Due to the looming nature of the competition deadline, this was a pretty quick and dirty shot. Having said that, my VFX skills are pretty limited and I doubt I could have significantly improved it even if I’d had more time. It took a couple of hours to set up and shoot the miniature, and no more than an hour to do the compositing you see above. (I re-used smoke footage shot for Soul Searcher.)
As always, my approach was low-tech, avoiding any CG elements, and I did all the compositing work in Final Cut Pro. Soul Searcher had loads of shots that utilised this low-tech method, creating effects with everything from indoor sparklers to milk being poured into a fish tank. You can see a breakdown of all those effects as part of the Deluxe Package rental of Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher. And remember, if you embed this video on your own site, you get a cut of any sales made through it.
Last weekend I recorded the model shots for Ghost-trainspotting. The script was written with the train miniature from my 2005 feature film Soul Searcher in mind.
This model was built by Jonathan Hayes, with the wheels and linkages by my uncle and my late grandfather, and even some detailing by Yours Truly. If you’ve seen Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher you’ll know what an absolute pain in the arse this train was to shoot back in the autumn of ’04. You can also check out the key blog entries here, here and here to experience the pain.
I’m pleased to report that filming the train this time around was considerably easier. The model has been sitting in my parents’ loft conversion for the last eight years, and that’s where I filmed it. All I had to do was rig some black drapes and line up the camera angles to the live action plates.
In the past, whenever I’ve needed to shoot a VFX element that had to match another, pre-existing element, I’ve used acetate. I would play back the existing element, typically a live action plate from principal photography, on a TV or monitor. I’d tape a sheet of acetate – the stuff teachers used to use on overhead projectors – over the screen and draw around the important landmarks with a felt-tip. Then I’d plug the camera into the same TV and adjust the camera angle until it matched the lines on the acetate. Low-tech, but effective.
Express Train to Hell
Thanks to Magic Lantern – a firmware hack for the Canon HD-DSLRs – there’s now a more elegant solution. Magic Lantern provides a large number of handy features that Canon themselves were too tight or too lazy to include, but there are only two I regularly use: manual white balance, which lets you dial in the colour temperature in degrees kelvin, rather than relying on presets or holding up a white sheet of paper, and crop marks.
On Stop/Eject I used the crop marks to show us the 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio we were framing to, but you can actually overlay any monochrome image on the viewfinder by simply creating a .BMP image of the correct specifications on your computer and saving it to your SDHC card. So for Ghost-trainspotting, I loaded still frames from the two live action plates into Photoshop, and outlined them with the paint tool. After saving these outlines to the memory card as bitmaps, I could superimpose them on the Live View image on my Canon 600D’s flip-out screen. This made it a doddle to line up the shots.
Left: live action plate. Right: overlay for Magic Lantern
So, the model shots are now in the can and yesterday I incorporated them into the film. I also tightened up the edit – finally getting it down to 2’20 exactly, including credits – mixed the audio and graded the images. The film is very nearly finished now; I’m just trying to decide whether to change the ending….
If you’re lucky, there may be a little VFX breakdown of the train shots coming in the next week or so. Meanwhile, here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice about shooting miniatures:
In what must rank as one of the smoothest-running and most enjoyable shoots I’ve ever helmed, my Virgin Media Shorts entry Ghost-trainspotting was filmed yesterday.
With an entirely exterior script, weather was the biggest concern, but it rained for less than five minutes all day and was generally quite lovely. The camera started rolling earlier than planned, we moved at a good pace all day and we wrapped early. What’s not to like?
Actors Rob Ashman and George McCluskey got on like a house on fire. Rob in particular looked brilliant in his trainspotter outfit, as you can see from the photos here which Katie took:
I’ve already started editing the film, and like last year it’s going to be challenging to get it down to the required length of 140 seconds. Unlike last year, there are model shots to film, which I hope to do this weekend. Stay tuned.
