Out For Delivery Behind the scenes of an original, church-made Christmas short film

Ethan Milner and the team at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Alabama have really outdone themselves this year and have released a great Christmas short film that you have to check out.  As soon as I watched it, I had to catch up with Ethan and hear more about how they pulled this off.

Check out our insightful conversation below, but first do yourself a favor and watch the finished film as well as the behind the scenes story of how this project came about:

 

 

Ethan, I’ll admit anytime I see that a church made a short film and it’s 30 minutes long I’m like, “Do I really want to watch this?” but you guys killed it!

I know that feeling WELL. Haha but again, thanks. A lot of really great folks worked very hard on it.

So how did you crew this thing?  What was the breakdown of staff, contractors, volunteers?

It really was a mix and matched group of people. Our sound recorder, and mixer are two guys on staff. Both producers are full time staffers (though their actual jobs here are social media/web and video assistant) and then me and our production designer are both on staff. Then there were four paid crew members, our key grip, gaffer, 1st AC, and composer. The DP and colorist, Greyson Welch differed payment on both fronts in order to afford better keys (I know, what a guy!) and that really made having quality keys possible whereas our budget had no room for them otherwise.

Did you guys utilize any church volunteers?

The rest of the crew were volunteers. Over the past few years we’ve tried to train up high school and college students interested in film and thats yielded a nice little pool of kids willing to give their time to a project like this. So we had 4 PA’s who were all students. Then we had a handful of other volunteers from boom operating to costume design, to props. The biggest volunteer base was for catering and transportation. There was a team of 6 retirees who drove the crew and equipment around, and about 8 retirees cooking and serving and coordinating food to set.

Outside of that, the most amazing thing throughout the process of making a film as a church was the large congregation base who was really eager to give and support a project like this. As a result we didn’t pay for any of the props used, nor any of the locations used. They were all found and borrowed from church members.

What was your biggest expense on the film?

The biggest expense was payroll actually. Between the actors and those key crew positions. Besides that most of the budget went to gear rental.

Did the church already have some gear or was everything rented?

Yeah the church has a fair amount. When I got to Shades 5 years ago there wasn’t much of anything, but over those years we’ve built the ministry up to where most of what we rented was specialty items specific to this story and the way I wanted to tell it. Things like the Movi, or anamorphic lenses. The camera we shot on and all of the post production infrastructure is the church’s.

How long did this take?  How many days of preproduction, production, post?

My bosses were generous to give me a week last June to go away and try to write something. I came back with a rough draft the next week and that gave us just under two months to do all pre-production. That was definitely the hardest part, between casting and locations alone this was the biggest, most complicated thing we’d done. For a 30 minute movie there were over 50 scenes in the script, most of those in different locations. Then we shot the film in 8 days right at the beginning of August. This wasn’t exactly ideal given we’re in Alabama and its 100 degrees with 100% humidity in August and the cast had to be wearing winter clothing. Not to mention the summer crickets making noise on set and having that in our sound capture for the exterior scenes and how our colorist eventually had to take all the green trees and turn them browns and golds.

The edit started towards the end of August… I promised our pastors a rough cut by the beginning of October for us to begin test screenings with small groups of church members. That process was incredibly helpful getting feedback from people and I was even able to clear some things up with quick inserts and reshoots. Then we locked picture at the beginning of November and started color, sound, and new things to us like closed captioning because it was airing on television.

Awesome. What’s an example of something that came up through the feedback that required a reshoot?

Well originally in the script we see the character Grin drive his truck down into the hole at the end leading the audience to believe he covers it up. So there was this extra layer of tension while Kat was running back to stop him. As we shot though, we had a mishap and weren’t able to shoot the character driving the truck into the hole. So in trying to fix it we went back after principal photography and got a few inserts of one of the producers wearing the delivery costume driving the truck down into it. In the edit it was of course really clunky and never really connected the way it was supposed to. During two test screenings in a row there were questions about that part and people were confused. So we decided to just cut that whole pickup scene that we had shot and to simplify the beats in that sequence. The best and most helpful thing is just watching people watch your movie who aren’t attached to it, it’s so valuable to see when they check their phones or squirm in their seat, that meant we had some work to do.

That’s great that you guys had the foresight to test screen it.  how did you guys do those test screenings?  was there any sort of official survey or did you just talk with the audience afterwards?

It was incredibly casual, we just used one of the Sunday school rooms on campus with a decent TV and sound system. Up front I gave them idea of what we were looking for, that criticism was encouraged, it was a safe space… all that. Then we’d roll it and I would try to sit in front of the crowd to watch faces, then took notes. Afterwards I’d just ask a series of questions but typically the conversation got started and kind of navigated itself.

