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Dawn - Director notes

Updated: Oct 3, 2018

I talk about my process and the quick little journey of making Dawn. If you haven't seen it, click here. Thanks for reading!

Charlee Arballo & Sarah Koepp

Director's note:

There are two distinct character arcs. One sibling wants to die while the other doesn’t get a choice. At the lowest point in their respective lives, they find a way back to be there for each other.

The hike is an activity the sisters did growing up but it is also symbolic of life and how we climb past our trials and grow.

My approach to the film was that I wanted the story to be very non linear. Each of the story lines could really be in different chronologies and it would still work. For example, Charlee (the younger sister could have gotten sick first and then Sarah could be suicidal).

“Dawn” is such a beautiful song about the strength of a woman. This song celebrates the bonds of sisterhood and as a guy with 3 sisters, I wanted to give visual life to it. Every woman goes through their own share of pain and suffering and this short film would show that even with mental and physical pain, we are not alone.

How it started:

Dawn, the single from Atlanta based band Von Grey was on repeat at the gym. (yeah I'm that guy.) It has been almost 2 years since I had created anything on my own. I love being a filmmaker but one of the things that I rarely happens in the industry I'm in is having my complete voice in it. I wanted to make this short story because I believe that there is truth in it and a lot of people live and unfortunately, hide in that truth. As I am preparing to make more narrative films, I basically wanted to push myself. I asked myself "Could I tell a short narrative on film that would evoke emotion? If I could do that, then I can make a 15 minute film and a 90 minute film." Maybe I could then pull a Zack Snyder and make a 3 and a half hour film. Maybe.


After writing out the treatment, I sent it to the Band for permission. They loved it and I immediately asked Sarah to be in it. I was debating for a while on who would play the sister and I settled on having Charlee play the younger sister because it will be more heartbreaking on screen if a kid dies. Yeah I'm terrible.


Utah county

Some references for visuals and tone

- Lumineers

- Ozark

- Darren Aronofsky

- Terrence Malick

Location scouting stills

Sarah and I went location scouting for a couple days checking out different trails. We settled on two trails. I wanted a third but we didn't have enough time. As for the house, I was lucky enough to have used the Kimsey residence for a couple of afternoons.


Cinematography - So I pretty much followed the saying "the best camera you have is the one with you". Would I have loved to shoot with an Arri or a Red? Duh. Unfortunately, I knew this was going to be super low budget aka no-budget. My gear-head friends would be shocked to know I used my 7 year old first generation Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Yep that one.... with a dead pixel right in the middle that I have to roto out every time. :(

The lens was a Canon 24-105L F4. I also used a tokina 11-16mm at one point but cut out those shots because the focus to infinity came out really soft. I also had some extra magic to bypass low light without getting noise. ;)

I have had this camera forever and that thing is a workhorse. I chose to use it because it still shoots a beautiful image. I am very aware of its limitations and weaknesses so I challenged myself to push its strengths.

I had to make sure my story was so good I did not need slow-motion or trendy transitions to dazzle the audience. This was also not that kind of story.

The thing I kept telling myself is "If I couldn't tell a story with this camera, I don't deserve to tell a story with much more expensive gear."

Production was fast. My lead (Sarah) had to be on a flight home to California soon so I only really had two days for principle. I added a couple of extra days (1 for the water scenes and 1 for pickups) My experience as a doc filmmaker came in handy as we were very run and gun. I had to make sure that I was getting the shots I needed and some extra ones if it felt right.


I had a story breakdown back in pre but once I got into post, it got tricky. The middle sections were all over the place. I was running out of real estate fast. I had to sacrifice some better shots for the sake of the story. Being able to time it right with the structure of the song was really tricky as well. I had to rotoscope a dead pixel (UGH) and some textures. Post took me about 2.5 weeks.


I am a huge fan of color correcting and grading. The great thing about editing and coloring BMCC footage is the latitude. I can get colors and more range than if I used a mirrorless or a DSLR.


