The reason it’s been so quiet on the blog here is that I’ve insanely taken on producing a no-budget fantasy-adventure web series, Ren: The Girl with the Mark. Readers with long memories may recall I was the DP on the first season way back in 2014, and got involved with post throughout 2015 and into 2016 when it was released. Well, now I’m the showrunner!
I’ve launched a Patreon page to fund the series as an ongoing concern, and you’ll need to subscribe to read it regularly, but here are the first two entries to whet your appetite. Please consider joining our Patreon community to get exclusive behind-the-scenes access, fiction from the world of Ren and much more.
The STory So Far
Let me start by bringing you up to date with where we are now.
Season One of Ren: The Girl with the Mark was released in March 2016, created and written by Kate Madison and Christopher Dane, and directed by Kate. (I joined as the director of photography and ended up as part of the core team who shepherded the show through post-production.) The series went on to win 14 international awards from over 40 nominations, and today has about 14 million aggregate episode views on YouTube – an amazing response!
For one reason and another it wasn’t until 2019 that we started gearing up for Season Two. Kate and I wrote the scripts with Ash Finn and Ashram Maharaj, and in early 2020 we ran a Kickstarter to finance new episodes on a bigger scale than the first season. Sadly that Kickstarter campaign was unsuccessful, and just a few weeks later the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK, which seemed to draw a permanent line under the project.
Cut to: six months later. It’s the second lockdown and, like a lot of people, I’m super bored. To kill some time I thought it would be fun to write a new draft of Ren Season Two. My goal was to address some problems that had been flagged up with the 2019 draft while keeping as much of the good material as possible. Pretty soon I realised that I needed to know what would happen in Season Three in order to give Season Two the right ending, so I wrote that too.
“Well, that was fun,” I thought when I had finished, and forced myself to put it away and focus on other things.
Almost two years passed. The pandemic receded. And I had an itch. A voice in the back of my head saying, “What if…?”
Finally, around September 2022, I asked Kate and Chris if they would consider letting me take the show on. I had given it some serious thought. After the 2020 Kickstarter didn’t succeed I knew that the new season would have to be made on the same small scale as the first one, with an entirely unpaid cast and crew. I also knew that no big streamer or Hollywood studio was going to come along and wave a magic wand to transform it into a big-budget production, because if that was going to happen it would have happened back in 2016. But Kate and Chris had achieved amazing things on their tiny Season One budget, thanks in no small part to a dedicated amy of volunteers, and I believed I could do the same.
Kate and Chris read my version of the script, they felt it was in keeping with the world they had created, and they trusted me to produce something that would be faithful to the legacy of Season One. Even better, they agreed to each direct an episode!
Kicking OFf 2023
Thanks to everyone who’s joined this community so far! We haven’t even launched it on social media yet – that’s coming later this month – so it’s great to have so many of you eager to be involved.
Things have really started to kick off on Ren Season Two in the last few weeks.
Some of you will remember Born of Hope, Kate Madison’s phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings fan film from 2009. For that film a wooden hand-cart was constructed by Mike Rudin. It then appeared a couple of times in Season One of Ren, and has been living in her front garden ever since. Over Christmas Mike picked it up and took it to his garage workshop where he’ll be refurbishing it and turning it into a Kah’Nath prison cart that features in 202 (Season Two, Episode Two) and 203 (Season Two, Episode Three)… and again in Season Three… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
Meanwhile Hans Goosen, who helped make the reather for Season One as well as various other props, and appeared as both a villager and a Kah’Nath soldier, is making some of the new coins in the Alathian currency. I say “new” – they were all designed for Season One by James Ewing and Christopher Dane but only the boars and kings were actually made. Hans is now completing the set with horses, stags, eagles and wolves. First though he had to work out what each one is worth to create a realistic currency system – more on that in a future lore post!
Ronin Traynor, who returns as stunt co-ordinator for Season Two, has already planned and videoed the choreography for part of the knife fight in 204.
