, we built in two scenes that at least show her boarding the ship for America, and exiting it. We also have a few deck shots.

Since the Elissa is right in the middle of Galeston harbor, we elected to shoot it at night in order to cloak out the rest the modern setting around her. Nothing hides as well as night.

Unfortunately, to take a ship of that size out to the Gulf coasts between $5,000 – $10,000 a day and that was simply not in our budget.

Again, just showing the ship in harbor is enough to convey the exhausting journey one would have had to taken in that era to get half-way around the world.

I think continentally only in California and Texas can you drive for 7 hours and still be in the state. Wow, lots of real estate. Unfortunately, the Elissa ultimately didn’t work out for us and we hired Vladimir Eugene out of California as a Unit Director. He was able to secure some beautiful footage of the Star of India for us.

Hamilton Pool Cave

Texas is a beautiful state with a wide range of locations and terrain. Mostly notably is a beautiful formation called Hamilton Pool Cave. A recessed, semi-circular shelf cave, it was perfect for many scenes in the film. Contacting the county in which Hamilton Pool Cave is located, we learned we could film there for the minimum $8 per car park fee. However, given we were shooting a film, we went ahead and made the necessary request to close the park for the three days we were there. We retained the local park rangers for security and started shooting.

The park officials and rangers were all very cordial and professional. We deferred to them on many occasions to safeguard the natural beauty of the park. Fortunately, it never rained on us and the location proved to be one of the more striking places in our film.

Film Insurance

Does anybody like shopping around for this stuff? The first thing you are going to find is they don’t like independent film. Of course, I am a dedicated professional so this angers me, but looking at it from their perspective, I think they are tired of amateur hacks getting actors hurt, equipment lost and locations damaged because of a lack of experience, planning, common sense or minimum competence.

Shroud literally – without exaggeration – as the simplest set of action sequences a movie can have and still be called an action movie, and most of these guys wouldn’t touch me. Like everything in film, it’s a Catch-22 – you have to have something in order to get something, but you can’t something until you’ve already gotten it.

After twenty years of thought, I can only conclude this is some lowest-common denominator Darwinian test to see who has the resources and resolve to make something happen for themselves because otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.

I have never personally met anyone who is as good a fight coordinator as I am—I am not boasting, I just haven’t. I am mechanically inclined towards the technical execution of martial arts, highly creative, and painstakingly safety-oriented.

Of course, this all doesn’t matter.

So, I had to hire a bonded stuntman for two days to be on my set in order to qualify for insurance, to manage the most mundane of stunts. Fortunately, as with everything else, it’s not as expensive as you think.

Now, if you want to know where independent film needs to drastically improve its relationship with the filmmaking business and those industries that support it – this is one of them.

I’ve watched so many independent films that were just laughable on every level, but fighting usually stands out as the most incompetent…well, fighting and sound.

So, either know what you are doing or find someone who does and cover all your bases, and then you’ll still have to hire some stunt coordinator to bless your film. Just do it, its worth it.

Once we realized the scam was bigger than we are, we just played along. We allocated $7,000 for insurance and I think we paid about half that for a year-long, multiple location policy.

It’s worth it.

Chatlien Photography

Every good film needs a good photographer to help with initial concepts, storyboarding, location scouting and portraiture.

My friend Bryan Chatlien (www.bryanchatlien.com) is a very talented Dallas photographer with a growing portfolio of great work. He worked with me on my short film Knightsilver and has extensive camera operator and DP experience. He’s a great second pair of eyes on any shot and knows the technical aspects of photography and videography as well as the creative.

On Shroud Bryan manned one of our cameras and the Steadicam routinely and constantly found great angles and even errors in continuity. We were so impressed with Bryan we cast him as Brisby, a Greyrider who attempts to rape our heroine.

An invaluable asset, Bryan is as solid as they come.

Online Film Development Services

Check these guys out (www.prodinfo.net) – we didn’t use them on Shroud only because we didn’t know they were around. But upon discovering them we immediately signed up for their monthly film management software. Vangelis has already benefited from the rich set of features on their software. You can literally track every aspect of your production (except budgets) with this amazing package.

Lifetime Fitness

I love this place. Its like the new Bally’s and a direct competitor to 24 Hour Fitness. It’s open 24/7 so I can go at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning if I want. It’s huge, clean and has every kind of equipment you can need.

Let me say this again: I love Lifetime Fitness (www.lifetimefitness.com).

