A Production Plan for “The Watchfire”

A Production Plan for “The Watchfire”

“The Watchfire” is a deep time science fiction screenplay that plays as symbolist fantasy/horror, in the mode of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, or films like EvolutionInnocence, and Sauna. Two 10-year-old girls guard a flaming beacon alone on a hill by the sea. One day a third child appears.

Concept art on the blog here.

At barely six pages, “The Watchfire” can be filmed on a modest budget with a small crew. This is a breakdown of how.

Three young actors are needed. The two “sisters” (the Dawn Girl and the Dusk Girl, age 10-12) will need matching long blonde wigs, and simple handmade-looking dresses matching their hair. One will need to memorize two long-ish blocks of text–to be recited as stories, not performed as lines–the other only one recital. They should be rehearsed together in the weeks prior to filming, with a focus on being comfortable and engaged with one other. The third (the Golden Boy, 10-12) will need a simple handmade “castaway” outfit of canvas and rope. He should be rehearsed separately. The childrens’ parents/guardians will need to sign off on some violence in the film, though very little that’s apparent to the actors on set. I won’t pretend to be an expert on directing children, but per Lenore DeKoven it’s best if the children are minded on set by someone other than a parent; children tend to have trouble focusing with a parent present. (Think home vs. school.) Limitations on shooting hours will have to be researched and planned for.

Filming will take place over a weekend. As I’m currently based in Boston, coastal Maine will be the most accessible shooting location, although northern California (near my sister) or the Swedish coast (near Denmark) would also work. The requirement is a temperate wooded area where the hills meet the sea. Shooting in Maine would allow me to save on accommodations by using the visitors’ apartment at my mother’s house. (Two of the kids even get bunk beds!)

Three filming locations will be needed:

  1. The Beacon. An overgrown field bordered by trees.
  2. The Hillside. A wooded clearing overlooking the ocean.
  3. The Seashore. An uninhabited beach.

The Beacon

The primary shooting location will need to be built in situ beforehand. It consists of a central object (the beacon) resembling a dead tree turned to stone, with eternal flames playing across its branches. Beside it sit two small pools of indeterminate depth. A ring of stones surrounds the beacon. The surrounding tall grass is trampled 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 be quite close by, as long as it’s out of the shot. (A friendly house is also helpful for costume changes, bathroom breaks, emergency battery charges, craft services, etc.) Sync sound would be needed on this set, so proximity to a busy road is a no-go.

The beacon itself will be only partially built, to a height about a foot taller than the actors. The upper branches and flames will be created digitally in post-production. Practical lights will be hung from booms atop the beacon, to be covered over with CGI. Although the sisters enter and exit the pools in story, this can be largely faked with staging and cutting. Mylar sheets under a few inches of water may work to simulate much deeper pools. (The bottoms are never seen.) Tutorials for creating a crop circle with planks and ropes are easy to find online.

For the effects work, a chrome ball must be filmed with bracketed exposures at each setup on the beacon set, to generate an Image Based Lighting model. Instances where the actors move in front of the CGI tree elements will have to be hand rotoscoped.

The Hillside

A couple of brief scenes take place just outside the beacon’s crop circle. They’ll almost certainly need to be filmed elsewhere. No build. Sync sound won’t be needed. The scenes can probably be shot guerilla style near a public lookout.

The effects work here is largely subtractive: Removing any trace of civilization from the background. Towns, ships, square fields, vapor trails, roads, etc. will need to be painted out in a tracked travel matte. Elements the actors pass in front of will have to be rotoscoped out.

The Seashore

A single, relatively brief scene. No build. No sync sound.

The trick here is that Maine’s inshore 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 paint out.)

Pickup Shots

Establishing shots will present the same civilization problems. These will tend to be fairly static, and can be constructed as matte collages.

Post Production

Special effects will be done by me in Fusion, which was our primary tool on “The Garden, 1910.” Unless I can secure some kind of residency, they’re likely to take a couple months to complete on evenings and weekend.

In All…

The project can be accomplished in about 3-4 months, start to finish.

Required personnel:

  • Director (me)
  • Producer
  • DP
  • Dawn Girl actor
  • Dusk Girl actor
  • Golden Boy actor
  • At least one guardian/parent for the above
  • Hair/Makeup
  • Sound
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Fire Brothers

One of the germs of “The Watchfire” was a partial mishearing of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1971 song “Fire Brothers.” The mondegreen method seems about right, as no one can seem to agree on the exact lyrics to this song. Here’s my best attempt:

In the valley where the loons and lovers play
Lived two children who were born on Saturday
One was dark, one was fair
Fathered by the hawk, mothered by the mare

Stranger children you will never see;
Brothers of the forest and the sea
One was land, one was air
And they kept the fires burning there

In a golden vessel and silver vase
Kept them burning in that strange enchanted place
Kept them burning to the sky
For they knew someday the sun would die

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Concept Art for “The Watchfire”

Her bare feet linger just within a crop circle bounded with a ring of stones. A second ring of stones lies closer to the center. In the middle, flanked by two small mirrored pools, looms the BEACON itself–taller than her, topped with a flame that isn’t fire.

