They say the best way to learn is by doing, and making an independent film is no exception. Like a writer needs to read, a filmmaker needs to watch. Exceptions that break the mold (The Blair Witch Project, for example) are great examples, but when budgets, actors, equipment, locations, and real life are all obstacles, just finishing a film is an accomplishment.
Houston, Texas filmmaker Bill Hughes is someone who thinks big and works hard to achieve his goals. His first full-length feature, The Color of Blood (available on Amazon.com for rent or purchase), is a great example of doing what you can however you can. The film likely isn’t going to win top awards or rave reviews, but any aspiring filmmaker watching it should be able to appreciate what was done to get the film in the can. Let’s break down what went into The Color of Blood.
First, the actors. The cast is mostly amateur, but this becomes very apparent when key members of the cast are present. For example, the character of excentric artist Warbird, played by Travis Ammons, instantly dominates his scenes the moment he appears. It isn’t so much that Ammons is that good, but in comparison, the others look like they’re just trying to remember their lines. Had the director known this in advance, he might have rewritten the story with Ammons at the center of the production. Being a horror film, many of the characters were written to die, and due to whatever circumstance, Ammons wasn’t available long enough to film his own death scene; his character dies off camera, killed by a bit of narration.
The locations? Filmed in and around Houston, the movie does an adequate job of showing the creepier parts of town, or at the very least playing them up to look as creepy as possible. One landmark location is a venue called Helios (once called the Mausoleum and currently called Avante Garden), a creepy looking establishment that effectively serves as Warbird’s art studio. Another live location was a haunted house in the city that had closed down before reshoots were required, forcing the director to recreate as little of the location as possible and try to marry it to the preexisting footage to create a complete location. Did it work? Mostly, but you do the best with what you have.
The budget? Negligible. The sound is one of the most quickly noticed problems, full of background noise that can be distracting at times. To the film’s credit, at least the levels are consistent; after a while, you really don’t notice it because the noise is always there (the great and many pauses between actors delivering their lines is much less easy to ignore; you can almost hear George Lucas screaming “Faster! More intense!”) In an effort to film a dark story, much of the film was shot at night and/or in dark locations, but many of these are either too hard to see what’s happening or done deliberately to suggest more than is actually there. Sometimes not seeing the monster is scarier, but when it’s time to show it, horror fans hope it will be more and worse than what they imagined. Once the director reveals his monster, there’s more than a little confusion as to what you’re actually seeing, but it doesn’t look too bad all in all.
The effects? Sadly, this is one of the places where the budget proved less effective. There’s a great slash by the monster’s claws across a victim, a simple effect to reveal a ripped shirt and blood that’s cut quick enough to be effective, but most of the time there’s a close up of a painful expression followed by a scream and/or a blood smear (usually on something made of glass), and it isn’t always clear how or sometimes if a character has been killed off. Were they stabbed? Bitten? Impaled? Shot? The Color of Blood was release “not rated,” but the director confessed that he intended for the film to cater to the under-seventeen crowd. Some of the most compelling footage is of the director himself (in glorious black and white) as a horror host to narrate transitions between parts of the film.
Shot for shot, there’s a learning curve in The Color of Blood that’s equal parts “here’s what I’m going for” and “let’s see if this works” with mixed results. As an exercise, this is a perfect film for an aspiring filmmaker to wonder what they would or could have done differently to improve a shot or edit a scene more effectively. Although this movie was filmed in 2006 and released in 2011, Bill Hughes is still at it working on his new feature film Matt Mercury, a retro sci-fi filmed primarily on green screens and currently in editing. Early screened footage shown at the 2012 Space City Con looks amazing. There’s still plenty of work to be done to get it show-worthy, and it will be an interesting comparison to take the lessons learned from a guerilla-style horror film shoot and apply them to a green-screen movie about “the future the way it used to be.”