The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

The Cinematography of “Perplexed Music”

Sophie Black’s Guide to the Cannes Short Film Corner: Part 2

The Short Film Corner at Cannes
The Short Film Corner at Cannes

In part one of this guide, filmmaker Sophie Black explained exactly what you get when you pay your 95 Euros to submit your short to Le Court Métrage at the Cannes Film Festival. Today she takes us through what happens in practice and what you can do to promote your film while attending the festival. Over to you, Sophie…

From the start, as soon as your submission goes through successfully, you are part of the SFC [Short Film Corner] mailing list, and the regular emails not only give you lists of lectures and contact details for the short film buyers, but give you temporary access to Cinando (an online database/catalogue where you can contact many industry professionals who will be useful to your career) along with other tips for a successful Cannes, so use all of these to your advantage if you can. Cannes will also share your details with other related parties, many of whom have clearly paid them to do so, which will result in a little spam.

Amongst this spam are emails from various PR companies wanting to promote your film. But it is a costly £400+ for these services, many of which just involve promoting the film through social networks, and emailing people to tell them to go and watch your film, which you can easily do yourself (although it may sound better coming from a PR firm).

Sophie's Ashes poster (top right) has a brief stint on the SFC banner.
Sophie’s Ashes poster (top right) has a brief stint on the SFC banner.

Due to PR costs, the majority of SFC applicants ignore said emails and choose a DIY approach to marketing their films. This way, however much or little you do is up to you – the minimum being just putting up a poster and hoping people will be inspired to go and watch your film (if your poster is still up and not covered by other peoples’ by the second day). It also means that every time you go to the Corner, you are met by a flurry of bright-eyed young things, all of whom think their film is great and who want you to go and see it. 

The real challenge is to branch out into other areas of the festival, and persuade people with money and power to leave their ritzy pavilion (and free drinks all-day-round, for bearers of certain passes) and come and queue in a hot room underground to view your film. But if you impress them enough, and network well, it can happen, and the results of this will be much more helpful to you in the long run.

It’s also important to think outside the box to get you and your film noticed at Cannes. I hammer on about this all the time, but you really can’t go with the flow. During the much-treasured Jane Campion lecture at the SFC, she encouraged us all to write down a question for her on pieces of paper, and put these into a hat. One clever girl wrote her question on the back of a postcard-sized poster of her film, and handed this in. Cue Jane Campion noticing the poster amongst all the blank white paper, and taking the time to study it. This small gesture is one of the cleverest things I saw at Cannes this year, and it left me with the irritating feeling of “I wish I’d thought of that!”

Although I did promote my film Ashes, and inspired a few people to go and watch it, my main reason for going down to the Corner was to meet with the people who might actually want to distribute it. I learnt something from all of these meetings although they ranged from genuine interest to an actual no-show. (Rule number one about arranging meetings: make sure you actually make contact with the person you’re meeting beforehand, even via email, and not just with their assistant – who isn’t even in Cannes this year!)

The Buyers Corner
The Buyers Corner

The designated meeting rooms looked a bit like the lobby in an accountant’s office, complete with random film-noir blinds, and the blank walls everywhere left room for your creativity to shine if you let it. During my meetings I not only had mini Ashes posters left, but also a set of promotional stills in my press kit, so I laid all these out before one distributor had arrived, and it gave him a full presentation of the film straight away. I definitely recommend doing this for your meetings if you’re left waiting for any length of time beforehand; what’s even more important is to make sure you have a copy of the film and trailer on you – if you don’t have a tablet or laptop, you should at least have it on your phone! Basically, these people are buyers, and you need to prove that you have a product to sell, and that you’re not just “all talk”.

With my mind clearly fixed on meetings and networking, I chose not to book out the screening room, although I did attend a good screening and recommend you do the same (if nothing else, you get to see what the screening rooms look like, and see if it’s somewhere you’d like to have your films played). The on-demand service gives your film more chances to actually be seen. You also get daily statistics emails saying how many times your film has been watched – along with contact details for who watched them, so you can chase these up for feedback and to create potential collaborations/work. Although, with thousands of other films out there, even having your film played 20 times on the system is not as good as having one screening and shoving 30 people in there (although I suppose it does depend on the viewer).

Also, a big thing to remember whilst you’re soaking in the sights and the sun, is that you’re not just representing yourself out there. Photos and souvenir mementos aren’t just things to make your parents proud – with your film you carry the name of everyone who worked on it with you, and you can’t help but think how much a screening of the film at Cannes would mean to your cast and crew. But, at the same time, a successful distribution deal or further festival acceptances will probably mean a great deal more. In the end, you have to do what is best for your own film, and plan your Cannes strategy around personalised rules, using everyone else’s experiences as your guidelines.

Find out more about Sophie and her work on her blog at triskelle-pictures.blogspot.co.uk and her website www.triskellepictures.co.uk

Sophie Black’s Guide to the Cannes Short Film Corner: Part 2

Sophie Black’s Guide to the Cannes Short Film Corner: Part 1

Sophie Black with AD Chris Newman (left) and myself at the Ashes premiere
Sophie Black with AD Chris Newman (left) and myself at the Ashes premiere in London

Last month filmmaker Sophie Black, producer of my short Stop/Eject and director of the brilliant, dark fantasy-drama Ashes, attended the Cannes Film Festival and market for the first time. (Watch our vlogs from the festival here.) She entered Ashes into the Short Film Corner, an area of the festival which many filmmakers don’t fully understand until they’ve attended it themselves. So, if you’re making a short and aiming for the Corner next year or further down the line, let Sophie explain exactly what it is.

