Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

Georgia Winters as Amelia
Georgia Winters as Amelia. Photo: Sophie Black

Working with editor Miguel Ferros on Stop/Eject in 2012/13 was a big eye-opener for me, demonstrating how much better my films could be if I didn’t edit them myself. It also helped me realise how little I like the isolated job of editing compared with the fun, stress and teamwork of being on set. Since then I’ve been gradually letting go of my editing work, both corporate and creative. My business card used to say ‘Director, Editor, DP’. Now it just says ‘Director, DP’.

Editing can be a thankless task, particularly in the corporate world. Once upon a time, when I had a cut I was happy with, I invited the client along to the edit suite, played it for them, then we discussed how it might be improved. But since broadband happened, clients wanted me to Dropbox the edit to them and then, rather than a creative discussion, I was typically emailed a list of instructions for changes. This is the point at which I would shut off my brain, carry out the instructions, often feeling that I was making the film worse, take the money and run.

So there’s much to be said for being in the same room as your editor. Not all the time, of course, but enough so that revisions can be made – or least discussed – collaboratively rather than imposed authoritatively.

Which is all pre-amble to saying that I travelled up to Nottingham yesterday to spend the day working with Tristan Ofield on the edit of Amelia’s Letter. He set up his Mac Mini in a darkened room in the Broadway and, after I popped out to be interviewed for the EPK, we got to work knocking the film into shape.

The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson
The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson

I hadn’t realised until then how difficult a film it must have been for Tristan to assemble: multiple time periods; intercutting scenes that were numbered separately on the page but shot together as one; a cheated geography of the cottage relative to the lake. The one advantage of editing your own film is that you know where everything is supposed to go, but Tristan had to figure it out the hard way. He’s put a lot of work into wrangling and shaping the material over the last few months.

It was a very productive day. We started at the beginning of the film and went steadily through, nipping, tucking and often completely rebuilding scenes. The film we had when we finished at 5pm was streets ahead of the one we had at 9am. We got the running time down from 15’30 to a much more festival-friendly 12 minutes, trimming most in the first few scenes to get the story going sooner. The emotional core of the film was already shining through in Tristan’s cut, but now the creepy and tense moments work nicely as well.

The next stage will be to screen the film for a test audience. This is an essential step I’ve taken with all my films since The Beacon in 2001, to make sure that the story is clear, the pacing is right and the desired emotions are coming across. For more on why test screenings are important, read my blogs about test-screening Stop/Eject and some of the problems that it highlighted.

Update: You can read Tristan’s thoughts on editing over at

Amelia’s Letter is written by Steven Deery and produced by Sophia Ramcharan of Stella Vision Productions. Visit the Amelia’s Letter Facebook page.

Directing the Edit of Amelia’s Letter

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

Stop/Eject: Script to Screen

Following my personal observations on the shot planning process the other day, here’s a look at that process in action and a record of some of the thoughts that go through my head as a director when I’m choosing camera angles.

Everything begins with the script, and here is the extract for the Stop/Eject sequence I’m going to break down:

KATE stands behind the alcove’s curtain with an armful of tapes.
She pushes one into the recorder – “JULY 16th 2007, 5-6:30pm” - 
and hits PLAY. Warm summer sunshine steals in through the crack
in the curtain. She pulls it back to reveal the river, sunlight
dancing and sparkling in the water of the weir.
COPY-KATE cycles through the gardens on a creaky old bicycle
with a custom paint job and various doodads hanging off,
oblivious to her other self and the alcove stood in the middle
of a Victorian bandstand.
Copy-Kate spots a strange figure on the riverbank, wearing
closed-back headphones and waving a big, fluffy microphone at
the running water.  She looks ahead – she’s about to run over
TWO YOUNG GIRLS.  She grips the brakes tightly and the bike
screeches to a stop with a noise like a small army of warring
cats.  She catches her breath as the older girl scowls and drags
her sister away.

