Markers: Heart to the Beat

You know, for a 2-minute film, this took a really long time to get done.

Markers?

Markers is a dramatic short about a girl who redefines her own labels after being outed as lesbian at school. The film doesn’t contain any dialogue or narration, but instead tells the story through t-shirts, actions, and―you guessed it―markers.

I wrote Markers back in December, tried to shoot it in April, then finally shot and edited it in June. We’re gonna need some flashbacks.

December

Ok, I know most of my how I came up with the script idea stories are pretty lame. They’re usually just random blips of creative energy just before the due date. But this one actually involves an interaction and the subsequent train of thought.

I was talking to someone about labels and prejudices when they said something that caught my attention:

It’s human nature to notice someone’s race, gender, age, all of that, as soon as you meet them.

Hm.

I rushed home and opened Celtx and began drafting. (Now I use Amazon Storywriter, but this was a different era.) I formatted the film as an introduction to the world, a trigger, and a reaction, all lead by an overlying narration about human nature.

World: A boy walks through a hallway wearing a hoodie, observing the students who each have one label written on their white shirts.

Trigger: Some bullies pull off his hoodie so that the boy’s white shirt, reading GAY, is exposed. They then proceed to push him to the ground and hurt him physically.

Reaction: The boy runs into the bathroom and hyperventilates.

Narration:

I’ve noticed something funny about human behavior: we like to label people by what we know about them, no matter how superficial or arbitrary the details may be.

And as soon as we learn anything about somebody, it becomes part of who they are.

But sometimes, there are things we don’t want the world to know, things we try to cover up.

But secrets don’t stay concealed for long.

If you’ve seen the film, then you probably noticed that a few things changed from initial script to shooting script. But more on that later.

So, after I finished the script, I immediately found actors and picked a shooting date. It was shot, edited, and posted by 2018.

But that didn’t happen. I didn’t even show anyone the script until March. Looking back, I guess I just wasn’t ready to tell this story. Not yet. But by time March rolled around, I was ready to pick up right where I left off.

So let’s pick up where I left off.

March

I finally showed people the script.

As I said earlier, the script transformed a lot before filming. One of the biggest changes was the ending. When I wrote the original script, I went for a grim, realistic ending that provoked thought about the connections between bullying and self-hate. However, after receiving feedback and rereading the script, I had a change of heart. I took out the violence to focus specifically on the subtle, emotional aspects of bullying, and I decided to end on a positive note by centering the ending around acceptance.

I thought a lot about how best to present the message of self-acceptance. Eventually I decided on this: staring in the mirror, the character has a realization that they are more than just one label, one detail, so they take out a few markers and write all over their shirt with other amazing things about them. They then go on to encourage another character to do so.

So, the script was revised. Time to get the production going.

I think the next thing I did was find music, which actually makes sense considering how I later went about the editing process.

I found background music the way I always do: searching “royalty free music” followed by various specific keywords until I find something I like. After about 15 minutes, I found the song: Until Morning by NCM Epic Music Ender Guney. The moody tones with passionate strikes perfectly match the tone of the film. It had such an offputting feel to it,  raw emotion built in.

I could visualize exactly how the film would play out. The music comes in with a spike, then plays out with the moody tones. This fits the character’s observations of the world around them. The biggest spike of audible energy would be the moment when the main character is outed, for it matches their sudden spike of emotions. The music then feels loud and chaotic, which continues until the character exits the bathroom, finally feeling confident enough to enter back into the hallway. A few seconds later, the music becomes way too adventure-sounding, so the film will have to end before it reaches that part.

Next, casting.

To be honest, I’ve never really put too much thought into casting. I just asked someone I knew could act and, if they said yes, I was done. But this time, I posted on my school’s Drama Club FaceBook page and asked if anyone was interested. I posted that I was looking for a male lead (“Gay”) and a secondary female character (“OCD”). 2 guys and 4 girls contacted me, so I asked them to send me an audition video.

The girl I cast was Karenna Breslow, who would actually end up playing the main character. But we’ll get to that.

April

We planned to film in April. The key word here is planned.

We settled on April 23 for the date of the shoot, which only gave me a few days to make the t-shirts, prepare myself for the cinematography, and find even more extras. Did I mention I needed as many extras as possible? Since so many people were involved in the shoot, I had to cross-reference availability beforehand to determine the best day.

