10 Tips for Meetings

Did this t-shirt get me the job?
Did this t-shirt get me the job?

Late last year I secured a great feature film job as DP, on the basis of a personal recommendation followed by a meeting with the director which went really well. Making a good impression at a meeting like this is clearly crucial. But although such meetings are essentially job interviews, they are much less formal and rely much more heavily on the director and DP having similar tastes. Here are a few tips to help you give your next one your best shot.

  1. Be prepared. This means reading the script and any other documents provided, ideally more than once if you have the time and you’re serious about wanting the job. Look up the director’s previous work to get a sense of their tastes.
  2. Dress to impress. What you wear to a meeting can influence its outcome, just as wearing a smart suit to a traditional job interview can. During the shooting of the feature, the director commented that the Highlander t-shirt I wore to the meeting reassured him that my cinematic tastes were broadly in line with his own.
  3. Be willing to travel. If you don’t live in London, you’re going to have to travel there for most meetings. Don’t complain about it, don’t even mention it if you can avoid it. But also don’t do it if you have doubts about the quality of the production and what it’s going to do for your career.
  4. Bring showreel footage. The director will likely have seen your showreel before you meet, but it doesn’t hurt to bring additional clips or stills that are particularly relevant to this project. In my feature meeting, frame grabs from Ren: The Girl with the Mark helped demonstrate what I could do with a period setting.
  5. Bring some creativity to the table. Put some reference images together to show the visual ideas that came to your mind when you read the script, and how you think the cinematography of the project could be approached. I found an image of some monks with a shaft of light coming in the window that perfectly summed up how I saw the feature, and the director really responded to it.
  6. Be flexible. Be prepared to listen to the director’s vision and bounce off their ideas.
  7. Bring people and/or kit to the table. What do you have access to that puts you ahead of other applicants? Often in the micro-budget world this will be your camera, or maybe a drone or a jib, but once you get into the realm of more reasonable budgets, directors and producers appreciate skilled crew more. The feature director really wanted to use a lot of steadicam in the film, so before being offered the job I contacted a talented steadicam op I knew and got an expression of interest from him which I was then able to go back to the director with. I think this was a big part of the reason I got the job.
  8. Be OK with the budget. If it’s late enough in preproduction that the crew fees and the kit hire budget are fixed, don’t grumble about them. All you will achieve is to make the director think you’re going to be difficult to work with. Instead cite examples of how you achieved great results with similarly limited resources in the past.
  9. Don’t be cheap. Offer to pay for the drinks. I’d probably take it as a bad sign if the director allowed me to, but offer nonetheless!
  10. Follow up. We all think of great things we should have said when we’re halfway home. Send an email with those extra thoughts, any links you may have discussed in the meeting, and a thank you for their time taken in meeting you.
10 Tips for Meetings

Review of My Year: 2015

Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes on an Alexa HD
Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes, my first time working with an Alexa

Where has the year gone? Can you believe that all of the Back to the Future trilogy is now set in the past? It’s been a great year for me, one of moving in the right direction.

At the end of last year I said, “In 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps.” And that’s exactly what I’ve done. That and postproduction supervising a web series – but more on that in a minute.

Last year I made the huge but entirely correct decision to stop doing corporates, and that did lead to some gaps in my schedule. 2015 started slowly, with a couple of gaffering jobs on Oliver Park’s short Vicious and John Quarrell’s The Gift.

In late January I reached the milestone of my 1,000th blog post, and published an article looking back at my various film blogs over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 15.53.09
Photo: Laura Radford

Meanwhile, I asked Kate Madison if she needed any help with post on Ren: The Girl With the Mark, the awesome fantasy web series I had DPed for her the previous autumn. By Easter I had cut 30 or 40 behind-the-scenes and production diary videos for the show, become postproduction supervisor for the series and moved into Kate’s spare room! Between the paying jobs this year I’ve overseen the show’s many VFX – even doing several of them myself – created an EPK, organised ADR sessions, appeared on Comic Con panels, and shot hours of interviews for a DVD documentary.

