Audience Interpretations and the Importance of Test Screenings

Is Kate (Georgina Sherrington) shoplifting in this deleted shot from Stop/Eject?
Is Kate (Georgina Sherrington) shoplifting in this deleted shot from Stop/Eject?

One thing I often find myself struggling with as a filmmaker is clarity of motivation and storyline. It’s amazing how easily an audience can misinterpret something – or perhaps I should say how easily they can interpret it differently from the director, writer, etc. Here are some examples:

  • Stop/Eject‘s protagonist Kate is a costume designer, though this is never stated explicitly, and the scene that might have hinted most at it was deleted early on in the editing process. In the opening scene she enters a charity shop and gets a scrapbook of costume designs out of her bag to refer to whilst browsing the clothing rack. But after trimming the scene to improve the pace, the sequence of events in the locked edit became: Kate enters the charity shop with her husband Dan; she approaches a clothing rack and opens her bag; we then cut to Dan asking the shopkeeper how much a record is, drawing her away from Kate’s location. In short, it looked like Kate was opening her bag to do some shoplifting and Dan was abetting her by distracting the shopkeeper. I was blind to this because I knew Kate’s real intention, but my wife picked it up as soon as she saw it. Despite having locked the edit, on spotting this issue we hastily cut out the shot of Kate opening her bag.
  • In the same scene in Stop/Eject, Alice the shopkeeper was filmed looking at her watch. The intention was to show that she knew the cassette in the magic tape recorder needed turning over very soon, and was weighing up whether she had time to answer Dan’s query first. But test audiences thought that, given Alice’s mysterious connection to the time-travelling tape recorder, she was looking at her watch because she knew that any minute now an accident was going to happen, which indeed it does at the end of the scene. The solution was to simply cut Alice’s watch check.
  • My 2012 Virgin Media Shorts entry, Ghost-trainspotting, is about a deceased nerd who spots trains of an equally ghostly nature. His ghostly nature, however, is not revealed until late in the film. This revelation comes in the form of (a) him ascending into the clouds in a shaft of heavenly light, his final mission on earth being complete, and (b) a closing shot of his photo in a shrine. But we had to cut the shrine shot due to the competition’s strict length limit, and some viewers thought the shaft of heavenly light looked more like he was being beamed up by aliens. Result? A complete misunderstanding of the story. Sadly, with the competition deadline upon me, I was unable to correct this issue in time.

Audiences aren’t stupid; you just have to remember that they haven’t read the script, been on the set and worked on the edit for months. They’re coming to it completely fresh, and if the right clues aren’t in the film, they have little chance of interpreting it as you intended.

This is why test screenings are so important. Happily most of these types of issues can be resolved fairly easily by cutting something out or adding a line of ADR, but unless you show your edit to fresh eyes you probably won’t even know they are issues in the first place.

For more on test screenings and a sample report form, check out the blog post I wrote last summer about the Stop/Eject screenings.

Audience Interpretations and the Importance of Test Screenings

Lighting The One That Got Away

Lighting plan for the daylight scenes
Lighting plan for the daylight scenes

Here’s a breakdown of the lighting choices made on my little puppet film, The One That Got Away. You can watch the film over at the Virgin Media Shorts website. If you enjoy it, please use the tweet button to register your vote and help us get a place on the shortlist.

Conventional wisdom with marionettes is probably to go for very flat lighting with no backlight, to make it as difficult as possible to see the strings. But on TOTGA I wanted to embrace and celebrate the tactile, handmade look of the puppets and sets, so I chose a traditional three-point lighting scheme that imparted depth and made no effort to hide the strings.

Normally I shoot wide open – typically f1.8 – on my DSLR, but as the puppets were small the depth of field would have been ridiculously shallow at that aperture. Instead I lit the set very brightly (about 3KW of tungsten horsepower in our cramped living room – not very pleasant during a heatwave!) and stopped down to around f4.

Daylight

The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.
The clouds cast shadows on the sky, but I think that adds to the charm.

For the daylight scenes I used my three open-face tungsten Arrilites: a 1K poking over the top of the backdrop for backlight, another 1K with tough-spun diffuser off camera left for key, and an 800W bouncing off the ceiling for fill. This last lamp was gelled blue to suggest ambient skylight.

I tried to simulate the camerawork that would have been used had this been shot at sea with real actors, so:

  • the camera bobs up and down in wide shots, as if Henry’s boat is being shot from another vessel;
  • the camera and boat are fixed in close-ups, with the background bobbing up and down, as if we’re now shooting on a tripod in Henry’s boat.

Underwater

A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.
A cool white balance and blue gels help to give an underwater look.

The underwater dream sequence was all shot dry-for-wet at 50fps for a watery slow motion. Using Magic Lantern I dialled in a cool white balance of around 2500K, and pumped in smoke to add diffusion and suggest currents. (I wished I’d use a lot more smoke, but we would have all choked to death.)

