When you think about producing a successful independent film, it’s key to bring as much story-relevant innovation into the production as possible. You don’t fancy gimmicks just for the sake of having them, they should relate to the over all story. The new film by director Devin Lawrence, “Sympathy, Said The Shark” brings cinematic quality to the POV motion picture with a little help from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
Many of the now famous POV films is that the camera work leaves a bit to be desired. This is usually worked into the plot as someone within the cast films with a consumer grade video camera. However, if you’re going for something that tells the story through POV shots but does so more cinematically there’s a challenge. If it’s going to have cinematic quality to it, you don’t want to strap a video camera on someone, open the focus to infinity and call it a day. You’ll want to have control over the image and focus more than just the framing. This was the challenge that director Devin Lawrence faced, and fortunately, a new camera that offered lightweight solution with cinematic possibilities, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
If you’re not familiar with Devin Lawrence, you’re probably familiar with his work if you’re like me and enjoy the series “Ghost Adventures”. Lawrence serves as the show’s editor, and because of that relationship, “Ghost Adventures” own Zak Bagans served as executive producer for this movie.
The movie is tells the story of what happens when a young couple opens their door to a soaked, bloodied, and estranged friend they quickly discover that their night is going to get even stranger… Each person’s perspective uncovers a darker secret until an even larger threat is right outside. We had a chance to talk with director Devin Lawrence about how this film was produced.
HDSLR Shooter: Tell me a little bit about Sympathy, Said The Shark, its conception and how it all came about.
Devin Lawrence: It’s odd how the initial concept for Sympathy, came about. I just had a few features fall through due to not getting the financing we needed, and it was a really frustrating period. Money is always an obstacle, no matter what size film, but my producer, Casey Morris, and I decided it was not going to stop us, almost out of spite, in a way. So I set out to make this film that could be shot anywhere, with anyone and for any amount of money. Creating these limits to work within really helped me focus on the characters and their relationships with one another. That really started this whole film spinning.
Sympathy, Said The Shark, at its core, is a really a very dark and twisted love triangle that unravels over the course of one night, basically in real time. All the while there’s also a very dangerous outside force looming over the house where these characters are. So because there is this very twisted love triangle, deception, friendship, lies, betrayal…all kind of happening and coming apart, I wanted the viewers to have a different experience of it then all of the characters themselves. That’s why about 80% of the film is shot from the points of view of these three main characters, as in the camera acts as their eyes, you’re seeing what the characters are as if you were there. And every time the point of view switches from one character to the next, there’s a short overlap of time. And during that time we see or hear something that the previous character missed. We’ll walk in and see a clue or hear a line that changes our perception of the previous character. So our perspective is revolving through the film, but its also changing who’s good and evil and what’s going on with this whole situation.
HS: So despite the boundaries you tried to place on the production, was money still a huge obstacle to getting Sympathy made?
DL: Yes, budget was definitely still the main issue. Even when you try to cut corners, really try to do budget filmmaking and have people who are very generous with their time and work, it’s still an expensive venture. So one of my executive producers, Zak Bagans, suggested we just strip it down, to the point that we could stop focusing on raising money, fund it ourselves, and just go ahead and start production. So we ended up starting with a budget of $65,000.
HS: I understand the cast, crew, and even you yourself had doubts going into production?
DL: No one had seen or worked on anything like this before. The point of view aspect of the film was already written into the script from the beginning, and I had written exactly where each POV changes, what we’re seeing from that POV, etc. in the script. It sounded cool when I pitched it and wrote, and then going into production, I started to have some doubts (laughs). So it was the initial novelty of the concept, and the fact that there would be no extra coverage in the film, just the characters’ POV shots.
Working through the technical aspects was a bit disconcerting at first as well, even for me. I’ve never shot anything close to this, I’m used to your traditional story and production. Questions about how we’d use Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera, what kind of rig we’d use, how to frame shots, and all that were definitely a concern. After we did some test shoots, however, it really started to come together.
My goal was to have it really as seamless as possible between the POV and the character, and try to avoid the typical movie first person view. I wanted to see limbs in frame, moving, looking down and seeing a cut on their body, just as you would yourself, all in the shot. So that’s kind of where our helmet rig was born. We needed a lightweight camera with a large depth of field, and high dynamic range. We knew we were going to have to shoot long takes, with some takes being about five minutes long, going through the entire house, running all over the place with nothing but practical lighting in the house. My DP, Mark LaFleur, had been searching for the right camera just as Blackmagic announced the Pocket Cinema Camera.
