Pre-Production Breakdown - The Smiling Man

Previs (top) to final (bottom) comparison shot.

The Smiling Man is, on its face, a short and simple film. However, when your six year old lead actor (Abbi Chally) can only be on set for 6 hours a day and your other lead actor (Strange Dave) requires 8 hours of make-up, nothing is simple (fun fact: the first day of our shoot was on Abbi's sixth birthday).

On my first film, Carolina Parakeet, I storyboarded several key sequences before going into Previs. You can see the complete storyboard breakdown article here, the previs breakdown article here and the full Carolina Parakeet previs compare reel here.

Unfortunately for The Smiling Man, we didn't have the luxury of time. I had very specific ideas for the look, tone, composition and camera movement in this film: I wanted every frame to be perfectly composed. No shaky cam. No run-and-gun. It's a look that requires a lot of planning.

While our prep time was a bit accelerated, we busted our asses and did our homework and were pretty happy with the film that we got out of that effort.

Location, Location, Location

For The Smiling Man, I wanted a suburban home that felt and looked very normal. I'd seen a lot of shorts and features where people's homes were creepy looking. I wanted the opposite. This is the girl's home; it should feel welcoming. I wanted to evoke the feeling of being terrified in a place that you are supposed to feel safe in.

Once we nailed down our location, we took exhaustive measurements and quickly built a crude but fairly accurate version of the house in 3D using Autodesk Maya. One benefit in our Producer Tefft Smith II having a background in VFX is he was able to do this by himself pretty quickly. While Tefft was working on the house model, I created super rough character rigs that would stand in for Abbi and The Smiling Man.

Photo Visualization

I didn't have much time to storyboard anything for the film. Instead, we spent an evening walking through the location and I shot photo boards while working out all the action with Producer Tefft as Abbi's stand-in. Prior to the walkthrough, We purchased some balloons and made sure to have Abbi's measurements so we could get better approximations when Tefft stood in for her.

Producer Tefft Smith II (top) stands in for actor Abbi Chally (bottom) during our walkthrough.

For these photo boards, I framed and lensed loosely, as the Canon 5D MkII I shot with had a different film back from the Red Epic we were going to use and I was mainly concerned with blocking the action. The goal of this exercise was to nail the shot and setup count so we could work quickly and with confidence on the day. I also wanted to provide my DP David Holochek with a rough representation of each shot, one that we could finesse together on set. These photos gave us a good starting point for a very fun and creative collaboration.

Producer Tefft Smith II (top) stands in for actor Abbi Chally (bottom) during our walkthrough.


Now that we had the house and characters in 3D, I built a camera rig in Maya with the Red Epic film back and began to lens the action. There was very little time for proper animation, so I roughed in poses and basically used the previs as 3D storyboards.

Previs (top) vs final (bottom) comparison.

The main goal I wanted to achieve with the previs was to make sure that we had the lines of action correct for the interaction of Abbi and The Smiling Man, because we were shooting their scenes out of sequence. With Abbi wrapping a full 2 hours before Strange Dave's make-up and appliance work was camera-ready, we didn't have much room for error and it was absolutely crucial that we hit our marks. If we got the eyelines or line of action wrong, the shots between Dave and Abbi wouldn't cut together and we could have a disaster on our hands.

At the end of the process, I had a detailed shotlist and every shot was represented with either photo-vis or previs that every department and crewmember had access to. We were able to use that as a rough guide during the shoot.

One of our more complex setups: previs (top) vs final (bottom).

In the end, we were pretty happy with how everything turned out. Abbi had so much fun that she wanted to be made up as The Smiling Man, which our make-up fx lead Melanie Leandro was more than happy to do in pink. Let's end this with a bonus shot of Abbi and Strange Dave giving their best scary faces!