In the midst of fighting in the pacific, a US Second World War soldier contemplates the aftermath of battle. Where once there was respite from the chaos of war, now there are a million small things that wear away at morale; the ringing in his ears, the crackling of his mess tin on the fire and the relentless rain that pats on his tin helmet. Assault on the Senses explores the mental war that follows a battle.
The poem featured in Assault on the Senses was written by Zander back in 2012, having been inspired by the cinematic music of Keith Kenniff (Unseen-Music) and in particular the track Threnody. The plan to set the poem to music and shoot a short film to match was loosely inspired by our first short; The Price of Freedom, which we started making back in 2004. And we wondered how differently we’d tackle a similar project after almost 10 years.
We enlisted the talent and professionalism (and patience!) of our trusty actor/best friend Marc Baylis in yet another short film. Having starred in The Price of Freedom, Encounter and The Mysterious Disappearance of M.M.Bayliss, this would be our fourth film together. Every project has a tale or two to tell and this time was no exception.
Make-up & Costume:
The soldier’s uniform was pieced together from the assortment of costumes we’ve accumulated over past projects. In reality, the war in which the film is set was mostly determined by the uniforms available to us. The poncho wasn’t period and as it turns out, not very water proof either (poor Marc!).
The neck bandage was a padded dressing from a first aid kit and distressed using sand paper and a craft knife. We wanted the neck wound to look a few days old, so a darker more congealed blood was needed; a combination of coffee, blue/purple oil paints and red food colouring did most of the base work for us. Having been warned about the staining power of red food colouring, we were alarmed to discover our rubber gloves had not protected us as much as we’d hoped; we had bloody hands for over a week! When the make-up blood was applied over the top of the bandage we think the effect was very convincing (and really, it’s a shame it doesn’t feature more clearly in the finished film!)
The “post-battle” make-up needed to be very heavy to read on camera in low light. We wanted to suggest the constant exposure to black smoke, mud and blood during prolonged sweaty combat; not only would it look super on camera but it could give some backstory to what our soldier has seen and survived, and also give context to his thoughts.
The short was shot in some bushes in our garden over 4 different night shoots (3-4 hours each), mainly thanks to the inhibiting conditions created by the cold spring weather and the heavy rain effects.
On our first night shoot, despite wearing a military-grade waterproof poncho, Marc was soaked through in a matter of minutes. Multiple waterproof layers were used under his main costume on subsequent shoots. He was also issued a hot-water bottle which he hid underneath his jacket for extra protection from the elements – Marc clearly left his method-acting habits behind after learning his lessons on The Price of Freedom.
A rain effect heavy enough to read on camera was created by clamping our garden hose (equipped with spray nozzle) to a lamp stand and aiming it into the air. This allowed us to arc the spray high over our set to then fall straight down like rain droplets. However this “angle of fall” was constantly trimmed to adjust for changing wind directions and speeds, and to also keep any spray clear of filming lights.
Despite considering ourselves hardy documentary filmmakers, this heavy “movie” rain proved to be a tough working environment; quickly sapping body temperature and morale as well as threatening all our electrical equipment. Clearly not so hardy after all.
We recently purchase a Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera and saw this as the perfect opportunity to test this little camera out. We had the BMPCC set to its native 800 ISO but harnessing the wizardry of a BMPCC Metabones Speed Booster we gratefully gained 1 2/3 of an f-stop.
The Nikon to Micro-4/3 mount of our Speed Booster meant that we had to buy an M42 adapter ring for our favourite and faithful lens: a Super-Takumar 28mm F3.5. It’s a beautifully robust wide angle lens and has a very cinematic look. It’s not that fast however, so that extra 1 2/3 from the speed booster was most welcome in the lower light conditions
The 0.58x Speed Booster also reduces the crop factor of the BMPCC from 2.88x to 1.75x. When coupled with our 0.45x Pixco wide angle/macro lens, we were getting a lot out of that little 28mm lens.
There are only a few long lens shots in the film and for these we used our Tamron Zoom 18-200mm. The wet conditions didn’t make it easy to swap lenses so instead of rotating a series of primes, the zoom was a much better/safer option for capturing a variety of shots. But preferring our 28mm, the zoom wasn’t employed a whole lot on this shoot.
At one point we did get condensation build up between the Pixco’s wide angle and macro elements. Having to take five to address the issue, we unscrewed the wide angle front element to reveal the bare macro lens and were inspired to capture some super close-up details shots of the actors face; eyes, stubble, water droplets etc. We caught some really minute details with that macro and would probably have overlooked that opportunity had we not been forced remove the condensation.
