Last August the Bristol Film and Video Society had an enjoyable and well-attended club night, billed as the ‘120 Minute Challenge’, in which a number of groups attempted to make short films, shot, completed and edited and then shown, all within the parameters of a single meeting, with some prior preparation, of course.  It didn’t quite work out like that, some of us finding that the editing was a task too far in the noisy conditions of such a high-pressure event, but at the end of the evening a few ideas that had been sparked off were quickly voiced, one of which was – shall we have a day’s filming on a similar basis?  With this in mind, a venue was booked for the 7th December, and the BFVS committee approached a few people who they knew were champing at the bit to head up making films, and asked them to come up with their projects for the day.  I was lucky enough (and foolish enough, easily) to be one of the chosen ones.  As plans firmed it emerged that there would be four films all made in the one day, with three of the directors virtually new to directing.  I say virtually, because Roslyn Shennan and myself had both had one of the slots for the 120 minute challenge, whilst Steve Andrews had done a similar piece of on-the-fly club filming, so we’d dipped our toes in before.  Of the four directors only David Price had much prior directing under his belt, so this was a great opportunity for some people to brave the directorial waters in a fun way that might encourage bigger projects later on.

Toe-dipping does not a film director make, so for me, at least, this felt like my first real opportunity to plan and execute the complete process of making a short film, which is, after all, what I joined BFVS for just two short years ago.  When I first joined I was full of ideas, but I really knew nothing about how a film was put together – I wasn’t one of these people who’d been making home movies for years and had a string of interesting cameras, I was approaching from the other direction entirely, as a writer who’d decided that I wanted to try communicating through film rather than only through the words on a page.  My motivation, far from being technical, is all about telling stories, developing stories, and getting ideas across.  Anything I know about the mechanics of filmmaking – which is still very little, really – has all been learnt since I joined the club.

Here’s a quote that caught my eye recently, by the director of one of 2013’s most controversial films, Blue is the Warmest Colour:

To use an image, making a film is like climbing a mountain or crossing an ocean – every day has its challenges. There’s not one day more difficult than the other. Every day, there’s that tension and the pressure. Each scene that you shoot is like getting to that next step, but there’s still that mountain to climb. So it’s not like one day is harder or one scene is harder – they are all equally challenging. Abdellatif Kechiche.

Okay, we’re climbing molehills not mountains, crossing ponds rather than oceans, but the principle is the same.  Even for a single day’s shoot there have been weeks of thought and preparation, the assembling of the cast, the crew, the equipment, and – above all, in my opinion – the passion from all concerned for the project.  My own first task, having said ‘yes’ without a backward glance, was to prune a twenty-five-minute script that I had into something that could be completed within the day, so probably six-eight minutes maximum.  My poor characters didn’t want to play, but this was my big opportunity to get directing so I basically battered them into submission.  I speak of the characters in my head, of course – not the actors, who I hadn’t acquired yet.  Indeed, that was the next urgent task.  And this was October already!  All the groups were beginning to scrabble around for actors and crews at this point, and our stalwart club member, Graham Egarr, who was pushing the day forward, coordinating and organising and basically acting as Executive Producer for all four films, must have felt like his computer was growing out of the end of his fingers, the number of emails he was having to field.     

December proved to be a difficult time of year to get people to commit to.  I managed to get actor one fairly easily, but I needed three.  All possible sources seemed to lead nowhere.  We are very fortunate to have Jane Andrews as chair of BFVS at the present time, and she, as someone who has been involved in Am Dram in Bristol for years, has many contacts in the acting world, but even she couldn’t trawl me someone to the surface for my second female role, although she helped to find someone for the sole male role – of which more later.  Eventually some train of thought reminded me that I ‘belonged’ to various local Am Dram and Film Facebook pages, so I put out a plea – and it was now November! – for a middle-aged woman actor who was free on December the 7th and might be interested… and I was, excitingly, inundated with responses.  Some were far too young and lovely, which made me ponder my definition of middle-aged – or their definitions, perhaps – but I had a few tingly feelings, and one in particular where everything came together, and so the delightful Fiona Barras was recruited without us even meeting, because time was slipping away fast, and I had so much else to do, and I just wanted to say yes and cross ‘actors’ off the hundreds of lists I was spawning.   

