“Time Bandits” Retrospective

Released 40 years ago, Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi adventure Time Bandits remains a supremely imaginative film, defying conventions of plot and never talking down to its target audience of children. Let’s take a time portal back to 1981 and find out how it was made.

“I was broke. I had to write something fast,” Gilliam once said of the film’s origins. By other accounts he conceived Time Bandits when Brazil’s development stalled due to financier Denis O’Brien “not getting it”. (O’Brien was George Harrison’s partner at Handmade Films, which had originally been set up to fund the Monty Python feature Life of Brian.)

After dreaming up the idea of a knight on horseback bursting out of a child’s wardrobe, Gilliam jotted down a mere two sides of notes under the characteristically whimsical heading, “The film that dares not speak its name: a treatment… not a cure”. After describing the opening sequence, in which ten-year-old Kevin is whisked through a time portal by a rabble of robber dwarves while pursued by God, the treatment brazenly states: “And so starts this terrific attempt to get the movie moneybags to part with a few million bucks.”

The moneybags were not convinced, however. O’Brien took Gilliam’s script, co-written with Michael Palin, around LA and returned empty-handed. It was then that O’Brien and Harrison decided to put up the film’s $5 million budget themselves, with the ex-Beatle even mortgaging his office building to do so.

The script was ambitious, featuring as it did a tour of historical settings from the Napoleonic Wars, through Sherwood Forest and ancient Greece, to the deck of the Titanic, and from there into the “Time of Legends”. This last sequence finds the protagonists aboard a boat which turns out to be a hat worn by a giant. Although this might seem a classic product of a Python’s imagination, Gilliam in fact admits to stealing the idea from a book by fantasy artist Brian Froud, who would go on to be a conceptual designer on Time Bandits’ nearest thematic neighbour, the Terry Jones-scripted Labyrinth (1986).

Palin wrote the part of Robin Hood for himself, but O’Brien insisted on casting John Cleese to improve the film’s box office prospects. Palin instead took the role of Vincent, hapless lover of Shelley Duvall’s Pansy. It was Duvall who was hapless, however, when Gilliam climbed some scaffolding to demonstrate to his cast how to fall correctly and ended up landing on her.

Amongst the actors playing the eponymous Time Bandits were Kenny Baker, best known as R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, Jack Purvis, who played a number of Jawas and Ewoks in the same franchise, and David Rappaport, whose extensive credits include episodes of The Young Ones, The Goodies and Not the Nine O’Clock News. A seventh bandit, Horseflesh, was cut over fears that Disney might perceive a Snow White rip-off and sue.

“I always thought of it like the mini Pythons,” said Gilliam of the bandit gang. “There was the leader, then there was the second one who really thought he could do it better…”

Meanwhile, the screenplay specifically called for the Greek king Agamemnon to be “none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature”. O’Brien, who played golf with Connery, simply offered the part to the man himself. The cheeky Pythons accordingly updated the stage direction to read: “none other than Sean Connery, who it turns out we can afford”.

Nonetheless, creativity was in much greater supply than money, and Gilliam employed clever editing, reverse shots and miniatures to capture his vision within the budget. “I don’t think that there was anyone in American who believed that film cost less than 15 if not 20 million dollars,” O’Brien opined in a 1989 documentary.

O’Brien was not always supportive, however. He wanted to cut certain controversial moments like Vermin (Tiny Ross) eating rats, but Gilliam fought him. “There was a point where I threatened to burn the negative,” the director admitted in the same documentary.

O’Brien particularly hated the famously downbeat ending. Kevin wakes up in his own bed during a house fire, and is rescued by none other than Sean Connery. Connery himself suggested this second role after he proved unavailable to film Agamemnon’s scripted reappearance (and death) in the showdown at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.

The controversial moment comes after Connery’s firefighter departs; Kevin’s parents touch a piece of concentrated evil and immediately explode. O’Brien was forced to withdraw his objections to this shocking twist, however, when a test-screening audience chose the ending as their favourite part of the movie. While many fans of Time Bandits might agree, Gilliam believed that the test audience were simply trying to say that they were glad the movie was over!

“Time Bandits” Retrospective

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

Next month, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30. Made by a director and star at the peaks of their powers, T2 was the most expensive film ever at the time, and remains both the highest-grossing movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and the sequel which furthest out-performed its progenitor. It is also one of a handful of films that changed the world of visual effects forever, signalling as it did – to borrow the subtitle from its woeful follow-up – the rise of the machines.

