Sun Paths

Checking my compass at the stone circle
Checking my compass at the stone circle

I’ve spent the last three days in Sussex, scouting locations for a short film called The Gong Fu Connection. Written and directed by Ted Duran, the film follows a young man as he learns Kung Fu, not just the fighting but the whole lifestyle. Themes of sustainability and connection to nature are woven throughout.

The script is predominantly daylight exterior, with many picturesque rural settings including a number of farms. As director of photography, my main concern during the recce was to make the best use of the natural light. That meant checking the orientation of each location to the sun path.

Apps like Helios exist to show you the sun path on your iPhone or iPad wherever you are, but I find that for most locations such precision is unnecessary. A simple compass and a bit of guesswork based on the time of year can tell you what you need to know.

The best direction to shoot is usually towards the sun. This gives everything a lovely halo of backlight, while illuminating it softly from the front with “north light”. If north light isn’t enough, you can choose your reflectors at will – soft or hard, white or silver or gold – to mould the frontlight. For more on this, see my blog entry on moulding natural light. (One exception to this rule of thumb is establishing shots of buildings, which look best in crosslight.)

The shooting schedule is still in flux, so I was able to give the Gong Fu Connection’s production team my recommendations about when scenes should be shot for the best light.

An Artemis screengrab showing various focal lengths and the compass bearing at the lower centre
An Artemis screengrab showing various focal lengths and the compass bearing at the lower centre

One app I did use extensively on the recce was Artemis, the virtual director’s viewfinder. Although Ted and I didn’t use it for picking lenses at this stage, it was useful to take screengrabs so I could get a sense of how the location would look with different focal lengths. Artemis also handily displays the compass bearing at the bottom of the screen – something I only noticed after I’d spent the whole three days photographing my pocket compass!

Of course there are plenty of other things to look out for on a location recce – check out my post on Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce. And if you’re scouting locations without your DP, read my earlier post about what you can look out for on their behalf.

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Sun Paths

A Cautionary Tale: Recce #2

Left to right: Tom Walsh (1st AD), Sophia Ramcharan (producer), Benjamin Maier (DP), Amy Nicholson (production designer) and Steve Deery (writer)
Left to right: Tom Walsh (1st AD), Sophia Ramcharan (producer), Benjamin Maier (DP), Amy Nicholson (production designer) and Steve Deery (writer)

Following our positive recce of Newstead Abbey last month, we returned there yesterday, this time with new crew members Benjamin Maier (director of photography), Tom Walsh (first assistant director) and designer Amy Nicholson’s assistants Anya and Charlotte. It was an opportunity for Ben to assess the power, lighting, lens and grip requirements, for Tom to consider the logistics of working in the place, and for the art department to take measurements.

Amy and her team are sinking their teeth into the project. Initial ideas of a single feature wall which would be re-wallpapered for each of the film’s four time periods have expanded into full-blown redecoration of the room. This will create a whole different mood and palette for each period and really up the production values.

After leaving the gatekeeper’s cottage, we drove up to the lake to show Ben where the waterside scenes would take place. His immediate observation, which had escaped me on the previous recce because I was wearing my director’s hat, was that it was in the worst possible orientation to the sun: the actors would be flatly lit. We walked around the lake to a cool Victorian folly that looked like part of a miniature castle. Here the light would strike from a better angle, and indeed it was a better location in every respect except for one. I can’t tell you what that one is because it would give away the ending of the film.

Sophia and Steve on the folly overlooking the lake
Sophia and Steve on the folly overlooking the lake

This recce was my first chance to use Artemis, a virtual director’s viewfinder app which I recently purchased. At £20.99 it’s very pricey, but where it scores over other, cheaper viewfinder apps is in its vast array of cameras you can choose from. You don’t have to worry about calculating crop factors; you simply select your camera from the menu, along with the lenses you have available, and Artemis shows you the field of view you’ll get with each one. On the wide end it’s limited by the iPad camera’s lens length, which in terms of a Super-35mm sensor at 16:9 is equivalent in height to a 22mm lens and in width to about 25mm, but you can purchase an optional wide angle lens adaptor to get around this. I have yet to use the app’s more advanced features, but it’s certainly cheaper than a real director’s viewfinder, and much more convenient than carting a DSLR and lenses around, which is what I did on the first recce.

The cottage exterior seen from amongst the trees opposite, through the Artemis director's viewfinder app
The cottage exterior seen from amongst the trees opposite, through the Artemis director’s viewfinder app

In other areas of preproduction, I’ve had initial Skype chats with the two lead actors, which led to some suggestions for little additions to the script, and I’ve been continuing to watch genre films for inspiration, taking in The Silence of the Lambs, The Woman in Black (2012) and The Innocents lately.

