Archive for the ‘Filmmaking Craft’ Category

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Investing in Myself

April 2, 2017

Back last year, I went and bought a new camera. This camera, in fact:

For those who don’t spend all their time looking at filmmaking websites getting camera-boners, that’s a JVC GY LS300. It’s got a super35mm sensor, a very flexible lens mounting system, shoots HD, UHD and Cinema 4K and has a log profile. Still nonplussed? Never heard of it? Well, don’t feel bad if you haven’t, it’s probably the most underrated camera on the market in its price bracket at the moment- but that’s a post for another time.

The real reason I mention my purchase is why I chose to buy a new camera in the first place.

I’ve mentioned buying kit before, waaaay back at the beginning of this blog, and my view is still the same- buying kit is an investment. Sometimes it’s a case of money in, money out (you buy a camera because having it will get you more work) but this is a bit of a gamble because that new shiny is only bankable while it’s new on the market and desirable. The moment something new and more desirable comes out, you’ve lost your bargaining chip. Original Red One owners know the pain of that one…

But that wasn’t really why I bought the camera. No-one’s beating down rental houses’ doors for the latest JVC camera (they possibly should be, but again, that’s for another post…) and even though the camera shoots 4K, that’s not going to win me loads of jobs (although it may help!). I bought the camera to invest in myself.

I’ve never considered myself to be much of a cinematographer (I’ve also never considered myself to be much of a writer, but apparently I’m not terrible at that!) and have always felt I could learn to be better if I had a better tool to learn with. Now I know that sounds like an excuse- poor workmen and their tools etc- but there is some truth to it. If all you have is a hammer, all your work will look like nails. Aside from a short-lived dalliance with a Canon DSLR a few years ago (a short-term fling that wasn’t very productive- we both wanted different things from the relationship!), my previous camera was a Sony Z1. Still produces nice enough pictures, but the thing shoots to tape. Tape! Even the most out-of-date luddite clients know tape cameras are old tech, on a par with wire recorders and the invention of the wheel. I constantly had to load the camera in the car before I got to the shoot and hope I didn’t need to change the tape when the client was around! The Z1 was a workhorse, though, and I learnt to focus on composition and storytelling and getting the lighting right with it. But the big problem with the Z1 was what I couldn’t learn from it that other filmmakers were learning from their newer kit. Little things like shallow depth of field, lens theory, picture grading and using Log profiles. The filmmakers who were getting into it on the back of the DSLR boom were learning and putting all this stuff into practice.

And producing much nicer work than I was as a result. Work that got them more work.
I know I can learn to be better at this stuff. Not because I want to be a better cinematographer per se, but because I want to be a better visual director. I want to know why I might use an 85mm for this close up over a 50mm. I want to know if we need more lights to pull off the depth of field I want from this shot. I want to know what can be done with picture grading so I can put the right coloured mis in the to-coin-a-phrase scene.

I want to learn.

This is why it’s an investment in myself. I am going to get better at this if I keep practicing and have a better tool to practice with. If I can get a better grade of job or earn more money from gigs because of said tool, then happy days!

The face of a man with a new toy!

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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!

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Realism vs Believability

November 29, 2014

Internet Anger

So the first trailer for Jurassic World came out this week (as did a teaser for the new Star Wars, but I’ll comment on that later) and I’ll get my opinion out of the way first: I’m somewhere between “woohoo a new Jurassic Park” and “probably won’t bother watching it to be honest.” It looks well-made, seems to keep most of the core elements that worked in the original and gives the formula a new spin. But I also think, good as it might be, it will only disappoint people like me- people in their twenties and thirties who have a love of the original film, not just because of its myriad merits but also because of how it made us feel as kids and, in my case, helped sowed the seeds of filmmaking in me. A new film, just like any long-awaited sequel, prequel or ill-fated reboot, can’t live up to that. It’s like losing your virginity while a particular 90s song was playing on the radio and then trying to capture that excitement and magic with every subsequent partner by playing “Pure” by the Lightning Seeds as a mood-setter.