No fate but what we make: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

The original Terminator, a low-budget surprise hit in 1984, launched director James Cameron’s career and cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the sequel was green-lit, mainly due to rights issues. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, Cameron handed executive producer Mario Kassar his script.

Today it’s easy to forget how risky it was to turn the Terminator, an iconic villain, an unstoppable, merciless death machine from an apocalyptic future, into a good guy who doesn’t kill anyone, stands on one leg when ordered, and looks like a horse when he attempts to smile. But Kassar didn’t balk, granting Cameron a budget ten times what he had had for the original, while stipulating that the film had to be in cinemas just 14 months later.

Even with some expensive sequences cut – including John Connor sending Kyle Reese back through time in the heart of Skynet HQ, a scene that would ultimately materialise in Terminator Genisys – the script was lengthy and extremely ambitious. Beginning on October 8th, 1990, the shooting schedule was front-loaded with effects shots to give the maximum time for CGI pioneers Industrial Light and Magic to realise the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick).

Rather than CGI, the T-1000’s head in this shot is a chrome model lifted into frame by a crew member.

To further ease ILM’s burden, every trick in the book was employed to get T-1000 shots in camera wherever possible: quick shots of the villain’s fight with the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) in the steel mill finale were done with a stuntman in a foil suit; a chrome bust of Patrick was hand-raised into frame for a helicopter pilot’s reaction shot; the reforming of the shattered T-1000 was achieved by blowing mercury around with a hair dryer; bullet hits on the character’s torso were represented by spring-loaded silver “flowers” that burst out of a pre-scored shirt on cue.

One of the chilling full-size T-800 endoskeleton puppets created by Stan Winston Studio for the Future War sequence

Stan Winston Studio also constructed a number of cable-controlled puppets to show more extensive damage to the morphing menace. These included “Splash Head”, a bust of Patrick with the head split in two by a shotgun blast, and “Pretzel Man”, the nightmarish result of a grenade hit moments before the T-1000 falls to its doom in the molten steel.

Traditional models and rear projection are used throughout the film. A few instances are all too obvious to a modern audience, but most still look great and some are virtually undetectable. Did you know that the roll-over and crash of the cryo-tanker were shot with miniatures? Or that the T-800 plucking John off his bike in the drainage channel was filmed against a rear projection screen?

Plenty of the action was accomplished without such trickery. The production added a third storey to a disused office building near Silicon Valley, then blew it up with 100 gallons of petrol, to show the demise of Cyberdyne Systems. DP Adam Greenberg lit 5.5 miles of freeway for the car chase, and pilot Chuck Tamburro really did fly the T-1000’s police helicopter under a 20ft underpass.

Chaotic, confusing action scenes are the norm today, but it is notable that T2’s action is thrilling yet never unclear. The film sends somewhat mixed messages though, with its horrific images of nuclear annihilation and the T-800’s morality lessons from John juxtaposed with indulgent violence and a reverence for firearms. “I think of T2 as a violent movie about world peace,” Cameron paradoxically stated. “It’s an action movie about the value of human life.”

More Stan Winston puppets were used to depict Sarah’s death by nuclear blast in her nightmare.

Meanwhile, 25 person-years of human life were being devoted by ILM to the T-1000’s metallic morphing abilities. Assistant VFX supervisor Mark Dippé noted: “We were pushing the limits of everything – the amount of disc space we had, the amount of memory we had in the computers, the amount of CPUs we had. Each shot, even though it only lasted about five seconds on the screen, typically would take about eight weeks to complete.”

Robert Patrick shooting reference footage for ILM’s animators

The team began by painting a 2×2” grid on a near-naked Patrick and shooting reference footage of him walking, before laser-scanning his head at the appropriately-named Cyberware Laboratory. Four separate computer models of the T-1000 were built on Silicon Graphics Iris 4Ds, from an amorphous blob to a fully-detailed chrome replica of Patrick, each with corresponding points in 3D space so that the custom software Model Interp could morph between them.

Other custom applications included Body Sock, a solution to gaps that initially appeared when the models flexed their joints, Polyalloy Shader, which gave the T-1000 its chrome appearance, and Make Sticky, with which images of Patrick were texture-mapped onto the distorting 3D model, as when he melts through a barred gate at the mental hospital.

