Deer Hunter, a post-mortem
After editing and working on Seasonal Vengeance, I decided to rebrand the project and retitle it as Deer Hunter. I did this for a variety of reasons, but manly (and sadly) because initially, I tried to shape the project into something it wasn’t going to be based on what I wrote/got in camera. If you're interested in seeing the short, and don't want any spoilers, I would stop reading now. We are currently submitting for some festivals, and thus it's not available on the website--however, if you're interested in viewing the 5 minute short, please feel free to contact me.
The core of the project at it’s conception was essentially, a thrilling chase with the punch line of a deer hunting the hunter. That was it. From there, I got the idea to explore the idea of using the film to comment on the ethics of hunting. In the current sensitive socio-political climate surrounding gun control, it is important (now more than ever) that people have informed opinions about firearms. It provided a unique challenge because being a hunter myself, I wasn’t ever intending to make an anti-hunting film, but something that could open a door to discussion after initially being entertaining. Also, I thought that there might be an opportunity to share the film with game commissions, or other hunting organizations as material for hunter’s safety courses or other seminars—especially since a lot of the material can be pretty boring.
But truth be told, we didn’t really incorporate that idea into the writing and shot design of the story. We didn’t incorporate any of the other more questionable elements of hunting, like trapping/baiting/wounding/hunting from trucks/or whatever takes the sport away—the story remained as a chase and than an execution.
So this “anti-poaching” notion wasn’t at the core when we shot the film, and we couldn’t force it in the edit. So after trying to make it something it wasn’t in the editing room, we scrapped it and went back to the beginning of the design—a satirical/comedic story line that was meant to entertain—not really to provoke conversation. And that’s kinda what we ended up with. I think there is/was room to build a lot more around the story to reveal why the incident was taking place, develop the character more so that the audience cares more, one way or another.
Circumstances while shooting—
We shot the film in essentially a 24 hour period. We shot on private property in Lancaster county PA, which is about 2 hours from our homes in Philly. This was due to our lack of budget/ability to try and orchestrate permits and such. We had a four person crew, plus help from the family who’s land we were using. Although we essentially had no project for this project, I think I spent a couple hundred dollars out of pocket for travel, crafty, some miscellaneous stuff along the way. I didn’t pay my crew—they were kind, excited artists along for the ride. I had scouted two locations to shoot at weeks prior, and essentially started in the morning—had a little break in the afternoon—and then finished up in the evening until the wee hours of the morning. It started snowing while we were shooting in the evening made it much more difficult to work. We shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV with a Sigma 50mm Art and a Sigma 24-35mm Art lens that are known for their autofocusing ability. However, there were many shots that were attempted to be manually focused. When I began reviewing the footage, there was some major disappointment when some of our best performances were unusable due to being out of focus—both manual and automatically attempted shots. Why didn’t you just review the footage, you might say? Well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know how it was missed. I trusted the two guys who were operating as the DP and Director. I was wearing too many hats as it was for the project and wanted to utilize/trust the crew that I had along with me. I initially wanted be more involved in composing and reviewing the shots in collaboration with my DP. Unfortunately the actor that I had for the part needed to drop out of the project, and so I decided to do it myself—so at this point, I had written, “produced,” scouted, was acting in, and co-directing the project, so I did my best while we were on set to defer to my team when possible. We didn’t have access to a monitor—you can only do so much watching/reviewing footage on a small screen. But that little excuse to me, really isn’t good enough to justify the number of shots that were out of focus. So that was frustrating.
In addition, towards the end of our very long day, our team was losing steam. We were tired, headachie, and our attention to detail waned. For obvious reason! People weren’t feeling great, and I could’ve done a better job of expediting what we needed to move from setup to setup. Without sounding ungrateful, I got what I paid for. We had a team of 4-5 people trying to do some difficult setups/under difficult circumstances, in a timeline that should’ve been spread out over two days. We probably needed 5 professionals to make the process go completely smooth and efficient in our very condensed timeline. I was certainly thankful for my people giving their time and effort to make a project in the dead of night in the snow, who weren’t being paid. The passion for my passion project kept me going and excited—but I felt like I couldn’t expect or ask any more from my team.
Being on set was exhilarating, exciting, and I had a blast while we were doing it. Part of my frustration didn’t really settle in until I was in the editing room. A majority of the film was going to rely on audio design to inform the audience what was happening/coming next. The audio we gathered on set was pretty bad. Lots of wind. A majority of the film takes place running in the woods, and our audio was garbage, so our audio designed had to essentially build the tracks from scratch with foley and scoring.
Stylistically expectations and reality—
As it grew we hoped to juxtapose the camera movement from the POV of the runner to be frantic and handheld, with a cleanly moving/stable movement of the calm hunter. This was also to parallel the idea of an animal being hunted, the fear that comes with that. When we got into editing, we didn’t use any of the shots of the gun/barrel because it would’ve revealed the shooter and felt that we could accomplish the same effect by just seeing the POV of the scope. We had some 180 degree rule breaks that we couldn’t fix by flipping and such, so ultimately we didn’t show the barrel of the gun at all. We also build a DIY Snorri cam rig to put a GoPro on—ultimately the quality and coloring of the footage didn’t turn out super well. Also, as effective as the rig was, especially for costing less than $20 to make, I used one hand to stabilize the rig in a number of the takes and ultimately it looked bizarre. Another case of not being able/not reviewing the footage and taking the time to reshoot what was garbage. Our sound design turned out pretty well, especially considering the material we started with. My designer hand’t ever done any work for film before, and was very pleased with what he accomplished—however, something in my initial concept that I wish we could’ve achieved was this underlying breath—inspired by the sound design in Dunkirk that involved an ever present ticking of a clock. Time was of the essence in that story. In this story, breath/life was what the runner was fighting for and I wanted it to ebb and flow with the feelings of each moment. We were able to partially achieve this, but synthesized the design with a heartbeat—so there wasn’t a consistent presence. Just different than what we initially hoped or expected. Our SFX artist was a very talented high school student. Really appreciated all the work that he was able to do. Before we went to set, I consulted with a number of VFX artists who work in professional studios across the country--picking their brain on how to attempt what we wanted to do. Conceptually, we had a lot of options for the "reveal," from shadow silhouette effects, to physical, to complete CGI construction. However, a lot of it came down to budget and time once again--Being a passion project/wasn't being funded/I had a major concern with shooting the project and then shipping it off for VFX work to someone who was doing me a "favor," and then the project never get finished because life happens. Had we been in a studio and had multiple people working on the project, we likely would've composed our deer with a more CGI intricate process. Instead, we went for a more physical effect. We were fortunate to have access to a taxidermy deer which our young VFX artist then manipulated. As artists, there are plenty of things to pick apart, but there are certainly some impressive things we were able to accomplish considering our limitations.
In conclusion, it was a great learning experience that I plan to build onto as the future goes on.