Kate Madison Interview

Kate demonstrates the action. Photo: Laura Radford
Kate demonstrates the action. Photo: Laura Radford

In the autumn of 2014 I served as director of photography on Ren: The Girl with the Mark, an incredibly ambitious short-form fantasy series, and have since been assisting with postproduction in various ways. Now that season one of the show is complete and ready to show to the public at last, I took the opportunity to sit down with director Kate Madison and ask her about some of the unique aspects of the show’s production…

Kate, many people will know you as the director, producer, co-writer, actor and general driving force behind Born of Hope, a Lord of the Rings fan film with over 35 million YouTube views. Did that film’s success open any doors for you, and what was the journey from there that led you to want to make a web series?

Born of Hope potentially opened doors even if they weren’t visible doors, in the sense that although it didn’t result in Hollywood coming calling, it created a a bit of a buzz and it became known in the industry. Myself and Christopher Dane [the lead actor] did start work on a fantasy feature film script called The Last Beacon and spent time trying to pursue that avenue. That then led into another feature film idea, so we were looking down the route of a feature film rather than anything else, and spent what felt like a number of years just not going anywhere.

I started thinking, what can we actually do when we don’t know investors or people with money. We concluded that with the internet – there’s an audience there, our audience is there. The crowdfunding thing which worked for Born of Hope is online, so we need to go back to that.

Many people will ask, “Why fantasy when there are so many cheaper and easier genres?” How do you respond to that?

For me, film and TV is about escapism, so I enjoy action-adventures and comedies and historical stuff – things that are not Eastenders. Fantasy is a huge genre. To me it’s a way to have the freedom to do whatever you want. I can take things I like – historical things, costumes, set design – and the joy of fantasy over period is, you can go, “I’m going to use this Viking purse with this medieval-looking helmet!” I like the freedom of fantasy. You can still have a character-driven, interesting story, set in somewhere fantastical, or even just a forest. There’s no dragons or creatures in Ren – so far – but the options are there, that’s the joy of it.

Having a laugh on set with Nick Cornwall (Dagron). Photo: Laura Radford
Having a laugh on set with Nick Cornwall (Dagron). Photo: Laura Radford

There was an enormous amount of goodwill and legions of volunteers who helped with Born of Hope. How important were those people, and finding others like them, when it came to making Ren?

Hugely important! Born of Hope could not have been made without a ton of volunteers, having no budget at all. With Ren, because we were in a similar position – which was a shame really, after all that time we still hadn’t got a big enough budget – we again had to rely on volunteers to make it possible!

There was an incredible sense of community, of shared ownership and very high morale throughout the production of Ren. Was it important to you to foster those things?

It’s incredibly important to keep morale high. I think it’s slightly easier when people are volunteering because they’re there because they want to be there and not just for the pay cheque. I was very keen to let everyone have fun on the project and also to have fun myself, because these projects are incredibly hard. So if the work was all done for the day, OK, I’m allowed to switch off now and grab a Nerf gun! People were staying there [at the studio], so they wanted to have a good time in the evening.

If we work a little later because there’s a break in the middle where we’re having a laugh, that means you can go later because everyone’s chilled rather than slogging away and not feeling like they’re enjoying themselves.

When people are volunteering, it feels like [the project] is everybody’s, and it is. People would come in and help and maybe end up designing a dress. The joy of filmmaking for me is the collaborative nature of it. There’s always someone behind you with an idea. You don’t feel like you’re ever on your own completely. If you’re at a loss, then someone else – whether it’s the DoP or the runner – [can suggest things].

A panoramic view of Ren's village set. Photo: Michael Hudson
A panoramic view of Ren’s village set. Photo: Michael Hudson

Very few micro-budget productions have their own studio, but Ren took over a disused factory for several months. How did that come about, and what were the benefits of it?

The benefits were through the roof, I’d say! We wonder if the project would have happened without it.

As we were going through budgets and scouting locations, we realised how difficult it was going to be [to shoot on location] – the logistics of making the village look like the village in the script and what if it rained for that week [the location was booked for]? It was just terrifying.

