Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How do I fake a winter wonderland for cheap?

While I'm still building my plan to eventually film The Corner, I am for the moment concentrating my efforts on Guthrie, a short I can film for ultra cheap with two actors in a studio apartment.

I'm contemplating playing the female role myself. She only has like three lines and half of them are from the other side of a closed door and I got a big head from my acting debut so I'm gonna try it.

I have one big problem with the short: It takes place in Oregon during the middle of winter. The guy never leaves the apartment so it doesn't impact the filming that much, but there is a scene where he looks out the window and sees the mountains and the snow-covered street below. There are no people, just empty street and I want his breath to fly out into the scene.

Clearly I do not live in Oregon, but I do live near the Hollywood Hills. And of course it never snows here, but it occasionally does there.

So, effects people, how do I do that? How am I going to fake a guy looking out a window into the quiet winter wonderland for next to no money? If I have to fly to Oregon it kind of defeats the purpose of doing this cheapo short. And no, I can't ditch the location. It's 100% relevant to the plot.

Any ideas?


  1. Will Martell in his blog recommends the use of stock footage to simulate conditions on the cheap.

  2. I'd agree with the stock footage.

    You can also get some of that spray on frost they sell at Christmas time and put in on the outside of a window. Then fog up the inside with some steam.

    You can intercut a shot of your actor wiping off the condensation with a stock shot through a window.

    If you need him to *open* the window and show his breath, you'll actually need an efx guy to answer instead of a spec-writing schlub like me. :)

  3. I'll third the stock footage.

    Depending on how you want him to look out the window, and if you have to have the window in the background of any other shots.

    Basically what you do is a close-up from outside of your actor looking out the window (with that spray on frost around the edges). Then you do a POV shot using the stock footage.

    It's either that or you'd have to use a green screen, and that'd make things REALLY complicated.

    If he doesn't have to look out the window you could just apply the spray on frost over the entire window, although that might not look very realistic if the window is large.

    What you could do is have him on the floor looking up through the window, and thus all he would see is the sky, except for the spray on frost on the outside of the window, and if you're really daring something like potatoe flakes to simulate snow on the window's ledge.

    It's difficult to say without seeing the context -- does he have to see something out the window, or just look out the window, if he has to see something what does he have to see, etc.

  4. A little of the two above plus ...

    Frost the window with the fake snow spray (mostly lower corners)

    Potato flakes for snow on the sill.

    Build a copy of the apartment wall on castors and bring it into a industrial fridge, put blue screen behind wall for outside.

    Put stock footage in place of blue screen on digital.

    If you need it on "film" then rent or borrow a 1k (HD) camera and it transfers direct to 16mm, if you need 35 you'd have to go find a 4k camera like a RED ONE.

    But blue screen can be done on your average PC or MAc for cheap.

    Hell, if you know someone in the Washington Cascades, they expect 10 inches tonight. If they could film / video it, you could get your footage for free.

  5. Shep, the scenario is, I have to show that the entire town is empty, so he looks out the window and sees nobody there and an empty snow-filled street.

  6. I live in Portland and I have access to camera equipment.

    I'm just sayin'...

  7. Anonymous4:17 PM

    "I have to show that the entire town is empty, so he looks out the window and sees nobody there and an empty snow-filled street."

    Well figure it out Emily. Because that visual is awesome.

    Also, find a store that sell the potato flakes BUY 1 GET 1 FREE!

  8. Honestly, unless you know someone who's great at post and/or set design, then all the green screen and MacGyver stuff is going to start to get complicated.

    In addition, not only are you dealing with it looking like a match, but the color and quality of the light will have to match -- so you'll have to be lighting based off of your stock footage, so you'll be giving up control there. And if you're shooting on video and you get film stock footage, that's going to catch attention.

    I'd say your best cheap bet is finding someone with a camera of equal quality who can shoot some actual footage for you. Actual is always superior on the cheap side. But time isn't on your side there. And you'd still have to light based on whatever you got.

    Though the positive of all of this is the old low budget adage: The first give-aways in low budget/beginning filmmaking tend to be the acting and the audio.

    So no matter what route you take, pay attention to those and you have a decent shot at pulling attention from the EXT shot.

  9. Anonymous5:07 PM

    The word "set" comes to mind, as in build a miniature town, snow it up via whatever way is best (using potato flakes as snow, shredded cotton balls, the stuff they use to flock xmas trees, whatever)...shoot the look you want with your actor's cold breath and the window being all frosty, etc, cut to the view of the town, cut back. etc. etc. etc. You could build the town out cardboard or whatever--even use those little xmas towns they sell around the holiday, complete with mountains, etc.

  10. Could you do it with computer animation? Might be a tad complicated, but I'm sure there's plenty of computer graphic students who would do it on the cheap as something they could add to their portfolio.

