The Final Day in the Life: My Experience Creating “The End.”

LDS Film Festival 2011For the past three years I’ve had the privilege of being directly involved in the LDS Film Festival. This doesn’t count the year before, when I merely attended. The first year, I entered the 24 hour film making marathon with what was my second short film, and it was pretty terrible. Then last year I entered again with a much better film that was still nothing too special. That year I also volunteered, providing the AV equipment for the presenters, each of whom I introduced. I ran the projection in one theater for a short while and even was asked to be a member of a panel on Mormon film and new media at the last minute. Being involved so deeply was a great experience that I hoped to repeat.

Then this year came around and I was swamped. I had deadlines. I had family conflicts. I had other issues that made it so I literally could not attend a single screening or presentation with one exception: the 24 hour films, one of which was mine again. And though I say it myself, this year it was pretty good.

What I mean by that is that just as the quality of my film increased exponentially from year one to year two, 2011 saw an enormous improvement from 2010′s entry. I don’t know if it was “good” by industry or community standards. I don’t know if it was “good” for any given person. All I know is that when I saw it finished I knew I was looking at my best work to date, and I felt I could show it to all my brilliant, amazing friends without shame that this was all I could come up with. It had my signature and it was worth watching. To me, if no one else.

This was a new feeling for me. I’ve pretended to be a filmmaker for a long time. I’ve wanted to be one and if you defined the term as a person who has at some point made a film, then I guess I technically qualified. but I didn’t feel like a filmmaker.  I never went to film school or got a degree in media arts or the like. My knowledge of the industry is based on experience, independent study, and special features DVDs. I still can’t completely follow conversations that use big heaps of film jargon. Now, with six short films under my belt, including one I can actually own up to without apology, I may be a bit closer to deserving that title. At least that’s how I’m starting to feel.

Now, I suffer from no delusion that my most recent short is anything unprecedented or groundbreaking for anyone but myself, but I would like to share with you the journey that was its making, and discuss some things I’ve learned along the way. But before we start that you may want to see the thing we’ll be talking about, so here goes:

So now that you’ve maybe seen it, let me lay the groundwork. For those of you who don’t know, the 24 Hour Film Making Marathon starts at 10:00 AM the Friday before the LDS Film Festival has its first screening. Entrants come to a meeting where they are issued a theme (this year’s was generosity), an object (a dollar bill) and a line of dialog (“what more can…”). Teams can consist of up to five people, which includes cast and crew, and you have to have all their names at the time of the registration meeting. You can replace one if (s)he has to drop out, but only five can work on the film. From the time the meeting ends (usually about 10:30) teams have 24 hours to make a short film meeting the requirements and no more than three minutes in length.

So much for that. Now, meet my team.

Me setting up a shot

This is me. You might recognize me as the jerk from the film. I’ve already told you about myself, so lets move on.

Brendan HamillThis guy is Brendan Hamill. You probably realize that he’s the street musician in our film. He works for the church’s AV department gathering the resources for The World Report. He also is a camera operator on some projects and does various other things. In addition to the role I’ve mentioned on our film, he did all the male voices other than mine in the soundtrack and served as a kind of DP. I had never met him before this day.

Chante Wouden and Brendan Hamill The woman standing by Brendan here is Chante Wouden, who also works for the church AV department, but in HR. I met her when she got me a job interview because she knew my brothers and liked my family. We discussed doing this marathon together at that time, probably at least 8 months before it happened. Chante is full of energy and life, and provided craft services, camera operating skills, voice and body acting (Janet and 3 crowd members), and an incredible creative insight. Although the whole team took part, Chante, Brendan, and I were the main three who hammered out the script for the film over the course of 3-4 hours.

Nate TylerNate Tyler (standing next to me) provided a key concept for the shooting of the film and was an assistant camera operator. He also played two of the crowd members in that scene. Nate also works for the church AV department as a project manager. He and Brendan were Chante’s recruits. Nate has some acting experience, but his official job is to manage the financial side of the productions he’s involved with. We met for the first time just before we started shooting.

Brienne Coombs Last but not least is my sister in-law Brienne Coombs. Brienne was on my team the first year I entered and has made some very entertaining stop motion Lego films for the Primary class she was teaching at the time. Her interests and talents vary widely, but this time around she served primarily as a grip and an assistant editor. She also did the voice of Nate’s mother.

Brienne was the one who registered the team and gave us all the information, but then she had to go to work. As soon as we could assemble, Chante, Brendan and I met to formulate a film. A few days prior I had gotten a sudden idea to do a film involving the end credits of a person’s life. Initially I thought of having cutscenes from that life with a voice-over of the character explaining things to some unnamed, presumably divine judge. It was about the final judgment. I presented that as a starting place and the team liked it, so we went from there, working it around our theme and exploring the kinds of things that might have lead to such a scenario as we ended up with.

It was a scene I’ll never forget. The three of us gathered at Chante’s apartment in Bountiful. I had brought not only camera and sound gear, but a whole host of props and costume items to spur ideas and be ready if needed. At first we made introductions and picked a general concept from among the three offered. At that point I started pacing because I think much better when I’m moving. Chante was sitting on one couch typing all our ideas into a mind-mapping program and the two of us were bouncing concepts and motivations back and forth like ping pong. Brendan sat on the other couch playing guitar and bringing Chante and me back to Earth whenever we got carried away. I made an occasional phone call to Brienne to keep her informed. Nate was unavailable.

