“Above the Clouds”: October Pick-ups

Day 21 / Friday

My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.
My wallet plays a vital part in adjusting the tilt of the camera.

Two and a half months on, and most of the team are back for three days of pick-ups on this comedy road movie. (Read my blog from principal photography here.) Director Leon Chambers showed me some of the rough cut last night, and it’s shaping up to be a really warm, charming film.

Principal was photographed on an Alexa Mini in Pro Res 4444, with Zeiss Ultra Primes and a half Soft FX to take off the digital edge. Since the pick-ups consist largely of scenes in a moving hatchback – the film’s signature Fiat 500 “Yellow Peril” – Leon has invested in a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera. Designed for remote applications like drone use, the BMMCC is less than 9cm (3.5″) square, meaning it can capture dashboard angles which no other camera can, except a Go Pro. Unlike a Go Pro, the BMMCC can record Cinema DNG raw files with a claimed 13 stops of dynamic range.

Leon has fitted the camera with a Metabones Speed Booster, converting the BMMCC’s Super 16 sensor to almost a Super 35 equivalent and increasing image brightness by one and two-thirds stops. The Speed Booster also allows us to mount Nikon-fit Zeiss stills lenses – a 50mm Planar, and 25mm and 35mm Distagons – to which I add a half Soft FX filter again. A disadvantage of the Speed Booster is the looseness it introduces between lens and camera; when the focus ring is turned, the whole lens shifts slightly.

Filtration causes the first pick-ups hiccup when we realise that leading man Andy’s blue jacket is reading pink on camera.  This turns out to be an effect of infra-red pollution coming through our .6 and 1.2 ND filters. Yes, whoops, we forgot to order IR NDs. Fortunately we also have a variable ND filter, which doesn’t suffer from IR issues, so we switch to that.

Left to right: variable ND, .6 ND, 1.2 ND. As you can see, there is a pronounced magenta shift on the non-variable filters.

Lighting follows a similar pattern to principal, with a little bounce and negative fill outside the car, and Rosco 12″x3″ LitePads on the dashboard for eye light inside. On the move, Rupert and I monitor and pull focus wirelessly from a chase car. Referring to the false colours on an Atomos Ninja, I radio Leon to tweak the variable ND between takes when necessary. I miss the generous dynamic range of the Alexa Mini, which so rarely clipped the sky – and I do not buy the manufacturer claims that the BMMCC has only one stop less, but it still does an amazing job for its size and price.


Day 22 / Saturday

I start the day by reviewing some of yesterday’s footage side-by-side with Alexa Mini material from principal. They are very comparable indeed. The only differences I can detect are a slightly sharper, more “video” look from the BMMCC, and a nasty sort of blooming effect in the stills lenses’ focus roll-off, which reminds me of the cheap Canon f1.8/50mm “Nifty Fifty” I used to own.

A couple of quick shots at Leon’s, then we move to his friend Penny’s house, where a donkey and a horse look on as we set up around the Peril in Penny’s paddock. There are some inserts to do which must cut in with scenes where the car is moving, but since we don’t see any windows in these inserts, the car remains parked. Two people stand, one on either side of the car, each sweeping a 4’x4′ polyboard repeatedly over the windscreen and sunroof. With heavy cloud cover softening the shadows of these boards, the result is an effective illusion that the car is moving.


After lunch we have to capture additional angles for the traffic jam scene originally staged on day 14. By an amazing stroke of luck, the sun comes out, shining from almost exactly the same direction (relative to the car) as Colin bounced it in from with Celotex during principal. To begin with we are shooting through the windscreen, with a filter cocktail of half Soft FX, .6 ND and circular polariser. Since Andy is no longer wearing the blue jacket, I decided to risk the .6 ND rather than stacking multiple polarisers (the variable ND consists of two polarising filters). The next shot requires the camera to be rigged outside the driver’s window as the car drives away (pictured right).

Then we set up for night scenes to cut with day 11, which, like the inserts earlier today, we achieve using Poor Man’s Process. Instead of polyboards, Gary sweeps a 1’x1′ LED panel gelled with Urban Sodium over the passenger side of the car to represent streetlights. Rueben walks past the driver’s side with another 1’x1′ panel, representing the headlights of a passing car. I’ve clamped a pair of Dedos to Rupert’s Magliner, and Andrew dollies this side-to-side behind the Peril, representing the headlights of a car behind; these develop and flare very nicely during the scene. For fill, the usual two 12″x3″ LitePads are taped to the dashboard and dimmed to 10%.

For a later stretch of road with no streetlamps or passing cars, I use a low level of static backlight, and a static sidelight with a branch being swept in front of it to suggest moonlight through trees.


Day 23 / Sunday

After a brief scene against a tiny little micro set, we have more scenes to shoot around the parked Peril – and it’s supposed to be parked this time, no movement to fake. Unfortunately it’s raining, which doesn’t work for continuity. Although I’m worried it will block too much light, the crew erect a gazebo over the car to keep the rain off, and in fact it really helps to shape the light. I even add a black drape to increase the effect. Basically, when shooting through the driver’s window, it looks best if most of the light is coming through the windscreen and the passenger’s window, and when we shoot through the windscreen it looks best if most of the light is coming through the side and rear windows; it’s the usual cinematographic principle of not lighting from the front.

