I’ll be back!

In the words of Schwarzenegger, "I'll be back!"

I’ve not done a blog post for a while, as you can tell. Things are going on in my life which tares me away from Habitual Films currently. However, since my love of filmmaking is still strong, I will be returning to the blog at a later date, preferably with more tips, more opinions and a whole load more analysis (possibly with more features to boot, as well as the possibility of a blog cast).

In the mean time, please feel free to shoot me an email if you want a specific topic covered or simply to say “hey dude, when is the next post coming?”.

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Top of the Props

Luke Skywalker's lightsabre. Imagine how much this prop would go for on ebay

Props can be difficult to deal with. First of all, you need to acquire them. Sometimes you even need to make them. Then you need to be able to look after them properly, and after the shoot, you often want to get rid of them.

For the props you buy, they’re fairly simple. Acquire them and keep them safe. Depending on your scene, you may need anything from ornaments and posters to more active things like computers, mobile phones and weaponry. If you do absolutely have to have weaponry, you really would benefit from following the rules of your local authority and chat to the police before hand.

You can't go brandishing something like this around without people worried it is real. Be sensible - contact your local council and Police force first before filming!

In terms of making them, try to pay as much attention to detail as possible. Match the texture of the imitated object. If something is meant to be shiny, make it shiny. You can pour a massive amount of creativity into your props, and it can look amazing.

Also don’t be afraid to go through trial and error. It’s often a given that the first time around, the prop may not look up to scratch. Keep at it! Find out why it doesn’t look up to the task, and then improve on it. Whether it means going back to the drawing board, or simply alter the manufacturing process, it’s better to do this than to go ahead with an unconvincing prop.

An unconvincing blade means it's not going to be a convincing sword fight

Now, I’ve not done too much prop work myself, but it’s only common sense that you have somebody dedicated to looking after your props. This person should not just be in charge of keeping an eye on the props, but also keeping track of them, bringing them to the set and making sure every needed prop gets to it’s set. There’s nothing worse than going on location, having everything all set up and forgetting a vital missing prop. Oh, and the technical term for the person in charge of the props – the Prop Master. A grand title is a good reward for some fairly mundane work (although if you like doing it, good for you! Everyone should work as the things they love to do).

So there you are. Research and experiment! If there’s any particular props you want to know how to make, send the suggestion to me, and I’ll see about researching it, possibly making it and giving you tips on it.


Location: A brief guide

The primary filming location for Consolidating - it was a nightmare for continuity!

Finding the right location for a shot is important. Often you will need to make new contacts or find out details about ownership and ask permission for filming at a location. Sometimes you’ll need to fork out a little for the use of the location, other times just a promise of a credit at the end of your film and to tidy up after yourselves.

Either way, you should really have a contract of sorts drawn up. Something that says that you can use the location not just in the film, but any promotional materials as well as the right to move furniture and equipment and turn off sounds on the speakers and such. But after all that, there’s still so much to do! So here’s a brief guide to what you should look to do once you’ve found your location.

The location for Dominic McWater on the trailer of Victoriana

1. Don’t just take photos of the shot. Take photos of around the area. You’ll need to work out how much room there is around to actually set up your equipment. Also, the shots around the location will also give you an idea of space so you can draw up a floor plan.

2. See the facilities. That’s not just the lavatory, but when inside, you may need to draw power from sockets. If you know where these are, you can plan on whether you need an extension, and also for what you can put in the sockets.

3. Plan for external sounds. If the location is near a road, you may get vehicle sounds in shot. This may factor in to certain things, like what day or time of day you shoot, whether there’s any way of minimising the noise (say for example, closing double glazing windows and doors). Likewise, if the location is near a church or town hall or something, how likely is it that there will be a bell sounding on the hour.

4. Control of an area. Sometimes you can get away with people randomly coming by, other times you can’t. It can be very difficult to completely lock off an area so that the public cannot use it. It’s therefore a necessity that you know how likely people are going to disturb you. You want to be able to minimise this as much as possible. Which brings me onto my next point.

