Archive for the ‘Directing’ Category


Shooting “Instant” Part 2

May 8, 2019

So we finally managed to shoot the remaining scene for “Instant,” the non-dialogue short I began directing towards the end of last year. Anne, one of the members of RFVM kindly offered her spare room as a shooting location so last week we set out to finish what we’d started back in November.

And what would a shoot be without loads of things going wrong? (It’s a rhetorical question, but if you want an answer, it’s “a rarity”) 

For starters, a last-minute work commitment meant Rick the DoP couldn’t make the shoot. Fortunately fellow director Eric Garson was on hand to step in as DoP, but it did mean using my LS300 rather than Rick’s GH5. This presented two problems- one, the LS300 and the GH5 produce quite different images in terms of colour and feel, especially with their log profiles, and two, Eric wasn’t used to using my camera. Neither of these were major issues- the scene we were shooting was standalone so it didn’t really need to intercut with what we’d shot previously which allowed us to have a slightly different look. We also only had a handful of shots to get and a very relaxed schedule to get them in so Eric and I had some time to figure out how to work together on this one.


Eric setting up a shot

The second problem was our lead actress, Emily, injuring herself on the steps at Waterloo Station. Anyone else would’ve called and cancelled and we’d have rescheduled things, but Emily figured since she was on her way anyway, she might as well continue and do the shoot regardless. The scene was very much a sit down affair so she was able to keep her injured foot rested most of the time. How’s that for commitment to her art?

All that aside, we actually had quite a relaxed shoot. The last time I’d had a shoot this calm was on “Bless of an Angel” and just like then, the more measured pace encouraged me to be a better director than circumstances usually allow. I didn’t cut any corners because I didn’t feel pressured to keep to a schedule. I could spend time on the mis en scene, the set, the lighting and the cinematography, rather than leaving the look of the film to someone else. I was also much more collaborative than usual- not that I’m usually un-collaborative on set, but this time I was able to indulge the creative suggestions of cast and crew, where I might normally have weighed them against the clock and the schedule. And I think this collaboration paid off in spades.

My first decision in this new collaborative approach was to allow our actress to dress the set. The scene takes place in her character’s bedroom, so I’d asked her a few days before to bring a few props and items of clothing and things which she thought her character might have. This meant that everything in shot would be something that fit the character and helped establish them visually. Since this film was all about visual storytelling and had no dialogue at all, this kind of background detail would add a lot to the film. When we got to the location, Anne told us we had a choice of room we could use. One was a bit plainer with off-white walls and furnishings and the other was green and aqua with a fitted maple wardrobe and other wooden fixtures so it was a little darker but more varied in colour palette. Eric and I had a look at both, but since we couldn’t find any practical or narrative reasons to choose one over the other, I decided to let Emily choose her character’s own room.

Now, this isn’t something a director should do all the time, but if you have no creative or pragmatic reason to choose one location over the other, then the choice ultimately comes down to what’s more appropriate for the story. In this scenario, the room needs to reflect the character and the actor playing the character is the authority on this. Emily chose the plainer room and I asked her to decorate it with the props and things she’d bought. On a bigger project a production designer would’ve done all this- sourced various props and things to go in the room- and if they’d done it well, the actor would step on set and immediately feel that the location was “right” for the character. But on a limited budget, where you might not have an art department (or more accurately, where you are the art department), it can help to bring the actors in on this sort of process. It gives them a sense of creative ownership and if the room is meant to reflect the character as ours was, then the actor is likely going to give a better performance because they’re surrounded by things that they decided their character would have. If you’ve cast the right actor and trust their judgement, then this sort of thing can be very effective.


Emily wondering why she doesn’t look as “manga-esque” as her storyboard counterpart

While Emily dressed the room, Eric and I looked at how we were going to get all the shots we wanted. We had seven shots to get. Most of them were simple affairs but two of them were quite challenging- but for completely different reasons.

