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Movies That Made Me #2 – Crying Freeman

April 14, 2018

Continuing my series of off-the-radar films that influenced me as a filmmaker, today I want to talk about Christophe Gans’ “Crying Freeman.”

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I recently picked this one up on Blu-Ray (I had to import a French version because it’s not available in the UK) and I won’t mention how much for, but this is actually by far the most expensive disc I own! So, why, I hear you ask, have I spent a fair chunk of change on a) a Blu Ray and b) this little-known action flick? The first is easy- it isn’t available in HD any other way- but the second…

This is probably the movie that has influenced my style as a filmmaker more than any other film. It’s no cinematic masterpiece by any means (although much of it is beautifully shot and put together) and it’s not coated in nostalgia like some other films I could mention, but from the moment I first watched it, it has affected how I tell stories- first through the comic books I drew and then through the films I’ve made. I’d hesitate to call it my favourite film, but it’s certainly the most influential for me as a filmmaker.

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If you’ve seen my work, I think you can see where I got it from…

So, what is the film about?

Based on a manga, “Crying Freeman” is about a young woman called Emu who witnesses an execution by a professional assassin, the Freeman. The Freeman (Mark Dacascos) is an unwilling killer, hypnotised into action by a secret triad society, and he cries tears of regret every time he kills. Now that Emu has seen his face, the Freeman is ordered to kill her too, but chooses not to do so when he falls in love with her- a decision that sets in motion a power struggle within the yakuza and a series of massacres in the Japanese underworld. The film has some beautifully shot and edited action scenes and some solid performances as well as a sense of style rare in action movies of the mid 90s.

The flick hit the shelves of our local video store at some point in 1995. I remember I’d seen a tiny mention of it in one of the manga magazines I bought semi-regularly at the time and to be honest, I had never heard of the manga before. I had heard of the movies’ star, Mark Dacascos, however. Growing up on a diet of martial arts films, I had seen several of his flicks and by this point, he was one of my favourite action stars. One of the nice things about Dacascos was that he’s a decent actor- something the role of Yo Hinomura, the titular crying freeman, lent itself to. And Dacascos got to show both his acting chops and his martial arts skills in the film and demonstrated he had great potential as a leading man. It’s a shame his career went in a different direction, because although his role as the Iron Chef on the US TV show undoubtedly pays well and keeps him busy, I think that with more roles like Crying Freeman, he could’ve broken through into mainstream cinema.

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Tcheky Karyo and Masaya Kato put in compelling performances, as does Julie Condra (soon to be Mrs Dacascos!) as Emu. There are also appearances from well-known faces like Yoko Shimada, Rae Dawn Chong, Byron Mann and Mako and each one does sterling work and helps the film feel a lot bigger budget than its meagre $5 million.

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A butterfly twist between two sword strikes is equal parts illogical and cool as hell.

Like the previous film in this series of reminiscences, “Hard Target,” “Crying Freeman” has some outstanding action sequences and they are also well-shot and edited, stylish affairs. In fact, it’s fair to say that Christophe Gans’ style was influenced by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed movies, what with his liberal use of slow motion, long takes and subtle gestures. From a tense sequence at a Yakuza funeral that ends in a ballistic gunfight to the final katana and kicks battle at a crumbling forest shrine, Gans shows he has a talent for directing stylish and fluid action, something he’d do again in his next film, “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” also starring Dacascos.

But aside from the action, there’s also a beauty to this film, partly in it’s cinematography (that always looks rich, full of depth and evocative) but also in its soundtrack (full of detail and subtle textures and enriched by an atmospheric score).

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“Mark, stop feeding the swans, we’ve got a movie to shoot!”

And this is what I think influenced me the most. “Crying Freeman” was probably the first film that I saw that had real artistic value. Prior to this, I’d only really watched popcorn blockbusters, low-budget scifi, animation and B-movie action flicks. This film had visual elements and soundtrack cues that I had never encountered before and they opened up a new world of cinematic language for me. Although it would be a while before these elements turned up in my own films, they became a benchmark for me as a film viewer. I started looking for this level of craftmanship in other films and this eventually led to me broadening my cinematic palate and watching a wider range of films that didn’t involve jumping kicks.

So if you get a chance and it comes up on Netflix or you find it on DVD, I heartedly recommend checking out the live-action version of “Crying Freeman.”

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Fests, Bests and all the Rests

April 7, 2018

So… an update!

A few things have happened, so I thought I’d scribble down a few poorly-thought-out thoughts.

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The last time I’d talked about Dead Meet it had been shown at Birmingham Film Festival and I had kinda drawn a line under the project. But I guess I shouldn’t have written the film off so easily because out of all the festivals I’d submitted to, it got accepted into two I thought were out of the film’s league- Starburst Media City Festival and Artemis -Women in Action festival.
Starburst, from the magazine of the same name, is a fairly high-profile festival focusing on scifi and other genre films. I submitted “Dead Meet” to them but didn’t hold out much hope of getting a screening- partly because the flick had had a few knockbacks by this point and partly because I didn’t know if it was what Starburst were looking for. But it got accepted (although FilmFreeway originally told be it had been rejected!) and even more surprisingly, it won an award! Or more accurately, Francesca, our lead actress, won the Best Performance award for her role in the film- which was well-deserved, given how much time and energy she put into the role, especially the fight scenes. And, if I’m honest, I think the latter was a lot to do with why she won- audiences and critics respect things that are difficult and performing that sort of action, particularly when you’re not a professional stunt-person, is extremely hard and demonstrates a lot of skill and effort.

