Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Introduction to "Making The Hush"

This video was presented to the audience that made it out to the Hush's private screening. It was just an introduction to what will be a larger look at the making of a high concept, suspense film on a very low budget. This introduction focuses mainly on the mindset and approach to tackling pre through post.
Enjoy and let me know if you have any questions/comments.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Hush - First Private Screening

Thanks to those who came out to the Hush's big night. We had a great turnout of artist, family and friends coming to view the completed film. After nearly a year of post-production, I was able to share the film and all of our hard work with the people who made the movie a reality, people who gave me a piece of their lives.

Dwayne Soriano (Co Producer) awaiting the start of our private screening at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in San Francisco, CA. 

I've received some great feedback and encouragement from many people and it felt like the audience was really captivated by the tone, atmosphere but especially the characters and the story. I was able to stand in the back and watch people react to the film.

I am also realizing that the old system of "make a movie" and going to a festival is not quite what it used to be. Some festivals seem to be looking only for A list talent and names as well as big budget pictures. If they aren't programming big names or money, they are programming drama comedies, coming of age stories or very marketable flavors of the month.

What I enjoy most about the Hush is that it cannot be categorized. It has many elements but it does not fall into the conventions or bins that genre films do. The film is a character piece about one man's difficult journey. It is meant to evoke emotion and engage the audience (make people think), not spoon feed people plot points or thrill them with cheap scares.

Last night was a test to see if people would feel the movie, if it would move and make them think. Now I  can say that it passed; my work to this point has paid off.

Special thanks to all the fantastic people who lent a hand in putting on the event.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Me and the Little-Camera-That-Could

Say hello to my little friend...  the Canon HV20.

To date, this camera has shot 3 short films (soon to be 4), two feature length films, one music video and at least 20+ hours of family occasions (including the first five or so minutes of my daughter's life). This camera has earned a spot in a bullet proof housing which will rest in my office like a retired fighter plane in an air museum.

A bare bones Canon HV20. Image from

The Canon HV20 was released in 2007, I purchased one not long after it launched because some investigating sparked excitement in my "gear" head. When brand new it cost around 1,000 bucks in Kit form (wide angle adapter, extra battery and bag). It shot to tape (which compresses and loses quality) when the market for HDV was emerging. But even shooting to tape, the results where promising at that time: the camera was not very "noisey" if you played with the electronic controls/settings. I would use it to shoot one short film, both as a filmmaking exercise and camera test. I was already thinking about tackling a feature and if this camera gave me something I hoped for, she would be the lucky one.

As it turns out, I was quite happy with the results this little champ mustered out. A 1/2 inch CMOS and 24P shooting (3:2 removal required) were great attributes. As time progressed I learned more tricks to gain some more control over the image (eg. the "block-to-wide-open" trick to get a 1/48ths Shutter in Cine Gamma mode).

I already liked the performance of the bare camera, but I would soon add accessories and rails while maintaining mobility and speed. It allowed me two shoot in a familiar style.  The real magic happened in two ways:

The Letus Mini 35 minus lens of your choice. Image from

1.) The Letus Mini 35mm lens adapter would give me the Depth-of-Field I had been searching for; something that I had long yearned to have in video since my earliest adventures in movie-making. When I was 8 years old my Uncle Raul gave me a really cool camera body (which I still have) that I could hook up to a VCR to record it's video signal. The coolest thing was that this camera had a really sweet lens that had macro functions and some manual focus control. So now, I would have an HD image and some filmic depth of field. The next step would be finding good deals on great lenses.

Screengrab from an initial lens adaptor shooting test. Image by VC.

Intensity Pro minus a tower & connected HDMI cable. Image from

2.) The Black Magic Intensity Pro capture card which allowed for HDMI direct capture directly onto your computers hard drive. It would send out an uncompressed HD signal that I could capture with plenty of visual slack to tweek color and decrease digital artifacts.

Shooting at night.

WARNING: There were certain requirements for shooting with this Canon HV20/Letus Rig. Already considering a single sensor camera does not handle low light very well, the lens adapter only added to lost light. To put it simply, you had to overlight in many circumstances.  

ALSO: The fact that Canon would not allow you to adjust the shutter, iris and gain both individually and independently sucks. I mean, even if we had to do it electronically that would have been earth-shattering; but NO, they don't want to kill their own business (understandable to a point).

BUT if you spent enough time toying and testing this thing, you could find a way to find the ideal (sometimes just acceptable) setting(s). It was sometimes a fight, like give and take, with this camera; however, if I could walk away satisfied with the imagery, then it would feel like a win.


- - - - -
 The camera package in it's entirety can fit in to one sturdy, medium sized case.

