Limbs started as a film in 2012 while I was running the tree-lined streets of Niantic, CT - the place 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 commune with my father, who had died at the age of forty-two when I was sixteen. I was running the same streets he had run, doing what he loved. A lifelong runner who completed dozens of marathons, my father died while doing just that.
Out running, I was grieving his loss and reflecting on my own existence and frailty.
I had only recently been involved in a freak bike accident. On my bike, while I was headed downhill toward home, a car pulled out in front of me, leaving me no where to go but directly into the side of it. Corkscrewing through the air, I landed on a my back and somehow survived with only road rash.
But I 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?
The accident spawned and interest in accidental deaths. Most intriguing of all were those involving falling tree branches. I read numerous articles documenting deaths and injuries caused by falling, rotten branches in New York City’s Central Park.
The number of trees. The number of visitors. Death from above and unexpected. Wrong place, wrong time.
My stomach turns thinking about my lights going out - life being all over - and I move quickly onto the next task, the next headline, the next joke. It’s a passing thought. For many of us, we turn away from death rather than facing it head on. So often, our cultural dialogue discusses how to prolong life, but we rarely discuss the inevitability of the end.
I was not prepared for my father’s death. Nor was I prepared to die the day of my bike accident.
Despite our attempts, we all will die.
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.
For me, this film acts as just that - 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 until the end. We must face that reality and then go about our lives and make the most of it. One day, this too shall pass.
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 research films and videos that may share a similar look and feel of what I’m hoping to produce. For this short film, I had my first opportunity to create a previsualization video from those materials.
Having a previsualization of the film offered the actors and crew another reference point besides the script as they prepared, inviting them to see something close to what I hoped to produce.
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 with our own short film projects. 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 produce 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 already had everything I claimed was holding me back from making the film.
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.
Filming took place 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 noticeably 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 or gimbal stabilization, but no significant image 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).
- Image 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.
- Canon C100
- Sennheiser Shotgun Mic
- Zoom Lens: Canon 24–70 f4.0 IS
- Surly Long Haul Trucker equipped with trailer
- 2TB Seagate Flash Drives
- Apple MacBook Pro
- Asus Desktop Monitor (for additional screen real estate)
- Lexar Professional USB 3.0 Dual Slot Reader
Since making films in high school, it has been an important practice to draw out the film before shooting. 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.
Concepts and ideas can be drawn out and discussed, but when production arrives, all the pre-production in the world only anticipates some scenarios. Keeping a clear head and working within limitations is essential.
For years, I’ve been concerned more about the anticipated problems than about the problem solving of production. It has unfortunately 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 researched ways to film these images without breaking the budget and remaining handheld. I happened to come across a running documentary that utilized a two-person crew filming joggers. One crew member rode the bike to keep pace with the joggers, while the cameraman interviewed and filmed from a long-haul trailer hitched to the bike. This seemed the perfect solution for Limbs.
On 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. We suspected that I could fit into a children’s car seat that our set photographer had in her van. We quickly positioned the car seat into the trailer, and I squeezed my way in. Sitting in the chair ended up balancing the trailer and lended the stability needed for filming to 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 wouldn’t be an 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.
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. With this film, I took my time in order to work on the edit as well as build my skill set recording foley and doing proper sound design.
As is always my process, I edited a first assembly staying true to the script. 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 acquiring 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.
The squirrel shot was intended to be another image of death. Yet, once placed in the film, I felt that the images of autumn leaves, the bloody sweatband, and Kyrie’s performance all did enough to convey the theme. The squirrel felt like overkill. It stood out as darkly comic, and the framing of the shot along with the timing of the edit did not work.
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 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 sound quality and the performance were there in the original recordings. However, background noise marred many of Kyrie’s takes. 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 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.
As anticipated, 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, mostly after midnight, recording running footsteps, elevated trains, leaves, breathing, and clothing textures.
Every sound of Carl running is foley work, meaning 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.
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. We didn’t get more than two set photos. We could have used another day to shoot. And it took a whole month to find a branch (and I’m still not convinced that’s the branch I had envisioned).
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.