I used just two light sources: the 1K backlight, now gelled blue, and the other 1K, bounced off sheets of silver wrapping paper tacked loosely to the ceiling. This is exactly the same method I used for a scene in Ashes – flapping a piece of card at the wrapping paper makes the light ripple in a very watery way.

Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence
Shallow depth of field working nicely in the romantic underwater dream sequence

The underwater lighting scheme was a lot darker than the daylight one, so I opened up to around f2, giving a crazily shallow depth of field that worked nicely for this dream sequence. The mermaid’s close-ups were all shot through a CD case for an old-school soft-focus look.

I would have liked to have shot this sequence handheld, but a lack of crew meant I had to lock the camera off so I could operate the smoke machine, fan the wrapping paper and move little fish through frame.

Sunset

When Henry awakens from his dream, the fish escapes and he gives chase. Orange gels and lens flare were used to suggest the sun getting lower in the sky, until finally Henry and his quarry are silhouetted against the solar disc itself. This is a domestic 100W tungsten bulb peeking over the back wave. The only other light source is a row of six more such bulbs under a sheet of orange gel, just behind and below the first one.

The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.
The sun is an ordinary 100W tungsten lightbulb.

As the scene moves into twilight, the first bulb is removed and the orange gel over the other six is replaced with a purple one. The 1K backlight is turned back on (possibly it would have been more realistic without, but I’m just a sucker for backlight) and some pink fill is provided by placing a sheet of Minus Green gel on the other 1K and bouncing it off a reflector.

Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.
Pink and purple gels are used to give a post-sunset tinge to the final scene.

That’s all folks. Please do tweet about the film (being sure to include the title The One That Got Away and the hashtag #VMShortsVote for it to count as a vote) and click here to watch the behind-the-scenes featurette if you missed it.

Lighting The One That Got Away

The Making of Henry

Guest blogger Katie Lake tells the story of how Henry Otto, the marionette star of The One That Got Away, came into this world. Click here to watch the film and please tweet about it to help us make the competition shortlist.

1. The head
1. The head

It started as a whim, a crazy idea. I have wanted to do a puppet film with Neil for a while. But if I couldn’t make a puppet, there would be no puppet film. No pressure.

I started with his head. I wound newspaper around metal wire that would become his controls, then covered the newspaper ball with a layer of air-drying clay, shaping his head, and face. I did a test with lights to see if I liked the shape I got (1). 

2. Body, hands, arms and legs
2. Body, hands, arms and legs

I then made his body. This started out as a toilet roll tube, covered in papier-mâché, and his arms and legs were rolled up newspaper “beads”. I then painted them beige, and sculpted hands using more clay over wire. I fit the legs and arms with wire, and before I put him together this was how he was looking (2). I liked the big head, spindly legs and long arms. So together he went. 

I made the start of a neck, and then painted his face. He now had an expression, a look, a character. I (hesitantly) fell in love with Henry when I first sculpted his head and face, but was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to do him justice with paint. Thankfully I was pleased with the results. And this is when I knew the name swirling around in my head, was the name he was going to be. There is something about him that reminds me of my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, so Henry is sort of an homage.

3. Strung up, with trousers
3. Strung up, with trousers

He then needed some clothes. Despite, or maybe because of my costume background, deciding what clothes to make for him was by far the hardest bit. In the end we decided jeans were a good place to start. I drafted a pattern in cloth, then altered it, and cut them out of an old charity shop skirt. I also gave him some hand stitched details around the waist. I temporarily strung him up, and tested out what we could get him to do. This was also his first camera test (3).

4. Hat
4. Hat and sweater

It was now that we realised he needed lateral head controls (one on either side of his head so we could make him look left and right). Oops. I attached lateral controls to the outside of his head as I didn’t want to risk drilling, so he now needed a hat or wisps of hair to hide the wire. He also needed a top, and boots.

4. Boots
5. Boots

Enter Jo Henshaw, who kindly offered to come and help out. She helped finalize costume design decisions, and made him his cute beanie (out of an old sleeve) and started his sweater (out of an old sweater) (4).

I made boots (out of more toilet roll tubes cut and bent, glued into shape and then papier-mâchéd, and then painted black) (5). I should also mention stop-motion animator Emily Currie, another helpful volunteer, who used her expertise to ensure the lateral controls stayed put.

6. The finished puppet
6. The finished puppet

Henry’s sweater was then sewn onto him, covering the multiple pieces. I kept the arms separate for greater movement. I finished him off with braces made out of old shoe laces, made buttons out of clay which I painted brown, sewed a patch onto his arm from an old scrap and aged his costume with some brown and black paint.

