Posts Tagged ‘Directing’

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

January 22, 2018
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One of these things is more necessary on set than the other…

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

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

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

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

It was a comedy that was actually funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darrel Draper gets his stalk(er) on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I hadn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2017 Part 1 – “Dead Meet” and Learning from Your Mistakes

December 22, 2017

I kind of feel like a watershed has broken this year. 2017 has been full of more ups and downs than a group of manic depressives at a swingers party and yet I feel like I’m coming out of it in a better place than I went in. In an ideal world, I’d have blogged about this throughout the year, charting the ups and downs as they happened, but since I’m shite at this whole blogging thing, I’ve found myself at the end of the year with 12 months of stuff to cover. So I’m going to do this in parts. You can think of it as the traditional end of year blog post in chunks or me doling out the posts I should’ve made this year, but all at once. Take your pick.

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Let’s start with “Dead Meet.” For those who don’t know, “Dead Meet” was my action-comedy short film calling-card-to-be that I wrote in 2014, shot throughout 2015 and endured an extended and laborious post-production throughout 2016. But this year the flick was finished and I breathed a massive sigh of relief.

In spite of it’s painfully drawn-out post-production (due to multiple pick-ups, VFX issues and a score that took a while to come to fruition), I’m proud of “Dead Meet.” It isn’t perfect and I made a few crucial mistakes as a director (more on that in a minute), but there’s a lot that works that very easily couldn’t have.

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The fight scene in the bathroom is consistently seen as a plus point by audiences. While it’s obviously not on par with some of the best action sequences Hong Kong, Hollywood and elsewhere have to offer, it’s better than many straight-to-video indies and TV series’ efforts and is proof that the approach we used to create it was the right one. And when seasoned stunt professionals like Dean Williams like the way you do things and shoot the action, that’s a great compliment! The fact that Francesca and Dean are both keen to work with me again is also testament to both the approach we used and the results we achieved.

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The gunfight also works well… which is frankly amazing! This was a scene made possible only because it was storyboarded at the eleventh hour when I didn’t get all the action extras I was hoping for in the same place on the same day. The final gunfight was shot a bit here and a bit there over three days and it kinda shows with it’s cutting back and forth edit pattern. But it works, the sense of space is preserved and there’s the same musicality to the gunfight that we strove for in the martial arts sequence.

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The characterisations are frequently complimented and Francesca, particularly, is given a lot of praise for her ability to play a character with layers of performance (actor playing an assassin playing a normal woman on a date).

So all in all, I’m pleased with how the film came out, but it’s protracted production did take its toll. For most of last year and a fair chunk of this, I started to lose motivation and self-belief. With the only project on my slate in post-production hell, I didn’t feel like I could move forward to the next one without the closure a final render and a festival screener would bring. So when the film was released on YouTube back in June, shared over social media and the feedback was coming in, I felt much better about myself as a filmmaker.

But the feedback was mixed.

Amongst all the aforementioned praise for the action, acting and overall quality of the film (like this lovely review), there were a few negative comments. Criticism is hard to accept for any creative, but it’s part of the job. You have to be objective about it, take every comment and try to put it in context. Did they hate the film because of some pre-judgmental belief? Did something in the film rub them up the wrong way? Was it not what they wanted or expected? Was the film mis-represented in its promotional materials? But most of all… was it actually bad? Did I make a bad movie?

Daniel and Dom check playback on the Ronin

It’s always tough to prise the truth from audience feedback, because most audiences are unable to articulate why they didn’t like something. Often, they mistakenly attribute blame to things they understand, rather than the thing that really got to them. For instance, many people criticise the Star Wars prequels and blame Hayden Christensen’s acting for everything, when the reality is that the script was poor and the directorial decisions were ill-conceived- even a very capable actor would’ve delivered a less than great performance under those conditions. Audiences blame the actor because acting is something they understand- the script, the directing, the editing and other aspects of the production are something of a practical mystery to them, so they’re hard for the average Joe to pinpoint as a problem.

But as I said before, I did make some mistakes on this film and it’s quite likely that these mistakes led to the negative feedback. Some are minor things (a few missing shots here and there, some continuity errors, the director’s ipad in the background during the fight scene…) that audiences generally don’t pick up on that only I or other filmmakers are likely to notice, but a few were pretty fundamental affairs that could (and some might say did) derail the film.

The biggest was that I intentionally made a twenty minute feature film.

