As I mentioned in a previous blog, I spend a lot of my time writing and developing content and not a whole lot of time producing it. These days, I’m working on a spec script, a treatment for a literary adaptation, and a scripted mini-series. It’s a lot of time to spend in my head.
So, in the interest of making stuff, I cranked out this little short called VERSORIUM a few weeks ago. It deals with time travel, but ultimately it's about the writing process (I'll explain). In lieu of audio commentary, consider this my tell-all about the process of making the film.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, I encourage you to watch it before reading the rest of the post (it’s about 6 mins long):
The idea for VERSORIUM came to me quickly and there was no formal script, per se -- just a succession of storyboards scrawled on Post-It Notes (because it’s a story about time travel, I did keep detailed notes on continuity).
In the conception of the story, I didn’t spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. Sometimes you have to let instinct drive, in the hope that behind that instinct is a lot of study and experience.
In Safari, I keep a folder of links to helpful writing resources, such as Dictionary.com and RhymeZone. Not long ago I stumbled onto The Online Etymology Dictionary and it’s become something I utilize fairly often. Through poking around on the site, I stumbled onto the Latin word Versorium, which means “turn around.” I thought the word sounded cool and its meaning was a good fit for a circuitous time travel story.
I should mention that I’m indebted to Isaiah Stratton for agreeing to star in the film, and to my friends Brandon Hull, Daniel Whisnant, and Jason Parish for lending a hand on set. No one was paid anything. I spent about $150 total, and that went to buying props and lunch. My alter-ego Daschel Vaughn DP'd and I (the real me) edited. My brother Tyler Michael Smith composed the score.
We shot 90% of the film in my parents’ guest house in Franklin, TN. The final scene was shot a couple days later in my old bedroom in the main house. Then I returned another day for an hour or so to do some pickup shots. All in all, it was probably 12 hours of shooting.
For the sake of breaking down the film, let's imagine that it is divided into 4 Parts. I hesitate to use the term Acts, because I'm thinking more in terms of visual construction than narrative construction.
PART 1 - James Eckels (the protagonist) is writing a fantasy novel, his glasses taped together. He stumbles upon the word Versorium and it seems to mean something to him, but he doesn't know why.
PART 2 - James Googles the word and discovers the Versorium.com website. He clicks a link. Suddenly, he is transported back to several minutes earlier. He remembers something in an old childhood notebook and finds the word Versorium written there. He pulls up the website again and clicks on the next link. This time, he is transported back to the morning. He doesn't seem to remember what happened. As he walks out of the bathroom, he steps on his glasses. He repairs them and starts to write. He is starting over on the novel, but doesn't seem to realize it. He once again stumbles upon the word and the website, is transported back a few minutes and then --
PART 3 - James is transported back to the morning once again, but this time he remembers what happened. Fearing that he will forget if he doesn't act quickly, he rushes out of the bathroom, leaving the glasses behind. He pulls up the website and moves his mouse over the final link. He considers for a moment before clicking it.
PART 4 - We see James as a kid, reading a Ray Bradbury book. He suddenly remembers what has happened and rushes into the bedroom, where he scrawls the word Versorium in a notebook. Then, he seems to lose his bearings and zones out. We see a surveillance camera monitoring him.
We begin with a tight shot of taped-up glasses, showing the reflection of a word processing app (the glasses function as a mirror in the story, constantly showing us inverted reflections of what's happening on the computer screen).
We bought these glasses at the Dollar Store. We had three of them -- one taped, one broken, and one new. So, I spent $3 total on them.
The writer (James Eckels) turns and grabs a handful of M&M's (the M&M's cost more than all 3 pairs of glasses).
We see that James is writing the first chapter of a schlocky fantasy novel called Talons Deep. By the end of Part 1, he will have written the following:
The peak of Mount Eckfara stood like a jagged fang against the blood-red sky as Morgog mounted his dragon and took flight. Bells and goblets jangled on the pagan priest’s pack as he soared into the sky. Somewhere in the distance, across the merciless desert, was the great port city of _____.
The first few shots of the film are all tight -- glasses, fingers on the keyboard, inserts of the document on the screen (some shot in-camera, some created in post). Then, with this wide high-angle shot, we establish the geography of the room:
To capture this, we set up a ridiculously tall ladder that nearly touched the ceiling. There wasn't room for a hi-hat so I balanced the camera on the top of the ladder and stabilized the shot later in post. I shot everything on a Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K EF camera in RAW 3:1 with XEEN lenses and a Pro-Mist filter.
Because Isaiah’s character would be spending the majority of the film seated at the desk, I thought it was important to cover the action from both sides -- but I didn’t want to move the camera around arbitrarily. So, I conceived it like this:
Part 1 is covered from the Left Side of the desk. In Part 2, we swap to the Right Side. Then, for Part 3, we return to the Left Side (Part 4 is kind of its own thing). Not only does this keep the visuals dynamic, but it also conveys a sense of circularity.
