Review of My Year: 2015

Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes on an Alexa HD
Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes, my first time working with an Alexa

Where has the year gone? Can you believe that all of the Back to the Future trilogy is now set in the past? It’s been a great year for me, one of moving in the right direction.

At the end of last year I said, “In 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps.” And that’s exactly what I’ve done. That and postproduction supervising a web series – but more on that in a minute.

Last year I made the huge but entirely correct decision to stop doing corporates, and that did lead to some gaps in my schedule. 2015 started slowly, with a couple of gaffering jobs on Oliver Park’s short Vicious and John Quarrell’s The Gift.

In late January I reached the milestone of my 1,000th blog post, and published an article looking back at my various film blogs over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 15.53.09
Photo: Laura Radford

Meanwhile, I asked Kate Madison if she needed any help with post on Ren: The Girl With the Mark, the awesome fantasy web series I had DPed for her the previous autumn. By Easter I had cut 30 or 40 behind-the-scenes and production diary videos for the show, become postproduction supervisor for the series and moved into Kate’s spare room! Between the paying jobs this year I’ve overseen the show’s many VFX – even doing several of them myself – created an EPK, organised ADR sessions, appeared on Comic Con panels, and shot hours of interviews for a DVD documentary.

Moving out of Hereford was a much-needed change, although the place treated me well over the years. Cambridge, my new home, is a beautiful city which encourages lots of healthy cycling, and London is much more accessible from here.

Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant
Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant

Work picked up as the summer approached. Shorts I’ve cinematographed this year include Gisella Pereira’s fairytale Ballet Pointe Shoes, James Reynolds’ race drama Exile Incessant, Stanislava Buevich’s black comedy Self Control, Douglas Morse’s medieval comedy The Second Shepherds’ Play, and Ben Bloore’s mysterious drama Crossing Paths, plus the period comedy web series pilot Owl House by Mark Keegan. And I was delighted to visit Japan for a few days to shoot pick-ups for a sci-fi feature called Synced, directed by Devon Avery. Most of these projects have blog posts about them, so click the links above to check those out.

But 2015 saved the best for last, with my first paid feature film job coming out of the blue in November, courtesy of a glowing recommendation from sound recordist David Bekkevold. I learnt so much from this project, some of which you can read in the daily blogs I posted, and others of which I’ll be blogging about soon. I now feel like I could walk onto almost any set as a DP and acquit myself reasonably well.

heretiks-still-empire-exclusive

As 2016 approaches I have an ambitious 30-minute fantasy short booked in for the end of January, and attachments to three features. A lot of my work is now in the period/fantasy arena, which is exactly what I was hoping for after doing The First Musketeer back in 2013. It’s taken sixteen years, but I finally feel like I’m getting there – wherever there is!

As usual, I’ll leave you with my ten favourite blog posts from this year…

  1. Women on Film: Characters or Glorified Props? – an article about misogyny in the movies
  2. Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – demonstrating how backlight and contrast control can help tell the story
  3. Shooting in Rain – practical advice for keeping the camera rolling in a downpour
  4. 20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road – culled from interviews with the DP
  5. How to Correct Cosmetic Issues with Lighting – handy tips for flattering your cast
  6. Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 3 – how I lit a nighttime street scene in Himeji with a few small units
  7. The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks – lighting breakdown for a key action sequence from the period web series
  8. Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix – an explanation of how films are dubbed, what materials a producer needs to deliver to a foreign distributor, and a video showing the various stages in creating Soul Searcher’s Japanese dub
  9. Crossing Paths: Day Exterior – revealing how to manipulate the sun to get the best results
  10. Feature Shoot: Day -1 – testing lighting looks and Soft FX filters with the Alexa and Cooke S4s
Review of My Year: 2015

What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Adrian Biddle
Adrian Biddle

Being a director of photography is not just about having an eye for composition and understanding light. There are many other skills a DP needs. Today I’ll discuss what some of those are, in my opinion, and in the opinions of some top Hollywood DPs.

“Obviously you have to know what you are doing, have an eye for photography, and know about film and composition. But it’s a team effort.” – Adrian Biddle (Aliens, Event Horizon)

Shane Hurlbut (Need for Speed, Terminator: Salvation) says that 33% of a cinematographer’s job is managing their crew. You need to pick great people to work with, nurture them, share your knowledge with them, and trust them to deliver the goods.