The first shot was challenging because it was a “fake” shot- what you see on screen wasn’t like that on set and the filmmakers used all manner of tricks (more so than normal) to create what you see in the frame. In our case, the shot required the camera to shoot through the back of a wardrobe, where the actor would part the clothes looking for something. Since we knew we weren’t going to be able to do this shot from within an actual wardrobe, we set about creating a fake one. This essentially boiled down to a rack of clothes and a surface raised up on boxes to look like a shelf while we set up the camera on one side of the rack, with Emily on the other. The best place to set this up in the room was in the doorway since it allowed us to have a bit of space on the camera side, but it did mean we weren’t going to be able to show that corner of the room in the scene so as to not break spatial continuity. It also meant we had to control the light on both sides of the doorway and in order to keep the “wardrobe” interior dark, we needed to hang black material from the doorframe, effectively encasing the camera operator like they were shooting with a box brownie. We also had a couple of pop-out reflectors propped overhead, black side down, to provide negative fill and block any light from above.


Faking the “through the wardrobe” shot

And light was a big part of the challenge for this shot. Within the frame, we have two spaces: inside the wardrobe (the foreground) and in the room itself (the background). The wardrobe needs to be dark so it feels like the inside of a wardrobe, but it also needs to be bright enough so that we can see Emily’s face and not have a silhouette and the room itself needs to be properly exposed so that the environment doesn’t blow out and Emily remains correctly exposed when she steps away from the wardrobe at the end of the shot. Thanks to the 13ish stops of dynamic range the LS300 can provide in Jlog, we had a bit of latitude to work with in post but we wanted to try and get what we could on the set, in camera. What we wanted was the clothes to be dark and in shadow, the room to be correctly exposed, Emily to be exposed enough to clearly see her face and eyes when she’s looking into the wardrobe and correctly exposed when she’s in the background. Realistically, the only way to do this would be to expose for the room and put a light between the clothes and Emily’s face to raise her exposure when she peers in. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much space since Emily has to actually lean into the wardrobe for the action to work and the angle we were using didn’t give us an easy place to attach a light, even of the Scorpion lights I love so much. 

What we wound up doing was attaching a Scorpion light to a tripod leg between the clothes and the camera, dimmed and barn-doored, to try and get a bit of light on Emily’s face. The light would also illuminate the clothes, but at the time, we couldn’t think of another way to do it. And I figured if I had to choose, it was more important to see Emily’s face than to maintain the realistic shadows within the wardrobe. Plus, we might be able to do something in post to correct it (something I should’ve learnt is more hassle than it’s worth from the issues with the Polaroids last time and the multi-layered composite shot needed to fix just one shot).

A few days after we wrapped, I realised we might’ve been able to use a small, carefully placed reflector and the aforementioned Scorpion light to get the light where we needed it without affecting the clothes in the foreground, but hindsight is 20/20 and part of the learning experience is kicking yourself in the shins as you attempt to keyframe an inverse power window on the shot to darken the foreground…


The end result still needs a travelling matte with an inverse power window, but at least the talent’s properly exposed!

So that was the first tricky shot. The second was actually something I hadn’t storyboarded for. 

While we were dismantling the fake wardrobe, Eric pointed out that there was a really nice wide shot from the corner of the room, shooting towards the window. Since the action had Emily sitting down on the bed and looking through her box of mementoes, we figured this could be a good establishing or master shot for the scene. It gave us decent sense of the space, we saw much of the production design Emily had done with the props and would really help develop her character. 

Looking back, I can’t quite fathom why I didn’t put a wider shot like this on my shot list or in my storyboards because having a wide master shot of a scene is standard stuff and with something non-verbal like this, any background details would be essential to building the main character. I can only think I was cutting corners again- the thing I’m actively trying not to do any more!- and figured that all the emotion would play out in the close ups so the wide was unnecessary. The thing is, as I know full well, a character’s emotions might play out best in close-ups, but establishing the character is best done with shots that show them in their environment. It could also have been that since I didn’t know where we’d be shooting the scene, I’d erred on the side of caution and planned for close-ups rather than wides, the latter of which would’ve highlighted any shortcomings in the location.

Now we were on set in a good location, the wide made perfect sense so we decided to start with that. We found a framing that showed a lot of the room and allowed Emily to be in a loose medium shot of sorts when she sat on the bed. We were composing for scope (2.35:1) so this meant the field of view either side was pretty wide. We could see the far corner of the room, the top of the bed, the chest of drawers, most of Emily’s set dressing and some of the wall near the room’s actual wardrobe. And in the back was the large, three pane window and it was this window that made the shot challenging.

