Creating an Award Winning Film: Limitations can be Liberating
Today, everything about the movie industry screams big: bigger budgets, bigger productions, and of course bigger flops (as evidenced by last summer’s string of hundred million dollar films that never even broke even).
When we decided to enter the Canon Film Festival, we had only three weeks (remaining of three month competition) and a budget of $400 dollars. While at the time these circumstances seemed constraining–in hindsight, they were actually the catalyst for our entry’s remarkable success. Indeed, these limitations forced our production to be keenly story-driven, audacious, and resourceful.
While reading Canon’s prompt, we recognized that our biggest weakness would be our inability to secure a legitimate cast. Utah isn’t brimming with actors and actresses (even if we could afford them). To compensate, we dedicated two of our three weeks solely on the screenplay. By the end of the 14 days, we had generated an intricate and intellectual psychological thriller that would have more easily translated to a full-length film. Obviously, the majority of the script had to be cut, but the rich development of characters, subplot, and historical references dictated every decision we subsequently made and drove Dominus’ ultimate realization. When all the film entries were posted online, we were shocked by how few had taken the time to develop a cohesive–let alone compelling–plot. Our emphasis on story immediately gave us an edge.
The Canon Film Festival challenges participants to generate a narrative based on 10 photos selected from a number of categorized pools. When our team first got together to look at the images, we quickly realized that there were some obvious, easier choices: children, couples, animals, etc. We strategically decided to choose the most challenging “character” photograph: an individual wearing a dauntingly-intricate, beaked mask. Fortunately, a reverse-image search on Google soon revealed identical, hand-made leather masks available for purchase on Etsy. To our knowledge, only one other team selected this image. Our unique character was haunting –and most importantly–memorable.
We crafted Dominus to maximize every asset within our reach. First, we selected the remaining eight photos to correspond with free locations in close proximity to Salt Lake City (including the Salt Flats, an abandoned salt factory, and, most conveniently, my garage). Most indie films avoid the wide shot due to lacking access to complex sets and/or lights. We determined to embrace the wide by working with Utah’s remarkable natural landscapes and sunsets. Second, since we knew that masks would be worn in every scene, we roped our family and friends into taking shifts as our cast. Even our main character was played by two family members of similar build (to better accommodate class schedules). We additionally avoided the time constraints of recording audio on set by opting for a narrator. One of our cousins provided the great voice over. Last, I championed camera tricks and compositing to make the masks appear pervasive throughout the film. In reality, we had only two masks for the entire production. At $125 each, they were our biggest splurge.
Ultimately, our limited resources pushed us to a heightened level of creativity, and Project Imagination’s constrained prompt, sparked a sweeping and unpredictable narrative. Canon did a brilliant job facilitating this festival. It was an immense honor to be recognized by Ron and Bryce Dallas Howard and to view Dominus screened alongside the work of Jamie Foxx, James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) Biz Stone (Co-Founder of Twitter), Georgina Chapman (House of Marchesa Design), and Eva Longoria.