Always know where your towel is

The hot tub set-up on Field Trip
The hot tub set-up on Field Trip

When you’re lighting without a budget, sometimes you have to press some very random objects into service. Yesterday I used a towel, a t-shirt and a hot tub cover to light a scene.

LED light in action
LED light in action

I was working on Patrick Coyle’s hilarious comedy feature Field Trip, which he was bravely attempting to shoot in just four days. (Sadly he didn’t succeed in that timeframe and another couple of days will be needed.) The style was documentary-esque, a la The Office, with everything to be shot using available light. But occasionally we were forced to add more light in order to expose an image; such was the case when shooting around a hot tub in a garden at night. Of course the light had to be soft and flat to match with other scenes that weren’t artificially lit.

The slate
The slate

The problem was that we only had one redhead. No reflectors, no flags, no polecats, no c-stands, not even any gels or diffuser. I noticed that the cover for the hot tub was cream on the underside, and could see its potential for bouncing light, but couldn’t see a way of rigging it up. After much head-scratching, at the suggestion of lead actor Tony Streeter we propped up the cover against one corner of the hot tub’s shelter and I aimed the redhead at it, throwing a large amount of soft light back towards the tub.

Hot tub cover = bounce board
Hot tub cover = bounce board

Then we needed to flag off some of this light to prevent it from blowing out one side of a character’s face when she was standing at the entrance. Being a hoopy kind of frood, the hot tub’s owner knew where his towel was, and had lent it to us along with an old t-shirt when we were experimenting earlier with makeshift diffusers. I now realised both these unlikely fabrics could be used as flags. With an LED camping light gaffered to the ceiling to add an extra spot of brightness, some Christmas lights for a bit of sparkle and some fast lenses on the cameras, the set-up was complete.

I’d advise any filmmaker to take as much kit as they possibly can wherever they go, but if you can’t, be prepared to use anything that comes to hand in the service of cinema.

Director Patrick Coyle and... don't ask
Director Patrick Coyle and... don't ask

More from the Field Trip shoot next time, when I’ll talk about what I learnt from four intense days of working with my new Canon 600D HDSLR and the Pro Aim shoulder rig.

Always know where your towel is

How to Light a Zombie Movie, part 1: Candlelight

The backlight above the set (photo: Chrissa Maund)

Yesterday I DPed the trailer for Light Films‘ upcoming zombie feature, Wasteland, and I thought I’d share some of the lighting process with you. The main scene featured actor Shameer Seepersand in a boarded-up old house he’s hiding out in; this was a nice little two-sided set designed by Sophie Black and built in director Tom Wadlow’s garage. The script and direction called for minimal daylight to be seeping through gaps in the window boards and the main light sources to be candles dotted around the set.

Candlelit scenes are tricky because, as with any practical light source, the Director of Photography needs to set up movie lamps to enhance the light shed by them without these movie lamps getting into frame, while ensuring that the pool of light and any shadows cast by it look as if they’re coming from the practical source. The available lighting equipment was very minimal: just three redheads, a reflector and bunch of clip-on domestic light fittings.

Most of the candles were behind Sham, so I started by having my gaffer Col rig one of the redheads to the rafters in the rear corner, to serve as backlight. A layer of full CTO (orange colour correcting gel) and one of spun (diffuser) helped to dim and soften the light and create a candle-like colour. Of course the angle was a massive cheat, coming from above rather than low down, but there was no other way to keep it out of shot.

The domestic light fittings in action
A domestic light fitting hidden behind a candle

Next I needed to create pools of light around the candles. If I’d had a Dedo kit (small spotlights) I would have been tempted to position them near camera and focus each one’s little circle of light on a candle or group of candles. But I didn’t, so instead I used the domestic light fittings with 100W bulbs and hid them behind the set dressing. These shed pools of light on the walls behind the candles, though of course not on the surfaces on which the candles were stood. Fortunately the scene contained no camera angles high enough for this giveaway to be noticeable. The set and dressing immediately surrounding the bulbs were coated with fire retardant paint for safety.

Col wiggles the reflector cover

Finally I wanted to add some dynamics to create the impression of the candelight flickering. At first we tried bouncing a second orange-gelled redhead off a reflector which Col would wobble during the takes. A better solution occurred to me when I remembered that the reflector had a zip-off fabric cover that was golden on one side. We took the orange gel off the lamp and got rid of the reflector itself, instead bouncing the light off the golden cover as Col rippled it.

The third redhead was placed behind the window as “daylight”, and with a generous helping of smoke the effect was complete.

The trailer will be available to view online soon (when I get around to editing it) and there’s also some info coming on Stop/Eject, the short I’m developing for the same company, which had its first pre-production meeting on Sunday.

Wasteland trailer frame
The final lighting as seen in the master shot (copyright 2011 Light Films)


How to Light a Zombie Movie, part 1: Candlelight

Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City: review

Sorry, I know I promised this several posts back, but here at last is my review of the Proaim shoulder rig I recently purchased for my Canon 600D. It’s available in several different configurations, but I went for “Kit 3 + cage” which cost a little under £700 all told.

