I am glad to open this week articles’ series with ‘Initiative #435‘, a sci-fi short written, directed, edited and produced by Shawn Costa.

Shawn was kind enough to write an in-depth article about why he decided to write this short, how he made it happen and what happened once he was done with it.

If you are working on a short film or planning to start a project anytime soon, I recommend you take 5 minutes to watch Initiative #435 below, and then a few more to discover and learn from Shawn’s journey.

Without further ado, meet Initiative #435:


 Initiative #435 by Shawn Costa

I look back at my short film, Initiative #435 with the perspective of time.  Prior to Initiative #435, I had made a short film called The Run, which screened at 25 film festivals.  Major talent agencies and management companies had seen the film and they told me to send them my new film when I was done.  All in all, I felt it was successful and enjoyed its festival run.

Hence, I made Initiative #435.  Since I am a huge fan of science fiction and action films I wanted to put my own spin on it.  I was influenced by films such as The Terminator and Blade Runner along with the literary works of Isaac Asimov.

I came up with this story about artificial intelligence and a top-secret government program to create cyborg soldiers.  Since my budget wasn’t very high*, I tried to ground everything in the film in reality.  This is where The Terminator influence came into play.  I liked how In The Terminator, James Cameron was able to place these futuristic ideas such as cyborgs that we normally see take place in films that are set in the future and he placed them in our real-world in the present.  Due to my limited budget, I thought that was the way to go with Initiative #435.

The script went through several passes** until I was able to lock down the structure.  Afterwards, I began the process of designing the film. I storyboarded the entire film, down to the insert shots.  Everything was planned.  At that point, I began hiring my cast and my crew.


With Initiative #435, this was the first time I had worked with a professional crew, all of whom had worked extensively on big studio movies and independent films.  Prior to this, I had worked with small crews and did almost every job myself.  I was still doing a lot myself on this film, but I had a great crew behind me.  Their contribution to the film was invaluable.

I worked with SAG and got to use SAG actors***.  I worked with a casting director and she brought me the cast that ended up in the film.  Every actor was a working actor, so they were all experienced, which I think is very important.  A lot of short films fail due to the acting in them and I didn’t want that to happen here.  Fifty percent of your job as a director is to cast well and I can’t emphasize how important it is to get the best actors you can find, even if you are on a limited budget.

I shot the film on the RED ONE HD camera system.  This was a big deal for me because prior to this I had shot only on 35mm film.  Being a cameraman myself, I had heard of the RED and saw it deliver amazing images, so I took the plunge and switched over to digital.  I have to say I am a convert.  I will shoot RED from now on.  Working with my cameraman, Justin Thomas Ostensen, we were able to really push what that sensor could do.  I love contrast and darkness.  I like to work at the toe of the exposure and so we were lighting scenes with minimal equipment and the camera was delivering some amazing images. We used Zeiss Superspeed prime lenses.  I shot the film mainly using the 24mm and the 85mm lens.

Since the budget was low, I utilized locations for all my sets.  We shot at The Linda Vista Hospital in East L.A.  It was a great location that provided us with a lot of different looks.  I shot the office scene between Cain and The Owner at an office building in Glendale, California.  Using real locations really helped with the gritty and realistic look that I wanted to give the film.

The production of the film took place over the course of three days.  We averaged between 32-34 single camera setups per day.  Since I had rehearsed with the actors beforehand and had many discussions with them about their characters and where they fit in the story, they were on point from take one.  I tend to shoot between 2-3 takes while I shoot.  I can’t stress how important rehearsal is when you don’t have a lot of time to shoot your film.  By rehearsing you’re able to work out any problems with the script before hand.  I always like the actors to give me input and we can try different things in the rehearsal without the pressures of time that you have when you are shooting.  I find it’s a valuable way to work.

The fight sequence was the most involved sequence in the film.  I had storyboarded the entire fight sequence and handed it off to my stunt coordinator Paul Lacovara.  Paul was able to add fight moves within the ones that were designed in the storyboards.  The fight was shot over the course of one day.  Paul and his stunt team trained the actors to do the fight themselves.  The fight sequence was mostly shot with the Steadicam.  I used the handheld camera mainly for the impact hits and the POV shots during the fight.

In terms of the DIY filmmaking techniques, I believe it’s important for a filmmaker to have experience with all facets of filmmaking.  When you’re working on these smaller films you can gain valuable experience by doing a lot of stuff yourself that you can bring with when you hire a collaborator to do that job on your next film.  You can speak the same language and at the very least not drive him or her crazy with demands that cannot be met.

