Limbs started as a film seven years ago while I was running the tree-lined streets of Niantic, CT, where I grew up. Looking back, it was a time of religious and personal introspection. I was running both for my health, but also to communicate with my father, who had died at the age of 42 when I was sixteen. A lifelong runner who completed dozens of marathons, my father had died while out running. I was running the same streets he had run, doing what he loved. I was grieving his loss and reflecting on my own existence and frailty.
Around the same time, I was nearly killed by a freak bike accident in which I was struck by a car that pulled into an intersection I was crossing. I survived with only road rash, but was rattled by just how quick everything could have ended that day. Why had I not landed on my head, broken my back, or been struck by another passing car?
I became interested in accidental deaths. About this time, I read a number of news stories about tragic accidents involving falling tree branches. It is no secret that Central Park in NYC has a number deaths related to rotten branches falling from up high.
Too often, we turn away from death rather than face it head on. It's a passing thought. Your stomach turns thinking about the lights going out - life being all over - and you move quickly onto the next task, the next headline, the next joke. We discuss how to prolong life, but we rarely discuss the inevitability of death.
I had not been ready for my father’s death. Nor was I ready to die the day of my bike accident. Despite our attempts, we all will die.
With Limbs, I wanted to approach the mortality we all face and look it straight on.
For centuries, Stoic wisdom has valued the daily practice of reflecting on death and one's own mortality. For some, it was helpful to carry or keep an object, a 'memento mori,' as a physical reminder of this reality. This film will, for me, act as a reminder that we are all mortal beings - that our spirit is transient. It will act as a reminder that everyday is worth living to the fullest because one day this too shall pass. We must face that reality and then go about our lives and make the most of it.
A runner discovers his own mortality and limits.
A runner attempts to beat his personal best on a training run. But he becomes extremely aware of his own mortal limits when he must help a fellow runner who is randomly struck by a falling tree branch and at risk of dying.
A full copy of the script can be downloaded here
In order to fully prepare as a director, I often take the time to review similar videos that may match the look and feel of what I’m hoping to make. For this short film, I had my first opportunity to create a previsualization video, an edited representation of the materials and mood I had collected in preparation for the shoot. This presentation was assembled for both the actors and crew so everyone could have another means of seeing the material the way I was viewing it.
This film would not exist if not for Adam Salinas.
In the late summer of 2017, Adam approached me with the idea of helping one another film two shorts. He had an idea for a short horror film, which we eventually filmed in January of 2018. He asked me if I had any scripts I had ready to shoot.
I offered the idea of Limbs.
Adam was supportive. Adam shredded through the blocks and barriers I had erected that had prevented me from attempting to make a narrative short for years. He advocated that we could do it for a minimal budget and with limited resources. In fact, he suggested, we practically had everything we needed: camera equipment, locations, and actors - we knew and worked with plenty.
Without Adam, I don't think I would have taken the steps to create Limbs and bring it from script to screen. Adam and I set a date for filming, and we adhered to our plan to film both shorts. Filming took place on October 16, 2018, and had a second day of shooting the following week.
CARL HERZOG [Runner] is a theater and film actor based in Chicago. In the five years he’s been in the Windy City, Carl has performed in over fifty different films and theater productions. Carl is currently starring in an independent action film called “The Contract”. When he’s not working he spends time with his wife and plays piano and pick-up basketball.
KYRIE ANDERSON [Runner] is a musical theater and film actress in Chicago. Since moving to the city from Indiana after attending Indiana University Northwest, Kyrie has graced the stage in numerous musical theater productions, including “Blood Brothers,” for which she was nominated for a Jeff Award.
CAROLYN MINOR [Homeowner] has been making theatre and film as well as working in arts education in Chicago since 2001, after receiving her BA in Drama from the University of Virginia. She has been seen in Easy Abby at the Reeling Film Festival, on stage at iO, as a member of Knife & Fork Theatre, and on stage at the MCA & The Art Institute.
We filmed in Evanston and Mt. Prospect, IL. All running footage was filmed near Grant St. just east of Perkins Woods and west of Green Bay Rd., centered between Noyes and Central Street. This neighborhood is quiet and noticably canopied by trees. Footage of the accident was filmed in Mt. Prospect.
