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I legitimately could not believe we got what was supposed to be a TikTok video into one of the most prestigious festivals in the world for young directors, The Cannes Young Director Awards.
The Journey Begins
This journey began on a languid summer afternoon, amidst my daily grind at a production company, where my creativity was funneled into crafting commercials for corporate overlords. Despite the stable work, the monotony gnawed at my creative spirit, urging a reminder of why I ventured into filmmaking. Unbeknownst to me, the culmination of my filmmaking endeavors was on the verge of intertwining with my friend, roommate, and avant-garde director, Zac Stracener, to birth something truly unexpected.
As the sunlight dimmed in the living room, the drudgery of corporate communication via Slack was momentarily interrupted by Zac’s burst of enthusiasm. Known for his TikTok fame, Zac’s proposition to create a TikTok video was hardly surprising. Yet, his vision transcended the casual; he aspired to craft a meaningful narrative for Mental Health Awareness Month. Contrary to the ephemeral nature of typical TikTok content, Zac’s endeavor required thought, planning, and a departure from the fleeting to the impactful.
Zac wasn’t a conventional TikToker; he was a storyteller, leveraging the platform to explore the depths of human experiences through well-scripted short videos. His proposal intrigued me, igniting a spark to contribute to a narrative that mattered.
Anyway… we began talking. What exactly were we going to make? So as a low-budget filmmaker does, we decided to create a 5 minute science fiction short film. As we all know, science fiction short films almost never require expensive VFX, props, or set design. Actually… we both know that’s a lie. But I like doing hard things and so does Zac so we went with it. We saw something on the news about these extremely dystopian “medical devices” called Sarco. Basically, it was an assisted suicide device… and it just left us feeling uneasy… to say the least. We wanted to present an alternate world where this device was actually used not to end life but to help someone who is clinically depressed understand that life is still worth living.
Our brainstorming sessions delved into various therapeutic modalities, eventually conceptualizing the device as a conduit for psychedelic-assisted therapy, a burgeoning field demonstrating potential in alleviating severe depression. If this interests you, read more on the John Hopkins Medicine website.
With a concept in hand, our initial target was a TikTok-sponsored short film competition at Cannes. However, upon reviewing Zac’s script, the narrative’s potential to resonate far beyond the confines of a vertical video on TikTok was evident. The project transcended a competition entry; it beckoned a genuine short film.
Cole Powell loses his wife and newborn in a fatal car accident, he decides to end his life via Forever Sleep™️. Once it begins, his whole life flashes before him as he relives his most precious and traumatic memories. He is given a choice to terminate the procedure and live or to “sleep” forever.
In pursuit of this vision, I reached out to Eric Ulbrich, a cinematographer whose expertise I had revered over years of collaboration. His enthusiasm matched ours, and with a cinematographer on board, the logistics of locations and props unfolded. Despite hurdles like securing unique filming locations within tight schedules and wrestling with a cumbersome, nearly 390lb prop for the pivotal ‘pod’, our resolve only strengthened.
The narrative of sourcing a pod from a prop house in Glendale, the challenge of its transport, and the juxtaposition of our filming locales from a serene beach in Malibu to a stark warehouse in DTLA, mirrored the dichotomy of our film’s theme – confronting despair with hope.
As our narrative unspooled from a simple TikTok video to a bona fide short film, the essence of why we create was rekindled. The journey reaffirmed that with a compelling story, a fervent team, and the courage to venture beyond the mundane, even a tiny budget could birth a narrative capable of gracing prestigious platforms, and more importantly, resonating with audiences on a profound level.
Everything was going smoothly. We were going to make this thing and it was going to be epic.
To enhance the pod, we added some white electrical tape and random clear tubes to make the screen and the pod a little more interesting…the tape also acted as practical tracking markers for our VFX. It worked perfectly.
We Needed Actors
We really tried to find someone to play the lead but honestly… Zac always acted in his TikTok videos and always killed it. I felt he would be able to accurately portray the real pains of depression and the character of Cole Powel better than anyone we could have hired given the minimal budget.
However, we also had to have someone play the nurse which was given to the amazing actress and friend of ours, Alivia Levie. She crushed the role and perfectly portrayed the caring nurse towards the end of the film.
On a shoestring budget, efficient management is crucial. I turned to StudioBinder, a stellar production management tool ideal for small-scale projects. It streamlined the process of creating call sheets, setting call times, distributing parking diagrams, and detailing the shot list for the day.
After arriving at the beach, we started the morning violating every OSHA rule in the book by carrying this 350lb fiberglass sarcophagus out of the U-Haul truck, down a steep rocky “driveway”, and then across 300 feet of sand.
After that spawn from hell was settled; I donned my sound equipment. Being the producer it made perfect sense for me to also be the sound guy you know? Luckily, I used to run sound on sets professionally so I still had my Lectrosonics gear and Rode Mics. I geared up and headed down to the beach.
With Eric and the 1st AC meticulously setting up the camera, the choice fell on a Red V-Raptor paired with rehoused Canon FD lenses, aiming for a soft, dreamy sci-fi visual palette.
As the cameras rolled, the overcast sky cast a perfect gloom, resonating with the ambiance we aimed to capture. The day progressed without a hitch, a rare but welcomed phenomenon in the world of filmmaking. The harmony between the elements, the crew, and the narrative was palpable, making the shoot an unforgettable experience. Below are some behind-the-scenes captures from that day:
And So We Wrap.
