“The Watchfire” is barely six pages, a deep time science fiction screenplay that plays out as an ambiguous symbolist fantasy/horror film, in the mode of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, or films like Evolution, Innocence, and Sauna. Two apparently 10-year-old sisters guard a flaming beacon alone on a hill by the sea. One day, a third child appears. See my concept art here.
It can be filmed on a modest budget with a small crew. Here is a breakdown.
“The Watchfire” requires three actors. The two sisters (10-12) need matching long blonde wigs, and simple handmade-looking dresses. One needs to memorize two long-ish blocks of text–to be recited as stories, not performed as lines–and the other only one. They should be rehearsed together offset in the weeks prior to filming, with a focus more on being comfortable and engaged with one other than on their scenes. The the boy (10-12) needs a simple handmade “castaway” outfit of canvas and rope. He should be rehearsed separately. The childrens’ parents/guardians need to sign off on some violence in the film, though little that’s apparent to the actors. While I won’t pretend to be an expert with directing children, per Lenore DeKoven it’s best if the children are minded on set by a close relation rather than a parent; children tend to act up with a parent watching, and focus less on the people they need to work with. (Think home vs. school.)
Filming takes place over a weekend. As I’m currently based in Boston, coastal Maine is the most accessible shooting location, although northern California (near my sister) or the Swedish coast (near Denmark) also work–any temperate wooded area where hills meet the sea. Three locations are needed:
- The Beacon. An overgrown field bordered by trees.
- The Hillside. A wooded hillside overlooking the ocean.
- The Seashore. A beach.
The primary shooting location, which will need to be built beforehand: A central object resembling a dead tree turned to stone, with eternal flames playing across its branches. Beside it, two small pools of indeterminate depth. A ring of stones surrounds the beacon and pools. The tall grass is pressed down into a crop circle, about 40 feet in diameter, with a second ring of stones marking its outer boundary.
A property owner’s back field would be ideal. The house can even be quite close by, as long as it’s behind the camera; a friendly house would also be helpful for everything from costume changes to bathroom breaks, emergency battery charges, craft services, etc. Sync sound would be needed on this set.
The beacon itself is only partially built, to a height about a foot taller than the actors. The upper branches are created digitally in post-production. For safety reasons, there are no actual flames on set; practical lights are hung from booms atop the beacon, to be covered over later with CGI tree limbs and fire.
Although the sisters enter and exit the pools in story, this can be largely faked with staging and cutting. (It may be possible to place mylar sheets under a few inches of water to simulate much deeper pools. The bottoms will never be visible.)
For the effects work, a chrome ball should be filmed at each setup with bracketed exposures, to generate an Image Based Lighting model. Any instances where the actors move in front of the CGI tree elements will have to be hand rotoscoped.
A couple brief scenes take place just outside the beacon’s crop circle. For practical reasons they can be filmed elsewhere, like the Camden Hills. No build. Sync sound is not needed.
The effects work here is largely subtractive: Removing any traces of civilization in the background, like towns, ships, square fields, vapor trails and roads. Mattes the actors pass in front of are rotoscoped out.
A single, relatively brief scene. No build. No sync sound.
The trick here: Maine’s near-shore waters are littered with brightly-colored lobster buoys. The best option may be to film near high tide in a cove with extensive mudflats. Traps are set below the intertidal zone; the farther out the low tide line, the smaller and more distant the buoys, making them easier to matte out.
Though they present the same civilization problems, establishing shots of the beacon are fairly static, and can mostly be constructed as a matte painting/matte collage.
The project can be accomplished in about 3-4 months, start to finish. Required personnel:
- Director (me)
- Dawn Girl actor
- Dusk Girl actor
- Golden Boy actor
- At least one guardian/parent for the above