Production Design / Costume
In all areas of production, I wanted to avoid the color red because I wanted the images of blood to stand out in the film. I also wanted the blinding light of the red and blue police lights to be unique within the context of the film. All locations were chosen to avoid the color red and play up a natural color palette or greens, yellows, browns, and blues.
Assembled below is a palette of ideas I had about the two runners' wardrobe. On the runners, I wanted more monochromatic colors - grey, black, white. This would have them stand out against the natural surroundings, but not have a synthetic look that some fitness wardrobe tends to have.
Visual Design / Rules
I wrote a list of rules to guide the aesthetic of the film before production began. These rules helped guide the process, but were not completely adhered to. I believe it is a good working practice to set rules before a shoot in order to create a more focused vision and consistency.
- Use of wide angle lenses (16-35 mm) in order to create more inclusive feel. Very much like the aesthetic of The Coens Brothers/Roger Deakins.
- No motion control, but no significant shake until the final scene. Camera shall remain mostly on sticks and remain mostly stable.
- Camera should remain decidedly locked down during the death scene and aftermath (aesthetically similar to Haneke or Kubrick).
- Camera will become shakier in final running scene.
- Environment is very important. Heavy shallow focus shall be avoided.
- No over the shoulder shots. Camera should remain in between the action as much as possible.
Since making films in high school, it has been an important practice to draw out the film before it's been shot. Storyboards force a rethinking of the script. During the writing stage, it is often the case that I'm working without locations in mind. Storyboards help to integrate chosen locations into the script. It also helps to illuminate crew and equipment needs, props and production design, and camera movement. Having these insights on paper rather than on location saves time and stress, allowing resources to go towards actors and story on the day of the shoot.
When I hear filmmakers complain about things not going smoothly, I often think to myself that they have a misguided idea about filmmaking. The job of the director is just that. Concepts and ideas can be drawn out and discussed, but when the day of filming arrives, all the preproduction in the world only prepares the director for some of the potential scenarios. Keeping an even head and working within your limitations is essential.
For years, I’ve been concerned more about the problems than about the problem solving of production. It kept me away from producing new projects. With Limbs, I was reminded of the fun that can be had when problem solving in the midst of a tight schedule.
Five pages. Three locations. Two crew members. Three actors. One day. This was Limbs.
In order to shoot all the running footage, I had brainstormed and researched ways to film these images without breaking the budget. I happened to come across a running documentary that utilized a two person crew filming runners. One crew member rode the bike to keep pace with the runners, while the camera man interviewed and filmed from a long-haul trailer attached to the bike.
So, one the day of the shoot, we rigged up the bike and trailer and began to shoot. However, balance issues were making filming a bit troublesome. While shooting, I needed to maintain my distribution of weight in order to not lift the back wheel of the bike off the ground. Twice, I nearly face planted into the street and lost our camera. Thankfully, a bit of problem solving goes a long way. Pausing, we suspected that I could fit into a children’s car seat that our set photographer had in her van. Sitting in the chair ended up balancing the trailer and helped filming continue.
In order to stay on schedule, I decided to ditch the idea of recording on set sound, except in cases of dialogue. For all running shots, the noise of the trailer and the noise of following cars, lawn mowers, and planes were too much to compete with. I decided to rerecord and foley all sound in post-production, where time was no issue.
As for dialogue, again, limits of time and budget restricted the equipment we used. I chose to record all sound direct to camera from a Sennheiser Boom Mic. I decided against wireless mics because of limited evening light and the amount of close contact between the actors. Because the camera and boom mic would be in close proximity of the actors, I chose to film as if I was shooting a documentary, rather than a fiction film. The bet paid off, and the sound came together relatively perfectly, except for instances of cross-talk that were hard to edit in post.
With light waning, I pulled Adam and Carl to the side in order to discuss a second day of shooting. We’d need to get the evening running footage (the last scene) on another day in order to buy us the remaining time to film at the house location in Mt. Prospect (which we only had for that day). In agreement, we decided to shoot the following week.
Limbs, like every other project I have ever worked on, is a case study in keeping a level head in the face of unforeseen variables. Additionally, production tests us all. The job of the director and producer is to keep and maintain calm despite problems. Limbs showed me, yet again, what fun problem solving on the day of a shoot can be like.
Soon after production was completed in October 2018, I experienced a number of difficult decisions in my personal and professional life. Circumstances forced me to end a number of personal relationships and transition to another job. These life events delayed my work on Limbs for a number of months.
