Wheat used to kill me. Now there’s a pandemic for that.
I grew up with a camera in one hand and an Epi-Pen in the other. My first “shoot” was a commercial I wrote for a pizza company that didn’t exist, starring my 1st-grade classmates who made it through the auditions I held at recess in 2005. My parents picked up the tab on the prop pizza (Dominos, but nobody had to know), and when we wrapped, I gladly hung out with my friends as they ate the food I couldn’t. Food that could kill me, but that I wrote into the script anyway. I was just happy we got the shots! 15 years later, I’m just as happy with the shots in my short piece WHEAT-19—a piece built on that same filmmaking passion, and inspired by the same “contamination anxiety” I used to feel because of those allergies.
It took a global pandemic for me to even realize this was a thing I used to do: obsessing over who touched what, what can’t I touch now, what if I touched this before realizing they touched it, and so on. It felt life-and-death then, and I think a lot more people are feeling it as life-and-death now. In the last two months, I’ve been fascinated with how I might convey the feeling visually, in a way that works on both a personal/allergy level, and a public/pandemic level. Using Cheez-Its to represent the danger in my fable was both an important decision for me, and one that came easily. Those were the “prescription” doctors had me eat every day for months to finally get over the hump on my allergies—so I’ve always hated them since, but appreciated them immensely, if that makes sense?
The piece plays with the theme, “are you paranoid, or smart?” Again, this is something I wanted to bridge between how I felt growing up with allergies, and how millions feel today with the coronavirus. I was heavily influenced by Sam Esmail’s character-POV-driven style, particularly on Mr. Robot. Much like Elliot in that show, my character is fully sensitive to these surreal things happening around him—even if other characters are acting as if nothing’s wrong. It’s shot entirely though my proverbial lens.
But on that note—I’ve loved my junior year of film at PSU because it saw me finally branch out from the one-man-show aspect of my pre-college filmmaking. I’ve been an editor, a cinematographer, a sound designer, and—as much as I hate doing it—an actor for others all year. So I was really looking forward to shooting whatever my Directing final ended up being, because I would be serving purely as director. And then COVID hit, and here I am once again doing just about everything! I had huge help from my brother (and co-star) Matt, who rigged lights out of old lawn floodlights, Vans shoeboxes, and colored-Sharpie’d Saran wrap. My dad acted in one scene, and my sister and mom pitched in in a few instances as well. We truly shot the thing using what—and who—was available in the house under lockdown.
Returning to my YouTube channel-era filmmaking method was fitting, given the influence of YouTubers like Joe Penna, Rhett & Link, and Billy Reid as far as the humor goes, but more so the interplay between “reality” and the experimental nature of the Cheez-It and video game elements. I started really refining my editing skills in middle and high school trying to emulate the hybrid animation styles of those guys, and it felt very full-circle to do so once again, now armed with the technical and After Effects knowledge my college years have brought me.
The clearest artistic vision I’ve felt in months came when I realized the coronavirus made me feel like I had life-threatening food allergies again. In that moment, a million things flashed before my eyes, and I’d say a few dozen of them ended up in this piece. Film has always been a part of my identity, because it was something I could share with anybody—whether I was allergic at the time, or not. I’m thrilled to share WHEAT-19, if only to transfer my hatred of Cheez-Its to another person. I told my brother to “keep pouring” even as my dad thought we should stop. So please, enjoy this.
Drowning in Cheez-Its
As mentioned in the statement above, WHEAT-19 was created as the final project for my COMM 445 Directing class. In a more ideal world (to put it lightly), this would’ve involved a full crew, harnessing all the equipment I could think to rent out from PSU, shooting over a couple weekends in April. Instead I had my brother, whatever we could find around the house, and a deadline of the last Zoom class of the semester. I don’t know what my project would’ve been about in that ideal world, but for all the reasons mentioned above, it ended up being this idea. The Cheez-It one.