Sophie drew the following storyboards for this sequence, based on my rough sketches:

I don’t like starting scenes with establishing shots; I prefer to reveal them gradually. So when I conceived the first shot (top left) – setting up Kate in the alcove in the shop – I suspected I would probably end up cutting it, and sure enough I never even filmed it. The audience would know by now where the tape recorder alcove was, I figured.

The next shot (top right) follows Kate as she puts down the stack of tapes. This is fairly basic visual storytelling. The audience already knows that the tapes contain recordings of Kate’s life. When we see her come in with an armful of cassettes, we anticipate her nostalgia trip.

As this was the first time Kate was to travel back in time more than a few hours, I felt it important to show the action of the tape going into the recorder in close-up (bottom), to ensure the audience understood the connection between the tapes, the machine and the time travelling.


We then return (top left) to the previous angle, following Kate as she stands back up and opens the curtain. One of my regrets with Stop/Eject was that I never shot over Kate’s shoulder as she looked out of the alcove. I can only think this is because I was trying to avoid doing “the obvious thing”. In this scene I chose instead to tease what she’s seeing, revealing first the sunlight on her face, and then (top right) an abstract close-up of a spinning bike wheel, part of the visual theme of circles I had smart-arsedly developed for the film. My thinking was that time travel was a big and unbelievable concept for Kate to take in, so it needed to be broken to her (and therefore us) gradually.

Finally the scene is revealed (bottom left) in a high wide shot to establish the geography, which then cranes down to draw us into the action. On the day, there was a bush in the foreground, which began to obscure the action as we craned down, so we decided to crane up instead, rising up over the bush to reveal the action.

Next it was necessary to show the place of Kate and the alcove in the geography. I wanted to echo the formality and symmetry of the bandstand’s architecture by framing it flat-on, dead centre (bottom right).

storyboards_scan11Then Copy-Kate sees Dan, her future husband, for the very first time. I wanted to show an immediate connection using an over-the-shoulder shot-reverse. Since Copy-Kate was on a moving bike, this meant panning with her for her angle (top) and then tracking with her for Dan’s angle (bottom) in order to keep her shoulder in frame. I left Dan’s shoulder out of Kate’s shot since he hasn’t seen her yet and so hasn’t made a connection.

The editing podcast below from summer 2012 explains the various iterations I went through with this sequence. (I later brought Miguel Ferros on board to re-edit the film, and his final version is far superior to all of my attempts.) You can see in the podcast some of the problems that my linear shot planning approach caused, notably my failure to cover the whole scene in the crane shot, and the restrictions which that placed on me in the edit.

Despite these minor quibbles, I’m very proud of Stop/Eject and its visual storytelling. It’s recently received a couple of glowing reviews on Unsung Films and The London Film Review, the latter praising its visuals, and both quite rightly lauding Georgina Sherrington’s brilliant lead performance.



Stop/Eject: Script to Screen

Slating 101

Slating Brendan O'Neill's Fled. See
Slating Brendan O’Neill’s Fled. See

With dual system sound now the norm for even micro-budget shoots, a clapperboard (or slate as they call them in the US) is an indispensable bit of kit. It’s always best to keep this under the purview of the clapperloader or 2nd AC, rather than giving it to whichever crew member is free at the time. Otherwise you often end up with the camera operator calling “mark it” followed by an awkward pause because that crew member has left the set to perform some other duty, or has been too busy with other duties and is now scrambling to update the numbers on the slate. Incorrect slates can give the editor headaches down the line, so it’s important to get it right.

Slating Harriet Sams' The First Musketeer. See
Slating Harriet Sams’ The First Musketeer. See

With that in mind, here are the basic rules of slating.

Labelling the Board

The production name, scene number, DP’s and director’s names and the date are self-explanatory. DAY/NIGHT and INT/EXT (interior/exterior) are intended to ensure the labs process the film footage correctly, but should still be circled appropriately on a digital shoot. Shutter and frame rate information can be obtained from the camera operator or DP. Some slates will have a space for a roll number, and since “rolls” (memory cards) are recycled on a modern shoot, it is best to ask the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician, or data wrangler) how they would like these numbered.