Locations have been the biggest area of our focus, however. Whereas Season One was mostly set in Lyngarth, Ren’s village, Season Two is all about Ren and Hunter’s journey to find the Archivist. Just yesterday Ash Finn went up to the Peak District to look at a potential location for Tarik’s Mill, a place mentioned in Season One but not yet seen. We are also considering locations in South Wales and near Portsmouth as well as in Cambridgeshire, so we’re going to be racking up the miles!
We’re also looking for a studio space to base ourselves in. If anyone knows of a barn or warehouse type of building in Cambridgeshire that might be available at an affordable rate, please let me know!
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the fantasy web series with over 8 million views and 14 international awards which I’m the DP on, is crowdfunding new episodes right now. Of all the projects I’ve ever worked on, there are few that I’m as proud of as I am of Ren.
There are many awesome rewards on offer, including DVDs, downloads, collectables and unique on-set experiences.
One of the rewards is getting access to a new Cinematic Lighting course which I’ve made. Across four one-hour modules, I set up, light and shoot little scenes inspired by Ren on real locations with real actors, along the way explaining every decision I make.
Another reward is the Cinematographer Experience, where you get to spend a day on set with me, picking my brains, learning from everyone in the camera and lighting departments, and you get access to the lighting plans and shot lists, and you can take part in a group chat with me after we’ve wrapped.
Other filmmaking-related rewards are the Director Experience and the Downloads & Vlogs package which includes access to exclusive behind-the-scenes video blogs from every day of the shoot.
Back in 2013 I wrote a blog about Poor Man’s Process, a low-tech method of faking shots inside a supposedly moving car, using lighting gags and camera movement to sell the illusion. But Poor Man’s Process doesn’t have to be limited to cars.
While gaffering for DP Paul Dudbridge on By Any Name, we had to tackle a nighttime scene in which the hero flees through a forest. Rather than trying to get close-ups with any kind of tracking rig, Paul decided to use a technique apparently favoured on Lost, whereby the actor and camera are stationary, and lights and branches are moved around them to create the impression of movement.
It worked a treat, so when faced with a very similar scene on Ren, I shamelessly ripped Paul off. The actors weren’t sure; they felt pretty silly running on the spot, but we persevered. My lighting set-up used the 2.5K HMI, already rigged for earlier shots, as a side key, and an LED panel as three-quarter backlight. Branches were waved in front of both to throw shadows, and I shook the camera a lot.
Poor Man’s Process was required a second time on the series, in the very last scene, on the very last day of the shoot.
By this time we were one big happy family and we were all having far too much fun. Gaffer Squish was singing “One Day More” from Les Miserables, actor Duran was riding Tony The Phony Pony like a rodeo champ, candy was being freely imbibed and marshmallows were being toasted. The Poor Man’s shot seemed more like an extension of us all just larking about than anything else.
Ren and Hunter were required to ride off into the moonlight on a single horse, but the horse in question was quite jumpy and not safe for the actors to ride. Designer Chris and production assistant Claire knocked up the highly impressive phony pony, which was used extensively, but moving it fast enough for the final shot was out of the question.
So Tony remained stationary while Claire, her sister Alex and producer Michelle threw dignity to the wind and ran around with bits of trees.
I was using the 2.5K HMI as backlight, and a 1.2K HMI bounced off Celotex as a side key. Claire, I think, was on the 2.5K, jiggling a branch about to create some nice dynamism cutting up the hard backlight. Alex, if I recall rightly, was doing a windmill action with her branch in front of the Celotex. Michelle, meanwhile, stood ready with her branch until director Kate called “Tree!”, at which point Michelle would run past at full pelt and Sophie (Ren) would duck under the branch she was supposedly riding by.
You can see some behind-the-scenes footage in Lensing Ren episode 5.
Aided by smoke, a wind machine and the obligatory camera shake, the whole thing was quite effective. Less so the Epping Forest shots, which didn’t make the final cut. Somehow the running-on-the-spot was never quite convincing. Not enough choppy shadows, maybe?
