9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject
Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

While syncing sound in an edit recently I came across a number of little mistakes that cost me time, so I decided to put together some on-set and off-set tips for smooth sound syncing.

On set: tips for the 2nd AC

  1. Get the slate and take number on the slate right. This means a dedicated 2nd AC (this American term seems to have supplanted the more traditional British clapper-loader), not just any old crew member grabbing the slate at the last minute.
  2. Get the date on the slate right. This can be very helpful for starting to match up sound and picture in a large project if other methods fail.
  3. Hold the slate so that your fingers are not covering any of the info on it.
  4. Make MOS (mute) shots very clear by holding the sticks with your fingers through them.
  5. Make sure the rest of the cast and crew appreciate the importance of being quiet while the slate and take number are read out. It’s a real pain for the editing department if the numbers can’t be heard over chit-chat and last-minute notes from the director.
  6. Speak clearly and differentiate any numbers that could be misheard, e.g. “slate one three” and “slate three zero” instead of the similar-sounding “slate thirteen” and “slate thirty”.
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

For more on best slating practice, see my Slating 101 blog post.

Off set: tips for the DIT and assistant editor

  1. I recommend renaming both sound and video files to contain the slate and take number, but be sure to do this immediately after ingesting the material and on all copies of it. There is nothing worse than having copies of the same file with different names floating around.
  2. This should be obvious, but please, please, please sync your sound BEFORE starting to edit or I will hunt you down and kill you. No excuses.
  3. An esoteric one for any dinosaurs like me still using Final Cut 7: make sure you’ve set your project’s frame rate correctly (in Easy Setup) before importing your audio rushes. Otherwise FCP will assign them timecodes based on the wrong rate, leading to errors and sound falling out of sync if you ever need to relink your project’s media.

Follow these guidelines and dual system sound will be painless – well, as painless as it can ever be!

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson
Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson

Recently I’ve been involved in pick-ups shoots for a couple of projects I lensed last year: action-comedy feature The Gong Fu Connection and fantasy series Ren. Both pick-up shoots were strange experiences, featuring some very familiar aspects of the original shoot – locations, sets, costumes – but noticeably lacking others – certain actors, crew members and so on. The Ren pick-ups in particular were like re-living principal photography in microcosm, with stressful crowd shoots followed by more relaxed, smaller scenes and finally night shots with flaming arrows again!

A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K we used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson
A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K HMI used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson

I’ve blogged previously about how a director/producer can prepare for pick-ups – by keeping certain key props and costumes, for example – but today I have a few thoughts from a DP’s perspective.

1. Keep a record of lighting plans. I have a pretty good memory for my lighting set-ups, but not everyone does, so keeping notes is a good idea. Your gaffer may even do this for you. I frequently use this blog as a means of recording lighting set-ups, and indeed tried to access it during the Ren pick-ups shoot but was foiled by dodgy wifi.

2. Keep camera logs. On a properly crewed shoot this will be the 2nd AC’s job. The logs should include at least the following info for each slate: lens, aperture, ASA, white balance and shutter angle. This can be useful in principal photography too, for example if you shoot the two parts of a shot-reverse at different ends of the day or different days all together, and need to make sure you use the same lens.

Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun we used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson
Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson

3. Have the original scene handy when you shoot the pick-ups. Load the edit onto a laptop or tablet so that you can compare it on set to the new material you’re framing up.

4. Own a bit of lighting kit if you can. In the shed I have some battered old Arrilites and a few other bits and pieces of gear that has seen better days. On a proper shoot I would leave this at home and have the production hire much better kit. But for pick-ups, when there’s often no money left, this stuff can come in handy.

5. Keep gels. If you employ an unusual colour of gel during principal photography, try to keep a piece of it in case you need to revisit that lighting set-up in pick-ups. Production will have to pay for the gel once it’s been used anyway. On the Ren pick-ups shoot, after pulling all of my gels out of the plastic kitchen bin I keep them in, I was relieved to find that I still had two pieces of the Urban Sodium gel I used in the flaming arrows scene the first time around.

Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

How to Cut a Behind-the-Scenes Featurette

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Cameras roll on the set of Kate Madison’s web series, Ren. Photo: Richard Unger

Despite my big plan to quit editing last year, I somehow ended up cutting nearly all the behind-the-scenes material for Ren, including a dozen YouTube videos and 30-odd exclusive set diaries which have just been released for sale. Guess I just have a fondness for BTS stuff.

