Yesterday I had to shoot some fake snow. Ironic, I know, given the weather lately, but it had to be composited over a pre-existing shot. Various software plug-ins are available to add snow to a shot, but I’m of the school of thought that says it’s always better to use a real thing. Even if it’s a fake real thing.
A few years back, Col sent off for some free samples of artificial snow from a weather effects company called Snow Business. (Eternal winter in Narnia? That was them.) When Miguel pointed out that a snow-covered shot of Belper’s bandstand in Stop/Eject looked like a still photograph in the edit, I saw a way to make use of these samples to bring some movement into the frame.
From the box of samples we picked one that appeared to be made of shredded carrier bags, because it floated the most realistically as it fell. I suspect you could make some of this yourself with a lot of patience and a few trips to Tesco. I set up black drapes with a redhead poking over the top to ensure that the snowflakes would be backlit without any direct light falling on the drapes. Then we rolled the camera and started sprinkling.
Afterwards it was a simple case of using screen mode (or ‘Add’ in Final Cut Pro) to combine the footage with the background shot. This mode gives exactly the same results as double-exposing a traditional photograph would: the black areas naturally become transparent because they have no brightness.
Must resist temptation to use snow-based puns...
Several years ago, Col and I did exactly the same thing with rain, filming water from a hosepipe in his back garden against a black night sky, then layering it on top of scenes from Soul Searcher.
Must also refrain from rain puns. Uh-oh, I said "refRAIN"...
We also shot one scene for Soul Searcher in “real” rain – real in so far as it was actually there falling on the actors, but not in so far as it actually came from clouds. Perhaps I’ll upload a behind-the-scenes clip of that for my next post.
After becoming interested in music at a relatively late age, thanks to a synthesizer Christmas present and the inspiration of James Horner’s Krull soundtrack, Scott majored in music at Notthingham Trent University. In 2002 he wrote an impressive orchestral score for Jim Groom’s noir feature Room 36, conducting the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra and recording all 50 minutes of music in a single day. Scott repeated this feat for Soul Searcher three years later, after responding to an advert I posted on Shooting People for a fully orchestral John Williams-style score – a goal which many people mocked as naïve or over-ambitious, but not Scott.
Scott recently took his first crack at some music for Stop/Eject and this is the result:
This is rough, unmixed and all done with samples. The finished version will, I hope, be recorded with live players. On Soul Searcher we were able to persuade a choir and a symphony orchestra to perform Scott’s score for us. Here’s a clip from Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher covering the music recording, one of the few things that didn’t go horribly wrong during Soul Searcher’s creation. (Remember that you can watch Going to Hell in full for a small charge at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher and Soul Searcher itself completely free on the same site.)
Following on from last week’s thoughts on planning VFX shots, I’m now going to look at the issue of CGI vs. miniatures. In this post I’ll cover some of the advantages of choosing computer generated imagery, and next time I’ll look at the advantages of miniatures. As any regular readers will know, I much prefer miniatures, but I aim to be completely impartial in what follows.
To start off with let’s go back 20 years to Jurassic Park, the movie that really started the CGI revolution, and find out why Steven Spielberg chose this emerging technology over traditional techniques. (Skip to 13:12.)
So Spielberg favoured CGI because it produced more realistic motion. In fact, watching Jurassic Park these days I find the CG dinosaurs are easily differentiated from Stan Winston’s full size animatronics by the fact that the former move much more fluidly. Even when miniatures move “live”, i.e. without stop motion animation – vehicles powered by motors or pulled on hidden wires, for example – the motion is often less realistic than a CGI equivalent because the laws of physics dictate a small thing will always move differently from a large thing.
So control was the key thing there. There were 80 shots, many with camera moves, and the umbilical cords had to be locked to the characters. Trying to achieve this with string and cables was just not realistic, or would have required so much manipulation in post as to make shooting a real element pointless. CGI can be controlled completely and adjusted quickly, without the need for reshoots.
Here are some other pros of CGI over traditional techniques:
No shooting required, so no crew to pay, feed, transport, etc. On a micro-budget where the crew are unpaid, CGI is completely free, whereas any kind of miniature shoot will always have costs.
CG elements can be tracked to moving plates without the need for expensive motion control cameras.
There are far more talented and experienced CG artists out there than model-makers.
You can create anything you can imagine, without any practical or logistical restrictions.
Can you think of any others? Let me know. Next time I’ll look at the advantages of traditional techniques.
A few years back I taught a module on Visual Effects for filmmaking degree students at the SAE Institute in north London. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how to actually do VFX, it focused instead on how directors and producers should approach and plan for them.
