Mixing Amelia’s Letter

Nico Metten works on the mix of Amelia’s Letter

Yesterday I attended the final sound mix for Amelia’s Letter, the short supernatural drama I directed last year for writer Steve Deery and producer Sophia Ramcharan. This is always one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking process; all the hard work of generating the material is done, and it’s just about arranging those materials in the right proportions to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

Mixing is harder the more tracks of sound you have. It took Neil Douek and I forever to wrangle the layers and layers of audio I’d laid into a decent mix for Soul Searcher (listen to a breakdown here), and The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot was a delicate balancing act with swordfight SFX, dialogue and a big orchestral score all going on at the same time (watch an interview with the mixer here). Stop/Eject, being quieter and less complex, was a breeze to mix (read the blog post here).

Amelia’s Letter was a little more complex than Stop/Eject, but not much. It was my third collaboration with gifted sound designer Henning Knoepfel, and my fourth with the equally gifted composer Scott Benzie, who both gave us excellent material to work with. In the pilot’s seat for the mix was Nico Metten of Picture Sound. Although I hadn’t worked with him before, he was very much in tune with what I wanted from the mix. In a nutshell, the brief was: make it scary.

If Amelia’s Letter succeeds, and I think it does, it should be by turns unnervingly scary and heart-breakingly sad. I did research the horror genre when I embarked on the project, but for the latter stages of preproduction and during the shoot (basically, whenever I was dealing with the actors) the important thing was that the characters worked and were empathetic; the sadness would naturally follow. I tried to avoid thinking of the film in horror terms at all during that stage.

Recording one last sound effect...
Recording one last sound effect…

But once we got to post, it was time to start thinking about creeping out the audience, and downright scaring them. As the last stage in the audio chain, the mix needed to play a big part in this. Nico agreed, and had already added some extra creepy sounds by the time I arrived. As we went through, we added in more impacts to the jumpy moments, not forgetting to keep things quiet in the run-up to those moments to make them seem even louder by comparison.

Just as, during the picture edit, Tristan and I had been reminded of the power of NOT cutting, during the sound mix I was reminded of the power of subtracting sound, rather than always adding it. In a couple of key places we discovered that muting the first few bars of a music cue to let the SFX do the job made for much more impact when the music did come in.

But the mix wasn’t just about making it scary. The film climaxes with a sequence of flashbacks and revelations that was tricky to edit and still wasn’t quite doing what I wanted. It was only at the scoring and mixing stage that I was finally able to realise that a clear transition was needed halfway through the sequence; as I said to Nico, “At this point it needs to stop being scary and become sad.” In practice this meant dropping out the dissonant sounds and the ominous rumbling, even dropping out the ambience, and letting Scott’s beautifully sad music carry the rest of the scene.

It never ceases to amaze me how the story shines through in the end. You hack away at this lump of stone all through production and post, and at the end you’ve revealed a sculpture that – though in detail it may be different – follows all the important lines of the writer’s original blueprint.
Now begins the process of entering Amelia’s Letter into festivals…

Amelia’s Letter is a Stella Vision production in association with Pondweed Productions. Find out more at facebook.com/ameliasletter

Mixing Amelia’s Letter

Festival Screenings and DCPs

Stop-Eject poster 857x1200Last summer I completed two short films as director, the 17-minute fantasy-drama Stop/Eject and the two-minute  puppet fantasy The One That Got Away. After a year of entering them into festivals around the world without getting anywhere, I was beginning to give up hope of them ever getting selected. But I’m delighted to say that both have been recently accepted for festivals taking place this month.

Stop/Eject will get its world premiere at Raindance Film Festival in London. Raindance is amongst the UK’s most prestigious festivals, counting amongst its previous premieres Memento and The Blair Witch Project.

The One That Got Away will get its first overseas screening at Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival in Brazil.

The welcome news of these festival selections had me scrambling into the archives of this blog for the post I wrote last year on making a DCP (digital cinema package). Since the decline of film as an exhibition format, DCPs are the new standard for delivering movies to a cinema.