Brett Chapman shoots B roll on Stop/Eject as Hadrian Cawthorne looks on. Photo: Paul Bednall
Brett Chapman shoots B-roll on Stop/Eject as Hadrian Cawthorne looks on. Photo: Paul Bednall

So here are some tips for editing BTS videos for the web. Many of these apply equally to any talking-head-based documentary.

  • Plan for it before the shoot by lining up a competent BTS camera crew and being clear about the kind of material you need. Here are some tips for shooting B-roll.
  • Start the edit by creating a new timeline and putting in some text generators with category headings you think you’ll want to cover, e.g. “plot”, “characters”, “casting”, “action scenes”, “concluding remarks”.
  • Watch through all the interview material. Every time you hear something you think you can use, dump it on the timeline after the relevant text.
  • Play back your timeline. You’ll immediately see that some of the material you’ve included is dull or repetitious. Whittle down the material until your timeline is only a little longer than you intend the finished piece to be. (I suggest 2-3 minutes should be your target length for a web piece.)
  • Pay attention to your in and out points. Don’t cut while someone is drawing breath – cut before or after. Beware of breathing time if you’re hacking someone’s sentences around. If your editing makes a couple of words sound unnaturally close together, interpose a few frames of atmos or silence. If you cut someone off in the middle of a sentence, firstly be sure the intonation doesn’t make it sound cut off, then add in some silence or atmos before the next clip, and paper over the edit with B-roll as the interviewee’s face will often give away that they’re not finished speaking.
  • Speaking of papering over the talking heads with B-roll, it’s time to do that now. I often start with the obvious stuff. Clearly shots of the fight scenes being rehearsed need to go over the actors talking about fight scenes. Then I’ll move onto the less obvious stuff – an actor talking about their character might go with almost any shot of that actor on set, so I’ll see what’s left at the end.
  • Avoid cutting in the middle of quick movements – an arm going up, a head turning- unless that action will be continued in the next shot. This goes for the talking heads too – don’t cut on or close to a blink. Also avoid cutting on an emphasised or particularly loud syllable, because this too will jar.
  • Take out the text generators and replace them with a few seconds of B-roll that doesn’t have any interview sound under it. This gives you dividers between topics without blatantly signposting them, and allows the audience a breather. You could bring up the audio on the B-roll, or put in a bit of music. Usually it’s best for this B-roll to serve as an introduction to the topic that’s up next. For example, if the next topic is “what it was like working with the director”, kick it off with B-roll of the director explaining the next scene to the actors. After hearing him or her talk for a sentence or so, fade down the audio and bring in the interview sound.
  • Get some music from somewhere like incompetech.com, if your composer hasn’t started work yet, and cut opening and closing montages of B-roll to it.
  • Put in your lower thirds and opening and closing titles. If the video’s going on You Tube, it’s a good idea to allow for annotations linking viewers to other videos on your channel. Do not put in credits – sorry, but no-one cares who made this.
  • Watch the whole thing through and try to take out another 10-30 seconds. Remember, pace is everything. Do not give people the slightest excuse to stop watching.
  • Do a colour correction pass so everything matches.
  • Go through again balancing the audio. People start their sentences loudly and get quieter as their lungs deflate, so counter this by ramping the audio up over the course of the sentence. Use EQ filters if necessary to counter tinny or boomy sound, or reduce hiss or wind noise. See this Nofilmschool article for some handy audio tips. If any of the audio cuts are popping or clicking, put on a 1 frame cross fade. If you don’t have decent speakers, do this on every cut because you won’t know which ones are dodgy.
  • If any of the speech is still hard to make out – and remember that your viewers haven’t heard it a million times like you have – then subtitle it.
  • Watch it one last time to check everything’s smooth, then compress and upload it. You’re done!

If you’ve found this post useful, please consider supporting Ren by purchasing or sharing the trailer for the Daily Diary videos. Buyers get the first 7 videos now and the remaining 29 when the series is released this summer. They’re all different, some following the above pattern and others being much more candid, fly-on-the-wall affairs. There are plenty of bloopers, interviews and filmmaking tips to be enjoyed throughout. Or check out our free behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube.

How to Cut a Behind-the-Scenes Featurette

How to Make an Electronic Press Kit (EPK)

Lately I’ve been working on the electronic press kit for Kate Madison’s web series, Ren. An EPK is a collection of footage that a broadcaster can use to edit their own piece about your film or series. It should contain:

  • a trailer (optionally with versions without music and without dialogue, so it can be dubbed);
  • clips from the show (again, versions without dialogue are handy if you’re expecting foreign coverage);
  • interviews with the director and principal cast;
  • B-roll, i.e. behind-the-scenes footage.

