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The making of The Letter

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At BIAFF 2012 Channel 7 Productions won  a 5 Star Award and the Carlin Music prize with The Letter.

Channel 7 is a video production club formed to promote video making skills within the community. While it is a youth based organisation using many children and young people for roles both on and off screen, it does cater for all ages. Each member is assigned a role or roles and works in a team, much like the film industry. Members are encouraged to participate in all areas of film production both on and off screen.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Still from 'The Letter'.

Since I started film making at the age of 15 in 1989 a lot has changed.

I formed The Channel 7 Video Making Club in 1994 with Richard Palmer* and armed with lots of spare time and enthusiasm we churned out 6 or 7 productions a year, making dramas, music videos, stage recordings, documentaries, etc. However all that came to an end with the birth of my two children which as every parent will know has a deep impact on any spare time you might have. My Director Lindsay Townley is also a parent. So for the past 6 years or so the Club has been producing films every two years or so. Due to time constraints, the productions have been filmed in what I will call soap style filming. A wide shot and a close ups of each of the various actors with dialogue. This achieves the goal, but doesn't really use the 'film' medium to its advantage and looks visually dull.

When Lindsay and I were discussing our project for 2012 we said we wanted to go back to basics, to let the pictures do the talking and to try out some modern camera techniques, such as slow tracking, etc. Rather than embark on a big project not really knowing how to use some of the techniques and styles we decided to create a small project to test some of our ideas.

We wanted a piece with a reflective style with little or no dialogue to avoid over complicating things, so we could concentrate on the pictures telling the story. We wanted to test different camera techniques to see how they would edit together. For example does it look right if you go from a tracking shot to a stationary shot? All good on paper, but we'd not really tried it. So with this all in mind I came up with the idea of a girl receiving a letter. The plot was to be simple: a girl receives a letter she doesn't want to open as it could be good or bad news; she spends a lot of time thinking about opening it; then she plucks up the courage, revealing the outcome.

So we then roughly translated this into a script which consisted of a sort of shot list:
The Letter
Letter is leaning up against something on breakfast table.
Girl dressed in pyjamas comes to pick it up.
She looks at the envelope
She looks, excited and worried all at the same time.
She pauses and then thinks about opening it.
She then sits at a table for breakfast.
She goes to open it, she cant bring herself to open it.
She then paces about trying to bring herself to open it.


Once we had our script we then started to look for an actress to play the lead part. Our aim with all Channel 7 productions is to have a child take the lead. This is now part of our club's mandate, but in the early days it stemmed from when I began film making using friends of friends. At 17 I did not have the confidence to direct adults and then I also found it easier to cast children as they have spare time!

So we did what we usually do, contacted the local schools, contacted the local press and advertised on our website for someone to play the role. Sadly after various promises from people, no-one turned up. This shook us up quite a bit, as our usual way of recruiting had failed.

So with this in mind we had a choice, try again in a few weeks time or go back to our audition tapes from two years ago to see if there was anyone suitable. No-one sprang to mind at first because we auditioned for a completely different role.

Eventually we chose a girl, who we tried to contact several times, but again failed as she had moved away. Telephone numbers and emails all bounced. So we went back to the tapes again. This time we thought a little harder about what we were looking for and then we spotted Elissia Styles. She didn't stand out as she was quite shy and nervous at her audition, but when we looked a little harder she was exactly what we were looking for. After a quick telephone call she agreed to do the part for us.

A few weeks later we had a one rehearsal with Elissia so that we all knew what was expected. We rehearsed some camera movements and blocked out some of the script with her.

Both Lindsay and I planned each of the three scenes carefully before we started shooting. We decided what the girl would wear and what she'd be eating, whether or not she'd have flowers on the table, who the letter would be addressed to, etc. We analysed everything and planned accordingly. It sounds obvious but we have 'winged' it on a lot of occasions and we felt we needed to pay more attention to the detail. With no dialogue the pictures had to do the talking.

Filming took two mornings in early June 2011. We took many different shots and angles, probably too many, but we wanted to see what would work well. Focusing was extremely hard as we used the telephoto end of the lens a lot to give a more filmy look, especially with the tracking shots.

We lit the kitchen scene with 3 red heads, heavily gelled and placed in natural positions to mimic the natural light that would have fallen. In the girl's room, we used natural light with a reflector to fill in the shadows.

The final scene was filmed in Sandy, Bedfordshire. Cambridgeshire, where we're based, isn't known for its hills! We wanted a solitary place that overlooked her town where she could be alone to read her letter in peace.

Editing was difficult at first as there was no immediate pace to the piece. No dialogue meant nothing to work with other than pictures. So I chose a piece of commercial music to edit to, which we replaced later. This made the task much easier.

After completing a few hours editing, I stripped off the music and asked our resident composer to add some music for us. A few weeks later the music was complete.

All that was left now was to put the pieces together and to put it onto a DVD. So the finished film was complete by July 2011.

We learnt a lot during the process and will definitely be putting our newly learnt skills into practice in 2012, when we film our next production, Just Friends. Look out for it at BIAFF 2013.

Happy Film making!

- Darren Lalonde

* Richard Palmer now runs Merula , a successful IT company that provides internet, phone and data centre services - and hosts the IAC website.

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Page updated on 23 July 2012
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