“Above the Clouds”: Week 1

Principal photography has begun on my latest feature, Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie written by Simon Lord and directed by Leon Chambers. The film stars Naomi Morris as Charlie, an 18-year-old learner driver who sets off on an epic road trip from Margate to Skye with a ‘gentleman of no fixed abode’ as her responsible adult.

 

imageDay 1 / Monday

It’s a very different shoot to my last one. With a five figure budget and a total crew of about ten or twelve, we’re lean and mean. About a quarter of that crew are working for me – 1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Max Quinton, veterans of Heretiks, and my long-serving one-man lighting team, Colin Smith. We’re shooting on an Alexa Mini. Although it’s lovely how much lighter it is than the full-size model, it’s quite fiddly. It doesn’t help that the EVF is faulty, and while we wait for a replacement Max has to change many of the settings via a smartphone app. The lenses are Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, my first time with these, and I’m once again using a half Soft FX filter to take off the digital edge.

We start with a dining room scene. As many of the sets will be, it’s built in director Leon Chambers’ living room, so it’s not very big. We’re prepared for this though, and Leon has purchased several Rosco Litepads in 6″x2″, 4″x4″ and 12″x12″ sizes. We stick a 4×4 to the wall behind each character as hairlights, and rig the two 6x2s, at a perpendicular angle to each other, to a flag arm. Wrapped in unbleached muslin, they’re a pleasing key.

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After lunch we move into the shed, dressed as a young artist’s studio, complete with coloured string lights. Colin and I add three tungsten bulbs as additional practicals, plus a couple of the Litepads amongst the rafters. Outside the window we place a 4×4 kino or 2.5K HMI depending on the time of day.

 

imageDay 2 / Tuesday

Today we’re in Leon’s kitchen primarily, but with several of the scenes spilling into the hall and porch. We put our two HMIs outside the windows and initially use an LED panel on top of a cabinet and my brand new torch gaffered to the side of a cabinet to augment these for a scene that is meant to have an evening feel. Then we move onto a proper daylight scene and those have to go, to ensure all the light seems to be coming in from outside. The other reason they have to go is that we are now doing an ambitious steadicam shot which moves from the kitchen to the hall and porch, then back into the kitchen, then back into the hall and porch as characters exit the house. To the two HMIs we add the 4×4 kinoflo shining down the stairs, augmenting the natural light coming down from the landing windows. Thanks to the Alexa’s large dynamic range, we are able to accomplish the shot without any clipping, even when the door opens and when the characters move through the darkest part of the hall. The rest of the day passes in variations on the theme. I quickly find that the window positions are limiting and a fair bit of head scratching to make the angles work goes on before we wrap.

 

Day 3 / Wednesday

Back in the kitchen, one of our first scenes involves heavy smoke as a story beat. I decide to go with purely natural light, so that it’s soft enough to illuminate the smoke evenly, rather than producing shafts or pools.

After lunch we shoot a dusk scene in broad (albeit overcast) daylight. I cool down the white balance to 4300K and use a .9 soft edge graduated ND, just edging into frame, to bring down the sky a little.

Later we move to a garage, a scenario in which all the light is coming from outside through the door. Although this looks flat when the camera is looking into the garage, I decide not to fight that. When we look the other way I use matt silver bounce and a 4×4 kino to fill in.

 

Day 4 / Thursday

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We’re on location at a roadside cafe, and I agonised long last night about how much lighting gear we should take. We don’t have transpo or security so reducing the kit means a lot less hassle for us all, though generally I prefer to have everything to hand just in case. Ultimately I decided to keep it small – just LEDs, a 4×4 kino and then flags and bounce – knowing from location photos that there will be plenty of natural light.

In fact there’s too much. The photos failed to warn me of the skylights, which take a while to block with floppy flags and Easy Up walls clipped between them. Leon has set me up for success though by choosing to shoot the scene with the windows (and therefore the key light) in the background. Flagging the skylights and ambience allows the window light to wrap around the actors in a pleasing fashion, and makes for great modelling in the close-ups, with the window light hitting the talent’s down-sides. This natural light approach requires you to work with and respond to that natural light as well, and so I embrace the appropriate ‘broken key’ look that the sun position creates on male lead Andrew, a homeless man with a troubled past. (‘Broken key’ is a term Shane Hurlbut uses to describe a key light striking the talent not quite from the side, but slightly behind.)

imageLater we shoot a scene in the Fiat 500 ‘Yellow Peril’ outside in the car park. I use a rota polar to find the perfect amount of reflection in the car windows, striking a balance between seeing some clouds (the film is called Above the Clouds after all) and seeing the characters inside.

