When I give talks to film students, they sometimes turn their noses up at the corporate and participatory video work I do around my own creative projects. They like to think they can come straight out of university and make only their dramatic masterpieces. Now, clearly corporates pay the rent whereas the more creative projects sadly don’t for most of us, but there are many other excellent reasons to do them:
Transferable skills. By making corporates day in, day out, you’re keeping your camera, lighting, sound, editing and directing skills honed.
Flexibility. It’s much easier to fit your creative projects around a freelance corporate video schedule than a nine-to-five day job. Even having to go to the job centre to sign on the dole every week can get in the way of your own films.
Favours. To give just one example, a sound recordist is far more likely to work for free on your short film if you’ve hired him for several fully paid corporates jobs in the past.
Equipment. Your wife can’t complain about you buying a shiny new camera if you need it to earn money. And if you just happen to use it for your own projects too, well – everyone’s happy, aren’t they?
Credits. Every corporate adds to your track record. An actor auditioning for your short, a funding agency panellist considering your application, a potential collaborator checking out your website – they’ll all be more impressed and more willing to trust you if they see a long list of corporate credits rather than a part-time shelf-stacking job on your CV.
Dealing with feedback. We’ve all heard the horror stories of directors who’ve received notes from studio executives demanding that they change this or that. Learning to take on board the comments and suggestions of the clients who are paying for your corporates is great practice for this.
Tax break. If you make money from filming, your expenses are tax deductible. And those expenses include the cost of making your own movies, because it’s all part of your business. Many’s the time I’ve lamented spending all my money on making films… until I received a “nothing to pay” statement from the Inland Revenue. Mmmm, nothing to pay.
Tonight we’ve launched a brand new collection of Stop/Eject rewards. These unique and exclusive Stop/Eject-themed accessories have been handmade by our production designer and co-producer Sophie Black. They’re available in very limited numbers and for one week only. Visit stopejectmovie.com/collection to donate and claim your gift. All the money goes towards post-production and distribution of our magical and moving little fantasy-drama.
Hollywood is known for its wallet-busting excess. James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, George Lucas and J. J. Abrams probably spend close to a billion dollars a year between them making their blockbuster movies. But all of these directors (or at least their visual effects supervisors) know that sometimes the cheapest, simplest trick is the most effective. Here’s my run-down of the top five best low-tech effects in massive movies.
5. Jedi camera tricks
George Lucas is a filmmaker who was at his best when constrained by clunky technology, and that was certainly the case when he made the first Star Wars film. The motion control work produced by the nascent ILM may have raised the bar for every movie to follow, but Lucas frequently had to resort to much simpler techniques to put the world he imagined on the screen.
To make Luke’s landspeeder appear to hover, a mirror was attached in front of the wheels, reflecting empty desert. Some optical work was required to complete the effect, but Lucas got 90% of the way there in-camera. Sadly his approach to filmmaking is now exactly the opposite.
4. Space Jockey kids
When Diddly Squat came on board Alien, his vision was to take the B movie script and turn it into an A picture. This was embodied by the huge Space Jockey which the Nostromo’s crew find in the alien derelict. The studio didn’t want to pay for the massive sculpture, but Squat insisted it would raise the production values of the whole film and he got his way. When it was built, however, it still wasn’t big enough for him. The solution? If you can’t make the Space Jockey bigger, make the people smaller. He drafted in his kids and the DP’s, had the costume department whip up some small-scale spacesuits, over-cranked the camera and – bingo! – the Jockey looks twice as big.
3. Sie haben meine green screen gestohlen
The cinema of Michael Bay is like a twelve-year-old boy’s wet dream: explosions, car crashes, toy robots and Megan Fox. His best work, I suggest, is his 1996 film The Rock, featuring a destructive car chase around the streets of San Francisco. Amongst all the money shots of falling telegraph poles, coin-spraying parking meters and exploding trams (“Where’s that son of a bitch at? I’m gonna hunt him down! That mother fucker ain’t safe nowhere!”) are close-ups of the characters driving which were executed in a way a twelve-year-old would be proud of.
Did Bay put the car on a low-loader and tow it through the streets? No. Did he put up a green screen and comp in the backgrounds? No. Did he go old-school and use rear projection à la 24? No. He simply parked the car in a place where only empty sky could be seen behind, rigged a couple of out-of-focus lights in the background on dollies, ordered a bunch of grips to rock the car and shook the camera for all he was worth.