Let me start with an uncomfortable fact. You may have made an absolutely stunning short film – you may have rented the best camera your budget can afford, and even got a named actor in a small or voice role. But it is still near-impossible to get your film into the Cannes Film Festival.

There were no British films “in Competition”, “out of Competition” or in the “Un Certain Regard” category this year – although two British films made it into the “Director’s Fortnight” section of the festival – and there was a similar absence of Brits in the official short film selections as well. Taking into account the amount of people who undoubtedly submitted their short films from this country, many of which I’m sure were wonderful, you can see how difficult it is to get your film into Cannes.

The Short Film Corner
The Short Film Corner

But, for the thousands of short film makers who receive the dreaded rejection email, Cannes offers a lifeline – the Court Metrage (or Short Film Corner), a “meeting place dedicated to short film professionals”.

When Ashes (then still a work-in-progress) didn’t make it into the official selection, I took this lifeline without fully researching what the SFC actually is, basically wanting any way to get the Cannes logo on my film’s poster (which is the biggest appeal of the SFC, although the logo you’re allowed to use from there is simple, blocky and sadly laurel-free). The submission process for SFC is decidedly easier than the Official Selection – you upload your film to them rather than sending off a DVD copy, and as long as it plays well and you pay the (somewhat pricey) entry fee, you get a confirmation email pretty much straight away. Which causes a bit of a “jump for joy” moment, I can tell you – particularly if you don’t have Java script and have to spend an evening or two installing it to make the online submission system work first!

Le Palais des Festivals. Photo: Sophie Black
Le Palais des Festivals. Photo: Sophie Black

The SFC website doesn’t exactly spell out what it is; it is worded with strong adjectives to make it sound like a professional, esteemed experience when all you really want is bullet points and dumb language to tell you exactly what you get for your money. So here is what you get:

  • Your film will be available on the Cannes SFC database and is viewable on selected computers, all of which are in booths at the Short Film Corner, in the basement of the Palais des Festivals. Sort of like a Vimeo service, but not open to the public. But there are always big queues to this section, so if you want to find a computer which is free, come first thing in the morning (when everyone else is still hungover from the parties).
  • There is a public area leading up to the booths where you can stick up the film’s poster, as well as racks for flyers and postcards, to attract passers-by to come into the booths. But, as I discussed in my recent blog post, it can be quite difficult to get your poster in there – and even more difficult to get it to stay there!
  • There are “three screening rooms available to you” – which is how the website phrases it without further explanation. Basically there are three enclosed cubicles (of varied size, with varied numbers of chairs, none of which fit more than about forty people at a squeeze) all of which are painted black inside with a personal cinema-sized screen, and a projector linked up to a laptop with the Cannes SFC database (the Vimeo service again) on it. These rooms are shared between every filmmaker with an entry in the SFC, and you need to book it if you want to screen your film there. You can book on the day rather than planning it in advance, but this leaves you less time to persuade people to come. Also, these cubicles get ridiculously stuffy, prompting anyone in there to want to leave before your (optional) post-film Q&A even starts.
  • There is a bar in the public area, with free strong espresso in the morning – the brand depends on who is sponsoring the festival that year – and a happy hour with free alcohol around teatime. Ask at the information desk about different types of happy hour because there was a Mexican-themed one on an evening we missed (although it was only the drinks which were themed, not the attire). Coming to the SFC during happy hour is a good time to meet people and network because it’s always packed, with people from other areas of the festival coming along for the free drinks, although it can get hot and difficult to move. And the beer always goes first.
  • There are certain lectures held only in the SFC area. As members, you are emailed a list of these in advance, including ones which you have to book for because places are limited (such as pitching sessions to industry professionals for feedback, and lectures on funding). But with some talks, you just have to queue up and arrive early to make sure you get a seat – including a talk with one of my favourite directors, Jane Campion, which we learnt about two hours in advance due to word-of-mouth in a queue for a stuffy cubicle screening.
  • Most importantly, there is a separate area next to the screening booths called the Buyers Corner, where people who genuinely buy short films come and meet with you. You will have to book meetings well in advance (although we did try leaving notes for some buyers we couldn’t get hold of in advance), but again, you will be given a list of buyers and contact details via email when your submission goes through. If you are attending Cannes for business rather than pleasure, as I was, then this is your most important asset. But if you are a first-timer, or if you have not dealt with these people before, expect to be treated somewhat differently than those they greet with a “hello again, you!” and a hug. Those people will be given coffee while they wait; you will be lucky to be offered water. And sometimes, you may just get stood up.
  • Finally, as with any submission to the Cannes festival, you are given a free festival pass, which you wear everywhere to access the rest of the festival (although priority access is given to those with gold strips on their passes, whereas yours is silver). This is worth submitting for – even if you don’t visit the SFC at all, you get to see screenings (if you can get in) and network in the pavilions and marketplace. In fact, if you want a cheap way to get into Cannes, submit a film to the SFC – which, as I said, has a minimal selection process – and get a pass for around £70 rather than £250! [Note: you can get a free festival pass if you apply early enough and can prove you are active in the film industry. – Neil] You also get a souvenir Cannes shoulder bag and a load of booklets, brochures and magazines with your submission – although some of these are in French and it all soon gets heavy as you cart everything round from place to place.

That’s what you get included in your submission price, but your Cannes experience is what you make of it, and the possibilities are endless.

In part two we’ll hear about those possibilities and how everything above works in practice once you get off the plane at Nice. Find out more about Sophie and her work on her blog at triskelle-pictures.blogspot.co.uk and her website www.triskellepictures.co.uk

Sophie Black’s Guide to the Cannes Short Film Corner: Part 1