Moving out of Hereford was a much-needed change, although the place treated me well over the years. Cambridge, my new home, is a beautiful city which encourages lots of healthy cycling, and London is much more accessible from here.

Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant
Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant

Work picked up as the summer approached. Shorts I’ve cinematographed this year include Gisella Pereira’s fairytale Ballet Pointe Shoes, James Reynolds’ race drama Exile Incessant, Stanislava Buevich’s black comedy Self Control, Douglas Morse’s medieval comedy The Second Shepherds’ Play, and Ben Bloore’s mysterious drama Crossing Paths, plus the period comedy web series pilot Owl House by Mark Keegan. And I was delighted to visit Japan for a few days to shoot pick-ups for a sci-fi feature called Synced, directed by Devon Avery. Most of these projects have blog posts about them, so click the links above to check those out.

But 2015 saved the best for last, with my first paid feature film job coming out of the blue in November, courtesy of a glowing recommendation from sound recordist David Bekkevold. I learnt so much from this project, some of which you can read in the daily blogs I posted, and others of which I’ll be blogging about soon. I now feel like I could walk onto almost any set as a DP and acquit myself reasonably well.


As 2016 approaches I have an ambitious 30-minute fantasy short booked in for the end of January, and attachments to three features. A lot of my work is now in the period/fantasy arena, which is exactly what I was hoping for after doing The First Musketeer back in 2013. It’s taken sixteen years, but I finally feel like I’m getting there – wherever there is!

As usual, I’ll leave you with my ten favourite blog posts from this year…

  1. Women on Film: Characters or Glorified Props? – an article about misogyny in the movies
  2. Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – demonstrating how backlight and contrast control can help tell the story
  3. Shooting in Rain – practical advice for keeping the camera rolling in a downpour
  4. 20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road – culled from interviews with the DP
  5. How to Correct Cosmetic Issues with Lighting – handy tips for flattering your cast
  6. Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 3 – how I lit a nighttime street scene in Himeji with a few small units
  7. The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks – lighting breakdown for a key action sequence from the period web series
  8. Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix – an explanation of how films are dubbed, what materials a producer needs to deliver to a foreign distributor, and a video showing the various stages in creating Soul Searcher’s Japanese dub
  9. Crossing Paths: Day Exterior – revealing how to manipulate the sun to get the best results
  10. Feature Shoot: Day -1 – testing lighting looks and Soft FX filters with the Alexa and Cooke S4s
Review of My Year: 2015

2015 Cinematography Showreel

I thought it was about time my showreel got an update, so here it is:

Please get in touch if you need a DP. I’ll consider most projects as long as they’re creative and not entirely unpaid.

These are the films, series and promos featured on the reel. If you want to find out more about any of these productions, you can find links in the showreel’s YouTube description.

* Note: I only worked on the trailer, not the film itself.

The music is “Up is a Down” from the OST of Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End.

2015 Cinematography Showreel

Mini-DV Memories

Goodbye, Mini-DV
Goodbye, Mini-DV

I’m moving soon, to a much smaller place, and lots of my stuff has to go. Amongst the things going into bin bags at the moment is a large number of Mini-DV tapes. Funny to think how ubiquitous they were in the micro-budget movie world just a few years ago, and now they’re a thing of the past.

How could a mere 720 x 576 pixels ever have looked good? (I frequently deinterlaced my DV footage and cropped it to 16:9, which must have reduced the vertical resolution to about 200 lines!) Cathode ray tubes certainly helped. CRT screens have a lovely softness, which I still prefer to LCDs, and that softness blurred the limited number of pixels into one organic image. Bright colours were particularly softened, a fact which Mini-DV compression exploited by devoting little data to chrominance, resulting in blocky saturated colours that looked terrible on your computer, but which blurred magically back into acceptability on your CRT TV.

An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher
An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher

I don’t know how many stops of dynamic range a typical DV camera had, but it wasn’t many. Shooting in daylight was a nightmare; you could never find an aperture setting where you weren’t losing loads of detail in blown-out whites and/or crushed blacks. I embraced the contrast, lighting everything like film noir, which the format handled pretty well. In this 2005 featurette I outline the lighting techniques I learnt for Mini-DV. While incredibly crude by today’s standards, the underlying principles are still sound.

Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1
Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1

The video bitrate of DV was just 25mbps. By comparison, my Blackmagic Production Camera shoots at 880mbps – that’s 35 times more detail per frame. Despite this, there were a few big theatrical films shot on DV, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots being first. Perhaps the best known is 28 Days Later, shot on a Canon XL1, a camera I owned for several years.

I loved that camera! And in some ways it was better than today’s ultra-HD cinema cameras. It was so light and comfy to put on your shoulder. You didn’t need a rig – it actually had a bloody hand grip next to the lens! And get this – it had a viewfinder! That came with it, no extra charge! There was no DITing, no dual system sound to sync. How easy it all was!

A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher
A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher

After shooting my feature film Soul Searcher and countless other projects I DPed, my XL1 met an ignoble end, its lenses Ebayed and its malfunctioning body Freecycled. I’d foolishly bought a Sony A1, an awful, awful HDV camera that I was stuck with until I joined the DSLR revolution in 2011.

minidvThat A1 will not survive my moving cull either. It’s languished in a drawer for the last few years, my sole remaining means of playing back old DV tapes. Now the tapes are going, so will the camera.

So goodbye, Mini-DV. I cut my teeth on you. Your accessibility allowed me to learn my craft, and your shonky dynamic range forced me to learn to control light. For that I will always be grateful.

Mini-DV Memories

What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Adrian Biddle
Adrian Biddle

Being a director of photography is not just about having an eye for composition and understanding light. There are many other skills a DP needs. Today I’ll discuss what some of those are, in my opinion, and in the opinions of some top Hollywood DPs.

“Obviously you have to know what you are doing, have an eye for photography, and know about film and composition. But it’s a team effort.” – Adrian Biddle (Aliens, Event Horizon)

Shane Hurlbut (Need for Speed, Terminator: Salvation) says that 33% of a cinematographer’s job is managing their crew. You need to pick great people to work with, nurture them, share your knowledge with them, and trust them to deliver the goods.

Frankie DeMarco (Mad Men, All is Lost) advises trying to think like an editor: what specific shots do you need to tell the story? Editing is one of the areas it’s most useful to have experience of, as a DP. Knowing whether what you’re shooting will cut together is vitally important. I often find myself suggesting to a director that we run a scene from a little earlier, have someone come into shot at the start, or cut it later so they exit shot, knowing how useful that stuff can be in post.

Understanding the jobs of other departments is very useful. The more you know about production design, costume and make-up, the better you can light it. The more you know about acting, the better you can appreciate the impact your decisions – equipment placement, the strictness of adherence to marks you demand, the lenses and angles you select – have on an actor’s work. This doesn’t mean that you have to do all these jobs at some point, but try reading the occasional book or watching the odd YouTube video about the subject, or better still, forge great relationships with other heads of departments and pick their brains.

Douglas Slocombe
Douglas Slocombe

There are of course many rules to cinematography – the line of action, Golden Thirds, lighting the downside – but how many of them do you need to know?

“To any aspiring cinematographer, I’d say learn the rules before you try and bend or break them. You need a foundation on which to build.” – Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones trilogy)

You should take every opportunity to learn; read every blog, every book that you can, go to workshops, to masterclasses; watch behind-the-scenes videos. The more knowledge you have to fall back on in a crisis, the better.

“You always try to create a certain style for each film but there are times when you have to make it up as you go along.” – Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Flatliners)

Flexibility is key. You have to do what’s right for the scene, what’s right for the set and the talent, what the director wants, and what works for the schedule. Sometimes this means changing tack at the last minute. You can’t throw a hissy fit and weep for the lighting set-up you’d imagined; you have to get on with it. Corporate videos, in which you often have to sacrifice your photographic ideals for the mundane needs of the client, are great training for this.

You have to be a storyteller; all heads of department have to be. As DP, your tools for telling the story are lights and lenses. You need to absorb the script, appreciate the narrative beats and come up with creative ways to accent those beats using your tools.

Perhaps the most important thing to have is life experience.