Lastly I strung him up using extra strong navy thread. The T bar I made using a piece of flat doweling, some screw eyes (upcycled from old curtain rings) and nails to make the cross bars removable. And Henry was ready for his debut (6).

You can visit Katie’s blog at www.katiedidonline.com. To find out what Henry’s up to, why not befriend him on Facebook?

Tomorrow I’ll look at the camera and lighting techniques used to shoot the film.

The Making of Henry

Pulling Strings – Behind the Scenes of “The One That Got Away”

Here’s a behind-the-scenes featurette looking at the making of my little puppet film.

This featurette was an experiment in shooting and editing entirely on my iPad, so please excuse the poor sound and clunky cutting.

Click here to watch The One That Got Away itself. Please help the film make the shortlist of the Virgin Media Shorts competition by visiting that link and using the tweet button underneath the video. The entry with the most tweets between now and July 28th will be shown in cinemas nationally.

Pulling Strings – Behind the Scenes of “The One That Got Away”

The One That Got Away – Watch it Now

Henry, the star of the show
Henry Otto, the star of The One That Got Away

My brand new short, a 2 minute puppet odyssey about an old fisherman who catches more than he bargained for, is now online to watch:

http://www.virginmediashorts.co.uk/film/4869/the-one-that-got-away#.Ue1bi5WAdGB

It’s an entry to Virgin Media Shorts, and you can help us make the shortlist by using the tweet button under the video. The film with the most tweets between now and Sunday (28th) gets a guaranteed place on the shortlist, meaning it will be shown nationally in cinemas and be in with a chance of winning the filmmakers £30,000 to fund their next project.

Please note that only the tweet button (not Facebook, Google+ or any of the others) can be used to register a vote. Alternatively you can write your own tweet, so long as it includes the name of the film – The One That Got Away – followed by the hashtag #VMShortsVote.

Thanks everyone. Stay tuned all week for The-One-That-Got-Away-related goodies, including a behind-the-scenes featurette tomorrow.

Film credits:

Written, designed, constructed and puppeteered by Katharine Lake

Assisted by Emily Currie, Sebastian Fuller, Jo Henshaw, John R. Mason and Ian Tomlinson

Sound design, music and mixing by Matt Katz

Directed, photographed and edited by Neil Oseman

The One That Got Away – Watch it Now

Ren Launch Event

Kate Madison’s live launch event for her web series Ren is happening right now. (See my previous post for more info.)

Update: if you missed the live version you can watch a recording of it by clicking the play button above. I was meant to make a guest appearance in it but they ran out of time.

Visit the website and support the project at www.rentheseries.com/crowdfunding

P.S. My puppet film The One That Got Away is released online on Monday – watch this space.

Ren Launch Event

An Evening of Entertainment from the Makers of Born of Hope

Back in 2008 I helped out briefly on a feature-length Lord of the Rings fan film called Born of Hope. Directing this epic production, producing it, financing most of it, and even acting in it, was the extremely tenacious Kate Madison. “It’s incredible to see what craftsmanship, sensitivity and attention to detail is being brought to bear on this ambitious project,” said Weta Workshop chief Richard Taylor. Check the film out below – it’s an impressive achievement. And it’s had a staggering 23 million views.

Kate is now embarking on a new project, a fantasy web series called Ren, and to mark the launch of its crowdfunding campaign she’s hosting a special webcast this Saturday night. The evening of entertainment will start at 8pm with a Born of Hope screening with live commentary from cast members. There will also be a live Q&A where they’ll answer your questions about BoH or Ren or whatever you’d like to ask. There will also be fun giveaways, live link-ups, special guests (including Yours Truly), and much more.

Ren encounters the Masked Man, the leader of the Kah'Nath - Concept art by Max von Vier
Ren encounters the Masked Man, the leader of the Kah’Nath – Concept art by Max von Vier

“I’ve been keen to get another project on the go and have been contemplating various formats,” Kate says. “Web series have become a popular medium for independent filmmakers and I find that the potential for shaping an ongoing storyline for, and with, the fans is very appealing”.

The series is named after its lead character, who lives a quiet life in a small village until dramatic events, involving an ancient powerful spirit and the ruling warrior order of the Ka’Nath, force Ren to leave her safe existence and find the truth behind the web of lies she’s believed in all her life.

“The inspiration for the show is very much rooted in great fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings, but epic books and TV series like Game of Thrones and the more lighthearted Legend of the Seeker have also influenced me in the creation of Ren,” says Kate. She adds that one of the most important features of Born of Hope was the fan base that helped finance, design and even act in the film and that she is keen to involve the fans even more in this project. “The series is in the very early stages, with only the first season written, so we will look to the online fan community to influence what happens… and yes, even be in it!”

