Cast portraits done by DP Jordan Oram and BTS by Sam Schmiedeskamp
Short of the Month is a new monthly column, curated by FREE THE WORK, spotlighting a standout short by a filmmaker in our community. Submit your new shorts for consideration for future spotlights here.
"Princess Bride, Mel Brooks, Robin Hood Men in Tights, and of course Lord of the Rings—I wanted to make Black versions of all these movies," Sadé Clacken Joseph says. "I searched so hard to see myself in these classics I was obsessed with, these characters I felt so grounded to, so 'Knight' is something I would've loved to see as a little girl."
Be who you needed when you were growing up. It's a mantra that the multi-hyphenate filmmaker not only lives by, but it's a clear driving force in her creative work. And that couldn't be more evident than in "Knight." Our first ever Short of the Month, the fantasy film makes dreams come true, which feels perfect for a time that needs a bit of hope and magic.
Wanting to demystify the process of making her short, making it fully accessible to all the underrepresented storytellers needing inspiration to tell their own tales, Sadé generously broke down her process. Here, she shares the details of turning fantasy into reality—from her pitch deck to Spotify (who commissioned the piece), to her original shot list and location scout photos, to her costume designer's inspiration boards.
Now without further ado, here's "Knight."
Sadé Clacken Joseph: The idea actually came from a music video concept I had been planning with my writing partner Edan Frei, that fell through. I've been obsessed with King Arthur, fantasy, and magic since I was a child but never saw people of color in those roles, so I wanted to create something within that genre. Cut to graduating with my MFA from USC. A friend of mine from undergrad hit me up out of the blue in 2018, and she worked at Spotify. They sent out this email looking for Black creatives. Next thing I know, I’m in meetings in New York. They picked me as one out of three creatives—with Mahogany Browne and Theresa Chromati—to do their Black Girl Magic playlist takeover. They had us each come up with a theme for a project to do around the playlist. So in our little brainstorming meeting, we came up with this idea of reimagining armor, and what does that mean for Black female resilience? Of course, I still had the concept for the music video. That's how this Black knight character was born —following this woman who wears physical armor, but also metaphorical armor. It was such a series of coincidences, it was like almost fate.
The idea then became my pitch deck to Spotify. Before I approach any concept, I make a lookbook. It helps me flesh out the ideas. It's also super helpful when you're reaching out to department heads. When I was putting together the pitch, I don’t think Spotify was imagining this full-blown mini movie, so I needed to sell them on it, especially because we were working with a small budget. They actually approved this grandiose idea I had put together on Canva. (I work with a graphic designer on decks now.) After that, Edan and I wrote the script.
SCJ: This couldn’t have happened without the love and support of all the department heads who worked for little because they believed in it. Everyone was just pulling favors ‘cause they were down with the story. My DP, Jordan Oram works a lot with Karena Evans, and we hit him up on a whim and he flew himself out. As for the actors, most people I hit up through like Instagram, or we're homies. A lot of them came through like Grammy-award winner Robert Glasper. This was his first role and he had us all rolling on the floor laughing whether he was on camera or behind the scenes.
We had to compromise a lot since we didn't have the budget for an ambitious project of this scale, which is something that I think a lot of underrepresented directors can relate to. Nonetheless, we stretched the budget and made magic (pun intended!) happen in our short time, prepping all day and night out of our line producers spot in Los Feliz. Shot listing with Jordan was particularly fun.
SCJ: We had two days to shoot this whole epic, and knew we had to move quickly. Jordan knew how to run and gun. He’d go set up a shot and come back to the current one, and he always knew what was next.
Movement and music is such a big part of this, so we wanted the camera to be moving with the music. That’s why we have a lot of fluid camera movement. But also, because we had to run and gun, sometimes shooting handheld is just the easiest way to go.