Again the 4×4 kino proves the ideal source to bring up the light coming through the windscreen, due to its shape and softness. As shooting progresses, the sky darkens. A storm is coming. We drop the kino down to one tube, quartering the amount of key light and therefore allowing me to turn off the Alexa Mini’s internal .6 ND, bringing up the background by 2 stops and re-balancing the overall exposure. But after one more take the rain begins, and we have to wrap. Fortunately we seem to have everything we need in the can.

 

Day 5 / Friday

After watching the news in shock over breakfast, and wondering just how badly Brexit is going to screw the UK film and TV industry, we head to Leon’s for some more scenes in his living room studio. This time it’s dressed as a Travel Inn, and my lighting is motivated by the bedside practicals on the back wall. (Lighting from the back first – always a good plan.) We put a dedo above each practical and a divalite between those to give us something softer and little wrappy. The only other sources are a third practical and a Mustard Yellow gelled 1×1 LED panel outside the window, representing a streetlight. For a morning scene in the same set we put a 2.5K HMI outside the window and let the closed curtains diffuse it, with no other sources.

The set is then reconfigured into reception, and I employ a cross-backlighting set-up, with an added LED panel to represent the glow from a computer monitor.

 

imageDay 6 / Saturday

Today’s location is a tiny little mechanic’s garage in the middle of nowhere. Most of the scenes take place in the doorway, so we are at the mercy of the weather, which is incredibly changeable. Bright sunshine, cloud and heavy showers alternate throughout the day.

On the first set-up I ask to wait for cloud on at least one take because I can see from the sky that is going to be the easiest thing to match to as the day goes on. Balancing the light inside and outside the garage will also be easier in cloud, even though the Alexa’s incredible dynamic range can handle it in bright sun too.

Aside from the weather, the big challenge for me is making the shots looking into the garage have depth. The best depth is normally achieved by having the brightest area of the frame be the background, and the darkest area the foreground. Looking into the garage though, the opposite is true. But there are other ways of creating depth. One is to make pools of light with practicals, so I leave on the location’s suitably grungy fluorescents. Another is smoke, so we pump a little in and use a 2.5K HMI through a window and a 4×4 kino tucked around a corner to pick it up.

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After dinner we have a very brief night scene to do. The blocking suggests raking the 2.5K across the front of the building which will also three-quarter-backlight the talent. Extensive experience of doing this in the past warns me that the angle of incidence could cause a massive reflection of the lamp in the shiny garage door, so I choose the lamp position carefully, and push it through an 8×8 frame of full silent grid cloth to mitigate any glare. Also this particular film seems to call for a ‘softly, softly’ approach to moonlight. It’s not fantasy, it’s contemporary comedy, so most of the time my night sources will be streetlights to keep it feeling realistic, but when I have to use moonlight as motivation I don’t want it to be hard and draw attention to itself.

The diffusion looks great, and the door is glare free, but I failed to consider the window. Fortunately Rupert spots a way to flag it. Saved by a great team!

All in all, a very productive day and a good week.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 1

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

Last week filmmaker Sophie Black‘s crowdfunding campaign smashed through its target. I asked her to share the story of how Songbird, starring X Factor contestant Janet Devlin, raised its funds. And if you’re interested in contributing yourself, the campaign is still running here. Take it away Sophie…

In all honesty, I was dreading the thought of crowdfunding for Songbird. I’ve worked on more fundraising campaigns than I can count (for myself and on behalf of other directors) ever since the early days of the format. Back then, it still seemed unique and exciting, and it was a little easier to reach your goal. Nowadays, everyone and their dog seems to have a funding campaign, raising money for films, inventions, albums… even personal ventures such as holidays and weddings!

The market has become over-saturated, and it’s more likely that your campaign will get a reaction along the lines of ‘not another one!’ rather than the intrigued enthusiasm you’re looking for. I’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of funds I’ve been able to raise over the years; my most recent campaigns, for the films Ashes and Night Owls respectively, were only able to raise between £800 and £2000, and even those amounts came after a hard fight.

However, if you want to get a film made, and you can’t afford to finance it yourself, crowdfunding can be a lifeline. There are very few funding resources for independent films, particularly short ones, and when my traditional funding applications for Songbird all proved unsuccessful, I was left no choice but to face crowdfunding again.

