The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

In June I was recommended by a mutual friend to shoot a short drama called Perplexed Music, inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name. It’s a passion project from writer-director Mark McGann, with his brother Paul McGann (Doctor Who, Alien 3, Withnail & I) in the lead role of a man grieving for his deceased partner.

Paul and Mark pose with one of the supporting artists between takes.

Mark was keen from the outset to shoot on an Alexa, and I was quick to agree. Arri Rental very kindly gave us an amazing deal on an Alexa Classic and a set of Ultra Primes. As on Above the Clouds, we used a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera as a B-cam, capturing two specific angles that were impossible on the Alexa with our limited grip budget.

Throughout July, Mark and I had a very satisfying creative dialogue about the cinematic techniques we would use to tell the story of Paul’s character, The Man, who never speaks. I had been watching a lot of Mr. Robot, and was keen to use unusual compositions as that show does. The visual grammar that we ultimately developed eschewed The Rule of Thirds, either squeezing The Man right into the side of frame – at times when things are too much for him – or placing him dead centre for moments of clarity and acceptance, and for flashbacks to when his partner was alive.

The Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is mounted on a combo lighting stand to capture a high angle through a streetlamp.

While testing lenses at Arri Rental a few weeks prior to the shoot, I took the opportunity to shoot some frame-rate tests between 24 and 48fps. Since the film has so little dialogue, I figured there was nothing to stop us using a lot of slow motion if we wanted to. I didn’t want it to look like a music video though. I thought perhaps a very subtle over-cranking, creating languid blinks and slightly heavier movement, would add to the burden of The Man’s grief. Mark agreed as soon as he saw the tests, and we ended up shooting a number of set-ups at 28 and 30fps, plus 40fps for a pivotal sequence.

I also tested various ISO settings on the Alexa (click here for full details, stills and video from this test). Based on these, I decided to use ISO 1600 for the majority of the film, partly for the extra latitude in the highlights, and partly to add grittiness to The Man’s grief-stricken world, in the form of a little picture noise. When we started shooting the flashbacks, on the spur of the moment I decided to switch to ISO 400 for these. A few years back I shot the music video below on a Red Epic and, for reasons I forget, one set-up was done at a lower ISO than the rest. I remember the feeling this gave, when I saw the final edit, of everything suddenly being smooth and hyper-real. (You can just about it discern it through the Vimeo compression at 1:48.) I thought that would be a great feeling to give to the flashbacks.

1st AC Rupert Peddle and 2nd AC Ben Davies set up a lakeside close-up under a diffusion frame which will soften the light on Paul.

Much of Perplexed Music was day exterior, but a couple of sequences required lighting. In the opening café scene, I fired HMIs through two windows, but kept their light away from The Man, keying him with a practical to put him in his own little world. Meanwhile, a happy couple he’s watching are bathed in sunlight (sometimes real, sometimes not) warmed up with a quarter CTO, and bouncing beautifully off their table to give them a healthy glow.

For night interiors at The Man’s home, I was keen to rely on practicals as much as possible. Firstly there wasn’t much space in the little cottage, secondly I didn’t want the hassle of having to shift them around to keep them out of frame when we changed angle, and thirdly it just looks more natural. So aside from a tungsten bounce in a corner of the living room we knew would never be seen, I stuck to practical table lamps and exterior lighting.

Setting up for a night exterior shot. Photo: Gary Horton

I had planned to use direct HMI sources for moonlight through the windows, but my gaffer Sam suggested going softer so that we wouldn’t have hard shadows inside which would need filling. I saw that he was right, so we used a kino through one window and a 2.5K HMI bounced into poly through another (pictured at left).

Perplexed Music was shot over five days in Frome in Somerset and Rame in Cornwall. The latter provided us with a spectacular cliff-top and the isolated St. Michael’s Chapel on the peak of the headland. Here we employed the services of The Fly Company, who captured two dramatic, sweeping shots on their DJI Inspire 2 drone. We were all extremely impressed by what they were able to achieve, especially as it was done in very windy conditions, in between rain showers.

