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.
Aspect ratio is a large and potentially confusing subject, but the good news is that there are only a few things you need to know to get by 99% of the time. Today I’ll go over those things, and show you where to look if you want to cover that last 1%.
Put simply, aspect ratio is the ratio of an image’s width to its height. For example, a 1.85:1 image is 1.85 times as wide as it is high.
The diagram above shows four aspect ratios. 4:3 is, more or less, the ratio most movies were shot in until the 1950s and all TV was shot in until the late 1990s, but today it’s virtually obsolete. So let’s look at the other three…
16:9 – This is the standard ratio for TV, DVD (sort of), Blu-ray, YouTube and other video sharing and VOD platforms. It is sometimes written as 1.77:1 or 1.78:1. Almost all digital cameras shoot natively in this ratio. In the TV industry, this ratio was often called widescreen to distinguish it from 4:3.
1.85:1 – One of two standard ratios for digital cinema projection. It is very similar to 16:9, but slightly wider. In practice, 1.85:1 movies may be shot and framed for 16:9, and delivered in 16:9 for TV, DVD and so on, but cropped very slightly at the top and bottom to achieve the 1.85:1 ratio for cinema projection.
2.39:1 – A.k.a. Cinemascope (“Scope” for short) or widescreen (in the film industry), this is the other standard ratio for cinema projection. It is achieved either by cropping a 16:9 frame or by using anamorphic lenses to squeeze the image horizontally. Note that many cameras offer 2.35:1 framing guides rather than 2.39:1, but the difference is negligible, and these two designations are used pretty much interchangeably, as well as 2.40:1. On TV, VOD and so on, 2.39:1 movies are generally letterboxed to fit the ratio onto the 16:9 screen.
There is a temptation to choose 2.39:1 because it looks more “cinematic”, but it’s important to think carefully before selecting your aspect ratio. Here are some reasons to consider:
Some advantages of 2.39:1
Better for landscapes
More composition options with group shots and over-the-shoulder shots in terms of horizontal placement and separation of the two characters
Better for wide sets, or sets lacking height
Some advantages of 1.85:1 or 16:9
Shows more body language in singles
Better for shots containing characters of very different heights – e.g. two-shot of an adult and a child
Better for tall or narrow sets, and car interiors
Although your project will almost certainly be delivered in one of the three ratios listed above, it is of course possible to frame and mask your footage to any aspect ratio you can imagine. This should always be cleared with the producer though, because sales agents may reject films not presented in a standard ratio.
Some recent films using non-standard ratios are:
The Hateful Eight – 2.76:1 – Tarantino’s latest was lensed in Ultra Panavision 70, an obsolete, super-wide 70mm celluloid format. But unless you were lucky enough to catch one of the much-publicised roadshow screenings, or you own the Blu-ray, you probably saw it cropped to 2.39:1.
Jurassic World – 2:1 – The filmmakers felt that 1.85:1 was too TV, but 2.39:1 lacked enough height for the dinosaurs, so they invented a halfway house. In practice, the movie was delivered to cinemas in 1.85:1 with letterboxing at the top and bottom to achieve the 2:1 ratio. Read more here.
Ida – 4:3 – Set in a convent, this film symbolises its nuns’ and novices’ thoughts of God and heaven above by using this tall aspect ratio and framing with lots of head room.
A surprising number of films use multiple aspect ratios, which we often don’t even notice on a conscious level. Here are just a few examples:
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson differentiated the three time periods featured in the story by giving each a different aspect ratio: 1.375:1 (“Academy” ratio, similar to 4:3) for the 1930s, 2.35:1 for the 1960s and 1.85:1 for the more contemporary bookends.
The Dark Knight – Parts of this film, such as the opening bank robbery and aerial city footage, were shot in Imax at 1.44:1, while the rest is in 2.35:1.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – To recall the comic book format of this film’s source material, the aspect ratio changes on a shot-by-shot basis during the fight scenes.
