So where is everyone?

The universe is both infinitely big and incredibly old. Statistically we should have seen evidence of extraterrestrial life, but we have not. So where is everyone?

This is the premise of my next short film, The Fermi Paradox. As you can see I’m sticking with the sci-fi thing for now. Quite frankly, the stories just come to me for this genre. I find I have a lot of these ‘what if…’ sci-fi type stories in my head, so that’s what I’m making!

At the point of writing this, we have filmed and edited, and we’re moving into ‘distribution’ (essentially sending it to a bunch of festivals to hope for the best). I wrote the script earlier this year and we filmed a few months ago. Much like the last film, we kept it simple: one location, one day of filming. There was actually only one (main) character. It was great for a few reasons. Not only was it less stressful and probably smarter at this point in my early film director career to try and keep projects simple rather than grand and ambitious which could ultimately lead to a worse film because of my lack of experience, the fact that it was so simple allowed me to focus on what’s really important: story. I could talk at length with the actress about character, what she should be thinking and feeling throughout, how the dialogue should sound and feel, the overall tone, and loads of other stuff that I’ve started to realise are so incredibly important in making a film work. I didn’t have to worry too much about more technical things such as a large storyboard full of scenes we needed to get done before the end of the day.

I’m starting to see these shorts also as stepping stones, testers to help for when things start to get really complicated: ‘What can I learn from the film, how can I improve my craft’. And for The Fermi Paradox, I wanted to start getting better at story.

I didn’t want it to do anything too fancy because that wasn’t the point for this one. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted it to look nice. What I mean is that I wanted the story to speak for itself, I wanted the writing and character to be strong enough to keep anyone watching, interested. I was also more interested in learning more about directing and working with actors, something I probably wouldn’t have been able to focus on as much if we were doing loads of action stunts and special effects or whatever.

It was fun, I felt much more relaxed, more at ease, more confident. This was in part due to the fact that the film was a simple one to make, but also because this was my second short as an independent filmmaker/director, and I’m starting to figure out things and getting used to directing. I’m excited to get The Fermi Paradox out to some festivals.

Festivals

We had finished our short sci-fi/comedy, The Invention of the Perpetual Motion Machine and were now looking forward to what exactly it is that we should do with it. It was always the plan to submit the film into some festivals but we had never done so before. Research was required. Rather conveniently, a new one happened to be running it’s first year right in our home city of Lincoln. We entered and awaited the result.

Once we had figured out how this whole ‘entering into a film festival’ thing worked, (which as it turns out is fairly painless) we eagerly scouted around for other possibilities and found a few that we thought we might feasibly stand a chance of getting into. Lack of experience made this difficult because without having gone to any festivals and seeing the type of content these screen, we had to go with our instincts. Also festivals cost with no refund if you don’t get accepted, so it’s not like we could just enter into everywhere and hope for the best. So we carefully selected a handful, then sat back and waited.

Personally I felt that our film wasn’t exactly the sort of thing festivals would be looking for. This wasn’t to say anything negatively about the film itself, as I think it’s a good film. But it’s a five minute sci-fi/comedy with lots of dialogue. I thought, rather ignorantly, that festivals would want something more along the lines of art pieces. Visually engaging, high concept, not-so-story-heavy masterpieces. I just didn’t think our little film would belong. So I just wasn’t getting my hopes up that we’d be accepted into any festival at all. And I was actually completely fine with that, I was just happy that I had made a film! I was already looking to the future, wondering what the next film was going to be. Of course that’s not to say that I didn’t care. The fact that anyone at all would be interested in watching it for their own interest or entertainment would be an incredible bonus. A little industry recognition for the work we had made would be great motivation, and to watch our short on a big screen alongside other recognised professionally made work surrounded by a bunch of people who appreciate good films would be awesome.