A lone BEACON of light shines from the wooded hills above a shore untouched by man.

The DAWN GIRL (10) looks down from the hill, wringing her hands as the GLOW of the explosion below touches her face. She is fair with extremely long blonde hair, draped in a shapeless garment of the same color.

Dusk carries the body to the sea’s edge. She’s about to drop it into the tidal mud when, brow knitting, she leans in. A faint, regular CHIRP-like sound eminates from the golden boy’s mouth, like a ticking counter.

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The Garden, 1910: Faking It Right

Currently, our challenge with The Garden, 1910 is finding film festivals willing to program a 30 minute “short” film–never mind one with extensive (non-sexual) nudity. Private screenings both in the US and Denmark have been extremely positive, but we’re not exactly teabagging the zeitgeist.

Our challenge in making it was one of bringing across a big-budget 1910s fantasy film on a 2010s microbudget. As the production designer and cinematographer, I wanted to know what it was like sitting in a smoky cinematograph watching a new, hand-colored print of a film like ours.

We came up with some terminology: The illusion vs. the effect. The effect was how we would actually achieve the shot: greenscreened footage of actors, puppets and miniatures (filmed on an iPhone 6s with Filmic Pro) composited in Blackmagic Fusion, Final Cut Pro X and Motion, with additional elements from still images, Animation:Master and Photoshop. The illusion was how our magician-turned-filmmaker would have created the shot using period techniques: sets with sometimes elaborate stage mechanisms, multiple photographic exposures, splices, color-tints, pyro, forced perspective, piano wire, Pepper’s ghost, and so forth.

The subconscious effect of frame rate, and how variable frame rates can be used artistically, is something I’ve been exploring. The Garden, 1910 actually runs at 60fps; a blurred three-blade shutter fades each frame in and out, running the “film” at the slightly unsteady 17-19fps of a hand-cranked projector. As the camera would also have been hand-cranked (at a slightly lower 13-14fps for a better exposure) each frame of the fully-composited footage also has a slightly randomized gain adjustment, to simulate variability in exposure. (Filmic Pro will record footage at an arbitrary frame rate like 14fps, but from working with the footage my impression is that the iPhone hardware itself will only capture at certain fixed frame rates, and Filmic merely discards the unwanted frames.)

Obviously, we weren’t content to slap an “olde timey film” filter onto the composited footage and call it good. Each composite in Fusion was piped through a battery of patches to extract and then imperfectly add back in false color, to simulate hand-coloring. (This was a nightmare, but probably an instructive one. I’ll drill down into it, with some downloadable material for Fusion tinkerers, in an upcoming blog post.) The completed “film” frames from each sequence (one frame per frame) were edited in Final Cut, with glue splices added as a custom FCP transition from Motion. (Don’t look down on Motion; it’s a real Swiss army knife, and incredibly fast.) The footage then made a round trip to Fusion, where it received unsteady re-timing to 17-19fps, shutter flicker, gate jumping, vignetting, emulsion dust and scratches, exiting as 60fps finished footage–and making a round-round-trip to Final Cut for final editing.

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So I Wrote a Star Wars Fan Film…

1. EXT. COTTAGE – NIGHT

A single dim, warm LIGHT above the front door struggles into the soaking mist, revealing the front of a MODEST REED-WALLED COTTAGE, round and set over the water.

A REBEL slips by. Dark, ragged fabric from head to toe divulges only parts of a helmet and utility vest. We can’t see their face — and we never will.

MATCH DISSOLVE TO:

2. EXT. COTTAGE – DAY

Morning finds us at the marshy edge of a pleasant lake.

Three STORM TROOPERS march toward the door, their white armor Endor-style, and era. The FIRST TROOPER stoops, blaster sweeping the short crawlspace between the cottage subfloor and the lake. A few machines hang down, nothing big enough to hide a person.

FIRST TROOPER

Clear, sir.

SECOND TROOPER

Sub droid’s found nothing in the water.

LIEUTENANT

Send it away.

3. INT. COTTAGE, CONT.

A familiar, visibly ageing Gungan answers the door.

JAR-JAR

Oh! Me’sa got officers coming here!? What can dis’sa be happening?

LIEUTENANT

A rebel against the Empire has been tracked —

Jar-Jar’s foot catches unluckily on a set of ceremonial spears near the entrance, which go CLATTERING to the floor, nearly gutting the first trooper.

FIRST TROOPER

Watch it!

LIEUTENANT

Step aside, Gungan.

