DVC19 - Catnip - by Marc Burleigh at DVinfo.net

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Old October 26th, 2010, 10:22 AM   #1
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DVC19 - Catnip - by Marc Burleigh

OK, so this is my first ever DVC entry, actually my first-ever short film... hope I'm doing all this right with the posts and such.

Because I was testing out a lot of things at once on this film, I didn't want to get too complicated. I needed a simple enough story, little to no dialogue -- and most importantly of all, a way to best use a reduced cast of just two. Hell, I don't even have a cat, so that bit had to be p.o.v.

I was always was going to mix it up on a superhero motif. Yes, yes, I know, maybe a little too predictable given a 'Masks' theme, but as I said I was looking to just do something competently and see it through for this first attempt. Besides, I don't think superhero stuff is all that trite -- not if your references are Michelle Pfeiffer in that Batman movie, or any of Alan Moore's graphic novels.

The ambitious original plan -- needing a bigger cast, an action scene and some special effects -- got thrown out the window when an unexpected work assignment in Chile made it look like I was about to cartwheel into the Wall of Shame. In the end, I got back just in time but with a very, very limited amount of hours to shoot, just one actress available -- and no script. That actress, Priya, by the way, turned out to be a huge boon. She helped form the idea, and after discussion we just went ahead and shot it. I would have loved to put in dialogue, but in the end you go with what you can do, right?

I shot more than I needed. There were a couple of scenes that served to develop things, but I quickly realised I was not going to come in on the time limit, so I trimmed a lot. Lesson learned -- get to the story quickly, and even quicker in a short short film. A timed script would definitely have helped. But in the end, having too much was better than not enough. As you can see, I shot with different angles, so cutting it down didn't hurt things. I look at it now and I see places where I could still trim, but having been so close to it in the edit it's hard to think about pacing. Is it too fast, too slow? My main concern was: is the story understandable?

I kept my dark humour largely in check, but having the actress eat cat food with the ash remains of Perequita the cat gives you an idea of the direction I'd like to go next time I try for wryness.

Because I was so intent on trying stuff out, I may have gone overboard on putting different moods out there: the tragedy of the squashed cat, the mystery of the transformation, the cheesy love encounter, the punchline. Maybe a short should just hit one or two notes, not four?

Anyway, have at it guys. I'm keen to learn. Want to know what first impressions are, what you thought, and any technical or structural ideas you have. I'm very grateful to Lorinda and Dylan for organizing this -- it's a great way to develop skills. And this is the start of what looks to be a very steep learning curve.
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Old October 26th, 2010, 10:47 AM   #2
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You really pulled one off, IMO. I loved the story, had no problem following the way you put it together. Your visuals were very will done with just the right impact for what you were trying to portray. Your actress is quite a "find", she seems to have a lot of empathy for what you, the producer/director were trying to accomplish. I wish I could always find the same.

The one suggestion (and I mean this in a helpful construtive manner only) I have is about the music. (My opinion, here) I think you need some "unity" of music in a film/video project. What I mean is the music for each part should sound like it is done by the same artist/band/orchestra. What you have is four distinctly different "personalities" of music and that can be a bit "jarring".

The short you did may be more than usually difficult to "score" but I would still stay within one library if possible. SmartSound makes this easier now by allowing the purchase of single tracks instead of making you buy the whole album.

All in all, though, you produced a very imaginative and highly entertaining short. I watched it 3 times and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Old October 26th, 2010, 11:20 AM   #3
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Hello Marc

"Catnip" has a very cool ending! Good camera work, consistent with the subject matter. As Bruce suggested, the scoring could use some work in terms of consistency.

Creepy at times (you know which, trying to keep away from spoilers). Solid entry especially due to it's ending :)

Thank you!
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Old October 26th, 2010, 11:27 AM   #4
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This film was great fun. I actually think the sound track worked quite well in in the funky clanky way that I think you intended it. Love the POV shot of the cat going to its death, and your female lead was also great. Kept me smiling through to entire film.

Great job.
Chris J. Barcellos
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Old October 26th, 2010, 11:41 AM   #5
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Thanks Chris, your expert view is much welcome.

And thanks Bruce and Mugurel.

As everybody has mentioned, yes, I can see (or rather hear) how "clanky" the music track is. That's proving one of the big frustrations. Really have to find a composer or spend a lot more time on Jamendo to find more a more unified score for future projects. Or learn to play three minor chords on GarageBand and fiddle with them. In the end, on "Catnip", I just went with what I felt best conveyed the mood. I'm not happy with "Ride of the Valkyries" -- a classical tune that, while it hit the right notes in doing a "heroic" reveal and continued through to the punchline, is still too reminiscent of "Apocalypse Now" or "Birth of a Nation". If ever I want to do a re-edit, that would certainly be the one track I'd replace with something more contemporary but which still builds to a climax.

