Making the Award-Winning Short Film ‘Shadow of the Mountain’
In my experience, making a quality short film on a shoe-string budget is a process that is anything but short. ‘Shadow of the Mountain’ was no outlier there. It was a passion-project that took about eight months to plan, a weekend to shoot, and just short of two years to finish. All involved did it for the love of storytelling, the experience of learning, and the feeling of doing something greater than the everyday. And I believe it shows in the final film (watch the film below).
Movies (and movie-analysis) have been a big part of my family life growing up. My brothers and I have been fascinated by the films that are different than the rest, the ones that transcend entertainment and become something more. We want to understand what makes a great film. Then, we try to apply those principles in our own films. Together, we have made everything from music videos to documentaries, but every time we tackle a new project, we are continuously challenging ourselves.
…every time we tackle a new project, we are continuously challenging ourselves.
In the winter of 2013, one year after finishing our previous sci-fi short film, Marooned (Watch the Trailer | Watch the Full Film), we were hungry for our next filmmaking challenge. Just like Marooned, we wanted the experience and autonomy that we get when doing the following…
Same Challenges as Before
- Casting Actors. With the use of Craigslist to do a casting call, we have been pleasantly surprised how many aspiring actors will show up to audition for a passion filmmaking project (none of us are getting paid). We email applicants an excerpt of the script to rehearse beforehand, let them do a dry run first, then give some new direction and see how they adapt. We’re looking for actors that can accept change.
- Assembling a Local Crew. It never ceases to amaze me how excited people get to work on a legit film. It really is an exhilarating experience, and people know it and want to be part of it. Through painful experience, we’ve found that the most important requirement for crew is reliability (i.e. will they be available, be helpful, and actually show up).
- Make a Low-budget Feel Higher. Unlike Marooned which was funded on Kickstarter, Shadow the the Mountain came completely out of our pockets by choice (Kickstarter, although handy for funding, added to the amount of work before, during, and even after the project).
- Composing and Recording an Original Soundtrack. Along with being filmmakers, my brothers and I are musicians, and we cannot pass an opportunity to create new, interesting musical themes for our films.
We had some new challenges for Shadow of the Mountain to help us meet our learning goals, kept us stretching…
- A Bigger, More Diverse Cast. We had more actors than we had ever had on set at one time. In this case, a small village full of actors, including children and an very elderly man (that had to breathe through an oxygen tank between takes).
- An Animal on Set. Riley Florence, bless his heart, spent weeks training his Alaskan Malamute dog, Appa, to lay down, act sickly, pull a sled, and be carried on his shoulders like a sheep. Let’s just say we had to improvise on set. Animals can be unpredictable.
- Shoot Entirely Outdoors. In Marooned, we had the luxury of the controlled environment of a soundstage. Shadow of the Mountain was our opportunity to see what it takes to work around mother nature. Plus, sets don’t get much better than natural Utah landscapes. Unfortunate for us, it rained during practically the entire weekend of shooting (it did end up adding to the mood of the film however).
- Use Daylight and Torchlight only. We wanted to see if we could get away with using “natural light” as our only light-source, even for night sequences. In short, it worked thanks to the low-light capabilities of the Black Magic Pocket, something we could have never done with digital video a few years previous.
- Drone Operation. Capturing shots hundreds of feet in the air is something we could not have captured on a low-budget just a few years previous. This was our first attempt.
- Stunt-work. It is in hindsight that I realize just how dangerous some of the shots were. The first scene we shot was at night. John Fantasia was boosted up to a ledge about 20 feet about the ground, told to sit close to a small campfire while someone off-camera sprayed the flames with lighter fluid to keep it burning bright. As always, our hats are off for John. He climbed rock faces, got tackled to the ground, and dodged real rocks falling from above.
- Multiple Timelines. We wanted to tell a story unlike anything we had seen before and tell the story in a unique way. There are actually two timelines that we cut back and forth to. It was done to keep the viewer’s interest and allow for a fun reveal when the two timelines finally converge at the climax, similar to how Christopher Nolan might construct a story.
We had several other challenges (i.e. stretch goals) we ended up foregoing. We’ll save them for another project…
- Foreign Language. We wanted the setting of the film to feel like a truly foreign place, an unidentifiable place, perhaps even an other-worldly place. We felt that filming it in another language would add to that feeling. However, not only would this have made it quite difficult to direct, it was impractical (in Utah) to find a village-worth of actors that all spoke another foreign language.
- Creature Make-up or even Puppetry. Our attempts to give J.R. Cox, who played the part of “the Creature”, more ominous prostethic features didn’t pan out the way we had hoped. We ended up with a simpler, Nosferatu-type creature design. Props to J.R. for shaving his head but leaving Gollum-like strands of long, gross hairs!
- An All-Percussion Soundtrack. It was an idea we toyed with early on in an attempt to give the film a visceral, tribal/primitive feeling. I think we just couldn’t live without a melody. We ended up introducing other instruments to fill out the soundtrack.
The film you imagine when you write your screenplay will never end up being the film you shoot, and the film you thought you shot will never end up being the film you edit.
As any filmmaker will tell you, films evolve through each major step in your process. The film you imagine when you write your screenplay will never end up being the film you shoot, and the film you thought you shot will never end up being the film you edit. This is to be expected, not avoided. If you know what makes a great film, you can be confident that it will keep getting better with each succeeding step in the process.