We started to think, is there another option here? It was just luck that Michelle [Golder, co-producer], on a dog walk, got talking to someone who knew someone. He mentioned this place in Caxton which was really big but we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and we could just take it over. We were going to get a really good deal because it was sitting empty. It was twice as much for six months in Caxton in comparison with six days on location. And we would have the freedom to build whatever we wanted! There was all this interior space we could build in but also have costume rooms and production offices.

I’ve always loved the idea of having a place to work where everyone can come together. It’s fantastic nowadays that you can communicate with people all over the world, but you can’t beat a face-to-face conversation with someone and being able to look at the same picture and point at it and talk about it. It meant we were able to achieve a lot more in scope but also in quality.

Kate contemplates one of the interior sets. Photo: Ashram Maharaj
Kate contemplates one of the interior sets. Photo: Ashram Maharaj

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the production was creating a medieval village from scratch. Building the set, sourcing enough extras and costuming everybody were three massive challenges. How did you tackle those?

I live in Cloud Cuckoo land sometimes I guess! The set build, I thought, “It’s fine, we can do this, we can build this circular wall essentially with a few alleyways going off it and fill it with some market stalls.” Chris was in charge of building the set, and did an amazing job with a bunch of volunteers that came back over and over again. Although we bought a bunch of materials we made use of an amazing site called Set Exchange which is a sort of Freecycle for sets and we found a bunch of flats on there – that helped a lot.

Populating the village was always going to be challenging. Suzanne [Emerson] who also played the role of Ida got heavily involved in helping to find extras. She’s involved in a lot of the amateur dramatics in Cambridge. It was probably horrible [for Suzanne and Michelle] but an amazing miracle for us that we’d finish shooting one day and go, “You know we’re actually going to shoot that tomorrow and we need some people,” and then the next morning you’d turn up and people would show up to do it. We had varying numbers, but there was never a day when no-one showed up.

Supporting artists line up for a costume inspection in the car park of the Caxton studio. Photo: Michael Hudson
Supporting artists line up for a costume inspection in the car park of the Caxton studio. Photo: Michael Hudson

As for dressing them – we grabbed all of the Born of Hope costumes, Miriam [Spring Davies, costume designer] had a bunch of stock stuff as well. We ended up buying a bunch of things from New Zealand, from a costume house called Shed 11 that did Legend of the Seeker. The Kah’Nath armour came from Norton Armouries; John Peck – who had been involved with Born of Hope supplying stuff for orcs – I called on his good will again.

It was lovely to make the hero costumes from scratch. Miriam and I would go through the costume designs and then we went and looked at material. Chris and I randomly on a holiday to Denmark found some material we really liked for Karn’s tunic. Ren’s dress – I bought that material ages ago and it had been sitting around. Miriam and I took a trip to the re-enactors’ market as well. And we went to Lyon’s Leathers, spent what felt like a whole day wandering his amazing storeroom and picking out stuff for different characters, for Hunter’s waistcoat and Ren’s overdress, and we got the belts made there.

Discussing shots with me on set. Photo: Michael Hudson
Discussing shots with me on set. Photo: Michael Hudson

I’ve heard you say more than once, “If it’s not right, it’s not worth doing.” How important is quality to you, and how do you balance that with the budgetary and scheduling pressures of such a huge project?

I’m not very good at compromising. If we’re going to spend months and months working on something that none of us are going to be happy with or proud of then it’s a waste of time and we might as well stop now. I think it’s probably that I’d like to be off in New Zealand making Legend of the Seeker, so I treat it as if I’m doing that I suppose, and I try not to let the budget or circumstances stop us from doing that.

I knew that most of the things are achievable. You know, to put together a costume that’s weathered well and looks really interesting is not hard to do, it just takes more time to do than buying it off the shelf and sticking it on, but the quality difference is so extreme. People will be much happier with you in the end if you’ve worked them hard for an amazing outcome than if you’ve worked them hard and it looks rubbish.

