Lights Film School was recently fortunate enough to sit down with Director Marlon Torres and talk about his inspiring independent short film entitled “The Bridge”. Below you’ll find our interview and his 30 minute short film.
What an amazing opening shot (Above). It really draws the audience in and sets the professional standards for the rest of the film. I’m assuming you wanted to start off with a big visual punch. Tell us, how much of this shot is real and how much is designed using software programs? You mentioned that out of film school you worked for two years as a CG artist being able to do your own modeling, surfacing, lighting, and rendering. This really shows through in your short.
The goal of the opening shot was somehow make the surrounding San Francisco bay area to somehow look like Normandy. The only thing real in this shot is the landscape. The battleships and planes were modeled, surfaced, and lit in 3dsmax and composited with the live plate in After Effects. I also shot plates of smoke that were also composited later in After Effects. To add the finishing touches, color-correction and grading were done in Color.
You did a lot of WW2 research before you shot this film. You mentioned you watched every WW2 movie and documentary that’s out there. Did you also need to study technical things like how soldiers hold guns, how they move through enemy fields, how they communicate, the technology used etc?
Well, I didn’t watch EVERY WW2 film out there but I did watch everyone I could get my hands on which was roughly a couple dozen. One thing you’ll start to realize when watching films, especially war documentaries, you’ll learn a lot about the gear, strategy, etc… along with the history. So yes, I did research in that as well. As for how the soldiers held their guns, Mike (who plays James Connolly) spent a few years in the Army so I deferred my very limited knowledge on handling firearms to him.
The wardrobe and styling was incredible. did you style the film yourself?
Yes, I was in charge of the costume department as well. Again lots of research. Lots of google images. I’m a very detail oriented person so I tried to get it as accurate as I could while sticking to my tight budget. I think we pulled it off well. A few things you guys might not know is that even the undershirts my actors were genuine WW2 clothing and they never saw the light of day. My actors even wore dog tags that had their character’s names on it. Leah Thompson, who played Samantha, did her own make-up. We also went vintage clothes shopping all over the bay area. When she saw that white dress, she knew it was the one.
You mentioned you scoured eBay for every piece of gear you could afford, and for stuff that was too expensive you got custom made in China for a good price. Maybe you could tell us a little about the budget for this film and what things ate up most your budget. I’m assuming that wardrobe was a big expense?
The budget of the film came to around $7500, give or take a few hundred. I officially stopped counting after I went over my original budget of $3000 and started going into my savings. I figured ignorance was bliss. I’d say about $3000 went to props and costumes, $2500 in additional equipment, $500 for catering, and $1500 for our premiere screening.
Are there any major take away lessons for other indie filmmakers who are are looking to achieve such high standards of production on such a modest budget? Was there an underlying philosophy behind how you merged the worlds of business (budget) and film (story)? Did you ever feel like you overstepped your boundaries and compromised your production value? If so where?
Absolutely, being director, DP, and sometimes even sound recordist all at the same time is extremely challenging. There were times I wish I could have just focused on directing my actors into a better performance instead of making sure sound was okay. As many directors would know, every time I watch my film, or any of my films, all I see are the mistakes. I am a perfectionist and it may not seem apparent to the audience but there are scenes in The Bridge (which I will not speak of) that make me cringe. I believe if you want to be a good filmmaker, you have to hold yourself to a very high standard.
How much of this film was storyboarded? How much room did you leave yourself for visual improvisation within the scene?
The only scene I storyboarded was the scene where Walker gets shot. I always storyboard action scenes because it’s easy to forget stuff. For the rest of the film I just had a shot list. Being the director and DP, I had all the shots composed in my head so I didn’t feel like I needed storyboards.
How long did the script take you to write? How long from writing to publishing did this film take?
The first draft was written in about three weeks and the final script was done in a month. Revisions were made here in there during production as well but nothing major. After the script was finalized, there was about an additional month of pre-production before the first take was shot.
You mentioned you did a lot of this short film on your own. To obtain such a high standard of production filmmakers often need to work with decent sized teams. Of course, others helped, but for the most part this was a “one man studio” project as you put it. Did you ever feel you were stretched too thin at times? Looking back, if you had to put people in a couple of positions, to free up your efforts and help you to be more focused on the most important task at hand for that moment, what would have you wanted help with?
Do I like being a one-man studio? Sure. In a sense, you get a pure vision of your film. Would I rather not be one? Yes. What makes it difficult for me is not because I don’t like working with other people, it’s just when you have a particular vision you want to show on-screen and don’t have the network of talent to pull that off, you’re left off with no choice but to do it yourself. Like I said, the only part I was comfortable handing off was the musical score and that went to my composer Justin. I’ve worked with him before and he’s extremely talented and professional. I tried handing off some sound-editing work to an editor but that came back so poorly done, I basically had to re-edit it.
You shot on canon a Canon 5D and Canon 7D. What specifically did you use each camera for?
I bought a 7D because the 5D Mark II at the time was still 30p and all automatic. So my 5D sat on the bench for the majority of the production. When the firmware upgrade arrived, I started using the 5D exclusively. I’d say 75% of the film was shot with the 7D and the rest with the 5D.
You mentioned you knew you were going to push the camera’s limit. What did you feel the biggest limitations of those cameras were on your shoot?
Moire, moire, moire. There are shots in The Bridge where the moire absolutely kills me. Please Canon, fix your sensors!
What lenses were in your lens kit? A lot of your shots are handheld if I’m correct. How did you get the shots so steady?
My workhorse is the Canon 24-105 f4L. I’d say 75% of the movie was shot on that. I also have 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm Canon primes. My shots are steady because: 1. I have freakishly steady hands 2. I use monopods 3. Steadicam Merlin.