We completed the final set-ups of the schedule as the winds began gusting up to 60mph, and poor Paul could barely stand upright! I was certainly glad we picked the Alexa to shoot on, because anything lighter would probably have shaken during takes, if not blown over!

Lining up a shot with director Mark McGann. Photo: Gary Horton

I had a fantastic time working with Mark and Paul, and the whole cast and crew. We were sad to part ways at the end of the week, and we all look forward to seeing the finished film soon. And at this point, dear reader, I ask for your help. Currently a Kickstarter campaign is underway for postproduction. It’s well over 50% funded at the time of writing, but every little helps in our quest to reach the finishing line. Rewards for backers include thank you video messages from Paul and Mark, and tickets to a private screening in December. Even if you can’t contribute, please consider sharing the page on social media. Thanks!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/perplexedmusic/perplexed-music-post-production

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The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

Last week filmmaker Sophie Black‘s crowdfunding campaign smashed through its target. I asked her to share the story of how Songbird, starring X Factor contestant Janet Devlin, raised its funds. And if you’re interested in contributing yourself, the campaign is still running here. Take it away Sophie…

In all honesty, I was dreading the thought of crowdfunding for Songbird. I’ve worked on more fundraising campaigns than I can count (for myself and on behalf of other directors) ever since the early days of the format. Back then, it still seemed unique and exciting, and it was a little easier to reach your goal. Nowadays, everyone and their dog seems to have a funding campaign, raising money for films, inventions, albums… even personal ventures such as holidays and weddings!

The market has become over-saturated, and it’s more likely that your campaign will get a reaction along the lines of ‘not another one!’ rather than the intrigued enthusiasm you’re looking for. I’ve seen a steady decline in the amount of funds I’ve been able to raise over the years; my most recent campaigns, for the films Ashes and Night Owls respectively, were only able to raise between £800 and £2000, and even those amounts came after a hard fight.

However, if you want to get a film made, and you can’t afford to finance it yourself, crowdfunding can be a lifeline. There are very few funding resources for independent films, particularly short ones, and when my traditional funding applications for Songbird all proved unsuccessful, I was left no choice but to face crowdfunding again.

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For me, there was one condition to running another campaign; I wanted someone attached with a fanbase. It’s clear by now that the most successful campaigns have someone involved with a good online following – be it the lead actor or even a director with a decent level of buzz around them. Another independent filmmaker I know, Helen Crevel, recently raised over £5000 in a couple of weeks because she had Doctor Who star Colin Baker attached to her film. And I’m sure we all remember how well Zach Braff’s fundraising campaign went, starting a chain of big-name campaigns.

Janet Devlin was a name that came up early on in pre-production for Songbird. Writer Tommy Draper had her in mind during some of the first drafts of the film, and I’d also been a fan of her music for a while, so I was aware of certain similarities between her and the lead character of Songbird, Jennifer. She also has a beautiful singing voice, so we knew that the musical elements of the film would be in safe hands. But, creative reasoning aside, if you had to just look at the casting from a business perspective, Janet has a huge online following across Youtube, Twitter and other social media, and her fans are very vocal and proactive in their support of her work. For all these reasons and more, we are very, very lucky to have Janet on board – and from the moment she announced her involvement in Songbird, the amount of interest in the film doubled – as did the amount of followers on the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page!

Even with those initial seeds sewn, myself and my team still launched the crowdfunding campaign with some trepidation. We had an early boost, as we were able to raise over £1000 within the first 24 hours. By the next day, we were on £1500… and then it stayed around that mark for about a week. An early sense of security was immediately replaced by doubt and fear, as well as emails from backers asking what would happen if we didn’t reach our target. There was always a certain amount we needed to raise in order to make the film, and as we’d set up our Indiegogo campaign to give us whatever funds we raised, even if it was too little, we were putting ourselves at risk of a fall.

