Archive for May, 2012


The Persona Challenge!

May 30, 2012

As if any reader of this blog needs reminding, I recently shot a story for an app-based soap opera called Persona. Well, the story has almost finished its run and now I’m looking at doing another. There was always talk of me doing more stories for them- in fact, it was in my game plan from the day the producer hired me. I didn’t want to just do one story and then disappear- I wanted to have at least two credits with them because then I can learn and develop from the experience. It also looks better on the reel and CV!

So anyway, I’m going to try and blog as I work on the new storyline, as the writer and I develop the script, cast actors, find locations, rehearse, shoot, edit… the whole process.

As with most projects, the release date for the project is set in stone. Whatever story we choose will be available to view through the Persona app on the 6th August (I think!) so the timescale is drastically different from the last story which took four months from idea to broadcast. Given that most Persona stories take 8 weeks, that’s a big difference.

And this one is even shorter, with the shoot roughly six weeks away. And we haven’t got a script yet! I’d be lying if I said I was confident about such a compacted schedule. I know that other directors have worked like that on this show, but I tend to favour preparation and working the script to get the story and show up to a high standard. It’s because of that prep that I can rock up on set with my black ringbinder full of storyboards and notes and know what I’m doing. I like to know that the script’s been through the wringer- that we’ve gone through the character arcs and plot elements and internal logic, that the tone is right and the structure’s sound. This is only possible if you have the time to do it. If you you don’t, you run the risk of having a story with plot holes, incongruous dialogue or character action and uneven structure.

But, this is the situation I’ve been given and I’ve decided to take it as a challenge. Some professional shows will have lightning fast turnarounds. Sometimes your hands will be tied in other ways too. It’s the nature of the industry and the working director’s cross to bear. For me, it will be a worthwhile experience because whether the show comes out good or not, it’ll prepare me for these kind of situations.

So, challenge set, I have to come up with a plot. A few months ago I had an idea for a strong dramatic Persona story, but it required a child actor as one of the main roles. Neither I nor my AD had any joy sourcing child actors without a lot of legal headaches, so that idea swiftly bit the dust. Subsequently, the producer set a series of criteria for what sort of story he wants me to do and it read like the awkwardly specific personality traits on a lonely hearts ad.

The story had to be topical yet universal, lighter in tone but dramatic, feature glamourous characters, be of local interest and stay open-ended for future stories. It also had to accommodate a particular competition that the producer wanted to run. To be honest, I doubted I could fulfil hardly any of those criteria. Which is why the story I have come up with ticks about half of those boxes. But the producer seems happy with the idea so hopefully things will go fine.

Persona’s lead writer- the rather awesome Phill Barron- is putting me in touch with the screenwriter who’s going to pen the story. Hopefully they’ll be quick with drafts because the clock’s a-ticking!


iPlayer, iDirect

May 25, 2012

It’s often said that technology is the fastest-changing industry on the planet- new gadgets and kit come out every year. Just with cameras alone, in the ten years or so I’ve been knocking about with video, we’ve gone from affordable DV to affordable HD, tape to solid state, we’ve seen the rise, flatten out and sort-of decline of DSLRs for video, large-sensored cameras at prosumer prices and the attempt to give 3D a foothold.

Just as with cameras, the canny filmmaker knows that being on the threshold and cutting edge of technology can be a very effective way of getting work. But it’s not all about using the latest shiny shiny to make your cookie-cutter film with (and thus hope people throw money/work/their lady-parts at you). It’s about knowing what future technology will or might do for the film and video-viewing experience.

There’s a lot of choice as to what platform you “consume” media on right now- cinema, TV, internet catch-up, DVD and BluRay… Some would say too much choice. Some more would say that many of those platforms are “un-policable” and open to piracy… and that’s a rant/discussion for another time. But new distribution platforms are cropping up a lot right now- hell, I’ve spent the last few months working on a soap (a standard programme type) viewed on a smegging smartphone (a not-so-standard plaform), something that would be considered impossible just a few years ago.

But let’s back up a bit…

Back in the day, there were only really two exhibition methods for the moving image- cinema and private screenings. The whole process was costly and cumbersome since film prints needed to be made and sent round to all the screens that’ll show it. But it was the only way to see films, documentaries, newsreels and anything else. Then came TV. When it first started to appear in people’s homes, the established movie studios were fearful that the small square box with the porthole screen was going to take people away from the theatres with its “right there in your house” USP. And to some extent it did. But over time, it found a niche for factual programmes, serial fiction, entertainment shows and news and these things started to fade away from the cinema, leaving only feature films. Then came home video- again, a worry for the film and TV studios- and it too eventually found a place of its own as a “watch whenever you want” facility for TV and films you missed/loved.

In the last couple of years we have gained internet streaming video which you can view on pretty much any web-capable device. But for the most part it’s just re-broadcasting stuff from the other formats- Netflix, iPlayer, LoveFilm… all offering films and shows from cinema/TV/home video as an on-demand service. The overriding USP is “what you want, when you want it.”

