Archive for the ‘The Collector’s Room’ Category

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That Self-Improving Second Look

September 27, 2012

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

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

Kayleigh Lawrence in Ep 1 “The Last Serenade”

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

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

Directing Rebecca Hansell on Ep 3 “The Star”

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

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Directing Emotions

August 23, 2012

Being a director is all about emotions. Finding the emotional beats in the story, getting the actors to the right emotional place for the scene and iliciting the desired emotional response in the audience. These things are somewhat obvious. But there is another feelings-based element to consider- that of keeping on top of the emotional state of the cast and crew.

When you’re actually there on set, particularly on the low budget side of things, its easy to forget that everyone there has an investment in the film you’re making- whether it be doing good enough work to justify their day rates or wanting to creatively exel themselves. Cast and crew alike, they all have practical, creative, reputational and emotional concerns about this project- is this going to look good on their reel, could they be doing something better today, is the money worth it, will this be their big break, will they regret this? And every decision you make as a director changes their feelings on this shoot a little bit, giving them confidence or cause to worry.

Once you realise this and tap into it, your job as a director becomes at once more complicated but also so much easier. On the one hand, you now have one more thing to worry about- one more thing that has a high chance of destroying the shoot if mishandled. But on the other you have a way of keeping everyone happy, productive and creative- if only you notice the signs and play things intelligently.

To give a few examples…

Kayleigh Lawrence in “The Collector’s Room: The Last Serenade”

On one of the Collector’s Room shoots, I was working with a lovely actress called Kayleigh Lawrence. The script called for a scene where she had to wear a nightie and be ignored by her boyfriend played by Chris LeHec. Now this wasn’t an exploitative scene (it was more for character and comic effect) nor was it going to be shot in a titillating manner (it was a lying-down over-the-shoulder shot and some singles) but it was obviously a concern for her. I knew I needed to make her feel more comfortable but I also knew that if I made a big deal of this it could make her more insecure. So I asked some of my crew- the male half of my crew- to start setting up the next scene downstairs. This left only Kate the AD, Bethan the Producer and Lindsey the Make Up Artist in the room. Since I was my own DoP, I had Kate jump on audio and we shot the scene quickly and Kayleigh was put at ease. Reducing the number of (male) eyes in the room was obviously the easiest course of action, but if I had drawn attention to what I was doing and why, it would’ve made Kayleigh feel even more self-conscious and possibly made things difficult for her for the rest of the shoot. By sending the others out under the “pretence” of setting up the next scene, I not only made her feel better but also saved some time on the schedule!

Actors Robin March and Lily Beck larking about on the set of “Jason’s Persona”

More recently, on the Jason’s Persona shoot, we were filming in a pub function room. We had the pub to ourselves all day but we had a cubic fuckton of material to get lensed. To make matters worse, it was a very hot (for Britain anyway) summer day and we had blacked out the windows because we were filming day-for-night. We were quickly shooting some open-mic-night stand-up comedy sequences for one of the film’s scenes and we were having issues with where we could place the camera so we got a good close-up. I wanted to cheat Robin’s eyeline and place the camera further round so we got a more traditional 3/4 CU. David, the DoP, had the shot in near-profile and didn’t understand what I was getting at and why the current framing wouldn’t work. Obviously, neither did Robin or Lily, his co-star who was providing his eyeline. In fact, no one got what I was going on about- as far as they were all concerned I was being nitpicky and awkward when we were short on time and everyone was short on patience. Knowing that I had to strive for the right shot and knowing that if I pushed too far everyone would get pissed off, unhappy and less productive (working for free, remember) I asked David and Robin to humour me and told Emily my AD to call a break after this shot. Even though the ten minute break would set back the already back logged schedule, it was necessary for everyone to have a breather so the stress would be forgotten and good spirits bought back.

I’ve also seen things go the other way.

I was DoP-ing on a short film last year where the director was pretty inexperienced and didn’t really communicate well with the cast or crew. The leading lady wasn’t particularly confident in his directing so when he blocked her movements a certain way to set up his shot, she objected saying it felt wrong. In these situations, it’s all about knowing what you want. If you want a good performance and need the blocking to work a certain way, then you need to let the actor know you understand where they’re coming from, assure them that on camera the blocking will work better than it feels on set and between you try to find a playable direction that she can use to justify the blocking. I often get the actors to walk the blocking with the camera rolling and then show them the footage so they can see where I’m coming from. That way it builds mutual trust in each other’s skills an opinions and you start working together on the problem.