Frankie DeMarco (Mad Men, All is Lost) advises trying to think like an editor: what specific shots do you need to tell the story? Editing is one of the areas it’s most useful to have experience of, as a DP. Knowing whether what you’re shooting will cut together is vitally important. I often find myself suggesting to a director that we run a scene from a little earlier, have someone come into shot at the start, or cut it later so they exit shot, knowing how useful that stuff can be in post.

Understanding the jobs of other departments is very useful. The more you know about production design, costume and make-up, the better you can light it. The more you know about acting, the better you can appreciate the impact your decisions – equipment placement, the strictness of adherence to marks you demand, the lenses and angles you select – have on an actor’s work. This doesn’t mean that you have to do all these jobs at some point, but try reading the occasional book or watching the odd YouTube video about the subject, or better still, forge great relationships with other heads of departments and pick their brains.

Douglas Slocombe
Douglas Slocombe

There are of course many rules to cinematography – the line of action, Golden Thirds, lighting the downside – but how many of them do you need to know?

“To any aspiring cinematographer, I’d say learn the rules before you try and bend or break them. You need a foundation on which to build.” – Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones trilogy)

You should take every opportunity to learn; read every blog, every book that you can, go to workshops, to masterclasses; watch behind-the-scenes videos. The more knowledge you have to fall back on in a crisis, the better.

“You always try to create a certain style for each film but there are times when you have to make it up as you go along.” – Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Flatliners)

Flexibility is key. You have to do what’s right for the scene, what’s right for the set and the talent, what the director wants, and what works for the schedule. Sometimes this means changing tack at the last minute. You can’t throw a hissy fit and weep for the lighting set-up you’d imagined; you have to get on with it. Corporate videos, in which you often have to sacrifice your photographic ideals for the mundane needs of the client, are great training for this.

You have to be a storyteller; all heads of department have to be. As DP, your tools for telling the story are lights and lenses. You need to absorb the script, appreciate the narrative beats and come up with creative ways to accent those beats using your tools.

Perhaps the most important thing to have is life experience.

“It’s my personal interpretation of a script that allows me to create the visuals. That interpretation is based on my own life experiences, aesthetics, education, and knowledge, all of which help to shape my understanding of a story.” – Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln)

Thanks to Stephen Murphy and his DOP Documents for the block quotes.

Janusz Kaminski
Janusz Kaminski
What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January

Don't just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.
Don’t just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.

January is often a lean time for film freelancers. The powers that be have not recovered from Christmas sufficiently to commission any new work, the budget for the financial year is almost spent, and the weather and short hours of daylight make shooting difficult and unpleasant.

So when you’ve had enough of eating the Christmas leftovers, and watching TV box-sets, how can you gainfully fill your time? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Do your taxes. Really, you can’t put them off any longer.
  2. Update your showreel. Chase up producers for clips and get editing, so you can show your latest and greatest to the world and line up some sweet work for 2015. Don’t forget to add your latest credits to your CV as well, and update your website.
  3. Go through the job sites – Shooting People, Mandy, Talent Circle etc. – and  write some applications. Even if there’s nothing quite up your street, why not stretch yourself and apply for something a little different? If nothing else, it’s good practice.
  4. Attend events, workshops and talks to broaden your knowledge and network. Did you know, for example, that there’s a free cinematography masterclass on in Birmingham on the 31st?
  5. Learn more about your craft by reading books on the subject. (I recently posted a list of my favourite “making of” movie books.)
  6. Go to galleries and see relevant work – a cinematographer might want to look at the use of light in classic paintings; a costume designer might want to check out an exhibition of period fashions, and so on.
  7. Go to the cinema! There are several great films out at the moment, including The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Birdman.
  8. Perform essential maintenance on your equipment. Fix those niggly things that you’ve put up with for the last few months while you’ve been busy, top up your consumables, and order those cheap accessories from Hong Kong now while you can afford to wait weeks for them to arrive.
  9. Do a personal project: make a micro-short, write a script, take some photos. It’ll help keep your skills sharp and could help you get work.
  10. Do something entirely unrelated to filmmaking. Such things exist. Apparently.
Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January

Review of the Year: 2014

Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren
Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren. Photo: Michael Hudson

Last year’s review saw me uncertain as to where to go next as a director, but chuffed to have DPed some great projects including Girl and a Scar and The First Musketeer. I stated my goals for 2014 as follows:

So in 2014 I hope to work as DP for many more great directors, to complete A Cautionary Tale, to see Stop/Eject get into a significant festival, to enter Virgin Media Shorts again.

Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls
Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

Well, I’ve achieved 50% of those.

Virgin Media Shorts is no more, so that was the end of that goal.

A Cautionary Tale – now re-titled Amelia’s Letter – is nearly finished – finished enough that we entered it into a festival last month. But we still need to tweak the grading, record the music with live players and mix the sound.

Stop/Eject got into the highly significant Raindance Film Festival, and has recently been long-listed for a Bafta. Not too shabby.

Last but the opposite of least, I have indeed worked as DP for many great directors this year. You may have heard me mention a little web series called Ren once or twice, and that I quite enjoyed it. As I write this I’ve just been looking at some of the rushes again and even though I was there for two months shooting it, I’m blown away by the production value which director Kate Madison got on screen. Big things will happen for Ren, I feel sure of it.

Shooting Hellblazer
Shooting Hellblazer. Photo: Amy Nicholson

Shorts I lensed this year included Coffin Grabber (dir. Claire Alberie), The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran), Access All Areas (dir. Rick Goldsmith), Night Owls (dir. Sophie Black), and Forever Alone (dir. Jordan Morris), plus the music promo for Hellblazer by Savage Messiah (dir. Tom Walsh).

Perhaps the most important thing to happen in my career this year was my decision to stop doing corporates. This was a massive decision that started with me telling a client of over a decade’s standing that I didn’t want to do their editing any more, and snowballed from there. Little corporate jobs booked way in advance were getting in the way of bigger, last-minute drama shoots. There could only be one winner.

Corporates had been my main source of income for nearly fifteen years, but I’d had enough. I simply couldn’t take the lack of creativity any more.

I was focusing in on what I wanted to do and stripping away what I didn’t. I don’t want to be executing notes from corporate clients. I don’t want to be shooting interviews. I don’t want to be lensing training videos in bland offices with no crew and a client who has no understanding of aesthetics or story. And I don’t want to be stuck in a room with a computer, editing, especially when there are so many people out there who can do that much better than me.

Gaffering on By Any Name
Gaffering on By Any Name. Photo: Sophie Wiggins

I want to be on set, DPing drama. I want to tell stories with lighting and composition until I die. If people want me to direct things occasionally, fine, that’s fun, but cinematography is my passion and my calling.

An interesting sideline that has developed is gaffering, something I’d never done before this year. I’ve worked on two shorts and a feature this year as gaffer for DP Paul Dudbridge, and it’s been great experience to watch another cinematographer at work.

So in 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps. There is a short film in development for me to direct, and I have a vague ambition to direct some music videos, but those are much less important than continuing to light and shoot drama. If I can earn enough money to buy one of those new-fangled hoverboards that are coming out next year, maybe some self-lacing Nikes and a hover conversion for my old road car, I’ll be happy.

Merry Christmas everyone and remember: life’s too short to not be doing what you love.

Review of the Year: 2014

How I Started Out

As regular readers will know, I make a living from shooting mostly corporates – training videos, promotional videos, educational videos and the like. Although I’d much rather pay the bills shooting drama, it’s better than working in an office. So how did I get to this point?

My Atari ST, circa 1996
My Atari ST, circa 1996

When I was a teenager, I had an Atari ST computer with a piece of software called Deluxe Paint. Deluxe Paint had an animation feature which allowed me to make very crude, flipbook-style animations with a little bit of 2D tweening – a bit like simple Flash animation. When I was about thirteen my history teacher asked the class to prepare presentations for or against the building of the very first railway line from Manchester to Liverpool. With my friend Chris Jenkins, I formed ARGUMENT – the Association for the Railway Going Up to Manchester supporting Exciting New Trains – and I animated a campaign video in Deluxe Paint. I recorded this onto VHS – which was easily done because the ST had an RF monitor output – and Chris and I voiced it over using the VCR’s audio dub feature and a microphone from Tandy.

For a subsequent English presentation, I wanted to take things a step further, so I borrowed my grandad’s Video8 camcorder and filmed live action pieces-to-camera with Chris to intercut with more animations created in Deluxe Paint and others programmed in STOS BASIC. After I borrowed grandad’s camcorder several more times, he gave it to me as a fifteenth birthday present. Gradually the live action became more interesting to me than the animation, though almost every film I made featured visual effects created in Deluxe Paint and a credits roller generated by a program I wrote in BASIC.

