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This short explores a town that only exists in my mind. The town of Lost Springs holds a secret that has impacted the lives therein.

Bringing together a sense of past through modern means, it was an experiment in mixing mediums, crossing significance, and ultimately hand crafting a video.

Running time: 5 min ~ Format: DV


  Live Action and Underwater Footage  

Acting in 10 feet of water...

When coming up with an idea for a short film, I was thinking hard about the would I make this visually interesting, and push me as a new filmmaker. The thought came to film people underwater and use the effect of flowing hair and clothes and the unusual look of moving underwater. Really, the "story" that became Lost Springs began here.

First, we needed a body of water to film in. We looked into Hollywood style water tanks. There is one on the Universal backlot, but we wouldn't have access to it. In doing a bit of research we found that parts of Titanic and The Rock were filmed in a tank in Escondido, CA (San Diego county), the Offshore Model Basin. I am from San Diego and it would've been close, and amazing to use, but we didn't have the money or credibility to work there. So, that was a no-go. But Patrick (actor in Lost Springs) had a pool in his backyard, and it happened to be 10 feet deep. A standard 6 ft deep pool wouldn't cut it, but this extra depth would allow us to use a greenscreen and give room for movement. We had our location.

This was the only portion to involve actors, so despite their acting below the surface they would need to look the part. Again, we didn't have much money, so I hit up an awesome thrift store in Burbank, CA. The American Way thrift store is dirt cheap, plus they have daily specials that make it even better. I bought all the costumes (including shoes, hats, belts, and suspenders) for under 80 bucks.

Next we would need the green screen that would help (though certainly not perfect) the matting of the actors for compositing later. I bought 30 feet of bright green polyester fabric, and my mom sewed it to a 10 feet x 15 feet screen. This was stretched over a PVC pipe frame made of four 10 foot sections, two 5 foot sections, elbow connectors and sections cut in half to lock the screen to the pipes.

The location was ready to go, now all we needed was a way of recording all the events we'd stage in the water. We'd need an underwater camera. The first resource we found was Hydroflex, a Hollywood resource for underwater filming equiptment. They even offered student discounts. But the bill would've come to over $500. Next plan. I found that Gates Housing was based in San Diego (about 35 miles from my house), gave them a call, and with studen discounts and some great kindness, got me a professional housing for an XL1s for $150 for the weekend, let me pick it up locally, and showed me how it worked. I got ahold of a Canon XL1s from a friend, and we were ready to go.

All the underwater portions were shot in the span of 5 hours on a Saturday in April. We had hoped to get a wide variety of actors by that time (flyers at CSUSM) but no one replied. There was Jacob, Patrick and myself. Not enough to populate a town, and apparently it would've been a town of all men. I managed to talk my sister into helping out, and Patrick got his neighbor Megan to come over too. There was our cast and crew. I filmed most of the sequences while they acted, switching with Jacob or my dad when it was my turn to flail in the deep end. It was exhasting for everyone as they treaded water in full costumes, then holding their breath as long as possible while trying to get below the surface, and then act. Because of this most shots lasted less than 5 seconds, but I was able to slow them down in post.

Poolside Photo -- shows me with the underwater camera enclosure and my filming gear. You can see the greenscreen in the deep end in the background.


In addition to the underwater footage, interiors were filmed at Heritage Park in Oceanside. This recreation of an early 20th century town has been (and remains) closed due to mold. I filmed through the windows of a home there for the interior with the husband and wife, and filmed inside the tool barn for the interior of the barn.

The truck that I drive through the town at the begining of the short is parked and rusting in a neighbor's yard. Its an early 30s Ford that probably hasn't moved in 10 years, but armed with a Canon GL1 I walked past it, and hand masked it and composited it into the model in post.

And finally, the originally story we wrote was about a farmer, who through a series of cutaways, would be revealed to have survived the flood by farming up above the town. This is hinted in the final shot of the short. But, as production time, and running time, ran thin we had to scrap all but this final shot. I filmed almost an hours worth of footage of my neighbor, Lyman, on his old tractor tilling the family field. That concluded the live action portion of filming, and it would be all Movie Magic from here on.


  Working with Miniatures  

...or How we spent half a week painting tiny houses...

When brainstorming ideas, Jacob and I had decided underwater filming would be cool. Now we needed a story to go with it. It was decided that we should make a town underwater, telling the aftermath of a flood that had wiped out the town. The background would be about the largest water tower ever built, that ultimately collapsed and crushed the town -- acting also as an allusion to the stock market crash and depression. This was all fun to discuss sitting in my kitchen, but it soon became clear that to build or find a town and flood it just wasn't in our budget. We were going to composite the actors in anyway. The conclusion: build a miniature town.