This guy didn’t.

In fact, he got very flustered and couldn’t explain or justify his thinking. The actress, sensing his loss of direction turned to what I call “actor’s self-preservation” where she decided the film didn’t matter anymore- only how she was going to look and how bearable the rest of the shoot was going to be. She flat out refused any direction, preferring to do it her way, made diva-like requests and at the end of the shoot demanded higher expenses than previously agreed. While all this was going on, the other actors and crew started to get restless- some saw her behaviour as holding up the shoot and some started to side with her. The director never recovered that situation or the shoot. The AD and I managed to get through the last few scenes but the performances from everyone suffered because of that single loss of goodwill. And as a post-note, the film has never been finished to my knowledge.

These incidents all go to prove that directing is a lot tougher than many filmmakers assume. For a lot of aspiring directors it’s about being in charge, telling your story and getting your own way when in fact, directing is usually about deferring to and filtering opinions and ideas, telling the story and often letting others think they’re getting their way while finding out what your way actually is.

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Prepare to be Boarded!

February 23, 2012

I love storyboarding.

I know a lot of directors hate it and feel like they’re forced into putting together storyboards, preferring instead to just shot-list things, but I find the whole process very useful. Maybe it’s because I can draw and the idea of scribbling a quick composition down doesn’t fill me with embarrassment like it does for others, where fear of opening themselves up for illustrational criticism takes them back to a school art class and a well-meaning but unenthused teacher telling them their unintentionally abstract drawing is “very nice.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been marking up the script for this Persona shoot and drawing storyboards for everything. Don, the Producer, has insisted on boards from all the directors on this season. But even if it wasn’t a requirement, I’d do them anyway because I find them extremely useful.

I’ve used storyboards almost since the beginning of my filmmaking career. Sometimes it’s just a single scene or a short sequence, sometimes it’s the whole film. Sometimes I use a wacom tablet and Photoshop but more often I get out the trusted pencil and start scribbling. I find it a productive way to plan my coverage for the edit, make sure I get the orientation and screen direction right and start to create a look and tone for the visuals. I also find that it helps my shoot-and-setup-logic and I often merge setups because of how similar the framings become. I’ve also developed several tricks for conveying camera movement, action progress and editing pacing- not that any of these “tricks” are groundbreaking or anything, but they work for me!

The Good, The Bad and The Undead was the first time I’d really storyboarded a whole film properly. Prior to this, I’d storyboarded scenes and sequences, but if something was simple I’d just scrawl down “CU Serena” or whatever and not even bother drawing it! GBU was different because I wasn’t directing it- the writer, Luke Owen, was. And because he lacked directing experience and was looking to me for the visual side of things, I took to storyboarding everything so we knew we were on the same page. I intended to do the whole lot in Photoshop with my newly-purchased Wacom tablet but after the opening shot (above) took over an hour to do, I quickly reverted to the trusty low-tech pencil and paper with inking over the top.

Note the scrawl to the side that also lists crosscut CUs as part of the coverage- simple shots that I couldn’t be bothered to draw! Nowadays I tend not to put so much detail into backgrounds and things. In fact, some frames are just loose skeletons with outlines and no details or facial expressions. And these can be on the same page as nicely detailed or textured frames. Depends a) how I feel and b) if I think the detail, shading or colour will add something and convey what I need it to.

When we made The Collector’s Room the other year, the storyboarding varied wildly. The Last Serenade, which I directed, was boarded almost the whole way through. I think I ran out of steam for the whole process by the time I got to the final scene, but every other scene has boards for it.

These are the sort of boards I do now. Scribbles where only the basic composition is needed, nicely drawn images for character moments and expressions, camera moves marked by start and end frames, floor plans and other inserts into the text area to the right…

Ultimately, I put this sort of effort into storyboards because I find it a great development process for the film to go through- it enables me to “make the film without making it” in a way and more importantly allows me to change my mind without any money or much time wasted. When I’m on set, I use the storyboards as my starting point rather than a marked up script or shot list, so I need them to be at least passable. I also show them to the DoP, to the actors, to the sound guy… anyone who needs to know what the shot is can see it in pen, pencil and digital scribble form on a page in my Big Black Ringbinder (which I really need to replace with something like an iPad and join the 21st century!). I also do digital colour palette type boards from time to time- what I call swatch-shots- as a way of exploring the colours, lighting and tone for a shot and the scene it sits in. These take a bit more time, but are ultimately very useful for the DoP, Production Designer and the Colourist (not that I’ve worked with the latter, but I know they’d like me for it!).