Here is one of the examples I gave, using a shot from my 2005 feature Soul Searcher. Joe Fallow (Ray Bullock Jnr.) sprints down the platform of Hereford station as the Hades Express departs, bearing away the villain of the piece and the kidnapped love interest.
Finished shot from Soul Searcher
The train was a 1:18 scale miniature and was dropped into the live action plate by means of a simple, static matte drawn in Photoshop – essentially a splitscreen effect.
But what if I, as director, had chosen a different camera angle?
Alternate angle 1
To achieve this version, the model train would have needed to have been shot against a green screen to make it appear in front of Joe and the platform. This would have complicated shooting the miniature slightly, as lighting for a green screen can be quite time-consuming.
Alternate angle 2
Here we have the opposite; now Joe is in the foreground, so he’s the one that needs to be shot against a green screen. Since he and the station are full size, the green screen would need to be much bigger and would require much more light. And remember we’re now talking about an impact on the main unit’s time on a location, rather than a small model unit in a studio, so the cost implications are magnified.
Alternate angle 3
Finally, what if I’d gone for a camera move? Now we’re into motion control rigs, to record the camera’s movement on location and applied a scaled-down version of that same move to the camera shooting the miniature. Either that or the live action plate has to be 3D-tracked in post-production, and that tracking data fed into the motion control rig that shoots the miniature. More time, more people, more equipment, more money.
Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe, preparing to fight the marauding demon
As we search for an editor for Stop/Eject, here’s a demonstration of the power an editor wields.
A few weeks before the premiere of Soul Searcher, my fantasy-action feature about a trainee Grim Reaper, I showed the film to my flatmates of the time. One comment concerned a scene in which the trainee reaper, Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr.), fights a demon (Shane Styen) while drunken revellers cheer him on.
As scripted, the scene covers only the start of the fight – enough to show how cocky Joe has become in his new role. (On the day of shooting we decided to extend the scene to show Joe killing the demon, but after a couple of shots Shane injured himself, forcing us to revert to the shorter version.) My flatmate wanted to see Joe kill the demon, and I decided he was right.
I certainly wasn’t going to do a reshoot at that stage in the game, but nonetheless I was able to alter the scene to have the demon die. I did it in three steps, and these conveniently illustrate the three prongs of attack you can use in post-production to change and improve your story.
Re-purpose existing footage. The demon knocks Joe’s scythe from his hand early in the scene, so my first challenge was to get the hero his blade back so he could strike the fatal blow. Fortunately I had left the camera running while shooting a series of takes of Joe’s scythe hitting the ground. Therefore I had also caught the scythe being picked up on camera. This was never intended to be used, but it worked a treat.
Visual effects. I’m no fan of digital fixes, but there’s no denying they can get you out of a tight spot. The existing cut of the scene had a shot of Joe walking up to the demon, but now I needed to put the scythe into his hand, so I cut out the scythe from a freeze-frame of another shot and motion-tracked it to Joe’s movements.
Sound. This is the most commonly-used tool for changing things in post. Any time in a movie that a line of exposition is delivered without the speaker’s mouth being clearly seen, chances are that it’s Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR). It’s far easier to get the actor into a recording studio to perform a new line than to go back to a location or a long-struck set and reshoot. But in this case all I needed to do was put in some slicing, crunching sounds and a grunt, which I ran over a handy shot of the drunken revellers.
Here is the original scene followed by the bits I changed and then the final version:
Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. I’ve heard of actors who’ve found themselves edited into scenes they’d never shot. If you’ve substantially changed the character with your tinkerings, or placed an actor into a sensitive or controversial scene, be sure to discuss it with them just as you would have done beforehand if it had been shot conventionally. The same goes for the writer if you’ve made a big change to their script.
Some might look at all this as cheating, and I confess I have mixed feelings about it myself. I believe in getting things right in-camera, but the reality is that all films are prototypes, and you’re often well into post-production – at least – before you really figure out what the best way is to make this particular movie.
Lara Greenway and Ray Bullock Jnr. watch the Soul Searcher trailer for, like, the gazillionth time.
For independent filmmakers, there was a time when trailers were something you didn’t worry about until the movie was finished and you were looking to get it distributed. Maybe you cut a basic one during or just after production to show the cast and crew some of the fruits of their hard work. (This proved a massive morale booster during Soul Searcher‘s six-week principal photography slog.)
But times have changed. Now the saturation of broadband has made video on the web an everyday thing, and a trailer for your short film or micro-budget feature posted on-line has a good chance of reaching some kind of audience and starting to build word of mouth about your project. Not to mention the rise of crowd-funding, for which having a pitch video – typically consisting partly of a trailer – is essential. Indeed, shooting a trailer before you’ve shot the film, in order to raise finance, has become extremely common.