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Francesca with her Performance Award from Starburst Media City Festival

But the surprises weren’t over. “Dead Meet” also got into Artemis, which as its name might imply, is all about female empowerment. Artemis was a festival we had in mind when making the film, but I had no idea it would actually get accepted. But it’s something of a double-edged sword for me. On the plus side, Artemis is quite high profile. On the down side, it takes place in LA. And I’m in the UK. And broke. And my passport’s out of date. So, yeah, sadly I won’t be attending the film’s first international screening later this month, which is a shame because Francesca went and won another award: Best Actress – Short (the film, not Francesca!)! Again, it’s well-deserved and hopefully she’ll be able to attend the gala and pick up her award in person.

So if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this, it’s never write a project off- you never know if it’ll go the distance!

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The next update is about my other directorial effort, “Making a Killing.” It’s finished and it too is being submitted to festivals. I’m pleased with how it’s turned out- it’s a very different film to “Dead Meet” so it should show another side to me as a director. I reckon it’ll do well at a number of festivals and it’ll probably pick up a lot of views when we start pushing it online. Will it win any awards? Time will tell… but it’s already through to the semi finals of the Los Angeles Cinefest, so it’s doing well so far!
To complete my hat trick of directing credits this year, I’ve also been writing a short ghost story with the aim of directing it at some point. The aim for this one is to focus more on visual storytelling and have a film that really lends itself to striking images, something that I feel my previous work lacks a bit. There are also a number of microshorts I have planned so this could be an interesting few months… Hopefully, I should have enough new material to redo my directing showreel and then, all being well, I can start getting actual directing gigs.

Hopefully.

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Movies That Made Me #1- “Hard Target”

January 26, 2018

In what I hope will be a repeated, if not entirely regular, series, I thought I’d look at some of the films that have influenced me as a filmmaker. Now before people get all commenty in the comments section (best place to do it other than a toilet wall somewhere), most of these are not going to be undisputed classics. In fact most of these films would prompt an expression of confused disgust from many filmmakers and movie aficionados. But, good or bad, they have had an effect on me and the way I perceive and make films to this day.

These are the movies that made me.

First up to bat, it’s the slow motion Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle and mullet enthusiast’s propaganda film, “Hard Target.”

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For a teenage boy growing up in the early 90s, the local video rental shop was a godsend. I’ve mentioned it before, but my Dad knew a good deal when he saw it and for £10 a month, we could rent any three tapes we wanted, for as long as we wanted and swap them out as and when we felt like it. This meant that I saw pretty much every action movie ever made in the early years of that decade and for a boy who’d developed something of a fascination with martial arts (even before he took his first karate class), that was a lot of small screen inspiration.

I’d been a fan of Van Damme ever since I saw the first Universal Soldier, but it was Hard Target that really cemented him as an action star for me. It was also the film that introduced me to one of my greatest directorial influences, John Woo Yu Seng. It’s only in recent years that I can look back on Hard Target and see how profound an effect it had on me as a filmmaker.

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Don’t eat all your snake, Van Damme, or you won’t have room for your scorpion tortillas.

If you haven’t seen the flick, it’s John Woo’s first American movie and while it’s a mixed bag compared to his previous Hong Kong outings like The Killer and Hard Boiled, it was a tour de force for a thirteen year old boy who had never seen anything like Woo’s flavour of balletic action before. The remarkably thin plot is about a group of mercenaries turned entrepreneurs hunting homeless veterans for sport in New Orleans, with Van Damme playing one such vet trying to help a young woman find her previously hunted father. And while that might be an awkwardly long sentence, it does pretty much sum up the story of the movie in one breath.

New Orleans makes for an interesting backdrop, even if it’s usually just used as a generic “small town America” and the Deep South references are relegated to soundtrack cues and architecture, but it makes a change from the usual L.A/New York setting most 90s action flicks find themselves in. It helps give the film a bit of character- something most of its contemporaries on the straight to video shelves lacked.

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The acting itself is exactly what you’d expect from a 90s actioner directed by a man who didn’t speak English all that well- it’s pretty pish. Lance Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo are the best performers in the flick, Yancy Butler is alright but has very little to work with and JCVD… well, dialogue was never his strong suit, certainly not at this point in his career. Kicking people in the face, however, was, and while the movie isn’t overflowing with Van Damme’s usual bootwork, there are enough kicks mixed in with the gunplay to showcase what he can do.

Which brings me on to the action…

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Wide angle spinning split kick- the best moment in the film and possibly in JCVD’s entire career.

As a 14 year old boy, this film blew me away. I’d seen action films before obviously, but this was refreshingly different, high energy and balletic compared to the Schwarzenegger-style flicks I’d seen previously. Bad guys flew through the air when shot, guns held about seventy rounds per clip, everything exploded when hit and diving sideways while doves flew past was the preferred mode of locomotion. I fucking loved it. And looking back on it, it had a huge effect on me as a filmmaker.