My amateur filmmaking really kicked off when I discovered a fellow Quantum Leap fan in my friend David Abbott, and we teamed up to make our own series of episodes in which I played the leaper and David played the holographic observer. Here’s episode fifteen of the twenty we made:

In 1995, at the age of fifteen, I started making my first feature-length film, Dark Side of the Earth, an ambitious Star Wars rip-off shot in back gardens with props made of Lego and cardboard boxes. This was ostensibly my GCSE Media Studies coursework, and you can read my production diary – complete with irreverent latter-day annotations – here.

But I quickly found that the friends I roped into acting in these films were most willing when the subject matter was comedy. Bob the Barbarian and two sequels (40 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes long respectively) drew their influences from Monty Python, The Young Ones, Bottom, Newman and Baddiel’s Rest in Pieces, The Naked Gun, and French and Saunders’ film spoofs.

My Sanyo Video8 camcorder
My Sanyo Video8 camcorder

Throughout this time, I taught myself through trial and error. Back then there was no internet, no DVD extras. I was inspired by Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s book The Making of Jurassic Park, and I read Camcorder Monthly. Perhaps the most useful stuff I learnt was from a series of VHS tapes produced by the Burgess Video Group – available at a discount price with a voucher from Camcorder Monthly – in which a soft-spoken Welshman demonstrated such core concepts as The Line of Action and The Rule of Thirds. I was always ahead of the scarce nuggets of useful information which my media studies teacher could impart.

A lot of my editing was done in camera, rewinding the tape, painstakingly cueing it up and hitting record at just the right moment to produce a continuous scene on tape. Somehow I accumulated VCRs in my bedroom, always badgering Mum and Dad to buy a new one for the living room so I could have the old one. Scenes that couldn’t be edited in camera were done tape-to-tape between the camcorder and VCR or two VCRs, without an edit controller. I became an expert at judging the VCRs’ pre-roll times, hitting the record button exactly 21 frames before the point when I needed it to start recording. Music and sound effects were triggered by my ST or played in off cassette or CD and mixed live through a four channel disco mixer, again from Tandy.

By the time I was forced to quit amateur filmmaking at the age of seventeen, due to my repertoire of “actor” friends being sick of it, I had made well over 50 videos of varying length and quality. Okay, the quality didn’t vary that much. Between wrist-slashingly bad and merely quite poor.

In 1998, having finished Sixth Form with very respectable grades – the lowest, ironically, in Media Studies – I took a gap year and applied to various universities’ Film and TV Production courses. That autumn David Abbott showed me a cutting from the local newspaper which his mum had saved: The Rural Media Company in Hereford were inviting applications a to three week filmmaking course which would culminate in assisting professionals on a 16mm short film shoot. This course was my first contact with the film and TV industry, and still probably ranks amongst the five best shoots I’ve ever been on. The director of photography advised me against going to university, telling me that on-set experience was far more valuable in this industry.

The stunning animatronic robot I engineered for Dark Side of the Earth
The stunning animatronic robot I engineered for Dark Side of the Earth in 1995

I took his advice, cancelled my UCAS application, and began writing to TV companies looking for work as a camera assistant. And here’s where I think I might have made a mistake. Instead of pursuing this angle, moving to London and knocking on doors until I was gainfully employed in film and TV camera departments and could start working my way up the totem pole, I got diverted into the emerging arena of micro-budget DV filmmaking, which is where I’ve been stuck ever since.

On the way to the premiere of Lonesome Takeaway, the 16mm short, I got talking to Jane Jackson, the head of production from Rural Media. I mentioned to her that I’d recently appeared on Lee and Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy on BBC 2, winning a competition to make the best cress advert, using the skills I’d taught myself doing those 50-odd amateur films. “We can always use people who can compose a shot,” Jane said. “Send us your reel.” I did, and she obviously saw something in those ropey amateur films of mine, because she soon started hiring me. Within a year I’d quit my office job and moved to Hereford because I was getting so much work from Rural Media.

The company had just bought Final Cut Pro, but no-one there knew how to use it. I took the manual home, read it cover to cover, came back and cut some footage that no-one else wanted to cut. That made me an asset to the company and they kept coming back to me.

