Shooting a short takes longer than you’d think.
That is, unless, you utilize the wonderful world of preproduction to its utmost potential. Establishing an effective and intuitive game plan for your short’s production is half the battle, and can save you days and dollars once the reels start a’turnin.
Director, editor and producer Mark Schimmel is no stranger to the art of short-making. This year he’s back with “Kill The Light,” a plucky thriller about a woman’s journey to recover her haunted past. Schimmel’s third short is already being considered for festivals from Tribeca to SXSW. In what follows, Schimmel outlines his essential considerations when short-filmmaking, including a day-by-day breakdown of the “Kill The Light” shoot.
Time + Prep = Your Most Valuable Asset
Don’t rush into an over ambitious short film with a limited budget.
Writer Lee H. Ross (Downloading Nancy, Benjamin Troubles) presented me with the first draft of “Kill the Light” less than one year before principal photography. We exchanged notes, I did my research and we developed a strategy to produce the 15 page script within three 12 hour days with a budget of $20,000. David Spodak (Producer/AD) contributed to story revisions and designed a smart shooting schedule. An effective and smart shooting schedule (accompanied with a thorough shot list, storyboard, and script breakdown) makes shooting a breeze, and provides the crew with all the resources they need to be as efficient as possible. Exterior contingency be damned.
Maximize Your Location
Achieve as many looks as you can from one location.
Through extensive scouting I found one location in Horcher Farms where I could shoot Ray’s home and workshop, where he finds Cheryl and picks up road kill, and where he drives his vintage truck.
Once I plotted out each area I secured Horcher Farms, a nearby bar, and a village road. By utilizing minimum locations, it’s easier for the cast and crew to get acquainted with their setting—not to mention time saved traveling—enabling a higher number of set-ups per day, quantifying to a lower necessity of shooting days.
Ensure a Budget for Casting
Most independent films overlook the importance of having a professional casting director. To prep casting, I sent an early version of the script to O’Connor Casting of Chicago. By the end of the casting process, I booked Coby Goss (Ray), Cassie Kramer (Cheryl), John Victor Allen (Clint), John Gray (Terry) and Brooklyn Schimmel (Cheryl’s daughter). Joan O’Connor’s contribution was so valuable that I offered Joan a co-producer title.
Coby brings his A-game to every project. Cassie is an actor with a reputation to work very hard at her craft and I knew she would look fantastic on camera. She transformed into Cheryl and held her own opposite of Coby. John Gray was perfect for Terry with his sinister laugh, and John Victor Allen got the role of Clint the moment he walked into the session. The compatibility of cast and ability to trust actors is a key, important process worth dedicating time and resources towards in order for a smoother shoot.
Talent, speed, experience and Keslow Camera.
Episodic cinematographer William Nielsen Jr. (Bill) moves fast with a remarkable understanding of coverage. During our first meeting, Bill stated: “you will never be waiting on camera.” Inviting Bill to the project was a game changer, and together we visualized every shot to translate Lee’s compelling story of “Kill the Light” into cinematic art.
Bill insisted that we shoot with the ARRI ALEXA. I didn’t have the budget. Bill reached out to Keslow Camera of Chicago and they agreed to support the film by working within my means. With only three lenses, we planned long dolly shots and challenging focus pulls—which made me a little nervous, but very excited.
Inviting Ron Leahy on board, who is a great combination of lighting director and gaffer, allowed Bill to focus on operating. They didn’t compromise on their craft and made an awesome team. With synergy in tact and everyone on the same page the elaborate shots are a cinch, even on such a tight schedule.
The Importance of Production Design and Art Direction
The meat: blood, guts, and locations with character.
Our locations were already propped intrinsically without necessitating much set dressing (for the most part). Not having to transport trucks of props and equipment for set design saves a good amount of time and money.
One of the greater challenges was creating roadkill. An eager student named Emily Garrison convinced me that she could handle the props, blood, and assist the experienced Production Designer, Sean Mulholland. Together they located fake animal parts and dressed the locations into Ray’s habitat. Having a dedicated, team-oriented crew working on art and design is essential for a professional looking final product. Not to mention the time it saves not having to worry about the small-but-imperative “little” things.
Plan Your Post Before You Shoot
Sound and color polish the movie.
Once principal photography was scheduled, postproduction was my final step to ensure that I could finish the film by mid-October. I treat the colorist, Tom Rovak, as a second cinematographer. Tom took Bill’s footage and created the looks we shot for.
The entire post audio effort was lead by Panetta Studios. Having one source for all the post audio streamlined the process. Angelo Panetta offered editorial consultation to tighten up the story and structure the trailer. Due to his contribution, I felt he also earned a co-producer credit.
The final touch was Alison Bloom digitally removing the safety wire from the dog.
of principal photography was scheduled for July 7. Keslow Camera of Chicago delivered an impressive ARRI ALEXA package and the forecast looked perfect. Unbeknownst to our expectations, storm clouds rolled in first thing in the morning.