The aspect ratio of a film is agreed by the director, the DP and sometimes the producer, in preproduction. However, it is very easy for a director, producer, editor or colourist to alter the aspect ratio in postproduction. This is far from ideal, and since it changes the composition of every image in the movie, the DP should always be consulted and should ideally work with the post team to ensure that he or she retains authorship of the frame. After all, his or her name is on the film as director of photography.
Regrettably, this doesn’t always happen. I did a short last year which I agreed with the director and producer we would shoot in 4:3, but to my dismay when I saw the finished film it had been reformatted to 2.39:1, a drastically different ratio. To minimise the chances of this happening to you, make sure in preproduction that your director and producer fully understand the consequences of the selected ratio, and make your best effort to attend the grading so you can at least see if any re-framing has occurred before it’s too late.
If you want to know more about aspect ratio, here are a couple of videos you might find useful. The first is a guide I made a few years ago to shooting on celluloid, and it covers (at timecode 2:00) the aspect ratios native to the various gauges of film.
The second is a comprehensive history of aspect ratios in film and TV from Filmmaker IQ.
To recap The One That Got Away’s results, at a total cost of £71 I entered this three minute puppet film – which cost almost nothing to make – into 36 festivals, choosing mostly those with no entry fee, just middleman costs. It was accepted into just two.
Stop/Eject was a bigger production, though still a DSLR short with an entirely unpaid cast and crew. It was financed by two crowd-funding campaigns, one in preproduction and one in post, which raised around £4,200. Although the second campaign’s budget included money towards festival entries, we later opted to run a third campaign from which we raised another £600 for additional submissions.
I had decided early on that I wanted to go all-out for festivals with Stop/Eject, entering all the top tier ones and then a number of smaller events too. The British Council has a list of ‘key’ festivals (you can apply to the Council for travel funding if your film gets into one of them), and it’s also worth checking out the lists of Bafta- and Oscar-qualifying festivals.
Over a two-year period, producer Sophie Black and I submitted Stop/Eject to 47 festivals, at a total cost of £772. Some submissions were direct, but most were via platforms like Withoutabox, Shortfilmdepot and Reelport. Wherever possible we sent online screeners, but some festivals only accepted physical DVDs or Blu-rays, so the £772 includes postage costs, but not duplication; see my breakdown of the film’s post budget for that info. With the exception of Aspen, we always entered before the Early Bird deadlines so as to pay the lowest fee and have the greatest chances of being programmed, because festivals do not wait until the final deadline to start filling up their screening slots. The most expensive entry was Berlin at £45 (€50), but at the other end of the scale a few festivals, like Torino, were free.
Our first official selection, Raindance, came almost a year after we had started submitting. Full disclosure: our exec producer has worked for Raindance and put in a good word for us. Nonetheless, we were delighted and we hoped that screening at a top tier, Bafta-qualifying festival would bring us to the attention of festival programmers around the world and lead to at least a few invitations and further selections.
But it was not to be. Another year of rejections followed, by which time we had run out of top tier festivals to enter and moved down to smaller ones which had piqued our interest for various reasons, or been recommended to us.
We were eventually selected for six more festivals: Fargo Fantastic Film Festival, Southampton International Film Festival, the Underground Film Festival in Corke, the Short Cinema Festival in Leicester, Worcestershire Film Festival, and Beeston Film Festival. We were nominated for awards at three of these events, and ultimately won Best Drama Short at the Underground Film Festival.
If you’re keen to know all the details, I’ve put together a spreadsheet of all the submissions we made, the costs of entry, middleman fees, and results. Download it here.
Were those seven official selections worth the £772? Effectively we paid for seven screenings at £110 a pop. Or to look at it another way, we paid for seven laurels for our poster at £110 a pop.
Many have posited that the whole film festival circuit is a con, that festivals have become gatekeepers in the way that studios and agents once were – check out this very interesting article. At the very least, I do think the odds of submitting cold to a top tier festival and getting in are astronomically low.
One interesting little side effect was that, thanks to our Raindance selection, we were able to submit Stop/Eject for Bafta’s Short Film Award. We made the long-list for the award, meaning that we were one of fifteen films from which the five nominations were chosen. To be honest I’m a little relieved we didn’t get nominated, because then I might have felt obliged to use the exposure to push my directing career, rather than focusing on the cinematography career which I’m so much happier in now.