My friend Matt Hodges and I pose with the Histor and Pliny puppets behind the scenes of Lee and Herring's This Morning With Richard Not Judy
My friend Matt Hodges and I pose with the Histor and Pliny puppets behind the scenes of Lee and Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy

And a large proportion of the paid work I’ve done since then can be traced back to Rural Media in some way: I work regularly for Catcher Media, run by Rick Goldsmith, who freelanced alongside me at Rural Media in the early days; for many years I made training videos for Lessons Learned, who initially called Rural Media, having found them in the Yellow Pages, but were told that they didn’t do that kind of work but to call Neil Oseman instead; and regular clients Tim Kidson and Nelson Thornes got in touch with me through Catcher Media and Lessons Learned respectively.

Yes, I get the occasional (very occasional) paid gig through Shooting People or similar networks, and yes, a major client while I was living in London was a company that came to me via the sound mixer on my own feature film, Soul Searcher, but for the most part my ability to make a living with a camera is due to getting involved with a company that was at the hub of filmmaking in an area where the media community was very small and tight-knit. And it was just dumb luck that all this happened at the time of the Mini-DV revolution, when it suddenly became possible to make videos of a decent quality for far less money than previously, and lots of new companies were springing up and looking for people who could operate a camera and an NLE.

So that’s the story of how I got to where I am today. Of course I’m always striving to move forward, to keep learning, to do more drama, to work with bigger crews, bigger budgets and reach bigger audiences. The story goes on…

How I Started Out

Interview: KT Roberts and 3 Blind Mice

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Earlier this year I met young filmmaker KT Roberts on a shoot in South Wales, and I remember her telling me all about her idea for a time travel feature film. This got my attention (a) because I love time travel movies and (b) because I always like to hear about low budget filmmakers who are not afraid to tackle a sci-fi or fantasy story. But before KT embarks on this feature, she’s making a short film called 3 Blind Mice. She asked me to help out and before I knew it I was the director of photography and drawing up an equipment list for Panalux.

KT, where did the concept for 3 Blind Mice come from?

I wrote two thirds of 3 Blind Mice on a plane back from a diving trip in Lanzarote – I’d had the ideas rattling around in my head for a while, but hadn’t yet put pen to paper but on that plane journey it came spilling out rather quickly. This is actually the first short film I’ve ever written that I like enough to want to take to the shooting stage. I have this writing thing all backwards in that I’ve already written a feature and have another in the pipeline, but I find it much harder to write short films as there’s so little time to explore anything in any detail. Paradoxical as it may seem, features are easier for me to write (though not necessarily to write well – only time will tell!) because they give you time to explore, examine and dissect your characters: a deep sea dive in the Caribbean as opposed to pressing your nose against the glass in an aquarium.

With this in mind I didn’t want to focus on just one character as I didn’t feel I’d be able to do them justice, or tell the sort of story I wanted to tell, in the shortened format of a short film. Instead I decided I wanted to make a film about a single idea and examine it in depth from different angles and perspectives – through the eyes of different people. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to death – no-one I know has died, not even a pet, so I’m not drawing directly from my own experience on that front. However I have had a massively overactive imagination since a very young age (I was one of those hyper children battling dragons with wooden sticks) – and I’m fascinated by the very human tendency to tell ourselves stories to help us deal with things we don’t understand. The stories we tell ourselves about death – from concepts of heaven and hell, to ghosts, the supernatural and the grim reaper- allow us to categorise and quantify this great unknown and thereby make it less scary. All three stories depict someone struggling with death and making up an imaginary companion to help them through it – each is coming from a different perspective and has a different outlook on what death means, but each of them must come to terms with it. I hope I have managed to convey the idea that while death can be scary and sudden and confusing, there are other, brighter facets to it if you look in a certain way.

How does 3 Blind Mice fit into your plans for future filmmaking?

I’m really looking forward to making this short and hope it will mark the start of a career which sees some of my bigger projects realised. Ultimately I would like to make one of my feature films, and my producer Julia and I have already discussed how we might film the opening to use as a pilot to try and raise the necessary funds. My work is slightly tricky in that I almost always have a science fiction, fantastical or supernatural angle in my writing, which can be difficult to bring to the screen for obvious reasons! However my work isn’t fiction in the same vein as something like Star Wars – it normally has just one element (for example my finished screenplay, Timelines, revolves around people who live in our world, but who can move through time). This means that with clever camera work and minimal special effects, my stories can be realised without the multi-million pound budgets that most science fiction films made today need. I’m not aiming to make art house films and I am very much aiming to entertain not preach, but if I can sneak in themes and perspectives that interest me or I feel strongly about then the story is always better for it, even if many people watching don’t realise it’s there. I want people to work to understand the storyline and the characters, not just sit back to watch mindless fluff.