So far you've all pointed that out, so I'm definitely going to think on musical 'harmony' (!) in the future....
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Old October 26th, 2010, 01:25 PM   #6
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Now that's the way to tell a story. A lot of twists and turns, a stunning actress, great angles, a funny ending that could have multiple meanings but seemed to me that opposites attract. As a story teller you are very unobtrusive, like a fly on the wall, which makes it compelling to view and brings us 'into' the scene.
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Old October 26th, 2010, 07:40 PM   #7
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LOVED the cat POV, especially heading out through the front door onto the street and under the bus, particularly because I still can't for the life of me figure out how you did it! There was the odd transition moment where things felt a little disconnected (in my entirely subjective eyes) but think that it was down to the score rather than the excellent edit or visuals.
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Old October 26th, 2010, 11:22 PM   #8
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Marc, you got on the wrong side of this old cat lover right off the bat! But I had to admit the opening shot was so well done, and the story took its interesting turn quickly enough that I forgave you. ;)

I got a little stuck on the why of the cat food/ashes scene (and had to fight nausea at the notion of it).

Your actress did a great job, especially when she was transformed! Loved the color on the "transformed" scenes, too.

To answer your questions, I thought the multiple moods were entirely appropriate. Cramming an entire feature into four minutes requires that. Pacing was also fine, in my opinion. Technically a great piece, as well--your command of lighting and camera work is shown in the time lapse, the couch/floor scene, in particular.

I'm not going to comment much on the bedroom scene--will leave all that up to Dick Mays if he checks in. But you were pretty funny. I especially liked the subtle look of approval in the one scene.

Nice job, both from a storytelling and technical perspective! Oh and I almost forgot...I love your graphics in the opening.
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Old October 27th, 2010, 05:33 AM   #9
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Thanks guys.

Bill: Twists and turns.... I like 'em, always have. The Usual Suspects, Double Indemnity.... Glad they could be followed given the short time frame. And the stunning actress thanks you for the compliment. I must say, shooting her in boots and the skin-tight outfit was not that hard!

Henry, thanks for the comments. The POV was done by hanging my Sony HC-9 upside down on a monopod and walking it, then putting the image the right side up in the edit. I played with a few different looks (b&w, distortion, speed blur) to try to give the impression of looking out of cat's eyes, but in the end nothing looked quite right. Decided in the end to dull the colours down. I overlaid all the sound over that scene in post (even the actresses's shoes on the wooden floor and her talking to the cat). What really made it was cutting off a yowl at the fateful moment. The disjointedness I understand.... The moods were so different, and I quickly found I didn't have enough time to do easy transitions like I wanted....

Lorinda, I figured you'd be a cat lover. Happy you put up with my feline carnage. The catfood-eating scene I quite like, thinking it continues the idea of unbalance. Originally it was to show the actress drunk and hungry and experimenting with other stuff first to work up to the ashes, but in the end I chopped it down to get right to the point. On the lighting, I decided from the outset to have two different types of lighting according to the personality being shown. The night-time stuff on the couch was in fact two LED flashlights, which the Canon 7D picks up quite nicely with the 50mm 1.4 lens. A bit of blue in post and I thought it simulated moonlight OK.
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Old October 28th, 2010, 09:28 AM   #10
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First off I want to say your titles are great! Very smooth and flashy yet remain simple. I loved the intro.

As for the discussion around the music, I think for the most part it is working. The variety of music you have chosen to me implies more time, and highlights the differences in the scenes, making it feel like a bigger story if you will. However, I feel that sometimes, the music isn't working quite right. For example, the music in the beginning is perfect and the switch to the chanting / funeralesque music is great, it really takes guides the tone from carefree to tragic. But when she wakes up the second time after consuming the ashes and cat food (very funny!), I feel like the "super-hero" music is perhaps too early, and that is it's only problem. It brings the tone of the new scene in before we have anything else to go on. If maybe that music began as we were in the middle of her transformation, the visuals and audio could work together stronger. Just a thought.

There is also a lot of wonderful photography (you could sell that time-lapse on ArtBeats!), the transformation scenes, the color, basically all the images. There were a few shots though (very few), around the catfood-ash eating scene that were a little soft / out of focus, something that I noticed that took me out of it for a second.

Lastly, I will just second what Henry Williams said, and that is that there were a few transitions that weren't as smooth as the others, mostly the time when we go from the little shrine to her sleeping to her opening the fridge. I was a little lost in time around that point, but the other transitions were great.

Those were my only criticisms, hopefully constructive, regarding what was otherwise a very excellent entry! You really did a great job with whole thing and it was funny, engaging and beautifully put together.
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Old October 28th, 2010, 01:03 PM   #11
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Good, thoughtful comments there Mitchell.

I really was trying to fit a lot into a four-minute basket here. A piece like your delightful entry which had huge atmosphere and a skillful marriage of images and music would have helped narrow down my choices. I was pretty determined to get a three-act story out, but I can see if I ever do that again, I'll want a lot more thought about the music.

Appreciate your comment about where to start the music in the transformation scene. You're right, I think, that would have been better.

Thought someone would notice the softness of the catfood tin bit.... The moment where she comes from the fridge and looks was actually supposed to be a longer shot that followed her gaze down to the (in-focus) bottle of whisky she had been drinking from (cut from the final edit) and across to the catfood. The can itself was actually sharp originally. But too sharp given the softness of the point where she's looking at it, so I blurred it a little. A little too much, I'd say. The perils of using lenses with narrow DOF is we don't have as much leeway as we used to for grab other parts of a shot! Again, I found myself having to trim and trim again to get in under the time limit.

My dad, who used to make TV ads, said I should have dropped the fridge POV shot. Trite, an impossible POV for any character, and as you said, it takes you out of the narrative.

Thanks again for your comments -- exactly the level of advice I was looking for.
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