My experience with CMF (Campus Movie Festival) goes back to roughly a year ago when I participated in a short film called Jet Privado. Where, even though I came on at last minute, I was given the awesome opportunity to provide the score. And even though it was a wonderful experience, I felt that it was time to try and produce my own content, in which I had a hand in making the film itself and was not limited to musical composition alone. So, my friend and colleague Matthew Thrasher and I began the brainstorming process almost three months in advance.
You might ask why we started so early, and surely if the other contestants knew this they would laugh at the apparent over-abundance of effort involved in the submission.
(I mean after all CMF is about having fun with film, not obsessing over all the small details!) Well that is because this film could not be just ‘any film.’ It had to be the best that we were capable of. We wanted to do something unique in concordance with our youthful ideas of what our standards for filmmaking were.
Now, anyone who writes fiction can tell you that the most difficult part of writing is realizing not just a world, but characters and conflicts that grip both the audience and the author in a relatively small amount of time. And when each page counts as a minute of screen time that puts limits on what you are allowed and not allowed to do with a story. This problem is amplified one hundred fold when you have to conform to the structure of a short film. Which takes, what for a feature film would be ninety plus pages of space (i.e. 90 minutes of screen time), and condenses it to windows of time as small as five.
That was the case for our submission to the Campus Movie Festival, 2016.
Over the three months of planning and plotting I penned seven scripts, each of which we vowed to shoot. Yet, every time we though that we had something of value to bring to the screen our ‘youthful filmmaking standards’ got in the way.
At one point we wanted something that was the antithesis of the films that we had been witness to the year before. However, only days later we thought it would be more beneficial to play on the traditional three-act structure that the audience would be familiar with. Then not even a week later we might have decided that a film, that needed to be less than five minutes total (not a frame more), would suffer from something so stiff as a three-act narrative.
This was an adventure that led the two of us down the slippery slope of, “how to please the audience.” When, in reality, the audience most likely would not even be aware that we were trying to please them in the first place! And oddly enough, even armed with the knowledge that this was the most likely case, we still could not figure out what to do with the film and we had only a month (if a month!) to come up with a solution that we felt was satisfying!
The result was a script that essentially compiled everything that I had written previously into only four minutes and thirty seconds. A feat that was as impressive as it was unbelievable and all that we had left to do was film, edit, and score the film. (In other words, all of the most important and time consuming parts).
For the score I enlisted the skills of a fellow student and colleague, Alex Rhodes. About a month before the presence of the finalized script Alex and I met to discuss the nature of the film’s musical atmosphere. Ultimately, we settled on a modern noir that substituted sullen trumpets for rhythmic synthesizers and large jazz-based ensembles for soft pads and simple harmonies.
In fact, I requested that not a single part of the score be performed by any organic instrument. I did though ask him for a melody that would exemplify the protagonist’s state of mind.
So, while we waited for the competition to start, Alex went to work creating the perfect sound for the imperfect world of a film that would be known as, White Room. Alex never got to see a cut of the film though, because we only had four days to film and edit the film to completion. All he got was a string of unfinished dialogue sound bites as a basis for his ever-growing composition. It was only after the film was uploaded by CMF to YouTube that Alex even saw the finished project.
Which brings me to the most important part of this part of the story: Despite not having seen the film, and the film’s dialogue having been reorganized before the final edit. Alex’s composition fit so perfectly that it was both astonishing and concerning how close he came to matching the final cut of White Room never having seen it himself. (My personal favorite moment is the spike in music when Matt places his head on the wall, claiming that he could hear the literal writing on the wall speaking to him. None of that was coordinated, it just happened that way. He might as well have read my mind!)
The filming and the editing of White Room happened, as I have mentioned before, over roughly four days. CMF is a competition that takes place in one week, starting on the day that you get the equipment, however, being students, Matt and I had to wait for the weekend. That gave us Friday, Saturday and Sunday to film on and around campus. Leaving Monday to be the only day that we had to edit it all together.
Almost seventy percent of the film was shot in our apartment in a corner, where we tried to capture probably the most difficult part of the film to capture, the white room. We did not have access to anywhere at the University of Arizona that fit the description of the room from the script. We also did not have the time to rewrite these scenes into something more palatable and easy to create. Presenting us with the opportunity to be as creative as possible in an attempt to film the dimensions of a whole room from the vantage point of a single corner. On top of the physical difficulties of dealing with the white room, Matt and I struggled with maintaining the lighting and angles of the cameras.
Whether it was Jose Toro’s aptitude as a cameraman, or his seemingly natural intuition, which helped him keep up with the constantly shifting environment that Matt and I had created during filming. It is without a doubt that I say that the white room itself would be impossible without him. A friend of Matt’s before the filming of White Room, I met him just a day before shooting began.
The three of us were filming a separate submission to CMF, for a mutual friend of ours where we played extremely exaggerated caricatures in a soap opera. It was a great icebreaker for the two of us considering that we soon ended up filming for eight plus hours together none stop the very next night.
(That was before we took a break to go see Doctor Strange, which is a completely professional thing to do. Right?) Anyway, thank you Jose for your decision to abandon your Friday night plans and deal with Matt and I through the whole night! You are the real MVP.
Lucky for us we made it! Only two hours out from the submission deadline, Matt and I had finally put the damned thing together. Both of us getting about ten hours of editing under our belts by the time it was over. I never understood how important every branch of a film crew was until I ended up splitting the job of thirty people between two. I WILL NEVER UNDER ESTIMATE the EFFORT that EDITORS, DIRECTORS, ACTORS, WRITERS, ET CETERA put into producing their art EVER AGAIN. I will also most likely never edit anything again. Though that realization is less important than the fact that in the end, I learned my lesson and my views of filmmaking were put into perspective. Feel free to watch, White Room here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rTIYj_jbL4)
Likewise, if you are a film score enthusiast I encourage you to take a look at the score for White Room at http://www.alexrhodescompositions.com (Theme from White Room, Strange Curiosities)!
Making, White Room, was an incredibly difficult job, but it was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. I think that I can speak for everyone involved, this turned out better than we could have ever imagined. And because of that, it is so important to thank everyone involved once more:
Director: Matthew Thrasher
Camera Man: Jose Toro
Composer: Alex Rhodes
Writer: Jaime Bennington
And Emily Hansen for giving acting a shot and being patient with Matt and I, you were great!