Being a documentary director first and working in daytime TV really prepared me for this type of shoot, where we needed quick solutions. For example, the whole tournament scene. We shot at Zorthian Ranch, which is a really beautiful old artists commune up in Altadena. They already had a medieval type of court area, and we got notified by Film LA a couple days before that we couldn’t shoot there. We had already planned everything. So my production design team had to figure out how to make a tent and a little arena in a field the day before with very little resources. We shot things closer on a wide lens. If you really look at the tent, it’s actually not that stable; it’s the way we shot it. We used long lenses to shoot through the crowd, so it looks like there's a bigger crowd. That's what you just have to do as a director: collaborate on solutions.
SCJ: I got to give it up to Sasha Gordon, my cousin. She did the makeup for every single character in those two days, she did every single person in the background makeup. She would just throw ideas out to me. Using African tribal paint, for instance, was important. Ultimately, the film was influenced by many cultures across the hair and makeup, choreography, music, costume, and production design. Elements of Western medieval and Victorian eras and African and East Asian cultures were all incorporated. As an anthropologist, I was giddy with excitement at creating this kind of world with my team.
SCJ: We actually had the Knight in full armor, but she couldn’t move, so Sami our costume designer came up with this really cool exposed armor look that's like a mix of sheet metal and patches of leather. We talked about what was key. On the Black Knight's face paint and armor, using African tribal paint was important. White symbolizes hope and light. We chose black armor which denotes power.
In addition to reinventing her armor, adding cowrie shells to the armor was also meaningful and a brilliant idea Sami had. In Africa, South America and North America, the cowrie has also symbolized wealth, prosperity and destiny. In ancient African legend, the wearer embodied the strength of the ocean.
"As an artist, I made a pact with myself to choose projects that are visually challenging and which have an important story to tell…I have a social obligation to be part of diversifying the narrative. I truly believe the more we diversify roles in the media, the less friction and divide we have amongst each other. We should strive to see each other as neighbors and not as adversaries." —Sami Martin Sarmiento, Costume Designer
Below are some Sami's incredible costume boards for "Knight":
SCJ: Another way we cut down costs was that I edited it all. I hit up a friend to show me how to make the split screens and I worked with my collaborators, Chris Gravland, on the VFX of the castle in the opening and animator Anthony Harvey (another cousin!) on graphics.As for the music, Edan produced all of it, and I worked with him on the lyrics and sang a bit as well. We got Sigin, who plays the princess, to sing in her native Sudanese dialect in the opening. Like I said, music was so important, but not necessarily just because we knew people would be watching the movie on the Spotify app—I really wanted it to be just as much an auditory experience as visual.
When I sent the Spotify the first cut after just a week of editing, they thought it was perfect. It was supposed to be a two-minute short but they let me keep the entire five minutes. They were worried that it wasn't gonna get a lot of play because it's so long, but in the end, they just loved the vision. I got to give it up to the producers at Spotify especially, Kenia, Shannon and Cynthia. They really are about amplifying our voices.
SCJ: Being on set is like my happy place. Even when it's really stressful, it's fun being in the middle of distress. I love making people happy and I love creating a safe space for people. I protect my people. I'm always checking in, making people laugh here and there, asking people if they need something. I know it's not typical, like directors aren't really supposed to do that. But I go out of my way to be available for everyone because I think the atmosphere on set is key. If you're not having fun, what the hell are we doing this for?
SCJ: I wanted this to be something that all ages would love. I wanted little Black girls to not just aspire to be a princess but also to be the Knight, to be the main characters in their own stories. Ultimately Knight was meant to be a re-imagining of history and celebration of Black women and the way we as Black women are resilient and wear our armor in so many different ways. Spotify took a risk with this project, as their first narrative project produced on their platform. The film validated me as a director at the beginning of my career and gave me the much needed confidence I needed as a POC female filmmaker who must also wear her own armor and navigate battling imposter syndrome daily in this industry. I am beyond grateful to Spotify's amazing all-female creative team who spearheaded this campaign and selected me for the opportunity.