The death of a loved one is a common but difficult subject for filmmakers. How do you authentically communicate grief and loss on screen? What’s the best way to reveal the protagonist’s deeply personal inner journey while crafting a film that will captivate audiences — and should you stick with one type of storytelling style or jump between several? Smart directors blend cinematic techniques that make one person’s experience of loss relatable to others. To achieve this and bring the complex story of “The Secret Art of Human Flight” to life, director and editor H.P. Mendoza relied on Adobe Creative Cloud tools including Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Photoshop.
In the film Mendoza tells the story of Ben (Grant Rosenmeyer) who is coming to terms with the sudden, tragic death of his wife. As he navigates his grief, he downloads a mysterious self-help book from the dark web that will teach him how to fly. The film follows his journey as he falls under the spell of a charismatic but eccentric spiritual guide (Academy Award nominee Paul Raci) while struggling to escape the attention of a detective determined to prove that Ben murdered his wife.
Mendoza used Adobe Premiere, After Effects, and Photoshop to compose action sequences, apply visual effects, and create motion graphics and eye-catching animations. The result is a clever, moving film that charts Ben’s emotionally layered journey from anger and shock to acceptance and healing.
Before the premiere of “The Secret Art of Human Flight” at this year’s Tribeca Festival, we spoke with Mendoza to find out what inspired the film and the role Creative Cloud tools played in the production process.
Can you tell us about your experience as a filmmaker and how you got started in the industry?
I got my first break composing and starring in a small indie production called “Colma: The Musical” which was directed by one of my oldest friends, Richard Wong. After that, I started writing and directing my own microbudget films, bouncing from musicals to horror movies and even science fiction. While I was experimenting across these genres, they were all focused on queer and/or Asian characters. “The Secret Art of Human Flight” is the first movie I have directed that will not be premiering at an Asian or queer film festival.
How and where did you first learn to edit?
I learned how to edit at the College of San Mateo because I thought it was important to train using physical film. I also wanted to edit and do the sound design at the same time, but my teachers kept telling me I was getting ahead of myself. That arrogance didn’t last long! By the second year of film school, I’d spent so much of my retail job paychecks on sound-striping, splicing tape, and celluloid, I couldn’t wait for everything to go digital.
How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?
I have Adobe Premiere Pro open all the time, so starting a project is never clean or ceremonious. I drag a random video file from the project into an empty sequence and let it dictate the settings so I can get a feel for what is there. It’s a bit like a casual “get-to-know-you” date with no fanfare or preparation. More often than not, that sequence becomes the first reel and all of a sudden, my casual first date has turned into a one-month anniversary.
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out.
For the police chase, I went to the location with the lead actor, Grant Rosenmeyer, and we acted out the scene like two children playing cops and robbers. I shot it with my phone, yelling out a song with imaginary flutes, strings, and trumpets. But it was the right thing to do. By the time we shot the actual scene, the whole thing felt as smooth as a dance.
When it came time to edit the police chase, I treated Premiere Pro as if it were a piece of music composition software, recording various instruments in my editing suite and then dragging each audio file into the timeline until I had a score. From there, I re-jigged each of the shots against the newly created score turning all the visual elements into instruments. The police cars were zithers, Grant’s feet were arpeggiated flutes, and every dolly was a trumpet swell.
What were some specific pre-production and post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?
We shot the film in large format with the Sony Venice, so my assistant editor made 1080p proxies because we were certain that 6K files would be unwieldy to manage. I worked with the proxies for a while, but I had this sneaking suspicion that the workflow in 4:3 at 6K was going to have its own idiosyncrasies and I wouldn’t be in complete control — especially since I was going to be doing miniscule corner-pins, automating animated masks, and performing pixel-perfect “stunts”. So, I ended up opening a new sequence in Premiere Pro, dragged in an .mxf file, and there I was editing in 6K! It meant I could edit the whole film without the use of proxies.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?
For this film, I used Premiere Pro, Photoshop, and After Effects. As well as the typography and graphic design, there was a lot of fixing achieved by animating mattes and masks that I created in Photoshop. There’s nothing simpler than dragging a .PSD file into Premiere.
If you could share one tip about Premiere Pro, what would it be?
When it comes to applying multiple effects, nesting is your friend. Throwing a bunch of effects into a single clip can feel messy and unwieldy, but nesting a sequence is like writing a perfect trigonometry equation, and I’m not even a math person! I even have nests within nests which generate animations that most people would reserve for After Effects, or audio effects that might be saved for Pro Tools.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
My husband, Mark Del Lima, is my creative inspiration and my muse. He has motivated me to write so many songs and albums and my last feature film, “Attack, Decay, Release”, was a gift for him. He’s a tastemaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of art, design, music, and film, and he’s the only other person in my life who appreciates films by Maya Derren and Stan Brakhage just as much as “Adventure Time” and “Adult Swim”.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
It might sound a bit crazy, but the toughest thing is people telling me how tough I’ve had it. Because I’ll believe them, and next thing you know I’m surrounded by people complaining about how they can never catch a break and blaming external factors for not making it in their career. And after a certain point, I realized that we all have a decision to make: Either become the kind of person who has what it takes to “make it” or find a place where you’ll be praised and loved for who you are. Both are viable options, but the hardest thing is to get out of a toxic circle and be free to make your choice.
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
My favorite thing about my workspace is that it’s a malleable workspace, it’s so not precious. It’s a space to screen, to review, to edit, to play and record music, to game (I’m a gamer — it’s nice to escape into a completely different medium) and if I want to project what I’m working on, I pull my 1:1 screen down and black out the room for projection.
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