First of all we got into Indie-Lincs, the first year festival based in Lincoln I mentioned earlier. Brilliant news. I had never been to a proper film festival before and saw it as an opportunity to learn about the industry I was wanting to get into. So I binged on all the films that were screened over the two days that it ran. There were like thirty films. That’s a lot of films. I mean some of them were features for crying out loud. But it was a good thing to do. I was absorbing information. It was a fun & interesting festival, an incredible learning experience & motivational tool, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Having the film screened in front of an audience was incredible. What’s nice about a comedy is that you can hear people actively enjoying it with their laughter. And people actually laughed. This was surprising to me, I guess I just didn’t know if people would. It was a great feeling. Actually it was incredible. Indie-Lincs was cool and it was great to be a part of it.

Secondly we got into SCI-FI-LONDON, a long running, well known science-fiction festival that had been running for fifteen years. I’m overusing the word but this was incredible. A film that I had written and directed was going to be in the biggest science-fiction film festival in the UK. The short was going to be played three times over the course of the ten days it was going to run and since we couldn’t watch everything, we chose a few groups of shorts (one of which our own film was of course included), a couple of features we thought looked interesting and then headed over to London for a couple of days to check it out.

SCI-FI-LONDON was not the sort of festival where people clapped, at least not in the screenings we went to. But when Shorts 5 screened there was an applause at the end of our film. And people were laughing. I mean, not everyone but a few people who really seemed to enjoy it. Quite frankly I’m new to all of this and in a lot of ways I’m not sure if persuing filmmaking is going to even go anywhere. That small round of applause meant a lot to me, that maybe making films is actually a good direction to be going in.

And so ends the production of our first film – We haven’t been accepted into anymore festivals so far, but the fact that we got into two is amazing. We’re now moving on with the next film which is in post-production and I’m looking forward to the future.

Building a perpetual motion machine

Recently I wrote and directed my first short film since university. I thought it would be interesting to talk about that process and why and how I came to the decision to get back into making movies again. Or it might turn out incredibly boring, in which case I apologise.

So last summer I was getting pretty much nowhere with a web series idea I’d been sitting on. Way back when I first came up with the plan to start making movies again, my filmmaker friend Dave had expressed an interest in working with me on a project. I had a concept for a heady episodic sci-fi drama and if I remember correctly, (It feels like a thousand years ago that I came up with this so I’m having to do a lot of guesswork from memory here) I had already almost written the first draft for the first episode. Having Dave involved was great, it gave me good motivation for someone to send scripts to. It was still a ridiculously slow process though because unfortunately procrastination is a thing that exists.

Writing came to an end and I had several episodes of a good concept for a web series. But now what? Basically I didn’t have a clue where to start. The concept was there but the enormity and ambition of the project was daunting. The last film I had written/directed was during my MA in 2010. I was a little out of practice.

We tried to progress. We had the idea of starting off with a trailer for the entire series to get the ball rolling. Storyboards were drawn, recces were made to a couple of locations, and I even edited together a pre-visualisation of how the trailer would look. But once we had made the trailer… then what? It wasn’t really going anywhere.

So I had a think. I was inexperienced and quite frankly I shouldn’t have been learning to run before I could walk. Looking back now if I had tried to push on with an episodic web series with various locations, weeks of filming, numerous actors, and complicated visual effects without having made a film for around five years it would have been ridiculous. It wouldn’t have worked and the series would have been just plain rubbish.

After getting nowhere with such a complicated project the idea of simplicity really started to appeal to me. I thought about some ideas for short films and in July last year I very quickly wrote a short film script entitled: The Invention of the Perpetual Motion Machine. I then sent this script to Dave who agreed to make it with me. The web series was taking me years to make, yet this all happened in a couple of days. This was because with the web series I was trying to make something that was way too advanced for me at the time, I was never going to get started because I wanted it to be perfect, and unfortunately I didn’t have the experience to get anywhere near perfect.

I’ll get back to the web series one day maybe, but for now I need to make smaller, more achievable films.

So suddenly we had an achievable project that we could make happen, and things moved forward because we understood the next few logical steps. The script had five characters, four of which were only needed for the one location where the bulk of the film was set. So we needed actors and we needed a location. Only two locations in total were needed and I was fairly confident that one of these could actually be my own house. The other, where most of the film would be set, would be a little more difficult – a board room.