Before I get into way too much detail about those Cheez-Its, I’ll talk about shooting this in general. I used my Canon Vixia HF-S20, the camcorder that carried my YouTube channel into 1080p glory in middle and high school. This was (almost) always mounted on a basic tripod from the same era. Obviously, this setup is nothing compared to what I’ve been shooting with at Penn State, so we got creative in a number of ways. And when I say “we,” I mean me and my brother, Matt. On top of being my partner in crime and always down to help, Matt’s incredibly crafty. So between me throwing ideas out there, and Matt actually digging in and executing them, we arrived at the following lighting rig for the shoot:
That’s a lawn floodlight, affixed within a Vans shoebox, shining through colored-Sharpie’d Saran wrap. Matt built two of these, so we were actually able to backlight in some instances:
Besides getting ridiculously hot, the “shoeboxes” were actually pretty versatile, bringing much better shots out of a camera with limited manual image control. A fun side effect of the lights’ origins as lawn floodlights was their being activated by a solar sensor; the darker it sensed, the brighter it shone. For most of our shots, we simply taped a covering over this sensor. But in the case of shots where Matt or I were facing the TV screen, or some late in the kitchen sequence, we exploited this functionality. I’d have Matt (or for one of the rare shots with the both of us on-screen, our sister Maggie) move their finger towards/away from the solar sensor, creating an oscillating intensity in the light being cast—resulting in either artificial TV flicker, or an element of the pure chaos of the film’s final moments.
Besides the lighting, we “got creative” with some of the camera’s functionality. With a few years of film school under my belt, I made up for our lack of interchangeable lenses by adjusting both the zoom length and physical distance of camera-to-subject in conjunction to manipulate depth of field on a shot-by-shot basis. We frequently switched between manual and automatic focus; in some cases I wanted a focal point closer/further than the camera software would’ve set for a given shot, in other cases we needed that software to execute rack focuses while I acted and Matt operated the shoeboxes at a distance from the tripod and camera. Setting manual focus was also crucial in the process of achieving the animated Cheez-It shots…but before I get to that, enjoy this panel of what we dubbed “Super Tripod:”
Oh, and I’m still amused that the only reason I was able to pull off the “quadruple mirror shot” was how relatively cheap and low-grade our equipment was:
So…these Cheez-Its. Going in, I wanted to devise a process that struck the best achievable balance between expediency while shooting, efficiency while editing, and a clean final product. As such, we did not in fact lay each Cheez-It down, frame by captured frame. Instead, we captured one frame with “no chz” (per my industry-standard labelling down the line in After Effects), and one with the entirety of that shot’s crackers laid out. This is where it became crucial to check the camera was on manual focus, since in the time it took to physically place every Cheez-It, autofocus could easily drift to a slightly different point that would greatly complicate marrying the plates.
Then, in After Effects, I cut each individual Cheez-It out from the second image, to have precise control over their timing when popping up over top the first image:
There were 8 total shots involving this process. Some of those were that simple. Others, like the “Super Tripod” shot over the basement bar, were a little more involved. Shooting wise, it was still a matter of two plates: with, and without Cheez-Its. In this case, I wanted real environmental interaction as I lean in over the sink, so we shot my part on the “with” plate:
So in After Effects, the layers stacked like this, from the bottom up: Jake moving, the empty bar surfaces, the individual Cheez-Its, then a mask of the other groceries (these shifted slightly as we laid the Cheez-Its down, so I cut one iteration out and held that over the duration of the shot). I marked the first frame in the “Jake moving” take where my reflection shows in the sink; shortly after that frame my shadow moves in over the Cheez-Its by the sink, and eventually I lean over them myself. Since I had control over when each Cheez-It cropped up, I was able to have those surrounding the sink do their thing before that marked frame. That way, after those had been animated in, I faded out any added layers over that section—the Cheez-Its, the empty bar—so it looks completely real as I move in. And that’s because by that point, that portion of the frame is real! I kept the other section animating through that second half of the shot, to hide the cut among the chaos:
In total, I cut out and animated 353 individual Cheez-Its. That masking process alone consumed 6 of my 9 total hours in After Effects, with the other 3 involving the animation timing and other masking maneuvers like the one I just described. I’m really happy with how this process worked—it definitely saved time while shooting in comparison to doing traditional stop motion, and I don’t think it took any longer while editing than it would’ve to get results this clean had we shot it the other way. Doing it stop motion would’ve meant replacing the entire bar surface in that shot, once for each Cheez-It, for example. You would see little differences in lighting, or the grocery bags, or 3rd-party shadows, and those differences would happen in sync with each new cracker. In a piece centered around contamination spreading over existing, safe surfaces, it’s important to me that it really looks like just the Cheez-Its are animating in—and it does.