This could be classed as a mistake or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. I started out thinking it was the latter, I’m now fairly certain it’s the former. As I’ve said before, “Dead Meet” was supposed to be a calling card of sorts and since I wanted to direct long-form fiction, I made the decision to pace the film like a feature film, with a slow-burner intro and a definite build into the action scenes. I hoped this would make the film feel like something bigger and help convince people that I could direct a feature. Since Hollywood hasn’t called me yet, the jury’s still out on whether this is the case, but I do know that “Dead Meet’s” slower, more gradual pace and overall structure has probably hobbled its chances with festivals and streaming audiences alike. Short films need to get to the point quickly and engage their audience straight away- festival programmers are looking for any reason to ditch a film, as are online audiences and a slow start is as good a reason as any. Also, the film’s opening scene would probably have worked better as an action sequence- maybe a foot chase- but I never thought of anything that could be done on our budget at the time. I also rushed the character development in this scene and hit the audience with three minutes of expositional dialogue before the first bullet was fired. Not a great start, if I’m honest…

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Be afraid, critics. Be very afraid…

A similar issue is the film’s length. “Dead Meet’s” story was a bit more complicated than just a set-up for the arse-kicking and as such required a bit of screen time to tell. Someone once told me that a single story arc has a finite length- and that length is twenty minutes of screen time. In feature films or episodic shows, this is fine because half a dozen story strands can be woven together to create a compelling narrative. In a short film, you don’t have the screen time to develop multiple story strands- if your film is under twenty minutes, you don’t really have the time for one! And if your film is twenty minutes long, as “Dead Meet” is, you’re going to struggle with getting people to watch it. Festival programmers generally prefer shorter films (ten minutes or so) because they can then squeeze more into any given hour and thus have more films showing. So if you’re aiming for the festival circuit, you need to get the runtime under fifteen minutes and that means sacrificing some part of that story arc. I wasn’t smart enough to realise this when I wrote it- I just knew it needed to be twenty minutes or less because that was the maximum length for a short film as far as many festivals’ submission guidelines were concerned.

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Me at the Mockingbird Cinema for the Birmingham Film Festival screening

Although the film has had more than a few rejections from festivals, it did get into the Birmingham Film Festival and was screened, along with a bunch of shorts of similar length, in front of a small, but enthusiastic, audience. It was a great experience, seeing a film that I’d designed to feel like a feature film projected on a feature film sized screen with feature film quality audio. There was also an impromptu Q&A about the film and that too was well-received. It made me feel better about the whole project, the film and the journey getting there. And while there are still a few festivals “Dead Meet” has been submitted to and may yet play at, it was nice that the most problematic film I’ve ever made had such a good screening with such an appreciative audience.

I almost feel like I can draw a line under the project now and move on to something new, which is a great way to end 2017. A new year, with new projects and new opportunities…

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The “What’s Been Going On?” Post

April 13, 2016

I haven’t blogged in a while. Nothing new there. But it’s not like nothing new’s been going on in my film career, I just haven’t been writing about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. (It’s not like Spielberg, JJ, Ridley and I met up to talk about how awesome my new film was- JJ cried a little, it was very emotional…). I’ve just been lazy with the blogging and slightly less lazy when it comes to film-type-stuff.

So, what’s been happening since the last time I blogged?

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Most of my directing energy has been thrown into my latest short film Dead Meet. I started making this project about eighteen months ago- which is a fucking long time for a twenty minute short! People have met, fallen in love, had a child and learnt the Peppa Pig theme song in that time. And much of the reason it’s taken so bloody long was a series of problems finding locations.

The first location was stumbled upon when I shot a music video for The Midnight Rambler. I’d been talking to the band about doing a music video for a while and there are dozens of ideas, treatments and half-developed storyboards littering my iPad to testify to that. They were really keen to do something off the wall and cinematic- something I wanted to do as well. Eventually an idea took hold- to have two classical dancers tango while the band play their track Inside Out with a little narrative bookend to tie it all together. We knew a keen and capable tango dancer, Rex, and he asked his teacher, Sarah, to partner him in the video. And the location was one of the village halls Sarah teaches in.

I’m actually really happy with this video. While I didn’t always get the lighting I wanted (because I’m not exactly a great cinematographer and didn’t have the right kit to get the look in camera), I did manage to capture some of the grace and movement of the tango and time it to work with the song. It was only after the band and I watched it that we realised that while it was good, it wasn’t… the band. Somewhere along the line, we’d lost much of the band’s personality and comedic character. The video didn’t reflect the band as they were. So I was reminded of the age-old adage when it comes to music videos- be true to the artist and their music, don’t present them as something they’re not. (Actually, thinking about it, we kind broke that rule with Shokamo’s Bless of an Angel and that worked out great, so maybe the adage is only mostly right!) Plus, the band line-up’s changed and the arrangement of the track has changed, so all in all, this is a video that will probably never see general release. Which is a shame, but it’s what can happen in the ever-changing world of music videos.