You may also want to include a short (5 minutes max) ‘making of’ featurette.

The whole thing should be about 20-30 minutes long.

You need to think about your EPK in preproduction. Assign someone with camera and editing experience to film behind-the-scenes material on a few key days of the shoot. This post has lots of tips for shooting good B-roll.

Here’s some B-roll from the Avengers: Age of Ultron EPK.

Personally, I think that putting black slugs between every shot is excessive. With the Ren EPK I loosely edited half a dozen montages and titled them ‘Filming crowd scenes in the village’, ‘Filming fight scenes in Epping Forest’ and so on.

Here’s another example, this time from the Chappie EPK.

When shooting the interviews, encourage people to keep their answers brief. Answers of about 30-45 seconds are ideal. Remember that an EPK is not a finished product: you can’t have jump cuts or paper over edits with B-roll, which means you can’t cut stuff out of the middle of people’s answers; all you can do is trim the beginning and end.

Typical EPK questions are:

  • What’s the film about?
  • Who is your character?
  • What was it like working with the other actors and the director?
  • What was it like filming the action scenes / scary scenes / romantic scenes / scenes where you had to be painted blue from head to toe?
  • Why should people go and see this film?

Put a title card before each answer, giving the question (or a brief description of what the person talks about in their answer), the duration of the clip, and the person’s name and role.

Here’s an example, again from Age of Ultron.

See how the picture kicks in before the sound? That’s to give someone editing the clip into their show more flexibility – they could dissolve into the shot, for example.

Here’s another example, this one from Far from the Madding Crowd.

Once upon a time you would deliver an EPK on Beta SP, but clearly those days are gone. For Ren I’ll probably put the clips up on VHX, a VOD platform we’ve been using for our behind-the-scenes Kickstarter rewards. We can create a package of videos which people can be invited to, with a nice, slick interface, and the videos – one for each interview answer and B-roll segment – will all be downloadable by invitees as 1080P H.264 MP4 files. If anyone wants less compressed versions, they can contact us directly.

If you missed it, check out my post on lighting the Ren EPK interviews.

And for another perspective on making an EPK, you can read Sophie Black’s guest blog from 2012 in which she talks about making the one for Stop/Eject.

Find out more about Ren at rentheseries.com

How to Make an Electronic Press Kit (EPK)

Traction: A First Time for Everything

Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999
Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999

Fifteen years ago I made my first professional film, Traction. Okay, it wasn’t professional in the strictest sense – I wasn’t paid – but I racked up a number of important firsts on the project and learnt a lot. Based on a true story, it’s about a teenaged boy undergoing traction for his juvenile arthritis.

Today you can go out and make a film on your smartphone and reach an instant audience via YouTube, which is great, but you need to collaborate with others if your work is ever going to reach its full potential. Here’s how Traction challenged and improved me.

  • First time having a production company to answer to. Traction was produced by The Rural Media Company as part of its youth media programme, in which I was a participant. It was a completely new experience for me to have to submit a draft script and take on board the feedback of the company’s senior staff. I was probably resistant at first, but their advice was good. You’re not compromising your artistic vision by asking for and acting on feedback from others, you’re making it stronger. And when you work with a budget, you will always have to answer to the people supplying that budget, so get used to arguing your case and sometimes losing.
  • First time directing anyone other than my friends. I had to learn to be clearer and more communicative to get the best out of the other young people who were acting as my crew. They were all into the project far more than my corralled schoolfriends had ever been into my amateur films, which was great and really energising for me as a director.
  • First time directing anyone with acting experience. How to work with actors is something I’m still learning to this day, but the process started right there in 1999 when I ran my very first audition at Hereford College of Art and then directed Rowan Middleton for the two days of the shoot. It’s been said many times by many people, but don’t just cast your mates in your films. Unless your mates are really good actors and right for the parts. Obviously.
  • First time having to stick to a schedule. Although the only costs of Traction’s production were travel and catering expenses, and the youth worker’s fee, I still had a responsibility to ensure that Rural Media did not have to pay for more than the agreed two days’ worth of those costs. This forced me to be prepared, disciplined and ready to compromise when time ran short. Staying on schedule is always a challenge for a director, and the sooner you can start to learn this skill, the better.
  • First time shooting on digital video. Traction was a great opportunity for me to learn a new medium, having worked exclusively on the analogue Video-8 format up to that point. Most filmmakers own a camera, but have you considered hiring or borrowing a better model for your next project? Push yourself, learn to use a new bit of kit and raise your production values at the same time.
  • First time using lighting. Many new filmmakers are scared of lighting, and I probably was too before Traction. Don’t be afraid to experiment; it’s one of the best ways to learn.
  • First time having to use only copyright-cleared music. If you’re only posting your films on YouTube, you can get away with using copyrighted tracks and the system will just put an iTunes link under your video. But dipping into the vast catalogue of pre-existing music can make you lazy. Why not advertise for a composer – there are so many out there desperate to get a start in film scoring – and get some original music for your piece?
  • First time being limited to a final running time. Traction was made for a competition which had a strict five minute time limit. Nothing sharpens your editing skills more than a hard running time limit, and for that reason I’d recommend that every filmmaker try entering a competition at some point in their career.

