It’s been a good long while since I’ve made a movie, and so because of that I wanted to return to filmmaking with the most minimal crew and cast possible. Oh yeah, and then there’s the pandemic too. Today I’m going to show you how I shot, lit, edited, composed music, created VFX, and edited this film alone in lockdown.
Let’s start with the phone stuff. I dreaded the thought of doing all the phone VFX post-production both because it would have required a lot of motion tracking and a lot of keying or rotoscoping of my fingers when they overlapped with the phone. The result would have been a much longer post-production and probably badly executed, distracting VFX.
So instead I decided to shoot all the necessary phone assets and create all the phone VFX before doing the main shoot. So all these shots of me using the camera and browsing on my phone, were things had already screen recorded and glitched out in After Effects, then I just exported them as a video and transferred them to my phone. I just hit play on the phone and mimicked the right movements. Like here my thumb isn’t actually touching the screen, or it would have revealed that this was a video. I just hit play on the phone and mimicked the right movements. In order to time these out better, I added a little audio queue to the video file. One big perk of this is that it allowed me to actually zoom into the video on my phone like normal for this shot. For these shots it took a couple of takes, but copying the moves wasn’t that hard.
I shot the film with my Fujifilm XT3 in Classic Chrome mode. For lenses I used my Contax 28mm f2.8 lens for about 60-70% of the shots. At f2.8, it doesn’t let in quite as much light as some lenses, but the trade-off is that it allowed me a little bit more wiggle room for staying in focus, which was crucial for shooting this thing by myself. I also had access to a more modern Sigma 18-35 f1.7 that I used for a lot of the wider POV type shots towards the end. However I was using this cheap non electronic adapter with the Sigma, so I wasn’t able to change the aperture. Therefore, everything was shot wide open at 1.8. The opening shot was done with my Contax 50mm 1.7 lens so I could punch in a little more.
As far as settings go I tried to keep my ISO in the 400-640 range so that the shadows would really be black. Using a lower ISO means you’ll have to use more lights though.
For lighting, my Aputure MC lights are the real hero of the story. They’re these fantastic, RGB lights that have built-in lighting effects and allow you to control them through bluetooth with your phone. And they have nice, strong magnets inside so you can stick ‘em to metal stuff. For all the scenes where I’m using my phone in the dark, they’re so small, that I was actually able to just hold them in front of my phone screen with my thumb. I set them to this sort of greeny-yellow color that matched the color the iphone’s flashlight puts out. It was really convenient to be able to just let this sit right on top of where my light source is supposed to be coming from. During the shoot you could actually see the small display light on the side of it in this show, but I was able to easily cover that with a black shape tracked over it in After Effects.
I also used this Tiffen Black Pro Mist ¼ filter I recently bought. It adds this nice, soft bloom effect, especially where lights sources are involved. A lot of people call it a more “film-like” look and I agree. Things are still sharp where you want them, but it slightly softens the skin and adds a nice glow to lights. Buying one of these filters new runs you about $120 for an 82mm size, which is the biggest and most expensive one available. This is probably the one you want to get because can be adapted to fit on any lens. I’ve sort of moved into this phase of my life where I will spend a little bit more on something in order to get something that’s going to last a long, long time. But I still want to get a good deal. I recommend KEH.com for equipment like this, they sell used camera equipment at great prices, and they have a great rating system to see what condition they’re in. And they’re really generous with these ratings. I’ve bought equipment marked “Bargain” grade and I haven’t had any problems. I got this filter for $44 used instead of $120 new, and it works perfectly. I also got all three of the Contax lenses I own from them.
So the great thing about horror films, is that you don’t necessarily need to be a musician to make the soundtrack for your film. In some cases, you can often get away with something that just sounds eerie or unsettling. So in keeping with the idea of trying to distort sounds, I recorded myself making a bunch of creepy sounds on my electric guitar. I used scissors, a knife, scraped my pick across the nylon strings, used my metal capo, and plucked a bunch of the higher notes.
I then took those recordings into Adobe Audition and did some processing with Notch Effects, Chorus, and an Equalizer, to turn this guitar noise into a cool, synthy, almost blade runner-esque sound.
For this sort of stringy sound, I used one of the recordings of me messing around with the high notes of the guitar. I then took that into the free program Audacity and stretched it way out, like somewhere between 4-16 times slower, using this plugin called Paulstretch. It makes the sound way slower while still maintaining the pitch.
I didn’t record any sound when I was shooting, that would have just been another thing that would have made the shooting process way too slow and cumbersome too accomplish by myself. So I recorded all the sounds like footsteps, breathing, creaking, the breaker box afterwards by myself and that was pretty simple
For the glitch sounds, I tried experimenting with creating my own noises. Audacity has the really cool feature that lets you import “Raw data” which basically means any type of file you want and then it will convert it into sound. I tried importing jpegs first but it turns out most of those just sound like a wall of TV static. But I found that Photoshop files and Blender files created some really dynamic and interesting sounds. I ended up using the this Photoshop file of the monster for some of the sounds here, and also used the actual sound that this image of the pattern made here.
So as far as the edit goes, this can be one of the trickier things to when you also directed the work because you lose objectivity. You should almost always end up cutting something you like for the good of the overall film. In this case, there was this part I liked where I hear a sound outside, look out the window and see the shadow of these leaves slowly transform into a pixelated pattern. But I think it was unnecessary and would have slowed the beginning of the film done too much.
Anyways, that about wraps it up here for the making of Dead Pixels. I brushed over a few sections so if you have any more specific questions you have just let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer. Stay tuned for more posts!