Shadows and Ashes

Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.
Colin Smith lines up the Super-8 camera as director Sophie Black pans the mirror.

After an unseemly delay, here’s the third and final part of my series about lighting Ashes, Sophie Black‘s dark fantasy drama. Read part one here and part two here.

For the fantasy world dubbed “Toybox” by the production team, Sophie wanted a gritty, grainy, comfortable look. She was keen to shoot the scene on Super-8 and wanted to make full use of that high contrast celluloid look with harsh spotlighting,¬†deep shadows and vignetting.

The biggest problem for me was how to get a spotlight effect in a fairly small room with an ordinary daylight fresnel. To get a circle of light small enough to fit entirely within the camera’s frame required the lamp to be much further from the subject than was possible within the space. I suggested shooting at night and putting the light outside the window, but the schedule couldn’t accommodate that.

The problem was solved by bouncing the light off a circular mirror. This masked the light into a relatively sharp circle, because the lamp was the entire length of the room away from the mirror. (The closer a mask is placed to a lamp, the fuzzier the edge of the mask will appear when thrown on the subject, so simply cutting a circle out of cardboard and placing it in front of the lamp would have given us a blob of light instead of a defined circle, because there wouldn’t have been enough space to put the cardboard far enough away from the lamp.)

Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror. Photo: Sophie Black
Bouncing a redhead off a circular mirror for the sweeping light effect. Photo: Sophie Black

Not only did the mirror allow us to achieve a key shadow puppet shot which Sophie had conceived, it also enabled us to create a sweeping light effect for other parts of the sequence. Inspired by one of Lana del Rey’s music videos, Sophie wanted the effect of headlights passing by outside a window. We were able to do this simply by panning a redhead across the mirror.

The Toybox scene was shot both on Super-8 (by Col) and on my Canon 600D as a back-up. I set the ISO to 1600 on the DSLR to bake in a grainy look. I won’t do this again, however, because I failed to take into account the effect of the camera’s H.264 compression. The grain looked fine on the viewfinder, but once compressed and recorded there were lots of blocky artifacts. I hoped that the Super-8 film would come out well so this sub-standard digital material wouldn’t have to be used, but alas there were some focus issues and several of the shots were inexplicably missing from the reels when they came back from the lab.¬†Fortunately the day was saved by a talented VFX artist who applied a very convincing Super-8 look to the 600D footage, which hides the compression artifacts.

Ashes is nearly finished now and we’re all very excited to see how it’s turned out. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

Shadows and Ashes

The Picnic: July 4th, 2011

“We will not go quietly into the night. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our independence day.” Yes, today here in Pioneer Valley and all over these glorious US of A those cheeky Yanks are celebrating kicking us Brits out for good. Didn’t do a very good job, did they?
I’m disappointed to find that watching ID4 isn’t a traditional part of the festivities. That movie had the largest number of miniatures ever in a Hollywood film. It was made in that brief era when the high price of nascent CGI forced filmmakers to use a combination of traditional and digital techniques to achieve their FX. Those CGI USAF planes look a lot more convincing for the fact that the alien Destroyer they’re flying towards is a lovely big model. I still don’t get why Will Smith didn’t see the dirty great ship as soon as he stepped out to get the newspaper though.
But enough of that. I’m here to tell you that The Picnic is now available to view on the Virgin Media Shorts website. The more views it gets the more chance it has of winning, so if you can spare two and a half minutes to give it a watch I would be very grateful indeed.

The Picnic: July 4th, 2011

The Picnic: June 27th, 2011

The Super-8 footage came back from the lab. Unfortunately a lot of it is out of focus. We carefully measured all our focal distances with a tape measure, so I can only conclude that one of the lens elements in the camera was loose or out of alignment. So I was glad I took the precaution of shooting everything on HDV too.
It didn’t take me long to edit the material, and the composer is now working on the music. Virgin Media Shorts limits entries to 140 seconds in length. I thought The Picnic would run to 90 seconds, but the assembly came in at 170. With a lot of trimming I shaved 12 seconds out, then I cheated. Since I was treating the HDV material to look like old film, I figured I could get away with speeding the whole movie up slightly, which would enhance that look and get it down to the target length.
Colin has plenty more Super-8 cameras in his arsenal, and hopefully for the next project we’ll have time to test one beforehand.