What made this film stand out for me at the time was the way it’s shot and edited. Woo’s style uses double cuts, replays and changing film speed (in particular, his often-cited slow motion) to enhance the feeling of an action sequence, making them a thing of beauty as well as a visceral experience. But he also uses frequent big close-ups, smooth dolly shots and mirrored compositions to tell a story- such as when Van Damme and Vosloo have a mid-gunfight conversation back-to-back against a wall. A lot of the story is told visually- characters don’t explain their feelings in dialogue, they show it in their eyes and the way they react to the things around them. This is one of the things that I notice a lot in my own work- a story told through when and how characters react to events in the scene. Little looks and gestures given decent screen time to highlight them. Obviously, Woo wasn’t the first to do this- it’s kinda filmmaking 101- but for a kid who was only just starting to notice movies for the craft involved, Woo’s work was a revelation.

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So this is a “face.” But can it come “off?”

But probably the biggest takeaway for me was how Woo shoots and edits action. Action sequences rely on audiences understanding the geography of the location and having certain elements set up and paid off within the scene. For instance, the big finale takes place in this abandoned warehouse full of carnival floats, providing both a nice nod to the New Orleans setting and an interesting splash of colour to what could’ve been a drab and dingy location. The warehouse is a maze, full of all this junk and Woo sets up the size and creepy chaos with a suspenseful sequence where the bag guys led by Henricksen and Vosloo hunt for JCVD before all hell breaks loose. And it’s this suspense-release pattern that stood out amongst all the straight-to-VHS action films I’d been used to.

So, yes, it’s not the greatest film in the world and its not the greatest film in Woo’s catalogue, but Hard Target will always be the film that taught me how action design and editing worked. If you get a chance, it’s worth a look!

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2017 Part 3 – Director for Hire: “Making a Killing”

January 22, 2018
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One of these things is more necessary on set than the other…

One of the sad facts about the career of a director is that you’ll spend longer doing collaboration projects and working for free than pretty much anyone else on set. And when you think about it, this makes sense. Partly because everyone else can be hired by several people (the producer, the director or their head of department) whereas you are only ever hired by a producer; but also because directing has a high degree of responsibility- producers are only going to hire directors that they’re confident in and usually that means having worked with them before. Plus, directing is a very desirable position and there are a lot of people who want that chair so it’s a very competitive but very closed market.

Most of your early directing “jobs” will be self-produced. You’re the one leading the project, you’re the one footing the bill, you’re the one with your vision on screen. Effectively, you hire yourself. But there’s a lot to be said for those projects where you’re hired as a director, even if there’s no real pay to speak of. I’ve done a few of these gigs over the years and, if you pick the right projects, they can be great for your reel and a great way to network. Plus, you get to feel like you’ve been hired, which gives your ego a bit of a massage.

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Darrel Draper (Jarad) and Amelia Vernede (Claudia) get a bit messy in “Making a Killing”

Early last year I spotted a directing job on mandy.com, helming a short film called “Making a Killing.” It was a script written by actor Darrell Draper and co-produced by him and another actor, Amelia Vernede. They’d come up with the film as a chance to showcase themselves and hopefully push their acting careers forward. What made this film different from all the other no-budget shorts kicking around though was the script.

It was a comedy that was actually funny.

I know, go figure… It was also well-written in general and this is something of a rarity at the lower rungs of the industry ladder (to be honest, it isn’t that much less rarefied at the professional six-figure-budget rungs either). Less than stellar scripts were something that had deterred me from accepting many other directing gigs over the years. The last thing I wanted was to jump in to the directing chair on a project where the script or story was lacking, because no matter what you do, you can’t turn it into something amazing. As many have said, you can’t polish a turd (even if you can cover it in glitter and pretend it’s gold!) and who wants a turd on their resume?

But “Making a Killing” wasn’t a turd and in fact, had a lot of potential to be a cool little film. The story was a simple, if comically absurd one: Jarad is a wannabe serial killer, but he doesn’t really know anything about it or how to get started so he enlists the help of Claudia, a marketing agent, to help him. The film follows Jarad’s attempts to join the Bundys and Mansons of the world and takes an explorative and satirical poke at people’s fascination with murder and the morality of fame and it’s less savoury cousin infamy. There’s a lot of black humour, a touch of drama and a bit of social commentary- things I wanted a bit more of in my directing career because I believe a good director needs to be versatile with both style and subject matter.

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A couple of weeks before the shoot, I went to London to see the locations we had access to. Most of the action was set in a flat in Hackney and a few exteriors in the surrounding area. The flat was owned by a friend of the actors and although we had free reign there, we had a limited window to shoot in. We had access from 9am to 5pm over two days, which wasn’t too bad, but since it takes a while to get in and set up and almost as long to break everything down at the end of the day, it was going to be a little tight to get everything done. So I decided to plan and storyboard things as best I could. In that regard, the recce was really helpful since I could work out my coverage based on the location. And since the actors were there, we were also able to block out some of the scenes in the flat as well, which helped with picking shots.