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For me, there was one condition to running another campaign; I wanted someone attached with a fanbase. It’s clear by now that the most successful campaigns have someone involved with a good online following – be it the lead actor or even a director with a decent level of buzz around them. Another independent filmmaker I know, Helen Crevel, recently raised over £5000 in a couple of weeks because she had Doctor Who star Colin Baker attached to her film. And I’m sure we all remember how well Zach Braff’s fundraising campaign went, starting a chain of big-name campaigns.

Janet Devlin was a name that came up early on in pre-production for Songbird. Writer Tommy Draper had her in mind during some of the first drafts of the film, and I’d also been a fan of her music for a while, so I was aware of certain similarities between her and the lead character of Songbird, Jennifer. She also has a beautiful singing voice, so we knew that the musical elements of the film would be in safe hands. But, creative reasoning aside, if you had to just look at the casting from a business perspective, Janet has a huge online following across Youtube, Twitter and other social media, and her fans are very vocal and proactive in their support of her work. For all these reasons and more, we are very, very lucky to have Janet on board – and from the moment she announced her involvement in Songbird, the amount of interest in the film doubled – as did the amount of followers on the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page!

Even with those initial seeds sewn, myself and my team still launched the crowdfunding campaign with some trepidation. We had an early boost, as we were able to raise over £1000 within the first 24 hours. By the next day, we were on £1500… and then it stayed around that mark for about a week. An early sense of security was immediately replaced by doubt and fear, as well as emails from backers asking what would happen if we didn’t reach our target. There was always a certain amount we needed to raise in order to make the film, and as we’d set up our Indiegogo campaign to give us whatever funds we raised, even if it was too little, we were putting ourselves at risk of a fall.

Between myself and my core team, we had managed to raise a small amount of the budget ourselves before the campaign started (less than £1000) so we were able to drip-feed this into the campaign on and off in small amounts to keep it appearing active when we needed to. But we tried to keep the momentum going in other ways; as well as the standard social media posts morning, noon and night (the ‘bugging’ element of crowdfunding that no one really likes!), producer Laura Cann contacted relevant online magazines who might be interested in the campaign – fans of independent filmmaking as well as fantasy – and we both posted the campaign in relevant Facebook groups and forums.

We also maintained interest in the film by releasing new videos about it every time we hit a certain benchmark in our funding campaign (£500, £1000, £2500 etc). For added intrigue, we kept the title and content of each video secret until the subsequent one had been released. This was a technique director Neil Oseman and I first used during the post-production funding campaigns for Stop/Eject; it worked well then, and gave our followers some nice insights into the production, so I was keen to do it again. But there was one mistake we made back then that I didn’t learn from; once again, I didn’t get all of the videos ready ahead of the funding campaign. I did the first two/three, thinking we’d have plenty of time before the next target was reached. What happened next scuppered that plan…

Although the first surge of donations was unexpected, the people who donated were, to a degree, ‘accounted for’: they were people we knew, people who had supported our campaigns before, or film fans keen to find out more about a new film. These are your target audience for a standard fundraising campaign, and the type of people you usually expect (or rather, hope) will donate.

But behind the scenes, Janet’s fans had been slowly sharing the campaign page on social media, and the amount of ‘tweets’ and ‘mentions’ had grown steadily. Tommy helped aid this by making a list of people he noticed regularly shared Janet-related news, and he encouraged them by contacting them and thanking them, or by asking them directly to contribute. Janet and her team had also been working hard, not just behind-the-scenes but in effective public posts; as well as sharing her fans’ tweets, Janet posted a photo of herself writing the songs for Songbird, with a link to the campaign in the comments below. This gained more attention than any repetitive sharing of the campaign page alone would do.

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Eight days into the Songbird campaign, we were stuck at around the £1500 mark still. I was producing a corporate shoot in the middle of a field that day, with minimal signal, so I didn’t pay much attention to my phone or the campaign. It didn’t seem overly active at the time. By the time I got signal again, we had nearly reached our target. We had suddenly had a surge of big donations – some in the £100s, as we had received on day one, but even a couple of £1000s. Two days later, we had not only reached our goal, but we had surpassed it by £2000. As I write this, the current total is just over £10,000. We asked for £7,500.