While it was quite overcast that day, the sky was still very bright. If we used the in-camera ND to bring the sky down, it also bought down the exposure on everything else. And even with the FalconEyes RollFlex on full power, it couldn’t quite balance out the exposure to light Emily’s face. The simplest solution was to apply ND gels to the window… but no-one had any. This is now the second time I’ve needed ND gels for this purpose, so all three of BRBS (Brant’s Rules for Buying Shit) are fulfilled and I’ll have to get some for next time. So what could we do? We could’ve added more lights- we had enough between us- but we felt that multiple lights, even soft lights, meant we were likely to get more shadows in places we couldn’t justify. The window was the obvious practical light source in the frame so anything else that created shadows or highlights would feel artificially lit by comparison. We were also quite limited on where we could put our lights because the window was so big, we’d get the lights reflected in it. 

The solution in the end was, like most things, a compromise. We ND’d the shot in camera as much as we could (about 1/16th) to bring the sky down a notch and pull some detail back and used the RollFlex on full power as a fill on Emily’s face, positioning it just out of reflection range. We also used a Scorpion light clamped to the curtain rail as a hair light to add a bit of separation and justify the bright window in frame. This meant we got a decent exposure on the things that mattered, but the shot would need a bit of careful massaging in post to preserve the detail in the sky and bring up the brightness on Emily a little.


The wide shot with a rough grade applied

The rest of the shots, being tighter compositions, were much easier. We had a bit of a tongue-in-cheek mantra for how to shoot things on set: What Would Rick Do? Part ribbing because he wasn’t there, part creative channelling so the two halves of the shoot would match, it actually proved helpful on occasion. Rick has a background as a photographer, so he tends to look for and see compositions that someone like me might overlook. One of our close-ups wound up framing Emily between the separate panes of the window after we asked ourselves What Would Rick Do? (hashtagged T-shirts are on the way!)


WWRD? He’d go nuts in the close up with the hair light and get a beauty shot!

All in all, the shoot went really well and the results are better due to the relaxed approach. Granted, seven set-ups in about five hours isn’t a great stat for efficiency, but I think it’s proved to me the sort of footage you can get if you allow yourself the time to do your best work rather than rushing and cutting corners in an attempt to keep ahead of a schedule.

Now that everything’s in the can, all that’s left is to add it to the existing edit, finish off all the composite shots needed to correct a few things (grrr…polaroid cameras…), create the credits, commission a score, grade everything, mix the audio… and finish things. Sounds like I’ve got the lion share of the work ahead of me to be honest.


Shooting “Instant” (Part One)

December 14, 2018

What with my self-inflicted seven day work-week, I’ve not had much chance this year to film anything, corporates and music videos aside. But I didn’t want the year to go out without directing something, so back in the summer I resurrected an old short film idea and the other day we actually got around to shooting it. Well, most of it… More on that in a minute.

“Instant” is a non-dialogue microshort about a haunted Polaroid camera. It started life as an idea for a competition entry- make a 90 second short film and score it with this music service kinda deal. This was back last summer when I was shooting all those microshorts with RFVM and while we never got to shoot it then, I thought the idea had merit. One of the things I liked about it was the lack of dialogue. I’ve always felt that I struggle with visual storytelling and that I tend to rely on dialogue and the actors’ performances to carry everything (“Dead Meet” and “Making a Killing” being a case in point), so a primarily visual film, all about mood and suspense and with no dialogue, was a chance to stretch myself creatively. As a microshort, it would also be doable on a small budget and with limited days- both a necessity because of mine and everyone else’s work commitments.

When the idea resurfaced, DoP Rick Hanley and I went on a recce to nearby Henley-on-Thames and scouted locations. “Instant” being a primarily visual film, we knew we needed to get a sense of where everything would be filmed and how we were going to shoot it, so we took reference stills for most of the shots and a few video clips for some of the camera moves. This helped us work out what we could do with the equipment we had available and how we could get what we wanted. It also helped with my next task- storyboarding.


One of “Instant”s storyboards, drawn in Procreate on an iPad

As any recurring visitor to this blog will know, I like to storyboard things. I find it helps me get a sense of the film as a whole and suss out the primary story beats. It also serves as a great starting point for the shoot- if we don’t get anything else but the storyboarded shots, we should still be able to make the film work.

In an ideal world, we’d have shot “Instant” during the summer or early autumn, but since Sod’s Law is the most powerful force in the universe (in spite of what Newton might tell you), it would be months before everyone’s schedules aligned like some logistical planetary system. Thus, on a cold, overcast Friday in early December, a handful of the Fy-Why-Em lot convened on the riverside at Henley to take “Instant” from storyboard to memory card.