They also have multiple studios of cardio, yoga, Pilates – you name it. They even let us do our special workouts in their studio rooms when empty during the day. It was great.

Let me say also that we love Nicole Leigh, but a more feminine woman you will never find. Victoria is a tomboy raised by her eccentric father Isaiah, so we needed a girl who, when push came to shove, could push and shove.

Nicole’s already as member of Lifetime Fitness (as am I) so we decided to get her a personal trainer – Sarah Pascale — to really punch up her physical fitness against the long hours of martial arts training she was taking.

All at Lifetime Fitness. Great environment and it is (and will) really pay off in the final performance.

Fight Choreography

Unless you just want one of your actors to slap somebody, or maybe even if you want a limited fist fight – yeah, you don’t need fight choreography. However, if you are putting together a complex fight, using various styles or weapons—you have to have fight choreography.

The three most important components to a good fight are these:

1) Find a Fight Choreographer or an Action Designer

A lifetime martial artist (since I was eight) I have practiced Karate, Tae Kwon Do, western boxing, JKD, Judo, simple street fighting and most recently Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu in Fort Worth, Texas (www.authentickungfu.com).

I can design a fight for anybody: brawlers, technicians, European or Asian styles.

Find somebody who understands whatever it is you want to put to film: kicks, punches, grappling, trapping hands, wrestling, chases, weapon combat, weapon forms, firearms.

It will be so worth it.

2) Properly profile your actors for their AQ

There’s IQ (intelligent quotient) but there’s also AQ (action or athletic quotient). In short, some people cannot fight. They are either too timid, too weak, too uncoordinated or in the case of many women, simply too feminine. The rule: Do not cast these people in fight scenes, not matter how pretty or how good they are.

Half of a good fight scene is knowing how to convincingly hit others, and the other half is knowing how to be hit. I don’t have time to go into here, but one can be grazed, glanced, hit lightly, hit hard, hit and pissed off, hit and dazed, hit and knocked out – there are as many reactions to impacts as there are ways to create impacts. Innovate, and get people used to moving their heads. Warm up the neck with several minutes of easy roles—never grind the bone—and you will have a neck ready for all that snapping.

3) Film the fight correctly

I remember working for seven weeks with multiples teams of actors who were going to all be in a gang fight. I think I designed ten unique fights between fifteen people. Most of the fights were great, but some simply suffered from the totally lack of athleticism in some of the actors (mostly the girls) but even their fight could have worked.

When the director shot the fight scene he literally filmed it the exact opposite he should have. This goes to composition—you must frame your fight in exciting and effective ways. You don’t frame a shot in which the blow clearly misses the opponent – this is Fighting 101 people.

All blows should cross the face at a distance of no more than an inch, if not closer. True martial artists can miss their training partners by a hairs breadth—literally 1/8″ to ¼” at most (and feel the wind off it). That’s what you really want, but don’t endanger your fragile actors if they cannot perform with that degree of control and precision.

Conceal all near misses with oblique angles.

Set Decoration

Once we settled on Willie Nelson’s “Willieville” we realized we would have to populate the set (ever how sparsely) with the meager possessions of those people who survive there.

Shroud is a virtually abandoned town in the script, used only as a storehouse for plunder. For the vintage artifacts that appear in Shroud, we contacted Moody Anderson at The Grove Country Life Museum. Okay, people, this place has everything. In fact, it was so cool we actually shot there. Moody also has a huge warehouse out in the middle of nowhere—I am not kidding, out in the middle of nowhere – where he storehouses tens of thousands of western and nineteenth century props.

We drove out to his warehouse, walked every aisle picking out things we liked, made a list and got a receipt. Moody’s prices are insanely affordable. As a result we were able to really decorate Willieville with some period props and remarkable pieces that completely set the mood of the story and the setting of the town. A good art director goes a long way. Find one and pay him what he wants. Add to that a nice warehouse full of props and you have a beautiful frame.

Candle Cages

A recurring motif in Shroud is imprisonment, so we had Patrick Thaden of Thaden Armory design five candle cages that resemble miniature iron maidens—a torture device popular at the time of Cinecusa’s alleged death. A simple design with a removable bottom plate on which the candle rests, the candles added some creepiness to the bar and church. Simple and effective.

Other candles were rented from The Grove 19th century museum along with lantern and candlestick holders – lots of candles.

So that’s how you make a movie for very, very little.

Thanks for playing.

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~ by David Jetre on March 6, 2008.

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