Posted on October 29, 2013

By Matthew Skala

The look of Separated, a miniature short film about adventure and romance


As a follow up to Behind You–best film at the Carnival of Darkness festival in 2012–I delve into my 2nd collaboration–a miniature short film–with writer and director Benjamin Freiburger. And joining us this time is co-writer, editor, and producer Grant Wheeler–a long time creative collaborator of Freiburger. 

We set out to make an epic adventure in miniature proportions. Separated is the story of an inch and a half tall wind-up toy named Jim who embarks on a perilous journey to reunite with his lost love, Jill.

When Jim is wound up all the way, he can walk about 12 inches. So we were restricted to shooting the movie one foot at a time–or less depending on the action. For activities such as turning, jumping, looking around, or interacting with other objects–we used puppetry techniques designed on the fly. No stop motion was used.

When working on this miniature short film with such a small lead actor, we needed the camera to both sit and travel as close to the floor and other surfaces as possible. So, being on a tight budget, and lacking a snorkel lens system–we shot on a small DSLR camera with Nikon and Canon lenses. An old Nikon 35-70 macro lens was utilized most often. And the macro feature allowed us to get tight enough on the toy to capture medium close-ups. Almost every set-up required some sort of unusual camera rig–whether it was mounting the camera upside down off the tip of a skateboard, holding it in place with wedges and tape, or sliding the camera across the wood floor on a soft piece of fabric.

Frame Grab from Showtime short film SeparatedFrame Grab from Showtime miniature short film Separated Frame Grab from Showtime short film Separated Wind Up toy Jim in the Showtime short film Separated Wind Up toy Jim in the Showtime short film Separated


The lighting was motivated by ambient daylight and direct sun. And HMI units were regularly aimed through windows from the outside. For ambient fill, we bounced light off of ceilings, walls, and foam core using smaller HMI’s or gelled tungsten units. And miniature bounce cards were often placed close to the camera.

Jim’s highly reflective dome and body were a challenge. And we had to constantly remember to check for unwanted reflections. For most set-ups, I embraced specular highlights on the dome. But, for the more emotive moments–I had to be wary of them obscuring Jim’s eyes. Since the toy doesn’t speak or have any animated facial expressions–we had to rely on camera angle and light to project emotions into his lifeless robotic peepers.

The movie starts warm and cozy–everything is right in the world. The toys–Jill and Jim–sit together on a mantle above a fire fireplace. Then we see that certain objects around the living room are missing a counterpart. Where his-and-her coats were hanging by the door–now there is only the man’s coat, etc. It turns out that the humans living in the house have split up, and the lady has taken her things.

Time passes, the lighting cools off a little and we see that Jim is all alone. After a while, he gets anxious and–for the first time–he summons the will to move on his own. He is motivated by a desire to find Jill and his adventurous journey begins. The lighting warms up to reflect a sense of optimism for his adventure. During his journey, he encounters discouraging obstacles and the lighting is cooled off. But as he overcomes them the light warms up again. Then, when the obstacles become more challenging and his stunts to overcome them more exciting–I introduce flares and warmer colors. And when they are finally reunited and safe, their world becomes bathed in passion with warm oranges and soft shallow focus.

Wind Up toy Jim in the Showtime short film Separated

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