Working with Puppets

The set
The set

Right now I’m in the middle of shooting The One That Got Away, a tale of an old man, the sea and a mermaid, told using marionettes. Puppets are a fairly new thing to me, my one prior brush with them being the seven-foot-tall Wooden Swordsman in The Dark Side of the Earth. Here are some things you might want to consider if you’re thinking of going all Thunderbirds yourself…

  1. Puppets are slow. Expect your shoot to take at least twice as long as it would with live actors.
  2. Puppets can’t do much. You’ll need to break your shots into small chunks because it’s difficult to make a puppet do multiple different things in the same take. In the edit you’ll find yourself favouring the wider shots because the body language of the puppets will typically be far more expressive than the face.
  3. Make time for rehearsals. It’s a lot of work to build puppets and you may forget, or run out of time, to make sure they will move convincingly ahead of the shoot. Even an experienced puppeteer will need time to get to know your puppets in order to get the best out of them.
  4. Think carefully before building your sets. Are they going to be big enough to get the shots you need without seeing off the edge? There can be a tendency to focus on making everything work for one master wide shot, but what about your reverses – is there enough set for those too? And where will your puppeteers stand/sit/crouch/lie to operate the characters? If you’re using marionettes you must consider the strings as well, ensuring that no part of the set or lighting equipment will get in their way.
  5. Sound design and music are important to any film, but with puppets and animation they will often have to do more than their fair share of the work to breathe life into the characters. Get someone good on board to take care of this vital area.
Henry, the star of the show
Henry, the star of the show
Working with Puppets

Managing Visual Effects Without a Budget

Stages of the basement shelves replication effect by Mary Lapena
Stages of Stop/Eject’s basement shelves replication effect by Mary Lapena

Stop/Eject is my fourth major project to include visual effects, and also the fourth where it’s been a struggle to get all the visual effects done. As any micro-budget filmmaker knows, it’s par for the course for some cast and crew to pull out, sometimes without warning or explanation, and VFX artists are no exception. On Soul Searcher, for example, I needed a CG artist for the 80+ shots featuring “spectral umbilical cords”. Four artists started the work and then quit, citing various excuses from exploding PCs to miscarriages, before the fifth delivered the goods.

Stop/Eject has a surprising 31 VFX shots (most of which you’d never know were VFX shots), of which the twelve simplest were handled by me and Miguel, the editor. With the remaining nineteen needing to be outsourced, how did I apply what I’d learnt from my previous projects?

  1. I advertised for multiple artists, knowing from Soul Searcher (and before that The Beacon) that relying on a single person was not a good idea. More than half the people who agreed to work on Stop/Eject never completed a single shot.
  2. I created and uploaded zip files to my webspace for each shot. Each zip contained all the footage and information needed for that shot. This way if an artist dropped out, it was quick and easy for me to point another artist to that zip file to take over the shot.
  3. I re-advertised regularly. Beware that the law of diminishing returns applies here: each ad will reap fewer responses than the last.
  4. I assigned the most difficult shots first. That way the shots that are left at the end when the reliable artists are all burnt out and your adverts are getting no responses are – in theory – the easy ones which you can just about do yourself.
  5. I regularly checked in on the artists’ progress. If I didn’t get a reply within a couple of days, I’d assume that the artist had dropped out and I’d re-assign their shot to someone else. Harsh, but necessary.
Another of Stop/Eject's FX shots, this one by Dominic Stephenson
Another of Stop/Eject’s FX shots, this one by Dominic Stephenson

I want to say a huge thanks to those artists who came through for the project: David Robinson, Mary Lapena, Matt Collett, Eranga Mudiyanselage, Dominic Stephenson and Naveed Aftab. You all worked incredibly hard and produced fantastic results – you should be proud of yourselves.

Finally, a few technical points about our workflow, for anyone interested in such things. We shot on a DSLR, so the source footage was in H.264, a format that due to its structure cannot be trimmed without losing a generation. So I supplied the VFX artists with the entire take (along with details of the in and out timecodes of the piece used in the edit) and asked them to deliver their finished shots as 16-bit TIFF sequences. This ensured that we would lose zero quality. The downside to this workflow is that there is a danger of errors being made with the timecodes, leading to a shot not being long enough when you go to conform the edit…. Yes, that happened. There must be a better way. What’s your workflow for DSLR projects with VFX?

