“Anastasia Taxi”: Behind the scenes of telling a story in a very small location

I’ve been a little behind in my blog postings the past few months. Mostly because I’ve been busy with some nicely rewarding commercial projects and also because I’ve reached that time in my life that we all do when my lovely aging parents have begun to require a little more attention. Some of the days are long, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I still have a mom and dad, living their lives they way they wish. Everyone goes through the process of caring for their parents more and more as the years pass. It’s just my turn.

Back in January, I shot a short film, called, “Anastasia Taxi,” with one of my lovely model friends, Anastasia. Like so many of my little short films, it was very well received and I got a lot of, “How did you shoot that?”, questions.  Whenever I find a moment, I like to pull the curtain back and talk about the process.

The story of how the short film “Anastasia Taxi” came to be is a familiar one for me. It usually starts with a little mental sketch of an idea and it evolves as the shoot unfolds, and in this case, the story continued to unfold well into the edit.

One of the great pleasures of having other artists staying here at the studio for extended periods of time, is the hours of discussion that more often than not happen over a few glasses of wine at the end of the day. I had been looking forward to my friend Anastasia’s visit for months. She’s stayed with me many times in the past when her international model travels bring her through Chicago. She’s a wonderful and inspiring studio artist-in-residence and muse.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

We had spent the last few evenings talking about art. What inspired us. How we both came up with the ideas for the art we create. Future concepts for projects we might create together or with others in the future. Discussions like this often lead to me running to my bookshelf and pulling out a large coffee table photo book to illustrate a particular photograph or style we happen to be talking about. There are certainly moments of finding things on the internet, but I really love pulling books off of my shelves and feeling the pages. Nothing like it.

We talked about our world travels. I’ve got a fairly hefty number of stamps on my passport, but Anastasia puts me to shame.

We talked about what it’s like to travel alone to far off places, as we both do in our work. I think for a man, it’s certainly easier. I can strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone in whatever café or restaurant I happen to find myself in. But for a woman as lovely as Anastasia, it’s certainly more challenging to thread the needle of being friendly without a hello being misunderstood as an open door to potentially unwanted attention. Sometimes a hello is just a hello.

And sometimes traveling can be lonely. For me, it’s always head-clearing. But if I don’t go out of my way to make contact with others I encounter on my travels, it can be a bit insulating. Anastasia agreed.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

One evening, as she was heading out for a shoot with another photographer, I told her I’d go along for the taxi ride to make sure she got to her location without any issues. I was meeting a friend of mine for cocktails downtown, fairly close to Ana’s shoot, so escorting her was not even as gallant as it may have seen.

“Hey, do you mind if I bring my camera along for the ride, maybe shoot a little of you on the ride cross-town?”, I asked as we were putting our coats on.

“Of course not!”

Anastasia has a lot of cameras in her face during the course of any day, so I wanted to make sure the half an hour of travel time didn’t turn into work for her when she had a few moments to relax. We jumped into the taxi, gave the address and I pulled my camera out of my bag.

“Okay. So I don’t want this to be anything but you just riding in a taxi. You don’t have to pose or anything. You can just sit there and look out the window and think or close your eyes and relax. Maybe thinking about traveling from city to city, sometimes lonely, sometimes just observing.”

Photographing Anastasia is always a joy. Even just sitting there, she was emoting. I was looking for, what is she thinking about, moments. And she was giving me plenty. Her face became such as story. Sometimes a bit of melancholy, sometimes content at watching the downtown activity she was passing through.

There was almost no light in the back seat of the taxi, the only illumination on her face was from the city lights as we crossed the various bridges and downtown streets during the rush hour traffic. I was shooting with my Canon 5D Mark III and a very fast ƒ1.2L 50mm lens. And between the size of the Mark III’s large sensor which soaks up light like a sponge and the incredibly fast glass of that beautiful lens, I was able to capture the most beautiful light across her face. Very cinematic in quality.

Of course, shooting in such close quarters with very little light required me to hold the camera out away from me in our tiny Prius cab and try to pull focus while looking at the sliver of viewfinder from a very extreme side angle. Shooting in low light at ƒ1.2 means the depth of field, or what’s in focus is about a half an inch. Maybe a centimeter. It makes for beautiful bokeh with the lights in the background, but it was definitely a challenge to keep at least one of her eyes and the side of her face in focus as we bounced around in the taxi.