I needed to transcode The One That Got Away’s 1080P ProRes 422 (HQ) master into a DCP. Belo Horizonte accept 25fps DCPs, so I skipped the frame rate conversion. I dropped the ProRes file into a new timeline in Final Cut Pro and set the sequence frame size to 1998×1080, the standard resolution for a non-Cinemascope 2K DCP. I then used the Motion tab to blow up the image slightly to fill the width of the frame, losing a little at the top and bottom of the image in the process.

The_One_That_Got_Away_ posterI used Final Cut Pro’s ‘Export using Quicktime conversion’ to export the ProRes file as two mono WAVs and an 8-bit TIFF sequence. (16-bit is preferable for DCPs, but the film had been edited in Final Cut 7, which only deals with 8-bit colour space.) I then followed OpenDCP‘s straightforward three-step interface to transcode to JPEG-2000, then MXF, then wrap it all up with the XML files. I didn’t need to worry about disc formatting, because the festival accepted an FTP upload of the files.

Before uploading The One That Got Away’s DCP to the festival, I decided to test it at home as best as I could, so I downloaded a free trial of EasyDCP which let me check the first 15 seconds. The colours were screwed up, but that’s normal. Home computers can’t handle the XYZ colour space of DCPs.

Stop/Eject’s DCP was created last year, as documented in the post mentioned above, Making a DCP. I purchased a 500GB Lacie Rugged USB hard drive to put it on, not knowing at the time how big the files would be. I now know that 2K DCPs at a reasonable quality are about 1GB per minute, so Stop/Eject’s is 17GB. A memory stick big enough to put that on would have been expensive last June, perhaps more expensive than the Lacie Rugged. But over a year later, a Corsair 32GB USB 3.0 stick is only £15.45 and there are even cheaper brands on the market too. Plus, of course, a stick is much easier to post to a festival than a hard drive, and far less likely to get damaged on the way.

So I bought the Corsair stick and booted up my Mac in Ubuntu, as detailed in last year’s post. I formatted the stick as EXT-2 rather than 3, as Raindance’s documentation seemed to favour the former. I copied the files across from the Lacie Rugged. Then it was just a case of packaging it up and sending it off with back-up copies on DVD and Blu-ray, and a press kit for good measure.

Incidentally, Stop/Eject’s DCP runs at 24fps for maximum compatibility, extending the running time of the film by about 45 seconds over the original 25fps version. I had wondered for some time if, when the film finally got into a festival, this longer running time would be an issue. After all, at nearly 17 minutes at 25fps, Stop/Eject is quite a long short already. I’m told that Raindance almost decided against selecting it because of its length. And the judging panel had been watching a 25fps screener. How would they feel about screening an even longer version? I contacted the festival, explaining the situation and offering to make a 25fps DCP if need be, but they were fine with it running at 24fps. Apparently they allow for runtime discrepancy when scheduling.

Well, that all got very dry and technical, didn’t it?

Hurray! My films got into festivals!

Festival Screenings and DCPs

Amelia’s Letter: The Edit Continues

Tristan, Steve and insufficient chairs.
Tristan, Steve and insufficient chairs.

A week after the test screening, I sat down with editor Tristan Ofield in a corner of Steve Deery’s book depot to take a final pass at Amelia’s Letter. Steve balanced on a pile of boxes beside us. Who says exec producers get all the luxury?

The main aim of the day was to make the film clearer. This became a fascinating exercise with notes from the test screening like, “I didn’t get that Barbara was a writer,” although she spends most of her screen-time sitting at a typewriter. How could we configure these images to more effectively tell the audience that Barbara is a writer, without the benefit of dialogue or ridiculous captions? And without showing her actually writing, because the whole crux of the film is that she’s suffering from writer’s block – and that needs to come across too. How? By really getting into the nuts and bolts of how motion picture editing tells a story, that’s how.

The previous evening I’d been watching 2 Reel Guys, a YouTube series about the creative filmmaking process. It’s incredibly cheesy, and a little bit soporific, but it does make some excellent points. Like how just two different shots can be edited together in three different ways for very different effects.

So how did we make it clearer that Barbara was a writer suffering from block? First, Tristan altered the scene to open on a shot of Barbara standing thoughtfully over the typewriter, with the machine dominant in frame. He held the shot for quite a while to let the audience take it all in. “A reminder of the power of not cutting,” he pointed out.