We looked into finding actors and we looked into finding a suitable location. I had worked with actors in my films during uni but I was now an independent filmmaker, and wanted to be considered professional. I looked into where to find actors and how to set up auditions. I asked advice from directors and filmmakers I knew about how this process worked. Essentially we took our time and put the effort into research before we put out casting calls. This ultimately resulted in success as many applied for the roles. We made a shortlist, auditioned in a professional setting, and selected our cast. At the time this was a scary process. As an inexperienced director I was very aware as to how I was coming across to experienced actors. I learned very quickly that confidence was the key. That, combined with having a clear vision for the film and the project. When actors would ask me questions about the script, the story, the dialogue – I found that I would already know the answer. I could justify the script and help them to understand. Realising I had this ability raised up my confidence and I felt as though I was becoming a director. Also having an organised producer was fantastic. There’s such a massive difference being part of a team. Procrastination levels drop because you’re working for the team, not just for yourself. Also during this process the differences in our skill sets became much more apparent. Dave is organised, great at planning, and I think I have a knack for telling stories. It just made sense that I fit into the director role and Dave fits into the producer role. It was a learning curve and we had a few setbacks, for example we had an actor for one of the roles have to pull out on the project close to the filming date, which called for a speedy casting call last minute. Overall the auditioning and casting stage of pre-production went pretty smoothly.

Meanwhile we scouted for a board room. We looked at a few places but Dave eventually found an organisation that rented out conference rooms including a board room. We went to look around and liked the space so decided to go with it.

We also needed to build the perpetual motion machine. I knew roughly the size and shape I wanted this prop to be but couldn’t figure out a way to build it. Luckily I had just become owner of a small table that I couldn’t figure out a place for in my house, so it became our machine. A perpetual motion machine could technically look like anything since it’s an invention that doesn’t exist. I personally imagined the machine as a metallic box, and inside is where the energy would be generated. We made some modifications to the table to make it look more like a metallic box of light and I actually think it worked and gave this element of mystery that I wanted it to have.

Next up was to set a filming date. We made the decision to go in the evening before and block the entirety of the scene in the boardroom. This was great as it allowed us to have the discussion about how everything would be framed before the actual filming day, without the actors. We discussed and debated through everything at that point, so when it came to actually film we would already know how to set up for the whole day. There was no wasted time having debates while the actors and crew waited for Dave and I to figure things out – We could just get on with our jobs.

Dave not only produced but was the director of photography for the film as well. Having good experience as a camera operator for a number of years he was skilled in this area, which allowed me to focus on directing. In terms of crew on the day, we had one production assistant making us a team of three.

Filming went well. With our sudden switch in actors a few days before we had only half a day rather than the preferred full day with our new actor. This required some changing of the schedule but we managed to make it work with stand ins. We were a great team, we had a fantastic bunch of actors, and I learned an absolute ton about directing.

At the end of that long day we backed up our footage (several times!) and looked forward to editing.

I’ve always enjoyed the post-production phase of making a film – It’s where everything comes together and you can see the vision you had in your head become a reality. I started with the rough cut, sent it to Dave who gave me some notes. I made changes. We met up and made changes as a team. Dave worked on the visual effects. It was a collaborative effort. Something I learned during this process is that I have a lot to learn. I had drawn storyboards before the filming date because I thought I knew exactly what I wanted every single edit to be. Getting into the edit I realised that it just isn’t that easy – certain elements that worked in your head and on a stickman storyboard drawing might not work when it comes to the actual film. One thing I’ll definitely know for the future is giving ourselves options in the edit is a smart thing to do. For this project we relied too heavily on these storyboards and only filmed what we thought we needed. Therefore when these certain elements didn’t work for whatever reason we didn’t have any other clear options so it made things difficult in the edit. Basically – What you think you want the film to be at the beginning of the production process, isn’t necessarily the same at the end of the production process. That being said, we figured it out, worked through problems and I think the result is pretty good. At this point we sent it to a few people to give us some feedback.

