Archive for the ‘Low Budget Filmmaking’ Category

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

January 22, 2018
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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.

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

Early last year I spotted a directing job on mandy.com, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shooting “Bless of an Angel” Part 1

October 20, 2013

I’ve had a few career knocks recently and got a little depressed (hence no blog posts for a while), so I was going to write a something on dealing with failure and beating yourself up. You know, positive stuff…

But then we started work properly on this Bless of an Angel music video and I started to cheer up a bit, so I’ll postpone the borderline-depressing quasi-pep talk in place of a “behind the scenes” type post because people seemed to like the last one on shooting The Papers’ video.

Shokamo, doing what he does best.

Shokamo, doing what he does best.

Bless of an Angel is an acoustic rock ballad by local musician Shokamo. The track’s somewhat different from his usual rock/metal oeuvre but his fans have really taken to it and because of the story and awareness-raising behind the song, he wanted to do a video for it. The song’s about a friend of his who died of cancer and the good work she was trying to achieve with her last days. Being a drama director, I saw the story in the song and felt that an emotionally charged, dramatic take with actors and actual performances would be a good fit. I also felt it would be a good project career-wise because I need music video credits and this one would play more to my drama strengths.

We’re still in the planning stages for much of the video (finding actors and locations etc) but there’s one thing we decided to shoot and get in the can early- footage of Shokamo performing the song. Most music videos have several threads, whether they be attempting to tell a story or just bombard the viewer with images, and each thread is usually visually or contextually distinct. One that’s common to many videos is the musician performing the track in isolation. It could be in a dark room, on a rooftop, a white studio or a vocal booth… the location varies, but the purpose is the same. So you can cut back to this footage at any point in the edit for pacing, emphasis, cutaway or variety. It also serves to create or reinforce the musician’s identity and persona, which is the cornerstone of most music marketing.

DSC00245For Shokamo, this proved an interesting question. Being as this was his first video and thus the first real visual expression of his look and persona, the choices made for wardrobe and styling were going to set a foundation for his inaugural image. There was a lot of talk about how much “metal” to how much “rock” he should look, how much black should be worn, long hair down or tied back… In the end, we decided on something simple and honest- black shirt, blue jeans and ponytail. After all, Shok wanted this video to be about the story and the music rather than his image and it didn’t feel right to upstage that with something from Gene Simmons’ wardrobe.

That “keep it simple, keep it honest” vibe came through with the location as well. We wanted something neutral, nondescript and almost monochrome, contrasting somewhat with the subdued, clinical colours we were going to use in the dramatic parts of the video. Shok suggested a recording studio, like you’d see on many of the charity singles produced in the 80s, and we booked a couple of hours at Readipop Studios.

I’d been to Readipop Studios before when it was Plug n Play and shot some live gig videos there and remembered that much of the place was black-walled like a lot of indie music venues. This suited my purposes perfectly because it meant I could run with a high contrast look, use high key lighting if desired and isolate Shok in the frame. Shok told me about me an image he liked of Clint Eastwood, edge lit. I knew we were on the same page!

It was peeing with rain when we rocked up at Readipop on Monday. Shok had booked the main stage as a location and I saw that as a chance to use some strong low angle shots. The stage and the room was painted all-black and had a drum kit, monitors and mics on it, so the need for extra set-dressing was minimal. The lass who worked there, Sue, said we could use the stage lighting grid, but for the look I was aiming for, a simpler set-up would be best. I put one LED panel on the stage to hit Shok with a strong edge/key light, slightly diffused and dimmed a little. Another went on the floor at the front of the stage off to one side, providing a softer fill on Shok’s face. I used a third, smaller panel, fitted with a CTB hard filter, behind and below Shok to give a bit of blue-ish backlight on his shoulders and hair. Aside from the necessity of this to separate him from the black background, it provided a soft flare from certain angles which I found quite pleasing. I’m not normally a fan of lens flares (and I wish JJ Abrams would just give it a rest, to be honest!), but in a dark environment where there’s little parallax effect on camera moves, this flare would add a little interest to some shots.

Speaking of camera moves, as with The Papers’ Pikachu video, I decided to get a bit of dolly action in there. And for the first time in ages, I could do a shot that used the whole length of track I have- works out as about a 16′ move. As with Pikachu, I primarily used this as a reframing technique, going from stage left to stage right and back again for certain bits of the song. I did, however, do a few shots timed so the whole move was used- usually over certain bars in the chorus. Hopefully, I’ll find a way to use one in the final edit. Once or twice, I found the dolly mount sliding off the end of the track (the joys of one-man-band-ing this shoot!) but found a suitably low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking solution.

