Archive for September, 2012


That Self-Improving Second Look

September 27, 2012

I recently screened two episodes of “The Collector’s Room” (a web-series I directed and co-created two years ago) to a local filmmaking club. Now this wasn’t a festival or anything and the series is both abandoned and rough around the edges compared to my current work, but it was a great experience all the same for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the club members were all filmmaking enthusiasts with a range of experience- some had a professional or broadcast background and others were recent devotees learning the ropes. It was great to be able to show work to people who understood what went in to making it- a lot of festivals (and audiences in general for that matter) are full of critics who have never made a film in their lives and only judge the piece on the names attached to it. So playing to a receptive and empathetic audience was a welcome change.

Kayleigh Lawrence in Ep 1 “The Last Serenade”

Secondly, it gave me a chance to see these shows again and watch them play out with an audience. I haven’t watched these episodes properly since Luke and I recorded the commentary tracks for the DVD and the distance time creates meant I was able to watch them as an audience would. As the audience around me did. Hearing them laugh or jump at all the appropriate moments completes the circle in a way and it’s why a live audience can be both a nerve-wracking and highly rewarding experience.

And lastly, was the added bonus of talking about the production of the series and doing a bit of a Q&A. I’d never really done one of these before. When “The Collector’s Room” had its press screening two years ago, I let Luke do a lot of the talking (since the bugger likes waxing lyrical about projects and thanking people!) and pretty much just confined myself to the technical answers about the show. Obviously, at a screening for filmmakers, technical questions were the order of the day so I had a chance to teach and educate- the more positive expressions of “ranting” and “lecturing” which are my normal modes of communication!

Directing Rebecca Hansell on Ep 3 “The Star”

It also made me realise how much I know about filmmaking and all the little things I’ve learnt.  I tend to think more about what I don’t know than what I do know and it’s only when you get a chance to share that knowledge that you really get a sense of perspective. Speaking of perspective, I also got a chance to see all the little mistakes I made, now obvious with hindsight, on a big-ish screen and through good-ish speakers. So there’s also that humbling educational experience…


The Lesson of Creative Coverage

September 9, 2012

Depending on where, how or if you learnt your film and video trade, the word “coverage” is either a mantra to be chanted at all times or a boring, uninspired term on a par with talking insurance premiums (no disrespect to anyone who works in the insurance trade, but by fuck is your world dull!). For those who are not au fait with filmmaking terminology- and why the hell are you reading this blog?- “coverage” is a way of shooting scenes that allows for choices in the edit. The standard “Hollywood” approach for a two character dialogue is the five shot master style- a wide master, two over-the-shoulder close-up reverses and two big close-up singles.

(If the previous terms meant nothing to you, you’re either a curious blog-reader lost in a strange area of interest or a maverick filmmaker who calls his shots whatever the fuck he wants to- and if the latter, I salute you because you’re likely going to get further in this game than me by being an arrogant wunderkind!) The five shot master style looks a little like this:

But while it gives you nice, easily-cuttable-between-each-other shots that “cover” the whole scene, coverage isn’t sexy. It’s like a Flemish bond in bricklaying- its the common foundation of the whole skillset but it’s not creative, exciting or flamboyant. It gets the job done.

For most directors and DoPs, it’s always more interesting to use creative masters such as dolly moves or motivated tracks and pans or add a variation to the standard formula with either handheld, focus pulling or push-in/pull-backs… Sadly though, these sorts of shots take time- particularly dolly shots- because of the extra set-up for the grip gear, the knock-on effect on lighting and sound and the level of rehearsal needed. A director on a budget with a tight schedule has to weigh up whether it’s worth doing a dramatic master and possibly having to ditch the standard singles etc or sticking with the safety of the coverage and running the risk of having something as cinematically exciting as a rich tea biscuit.

I suffer from this scenario all the time.

On every shoot in fact.

I always have a tight schedule and a low budget so I’m always torn between shooting something with creative merit that I can be proud of and shooting stuff that stands a chance of being edited properly. As is predictable, I try to achieve both and frequently wind up with a real mix of scenes. Some with dramatically motivated shots and compositions, some that cut together well and some that fail somewhat on both counts.

For instance on Jason’s Persona, as mentioned previously on this blog, we had 18 scenes to shoot in three days. Or, as it panned out due to actors’ and locations’ availability, 18 scenes in one whole and two half-days. Which meant that we wouldn’t have the time to shoot the standard minimum five setups per scene (the vast majority of them were two-handers). In order to cut down on our time, we stripped some scenes down to a single set of reverses- a close up or over-the-shoulder for each character. Which, while serviceable and allows for a little flexibility in editing for timing and pauses, lacks any variety or emphasis. So much so that since I’ve been editing it these last few weeks, I have started to regret some of those non-coverage decisions. The same thing happened with the previous story, Eliza’s Persona, although in that case it was usually a no-coverage crafted master shot affair.

A dolly shot set-up from Jason’s Persona

And so, I have come up with a couple of rules (that I will no doubt forget when I next arrive on set) that hopefully should give me more coverage options, regardless of how dull/cinematic my approach is.

1) Shoot an interesting opener. This could be an establishing shot of the location, a miscellaneous cutaway or an insert of something in the scene- like a glass on the table of a pub scene. All this saves you having to open the scene with the standard wide or a close up.

