|I Want To Make A Film|
|A Journey Into The Unknown with first-time movie-maker Ian Campbell|
Second time around on a short and I’m even more enthralled by the editing process. Gradually, over months as it turns out, Tiger Tiger begins to shape. First there is a rough cut where the skeleton of the movie is laid out and we can see for the first time how it all fits together (or not).
This is the first chance to spot the big pig pitfalls, problem areas caused by missing shots, technical shortcomings or something that simply didn’t translate from paper to screen (damn that wannabe screenwriter). We have a few problem areas mostly caused by the constraints of non-budget filmmaking though I must also take some responsibility. As Nigel, my producer, gently points out, it would have been great to have had a more detailed shot list.
In truth, I played every scene a million times in my head and drafted a loose shot list but it really wasn’t as detailed as it should have been. I thought it was acceptable to be a little vague because we were mostly turning up and using locations we had barely seen. Wrong.
Shooting was a bit smash and grab. Sometimes this works wonderfully – I had mirrors written into the hotel scene but never expected them to work as well as they did. And occasionally I did get an idea from scouting a location that made it to the final cut – the lift shot above is a case in point. I loved the lights in the ceiling. But other times we worked on the hoof, making it up as we went along, and guess what, this is where most of the problems arose.
Still, we’re working our way through them and a little flesh is starting to take to the bones.
We got an unexpected and welcome distraction from the final throes of editing Tiger when the last short, Nothing Nowhere, was shortlisted in the Signal Film Festival. It’s a new event for the Bray-based arts group and one that we would have been mad to miss seeing as it was on our doorstep and in the same town where we shot the film.
The screening of the top ten was at the Mermaid, the very same theatre where I had first seen Pat and Nigel, the two leads in the film, in an Arthur Miller play. So a bunch of us trooped down to complete the circle (pictured above) and see the film for the first time on a big screen.
Very exhilarating it was too. I feared some of noisier low-light shots would look miserably amateurish when projected but we got away with it and the whole thing looked pretty damn good. It was surprisingly cinematic for camcorder footage. Best of all were the sound FX that rattled around the auditorium and added some real atmosphere. My God, it almost worked.
That said, I also some gaping flaws for the first time that I can’t believe I missed. Still, the judges seemed reasonably impressed -including Filmabase’s Alan Fitzpatrick. He had previously told me he thought Nothing was a “bit rough” so I wasn’t expecting a prize. I guess the other films must have been even rougher because we came second.
The winner was a Film Board-funded documentary on a local artist, Hearing Silence, skillfully directed by Hilary Fennell. A worthy winner and always more likely to get the top prize – a screening on TV3 – though the judges did stress it was very close.
My prize was a €200 voucher for Filmbase and another €200 for lights from Cine Electric. “Enough to make your next movie,” quipped one of our crew. If only he was kidding.
One thing I knew for certain after Nowhere was that I needed to learn to edit. Not because of any dissatisfaction with the guys who are still helping me out, but because it’s so intrinsic to the filmmaking process that I want to get to grips with it. It’s also great fun and just about as creative a skill as you can foster.
When every frame becomes part of the decision-making process - and lest we forget, films are just a big collection of little decisions - you really need to understand how to edit. And it’s not just the mechanics; it’s the creative pursuit of originality. I realised very early on that to become an interesting filmmaker I’m going to have to start breaking the rules, but to do that, the first thing you have to do is learn them. So it is that I find myself getting very excited about ‘cutting on action’ or creating a montage. Routine stuff for sure, but you’ve got to learn it.
Armed with a set of training DVDs loaned to me by Nigel, I did a crash course in Final Cut. And what better way to teach myself than with the Tiger Tiger footage. I’m foolhardy but not entirely stupid so I asked Paddy Townsend, erstwhile crew member and another graduate from the Dundalk film course (picture above, adjusting the Canon lens), to do the offline edit proper. Then we would hand it over to Nigel for the final cut and some of the same magic dust that he sprinkled on Nothing.
But first, it’s me and my new Mac, sifting through hours of footage, scene by scene, trying to get the pace and cuts I want. I probably learnt more about filmmaking in five days than at any other time since I began this process. I went from a minds-eye view of a film that I’d been cultivating since I wrote it all those months ago, to the actual mechanics of making it work for real as a film narrative.
The good news is that some of it is already working as planned. Remember that this short was always intended to be a wordy chamber piece, characters walking and talking in rooms. The challenge I set myself was to make that interesting and the early signs suggest that some of it makes the grade. Other scenes are posing me headaches that I fear will take many weeks to cure. But it’s amazing the satisfaction you get from the simplest cut when it works.
I started at the beginning – where better – and the hotel scene. Here we move from a guy waking up to a feisty exchange with his one-night stand. By editing it myself I got to try stuff out in my own time rather than looking over someone’s shoulder. I was also able to seek out the best takes from a performance perspective though some old specters from Nothing are still haunting me. A few times we were rushing stuff so much that only a little of the footage was actually usable.