My last project was a $4 million feature, but even that called for Poor Man’s in one instance. A small train carriage set piece had to appear to be moving as our heroes jumped onto it, so in front of each light we placed a ‘branch-a-loris’, a kind of man-powered windmill made from scaff tube and branches. Again lots of smoke, wind and camera shake were employed to sell the illusion.
I think Poor Man’s Process is one of my favourite techniques. It doesn’t always work, but if there’s enough movement in the camera and the lighting, and it’s cut in with genuine wide shots, it can often be extremely effective.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please do me a little favour and vote for Ren: The Girl with the Mark in the Melbourne Web Fest Audience Award Poll (find us in the drama section). It only takes a moment!
Season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark has come to an end, and to ease the pain a little, here’s one last video breakdown of the show’s cinematography. This week I talk about the exterior scenes from daylight through sunset to night.
Here is the lighting plan for the final scene:
Check out the article I wrote during the shoot about the sunset scene if you’re still hungry for details. And here is an unpublished blog post I wrote during the shoot about the village night exteriors…
The last two days of principal photography on Ren were actually night shoots. It was great to take the village set that I’d shot in natural light for five weeks and chuck some of my own light at it.
In his American Cinematographer interview about The Monuments Men (February 2014), Phedon Papamichael said, “My big night-exterior lighting setups usually have one source” – often a backlight, judging by the examples given in the article – “and then I use whatever practicals are in the shot.” My approach is much the same, though a big source for me is a 2.5K HMI, not an Arri T12, sadly!
I knew our key shot was going to be Ren’s POV looking up the street to the Kah’Nath Master flanked by several archers, with Karn and Baynon in the background. I set up my 2.5K dead in the back of the shot, its stand hidden by the furthest house facade.
The plan was for the archers to light their arrows from two braziers, one either side of the street, so Chris Dane and Amanda Stekly dressed these in accordingly. I set up an Arrilite 800 near each one, choosing Urban Sodium gel to give the “firelight” a grungy colour appropriate to the bad guys. (I was shooting on a tungsten white balance to turn the HMI moonlight blue.)
Chris – by this time well-attuned to my lighting needs – also rigged a third brazier to act as the key light for himself (Karn) and James Malpas (Baynon), towards the back of the set. The Arrilite for this one I gelled with full CTO for a yellower, friendlier colour.
All three Arrilites were run through in-line dimmers, and various bystanders were co-opted to flicker them throughout the evening.
I rigged a Cyclotron behind the window of the background house – four 100W bulbs under a sheet of CTO, wired to Colin’s dimmer board so they too could be flickered, suggesting firelight inside the house.
I figured that the front of this house would still be very dark, being out of range of the Arrilites and facing away from the HMI, so I had gaffer Richard Roberts rig a Celotex board to bounce some of the HMI light back onto it. As it turned out, when it got dark and we fired everything up, there was lots of bounce off the set pieces closest to the HMI anyway. This was a nice bonus that gave us more options when blocking Karn and Baynon’s actions, without having to set up extra lamps.
When the braziers were lit and the Master and soldiers strode onto the set in their awesome costumes (courtesy of Miriam Spring Davies and stand-in wardrobe supervisor Claire Finn), we all felt we had a truly epic sequence in the can.
If you’ve missed any of Lensing Ren or Ren itself, here’s a playlist featuring every episode of the fantasy series, interspersed with the corresponding cinematography breakdowns:
On Tuesday the penultimate episode of Ren: The Girl with the Mark was released and so here’s my video breaking down the cinematography of that fourth episode. This week I cover lighting the guardroom and the prison cell, and demonstrate cross-backlighting.
Here are the lighting plans for the guardroom and the cell:
You may also be interested to read the blog I wrote during the shoot about Lighting the Prison Cell, and my post explaining the technique of Cross-backlighting. And here is an unpublished post I wrote during the shoot about the guardroom….
The guard room shoot came at the end of a long and intense week of shooting interiors. By Sunday most of the lead actors had left, we had crested the hill and the end of principal photography was in sight. The atmosphere was even more relaxed and informal than usual, particularly as everyone’s favourite spouter of inappropriate comments, Richard “Squish” Roberts, was playing the lead jailor.
