Back to Derbyshire

Explaining how some of Soul Searcher's low-tech VFX were done
Explaining how some of Soul Searcher’s low-tech VFX were done

On Tuesday afternoon I headed up to Derby for Five Lamps’ Film Night at The Quad. The turn-out for the event was good, with several old acquaintances unexpectedly in attendance, plus a distant relative I’d never met before. After a nice selection of short films were screened, including Sophie’s excellent Ashes trailer, it was time for me to get up and witter on about Soul Searcher for an hour or so. The talk was well received and some intelligent questions were asked at the end.

The one that got away was this big...
The one that got away was this big…

Most importantly, the Stop/Eject donations bucket – beautifully decorated by Sophie with flashing lights – had nearly £60 in it at the end of the night. Big thanks to Sam and Carl at Five Lamps for hosting the event and to everyone who gave so generously.

The next day was to be an intense Stop/Eject recce day. But the first task was to shoot scene 20, a GV of the river in Belper with autumn leaves being washed away. This had to be shot while there were still leaf-less trees around, which there won’t be by the end of April when principal photography commences. Katie and I had collected the leaves before Christmas and now it was time for them to have their fifteen minutes of fame.

Raw screen grab from scene 20
Raw screen grab from scene 20

I set up the camera on a little dock and Sophie started sprinkling the leaves into shot. They did not wash away as I had hoped. They pretty much stayed put. And all the ducks and geese and swans came over and tried to eat them because they thought we were feeding them bread. D’oh.

After that we popped into a nearby furniture store to enquire about using their power supply and a space for hair and make-up when we film in the River Garden next month.

Checking out the weir at Willesley. Photo: Sophie Black
Checking out the weir at Willesley. Photo: Sophie Black

Then it was time to pay Sophie’s grandparents a visit and – after some subtle attempts to convince her grandma to play Old Kate in the film – we set off with grandad on a recce tour of the Derwent Valley. The main aim of this was to find a weir that was more suitable for filming on than the dramatic but inaccessible horseshoe weir at Belper.

A test shot of the weir
A test shot of the weir

Our first stop was Willesley, where we walked down to the river behind Masson Mills. And we immediately found the perfect weir. I spent quite a while checking out different angles and considering how my planned shots would work there.

Next stop was Magpie, the shop in Matlock that we lined up last year as the film’s key location. This was the big shocker. I knew from talking to Matthew, the owner, on the phone, that since last October he had purchased the building’s three upper floors and was in the process of expanding the shop into them. The reason I wanted to recce again was in case the ground floor had been changed during this expansion. And indeed when we arrived there we discovered it had, which will necessitate some minor changes to the shots and blocking.

But then we took a look upstairs. This used to be a B&B, and many of the rooms are intact and not currently in use by Magpie… Rooms that are perfect for filming the flat scenes in, and the nursing home. And rooms that we can even stay in during the shoot. All the outstanding locations and the accommodation problem all sorted in one fell swoop! Matthew, you are a legend.

After this we returned to Belper and the basement of Strutt’s North Mill, as featured in my lighting previsualisation blogs recently. There I conducted some quick white balance tests on the overhead fluorescents while Sophie measured the bobbin crates which we’ll be using as shelves for the cassette tapes.

Ye Olde Camera in Fridge Shot
Ye Olde Camera in Fridge Shot

There was just time for a chat about how the cassettes should be labelled and a look at the suitability of Sophie’s kitchen as the location for a brief scene before I had to catch my train home.

All in all, a very successful and productive trip. So much so that it seemed something had to go wrong to balance it out, and indeed I got some bad news yesterday regarding the cast. But more on that some other time.

Back to Derbyshire

Stop/Eject: Pre-production Update

Lara Greenway in Soul Searcher
Lara Greenway in Soul Searcher

Tomorrow night is my Soul Searcher lecture in Derby in aid of Stop/Eject. I’ll be talking about how I got my feature film funded, made and distributed, with plenty of clips and amusing anecdotes (that were far from amusing at the time, I can tell you). Find out all the details at the event page on Facebook.

There’s plenty for me to do on the train up there – most importantly going through the storyboards and altering them to fit the revised script.

