Nick Kougioulis Reconstructs ‘Ciphering’ in HD

Stalking Camera Moves, Eerie Vignettes, and Green Screen

StudentFilmmakers magazine speaks with Nick Kougioulis, director and editor of Ciphering, third place winner of the Summer Shorts 2008 Film and Video competition. Shot with the Sony V1U and recut in HD, the psychological thriller looks into two strangers, Lufkin (Brian Deaver) and Victor Sarmast (Joe Bartenhagen) crossing paths in a library, and one of them has a story to tell.

How long did it take to write, shoot, and edit your film, Ciphering?

Nick: Here’s the fun part, Ciphering was originally a short created for a 48-hour film festival. Which meant we wrote, shot, and edited the film within that time. After the dust settled, I really wanted to take the short to the next level, but that wasn’t going to be easy. My first order of business was to basically re-cut the film in HD, considering all of the previous editing was in standard definition. I would also have to rework the visual effects scenes, color correction, and do additional timing work on audio and edits.

Your main character, Victor, is played by Joe Bartenhagen, who wrote the script for Ciphering. What inspired the storyline and this collaboration?

Nick: Given the time constraints to get this film done we are all kind of brainstorming on what we have access to in the real world. I had access to a library overnight, so we had our set-piece. After that, we thought, what could go wrong on a slow night with a couple of strangers and a room full of books? We decided on two characters that are complete opposites that somehow do a role reversal by the end. It was also important to me to put the Lufkin vignettes in there to really show how he truly sees himself in his own mind. Then we turned Joe loose on the script and he did an amazing job.

Did the script change much while you were in production?

Nick: Not very much, there were a few simple changes that made sense on the day to switch around. But nothing major.

What lighting setups did you use in the library?

Nick: Oddly enough the library lighting worked well with our setup. We did have a couple of soft-boxes that we used here and there.

What advantages and disadvantages did you experience shooting with the Sony V1U?

Nick: Until interchangeable lenses become less cumbersome, that’s always going to be a disadvantage, not being able to have the select focus we all wish for. Usually, I do the camera work myself, so I was literally shooting for the edit room, that’s an advantage when you’re the editor, too. I don’t plan on always working this way, but for now, it works. As far as working with the Sony V1U, it was very nice to work with because I was shooting to hard disk instead of tape. When I shoot tape I tend to roll way more that I use. This way I ended up with less footage because it’s such an instantaneous process.

In the first vignette, there’s a somewhat playful but eerie look to it. How did you shoot and edit that sequence to give it that look?

Nick: I wanted to give the vignettes a different feel than everything else, so I chose to shoot them in front of a green screen rather than just shooting them in front of the house. This would allow me to do the half morph you see that turns Lufkin into the little boy. And throwing in a little sound effect really blend these awkward little moves sometimes.

How about the sequence with the helicopter?

Nick: The helicopter sequence was fun because we just had a 1/16 scale model that we shot in front of a green screen and tried to keep the helicopter blades spinning with our fingers. For the other live elements with Brian in his ER gear, I had a monitor to look at to figure out how I needed to frame them, then we fired up a leaf blower for the wind effect and shot away. I did all of the compositing using After Effects.

Referring to the same helicopter sequence, what did you do for sound?

Nick: The sound of the helicopter was simply from a sound FX library.

In the sequence where the character Victor begins to reveal who he is, and what he’s doing there, a number of elements contribute to the building up of tension and drama in the scene. These elements are a combination of the actor’s performance, your camera moves, editing, and sound effects. Could you talk about that sequence and how it was executed and delivered?

Nick: Good question. This was definitely one of our more difficult shots. Joe is quite the comedian in real life, and he had a lot of lines to remember in this monologue. As I recall we shot for over an hour to get this scene right, and even took a break to come back to it later. We know our character Victor’s patience is drawing to an end, and we know Lufkin is enjoying every second of it. But as soon as Victor’s phone buzzes, that would be our winds of change in a sense. Putting Lufkin on guard and bringing us closer to the climax. In regards to the camera moves, through out the piece so far, it was just a guy talking to another guy, I could dolly back and forth to hear what they individually had to say; now at this point their fates are intertwined and we stay wide on this shot to see the confrontation come to a head and maybe draw up a little suspense. So the next time we’re close on Lufkin, you know his heart is racing. Then the dolly comes from behind the chair, but not quite seeing the thing that Lufkin is seeing, again building some suspense, only to find out it’s the black bag that we can’t see into, leaving it up to the audience to decide. That’s what I love.

How did you cast for your film, Ciphering?

Nick: I’ve worked with Joe and Brian in short films and commercial work before. Brian’s an extraordinarily versatile actor and can really just run with any character you throw at him, and Joe is always a pleasure to work and write with. So for this particular short I thought they were perfect.

Did you use storyboards?

Nick: I always do boards, no matter how small the scene, because at least you have a jumping-off point to go from when everyone starts looking at you. It was a pretty simple boarding process for Ciphering having two guys sitting across from one another but because that part was laid out. I was able to use some extra time to find the right books to sit behind them in the background as well. You could probably see what was coming a mile away if you read some of the titles of those books.

What was your most favorite thing to shoot in Ciphering and why?

Nick: I think my favorite thing to shoot was Brian combing through the aisles of books stalking Joe. I really couldn’t stop laughing.

Did any unique challenges come up where you had to create and execute alternative solutions on the fly?

Nick: Five minutes into shooting the scene at the table there were these horrible rattling noises in the audio whenever the guys would touch the desk, which turned out to be the lamp. Fortunately, we got that stopped early on by using a piece of gaffers tape to tighten it up.

If you could share a piece of advice to new filmmakers around the world, what would it be?

Nick: The best advice I have ever heard, and I’m a believer as well is –  just go out and shoot something, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad in your eyes, your next one will be better. But I’ve also come to realize that when it comes to making movies; friends are not fans.

Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, December 2008 Edition.

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