Anyway, enough about nostalgia, reboots and disappointed 30-somethings. This post is about something that happened in the wake of that trailer (and indeed after every film comes out really): the rise of the pedant. The nitpicker. The guys who split more hairs than a stylist with a laser and an electron microscope. Shit like:

“Dinosaurs don’t have opposable thumbs!”

(No, but how else are they going to make that “rraw, I’m coming to eat you” expression?)

“Why don’t the dinosaurs have feathers, are they just sticking to what experts thought in 1992?”

(Kinda, it’s called series continuity and audience expectation, arsehat.)

“Your dinosaur has the right teeth, but no forked tongue which it should have because something something science…”

(Oh God… It’s a fucking movie, people…)

I get it. You’re passionate and informed about something. You’re an expert on it. And you see a film about this subject so you’re all excited, then discover that it carries inaccuracies and errors… so you notice them. Those errors destroy for you that suspension of disbelief that movies need in order to function. Then, since we live in the internet age and anyone can make overreactive comments on message boards and twitter, you point them out and proclaim the film/filmmakers to be shit.

Actually, that last one I don’t get. I mean, I empathise, but it’s just a movie. The film and the filmmakers aren’t shit for letting those “mistakes” through the net. In fact, it’s quite likely they did it that way on purpose.

Sure, some of those facts were incorrect out of ignorance (either the writer’s research didn’t uncover them, or the research was relatively inadequate) but some were out of choice. Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs not having feathers, for instance, was a bit of both. In 1993, the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds was a very niche theory not accepted by most palaeontologists of the time and the idea that they had feathers was as dumb as all hell with no evidence to back it up. So when they made the film, they made the dinosaurs how everyone, audience and experts alike, expected them to be- scaly, scary and not in the least bit feathered. Even today, if you put feathers on a dinosaur, the average movie viewer won’t accept it, no matter how accurate it is. Which is probably why they chose to do the same thing in the new film. What kind of director wants their audience laughing at velociraptors dolled up like Priscilla Queen of the Desert?

Films are an illusion and in order for an audience to become immersed in them, they have to buy that illusion. These little details, regardless of their veracity, are there to help sell that illusion. It’s about believability not realism. Because let’s face it, a completely 100% realistic film with every detail and moment intact would be really fucking boring. It would be like looking out a window. The story would get lost in all the meandering minutiae and have no weight to it.

And that’s the main reason why these decisions are made. If the content in the film, whether it be accurate as possible or madey-uppy as all hell, takes the average movie viewer out of the story, then it needs to go. Case in point- Gravity. Well made and very well-researched in every other respect, when there were inaccuracies (the orbital heights of the spacecraft, the fact Sandra Bullock’s character can’t pilot the landing vehicle, the lack of space nappies…) they were more than likely there through choice. Having to explain what the space nappies were when Bullock de-spacesuits would slow the story down, distract the average viewer and be completely irrelevant when it comes to the story. Thus they put her in cycle shorts and gave us that visually arresting womb metaphor which did more for the story than foil pants would ever have done.

As a director, you are usually the one who has to make these decisions. And that can be tough. Whatever decision you make, someone in the audience is going to hate it. If you choose to have the hero take cover behind a car during a gunfight, there will be at least a couple of people who point out that 9mm parabellum rounds will easily go through a car’s bodywork. If you do the opposite and have them get shot through the car, the larger portion of the audience will be confused as to what happened and why. But you need to put the story first. If it’s important to the story, then it can stay. If it detracts from the story, it needs to change. Simple as that.

To paraphrase Spock, the needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the nitpicker. Besides, they enjoy complaining on twitter and while they’re doing that, the rest of us are enjoying the movie as the filmmakers intended.

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Life’s a Pitch

November 16, 2014
"...and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!"

“…and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!”

