Lessons Learned 6.5: Back that shit up!

Friday, September 12th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

Yeah, guess what happened? Hard drive failure… And it died in the middle of a copy so both the original cut and its copy died at the same moment. This was the first time since I started using computers that I’ve lost a project completely. Gone in a moment with drive error… And since the backup wasn’t complete there was nothing to salvage…

Well, “Are You There?” is not completely gone… I still have all the original footage but the finished project and the Final Cut library are gone. Forever. Damn. Bollocks.

Ah well, when you move on, you should move on…. But maybe I’ll revisit it to add in some stuff that should ha been there in the first place… We’ll see. It’ll be a pleasure editing it on the new Mac Pro ;-)

Next time: Sound


Books and reading

Thursday, September 11th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

I’m a reader. Love books, love reading – always have and always will. I’m kind of lucky in that I can actually learn from what I’m reading and so I had a couple or three books that I referenced a lot during the making of “Are You There?”

The first is “Getting started in Short Film Making” by Ted Jones. This book has lots of useful info about the production process and stages in a very direct, no nonsense way. Sometimes a chapter has only a few pages, but almost every paragraph has a useful nugget of information inside. Cheap and easy to skim through, it’s well worth the money!

The “DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real World Production Techniques” by Barry Andersson and Janie L. Geyen is a more in depth tome, focussing more heavily on the nitty gritty of using DSLR cameras to shoot video. It talks about settings, editing, shooting, codecs, moiré, noise… Are you bored already? Lol!

This isn’t a cover-to-cover storybook, more of a “read a chapter to see if there’s a solution to a problem” type of book. It is filled with information that is directly connected to your production and post-production workflow and it means that you will understand your camera more deeply – the good and bad points.

Hopefully this means you should be able to shoot better footage, but some things have to be learned the hard way ;-)

The third book I always refer to is “In the Blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch. (If you don’t know who he is, time for some homework… )
Although older than the two other books, coming from a film background, it does touch on computer editing. Murch talks about the craft and theory of editing and discusses the reasons behind the theory. My copy is well worn and well worth every penny.

I enjoyed learning from these books, I hope they help you too!

Film Freeway

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

We’ve added the film on FIlm Freeway (link may not work) with a view to submitting to a few festivals – not because we think we will win, but because we might as well get some feedback on our work…

The only problem is the cost. If there’s an add-on to Lessons Learned 2: Budget it would be;

“Make sure your budget has a few hundred dollars, pounds, euros left over to submit things to festivals because every one of them seems to require at least $45 for a short film. After a few submissions, any budget will soon be exhausted. But you need people to watch your film; as small, intimate, short and cheap as it is, films are made for an audience. Make sure you keep a few hundred pounds in the pot to pay for a few festival submissions.”

In our zero-budget case, that means we’ll have to think carefully about where we enter the film… If anyone knows of any free to enter festivals, let us know.

It’s a tough decision to spent money on festival submissions when nothing is ever guaranteed to be accepted, never mind win a prize, but as the saying goes “If you’re not in , you can’t win!”

We’ll keep posting as we submit the film and let you know how things go.

I also want to say “Thanks” to everyone who has followed the blog, liked our posts and watched our wee film. We’re quite shy but we really do appreciate it! Thank you!

More soon!

Lessons Learned 5: Editing

Monday, August 25th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

TL:DR – You can remake the film in the edit… If you have to!

Because I knew I was going to edit the film I was reasonably relaxed about the shots while shooting. I knew what I had written and what I was shooting was going to allow me to come up with something. I definitely shot things with an eye to the edit.

The edit process, for me, started during the writing of the short. I knew we were going to be making a short, and I knew we had no budget, so mentally I was editing what I was writing to something I felt we could achieve. Since I had decided on the location before starting to write, this process was reasonably painless.

Similarly, when story boarding things, I knew what b-roll, inserts, cutaways is would need and so everything was planned ahead of time on an excel spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet is shown in the image accompanying the post!

All went well until I first reviewed the footage. As mentioned ad nauseam in the previous “Lessons Learned” posts – I totally screwed up the framing on the first scene of the day – and only found out when playing it for the first time. I confess, Patrick and myself laughed our heads off – a two shot with no one actually in it!!

For a while I was demoralised. Something that stupid on a small production like ours was a pain in the ass but at least we could have re shot the whole thing when RJ was available again, but we didn’t want to – we set out to make the film and I was going to finish it, even if it was a complete disaster only myself and Patrick would ever see.