Slates and Takes

The slate number should start at 1 for the first shot of the first day, and increment every time the camera position and/or lens is changed. Sometimes a director will ask instead for the slate number to match the numbers on their shotlist or storyboards, but this is a bad idea because inevitably shots will be dropped or added and it becomes very confusing. Besides, if the slate number simply starts at 1 and goes up, the DIT can easily tell if a shot is missing from their hard drive due to a card being overlooked or some technical fault.

The take number should reset to 1 each time the slate number changes, and increment every time the camera stops rolling, with certain exceptions and variations outlined below.

(The American system differs in that it omits slate numbers. Instead a letter is appended to the scene number, so the first shot filmed of scene 7 would be 7, then 7A, 7B, 7C, etc.)


The clapperloader should always have the board up to date and ready to go. He or she should have checked the length of the lens being used and found a position for the slate in which it’s fully in frame and legibile. A torch may be required if the set is moodily lit.

The sound mixer will roll their device and announce “sound speed”.  The camera operator will then roll and ask the clapperloader to mark it. By this point the slate should already be in frame so that the first frame recorded, when the DIT looks at it as a thumbnail on their hard drive, has the slate on it.

Only the slate and take number need be announced, e.g. “30 take 3”. The board should then be clapped nice and cleanly to produce a sharp click on the soundtrack that is easy for the DIT or assistant editor to sync. If it’s necessary to clap a second time, the clapperloader should announce “second clap” or “second sticks” immediately before.

Slating a pick-up for The Deaths of John Smith. See

PU and AFS

If the director decides to do another take but to begin the action part way through rather than from the top, the take number should still increase but pick-up (PU for short) should be appended to the number. For example: take one, take two, take three pick-up, take four pick-up.

If camera and/or sound roll but cut before the board is clapped, the take number remains the same for the next attempt.

If camera and sound roll, the board is read and clapped, but the crew cuts before action is called, the take number remains the same but AFS (After a False Start) is appended.

If action is called, even if it’s immediately followed by cut, the take number always increases for the next attempt.

A mute slate for The First Musketeer
A mute slate for The First Musketeer


Sometimes the camera rolls without sound, if the mixer feels he or she cannot get any useful sound. In these cases the clapperloader should circle MOS (Mute Of Sound) on the slate. They don’t need to clap the board or announce the slate and take number; they simply need to hold the board up long enough for it to be read by the editor. As an additional indicator that there is no accompanying sound file, the clapperloader should hold the board with their fingers between the sticks.

An end board on Fled
An end board on Fled

End Board

Sometimes it’s impractical or inconvenient to shoot the slate at the start of a take, so instead it’s shot at the end. At the start of the take the camera operator announces “end board” instead of “mark it”. When the action is finished, the director typically forgets that it’s an end board (American term: tail slate) and calls “cut”. Hopefully the sound mixer and camera operator remember not to obey this command, and the latter calls “mark it”. The clapperloader should then mark the take in the usual manner, except that the board should be held upside-down. They should conclude their verbal announcement with “end board” or “on the end”, e.g. “27 take 2 on the end”. Only then can camera and sound cut.

Slating 101

Audience Interpretations and the Importance of Test Screenings

Is Kate (Georgina Sherrington) shoplifting in this deleted shot from Stop/Eject?
Is Kate (Georgina Sherrington) shoplifting in this deleted shot from Stop/Eject?

One thing I often find myself struggling with as a filmmaker is clarity of motivation and storyline. It’s amazing how easily an audience can misinterpret something – or perhaps I should say how easily they can interpret it differently from the director, writer, etc. Here are some examples:

  • Stop/Eject‘s protagonist Kate is a costume designer, though this is never stated explicitly, and the scene that might have hinted most at it was deleted early on in the editing process. In the opening scene she enters a charity shop and gets a scrapbook of costume designs out of her bag to refer to whilst browsing the clothing rack. But after trimming the scene to improve the pace, the sequence of events in the locked edit became: Kate enters the charity shop with her husband Dan; she approaches a clothing rack and opens her bag; we then cut to Dan asking the shopkeeper how much a record is, drawing her away from Kate’s location. In short, it looked like Kate was opening her bag to do some shoplifting and Dan was abetting her by distracting the shopkeeper. I was blind to this because I knew Kate’s real intention, but my wife picked it up as soon as she saw it. Despite having locked the edit, on spotting this issue we hastily cut out the shot of Kate opening her bag.
  • In the same scene in Stop/Eject, Alice the shopkeeper was filmed looking at her watch. The intention was to show that she knew the cassette in the magic tape recorder needed turning over very soon, and was weighing up whether she had time to answer Dan’s query first. But test audiences thought that, given Alice’s mysterious connection to the time-travelling tape recorder, she was looking at her watch because she knew that any minute now an accident was going to happen, which indeed it does at the end of the scene. The solution was to simply cut Alice’s watch check.
  • My 2012 Virgin Media Shorts entry, Ghost-trainspotting, is about a deceased nerd who spots trains of an equally ghostly nature. His ghostly nature, however, is not revealed until late in the film. This revelation comes in the form of (a) him ascending into the clouds in a shaft of heavenly light, his final mission on earth being complete, and (b) a closing shot of his photo in a shrine. But we had to cut the shrine shot due to the competition’s strict length limit, and some viewers thought the shaft of heavenly light looked more like he was being beamed up by aliens. Result? A complete misunderstanding of the story. Sadly, with the competition deadline upon me, I was unable to correct this issue in time.

Audiences aren’t stupid; you just have to remember that they haven’t read the script, been on the set and worked on the edit for months. They’re coming to it completely fresh, and if the right clues aren’t in the film, they have little chance of interpreting it as you intended.

This is why test screenings are so important. Happily most of these types of issues can be resolved fairly easily by cutting something out or adding a line of ADR, but unless you show your edit to fresh eyes you probably won’t even know they are issues in the first place.

For more on test screenings and a sample report form, check out the blog post I wrote last summer about the Stop/Eject screenings.

Audience Interpretations and the Importance of Test Screenings

Five Tips for a Smooth and Speedy Postproduction

Consulting with editor Adam Hale (left) and director Brendan O'Neill (right). Photo: Anneliese Cherrington
Consulting with editor Adam Hale (left) and director Brendan O’Neill (right). Photo: Anneliese Cherrington

Last weekend I participated in my first 48 hour film challenge, serving as both director of photography and postproduction supervisor. This is the first time I’ve ever done the latter role and I made the huge mistake of failing to prepare for it. This, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t around during the start of the editing process because I was busy DPing, meant that some avoidable errors were made. We got the film finished on time to a good standard, but I learnt several things that will be useful if I ever take on the role of postproduction supervisor again.

Here are the top five things I’d recommend to anyone wishing to have a quick and painless postproduction process:

  1. Sit down with the camera and post departments before the shoot to make sure everyone knows the workflow and what’s expected of them. This includes agreeing on a format and frame rate to shoot, and a format to edit from, and making sure that all hard drives and memory sticks to be used during post are formatted appropriately so they can be read by all the computers being used.
  2. Have a dedicated clapper person on set and make sure they understand the importance of getting the right info on the board. Too often on a low budget the job of slating is given to a crew member with several other responsibilities, increasing the chances of them writing the wrong thing on it and confusing the hell out of the editor. (We got this right on last weekend’s shoot, and it helped enormously.)
  3. Beware of shooting too much footage, particularly if you have a B camera or second unit. We had so much that there simply wasn’t time to view it all in post. Also avoid shooting series (multiple takes without cutting in between) as a time-pressured editor will often miss the fact that there are several takes within the same clip.
  4. Keep logs if at all possible, noting any technical problems with each take and the director’s preferences.
  5. Ideally the DIT (Digital Input Technician) or an assistant editor should do three things once he or she has ingested the material, besides the obvious backing up: 1. Transcode the footage to ProRes or whatever format has been pre-arranged for editing, 2. Sync the sound, 3. Associate information from the logs with the clips, or at least rename the clips with slate and take number. It’s a bad idea to rename the files themselves because it can cause re-linking headaches down the line, but if the DIT has access to the editing software they can rename the clips within the bins.

