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The road to good "aphrodisiacs"

By Sam Holdren

There we were, me and two girls in the middle of Kanawha State Forest, writhing in simulated ecstasy on top of a huge rock as the camera captured it all for posterity. And no, it isn't what you're thinking.

This was just one raw scene from our short film "Unexpected Aphrodisiacs," which won first place in the student film portion of the 2001 West Virginia International Film Festival. I co-directed and produced the film with Nichole Pridemore and Marlette Carter, my two Filmmaking class partners at West Virginia State College. We worked as a team to make our movie a reality.

When we began pre-production in September 2000, our first decision was to shoot with 16mm film, which is difficult to buy in West Virginia. Including purchase price, processing, shipping and handling, each 100-foot roll cost $50 - and could capture only two-and-a-half minutes of footage. That left little room for mistakes. During the course of production, we went through seven rolls. The math isn't pretty.

We spent the month of September arbitrating over the storyline. Nichole came up with the general concept from a dream she had the previous summer. But, like most dreams, it wasn't plotted on a story arc with a clear middle and end. And, since our professor stipulated that our story could be told through images and music only (no dialogue), we had to come up with a simple but thorough way to tell a story that made sense. After much discussion, debate and frustration, our plot essentially became a spoof on any student film where college kids run around the forest in togas.

scene from the movie: people in field
Photo by Nichole Pridemore
The story begins in a world where humanoid creatures play and find satisfaction in each other. One angelic girl, however, has a problem: The other creatures in this world have lights in their chests that symbolize their individual euphoria, and this girl's light will not shine. After a nasty fall, she wakes up in a dark world where threesomes and toe-sucking are an everyday occurrence. After a few twists and turns, the girl finds the solution to her dilemma where she least expects it.

Once Nichole and I finalized the plot, we hit the ground running. I typed up a shot list while Marlette drew the storyboards, made the costumes and designed the makeup. We all scouted locations in various areas of Kanawha State Forest.

We cast Nichole as the angelic girl, and decided that everyone else would play multiple roles. We rounded out the cast with friends who weren't afraid to do the strange things we asked of them, and began our first day of shooting in the forest in October 2000.

Setting up a shot involves more than pointing the camera and recording. Any photographer will tell you that an aperture set too low will produce a dark and muddy image. A setting too high will overexpose the image. Many inexperienced student filmmakers spend their money for film processing, only to get "mud" in return. We did our best to avoid that fate by keeping constant tabs on the sun and running a light meter on every take.

Marlette ran into a lighting challenge when he designed the costumes. Because the lights in the creatures' chests had to show up on camera, Marlette used sheer fabric. For the actual lights, Marlette stumbled upon some small red lights for a dollar each in the Halloween section at Wal-Mart. We shot these scenes with a blue filter, and the red lights showed up perfectly.

Storyboards are great for planning creative camera shots and figuring how to tell the story, but they tend to change once the film is in production. Though we intended the entire film to be shot outdoors, by mid-October it had become too chilly for togas. To solve this, we created a scenario where the girl is pulled into a cave, which was actually a large drain pipe covered by leaves. We carefully shot the rest of this sequence in the Davis Hall theater at West Virginia State College, where we could manipulate the lighting to suit our needs.

With principal photography complete by mid-November, the time for post-production had arrived. The editing process can make or break a student film. Some students are afraid to cut the dead weight, like that all-important 30-second shot of someone walking. I edited our film with the mindset of keeping the meat and dumping the fat.

With our storyline, we had no choice but to come up with an original score. Considering our time constraints, the only way to do this was for me to compose the music using Cakewalk, a software program used for sequencing Midi music files on a computer. The challenge was timing the music with the action. I had to rewind and fast-forward my video copy hundreds of times on the VCR in my living room as I sat in front of my computer trying to "point and click" my way to musical success.

The deadline for the student competition was fast approaching. I raced to the digital editing station at West Virginia State College and worked for eight hours straight to get the score perfectly in sync with the film. When the smoke cleared, our eight-and-a-half minute opus was ready for the public. After six months and almost $600, our long road had finally ended.

Aside from a few dark shots at the beginning, we're very pleased with the final product. Our advice to other aspiring filmmakers is simple: Stay the course, plan well and let your imagination run free.

For more information about the West Virginia International Student Film Competition, visit