I've been watching a lot of short films, and there are some that really resonate with me, whether it is the look, feel, camera work, VFX, acting, or just great storytelling. Recently viewing The World Over, this brilliant, award-winning short film hit on all of those things exceptionally well, and I just had to reach out to the writer and director of this film, Heath C. Michaels.
With his long-time interest in storytelling, it was a real treat to talk to Heath C. Michaels about The World Over, his other projects, and get some great insights into the art of filmmaking and what it means to be a director. Be sure to watch the film, The World Over, read the interview, and please comment and share.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in filmmaking?
I'm originally from a very small town in North Carolina. My entire childhood I wanted to either make video games, draw for Marvel -- though I honestly wasn't good enough of a visual artist for that -- or "make movies", which is what I called filmmaking. It dawned on me years later, the general through-line of each of these prospective art forms is storytelling. That's what I wanted to be. A storyteller. Today, I do get to make both video games and films, which is really an amazing thing. I feel very lucky. That's two out of the three things I always wanted to do.
After a tour of duty in the Navy, I enrolled at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Of course, back then it was just North Carolina School of the Arts. It was an amazing experience, and being surrounded by so many diverse artists, it opened my eyes to broader perspectives.
When I started school there in '95, they didn't even have a senior class yet for the film school. It was so new, and while they were building our actual classrooms on campus, we were across the street in an old diaper factory. I met a lot of lifelong friends and colleagues there, some of which I still work with, such as Brian Mandle, an old classmate I've known since he was eighteen. He's D.P.ing my new short film. We're about to start production on it next week. It should be a really awesome film. I can't wait to show it to audiences.
As a director, can you tell us what your job entails?
A Director's job is like being John Wayne's character in John Ford's Stagecoach, if you're familiar with that film. It's a classic. On one side, you have the frontier which embodies chaos and unbridled nature. That's how I feel about the art side of filmmaking. You know, the actors and the stuff you see on screen. On the other side, you have civilization. It represents order and structure. That's like the mechanical side of filmmaking where you have your crew, the camera, the logistics. You need a John Wayne in that scenario who can straddle the two worlds. He doesn't quite fit in entirely in either of those worlds, but he understands how both work. That's what a Director does. He or she straddles the two.
Unfortunately, often the logistical and mechanical side asks too much of Directors in pre-production and on set, and often you spend too much time in that world. Especially on lower budget films. But you must make time to delve into the other side, the art side, the emotional side, and work with your actors and keep the cut in mind.
The only thing that matters, at the end of the day, is what you capture from the time you yell action until you yell cut. That's what you have to work with when you get to the editing process, so it needs a lot of attention. The minutia of day-to-day production can get in the way of that, so you must cut through it and make time for the big picture.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making "The World Over"?
What challenges didn't we face on The World Over? A lot of people have no idea what it takes to make a film. It's very hard work. Sure, you can whip out your iPhone and shoot some stuff with your friend and later edit it together and make something. That's surely one way of doing it. But to construct a coherent story with themes and a vision, that's an entirely different thing. There's all kinds of considerations you never see in the final picture, such as permitting and insurance and egos and whatever else. Those are always the biggest challenges of any film. Getting a film made at all is an art form within itself in a lot of ways.
But specifically regarding The World Over, we had a number of universes we had to shoot and keep track of. Each with its own color palette and thematic tone and characters. It was a lot.
Imagine, you have a character that needs to walk across this portal into another universe and see herself there, right? So we want to take the camera through from her universe, dolly it back through the portal in a continuous shot, and reveal the new universe. Well, how do you do that? You shoot multiple takes of what are known as "plates", which the visual effects guys will composite in the post production phase. And on set, each of those universes you see in a singular shot needs to be dressed between shooting these takes to look like a different universe. That's very time consuming. Not to mention, if you make one mistake on set and forget to do something just right, then your entire cut is ruined.
Now consider that for some of the shots we used a motion control camera rig, or "MoCo", which adds another level of complexity. It basically records your camera movement and plays it back so the camera does the same move exactly the same every time. This is how I got very smooth camera movements for some of the shots which really sold the effects of our characters going through the portal.
How long did filming take?
We filmed for seven days, I believe. Maybe eight. This was back in 2017. That's a very long production schedule for a 17 minute movie. Usually you shoot out five to eight pages a day. Our script was twenty pages, so most producers would budget and schedule for three days of production for that -- maybe four -- but certainly not eight days. To give you an idea, some low budget feature length films are shot in three weeks.
The acting was fantastic, especially the exceptional dramatic performance by Tess Granfield. How was it working with the cast and crew on this film?
Oh, Tess was fantastic. A true pro, too. Funny thing, she came to us by way of our producer. He sent me some stuff she'd acted in, and I was blown away. Our supporting character, Jules, was played by Brett Keating. Also a truly dynamic actor. Both brought something unique to the roles, and vastly different acting techniques.