So if I could look forward 20 years, I hope I’ll be writing and/or directing that sort of film and be able to look back on 3 Blind Mice as the first step on my way.

Right now KT and her dedicated production team are in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to cover the modest costs of making 3 Blind Mice. Myself, Colin and the rest of the cast and crew are volunteering our time, but there are some costs you can’t escape. This is an all-or-nothing campaign, so if we don’t reach the target we get none of the money and cannot make the film. So please head on over to the Kickstarter page, contribute what you can and help get KT on the road to achieving her dreams.

Interview: KT Roberts and 3 Blind Mice

How to be a Filmmaker

Business cards are just the beginning
Business cards are just the beginning

Robert Rodriguez famously said that all you need to do to be a filmmaker is get some business cards printed claiming that you are. Of course there’s more to it than that, so if you’ve just graduated from university or are otherwise starting out in the business, what can you do to get things going?

  1. START MAKING FILMS. Almost everyone now owns a device that can record moving images. Use it. Your first films will be terrible but you’ll learn loads with each one you do.
  2. EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read blogs like this one, like Chris Jones’ and Danny Lacey’s. Watch YouTube channels like Indy Mogul and Film Riot. Devour DVD extras (click here for a list of my favourites). Get yourself books like The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook, Rebel Without a Crew and The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker.
  3. OBSERVE OTHER FILMMAKERS. This is a crucial one that many people overlook. There’s only so much you can self-teach. You must get onto other people’s sets and see how they do it. The bigger the production the better. You want to learn from the people who are doing it properly, to the high standards of quality and discipline that the top end of the industry demands. In practice this means moving to London or a TV-making hub like Manchester or Cardiff and knocking on lots of doors.
  4. MAKE SOME CORPORATE VIDEOS. Even if you have no interest in these, they bring some money in, help you hone your skills and most importantly the process of dealing with a client’s feedback and requirements will prepare you for producer/studio notes on proper films.
  5. NETWORK. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, so get to know as many people as you can. Go to events like the London Screenwriters Festival, Cannes, the BAFTA Filmmakers Market, Raindance evening classes. Stick around after the event proper is over and go for a drink with your fellow attendees. Shake lots of hands and give out lots of business cards. Follow up after the event (but don’t pester). Eventually you’ll strike gold when you contact someone at just the moment they have a position to fill.
  6. BUILD A WEBSITE. This is very easy these days with the likes of Wix and WordPress. An online presence will make people take you more seriously, will make you easier to look up online, and can showcase your talents.
  7. WORK SOCIAL MEDIA. The digital equivalent of point 5. When I’m looking for crew these days I’m more likely to do a Facebook shout-out than post on one of the official filmmaking networks. That said, you should still….
  8. JOIN ONLINE FILMMAKING NETWORKS. Shooting People is £30 a year but Mandy and Talent Circle are free. Every day there are several new jobs posted on each one, so get applying.
  9. CUT A GREAT SHOWREEL. Keep it short (3-5 minutes) and punchy. Link to it whenever you apply for a job and keep it on your mobile devices so you can show it at networking events to anyone who displays the slightest interest in you. A great showreel will stick in their mind much better than an eager face.
  10. FIND AN AUDIENCE. This is the tricky one. Once you’ve reached a point where your films are good enough to show the big, wide world, you need to start getting them in front of eyeballs. This means either getting them into festivals, which is largely beyond your control, but still remains the most prestigious route, or posting them online and driving a huge amount of traffic to them (see 6 and 7 above). If you can connect with a significant audience base then congratulations, you’ve made it! Please write in and tell me how to do it.
How to be a Filmmaker

Brendan O’Neill on his 48hr Film Challenge Entry, “Fled”

I recently served as DP and postproduction supervisor on Fled, writer-director-producer Brendan O’Neill’s 2013 entry to the SciFi London 48hr Film Challenge. I asked him to share what he’s learnt from this and other film challenges he’s entered.

Brendan, this is not your first 48 hour film challenge. How many have you done before and what are the biggest things you learnt from them that you applied to this latest one?

