Chasing Cars

A decade ago I was editing The Beacon, my stupid Malvern-based action movie made for about £3,000. The Cardboard Chase is most people’s favourite scene, but a close second for me would have to be the car chase:

Setting up car-mounted cameras
Setting up car-mounted cameras

Pretty silly, huh?

The car chase was shot over three days, mostly on Castlemorton Common in Malvern. It was done totally guerrilla style – no permissions, no insurance, no safety briefings, no stunt co-ordinator. The red car belonged to one of the crew, whilst the blue one was purchased secondhand for the production at a cost of £120, then taxed for £90 and insured for LJ, the lead actress, to drive at £235. (This was just standard car insurance so she could drive it on the road legally, and in no way covered it for film stunt use.)

The crash was shot on private land. The white car belonged to a friend of mine who was going to scrap it anyway. Crazy cast member Si Dovey offered to double for LJ driving the blue car towards the white one (sorry, I know nothing about makes of cars so colours will have to suffice to identify them) and miraculously came out alive, despite not even wearing a seatbelt on the second take. Getting the wrecked cars towed away afterwards (which was a major hassle) cost £75, bringing the grand total for the sequence to £520.

So an action-packed car chase can be shot pretty cheaply, but of course you shouldn’t try it under any circumstances because it’s extremely dangerous and highly illegal on public land.

Additional (27/10/11): By the way, you can download the whole budget for the film, if you’re so inclined, from The Beacon page.

Chasing Cars

Batman Miniatures

Just wanted to share this video I came across on YouTube. A very recent but classic example of a miniature sequence that no-one would ever have known wasn’t done full-scale. Try doing that with CGI!

Additional (26/10/11): On a similar subject, check out Gavin Rothery’s blog about the making of the excellent Moon. Gavin was the conceptual designer and visual effects supervisor on the film, apparently having a creative involvement in the project second only to writer-director Duncan Jones. His blog reveals all kinds of interesting nuggets from what military vehicles were originally going to be used to portray the moon buggies, to how he and Duncan used to lock themselves in the studio overnight, hiding from the security guards, to work on the set. Thanks to Matt Collett for this link.

Batman Miniatures

Saw See Saw Again

Aimee Denaro as Katherine in the stairwell of The Supreme Court of New York
Aimee Denaro in the stairwell of The Supreme Court of New York

Today I saw “See Saw” again. This is the feature-length thriller I DPed in Manhattan back in 2007, where I met my wife Katie. Amazingly the film is still in post-production after more than four years – enough time for Katie and I to get married and for director Tom Muschamp and producer/actress Aimee Denaro to sadly get divorced. We saw a rough cut a couple of years ago and recently Tom sent me a newer version with some significant changes.

One of my favourite things about the filmmaking process is the power you can wield over the narrative in post-production. Think outside the box a little, perhaps add a little ADR, and you can completely repurpose a scene or change the entire meaning of a film. The changes to See Saw haven’t been quite that extreme, but Tom has still taken the pretty major step of cutting the entire first act. Carl was forever telling me trim down the first act of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s script, and I’m sure it’s a battle many writers and filmmakers face: to set up the world and the characters with the utmost economy in order to get to that end-of-act-one plot point as fast as possible. So why not cut the first act all together?

See Saw actually seemed to get away with it for the most part. The lead character has amnesia, so the lack of set-up enables the viewer to share in her disorientation. There are one or two little bits of plot that probably do need to be re-inserted in order to give the climax its fullest impact, but overall I think this brave decision has worked for this particular film.

Watching it again brought back lots of memories of the shoot, a crazy three weeks in the punishing heat of a Manhattan August, with only two days off. Tom and Aimee secured some amazing locations, including a boat circling Liberty Island, Tavern on the Green (the exclusive restaurant used in the Ghostbusters scene where the terror dog finally catches up with Louis), Central Park and The Supreme Court of New York. I still can’t believe how lax security was at the latter.  Seeing the crew approaching with large cases and assorted metal poles and stands, the security guard simply moved aside a barrier and directed us around the metal detector. The actors even managed to smuggle in their prop guns with great ease.

