The FPP recently sat down with Sean McSweyn, a filmmaker studying Film at the University of the Arts in London, to discuss the making of his new 8mm silent film “Trouble on Madison Avenue”, shot on a 1930s Cine-Kodak 8. We hope you enjoy reading about Sean’s process and watching his short film as much as we did.
FPP: Hi Sean, thank you for taking the time to discuss your 8mm silent film “Trouble on Madison Avenue” with the Film Photography Project! Before we dive into the film itself, can you tell us what sparked your interest in making films using analog motion picture film stocks?
Sean: Firstly, I gotta say how cool it is to speak with you about the film. I love talking about films, so it’s doubly fun to be able to talk about one of my own. So, thank you for having me.
As for the spark of interest in shooting analog, it was initially conceived as a work-around for the limitations of one-man, no-budget filmmaking. I wanted to make a film, and I knew I couldn’t realistically achieve the quality of filmmaking I’d hope for digitally, with proper sound, lighting, camera movement, etc. The modern “cinematic look” was just out of my ballpark. Analog afforded the opportunity to reframe those cinematic expectations in the form of 1920s silent film. But I knew that if I was going for the “silent film look”, it needed to be as authentic as possible. Nothing’s worse than digital film grain filters.
FPP: We’re wondering how much experience you had in shooting 8mm or other film formats before you began pre-production on “Trouble on Madison Avenue”? Was this your first time using the 1930s Cine-Kodak 8? Would you say your confidence level was high when you decided to move forward?
Sean: None, actually. I had only ever shot digital before this. Is it weird to plug FPP on your own website? For real, as someone who’d never even touched a film camera, ya’ll were immeasurably helpful in the learning process. I asked Michael Raso and Owen McCafferty tons of questions, and their email response time is superhuman. YouTube, of course, was also a handy resource.
The (Cine-Kodak 8) camera was a funny one. You can get these models pretty cheap on eBay, but nobody ever guarantees that they’ll work. Thankfully, the second one I bought worked alright. I did get another backup just in case; they’re very old. I tense up every time I wind them like it’s the last.
I think I shot and developed four 8mm rolls before we started shooting for real, so I’d put my initial confidence at, like, a 4.5/10.
FPP: I couldn’t help but notice the Chaplin Quote just under the Vimeo link to your film.
“Making fun is serious business.” – Charlie Chaplin
It struck me the quote could apply to the process of filmmaking as well as the specific visual style you selected to communicate your story. Would you share what the quote means to you, and what it is about this era / style you thought best suited for the subject?
Sean: Aesthetically, Charlie Chaplin was obviously a huge inspiration, along with other big shots of the era: Buster Keaton, Harrold Lloyd. And the process of making the film definitely reflected the quote. The New York shoot was especially challenging, but it was littered with some of the funniest experiences of my life.
Chaplin’s later, more socially engaged work, was what really struck a chord with me thematically. Like many chefs in 2020/2021, I was out of work with a lot of time on my hands and a lot of things to say. Given the practical limitations I talked about, and the themes of my “things to say”, the Chaplin-esque style seemed a perfect fit.
I’m back at film school now, and I’m still working with this style in new projects. I think it can be very effective in communicating “serious business” messages.
FPP: We’d love to hear about your pre-production process, did it include storyboarding each shot? Were there unexpected complications that required improvisation by yourself or the actors?
Sean: I don’t know if I should pat myself on the back or hide my head in shame with these storyboards. I can’t draw, never could. So I devised this method of animated storyboarding using key-framed JPEGs, PNGs, and GIFs in Da Vinci Resolve. It looks incredibly jank, like a sloppy attempt to rip off South Park. My partner thinks I’m ridiculous. But I can’t tell you how helpful they were. It not only helps visualize the framing and blocking of a scene, but the flow of the cuts – the rhythm of the whole movie. Lots of the storyboarded scenes ended up looking almost identical to the real thing. One thing the “silent film look” didn’t relieve me of was production design. Most of the pre-production after storyboarding was spent on all the props, costumes, and makeup. I have to say, I think they turned out pretty well. My shining moment was the shot at the top of the Empire State Building. When we tried to go into the actual building, security wouldn’t let us through with all the equipment (understandable), so I got one of those cheap make-your-own tapestries online with a picture from the Observatory and taped it up in my garage. Movie magic.
