Behind the Scenes of Valibation: A Todd Strauss-Schulson Short Film

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Director and writer Todd Strauss-Schulson slapped the internet a few weeks ago with his film Valibation. It’s a dark comedy that depicts a man who becomes too fixated with his smartphone. If you haven’t seen it, watch it above stat? Then come back and finish reading.

Todd hooked up again with producing partner Ken Franchi, and the self-financed project tapped cinematographer Elie Smolkin to help elevate the mood and visual stylings of the project.

S&P recently sat down with the director & DP to see what it takes to make an independent short with little budget and not a lot of time.

Todd, what’s up with the hypen?
TS-S:  (laughing) That’s seriously your first question?

I never really know how to start these things.
TS-S: It’s actually my mom’s last name and my dad’s last name. It was weird growing up. Once in elementary school I got two report cards in the mail. One for Todd Strauss. One for Todd Schulson.

Evan Mann & Gareth Reynolds in Mano-A-Mano

Evan Mann & Gareth Reynolds in Mano-A-Mano

You’ve been making personal shorts for quite a while. Were you surprised by the reaction when Mano-A-Mano hit?
TS-S: It’s funny. I made so much stuff before – music videos, soda commercials. I even did work in Asia on this MTV show called Whatever Things, which was their more stylish version of Jackass. But after Mano, that’s when all the agents and studios started calling wondering who I was. I had made so many things before that, but it was a video about gay phone sex operators that captured the hearts and minds of Hollywood.

Has Valibation been your favorite so far?
TS-S: They’re always my favorite right when I finish them. Every short I’m attempting to try something different or drill more weirdly personal or try something new. With Valibation the real challenge was to create a mood , a little biosphere, a nightmare but with jokes,. I wanted it to feel like an anxiety attack.

How did the idea come to you in the first place?
TS-S: There were a couple of ideas happening in my world. I found myself doing a lot of what James Kirkland, our main character, was doing in the film. Being compulsively connected to my phone. Reaching  out all day long, actually physically reaching out. When I finally realized what I was doing, I became curious what it was all about.

Obviously the observation that people are addicted to their phones is not breaking news. The question for me was, if it is a compulsion – What is the emotional trigger of that compulsion? What are we actually reaching out for when we grab our phones? What is the emotional hit you are looking for when you check your Twitter first thing in the morning or if you have 15 people like something you posted on facebook? What are we searching for in that very human way? My take on it is that people are looking for validation.

With all our social media, you’re putting a narrative out there about yourself to have it reflected back: “I’m so funny” “I support liberal causes” “I’m smart and read Kierkegaard.” and you get sort of addicted to those constant hits. So what this is about is how can you sustain yourself without the constant feedback? Can you give yourself enough self worth without having it constantly reflected back on to you by other people? With Valibation, I wanted to ask, can you yourself know that you’re a charming, smart, worthwhile person without having to constantly charm people all day and have them tell you how charming you are?

David Cronenberg’s The Fly makes an appearance in the opening scene. Did he influence the style to Valibation?
TS-S:  It wasn’t like I set out to make a Cronenberg movie. I was watching a lot of body horror movies at the time but I really noticed that I was gravitating towards movies that created a really palpable mood or ecology to them and I wanted to try that. The thing about Cronenberg’s work in particular is that his characters are conscious, hyper aware, intellectual people, who can speak intelligently about what they’re experiencing. No one is intellectually passive in his movies.  He’s very clear, and I like that. I like movies that almost act like term papers, here is my observation about culture or the world, here is a morality play, here is a political statement, now let me weave you a yarn and show you what I mean. With Valibation, there’s a butcher shop scene where our main character says exactly what I’m thinking so that is sort of the most Cronenbergian moment.

DP Elie Smolkin & Todd Strauss-Schulson

DP Elie Smolkin & Todd Strauss-Schulson

How did you meet your DP Elie Smolkin?
TS-S: I actually didn’t know him before this project. Ken Franchi and I were desperately looking for a DP with a particular kind of eye. I called my agent and commercial reps and we were getting a lot of websites of people. I didn’t want to work with a big time feature guy. I wanted this to feel really small. Really guerilla. I wanted to operate the camera sometimes, and start shooting before the scene was lit just to keep the velocity of the day going, I wanted to break traditional rules, etc… I just wanted everyone to listen to me and fall in line and yell out ideas but not get in the way (laughing). That’s what’s fun about making these shorts – I feel like I’m completely in command and that’s nice. We were looking for someone with ambition and with a great amount of talent who would want to play that kind of game with me. The people over at College Humor sent us a batch of DP reels and we saw Elie’s and I thought it was really good.

Elie, I know Todd’s in the room with us, but what was your first reaction when you read his script?
ES: (laughing) On my first pass, I didn’t know there was going to be this subtle Cronenberg feel to it, but you could tell by the script that the film was very stylized. I knew it was going to be a great project for me to take on. To be working with a director that I’ve never worked with before, who has more experience and a clear unique vision – it was exciting. We met and had a dinner on election night so we were both constantly checking our phones for updates – seemed oddly appropriate at the time talking about the script.

Setting a shot

Setting a shot

What references did you look to pitch to Todd for your visual cues?
ES: Todd had a general idea for creating the world. We went through a ton of references and had a great collaboration between each other. I went back and looked at Cronenberg’s movies and a still photographers Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Winz and Damian Loeb. I put together an image board – the tones I was thinking. The quality of light. Lens options and angles, and I would ask Todd what he thought. The great thing about working with him is he is really open to ideas, but isn’t afraid to say no. When we went into our first day of shooting, there was no question to what we were going to do or what it should look or feel like. When production started, we would start each day by looking at the shots and say is this insane – agree, then go with it.

TS-S: Just to add to that, when I’m writing I try to keep production costs down as much as possible. Because I’m usually paying out of pocket with my producer Ken Franchi I’m incentivized to keep costs low.   Since I think of myself as more of a director than a writer, and because I edit my own stuff, I’m always thinking of how it’s going to cut together. The shot list was being pieced together the same time the script was being written. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Every shot was basically written down in sequences of how it would be cut together. So when I sat down with Elie for the second time, I was like “…and here’s the edit”. The fact that Elie was ok with that was fantastic.

That work to your advantage Elie?
ES: Yeah. It did. Todd obviously was still open to ideas, but it allowed me to concentrate more on how to execute and light the sequences as well as figure out how to actually execute the complicated shots, which was a challenge in itself.

TS-S: I think by the time the edit was done. 80% of the shot list was used in the final version.

What camera did you look to during testing?
ES: We went with the RED EPIC.

Nice.
ES: Yeah. It was a combination of things that made us choose it. I work with the EPIC a lot and nowadays choosing a digital camera is a lot like choosing a film stock. The Alexa was too costly for our budget and the EPIC is a lot smaller for all our practical locations and 360 spins that we planned on doing. We can get the EPIC down to be a tiny cube if we wanted. That’s a lot harder to do with the Alexa. Everyone talks about the Alexa having better skin tones, which in some cases might be true, but we were doing something with a lot of color mixing and a sci-fi feel to it which the EPIC, to me, has a better pallet range for.

You shoot 5K?
ES: Yes. We shot 5K RED RAW. The resolution made sense for us because of all the post FX and color work that was going to take place.

So did you play in the ASA 800?
ES: It depended. We never went over 800 and used it often because we didn’t have large lighting setups only a small crew to spark the dark stuff. I did shoot day exteriors in 500.

I’m guessing no DIT on set?
TS-S: We actually did. Tim Hsiung was with us working off his laptop.

ES: Yeah. He was great. It wasn’t a traditional DIT in the sense where you have LUTS as you go, but we were able to look at things and QC them. Tim was fantastic and incredibly organized so we weren’t flying blind. I also had the luxury of my other key guys; Ben Benesh (gaffer), Chris Cullari (best boy), Tyler Bell (key grip), and Lance Kuhns (1st AC) who were willing to come in for long hours and know what I wanted to achieve.

DIT Tim Hsiung

DIT Tim Hsiung

It’s surreal you shot this in five days.
ES: One of our days was taken up by the motion control system. It took about two hours to shoot each shot. We had six of them, so that was twelve hours right there. We had a second unit going that day, but they were only able to get about a ½ page done because there was only so much they could do while the MOCO was setting up. So it was really like four plus a motion control day. We moved fast, but stayed long enough where we didn’t feel rushed.

TS-S: It was an undertaking to say the least. The good people over at Pacific Motion Control gave us a great deal on their Impala System, because it was the FIRST time it had ever been used and they just wanted to get it out there and play with it. And that helped us out a lot.

What did you look to in terms of glass?
ES: We had a 16-42MM DP Angenieux Rouge lens that was our work horse, as well as a set of prime lenses for inserts that needed a closer focus. The plan for the majority of the movie was to shoot on the wider lens spectrum. Todd wanted everything easily movable and small so it could fit in tight spaces. We used the zoom to make quick adjustments and half the time I would be manually riding the zoom during the shot in addition to our camera move to adjust the frame. It gave an interesting look.

TS-S: I spent most of my early 20’s shooting with the Panasonic HVX. That process is wonderful to me. Simple. I’m operating; I can shoot for the edit as I’m coming up with it in my head. On a big movie or TV show it can become difficult to move at the speed of thought. And that is what I wanted on this project. On big jobs you have to communicate through seven people that you want the camera to just tilt up, and then suddenly the empire comes grinding to a halt. Suddenly 100 people are activated and have to readjust everything just to tilt the camera up because you had an instinct that maybe that could be better. That’s not fun. So Elie created a workflow for me that was as close to working with an HVX as possible. So if James Kirkland wanted to sing a song and run around the room, it wouldn’t take ruining an empire to get it done.

Some of the camera compositions were fantastic. Did the 360 movements pose a challenge?
ES: We had a decent amount of prep time before we started and had a clear idea of what we had to accomplish each day. I try to involve the key crew in the discussion so everyone is on the same page. For the 360 shots, I tried to have it lit in a way that wouldn’t sacrifice the look but also in a way that Todd wouldn’t have to wait. I didn’t want to slow down in case the actors got in a groove because I needed to tweak a light so I made sure to create a mood that wasn’t sacrificing the image we were looking for while also allowing Todd to move quickly and see where ever the actors needed to go.

There was very little handheld work – was that something you wanted to stay away from?
ES: I can tell you the moment I was the most excited for this project was right at the beginning when Todd said he wanted to bring in a motion control rig not for motion control, but for the camera to feel really robotic. It was such an insanely out of the box idea that not a lot of people do. I really got behind it.

TS-S: It’s true. And it’s a conceptually driven decision. It’s an organic body merging with a machine. I wanted to create an aesthetic where we would shoot all the organic locations like a robot. We actually don’t go handheld till the end when James starts becoming more in tune with his situation. We used a slider and a dolly a lot to create that robot feel and sometimes would do these slider insert shots like 25 times until it felt precise, like a machine shot it.

Elie came up with some impromptu shots that worked really well too. Like the one in the doctor’s office when he reaches for the tools. I had a note in the script of “do something interesting.” Elie came back with the idea to have the camera rigged to the rolling table and it became a great shot.

One of the shots I see in your projects Todd is when you literally spin the camera turning an upside down world right side up. Would you say that’s one of your signature shots?
TS-S: I’m not a master of subtlety by any means. I am aware of it. There are moments in my work where sometimes the character’s worlds are turned upside, or they cross a threshold, so the camera is doing that also. In Valibation, the sequence you’re thinking of was another threshold crossing moment. To accepting that now he has a phone for a hand and use it for the first time.

Technically, how did you go about getting that shot?
TS-S: (laughing) Probably Elie’s worst day.

ES: The problem was that there are types of gear out there like a Dutch Plus that could easily get the shot, but we didn’t have the money to get one of them. We ended up making it out of four things that couldn’t do that move separately, but together they somehow did. We did a million takes to keep the feel we were going for.

Mario Torres Jr. molding Kirkland's hand

Mario Torres Jr. molding Kirkland’s hand

The makeup and effects in this short were outstanding. Who did Ken find for all the prosthetic hand work?
TS-S: I don’t know how Ken finds the people he does. He is a very small and quiet Italian man, he mumbles like a Dick Tracy villain, but he always produces. He’s incredible. He found this guy named Mario Torres Jr. He’s done a ton of stuff. The last Batman’s Bane mask, he carved the muscle suit for the new Spiderman – he’s basically this guy who lives with his wife and kids and has turned his garage into a creature shop full of clay monsters and latex limbs.

The animatronic  arm

The animatronic arm

That’s pretty fantastic the majority of the hand work was practical.
TS-S: Mario did an amazing job. He molded James’ hand in latex and then he wore a prosthetic piece on his palms. Mario made three different looks of the wound and applied his hand with a paper thin LED light. We added the icons later digitally.

He also made a completely animatronic hand from fingers to elbow that looked so real. It also lit up and the fingers moved and was disgusting looking. We used that for the surgery scene and when the nail comes off. Everything else was a prosthetic. The guy even molded 75 hands for the butcher nightmare scene. It was intense.

I enjoyed the dream flip sequence. (Spoiler Alert) The scene where James’ character actually gets sad when he thinks the phone has left his hand. How did that come about?
TS-S: I remember I was trying to figure out a way to visually show how this guy was starting to fall in love with this thing growing in his hand. There were a bunch of jokes in there – him massaging himself in vibrate mode, listening to music. I wanted to show how much he was enjoying it and enmeshing with it and connecting with himself, and I thought what if we took it all away from him. Then show how thankful he was when he got it back. It was just a way to illustrate how he’s starting to like the new transformation of himself.

One of the final shots in Valibation was a naked spinning shot of James. It was as if a helicopter was scaling the Statue of Liberty from all sides top to bottom. Can you let us in on how you were able to accomplish this shot?
TS-S: We knew it was going to be a green screen turntable shot and we would push and boom the jib arm up his body as his body rotated. To do that kinda of spiral that close to a body is actually impossible cause there is no rig that will let you do that move without seeing the chassis. The only way to do it is if you rig a milo to a ceiling mount, which we were not doing.

ES: It was tough. Ingenuity and Gloo did a great job. That bathroom in real life is actually tiny. Even doing the small slide to the phone, we could barely fit the slider in the room. For the shot you’re mentioning, we originally were going to have a remote head. That didn’t happen. I had to manually operate the head and jib while the key grip, Ben Benesh, pushed the dolly at the right speed. We used a JL Fisher Ten Dolly with a center mount jib arm on it and had to go from the floor level to the top while James spun on a turntable. It ended up being about seven feet from top to bottom. Unfortunately, I’m not the tallest guy in the world so we set up apple box stairs for me to step on while avoiding camera shake and keeping James’ front out of frame. So you could say, it took a few takes.

You’ve worked with sound designer Lindsey Alvarez on a bunch of your projects. Do you let her do what she does best and then come in with notes or what’s the collab like with her?
TS-S: I’m pretty hands on from the beginning. We’ll talk broad strokes and I’ll see what she comes back with. She had fun on this one, she went away for a few weeks and just recorded a bunch of random stuff, I told her to get weird with it… and she did.  I’ll give her the room to play around, she does a big first pass and then I come in and just frame fuck her to death in our final mix. Gregory James Jenkins, our music composer, did a fantastic job as well. We did all that original music in about a week, which is intense. It’s just all about finding the right rhythm to everything. So it all locks together in a way that’s air tight.

On location with Valibation

On location with the Valibation crew

How did final coloring go?
ES: Color Collective handled that out in New York. We developed most of the look in camera, but they were able to add a lot of things and came up with some interesting ideas. Alex did a phenomenal job.

TS-S: Yeah, the guy who runs it is a friend of mine named Alex Bickle. He also did Master Cleanse and he had a few movies in Sundance this year. That work was done in about two days and he went bold with it.

Looking back – what did you like about the time crunch of the project?
TS-S: I like the teamwork of it when it’s small and fast. There is this amazing almost athletic mentality when the whole crew understands what kind of shot you’re looking to do. The 360 in the shoestore is a great example. We want to 360 and follow James and land on Eric and whip back to the door as it slams and see James running down the block. It’s a hard shot to get, lots of moving pieces, you do it three times and it may be a little off here and there, the camera isn’t smooth, we don’t land precise enough… we overshoot our landing… whatever… but everyone gets what you’re going for, and suddenly there is this unity, the crew is now rooting for us to get it right. Everyone. The script supervisor, the gaffer – everyone gets excited, and when you come really close but don’t quite nail it they react like a guy missed a free throw… but when you FINALLY hit it, they pump their fists, YES! Everyone is plugged into this creativity and connected… it’s a great feeling. It makes it all worth it. It’s the best.

S&P would like to thank Todd and Elie for taking the time out to share their story. You can catch more of Todd’s work at ulteriorproductions.com and follow him @therealTSS. Todd’s currently working on several scripts and shot a pilot for The Onion. For Elie’s latest, check www.esmolkin.com.

Still photography by Evan Rohde.

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