Sophie Black Guest Blog: “Somebody has to do it.”

It’s high time we heard from producer and production designer Sophie Black on this blog, so here are her thoughts on the pre-production of Stop/Eject.

Four days ago we wrapped on Stop/Eject after a six day shoot that felt like a month. There were stressful bits, and no one got much sleep. But it was also one of the best shoots of my life!

The footage is looking amazing (keep checking the Stop/Eject Facebook Page for all the stills as they come online) and I can’t wait for the trailer. This shoot, without a second’s thought, goes straight into my top two, and not just because I finally got to stay at home and film on my doorstep. My only problem now is that I’ve gone from working all day every day for about two months to an empty house and nothing on my immediate schedule. Cold turkey. So I’ve promised director Neil Oseman that I would start doing a series of guest blogs, and I hope that these will cure me of my Stop/Eject withdrawal symptoms.

Today I’m talking about pre-production in the Art Department, and for that I need to take us back to this time two weeks ago. Now, with all independent films – and particularly with short films – it’s to be expected that tasks will have to be shared out, and that job boundaries will get blurred as it’s all hands on deck. It is for that reason that two of the main set builders on all Light Films projects are the director and the writer, and that the catering on Stop/Eject was covered by the costume designer and the make-up artist.

So you expect to have to do work out of your job description. What you don’t always predict, however, is the workload that’s caused by drop-outs.

Two weeks before the Stop/Eject shoot, I had a pretty long list of work left to do. I was juggling the Ashes prep with last minute S/E casting, two rooms to paint and dress, a couple of props to finish, and over 400 tape cassettes to do calligraphy on (urgh!). Not an ideal amount of work with two weeks left to go, but achievable.

The first task was re-doing part of a gravestone set piece. Many things were rushed the first time we went to make Stop/Eject, and I’d had to make do with my first attempt, which was decent but a little untidy (first image below). The good thing about having to push back the shoot – although it was disappointing at the time – was the fact that we got to do everything a hundred times better. The gravestone was certainly one of those things.

To help me improve it, Neil got in contact with professional production designer Ian Tomlinson, who told me that I could get a neater finish on the lettering if I printed out a stencil then engraved it into foamboard. (I’d used polystyrene for the rest, which still made good stone).

After I stuck the foamboard over the original lettering, I spray-painted it with the same stone effect spray as before, left it to dry in my downstairs loo (there was nowhere else to put it!) then used a dry-brush in a darker colour to add ageing and definition to the lettering.

That went smoothly, and I managed to get the location painting done in one afternoon thanks to the help of a volunteer called Ellie Ragdale:

So, with all those jobs done, and the days counting down fast, I thought that I could sit down and really crack on with the cassette tapes. I’d managed to get the time down to 5 minutes per tape inlay, so there wasn’t any reason to panic yet.It was at that point that people really started dropping out of the project…

When you’re doing a job which isn’t paid, no matter how great the project, there’s always going to be someone who abandons it in favour of a wage. You can expect one or two at least. And when this happens, no matter how much you have on or how last minute it is, you can’t just turn round to the director on the day and say, “such and such isn’t here because the person dropped out,” or, “it wasn’t my job so I decided to put my feet up and ignore it”. Particularly when it’s part of your department (I was head of Production Design so anything to do with the decoration was supposed to be in my control). It can’t just be abandoned when the film needs it. Someone has to do it. And, much as I dreaded it, I knew it would have to be me. There was less than a week until the crew arrived and everyone was already juggling more than their fair share of jobs. I just had to crack on.

My finished sign for the Shop Set, in my living room
My finished sign for the shop set, in my living room

The first extra job I took on was the shop sign for the film’s main location. Because of the nature of my job I find it hard to trust helpers, and I rarely delegate on smaller tasks, but I knew a local craftswoman who made beautiful vintage signs so I asked her to do it. She would be paid, but she offered to do it for next to nothing, and I knew she would do a great job. Then I got a call saying that she’d had to go into hospital and wasn’t taking on anymore work.