Ren’s bedroom had been repainted and redressed to be the Kah’Nath guard room. This meant a single, small window again, and as usual I couldn’t resist blasting a 2.5K HMI through there for a shaft of hot, smoky sunlight.
I wanted to highlight the rack of swords next to the window, which the shaft of light wasn’t catching, so I used a variant on my Window Wrap technique. I put a 2′ 4-bank kinoflo outside the window at such an angle as to light up the swords without blocking any of the HMI light.
I was interested to find that the art team had done something a bit different with the room’s candles, hanging a cluster of them from an overhead beam. I asked for the “table” (actually a barrel) – where the guards would be playing a board game – to be placed directly under that.
The candles wouldn’t shed light directly down on the game in the classic single-light-source-coming-straight-down-onto-the-poker-table style, but I felt it would give me an excuse to cross-backlight. I clamped a Dedo to the top of each side of the set, each one spotted on one of the two characters who would face each other across the barrel.
These Dedos couldn’t be flickered, being the kind which go into a single control box with only three discreet settings for brightness. So to introduce some dynamics, and soften the light a bit, I clipped a dimmable 100W bulb to either side of the beam from which the candles hung. This would also ensure that Hunter would be lit when he stood next to the barrel.
An additional light source in the set was a small brazier on the wall next to the dungeon door. This seemed bright enough to shed plenty of light by itself, particularly as Squish would be standing right next to it for a large part of the scene.
The final touch for lighting was to re-use the fake door to create the effect of daylight spilling in as characters exited and entered from off camera. This time I placed an LED fresnel behind it.
Check back next Saturday for another instalment of Lensing Ren, and meanwhile watch the next episode of Ren itself from Tuesday at 8pm GMT at rentheseries.com
It’s the mid-point of season one of Ren: The Girl with the Mark and here’s my video breaking down the cinematography of that third episode. Topics covered this week include grip equipment, aspect ratio, smoke and faking candlelight.
Here is the lighting plan for Ren’s bedroom:
There is more on simulating firelight in my First Musketeer blog post Candlelight.
For my thoughts on composing for the cinemascope aspect ratio, take a look at 2.39:1 Composition.
Here is the first in a series of cinematography videos I’m publishing to compliment the five episodes of Ren: The Girl with the Mark as they are released over the coming weeks. These videos will tell you the how, what and why of photographing the show. This week I discuss the camera equipment used, differentiating characters photographically, and lighting Karn’s magical woodland house.
Here is the lighting plan for Karn’s house:
And here is a video blog from the set of Karn’s house:
You may be interested to read my article on Masculine and Feminine Lighting, which gives some more detail on the techniques used to light Ren and Karn in the riverside scene.
In the autumn of 2014 I served as director of photography on Ren: The Girl with the Mark, an incredibly ambitious short-form fantasy series, and have since been assisting with postproduction in various ways. Now that season one of the show is complete and ready to show to the public at last, I took the opportunity to sit down with director Kate Madison and ask her about some of the unique aspects of the show’s production…
Kate, many people will know you as the director, producer, co-writer, actor and general driving force behind Born of Hope, a Lord of the Rings fan film with over 35 million YouTube views. Did that film’s success open any doors for you, and what was the journey from there that led you to want to make a web series?
Born of Hope potentially opened doors even if they weren’t visible doors, in the sense that although it didn’t result in Hollywood coming calling, it created a a bit of a buzz and it became known in the industry. Myself and Christopher Dane [the lead actor] did start work on a fantasy feature film script called The Last Beacon and spent time trying to pursue that avenue. That then led into another feature film idea, so we were looking down the route of a feature film rather than anything else, and spent what felt like a number of years just not going anywhere.
I started thinking, what can we actually do when we don’t know investors or people with money. We concluded that with the internet – there’s an audience there, our audience is there. The crowdfunding thing which worked for Born of Hope is online, so we need to go back to that.