I like to think of a film breaking down into scenes and sequences. Scenes are the same as what they are in the script- a chunk of (primarily) dialogue and action set in one location and happening concurrently. They are usually shot using coverage so they can be edited in a variety of ways, although you could use a one-shot if the scene lends itself to that (and you don’t mind incurring the wrath of an editor!). Sequences have to be considered as what they are- a series of shots that narratively progress in one direction and are more of a montage in nature. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to use coverage to get these shots because they’re often specific to each beat of the story, so you’ll need to see it edited together in your head and shoot what you need- which is where storyboards can really come into their own.

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Adam Hudson (DP) and Joe Nichols (AC) set up for the first shot of the film with Amelia Vernede (Claudia)

In the case of “Making a Killing” most of the film was comprised of scenes- usually two characters talking- so storyboarding wasn’t really necessary for those, but I did draw a few just to get the camera placements in my head. But there were two sequences in the film- a musical montage where Jarad’s trying out different serial killer “identities” complete with costume changes and a sequence with Jarad pursuing his first victim.

The former proved problematic even up to the day of the shoot, partly because we still didn’t know the specifics of what was going to happen in the scene costume/character-wise but also because I was unsure how to shoot it. I knew where we would have to stage the scene- in the hallway because it was the only area in the flat big enough- but I didn’t know how I wanted it to go together. Originally, I had the idea of using a time-lapse between costume changes, but this would have been too complex and ultimately too limiting for the sequence. But once we knew what elements were going to make up the sequence (Jarad’s entrances and exits in each costume with a bit of action inbetween, Claudia’s reactions before, during and after each costume reveal and the notebook of possible identities getting crossed out and doodled over), we were able to get the footage we needed so it could be cut together into a narratively valid music-backed montage.

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Darrel Draper gets his stalk(er) on…

The other sequence, where Jarad stalks his first victim, was envisaged as a tense, horror movie-like moment and I planned out a bunch of shots to capitalise on this part of the story. There was also a comic twist at the end of this sequence leading into a dialogue scene, so setting things up right would make that much stronger. Sadly, time was against us. You see, we needed to shoot this sequence and the scene that followed when it was dark and unfortunately, we were filming in August, where night doesn’t fall til gone 9pm. Which meant a long shoot day was going to get longer and we didn’t have the luxury of picking the shots up the next day.

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So we filmed the important bit- the dialogue scene – first and then had to grab a few set-up shots afterwards as we walked back to the main location. As an aside, we were filming on a Sony A7S II and holy hell, that thing can see in the dark! We were filming on a path beside a church and the only practical lights were streetlamps thirty-odd feet away on the main road. We had a few battery-powered LED panels to get a bit of key lighting in there, but it was pretty damn dark and I doubt there were many cameras that could’ve produced a usable result in those conditions. In fact, I think the only reason we got a bit of noise in the footage was because we were shooting S-Log3 (Log modes don’t tend to work so well in low light scenarios and you often can’t adjust the ISO either) but it’s nothing a bit of de-noising in post won’t clear up!

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For the camera geeks amongst you, this was what the A7S II can see post-grade with minimal light, shooting SLog3 in UHD. For everyone else, this is Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

Day two was finishing up the flat scenes and it was then that we hit what I like to call the “iceberg scene.” Iceberg scenes are scenes that don’t look that problematic on paper but when you get to shoot them, you realise there’s a massive problem with them that threatens to sink the proverbial ship. The bit you can see is just the tip of the iceberg, but if you don’t take action quickly, that’s going to spiral into a huge chunk of delays, stress and lost goodwill. Mixed metaphors aside, they happen on most shoots and in my experience they usually come from poor planning. In this case, the fault was largely mine…

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Giving actors a sharp prop during an “iceberg scene” is just asking for trouble…

We had quite a chunky scene set in the lounge- an argument scene- and I knew where it was going to take place, but I hadn’t blocked anything out with the actors. And what’s rule number one? Always block scenes out with actors first before picking your camera angles…

But I hadn’t.

So when we started setting up for the master shot, that was when I tried to find business for the actors to do- in this case, Claudia would be sat on the sofa using her laptop and Jarad would be hurriedly fussing around her trying to tidy things up. It was a good idea for the scene- it showed how complacent Claudia had become in Jarad’s home and how Jarad had changed as a person by wanting things to be tidy and impress his new girlfriend. And, had I had the chance (or made the time) to work through the action with the actors, we could’ve staged a very funny scene where Jarad is always tidying where Claudia wants to be and so there’d be this great visual game of musical chairs, stressing both of them out. But instead, the action itself was a little flat and that caused some problems when it came to covering the scene: Claudia’s close up needed to pan to the side in line with her looking space when Jarad crossed the shot, we needed two close ups of Jarad for the different lines of action (both of which needed to be in awkward places within the location) and continuity needed to be super tight as a result of the business the actors were doing.

On their own, these things weren’t enough to derail the shoot, but as I’ve said before, directing is largely about people management and if you don’t have good answers for how a scene needs to be shot, the crew and cast can become stressed, argumentative and worse still, defensive. If they get to this last stage, teamwork can suffer as each member of the cast and crew starts to do whatever they think is best for them, their reel and their career- actors direct themselves, DPs fuss over getting the perfect shot and many others just want to go home. Fortunately, we never got to that stage, but people did start to get stressed. I struggle with these situations because when I find myself with an iceberg scene, I tend to become very pragmatic, fall back on simple shots and coverage and try to get through the scene without pissing people off. The downside to this approach is that although the atmosphere and people’s goodwill is maintained, the scene comes out a bit by-the-numbers. I’ll often see the scene in the finished film and think if only I’d planned this one out better, I could’ve had a much better scene in the can.

