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Independent Productions: Diversity in Action

By Tom Inglesby

While major studios control large amounts of money, small independent productions with limited budgets can still make a splash if they approach their projects with great ideas, good planning, and high-quality but inexpensive equipment. Here are two such indie producers with awards to show for their efforts. The common thread is simple: they took chances and succeeded.

Snake Oil Sam: Inspired by music, The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam is an indie short that the director used to get ready for a feature.

What does it take to be an independent filmmaker? Obviously, talent, time, money and ideas to start. But if you have talent and ideas, wouldn’t it be better to hook up with a major studio, one that would — in effect — provide the money you need and free up your time from chasing after the money you need? Independent means independent from someone telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it differently than the way you want to do it. It means you can win all the marbles your way. Or lose all your marbles.

Snake Oil Sam as played by Zane Byrdy

Snake Oil Sam as played by Zane Byrdy

Arlene Bogna is one of those betting on winning — not losing — by being independent. She has a background in directing commercials and branded entertainment, and experience in art direction, fine art photography, visual effects, and writing. Bogna has been a shadow director on two network drama episodes, and is currently preparing for a revenge western feature titled Amaryllis Bang! Bang! Most recently, she completed a short “art” film called The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam in which she combined steampunk and desert backgrounds with avant-garde music.

Arlene is a creative spirit, a female film director who wants to the push envelope in her productions. Her inspiration? “Aside from directors [such as] Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Boyle, I am inspired by cinema from the late 60’s through the 70’s, by music, and of course by the wilderness,” Bogna admits. “Spaghetti westerns have an attention to nuanced moments, as well as epic drama, which really draws me in. Cinema in the 70’s, like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Vanishing Point, even Star Wars, have a freedom and an expressiveness to them, such that I really feel like I’m on a journey discovering a world right with the hero. I guess being in the natural frontier gives me a similar feeling, sort of ‘life times two.’ I’m a very visual person — meaning if someone says something, I visualize it instantly — so I am constantly inspired by the people I meet in my life and the stories they tell.”

The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam was inspired by new music by the band West Indian Girl, specifically the song “Taboo” from their album Shangri La. “I was listening to the track while brainstorming with writer/producer Anthony Ferranti so that we could explore concepts for a potential music video for the band,” recalls Bogna. Ferranti came up with the iconic visual of a snake oil salesman trekking through the desert, and Bogna says she felt like she had been struck by lightning.

“Clear as day, that was it!” is the way she remembers it. “It was an inspiring moment, and from there we developed the character Snake Oil Sam and added the sympathetic twist that he is seeking redemption. I also found that many of my personal interests could be layered into the story organically — what if Snake Oil Sam is a medicine man in the making? What if we could bring in an eclectic desert tribe, like in the 70’s film Vanishing Point, and make it an ode to today’s dance culture and subculture?”

That’s a lot of what ifs. But there are more. “What if I, as an artist, could explore certain cinematic notions in preparation for my feature, Amaryllis Bang! Bang!, including dreamy frontier visuals and the theme of redemption,” Bogna asks. “We realized we had a cool short film and that I had a chance to express myself in a unique narrative and fly my cinematic freak flag as a director, so I could not wait!”

Snake Oil Sam’s Muses (from left) Gladys Nyoth, Eva Zeva, and Christina Balmores.

Snake Oil Sam’s Muses (from left) Gladys Nyoth, Eva Zeva, and Christina Balmores.

An Independent film is a collaborative adventure that needs a certain level of people and situations coming together and falling into place at just the right time, and this kind of serendipity is certainly what made The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam possible. “It takes some grit, especially in the beginning, to find the right people,” Bogna acknowledges. “I am so grateful to all the talented and supportive people who came on board. I also found that the concept attracted people who were just as passionate about the material as I was. That was thrilling because I felt the film growing into something bigger than me. And the challenges of filming off-grid in the desert wilderness definitely kept us on our toes! Heat waves, bobcats; you name it, we encountered it.”