Getting more than you ask for isn’t all fun and games; it means that the cut Indiegogo (or whichever hosting site you use) will be much bigger, so you need to prepare yourself for that. Also, unless you double your budget, your new funds won’t be enough to boost every department of production, so you need to be clever about how you spend it. It can be good to think about things you didn’t have before, that you can now afford (most people forget to budget for post-production and festival entry fees in their initial budget. Going over target can enable you to think about that properly for the first time) rather than upgrading elements you already had. The other, final downside is that you need to be careful about where you put the money once it’s ready to be transferred; you can’t have amounts as big as £10,000 moving around your bank account without making sure its accounted for down the line!

But, these minor inconvenient truths aside, my team and I are of course ecstatic about having smashed our goal. We’re beyond-words grateful for all the support we have received so far. We went from being rejected for funding to raising 134% of our budget within a fortnight. And, with the unpredictable nature of crowdfunding, all I can say in conclusion is that it’s down to three things: 1) having a popular name in the lead role, 2) my core crew working damn hard every day, and 3) a good old dollop of flukey good luck on the end. Having Janet’s fan base behind us is a privilege, but I like to think that personally keeping a good online presence and supporting other independent filmmakers over the years might have given us a boost too, even if it was on a smaller scale. Because the first person who donates to your campaign – be them your friend, your colleague or even your Mum – is just as important as the person who takes you over your target.

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

Poor Man’s Process II

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog about Poor Man’s Process, a low-tech method of faking shots inside a supposedly moving car, using lighting gags and camera movement to sell the illusion. But Poor Man’s Process doesn’t have to be limited to cars.

While gaffering for DP Paul Dudbridge on By Any Name, we had to tackle a nighttime scene in which the hero flees through a forest. Rather than trying to get close-ups with any kind of tracking rig, Paul decided to use a technique apparently favoured on Lost, whereby the actor and camera are stationary, and lights and branches are moved around them to create the impression of movement.

It worked a treat, so when faced with a very similar scene on Ren, I shamelessly ripped Paul off. The actors weren’t sure; they felt pretty silly running on the spot, but we persevered. My lighting set-up used the 2.5K HMI, already rigged for earlier shots, as a side key, and an LED panel as three-quarter backlight. Branches were waved in front of both to throw shadows, and I shook the camera a lot.

Poor Man’s Process was required a second time on the series, in the very last scene, on the very last day of the shoot.

Sophie Skelton (Ren) and Duran Fulton Brown (Hunter) ride Tony the Phony Pony. Photo: Miriam Spring Davies
Sophie Skelton (Ren) and Duran Fulton Brown (Hunter) ride Tony the Phony Pony. Photo: Miriam Spring Davies

By this time we were one big happy family and we were all having far too much fun. Gaffer Squish was singing “One Day More” from Les Miserables, actor Duran was riding Tony The Phony Pony like a rodeo champ, candy was being freely imbibed and marshmallows were being toasted. The Poor Man’s shot seemed more like an extension of us all just larking about than anything else.

Ren and Hunter were required to ride off into the moonlight on a single horse, but the horse in question was quite jumpy and not safe for the actors to ride. Designer Chris and production assistant Claire knocked up the highly impressive phony pony, which was used extensively, but moving it fast enough for the final shot was out of the question.

Claire Finn prepares for some arboreal lighting action. Photos: Miriam Spring Davies
Claire Finn prepares for some arboreal lighting action.

So Tony remained stationary while Claire, her sister Alex and producer Michelle threw dignity to the wind and ran around with bits of trees.

I was using the 2.5K HMI as backlight, and a 1.2K HMI bounced off Celotex as a side key. Claire, I think, was on the 2.5K, jiggling a branch about to create some nice dynamism cutting up the hard backlight. Alex, if I recall rightly, was doing a windmill action with her branch in front of the Celotex. Michelle, meanwhile, stood ready with her branch until director Kate called “Tree!”, at which point Michelle would run past at full pelt and Sophie (Ren) would duck under the branch she was supposedly riding by.

You can see some behind-the-scenes footage in Lensing Ren episode 5.

Aided by smoke, a wind machine and the obligatory camera shake, the whole thing was quite effective. Less so the Epping Forest shots, which didn’t make the final cut. Somehow the running-on-the-spot was never quite convincing. Not enough choppy shadows, maybe?

My last project was a $4 million feature, but even that called for Poor Man’s in one instance. A small train carriage set piece had to appear to be moving as our heroes jumped onto it, so in front of each light we placed a ‘branch-a-loris’, a kind of man-powered windmill made from scaff tube and branches. Again lots of smoke, wind and camera shake were employed to sell the illusion.

