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A Plan B for Phase 3

October 30, 2014

For many comic book fans, the fall of a superhero is one of the most interesting things a franchise can do. Show Batman as an octogenarian, show Superman as a bad guy, show Peter Parker after he loses his spidey powers. It shuffles the recipe up and provides new angles for the characters as well as playing to our human desire to see good things fall and watch the world burn.

The big question for me at the moment, is whether the comic book movie studios can take the same karmic switcheroo.

Marvel Studios has just announced their phase 3 for all the big and small screen outings of their properties: nine big, full-budget feature films over the next four years, not to mention TV shows and mini-series. It’s strange to think that only a few years ago, this would’ve been unthinkable for a relatively small studio like Marvel (even if the house of mouse is now writing the cheques) to attempt. Comic book movies have always had a mixture of financial success and critical bipolarity, ever since Donner’s 1978 take on Superman. The average moviegoer enjoyed the spectacle and blockbuster nature of the flicks and comic book fans were always torn between disappointment at how their favourite characters were treated and joy for the fact those same characters actually got a big screen outing. Until fairly recently, there wasn’t really a way to have both- a successful movie that pleased fans and non-fans alike and made a helicarrier full of cash.

Then Marvel took the bold step of trying to make their own movies. Only problem was, their biggest, most well-known properties, both within the comic world and with Joe Public, were in the less-than-loving hands of studios like Fox and Sony and no-one wanted to work with Marvel on their own big screen vision for their remaining franchises. All they had was passion, determination and faith in their material.

Fast forward a few years and it’s obvious that faith and determination paid off. The box office success of film after film, coupled with critical acclaim from both fans and average Joe alike meant the Marvel movie train is a force to be reckoned with. Warners, Sony and Fox are all trying to ape Marvel with whatever comic book properties they have and can get their paws on- most transparently, the DC/Warner attempts to build a roster for a Justice League movie so they can clone a bit of that Avengers magic.

But there’s a potential storm heading their way and it’s something that could affect all these franchises and their outpourings, including knocking Marvel’s four year plan upside the head like a Mjolnir to the face.

If the average movie-going public tire of comic book movies, everyone’s fucked.

Comic book fans often shake their heads at this with all the blinkeredness of a fundamentalist preacher one day after the rapture didn’t happen, but it’s true. In the grand scale of things, the fans are a minority- certainly in terms of box office takings. They might be vocal and enthusiastic and buy all the merchandise, but when it comes to the quarterly bottom line, the comic book fans are not the primary audience at all. Most of the money from these films came from audiences who had no idea about the universe or characters beforehand. They went to see the films because they were big-screen blockbuster event movies and they looked like fun. Which they were. And people love them. But unlike the hardcore fans, the average movie audience is fickle, easily led and prone to boredom. Too many comic book properties vying for their attention and money could confuse or alienate them, particularly if they feel like they’ve seen them before (the remakes and re-imaginings of Spider-Man and Batman really don’t help). And if they lose interest, the Scrooge-McDuck pot of gold that’s financing these films will dry up like yesterday’s spilt Cristal. No amount of fan support will help finance a new Avengers team-up if that happens.

Iron Man Hobo

Marvel’s future fundraising method

The fact is that Marvel really isn’t helping itself here. Two or three blockbuster instalments every year might be fine in isolation, but Marvel isn’t the only contender in the comic book arena. Warners and Sony and Fox and all the independents are all going to be rushing to put their own properties in the multiplexes, Blu-Ray shelves and download charts in the hope of cutting a slice of that sweet, sweet pie and the end result is going to be over saturation and too much choice for the consumer. Something the average movie-goer isn’t that comfortable with.

It happened with Scifi in the wake of Star Wars and it will happen again. I just hope Marvel has a plan B.

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

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

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

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

The Big Picture

BigPicture

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

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

The Events

Events

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

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

The Characters

Characters

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

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

The World

World

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

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

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

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

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shooting “Bless of an Angel” Part 2

April 10, 2014

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

Shokamo CD Cover Art v1

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

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

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

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

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

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

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

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

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

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

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

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

ShokBW

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

It was a good shoot.

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

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

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Storyboarding “Bless of an Angel”

February 2, 2014

I’ve been storyboarding again!

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

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

On an iPad.