Five things I like about Super-8, the format:
1. It’s film, so even though you may have bought the camera for a fiver at a car boot sale, it will give you more beautiful images than the most advanced digital rig Lucas or Cameron can come up with.
2. It forces you to be disciplined on set because the cartridges are so short.
3. The anticipation of your footage coming back from the lab is simultaneously nerve-wracking and delicious.
4. Does your video camera have a trigger? No, it has a boring REC STOP/START button.
5. You can shoot real slow motion.

Five things I like about Super-8, the J. J. Abrahms movie (no spoilers):
1. The guy from Early Edition is in it. Remember Early Edition? That show rocked.
2. It’s not in 3D.
3. It has an evil military guy in it. All the best movies have evil military guys in them – Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, DARYL, ET… And the kids are like the Goonies. The only thing missing is the Truffle Shuffle.
4. Like Abrahms’ previous offering, Star Trek, it perfectly balances action, emotion and humour. There’s something here for everyone.
5. It’s not a sequel, prelude, remake or reimagining. It’s not based on a video game, a book, a comic, a Broadway show or a theme park ride. It’s (gasp!) original.

The Picnic: June 27th, 2011

The Picnic: June 17th, 2011

In my last post I touched on shooting ratios, and the great discipline and focus that film, even Super-8, can give you because of the expense of the stock. Today I just want to expand on that a little.
I always used to think of myself as a director who only shoots what he needs and doesn’t do loads of takes. I was forced to revise that self-image somewhat after principal photography on The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot. My first time shooting on film – and 35mm at that – saw me shooting six or more takes of many set-ups. Okay, it was tough to get the swordplay and the inflatable germ suit and particularly the puppet Swordsman to do what they were meant to, but still I should have been more economical.
When it came time to shoot the pick-ups and miniature shots, I resolved to mend my ways. To be honest, my hand was forced by the tiny budget I had left to spend – which could not stretch to purchasing more stock. We could use only what had been left over from principal, plus a couple of short ends Ollie contributed.
So I had to focus. In practice that meant three things:
1. Rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing until we got it perfect, and only then going for a take. Not rehearsing it for a bit and then saying, “Okay, let’s go for a take and see what happens.”
2. Recognising when I had a satisfactory take. How many times have you been in the edit and used take one or two, forsaking the four or five takes that came after? Plenty, because a lot of the things you think are important when you see a shot in isolation (a little camera wobble, for example) are completely unnoticeable once they’re cut into the scene.
3. Making the crew understand that they had a very limited number of takes in which to get it right, so that they would raise their games too.
Everyone rose to the challenge, just as they did on the set of my Super-8 short The Picnic the other weekend. But could I apply this philosophy in a very different scenario? Could I keep my shooting ratio down on one of my paying corporate gigs?
Well, on Monday I had the chance to find out, as I directed a series of educational webisodes in the style of a Gok Wan-type make-over show. Within a few minutes of first turning over, I could feel the discipline slipping away from me. Unlike the Dark Side pick-ups and The Picnic, this shoot had dialogue, opening the doors to line fluffs and obtrusive background noises as potential take-wreckers. Both of these reared their ugly heads early on. What could I do about this? How could I make everyone raise their game, since everyone knew we were shooting on video? Only by moving onto the next set-up after just one or two takes repeatedly at the start of the day, showing everyone that they had to get it right pretty much first time. Unfortunately, by the time that idea occurred to me we were several set-ups in and I’d let some of those run to four or five takes. D’oh! (And when I edited the first set-up the next day, I used take one – just goes to show.)
But in the end, thanks to copious rehearsals, I did get my shooting ratio significantly lower than I would have done without attempting that focus and having that 35mm and Super-8 experience. If nothing else, this benefits me in the editing suite through having less extraneous material to wade through.
On a completely unrelated topic, I am writing this at 36,000ft over the coast of Canada. One of the plane’s audio channels is playing eighties hits. They have a brilliant slogan which runs thusly: “Have you had a fall and you can’t get up? Then you probably remember the eighties.” Harsh but true.