Many people will ask, “Why fantasy when there are so many cheaper and easier genres?” How do you respond to that?
For me, film and TV is about escapism, so I enjoy action-adventures and comedies and historical stuff – things that are not Eastenders. Fantasy is a huge genre. To me it’s a way to have the freedom to do whatever you want. I can take things I like – historical things, costumes, set design – and the joy of fantasy over period is, you can go, “I’m going to use this Viking purse with this medieval-looking helmet!” I like the freedom of fantasy. You can still have a character-driven, interesting story, set in somewhere fantastical, or even just a forest. There’s no dragons or creatures in Ren – so far – but the options are there, that’s the joy of it.
There was an enormous amount of goodwill and legions of volunteers who helped with Born of Hope. How important were those people, and finding others like them, when it came to making Ren?
Hugely important! Born of Hope could not have been made without a ton of volunteers, having no budget at all. With Ren, because we were in a similar position – which was a shame really, after all that time we still hadn’t got a big enough budget – we again had to rely on volunteers to make it possible!
There was an incredible sense of community, of shared ownership and very high morale throughout the production of Ren. Was it important to you to foster those things?
It’s incredibly important to keep morale high. I think it’s slightly easier when people are volunteering because they’re there because they want to be there and not just for the pay cheque. I was very keen to let everyone have fun on the project and also to have fun myself, because these projects are incredibly hard. So if the work was all done for the day, OK, I’m allowed to switch off now and grab a Nerf gun! People were staying there [at the studio], so they wanted to have a good time in the evening.
If we work a little later because there’s a break in the middle where we’re having a laugh, that means you can go later because everyone’s chilled rather than slogging away and not feeling like they’re enjoying themselves.
When people are volunteering, it feels like [the project] is everybody’s, and it is. People would come in and help and maybe end up designing a dress. The joy of filmmaking for me is the collaborative nature of it. There’s always someone behind you with an idea. You don’t feel like you’re ever on your own completely. If you’re at a loss, then someone else – whether it’s the DoP or the runner – [can suggest things].
Very few micro-budget productions have their own studio, but Ren took over a disused factory for several months. How did that come about, and what were the benefits of it?
The benefits were through the roof, I’d say! We wonder if the project would have happened without it.
As we were going through budgets and scouting locations, we realised how difficult it was going to be [to shoot on location] – the logistics of making the village look like the village in the script and what if it rained for that week [the location was booked for]? It was just terrifying.
We started to think, is there another option here? It was just luck that Michelle [Golder, co-producer], on a dog walk, got talking to someone who knew someone. He mentioned this place in Caxton which was really big but we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way and we could just take it over. We were going to get a really good deal because it was sitting empty. It was twice as much for six months in Caxton in comparison with six days on location. And we would have the freedom to build whatever we wanted! There was all this interior space we could build in but also have costume rooms and production offices.
I’ve always loved the idea of having a place to work where everyone can come together. It’s fantastic nowadays that you can communicate with people all over the world, but you can’t beat a face-to-face conversation with someone and being able to look at the same picture and point at it and talk about it. It meant we were able to achieve a lot more in scope but also in quality.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the production was creating a medieval village from scratch. Building the set, sourcing enough extras and costuming everybody were three massive challenges. How did you tackle those?
I live in Cloud Cuckoo land sometimes I guess! The set build, I thought, “It’s fine, we can do this, we can build this circular wall essentially with a few alleyways going off it and fill it with some market stalls.” Chris was in charge of building the set, and did an amazing job with a bunch of volunteers that came back over and over again. Although we bought a bunch of materials we made use of an amazing site called Set Exchange which is a sort of Freecycle for sets and we found a bunch of flats on there – that helped a lot.
Populating the village was always going to be challenging. Suzanne [Emerson] who also played the role of Ida got heavily involved in helping to find extras. She’s involved in a lot of the amateur dramatics in Cambridge. It was probably horrible [for Suzanne and Michelle] but an amazing miracle for us that we’d finish shooting one day and go, “You know we’re actually going to shoot that tomorrow and we need some people,” and then the next morning you’d turn up and people would show up to do it. We had varying numbers, but there was never a day when no-one showed up.
