Well, it’s all very real now. For six weeks I’ve been documenting my non-continuous prep period on a feature film adaptation of a well-known Shakespeare play. It won’t be announced to the press until it is close to release, so I still can’t share the title or any other identifying details. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s being shot in a theatre (though not all on stage), and the director is from a theatre background
On Monday I checked into the hotel and began the first of two full-time prep weeks. Unusually, these two weeks are filled with rehearsals. I may, once or twice, have worked on a film that had perhaps a single day of rehearsals. Two weeks is unheard of, but of course it’s perfectly normal in theatre.
The strange thing for me is that just when a scene is taking shape – the point where I’d normally get involved, when the blocking is nearly final and it’s time to think about shots – we move on to the next one. The last bit of the rehearsals will be done, as normal, on the day of shooting.
As the actors explore the spaces, I do too. Some of them have changed quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of the art department, since I last reccied them. It’s an unprecented opportunity for me to check many potential camera angles. Before we move on from a scene, I run around frantically with Artemis, trying to take enough shots to make a storyboard. A large part of today (it’s Saturday as I write this) has been taken up with selecting the best shots, scribbling annotations on them and outputting them as PDFs into a Google Drive folder where the director, 1st AD, 1st AC, production designer and others can see them.
During quieter moments, I’ve slipped off to discuss things with the production designer or the stage lighting designer, or just to sit in one of the spaces by myself and think through shots and lighting.
On Friday afternoon a tech recce took place, which I led because the director was still busy rehearsing. This was followed by a Zoom meeting to discuss issues arising.
Less fun but equally important things last week were completing a camera department risk assessment, and taking Covid tests, which leave you feeling like you jumped into a swimming pool without pinching your nose.
I continue to saturate myself in the script for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian film. Some other little projects I had going on have now wrapped up, leaving me free to concentrate purely on this production, which is due to start shooting a month from now.
I spent the best part of last Monday reading a new draft of the screenplay and updating my spreadsheet of notes to reflect the changes. Going back over this spreadsheet and the script and re-evaluating them from different angles formed a signficant part of the rest of the week. On Thursday, for example, I focused on the swordfight (narrows it down, Shakespeare fans!), scouring YouTube for reference videos and noting which camera angles seem most dangerous and engaging. In fact, watching references was another big part of the week. I worked my way through the whole Godfather trilogy (above), some more episodes of Servant, bits of several action movies that have a specific type of night exterior, and a couple of the lead actor’s recent films, to see how other DPs have lit and lensed him.
At the end of the week I went back over the spreadsheet and filled in at least one idea for every scene that did not yet have an entry in its “camera” or “lighting” column. Sometimes this would be an idea for a specific shot – e.g. “angle from outside the window looking in”; sometimes it would be a general vibe for the camerawork – e.g. “close, handheld, intimate”; sometimes a specific source – e.g. “soft top-light rigged to ladder”; sometimes a more general lighting note – e.g. “group in a patch of light, surroundings dark”.
Production sent over the quotes they have received for my camera list. At least one of them was within the budget, so that’s good! This week I’ll discuss that with the producers and hopefully decide which rental house we’re going with.
Speaking of equipment, a cheap novelty optical item arrived from eBay. I used this and my iPad to shoot a very rough demonstration of how we might achieve a special effect in camera, sending the video to the director for his feedback. He liked it, and wants to add in a few more instances of it throughout the film.
Another idea I proposed was a lighting effect, for which I sent the director this video I’d found online (below). I don’t intend to do something exactly like this in the film, but I saw a way it could be modified to our story. I ended up shooting my own rough test that is closer to how I see it working in our film.
Less exciting than any of the above, but very important, was taking an online Screenskills course in Covid awareness. I’d done the Basic Awareness course already, which takes about 30 minutes including a brief quiz, but Screenskills were offering free places for HoDs on a more in-depth course, so I signed up. This consisted of a three-hour presentation about the virus, how it can spread on set and what can be done to mitigate it in various departments, followed by another quiz. I learnt a few new things and my awareness was indeed raised.
Many productions are up and running again, and a recent ScreenSkills seminar revealed how two high-end series were amongst the first to tackle TV-making during a global pandemic.