To watch the live event and to support Ren visit www.rentheseries.com/crowdfunding

An Evening of Entertainment from the Makers of Born of Hope

Bafta Sargent-Disc Filmmakers Market

The New Talent Summit at the Princess Anne Theatre, Bafta
The New Talent Summit at the Princess Anne Theatre, Bafta

Yesterday I attended the Filmmakers Market at Bafta, a day of masterclasses, round-table discussions and one-on-one surgeries. Highlights included frank discussion about the ups and downs of directing with Bharat Nalluri (Life on Mars), Penny Woolcock (Tina Goes Shopping) and Neil Marshall (The Descent), and career tips from a panel comprising the NFTS, BFI, Film London and others. Here are the stand-out nuggets I took away from the event:

  • Even in this age when it’s relatively easy to make a micro-budget feature, shorts are still considered the best calling cards. One of the panellists claimed that if you make a bad first feature it will be a decade before anyone lets you make another one…. A truth all too familiar to me.
  • Most of us aspire to work in feature films, but don’t forget that most working directors are employed in TV, and even if you do become successful in the cinematic arena, chances are that you will have got there by laying down the groundwork in TV, music promos or commercials.
  • Although there are exceptions (Bryan Singer, Robert Rodriguez…) generally no-one under 35 is going to make a decent feature film; you just don’t have enough life experience. Based on how my work has matured as I speed towards that unfortunate age I am inclined to believe this.
  • Qualities that make a good director: understanding of story and editing; ability to listen and communicate, particularly with actors; the flexibility to turn the inevitable compromises of the shoot into improvements. “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations,” said Orson Welles.
  • All three of the director panellists dislike storyboarding and rehearsals because they kill the on-set spontaneity, but they concede that preparation is necessary even if it all goes out of the window when you start to work with the actors on the day.
  • The director’s job is to create an environment in which the cast can do their best work. Every actor/director relationship is different – figure out what each person needs from you.

What do you reckon to this advice? What great tips have you heard for new and emerging filmmakers?

(By the way, I highly recommend getting yourself on Bafta’s mailing list because they often have interesting events like this.)

Bafta Sargent-Disc Filmmakers Market

Stop/Eject Cast and Crew Screening

Me, Georgina Sherrington, Amelia Edwards, Therese Collins and Oliver Park at the screening
Me, Georgina Sherrington, Amelia Edwards, Therese Collins and Oliver Park at the screening. Photo: Denis Baudin

Last weekend Stop/Eject, two years in the making, got its first proper screening at the Mac in Birmingham, to an invited audience of cast, crew and sponsors.

The film had been in postproduction for fifteen months – as long as my feature Soul Searcher. With every film I make I want the quality to improve, which means more time, and I want to do fewer jobs myself and turn them over to talented specialists, which again means more time because they’re all fitting it in as a favour around paying work.

The DVDs and Blu-rays arrived in the nick of time.
The DVDs and Blu-rays arrived in the nick of time.

So it might have taken a while, but it was worth it, and it seems that everyone who came along on Saturday agreed. Those of you cast/crew/sponsors who have a Blu-ray copy will be able to see the huge difference wrought by editor Miguel Ferros versus my original cut.

But even since picture lock back in January the film has come on leaps and bounds. The actors were all convinced that the edit had changed since they saw it at the ADR session, but actually all that had changed was the soundtrack. Henning Knoepfel’s sound design and Scott Benzie’s beautiful music, both delicately mixed by Jose Pereira, bring a whole new dimension to the film. Again, if you have the DVD or Blu-ray, be sure to check out the Superior Sound Reproduction featurette for a glimpse into the transformative process of postproduction audio.

Georgina Sherrington. Photo: Paul Bednall www.paulbednallphotography.co.uk
Georgina Sherrington. Photo: Paul Bednall www.paulbednallphotography.co.uk

The day itself was really nice, with most of the key people attending and everyone having a good time. After the screening many of us went on to Fletcher’s Bar and Restaurant to drink, chat and gather around a TV to watch Record & Play: The Making of Stop/Eject.

As usual with these events there is a tinge of sadness. Will I ever see some of these lovely people again? Will we get to work together in the future? With all the good will going round at a premiere, you want to start shooting a new film with the same team the next day, but of course it never works out that way.

Anyway, thanks once again to everyone who came and everyone who supported Stop/Eject. Venice Film Festival has already turned down the film, but there are plenty more to enter and you’ll all get to see it eventually on the festival circuit or (ultimately) online.

Stop/Eject Cast and Crew Screening

Ghost Effect Breakdown by Dominic Stephenson

Here’s a VFX breakdown that didn’t make it onto the Stop/Eject DVD, showing how rotoscoping and compositing techniques were brought to bear on a shot of Kate passing through Dan.

View Dominic’s reel here.

Ghost Effect Breakdown by Dominic Stephenson