A.) HV20 and it's accessories: 3 batteries, the fast charger, Bag, Cables, Wide Angle Adapter, lens cleaner, LCD hood and HDV tapes.

B.) The Lens adapter and a padded foam and a few pairs of AA batteries. As well as a rail system with lens supporter and base plate.

C.) 3 Lenses in their own protective bags/pouches (30, 50 and 85mm) as well as various sets of filters.

"Look how much space I don't take up..."

 I heavily enjoy being mobile and light, the outfitted HV20 with lens adapter and lens weighs less than 10 pounds. This camera package worked great. I've seen high end HD Cameras and 35mm/S16mm film shoots where it takes a team of people to move all various boxes and components around, not to mention having a team of people operating the cameras. With the HV20, I could easily be a one-man-army and strike like lightning when necessary. Don't get me wrong, it would be fantastic to shoot with a big camera team, with a 40 pound or 60 camera, but for now: this little camera can do it.
- - - - -

While it is true now that you can spend the same amount on an VDSLR (Canon 7D with the basic zoom lens) that I spent on this HV20/Letus rig, you should think about your budget and the ever changing realm of technology before you sink your teeth into a camera. I have my issues with the 5D and 7D (ergonomics, functionality and heavy compression) and it's awesome imagery, but honestly the biggest investment  one could make would probably be acquiring fast prime lenses for whatever camera you'll end up with. The technology world changes so fast that today's hot new digital cinema camera will become what the HV20 is now: old news. The glass however (lenses), will most likely be the same.

Note: Photos of Me and the Camera thanks to Corine Aubin.

To conclude, create a camera package that meets your needs. If you like the image quality and the things that can be done with that footage then great: the content is where it really counts anyway.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Filmmaker's Journey: Reflection PART 2

What's funny to me now is thinking back about my 'blogging"/"online buzz" building plans before production began. I guess it would have been easy to do if I were an avid blogger/twitter-pated/facebooker but I have never been one for that type of thing. I had planned to write weekly journals and post information on how things were going, that seems to be the route of most digital film maker's these days (and for some it pays off). But one thing I realized is that it did not really work with my style: I get so engrossed in the process that it becomes my life; there was never an open window to step into a third person and analyze what I was doing. Besides, I like to let me work speak for itself. I did not have a team of people to document my journey; my time was spent being a filmmaker. My family life was engulfed by filmmaking (that's why we shot during the summer). My wife and super-producer Sofia, my daughter and I were living and breathing the filmmaking process. We slept on a set that we turned our living space into. Shoot on a weekend, backup footage and do rough assemblies to make sure I was getting what I wanted on a Monday, Tuesday was spent relaxing with the family, then Wednesday and Thursday we got back to the production coordination and gathering just in time to shoot on Friday. It was crazy, fun and demanding but in a weird way it was symbiotic. It took my energy but it gave back two-fold; I was living my dream no matter what.

Another thing to touch upon is how much one is willing to give up in order to fulfill the needs of tackling a feature film. Granted everyone is different but I think that one thing is for sure: you have to give up a certain part of your life/career to work on a film. Everyone has different living situations, day-to-day needs and so forth, but when you are making a film, time becomes your worst enemy. I had to give up working for nearly a half-a-year. In and around that time I turned down some work, just so that I would not rob my project of the necessary energy. I checked my savings account and prepared to live as frugal as humanly possible for the coming months. It was scary; but for me, it was necessary.

An enormous boost of confidence and energy for me was the fact that I trusted my cast and crew with our work together. I run my sets like a big family and I think everyone felt that. Some of the best compliments I've ever heard came from people taking in the 'welcoming' 'hard working' 'humble' nature of a Mitchell Street Pictures set. To me that made a great deal of difference. Also I knew everyone who was on set from the actors to the crew (the majority I had already worked with in various capacities). Zach Gossett (the Hush) and I spent a year working as director-actor that really turned into a friendship: he trusted me with the story and the journey I was putting in front of him, and I really could not envision anyone else, after all of the work and building we'd done, playing my lead. Ashley B. Eberlein (the Director of Photography) was also attached to the project at an early stage. We were able to create our visual language and certain story characteristics over various meetings and test shoots. We pre-visualized every shot in advanced and I knew that if she saw something she liked on set she would be able to capture it while still maintaining that visual language. Finally, and very much worth mentioning, Sofia L. Cortez, my producer and Assistant Director, was there from square one. She was involved with the script writing, listening to me read pages to her late at night, working on production breakdowns while I organized myself creatively. She was the technical brain while I was the creative know-no-limits madman, she was my secret weapon, she was my alarm clock and wake up call when she needed to be.