We finished off the edit with titles and a grade. I knew the basics but lacked any proper experience with grading, however we worked at it, and I think achieved a nice look for the film.

There were a few tweaks here and there over the next couple of weeks but we eventually finished post-production.

We were done. Film finished.

Next up was distribution. We had planned on submitting the film to a few festivals and then eventually put it up online. And so that’s exactly what’s happening. We have currently been accepted into one festival and currently awaiting replies from several others.

It’s been an interesting, creative, exciting, challenging experience and my knowledge and confidence has expanded and grown throughout the project. Now that I’ve made one film it’s given me the motivation to want to make more.

So that’s the plan. Write. Direct. Make films.

How?

If I’m learning anything, it’s that getting into filmmaking is tough.

I think very few people know everything there is to know about making films, it’s a difficult medium. Without much of a budget and with only a few people in your crew, you have to have such a varied skill set. There is no filmmaker hat. If there was it would be a magic hat, capable of transforming into other types of hats, giving you the power to do various jobs in various fields of work. You see the thing about hats is…

Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, hats.

How can you make films with all these limitations? Limited resources? Non-existent budgets?

Before I carry on, I want to say that I’m just as clueless as they come. As I mentioned before it’s been a while since I produced any of my own films. I’m very much just starting out, but what I have got going for me is a bit of experience and a good amount of information. Like anyone else I’m good at some areas of the process and lacking in others. This post is only representative of what I’ve learned (and what I’m currently learning) myself from research and my experiences. What I write is just my opinion of what I’m discovering from the process, and it shouldn’t be taken as fact.

Anyway, it isn’t easy, nothing’s simple, and there’s a reason people study film for years. In my opinion, here’s all the hats you’re expected to wear these days.


The Technical Expert

Alright so lets make some movies! Easy enough… Cameras are just fancy boxes with sensors that capture light that transforms into digital pictures. Video is just lots of pictures recorded at 25 frames per second… but sometimes 30 frames per second… also sometimes 24 frames per second. You’ll have to decide on that. Also what resolution do you want? Full HD? 1080? 720? 4k? You’ll also have to figure out aspect ratio, 16:9? But you can get wider ratios which makes a picture look more cinematic or whatever. Like 1.85:1, 2.35:1. Where did these formats even come from I hear you ask? Oh, from the days when people used actual film, but everything’s digital now, well not always, you can still use film but it costs more… but anyway… you can emulate wider aspect ratios in post by cropping or having your sequence export out at a wider aspect ratio. Post? Oh yeah, what’s your preferred NLE? Premiere? Final Cut? Avid? What software you grading in? Sound? Oh yeah sound, how are you recording sound? Using a separate recorder? You’ll have to sync up after, make sure you’re using a clapperboard… What’s your ISO set to?… Do you have any ND filter?… How wide’s the aperture?… Focal length?… Depth of field?…

Hey where are you going?

Filmmaking is a medium that uses science and technology, and while many would agree it’s important not to get obsessed with it, it’s still a very important part of the process. It’s daunting to say the least, there’s no one book, website or forum which will give you everything you need to know. On top of that, as soon as you’ve got your head around a particular aspect of one thing, everybody’s already moving on to the next thing. I very vaguely remember thinking back in uni that they (whoever they were) were deliberately over complicating things, that wouldn’t it be easier if a camera was invented that just produced good images and that’s that. But the point is that professional cameras and other filmmaking technology is designed to give you maximum control to create fantastic looking films and if you want the best picture, you need to learn how these different technical functions work. If you want easy, just use a smartphone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s all you have, the tech can sometimes get in the way and if you give a good filmmaker a smartphone I’m sure they could create a great movie from it.