Staying in Derbyshire, Sophie and I have a packed schedule for Wednesday, with lots of weirs to recce, some crates to measure, props to approve and a GV to shoot.

Get a sandbag like this for a £10 donation
Get a sandbag like this for a £10 donation

Meanwhile Katie is off to Smethwick for a costume fitting with Therese Collins, a.k.a. Alice, the character formerly known simply as The Shopkeeper. Expect a guest blog from Katie about that soon.

Remember, even if you can’t get to Derby, you can still contribute to the production by clicking the donate button in the righthand sidebar. And we’re still offering a free sandbag with mainland UK delivery for every £10 you donate. See my earlier post for more info on that.

Less than four weeks to go until we shoot…

Stop/Eject: Pre-production Update

“It’s a Film.”

Recently I revisited the Stop/Eject script. Yet another advantage of delaying a shoot is that you can get some distance from the project and come back to it with fresh eyes.

I’m still very happy with the script in most respects, but one thing stood out to me. The shopkeeper, one of the three main characters, appears out of nowhere on page six. (I took great delight in being able to write the stage direction, “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appears.”)

Eject
Eject

This now seems extremely convenient. It’s deus ex machina. Where was the shopkeeper when Kate and Dan first came into the shop and looked around? Where was she when Kate started experimenting with the tape recorder?

Because the shopkeeper is a magical character, I felt like I could get away with her being mysteriously absent from the first few scenes. Subconciously, I was thinking, “It’s a film.”

“It’s a film.” As in, “It’s only a film.”

If you’ve ever been involved in a low budget movie project, you’ve probably heard this phrase more than once.

A well-meaning crew member asks, “How come John didn’t notice when Susan was writing that text?” The director shrugs his shoulders and replies, “It’s a film.”

A producer asks, “How did Anne know when Bob was going to walk by?” The harassed writer replies, “It’s a film.”

It’s a film, so we can accept massive coincidences. It’s a film, so we can accept logic problems and the odd plot hole. It’s a film.

Stop
Stop

I have come to loathe this phrase in recent years. Because what it means is, “I’m a lazy filmmaker and I do not respect my audience.” And if you don’t respect your audience, they will not engage emotionally with the story, and your film will fail.

I want people to watch and enjoy Stop/Eject more than once. I don’t want them taken out of the story by wondering why the shop is completely unstaffed for the first five minutes.

So I’ve written her in. It took a bit of effort to come up with reasons why she wouldn’t interfere with what Kate’s doing, but that actually led to a richer and more believable characterisation. Win, win.

So next time you’re tempted to answer a legitimate logic query with “It’s a film,” ask yourself: if you don’t care about this movie, why should your audience?

“It’s a Film.”

Soul Searcher Previz

Back in 2003 when I was developing Soul Searcher, I tried my hand at making a videomatic for the first time. A videomatic is a kind of previsualisation, like a moving storyboard that shows not only the camera angles but the pacing as well, and often gives an idea of how the music and sound effects will work with the scene and what the VFX requirements will be.

Jurassic Park animatic
Jurassic Park animatic

Nowadays previz is usually CGI, but back in the day it was not uncommon to build crude miniatures of the props and people in a scene and film the previz in the form of a videomatic using a camcorder or lipstick camera. Pat McClung and co, when prepping James Cameron’s Aliens, made Drop Ships and APCs out of cardboard boxes and pulled them on strings through landscapes formed from rumpled paper and blankets. A decade later, when planning his deep dives to the Titanic wreck, Cameron had his team build a model of the ship and like-scaled models of the submersibles, so he could previz the shots they needed to get on the ocean floor. Phil Tippett went to the trouble of animating Jurassic Park’s previz in beautiful stop motion, demonstrating not only the angles and movement Spielberg wanted for the real scenes, but the lighting as well. Even Peter Jackson’s cutting edge Lord of the Rings trilogy employed cardboard mock-ups and a video camera to previz the flooding of Isengard.