“It’s my personal interpretation of a script that allows me to create the visuals. That interpretation is based on my own life experiences, aesthetics, education, and knowledge, all of which help to shape my understanding of a story.” – Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln)

Thanks to Stephen Murphy and his DOP Documents for the block quotes.

Janusz Kaminski
Janusz Kaminski
What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

1,000th Blog Post


Little did I think, on March 4th 2001, when I typed the words “The Story So Far” on www.the-beacon.com, that I was starting a fourteen-year journal/rant/ramble that would continue to the crazy Doc-Brownian future of 2015 and encompass a thousand entries. Today I’m going to tell the story of my blogs as they leapt from project to project, highlighting some of the best posts along the way.

Lorna-Jane Hamer in The Beacon
Lorna-Jane Hamer in The Beacon

For the first decade of my online odyssey, I saw blogging as a kind of “bonus content” to accompany my film projects. I remember planning the website for the original short version of Soul Searcher before I even had internet access. Both that project and its immediate successor, Cow Trek, had retrospective production diaries on their websites.

But when I embarked on my first professional(ish) feature, The Beacon, I launched a website for it at the very start of preproduction. A simple splash page, a brief About page and a “Journal”. The project was so huge, I think I felt that breaking it down into bite-sized blog posts as I went along would make it more manageable for me, and help me feel that I was making progress.

paper-scanMy early blogs were really production diaries, reporting what had happened since the last post. I was young and cocky, and I often tried to be humourous. Much of the humour was obscure and probably put off some readers, with hindsight, but at the time I didn’t feel like many people were reading it anyway. I was wrong.

In September 2001, the World Trade Centre attacks spookily echoed a scene I had shot a month earlier in which a plane full of terrorists crashed into a cinema. On September 26th I wrote: “A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to make any changes to The Beacon or delay its release in the wake of the events in America. The answer is no.” I regretted being so blunt when this quote made it into local papers under the headline: “Film-maker is defiant on hijack plane crash”.

The Beacon’s blog ran for sixteen months, the most entertaining posts being those that displayed my lack of concern for safety, or our efforts to avoid the Malvern Hills Conservators, who threatened to shut down the shoot. August 9th 2001’s entry, on the second day of shooting the car chase, had drama from both of these angles.

The Soul Searcher website
The Soul Searcher website

On March 27th 2002, a few months before The Beacon’s blog fizzled out, the website and production journal for my next feature were launched. Soul Searcher‘s journal followed the reporting style of The Beacon’s, with the same surreal humour, though this time with increasingly frequent Back to the Future quotes, for no good reason. Often I was deliberately playing to the audience of cast and crew who I knew were avid readers.

This journal ran for four years, ending on the day Soul Searcher was released on DVD in the UK. Along the way, every up and down of the production was documented. And believe me, there were many downs. I saw no reason to conceal the problems we faced; I realised that the struggles were entertaining. I still bump into people today who enjoyed and were inspired by my Soul Searcher blog back in the mid-noughties.

Some of the best Soul Searcher posts were:

My next blog covered my attempts to develop and finance another feature, The Dark Side of the Earth. “What the hell is the matter with me? I’m back for more punishment,” is how I began my first entry, on October 14th 2005.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Max
Benedict Cumberbatch as Max in The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot

(Shortly afterwards, concurrently, I began publishing the paper-and-ink journal I’d kept for the original, amateur version of The Dark Side of the Earth, each entry being posted exactly a decade after it had been written. Yes, I had a blogging impulse before I even knew what blogging or the internet were. Read this teenage journal and my contemporary annotations here.)

By this time my blogging style was maturing, and I was learning to hold back some of the bad news in case potential producers or investors were reading. This perhaps led to a wider appeal, evidenced by Film & Festivals Magazine publishing an abridged version of my Dark Side journal in September 2009.

Although I shot a 35mm pilot starring Benedict Cumberbatch – read my posts about the stressful shoot here and here – it slowly became clear that The Dark Side of the Earth was going nowhere, and by 2011 my posts were rarely about the project.

