Back in February of this year (2018) I announced that on Valentine’s Day February 14th I was going to release a short film called ‘CASSIE’. It had nothing to do with love, in fact, it was a sci-fi short film that was Ex-Machina meets Black Mirror. Long story short it took me forever to complete and I had to postpone the film. Six months later on September 30th, it was released and in two days it got to 2.5k views. That was a lot for me because there was barely any proper promotion for it.
Coming up with the Idea
I remember getting the idea after watching an amazon echo video. I thought back to a time I had visited a friends house and he had connected everything in his house to this device. He didn’t have just one, he had multiple. He was locking doors and playing music, in my head I thought about how all of that could go south really fast.
That was the inspiration for the short. What if one of these devices decided,
“Hey, fuck you, owner! I do what I want!” like every other sci-fi movie. The name Cassie kept coming to me in my sleep and so I decided to come up with concept art as to how I wanted Cassie to look. I figured if I can see her then I can write her. I went into Photoshop and I wanted to use Alexa and google home as inspiration. After a couple of hours drawing up some ideas I thought a pyramid would be a perfect shape to make the Home Assistant.
I remembered reading that the ancient Egyptian pyramids did not always look as rough as it does today. In fact, it was so smooth and
polished and at the apex of the pyramid, it was made out of limestone. So I wanted Cassie to be a contemporary replica of that except Home Assistant style. To replicate the limestone caps I used Alexa’s glowing crown as Cassie’s tip.
Writing Out the Script
The last time I made a short film it came out as complete KaKa. I hated it, it was just an idea one of my friends had and I said,
“Fuck it, I’ll write a script to it” that same short also came out last year with nothing else to follow it up. So in my head, I knew I was going to have a hard time looking for actors. I knew it was going to be so difficult that I decided that I was going to act in this one myself. And if I’m acting in it then I should have my friends act in it too. I needed to keep the script small because if I wrote in too many characters then I would risk people not showing up to the shoot and I had already felt like I had to redeem myself after that last
I also knew that I wanted Cassie to take place inside of one location. How big the location was going to be was throwing me off. At first, I wrote the script to take place in a living room but I didn’t like the way my living room looked to take place in the short film. So, I thought about using a friends house. I quickly canceled that idea once I noticed how long the script was getting. I didn’t want to be halfway into shooting and then the friend just says,
“Ef this man. I want no parts in this film anymore. Get out of my house.” That would have pissed me off plus wasted everyone else time so that meant I could only shoot in one place where I knew for sure I could have total control. I decided, yes, we would shoot in my house but first,
“Mom? Can I please take the guest room downstairs that no one is using?”
“Please? The room is just taking up space and the basement can’t be used anymore.” Anyone that has been following me for a while knows that I had a studio in the basement of my house. But after my friends and I put up a new wall mold got out of control down there and we had to cancel our YouTube show since we had no home.
In the script I wrote it as if we were inside of our old HQ, playing video games, talking shit while my character is writing up a new script for us to produce. After months of trying to sell my mom and dad the idea of the room and what I wanted to do with it, they finally said yes. Everything I wrote down could finally come to life and I would have
complete control over the environment without anyone threatening to kick me out.
At first as mentioned before I did want it to take place in a living room, but also multiple rooms. What happens if Cassie infiltrated the whole house! But that was also too much, there were too many things that could happen and I only have a shoestring budget. If you didn’t know I am a huge fan of 80s movies. One thing that I love about 80s movies over our contemporary stuff is that it focused more on the small things and made them a big deal instead of today where we focus on big things and make them big deals!
The movies that I loved the most where the movies where one or two individuals were going through a problem and its a big deal for them, the stakes are raised… for them. Not finding 3 platinum bombs that will wipe out 1/3 of the human population. That’s way too much. So going back to my short film I figured, if I can contain these characters and make Cassie go crazy in that room alone it will leave the audience to imagine what would happen had Cassie had control of someone’s entire house.
I should have taken before and after photos but the guest room went through a complete transformation. We painted the walls and when my friends got tired my girlfriend came over and pulled an allnighter with me finishing up the painting. I wanted to finish the room Asap so that I could start working on sculpting Cassie then start filming. I wanted this short film out by February 14 and I remember it being the end of January. I was running out of time.
I had an idea to build Cassie out of cardboard and then using the paper mache techniques to make her stronger. Back in high school on the weekends, I would paper mache various props for movie ideas that I had for things that I couldn’t afford like a prop Claymore or C4. From there I would trick Cassie out with lights and spray paint her black. Inside of her, I used tin foil so that the Led lights would reflect and look blown out to the camera. I also had the idea for Cassie to get destroyed in the film so I wanted the tin foil to look like a metal was inside of her. Then I also got the idea to buy an aluminum sheet and cut those to give Cassie a polished look, but I ended up scrapping that idea due to the lack of time that I had to get things done.
