‘Finishing’ School for Manhater
Manhater is not a typical first project. Most people begin with shorts but I decided to jump into the deep end with a feature.
My writing and production education has been gathered in bits and pieces over fifteen years from books, seminars, and UCLA Extension evening classes. Manhater was on-the-job training with the intended goal of filling in the gaps with a real world experience. Yes, mistakes would be made but they could be no worse than the limitations imposed by a micro-budget. The trick is to have a good script; I have always believed that a good story will find its audience.
The Manhater adventure really started when a friend was looking for crew on a small horror movie. Anthony Doublin and I had sons in the same Cub Scout den and we often talked about our common interests. Tony had an active career in the industry (best known for Makeup Effects in 1985’s Reanimator) but wanted to direct his own indie project. He recruited me as AD and script supervisor.
One particular actress stood out on that shoot, Ariel X. Tony then decided to do a second movie with her, though this time she would play a killer instead of a victim. With my creative flame rekindled, we joined forces. Tony had three elements in mind: Ariel playing a creature, the use of body makeup to evade the expense of creature prosthetics, and a story having to do with witchcraft.
Flash back some years. I am in third grade and the teacher is giving us one of my favorite assignments. She has gathered unrelated pictures — cuttings from magazines — and taped them to the blackboard. Our assignment was to take these disparate images and weave them into a story. It was the first time I learned there was a writer inside.
Back to the present: the elements that Tony presented were all I needed to start weaving a cool story. The script came together well, a mythology created for the Sgree creature and a plot containing the genre elements in a minimally gratuitous manner for this female empowerment story.
In the story, the modern-day witch operates a New Age shop called Mystic Dreams, while doing her real work in a dark room in the back of the shop. We had great fun in preproduction seeking props for the witch. We needed inventory of both types — from storefront jewelry to backroom cauldron and vials. Most of the items came from garage sales, accumulated over about a month.
As we browsed for props, we also shopped locations and proved that it really never hurts to ask. I theorized that people who have garage sales are gregarious folk and, thus, more open to lending their homes as production locations. On each prop outing, I carried a sketch of needed scenes on an official clipboard — bedrooms, living rooms, exteriors, etc. — along with business cards. At many of the homes we shopped, particularly those with large back yards, I asked if they would be interested in renting their home for a few dollars a day. The response was overwhelmingly positive and we found several of our locations this way.
The shoot was scheduled over five consecutive weekends and went fairly smoothly, though there were time challenges. Body paint may sound logistically easy, but it’s unavoidably time consuming on set. By the end of the shoot we had it down to 90 minutes, not including touch-ups during the day. We could have used twice that much time for more detailed body shading but it just wasn’t in the cards. In retrospect, we probably had a larger crew than necessary, but as part of a full experience I wanted crew departments, even if they were only departments of one. We had Tony at the helm as director, myself again as AD, a script supervisor, location manager, hair and makeup crew, a gaffer, grips, wardrobe, a boom operator and production assistants. Makeup turned out to be the largest group — one person for glamour hair/makeup and two additional for the Enyo creature body and blood effects.
Post production unfortunately turned into a multi-year enterprise with no funding remaining and life taking its typical toll. Tony needed to move on to other projects, and I became the sole overseer with plenty of work left on my desk and many lessons yet to be learned.
One example of these lessons is our image evolution. Small budgets yield inherent limitations with many decisions being based on finding the sweet spot between what is minimally acceptable, what is realistically possible, and what is high-mark unreachable. I know now to take more time on the front end, working out these issues during preproduction.
Manhater was shot in digital video, primarily with a Canon GL2, a decision based on cost and availability. We also had part-time access to a Canon XL1. I wanted to shoot at multiple locations to lend greater credibility to the story, so with long days scheduled an early decision was made to light diffusely with two ambient lamps rather than use typical key/fill techniques. The result was not optimal but it allowed the actors to move within an area without the need to reposition lighting. The other problematic camera factor was a relatively high lux rating, a limited ability to pick up details in low light. If I could do it again I would have rented a more expensive camera, but when isn’t that true?
