Producer/director Kamelya Alexan combined epic visuals, chilling suspense and a revolutionary VFX method to take Before the Fall into a place where no short has ventured before.
The eleven-minute Civil War fantasy tells the story of a young boy who tries to help his ailing mother by tapping the supernatural powers of a mythical beast in a nearby forest.
“The film is almost like two pieces in one,” says Alexan. “There’s a reality portion of the main character traveling through time, and a fantasy portion where he goes into a magical cave.”
The idea came to her during a dream about a boy who stumbles into a cave and finds magical rocks.
“Everyday I’d think about it,” she remembers. “It was so real I could feel the gems and the atmosphere of the cave.”
To expand the scenario into a script, she tapped long-time collaborator Brian Soszynski. To strengthen the integrity of the Civil War-era setting, she filmed in a 150-year-old authentic log cabin and on location throughout Illinois. To bring the battle scenes to life, she cast 750 extras.
The work required to complete those earthly tasks paid off, and the historic portion of the film is a believable reality. But inventing the fantasy portion required another dimension altogether.
The magic cave started out as a miniature model created by artist Nickolas Talbot, a set designer who Alexan met at a retail war craft store in Skokie. It was scanned into a digital format and layered into the film during post-production.
“The greatest challenge was working with digital effects at this level,” she recalls. “We shot the actors on a green screen as if they were inside the space.”
The technique unleashed a three-dimensional specter that impressed filmmakers all the way to Hollywood.
The miniature model cave was digitized by a Santa Monica-based company called NextEngine that, evidently, also has relationships with major studios.
“NextEngine told the producers of Star Wars about our little project,” Alexan recalls. “They saw how we used it and decided, ‘well, if that’s what’s working for them, we could use it to scan faces.’”
White House editor Dan Zabinski — who Alexan calls “one of the brightest, sweetest and most original people I’ve met in the industry” — put it all together. He won best editing at the Beverly Hills Film Festival for his efforts.
Although she is obviously pleased with the film’s awards and technical achievements, Alexan seems most happy about working with the people who helped get it done.
“This was a labor of love,” she explains. “We came up with the idea and we didn’t know how we were going to shoot it, so we reached out to people we knew in the film community.”
Among those who offered to help were the staff and family of the former Chicago-based rental house, Fletcher Camera. When production began, Alexan had been its manager of marketing and business development for nearly six years.
Fletcher supplied all the cameras, pro bono, for the film. That was just a small part of the overall assistance from the people who owned and operated the place.
“Literally, every single person that worked at Fletcher Camera worked on this film,” says Alexan.
Former floor manager Megan Donnelly (now at AbelCine) was director of photography, and Sally Fletcher was the casting director.
Former senior technician Dana Hill made one of the most substantial contributions of all. He is the father of Cooper Hill, the actor who portrays the film’s main character.
The fledgling movie star comes off like an old pro in Before the Fall, carrying entire scenes with a look in his eyes.
Alexan remembers that Hill “nailed it” whenever the cameras started rolling, but otherwise pretty much did his own thing. That’s okay with her.
“He’s a kid,” she says. “You know?”
Produced and Directed by: Kamelya Alexan
Writer: Brian Soszynski
Cinematographer: Megan Donnelly
Editor: Dan Zabinski
Visual Effects and CG Supervisor: Michael Forrest
Compositing Artist: Matt Russell
Colorist: Tyler Roth
Post Production Supervisor: Adrianna McKinley