Writers and directors frequently talk about the importance of a good pitch. For writers, this is them in a meeting with a potential producer trying to get them to buy (figuratively or literally) their script/treatment/vague idea scribbled on a napkin in Starbucks. For directors, this is often the same audience but this time trying to get them to buy you and your take on this script you have/have been given to read. In both cases, it’s technically a job interview. As I mentioned before, auditions and interviews are prolonged and generally painful experiences for everyone involved, not just the dude in the spotlit chair, so it’s a good idea to get some practice in before you bank your career on your ability to hook an audience with your pitch.

But pitching as a skill also serves another useful purpose which I’ve only recently realised. If you’re writing a script and are having trouble sorting out story points (particularly character and event points- see previous blog), find a willing friend and pitch the story to them. This forces you to see the story from an audience’s point of view and tell it in a way that is easy to follow, compelling and full of narrative moments. And perhaps it’s because of this that the best pitching audience are film-watchers and not film-makers. The former will see the story in their heads as you tell it, filling in the gaps with their own images and actors and everything, whereas the latter are more likely to cast a practical eye on the story, thinking about cinematography or editing or budgetary concerns, knowing full-well you intend to film or write it.

Recently, I pitched a feature film idea I’ve been chewing on for a year or so to a couple of friends separately. Before these pitches, I really only had a basic premise, a couple of characters and some moments/set-pieces. I hadn’t started on a script- usually I like to get a rough structure in place before I fire up Celtx- and didn’t even have a brief treatment scribbled on the back of an envelope. What I had was in my head.

But when I was in the pub with my mate Chris (as accurately recreated above) and the conversation turned to what I was working on, the usual vagaries I might spin to someone else receded and I started to tell him about this feature film. And I did something I don’t normally do when pitching. I skipped over the “it’s like this film meets that film” back-of-the-DVD summary and started with the “we open on a dark side street…” The first scene description.

I told the story from the beginning.

I introduced characters as they appeared, described the look and feel of things, revealed plot points and backstory as you would find it in the story and let the events unfold naturally. And in the process, I was able to see plot holes (either for myself or because Chris asked about them) and dramatic through line. It got me back to the basics of storytelling and freed me from all the practical concerns that come with directing your own script and the marketing concerns that a producer might focus on. It allowed me to tell the story on its own merits- something I frequently forget to do in a professional pitching situation.

It also feels collaborative. My ideas weren’t set in stone, so when Chris made observations or suggestions and got immersed in the story, I was in a place where I could take note of these things and work them in depending on what he responded to. Chris actually contributed to several key plot points as a result of this, as well as reminding me of stories or franchises mine might be similar to (and thus might want to differentiate myself from).

When I got home from the pub I quickly took down all the new notes while they were fresh and it gave me new motivation to crack on with the script. A few weeks later, I pitched the new story to my mate Mike (also in a pub- it’s where all the best production meetings happen!) and his reactions also built on the film’s structure, characters and moments. The whole project also swelled into a trilogy, which I now have mapped out. God only knows if I’ll actually get to make it, but still…

So pitching is a great way to hammer your story into shape, but does it work the other way? Does simply telling your story work when pitching to other film professionals, like producers and executives?

For the most part, yes.

Remember, that’s what they’re hiring a director for- to tell that story. If they just needed someone to put things in front of the camera or focus on the audience demographics, they could have found someone with less imagination and communication skills to do that. Obviously, you need to understand something of their interests (demographics, budget, key markets etc) and communicate your understanding so they have confidence in you, but your pitch should again just focus on the story and your treatment of it.

While I’ve not yet pitched to producers for feature film gigs, I have pitched to producers for web series like “Persona” and pretty much every music video gig (and quite a few corporate shoots) essentially involves a pitch of some sort. And it’s always the same: Tell your story, engage their interest and move them emotionally, intellectually or viscerally. Once they’re hooked and on board, address the practical issues, but always with solutions where possible.