If you’re a new filmmaker trying to raise your game, ask yourself if you’ve pushed in every direction you can to improve your work, or are you stuck in your comfort zone?

traction6
Left to right: sound recordist John Galloway, me, and actors Rowan Middleton and Rosie Laws
Traction: A First Time for Everything

Amelia’s Letter: The Edit Continues

Tristan, Steve and insufficient chairs.
Tristan, Steve and insufficient chairs.

A week after the test screening, I sat down with editor Tristan Ofield in a corner of Steve Deery’s book depot to take a final pass at Amelia’s Letter. Steve balanced on a pile of boxes beside us. Who says exec producers get all the luxury?

The main aim of the day was to make the film clearer. This became a fascinating exercise with notes from the test screening like, “I didn’t get that Barbara was a writer,” although she spends most of her screen-time sitting at a typewriter. How could we configure these images to more effectively tell the audience that Barbara is a writer, without the benefit of dialogue or ridiculous captions? And without showing her actually writing, because the whole crux of the film is that she’s suffering from writer’s block – and that needs to come across too. How? By really getting into the nuts and bolts of how motion picture editing tells a story, that’s how.

The previous evening I’d been watching 2 Reel Guys, a YouTube series about the creative filmmaking process. It’s incredibly cheesy, and a little bit soporific, but it does make some excellent points. Like how just two different shots can be edited together in three different ways for very different effects.

So how did we make it clearer that Barbara was a writer suffering from block? First, Tristan altered the scene to open on a shot of Barbara standing thoughtfully over the typewriter, with the machine dominant in frame. He held the shot for quite a while to let the audience take it all in. “A reminder of the power of not cutting,” he pointed out.

The Letter of Undue Importance
The Letter of Undue Importance

The second step was for us to really consider when to cut to the keyboard, or to the blank paper. The scene’s previous iteration had started on the blank paper, but I think that image failed to sink in for viewers, who were too busy trying to work out where they were and what was going on. Moving it later in the scene made it much more powerful.

It was also important not to cut to something else at the wrong time. There was a cutaway of a letter that had to be included somewhere for plot reasons, but I was convinced that if we showed that immediately before the typewriter CU then we would be telling the audience that Barbara was trying to compose a reply to the letter. Context is everything in editing. Put a different shot before or after a certain shot and you can completely change the meaning of that shot. By cutting to the letter as Barbara puts a teacup down next to it, Tristan was able to avoid it gaining undue importance.

Tristan's got one of those proper, colour-coded editing keyboards. Cool.
Tristan’s got one of those proper, colour-coded editing keyboards. Cool.

Another big lesson/reminder of the day was: less is more. I had been feeling for a while that Amelia’s Letter had one too many layers of supernatural mystery. Would the film be clearer if one was removed?

Steve was sceptical, and understandably so. No writer loves having chunks of their material hacked out. But to his credit, he let Tristan and I try it. After watching this revised version through, all three of us were convinced it was the right decision. Everything else in the film had become stronger because this one thread had been removed. Minor characters gained more importance because they weren’t competing with the removed element, and major characters’ challenges and emotions shone through more clearly. And the audience would have a much better chance of solving the film’s two remaining mysteries without scatching their heads over the third one too.

At the end of the day, we left greatly satisfied with what we had accomplished. Soon Amelia’s Letter will enter the next phase of postproduction: sound design, music composition, grading and visual effects. Stay tuned.

Amelia’s Letter is written by Steven Deery, directed by me and produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions. Visit the Amelia’s Letter Facebook page.

Amelia’s Letter: The Edit Continues

Amelia’s Letter: Test Screening

Test-screening2

On Saturday morning, Broadway in Nottingham kindly gave us the use of their lounge to screen the present edit of Amelia’s Letter to a select audience. As is normal for a test screening, the film is still in a very rough state, but the aim was to identify the weak points, primarily in terms of pace and clarity.