Shooting through the driver’s window

After another driving scene using car rigs, we move to our final location, a designer bungalow near Seven Oaks. Here we are shooting day-for-dusk, though it’s more like dusk-for-dusk by the time the camera rolls. I set the white balance to 3,200K to add to the dusky feel, increasing it to 4,500K as the daylight gets bluer for real. The extra one and two-thirds stops which the Speed Booster provides are very useful, allowing us to capture all four steadicam shots before the light fades completely.

And with that we are wrapped for the second, but not final, time. Crucial scenes involving a yet-to-be-cast character remain for some future shoot.

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“Above the Clouds”: October Pick-ups

“Above the Clouds”: Week 4

IMG_0725Day 18 / Tuesday

Yesterday some of the crew started the long drive up to Skye, but for a lucky few – me, MUA Helen and actors Naomi and Andy – our journey starts today with a flight from Luton to Inverness. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive across the Highlands to the Kyle of Kochalsh, where Gary is waiting for us with his motorhome and the crafty table all set up. Soon afterwards the vans arrive, and the Yellow Peril. From 4pm we are shooting on a little ferry, big enough to hold three or four cars, as it pootles back and forth, back and forth between Skye and the mainland. It is, I think, the most stunning location I have ever shot in. The mountains tower over us from either side of the water, which sparkles in the sun. Although the light turns cloudy pretty quickly, the scene looks epic. All I do is add the usual dashboard LEDs in the picture car, and some sky bounce from Celotex, and darken the skies a little with an ND grad.


Day 19 / Wednesday

For some reason there’s no water at the cottage where many of us are staying, so it’s a slightly whiffy cast and crew that rocks up in another stunning location this morning. In common with the whole shoot to date, the weather – and therefore the light – is very changeable. We have to roll between the squalls that drift across the valley. An interesting continuity issue arises with the mountains in the background of shot: the light on them keeps changing as clouds move across them. The weather here really is something else; this morning we saw a rainbow so close and so low to the ground that it felt like we could have walked over and touched it.

IMG_0751In the afternoon we’re at yet another stunning location, a bench overlooking a bay. For once the light is fairly constant and sunny, which gives us lovely sparkles in the sea. Again I frame the master like the painting in the Turner, with the horizon bang on the vertical centre of frame: clouds above, landscape and characters below. When we flip around to shoot the singles, the light is hard on the actors’ faces, but frontal, which at least is the most flattering kind of hard light. And it fits well with the dialogue, which references it being sunny, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a diffusion frame up. All I do is have runner Jacob stand just out of frame with some poly, which lifts the shadows a little and makes sure we see into Naomi’s eyes when she looks away from the sun.


Day 20 / Thursday

IMG_0768Various small driving scenes to start with. Rupert and Max reconfigure the camera as per our test of week 2, and I climb into the Yellow Peril’s modest rear seat to capture the action. I black out the rear window to get a classic dark-to-light depth effect: underexposed backs of seats in the foreground, the actors (including Naomi’s reflection in the rear view mirror) correctly exposed in the midground, and the view through the windscreen slightly overexposed in the background.

We also shoot exterior up-and-pass shots of the car amidst the spectacular scenery, before crossing the Skye Bridge to record a scene in a mainland village. Here we’re shooting dusk-for-night, so I set the white balance to 3,200K and heavily grad the sky. For shots inside the car, I plaster multiple Litepads over the windscreen, gelled with half CTO. The intention was for these to represent the car’s courtesy light, but with a fair amount of daylight coming into the vehicle the effect is more subtle, serving only to warm up what would otherwise be very cold skin-tones at 3,200K.

IMG_0775On the final set-up, appropriately enough, a car with clouds painted on it happens to drive by. And with that, principal photography is wrapped. There is a fifth week to do at some point, perhaps September, when a certain critical role has been cast, but for now the shoot is over. Andy, Naomi, Helen and I will meander back to Inverness tomorrow, while the rest of the crew drive south. I’ve had a great time, and I look forward to seeing a rough cut and shooting the remaining scenes later in the year.

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“Above the Clouds”: Week 4

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 4

Setting up in front of Himeji Castle
Setting up in front of Himeji Castle

This is the final instalment looking back at the whirlwind shoot I DPed in Japan at the start of this month. Part 1 looked at the equipment package, Part 2 covered an interior scene, and Part 3 covered night exteriors.

By the time we wrapped those night exteriors it was about 4:30am and starting to get light. After some well-earned sleep, we reconvened at 3pm to shoot the daylight exterior scene in front of Himeji Castle – featured in You Only Live Twice as a Ninja training school.

The first shot had to start with a picture postcard composition of the castle and a martial artist, then pan to reveal Daisy and a crowd watching her, while still keeping the castle in. This took some considerable time to set up, carefully placing all the extras. To balance the opening composition, I framed it with a tree in the foreground. This is the kind of thing you have to look out for as cinematographer, because simply shooting your cast in front of a landmark can result in a very flat image if there aren’t other elements in the frame to add depth.