Sophie Skelton as the eponymous Ren. Photo: Alex Beckett
Sophie Skelton as the eponymous Ren. Photo: Alex Beckett

Most filmmakers are making stand-alone shorts or features, though the medium of web series is growing. Do you think it’s the way forward? Do you think there can be a sustainable career in it?

Ren is going to be an interesting experiment – can people watch something that, if we stuck [all the 10-minute episodes] together would be a pilot for TV – will they watch that on the web in the same way they would watch a TV thing or will they get bored and go and watch cats?

It is a new field. Although web series have been going on a long time, it’s still growing, there’s no funding in the UK, there’s no obvious way of having revenue from it, because the online platforms like YouTube, the advertising revenue is absolutely minimal as a percentage of views, and there’s only so many t-shirts you can sell. We struggled to raise money for the first season and we only raised enough to barely scrape our way through while putting in our own money.

Unless it does amazingly and maybe garners the interest of a big brand or sponsorship, if we’re having to crowdfund every time and we can’t crowdfund the huge figures that we’d need to make this, then it might not be the way forward for Ren and we might need to figure out a different thing… [unless] we get picked up by a bigger corporation like Amazon or Netflix.

We’ll see how this first season goes. We’d love it to become sustainable and a show that we can keep putting out and people can enjoy, but this is the experiment for that I suppose.

You can watch Ren: The Girl with the Mark for free, Tuesdays at 8pm GMT from March 1st, at rentheseries.com or on the Mythica Entertainment channel on YouTube.

Kate Madison Interview

Stop/Eject with Filmmakers Commentary

My award-winning short fantasy-drama Stop/Eject is just coming to the end of its festival run, and soon I’ll be publishing a breakdown of that run, how much it cost and how many festivals it got into. But in the meantime, here’s the director and producer’s commentary which Sophie Black and I recorded at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.

If you haven’t seen the film, you can watch it without commentary below.

Next week I’ll be posting the cast commentary with Georgina Sherrington, Oliver Park and Therese Collins.

Stop/Eject with Filmmakers Commentary

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

IMG_4793_2watermark-1000pxAny director worth their salt will be skilled in telling a story with the camera. But, quite understandably, they’re not familiar with the key concepts of cinematography – particularly the lighting side of cinematography – which a DP employs every day to create images that have impact, mood and production value. For the most part, directors don’t need to know these things – after all, that’s what the DP’s there for – but understanding a few of the basic concepts can help set up your film for visual excellence before the DP even gets involved.

1. We don’t light from the front.

It is logical to assume that light coming from behind the camera will give the best illumination to a scene. And on a purely cold, scientific level, it’s true. But on an aesthetic level, it couldn’t be more wrong. Quite apart from the practical issues of boom shadows and actors squinting in the sun, frontlight gives a flat, depthless image similar to a photo taken with flash.

Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.
Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.

Similarly, anyone who has taken photos with a camera in automatic mode will have been told – or quickly learnt – that shooting towards the sun, or when indoors, towards a window, is a bad idea, resulting in silhouettes and/or blown-out skies. So directors are often surprised when towards the sun (or a window) is EXACTLY the direction I want to shoot in, because it supplies beautiful backlight and allows me to fill in the shadow side – the side towards camera – as I see fit. No, it’s not going to be a silhouette (unless that’s what we’re going for) because I have a lamps and I have manual control of my iris.

2. Dark scenes do not require a camera with good low light sensitivity.

It depends what you mean by dark. A scene that is dark as a creative decision won’t actually be dark in reality because it will still be lit, perhaps highly lit, to create a moody, contrasty look. Therefore the camera’s sensitivity is not much of an issue.

A scene that is dark because you don’t have the budget to light it properly – yes, that’s going to need a sensitive camera if you’re going to see anything but noise.

3. You can’t fix everything in the grade.

It is truly amazing what can be done with today’s colour correction software, but there are two things it can’t do: it can’t save an image that was seriously underlit or underexposed, and it can’t change the angle or quality of light. Colour and intensity, yes. Angle and quality (soft/hard), no. And since these are the main things a DP determines, grading can never replace a good cinematographer. If it doesn’t look good on the monitor on the day, it will probably never look good.