Instead, I opted to use clay after paper mache on the cardboard. My biggest issue with this was trying to get Cassie to be smooth. I sanded her a lot but she still looked like clay. I created two Cassies. One that I can keep and another one that would be destroyed for the sake of art. By the time I finished making them both and it was time to film I was not happy with it so I decided that instead, I would use this Cassie as practicals then in post I would create a CG Cassie that looks a lot more Sci-fi.
It was now the beginning of February and I wanted the film to be shot in two days. I wanted to get enough time to edit, do sound design and color grade the whole thing. I was also really nervous because I didn’t want the film to be complete crap. Not only did I produce the film but I was also the writer, director, and also the actor. What’s more is that the way the I wrote the script was designed to have a four-man team so that meant that while me and the other two actors, La’Quan and Esay were acting one more person would be present to film us so that we can run through the entire film. I would direct them but I would need a DP.
Nothing, like all film shoots, went according to plan.
The first day when I was ready to film I had the camera guy, La’Quan and Esay pull up to my house so we could get the party started. I told them how long we could expect to be filming for and what scenes. They all looked at me like a deer in the headlights. Nobody knew their lines.
“But I email each of you guys the script last week! That was more than enough time to at least call for line in between takes.” I was furious because once again I wanted to shoot this 9-page script in 2 days while working with everyone’s busy schedule. Then La’Quan said,
“You weren’t expecting us to rehearse this?” I calmed down. I forgot that if I didn’t want this thing to be complete crap we all have to get a feel for the script. Not just me, it’s literally my baby so obviously, I know the lines. So the first day had been spent on rehearsing the lines. going over the script and getting a feel for it. That meant that my plans changed and I need to turn my day two to filming into day one and create an extra day of filming. Then my camera guy out of the blue of us figuring out when we were going to film said he wanted to leave because he made plans with someone. Me, Esay, and Quan looked into the imaginary camera like we were in the office and all thought to ourselves,
“So mid shoot you were just going to up and leave?” He really left us. I told the guys not to be upset and that he would be there tomorrow and that we should just focus on rehearsing so that we can film tomorrow. After that, we went out for vegan pizzas.
The camera guy didn’t show up. La’Quan, Esay, and I are all in the room ready to film and he’s not there. I call him and he says,
“Hey, yeah I completely forgot we were filming today I’m at Dave and Buster’s.” Again we all looked into the imaginary camera. WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE GOING TO DO NOW WHEN THE SCRIPT REQUIRES A FOUR-MAN TEAM AND WE ONLY HAVE THREE! I had to think on my feet. We all became the audio and camera guy.
Everyone that you see in that short film is the only people that were in that room, from the camera to audio. It was just me, La’Quan, and Esay. The First two hours of filming were rough. We had to get used to the fact that no one was really going to walk through that door to save us. It helped that the start of the film was all dialogue though. We broke the film down into two parts. Before Cassie goes bad and the Red Room.
The beginning of the short though was the easiest to film because we had a tripod. We were allowed to get everyone in the shot because the tripod acted as the fourth person. The reason why I wanted to use a tripod at the start of the film is to add some visual subtext to the film. I wanted the start to be locked off when everything is all good and everyone is happy. When the guys start to discover that Cassie might not be what she seems the camera starts to get a little bit shakier. Until finally, she goes crazy the camera
does the same. So we knocked out those tripod shots a little fast. It was just a matter of memorizing the lines and also directing the others when they needed direction while also directing myself.
After we suspect that Cassie is crazy we ditched the tripod and that’s when filming became a bit more hectic. For us to get “everyone” in master shots, we dressed up light stands in a sweater. We did the same thing for over the shoulder shots. That’s the reason why everyone in the film is wearing a sweater. Not because it was cold but so that we could throw our sweaters on these stands when it was own turn to man the camera. By the end of the night, we had a solid formula and we were ready for the next day: The Red Room.
Before all the guys got there I changed the bulbs in the room to red party lights. In the room, there is also a huge window that lets in a fuck ton of light so I went outside and put of a blackout curtain. When I went back inside of the room I was excited because it looked just like the movie Ex-Machina! In pre-production, I was debating on if I should make the color grade for this scene red or if I should do it practically! I was happy that I went the practical route. To add some more light to the room and just the actors themselves I used some LED lights covered in a red gel to match the room. It worked.