Death in Paradise is a long-running crime drama about fish-out-of-water British detectives – the latest played by Ralf Little – heading murder investigations on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie. Production of the show’s tenth season, originally scheduled for April, commenced instead in late July.
The Pursuit of Love is a mini-series based on the novel by Nancy Mitford, set between the two world wars. Lily James and Emily Beecham star as women in quest of husbands, in an adaptation written and directed by Emily Mortimer. Filming again began in late July, in South West England.
What both productions have in common, and a key reason why they were able to start up ahead of so many others, is that their insurance was already in place before lockdown hit. The policies include producer’s indemnity, covering costs outside of the production’s control.
Co-executive producer Alex Jones of Red Planet Pictures explained that Death in Paradise had a few other things going for it too. Most obvious of these was the location, the French archipelago of Guadeloupe, which formed a natural bubble. All cast and crew were tested for Covid-19 before flying out, then again seven days after arrival and at the start of each filming block. Having been around for ten years made adapting the production easier than starting one from scratch, Jones believes.
Ian Hogan, line producer of The Pursuit of Love, did not have the advantage of an established machine. He said that a full-time health and safety adviser with a background in location management spent weeks working out Coronavirus protocols for the period drama. Crew members each received a copy of these, and were required to agree that they would not go out in their spare time except for exercise and essential shopping. Every day they must declare remotely that they have no symptoms of Covid-19 before they can receive a green pass which allows them through location security. They must then take a temperature test before accessing the set.
Both producers insist that age and underlying health problems are not a barrier to work. Cast and crew who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 are given a personalised risk assessment with mitigation steps to follow.
Death in Paradise chose to film using the “one metre plus” social distancing rule common to both France and England. A former assistant director was hired as a Covid supervisor, a role which sometimes involved helping to re-block scenes to avoid physical proximity.
But for The Pursuit of Love, as the title suggests, intimacy was crucial. The producers opted for a close-contact system, dividing personnel into cohorts. A mobile testing lab with a capacity of 70 a day is always on location, and everyone is checked at least once a week. The Director’s Cohort – consisting of Mortimer, the cast, and key on-set crew like the DP, boom op and focus puller – are tested twice a week.
A monitor signal is distributed wirelessly around the set to production iPads and personal devices, to prevent a crowded video village. The DIT sends this camera feed via a local wifi network using Qtake.
Both productions require face-coverings. At least one director of Death in Paradise switched from a mask to a visor so that their cast and crew could read their facial expressions, so important when giving notes.
Visors are also used for close-contact work like make-up and costume, the two departments perhaps most affected by the pandemic. Hogan hired extra make-up trucks so that the chairs could be sufficiently spaced, and both productions expanded their crews to obviate the need for dailies. Instead, extra MUAs and dressers might be engaged for eight weeks out of 12, but on an exclusive basis so that they don’t risk spreading the virus to or from other sets.
Wardrobe fitting for supporting artists is much more involved than usual, as the same costume cannot be tried on multiple people without cleaning in-between. Greater numbers of costumes must be hired, and measurements that are taken remotely are much more important.
All of this is expensive, of course. Jones estimates it has added 15 per cent to Death in Paradise‘s budget, covered fortunately by the insurance. The pace of filming has slowed, but not as much as might be expected, with just two extra filming days per block, and slightly less coverage recorded than before.
Both Jones and Hogan praised the responsibility and enthusiasm with which their crews returned to work. They are positive about the future of TV production. While there have been fears that Coronavirus would shrink crews, Jones’s has actually grown, with a larger off-set support staff. “Our industry is booming,” he concluded, “and it will continue to boom when this is all over.”
As I write this, I’ve just got back from my first trip to the cinema in six months. Although they have been allowed to reopen in England since July 4th, the higher operating costs in the pandemic kept many cinemas dark well into August. On Friday the 21st, my local branch of the Light here in Cambridge finally opened its doors, and I went along to experience post-Covid cinema.
Studios have been shifting their release dates throughout the lockdown, with some films giving up on theatrical exhibition altogether, so the Light, like its competitors, has filled its screens with classics for now. I selected Jurassic Park, which I haven’t seen on the big screen since its original release in 1993.