However, I cannot say that this was an unfortunate delay. As a creative, I'm often faced with the obligation to move quickly and deliver. Yet, doing so in the case of Limbs would truly have been out of step, since the idea had lived inside my mind for seven years. Additionally, the clearing of personal troubles allowed a new focus to overwhelm the post-production process when it eventually began in March 2018.
Sitting down to edit, the footage could be seen with fresh eyes, as I had not seen any of it since shooting it back in October. With fresh eyes, I could examine in a more detached and examined eye. As is always my process, a first assembly staying true to the script was constructed. With a sequence constructed, redundancies could be assessed and scrapped.
This is why there is no dead squirrel in the film.
Back in October, I spent many hours finding and purchasing a squirrel pelt for a scene in which the runner would jump over a roadkill squirrel. On the day of the shoot, I stuffed the pelt and placed movie blood on the pavement below the pelt. Carl did two takes, and they were the last two shots we filmed for the film.
The squirrel shot was intended to be another image of death. Yet, I felt that the images of autumn leaves, the bloody sweatband, and Kyrie’s performance all did enough to convey the theme. And, the squirrel just seemed to stand out. It stood out as darkly comic, and the framing of the shot and the timing of the edits did not work.
Having spent time away from the footage, I was able to quickly kill an idea that I had spent money and time on creating. It’s so important as a creative to take that step back and look without ego at the totality of a creative project, and not just get mired in one detail and the work that went into creating it.
As the edit began to lock, I realized that ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) would be essential to flesh out the interactions between the two runners, as well as smooth out the improvisational nature of the scene. On the evening of the shoot, we were racing against a setting sun and dealing with a not-so-pleased neighbor upset about the dramatics playing out across the street. I made the call that we’d only be getting two takes from each angle.
As I edited, I realized that most the audio I had for Carl’s character could be salvaged. Both the quality and the substance was there in the original recordings. However, background noise was evident in much of Kyrie’s takes. I made the decision to edit using scratch track recordings of myself standing in for Kyrie. When I locked the picture edit, I reached out to both Kyrie and Carolyn to record both a scene that takes place as Carl runs up to the scene, as well as record Kyrie’s new lines. In order to avoid worldizing the sound artificially with filters and EQ, I opted to record in a park. This saved much time in the edit as sound design began.
This project forced me to learn Adobe Audition and reacquaint myself with the fundamentals of sound design. Over the seven years thinking about the project, certain sounds haunted me and I wanted to make them evident in the film. I spent hours in the Spring of 2018 after midnight recording running footsteps, trains, leaves, breathing, and clothing textures.
Every sound of Carl running is foley work. Essentially, every sound was recorded during post-production except for much of the dialogue scenes. This painstaking sound design process took numerous weeks, but I arrived at a soundtrack I am immensely proud of.
Color Correction was once again handled in Adobe Premiere. A first pass color correction was applied to bring all footage to its best natural state. A second pass brought the look of the film and brought out the look of the evening I was after. A final pass utilizing power windows helped to highlight the actors faces and vignette the edges of the screen.
Having handled all aspects of the post-production brings with it a degree of respect for the post production process. It also places me in a position to collaborate on my next project. Having done all jobs, I’d like to now work with other creatives to further my learning and further discussion of these aspects of filmmaking.
Post production remains my love.
What I learned
Excuses. For years, I made many justifications for why I couldn't make a movie. Maybe it was time, or money, or equipment. Maybe it was permission, or feelings of inadequate talent, or doubt.
None of them turned out to be true.
Limbs showed me that the wisdom so many masters share is actually true. You use the resources you have on hand. You use the equipment you can beg, borrow, or steal. And you use the people you feel most comfortable working with, who both empower you, and who you want to empower to use their talents.
Sure, there were budget and equipment troubles. It took a month to find a branch, and I'm still not sold on that being the best branch. We didn't get more than two set photos. We could have used another day to shoot.
I could use those as excuses to avoid making the next project. But I know we used what we had and we made a short film - one we are proud of. Every project works within its constraints. It's what you do with your constraints.
There are no more excuses that stand in the way of me making movies. I have the time. I have the resources. Now, I have the responsibility.
Film will be restricted to password protection while festival opportunities are investigated.