The first step was to choose a scale, since I was limited to the space of my apt. in Los Angeles, but also didn't want to be working on houses too small to have detail and realism. I hit up our #1 resource when it came to building this model: Allied Model Trains in Culver City. Comparing the various structure sizes, I chose HO scale for its detail level, and because it was a popular size and there were many period buildings we could use.

I figured the set would be roughly 4 feet x 4 feet, I set up a couple of sturdy tables, and covered the tops with cardboard. I had a few chunks of styrofoam so I placed them in a ring to give some shape to the ring of hills around the town. I thought of using spray foam insulation to construct the hills and give them an organic feel, but after two cans of the stuff, I barely had a bead to run the circumference. The budget just wouldn't allow for 50 cans, so I decided to go the old standard -- paper mache. About 4 hrs of placing glue and water soaked strips of the Los Angeles Times over the chicken wire, letting it dry, and repeating the whole process, the valley was begining to take shape. To cover the newsprint, I stumbled upon a "sandstone" spray paint used for crafts and home decor at Home Depot, it happened to have a nice terra cotta color, and an awesome grittiness that textured the surface like dirt. Adding a mix of fine yellow grass ground cover (model RR), actual dirt from my house, and course light green ground cover, the ground work was done. Adding a few trees and bushes, and tall wild grass sheets, the "natural" environment was ready for civilization to move in.

The ealiest stage of the model, roughed in cardboard, styrofoam, spray foam, and chicken wire.


The paper mache skin complete, it was time to spray paint it. I used a terra-cotta-colored faux sandstone spray.

Painted and dusted with ground cover, the model looked less like a science project, and more like a valley.


Model trees and green foliage made the valley all the more real.

Once the topography was done, it was time for the most tedious and meticulous portion of the model -- the buildings. We went to Allied Model Train and bought $150 worth of miniature buildings, mostly small shacks, but also a main diner, barn, stretch of city buildings, and a windmill. With the addition of model glue and some cheap acrylic paints, we set to work putting the structures together, and then painting them down to the smallest detail we could muster. Over the span of 4 days we worked morning to night making these things as realistic as possible. One hint, to make quick details when the models are cast with detail, is to paint a base coat of the material, and wash with dark paint, and then with light. The paint fills the details and brings them out with little work. We refered to this process as "sh*tying it up". One of use would paint the base coat, and the other would sh*ty it up with a wash. Once they were all done, I placed them in the model and dusted the whole thing with dirt, to give it a sense of age and to give a feeling of connectedness between the different structures.

The barn would be the most prominent building in the town.



By far the most complex structure, the diner took almost a day to make and paint.


Though not featured much in the short, I made miniature signs for the service shop. We also had to make the roof ourselves as it wasnt included in the kit.

Four homes were built, and became shanty row. These took an huge ammount of time despite thier relative simplicity. Just the assembly was a task.


The finished model took aproximately a week and a half to construct, devoting all my time, and 3 days worth of Jacob's. I hung dark blue sheets from the ceiling around the entire perimeter of the model, so cut out all the room, and lit the model as best I could from a track light and a halogen flood on the floor. The plan was originally to cut out the blue screen and add sky, but it was just one of the many elements that were thrown out due to time. Most people don't notice the sheets, and once it was done I enjoyed the hand made look that they added to the model.

The finished model, ready for filming. The filming was done with my very old JVC GRDVM5 camera that I've had since '97. I had constructed a miniature security camera on an inverted tripod, but scrapped it for the autofocusing and small JVC.


  Compositing and Digital Effects  

120 Hours can fly by when you're matting by hand...

To get a sense of what the footage looked like when I captured it and set to compositing, check these out:

(behind the scenes videos)

It all took place in Adobe After Effects, the program that I've used more than anything else as a video filmmaker. My aids in this complex task would be the following plug-ins:

  • Keylight -- a keying plug-in that works wonders with removing greenscreen. It gives you complete control of the matte you make, and a great feature of simple black and white status showing what is going to be transparent and what will remain.
  • Twixtor -- a time control plug-in, it does an amazing job of slowing video through various forms of morphing between frames. The result is a super smooth slow down.
  • Cinelook -- a plug-in that adds film-like qualities to video such as grain, dirt and scratches, film stock, and color toning. It also alters frame time to look more like 24fps.

Though these plug-ins helped me achieve effects I wouldn't have been able to accomplish otherwise, they couldn't do everything. The number one issue I faced from the footage was trying to key out the underwater greenscreen. Going into this project, I had checked out Hydrolfex's How-To of underwater greenscreening, and found that to do it right would've been costlier than anything I could manage. So I know I'd have to do it the wrong way, and make up for it in post (never a wise choice). This meant hours and hours and days and even weeks of creating hand-mattes in After Effects using keyframed masks.