These shots were all captured from the Left Side of the desk:
In an attempt to come up with a name for a fictional fantasy city, James starts scribbling ideas on a pad of paper. When he writes the word Versorium, something about it intrigues him.
Because of the pitched ceiling, dramatic low-angle shots like this worked well:
This shot acts as a bridge between Part 1 (Left Side) and Part 2 (Right Side):
The following shots were captured from the Right Side of the desk. Some of these are mirror images of setups we've already seen from the other side. This is intentional, to create a sense of deja-vu:
James scrolls down to a link that appears to have been clicked on before. Has he done this already? This image was created in Photoshop, by the way:
His webcam turns on and he is greeted by a facial identification page. We achieved this shot by capturing a video of Isaiah in Apple's Photo Booth app. The frame and the text were built in Premiere and then played back full screen on the computer display (this is one of the pickup shots I grabbed by myself a few days after we wrapped).
This is the first time the character's name is revealed to us. James seems to be surprised by the fact that the website recognizes him. By the way, Eckels is a character from Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder, which is about (you guessed it) time travel.
He clicks on the first line and immediately jumps back to this moment:
M&M's! And his document has returned to where it was a few minutes ago:
Something jogs his memory and he fetches an old notebook from his childhood, where he finds the word Versorium written down.
The notebook was aged and illustrated by Jason Parish and the word Versorium was written by my son Whitaker, who plays young James Eckels in the film.
James opens his browser and goes to the website again. In the interest of not being sued, I replaced all of the Dock icons with these generic ones:
Oh, and the background image is from an illustrated edition of Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder.
To achieve the reflection of the Facial Scan box and the camera flash in the glasses, we just used the Photo Booth app and sized it accordingly:
This time we get a look at some fine print at the bottom of the site:
LI is the Roman Numeral for 51. So, 51 Base. Base 51. Area 51. Ok, you get it.
I've had this LOST-themed mousepad for years and it seemed like a good fit for the character:
This time he's feeling a little adventurous, so he clicks on the next link:
And suddenly it's morning. He's jumped back several hours this time. And he's not exactly sure how he got here.
The idea is that the further you jump back, the harder it is to remember what happened.
He steps on his glasses, breaking them:
This is one of two tracking shots in the film and was shot on a 5 ft. Kessler Cineslider. Someone was heating up hot water in a kettle and I liked the way the steam looked, so we left it on while we rolled:
Now, having forgotten all about time travel, James heads into the living room to start his work for the day. He pulls on a hoodie as he goes, but if you pay careful attention, it's not the same hoodie. There are minute differences every time he jumps back.
He begins to write, but we see that the text has changed slightly:
By the end of Part 2, he will have written the following:
The peak of Mount Eckfara was black against a blood-red sky as the pagan priest Morgog mounted the dragon and took flight. Bells and goblets of incense jangled on his pack as he soared above the desert wasteland towards the great port city of ______.
This is a slightly streamlined (and arguably better) version of what he wrote the first time around. See, I told you this was about the writing process.
Here, we can definitely see that he's wearing a different hoodie:
When James returns to the morning THIS time, the camera's on the opposite side and we're handheld. He is trying to remember.
He runs into the other room, leaving his glasses behind:
And now we're back on the Left Side of the desk:
And we have our second tracking shot -- a slow push-in on his face as he considers clicking on the page's final link:
Everything goes white. And then we see glimpses of a young boy reading a book -- The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury (A Sound of Thunder is one of the short stories collected in this book).
As I mentioned before, my son Whitaker plays Young James Eckels.
In an insert that I shot at my office (the final piece of footage shot for the film), we see an old security access badge (created by Jason Parish) that presumably belonged to James's father Raymond (a nod to Mr. Bradbury). Raymond Eckels was in the Air Force and I like to think that he worked at Area 51.
Young James rushes into his bedroom and writes Versorium in a notebook -- the same notebook he'll find one day as a grown man.
He loses his bearings and sits. He doesn't remember what just happened.
For this shot, I blasted a 1K through the blinds of the doors in the background. You can see the cable plugged into the wall behind Whitaker. I planned to paint it out, but forgot to. Oh well.
This shot also had some help from Red Giant's Knoll Light Factory EZ:
The final shot in the film is a surveillance camera watching young James. The camera prop was built by Jason Parish, but the internal machinery was added in post.
I wanted VERSORIUM to be somewhat vague, but I tried to build in enough clues for someone to make an educated hypothesis as to what is going on. But at the end of the day, the fun of a story like this is filling in the blanks with ridiculous theories and explanations.
If you've made it this far, thanks for listening. And if you have any more questions about the film, feel free to leave a comment below.