The Smell

The Smell
2018 Chunky Milk Productions
Director: Owen Swerkstrom

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Promotional Material:
 trailer 15MB
 poster 1.9MB

HD Downloads:
 Theatre quality 1.2GB
 .mp4 compressed 218MB
 webm compressed 113MB

 .mp4 compressed 292MB
 webm compressed 188MB

This was Chunky Milk Productions' fourth 48 Hour Film Project.

Four Times Forth

It's tradition now. We do this to ourselves on a regular basis. This is a specific kind of madness for which we actually pay to participate.

The Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project's wrap-up page said something about "blood, sweat and tears", which I thought was a bit dramatic, but then I remembered. Blood from swatting some very greedy mosquitoes. I sweat plenty, like, the whole time. Tears began to happen involuntarily after 30 or so hours of consciousness. So yeah. Checks out.


We got a writer on board! We got a nice shotgun mic! For certain elements of making a movie, we were actually quite well-prepared. Elements like dialogue, and sound. I practiced up on filtering out background noise and everything.

With a small crew and forecast of rain on Saturday, we thought this might be the year we slap together some hand puppets, maybe shoot the whole thing in front of backdrops childishly scribbled on the chalk board wall in my basement.

The Logo, Perfected

We've used my placeholder CG milk splats three times. From the beginning, I wanted it to be a practical shot of actual chunky milk splatting down and sloshing around. This year, I finally got the real thing recorded. I sacrificed some milk and boiled up some curds, added bleu cheese at Mike's suggestion, got some small clear rectangular vessels to drop it in, set up a dark backdrop and put a nice long lens on the camera. Outside, because I didn't need my house to pick up a gross and/or maddening smell.

My wife made a keen observation, watching me set all this up and shoot multiple takes: "You spend a lot of time doing very strange things."

She's not wrong. But also, look at that shot. Worth it!

48 Hours

The genre draw this year gave us either "silent film" or "music". Dave immediately had a fantastic idea which somehow fulfills both. It's too good to spoil here, but in short we didn't have what we need to do it right. Note to future self: link here to a finished version of Dave's idea. I seriously want to make that movie.

The required elements were an illustrator named Sonny Swenson, a tie (of any kind), and the line "I wish I knew".

In the week or two leading up to these projects, Mike, Dave and I tend to send a lot of group texts around suggesting silly ideas and dialog etc. Among these was a particularly silly idea I had that we could spend the whole movie trying to hunt down a funny smell in the house. As it turns out, the world we live in takes the dumbest ideas anybody can come up with, and makes them real.

The Write Way

Patrick is an old friend of Mike's. I met him before, at Mike's wedding. Only now, he's a bigshot self-employed writer and speaker who found the time to come help write a movie. A movie with no dialogue. :^) But he was a huge help in getting us thinking about how to set up the tension and the actual structure of the story. He writes monster stories, which fed into our movie too. :^)

As we needed two characters beside the lead, Patrick also makes an appearance as the neighbor.


We weren't intending to volunteer our entire house for this movie, but that's what ended up happening. Poor Kim had her weekend stolen by my silly project. But, apart from having that sprung on her, it wasn't so bad. :^)

We planned to have Mike walk over from my house to my actual neighbors' in order to summon new nostrils in hopes of verifying his maddening smell. But that morning I had an idea to both quicken that scene (I always want everything to happen faster; shots where people are going from here to there just get me all itchy to move along) and not have to bother the neighbors or have them sign releases to shoot on their property. Instead, I shot Mike hailing an imaginary neighbor and ended the shot with a fast pan away. On the other side of my house I took a fake reciprocal shot fast-panning in and stopping on Patrick. A quick fade between a few frames of super-blurry panning and boom, a plausible-looking "single" shot. It isn't perfect, but the trick works. The better pacing and time saved pestering the neighbors was worth a couple frames of minor artifacts.

The Sound of Silence

Dave's music always adds at least a full letter grade to any work we do, but as a silent film, this time every single moment of audio in the entire movie is 100% his creation.

Right away when we let him know what direction we were taking, he started flooding my inbox with music. Crazy sounds, traditional sounds, driving melodies, abstract soundscapes. You name it, he's recorded it and it's been waiting for the right project.

After seeing a near-final cut, he complimented my mixing and said some kind things about arranging and bringing out the best in the pieces, but in truth all I did was plop the files into the timeline, adjust a few volume levels, and let the music do its thing, making us all look like we know what we're doing.

About halfway through editing, we had Mike descending into madness and our slow, time-passes fadeout within about four seconds of Dave's upbeat jam session also fading out following its climax. We didn't have to look far - we expanded Mike's freaking out at the neighbor by using more from each of the two angles we shot it from, and boom. His mental snap was more powerful, and the action fell from rage to collapse exactly in time with the music. The soundtrack literally suggested an edit and improved the movie. I'm not done gushing about Dave's work, either.


It's always a small team, and we all do a lot of everything, but my role was dominantly "director" in the venn diagram this year. I enjoyed that a great deal.

Adam made a point to tell me he enjoyed watching me work, which I had no clue what to make of. I don't know what I'm doing, at all, which is I think how I replied. I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by people with good ideas, and I do nothing but problem-solve and adapt this to that for a living, so if (IF!) I have any skill at all as a director, I think that's where the credit goes.