Shot in Prores HQ 1080p. up res to 4k and exported in the new H.265 HVEC codec. It was the first time I had done it. The encoding time took a while but totally worth it because now I have a smaller file size with the heftiness of a prores codec.


I ended up using Vimeo because I hate youtube's compression. They have this stupid thing where they will give you better compression if you have 10k views or followers or something like that. I also uploaded natively to Facebook which had decent compression and because SEO rules say people hate external links. lol.


Visual Breakdowns

Opening shot

I really wanted to have the first and last frame bookend so I used both sisters looking out into the distance. I really love the contrast of Charlee (top) covered in shadow while Sarah (bottom) is surrounded in light.

Final Shot


Introducing both characters via looking out into windows at opposite ends with contrasting lighting. If you notice I also let the darkness linger for a beat longer almost uncomfortable to the viewer. This is to show that Sarah's depressed and is okay dwelling in the darkness.


I really did not want to show Sarah's reason for suicide. As other films typically use bullying as a cause of suicide, I wanted to leave that back story to the viewer. There are a lot of reasons people lose the will to live and whatever reason that is, the outcome is very similar and I wanted to focus on that. (Although some may argue that since the story is non-linear, She could be suicidal after Charlee's death.)


Arguably one of my favorite shots of Dawn. The water was really cold but those eyes are 100% real :D

What it really looked like. haha!

One of the more obvious concepts/shots in the film is Sarah laying in a tub. This pretty much means her act of suicide. Showing suicide in film can get pretty cliche especially with a tub (ala 13 reasons why etc.) So I used that same concept and pushed it further. She lays in an empty tub and in a dreamlike state wakes to being in the middle of water. This is symbolic of depression and suicide. Sarah is in an empty tub symbolizing emptiness and loneliness. She wakes in the pond filling that void. The last shot of her out of the water comes after Charlee comes into the room and comforts her meaning that Charlee fills that void.


I really wanted the reveal of Charlee's illness to come into the second verse. In this series of shots, you see happy sisters and then BAM!. This reveal pushes the story forward and gives a nice little peak and valley between acts. Charlie did not like wearing the nasal oxygen cannula at first but then she got used to it. I definitely wanted her to wear it because right of the bat, it just says "I'm sick".


I really wanted to shoot at a real Children's hospital but I was denied haha. So, I went to my old Uni and turned it into a hospital. I figured I have not made anywhere close to paying my student loans with my degree so I might as well keep getting my money's worth. The stained glass area although awesome has been shot to death by anyone who has seen it. I was very reluctant because a lot of my colleagues will recognize it but I stopped caring because I know there will be people who have not seen it.


Charlee's sequence is simple, She gets a terminal illness and she passes away. There are many scenes in the film which signify her point of death but none more so that the tunnel juxtaposed with the moving away from Charlie back at the house (3rd). A couple to things to take note of is that after her death, she is now on facing right to signify progression. She obviously no longer needs her oxygen and is happily breathing again.


Sarah and Charlee cross three bridges that go from big and sturdy to smaller and pretty much a broken tree to get to the waterfall. This symbolizes life's journey and how it is not always safe and easy but when you cross it, you can get to you desired destination aka waterfall. Also walking left to right to show progression.


The story I wanted to tell with the waterfall is simple. Sarah has the opportunity to do things other's can't. After showing her waterfall drawing 3 times and Charlee hiking at the bottom of the waterfall, The reveal of Charlee being gone at the end was something I really wanted emphasize.


Final Thought

If you made it this far, you are amazing! There are a couple more little Easter Eggs and subtext that I will not mention because they are there for those that want to find it. I am extremely proud of this piece and I hope you enjoyed it. I am extremely grateful for Sarah and Charlee for trusting me. I am grateful for the feedback and wonderful comments from everyone. To those that watch this and feel it pertains to them, it is for you. To those suffering, I hope this video finds you and you find comfort in it.


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