Sounds bloody obvious now, but this is actually the director’s best method of pitching. Treat your audience, no matter whether they be filmmaking co-conspirators on the project or secular acquaintances, as just that- an audience and everything else will fall into place.

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

I’ve been working on a bunch of scripts recently from the ground up and it’s meant focusing a lot on story and how it works. We often take story for granted, but there’s a system and structure to making it effective. There are various approaches to this, from the writings of Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell to the story process of Disney and Pixar…

… And, somewhat foolishly, I thought I’d put my opinions on the matter in the same box. So here goes…

As I see it, a story can basically be broken down into four elements- The Big Picture, Events, Characters and The World. Generally none of these are more important than the other (although your story and your budget might tweak your focus somewhat) but if you neglect one of them, the story is likely to fall flat.

The Big Picture

BigPicture

This is the overall arc of the story. It plots how things change, develop and grow, the fundamental themes and ultimately the story’s purpose (aka why bother to tell this story at all?). The Big Picture is the bit where you can distill the story into as simple an idea as you like, breaking it down into such tropes as “boy meets girl” or “naive youth goes on journey to save his world.” Essentially, The Big Picture is where you answer the question “what’s this story about?” in the broadest sense. It’s also where the story’s themes and subtext find root. For instance, Paul Verhoven’s Robocop is about consumerist America and the fascist power of big corporations (while the much-crappier remake is about drone warfare or something) and this thematic idea informs all manner of things in the movie.

The Big Picture isn’t about details, it’s about the general experience. It’s the message and feeling that the audience take away with them and it needs to be in the back of the director’s and writer’s mind the whole time because it’s what guides and shapes the film.

The Events

Events

This, confusingly, might also called “the plot.” It is essentially the series of obstacles, interactions, beats, moments and resolutions that make up the backbone of the story. These are normally the things beginners and non-storytellers focus on when trying to tell a story- but strangely, on their own, the events really don’t hold much of the audience’s attention (as anyone who’s listened to pub anecdotes can tell you). Much of this is because although they advance the story by providing constant changes in scenery and situation, they don’t emotionally engage audiences- that role falls to characters. The Events are a vehicle for everything else and without them, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

A certain amount of interest and drama can be created in the way and order the events are revealed- such as flashbacks or the ever-popular non-linear, out-of-order structure. But doing so in isolation just becomes a puzzle the audience has little interest in solving.

The Characters

Characters

The characters provide the connection between the audience and the rest of the story. They need to be appealing and/or interesting and, particularly for the protagonists, somewhat relatable. Primary characters need an arc and it’s this course of development and change that contributes to the core story. Secondary characters can get away with little to no development, but it’s still best to have some growth otherwise they lose some of their believability.

Audiences engage with characters, either because they relate to them in some way or because they have some appeal which keeps them interesting. Remember “appeal” doesn’t mean “like” it just means they are interesting to watch. Some of the most appealing movie characters in history are thoroughly unlikeable as people (bad guys are a great example of this), but engaging enough on screen to carry a film or their plot threads.

The World

World

The World is what surrounds the characters and provides the backdrop for the events. It’s obvious how important this is in a scifi or fantasy movie, where the world has to be created from scratch, but it’s equally important in more contemporary, realistic settings. For instance, both The Avengers and Cloverfield are action films set in contemporary, post-9/11 New York, but the worlds and their rules are completely different.

The World is where the rules are set and the other story elements are given context. By developing the world, you are adding depth and believability to the story, making the setting almost like another character in the film. And just like the characters, the audience needs to relate to it and or find it appealing. Is your world a worthwhile place to spend the next 90mins or so?

All events in the story should either come from the actions of the characters or the machinations of the world around them, so neglecting this aspect can seriously impact plot progression as well.

To see how all this comes together, let’s look at a film that most people have seen and are familiar with since it’s a cornerstone of our culture…

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

No, not really. That heap of self-aware cinematic dog shit is more the kidney stone of our culture. Let’s look at Star Wars. The first one, not the less-than-stellar prequels.

