These competitions are as fun as they are gruelling. In April, I worked with a great team who are becoming a really solid crew (most of the same lot as the Hansel and Gretel shoot) to enter another 48 hour film competition. The same rules applied as with the 48 hour challenge in Exeter, but this one had much more at stake: a feature film development deal. For me, it meant lighting without a gaffer, using a steadicam and shooting a science fiction film on a £0 budget while making sure it looked convincing, all for the first time. Here’s how it panned out.
The competition for this particular challenge seems to get exponentially greater each year as its reputation grows. 3 years ago, Gareth Edwards won the competition with his fantastic short film, Factory Farmed. I really look up to this man, as he wrote, directed, shot and did all the (extensive) visual effects work on his 48 hour entry. The man is an ideas machine with an amazing eye for detail and the technical ability to execute his vision with real conviction. Off the back of his success, he made Monsters. If you haven’t seen it yet, go buy it now. I guarantee it’s worth every penny and you get some fantastic behind the scenes footage and commentary which explains a lot of what he acheived in the film. More than anything, Edwards tells brilliant, human stories. Once he won and made Monsters, the bar was set, and film makers have been busting out some seriously brilliant films under enormous time pressure ever since. Edwards is currently directing the next Godzilla film in Hollywood. Shit just got real.
Back in the real world: we arrived on Saturday morning for the 11 o’clock brief handout at the Apollo cinema in Picadilly. People were taking part in person and online, but it was nice to arrive and feel properly involved in a really exciting weekend. There was some good chit chat going round between ‘veterans’ who had entered the competition annually for years and fresh faced film makers who had never made a sci-fi film before, such as myself. There was a very laid back talk by the organisers who were stood at the front holding bags with pieces of folded paper. One bag held film titles, the next contained props, another had lines of dialogue and the last carried an optional theme (this was purely in the name of sponsorship, it turned out). As the talk was coming to a close, two guys at the back hopped up prematurely and began a beeline for the bags.
“Woah, woah, woah, where the do you think you two are going? Sit back down, you’re last”.
The organiser looked to his left at the rest of his team. He ended with
Apart from the two at the back with slapped wrists and red faces, we all formed an orderly, quintessentially British queue, carefully pulled our folded papers from their bags and raced from the cinema to begin making sense out of the random collection that formed our unique brief. I felt like we had hit gold:
- Title: One is Missing
- Dialogue: The running order is important, one change in the process and we haven’t replicated things…got it.
- Prop: Fake ID: We see a character tampering with a small credit card sized ID badge with a photo on it, making it a false ID or an update.
- Optional theme: A website to see into your future
So what would you do with that? Our minds began to race as we tried to extract ideas from each that matched one another. It is seriously difficult trying to come up with anything that aligns with the rest of the brief, even on a basic level, let alone writing a story to go with it. Long before the competition we had a simple target: aim to tell a good story and use simple devices to root it in the science fiction genre. We didn’t have the means or money for ground breaking visual effects (as some teams do), so we wanted to play to our strengths. Keep it simple, keep it engaging, keep the audience guessing.
We raced to the cars for a 2 hour drive to the Maths Faculty of Cambridge University where Rob, our 1st AD had been granted permission to film and was adamant the setting was perfect. He wasn’t wrong, this place was built for film on an epic scale. Already now well into the afternoon, the whole team went on a recce around the various locations so we knew what was realistic before we started pinning down a story.
By 6pm we were all starting to worry. We had nuggets, bits and pieces, fragmented ideas, but nothing solid and certainly no story. Up until this stage everyone had been sitting and talking through ideas, bouncing things off each other and we had hit a collective wall. You can’t help but think about the 300 other teams who might all be filming already. We decided to break for 20 minutes and try and each come back with a story, even if it had holes. By 7pm we had 4 pretty damn good, diverse story lines. It’s amazing what a little space and independent thinking can do.
We came back together and began to story board, taking one main idea and filling in any holes using elements from the other stories. It sounded strong, everyone was in agreement and in a flash, our director, Ella had a storyboard completed by midnight. We were very excited, but very nervous – it was ambitious and we had made the decision to plan extensively overnight rather than begin shooting, which meant that we were to shoot absolutely everything we needed, constantly, for at least 13 hours. On a personal level as I was without my gaffer (who was forced to pull out because of last minute work commitments), this was going to be tough.
I woke up ahead of my alarm, adrenaline already pumping. We had swapped a proper sleep for a detailed shot list. It’s good to plan for when you start losing your marbles and need to just trust your previous, far more collected thoughts that are safely contained on printed paper. We hit the ground running, shooting our VFX shots first so we could get these across to Hettie, our visual effects artist. We didn’t have many but it was crucial that we made them work for the story.