On paper it looked like the perfect camera: it was lighter weight than a DSLR with a great 13-stop dynamic range, high bit rate, the ability to shoot on 4:3 lenses, which offer an even deeper depth of field…it all seemed great. Trouble was that no one had shot on it yet, so there was no way to tell how it would perform. So I went ahead and pre-ordered two of them and we just sort of nervously waited until they arrived. Once they did, we bought a motorcycle helmet off Craigslist for $20 bucks, drilled a Noga arm into it and hung the camera in front, then ran around with it for a bit. And it was perfect. Right at that moment we knew we had something. Having the Pocket Cinema Camera attached to your head versus just holding it provided a surprisingly stable image that turned out to be really fluid. Which was nice because I didn’t want it to feel like a found footage movie, always shaky. I wanted it to feel cinematic, to feel like a head space. And we saw that the Pocket Camera had this nice cinematic quality to it that was just perfect, along with all it’s other benefits.
HS: So, looking at this picture of the rig, it looks almost more beat than machine. Tell me a little bit about it.
DL: Yea, the rig itself was about 15 pounds. All together it’s the helmet, the arms and the camera with a bunch of bungee cords to stabilize movement and minimize that swing when the camera moves. For focus we used the Bartech remote follow focus on rods coming off the helmet. From there the Bartech is hooked up to the Paralinx transmitter, which transmits HD to our video village. Our AC was pretty much an inch from the screen with the remote follow focus trying to pull focus, like he was playing a video game. We took great care to keep as great a depth of field as possible, to give it more of that “through the eyes” look.
HS: So did the actors have to wear this contraption themselves?
DL: No, my director of photography, Mark LaFleur, actually wore it for them. He’d actually get into full makeup and costume, right down to the nails, tattoos, etc., all done for the POV. Then he’d shadow the actors in rehearsal, stand in with the actor, wearing the helmet, and do all of the blocking. For final takes, he’d do his part as the character, and the actors would then be behind him delivering lines. There was actually a point where one of our actors, Melinda Cohen, her character is looking at herself in the mirror and we see her looking at herself from her own perspective. We actually had to have Mark wearing the helmet with a black sheet over him, sitting behind her, shooting into the mirror. So we managed to still get the first person shot of her looking into the mirror, but you can’t see him at all because of the sheet and him sitting in the shadows. It was something.
HS: Did that make the actors nervous, having someone else essentially play their parts for part of the film?
DL: They were definitely nervous. And I think, in theory, everyone was ready to do it. But once we actually got into our tech rehearsals, they realized that instead of having to deliver lines and memorize blocking, they would have had to act as as a camera person as well if they wore the helmet. Plus, delivering a performance directly into the camera, instead of to another character on screen, was interesting for them and goes against the whole “don’t look directly into the camera” concept that’s hammered into their heads as actors.
HS: What were you recording to? Cards, external recorder..?
DL: We recorded all to the SD cards in the camera. We shot ProRes, mainly because of our long takes and we didn’t want to swap cards every 20 minutes. It helped keep the shooting smooth and quick. And it looks great too. We used a Sony F3 for maybe 15% of the footage, which is about 20 times the cost of the Pocket Cinema Camera. We were able to inter-cut the two sets of footage seamlessly, so that should tell you a lot about the Pocket Camera’s abilities.
HS: And you handled the film’s post yourself, correct?
DL: Yes, that’s part of my background so I edited it myself in Final Cut 7. I’m actually an editor for the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, which is of course where I met one of our executive producers, Zak Bagans. He’s a fantastic guy. I came to him with the project and he put forward two-thirds of the budget himself, and he’s been with me on it the entire way. He’d seen some of my other work and had faith that I would do it right. Plus, in my bid to keep control of my script I went ahead and edited the film myself. With the POV shots, my intimate knowledge of the film really helped me speed up the post process. I also used DaVinci Resolve to color it, which was a great learning experience. I think the final product looks fantastic.
HS: You mentioned you cut Sympathy, Said The Shark on Final Cut 7, but you’ve actually switched to Premiere Pro for your work on Ghost Adventures?
DL: Yea, Sympathy, Said The Shark will likely be the last time I use Final Cut 7. I was initially reluctant to switch to Premiere, just because it was foreign to me. I wasn’t a fan of the learning curve. However there’s a lot of similarities between the two that helped the move, and the benefits to using Premiere outweigh any minor aspects I missed from Final Cut. It was mostly just getting used to the interface. Once I did, it really sped the whole process along.
For more information about ‘Sympathy, Said The Shark’ go to the website at www.sympathysaidtheshark.com