Note to myself no.342: You always need more time and more takes than you think you will.
Finally, after a month where the day job consumed just about all of my time, we’re into the edit. In the gap between Nothing Nowhere and Tiger Tiger, my second short, I splashed out €900 on a Mac Mini. Bitten by the movie-making bug, I’m persuaded by almost everything I read and everyone I talk to that an Apple is the way to go on the level I’m operating at. More specifically, it lets me run Final Cut software for editing.
Rather than go the iMac route, I wanted to save some dosh and reuse my 25-inch Dell monitor and keyboard. Having splashed out on a couple of adaptors, I plugged in a Windows mouse and keyboard and the monitor. They all worked well although the keyboard configuration is different and takes some getting used to.
The first thing you see when you switch on is a pop-up that wants to help you migrate your Windows documents over to the Mac OS X Lion operating system. You download ‘migration assistant’ onto your PC as well as the mini, make sure both are on a shared home network and away you go. It was wonderfully painless and very different from a few years ago when it was hard to get the two operating systems to talk to each together.
Still carrying my PC baggage, and with the day job in mind, I bought OfficeMac 2011. There are some interesting variations on the PC software as if the developers feel they have to up their game for the Mac environment.
So what precisely did I get for my money? A sleek aluminum box that takes up a fraction of the deskspace of my old Dell tower, it comes with a modest collection of inputs and outputs. An HDMI socket and Intel’s new Thunderbolt port enhance its multimedia credentials.
Mac mini starts at €599 but I went for a higher spec machine. It comes with a 500GB hard drive as standard but you pay extra for a 2.5GHz Intel processor, a better graphics card and more RAM. My reason for going back to a Mac (after a 10 year sabbatical on PCs) is to use Final Cut for HD video editing so I was looking for a heftier performance. So far so good. It flits effortless between applications and video looks fab.
A couple of niggles: four USB sockets seem mean for this day and age and the absence of an optical drive is a real pain. The earlier version of the mini had one built in whereas I had to buy one as an extra (another €65). Still, you don’t expect anything for nothing from Apple. What you do expect is a sleek and stylish experience and I’m happy to report that the Mac mini is certainly giving me that.
Unbelievably, it took until now for us to irritate any of the nice people who kindly let us use their locations. The Beacon’s hotel manager asked us to refrain from shooting in the breakfast area because guests were... er… trying to have breakfast. Fair enough, they’d been so accommodating and we were lucky to be there at all. We quietly adjourned to the foyer to wait for the people to go on their way.
It was a pretty relaxed morning’s work and a nice way to end the whole shoot. We had time to get some specific angles I had planned as well as invent a few more now that we knew our location. In playback, it all looked rather nice with a cool, modern aesthetic that was echoed in the room and the Ergo building. We liked both buildings because they were contemporary and it looks like they will give the film a look that echoes the story’s themes. Plenty to play with in the edit hopefully.
We also had a brief sojourn on to the streets for what is the only exterior shot in the film. Naturally it was biting cold and blowing a small gale. Note to myself: always shoot indoors in winter! Fair play to Sean because he managed to capture the sound with little or no noise.
The scene required a taxi to pull up and Pat to step out. One was arranged at hotel reception and we got a very jovial driver who was happy to indulge our numerous takes - - “a bit slow, no not that slow” - for €20. Cheap at the price.
We all got home by the early afternoon and finally get to remind ourselves what a normal weekend feels like. That’s the first part of the job done.
We relocate to the Beacon Hotel. The proprietors kindly let us have access to one of its penthouse rooms, albeit for a limited time slot. The only time we could get in was from Sunday afternoon until the evening. That’s’ pretty limiting when it’s the middle of winter and you’re counting on natural daylight.
There was no opportunity to scout the room before we turned up so it was classic seat-of-the-pants guerrilla filmmaking. On the upside we had lights, sound, three cameras, a committed crew and a well-drilled cast – Katie and Pat primarily (pictured).
First thing was to size up the location and decide on the shooting order. The penthouse turned out to be two adjoining rooms so I made the decision to have Katie walking from one to the other. The second room would be in daylight; the first, bedside lights. We had to shoot the second later scene first because we were once again battling against a sun that was sinking from the sky. Still, we bagged some real nice wide angles with a grey wintery light coming in from two large windows. We set up some practised angles and added few close-ups
With the daylight gone, it was time to go into the bedroom with the Dedo lights and shoot my first sex scene. Don’t get excited, just a snog really as Pat and Katie fall onto the bed. It’s true what they say – the mechanics of these shots quickly overcome any sensitivity after the second or third take. We got it and it looks good.
Ferg’s jib was assembled again, this time to shoot Pat as he lay in bed. It’s another scene we practised but with this one we have plans to sprinkle a little magic in post.