So we picked our shots, converted the footage from RAW and twiddled our thumbs for a while…

Time to get on with it and see what I could cut together. I always knew I was going to be editing in Final Cut as I was planning on using it for a short documentary we were filming for the local council on wildfires. I duly borrowed my wife’s credit card (!) and purchased it from the App Store!

This was my first time editing in Final Cut Pro X. I loved it! I got it straight away! It’s about the story… Forget you’re editing and tell the story! For the first time in ages, editing felt like fun again. I wasn’t sure about how to do some of the small things I wanted to, but, hey, that’s what DuckDuckGo is for ;-)

On doing an assemble edit – more or less just throwing the master shots onto the timeline – I realised that we still had a short film on our hands; luckily all of the other shots were frames reasonably well and the mountain shots that were the main backbone to the film, proved to be exactly as planned. Yes! We were going to have something to put together…

What was clear was that the mountain scenes worked, the party scene worked, the house scene and the cabin scenes worked!

What didn’t work was the office scene. This scene was dialogue heavy and our (expensive) location just didn’t look special and so it was time to cut most of it out. On looking at the footage I realised that there was something I could do…

Since the flashback scenes were the main character’s “memories” I realised that memories are very rarely photographic, I could select just a few shots to present a shortened version of the scene… Most of the dialogue had to go…

I discovered that dropping the dialogue freed me.. In a film this short I was better showing rather than telling… There were shots I didn’t need so they were out! I very nearly went all the way and made it into a silent film! Patrick advised against and wisely so!

Everything else moved very quickly after the decision to remove the dialogue. The scenes fitted together as planned.

Again, Final Cut Pro X made the process reasonably painless and very quick. I was afraid to get started, but once underway things only took a day or two before I was ready to send a rough edit to Patrick for his input.

The first, five minute long edit, (for the My Rode Reel competition) was too short… Patrick and I laughed because it felt like RJ runs up the mountain… It was too short, too quick… So I added some stuff back in and the six minute version was almost spot on. It felt right.

A bit of polishing and discussion and we were very nearly finished.

As George Lucas has proven, however, sometimes things are never quite done…

Yes, I’m going to to be doing a quick re-edit for a local film competition and will add a scene and some of the dialogue back in. Hopefully that will be the finished version… (Special edition? Lol!)

Next time: Lessons Learned 6: Sound


Lessons Learned 4: Actors and Directing

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014 by tommakesmusic

TL:DR – The Director is the boss, the buck stops with you.

The cast of “Are You There?” consisted of friends and family, for the most part. This had good and bad elements.

The good side is that everyone freely offered their time and efforts. Everyone tried their very best and did everything they could to make things work. I think everyone was very natural and I’m happy with most (if not all) of what we captured.
There were several down sides, however.

As we used family and friends, we didn’t have a casting process and missed out on the pre-production that would have forced us to do. We saved time but the actors didn’t really understand quite what the script was about or the story that was in my head and so it wasn’t always easy to get what I needed from them. Being family and friends meant that I couldn’t and wouldn’t be as tough on them as I might be with paid professional actors.

Think of it this way; if the actor doesn’t understand the person they’re portraying, how can they be convincing?

This is the director’s fault :-(

At the same time, you need to be clear enough and confident enough in your vision to ensure that you’re getting the performance you need rather than the one your actors think you need.

This can be a fine line to walk.

Actors tend to have strong personalities and you have to remember to do what’s best for your film without upsetting anyone. But ultimately, what’s on screen counts.

In our case, this meant leaving lots of my carefully written dialogue on the digital cutting-room floor. It was just better to leave our protagonist a mystery than to have five minutes of unnecessary (well-written and clever, of course) waffle removing any mystery to the five minute film. That makes even more sense when the actor interprets things slightly differently than a director wants… Again, directors fault.

On the other hand, if you’ve done all the preparation and worked with your actors and you’re still not getting what you need, then it might be time to recast. Unless there’s a reason you can’t reschedule.., :-(

On “Are You There?” everyone went above and beyond the call of duty in all areas – when you realise that the film was shot in 36 hours on the Monday and Tuesday after Easter 2014, look at the film and watch RJ Woolsey.

RJ actually shaved his head between the flashback scenes and the main mountain footage! Amazing dedication. Thank you RJ!

The single biggest problem with the whole production, however, was my shyness and reluctance to make a “big thing” out of it. This really caused problems. (This is probably not a problem for many directors ;-)

It’s not that we were making “Avatar”, but by not making the film’s importance to me clear, other people just weren’t aware of the effort and time needed, the time, money and effort I had already expended. This meant that there was an atmosphere of “so what” around some of the production. Again, director’s fault – we set the tone on the production.