Between myself and my core team, we had managed to raise a small amount of the budget ourselves before the campaign started (less than £1000) so we were able to drip-feed this into the campaign on and off in small amounts to keep it appearing active when we needed to. But we tried to keep the momentum going in other ways; as well as the standard social media posts morning, noon and night (the ‘bugging’ element of crowdfunding that no one really likes!), producer Laura Cann contacted relevant online magazines who might be interested in the campaign – fans of independent filmmaking as well as fantasy – and we both posted the campaign in relevant Facebook groups and forums.

We also maintained interest in the film by releasing new videos about it every time we hit a certain benchmark in our funding campaign (£500, £1000, £2500 etc). For added intrigue, we kept the title and content of each video secret until the subsequent one had been released. This was a technique director Neil Oseman and I first used during the post-production funding campaigns for Stop/Eject; it worked well then, and gave our followers some nice insights into the production, so I was keen to do it again. But there was one mistake we made back then that I didn’t learn from; once again, I didn’t get all of the videos ready ahead of the funding campaign. I did the first two/three, thinking we’d have plenty of time before the next target was reached. What happened next scuppered that plan…

Although the first surge of donations was unexpected, the people who donated were, to a degree, ‘accounted for’: they were people we knew, people who had supported our campaigns before, or film fans keen to find out more about a new film. These are your target audience for a standard fundraising campaign, and the type of people you usually expect (or rather, hope) will donate.

But behind the scenes, Janet’s fans had been slowly sharing the campaign page on social media, and the amount of ‘tweets’ and ‘mentions’ had grown steadily. Tommy helped aid this by making a list of people he noticed regularly shared Janet-related news, and he encouraged them by contacting them and thanking them, or by asking them directly to contribute. Janet and her team had also been working hard, not just behind-the-scenes but in effective public posts; as well as sharing her fans’ tweets, Janet posted a photo of herself writing the songs for Songbird, with a link to the campaign in the comments below. This gained more attention than any repetitive sharing of the campaign page alone would do.

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Eight days into the Songbird campaign, we were stuck at around the £1500 mark still. I was producing a corporate shoot in the middle of a field that day, with minimal signal, so I didn’t pay much attention to my phone or the campaign. It didn’t seem overly active at the time. By the time I got signal again, we had nearly reached our target. We had suddenly had a surge of big donations – some in the £100s, as we had received on day one, but even a couple of £1000s. Two days later, we had not only reached our goal, but we had surpassed it by £2000. As I write this, the current total is just over £10,000. We asked for £7,500.

Getting more than you ask for isn’t all fun and games; it means that the cut Indiegogo (or whichever hosting site you use) will be much bigger, so you need to prepare yourself for that. Also, unless you double your budget, your new funds won’t be enough to boost every department of production, so you need to be clever about how you spend it. It can be good to think about things you didn’t have before, that you can now afford (most people forget to budget for post-production and festival entry fees in their initial budget. Going over target can enable you to think about that properly for the first time) rather than upgrading elements you already had. The other, final downside is that you need to be careful about where you put the money once it’s ready to be transferred; you can’t have amounts as big as £10,000 moving around your bank account without making sure its accounted for down the line!

But, these minor inconvenient truths aside, my team and I are of course ecstatic about having smashed our goal. We’re beyond-words grateful for all the support we have received so far. We went from being rejected for funding to raising 134% of our budget within a fortnight. And, with the unpredictable nature of crowdfunding, all I can say in conclusion is that it’s down to three things: 1) having a popular name in the lead role, 2) my core crew working damn hard every day, and 3) a good old dollop of flukey good luck on the end. Having Janet’s fan base behind us is a privilege, but I like to think that personally keeping a good online presence and supporting other independent filmmakers over the years might have given us a boost too, even if it was on a smaller scale. Because the first person who donates to your campaign – be them your friend, your colleague or even your Mum – is just as important as the person who takes you over your target.

Sophie Black: The Story of “Songbird”‘s Crowdfunding Success

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