The mask up top and the majority of the appliances we used were created by Phil Velasquez of FreakShop Fx. Phil is always a pleasure to work with: his technical skills and abilities are matched by his creativity and ability to work on the fly when necessary. This was our 4th collaboration. We met months in advance to bring various characters to life. Working from some of my designs, Phil's and some improvisation here and there, we set out with specific ideas in mind and those grew as people began to embody the characters. I used some CG/Visual effects work by the talented Mark Jeschke. He built VFX "appliances", worked some amazing Roto and guided the rest of the visual effects. Overall we sought to create subtle FX work that never tries to steal the limelight from the story itself. I've seen to many films that begin relying on VFX to 'carry' their piece and as much as I admire well done VFX, I did not want to make an FX heavy movie.

In a month, I've written about making this film more than I did after an entire year of production and post. It's funny how things work out sometimes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Hush - Poster Design

This is my final design for The Hush poster. I wanted something that was rough and unpolished (bare bones, if you will). It was important that it maintained a graphic novel vibe while being as intriguing as possible.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 2, 2009

HomeMade Gear: Doorway and Pipe LightJack

Here is a nifty little thing I've been tinkering with. I call it my 'LightJack'. It is a versatile mixture of very inexpensive objects ranging from 2x4s to C-Clamps. I recently came off of some doc style work where I was in charge of carrying out lighting/gripping orders: there is always that point where the stands are to cumbersome or Cardellini clamps can't mount properly.

Cardellini clamps are great. BUT when it comes to surfaces they can't fit on everything and they don't adjust as much as I'd like.  Perhaps the biggest drawback for me personally is the price $65-$85 (depending on where you look).

For slightly under $35, I came up with two distinct lighting accesories than can be used individually or in tandem.

First, we have a "Cortez Clamp" with a 5/8 stud mounted on by small heavy duty tube clamps. It is not welded but could be at some point soon; the clamp can fit on most doors and small trim. The 5/8 stud is also height adjustable due to the thread and socket (you can raise or lower the height from 1 to 6 inches. I made two of these bad boys: one mounts vertically, the other horizontal.

Next, we have the 2x4s which I DID NOT purchase because I have an abundance of scrap wood lying around my home. I cut a 6inch (A) and 5inch (B) piece that have rubber buffers lined and mounted on one side (I try not to destroy things). I used a metal joining bracket (also had one of these laying around) to mount a smaller 2.5 inch board at a 90 degree angle on (A). Then I purchased a large Heavy Duty Clamp that open from 0 to 24inches to connect (A) and (B) to whatever I needed. I also purchased a ratcheting strap to mount (A) to round objects with any depth of width (then I'd attach my "Cortez Clamp").

The LightJack holds lights under 20 pounds easily. If I weld the connection points and reinforce the boards it can easily handle more weight. But then again, most of my lights fall well under that weight.
Overall, the beauty is all these parts (ratchet straps, clamps and boards) can be used for other duties so I have various tools that can be combined or used solo.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Filmmaker's Journey: Reflection PART 1

*Disclaimer - The opinions, experiences and beliefs you are about to read are that of a strongly independent filmmaker. If you seek technical info let me know - but it all starts with the right mindset.

It was not an easy decision to potentially give up two years of my life to make my first feature film: I had really nice 'career' opportunities knocking at my door and it seemed like I could fall gently into some secured day-to-day film industry work. On the other hand, I had a great idea and some very talented people that saw something and believed in me as much as they did the idea. Also, I had been increasing the scale of my projects over the past few years; with every short I kept raising the bar for myself (testing myself as a producer and director). All signs pointed to making the movie, or taking the plunge. It was a commitment that I could not back out on and I knew that I would become something of a one-man-army in order to finish the film. The film would be a showcasing of lessons learned, relationships formed, resources both built and acquired and finally determination. The strongest drive came from a supportive artistic family who took part in the filmmaking process -  and  of course my daughter.

Before making the film (when still in consideration), I read an interview with Francis Ford Coppola where he said the biggest boost he had as a filmmaker was having a child: taking his life and dreams more seriously. For me, my daughter represents many beautiful things, but I also realized that this project was not going to be a camera test, a 'fun' weekend shoot or anything less than a serious professional endeavor. I'm not telling you to have children - just treat what you do with the utmost respect and professionalism.