When I arrived, the lobby was dark and almost empty. Like most public spaces, it had sprouted new signage and a one-way system since March, and it took me a couple of attempts to find the right lane. Once inside the main corridor though, little had changed except the odd hand sanitiser dispenser on the wall.
I found my screen and took a seat. As with everything from trains to swimming pools, pre-booking is now strongly recommended, due to the diminished capacity caused by social distancing. When you pick your seat, the website makes you leave two empties between your party and the next. You can even pre-purchase your popcorn and bucket of cola.
I needn’t have booked, however. In a screen of about 100 seats, exactly ten were occupied. It will take the general public a while to cotton on that cinema-going is an option again, even before they decide whether they feel comfortable doing so.
As I sat masked and expectant, my hands sticky from sanitiser that refused to evaporate, I was treated to a rare site: a cinema employee inside the auditorium. He announced that they didn’t have any ads or trailers yet, so they would delay starting the film to give everyone a chance to arrive.
A few minutes later, the man reappeared and asked us all to decamp to the corridor. Apparently they had installed a new sound system, and they needed to test it, which could be very loud. Why they couldn’t have checked the system for eardrum bursting at some point in the last six months is beyond me.
The ten of us duly waited in the corridor. A snatch of the Imperial March from an adjacent screen betokened another classic being wheeled out. A woman with a spray bottle and a cloth, masked like all of her colleagues, worked her way down the corridor, cleaning the door handles. A group next to me (but, I hasten to add, appropriately distant) cracked jokes about the sex appeal of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom. Another group, evidently missing the trailers, watched one on a phone. (If that doesn’t sum up the existential crisis facing cinema, I don’t know what does.)
At last we were readmitted. The lights dimmed, the sounds of a jungle faded up on the brand new sound system, and the Universal logo appeared. But the trademark globe looked like a deflated football. The film was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio. And not just slightly. It was almost unwatchably stretched, like the flat 1.85:1 images were being shown through a 2:1 anamorphic lens.
By the time the first scene was dissolving away to Bob Peck’s cries of “Shoot her!” the problem hadn’t been corrected, so I stepped out to find a member of staff. The senior person on duty claimed that the problem lay with the file supplied by the distributor, not with the projection. “There’s nothing I can do,” he insisted, while I goggled over my mask in disbelief.
At this point, had I not had this article to write, I would have gone home and watched the film on Netflix, or even on DVD. (There’s that existential crisis again.) But I persevered, trying not to imagine Dean Cundey weeping tears of frustration into his beard.
Fortunately, Jurassic Park is such a great film that it could be appreciated even in the face of such technical incompetence. A larger audience would have been nice, to enjoy the scares and humour with, though since screaming and laughing project dangerous droplets further, perhaps that’s less than ideal these days.
Overall, I must say that I found the experience of going to the cinema less altered than many other aspects of life. I’ve got used to wearing a mask, so much so that I was halfway home before I remembered to take it off, and I normally avoid peak times so the emptiness didn’t feel too unusual.
But with the rise in streaming subscriptions during lockdown, and the understandable caution that many feel about going out, cinemas will need to work much harder to get bums back on flip-up seats. The kind of technical troubles that the Light suffered tonight will only strengthen the case for staying at home, mask-free and pyjama-clad, where you can control both the virus and the aspect ratio.
A week after writing this, I went to a Showcase to see Tenet. The member of staff who took our tickets unequivocally told us that the printed screen number was wrong, and that we should go to another one. We did so. The ads and trailers finally started, fifteen minutes late. We were just wondering why they were trailing such kid-friendly movies when another member of staff came in and told us that Tenet was showing in the original screen after all, and by the way, you’ve missed the first couple of minutes.
In the early days of lockdown, I blogged about my intentions to build a zoetrope, a Victorian optical device that creates the illusion of a moving image inside a spinning drum. I even provided instructions for building your own, sized like mine to accommodate 18 looping frames of contact-printed 35mm photographs. Well, last week I was finally able to hire my usual darkoom, develop and print the image sequences I had shot over the last five months, and see whether my low-tech motion picture system worked.