The very last scenes we do are the very first of the movie, partly because one of the shots involved Pat taking a shower. It turned out to be the very last of the day because make-up wasn’t around to reapply it. When you have no time or money, decisions are often made for you.
For the interrogation scene we’re still in the Ego building but need a different room. We opt for a smallish office dominated by a single table. Characters are positioned at either end, emulating the boardroom but with a very different feel. Blinds are half open and it’s getting dark. A moody and hostile atmosphere begins to take shape.
To up the ante in a scene I have always thought of as Tiger’s action sequence - even though it’s fast-paced dialogue rather physical movement - we decide to make a virtue of it being a cramped space by opening it up with a sweeping jib shot that follows Patrick down into his seat where he is confronted by the two cops. You see the three guys and the walls of the room close in on you. It’s nicely claustrophobic. A few takes, some cheating with perspective, and we nail it.
The lights are dragged in to help as the winter daylight starts to fade away from us, blue gels stuck in front of the bulbs. For the quick-fire dialogue we shoot from every conceivable angle, sometimes with two Canons simultaneously. There’s a real rhythm to this scene with some interesting stop/starts that the lads effortlessly nail. For Ross as the ‘nice cop’ (pictured), it’s his only day on set and he acquits himself admirably.
At the moment it’s my favourite scene. We’ll see what happens in the edit.
Tom Bowen (left) worked on Nothing Nowhere as main camara op and is central to the team for Tiger. The big difference is that we have changed our key piece of kit, abandoning traditional camcorders for a new generation of digital still cameras that have sublime video recording capabilities. Intrigued by their promise of a more cinematic look I was keen to go in this direction. Fortunately, so was Tom.
Me: Like a lot of low budget filmmakers you’ve ditched the traditional camcorder for a Canon DSLR. Why?
Tom: After I sold my HDV camera I was looking to upgrade to a tapeless format. A lot of the professional cameras I looked at where very pricey and did not offer a huge difference in image over my previous cam.
The Canon DSLRs really appealed to me because of their large sensors and the ability to change lenses. The larger sensors give excellent resolution and are great in low light and working with lenses is something I wanted to explore as a camera op - changing lenses gives you more control over the depth of field. The picture is nicer to look at and it takes you into the visual realm of big budget film cameras. I bought my Canon 60D in the States which knocked a bit of the price. For what they offer they are great value for money.
Me: What are your first impressions of the 60D?
Tom: My first experience was frustrating because as I had just moved from the HDV Canon XH A1s. The two cameras are very different form each other in terms of ergonomics and spec. The traditional video camera has XLR inputs and a decent mic built in. DSLR's have no XLR input and the onboard mic is weak. The achilles heal of these cameras is their audio. Any projects using DSLR's should record their audio separately. Another weak feature is the 12 minute record limit in HD. This can be a real pain for shooting events.
But after getting to know the camera and how to use it to its maximum potential I think its perfect for anyone who is serious about becoming a professional camera op. The ability to change lenses gives a whole other dimension to creating shots which I didn't have with my fixed-lens camera.
Me: We also got a loan from Canon of the more expensive 5D for the Tiger Tiger shoot. First impressions – in its own right and compared to the 60D?
Tom: The 5D Mark II is an excellent camera that produces amazing video. The main difference from the 60D is its full frame sensor. It allows for better low light performance and does not crop the image like the 60D, so you are getting the most from your lenses. It does, however, lacks 50fps, which is a drawback if you want to do proper slow motion.
Me: Do the video shooting options give much creative scope?
Tom: From researching DSLRs online I found that a lot of camera ops recommend shooting a flat image with these cameras. This allows for a broad dynamic range which gets the most detail out of the image and is better for color correcting in post. I have found the best preset settings to achieve this are:
Picture style: Neutral
Colour tone 0Me: It’s a camera rather than a camcorder. What problems does this pose for a shoot.
Tom: No XLR inputs so no audio. It’s light which means you risk very shaky handheld shots. There are various DSLR rigs on the market now to combat this. There are also some rolling shutter issues when fast panning, creating a jello look. There is also the issue of moire, the bricks of a building, for example, can become distorted due to all the small lines.
Me: We’re doing lots of interiors in Tiger Tiger. So is the much-hyped low light capability up to the job?
Tom: The large sensors of these cameras are definitely up to the job. Depending on how low the light is will determine how much the ISO should be boosted. Opening up the aperture fully, then adjusting the ISO to suit the scene is the way to go. The higher the ISO is the more grain we will get. Rule of thumb with these cameras is to keep the ISO as low as possible.
Me: We’re also talking about using the 60D as a second camera. Are you sure we won’t spot the join
Tom: There will be slight issues with colour, but when shooting the flat preset with both camera these should match up fine, we will have to wait and see.