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After the wide dolly shots, I moved in for close-ups and tried a few moves there as well. In close-ups the tracking movement didn’t work so well, so in the end I stuck with statics. I also tweaked the lighting a bit so I got a more dramatic balance- if this were a drama it would jar a bit if I cut from wide to close, but being a music video has its advantages in this regard, not least of all that there is likely to be other footage intercut with it.

My favourite shot of the day was “the Clint Eastwood shot” as Shok and I referred to it. I put the tripod on the stage, framing Shok in a close profile. I cheated the vocal mic position so the LED panel wasn’t visible and aimed it for a strong edge light on his face and the mic. I also tweaked the backlight to just catch his far shoulder and let the other side fall off to black. The other panel was dimmed to a very soft fill. Et voila!

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So why use the fill when I knew I really just wanted the edge? So I had more options basically. In the past, I always aimed to get the shot and look I wanted in camera (and for a lot of things, I still do), but in order to create the sort of look audiences expect now, you need to be able to grade the footage. If I’m honest, I know very little about grading, but I have seen less-skilled cinematography saved/enhanced by judicious filter-work and have had my own work disparaged because it didn’t resemble this look (more on that in a future post), so I figured I had to learn to use these tools properly. With any luck, the fact I know how to light stuff reasonably well will separate me from the “amateur hour magic bullet preset” brigade. But anyway, for grading you need to keep as much visual information as you can. My camera doesn’t have a log or wide dynamic range mode so I can’t shoot flat or near to it. But I can give myself a bit of wiggle room by lighting with decent exposure, hence the fill lighting.

The dramatic sequences on the video will be shot on a better, more cinematic camera and by a dedicated DoP because I want the video to look the best it can and the only way that’s going to happen is if I hire someone better than me as the cinematographer. It also means that I can concentrate more on the actors and the performances and worry less about the camera and lighting gear.

Two one-man-bands and one funky hat.

Two one-man-bands and one funky hat.

I think this surprised Shok a bit when I mentioned getting a DoP in, since I am capable of operating camera and lighting a scene, but in the end it’s about creating the best video we can with the resources we have available. If we can pull out all the stops, not only will we have a better video, but we’ll all look the better for it. And so much is riding on this video being good- the level of awareness we can do for the charity (The Love, Hope and Strength Foundation), Shok and my careers and reputations, those who knew Shok’s friend Heya who the song is about and the expectations of all the people that have believed in the project and donated money to the FundRazr page to get this off the ground.

We need this to be good.

And as I started to look back over some of the footage, even though I can’t really edit it together yet, I see things I like. I see potential. And that cheers me up and drags me out of the low point I’ve been sinking in for a little while.

So at the very least, this project’s achieved that!

Shok and myself with two of the guys from Readipop.

Shok and myself with two of the guys from Readipop.

If you want to help with the Bless of an Angel project, follow Shokamo on Facebook, download the track on his ReverbNation page or donate to the FundRazr. Every little helps and all proceeds from the video go to charity.

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Shoddy Blueprints, Shoddy House.

February 25, 2013

In my last post I pointed out that I wasn’t much of a writer, so this post might come off as the words of a hypocrite… but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll voice my ill-informed opinions if I want to. Disclaimer over and here’s my issue…

Why are so many scripts shit?

I’m not talking about Hollywood movies- we all know that the industrial movie machine takes its toll on talent and creativity and effectively rapes scripts of them both- I’m talking about the sort of scripts kicking about at this end of the filmmaking world. Scripts that haven’t had a producer/studio/investor altering, diluting, genericising (is that even a word?) and adding more explosions/effects/celebrities/boobs to the film to make it more “commercial.” No, these are scripts by relatively new writers looking to get them made by equally new directors. Like me.

Over the last year I’ve been putting myself forwards for a lot of directing gigs- after all, it’s one thing to direct your own project and another to be hired by someone else. Most of these projects are unpaid but the networking and exposure possibilities are worth it. I’ve been offered a number of these jobs but, for me, they’ve always fallen flat at the first hurdle- once they’ve sent me the script.