This year I’ve written a script called Ghost-trainspotting, after wracking my brains to think of a location as convenient as the ruins over the road we shot The Picnic in, and finally hitting on the disused railway line a couple of blocks away. We’re shooting this Sunday with actors Rob Ashman (last seen in a Neil Oseman film as the prime minister in The Beacon) and George McCluskey, Colin Smith as DP, Sophie Black as designer, Ian Preece on sound and Katie Lake ADing and catering.
Johnny Cartwright and Therese Collins in The Picnic
Historically, the films that I’ve made off my own back have not been money-spinners. The Beacon clawed back only a few hundred of its £3,000 budget, Soul Searcher made money for the distributors but not the investors, and The Dark Side of the Earth‘s hellishly expensive pilot has so far failed to raise any production funding.
But at last one of my films has made a profit. Gasp! Swoon!
Which one? Ironically, the easiest and cheapest to make: The Picnic. Shot in a single day last June for £100 and running to only 140 seconds, The Picnic is about a man who turns up to a romantic picnic only to find his beloved in the arms of another man. You can watch it here.
Although it failed to win any prizes in Virgin Media Shorts, the competition for which it was made, The Picnic found another, completely unexpected source of revenue.
At a networking event late last year, I got talking to a local composer who I’d worked with indirectly several times. He told me that he was involved in writing an exam paper for music students, and that he was on the look-out for a three minute film with little or no dialogue which could be given to said students for them to compose a score to. Naturally I showed him The Picnic, and after a few months of back and forth the exam board purchased the rights to use the film.
Okay, it worked out at only £50 for each of the actors and crew, but since we weren’t expecting anything, it was a nice surprise.
“We will not go quietly into the night. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our independence day.” Yes, today here in Pioneer Valley and all over these glorious US of A those cheeky Yanks are celebrating kicking us Brits out for good. Didn’t do a very good job, did they? I’m disappointed to find that watching ID4 isn’t a traditional part of the festivities. That movie had the largest number of miniatures ever in a Hollywood film. It was made in that brief era when the high price of nascent CGI forced filmmakers to use a combination of traditional and digital techniques to achieve their FX. Those CGI USAF planes look a lot more convincing for the fact that the alien Destroyer they’re flying towards is a lovely big model. I still don’t get why Will Smith didn’t see the dirty great ship as soon as he stepped out to get the newspaper though. But enough of that. I’m here to tell you that The Picnic is now available to view on the Virgin Media Shorts website. The more views it gets the more chance it has of winning, so if you can spare two and a half minutes to give it a watch I would be very grateful indeed.
The Super-8 footage came back from the lab. Unfortunately a lot of it is out of focus. We carefully measured all our focal distances with a tape measure, so I can only conclude that one of the lens elements in the camera was loose or out of alignment. So I was glad I took the precaution of shooting everything on HDV too. It didn’t take me long to edit the material, and the composer is now working on the music. Virgin Media Shorts limits entries to 140 seconds in length. I thought The Picnic would run to 90 seconds, but the assembly came in at 170. With a lot of trimming I shaved 12 seconds out, then I cheated. Since I was treating the HDV material to look like old film, I figured I could get away with speeding the whole movie up slightly, which would enhance that look and get it down to the target length. Colin has plenty more Super-8 cameras in his arsenal, and hopefully for the next project we’ll have time to test one beforehand.
Five things I like about Super-8, the format: 1. It’s film, so even though you may have bought the camera for a fiver at a car boot sale, it will give you more beautiful images than the most advanced digital rig Lucas or Cameron can come up with. 2. It forces you to be disciplined on set because the cartridges are so short. 3. The anticipation of your footage coming back from the lab is simultaneously nerve-wracking and delicious. 4. Does your video camera have a trigger? No, it has a boring REC STOP/START button. 5. You can shoot real slow motion.
