The Ancile

Traveling to ancient Sparta on a budget.

G. Mitchell Johnson

A client came to us and asked for a short film to open their convention. The convention was to be held next to the ocean and had a Spartan theme. Our task was to write a short story then produce the film in the middle of winter. (No problem considering Spartans don't really dress for snow.)

The client hands out spartan shields as awards to their top sellers, so we decided to base the story around a shield, and what it could take to get one. With a little research in to Greek mythology I learned that an Ancile was a gift form the gods. I thought about how our main character would need to solve a riddle or challenge to be awarded this shield ( an allegory to the sales people making their sales goals). I also had to include the ocean, so I came up with a gift from the gods that was hard reach as it was under water. I was off to a good start. Then I got to thinking about how if one buff spartan was a little smarter than another spartan it wouldn't be that impressive, so I decided to go with a young man who wasn't as strong as a full grown warrior. Spartans used to send their children off for training as pre-teens, this was known as the Agoge.

Finally I was able to put together a challenge about how with the moon at night the gravitational pull would pull the water away and create a low-tide, making the shield accessible thus making this kid be able to do what full grown mean could not! It wasn't until we finished shooting that I realized that I totally ripped off King Arthur and Sword and the Stone - but it's a good story right? Anyhow, we pitched the story to the client, they loved it, and we got the green light and deposit to start the project.

First up, we needed to figure out how to shoot this in February. For a minute we thought we might get a trip to Hawaii or somewhere warm to film, but then we quickly realized there wasn't a budget for that. So we opt'd to go a'la 300 style and film on green screen.

When shooting on green screen, it's vital to know what you're shooting for. Every light needs to be intentional to match what you'll composite into the background. For this we storyboarded out every shot. I this example we decided to show a very large moon; partly because it looks cool, but also because we needed to emphasize the moon's gravity pulling the water away.

The boy looks up to the cliff with a large moon behind it. Notice the moon would light him from his left.
On the stage we used a large soft light (Arri SkyPanel 360) to illuminate the boy from his left.
In Post I used After Effects to Comp in all the elements around the boy. Notice how the moon light matches.
The boy looks nears the edge of the cliff. Again we need to back light the boy, and add some wind.
I used the same light to back light, then used a black piece of cloth to "flag" off the light from hitting the lens. Notice we have the SFX fan to simulate the wind there'd be on an ocean cliff.
With a little clean up, I keyed the boy, and added a faux camera move (dolly right).

With the proper pre-production, and storyboards and small production can pull off a big project. I'll be creating a multi-part blog series with some tips & tricks when shooting, and keying green screen footage. Be sure to keep an eye out for that series.

This project turned out great. We shot this in two days: One on the stage at Redman Movies & Stories, and the other at the Homestead Crater in Midway UT,.. where we filmed from 11pm to 3am. You'll see some photos below of the shoot. We had to haul two large lights (Arri M18) up a few flights of icy stairs to shoot down into the crater to light it as if it were day,.. and night.

Hope you enjoyed this write up!

  • Greg

Behind the Scenes, on set at Redman Movies & Stories main stage in Salt Lake City Utah.

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