4. We can’t light without seeing the blocking.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned up on set and asked to see the blocking, and been told no because the actors actors are in make-up, “but they’re going to stand kind of here.” In most circumstances, the first scene of the day should be blocked BEFORE the actors go to make-up. That way the DP can be lighting while the cast is getting made up, which is much more time efficient. Otherwise the DP tinkers about trying to light the space and looking at their watch, then when the talent comes out everyone is kept waiting while the DP changes all the lighting. Because inevitably the actors will want to do something different than what the director had in mind, or the director forgot to mention that one of the actors has to be seen coming through the door at the start, etc, etc. Blocking can also throw up problems with the scene which can be solved by various other departments while make-up is going on.

Great costume - check. Great location - check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)
Great costume – check. Great location – check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)

5. A good camera and a good DP are not substitutes for good design.

Light and lensing can only do so much. If what’s put in front of the camera doesn’t look good to start with, there’s very little I can do about it. Get an art director. Please, please, please, get an art director. They will do much more for the look of your film than I can. I don’t care if it’s a futuristic sci-fi movie or a gritty drama shot in a student flat, you need an experienced person with an artistic eye adding character to the sets and locations, developing a palette and composing everything beautifully for the camera.

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

Designing Amelia’s Letter

Amy Nicholson
Amy Nicholson. Photo: Colin Smith

Production designer Amy Nicholson is no stranger to period settings and low budgets. I spent all of last September in France lighting her impressive work, so when I came to crew up Amelia’s Letter, she was the only person I considered to create the script’s four distinct periods. I’ve asked her to share her experiences of the design process on this demanding short film. 

I met Neil as a DOP on The First Musketeer, a rather intense but wonderful project. He instantly won my respect and acclaim with consistently superb lighting, a real appreciation for prop details and generally being a nice guy to work with. [Neil quietly slips Amy a tenner.] So when he approached me about designing Amelia’s Letter which he would be directing, I couldn’t help but say yes, despite a recent promise to myself not to take on any more freebies.    

Amelia (Georgia Winters) in 1903
The eponymous Amelia (Georgia Winters) and her equally eponymous letter, in 1903

The script filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. On the one hand it was my dream job with four different time periods (including my favourite, 1930s) and a gothic style, but on the other hand the level of art required to do this project was massive.

The original budget set by the production wouldn’t cover the acquisition of the named props let alone any effective dressing. Luckily for me they listened to my cause and agreed to increase the figure to a point my most optimistic budget might stretch to. This was fantastic but of course still set me up on my biggest challenge ever! 

Barbara (Tina Harris) in 1939
Barbara (Tina Harris) in 1939

I was part of early conversations and visits to locations, and with Neil agreed what could work best.  This collaboration between a director and production designer is fantastic and really builds the strength and vision of a piece. The chosen location was a little semi derelict cottage at Newstead Abbey. The architecture was stunning and although the worn state and small size of the building would present big challenges, the opportunity to do whatever we wanted and really transform the main room for each time period was incredible. 

Charles (Francis Adams) in 1969
Charles (Francis Adams) in 1969

The main focus of the design and plot revolved around a period desk. Therefore it was important to get this piece right and plan all other design factors around this key item. I spent days searching for the right one, regularly sending images back and forth to Neil for an opinion. I wouldn’t normally bug a director in this way but the desk really had to support the action and shots effectively, so was crucial. I was pleased to learn that Neil was of the opinion that in this case the look of something was more important than the true accuracy of period, so this gave me a little flexibility. I eventually found the perfect piece, a 1909 roll top desk. The age and style was ever so slightly too modern but the detail and quality of wood far outweighed the five years of inaccuracy. Unfortunately the desk was 150 miles away and featured quite a bit of damage. So a road trip to collect the desk and some renovations by my dad ensued. Dad also constructed a bespoke locking drawer needed for the action. This proved a great deal of effort but worth it to get the right piece. 