The Letter of Undue Importance
The Letter of Undue Importance

The second step was for us to really consider when to cut to the keyboard, or to the blank paper. The scene’s previous iteration had started on the blank paper, but I think that image failed to sink in for viewers, who were too busy trying to work out where they were and what was going on. Moving it later in the scene made it much more powerful.

It was also important not to cut to something else at the wrong time. There was a cutaway of a letter that had to be included somewhere for plot reasons, but I was convinced that if we showed that immediately before the typewriter CU then we would be telling the audience that Barbara was trying to compose a reply to the letter. Context is everything in editing. Put a different shot before or after a certain shot and you can completely change the meaning of that shot. By cutting to the letter as Barbara puts a teacup down next to it, Tristan was able to avoid it gaining undue importance.

Tristan's got one of those proper, colour-coded editing keyboards. Cool.
Tristan’s got one of those proper, colour-coded editing keyboards. Cool.

Another big lesson/reminder of the day was: less is more. I had been feeling for a while that Amelia’s Letter had one too many layers of supernatural mystery. Would the film be clearer if one was removed?

Steve was sceptical, and understandably so. No writer loves having chunks of their material hacked out. But to his credit, he let Tristan and I try it. After watching this revised version through, all three of us were convinced it was the right decision. Everything else in the film had become stronger because this one thread had been removed. Minor characters gained more importance because they weren’t competing with the removed element, and major characters’ challenges and emotions shone through more clearly. And the audience would have a much better chance of solving the film’s two remaining mysteries without scatching their heads over the third one too.

At the end of the day, we left greatly satisfied with what we had accomplished. Soon Amelia’s Letter will enter the next phase of postproduction: sound design, music composition, grading and visual effects. Stay tuned.

Amelia’s Letter is written by Steven Deery, directed by me and produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions. Visit the Amelia’s Letter Facebook page.

Amelia’s Letter: The Edit Continues

Amelia’s Letter: Test Screening


On Saturday morning, Broadway in Nottingham kindly gave us the use of their lounge to screen the present edit of Amelia’s Letter to a select audience. As is normal for a test screening, the film is still in a very rough state, but the aim was to identify the weak points, primarily in terms of pace and clarity.

The audience was attentive and gave very useful feedback, though there wasn’t so much of a consensus as there has been at my previous test screenings. I think this might be par for the course for a film based on mystery. Some people like not knowing what’s going on, and some people don’t.

Personally, I like clarity. When I used to make amateur films as a teenager with my friend Dave, I remember how much it galled me when he reported that his mum had watched our latest cinematic effort and couldn’t follow the storyline. So I think we will do what we can, with the footage we have, to make Amelia’s Letter a little clearer.

Some people wanted the film to be longer, to reveal more about the minor characters, while others felt it could be shorter. Since we can’t make it longer, we’ll try to nibble some more out of the first few minutes to get it moving more quickly.

Test screenings usually throw up some surprises too, and this one was no exception. Some people briefly thought that a middle-aged character was supposed to be a future version of a younger character. (This is why, like Chris Jones says in The Guerilla Filmmakers’ Handbook, you should avoid casting actors that physically resemble each other.) And more than one person failed to realise that some minor characters were supposed to be writers, despite these characters spending much of their screen-time sat at typewriters. Who would have seen that one coming?

There was plenty of positive feedback. Amongst the words and phrases people could tick to describe the film, almost everyone ticked “well acted”, with “emotional”, “involving” and “I want to see it again” coming in joint second.

All in all, a useful exercise. Hopefully it won’t be long now before we can get the edit locked and move onto music, grading and sound design.

Amelia’s Letter: Test Screening

Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

Georgia Winters as Amelia
Georgia Winters as Amelia. Photo: Sophie Black

Working with editor Miguel Ferros on Stop/Eject in 2012/13 was a big eye-opener for me, demonstrating how much better my films could be if I didn’t edit them myself. It also helped me realise how little I like the isolated job of editing compared with the fun, stress and teamwork of being on set. Since then I’ve been gradually letting go of my editing work, both corporate and creative. My business card used to say ‘Director, Editor, DP’. Now it just says ‘Director, DP’.