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

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

photo

Concept art drawn in Sketchbook Pro

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

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

DSC00281

Using Procreate and the Cosmonaut Stylus

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

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

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

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Another Year. Another Chance At The Title.

January 2, 2014

Rather than do the traditional end of year summary- it was shit, not a lot happened!- I thought I’d share a mini epiphany I’ve had over the last few days of 2013. An epiphany that I hope will carry into 2014 and make me achieve more with the next twelve months than I have with the last…

You see, I started 2013 in much the same place and state of mind career-wise as I finished it. As I said before, nothing happened. Well, almost nothing. But that wouldn’t make for a succinct, somewhat melancholy lesson-learned kinda thing would it?

gw909-epiphany

So… yeah… I’ve had a little epiphany. Or a minor and possibly quite obvious revelation of sorts about me, my career and why the former is depressed and the latter is borderline nonexistent. And I thought I’d share it with the people who read this blog. And you, if you’re reading this and aren’t called Vince or Sam.

And it all starts with New Year’s Eve. Like most years, I often wind up at my friend Phil’s house party on NYE. That’s assuming I even feel like going to a party and not working my way through a DVD box set, refreshing Facebook and slowly crying into a tube of Pringles. Okay, it’s never been that bad, but you get my point. Anyway, I was at Phil’s and usually these parties have quite large guest lists- Phil’s a talented and subsequently-busy DoP which combined with our uni friends, his housemates and his housemates’ friends means that there are often lots of people for me to not remember the name of all evening. I tend to go because it gives me a chance to catch up with our uni friends- many of whom I don’t see or speak to very often. Well, once or twice a year at Phil’s parties usually.

I suppose that technically counts as a mini-mini-epiphany, really. That it’s my fault I don’t keep in touch with people and thus have what can only generously be described as an insular social life. That and Facebook, because let’s face it, whose social life has actually improved since that data-mining, sponsorship-and-adverts time-waster poked its way into our real lives and nullified the need to go out and, God forbid, actually talk to another human being using actual words instead of smilies, non-commital clickable affirmations and dubious abbreviations?

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Just me then? I really am a sad old bastard…

Anyway, me being shit at keeping in touch has a root- I avoid these things because I don’t like highlighting to people how much I’m failing. I’ve always feared failure, not out of some Pavlovian parental displeasure (they were always very encouraging!) but out of a sense of who I am and what I have the potential to achieve. Every time I turn up at these sort of gatherings I’m faced with assessing my career and life successes against everyone else’s and, in my own head at least, I always come off worse. I’m also not one to bullshit, so every “how’s things?” is automatically followed with the honest-but-understated “not great.”

The actual mini-epiphany though occurred specifically on this occasion though. A friend of mine from uni has been working his bollocks off this year, not on films but on music. Despite being on the same film course I was, Graham’s passion and skill was always with music. We all wondered many a time over those three years why the hell he wasn’t studying music in some way rather than poncing about with lights and cameras. Seems he wondered that too since after graduation he started pushing forward with his music career. This year, the fruits of his labour started to show- he released his first EP. I would insert a shameless plug and a link to where you can buy Chris Sagan’s EP “This Machine” but I’m not that unsubtle.

Ahem.

Buy this here!

Buy this here!

Soooooo…

Anyway, Graham (aka Chris Sagan) has followed his dream, his skill and his inevitable path. He’s worked hard to get to this point and hopefully will do well from here on. It showed me that faith in yourself isn’t enough. Knowing you have the skills and the potential and convincing others you have the skills and potential aren’t enough either. You actually need to work at something. Put the effort in, sacrifice the things that others get distracted by, take risks and shout about your achievements.

It made me realise that I haven’t got anywhere with my directing career because I haven’t put the effort in. My lack of success is my fault. So it is with that in mind, that I’ve decided that this year I will:

1) Put serious effort in to my career
2) Sacrifice things if necessary
3) Take risks
4) Shout about my achievements

funny-bucket-lists

And in addition, I’m going to try and be happy this year. Tough one I know. Don’t know quite how I’m going to achieve that (Chocolate? Hookers? Chocolate covered hookers?) but I reckon it’ll happen as a result of doing the following:

1) Pushing forward with my production company and making this thing work for me so I can…
2) Ditch the fucking day job. Ditch it like the soul-sucking whore it is.
3) Don’t fall for other people’s half-arsed promises and bullshit, even if I want to. You can’t rely on them for anything except disappointment.
4) Make an impact by getting the sort of directing credit that no-one can ignore. Which really means…
5) Throw caution to the wind, put the hours in, ignore the suffocating (non)advice of the well-meaning faithless and MAKE A FUCKING FEATURE FILM!

