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.