Dave “convening” on the riverside

The first obstacle made itself known within minutes of me getting in the car that morning- torrential rain. It was so heavy, there was talk on our Slack of rescheduling the shoot. I figured that since everyone was already on the way and our actress, Emily Anne Hawthorne, was coming by train from London, we might as well film something and started running through ideas for a plan B project we could shoot in the rain. Fortunately, the rain was intermittent (although its frequent bouts always caused minor delays between takes) and the weather actually played ball with us on several shots, giving us sunlight breaking through clouds and a lot of texture in the skies. As landscape photographers always say, nice days are boring days- rain and clouds is where it’s at! For much of the shoot we relied on natural light, which gave us a very flattering diffused look and occasionally warmed the shot, bringing out Emily’s skin tones. Since we were shooting in Log, we’d be able to push the colours a bit more in post and really nail the look I wanted.


DoP Rick films Emily Anne Hawthorne’s long lens close up

Rick was filming on his Panasonic GH5- a camera I’ve grown to really like the images from (more so than my own LS300) and we’d chosen to shoot in 10bit 4:2:2 so we had as much latitude for grading as possible. We also shot 4K because we were composing for a 1:2.35 aspect ratio and the extra resolution gave us a bit of wiggle room to reframe shots. I’m a big fan of the “scope” look and while it’s not appropriate for everything, I felt that a big screen, classic feel was a good fit for the nostalgic-themed “Instant.”

Unlike most shoots I’ve been on, we largely filmed in chronological order. This was mainly so that we didn’t miss any shots accidentally but also for continuity, since it would get darker with each scene. But there was also a logistical reason for doing things chronologically… In many cases, Emily needed to take a shot with the Polaroid camera- a photograph we would need to see later in the film- so it made sense for us to get them at the same time as the filmed shots so the weather, light and setting matched. This often resulted in us having to stage what will be seen in the Polaroid composition for Emily to take a photo of, while we were positioned off-axis getting the shots for the film. Since the Polaroids are the only time we see the ghost, this meant Sophie (sound recordist and volunteer ghost) often had to put on her costume and stand far away from the rest of us so she could be in the right position for the Polaroid, while we co-ordinated the simultaneous capture of two shots. On one occasion, this required Sophie to be on one side of the Thames whilst Emily and Rick were on the other with me going back and forth across Henley bridge.


DoP Rick Hanley and I discussing the cemetery tracking shot while Sophie gets atmos audio

Rick’s gimbal (a Zuiyun Crane 2) really came into its own on the shoot. I had a few tracking shots planned which would’ve been very tricky and time-intensive to set up if we were using a dolly. But Rick did a great job with the Crane and we managed to get some decent tracking shots- some following Emily as she walked, some leading ahead of her and one fifteen foot lateral track across the bumpy grass of a cemetery.

This was when our second obstacle started to raise its head. Polaroid cameras are comparatively simple affairs but unless you’ve got a lot of experience with them it’s actually quite difficult to get the shots you want. The first few photos came out okay (even if some of them had development patterns and scratches on them), but as it got darker, the images got worse and by the time we were shooting our main ghost shots, where the photo quality needed to be tip top for story purposes, the results were about as clear as a Glaswegian trying to explain quantum mechanics in pidgin Mandarin. Partly this was the camera and our inexperience with it, partly it was budget- we only had two packs of Polaroid 600 film and at £25 each, I wasn’t keen on getting more. So we only had 16 shots to work with and no time to learn how best to use the format.

It was also getting dark and the temperature was dropping and this is where my old habit/skill of cutting corners (habit) and working from the edit backwards (skill) came in again…

I’ve spoken about this before, but I think that an ability to see the finished film in your head and shoot “from the edit backwards” is the single most important skill a filmmaker can develop. You become more efficient and you can respond effectively to things that change on set. But I’ve been actively trying to avoid doing this on projects of late because I always get to the edit and realise I’ve cut one too many corners and I’m either missing a shot I wanted or I didn’t hold out for a better take or I didn’t push for the look I was after… Essentially I always find the finished film lacking in something I could easily have had if I didn’t curtail my options so heavily.