5. Look official. The best thing you can do when filmmaking is look official. If you’re wearing high visibility jackets, the likelihood of people complaining decreases. People assume (either rightly or wrongly – but I cannot stress enough the importance of getting permission) you’re authorised to be where you are, and control the location. You will sometimes get somebody asking what you’re doing, but they’ll usually be satisfied with “making a film” or something to that effect. In fact, one thing I may try next time, just to emphasise the point, is putting up signs around the area – doors, windows etc… saying that filming is in progress and to please keep quiet. This coupled with the high visibility jackets, you’ll probably get the cooperation you’re after.

Yellow jackets make it look like we're important people - basically: Respect my authoritah!

So, in short, controlling a location is very important. Do everything in your power to make sure you can do whatever you need to in order to get what you want. Oh, and in this respect, while filming, the larger the group the better – people might be willing to disrupt filming of a few people, but probably not for a larger group.


Free filmmaking

Do not pass go, do not collect £200

Filmmaking can be expensive. Even free filmmaking that we do, we absorb any costs ourselves – such as acquiring equipment and the like. But I’d like to outline how you can make your own videos – without virtually any cost.

First of all, detail what equipment you have. This will in turn tell you what you can do. Don’t have a camcorder? What about a regular camera that can take moving image video. Don’t have one of those either? Mobile video phone? Webcam? How about doing an animation then? Being able to get footage is the first step to making a video. You can try and get royalty free footage, but be careful! There can be charges that you hadn’t thought of!

A webcam - as long as it can take video, you can make a film!

Second of all, figure out your idea. If you’re limited with resources, this usually allows innovation and creativity – camera phones aren’t very good quality, especially for making a film, but if the film incorporates the idea that the footage is taken on a mobile, it’s fine. What do I mean by this? Well, if you’ve only got a mobile phone to make movies with, you could do a film about a character trying to track down a monster, recording all the details using his mobile phone. Same goes with a webcam – they’re very useful for blogging, so why not a film where a blogger descends into madness over the course of a year because he’s a moderator and main person of a conspiracy site? In fact, that sounds like the beginnings of an entertaining film, if you ask me!

Third, just because you don’t have professional equipment, doesn’t mean you have to look unprofessional. Read up on techniques of filmmaking – see what you can come up with! Use polystyrene and kitchen foil for reflectors, lamps for lights and such. Voice recording? On board mics are usually bad, because they don’t get a clear enough sound. How about you re-dub in the editing – use the onboard microphone, or use a headset, etc…

Anything that can produce light... You get the drill!

There’s plenty of free video editing software out there – Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, etc… Use the lack of resources as an advantage – see how good you can make something look just using any means you currently have. I used to edit together music videos using tracks from CD’s and video game footage either gained through the internet or by downloading software that could read disks themselves – and I used Windows Movie Maker to edit them. Everyone starts somewhere, and you don’t have to spend any money to actually acquire an interest in filmmaking.

The timeline of Windows Movie Maker - not the best editing suite, but it'll do!

Distribution is actually easier now than every before, with sites like youtube, veoh and other video steaming sites. Not to mention having on your mobile phone, laptop, burning your own DVD, etc.. Hand a copy out to a friend, then tell them to give it to someone else to watch, rinse and repeat.

Fast, easy and you can get feedback! What more could you ask for?

Everything within filmmaking can be done for free, from pre to post production and beyond. Just make sure you read up on filmmaking first – there’s an excuse for poor equipment, but there is none for poor filmmaking.


I wanna be the guy part 2

Me, with filming equipment, setting up a tripod

Last time, I started to discuss the complexities and difficulties of the pre-production process. Now, moving on to the production side.

Production

There’s so much to production in terms of effort, it can be too much for smaller groups to handle. Starting with the sound, to get it just right is often deceptively hard. To get the right levels on a meter, you often want a field mixer/recorder. Setting the tone is important, getting it just around the beginning of the red. Otherwise, you’ll end up getting either distorted sound or sound which is so quiet that to get it to a discernable level, you need to up the gain and then put up with more of the noise behind. Likewise, there’s many different types of microphones to choose from, for many situations, that you need to know exactly what you’re shooting and how.

