Connor Simpson-Manta

When I receive an email from DN friend Oliver Goodrum advising me to check out a film, I know I’m in for a treat. Olly’s latest recommendation, Cul-de-Sac, was no exception and after experiencing the film’s glorious cinematography and bristling score, I was determined to find out more. Created by Alabama-based designer and filmmaker Connor Simpson, Cul-de-Sac is just part of an extensive short film catalogue from the director – here’s a select few, with some words about each from the director.

CUL-DE-SAC

Two very different members of a less-than-pristine society are faced with situations that neither of them know how to handle.

I guess I’d describe it first and foremost as a short film since the music was written to the visuals rather than vice-versa. However, the music plays an incredibly large role in this short, not only because of the ambiance it sets, but because of the power of the lyrics. [plain.]’s Kweku Ulzen wrote and performed the lyrics and he is a poetic genius.

I can’t really say where the concept for this video came from. I just wanted to tell the story of a common situation from a new perspective. It brings racial stereotypes into question, yes, but more importantly (to me, at least), it looks at the grey area between right and wrong. No one is the ‘good guy’ and no one is the ‘bad guy’. It’s a very neutral piece and I wanted it to be that way. Both the child and the officer are thrown into a situation that neither of them know how to handle. They try to take the reigns and it ends up not working out for either of them. That’s the story I wanted to tell.

Cul-de-Sac was produced in a slightly more spread out fashion than we are used to. The pre-production period took a couple of weeks and the shooting was completed in two short days. Post production is what took the longest. I worked with [plain.] to produce the music after the filming was completed, so we had some down time while the lyrics were being written and music was being produced. Since I was in Alabama and [plain.] was in Virginia, we had to send multiple drafts back and forth to each other until we came to a cut that we all agreed on.

We shot Cul-de-Sac on a 5D Mark III with a set of Zeiss ZF.2 prime lenses (18mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm), all mounted on a Zacuto Scorpion shoulder rig. I love simple, organic movement, so we tried to shoot on the shoulder as much as possible.

For our lighting, we wanted a lot of contrast since we were envisioning the final product in black and white. My DP, Marc Patterson, used a couple of Arri kits (150, 300, and 650 watts) mixed with natural light for the interiors and we used completely natural light at the right time of day for the exteriors.

MANTA

Chris Carden, an employee of a planetary resource corporation, has been stationed by himself in a small facility on the surface of a foreign planet for eight months. When a new employee arrives to take the next shift, Chris does not want to leave. A strange, ethereal romance with the planet itself leads Chris to take drastic measures to ensure that he stays there for good.

For Manta, the setting was just that — a setting. When it comes to genres like sci-fi, I have always believed that VFX aren’t needed for a good story. At its core, Manta is a drama that just happens to take place on a foreign planet, so we tried our best to stay away from non-traditional effects.

I really love films that use practical effects (for example, Duncan Jones’ Moon used miniatures for most of the exterior shots), so I wanted to try my hand at keeping everything on-screen. The only effects we added in post were a single green screen shot of Alex looking into the station from outside and the suit’s air leak.

I knew from the start that I wanted to make Manta character-driven, so balancing aesthetics and plot/theme was never really an issue. The aesthetic came from the world that we had built by hand and the characters brought that world to life. It came pretty naturally and I don’t regret the choice to stay away from excessive VFX. It was a ton of work, but I think we’re all pretty proud of what we produced in such a short amount of time.

THE CANARY

It was a fun and incredibly exhausting project. The 48 hour competition that we entered made it so that you couldn’t really plan anything until the event kicked off. When the competition officially started, we were given a genre and a prop that had to play some part in the film. We were given ‘silent film’ and a rope. The first night was spent deciding what resources we had to make the project as good as it could be with the limitations in mind.

Location-wise, we wanted something that would really stand out. I immediately thought of the safe room at my parent’s house. I always thought it looked like some sort of containment cell, so we took that idea and ran with it. We spent the rest of the night writing a basic outline for a story and deciding how the rope would play a part. It started out as just a background element, but turned into a very important piece of the story as we filmed. A lot of the story was changed on the fly and I think that is what helped make it successful. With these kinds of competitions, you can’t be too stuck on one idea or plan. Everything can (and usually will) go wrong and you need to be ready to adapt.

With the time limitations, we knew that we wanted the first night to be spent writing and the entire last day to be spent editing, so we only had one day to shoot. We had some people buying props while some set up lights, while our composer, Sumerlin Brandon, was working on the music. We flew by the seat of our pants the entire shoot but we loved every minute of it.

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