It was also impossible to keep water droplets off the front of the lens, especially when filming close up shots of foliage or low angles close to ground level. In the downpour we couldn’t keep tissues dry for long and once again what appeared at first to be a nuisance was soon embraced, the water droplets produced some beautiful flares and aberrations that really sell how soaking wet everything and everyone was.
There are a few tripod shots in the film but it was quickly ditched in favour of handheld, which gives a great subjective feel (fancy word!), but it was also more convenient. We also used a Konova K3 Slider for some of the wider shots to add a bit of production value and contrast with the looser handheld of the closeup work.
The BMPCC was set to a white balance of 3000K to get a nice cool moonlight blue out of our lights; a 2k Blonde with CTB was used for the backlight and a 500W Mizar Fresnel with CTB was used for the key light. For close-up work, a domestic tungsten torch (battery powered and disposable if waterlogged!) softened with trace was used to add a gentle fill light. The red-flare effect was created with a 150W Dedo light with some red effects gel which we boomed overhead in a slow arc. Of course, our trusty smoke machine was also employed to form the ‘fog of war’; for certain shots we even ran the smoke through a piece of PVC piping containing ice cubes to make the smoke hang low over puddles and the ‘forest floor’.
We are very pleased with the look and detail of the image (some shots are a little noisy but we find it a quite attractive almost film-grain like effect). We did minor colour correction, mainly added contrast for extra punch in the image.
The main component of post-production was the sound design; much like The Mysterious Disappearance of M.M.Bayliss, we had to start from scratch. The BMPCC internal mic isn’t great at the best of times but underneath a crackling plastic cover in a rain shower any production sound was useless; you could mainly just hear us moaning about the cold… and water… water every-bloody-where.
So we spent many hours recording interesting sound, mostly water drop effects, with a Zoom H4N. As is normally the way, the real sound of water hitting leaves doesn’t sound anything like water hitting leaves (frustratingly!); so we used a lot of cooking bowls, tupperware, plastic boxes… anything that could give a more solid “splat” sound. Some of the fire crackling effects were created by scrunching up cellophane and plastic wrappers and then recording them naturally unfolding. Quite a slow process but worth it in the end.
We were so heavily inspired by Threnody by Keith Kenniff, having written the poem and even rough-cut to his music, we decided to contact him directly and purchase a license. We did try a few other tracks in the edit, but they just weren’t hitting the mark for us. We’d really like thank Keith Kenniff for his swift and courteous correspondence, his help with the licensing process and his overall support for our little project. We’re incredibly grateful for your stirring music.
Assault on the Senses
The weary strain of war hangs heavy,
The bullets have gone, the nerves unsteady.
It’s quiet now, but a fight you’ll still find,
Not with men, not with guns, but with strength of mind.
This post battle peace, is a peace no more,
Perhaps once it was, but no, now it’s war.
The adrenaline surge, has settled but lingers,
In your ears, in your eyes, in the tips of your fingers.
The smells and sounds won’t leave you to rest,
but instead wear you down, put your strength to the test.
The rain falls hard and pelts at your shoulders,
It stabs at the flames ’til the fire smolders.
Helped by the water that boils, and spits,
and hisses and steams when hot metal it hits.
It taps and pats, on the tin and the ears,
Rolls over your eyes, down your cheeks like tears.
Your collar soaked through, shoulders, neck rubbed raw,
Sweat and dirt on the skin, blocks every pore.
The chain on your nape, the smoke in your nose,
the mud under foot and the stubble that grows.
Your hand is cut and your fingers sting,
Though it’s been several hours your ears still ring.
The ache, the pain,
The blood-soaked stain,
The cold and the tiredness, that God damn rain.
Though small these things jab like a School boy bully,
Relentless, unforgiving, til they’ve broken you fully.
I’m desperate to sleep, heavy lids strain high,
I can’t stay awake and nor will I try.
Perhaps in that sleep I will find that rest,
and recoup and recover, to give my brothers my best.
A silent struggle, the pain never ceases,
And the harder you try, the more it increases.
This fight isn’t won, it just jostles and fences,
It’s a battle of grit, an Assault on the Senses.
CAMERA: Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera + Metabones Speed Booster
LENSES: Super-Takumar 28mm + Pixco wide angle converter & macro 0.45x
Tamron Zoom 18-200mm
Featuring Marc Maclaren Baylis
Music by Keith Kenniff – Unseen-Music
Written by Zander Weaver
Directed by Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver / © Elliander Pictures 2015