Yurijo shades the actors between takes. You can see the bounce board being held by another crew member on frame  right, and how effectively this is filling in everyone's faces.
Yurijo shades the actors between takes. You can see the bounce board being held by another crew member on frame right, and how effectively this is filling in everyone’s faces.

After watching the initial blocking, I requested that everything be flopped in order to place Sydney in direct sunlight and Daisy in backlight. I knew that the backlight would look fantastic on Daisy’s hair – especially as the sun was very low by the time we got to her CU – and we could fill in her face with flattering bounce from a big white sign that the ever-resourceful Keisuke had brought along.

Ollie and the crew very kindly built me a sunshade.
Ollie and the crew very kindly built me a sunshade.

Masculine facial features tend to look better in harder, direct light, which is why I was happy to face Sydney into the sun. (There’s more to it than that though, and I’ll be debating the ethics of lighting men and women differently in an upcoming post.) However, for the first take of Sydney’s CU, worried about shine and squinting, I chickened out of the hardlight and put up a sheet of Full Frost to soften it. For the second take I got rid of it, which made for better lighting continuity with the wider shots, but left Sydney looking very shiny. There’s only so much powder can do when someone’s looking straight into the setting sun. I’ll be interested to see which one Devon prefers in the edit, although his decision will likely be based on performance rather than light and shine! A good colourist can probably reduce the shine anyway. If only I’d had 1/4 or 1/2 Frost to get the best of both worlds.

Judging when to shoot the various angles in your scene is an important part of a DP’s job for day exterior work, and especially so at Golden Hour. Devon wanted to shoot Sydney’s CU before Daisy’s, his logic being that if we lost the sun before we shot Daisy then it wouldn’t matter because her face was in shadow anyway. Knowing that I was probably going to diffuse Sydney’s light, I felt the greater priority was capturing the lovely backlight on Daisy, and so asked to shoot her first.

Anyway, when the sun went down, that was a wrap for the brief but intense Japan shoot. Many thanks to Devon and co for bringing me along, and to the people of Himeji for welcoming us so warmly.

Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 4

The Advantages of Regional Filmmaking

guardianSeveral years ago The Guardian wrote a lovely big article about me under the headline “The Spielberg of Hereford”. I had just completed Soul Searcher, a feature-length fantasy-action movie shot in this sleepy backwater of the rural West Midlands. The project had not been without its challenges – from a malfunctioning camera to a striking stunt team – but shooting in the provinces wasn’t one of them.

Yes, on the face of it, basing yourself away from the vast majority of actors, crew and facilities is inconvenient. I have long since accepted that my casting calls mentioning a shoot far outside the M25 will get a limited response, and that I will have to travel to London to hold auditions.

Crewing can seem similarly problematic, but in fact there are many excellent TV and film technicians hidden away in rural areas, constantly driving to London to work, but keen to be involved in anything more local if they get half a chance. It’s a novelty, and that’s an advantage.

Some of the cast of The Beacon atop the titular Worcestershire hill during filming in 2001
Some of the cast of The Beacon atop the titular Worcestershire hill during filming in 2001

Londoners can often be cynical about filming; it’s a business like any other. Most locations in the capital will whip out a rate card at the first whiff of a scouting crew. But out in the sticks, many property owners will let you shoot on their premises free of charge for the rare glamour of a brush with the film business. On Soul Searcher I only had to pay for a single location. At least two others told me they would charge me, but never did. Their accounts departments presumably had no procedure or precedent for raising an invoice for location fees, and so overlooked it.

The savings a regional producer makes on locations are often countered by an increased travel and accommodation budget. But there are benefits to this accommodation that, to my mind, outweigh the financial burden. A cast and crew staying away from home together will bond far more than one that scatters to the four corners of the tube map every night. This means improved morale and more realistic on-screen relationships between actors.

Stop/Eject on BBC East Midlands Today
Stop/Eject on BBC East Midlands Today

Regional filmmaking has more potential now than it’s ever had. Established networks like Talent Circle may remain London-centric, but social media enables us to connect quickly with others in our area – Shooting People’s regional “Shooters in the Pub” Facebook pages, for example, or Herefordshire Media Network, through which I found the editor for my last short film, Stop/Eject. And in an age when everyone’s looking for a hook for their crowdfunding campaign, the declaration “shooting in YOUR home town” can help you connect to potential sponsors.

Finally, regional press will often jump on local film projects, providing great free advertising for your crowdfunding campaign, cast/crew call or screening. I’ve appeared on BBC Midlands Today on three separate occasions, but I can’t imagine BBC London News covering yet another struggling filmmaker. And would “The Spielberg of Hackney” have been so newsworthy to The Guardian? I suspect not.

If you’re interested in the potential of regional film and TV production, the Herefordshire Media Network will be hosting a panel discussion on this subject at the Borderlines Film Festival next month.

