Darkness: Cameras, Cellos, & Cupcakes

You are sitting in your room, playing your cello, when it all goes silent. And it stays that way. You have gone deaf. All you can hear is the ringing of silence, the sound of darkness.

This is the opening scene of our independent film Darkness, on which I, along with Beth and Lauren, have spent the past few months working. The film shows the world behind the eyes (and ears, I suppose) of young hearing-gone-deaf Lucy, who has not played music for six months. However, with help from her therapist and new hearing friend, she is able to conquer her emotions and utilize her talents once more.

Trust me, it’s not as cheesy as it sounds. Let’s split this up by time:

July 15, 2016

We had been trying to come up with a film idea for weeks. Many ideas passed through our minds, but none were good enough. None of them had the spark we were looking for. We wanted to come up with something different. Something special. And on July 15, 2016, Beth did just that.

She sent me a message with a few ideas, and one of them spoke to me: a young cellist who has gone deaf. For the months prior, I had been teaching myself American Sign Language (ASL) through a book, so the idea of a film using sign as its main language was that special idea for which I had been searching. It was not a fully formed story, but rather a seedling that would someday evolve into Darkness.

Also, to add to that “special” factor, the film would be almost completely silent. Nothing would be heard except the beautiful music of the cello in the first and final scenes. Therefore, we would have to create some beautiful imagery to compensate for the lack of sound.

Time to get to work.

July-October 2016

The idea grew.

We built our main character. Lucy is a young cellist whose disease causes her to go deaf. Her journey as a character is the discovery that she can still play. She may not be able to hear the music, but she can feel it. This is one of the many parallels between hearing and another sense, one being the title itself.

L-U-C-Y. My sign name is music with an L.

We began the script. We started it off with what we knew: the girl is playing a cello when all the sound around her suddenly disappears.

The difficult part was deciding what to do next. She sees her cello and goes to therapy. Then what?

Then came the introduction of Mandi, the helpful hearing girl who knows ASL. Mandi would try to convince Lucy she could still play cello, causing a fight between the two. However, it is Mandi’s push that ultimately convinces Lucy to continue playing. If not for the joy of others, then for herself.

Maybe you could still play.

I wrote out the shot list. I had many, many ideas. Many. I knew this would be a strenuous shoot, but I also knew we could handle it.

However, writing the shot list was not so easy. Creating one is hard enough in itself, planning every shot of the entire film, but also having to take the ASL and cello into account added an extra challenge. The ASL shots had to show their hands, and the cello shots required time and effort from the cellist (Beth) to film.

By the middle of October, it was only a matter of time. We were ready to shoot.

October 30, 2016

The big day arrived. The day we had set in stone weeks prior. The day we had been planning for since July.

Filming day.

At least, the first filming day, but we didn’t know that then. To us, it will always go down as the Day of Cameras, Cellos, and Cupcakes.

The first two may be fairly self-explanatory, but I’ll explain the third. As my birthday had been five days prior, Lauren and Beth came equipped with birthday cupcakes to celebrate the occasion. It was such a sweet gesture, almost as sweet as the frosting on the delicious cupcakes!

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I was absolutely THRILLED to use my new Panasonic AF100, which I had received for my birthday! It was super exciting to use a professional camera for an independent film because of the overall film quality and rare filmmaking opportunities involving focus and exposure. This camera has special meaning to Beth and me, for it was used to film The Spear, the first professional film I starred in, along with Treasure Map, a more recent film starring Beth.

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We began by filming the easiest scenes: the kitchen scenes. With Beth brilliantly playing the part of Lucy, we filmed a few wide, medium, and close shots of Lucy walking over to her cello and almost slamming it down. We were able to utilize Beth’s Nikon lens because Chris Messineo had provided us with an adapter for my camera. His support means the world to us.

I used claustrophobic over-the-shoulder shots, which are OTS shots where the shoulder takes up most of the view, to convey an uncomfortable feeling in the audience and show the audience first-hand just how much the cello means to Lucy.

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I also filmed one of my favorite shots of all time: the chandelier shot. I started on the chandelier, then panned over to reveal the kitchen scene. This kind of shot creates a sense of space in the room, as the audience can now see the magnitude of the kitchen. It also introduces the scene in a creative manner.

In this scene, Lucy lifts the cello to break it, only to place it back down gently a few seconds later. This posed a challenge, as it required strenuous work from Beth to hold up the cello for a long time. I am proud to have actresses willing to work through difficult shots.

However, the second kitchen scene would create an even bigger challenge: ASL. The actors, now including Lauren as Mandi, had to learn their lines in sign. Now taking a full-year ASL course at my high school, I was able to teach them. I was weary about how quickly they would learn their lines. Luckily, I was very, very wrong. They leapt the hurdle of ASL with flying colors, learning and mastering their lines in a matter of minutes.

