Nofilmschool today posted a brilliant short film called The Secret World of Foley, which inspired me to share this DVD extra from Stop/Eject. It looks at the whole sound process on this short film, from production audio, through ADR, foley, effects and music to the final mix.
And here’s The Secret World of Foley – well worth a watch.
As you can see, we had almost £2,000 available to us in post, some of which was left over from production, but most of which came from a crowd-funding campaign. You can read my evaluation of that campaign in an earlier post.
So except for a suite of clock sound effects, which Henning convinced me were necessary to help the audio tell the story, the main costs in postproduction were those incurred by people travelling so that we could be in the same room for some of the work, and eating lunch on those occasions. It’s important to at least make sure people are fed when you can’t pay them a fee. The most expensive of these days was the ADR session, which involved me and two lead actors travelling from Hereford, Birmingham and Bath respectively to the studio in east London.
Even in today’s digital world, some files are just too damn big to send online, and such was the case with the Avid media output by Miguel ready for the grade. I therefore purchased a USB hard drive, which ended up being couriered across London a couple of times to get to where it needed to be. After the film was completed, I used the same drive to archive all of the Stop/Eject assets and project files.
In order to run the crowd-funding campaign, which lasted for most of postproduction, we needed to build our own website and cut a trailer using library music. We also attended several events to promote the campaign and the film in general, one of which charged an entry fee.
The £79.47 spent on producing the crowd-funding rewards (a.k.a. perks or gifts) was racked up mostly by the hardback glossy script books, costing about £25 each (ex. VAT). The sponsorship level required to qualify for one of these books was £100, and since you also got a DVD, Blu-ray and premiere invite for that amount, there can scarcely have been £60 left of the donation for us to spend on actually making the film! It just goes to show that you should carefully cost up your rewards before you offer them.
That £79.47 isn’t the whole story though, since the next three items listed – the screening venue hire, Blu-ray stock and dupes – were all partly for sponsors as well. (A £10 donation got you an invite to the premiere, £30 got you a DVD and an invite, and £50 got you a Blu-ray, a DVD and an invite.)
£25.61 bought me fourteen blank Blu-ray discs, most of which I got through in trial and error as I authored and tested my first ever BD. The £265.30 spent on dupes got us 60 DVDs and 50 BDs, all with full colour on-disc artwork, inlays and cases. 20 of those discs went to sponsors and approximately 50 to cast and crew, with the rest being reserved for press and festivals.
I deliberately completed the discs in time for the premiere so that I could hand many of them out in person and reduce postage costs. For those that I did post, I used only pre-loved jiffy bags which I had been collecting for some time.
All in all, I’d say almost 11% of the £1,584 raised through crowd-funding was spent on creating and delivering rewards, a little more than I would have liked. Ideally you want to spend no more than 10% of your budget on rewards.
To promote the film at festivals and beyond, we had 50 full colour folders printed, each containing five single-sided monochrome pages of text. We also paid £10 to submit Stop/Eject to The London Film Review, the hope being that good reviews would increase our chances of festival selection.
And that only really leaves the festival entry fees themselves. We’ve entered 25 to date, and the money we’re raising now should allow us to enter another 20 or so. In a future post I’ll provide a list of the festivals entered, their deadlines and fees, and the selection results.
Everything begins with the script, and here is the extract for the Stop/Eject sequence I’m going to break down:
14. INT. ALCOVE/EXT. RIVER GARDENS – DAY – INTERCUT
KATE stands behind the alcove’s curtain with an armful of tapes.
She pushes one into the recorder – “JULY 16th 2007, 5-6:30pm” -
and hits PLAY. Warm summer sunshine steals in through the crack
in the curtain. She pulls it back to reveal the river, sunlight
dancing and sparkling in the water of the weir.
COPY-KATE cycles through the gardens on a creaky old bicycle
with a custom paint job and various doodads hanging off,
oblivious to her other self and the alcove stood in the middle
of a Victorian bandstand.
Copy-Kate spots a strange figure on the riverbank, wearing
closed-back headphones and waving a big, fluffy microphone at
the running water. She looks ahead – she’s about to run over
TWO YOUNG GIRLS. She grips the brakes tightly and the bike
screeches to a stop with a noise like a small army of warring
cats. She catches her breath as the older girl scowls and drags
her sister away.