Now begins the long and tedious process of post-production. Having two jobs on the production wasn’t enough. Not only was I the producer and sound guy, but I was also the editor. Post-shoot, my ritual involves poring over the footage, identifying select shots, allowing them to marinate in my thoughts, and formulating an editing blueprint. Inspired by Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life’, I envisioned a narrative woven with serene chaos, celebrating the subtle, beautiful intricacies of life.
Armed with Adobe Premiere Pro, I delved into the editing maze. The journey wasn’t linear; Zac and I navigated through a series of deliberations, especially concerning the ending. “Too obvious.” “Too ex machina.” “It needs ambiguity.” After a myriad of discussions, Zac conceived the ideal conclusion, necessitating a minor pickup shot — a laptop screen captured through his RED Komodo.
Pickup shots extended to capturing eclectic B-roll in Malibu, enriching the flashback scenes. The quest for “old film footage” led us to FilmSupply, who generously offered stunning clips at a concession, elevating our short film’s aesthetics. The essence of the B-roll was palpable, adding layers of visual narrative effortlessly.
After around a month of editing, we finally had a product we were happy with. Generally, both me and Zac are very critical of our work and usually hate it after working on it for a few weeks. When we sat down to watch it though, we both said that this film was “fucking great.” We had ourselves a winner.
Color is everything. If you can’t get a good grade on the footage you are quite literally wasting your film’s potential. I would say the color grade is just as important as the audio mix. Do not neglect it.
There are only a few colorists I know can really elevate a project to another level and for this film, I chose long-time collaborator, Matt Osborne at Company 3 whose expertise in color grading was unparalleled. Matt, too, saw the essence of what we were creating and embarked on this journey with us. Two grading passes later, armed with detailed feedback, we achieved a visual tone that was nothing short of mesmerizing.
The scoring of this project demanded not only excellence but also the authenticity that live instruments bring. We enlisted the remarkable talent of composer Alex Shenkman, tasking him with crafting a score that would echo the emotive resonance found in Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’. Shenkman rose to the occasion splendidly, delivering a score that profoundly accentuated the film’s emotional landscape.
For the sound design, I hired an old college friend, Ryan Baker, who collaborated closely with Zac and myself to meticulously craft sound effects that served as the seamless bridge between the visuals and the score.
We transitioned everything from ProTools into our timeline, and just like that, were we done? Well, not quite.
Remember, this is a science fiction short film. We have to have VFX. I hired our motion artist Gary Schutz and VFX generalist, Sergio Mishchenko. Between them, we were able to craft these incredible-looking HUD elements for the pod. We also cleaned up a few footprints in the sand and removed some blemishes from the warehouse in the final scene. The attention to detail in VFX encapsulated our narrative in a polished, immersive realm.
The journey of this project was nothing short of a rollercoaster. There were instances where doubt crept in, making us question the worth of our story, and the coherence of our plot, and even contemplating shelving the entire endeavor to start anew. Yet, we chose perseverance over surrender. Every problem encountered was met with a solution, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. The gamble of facing failure was deemed better than the guarantee of defeat through quitting. And the payoff, though unexpected, was profound.
I made this for myself during a time when I needed it most. I want this film to be used as a tool for others to share and talk about mental health and suicide prevention. This film may be fiction but the stories it originates from are not. They are real. These issues are real. And they need to be discussed far more often than we do. No more masquerading with mere talk about how mental health matters. Let’s dive head-first into these conversations. Every second counts.Zac Stracener
We recognized the significance of our film, yet its true impact was unveiled only upon its premiere on Beyond The Short, followed by a nomination for a Cannes Young Director Award. The euphoria of such accolades, while surreal, seemed superficial when compared to the ripple effect that followed. Post-premiere, Zac received a heartfelt message on Instagram, revealing how our film, ‘Forever Sleep’, acted as a deterrent to someone’s contemplation of suicide that week. Similar messages trickled in over the days that followed, painting our endeavor in a completely new light. What began as a modest project transcended into a life-affirming narrative far beyond the fleeting fame of a TikTok video.
Most filmmakers harbor the aspiration of crafting stories that resonate, that induce change. Yet, never did we fathom that our narrative would serve as a lifebuoy. The revelation, shared by Zac, still evokes a whirlpool of emotions, affirming that if my filmmaking journey concluded today… I would be satisfied. However, the aspiration doesn’t end here; we yearn to concoct narratives that not only save lives but also instill an appreciation for the beauty of existence.
The creation of this film was a communal effort, a testament to the collective spirit of volunteers and those who generously invested their time. Without them, the film might have remained an abstract idea, its potential impact on lives left unrealized. Reflecting upon this endeavor reinstates the profound notion that filmmaking, even on a shoestring budget, possesses the might to alter life’s narrative.
In retrospect, while the initial intent of this piece was to exemplify how monumental feats can be achieved with minimal resources, the core message transcends that. As filmmakers, we wield the power to not only entertain but to evoke thought, to incite change, to save lives. Amidst the allure and the grind of the filmmaking journey, the essence of storytelling—its potential to orchestrate change—often gets overshadowed. Remember, storytelling lies in its capacity to resonate, to heal, to save. The grandiosity of the budget dwindles in comparison to the magnitude of impact, which can be achieved with a close-knit community of passionate individuals sharing a collective dream.
Please enjoy, “Forever Sleep”