What’s more, times had changed. Back in 2001 a lot of people had never even heard the term “blog”. A decade later, blogging had exploded, and it had evolved into more of a magazine format. No longer could you get away with simply reporting your progress on a project. Now readers demanded tips, interviews, videos, image galleries, tutorials. I realised it was time to start a new site, one that would be about me sharing my filmmaking knowledge and experiences.

NeilOseman.com launched on August 5th 2011, and quickly became a much richer and diverse blog than any of my previous ones. Tying in with my gradual retreat from self-originated and self-directed projects, cinematography became the main focus of the site, though other aspects of filmmaking continue to be covered. Here are some of my favourite posts from the last four years:

Here’s to the next thousand posts! And for those of you looking to learn more about the art of waffling on a website, I’ll be posting my top blogging tips in the next few weeks.

1,000th Blog Post

Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January

Don't just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.
Don’t just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.

January is often a lean time for film freelancers. The powers that be have not recovered from Christmas sufficiently to commission any new work, the budget for the financial year is almost spent, and the weather and short hours of daylight make shooting difficult and unpleasant.

So when you’ve had enough of eating the Christmas leftovers, and watching TV box-sets, how can you gainfully fill your time? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Do your taxes. Really, you can’t put them off any longer.
  2. Update your showreel. Chase up producers for clips and get editing, so you can show your latest and greatest to the world and line up some sweet work for 2015. Don’t forget to add your latest credits to your CV as well, and update your website.
  3. Go through the job sites – Shooting People, Mandy, Talent Circle etc. – and  write some applications. Even if there’s nothing quite up your street, why not stretch yourself and apply for something a little different? If nothing else, it’s good practice.
  4. Attend events, workshops and talks to broaden your knowledge and network. Did you know, for example, that there’s a free cinematography masterclass on in Birmingham on the 31st?
  5. Learn more about your craft by reading books on the subject. (I recently posted a list of my favourite “making of” movie books.)
  6. Go to galleries and see relevant work – a cinematographer might want to look at the use of light in classic paintings; a costume designer might want to check out an exhibition of period fashions, and so on.
  7. Go to the cinema! There are several great films out at the moment, including The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Birdman.
  8. Perform essential maintenance on your equipment. Fix those niggly things that you’ve put up with for the last few months while you’ve been busy, top up your consumables, and order those cheap accessories from Hong Kong now while you can afford to wait weeks for them to arrive.
  9. Do a personal project: make a micro-short, write a script, take some photos. It’ll help keep your skills sharp and could help you get work.
  10. Do something entirely unrelated to filmmaking. Such things exist. Apparently.
Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January

Review of the Year: 2014

Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren
Lining up a shot on the village set for Ren. Photo: Michael Hudson

Last year’s review saw me uncertain as to where to go next as a director, but chuffed to have DPed some great projects including Girl and a Scar and The First Musketeer. I stated my goals for 2014 as follows:

So in 2014 I hope to work as DP for many more great directors, to complete A Cautionary Tale, to see Stop/Eject get into a significant festival, to enter Virgin Media Shorts again.

Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls
Finding a frame with director Sophie Black on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

Well, I’ve achieved 50% of those.

Virgin Media Shorts is no more, so that was the end of that goal.

A Cautionary Tale – now re-titled Amelia’s Letter – is nearly finished – finished enough that we entered it into a festival last month. But we still need to tweak the grading, record the music with live players and mix the sound.

Stop/Eject got into the highly significant Raindance Film Festival, and has recently been long-listed for a Bafta. Not too shabby.

Last but the opposite of least, I have indeed worked as DP for many great directors this year. You may have heard me mention a little web series called Ren once or twice, and that I quite enjoyed it. As I write this I’ve just been looking at some of the rushes again and even though I was there for two months shooting it, I’m blown away by the production value which director Kate Madison got on screen. Big things will happen for Ren, I feel sure of it.

Shooting Hellblazer
Shooting Hellblazer. Photo: Amy Nicholson

Shorts I lensed this year included Coffin Grabber (dir. Claire Alberie), The Gong Fu Connection (dir. Ted Duran), Access All Areas (dir. Rick Goldsmith), Night Owls (dir. Sophie Black), and Forever Alone (dir. Jordan Morris), plus the music promo for Hellblazer by Savage Messiah (dir. Tom Walsh).