What did your lighting kit consist of?
I did not use a single light in the movie. All natural lighting. I was working on a war movie, not a romantic comedy. I wanted it to look real. A lot of DPs tend to “over-light”, I’m not one of them. I think natural lighting is the best type of lighting. Nothing beats the look of sunlight peaking through a thin layer of clouds.
You have a lot of really strong compositions (i.e. like at 2:35 – above). How did you find these military’esq environments? Also, when you walk into a room what are the things you look for as a location scout? How do you analyze space / color? It’s often said that a good production designer is simply a good location scout. Do you agree with this?
San Francisco is surrounded with old WW1 and WW2 forts. I’m just fortunate to be living in this area. As for scouting, I always bring my camera with me and take snapshots of angles that I might use in the film. Aside from the obvious aesthetics of the location, I also take note of the angle of the sun. I love to go scouting during magic hour where the lighting is best. I think a good production designer and/or scout just needs a good cinematic eye.
Tell us about your location scouting process? How long did this take you?
Scouting took place during weekends and the free time I had here and there. I didn’t really consider it scouting. I like exploring new places and locations even when I’m not working on a film. In fact, most of the locations I shot in I had explored several years before I even thought about making the film. I just revisited to take photos from certain “cinematic angles” and to make sure there wasn’t anything that could pose a problem while filming there. The only location I truly scouted for was the actual bridge and I found that through the magic of the internet. I had seen someone post a beautiful picture of it on Flickr, I drove down to the location and it was just as beautiful in real life. In a stroke of luck, I had found my bridge.
How are you lighting the shot at 3:20 (above)? Is this all natural light? It’s very soft and beautiful.
All natural lighting. Just plan ahead of time on where the sun is and you’re golden.
How long did it take you to cast for the film? How did you look for your actors? Did you spend time rehearsing with your actors?
Casting was done in a few weeks. My lead actor, who plays Henry, is a close friend of mine and we’ve worked on a couple project together. We’ve grown a nice director-actor chemistry so I actually had him in mind when I wrote the screenplay. I casted Leah after seeing her in my friends music video. She read beautifully for me in the audition and I knew I had found my Samantha. Mike, who plays James, was brought to me through my producer Amy. She basically called me one day and said “Marlon, I have the perfect guy!”. She was right. James basically acts himself in the movie.
Did you leave any room for improvisation on the day of shooting or were you focused on working with what was on the script?
We stayed to the script pretty much spot on. It’s much easier to let actors improvise on contemporary pieces where they’re not bound to the language of the era. Period pieces are a little different. In general though, I usually have my actors do a scene as-written in the script and once they nail that, I’ll let them improvise for a few takes.
Sound is great. what are you recording / mixing sound on?
Sound was recorded through a Zoom H4N and a Rode NTG2.
What did you edit on?
Final Cut Studio.
What software program did you use to create the bomb effect like at 13:02? or 17:04 (above)?
Those were real explosions. They are plate shots of controlled mini-explosions that were composited in After Effects.
Referencing 13:18 (above) – Does this shot just use natural lighting? Can you tell us what went through your mind when you were framing this shot? angle choice, lens choice, background choice, lighting direction, etc.
Yes, all natural lighting. This was a very intimate moment for Henry so I wanted to keep it tight on his face. 50mm works best for this. I also wanted to keep the theme of light/darkness. I often shot Henry with noir-like lighting where one side would be in light and the other would be in the dark. This to symbolize his inner struggle with life and death.
Looking back, if you were to make a change in the way you approached this film what would it be?
Looking back, the only regret I have is not having a bigger budget. My original vision for The Bridge was much more epic but due to budget constraints I had to scale it back. But overall, I’m very happy with the film and very proud of it.
Referencing 20:28 (above) – nice side lighting in the trees. Where these shots planned around the sun’s angle to help take advantage of nice side lighting? Would have you filmed this shot if the sun was directly overhead or were these shadows specifically what you were looking for?
Unless I have a 10-ton grip truck and 60×60 foot silk screen, I never shoot if the sun is directly overhead. It’s ugly, plain and simple. Everybody get raccoon eyes. But yes, I planned it ahead of time to shoot where the angle of the sun was low enough for a pleasing shot.
You mentioned shooting in San Fran caused some weather issues. It could be sunny one second and foggy the next second. However, your continuity is great and I feel that the atmospheric conditions fed into the narrative purpose of the scene. For example, when he is running on beach on a cloudy day (while being bombed), and her running on beach on sunny day (while loving life). How much planning around the time of day or the sun’s direction did you need to do? Did you find this difficult to coordinate?
Yes, the weather was a major pain in the ass. I had to cancel at least half a dozen shoots due to weather. Our original shooting schedule was set for a month of shooting and that stretched out to three because of weather. Luckily all my actors were extremely dedicated to the film and were very accommodating to the cancelations and rescheduling. I was lucky to have a great cast.
Do you look at light differently after shooting this short film? Did you learn anything about light that you want to incorporate into your next film?
I learned that rolling clouds on a sunny day sucks. Half your footage has cool striking shadows and the other half is soft and gentle. Try intercutting that together.
Did you learn anything about working with actors that you want to carry forward with you into your next film?
I learned not to be afraid to let an actor take a character you’ve written in a different direction. Mike French did some amazing things to James’ character that made him much more interesting to watch on-screen. He took this supporting character and basically made him a co-lead of the film. I couldn’t have imagined that in my wildest dreams.
Thank you Marlon for taking the time to talk to us about your ambitious and inspiring short film. We’re looking forward to seeing your next major project!