Goodbye 2016

2016 has not been the best of years, at least not according to the sinister algorithms that run my Facebook feed. The year has been kinder to me than it has been to seventies and eighties celebrities, however.

Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the short-form fantasy action series I photographed in 2014 and spent parts of 2015 postproduction supervising on, met with great success in 2016. The series was released on YouTube in March, and episode one has to date had over 100,000 views, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Alongside the series, I released Lensing Ren, a set of companion videos that broke down the lighting design and other cinematography choices in each episode. I thought it would be interesting to make frame grabs part of the lighting diagrams, so you can really see the effect of each lamp. It’s an idea that I’ve carried through to my Instagram feed, so if you’re the kind of person who often looks at a shot and wonders, “How was that lit?” then be sure to follow me and find out.

We’ve lost track of how many awards nominations Ren: The Girl with the Mark has received at festivals this year, but the tally of wins stands at a dozen, including four Best Series and Grand Jury Awards. And although a trio of nominations for Best Cinematography didn’t yield me a win, Ren has already been selected for several 2017 festivals, so there will be plenty more chances!

2016 did supply me with my first ever Best Cinematography award though, courtesy of  the Festigious International Film Festival and Sophie Black’s short film Night Owls. This was one of three awards which Night Owls collected this year. And two other shorts I photographed have scooped awards during the year: race drama Exile Incessant, and supernatural drama Crossing Paths. Congratulations to everyone who helped make all these projects such a success.

As regards new productions, my 2016 was dominated by two feature films: family fantasy The Little Mermaid, and comedy road movie Above the Clouds. You can already read my daily blogs about the latter film, and I hope to publish plenty of content about the cinematography of the former film when it’s released next year.

The Little Mermaid was the perfect follow-up to last year’s Heretiks, going from my first six-figure-budget film to my first seven-figure-budget film. It also gave me the opportunity to light and shoot Oscar-winner and Hollywood royalty Shirley MacLaine, film in an incredible 1930s circus, go swimming with an Alexa, and gate-crash Baywatch‘s wrap party. There were tremendous challenges and lessons to be learnt along the way, and I came out stronger, far more experienced and eagerly anticipating the release of what should be a really magical family film.

I also got to work on my first eight-figure-budget movie this summer, although I only did two days as pick-ups DP, recreating the lighting and camerawork of the extremely experienced cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, which was very instructional. Again, I hope to post a blog about that when The Etruscan Smile is released.

Meanwhile I have continued, as ever, to both acquire and share knowledge of the craft of cinematography. For example, in September I attended Cinefest, Bristol’s International Festival of Cinematography, while the same month I published a series of posts covering all the main types of lighting unit currently available. I learnt quite a bit while researching those posts, and hopefully readers got a lot out of them too.

And in that vein I’ll be releasing a new YouTube programme in January 2017. Lighting I Like is a 6 x 3 minutes series that aims to raise awareness of the contribution which cinematography makes to a film or TV show, while educating aspiring DPs about the hows and whys of lighting design. Each week I’ll look at a scene I’ve picked from a major movie or series, explaining what makes the lighting so good and how I think it was achieved. Simple as that!

Lighting I Like will be released on Wednesdays starting January 4th, with the first episode discussing a scene from the Netflix series Daredevil. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss it.

And with that I will sign off for 2016. Enjoy your new year celebrations, and I wish you all the very best in 2017.

Goodbye 2016

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

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.

heretiks-still-empire-exclusive

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

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?

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

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

Interview: KT Roberts and 3 Blind Mice

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Earlier this year I met young filmmaker KT Roberts on a shoot in South Wales, and I remember her telling me all about her idea for a time travel feature film. This got my attention (a) because I love time travel movies and (b) because I always like to hear about low budget filmmakers who are not afraid to tackle a sci-fi or fantasy story. But before KT embarks on this feature, she’s making a short film called 3 Blind Mice. She asked me to help out and before I knew it I was the director of photography and drawing up an equipment list for Panalux.

KT, where did the concept for 3 Blind Mice come from?

I wrote two thirds of 3 Blind Mice on a plane back from a diving trip in Lanzarote – I’d had the ideas rattling around in my head for a while, but hadn’t yet put pen to paper but on that plane journey it came spilling out rather quickly. This is actually the first short film I’ve ever written that I like enough to want to take to the shooting stage. I have this writing thing all backwards in that I’ve already written a feature and have another in the pipeline, but I find it much harder to write short films as there’s so little time to explore anything in any detail. Paradoxical as it may seem, features are easier for me to write (though not necessarily to write well – only time will tell!) because they give you time to explore, examine and dissect your characters: a deep sea dive in the Caribbean as opposed to pressing your nose against the glass in an aquarium.

With this in mind I didn’t want to focus on just one character as I didn’t feel I’d be able to do them justice, or tell the sort of story I wanted to tell, in the shortened format of a short film. Instead I decided I wanted to make a film about a single idea and examine it in depth from different angles and perspectives – through the eyes of different people. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to death – no-one I know has died, not even a pet, so I’m not drawing directly from my own experience on that front. However I have had a massively overactive imagination since a very young age (I was one of those hyper children battling dragons with wooden sticks) – and I’m fascinated by the very human tendency to tell ourselves stories to help us deal with things we don’t understand. The stories we tell ourselves about death – from concepts of heaven and hell, to ghosts, the supernatural and the grim reaper- allow us to categorise and quantify this great unknown and thereby make it less scary. All three stories depict someone struggling with death and making up an imaginary companion to help them through it – each is coming from a different perspective and has a different outlook on what death means, but each of them must come to terms with it. I hope I have managed to convey the idea that while death can be scary and sudden and confusing, there are other, brighter facets to it if you look in a certain way.

How does 3 Blind Mice fit into your plans for future filmmaking?

I’m really looking forward to making this short and hope it will mark the start of a career which sees some of my bigger projects realised. Ultimately I would like to make one of my feature films, and my producer Julia and I have already discussed how we might film the opening to use as a pilot to try and raise the necessary funds. My work is slightly tricky in that I almost always have a science fiction, fantastical or supernatural angle in my writing, which can be difficult to bring to the screen for obvious reasons! However my work isn’t fiction in the same vein as something like Star Wars – it normally has just one element (for example my finished screenplay, Timelines, revolves around people who live in our world, but who can move through time). This means that with clever camera work and minimal special effects, my stories can be realised without the multi-million pound budgets that most science fiction films made today need. I’m not aiming to make art house films and I am very much aiming to entertain not preach, but if I can sneak in themes and perspectives that interest me or I feel strongly about then the story is always better for it, even if many people watching don’t realise it’s there. I want people to work to understand the storyline and the characters, not just sit back to watch mindless fluff.

So if I could look forward 20 years, I hope I’ll be writing and/or directing that sort of film and be able to look back on 3 Blind Mice as the first step on my way.

Right now KT and her dedicated production team are in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to cover the modest costs of making 3 Blind Mice. Myself, Colin and the rest of the cast and crew are volunteering our time, but there are some costs you can’t escape. This is an all-or-nothing campaign, so if we don’t reach the target we get none of the money and cannot make the film. So please head on over to the Kickstarter page, contribute what you can and help get KT on the road to achieving her dreams.

Interview: KT Roberts and 3 Blind Mice