The Proaim shoulder rig with top handle

The main reason I wanted it was to address one of DSLRs’ key flaws for video work: the handling. They’re small – meaning shaky shots – and not designed for using in the kind of positions a moving image camera operator needs. By bracing the camera against your body, a shoulder rig steadies the shot. Of course it will never eliminate the movement of the human body completely, but rather than a shake it will give you more of a sway which viewers will subconciously recognise from handheld TV and film and associate with big, expensive cameras (which all sit on your shoulder, of course).

One of the two 4x4" filter trays partially raised out

But with Proaim’s “Kit 3 + cage” you get more than just a shoulder mount. You get a complete rail system which you can reconfigure to your heart’s content, a matte box, follow focus and a top handle. While researching the system online, I found many people complaining about the build quality – many of whom had never used one, it must be said. Obviously it’s not as robust as its more expensive counterparts, but it all seems solid enough to me. It takes a bit of getting used to, as many of the parts bump into each other if you try to configure them in certain ways, but this is a small price to pay for the flexibility of the rig overall.

Let’s look at the rig in more detail from front to back. The matte box contains two filter trays which can be rotated (but not separately, unfortunately) and is equipped with side and top flags. The trays take standard 4×4″ filters, which are pricey, so I currently have a cheap Cokin-compatible graduated ND sellotaped into one of my trays!

The follow focus

The follow focus is perhaps the most useful part of the set-up. Various different gears are provided which slip onto your lenses’ focus rings and mesh with the gears in the follow focus unit itself. When you turn (or, more to the point, your focus puller turns) the knob on the side, it therefore drives the focus ring – or indeed the zoom ring, if you wish to configure it that way. You also have the option of connecting a crank or a whip (flexible shaft) to the knob (oh dear, it’s all getting a bit Carry On), the idea being that whatever strange position the camera is in and whatever moves it has to do, your camera assistant can still hit their focus marks without getting in the way. And I can confirm that this system works just fine even if you’re using lenses whose focus rings move back and forth as they’re turned.

Coming to the camera mount itself, there is the usual quick-release plate that screws into your DSLR’s tripod thread. On the 600D, this covers a small portion of the battery cover – just enough to prevent it opening. As per this review‘s advice, I filed out a recess in the quick-release plate and the battery cover now opens. On the bottom of the rig is another screw thread so you can attach your tripod’s quick-release plate and easily put the whole thing onto sticks.

The battery compartment now opens

I’ve attached the top handle just behind the camera, to stop it getting in the way of the follow focus. Two extra railing tubes are provided (not pictured) and can be mounted either at the side or on the top, and a basic suspension mount for a shotgun mic is also supplied (again, not pictured).

At the back is the shoulder pad, which isn’t the most luxurious but seems comfortable enough, and a bracing arm folds down to put some of the weight against your stomach and side. However, this doesn’t stop the rig from being very front-heavy and tiring to hold up for more than a few minutes at a time. In a later post I’ll explain how I overcame this problem.

The Proaim shoulder rig viewed from the rear

All in all, I really like this rig and look forward to doing my first proper shoots with it next week. The value for money is excellent, and it completely transforms my little stills camera into a proper, workhorse video camera.

Proaim shoulder rig from Cine City: review

Behind The Beacon

A decade ago today principal photography wrapped on The Beacon. To celebrate, here’s Behind The Beacon, a documentary previously only available to those lucky few who purchased the DVD. (I’m sorry, lucky few. I’m really sorry. I hope it was at least useful as a coaster.)

The documentary was made by David Abbott of Star Films, who also served as first assistant director, director’s chauffeur and action vehicle co-ordinator on The Beacon. Yep, The Beacon is a £3,000 movie with a car chase in it. How? Well, a crazy cast and crew, a quiet common and a total disregard for any kind of health and safety procedures. In fact, the chief requirement for involvement in the film, behind or in front of camera, was a complete lack of interest in one’s own personal safety. So I must of course write the immortal words: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME.

Anyway, there’ll probably be some more behind-the-scenes video nuggets from The Beacon coming your way later in the year, so look out for those. And you can read all about the making of the Malvern Hills’ most action-packed movie ever by selecting The Beacon from the Blog Categories in the sidebar. And if you feel like you’ve missed something because you haven’t seen the film itself – trust me – ignorance is bliss.

Behind The Beacon

Darkness Falls

One sheet artwork for The Dark Side of the Earth
The Dark Side of the Earth

For the last six years I’ve been developing and trying to raise finance for The Dark Side of the Earth, my would-be third feature. It’s a wildly ambitious fantasy-adventure set in an alternate 1908 where the world has stopped spinning, and a girl stows away aboard an airship travelling from the Light Side to the Dark Side with the aim of finding Old Father Time and starting the earth turning again.

In 2008 I shot a 35mm pilot for the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Kate Burdette (The Duchess) and featuring the voice of Mark Heap (Green Wing, Spaced), on a wonderful big steampunk set with a beautiful puppet of a Victorian swordfighting robot. Many, many talented and hardworking people contributed their skills to the pilot and to the development of the feature script. Sadly all I have to show for all this effort are lingering debt and a gorgeous 35mm print of the pilot. No fucker will finance it.