Watch this space for a forthcoming interview with writer-director-producer Brendan O’Neill on the whole process of making a 48 hour challenge film. Meanwhile, here’s the film:

Five Tips for a Smooth and Speedy Postproduction

Picture Lock on Stop/Eject

Last week Miguel Ferros and I locked the edit of my short fantasy-drama Stop/Eject. This project represents the first time in seventeen years of filmmaking that I’ve worked with an editor, rather than doing it myself. I found it an extremely positive experience and I wonder why I’ve never done it before.

Georgina Sherrington as Kate
Georgina Sherrington as Kate

Miguel’s cut makes the story clearer, the characters more consistent and the emotions more real. Not to mention the fact that it’s paced much better, coming in a good minute shorter than my tightest cut.

Filmmakers are always told that they shouldn’t edit their own material. I liked to think I was an exception to the rule, that I could put the baggage of preproduction and production aside and cut with fresh eyes. Perhaps you’re thinking the same as you read this, just like I did when I read things like this in the past. Then like me you’ll only discover how wrong you are when you finally try working with an editor.

If I was to compare my cut to Miguel’s side by side, I have no doubt that where he has made a different decision to me, in most cases I made my decision at least in part because it looked pretty, or it was a shot I had had in my head since I first started writing the script, or it was a shot that had been particularly difficult or time-consuming to get, or because I somehow felt like it had to be that way because it had always been that way. Miguel simply chose the best material to advance the plot and characters.

It was a real joy to finally see some of the film’s key moments working in a way they never quite have before. I now look forward to what I’m sure will be equally positive experiences as the film splits off in three directions:

  • Composer Scott Benzie, profiled in a recent post, begins writing the score.
  • Sound designer Henning Knoepfel begins creating and layering the sound effects.
  • Half a dozen rotoscoping and compositing artists begin work on a variety of visual effects shots.
As always, you can follow Stop/Eject’s progress here on my blog, on the Facebook page or on Twitter.
Shooting more pick-ups in my living room.
Shooting more pick-ups in my living room for incorporation into Miguel’s edit. The entrance of the alcove – a set which is long gone – is represented by the curtain and a shelf clamped to a C-stand.
Picture Lock on Stop/Eject

Free Music, Stock Footage and Sound Effects

A clip from
A clip from

For low-to-no-budget filmmakers, it wasn’t so long ago that stock footage and sound effects were out of our price range, and the only way to get music legally was to have someone compose it specially. Today the situation is very different, with plenty of sites out there offering material that’s not only free to download but royalty-free too. (This is an important distinction. Always read the license carefully to ensure that no further fees are due when the material is used in the territories, media and manner you wish to use it.)

Here are some of my favourite sites for free stuff. Again, please check the FAQs and licenses on these sites to make sure your intended useage is approved. If you’re serious about filmmaking, you’ll want to commission a composer, sound designer and second unit to generate original material for you, but we all have times when we need a quicker, off-the-shelf solution, and these are the places that help me out in those times.

Stock Footage

  • Detonation Films have a large number of explosions, smoke, debris and fire effects shot against blue, green or black for compositing into your own FX shots. Many are free, though there is a small charge for some. One downside is that, due to the site being quite old, the material is all in standard definition.
  • Epic Slow Mo have 20 HD clips for download, including money burning, TVs being smashed up, insects flying and even a wet dog shaking itself off – all in super-slow motion.
  • The official Hubble Space Telescope website has a number of “Hubblecasts” and other videos which you can download and use bits of in your own productions. It’s a great place to get CG animations of the sun and other heavenly bodies for your micro-budget sci-fi epic.
  • The Prelinger Archives are a collection of vintage corporate and amateur films, including such gems as Joan Avoids a Cold: A Health Film for Children (1947). These might be useful to a documentary maker looking for footage to illustrate a period or just for comic punctuation. There are even some clips from old movies.