The film’s legacy in visual effects – for which it won the 1992 Oscar – cannot be understated. A straight line can be drawn from the water tendril in Cameron’s The Abyss, through T2 to Jurassic Park and all the way on to Avatar, with which Cameron again broke the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. The Avatar sequels will undoubtedly push the technology even further, but for many Cameron fans his greatest achievement will always be Terminator 2: Judgment Day, with its perfect blend of huge stunts, traditional effects and groundbreaking CGI.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” Retrospective

“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

With the temporary closure of Cineworlds around the UK, the future of theatrical exhibition once more hangs in the balance. But just a couple of months ago cinemas were reopening and people were positive that the industry would recover. One of the classic blockbusters that was re-released to plug the gaps in the release schedule ahead of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a certain quite popular film about dinosaurs. I described my trip to see it recently, but let’s put that hideous experience behind us and concentrate on the film itself.

Thanks in no small part to the excellent “making of” book by Don Shay and Jody Duncan, Jurassic Park was a formative experience for the 13-year-old Neil Oseman, setting me irrevocably on the path to filmmaking as a career. So let me take you back in time and behind the scenes of an iconic piece of popcorn fodder.


Man creates dinosaurs

Even before author Michael Crichton delivered the manuscript of his new novel in May 1990, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in adapting it. A brief bidding war between studios saw Joe Dante (Gremlins), Tim Burton (Batman) and Richard Donner (Superman) in the frame to direct, but Spielberg and Universal Pictures were the victors.

Storyboards by David Lowery. Lots of the film’s storyboards are reproduced in “The Making of Jurassic Park” by Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

The screenplay went through several drafts, first by Crichton himself, then by Malio Scotch Marmo and finally by David Koepp, who would go on to script Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Pre-production began long before Koepp finished writing, with Spielberg generating storyboards based directly on scenes from the book so that his team could figure out how they were going to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Inspired by a life-size theme park animatronic of King Kong, Spielberg initially wanted all the dinsoaurs to be full-scale physical creatures throughout. This was quickly recognised as impractical, and instead Stan Winston Studio, creators of the Terminator endoskeleton, the Predator make-up and the fifteen-foot-tall Alien queen, focused on building full-scale hydraulically-actuated dinosaurs that would serve primarily for close-ups and mids.

Stan Winston’s crew with their hydraulic behemoth

Meanwhile, to accomplish the wider shots, Spielberg hired veteran stop-motion animator Phil Tippett, whose prior work included ED-209 in RoboCop, the tauntaun and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and perhaps most relevantly, the titular creature from Dragonslayer. After producing some beautiful animatics – to give the crew a clearer previsualisation of the action than storyboards could provide – Tippett shot test footage of the “go-motion” process he intended to employ for the real scenes. Whilst this footage greatly improved on traditional stop-motion by incorporating motion blur, it failed to convince Spielberg.

At this point, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic stepped in. Muren was the visual effects supervisor behind the most significant milestones in computer-generated imagery up to that point: the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), the water tendril in The Abyss (1989) and the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). When Spielberg saw his test footage – initially just skeletons running in a black void – the fluidity of the movement immediately grabbed the director’s attention. Further tests, culminating in a fully-skinned tyrannosaur stalking a herd of gallimimuses, had Spielberg completely convinced. On seeing the tests himself, Tippett famously quipped: “I think I’m extinct.”

The first CGI test

Tippett continued to work on Jurassic Park, however, ultimately earning a credit as dinosaur supervisor. Manipulating a custom-built armature named the Dinosaur Input Device, Tippett and his team were able to have their hands-on techniques recorded by computer and used to drive the CG models.

Building on his experiences working with the E.T. puppet, Spielberg pushed for realistic animal behaviours, visible breathing, and bird-like movements reflecting the latest paleontological theories, all of which would lend credibility to the dinosaurs. Effects co-supervisor Mark Dippe stated: “We used to go outdoors and run around and pretend we were gallimisuses or T-Rexes hunting each other, and shoot [reference] film.”


Dinosaurs eat man

Stan Winston’s triceratops was the first dinosaur to go before the cameras, and the only one to be filmed on location.

Production began in August 1992 with three weeks on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Filming progressed smoothly until the final day on location, which had to be scrubbed due to Hurrican Iniki (although shots of the storm made it into the finished film). After a brief stint in the Mojave Desert, the crew settled into the stages at Universal Studios and Warner Brothers to record the bulk of the picture.

