The movie-making process has no place for mediocre work. Since the beginning, Visión Inversa—my start-up production company based in Katy—knew we had to prove ourselves with high-quality productions to raise some eyebrows. Meaningful shots, a cast willing to morph into whatever the director—and script—desires, impeccable audio and video editing, original soundtrack, and, of course, makeup artists, gaffers, camera operators, and more. Oh, and by the way, on a student budget, which usually ranges between zero and nothing. I can assure you, it’s tough. But finally reaching the end to witness your masterpiece come to life on the big screen (or any screen with YouTube, in this case) makes all the stress and bleeding numbers in your bank account worth it. Here’s how we made à la carte, our six-episode spy thriller, a reality.
Let’s go back to February 2018. I was exhausted from my soul-crushing commute, riding METRO from UH back to Katy, and I was about to grab a beer when my lifelong friend Bruno Barranco knocked at the door. "Juan, hear me out: Two hitmen stumble upon each other at a bar. They realize they are each other’s target. What happens next? Go!"’ That small idea became the spark we needed.
We grabbed the six-pack, opened our laptops, and began writing and planning a story that would give life to Renzo Carvalho and Valeria Vincenti, two highly-trained operatives who specialize in sending any living organism of your choice to the afterlife. Only this time, their mission was to dispatch each other (cue the dramatic music). A nail-biter for sure—not only the story, but how in the world we could make it a reality. Especially on a puny budget like ours.
What would life be without friends? Those who blindly exchange their talents, time, and soul for a couple of Little Caesar pizza slices. A core group of three buddies juggled roles as makeup artist, actor, production assistant, and whatever other crew roles we needed. These people, alongside Bruno and myself, made up the backbone of the crew, swapping roles when the situation demanded it. One day you could be holding the camera, the other seated as an extra enjoying a glass of “wine.” No significant money spent there. Win!
As Bruno said many times throughout this process: Just like real estate, “Chaos is inevitable with a bad location.” And unfortunately, we needed quite a bit of variety for the script to feel alive—bars, hotel rooms, hotel pools, different houses, parking lots. We actually had to cut a rooftop scene after a slight misunderstanding with the Katy ISD police department almost got us arrested. My friend Roneth, who plays lady assassin Valeria Vincenti, was pointing a prop gun at me when the cops decided to make their own heroic entrance on set. We weren’t trespassing, however. We had permission to film, yet locals couldn’t tell the difference between a film set and an actual drug deal turning hostile in a parking lot. Naturally, they called 911. "I was the one holding the gun, wearing an all-black outfit," Roneth recalls, "I could’ve gotten shot on personal defense. I was terrified!" And let’s face it, you would’ve been, too.
The rest of the locations thankfully did not involve life-threatening situations. However, luck played a key role. For the bar scene? Knowing the manager at your weekly karaoke night has its perks. Hotel rooms? White sheets, a neutral-color painted room, some IKEA furniture, and a hint of interior design knowledge does the trick. Houses? Remember our loyal crew? We had their souls already, so why not take their places, too? Location fees, it turns out, can be avoided with enough creativity.
As the production team, our main job on set was to make sure we followed the shooting plan. Which always happened—eventually. "We would always plan to start filming at 9 a.m., and we ended up starting at noon," says Jeanine Bertou, our production assistant. "Between all the makeup, the crew—me and maybe one other person—preparing the set, delays were almost always a part of our shooting schedules. The whole two hours prior to filming were pretty intense; you could even say there was a slight hubbub building up every minute, as we tried to keep everything—and everyone—on track.’’
The shooting plan is the game plan for video production, containing all the essential information we needed for the day: call-times for crew and actors, makeup time, scene walkthroughs, shot lists, locations, props needed for each scene, and last, but not least, one or two well-deserved lunch breaks (Little Caesar’s pizza and sodas included). Actors would arrive, Bruno would walk them through the scene, makeup would embellish (or deform) their faces, and the camera would start rolling. Easy to say, hard to plan, and even harder to accomplish. Nevertheless, once you hear on the last day: "That’s a wrap,’’ you can’t help but feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. Also, overflowing excitement that your pocket survived the expenses.
The Finished Product
Overall, making à la carte took us around three month of shooting. And with the countless pizza boxes devoured, one batch of low-cost props, water bottles, and at least 10 liters of sweat spilled during the fight scenes, the total cost rounded up to a mere $200. Not bad at all, huh? A small sacrifice compared to the huge praise received on premiere night with family and friends. Watching everyone stare in awe as the intro began playing has to be one of the most fulfilling experiences you can aspire to as a creative. Folks from UH, Panama, Venezuela, and Mexico gushed about us over social media. I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world. On to the next project!
You can stream more Visión Inversa episodes at their YouTube channel here.