Yep. That’s the plan for 2014. Lose the suffocating normal job, earn money doing what you love and do the thing everyone advises you against. By making a FUCKING FEATURE FILM. Because I’m dumb as well as ambitious…

And at the very least, cheer the fuck up. Because I can be a real miserable bastard…

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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!

Shokamo BoaA

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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Shooting at Ongaku Studios

September 11, 2013

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The weekend just gone I shot a promo for local music recording venue Ongaku Studios (run by musician TJ Buchanan) and at the same time film a studio-style music video for The Papers who’ve been mastering their mixtape album there. A two birds, one bird-table, one stone kind of deal.

It’s been a while since I did any music-centric work- music videos, gig filming, promos etc- and it was great to actually get back into it. There were a ton of things I learnt from doing these sort of jobs back in the day, most of which I did at college when some friends and I called ourselves PurpleShakerMaker Productions. I learnt the hard way that multi-camera is the ideal strategy with bands and that there needed to be a systematic approach to shooting multi-camera and getting good material. I also learnt that clean audio is necessary to sync properly with the master audio track and that synching itself is a mighty pain in the gonads. We shot a number of music videos and multi-camera gig recordings in that time, but I more or less stopped shooting music-related work after college. In the main because I didn’t know much about music, bands, artists, genres or other videos (if it was made after ’97 I’ll likely just nod vacantly if you name drop) and also because it was usually Jim or Becki who got us those gigs. Instead I focused on shooting drama.

But I’ve been keen to get back into the music video saddle and the Ongaku Studios project is hopefully the first of many.

Ongaku Studios is a small, home-based recording studio with a fully digital control room, vocal booth and a flexible live recording space and it was the latter area that the majority of the shoot would be located. The band, The Papers, are a four-piece group- vocals, guitar, bass and drums- so getting them in the space with all their gear and Ongaku’s acoustic panels, mics and drum kit was going to be simple enough. Getting decent angles to film from and how to light the space was going to be trickier.

One of the nice things about doing a studio-style music video is that the space itself is part of things. This means that if we see cables or shadows of stands, that’s both acceptable and part of the texture of the video. With that in mind, I decided to side light Lou the guitarist and Yoshi the lead vocalist from opposite sides with my LED panel lights, creating their key lights on their side and a fill light of sorts from the panel on the other side. By tweaking the angles, I could also get some key and fill effect onto the bassist, Massyl since he was behind them and to one side. As always with these things, the drummer was the trickiest to light. Being at the back meant there was limited fill getting to him, but by putting a kicker to one side and slightly behind him, he too would get a bit of edge. Because of the nature of the space, this light panel would be visible in some shots- particularly wides- but I wasn’t overly bothered by this since, again as a studio video, seeing kit like this is part of the mise-en-scene.

I also decided to mix up the colours of each panel so as to add interest and shape things nicely. The larger LED panels at the front were balanced to tungsten, with the one edge-lighting the vocalist being slightly warmer and more diffused. For the kicker on Malaya the drummer, I decided to use a midnight blue gel. A little bold perhaps, but I’m a big fan of the blue backlight technique- the contrast between a warm key and cool rim light creates a simple but effective look. Granted, I didn’t have quite the right conditions for that and the blue light was probably more key than usual, but the effect was nice and it highlighted the drummer nicely and sent a bit of a blue tint towards Lou as well. Ideally, I’d have liked to get at least one more light in there, maybe a magenta coloured edge on the bassist… something funky. But we didn’t really have the space and I didn’t have the extra panel so I digress…

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For the camera side of things I decided to get out the B-Hague pipe dolly. I bought this a couple of years ago when shooting The Collector’s Room because I was fed up of wanting a dolly shot and not being able to have one… but if I’m honest, it hasn’t had as much use as I’d have liked- although every time I’ve bought it out, I’ve been glad to have it.