I think Poor Man’s Process is one of my favourite techniques. It doesn’t always work, but if there’s enough movement in the camera and the lighting, and it’s cut in with genuine wide shots, it can often be extremely effective.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please do me a little favour and vote for Ren: The Girl with the Mark in the Melbourne Web Fest Audience Award Poll (find us in the drama section). It only takes a moment!

Poor Man’s Process II

Diagnosing a Pharma Hack

wordpress-bloggingToday’s post is not about filmmaking, but I hope it will be of use to other WordPress bloggers who have been the victims of so-called Pharma Hacking.

A few weeks ago I started to notice strange things happening on this site.

The first thing was that I couldn’t log in. At the top of the login screen there would be an error message similar to this one:

Warning: Cannot modify header information – headers already sent by (output started at /home/trustjho/public_html/blog/wp-content/themes/adspress/functions.php:74) in /home/trustjho/public_html/blog/wp-login.php on line 302

I googled the message and found various suggested solutions, but in the end the only one that worked was to reinstall WordPress.

The next issue was that the media gallery wouldn’t load. When I tried to upload a new image for a post it wouldn’t work, and I couldn’t see any of the images I’d uploaded previously. I tried all the usual WordPress troubleshooting – deactivating plug-ins and themes, which did nothing, and again reinstalling the core files. After the reinstall the problem went away for a little while, but soon came back.

The third thing I noticed was line breaks appearing after links in many of my posts. I checked the html code of the posts, but couldn’t see any reason for this behaviour.

Fourthly, and most worryingly, I started coming across a couple of weird sentences at the bottom of several blog posts – sentences which I didn’t write. It was always the same:

“Here what I remember even at that time when I sleep it Cialis Dosage which has to be fixed and can’t be. Cialis dose it is an important element of reception. Which it is necessary to remember.”

Both instances of the word Cialis were hyperlinks to a site selling the drug.

After hours of googling I figured out that I had been Pharma Hacked. Pharma Hacking involves uploading rogue code to your WordPress site which then inserts text and links into your posts. It also inserts javascript into the posts which renders the text and links invisible to human viewers, while still being visible to search engines. The result is that the linked drug site rises in search engine rankings because all these invisible links to it have been maliciously inserted into unsuspecting WordPress sites. Because the text is invisible, readers of the victim’s site and even the owner of the site may be completely unaware that it has been hacked.

When I looked at the infected posts in the ‘text’ view mode (as opposed to ‘visual’) I could see two additions, one at the start of the post:

<script type=”text/javascript”>// <![CDATA[
function get_style6610 () { return “none”; } function end6610_ () { document.getElementById(‘database6610’).style.display = get_style6610(); }
// ]]></script>

And one at the end:

<p id=”database6610″>Here what I remember even at that time when I sleep it <a href=”http://cialisdosage.biz/index.html”>Cialis Dosage</a> which has to be fixed and can’t be. <a href=”http://cialisdosage.biz/index.html”>Cialis dose</a> it is an important element of reception. Which it is necessary to remember.</p>
<script type=”text/javascript”>// <![CDATA[
end6610_();
// ]]></script>

Together the two pieces of javascript ensured that the text and link were not displayed. I’m still not sure why I was able to see the text on some of my posts when viewing my site’s front end, but it was lucky that I could otherwise I might never have diagnosed the problem.

After some more googling I downloaded Wordfence, a plug-in that scans your site for malicious code. Wordfence identified around eight or ten malicious files, which I immediately deleted. Straight away the media gallery started working again and the rogue line breaks after links disappeared.

Unfortunately Wordfence isn’t able to remove the text from your posts. I googled around for something that could, and in the end used a plug-in called Search and Replace. This was able to delete all instances of the sentence “Here what I remember….” and its hyperlinks, which turned out to be in over 900 of my 1,100 blog posts. I can’t remove the javascript, because the ID number in it (6610 in the example above) changes with every post, and I can’t find a search and replace plug-in that can handle a wildcard like that. However, without the text and links the javascript does nothing.

I still don’t know how my site got infected in the first place, but apparently the most likely route would have been through one of the old, out-dated plug-ins I was running. Evidently it is very important to regularly update not just WordPress but all of your plug-ins to make sure there are no security loopholes. And I will be performing regular Wordfence scans from now on to check for anything slipping through again.

Diagnosing a Pharma Hack