But perhaps you can learn something from what I achieved, and more to the point, didn’t achieve by reading the blog – which you can now do right here on There are also hours of behind-the-scenes podcasts and “how to” guides from the pilot and our pitching trips to Cannes on my YouTube channel.

Darkness Falls

Back into Hell

Soul Searcher poster
A.J. Nicol, Ray Bullock Jnr. and Lara Greenway in Soul Searcher (photo: John Galloway)

In 2002 I set out on what would end up as a four year journey to make a fantasy-action feature for no more than the cost of a decent family car. With 280 FX shots and numerous martial arts fights and set entirely at night, it was a tremendously complex production for a five figure budget and it damn-near killed me. If you want to find out how I did it, you can now read the entire blog here on You can filter this page to show just the posts from Soul Searcher or a particular part of it using the category links on the right of the page – same for The Beacon.

Back into Hell


Directing my 35mm pilot for The Dark Side of the Earth
Directing my 35mm pilot for The Dark Side of the Earth (photo: Richard Unger)

Greetings, people of the Interweb, and welcome to, the new virtual home of my filmmaking adventures.

I’ve been blogging about the films I make for many years, but up till now these blogs have always been on websites set up specifically for each film. The purpose of this site is to bring all my blogs together, past and present, along with lots of other stuff.

So, you’ll see down below that I’ve already imported the blog from The Beacon, a terrible 75 minute action movie I made in 2001. Over the next few weeks I’ll be integrating the journals from Soul Searcher and The Dark Side of the Earth.

Also coming soon to the site:

  • A page for each of my films, from the short version of Soul Searcher (2000) to The Picnic (2011)
  • Micro-shorts Calf Vader and George & Mark available to view in full
  • Behind-the-scenes featurettes from The Beacon, previously only available on the DVD
  • Info on my latest short Stop/Eject (a Light Films production)
  • Scripts, schedules, budgets and other useful downloads from my shorts and features

In the mean time, things may move about and perhaps I’ll play with different layouts and colour schemes, so please excuse me as I settle in.


Canon 600D HD-DSLR: Sound Advice

Yesterday Ian Preece came over to do a sound test on my new Canon 600D HD-DSLR. Although the new wave of DSLRs capable of shooting full HD video are extremely popular with filmmakers these days, they are designed primarily for taking photographs, which can cause some problems for those more interested in motion pictures. The biggest one is sound.
As far as I know all the HD-DSLRs on the market have a microphone socket and some, like the 600D, allow you to manually adjust the recording level. But where they fall down is that none of them have a headphone socket, so there’s no way of monitoring the sound when you’re recording. If your lapel mic rustles on the interviewee’s jacket, or a gust of wind causes some rumbling, or the cable has been damaged and the sound is intermittently cutting out, you’ll be completely unaware until you play back the shot.
By far the best way to overcome this problem is dual system sound. This means, like shooting on film, you record the sound on a separate device and sync it to the picture later. (Typically with a clapperboard, but software like Plural Eyes can automate the process.) This is all well and good for drama shoots, but if you’re a one-man crew shooting a simple corporate or vlog, having to operate two devices and then spend the time in post syncing the footage is not ideal.
When researching my camera prior to purchase, I found that some people out there had discovered a way to monitor the sound being recorded to it. However, after receiving the camera and trying out this method, I discovered I couldn’t do it. It involved connecting a headphone amplifier to the AV out socket via a special cable. The problem is, as soon as you connect anything to that socket, the camera’s screen shuts off (since it assumes you’ve just plugged it into a TV). There is a firmware hack called Magic Lantern which prevents the screen from shutting off, but a full version is not yet available for the 600D (a relatively new model) and even when it is, I’m not sure I will want to risk it permanently damaging the camera.
(Note: Many DSLR filmmakers don’t care if their screen shuts off, because they’re using an external HDMI monitor as a viewfinder anyway. I’m not doing that, because the 600D has a flip-out screen, and when combined with a simple magnifying viewfinder attachment it becomes the perfect viewfinder.)
So I purchased a Beach Box, since these have a headphone socket. Okay, you’re not monitoring what the camera’s recording but you’re pretty close to it, and if you set it up correctly and keep checking the playback you should theoretically have no problems. Unfortunately, yesterday’s test with Ian did not go well. We tried first without the Beach Box, since he has a mixer with a headphone socket anyway. When this gave strange and unuseable results we turned to the Beach Box, which didn’t work either. Several weird things were going on, but the main one was that when we connected a mic to one stereo channel it came in incredibly loud and distorted, no matter how low we set the recording level, and on the other channel (which should have been silent) there was a very quiet, hissy version of the same audio.
It wasn’t long before we were forced to admit defeat. The Beach Box is going back whence it came, and I’m going to purchase a portable audio recorder and use dual system at all times. I’ll let you know how I get on with that in the coming weeks.
That’s all for now. Next time I’ll discuss the shoulder rig.

Canon 600D HD-DSLR: Sound Advice