Due to space constraints, we set up the tracks on a diagonal towards and off to one side of the performing space. This meant that from various points on the track I could get clean shots of everyone as well as some great two shots and a wide group shot. In effect, this would not only be for creating a move during a shot but also for repositioning the camera. I figured this would be both a creative and practical approach to a lot of the filming. I also had my trusty Gorillapod Pro with me- or as I call it, my makeshift shoulder rig!- so I could get some interesting handheld shots.

Tripod. Shoulder mount. Bizarre sex toy. All these things and more.

Tripod. Shoulder mount. Bizarre sex toy. All these things and more.

The band came up with an idea where in the video they would be recording the track to an old dual tape deck, adding to the home studio vibe. And TJ, being the audiophile he is, had one to hand. So we dusted it off (literally- it had been in storage for a while) and perched it on a flight case. I decided that this would make a great dolly shot for the opening of the video- start on the tape deck as a tape is put in and record is pressed, then pull back and tilt up to a wide shot of the band in situ. The move required a pull back, an acute tilt and pan and a focus pull. Not an easy task for one person, which is where the old Sony shot transition function came into its own- set your focal distance for point A and point B, set the transition time to match your move and presto- focus pull. I’ve never really used it much, preferring manual controls to anything automatic, but it made things a damn sight easier here and I was glad to have it.

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Usually on a music video, the track is already mastered and finalised so the band just have to mime or perform in such a way that it matches, but one of the challenges here was that the band were going to be recording a live track for future mixing and mastering at the same time as we were shooting the video. Obviously, this presents a problem because the audio is being recorded at the same time and the edits aren’t always going to match if the band lose time or improvise. We weren’t able to reschedule the shoot til after the recording was done so I suppose it’s one of those things where you deal with the situation you have and try to make the best of it. Potential sync issues aside, it did mean that takes were frequently aborted for musical reasons- a fluffed line or a missed note etc- something that wouldn’t normally matter for the video because you would just cut to something else in the edit at that point. Fortunately, we had the time, the track was short and the band were pretty solid for the most part, but it was something I had to accommodate in my shooting plan.

Ideally for a shoot like this, you’d have multiple cameras and sync them all with time code or genlock, but since this was a single camera shoot, it meant multiple angles on multiple takes. My shot list included mid shots of the guitarist and the bassist, close-ups of their faces and hands playing, close ups and BCUs of the vocalist, mid and close shots of the drummer and a range of moving/reframing shots with the dolly. Knowing that there will likely be continuity and synching issues, the close ups of the two guitarists would be great as cutaways for when things don’t match. Another plus is the way Yoshi holds the mic very close to his mouth, obscuring his lip movements- meaning I can probably use his close up even if the audio doesn’t sync perfectly.

When shooting obs-doc style- as I did on the promo part of the shoot- my approach is to shoot mini stories of sorts. A small selection of shots that can be easily and flexibly edited into a sequence so as to tell or reveal some kind of narrative. And I have an acronym for the approach, for anyone who’s interested: ARES. Action, Reaction, Establishing, Specific. So, for example, if I was filming someone at the mac using Logic Pro, I would have a shot of the screen (Action), a shot of the person looking at it in close-up (Reaction), a wide shot of what’s going on (Establishing) and shots of their hands on the keyboard or mouse etc (Specific). The benefits of doing it this way are that you could edit the shots in almost any order and subtly change the nature of the “story” based on what you reveal and when. It’s essentially narrative editing and that’s a whole post all of it’s own, but say we saw our guy first, then saw the screen he was looking at. That would have a subtly different narrative effect to showing the screen then the guy’s face. The reveal of the second shot in relation to the first is what gives a story its inflection. Fairly standard stuff really, but I’m always surprised by filmmakers who don’t do things this way.

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For the studio promo, TJ wanted to highlight the studio’s features and areas and what that means for the musician. So shots of the control room, the Logic suite, the speakers, the band listening to their recording and mixing it, the vocal booth, the portable soundproofing panels, the live recording space, the fully digital connections, the drum kit etc all edited into a 60-90 sec promo video and cut to music (supplied by The Papers and a between-take jam session). This will likely be a much simpler edit than the music video, although there may be some key framing and graphics work to do. And since I need to wait for the mastered version of the live track before I can start the long slog of synching the multiple takes to the audio, this will be the first to be edited.

Time to fire up FCPX again…