But IPTV and On-Demand services haven’t yet realised their full potential- that of being a medium with its own unique shows for its own unique audience. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time. I reckon that within the next four years, services like Netflix and other On-Demand apps will start commissioning their own content and then syndicating it to others the way TV networks do. And this means they’ll be looking for programme makers and directors to create material for this new medium. Technical standards and resources will vary and audiences will have a huge amount of choice so budgets are likely to be low to begin with. Which means, as an aspiring working director, if you can establish yourself as a strong contender you are likely to carve out a niche for yourself making quality work in this new-ish arena.

I’ve already started building a reputation and credit list in internet media- The Collector’s Room and Persona are both good examples- and a lot of the jobs I’m finding now are internet-based. Actual fiction shows whose broadcasting destination is some streaming facility- usually a bespoke website or a media app. Very rarely do I see anything destined for TV.

The tide is changing and if a director can hang ten with the best of them then they should come out of this recession quite well.


The Reel McCoy

May 10, 2012

I’ve been cutting together my director’s reel recently. My old one is just that- old- and doesn’t quite represent my work now. It also doesn’t help that everything on that reel was from prior to 2010 and it looks like I’ve done jack shit recently if I leave that in circulation!

Most people in this industry need a showreel, it’s just the way the system works. You’re only as good as your last job (or two/three usually…) and your CV and showreel are the way to tell and show that respectively. Annoyingly, this also means that if you’re lucky enough to work frequently, you’re going to be re-editing the bloody thing every few months and updating your CV and profile on all the job websites into the bargain. Which is a major pain in the sphincter, to be honest. I tend to update my profile on FilmCrewPro after every job, my ShootingPeople and ProductionBase profile almost never, my CV after something good needs to go on it and my reel… well, this is the third incarnation since 2008 so not very frequently at all!

The hard thing about editing a new reel is choosing what to put on it and what to leave out. Reels should be short or else they drag the fuck on and not even a zen monk has the patience to watch through a reel that dares to be longer than 5 minutes! As a director, you want to show complete extracts from your films- characters, storytelling, style- rather than the montage of eye-candy a DoP can get away with. That means picking your extracts carefully since there will necessarily only be 3-4 of them on there. I’ve now got to that stage where I have several clips I can use that are representative of my abilities and style and I have to choose between them. It’s a far cry from my first “drama” reel which had very little directing on it and was padded out with my low-rent DoP credits instead. Or worse still, the reel I had when I left uni, which had a good range of excerpts but nothing consistent in area, tone or quality!

One of the stumbling blocks I encountered back then was not knowing how I should cut the reel together- should it just be a montage of quick shots to music pilfered from my CD collection? Should it be a selection of complete clips instead? Do I need explanatory inter-titles? Do I need any titles? A headshot? Music? And no-one really seemed to have a clear cut answer for me. You’d look online at other people’s showreels and they’d all be different- some cut together like a trailer for a movie made up of lots of movies, some a random mishmash of material that drags on and cuts back and forth with only Windows MovieMaker white-on-blue-grad text slugs to break it up… What approach is the most professional? What sort of thing is going to get you work?

Well, for all those looking for those answers when cutting their reels, I have decided to offer up my opinion. This opinion might be completely unshared by everyone else worthy of note and has no professional endorsements- it’s just my tuppence-worth- but if it helps, then great. So here are my thoughts in a handy, bullet-point list-y affair:

1) Reels should be short. That means 2-4 min tops. No exceptions. Directors and actors will probably be looking at nearer 4 min, everyone else (particularly those with a technical skill to highlight) will be nearer 2. Why directors and actors? Because their reels will necessarily need to show performances- something that can only be established with longer clips. Which brings me onto…

2) If you’re a director or actor, use clips that show performance/direction and tell something of a story. This means your clips are likely to be longer than 30sec. Quick close-ups and single line deliveries show very little skill from either party- only that you can frame a close up or remember one line of dialogue, which frankly any fuckwit can do. Engage your audience- that’s what your job is, so do it with the reel as well.

3) If you’re a technical bod- DoP, AC, sound, editor etc- you can get away with quick shots and audio clips cut to a soundtrack, like a montage of your best bits. A highlight reel if you like. This is because your skill and effect on an audience is in the detail and execution of your craft- something that doesn’t need protracted clips with actors saying lines and telling a story to be conveyed. If you’re an editor, this is a tough one because the reel can be a proof of your skill just as the clips in it can be. I suppose it depends on the sort of work you do- music videos probably need 20-30sec clips, fiction: short segments etc Which segues nicely into…

4) Pick the right type of work and be consistent. If you’re a camera operator, you could show that you can work on event videography, single camera drama, studio material and sports coverage but it’ll come across as a jack-of-all-trades affair. Better to hone in on a consistent message (say documentary/event/sports because they all concern following action as-it-happens) and show you can do it well.

5) For God’s sake, don’t mix roles. Don’t be a Director/DoP/Editor and have one reel to cover all three things. Make three separate reels for each discipline. The more hyphens or slashes you have in your role, the less skilled you appear because it looks like you’ve tried a bit of everything and are egotistical enough to believe you’re good at all of them!