Nostalgia aside, Star Wars is hardly a well-directed piece of cinema. But it is a well-constructed story and much of that is down to the balance between the events, characters, world and the big picture.

Star Wars was intentionally designed as a classic hero’s journey, based on the works of Joseph Campbell and his “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This makes its Big Picture fairly easy to adhere to- naive youth gets pulled into a greater conflict by a wise old man, learns to be a warrior and ultimately defeats the great evil. The fundamental themes are good and evil, heroism and coming-of-age. If there is any subtext or parallels, it’s with classic stories of heroism, knights of the round table, samurai etc Essentially, it’s a fairy tale set in space.

The characters are also atypical of that source material. Luke is a naive farm boy who dreams of more and over the course of the story, he becomes a Jedi knight like his father (or at least starts to in the first film) and ultimately saves the day with his ability to fire proton torpedoes down thermal exhaust ports. As the protagonist, it’s him we follow and see grow the most. In the beginning, he’s uncertain and doesn’t want to disappoint his uncle. He also lacks self-belief, thinking that he’s not capable of doing anything to help the rebellion. By the end of the movie, he’s saved the princess, signed up to pilot an x-wing and even learnt to turn off the targeting computer and trust the force. It’s essentially a scifi reworking of the warrior’s journey.

Other characters also have arcs- Han Solo goes from being self-centred to helping the rebellion at the 59th minute and Leia learns to trust and respect lower-class heroes like Luke and Han. The other characters are somewhat static in their development, even if they do provide backstory reveals like Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Events are quite varied and fast moving. The first third of the movie follows the droids in their mission to deliver Leia’s message, the middle is Luke and Han’s attempt to rescue Leia and the final third is the assault on the Death Star. For the most part, each plot event is driven forward by the macguffin of the Death Star plans, who has them, who wants them and what they’ll be used for. Very few scenes are truly superfluous. Locations vary too, just to keep things interesting- from sterile space craft to desert planets, old ruins with hidden bases to the cobbled-together environs of the Millennium Falcon.

The World is where Star Wars really comes into its own. Aside from all the various planets and aliens seen or hinted at, there is all the implied history of the empire and the rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith. There are referred-to characters like Luke’s father, Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, alien languages (that frequently don’t get fully translated) and all manner of backstory (thanks to Lucas going a bit nuts on his yellow note paper). It helps that the effects were good enough to be able to put all this stuff on screen and make the world feel rich, believable and interesting.

So that’s my take on what makes a story work, the four story elements of character, event, world and the big picture. In my experience it seems to do the trick and at the very least gives me as a director something to work with throughout production.

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Shooting “Bless of an Angel” Part 2

April 10, 2014

Note: I wrote this one a while ago, but because I’m generally crap at this, never bothered posting it. But since time is moving on and this post might soon cease to be relevant, I thought I should put it up asap. Really long post, this one, so strap yourself in…

Shokamo CD Cover Art v1

A few weeks ago, we wrapped on the “Bless of an Angel” music video shoot. As I write this, the final cut of the video is doing the rounds on YouTube and we seem to be getting good feedback on it, which pleases me because of how much time and effort everyone put into it. I’ll probably write another post on the editing process, but for now I thought I’d write about the shoot itself and the decisions leading up to it.

For those who don’t know, “Bless of an Angel” was inspired by the story of a lady called Heya who, despite slowly dying from cancer, was determined to help a young struggling musician get his career off the ground. JP was deeply affected by her story and wrote the song as a tribute to her to be played at her funeral. After he put on his website, fans reacted very positively to it, so he decided to go the whole hog and record it professionally and do a music video for it.

I took on the project because I wanted to get some music video directing credits and this seemed perfect for me. A cinematic music video with dramatic story sequences and the chance of good exposure? It ticked all my boxes, save the one about lots of money and free pizza.