Editing can be a thankless task, particularly in the corporate world. Once upon a time, when I had a cut I was happy with, I invited the client along to the edit suite, played it for them, then we discussed how it might be improved. But since broadband happened, clients wanted me to Dropbox the edit to them and then, rather than a creative discussion, I was typically emailed a list of instructions for changes. This is the point at which I would shut off my brain, carry out the instructions, often feeling that I was making the film worse, take the money and run.

So there’s much to be said for being in the same room as your editor. Not all the time, of course, but enough so that revisions can be made – or least discussed – collaboratively rather than imposed authoritatively.

Which is all pre-amble to saying that I travelled up to Nottingham yesterday to spend the day working with Tristan Ofield on the edit of Amelia’s Letter. He set up his Mac Mini in a darkened room in the Broadway and, after I popped out to be interviewed for the EPK, we got to work knocking the film into shape.

The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson
The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson

I hadn’t realised until then how difficult a film it must have been for Tristan to assemble: multiple time periods; intercutting scenes that were numbered separately on the page but shot together as one; a cheated geography of the cottage relative to the lake. The one advantage of editing your own film is that you know where everything is supposed to go, but Tristan had to figure it out the hard way. He’s put a lot of work into wrangling and shaping the material over the last few months.

It was a very productive day. We started at the beginning of the film and went steadily through, nipping, tucking and often completely rebuilding scenes. The film we had when we finished at 5pm was streets ahead of the one we had at 9am. We got the running time down from 15’30 to a much more festival-friendly 12 minutes, trimming most in the first few scenes to get the story going sooner. The emotional core of the film was already shining through in Tristan’s cut, but now the creepy and tense moments work nicely as well.

The next stage will be to screen the film for a test audience. This is an essential step I’ve taken with all my films since The Beacon in 2001, to make sure that the story is clear, the pacing is right and the desired emotions are coming across. For more on why test screenings are important, read my blogs about test-screening Stop/Eject and some of the problems that it highlighted.

Update: You can read Tristan’s thoughts on editing over at belowthelinefilm.blogspot.co.uk

Amelia’s Letter is written by Steven Deery and produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions. Visit the Amelia’s Letter Facebook page.

Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

The Importance of Sound Design

Here’s a quick demonstration of the huge difference that sound design can make. This video contains a scene from the final cut of Soul Searcher, but still with the original production sound, followed by the same scene after the processes of sound editing, design and mixing were completed.

The music makes a big difference, of course, but putting that to one side, the sound effects have really brought the scene to life. And bear in mind that I did the sound design on this film. If a proper, experienced sound designer had done it, I’m sure it would be a hundred times better still.

First of all, the location, the villain’s lair, has been given a character through atmos tracks. The fluorescent hum is actually a combination of an electricity substation, recorded outside a local shopping centre here in Hereford late one night, and my own voice humming, layered up several times. The human element adds some randomness and makes the sound more alive.

There’s also an airy sound which is my mum’s gas oven, representing a Bunsen Burner that’s established in the room earlier in the film. This high frequency sound lightens everything up and gives it a sense of space.

The thick chains which Danté is carrying were ingeniously made by production designer Ian Tomlinson out of rolled-up newspaper. Clearly it was necessary to replace the light, crinkly noises this made on set with the heavy clanks of genuine metal chain. These were sourced from an online library called Sounddogs.

The smaller chain was real metal, but you’ll notice in the production audio that what little sound it makes is weak and off-mike. This is absolutely normal; your sound recordist’s job is to get the dialogue as clearly as possible; everything else can be re-recorded in post and therefore each element can be miked closely for the best possible sound. Using a length of the chain which I had kept from production, I recorded the sounds of it being handled and dragged over the lip of the chest using a coffee table in my living room.

The chains are the MacGuffin of the story, so giving them thick, clean, satisfying sounds is vital to cement them as key elements in the audience’s mind.

Ideally the chest used as a prop would have been more ancient-looking, but that was the best one we were able to get on our budget. However, adding the sound of a friend’s squeaky bathroom doorknob as Danté opens the lid helped to age prop the little.

Finally, once all these lovely clean sound effects were track-laid, they were all treated with reverb by mixer Neil Douek, to help them feel real, to tie them all together, and to convey the scale of Danté’s lair.

How have you used sound design in your own films to help tell the story?

The Importance of Sound Design


Now online in full, for the first time: my 2011 comedy documentary Video-8. It’s the hilarious story of me and my old schoolmates reuniting to watch a terrible, terrible feature film we made when we were fifteen.