The good news for the extras was that they could get off early today, their work all done. They were a great bunch with indefatigable spirits. Not even my paltry attempts at catering could put them off. Actually, one of them was a bit of pain in the ass, having turned up on the second day with without the suit he had worn on the first. That would be me.
In a bid to flesh out the numbers around the boardroom table I briefly swapped sides of the camera along with Fergal. But he was the only one who remembered that our ’acting’ services were needed for two days on the trot. The director forgot. Ho-hum, that changed some of the set-ups and killed any dream I had of a Hitchcock-like cameo.
Before the extras escaped, Sean recorded some generic audio of them making various noises, from mumbles to gasps. Got a feeling these will play a big part in creating the ambience of the scene.
Our female lead, Katie Byrne, made her debut today. All dolled up with great make-up from Amie, she looked the part for her grand entrance. It’s a pivotal moment in the film where we reset the cameras to play back the footage in slo-mo. Bit of a cliché? Sure, but this short is something of a celebration of some of my favourite film clichés.
Most of this day was penciled in for finishing off the boardroom action but we made enough progress to move on to another scene. This is where we planned to use the jib for the first time in a sweeping take that would move from a close-up to a mid-shot of Tim by the window (pictured). Unfortunately, the office that was best suited for the scene was too small to accommodate the hardware. We opted for the Fig Rig instead. It was still a tricky shot and we won’t know until the edit how successfully we’ll be able to stitch it into the rest of the scene.
We’re making good progress but the short days are playing havoc with my decision to use natural light. Worse still, if we get anything wrong and have to do pick-ups it’s going to be virtually impossible to recreate the exact conditions. This director is a feckin’ amateur.
At last, a year after my first foray into directing I’m out on location again. It’s been a long time coming and it’s a great feeling. Sweetening the experience was a sense of progress with tangible signs that I’d raised my game since Nothing, what with separate sound, lights and Amie doing the make-up. And there’s even a clapperboard, though my tendency to abandon it when time is tight is one of my idiosyncrasies that I suspect will annoy the hell out of my editors.
First day on Tiger is the boardroom scene (pictured) where we got to try out some of our new toys including Fergal’s fancy slider. Ergo, one of Ireland’ leading IT services companies, has kindly given us access to its high-tech premises during weekends. Its main meeting room is spectacular, easily big enough to accommodate kit and crew, with plenty of room to shoot the action from whatever angle took our fantasy.
It’s important to say at this point that no-one except me had seen the locations before we showed up – welcome to the world of guerilla film-making – so there was a good deal of the on-the-job improvisation. There was a shot list, but like everything on our films, it was flexible if it had to be.
We quickly fell into a rhythm and routine that held good for the first half of the day but started to disintegrate as the light failed and we were running out of time. That damn sun does insists on moving.
Most of what we’re shooting is in mixed line, daylight through blinds supplemented by the Dedos with blue gels. It had been suggested that we’ be better of blacking out the windows and gaining total control over the environment but I’m a sucker for natural light. Besides, we’re all novices when it comes to the more sophisticated lighting set ups that such a strategy would demand so I tool the decision to use natural as much as possible. This presented some challenges that I suspect may come back to haunt us in post…
The Canons, and the 5D in particular, excel in low light. Main camera op Tom took care to make sure all three Canon’s were set-up the same. Nigel took the lead on lights. We muddled along quite nicely and I was grateful, once again, for the time we’d spent rehearsing. The cast all nailed their lines and turned in performances without too much coercion from me.
Talking of actors, the boardroom scene is our Ben-Hur moment. Not exactly a cast of thousands but eight people sitting round the table was pretty epic for me. I’m very grateful for the actors that turned up from the Square One theatre group in Bray to play the parts. They did a sterling job for one and a half days, paid only in sandwiches that I had hastily prepared at six in the morning.
Actually, that’s one thing to be said for low budget filmmaking, we always adopt an equal opportunities approach. Regardless of whether you are the director, lead actor, extra or grip, the only reward for your efforts is a slightly crushed amalgam of bread and cheese. And as much coffee as you can drink.
One day down, three to go.
So I set about our second short a lot wiser from the Nothing Nowhere experience and a lot more ambitious in terms of what I wanted to achieve. This had consequences for crew and kit – we needed some.
Remember that the first one was shot on a couple of Canon A1 pro-camcorders with an Audio-Technica mic plugged into it for sound. No lights, no make-up, just a lot of running round streets in the very early morning, hoping it wouldn’t rain.
All change for Tiger Tiger, not least because my script is deliberately as different as possible from the first – how else am I going to learn? Lots of dialogue acted out in very specific interiors called for a bigger crew and more kit.
This is the equipment we assembled:
Cameras: Canon 5D, Canon 7D and Canon 60D.