The most challenging sequence to film would also prove to be the movie’s most memorable: the T-Rex attack on the jeeps containing Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and the children, Lex and Tim. It was the ultimate test for Stan Winston’s full-scale dinosaurs.

The T-Rex mounted on its motion simulator base on Stage 16 at Warner Brothers

The main T-Rex puppet weighed over six tonnes and was mounted on a flight simulator-style platform that had to be anchored into the bedrock under the soundstage. Although its actions were occasionally pre-programmed, the animal was mostly puppeteered live using something similar to the Dinosaur Input Device.

But the torrential rain in which the scene takes place was anathema to the finely tuned mechanics and electronics of the tyrannosaur. “As [the T-Rex] would get rained on,” Winston explained, “his skin would soak up water, his weight would change, and in the middle of the day he would start having the shakes and we would have to dry him down.”

Although hints of this shaking can be detected by an eagle-eyed viewer, the thrilling impact of the overall sequence was clear to Spielberg, who recognised that the T-Rex was the star of his picture. He hastily rewrote the ending to bring the mighty creature back, relying entirely on CGI for the new climax in which it battles raptors in the visitor centre’s rotunda.

The CGI T-Rex in the rewritten finale


Woman inherits the earth

After wrapping 12 days ahead of schedule, Jurassic Park hit US cinemas on June 11th, 1993. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a title which it would hold until Titanic’s release four years later. 1994’s Oscar ceremony saw the prehistoric blockbuster awarded not only Best Visual Effects but also Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Indeed, Gary Rydstrom’s contribution to the film – using everything from a dolphin/walrus combination for the raptors’ calls, to the sound of his own dog playing with a rope toy for the T-Rex – cannot be overstated.

Jurassic Park has spawned four sequels to date (with a fifth on the way), and its impact on visual effects was enormous. For many years afterwards, blockbusters were filled with CGI that was unable to equal, let alone surpass, the quality of Jurassic Park’s. Watching it today, the CGI is still impressive if a little plasticky in texture, but I believe that the full-size animatronics which form the lion’s share of the dinosaurs’ screen time are what truly give the creatures their memorable verisimilitude. The film may be 27 years old, but it’s still every bit as entertaining as it was in 1993.

This article first appeared on RedShark News.

Director of photography Dean Cundey, ASC with the brachiosaur head puppet
“Jurassic Park” Retrospective

The Misogyny of Kingsman: The Secret Service

posterKingsman: The Secret Service is about a working class young man (Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton) who finds himself amongst the new recruits for a top secret service of upper class spies. Directed by Matthew Vaughan, the film tries to say something about class – that it’s not defined by your background, but your attitude – and has attracted some interest for casting an able-bodied actress (Sofia Boutelle) as a disabled character. It may sound liberal, but it’s actually very right-wing – Obama gets his head blown up, and the bad guy is an environmentalist.

But the film’s biggest issue, for me, is its misogyny.

Kingsman: The Secret Service has four female characters.

The first (Samantha Womack, née Janus) is the hero’s mother – a female character existing only in relation to a male one. Her boyfriend beats her up – a damsel in distress serving only to be saved by the hero.

The second (the aforementioned Sofia Boutelle) is the bad guys’s henchwoman. Superficially she’s pretty cool and bad-ass, but really all she does is follow the commands of her boss – a man.

The third (Sophie Cookson) is set up as if to be the love interest, but that angle is never pursued. Instead she fills more of the ‘best friend’ role – that’s a little more original – but she’s the single token woman in the ranks of new recruits. And she’s the worst recruit. She messes up all the time and has to be saved by the hero.

But it’s the fourth that really made me ashamed of both my gender and my industry.

Hanna Alström plays Princess Tilde, a character who exists to be captured by the bad guy and rescued by the hero. As if that’s not bad enough, Tilde offers Eggsy anal sex if he frees her. And if that‘s not appalling enough, the movie ends with a shot of her naked behind as she looks over her shoulder as if to say, “My hero, you’ve saved me. Now take your reward.”

Vaughan is unable to see the misogyny in this. “It’s a celebration of women and the woman being empowered in a weird way in my mind,” he says. He seems to think that because the woman offers the man anal sex it’s a clever reversal of all those movies where the hero beds the leading lady as his prize.

