Cinematographer Charles Elmore On Filming Unknown State

In episode 118 of the Digital Convergence podcast, we talked briefly about an amazing short film titled Unknown State, written and directed by Christopher Long and filmed by cinematographer Charles Elmore. The short is about a computer scientist who tracks down a mysterious figure via teleportation to another world.

A number of things impressed me about this "passion project" film. First, it was funded on a very limited budget that was provided by a successful Kickstarter project (they won $6,075 in funding). Second, it was filmed in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is not a place one normally thinks of as the background for a sic-fi movie. Third, the film has a good deal of compositing and effects that works well for the movie. Fourth, the sound design and music for the movie is outstanding.

Charles Elmore wrote to me and shared this behind the scene story of Unknown State:

"I'm a freelance Videographer/Editor, doing mostly commercial and corporate gigs. When I'm not doing that I'm part of a small group of tulsa filmmakers that collaborate on each others films. Christopher Long and I had met and fast became friends several years back when he took the thankless task of ACing (assistant Camera op) on an indie (i.e. low budget) film I was directing called Tech Support.

"A while after that film was completed Chris brought the idea of Unknown State to me after he'd attended the SXSW film festival in austin, where a noted filmmaker had given his opinions on whether short films were still a valid art form (his opinion was that yes they are). Chris had been kicking around this idea of a sci-fi film rooted in as close to reality as possible. A similar film he drew inspiration from was Shane Carruth's Primer, which was a feature length time travel film shot on 16mm and made for $7000 dollars, and there's not one special effect in the whole film, unless you consider its clever and mind-bending plot a special effect.

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"Chris's idea was of an unnamed physicist obsessed with trans-dimensional (or other worldly) travel and the mysterious figure that plagues him on his "jumps". The story would be told mostly visually with an emphasis on sound design and score. In our previous collaborations we'd approach each short or video  with a cobbled together effort, scrambling, borrowing, scrapping to get all the gear and materials needed to complete the project. However with this project Chris really wanted it to push our creativity, which meant going the hard route of getting somewhat of a budget together so that we could have the opportunity, albeit frugal, to give this film the effort it deserved. I shared the same sentiment. At the time, I was just coming off the thrill of attending Shane Hurlbut's DSLR Bootcamp and seeing how Shane and his crew were able to stretch the Canon 5D to the limit while also being attentive to the aspects that can sometimes be neglected on lower end productions, namely lighting, sound, etc. So when Chris asked if I would like to DP the film, I really wanted to make it look like a big budget short. A Champagne film on a Beer Budget.

"In order to get the budget we felt would give us that luxury, Chris turned to the crowdfunding site kickstarter.com and by having an attainable figure and offering some unique rewards (not to mention some amazingly generous backers) we more than exceeded the amount we had anticipated.

"Even though we'd met our budget goal, The journey to completion was still a challenge. Almost every single dollar we'd received ended up onscreen. The only major exception being one of the most important: FOOD. It's a bit cliche but yes feeding your crew will net you greater results than renting the best gear and camera. From a logistical standpoint the script called for all these other-worldly locales and Chris knew this would present a challenge both geographically and budgetary.

"Production wise we decided to shoot on the Canon 5D mark II, and set aside part of our budget to rent a set of Zeiss CP.2 primes. The entire film, with the exception of the Rocky chase scene was shot on the zeiss lenses and I absolutely loved them.

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"It was up to Chris, our producer and crew to find a way to get these visually dynamic shots without sacrificing any one aspect of the film. Being native Oklahomans we grew up hearing one way or another about all the various landscapes and terrains of Oklahoma. We have a desert and sparkling salt plain in the west, flat farmland and fields that go for miles and oklahoma's famous Red Dirt terrain & Mountainous geography throughout. It was going to require a bit of driving, but we knew going to many of these locations would add an extra flair to the film's visuals without blowing a huge amount of our budget.

"Also, thankfully, several of these scenes took place outdoors which saved us immensely on grip and lighting rental and allowed us to keep our Camera and Lighting crew small. This allowed us to stretch the dollar more when it came to the compositing VFX, done by Ryan Haines at singlezer0.com did all of the VFX and compositing and did so at a very affordable rate. From the Red Balloons to the Watch, Ringed Planet skies and several other shots he took my otherwise basic and flat shots and gave them a whole new and unique look.

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"The lab took the most time and where we spent a healthy amount of our budget. This was the biggest challenge for me, as a DP, because all the visual responsibility fell on me. Most if not all of the other locations were light with natural, available light. Didn't require a Gaffer or lighting package or any special lighting other than a reflector (with the exception of the Garage chase scene, which was lit with Fluorescent fixtures bought at Home Depot). Even though it was a challenge I took the Lab as an opportunity to push myself by aiming for specific look, feel and composition parameters. We hired an amazing Gaffer, Rodney Autaubo and his lighting package for that weekend and much of the credit goes to him for the way the Lab looks. He took most of my indecipherable ramblings and turned it into what you saw on screen. My biggest goal in a project this big in scope is trying to keep the film cohesive as a whole, while also trying to distinguish each location, with the Lab being the anchor of the whole film. It was lit with, I believe, at most 4-5 arri lights, most no higher than 300w. We then accented the cabinets with the same Fluorescent lights from Home depot (RECYCLING!) and a rope light.

"Once principal photography was finished Chris and his editor, Elvis Ripley, edited the film in Final Cut Pro while Ryan did all the compositing and VFX work. Chris also worked closely with Ryan Weaver on the sound design and sound mixing, and the two of them also worked closely with Daniel Sutliff, a tulsa musician, to create the film's distinct music and tones. To me, and I'm sure Chris will agree, the music and sound design was almost as hard, if not harder, than deciding on the visual aspect of the film. One of his biggest concerns was to make sure it didn't sound canned or like a parody of a famous score or composition.

"Now that the film is completed Chris has the film submitted to several festivals, where we're hoping to hear back from, and in the meantime he's made the film available on Vimeo (and posted it on planet5d.com videolog as well) to allow it to be viewed by as many people as possible. Since then, we've finished another little feature that I wrote and directed and am currently editing, Chris has produced 2 short films for okie filmmaker Sean Egan that I've also shot and we're also planning a few projects with our group as well as filmmakers Sterlin Harjo and Matt Leach from www.thislandpress.com/video.

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"I can't stress enough just how important and collaborative our crew was on this film. Every single member of this crew, from top to bottom, gave more than 100% everyday. Almost every person on this crew (myself included) gave their time and energy with no guarantee of financial compensation to help make this film. A lot of that, I believe, is due to Chris's above average idea, his attitude and his hard work ethic as well as the desire to make films, in our own backyard, that rival the films that inspire us.

"Thanks again for featuring us on your show, like I said, it's humbling and rewarding getting to share, participate and learn from you guys."

ArticleCarl OlsonComment