Archive for December, 2017

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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.

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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.

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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…