With “Instant,” I’d already trimmed a few shots from my storyboard throughout the day, including a gimbal shot following Emily as she walked along the jetty (which we could and would have shot if we didn’t have sunlight streaming into the lens, making it a cool but unwanted silhouette), so by the time the light was fading and the temperature was dropping, I was hyper-aware of how much everyone, myself included, wanted to finish the shoot, get out of the cold and get into a pub as soon as possible.


Did I mention just how feckin cold it was?

So with my plan to shoot the Polaroids practically up the proverbial creek, paddleless and taking water, we quickly moved over to a plan B- shoot stills with a DSLR and attempt some clever VFX masking and motion tracking in post to put the shots into the Polaroid frames. Not the ideal plan, especially since it was a plan I wasn’t that familiar with the intricacies of. I’ve done a bit of motion tracking and keyframing before- most recently with the VFX shots on “Dead Meet”- and while I’m not a VFX expert (if you’ve seen the aforementioned film, you’ll know that!), I know that if we get the right footage, we can make this work.

So, storyboards in hand, I start to figure out how the new sequence will need to go together, what shots we have and what shots will need to be changed to accommodate the new edit. Fortunately, the only alterations are to make Emily stand still when looking through the photos and for her to try and avoid touching the image area. Both of these things would make it easier to apply the mask and composite the stills into the frame. We also flipped the Polaroids the other way round so the corners of the black shape on the back of them would be easier to track in post.

I also had a few shots in my storyboards that I knew were going to involve a bit of manipulation- a wide shot of the camera falling and hitting the ground and a shot of the camera on the ground, dispensing a photo. The first shot was a problem because I was borrowing the camera from my friend Jo and neither she nor I wanted to damage it by dropping it and the second shot was an issue because someone needed to press the shutter for it to print a picture. My plan for the latter shot involved holding the camera still on the floor whilst pressing the shutter, being careful to avoid casting a shadow on it, letting the picture emerge, waiting for a bit and then removing it so we have a clean shot of just the camera. In the edit, a series of travelling mattes can be used to have the still camera from the end of the take spit out the photo from the beginning just by masking out the bits I don’t want to see.


The second shot, however, required a bit of old school practical effect- a line of fishing wire attached to the camera to pull it straight up. The shot can then be reversed in post to get the camera falling and landing and the person holding the pole and fishing line can be masked out in the same way as before. Problem was, prior to the shoot I couldn’t find any fishing line. We had hoped that this shop in Henley would sell it, but Tom went searching and found that the place had closed, leaving us without a means of doing the shot. So I edited round it in my head and figured it might just work with a tighter shot of the camera falling through frame (one of the shots from the storyboard we could get) and an off-screen sound effect of it landing. I didn’t really have any other choice!

With everything we could get in the can, we packed up the gear and headed pubwards. There, in the comparatively bright light of the Catherine Wheel pub, I took a look at the Polaroids we’d got throughout the day. My heart sank- most of them were blurry and too dark to see things clearly and while they had a unique analogue aesthetic, I knew they wouldn’t hold up on screen, composited into the shot we’d just filmed. For a start you couldn’t see the ghost in any of them- the whole point of the film was for Emily’s character to see the ghost in the photos, so if the audience didn’t see it, the whole film wasn’t going to work. I knew we had to come back and reshoot some of the stills from later in the day on a DSLR to comp into the polaroids, but it looked like we were going to need to shoot the ones from early in the day too. Fortunately, we had shot the last two on the GH5 as stills, so they were good to go at least. Plus, if we did need to reshoot any footage we could do it on that pick-up day.

We’ve still got to shoot the opening scene (an interior this time, so we don’t have to be freezing our nuts off in Henley!) and all the little pick-ups, but so far what we got has been good. I’ve started cutting it together, putting in placeholder shots where needed so I know what we need to pick up next week, but most of it seems to be working.


The cast and crew of “Instant” freeze their bits off for a crew photo

While I doubt “Instant” will be finished before the end of the year, it’s good to know in myself that I’m not giving up on all this, even after all the stumbling blocks of this last couple of years.

I’m still making films, I’m still directing,

I’m still trying.

[All stills courtesy of Tom Biddle, Dave Gregory and Rick Hanley]


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

January 22, 2018

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.

Making a Killing ScreenGrab1

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

Early last year I spotted a directing job on, 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.


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.


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.

Making a Killing Screen2

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.


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!