Managing Visual Effects Without a Budget

Things I’ve Learnt in Cannes

Attending the Cannes Film Festival and Market for the first time can be a big shock; it certainly was for me back in 2005. Here are some of the things I learnt from that first trip.

  • Filmmaking is a business, not an art. Films are bought and sold like tins of beans, and profit – or the reliable promise of profit – is the driving force behind it, just like every other business.
  • Many more films get made every year than you could possibly imagine, and crucially many more films turn a profit than you might expect. The industry does not consist of only Hollywood blockbusters and micro-budget indie fare. There are also hundreds of formulaic low budget films that most of us will never see, but nevertheless find an audience and make money, typically on straight-to-DVD release or in foreign territories (even if they were made in English). There is a living to be made if you can get into this section of the industry, though it may not be exactly what you always dreamt of.
  • Name actors are everything. When I went around the market in 2005 asking all the distributors if they were interested in buying a fantasy action movie (Soul Searcher), the first question was always: “Who’s in it?” It is almost impossible for a film to make a profit unless it has elements (a name actor, a name director or it’s based on a successful book, game, etc.). For the same reason you won’t get a film financed without one of these things attached.
  • Don’t believe anything they tell you. Cannes is home to more horseshit than Biff Tannen’s car. Most meetings you have, no matter how positive they seem, will ultimately come to nothing.
  • There are many, many talkers but not so many doers. If you go to Cannes having actually made a film, particularly a feature, you will immediately command some respect.

Of course, it is one thing to read this stuff in a blog, but another entirely to learn it firsthand. If you want to be a filmmaker, I strongly suggest you attend the festival at least once so you can truly understand the industry you’re getting into.

Things I’ve Learnt in Cannes

Ben Lewis Interview

Ben Lewis shoots an interview for Who Do You Love
Ben Lewis shoots an interview for Who Do You Love

I recently attended a talk by filmmaker and motion graphics designer Ben Lewis about the making of his music documentary Who Do You Love: The King Adora Story. With candid interviews and access to the band’s own camcorder footage, Who Do You Love tells the story of not just King Adora but a whole industry in transition. Ben kindly agreed to answer some questions about the making of the film, how it was financed and how it was distributed.

Why did you feel that the story of King Adora was one that needed to be told?

In all honesty my initial reasoning behind the project was to document a chapter in my friend’s life. I had been working at Apple as a creative trainer and I wanted to get back into making films; as opposed to teaching others to do so. I’ve known Martyn, the lead guitarist from the band, since secondary school and I was aware he had this experience so I really wanted to delve deeper. It was initially simply a gift to him to document that time in his life. Once I had begun producing the film I came to the realisation that I could produce a piece of work that not only appealed to King Adora fans but a wider audience.

Checking the shot
Checking the shot

What advantages did knowing band members personally give you? Were there any disadvantages?

I knew all the band but Martyn was a close friend. All of the band were at a different stage in their lives and I explained to them from the outset although I had an attachment to the them, I would not let that affect me in the filmmaking process. I wanted to tell a truthful story of their journey. I did feel protective of the band but I just had to put that aside and remember that original credo. So in a sense it was a double-edged sword in that they knew me so that allowed for a more relaxed interview environment but they also knew I wasn’t going to pull any punches. I had a free reign to ask what I wanted and use that in the story I wanted to tell.

How was the film financed?

It was self-funded. During my last few months at Apple I was spending my wages on hiring the Red One and lenses. It’s certainly not the best way to get a project made but I felt I didn’t want to wait and seeing as it was such a personal project I felt why shouldn’t I pay to get it made? I was using the currency of friends too; so, I calculated that it would cost about £6K in total for kit hire and travel etc. However, had I been paying them a day rate it would have been a lot more.

Take 1
Take 1

What are the biggest things you learnt along the way about crowd-funding?

I was totally new to crowd-funding. I loved the idea of it and it fit in with the other aspects of the democratisation of the creative industries that excited me. I love the idea you can circumvent the traditional funding platforms and have a direct link to your audience. The film was in the can and ready to go so I was purely looking for distribution costs for the DVD. That clearly helped as prospective backers knew the product was ready. That said, like the entire project, I was working on the promotion of the crowd-funding whilst working full time. I learnt that to raise the funding target is a full time job in itself. I had help from a friend but I feel that the most successful campaigns require constant updates and communication with your potential backers. I raised enough for the distribution of the DVD but not my full target amount.

How long did it take to shoot and how many crew were you working with?