Gaston

One of the first examples of this was a short film about an elderly guy who argues with his wife. The dialogue was stilted (but that’s not usually a deal-breaker since you and the actors will adjust that before you film anything anyway) and the film began with one of my pet peeves- the old “guy wakes up and we see his morning routine” bollocks. I hate that- unless routine is key to the story, theme or character, don’t open a story with it. It only goes to show you have little to no imagination as to how to show or infer character through interaction or design. It’s the film equivalent of a large, chunky paragraph on page one of a novel telling you everything you need to know about the main character. It’s shit. But shitty beginnings aside, the script’s big flaw came at the end. While witnessing their long-suffering domestic friction, we see the old boy assembling a noose and stool in the garage. You think he’s going to top himself, but at the end of the 4 page script the wife comes in, he gets her to stand on the stool to change the lightbulb and then kills her with the noose. As he steps outside, smiling, he gets a phone call from someone congratulating him on his retirement. That’s it. The end. I mean, what the fuck? I mean, okay the twist works, but what exactly was the point in all this? It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was attempting the perfect crime and we had several scenes setting up an alibi and him insinuating to third parties that she was suicidal- so that when he kills her he’s made it look like she did it herself. But we didn’t. We just got a bullshit twist with no real purpose behind it.

I had another script sent to me- again involving an elderly character and ironic, twisty murder (someone on twitter must’ve said that festivals were looking for that sort of shit and a bunch of writers listened and eagerly started typing…). Old lady is wary of strangers and is being plagued by random door-knockings at tea-time every day. She gets so paranoid that after no less than six of these repetitive occurrences (all of which the audience are needlessly subjected to seeing throughout the first five minutes of a seven minute film), she waits at the door with a shotgun and shoots the caller the next time. When she inspects the teenager’s body she finds a note from her daughter telling the teen to call on his grandma- which the twist implies is our little old dear. So in her fear (and probable senility) she murdered her grandson. Now again, aside from the structural banality of having to sit through essentially the same mundane knock-knock-noone’s-there action again and again for over half the film’s runtime and the unsound internal logic (why would you knock and run if you were visiting your gran?), you also have to deal with an ending that only exists to create a shock twist. It’s not satisfying or poignant or clever or important. It’s just there to prove that what the writer writeth he can taketh away… which is like a DoP using 28 lights in a simple interior scene because he fucking well can!

Cartman

I’m not going to list all the scripts that tumbled with ill-deserved optimism into my inbox, but there’re a few more worth mentioning. And they’re all comedies. Well, they would be… if they satisfied the single simple premise of comedy and were actually funny…

I know comedy is very subjective and what makes one person piss their pants with laughter will make another shit themselves out of unbridled boredom but I think that even if the brand of comedy isn’t your thing, you’re usually able to recognise that it is meant to be funny and that someone else will laugh at it. I struggled with these scripts- a sitcom set in a leisure centre where the writer’s favourite character had all the (supposedly) funny lines and everyone else was pure cardboard and a sketch show predicated around the idea that if you repeat an unfunny joke in several sketches it somehow magically becomes funny- and because the writers were the producers/employers and wouldn’t want to change the script, I had to decline the job.

I suppose that’s the bit that really bugs me. That I had to turn down a job because I didn’t think the script was good enough. No matter what I did, I was tied to the page in front of me and the end result would be, in my opinion at least, sub-par. And if I’m not being paid for it, why would I put out sub-par work? It’ll only make me look bad.

Am I being picky? Or am I expecting too much from writers who are at a similar stage in their career as I am in mine? I mean, I’m relatively inexperienced and don’t have any real professional broadcast or feature credits. I make mistakes all the time- it’s how I learn, how we all learn. Surely writers should be allowed to make mistakes at the same level? And, yes, they should. Yet still it bugs me because my mistakes as a director are frequently filtered through the rest of the cast and crew and its usually only the editor (which is often me anyway) who has to deal with them. A writer’s mistakes affect everything after that last full stop is typed. If the character is written badly, the actor will perform it badly and/or the director will direct it badly. If the structure is poor the whole film is unsteady and even the most talented of editors might struggle to fix such a thing. In all cases, the error will find its way to the audience and blame will often fall on the director and rightfully so because they are the ombudsman for the audience. While I don’t agree entirely with the analogy that the script is a blueprint, the basic premise holds- if the blueprint isn’t well-designed or thought out, the house will likely collapse.