There was an incredible creative chemistry in the room. No one was disparaging of anyone else’s ideas. Everyone contributed freely, and we all seemed to understand our roles in the process and filled them easily. I’ve never had a session like it. I can’t vouch for the others, but at the end of it, when Brendan and I went out location scouting, I felt that we had come up with something that was greater by far than what any of us could have developed alone.

me climbing a ladder

We knew we had to stay local since we were fast losing light, so Brendan and I confined our search to Bountiful. We needed a street that was believable as a place where a musician might choose to play with an overpass or a tall building near enough that we could get almost directly above the action. Ironically, after lots of looking, we found one just a few blocks from the apartment at Center and Main. The owners of The Book Garden and Classy Chassis graciously agreed to let us climb up on their roof, so we were set.

setting up shotWe decided to get the aerial shot first. After picking up Chante, Nate, and the gear, I climbed up on the building with Nate to find the right angle. From there, we set up the shot with Brendan acting as a placeholder for me. I gave everyone instructions on how to attempt the most complex shot in the film, which was of a type I’ve never tried before. Basically we were trying to create a crowd of five or six with two people. I lay on the ground while Nate started rolling the tape. Brendan then came in to attend to me, while Chante and Nate walked in and out, changing costumes and positions each time. It all seemed to go well as far as shooting was concerned, but there was another problem.

Maybe the camera was too high up for people to notice, or maybe our acting was just good because a bystander called 911 on us. Fortunately, one of the officers who came was one we had already talked with about what we were planning to do, so there was no trouble. But a passing ambulance also pulled around the block and came back to make sure everyone was all right. We seemed to have caused quite a scene.

Setting up the opening sequence.Shooting the openingAfter that our light was nearly gone, so we quickly shot the opening sequence and went back to my place to edit. But first we had a voice-over to plan and record. Nate had to leave and Brienne joined us during this time, so we ate a little (thanks to my wife) and then got down to business.

Since my voice is the only one in the film associated with a face and since Brendan has a talent for voice acting, we determined that he would provide any male voices that were needed beyond mine, which was to be kept strictly for the main character. Brienne and Chante would provide the female voices. But the main question was, what would a person remember as he was presumably bleeding to death on the asphalt immediately after a mean act? For a character such as we had created, we thought he would remember his faults first – his regrets and the things he blamed for the problems in his life. Then that would hopefully lead him to thoughts of what he had that was worth living for, but the two would remain in fairly strong conflict. He would be uncertain about what was coming for him.

Recording sessionMe with headphonesNone of the voice-over lines were scripted more than a few seconds before we performed them. Most of them weren’t scripted at all. There, in the extremely sophisticated sound studio that was my family room, we all stretched our wings a bit and tried to act like people we were not quite spontaneously.

We still had a few cleanup shots to get, so we did that on the street outside my house using car headlights and an on-camera fixture I had. These were the shots where my head hits the asphalt and the closing shot. We tried to get them earlier, but because of failing batteries we were unable. Teenagers giving their names for inclusion in the credits.We did, however, meet some teenagers who asked to be in our film. We told them about the five person limit, but promised to put their names in the credits if they would give them to us. Two of them took us up on that.

Me laying in the street while Brendan sets up the shot.Editing was up next. The first thing I tried was compositing the crowd shot. I ended up with four layers of the same shot in total, each masked to only show the things we wanted to see and timed so we would see them all together. My team had hit their marks almost perfectly so that there was only one body we couldn’t use because it interfered with another. But we didn’t really need it. Everyone got a fresh boost of energy when they saw how well the shot had turned out, especially since the others hadn’t really understood how it was going to work. Good feelings there.

On a time crunch now, Chante and Brienne set to finding music and sound effects while Brendan wrote the “fake” credits. I edited. We again had a great collaborative atmosphere during this time. Brendan would call out for name suggestions, which we would freely give. I would overhear the music and Brienne and Chante’s comments and would give my own input. I would also ask for feedback on the editing from time to time. It all worked amazingly well.

When all that remained was the sound editing – picture locked – Brienne and Brendon got a few hours sleep while Chante and I stayed up to discuss how to piece together the VO. And discuss we did! We talked about which lines came where, how complex to make it, and which parts needed to be heard clearly. Me editingWe were both grateful and astonished as we saw what we had considered random pieces of ad-libbed, mediocre dialog fit snugly together in terms of both timing and content. We only had to re-time one or two clips, and we had as many as eleven audio tracks going at once. Things that sounded silly or trite during recording now carried weight and meaning. Spur-of-the-moment ideas only intended to give us options proved vital to creating the dramatic tension we sought. As ridiculous as it may sound, it seemed to us fairly miraculous.

Well, to cut a long story non-quite-as-long, by 7:30 AM we had our final cut, of which everyone approved. Brienne had awakened and come back to help with sound effects while Chante slept and Brendan had given himself for one last shot that we deemed necessary. Just before 8:00 we set off for Orem from Clinton to deliver a DVD. Brienne drove me down and, with the adrenaline now gone, I was unable to keep my head up the whole way. We were the first group finished, incredibly.

In the end, we didn’t win anything but some self-respect and hopefully the interest of a few viewers. But right from the beginning – in that first creative brainstorming session – we started with a single goal in mind. We said, “Lets make something bigger than a 24 hour competition. Lets make a film that can be watched again outside a single crowded screening and still be worth watching – still have something important to say.” I suppose that each viewer will have to decide for him or herself whether our film does say something important or whether it is worth watching, but to our team it does, and it is.