Archive for February, 2012

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Small Screen Drama on an Even Smaller Screen

February 25, 2012

I’ve mentioned Persona a few times recently, but haven’t really explained what the hell I’m on about.

Persona is a soap opera you view on smartphones. Essentially, every monthly season has four storylines filmed by four different directors. These storylines are cut into 1-2 minute chunks and interweaved so that every daily 3 minute episode (or “appisode” to use the encouraged portmanteu) contains the latest installments from two of the stories. The stories involve a variety of characters and their dramas and in due course will cross over into other storylines. Once you’ve downloaded the app (for free), each new installment is available daily, monday to friday. So it’s… like a soap opera you can view on a smartphone.

As you might guess, I’m directing one of the storylines- an arc from season 4 (due to be broadcast end of April). I’m not going to spoil the plot, but the writer, Martyn Deakin, and I have cooked up something weighty, topical and… well… dramatic! I’m looking forward to it.

Actually constructing the story though was a lot trickier than you’d think. I have to take my hat off to lead writer Phillip Barron for guiding Martyn and myself through the minefield that is the story and writing process. Essentially each story amounts to a 15-17 min short film cut into chunks. You’d think that’s quite simple- after all, it’s a 15 min short film and most filmmakers have had a crack at something like that- but you’d be wrong. You see, each chunk has no immediate continuity with the ones before and after it- it’s surrounded by the chunks of different storylines. So each scene is isolated and has to be somewhat self-contained, yet feel continuous in the grand scheme of things. This means you can’t do any scenes that follow on immediately because you don’t have any direct continuity and you can’t use any flashbacks because they’d be isolated and have no context. You also have to make sure that each scene is effectively a cliffhanger so people tune in again for the next installment. So it’s actually really tricky to write!

But now the writing process is over and we’re into pre-production- shot-listing, storyboarding (as mentioned in a previous post), location finding, casting, crewing and frantic panicking! I’ve now got to hope that we did our work properly in the script and story structure phase, because I’m now going to have to spend most of my focus on directing the minutiae- the performances, the shots, the design, the details, looks and edit points- and keep the bigger picture of how the story will be intercut and delivered at the very back of my mind.

And while I’m shooting mine, the third season will be available to download, just as season 2 is now. By the time you’re watching the story Martyn and I have created, some other writer and some other director will be bugging poor old Phill about structure and cliffhangers! So go on, join the bandwagon and download the free Persona app (for Android devices and Apple iPhones and iPads) and tell all your friends! And do it before the end of April or you’ll miss out on our fine work!

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Prepare to be Boarded!

February 23, 2012

I love storyboarding.

I know a lot of directors hate it and feel like they’re forced into putting together storyboards, preferring instead to just shot-list things, but I find the whole process very useful. Maybe it’s because I can draw and the idea of scribbling a quick composition down doesn’t fill me with embarrassment like it does for others, where fear of opening themselves up for illustrational criticism takes them back to a school art class and a well-meaning but unenthused teacher telling them their unintentionally abstract drawing is “very nice.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been marking up the script for this Persona shoot and drawing storyboards for everything. Don, the Producer, has insisted on boards from all the directors on this season. But even if it wasn’t a requirement, I’d do them anyway because I find them extremely useful.

I’ve used storyboards almost since the beginning of my filmmaking career. Sometimes it’s just a single scene or a short sequence, sometimes it’s the whole film. Sometimes I use a wacom tablet and Photoshop but more often I get out the trusted pencil and start scribbling. I find it a productive way to plan my coverage for the edit, make sure I get the orientation and screen direction right and start to create a look and tone for the visuals. I also find that it helps my shoot-and-setup-logic and I often merge setups because of how similar the framings become. I’ve also developed several tricks for conveying camera movement, action progress and editing pacing- not that any of these “tricks” are groundbreaking or anything, but they work for me!

The Good, The Bad and The Undead was the first time I’d really storyboarded a whole film properly. Prior to this, I’d storyboarded scenes and sequences, but if something was simple I’d just scrawl down “CU Serena” or whatever and not even bother drawing it! GBU was different because I wasn’t directing it- the writer, Luke Owen, was. And because he lacked directing experience and was looking to me for the visual side of things, I took to storyboarding everything so we knew we were on the same page. I intended to do the whole lot in Photoshop with my newly-purchased Wacom tablet but after the opening shot (above) took over an hour to do, I quickly reverted to the trusty low-tech pencil and paper with inking over the top.

