• erin brown thomas

How we made "Human"

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

I remember when Selkie first came to me with the core idea for "Human." She described a woman-- suffering and unseen in her suffering by the people around her, bound with straps on her wrist. "As she discovers she is bound," Selkie tells me, "she is pulled back and lifted into the sky. As the woman learns to work with the binding and dance, the people who did not see her before take notice and flock towards her."


My first thoughts were panic. Hundreds of extras? Cranes? Street closures? This sounded expensive. But as Selkie painted the picture I immediately got hooked and knew we had to find a way to make it happen. We built out the concept together, realizing how powerful it would be to watch her (Selkie) react to the people around her... the people who would ultimately climb up to her and pull her down.


We knew we had to make it.


But... where?


Los Angeles is hardly an easy place to get a street closure, yet alone get hundreds of extras without going through an expensive service.


But then I visited my mom in Salida, CO. She had just moved there from Ohio. I fell in love with the texture of the town and brought pictures back to share with Selkie. We agreed it would be a great backdrop for this story, so we called some contacts in their local government to see what it would take to shut down some streets for the film. They were enthusiastic and we ended that phone call committing to a date. May 15th. (It was February at the time).


Looking back I remember being scared when they offered up a date. Selkie and I exchanged glances -- "Are we really doing this?" We took the leap and said, "BOOK IT!", and bought our flights while they would still be cheap.


This video was a huge increase in production value from our past films. I knew the first thing I needed to do was create a rough animatic in order to get collaborators on the same page. An animatic is a preliminary version of a movie, using storyboards and soundtrack.


I asked my friend Molly Burke to create some rough sketches for me which I could animate.


Here it is. You can see some specifics changed over time, but the core ideas remained the same.



The actual choreography for the film was created after the animatic.


Choreography happened in steps.


In previous films, we have used aerial hammock and aerial silks. The story we wanted to tell with Human demanded a different apparatus-- the straps. These are not your average straps. They are a custom apparatus that Selkie had made. And the are HARD! Trust me, I got up there and played with them a bit under Selkie's supervision.


The beginning of choreography was simply play. Selkie explored ideas. Mark and I captured them.


From hours of initial exploration, we found a ton of cool shapes and interesting transitions. But aerial, for us, is not just about cool shapes. It's about telling a story. We captured hours and hours of footage, and reviewed it, looking for images that evoked the emotion and journey we wanted to tell.


Below are three visually appealing choreography ideas. But only two of them made it into the final choreography. Can you spot which ones?



Upon finding the neck balance (pictured below), we knew that we wanted the choreography to build to this pose which would happen during the lyric, "I'm no prophet or messiah, should go looking somewhere higher."


I snapped this image during one of our rehearsals and ended up using it in a deck that I built which explained the project. This look book helped us communicate our vision and our company to professional collaborators we reached out to in Denver and Colorado Springs, who drove hours to work on Human with us.



After we came up with a consensus about the sorts of silhouettes that evoked our story and their relative order, Selkie worked on the choreography, filling in the holes. Even up through days before shooting she was working on it.


Also... Selkie's straps have harnesses around the wrists. So getting out of them is not as simple as just jumping down. Whenever Selkie was ready to get down, we slid a box beneath her so she could rest her weight on it while removing the straps. Sometimes we just used Mark instead...



Once we got to Colorado, Selkie started training in the high altitude (the elevation is about 7k feet and the air is very thin which makes this crazy apparatus even tougher!). One of our sponsors, Max Air, provided supplements that helped us all cope with the altitude change. Mark Wildman assisted Selkie and captured video for me of her rehearsals, while DP Beth Napoli and I did our final scouts for the shoot, and came up with our shooting schedule.


Planning from afar...


was hard.


We had a lot of logistics to figure out and we were only going to arrive in Salida 3 days before the shoot. There were a lot of important details that we had to figure out months ahead of time in order to do our planning. The first things were figuring out which street to film on (so we could go through approval channels) and finding a crane!


My mom (who legitimately produced this film alongside me) walked all over Salida, taking video footage for me of different streets. I had her download the Sun Seeker App so she could track sun trajectories in each spot for me. We needed to find an area of town that was visually appealing, and would have enough light throughout the day on May 15th.


We identified F street between 1st and 2nd as the ideal location. Mom went to a lot of city meetings and met with insurance brokers and did everything necessary in order to secure the spot. This would have been very hard to me to do from afar!


Of course before going through the process/work of getting the street closed down, we had to make sure it would work for our crane operator. Through some networking, I had gotten connected to Terry Crane and Rigging (who would provide the 290 foot crane that Selkie performed from) and DSI (who provided the boom lift that our gimbal operator shot from).


I knew where I wanted to put the cranes, but I had to make sure it would work. I communicated using aerial maps and google street views, with a little light photoshopping:



The images above are roughly accurate to the final placement of the crane. The base of the crane didn't change, but we moved the arm a bit so Selkie would hang closer to 1st street than 2nd.


It was a long shooting day


We were up before the sun and started shooting around 5 am. We started with all the footage of Selkie walking down the street, being ignored and then eventually being pulled up by the crane.


The day had to be run as efficiently as possible, so while the crane was setting up, we used the next best thing to pull Selkie back ... Mark Wildman. (See pics in the carousel below!)



It was a very surreal moment when Selkie was strapped into the crane. It was finally happening. All our months of hard work and preparation were paying off, and we were actually about to shoot this thing.


One of my favorite voyeuristic shots of the film takes place inside Sweeties Sandwich Shoppe. Here's a pic I snapped from my monitor on set. In the film, Selkie spins right outside the window and the restaurant patrons snap their heads to watch her.


Local business were all really gracious, and you'll see several shots in the video where we filmed through store windows to create the feeling of voyeurism.


We were drawn to Salida for the visuals... because of its natural texture and beauty. But an added bonus was...


The Salida Circus.


Salida has a circus group which both adults and children perform in. We were going to need a lot of background talent in order to bring our concept to life -- and we needed a good segment of our extras to be physically fit and up for the challenge of climbing on top of one another, reaching for Selkie. Acrobats and aerialists from the Salida Circus were enthusiastic to help!


As I said before, our day was efficiently scheduled because we had a lot to shoot! So, it was important that we could rehearse this human set-piece in the days leading up to the shoot. We had to figure out our pyramid, and we also had to figure out how Ruby (our brave young aerialist that hangs off of Selkie) would grab onto her safely.


As you can see in the carousel of images below, a local paper did a story about our rehearsal encouraging people to join us as background extras for the shoot!



Ruby was brave, and we quickly found a secure hand hold for her. Here's a shot of her dangling from Selkie, 20 feet in the air over cement that didn't make it into the film (because of story) but is too badass not to share:

We wrapped our shoot just as the sun went down, just as we planned. I had spent some time networking from afar with Salida residents over facebook. I had created a facebook group and a facebook event for the shoot day. That's how we got a lot of our extras. I had a google document with names and emails of everyone who had agreed to come -- listing how many hours they could come as well. I encouraged everyone who could only give an hour or two of their time to come at the end of the day. That's when we did our widest shots:



Despite the production challenges of working with stunts, children, cranes, 3 cameras, and over a hundred extras... we wrapped on time and got all our shots. The only thing left to do was celebrate, heal (see Selkie's legs), and then edit it...



We love telling stories through this medium and cannot wait to do it again. We've already got some ideas cooking so stay tuned for more...


- Erin



#versatileassassins #VAHuman #SalidaCircus

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@2019 Versatile Assassins - Erin Brown Thomas & Selkie Hom

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