But like the show Survivor, the crew came together as a tribe, camping together and giving it their all. “It felt like a very special experience to me,” Bogna beams. “That is why it was so rewarding to have our work accepted into the Cannes Short Film Corner, part of the Cannes Film Festival, to kick off our festival run, because it felt like a strong affirmation of our efforts and vision.” Off in the desert again, Bogna responded to the age-old question: What advice would you give to an upcoming filmmaker? “Prepare, prepare, prepare! And hone your vision ahead of time. Be there for your actors. Stay open on set for inspiration and in case you need to adapt quickly to find another way to achieve your vision.”

Zane Byrdy and director Arlene Bogna confer on the set of The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam.

Zane Byrdy and director Arlene Bogna confer on the set of The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam.

Encouraged by the positive reception her film has been getting, Arlene Bogna has started her first feature-length film. She explains, “In The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam, I explored the cinematic notions of redemption and dreamy frontier visuals in preparation for my feature Amaryllis Bang! Bang!, which I co-wrote with Nicole Schubert. Amaryllis Bang! Bang! is a swashbuckling adventure about an Apache-trained warrior set on avenging the murder of her family, only to find out a chilling secret about herself. I’ve workshopped the script in scene study with professional actors, which is basically director heaven. Now I’m fielding questions about locations and logistics! I feel very fortunate to have producers on board to support my vision and bring Amaryllis Bang! Bang! to life. And I’m very excited by the positive meetings from Cannes. I can’t wait to see how serendipity plays out to bring this epic yet personal story to the big screen.”

Inspiration can come at any time, from any direction. As Bogna says, you have to be open for it. Who knows, maybe her story will be your inspiration.

The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam https://www.facebook.com/TheBalladOfSnakeOilSam

Exploring Black Magic With Blackmagic
Noka: Keeper of Worlds looks at the dark side of Caribbean folklore with help from a unique camera.

Gabriel (Stephen Nagy) learns that  he is a Noka

Gabriel (Stephen Nagy) learns that
he is a Noka

Shaun Escayg has worked in VFX for more than a decade. He’s a fan of monster films, loves to create and manipulate images, and especially loves anything supernatural. For inspiration, he often draws upon his own heritage — he was born in Trinidad — and love of Caribbean folklore, which has a variety of dark creatures in its beliefs, myths, tales, and practices.

In folklore, the supernatural exists, side-by-side with humans, and Escayg decided to explore this theme in his short film Noka, Keeper of Worlds. In order to bring the Caribbean’s dark creatures to life, Escayg relied on his expertise in VFX, but when it came to capturing the live action, he decided he needed a very specific camera.

“This film is very important to me because it combines a few things I am passionate about: story, VFX, and Caribbean folklore,” says Escayg. “The folklore has so many dark creatures in it, but because there is heavy VFX in the film, I needed ultimate flexibility in post. That meant the camera had to have the highest resolution possible for camera tracking, as well as the ability to shoot in RAW to capture detailed information.”

His ultimate choice was the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. “Noka was actually written before Fish, my previous short film and winner of the Belize and Malibu International Film Festivals. At the time, I didn’t see any way to make Noka. Then I saw the Blackmagic Cinema Camera,” he recalls. “It has 2.5K RAW, a cinematic look, beautiful highlights and roll offs, all for an affordable price. As soon as I saw the camera, I knew I could finally make Noka.”

A Demanding Location

Noka: Keeper of Worlds follows eight-year-old Gabriel, who has been treated for a rare form of schizophrenia, which he apparently inherited from his grandfather. While attending his grandfather’s funeral, Gabriel encounters an old friend of the family who claims his grandfather wasn’t sick at all. Rather, he and Gabriel are gatekeepers of an unseen supernatural realm. Gabriel, the man says, must leave all he knows and loves to fulfill his purpose and legacy as a “Noka.”

Cast and crew of Noka: Keeper of Worlds  block out a scene.