The Advantages of Regional Filmmaking

A Cautionary Tale: Recce #2

Left to right: Tom Walsh (1st AD), Sophia Ramcharan (producer), Benjamin Maier (DP), Amy Nicholson (production designer) and Steve Deery (writer)
Left to right: Tom Walsh (1st AD), Sophia Ramcharan (producer), Benjamin Maier (DP), Amy Nicholson (production designer) and Steve Deery (writer)

Following our positive recce of Newstead Abbey last month, we returned there yesterday, this time with new crew members Benjamin Maier (director of photography), Tom Walsh (first assistant director) and designer Amy Nicholson’s assistants Anya and Charlotte. It was an opportunity for Ben to assess the power, lighting, lens and grip requirements, for Tom to consider the logistics of working in the place, and for the art department to take measurements.

Amy and her team are sinking their teeth into the project. Initial ideas of a single feature wall which would be re-wallpapered for each of the film’s four time periods have expanded into full-blown redecoration of the room. This will create a whole different mood and palette for each period and really up the production values.

After leaving the gatekeeper’s cottage, we drove up to the lake to show Ben where the waterside scenes would take place. His immediate observation, which had escaped me on the previous recce because I was wearing my director’s hat, was that it was in the worst possible orientation to the sun: the actors would be flatly lit. We walked around the lake to a cool Victorian folly that looked like part of a miniature castle. Here the light would strike from a better angle, and indeed it was a better location in every respect except for one. I can’t tell you what that one is because it would give away the ending of the film.

Sophia and Steve on the folly overlooking the lake
Sophia and Steve on the folly overlooking the lake

This recce was my first chance to use Artemis, a virtual director’s viewfinder app which I recently purchased. At £20.99 it’s very pricey, but where it scores over other, cheaper viewfinder apps is in its vast array of cameras you can choose from. You don’t have to worry about calculating crop factors; you simply select your camera from the menu, along with the lenses you have available, and Artemis shows you the field of view you’ll get with each one. On the wide end it’s limited by the iPad camera’s lens length, which in terms of a Super-35mm sensor at 16:9 is equivalent in height to a 22mm lens and in width to about 25mm, but you can purchase an optional wide angle lens adaptor to get around this. I have yet to use the app’s more advanced features, but it’s certainly cheaper than a real director’s viewfinder, and much more convenient than carting a DSLR and lenses around, which is what I did on the first recce.

The cottage exterior seen from amongst the trees opposite, through the Artemis director's viewfinder app
The cottage exterior seen from amongst the trees opposite, through the Artemis director’s viewfinder app

In other areas of preproduction, I’ve had initial Skype chats with the two lead actors, which led to some suggestions for little additions to the script, and I’ve been continuing to watch genre films for inspiration, taking in The Silence of the Lambs, The Woman in Black (2012) and The Innocents lately.

A Cautionary Tale: Recce #2

A Cautionary Tale: Newstead Abbey Recce

At the weekend I travelled up to Nottingham for a Cautionary Tale recce with producer Sophia Ramcharan, writer Steve Deery and production designer Amy Nicholson. (I am directing.) We visited Newstead Abbey, a historic house that was once home to Lord Byron – a fitting setting for a film about authors, especially since I had earlier decided that the lead character’s idol would be Mary Shelley, a friend of Byron’s. The staff and local council had been extremely helpful and had already hosted an initial recce by Sophia and her assistant.

We were looking for a gothic cottage overlooking a lake. The abbey’s grounds contain two cottages and two lakes. Unfortunately neither cottage overlooks either lake. The offices overlook one of the lakes, but only from the first and second floors, ruling out any lights or cameras pointing into the room from outside, which I felt were critical to the look and storyline.

The gatekeeper's cottage
Steve and Amy chat outside the gatekeeper’s cottage

We viewed the gatekeeper’s cottage, a beautiful little gothic edifice that has been abandoned inside for many years. A number of problems were immediately obvious. Firstly, a busy main road was a stone’s throw away, threatening the aural illusion of a period setting. Secondly, vehicles entering the grounds (which are open to the public) pass immediately outside the cottage. Thirdly, none of the rooms were particularly big. Fourthly, the least small of the rooms looked out on the tarmac drive and a speed limit sign, with trees beyond.

Stained glass in the interior doors is a nice feature of the gatekeeper's cottage.
Stained glass in the interior doors is a nice feature of the gatekeeper’s cottage.

On the plus side, the architecture was everything I had hoped for both inside and out, with stained glass in the interior doors, and vaulted windows. Its abandonment also meant that potentially we could modify it however we wanted without inconveniencing anyone.

Next we viewed the rose gardener’s cottage on the opposite side of the grounds. This is larger and also abandoned inside, to the extent that the first floor has been declared unsafe. The living room presents a blank slate, but didn’t capture my imagination or Amy’s the way the gatehouse had.

The surroundings are also problematic. They are clearly a formal garden on a country estate, whereas our fictional cottage is supposed to be isolated. Speaking of isolation, the gardener’s cottage is in a very quiet location, but its lack of a functioning mains supply means a noisy generator would have to be employed to run the lights.