Since we knew not to expect the camera guy again today we didn’t stress. We already came up with a formula which was if someone is not on the screen then one of us would be recording and we would just keep rotating. Even though we were having problems were knocking out a lot. A majority of the red room was action and not a lot of talking so we didn’t really need the mic to be held up all of the time. We were moving and knocking things out but not enough to finish the entire short. We all started to get exhausted and it was time to schedule one more final day of filming.
As a director, I do get tired but since I was also acting I finally understood what it felt like when an actor said they were tired because it wasn’t like a physical “I’m tired” it was all a mental one.
Everyone was busy this day so we had to move fast. In fact, La’Quan and Esay weren’t even there at the same time. This was the very end of the film when the lights turn back on. I filmed a bunch of shots of La’Quan then he had to get back to school. Then Esay came by I shot his footage then he shot me and that was it! We were finally finished! IT WAS FINALLY TIME TO EDIT! We were just a day behind but it was nothing that I couldn’t handle. Now it was time to edit.
This was my first time filming and editing a project in 4k. The only 1080p that we shot was in 120fps and that was still a massive file for me. I dumped the footage onto my laptop and it started to spazz out! It looked at me like,
“DUDE WHAT ARE YOU DOING! WE DONT DO THIS!!” Adobe kept crashing and didn’t want to scrub through the footage. I don’t even know how I did it. Since we didn’t have a dedicated audio person on set we had that mic on a stand. I left my audio recorder running for the entire duration of us filming because we weren’t slating. I did this intentionally because I knew I was going to use Plural Eyes to sync everything.
After feeding all of the footage into Plural Eyes I got a mess of an Adobe Premiere timeline. One long strip of take after take on one timeline with no bin, I almost lost my mind! For me to get everything in order the way that I wanted I had to create two sequences and move the bin window compartment. I stacked one sequence on top of the other one. One Sequence was the sequence with all of the synced audio in one long strip. The other sequence was empty. I would drag and drop the takes that I liked from the top and drop them into the empty bottom sequence. After getting a Frankenstein of clips that have nothing to do with each other I closed the synced sequence and started to work on the assembly of the film.
I CREATED A DEADLINE!!
I made a deadline for the film to be released on February 14th of 2018. I knew I was being a little bit over-ambitious but I felt like it was very possible. Not making a short film in a long time made me super hungry to create something.
In creating this I thought of Elon Musk. I remember reading stories about how Elon Musk creates unreasonable deadlines so that it pushes him and his team to work harder and smarter to create the Tesla cars and problem solve. A lot of times he never really makes the deadlines but when the projects are finally released they are groundbreaking.
I was having pacing issues that I wanted to fix but I can see what was happening. Then I remembered I could just convert all of my footage and create a proxy out of them. I took all of my clips and Turn them into standard definition clips. I didn’t want to take any chances by making them regular HD since my laptop was already having a hard time editing. After turning everything into proxy things began to move a lot more smoothly.
I actually ended up creating a YouTube video describing how to create proxy footage and white proxy footage does. Really fast, basically what proxy footage is fake footage that you use to replace your real footage so that you can edit faster. Because I did this my editing speed doubled. But Even though I was able to increase my editing speed I was starting to become a little anxious because I didn’t like the way the film was coming out. I don’t know if it’s because I was being too hard on myself or if I was just thinking to critically common but then I started to fall into space where I didn’t even want to finish the film.
I would wake up and spend day after day stuck in a hot Room trying to edit getting the film done. All by myself with no help, I felt like I was going crazy. I felt like Jack in the shining when he wrote repeatedly “all work no play makes Jack a dull boy”. I don’t want to say I became depressed but it was definitely really hard to work when no one around me could really help me. I had to dig myself out of that hole and it felt like it was impossible.
I got to a point in the film where I was just going to start working on the visual effects to make me feel better. There were still parts of the film that I wanted to clean up when they came to pacing but the basic visual effects shots where there so I figured if I could just skip ahead and start working on visual effects would be easier for me to finish the project. I guess this worked but it still made me feel like this project was falling apart. The visual effects That I was doing was super repetitive but also very tedious. I had to make sure that the glow on Cassie the artificial intelligence in the film looked realistic enough so that people weren’t sucked out of the film. I also filmed cellphone shots the wrong way so it took me even longer to mask and composite the screen on to phone’s when in reality it should have taken me a mere second.
