THE MAKING OF A SUPER 8 FILM

 

STORY - Coming Up With the Idea and Writing the Script

 

The Good Soldier began as nothing more than an idea to make a film. I'd been shooting Super 8 film for some time and always wanted to take it a step beyond my short "moment-in-time" type of films. Super 8 was the format for me from the beginning. Essentially I had three fundamental places I was starting from:

 

1) I knew the format of the film (Super 8).

2) I knew the main location, or at least the general location.

3) I knew that I needed a story that I could realistically shoot and afford.

 

With these things swirling in my mind I began the task of writing. The intention was to write something that would be 10-15 minutes in duration. Obviously I ended up beyond that - the final picture is closer to 27 minutes.

 

Originally, I began with a completely different kind of story. The working title was "Engrained" and it was a modern day story about a graffiti artist and his buddy who visited this industrial site for a secret art project. I was struggling with the story from the very beginning, trying to force it along some path that I was hoping would become clearer to me at some point. It never did. One evening, mid-sentence, I stopped writing "Engrained" and started writing about this soldier with an unknown mission.

 

From that point on, the story came fairly quickly, until just before the end. The end was tricky for me and I employed a do-or-die tactic that I hadn't tried before in my writing. I set a deadline for myself one evening: that I would write the end of the script on this particular night - no excuses, no delays, no putting it off or accepting that I couldn't think of something - I would write an ending. Period. In the past, if I'd never really forced myself in that manner. I recall at the beginning of that writing session, I had no clue what the ending was going to be or how I was going to tie this thing up. So how on earth could I go from no idea to a complete resolution? I didn't know but I started writing anyway. And then it just came to me: it needed to be circular. It needed to be a pattern, a repeat scenario. What better way to end a story than with new questions and the tease of so much more to the story?

 

Still, the character of Miss June was originally weak - I wanted to use her more. When my wife read the story she brought up the same thing, that I needed Miss June to be more prominent. I agreed and re-wrote parts of the script to expand her character and include her more - this worked to the benefit of the end scene.

 

 

FALSE START - Figuring Stuff Out

 

During the course of writing I was already preparing and experimenting with locations, cameras, film stocks, and sound sync methods.

 

My initial idea was to shoot the film at the top of the grain silos (about 10 stories - 100 ft - up a ladder) in this engine room area. I shot some test footage along with recording some sound but unfortunately (or maybe it was fortunately) none of it turned out. That was a bit discouraging because I'd basically wasted a bunch of film and a bunch of time in setting up these shots that didn't turn out at all. Not too mention that the live audio was crap as well. So here I was in what I thought was the perfect location for shooting the film and nothing was working.

 

At that point I began to re-think my vision of the soldier's room. I also realized that I needed a location that was more convenient and easy to work in. Trekking a bunch of lights and other production equipment up a 100 foot ladder was not going to work - not to mention the number of trips that the actors and crew would have to make up and down the ladder. This location was not meant to be.

 

PRE-PRODUCTION - Props, Scheduling, Casting

 

I did a butt-load of work in pre-production in order to prepare for production. I spent many hours hunting for props, everything from WWII short-wave communication radios, a parachute, authentic looking furniture, to a watch and fountain pen...these items were crucial in terms of making the story real. I scoured the internet for WWII era uniforms and eventually found a shop in Australia that had what I was looking for. I made props, like the pin-up girl calendar. My office at home began to pile up with film props and wardrobe.

 

I spent a number of hours detailing the production schedule and the shooting script. I broke the script down into what we'd shoot each day - shot by shot. So on day one I knew that I'd have to cover this many locations and get these specific shots.

 

Also included in the pre-production phase was the auditioning and casting. We held two auditions, the first being the biggest - I think we had 15 people audition between the two male parts. In the end, the two people that got the parts, Jack and Brian, were stand-outs in their performances and their appearances worked with the characters they were playing (personality-wise). It was a very exciting time for me and a real benchmark in what I think of as my filmmaking career. I still remember the butterflies in my stomach upon hearing someone else - Jack - read lines from something I'd written, aloud for the first time ever. The other strange thing was that he pulled it off so wonderfully that I actually had the impression that casting would be simple! In reality, it was just coincidence that Jack had gone first and was also the one selected for the part.

 

With all the elements in place and the crew accounted for we were ready to begin the production phase.

 

PRODUCTION - Shooting Film

Principle photography for the film took place in August 2009 - the hottest time of year in Oklahoma. the plan was to begin earlier, but of course schedules get pushed back and pushed back and next thing you know it's August. While the heat was a factor, there were few complaints from the crew - I guess, being Okies were all pretty used to the heat and humidity. The only real problem was for the actors playing the Sweepers. These guys were dressed in pants, long sleeves shirts, gloves, modified military ponchos with hoods, and face-masks! Talk about some sweating and suffering. But these guys did an incredible job and really made the best of an uncomfortable situation.

 

We narrowed the schedule down to a handful of shooting days over the period of two weeks. There was some follow-up shooting to capture random scenes - but for the most part, the bulk of the picture was shot within about 3-4 days.

 

 

POST-PRODUCTION - Developing, Transferring, and The Art of the Edit

After the film was shot it was sent to Yale Film and Video in Burbank, CA to be developed and transferred. Luckily, the developing/transferring portion fell within a previously scheduled trip I had to San Diego, CA - so I was able to take a day and drive up to Burbank to be present for the transfer.

 

Upon first seeing the shots from the film I was surprised that the overwhelming majority of the footage was in focus and well lit. This might seem odd but keep in mind that until this moment I had no idea what was actually captured on film - that's the risk you take with shooting film (but also the reward).

 

Portions of the footage were adjusted for light (brightness) and all the footage was transferred to portable hard drives and mini-DV tapes.

 

Editing is the second telling of the story. It's the story, re-told, this time with sight and sound. In a perfect world, the final cut matches the original vision in the writer's and/or director's mind(s). But as we all know, it's not a perfect world, and so the editing phase is that much more of a challenge. What goes where and how it fits in and for how long are all things that one has to consider. Of course the script is the map, so-to-speak. But the other variables that come into play are things like: what shots are available and look decent, and is there continuity from scene to scene in the cuts?

 

The editing room is another opportunity to make adjustments to the story, to the characters, and to the overall audience experience and how they 'see' the film. There are a number of technical aspects - actually most of editing is technical aspects - that can make or break a film, not the least of which is sound-syncing; matching the audio track that you hear to the video track you see. In using Super 8 film this can be especially challenging because the audio is recorded separately from the film track and they must be matched up in the editing phase. It all comes down to watching the clap-board/slate and 'marking' where the clap on screen meets the clap that you hear. The link between our eyes and ears is strong - and difficult to cheat - people notice quickly if the voice you hear doesn't match a character's mouth movements - so it's crucial to get the two matched up perfectly.

 

The rough cut of the editing phase took approximately 6 weeks. Then several more weeks past making additional tweaks and changes.