This one certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault, and it wasn’t too huge a task, so I grabbed by brother’s old warhammer board and a paintbrush and made the sign. It was easy but it was frustrating because I knew that I wasn’t the best person for the job and, due to the other woman’s calibre, what I turned out could only be second-rate.

The Shop Sign on location in Matlock. Photo: Paul Bednall
The shop sign on location in Matlock. Photo: Paul Bednall

The next problem came when it was time to build the film’s all-important alcove set. We’d advertised for a builder and had a decent amount of replies, but some weren’t qualified, some didn’t respond to our replies, and others showed genuine interest in the job and sent us a couple of emails, then changed their minds. I managed to contact a few local people I knew and had a few offer to build it with my help, but out of them a few were busy on the day and a couple became oddly aloof and stopped replying to me. The only person left to help managed to stay long enough to help me fetch the materials I needed (thanks Steve!) but had to go at lunchtime due to a prior commitment.This left me, alone in my Dad’s cramped garage (moving into the kitchen for space when needed), with his power tools at hand but no will or clue. I’d only ever decorated a set before; I was trained to design them, even technically, but I’d never wielded an electric saw in my life!

But what I’ve learnt is that it’s amazing what you can do when you try. Luckily I only had to build a wooden box-type thing – albeit ones with panels made out of antique doors – and it wasn’t anything more complicated than that. Plus my Dad helped speed things up by cutting a few pieces after I’d measured and marked them.

Was that the last of the drop-outs? Of course not. We were supposed to have someone build us an ornate, carved wooden arch to go at the front of the alcove set. I’d given the guy the job then he’d sent me a quick concept sketch and I’d even spoken to him on the phone, where he sounded enthusiastic. With less than a week before the shoot, I called him twice to three times a day. every day, and even left him messages, but I never heard from him again. Although it was disappointing, this was one part of the set we decided we could do without.

Instead of two days, the set ended up taking five, during all of which I was thinking about the looming tape cassettes, and wondering when on earth I was going to get them done. My morale was also starting to get pretty low – the garage was cold and I was up until 1am every morning with only Soul Searcher and American Beauty on my laptop to keep me going.

In spite of the odds, by the time the crew arrived there were three completed sides for the alcove, all of which featured heavily-screwed wooden frames, antique doors, and stained hardboard surfaces. Just like that, I’d built my first set.

From that point onwards, I wasn’t alone anymore. The chivalrous Gaffer-turned-handyman Colin Smith built the roof for me, and made sure I had all the pieces I needed to make a basic wooden arch for the front. Then the lead actor Oliver Park joined in too, by staying up with me and helping me paint the last couple of pieces. He even played Aerosmith on his phone to keep me happy. It may be an old-fashioned sentiment, but I think that men are wonderful things!!

By the time the shoot was underway, I’d only managed to do 100 tape cassette inlays. I tried to fit in more where I could but I was needed on set most of the time (and loved being there), so I had to pull an all-nighter to finish them off. I was already shattered by this point and I even blacked out a couple of times, but it was worth it for the satisfaction of getting my work done. However, I never want to look at another tape cassette for as long as I live. Not even my Jimmy Nail one!

Thanks Sophie. I’m off to polish my crocodile shoes, but you can read more about Sophie’s work on her website.

Sophie Black Guest Blog: “Somebody has to do it.”

Pain is temporary. Film is forever.

My hands are sore, extremely dry and covered in small cuts. From this, if nothing else, I know I’ve just been on a shoot.

All of Stop/Eject‘s cast and crew will be recovering from some physical extremity, be it exhaustion, malnutrition, excessive dust inhalation, cold, damp or – in Georgie’s case – five days of constant crying.

Georgina Sherrington ("Kate") and Oliver Park ("Dan") during the weir scene
Georgina Sherrington ("Kate") and Oliver Park ("Dan") during the weir scene

I can’t believe we did it. I feel all the relief I did when the shoot collapsed back in October, but also the satisfaction of actually having shot the damn thing. And for the first time in years, I enjoyed directing.

