So since we finished the festival version of Carrot Cake Soup last week (there’s another cut coming with an additional scene, revised credits, minor sound lag fixes, and possibly an updated score) I figured that it’d be a good time to discuss what I thought went well and what didn’t. Hopefully this’ll be interesting for somebody!
I suppose the first thing would be to mention how we decided to make this. We’ve big fans of Penny Arcade for a good number of years now and for the past year Max had wanted to make a short film based on a short story by the webcomic’s writer. Once we heard that the University of Minnesota had its own student film festival we decided that we should adapt the story for it and see what happens. By coincidence one of the classes we’re taking now also requires us to make some kind of film and the deadline was virtually the same (End of March), so we were able to kill two birds with one stone. After we got enthusiastic permission from Robert Khoo, Penny Arcade’s Business Manager, we immediately started working on the script.
We knew that we wanted to keep as much of the writing as possible because of how unique it was and because it was the reason we wanted to make the film in the first place. Narration seemed like the obvious choice, but we were both hesitant because oftentimes narration makes the audience feel like they’re being walked through the story instead of experiencing it. We did do a pass on the script where the characters were speaking a lot of the lines that were in the narration, but it didn’t feel right at all. Ultimately we decided on narration with some spoken dialog because then we got to keep the voice of the short story without making it feel like a filmed version of an author reading his/her work.
Casting is always an interesting process for us. With a lot of our films we tend to cast people who we know and usually they aren’t actors. This isn’t to say that we don’t like working with actors, we just don’t know too many and for now it’s easier to work with people we know (especially if we’re on a time-crunch like we were on this film). For Tycho (main character) we decided pretty early on that we wanted John to play him because we thought that he could do sarcasm and exaggerated seriousness well. We had only met him once before when we were helping a friend shoot a film at John’s apartment, but we had hit it off decently enough. The fact that he wasn’t an actor didn’t concern us and luckily he said yes when we contacted him. We had no idea who to cast for Gabe so we asked a friend who’s a theatre major in our Narrative Digital Video class if he knew anybody who’d be interested. We told him that we just wanted somebody who was 20 or 21 and could act eccentric. A day or two later he came back and suggested Kalen, who sounded good to us so we took him in. Casting Horace was surprisingly hard. Guys would keep dropping out once we cast them and I think we went through three or four before one settled, but that didn’t even last. The night we were shooting the grocery store scene, the guy playing Horace couldn’t make it so luckily John had brought a drunk friend along who we coaxed into playing the part.
For Locations we knew that finding a grocery store that we could use would be the hardest part. For the longest time Max wanted to go to a real (i.e. big) store whereas I wanted to film at the small one near us because I thought that the owner there would actually let us film in it. So I went there and asked the girl behind the counter (Rachael, who acts as the cashier) if we could. She said yes and that debate settled. The other big location was Tycho and Gabe’s apartment, but it was decided early on to use John’s place and that worked out well.
Probably the best thing that we did on the shoot was storyboard all of the shots. Max took the first half of the script to storyboard and I took the second half, and we stuck pretty closely to them. All of the shots in the grocery store except for one came from my storyboards as well as all of the ones from the last scene. Since a lot of the time we were dealing with people who could only work for at most a few hours, this was fantastic because we could film scenes pretty quickly while allowing room for new ideas. This didn’t work all of the time, such as when I told Rachael that we’d probably film in the store for 45 min (turned out to be 1 hr 45 min WHOOPS), but overall it was a good plan.
One of the potential problems/issues that some people have brought up is the bit with the boxing semi made out of lightning. Some people feel that the art doesn’t gel with the overall film and that it brings them out of the entire thing. Others feel that it works because we see Gabe reading a comic in the beginning so that it’s a reflection of that. Honestly the reason why we have the art there is because we wanted to have a little shout-out to the Penny Arcade community (Rob Cham, the artist, posts in the PA forums) and because we didn’t think that a couple of photo-shopped images would work as well. Maybe if they were really well done, but we didn’t know anybody who’d be that good and we also didn’t have enough time to wait. We considered taking out the pictures entirely, but we didn’t think that shots of Tycho and Gabe lying on the floor worked as well. I understand people’s issues with the art, but I believe that since it goes by so quickly it isn’t that big of problem.
Another issue that nobody has really brought up, but that I think will be is the gag with Tycho hating Gabe so much that he bleeds for a second. Now this wasn’t in the initial script. In fact we had already shot the original scene and were editing it when I realized that we needed some kind of transition to get Tycho and Gabe to the car. Originally we just cut from the grocery store montage to them in the car, but that didn’t work since the scene before that had Gabe not wanting to go. Since we needed something to change Gabe’s mind, I thought that we could just film Tycho grabbing Gabe off of the chair. It was short and fit both of the characters. However as were editing, I remembered a certain PA comic (click to biggen):
I thought, “Oh man, this works just as well and we get to throw in another nod to the comic.” We shot the scene later that week, and then re-shot it because red marker doesn’t look as good as fake blood. Looking at it now though I feel that it may break the reality of the film. It might not considering how offbeat the film is already, but if I could make this film again I’d try to think of another way to get them to the car.
This post is getting bigger than I expected so I’ll just go quickly through the other things that I think we could’ve done better: Used the tripod more often. For a bunch of the scenes in the apartment we couldn’t use the tripod we had gotten from the university because the docking head didn’t screw in properly with our camera. The shots turned out ok, but I get annoyed every time I see the shakiness in the second shot (not the first, that works b/c it’s from Tycho’s POV).
We could’ve also used a real dolly for the “It hits us” shots. They were all rented the week we were shooting so we resorted to using John’s living room table which worked remarkably well. Again, the shakiness isn’t terrible for the two shots, but I think it would’ve been a tiny bit better if we had the smoothness of a dolly.
I wish that our camera (Panasonic HVX200) could shoot more than 60 fps because then we would’ve been able to pull off the slow-motion shot of the carrot cake cubes falling against the black background that we wanted to do so badly for the first carrot cake appearance. We really wanted to give off a food-porn vibe with those shots, but when we shot the falling cubes at 60 fps it just looked terrible so we didn’t include any of it. The voice-over for that scene is pretty quick though so I guess we wouldn’t really have any room for more shots.
We had to cut out a great scene from the original story of Tycho getting so worried in the grocery store that one of his fingers starts tapping in Morse code “I AM ABOUT TO COMMIT A SIN AGAINST GOD AND MAN STOP”. When we showed it to people they felt that it didn’t work because it appeared without any real set-up, which we agreed with. We put it in as voice-over, but I still think we could’ve pulled off the Morse code if we had built up their fear of getting caught a bit more.
Why didn’t we have Gabe wear some yellow and Tycho some blue. God that would’ve been so easy too.
That’s pretty much it! For the speed in which we made the film I thought the acting was very good, though we definitely need to work more on directing actors in general. I think that the music gels well, except for the small bit of repetitiveness with the drums in the beginning, but our composer wants to keep working on the film so that’ll get fixed. I thought that we did a great job with the cinematography (YES WE FINALLY GOT TO DO THAT SPIKE LEE SHOT) and with pre-production in general. Overall, I’m very happy with our film!
Ultimately though we hope that Khoo, Mike, and Jerry like this it because we couldn’t have made it without them. It’s not 100% faithful to the original story, but it honors enough of it that (hopefully) it works well as a film.