Lenses: Canon 16-35mm f 2.8, 24-105mm f3.5/f4, Canon 50mm f1.4
Sound: Rode NTG-3 microphone plugged into the Zoom H4n recorder
Tripods and grips: Manfrotto 546GB tripod with 504HD head; Manfrotto 055XProB with 701 HDV head; Manfrotto MN 181 dolly; Manfrotto Mono Pod 561BHDV; Manfrotto Fig Rig; Hague Pro Cam-Slide PCS1000 and home-made jib.
Lights: Dedolight kit with three light heads, stands, sheets of blue gel, plus two reflectors.
Monitor: LG 19 in.
And here comes the crew. Sean Markey is soundman. Tom Bowen is the main camera op as he was for the first. This time he’s joined by Fergal Holmes with his 9D. Fergal (pictured) also brought the Canon lenses and most of the fancy grips/tripods to the party and his brilliant home-made jib that was earmarked for a couple of key shots. On the odd occasion we ran a third camera it was either Paddy Townsend or Kit Teeling. Both lads mucked in on lights and other duties when they weren’t required behind the camera.
Amie Kerslake came on-board to do make-up while Niamh Cahill helped organise the complicated boardroom scenes.
Last but by no means least, Nigel McGuinness worked closely with me at all times in many capacities, including producer, assistant director, not to mention actor and editor (later). I felt a lot happier taking on the writer/director role knowing that Nigel’s ideas and experience were there to lean on.
All ready? Let’s roll.
Tiger Tiger breaks down into five mains episodes all connected by a central character. To date, we’ve rehearsed them in chunks with most of the cast never meeting each other. I’d met the crew individually but never all at once.
On Sunday we all came together for one big rehearsal, helped along by the kind of catering you’d expect from a film with this sort of budget. A few tea bags and a packet of biscuits.
There were a couple of key objectives. The first was to put the three different Canon cameras though their paces and find out if there are any interoperability issues. We also wanted to get familiar with various bits of kit, including two mics, a jib and a slider. More on this later.
The other was to nail down the visual language, explore camera angles and shots that would give the film a consistent and original style. This is tricky when you have to imagine the final locations. Although I had some still shots of the offices we’re going use on the wall, we made most of it up as we went along in a bland rehearsal space.
For the hotel bed we pushed two tables together. Katie and Pat (pictured) did their best to work with the makeshift props as we thrust cameras at them from every conceivable angle – sometimes three at a time. The outcome will be a (very) rough edit to see what works and what doesn’t.
All things considered, it was a highly productive afternoon’s work that’s given me lots to think about. Could have done with anther three or four hours but the biscuits were gone and people had trains to catch.
So there I was, crawling around the floor of my kitchen, the guys clutching cameras and me pretending to be a femme fatale. Just another night in the life of a wannabe film-maker. I think my children are worried at this stage. Actually, it was serious work. It was time to draft a shooting script. My first film, Nothing Nowhere, was an adrenalin rush of guerrilla film-making, grabbing what we could on the streets of Bray, trying to tick off a loose shot list I had scribbled down on a storyboard.
With Tiger Tiger it’s all interiors which means we have more time and much more control. We also have three cameras to play with: the Canon EOS 5D (picture) and its two offspring, the 7D and 60D. How exactly we use them all and in what combination will be further revealed at a full technical rehearsal we’re planning for next week. Right now, we’re running through some ideas to get a fix on each scene, trying to create a visual language to give the film a consistent look and feel that is distinct and atmospheric.
Because it’s mostly set in rooms, I want to invest the film with interesting angles, different focus depths and a lively mix of locked and handheld shots using slider and Fig Rig set ups. Somewhere in the mix I hope to have knowing nods to film noire, albeit a 21st century HD video version.
Which brings me neatly back to being a femme fatale. Truth be told, it was just my feet, walking away from a camera on the ground, before a reverse angle has me moving into close-up. On seeing the footage I’m reminded how much better I look behind a camera.
We got through all 12 pages of the script but there’s still a lot to figure out. Unlike crews who do this with a budget, we’re planning it all without detailed knowledge of the locations or the light we’ll be working with. Rest assured, we’re not in any danger of becoming smooth and professional. It’s all quite exciting really.
I’m always amazed when you hear how some Hollywood movies are made with next to no rehearsal time, where the cast only have a few run-throughs on set before the cameras roll. While the argument might be made that A list actors are talented enough to deliver the goods on short notice, it’s not really the point.
Rehearsals are an opportunity to explore the screenplay. You could make the case of course that if you’re working with a William Goldman script rather than one of Ian Campbell’s, that it’s all there and there’s really no need to mess with the words because the writer knows what he’s doing. But even the most esteemed scribe would surely bow down to the process and accept that any words can be improved or enhanced by trying different things.
Wearing my wannabe writer hat, it’s been the real revelation of this project. I had written a couple of full length screenplays in the past, long before I decided to make short films. Looking back, it’s an audacious act of bravery (not to mention arrogance) to think you can do it without any experience of working with actors or feeling the dynamics of a living, breathing set. Of course it can be done, and it regularly is, but for me the rehearsal process has been an invaluable learning curve. Not to mention great fun.