But how many people were sat in the cinema thinking, “Ha ha ha, how brilliantly Mr. Vaughan has satirised the cinematic trope of the hero ‘winning the girl’ by pushing it into the realm of absurdity.” And how many were thinking, “Yep, that’s normal.” And worse still, how many were thinking, “Yeah, take it up the arse, bitch, like you deserve.” The filmmakers might be horrified by that latter comment, but that’s the kind of attitude they’re reinforcing.

This objectification is not how I want to see women. It’s not how I want women or men to expect me to see women. And it’s not how I want society and the media to tell me I should see them. So I’d like to offer a few observations and suggestions to Vaughan and his co-writer Jane Goldman.


  • The prevalence of female characters who exist only to be saved can make men think that women cannot be equal partners or authority figures, which is bad for society as a whole.
  • It’s wrong to teach young men (who will be the bulk of Kingsman’s target audience) that they deserve sex.
  • It’s wrong to teach young women that they are expected to offer sex as a reward or a currency.
  • It’s wrong to teach anyone that sex is the only thing women have to offer.
  • It’s wrong to perpetuate the ridiculous trope that women need to accept anal sex from their partner on special occasions or as a reward, regardless of whether they’re fully comfortable with it or not. It’s equally wrong to train men to ask for anal sex from women and see it as a badge of honour, when they might not be comfortable with it either.
  • It’s wrong to require an actress to do gratuitous nudity, doubly so for a scene that seems to exist purely in the service of misogyny.
  • Jokes that satirise a trope by repeating that trope may well do more harm than good.
  • The closing image of a film can be very powerful. To close a film with an image that degrades 50% of the world’s population is irresponsible to say the least. (Technically there is another shot after the naked backside shot, but it’s the naked backside shot that everyone will remember.) Did you actually stop to think how a woman in the audience might feel being left with that image, particularly if she’s sat next to her boyfriend who has also been left with that image and may now be feeling some sense of entitlement?

There has to be more responsibility on issues like this from filmmakers who are reaching huge audiences. You have the power to change the world. Use it.

The Misogyny of Kingsman: The Secret Service

Women On Film: Characters or Glorified Props?

The cast of Your Highness
The cast of Your Highness
Last year I was offered the chance to direct pick-ups and reshoots for a low-budget feature. I watched the existing rough cut and it was utterly, unsalvageably awful. One of the key investors, however, had a list of suggestions to “improve” it. Amongst them – prefaced with the line, “Sex sells. Always has. Always will.” – was an entreaty for some gratuitous female nudity.

He would not have been the first person to try to save a bad movie with T&A.

Take the puerile 2011 “comedy” Your Highness. Already steeped in misogyny – the villain plans to rape Zooey Deschanel so that she’ll conceive some kind of demon, a plan which the script treats as more comedic than abhorrent – the film reduces Natalie Portman’s warrior to eye candy with a needless thong scene. Inevitably this scene figures prominently in the trailer.

Kate Beckinsale in Whiteout
Kate Beckinsale in Whiteout

Or 2009’s Whiteout, starring Kate Beckinsale as a US Marshall stationed at a research base in Antarctica. How is her character introduced? Setting up her deductive powers as she solves a case? Establishing her authority as she defuses a tense situation? Demonstrating her physical prowess as she chases down a suspect? No. She strips off and takes a shower, and the camera gets a close-up of her bum. For no reason whatsoever. Whiteout is immediately ruined because the audience has been told that the lead character is only there to be ogled. Presumably director Dominic Sena misguidedly thought that a little skin would improve the appeal of a film that’s uniformly inept, from the production design – a British character decorating his room with a huge Union Jack, seriously? – to the script, revealing its tedious backstory through clumsy flashbacks. (Even more depressingly, I’ve just read on Wikipedia that the graphic novel the film is based on had two female leads, but one was changed to a man for the film because the studio thought that would increase the audience.)

There are of course many, many more examples both in cinema – like the inexplicable Alice Eve underwear shot in Star Trek Into Darkness – and in the wider media, as evidenced by this brief but telling montage.

There will be some men reading who think gratuitous female nudity is harmless, even a good thing, but here are just a few reasons why it’s not:

  1. It’s a signpost that your film is bad, and you know it is.
  2. It undermines your female characters, weakening your story and the level of emotional engagement an audience will give to it.
  3. Your actress is a human being. How does she feel about it? What about the countless websites that will inevitably take the scene out of context and present it for male gratification?
  4. It perpetuates the objectification of women and misogyny in general, both huge problems in our culture today.
  5. It contributes, I strongly suspect, to the dearth of women behind the camera, by portraying them as glorified props rather than valuable contributors to the filmmaking process.