The audience was attentive and gave very useful feedback, though there wasn’t so much of a consensus as there has been at my previous test screenings. I think this might be par for the course for a film based on mystery. Some people like not knowing what’s going on, and some people don’t.

Personally, I like clarity. When I used to make amateur films as a teenager with my friend Dave, I remember how much it galled me when he reported that his mum had watched our latest cinematic effort and couldn’t follow the storyline. So I think we will do what we can, with the footage we have, to make Amelia’s Letter a little clearer.

Some people wanted the film to be longer, to reveal more about the minor characters, while others felt it could be shorter. Since we can’t make it longer, we’ll try to nibble some more out of the first few minutes to get it moving more quickly.

Test screenings usually throw up some surprises too, and this one was no exception. Some people briefly thought that a middle-aged character was supposed to be a future version of a younger character. (This is why, like Chris Jones says in The Guerilla Filmmakers’ Handbook, you should avoid casting actors that physically resemble each other.) And more than one person failed to realise that some minor characters were supposed to be writers, despite these characters spending much of their screen-time sat at typewriters. Who would have seen that one coming?

There was plenty of positive feedback. Amongst the words and phrases people could tick to describe the film, almost everyone ticked “well acted”, with “emotional”, “involving” and “I want to see it again” coming in joint second.

All in all, a useful exercise. Hopefully it won’t be long now before we can get the edit locked and move onto music, grading and sound design.

Amelia’s Letter: Test Screening

Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

Georgia Winters as Amelia
Georgia Winters as Amelia. Photo: Sophie Black

Working with editor Miguel Ferros on Stop/Eject in 2012/13 was a big eye-opener for me, demonstrating how much better my films could be if I didn’t edit them myself. It also helped me realise how little I like the isolated job of editing compared with the fun, stress and teamwork of being on set. Since then I’ve been gradually letting go of my editing work, both corporate and creative. My business card used to say ‘Director, Editor, DP’. Now it just says ‘Director, DP’.

Editing can be a thankless task, particularly in the corporate world. Once upon a time, when I had a cut I was happy with, I invited the client along to the edit suite, played it for them, then we discussed how it might be improved. But since broadband happened, clients wanted me to Dropbox the edit to them and then, rather than a creative discussion, I was typically emailed a list of instructions for changes. This is the point at which I would shut off my brain, carry out the instructions, often feeling that I was making the film worse, take the money and run.

So there’s much to be said for being in the same room as your editor. Not all the time, of course, but enough so that revisions can be made – or least discussed – collaboratively rather than imposed authoritatively.

Which is all pre-amble to saying that I travelled up to Nottingham yesterday to spend the day working with Tristan Ofield on the edit of Amelia’s Letter. He set up his Mac Mini in a darkened room in the Broadway and, after I popped out to be interviewed for the EPK, we got to work knocking the film into shape.

The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson
The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson

I hadn’t realised until then how difficult a film it must have been for Tristan to assemble: multiple time periods; intercutting scenes that were numbered separately on the page but shot together as one; a cheated geography of the cottage relative to the lake. The one advantage of editing your own film is that you know where everything is supposed to go, but Tristan had to figure it out the hard way. He’s put a lot of work into wrangling and shaping the material over the last few months.

It was a very productive day. We started at the beginning of the film and went steadily through, nipping, tucking and often completely rebuilding scenes. The film we had when we finished at 5pm was streets ahead of the one we had at 9am. We got the running time down from 15’30 to a much more festival-friendly 12 minutes, trimming most in the first few scenes to get the story going sooner. The emotional core of the film was already shining through in Tristan’s cut, but now the creepy and tense moments work nicely as well.

The next stage will be to screen the film for a test audience. This is an essential step I’ve taken with all my films since The Beacon in 2001, to make sure that the story is clear, the pacing is right and the desired emotions are coming across. For more on why test screenings are important, read my blogs about test-screening Stop/Eject and some of the problems that it highlighted.

Update: You can read Tristan’s thoughts on editing over at belowthelinefilm.blogspot.co.uk

Amelia’s Letter is written by Steven Deery and produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions. Visit the Amelia’s Letter Facebook page.

Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

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

Stop/Eject: Script to Screen

Following my personal observations on the shot planning process the other day, here’s a look at that process in action and a record of some of the thoughts that go through my head as a director when I’m choosing camera angles.

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.

storyboards_scan10

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).

storyboards_scan11Then 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.

 

 

Stop/Eject: Script to Screen