This reluctance to ask people to make time for pre-production, to being afraid to ask for help, to be pushy, was the single biggest directing fail on “Are You There?”

If you’re going to make a film be aware that it’s always a collaborative process so get everyone on board as soon as possible and get them invested in making the film for themselves as well as you. They’ll keep the momentum going and push you to keep going, even when the doubts set in!

Also, you need to make sure others know you believe in yourself, even if you’re not always full of confidence. That will make them more likely to follow where you lead… Because, when the camera rolls, you (as director) are in charge of leading everyone through the following hours, days or even weeks…

So that seems all negative.., but when the film goes up on YouTube or Vimeo it’s your vision, your creation, more than anyone else’s. “A (your name) film.”

A big thank you to our main cast: RJ Woolsey, Elaine Thompson and Sharon Carroll. Sharon also played the harp tune that appears at the end of the film.

Anyway, that’s it for now. I’m writing this on my phone, in the car, in the pouring rain of a typical August day. In the course of a normal day I don’t get a chance to write much of these blog entries so I grab any chance I can ;-)

Next time: Editing


Lessons Learned 3: Production Essentials

Sunday, July 20th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

TL:DR; More lights, more light, more crew, more time!

With the production of Are You There? fresh (ish) in our heads here are some thoughts about what I (we) will do differently next time! Patrick will add his views to this too, for another perspective.

Camera & Lights: We used the Canon 600d. As good as it was, (it’s mine and I sweated blood to buy it and I love it, but), it definitely performed better with a lot of light. By a lot, I mean more than you’d ever think you’d need! I knew this going into the production, but for budget and time reasons we just didn’t get enough light onto some scenes – even though I knew we needed more going into things, the small crew meant that ideas about lights and generators weren’t possible. Noise is a problem on the 600D image sensor and the more light, the less noise in the image and the better the picture quality. More lights, lights on location and faster lenses would have helped here.

Less Image Noise: We had to use several steps of de-noising on some footage and it definitely was not as good as I had hoped. The solution to the problem is light and lots of it! Light it up and stop it down! Other, better, cameras will have a better sensitivity and may not have quite the same struggle we had to get a clean picture. If you can only afford some things for your film, make sure you have plenty of lights and maybe even a generator for location purposes.

More crew: We made most of this production with a crew consisting of Patrick and myself. We moved the furniture, set up the lights and camera, directed and recorded sound. RJ, our lead actor, helped a lot, as did Zakk and Sharon, but when it came to lighting and camera, set dressing etc. the burden was on us, and me in particular, as I was the one with the ‘vision’ of how I wanted things. This was very stressful and tiring and I always felt that I was forgetting something…

Get your crew together in advance. Do some pre-production with them. Make it clear what you expect from them, then trust them when you get on set. Have meetings, get locations sorted in advance, give everyone a role… Your crew can make the shoot harder or easier and it’s really the director’s fault if a crew member doesn’t know what to do. Also, don’t let crew members drink themselves sick between shooting days ;-) that’s really not helpful!

More time: We shot the whole thing in about 32 hours. That was way too compressed a time frame. It was always rush, rush, rush… Always feeling like we were pushed for time means that we were reluctant to take time to really take stock of scenes and set ups. We gave the actors time to do as many takes as they wanted but we always felt under pressure…

If you’re more prepared and the crew are up to speed, then things will go more smoothly even with a tight schedule. With our limited crew and prep, we put ourselves under more stress than was necessary or helpful.

All these faults are really my responsibility. I can’t lay them at anyone else’s door. But next time (oh, yes! There will be a next time! Ideas are already flowing ;-), next time I will be more prepared and we will do proper pre-production with a fuller crew!

Anyway, I’m sure that Patrick will add his ideas and thoughts but until next time!

Next time: Lessons Learned 4: Actors & Directing


Lessons Learned 2: Budget

Monday, July 14th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

TL:DR You’ll never have enough money! But if you do have some, make sure you see it on screen!

We started the film with a minimal budget, we spent more than we planned and our budget was still under £150 ($200)!

We bought lights, we bought food and we rented a room. We used fuel, we got free stuff from gumtree and we borrowed as much stuff as we could.

Before the production, I was worried about the limited budget. I had wanted to hire lenses, or maybe lights, but was persuaded that the purity of using our own gear and equipment would be more satisfying.

Unfortunately, a lot of stuff (lights) that we eventually bought didn’t make it on screen… To a very real extent that means that the money was wasted.

