There is nothing more frightening as a filmmaker than exposing one’s own vulnerabilities.
“Gemini” is weird for me to discuss. It was a mode of expressing a sector of myself I still don’t quite understand. One I may not even yet approve. But that’s why it was a story so vital for me to share.
I wrote, directed, shot, edited, and co-composed for this film. I worked with some new faces. I played around with a new (but actually old) aspect ratio. Let’s talk about all of it.
Pre-Production (mid June)
Pre-production of “Gemini” began 117 years ago, with a theory by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In The Souls of Black Folk, a sociological study of the lives of African Americans, Du Bois introduced his theory of double consciousness:
…in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
His theory is that an African American has two dissonant identities—of a Black person and of an American—because their society wedges a valley between the two.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
Here, Du Bois reaches a resonant conclusion that most Black Americans do not desire to lose either identity but rather strive for them to coexist. Both have something to offer.
This is where the underlying theme of “Gemini” found me. A gay man in America lives with two conflicting identities: the flamboyant, colorful style his people have assigned to their culture through decades of resilience, and the bare visage his nation associates with masculinity. Thus, he is yanked in both directions as both queer and male, and he wishes to lose neither identity in pursuit of the other. Of course, this is not universal, but the parallel with Du Bois’ theory intrigued me and fit my own situation.
It is one scene, one character, no dialogue. Just a character having a new experience.
The script is really short, so just check out the whole thing:
I wrote the script in around ten minutes. You may have noticed that a few things changed after that decaminute:
- The character lost his name. I don’t remember where Will came from, nor where it left.
- The lighting doesn’t change. As the screenwriter, I pictured the room behind him dimming, so the scene would appear like a spotlight on him alone to portray strong introspection. Then, as his self-perception shifts, the lights become much more unflattering, possibly shining up from below. Finally, after he wipes off half the make-up, the room’s lighting returns to normal to show that this moment has ended. However, as the cinematographer, this presented many technical challenges due to limited equipment, small crew size, and extensive use of mirrors. This decision was also related to the question of how experimental I wanted the film to be. It has both narrative and experimental aspects, but changing of lights throughout pushed it much further toward the latter end of the spectrum.
The script tickled a tiny vulnerability buried deep within my chest, but I learned a lot about myself from it. Art has that power.
Gemini is the Latin word for twins. It mirrors the theme of duality (pun quite intended) by implying that our central character is actually a pair of twins, each with his own desires.
This one’s a little less scientific, but the title also fits the vibe I was going for. I’m not sure I understand this aesthetic enough to explain it, so I won’t.
I knew casting for this film would be difficult: I needed to find an actor who could realistically portray the nuances of a variety of emotions and who would be willing to wear make-up on camera. Luckily, I found both in Nick Casey.
Emma Bertram suggested Nick to me. I had only seen him act from afar in various drama club shows, so I had no notions of his dramatic, on-screen abilities. I don’t wanna spoil the end of this story, but he definitely came through.
I wanted to shoot “Gemini” in a bathroom to make the scene feel very private. The bathroom I chose both bore colors which I felt matched the aesthetic of the film and was large enough to accommodate for telephoto lenses and large equipment.
The unavoidable presence of a mirror in the film is emblematic of both introspection and duality, the two main themes of the work. The mirror both allows and forces the character to look at himself in his attempt to understand how his appearance should match his spirit. With the mirror, we also see two of him at once, visually representing the duality of his identity. In this moment, the two versions of himself are brought together both spiritually and visually; “Gemini” is about his response to that union.
As you can probably tell from the final cut, “Gemini” did not have a hefty shot list.
Mirror Medium is essentially an over-the-shoulder of the character’s reflection, shot over the character’s own shoulder.
Low Makeup Close is a close-up of the make-up, facing upward so the character’s face is visible in the mirror. I added the shot after my dad suggested I should add more tension to the script to properly portray the emotions. The make-up wipes are also visible in the background, like Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall.
Side Close is a close side-view of the character, which builds tension as his fingers approach his face.
Will Medium is a close-up on the character, appearing sort of like a Mirror POV. I thought a straight-on shot would be more dramatic for the wiping of his face than Mirror Medium. We are seeing him how his reflection sees him, for better or for worse.
Room Tone is an audio recording of the room’s natural noises, in case I need to cover up a moment in editing.