JAR-JAR

Oh no! Rebels in meesa house? No no no! Find them!

The interior is spartan. Tidy. One room. Aside from the (many) mementos of state hung around the perimeter, it contains only a small kitchenette and a few sleeping cushions strewn about the floor.

The lieutenant gestures toward the ice box — the only space large enough to hide a person.

SECOND TROOPER

Sir.

FIRST TROOPER

In position…

The troopers push past the hapless Gungan with levelled blasters.

JAR-JAR

Rebels in meesa ice box?! Oh no! This-a terrible!

With interlocking fire, the troopers approach. At a signal, one THROWS THE LID!

LIEUTENANT

Report?

Both look in, nonplussed.

FIRST TROOPER

Half a sculptrin fish, sir. And, maybe, some cake.

JAR-JAR

Ooh! Meesa be saving that cake.

They lower their blasters, look around.

LIEUTENANT

(into a comlink)

Clear.

They leave.

After a moment Jar-Jar quite calmly scoops up the spears, setting them upright and closing the door.

His little pot-bellied kettle WHISTLES.

JAR-JAR

Muy bad business. Muy muy…

He pushes the window open, cocking an ear.

Jar-Jar pours water and a sprinkling of plant grounds into not one — but two cups.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

They’sa gone now. Is’a safe.

Two cushions, not touching, stir on the floor. The rebel pushes them aside, one from their legs and one from their upper body, hips sunk into a pit crossed by a bit of flooring — no doubt hidden by a domestic machine below.

REBEL

(whispered)

I didn’t cover my tracks very well.

In sotto voce, we still can’t even tell the faceless rebel’s gender.

JAR-JAR

They’sa droid spying under the lake gone too.

(points reassuringly to his big ears)

You’sa Rebel, eh? You’sa fight the Empire? You’sa make war, so you’sa
spawn make houses, so you’sa spawn’s spawn make poems. Yes?

REBEL

I — Senator?

Jar-Jar sits. In the bright sunlight streaming in from the lakeside window, his every wrinkle seems in sharp relief.

JAR-JAR

I’sa not a Senator no more. Never really was. Shouldn’t have been.
It’s not for making pretty up the past now; just living small life of
the old Gungan. My skin, it’sa not keep good water in or out, that’sa
how Gungans say it.

REBEL

They said you might be able to help me get off-planet.

A swell of displaced water creeps stealthily toward the cottage. A ROBOTIC EYE — not dissimilar to the one at Jabba’s palace — rises to the surface, cleaving the water periscope-style. The rebel scrambles for the false cushions.

JAR-JAR

Ahh! Me’sa lunch here.

Underwater delivery droid EL-ZED disappears beneath the cottage. A manhole-sized iris HISSES open in the floor. The wet metal eye pops up through an appropriately-sized hatch to the side as a BATTERED METAL RACK rises into the room — atop it a metal, but unmistakeable, TAKEOUT CONTAINER.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

Mmm-mmm! Smell’sa that good seaweed.

(He takes it with relish)

Thought I said no fish flakes…

EL-ZED BEEPS his inculpability.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

Here, you’sa meet a good friend. Meet El-Zed Vee-Three. She’sa being
your ride out of here.

The rebel steps to the iris, gingerly testing the ladder-like delivery rack, and taking a peek down into the cramped, rusty delivery bay. The eye watches interestedly.

REBEL

First class.

JAR-JAR

She’sa take you to the big kitchens at the seaweed factory. There a
slow freighter at the pad, leaving at noon. Just tell the captain an
old froggy sends you. Here —

(takes a small object off the shelf and tosses it to the rebel)

Very slow freighter. You’sa be wanting a book. This’a by a friend,
dear departed long time ago.

At a CLICK, a page of alien text momentarily appears in the air with a portrait of AMIDALA.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

She’sa teach you muy thing about rebelling. Now go go. Time not
a’waiting.

REBEL

Thanks for this. I won’t forget you.

The rebel finds room inside the droid’s tiny hull, as the rack CLATTERINGLY retracts.

JAR-JAR

Not forget me? You’sa never met me!

The iris closes.

CUT

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I swear, this is just research…

30+ Cornstarch Fireballs

1080p (vertical) shot of 1 teaspoon of cornstarch blown into the air near a flame source about 30x. Filmed at 120fps, playback at 30fps. As much fun as you’ll have doing this yourself, these pyro elements are released into the public domain for any and all usage, commercial or otherwise.

These elements were created for Troy Minkowsky’s “The Garden 1910” a Rhino Crate production currently in post.

Download Clip in MP4

CC0
To the extent possible under law, Matthew I. Rasmussen has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to 30+ Cornstarch Fireballs. This work is published from: United States.

flame_rig

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Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout”

A man drives his son and teenage daughter (credited only as White Girl and White Boy) into the outback, lights the car on fire, tries to shoot them, and caps himself. Young aborigine (Black Boy) finds them, helps them return to civilization. Film.