FPP: We’re really impressed by the authenticity of the title card and intertitles! Would you elaborate on how you created and shot them?
Sean: They made it as easy in the 30s as it is now. I found an old 8mm Cine-Kodak titler, again on eBay, and downloaded the instruction manual from some obscure website. It’s basically just a stand to hold the camera and titles in place, but includes a little glass magnifier in front of the lens to expand the text. With this nifty thing, all I needed to do was print off some cards with the right dimensions and shoot them. I made cards for the text and the intro/outro titles, and the “telescope” shots of the city that zoom in from the Empire State Building are actually cards too.
FPP: Is it correct that you also developed the film yourself? If so, what chemistry did you use, and would you DIY process again?
Sean: Yes, I developed most of the film at home in Kansas, except for the rolls we shot in New York which I sent straight to FPP in New Jersey for developing. There’s the whole issue with putting film through airport x-rays. We actually shot the New York stuff first, so you can imagine how neurotic I was waiting to see if they turned out so we could move forward. Otherwise, the home development was mainly done because organization of reshoots wasn’t conducive to waiting for development turn-around. I mean, we shot the last scene three days before I moved away.
At home, in my laundry room, I used the FPP BW D96 Developer, Kodak Indicator Stop Bath, and the Kodak Fixer, with a dash of Archival Wash at the end. And lots of Tom Waits music. The chemistry is surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it; it’s the other equipment that’s kind of a pain. The LOMO tank is hard to find outside of Russia, and I tried a bunch of different drying methods. I ended up biting the bullet and getting a used JOBO Mistral 2 film dryer which needed to be modified to fit the 25 foot film rolls.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to bring all that equipment with me when I moved to London for school. But they’ve got a great darkroom on campus which I’m able to use anytime. I would love to get another home setup going in the future.
FPP: From pre-production through post and output of the digital file, how long did you spend on this project?
Sean: Through and through, it was a little over a year, with some breaks in between shooting different parts. The lead actor, Miller, took it upon himself to keep his hair cut at the same length the entire time.
FPP: Is there anything else about your experience you’d like to share with our audience? Things you would do differently, or, tips for other filmmakers?
Sean: I would pick a different font for the ending title cards. Most of the 2s look like 9s, so I’ve said it here – “Some of the 2s look like 9s, but they’re 2s!”. Hopefully this absolves me of any libel claims.
On a practical note, I think it’s important to know your limitations and work from there. These kinds of projects often lead to really creative outcomes that would otherwise not find their way into “conventional” cinema. Also, you’d be surprised how enthusiastic people will be to help with your movie, from business owners to friends of friends of friends and their dogs.
On a more sentimental note, Miller and I were friends long before we started making this movie, and Nathan became a great friend in the process. I had to ask a lot of them, sometimes maybe too much, but they were always there and in good spirits. So, I would say to anyone looking to make a film, do it with awesome people who you can trudge around Manhattan for two days, in costume, at five o’clock in the morning, in the scorching summer heat, filming multiple takes, and have a kickass night out with after. I do love being able to sit here and talk about the finished product, but I was lucky enough to love the process of making it even more.
FPP: Thanks so much Sean, it’s been a real pleasurelearning about youradventure in 8mm silent filmmaking!
If you enjoyed Sean’s Trouble on Madison Avenue as much as we did, you can keep up with Sean’s journey in film by following him on Vimeo – https://vimeo.com/user166360723 or contact him at email@example.com.
Blog by Paige Kay Davis, Director of Business Development for the Film Photography Project.