During the last two months, I completed a short film about a dying cat. I created the video as part of an online class titled “D.I.Y. Documentary Mobile,” taught by Kia Geraths through Northwest Documentary based in Portland, Oregon. This post reviews some of what I learned in the production process.
The course’s primary goal was to create a 4-6 minute documentary using only a smart phone. The secondary goal involved learning Kinemaster, a mobile editing app.
There was some flexibility on the gear and the apps, so I opted for some extra gear, both obvious and improvised. A small tripod with a smart phone adapter was a must. Rode’s VideoMicro compact microphone boosted the sound-recording quality, and I also used a Lume Cube for low-light situations. The tripod’s smart phone adapter offered only one cold shoe mount, so another adapter was needed to hold two devices at once.
The improvised piece of equipment was a tablet stand. I rotated the stand to a 90-degree angle so that the phone could sit flat on the surface. Moving the phone’s back camera to just over the edge allowed easy capture of static object images for B roll.
While Kinemaster is a solid editing app, it requires a monthly or annual fee and restricts usage to smart phones or tablets. Instead, I used HitFilm Express for editing Garage Band for voiceover. FilmicPro is my go-to for video footage. It cost $15 at the time, and it has been worth every cent.
The course announcement occurred right about the time we received the bad news about Cheddar, a nine-year-old, orange-and-white fatcat with an engine that could put any V12 to shame. By way of backstory, he had been to three vets in three months. Because of the pandemic, Cheddar went inside to the vets’ offices alone, and I sat in the parking lots waiting for their evaluations.
The first vet found nothing and charged $50 for the privilege. “Keep an eye on things,” he said. Right. The second vet found sinusitis, but Cheddar failed to get better on the three rounds of medication. The third vet delivered the worst news: anemia, stomach tumor, kidney failure, and probable lymphoma. She gave him two days to live.
We were two weeks past that two-day prediction when the class was announced, and I got the idea to make the short film about Cheddar’s final days. I teach social media as part of my day job. Considering cat videos power the Internet, a cat video seemed a fitting subject choice.
But death in any form is a tricky topic, particularly balancing cat care with recording footage and thinking through story. The situation presented some questions about whether or not to film, particularly on the bad days and the final days.
Dying comes with indignities that remain challenging to film. One day Cheddar growled and hissed at everyone who came near him, an almost complete personality change driven by fear. I left the camera off that day.
Knowing that his days were short also inspired lots of photo-taking, family visits, and general goodbyes. I thus also needed to make distinctions between footage intended for the video and footage intended for memory preservation.
Some footage further proved too sad to include in the final piece. On Cheddar’s last day, his older brother spent half an hour cleaning his forehead, face, and shoulders. While an incredibly tender moment, Cheddar was so emaciated and exhuasted that he seemed completely unaware. It seemed indignified and too painful to include that footage in the final piece. I still haven’t shared that footage with anyone.
The footage — 370 clips’ worth — focused mostly on Cheddar with occasional shots of objects associated with his medical needs, of items owned by him, and of vet office doors viewed from the parking lot. I considered interviewing Cheddar’s owner and other family members, but the situation was too immediate, too overwhelming, to talk about in much depth, if at all. The pandemic required social distancing for almost every vet appointment, so interviewing the veterinarian or the vet techs also was out of the question.
Sound also became a challenge in this short piece. While the microphone captured purrs, meows, and burbling cat fountains, it also picked up every truck roaring by and every air conditioner cycling through. Overall, the soundscape was just too loud for what really needed to be a quiet film.
Thus, my overall approach to the film involved actuality footage, voiceover, and music. I ended up recording my own voiceover, which was an experience unto itself. Writing your own voiceover allows a lot of control and flexibility, but saying out loud what you have written about a dozen times before you get it right is another situation altogether. I often ended up editing what I had written while speaking it, usually to make the sentences shorter, simpler, and clearer.
Editing the piece, for me, was both the most fun and the most frustrating. As I scrolled through all the footage and as we cared for Cheddar in his final days, I looked for themes that could become segments. The short follows a chronology, but each segment within that chronology offers a theme or key idea related to Cheddar’s story. This approach is not unique to documentary.
Choosing footage to go with each segment was fun. It’s an almost abstract process without the synchronous sound. Despite 370 clips, I sometimes failed to capture in filming the exact shot I wanted in editing. I would have preferred a shot of Cheddar playing with the gift bag, but instead opted for a static shot of the bag itself. I would have preferred a shot of Cheddar giving the vet techs some attitude, but I was not allowed inside.
At times, the frustrating part rested in assembling all the pieces. The four-minute short included more than 200 elements, including titles, voiceover, footage, sound, and music. I edited the entire piece in story order, building one segment at a time. But sometimes I needed to change a piece of voiceover or insert a title card, and that proved aggravating with all the shifting timeline elements and such. I ended up putting the title card at the end rather than insert it in the beginning and need to redo the entire audio track.
Despite the rather sad topic, I was glad for the chance to create this short piece. All the film theory and criticism in the world teaches you nothing about the process, and ultimately filmmaking is all about the process and the people. A quote from Marshall Curry sticks with me: “But ultimately, whether you go to film school or not, there’s no substitute for going out and spending hundreds of hours trying to make a film.”
I’m looking forward to starting work on the next one.