The larger lake
The larger lake

We moved on to look at the lakes. The smaller one initally seemed more appropriate, but unlike its larger counterpart it lacks for a suitably dramatic point at which to stage the film’s climax. I began to realise that characters could be seen leaving the gatekeeper’s cottage and disappearing into the trees opposite it, before emerging from the (entirely different) trees next to the lake. Such is the cheated geography often required in filmmaking.

Room with a view... but not a very good one.
Room with a view… but not a very good one.

We returned to the gatehouse, now analysing it in much more detail. Could the drive be framed out? Was it possible to shoot the house from amongst the trees without seeing the park gates? Could the speed limit sign be temporarily removed? Could the necessary interior action be staged in the relatively confined space? What was the widest shot I could get in there with my widest lense? Could the radiators be removed or would they have to be covered? What about the seventies fireplace? How much of the kitchen – which we wanted to avoid dressing – would be seen when the door was open?

Having answered as many of these questions as we could, we departed for a production meeting. Later, Amy and I agreed how the interior would be laid out. Then, on the train home, I drafted a shotlist, which for me is the ultimate test of whether  a location will work. The results are reassuring, but nevertheless we have given ourselves a week to find alternatives to Newstead Abbey, in case there is an even better location out there somewhere.

A Cautionary Tale: Newstead Abbey Recce

Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce (Location Scout)

Scouting a weir for Stop/Eject. We didn't count on heavy rains turning it into a raging torrent though.  Photo: Sophie Black
Scouting a weir for Stop/Eject. We didn’t count on heavy rains turning it into a raging torrent though. Photo: Sophie Black

Tomorrow I’m off to Nottingham to recce for A Cautionary Tale, so I thought now would be a good time to list the questions that a filmmaker and their team should be asking when they check out a location.

  1. Is the mains supply beefy enough for your lighting package? Check the fuse box to see how many circuits there are for sockets and what amperage each is fused at.
  2. Can you access the land outside the windows to set up lights shining in?
  3. If you intend to use a smoke machine or hazer, can any smoke alarms be disabled?
  4. Is it noisy? Just because it isn’t noisy when you scout, it doesn’t mean it won’t be when you shoot. Might that road be busier the day you shoot? Are there any matches scheduled for that playing field next door? Will people be trampling around in the room upstairs? Is there a market, festival or other occasional event on? Is it on a flight path? Can any humming electrical devices be turned off? Some modern buildings have their aircon controlled remotely from other sites.
  5. How might weather affect the location? For example: river levels change; fields can flood; mud can make moving equipment difficult; attractive green grass can turn yellow in a drought. Don’t forget to consider tides if you’re on the coast.
  6. To what extent can you modify the location? Can you screw into or paint the walls? For a period piece – are there anachronisms? Can they be removed or covered?
  7. If outdoors, is there a toilet that everyone can use? What about somewhere to get warm at lunchtime?
  8. Is there space for a green room and HMUW (Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe)? If not, is a separate base camp required and where will that be?
  9. Is there sufficient parking?
  10. Is the owner willing to sign a location release? If not, this may come back to bite you, particularly if you’re entering your film into Virgin Media Shorts or selling it to a distributor. Get them to sign before you start filming; you don’t want them to pull out when you’ve shot two of the four scenes set there.

Can you think of anything I’ve missed?

UPDATE: Leslie Lowes adds:

  • Is there mobile phone coverage? Which networks?
Ten Questions to Ask on a Recce (Location Scout)

Brendan O’Neill on his 48hr Film Challenge Entry, “Fled”

I recently served as DP and postproduction supervisor on Fled, writer-director-producer Brendan O’Neill’s 2013 entry to the SciFi London 48hr Film Challenge. I asked him to share what he’s learnt from this and other film challenges he’s entered.

Brendan, this is not your first 48 hour film challenge. How many have you done before and what are the biggest things you learnt from them that you applied to this latest one?

Gillian Twaite in The Black Widow
Gillian Twaite in The Black Widow

I’ve done several now, 3 straight 48’s and 2 London Sci-Fi Society 48’s plus a time limited music video competition. My first ever film Black Widow was made for a local Birmingham competition called Film Dash in 2008. My second film What Goes Up Must Come Down was shot over a weekend for a non time limited competition run by Filmaka in the USA. I did a lot of ringing around and pre-production for this one as I wanted to really push the number of locations I could fit in. I found that by getting through to the right people, explaining who you are and what you want help with in a structured way can be very successful.

I made another 48 hour film Seconds Out for the same Film Dash competition in 2009 which placed 3rd out of 24 entries. I achieved some good production value by piggy backing a real event – a boxing contest held in a Birmingham hotel – with the help of the promoter who is also a local filmmaker.


The first really big production I put together was for Internalised – our first attempt at the London Sci-Fi Society’s 48 hour filmmaking competition in 2011. I spent 6 weeks pre-producing, location scouting, auditioning etc. and assembled a cast and crew of 50 to help us make the film. I also fed them all via an in-kind deal with local vegetarian catering company ChangeKitchen.

