How to create a short film with no actors, no budget and no idea


How do you create a film with no actors and no budget? Easy! Take a comic from the early 1900s and animate it. Add some free, public domain sound cues and some music from your grandfather's jazz band, and then get your friends to be the voice actors.

After finishing my first featurette, I was so excited to make another. I bought a better camera, a bigger computer, and signed up for Adobe Creative Cloud.

But the first obstacle, as always, is a blank page, and I had no idea what I wanted to make. A doco? A narrative drama? Some pseudo-Swedish art-house cinema?

On top of this, I didn't know how to use proper editing programs because I'd cut the last film using iMovie. Adobe's film editing software was new to me, and using Premiere and After Effects is like trying to fly an alien spaceship with no instruction—all the buttons and dials are exciting but fraught with danger. I would get so far only to crash the computer, lose my work, and/or irrevocably break the thing I made.

While getting used to all this new gear, I thought it would be better not to involve too many others in my projects. So, I had this idea that I could cut my teeth using archival material in the public domain, and learn basic film editing, visual storytelling and animation as I went. And that's how I ended up settling on using a comic from the early 1900s...

The cheese dreams of a Rarebit Fiend

At Internet, I found some comics by Winsor McCay in the public domain—The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. McCay, under the pen name Silas, had drawn over 300 of these comics—one a week for almost a decade.

Winsor McCay,  The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

Winsor McCay, The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

Each of his Rarebit strips follow a simple formula—something progressively strange and fantastic happens throughout the cartoon, right up until the last panel when the main character wakes up realising it's all been a dream, and curses that they had eaten too much Welsh rarebit the night before.

Welsh rarebit, for those who haven't had it, is an old cheese on toast recipe that sometimes includes mustard, beer and Worcestershire sauce, which makes The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend a 100 year old series of jokes about cheese dreams. (Coincidentally, Welsh rarebit is also known as 'Welsh rabbit.' The old, terrible joke being that the Welsh were too poor to afford the cheapest and freely available meat—rabbit—probably because they were too busy being oppressed by the English.)

McCay's strip is not funny 'ha ha', but clever.  I thought his insight into the endlessly inventive world of dreams, his Art Nouveau inflected style, and his sense of humour was irresistible, and thought that he needed a revival of sorts.

So using McCay's strips as the basis, I wanted to find a way make them into little films—taking the one-page comic and trying to make it into something cinematic.

Here's the result...

The nuts and bolts of how I did it

In Photoshop, I separated out the characters and speech bubbles, and created a clean background using the clone tool and drawing in the missing parts. The work was time-consuming, but doing it every night for a few weeks while listening to music, it became perversely fun—kinda like how weeding the garden can be fun, or sanding furniture.

Then I used After Effects to animate little movements like the characters blinking or the lady's fragmented body parts rotating. It was amazing to find that McCay's original drawings fit together so precisely.

Also, in After Effects, you can simulate the effect of a camera panning and zooming around the comic, which is how I tried to preserve the feeling that the cartoon was still images on a page.

Once this was done, I finished the project in Premiere, adding title graphics, and doing closeups and transitions—fades and pushes and whatnot—and then tried to think of some sound cues to go with it...


The hardest thing about this little mini project was the music and sound. It was frustrating because I'm a musician by trade and I thought I'd be all over it, but honestly I had no idea what I was doing.

I experimented with a lot of things, but none seemed to gel. It made me wish I knew a professional Foley artist.

However, there are two bits of sound I love. The first is the Difficult Children theme tune by the great band and good friends O!, and the the old-time music, which are recordings of my grandfather's jazz band.

My Grandfather

My Grandfather

A decade or so ago we got these 78s of his sent out from England. Apparently they were demos for a recording session that never eventuated. I never got to meet my grandfather, but I always listen to those records in disbelief—they're so impossibly sweet.

The other music cues were taken from The Monster Maker, a 1944 horror film in the public domain, and some sound effects I made on my iPhone using an app called Sampletoy.

Rarebit 2: Two times cheesier

While I was making the first little film I got annoyed at the slow progress, so I did what anyone would do when they can't get a project done—I started another one.

Winsor McCay,  The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

Winsor McCay, The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.

The aim of the second Rarebit film was to get bulk of the visuals done in one week, unlike the last one which took about two months off and on. And, surprisingly, I did it. I simplified my approach and cheated with the animation where I could. This, combined with me becoming a little more experienced, meant the basic structure took a week, and the rest a few weeks more. (Ok, a-lots-of-weeks-more, but still...)

While doing this, I decided it might be better if I got some people to do the voices—just reading the speech bubbles without hearing the dialogue was quaint, but somehow unfulfilling.

I was lucky to get Geoff, who actually does voice overs for us at work, and my friend Marine, who I knew did a great impression of an old lady—someone, she later told me, turned out to be based on someone she knew called Beryl Bertwhistle.

So, without further ado, I present for your consideration Rarebit 2: I Hate to Look...

It was fun!

Thanks so much to Geoff, Marnie, O! and Fi for their help. Hope you enjoy!