The original idea for the video wasn’t that different from what we ended up shooting. JP didn’t want the video to be about him- like the song, he wanted it to be about Heya and the story- so we concentrated on a narrative that would capture the main points and convey them visually and simply. This is harder than it sounds. Even visual films need some kind of set up or exposition to convey complex ideas, but without dialogue or any significant screen time to try and get this across, the story needed to be distilled into things that could be communicated simply. Emotions, simple ideas and cues were ideal. Complex relationships and back-stories were going to be nearly impossible. I also didn’t want to just create a literal re-telling of Heya’s story. Even if I’d wanted to, conveying the relationship she had with the struggling musician she was trying to help and all the backstory that goes with it was going to be impossible to get across visually. So I chose to focus on the things I felt would work for any audience, whether they knew Heya or not- a story about a woman who’s dying of cancer, trying to do good deeds with her final times because she has a selfless goal she’s working towards.

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

The deathbed bookend structure with the flashback in the middle was there from the beginning, but originally our character (who I’d called Mai to make things easier and less legally-problematic) was going to be in a hospital ward where she would have an out-of-body experience upon death which would lead into the flashbacks. Aside from the tricky effects shots required to get two Mais in one dolly shot (very tricky if you don’t have motion control or match work equipment) and the difficulty of getting a hospital location (actually not as difficult as you’d think, just expensive), the big problem with this was that it just wasn’t emotionally fulfilling. Mai would come back from her flashback, realise her job was done and let herself go, leaving with JP (who in this version was some kind of guardian angel) into the light. While that worked from a character arc point of view, it left Luke (the husband character) without any closure and gave JP a role which didn’t really fit his image as a metal musician.

There were also issues with what her good deeds would be. She would be helping her neighbours, the elderly caretaker in her apartment building, a music student, her husband… but none of it really worked. Some of it was also going to be difficult to convey visually because there needed to be some form of exposition. It also added to our cast list, which was getting a bit too big for the budget we had.

So I stripped the story down to its essentials. Mai would be at home on her deathbed rather than in hospital which would help establish her better as well as her husband and the situation. Cut to flashbacks, in which we’d see her finding out that she has cancer, trying to not let it affect her life and continuing to teach her student so she could get accepted into a prestigious music school. We see that this is the thing she’s pushing for and trying to achieve before she goes. I also decided to give a bit of screen time to the husband character, show how she is unintentionally pushing him away because she’s so driven and how this affects him. I felt these were the things that would come across visually and through the actors’ performances (although I had to stretch realism a little by having her find out about her cancer via a somewhat impersonal hospital letter- no dialogue and no access to a doctor’s office remember?).

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

All this would be for bugger all though if the story didn’t fit with the music- not just rhythmically (which most videos try to do in the editing) but also with the lyrics. The performances are dramatic and have no dialogue so the lyrics become more important in the video than they would if it were just a musician performance piece because the audience will focus more on them as a substitute for dialogue or voice over. Fortunately, JP likes to tell a story with his songs rather than just say words that fit the music, which meant that all the lyrics were pertinent to the story and the characters but this also gave me the chance to tie certain parts of the video to certain lyrics. For example, the lyric “she knows that she is running out of time” was matched to the sequence where Mai first discovers the extent of her illness by coughing up a little blood.

This was done by using a timing script- something used a lot in broadcast TV and live studio work. Unlike a normally formatted script which has scene headings, stage directions, dialogue blocks and, if you’re a really dictatorial tosspot of a screenwriter, transition and camera cues, a timing script will separate the audio and the visual elements into two columns with a runtime down the margin. It’s so that the studio can check their show timings with what the performers are saying and what the pictures are. For “Bless of an Angel” this was the audio runtime and song lyrics matched to the story and shot elements in the other column. It helped me break down what shots were going to be needed where to tell the story properly, as well as give me an idea how long theses sequences need to be.

