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The making of Meet Me at St Pancras

To BIAFF 2009 results | To Full Making Of Index

Meet Me at St. Pancras! by John Astin got a 4-stars award at BIAFF 2009 and a sponsor's award from Trackline Music.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.I try to learn something new in each video

In many ways Meet Me At St. Pancras! is a sequel to my successful The Thames Tunnel. Both spring from my since-childhood love of the railways and from my membership of an "Exploring London" Group in the local University of the Third Age.

The movie originated, I suppose, in 2003/4, when London Blue Badge Guides were conducting public tours at weekends around the interior of St. Pancras Chambers, the old iconic Midland Railway Hotel.

"Can I take some video?" I asked.

"No problem!" was the reply. Great news, and quite rare in this day and age.

Picture of the Velbon MTP-1 table-top tripod.The problem was acquiring steady pictures without a tripod. In fact, not a single clip in the whole video was filmed with a traditional tripod. Fortunately, I have a Velbon Multi Function Pod (MTP-1). It screws flat on to the underside of the camcorder (a Sony TRV900 - wonderful camera!), but then its hinged lower section opens out into three legs about 4" long, whilst the upper section can be tilted up and down and locked in the chosen position, so that the camcorder can be positioned at different angles. The three legs, a mini-tripod, can be splayed/wedged over almost anything - tops of walls, chairs, fences etc. etc. - ensuring rock-steady pictures almost every time. Alternatively, the three legs can be kept together and pulled down at right angles to the upper section screwed to the camcorder base, forming a steadying hand grip reminiscent of what was commonplace on Super-8 cameras. The MTP-1 is a terrific gadget - but unfortunately and inexplicably no longer in production!

So, with some excellent pictures of the hotel interior, and with the transformation of St. Pancras getting underway, I decided to make a sort of "video diary" of the reconstruction work, choosing a sunny day 2 or 3 times a year to go up to London and film the work in progress.

A "video diary" of the reconstruction work

After the first visit, in fact, I made a short film called Revitalising St. Pancras, using some of the hotel footage, showing some of the early work in progress and illustrating what was proposed for the future. It gained a Silver in BIAFF 2004.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'. Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.

There are always security-conscious jobworths on mainline stations, and I was asked two or three times what I was doing and why, but once my IAC bag-badge had helped to convince them that I wasn't Osama bin Laden in disguise, I was never prevented from filming what I wanted.

This "video diary" went on for about three years, until the work was completed (on time and on budget), and St. Pancras was inaugurated as the new Eurostar Terminus on November 14th 2007.

There were video cameras galore there for the opening ceremony, so I was quite surprised to be accosted by an aggressive clipboard in the hands of a PA very reluctant to allow me to film the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Were they out of tune, I wondered? Or ringers?! I was never told the reason for the hostility.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'. Next, on reviewing my seven hours (!) of St. Pancras-related footage, I realised that most of the "video diary" was rather like watching paint dry - literally in a few instances! - and exceedingly dull. A more interesting movie, I felt, would be to tell the story of the Station from its inception.

I joined another Blue Badge Guide Tour, this one called "St. Pancras", which took us round the Station and its hinterland, and from which I gleaned most of the historical information.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.

After the Tour, I returned to the area, and did all the necessary filming at leisure. St. Pancras is quiet until the Eurostar trains start arriving and departing around 11 a.m., so I filmed the statues etc. around 10.30 a.m., when the Station was almost deserted.

Old pictures and photos were required, and they often present copyright problems. I find "Wikipedia Images" very useful, as the site tells you an image's copyright status. When I use a picture from Wikipedia (or elsewhere on the internet), I print it out on Quality Inkjet Paper, and film the printout - I find that creates the best quality, and I can then often improve it further in Photoshop. Photoshop is also very helpful in blueing out sections of pictures to prepare them for use in Chromakey. I really enjoy this aspect of videography, and there are lots of composite graphics in the movie, produced in Photoshop and then on the Timeline (this video was edited with Premiere 6.5 and Raptor RT), using Transparency and Motion.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'. Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.

I try to learn something new in each video, and in this I explored the use of vignetting as a device for highlighting a certain part of the image.

The Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre was also very helpful, digging out some relevant old photos, and allowing me to film and use them without charge - they just wanted a copy of the finished DVD sent to them, and a credit on the movie.

Rather cleverly, I thought, I used my Hotel interior material to show what the Hotel was like when it was first opened in the 1870s. As the interior had been refurbished in the late 1990s, it probably did! I am told that a documentary is "an illustrated script", and personally I do not like a voiceover that includes important information that is not, or cannot be, illustrated by visuals. So when I wrote the script, I ensured that everything mentioned could be illustrated, either by clips I already had, or by lots of maps and graphics I could create in the computer.

I match one phrase in the voiceover to one clip

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'. As I put the clips on the Timeline, I order them to a fairly detailed structure, but I write the actual voiceover words at the same time, and fine tune the visuals to match the words, and vice versa. I am finding now that I tend to match one phrase in the voiceover to one clip on the Timeline, so that the clips change after every 4 or 5 second phrase.

That is perhaps becoming rather predictable, and perhaps I should show a more varied approach.

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.

My videos are often praised for their pace, though, and having a new clip appear that often does contribute to a good, overall pace. Too often I see amateur documentaries where the same shot stays on the screen for 15 - 20 seconds, accompanied by a voiceover packed with unillustrated facts. To me, that is a recipe for boredom. Trying even harder to ward off audience boredom, I also decide on a maximum length for any video I make. For this one, I asked myself how long non-railway enthusiasts, or people who live a long way from London, would give it before "switching off". I decided that 15 minutes must be an absolute maximum, so when initially this one lasted 18 - 19 minutes on the Timeline, I had to be very self-disciplined, and I removed four minutes of content, some of which had taken me several hours to create! I also had to rewrite parts of the voiceover to hide the deletions!

Still from 'Meet Me at St. Pancras'.Like The Thames Tunnel, Meet Me At St. Pancras! deals with a fairly static subject, so I worked very hard on the soundtrack to create extra interest. I threw in sound effects wherever appropriate, and made considerable use of music. Music is very important in helping to create mood changes, and for highlighting the variety in the video - the light and shade, the quick and the slow, the happy and the sad. Documentaries need respite from a continuous voiceover, and I'm fond of a "musical montage" or two, usually cut to the beat, to provide that.

Montages can illustrate and sometimes condense something major and essential but perhaps visually less interesting into a brief period of time. There are at least 2 such musical montages in Meet Me at St. Pancras! - the rebuilding of the Barlow Shed, 4 years of work condensed on screen to under a minute (!), and the new Station shopping galleries, a tour condensed on screen to around 30 seconds.

If I think people may want to buy the video, I use royalty-free music from AKM or Trackline, otherwise I choose tracks from the large selection of CDs I have from companies such as Fiddys, Carlin or deWolfe.

The movie has been well received, and people have expressed their enjoyment, even though they were not particularly interested in railways. Frequently, I am asked for copies, either because people used to live in the area and/or worked on the railway.

- John Astin, LACI (9/4/09)

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Page updated on 06 October 2011
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