Crank: How did you get your start in filmmaking?
Michael Trainotti: The moment my Dad brought home our first video camera. It was one of those two piece monsters from the 80’s where you connected the camera by umbilical cord to a VHS deck hanging over your shoulder. Almost destroyed it several times trying to do some low grade special effects using gunpowder from fireworks, firecrackers and some rocket engines. Ever try to propel a model car down the street with a rocket engine or blow up a small village set in your Mom’s planter box? If so, and you survived, you too could be a filmmaker… or out a lot of allowance as you try to repay your Dad for his video camera. In terms of going about it the right way it started in the 90’s while working at Lightstorm Entertainment. As part of the production department there were times between productions where we would get together and makes films for fun just to stretch our legs and use the gear that was available to us. We would use them as test beds and training tools to work on the AVID’s and polish our editing skills. Ended up taking a break in the early 2000’s due to work and having 2 young children with my wife and producing partner, but something fun happened that brought it all back. As the boys got a little older we started making movies together as a family using their toys. It was a blast and slowly started getting more and more complex over the years to the point where we were using green screens with massive action set pieces using live action, toys, lego, costumes, massive sound design, the works! That in turn led me back to getting more serious again about the process and, ultimately, my true passion for horror films, which is the genre I truly enjoy creating and have been working in the past several years.
What’s been your biggest lesson as a filmmaker so far?
Trust your cast and crew. They are the backbone of making a project come together. Never take for granted the time they are committing (donating in most cases) to help the project succeed. Most importantly, casting is critical. Work with actors that embody the characters you’ve created and give them the flexibility to make it their own.
Don’t be married to the voices in your head or the version of the film you visualized when you wrote it. There’s a better version of each that the actors and crew will help you discover along the way and bring you so much more than you ever expected.
Where did the idea for your short film come from?
I was in the middle of writing another project one night with the news on mute in the background. An image popped up of a doorbell camera capturing footage of a woman going door to door who was clearly distraught and looking for help. Not knowing any more than that it set the wheels in motion which led to a quick first draft a few days later.
How did you find your collaborators on this film?
My wife and I have been very fortunate to work with both actors and crew members who are very talented friends and coworkers which is a luxury that rarely happens in most cases. There were also a few new folks on board that I met on the film festival circuit.
How long — from start to finish — did it take to make this film?
From the image on TV to the end of production was about 8 weeks. We shot over 2 nights the week before Christmas. Post took about 2 months with me doing editorial/color grading and preliminary sound design at home before handing off stems to my mix friends to finalize and bring to life. That said, picture was pretty much locked by the end of Christmas vacation with the exception of a few inserts was able to grab at home (all the texting close-ups are my son and I doubling for Sabrina).
How would you describe your filmmaking style? How does it differ from others?
Since we are generally so lean in terms of cast and crew it’s pretty much all hands on deck making it happen. As things tend to start off a little slow in the early part of a day we definitely ramp up near the end of a day to grab as much as possible, especially coverage. One thing that drives Max (fantastic DP) bonkers is when we shoot action scenes (like the floor crawl at the end of NOCTURNE or the bedroom sequence in ONE DARK NIGHT), I like to jump around and grab a lot of coverage as quickly as possible. This is especially true when actors are in SFX make up or have something difficult to repeat over and over. We grab a ton of stuff really fast in as few takes as possible to get it. Max basically pre-lights the scene then follows me around with a lightbar or a bounce card to fill in for each new shot. The hard part is keeping crew out of the shot and aware of where the camera is… lots of image repos to deal with when you find a rogue foot crashing your frame… Clark!!!!!
What’s a behind-the-scenes tidbit from making this film?
This one came together really quick. It was something I was thinking about doing in early 2019 after a bit of prep. One of my industry friends had asked if the two of us could sit with a friend of his (Kathleen Markel) who was going to be directing her first feature the following year as she wanted to get some insight on post production and production to prep. As we were talking with her she had asked if I had anything upcoming and I told her about this project. Without missing a beat she said “You could film at my house!” I was like “Ugh… You haven’t even read the script… there’s blood, and stuff…” She didn’t care and offered it up to the cause which would be a win for both of us and most importantly give her exposure to the production side prior to her other project firing up. We agreed to come take a look a few days later. The house was just amazing and so beautiful in every way. I kept walking around looking at the floors and furniture trying to figure out how to not destroy or get blood anywhere. The whole time Kathleen is telling us “wouldn’t it look really cool with blood streaking across the floor and the tiles in the entry?” At that point we pretty much gave in and went for it. The biggest problem was the script was written for a much smaller house which was logistically different, so we were able to change a few bits and expand a few others prior to shooting. Actually, part of the reason we shot the end sequence so quick was because I wanted to have people wiping up the blood off camera as quickly as possible and only use it in areas needed for each shot. We did a few dry takes as well and intercut, which is seamless in the final edit.