The venue that had been booked for the four productions, St Paul’s Church in Bedminster, Bristol, is one that the club has used for a number of productions.  It already feels very familiar to me, as I’ve been involved in things there a few times since I joined, and I know it’s been used in the past, too.  It’s familiar, we have connections there, it’s not expensive (in fact it’s cheap!) and, to some extent, it has aspects of being a relatively controlled environment, always useful in filmmaking.  For instance, the crypt has no natural light, being underground, so lighting can be manipulated without any outside factors interfering.  The great thing about having it for the Dec 7th shoot, though, was the number of possibilities it afforded us within the one building, because, with the exception of a couple of hours in the afternoon, we had the whole place to ourselves from early morning to as late as we liked.  So there was the crypt, which has one large space and a few smaller ones, the main body of the church, and the upstairs, which has one large room with a divider and with a further space outside it. Graham coordinated the usage of space, and I was lucky enough to find out, just a few days before shooting day, that I would have the upstairs St John’s room to myself for my film, which by now had the working title of ‘House Clearance’.  

There was a planning meeting in the lovely local café ‘Grounded’, a general rehearsal evening at the church for all that could attend, and a separate read through evening was held for ‘House Clearance’ at Fiona’s house.  The other groups may have had some extra rehearsal time too, but really there was very little time that any of the groups came together before the day of the shoot.  Myself and my crew and the other cast members met Fiona for the first time at the church rehearsal, and the group seemed to gel well – this was only a couple of weeks before shooting.  I delegated all issues technical to my marvellous assistant director, Mike George, in the hopes that I could stop worrying about that side of things and concentrate on the creative processes.  This more or less worked, although being a worrier and a control freak (I mean that in the nicest possible way towards myself – no-one who isn’t a control freak would want to write, direct, AND edit their own films) I didn’t entirely sail blissfully though leaving it all to Mike and the rest of the crew, but felt the need to check up on things from time-to-time. Late-in-the-day I even developed an obsession as to where a clapperboard might be available from, which wasn’t a bad obsession to have, as it turned out!           

I look at the list of things we were going to cover on the church rehearsal night, including:

As Graham told us in the email that detailed this, the plan was that we used the evening to ensure that on 7/12/13, when time would be tight, we could hit the ground running and get filming very quickly.  It’s thanks to Graham’s planning skills and experience that lists like this one kept the inexperienced among us on track for a successful shoot.  Did we cover everything we were meant to that night?  Looking back, I doubt it, and I knew at the time that our performance fell short of the meticulous, but everything we did do was a significant step in the preparatory process that makes the actual climbing of the mountain something that can be embarked upon with relative confidence.

So; dawned the day.  I’m sure my fellow directors were as preoccupied as I was, and as excited and longing to get started.  Minor crises had already been averted; my original boom operator had had to drop out with car problems, but had been replaced.  A clapperboard had been sourced!  I was up at, if my memory doesn’t deceive me, five o’clock, assembling props, packing a lunch and a flask, waving my clipboard about and checking my proliferation of lists.  Me, a film-director – what was I thinking?  I needed medication.  But I know, of old, that all of that anxiety is best managed by action (Action!), so off we went – my partner, John, who works hard all week, dragging himself out of bed to deliver me and all my accoutrements to the church on time, which was 7.30 am.  I had deliberately written an outside scene into my script so that a) I could tackle, on a small scale, the challenges of managing outdoor filming, and b) for the variety of scene it would add to the finished film, - so my first job was to unload all of my props at the church and then get to a nearby house that belongs to one of my crew, outside of which we were filming Scene one.

This also meant that my crew and cast had a slightly later start than I did, because I have no wish to be a tyrannical director, rather to get the best out of people though kindness and accommodation.  It also meant, of course, that we were weather dependent from the get-go, and luckily, especially considering that it was December, we had perfect weather – no rain, no bright sunshine, cold but clear of anything inimical to filming.   However, as we assembled, it soon became clear that there was a major crisis dawning – one of my actors, the male one, did not arrive. We waited, everyone else turned up, we wondered, and eventually we got hold of him, and a personal life event had overtaken his capacity to be present.  Luckily, and I really do thank my lucky stars here in my choice of actors, Fiona, who was the actor I’d found on Facebook, rang her partner Matthew, also an actor, and asked him if there was any way he could step in.  To my eternal gratitude Matthew dropped everything and arrived within about twenty minutes, managed a sterling job all day at learning the part – not just the lines, of course, but the whole gist of the story – with which he had no prior familiarity, and was a cheerful member of the team with it!  Disaster was averted, because really, without him, we’d have been packing up and going home.

