How They Did It: Breaking Down Two Key Flashback Transitions in the Thriller Dig Two Graves

The title of my film Dig Two Graves is inspired by a Chinese proverb that warns: “When you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

The story, which spans three decades from 1947 to 1977, is about the sins of the past coming home to roost in the present. Young Jacqueline “Jake” Mather is offered a chance to bring her recently deceased brother back to life, but at a cost that involves her grandfather’s secret past.

Flashbacks were integral to the telling of this tale, but I was still wary about using them. Too often I find flashbacks to be a crutch for exposition and a drag on narrative momentum. In the case of Dig Two Graves, the flashbacks were linked to point of view. They revealed necessary plot details but, more importantly, shed a light on character interiority. It gave a subjective glimpse into the minds of men haunted by their sinful past.

We went to great efforts to achieve these transitions and I think it pays off, because the visual construction feeds the underlying themes of the movie. This visual construction is meant to mimic the slippery nature of memory. Past and present are inseparable as regret and hope bleed into each other and characters seamlessly slide into and out of daydreams and nightmares.

Almost every transition was done in camera, with only minimal processing done in post. This was my personal preference but also due to budgetary constraints. It was a time-consuming process to orchestrate these elaborate transitions, but ultimately they added deeper layers of meaning to the story.

The first flashback in the movie takes place in 1977: Sheriff Waterhouse, played by iconic actor Ted Levine, is driving with his granddaughter Jake (Samantha Isler). The two are on their way to question Proctor (Danny Goldring), the former sheriff, about an incident involving Jake, who had gone missing for several hours earlier in the night.

I designed the shot so that the camera would start on the hood of the car in a two-shot featuring Ted and Samantha.

Samantha Isler and Ted Levine in a scene set in 1977 in Dig Two Graves

My cinematographer Eric Maddison, known on set as “The Swede,” then tracked around to the side of the car and ended in a profile shot through the driver window, with Ted in the foreground. But instead of seeing Samantha in the background, we would see Danny sitting shotgun.  We would then be in the 1940s and a dialogue scene would ensue between a younger Ted and younger Danny.

Levine and Danny Goldring in a 1947 flashback

The challenge was how to do the camera move while the car was moving and switch Samantha out for Danny without cutting. The solution? We shot the scene in a warehouse using a poor man’s process trailer. The simulation of movement was achieved by having one of the grips bounce a 2 x 4 under the truck’s axle. The scene took place at night, which also made the illusion easier to sell.

Levine and director Hunter Adams on the set of Dig Two Graves

We put the camera on a dolly and as it tracked around the car, Samantha crouched down onto the floor space as Danny opened the passenger door and climbed into the front seat. By the time the camera finished its move, Danny was seated beside Ted and Samantha was hiding at his feet.

I watched the camera move from my playback monitor and noticed that we were seeing Danny’s image reflected in the rear window as he got into the truck. The Swede suggested we flash a light across the window, mimicking a trailing headlight, to blow out the window at the moment Danny’s reflection appeared. It took about 15 takes, but we finally made it work.

In post-production we created a subtle shift in color temperature to further augment the time shift. As the shot progresses, the image gradually moves from the blue end of the spectrum to the orange. This slightly warmer feel is a distinguishing characteristic of all the 1940s scenes.

Color temperature changes from blue to orange in one shot

We also used sound design to augment the fluidity of the transition, gently bleeding in radio music from the 1940s as the texture of the car sound began to morph from a 1970s truck to a 1940s version.

At another moment in the film, Danny’s character enters a dilapidated shack inhabited by moonshiners. Once inside, a memory is triggered, and we’re pulled once again into the past. This was a pivotal moment in the movie. It reveals an important plot element, but I also wanted to imply that the character still had one foot firmly planted in the past. The transition makes this idea literal. The character, and the audience, watches the set change from the 1970s to the 1940s right before their eyes.

The idea was this: We see the character in the foreground of the 1970s set. As the camera tracks behind his head, the 1970s background gives way to the 1940s background and we end in a close-up of a younger version of the character in the 1940s. We did not have a post-production supervisor (big mistake) or even a VFX consultant to advise us, so we had no idea if this was actually going to work.

In theory we would try to shoot the scene against the backdrop of the 1970s set and then reshoot it with the 1940s set. Because we would have to completely redress the set and because we had to shoot all of Danny’s scenes in the 1970s first, almost a week would pass between the two set-ups.

The Swede suggested that the best way to achieve this effect would be to use a programmable motorized dolly to replicate the exact movement for both shots and then layer the shots over each other in post. Unfortunately, we did not have the budget for this piece of specialized camera gear.

Instead we took a static “plate” shot of the 1970s set without any actors in frame. A week later when we had Danny in 1940s hair and makeup (sans beard), we shot the 1940s set with actors. The camera starts behind Danny’s shoulder and tracks behind his head and across the 1940s backdrop until it ends in a close-up of Danny from the opposite side.

Once in post, our effects editor at Blacklist Digital layered the 1940s dolly shot over the static 1970s plate shot. The VFX editor rotoscoped out the left side of the 1940s image to reveal the 1970s image beneath it.

The 1970s set in a scene of Dig Two Graves

As the camera dollied behind Danny’s head, the 1940s set began to appear and the 1970s backdrop began to slide out of frame left, making it appear like we were transitioning laterally in time.

The scene is divided into two time periods via a split-screen effect

By the time the camera had finished the dolly move, we had completely transitioned into the 1940s and the 1970s set had disappeared.

The 1940s flashback takes over the scene

We also used sound design to help sell the transition, pre-lapping sounds and voices of the 1940s over the 1970s backdrop.

There were several more flashbacks and all had a unique and complex design. Each transition took a lot of time and planning and, frankly, luck to pull off. But in the end, it added a cinematic representation of the central idea of the movie: The present, inextricable from the past, is ultimately consumed by it. The flashbacks, while revealing the backstory, also functioned as an insight into character psychology and the lingering effects of remorse. And they were done in a way that was uniquely cinematic. MM

Dig Two Graves opens in theaters and On Demand March 24, 2017.