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7 Tips for a 48hr Filmmaking Challenge

July 8, 2019

A week ago, I took part in the Reading Fringe Festival’s 48 hour filmmaking challenge. I’ve done a 48hr challenge before and found it to be quite a formative experience, so I was quite looking forward to this one- especially now I’m no longer doing seven day work weeks! The last time I did one of these, it was the SciFi London 48hr Challenge and it was 2010 (Jesus, I’m old…) and we produced this little number back then from the less than inspiring starting points given to us.

For anyone who hasn’t taken part in one of these, the way it works is quite simple. Most challenges take place over a weekend, so on the Friday evening you’re given your starting criteria. This might be your film’s title, a line of dialogue, an action or a prop that needs to appear in the film. Sometimes you’re given a choice, but the idea is that once you have your criteria, you have 48 hours to write, plan, shoot, edit, sound mix and deliver your film. Films normally have a max running time of five minutes and you usually upload your entry to Youtube where people can view it at some point Sunday evening. For those who are interested, here’s our entry:

Eric had signed up for the challenge on a whim, but since I now had my weekends back, I thought it was a great idea and volunteered to give him a hand. Working with limited resources is always a good challenge for a filmmaker because it gets you thinking creatively and forces you to prioritise. I also learnt a few tips and tricks nine years ago that came in very useful for this 48hr challenge and I thought I’d share some of them here…

Tip #1 Learn to kick writer’s block to the curb

For a 48hr challenge, you need to be comfortable with coming up with story ideas quickly. You also need to be able to incorporate often random or obtuse elements and write something film-able in a very short space of time. This is often a challenge unto itself because many filmmakers struggle with writing scripts, particularly if they don’t have much time to do it in.

If you’re one of these people, chances are you’re expecting too much of yourself. Many writers and filmmakers want everything they put on the page to be good if not great and if they can’t come up with anything that fits that high standard, they call it writer’s block and distract themselves until an idea pops into their head fully formed. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that writer’s block is horse shit. It’s an excuse made up by people who expect creativity to strike like a lighting bolt when in fact that creative electricity is far more likely to come from a hand-cranked dynamo. While the odd lighting strike does happen, don’t just sit there with your metaphorical tin foil shoes and a tv aerial strapped to your head, goading it to strike. Nine times out of ten, you have to put some effort in to get creativity out- you can’t just lie back and hope for inspiration to drop in on you. 

What this means is that creativity can be conditioned. But how do you do that?

Well, for the week running up to the challenge, Eric and I would give each other a line of dialogue and a prop and we’d each have to write a short script incorporating them within 24hrs. Doing this teaches you to run with your ideas and also stops you becoming too precious about what you write. While I didn’t come up anything even remotely great, I exercised my mind and there were a few little ideas I had that I thought might have merit further down the line. Eric actually came up with an idea that, after a few tweaks, might very well make a really nice short film. And all from a random prop and line of dialogue.

As a side note, I think we might keep this writing challenge thing going since it seems to be so productive…

Tip #2 Get your assets together beforehand

While you don’t know ahead of time what your title/dialogue/action/prop might be, there are a couple of things you can get ready beforehand. 

First up, get some actors ready and waiting. While you won’t know what characters you’re going to need, pick a couple of preferably local actors you know and have worked with before so you have a good starting point when it comes to writing your film. There’s nothing worse than ringing around late on Friday evening, trying to find actors who are available the next day and up for the 48hr challenge because you’ll likely wind up any bugger who’s available (or worse still, yourselves). Get your actors on board early and write your script around them and what they can do. You’ll end up with better performances and have less stress on set because you won’t need to worry about them.


Director Eric working with actors Steve Overton and Spencer Allum

This also goes for locations, props and costumes. If you have access to an interesting location or somewhere you have creative control over, put it on the list of assets. Again, you don’t want to come up with a story that takes place in a location you can’t find, so find your possible locations ahead of time and make a list of them. You can always pick the most appropriate ones when you’re developing your story and work around what you’ve got.

And last but not least, have your crew and kit ready. Know what equipment you have and how to make the most out of it. Unless you’re lucky enough to own a rental place, you’re not going to be able to hire anything in at such short notice and you can’t always rely on getting crew at the last minute. List your assets, accept your limitations and write something that makes the most of what you have.

Tip #3 Create a schedule and stick to it.

If you get your criteria Friday evening, set yourself the deadline of having a finished script by midnight so you can send it to everyone involved. This allows Saturday morning for grabbing any of the things you need (props, costumes, buying lunch etc), the rest of Saturday for filming and all of Sunday for editing and sound mixing. Don’t film both days and leave the edit to the last minute. Editing is often seen as the simplest part of filmmaking by new filmmakers, usually because it’s the thing that got them into filmmaking in the first place and they’re quite comfortable working with the software, but creating a narrative takes time. You need to be objective when editing and try to see the film as an audience would. On a normal project this happens over time- stepping away from the edit and then coming back to it another day allows you to find that objectivity- but on a 48hr shoot, you don’t have that luxury. So allow yourself as much time as possible to cut the film.

On our shoot, Krzysz edited a rough cut Saturday night, slept on it and came back to it Sunday morning. This allowed for a bit of a gap in post and helped create a bit of objectivity, both for him and Eric, who then spent most of Sunday tweaking the edit before the 8pm deadline.


Editor Krzyzs asleep on the job

Tip #4 Don’t overcomplicate things.

On a 48hr project, efficiency is key. And efficiency is more than just moving quickly, it’s about not wasting time. The biggest time sink on set is setting everything up- whether that be lights, grip equipment, effects and stunts… If you can cut down on that set-up time and not compromise the quality of your film too much, then you’ll immediately allow yourself more time to get the performances you need. This means that if you don’t really need that dolly shot or that gimbal move or that lighting effect, don’t waste your time with it and instead focus on a simpler alternative. I know this will be met with some disdain because most filmmakers like challenging themselves technically, but on a fast turnaround project like this, you can’t really afford to waste time with something that doesn’t balance the time cost with the perceived benefit.