A Cautionary Tale: Recce #2

A Cautionary Tale: Newstead Abbey Recce

At the weekend I travelled up to Nottingham for a Cautionary Tale recce with producer Sophia Ramcharan, writer Steve Deery and production designer Amy Nicholson. (I am directing.) We visited Newstead Abbey, a historic house that was once home to Lord Byron – a fitting setting for a film about authors, especially since I had earlier decided that the lead character’s idol would be Mary Shelley, a friend of Byron’s. The staff and local council had been extremely helpful and had already hosted an initial recce by Sophia and her assistant.

We were looking for a gothic cottage overlooking a lake. The abbey’s grounds contain two cottages and two lakes. Unfortunately neither cottage overlooks either lake. The offices overlook one of the lakes, but only from the first and second floors, ruling out any lights or cameras pointing into the room from outside, which I felt were critical to the look and storyline.

The gatekeeper's cottage
Steve and Amy chat outside the gatekeeper’s cottage

We viewed the gatekeeper’s cottage, a beautiful little gothic edifice that has been abandoned inside for many years. A number of problems were immediately obvious. Firstly, a busy main road was a stone’s throw away, threatening the aural illusion of a period setting. Secondly, vehicles entering the grounds (which are open to the public) pass immediately outside the cottage. Thirdly, none of the rooms were particularly big. Fourthly, the least small of the rooms looked out on the tarmac drive and a speed limit sign, with trees beyond.

Stained glass in the interior doors is a nice feature of the gatekeeper's cottage.
Stained glass in the interior doors is a nice feature of the gatekeeper’s cottage.

On the plus side, the architecture was everything I had hoped for both inside and out, with stained glass in the interior doors, and vaulted windows. Its abandonment also meant that potentially we could modify it however we wanted without inconveniencing anyone.

Next we viewed the rose gardener’s cottage on the opposite side of the grounds. This is larger and also abandoned inside, to the extent that the first floor has been declared unsafe. The living room presents a blank slate, but didn’t capture my imagination or Amy’s the way the gatehouse had.

The surroundings are also problematic. They are clearly a formal garden on a country estate, whereas our fictional cottage is supposed to be isolated. Speaking of isolation, the gardener’s cottage is in a very quiet location, but its lack of a functioning mains supply means a noisy generator would have to be employed to run the lights.

The larger lake
The larger lake

We moved on to look at the lakes. The smaller one initally seemed more appropriate, but unlike its larger counterpart it lacks for a suitably dramatic point at which to stage the film’s climax. I began to realise that characters could be seen leaving the gatekeeper’s cottage and disappearing into the trees opposite it, before emerging from the (entirely different) trees next to the lake. Such is the cheated geography often required in filmmaking.

Room with a view... but not a very good one.
Room with a view… but not a very good one.

We returned to the gatehouse, now analysing it in much more detail. Could the drive be framed out? Was it possible to shoot the house from amongst the trees without seeing the park gates? Could the speed limit sign be temporarily removed? Could the necessary interior action be staged in the relatively confined space? What was the widest shot I could get in there with my widest lense? Could the radiators be removed or would they have to be covered? What about the seventies fireplace? How much of the kitchen – which we wanted to avoid dressing – would be seen when the door was open?

Having answered as many of these questions as we could, we departed for a production meeting. Later, Amy and I agreed how the interior would be laid out. Then, on the train home, I drafted a shotlist, which for me is the ultimate test of whether  a location will work. The results are reassuring, but nevertheless we have given ourselves a week to find alternatives to Newstead Abbey, in case there is an even better location out there somewhere.

A Cautionary Tale: Newstead Abbey Recce

Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce (Location Scout)

Scouting a weir for Stop/Eject. We didn't count on heavy rains turning it into a raging torrent though.  Photo: Sophie Black
Scouting a weir for Stop/Eject. We didn’t count on heavy rains turning it into a raging torrent though. Photo: Sophie Black

Tomorrow I’m off to Nottingham to recce for A Cautionary Tale, so I thought now would be a good time to list the questions that a filmmaker and their team should be asking when they check out a location.