The film was edited on my iMac using Final Cut Pro.  We finished the film by completing a 2K Digital Intermediate at Light Iron Digital.  My colorist was Mark Todd Osborne.  The look of the film was influenced by the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report, so we went for a very desaturated and cool color palate.  This was reflected in the production design and costume design as well, so that it would work as a cohesive whole when we did the D.I.

This brings me to the sound design and the music.  Sound is 50% of the experience and I take great care in the soundtrack of my films.  I worked with a sound designer/mixer named Dante Fazio.  We were able to create a dynamic mix that was heavily influenced by Zack Snyder’s film The Watcvihmen, in particular the sound design and mix of the fight sequence.  Sound tells the story in parallel with the images and so our decisions are always based in story and character.  In fact, if you listen closely to mix during the fight sequence, the punches all sound like they are metal on metal hits.  That is a subtle clue that things are not what they appear with the character of Cain.  That’s an example of using dynamic and creative sound design in service of the story.

The film’s visual effects work was done by two companies, With-A-Twist VFX and The Moving Picture Company.  With-A-Twist composited the security footage onto the computer screen.  The Moving Picture Company did the neutralizer blast and the impact hits on the Abel character.  I worked with Ryan Knowles over at MPC and David Burton over at With-A-Twist.  I knew that I didn’t have a lot of money for over-the-top visual effects so I picked and chose my shots carefully and used visual effects for those big action moments that would give me maximum impact for the story.

The film started its festival run in the middle of 2010.  We had the international premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival where it screened in the short film corner in 2011.  So far we in addition to The Cannes International Film Festival, we have screened at The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, The HollyShorts Film Festival Monthly Screening Series, The NewFilmmakers LA screening series, The Action on Film International Film Festival, the SoCal Independent Film Festival, The Hill County Film Festival, The San Pedro International Film Festival and The ShockerFest International Film Festival.

It is still in the middle of its festival run and I am submitting it to 5-6 festivals every month.  My festival experience in general has been pretty positive.  I feel that if a festival has accepted your film it’s because they like what they saw.  Short films tend not to get a lot of attention, so anytime you can show your film at a festival it helps raise the film’s profile.  Also, it gives you a little bit more credibility with people because for a film to screen at a festival it has to go through the programmers unlike YouTube, where anyone can upload anything, no matter what the quality is.

That being said, YouTube is great for getting your work out there and for it to be seen by a much wider audience.  Anyone can find your film anywhere in the world and click on the link and see it.

I made Initiative #435 first because I had a story to tell.  I wanted to see that film.  That’s the most important reason to make anything is you want to see that film exist.  However, there was a second reason too.  I needed to get an agent or a manager to hopefully get my career going.  Ask any filmmaker what they would like to do and most would probably tell you they would like to make a living at making movies.  As we all know, that’s very difficult as the film industry is incredibly competitive.  However, if you want to become a director, you have to direct.  Short films are a good way of showing the people who are in a position to give you a directing job that you know what you’re doing.

After I completed Initiative #435, I wrote the feature-length screenplay version of the film.  It was interesting because I hadn’t thought about the film as a feature-length idea until I completed it.  In order to write the feature-length script, I expanded the world and the characters of the short film and really went into the details of the program Initiative #435 and the group behind it.

Looking back at Initiative #435, I wished I had more time and money, but I think that’s the wish of every filmmaker with every film.  There’s never enough time or money to do what we want.  However, those restrictions can help you focus since you are using creativity to get fix problems.

As far as what I am doing now, it will probably be a short film.  I have two short film scripts ready to shoot.  One is an epic science fiction story entitled Encounter.  It is in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of The Third Kind.  It deals with big ideas and massive imagery.  The second short is a supernatural action film.  I will start a Kickstarter campaign in the next couple of months for Encounter.  Right now, I am storyboarding and designing both films.  I hope to be shooting them next year.

  • *The budget was about 20K
  • **The script took Shawn a couple of weeks to get right.  Multiple drafts and revisions were written over those weeks.
  • ***Shawn used the SAG Agreement to differ

I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! If you want to ask more questions to Shawn, feel free to comment below, contact him directly through his email costashawn@yahoo.com or his twitter @S_Costa

There will be more indie storytellers sharing their experience soon, with a special project that should interest a lot of you. To stay tuned, subscribe to the newsletter below.

To Be Continued

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By mentorless| 1 Comment | Acting and Actors, Cinematography and Cinematographers, Directing and Directors, Editing and Editors, Film Scoring and Composers, Filmmakers Tools, Films and TV Show, Personal Buzz, Writing and Writers

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