I would like to point out two of my favorite shots in the whole film, in which Lucy and Mandi enter from a distance, out of focus. They walk up toward the camera, where Lucy places her sheet music, sharp and focused. Another cool shot was the one taken from inside the cabinet as Lucy grabs two glasses to fill with water. Since the zoom lens was set at 14mm for the close-up, Lucy’s face had a fish-bowl look, creating an awesome shot from the closet’s POV. She shuts the cabinet door right on the camera.

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Next stop, outside. Outdoor shots are often avoided, as they rely on there being good filming weather. We were lucky the predicted rain storm came late. We ended up using two shots. The first was a front view dolly shot of Lucy and Beth as they walked down the street. Of course, by “dolly,” I mean me carrying the camera on my shoulder as I walked backwards. It came out a little shaky, but I am proud of how it came out nonetheless. The second shot was a sideways pan. I stood at the side of the street and panned the tripod as they walked by. It came out smoother than I had originally thought it would. We probably filmed around eight versions overall to get the signing perfect. You heard me properly, outdoor shots with ASL. What were we thinking?

And so, after a long day of filming, I felt a distinct sense of satisfaction as I downloaded the videos onto my MacBook. I opened Final Cut Pro X and got right to work.

Before then, I had never used Final Cut Pro’s stabilization features, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how well it works. Since many of my shots were handheld, I stabilized the footage in post-production, and it worked so well I could not even see the movement! However, don’t expect it to work on very rocky shots, as my outdoor “dolly” shot was too shaky to stabilize.

November 11, 2016

Music can help you heal, if you let it.

Spoken from the hands of a true therapist.

My big debut has come! Today, I played the part of the therapist, in addition to my role as the director/cinematographer. Of course, Beth and Lauren helped with the camera.

First, however, we had one shot to film. For our first shoot, we had planned a shot of a “Deaf Child Area” sign near where we shot the outdoor scene. However, we had to take a rain check on that. Rather literally. It started to rain during filming.

We shot the sign in a similar fashion to the chandelier shot, panning over to reveal Lauren and Beth, playing Mandi and Lucy, walking down the street. The road and trees did not look exactly the same due to fallen leaves and shadows, but it was worth sacrificing a little continuity for a great shot opportunity.

And so, we made it to the therapy scene. We arranged the sunroom into a two-couch therapist’s office. I still don’t know how Beth managed to memorize her entire monologue, but she did. As this was a very sign-heavy scene, I had to work at constructing a conversation in true ASL. This was a struggle, since ASL’s grammatical structure is very different from spoken English, requiring fewer words. For example, the phrase “I almost did it this time” became “me almost now.” Just go with it.

(A big thanks to Lauren for the BTS pictures!)

A challenge arose when we tried to film the next scene, depicting the meeting of Lucy and Mandi. We had planned to use the room next to the sunroom, but its warm colors created an ugly yellow tint on the actresses’ faces. Also, the bright window behind them limited our filming space, as its extreme light would require less exposure, darkening the entire shot.

Finally, we filmed what are arguably the most important scenes in the entire film: the cello scenes. Beth had composed an amazing song, titled “Darkness,” to be the only sound in the entire film except the quiet buzzing of silence. We filmed the finale, then Beth changed into her second outfit and we filmed the introduction. Both provided many opportunities for clever shots involving the cello. Overall, my goal was to build powerful scenes that match the beauty of the music. First and last impressions are very important when it comes to film, and I felt that the perfect way to start and end Darkness would be to draw parallels between who Lucy used to be, and the character she has developed into throughout the film.

Tomorrow and Beyond

There are many parts of the film we would like to expand upon in the future. For example, I had planned many shots for the introductory cello scene, including a dolly zoom to convey the uneasy feeling Lucy feels the moment she becomes deaf. I also hope to gather enough room on my MacBook to edit the new footage. Since the Lucy-meets-Mandi scene did not come out right due to bad lighting conditions, we are thinking of alternate ways to shoot it. One possibility is moving it outside, which would replace the yellow-light problem with a reliance on good weather conditions. If you have any ideas or suggestions, feel free to comment them below.

Filming Darkness has been an amazing filmmaking experience, and has allowed me to develop even more than Lucy. I am super excited to release this project to the world. I would like to thank Beth, Lauren, Chris Messineo, and all the parents involved for making this production possible. I send out my gratitude to anyone who had a hand in growing this seedling of an idea into fruits the world can pick and enjoy.

Cut to darkness.

4 thoughts on “Darkness: Cameras, Cellos, & Cupcakes

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