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Filming on a busy intersection in Hackney, twenty feet from an all-night Tesco was… problematic to say the least.

So over the last couple of projects, I’ve been trying to push a little for what I want when I get an iceberg scene, even if that means taking a few minutes break to think things through (ADs hate falling behind schedule, but they tend to hate bungled scenes more, so they’re usually on board with this request!). Because once I know what I’m doing, I’m able to lead everyone else again. Directing is frequently a balancing act between pushing for your vision and being open enough to accept input from others- do too much of either at the wrong time and the film can very easily fall apart. An iceberg scene is always the wrong time, so taking a few minutes to get your shit together, come up with a plan (possibly with your strongest on-set collaborator) and communicate it to everyone can get things back on track.

The trailer went up over Christmas and we’ve been giving it a strong push on social media. It’ll be interesting to see how much traction the finished film has- both online and in festivals- but having seen a rough cut, I’m quite happy with how things look and think it’ll do quite well. I also think it’ll be a great addition to my body of work- something I’d like to expand more in 2018. “Making a Killing” isn’t something I could’ve ever written myself, so the underlying voice of the film isn’t mine (much like on any director-for-hire gig) but I helped bring it to life, which ultimately is what a director does.

What was really nice about directing “Making a Killing” was that I was just that, a director. I wasn’t the writer, I wasn’t the producer, I wasn’t the editor, I wasn’t wearing multiple hats. I could just concentrate on the job of directing and let the production worries fall on someone else for a change.

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Some of the cast and crew of “Making a Killing” (from Left to Right: Adam Hudson (DoP), Joe Nichols (AC), me (Director), Amelia Vernede (Claudia), Sophie Marchant (Sound Recordist) and Darrel Draper (Jarad). Absent from the shot are Cal Brown (AD) and Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

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2017 Part 2 – RFVM and the Value of Microshorts

December 29, 2017

As mentioned in the previous post, I started 2017 feeling kind of disheartened about directing and filmmaking in general thanks in part to the laboured post-production of a recent short film.

But it wasn’t just “Dead Meet” that had me feeling lower than a python’s posing pouch- I was running out of collaborators. When you’re young, unfettered and recently-graduated, collaborators are all around you. But as the years go by, people start to lose interest in the dreams of their youth, they find careers, sign mortgages, marry people and have kids… and when you’ve done that, swanning about on a film set (often for very little money) sounds like a fool’s game. Those that don’t quit the industry often move on with their careers into far more lucrative areas of the market and no longer want or need to work on the sort of projects that I still want and need to do.

Projects like “Dead Meet” were a lot to shoulder solo, even with the talented cast and crew I had on that shoot. I felt I needed a small group of people to collaborate with on our smaller self-produced projects, people who were preferably local, capable and enthusiastic. People who could keep me motivated.

And I thought I knew where I might find them…

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Reading Film and Video Makers is a a filmmaking club that has been running in my home town for sixty years. I’d actually known about the club for a while- I screened “The Collector’s Room” for them a few years ago– but I’d never joined the club. If I’m honest, it was pride. I considered myself a professional filmmaker and didn’t want to join what I felt was an amateur club. But in February this year I swallowed what was left of my pride, went along and found I had judged the club unfairly.

You see, like a lot of these sorts of clubs, RFVM has quite a diverse membership. Some of the people there are amateurs, but many are professionals or ex-professionals. Some are completely new to filmmaking, some have decades of experience. And they all have enthusiasm- something that I was in short supply of at the time. But the thing that really surprised me was that there were young people at the club. Now, granted, I’m 36 and thus don’t really qualify as “young” anymore (despite my behaviour and penchant for leather jackets), but it was nice to see a few people under the age of 30 because they might be in a similar position to me- wanting to get into the industry and wanting to prove themselves.

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Sophie Marchant, Dave Gregory and Eric Garson shooting Sophie’s short film “Shade.”

And they were. Over the summer, a small group of us went out and filmed a few things. Sometimes it was just a short test shot or sequence, sometimes it was something more substantial. And it was these microshorts that I found the most useful and enjoyable. After my last few films being 20-30 minutes in length, the challenge (and greatly reduced stress) of shooting something under three minutes was something I relished. YouTuber and filmmaker Darius Britt has stated the value of microshorts many a time on his channel, and I’ve come to agree with him. Microshorts are great because you get to try new things without having to bankroll lots of time, effort and money and you get to have a few extra films on your resume as well! It also gave me a bit more writing practice, which is always beneficial.

“Diamond Dogs” started out as an entry for the club’s diamond anniversary film competition. There were two rules: the film can’t be longer than 60 seconds and it must feature a diamond at some point. The more astute among you may have noticed that the above video is quite a bit more than a minute long. That’s because a) I can never write something and keep it in time and b) we added things like the montage while we were shooting.