The Storyteller

Films need a story. Preferably a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily. If you’re making fiction, you’re going to need someone to write the script and that someone might be you. If you’re making documentary you’ll still need a narrative. The good docs are the ones with a story to tell. Writing is an art and a science in itself and it doesn’t need me to tell you that it’s difficult. I have a lot to learn on this subject but I feel that even though I don’t know a large amount about the theories and the science that goes into writing a good story, I like to think you need to have a natural affinity towards it. I think it’s an important point that the key to good storytelling is instinctual and ingrained within all of us. Some more than others pick up on that and are able to write their own good stories. Think about it, why do some blockbusters do better than others? Is it the action set pieces? The witty dialogue? Or is it that the audience can detect subconsciously whether a story fundamentally works or doesn’t work? Most people can detect a good story, that’s why we watch films. Some people can just use this subconscious storytelling gene that humans seem to have to craft their own work.

Although I’m not saying it’s something that can’t be taught. It’s like drawing, some people are annoyingly good, they can just put pencil to paper and produce a work of art. Most people spend hours trying to create something it would take these wizards seconds to create, it just takes more time, more effort.

The Artist

You need a guy who calls action right? Well yeah… but also that person has to do lots of other things. The director is the people manager as well as the one with the artistic vision. A director needs to do just that, direct. I’ve found that people don’t want to work with somebody who is constantly apoligising for existing, a term my producer friend once chose to say that I think is amusingly on point. Mainly this is because I empathise with that mindset. During uni I would try to rush around as much as possible on set because I was afraid the people around me, the actors and crew, who had given their precious time to help me with my film, were getting bored or tired or both. So I would rush, have an attitude of that’ll do, and the film would suffer for it. What I should have told myself at the time was that the people who decide to give their time to assist with a film are doing so of their own free will. Nobody was forcing them to be there. They were happy to let me direct them, especially the actors who were there to gain experience and material for showreels. Just the same as me, they wanted the film to be good, and wouldn’t have wanted me constantly worrying if I thought I was wasting their time. Basically it’s a confidence issue, and occasionally I still feel that apologising for existing mentality seeping in.

By the way, this should by no means be an excuse to treat people badly. While a director should be confident and know what they want, at the very top of the list of priorities should be the welfare of cast and crew. It goes without saying but you should absolutely be kind and a nice person to people who give up their time to help you.

The Organiser

The producer. The organiser and the business manager. The one who figures out all the logistics. The one who makes all the schedules. The one who sorts out the food. You need a plan, you need to know how you’re going to pay for things, you need to know filming dates, you need to know where to find actors. Making films won’t happen unless at least one person starts getting things organised. In the film industry this person is known as the producer. I’ve personally always struggled with this one, and I’m having to work on it. It’s an essential mindset that someone has to have and if someone who has it isn’t elected as the official organiser of the project then it can be very difficult to get anything moving forward. If the director of the project is the heart of the project, then the producer is the brain.


I’m aware of the fact that there are specific roles in filmmaking: The director, the producer, the DOP, the boom operator, the runners, and so on. My point is that when you’re just starting out, as I am, you seem to have to be all of these things mentioned above and probably a few others that I haven’t discovered yet. They seem to be more than just roles. They’re mindsets that you have to become. If you’re lucky you can share a few of these out if you have other people on your team but if you’re on your own well then you should probably invest in a sturdy hatrack.

A CALL TO ADVENTURE! Okay let’s go… wait, where’s my keys? Oh, I must have left them in the house or something, hang on I’ll be right back everybody.

Welcome to the blog. A blog all about me and my filmmaking adventures.

I’m Steve and I call myself a filmmaker a lot because that’s what I’d like to be some day. In actuality I have made very little film since my university days. But that’s okay, because I have decided to start creating again. I have written and I’m in the process of pre-production for a science fiction web series, I’ve also written a couple of shorts that I’m looking into making in the next few months.

I studied media production as an undergraduate and then went on to get my masters. Both were practical courses and I learnt a bunch about the filmmaking process during my studies. On the MA specifically I got to write, direct, produce, and create my own stuff. All were fiction. All were science-fiction.

After all the studying came the scary outside world. I worked on various projects for a while and then finally found full time employment. I feel now is the time to start creating again.

I like telling stories and I’m a big fan of writing them, it would be great to see some of those stories reach the screen, and I think the blog is a cool way of updating my progress.