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Independent Feature "I Heard the Bells" - in theaters over the weekend.


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"I Heard the Bells", a feature that I shot last year, was finally released over the weekend in wide release across the country, which I'm still having trouble even wrapping my head around right now. It's still showing in different areas, although in fewer theaters than before. I don't have a lot of experience shooting features; this was only my second one, but it was the first one that everyone worked hand in hand, both the crew and the producers, to make sure that every penny we spent ended up on screen. I normally tend towards self deprecation, but I am actually pretty happy with how this turned out. It is a civil war era period film about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I was lucky with the production and costume designers, because no amount of good lighting or lenses will make up for bad production design or bad costumes. I didn't know it while we were making it, but the producers have publicly said now that the budget was $3 million dollars.

The director Josh Enck, first told me to watch Little Women, shot by Yorick Le Saux, and that was an incredibly useful resource because it inspired the choice to have two distinct tones between the two parts of the film. But we also looked at Conrad Hall's work on Butch Cassidy and how he did period interiors. Dan Laustsen's work on Crimson Peak, even though it was a horror movie, inspired us to keep a little theatricality; the color of night in this film is what it is because of Crimson Peak. And then of course Roger Deakin's work on Jesse James is so influential for how to shoot period pieces as well. David Mullen was kind enough to answer some questions I had last year about how he got some of his imagery in Jennifer's Body, and that helped me to understand the value of cool fill light in a warm room. But after all of that, your film ends up being its own thing, because no two films are ever going to be the same and I didn't really want to copy anyone outright.

One of our first and smartest decisions was choosing to shoot on the Arri Mini LF with the Cooke 1.8x FF Anamorphic lenses. It was such a beautiful combo! The lenses were brand new, and the set kept growing as we shot which made rentals interesting, but it was worth it because they just gave us such incredible, rich, amazing images.

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If anyone is interested, I have more stills in full res here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3eqtml5cs7dvruj/AAAanNalbTzxYrvwQCJPhioMa?dl=0 

The trailer is on youtube (search "I Heard the Bells movie") if you want to find it. Embedding it here makes it huge on the page for some reason. The color in the trailer isn't from the final film, it's closer to what it was on set, so you can compare if you're curious.

For a variety of reasons, we shot for 30 days over the course of 13 months, which was unusual, and challenging to maintain continuity of acting and image, but on balance was actually a lovely way to shoot a movie. Our longest stretch of shoot days was two six day weeks in a row. Most of the rest was anywhere from one to four days of filming, with about six weeks in between. I did some additional days of nature photography for transitional elements, and went to Cambridge MA in two different seasons to shoot Longfellow House Exteriors. I wasn't holding on the film full time, in fact I worked on another film as a location scout and 2nd Unit Cinematographer while we were shooting this. But I still had a lot of time to prep with the director, and we made good use of it. We shot listed every scene, and did a lot of scouting and shooting stills with Artemis Pro and would prep each shot list with a frame grab for each setup so that the crew could see exactly what each setup was going to be. We mostly stuck to those, or they were at least a starting point, and if we adjusted after rehearsals (where I would grab new stills), we would review the revised shot plan quickly and then execute. It made the crew confident when we were confident in our choices, but we were confident because we had spent so much time looking at dailies of what we had shot, and knew that what we were planning was going to work.

The hardest thing about filming over the course of 13 months was keeping a consistent crew. I had a mix of long time collaborators working with me, but also was having to audition some new people on different shoots. But the advantage of working this way was that I was able to keep the crew size elastic, and I also kept the rental package elastic. If I knew we were going to be outside all day, I brought very few lights and just a few grips, but that meant that production knew that I was saving our money for the interiors where we converted locations into mini studios. But even there I had to think carefully about what I brought to set, and I often begged and borrowed lights and other gear from friends just to help with the budget. Camera movement was important to director Josh Enck and myself, so that was the other place where we spent money when we had to, but it was always well thought out in advance, and I like that we have a good mix of handheld work where it belongs, as well as steadicam and jib.

I learned a lot from this experience, and there is a lot I would do differently. In retrospect, it's amazing how many decisions you are making all the time that you have to make in a split second, and then you just have to live with them. I sometimes struggled to communicate framing to the steadicam ops, and that's on me, so I need to get better at that. If I could do it over again I would help my focus pulllers a lot more: I shot most of the film at a 2.8/4 split, and on full frame anamorphic, for the most part that's too shallow, especially for how much movement we had. The film would have been better if more of it was exposed for a 4 or even a little higher at times.

It was a reminder of how much I love making movies, I waited five years between shooting the two I've done, and I'm hopeful that it won't take as long for me to get my next one. This has been more successful than anything I could have dreamed, not on a blockbuster level, but for something that felt very small at times it feels like a win. But also it's been a meaningful movie for those who have seen it. I'm not going to pretend that it's perfect (it's not), but I like that we've made an adult drama that takes on serious emotions like grief and loss but still leaves you hopeful in the end. And even if for some reason I never get to shoot another movie, I'm proud of having been a part of this one.

If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask in the comments. And if anyone has any constructive criticism of any of the shots, I'm always interested in learning how to get better. I also have a lot of behind the scenes posted on my IG page: https://www.instagram.com/stevebuckwalter/

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