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Rick Hanley in full-on cinematographer mode

So I wrote it, Rick Hanley shot it, Sophie Marchant was on sound and Leon Silavant directed it (and edited the version above). Since we were short on actors, Eric Garson and I took on acting duties and we all pitched in with locations, props, costumes and kit. It’s fair to say that Buster the jack russell stole the show though with his treat-fuelled performance.

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Our leading man

We shot it on my JVC LS300 in log mode, lit everything with LED panel lights and recorded sync audio via shotgun mic. Leon hadn’t directed much before but did a great job of getting the shots he wanted- particularly the Edgar Wright-style smash montage.

We edited two versions of the scene- a sixty second version and a longer edit that paced better. The sixty second version ultimately won the club competition as well, which was cool!

“The Shotgun Wedding” was another potential entry for the 60 second diamond competition and just like “Diamond Dogs” it was going to run over the time limit! Unlike “Diamond Dogs” though, we figured this out before we shot it and so resigned ourselves to the fact.

The script originally ended with the sound of the robbery happening, but it always felt like a weak punchline since it happens off-screen and isn’t visual. Sophie suggested that the criminal couple could’ve kidnapped a priest and had him trussed up in the back- which prompted me to add the wedding list and the line about the dress to the end of the script, hopefully making the ending stronger. It does stretch belief a bit with the continuity change- Eric being there for the final shot, but not being visible beforehand- but it was necessary for the gag to work.

This time, I was directing and Rick was on camera- again we used the JVC, although this time we shot in DCI 2K and a 4:2:2 colour space just to see how that worked out. Because we were filming outside, the Aputure VS-1 HD monitor and it’s daft Bo Peep style sunshade became something of a necessity so we could see what we were doing. For some shots, particularly the two shot through the windshield, we had to use the low budget trick of hanging a black drape over the car to block the light since we didn’t have a polariser. Sound was a mixture of an omnidirectional mic in the front of the car and Eric holding a rifle mic from the back seats to pick up reflected audio within the cabin. Lighting was done with reflectors since there was nowhere to plug in lights- we were filming on a street after all!

This time, Leon was in front of the camera, acting alongside Silvia Calatayud Gil, an actress Eric and Sophie had worked with before. One of the nice things about microshorts is that they don’t require much in the way of rehearsal due to their length. I like to rehearse with actors, but with really short material there isn’t much to rehearse and you can actually get a more spontaneous performance by just tweaking things between takes.

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The aftermath of any good shoot- the nearest pub!

The big exercise for me though, was in post. I’ve never really been one for grading- I started out with DV and that had less colour diversity than a 90s boy band. But the new camera can shoot in a 4:2:2 colour space and has a log profile, so I now had a chance to play around with the grade. I started out with a log to cine LUT and applied it to the two shot so I could nail the look I was going for- warmed skin tones, deep blacks and a bit of blue in the shadows. I then went back to the close ups and tried to match the tones as best I could. In retrospect, we should’ve shot a colour reference using an x-rite or something, it would’ve made things a bit easier, but I think the end result isn’t too bad.

Thirteen

Video coming soon!

“Thirteen” was meant to be an entry for an online competition, but we didn’t actually finish it in time.  The remit was to make a short film, no longer than 90 seconds in length, that was scored by using a promoted bit of music software. We bounced around a number of ideas, but the one we settled on as do-able was an idea I’d had based on a joke I’d heard. After all, jokes are essentially distilled stories and work quite well within a very short film structure.

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This time, Rick was in the directing chair, with Leon operating Rick’s “Magic Lantern” hacked Canon 7D. We chose the 7D from our pooled cameras because we needed something small and light that could fit on a stabiliser. My Aputure VS-1 HD monitor came in useful again because of the bright sunlight we were filming in and aside from a few reflector shots, everything was lit with sunlight alone. “Thirteen” also gave me a chance to play around with filters.

I’d bought a matte box (the Fotga DP3000) earlier in the summer and a cheap pack of resin filters to use with it. Unfortunately, the Amazon listing for the filter set was vague and a little misleading, stating the filters were “standard size” and “square.” This lead me to believe they were 100mm x 100mm which is the standard square format and the kind that would fit in my matte box. They weren’t- which would’ve made them useless, were it not for the fact that they came with a filter holder and ring set to enable them to screw on to the front of a lens. I decided to keep them anyway since they only cost £20 and it’s always handy to have a lightweight solution rather than having to bring out the matte box and rails each time. It was the Grad ND filters I wanted to play around with and “Thirteen” with its landscape long shots gave us the opportunity to create more dramatic skies with the filters.

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Eric and our canine performer, Buster, starred and Sophie recorded the audio. Since the film had no dialogue and didn’t need sync sound, Sophie recorded atmos, footsteps and other sounds to a Tascam portable recorder. The rest of the sound design, such as the voices, would be created in post.

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Note Rick’s “directing the shot” hand position

These were just a few of the microshorts we shot over the summer. We also shot a bunch of scenes and sequences (mainly as shooting exercises for the less experienced among us) that didn’t really come out as stand-alone shorts. But it kept me busy and it kept me making films. Over the last couple of years, my expectations of my work have grown and with it, the length, budget, production time and size of the projects have all increased- which means I don’t produce as many films as I used to because each one is an increasingly bigger endeavour. It’s like trying to eat your own body weight in Pringles- it’s a challenge that continually raises its own bar as you attempt it. But microshorts have given me a break from that, allowing me to try out different things and do so with minimum expenditure- something I wholeheartedly intend to continue doing through 2018 (although how that’ll work with my 7 day a week work pattern, I have no idea!).