Cast and crew of Noka: Keeper of Worlds
block out a scene.

The film was shot in just five days on location in Santa Cruz, Trinidad. Escayg wanted to keep his workflow as simple as possible so he went in with just two Blackmagic EF cameras, Zeiss prime lenses, Redrock Micro rigs, matte box, Steadicam and a crane for some shots. Escayg did not use any external recorders, instead choosing to record in RAW straight to internal SSDs. “The built-in recording media was accessible — if I ran out of SSDs, I could go to a local electronics store and buy more. I loved being able to record to non-proprietary media. It keeps my workflow flexible, especially when I’m shooting in remote locations where resources might be limited,” he comments.

“The camera’s form factor also was very helpful for the shoot. It’s small, yet solid, so it doesn’t feel shaky,” notes Escayg. “The cameras are easy to use handheld; they snapped on and off our rigs, crane and the Steadicam in minutes. There was no time wasted.”

The small form factor also came in handy during a scene in which Gabriel fights a rather large, frightening creature in a cramped bedroom. When tucked against the wall, Escayg was able to shoot the entire sequence seamlessly. A larger camera would have been too big to capture the exact angles he wanted, angles that helped enhance the feeling of danger and frenzied activity. On the other hand, a camera that was even smaller wouldn’t have been able to capture the detailed, 2.5K RAW footage he required to capture the VFX plates and deliver on the very particular look of the film.

The small form factor of the Blackmagic camera came in handy when shooting in the jungle.

The small form factor of the Blackmagic camera came in handy when shooting in the jungle.

“Being able to enter metadata was a life saver for VFX, which was heavy on this film. You have to be meticulous when it comes to VFX, so having all the information on lenses, height and distance measurements, ISO info and more in camera was great and alleviated the need for pen and paper,” Escayg admits. “I could source data back into edits and use the information to track footage properly. It’s something that’s simple, but effective and provided a seamless workflow. We didn’t have much time or budget, so there was no room for mistakes. Without a seamless workflow, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Intricate Color, Subtle Transitions

“I wanted a vintage look to the film, a timeless feeling that transports the audience completely into the world of Caribbean folklore. There’s a colonial Caribbean setting I wanted to capture that was essential to transport the viewer,” explains Escayg. “There are also a lot of moods in the film, as it travels back and forth between Gabriel’s potential reality and the different worlds that he experiences. I knew using the cameras’ RAW capabilities, along with DaVinci Resolve in post, would let me achieve what I wanted.”

While this was Escayg’s first time using DaVinci Resolve, he was up and running after only a few days using the software. “Resolve was the obvious option to use in conjunction with shooting with the Blackmagic cameras. It’s easy to use and I can’t imagine not using it now,” he says.

In post, Escayg used Resolve to transition shots, with mood changes reflected in subtle changes on top of color correction. He was also able to recover any overexposed shots and maintain continuity if there was unexpected cloud coverage or rain.

“Being able to pull up blues in the shadows only, or tint ever so slightly across a few shots and frames was amazing. It was a key to achieving specific colors in mid tones, shadows and highlights, which the audience doesn’t notice it until they are already immersed in the next scene. That helped the transitions from reality to fantasy and back again,” Escayg says. “It was all about crucial and subtle control, adding slight sharpening here and there and keeping continuity with the drastic shifts in light in the Caribbean.”

The tracking feature also was a lifesaver. “I could clean up reflections of the camera crew and gear if they popped up in a window, or clean things out of the VFX plates, Escayg continues. “I also assembled all the VFX, color-corrected and animated shots in Resolve’s timeline along with master sound files and was able to spit everything out from Resolve.”

He adds, “It’s pretty exhilarating to see people’s attitudes toward short films and indie projects change because they can now be made with the same look and quality as high-end feature films, but for a fraction of the cost.”

Noka: Keeper of Worlds has been entered into the Sundance Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest, and many others. For more information, visit http://nokawheel.com/.


October 29, 2014