Perhaps the most important thing to happen in my career this year was my decision to stop doing corporates. This was a massive decision that started with me telling a client of over a decade’s standing that I didn’t want to do their editing any more, and snowballed from there. Little corporate jobs booked way in advance were getting in the way of bigger, last-minute drama shoots. There could only be one winner.

Corporates had been my main source of income for nearly fifteen years, but I’d had enough. I simply couldn’t take the lack of creativity any more.

I was focusing in on what I wanted to do and stripping away what I didn’t. I don’t want to be executing notes from corporate clients. I don’t want to be shooting interviews. I don’t want to be lensing training videos in bland offices with no crew and a client who has no understanding of aesthetics or story. And I don’t want to be stuck in a room with a computer, editing, especially when there are so many people out there who can do that much better than me.

Gaffering on By Any Name
Gaffering on By Any Name. Photo: Sophie Wiggins

I want to be on set, DPing drama. I want to tell stories with lighting and composition until I die. If people want me to direct things occasionally, fine, that’s fun, but cinematography is my passion and my calling.

An interesting sideline that has developed is gaffering, something I’d never done before this year. I’ve worked on two shorts and a feature this year as gaffer for DP Paul Dudbridge, and it’s been great experience to watch another cinematographer at work.

So in 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps. There is a short film in development for me to direct, and I have a vague ambition to direct some music videos, but those are much less important than continuing to light and shoot drama. If I can earn enough money to buy one of those new-fangled hoverboards that are coming out next year, maybe some self-lacing Nikes and a hover conversion for my old road car, I’ll be happy.

Merry Christmas everyone and remember: life’s too short to not be doing what you love.

Review of the Year: 2014

Traction: A First Time for Everything

Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999
Me (far right) with the cast and crew of Traction in December 1999

Fifteen years ago I made my first professional film, Traction. Okay, it wasn’t professional in the strictest sense – I wasn’t paid – but I racked up a number of important firsts on the project and learnt a lot. Based on a true story, it’s about a teenaged boy undergoing traction for his juvenile arthritis.

Today you can go out and make a film on your smartphone and reach an instant audience via YouTube, which is great, but you need to collaborate with others if your work is ever going to reach its full potential. Here’s how Traction challenged and improved me.

  • First time having a production company to answer to. Traction was produced by The Rural Media Company as part of its youth media programme, in which I was a participant. It was a completely new experience for me to have to submit a draft script and take on board the feedback of the company’s senior staff. I was probably resistant at first, but their advice was good. You’re not compromising your artistic vision by asking for and acting on feedback from others, you’re making it stronger. And when you work with a budget, you will always have to answer to the people supplying that budget, so get used to arguing your case and sometimes losing.
  • First time directing anyone other than my friends. I had to learn to be clearer and more communicative to get the best out of the other young people who were acting as my crew. They were all into the project far more than my corralled schoolfriends had ever been into my amateur films, which was great and really energising for me as a director.
  • First time directing anyone with acting experience. How to work with actors is something I’m still learning to this day, but the process started right there in 1999 when I ran my very first audition at Hereford College of Art and then directed Rowan Middleton for the two days of the shoot. It’s been said many times by many people, but don’t just cast your mates in your films. Unless your mates are really good actors and right for the parts. Obviously.
  • First time having to stick to a schedule. Although the only costs of Traction’s production were travel and catering expenses, and the youth worker’s fee, I still had a responsibility to ensure that Rural Media did not have to pay for more than the agreed two days’ worth of those costs. This forced me to be prepared, disciplined and ready to compromise when time ran short. Staying on schedule is always a challenge for a director, and the sooner you can start to learn this skill, the better.
  • First time shooting on digital video. Traction was a great opportunity for me to learn a new medium, having worked exclusively on the analogue Video-8 format up to that point. Most filmmakers own a camera, but have you considered hiring or borrowing a better model for your next project? Push yourself, learn to use a new bit of kit and raise your production values at the same time.
  • First time using lighting. Many new filmmakers are scared of lighting, and I probably was too before Traction. Don’t be afraid to experiment; it’s one of the best ways to learn.
  • First time having to use only copyright-cleared music. If you’re only posting your films on YouTube, you can get away with using copyrighted tracks and the system will just put an iTunes link under your video. But dipping into the vast catalogue of pre-existing music can make you lazy. Why not advertise for a composer – there are so many out there desperate to get a start in film scoring – and get some original music for your piece?
  • First time being limited to a final running time. Traction was made for a competition which had a strict five minute time limit. Nothing sharpens your editing skills more than a hard running time limit, and for that reason I’d recommend that every filmmaker try entering a competition at some point in their career.

