announcing artificial

I actually have two announcements.

First Announcement:

As some of my facebook followers already know I’ve begun work on a new film titled “Artificial.”

first screen shot of artificial taken from the film's prologue
first screen shot of artificial taken from the film’s prologue

Official logline: A young photographer is recruited by a mysterious visionary to help design a program that will recognize beauty.

I am shooting Artificial over the next year until the end of summer 2015. Myself, and Nate Olson (Buddy from Cult) will be starring. The film we be shot with a Blackmagic Production Camera in 4K resolution. There will be nearly an entire year of editing and sound design, which I plan on doing entirely myself this time around. This should have the film ready for the 2016/17 film festival season.

Unlike Cult, which I self-released almost immediately after it’s premiere I will be trying to get Artificial into as many film festivals as possible while seeking distribution.

I will be making constant video BTS and updates as we make the film in order to give everyone a unique look at the making of a low budget indie.

If you want to keep up to date, the Artificial Facebook Page is the best way.

Second Announcement:

I have recently received a grant of $2000 from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. I can’t thank them enough. The support of my community means everything to me. This could not have been at a more perfect time.

I can’t wait to get to work and show everyone what we learned from making Cult.

my duluth

VOTE FOR THIS SHORT FILM HERE:

http://www.rodemic.com/myrodereel/watch/181#.U0P66K1dXzR

It only takes a couple seconds to vote and you can sign in with facebook or google plus!

Here is the short film, which you can also watch on the contest page:

Here is the Behind Scenes recorded by Abe Diaz:

WRITING

The idea that your hometown can become synonymous with your first relationship is something I had always been interested in trying to make a short film about. A place can become painted in strong and painful memories. I didn’t want to just make another break up movie, I wanted to try and make it something people could connect to in a more nuanced way.

With only five minutes to tell a story, I had to find a way to concisely communicate the ideas I wanted. Instead of trying to tell a traditional three act narrative, I decided that in a way, this would be the final act in a larger story. You are only seeing the ending. This allowed me to really focus and get into the themes without trying to do too much at once.

While it is a breakup story, it is romanticized. The characters move and speak in a way that isn’t very real, although hopefully feels real in the universe of the movie. Their actions are meant to represent what they are feeling. They are delaying the actual break up. I wanted the first half to feel almost like a fantasy, where these two characters thought they could easily deal with this. But once it is actually time to go their separate ways, I wanted it to feel more real. No more romanticizing.

SHOOTING

The very first shot in the movie is an unmotivated 180 degree pan. (Unmotivated means the camera isn’t following any action. It moves on its own.) Usually you are suppose to avoid unmotivated camera movement because it can distract the audience or remind them they are watching a movie. It is almost unnatural. This was the entire point. I used the camera to establish that this is a fantasy these two characters are playing out. They want it to be like a movie.

Throughout the first half most of the shots are moving, there are lens flares, and there is music playing. It is meant to feel like a romantic movie. This was meant to contrast the second half when there is no music. The camera is now still. The heightened reality has now become grounded.

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Because I had storyboarded every shot and really planned out what I wanted we were able to move fast. Even when we did 15 takes of one shot it could still be considered fast because of how much time the one shot was covering. I think I was able to get some unique moving shots because of how much practice I got with my wheelchair/dolly on “Cult.”

This is one of the best times that I’ve had shooting anything. I love shooting outside in the fresh air on a warm and sunny day. The weather had been terrible all week and luckily the clouds opened up on the day we scheduled to shoot.

I was working with someone who had never recorded sound before so I taught him how to use the equipment. This made for a great moment in the behind the scenes that I think Rode will appreciate. My favorite behind the scenes videos when I was in high school were the ones that taught me new things about filmmaking, so hopefully some people will watch this and learn a little more about the process.

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POST PRODUCTION

Editing the first half was fairly simple because of the moving master shots. It was really just choosing the best ones and connecting them. The last scene was difficult because I was trying to balance out how long to hold certain shots. Silence is a tricky thing because it can be extremely impactful but if you overdo it you run the risk of being cheesy or even boring.

This was the first short film I did my own sound design on. It was very time consuming but extremely educational. Walter Murch has some great videos on youtube about sound theory that really helped me out. I was staying up late every night reading about how to do technical things to try and get everything to sound right. I really wanted to learn how to do this so I can continue to do as many jobs as possible on my projects as needed.

