How I Won the West (and $100,000)
Today, I'm peering back to five years ago when I directed my third feature film, Black Hat, which I made specifically for the Amazon Studios launch contest in 2011. Amazon was looking to get into the original video content space, so they launched Amazon Studios by holding a massive contest with massive monetary awards.
Every month, Amazon Studios was awarding a feature length test film $100,000 and at the end of the year, all the winners would compete for a cool million.
What the fuck were the idiots at Amazon thinking? I know what this idiot was thinking. I'm going to win $100,000.
By 2011, I had previously directed two feature films, but films that I wrote myself. In fact, at this point in my filmmaking career, I had never directed a film written by anyone but myself. All of that was about to change as I started reading through script after script, looking for a writer I was going to collaborate with.
I came across a western called Black Hat, written by a Canadian, Toby Jon Osbourne. I contacted him, asked him for permission, and started an ongoing dialogue with him about the script. That discussion went on through hundreds more emails.
The biggest issue was that I needed to make this feature length film for less than $4000 because that was all I could afford on my measly teacher's salary. Toby's script featured a desert town, some outlaws, a mysterious stranger, horses, whores, etc. So how do you get all that for less than $4,000?
With a few slight tweaks to the script, Black Hat, became more of a sci-fi, dystopian western, set in the apocalypse and shot entirely against green and blue screen.
I learned from my first two features that there is no substitute for solid pre-production. I assembled a team that included a DP, a costume designer, and some PA's. I cast some friends like Chaka DaSilva and some new talented actors to bring Toby's characters to life. I researched different ways I was going to pull off an 80 minute green screen film and settled on a graphic novel looked that was inspired by Stephen King's the Dark Tower graphic novels.
I gathered an enormous reference library of photos and then began creating 3D backgrounds and environments and scouring the internet for 3D assets and vector files I could use. I heavily utilized a program called DAZ 3D as well as Cinema 4D, Photoshop, and Illustrator and composited all my backgrounds in After Effects. I used the Red Giant Toonit plugin for the look.
Below are some test films we set up in my loft with my wife and my buddy Steve who recorded on set audio for the film and also played a banker who loses his head.
I was working as an elementary school teacher at the time. During a two week winter recess in February of 2011, we used an empty classroom to do all our filming. The room was big enough to mount a 20x10 green screen which would allow me to shoot wide shots with multiple characters instead of having to layer them on separate screens.
Unfortunately, our DP got sick mid-week and then in turn I got sick. We lost two days and I had to finish up many of the shots by shooting in a small loft in my apartment on a much smaller green screen.
Post on this film was a fucking nightmare. For six months straight I was spending 6 to 8 hours a day (after working 8 hours) to try and finish the film before the contest was over. It required keying each shot, then compositing with my 3D assets and backgrounds in After Effects and sometimes re-lighting backgrounds to match what we had shot. In this video below which was made several years ago I give a rudimentary breakdown of my process as well as talk about the gear we used to make Black Hat.
Every month, I would upload a new cut of the film to Amazon Studios so followers could see the progress. We started with a rough cut with all the action playing out on green screen. Then did several more versions as I began to apply effects, add sound design, and a custom score by a friend, @Gymhasafit.
At the end of a very long and tiring process I submitted a full version of Black Hat. In August of 2011, it took home the monthly prize of $100,000. It was only then, that the writer Toby and I had our first and only phone call to discuss our success. Black Hat did not win a million dollars and I did not get notes from executives at Warner Brothers as promised. I did get a call from Roy Price of Amazon who congratulated me on "Black CAT" - whatever, at least I got some $.
I will be publishing a version of Black Hat soon which will be available to view online for free. I cannot thank the cast and crew enough (many of who worked for free on this risky endeavor).