Filmmaker Case Study – Creating a feature-length storyboard
Eduardo Soto-Falcon is an award-winning filmmaker and scriptwriter currently based in Toronto.
Before graduating summa cum laude in the Cinema department of Ithaca College, NY, he worked on Like Water for Chocolate (1992), one of the most successful Mexican films of all time, and then went on to work on several major films, includingClear and Present Danger (1994) as well as the self-financed film El Paje (1999). His cult short movie Dhampira (2001) has been cited by critics as one of the most innovative Mexican horror films, alongside Guillermo de Toro’s Cronos. Recently, he has been developing content for Web distribution and low-budget films while continuing to work on the ideas in Dhampira.
He initially planned to write a novel to expand the story, and then decided instead to write two feature-length screenplays and submit them to Amazon Studios with the aim of getting them picked up for a big budget production. He was attracted by their idea of a “test movie” – basically a rough version of the movie that would get people interested in a way that a script or a trailer couldn’t. For what he had in mind, live action was outside his budget, so Eduardo looked into animation as an alternative.
Eduardo is no stranger to animation. “In college I took two animation classes, where we collaborated on several projects and all sorts of traditional animation, such as punched paper, stop motion, and collage. My thesis used a combination of those and was shot in 16mm. It won an award at the Chicago International Film Festival. El Paje has two parallel stories, one live action, the other done with graphics. For that one I had originally hired a Russian artist to do the drawings, but I didn’t like the terms he wanted so I had to do it myself. A friend of mine, an architect, did the sets in 3D and I did the characters and composited both things. My characters were drawn on paper, then scanned, coloured and textured with Photoshop.”
Watch ‘Dhampira’ animatic from ESF on Vimeo.
Or visit ESF’s Vimeo channel
For Dhampira, though, he needed something better. “Someone in the Amazon Studios forums was talking about machinima software and suggested several names, one of which was Moviestorm. The 14-day free trial was critical, because I couldn’t invest in something without knowing if I could use it. I used those 14 days to design the characters and play around, and decided to go for it. It was sort of easy, but sometimes I would stumble for a few hours trying to do something new. I needed all my focus to learn as I produced the movie, but found the program quite motivating to make, you want to try more things. Actually my mother helped me a lot with this project, as she was visiting me at the time. She won’t even touch a computer, but she would give me her opinion on the sets and the sequences. Her feminine touch helped me a lot designing the sets. When I was trying to do the very first set by myself, I was blocked, didn’t know where to put the walls or anything, so her help was crucial.”
It took Eduardo just over three months of solid work to create the test movie once the script was completed. “Yes, that was exactly my calculation. I approached this movie as a real movie. Pre-production was doing the characters, gathering the props and preparing the sets, which took about one and a half months. Then it took three weeks of production to actually shoot the scenes, and about a month in post-production. It’s about the same as an indie live-action movie. But I was hoping it would be 6 days a week, 8 to 10 hours per day, and it ended up being 7 days a week, 10 to 14 hours (16 when I was editing). I suppose now I could have a more humane schedule and keep it under three months!”
He started by recording all the voices, using a cast of just three people. “I had a previous project in the Amazon contest that was a hybrid between a table read and a first rehearsal, so for that I met a few local actors through other contacts I had. That project didn’t achieve anything, but I met the guy who plays Gaston. He’s actually a photographer, not an actor. The female voices were all done by Victoria Murdoch, a non-union actress with tremendous versatility. I did the rest of the male voices. At first, this dialogue track was supposed to be a rough draft just to help me out with making the movie, but the quality was good enough and I didn’t get a chance to re-record, so they are the final thing. In fact, it’s been a semi-finalist in the Amazon Studios dialogue track contest for the last 2 months.”
The test movie allowed Eduardo to experiment with using camera angles to convey both character and atmosphere more effectively than he could with just the screenplay.
The movie is shot using about 2,000 screenshots (1 per 2.5 seconds, or 24 frames per minute) with motion and effects added in post-production.
Eduardo blended 3D sets and characters with stock footage and photographs to create something quickly that conveyed what he needed. He grins, “I had a program called ScreenHunter Free running in the background that takes snapshots when I hit the right key. I got trigger happy and actually produced 20,000 stills!” He opted for this method because this enabled him to do more in the time than he could have done with using pure animation. “Doing a fully animated feature working alone, with the visuals and narrative style I wanted, would take forever. Also, there are a ton of things that I needed my characters to do that are impossible with Moviestorm, things that I had to create with trick shots and could only be tricked with stills.”
The look of the sets in particular is quite extraordinary. Eduardo made use of as many mods as he could find, and then taught himself to create his own using Google Warehouse, Sketchup, and the Modder’s Workshop. “I got the look I wanted. It helps that the movie is set in New England with lots of Victorian sets, because Moviestorm is rich with that (being a British product). Regarding characters, for the most part I got exactly what I wanted. The Daniel Kellek / Revenant character has an uncanny resemblance to the actor that portrayed him in the short. I wish that when I was in Boston, doing research for the novel, I would have taken more photos, as I find one can do easy and nice things combining a photo backdrop with the 3D characters.”
Eduardo made several edits of the film, all of which are available on Amazon Studios. The first cut took a week, and had no music. He then spent a week adding music and sound effects, which transformed it from a simple animated storyboard into a true test movie. “For Dhampira the short, I worked with a Mexican composer called Alejandro Giacoman. He’s one of the top film composers in Mexico, and he’s won the Ariel (the Mexican Oscar). I used five pieces from that in the movie, but those 10 or so minutes of original music weren’t enough for a 90-minute film. I had no money or time to look for an original soundtrack, but Amazon Studios has a music library for the contestants’ use that is amazing. It has Ennio Morricone, for example! I used 8 of his pieces and a total of 35 songs. One of the songs, the only one with voice, is by a Toronto band, Twirl. I got in contact with them, and they were really pleased I used their work. Today I edited a music video using their song and images from Dhampira.”
Watch ESF’s ‘Looking for Trouble’ on Vimeo.
Or visit ESF’s Vimeo channel
Following initial feedback, Eduardo then spent another two weeks creating a third edit, adding in more motion and sound effects. “Editing was crazy. I forced Premiere Pro and my PC to their limits. It would take about 30 minutes just to load the project! The current version of the script does have a few differences in the dialogue, especially for Mara, but I just couldn’t re-record – if I could, I would! There are some parts at the beginning of the movie that I would like to re-shoot, since I was just learning the software at that stage and wasn’t using it at its full potential. There’s also a part or two where the characters talk about past events, where I wish I’d shot active images to go with that sound, but again, I probably won’t. I pretty much want to look at this as a finished product and try to lure Amazon Studios or someone to make the real movie.”
He’s already planning his next project. “Definitely before the year ends, I plan to have another feature test movie. I’d like to use Moviestorm again soon, especially now that the new version has several things that I was wishing for. It was quite a trip those three months making a movie with virtual sets and virtual little people! This was a colossal endeavor for which I had to give myself fully artistically, physically, emotionally and financially.
I’m happy to have created a feature-length work that is watchable and entertaining and that provides a very detailed idea of how the real movie could look and feel.
It also gives an idea of the visual, narrative and cinematographic style I would use as a filmmaker for this or other similar projects. Thanks to Moviestorm, I was able to reproduce the images in my mind, which are impossible to explain in a script, and thus have a quite accurate representation of the movie that other people can see.”
Eduardo’s Web site includes links to all his films