This goes for your choice of equipment too. Obviously, you’re going to be shooting on whatever you have available, but don’t make things hard for yourself by shooting in a format that creates massive files or needs a lot of work in post. 

For instance we had the choice of shooting on Eric’s Nikon DSLR, my LS300 or Krzysz’s new Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera. There’s no doubt that the latter would produce nicer images in the long run (even in ProRes, the grading possibilities are quite excellent), but to get those images you have to do a lot of work in post. And that takes time, time that could be better spent on the audio mix or getting the edit tighter. 

Plus, if you have an option to record single system (ie audio into the camera via XLRs rather than to a separate recorder), it might be worth taking it on a 48hr challenge. I know that lots of syncing plug-ins like PluralEyes do a stellar job, but it’s not always a quick process (especially if you’ve got loads of takes to sync independently) and that can seriously dent your post production time. 

So we shot on the LS300, used a cinema profile to get as much latitude as possible without needing to grade the footage and piped a boom mic direct into the camera. The only downside was the heavier kit, something that wouldn’t normally be an issue, but we were filming in the middle of a large park on the hottest day of the year. My legs still hate me for carrying the camera and tripod from the car and back!


I pack a car with kit the same way a mother packs for a family holiday

Tip #5 Story first, other crafts second.

This kinda follows on from the previous point, not doing anything that’s going to cost you time, but it’s far more generally applicable than that.

A lot of new filmmakers struggle with putting story first, usually because they’re focusing on the technical side of the process, but also because a lot of people assume storytelling is simple. And as tip no.1 should’ve indicated, storytelling is as much a craft as camerawork, lighting, editing or sound design and can be practiced as such.

Use a 48hr challenge as a chance to focus on storytelling. The other elements of filmmaking craft- cinematography, editing, picture grading etc- push them to second place. This doesn’t mean ignore them, just make them simple and effective. Shoot standard compositions, use simple coverage, light solidly, edit by the book and mix invisibly. It might sound boring, but a good solid story told well is far better than a weak story propped up by fancy cinematography. Plus, if your technical elements are really poor, you’ve got a great excuse- it was a 48hr film! For some reason, that excuse doesn’t fly quite so well when it comes to story…

Tip #6 Don’t think about winning, think about improving.

Many of these 48hr challenges have prizes attached to them and even those that don’t, have recognition and the possibility of good press. But just like film festivals, don’t focus on trying to win stuff. For a start, you never really know what the judges are looking for and the challenge organisers will never really tell you because it’s in their interests to get as many people submitting as possible. Also, if the prize is worth having, there will be lots of competition for it- and statistically, enough of them will be more experienced (and some of them will be cheating- more on that in a minute) than you which will likely lower your odds of winning. This is particularly true if you’re focusing on technical craft instead of story. Instead, it’s better to think of the challenge as a chance to hone your skills and learn to be more efficient.

For instance, I used to be a terribly slow and ponderous editor, taking ages to cut together a film but after the 2010 48hr challenge, I learnt to be much quicker and much more efficient. Prior to this I used to take weeks if not months over an edit- I was capable of moving quicker, but I had this love/hate relationship with editing and it meant I would either do bits and pieces at a time or I would lose days working on minutiae. Since you can’t do either of those things when you have less than a day to edit something, I had to force myself to be faster- something that stayed with me afterwards. So much so that I’ve now conditioned myself to deliver presentable, almost-finished edits of projects to clients in less than a week, something I wouldn’t have been able to say back then.

Our 2010 film didn’t win anything (it was the SciFi London 48hr Challenge and they get thousands of entries after all), but I came away from the experience a better filmmaker and that was the real win for me.


Emily Ann Hawthorne playing a French spy (hence the beret!)

On last week’s 48hr challenge, my main takeaways were in the cinematography arena. We were shooting on a hot, bright day, outside in a public park- there was a lot of ambient light as well as very harsh, direct sunlight and we didn’t have the sort of gaff kit necessary to deal with it. My camera has a four stage ND filter wheel, but for many shots we had to use additional ND filters, including grads, to bring the sky down, negative fill to create depth and large reflectors to get light back on our actors. We also had changing light throughout the day, being overhead when we started and warmer, low and behind our cast when we were on the last few shots. What I would’ve done for a large scrim, some nets and some powerful lights that didn’t need to be plugged in! 


It’s always nice to actually justify using a matte box and French flags…

But you work with what you have, and this would’ve been a challenging lighting scenario for me regardless. So my cinematography skills were tested- juggling aperture, sensitivity, level of NDs, reflectors and diffusion to try and have something balanced to work with. The actors needed to be exposed correctly and I needed to bring the sky down as much as possible while still creating the look and sense of depth we wanted… and all in a single shoot day without relying on post to bring back any lost detail.

Was it a triumph of cinematography? No. Did I even pull it off? Again, probably no in all honesty. But it was acceptable and I learnt a lot from that kind of challenge. I’ve never considered myself much of a cinematographer, so many people would look at the finished film and call it out for bad light management, but I think it works- it certainly doesn’t detract from the story or the performances, which, getting back to tip #5, is the main thing!

Tip #7 Don’t cheat.

I touched upon this in the last entry, but there are people who cheat in these challenges, particularly if there are valuable prizes at stake. The scale and type of cheating varies- in fact, some aren’t technically cheating even though there are ethical grounds that are being massaged in a creatively selective fashion. For example… 

Some teams write, shoot and partially edit their film in advance of the challenge, then when they receive their title/line/prop etc just work them into the material they already have, shoot the necessary pick-up shots, rerecord some audio, cut these new bits into the existing edit and hand the polished piece in. I think it’s fair to say that this is cheating- and most of the competitions are able to spot this sort of ruse a mile off.

But not all cheating is technically cheating… One team in the SciFi London challenge were a professional production company (this isn’t the cheat, even though to some it might feel like it is!) and they had just wrapped on an indie sci-fi film the month before. They still had the professionally-built sets and props in their studio so they used them in their entry for the 48hr competition. They wrote, shot and edited everything within the 48hrs so they didn’t break any rules- they just made use of high production value assets that they had access to. Technically, this is no different to you or me having access to a cool location or a unique prop and using it in our film, but it does feel a little underhand and not quite in the spirit of the 48hr challenge. 

