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Interview: How Filmmaker Jessica Sanders Brought a Tiny Person into a Big World

Jourdan Aldredge

Filmmaker Jessica Sanders chats about her short “End of the Line” and some of its amazing practical and digital VFX tricks.

All images via Jessica Sanders.

After making its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “End of the Line,” director Jessica Sanders, made a recent stop at the Marfa Film Festival. Based upon a short story by Aimee Bender, “End of the Line” tells the parable-esque tale of a large, middle-aged man (Brett Gelman) who walks into a pet store and purchases a tiny man (Simon Helberg), whom he keeps in a tiny birdcage.

Like its source material, “End of the Line” is a dark comedy (which also stars Vivian Bang and Kate Micucci) in a very realized and believable look at a very strange version of our world. Sanders, who has worked in narrative, documentary, and commercial features (she was even handpicked by Steve Jobs to direct Apple’s iPad launch campaign) for years shares some insights into how they created the visual looks of End of the Line.

Start with a Scale Test

“There were so many decisions to make to realize the visual effects of creating a tiny man and his tiny world. This started with what scale we wanted our little man to be. We went with 2.5 inches, which is a challenging scale (i.e.: Downsizing had 5-inch people). We felt this was a great size to contrast Little Man with the Big Man but also be able to emotionally connect and see the Little Man. We used the miniature man as our stand-in for lighting and eye-line on the Big Man set.”

If you’re familiar with “End of the Line,” or any of Aimee Bender’s work, magic realism often involves real-world settings with very real consequences. In “End of the Line,” Sanders faced the challenge of creating a narrative based on the dynamics between two characters at an approximately 1:100 scale. Sanders and her team used multiple “stand-ins” for their big world, while keeping records for exact details for when replicating the little world.

Life-Sized Cage Build

“My production designer Justin Trask was my first call about a year and a half prior to production. I had no idea how we would make a tiny man in a cage. Luckily Justin has a lot of visual effects and practical build experience and is one of the most creative people I know. We’ve been collaborators since my first Apple commercial, and we share a fun creative collaborative dialogue. Justin felt it was important to build the entire cage, which was a feat. The cage was constructed with metal then painted to match the wood of the birdcage we found in Chinatown (choosing what cage our Little Man would live in was a big creative choice as well — we looked at many birdcages!).”

Once Sanders found her production designer (and they settled on their birdcage), they developed a practical approach with the work of visual effects supervisor Eva Flodstrom. They both wanted a “tactile, human approach to the visual effects” — similar to Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze‘s approaches, which they used for inspiration. To achieve this, they relied on Trask’s art builds so that Simon Helberg (who plays the Little Man), could actually interact with the cage, and the camera could capture the scope.

DIY Toaster Torture

“This was a very simple art build with a metal background and red LCD light coils to create the look and feeling of being in a toaster. Add some sweat to Little Man’s face, and voilà! Movie magic!”

As with many films at the Marfa Film Festival this year, “End of the Line” begins to turn the looking glass on how we as society are expected to treat one another. A theme in “End of the Line” develops wherein the Big Man becomes increasingly harmful and sadistic to the Little Man, eventually wrapping him in plastic wrap and putting him into a toaster for his own enjoyment. While the film’s tone and prop design remains darkly comedic, your experience as the audience begins to slowly become more rooted in our own world.

Little Man Stunts

“Simon Helberg was game to be tossed around in many ways, including this awesome upside-down stunt. Luckily we only had to do a few takes.”

As the narrative progresses, scenes between the Little Man and the Big Man become more intimate and confrontational. Brett Gelman (best known for his comedic work on shows like Eagleheart and his recent role in Stranger Things), with his large features and big laugh, contrasts perfectly with Simon Helberg’s squirmy stunt work. Helberg, easily recognizable from The Big Bang Theory, shows some amazing acting depth as his despair grows when his treatment becomes more and more inhospitable.

Calculator VFX Plate

“This is my favorite shot in the film and was a feat to achieve. Our creative team had massive, several-hour discussions on how to execute each VFX shot. We created a ‘rule’ that any shot that was wider than a medium shot, we’d shoot Simon on a full green screen stage. For anything closer, he’d be in the cage, and we’d paint in the background plate in post. For this calculator shot, we shot a real calculator in Big Man’s house. Then we shot a pencil punching the keys, which we later had to paint out. Then on the green-screen stage, we filmed Little Man hopping around on a green floor where we marked where his feet would match where the calculator buttons were being punched down. Then in post it took VFX Supervisor Eva Flodstrom six days to hand-paint the Little Man into the shot. It’s a beautiful shot — so much work and collaboration went into it!”

Adapting works of literature to the screen is tough, but Sanders’s use of the text and creative visual effects like the one above builds a fantastical world that deserves much more than its 14 minutes allow. This calculator shot alone demonstrates a level of ingenuity and focus that required all the professional firepower of a Lord of the Rings production to both force perspective while creating cinematic composition. Overall, the story feels much larger than itself, both for its thematics and for its rich visual effects.

“End of the Line” is a collaboration between Refinery29 & TNT’s Award-winning Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series dedicated to supporting the voices of female filmmakers. To find out more about the project, you can check out its website here. And to follow director Jessica Sanders, you can check out her personal website.

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