Every film project is really just 100+ smaller projects that somehow add up to a finished piece of art. From prop making, to set design, to asset creation, there’s way more than just pointing a camera at something, a lot of time you have to build the “something.”
In the hype around getting the project done and published, it’s really easy to gloss over some of the more fun parts of making a film. For lack of better term (on my part), I call these “Micro Projects.” Tiny pieces that make up the whole. I want to be more appreciative of those moments or tasks that make me say “Oh, this is sweet!” when creating something. This list is a very short overview of some of those projects I’ve had the joy of leading in the past year or so, along with some thoughts about my time with them. Enjoy.
1. The Fake Video Game for “Normal for Now” Episode 3
If anyone asks, you can’t make a video game in 1 day with almost no experience. BUT, with a bunch of hardheadedness and plenty of YouTube tutorials, you can make something that looks pretty damn convincing.
When we shot the “Normal for Now” video game scene in September we planned to find an Appalachia/West Virginia based game developer that had a game we could show. We searched our network as thoroughly as we could, and when we were getting close to wrapping editing we still did not have a game to put on the screen. For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with Unreal Engine for filmmaking. I used it in SkyHunter Squad for the space ship set when we couldn’t build one in 72 hours, as well as a bunch of other projects still in the pipeline. I was fairly familiar with the basics, but I was using it for film, not game development (the original purpose of the software). The choices were either spend $100 on stock footage that would look generic, or spend a day trying to make something I owned myself.
The software has a ton of built in basics that you can lean on. Using a combination of assets from the Unreal Marketplace, I built/designed/lit an entire custom space station map. In my head he was playing a FPS/Battle Royale game, so I modeled the world off of Halo 3 to give myself some direction. (In my full head canon, it’s actually a video game based on the sci-fi feature film I’m currently producing, but, more on that later.) I found a cheap “bad guy” model that would work as an enemy. I duplicated them, and gave them some weapons. All stuff I had to learn to do on the fly. Thumbing through tutorials, I found out how to make the bad guys “chase” the player character. UE uses a node based editor to create “blueprints” telling the game what to do. I made a blue print that basically told these 2 enemies to “run towards” the player character. If I had 2 days to work on this I would have programmed some attacks as well, but time limitations is the reason you don’t see the characters do anything more than run.
A lot of the work was tweaking what was already there. Luckily UE has a FPS gun built in that fires balls. I played with textures on the gun/player character to make them match the world I built in the game a little better. Instead of balls I made the projectiles glow and have a particle trail so they fired these green laser beams. While it would have been cool to make them fire standard lasers, I actually found this lazy work around gave the game more personality. Like this gun firing weirdly glittery green lasers was some specialty weapon only known in this game. As for the HUD (heads up display), I honestly just pieced together a bunch of different stock assets from websites to make an overlay that I added in editing, not in the actual game. I then blurred the corners to mimic games like Crysis, and imply the character was intense shoot out situation.
The brilliant Taylor Napier edited the episode and dropped it into the episode seamlessly. Just like that, we had a game for the character to play.
Unreal Engine opens up so many ridiculous possibilities for digital creators. With minimal experience I have been able to do some cool stuff, and this whole process made game development seem approachable. My favorite thing to do right now as a creator is getting lost building worlds there. It’s probably what I’m doing right this second (In case you were curious.)
2. The Bus Set from “SkyHunter Squad”
A film sprint is just gambling that decisions normally made over the course of weeks on a normal filming schedule can actually be made at break neck speeds. So it’s really relieving after you’ve wrapped and still feel proud of the work you did, while recognizing all the corners you cut to get there. You’re often working with what’s immediately available to you, so the thought of building a whole set just 2 hours before filming on it may seem like poor resource management, and you’d be right. On the other hand, if you’re trying to make something that would stand out under any circumstances (not just film sprint circumstances) you’re willing to suffer for it.
Luckily on SkyHunter Squad we had access to this great Greyhound bus that was sitting in disarray. It had been converted to a camper that was used and abused by Firefighters working a county fair, so it already felt “lived in.” We didn’t need the bus to move, we just needed to shoot a handful of scenes in and out of it. Additionally, co-creator Michael Valentine had a bunch of 80s props from a period film he just wrapped.
Somehow, it’s one of those sets that just “came together.” We already knew we wanted to set the film in one of those ambiguous time frames where things from the 80s and 00s co-existed. I dug out my dad’s old DOS LAPTOP from a suitcase in the attic (the large suitcase is exclusively to hold this 40 pound behemoth of a computer). To my surprise, it powered on.