I realized I made so many visual effects mistakes Because I was relying way too much on doing things in post. I try my best to film as much as I can in the camera but the reason why I learned visual effects is so that I can do things that are directly in my brain rather than trying to find a workaround. So when certain problems arise on set I would just say it’s OK because I’ll enhance it with visual effects. This is how I thought of Cassie. I tried to make her as practical as possible I created her out of clay and then use cardboard over her for me to make her physical. I got a light from home depot and placed it inside of her as a reference but that didn’t work. I didn’t have enough knowledge on how to set build or create props and so, therefore, I had to use visual effects to enhance her. Looking back on it I could have tried to find someone on eBay or Facebook maybe even Instagram to try and create Cassie from scratch with lights and all. I’ll never forget how much time it took to get certain things done all because I didn’t know who to ask for help or how to ask for help.
My Descent Into Madness
I was editing night and day barely eating and not going out just so I could finish the project. I was approaching the deadline and I thought like the film was nowhere near done. I wasn’t done with the visual effects and everything was falling apart. I made a promise to my followers saying it was going to be released on the February 14th of 2018. I messed up because that also happened to be my sister’s birthday and I have a girlfriend and I felt like I couldn’t neglect her but I had to. I put my personal life on pause and focused on my film. On this day I spoke to no one I remember not eating I was nowhere near done making the film and I hadn’t showered in days. I felt sick but this needed to be completed! Deep down inside I knew I lost the fight but I didn’t want to give up. I kept on editing trying to see how I could finish the project. In reality, I still had pacing issues I was nowhere near complete with sound design and the visual effects were still atrocious.
My girlfriend kept calling my phone again is Valentine’s Day and I kept ignoring it. I felt like I didn’t have time to communicate with anybody if it didn’t have anything to do with myself. So I kept on working dodging calls working and dodging calls. Until finally, I picked up, she wanted to see me but I told her it was impossible and I had to finish my film. She told me that I had to take care of myself and she wanted to know if I drank water add-in do any of those things. I told her again I wasn’t able to see her and that I had to finish my work and I continued working. At this time I remember it was Winter and the Room was freezing, my Room didn’t have a heater at the time and I remember wrapping myself in a blanket trying to edit. This one point in the edit I looked at the screen and wondered why am I doing this. I felt like I was truly descending into madness, I stepped away from the computer to rest my eyes and I looked out the window the blanket still around my shoulders. I started daydreaming for about 15 minutes. Then there was a knock on my door and my girlfriend walked into the room.
I was really embarrassed I didn’t want her to see me like this. I was truly in my thoughts just trying to get my work done I was in a horrible state where I was doubting myself and she saw that on my face and on my body. She said I looked pale and she knew I was in taking care of myself she had a plastic bag that contained protein cookies and a fuck ton of water and handed it to me.
I was happy to see her but I told her I needed to finish my edit. It was at this moment I realized I wasn’t going to have the film out in time.
Realistically just looking at my timeline, I was nowhere near done and I was running out of money to support myself. I had to throw in the towel and publicly let everyone know that I failed and that I would not be able to release the short and that the next date was to be announced. So instead I dropped a trailer.
After doing that I felt a weight on my shoulders lift like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I still felt like shit that I was unable to keep my promise, but I’ve learned so much in the process and I knew I was now going to quit. But I did need a break.
Days went by in my main focus shifted on client work. Deep down inside something was nagging me but I knew I can let that bother me while I was working with clients. Then weeks went by and I start to feel a lot worse like everything that I was touching was turning into complete shit. I felt like the clients that I was getting wasn’t paying enough I felt like I was going stagnant in my filmmaking. I felt like I wasn’t learning anymore and that This was the start to the ending of my filmmaking career. Occasionally I would check up on the edit and try to do a couple of things here and there but nothing serious the film look like complete trash to me and I wanted nothing to do with it. I just wanted to move on to the next thing but I couldn’t commit to anything.
I found that will help me at this time was to look out for other filmmakers that we’re creating things. I had to find other people that understood what it was like to create something and be a part of I guess what you would call art. At around April and May, I found myself on a lot more film sets and things became a lot more interesting. I thought what it was like to work with the team and not have all the burdens of being a director on your shoulders. I got to just observe and not have to take on any struggles. It was fun to see another side of film making will you not wearing all the hats. I also learned a lot. I got a lot of insight on the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things and how directors and DP’s act and how to communicate with other people on set. This was the first film set I got on.
I started saving my money and around July, I was able to purchase a brand new PC. It was a hard decision for me. I didn’t know if I was supposed to get either a new camera or the computer but I knew I needed a change. I wonder the new PC since high school. I wanted to tackle more CGI and color grading in Davinci Resolve but my laptop wouldn’t let me. I spent just under $2,000 on my PC and rigged it out til what I could afford. When it came in I knew exactly what had to be done. I had no more excuses it was time for me to finish my short film.