We’re now well into rehearsals for Tiger Tiger, workshopping scenes at St Pats church in Greystones. Last week we ran through the opening scene with Katie, the femme fatale who plays opposite Pat in a highly charged exchange that sets up the story. It’s the first time we’ve got together since Katie got the part back in March, but it needed very little work. I didn’t even feel the need to mess with the words (amazingly) – the two of them nailed it and made the scene work.
This week Tim came down, the priest from Nothing Nowhere now cast as an ambitious businessman (pictured with Pat). This was a short scene and in danger of looking like little more than a bridge and set-up if we didn’t get it right. Well we worked it and worked it and suddenly it came to life, revealing substance that I didn’t even know was there.
Thanks to a prop suggestion from Pat and a Eureka moment from Tim, the whole thing fell into place. Strange but true. This kind of revelation could only be uncovered by playing with the material. Not only will it inform how we eventually shoot the scene it teaches me something new about writing screenplays. The subtle use of a prop can reinforce character and story. Now Robert McKee and co. probably tell you that in the ‘how to’ screenwriting books but finding it out for yourself is a whole other ballgame. It’s the kind of lesson that really sticks in your mind.
The scene is small, but I’m now confident that is has the resonance that comes from having two fleshed-out characters revealing something about themselves while advancing the story. And that’s the point of any scene isn’t it?
We’ve already rehearsed the police interrogation a couple of times so the only unchartered waters are the scenes in the boardroom. Seeing as how Pat carries these, and it’s mostly a monologue, I’m not even sure it needs a full cast rehearsal. It might be one time where the rehearsal on set actually makes sense.
No more distractions, I’m gagging to get out there and make another film so it’s full steam ahead on the next short, Tiger Tiger. Because we’re shooting it on the Canon 5D we need a separate sound recording system and a sound man. Enter Sean Markey (pictured), a graduate from the Dundalk Institute of Technology’s video and film production course.
As ever, I was anxious to pick the brains of someone who can bring some experience and expertise to my next project. I show off my journalistic pedigree by asking him a mind-numbingly dumb opening question he has clearly heard a million times before…
Me: How did you get into sound?
Sean: Why do people always ask that question as if it was some kind of mistake? But honestly, I did get into sound recording by accident. While I had done some audio stuff and boom work while in college I graduated thinking I'd become a writer or a documentary researcher. One day I was an extra on the set of a short film. Their sound guy couldn't/didn't turn up and I basically mentioned to the camera guy that I could give it a lash. Next thing you know I had a credit under my belt so decided to keep at it. I've been cracking away at the sound ever since. Destiny? Fluke? You decide.
Me: So you’re worked a on a lot of low budget shorts. What’s the most common mistake that directors make regarding sound and/or their biggest misconception?
Sean: That it will sort itself out or it's not that big a deal. The amount of ads I've seen posted where beginner film makers (and occasionally people who should know better) are looking for a crew but don't advertise for a sound person is unreal. My blood actually boiled recently when I saw an advert posted on boards.ie looking for a crew. One person they wanted was a 'Production Assistant' whose roles were to 'make the tea' and 'record sound' - as if making the tea was more important to the film than recording the dialogue! I'm not saying filling your crew with caffeine isn't important, but making the sound person do it? I'd probably have stirred the tea with their microphone out of spite...
Having someone dedicated to recording audio on set saves so much time and money compared to 'fixing it in post'. Trust me.
It's also worth getting in an extra person to act as boom operator where possible so your sound person can focus on making sure the audio levels are coming in properly and so that they can listen out for unwanted background noise/interference.
Me: Take us through a typical shoot. Do you scout the locations/attend rehearsals?
Sean: I like to whenever possible. It's always good to view (or in my case hear) the location before a shoot. That way I can listen out for potential sound interferences (heavy traffic nearby, electrical generators etc.) that other crew members may overlook because they are (rightly) too concerned with looking after their own department.
Rehearsals are useful too. It's good to get an idea of which actors deliver lines in what way before the shoot itself. It means less messing about with audio input levels when you get to shoot properly.
Me: Ever use a mixer?
Sean: I own a Sound devices 302 mixer. It's a pretty high end piece of kit (not to mention expensive!) which can take on multiple mics at a time. It works very well with XLR connection based cameras such as the Sony EX1 where you record directly into the camera. It is particularly handy for documentaries where many hours of footage are shot, No editor is going to want to have to sync up externally recorded sound to the video if there's over 40 hours of footage to get through.
Recently though, the continued rise of DSLR cameras such as the Canons have been limiting my use of the 302 mixer. Since said cameras don't have XLR inputs I have found myself increasingly recording onto my Zoom H4n recording device, which cost a fraction of what the 302 did, but gets a lot more work. That's evolution I guess.