This is another reason why I said don’t focus on winning in the previous entry- professional production companies take part in these things, not for the prizes, but for the recognition and opportunities that may come from them. A professional production company likely has bigger and better assets to work with and as long as they are also efficient, story-focused and don’t actually break any rules, their entry is going to look and feel significantly better than the rest. Granted, this isn’t always the case and it doesn’t always follow that these entries win, but it’s common enough for many filmmakers to get discouraged about their chances.

And faced with this disparity, some teams will try to cheat to win. They’ll write a dozen scripts beforehand they can shoehorn the criteria into. They’ll hire a professional cinematographer for the day with an Alexa Mini and a shit-ton of gaff kit. They’ll have some pre-built VFX elements or model shots or stock footage ready to be comped in to their 48hr film. Some of these things are definitely against the rules, some of them aren’t but as one of my old primary school teachers used to say, “if you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.”

The whole point of a 48hr filmmaking challenge is to challenge yourself. Keeping the quality of work high using the resources you can scrape together and doing so in a ridiculously tight timeframe. No-one’s expecting Citizen Kane or Bladerunner or Casablanca or [insert your own great film title here!]. No one’s even expecting Clerks. The only one with any expectations is you and if you focus on telling a good story, are organised, efficient and try to challenge yourself creatively and practically… you’ll come away with a great experience, a fun little film and some things you might not have learnt any other way.


It doesn’t look that hot here, but Spencer burnt and Krzyzs drank his body weight in water. Steve, however, was perfectly comfortable in his woolen suit and fedora.


Next Project Please!

October 10, 2018

As usual, it’s been a while since I blogged something, so this is going to be a bit of an update post rather than something specific.

Dead Meet Quotes Poster v1

This’ll likely be the last time you see this poster. Hopefully.

First up (and likely for the last time), is “Dead Meet.” The film that took way too long to shoot, edit and deliver has also taken way too long to complete its festival run… but complete it, it has. Since the Birmingham Film Festival in November last year, the short has been screened at a further four festivals, rejected by nine, won awards at two, garnered 20,000 views on YouTube and earned a bunch of (mostly positive) press from the indie film scene.

It was also the first film I directed that made me seriously, if only for a moment, consider ditching the whole filmmaking thing. And in spite of all it’s other achievements, that’s the legacy I’m sadly going to remember the film for. Sapping my patience, undermining my confidence and making me face up to its weaknesses (and strengths) every time I had to talk about it in an interview or Q and A, watch it at a screening and stare at it on my IMDB page (even though it’s still not something I’m “known for” and bloody Persona ranks higher!). I think I now know how Hollywood directors feel when they’re doing press junkets, publicity tours and talk shows to promote a film that they made two years ago, especially when they have a new project that they’re working on now and are really excited about but can’t say anything lest the studio comes down on them like a ton of NDA paperwork and deletes their Twitter account.

Actually, that analogy falls flat because I don’t really have a new project I’m working on. I’ve been trying. Trying to write scripts, plan shoots and get motivated, but just like a zeppelin full of hippos, I just can’t seem to get it off the ground. And like the petulant Generation-Y-er I am, I can throw a bunch of excuses at this, but this time one of them actually holds some water. I’ve been working two jobs, seven days a week for the last year. I did it because I needed to pay off a credit card and put a bit of money behind me to change my living situation and frankly, financial worries have always been a good reason not to push myself head first into film work. After all, you can’t or don’t want to take career risks if you’re still paying for your financial mistakes! But while this 55 hour work week hasn’t killed me, it has made it hard to muster the energy to develop any new projects. Even a simple microshort, the sort of thing I did a lot of last summer, has become something I just can’t find the time, energy or focus to write or shoot.


That isn’t to say I’ve not shot anything this past few months, far from it. I’ve had a couple of corporate shoots thanks to my rebuilt website and I shot part of a music video for singer Alex Holmes. Mix in a few multi-camera streaming projects with Glisten Media and I’ve not exactly done badly for someone who really hasn’t been out there looking for work!

Plus, last year’s directorial effort is finally coming out. “Making a Killing” is getting its YouTube release at the end of the month, in time for Halloween. Don’t know why it’s taken so long to see the light of day, but it’s good that it’s finally getting thrown out into the world like a recent graduate that’s overstayed their welcome on their folk’s sofa bed. Hopefully, it’ll enjoy some success and maybe I’ll be talking about it in interviews and at festivals for the next year as well.

And this brings me on to the main point of this post…

I’ve been trying to get into directing for about ten years now. I say trying, but what I really mean is trying whilst struggling to keep myself afloat, battling low-level depression and dealing with all the usual day-to-day shit that real life throws at you. Regardless, I’ve not really got anywhere. And I really feel I should have. So I’ve set myself a rather stupidly ambitious and stupidly stupid goal:

By the end of 2019 I want to be well on the way to directing my first feature.

What that feature is, I don’t know. Where I’m going to find the money for such a venture, I have even less of an idea. What I do know is that I’ve got a lot of hard work and inevitable risks ahead of me. But I figure that if I really want this, I have to push myself and I have to take risks. Because even though ten years is a long time to persevere at something, it’s a longer time to try and then give up.


Fests, Bests and all the Rests

April 7, 2018

So… an update!

A few things have happened, so I thought I’d scribble down a few poorly-thought-out thoughts.

Dead Meet Awards Poster S

The last time I’d talked about Dead Meet it had been shown at Birmingham Film Festival and I had kinda drawn a line under the project. But I guess I shouldn’t have written the film off so easily because out of all the festivals I’d submitted to, it got accepted into two I thought were out of the film’s league- Starburst Media City Festival and Artemis -Women in Action festival.
Starburst, from the magazine of the same name, is a fairly high-profile festival focusing on scifi and other genre films. I submitted “Dead Meet” to them but didn’t hold out much hope of getting a screening- partly because the flick had had a few knockbacks by this point and partly because I didn’t know if it was what Starburst were looking for. But it got accepted (although FilmFreeway originally told be it had been rejected!) and even more surprisingly, it won an award! Or more accurately, Francesca, our lead actress, won the Best Performance award for her role in the film- which was well-deserved, given how much time and energy she put into the role, especially the fight scenes. And, if I’m honest, I think the latter was a lot to do with why she won- audiences and critics respect things that are difficult and performing that sort of action, particularly when you’re not a professional stunt-person, is extremely hard and demonstrates a lot of skill and effort.


