A behind the scenes interview with church filmmaker Daniel Shadle about how he made his film SELF • LESS.
First of all, congrats dude. The film turned out great and I’m sure it was quite an undertaking. How did this project come about?
Thanks man! It was for sure the one of the biggest projects we’ve done. Every summer our church puts on this huge student camp in Daytona Beach, Florida. Over 1,000 people attend. The past several years we had captured and shared testimony stories for the camp and they’ve always been effective and the Lord definitely uses those to challenge and encourage the students. However, last year during planning I threw out the idea of doing something a bit different. Instead of our normal testimony stories, let’s create a narrative short film that speaks directly to the theme of the week. Our leadership was all for it… if we had a story idea. The theme was ‘Selfless’, which really isn’t easy to visually show through a camera. We really wanted to get at ‘Christ-like selflessness.’ A true selflessness that doesn’t need recognition. Obviously, in our day and age social media has become a boasting platform. Not just with students, but really anyone on there. It was just our vehicle to show the problem since we can’t really show the ‘heart’ of the characters.
So we bounced around a few ideas and finally landed where we did. The intent was to just stir the pot a little bit. Setup a bit of tension without ‘solving’ it, with the hope that the students could have meaningful, Christ-centered conversation in their small groups after watching the film.
That’s awesome. So what kind of production timeline where you looking at? How long from the idea until the finished edit?
So, camp was the last week of May into June 2018.
I think our first meeting about the camp was in January of 2018. That’s when the VERY rough idea was mentioned. From there, I had to deliver a treatment and then start scripting. The script changed a lot before it was finalized over the following months. Of course, while all of the planning for this is going on, we’re planning for Easter as well as other projects in the mix. So, over the course of a few months, we had the script written, casting done, secured locations and crew members. We filmed over two days in mid-April and I had the edit turned around probably by mid-May.
Nice, was that the first time your team had attempted a scripted, narrative short?
At this capacity, yes. We’d done some goofy, humor stuff that required some scripting in the past. But, nothing with this size crew of people and actors.
What was your biggest challenge in doing something more serious?
Oh man… Plenty of challenges. I had never really worked with actors before. So learning how to communicate and use language that they understood was important. I had to push myself to speak up, be honest, and not worry about hurting feelings. Being in ministry, that last one was hard for me. When filming testimonial stories, I’m so cautious and intentional about making people feel comfortable. This was totally different for me. Fortunately, the cast was easy to communicate with off camera and I was surrounded by great people to help out.
How did you find your cast?
Well, it started with Kathie (she played the mom). She attends our church and I had worked with her in the past. I mentioned the project to her and she immediately was interested. She’s a part of a casting agency in the area and has some good connections. She helped us find Brady, who plays teenage Taylor in the film. From there, I met Joey (he played the father, James) at church and he also had connections through which we found our little guy, Mason. All of the supporting cast attend our church as well.
I worked with a child actor recently on a short film and it was pretty rough, haha. Mason seemed like a natural though, what was it like working with him?
Ha! He was a stinking super-star. Like any young kid, he was bouncing off the walls between takes. Honestly, he lightened the mood of the room and made things fun! As soon as I called ‘action’ it was insane how focused he could be. I remember during the funeral scene, we were doing the close up on him glance up at his mom and before we rolled the take, he forced himself to yawn. I later found out (via his mom who was on set with us) that he was drawing up tears to get more emotion in the shot. Crazy stuff. He was awesome.
Wow that’s awesome. Did you have any tricks or strategies with working with him? or did you just treat him like one of the adult actors?
Nothing major. The main difference was that his mom was there to help out if he was getting antsy. I worked with her a bit and she really helped communicate with him when needed. He took direction really well.
That’s great, yay moms! What do you guys shoot the film on?
We shot with our RED Scarlet-W package. I rented an Angenieux EZ-1 30-90mm. It was the only lens we used on the project. I also rented a wireless follow focus so we could have an Assistant Camera. Paired with our Teradek, that was a huge help to our DP.
I’m pretty sure the whole film was handheld, mostly with an EasyRig. We called it the ‘Feasy Rig’ because I bought this crappy knock-off from eBay. Church budget… haha! Our DP had to use Icy Hot the morning after day 1 because his back and shoulders were toast. We learned our lesson on cheeping out there and have since purchased a real EasyRig.
Haha, I wanted to ask you about the opening one-take trick shot. How did you guys pull that off?
Funny you’d ask about that. The night before the shoot I was lying in bed racking my brain on how we could get from scene to scene without having to dip to black or do any fades.
This took a few takes and we had a few people in hidden places to make it happen. I had our Project Manager, Caiti, hidden beside the bed so that when we pushed in on the boy, Caiti could reach up and change the time on the clock and we pulled out to reveal the time change. When that happened, one of our grips cranked up the intensity of some of our dimmable LEDs to simulate the sun coming up.
Nicely done. What do you think you’ll do differently the next time you tackle a narrative short film?
Well, from a technical standpoint, we really needed more in the lighting and grip area. We shot the whole thing with 3 Quasar LED tubes, and a 1×1 Westcott Flex LED. We made it work, but that was challenging on us. We have more lights now, but next time around, I’ll look at renting a grip truck from a local rental house.
From a directing standpoint, I could’ve used more time getting to know some of the cast. Some of them I had only met once before the film dates. I think a little more time warming up to each other would’ve been valuable.
Yea, feeling comfortable with your cast and crew is so important. How long have you been a filmmaker and how long have you been in your role at your church?
So I had been interested in film/video since high school. I ended up going to college and getting a degree in Mass Media – Video Production. I served at a local church through college creating video content and really just fell in love with it. It being film/video as well as using it as a ministry. I graduated college in 2014 and landed in the role I’m in now as ‘Video Director’ at West Ridge Church in Dallas, Georgia.
Our Creative Arts Team is overseen by our Creative Arts Pastor. There are four department heads that report to him: Video Director, Communications Director, Production Director and Worship Pastor. Caiti, who I mentioned before, serves as Phil’s assistant as well as our team’s Project Manager. We also have a handful of part-timers and interns that are on the team.
Nice, so how was the response to the film at the camp? Teens can be a pretty tough audience…
I think overall I heard good things. Teens can definitely be a tough audience and I really didn’t want to feel too “preachy” at them. It may have still come across that way for some. But, the most encouraging thing I overheard at camp was a group leader referring to the film during their small group sessions. That was our hope. Not to tell this elaborate story that fixes all their problems, but to setup and create some tension for the students to have discussion about in their small groups.
Awesome. I’m not a dad, the film definitely made me want to be a more Christ-like dad when that day comes.
Thats awesome, man!
Anything else you’d like to share with other church filmmakers?
Just a couple of thoughts:
Probably the biggest value on the film was having people around me that I could delegate work to. None of it would’ve been possible without everyone in the credits. We shot the whole thing in two 15-hour days.
Our Project Manager, Caiti, on staff at the church was super helpful with setting up meetings, location scouting, props, food, and much more. Our DP, Jonathan, made the whole thing look amazing. He’s a friend of mine from the Atlanta area who is actually in the film industry as a DIT. With our limited resources, he really increased the level of production value.
I learned to not be afraid to ask people for resources. For example, we used a friend’s home, a local funeral home, and a local park let us block a side street for some filming. People in the church think this stuff is cool and want to help!
At the end of the day, I’d just say to use the gift the Lord has blessed you with to reflect Jesus. He’s the reason we get to do what we do! Count it a blessing.
Love it. Thanks dude! Where can people check out more of your work and connect with you online?