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The making of Shooting on a Shoestring 

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At BIAFF 2010 Michael Slowe won a 4-Star Award with Shooting of a Shoestring. Here he writes about his brush with commercial film making.

It was an offer I couldn't resist:  to shoot and produce a Making Of documentary for inclusion
on the DVD of a feature film being shot in my area of North London.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.Most DVD's of commercial films nowadays contain such an item under the heading 'extras'.

The better ones show activities that non film makers know little about while others consist mainly of actors saying how wonderful it was working with such talented fellow actors and hoping that nice words about their director will gain them further work.

I was interested in observing the actual process of shooting a commercial feature highlighting the technical aspects equally with the creative.

Since I enjoy being a 'fly on the wall' documentary film maker I accepted the offer but not without some trepidation since I had never worked alongside professionals. I was nervous as to how my work would stand up.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.

The main production, although aimed at cinema distribution prior to DVD sale, was being planned on a ridiculously low (almost minimal) budget with most people involved being contracted on the basis of a share in any proceeds in lieu of payment.

As to me, I was most certainly not even in that category, the voluminous contract that arrived in the post stated quite clearly that I was not being paid. There were various stipulations such as agreeing not to show in an unfavourable light anyone involved in the production together with details of what I was permitted to do with the material I was to shoot.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.I wanted to be able to make my own film in addition to the official 'Making Of' and indeed the contact allowed for this, specifying that whilst the copyright would be owned by the company, my own film would be mine, subject again to the condition concerning the depiction of anyone in an unfavourable light.

The shoot was planned for completion in 18 days of filming. For a full length feature this was hugely ambitious even though all the location scouting and production planning had been carried out during proceeding months. There is with film making always the fear of the unexpected, particularly as this was to be all on location with no studio work and there is always the English weather to contend with. In the event we were extraordinarily fortunate to have an unusually dry and sunny April.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.The question of insurance in respect of my participation was raised and my brokers confirmed that they were not happy since the enterprise was commercial and suggested a separate policy. The production company therefore took out a policy covering the shooting period containing fully comprehensive cover for me, my kit and any damage I may cause with cables, tripod etc. I also had to complete an exhaustive Health & Safety Assessment.  This consisted of a questionnaire detailing exactly what I would be doing on the set and what possible risks that might entail as regards my own and others' safety.

As we assembled for pre production meetings I felt I was treated with some suspicion by a few of the production people even though it was made quite clear that I was an approved contracted member of the unit.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.This subsided as the shoot progressed but was not wholly absent right to the end and always inhibited my activities somewhat. I appreciated that the main production was the priority but nevertheless there were occasions when I felt aggrieved at being prevented from getting as close to the action as I would have preferred.

For instance after a  number of rehearsals for a scene which I had been able to film quite satisfactorily without causing the slightest concern, for the actual take I was usually asked to stop filming, or even worse, to leave the set. I had wanted to contrast the rehearsal with the actual take. The fact that on occasions I had been able to remain for a take made the objections illogical to my mind.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.The technicians were in the main extremely helpful and encouraging despite being under the most appalling pressure to handle many more set ups in one day than is usual on a production. Some of the actors and, I felt, a few location production staff were rather less tolerant and in my efforts to concentrate on my task I was conscious of causing some irritation and I trod a fine line in this respect.

The feature was being shot by a really skilled DOP (Director of Photography). He was Polish born and trained and his father is well known in Poland and is now a lecturer at their world famous film academy. The film was being shot in High Definition video at a high bit rate on the new Sony EX3, adapted to take prime 35mm film lenses. This incorporated a piece of kit called a Movie Tube* mounted on the front of the camera to accommodate the prime lenses and which enables the camera to receive its images from a ground glass screen rather than directly through the lens. It is thought that this provides a more 'filmic' look to the footage in preference to the characteristic hard video image. Personally I'm not wholly convinced on this and, interestingly, in my film where I have included extracts from the main production, it can be seen that they do not look dramatically different from my own footage. I was also using an EX camera but without the prime lenses and the Movie Tube.. When you get to see my film you will judge for yourselves and it should be noted that in post production I have not had to make any great effort to manipulate the images.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.The sound recordist was a young Frenchman with an already impressive credit list and it was in this department that I noticed the biggest difference from amateur film making. He was meticulous in his placement of microphones and very fussy as regards background noise of any sort. On more than one location he had an air conditioning duct dismantled and always required clocks and fridges silenced.