On the other hand, sometimes you direct a music video that gets a lot of visibility. Irene Rae‘s See Me For Me was quite a simple shoot over one day in one very photogenic location. It was also a very quick production with virtually no prep and a very “wing it on the day” approach. There was no narrative and the only plan was to shoot a performance section and intercut it with various beauty shots.

What’s nice is that Irene Rae is very marketing-savvy and promoted the hell out of the video, getting it a ton of views on YouTube and good press into the bargain. It’s been a great artist-centric video to have on my reel, with a different style and pace to the other music videos I’ve been involved with. I hope to work with Irene again, maybe on a more cinematic video- which her sound would work really well with.

Sorry, I got sidetracked… Where was I? Oh yeah, the location…

So we were looking for a pub bathroom to film Dead Meet‘s fight scene in and had so far hit a brick wall. We were also looking for a pub- a brick wall of Great and Chinese proportions it seems- but I knew that the pub and the pub bathroom were not necessarily or likely to be in the same place. We needed a bathroom with decent dimensions- partly for the fight choreography we had been developing but also so we could get a camera and sufficient lights in there. So far, no joy- most actual bathrooms were the wrong shape, size or decor or were just downright disgusting.

But the village hall’s bathroom would work. I didn’t fancy having the conversation where I said I just needed to hire the bathroom for a day to film in, so I hired the whole hall. And after months of rehearsal and prep, this was what we shot:

The response to this video has been great. And hats off to Francesca and Dean for their work- we shot Hong Kong style, in sections, where the movements are choreographed with the camera and tailored to edit seamlessly with the shots on either side. This allows for shorter, but more intense takes with more complicated choreography and is quite difficult to do. Dean’s an experienced fight performer and has shot this way before, but this was pretty new for Francesca. She’d shot some action before (and quite a bit since!), but this was something of a baptism of fire. For me too, as it happens. As I’ve said before, I’ve shot quite a bit of action in my time- it was the thing that got me into filmmaking after all!- but not quite with this level of complexity and I quietly felt that this was a test of my skills and my resolve. I needed to prove myself with this fight scene, both to an audience and my own worst critic- me. But the response to the fight, even the rough cut, has been overwhelmingly positive.

With that fight scene in the can, the only thing that remained was to shoot the rest of it. And as I mentioned before, we had more than a few location problems. In fact, we didn’t get to shoot the rest of the film til November.

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I’ll put together a proper Dead Meet post a little later when we’ve shot everything (at time of writing, we have one more scene to shoot next week, then we’re done!), but the short version is that we got most of what we needed, muddled through on the things we didn’t have (enough extras, practical effects, the perfect location etc) and had a pretty good time into the bargain.

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Over this time, I did a few other bits and pieces including multi-camera music shoots for Silver Street Studio’s Aquedukt streaming community. I hadn’t done much in the way of live-mix work before this, although I had done a lot of multi-camera stuff. The general gist is a band come into the studio, we set up multiple cameras (at one point we had five!), all feeding into a software controlled mixer and they play and we stream live over YouTube. It’s been a steep learning curve- for all of us- but the results have been great and should be good long-term work if we can find a strong business plan for it.

I’ve also been busy writing. Two features, two shorts and a web series to be exact. None finished, obviously, this is me we’re talking about after all (“good starter, poor finisher” as some unfortunate and disappointed women might say). And at the moment, I’m trying to work out where to go from here. Will my next big project be a feature or a series? Or another short? I still don’t know and I’ll probably blog about that another time…

Music-related shoots seem to have been the focus this last year and I’d love to keep them a major part of my work. But over the next twelve months, I’d like my focus to be fiction and my directing career. I’ve been slack these last… ooh… eight years or so, and really need to pull my finger out if I’m to get within grasping distance of what I want: the hallowed director’s chair.

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…

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Realism vs Believability

November 29, 2014

Internet Anger

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

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

“Dinosaurs don’t have opposable thumbs!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life’s a Pitch

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

“…and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!”

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

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

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

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

I told the story from the beginning.

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

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

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

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

For the most part, yes.

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

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

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

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

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

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

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

The Big Picture

BigPicture

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

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

The Events

Events

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

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

The Characters

Characters

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

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

The World

World

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

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

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

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

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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