"Don't worry, it's meant to look like that..."

“Don’t worry, it’s meant to look like that, honest…”

Additionally, some writers are precious about their scripts and hate it when directors change things. I can understand that- the script being their creation and them assumedly putting energy and hours of work into it. But the script is there to be made- it’s only the first iteration of the story and one an audience won’t see unless they scour the internet for it. Just as every parent must eventually come to terms with the idea that their children will grow up and you can’t keep them as kids indefinitely (unless they’re Michael Jackson), every serious screenwriter has to realise that a script will inevitably change when it goes through the puberty of a film adaptation.

All that aside, it just means that I’m currently turning down projects because the scripts are either not a good enough starting point or are impractical to work with. Shame I don’t have a prolific and flexible writer living nearby anymore, otherwise I’d probably have a lot more completed projects under my belt…

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A Short-ish Review of the Year that Was…

January 8, 2013

Yep, this is a recap post, but since 2012 was as eventful as a mormon’s party planner it hopefully won’t be a stupidly long one!

Meghann and Conor in "Eliza's Persona"

Meghann and Conor in “Eliza’s Persona”

2012 started extremely well with me landing my first gig where someone hired me for my directing ability. This is a landmark moment in a director’s early career and I threw a lot of myself into it. The project was Persona– a soap designed exclusively to stream from a smartphone or tablet app- and it was a chance to direct dramatic material that didn’t have a sci-fi element. It also meant that I was able to work with other skilled crew members such as DoP Phil Moreton, AD Emily Turton and AC Murat Akyildiz. The film looked and great as a result. I was challenged by the show’s producer, Don Allen, to come up with a story with a current events angle so I created one about a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and how it affects his non-military life. The script was written by the talented Martyn Deakin and the three principal actors- Meghann Marty, Conor Kennedy and Jake Ferretti- really bought it to life. To date, “Eliza’s Persona” has had a very positive response from audiences which is testament to the work of everyone involved and it’s probably the directing work I’m most proud of.

DSC_0234

In April, almost immediately after we’d wrapped on Persona, I was hired to direct the dramatic sequences in a promo video for Snowdance acting classes. The client had arranged for a DoP for me, but it was only when I got to set that I realised that he had limited knowledge of cinematography and lighting… and a Canon 5D mkII. Since he was happy to defer to me, I ended up lighting and operating (with a camera I didn’t know very well) as well as directing in locations that were too modern and austere for the piece. The end result was a mixed bag visually and performances varied from great to stilted- the two actors were excellent given the short scene they had, but the presenter wasn’t confident in his delivery and got too caught up on the exactness of the lines rather than what he was actually saying. I also got roped into editing it- something I wanted to avoid- although it did give me a chance to edit a whole piece in FCPX rather than just bits. Jury’s still out on whether I like the new software or not.

One of the pluses to the gig was I got to meet scriptwriter Ellie Ball– a talented Scottish writer with a sharp wit- and in May/June I asked her to write some viral comedy scripts for me for Enborne River. I decided to make Enborne River specialise in drama, since that was where my track record was, but realised that selling virals was hard when you didn’t have one yourself! She wrote a series of short scripts for me… and I’ve yet to film them due to location issues, so that really needs to be pushed through this year!

Robin March and Sally Rowe, "Jason's Persona"

Robin March and Sally Rowe, “Jason’s Persona”

I was asked to do a second story for Persona and after a series of increasingly contradictory criteria from the production team, writer Keith Storrier and I created Jason’s Persona– a story about a frustrated office worker who finds a new lease of life as a stand up comedian. I was inspired by the story of real-life comic John Bishop, who kept his new career a secret from his mid-divorce wife but reconciled with her when she unexpectedly saw him perform on stage and fell in love with him all over again. For me, that reconciliation and re-falling in love were the real hooks of the story and while we had practical limitations on the shoot getting that scene to work, audience feedback has been very good regarding that payoff.

The Jason’s Persona shoot also almost cost me my day job- that necessary evil that keeps my bank placated- and while I didn’t get fired it did change my attitude to it. I realised that the job was taking up too much of my energy, time and mental real estate. I didn’t have any downtime because I was trying to live two lives (9-to-5-er and director) and cram both (and sleep) into the 168 hours a week allows. I’ve realised this was untenable and have some tricky decisions to make in the coming months regarding the day job. Do I stay, do I go or do I cut down my hours? It might be the most important career decision I ever make…

Mid-summer, I started working with Phill Barron– the lead writer/ script editor on Persona- on a low budget feature. We wanted something time-travelly and over the next few months thrashed out a few treatments, only to put the idea on hold when the plots were getting away from themselves. This too, needs to be resurrected in 2013.