  1. Is the mains supply beefy enough for your lighting package? Check the fuse box to see how many circuits there are for sockets and what amperage each is fused at.
  2. Can you access the land outside the windows to set up lights shining in?
  3. If you intend to use a smoke machine or hazer, can any smoke alarms be disabled?
  4. Is it noisy? Just because it isn’t noisy when you scout, it doesn’t mean it won’t be when you shoot. Might that road be busier the day you shoot? Are there any matches scheduled for that playing field next door? Will people be trampling around in the room upstairs? Is there a market, festival or other occasional event on? Is it on a flight path? Can any humming electrical devices be turned off? Some modern buildings have their aircon controlled remotely from other sites.
  5. How might weather affect the location? For example: river levels change; fields can flood; mud can make moving equipment difficult; attractive green grass can turn yellow in a drought. Don’t forget to consider tides if you’re on the coast.
  6. To what extent can you modify the location? Can you screw into or paint the walls? For a period piece – are there anachronisms? Can they be removed or covered?
  7. If outdoors, is there a toilet that everyone can use? What about somewhere to get warm at lunchtime?
  8. Is there space for a green room and HMUW (Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe)? If not, is a separate base camp required and where will that be?
  9. Is there sufficient parking?
  10. Is the owner willing to sign a location release? If not, this may come back to bite you, particularly if you’re entering your film into Virgin Media Shorts or selling it to a distributor. Get them to sign before you start filming; you don’t want them to pull out when you’ve shot two of the four scenes set there.

Can you think of anything I’ve missed?

UPDATE: Leslie Lowes adds:

  • Is there mobile phone coverage? Which networks?

Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce (Location Scout)

Introducing SAS Couriers

Vowchurch
Vowchurch

A few months ago I was approached, via a comment on this blog, by John Harrington. A Herefordshire-based writer, John had completed a script for the pilot episode of SAS Couriers, a sitcom based on his experiences as a driver for a rural courier firm. The BBC had displayed some interest in the script, but wanted him to go away and shoot some of it before they would take it any further.

Rowlestone Ice Cream
Dairy cattle at Rowlestone Ice Cream

So John’s hired me to direct a ten minute section of the pilot episode, which will be used as proof of concept and which we hope will lead to a TV commission. I was immediately attracted by the opportunity to do something about Herefordshire, a place I rarely get to shoot any fiction in, despite living here, and by the quirky but complex characters John had created.

We’ll be shooting early in the new year, and work has already begun on casting, crewing and location scouting. The other week Louise Wright – who doesn’t really have a job title yet, but I’m going to call her the production manager – took me into the beautiful west Herefordshire countryside to look at some locations. We quickly found a stunning setting for our sheep farm and an ideal dairy farm for an escaping cow scene.

More on this project as it develops.

Benfield Farm
Benfield Farm

Introducing SAS Couriers

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

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

Sneak Peak

See how that’s a clever pun? No? Well, if you read on you will discover that this post concerns the PEAK District. Ahahahaha! All must bow down to my comedy genius. Seriously though, my least favourite thing about blogging in WordPress is that it makes you give your posts titles, and I always waste at least five minutes trying to come up with a pun-based title.

Right, so on Monday my wife Katie – who is the costumer and wardrobe supervisor for Stop/Eject – and I travelled to Derbyshire to meet with Tom and production designer Sophie Black, discuss the look of the film and recce locations. Sophie lives in the small town of Belper in the Peak District (Sneak PEAK – remember! Hahahaha!), and it was while dropping her home during the Wasteland trailer shoot that I got my first glimpse of Belper and decided to shoot most of Stop/Eject there.

The village’s most notable landmark is an old redbrick mill which looms over a weir on the River Derwent, and this was our first port of call. We considered the merits of the riverside gardens for happy scenes with the film’s central couple, and scouted about for somewhere they could safely paddle. After looking at a nice cobbled street we travelled on north to Matlock to see Magpie, Sophie’s prime choice for the charity store central to the film. Unfortunately it was closed, but we had a good peer through the window, noting that it had great character but was very small and could prove hard to light.

After lunch we went in some more shops both in Matlock and Belper, and though many were far more suited to the practicalities of filmmaking, none was as visually interesting as Magpie. Next week I’ll get to recce the inside of Magpie and make a decision.

The other location we checked out was Belper Cemetery, which has lovely views across the valley and will add a lot of value to the film, providing of course that we can get permission to shoot there.

All in all, things are going pretty well so far, but since my films are more cursed than Will Turner’s twice-cursed pirate father I’m sure it won’t be long before it all goes spectacularly wrong.  In the meantime, enjoy the second Stop/Eject podcast featuring lead actress Kate Burdette – not that she needs any introduction to followers of The Dark Side of the Earth.

Sneak Peak