Five things I like about Super-8, the J. J. Abrahms movie (no spoilers): 1. The guy from Early Edition is in it. Remember Early Edition? That show rocked. 2. It’s not in 3D. 3. It has an evil military guy in it. All the best movies have evil military guys in them – Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, DARYL, ET… And the kids are like the Goonies. The only thing missing is the Truffle Shuffle. 4. Like Abrahms’ previous offering, Star Trek, it perfectly balances action, emotion and humour. There’s something here for everyone. 5. It’s not a sequel, prelude, remake or reimagining. It’s not based on a video game, a book, a comic, a Broadway show or a theme park ride. It’s (gasp!) original.
In my last post I touched on shooting ratios, and the great discipline and focus that film, even Super-8, can give you because of the expense of the stock. Today I just want to expand on that a little. I always used to think of myself as a director who only shoots what he needs and doesn’t do loads of takes. I was forced to revise that self-image somewhat after principal photography on The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot. My first time shooting on film – and 35mm at that – saw me shooting six or more takes of many set-ups. Okay, it was tough to get the swordplay and the inflatable germ suit and particularly the puppet Swordsman to do what they were meant to, but still I should have been more economical. When it came time to shoot the pick-ups and miniature shots, I resolved to mend my ways. To be honest, my hand was forced by the tiny budget I had left to spend – which could not stretch to purchasing more stock. We could use only what had been left over from principal, plus a couple of short ends Ollie contributed. So I had to focus. In practice that meant three things: 1. Rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing until we got it perfect, and only then going for a take. Not rehearsing it for a bit and then saying, “Okay, let’s go for a take and see what happens.” 2. Recognising when I had a satisfactory take. How many times have you been in the edit and used take one or two, forsaking the four or five takes that came after? Plenty, because a lot of the things you think are important when you see a shot in isolation (a little camera wobble, for example) are completely unnoticeable once they’re cut into the scene. 3. Making the crew understand that they had a very limited number of takes in which to get it right, so that they would raise their games too. Everyone rose to the challenge, just as they did on the set of my Super-8 short The Picnic the other weekend. But could I apply this philosophy in a very different scenario? Could I keep my shooting ratio down on one of my paying corporate gigs? Well, on Monday I had the chance to find out, as I directed a series of educational webisodes in the style of a Gok Wan-type make-over show. Within a few minutes of first turning over, I could feel the discipline slipping away from me. Unlike the Dark Side pick-ups and The Picnic, this shoot had dialogue, opening the doors to line fluffs and obtrusive background noises as potential take-wreckers. Both of these reared their ugly heads early on. What could I do about this? How could I make everyone raise their game, since everyone knew we were shooting on video? Only by moving onto the next set-up after just one or two takes repeatedly at the start of the day, showing everyone that they had to get it right pretty much first time. Unfortunately, by the time that idea occurred to me we were several set-ups in and I’d let some of those run to four or five takes. D’oh! (And when I edited the first set-up the next day, I used take one – just goes to show.) But in the end, thanks to copious rehearsals, I did get my shooting ratio significantly lower than I would have done without attempting that focus and having that 35mm and Super-8 experience. If nothing else, this benefits me in the editing suite through having less extraneous material to wade through. On a completely unrelated topic, I am writing this at 36,000ft over the coast of Canada. One of the plane’s audio channels is playing eighties hits. They have a brilliant slogan which runs thusly: “Have you had a fall and you can’t get up? Then you probably remember the eighties.” Harsh but true.
On the video page you can now view the trailer for Video8, the documentary covering the reunion of me and my old schoolfriends who made the original amateur version of The Dark Side of the Earth back in 1995-6. The documentary itself is still being edited and won’t be finished for several weeks yet, and I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to put it online or not when it’s done. On Thursday Katie and I are off to the US to spend some time with her family, who we haven’t seen in 18 months. While there, as you know, I’ll be sending off The Picnic (yes, it has a title now), my Super-8 short to be processed, and indeed I’ll have to edit it and enter it into Virgin Media Shorts while still in the States. Try to behave while I’m away. I shall be very cross if I get back and find that you’ve had a wild party in the UK in my absence and got vommit all over the upholstery.