The rest of the video was JP’s performance segments, the shooting of which I mentioned in a previous post, just to show the face behind the song and allow for visual and tonal contrast with the story scenes. I kept them mainly to the chorus and bridge sections, partly because that’s where I felt they worked best, but also because it allowed the story segments to flow easier and more naturally in the verses if they weren’t intercut with JP singing.

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These performance shots were filmed back in October at Readipop and we intended to shoot the dramatic parts in November/December. Due to all manner of scheduling issues and other practical things, however, we wouldn’t get everyone in the same place at the same time til three months later. In that time, both lead roles were recast, a new make-up artist was found and there was a lot of panic to find supporting artists for the roles of Student and Doctor (the latter of which eventually wound up being me and so found it’s way to the cutting room floor before we even got to the cutting room!). Fortunately, we found a new lead in the lovely Yvonne Wan and a new male lead in the always awesome Robin March, which made me exit panic mode and slip back into my directing hat.

It was a good shoot.

In fact, it was the most relaxed shoot I’ve ever been on. I’m used to being on a very tight schedule, making compromises and having to rush. For example, the Persona shoots were twenty minute projects that were shot in two days. Two long, fast-paced, headless chicken-like days. But this was a four minute music video and although we were technically shooting a drama, we didn’t need to worry about dialogue or even coverage, since the narrative sequences had a specific method of assembly and there was little wiggle room for editing options.

Emily the AD and I were constantly checking to see how we were doing compared to the schedule and each time it surprised us when we realised we were on or ahead of time and we had plenty of room to fine-tune lighting and performances.

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

This was where our DoP, Ashley Duckerin, really pulled it out of the bag. I mentioned before how tightly storyboarded the project was. Well, Ashley managed to take those storyboards and make them alive and in colour. We shot the video on a Canon 5D mkIII and the full-frame sensor, while not ideal for most shooting situations, was great for this one- the wafer thin depth of field helped create the slightly oneiric feel and emotional focus we were after. We shot in a CinemaScope aspect ratio as well- Ashley’s recommendation- to add to the cinematic feel and composition and used the Technicolor flat profile, partly so we had some flexibility in post but also because I didn’t have a clear vision on the sort of grade I was looking for.

I don’t have much experience with grading and while I know what I want to see, hear and feel from a film, the alchemy of the grading process somewhat eludes me. The great thing about shooting flat though is that, to an extent, you’re not tied all that much to a specific look if you get things right on set. Knowing that this was going to be the post-production path, I made sure to control the production design on set- white bed-linen, costumes weren’t too bold or bright, subtle hues, mainly cool blues and earth tones (since I thought that might be a possible look for the bedroom scenes).

Yvonne, Katrina, Ashley and I go through the piano scene.

Yvonne, Katrina, Ashley and I go through the piano scene.

Everyone did a sterling job- the actors especially. Yvonne and Robin had to pull off the difficult task of acting and establishing a relationship without the luxury of dialogue, or rehearsal come to think of it, and Katrina had to jump in at the last minute as a piano student! I think it’s the actors that really sell the video- the story and the characters are engaging and that’s the thing the audience respond to. Certainly, much of the feedback we’ve been getting is how emotional the video is, how it makes you cry- and I’m all about provoking an emotional response in an audience, tears, laughter, that sort of thing so this is good feedback for me.

I’m hoping that this is the first of many collaborations with JP and the first of many more dramatic music videos. I think I’ve found something good here, a high quality niche that not only allows me to do what I know and what I’m good at, but also gives me the necessary credits to move my career up a notch.

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Storyboarding “Bless of an Angel”

February 2, 2014

I’ve been storyboarding again!

I’ve mentioned before how useful I find storyboarding. That it makes you think about your story visually and through editing. That it’s like a first pass at making your film. Yeah, it takes ages to do and you frequently find yourself cutting illustrative corners (the end scenes of so many of my flicks were boarded with rough, wireframe-like sketches), but the level of preparation it gives you and the opportunities to try things out in relatively cost-free safety is invaluable.