The thing about sound design is that it is the single most important aspect for the quality of your film. The picture can be great, and acting can be legendary, but if it sounds terrible people won’t even make it far enough to care. Sound design sells the professional feel of a movie. There are several indie films that are awful looking but very watchable because of the professional sound design that was done to them. It almost seems backwards, but it is very true: good sound makes your movie watchable.

Many of the lines needed to be recorded again because of the noisy locations in which they were shot. This is called ADR. We used a Rode NTG3 microphone which is super high quality, but there is only so much you can do when you shoot right next to a highway with extremely wide shots that make it difficult to get close to the dialogue. However, ADR is very standard practice. Some movies have dialogue that is exclusively ADR.

We actually recorded the dialogue outside to help the actors recreate their performances for the microphone and to help me match the environmental sound. This time there was no camera to worry about so I was able to get the microphone as close as I needed to get good levels. I also recorded the sound of each of the locations we shot at so I could control the exact volume of the background noise behind the dialogue. It was exciting to create the sound of the world. The NTG3 and Rode Blimp were extremely good at getting crisp dialogue and clean environmental sounds.

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You would  never know it but 90% of the sound in most feature films are recorded after the actual filming of the movie. This is to ensure you have total control of the volume and clarity of each individual sound. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: sound is the single most important aspect for the quality of your film.

CONTEST

While this was made for a contest, it is something I have been meaning to make for a while. I’m really glad this contest happened because it gave me a chance to rally some troops to make something I think is meaningful. If we end up winning the equipment that will open the door for a feature film and countless other opportunities. Regardless, I’m just really happy I finally got to make this. I hope you enjoy it!

cult: post production/ 2013 in review

My script had just been turned down for a grant and lost every contest I entered it into. It was clear the project I was working on at the time wasn’t going to get made. The last three years had meant nothing. And then it happened…

On a late night the right combination of angry and sad thoughts led me to write down one sentence: Two members of a youth cult attempt to stop their group from committing suicide.

Everything about the idea clicked. Instantly I understood its potential. I could see all of the different ways the story could play out. I knew I could write about ideas I really cared about, and be able to make it in my parents house with equipment I already owned. Thematically and practically it fit exactly what I needed to write at the time.

For the next couple of months I wrote more consistently than I ever have. I was determined to finish the rough draft before 2013 began. I didn’t experience writers block one time. There was so much I needed to say. It was the freest I’ve ever felt writing. On December 31, 2012 I finished the 180 page rough draft. “Cult” was born. From that point on people began to ask me my favorite question: “How’s the movie going?”

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POST PRODUCTION

Cult completely wrapped photography on August 13. For the past 4 months I have been editing. Not only is this my first time writing & directing a feature, but it is also my first time editing one. I’ve edited shorter work before but it all pales in comparison to a feature.

It is usually a bad idea to have a director edit their own work. They become attached to the footage because they put so much work into shooting it. When I looked at a take I didn’t just see what was in it. I remembered the work and the time that went into making it. I could remember what intentions I had for it and why I did things a certain way. This can be terrible because every editing choice should be to serve the story above all else. I viewed everything I shot with a bias and pre-conceived ideas about how it would serve the story that may or may not have been true. This is usually why the editor is a separate person from the director. An editor will view the material cold and without any attachment to anything shot. They can freely chose which takes work best on a story telling level with nothing clouding their judgement.

Luckily, I had no problem cutting anything. I knew all of these possible post-production hindrances before I even decided to make the movie. I intentionally over shot a lot of things in the movie to give me options about what would be in the movie. I decided I wanted the film to be around 80 minutes in length before editing began. This was for energy reasons. I didn’t want the audience to get bored and I wanted to keep the narrative concise.

The design of the film really did come from a place of simplicity. Obviously, if the story could go longer or shorter I would have allowed it to do so, but I felt having an idea of where I wanted it to be (based on the running time of similar films) I would be more willing to cut unnecessary parts. This was similar to how Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher conceived “The Social Network.” The script was 160 pages, but they knew they wanted it to be a 2 movie. The characters were meant to speak fast and editing was meant to be extremely tight. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall won Oscars for how well they were able to make sense of this story through simple and concise editing.

Here is a really good interview with them.