Finally, if you haven’t seen Stop/Eject and want to judge its festival-worthiness for yourself, here it is…
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.
After 18 months in the making and 2 years on the festival circuit, the short fantasy-drama Stop/Eject is now available to watch for free on YouTube. Here it is…
Stop/Eject stars Georgina Sherrington – best known as Mildred Hubble from ITV’s The Worst Witch – as a grieving widow who discovers a mysterious old tape recorder that can stop and rewind time… but can she save her husband?
The journey of getting Stop/Eject to the screen has had its ups and downs, with the whole project almost collapsing in autumn 2011, before being reborn and shot in April 2012, then a very quiet period of rejection upon rejection from festivals until its official selection for Raindance 2014 and its subsequent long-listing for a Bafta this year. A feature-length version was even in development for a while, until I realised that the concept just doesn’t work beyond a short. For me the high-point was a screening last week ahead of Back to the Future at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, with a buzzing audience of almost 100 people.
Those of you who have been waiting a while to see Stop/Eject, I very much hope you enjoy it. If you want a copy to own, we’re selling a very small number of DVDs and Blu-rays that are left over – go to stopejectmovie.com/buy.html
Great Scott! My time travel short Stop/Eject (watch the trailer here) is set to share a cinema screen with the movie that made me want to make movies, Back to the Future. No, there’s nothing wrong with the earth’s gravitational pull – this really is heavy!
On Monday October 26th, a few days after the fabled future date of 21/10/15 that Doc and Marty travel to in Part II, the Arts PictureHouse in Cambridge is set to host a screening of Part I. This will be a special event featuring live music and a short film ahead of the main feature. And what more appropriate short film than one about time travel, featuring several Back to the Future references?
There’s just one catch: this is an OurScreen event, meaning a certain number of tickets have to be reserved before the cinema officially greenlights the screening. At the time of writing just 12 more seats need to be booked before Doc, Marty, Kate, Dan and Alice can coincide on the time-space continuum. So if you’re in the Cambridge area, crank up your flux capacitor and fire-trail over to OurScreen to book now! Tickets are just £10, and in the unlikely event that the screening doesn’t get enough bookings to go ahead, you won’t be charged a penny.
This is just one of four Stop/Eject screenings coming up. Here are the details of them all…
Leicester, England – Friday August 28th
Event: The Shortish Cinema
Address: Phoenix Cinema, Leicester, LE1 1TG
Time: Red carpet walk from 6pm, films start at 7pm
Stop/Eject is one of three “shortish” Midlands films that will be screened, followed by a Q&A with me and the other filmmakers. Producer Sophie Black and make-up artist Deborah Bennett will also be attending.
Event: Birmingham Young Professionals Short Film Night
Address: Mockingbird Theatre and Bar, Gibb Street, Birmingham B9 4AA, UK
Time: Doors open 7pm, films from 8pm
Organised by the West Midlands’ foremost champion of independent filmmaking, Brendan O’Neilll, this evening of short film screenings aims to build links between the filmmaking and business communities in Birmingham. As well as Stop/Eject, my 2013 puppet movie The One That Got Away will be shown.
Ticket info TBC.
Cambridge, England – Monday October 26th (We Hope!)
Event: Back to the Future screening
Address: The Arts PictureHouse, 38-39 St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge CB2 3AR, UK
Stop/Eject will be screened before the 80s classic to get punters in the time travel movie mood, and there will also be live music and “sensory treats”.
While in Japan recently, I was finally able to get hold of that country’s version of my 2005 feature film, Soul Searcher. I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about international distribution and the mysterious M&E mix.
The story of an ordinary guy who gets trained to be the new Grim Reaper, Soul Searcher was picked up for distribution by a small UK company called Wysiwyg Films (now defunct). After releasing it on DVD in the UK, they sold all the foreign rights (much to my chagrin) to American sales agents Loose Cannon. Loose Cannon put out a US DVD, aiming to misleadingly tap the horror market by adding a splash of blood to the cover art, along with a stock photo of a random hooded guy with glowing eyes.