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…


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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…


The “What’s Been Going On?” Post

April 13, 2016

I haven’t blogged in a while. Nothing new there. But it’s not like nothing new’s been going on in my film career, I just haven’t been writing about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. (It’s not like Spielberg, JJ, Ridley and I met up to talk about how awesome my new film was- JJ cried a little, it was very emotional…). I’ve just been lazy with the blogging and slightly less lazy when it comes to film-type-stuff.

So, what’s been happening since the last time I blogged?

DM Poster v2

Most of my directing energy has been thrown into my latest short film Dead Meet. I started making this project about eighteen months ago- which is a fucking long time for a twenty minute short! People have met, fallen in love, had a child and learnt the Peppa Pig theme song in that time. And much of the reason it’s taken so bloody long was a series of problems finding locations.

The first location was stumbled upon when I shot a music video for The Midnight Rambler. I’d been talking to the band about doing a music video for a while and there are dozens of ideas, treatments and half-developed storyboards littering my iPad to testify to that. They were really keen to do something off the wall and cinematic- something I wanted to do as well. Eventually an idea took hold- to have two classical dancers tango while the band play their track Inside Out with a little narrative bookend to tie it all together. We knew a keen and capable tango dancer, Rex, and he asked his teacher, Sarah, to partner him in the video. And the location was one of the village halls Sarah teaches in.

I’m actually really happy with this video. While I didn’t always get the lighting I wanted (because I’m not exactly a great cinematographer and didn’t have the right kit to get the look in camera), I did manage to capture some of the grace and movement of the tango and time it to work with the song. It was only after the band and I watched it that we realised that while it was good, it wasn’t… the band. Somewhere along the line, we’d lost much of the band’s personality and comedic character. The video didn’t reflect the band as they were. So I was reminded of the age-old adage when it comes to music videos- be true to the artist and their music, don’t present them as something they’re not. (Actually, thinking about it, we kind broke that rule with Shokamo’s Bless of an Angel and that worked out great, so maybe the adage is only mostly right!) Plus, the band line-up’s changed and the arrangement of the track has changed, so all in all, this is a video that will probably never see general release. Which is a shame, but it’s what can happen in the ever-changing world of music videos.

On the other hand, sometimes you direct a music video that gets a lot of visibility. Irene Rae‘s See Me For Me was quite a simple shoot over one day in one very photogenic location. It was also a very quick production with virtually no prep and a very “wing it on the day” approach. There was no narrative and the only plan was to shoot a performance section and intercut it with various beauty shots.

What’s nice is that Irene Rae is very marketing-savvy and promoted the hell out of the video, getting it a ton of views on YouTube and good press into the bargain. It’s been a great artist-centric video to have on my reel, with a different style and pace to the other music videos I’ve been involved with. I hope to work with Irene again, maybe on a more cinematic video- which her sound would work really well with.

Sorry, I got sidetracked… Where was I? Oh yeah, the location…

So we were looking for a pub bathroom to film Dead Meet‘s fight scene in and had so far hit a brick wall. We were also looking for a pub- a brick wall of Great and Chinese proportions it seems- but I knew that the pub and the pub bathroom were not necessarily or likely to be in the same place. We needed a bathroom with decent dimensions- partly for the fight choreography we had been developing but also so we could get a camera and sufficient lights in there. So far, no joy- most actual bathrooms were the wrong shape, size or decor or were just downright disgusting.

But the village hall’s bathroom would work. I didn’t fancy having the conversation where I said I just needed to hire the bathroom for a day to film in, so I hired the whole hall. And after months of rehearsal and prep, this was what we shot:

The response to this video has been great. And hats off to Francesca and Dean for their work- we shot Hong Kong style, in sections, where the movements are choreographed with the camera and tailored to edit seamlessly with the shots on either side. This allows for shorter, but more intense takes with more complicated choreography and is quite difficult to do. Dean’s an experienced fight performer and has shot this way before, but this was pretty new for Francesca. She’d shot some action before (and quite a bit since!), but this was something of a baptism of fire. For me too, as it happens. As I’ve said before, I’ve shot quite a bit of action in my time- it was the thing that got me into filmmaking after all!- but not quite with this level of complexity and I quietly felt that this was a test of my skills and my resolve. I needed to prove myself with this fight scene, both to an audience and my own worst critic- me. But the response to the fight, even the rough cut, has been overwhelmingly positive.