The Picnic: June 17th, 2011

The Picnic: June 12th, 2011

On the video page you can now view the trailer for Video8, the documentary covering the reunion of me and my old schoolfriends who made the original amateur version of The Dark Side of the Earth back in 1995-6. The documentary itself is still being edited and won’t be finished for several weeks yet, and I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to put it online or not when it’s done.
On Thursday Katie and I are off to the US to spend some time with her family, who we haven’t seen in 18 months. While there, as you know, I’ll be sending off The Picnic (yes, it has a title now), my Super-8 short to be processed, and indeed I’ll have to edit it and enter it into Virgin Media Shorts while still in the States. Try to behave while I’m away. I shall be very cross if I get back and find that you’ve had a wild party in the UK in my absence and got vommit all over the upholstery.

The Picnic: June 12th, 2011

The Picnic: June 7th, 2011

Last weekend was fun. On Saturday Col, Ian, Katie and I shot a trailer for some sort of 80s rockumentary starring the Wooden Swordsman, and on Sunday we were joined by Johnny and Therese to shoot my Virgin Media Shorts entry. Both projects were recorded on Super-8 using an old Bell & Howell camera of unknown reliability (and on HDV as a back-up).
We started at Col’s flat in the late afternoon on Saturday. Shortly after Col had picked Katie and I up, I realised I’d left the film stock at home and we had to go back. I cringe in shame at this rookie error. Once at Col’s flat we set up the Swordsman in the middle of his living room, backed by black weed-blocker sheeting from B&M. The poor puppet was then dressed with a leather jacket, a blonde curly wig, shades and a bandana. Col had storyboarded a series of amusing cliches from 80s promos, including foreground candles, power fists and lots of smoke.
Since we had limited stock we had to be very disciplined. Determining when we had reached the end of the cartridge proved much harder than anticipated, however. The manual said that a pink lever would appear in the top right of the viewfinder as the end drew near, and that when it reached the centre the cartridge would be spent. But instead of moving steadily towards the centre as I continued filming (I was DPing while Col directed) after making its initial appearance, this lever jumped about all over the place and occasionally disappeared altogether. The footage counter on the back of the camera was equally inconclusive, but since the motor seemed to be running just the same as ever, we decided it was safe to carry on filming.
We headed out onto the road, getting shots of the Swordsman from behind as he sat in the passenger seat – portrayed by Katie in the wig, jacket and bandana, with her face hidden. Then at a location by the Roman Road overlooking Hereford we took one of the Swordsman’s spare heads, dressed it in the wig and so on, and Ian puppeteered it, much to the surprise of a passing family. Sadly we didn’t get the lovely sunset Col was hoping for. (We wish we’d shot it the previous evening when we scouted the location).
It was a wrap, but it had become clear that there would never be a change in the running of the camera’s motor, not unless we’d bought a magic film cartridge that lasted ten minutes instead of the usual 3’20. Possibly the cartridge had already reached the end when we switched to exteriors. We won’t know until it’s processed.
Sunday dawned grey, wet and chilly. Typical. The weather had been lovely for several days previously, and has been pretty good ever since, but on Sunday itself it rained for most of the day. Since my film was entirely set outdoors – in the ruins of an old monastry over the road from my flat – this was a major problem. (By the way, I’m deliberately not mentioning the title of the film because I’ve decided it gives too much of the plot away. Must come up with a different title…)
At 9:30am we all walked over to the location. I spent an hour with the actors working through the script, establishing motivations and figuring out the blocking. Meanwhile, Ian and Col picked up all the empty beer cans and broken glass that were lying around and set up the picnic props – a wonderful 70s spread that upped the production values quite a bit. Then it was time for Johnny and Therese to go into costume and make-up courtesy of Katie, before returning to the location to begin shooting.
By this time it was raining steadily, albeit lightly. Although the falling rain was clearly not going to show up on camera, the dark rain spots on Johnny’s hat were a dead giveaway, and it didn’t make sense story-wise for the characters to be meeting for a picnic in a downpour. We waited at least half an hour in the hope it would ease up. It did not.
I made the executive decision to go ahead anyway. Shooting progressed at a good speed, even with umbrellas and plastic bags over everything, delayed only by me having to go back to the flat and get into costume as… well, to say who I was getting into costume as would give the whole game away. The whole thing reminded me of making films as a kid: the small, fast-moving crew, the low shooting ratio, the lack of equipment, me being in it. It was good fun, though as always there’s the lurking stress beast in the form of the ticking clock. We didn’t know what time the park would be locked up and we would be chucked out, so we couldn’t count on working too late.
The rain did eventually stop. In some ways it’s good that the weather wasn’t nicer, because then the park would have been busier. As it was, the only other people we saw were a bunch of stoners who didn’t stay long. The other stroke of luck was that the gate of the ruin’s only tower, which is normally locked, was broken – granting us illicit access to the tower and adding another dimension to the visuals of the movie.
We wrapped at about 6:30pm, not only just as the second of my two planned 50ft cartridges came to an end, but also just as the security guard arrived to lock up the park. All in all it could scarcely have gone better. Big thanks to everyone who helped out. I just hope that the camera isn’t faulty and that the film comes out, because it would be a real disappointment to have to cut the movie using the HDV footage.
I didn’t find it as hard as I expected to keep my shooting ratio on target. We rehearsed carefully before each shot, and got the majority of our set-ups in one take, shooting a total of less than seven minutes for what should turn out to be a 90 second film. Having this discipline really focused me, and I’m determined to shoot more stuff on Super-8 and maybe also 16mm over the next couple of years in order to cement this focus.