  11. When are you planning on filming, if you had your way?

  12. Here's my idea, for what it's worth.

    So, you need
    a) the window, with snowy scene visible through it - or at least something that convincingly looks "wintery"
    b) shot of the guy looking out the window
    c) what he sees: empty streets

    OK, as for a) the wintery part is easily done with the fake ice/snow suggestions given above. Add a sheet over the window - imagine seeing a cold, cloudy sky - and illuminate with a "cold" color temperature light. If you really need to see those houses, mountains, trees, etc. through that window, talk to a camera operator or cinematographer (or film school professor) about a little chroma-key or some digital manipulation. I think chroma-key will be easier and cheaper, since it's ancient analog tech by now. If you're shooting to film, you may need to go with blue matte instead - talk to that camera guy/gal.

    b) Guy sticks head out window. Use a cool filter on the camera lens, and the aforementioned fake snow. Shooting on a cloudy day is best, particularly if you manage to get some fog - ideal for that "breath steam" that lends realism. Shoot at dusk or dawn - just as the sun is below the horizon, but still illuminating the sky. It should be a nice bluey-gray through the filter.

    c) Snow-filled empty street. Go to the sleepiest one-horse town you can find in the nearest mountain cold enough to have snow at least part of the year. I'd bet there's something somewhere in your state, maybe even within train/bus distance. Go out and have fun for the evening, then catch the scene in the early morning, before there's any activity in the street. Go without sound - use stock wind or similar, since I doubt you'll catch a completely silent scene devoid of human sound anywhere, even in a tiny town. Catch the footage from the hall window of an inn or hotel, or on top of a rock or a car roof; anywhere that's of the appropriate height off the ground for your man's apartment window.

    Either that, or ask a buddy who lives in snowier climes to shoot that for you.

    Failing that, go with the stock footage. I hate using stock, though - it gets seen in too many low-budget productions, and they all start looking and sounding like they have "fakeness" written all over the screen and pouring out of the speakers.

    I'd almost go 3-D CGI first - which, if shot just a wee bit out of focus, might be another better alternative, though I wouldn't know what the price would be. It should be cheap, since you're talking about one slightly fuzzy still of a sleepy snowy street in the mountains - any kid with Photoshop and a few skills could whip it up pretty fast.

    Hank's "mini-set" idea isn't a bad one, either - particularly for a scene that's devoid of action. But nailing the right tree heights for the focal length and such will take some skill - ask around if you know anyone who's worked with miniatures before. (Maybe the guys at "Robot Chicken" would be willing to talk over the phone with tips.)

  13. Well, if you plan on shooting it soon, you could either do all the ultra complicated things that others are suggesting. Those will take up tons of time, stress you out, and possibly not end up looking that great. Or...

    You could rewrite the script so it doesn't need to be in the snow. I know what you're thinking, and I get it. I haven't read your script, it absolutely needs to be in the snow.

    As written, I'm sure it does. But plenty of scripts have been rewritten for budgetary or location related reasons and they've turned out okay.

    Sometimes a rewrite like this forces you to become more creative, it certainly has with me a few times.

    Going to Oregon may not help. It depends on where you would go, but in many parts of Oregon it really doesn't snow all that much. I lived there for a few years, and we got less snow in those three years combined then we'll get in a typical month of a Utah winter.

  14. No, it doesn't HAVE to be snowing. It has to be a small town near a mountain, but it doesn't have to be snowing.

    But I WANT it to be snowing. It's a better story if it is. So I asked for advice on how to make it snowing because I want to have the best short possible.

  15. If you were waiting until the wintertime, which I assume you would be, I could help you out. I happen to live in a medium sized town right next to a mountain. And we get tons of snow. Are you shooting on film?

    Anyway, let me know if I can help.

  16. Anonymous12:33 PM

    "But I WANT it to be snowing. It's a better story if it is. So I asked for advice on how to make it snowing because I want to have the best short possible."


    I don't know your story...but with the snow, I can already begin to feel it.

    The guy at the window is stuck inside. By choice. Or by snow. Hopefully, there is something going on inside that *involves* us.

  17. Thanks for the offer, Matt. When I go into production I'll remember it.

    A suggestion was also made via email that I ditch the look out the window entirely with the camera and just show HIM looking out the window. If I can't find a way to make the window scene work I might go that route, although I think it's better with the shot.

    Thanks for all the suggestions. There are a ton of good ideas here.

  18. The shot of the mountain and the town is a postproduction thing. Don't worry too much about that.

  19. Hey Em! Finally catching up on months of blog reading here.

    If you haven't figured this out yet, and you're thinking of doing a bit of digital manipulation (e.g. the breath), let me know. I might know some people who could help and would be willing to do it, since it is like one shot or something.


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