Umbra is a short film about a boy spirited away by his own shadow. Although the film was made on a budget, student filmmaker Jeannie Psomoulis has managed to create a highly polished and engaging film with some impressive visual effects.
“The inspirations for my films often come at the most odd moments,” Jeannie said. “There was this one time when I looked down at the ground, and I’m not sure what I was doing, but my shadow had its hand raised. And in that moment, I thought to myself, hey, it looks like my shadow is waving at me. That was kind of my ‘light-bulb moment’. After that, it was just a matter of world building. I had to ask myself, okay, if these shadows are alive, where do they exist? Humans might think of them as inanimate dark shapes, but what do they think of us? What are their ambitions and goals? What would it be like living as a shadow? It was this cascade of questioning that ultimately resulted in Umbra.”
During the development of her film, Jeannie found ways to keep the film achievable and without compromising on her vision. She kept the number of characters in the film to a minimum and cast her younger brother, who had already acted in some of her earlier films, as the protagonist Peter Pennyworth.
During pre-production, Jeannie meticulously storyboarded her entire film. “My film didn’t have much dialogue, so visual storyboarding was probably the biggest part of pre-production for me,” she said. “I had around 200 shots in my film, and every one of them had to be thought out and planned. This took a long time for me, because it didn’t just involve thinking out character action – but also the way the camera needed to be positioned and moved, and what kinds of lighting and effects would need to be applied. I’m not sure how other people go about storyboarding, but for me, I literally had to watch each scene in my head before I could put it on paper. I guess in a way it was fun attending your own mental-cinema, but it also required a fair bit of concentration!”
The success and polish of Jeannie’s film can largely be attributed to her preparation and organisation. When she was developing her idea, she knew her locations and had blocked out scenes carefully. “Make sure you plan out what you’re going to film before you actually get to the filming location,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than turning up to the spot, and then having to sift through your entire storyboard to find all the scenes that take place in that particular location!”
Jeannie recognised the importance of capturing good audio during principal photography. During the production of her Year 11 film, she learned an important lesson about ensuring your equipment is working correctly. “I forgot to double-check my microphone, and didn’t realize that the cord was faulty,” she said. “So I ended up filming two days’ worth of footage, only to discover that all of the dialogue was incredibly grainy, and almost unusable.”
When it comes to obtaining music for a short film, Jeannie urges filmmakers to see what they can obtain from public domain and Creative Commons sites. Many of the sound effects in her film were obtained from www.freesound.org. The impressive voiceover that bookends the film cost a mere $5 through www.fiver.com.
Jeannie urges student filmmakers to wrap principal photography early to ensure that their meet deadliness. “It also means that if something happens to go wrong, you’ll have enough time to find a workaround,” she said.
“If you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for music licenses, try checking out songs in the public domain. If you’re willing to put in a little bit of time to search, there’s no limit to the number of great songs you can find. Incompetech.com is probably the easiest source to use, but I got most of my music from www.jamendo.com and www.ccmixer.org.”
The post-production of Umbra was probably one of the most demanding stages. “Every shot had some kind of effect applied, whether it was just color correction, or lens flares or animated shadows,” said Jeannie. Even though she spent a lot of time using Adobe After Effects, some of the effects she created were surprisingly low-fi. “To make the autonomous shadow, I put my little brother on a treadmill and set up a green-screen behind him,” she said. “Adobe After Effects was then used to add in the effects, and Premiere was used to edit the footage together.”
Thanks to her meticulous panning, the only problem Jeannie encountered during the production was the weather. “Most of the movie had to be filmed at night, in the middle of winter,” she said. “It was frosty, and often raining. So while we were out standing in the cold, I had my little brother running around in nothing more than his pajamas and slippers. I can’t say I was the most popular person in the family at that time!”
Jeannie encourages student filmmakers to create something that they are passionate about. “Make a film you would want to watch,” she said. “If you love fantasies, make something fantastical. If you love music, make something musical. If you make a film about something you love, that excitement and passion will carry you through the tough times.”
“Also, work to imitate the techniques of the filmmakers you admire. I’m not saying to flat-out copy their films, but pay particular attention to the elements that make up their particular style – after all, there has to be a reason they’re so successful! For example, I love the cinematography of Zack Snyder. His work is characterised by dramatic use of slow motion, high contrast and sparkling effects. In making Umbra, I attempted to emulate some of these components. As the saying goes, ‘fake it till you make it!’ – Imitate the best until you become the best!”