Effective or not, it's fun. And directing a silent film is great; you can just shout stuff out right in the middle of a take!

Early Show

I "finished" editing before Mike woke up, and when he did he suggested we take a copy to the cinema he manages and see if the big screen and giant sound would reveal any flaws we'd need to iron out. This was an amazing luxury and a fantastic idea. I had not slept, so I was predictably grumpy, but so glad we got to do this.

At this point we were still considering presenting the movie in black and white. It's a very different movie that way, and an interesting look, but it draws some attention to itself and has some blockiness and banding problems. Especially on the big screen, we agreed the color version is just smoother and more fun. A person thinks "silent film" and the mind conjures black and white examples, but we like how this turned out with its color intact.

We were dreading and somewhat expecting audio problems. Every previous movie has had bits of sound that seemed fine on small computer speakers and even cranked-up headphones, but came out weird or jarring once a big cinema sound system got hold of them. But, Dave's audio with my minimal cuts and level bumping was flawless. I can't say enough good things about the music he delivers to us.

Final Touches, Final Moments

The only thing that really needed fixing was the ending. Originally, it was quicker -- too quick, and omitted the insert shot of Mike's relieved sigh after plopping down in the tent.

My biggest hang-up was that I wanted the shadow to stay abstract, and in my mind, seeing it longer (and due to the way the shadow was cast and moved) made it too-well defined, giving off a goofy interpretive-dance vibe. But both Dave and Mike had seen my initial cut and felt like the shadow needed to be on screen longer. Mike made his arguments, and on the way home from the theatre I realized we could both get our way. The pacing is certainly better with a longer shadow clip, and it only took a few minutes to set up a selective blur mask (think fuzzing out license plates or the face of somebody getting arrested on Cops). So there was that solved.

The relief insert just slightly disrupts the continuity between lying down and the shadow's appearance, but is well worth it because it sets up the final nose shot and further establishes that ahh, things might finally be ok now. The only real danger was disrupting the music's flow, but it turned out to be pretty easy to preserve those last moments of quiet, cautious positivity. (Seriously Dave, you sent us so much fantastic music!)

The final, eyes-open shot also got a bit longer; I can't remember my original reasons for cutting it so short, but it works just as well now as a surprise before the blackout, while giving a viewer just that extra split second to register the image.

The Screening

We saw a lot of very well-made movies this year in our screening group. Finishing up the show was us! It was quite gratifying to hear a theater full of people laugh at everything from the new chunky milk splat to poor Autumn getting sniffed. Lots of good reactions, lots of fun had by us and by the audience.

There was a team leader Q&A at the end when a bunch of us behind-the-camera types went up before the bright lights to talk about our movies. There was a warm bit of applause when I introduced myself and said which movie I worked on, which felt all kinds of nice.

There was one first-year team, and a couple of long-timers. (11th and 14th year!) Group A was apparently mostly first-time teams; I wonder if that was by design. A few movies we saw had a stretch of missing audio or some other technical problem, but none felt like big stumbles out of the gate. The first-year team held their own, but there were some intimidatingly-polished movies shown!


In a Chunky Milk first, we made it into the best-of screening, meaning we were in the running for best film! This came as an incredibly fun surprise, and a big ol' cherry on top of the already great time we had and pride we felt for our work.

In addition to making best-of, we were nominated for several awards!

...Special effects? I'm nearly as confused by that as by our not being nominated for best musical score! But use of line? Oh yeah. I can see that. In fact...

I'm writing this before the awards are announced, but I hereby predict we take best use of line. (And I hereby dream we take best editing, and I hereby wish we take best acting, just so we can see Mike completely lose his mind with excitement!)

Called it! :^)

It wasn't one of the more glamorous awards, but winning Best Use of Line with a silent movie is exactly the sort of thing I get very proud of. Great job dudes, I couldn't be more pleased.

The team who beat us out for Best Editing absolutely deserved it. I'm proud of the editing I did (and grateful for all of Mike's help!) but North 119 Productions put together ... well, see for yourself:

Next Time

Honestly I'm not thinking about next time, this time. I figure we'll keep on making these movies, but I don't have nagging feelings of "oh, I really wanted to do such-and-such".

A puppet show would still be fun. A single-take would be a cool and proud achievement.

Lessons Learnt

February 2023: Scream It Off Screen

Years later, we've come to know and love a different side of the local short film scene: Scream It Off Screen. Anything goes (up to 15 minutes), and there's an event every month. Each screening is set up as a gong show, where the audience can shout to gong a movie starting about halfway through, or counter-shout to let it play. There are on-stage antics between films, and just the right mixture of audience participation and cinema experience.

We and plenty of others have recycled past 48 Hour Film Project entries, and it was the screening of The Smell that convinced me that Scream It Off Screen is our new short filmmaking home base. It was a sold-out theatre, a fun crowd and a fantastic crop of shorts. Somehow we wound up being the first movie, which can be good or scary. To our delight, the entire room was captivated and came along for our silly story, without a single call for the gong.

Each night has a small cash prize winner, and that was not us, but the show was so thoroughly enjoyable that we've decided to shift gears away from the structured 48 Hour Film Project and do our own thing, showing our weird creations as we finish them at future Scream It Off Screen events.

Animated GIFs

Chunky Milk Splat Sniff Mad Scribble Tent

Color Bars

What are these? See here for more info.

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