There were a few other items I had to buy, including a 1930s radio, but on the whole I was able to source everything else from my personal prop store and generally doing a bit of beg, steal and borrow from friends, family and the crew. I also befriended a local antique shop and was able to hire many dressing items really cheaply. Having many sources in this way really makes a budget stretch but always involves a lot of time spent collecting, sorting and returning.

Choosing paint colours should have been quite easy but the best colours are always the most expensive and with four colours required in just three days it took careful consideration. Neil and I agreed a pallet of colours which would look good on camera and distinguish each period. He requested that the colours get bolder throughout to suit the narrative, but on a practical front this also ensured only a single coat was needed on the walls, saving time and money. I bought patterned rollers to achieve an easy wallpaper effect for both 1903 and 1969. This was a new toy for me and proved a fantastic effect that I will certainly be using again. 

Some of the present day set dressing
Some of the present day set dressing

On set I had a superb team to support with all the redressing. It was like 60-minute makeover each time we transformed to a new period and I was so impressed and grateful that all the crew got involved at some point to help us out. Once each transformation was complete the cast and crew consistently let out a genuine ‘wow’ making the art team feel very proud. 

I was truly pleased with each of the sets and it was really special seeing them combined with some effective costume design by Sophie Black, impressive lighting by Alex Nevill and intense actor performances. I can’t wait to see the finished film, as I’m confident it will be something of beauty!

Visit Amy’s website at www.amynicholson.net.

For the latest updates on Amelia’s Letter, like the Facebook page. The film is produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions.

Designing Amelia’s Letter

Last Week of Preproduction on A Cautionary Tale

Amelia's dress, designed and made by Sophie Black
Amelia’s dress, designed and made by Sophie Black

We’re less than one week out from shooting A Cautionary Tale, with many aspects of the production coming together nicely, but others proving more challenging.

Regular readers may recall that after Stop/Eject, a project where the last few weeks of preproduction were marred by both lead actors and many crew pulling out, I vowed never again to make a film where people weren’t paid. (Puppet films excepted.) When I took on A Cautionary Tale, I figured this rule didn’t apply. After all, it wasn’t “my” film; I didn’t originate it, and I wasn’t producing it, so it wasn’t my call whether people were paid or not.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when our lead actor pulled out about ten days ago, after being offered a lucrative alternative. Just like on Stop/Eject, it has proven very hard to find a suitable replacement, someone willing to travel way outside of London, for no money, for “just another” short film. And the search continues.

Another hiccup has been the cinematography. By mutual agreement, the DP who I originally selected left the project about a week ago. The lesson learned here is that, just like an actor, a DP must be right for the project. If you are working with limited resources, you need someone who relishes the challenge, rather than feeling restricted by it. Alex Nevill has stepped up to the plate, and I’m sure he’ll do a terrific job.

The knock-on effect has been that only today have we been able to start confirming equipment hires. For a while it looked like we might have to shoot on a DSLR, but Alex has been able to get us a great deal on a Red One MX.

Tomorrow our loyal band of runners and production assistants begins cleaning out the cottage at Newstead Abbey. On Tuesday, the art department led by Amy Nicholson will descend on the location and begin the huge task of painting and dressing it to become a writer’s study from 1903. Then, over the course of our three-day shoot, Amy’s team will have to redress it three times to bring it through the twentieth century to the present day.

Despite all the drama, I’m looking forward to the shoot. Many of the crew have worked with me before, including gaffer Colin Smith, costumer Sophie Black, sound mixer David Bekkevold, and of course Amy, and I know they’ll do me proud. And I’m sure there will be new great working relationships forged in the white heat (or more literally, freezing cold) of A Cautionary Tale’s shoot too. Stay tuned.

Last Week of Preproduction on A Cautionary Tale

Polymath: Behind the Scenes

I always enjoy a good behind-the-scenes video, and there’s often much to be learnt from them too. My friends at Polymathematics have just released a series of ‘making of’ videos for their recent music promos, all of which are exquisitely designed and shot (my own involvement in Droplets notwithstanding!). Check out Polymath’s Vimeo channel for more behind-the-scenes videos and of course the promos themselves.

