Time, Money & Filmic Props

I'm currently working on an ambitious and visually complex short film.

With only 5 minutes of prospective runtime and almost no audience, it would seem nonsensical to invest lots of my time and money building props that few people will see or care about. From machined plexiglass computer monitors to moulded foam armour, this short has singlehandedly doubled the number of props I own and cost several months worth of coffee.

I think most people could understand doing this on a personal level, as we all want to make great things that we can be proud of. But I also think there is some sound reasoning behind this decision that will pay off in the long run (I do someday want to live off this kind of work, and not lose money making shorts).

Great props are worth the work, here's why:

  1. Each prop adds value to future productions. If you create one stunningly crafted computer monitor, every future short that needs a similar monitor will have a stunningly crafted one. Having properly crafted props that last will serve you well, especially when they can be altered for different purposes.

  2. The skills learned are as valuable as the props. So far for this production I've learned how to mould plastics, properly cut plexiglass, shape foam with a wire cutter and now have a good mental estimate of how long these tasks take and how much it will all cost. Going into future productions, that's a ton of things that are no longer guesswork.

  3. Communication gets much easier. The people who make props full time are very skilled at what they do and unless you are aiming to study full time, you're unlikely to ever match their skill level. However, knowing your shit when talking to specialists is always a good thing. When you're not the one making the props you'll be able to get better results, communicate your ideas better and know the constraints that others are working with. So next time someone says it'll take several days to coat foam armour in spray paint, you'll know why.

  4. New tools can create new creative options. For the armour in this production, we needed to cut intricate shapes that neither a saw or knife could manage. So without the money or time to buy a specialised tool I built one out of plywood and a strip of nichrome wire from a hair dryer. Now that tool has been used for several other props and will undoubtedly be used many more times. Expanding your creative capabilities will help you think of more creative ideas and know what it will take to make them happen.

  5. Props should serve your story, regardless of budget. When you invest the time and/or money in your own original props, it gives you the chance to make them exactly the way you envisioned them when conceiving your story. In the case of this production, we wanted the 'computer screen of the future' not a bulky plastic one. With the ability to create your own props, you lose the restriction of having to use real-world objects and technology and often get something that would cost much less than the real thing (we spent £60 on the materials for three monitors).

  6. Originality is just kinda sweet. Having props that you know are unique and as well built as the props used in big-budget blockbusters can't help but make you a little proud.

I don't think this just applies to props either, you can apply almost identical logic to any area of filmmaking, from sound design to music to visual effects.

Here's roughly what one of the three monitors will be displaying, I'll update this with test footage once it's finished in a few weeks.

Auditory Storyboards

I'm in the midst of composing a score for an upcoming short, but unlike the last four, this one is different.

Sound is almost always the area that trips us up, I'm determined for that not to be the case this time. Our usual workflow for sound is this: Record Location Sound (often neglecting important moments) > Sync Location Audio > Edit > Record Foley, SFX, Write Music, Record Music.

This simply isn't a fast enough approach, we always run out of time during the sound design and music phase, having to accept sub-par sound to get a video up on time. So this time I'm going about it in reverse, based on the ease and relative tranquility we experienced when creating our unofficial music video for Resistance.

Reasons music videos are (in this case) easier:

  1. With little time to prepare, the music acts as an auditory storyboard. Allowing us to fill in the gaps as we go.
  2. Everyone knows when things are meant to happen. With everything laid out on a timeline already there is little room to miscommunicate movement and timing.
  3. Editing each shoot days' footage as you go acts as a progress indicator, letting you know if you're likely to fall short, or if you are missing vital shots or beats.

Now, this could all be done with an actual storyboard, but only if you have the time to create one, and an auditory storyboard comes with the perks of an animatic, without the extensive effort that goes into creating them. The one major downside of this approach is that it lacks visual details, for large shoots or more complex scenes this is unlikely a good approach, some would also argue that the music should be created in response to the edited short, not the other way around.

With that in mind here is my new approach to writing music for (some) shorts with quick turnarounds: After story is developed, write snippets of potential music > map out the short with temporary sound effects and music on a timeline > Develop music further until I'm happy with the direction its going in > Film and edit using the temporary sound and music as a guide for pacing and timing.

This is not an approach for everyone, but an interesting (and in our case very useful) way to approach scoring short films when spare time is all but non-existant.