By Reuben Guberek
One of the craziest things about filmmaking is the leap of faith you take when starting a project without knowing yet how you’re going to solve all the challenges. It’s both thrilling and nerve wracking to commit yourself to an ambitious production, crowdfund the money, and then know there’s no going back.
On The Flower of Battle short film, my brother Gedaly and I did just that–—taking on the ambitious goal of bringing a storybook world to life: a swashbuckling, period sword fight comedy in the vein of The Princess Bride.
Like any film that transports the audience to another time and place, the world needs to be intentionally crafted—every costume, prop, and location vetted. It’s why so many productions shy away from period, sci-fi, and fantasy. But as lovers of genre, we know how rewarding it can be to pull it off. So we went for it, and here’s what we learned.
- De-Modernizing a Location
In order to create a world that exists far away or long ago, one needs to film in such a way as to frame out the modern and the mundane. The Flower of Battle takes place in “in a far off made-up kingdom known as Italy,” for which we decided to set as much of it as possible in the countryside where there would be no buildings that we would need to rent, dress, or build.
For the countryside, we chose Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve near Calabasas to get sprawling grassy hills like we’d find in Europe. For most of the year, the area is dry and the grass yellow, so we filmed in late March during the greenest time of year that would look the least like dry Southern California.
With the countryside location taken care of, there was still the matter of finding a location for our opening sword fight scene in a “palace courtyard.” In Europe, palaces and castles are a dime a dozen, but there’s not much of a selection in Southern California.
We found a promising lead, however, at the fountain courtyard of King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas but the problem was the walls were full of modern glass windows. We had to figure out how to cover them up, in a cheap, non-destructive way that we could set up and tear down in minutes. The solution came when we realized we could simply brace both sides of the window with a common tension shower curtain rod and hang the curtains from there. It worked wonderfully.
As for removing all the other modern trappings, simple techniques sufficed—framing things out, covering up signage with some tape that matched the white walls, and simple VFX to mask electrical outlets from sight as well.
The last location we needed was a distant city vista of an old Renaissance-era town. We knew VFX would be the least expensive solution, but we had no idea where we’d find a good digital asset for the town. There are 3D model marketplaces online like CGTrader and Turbosquid where you can find models of just about anything, but in the end we found the best asset in the unlikeliest of places— in an 1803 painting, The French Pass the River Po at Piacenza, by Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti. Old enough to be in the public domain, we went ahead and lifted the cityscape from the painting and placed it in our shot. We think it looked pretty good, and fit the “old-timey matte-painting” flavor we were going for.
- Period Costumes
Great costumes are key to selling the authenticity of a storybook world. To help craft our swashbuckling world of royalty, rogues, and adventurers, our costume designer Charly Charney Cohen brought to our attention incredible resources for period and fantasy clothing including Medieval Collectibles, Etsy, and costume houses in LA. To my surprise, buying was often more economical than renting, because rentals come with dry cleaning costs and can’t be altered.
Alteration alone is a great reason to invest in a good costume designer. Ours was able to add trim to capes, hats, and many more customizations that gave the costumes a unique look.
Sometimes simple camera tricks can stretch the costume budget too. On The Flower of Battle, we had a scene with nine guards in uniform but only had the budget for three. So we did a simple effect of splicing three separate takes of the guard trio on the same camera setup to give the illusion of nine people in frame.
- Handcrafting Props Using Projector Tracing
What happens when you need props with precise, intricate drawing? The Flower of Battle required several. To our surprise, we learned how useful a projector can be for complex tracing jobs.
We took a Kodak mini projector, mounted it to a tripod, and titled it straight down at our work surface to project the digital image we wanted to trace. This technique is how we pulling off two important props that we’d otherwise have been unable to draw—a map of Italy and the film’s title page in a book.
These are just a few examples of solutions to common filmmaking problems we encountered during the production of The Flower of Battle.
While filmmaking inevitably comes with a daunting number of challenges, you don’t always need to have experience in every area or the solution already worked out when you go in. That’s what pre-production is for! So just give yourself enough time in pre-production to troubleshoot. Even if you don’t know the answers now, take a leap of faith and trust your future self to figure it out. You’ll be able to build worlds!
You can learn more about The Flower of Battle here.