Note the scrawl to the side that also lists crosscut CUs as part of the coverage- simple shots that I couldn’t be bothered to draw! Nowadays I tend not to put so much detail into backgrounds and things. In fact, some frames are just loose skeletons with outlines and no details or facial expressions. And these can be on the same page as nicely detailed or textured frames. Depends a) how I feel and b) if I think the detail, shading or colour will add something and convey what I need it to.

When we made The Collector’s Room the other year, the storyboarding varied wildly. The Last Serenade, which I directed, was boarded almost the whole way through. I think I ran out of steam for the whole process by the time I got to the final scene, but every other scene has boards for it.

These are the sort of boards I do now. Scribbles where only the basic composition is needed, nicely drawn images for character moments and expressions, camera moves marked by start and end frames, floor plans and other inserts into the text area to the right…

Ultimately, I put this sort of effort into storyboards because I find it a great development process for the film to go through- it enables me to “make the film without making it” in a way and more importantly allows me to change my mind without any money or much time wasted. When I’m on set, I use the storyboards as my starting point rather than a marked up script or shot list, so I need them to be at least passable. I also show them to the DoP, to the actors, to the sound guy… anyone who needs to know what the shot is can see it in pen, pencil and digital scribble form on a page in my Big Black Ringbinder (which I really need to replace with something like an iPad and join the 21st century!). I also do digital colour palette type boards from time to time- what I call swatch-shots- as a way of exploring the colours, lighting and tone for a shot and the scene it sits in. These take a bit more time, but are ultimately very useful for the DoP, Production Designer and the Colourist (not that I’ve worked with the latter, but I know they’d like me for it!).

So while some directors might balk at having to put pencil to paper, I think it’s a great way to make a first version of your film without wasting time, money, stock, equipment and people’s patience. I would say you save on catering too, but I get through lots of crisps and chocolate buttons when I’m boarding so it’s not completely free!

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Of Pigs and Bacon

February 18, 2012

One of the hardest (and most rewarding) things about filmmaking is that it isn’t a solitary activity. You need to collaborate with other people to make it happen and create the product you’re aiming for. You can’t really do it alone, no matter what several pretentious artistes would have you think. Even the “Man with a Movie Camera” himself, Dziga Vertov, didn’t make that film all by his lonesome despite the title (his wife was the editor- a not-uncommon pattern, directors marrying their editors!). This is even more obviously true when it comes to fiction work.

With this in mind, it becomes important for the aspirational filmmaker to surround themselves with talented and reliable collaborators so they can make the best film and get the most out of the project. And at the lower end of the industry ladder, this can be a problem. Not so much with the talent part of things- talent isn’t the same as experience, after all- but with reliability.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working on a project called “Persona,” a drama/soap opera that you view through an app on your smartphone (cue shameless plug alert- http://whatsyourpersona.co.uk). And so far it’s been a great experience- working with a talented writer called Martyn Deakin to put together a really strong script and the support of everyone at Persona has been phenominal. We’re really proud of the script and the storyline we’ve created and it’s the first time I’m directing something with a topical, serious drama to it.

But there’s a catch- this is a low budget affair. Which means, as for all collaborative projects, that you can’t pay anyone and you have to convince them to get/stay involved with the higher forms of bribery that are fun, experience and credit. But they have day jobs, other commitments and (dare I say it) other hobbies and sometimes the quality of the script, the potential exposure of the project and their level of creative imput are not enough. They don’t always return emails (on time or at all), they are vague about their level of commitment and only seem genuinely involved when you corner them about the project. It happens. All to frequently. Other people’s reliability is one of the reasons why I became so hyphenated a filmmaker (director-DoP-editor etc). It’s also the reason why 2010’s project-with-a-lot-of-promise The Collector’s Room fell apart three episodes in- the AD and primary motivator moved away and the writer lost interest in writing, preferring to concentrate on his day job, band and everything else.

This sounds like a bitter post. And it is. I need these people. I rely on them to help me make films of sufficient quality that they aid all our careers- including mine. If these people are unreliable, I have to look for new people. And I don’t want my turnover of collaborators to be the same frequency of brain dead saturday boy employees at the local supermarket. While I can do the one man band approach, the film will suffer for it. And unfortunately, it all seems to be happening again.

So now I have to contact the producer and let them know what’s going on, put out calls for new crew and hope this doesn’t impact negatively on all the good work we’ve done so far.

Which is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse with the shoot about a month away.