I suppose the first lesson I learnt on that was to not try to do it all on your own. The second being to be very careful who you take on board to help you and define clear roles and responsibilities for those involved. It can be difficult when you are working with volunteers but if you can convey the ambition and vision of what you are trying to do and have some previous track record then you can build feature size crews to help.

The shoot went very well but we were let down in post-production by not getting all the VFX/CGI we wanted into the competition version. You need to have your VFX/CGI team in the same place as your editors as it’s asking too much to render and then transmit the large files involved from remote locations when time is at a premium.

Around Again
Around Again

Our second attempt at the London Sci-Fi society 48 hour competition in 2012 was a World War II themed film called Around Again. We were looking for unusual locations with built-in production value and had identified a Midlands WWII era tunnel complex as a good location. We then found out that the person who controlled access to the tunnels also owned an extensive WWII costume wardrobe that had been used on Atonement and Band of Brothers so we dropped the tunnels location idea and went for battle/bunker scenes. The production value that all the great uniforms and replica / decommissioned firearms gave us was superb.

We were also very fortunate that our friend with the costume wardrobe Craig Leonard and his pyrotechnics colleague Matt Harley of Trinity VFX knew lots of German army / SS re-enactors who were more than happy to appear in the film. It shows the value of networking and being pro-active as that one contact expanded in all sorts of interesting ways to help us make a great looking film. I’m still reaping the benefits as Matt supplied the SWAT team outfits and arms for Fled as well as the GCHQ-esque second main location.

We were very surprised that the film didn’t shortlist but I think as producer if we’d had more clearly defined sci-fi elements in it then that would have helped.

Moving on to Fled, how much work had you put into writing and producing it before the challenge began on 10am on Saturday?

I spent about 6 weeks in pre-production. I hadn’t directed for a while so the first thing I did was do a smaller 48 hour competition which was running as part of the Stoke Your Fires festival.

[The next thing] I did was launch a crowd funding campaign via Indiegogo. I raised about £850 after fees so it helped a lot but it was a very labour intensive way of doing it with limited results. I didn’t have any donors who weren’t already linked to me in some way – mostly through Facebook.

Fortunately an established writer who I’d met twice at the Screenwriters Festival helped me a lot with an early and substantial individual donation. I think he likes my DIY attitude to getting films made. The previous year I also received a substantial donation via a Twitter relationship I had developed so it demonstrates that both traditional and social media based networking can’t be ignored.

Once the Indiegogo campaign was out of the way I worked on getting everything together. I had hoped for some substantial co-producer support but this didn’t really happen and the fact that I had to produce it nearly all myself definitely affected the amount of time I was able to spend on developing the script with my pal Dominic Carver as script editor. That said certain people such as Ella Carman, Matt Harley and stand in make-up artist Kerris Charles helped restore my battered faith in people.

The cast and crew of Fled
The cast and crew of Fled

I was surprised at how large the crew was (around 20). Do many hands make light work on a time-pressured project like this? Was there a degree of over-crewing in case some people didn’t turn up?

I’ve been on shoots where I haven’t had enough production assistants and runner/drivers so I tend to have some over-capacity just in case. The nature of the competition also means that it’s better to have more people to help in case the criteria you are given by the organisers are particularly difficult to handle. You are given a title, a line of dialogue and a prop/action by the organizers on the morning of the competition.

Although I did have some crew drop out prior to the competition I was able to replace them. My regular sound person dropped out with a foot injury so it was fortunate that Nicola Dale who was going to be post sound runner assisting Matt Katz and Joe Harper on the Sunday was able to step up to the mark and deliver great production sound with the help of Chantal Feliu Gurri on boom. Fortunately I’d met Nicola at a networking event a few weeks earlier and offered her the chance to come and work with some more experienced talent.

I do wish I had had some actor back-up however as someone dropped out on the Sunday morning pleading illness. It’s difficult to ask actors to turn up unpaid for what might only be extra type roles in a 5 minute film but it’s also VERY damaging when those who say they’ll do it drop out at short notice. It was especially galling as I’d written a role especially for this young man.

The consequence was that I had to bump someone who was only meant to be an extra into a role with lines which in my opinion definitely affected the quality of the film. For me Quality is King – with so many people having access to great technology you really have to try to ensure production values are as high as possible across the board in order to make your film stand out.

How did you approach integrating the challenge criteria (line of dialogue, prop and optional theme) into the film?

I try to build mechanisms into the script to deal with those things i.e. the wireless in the bunker scene in Around Again. That was there to help us field any difficult lines of dialogue we were given. Unfortunately last year we were given a very modern day line about the SEIS investment scheme so it was a bit clunky which is ironic given that it is a scheme that can help filmmakers raise finance!

We were lucky in that the criteria [this year] were very easy to integrate into the script.

Title: Fled

Prop: A key. A single key is put on a key ring with three near identical keys.

Roger the Controller
Roger the Controller

The initial idea was that [the entity] was an alien civilization that had had to flee some dying star millennia ago and had lain dormant on Mars until the first manned landings. This fitted the FLED title well. The key scene in the church echoes this when you can just make out the ethereal voices saying, “We can’t go back, we can’t go back.”