The same goes for the location we hired… Because of the framing problem (see Lessons learned 1) the room really didn’t add anything to the film – the uniqueness of the room that we chose isn’t on screen due to the restricted framing of the shot. In the end we could have shot it anywhere… Wasted money.

The time involved in organising the sets and locations that didn’t show up well on screen was also time, energy that was wasted unnecessarily – not to mention the added stress involved.

We got a lot of communications equipment off gumtree to use as set dressing, but again, it’s not on screen so the trip to get it was wasted time and fuel. (Anyone want some old BT communications gear? Lol!)

Our lights were ordinary worklights and really not powerful enough, but they were well worth the £30 they cost. We also borrowed coloured gig lights from our star, RJ Woolsey, and from Ryan Kelly (who appears in the party scene) for a few shots.

RJ found us several locations and allowed us to turn his house upside down for the filming of the party scene. This saved us a lot of time, hassle and, possibly, money. Thanks RJ!

Everyone was happy about the food, though! If you have a volunteer crew and cast, look after them well and they’ll be happy! With access to snacks and drinks, everyone was happy to let the mad director (me) boss them about for two days! Thanks guys!

So there you have it: if you have a limited budget or timescale, make sure it appears onscreen, otherwise it’s wasted money and time.

UPDATE: Keep money in the budget for film festival entries! You want your film to be seen?

Next time: Lessons learned 3 Production essentials

Visuals – what you missed!

Thursday, June 12th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

Patrick produced a lot of visuals for the film – a lot of which didn’t make it into the final edit. Here’s some of what you missed!


Lessons Learned 1: RAW

Thursday, June 12th, 2014 by tommakesmusic
So we finished the film… Unfortunately we missed the deadline for the My Røde Reel competition…. Ironic, considering this was the initial impetus for starting the film in the first place! A communication problem between Røde’s emails and the timer on their website meant that we thought we had eight hours more than we actually did… }:-(
As you can imagine, the swear words were flying… But I got over it quite quickly; I figured that we set out to make a short film and we made a short film… The Røde competition was irrelevant in the end.
So having missed the deadline we just said “Let’s get it finished!” and we did!
Given that our budget wouldn’t buy coffee for most other low budget films I’m happy with the result. Very happy. At one point I wasn’t sure what result we would get but I’m satisfied. There is a story, character development and even if you don’t exactly get everything, you get a sense of the character’s urgency and his ultimate madness…
Yes, there are things that I would do differently; yes, there are things I would change and, yes, there were a few problems along the way… But we set out to make a short film and we did.
We learned a lot of lessons along the way! And we’re going to share them with you (whether you like it or not!!!)
Lesson 1:
Magic Lantern / RAW on a Canon 600D
TL:DR version – Too much hassle!
Not being able to see the shot you’re shooting, not being able to quickly preview and review footage is a great pain in the ass. And there’s one other problem – a biggie…
As I’ve said before, if you’re thinking of using this setup, do tests and mask off the screen so that what you see is what you get…
I completely messed up a two-shot because most of the two people were outside the portion of the view screen that was captured by the RAW frame…!!! Even using a wide angle adapter! Imagine how stupid I felt when I saw that my two-shot was a no-shot!!!! Lol! d’oh! If we had been able to review our shots as we took them, we would have picked up on this before we (I) embarrassed our (my) self!
Other than that, the work flow is long, tedious and expensive on hard drive space. You end up with the RAW footage, the Cinema DNG files and then the (in our case) Pro Res 444 files that are being used for the final edit. Only when you have the shot in CinemaDNG form can it be viewed and that’s far too far down the production line.
Whilst making the film, RAW Magic was updated a few times – unfortunately, it wasn’t until the film was nearly finished that the vertical line artefacts were (supposedly) removed. Where the exposure wasn’t ideal, such as in the derelict house, any attempt to correct things resulted in purple, vertical line artefacts. Not ideal. Luckily, I had planned these shots as flashbacks and so the effect added to them masked the problem. There’s no way we could have used these shots as standard shots.
The film was edited in Final Cut Pro (The first project I used it for – I found it very enjoyable and quick to edit with.) on a Mac Pro 1,1 running Mavericks (a story in itself!). Not many twelve or thirteen year old machines would even be capable of this but definitely a newer, faster machine would have made the process less stressful and tedious.
All in all, RAW had a few good points but a lot of drawbacks… Its up to you. In future I’ll give it a miss unless the camera is capable of doing it natively and playback is possible.

Are You There? Short Film on Vimeo

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014 by tommakesmusic

You can watch Are You There? on Vimeo.com as well!


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