Geoff Ryan’s genre-defying new feature film, ‘Blood From Stone’ debuts in June 2020. Below, Geoff describes his textbook indie success story, from the germ of an idea in high school, to assembling a crack team of collaborators, getting distributors on-board, and stretching a micro-budget to encompass a 28 day shoot in three cities, 20+ locations, and over 40 speaking characters!
Geoff Ryan interview
Give us a bit of detail about yourself – background, profession, how you got into filmmaking and your current role
I always enjoyed drawing then in my early teens took a one-week summer animation class where I both fell in love with the moving image and met lifelong friend Jarin Blaschke (DP, The Lighthouse). In high school we made our first short live-action films together and got our first festival awards. Moving to NYC we became roommates for years and collaborated on short films and music videos , all while helping each other survive our starving artist lives.
Obviously, having someone of his rich talent around so much had an impact on me and so much of what I know about filmmaking was inspired by Jarin – and still is. I’d like to think I inspired him as well but most likely his acclaim has been despite my influence and not because of it!
For many years I did the majority of commercials and videos for the brand Nautica where I often worked under photographer Anders Overgaard who really helped shape my commercial sensibilities. I’d never DP’d anything of note before that and really learned on the fly how to compose and light for glamour and style in those years.
While I’d always intended to be a movie director, due to rarely having much of a budget and always helping out on other’s productions in any way I could, I ended up learning just about every role on a production. Through this, I ended up working as a one-man post house for many years doing color, video retouching, and effects for commercials and web videos. And, somehow, I also ended up having my cinematography career take off around that same time shooting (and often directing) for numerous brands from Macy’s to David’s Bridal and many more. Other random gigs I landed over those years was art director for a print campaigns, editor for promo videos and live-streamed fashion shows, music composer for films and commercials, and motion graphics artist.
While I am incredibly fortunate to have been able have such a career in the commercial world, it was always important to me to remain focused on the pursuit of filmmaking. Here again, Jarin was a huge motivating force and together we made my first feature, Fray, for an obscenely low budget which went on to win a handful of “best film” awards including “Grand Jury” at Dances With Films. Being able to take the stage with Jarin accepting that award was really a dream come true. Of course, seeing him at the Oscars this past year was another dream come true!
This new film is my first without Jarin by my side which was weird… and very challenging because he was always my crutch in many ways. Beyond his obvious cinematic talent, his visual storytelling skills are incredible. Editing stuff he shoots is a breeze. Every shot has a purpose and flows into the next seamlessly. As a director I barely had to think about it! I’d considered bringing on a DP for this new one but in the end I decided to shoot it myself.
I thoroughly storyboarded every shot of the film and had a 300+ page “production bible” to help me keep the film organized which was helpful. This was the most visually complicated film I’ve done. It’s nothing revolutionary, but much of the story is told through juxtaposition of shots through the film. So, one botched shot could derail story dynamics in numerous other scenes. Even my AC, who I had help me with shot listing & storyboarding says he didn’t really “get it” until seeing the final edit just a few days ago. He says it works really well!
Tell us about your film – how did it come about?
The film is called “Blood From Stone”, and was first sparked in my brain way back in high school as a dumb joke that I thought would make a silly short film. Just the idea of a drunk vampire trying to get in a liquor store but the automatic door sensor can’t see him and he keeps walking into the door. Yeah, a dumb idea. But, for whatever reason it stuck in my head.
I tried writing it a handful of times over the years each time it would evolve into something a bit more fleshed out but never anything really worthwhile. I matured as a storyteller and focused more on screenplays with substance and social merit. Doing a silly vampire movie just seemed like a trivial idea in a climate of Twilight and True Blood. And with smart films like Let The Right One In and the amazing What We Do In The Shadows I just thought there was nothing new I could possibly add to the genre. So, I scrapped the idea for many years and moved on to making my first feature, Fray, and focusing on other projects. But after two films I’d been attached to fizzled out I started seeking out another micro-budget idea I could do DIY-indie style again.
Around that time my grandfather passed away. It’s weird to say, but it wasn’t his passing that impacted me as much as reflecting on the decades leading up to it. Since I was a kid every year it was “this might be the last (whichever holiday) we have with Grandpa” yet every year he was there for the next one. He ended up living longer than all my other grandparents. And, while he was a good-hearted man, he was stuck in another era.
That was what sparked the concept for this and made it feel like it was worth exploring: A story of an immortal grappling with mortality. Of old eras clashing with the new one and the difficulty of adjusting to social and cultural changes. A book I read a long time ago said, “Every historical change creates its own mythology” and that “The gods at the beginning of an era become demons at the end of it”. So, I took it further than his experience. What if someone had been around centuries? Someone who’d always been a god – immortal and powerful – able to do as he pleased but was now forced Ito the shadows due to modern weaponry, forensics, surveillance, medicine. How would he exist? Would he want to go on anymore? What does living mean to someone who feels life has passed them by?