It made over the course of a couple of years as we were all making it around our day jobs. In terms of days it’s hard to calculate. It took us a while to get in touch with certain members of the band. Robbie (bass player) was living in New York and we had to wait for him to get back to the UK for the interview; though I had considered going over to interview him. There was also a lot of archive footage that needed logging and various other production logistics such as clearance and filming the live gigs.

The crew was very small: myself, Laura the DOP and Ash who edited the project. On certain interviews we called in help from others too but really it was the three of us who got the project made.

Red
Red

What cameras did you use and did you encounter any technical problems?

I knew from the outset that I wanted the interviews to have a very intimate look with a shallow depth of field and to look nicely lit to contrast the grainy archive footage. I’d recently been on a Red One training course with my DOP, Laura. I thought that the image these cameras gave would be ideal for the look and feel I was trying to achieve. We shot the first three interviews with the Red but it became too cost prohibitive and we moved to the Canon 5D MKII. Laura did a great job lighting the interview but unfortunately she wasn’t available to shoot Dan’s interview so I shot that interview after getting advice from her.

Once we got to the edit stage we had mastered all the Red content to 1920×1080 Prores files as I wasn’t sure my machine could handle the R3Ds. When it came to the grade we relinked to the original Red files. Shooting with the 5D was great but the Prores conversions took some time. I’ve recently moved to Premiere CS6 and love how you can use H.264 natively. This saves a lot of time… and space!

What problems did you have with licensing the music?

Well this was a whole new world to me. I had lots of issues with the clearance of the music. I initially had to clear a couple of tracks and clips from one of the band’s videos for use in the first trailer I released. I had contacted Universal for international sync rights for online distribution which would allow me to use the songs and footage for six months but the initial cost was too steep. I managed to negotiate a lower rate as I was an independent but when it came to the rights for the entire film I just couldn’t afford the figure the record company were asking so I had to look into other options.

The music was intrinsic to the story and I had to think of another way to use the tracks. I contacted Dan (drummer) and asked if he had access to live tracks that had been recorded that didn’t have copyright. It turned out that he had lots of tracks available from various gigs over the years so we ended up using those. Having the audience noise actually added something. The extra ambiance gave it an additional energy which worked really well.

In the cutting room
In the cutting room

Do you feel Who Do You Love has helped your career, and what will your next project be?

Yeah, the film’s helped me many ways. It has given me a lot more confidence as a producer/director and it is a calling card that I’m incredibly proud of.

It’s a film that a lot of people have thought had a large crew and a budget that was far more than it actually cost to produce. It was really the three of us that made the film in our spare time, around our day jobs and on an ultra-low budget. After completing the film I honestly didn’t want to go near a long-form project again. I was looking to do a music promo and was in preproduction to do a video for a local band which unfortunately didn’t work out. I had been looking for examples of Brutalist architecture and was on a tour of Birmingham City Library when it dawned on me how many great stories that place holds. The gentleman who was escorting us around spoke with such passion about the place that I was re-energised to make another documentary. It’s still at an embryonic stage but the ball’s rolling and I’m looking forward to it.

Good luck with that, Ben. And finally, where can people buy or view the film?

The film is available to buy at www.kingadora.com. The DVD contains the feature, full interviews with Steve Lamacq and John Cornfield and a vox pops feature.

I’ll be doing a digital release at some point too either via Vimeo Pay per View or Distrify.

Ben Lewis Interview

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”

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things

Paul Bellamy rehearses Colla Voce ahead of the choral recording for Soul Searcher in January 2005. Photo: Mike Staiger
Paul Bellamy rehearses Colla Voce ahead of the choral recording for Soul Searcher in January 2005. Photo: Mike Staiger

Next week we record the music for Stop/Eject at Worcester College of Technology with players from the Film Orchestra. I think it’s a shame that many low budget filmmakers are content to let the composer create the music in their home studio, often without using any real instruments at all. It’s true that it takes a little more organisation to record a score with live players, but the richness and authenticity of the sound you get is well worth the effort.

Let me explain how I was able to arrange this recording session, because it demonstrates the importance of building your contacts.

Once the score was written, I started with a simple shout-out on Facebook for musicians. This was seen by Simon Munn, who is part of my social media network because I gave a talk at the Worcestershire Film Festival, which he organises, last year. There are many benefits of giving talks, paid or otherwise (which I touched on in a previous post) and making contacts is one.