BACKGROUND ON MYSELF:  I've been making movies since I was a kid so I've learned things about storytelling over time. I've learned to envision something and try your best to recreate that vision working with other people and solving problems that arise. I've also done just about every crew position you can imagine, so I know what it's like to be in the other person's shoes. I don't have tons of money, I'm not some somebody with loaded parents or anything like that nor was I going to go so deep into debt that the movie became a 'problem'. Money has never meant 'good movie'. Creativity is the answer to not having a giant budget. Use a combination of your 'freesources' (people, places and things that you have at your finger tips) and set a budget that is manageable. For me it was under $10K. A final note - Over the years I've acquired and purchased solid gear. I've been lucky enough to be given sound equipment and lights from generous people, but I also am on the look out for the best bang for my buck so I've picked up a few useful things here and there.

BE YOUR OWN FILMMAKER - I don't personally make movies that are trying to be other movies or heavily modeled after the flavor of the month. Yes, there are influences but I strive to have my own voice - You will not see me trying to make the next Blair Witch Project or the Matrix. If you like those movies and their elements, I'm not saying too shy away from the 'found footage' angle or loose the 'bullet time', just know that people can easily tell when your biting directly from something. Be inspired, don't imitate, and do it for the sake of storytelling, don't just showcase a hot actress or some cool After Effects trickery.

Budget: $8,000 USD
Script Pages: 82pgs
Essential Hardware: Canon HV20, Letus Lens Adapter, Two Nikon Primes, BlackMagic Intensity Pro
Equipment - All of the equipment was owned by myself and the DP. We rented nothing.
Days of Shooting: 20+
Crew: 6 - 10 depending on the needs for a particular day. Sometimes 3-5 if things were small scale.

1.) BE PREPARED - Put as much time as you can into your planning. Whether it's storyboards, script breakdowns or creating a shooting schedule/shot list (or maybe doing all at one time), being organized helps out big time; even if it's so convoluted that only one or two people get it, that's better than no one at all getting anything. We never slowed down when shooting 'The Hush', we could not afford to fall behind. We had detailed lists of costumes, props, set design, effects, characters etc. for every single scene and a dedicated person or people (depending on the day) looking at all of those things. The entire movie was boarded (200+ boards) and cut together in my head before the first day of principal photography; there was also an abundance of lighting and 'look' tests completed months in advance. Plan your project! If you know that a particular scene involves complex things then plan one day for just that scene (whether it's an intricate scene with multiple actors pushing themselves to their limits or a sequence with lot's of angles).

I've been on too many sets where nobody knows what the hell to do first, including the director. Most of that precious time and energy is sucked up slowly while the director, producer and DP stand around trying to figure out what to do. The more momentum you bring to the set, the more organic and flexible you can be.

 2.) BE A STRONG LEADER - I've worked in all sorts of different jobs, the best experience was working at an auto parts store in a really rough area in my hometown of Oakland, CA. If you can stare a 200 pound man in the face while he threatens your life over a car alternator without flinching, being scared, running and hiding or getting irate yourself - then you can handle helming a film crew without being a punk or a pushover. Exercise good communication skills, that is after all how the work must get done. Try to be as clear as possible and be patient - Remember, no one can read your mind, it's part of your job on a film set to communicate. Make decisions and don't be afraid to collaborate. If you're asking your actors to get into a trunk, then make sure you can lay in a trunk.

3.) BE PASSIONATE - Be genuinely in love with your project and material. If you think it's not strong, work on it till you feel confident. If you want to do things differently, make sure your not forgetting to tell a story. Remember that passion for an artistic project can be infectious.

4.) KNOW YOUR NEEDS - My job as a producer was to make sure that I got enough to tell my story without compromising the safety and well being of those around me. Work efficiently, sometimes work quickly and other times slowly. Unless you've got money to burn or your crew doesn't mind giving you hours upon hours, you can't waste time on a set (sometimes if there has to be downtime, I'd send a few people off to the next location to start prepping). You have to get enough footage to tell your story and sometimes (especially on a low budget) that means moving very fast. Sometimes that means not having an enormous group of people on your project. Sometimes trying to fine tune a kicker light is a total waste of time. I'm IN NO WAY saying that lighting is not important. I am, however, saying that people are more likely going to dislike a movie because of terrible acting or a crappy story than they are if there's no rim light or a dim key light. If you know that you need at least 4 shots for this scene: don't waste time lighting one shot to useless perfection.

Here we walked up a rolling metal staircase and put a lightstand on it's side to get the light at the right height and angle. Then we tossed a gang of sandbags on it and used it just like that. We did not have cardellini clamps or big jumbo stands. We made due with what we had as quickly as we could. On the flip side of that: things do take time, not everything can be done super fast. You have to slow down for particular things but it's up to you and your project where to ultimately make those decisions.