2) If you want to open with the wide or the close up, is there a way to move into it? So dolly in to the final framing, pan up from the book the character’s reading or focus pull from an informative piece of production design. it might take a little longer than a static shot, but it’ll be a bit more cinematic.

3) Shoot inserts and cutaways. If the characters’ blocking includes using props, shoot inserts of the props being picked up/used/put down etc. This can be used to add emphasis to those actions, cover dodgy edit points and line crossings or they can be used as openers or enders for the scene.

4) Over the Shoulders are a favourite pattern because they add depth to the frame- put a long-ish lens on there and it’ll look great- but they are a continuity problem if performances don’t match with the reverse. Hence close-ups in the classic coverage. If you can’t shoot anything else, get the close-ups. That’s where the drama is after all.

5) Don’t forget sound. Remember to get room tone and any natural sounds like chairs being pulled out, glasses being put down etc. If an annoying background sound is present on some takes- fridges, air-con…- make sure you get a track of that too.

The Persona shoots have been fast, condensed, cheap and full of scheduling obstacles- like filming different actors’ close-ups in a single scene at different times because of their availability or having to film day for night and night for day. By working on these shoots I’ve learnt a few lessons I might otherwise have missed (and that some of my fellow directors have not learnt at all). Whether these lessons will prove useful or detrimental is unclear, but the more varied experiences you have, the more likely you are to learn something that will later prove useful and possibly save a future project where it might otherwise fall apart around your ears


Toys and Wishlists

September 1, 2012

Like a child going through the Argos catalogue in late September, I’ve been looking in longing at shiny new toys to hope for (in lieu of spending my nonexistent money on). And as with a lot of filmmakers, it’s a camera I’m in the metaphorical market for.

My current camera is the ageing if ever-reliable Sony Z1. I’ve had a few good years of use out of it but I really need to join 2012 and get a “proper” HD camera that records to something other than a strip of magnetically charged plastic ribbon. I also need a camera with a larger sensor so I have more leeway to create shallow depth of field- given that I shoot a lot of drama, this is something of a necessity.

But I’m poor. Or flat broke if I’m honest.

Which makes the prospect of buying a new camera daunting and stupid which is why I’m a) looking at the cheaper end of the market and b) just looking. Which is a tough scenario to be in when there’s this nagging (if largely unfounded) feeling that you’re hired for work based on the kit you bring to the table. I need something that gives me the creative control I need to produce the work that will get me hired again, it needs to look professional (clients are often as shallow as the ideal depth of field) and it needs to be low cost. I also need it to have pro audio inputs, monitoring aids and an image that doesn’t fall apart with a whip pan.

Which is why DSLRs have never figured in my game plan. Lovely though the image can be, they’re just a bit of a ball-ache to use and work with in post (on a related note, it’s always amazed me that the people fellating DSLRs for video always seem to bang on about great grading as well- you’ve really backed the wrong tool for the job there guys…). At the budgets I work at, I’m often finding workarounds for things on set- angles, production design, lighting, performances… I just don’t need the camera and it’s weird ways to be an extra arse-ache I have to work around:

Very very wobbly rolling shutter effect with moire and aliasing. Arse-ache.

No NDs, no zebras, no picture or audio monitoring. Arse-ache.

Extremely awkward video codec with compression in all the wrong areas and a nightmare to edit with. Arse-ache.

Dual system picture/audio and syncing in post. Ache of true arse-like proportions.

Add to that a form factor that’s understandably only useful for taking stills and needs a meccano kit of Zacuto gear to give such things as a usable EVF/viewfinder, shoulder rig and follow focus and they really weren’t on my radar at all. So I’ve been left to look at the low-pro large sensor cameras like the Panasonic AG AF101 and the Sony NEX FS100 and their £4K+ price tags. And by “look” I mean just that…

But recently, the choice of large sensored video cameras has broadened in both price directions- Canon’s C300, the RED Scarlet and Sony’s FS700 have filled the higher seven grand plus bracket, Black Magic have unveiled their Cinema Camera (with a stupidly low price, a beautiful image that DoPs will love and missing audio features that self-shooters will lament) and last week Sony announced the NEX EA50, a semi-shoulder ENG style camera for about £3000. Which to be honest, is more in my price range.

Okay, so it’s aimed at event shooters with its form factor, power zoom lens and not-unmanageably-shallow APS-C sized sensor and I shoot primarily drama where this doesn’t really matter.

Okay, so the sensor comes from the NEX5- a still camera- and possibly suffers from the same image issues if all the forum slandering is to be believed.

Okay, so just like Sony’s other “affordable” camera it hasn’t got any built-in NDs and I, like many shooters, find NDs really really fucking useful, Sony…

…but it’s three grand. A whole thousand pounds on average cheaper than the next best thing, Panasonic’s AF101. Which for a filmmaker with little to no money matters a lot. I for one will be interested to see what the camera is capable of when it’s released in October. As long as the image is less problematic than the DSLRs, I can learn to use a matte box and ND filters like the film boys do and feel happy about my investment.

Just need to scrape some pennies or finance together and I’m good…

“So about that loan, Mr Bank Manager…”