Sophie drew the following storyboards for this sequence, based on my rough sketches:
I don’t like starting scenes with establishing shots; I prefer to reveal them gradually. So when I conceived the first shot (top left) – setting up Kate in the alcove in the shop – I suspected I would probably end up cutting it, and sure enough I never even filmed it. The audience would know by now where the tape recorder alcove was, I figured.
The next shot (top right) follows Kate as she puts down the stack of tapes. This is fairly basic visual storytelling. The audience already knows that the tapes contain recordings of Kate’s life. When we see her come in with an armful of cassettes, we anticipate her nostalgia trip.
As this was the first time Kate was to travel back in time more than a few hours, I felt it important to show the action of the tape going into the recorder in close-up (bottom), to ensure the audience understood the connection between the tapes, the machine and the time travelling.
We then return (top left) to the previous angle, following Kate as she stands back up and opens the curtain. One of my regrets with Stop/Eject was that I never shot over Kate’s shoulder as she looked out of the alcove. I can only think this is because I was trying to avoid doing “the obvious thing”. In this scene I chose instead to tease what she’s seeing, revealing first the sunlight on her face, and then (top right) an abstract close-up of a spinning bike wheel, part of the visual theme of circles I had smart-arsedly developed for the film. My thinking was that time travel was a big and unbelievable concept for Kate to take in, so it needed to be broken to her (and therefore us) gradually.
Finally the scene is revealed (bottom left) in a high wide shot to establish the geography, which then cranes down to draw us into the action. On the day, there was a bush in the foreground, which began to obscure the action as we craned down, so we decided to crane up instead, rising up over the bush to reveal the action.
Next it was necessary to show the place of Kate and the alcove in the geography. I wanted to echo the formality and symmetry of the bandstand’s architecture by framing it flat-on, dead centre (bottom right).
Then Copy-Kate sees Dan, her future husband, for the very first time. I wanted to show an immediate connection using an over-the-shoulder shot-reverse. Since Copy-Kate was on a moving bike, this meant panning with her for her angle (top) and then tracking with her for Dan’s angle (bottom) in order to keep her shoulder in frame. I left Dan’s shoulder out of Kate’s shot since he hasn’t seen her yet and so hasn’t made a connection.
The editing podcast below from summer 2012 explains the various iterations I went through with this sequence. (I later brought Miguel Ferros on board to re-edit the film, and his final version is far superior to all of my attempts.) You can see in the podcast some of the problems that my linear shot planning approach caused, notably my failure to cover the whole scene in the crane shot, and the restrictions which that placed on me in the edit.
Despite these minor quibbles, I’m very proud of Stop/Eject and its visual storytelling. It’s recently received a couple of glowing reviews on Unsung Films and The London Film Review, the latter praising its visuals, and both quite rightly lauding Georgina Sherrington’s brilliant lead performance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that huge reels of 35mm film are all but obsolete, Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) are the new means of getting a film to a cinema. Many top film festivals will only screen off a DCP or 35mm print, and in terms of picture and sound quality and compatibility it is your best option for screening at theatrical venues in general. Much has been written about how you can make a DCP at home for nothing, but having just gone through the process myself for Stop/Eject I’m going to round up some of the best sources of information I came across and enlarge on the area of disc formatting which hasn’t been too well covered elsewhere.
To ensure maximum compatibility of your DCP you need to:
convert your film to 24fps if it isn’t already at that frame rate
use a standard 2K aspect ratio, 2048×1080 or 2048×858
So, here is the process I went through. I was starting out with 25,409 uncompressed 16-bit TIFF files representing each individual frame of Stop/Eject, and six mono 24-bit linear PCM WAV files for the 5.1 surround soundtrack. The TIFFs were in 1080P (1920×1080) letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
First of all I used Photoshop to batch convert all the TIFFs to the 2048×858 aspect ratio. This is actually 2.39:1 rather than the 2.35:1, so it meant cropping a sliver of the actual picture off the top and bottom, not just the black bars, as well as enlarging the picture slightly. It took my poor iMac about 12 hours to convert the 25,409 frames. I’m sure there’s quicker batch conversion software out there than Photoshop if you hunt around though.
Then I downloaded and ran OpenDCP, the brilliant free software that actually creates the Digital Cinema Package for you. It’s very simple to use, but check out the help Wiki and Danny Lacey’s seminal blog post to guide you through it. The end result was six files: four XML files and two MXF files, one for sound and one for picture. Encoding at the default bitrate of 125mb/s, which the Wiki says is more than good enough for 2K at 24fps, Stop/Eject’s DCP was just under 17GB, so about 1GB per minute.