On top of the 80s props and laptop, Michael had a bunch of science equipment that fleshed out Billy’s workstation. We dangled some rigid wires throughout the main area of the bus to imply that “science things were happening.” We knew we were going to be shooting tightly in this space because of the cameras/lenses that were available to us, so we had to jampack as much world building as we could in every frame.
On top of that, we also had a ton of fun with lighting. We did that thing that only happens in movies where a far off room is lit with colored lights, just to give some depth to the world. Patio string lights gave us this warm, soft light that spiked right at the bulb. All of this mixed together for this very retro feel with pops of color in the distance.
It’s really hard to take credit for this set, because it really was a lot of random circumstances that just came together. The bus, the availability of props, and the lighting just working. It was a bunch of happy accidents that just clicked that let us film these scenes quickly. It’s really hard in a film sprint to build atmosphere from the ground up. This is one of those shoots that went so smoothly (while filming, at least) that makes every shoot after deceptively hard to schedule. You think they all will come together this easily and be this great. They won’t.
3. The Desk from “15 Minutes Late”
On my comedy channel “Kickback” I’m working to build my take on a late night TV lineup. We are launching the idea with a show hosted by the very talented Afsheen Misaghi, who graciously let me run a ton of experiments in the production of a show he will be presenting. Before you can do a late night show, you’re going to need a desk.
I love every part of this desk build project. First we hunted for a desk for about a month. Searching everywhere from online, to thrift shops, to considering what we could build from the ground up. I looked at a ton of references and styles from the 60s to today. We didn’t know what our set was going to be when we started production, but the desk, we could control. Thankfully, I stumbled across a cheap desk at Goodwill that already had the workings of a great late night desk from the get go.
Namely, it had personality. First off the “back of the desk” (the front in our case, as it would face the camera) was finished so you couldn’t see his legs. This already gave us a broadcast feel. t’s really awkward when you can see a presenters legs (See: Seth Meyer’s first desk on Late Night). There was also a gap between the bottom and top, making the top a floating slab supported by only these sleek silver bars. The color was generally right. The desk was light as hell, which made it nice considering we would have to travel with it. Lastly, it was $20. C’mon. $20.
There was some work to be done. The top was water damaged, the whole thing was scuffed beyond belief, and while the gap between the bottom and top was a cool feature, it was still just a gap. I understood when buying this that it was a foundational purchase, and we would have to polish this A LOT. Luckily I was working with the most innovative creative I know. My mom.
I’ve been relying on my mom since birth, but when it comes to creative projects I’ve never met a more scrappy problem solver. My job was to pitch ideas and listen to her expertise.
We were going to see the top of the desk more than the rest, so that had to look good. We used rolls of contact paper with a marble print on it to make a faux slab of marble. This took the longest to make convincing. We cut pieces for each angle, and stretched the material carefully to hid any bubble or seam. The pattern covered both the water damage, and the scuffs on the top. And through a camera, looked pretty convincing.
Next, we wanted to add some lighting. One of Afsheen’s design touchstones was Lilly Singh’s desk for “A Little Late with Lilly Singh.” The space age, sleek desk is one of the coolest pieces of the set and has an underglow of purple lights. I decided to take advantage of the gap in the middle to include our glow. We frosted strips of plastic using frosting spray bought right at Walmart. The plastic was actually just cut from an old lampshade box. We were able to slide these in between the silver bars and the top to hold it in place, giving it some great depth from the front of the desk.
For lighting, I installed a strip of LED lights that I could run off of a wireless charger bank. We could make the glow any color, and match it to any set.
Once we got it into the set, it really felt like no other desk on late night TV (in a good way). The mid century modern bones, with a modern glow, and a very flashy white marble top gave the set personality. This project has all the elements I love in a build. Upcycling an older foundation, using dirty little cheats like contact paper to make something look more pricey than it is. Coming up with a way to light it. It’s a perfect mix of circumstance, experience, and scrappiness to make something you’re proud of. And of course, getting time to make something fun with my mom.
That is my hyper small list. These were just 3 things that stuck out to me as the most fun/exciting “micro project” out of any recent project. These are the things that you rarely get to talk about after a project is wrapped, but as I keep track of what’s important to me as a creative, I want to be sure to bookmark all the little things that it takes to make the art I love. I’m sure if I dug back through 15+ years of making films, I can find dozens of small projects just as important. I’m too lazy to do that, so here’s to keeping track of the next 15 years instead.