The lighting was a lot of fun for this. In the story, a character is forced to sit in a box room in front of a screen that played brainwashing footage on a loop. When you film a projector with a camera, you get a horrible flicker effect because of how the light is read by the camera. You can lessen it on the 5D Mark II (what we were shooting on) by decreasing the shutter speed, but you can’t get rid of it altogether. So we shot Lola, our actor, from behind, facing a blank wall (where Hettie would later mask in the footage as if projected onto the wall). Between Lola and the wall was Jules, our sound man (this scene was MOS so didn’t require sound), who I asked to hold a small LED light up to eye level, point it directly at Lola’s face and wave his other hand back and forth in front of it. With Lola’s body and head concealing Jules and the lamp, this created a pretty convincing backlight. The idea was that the light was motivated from the source of the projected image which created a flickering halo around her head and danced on her shoulders. The LED light I use is really affordable (about £30) and seems to really come into its own given the right scenario. I think it would have looked quite fake without the light, and none of the other lights were small enough for the scenario, so I’m glad I had this little guy around.
That set the tone and we continued to race through scenes like there was no tomorrow (because, well, there wasn’t). For me, the other big challenge was operating steadicam. I’ve been meaning to get into this for some time and following a nice pay check, some advice from a great film maker called Ben Marshall and some last minute bullet biting, I bought the Glidecam HD2000. It arrived 2 days before the 48 hour film challenge kicked off and I had never touched it before. I had a deadline that day, so Friday evening before the shoot, I built and tested it. I was terrified. This thing had a mind of its own and I was struggling to control it.
Well, there’s nothing in the world more healthy for me than pressure. Somehow, things just came together on the day. I absolutely love operating with this thing. It’s really bloody heavy and tiring to use, but once you begin to feel how to use it, the results are amazing. I have a tonne to learn as you don’t get good with this sort of kit without practicing for months, but for a maiden voyage it wasn’t at all the catastrophe I was expecting. It’s a real give and take thing operating steadicam. I don’t have any experience with other models, but with the glidecam, you hold the gimbal handle with your right hand, and lightly support the telescoping pole with your left. The more you let the weight fall onto your right hand, the smoother it is, but harder it is to direct. The more you hold the telescopic pole with your left, the more hand held and shakey it becomes, but of course you can point it in any direction you please. So the art is finding the balance between the smooth movement that accompanies the gimbal and the ability to tilt and pan with your left hand on the telescoping pole. All while maintaining a consistent frame and avoiding a very possible nose dive! Tricky stuff, but so rewarding. I’m a big fan of long shots which aren’t cut into and allow the subject to do the talking, whether static or otherwise. As a result there are a couple of lengthy tracking shots involving corridors, multiple flights of stairs and the go-to-steadicam-360-track-around-subject shot (gtsttas). All in the name of story, I promise.
We shot for 17 hours straight in order to get all the footage we needed. I remember towards the end of the day, collapsing on the grass on top of the roof location after some testing moments. We had been shooting steadicam for a good 2 hours solidly. Lying on my back, Ella came over and said
“OK, perfect, so we can do the shot of Lola looking down through the skylight”.
My arms and legs and brain were now total moosh, but Ruby handed me the camera, Lola stooped over and we continued to roll. You just never stop shooting on a 48 hour film. We had enough time for an all night edit, which I sat in on to try and help keep Ross, our editor motivated and because I love the process of seeing rushes instantly cut together. Our planning for the shoot itself was worth it as we needed just one pickup shot of a door opening. It’s such a nothing shot, but important to tie things together in one of the scenes.
As with last time, I was so, so impressed with everybody who worked on this. Such a fantastic team and everyone was so committed. I was totally blown away by our composer, Adam Marston and our VFX artist, Hettie Griffiths. They were working remotely around the clock, but without the support and buzz of the crew around them. Sterling effort.
Monday morning rolled in and we were on track. The edit and even some quick grading was completed. 2 things left to do then: burn to DVD and drive to London to hand in by 1pm. This panned out exactly the same as last time – supreme stress as DVDs failed to burn, colours went awol when played on a TV once the DVD did burn and then all sorts of crazy traffic for us to fight against on the journey, all while feeling deliriously sleep deprived. We even sent one of the dodgier DVDs ahead in a car and were able to go for one more burning attempt before the window of travelling time disappeared altogether. It worked. It didn’t look ideal, but it was close and it worked. We handed it in with 15 minutes to spare (that’s a new record, it was 4 minutes last time), but for some reason, without the same sense of instant relief. We were happy, but anxious.
I think this film meant a lot to the whole crew and we really felt we told a strong story in the time frame. In short, it seemed competitive. I’m always realistic and never expected to win going into this big a competition at this stage in my career, but I wanted to try and make something good enough to be accepted as a finalist. One is Missing is a big step up from Autumn Leaves, I think. While we didn’t get shortlisted, it was such a brilliant experience and the finalists are astonishingly good. I’m really proud of it and so impressed with everyone’s work. Enter this competition at your own peril and…Here’s to upping our game even more and doing it all again next year!
Click here to watch the film. Written, shot, edited and rushed across the finish line in 47 hours and 45 minutes. Absolute bliss.