TUFF 2013, Step Two: The Making-Of ‘To the ROM by Lightning’

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Presenting the Bloor-Danforth Viaduct in StreakVision

 

Although my entry to TUFF 2013 didn’t make the first cut – the festival, with its emphasis on municipal conveyance systems, likely resulted in many shorts on buses, streetcars, subways, subways, and subways – so its elimination means I get to write a making-of piece (which I would’ve saved until my film was cut from the next judging round, or was lucky enough to make the top 5).

So before you read on, I suggest watching the original short so you’ve got reference points. (Note: the only changes I made to the original TUFF entry was a slight extension of the last shot, and the addition of End Credits.)

 

On YouTube (HD):

 

On Vimeo:

 

Back during the 2013 Hot Docs festival, I kept my little Canon SX-220HS camera nearby because I wanted to make a companion piece about what it felt like zipping between cinemas, downing fast lunch at home, and travelling by subway.

In spite of a nasty case of dual frozen shoulder (which still hasn’t subsided, but isn’t as ugly as before), I did get most of the coverage  I needed, with some connective material left to shoot. Because that stuff is a bit more complicated, I held off, and in the interim the subway footage just kind of sat around, with just a few tests done.

I’ll get back to the Hot Docs short in the fall – and cite the specific film that inspired some of the short’s visual ideas – but for now, here’s how the resulting TUFF short was assembled, and some of my creative reasoning.

I chose to shoot the film using the ‘toy camera’ feature, an effect that in prior years you could only create using Premiere or another software.

The feature does three very specific things: 1) a thin rectangular section of the lower frame is kept in sharp focus while the rest of the image is softened; 2) the colours are boosted to candy-fresh levels; and 3) the camera ‘films’ a series of staggered frames which, when played back, give the illusion of a hand-cranked camera.

Unlike higher-end cameras, my little Canon shoots the footage in SD, which isn’t a problem since I like ratios to bleed over each other; and since the footage will be further digitally enhanced (or bounced between analogue SD and back to digital), a little grain or pixelation is fine.

I first used the feature on a trip to Ottawa, and as you can see in the short montage below, train rails become shiny pulsing lines, buildings resemble toy city structures, and passing trees & filtered sunlight become a wash of colours when the camera’s tilted. (In case you haven’t noticed from all the archived videos, I have a thing for textures.)

 

 

For the TUFF entry, I had already assembled several key sequences in tests, and the short was assembled using the most essential pieces to convey travelling from home to the ROM (the Royal Ontario Museum). As each section evolved, I did some trimming to ensure the running time wasn’t headed above the 60 second limit.

Cutting fast-frame footage isn’t hard, but the rules of continuity are a little different, as are cutting points (such as making a cut when objects are about to exit / enter a shot). I found you could still edit using the standard rules, but each cut was more about impact.

The jerky motion meant you could have bigger cheats to jump from inside a train to a platform (the staggered frame rate actually makes it easy to smash cut from one shot to another), and create the illusion of scampering through one subway tunnel when it’s actually several shots taken from different sections – as in the case of the Museum Station.

The original tracking shot on the station platform was both too long for the sequence, and its colours were wrong. As you’ve seen in the prior Bloor–Danforth viaduct sequence, I wanted to convey the speed fluctuations and the physical dips you experience when the train travels through the bridge’s underbelly, so I applied a series of blurs that occur during the dips. These fuzzed-up images extend past the 1.33:1 ratio of the original footage.

Why do this?

To expand the sequence’s visual textures, and frankly because I like the idea of watching a film where parts pop out. The most recent examples include The Dark Knight (2008) where shots pop out from ‘scope to IMAX, as well as Brainstorm (1983), in which the dream sequences are in ‘scope. There’s also The Mystery of Picasso (1956) which pops into CinemaScope for the widescreen finale.

Every time the viaduct sequence sharpens, we’re on one of the track’s peaks, passing through the support columns. I boosted the light, added more yellow, and used the colour saturation to slowly presage the colours that appear in the tunnel sequence where the glinting rails and blobs of colours fill the screen at 1.85:1.

The colours are also a hint of the palette used in the Museum Station sequence involving a train’s arrival, walking feet, and the aforementioned tracking shot – basically a shifting combination of orange, yellow, red, and green.

To bring the tracking shot in line, as we’re about to pass by each set of peripheral columns, the image snaps to the columns’ colour scheme – red, brown, or white. I also ratcheted the speed of each colored segment because the tracking shot ran too long, and hopefully the changes give the illusion of a sudden, fast push towards the escalator. Here’s the original shot, untouched:

 

 

As for the finale, one quick point: I had to include shots of the McLaughlin Planetarium. It’s an iconic and once-beautiful building that was gutted of its brilliant projection room and is now used for storage and offices, and will likely be demolished. Might as well imprint a piece of local history in film before the stupidity that often reigns in Toronto kills another piece of its architectural history. It’s the one of the main things I loathe about my hometown: Toronto frequently kills its history in favour of banality.

Moving on.

In truth, I did not have much night footage of the ROM, so to create a continuity between daylight shots of the Planetarium, the ROM, street shots, and the statue at the end I created quick shots with flaring colours that ideally presage the hot primary colours in the night footage. Hopefully it works.

Lastly,  the final shots lead up to what used to happen when a TV tube went bad (er, died). One day you turn on the TV, and all you see is a soft white dot. That meant The End. TV now dead. Over and done with.

As I said, eventually I’ll get to that original Hot Docs video (which will have a sound mix), but there’s other projects that have priority, including the short on the Sony AVC-3250 camera.

In the meantime, here’s a final montage of the Canon’s toy camera footage, as applied to some ants that were going bonkers over some spiked bait. If you move the camera slowly, you can achieve some rudimentary perambulating camera movements.

Say it with me: per-ram-bu-lating.

 

 

Cheers,

 

 

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Big Head Amusements