A year after lensing season one of Harriet Sams’ ambitious period web series The First Musketeer, I’ve jumped on board Kate Madison’s equally epic series Ren. Coming from the woman who made Born of the Hope, the incredibly popular Lord of the Rings fan film, it’s no surprise that Ren is a fantasy of Jacksonian proportions. Marked by a powerful ancient spirit and feared by all who see her, the title character starts a journey and discovers that all she thought she knew may have been a lie.
I’ve already posted several blogs about lighting Ren, but now I want to talk more about the project as a whole and the unique experience I’m having on it. Ren is one of those landmark shoots which is so tough but so much fun, where the crew become like family and you hate the idea of it ever ending. As I write this I’m on a train which is taking me away from Cambridgeshire and the drafty studio I’ve come to think of as home, towards a far less exciting shoot. This weekend away on a paid job seems strange and wrong, and I can’t wait to get back to my Ren family on Sunday night.
The studio is an old factory, its workshops filled with sets, props and costumes. For the last three weeks I’ve been sleeping on an air bed in what was probably once a meeting room. Directly above that is the make-up room, and next to that is the production office from which Kate and associate producer Michelle Golder battle daily against a dwindling budget and scheduling headaches to keep this epic web series shooting.
And in the car park is the set, which you may have seen in my video blog. Chris Dane and a team of volunteers spent three months fashioning the medieval village. Miriam Spring Davies has spent countless hours crafting the costumes to beautifully clothe each of the principals, plus a village full of extras and fifteen imposing Kah’nath soldiers. Hans Goosen, who flew over from Germany (I think) to be involved in the project, lived and worked in the studio for weeks while making stunning hero props. And these are just a few of the ridiculously talented and dedicated people who are bringing Ren’s world to life.
Ever since a damp weekend in autumn 2008, which I spent holding an umbrella over a steadicam operator on Born of Hope, I’ve wanted to work properly with Kate. As a maker of ambitious fantasy projects myself, I feel she’s a kindred spirit. When I learnt she was looking for a DP for Ren, I gave her the hard sell, knowing that I couldn’t bear to let anyone else photograph this series. My experiences on The First Musketeer – which shares several cast and crew members with Ren – stood me in excellent stead to approach the fantasy period settings of Kate’s script. I learnt so much on Musketeer about creating texture to sell the period, ageing scenes with smoke, and simulating firelight.
When Kate finally picked me, it was too late for me to rearrange other commitments that clashed with the first three days of shooting. I arrived at the studio on a Saturday night with my regular assistant Colin Smith. It was packed with crew and extras who were in the middle of a busy weekend of shooting crowd scenes. The next morning I was launched into Ren, and real life faded like a dream. That was three weeks ago.
Since then the crew has grown and shrunk (mostly shrunk!) with the passing days, as people give up what time they can and then return to their normal lives. For a project so unique and wonderful, we have struggled enormously to attract crew. By the second week I found myself regularly in the production office, gradually taking over scheduling and sometimes attempting to AD the shoot. Lately I’ve been cutting sizzle reels and teaser trailers to help Kate and Michelle sell the project to potential sponsors. It’s a far cry from the promises I made myself earlier this year not to do unpaid work any more, not to edit any more and not to work on anything where I don’t get a proper bed. But somehow Ren has gone beyond being a job, even beyond being an unpaid collaborative project. It’s my life now, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. So roll on Monday and the next day of adventure on this crazy, beautiful thing we call Ren: Season One.