So today I’m going to share some advice on editing trailers. I can’t claim to be an expert on trailer editing – it’s not an area of editing I’ve ever been able to specialise in – but the trailers I’ve cut generally get a good reaction, so I must be doing something right.
By the way, these tips assume that you’ve actually shot the film. If not, you’re more in the area of a teaser trailer, which is a whole other subject.
The first trailer I cut for Soul Searcher – the morale-booster – used Mark Mancina’s theme from Speed. Since it was just for cast and crew and wasn’t going on the internet, the copyright thing wasn’t an issue. But these days you’ll definitely want to put your trailer online, so make sure you have the rights to use the music.
If you already have a composer lined up for your film, it may seem logical to have them score your trailer. This is what I did for Soul Searcher’s second trailer, edited primarily for a preview screening at 2004′s Borderlines Film Festival. Unfortunately this didn’t really work. The composer dutifully reflected every little change in the on-screen action. But that’s not how trailer music works. Trailer music needs to be driving and insistent, and should only change moods at two or three carefully planned points. So here’s the tip:
ALWAYS CUT YOUR TRAILER TO MUSIC. Never edit first and try to add music later or have music written to fit.
Watch the Dark Shadows trailer and notice how they use music to pace the edit and underline the transitions. Also note how they punctuate the comedy by stopping the music for the bigs gags, then bring it back in over a reaction shot.
Everything you need to know about how to edit a trailer can be learnt from simply watching trailers. You’ll notice that they’re structured into well-defined acts, with a key plot point and a change in the music between each act. Like an actual film, the first act will normally set up the world and characters, the second will present a sticky situation and the third will be about trying to resolve that situation, although of course in a trailer no resolution will come.
These days the studio logos tend to be a few shots in, or even at the start of the second act. If you don’t have a motion graphic logo for your production company, now’s the time to sort one out because it won’t feel like a trailer without it.
At the end of the third act will be the title and the “button”. This is a final beat – a sort of exclamation mark at the end of the trailer’s sentence – and is usually comedic. That’s followed by a couple of brief screens of credits (SFMoviePoster is a useful font to get hold of here) and a release date.
Look at the structure in The Dicator’s trailer below: a prelude building mystery, a first act setting up the character, a second act showing the kidnapping predicament, and a third act in which hilarity ensues. Possibly.
Two stylistic things that have been pretty big in trailers for a few years are speed changes and lines over black.
Speed changes work best on tracking or craning shots, and quite simply involve speeding up the first part of the shot for no other reason that it looks kind of cool. Slow motion is used a lot as well, often because you need to emphasise a dramatic point in the trailer more than the director felt was necessary for the film itself. For the same reason, adding a digital zoom-in to a key close-up is quite common.
Running lines of dialogue over a black screen is another emphasis tool. Typically these come at the transition points between acts. We get a montage of shots and music, then everything goes black and silent except for one key line of dialogue, then – BOOM! – a new piece of music kicks in and we’re assailed with moving images once again.
Similarly, fades to black get used a lot in trailers. These can help hide continuity issues caused when you compress a scene, but also aid generally in pacing.
Strobing has become popular lately too – cutting black frames into shots to break them up. It adds pace and makes the viewer feel like they’re not getting to see everything. See the end of this Prometheus trailer for an example.
Text and Voiceovers
Keep these to a minimum. In fact, don’t do a voiceover at all unless you can afford to hire the actual Trailer Voice Guy. Anyone else voicing over your trailer will immediately make it sound amateurish, unless it makes sense for one of the characters in the film to do the VO.
And don’t put your cast’s names up in big letters in your trailer, unless they’re genuine name actors.
Taglines are fine as on-screen text. Check out trailers for films in a similar genre to help you choose a font. There was a time when every trailer had text which moved towards you, with the letters simultaneously separating out. That fad seems to be over now, but look out for things like this in big movie trailers which you can emulate. Dramas and chick-flicks tend to have their captions over a background of out-of-focus points of light – easy enough to shoot with a DSLR and some Christmas lights if you can’t get hold of a stock motion graphic.
Take This Waltz, below, uses this kind of text background.
Sound is just as phenomenally important in a trailer as it is in any other moving image format. Bad sound can instantly ruin all the hard work you’ve put in to make your trailer look like a “real” trailer.
It can be difficult, especially if you’re cutting your trailer early in post-production. You haven’t done your ADR yet and you don’t even have a post-production sound crew on board.