So while some directors might balk at having to put pencil to paper, I think it’s a great way to make a first version of your film without wasting time, money, stock, equipment and people’s patience. I would say you save on catering too, but I get through lots of crisps and chocolate buttons when I’m boarding so it’s not completely free!

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Of Pigs and Bacon

February 18, 2012

One of the hardest (and most rewarding) things about filmmaking is that it isn’t a solitary activity. You need to collaborate with other people to make it happen and create the product you’re aiming for. You can’t really do it alone, no matter what several pretentious artistes would have you think. Even the “Man with a Movie Camera” himself, Dziga Vertov, didn’t make that film all by his lonesome despite the title (his wife was the editor- a not-uncommon pattern, directors marrying their editors!). This is even more obviously true when it comes to fiction work.

With this in mind, it becomes important for the aspirational filmmaker to surround themselves with talented and reliable collaborators so they can make the best film and get the most out of the project. And at the lower end of the industry ladder, this can be a problem. Not so much with the talent part of things- talent isn’t the same as experience, after all- but with reliability.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working on a project called “Persona,” a drama/soap opera that you view through an app on your smartphone (cue shameless plug alert- http://whatsyourpersona.co.uk). And so far it’s been a great experience- working with a talented writer called Martyn Deakin to put together a really strong script and the support of everyone at Persona has been phenominal. We’re really proud of the script and the storyline we’ve created and it’s the first time I’m directing something with a topical, serious drama to it.

But there’s a catch- this is a low budget affair. Which means, as for all collaborative projects, that you can’t pay anyone and you have to convince them to get/stay involved with the higher forms of bribery that are fun, experience and credit. But they have day jobs, other commitments and (dare I say it) other hobbies and sometimes the quality of the script, the potential exposure of the project and their level of creative imput are not enough. They don’t always return emails (on time or at all), they are vague about their level of commitment and only seem genuinely involved when you corner them about the project. It happens. All to frequently. Other people’s reliability is one of the reasons why I became so hyphenated a filmmaker (director-DoP-editor etc). It’s also the reason why 2010’s project-with-a-lot-of-promise The Collector’s Room fell apart three episodes in- the AD and primary motivator moved away and the writer lost interest in writing, preferring to concentrate on his day job, band and everything else.

This sounds like a bitter post. And it is. I need these people. I rely on them to help me make films of sufficient quality that they aid all our careers- including mine. If these people are unreliable, I have to look for new people. And I don’t want my turnover of collaborators to be the same frequency of brain dead saturday boy employees at the local supermarket. While I can do the one man band approach, the film will suffer for it. And unfortunately, it all seems to be happening again.

So now I have to contact the producer and let them know what’s going on, put out calls for new crew and hope this doesn’t impact negatively on all the good work we’ve done so far.

Which is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse with the shoot about a month away.

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Good Lord, it’s been a while…

June 2, 2011

So I’ve had this blog over a year… and posted twice. Good going, there.

Frankly, I forgot I had this blog. And forgot the login details. And have been busy.

Sort of.

In the last year I’ve struggled with work. Work-that-earns-money anyway. Since I graduated nearly four years ago- jeez, it’s been that long- I’ve had multiple day-jobs and done a lot of film work, paid and unpaid. I’ve also shot a lot of my own projects. One of these is the online scifi drama series “The Collector’s Room” (www.thecollectorsroom.co.uk) which, since we started working on it back in 2009, has proved to be a great learning process and way of building up a body of work I can be proud of. And since my last post in March last year we’ve shot two more episodes of that project- “Sam” (where I was DoP for director Kate Hansell) and “The Star” (which I directed). I’ve also done a lot of DoP/Lighting Cameraman type work with other filmmakers including David Kline of i4ni Media.

But most of this has been unpaid. Getting paid work as a director is extremely difficult but it’s what I’m aiming for. I’ve done the camerman work because there’s a lot of it out there, but I’ve made an executive choice recently to focus on directing and trying to build a directing career. Because there isn’t a clear cut path to all this, I’ve decided to use this blog as a record of my approach/attempts/path to getting work as a director so that other aspiring directors may benefit from all of my mistakes (which I will no doubt make) and experiences.

So, destination: director’s chair. ETA: The sooner the better.