I told the rough story to my distributors one night over dinner and the next day they texted me saying this needs to be my next film. So, I wrote the script, saved up as much as I could, and with their financial help, assembled enough to make a really low-budget movie. I put together an amazing team of “production Swiss army knives” (people that can wear numerous hats) and with a scrappy crew of seven (including the producer) we somehow pulled off a very full 28 day shoot in three cities (Las Vegas, Laughlin, and Los Angeles), 20+ locations, and over 40 speaking characters. And, because it’s about vampires, it was an entirely night production.
Then post-production began. This was a beast of a film for post. Mainly because the entirety of it was done by myself. Creative collaborator Geoff Black, who did the (amazing!) score, also did some ADR recording for me. But, otherwise, all editing, sound work, color, effects, etc were done by myself in my home studio. So, while most indie films are personal to the directors, being the writer, director, DP, lead cam op, production designer, costume & props person, set decorator, editor, sound designer, special effects artist, etc… makes this an exceptionally personal film. Again, hopefully it works. It’s definitely the most “me” of anything I’ve ever made for better or for worse.
How did you find out about FilmConvert?
I heard about FilmConvert about six or seven years ago from a motion graphics artist friend (Todd Rocheford). I’d recently done a piece where I comped film grain textures over footage in a tedious way to create the look of multiple old film stocks for a music video piece and he thought I’d like your product. I was suspicious at first. How many times have I heard, “it looks like film!” over the decades? As one who had started out in the pre-digital world and was familiar with how film actually looks – still have my Super8 camera – I’d gotten pretty good at faking it with various techniques. But, I tried the trial and was really impressed.
The first project I used it on was an arty music video shot in the rain forests of Puerto Rico. I had just recently gotten a Sony F55 and used my cherished set of Series 2 Cooke Speed Panchro lenses for the shoot which already create an amazing image together. But, when I got to see it projected in a theater (2K projection) it was amazing how authentic the film grain and “look” were. It doesn’t look like film projection because there’s no jitter or flicker that you’d get from an actual film projection (I guess one could use Red Giant’s Misfire to create that if desired) but it really looked like the piece had been shot on film or, at the very least, as if there was a film intermediate in the process.
In the years since I’ve used it on everything from fashion commercials to animated shorts. Heck, sometimes I even feed my DSLR still photos into After Effects and process them with FilmConvert! (I’d use the Photoshop plugin but for some reason it always crashes the program. Probably something I should look into but not a big deal for me).
Why did you decide to use FilmConvert for this particular project?
FilmConvert was a part of my creative process for this project from day one. Partly because it’s integral to most of my work at this point. Even if I don’t want a “film look” there’s something about your software that just makes the overall look better. Often I’ll apply it as a last step in the workflow just to “polish” up the image with many of the settings turned off or to a very minimal setting yet it still refines the image in a way I can’t quite explain but it’s noticeable. Or, maybe it’s a placebo effect for me! But, seriously, just the other day I was showing a filmmaker buddy it’s impact on the image and told him to watch the scopes as I applied/removed it. When applied the scopes smooth out into gentle gradients and the whole color and tonal palette smooth in a subtle way that gives the image a more naturalistic look that may not be obvious to the viewer but really does enhance the image.
What was the particular look or style you were going for with your video?
Much of my inspiration for the particular project comes from movies that shaped my own love of the craft and experience of movies in my teens. Films that I took some inspiration from were Leaving Las Vegas, Kalifornia, U-Turn, Bad Lieutenant, and Hard Eight. And, growing up in small town America many of the movies I saw had traveled around a bit so by the time they got to my theaters they were battered. I wasn’t going for an extreme “grindhouse”, grit but still wanted it to have some of that 90’s indie vibe.
That said, I also wanted it to have its own distinct look. One of the main themes is the colliding of eras. Old & new interwoven. The score is a fusion of earthy ambient western lap steel and banjo fused with modern ethereal arpeggio Moog synths and Bladerunner-esque pads. There’s aesthetic iconography from old western and noir films mixed in with 90’s Tarantino and Ferrera inspired films. It’s shot on digital but with lenses from the 1930’s and 40’s. Even the actors were chosen partly for their look and demeanor being very “old world” (the leads were all originally from Eastern Europe so their accents are authentic and not campy “Dracula” voices). Gabriella, the lead actress, actually grew up in a small Hungarian village just a short drive from the infamous Bathory castle.
And, since it was my first film without Jarin, I went wild with colors! Definitely made up for all the times over the years he denied me a strong magenta backlight! But seriously, considering the themes of this film, light and color were important in a way they hadn’t been on any film I’d done before.
The characters only exist at night so all light for them is artificial light. That’s why it takes place in a casino town where a vampire can be up all night and still be “normal” and as one character says, the lights remind her of sunlight. So, I intentionally lit scenes with various “eco” bulbs that have crappy color spectrums and mixed them up in strategic ways with some gels that normally would be collecting dust at the back of a grip truck to create subtle mixed lighting that gives all the light an unnatural feel. Yet, the intent was never to make it actually ugly, just unnerving.
There are a few shots with actual sunlight in the film. Some before the sun crested over the horizon and three with actual sunlight (two we had to fake). I wanted them too feel like there was too much light but not take the easy route and just over-expose them. These were shot with an old 40mm I got off eBay that has some obscene fogging which gives the shots a hazy glow and with the clean sunlight they really stand apart from the rest of the film. They feel slightly washed out and ethereal.
