Friday, September 21, 2012


The way we develop movies over here (I guess it’s the same in the states) is a pretty antiquated beast. The template for a movie, for the vast majority of its gestation period, is 100 pages of courier 10pt.

I’ve always found this a little bizarre. Film is a visual medium, with light and movement and music and sound and fury, and yet the best blueprint we can come up with is a paper (or nowadays PDF) script. Words on a page. It’s kind of like composing a piece of music by writing a series of notes on a stave, without tinkering around on a piano to see if they sound good together. Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who’ll come out of that process with a symphony, but for most people you’re gonna end up somewhere between free jazz, and a bag of angry cats.

Once everyone’s decided that your script blueprint works, and you’re into the next stage of the process, ie. budgeting and scheduling the shoot, often you produce a set of storyboards – which is a kind of cartoon strip telling the story of the film, and suggesting the camera angles and movement for each setup.

Directors each have a different approach to storyboarding. Some will storyboard the movie to the last detail and the shoot becomes a process of simply committing that to film (…'simply’, hah!). Others prefer to keep things a little looser on set, allowing more room for improvisation, and to react to things as they arise.

They are, of course, wrong.

‘Keeping things loose’ on set generally means shooting slows to half speed, as the director has now decided that a shot of the lead actor from between the slices of  a British rail ham sandwich is the only way to convey his inner torment, and the entire morning is spent gaffer-taping Sunblest to the camera lens.

But even with the most board-shy, producer-hating directors (god forbid we should know how the movie’s gonna be shot), in order to budget things like visual fx (digital) and special fx (physical), at the very least the relevant Heads of department need to know what’s going to be seen on camera for each shot, so these sequences need to be fairly closely storyboarded.

We were lucky enough to work with a wonderful artist called Douglas Ingram, whose previous work included ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Batman’.

You can see a page from his storyboards here:

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

who the *!%& do you think you are...? pt. 3

Ok, so I realise it’s been about a year since I last updated this, and kinda left off in the middle of a train of thought. I was going to have a crack at explaining what we do during shooting, and it would have made sense to do that during shooting. Well, as luck would have it we are indeed shooting again on Last Passenger...

Let me try and explain. (and believe me it’s not the first time I’ve had to explain this,...). When we shot the movie we’d always intended there would be about a week of pickup shooting, and train exteriors (things like VFX plates of trains going through stations and suchlike). This was going to be done quick and dirty guerilla-style with a tiny crew, and ideally in the director’s garden. Hence I am writing this from my makeshift office on the James Bond Stage at Pinewood studios, amid a chaos of smoke and fire, and our train which we hoisted up from a Dartmoor quarry, where it’s been residing since the shoot wrapped at Shepperton last year. Ahem.

A man’s reach should always exceed his grasp. At least that’s what I told our investors when asking them to put their hands in their pockets for this ambitious pickup shoot. To their credit, they all came up with the goods, hence we now find ourselves on probably the most famous single studio stage in the world, finishing LP.

Shooting: The Therapist / Politician

As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve got time to write this stuff, if all is going well on set a Producer is about as useful as a third testicle. Or so I’ve been told. (Thanks ‘anonymous rigger’ for that little gem).

It’s only when the mierda hits the ventilador that the Producer has to spring into action and find someone who can fix it / to blame. Making a mockery of all theories about the speed on evolution, within hours of first walking on set you develop two vital survival skills.

  1. A sixth sense for when someone is about to ask you for more money.
  2. A Ninja-like ability to vanish into the shadows.

In general on film sets you’re surrounded by experienced crew who are highly skilled in various crucial tasks. Everyone does his/her job, and only that job, otherwise the machine breaks down. One thing that becomes very clear in the jump from micro- to feature- budget productions is that the mucking-in blitz spirit of the short film is neither practical nor feasible - due in large part to the general awkwardness of crew (*koff-camera department-*koff koff). But the practical aspect is important. If one of those cogs isn’t in the right place at the right time, the machine grinds to a very expensive halt.

The relationship between producer and director at this stage in the film can take many forms, and this is probably the most fluid part of the job. In fact I guess this is the point at which you choose the kind of producer you want to be. My contention would be that the ideal relationship is one in which the Producer absorbs the stresses and strains of mounting such a large scale production, allowing the Director the space to create, while the director part of the bargain is to stay on-time and on budget (a la Ang Lee / James Shamus). Creatively the producer is a sounding board, and trusted ally, but should really hold back from imposing his creative vision. The best films are always made from a director’s unified vision and too often a duff film is the result of a creative power struggle between a producer (who secretly wants to be a director), and the director, resulting in a compromised mish-mash of ideas.

That’s the therapy part.

Often on set you are called upon to make big decisions, often very expensive, and sometimes against the advice of those around you. But no-one knows the intracacies of the complex organism that is a film better than its Producer, so you have to go with your gut. This is also where you stand or fall by your instinct.

I also call this part the ‘Politician’ because during this part of the process your relationship with the truth will become, shall we say, more nuanced. There are a dozen competing voices demanding your time energy and money. All need to be addressed but in the right order and at the right time, and often it’s not the time for the brutal unvarnished truth. 

All in all a good producer has his/her eyes on the prize, and everything is geared towards making the best film possible on the creative side, and being responsible to ‘the money’ on the financial side. No production has ever gone completely smoothly, but as long as you bear these two important elements in mind, there’s usually a way through.