As for dressing them – we grabbed all of the Born of Hope costumes, Miriam [Spring Davies, costume designer] had a bunch of stock stuff as well. We ended up buying a bunch of things from New Zealand, from a costume house called Shed 11 that did Legend of the Seeker. The Kah’Nath armour came from Norton Armouries; John Peck – who had been involved with Born of Hope supplying stuff for orcs – I called on his good will again.
It was lovely to make the hero costumes from scratch. Miriam and I would go through the costume designs and then we went and looked at material. Chris and I randomly on a holiday to Denmark found some material we really liked for Karn’s tunic. Ren’s dress – I bought that material ages ago and it had been sitting around. Miriam and I took a trip to the re-enactors’ market as well. And we went to Lyon’s Leathers, spent what felt like a whole day wandering his amazing storeroom and picking out stuff for different characters, for Hunter’s waistcoat and Ren’s overdress, and we got the belts made there.
I’ve heard you say more than once, “If it’s not right, it’s not worth doing.” How important is quality to you, and how do you balance that with the budgetary and scheduling pressures of such a huge project?
I’m not very good at compromising. If we’re going to spend months and months working on something that none of us are going to be happy with or proud of then it’s a waste of time and we might as well stop now. I think it’s probably that I’d like to be off in New Zealand making Legend of the Seeker, so I treat it as if I’m doing that I suppose, and I try not to let the budget or circumstances stop us from doing that.
I knew that most of the things are achievable. You know, to put together a costume that’s weathered well and looks really interesting is not hard to do, it just takes more time to do than buying it off the shelf and sticking it on, but the quality difference is so extreme. People will be much happier with you in the end if you’ve worked them hard for an amazing outcome than if you’ve worked them hard and it looks rubbish.
Most filmmakers are making stand-alone shorts or features, though the medium of web series is growing. Do you think it’s the way forward? Do you think there can be a sustainable career in it?
Ren is going to be an interesting experiment – can people watch something that, if we stuck [all the 10-minute episodes] together would be a pilot for TV – will they watch that on the web in the same way they would watch a TV thing or will they get bored and go and watch cats?
It is a new field. Although web series have been going on a long time, it’s still growing, there’s no funding in the UK, there’s no obvious way of having revenue from it, because the online platforms like YouTube, the advertising revenue is absolutely minimal as a percentage of views, and there’s only so many t-shirts you can sell. We struggled to raise money for the first season and we only raised enough to barely scrape our way through while putting in our own money.
Unless it does amazingly and maybe garners the interest of a big brand or sponsorship, if we’re having to crowdfund every time and we can’t crowdfund the huge figures that we’d need to make this, then it might not be the way forward for Ren and we might need to figure out a different thing… [unless] we get picked up by a bigger corporation like Amazon or Netflix.
We’ll see how this first season goes. We’d love it to become sustainable and a show that we can keep putting out and people can enjoy, but this is the experiment for that I suppose.
I’m very excited to say that the fantasy action series I DPed in 2014 – and have spent most of my time since then helping with post on! – will premiere free online on March 1st. Here’s the new trailer which I cut for the show…
Our lead actress, Sophie Skelton, set the internet buzzing last week when she was cast as the pivotal Brianna Randall in the Starz series Outlander, ending months of speculation. Meanwhile, other members of the cast have appeared in Doctor Who, Stargate, Jekyll & Hyde and will appear in this year’s season of The Musketeers. And of course the director is the brilliant Kate Madison, whose last film Born of Hope is at 35 million views on YouTube and still clocking.
I’m prouder of Ren than anything else I’ve ever worked on, and I can’t wait for you guys to see the series at last. Check out the official Facebook page, where we’ll be sharing new micro-trailers (which I also edited) and lots of other content throughout February. And when the series is released in March on rentheseries.com, look out for some special blog posts right here on neiloseman.com breaking down the lighting set-ups and the thinking behind them.