I can't stress enough how important a separate audio recording device (and someone to clap) really is. It also means you don't have to have your sound crew tethered to the camera via a cable.
Me: Wireless mics?
Sean: I do use wireless radio (lav) mics when I get my hands on them. They are useful in tight spots, but overall I do find that booming with a shotgun mic produces better results overall. I don't own any wireless mics yet as you need to pay big bucks to get good ones. A quality wireless mic (like the Sennheiser Evolution EW 112) costs between €400-600 which is a very big investment, especially considering you'd ideally want two.
Me: Do you always record an atmos track?
Sean: It's better to have one and not need it than to not bother getting them and need them later. They are handy to 'even out' the background, especially if the location has a specific ambiance or hum to it. That said, at the end of the day the sound guy often becomes the most hated man on set when clear up (and indeed going home time) has to be delayed because the sound man needs everyone to be quiet so ambient tones can be recorded.
Me: Do you get involved in post?
Sean: While I'm not particularly proficient in sound editing, I do like to sit in on the process whenever I can. Since it's my job to make the sound editor's job as easy as possible it's nice to sit in with the editor and see what I've done right or what style of recording works best in particular situations.
Me: What kit do you use and what would you dream of owning?
Sean: I own a Rode NTG-3 which I attach to a boom pole (and use a blimp for outdoors shoots as they are extremely helpful at limiting wind noise). The NTG-3 is comparable to the extremely popular Sennheiser 416.
I’m also using your Audio-Technica AT8015 mic which I have not yet properly field tested. Apparently it has a longer recording range than most shotgun mics which could come in very useful for recording when the camera wants to do wider shots (something the sound department hate).
For Tiger Tiger I plan to use a combination of both the NTG-3 and the AT8015, depending on what situation arises.
Ideally I'd like to own a few wireless mics like the Sennheiser Evolution EW 112 which I mentioned earlier and enjoyed using. I'd also love to get a Sound Devices Portable 5 Channel Production Mixer and Stereo Recorder, which would essentially combine all of the advantages of my 302 and H4n in one truly awesome device. Some day... I just need more money.
Me: When you watch movies I assume you ‘re listening to the sound with a little more intensity than the rest of us. Any standout audio moment from favourite films or guys you particularly admire?
Sean: It is said that truly the best audio recordings in film are the ones you don't notice. If the sound is even a bit wonky the audience will notice and it will adversely affect their enjoyment of the movie. I find that people will forgive many things in film (particularly of the low budget variety), but poor sound is not one of them. If your audio is perfect no one will notice and the audience will look for something else to complain about. It's an unsung virtue, but I don't mind. Nobody knows the name of the boom operator for even their favorite film (Robert 'Bob' Jackson - Jurassic Park) or would recognize them in the street. That's okay though, I'd rather not be mobbed in the streets by legions of adoring fans anyway...
Me: Dream project?
Sean: I would absolutely love to record a David Attenborough show. His velvety voice would be an absolute joy to work with.
Follow Sean’s blog at http://soundmarkey.webs.com/
There was a good take-up in the media to our modest success with Nothing Nowhere. Being a journalist it seemed only natural to send out a press release, slightly tweaked for the different media. We got picked up on my old stomping ground at Silicon Republic (thanks John) as well as on the Film Ireland web site. I switched the picture for this one to give a still of Nigel an outing (above).
In the Bray People, a local newspaper, they ran a picture of the crew and went with a story that majored on the fact that we shot the film in the town. Stands to reason; it’s a good local angle.
Best of all, the Dave Fanning show picked up on it and I was interviewed on Saturday afternoon. Just 10 minutes, but here’s the link. Scroll down and you should see my name:
You could be forgiven for thinking that my ego is exploding all over the media. It’s not at all. It’s just me exploiting one of the few avenues open to a no-budget filmmaker.
Think about it. You’re never going to raise private funds for a short because there’s no payback. Unlike a feature there isn’t a chance in hell of seeing a financial return because nobody pays to see shorts or rents the DVD.
The only available funding comes from the Irish Film Board and Filmbase where hundreds of people apply for a handful of grants. It’s a lottery that I’ve missed out on a couple of times – last year, funny enough, with Nothing Nowhere.
So if you want to make a short you ‘re going to have to get off your ass and do it yourself, on the cheap, scrounging favours from anyone who will give you the time of day. All you can do in return is shout about them if you are lucky enough to win anything. That’s why you might see a few namechecks for the likes of Canon and Film Equipment Hire Ireland when you read about what we did. You never know, they might be predisposed to helping out again…
Well damn me, we did it. Nothing Nowhere scooped Best Foreign Film at the Action/Cut Short Film Competition in LA. I’m delighted for all the team (some of them pictured above) who gave a 100 per cent of their time and creativity for no other reason than they wanted to have a go at making a short film. Well fair play to all of us.