Gillian Twaite in The Black Widow
Gillian Twaite in The Black Widow

I’ve done several now, 3 straight 48’s and 2 London Sci-Fi Society 48’s plus a time limited music video competition. My first ever film Black Widow was made for a local Birmingham competition called Film Dash in 2008. My second film What Goes Up Must Come Down was shot over a weekend for a non time limited competition run by Filmaka in the USA. I did a lot of ringing around and pre-production for this one as I wanted to really push the number of locations I could fit in. I found that by getting through to the right people, explaining who you are and what you want help with in a structured way can be very successful.

I made another 48 hour film Seconds Out for the same Film Dash competition in 2009 which placed 3rd out of 24 entries. I achieved some good production value by piggy backing a real event – a boxing contest held in a Birmingham hotel – with the help of the promoter who is also a local filmmaker.

Internalised
Internalised

The first really big production I put together was for Internalised – our first attempt at the London Sci-Fi Society’s 48 hour filmmaking competition in 2011. I spent 6 weeks pre-producing, location scouting, auditioning etc. and assembled a cast and crew of 50 to help us make the film. I also fed them all via an in-kind deal with local vegetarian catering company ChangeKitchen.

I suppose the first lesson I learnt on that was to not try to do it all on your own. The second being to be very careful who you take on board to help you and define clear roles and responsibilities for those involved. It can be difficult when you are working with volunteers but if you can convey the ambition and vision of what you are trying to do and have some previous track record then you can build feature size crews to help.

The shoot went very well but we were let down in post-production by not getting all the VFX/CGI we wanted into the competition version. You need to have your VFX/CGI team in the same place as your editors as it’s asking too much to render and then transmit the large files involved from remote locations when time is at a premium.

Around Again
Around Again

Our second attempt at the London Sci-Fi society 48 hour competition in 2012 was a World War II themed film called Around Again. We were looking for unusual locations with built-in production value and had identified a Midlands WWII era tunnel complex as a good location. We then found out that the person who controlled access to the tunnels also owned an extensive WWII costume wardrobe that had been used on Atonement and Band of Brothers so we dropped the tunnels location idea and went for battle/bunker scenes. The production value that all the great uniforms and replica / decommissioned firearms gave us was superb.

We were also very fortunate that our friend with the costume wardrobe Craig Leonard and his pyrotechnics colleague Matt Harley of Trinity VFX knew lots of German army / SS re-enactors who were more than happy to appear in the film. It shows the value of networking and being pro-active as that one contact expanded in all sorts of interesting ways to help us make a great looking film. I’m still reaping the benefits as Matt supplied the SWAT team outfits and arms for Fled as well as the GCHQ-esque second main location.

We were very surprised that the film didn’t shortlist but I think as producer if we’d had more clearly defined sci-fi elements in it then that would have helped.

Moving on to Fled, how much work had you put into writing and producing it before the challenge began on 10am on Saturday?

I spent about 6 weeks in pre-production. I hadn’t directed for a while so the first thing I did was do a smaller 48 hour competition which was running as part of the Stoke Your Fires festival.

[The next thing] I did was launch a crowd funding campaign via Indiegogo. I raised about £850 after fees so it helped a lot but it was a very labour intensive way of doing it with limited results. I didn’t have any donors who weren’t already linked to me in some way – mostly through Facebook.

Fortunately an established writer who I’d met twice at the Screenwriters Festival helped me a lot with an early and substantial individual donation. I think he likes my DIY attitude to getting films made. The previous year I also received a substantial donation via a Twitter relationship I had developed so it demonstrates that both traditional and social media based networking can’t be ignored.

Once the Indiegogo campaign was out of the way I worked on getting everything together. I had hoped for some substantial co-producer support but this didn’t really happen and the fact that I had to produce it nearly all myself definitely affected the amount of time I was able to spend on developing the script with my pal Dominic Carver as script editor. That said certain people such as Ella Carman, Matt Harley and stand in make-up artist Kerris Charles helped restore my battered faith in people.

The cast and crew of Fled
The cast and crew of Fled

I was surprised at how large the crew was (around 20). Do many hands make light work on a time-pressured project like this? Was there a degree of over-crewing in case some people didn’t turn up?

I’ve been on shoots where I haven’t had enough production assistants and runner/drivers so I tend to have some over-capacity just in case. The nature of the competition also means that it’s better to have more people to help in case the criteria you are given by the organisers are particularly difficult to handle. You are given a title, a line of dialogue and a prop/action by the organizers on the morning of the competition.

