Aimed at filmmakers used to working on video who want to move up to shooting on film, this guide covers all the major decisions you’ll have to make, including gauge, aspect ratio, stock, lens and crew. The costs of 35mm are also revealed. I shares everything I learnt about shooting on film while making the demo sequence for my fantasy-adventure feature The Dark Side of the Earth, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Kate Burdette (The Duchess) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing).
A look at the pick-ups shooting during which the fifth scale miniature elements of the Wooden Swordsman and his ceiling mechanism were filmed, along with some full-size shots.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Max) talks about his character and what it was like to act from inside a sealed bio-suit.
I discuss the challenges of directing the pilot, featuring swordfighting, a huge puppet and a man in a sealed suit.
Actress Kate Burdette (Isabelle) and stunt co-ordinator Abbi Collins (a veteran of Skins and Doctor Who) discuss staging the swordfights.
Director of photography Oliver Downey chats about shooting on 35mm and the challenges of lighting the set.
The Borderlines screening went well. It was a good turnout for a Wednesday afternoon and several people wished me luck with the project afterwards.
This week just gone saw the frantic activity of the pickups shoot. My tiny flat was crammed full of people on Tuesday and Wednesday – including stalwarts Ian, Col and Jenny and modelmakers Beth and Jonathan – as the ceiling mechanism miniature was completed, a full size girder was refurbished and a small section of airship hull was rebuilt.
On Thursday and Friday we descended on the function room of the Drayton Court pub in West Ealing for the filming. Joined by my fiancee Katie, DP Ollie and behind-the-scenes cameraman Gerard, we embarked on an ambitious schedule of shots which would finally render the pilot scenes complete. On Thursday we filmed the model shots, with Lau and Lou’s superb Swordsman taking centre stage. Shooting upside-down proved to be a major headache. I had turned the monitor upside-down, leading to communications problems as directions like “left a bit” or “higher” actually meant “right a bit” and “lower” for the puppeteers. Nonetheless we got everything I wanted and wrapped at the very reasonable time of 5:30pm.
Friday was more laid back. The day involved setting up first the full size Swordsman, then the full size ceiling mechanism piece, then a few other bits and bobs (including Katie, in Isabelle’s dress) in front of the airship hull piece and the girder. The resemblance to the original set was quite remarkable, though of course we had to keep moving the hull to make sure we weren’t seeing off the edge of it, and everything had to be shot fairly tight. The last few shots were quite hurried, but we didn’t drop anything significant and I was very pleased with what we’d done.
Alright, let’s crank up the flux capacitor and fire-trail back to last Monday. I can barely remember it now, but there was an enjoyable period spent in an empty room with just myself and the actors working on the material. I also recall the unfinished set being full of lights, lots of sword choreography with Abbi, AJ and Kate, and once more failing to rehearse the puppet as well as we should have done because we kept having to solve logistical problems with him.
The first day of the shoot, Tuesday dawned full of promise. And it was still only promising when the sun went down. Due to understaffed and over-worked art and lighting departments (seemingly most of the day revolved around obtaining and fitting up practical lights), it was 4:30pm before the camera rolled. By this time the old “I wish I was somewhere else… anywhere else” feeling from Soul Searcher had taken firm root within me. Even the obscenely high quality of the material that was eventually shot couldn’t stop my stomach from searching for exits.
On Wednesday I overslept. Once again on the clock, we struggled to get all of Benedict’s shots in the can before lunch. The germ suit and the Swordsman proved equally nightmarish to wrangle. Trailing a compressor hose, power for the helmet lights and a line to a hand-pump that operated his breathing bulb, not to mention the functional fan on his back, poor Benedict was sweating buckets by the time he got out of his costume.
The puppet’s movements were likewise hampered. Hanging from the studio ceiling was a black device of wood, bungees and pulleys designed to support the Swordsman’s ropes which, in the fiction of the movie, control the robot. The device was promptly christened Dante’s Disc as AJ took charge of dealing with it and the movement of the puppet. The disc interfered with Ollie’s overhead lighting rig and vice versa. We would have foreseen this and planned around it, but Monday’s rehearsals indicated that the Disc wasn’t going to work. Two alternatives had been considered and built by the art department over the intervening 48 hours, but neither improved upon the Disc so we just had to struggle on with it.
As Isabelle, the only character not encumbered by rods and ropes and cables, Kate’s close-ups were marginally easier to get through. Ollie and his one sparks Dave worked like demons, but by the end of Wednesday we still hadn’t finished scene three.
Ollie and some of the art department stuck around after hours in an attempt to knock off some inserts. “Guerilla filmmaking on 35mm anamorphic,” Ollie remarked as he set up the massive camera and its comically large lenses by himself, before setting all the lights too. But a dodgy power cable prevented us from shooting anything that evening.
Thursday got off to a much better start, with a staggering three shots in the can before lunch, but we couldn’t maintain the momentum and we officially wrapped at 8pm with scene three reasonably covered and three shots from scene two on film. Some of the crew stayed on longer to shoot more dialogue with Kate, then it was time for Indian food and beer. Once again we tried to shoot inserts with a skeleton crew, but the roll of film ran out and we didn’t have a changing tent to reload in.
On Friday morning, severely knackered, Ollie and Katie and I, along with the ever-faithful art department and puppeteer Sheila, convened to shoot the inserts before Panavision and Panalux came and took their equipment away. The less that is said about the big ladder and the smouldering drape, the better.
Late in the afternoon came my favourite part of the whole process so far: destroying the set. Don’t get me wrong – it was a tragedy to have to wreck something so beautiful, but there is nothing quite as satisfying as beating the crap out of wooden stuff with an axe.
And then came the never-ending clean-up. By Sunday we were down to three: myself, Ian and Col, laboriously sweeping and stacking and hoovering and skipping (that’s putting stuff in skips, not jumping in a girly fashion). We still have another half day to go before everything is out of the studio. Saturday in particular was downright miserable, dragging trolleys full of wood to the skip in the dark and the rain.
The exposed cans of film are sitting worryingly in my loft waiting to be developed. I can’t wait to see what they contain and to get on with editing it, to finally see if I actually have a complete scene that works.
Huge thanks to everyone on the cast and crew for working so hard under very difficult conditions. A special mention must go to the art department, who had already been working flat-out for four weeks before the shoot, but who continued to give their all and forego sleep in order to get more of my vision on film, not to mention performing the duties of sparks, riggers and runners at various points when there was no-one else around.
Excuse me now; I must sleep.
Two days down out of three. What we have so far looks amazing – we just don’t have anywhere near enough of it! Hopefully we’ll get enough tomorrow to allow one of the three scenes to be edited…