Everything anyone tells you about this being a collaborative art is spot on because every time I look at the film (and that’s not often these days because I’m sick to death of it), I see all the component parts that people brought to the party.
Action/Cut is a nice one to be part of. It’s not part of the premiere short film festival circuit but it’s run by film professionals who like a bit of Hollywood pazazz. Well me too. I liked the look of previous winners which is why I entered in the first place. Didn’t expect to win anything though.
Onwards and upwards. After unforseen delays, the time is finally right to shoot the next one.
A short film by Irish-based writer/director Ian Campbell has been selected as one of eight finalists in the fiction category of the annual Action/Cut Short Film Competition in the US. Shot on location in Bray, Co Wicklow, with an Irish cast and crew, the supernatural thriller was shortlisted in a prestigious competition that has been running since 2004.
Action/Cut was described by MovieMaker magazine as one of the top 10 short film competitions in the world for film-makers looking to showcase their talent. It typically attracts many hundreds of entries from over 25 countries. Winning directors are given introductions to Hollywood players as well as cash prizes.
Getting to the final of Action/Cut has been Nothing Nowhere’s most successful placing yet on the short film circuit, and it’s the only non-North American film to feature in its category. “I specifically targeted the competition because I looked at previous winners and recognised stylistic similarities with what I’m trying to do,” said Campbell. “I want to make quality genre movies, a category that often gets overlooked at other short film festivals.”
It has been a busy time for Campbell, a first-time writer/director who recently had another script shortlisted for the Film Offaly/Filmbase funding award.
Campbell has spent the last eighteen months honing his screenwriting and nurturing an ensemble of actors and crew under the banner of RGI Films. He is currently in pre-production on a second self-financed short that he will also direct.
No stranger to writing, he is a freelance journalist for various Irish media including the Irish Times and the Sunday Business Post. But film is his passion. “I’ve written a number of screenplays over the years, unseen by millions. Although I’ve had interest in them, it’s been a frustrating process which is why I decided to start making films myself,” he said.
The plan is to shoot Tiger Tiger this month so I’m on the location trail. I need offices for my film noire thriller, a backdrop to cynical business types who’d go to any extreme to succeed.
In the original script I had lots of images of glass and sleek grey surfaces. This idea started to wane as I began to look at what was available, not because I couldn’t find trendy workplaces but because I found something better. Searching online for serviced offices I came across a number of rooms and buildings that were more traditional and definitely more elegant than modern offices. Seeing as I was writing about an old school company trying to reinvent itself, it suddenly made sense.
Because so much of the action takes place within four walls, little details like Georgian windows and old oil paintings began to catch my eye. Get this wrong and it could look deathly dull, however fancy the camerawork.
A building with some old fashioned grandeur would provide a neat counterpoint to the sleazy characters that were walking its corridors. A case in point was Fitzwilliam Hall which has an exterior every bit as impressive as its interior (pictured). A visit to the property and a tour of the rooms soon fired my imagination and I began to get a feel for how some of the sequences could work.
I think location is hugely underestimated in a lot of shorts – a frame of film (or video) is a small window to control, so you should work as hard as you can to make it as interesting as possible without detracting from the action. For Tiger Tiger I’m beginning to see how to strike the right balance.
With Never Let Me Go (pictured) showing on Sky, I made a point of reading the book before watching the film. A curious story, it gave me lots to think about without entirely convincing me that it was time well spent. The sci-fi cloning concept at its centre is kept in check by the over-riding detail of boarding school life and the fading English ambience of seaside towns and grim institutions like the National Health Service. The juxtaposition is its big idea and its strength.
From a movie-making point of view, it was fascinating to see how screenwriter Alex Garland would adapt Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel. Garland wrote The Beach and is no stranger to movies, counting two excellent Danny Boyle films among his credits - 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Without straying too from the eerie Englishness of the piece, there was some condensing of the story with a few narrative strands dropped along the way.
None of this was problem until the end. Garland had the temerity to take away the ambiguity of the story when the voice over basically give us his take on what it all means. It was lazy shorthand for a narrative strand that he really didn’t have to ram down our throats.
I was sufficiently intrigued by the book to follow it up with another Ishiguro novel, The Remains of the Day. And coincidentally the film version was also being rerun on Sky. I was getting a crash course in book adaptations.
The screenplay by Ruth Prawer was masterful, particularly in the way she fills out episodes that needed more on screen than they did in the book. But she does it while gently reinforcing the themes of the story. She doesn’t hi-jack them.
Fittingly, I just finished watching another movie that ties it all together. For the second time I saw Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kauman. The perfect end to my trilogy, it takes a pop at the flawed process of adapting books. It laughs out loud at the numb stupidity of Hollywood and the absurd screenplay rules that are brought to bear on stories, however inappropriate.