But my main reaction on seeing See Saw again is to cringe at my lighting. Back then I was all about hard-lighting everything with clearly-defined and very black shadows. While this looks great in the nighttime scenes, nowadays I would be much more subtle in the daylight scenes, using kinos and hard sources bounced off reflectors to give a more naturalistic look. This is the problem with feature films, no matter in what position you work on them: they take so long to make that by the time they’re finished they no longer represent your best work.

Well, that’s enough disjointed rambling for now. I’ll be sure to let you know when See Saw’s finally released.

 

Saw See Saw Again

Stopped and Ejected

Ejected
Ejected

Disaster has struck.  My “Top Five Worst Things to Happen While Making a Film” has a new entry.  It wouldn’t be appropriate to give all the details, but broadly here’s what happened.

For the last week or two I’ve been spending almost all my time on Stop/Eject and though there were a few heart-stopping moments, like losing one and almost both of the lead actors, last week it was finally starting to come together.  Katie and I spent all of Thursday packing equipment, props and costumes and preparing several meals and snacks for Katie to eat during the shoot (she has allergies).  On Friday morning we set out for Derby along with Colin, two cars rammed full of people and stuff.

We arrived at the house of a key crew member where we were to be staying during the shoot.  I was worried to find that certain key aspects of the production were still not sorted out.  Having received very little in the way of practical or moral support, my stress levels had been steadily building as the shoot approached, and now I was feeling like I could throw up at any moment.

To make matters worse, it slowly became clear that other members of the family in whose house we were staying were not happy with us being there.  The final blow fell when two more relatives showed up and kicked us out of the house.

At this point the producer was forced to cancel the shoot.  I then had the unpleasant task of ringing round the cast and crew – one of whom, Ray, was already half way to Derby – and giving them the bad news.  Colin, Katie and I spent the night at Sophie’s house in Belper, where her parents were very kind and hospitable to us.  Yesterday morning we were faced with the problem of how to get two car-loads of equipment and people back to Hereford in only one car, and in the end I had to call my parents and ruin their Saturday by having them drive up to Derby and get us.

Although I must confess to a degree of relief that I didn’t have to shoot the film with the preparations not as complete as I would have liked them to be, today it’s really sinking in how gutted I am that the film has been stopped, ejected and thoroughly chewed up.  It’s now a question of not just when but if Stop/Eject gets made.

Anyone who’s followed my blogs for any length of time will know that I’m no stranger to filmmaking disasters.  Here’s how my top five shape up now:

  1. After building a 25 metre earth embankment in a muddy Gloucestershire field for Soul Searcher‘s miniature train to run along, Colin and I were forced to put all the earth back where we found it at 1am in the pouring rain without having used the embankment at all, due to the train constantly derailing.
  2. When we wrapped on day one of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot shoot – which was personally costing me over £30,000 – due to delays with the set construction and an over-stretched lighting crew, we had only shot one of the sixteen set-ups scheduled.
  3. Stop/Eject‘s shoot being cancelled a mere 12 hours before the call time.
  4. At the age of 19, while shooting my first paid directing job – a community drama about skateboarders and BMX riders in Droitwich – one of the kids came off his bike during a trick and fractured his skull.
  5. Halfway through principal photography on Soul Searcher, after being battered by set-back after set-back, we discovered that footage from the previous night’s apparently successfully shooting at Doodies cafe was corrupt.

Stopped and Ejected

Five eighths? Don’t you mean three quarters?

Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe in Soul Searcher
Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe in Soul Searcher

Shooting People‘s book “Get Your Short Film Funded, Made and Seen” recommends surrounding yourself with friends on your shoot. This may seem contrary to the advice fledgling filmmakers are always given not to cast their mates in their movies, but assuming your mates are professionals and talented at what they do, I wholeheartedly endorse Shooting People’s suggestion. As Michael Bay says, when he’s not busy bludgeoning cinema to death with a big CG robot, filmmaking is like war. Everything is against you – time, money, the weather – and you’re always fighting to get your shots and tell your story.  So you need to know your cast and crew have your back.