Simon put me in touch with Jane Whittle at the Film Orchestra, a group of amateur musicians based in Worcester. Several of their members expressed an interest in performing the music, so I knew that I needed to find a recording studio in Worcester to make it as convenient as possible for them.

Recording Colla Voce. David Staiger can be seen at the keyboard (top right). Photo: Mike Staiger
Recording Colla Voce. David Staiger can be seen at the keyboard (top right). Photo: Mike Staiger

Years ago I hung out with some friends while they were recording a demo for their band (King Monkey) at Worcester College of Technology, so I knew there was a studio there. I contacted Paul Bellamy and David Staiger, both Worcester-based musicians who were involved in the recording of Soul Searcher’s score back in 2005. I figured one of them probably had some link to the college and I was right; Paul works there. He put me in touch with the Head of Performing Arts and Music Technology, who was very enthusiastic about the whole idea, and from there it was just a case of working out the details. In return I offered to give a free guest lecture at the college, citing my prior experience at Hereford College of Art, the SAE Institute, etc.

There are two morals to this story. One is the value of networking, making new contacts and maintaining those contacts (which Facebook makes it really easy to do now). The second is, if you’re a young filmmaker struggling to get stuff made, remember that collaboration not only benefits your current project; you could be sowing seeds which will help your future projects too.

The Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things

Planning VFX

A few years back I taught a module on Visual Effects for filmmaking degree students at the SAE Institute in north London. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how to actually do VFX, it focused instead on how directors and producers should approach and plan for them.

Here is one of the examples I gave, using a shot from my 2005 feature Soul Searcher. Joe Fallow (Ray Bullock Jnr.) sprints down the platform of Hereford station as the Hades Express departs, bearing away the villain of the piece and the kidnapped love interest.

Finished shot from Soul Searcher
Finished shot from Soul Searcher

The train was a 1:18 scale miniature and was dropped into the live action plate by means of a simple, static matte drawn in Photoshop – essentially a splitscreen effect.

But what if I, as director, had chosen a different camera angle?

Alternate angle 1

To achieve this version, the model train would have needed to have been shot against a green screen to make it appear in front of Joe and the platform. This would have complicated shooting the miniature slightly, as lighting for a green screen can be quite time-consuming.

Alternate angle 2

Here we have the opposite; now Joe is in the foreground, so he’s the one that needs to be shot against a green screen. Since he and the station are full size, the green screen would need to be much bigger and would require much more light. And remember we’re now talking about an impact on the main unit’s time on a location, rather than a small model unit in a studio, so the cost implications are magnified.

Alternate angle 3

Finally, what if I’d gone for a camera move? Now we’re into motion control rigs, to record the camera’s movement on location and applied a scaled-down version of that same move to the camera shooting the miniature. Either that or the live action plate has to be 3D-tracked in post-production, and that tracking data fed into the motion control rig that shoots the miniature. More time, more people, more equipment, more money.

This is the first step in planning for VFX: understanding how your choice of shots influences the techniques required to achieve them and therefore impacts on the schedule and the budget. Stay tuned for more on this topic, and remember you can watch Soul Searcher in full for free at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher

Planning VFX

Stop/Eject Production Budget Breakdown

The one that got away was this big...
Delivering the Derby fundraising lecture in March

This post has been created and published because the total raised in Stop/Eject‘s post-production crowd-funding campaign has passed the £1,100 mark. I’m going to look at how the money you all contributed in pre-production was spent in order to get Stop/Eject in the can.

Stop/Eject was originally meant to be filmed in autumn 2011 under the auspices of another production company. Prior to the project’s postponement and subsequent resurrection as a crowd-funded movie, Sophie and I spent some money on set dressing (£149.76), costumes (£206.20) and travel (£60). We absorbed these costs personally and they’re not included in the budget.

Download the budget here as a PDF (34Kb).

(If you don’t follow my blog regularly, you may wish to check out the following resources first so you have a clearer picture of the project I’m discussing: the trailer, a blog post summarising how the shoot went, an evaluation of the shooting schedule, a playlist of behind-the-scenes videos from the shoot. Stop/Eject was a twenty page script that took five and a half days to shoot.)

As you can see, the crowdfunder.co.uk campaign was the main source of income, although a significant amount was donated after this campaign closed, in cash or via the Paypal button I had on this website for a while. Two of the three Soul Searcher lectures were failures, with few or no attendees; only the Derby lecture (done as part of a Five Lamps Film Night) took more cash than it cost me to travel there. Selling Benedict Cumberbatch’s costume from The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot was the last part of the pre-production funding jigsaw.

