INDIE FILM: 'TOUCHING HOME'
Identical twins Logan and Noah Miller had never produced or directed a film. Yet the 29-year-olds managed to raise money, hire a crew and attract top-notch Hollywood talent to create Touching Home, an autobiographical film they wrote, produced and directed starring Ed Harris, Brad Dourif, Robert Forster and Lee Meriwether.
The film came with an emotional imperative for the Miller brothers. "We started working on Touching Home with the hope that it would save our Dad's life," Noah notes. The film's coming-of-age storyline highlights the relationship between two brothers, whose dream is to play professional baseball. One of the brothers plays in the minor leagues, while the other is a pitcher at a junior college. When their baseball dreams come to an abrupt end, the brothers return home and work with their father at a rock quarry.
When the Millers' father passed away in early 2006, their resolve to make their movie turned into relentless determination. As Logan puts it, "We decided, 'We're making our movie this year. Either you're in or you're in the way.'"
They had some help along the way. In March 2006, the Millers won the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant, which gives promising new talent access to Panavision 16mm and 35mm film cameras. Previous recipients include Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) and the husband/wife team Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite).
Still bootstrapped for cash, Logan and Noah loaded up their credit cards and drove to the Colorado Rockies' spring training camp in Tucson, AZ, where they spent three days shooting a trailer that became their calling card. Shot on 35mm film and edited by a friend, Pierson Jacquelin, the trailer helped land the film's star and, in turn, fully launch the project.
CASTING BY AMBUSH
According to Noah, they'd always wanted Ed Harris to play their father. "People thought we were insane," says Logan. "They'd tell us, 'You can't approach Ed Harris without any money!' And we'd say, 'How do you get any money without Ed Harris?' No one was going to take a risk on two unproven kids."
Undaunted, the Millers knew Harris was going to appear at a film festival in San Francisco, just an hour's drive from their hometown. Noah and Logan went to the theater where Harris was appearing, taking a laptop with their trailer on it. After being denied access to the microphone during the question-and-answer session, Noah started walking toward the stage.
"My brother asked me where I was going," says Noah. "I said, 'We're going backstage to speak to Mr. Harris.'" They made it past the security guards and pushed through some curtains before being stopped by a woman who quickly realized they had no business being there. Desperation set in as Noah confessed, "We're two independent filmmakers. We're local kids. Would you please ask Mr. Harris if he'll give us two minutes of his time?"
When she agreed, the Millers were sure the woman was going to return accompanied by the police. Instead, she came back with Harris, who agreed to take a look at the trailer. However, it was too bright in the room to see the laptop's screen, so the brothers took the laptop out to the alley behind the theater with Harris in tow. "We put our computer on a greasy dumpster and played the trailer for him," says Noah.
Harris thought it looked beautiful, commented on how they obviously knew what they were doing, took their script, and shook their hands saying, "Good show, fellas." A week later, Harris called to schedule the shoot.
LEARNING BY COLLABORATION
With no formal training in film to speak of, the Miller brothers learned their craft by reading and asking lots of questions. They pride themselves with being organized. "We had a thorough plan for every day of shooting," Logan says. "We're not guys who show up and ask ourselves, 'What are we going to shoot today?' We visited our locations multiple times, had for years. We grew up where we filmed. We shot in our backyard. Many of the locations in the movie are the actual places that the scenes occurred in real life. We photographed them. [Storyboarded] them out with our digital camera."
"Planning allows you to improvise," Noah continues. "Once you've executed what you planned for a scene, you can then tinker with the performance, experiment with the actor, try something different. You're able to give yourself more options in the editing room."
Baseball and its life lessons worked their way into the filmmaking process as well. "Like playing team sports, filmmaking is a collaborative process," says Noah. "You allow other people's knowledge and insight to add to your vision. You surround yourself with grey hair and listen."
To that end, Logan and Noah spent a great deal of time working with renowned film editor Robert Dalva (The Black Stallion, Jumanji, Hidalgo) who, in addition to being Touching Home's editor, was the B-camera operator. "The days Robert came on set were invaluable. We were able to discuss editing concerns as we were shooting," says Logan.
Dalva's master storytelling skills were essential in the editing suite as well. "Editors are very much story builders. The good ones understand dramatic and narrative structure as much as any screenwriter," says Logan.
Getting a seasoned pro such as Dalva to sign on as the film's editor was relatively easy. "We got Robert by telling him we had an Avid [system]," jokes Logan, who then adds, "He read the script and liked it."
Dalva used Media Composer software on a Macintosh system with four terabytes of storage to cut the film. "I've worked on other nonlinear editors, but every feature I've cut since Jumanji in 1995, I've cut on an Avid [system]. Before that, I cut film," he says.
One of the Miller brothers' goals was to evoke a sense of timelessness. Dalva's editing approach was well suited to that goal. "I think style is determined by the footage," he explains. "You can't impose style. Probably 97 percent of the transitions in Touching Home are [straightforward] cuts. There are a few dissolves, but no wipes. Not even fades."
Shooting widescreen anamorphic 2:35:1 also helped capture the pastoral beauty of the rural landscapes contrasted with the roughness and stress of the quarry. "We planned most of our schedule around the magic, golden hour," says Noah. "That hue creates a timeless quality."
The filmmaking team relied on the sun for most of the outdoor lighting, supplementing and directing its rays with bounce cards. They only employed lights when nature conspired against them, that is, when sunlight didn't penetrate heavily forested areas or rise high enough to illuminate canyons.
"About 40 percent of the dailies needed some color correction," says Dalva, who used the Media Composer software's creative toolset for temporary color work to maintain color consistency among scenes.
He also used the software's extensive visual effects tools. Dalva describes one effect shot, "There's a scene where a kid swings at a ball, but on film he swings so late, it looks really unrealistic. So I did a split screen and moved the kid's side up three or four frames so he looks like he's actually trying to hit the ball."
Dalva used a Symphony Nitris system at Burbank, CA-based FotoKem's affiliate Keep Me Posted to make an online HD version for screenings. The Total Conform capabilities of the Symphony Nitris system enabled the editing team to quickly transfer all edits and effects from the offline cut done on the Media Composer system, making for a time-saving and smooth finishing process.
The 35mm footage was digitized to HDCAM SR tape in 4:4:4 color space for rich visual content for finishing. Dalva worked with the Avid DNxHD 115 codec for the offline editing to maximize storage efficiency while maintaining exceptional quality of the 24p content.
"We weren't working at uncompressed HD resolution," Dalva explains. "But the quality of [Avid] DNxHD 115 was astonishing. We output the film for a screening and showed it to [filmmaking friends] and they were knocked out to a person by the quality of the image. They wanted to know what they were looking at on this gigantic 60x40-foot screen in a 300-seat theater."
FINISHED AND READY FOR DISTRIBUTION
Dalva's edit also included a fairly extensive soundtrack. His tracks were imported into Pro Tools systems for the final audio post work.
"Sound is just so important to picture," says Dalva. "One of the things I love about the Avid Media Composer [system] is the ability to hear 16 audio tracks at once. [Note: The Media Composer system is capable of handling 24 video and audio tracks]. Moving between the Media Composer and Pro Tools systems was seamless."
Noah adds, "I was impressed with how the overall movie was able to be rendered with sound and picture elements on the Avid [Media Composer system]. When we were able to [screen it] prior to doing the final mix, we were surprised by how rich the soundscape was just coming off the Media Composer system."
The Miller brothers' rookie effort has already produced results with a debut at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival. It may just be the ticket they need to make it to the big leagues and share their emotional story with movie-going fans worldwide.