As is often the case, I didn’t know exactly what we had by the time we arrived at her destination, but it felt like I had captured some nice emotion from her. Very subtle and thoughtful, but something.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

Later that evening when we both returned to my studio, I loaded up the footage to see what I had. As I suspected, there were quite a number of beautiful moments and I began to sort them based on Ana’s variety of emotions. Some thoughtful, some a bit sad perhaps and some happy.

The next thing I look for at the beginning of the editing process is the music track. Music is such a critical part of any film. It helps to guide the viewer in a particular direction, complementing or sometimes even purposefully contradicting the mood of the picture. It’s a powerful ingredient in any film.

I collect music all the time. Sometimes I might be looking for a particular music track for a project and find something that isn’t quite right for what I’m currently working on, but I make a note of it because it moves me in some way and I know it might be useful for another project. I search stock music libraries, the libraries of musician friends, anywhere there might be a piece of music that inspires me. Sometimes the music tracks I find are in the public domain and can be used without acquiring a license, some can be used for non-commercial projects and some have to be licensed through a stock music house. Being an artist myself, I’m very careful about going through proper channels whenever I’m using a piece of music for one of my projects. It’s just good karma.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

Over the years, I have collected a nice selection of music tracks that I like that I keep on my server. Whenever I’m looking for a piece of music, that’s where I start. I try out some pieces that have caught my ear and see how they work in context of the film I’m working on. Sometimes, it’s just magic. The music pushes the story in a wonderful direction, sometimes one that surprises me as I’m working with it.

For my taxi film with Anastasia, I remembered a collection of tracks I had come across from three composers that they had made available for non-commercial use in independent film projects. One piece in particular, “Osha,” was from a project called Atmostra III composed by Cedric Baravaglio, Johnathan M. Ochman and Zdravko Djordjevic.

As soon as I began to play the taxi footage against that music, it all started to come together. Osha was a beautifully haunting track. Sometimes heart tugging and sometimes optimistic. I began to take the various shots of Ana that I had organized into sad, thoughtful and happy and created what seemed to me to be a emotional story arc. No spoken words. No dialog. Simply watching Anastasia’s expressions as she thought in silence.

My first rough cut ended up being around two minutes, which honestly seems a little long for a film from one basic camera position, even with a lovely subject. While shooting, I did try to move the camera a foot in one direction or the other to vary my angle on Anastasia, but again, very confining quarters.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

I called Ana over to my editing workstation have a look.

“I’m not sure what I have here. I’m not going to say anything more. Just tell me what you think.”

I watched her watch it. And I saw a smile begin to creep across her face. When it was done, she turned to me.

“I’m not sure if I really like it because it’s me and you made me look good, or if it’s just a good little film.”

I had a big laugh.

“I feel exactly the same way!”

I worked on it a few more hours, but we both agreed it was something. A little short film, shot, edited and put out into the wild in a few hours. Sometimes I like to create little film pieces like that. Don’t overthink it. What can I create in a short time frame. Just enough to express something quickly.

A still from the short film "Anastasia Taxi"

A still from the short film “Anastasia Taxi”

Often when I’m creating more complex films or still shoots, the process can take months or longer. I’ve learned that sometimes, a little one-off film like this keeps me limber. A finite artful exercise. I’ve got a backlog of personal films in various stages of shooting and editing that always take longer than I like to complete, simply because my commercial projects have been, happily, keeping me with precious little free time to create the side projects that keep my vision fresh.

I think that’s why I like to give myself the occasional assignment to see what I can create in a few hours or a half a day. My inner artist gets frustrated when there are too many unfinished things sitting in my creative waiting room, patiently flipping through months of old magazines on an imaginary coffee table, waiting until their number is called.

I have another short film of Anastasia currently in progress, but that particular one is of the variety of being much more complex, having had a week of prep and shooting, a script and even some visual effects. It currently is in the editing process and I’m quite excited about how it’s coming together, but it definitely needs a bit more time in the creative oven!

More to come!

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