Loose Cannon then sub-sub-licensed the rights to five other territories: Benelux, Russia, Argentina, Thailand and Japan. Russian pirates hilariously dubbed the film into their own language (see some clips here), but the only territory to officially dub rather than subtitle the movie was Japan.
Presumably because of the film’s numerous martial arts fights, the Japanese distributors paid more for the film than any other country: $24,750. I know this from the Loose Cannon sales reports that were eventually forwarded to me by Wysiwyg. The only reason I know anything else about the Japanese release is from extensive googling (using the actors’ names as search terms proved most fruitful) which led me to the Amazon.jp page for the DVD a few years ago.
At first I thought I’d made a mistake. The cover art displayed on the page was completely new to me, showing an unfamiliar man holding a huge sword (a weapon never used by Soul Searcher’s hero). Beneath that was the title, in both Japanese and English: Blade X. It was only after Google Translating the page that the customer reviews confirmed this was indeed my very own Soul Searcher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reviews complained of the film’s lack of Wesley Snipes, the lack of correlation between the movie’s scythe-wielding hero and the cover’s sword-bearing imposter, plus many other flaws that are common to the English version!
Sadly, this is how low budget film sales work. The distributors know that the films are unlikely to generate much positive word of mouth, so they resort to tricking consumers into buying them with misleading covers and references to more successful films.
Anyway, when I saw that Amazon’s tech specs listed a Japanese audio track, I was desperate to get my hands on the DVD. But I could never find a seller who would import it for less than an eye-watering £40, so I waited, and in June this year I finally visited Japan and bought a copy.
But how does dubbing work? Well, amongst the delivery materials that a sales agent will require when you sell them your film will be an M&E mix – that’s Music and Effects. What this means is that you supply a version of the film which contains music, sound effects, foley, atmospheres, everything except the dialogue. This is one of the reasons for the existence of foley (footsteps, clothing rustles and other mundane sounds added to the film in postproduction); if you relied on the footsteps recorded along with the dialogue on set, those footsteps would disappear when you muted the dialogue tracks to produce the M&E mix.
It’s always worth running off an M&E version when mixing a feature, whatever you feel its chances of achieving distribution are. Trying to create an M&E track after the fact, when the mixer has moved on to other projects, the source files may no longer exist, etc, etc, is likely to be a real headache. Instead, take five minutes in your mixing session to mute the dialogue tracks and bounce it out.
Along with the M&E mix, sales agents will require a dialogue list – essentially a transcription of the film, so it can be translated ready for dubbing or subtitling.
The following video compares some clips from Soul Searcher, showing the original English versions, followed by the M&E track, then the Japanese dub.
The Japanese distributors made a good job of dubbing Soul Searcher. As far as I can tell, the voice cast seem to give decent performances, and the mixer has blended everything carefully together. I wonder how much this dub cost them? Undoubtedly, factoring in the manufacturing and advertising costs, and the $24,750 they paid to Loose Cannon for the rights, they will have spent more on the film than my investors and I did in making it (£28,000).
If you want to know more about distribution contracts, check out my post on what to look for in one, and for the full story of Soul Searcher’s financing, expenditure, and distribution revenue, look no further than this exhaustive, no-holds-barred video…
In September 2013 I was lucky enough to serve as the director of photography on The First Musketeer, an action-adventure web series based on the famous novels of Alexandre Dumas. Telling the story of how Athos, Porthos and Aramis first meet and become the heroes we know and love, the show was shot in castles and chateaus in the Lot and Dordogne regions of southern France.
A web series, more than any other medium, lives and dies by its viewing figures. You can help the show succeed and go forward into future seasons by sharing that link or better still by joining our Thunderclap campaign. Thunderclap is a service which automatically posts a one-off message to your Facebook, Twitter and/or Tumblr accounts at a prearranged time, so at 8pm on June 1st a huge number of people will all hear about The First Musketeer simultaneously. Follow this link to join the Thunderclap.