Over the coming weeks there will be lots of blog entries about various aspects of the shoot, including an evaluation of the schedule (which I’m sure the cast and crew all have some pretty strong opinions on), the lighting, the things that slowed us down and the lessons I’ve learnt. I’ll also get around to the entries I promised in pre-production but failed to deliver, like what’s in my director’s folder and what all the camera equipment does. I’ve got some interesting observations on the usefulness of my Proaim shoulder rig in the field too. And there’s loads of behind-the-scenes footage to start sharing.

Not to mention a trailer, once I’ve cut it.

But for now, here’s a summary of the last week.

Colin and I picked up the hire van first thing on Friday morning and, with Katie’s help, loaded it with equipment, props, costumes, food, bedding and even a fridge for catering purposes. We travelled up to Derbyshire, stopping in Loughborough to pick up a jib kindly lent to us by Steve Lawson, arriving at Sophie’s place in Belper at about 2:30pm.

The sun breaks through for a scene at Belper Cemetery
The sun breaks through for a scene at Belper Cemetery

The list of things that needed doing before we could start filming the next day was pretty big (though nowhere near as much so as it was the day before the intended shoot last October). Ideally we would have travelled up the previous day, but we had too many things to finish doing in Hereford first.

There was a ring to get resized, a set to finish building, costumes to be fitted, furniture to move, a location to hoover and another location to be recceed. This latter task threw up the biggest problem of the shoot. It was the weir at Willersley Castle Hotel in Cromford. Here’s what it looked like when I scouted it a few weeks ago:

A pleasant trickle. So to speak. Photo: Sophie Black
A pleasant trickle. So to speak. Photo: Sophie Black

And here’s what it looked like last week:

An embarrassing gush. Photo: Sophie Black
An embarrassing gush. Photo: Sophie Black

Weeks of heavy rainfall had swelled the water to a lethal torrent. That location was meant to be our first one, on Saturday morning, so we swapped it with the afternoon to give us some time to figure out what to do.

So we started at Belper’s River Gardens on Saturday morning. In a week when the whole country got rained on pretty constantly, we were extremely lucky to experience only a couple of brief showers. In fact most of the day was quite sunny and, although it was a slow start like it always is on the first day of a shoot, we got through the material at a decent rate.

Rather than move locations in the afternoon, I opted to shoot the weir scene at the River Gardens, with the aim of getting the wide shot round the corner at the optimistically-named Belper Beach. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the wides before Georgie had to leave to catch a train, so we ended the first day a couple of key shots in debit.

Sunday saw us filming the Boy Racer’s scenes in and around the River Gardens before moving to Matlock in the evening to begin the shop floor scenes. At this point the schedule got pretty intense and it was really hard work to keep up with it.

Late finishes and early starts became the norm, and we all got pretty fed up of working in the shop, even though it looked fantastic on camera. At lunchtime on Tuesday we moved back to Belper for the basement scene at Strutt’s North Mill, and brief scenes on a bridge, in a cemetery and in Sophie’s kitchen.

Back at Magpie on Wednesday, we tackled the living room, bedroom and nursing home scenes before a long night of shooting on the alcove set, finally wrapping at some point around 2am I think.

On Thursday we returned to Willersley in the hope that the water level might have gone down. It had not. If anything it had got worse. In the end we crossed back over the river and filmed our weir wide shots in the grounds of Masson Mill. Then it was back to Magpie to clear up, pack, return Sophie’s furniture and finally drive back to Hereford in the rain and the dark, stopping again to return the jib and the fridge before finally getting to bed at about 3 o’clock on Friday morning.

The cast and crew
The cast and crew. Standing (left to right): gaffer Colin Smith, sound recordist Johnny Cartwright, Libby Wattis ("Old Kate"), make-up artist Debs Bennett, costume designer Katie Lake, runners Laura Iles and her boyfriend Kurt. Sitting: Ollie Park ("Dan"), producer Sophie Black, me and Georgie Sherrington ("Kate"). Photo: Colin Smith

Huge, huge thanks to the cast and crew for sticking with me on this long and exhausting journey. Special mentions must be given to Colin, who was constantly put to work by every department and had to drive the van, Georgie and Ollie, who spent a couple of hours standing in cold water on Thursday, and Debs, who ended up doing a lot of the cooking and had to drive for over an hour to get home after every late wrap.