Then there’s the issue of lighting. Bad lighting can ruin a scene, even if everything else is perfect. Light is generally measured in Lux, and with the help of a light meter, can turn the “art” of lighting into a science. This is brilliant for (for example) chroma keying. You’ve heard of it – blue screen/green screen. Knowing how the background is lit is essential to getting a convincing chromakey. All sorts of wacky equipment can be used, not just lights. The other major factor in lighting is this – Don’t trust your eyes! – It’s not how the camera sees the scene. Our eyes automatically adjust to light levels and even colours, which is why you need control over lighting. Bouncing light is important for this, which can be done with the reflector. One of these can bounce light to create definition in partially lit faces for example. Just remember to watch out how you open it, or it will smack you in the face. You have been warned! Oh, and then there’s the issue of the classic lighting system – three point lighting, two either side of the subject and one behind. It’s something that highlights your film (no pun intended), if you have something other than the “natural lighting”.

Surprisingly cheap, and surprisingly springy! Be careful!

The role of the director is very important for the content of the film itself. As a director, it’s your job to push and manipulate the cast into performing their best, and it’s a wonder how any director can stay friends with an actor, considering how much the director may have to push them. I suppose it helps if you cast somebody that isn’t too sensitive. Bad acting stands out a mile away, and to be fair, it’s something that I have been guilty of before, both as a director (saying “Yeah, it’ll do”) as well as the actor (overacting). I’ve not found the best tricks to either acting or directing yet, but it’s something I’m determined to learn (among other things).

The cameraman isn’t always the only one in control of the camera. Focus pullers as well as some of the more creative camera movements, such as dolly work and crane shots often require multiple people helping out. This collaboration in a single role means that practice is often necessary, not just in general, but even on individual shots. The speed of the camera movement needs to match the focus of the camera, to make it as seamless as possible. Even the cameraman has to make sure the camera doesn’t shake too much (if they’re a steadicam operator for example), as well as making sure that it’s recording in the right format, and such.

The clapperboard person (if there’s a dedicated one) has the easiest job of all. Say the scene, take and such (if even that) then clap the board. You got off lightly!


I wanna be the guy part 1

The first page of Boytoy Beta, complete with vast scribbles

Getting to grips with technology is hard work. No doubt about it. With filmmaking, with it’s many aspects especially. Every area of filmmaking is so fine-tuned that it’s difficult to separate the art from the mechanics. I’ll illustrate exactly what I mean:-

Pre-Production

There are many aspects of pre-production that people may not realise. To get the very best product, the scripts themselves have to be built up, from basic concepts all the way to the tiniest detail. Before actually going into production, a script can be rewritten half a dozen times, not just adding tiny changes, but plot changing stuff as well. The problem is, is that when a writer first starts out, they usually either think their piece is really bad or really good. Really bad, the writer loses interest with the script and tries a different story, good and they’re unwilling to change virtually anything.

Of course, writing isn’t the only hurdle in the pre-production world. After scripting, comes the storyboarding, visualising exactly how the action is to be seen on screen. Even when this is sorted, somebody has to organise everything – the locations, actors, crew, props, etc… It’s not an easy task for a producer, even when taking out of the equation the concept of payment. It’s understandable why some skip some of these steps.

Character concept for the main character of a zombie TV series I was writing

Casting is actually something I’ve had little experience in, having had limited resources in previous projects. I’ve always had an actor in mind when writing characters, which isn’t something desirable (unless you’re writing the script for a “star vehicle”). What I will do on my first casting call for a film project, is making sure that a, the actors can take direction, b, that the actors can actually act and c, if the actors can work well with others. An actor who cannot take direction means they will play the character they are portraying potentially very differently to what you intended, and when you get a creative force opposing your own within the same project, it can mean disaster, tempers flare and the mood onset can be bad. If the actors can’t actually act, then it’s going to drain the energy from the film – both on set as well as the end result. An actor does need to be able to work well with others. I can imagine it not being pleasant if people segregated into groups within the cast and crew, and disheartening if people are unwilling to mingle. After all, filmmaking should be fun.

Stick around for part 2, where I discuss the production side.