Francesca with her Performance Award from Starburst Media City Festival

But the surprises weren’t over. “Dead Meet” also got into Artemis, which as its name might imply, is all about female empowerment. Artemis was a festival we had in mind when making the film, but I had no idea it would actually get accepted. But it’s something of a double-edged sword for me. On the plus side, Artemis is quite high profile. On the down side, it takes place in LA. And I’m in the UK. And broke. And my passport’s out of date. So, yeah, sadly I won’t be attending the film’s first international screening later this month, which is a shame because Francesca went and won another award: Best Actress – Short (the film, not Francesca!)! Again, it’s well-deserved and hopefully she’ll be able to attend the gala and pick up her award in person.

So if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this, it’s never write a project off- you never know if it’ll go the distance!

MaK Poster 2 v2

The next update is about my other directorial effort, “Making a Killing.” It’s finished and it too is being submitted to festivals. I’m pleased with how it’s turned out- it’s a very different film to “Dead Meet” so it should show another side to me as a director. I reckon it’ll do well at a number of festivals and it’ll probably pick up a lot of views when we start pushing it online. Will it win any awards? Time will tell… but it’s already through to the semi finals of the Los Angeles Cinefest, so it’s doing well so far!
To complete my hat trick of directing credits this year, I’ve also been writing a short ghost story with the aim of directing it at some point. The aim for this one is to focus more on visual storytelling and have a film that really lends itself to striking images, something that I feel my previous work lacks a bit. There are also a number of microshorts I have planned so this could be an interesting few months… Hopefully, I should have enough new material to redo my directing showreel and then, all being well, I can start getting actual directing gigs.



Movies That Made Me #1- “Hard Target”

January 26, 2018

In what I hope will be a repeated, if not entirely regular, series, I thought I’d look at some of the films that have influenced me as a filmmaker. Now before people get all commenty in the comments section (best place to do it other than a toilet wall somewhere), most of these are not going to be undisputed classics. In fact most of these films would prompt an expression of confused disgust from many filmmakers and movie aficionados. But, good or bad, they have had an effect on me and the way I perceive and make films to this day.

These are the movies that made me.

First up to bat, it’s the slow motion Jean Claude Van Damme action vehicle and mullet enthusiast’s propaganda film, “Hard Target.”


For a teenage boy growing up in the early 90s, the local video rental shop was a godsend. I’ve mentioned it before, but my Dad knew a good deal when he saw it and for £10 a month, we could rent any three tapes we wanted, for as long as we wanted and swap them out as and when we felt like it. This meant that I saw pretty much every action movie ever made in the early years of that decade and for a boy who’d developed something of a fascination with martial arts (even before he took his first karate class), that was a lot of small screen inspiration.

I’d been a fan of Van Damme ever since I saw the first Universal Soldier, but it was Hard Target that really cemented him as an action star for me. It was also the film that introduced me to one of my greatest directorial influences, John Woo Yu Seng. It’s only in recent years that I can look back on Hard Target and see how profound an effect it had on me as a filmmaker.


Don’t eat all your snake, Van Damme, or you won’t have room for your scorpion tortillas.

If you haven’t seen the flick, it’s John Woo’s first American movie and while it’s a mixed bag compared to his previous Hong Kong outings like The Killer and Hard Boiled, it was a tour de force for a thirteen year old boy who had never seen anything like Woo’s flavour of balletic action before. The remarkably thin plot is about a group of mercenaries turned entrepreneurs hunting homeless veterans for sport in New Orleans, with Van Damme playing one such vet trying to help a young woman find her previously hunted father. And while that might be an awkwardly long sentence, it does pretty much sum up the story of the movie in one breath.

New Orleans makes for an interesting backdrop, even if it’s usually just used as a generic “small town America” and the Deep South references are relegated to soundtrack cues and architecture, but it makes a change from the usual L.A/New York setting most 90s action flicks find themselves in. It helps give the film a bit of character- something most of its contemporaries on the straight to video shelves lacked.


The acting itself is exactly what you’d expect from a 90s actioner directed by a man who didn’t speak English all that well- it’s pretty pish. Lance Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo are the best performers in the flick, Yancy Butler is alright but has very little to work with and JCVD… well, dialogue was never his strong suit, certainly not at this point in his career. Kicking people in the face, however, was, and while the movie isn’t overflowing with Van Damme’s usual bootwork, there are enough kicks mixed in with the gunplay to showcase what he can do.

Which brings me on to the action…


Wide angle spinning split kick- the best moment in the film and possibly in JCVD’s entire career.

As a 14 year old boy, this film blew me away. I’d seen action films before obviously, but this was refreshingly different, high energy and balletic compared to the Schwarzenegger-style flicks I’d seen previously. Bad guys flew through the air when shot, guns held about seventy rounds per clip, everything exploded when hit and diving sideways while doves flew past was the preferred mode of locomotion. I fucking loved it. And looking back on it, it had a huge effect on me as a filmmaker.

What made this film stand out for me at the time was the way it’s shot and edited. Woo’s style uses double cuts, replays and changing film speed (in particular, his often-cited slow motion) to enhance the feeling of an action sequence, making them a thing of beauty as well as a visceral experience. But he also uses frequent big close-ups, smooth dolly shots and mirrored compositions to tell a story- such as when Van Damme and Vosloo have a mid-gunfight conversation back-to-back against a wall. A lot of the story is told visually- characters don’t explain their feelings in dialogue, they show it in their eyes and the way they react to the things around them. This is one of the things that I notice a lot in my own work- a story told through when and how characters react to events in the scene. Little looks and gestures given decent screen time to highlight them. Obviously, Woo wasn’t the first to do this- it’s kinda filmmaking 101- but for a kid who was only just starting to notice movies for the craft involved, Woo’s work was a revelation.


