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Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW

Jourdan Aldredge

Learn some innovative and practical production tips and tricks from the talented filmmakers from SXSW.

All images via the filmmakers featured and SXSW Film.

South by Southwest (SXSW) has grown over the years from a small music festival in Austin, Texas to a world-renowned music, film, and technology conference for digital creatives, start-up innovators, and artists. Despite its growth, the filmmakers of SXSW are still innovating just as much as their entrepreneurial brethren.

Here are seven films whose filmmakers had to find creative solutions to tough production problems that you may or may not have encountered.

Upside Down Dolly in THE COLLECTION

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Upside-down Dolly

In the documentary shorts competition, filmmaker Adam Roffman and cinematographer Nathaniel Hansen rigged up an upside-down dolly to shoot cinematic tracking shots over the letterpress blocks that their documentary THE COLLECTION covers.

What I was looking for was a tracking shot of these printing blocks that would go for 6-8 feet, keep the shot contained to these blocks, and be one smooth, long shot. So my cinematographer, Nathaniel Hansen, suggested that we rent some stands, a dolly track, and rig the camera so that it would be suspended from an elevated track and the camera would look straight down on the blocks. It worked like a charm.

Shot in Omaha, Nebraska, the documentary tells the story of two friends who stumbled upon a collection of over 60,000 original letterpress blocks and plates used to create movie advertisements in newspapers from the 1920s to the 1980s. You can view their film’s poster, which they made with the letterpress blocks in the film.

For the film’s official SXSW pageclick here.

DIY Camcorder Digital Glitches in foundfootagexx100n.s.1

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Digital Glitches

Always a fan favorite, the Midnight Shorts competition at SXSW is well-known for its experimental and abstract films. Tony Grayson’s classic footage-found-by-aliens short is a great lesson in DIY glitch hacking for authenticity and erratic results.

We shot on a Sony Handycam CCD-TRV29 8mm Camcorder. The handycam was my roommate’s family camera — it’s quite beaten up. We captured the footage onto my laptop using a Canopus advc110 for the analog to digital conversion. As we uploaded it, we’d hit the side of the camera and it would glitch the image. We’d also live-rewind the footage in the camera while uploading so it would have the rewind effect.

Here’s some behind-the-scenes photos of the process here and here. You can check out Grayson’s work at the S—hole in Chicago Improv or follow the film on its SXSW page here.

Shooting Using Only Practical Lighting in Forever Now

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Practical Lighting

Celebrated Danish filmmaker Kristian Håskjold and DoP Christian Laursen had two hard-and-fast rules for filming their short film Forever Now. Rule one was to light the film entirely with available and practical lights. Rule Two was to let the actors roam freely around the set as they improvised the film’s dialogue.

We shot entirely handheld to be able to move with the improvised action. The main part of the film taking place in the apartment is shot on Arri Amira recorded internally in Prores 4444 2K. For the improvised parts we shot with an Angénieux Optimo 28-76mm T2.6 to be able to change focal length during a scene so we had the options we needed in the edit.

Since the film explores a couple struggling to find peace and identity in a break up, Håskjold’s own personal recordings of a past breakup were a central element of developing the space for the actors. You can find out more about the film on its SXSW page here.

Making a Mask of an Actor’s Face in Tesla Boy’s “Circles”

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Face Mask

Los Angeles-based filmmaker and music video director Ryan Patrick just wanted to tell a simple story about a guy that really wants some chicken. It just so happens that the guy has a major case of split personality disorder and needed his face ripped off. Patrick talked about the breakdown, pictured above.

To make our actor look a little rough around the edges, we had to make a cast of his entire face. See this video for that process. From there our makeup artist, Eric Fox, then makes a replica bust of the actor’s head from which he can hand sculpt the prosthetics. The result is makeup that fits the actor’s face perfectly.

You can view the full music video online below — before (and after) being featured in SXSW’s Music Video Showcase. You can also check out Ryan Patrick’s other music videos (including the prequel to Circles) on his Vimeo page.

Production Scheduling to Film Magic Hour in The Mess He Made

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Production Scheduling

The Mess He Made, which chronicles an anxiety-stricken fifteen minutes in a young man’s life as he waits for results of a rapid HIV test in a small-town strip mall, was an audacious film by writer and director Matthew Puccini and producer Tyler Rabinowitz that required a lot of scheduling and coordination to pull off.

The film takes place over 15 minutes, from sunset to dusk, so we had to schedule our shoot very carefully to make sure that all of our exteriors matched and felt continuous. We’d block, rehearse, get focus marks, etc. during the afternoons and then film as many consecutive takes as we could during “blue hour” each evening.

As you can see in screen grab below, the results of “blue hour” filming are well-worth the coordination to give your story that extra level of sophistication and detail. You can watch the trailer and find out more about the film on its SXSW page.

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Blue Hour

Animating Hand Drawn Images with Adobe Animate

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Animate

My film Wednesday with Goddard is an animated short film, and it was animated using Adobe Animate and Adobe Photoshop using Photoshop’s timeline. The backgrounds were hand-drawn on paper. It was then put together in After Effects.

Nicolas Ménard’s animated short film is a great example of the powerful digital workflow between Animate, Photoshop, and After Effects. The film, which tells the surreal story of a man’s search for God, turns elegant pencil drawings into beautiful 2D animation (which you can see an example of here). You can find out more on its SXSW page.

Backpack Weights and Crane Shots in Mission Control

Innovative Production Tips from the Filmmakers of SXSW — Backpack Weights

Mission Control, directed by David Fairhead, is a documentary feature that tells the story of the NASA scientists who navigated the moon landings. The filmmakers had a small window of time to film in the actual Mission Control room from the Apollo missions in Houston, Texas, with only a portable jib and a slider.

We used an Edelkrone slider to achieve our tracking shots and a Jimmy Jib for the crane shots in Mission Control. I wanted the slider shots to give our GVs a more cinematic look, and the crane to give some drama to the controllers coming into the old Apollo Mission Control room.

Gravitas Ventures secured the film’s worldwide rights, and it will arrive in select theaters across the U.S. and VOD on April 14. You can watch the trailer and find out more on its SXSW page.


Have some innovative production tips or tricks you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.