If writers spent more time on crafting good characters, particularly good female characters, they wouldn’t need gratuitous T&A or any other spurious fixes. Stronger female characters are starting to appear in cinemas, but often they’re far from ideal. This article from Dissolve questions the quality of some of the superficially strong female characters in recent blockbusters. Putting a woman in an action role just so she can wear a skin-tight costume and demonstrate her physical flexibility is not equality. There’s a long way to go yet.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, has some excellent and impassioned stuff to say on this subject. I’ll leave him with the closing words.

Women On Film: Characters or Glorified Props?

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

On the advice of my friend and mentor Carl Schoenfeld, I’ve just read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Penned in 1946, it’s a manual for playwrights, but it drills to the core of what’s important in drama, and as such is just as useful a read for a screenwriter or filmmaker.

The book is divided into four sections: premise, character, conflict and general.

What Egri calls premise I would call theme, though he soundly argues that calling it premise forces you to think of it as almost a pared-down logline, which may make you more inclined to treat it with the appropriate importance. He suggests that a premise should have three parts, indicating the dominant trait of the lead character, the conflict and the ending. Examples he gives include “honesty defeats duplicity”, “bragging leads to humiliation” and “poverty encourages crime”. Reverse-engineering a few recent movies along these lines might give us “instinct trumps conformity” (The Heat), “love transcends human flesh” (Transcendence) or “the powerful triumph over the weak” (Captain Philips). Egri emphasises that the premise must be the very DNA of the script, informing every line and every action.

We have all heard people saying that characters in a film must be three-dimensional, but have you ever wondered what those three dimensions are? Egri’s answer is: physiology (physical appearance, health, heredity), sociology (class, job, religion, home life, etc.) and psychology (morals, ambition, temperament, IQ, abilities and so on).

The premise acts as a goal to your characters, especially your lead, and powers their development – Sandra Bullock’s loosening up in The Heat, for example. Egri reminds us that character development must be a smooth process, so a character who goes from anger to love must pass through many intermediate stages such as irritation, ambivalence, interest and affection. Missing out these transitions, Egri warns, will result in melodrama.

“A weak character,” says Egri, “is one who, for any reason, cannot make a decision to act.” He goes on to explain that, in theory, any character can be strong if you choose the right “point of attack”, in other words if you write about a period in their life when they HAVE made a decision to act, when they are ready for conflict.

Lajos Egri
Lajos Egri

To generate rising conflict, Egri asserts the need for “a clear-cut premise and unity of opposites, with three-dimensional characters.” He defines a unity of opposites as a scenario in which the protagonist and antagonist want precisely the opposite things. This can apply not only to the overall thrust of the story, but to individual scenes within it too. Egri urges the reader not to fall into the trap of “static” conflict, where characters argue back and forth without escalating the situation.

Being aimed at playwrights, the book considers dialogue as the only means of revealing plot, character and conflict, but in a film conflict could be literal (as in an action film) or expressed through some other non-verbal means.

Overall, Egri’s breakdown of a script’s essential elements provides me a with useful template with which to begin interpreting a screenplay. Many people have produced books attempting to distill the essence of good writing, and it is largely a matter of taste which one you find most useful. Personally, I found The Art of Dramatic Writing clear, concise and refreshing, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently.

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

Representation of Women in my Films

There have been a lot of articles going around lately about the representation of women in the media. A lot of the statistics are pretty shameful. A New York Film Academy study of the top 500 films of 2007-2012 found that less than a third of speaking characters were female, there was almost three times more female nudity than male, and the ten highest paid actors made over two and a half times more money than the ten highest paid actresses.

I’ve always considered myself fairly enlightened on this issue. From my first major film project (The Beacon, 2001) I began a deliberate policy of alternating the genders of my leading characters with each movie I made. But before I get a sore arm from patting myself on the back, let’s delve a little deeper by applying the Bechdel Test to my films. To pass this test, a film must have

  1. at least two named female characters
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.
The Beacon
The Beacon

The Beacon is a cheesy action film about Sarah Mayhew (Lorna-Jane Hamer), a council clerk who ends up saving Britain from a biochemical terrorist attack planned to be launched from the Malvern Hills. I switched up the traditional gender roles by making Sarah an action heroine who has to save her useless boyfriend from the terrorists. It easily passes the first two steps of the Bechdel Test, but I had to skip through 55 minutes of it before I reached a conversation between two women that wasn’t about a man.