Nice, I think sometimes especially in the church it’s hard to get honest feedback.  People either just love everything or they don’t want to hurt your feelings so in an effort to be nice, they’re dishonest, ha.

FOR SURE, we run into that all the time. Especially with people on staff, confrontation and criticism aren’t common so you really have to work for it if you want it. So what we tried to do was let those audiences know just how rough the cut was and how much it already needed to change. I think that, in addition to them being brought in early in the process gave them a sense of ownership in it. We kept saying, “we made this for you” and “help us make this something you can actually use and share with others” so I think that brought people into the creative fold where they weren’t afraid to be brutally honest which I love.

Did you have an pre-conceived notions going into the filming that got challenged or made you change your mind?

Thousands!  Haha… its funny, I think the best part of making films for a church is the shear volume of work you get to make. Which can be frustrating for sure… but its like being given a membership to a gym, we get to creatively put those reps in and try things on a week-to-week basis. So when it comes to these big projects, it feels like the challenge is all about taking whats on the page, and translating it in full fidelity to the screen. Inevitably every moment of every day making a film there are things that don’t fit your ambition on the page, things that go wrong. So you change or compromise. But hopefully, with enough reps in the gym, you get closer with each project getting the final product to match the script’s intention.

Though I say that… and some of the best stuff happened by total accident or because something else went wrong and you’re boxed in a corner. Robert Altman had a saying for those moments… “just giggle and give in”… and I feel like I said that a lot on this project.

Totally.  Let’s hit a couple of technical things and then we’ll wrap this up……What gear did you guys use to light & shoot this film?

We shot on a Red Epic-X. We shot half the movie (the diner stuff) with Zeiss CP.2 lenses and the other half (the heist stuff) we shot with Kowa Anamorphics. We got a small lighting and grip package from a rental house here in town, mostly tungsten lights. There were also a couple of quasar tubes in that package that we ended up using everywhere. Then the church has a couple of Kino 4-banks. The diner stuff used the most lighting and Greyson and his team did an amazing job making that space work in two different times of day. And the other interiors were a mix of the quasars, smoke, and big lights shooting at the lens to give that giant warehouse some depth. For the exteriors it was all about controlling and modifying… lots of big frames, silks, and negative fill or bounce.

What was the motivation for using 2 different sets of lenses?

The movie takes place at two different times or two different head-spaces (depending on your interpretation of the ending). So we knew we’d be cutting back and fourth between the diner and the heist and also mixing in narration here and there. So we wanted those two things to have distinct visual looks. We talked about shooting spherical and anamorphic and then letter boxing everything, but then decided that’d be too subtle and went for two totally different aspect ratios. So all of the diner scenes are 16:9 and the heist scenes are 2.40:1.

Somehow I didn’t even notice the aspect ratio changes, haha.  The story must have sucked me right in.

Haha, there you go!! That makes me feel great.  The funny thing is…I was a little self conscious cutting back and fourth between the two formats, I thought it might call too much attention to itself. But NO ONE to this day has ever mentioned it, and when I ask they say they didn’t notice.

What did you guys use to edit & color the film?

I edited and did the sound design in Premiere Pro then did all VFX (about 30 shots) in After Effects. Then we broke it up into 4 more manageable reels so Greyson could color them in Davinci Resolve.  The sound mix was in Pro Tools.

Were you editing proxies?

Yes, we made proxies at the beginning of editing which saved a ton of time later on, especially with the mixed formats. Then I kicked out XMLs for Greyson because he needed the RAW material to have enough info to grade all the trees and grass yellow.

Was he grading on-site or were you transporting drives?  I imagine the file sizes on this project were pretty big.

Yeah the project was like 3TB or something. So I just put everything on a drive for him. He lives close to me so he just ended up bringing color masters to wherever I was editing at the time.

Cool.  Last question, how did you manage production of this film with your normal week-to-week duties?

Not very well… haha thats been one of the biggest challenges. We didn’t really cut out any of our normal stuff to make this thing happen. We still had three new sermon series to brand in that time, lots of church news videos, lots of testimonies. Thankfully we’ve built enough of a team at Shades where we have some really incredible people who were willing to share the load these past few months when I needed more time on the movie. And for whatever we couldn’t get done in the week I would usually just let movie stuff bleed over into my weekends (thanks to a very patient and gracious wife) and we’d put priority on weekly responsibilities.

Ha, awesome.  Well thanks for you time dude.  You guys made a great film.  Hope you’re able to catch up on some rest and enjoy the holidays. 

Absolutely Chris, can’t thank you enough for giving me the opportunity!


To check out more of Ethan and the team’s work, head on over to the Shades Mountain Baptist Church’s Vimeo Page.