Originally, I envisioned simply sticking double-sided tape to some Cheez-Its and then sticking them to the wall. Turns out, Cheez-Its are way too oily to allow that. So, my mom came in clutch and helped me run a little assembly line: hot gluing tiny squares of computer paper to Cheez-Its, then sticking the tape to those squares:
Then there’s the “drowning” shot. As spoiled above, we cut a hole in a plastic bin so I could poke my head through. Then Matt stuffed a blanket in around my neck, saving us hundreds in Cheez-It-related expenses as he only poured them in at just about surface level:
When I break back through the surface at the end, that’s Matt pushing the bin down towards the ground while I stay still. My dad had to wipe my eyes off after every take just so I could open them to watch what we’d just captured. I took a shower immediately after this, and it smelled like when you pour the powder into a pot of Easy Mac. But I digress.
All told, we shot everything over 6 days, from April 27th to May 2nd. While at Giant, we observed social distancing guidelines, and purchased anything we touched (including a jar of French Onion dip I used in conjunction with my keys to perfectly align the camera with that centered Cheez-It box):
With that shot—it was absolutely inspired by the opening frames of Jordan Peele’s Us, where he does the same pull-back from one rabbit in a cage, to an entire wall of them. It’s unnerving and elegant and something that immediately came to mind when I saw just how big a “wall of Cheez-Its” we had to work with in that aisle. The camera came with a remote that includes zoom functions, and I found a control for zoom speed in the settings. So once everything was framed properly, I just let it roll while I executed the sloooow zoom completely hands-free of the camera (great for stability).
With that final class Zoom looming, I had only a few days to edit once we wrapped. I knew when I wrote the piece how heavily the sound design would drive things, so for many of the shots we didn’t even bother with audio. The first few cuts were edited on a purely visual basis, with the small amount of dialogue present being the exception. Once I was happy with the cut, I sent those 8 shots out to After Effects, bringing them back in 9 hours later. Then I sent the whole thing over to Logic Pro X…
…and spent almost 12 hours building the score and sound design. I downloaded a free plugin that enables 8-bit composition, and did my best to emulate the sonic language of the MS-DOS games I grew up playing on a dinosaur of a Windows 98 PC. I knew I wanted to incorporate underwater sounds into the second half of the piece to tie in with the “drowning,” but running these sounds (from the PSU Film Sound Library) through a bitcrusher provided cohesion with the rest of the sound to that point. Any remaining foley gaps were filled on the spot with both a Blue Yeti mic and a TASCAM DR-40 handheld recorder.
I sent the sound back over to Premiere, tweaked a couple glitches I noticed in the After Effects shots during those 12 hours, and color corrected. And that was it!
WHEAT-19 was a humungous undertaking, and I’m extremely grateful for Matt, without whom the piece never would’ve been possible. The same goes for my dad, dusting off his acting chops from my YouTube days, and my mom and sister, who pitched in when duty called. Executing the project at this level was important to me for a few reasons, the first being: this was my only chance to make a final Directing class project, pandemic or none. Was it what I imagined when I enrolled in the class? No, but I was going to do my best to come close.
Second, a big part of the class was finding what resonates with you personally and making sure it’s the foundation of your art. I wasn’t lying at the end of that director’s statement (which was turned in for the class)— “The clearest artistic vision I’ve felt in months came when I realized the coronavirus made me feel like I had life-threatening food allergies again.” Done properly, this idea was a chance to convey some pretty primal feelings from my anaphylactic youth in a suddenly timely fashion. When we were filming past 3 AM for the 3rd night in a row, or when I hit hour 30 of post work in a 2-day window, I would tap into that feeling of realization, of urgency. This had to fire on all cylinders to work—cinematography, visual effects, sound design—and if it wasn’t yet where I envisioned it, what was the point?
Looking forward to the uncertain months ahead, I’m determined to make a few more projects that bend, but don’t break, the resources at my disposal at home. If I’m back in State College for the fall, I’ll be diving in headfirst on several major projects for COMM 438, Advanced Narrative Production. And if not, I’ll always have a few boxes of Cheez-Its laying around…