Stay tuned for more tales from the set of Stop/Eject.

Pain is temporary. Film is forever.

T minus two days

Sophie's partly dressed living room. Well, not her living room. The living room she designed.
Sophie’s partly dressed living room. Well, not her living room. The living room she designed.

Hooray, I’m finally looking forward to the shoot! On Tuesday I cast a new Dan – Oliver Park – which was the last major hurdle to overcome before production. Our crew is all in place, all the minor roles are cast but one, all the locations and props are lined up, and the costumes and set are nearly finished.

So it’s looking good. It has been a real struggle getting to this point though. More than half the original cast and crew have had to be replaced – mostly due to them getting booked in the last couple of weeks for paying jobs that clash, though in a couple of cases due to hospitalisation! If you’re a veteran Neil Oseman blog reader you’ll have heard of The Curse of Soul Searcher. This is The Curse of Stop/Eject.

Painting the bedroom
Painting the bedroom

In all seriousness, I don’t think I’ll ever make another film (except simple ones like The Picnic) unless there’s money to pay everyone. It just isn’t worth the stress and hassle caused by having to re-cast and re-crew when people pull out. It’s actually got easier to find people the closer we’ve got to the shoot, presumably because people can be more sure that they won’t be doing any paid work on the shooting dates, but aside from anything else it’s a nightmare for the costume department when they don’t know their lead actors’ sizes until a few days before the shoot.

Staining the alcove
Staining the alcove

Sophie has been very busy this week, building the alcove set and painting and dressing some of the upstairs rooms at Magpie, not to mention doing calligraphy on 600 cassette inlays.

Katie has been running around the charity shops of Hereford, looking for the last few bits and pieces, and dying and altering things here at home.

I’ve been drawing up the schedule, going through storyboards with Rick (the camera op), chasing things up, getting paperwork in order and talking to the actors about their characters.

Weather forecast
Weather forecast

I’m so glad we didn’t shoot Stop/Eject last October. We are a million times better prepared now. The only thing that doesn’t look like it’s going to co-operate is the weather.

This will probably be my last post until after the shoot. We’ll try to update the Facebook page at least once a day, internet connection permitting, and rest assured we’ll be building up a tasty backlog of behind-the-scenes podcasts and blogs.

I want to start shooting tomorrow. I can’t wait two days. That’s how good I’m feeling about it right now.

T minus two days

T Minus One Week

Soul Searcher talk at Ort Cafe
Soul Searcher talk at Ort Cafe

Quite a manic, stressful week….

Tuesday afternoon’s auditions were enjoyable, but unfortunately I didn’t find anyone who was quite right for either of the roles. The threat of having to postpone the shoot started lurking around again. This is something I really wanted to avoid, because I didn’t want to mess everyone around again. And indeed we have avoided it, as I will shortly explain. (Just to be absolutely clear for any cast and crew who are reading, we are NOT postponing the shoot.)

On Wednesday I travelled to Birmingham for the final fundraising lecture. A small but interested audience listened to my ramblings and placed coinage in the sacred flashing bucket at the end of the night. Thanks to Ort Cafe for hosting the event, and to Brendan O’Neill for hosting me overnight.

Sophie and Therese (who’s playing Alice, the shopkeeper) put me in touch with some other possible actors and I met a couple in Birmingham on Thursday morning. Sophie also decided to try calling a more established actress to see if she was interested in the role…

…and she was, so I’m pleased to announce the casting of Georgina Sherrington, best known as the eponymous Worst Witch in ITV’s late nineties children’s TV series. I look forward to working with her.

As casting has been the main theme of my week, I thought I’d dedicate the rest of this post to answering the question: what am I looking for in an audition? Someone that will make my job as easy as possible. It sounds incredibly lazy now I’ve just written it, but it’s true.