This technique is known as Poor Man’s Process, and is most commonly used for night driving scenes. But Bay had the genius to see that in a fast-paced action scene, as long as he kept the camera moving (note all the zooming) he could get away with it. To my mind it actually looks better than if it had been done for real, because the technique forced him to make the camerawork frenetic, which adds to the energy of the sequence.
2. Masking an edit
Arguably the highlight of J. J. Abrams’ masterful third instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is the scene in which we finally get to see the whole process of making and applying one of those miraculous masks. In a single shot we see Tom Cruise put on the mask and Ving Rhames blending the edges until Cruise looks like an utterly convincing Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many ways to transform one actor into another with digital technology, and while such technology was doubtless used to smooth out the transition, the shot has a very simple trick at its heart: as the camera tracks behind Rhames’ back, the momentary darkness is used to hide a cut.
Abrams employs the same technique in his equally brilliant Star Trek reboot, when Scotty accidentally transports himself into a water pipe in the engine room. Released from the pipe, he falls painfully to the ground and then gets up and dusts himself off in the same shot. A foreground pillar wiping frame conceals a cut from the stuntman to Simon Pegg.
1. Cardboard Titanic
Before he fell in love with performance capture, presumably as a result of getting the bends while shooting Ghosts of the Abyss, James “King of the World” Cameron was very canny with his visual effects. His films invariably ran the gamut of techniques, from the most cutting edge technology of the time to the oldest tricks in the book. So while Terminator 2 pushed the envelope with its computer-generated T-1000, Cameron was not averse to dressing Robert Patrick up in bacofoil for quick shots of the liquid metal villain in motion. And Aliens’ climactic nuke cloud was a cotton wool sculpture with a light bulb in the middle.
But perhaps Cameron’s most remarkable low tech effect comes in the second reel of his 1997 smash hit Titanic. The crew famously built a near-complete full-scale replica of the titular liner on the Mexican coast, while shots of the vessel at sea utilised a 45ft miniature surrounded by CG water and populated with motion-captured passengers (then a brand new technology). But when FX geniuses Robert and Dennis Skotak needed to put the Titanic into a green-screen shot of Jack and company playing poker in a dockside pub, they simply stuck a photo blow-up of the model to a piece of cardboard and dressed a Hornby train set in front of it. They called it the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was.
The following post has been created and released because you lovely people out there have between you contributed over £900 to the post-production funding of my fantasy-drama Stop/Eject. Visit stopejectmovie.com to become part of the project if you haven’t already.
Since Stop/Eject is still being edited, work has not yet begun on the visual effects for the film itself, but the trailer we released in May features three representative FX shots and it’s these that I’m now going to take you through. First, watch the trailer if you haven’t already.
And here’s the breakdown video. A full explanation of the steps involved can be found below.
This is a key shot and was carefully planned. I wanted it to be in slow motion, but the Canon 600D we used can only over-crank to 50 frames per second if the resolution is lowered from 1080P (full HD) to 720P. I built this limitation into the VFX design.
Firstly a wide shot of the shop facade was recorded at 1080P25. This was deliberately done in the morning, when the shop was in the sun and the opposite side of the street was in the shade, in order to minimise the genuine reflections. Then Kate (Georgina Sherrington) was shot emerging from the shop at 720P50, with the camera mounted on its side and framed solely on the doorway. This slow motion element could then be placed within the larger 1080P25 frame recorded earlier, maintaining the image resolution.
Dan (Oliver Park) and the car were shot in a car park with a locked-off camera, the former at 720P50 to ensure his movements matched the slow motion of Kate’s, and the latter at 1080P25 with the car driving at half the speed it should have been. These two elements were combined with a simple feathered crop. The collision will never be seen, so he simply vanishes at the critical moment. I figured the lower resolution of Dan would not be noticeable once this element was composited as a reflection.
In Photoshop, I created an alpha matte of the shop’s windows and door. I applied this to the Dan/car composite, then layered it on top of the Georgina/shop composite with an opacity of about 50% to give the impression of a reflection.
The door’s alpha matte was key-framed to distort as Kate opens it. The final step was to animate this part of the reflection to pan sideways with motion blur and fade out as the door opens.
Kate and Dan were shot separately for this, with the camera locked off. For both elements I created a difference matte in Final Cut, whereby the computer compares the element with a base image, in this case the same locked-off shot without either character present. I could then important these mattes into Shake and clean them up using rotoshapes and Quickpaint nodes.
