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FILMMAKER: Mikko Löppönen
STORY: How I Made My Stylized Action Short Film 'ELIZA' with No Budget
“CAMERA dollies back. A huge python painting behind the MAN IN SHADOWS. CUT TO BLACK.”
I typed in the last words of my one and a half page script 'The Assassin'. Quickly I sent a message to Jessica through facebook. I'd been using her in my shorts for years now and thought she would make a great assassin.
She read the script and promptly told me: “This is shit.”
I'm not a very good writer. I think visually, so getting some points across – even writing this blog – is difficult. But I am a longtime editor. I work as an editor at Talvi Digital, a Finnish posthouse, and I'm accustomed to criticism. I hear it every day! Criticism is all about the film and getting it as good as it can be.
Hearing the negative aspects is necessary even though I didn't end up changing much, if anything. Mostly I just changed the title and started pre-production. It's also sometimes necessary to hear the criticism and still push it away. To not be paralyzed by it.
It was about the visuals. Inspiration from other films. The flow of action scenes. I don't have an original bone in my body.
I thought about the film 'Drive' and how I loved the beginning of the film. Driving. I had to do something like that! I wondered how to light the car, how to make it look good with no resources.
Also sword fighting. Why? Because I hadn't done that before. Pushing new territories for myself. Pushing everything forward except the story. The story was secondary. It would be all about the music and the visuals and the style.
I wanted to shoot in very low light. Let the natural lights of the city guide the image. I wanted actual blood effects, real explosions instead of CGI. Those are hard to come by when you have no budget.
And maybe I could get a bit of emotion into at, even though I didn't really care about the story, only the production. There should always be a story to care about, something you really want to tell. But I didn't have one. And it's difficult for me to come up with one.
I learned not to let it stop you.
Yes, your production might be missing things here and there but when you're doing indie films to share on Youtube, don't let the search for perfection stop you. Realize where the limits are.
Mine are two-fold: developing a story (which I'm trying to get better at) and producing. Calling people. Asking for help.
That's really difficult. But it HAS to be done. If you don't start doing, nothing will happen.
When you do short films for yourself – hoping that others enjoy them too – you can indulge yourself in the 'act of making'.
How long will you spend time on a shot? How much time will you spend on getting equipment, clothing, props, locations? Do you know how to manage a set? The only way I could manage this was to keep everything small.
A very small crew. I would light everything with only two LEDs. Two cheap Yongnuos (YN-600 and one YN-300). One giving me blue light and one white light. That was it.
Everything else was to be done all natural.
We only used the LEDs during the car scenes / night time scenes. They gave our characters a bit of nice backlighting. We also simulated car headlights with them as when we did the last fight scene we didn't have the cars. Didn't even have stands for the lights so we mostly just put them on the ground or one of us (even the actors) would keep a light in their hand.
Shotlists are extremely important in a short film like this. I also do small storyboards just to keep everything in my head. They are very useful during a shoot to double check that all the important angles have been done. It's easy to forget things while you shoot and a shotlist/storyboard will remind you during the chaos of shooting what it is you were originally planning.
Making films is a very technical process. Not just the camera or shooting gear but the details of crew, production time and how you talk to people. There is a technique to everything.
If you are a new director, just go through everything in your head beforehand. If anyone asks you a question, you need to be able to answer immediately. It's not just for other people, you need to know exactly what you are doing so that when things go wrong (and things will ALWAYS go wrong) you will know how to fix it.
I had huge issues with the production schedules. We got our cars for very specific dates and that also goes for the actors. That meant we had to shoot the car scenes separately from every other scene. So we didn't actually do the end fight in front of the cars. Or any other. Without my crappy storyboards, it would've been very difficult to have all those shots in my head in order to avoid showing certain angles or actors when they weren't in the shoot.
Fight choreography for us was done by Jesse Liskola. He and Jessica trained for some evenings to get the sword fight correct. The other fights were pretty much choreographed on the spot. We did have some plans for them, but we had to change a lot of the moves, as I was a bit lazy in pre-production.
Different people move differently and you can't just assign a choreography to someone, they have to be able to move in their own style.
I have this creative burn as I believe most in this line of work do. I am constantly doing little plans in my head, thinking about how to setup shots, how to film certain sequences.
'Eliza' was originally conceived as a slightly retro eighties homage. It was supposed to have three different flashbacks with dialogue and a rhythmic electronic music that would drive it forwards.
In my head I saw a very simple visually arresting piece that would have a little twist. Plan was to share it on the interwebs and hopefully just get people to see it.
The actual finished film is quite different from my first versions. Initially I had temp-tracked this very retro music on top of the film. But I realized quite quickly that my vision was completely wrong.
Looking at the first rough cuts – that didn't work at all – we had to do some changes. If you have a chance, try to always edit your scenes before your shoot is over. You will notice missing angles, missing ideas, things that work better or worse than you thought.
It wasn't until I realized that I had to cut out a major twist away that the film started working.
The original script had a more ambitious style with three flashbacks and a rival gang. Those went to the trash bin, luckily just before we shot them. Don't be afraid to look at your own film and cut out everything. Even the moments that made you want to film it in the first place.
Looking back at the finished project, I see a bunch of mistakes. The short starts working properly after the halfway mark. From there to the end, I really like it personally. But the beginning and the first flashbacks/fight scenes don't really gel for me.
The lack of a proper tagline also worked against me. When I think about what to say to people about the short I come up empty. A superhero origin story? A revenge film? Even I don't know.
All in all, it was a worthwhile project and I learned a lot. Mostly about the need of having a coherent story with dialogue. I will apply most of what I learned into the next one and I wish you all luck in your own projects. Doing them can be painful and brutal but it can also be fun. Find the fun in doing.
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