Assuming a person is a competent actor with decent range, with some rehearsal time you should be able to mould them into any character. But rehearsal time is something you often don’t have on a micro-budget short, and you certainly haven’t got time to do a lot of experimenting with the actors on set. So if only for practical reasons, you want to cast someone who requires minimal direction.

Random photo of a cassette
Random photo of a cassette

I also tend to find that people who have the right look for a role are more likely to have the right personality and thus require less direction too.

Intelligence is also part of it. I always look very favourably on actors whose audition readings show they have fully understood the words they are saying. For example, when casting the lead role in Soul Searcher, there was a line in the audition sides that went: “I could count them all on the fingers of one hand.” Ray Bullock Jnr, who got the part, was the only auditionee who held up his hand when reading that line. A small thing, you might say, but I say it’s very telling.

Similarly, when Benedict Cumberbatch auditioned for Max in The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot, he was the only actor who read the word “galley” (meaning a kitchen on a ship) correctly, instead of assuming it was a typo for “gallery” like everyone else.

There are other things I’m looking for too, like screen presence, charisma (if appropriate, and it usually is in some form or another) and a personality that will be pleasant to work with, but essentially the ideal actor is the one who requires the least guidance to portray the character in my head and imbue the dialogue with the meaning I intended.

T Minus One Week

Ups and Downs

The hero tapes, beautifully labelled by Sophie
The hero tapes, beautifully labelled by Sophie

There was a glorious 48 hours about ten days ago when everything was going our way on Stop/Eject. We had all our key cast and crew, all our locations, most of our props and costumes and we seemed well on the way to getting everything we didn’t have in time for the shoot.

Then people started dropping out. First the lead actress, then a sound recordist, then the lead actor. This, unfortunately, is the way it goes when you can’t pay people. You can’t expect them to put the film first. No amount of advance planning can change that.

Alas, poor Daniel
Alas, poor Daniel

So on Tuesday I’m off to London (nine hours round trip on National Express – the closest you can get to hell on earth) to audition a new cast. Exciting, but scary because of the limited time remaining before we shoot.

And on Wednesday it’s up to Birmingham for the final fundraising lecture – 8:30pm at Ort Cafe, 500-506 Moseley Road, B12 9AH. Find out how my feature film Soul Searcher was financed, made and distributed, with plenty of clips, behind-the-scenes footage and amusing anecdotes. As usual entry is free, but donations will be welcomed.

And by the time that’s all over there will be little more than a week before we shoot.

Despite the setbacks I’m feeling pretty positive about the whole thing. Almost every aspect of the production has been improved by the postponement from last autumn – including the props, some of which you can see here. Roll on April 21st!

Ups and Downs

Retro Librarian

Katie on The Dark Side of the Earth
Katie on The Dark Side of the Earth

Today we have a special guest blog from Stop/Eject‘s costume designer, Katie Lake. She’s going to explain how the costume vision for Alice, a.k.a. The Shopkeeper, has changed since we originally geared up for shooting last October.

The shopkeeper for Stop/Eject has changed pretty drastically since the first draft. Originally an old man, the character is now being played by a woman. To get across the idea of her being old, Neil (the director) originally liked the idea of Victorian costumes after the actress wore Victorian-esc clothes to the auditions. It probably also had to do with the fact we filmed a pilot set in the Victorian era and hashed through enough costume options together to have the Victorian era etched permanently into our brains. But having a little extra time to mull over the character and how to portray Neil’s imagining of the character through costume, I became fixated on the idea of a 40s/50s librarian look.

Tiles in the shop location that we wanted Alice's costume to match with
Tiles in the shop location that we wanted Alice’s costume to match with

Neil wanted her to look like a shop keeper for a charity (thrift) shop, and so many of the women who volunteer at them seem to be themselves stuck in the 40s and 50s clothing wise. I also felt it fit better with the overall retro theme, and didn’t give too much away about the shopkeepers background (no spoilers so I’ll leave it at that!). After discussing it with Neil, we decided to go for the idea, and came up with a color palette as well. Neil was eager to have the costumes fit into the color scheme we’ve already picked for the film, as well as with these beautiful art nouveau tiles that line the shop we’re using as a set. Which were mustard yellow and olivey green. I knew I wanted to add browns, cream, tan, and maybe a splash of maroon to the palette. To get the 40s/50s look I knew I wanted wool plaid skirts, blouses and cardigans, short pearls, rounded-toe 1-2″ heels, and retro glasses would be a bonus.