Nothing much could faze me after that, I must say, and I think we all went on to have a great, if demanding and tiring day. I think there’s something in the nature of filming, as with so many other things, that a lot of the careful preparation, important as it is to the process, is forgotten about in the heat of the event.  I’d very carefully done a storyboard and thought about shot sequences, but I didn’t refer to these as much as I might have done during the actual shoot.  This appears to have happened to some extent in the other groups, too, Steve Andrews (film – ‘Lucy’) telling me that.

“We arrived with all good intentions, a full storyboard and shot list. Having cleared the chairs once everyone had gone we began to shoot as per plan but things soon began to change in that we had to cut a number of corners to achieve our deadline.

One of our early issues was that the footage that I could see on the monitor from my intended cameraman, John Cockwell’s camera, was not good. As we did not have time to establish what was causing the problem, camera, cable or monitor, I made the difficult decision for a different camera to be used. Our morning cameraman, Declan Smith, therefore continued into the afternoon. This was disappointing for John Cockwell but he accepted and understood my decision.

Problems with continuity, camera angles that would match earlier green screen shots and trying to get around the severely restricted shot angles we had in the room, all took their toll in time but eventually we just about got there.”

This refers to their afternoon shoot, which was not at the church but took place in the bar of a local club. Useful as St Paul’s is, there’s too much adventurous spirit in BFVS for us to confine ourselves to its facilities, and more than one group ventured further afield.

Given the creative melee that is a film shoot, and the difficulties of keeping to schedule and the necessity for flexibility and responsiveness to conditions, my anxiety for a clapperboard proved correct.  Now that I’m editing I can really see what a fundamental tool it is, as Declan Smith, Director of Photography on Steve’s film says,

“From my perspective, on team 'LUCY' the clapper loader and shot logging were absolutely fundamental to our operation.  Our shoot had mute pictures and separately recorded sound.  Each frame started with the clapper board making the job of sorting through the clips and syncing sound much easier in post (production).  The shot logging makes clip selection in post much more productive.  Having the clapper board in the first frame makes it quick and easy to identify each shot from the thumbnail (without having to preview it) and rename the files to match the shot/take number.  Having the clips named this way helps in the edit both in terms of building the sequence and once the clips have been topped and tailed it's very easy to still see which shot/take you are working with and marry up with the shot log.”

I can only concur with all of this, at the same time as admitting my own editing process is a tad more random than Declan’s, which doesn’t surprise me.

There were interesting challenges to be overcome around lighting.  As an amateur film club, I know that many members are more than willing to spend money on good equipment, but it’s never big bucks, and if we can do something for nothing, we will.  Tony Orr took care of the lighting on my shoot, with help from Bob Bennett, who also ‘floated’ from group to group, both as lighting assistant and taking stills for the website etc.  Tony has summed up the lighting thus,

“Taking part in the filming of "House Clearance" presented the opportunity to try out a modified lighting unit made from a 6 X 650 watt lamp unit that cost £10 in an auction. As replacement lamps cost in excess of £35 each, I decided to replace the old lamp-holders with the standard bayonet type. I can now use modern low wattage (25-30 watt) compact spiral fluorescents, with the added bonus that they come in a range of colour temperatures, i.e. daylight 5600K, warm 3000K. With all 6 lamps switched on the light output is the equivalent of an 800 Watt redhead, without having to use scrim to soften the light. The other successful experiment was taping a length of wide Bacofoil to the ceiling in the kitchen scene to simulate a fluorescent light by bouncing the light off it.”

Bacofoil!  It doesn’t get much cheaper or more improvisational than that!

I haven’t come across many issues arising around sound.  Declan Smith says of the ‘Lucy’ shoot,

 “The acoustics in the large church hall presented an issue with reverb, but we were able to minimise this by placing the microphone very close to the actress.  Even though the microphone was in shot, as long as we left a border of green (note – this part of their shoot was green-screen) between the microphone and the actress, we are easily able to remove this in post.”