The other exciting news is that both The First Musketeer and Ren will be part of the New British Web Series panel at London ComicCon tomorrow, Friday May 22nd. I’ll be joining actress Jessica Preddy on the panel to represent The First Musketeer. I hope to see some of you there!
In 2013 Katie Lake and I made a little puppet film for the Virgin Media Shorts competition, called The One That Got Away. Although it failed to make the shortlist, I believed it had legs, so I started entering it into festivals. Today I’m going to talk about how it fared. A little later in the year I’ll do the same thing for my other 2013 short, Stop/Eject, and between the two posts I hope to help you answer the question, “Is it worth entering my film into festivals?”
To start with, here’s the film.
It cost next to nothing to make, so I decided to enter it only into festivals that had no entry fee. I created accounts on the festival submission platforms Short Film Depot and Reel Port. Both sites have systems whereby you purchase credits (known on Short Film Depot as ‘reels’ and on Reel Port as ‘stamps’), which you can then use to pay for submissions. As far as I know, this payment is purely a middleman fee and doesn’t go to the festivals themselves. Both sites allow you to upload your film, which is then sent automatically with your submissions.
Short Film Depot allows you to upload your first film for free, with subsequent uploads costing 3 reels (€3 – currently about £2.15). Each festival submission costs 2 reels(€2 – about £1.45).
Reel Port is free to upload your film to. Each festival submission costs one stamp. Stamps are priced on a sliding scale: buy just one and it will cost you €3 (£2.15), whereas a book of 5 is €12.50 (£9), a book of 20 is €39 (£28) and a book of 50 is €75 (£54). So if you buy in big bulk, you could pay as little as £1.08 per submission, plus currency exchange fees. More likely, you’ll end up with leftover stamps you never use!
I entered The One That Got Away into 36 festivals over the course of about 18 months: 23 entries on Reel Port, 12 on Short Film Depot, and one directly to the Worcestershire Film Festival (which was completely free).
The total cost was €98.95, or about £71 plus currency exchange fees – that’s about twice the film’s budget! I should point out that I made one exception to the ‘no entry fee’ rule: that total cost includes €12.50 I spent on entering the film into Encounters. This was a discount rate because I was entering Stop/Eject at the same time. Why did I pay for Encounters? Because of their Depict Competition (which The One That Got Away didn’t actually qualify for, being over 90 seconds) they seemed to be associated with very short films, and with hand-made animation-type films. Plus I knew the festival director from doing FilmWorks.
How many of those 36 festivals did the film get into?
Two. Worcestershire Film Festival, and Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival in Brazil. Belo Horizonte’s notification email told me that The One That Got Away “was one of the 12 selected for the Children’s Exhibition, among 2,700 subscribers.” That gives you an idea of the kind of odds you’re up against with a festival submission. Suddenly 2 out of 36 doesn’t seem so bad.
I have great admiration for what the guys at Worcestershire Film Festival are doing, and it was really great to go along and see the film with an audience, but at the moment it’s quite a new and low-key festival. For all I know, the same is true of Belo Horizonte, though I wasn’t about to fly to Brazil to find out. (They were not offering to pay my travel.) I’d estimate a total audience reach of about 100-150 people for those two screenings. Less, I would guess, than it’s had online. And apart from a little bit of buzz amongst my social media network generated by the announcement of these festival selections, there have been no other benefits.
I leave you to decide for yourself whether you think it was worth all those entries and the cost of £71. A full list of festivals entered follows.
Look out for my future post on Stop/Eject’s festival entries. Since that film was crowd-funded, we were able to take a very different approach and enter a lot of top tier festivals, so it will be an interesting comparison.