5.) THE EDIT IS THE KEY - The edit of a film is wear everything really comes together. Of course you have to put 100% of your effort in everything else, but when it comes to editing: magic can occur. You can totally rewrite a story with just editing.  You could change the effect of a particular scene on an audience based on the way you cut it - things that would normally be dull can become rather interesting. Think about it: You could have shot beautiful cinematography, and pulled great performances out of actors, but if your edit of the film is bad, none of that has as strong of an impact.
I spent a month and a half on the rough cut - then I spent another 6 months refining that, cutting out 15+ minutes and tweaking actor performance choices. Editing requires a voice or language, you develop a pace or as I like to think of it... you lay down the roller coaster track. How long does the movie take to build, and is the drop able to punch enough for people to feel rewarded? Do you have lot's of ups and downs. ASK FOR FEEDBACK - Make friends with a good editor or refine your editing skills. I've cut all of my short films over the years and consider myself an efficient editor, but I still made sure I asked for a very good editor's feedback - that was crucial. Get feedback from everyone: nitpickers, Hollywood types, general movie buffs, people who don't watch a lot of movies and fellow filmmakers...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Color and The Hush

These are two frame grabs from "The Hush". Color (or lack of it) in this film plays a large role in setting the tone and atmosphere of a dark and gritty world. I began by doing loads of testing both before and after production. I wanted the story to feel like a painted graphic novel that had no restraints in terms of the 'colors' journey. It would serve the stories emotion rather than trying to 'photographically' represent any true color or any pleasing print ad type visuals. To put it simple, it was the best way to tell the story.

Here is a shot of Zach Gossett (aka. The Hush) before my color pass.

The odd white balance stained my image as we anticipated so that when I did my color stylization work I would be left with a very rusty, dirtier image. So, here is the same shot after having gone through a two stage color pass.

I wanted to see bold highlight (when necessary) and very deep shadows. Notice that his skin tone holds the interesting 'rusty' texture I referred to above.

Next we have two frames (not the exact same one but within the same instance) of a fearful character (portrayed by Chuck Phelps).

So there are already lot's of grays and neutral color tones here. And there is a very harsh light coming down at a 90 degree angle.

Here are a few frames later but more or less the same shot. I've increased the intensity of the highlights, gotten rid of certain mid-tones and enriched my blacks.

Spending that time to test and think things through really paid off. Once again these are things that work well with this particular story; your needs could be completely different but putting in that time will certainly pay off.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"The Hush" is near completion

Yes. I know it has been a while since I last posted. Needless to say it's because I have been incredibly busy.

- Locked my Edit down ( I am glad I spent the time to really let the editing of the film come to life. The rough cut went from 1hr and 47 minutes to my current 1hr and 32 minutes).

- Performed some very interesting color stylization passes (not 'correction') using some powerful tools in After Effects. Everything was stylized to fit an emotion or an atmosphere.

- Performed some basic animation/composite work for different scenes in the film. The more complicated and intricate work is being handled by Mark Jeschke (

- ADR passes for about 90% of the dialog.

- Recorded an entire original score for my film. A dozen+ tunes move the movie along, each song serving it's specific role.

The Sound Booth was completed early in the Spring and was immediately put to use. I brought my actors back into 'the Dungeon' of Mitchell Street Pictures for some very productive ADR passes. I am currently finishing Foley work using the booth but I will have to make many trips into the city at night to grab more natural sounds here and there.

I am very proud of my work and the work of everyone involved with the project. Stay tuned please and start bracing yourself.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gear: Homemade Soundbooth

Now my goal has been to create a soundbooth for under $300; so far I am 2/3rds the way there. Now the booth as I write this is being slightly redesigned. I am hoping to use this for ADR and Foley work on my film(s). I figure that spending my target amount for something I can use all day, whenever I want and however I want is ideal.

First off, this would not be possible without some resources. My cousins, the Palacios Bros., are contractors and builders. They gave me insight and materials that saved me money (industrial grade plywood and fiberglass insulation). My uncle Carlos donated two quiet cooling fans, the kind you would find in a server room. From there I took a trip to a local depot for homes to purchase some 2x4s and screws.

The Room - This room is about 20 feet from my editing station. It is already isolated from streets and busy areas. The best part is that it used to be a dark room, so there are no windows and it is an ideal size. I made sure we built a shelf for the 13inch NTSC monitor that will be receiving a down converted signal straight from my tower. I purchased enough cable to send a video and audio signal to the talent.

Stay tuned as there is more to come on the Booth.

UPDATE: The booth was completed and used successfully for ADR and Foley work on 'The Hush'. It worked beyond my hopeful expectations and came together very professionally; I used it to create and re-create sounds for nearly 90% of the entire film.