If you’re a new filmmaker trying to raise your game, ask yourself if you’ve pushed in every direction you can to improve your work, or are you stuck in your comfort zone?

Left to right: sound recordist John Galloway, me, and actors Rowan Middleton and Rosie Laws
Traction: A First Time for Everything

How I Started Out

As regular readers will know, I make a living from shooting mostly corporates – training videos, promotional videos, educational videos and the like. Although I’d much rather pay the bills shooting drama, it’s better than working in an office. So how did I get to this point?

My Atari ST, circa 1996
My Atari ST, circa 1996

When I was a teenager, I had an Atari ST computer with a piece of software called Deluxe Paint. Deluxe Paint had an animation feature which allowed me to make very crude, flipbook-style animations with a little bit of 2D tweening – a bit like simple Flash animation. When I was about thirteen my history teacher asked the class to prepare presentations for or against the building of the very first railway line from Manchester to Liverpool. With my friend Chris Jenkins, I formed ARGUMENT – the Association for the Railway Going Up to Manchester supporting Exciting New Trains – and I animated a campaign video in Deluxe Paint. I recorded this onto VHS – which was easily done because the ST had an RF monitor output – and Chris and I voiced it over using the VCR’s audio dub feature and a microphone from Tandy.

For a subsequent English presentation, I wanted to take things a step further, so I borrowed my grandad’s Video8 camcorder and filmed live action pieces-to-camera with Chris to intercut with more animations created in Deluxe Paint and others programmed in STOS BASIC. After I borrowed grandad’s camcorder several more times, he gave it to me as a fifteenth birthday present. Gradually the live action became more interesting to me than the animation, though almost every film I made featured visual effects created in Deluxe Paint and a credits roller generated by a program I wrote in BASIC.

My amateur filmmaking really kicked off when I discovered a fellow Quantum Leap fan in my friend David Abbott, and we teamed up to make our own series of episodes in which I played the leaper and David played the holographic observer. Here’s episode fifteen of the twenty we made:

In 1995, at the age of fifteen, I started making my first feature-length film, Dark Side of the Earth, an ambitious Star Wars rip-off shot in back gardens with props made of Lego and cardboard boxes. This was ostensibly my GCSE Media Studies coursework, and you can read my production diary – complete with irreverent latter-day annotations – here.

But I quickly found that the friends I roped into acting in these films were most willing when the subject matter was comedy. Bob the Barbarian and two sequels (40 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes long respectively) drew their influences from Monty Python, The Young Ones, Bottom, Newman and Baddiel’s Rest in Pieces, The Naked Gun, and French and Saunders’ film spoofs.

My Sanyo Video8 camcorder
My Sanyo Video8 camcorder

Throughout this time, I taught myself through trial and error. Back then there was no internet, no DVD extras. I was inspired by Don Shay and Jody Duncan’s book The Making of Jurassic Park, and I read Camcorder Monthly. Perhaps the most useful stuff I learnt was from a series of VHS tapes produced by the Burgess Video Group – available at a discount price with a voucher from Camcorder Monthly – in which a soft-spoken Welshman demonstrated such core concepts as The Line of Action and The Rule of Thirds. I was always ahead of the scarce nuggets of useful information which my media studies teacher could impart.