Directing actors is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking. They can do something very few people can. I can't do what they do. So I'm in awe of what they're capable of, to be in the moment when you have a room full of crew people staring back at you, and there's a camera in your face, a boom mic above you, and you're staring at a blank spot on set and having to react to something that isn't there.
And, of course, you can't make a movie without the crew. There's no job on this planet, in my opinion, where you find people more dedicated and hardworking than in the film industry. These people give up twelve hours of their lives every day so we can create art.
When and how did the idea for "The World Over" come about?
The World Over was actually a different story altogether in its infancy and morphed into what it is now. The original idea was about time travel, believe it or not. It was a fun idea, just didn't have a thematic resonance with me like the final story ultimately had.
The story pivoted drastically when one day I was brushing my teeth and looking at myself in the mirror, and I wondered what the life of my reflection was like. Was his life identical to mine? So forth and so on. That's where story comes from. It starts with the most mundane idea, and soon it transforms into something. From there, the idea starts to gather my own idiosyncrasies and themes, and I start adding the things that make the story enriching to me, and hopefully to the audience at that point.
How closely was the script followed? Were there any notable changes from the original story?
The script was followed very closely. I like to give actors room to breathe and improv when it's appropriate, but for a story like The World Over, there's very little moments where that can exist. Each film has its own tone and cadence, and this one needed to be very fussy and mechanical. I storyboarded everything.
We did have a scene we cut out. It was with our lead character, Cass, and her landlord. Not to give too much away, but it was at the time in the story when Cass is now eight or nine months pregnant and alone in the house. The landlord shows up and basically tells her that because she hasn't paid the rent, he has no choice but to evict her. It was a great scene, and the actors did a great job with the material, but ultimately it slowed the pacing and was unnecessary.
What do you feel worked best in this film? Do you have a particular favorite scene?
I don't know if I have one scene that's my favorite. I really like the first time when Cass crosses the threshold and sees herself. That's a great build up. That scene works very well and builds nicely. I'm very fond of that moment.
What equipment was used to shoot the film, and what software was used for editing and visual effects?
We shot on a Red Epic 5k with Panavision lenses. Apparently, according to my DP, they no longer have the sand in the world to make those lenses anymore, so they're irreplaceable. They're gorgeous lenses. Really made the film look special.
My editor and I used Adobe Premiere to edit, and Davinci Resolve to online the film. I don't know what our VFX team used to make the effects. They're all professionals and won Emmies and all that, so I'm sure it's whatever the industry standard would be. Definitely not After Effects.
What films have inspired and/or influenced you most?
That's a loaded question. Depends. I usually can find something I admire in almost every film. Something I learn. As a kid, it was Star Wars and Spielberg films that inspired me. Then as I got older, I fell in love with Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, which is a brilliant movie, and also Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall for how imaginative and creative it is as this kind of quintessential tone poem.
Now, I'm particularly fond of Kubrick films. To say The Shining influenced The World Over would be an understatement. Kubrick is a very existential filmmaker. The Shining is a very existential film, and effectively plays with those Freudian ideas of the uncanny, meaning things that appear similar yet are unfamiliar at the same time. A kind of mental dissonance. Things like doubling, mirror images, and number sequences and all that.
For instance, the number 42 shows up throughout that film. Even Room 237 is 2 times 3 times 7 equals 42. Those sorts of things work on a subconscious level and make us feel uncomfortable. The World Over is a student of that. We sprinkled imagery throughout of number sequences and doubling things. Literally, the idea of meeting yourself is as plain as you can get with doubling.
You mentioned to me that you had done a lot of work in Flash development from back in 2000 and now you are doing work with Unity. What piqued your interest in Flash, and what were some of the things you did with that?
When I got into Flash, it interested me because I saw it as a way to animate vector graphics. I came into it from a strictly animation minded approach for storytelling. When I was a kid, I used to make rudimentary games in Microsoft BASIC. I mean, incredibly rudimentary stuff. So when I got into Flash, I started investing more and more of my time learning to code. Essentially because the market didn't want animators so much as it wanted coders.
By the end of Flash's heyday, I was extremely proficient, and coded a lot of the old movie sites and games. How to Train Your Dragon, Spider-Man 3, Harry Potter, I even coded DisneyPictures.com at one point. Then Steve Jobs basically killed Flash with the iPhone, and the market dried up. That's the simple version anyway.
I transitioned into app development after that. Both front and back end. You know, Objective C, PHP, Python, MySQL, etc. That stuff is fine, but it's not very creative, so I got to a point where it started overshadowing the creative work I was doing, so I transitioned into making games in Unity and focusing more and more on film. Or writing, rather. Then eventually I made The World Over because my wife told me I needed to stop talking about making a movie and just make one.
Can you tell us a bit about what brought you to using Unity, and what kind of things are you doing with it?