What advice would you give to first-time filmmakers?
Take your time, make as many mistakes as possible, and learn as you go. Anybody can make a movie today. Everyone has that power in their pocket if they want it. Follow the basics, learn by doing, and watching others. Make a bunch of stuff just to learn the ropes. Each one will be better than the last. Don’t spend too much money until you’re ready. The single most important tip I can give is that, to me, becoming an editor will make you a better director. Not that you ultimately need to edit everything you do down the road, but understanding the process, the tools, the techniques, the tricks, the cheats, and the importance of what’s happening in each frame matters. It gives you the tools you need to understand shot selection and how you plan to tell a story visually. When you are on set there are a thousand visual distractions as you’re working. Being able see, assemble, and form the captured image, without that distraction, will give you better focus each time you’re on set directing your story. I tend to direct editorially, if that makes any sense.
What are you working on next?
I have 2 features ready to get off the ground. The first will be a project called SCRATCH which is a high-tension horror feature that takes place in one location. Expecting to get that off the ground as soon as the Covid-based production world allows. Could be done fairly quickly if we were to take the “Covid production bubble concept” to heart as it’s a very small cast and crew. The second one is a feature version of ONE DARK NIGHT which is a hardcore extension of that short film. It effectively picks up where the short leaves off and goes to some pretty dark and terrifying places for our characters to navigate. This one’s a bit more complex then SCRATCH so a bit more time will be needed to get that production rolling.
Famous last words?
Stay safe and healthy. Follow the rules, especially around productions. Keep your cast and crew fed. If possible, do what you can to get them to see their work up on a big screen. There’s magic up there and a nice payoff for all the hard work for all involved.
About the Filmmaker
Award-winning filmmaker Michael Trainotti is an industry professional specializing in production, post-production, and technical operations. He began his formative years in the production department at Lightstorm Entertainment, diving into every area of the filmmaking process. His passion for the creative process has led to the creation of multiple-award winning short horror films including ONE DARK NIGHT, NOCTURNE, & IN MY ROOM that have played in over 70 festivals worldwide winning accolades and awards for Best Horror Short, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Scariest Film, and more. Learn more about Michael at: www.phenomenafilms.net
Film Invasion — Grand Jury Prize — Best Short Horror Film (NOCTURNE) (2019) Film Invasion — Filmmakers Award — Outstanding Director (NOCTURNE) (2019) Halloween International Film Festival — Scariest Film (NOCTURNE) (2019) Independent Horror Movie Awards — Best Scare & Best Twist (NOCTURNE) (2019) Best Shorts Competition — Award Of Excellence (NOCTURNE) (2019)
Wreak Havoc Horror Film Festival — Best Director (NOCTURNE) (2019)
Stage 32 Short Film Contest – Finalist (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2020)
MFF Friday Night Horror Fest – Best Horror (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2019)
Sherman Oaks Film Festival — Filmmakers Award — Outstanding Short Film (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018) Sherman Oaks Film Festival — Audience Award — Best Director (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018)
Santa Monica Film Festival — Best Dramatic Short (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018) Wreak Havoc Film Festival — Best Director (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018)
Halloween International Film Festival — Best Short Film (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018) LA Independent Film Festival — Best Horror Short (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018) Hollywood Just4Shorts Film Festival — Best Horror Short (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018)
Best Shorts Competition — Award Of Merit (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018)
Top Shorts — Best Horror Short (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018)
Independent Horror Movie Awards — Best Short & Best Writing (ONE DARK NIGHT) (2018) Halloween International Film Festival — Best Short Film (IN MY ROOM) (2017)
Sick ‘n’ Wrong Film Festival — Scariest (IN MY ROOM) (2017)
Slash & Bash Horror Film Festival — Best Short Film (IN MY ROOM) (2017)
Independent Horror Movie Awards — Best Scare & Best Short (IN MY ROOM) (2017)