In that fine tradition I attempted this videomatic for Soul Searcher:

Shooting a videomatic for The Dark Side of the Earth. Photo: Ian Tomlinson
Shooting a videomatic for The Dark Side of the Earth. Photo: Ian Tomlinson

Looking back on it now, it was quite a lazy attempt and suffered greatly from the poorly drawn storyboards, which are very hard to interpret, especially when bits of them are cut out and pasted onto the live action footage. Although I found making this videomatic very useful for my own process as director, and many of the Lego train shots were cut into the film during post-production until the final miniature shots were ready, it wasn’t much use for showing other crew members what work needed to be done. In fact, when I brought the model-makers on board in 2004, I decided to draw a new set of nice, neat storyboards rather than show them the videomatic.

My videomatic skills improved, however, and by 2006 I was shooting a series of them for my new feature project, The Dark Side of the Earth. You can view some of them here.

Soul Searcher Previz

Taking Decisions Lightly: Part 2

Lighting concept #1 for the basement
Lighting concept #1 for the basement

Following on from my last post, here’s what I was going for when I created the above lighting previz image for the basement scene in Stop/Eject.

As DoP Eve Hazelton lucidly explains in this video blog, one of the keys to great cinematography is creating depth, even (and especially) when you’re shooting in 2D. The basement location already has great depth with all those pillars tapering into the distance, but how can that be maximised on camera?

  • I’ve added smoke. Smoke creates depth because there will be more of it between the camera and a distant subject than between the camera and a close subject.
  • The light illuminating the smoke gets bluer as it gets further from camera. (This will be achieved by layering increasing numbers of blue gels on the lights.) This simulates the effect you can see when you look at the view from the top of a hill, whereby other hills in the distance seem bluer due to atmospheric haze.
  • I’ve thrown alternating pillars into shadow. This makes each “layer” of pillars contrast with the ones behind and in front of it, highlighting the depth. (We can achieve this on the day by simply turning off or removing the tubes in every other fluorescent light.)
Colour wheel
Colour wheel

As the characters walk through this shot towards us, they will go in and out of smoke and shadow, and become clearer through the smoke. That gives us dynamics, which are also important in good cinematography.

Now let’s look at the issue of colour contrast, something which I must admit I’ve only got to grips with quite recently. To cut a long story short, images look more interesting if they contain contrasting colours. Typically this means choosing two colours on opposite sides of the colour wheel, like blue and yellow as in the above previz. Or I could have gone with orange/red and green…

Lighting concept #2
Lighting concept #2

… though green daylight is hard to justify! It does fit nicely with the colour palette we’ve already established for the costume and production design though.

I also tried orange daylight and green fluorescent light, but since the scene doesn’t take place at sunrise or sunset that’s hard to justify too.

Finally I tried orange and blue. One is a warm colour and the other is a cool colour – another classic way of creating colour contrast.

Lighting concept #3
Lighting concept #3

The jury’s still out on this one. A lot will depend on what colour I’m able to make the fluorescent light appear through white balancing, since we’re unlikely to have time to gel all of them to my desired hue, and also what colour costumes Katie puts the characters in for that scene.

Okay, that’s all for today. Once the film’s in the can, there will be lots more about how the scenes were lit. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll share some of my lighting plans in a future post.

Taking Decisions Lightly: Part 2

Taking Decisions Lightly

I’m DOPing Stop/Eject as well as directing it, which means I have to be well prepared. I’m not going to have time to stand around on location figuring out how I want to light it. I need to do that in advance.

Last year I drew up some lighting plans, and thanks to the postponement of the shoot I have more time to work on these and get them just right. And recently I had a previsualisation idea: to take recce shots of the location and photoshop them to show the lighting I want to achieve.

So here’s the image I decided to work with, from the basement at Strutt’s North Mill in Belper:

Raw frame grab from the basement recce
Raw frame grab from the basement recce
Ceiling fluorescents
Ceiling fluorescents

So, how do I want to light the basement? How does a DOP decide how to light anything? For me it always starts with three questions:

  1. Realistically, where would light be coming from?
  2. Creatively, where do I want to put the lightst?
  3. Practically, where can I put the lights?

