Last weekend was fun. On Saturday Col, Ian, Katie and I shot a trailer for some sort of 80s rockumentary starring the Wooden Swordsman, and on Sunday we were joined by Johnny and Therese to shoot my Virgin Media Shorts entry. Both projects were recorded on Super-8 using an old Bell & Howell camera of unknown reliability (and on HDV as a back-up).
We started at Col’s flat in the late afternoon on Saturday. Shortly after Col had picked Katie and I up, I realised I’d left the film stock at home and we had to go back. I cringe in shame at this rookie error. Once at Col’s flat we set up the Swordsman in the middle of his living room, backed by black weed-blocker sheeting from B&M. The poor puppet was then dressed with a leather jacket, a blonde curly wig, shades and a bandana. Col had storyboarded a series of amusing cliches from 80s promos, including foreground candles, power fists and lots of smoke.
Since we had limited stock we had to be very disciplined. Determining when we had reached the end of the cartridge proved much harder than anticipated, however. The manual said that a pink lever would appear in the top right of the viewfinder as the end drew near, and that when it reached the centre the cartridge would be spent. But instead of moving steadily towards the centre as I continued filming (I was DPing while Col directed) after making its initial appearance, this lever jumped about all over the place and occasionally disappeared altogether. The footage counter on the back of the camera was equally inconclusive, but since the motor seemed to be running just the same as ever, we decided it was safe to carry on filming.
We headed out onto the road, getting shots of the Swordsman from behind as he sat in the passenger seat – portrayed by Katie in the wig, jacket and bandana, with her face hidden. Then at a location by the Roman Road overlooking Hereford we took one of the Swordsman’s spare heads, dressed it in the wig and so on, and Ian puppeteered it, much to the surprise of a passing family. Sadly we didn’t get the lovely sunset Col was hoping for. (We wish we’d shot it the previous evening when we scouted the location).
It was a wrap, but it had become clear that there would never be a change in the running of the camera’s motor, not unless we’d bought a magic film cartridge that lasted ten minutes instead of the usual 3’20. Possibly the cartridge had already reached the end when we switched to exteriors. We won’t know until it’s processed.
Sunday dawned grey, wet and chilly. Typical. The weather had been lovely for several days previously, and has been pretty good ever since, but on Sunday itself it rained for most of the day. Since my film was entirely set outdoors – in the ruins of an old monastry over the road from my flat – this was a major problem. (By the way, I’m deliberately not mentioning the title of the film because I’ve decided it gives too much of the plot away. Must come up with a different title…)
At 9:30am we all walked over to the location. I spent an hour with the actors working through the script, establishing motivations and figuring out the blocking. Meanwhile, Ian and Col picked up all the empty beer cans and broken glass that were lying around and set up the picnic props – a wonderful 70s spread that upped the production values quite a bit. Then it was time for Johnny and Therese to go into costume and make-up courtesy of Katie, before returning to the location to begin shooting.
By this time it was raining steadily, albeit lightly. Although the falling rain was clearly not going to show up on camera, the dark rain spots on Johnny’s hat were a dead giveaway, and it didn’t make sense story-wise for the characters to be meeting for a picnic in a downpour. We waited at least half an hour in the hope it would ease up. It did not.
I made the executive decision to go ahead anyway. Shooting progressed at a good speed, even with umbrellas and plastic bags over everything, delayed only by me having to go back to the flat and get into costume as… well, to say who I was getting into costume as would give the whole game away. The whole thing reminded me of making films as a kid: the small, fast-moving crew, the low shooting ratio, the lack of equipment, me being in it. It was good fun, though as always there’s the lurking stress beast in the form of the ticking clock. We didn’t know what time the park would be locked up and we would be chucked out, so we couldn’t count on working too late.
The rain did eventually stop. In some ways it’s good that the weather wasn’t nicer, because then the park would have been busier. As it was, the only other people we saw were a bunch of stoners who didn’t stay long. The other stroke of luck was that the gate of the ruin’s only tower, which is normally locked, was broken – granting us illicit access to the tower and adding another dimension to the visuals of the movie.
We wrapped at about 6:30pm, not only just as the second of my two planned 50ft cartridges came to an end, but also just as the security guard arrived to lock up the park. All in all it could scarcely have gone better. Big thanks to everyone who helped out. I just hope that the camera isn’t faulty and that the film comes out, because it would be a real disappointment to have to cut the movie using the HDV footage.
I didn’t find it as hard as I expected to keep my shooting ratio on target. We rehearsed carefully before each shot, and got the majority of our set-ups in one take, shooting a total of less than seven minutes for what should turn out to be a 90 second film. Having this discipline really focused me, and I’m determined to shoot more stuff on Super-8 and maybe also 16mm over the next couple of years in order to cement this focus.