Now the tricky bit – copying those six files onto an EXT3 formatted drive. EXT3 is a Linux file system, and is not supported by MacOS. So I downloaded Ubuntu, a free operating system which does support it. (Choose the 64-bit download unless you have quite an old computer.) The downloaded file is a disc image (.ISO) which you can burn to DVD using Disk Utlity (found in the utilities sub-folder of MacOS’s Applications folder). Then restart your Mac, with the DVD still in the drive, and hold down C when you hear the chimes. This will boot up your Mac in the Ubuntu operating system. (You can release C when you see the black screen and Ubuntu logo.)
Once Ubuntu was running, I right-clicked the LaCie Rugged in the list of drives in the lower left of the desktop and chose format from the contextual menu. To get more than the default options, I clicked Disk Utility in the dialogue box that came up. I could now select EXT3 as the file system (leaving the other settings at their default values). When I clicked format, Ubuntu didn’t seem to be doing anything, but after a few minutes the Disk Utility showed that the volume had been created. I could then close the Disk Utility, and drag and drop the six DCP files from another hard drive (MacOS formatted) onto my newly EXT3 formatted LaCie. Apparently you can put these files inside a folder if you want, but again to be extra safe I put them in the root directory.
After completing the DCP I took it to the Courtyard, my local arts centre, where head projectionist Simon Nicholls was kind enough to let me test it. To my very pleasant surprise it worked perfectly, uploading at about real time via the Doremi server’s USB 2 socket and playing shortly afterwards with superb sound and picture quality. Much as I love celluloid, the ease and cheapness of this process are breathtaking, the purchase of the hard drive being the only cost. I’ll let you know how I get on running it at other cinemas.
Stop/Eject is my fourth major project to include visual effects, and also the fourth where it’s been a struggle to get all the visual effects done. As any micro-budget filmmaker knows, it’s par for the course for some cast and crew to pull out, sometimes without warning or explanation, and VFX artists are no exception. On Soul Searcher, for example, I needed a CG artist for the 80+ shots featuring “spectral umbilical cords”. Four artists started the work and then quit, citing various excuses from exploding PCs to miscarriages, before the fifth delivered the goods.
Stop/Eject has a surprising 31 VFX shots (most of which you’d never know were VFX shots), of which the twelve simplest were handled by me and Miguel, the editor. With the remaining nineteen needing to be outsourced, how did I apply what I’d learnt from my previous projects?
I advertised for multiple artists, knowing from Soul Searcher (and before that The Beacon) that relying on a single person was not a good idea. More than half the people who agreed to work on Stop/Eject never completed a single shot.
I created and uploaded zip files to my webspace for each shot. Each zip contained all the footage and information needed for that shot. This way if an artist dropped out, it was quick and easy for me to point another artist to that zip file to take over the shot.
I re-advertised regularly. Beware that the law of diminishing returns applies here: each ad will reap fewer responses than the last.
I assigned the most difficult shots first. That way the shots that are left at the end when the reliable artists are all burnt out and your adverts are getting no responses are – in theory – the easy ones which you can just about do yourself.
I regularly checked in on the artists’ progress. If I didn’t get a reply within a couple of days, I’d assume that the artist had dropped out and I’d re-assign their shot to someone else. Harsh, but necessary.
I want to say a huge thanks to those artists who came through for the project: David Robinson, Mary Lapena, Matt Collett, Eranga Mudiyanselage, Dominic Stephenson and Naveed Aftab. You all worked incredibly hard and produced fantastic results – you should be proud of yourselves.
Finally, a few technical points about our workflow, for anyone interested in such things. We shot on a DSLR, so the source footage was in H.264, a format that due to its structure cannot be trimmed without losing a generation. So I supplied the VFX artists with the entire take (along with details of the in and out timecodes of the piece used in the edit) and asked them to deliver their finished shots as 16-bit TIFF sequences. This ensured that we would lose zero quality. The downside to this workflow is that there is a danger of errors being made with the timecodes, leading to a shot not being long enough when you go to conform the edit…. Yes, that happened. There must be a better way. What’s your workflow for DSLR projects with VFX?