The rough cut of the Cult was 110 minutes. This meant that after finely cutting the scenes, I had about 20 more minutes I didn’t mind losing in order to achieve my run-time. Again, this time wasn’t to cut for the sake of achieving a run time, but just a way to make me feel better about cutting things that would have had to go regardless. I did the same thing when I wrote the rough draft of the script. Whatever ideas I had went in, and I would just cut it down later when I typed it up. The handwritten rough draft would have been 3 (terrible and unorganized) hours, and I brought it down to 90 pages by the final draft. (The average length of a feature film.) I try and get as much as I can, and then only use the best stuff.

The opening scene of the film was 30 minutes long. Obviously it had no rhythm or energy in the rough version so I got to cut things down. I was able to keep the best parts in there and trim things that were redundant or for lack of a better word, boring. Cutting shots out didn’t feel bad. I didn’t care about the work that went into them. I’d be angry if the film was anything less than it could be, so I was happy to chop 20 minutes out of it. What would be the point of all that work on set if it didn’t serve the final product. I cut an entire day of shooting out of the movie. And while that was hard to do, it was extremely necessary for the film’s narrative flow. That 30 minute rough opening scene was brought down to 14 minutes.

Lowell speaking

After editing for a while I took a break for a week so I could come back to the project with fresh eyes. This is extremely important, because editing will hypnotize you. You sit in the dark staring at a screen watching and hearing the same things over and over. You can lose track of the story and the importance of what you are doing if you don’t view it objectively as a whole. Upon viewing the film from beginning to end for the first time in its entirety many changes were made. Some scenes were actually extended, some were shortened or even removed all together. Seeing the film as a whole makes you realize where the core of the story is and what scenes you need to tell it. You can understand which notes you need to hit harder to drive the point home. It’s also how you measure the pacing of the film.

Pacing is a difficult element to get right. When you are writing and editing a scene you want the scene to live its fullest potential just within the scene itself. It doesn’t matter what comes before or after your concern is making the scene good. However, everything you are doing just in that one scene will effect the flow and feel of the entire movie. Now some tough choices have to be made. Do you adjust the scene to make the pacing of the overall film better, or do you leave it because what’s happening within needs to play out the way you edited it for just that moment. This is where editors like Sally Manke [RIP] and Thelma Schoonmaker are my main influences. They are masters at letting scenes play out as long as they have to but still keeping the narrative flow moving. It is magic what they can do.

I look at Martin Scorsese’s latest movie “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and I just can’t believe how amazing Schoonmaker’s editing is. The movie is three hours long and some of the scenes last more than ten minutes, yet it still moves along at a fast pace. It may be Scorsese’s fastest moving film to date.

So while an editing compromise sometimes had to be made for the sake of pacing, I did find little ways to try and keep the film moving forward even after letting it sit on certain scenes for a while. I really dislike the notion of weakening a scene for the bigger picture, but I rarely had to do it.

I researched all of my favorite films and watched their editing choices. I tried to imagine myself in the editing room with Scorsese debating why we cut the scene there, why we used that music, why certain reaction shots were held on, which close ups we should use. It was so helpful to my own editing to pretend to edit and discuss certain choices with my favorite filmmakers. I just have to say, being able to call watching movies and daydreaming “research” truly convinces me filmmaking is the best career in the world.

But after months of editing there was still something off about it. The problem was obvious and I knew before I began shooting I would probably have to do what I did. The Canon 7D is a great low budget camera but it has its limitations. Color is one of them. The image quality can seem muddy at times. This was also the first film I’ve ever lit so I didn’t really know how to use the lights to achieve the right color balance. Not that I had a lighting meter or gels to begin with. Christopher Nolan faced a similar problem on his first feature film “Following.” In order to defeat his color limitations he just avoided them all together. He shot in black and white because he didn’t have the budget for proper color lighting. Black and white film stock is also cheaper which is why a lot of first time filmmakers up until this last decade shot with it.

So I made the choice to convert Cult into black and white. Not only did it work for the practical reasons I wanted, but it worked thematically as well. By going black and white I had achieved the classic and moody tone I wanted. It just worked. I had shot the film in a very classical way and monochrome complimented that style. I also felt like I was connecting with other first time directors throughout history who had no choice but to shoot their movie on black and white S16 film stock.