Our whole process starts with my brothers and I riffing on random narrative ideas back and forth. When we have an idea that sounds interesting, we ask these types of questions: What’s the big idea? What’s the theme we want to convey? What could be a twist? How could we make the dramatic unfolding of events even more unexpected?
My older brother, Ben, writes a draft of the script. Then it goes into heavy editing and revision by him, my younger brother, Brad, and I. We question every scene, every piece of dialogue until it feels right. This editing process will slow down greatly after a few weeks, but it never ceases entirely until we’re on set shooting it.
The only actor that we knew beforehand that we wanted was John Fantasia. We had loved his work on our previous film, and we wanted him in the leading role of Eonae. For all other acting parts, we had to find people. We did a casting call online, provided each applicant with excerpts of the screenplay to rehearse, then held auditions at a condo clubhouse. We would video-tape the auditions so we could watch the actors later and see how their performances looked through the lens of a camera, which is always different than in-person.
To get an idea of places we could shoot, we travelled to several nearby locations looking for settings that naturally fit for our story. Utah is rich with strange and beautiful environments which allowed us to discover some hidden gems.
This is a technique of drawing out each storyboard frame on a individual card. Ben and I would meet together to read through the script and loosely draw out the cards together. With each shot on an individual card, we were able to easily add or remove shots or even rearrange entire scenes to find the most interesting way of telling the story visually.
Eventually, these cards and their order are preserved in a binder (along with the screenplay and shot list) that we can easily refer to on-set during the filming process.
With each shot on an individual card, we were able to easily add or remove shots or even rearrange entire scenes to find the most interesting way of telling the story visually.
This is the moment when the idea of making the film finally feels “real”. We get all of the actors and key crew members together, introduce ourselves, and each actor will read their character’s part in the script. Actors can ask questions, suggest wording changes, and receive some early direction on how to deliver their lines.
Planning the Shoot
We want people to want to work with us. We all have day jobs, families, and lives, frankly. Planning is a part of the process that we do not skimp out of respect and gratitude for the time others are giving us. Our plans include a shot-by-shot spreadsheet of estimated time it will take to set up the shot and shoot it and which lenses, props, and people we will need for each shot.
We want people to want to work with us. We all have day jobs, families, and lives, frankly. Planning is a part of the process that we do not skimp out of respect and gratitude for the time others are giving us.
Another aspect of our planning is gathering visual and musical inspiration. We believe that core to creativity is inputing interesting ideas and information. The ideas you perceive around you are the raw materials your mind uses to form new ideas.
The first village hut that Ben and I built was not structurally sound by any means. We were debating whether it would even be safe to let actors enter it. We scrapped it. This is the point where a real engineer had to step in and help us, our dad. Within just a day or two, we had a single finished hut with two nearby hut façades (we only needed one with a complete interior/exterior).
Gathering Equipment and Materials
This is a scavenger hunt. To keep the budget low, we first try to borrow as many things as we can for costumes, props, and filming equipment. After that, we’ll see if there is anything we can make ourselves. For Shadow, I ended up making all of the costumes for the actors with my wife by modifying cheap clothing and fabrics from secondhand stores. Our last resort is to buy new.
Our last resort is to buy new.
During filming, our mission is four-fold:
- Establish good lighting. This can take a while, but it’s the difference between an amateur-hour video and a Hollywood-style film.
- Capture a great performance from the actors. If you can’t do that, the film is absolutely a waste of time. The illusion is gone.
- Keep people happy. We arrange the catering of food and setting up chairs in a covered area because waiting is inevitable.
- Stay on schedule. We get the shot we need as quickly as possible and move on to the next shot. Working this way can be grueling but we get the filming done and we get people home.
To avoid losing footage, we send a crew member with full memory cards from the camera to a computer to backup the files to a hard drive right there on set. We also had other crew member recording the file names of each shot on our shot list (to speed up the editing process), and for our future benefit, recording how much time it took for us to actually set up a shot so we can improve future estimates.
Editing & Visuals
We’ve found that the best way to prepare the film for composing music is to edit the shots to a metronome. We will select a tempo and stick to it with every cut throughout the entire film. James Spencer or I will do an initial rough-cut of the footage and send it out to my brothers for feedback. We adjust the cuts, selection, and even order of the shots until it feels right with no sound at all.
Our most intensive special effects scenes included wide shots of John climbing the mountain rock. We wanted to give the illusion that he was climbing hundreds of feet above the ground. The visual effects were all done using Adobe After Effects. The color grading was done right in Adobe Premiere.
Score & Sounds
As always, Ben did an incredible job with the writing and recording of the music. He would send early recordings to Brad and I for feedback, and he would adjust or explore new themes all together to get it right.
The sound recorded on set, on the other hand, was practically unusable. It rained during the entire weekend of shooting, so all of the sound captured had loud rain-hitting-umbrella sounds. We weren’t able to arrange ADR sessions to re-record the dialogue, so we did our best to clean up the audio we had. This is the part I’m least proud of.
Shadow of the Mountain won the Remi Award at 2018 Worldfest Houston International Film Festival, which we couldn’t be happier about (Remi is their highest honor — basically their version of an independent film “Oscar”. This is the same festival that premiered the debut films of Spielberg, Lucas, Ang Lee, The Coen Brothers, Coppola, and David Lynch). Thank you to everyone who put so much time, effort, and passion into this project.