A lot of my editing was done in camera, rewinding the tape, painstakingly cueing it up and hitting record at just the right moment to produce a continuous scene on tape. Somehow I accumulated VCRs in my bedroom, always badgering Mum and Dad to buy a new one for the living room so I could have the old one. Scenes that couldn’t be edited in camera were done tape-to-tape between the camcorder and VCR or two VCRs, without an edit controller. I became an expert at judging the VCRs’ pre-roll times, hitting the record button exactly 21 frames before the point when I needed it to start recording. Music and sound effects were triggered by my ST or played in off cassette or CD and mixed live through a four channel disco mixer, again from Tandy.

By the time I was forced to quit amateur filmmaking at the age of seventeen, due to my repertoire of “actor” friends being sick of it, I had made well over 50 videos of varying length and quality. Okay, the quality didn’t vary that much. Between wrist-slashingly bad and merely quite poor.

In 1998, having finished Sixth Form with very respectable grades – the lowest, ironically, in Media Studies – I took a gap year and applied to various universities’ Film and TV Production courses. That autumn David Abbott showed me a cutting from the local newspaper which his mum had saved: The Rural Media Company in Hereford were inviting applications a to three week filmmaking course which would culminate in assisting professionals on a 16mm short film shoot. This course was my first contact with the film and TV industry, and still probably ranks amongst the five best shoots I’ve ever been on. The director of photography advised me against going to university, telling me that on-set experience was far more valuable in this industry.

The stunning animatronic robot I engineered for Dark Side of the Earth
The stunning animatronic robot I engineered for Dark Side of the Earth in 1995

I took his advice, cancelled my UCAS application, and began writing to TV companies looking for work as a camera assistant. And here’s where I think I might have made a mistake. Instead of pursuing this angle, moving to London and knocking on doors until I was gainfully employed in film and TV camera departments and could start working my way up the totem pole, I got diverted into the emerging arena of micro-budget DV filmmaking, which is where I’ve been stuck ever since.

On the way to the premiere of Lonesome Takeaway, the 16mm short, I got talking to Jane Jackson, the head of production from Rural Media. I mentioned to her that I’d recently appeared on Lee and Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy on BBC 2, winning a competition to make the best cress advert, using the skills I’d taught myself doing those 50-odd amateur films. “We can always use people who can compose a shot,” Jane said. “Send us your reel.” I did, and she obviously saw something in those ropey amateur films of mine, because she soon started hiring me. Within a year I’d quit my office job and moved to Hereford because I was getting so much work from Rural Media.

The company had just bought Final Cut Pro, but no-one there knew how to use it. I took the manual home, read it cover to cover, came back and cut some footage that no-one else wanted to cut. That made me an asset to the company and they kept coming back to me.

My friend Matt Hodges and I pose with the Histor and Pliny puppets behind the scenes of Lee and Herring's This Morning With Richard Not Judy
My friend Matt Hodges and I pose with the Histor and Pliny puppets behind the scenes of Lee and Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy

And a large proportion of the paid work I’ve done since then can be traced back to Rural Media in some way: I work regularly for Catcher Media, run by Rick Goldsmith, who freelanced alongside me at Rural Media in the early days; for many years I made training videos for Lessons Learned, who initially called Rural Media, having found them in the Yellow Pages, but were told that they didn’t do that kind of work but to call Neil Oseman instead; and regular clients Tim Kidson and Nelson Thornes got in touch with me through Catcher Media and Lessons Learned respectively.

Yes, I get the occasional (very occasional) paid gig through Shooting People or similar networks, and yes, a major client while I was living in London was a company that came to me via the sound mixer on my own feature film, Soul Searcher, but for the most part my ability to make a living with a camera is due to getting involved with a company that was at the hub of filmmaking in an area where the media community was very small and tight-knit. And it was just dumb luck that all this happened at the time of the Mini-DV revolution, when it suddenly became possible to make videos of a decent quality for far less money than previously, and lots of new companies were springing up and looking for people who could operate a camera and an NLE.

So that’s the story of how I got to where I am today. Of course I’m always striving to move forward, to keep learning, to do more drama, to work with bigger crews, bigger budgets and reach bigger audiences. The story goes on…

How I Started Out