Lowell with Hammer

However, I didn’t want to completely copy the look of those films. The film is still in 2.40 widescreen which I feel gives it a unique look. Most black and white films were in 4×3 fullscreen because that was just the shape of the film stock. Being in the digital age I could do things that just weren’t options to the directors of the past. I actually color corrected the entire film in color before converting it to black and white. I gave a unique grade in order to effect how those colors were interpreted into black and white. So while there are many classical elements to the film, I used the technology I have to create something I think is unique. “Frances Ha,” and the recently opened “Nebraska” have both done similar things to achieve their unique B&W looks.

Check out the teaser trailer for Cult:

I was able to shoot and edit this movie in a classic way but still do new things that I felt served the story. I really like films that respect the past but still try to push the form, and I’ve finally been able to make one. Now my work is done and the film is the hands of sound designer Abe Diaz. I can’t wait to start showing it to everyone.

2013 AND BEYOND THE INFINITE

I am so happy to be alive in a time where we have these amazing artists releasing some of the most creative work the world has ever seen. From Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker” to Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 2013 has been one of the best years for cinema. Next year is shaping up to be just as great with films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” and Nolan’s “Interstellar.”

I’m so happy that Cult will be joining the list of films in 2014. Before any of this started I was beginning to think it would be a long time before I got to make a feature. I’m so thankful for everyone who has been a part of this project. Without every single one of you this would not be a reality. We are a small part of film’s history now. Let’s be a big part of its future.

Happy New Year, friends.

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cult: principle photography

I had originally planned to shoot from July 9th to the 16th, but we ended up going until the 22nd. We still have a couple days of shooting left that will be scattered around the next 2 weeks. When it is all said and done we should have around 15 total days of shooting. For a feature film, this is not a lot.

In order to accomplish shooting a 90 minute film in this amount of time I had to get creative with how we were shooting. On an average feature film production the crew will work about 10 hours a day, for about 30 days. This means that every day you shoot about 3 minutes of the movie.

With half the time we had to shoot twice as much. Shooting entirely in one location saved us a huge amount of time. It adds up to days of time for just moving from location to location on most film shoots, so we were able to completely avoid that. Our small crew and limited gear actually helped to save time as well. I planned to shoot with what I had, so it almost never took longer then 20 minutes to set up a shot.

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Doing many jobs yourself is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Instead of explaining what you need to multiple people, or discussing certain aspects of the shot with your crew, you just do it. This can save a lot of time, but it keeps you closed from potential good ideas and alternative ways that discussions with other crew members might have.

On my short film “Filmmaker,” I was constantly having discussions with my Director of Photography Sean Finnegan. The result was that each shot was hitting it’s maximum potential. Every detail could be taken care of by a different crew member. This takes more time, but it is almost always for the better.

Filmmaking is like a juggling act, and the more you try to juggle the more likely you are to drop something. In order to Direct, Produce, DP, Camera Op, and Focus Pull at the same time I had to be extensively prepared.

Another major obstacle was that about a week before production was set to begin I had multiple actors have to back out. Luckily, the remaining actors had actor-friends who happened to be available. With less then a week before shooting we had no time to do a table read or production meeting. This meant that ideas about characters, scenes, and the production in general would have to be discussed on the day. Thankfully, everyone was on the same page, and there weren’t any arguments or major disagreements when we were shooting.
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The biggest thing I did to make sure we were hitting our 6 minutes a day was continuing the shooting style I had begun developing on Filmmaker. Most filmmakers shoot a lot of coverage. They shoot the same scene from many multiple angles to make sure they get everything and so that they can edit around enabling the audience to follow the different actions in the scene. I prefer to cover entire scenes (If I can) in long moving master shots.

Essentially, what I do is have the camera move through the scene focusing on specific moments as they happen. I’m doing the editing in camera. This can be very dangerous for multiple reasons. The top reason being that you have no options when it’s time to edit the film. So if the shot isn’t paced right or there is an error you didn’t catch on set, you are screwed. There is nothing you can do. You didn’t do the scene from multiple angles so you can’t adjust the pacing of the scene in anyway. You can’t cut around any errors. It has to be perfect on the day of shooting. Orson Welles was famous for shooting this way so that he could keep the studios from editing his movies.

