Chris Castor’s “Cardboard Cadet”—shot with both a traditional camera and a drone—is notable for many reasons. Chosen as the Best Narrative Film at this year’s L.A. Drone Film Festival, the short offers valuable lessons in costume and prop design, location scouting, using close-ups, and creating visual effects. Perhaps most impressive are the techniques used to evoke a great movie performance from a young actor, for example, by emphasizing action and limiting dialogue.
In casting his own child, the director follows in the footsteps of such celebrated moviemakers as Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Coppola, and John Huston. Like them, Chris Castor is passionate about film. His enthusiasm—and expertise—are evident in the following interview.
MMM: Can you tell us something about your background?
Castor: I am a film maker and artist from Oklahoma. Most of my work ends up being in the VFX and animation/motion graphic fields (although I am doing a lot more film myself). I have a wife named Callie who is my best friend, a super cool son named Kai and a brand new, beautiful little girl named Lucy. I love creating in general so have tried just about everything in the creative field. The film world holds a special place in my heart though.
MMM: We’ll get to the visual effects element of “Cardboard Cadet” shortly, but because your son is the star of the film, could you talk about working with him?
Castor: It is always difficult working with young actors and young filmmakers. I directed/produced a music video recently where I invited a few young and local aspiring filmmakers to come help on set. I will say in both cases they often just don’t realize the amount of work that can go into even just one shot. They are much more interested in seeing the final product, getting done and moving on to something else, and/or don’t just have that sense of working towards excellence yet that usually comes with age. That’s not true of all kids, but is probably true of most. Either way, I think it is super import to be a part of sparking that interest in a young person towards pursuing creative endeavors with excellence.
MMM: And that’s why you cast Kai?
Castor: In reality, we created the film together. I had the benefit of working with him on my schedule with no budget or crew to be accountable to for getting the shots in a specific time frame. When working with anyone (especially young creators), it’s important to be upfront about the hard work and expectations that are coming. When my son said that he wanted to work on this project, I went over all that would have to happen to make this film really fun and what was expected of him. We talked about the hard work and the reward that comes from hard work and finishing a project. He agreed and so I held him accountable to that, gently reminding him when the complaining and disinterest started to creep in. He worked very hard and I was very proud of him. It really was a fun few days of making great memories for us. Later, I rewarded him by letting him pick out a cool toy. Hopefully over time as we do more projects, he will not only learn creative skills, but also good work skills and perseverance while working towards difficult goals.
MMM: How did you come up with the plot for “Cardboard Cadet”?
Castor: My first goal was to make something fun with my boy. Second, I recently became a drone pilot. So I wanted to incorporate the aspect of seeing the world from above. Third, I wanted to deal with something that could never really happen, but does happen in a child’s mind as they play. They don’t care if their airplane is made of cardboard. It’s just as cool to them. I used to build things out of cardboard. Kai and I hadn’t done that together yet. So that was our first project. Build a cardboard plane. The rest of the concept formed as we started there.
MMM: Tell us about the equipment.
Castor: I used a Canon 7D DSLR with Rokinon Cine Lenses (24mm 25mm 80mm) and a Canon 50 mm. I have a small, decent little kit I have built for myself over the years as I have learned about film and as I have the funds to pour into it. I also used a DJI Phantom 4 Drone for the aerial shots and even for some of the shots against the green screen.
MMM: Did you encounter any problems during the production?
Castor: Our green screen and lighting gear wasn’t great. It was set up in my living room. The plane wouldn’t even fit on it all. So I had to create some stills of the plane to composite back over the keyed footage. The overhead shots of the plane were really hard. I had to prop the plane up on a box and hold it almost sideways in the air to get the look of us being above it. I had to remind Kai about hard work when we had to repay shoot shots. It was hot and my drone monitor would overheat causing delays in shooting my plates. I’d have to sit in my car for a few to cool it down. There’s always little things like this. Sometimes there are bigger things. For me the key has always been, how can I creatively tackle this problem with the resources I have available to me? If I don’t have enough lights to light my green screen (which is really a green sheet from Walmart) and to light my talent, how can I do that with what I have? If my prop won’t fit completely on my green screen, then how do I use that to my advantage? Turns out I didn’t need the whole plane on the green screen. It was actually easier to key without it all being on there and just keying around my son’s head instead. I’ve worked on a lot of film sets and have found that for me not having a budget, crew, time constraints, etc. actually causes me to be stretched to learn how to improvise and be creative with what I have.
MMM: Could you talk about achieving the flying effect
Castor: Most of the shots where my son is in his cardboard plane were shot against a green screen, and keyed out with plates I shot around my town using the drone to get aerial backdrops. I also created a simple 3D model of the airplane and my son, textured it as close as possible to look like the original, and used it only in special cases where you can’t really tell its not the real thing. This is called VFX (visual effects) and compositing. The art of making something that is not real look real for reasons of cutting costs, danger, difficulty, etc. instead of really shooting it in camera. Adobe After Effects is probably the industry standard for a VFX program to use. My advice is to use whatever is at your disposal and try to composite different elements together to make it look real or interesting. My favorite site for AE and VFX tutorials is Video Copilot. There is a wealth of free (free project files) and fun knowledge on there for a person to just go play and learn. There’s a lot of other great stuff out there too, but VC is amazing.
MMM: What software did you use?
Castor: In addition to Adobe After Effects, there was Photoshop, Cinema 4D, and Video Copilot’s Element 3D for integrating the 3D model of my son.
MMM: Any advice for someone just starting out?
Castor: Have fun and play as you learn. Work hard. Develop an eye for good work and try to adapt it. I have made bad stuff. I have gotten better and over time have been taken more seriously. Hopefully that trend continues. Learn lots of different skills. It’s been valuable for me to be able to do everything I need to make a short, fun film with my son—from shooting to VFX to music. It’s taken a long time and lots of practice to get somewhat decent at it all. And I have a ton to learn as I go forward. But its great to be able to just to tackle a project if I want to.I have a huge respect for everyone working in their prospective areas of expertise and I can speak their language most of the time. I know that idea of dabbling in lots of skills isn’t for everyone. But if it is, go for it.
“Cardboard Cadet” was chosen as a Mobile Movie of the Week by the editors of MobileMovieMaking.com