Costume designer Katie Lake models one of the outfits purchased in 2011.
Costume designer Katie Lake models one of the outfits purchased in 2011.

Moving onto the expenditure, the first thing you have to do with any type of fundraising is deduct the costs involved in that fundraising process – in this case crowdfunder.co.uk’s fee and the production and postage of the rewards/perks for sponsors. These costs represent less than 8% of the budget, which I think is pretty good value.

Under pre-production you can see that more props and costumes were purchased in 2012, in addition to those we’d already bought in 2011. The total costumes outlay across the two years was £407.94, making it one of the largest costs of the production. This was due to the high number of story days in the script (eleven), each of which required a new outfit. A significant chunk of the props budget went on 400 cassette cases for the scene in the Tape Archive, while the construction materials included the wood and antique doors which the alcove set was made from. Auditions were held at Conway Hall in Holborn, London, owned by the very strange but pleasingly cheap South Place Ethical Society.

If you have a problem, if no-one else can help...
If you have a problem, if no-one else can help… (photo: Colin Smith)

Travel is the biggest expense under production and indeed for the entire project, totalling £1,049.49 if you include the van costs and the pre-production and 2011 costs, even though some of the local crew waived their mileage and parking expenses. The high travel expenditure was partly due to many key cast and crew members living at least a two hour journey away from where we were filming, but even on more local projects I’ve often found that travel can be the most expensive element (assuming you’re not paying anyone fees). Hiring the van was relatively cheap in the grand scheme of things, and was worth every penny and more. Without it we couldn’t have moved the alcove set or some of the larger props around, and squeezing all the equipment into cars would have been a nightmare.

I was very surprised how little we spent on food and catering. £248.33 fed about ten people for five and a half days. Many of the meals were cooked in advance, frozen and reheated on set or cooked from scratch on set by Katie or Debs, but we bought takeaways for everyone on at least two occasions. That figure also includes supplies like plastic beakers, disposable plates, bowls and cutlery and a thermos flask. We borrowed a fridge and a hotplate and brought our own microwave along.

When drawing up a new budget for Stop/Eject after its initial postponement, accommodation seemed like a killer cost that might prevent the film from ever being made. Research indicated that I could expect to pay around £2,000 to hire a holiday cottage large enough to house everyone for a week. As it turned out, we found Magpie, not only a brilliant location for the shop and many other settings, but also a place where some of us could stay (albeit in less than ideal conditions). The owner asked just for a token amount to cover the utilities costs, and with Sophie’s spare room also put to good use we only had to hire one hotel room for one night.

If you’re wondering where I got the public and employers’ liability insurance from, the answer is Essex Insurance Brokers. They specialise in short-term policies for low-budget filmmakers and you can get a quote and activate a policy in just a few minutes using their web form. If that sounds like a blatant advert, let me counter it by saying they were utterly unhelpful and a bit rude when I tried to get insurance for The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot from them.

Steve Lawson's kindly-lent jib in action outside Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall
Steve Lawson’s kindly-lent jib in action outside Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall

Finally, a word on the stuff we didn’t spend money on. None of the cast and crew were paid, which caused lots of stress and hassle in the month leading up to the shoot as several crew and both lead actors pulled out in order to do paying work that clashed. As a result I’ve sworn never to do anything again but simple little one-day shoots unless I can afford to pay people. Feel free to remind me of this if I ever seem to be going astray. We also spent nothing on equipment hire. Most of it (camera, lenses, tripod, dolly, shoulder rig, smoke machine) was mine and the rest of it was borrowed. Thanks to Steve Lawson for loan of the jib, Colin Smith for the Glidecam and additional lights, The Rural Media Company for an additional light and some sound kit, and Ian Preece for the sound recorder.

When all the figures were totted up, I was as shocked as anyone to see we’d come in more than £400 under budget. This meant we were able to set our post-production crowd-funding target at £1,500 rather than the £2,000 we had planned. We’re now less than £400 away from that target, so please help us get there by toddling over to stopejectmovie.com and hitting Donate. And if you’re curious to know how the budget of a indie feature film breaks down, choose the £10 “Line Producer” reward and you’ll get a full and detailed analysis of Soul Searcher’s monetary ins and outs.