The full director’s journal I kept during the making of Dark Side of the Earth in 1995-96 can be read online, complete with irrevent present-day annotations, at www.darksideoftheearth.com/original


Cow Trek: Director’s Log

Back in 2000 I directed and co-produced a surreal Star Trek spoof written for me by my old schoolfriend Matt Hodges. Although it was made a few months before I started blogging, the website did feature a retrospective production diary, and today I’m going to share that with you. But first, here’s the film…

Who is that handsome young fellow?
Who is that handsome young fellow?

To find out how the project came about, in a strange little Malvern pub called The Prince of Wales, read the production notes on Cow Trek’s film page. And here’s the shoot diary…

Sunday, December 17, 2000

There are two Hereford-Worcester roads. Each one has a pub named The Wheatsheaf on it. These are facts. I know them. I did not know them before this day. And that’s what made us an hour and a half late as we roamed the Bromyard Downs in my mum’s little Peugot, with an unfeasible amount of equipment (and lard) in the back, at a unfeasibly early time on an unfeasibly cold Sunday morning, trying to find an unfeasibly unfindable farm.

All of this time, Matt was sat in a very uncomfortable position in the rear right seat, or what would have been the rear right seat, had it not been folded down to fit more gear in, effectively encasing the unfortunate Mr. Hodges in a metal box constructed from grip equipment and plastic poles. And a piratical wheel. Sometimes, I suspect Matt may regret writing Cow Trek.

Mike Hodges as Farmer Blackbeard
Mike Hodges as Farmer Blackbeard

Still, we got there in the end, and eventually filmed our first shot, with Mike (Farmer Blackbeard) having quickly learnt the intricacies of tractor operation. It was then that Julia Evans, head honcho of Longlands Farm, asked us exactly what we needed to film. When I mentioned a cow in a field, she was very surprised. She had no idea. The cows were in barns. Fields would be tricky. Very tricky.

Closing my mind to the fevered panic which threatened to engulf my very soul (and a fair bit of my hair as well), I pressed on with the two farmyard scenes featuring the main dialogue twixt brothers Hodges. Once Matt had donned a flat cap, he looked more like a farmer than you could possibly imagine. Big sideburns are surprisingly agricultural. (Perhaps Matt’s next script should be about a ska band that are also farmers.)

It didn’t take long for me to start getting paranoid and shooting far too many takes and angles of everything, but we weren’t on a particularly tight schedule so it didn’t really matter. The first yard scene had that tacky low budget look with the two actors looking at a cow “that’s there, honest, but it’s just out of frame so you can’t see it”. Oh well.

Writer Matt Hodges in his role as Farmer Giles
Writer Matt Hodges in his role as Farmer Giles

As the sun went down, we repaired to the farm’s study, where we promptly set up a whole bunch of lights in an attempt to make it look like day. Muchos comedy ensued as Mike improvised a sequence in which he swapped his hook hand for a biro appendage to sign his cheque, and then impaled it on the aforementioned appendage to hold it out to Farmer Giles.

Monday, December 18, 2000

Having discovered, to my horror, that sound man David Abbott’s car had broken down, I was forced to get my mum to take us to the farm today.

Arriving at the delightful time of 8:00am, we were kindly provided with a cup of tea by Julia, who then dutifully got two cows from the barn and put them in the paddock near the farmhouse. Sipping our tea gratefully, we watched Julia and her husband chasing one of the cows around, trying to get it into the field. We opted to make the other cow our star.

As Matt had been saying for some time, the cow’s action consisted primarily of eating grass and walking along. This would not take all day, he insisted. Always the professional (read: know-it-all), I was more conservative. However, that cheeky bugger Matt turned out to completely right. Julia helped us out with the walking bits, shooing the cow up and down the lane. We were completely unable to get the beast to stand still next to Matt (a cutaway for the yard scene), but you can’t have everything.

The starring cow
The starring cow

I was loath to broach the subject of bovine sexual congress with Julia, as she had been so helpful thusfar, despite having clearly not been briefed as fully as I had hoped on what we were going to need. An effect, I decided. It would be tricky, but what the hell?