"Bitter Parents" Robin March and Jo Hughes

“Bitter Parents” Robin March and Jo Hughes

I got offered a gig directing a comedy sketch for the Cold Cuts comedy group called “Bitter Parents.” It was pretty much a one-extended-joke scene but it was going to add a bit of comedy to my otherwise drama and scifi-heavy showreel. Due to the difficulties in securing the location, extras and the child performer, the scene didn’t get lensed til November and over the course of two sunday mornings- meaning actors weren’t all in the same place at the same time. Miraculously, it seems to have come out okay though.

In an effort to get a new short film off the ground (and then get some festival exposure) I started looking at all the old scripts I have floating about. A couple of old The Collector’s Room scripts looked like they could work with a bit of a rewrite. I asked TCR’s co-creator and writer, Luke, if he’d do a rewrite on them, but it seems he’s given up screenwriting because I’ve heard nothing more from him. Collaboration is always a problem in this industry which is why it’s worth having some degree of skill in all areas- if necessary, you could do the job yourself! Sadly, I’m not the greatest writer and my rewrite is still at treatment stage. I need to find a local collaborator to write with or else so many projects will go unmade.

Another script that is undergoing the rewrite treatment is a noir-esque action movie. The idea had been in script limbo on my old mac for years, but it was a renewed interest in action movies that prompted me to dig it out, dust it off and start reworking it. If all goes well, I should be shooting my own John Woo-esque gunplay action short in the first half of 2013. Hollywood will beckon!

October was a bit of a bump in the road in my personal life- my Dad passed away at the early age of 60. Quick and painless for him, complete surprise for us. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, how short time can be and rather than make me lower my expectations, instead it’s made me determined to get my career going. Just a belief in yourself isn’t enough- you have to strive for it and take risks if necessary. I’ve started to realise that and have some brave choices to make in 2013 if I want this to happen.

MiMedia

At the tail end of the year my illustrator friend, Mark Stroud and I got involved with fledgling media design group Mi-Media, headed by local entrepreneur Tony Charles. It sounds like a project that’s got legs and a good chance for giving me future work and so far, things have been going well. Hopefully in the next few weeks, the company will go live and we should start seeing the work roll in.

So that wraps up the mixed bag o’ shite that was 2012. Seems more happened than I thought since this post is anything but “short!” Some things got off to a fine start, but many crashed and burned before they got very far.

I think a concerted effort is needed if I’m to make 2013 the year 2012 was supposed to be.

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The “Karma Palace” Bar Scene Technique

November 26, 2012

There are lots of little skills that I’ve picked up over the years. One of which is unlikely to be taught at any film school because it’s not the accepted professional way of doing things. But it’s something that I find myself having to resort to again and again on low budget shoots.

Assembling a film is a giant jigsaw- if there are any pieces missing, the picture isn’t complete. Having said that, there’s only one correct way to assemble a jigsaw and a movie can be built in all manner of ways from whatever bits you have so I think the analogy isn’t altogether sound… Anyway, sometimes you have to know what your pieces are in order to make the picture. Because that way it doesn’t matter how or when you actually acquire them.

Yesterday I was shooting a comedy scene for a sketch show promo. Good little script, simple setup. Two parents sat in a restaurant with their 2yr old kid, some fast paced dialogue, reactions from the kid, few hours tops. Simple enough.

Only it wasn’t because we had a few problems…

We had the restaurant for a few hours but we had to be out before it opened at 11, no longer- not a major problem, but it did mean an early start. A friend had kindly provided his littl’un for the scene, but obviously, the longer we have him the more likely he’ll play up (the tyke, not my friend!) and bearing in mind that they say you shouldn’t work with kids or animals, there was always the chance he wouldn’t play ball at all. And one of the actors was coming in by train and because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t be with us til 9.30.

So I planned to do the kid’s “reaction” shots first- just let the camera roll and see what looks and gestures we can get. After a few minutes of a level one grizzle-fest, we started to get some usable reactions, playing with a toy car etc. He even took his dummy out and made some noises (writing his own dialogue!) so what we got was ultimately very good.