The process was as follows:

  1. Take the raw underwater footage and bump up the contrast to give the cleanest green screen to foreground difference. The water got murkier and murkier, and Keylight didn't like the interference. The results from Keylight was that everything was slightly transparent, as the water and particles picked up the green. So I had to drop the strength of the key enough that the foreground actors were fully opaque.
  2. After Keylight, the screen area was only partially transparent and there were the matters of arms and legs moving outside the screen area. This would all have to be cleaned up by hand. I created a mask (or multiple masks for complex areas) and keyframed them along with the movement of the people. Most were flailing so it meant changing the shape of the mask for just about each frame. Depending on the situation, some masks were very simple and polyogonal, while others had many points and moving them was tough.
  3. At this point the actors were isolated. But most of the actors only lasted a few seconds before they broke "character" and went for air. This is where Twixtor came in. Applying the plugin to the already matted footage, I was able to stretch those sequences to 3x what they were (also stretching my masking 3x, and making it look more fluid). This killed render time, but I wouldn't have been able to use characters on screen for as long as I needed them any other way.
  4. Placing this slowed, matted footage over the runthrough of the model, I used After Effects motion tracker feature to track various points in the model for individual characters. These tracked points were linked to the position of the actor footage using equations that link to the tracker position.

Once all the actors' footage was linked to the run through, It was merely a matter of filtering the result with a vignetting mask, film grain, adding a masked layer of water texture over blue for the final reveal of the flood, and add the credits. The credits involved a underlying layer of slowed light through water, on top of which was roughly composited the actors jumping into the pool, with a layer of text on top and a simple ripple effect (built into After Effects) to make it wave. The transition into and out of the text was a directionlly blurred version of the text with the opacity "wiggled" with After Effect's Wiggler.



In Memory of Greg Hale Jones

I added this final section, because the music plays such an essential role in the mood, the timing, and the success of the short. The story behind the song that made Lost Springs what it is stems back to Jacob passing along a song that he liked he had found on the internet.

The song is called Boll Weevil, and was created by Greg Hale Jones, a composer who contributed to a number of films, including the Genera'ls Daughter. This particular song had an awesome feel and what actually what inspired the concept of a ruined Depresion-era town. You can still download it here.

I contacted Mr. Jones via email, told him about the concept (nothing had been filmed or even storyboarded), and asked for permission to use the song. He replied with the following email:

Hello Nick-
I would be delighted for you to use the song gratis in the short. You don't have to file any paperwork! All I ask is the following credit:

Music: Boll Weevil
from "Crossing The Willamette" by Greg Hale Jones
© 2002 Greg Hale Jones/Exoteric Music (ASCAP)

Used by Permission

That's it. Your short sounds very interesting (really!)- let me know how it turns out.


ps If you get into a longer film at a future time, and you want a score, write me and we'll talk it over. I like to do indies, especially when they're challenging and different, which sounds like what you're doing.

With his permission I was able to use the song, and use it during editing for timing and inspiration. As the film came to a close, I realized how essential the music had become to the viewing of the film.

Upon completion, I sent him a copy of the film, to which he replied:

Hello Nick-

What a pleasure it was to receive "Lost Springs." I'm getting interviewed by Scott Alarik of the Boston Globe tomorrow about what he calls "neo-primitivism," in music and I would like to send him my copy. "Lost Springs" seems like a hand-in-hand member of this folk-digital genre with "Boll Weevil."

My partner Laurie and I watched the film with great delight. The fact that the characters are floating only becomes evident gradually (subliminally? What are those reflections on his arms?), then dawns on you and all the elements of the piece suddenly lock together in just the way fine art should. The title, subject, meaning, characters, all are there for a solid reason and nothing is gratuitous.

And it's beautiful to look at. We also devoured "Fleurs" and I about died when that dreaming man slowly, gently began to burn.

Nick, I think you are headed for great things.

If you can send me a few more copies of the DVD (great packaging and features, BTW) I would like to share them with some people (in addition to Scott).

All the best,

I was glad that Mr. Jones had enjoyed the film, and excited to discover a title that I might one day call my style. But that was the last message from Mr. Jones. Greg Jones passed on July 22, 2004. From what I heard from him, he was a very kind man, and I'll always appreciate his work through which he will live on.



There were 4 main elements that went into the making of this film

Underwater Filming
Miniature Model

Each is detailed in a section to the left.

Also, check out this BEHIND THE SCENES FOOTAGE:


















































































































Once the film was done I needed a poster for the screening at the Design Dept. at UCLA on June 14th.

Click here to see the poster

And since there were individuals who helped make the film possible, I made a DVD complete with packaging, menus, and special features.

Click here to see the DVD cover and DVD label



Nick Zynda Producer, Director, Writer, Prod. Designer, Actor
Jacob Angelo Writer, Prod. Designer, Actor
Patrick Coleman Actor
Megan Brunner Actor
Holly Zynda Actor
Lyman Dewl Actor



© 2004 npickle Productions

All images, video and content the property of Nick Zynda.
For information, questions, comments please send an email to the above address.