With that fight scene in the can, the only thing that remained was to shoot the rest of it. And as I mentioned before, we had more than a few location problems. In fact, we didn’t get to shoot the rest of the film til November.




I’ll put together a proper Dead Meet post a little later when we’ve shot everything (at time of writing, we have one more scene to shoot next week, then we’re done!), but the short version is that we got most of what we needed, muddled through on the things we didn’t have (enough extras, practical effects, the perfect location etc) and had a pretty good time into the bargain.


Over this time, I did a few other bits and pieces including multi-camera music shoots for Silver Street Studio’s Aquedukt streaming community. I hadn’t done much in the way of live-mix work before this, although I had done a lot of multi-camera stuff. The general gist is a band come into the studio, we set up multiple cameras (at one point we had five!), all feeding into a software controlled mixer and they play and we stream live over YouTube. It’s been a steep learning curve- for all of us- but the results have been great and should be good long-term work if we can find a strong business plan for it.

I’ve also been busy writing. Two features, two shorts and a web series to be exact. None finished, obviously, this is me we’re talking about after all (“good starter, poor finisher” as some unfortunate and disappointed women might say). And at the moment, I’m trying to work out where to go from here. Will my next big project be a feature or a series? Or another short? I still don’t know and I’ll probably blog about that another time…

Music-related shoots seem to have been the focus this last year and I’d love to keep them a major part of my work. But over the next twelve months, I’d like my focus to be fiction and my directing career. I’ve been slack these last… ooh… eight years or so, and really need to pull my finger out if I’m to get within grasping distance of what I want: the hallowed director’s chair.


“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…


Or maybe not…


Story Principles and Fight Scenes

February 12, 2015

DeanKick The weekend just gone, Emily (my frequent collaborator and long-suffering AD) and I drove up to Birmingham to meet stunt performer and actor Dean Williams and actress Francesca White and work on some choreography for our latest short film. I’ve been writing and rewriting the script for the film since about September last year and we’ve been in a tortoise-esque pre-production for the last few months or so.

The film is an action comedy about a female assassin (played by Francesca) and, lest people say we don’t challenge ourselves, in its 15-20 minute runtime we have two somewhat ambitious action sequences. There’s a big gun battle at the end of the film and in the middle, a one on one fight scene in a pub bathroom. And it was the latter we went up to Birmingham to block out and work on.

Although both Emily and myself had shot action before, we wanted this to be better and more complicated than what we’d done previously- and this meant getting a professional stunt performer involved. Besides, all the people I used to shoot fight scenes with are not the 19 year old Jackie Chan and Jackass-inspired headcases that we used to be. So a professional headcase was needed! Dean was actually a recommendation of Francesca and because he can fight, fall and choreograph as well as being a decent screen actor, he was coming on board as a one-stop fighter/actor/co-ordinator shop. He was working on the prep for a feature film whilst we were up there, casting and training actors (it’s a pretty cool film called Enter the Cage and you can follow its progress here), so we had to grab him and Francesca when we could.

Which left Emily and I with a bit of time to plan out how the action scenes would work from a narrative standpoint. “Narrative standpoint?” I hear you repeat, “but surely fight scenes are just kicky-punchy-flippy-off-the-wall-that’s-so-cool kinda scenes?” Not really, dear conveniently mistaken reader, (although some films really don’t help dispel this stigma) so allow me to explain…

Contrary to what a lot of filmmakers and amateur stunt teams think, fight scenes aren’t just about the fighting. They obey the same rules and satisfy the same criteria as any other scene or sequence in the movie- they serve the story. They need to advance the plot, develop the characters, add depth to the world or contribute to the big picture or preferably all four. If an action scene doesn’t do one or more of these things, then it should be cut. I’ve talked about my four elements of storytelling before but the ideas apply to every part of a film, from a standard dialogue scene to a car chase. Fight scenes need to have a narrative through-line just like any other scene. Since fight scenes are very much like dialogue sequences with back and forth exchanges, confrontations and submissions (both literally and figuratively!), most of a fight’s narrative is centred around the characters.