I can at last reveal the full list of bonus features that will grace the DVD and Blu-ray editions of Stop/Eject. Please note these discs are for sponsors, cast and crew only. It is likely to be 18 months or so before the film is available to the general public, other than at festivals.
The film with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (17 mins)
Cast commentary with Georgina Sherrington (Kate), Oliver Park (Dan) and Therese Collins (Alice)
Filmmakers commentary with producer Sophie Black and the director, Yours Truly
Record & Play: The Making of Stop/Eject – brand new behind-the-scenes documentary featuring interviews with all the cast and crew (30 mins)
Crowd-funding Stop/Eject – Sophie and I relate the ups and downs of financing the film, the many ways we promoted the campaign and the lessons we learnt from it all. (10 mins)
Filming in Belper – visual essay by Sophie about Stop/Eject’s north Derbyshire locations, featuring clips from other independent productions shot in the town and interviews with Stop/Eject’s cast (5 mins)
Superior Sound Reproduction – a unique look at the little-understood area of postproduction sound, from Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR) through sound effects and music to the final mix, featuring interviews with re-recording mixer Jose Pereira, sound designer Henning Knoepfel, composer Scott Benzie, Georgina Sherrington and Oliver Park (10 mins)
Deleted scenes (5 mins)
Visual effects breakdown – revealing the layers of work that went into Stop/Eject’s visual effects shots (3 mins)
All of the DVD features except for the deleted scenes
Extended rough cut with optional director’s commentary – an early edit of the film containing dialogue, moments and entire scenes excised from the final version (22 mins)
Memoirs of the Worst Witch – exclusive interview with Georgina Sherrington, looking back on her time playing Mildred Hubble in the popular ITV series (20 mins)
Bonus film: The Picnic – starring Therese Collins. When a gentleman arrives for a romantic picnic with his girlfriend, he is enraged to find her in the arms of another man. (2 mins)
Bonus film: Ghost-trainspotting – Norman sets out to spot the fabled Flying Welshman, the spectre of an ill-fated steam train. (2 mins)
On Monday, Stop/Eject entered the final phase of postproduction: grading. In the optical days, this process involved adjusting the cocktail of chemicals and the length of time the film would be bathed in those chemicals to make basic adjustments to the amount of red, green and blue in each shot and the brightness.
The reason for this can be most readily appreciated if you imagine a scene shot outdoors, in which one camera angle may have been recorded under warm, direct sunlight, whereas another which is cut to immediately after may have been recorded when the sun was behind a cloud and the light was cooler in colour. But even artificially lit scenes will need a little work to match up each shot to the next; the human eye is quite sensitive to changes in colour and brightness.
With the digital revolution came an exponentially expanded toolset for grading. Individual colours can be isolated and changed, shadows and highlights can be adjusted independently, and feathered masks can be applied to highlight or shade just one part of the frame – with the software even able to track elements if they move around so that the mask always stayed lock to that element. (Watch the Digital Intermediate featurette on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD to get a glimpse into what’s possible.)
Stop/Eject was graded by Michael Stirling at the company he runs in East London, White Cross Post Production. He very kindly put in a lot of hours, including two evenings, to make sure we got the best out of the film’s images. Even at this late stage in the game we were still telling the story: drawing the viewer’s eye to critical elements in the frame, enhancing lighting transitions when time stops and starts, making the happy past sequences warm and inviting, and contrasting those with cooler, darker scenes in the present.
Given that we shot in 16:9 (standard widescreen) but were cropping to 2:35:1 (cinemascope), we had the opportunity to move the images up or down behind the widescreen mask to reframe shots slightly; this is known as re-racking. We also added some subtle 35mm grain to the whole film.
The grade was the first time – and perhaps the last – that I was able to see the film on a really high quality, properly calibrated projector. It really exposed the quality of the camera and glass that were used. And while the Canon 600D and relatively cheap lenses look great on every other screen I’ve watched it on, on Whitecross’ projector I could really see the value of investing in high-end lenses. Even the difference between the Canon 50mm/f1.8 (£60) and the more expensive Sigma 20mm and 105mm lenses was apparent.
But I digress. The important things are: the grade looks great, and Stop/Eject is now finished. Hooray!
Sophie and I are off to Cannes this weekend – subscribe to my YouTube channel to get our daily video blogs. And when we get back it’s film festival submissions, DVD/Blu-ray authoring, and premiere arranging all the way.