Droplets

We Were Here

The Last Human / I Do (Come True)

Hands Up if You’re Lost

And here’s an equally fascinating look at a live puppetry project they did as part of the Olympic Torch Relay celebrations…

 

Polymath: Behind the Scenes

The Making of Henry

Guest blogger Katie Lake tells the story of how Henry Otto, the marionette star of The One That Got Away, came into this world. Click here to watch the film and please tweet about it to help us make the competition shortlist.

1. The head
1. The head

It started as a whim, a crazy idea. I have wanted to do a puppet film with Neil for a while. But if I couldn’t make a puppet, there would be no puppet film. No pressure.

I started with his head. I wound newspaper around metal wire that would become his controls, then covered the newspaper ball with a layer of air-drying clay, shaping his head, and face. I did a test with lights to see if I liked the shape I got (1). 

2. Body, hands, arms and legs
2. Body, hands, arms and legs

I then made his body. This started out as a toilet roll tube, covered in papier-mâché, and his arms and legs were rolled up newspaper “beads”. I then painted them beige, and sculpted hands using more clay over wire. I fit the legs and arms with wire, and before I put him together this was how he was looking (2). I liked the big head, spindly legs and long arms. So together he went. 

I made the start of a neck, and then painted his face. He now had an expression, a look, a character. I (hesitantly) fell in love with Henry when I first sculpted his head and face, but was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to do him justice with paint. Thankfully I was pleased with the results. And this is when I knew the name swirling around in my head, was the name he was going to be. There is something about him that reminds me of my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, so Henry is sort of an homage.

3. Strung up, with trousers
3. Strung up, with trousers

He then needed some clothes. Despite, or maybe because of my costume background, deciding what clothes to make for him was by far the hardest bit. In the end we decided jeans were a good place to start. I drafted a pattern in cloth, then altered it, and cut them out of an old charity shop skirt. I also gave him some hand stitched details around the waist. I temporarily strung him up, and tested out what we could get him to do. This was also his first camera test (3).

4. Hat
4. Hat and sweater

It was now that we realised he needed lateral head controls (one on either side of his head so we could make him look left and right). Oops. I attached lateral controls to the outside of his head as I didn’t want to risk drilling, so he now needed a hat or wisps of hair to hide the wire. He also needed a top, and boots.

4. Boots
5. Boots

Enter Jo Henshaw, who kindly offered to come and help out. She helped finalize costume design decisions, and made him his cute beanie (out of an old sleeve) and started his sweater (out of an old sweater) (4).

I made boots (out of more toilet roll tubes cut and bent, glued into shape and then papier-mâchéd, and then painted black) (5). I should also mention stop-motion animator Emily Currie, another helpful volunteer, who used her expertise to ensure the lateral controls stayed put.

6. The finished puppet
6. The finished puppet

Henry’s sweater was then sewn onto him, covering the multiple pieces. I kept the arms separate for greater movement. I finished him off with braces made out of old shoe laces, made buttons out of clay which I painted brown, sewed a patch onto his arm from an old scrap and aged his costume with some brown and black paint.

Lastly I strung him up using extra strong navy thread. The T bar I made using a piece of flat doweling, some screw eyes (upcycled from old curtain rings) and nails to make the cross bars removable. And Henry was ready for his debut (6).

You can visit Katie’s blog at www.katiedidonline.com. To find out what Henry’s up to, why not befriend him on Facebook?

Tomorrow I’ll look at the camera and lighting techniques used to shoot the film.

The Making of Henry

Puppet Progress

Here is a visual progress report on my Virgin Media Shorts entry for this year, The One That Got Away. Katie has been doing some great work, and thank you to Jo Henshaw and Emily Currie for helping out too.

The hero
The hero
The love interest
The love interest
And the rest of her
And the rest of her
Something fishy
Something fishy
Something else fishy
Something else fishy
My contribution to the proceedings
My contribution to the proceedings
My favourite prop
My favourite prop
Puppet Progress