8) Remember to have a title card at the beginning and end with your name, role and contact details. People often won’t watch through to the end (either out of boredom, time or hatred of your chosen soundtrack) so ensure they’re at the beginning as well as the end. And make sure the text you use is legible- none of this kooky font shit. If it looks like it would find it’s way onto a church fete newsletter, don’t use it. Pick something consistent and readable that fits the style of the reel.

9) If you have a music track on there, pick it carefully. Just because it’s your favourite song doesn’t mean it’ll work for your reel. Film scores are good if they’re not too iconic- the theme tune to Star Wars or Jurassic Park might be a great bit of music but it’ll look pretty wanky when dubbed to clips from low budget dramas. Also, bear in mind copyright issues- it’s unlikely to be a major problem because your reel isn’t for commercial use, but places like Youtube and Vimeo can block your video if copyright music is detected. Better to choose some free-to-use tracks or loops and avoid the issue entirely.

10) My preferred structure for a director’s/actor’s reel is to start with your name/role/headshot then have a very short montage of looks/style shots for 20 sec so an audience get a precis of what you’re all about. Then go into your clips- 30 sec to a minute each. Enough to engage your audience, show them the skills you want them to see and leave them wanting to see more of you. Have a lower thirds text box over the first few seconds saying the show’s name, production company and year and your role if necessary. Three or four of these should be enough then back to a headshot/contact details. I tend to add a couple of bullet points highlighting my USPs (unique selling points) as well before I end on the contact info.

Essentially, treat the showreel like an advert where you are the product you’re trying to sell. Don’t overdo it, just show your selling points, keep it concise and let them know where they can buy you from. If they’re interested, they’ll come to you.


Working Under Some Bugger’s Thumb

May 5, 2012

Previously, I posted about captains, ships and having a skilled crew. I said that directors cannot make a film alone and need skilled individuals to do the jobs they can’t/don’t. For example, cinematographer Phil Moreton elevated the Persona shoot with his photography and it shows in the final work. I couldn’t have done what he did and the product is better as a result.

But just as skilled individuals can elevate a project (and make the director look good), unskilled or unsuitable people can drag a project down and weaken it and the name of the auteur on the credits.

On some projects your hand is forced with regard to people on the payroll- the producer insists on certain cast or worse still, insists on being on the cast (being in the cast is about the only thing worse!). Or you might have to fill a crew role with a last-minute un-tested unknown or have to endure a camera operator who doesn’t know a T-stop from a tea break because he’s a friend of the writer.

So what do you do? Do you insist on getting your own people in? Do you give the unknowns a chance and work round their issues? Or do you bail on the project completely because the product and your name will be compromised in the long run?

There is no one correct answer.

Depending on the project, depending on the money, depending on the potential fallout if it all goes snafu on you… you might choose to follow either or none of the above options.

If you get cast and crew you trust (whether you’ve worked with them before or know their work) on board, you’ll have a shoot you can predict/control- but you may have pissed off whoever it was blocking you. If it’s the producer, you might not be able to recover from this. The only way to claw back some respect is to a) be right about your choice but b) tactful enough not to rub it in. In the low budget arena, going against the producer will probably result in firing because there are always more directors in line to take your job. At the pro/paid end of the scale, it’ll be about how much they want you as opposed to some other bugger- but, even if they keep you, prepare yourself for friction.

Accepting the external conditions and taking the unknowns on board can vary as much as the unknowns themselves. They might be useful and have some skills you can use (even if it’s not in the area they’re actually there for) or they might be absolutely inept at the job they’re there to do. Question is, if they are next to useless, are they willing and able to learn and can that be worked with? I worked on a shoot recently where I’d had to hire an outsider as a sound recordist. When they turned up, within twenty minutes it became painfully obvious that they had no idea how to do the job they’d applied for. We chose to try and mentor them through the role- something we could afford to do because of the collaborative nature of the shoot. For the most part it worked out okay, but it raised the stress level of some crew members (myself included) and there were a few sequences with less than great audio as a result. Was it worth it? For us, not really- we’d have been better off trying to find a replacement at the eleventh hour and paying for it out of the budget. But if you don’t have a budget, you often have to work with what you can get.

Or, considering the compromises and potential fallout, do you pull out of the project entirely? I recently dropped out of a project when it became obvious the writer was unwilling to make necessary changes to his “comedy” script- in particular, actually making it funny. I also realised that one of the changes I wanted was going to fall on deaf ears because it involved re-writing a terrible character that the writer wanted to cast… with himself. In my mind, there was no way this project was going to make me look good and I’d have an unfunny comedy with an obnoxious main character on my CV. It was a shame to lose the fee (small though it was) but I judged that I’d be better off picking a better project and script.

Money is one of the key elements here. If you’re being paid, your artistic credibility might take a backseat to the lack of bunce in your bank account. You might do the job “for the money”- something that rarely results in a director’s best work, even if it does keep the wolf from the door financially. Or you might decide that the money isn’t worth it for all the hassle you’re going to have to endure. It’s a choice you have to make- and sometimes, if you make the wrong one, it can hurt your chances for future work.

While the unemployed auteur only answers to their creativity, the working director is an employee with responsibilities- to the producer, maybe a writer, sometimes actors, always the audience and rarely if ever your own creative whim.