Alice's watch and glasses
Alice’s watch and glasses

After gathering some reference photos on pinterest, I headed out to charity shops looking to see what I could find. After a few different searching days, I’d come up with a couple skirts, a pair of 40s looking trousers, a couple blouses and cardigans, a broach, some pearls, and a coat. After every shopping trip I’d lay the pieces out on the floor and mix and match them. The more things I found, the more the outfits would come together until there were just a few pieces missing. At that point I was able to figure out exactly what I was looking for to finish off the 4 looks. When you have specific items on your list, it’s much harder to find what you are looking for than when you had a general idea and color palette. Instead of looking for any wool skirt size 12 or larger (as long as it can be taken in) in greens, golden yellows, brown, tan or cream, I was now looking for a tan or light-medium brown colored wool skirt in a solid or subtle pattern. I was also getting pretty desperate for shoes. After realizing I am the same size as the actress (shoe sizes are different in the US and UK) and looking through my collection I found a suitable maroon pair, leaving me with only a saddle tan or navy pair to find. After searching numerous charity shops while paying a visit to the actress for fittings, we found the last skirt and navy shoes. A couple days later my ebay finds arrived- a nurses watch and retro glasses- finishing off my list.

Here are the photos from the fitting – the skirts have been pinned so I know where to shorten them too, and each has to be pulled in (that’s why they are looking a bit bulky)- so the look will be more streamlined once the alterations are done. I’ll also add the details, like nude stockings, the nurses watch, glasses hanging around her neck, and HMU will do wondrous things with her hair.

Next up I’ll do the alterations, organizing/cleaning/iron or steaming the costumes, and breaking down the costumes on paper (in an xls file) so I (or the actress) don’t have to remember what goes with what on the day (and in case I get sick or injured someone else will be able to fill in).

I’m also still working on the male lead’s costumes- as all but 3 of his costume pieces were returned last year, and with the additional costs of all the shopkeepers outfits, I now have to dress him with half the budget. Did I mention he was a hard-to-find size as well?

Visit Katie’s costume blog at www.katiedidonline/costumes for more on Stop/Eject and other projects.

Retro Librarian

Crowd Sourcing

Dedo, de-e-edo. Dedo come and me want to go home.
Dedo, de-e-edo. Dedo come and me want to go home.

Loyal readers, once again I need your help. Do you own any of the following things? Would you be willing to lend them to us for the Stop/Eject shoot? (In most cases we would need to collect them on April 20th and return them on the 26th or soon after.)

  • A lady’s vintage/retro bike
  • Any empty cassette cases
  • A camera jib (small enough to be used indoors)
  • A mini-spotlight kit (Dedolights or similar)
  • An HMI (any wattage considered)
  • Any fast Canon EF(S) prime lenses 85mm or longer
  • Walkie talkies

Rest assured your items will be well looked after, and in return you’ll be credited on the film, receive an invite to the premiere, a DVD copy, and a free download of my indie feature film budget and sales exposé How to Make a Fantasy Action Movie for £28,000.

Also if there’s anything we can lend you in return, we’d be happy to do it. (I have some Canon DLSR camera kit, shoulder rig, tracking dolly, basic lights and so on.)

Since our travel budget is limited, we could really only borrow things that are located in or near Hereford or North Derbyshire, or somewhere en route between those two places (e.g. Birmingham).

Finally, if there are any unsigned bands out there who have an angry-sounding rock/metal/punk song we could use a little bit of in the film, please get in touch.

Contact me on: neiloseman [at]

By the way, let me assure any of you concerned by the cryptic ending of my last post that no-one has died or been injured or anything terrible like that. But unfortunately we are having to look for a new leading lady. The shoot dates have not been changed.

Crowd Sourcing