So this is a “face.” But can it come “off?”

But probably the biggest takeaway for me was how Woo shoots and edits action. Action sequences rely on audiences understanding the geography of the location and having certain elements set up and paid off within the scene. For instance, the big finale takes place in this abandoned warehouse full of carnival floats, providing both a nice nod to the New Orleans setting and an interesting splash of colour to what could’ve been a drab and dingy location. The warehouse is a maze, full of all this junk and Woo sets up the size and creepy chaos with a suspenseful sequence where the bag guys led by Henricksen and Vosloo hunt for JCVD before all hell breaks loose. And it’s this suspense-release pattern that stood out amongst all the straight-to-VHS action films I’d been used to.

So, yes, it’s not the greatest film in the world and its not the greatest film in Woo’s catalogue, but Hard Target will always be the film that taught me how action design and editing worked. If you get a chance, it’s worth a look!


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

January 22, 2018

One of these things is more necessary on set than the other…

One of the sad facts about the career of a director is that you’ll spend longer doing collaboration projects and working for free than pretty much anyone else on set. And when you think about it, this makes sense. Partly because everyone else can be hired by several people (the producer, the director or their head of department) whereas you are only ever hired by a producer; but also because directing has a high degree of responsibility- producers are only going to hire directors that they’re confident in and usually that means having worked with them before. Plus, directing is a very desirable position and there are a lot of people who want that chair so it’s a very competitive but very closed market.

Most of your early directing “jobs” will be self-produced. You’re the one leading the project, you’re the one footing the bill, you’re the one with your vision on screen. Effectively, you hire yourself. But there’s a lot to be said for those projects where you’re hired as a director, even if there’s no real pay to speak of. I’ve done a few of these gigs over the years and, if you pick the right projects, they can be great for your reel and a great way to network. Plus, you get to feel like you’ve been hired, which gives your ego a bit of a massage.

Making a Killing ScreenGrab1

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

Early last year I spotted a directing job on, helming a short film called “Making a Killing.” It was a script written by actor Darrell Draper and co-produced by him and another actor, Amelia Vernede. They’d come up with the film as a chance to showcase themselves and hopefully push their acting careers forward. What made this film different from all the other no-budget shorts kicking around though was the script.

It was a comedy that was actually funny.

I know, go figure… It was also well-written in general and this is something of a rarity at the lower rungs of the industry ladder (to be honest, it isn’t that much less rarefied at the professional six-figure-budget rungs either). Less than stellar scripts were something that had deterred me from accepting many other directing gigs over the years. The last thing I wanted was to jump in to the directing chair on a project where the script or story was lacking, because no matter what you do, you can’t turn it into something amazing. As many have said, you can’t polish a turd (even if you can cover it in glitter and pretend it’s gold!) and who wants a turd on their resume?

But “Making a Killing” wasn’t a turd and in fact, had a lot of potential to be a cool little film. The story was a simple, if comically absurd one: Jarad is a wannabe serial killer, but he doesn’t really know anything about it or how to get started so he enlists the help of Claudia, a marketing agent, to help him. The film follows Jarad’s attempts to join the Bundys and Mansons of the world and takes an explorative and satirical poke at people’s fascination with murder and the morality of fame and it’s less savoury cousin infamy. There’s a lot of black humour, a touch of drama and a bit of social commentary- things I wanted a bit more of in my directing career because I believe a good director needs to be versatile with both style and subject matter.


A couple of weeks before the shoot, I went to London to see the locations we had access to. Most of the action was set in a flat in Hackney and a few exteriors in the surrounding area. The flat was owned by a friend of the actors and although we had free reign there, we had a limited window to shoot in. We had access from 9am to 5pm over two days, which wasn’t too bad, but since it takes a while to get in and set up and almost as long to break everything down at the end of the day, it was going to be a little tight to get everything done. So I decided to plan and storyboard things as best I could. In that regard, the recce was really helpful since I could work out my coverage based on the location. And since the actors were there, we were also able to block out some of the scenes in the flat as well, which helped with picking shots.

I like to think of a film breaking down into scenes and sequences. Scenes are the same as what they are in the script- a chunk of (primarily) dialogue and action set in one location and happening concurrently. They are usually shot using coverage so they can be edited in a variety of ways, although you could use a one-shot if the scene lends itself to that (and you don’t mind incurring the wrath of an editor!). Sequences have to be considered as what they are- a series of shots that narratively progress in one direction and are more of a montage in nature. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to use coverage to get these shots because they’re often specific to each beat of the story, so you’ll need to see it edited together in your head and shoot what you need- which is where storyboards can really come into their own.


Adam Hudson (DP) and Joe Nichols (AC) set up for the first shot of the film with Amelia Vernede (Claudia)

In the case of “Making a Killing” most of the film was comprised of scenes- usually two characters talking- so storyboarding wasn’t really necessary for those, but I did draw a few just to get the camera placements in my head. But there were two sequences in the film- a musical montage where Jarad’s trying out different serial killer “identities” complete with costume changes and a sequence with Jarad pursuing his first victim.

The former proved problematic even up to the day of the shoot, partly because we still didn’t know the specifics of what was going to happen in the scene costume/character-wise but also because I was unsure how to shoot it. I knew where we would have to stage the scene- in the hallway because it was the only area in the flat big enough- but I didn’t know how I wanted it to go together. Originally, I had the idea of using a time-lapse between costume changes, but this would have been too complex and ultimately too limiting for the sequence. But once we knew what elements were going to make up the sequence (Jarad’s entrances and exits in each costume with a bit of action inbetween, Claudia’s reactions before, during and after each costume reveal and the notebook of possible identities getting crossed out and doodled over), we were able to get the footage we needed so it could be cut together into a narratively valid music-backed montage.