Since we still had some time before our male lead arrived, my next plan was to shoot our leading lady’s close up. We could do that without the kid or our other actor and get someone (probably me) to read the lines. This is the sort of thing a film school wouldn’t teach or even consider a likely option. In professional eyes, if there are three artists in the scene then they should all be on set at the same time. Which is fine if you can pay for everyone’s inconvenience, pay actors, crew and locations and shoot whatever group coverage is your whim. It’s probably obvious, but I can’t do most, if not all, of that. So I have to think from the edit backwards rather than from the coverage forwards.

Then we had another problem- our leading man’s train is late. A lot. Which means by the time he gets here, we’ll be out of the location and packing my car with kit. So the shoot has to be abandoned and rescheduled for next week when we won’t have jr anymore and will just be shooting the two shots, his close-up and finding a way to get an opening dolly move in there without seeing the kid yet showing that he’s present. That last one will be the challenge taxing my brain for the next few days, but none of this would be possible without an understanding of the various jigsaw pieces and the way they go together to make up the scene.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but Emily (my AD) and I have got pretty good at shooting things this way over the years. Not that it’s our first method of going about things, but it’s always nice to have a plan Z when plans A through Y have gone tits up like a pornstar on a trampoline. I like to call it the “Karma Palace Bar Scene” technique after the student film I directed where we had to employ such a technique in order to get a scene finished- a scene with three characters and two extras in a bar that, due to scheduling problems, had to be shot in bits over four shooting days (the wide shot is the only one where they were all present at the same time). When you watch the scene you can’t tell unless you’re really looking for such clues.

I’ve had to employ this little cheat on roughly half of the productions I’ve been involved in. Each time it’s given me and Em a minor headache and confused the hell out of the actors, but each time it cuts together well enough that an audience is unaware of the trickery involved.

And after all, isn’t that what filmmaking is? A trick?

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Location, Location, Location

October 12, 2012

If you’re working in the low budget arena, you frequently have issues getting stuff for cheap or free. Kit, production design, cast and crew… But for me, the biggest arse-ache of the moment is locations.

You rarely have the option of using a set on a budget of sweet Fanny Adams , so you have to find good/serviceable/not-shit locations for the ever-so-reasonable rate of nowt. Which can be tricky. Locations often have their own business to attend to- whether it be customers coming in or people living there- and frequently this means timing limits, noise problems or (worse still for the broke filmmaker) having to pay to film there. There are also some locations that are practically impossible to get without your chequebook because the location owners know how much they’re worth.

When I was at uni we were filming a short film in an Indian restaurant. We found one with a function room they’d let us film in and were happy for us to do so. For free, it seemed. Halfway through the shoot (we were there a week overall), the manager changed his mind and started talking money. You see, several years before, the restaurant had been used in a scene for the TV series “Soldier, Soldier” and as a result, he had been paid the standard rate for a half day location shoot. He knew we were students. He knew we had no money. He knew that the money he got from the TV production company that one time was more than four times the total budget of our little project. Yet he asked anyway because he knew his location was worth something.

I can’t really blame him. He wasn’t a filmmaker and no interest in the whole process. He ran a restaurant business. The use of his function room was becoming a business decision for him and thus he was looking for some reimbursement.

On the flip side of things, more recently we’ve been very lucky with locations. My friend Kelly let us film “Persona” in her house all weekend and The Gardner’s Arms in Emmer Green let us have their function room and bar for free all day. Neither had any real interest in filmmaking, both had no reason to give access to their places for larkin. But they did and we’re grateful and the shows look great as a result.

But I’ve got a few small shoots on the cards now that need locations. Some of which I’m having a real problem sourcing.

Maybe it’s me. I’ve never been very good at finding these places- in part because I tend to believe that people are going to be resistant to letting a small group of filmmakers traipse through their location, getting underfoot and making requests like turning off air-con or roping in customers/residents/workers as “background artists.”

Yet I also subscribe to the idea that if you don’t ask you don’t get. The old “the worst that could happen is they could say no” idea. Which is weird because I rarely actually act on said belief- like the teenager who fancies a girl but can’t even speak to her in case she turns him down.

(Actually, I think that might be more than just an analogy…)

(I think I’m going to go now and listen to some Coldplay, write terrible emo poetry and dwell on my own inadequacies. Nobody loves me etc etc…)