So if you’re a filmmaker in a bit of a rut and want to keep yourself motivated while bigger projects take their time, get some people together and make a microshort or two!

[All but one of the stills in this post courtesy of Eric Garson]

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2017 Part 1 – “Dead Meet” and Learning from Your Mistakes

December 22, 2017

I kind of feel like a watershed has broken this year. 2017 has been full of more ups and downs than a group of manic depressives at a swingers party and yet I feel like I’m coming out of it in a better place than I went in. In an ideal world, I’d have blogged about this throughout the year, charting the ups and downs as they happened, but since I’m shite at this whole blogging thing, I’ve found myself at the end of the year with 12 months of stuff to cover. So I’m going to do this in parts. You can think of it as the traditional end of year blog post in chunks or me doling out the posts I should’ve made this year, but all at once. Take your pick.

DM Poster Festival

 

Let’s start with “Dead Meet.” For those who don’t know, “Dead Meet” was my action-comedy short film calling-card-to-be that I wrote in 2014, shot throughout 2015 and endured an extended and laborious post-production throughout 2016. But this year the flick was finished and I breathed a massive sigh of relief.

In spite of it’s painfully drawn-out post-production (due to multiple pick-ups, VFX issues and a score that took a while to come to fruition), I’m proud of “Dead Meet.” It isn’t perfect and I made a few crucial mistakes as a director (more on that in a minute), but there’s a lot that works that very easily couldn’t have.

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The fight scene in the bathroom is consistently seen as a plus point by audiences. While it’s obviously not on par with some of the best action sequences Hong Kong, Hollywood and elsewhere have to offer, it’s better than many straight-to-video indies and TV series’ efforts and is proof that the approach we used to create it was the right one. And when seasoned stunt professionals like Dean Williams like the way you do things and shoot the action, that’s a great compliment! The fact that Francesca and Dean are both keen to work with me again is also testament to both the approach we used and the results we achieved.

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The gunfight also works well… which is frankly amazing! This was a scene made possible only because it was storyboarded at the eleventh hour when I didn’t get all the action extras I was hoping for in the same place on the same day. The final gunfight was shot a bit here and a bit there over three days and it kinda shows with it’s cutting back and forth edit pattern. But it works, the sense of space is preserved and there’s the same musicality to the gunfight that we strove for in the martial arts sequence.

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The characterisations are frequently complimented and Francesca, particularly, is given a lot of praise for her ability to play a character with layers of performance (actor playing an assassin playing a normal woman on a date).

So all in all, I’m pleased with how the film came out, but it’s protracted production did take its toll. For most of last year and a fair chunk of this, I started to lose motivation and self-belief. With the only project on my slate in post-production hell, I didn’t feel like I could move forward to the next one without the closure a final render and a festival screener would bring. So when the film was released on YouTube back in June, shared over social media and the feedback was coming in, I felt much better about myself as a filmmaker.

But the feedback was mixed.

Amongst all the aforementioned praise for the action, acting and overall quality of the film (like this lovely review), there were a few negative comments. Criticism is hard to accept for any creative, but it’s part of the job. You have to be objective about it, take every comment and try to put it in context. Did they hate the film because of some pre-judgmental belief? Did something in the film rub them up the wrong way? Was it not what they wanted or expected? Was the film mis-represented in its promotional materials? But most of all… was it actually bad? Did I make a bad movie?

Daniel and Dom check playback on the Ronin

It’s always tough to prise the truth from audience feedback, because most audiences are unable to articulate why they didn’t like something. Often, they mistakenly attribute blame to things they understand, rather than the thing that really got to them. For instance, many people criticise the Star Wars prequels and blame Hayden Christensen’s acting for everything, when the reality is that the script was poor and the directorial decisions were ill-conceived- even a very capable actor would’ve delivered a less than great performance under those conditions. Audiences blame the actor because acting is something they understand- the script, the directing, the editing and other aspects of the production are something of a practical mystery to them, so they’re hard for the average Joe to pinpoint as a problem.

But as I said before, I did make some mistakes on this film and it’s quite likely that these mistakes led to the negative feedback. Some are minor things (a few missing shots here and there, some continuity errors, the director’s ipad in the background during the fight scene…) that audiences generally don’t pick up on that only I or other filmmakers are likely to notice, but a few were pretty fundamental affairs that could (and some might say did) derail the film.

The biggest was that I intentionally made a twenty minute feature film.