Making a Killing Screen2

Darrel Draper gets his stalk(er) on…

The other sequence, where Jarad stalks his first victim, was envisaged as a tense, horror movie-like moment and I planned out a bunch of shots to capitalise on this part of the story. There was also a comic twist at the end of this sequence leading into a dialogue scene, so setting things up right would make that much stronger. Sadly, time was against us. You see, we needed to shoot this sequence and the scene that followed when it was dark and unfortunately, we were filming in August, where night doesn’t fall til gone 9pm. Which meant a long shoot day was going to get longer and we didn’t have the luxury of picking the shots up the next day.


So we filmed the important bit- the dialogue scene – first and then had to grab a few set-up shots afterwards as we walked back to the main location. As an aside, we were filming on a Sony A7S II and holy hell, that thing can see in the dark! We were filming on a path beside a church and the only practical lights were streetlamps thirty-odd feet away on the main road. We had a few battery-powered LED panels to get a bit of key lighting in there, but it was pretty damn dark and I doubt there were many cameras that could’ve produced a usable result in those conditions. In fact, I think the only reason we got a bit of noise in the footage was because we were shooting S-Log3 (Log modes don’t tend to work so well in low light scenarios and you often can’t adjust the ISO either) but it’s nothing a bit of de-noising in post won’t clear up!


For the camera geeks amongst you, this was what the A7S II can see post-grade with minimal light, shooting SLog3 in UHD. For everyone else, this is Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).

Day two was finishing up the flat scenes and it was then that we hit what I like to call the “iceberg scene.” Iceberg scenes are scenes that don’t look that problematic on paper but when you get to shoot them, you realise there’s a massive problem with them that threatens to sink the proverbial ship. The bit you can see is just the tip of the iceberg, but if you don’t take action quickly, that’s going to spiral into a huge chunk of delays, stress and lost goodwill. Mixed metaphors aside, they happen on most shoots and in my experience they usually come from poor planning. In this case, the fault was largely mine…


Giving actors a sharp prop during an “iceberg scene” is just asking for trouble…

We had quite a chunky scene set in the lounge- an argument scene- and I knew where it was going to take place, but I hadn’t blocked anything out with the actors. And what’s rule number one? Always block scenes out with actors first before picking your camera angles…

But I hadn’t.

So when we started setting up for the master shot, that was when I tried to find business for the actors to do- in this case, Claudia would be sat on the sofa using her laptop and Jarad would be hurriedly fussing around her trying to tidy things up. It was a good idea for the scene- it showed how complacent Claudia had become in Jarad’s home and how Jarad had changed as a person by wanting things to be tidy and impress his new girlfriend. And, had I had the chance (or made the time) to work through the action with the actors, we could’ve staged a very funny scene where Jarad is always tidying where Claudia wants to be and so there’d be this great visual game of musical chairs, stressing both of them out. But instead, the action itself was a little flat and that caused some problems when it came to covering the scene: Claudia’s close up needed to pan to the side in line with her looking space when Jarad crossed the shot, we needed two close ups of Jarad for the different lines of action (both of which needed to be in awkward places within the location) and continuity needed to be super tight as a result of the business the actors were doing.

On their own, these things weren’t enough to derail the shoot, but as I’ve said before, directing is largely about people management and if you don’t have good answers for how a scene needs to be shot, the crew and cast can become stressed, argumentative and worse still, defensive. If they get to this last stage, teamwork can suffer as each member of the cast and crew starts to do whatever they think is best for them, their reel and their career- actors direct themselves, DPs fuss over getting the perfect shot and many others just want to go home. Fortunately, we never got to that stage, but people did start to get stressed. I struggle with these situations because when I find myself with an iceberg scene, I tend to become very pragmatic, fall back on simple shots and coverage and try to get through the scene without pissing people off. The downside to this approach is that although the atmosphere and people’s goodwill is maintained, the scene comes out a bit by-the-numbers. I’ll often see the scene in the finished film and think if only I’d planned this one out better, I could’ve had a much better scene in the can.


Filming on a busy intersection in Hackney, twenty feet from an all-night Tesco was… problematic to say the least.

So over the last couple of projects, I’ve been trying to push a little for what I want when I get an iceberg scene, even if that means taking a few minutes break to think things through (ADs hate falling behind schedule, but they tend to hate bungled scenes more, so they’re usually on board with this request!). Because once I know what I’m doing, I’m able to lead everyone else again. Directing is frequently a balancing act between pushing for your vision and being open enough to accept input from others- do too much of either at the wrong time and the film can very easily fall apart. An iceberg scene is always the wrong time, so taking a few minutes to get your shit together, come up with a plan (possibly with your strongest on-set collaborator) and communicate it to everyone can get things back on track.

The trailer went up over Christmas and we’ve been giving it a strong push on social media. It’ll be interesting to see how much traction the finished film has- both online and in festivals- but having seen a rough cut, I’m quite happy with how things look and think it’ll do quite well. I also think it’ll be a great addition to my body of work- something I’d like to expand more in 2018. “Making a Killing” isn’t something I could’ve ever written myself, so the underlying voice of the film isn’t mine (much like on any director-for-hire gig) but I helped bring it to life, which ultimately is what a director does.

What was really nice about directing “Making a Killing” was that I was just that, a director. I wasn’t the writer, I wasn’t the producer, I wasn’t the editor, I wasn’t wearing multiple hats. I could just concentrate on the job of directing and let the production worries fall on someone else for a change.


Some of the cast and crew of “Making a Killing” (from Left to Right: Adam Hudson (DoP), Joe Nichols (AC), me (Director), Amelia Vernede (Claudia), Sophie Marchant (Sound Recordist) and Darrel Draper (Jarad). Absent from the shot are Cal Brown (AD) and Gemma Tubbs (Rebecca).


2017 Part 2 – RFVM and the Value of Microshorts

December 29, 2017

As mentioned in the previous post, I started 2017 feeling kind of disheartened about directing and filmmaking in general thanks in part to the laboured post-production of a recent short film.