I was able to fit in the compulsory dialogue line as part of the NASA controllers trying to contact the Mars Explorer. The key on to keyring action/prop was easy and was the same one we got last year!

What was the schedule for the 48 hours in terms of when you started and finished filming, when the edit was locked, etc.?

At 10.00am DoP Neil Oseman and his gaffer Colin Smith went to the church location to pre-light and set up ready for filming whilst I awaited the criteria from the organisers. That way we could hit the ground running once we had a script finalized. The criteria arrived by text at about 11.15.

Filming at "GCHQ"
Filming at “GCHQ”

Fortunately the criteria given were very easy to integrate into my script so I arrived on set around 12.30 – 13.00 having picked up the VFX team at their hotel on the way. We needed to shoot the scenes they needed first in order to give them as much time as possible to work their magic.

I had planned to try and finish by 8pm so that the crew would be reasonably fresh for an early start the next day. I think we finished at around 21.15 and had a quick drink together before heading home. The next day we were all on set for 8.00am and set up for the first scenes quickly. I intended for us to finish around 2pm but there was a bit of creep to 3pm even though we trimmed and dropped some non essential scenes on the way. At both locations Neil and his regular gaffer Colin Smith, who was well assisted by Jay Somerville, did a brilliant job with the lighting.

Brendan directing
Brendan directing

Any plans to take part in future 48 hour challenges?

No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve done enough of them now. I want to either do some really high quality, well planned and developed festival oriented shorts or hopefully a first feature. I think 48 hour contests are a good discipline for young or emerging filmmakers as it gives you a focus and stress tests some of the relationships you might be developing. All a bit frantic but I’ve learnt a lot from them and come out a stronger and hopefully better filmmaker.

I think for this year’s contest just doing one high production value location per day and insisting that the VFX team were at the same post-production site as the edit team really made a difference. I was really fortunate to have really strong post-production edit and sound team and a great composer in Hans Hess who was at the ready to do the score. Hopefully people can see the difference those elements made in the quality of the competition version of the film.

Lastly I couldn’t have done it without Neil Oseman and a great international team of volunteer cast and crew. I hope that I’ll be able to work with them all again at some point. I’d particularly like to thank “King of the Indies” actor Michael Parle who came all the way from Ireland.

Thanks Brendan. You can visit Brendan’s blog at www.sticklebackproductions.co.uk. Scroll back to the top to see the film or click here to watch it on Vimeo.

Fled photography by Ian Jones – www.logic-media.co.uk – and Oliver Charles Woolley – www.facebook.com/olivercharlesphotography.

Brendan O’Neill on his 48hr Film Challenge Entry, “Fled”

Living in Magpie

This image of the stairs gives you a flavour of Magpie's building-site-ness. Photo: Colin Smith
This image of the stairs gives you a flavour of Magpie’s building-site-ness. Photo: Colin Smith

Stop/Eject‘s post-production crowd-funding campaign has been stuck at £440 for a little while now. As gentle encouragement to anyone out there who hasn’t contributed yet, or intended to but has forgotten or just not got around to it yet, here’s a taste of what we went through to make this film. What follows is a record of what it was like to stay and work in Magpie, Stop/Eject’s main location. Lest we forget.

First off, let me say thank you once again to Matt Hibbs, who was extremely kind in letting us use his premises not only as a location but as crew accommodation too. I don’t think I’ve ever met such a helpful and laid-back location owner, and without his positive attitude the shoot would have been much more challenging. So nothing that follows should be construed as a complaint. We knew what we were getting into, and we certainly got far more from Matt & co. than we had any right to expect.

Magpie once occupied just the ground floor of a four storey Victorian building. At the time of our shoot (late April), Matt had just purchased the upper floors, formerly a B&B, and was in the process of expanding his shop into them. So while the ground floor remained a working shop (and our key location), the rest of the place was a building site. Most of the refurbishment was taking place on the first floor, with the second and third storeys being used, prior to our arrival, for storage of tools and stock.

Katie loads the van at the back of Magpie. Photo: Colin Smith
Katie loads the van at the back of Magpie. Photo: Colin Smith

The first thing I noticed when we arrived there the day before the shoot was that it was a lot dustier than I remembered from the recce. Everything was coated in brick dust, which made noses itch, throats dry and eyes water throughout the shoot. Sleeping in the building probably wasn’t very wise from a health point of view, even after Katie had hoovered.

Besides Katie and I, Col, Rick and Johnny were staying there too – four nights for most of us. We set up airbeds and sleeping bags in some of the second floor rooms. The first couple of nights there was loud music pumping out of the bar next door. And it was cold. The only radiator we ever found working was on the ground floor, at the back of the shop. Everywhere else was damn chilly by 3am.

Not to mention dark. Many of the light fittings had no bulbs in, and torchlight was usually required to find your way around at night.

Ablutions were another issue. Matt and his builders had kindly reconnected the plumbing in the second floor bathroom, so in theory we could shower, although stepping out of it into the freezing bathroom was not fun. But after the first night the hot water was found to be leaking into the shop, so Matt had to disconnect it. So it was cold showers, strip-washes or trips to Sophie’s place after that.