This could be classed as a mistake or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. I started out thinking it was the latter, I’m now fairly certain it’s the former. As I’ve said before, “Dead Meet” was supposed to be a calling card of sorts and since I wanted to direct long-form fiction, I made the decision to pace the film like a feature film, with a slow-burner intro and a definite build into the action scenes. I hoped this would make the film feel like something bigger and help convince people that I could direct a feature. Since Hollywood hasn’t called me yet, the jury’s still out on whether this is the case, but I do know that “Dead Meet’s” slower, more gradual pace and overall structure has probably hobbled its chances with festivals and streaming audiences alike. Short films need to get to the point quickly and engage their audience straight away- festival programmers are looking for any reason to ditch a film, as are online audiences and a slow start is as good a reason as any. Also, the film’s opening scene would probably have worked better as an action sequence- maybe a foot chase- but I never thought of anything that could be done on our budget at the time. I also rushed the character development in this scene and hit the audience with three minutes of expositional dialogue before the first bullet was fired. Not a great start, if I’m honest…

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Be afraid, critics. Be very afraid…

A similar issue is the film’s length. “Dead Meet’s” story was a bit more complicated than just a set-up for the arse-kicking and as such required a bit of screen time to tell. Someone once told me that a single story arc has a finite length- and that length is twenty minutes of screen time. In feature films or episodic shows, this is fine because half a dozen story strands can be woven together to create a compelling narrative. In a short film, you don’t have the screen time to develop multiple story strands- if your film is under twenty minutes, you don’t really have the time for one! And if your film is twenty minutes long, as “Dead Meet” is, you’re going to struggle with getting people to watch it. Festival programmers generally prefer shorter films (ten minutes or so) because they can then squeeze more into any given hour and thus have more films showing. So if you’re aiming for the festival circuit, you need to get the runtime under fifteen minutes and that means sacrificing some part of that story arc. I wasn’t smart enough to realise this when I wrote it- I just knew it needed to be twenty minutes or less because that was the maximum length for a short film as far as many festivals’ submission guidelines were concerned.

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Me at the Mockingbird Cinema for the Birmingham Film Festival screening

Although the film has had more than a few rejections from festivals, it did get into the Birmingham Film Festival and was screened, along with a bunch of shorts of similar length, in front of a small, but enthusiastic, audience. It was a great experience, seeing a film that I’d designed to feel like a feature film projected on a feature film sized screen with feature film quality audio. There was also an impromptu Q&A about the film and that too was well-received. It made me feel better about the whole project, the film and the journey getting there. And while there are still a few festivals “Dead Meet” has been submitted to and may yet play at, it was nice that the most problematic film I’ve ever made had such a good screening with such an appreciative audience.

I almost feel like I can draw a line under the project now and move on to something new, which is a great way to end 2017. A new year, with new projects and new opportunities…

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Investing in Myself

April 2, 2017

Back last year, I went and bought a new camera. This camera, in fact:

For those who don’t spend all their time looking at filmmaking websites getting camera-boners, that’s a JVC GY LS300. It’s got a super35mm sensor, a very flexible lens mounting system, shoots HD, UHD and Cinema 4K and has a log profile. Still nonplussed? Never heard of it? Well, don’t feel bad if you haven’t, it’s probably the most underrated camera on the market in its price bracket at the moment- but that’s a post for another time.

The real reason I mention my purchase is why I chose to buy a new camera in the first place.

I’ve mentioned buying kit before, waaaay back at the beginning of this blog, and my view is still the same- buying kit is an investment. Sometimes it’s a case of money in, money out (you buy a camera because having it will get you more work) but this is a bit of a gamble because that new shiny is only bankable while it’s new on the market and desirable. The moment something new and more desirable comes out, you’ve lost your bargaining chip. Original Red One owners know the pain of that one…

But that wasn’t really why I bought the camera. No-one’s beating down rental houses’ doors for the latest JVC camera (they possibly should be, but again, that’s for another post…) and even though the camera shoots 4K, that’s not going to win me loads of jobs (although it may help!). I bought the camera to invest in myself.

I’ve never considered myself to be much of a cinematographer (I’ve also never considered myself to be much of a writer, but apparently I’m not terrible at that!) and have always felt I could learn to be better if I had a better tool to learn with. Now I know that sounds like an excuse- poor workmen and their tools etc- but there is some truth to it. If all you have is a hammer, all your work will look like nails. Aside from a short-lived dalliance with a Canon DSLR a few years ago (a short-term fling that wasn’t very productive- we both wanted different things from the relationship!), my previous camera was a Sony Z1. Still produces nice enough pictures, but the thing shoots to tape. Tape! Even the most out-of-date luddite clients know tape cameras are old tech, on a par with wire recorders and the invention of the wheel. I constantly had to load the camera in the car before I got to the shoot and hope I didn’t need to change the tape when the client was around! The Z1 was a workhorse, though, and I learnt to focus on composition and storytelling and getting the lighting right with it. But the big problem with the Z1 was what I couldn’t learn from it that other filmmakers were learning from their newer kit. Little things like shallow depth of field, lens theory, picture grading and using Log profiles. The filmmakers who were getting into it on the back of the DSLR boom were learning and putting all this stuff into practice.

And producing much nicer work than I was as a result. Work that got them more work.
I know I can learn to be better at this stuff. Not because I want to be a better cinematographer per se, but because I want to be a better visual director. I want to know why I might use an 85mm for this close up over a 50mm. I want to know if we need more lights to pull off the depth of field I want from this shot. I want to know what can be done with picture grading so I can put the right coloured mis in the to-coin-a-phrase scene.

I want to learn.

This is why it’s an investment in myself. I am going to get better at this if I keep practicing and have a better tool to practice with. If I can get a better grade of job or earn more money from gigs because of said tool, then happy days!

The face of a man with a new toy!