Hanging in There Retrospective

Reflections on what I learned making my first short film.

In the week since I finished my first short film, Hanging in There, I’ve been reflecting on the project and what I’ve learned.

Inspiration

In March and April I took a bit of a break from writing fiction. I was focused on editing my novel, Aperture, when I got a bit burned out with the process. I had a streak of writing everyday for six months, but I lost sight of what it was that I was trying to accomplish. I’m not sure what the future of Aperture will be, but I have some ideas as to what it could transform into.

In May I became obsessed with movies. I’m not sure what caused this to happen, but it was a lot of fun, so I went with it. I’ve always enjoyed movies, but I typically watched one or two a month instead of four or five a week. There’s something special about watching a contained story that’s typically less than three hours. It feels complete, unlike a TV show that is spread out over many episodes and seasons.

Watching movies inspired me to try to make my own films.

Back in November and December 2016, I experienced similar feelings. So much so that I wrote a script for a short film called Driftwood. But I consciously returned to writing short stories and my novel because the scope of making a short film was overwhelming compared to sitting alone and writing. The logistics of finding actors, getting the right equipment, and working with a crew, no matter how small, is much more complex than writing, which for the most part, only requires myself.

Anyways, this time around, I decided to dive in head first and try to learn as much as I could. I bought myself a camera, a Sony a6000, and a few other minor pieces of equipment. I made some shorter videos, and I got familiar with editing together footage shot with the camera. I also started to watch films with the perspective of wondering how it was made, making note of the sound, dialogue, cuts, and camera movement.

I started writing Hanging in There in May. The challenge for the project was to impose the constraints of myself being the only actor and my apartment being the only location. I thought this would simplify the logistics for the project, hopefully making it a fitting first project.

With those limitations in mind, an idea from a short story that I wrote, Latency, was swirling around in my mind. It’s about a man who witnesses a kidnapping but is unable to leave his apartment. That idea of a person who can’t leave their apartment and how they got by stuck with me. The idea of using crude animations married really well with thought of a person who doesn’t leave their home, so I decided to bring that aspect into the project as well.

Production

It took me about a week to write and revise the script. Not too much changed between revisions, since it’s a simple story. The initial working title was Homebody, which then changed to Aftermath. I eventually changed it to Hanging in There based on some dialogue from the film. I used the Fountain format to write the script, which is vastly simpler than using a rich text editor. It is essentially a more natural way to write screenplays without worrying about the complex formatting.

Shooting the project took a week, working on it on the odd day here and there. The camera I bought, the a6000, doesn’t have a screen that flips out, so I couldn’t see where I was in the shots. This lead to quite a bit of trial and error with the camera placement. My partner Abagail was kind enough to help operate and setup the camera for a few scenes, which made it a lot easier.

It was a lot of fun to change my clothes and put my hair up to try to signify the days changing. I prefer visual cues to show the passage of time instead of just showing some text that says “1 WEEK LATER.”

The most challenging scene was the text message conversation near the end. The initial plan was to record the actual screen and have Abagail text me the conversation. Setting up the camera and having the timing right was awkward, so I decided to just display the text messages over the video of me in bed while texting Abagail. An unexpected issue with this was that the radio signals from Abagail and I texting each other caused a bunch of static in the recorded audio. Darn you modern electronics! I scrapped the audio and put sound effects for the text message send and receive, as well as the text ringtone. I think it turned out passable, but if there are ever similar texting scenes in future projects, I’d like to approach it a different way.

After shooting some footage each day, I started to arrange it all in Final Cut Pro, sort of editing it as I went. This was great because I got to get a sense of how it was all coming together. The rough cuts gave me some ideas as well of additional takes and scenes to record on future days.

I animated the short scenes while shooting, which helped me get a sense of how they would fit in. I really like the way they turned out, as they match what I had in mind from the beginning.

My initial plan was to make all of the music myself, mostly using low, slow sounds. Nothing wild. But I went for a walk one day and listened to my friend Gahlord’s music. It all fit so well with the scenes in my head, so I asked him for permission for using his tracks in the film, and he said yes. With all of the footage shot and over a dozen tracks that I could use, I began to put together the final edit.

Editing Hanging in There was a blast. Time flew by, and before I knew it, it was the end of the day. I was happy with how it all came together, so I exported a version of it and watched it on a few different devices to make sure the text was legible. Then I uploaded it to Vimeo and shared it on social media, my website, and here on my journal.

I got some kind words from folks online, which I appreciated. Right now, as of writing this, it has 76 views on Vimeo. That number doesn’t really matter to me, but it’s neat to see how many people have watched it. Following the release of it online, I submitted it to IMDB, where it’s still awaiting review.

I didn’t have any specific goals or hopes for the project aside from finishing it. With that being my only goal, I can say Hanging in There was a success. In my mind, it’s an experimental art film that I want to be available to watch by as many people as possible.

Equipment & Software

  • Camera 1: Sony a6000
  • Camera 1 Lens: Sony a6000 16-50mm Kit Lens
  • Camera 2: Apple iPhone 6
  • Camera 2 Lens: PhotoJoJo Fish Eye Lens
  • Mic: Sony XYST1M Stero Mic
  • Editing Software: Final Cut Pro X
  • Animation Software: Flipnote Studio 3D for Nintendo 3DS
  • Screenwriting Software: Highland

Takeaways / Lessons Learned

  • Having written a short film script in 2016, it made writing the script for Hanging in There easier. I was familiar with the structure, tense, and format. Even though I knew I was the only one who would read the script, it was good practice to adhere to the standards.
  • Getting good audio is so important. All of the audio in the film had a low buzzing noise to it that I had to edit out in post. I’ve since acquired some better audio equipment and learned more about that subject, so I’m aiming for better audio quality with my next project.
  • I prefer editing with Final Cut Pro over Adobe Premiere. Final Cut Pro much more intuitive, and I felt like I was fighting with it much less than Premiere.
  • Acting is fun but difficult. Granted there were no other actors, so I’d imagine there’s a lot to it that I don’t know about yet. I don’t think I’ll be acting in my future projects unless there’s a character that’s a good fit for me. I’d like to be behind the camera and help orchestrate the project.
  • While the low resolution of the animations looks good on the Nintendo 3DS screen, it looks questionable when scaled up to 1920×1080. I like the artifacts, but I think I’d try to doing higher resolution animations in the future.
  • It’s a bit of a mental struggle for me to define what success is for a project. What does success mean for art? Does it simply existing mean it is a success? The internet creates this strange set of expectations where I see acclaimed and widespread projects daily, and it can be disappointing when my own projects are completed but kind of stagnant. I keep continually learning how important marketing is for getting the word out for a project. And it also takes time. I had no expectations for Hanging in There because it was my first short film. It’s easy to fall into the mental trap of “I made this thing, why am I not a successful author/director/etc.?”
  • Throughout the whole process of making Hanging in There, I felt like what I was doing was exactly what I want to be doing. It was challenging and fun and exciting. I had my share of self doubt, but that’s been natural with all of the creative projects I work on. I’m going to continue to make films and see where it goes.

What’s Next

As David Lynch says, “Now it’s time to go catch some ideas.”

I’ve caught a few already, but I’m not quite sure which one to pursue next. There’s the short film Driftwood, which is the script that I already wrote the first draft of. I’ve been exploring the idea of interviewing Portland independent comic artists and making a sort of short documentary out of it. I’ve got two other project ideas too, one that’s a short experimental film and one that could even be feature length.

I’m going to be patient with myself and trust that the idea that I’m most interested in will become apparent.

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