Deborah Bennett makes up Libby Wattis in our kitchen-cum-HMUW-cum-Colin's-bedroom. Photo: Katie Lake
Deborah Bennett makes up Libby Wattis in our kitchen-cum-HMUW-cum-Colin’s-bedroom. Photo: Katie Lake

We brought a fridge with us, lent by Nic Millington, and a microwave and toaster, and Col’s hot plate, so we were able to make rudimentary meals. There was no potable water in the building, so we had to use bottled stuff from Sainsbury’s.

We were all very glad when Tuesday arrived and we could shift camp to Sophie’s house. Apart from Johnny, who claimed he got a better night’s sleep at Magpie. There’s no pleasing some people.

I encourage you to see our sadomasochistic sojourn at Magpie as a sponsored suffering. For example, you could sponsor us £5 a night for living in the conditions I’ve just described – that’s £20 total – and you’d get a digital download and an invite to the premiere. Sound like a good deal? Head on over to stopejectmovie.com and make your donation so we can complete Stop/Eject and make living in Magpie worthwhile.

Magpie's upper floors (formerly a B&B) extended above the neighbouring bar, Twenty Ten. Photo: Colin Smith
Magpie’s upper floors (formerly a B&B) extended above the neighbouring bar, Twenty Ten. Photo: Colin Smith
Living in Magpie

Back to Derbyshire

Explaining how some of Soul Searcher's low-tech VFX were done
Explaining how some of Soul Searcher’s low-tech VFX were done

On Tuesday afternoon I headed up to Derby for Five Lamps’ Film Night at The Quad. The turn-out for the event was good, with several old acquaintances unexpectedly in attendance, plus a distant relative I’d never met before. After a nice selection of short films were screened, including Sophie’s excellent Ashes trailer, it was time for me to get up and witter on about Soul Searcher for an hour or so. The talk was well received and some intelligent questions were asked at the end.

The one that got away was this big...
The one that got away was this big…

Most importantly, the Stop/Eject donations bucket – beautifully decorated by Sophie with flashing lights – had nearly £60 in it at the end of the night. Big thanks to Sam and Carl at Five Lamps for hosting the event and to everyone who gave so generously.

The next day was to be an intense Stop/Eject recce day. But the first task was to shoot scene 20, a GV of the river in Belper with autumn leaves being washed away. This had to be shot while there were still leaf-less trees around, which there won’t be by the end of April when principal photography commences. Katie and I had collected the leaves before Christmas and now it was time for them to have their fifteen minutes of fame.

Raw screen grab from scene 20
Raw screen grab from scene 20

I set up the camera on a little dock and Sophie started sprinkling the leaves into shot. They did not wash away as I had hoped. They pretty much stayed put. And all the ducks and geese and swans came over and tried to eat them because they thought we were feeding them bread. D’oh.

After that we popped into a nearby furniture store to enquire about using their power supply and a space for hair and make-up when we film in the River Garden next month.

Checking out the weir at Willesley. Photo: Sophie Black
Checking out the weir at Willesley. Photo: Sophie Black

Then it was time to pay Sophie’s grandparents a visit and – after some subtle attempts to convince her grandma to play Old Kate in the film – we set off with grandad on a recce tour of the Derwent Valley. The main aim of this was to find a weir that was more suitable for filming on than the dramatic but inaccessible horseshoe weir at Belper.

A test shot of the weir
A test shot of the weir

Our first stop was Willesley, where we walked down to the river behind Masson Mills. And we immediately found the perfect weir. I spent quite a while checking out different angles and considering how my planned shots would work there.

Next stop was Magpie, the shop in Matlock that we lined up last year as the film’s key location. This was the big shocker. I knew from talking to Matthew, the owner, on the phone, that since last October he had purchased the building’s three upper floors and was in the process of expanding the shop into them. The reason I wanted to recce again was in case the ground floor had been changed during this expansion. And indeed when we arrived there we discovered it had, which will necessitate some minor changes to the shots and blocking.

But then we took a look upstairs. This used to be a B&B, and many of the rooms are intact and not currently in use by Magpie… Rooms that are perfect for filming the flat scenes in, and the nursing home. And rooms that we can even stay in during the shoot. All the outstanding locations and the accommodation problem all sorted in one fell swoop! Matthew, you are a legend.

After this we returned to Belper and the basement of Strutt’s North Mill, as featured in my lighting previsualisation blogs recently. There I conducted some quick white balance tests on the overhead fluorescents while Sophie measured the bobbin crates which we’ll be using as shelves for the cassette tapes.

Ye Olde Camera in Fridge Shot
Ye Olde Camera in Fridge Shot

There was just time for a chat about how the cassettes should be labelled and a look at the suitability of Sophie’s kitchen as the location for a brief scene before I had to catch my train home.

All in all, a very successful and productive trip. So much so that it seemed something had to go wrong to balance it out, and indeed I got some bad news yesterday regarding the cast. But more on that some other time.

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