  • Incompetech is the home of composer Kevin MacLeod (not to be confused with Kevin McCloud from off of Grand Designs, or anyone from off of Highlander). Throw a stone on YouTube and you’ll hit six hundred videos that have his music on, because he gives it away completely free. All the music on the Stop/Eject pre-production podcasts and on my comedy documentary Video8 is from Incompetech.
  • CC Mixter is a site where musicians can remix each other’s work in an endless creative dialogue. It’s also very handy for filmmakers, since the Creative Commons agreement allows you to use the tracks in your productions (though beware that some tracks prohibit commercial use). I recently edited a film set at a party and we got all the background music from CC Mixter.
  • Jewel Beat‘s music isn’t free, but at 99 cents per track it’s as near as damn. It’s surprisingly high quality too, with many orchestral tracks (albeit using samples) that wouldn’t be out of place in a big movie. This is where I got the music for Stop/Eject’s trailer from.

Sound Effects

  • Free SFX has a wide range of noises and is always my first port of call when I’m hunting for a sound.
  • Partners in Rhyme has a collection of royalty free and public domain sound effects including animals, instruments, and human sounds and phrases.
  • Sound Jay is another handy library of free sounds.
  • All Music Library has a small collection of free sound effects.
  • Sweet Sound Effects has plenty of epic action sounds like helicopters, gunshots and even Star Trek-style transporter beams. Nowhere on the site does it specifically say these aren’t actual Star Trek sounds that have been ripped off though…

Do you know of any more sites I could add to this list? If so, leave a comment.

Free Music, Stock Footage and Sound Effects

Stop/Eject: December 2012

It’s high time for an update on the progress of Stop/Eject, my magical and moving fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time.

First up, thanks to the auctioning-off of a hat worn by lead actress Georgina Sherrington (The Worst Witch), our fundraising total has crossed the £1,200 mark. That means we’re over 80% of the way to our £1,500 target. It also means that the last in our series of behind-the-scenes podcasts from the set of Stop/Eject has been released.

Down in Hay-on-Wye, editor Miguel Ferros is hard at work cutting Stop/Eject itself. I went down there on Tuesday and had a sneak peek at the first few minutes, which is already streets ahead of the version I edited. A fresh pair of eyes is indeed a very valuable thing at this stage in a film’s creation.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been editing – editing Record & Play: The Making of Stop/Eject, a 30 minute documentary which will form the centrepiece of the DVD and Bluray’s bonus features. Several brand-new interviews have been filmed for this, including one with Georgina. At the same time we interviewed her on another subject, and we hope to be revealing this soon as an exciting new reward for sponsors.

Press kit outside cover by Alain Bossuyt
Press kit outside cover by Alain Bossuyt

Alain Bossuyt, who won our poster design competition earlier in the year, has adapted and expanded his eye-catching design into a folder for the press kits. Although it will probably be quite a while before these kits are needed, it’s always useful to have them around just in case. You can find out more about Alain and his work (with the help of Google Translate) at

Another designer, Andy Roberts, who did all the graphics for the Worcestershire Film Festival, is busy laying out the illustrated script book for those sponsors who selected the Unit Publicist reward. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up; I’m sure it will be a fantastic souvenir. Andy’s website is at

Press kit inside cover by Alain Bossuyt
Press kit inside cover by Alain Bossuyt

This afternoon I was interviewed by Toni McDonald on BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester. If you missed it, you can listen to it online. My part is about 2 hrs 45 mins into the programme.

And on Tuesday, Stop/Eject’s trailer will be screened at the Underwire networking event in Wolverhampton, along with the trailer for producer Sophie Black’s own short film, Ashes. Tickets can be bought online for £5.

Remember – apart from the hat, which was of course a one-off – all of the sponsor rewards mentioned above are still available. So if you want to secure yourself a copy of the DVD or Bluray, bag a ticket to the premiere or get one of the illustrated script books, head on over to and make your contribution.

Stop/Eject: December 2012

Double Vision

When I first started making amateur films with my grandad’s Video8 camcorder, the only “actors” I had available were me, my friend David Abbott and occasionally my sister. Even a little later on, when I managed to rope in a few extra friends, there were still far more characters than actors. The solution? Each person – with the addition or subtraction of a hat, jacket or pair of glasses – portrayed multiple characters.