The solution? Download Audacity – a free piece of audio editing software – and use its noise removal filter on any troublesome production sound. It won’t work miracles, but if you have background noise like traffic, hiss or mains hum it will seriously reduce it. As a side effect you will get digital artefacts, but these will be inaudible once you’ve mixed in your music.
Make judicious use of good sound effects. Get hold of some nice, chunky whooshes to underscore your speed-changes, or your captions zooming on. If your film is a comedy, maybe throw in a record scratch effect when your music jars to a halt for an act change.
Check out the use of loud, whooshy, slammy noises (technical term) in the Men in Black III trailer:
In case you somehow missed it, here’s the trailer for my new short film, Stop/Eject:
Neil and I completed the stereo mix at about 2pm on Friday, but we still had concerns that we weren’t going to get the sub-bass at the screening, so Neil researched the subject on the web and tried to produce a Dolby 3.1 mix while I got an hour’s kip. Sadly the Dolby mix did not work.
So the premiere happened. I was half asleep. I made a surreal little speech and it was on with the show. The picture looked pretty good on the big screen, much better than I had expected, but the volume of the sound was pathetically low, despite the projectionist insisting he couldn’t crank it up any more. Never fear, I know the sound system at the Courtyard goes VERY loud because some people walked out of my screenings of The Beacon in 2002 because of the excessive volume. So Borderlines attendees can expect to experience the full power of the mix, albeit a mix that has a few tiny mistakes in it due to us having to rush it, but most people wouldn’t even notice them. (Don’t worry, it won’t be loud enough to make people walk out, I promise.) Big thanks to Neil for going way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty to help me get the damn thing finished on time.
When I got home after the premiere I was deprived of sleep a little while longer as I ran off a tape of clips for ITV Central News, who are interviewing me and Borderlines director David Gillam on Friday, and a screener for the Cannes Film Festival.
I then had to get up early on Saturday to travel to Hereford with Leo Benedictus, who is writing an article on Soul Searcher for The Guardian. Leo had attended the premiere and was really impressed by the film. When we got to Hereford we had lunch in Doodies (it was a strange experience for Leo to see the place in real life after seeing it in the film) and Leo quizzed me about the film, my ambitions and all that jazz. He could scarcely believe it when I told him how little the film had cost.
Then a photographer arrived and snapped loads of pictures of me in Doodies, in High Town (perching precariously in a flower bed and getting strange looks from the crowds of Saturday shoppers) and on the roof of the Courtyard. Lucy Maslen, a.k.a. Clubber Girl 2, was working at the Courtyard box office. She told us that there are only eight seats left for the Friday screening and that Saturday is also selling well. Leo took the opportunity to ask Lucy a few questions, then he and I visited Campions where I regaled him with tales of frosted lighting stands and imaginary homeless people under the bridge.
The article will appear this Friday, the 18th, in the Friday Review section of the G2 supplement.
When I got home from Hereford I went to bed for fifteen hours.
Just over 24 hours to go until the premiere, and of course the film is not yet finished. The last two or three days have passed in a blur of pixels and sound waves uninterrupted by such trifling concerns as sleep. That’s not entirely true, actually. I did get two and a half hours’ kip last night. I’m unable to drink caffeine (my heart is once again feeling the strain as zero hour approaches) and I’m spending a lot of my time slumped on the sofa at the back of Neil’s studio, occasionally issuing commands along the lines of “a little bit more” and “the Kurt Russell’s not loud enough”..
We just finished premixing the final reel and are now rendering off the files needed for the final mix, which will be done live with a real mixer. Then, if you can believe it, the film will be finished. Except for all the tweaks I’ll make at a later date.
So the question is: can we do the final mix, master it onto DVD and sort out the problems we’ve been having with the sub-bass in time for the screening? (We burnt a test DVD and went round to Lara’s yesterday to try it on her surround sound system and the bass was sorely lacking.) It’s going to be tight, but we’ll make it.
And if we don’t, it’ll probably be because we took five minutes off this afternoon to search the internet for the answer to that perennial question: “What were the first three words of the intro voiceover for Knight Rider?” The answer, for the record is: “A shadowy flight… into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.”
Four days to go. Neil and I reached the end of the film yesterday lunchtime and immediately went back to the beginning to start tidying things up. By the end of the evening we had reel one done and dusted. Today Neil will work on it alone for most of the day. I’m at home waiting for the post to arrive, which should include David’s completed smoke effects. I’ll then composite these in, thus finally completing the picture side of the film, and set off to Neil’s for what I’m sure will be a pretty intense 72 hours of mixing.