But it wasn’t just “Dead Meet” that had me feeling lower than a python’s posing pouch- I was running out of collaborators. When you’re young, unfettered and recently-graduated, collaborators are all around you. But as the years go by, people start to lose interest in the dreams of their youth, they find careers, sign mortgages, marry people and have kids… and when you’ve done that, swanning about on a film set (often for very little money) sounds like a fool’s game. Those that don’t quit the industry often move on with their careers into far more lucrative areas of the market and no longer want or need to work on the sort of projects that I still want and need to do.

Projects like “Dead Meet” were a lot to shoulder solo, even with the talented cast and crew I had on that shoot. I felt I needed a small group of people to collaborate with on our smaller self-produced projects, people who were preferably local, capable and enthusiastic. People who could keep me motivated.

And I thought I knew where I might find them…


Reading Film and Video Makers is a a filmmaking club that has been running in my home town for sixty years. I’d actually known about the club for a while- I screened “The Collector’s Room” for them a few years ago– but I’d never joined the club. If I’m honest, it was pride. I considered myself a professional filmmaker and didn’t want to join what I felt was an amateur club. But in February this year I swallowed what was left of my pride, went along and found I had judged the club unfairly.

You see, like a lot of these sorts of clubs, RFVM has quite a diverse membership. Some of the people there are amateurs, but many are professionals or ex-professionals. Some are completely new to filmmaking, some have decades of experience. And they all have enthusiasm- something that I was in short supply of at the time. But the thing that really surprised me was that there were young people at the club. Now, granted, I’m 36 and thus don’t really qualify as “young” anymore (despite my behaviour and penchant for leather jackets), but it was nice to see a few people under the age of 30 because they might be in a similar position to me- wanting to get into the industry and wanting to prove themselves.


Sophie Marchant, Dave Gregory and Eric Garson shooting Sophie’s short film “Shade.”

And they were. Over the summer, a small group of us went out and filmed a few things. Sometimes it was just a short test shot or sequence, sometimes it was something more substantial. And it was these microshorts that I found the most useful and enjoyable. After my last few films being 20-30 minutes in length, the challenge (and greatly reduced stress) of shooting something under three minutes was something I relished. YouTuber and filmmaker Darius Britt has stated the value of microshorts many a time on his channel, and I’ve come to agree with him. Microshorts are great because you get to try new things without having to bankroll lots of time, effort and money and you get to have a few extra films on your resume as well! It also gave me a bit more writing practice, which is always beneficial.

“Diamond Dogs” started out as an entry for the club’s diamond anniversary film competition. There were two rules: the film can’t be longer than 60 seconds and it must feature a diamond at some point. The more astute among you may have noticed that the above video is quite a bit more than a minute long. That’s because a) I can never write something and keep it in time and b) we added things like the montage while we were shooting.


Rick Hanley in full-on cinematographer mode

So I wrote it, Rick Hanley shot it, Sophie Marchant was on sound and Leon Silavant directed it (and edited the version above). Since we were short on actors, Eric Garson and I took on acting duties and we all pitched in with locations, props, costumes and kit. It’s fair to say that Buster the jack russell stole the show though with his treat-fuelled performance.


Our leading man

We shot it on my JVC LS300 in log mode, lit everything with LED panel lights and recorded sync audio via shotgun mic. Leon hadn’t directed much before but did a great job of getting the shots he wanted- particularly the Edgar Wright-style smash montage.

We edited two versions of the scene- a sixty second version and a longer edit that paced better. The sixty second version ultimately won the club competition as well, which was cool!

“The Shotgun Wedding” was another potential entry for the 60 second diamond competition and just like “Diamond Dogs” it was going to run over the time limit! Unlike “Diamond Dogs” though, we figured this out before we shot it and so resigned ourselves to the fact.

The script originally ended with the sound of the robbery happening, but it always felt like a weak punchline since it happens off-screen and isn’t visual. Sophie suggested that the criminal couple could’ve kidnapped a priest and had him trussed up in the back- which prompted me to add the wedding list and the line about the dress to the end of the script, hopefully making the ending stronger. It does stretch belief a bit with the continuity change- Eric being there for the final shot, but not being visible beforehand- but it was necessary for the gag to work.

This time, I was directing and Rick was on camera- again we used the JVC, although this time we shot in DCI 2K and a 4:2:2 colour space just to see how that worked out. Because we were filming outside, the Aputure VS-1 HD monitor and it’s daft Bo Peep style sunshade became something of a necessity so we could see what we were doing. For some shots, particularly the two shot through the windshield, we had to use the low budget trick of hanging a black drape over the car to block the light since we didn’t have a polariser. Sound was a mixture of an omnidirectional mic in the front of the car and Eric holding a rifle mic from the back seats to pick up reflected audio within the cabin. Lighting was done with reflectors since there was nowhere to plug in lights- we were filming on a street after all!

This time, Leon was in front of the camera, acting alongside Silvia Calatayud Gil, an actress Eric and Sophie had worked with before. One of the nice things about microshorts is that they don’t require much in the way of rehearsal due to their length. I like to rehearse with actors, but with really short material there isn’t much to rehearse and you can actually get a more spontaneous performance by just tweaking things between takes.


The aftermath of any good shoot- the nearest pub!

The big exercise for me though, was in post. I’ve never really been one for grading- I started out with DV and that had less colour diversity than a 90s boy band. But the new camera can shoot in a 4:2:2 colour space and has a log profile, so I now had a chance to play around with the grade. I started out with a log to cine LUT and applied it to the two shot so I could nail the look I was going for- warmed skin tones, deep blacks and a bit of blue in the shadows. I then went back to the close ups and tried to match the tones as best I could. In retrospect, we should’ve shot a colour reference using an x-rite or something, it would’ve made things a bit easier, but I think the end result isn’t too bad.


Video coming soon!

“Thirteen” was meant to be an entry for an online competition, but we didn’t actually finish it in time.  The remit was to make a short film, no longer than 90 seconds in length, that was scored by using a promoted bit of music software. We bounced around a number of ideas, but the one we settled on as do-able was an idea I’d had based on a joke I’d heard. After all, jokes are essentially distilled stories and work quite well within a very short film structure.