Making Mini Movies
Before I get to the results, let me say a little about the image sequences themselves and how they were created. Because I was shooting on an SLR, the fastest frame rate I could ever hope to record at was about 1fps, so I was limited to time-lapses or stop motion animation.
Regular readers may recall that the very first sequence I captured was a time-lapse of the cherry tree in my front garden blossoming. I went on to shoot two more time-lapses, shorter-term ones showing sunlight moving across objects during a single day: a circle of rotting apples in a birdbath (which I call Sundial), and a collection of props from my flatmate’s fantasy films (which I call Barrels). I recorded all the time-lapses with the pinhole I made in 2018.
The remaining six sequences were all animations, lensed on 28mm, 50mm or 135mm SMC Pentax-Asahi glass. I had no signficant prior experience of this artform, but I certainly had great fun creating some animated responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. My childish raw materials ranged from Blue Peter-esque toilet roll tubes, through Play-Doh to Lego. Orbit features the earth circling a giant Covid-19, and The Sneeze sees a toilet roll person sternutating into their elbow. Happy Birthday shows a pair of rubber glove hands washing themselves, while Avoidance depicts two Lego pedestrians keeping their distance. 360° is a pan of a room in which I am variously sitting, standing and lying as I contemplate lockdown, and finally Social Distance tracks along with a pair of shoes as they walk past coronavirus signage.
By the time I finished shooting all these, I had already learnt a few things about viewing sequences in a zoetrope, by drawing a simple animation of a man walking. Firstly I discovered that the slots in my device – initially 3mm in width – were too large. I therefore retrofitted the drum with 1mm slots, resulting in reduced motion blur but a darker image, much like reducing the shutter angle on a movie camera. I initially made the mistake of putting my eye right up to the drum when viewing the animation, but this destroys the shuttering effect of the slots. Instead the best results seem to be obtained with a viewing distance of about 30cm (1ft).
I could already see where I might have made mistakes with my photographed sequences. The hand-drawn man was bold and simple; it looked best in good light, by a window or outdoors, but it was clear enough to be made out even if the light was a bit poor and there was too much motion blur. Would the same be said of my 35mm sequences?
I contact-printed the nine photographic sequences in the usual way, each one producing three rows of six frames on a single sheet of 8×10″ Ilford MG RC paper. In theory, all that was left was to cut out these rows and glue them together.
In practice, I had managed to screw up a few of the sequences by fogging the start of the film, shooting a frame with bad exposure, or some other act of shameful incompetence. In such cases I had to edit much like filmmakers did before the invention of digital NLEs – by cutting the strips of images, excising the rotten frames and taping them back together. I even printed some of the sequences twice so that I could splice in duplicate frames, where my errors had left a sequence lacking the full 18 images. (This was effectively step-printing, the obsolete optical process by which a shot captured at 24fps could be converted to slow motion by printing each frame twice.)
Once the sequences were edited, I glued them into loops and could at last view them in the zoetrope. The results were mixed.
Barrels fails because the moving sunlight is too subtle to be discerned through the spinning slots. The same is partly true of Sundial, but the transient glare caused by the sun reflecting off the water at its zenith gives a better sense of motion. Blossom shows movement but I don’t think an uninitiated viewer would know what they were looking at, so small and detailed is the image. Orbit suffers from smallness too, with the earth and Covid-19 unrecognisable. (These last two sequences would have benefitted from colour, undoubtedly.)
I’m very pleased with the animation of Social Distance, though I need to reprint it brighter for it to be truly effective. You can just about make out that there are two people passing each other in Avoidance, but I don’t think it’s at all clear that one is stepping into the road to maintain a safe distance from the other. Happy Birthday is a bit hard to make out too. Similarly, you can tell that 360° is a pan of a room, but that’s about it.
Perhaps the most successful sequence is The Sneeze, with its bold, white toilet roll man against a plain black background.
Any future zoetrope movies need to be bold, high in contrast and low in detail. I need to take more care to choose colours that read as very different tones when captured in black and white.
Despite the underwhelming results, I had a great time doing this project. It was nice to be doing something hands-on that didn’t involve sitting at a screen, and it’s always good to get more practice at exposing film correctly. I don’t think I’ll ever make an animator though – 18 frames is about the limit of my patience.