Further use of these tools was made to animate the intersection of the two characters, revealing Kate little by little as she passes through Dan, all the time striving to give the impression that both bodies are three-dimensional. (Here I drew on many über-geeky teenage hours spent watching VFX shots in Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf frame by frame on my VCR, admiring the artistry and trying to figure out the technical trickery.)
After subtracting one matte from the other, I imported the result back into Final Cut and applied it to the original Dan element, placing the Kate element beneath to generate the final composite. A separate, static matte for the foreground records was used to layer them back on top, and an artificial camera move was applied to the whole thing to take the curse off the locked-off look. This move was possible without loss of image quality since we had shot 16:9 but were masking to 2.35:1, so we had surplus material at the top and bottom of frame.
Hopefully you didn’t even spot that this was a VFX shot. Sophie spent many sleepless nights labelling hundreds of cassette cases for the basement scene, but even these represented only a small fraction of the number required to fill the master shot. Therefore it was always planned to lock off the camera and fill in the missing tapes digitally.
I started by exporting a single frame to Photoshop, where I used primarily good old copy-and-paste, plus a bit of airbrushing and a lot of distorting and resizing, to clone the real tapes many times over. I then imported this layered file into Final Cut.
Next came the most time-consuming part. Hold-out mattes had to be generated for Kate and Alice (Therese Collins) to keep them in front of the cloned tapes. These were created in Shake as rotoshapes and key-framed every few frames to follow the characters’ movements. Once applied back in Final Cut, the foreground characters and falling tapes appear to occlude the digital tapes in the background as you would expect.
That’s all, folks. Please keep the donations coming. We’re just £43 away from the £1,000 mark and the next public reward – the podcast covering day four of the shoot.
Working on my Stop/Ejectmood reel for FilmWorks last week got me thinking about the various methods with which a director can convey his vision for a film during the development process. Here are the ways I’ve used over the years, and the pros and cons of each.
The first ones are all static images, so they can be printed out and thus viewed without the need for any technology (no worries about whether the recipient will be able to open this particular file format) but are also small enough to be emailed. They’ll never grab someone’s attention as much as a moving image, but take less time to absorb and can produce an instant reaction.
If you have the skills or know someone who does, high quality CONCEPT ART can dazzle and excite. Choose dramatic moments and give the artist guidance on the colour palette and lighting you’re after.
You wouldn’t get STORYBOARDS out at an initial pitch, but they’ll impress at a second or third meeting. They show you’ve thought carefully about the script and how you’re going to put it on screen. This is particularly valuable if you have complex action or FX sequences. Beware that if the person you’re pitching to thinks the script needs more work, they’ll see storyboards as jumping the gun. Get the script right first.
A MOOD BOARD is a scrapbook or montage of images from films and/or other artforms that represent the tone and style of your piece. Less skill is required to make one of these than concept art or storyboards, and although as a creative person you may balk at the implication that your film is unoriginal, execs will find it very useful to compare your project to previous ones. If you use images from a film that did poor box office, again expect tough questions about why your movie won’t fail too.
A variation on this is a BOOKLET which might contain some of the above, plus photos and biogs of attached or wish-list actors, a synopsis, a director’s statement and maybe even an outline budget. Ian Tomlinson, The Dark Side of the Earth’s incredibly talented production designer, came up with the period-style leaflets pictured at left to promote the project. In one of my Cannes video blogs you can see a bit of these leaflets. (Sadly they’re now all gone and they got quite time-consuming and expensive to produce.)
Now we’ll look at moving images. Nowadays these aren’t prohibitively expensive to produce, and can be distributed for next-to-nothing via the internet – but beware of techy problems on the other end. Even YouTube doesn’t always work. If the person you’re sending it to can’t open it, they’ll probably give up and move onto something else, perhaps without even telling you why. Frankly I reckon you’re always safer with a DVD. Playing it off a laptop, tablet computer or iPhone in a meeting is a bad idea. Execs are narrow-minded and will see your project as a cheap YouTube video rather than a big, cinematic venture. Plus the sound will be awful. In another of my Cannes vlogs I discussed the dilemma of whether it’s better to show your pilot with poor picture and sound or not at all.
Beware that many of the above materials will start giving the recipient thoughts about the budget. If your materials make it look like your vision will be expensive, be prepared to answer tough questions about that.
TEASER TRAILERS can be very useful for raising crowd-funding, but my feeling is that they’re not great for attracting conventional financing. Unless you’re going to chuck a hell of a lot of money at it and get an experienced trailer editor to cut it, the danger that a teaser trailer will look amateur and backfire is significant. You’d be better off with a rip reel.