There was no weather contingency plan other than a few plastic tarps. Luckily, the downpour lasted only a few minutes. Once the sky began to clear we had a colorful backdrop to establish Ray’s truck driving on the road—take one in the can. Later I confessed to Bill this was God’s way of saying, “remain grounded.”
The next shot was Ray picking up road kill. This was the first time I would see actual (artificial) road kill—a close-up of the truck and Coby on set. By the time I had walked to the second farm location, props were in place and Bill was ready to shoot: two takes, a few inserts, move on.
On the other side of the property was my third farm location, easily accessible in record time thanks to the Horcher’s Gator. We spent most of the day in the same general area, shooing the scenes where Ray finds Cheryl on the side of the road. Due to extensive prep, there was very little to discuss, just a few simple blocking notes for Coby and Cassie. Bill’s operating both on and off the dolly was flawless, the props were readily available and we flew through the shots: two takes wide, two takes medium, one take insert or close-up.
Late afternoon, we moved to another part of the farm to shoot the vignette relationship-building scene. Although this portion of the script was only two-eighths of a page, covering vignettes can kill your schedule. Keeping in mind the amount of screen time I estimated in prep, we had one-to-two takes and that was it. We wrapped day one within 11 hours. David Spodak suggested we continue shooting B-roll of the truck, but I decided to call it a wrap and let everyone get home. I’ll later regret this decision, and wish I had followed his advice.
began the night before, when I realized the wrong address for the bar was distributed on the call sheet. We were shooting Clint at Pinheads Bar just down the street from the farm. Oddly enough, two addresses were listed for this location on Google. In a panic, I called the Second AD, and the correction was texted and emailed to the crew. Follow-up calls were made in the morning.
John Victor brilliantly played Clint—a few takes for each set-up and back to the farm.
The vintage police car was already in route and Terry was in wardrobe by the time I arrived. As I walked from base camp to the next shooting spot I didn’t see Bill and thought, “finally I beat him to a camera position”… until I realized I walked down the wrong path on the farm. I peeked around the corner and there he was, with camera, grip and electric, and props already setting up for our next handful of scenes.
The closing shot of the movie features Clint lying in the back of the truck surrounded by dead animals. For the shot, John Victor wore a Hazmat suit and we covered him in fake carcasses and blood–this shot worked beyond my expectations.
In another scene shot that day, Ray finds an injured dog on the side of the road and puts her down.
I only spoke twice to Chris Kreutz, the dog’s owner and trainer. Having worked with dogs for many years, I prepped Chris and she offered to train Khaleesi before the shoot. After the helpful safety precautions provided by Northbrook police (who closed the road), as well as placing a safety wire on Khaleesi, we were off. The chemistry between Ray and Khaleesi was amazing—we got an incredible canine performance within the first few takes.
The last few shots of the day feature Cheryl and Ray scooping up road kill near the truck.
To pull this off visually, Sean and Emily used fake skins, ground beef, Mexican food and manufactured blood. To achieve another look, we moved the truck to another part of the road, but a leak in the break line cut things short early. I was never able to get all of the coverage of the truck driving that I had hoped for.
began back on the farm inside Ray’s house. The performances and cinematography astonished everyone: two takes, a couple inserts, move one. Bill and I spoke very little that morning, as we both completely trusted the collaboration. The house wrapped and I felt that we were all having way too much fun. A quick meal break and onto the fourth act in Ray’s workshop, which was located right next to the house.
This was the largest space with the most amount of action in the film. I revisited the blocking, framing and all of the coverage. Rather than overcomplicate the coverage, I visualized the editorial and simplified the shots. In the knick of time Emily McClearn, our one-person wardrobe department, and I realized that we needed multiple grey T-shirts for Ray’s bloody scenes. Emily ran off to Walmart while grip and electric set up lighting—no down time.
Day three clocked out at 9:10PM. The total shooting day was 11 hours, 10 minutes.
That’s a Wrap
By the end of the shoot I didn’t realize how many set-ups we pulled off. I knew that I over prepared in every area—that I made all the right choices concerning crew, location, cast, props and art—but I didn’t realize how well it went until I received the Daily Production Reports. Kara Davison (script supervisor) pointed out that we shot an average of 24 set-ups per day within 12 hours. Goal accomplished:
Day One: 4.5 pages, 8 scenes, 24 set-ups
Day Two: 4.13 pages, 12 scenes, 27 set-ups
Day Three: 6.5 pages, 4 scenes, 24 set-ups
“Kill the Light” was made to help talented people in their career. I never lost sight of this, and I am thankful for their hard work. Trust and collaboration combined with prep and talent equates to a successful production, and I trusted myself and gave the cast and crew freedom to perform at their best. We all earned a 22-minute short film that is currently in consideration in festivals, seen by the producers, agents, show-runners and other prominent members of the entertainment industry. MM
Mark Schimmel is a Director of Content, TV, features, and shorts. The trailer for “Kill the Light,” “UnTruth,” and his other works can be seen on his website at www.markschimmel.com. All photographs courtesy of Mark Schimmel.