This is why my filmmaker friend of twelve years, Rick Goldsmith, will be operating camera on Stop-Eject; why Colin Smith, veteran of Soul Searcher and The Dark Side of the Earth plus countless other films I’ve DPed, will be gaffering; why Ian Preece, a trusted fellow freelancer with whom I’ve shot numerous corporates, will record the sound for part of the shoot; why my lovely wife Katie is designing the costumes; and why I wrote the lead role for Kate Burdette from the Dark Side pilot.  It’s also why I’m delighted to announce the casting of Ray Bullock Jnr. – Soul Searcher’s leading man – as Dan.  Ray gave a great audition opposite Kate last night and I look forward to working with again after eight years.

Ray Bullock Jnr as Dan auditions opposite Kate Burdette
Ray Bullock Jnr as Dan auditions opposite Kate Burdette

I know that all of these people will deliver the goods, no matter what the realities of the shoot throw at us.  So although there are still locations to sort, schedules to arrange and bit-parts to cast, I feel a contentment now as Saturday’s start date approaches.  Because when it comes down to it, with all these great people on board – plus great new collaborators like Sophie Black and Deborah Bennett – all I have to do is not fuck it up.

And by the way, you can read more about Katie’s work on the costumes over at her Katiedidonline blog.

Five eighths? Don’t you mean three quarters?

Stop/Eject podcast #3

The curse has struck this week, but as I write the worst seems to be over… which is not to say it won’t strike again.  We’re still looking for a runner, a camera operator and a sound recordist for Oct 17th and 18th, and a make-up artist for the 15th; please get in touch if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, here’s the latest podcast, covering locations and design:

Stop/Eject podcast #3

Stop/Eject Recce Part 2

Magpie, Matlock
Magpie, Matlock

More recces last week. (Is that how you spell it? Who knows? Looks like a misspelling of recess. Actually recesses are involved too – well, alcoves to be precise.)

This time we got into Magpie, the antiques/collectibles shop in Matlock, north Derbyshire where I can now confirm we will definitely be shooting. In just two weeks’ time. Gulp. The owner is a very kind and helpful man who is happy to let us do whatever we want with the place, so big thanks to him.

Then it was back to Belper where Sophie’s contact at the East Mill Visitor Centre happened to be around, so we were able to get a look at their basement. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it was very, very cool, lined with unusual, Egyptian-looking pillars. I’m only posting a photo of one corner; for the full glory of it you’ll have to wait until the film is finished… assuming we get permission to shoot in there… and assuming you’re too lazy to go visit it yourself.

Mill basement
East Mill basement

Sophie gamely hung around while I wandered back and forth between a few nearby exterior locations, pondering hard. I was trying to balance the demands of the script with the practical and logistical impositions of the locations. I had written some scenes with the locations in mind after my first quick drive through Belper, but on seeing them up close and personal it was clear that they weren’t going to work as I had intended.

For example, braking suddenly on a bicycle on the main road bridge over the river is not something we could do safely, not to mention the sound problems we would encounter in recording the subsequent dialogue beside the road. The pretty River Gardens seemed like a logical alternative, but would it make the scene less interesting? I certainly thought so until this morning when, storyboarding on a train (a major pastime of mine lately), I realised how the gardens’ bandstand could be used to reinforce the visual theme of circles. So by moving the scene to the gardens I could make it safer, easier to shoot, easier to record clean sound, and thematically stronger. Not a tough decision to take.

River Gardens
River Gardens, Belper

I’ve just sent out the final draft of the script and only one scene is left to storyboard. Sophie has started turning in concept art, Katie has started buying costume pieces and Col has built the SD Mark II, a high-tech device of which the function and awesomeness I shall leave you to imagine. I must confess to being a little worried about casting, as we are still struggling to find people interested in the smaller roles. If you want to apply, you can email your CV and headshot to stopeject@lightfilms.co.uk

Stop/Eject Recce Part 2