South Carolina-based Taylor Engel's short, "The Pavement" — which got him into the top 10 for HBO's Project Greenlight — had me enthralled the moment it began. Through its rhythmic delivery, simple visual nature, and dark aesthetic, it pulls us through a sinister human story that gets at our primal nature. Its simplicity is partly attributed to the needs of the story, and partly to the time frame in which it was created. Engel and his team planned and finished the film in just one month, all while working around their day jobs.
"The biggest benefit [of having such a short deadline] is [that] it forces you to make decisions quickly and just go with it."
Engel had initially envisioned a much more technically advanced piece with camera projection mapping allowing him to move around his scenes not unlike the bullet-time of "The Matrix" fame. However, when Project Greenlight was announced, Engel and his team decided to "just force this thing into existence." That meant having his brother Blake and co-writer Christopher Conners working on the poetic script, while Engel himself spent his time learning some new CGI effects and doing VFX tests. Others took care of much of the logistics in his stead. Entrusting control of a few things allowed Engel to "focus on the creative side."
In the end, it came down to just a single night that they would have for filming, and so everything had to be done as efficiently as possible. Even their director of photography would have to go straight from the shoot to the airport.
For Engel, storytelling is the most important aspect of any video production. Even in his music videos, you will see a strong narrative. "I let the story dictate the shooting style, the format, the color grade — everything," said Engel.
This is where the decision came to finish "The Pavement" in the style of old noir films, for example. He had initially envisioned a desaturated color palette, but during filming it became clear to him that a harsh black and white would lend itself to the story better.
The story itself started as a poem, and during pre-production it was actually translated into a spreadsheet that had shot numbers with each repetition of the wording. Interestingly, the story was actually written to fit around the structure that Engel had in mind. The idea was to find a narrative that would work with the format of starting from a "microscope view and slowing zooming out to reveal the scene."
Engel wisely suggests that when producing any video project, the key is planning. He says that although the usual advice of "grab a camera and go out and shoot something" holds somewhat true, you will more than likely come back with something that is "pretty terrible." A self-admitted pre-visualization junkie, Engel says that "at the very minimum, [he'll] have a shot list for everything [he'll] need to piece together a final product."
"You can always abandon your plan once you're on set, but at the very least [you should] have a plan to abandon," said Engel. Solid advice for photographers and filmmakers alike. Taking this in the broader sense, we can use it to apply not only to the shot list, but to storytelling as a whole. With a goal in mind for what we want to achieve, it's a lot more about piecing together a puzzle than flying by the seat of your pants. This is also Step 1 in Carmine Sarazen's great article Film Set Fundamentals: 7 Tips to Surviving Your First Day on Set here on Fstoppers.
"The Pavement" has since landed Engel several high-level meetings in L.A., and even found him a manager. Forcing himself to get the job done, produce something without all the bells and whistles, and focus on what is truly important — storytelling — allowed Engel to produce a gripping piece that brings us close to human emotions and, most importantly, makes us feel something.
More of Taylor Engel's work can be seen on his website.