The first event that I shot was a pre production meeting with the director taking all the production staff (DOP, Sound Recordist, Costume Consultant, Make-Up Consultant, Assistant Directors etc) through the film and all the arrangements. I originally intended this as my 'running script' through my film but actually it all took too long and slowed the action so I just used small segments, mostly the amusing bits. I also filmed large segments of the cast read through that I hoped might be useful as a link but here again it was all too slow. I had been given an assistant (the editor's film-student niece) and she held a boom mic for me whenever possible and she helped me carry and guard my equipment at all the varied locations.

Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.The first scene to be shot was in a health club and, not knowing what was to follow, I covered this as extensively as possible. From a lot of footage I was able to construct the 'setting up' sequence in my film which I cut to music. Usually on location I was able to utilise the lights set by the DOP and his team so I had no problems there except that my camera positions were not the same as his, far from it! The DOP was aiming largely to light at a Kelvin of 5500 which we both set in our cameras but when I left the set to snatch a bit of action nearby I often did not have time (or forgot) to do a white balance for different light and this gave me some problems  with matching the colours from shot to shot. My edit system, Media 100, does enable colours to be adjusted, but colour grading has never been my strong point and I would have preferred to set my white balance correctly at the shooting stage.

Both cameras were recording on to the new Sony S x S cards and it is necessary to down load the media files on location in order to clear the cards for re use. At around £400 per card (depending on capacity) users of these cameras prefer to manage with a limited number of cards. This is easy enough provided one has a decent laptop (I, and the production editor, had Apple MacBook Pros) and a reliable USB powered external hard drive. I downloaded the files from a 16Gb card (one hour of HD video) in about twelve minutes via firewire direct from the camera. Back at home I then backed up to a second drive as a safety measure as I wasn't intending to take any media on to my main editing drives until I began editing.

However I was also contracted to provide a two minute clip from the day's events for the PR people to update to the production's web site. This was a real pain since I had to view my day's footage and take into my edit system the material I thought would be of daily interest. I then had to assemble the clip, compress it to an H264 file in Apple's Compressor program in order to E Mail it to Publicity. This took time and was irksome if I had been up at 6 am for an early location shoot. I always wanted to be on location well before shooting began because this was the time to catch interesting material.

For more such teaser-clips visit: YouTube here.

On one location they needed a second camera as a 'prop' since the story involves a film within a film … and they wanted mine! This gave me some problems as I was then out of action for the time that the scene took to shoot. I asked the 'cameraman' in the film to shoot for me but whatever he did was useless as he had not framed properly. That was about the only time that my camera sat on a tripod! Much as I prefer using one there simply was not the time or space to allow this. What really saved me throughout was the CVP shoulder brace www.mitcorp.com) which enabled me to get reasonably steady shots whilst moving around. The only trouble was that I couldn't breathe whilst shooting as one end of the brace rested on my chest!
Still from 'Shooting on a Shoestring'.So the month sped by. I filmed the obligatory interviews with the leading actors which proved surprisingly difficult to arrange as everyone was so rushed, not to mention temperamental! Accordingly some of my settings for these talks were hastily improvised and consequently were unsatisfactory. The technicians, whilst also busy, were easier to access. The director I left until well after filming was completed as I had no chance during the shoot. This actually was a blessing because during my edit I was better able to judge what I required by way of explanation and narration.

I had over 30 hours of footage from my month's work and then my problems really started - with a 90 minute feature they only had space on the DVD for a 30 minute documentary. This is a common problem for anyone editing a documentary where large amounts of footage are shot because the story and structure can only be determined at the edit stage.

The producer and the director too both wanted to view my rough cut, I suspect, to see whether I was up to the job. They seemed happy and one comment was "it is fun". I had tried to make it slightly different from the 'Making Of's' that they had given me to view before we started.

A special preview of the main film, together with mine, was arranged for cast and crew at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead where the final scenes of the film had been shot four months earlier. This went well and I thought that my film stood up well visually in comparison with the main one. Both films were projected through the cinema's £50,000 digital projector from Blu-Ray DVD's and the pictures looked good. I had been warned by the editor to be especially careful with my audio track during my own edit as a cinema sound system would amplify any faults. I had sat for hours at my edit suite listening through high quality Bose headphones in order to identify and eliminate any clicks and at the same time ensure that the audio levels and track balance were consistent.

The audience seemed to like my film and in the pub afterwards I'm told, compared it favourably with the main feature! Sad to say that as far as that is concerned things appear to be ending in tears as internal politics have somehow contrived to upset the applecart and it all looks decidedly murky at the time of writing.

In accordance with my original intention I have now adapted the 'Making Of' into my own film which has a slightly different focus and which I have titled Shooting on a Shoestring.

- Michael Slowe - this article first appeared in Film & Video Maker April 2010. 

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