Friday, 7 September 2007

Digital Shorts – Part 4: Shooting

I can hardly believe that the last instalment of my Digital Shorts diaries was posted in July. Where has all of the year gone?! Anyway, as the Digital Shorts scheme is now taking submissions for 2007/08 in all regions, it’s probably about time for this fourth instalment. I left off in January of this year: we had a locked script of my short ‘Lent’, and a provisional shoot date in February.

January 2007: This is the period where I, as the writer, had less to do than the other members of the team; but I was keeping my hand in too. The director, James, was auditioning to cast the two characters: a seven-year-old girl, Jessica, and her Mum, Diane. Meanwhile, the producer, Ricci-Lee, was putting together a fantastic crew, pretty much all of whom worked for expenses. I don’t like the idea of people not getting paid for their skilled work; but, this was a micro-budget short, and I wasn’t paid either, so it seemed fair! And we got a lot on screen for our no-money. For example, we got free use of crane and an experienced grip on two major set-ups in exchange for employing a trainee, the grip’s son, for the rest of the shoot. He was excellent too, and has a shining career ahead of him, I’m sure. Putting together deals like this is an art, and something I’d be frustrated doing (I’d rather be writing), so I am eternally grateful to Ricci-Lee.

There were some minor script changes early in the month (did I say locked script in my opening paragraph? Ha! No such thing, until you’ve finished editing, and even after that…). The final draft was turned into a shooting script (numbered scenes, and tracking of any revisions that happen from then on), storyboards (they were nothing like the ones I’d prepared when getting the funding – no stickmen!), and a shooting schedule (the scenes, by number, broken down in the order of shooting, usually by location, but also considering actor availability). This is a fascinating process to have happen to one’s script, shining a light on decisions the writer may have made at the flick of a pen, or click of a mouse.

For instance, as I said earlier, I blithely wrote a seven-year-old girl as a main character. So, immediately I was opening up a can of child labour regulation-shaped worms. Our shooting schedule needed to be drafted accordingly, to insure the young actress did not work beyond the legislated limits, and we needed to get a permit from the local council. A lot more work than if I’d rewritten her as an adult, or got rid of the character altogether (as things were, the age and the character were essential to the script). So, should I consider any of these practicalities at the writing stage? The quick answer is: of course not. Don‘t deprive yourself of any imaginative riches, just for the sake of logistics. But as you draft and redraft, and as you are more aware of what budget you have to play with, you will come across limitations, and limitations can make you even more creative, in ways you might not have imagined.

I think what I’m saying here is: make films, if you can. It will help your writing. And the results never need be shown to anyone. I made about ten mini-DV no-budget masterpieces of various durations, with borrowed camcorders, before ‘Lent’ was green-lit. They were never intended for distribution, although some may have found their way on to YouTube (if you see one, please be forgiving, I was finding my way). They were a learning experience better than any screenwriting course.

Through this period we had to submit various deliverables (final script, storyboards, etc.) to Screen South and the UKFC in order to unlock successive portions of the budget. They don’t give you all of the money up front, probably in case you go crazy and spend it all on sweets or magic beans.

3rd February 2007: The shoot occurred over the course of one, long Saturday in February. We’d found our location – a suburban house and garden – near Pinewood Studios. I had no real job to do on location, everything had already been done. But I attended anyway to see what it was like, and whether there was anything I could learn. It was a great day, apart from the jaded cabbie (see here), and the horrible tedium for a writer of long swathes of filming (every writer always bangs on about filming being dull, and I never believed them, but it’s true). And the crew were fantastic. I hope to work with all of them again.

Another ‘be careful what you write’ moment to report: when I envisaged a drama that included a teetering stack of pancakes, I didn’t think too long about the poor soul who was going to have to fry up each and every one. Out of guilt, I assisted the runner who had this thankless job. I suggested she and I had an additional credit: ‘Pancake Wrangler #1 & #2’. It was vetoed, alas.

And one more lesson that I can pass on: if you’re location scouting for a suburban house to film in, try to get one with a toilet on both floors. If you’re downstairs trying to be quiet, but bursting for the loo, it’s no good if the only toilet is occupied by a camera team filming actors on the upstairs landing. In the end, dear reader, I popped to the nearby pub.

February - March 2007: Post production ensues. I periodically log on with a password to view each new cut online (ain’t technology wonderful) or receive rough cuts on DVD, then e-mail back my suggestions. A composer puts a very delicate piano score on, and some whizzy guys put together the sound design: never have the sounds of a kitchen been so weird and threatening. At the end of March, the final deliverable - our completed film - is sent to Screen South and the UKFC.

We were done. We were only just beginning...

Links to previous episodes:


Lianne said...

Thanks Stuart, I love these! So useful!

Stuart Perry said...

Cheers, Lianne.

martin said...

facinating stuff, sir.