Stop/Eject Production Budget Breakdown

Inside the Director’s Folder

A camera operator needs batteries, lenses, cards, filters. A wardrobe supervisor has racks of costumes. A sound recordist carries a dead cat on a stick. But a director needs only his folder. Like Her Majesty’s handbag, the contents of this hallowed portfolio have forever been a mystery. Until now.

Here’s what I kept in my Stop/Eject folder while shooting the film:

To-do list
To-do list

The first thing I see on opening the folder is a to-do list. These are all things that need doing the day before the shoot begins, including things that I need to pack in the van for the journey up to Derbyshire.

Budget
Budget

A copy of the production budget comes next, with highlighted figures like catering and travel being the ones that are still available to spend.

Schedule
Schedule

Next up is the schedule, one of several documents I can satisfyingly cross parts off as the shoot progresses. You can download the schedule here.

Contacts
Contacts

A list of contact details for the cast, crew, locations and people we’re borrowing props and equipment from.

Script
Script

Then we come to the script. The fact that it’s this far back in the folder tells you how many other things a director who is also co-producing and has no AD has on his mind. Ideally the script and the storyboards would be the only things in my folder. You can see that I’ve drawn tram lines. Normally a script supervisor does this during shooting to indicate which part of the scene a shot covers, but I’ve drawn them in advance to remind me which part of the scene I want each shot to cover.

Storyboards
Storyboards

The largest section of my folder is the storyboards. The ones with the pink highlights are shots I felt would make good production photos, the idea being that we would switch the camera to stills mode after the take and snap a few – but we usually forgot.

Lighting plans
Lighting plans

Next are the lighting plans for each location. I covered these in detail in my lighting breakdown posts.

Artwork
Artwork

Sophie’s concept art is next. Not much use by the time you’re in production, since it’s all been built and dressed already, but nice to look at.

Expenses forms
Expenses forms

Then comes a wallet of expenses forms for the cast and crew to fill in. This is based on a template from Terry Cartwright’s DIY Accounting package.

Insurance policy
Insurance policy

Finally, I carry a copy of the public and employer’s liability insurance documents in case any location owners ask to see it.

Inside the Director’s Folder

Stop/Eject: The Schedule

Georgina Sherrington as Kate in Sophie's living room set
Georgina Sherrington as Kate in Sophie’s living room set

Everyone on the cast and crew probably wanted to kill me because of the schedule. The days were too long and the turnaround times were too short. But let’s look at how the schedule developed in pre-production and how it turned out in practice.

Before we begin, some basic info. The script is 19 pages long, so theoretically 19 minutes. There are 31 scenes, 11 story days and 14 locations. Yeah, in a nutshell, ridiculous for a short film.

Six of the locations we found in one building: Magpie, in Matlock. Most of the remaining ones were in Belper, 11 miles down the road.

When we were going to shoot last October, it was a four-and-a-half day schedule. The first half day we would have been without the lead actress (who is in almost every scene) and the last half day we would have been without anyone except a skeleton crew, for shooting close-ups of the tape recorder.

When the project got up and running again this year, I immediately increased the schedule to five days. I had been really freaked out in October about getting it all shot in essentially just four.

Initially I wanted to shoot Monday-Friday, since weekdays seemed most convenient for the locations, but the two lead actors we had at the time both temped during the week and wanted to do as much as possible at the weekend, so I went with Saturday-Wednesday. (Ironically, it would have better suited Georgie, who ultimately played the lead role, if we had shot Monday-Friday.)

Remember that the first and foremost goal of your schedule is to minimise the number of location moves, because they waste phenomenal amounts of time. (A common mistake is to consider only the driving time between locations and overlook the time it takes to derig all the equipment, pack it into the vehicles, unpack it and set it up again at the other end. And don’t forget that at least one of your vehicles will probably get lost during the location move, so budget in time for that as well.)

Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall
Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall

I knew that those of us who weren’t local to the area could stay at Magpie, and that we could also stay at Sophie’s in Belper from the third day onwards. So the most logical schedule was to shoot all the Magpie stuff Saturday-Monday, then move to Belper on Monday night and shoot everything there on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This was all well and good until Georgie was cast a week before the shoot, and she had a prior commitment in London on Sunday morning. This meant we would lose her at 7pm on Saturday and not get her back for 24 hours.

