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The making of Thinking Time
Diamonds on a Budget
After a 15 year diversion pursuing other creative avenues, mainly a first love of music, I drifted back into filmmaking almost by accident. I bought a little Panasonic HDC-SD10 on a whim because it was very cheap at just over £200 and it was very small and lightweight. I intended to produce a number of music videos and I needed something I could ‘throw around,’ but unfortunately the music videos never happened and the camcorder began gathering dust, particularly sawdust!
I had already designed and built the clock that appears in Thinking Time and it was on long term test awaiting finishing and staining when it dawned on me that it might make an interesting subject for a documentary. Finishing the clock required dismantling it down to its component parts, and this gave me the opportunity to formulate a drama-style storyboard, which included a beginning, middle and end. I also added an element of doubt - can he do it/will it work? – or else the documentary might simply have ended up being a ‘how to’ tutorial.
However, I had a problem! I was aware that a fair proportion of potential viewers would be interested in the mechanical aspects of the clock’s construction, but what about those that weren’t? How to hold the attention of viewers who had no interest in pillar drills or scroll saws was achieved (I hope) by not actually revealing what I was building until towards the end. I also decided to add a brief ‘can you guess what it is?’ caption on a couple of occasions, but more on this later…
Because the clock’s components had already been made, I had to refabricate a couple of parts purely for use in the documentary. All the processes I went through – designing, printing, cutting out, drilling and finishing - were identical to those I had used on the clock.
When it came to shooting the footage I used a tripod throughout and manually focused almost everything apart from a small number of clips that worked better with auto focus - for example if I walked towards or held something up to camera. I also used manual exposure for the majority of shots because the low height lighting in my workshop was sometimes obscured by my head as I moved around.
Some of the shots were a little tricky to set up. The ‘flash of inspiration’ desk light illuminating in the opening section was achieved simply by pushing a part-inserted 13A plug into a plugboard with my foot, thereby getting the timing spot on! The ‘quick change’ into layers of protective clothing was a simple jump cut – easily done when the camera is mounted on a tripod. A shot that is often talked about is the overhead of me entering the workshop – this was achieved ‘simply’ by laying the tripod horizontally on the workshop roof with the low weight SD10 camcorder overhanging the edge. Luckily the tilting monitor screen allowed me to get the correct framing from my position, but as I wasn’t prepared to dangle over the edge of a fourteen foot high roof pressing buttons on the camcorder, the footage was recorded using auto-everything! I set the camcorder running then scrambled down the ladder and ran through the house to appear calmly and serenely entering the workshop, before running back again and scrambling up the ladder to retrieve the camcorder before somebody pinched it!
Artistic Licence works wonders
When the clock was finally revealed I had to do something to make it more dramatic! It is actually quite a sedate mechanism and moves slowly for only a couple of seconds once a minute – a pace which proved far too slow in the edit. I resorted to partly dismantling the clock once again and connected a slow running electric motor directly to the arbor of the minute hand in order to rotate the mechanism continuously. All the close-ups showing the clock seemingly ‘ticking away’ and the various levers moving, are in effect happening sixty times quicker than they do in real life. A little bit of artistic licence works wonders!
Once I had shot all the footage my attention turned to editing. Another problem! My computer was aged – a Fujitsu Siemens of some 7 years vintage, running Windows XP with a meagre 2Gb RAM and a single core processor. Research revealed that Sony’s Movie Studio Platinum series (then version 10) was able to run on such an antiquated system, yet import the required high definition AVCHD files and edit and render them in Full HD. I decided that for around £20 it was worth a try, and it was money well spent because the program was a revelation! OK, a slow revelation on my vintage computer but to suddenly be able to work on an entire project in Full HD was something I’d never have thought possible, and I’ve stuck with the program series ever since.
Editing however started to reveal some of the shortcomings of the budget camcorder – not least the lack of the facility to connect an external microphone. All the live sound was recorded using the camcorder’s built in microphone, and this included sounds of occasional passing cars as well as particularly troublesome bird song. Luckily I found Sony’s editor to be very intuitive in its handling of the audio streams and I used a number of the stock ‘plug-ins’ to improve the soundtrack – particularly equalisation to reduce traffic rumble and a noise gate, which cuts off sound below a certain level, to eliminate the bird song in between talking to camera.
Unfortunately using the noise gate resulted in a totally quiet and unnatural soundtrack between speaking, so I simply added the sound of a suspiciously noisy dust extractor fan to the timeline during the workshop footage. This helped mask the effect of the noise gate. If you listen hard you might hear a few bird tweets when I am talking, but only now I’ve mentioned that they’re there! A couple of clips unfortunately defeated all my efforts to silence the birds and I had to re-shoot them – the clips, not the birds!
The last time I edited anything was using S-VHS tape, so to suddenly have the freedom of computer-based editing I found immensely enjoyable, and it allowed me to create the illusion that the clock and its parts were being worked on. In fact, every time I am looking at, pointing at, adjusting or constructing something just out of frame - it simply isn’t there! The software also allowed me to turn a single camera shoot into something that resembled a multi camera one. For example, the five shots between me leaving the house and turning to camera in the workshop were each set up individually and filmed over the course of an hour or so, then compiled on the timeline and dragged and trimmed frame by frame so that the flow of action was realistic.
Once the visual editing was complete, I wrote and recorded a number of musical themes to fit in with the various sequences and recorded a pre-prepared commentary using the camcorder’s microphone. I imported and mixed these on the editor’s timeline along with the live camcorder sound and a host of assorted sound effects, including an owl hoot, bells, a horror laugh and some appropriate snoring! Traditional titling, intertitles and end credits rounded the documentary off. Over the course of some months, editing was tightened and small adjustments made, following comments made by judges in local and regional competitions.
The only criticism I refused to accede to was the removal of the supposedly superfluous ‘can you guess what it is?’ caption, because it had exactly the effect I wanted, and luckily the BIAFF judges agreed. I used to enjoy sitting at the back of screenings and watching the reaction of the audience when the captions appeared – the room would be split in two: one half holding hushed discussions with their neighbours about what they thought it was, the other half (knowing what it was because they had already seen the documentary) doing exactly what I was doing – looking around, smiling and remaining smugly silent. Audience interaction: perfect!- John Roberts
Watch the film here: