The Story of Black Hat

Almost exactly two years to this day, I completed my third feature film, Black Hat. This is the story of how that film almost killed me... (well, that might be an exaggeration) 

Amazon Studios had just formed, and at that time, they were hosting a huge competition. Each month they were giving away $100,000 to the best feature length "test" film which presumably would be part of their big Amazon Prime streaming service (now in high gear two years later.)

The caveat was that the film be made collaboratively where a team and audience of Amazon Studios members could all have part ownership in the creation of the film.  Of course, that was bullshit or possibly just a badly conceived notion, but like an idiot I tried to follow it to a "T". So I found a script written by a Canadian writer, Toby Jon Osborne, and decide to collaborate with this him on this project.

 

My favorite still from the film.

My favorite still from the film.

The script was a western, a genre I had wanted to try for some time. However, when you live in Queens on a teacher's salary, shooting a western is not really a viable option. So we reworked the script and turned it into a post-apocalyptic western (mainly so I could film bad guys on motorcycles instead of horses and save money on purchasing old cowboy get ups and revolvers). I decided that to have the best chance of winning we needed a concept that would make out film stand out from others, so I decided to shoot my 75 minute film entirely against a green screen, using CGI 3D and 2D backgrounds. If I could go back in time to the moment I made that decision, I would punch myself in the nuts repeatedly. 

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I did two months of pre-vis, shooting numerous tests on green screen and rendering out backgrounds. I didn't have enough experience to get a clean photorealistic look from my renders, so I made the decision to go with a graphic novel look (basically I tried to swipe the look of the Stephen King Dark Tower graphic novels). Red Giant makes a plugin called Toonit which I used on my live action footage to create a cartoon look. With some tweaks we were creating images that looked interesting.

Pascal Yen-Pfister as a bad ass outlaw.

Pascal Yen-Pfister as a bad ass outlaw.

We did casting in the city and I bounced a few hundred emails with Toby in Canada as we whittled down the field to some great candidates (Toby and I never met, still haven't, and only spoke on the phone once). Attempting to follow along with those guidelines the contest had set forth, we posted all the auditions online and let a pre-audience vote on their favorites to help us with casting.  Some of the actors had all their families and friends sway the vote, but in the end I had to have final say with my casting.

As an elementary school teacher, I had a week off in February called "Winter Recess." So we set up 20 feet of green screen in a classroom at my school and went to work. 

Photo courtesy of David Nelson Taylor

Photo courtesy of David Nelson Taylor

We had planned a full week of shooting while the school was closed, but then my DP Derek Aspenberg got sick and took out some of the crew with him. This forced production into my cramped loft at my house for several more days.

When production had finally wrapped, the hard part started. Every shot had to be keyed, backgrounds had to be rendered, (you can see more on this process in the video at the top) scenes had to be digitally lit and color corrected. The process took four long months of going to work, teaching, then coming home and editing for six-eight more hours.

We submitted the film to the contest several times so that Amazon Studio members could actually watch the film as a green screen rough cut and then compare it to future versions and watch its progression.

Photo courtesy of David Nelson Taylor

Photo courtesy of David Nelson Taylor

In the end, things finally paid off for the long hours of work that went into the film. Black Hat won the Best "Test" Film award in October of 2011. Winners were told their film was guaranteed a screening with Warners Bros. executives (WB had an exclusive first look) but to this day I have no idea if that screening ever happened.  Amazon let their option of the film lapse, and it is no back in the ownership of myself and writer Toby Osborne.

Black Hat was available to view for free on the Amazon Studios website for the remainder of 2011 and into the beginning of 2012. Unlike some of the other winning films, it never aired on Amazon Prime (I firmly believe the film's sound had something to do with that as it could still use another pass on audio sweetening and a better score). Perhaps someday Toby and I will agree to let it been seen by the world again.

- Sean Tracy (monstrinthedark)