There was approximately a day’s worth of material that could be shot without her, but half of that consisted of tape recorder close-ups that couldn’t be filmed until we had her master shots to match them to, master shots from various locations that couldn’t possibly all be shot on Saturday. So it was clear that Sunday’s schedule would be pretty sparse until Georgie returned at 7pm, shooting just the Businessman scenes in Belper. The half-day of tape recorder close-ups would have to wait until Thursday, extending the schedule.

Filming in the basement of Strutt's North Mill, Belper. Photo: Paul Bednall
Filming in the basement of Strutt’s North Mill, Belper. Photo: Paul Bednall

The other fixed point I was working around was the basement location (in Belper), which was only available on the Tuesday. This prevented me from simply flipping the schedule and doing all the Belper stuff first, then the Magpie stuff.

Two full days of shooting would take place on the shop floor of Magpie, and it was essential that those were consecutive so that we wouldn’t have to restore the shop and then redress it again later. Given the availability of Georgie and the basement, the only solid two-day stretch was from Sunday evening through to Tuesday lunchtime, which even then isn’t a full two days. So that’s where the shop floor had to go, and the rest of the schedule just had to fit around it.

Since many of us would be staying at Magpie over the weekend, I was keen to do as much filming there as possible during that time, so I scheduled in the living room, bedroom and nursing home scenes for Saturday. But then I realised that this left the major exterior scenes nowhere to go except Wednesday – the last day of the shoot. If the weather was bad, we would have nowhere left to postpone them to.

So the living room, bedroom and nursing home got moved to Wednesday and the exteriors slotted in on Saturday, with the proviso that they would be swapped back if Saturday was rainy.

I had arrived at a final schedule, which looked like this:

Stop/Eject schedule download (.PDF, 157kb)

As you can see, there are some tight turnarounds, particularly during the shop floor stuff in the middle of the schedule. This was partly a result of squeezing two days of shop floor material into one full day, one morning and one evening. It was also difficult to balance conflicting things like the need to wait for it to get dark at the end of the day to shoot some scenes, but also needing to get up early enough in the morning to film exteriors outside the shop when the road wasn’t too busy.

I definitely felt like I was fighting the clock throughout the shoot.

We wrapped more or less on time on Saturday, but had dropped the sun GVs and a crucial wide shot for the weir scene.

On Sunday things kept to schedule until the evening, when we overran and wrapped about 75 minutes late.

We wrapped most of the cast and crew slightly later than the anticipated time of 10:30pm on Monday, but Colin and I cracked through the cutaways and wrapped the day overall a few minutes early.

On Tuesday we finished at Magpie at noon, not 11am, but made up some of the time on the location move (which almost never happens) and got to the basement only half an hour late. We wrapped there still about 30 minutes behind, but made up the time at the cemetery. Then we got ahead of schedule by changing the bridge shot (scene 15) from night to day, thus saving an hour of setting up lights, and were able to retire to Sophie’s and get the kitchen scene in a very relaxed fashion.

Filming a living room scene. Photo: Sophie Black
Filming a living room scene. Photo: Sophie Black

Wednesday was without a doubt the toughest day. Although the living room, the bedroom, the nursing home and the alcove set were all in the same building, moving between them still took time, and since we were all fatigued it was like wading through treacle. By lunchtime we were two hours behind and this only got worse as we moved onto the critical alcove scenes after dinner. It must have been getting on for 3am by the time we wrapped.

Thursday turned out very differently to what we’d planned. Fortunately Georgie and Ollie were both available to pick up the weir wide shots. We started late because everyone was so knackered, and couldn’t shoot at the first location we visited (due to heavy rainfall swelling the river), so had to move to another one. We finally got the two shots in the can by about 3pm, and decided to leave most of the planned tape recorder close-ups to another time. (I’ll be shooting them here in Hereford next week.)

I’ll discuss why we kept falling behind schedule in a future post, but I’d like to end on a cautionary note. Not allowing sufficient turnaround time is a vicious circle. I hated the mornings on the shoot because I could see that people weren’t getting up fast enough to get out of the door at the necessary time. I couldn’t hassle them because they’d been up late the previous night and were understandably very tired, but I knew that by starting late we would end up finishing late again and the cycle would continue.

The only way to lengthen the turnaround time would have been to have added another day to the schedule, and this of course brings its own problems in the form of increased costs and people’s availability. This is why making unpaid short films will always be a messy, unpleasant business and if you’re at all rational you’d do well to avoid such shoots like the plague.

But where’s the fun in that?

Rewind
Rewind
Stop/Eject: The Schedule