The Picnic: June 7th, 2011

The Picnic: June 3rd, 2011

Super-8. No, not the upcoming and very-exciting-looking Spielberg/Abrams collaboration. I’m talking about the format. Can you believe, in this digital age, that our parents and grandparents shot home movies on genuine film? Ah, the glorious luxury. Actually, it’s getting hard to believe that everyone used to shoot holiday snaps on 35mm film just a few short years ago. The extravagance!
I’ve wanted to shoot something on Super-8 for quite some time. Colin has been collecting the cameras from bootsales for a while and we kept talking about using them, but it was only last week that I got the kick up the arse that I needed to get on and do it. Katie and I had a conversation about where we wanted to be in two years’ time and it became clear that I really need to start making more films. I’d had a 90 second script kicking around for years and that seemed like a good way to get back into shorts. When I remembered that Virgin Media Shorts is currently accepting entries it all fell into place and I decided to shoot this script on Super-8 and enter it.
Looking at the deadline (July 7th) I perceived a hitch. I was going to be away in the States for three weeks, returning on that date. Although this necessarily accelerated my production schedule, it turned out to be very convenient for post-production. Because nowhere in the UK still processes Super-8 reversal film. So my well-timed trip means I can take my exposed stock to the US with me, mail it down to Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas for cheap processing and telecine, cut it on my laptop when it comes back and upload it to the competition site.
The shoot’s on Sunday, with Colin as Director of Photography, Ian on Production Design duties again (though these duties are considerably less arduous than on Dark Side) and Katie as costume designer. Johnny Cartwright and Therese Collins, actors I’ve worked with on numerous shorts and participatory films over the years, take the lead (and indeed only) roles. We have no idea whether the camera works properly, and there was no time to test it, so I’ll be shooting everything on HDV too as a back-up. I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the land of Dark Side, there was another screening and a meeting in London on Tuesday. Amongst the attendees were the team from Underwater Realm, an exciting short film currently in development and set to take place entirely beneath the waves. And I thought filming exclusively at night was a pain! Thanks for coming guys and good luck with your project – it looks intriguing.

The Picnic: June 3rd, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean at the Barrel’s Bottom

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – was the trilogy really crying out for an extra installment, minus the original director and plus a third spatial dimension? Jerry Bruckheimer obviously thought so. Sort of. As usual Katie and I travelled to Malvern cinema in order to be spared the eye-aching party trick that is 3D, but I hear that this film’s 3D was fairly shallow to the point where you wonder why they bothered. I was unable to observe any difference in the camera and editing style from what I’d expect in a 2D movie – there was just as much handheld material and quick cutting in the action scenes, so I can only conclude that watching it in 3D wouldn’t be very pleasant. Honestly, watching it in any format isn’t very pleasant because Jack Sparrow has been transformed into something approaching a heroic romantic lead, thereby robbing the character of at least 50% of what made him so great in the original trilogy.
But that’s enough of that. In other news, I’m making a short Super-8 film next weekend… that is, if I can sort out an actress and a location in time. Watch this space.

Pirates of the Caribbean at the Barrel’s Bottom