Let’s try to answer these for the basement scene…

  1. The basement is only partially underground, so it does have some windows, but I don’t ever have to show them if I don’t want to (an advantage of being director too). A room like this would have regularly spaced ceiling lights, probably fluorescent. Perhaps the characters would have a torch or lamp of some kind too.
  2. Soul Searcher's car park scene, lit almost entirely by the existing overhead fluorescents
    Soul Searcher’s car park scene, lit almost entirely by the existing overhead fluorescents

    I’m going to choose to include the daylight, to provide some contrast with the ceiling lights. This is our most impressive location and perhaps the scene where the film’s fantasy side is most apparent, so I want it to look magical and cinematic. More on the creative side later.

  3. We would have access to the areas outside the windows, so I could light through them if I wanted. (In practice I’ll probably never show the windows, and the lamps representing the daylight will actually be inside the building, just out of frame.) Our time at this location is likely to be extremely limited, so although the ceiling is suitable for hanging lamps from, I’ll probably just have to go with the existing fluorescents. I’ve done this before – the multi-storey car park in Soul Searcher – and it looked good.

So with all that in mind, here’s what I came up with in Photoshop:

Lighting concept #1 for the basement
Lighting concept #1 for the basement

In my next post I’ll explain what I’ve done and why, particularly with reference to creating depth, and show you some alternate versions of the above image which will demonstrate some of the basics of colour theory. Sounds intriguing, huh? Better not miss it.

Taking Decisions Lightly

Tape Recorder

Mmm, the eighties.
Mmm, the eighties.

Eject
Eject

Thanks to David Bidwell of The Monster Company, we now have our hero tape recorder prop for Stop/Eject. It’s a classic eighties model, very similar to the one I had as a kid, which I had in mind when writing the script.

Last year we bought 400 empty cassette cases for a crucial scene in the film, but we still need more. Do you have some old cassette cases kicking around? Would you be kind enough to donate or lend these cases to the production? If so, please get in touch with me: neiloseman [at] googlemail.com.

Elsewhere in art department land, Sophie tells me that work is underway on the wooden carving for the top of the alcove set. And Katie keeps shopping for the Shopkeeper’s costume, so to speak. And you can’t get quicker than a Kwikfit fitter. And she sells seashells on the seashore. And so on.

Tape Recorder

Marquetry and Macro Tubes

Anne lays sand-shaded veneer pieces into a panel
Anne lays sand-shaded veneer pieces into a panel
Setting up to shoot. Photo: Lisa Sansome
Setting up to shoot. Photo: Lisa Sansome

Last Monday was the first day of shooting on a promotional video for a company in Llandrindod Wells called Aryma. Aryma makes contemporary marquetry – exquisite and intricate inlaid wood panelling, typically for private jets, super yachts and luxury homes. An image is created not through paint of any kind, but by painstakingly building it up from many, many pieces of wood veneer, each one a different colour, and some of them shaded by singeing them in hot sand.

The video marked my first experience of using macro tubes: collars that fit between the lens and camera body to allow the lens to focus on closer objects than it normally can. This was necessary in order to properly capture the fitting of the veneer pieces, some of which are unbelievably tiny. Here is a glimpse of a few of the shots recorded so far.

Marquetry and Macro Tubes

Soul Searcher Lecture in Derby Coming Up

Just under four weeks now until the next Soul Searcher lecture in aid of Stop/Eject. This one is part of Five Lamps’ March Film Night on the 27th. If you’re in Derbyshire, come along and see some great short films and hear about how Soul Searcher was financed, made and distributed, all for just £2. (Entry to the event is £2, that is. Soul Searcher cost more than that. But only a bit.) Donations to the Stop/Eject cause will be welcomed at the end of the evening.

Soul Searcher Lecture in Derby Coming Up

Soul Searcher: Blooper Reel

Since the dawn of time, watching people screw up has been a guilty pleasure. And so when Man invented the motion picture camera, it wasn’t long before he also invented the blooper reel. Here’s Soul Searcher’s.

Not quite as good as Michael J. Fox accidentally yelling “Doc!!!” in The Frighteners’ outtakes, but still fairly chucklesome.

Remember that you can watch Soul Searcher in full completely free at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher Spread the word!

Soul Searcher: Blooper Reel