Because I was super busy the week before, I had over a dozen t-shirts to make in just 2 days. However, I only got through 3 shirts before

He canceled. My main actor had a sudden rehearsal to attend and could no longer make it that day. I tried to work out a day in April or May, but he said that he would not really be free until June.

And that was fine. As long as the film got done before the school year ended, I didn’t really care when. But then June came.

June

And then June came.

I was ready. I contacted the actors to see when they would be available. However, the main actor’s schedule only got busier and his enthusiasm weaker. He eventually told me that I should find someone else.

Hm. I asked the other guy who was originally interested in the role, but he was busy, too. At this point, I basically gave up on ever getting this film done. I couldn’t think of any guys at my school who I knew could accurately portray the emotions of the character in a raw, realistic way.

Well then, maybe the character doesn’t have to be a guy at all.

My dad gave me the suggestion: Why don’t you make the main character a girl and ask Karenna to play her?

And just like that, we were back in business.

We scheduled the shoot for June 15, the last Friday of the school year. This felt risky because if the date fell through, the film likely wouldn’t get made this year. But I kept planning and hoping for it to work out.

I made t-shirts. The design was simple: a white tee with black text written across it. To make them, I wrote the word on a piece of paper and put it, atop a cardboard sheet, into the shirt as a guide. Then, I traced it on the shirt in pencil. Finally, I stretched out the material with my hand and traced over the pencil with a felt marker.

BTS 1
Photo by Denise Segal
BTS 2
Photo by Denise Segal
BTS 3
Photo by Denise Segal

Because I had so many extras, I had to make a lot of t-shirts. They didn’t come out perfect, but that’s almost the whole point of the film: these labels don’t perfectly fit the people wearing them.

Man, I love justifying imperfections by acting like they were on purpose.

BTS 5

Shoutout to my mom, who went out to buy a variety of shirts, markers, and snacks for the shoot!

I also had to plan out how I would shoot the film. I took a piece of paper and mapped it all out. And I mean it all.

First, I drew the space. I planned to shoot in the 500 wing at my school, so I drew that out, including all hallways and rooms relevant to the shoot.

Second, I drew the characters. Their actions, interactions, movements, directions, etc.

Last, I drew the shots. I mapped out each shot, including the camera movements and directions.

Playing with Dollies

Friday, June 15. I sent out a bunch of reminders leading up to the final bell, after which I ran outside to get my equipment from the car.

Then we got rolling. (Please take note of the trilayered pun.)

I distributed t-shirts to my extras—

I really need to talk about my extras for a moment. I am extremely grateful that they gave up hours of their lives to help me with this project. Seriously, if you were an extra, thank you so much for helping me make this film a reality. I couldn’t have done it without you.

IMG_3193
Photo by Rama Wagh
IMG_2980
Photo by Jacqueline Wong

Anyway, I distributed t-shirts to my extras and got the camera set up. I placed the camera on my tripod, which I set on my tripod dolly. (Note: I recently copied Logan and bought this new tripod. I also copied Logan when I bought that tripod dolly. To summarize, thanks Logan!) The dolly was very important for this shoot, because every single shot involved motion.

The first shot was a backward dolly shot facing Karenna, which eventually does a semi-circle around Karenna as her crush (Riley Avilez) passes by her. The second shot was a forward dolly shot behind Karenna, which also does a semi-circle around as her crush passes her, but in the other direction. The semi-circles were pretty hard to accomplish because the hallway was narrower than I had expected. We had to cheat the actors toward the opposite side of the hallway to capture these shots.

That first shot took a really long time to get right. (Although, that may be because I’m something of a perfectionist.) By the time I had set everything up, run through the staging, and filmed the first shot, it was already 3:40.

Some people were telling me they had to leave soon, so I started shooting out of the order I had planned to get their shots done. Caroline (“OCD”), for example, had to leave, so I filmed her shots quickly. Later, when Karenna is handing her markers, I filmed in a way that Caroline didn’t need to be there for the shot. Planning for a shoot is important, but so is flexibility.

I also filmed the dolly shots of my extras so they could leave as soon as possible. Since I had to be really low to the ground, the tripod’s legs were actually too close to one another to hook them into the tripod dolly, so I had to hold the tripod on the dolly and hope it wouldn’t fall off.

The most interesting part to shoot was the bathroom sequence. The main character runs into the bathroom, hyperventilating. Eventually, she looks up at her reflection and finds the confidence needs to accept herself for the way she is, and she takes out markers to write on her shirt.

