“What does it mean to say ‘I love you’?” asks Paul Hinson, a senior Communication major at Virginia Tech, in his director’s statement for the short film he wrote and directed. The film, simply titled “November,” is a blend of his endeavors for his creative fiction and advanced cinema production courses.
Having written the story in Creative Fiction, Hinson was able to use the script as the basis for his film. Hinson created the film as the main project in his cinema production course, and the process allowed him to expand his skills in lighting, editing, and sound. Further, perfecting the film involved almost a year’s worth of practice in directing.
Largely influenced by the themes and visual style of The Graduate, “November” is a short relationship drama that follows Zach and Elsa, two college freshmen who have been dating since high school and who struggle to maintain their long distance relationship from separate colleges. Hinson stresses that it was important for him to examine both sides of the relationship and, in the parallel structure of the film, acknowledge the similarities of the characters’ situations.
The film portrays both characters’ loneliness and feelings of distance from each other on several levels. “[November] mainly focuses on the characters,” says Hinson. “I think a lot of the drama in the story comes from [Zach and Elsa’s] relationships to other characters and the kind of power other characters have over them.” This is conveyed both through the script and the actors’ performances. “I also wanted to use lighting … and visual design to … explore the relationship between the characters … within their environment,” Hinson says. His inspiration for lighting and composition came when hearing the commentary on the complex lighting of a scene in The Graduate where “all the plants are in the background and it’s kind of shadowy, like a jungle, and [the character is] overpowered ... [the lighting and composition] is an extension of the character’s power or emotional situation.” Hinson also drew upon the work of Hitchcock “because the way [Hitchcock] planned out all the shots … always worked toward the story actively.”
When approaching the design of “November,” Hinson aimed to “think about how the camera can actively tell the story.” He and the production crew put together several different lighting designs, applying the techniques they studied in class, but quickly learned to adapt their plans in order to meet their artistic goals. Hinson admits that the planning and filming processes combined both formal and trial-and-error approaches. Hinson first learned how to use lighting in his production classes and used a basic three-point lighting setup that provided a springboard for further experimentation on set. His work as cinematographer on a film the previous semester as well as his study of the American Society of Cinematographers magazine gave him other resources on which to base his research for the production of “November.”
Class deadlines, budget, and location were the controlling factors of production. For most scenes, the crew was forced to pare down their original plans for the visual design; usually in order to speed up production, and sometimes in order to work effectively in challenging spaces. In one scene, the crew was working on a very small back porch, and had to adjust their lighting design accordingly. For another scene, the location was a long stretch of road, and the crew had to run approximately 300 feet of extension cord from a nearby apartment, forcing them to alter their original plans for the scene’s setup.
Because the final project for the class was a final cut of the film, Hinson and the production crew got a very real sense of working toward a deadline. After wrapping shooting at the end of April, the crew scrambled to put together a sound design for the final exam with the intention of returning to the editing process. “It helped to take a step back from it and … come back to it and reevaluate the pacing of the scenes,” says Hin son. Hinson completely altered some of the scenes from their original plans. Although the class ended in May 2009, Hinson finished his editing midway through summer, and then added visual effects and background mattes. Throughout the fall, Hinson color corrected shot by shot, matching the shots to each other and enhancing skin tones. Finally, Hinson spent until December developing a sound mix, thus completing the final version of the film.
Hinson first started making films in high school using video games, and a form of filmmaking called “Machinima” which allowed him to send characters and settings from his imagination to the screen in a way that cannot be done with live action film. Around that time, Hinson became involved with Virginia Tech’s film production club, AMP, with whom he helped shoot several shorts. Once he began attending Virginia Tech, he directed his own shorts, and now, with a solid understanding of the basics of the language of film, he aspires to attend an MFA film production program, create a solid short thesis film, and build a network with other filmmakers that will enable him to take on his first feature after graduate school. “Ultimately,” Hinson says, “I want to be writing and directing films somewhere with a strong film community, probably somewhere other than L.A.”
The pre-production and filming of “November” was featured on a blog maintained by the film’s crew, where anyone interested in learning about the extensive process behind the film’s creation can view “Behind the Scenes,” “Pre-Production,” and “Making of ” video shorts. Hinson plans on premiering the film on the Virginia Tech campus in March 2010 and submitting it to the Progeny Film Festival as well as to short and student film festivals around the nation—thanks to a grant from the Undergraduate Research Institute.
From the process of creating the film, Hinson gained experience in directing and all that the job entails. But he says that his primary gain was practice with lighting. “The more different situations … that I can light, the more knowledge I get about what lights going to do what and how to set up a situation more quickly without having to go, ‘oh, does this light work here, does this light work here?’” he says. “I know, now.”