This isn’t a movie that’s seen very often anymore, which is a shame.

I actually first saw Walkabout in a film class in high school. We had a video projector on the cyclorama of the school stage jury-rigged into a quasi-cinema. Our teacher, having spent his ’60s youth (and met his Kiwi wife) hitchhiking around Australia and New Zealand (in a way very foreign to a ’90s teenager) didn’t seem to have actually sat down and watched the movie through in some time. Being reminded how risqué it becomes at times, the class could see him squirming, but we wouldn’t let him turn it off.

What a remarkable film. It has moments that’ve stayed with me ever since, through film school and beyond. Interestingly, the current rage that year for us Black Boy/White Girl-aged students had been Aussie Baz Luhrmann’s overclocked refresh of Romeo + Juliet. The two might make an interesting double feature.

Animation: “The Gremlin”

An animation loop, for your pleasure. Something to remind me both what I love and hate about doing character animation. Created in Animation:Master and Final Cut.

Does anyone else remember that old “We’re gremlins from the Kremlin” Warner Brothers cartoon?

Grammy Rasmussen

My grandmother passed away on January 14. I brought a microphone and sat down with her back in 2002, then shot some 16mm film on Friendship Long Island and edited a short. Here is that film:

Click here if your browser does not display the video properly.

Five Underused Horror Tropes

And properties that make interesting use of them.

1. Frankenstein Creations: Powerful, perhaps immortal confusions of once-dead human parts reanimated by Dr. Frankenstein’s (always) secret method. Not to be overly confused with James Whale’s 1931 film with its constricted, single-location plot, dim bolt-necked creation, and memorable use of Nicola Tesla-inspired electrical equipment as the (revealed) method of cell reanimation.

Franken Fran: A manga series about a loveable but somehow unmistakeably monsterous patchwork girl who inhabits a mansion full of equally bizarre creations, “helping” people as she sees fit, and awaiting the return of her creator.

2. Dopplegangers: Classically, a mute apparition of oneself that appears to warn against impending danger.

Arcana: Another manga, slow to start, in which a girl matching no missing person’s report is found by the police, and by her ability to see ghosts proves useful in investigating a series of brutal murders.

3. Former Tenants: Beings who inhabited the Earth long before humans, and who want their world back.

The short stories of H.P. Lovecraft: Lovecraft lived in the era when man was pushing into the final dark corners of the map. His dominant theme was a fear that the dark corners would push back. The double-switch Lovecraft plays in “At the Mountains of Madness” is particularly impressive. (Cthulhu, despite his fame, is a relatively minor player.)

4. Sirens: Beautiful female creatures, often with the aspects of seabirds, who lure men (and women?) to a watery death with an irresistable song.

There is a Japanese survival horror videogame series called “Siren,” but it appears to have very little to do with the western myth.

5. The Motif of Harmful Sensation: Related to the siren, a broader term for the idea of a piece of sensory input that can cause a physical effect on the victim. (Well explained in the finest deleted Wikipedia article I’ve ever come across.)

BLIT: David Langford’s remarkable short story revolves around the discovery of a class of images that “crash” the human brain, killing anyone who views them.

Dark Water: Thoughts on Horror

I’m beginning to wonder if Dark Water is Hideo Nakata’s masterpiece. It drills down through the cosmic terror of The Ring to something far more intimate: The fear of abandonment. We see the child’s fear of abandonment not only in the repeated scenes of one being left after the close of school, but in the adult characters eyes as, by proxy, they’re forced to re-experience its gnawing toxicity. The water, the intrusion of darkness into the rainsoaked day, and the intrusion of water into the spaces and times it’s not meant to be in all mirror that forgotten feeling. The breaking of a child’s trust in the parent, which is also the child’s trust in the world, is a trauma that even adulthood can’t banish forever. Watching an imperfect single mother struggle to hold her own crumbling world together against that invading fear is heart-wrenching. All horror is psychological horror, crystalized in the moment of realizing one has been wrong. Dark Water is Nakata’s most emotionally draining film and that, I believe, may make it his finest horror film. Hell is being alone forever.

The Man With the Pointy Hat

"In the current storyline, there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance . . . As an executive producer as well as a writer, I've sometimes had to insist that my writers make changes that they did not want to make, often loudly so. They were sure I was wrong. Mostly I was right. Sometimes I was wrong. But whoever sits in the editor's chair, or the executive producer's chair, wears the pointy hat of authority, and as Dave Sim once noted, you can't argue with a pointy hat.

"So at the end of the day, all one can do is try to do the best one can with the notes one is given, and try to execute them in a professional way -- because who knows, the other guy may be right . . . ."

— J. Michael Straczynski

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