One in particular is a simple pan shot across a room that goes from a normal warm amber into an overwhelmingly blue and hazy shot that has become one of my favorite shots in the movie. It’s nothing flashy but it’s just subtly weird. You kind of feel like you’re losing your grip on reality in the scene and it’s at a point where the characters are losing their grip too, so it really works.
One big challenge was the night exteriors in the desert and a scene that takes place entirely inside a Prius driving around at night. For these I used the Sony A73 with Sony T.2 primes on a PL mount adapter. It wasn’t a perfect solution due to the lessened image quality from the F55 w/ Cookes but it was amazing what I was able to capture. We actually have night shots out in the desert with a clear horizon line! There’s scenes we were able to pull off that would have been impossible otherwise.
Tell us about your workflow. What settings, film stock, camera profiles and tweaks did you use in FilmConvert?
To start with: most of the movie was shot on my Sony F55 with Series II Cooke Panchros in 4K raw (4096×2160). And, as I said above, a few scenes were shot on the Sony A73 with PL Primes (recorded on the Atomos Shogun Flame into ProRes UHD (3840×2160).
Due to low light in most settings I pretty much shot wide open at all times. One fun fact about my Cookes – I never got around to getting them rehoused so they’re still in their original body which means they’re nearly impossible for anyone else to pull focus on so I ended up operating for the majority of the film. I’ve had them so long now that I know them well and do pretty decent with them but there were so many times I would have loved to have had a focus puller!
Once in post, my workflow was fairly straight forward. I like to create as much of the look “in camera” as possible and rarely use DaVinci or any drastic color grading preferring to just use curves and saturation inside Adobe Premiere. This goes for just about every project I do and this one was no exception. Over the entire two hour movie there was only one shot I used masking in the color grade and never anything other than curves and hue & saturation (Fast Color filter).
Then, once I got the look I wanted, the real fun began! Since many of the scenes were low light, there was more digital grain that I wanted so I started out processing those scenes with NeatVideo’s Noise Reduction software. First, I removed all the color grading filters and applied Neat Video to the RAW footage. Then, once processed, load it back into Premiere and re-applied the grading. It really saved all the A73 footage and even a bunch of the F55 low light stuff. But, it cleaned them up so well that I ended up applying it to the entire movie so the whole thing was clean. And that’s when FilmConvert came in to work its magic!
I couldn’t afford to upgrade to Nitrate so was still working off the classic FilmConvert Pro. Didn’t use any camera profiles as I did all the major adjustments separately. But I did an overall color temp adjustment to cool the colors by a bit and used the Kodak 5207 stock with film color at about 25%, curve at about 10%, saturation at 105%, and grain (Super35) at 90%. The primary use, as you can see, was for the grain. Since NeatVideo had removed nearly all the digital grain FilmConvert added back in a much more pleasing filmic grain that brought the image back to life and the rest of the settings somehow repaired/muted a lot of the color and tonal artifacts caused by the NeatVideo and high contrast color grading done to the footage. All FilmConvert was applied on an Adjustment Layer with a soft bit of shadow desaturation applied below it (Premiere’s curves set to saturation). I used the same FilmConvert settings through the entire film with only a few subtle changes to grain in a couple scenes where I turned it up to 100% to add a bit more “grit” to the scene. FilmConvert runs from the first frame of the movie until the last of the credits fades away.
I won’t go into post sound. That was a whole other journey that could take up an entire interview!
What other effects or tweaking did you use?
One of the trickiest parts of the movie is a special effects heavy scene involving a lot of fire. There are barely any effects in the movie and I really didn’t want to have one scene that felt like an outtake from an Asylum movie or something cheesy. So, I ended up shooting a few hours of real fire to use in it. I made sure to shoot it all on the same lenses and at the same aperture and camera settings as the primary footage so it would match. Then, I spent about two weeks motion tracking the original shots (which were handheld) and compositing the fire plates onto them.
Then, once I had it where I was happy I realized something wasn’t right… there was no smoke and embers! I tried using stock footage and particle generators but it all looked like crap so my producer and I went and shot more plates of smoke and embers. Once those were added in it really came together.
With a bit of Video CoPilot’s Heat Distortion, Frischluft’s Lenscare for soft focus bokeh, and a lot of tedious rotoscoping and keyframed color correction to emulate the flickering light reflections given off by the fire, it looks about as convincing as a fake fire scene is going to look. And, of course, FilmConvert over top of it all it melded any noticeable edges and imperfections into a nicely harmonious image.
Lastly, I did do some post clean-up of a handful of shots to remove things like mic packs, boom entering the shot, and a few other minor issues like that. All in After Effects. One tricky fix was a slo-mo shot where an actor glanced into camera for about 13 frames. Using a combination of Twixtor, Adobe Premiere’s “morph” transition, and some After Effects rotoscoping I was able to create a seamless eye replacement over those frames to salvage an otherwise great take.
The final output was to ProRes 4444 at 4096×2160. On my 2012 Mac Pro it took about eight days to render. 🙂