As an example, let’s have a look at the end fight scene from the Van Damme magnum opus Kickboxer. For those who haven’t seen the film (or those whose therapists have convinced them to block it and most of the 80s out), JCVD plays Kurt, a martial artist bent on revenge after his kickboxer brother is paralysed by Muay Thai bad guy Tong Po. Now, the final fight could just be Van Damme kicking six bales of hay out of Michel Qissi, but there’s actually a bit more to it from a narrative perspective. Not a lot more, obviously- this is a Van Damme film not something by David Mamet, but still…

Before the bout, Kurt and Tong Po wrap their hands and dip them in broken glass to add a bit more jeopardy to the proceedings (because elbows to the face aren’t intimidating enough). Kurt is also told beforehand that he needs to let Tong Po “punish” and beat him or his brother will be killed. This affects Kurt’s attitude and thus the choreography of the beginning of the fight, with Kurt trying to avoid harming Tong Po without taking too much damage himself. Inevitably, Kurt takes a lot more damage than he dishes out in this first part, giving the fight the typical “good guy loses until he makes a comeback” curve. This comeback comes when Kurt’s brother escapes his captors and appears ringside. Kurt realises his brother’s safe and he doesn’t need to hold back any more. But the filmmakers also use this for a character moment- now that he can fight back, Kurt decides to remove his glass-covered-wraps (although why when the rest of the fight is primarily his feet smashing against Tong Po’s face is anybody’s guess!), showing that he has a sense of restraint and morality. He’ll happily beat Tong Po but he doesn’t want to kill him. The next few minutes are pretty much the JCVD kicking showcase you come to expect from these sorts of movies set to some 80s ethnic power rock. While the whole sequence is quite simplistic, the little narrative nods affect the choreography and allow for character moments.

"Character Moment"

“Character Moment”

Our fight scene was to be a bit more complex than Kickboxer- from both a story and choreography standpoint- although saying that is hardly difficult. Our assassin, Cleo, would follow her target into the bathroom and try to kill him from behind with a knife. He spots her and resists, forcing her to change her game plan. She attacks with the knife, he disarms her and sends her flying with a flashy jumping kick. Now both she and the audience know that her target is a lot more skilled than originally thought. Cleo can’t hope to match him in strength or power, so she has to fight smart. She uses the environment around them to injure or destabilise him, targeting his legs (so he can’t kick, move or stand properly) then one of his eyes (affecting his depth perception) before taking an opportunity and finishing him.

The above narrative helped divide the choreography into sections, each with its own story progression and methodology behind the styles and techniques used. These sections make the fight easier to choreograph and perform as well as making it easier to shoot. But the big thing is the story progression of the whole fight. What it reveals about the characters- Cleo’s tactical thinking, her target’s pride and OCD- and what it adds to the story as a whole.

When you’re shooting an action film, there’s usually the decision to either cast an actor and teach them how to fight (at best you get Zhang Ziyi or Keanu Reeves, at worst you get Ben Affleck) or cast a martial artist and try to teach them how to act (historically, there usually isn’t a “best” in this scenario, only a lot of worsts!), but we got lucky with our casting. Francesca is fast developing a reputation as a gung-ho action actress, game to do all these fight scenes and learn martial arts and stunts. It was part of the reason why we cast her. She also has a background in dance and is pretty flexible, making it easy for her to remember choreography and perform what would otherwise be difficult-for-a-beginner kicking techniques. As a martial artist myself, I know there’s a big difference between looking like you can do a spinning hook kick and actually being able to do a spinning hook kick, but the broader our performers’ skillsets the more chance we have of getting a really cool fight at the end of it. Which is why it was great to get Dean on board. Dean is a veteran of the martial arts and stunt world and has a range of styles and techniques at his disposal, which made for interesting and varied choreography. He’s also an actor, so the little character moments in the choreography will add an extra dimension to what could just have been two performers wailing on each other for a couple of minutes.

It was a long day and we had to steal Dean and Francesca when we could, but I’m glad we did. It’s helped me get a handle on what we can do with the fight and what it could look like (filming some walkthroughs in an actual bathroom helped!) as well as bolstering Dean’s character with some detail work you wouldn’t normally see. Next step is to do a whole day of training and run-throughs to really work out the choreography and block out the camera moves as well. From that we can put together a blocking tape so we can be much more efficient when it comes to shooting- we’ll only have a day to shoot this scene so the more prep time, the better.

It was also good to meet some of the cast and crew of Enter the Cage and see the way they’re approaching the action for the film. Special thanks to Dean and the director Kevin for letting us gatecrash their party!