And at about midday, we realised we’d finished. Buggery. Mum wasn’t picking us up till 6:00pm. We killed the afternoon filming extra cow shots, recording sound effects and sitting around in the farm house.

In the evening I went up to Chris Jenkins’ abode, for ’twas he that was providing a basement as a studio for the spaceship interiors. We had spent all of Saturday working on the set, but had progressed considerably less quickly, and considerably more expensively, than I had anticipated. Even the Hodges’ input on console construction had not brought us up to speed. But by the end of Monday night I was confident that we had done enough groundwork to allow Tuesday afternoon’s filming to start on time.

How wrong I was…

Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Actor Si Dovey (in red shirt) and I (in gillette, I regret to say) move a set panel into place while David Abbott adjusts the jib. Actor and composer Chris Jenkins, whose mother owned this basement, is in the yellow shirt.
Actor Si Dovey (in red shirt) and I (in gillette, I regret to say) move a set panel into place while David Abbott adjusts the jib. Actor and composer Chris Jenkins, whose mother owned this basement, is in the yellow shirt.

I can’t for the life of me remember what took us so long on Tuesday morning. We had been scheduled to finish the set between 10am and 2pm, then film the Engineering Room scenes until 5:30. In the end, we didn’t shoot a thing until 4:00pm.

Late in the morning, I sent David out to get some gerbils. Directing him to the only pet shop I knew of in Malvern, with additional instructions to pick up some extra hardboard for the set, I was extremely pleased when he turned up an hour later with three hamsters. It was around this time that Chris’ sister Sarah became an inpromptu member of the crew, looking after the gerbils and making (occasionally) helpful comments as we affixed three plastic wheels to the fake walls and inserted rodents into them. Praise the Lord, the little blighters actually went round in them! Sadly we couldn’t get them all to go round at once, but I was happy enough.

Finally Jim got to do some “acting”. The script described Engineer McHaggis as “an overly Scottish man” who does “overly Scottish things”. Jim’s interpretation of the character, combined with the poor selection of Scottish items which were available to dress the set, is best described as “a barely Scottish man doing barely Scottish things”. Not only was he incapable of doing the accent, he also couldn’t deliver a long line, forcing me to cut the scene.

Oh Jim, why?

Lee Richardson (Captain Lightstar), Chris Jenkins (Ensign Lancer) and Si Dovery (Lieutenant Steeljaw) rehearse their lines.
Lee Richardson (Captain Lightstar), Chris Jenkins (Ensign Lancer) and Si Dovery (Lieutenant Steeljaw) rehearse their lines.

Wednesday, December 20, 2000

I don’t know at what point I realised that this day had about 50% of the film’s total running time scheduled to be shot on it, but I was brown-trousering when I did. However, I reasoned with myself, there were no animals today. Just lots of big dialogue scenes. But all in one location. Easy, right?

Two and a half hours after our scheduled start time, we had finally constructed the sliding door for the bridge set and were ready to shoot. Once we got going, we rocketed through it. Again, loads of takes were needed – this time because my shotlist called for complex tracks/cranes combined with multiple focus pulls, and I kept arsing them up.

I was annoyed when, about five scenes in, I had to rearrange my lovely lighting set-up in order to make way for an extra wall section. It never looked as good after that.

Lee managed to get his arse out. A deliberate out-take – the sliding door opens and there are the hairy cheeks of the Tuxman’s posterior.

Somehow we wrapped five minutes ahead of schedule, but there was then lots of clearing up to do. The mighty director was reduced to scrubbing the carpet, as it transpired that the dust sheets I had used whilst painting the set were of insufficient thickness, and the paint had seeped through to the carpet. I am told that those patches are now the only clean areas of the carpet.

Cow Trek: Director’s Log

Designing Amelia’s Letter

Amy Nicholson
Amy Nicholson. Photo: Colin Smith

Production designer Amy Nicholson is no stranger to period settings and low budgets. I spent all of last September in France lighting her impressive work, so when I came to crew up Amelia’s Letter, she was the only person I considered to create the script’s four distinct periods. I’ve asked her to share her experiences of the design process on this demanding short film. 