For this film, I used an aspect ratio of 1.375:1, widely known as the Academy Ratio. Every 35mm film between 1932 and 1952 was shot and projected at this ratio, so it can make a film feel retro. This fit the vibe I mentioned earlier, so I went with it. Again, it’s difficult for me to explain precisely what I mean by this. The ratio also fit the size of the scene very well, for a wider frame would’ve introduced many unnecessary elements to the screen.
My camera only records at 16:9, so I would have to horizontally crop the image in post. I placed a post-it with pencil marks on my camera screen to make sure I kept everything in frame during production. To figure out where to place these marks, I recorded a video of a ruler, imported it to Final Cut Pro X, cropped the video, noticed which ruler markings corresponded to the new ends of the frame, opened the video on my camera screen, and used it to draw marks on the post-it.
I later used this method to shoot the flashback scenes in “Jarred,” but that’s a conversation for a later post.
Save the Date!
I wrote the film and shot it within a week. I really wanted to shoot it before heading off to the Poconos for Generation Wrecks. Again, a later post.
Production (late June)
To be completely honest with you, I have zero clue how to apply make-up. Neither does Nick. This is where Annika Helgeson came in to save the day.
I had picked up a few make-up products, but Annika brought it all. She came armed and excited to try things out.
I wanted a campy look for the make-up, one that didn’t take itself too seriously. I wanted it to be fun. We used Darren Criss’ 2019 Met Gala look as inspiration.
Thank you, Darren.
For a few hours, we put on some music and tried things out.
Thank you, Annika, for being an all-around legend. Seriously, name something this infinity-threat cannot do. I’ll wait.
Once we settled on a design, we removed it and Nick tried his hand at it a few times. My crew suggested that Nick pretend to apply the make-up, and then Annika could do it for real. However, I didn’t want that. First of all, I could not imagine a way to make this look realistic and satisfying. Secondly, I didn’t want the make-up to be perfect. This is a teenage boy experimenting with cosmetics for the first time. Nick’s self-application of the make-up gave the character the imperfection and creative spirit of a little kid who has just discovered the make-up cabinet and tries it all on without a care. I also wasn’t sure at the moment whether I would use jump cuts in the edit, and I wanted to leave my options open.
This was actually the easiest part of the entire process. For me, at least. (Sorry, Nick.)
The shoot went strangely to plan. Every shot worked out how I wanted on the first or second try. We actually finished early, which is almost unheard of. For me, at least.
I set up one light in the corner of the bathroom, and Logan Calder held a reflective sheet in the other corner.
For each shot, I had the camera on a tripod, but I loosened the pan and tilt knobs to give it some movement and thus make it feel less rigid.
The greatest challenge I faced as the cinematographer was framing the Mirror Medium so the camera was not in the shot. Clever camera placement and a fairly telephoto lens solved this problem.
During the shoot, Annika acted as the script supervisor by watching for Nick’s continuity, and Kaitlyn Franck operated the boom pole. My entire crew did a great job all throughout: they were focused yet lighthearted, creative yet able to be directed. We slid through the shoot quite smoothly because of them.
And Nick really did a spectacular job in the role. His performance was varied, nuanced, and realistic. Thank you, Nick, for making this film special. And for removing make-up a bunch of times. I know it stung.
A fun fact before I move on: the Side Close is the closest shot in the film, but the camera was actually in an entirely different room because of the 85mm lens!
Post-Production (late June to mid July)
Like always, I edited the film within a few hours of shooting. I get so excited about the final product that editing becomes a book I can’t put down.
I was really proud of the first draft. Even without a musical score, it fully encompassed what I set out to explore, largely due to Annika’s unique make-up design and Nick’s gripping performance.
However, during my time in the Poconos, I looked back at this draft and noticed a glaring issue: it was pretty boring. In the first draft, I depicted the cosmetic application in real time, which dragged the film to 3 minutes 45 seconds. In my second draft a month later, I shortened it to 3 minutes.
In this new edit, I utilized jump cuts to better portray the ever-accelerating excitement of the character’s experimentation. It all happens so fast that he barely has time to question it until it’s all over: I wanted the pace of the film to feel this way too.
Our work only improves when we’re willing to look back with new eyes. We must be critical of ourselves and willing to try out different things if we want to construct a more tasty recipe. Of course, obsessing over perfection is rarely a good thing, but some revisions typically help the project as a whole and the artist in the long run.
Also, a fun editing trick: to make text appear as someone walks past it, you can use draw masks and draw around the person, frame by frame. It’s a tad tedious but worth it.
The Musical Score (August)
I had never composed music for a film, but there’s a first time for everything.