In order to make sure my shots are going to be coherent and fit together, I storyboard all of them beforehand. I imagine the film from beginning to end multiple times. Every single shot. But that doesn’t completely cover you. Half of the time I realized something wouldn’t work with the scene we were about to do so I would completely change how we were going to do it. You can’t get a perfect feel for everything in pre-production and you have to be able to change and mutate as your film does.

Two of my actors worked for a local news channel so when they weren’t on camera they became crew. Those two, with Abe Diaz (our sound recorder) formed a 4 person crew. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful these people were. Alex Skomars would be acting in a shot, and then be a dolly grip for the next. (By dolly I mean wheelchair on a sheet-metal track, but it all looks the same on camera.) Nate Hanninen slated most of the shots, even the ones that he was in. Along with the rest of the actors, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to do this with.

Stanley Kubrick once said “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

A month ago I wanted to know what he meant by that. Now I do.

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I’m extremely privileged to be in a situation where I can make a feature film at age 22. I’m not sure how many other filmmakers have done this, but I know it’s extremely rare. I owe everything to my parents and the crew. During shoot I kept wondering how indie filmmakers manage to do this without living at home and begging their friends to give up their lives for two weeks.

I really do think we are making something great. I can’t wait to show this to people. I can’t wait for the crew to see how their efforts paid off.

I know i’ve spent a lot of time talking about technical problems and the anxiety of trying work within my limitations, but to be honest this was easy. Now don’t get me wrong, filmmaking is some of the hardest work you will ever do, but I enjoyed it so much. I loved it. It felt natural to me. When the first day was over I was kind of shocked. I had spent so much time hyping myself up for how intense it was going to be, but it was just fun.

I felt a high I had never experienced before after everyday of shooting. The hard work felt like nothing because it was so fun to me. I was putting all hours of the day into this. After everyone would go home, I would sync sound and put together a rough cut of what we shot that day. I didn’t want to stop making the movie. I really don’t know what I’ll do when this is all over.

That’s a lie. I know exactly what I’ll do. I have another film that I’ve been writing for the past 4 years but I really need to focus on what I’m doing now. The thing is, it’s an addiction. When you do what you love, your life feels complete. Making this film has confirmed my belief that this is what I was meant to do. I’ve always known since I was old enough to hold a camera, but now that I’m working on something substantial, I can’t see my life going any other way. This is it for me.

There was someone who I went to high school with that wanted to be a filmmaker as well but dismissed it as a childish dream when he went to college. I won’t judge his reasoning for saying this, but I have to completely agree with him. The childish notion that you deserve to succeed at something few can do is the only thing that makes you able to attempt it in the first place. A strong curiosity and imagination are a filmmaker’s best assets. A filmmaker never has to grow up. I feel like I’m living the dream I’ve had since I was a child.

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As production wraps and editing begins, there will be so much more to write about. I can’t wait to see my vision come to fruition and start the process of submitting to festivals and distributing. I’ll be sure to post updates regularly.

cult is moving forward

In the film world it is said that the more restrictions you have, the more creative you have to be. The kickstarter campaign for Cult has failed.

The number one restriction any independent filmmaker will have is the budget of their project. Well, now I have next to nothing for money, so creativity is going to be a must if we are to make this film. Over the next two months I am going to scrape together what I can equipment wise.

The trick is going to be making this look cinematic with a severe lack of professional gear. I dislike a lot of the characteristics that low budget films have so I’m trying to find ways to avoid them. I’ve spent a lot of time watching some of my favorite director’s first films to help me decide exactly what I want out of mine.

I have this idea that if you have a great story, the audience will let most imperfections go. Those imperfections won’t be annoying, they will be part of the film’s charm. People my age aren’t failing to make masterpieces because of their low budget, it is because they are too concerned with the budget.

So here’s the deal: I am going to make this movie.

announcing “cult.”

My debut feature film will be Cult. The film is about a youth bible study that is manipulated by their insane yet charismatic leader into performing a group suicide. Two of the members try to stop it and break down how things got this far.

We just launched a kickstarter for the project: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/samsdayfuss/cult-feature-film

Check out this minimalistic poster Abe Diaz made.
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We also have a facebook page up: https://www.facebook.com/CultTheFilm

I’ve been trying to get a feature film going for a couple years now so it is exciting to have something officially out there. I hope I can get all of the funding that I need.