I met Neil as a DOP on The First Musketeer, a rather intense but wonderful project. He instantly won my respect and acclaim with consistently superb lighting, a real appreciation for prop details and generally being a nice guy to work with. [Neil quietly slips Amy a tenner.] So when he approached me about designing Amelia’s Letter which he would be directing, I couldn’t help but say yes, despite a recent promise to myself not to take on any more freebies.    

Amelia (Georgia Winters) in 1903
The eponymous Amelia (Georgia Winters) and her equally eponymous letter, in 1903

The script filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. On the one hand it was my dream job with four different time periods (including my favourite, 1930s) and a gothic style, but on the other hand the level of art required to do this project was massive.

The original budget set by the production wouldn’t cover the acquisition of the named props let alone any effective dressing. Luckily for me they listened to my cause and agreed to increase the figure to a point my most optimistic budget might stretch to. This was fantastic but of course still set me up on my biggest challenge ever! 

Barbara (Tina Harris) in 1939
Barbara (Tina Harris) in 1939

I was part of early conversations and visits to locations, and with Neil agreed what could work best.  This collaboration between a director and production designer is fantastic and really builds the strength and vision of a piece. The chosen location was a little semi derelict cottage at Newstead Abbey. The architecture was stunning and although the worn state and small size of the building would present big challenges, the opportunity to do whatever we wanted and really transform the main room for each time period was incredible. 

Charles (Francis Adams) in 1969
Charles (Francis Adams) in 1969

The main focus of the design and plot revolved around a period desk. Therefore it was important to get this piece right and plan all other design factors around this key item. I spent days searching for the right one, regularly sending images back and forth to Neil for an opinion. I wouldn’t normally bug a director in this way but the desk really had to support the action and shots effectively, so was crucial. I was pleased to learn that Neil was of the opinion that in this case the look of something was more important than the true accuracy of period, so this gave me a little flexibility. I eventually found the perfect piece, a 1909 roll top desk. The age and style was ever so slightly too modern but the detail and quality of wood far outweighed the five years of inaccuracy. Unfortunately the desk was 150 miles away and featured quite a bit of damage. So a road trip to collect the desk and some renovations by my dad ensued. Dad also constructed a bespoke locking drawer needed for the action. This proved a great deal of effort but worth it to get the right piece. 

There were a few other items I had to buy, including a 1930s radio, but on the whole I was able to source everything else from my personal prop store and generally doing a bit of beg, steal and borrow from friends, family and the crew. I also befriended a local antique shop and was able to hire many dressing items really cheaply. Having many sources in this way really makes a budget stretch but always involves a lot of time spent collecting, sorting and returning.

Choosing paint colours should have been quite easy but the best colours are always the most expensive and with four colours required in just three days it took careful consideration. Neil and I agreed a pallet of colours which would look good on camera and distinguish each period. He requested that the colours get bolder throughout to suit the narrative, but on a practical front this also ensured only a single coat was needed on the walls, saving time and money. I bought patterned rollers to achieve an easy wallpaper effect for both 1903 and 1969. This was a new toy for me and proved a fantastic effect that I will certainly be using again. 

Some of the present day set dressing
Some of the present day set dressing

On set I had a superb team to support with all the redressing. It was like 60-minute makeover each time we transformed to a new period and I was so impressed and grateful that all the crew got involved at some point to help us out. Once each transformation was complete the cast and crew consistently let out a genuine ‘wow’ making the art team feel very proud. 

I was truly pleased with each of the sets and it was really special seeing them combined with some effective costume design by Sophie Black, impressive lighting by Alex Nevill and intense actor performances. I can’t wait to see the finished film, as I’m confident it will be something of beauty!

Visit Amy’s website at www.amynicholson.net.

For the latest updates on Amelia’s Letter, like the Facebook page. The film is produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions.

Designing Amelia’s Letter

Thank You

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

Thank you to everyone who made Stop/Eject‘s third crowd-funding campaign such a huge success. We set a target of £400, but we smashed through that early on and ended up at £600 when the campaign ended on Sunday. That makes £4,800 raised in total for this little fantasy-drama since 2012. The new funds will pay for entry into another 20 or so film festivals around the world.

It was also an opportunity for the small but loyal fanbase we’ve built up over the last couple of years to get their own copies of the film. I’m now in the process of getting the extra discs duplicated and I’ll be posting them out as soon as they’re ready.

Thanks again for your support, everyone.

Thank You