The One That Got Away submissions via Reel Port:
Anibar International Animation Festival, Republic of Kosova
12th International Festival Signes de Nuit, France
Kinodot Online Festival of Creatibe Short Film, Russian Federation
The International Bosphorous Film Festival, Turkey
Exground Filmfest, Germany
Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival, UK
9th International Short Film Festival, Lithuania
Cinefiesta, Puerto Rico
Mobile SIFF – Shanghai International Film Festival, China
Odense International Film Festival, Denmark
Concorto Film Festival, Italy
Submissions via Short Film Depot:
Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia
International Short Film Week, Regensburg
Seoil International Extreme-short Image & Film Festival
Curocircuito – Santiago de Compostela International Short Film Festival
Tehran International Short Film Festival
Kaohsiung Film Festival
Asiana International Short Film Festival
Bogota Short Film Festival
Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival (accepted)
Kuku International Short Film Festival for Children and Youth, Berlin
Uppsala International Short Film Festival
Shnit International Short Film Festival
Manlleu Short Film Festival
Sapporo International Short Film Festival & Market
Sao Paulo International Short Film Festival
Seicicorto International Film Festival Forli
China International New Media Shorts Festival
Plein la Bobine
Corti da Sogni Antonio Ricci – International Short Film Festival
FEC Festival – European Short Film Festival
Mecal Barcelona International Short Film and Animation Festival
As you can see, we had almost £2,000 available to us in post, some of which was left over from production, but most of which came from a crowd-funding campaign. You can read my evaluation of that campaign in an earlier post.
So except for a suite of clock sound effects, which Henning convinced me were necessary to help the audio tell the story, the main costs in postproduction were those incurred by people travelling so that we could be in the same room for some of the work, and eating lunch on those occasions. It’s important to at least make sure people are fed when you can’t pay them a fee. The most expensive of these days was the ADR session, which involved me and two lead actors travelling from Hereford, Birmingham and Bath respectively to the studio in east London.
Even in today’s digital world, some files are just too damn big to send online, and such was the case with the Avid media output by Miguel ready for the grade. I therefore purchased a USB hard drive, which ended up being couriered across London a couple of times to get to where it needed to be. After the film was completed, I used the same drive to archive all of the Stop/Eject assets and project files.
In order to run the crowd-funding campaign, which lasted for most of postproduction, we needed to build our own website and cut a trailer using library music. We also attended several events to promote the campaign and the film in general, one of which charged an entry fee.
The £79.47 spent on producing the crowd-funding rewards (a.k.a. perks or gifts) was racked up mostly by the hardback glossy script books, costing about £25 each (ex. VAT). The sponsorship level required to qualify for one of these books was £100, and since you also got a DVD, Blu-ray and premiere invite for that amount, there can scarcely have been £60 left of the donation for us to spend on actually making the film! It just goes to show that you should carefully cost up your rewards before you offer them.
That £79.47 isn’t the whole story though, since the next three items listed – the screening venue hire, Blu-ray stock and dupes – were all partly for sponsors as well. (A £10 donation got you an invite to the premiere, £30 got you a DVD and an invite, and £50 got you a Blu-ray, a DVD and an invite.)
£25.61 bought me fourteen blank Blu-ray discs, most of which I got through in trial and error as I authored and tested my first ever BD. The £265.30 spent on dupes got us 60 DVDs and 50 BDs, all with full colour on-disc artwork, inlays and cases. 20 of those discs went to sponsors and approximately 50 to cast and crew, with the rest being reserved for press and festivals.
I deliberately completed the discs in time for the premiere so that I could hand many of them out in person and reduce postage costs. For those that I did post, I used only pre-loved jiffy bags which I had been collecting for some time.
All in all, I’d say almost 11% of the £1,584 raised through crowd-funding was spent on creating and delivering rewards, a little more than I would have liked. Ideally you want to spend no more than 10% of your budget on rewards.
To promote the film at festivals and beyond, we had 50 full colour folders printed, each containing five single-sided monochrome pages of text. We also paid £10 to submit Stop/Eject to The London Film Review, the hope being that good reviews would increase our chances of festival selection.
And that only really leaves the festival entry fees themselves. We’ve entered 25 to date, and the money we’re raising now should allow us to enter another 20 or so. In a future post I’ll provide a list of the festivals entered, their deadlines and fees, and the selection results.