Way back in June, I asked Beth Polito if she would like to compose a score for “Gemini,” since I’ve heard her original compositions. It’s amazing how at such a young age she is able to depict a range of emotions in sonically-captivating music. Luckily for me, she agreed to lend her talent and time to my project.
However, she had some trouble fitting exactly what I was seeking in her score. Instead of giving up and settling on a pre-written score from YouTube, I turned this apparent setback into a new artistic opportunity for myself.
I offered to co-compose the score with her, and she joined the project once more. We spent hours going through the film to figure out how to accentuate emotions at different moments. With a 4/4 time signature at 120 bpm, we figured that each measure would be 2 seconds and synched the score to the visuals accordingly.
I wanted the film to feature two main instruments which compete and harmonize like the twin identities. I chose a flute and cello because they can play notes so far apart in pitch, so as to distinguish their melodies. (This was also out of convenience: I don’t have an entire phone book of musicians.)
The two instruments alternate at first as the character contemplates trying on make-up. They then join in rich harmony as he applies it for the first time: a joyous release, albeit not an eternal one. At 1:20, the score becomes more stylized, with each instrument taking turns at their own melodies while harmonizing with one another. At 1:28, the music becomes a bit sassy (for lack of a better descriptor) as the character plays around with the make-up. Finally, the score rises to a climax at 1:40, just as he fully releases any premonitions he priorly bore. However, just as his perception shifts and shame floods his chest, the high note of the flute drops to a slightly lower note: hearing the flute’s tone alone feels wrong to him. As he reaches for the wipes and frantically claws at his face, the flute returns with a trill to represent the terror he endures. Then the cello joins in.
He looks at his reflection. There’s a moment of silent introspection. Then the flute returns with the same melody as the beginning, only this time alone. There’s tragedy in this, as if that previously harmonic melody is taunting his now-divided state. The cello then plays alone. Finally, as the character finds contentment in his twinness, the two instruments join together for an extended, slowly paced moment of harmony.
For the credits, we reused the sassy section, but gave it a calmer, more satisfying conclusion.
A huge shoutout to Flat.io for designing free, online, collaborative software that’s easy for beginners like me to use!
A few words from Beth Polito, my good friend and co-composer:
It was really fun working on ‘Gemini’ because of all the contrasts in the film that I could weave into the score.
I asked Beth to play the cello and my friend Sanjana Chimata to play the flute. Yes, this is the same Sanjana who painted the stunning charcoal image in “Baucis & Philemon.” So much talent weaved throughout one person.
Since I don’t stand on a strong understanding of acoustics, I wasn’t sure what recording space would achieve the best sound. So, we tried two.
The first was a laundry closet filled with shirts to muffle the reverb.
As fun as this tiny, stuffy closet was to record in, we decided to go with the second option: a large, triangular-roofed sunroom. This resulted in a thicker, broader sound, which I preferred.
While recording, I wore earbuds under my camera headphones so I could move my hand at 120 bpm. This was vital so the music would fit the timing of the film as Beth and I intended.
It took a few hours, but these geniuses figured it out and we got some great takes! Beth even improvised a few slides of the strings for the intro quote. Check out the recording process in real time with the film in this BTS video:
Some Retrospection (mid August to mid January)
Here’s the final product!
I am so proud of this film. The story made me feel vulnerable, but that made it even more imperative to share. The score presented a new challenge, but that’s how we learn and grow. This film relied on the talents of so many people, but we achieve the brightest saturation in collaboration.
Thank you to everyone who lended their hands, eyes, and brains, including those who aren’t listed in the credits.
If this film does anything, I hope it helps someone somewhere to find validation in their own self-expression. We all deserve to feel true to both ourselves and our world: there is so much beauty in honesty. And if you aren’t quite sure who your true self is, that’s fine too. W.E.B. Du Bois would agree that the most complex identities can yield the most for society.
The Past Few Months
I actually started this blog post in September, but I put it down so I could focus on my college applications. I didn’t make any films specifically for college apps, but I refurbished and shortened a few to fit requirements. With my applications done and out, I’m excited to have more free time to write and to film. Watch out folks: it’s coming.
I made a short reel of my year in film, including almost all movies I worked on last year.
I feel so fortunate to have the opportunities, equipment, and peers I do, because none of the films featured above would exist without them.
The one notably absent film in that reel is Generation Wrecks. I recently watched 30 minutes of the edit, and to call myself excited would be a gross understatement.
Wow. There is a lot for me to look forward to, and I have never been more ready to face it. The ’20s are going to roar.
Cut to black.