Soul Searcher
Soul Searcher

Soul Searcher is a marginally-less cheesy action film about an ordinary Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr) who is chosen to be trained as the new Grim Reaper. While it passes step one, that’s as far as it gets; leading ladies Heather (Katrina Cooke) and Luca (Lara Greenway) never speak to each other. There is a brief exchange between Clubber Girls #1 and #2, but since they don’t have names, and their only purpose is to be put in jeopardy by a man (alright – a demon, but a male demon) and saved by another man, I hardly think this counts. Massive fail.

The Dark Side of the Earth, apart from a five minute sequence shot in 2008, exists only as a screenplay, so it’s the screenplay I’ll judge. The protagonist is a young woman, Isabelle (played in the pilot by Kate Burdette), who sets to out to re-start the earth’s rotation after it shudders to a halt, nearly wiping out humanity. There are brief exchanges between Isabelle and some minor, but named, female characters in which they talk about things other than men, but the one proper conversation she gets with the only other significant female character concerns a man. And at least on some level, the reason she goes on the quest is to impress a man. So technically Dark Side passes, but it’s hardly a glorious victory.

The Picnic
The Picnic

My three Virgin Media Shorts entries have little or no dialogue, but even without applying the test, it’s easy to see how sexist they are. The Picnic is a silent film revolving around a man trying to get revenge on another man for stealing his girlfriend. Woman as prize. Hardly enlightened. (Earlier drafts of the script had the gender roles reversed. I can’t remember why I changed it.) The One That Got Away makes the female character a trophy in exactly the same way. And Ghost-trainspotting doesn’t have any women in it.


Stop/Eject, on the other hand, seems well-placed to pass the test with flying colours, with two of its three main characters being women and plenty of conversations between them. Unfortunately, the whole movie is about the death of a man. It does pass the test though, because the final conversation between grieving widow Kate (Georgina Sherrington) and mysterious shopkeeper Alice (Therese Collins) is not about the man. It shames me to recall, however, that Alice was (a) originally written as a man, and (b) not given a name until Therese requested one.

In general, writing this article has drawn my attention to the imbalance in the number of characters of each gender in my films. Even those movies with female leads are otherwise populated predominantly by men. I think I have a tendency, and I’m sure many of you out there do this too if you’re honest with yourselves, to make characters male by default, and to only make them female if there’s a “reason” to.

I know that some people may say, in defense of their own films or actions, that they did not intend to offend or oppress. I certainly did not aim, when making Soul Searcher, for example, to oppress women. But that is no excuse. Everything we do, say or create will be judged in the context of our society, and if – in combination with things said, done or created by others, innocently or otherwise – it contributes to a culture of oppression, then it is wrong. So for my own mistakes, I apologise unreservedly.

As with all of my blog entries that point out my own failings, I record this publicly to burn these mistakes into my memory and reduce the chance of me making them again. I hope too that it might make others out there consider their own work in the light of the important issue of gender representation.

Representation of Women in my Films

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

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”

FilmWorks: Mood Reel

A few days ago I re-read the FilmWorks homework instructions and noticed the hitherto-unnoticed word “edit” lurking after the phrase “mood reel“. Cue mad dash around the DVD shops of Hereford, frantic googling for software that will rip region 1 discs and even filming YouTube videos off my computer screen. I fear the technical aspect of the exercise may have overshadowed the creative one, but anyway here it is:

It’s probably the most random thing I’ve ever edited, but I can already see its value. Mashing up the romantic drama genre with sci-fi is not easy, and the Venn Diagram of audience demographics for those two genres has little overlap. I see the audience for Stop/Eject being males 25-45 and a wider female audience of 14-45.

Despite the difficulties, some films have straddled the genre gap successfully, The Adjustment Bureau being the best example to my mind. Sci-fi is at its best when using fantastic devices and situations to explore the human condition, and if I can pull off a moving personal drama against a fantasy backdrop it should be quite powerful. I think this is nicely encapsulated by Stop/Eject’s tagline: “What would you rewind?” – a classic “what if?” type question.

FilmWorks: Mood Reel