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Take a look under the hood and see what I'm working on


When Trent Jaklitsch approached me with this short film idea it immediately caught my attention. He wanted to make a film that captured the memories and feeling of a home, not just a building we call a house.

He wanted it to be a single shot where we float through a decaying house as the audience is immersed in the audio of a family's first moments to their final breaths. As if the memories of the house had travelled with it, and the smudges on the wall, broken records in a bedroom and the physical structure all told a story. 

What I loved about the idea was that although I thought audio would play a larger role than the visuals, there we're no people and connecting the story just to a place serves new challenges that I had never experienced. As the idea was developed what excited me most was the way the audio and the visuals complemented each other so well. Some ideas were in the existing audio from the start and some ideas were born after finding our house. 

My initial references came from Todd Hido, A masterful photographer especially when it comes to empty spaces. Apologies to the rest of the artists I stole from and didn't credit here, it was a while back.

What seemingly was a very simple idea, soon became very difficult to pull off. Finding an empty house that was either abandoned or could be made to look so became Trent's biggest challenge. At a short film's scale and budget, a location manager (or location fees) became a hurdle. Trent must have looked through thousands of houses in California, Maryland and New York.

My challenges as the DP greatly expanded as I broke it down. Firstly being movement, We didn't want it to be noticeable at all. We wanted the camera to float through but not as though it was a POV, some sort of ghost. You might see this a lot in slow art films but rarely does it go on for 4 minutes. We played with the idea of crane and motion control but getting it into a practical location and into bedrooms nixed that. Steadicam was the next thought but there was also possibly going to be some dramatic vertical changes. We ended up shooting with a Ronin gimbal which I operated. 

Here's a reference video for the tone and Movement of the piece that I collected from various sources. Also I don't own any of this footage it was just a reference: 


The next thing I felt was paramount was helping Trent decide on a location. This house would be our ONLY character and getting it right and working within the practical implications of the audio/script whilst also providing a space that allowed us to move through it in a fluid continuous fashion was the biggest challenge. Too many pans on a wider lens and the audience is reminded about the physical aspect of a camera and I wanted to immerse them in the story. Also, because there are no actors, no wardrobe, nothing else to focus on, the only way to control the tone was to decide on the production design. Since there was not going to be much of that, I knew the only way was to stay on top of the location and give as much input as I could. When there's someone in frame, I can  create shallow focus, I can expose the background differently, I can mess with the composition to look at only the parts of the house that works. He found several in the end in Virginia and we scouted 4 on a weekend. 

And the Winner is:

Which brings me to my next issue. Lighting. In a perfect world, this would have been fully lit with 12ks out the window and rigging in certain rooms. In low budget world, it once again came back to finding a location that worked well. The house we found would have great afternoon light that hit the rooms that we wanted to be warm and left our more somber scenes cooler. We had many conversations about the color meaning and theory.  We emphasized it a bit more with Daniel Silverman at MPC in the color suite. I would be traveling down with no more than a generator, and some grip. We just had to pray for sun. 

I always try and be as big a part of prep as time allows and being that this pushed at least once, time was what was on our side. In the end we ended up PULLING the shoot forward a day because of weather. And ended up with a perfect sunny day. 

The challenges on set we're magnified as the sun got lower. It did create some very dramatic shafts yet as it bounced around, there was no way I could avoid operating through it, changing the shadows, subtle color shifts, and adding iris pulls to the mix made it quite difficult. Some handheld solids and a ballet of timing did the trick. Plus a tiny bit more love in color and vfx. You'd never notice it at first viewing but I guess that's the point. 

It was a very rewarding project and I'm happy it touched so many people. Here it is and share if you like

John Schmidt