This time, Rick was in the directing chair, with Leon operating Rick’s “Magic Lantern” hacked Canon 7D. We chose the 7D from our pooled cameras because we needed something small and light that could fit on a stabiliser. My Aputure VS-1 HD monitor came in useful again because of the bright sunlight we were filming in and aside from a few reflector shots, everything was lit with sunlight alone. “Thirteen” also gave me a chance to play around with filters.

I’d bought a matte box (the Fotga DP3000) earlier in the summer and a cheap pack of resin filters to use with it. Unfortunately, the Amazon listing for the filter set was vague and a little misleading, stating the filters were “standard size” and “square.” This lead me to believe they were 100mm x 100mm which is the standard square format and the kind that would fit in my matte box. They weren’t- which would’ve made them useless, were it not for the fact that they came with a filter holder and ring set to enable them to screw on to the front of a lens. I decided to keep them anyway since they only cost £20 and it’s always handy to have a lightweight solution rather than having to bring out the matte box and rails each time. It was the Grad ND filters I wanted to play around with and “Thirteen” with its landscape long shots gave us the opportunity to create more dramatic skies with the filters.


Eric and our canine performer, Buster, starred and Sophie recorded the audio. Since the film had no dialogue and didn’t need sync sound, Sophie recorded atmos, footsteps and other sounds to a Tascam portable recorder. The rest of the sound design, such as the voices, would be created in post.


Note Rick’s “directing the shot” hand position

These were just a few of the microshorts we shot over the summer. We also shot a bunch of scenes and sequences (mainly as shooting exercises for the less experienced among us) that didn’t really come out as stand-alone shorts. But it kept me busy and it kept me making films. Over the last couple of years, my expectations of my work have grown and with it, the length, budget, production time and size of the projects have all increased- which means I don’t produce as many films as I used to because each one is an increasingly bigger endeavour. It’s like trying to eat your own body weight in Pringles- it’s a challenge that continually raises its own bar as you attempt it. But microshorts have given me a break from that, allowing me to try out different things and do so with minimum expenditure- something I wholeheartedly intend to continue doing through 2018 (although how that’ll work with my 7 day a week work pattern, I have no idea!).

So if you’re a filmmaker in a bit of a rut and want to keep yourself motivated while bigger projects take their time, get some people together and make a microshort or two!

[All but one of the stills in this post courtesy of Eric Garson]


Why the new ghostbusters film needs to be a success…

July 10, 2016
What did he just say?

What did he just say?

Yeah, you read that right. I’m actually encouraging people to buy a ticket for the new Ghostbusters movie.

Not “go to see it” necessarily, just to buy a ticket. And, if you’ll bear with me, here’s why…

Hollywood is a business. If you think the film industry is about creativity and artistic integrity, then firstly, you’re pretty naive and secondly, I’ve got some magic beans to sell you… Hollywood cares about money and primarily, they measure this by box office returns. Specifically, the opening weekend. So if a movie sells a lot of tickets and makes a lot of dough, it’s considered a success and Hollywood then starts to commission similar movies, sequels and films that contain similar elements in the hope of milking that cash cow til its nipples run dry. This is the reason we get the films we do- because we’ve spent money on this shit previously. After the first Star Wars came out, we got loads of scifi movies and after The Matrix we got loads of slick action films with wire-fu fight scenes and leather trousers. But in recent years we’ve had movies based on childhood properties- stuff you’d spend your pocket money on back in the 80s and 90s that studios hoped you spend your nostalgia dollars on now. And we did. Why the fuck else have we had four Transformers movies? Four predictably shit Transformers movies!

Which leads me on to Ghostbusters. A classic movie and a not entirely terrible sequel that spawned a cartoon series and an Argos catalogue full of toys, costumes, bedsheets and y-fronts. As properties go, it was ripe for the remake machine. Fans wanted more, some of the original stars were interested… then things changed. We got a reboot, which means things could be different. We got a new cast, which meant things were different. And that new cast had vaginas, which meant a particularly internet-vocal femphobic demographic got all-caps typing on message boards. And then the trailer came out and even those who were keen to give it a chance and/or were pro-female characters weren’t altogether willing or able to defend it. It looked like a cash-grab (because, like most films, it is!), it looked hastily-put-together and poorly-made and it… just wasn’t funny.

Very few people saw that trailer and thought, hell yes, I want to go see that. Which means very few people will pay money to see it, which means the studio executives will see a terrible bottom line, which means they’ll assume many of the elements that went into the film are box office poison and avoid using them for a while.
And I think one of those elements cast aside to the filing cabinet labelled “Try Again in 2030” will be a primarily female cast. Women are sorely under-represented in the media, both behind the camera and in front of it and in 2016, that’s something to be ashamed of. (And if you’re still cheering at that, get your immature, butt-hurt feminazi bullshit off my blog page and go back to 4chan!) Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way women are represented on screen. They’re in supporting roles or they’re over-sexualised… or both. Female characters should have a greater range of roles than “male character’s love interest/wife/mother/prostitute- interestingly, all roles defined by the place the male character goes into or comes out from- and if we want that to change, we need to do something.

We need to vote with our wallets. It’s the only thing Hollywood decision-makers really understand. If you want more female starring roles, and a wider range of female characters portrayed on screen, Ghostbusters needs to be something of a success, no matter how bad it looks. I’m not saying go see it if you don’t want to…

…I’m saying buy a ticket.

Executives don’t give a shit if you saw a movie, they only care that you paid for it. You’ve willingly bought tickets to see a movie that you knew was going to be shit before and hated it anyway, but this time you’ll spare yourself two painful hours and instead have voted for something worthwhile. And if you do go to see it, well, it might not be as bad as the trailers or reviews make it out to be (hey, optimism!). Or you might find some entertainment in doing a little Mystery Science Theatre number on it with a friend or two. And you won’t annoy anyone else in the screening because I doubt there’ll be many people watching it with you…

But buy a ticket for the film. If you want more female leading characters in movies, put your money where your mouth is. Besides, it’ll annoy the feminazi brigade and that’s got to be worth doing, right?