PILOTS can also backfire. You can’t shoot it on a DSLR with a few hundred quid, then screen it at your pitch meeting and say, “The film will look like this, only better.” You have to shoot it with the production values you want the full film to have. That’s why my pilot for The Dark Side of the Earth was shot on 35mm anamorphic, and why we insist that anyone wanting to view it attends a screening of the print, rather than watching a crappy little quicktime or even a DVD. When you’re in that darkened screening room with the 5.1 track rumbling away and the image looking jaw-droppingly beautiful, only then are you doing your film-to-be justice.
Consider making a stand-alone SHORT FILM instead. My greatest regret with the Dark Side pilot is that we didn’t do this; we just took a couple of scenes from the middle of the screenplay and added an introductory voiceover and concept art montage to explain the story so far. It’s far and away my best work, but no-one’s seen it! If only I could have entered it into film festivals. Even if that hadn’t helped get the feature funded, it would have been great exposure for me and perhaps could have led to another of my projects getting made.
Another thing I tried for Dark Side before making the pilot was PREVIZ. These are filmed or animated storyboards, normally created once a project is greenlit to help plan and budget for FX, but they may also have value as part of a pitch, particularly if you want to prove you’re on top of how the FX will be achieved. The Dark Sides previz was shot with action figures and cardboard models and I’d certainly never screen them in a pitch meeting; I did them mainly for my own benefit. If they’re for a pitch, get a good CG animator on the case.
Finally, I once read about a filmmaker who created an AUDIO PITCH consisting of her own voice narrating the synopsis, mixed with music and sound effects. Whatever technology and skills you can access to best get your vision across, that’s what you’ve got to do. But remember, it has to be top quality or you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
What methods have you used to get your vision across?
This Wednesday saw the second session of FilmWorks, the “networked professional development” scheme which I’m on. In the masterclass section, Chris Hainsworth (managing director of AV Pictures) and Christopher Simon (producer of The Sweeney) talked about all the things you can do when developing a film project to attract pre-sales and financing. I must confess I found this a bit depressing, because they were all things I’d done with one of my feature projects, The Dark Side of the Earth, and I still haven’t been able to get it off the ground. I had the production designer create pages of fantastic concept art and a beautiful leaflet containing images, a director’s statement and a synopsis. I attached Benedict Cumberbatch, and shot a very expensive 35mm anamorphic pilot with him. I developed the script for years and hired a well-respected script editor to fine-tune it with me. The producer and I went to Cannes two years in a row and pitched to some big companies. And still the project remains unfinanced. (Although the pilot isn’t online, there are images and loads of behind-the-scenes videos at www.darksideoftheearth.com.)
It was heartening at least to find that I hadn’t been doing it all wrong. As a new director, no matter how many hoops you jump through, you will always be a tough sell. And luck will always play a large part – having just the right project with just the right elements that the person you’re pitching to is looking for at that moment.
The second half of the evening was much more positive for me. Even though I felt my mood reel was rushed, several people had nice things to say about it and wanted to hear more about my current project, Stop/Eject. And it’s a joy to hear more about everyone else’s projects as the course progresses. Already the seeds of future collaborations are being sown, and I have no doubt that this will be the greatest legacy of the course. It’s just a shame that the sessions seem to end just as they really feel like they’re getting going. At least they end for me, as like Cinderella I have to run off at nine on the dot in order to catch my train back to deepest, darkest Hairy Ford. I think I may have to start sucking it up and getting the later train, even though it means I won’t get home until after 2am.
A few days ago I re-read the FilmWorks homework instructions and noticed the hitherto-unnoticed word “edit” lurking after the phrase “mood reel“. Cue mad dash around the DVD shops of Hereford, frantic googling for software that will rip region 1 discs and even filming YouTube videos off my computer screen. I fear the technical aspect of the exercise may have overshadowed the creative one, but anyway here it is:
It’s probably the most random thing I’ve ever edited, but I can already see its value. Mashing up the romantic drama genre with sci-fi is not easy, and the Venn Diagram of audience demographics for those two genres has little overlap. I see the audience for Stop/Eject being males 25-45 and a wider female audience of 14-45.
Despite the difficulties, some films have straddled the genre gap successfully, The Adjustment Bureau being the best example to my mind. Sci-fi is at its best when using fantastic devices and situations to explore the human condition, and if I can pull off a moving personal drama against a fantasy backdrop it should be quite powerful. I think this is nicely encapsulated by Stop/Eject’s tagline: “What would you rewind?” – a classic “what if?” type question.