While this massively confused the audience (which fortunately consisted of only my parents), it did teach me a thing or two about how to shoot scenes in which one actor plays two characters. Below is a run-down of the various techniques you can use next time you shoot a script featuring time travel, parallel universes or uncanny doppelgängers. Back in the nineties, when I was making amateur films, there was no way of combining two separate video images on screen at once (without a hugely expensive video mixer), so only the first two of these techniques were available to me. Nowadays they can all be done with a green sheet, a decent home computer and the right software.

1. Ordinary cuts

The simplest method is to block your shot so that one doppelgänger’s face is not seen, be it out of focus, turned away from camera, in shadow or whatever. Simply dress a stand-in in the right clothes and make sure their hair matches. Two over-the-shoulder shots, each with a stand-in providing the foreground shoulder, can be edited into a very natural conversation.

Katie Lake (foreground) doubles for Georgina Sherrington (background) as the character of Kate steps into her own past in Stop/Eject.
Katie Lake (foreground) doubles for Georgina Sherrington (background) as the character of Kate steps into her own past in Stop/Eject.

2. Hidden cuts

It’s possible to pan from one doppelgänger to another, without any post-production effects, so long as the pan is very fast – a “whip” pan. There is so much motion in a whip pan that the eye will not detect a cut in the middle of it. Alternatively, track the camera so it passes close behind a foreground object or character; use the moment of darkness as this object wipes frame to hide a cut.

A quick camera move behind a foreground wall masks a cut from Johnny Cartwright to Johnny Cartwright in The Picnic.
A quick camera move behind a foreground wall masks a cut from Johnny Cartwright to Johnny Cartwright in The Picnic.

3. Split screen

As long as your camera is locked off, it’s the work of seconds in post to create a simple split screen effect using your editing software’s crop tool. If a straight vertical line doesn’t suit your shot, more unusual matte lines can be created with a garbage matte filter. Watch out for changes in lighting when you shoot the two elements, particularly when filming outdoors, and beware of shadows crossing the matte line. If you can afford to hire a motion control rig for accurately repeatable moves, your camera doesn’t even need to be locked down.

Elizabeth Shue plays both old and young Jennifer in a split screen shot from Back to the Future Part II (1989).
Elizabeth Shue plays both old and young Jennifer in a split screen shot from Back to the Future: Part II (1989, dir. Robert Zemeckis).

4. Green screen

If you try to use technique 3 for a shot where one doppelgänger passes in front of the other, you’ll quickly find it a post-production nightmare of painstaking matte animation. Instead, shoot the foreground doppelgänger against a green screen. As always with green screen work, light carefully to reduce spill and match the background plate.

Peter Kay is green-screened over an element of himself and Patrick McGuinness in the 2005 Comic Relief music video "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo".
Peter Kay is green-screened over an element of himself and Patrick McGuinness in the 2005 Comic Relief music video (Is This the Way to) Amarillo.

5. Face replacement

This is the only suitable technique when your doppelgängers are in close physical contact and both faces are visible. The action is performed by the actor and a stand-in, who may wear a green hood with tracking marks on it. Later, the actor performs the second character against a green screen, wearing a green body suit, with the angle and lighting carefully matched to the earlier shot. This isolated face, or the entire head, can then be tracked onto the stand-in. (Alternatively, on a big budget, the actor’s head may be cyber-scanned and a CG version of it tracked onto the stand-in.) Beware that only experienced VFX artists will be able to pull this off convincingly.

One of the many face replacement shots in the climactic fight of the dimension-hopping Jet Li vehicle The One (2001, dir. James Wong)
One of the many face replacement shots in the climactic fight of the dimension-hopping Jet Li vehicle The One (2001, dir. James Wong)

The best approach is to mix as many techniques as possible, relying mostly on the simpler ones but hitting the audience with a more effectsy one every now and then to sell the doubles. Happy sci-fi shooting!

Double Vision