I was determined to have a 16:9 end product so that meant cropping the frame as well as tilt/scan adjustments. Next came a resolution bump from 720 x 480 to 1920 x 1080. Triggering any warning bells? It should, since by itself, that would only increase the size of the pixels. Luckily there is intelligent software available now. We chose Magic Bullet Instant HD from Red Giant Software. It creates new pixels between existing ones — not just duplicates of nearby color and brightness but new data that takes into account color, movement, even edge recognition.
Color correction was the next step — forward and backward. A pervasive indoor yellow tint came from several sources — insufficient light, unfiltered practical incandescent lamps (even though we used daylight bulbs in our china balls), and occasionally a forgotten white balance. If you’re going to be working with a new camera your best investment is to spend an extra weekend rental and test it under your range of conditions. It’s also important to avoid under-lighting with less expensive cameras. Adjusting brightness and contrast in post on an underlit image yields a very grainy picture since there is little color information with which to work, particularly with a 4:1:1 chroma format like DV. Trust me, trying to turn yellow and dull yellow into white and blue is not something you want to be doing. You can reduce color and luminance in post with much better results than going the other way.
Next up: film look. This I like to focus on this issue from a future audience perspective — those who will be viewing your product in one to ten years from now. Audiences are adapting and evolving, and in my opinion, there will be less demand for ‘film’ look down the road and upcoming audiences are likely to become more accustomed to and demanding of crisper images. For Manhater we settled on a mild film look adjustment, adding some black diffusion and increasing the contrast slightly.
What’s left was obvious — too much grain. Solutions exist in both software and hardware, though on a small budget the practical option is software alone. We chose Neat Video for this job. It really is an amazing program although there are tradeoffs with the process. Excessive degraining yields a too-smooth, plastic look. It also defocuses the image so there’s a balance to be found in applied settings. When done right the results can be remarkable, even with HD-originated footage.
Manhater is in part an effects movie, with 79 shots between visible digital effects and clean-up tasks like removing a grip from behind a bamboo curtain. One of our biggest breaks was finding Andreas Jablonka who joined the crew as a compositor. Having just graduated from film school in Germany, Andreas had moved to the U.S. to work in the belly of the beast. Manhater became his first IMDb credit. His second? Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest!
Andreas’ time soon became much in demand so he ultimately assumed the role of visual effects supervisor, coaching the project through the staff that followed. Despite his help, our most persistent problem was finding someone to do the difficult smoke-snake 3D effects. As a small budget project at that point we went through a lineup of artists, some inexperienced looking for portfolio work, some with experience but willing to try to find time. Unfortunately, nothing worked out and after two years I finally conceded to doing it myself, apprehensive but at least knowing what I was getting into.
Effects of the 3D variety are not for the faint of heart. First, a program like Maya costs about $2000. Worse, our toughest effect was a shot in which our character moved across the room with this thing coming out of her. Handheld camera, moving actor, no match-move tracking marks. Yeah. What were we thinking? The solution came in the name of Blender, a free open-source 3D modeling/animation program. Not the most intuitive or user friendly program but incredibly powerful, and did I say free? It took three months to do those toughest shots. You can learn a lot from tutorials on YouTube.
Finally, I must gush about our other great find, composer Greg Stitt. Another first-time talent, Greg is remarkable. His work speaks for itself so please check out his Manhater samples at http://gregstitt.com/manhater.html. If you want a great composer on your indie project before the big time sweeps him away, send Greg an email ASAP.
Manhater premiered at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema in January 2010. Given that we started as a DV project, it’s likely we’ll self-distribute. We started to build our audience base in 2008 via social networks and will continue through those avenues and others. Another goal is the pursuit of a production deal for two sequels since we have a franchise character in Enyo. We started with a low budget but we’re aiming high. www.manhatermovie.com
Manhater – from Canyon Falls Prods. Cast: emelle, John F. Henry, Alessandra Assaf, Ariel X, Brandon Connor. Pr/Scr: Philip R. Calderone; Dir: Anthony Doublin; 2ndUnitDir: Jolynn Reese; VFX Supv: Andreas Jablonka; Mus: Gregg Stitt.
Shot on Canon GL2 & Canon XL1 (720 x 480). Uprez to 1920 x 1080. Initial edit on Mac G4 with Adobe Premiere 6.0; transferred to Mac G5 with Final Cut Studio. Additional effects created in After Effects, Blender, Gimp, Combustion, Boujou.