One of our newest members, Chris Challen, stepped in as my boom operator under the tutelage of Tony Orr, who took multiple roles in my shoot.  Chris had never been on a film set before and managed beautifully, not least because he was tall enough and strong enough to keep lofting the boom well out of sight, something I couldn’t have done.  Chris was one of many to comment upon time constraints, telling me that

“I found that trying to get it all together on the (one) day was quite daunting. I would have liked to have met up with everyone involved in the production - drama & technical – beforehand for a read through. This would I think have provided me with a perspective and an opportunity to ask questions (or for the more experienced to perhaps make suggestions) regarding the technical requirements of the production and iron out any ambiguities. However, I’m probably only feeling this because of my lack of experience.”

I think Chris is being unnecessarily self-effacing, because this is a point that many have echoed, that of the time pressures making the experience in some ways less satisfying.  On the one hand, there is the challenge to make a film in a short time, which undoubtedly galvanises people and makes things happen that otherwise might not.  On the other hand, if we’re going to go on bettering the quality of our productions I think we need as much effort devoted to those that are planned and executed over a longer timescale as we do to the snap challenges such as this one.  From my own point of view, one of the biggest headaches was finding actors, with the date already set and only a very short time to achieve this in.  Because I’m interested in making longer films in which characters develop, personally I’d like to focus more on films where the actors are found before the dates are set, and there’s plenty of time for rehearsal and team building and ironing out questions such as Chris refers to.  But there’s no doubt in my mind that a challenge such as December the 7th, Four Films in a Day, is a fantastic way to get over people’s nervousness about jumping in and beginning to make films, and a great forum, too, for new members to get involved in a project that doesn’t have such a high level of commitment to it. And, as Ros Shennan told me

“By the end of the day the cast and crew were churning out takes at least 10 times quicker than at the beginning. Maybe I should say we were 10 times slower at the start! But the learning rate was clear to see.”

Well, there are so many things I haven’t said.  There are the anecdotes, of which this is probably the best, from Steve Andrews, talking of their arrival at their outside location,

“When we arrived the room was full of rows of seats ready for an evening pantomime performance and the room was being used by a young mothers club. Indeed my first sight when I arrived was a woman breast feeding by the door!!”

Sign of the times, Steve, sign of the times.  There is the whole subject of green-screen filming, which I did not use but other groups did, but I’m not sure I have, yet, the capacity to comment on this.  There are issues of working with actors, there is the assembling of props, about which Ros says,

As the director I saw the film as a big challenge for me, because it added a lot of complexity compared to the first film I shot. Props were a big thing - it's a real challenge visualising all of the props you're going to need to create a set and running round the city the night before trying to find the ones you've decided you need is great fun! (If a little stressful...)”,

there’s the huge question of scriptwriting and story, there’s the whole post-production process, which is underway now; but I hope I’ve conveyed some of the diversity of activity involved in such a day, and the opportunities it gives people to be really involved in making a film. Bristol film and Video Society has, of late, been experiencing a surge of new membership.  The energy, enthusiasm and talent in the club are great motivators.  I’m reliably informed that this isn’t the case in many local film clubs.  I, for one, am very grateful because, as a woman in her late fifties who suddenly found out she wanted to make films, I don’t know where else I could have gone to get the hands-on experiences I’m getting in BFVS.  I’d like especially to thank Jane Andrews, who I know does a massive amount of behind the scenes work, Graham Egarr, who was pivotal to Dec 7th, and Mike George, who encouraged me to think I could stick my neck out in the first place.  But I’d like to leave the last word to Fiona Barras, who came to us via Facebook, and who I will be working with again.

Fiona says,

Actors are often seen as the Stars of a production, but they are really the top half of the swan. They wouldn't be there without the rest of the crew, the writer and the director. It was very clear that on the day of the filming our crew and cast gelled well & worked together to hopefully meet the expectations and desires of the writer/director. I've subsequently almost worked on a student production which I have to say was a complete nightmare, driven by ego. The BFVS production was heaven compared to that experience.

Wonderful, thank you Fiona!  My only question is, if the actors are the top half of the swan, which bit of the swan’s anatomy am I?

February 2014

Four Films in a Day: December the 7th with Bristol Film and Video Society.