I’ve also discussed how I’ve gone through a variety of approaches over the years- lots of little frames to a page, three to a page, one big image over a sheet of A4, hand-drawn, photoshopped, drawn in pencil, drawn in ink, designed like animation elements so you could create an animatic… But now I have a new way. And in my opinion, the best way to storyboard.

On an iPad.

Now, I’m not an Apple fanboy. Very rarely does something come out of Cupertino and give me a hard on (although the new mac pro does raise the pulse a little) but I tend to adopt a “best tool for the job” attitude for the most part. I do use macs exclusively and have done for over a decade, I edit on Final Cut Pro (including the new, marmite-like prodigal son FCPX) and 18 months ago, I bought an iPad. Why? Shits and giggles I guess… But I soon realised that by using a stylus and a half decent drawing app, this stalwart of the gadget freak and clueless pensioner alike would become a very useful storyboarding tool.

When I first blogged about this I was using an app called Penultimate to draw storyboards with and described it as “a hipster MS Paint” because of its retardedly basic controls, limited options and moleskine-esque notebook stylings. You couldn’t zoom, shading was impossible and, like those small boxes of crayons you used to get bundled with colouring books, you only got about five colours to work with (and one of them was “rancid yellow”). But it got the job done and I could export the images to the camera roll where other apps like Celtx Shots could import it.

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Concept art drawn in Sketchbook Pro

However, I soon found that there were better options for drawing on an iPad. Sketchbook Pro was the first I tried and with its varied toolsets and photoshop-like layers, was actually a very good app. You could actually zoom in (as opposed to the frankly pitiful magnifier loupe thing the Paper app promotes as a better alternative), you had a pencil tool that actually looked and “felt” like a pencil tool and you could export the full file, layers and all, to something like Photoshop if desired. Downside? It was optimised for the weird dimensions of the retina display, meaning that if I wanted to export and print anything, I’d end up with a large chunk of space on A4 paper and possibly some scaling artefacts. I also couldn’t import images from elsewhere, like storyboard templates, and draw over the top of them- which meant I had to draw the bloody frames in the app itself. Not ideal, but then, this is a drawing app not a storyboard drawing app so I can’t be too harsh.

My current app of choice for drawing storyboards (and anything else for that matter) is Procreate. Unintentionally hilarious names aside, this app has all the functions I need as a storyboard artist. There’s a setting for A4- which means I can print the images properly and at the right resolution. You can import images too, which means I finally get that storyboard template I want and since its A4, I can fit the right number of frames on it. The pencil looks like a pencil, the pencil shaders feel like pencil shaders… The whole app seems geared towards artists being able to create the sort of work they could if they had paper, pencils, paint and other things beginning with P.

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Using Procreate and the Cosmonaut Stylus

Anyway, I’ve been using it to storyboard the music video for “Bless of an Angel.” Being a dramatic music video with actors and performances and visual storytelling means that storyboards are a necessity. Particularly since I’m not the one operating the camera, so it’s a great communication tool for me and Ashley, the DoP. It’ll also help when Emily and I start putting together the schedule because we can work out the set-ups based on position and lens used. Actors like to see storyboards as well- in my experience because it gives them confidence in the script and in you the director. Like everyone, they get to see how the film will look (or more accurately, how it could look!) and their role in bringing it to life.

I’m lucky enough to be able to draw well enough that there’s little distance between what I see in my head and what ends up on the page (or in this case, screen). But storyboards don’t have to be elaborate, detailed or pieces of fine art (although if you’re trying to impress cast, crew or investors, that might be wise…), they just need to tell the story and show your vision of the film. Just like the script, they’re not blueprints. They’re a starting point, a way of exploring what the film could be and a way of communicating that to everyone else.

And I’m only about halfway through them, so I really must get back to doodling…