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[GUEST POST] Jeremiah Tolbert Offers A Look Behind The Scenes of ‘The Subterrene War’ (+Tips for the Aspiring Video Producer)

Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer and web designer living in Northern Colorado. He is the founder of Clockpunk Studios, which specializes in the marketing and web needs of authors and publishers-especially in the field of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Interzone, among others.

Hello there, good readers of SF Signal. I’m here to provide a little insight into the behind-the-scenes work that went into the “Subterrene War Clips,” a series of four short video stories my team recently put together based on T.C. McCarthy’s novels, Germline and Exogene.

Let’s start with the finished product, and then I’ll go over the work that went into them.

You can find the rest of the clips on the Subterrene War Clips website.

Now, let’s turn back the clock to this past summer, to Reno, Nevada for the 69th World Science Fiction Convention…

Birth of an Idea

At the convention, I visited a panel on Orbit Books upcoming releases. In the panel, McCarthy gave a short talk about the inspiration for his first novel, Germline. He spoke passionately about hearing his grandfather tell stories about life in World War II, and about how his grandfather seemed changed or impacted by the experience. The image of a war veteran talking about his or her experiences struck me as a powerful one, and it had been used to great effect in a series of advertisements for the Halo 3 video game a few years previously. Would it be possible, I wondered, to create promotional book videos with the same kind of theme?

So many of the book trailers I’d seen featured stock images panning slowly while an author read into a microphone. Not that I am criticizing-you work with the tools that you have. But I thought that perhaps I could improve on the idea, and now I had an idea that could possibly work.

I pitched Orbit’s Marketing and PR director the idea at WorldCon, and after a month or two of discussion, the project was approved based on the general concept and a small budget. We would film four short one minute interviews, thematically linked, and set in the world of T.C. McCarthy’s Germline and Exogene. Our goal: to create in-world documentary segments that would be entertaining on their own, even if you’d never read the first book. A marketing experience, not just an advertisement.

The realization hit me the next day, after Orbit approved things: I had to actually make the videos now, and I had about twelve weeks to do it.

Film Production Planning

I needed a video director/cinematographer, five actors, costuming and fake cigarettes for said actors, a location in which to shoot, and a whole mess of lighting and sound equipment. And I needed four tightly written scripts from which to film.

We lucked into lining up the original author, T.C. McCarthy, as our screenwriter. Levi Thornton, a local friend, had made a niche for himself doing business video, and his style would be a great fit to the project. He happily came on board. Next, we needed actors.

The point of a casting notice is to explain your project in a way that will excite potential actors as well as explain what you’re offering them in return. For auditions, we quickly hit on the idea of just requiring film samples. We figured if we could see what the actors looked like and how they acted on camera for someone else, we could make an informed decision. So, online-based auditions it would be. It saved us a lot of time sitting around waiting for actors to come some place and dance for us.

We posted the casting notice to several local Craigslist boards, as well as sent it to several acting associations in the Denver area. A day went by, and we received a very small handful of auditions. This was my first “Oh god this is never going to work moment.” Had we offered too little? Was our stipulation of an online audition not going to work? We had a week to find our cast, and so far I didn’t have enough actors to even fill the videos. But auditions began to trickle in until we had around a hundred different possibilities before our deadline (quite a few trickled in afterwards as well). I shared the video links they’d sent along with Levi, and we made our decisions. Next, we needed costuming and props.

My wife Sarah has years of costume shop experience for the stage. Based on her instructions, I collected the actor’s measurements. We took what pennies we could spare from the budget to a military surplus store. We scoured the place for pieces we could use and afford. We got out the door for less than $100 with enough bits and pieces to lend at least an air of military authenticity. Unfortunately, everything was too clean and neat, so we spent four days beating the hell out of every article of clothing and rubbing dirt into them. We took brushes and cat-cleaning combs to the costumes, ripping, tearing and distressing them. The point was to make the costumes look lived-in. Ultimately, little of the costumes were visible on-camera, but what showed up looked well-worn, we thought.

Shooting Day

The last piece of the props puzzle was a pack of fake cigarettes that could be smoked like real ones, but wouldn’t kill our actors. After a few dozen calls to tobacco and head shops, we found a shop in Denver near where we would be filming that had them in stock. We would pick them up the day of the shoot, which was now upon us. The entire time we were searching, I was mentally composing an email to the author asking for script rewrites to remove them. I’m glad found the fakes-smoking looks cool and adds drama on camera (but smoking itself is not cool at all, kids).

Our next “this is going to fail” moment was when the time to get started arrived. All the actors were signing their paperwork-releases and tax documentation. But our director was missing!

My phone rang. “This is Levi. I think I’m lost.” Oh boy. After a couple of minutes of trying to figure out where he was and how to get him to the studio, he realized he had a GPS unit in his car. Crisis averted, but we were now more crunched for time.

Once Levi arrived, it was just your run-of-the-mill shoot. Multiple takes, audio checks, hilarious line flubs, and chilling performances. There’s a lot of sitting around, and a lot of actors whispering their lines to themselves. It’s all quite fun to watch at this point if you’re the producer because there’s not much more you can do now. Your project is in the hands of your actors. Before you know it, the director will be saying “that’s a wrap!”

Post-filming, Levi edited the raw footage and performances into four pieces as planned. He did the title cards and music selection as well. Levi is a very talented guy. While he cut the footage, I built a small website to host the videos and act as our online base of operations.

Finally, release day came and we launched the videos to critical acclaim, fame, and fortune. I write you this column from my newly purchased Hollywood mansion. We’ll be working on a big comic book movie next, with a $200 million budget.

…or maybe not. Time will tell how successful they are, but the feedback I’ve heard from many viewers has been “the videos make me want to read the books.” So in that regard, we succeeded wonderfully!

Tips for the Aspiring Video Producer
  1. Take how long you think the video will take to create…and double it, on every single measurement.
  2. Keep your scope limited. Pyrotechnics and special effects are nice, but they’re also expensive. If you can manage something dramatic without them, go for it.
  3. Bring snacks and drinks. We picked up a mix of healthy and unhealthy snacks (fruit and donuts) along with more bottled water than we could possibly drink. By the time the shoot was over, it was nearly all gone. People get hungry making movies.
  4. Pay everyone involved. Even if it’s a small amount, people should be rewarded monetarily for their work. It’s also hard to fire volunteers if something isn’t working-and you get what you pay for. If you don’t know how to shoot a film yourself, hire someone like Levi Thornton Films.
  5. Give everyone proper credit somewhere. People like to see their name up in big pixels. They deserve it.
  6. Stay flexible and roll with the punches. Adapt your vision to the circumstances. And of course…
  7. Have fun!

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Jeremiah Tolbert Offers A Look Behind The Scenes of ‘The Subterrene War’ (+Tips for the Aspiring Video Producer)

  1. Jeremy was nice enough to leave out the fact that I made him wait FOREVER for the scripts. Sorry, Jeremy. This was an amazing process and the videos look fantastic; you and Levi did an incredible job.

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