Although I did have some crew drop out prior to the competition I was able to replace them. My regular sound person dropped out with a foot injury so it was fortunate that Nicola Dale who was going to be post sound runner assisting Matt Katz and Joe Harper on the Sunday was able to step up to the mark and deliver great production sound with the help of Chantal Feliu Gurri on boom. Fortunately I’d met Nicola at a networking event a few weeks earlier and offered her the chance to come and work with some more experienced talent.

I do wish I had had some actor back-up however as someone dropped out on the Sunday morning pleading illness. It’s difficult to ask actors to turn up unpaid for what might only be extra type roles in a 5 minute film but it’s also VERY damaging when those who say they’ll do it drop out at short notice. It was especially galling as I’d written a role especially for this young man.

The consequence was that I had to bump someone who was only meant to be an extra into a role with lines which in my opinion definitely affected the quality of the film. For me Quality is King – with so many people having access to great technology you really have to try to ensure production values are as high as possible across the board in order to make your film stand out.

How did you approach integrating the challenge criteria (line of dialogue, prop and optional theme) into the film?

I try to build mechanisms into the script to deal with those things i.e. the wireless in the bunker scene in Around Again. That was there to help us field any difficult lines of dialogue we were given. Unfortunately last year we were given a very modern day line about the SEIS investment scheme so it was a bit clunky which is ironic given that it is a scheme that can help filmmakers raise finance!

We were lucky in that the criteria [this year] were very easy to integrate into the script.

Title: Fled

Prop: A key. A single key is put on a key ring with three near identical keys.

Roger the Controller
Roger the Controller

The initial idea was that [the entity] was an alien civilization that had had to flee some dying star millennia ago and had lain dormant on Mars until the first manned landings. This fitted the FLED title well. The key scene in the church echoes this when you can just make out the ethereal voices saying, “We can’t go back, we can’t go back.”

I was able to fit in the compulsory dialogue line as part of the NASA controllers trying to contact the Mars Explorer. The key on to keyring action/prop was easy and was the same one we got last year!

What was the schedule for the 48 hours in terms of when you started and finished filming, when the edit was locked, etc.?

At 10.00am DoP Neil Oseman and his gaffer Colin Smith went to the church location to pre-light and set up ready for filming whilst I awaited the criteria from the organisers. That way we could hit the ground running once we had a script finalized. The criteria arrived by text at about 11.15.

Filming at "GCHQ"
Filming at “GCHQ”

Fortunately the criteria given were very easy to integrate into my script so I arrived on set around 12.30 – 13.00 having picked up the VFX team at their hotel on the way. We needed to shoot the scenes they needed first in order to give them as much time as possible to work their magic.

I had planned to try and finish by 8pm so that the crew would be reasonably fresh for an early start the next day. I think we finished at around 21.15 and had a quick drink together before heading home. The next day we were all on set for 8.00am and set up for the first scenes quickly. I intended for us to finish around 2pm but there was a bit of creep to 3pm even though we trimmed and dropped some non essential scenes on the way. At both locations Neil and his regular gaffer Colin Smith, who was well assisted by Jay Somerville, did a brilliant job with the lighting.

Brendan directing
Brendan directing

Any plans to take part in future 48 hour challenges?

No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve done enough of them now. I want to either do some really high quality, well planned and developed festival oriented shorts or hopefully a first feature. I think 48 hour contests are a good discipline for young or emerging filmmakers as it gives you a focus and stress tests some of the relationships you might be developing. All a bit frantic but I’ve learnt a lot from them and come out a stronger and hopefully better filmmaker.

I think for this year’s contest just doing one high production value location per day and insisting that the VFX team were at the same post-production site as the edit team really made a difference. I was really fortunate to have really strong post-production edit and sound team and a great composer in Hans Hess who was at the ready to do the score. Hopefully people can see the difference those elements made in the quality of the competition version of the film.

Lastly I couldn’t have done it without Neil Oseman and a great international team of volunteer cast and crew. I hope that I’ll be able to work with them all again at some point. I’d particularly like to thank “King of the Indies” actor Michael Parle who came all the way from Ireland.

Thanks Brendan. You can visit Brendan’s blog at www.sticklebackproductions.co.uk. Scroll back to the top to see the film or click here to watch it on Vimeo.

Fled photography by Ian Jones – www.logic-media.co.uk – and Oliver Charles Woolley – www.facebook.com/olivercharlesphotography.

Brendan O’Neill on his 48hr Film Challenge Entry, “Fled”