Finishing up the film
After newfound confidence, I announced that the film would be released on September 30th of 2018. And I did everything in my power to get it done. I didn’t want this to be another empty promise so I ended up working the same way I did at the beginning of the year like I hadn’t learned any lessons. But this time I took a new approach every day I gave myself a strict amount of time to edit then stop. Basically, clock in clock out. It was really hard to do because it’s really easy to just get involved in my work especially when I have no one telling me what to do. Another thing that I did was I made sure I mapped out exactly what I was going to be working on within the weeks. I worked like a madman within August and September trying to balance out paid work and my personal passion project.
Every week I separated between if I was going to do basic edit visual effects or sound design. This worked out really well. I realized that if I kept extending the deadline the project would never get done I was always going to find something wrong with the film and I was always going to see something that I wanted to fix. Between February and September, I’d learned so much about film making, a huge contrast from how I was feeling at the start of the year. I learned so much about lighting, composition, camera, even myself. I wanted a do-over. I had to remind myself:
The film will not be perfect and that’s why you need to finish it so you can learn how to create.
Balancing the paid work deadlines with my own was becoming stressful but I knew this time I was able to get it done. I worked all the way until the due date.
The Day of Release
I completed the sound design and since I know nothing about music I had Esay and the guy who was supposed to man the camera work on it (I don’t want to use his name so let’s call him Jerry). But then problems started to arise.
It seemed as though if I wasn’t present nothing would get done. I was still adding finishing touches to the film but every time I checked back in with Jerry there was no progress. I stayed calm and I didn’t want to panic.
Esay pulled me to the side and told me that Jerry was tired of working with us and that he just wanted to go home. He had already scored half of the film, we were almost there! It was getting late and I began looking for other options because I realized there was no way in hell this music would be scored in time. When it was just me and Jerry alone I realized he wasn’t getting any work done, I was concerned because I’d never seen him act like this. Then he finally told me.
“I told you I don’t like to do this and I’m not doing this anymore. It’s pointless, we meet up and try to get things done but nothing changes. This is stupid and I’m not doing this again.” I looked at Jerry with a blank look. I knew that’s how he was feeling because Esay told me, but he was still working on the project when he expressed that. We were only hours away from the finish line and he had just quit on me. I thanked him for all of the knowledge and time that he shared with me and I never saw him again.
It made me sad because it was like losing a brother, we’d been working together since high school. But we still had work to be done and I didn’t want to let down Esay, La’Qaun, and my girlfriend Natalie. We worked too hard on this project and I lost too much sleep on this project to quit again. A good friend of mine then told me about the website Artlist.io and it completely saved my life. With the money that I had saved up, I purchased a subscription and instantly had access to high-quality sounds. I downloaded the sounds, added it into the edit, mixed and mastered it, and the short film was complete!
hitting the export button felt so surreal. I was finally finished! THE FILM WAS FINALLY FUCKING COMPLETE! And because I had invested in the new PC it exported in about 10 minutes.
As soon as the project was complete I made a copy of it and put it on a flash drive, then I uploaded it to YouTube. Before I made it go live I invited Esay and my family over and turned our living room into a theater. I put the flash drive into the PS4 and my family and I sat back and watched the film. Once it was complete I held up my phone and it “public” on the video. I went to my social media and let everyone know the film was complete and that it was LIVE!
I hadn’t made a short in a long time and I felt like I already let everyone down so I only expected us to get 30 views. But then I started getting message after message, and a bunch of retweets. People were loving the film! I put my phone on mute and tried to get some sleep and when I woke up I had messages on messages! My Instagram was blowing up! When I looked at people’s stories everyone was posting the poster to their stories and sharing it telling people to watch! In less than 24 hours the video grew to 1,500 views on YouTube! That was big for me and I had no idea that many people were watching.
I felt so good, so much stress was released and I wondered what my next project would be. I was ready to take on more, I remember feeling this is why I love film making, that process of creation and struggling then finally looking back and seeing how much you learned and the impact it’s having on other people.
Someone asked me if I was going to submit it into film festivals, and I thought nothing of it. A short Sci-Fi shot in one room with no crew? But it was another learning experience, so I submitted to my first film festival!
I’ve learned so much creating this short film. I’ve been able to meet so many people since then and I’m super excited about the next one. I don’t know when that will be but I have to get started.
Owner, Founder, Director, Editor Producer of Kaylex Productions.
Full-Time freelance filmmaker from New Jersey.