As I said, I wanted to do more creative work outside of databases, server-side programming, and apps. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to make video games when I was a kid, so I never grew out of that. My first game was an indie horror game called D.F.R.: The Light. It's still in early access on Steam. It never got out of early access, because I'm horrible at marketing, so I never made enough money with it to justify putting the hours in. I also released it as a VR game for HTC Vive. It's a fine game. Not much of a story, but if you're looking for a short and fun game to play in a sitting, and only pay a buck or two, you could do a lot worse.
Right now, I'm making a retro racer/shooter game in Unity called Night Jackal
. It's a very silly thing, but some of my finest work programmatically speaking. The entire game is drawn to screen using OpenGL. It's based on those old pseudo-3D racing 80's games like OutRun
, but has a shooting component like SpyHunter
. The story centers around a blood-thirsty superhero with a foul mouth. His wife is killed by the henchman of this sort of Ming the Merciless style villain. It's all very tongue-in-cheek and fun. And it's for mature audiences because there's a lot of bad language. I have no idea where I'm putting this game. Maybe Steam. But that's not until 2020 at this point.
What do you enjoy most about Unity?
The only thing I really like about Unity is that it creates games. That's it. It's a great development environment for that. But, to be honest, I'm a self taught coder, so while sometimes I do enjoy coding, the process sometimes leaves me very frustrated. That's not Unity's fault, that's all on me.
Is there anything you are working on now that you can tell us about?
The Night Jackal
game, for one. Next week we begin production on another short called Reflection
about a character, Alice, whose reflection comes out of a mirror and tries to kill her. Seeing a pattern here from me yet? The trick of it is that the reflection can only move when Alice moves, so that puts Alice in a unique bind. It's a great story. And much shorter than The World Over
. It's going to be less than three minutes, maybe even two minutes. Very situational. There's a lot of stunts and visual effects in this one. And we got the amazing Bianca Bradey (Wyrmwood
) to act in it. We're flying her in from Finland. It's going to be really great. Knock on wood.
What is your proudest achievement thus far?
I'm proud of The World Over
. Back in 2016, I submitted a script to the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, which is the Oscars' screenwriting contest, and placed as a semifinalist. I'm proud of that. I also recently optioned a short script with Fox. These are small achievements by any larger measure in this industry, but they count to me. I'm also proud of myself for making a startup app back in 2013 or 2014 called Hereshot
, which I coded from the ground up. It was a monster feat. It took me eight months to get a working model out the door. But I did it.
Any advice for young filmmakers?
I do, but it's not very practical advice, because usually young filmmakers are working with little to no budget and have to work with the people they can get -- but my best advice is simply to broom people that aren't dedicated. Do not try to force a square peg into a circle hole. Like I said, that's difficult on a smaller production, but it's invaluable advice. If they're not working out in pre-production, they're certainly not going to work out when you're shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches during production. Get rid of them.
And structure all your deal memos, which are film contracts, so you have the final say about screen credit, because they will come back and try to get on the IMDB page and take credit for something they didn't do. This happens. Also, be very mindful of the producers you work with. They're all very different. Some are facilitators, which is totally fine and helpful, but you also want someone that is a creative problem solver and gets things done. If after a month of pre-production your producer has little to show for his or her time, then that's a bad producer and needs to go.
One tiny misstep while making a film, and you could jeopardize the entire thing. This is your baby. This is an incredibly difficult art form to stand out in, so don't risk it by trying to drag everyone across the finish line. They should be pushing you across instead.
What do you believe is key to making a great film?
Your movie is made in pre-production. Do your due diligence and answer every question there. Don't wait until the set. That's one key to a great picture that I learned from Robert Wise, the late and great Director of West Side Story.
Another is remember that the movie is made in the edit. Editing is unique to filmmaking. I read that from an old Silent Movie Era Director from the Soviet Union called V.I. Pudovkin. Back then they were still figuring things out. They didn't have the retrospective knowledge we have today of the art form to go on, which we use as a crutch -- or a kind of shorthand.
Cinematography is photography. Acting is acting, it's not unique to film. Screenwriting is writing. Editing is unique. It's what sets the art form apart. When you're writing or doing your shot list, you should always think about how it should cut. I often see young filmmakers focusing almost exclusively on cinematography or getting cool shots and then editing becomes an afterthought.
There's nothing wrong with having great shots, but that's not what makes a movie. It's how those shots fit together. Filmmaking is a language and editing is how you express that language. Shots are like words in the language. They can be powerful by themselves, sure, but they aren't a complete story until you arrange them.
If you had the opportunity to remake a classic, what would it be?
If it's a classic, I wouldn't dare touch it. Also, I wouldn't presume to be capable of doing something better than what is already done. I do have stories I want to adapt from other sources that currently are not movies, but I'm not going to discuss those. Those are for the right time.
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Nick C Sorbin (Nick Charles) is a former Managing Editor of 9 years for Renderosity's CG Industry News. By day, a mild-mannered Certified Pharmacy Technician working in both home infusion and a hospital ER, contrasting creative outlets as a digital artist, sculptor, musician, singer/songwriter, and Staff Writer for Renderosity Magazine. Read his articles