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The making of Sidewinder

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At BIAFF 2010 Phil Martin won 5-Stars with Sidewinder and a prize from Carlin Music. The film is one of those representing Britain at UNICA 2010.

Two boys are sent packing when they try to swim in the lake so return to their game of make-believe fighter pilots. Suddenly reality intrudes and they have access to deadly force!

The two young stars of 'Sidewinder'.This film was conceived as light relief after shooting In the National Interest and Secrets - and it proved to be great fun. The treatment and scripting took about 6 months over the winter of 2008/9 and were completed last May - just in time to form a Summer Project for half a dozen Members of Reading Film & Video Club.

First, there were the small matters of finding actors and locations. It turned out that Francis Crossley (the Producer) had a grandson, Hamish, who was keen on acting and attended a weekly drama class with his friend Anthony. But blood ties were not enough - our filming rose above nepotism; we auditioned them - but, thankfully, they really could act. The original script set the story among sand dunes on the South coast but Geoff Addis seemed slightly reluctant to take his EX1 to the seaside. Moreover, the logistics of getting a film crew, actors, model aircraft, missile and jet-ski down to Wittering were rather daunting. So we approached a couple of local watersport parks and struck gold when one not only agreed to the filming but lent us a jet-ski villain in the shape of Alan, a gentle man with a fierce Ulster accent. In return we made them a promotional video, but that's a different film altogether.

Still from 'Sidewinder'.Then there were the props. With the kind permission of the site manager, we rescued a load of waste wood and shuttering that was destined for the bonfire at a local building site. My skill as a carpenter precisely matched the brief, of creating a plane that looked as if it had been made by two 11 year-olds. The AIM Sidewinder is the most effective air-to-air missile ever made, having brought down 270 aircraft to date. It was used successfully by the RAF during the Falkland War. Rather surprisingly, the technical specification of a sidewinder missile can be downloaded from the internet - just type "sidewinder missile spec" into Google and get down on the floor when the SAS come swinging through the windows wearing balaclavas. The actual missile is 10 feet long and 5 inches in diameter. All I had was 4 inch soil vent pipe, so we made do with an 80% model. Francis again came up trumps when he persuaded the Museum of Berkshire Aviation to part with a box of broken instruments and a couple of flying helmets. . A couple of forays on e-bay and several trips to the dump provided wheels for the plane and a "gun carriage" for the launch of the missile from under the plane wing.
Still from 'Sidewinder'.Finally (before the actual filming began) we needed some footage of real fighter aircraft taxiing, taking off and in the air. My original intention was to draw on the huge amount of footage available from the "fighter flings" filmed by the different US fighter squadrons. (That's why the boys' model aircraft was built to look like an F15 Tomcat - think of Top Gun). However, most of this footage was rather poor quality. So, being a shareholder, I approached MOD for some RAF film. They were really helpful - offering a 3 year licence for a mere £12 per second. With a minimum clip length of 30 seconds and needing at least 9 clips, we could take our pick of their superb footage for a mere £2000 or so. Not wanting to prolong the war in Afghanistan by the two seconds that this would pay for, I approached British Aerospace, who happily agreed to make up a mini-DV tape of the type of shots we needed - and they didn't even charge for the tape. Nor did they ask for an acknowledgement. So I'm pleased to have this opportunity to record our thanks.
Still from 'Sidewinder'.At last we were set for a day's filming at the jet-ski park in the Chilterns with a further two days shooting the aircraft scenes at the bottom of my garden. But before then there was the log rolling. This was filmed at Turville in Buckinghamshire, not because we particularly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Went the Day Well? and The Vicar of Dibley. It just had the steepest hill we could find. "Camera 1?". "Rolling". "Camera 2?". "Rolling". Eat your heart out Spielberg. Tug the rope and away it went. My God, did it go! At the bottom it dived into the bushes at about 50mph - like a startled rabbit. Thank goodness I'd checked that there was no one down there. It then turned out that it was the Director's job to retrieve the log from the briar bush and stagger back up the hill with it on the hottest day of the summer. I can still hear Geoff's repeated "Just one more take, Phil."
Still from 'Sidewinder'.Still from 'Sidewinder'.We arrived at the jet-ski park to find the gate locked. This is not a sport for early risers. By the time we eventually got started the weather had closed in, with frequent blustery showers. However, in a very long day and with stoic fortitude we got the shots that we needed. The filming in the garden was much easier, although one day was a wash-out. At both locations we tried to make more use of moving camera and the resulting tracking shots contributed significantly to the production values of the film. The major problem with the visuals was that we had used several cameras with very different image quality. It took a lot of work in post-production to match these as closely as possible.

The audio presented the greatest problem: wind-cut on the radio mics made the live track unusable. The only option was to dub the dialogue. This entailed playing the sound track to the boys, a phrase at a time, and getting them to repeat their lines 3 or 4 times to match the delivery. The best of the re-takes was then lip-synced and used to replace the original sound. After that the sounds of the wind, footsteps etc. were added back using foley sound. This took at least a week in front of a computer and, while the lip-sync was good (thanks mainly to the diligence of the boys) we were again dogged by the weather. Having driven 50 miles to the boys' home to spend a day on the re-recording we had to go ahead, even though it was raining. This meant that we were unable to record outside as planned, with the result that the new audio had the wrong sound quality. Doubtless we could, and should, have tried to correct this in post-post-production but eventually you have to stop making a film and, having listened to the sound track probably a hundred times, I had lost the will to do more.

Still from 'Sidewinder'.Still from 'Sidewinder'.The special effects were much more fun. I started by suspending the missile horizontally using fishing line so that I could film it rotating slowly. After masking out the background in After Effects, I had a footage of the missile from any perspective to be superimposed on any background. All I needed to do was to chose a shot with the right change in perspective, scale and move it across the background. The rocket flame was created in much the same way as the rocket itself - by filming a blow-lamp rotating in the dark and luma-keying to remove the black background. This was then "pinned" to the rocket tail. Finally, all we needed was some "smoke" from a programme called ParticleIllusion (free 30 day unrestricted trial) and explosions from a brilliant site called www.detonationfilms.com run by Bob Forward an American amateur. Another 100 hours in front of a computer and it was a wrap.
So what did we learn? I believe that the worth of a fiction film is determined by the quality of the story, script and acting - poor filming, editing etc. can wreck a good film but all the technical expertise in the world cannot compensate for a failing in these fundamentals. In the case of Sidewinder, it was a lightweight idea but quite enough to carry a fun little film. The script worked fairly well but took too long to cut to the chase. (I had decided to try to establish the relationship between the two boys through a nonsensical dialogue as they walked. This did not work for two reasons. First, in a 20 minute film there is simply not time to establish the characters. Secondly, the dialogue sounded as if it had been written by an adult and its play on the theory of evolution was too clever by half). Fortunately, the acting was good. So we scored about 2½ out of 3 for the fundamentals.

Still from 'Sidewinder'.Technically, the visuals were fine (and the experimental use of moving camera proved worthwhile). I was pleased enough with the editing and effects. The failing was in the audio. Under the circumstances it could not have been better recorded. We might have done more to rectify it in post-production but, in retrospect I think we should have cancelled the original shoot and re-scheduled when the weather was better - or at least not made the same mistake when re-recording the soundtrack.

Last year I was disappointed to receive three stars for Secrets. This year I am surprised to have won five for Sidewinder. Like most film makers I seriously doubt whether judges have any idea what they're doing. However, having judged both last year's North West Film Festival and SERIAC 2010, I should make clear that this view applies only to other judges and then only when they are assessing my films!

- Phil Martin

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