I wanted to use jump cuts here to portray Karenna’s disarray with more than just her (brilliant) performance. I used a shoulder mount made of PVC pipe, which a Ridge alum gave to my photo teacher, to capture this feeling. While the rest of the film uses (mostly) clean tripod shots, this sequence feels raw and uncontrolled. I directed the camera into the mirror, which I did with caution so as to avoid myself winding up in the frame. In one take, Caught in the intensity of the scene, Karenna even hurt her hand in one take by slamming her fist against the sink!

Finally, at around 4:40, we finished filming.

BTS 6
Photo by Jasmine Davy

I spent the next few days editing this thing together.

Editing This Thing Together

My favorite part about this film is the editing, specifically how the music lines up with the visuals.

I had lined them up in my previous films (e.g. Bulletproof), but never to this extent.

I edited the visuals and audibles in conjunction, using each to determine the other. I aligned cuts with notes, emotional tone with musical tone. I chopped up the song and copied a section of it a few times to expand it so the tonal change in the music would line up with the visuals. The purpose of all this was to make sight and sound collide for maximum emotional impact.

One shot I unexpectedly used was the bully walking away with Karenna in the background.

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 10.52.00 PM.png

This is actually a continuation of the backward dolly shot facing Karenna, after I did the semi-circle. After orbiting around Karenna, I decided in the moment to run backwards down the hallway with the dolly. I ended up editing this improvized moment into the film, mostly because of Valerie’s haunting performance.

The most difficult part to edit was the jump cuts. The length of the music for this section was very short, so the edit ended up a little rushed. I had to pick the best snippets to tell the story.

Ultimately, that’s what the edit is all about: telling a story. Really, that’s what the entire process is about. Every little detail is working toward that end goal.

IMG_3195.JPG

(If you’re wondering, one plug is for battery, one is for the G-Drive, and one is for EarPods: the three editing essentials.)

After editing, it became clear (with some guidance from Chris) that the narration I had originally planned would only hinder the story and the viewer’s connection with it. Why tell them how people act when they’re seeing it before their eyes?

What’s in a Name?

This issue has arisen time and time again: what the heck do I call this thing?

Naming a project ex post facto can be troubling. How do you decide what your audience will know your film as? It should capture the theme, the tone, the plot, all in one word or phrase. Much like the theme of the film itself, no label could fit the film just right.

In the end, it wasn’t me who thought of the title; it was my dad. He gave me the suggestion of Markers. It has two meanings:

  1. Markers are used in the film to write all over the main character’s shirt, and it is also implied that they were used to write the initial label in the first place. Therefore, markers represent both how society pushes people into unbefitting boxes and the tearing down of said boxes.
  2. “Markers” can also refer to things used to mark people; in this case, the labels themselves.

Thanks, pops!

In fact, I think now would be as good a time as ever to give my dad some major credit. He jumps through hoops for me in everything that I do. From giving me helpful suggestions to spending hours drawing with chalk, he really goes above and beyond. Definitely beyond what I thank him for. So, thanks. For everything.

From Mind to Online

Ready for the finished product?

Special thanks to Caroline Lidz for making this awesome title design!

I’m really happy with how this film came out. It’s far from perfect, but it tells a message I needed to share. And honestly, as a filmmaker, there’s nothing more sincere than that.

Shifting Gears

It’s film school time, folks!

I recently started the fall season at NJ Film School! This week, we did pre-production for an upcoming short film: Driftwood (written and directed by Logan Calder). It tells a story in a really unique way: a day in the life of a pencil. I’m the cinematographer and editor, so I’m super excited to get into production and post-production on this film!

In my next post, I’ll write about prepping and shot listing for Driftwood, so watch out for that real soon!

On a totally unrelated (but also kind of related) note, yesterday I attended the CineTech Expo at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I learned so much about lighting, tripods, and film festivals, and I even got to hear Jennifer Turner (Senior VP of Dramatic Programming at Sony Pictures Television) discuss her experiences in the TV industry! I would highly recommend going to events like this because you never know what you’ll learn or whom you’ll meet.

Also, they’re generally a lot of fun.

Cut to black.

3 thoughts on “Markers: Heart to the Beat

  1. I can not repeat this enough, the greatest things about your posts are not the films themselves or the writing or humor (cough cough). It’s how you recognize that films are never about one person, yet compilation of efforts and sacrifices from various people. Never change. Never forget to say thank you and recognize the sacrifices of other. This is why you will be a GREAT DIRECTOR someday soon! (if perhaps you aren’t already 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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