Thursday, 10 April 2014

When Mark met Mark...

So, I got to meet one of my filmmaking heroes - Mark Cousins! I saw a tweet from the director stating that his new film (A Story of Children and Film) was playing at the Bradford International Film Festival and he would be there to introduce it. So off I went...

with Mark Cousins

My first experience of Mark Cousin's work was in 2004 when I purchased his book, 'The Story of Film'. The book was one of many that I read whilst studying Film & Media at Manchester Metropolitan University and I still have it on my shelf. However, it's Mark's film work that has had the biggest impact on me...  

2011 - I tuned in to More4 every week to watch Mark's 15-part adaptation of his book. The epic result, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, was a truly fascinating, informative documentary and an essential DVD purchase for anyone interested in cinema (I often find myself dipping into it whilst planning lectures).

2012 - I went along to the Cornerhouse in Manchester to watch What Is This Film Called Love?, which was screening as part of the Abandon Normal Devices festival. The film was made on a budget of £10, over 3 days and shot on a flip camera...I was blown so many ways! The film had an immediacy that I don't feel or see in many films (we see the exact moment when the idea for the film is born)...I felt as though I had met the director, or at least knew him in some way as a result of seeing the film. Highly personal.

2012/13 - I purchased The First Movie on DVD. I remember Mark Kermode giving the documentary a wonderful review but it was a film that, for whatever reason, I'd missed at the cinema. Fortunately, I found the DVD one afternoon in Fopp and it really is a brilliant piece of work!

Now each film has greatly inspired me but it was What Is This Film Called Love? that directly informed the production of 3 of my own films. I saw Mark's documentary in the August and by November I was out shooting my own £10 film. Perhaps 3 months was too long of a gap to begin shooting (Mark had managed to shoot a feature length film, off the cuff, in 3 days!) and I'd agree; there really is no excuse in this technologically driven age in which live. Anyway, the idea of a one-man crew making a personal film with a budget of £10 really excited me, so I went on to make a trilogy (Under the BridgeCold Desert and Because).  

Bradford International Film Festival (29/03/2014):

Now they say never meet your heroes but this notion was obliterated by Mark Cousins! As you can imagine, I was so nervous before I introduced myself but I had no need to be: Mark was a genuinely wonderful, insightful and friendly man. We spoke briefly before the screening - he mentioned that he has already completed 3 more films and spoke of how freeing digital technology has been for him. Upon hearing that I'd been inspired by his £10 film, he asked me to forward him one of my shorts via twitter.

Around 5.15pm, Mark introduced the film. He showed the audience his rough notes for the documentary, which reminded me, once more, just how immediate his films are - no script, he just filmed a morning with his nephew and niece and it was as a result of this short piece of film/video that the idea transpired! 

After the introduction, the film was there are plenty of reviews (e.g. The Guardian) that do the film far more justice than I can but, needless to say, it really is quite wonderful.

After the screening, there was a Q&A with Mark, followed by an informal chat over a few drinks. I had so many questions and could have sat asking them all night. Maybe I'll get to ask those questions at some point in the future. Nevertheless, I will long treasure the evening I spent watching a great film and talking to the great director who made it.

The following day, I forwarded Mark one of my films and he followed me on twitter. Not long after, he was kind enough to send me a direct message with some feedback on my shorts. However, I'm not going to share his tweet, as, like Gordie and the deer in Stand By Me, that will be the one thing I keep to myself...

Instead, let me finish this post with some advice that Mark gave to one film student during his Q&A - I forget the exact quote but the point is something that more filmmakers should be considering - "aim to make that which can only exist because you're here"

Monday, 17 March 2014

Her, Under the Skin & The Grand Budapest Hotel...

Last week I saw three very different but equally ambitious films...and together they restored some of my faith in cinema.

I recently had a conversation in which I stated that music is the art form that moves me most. I suppose it may seem strange to hear that from a filmmaker but the director I was speaking to completely agreed with me. Indeed, film rarely moves me in the way that music does, which I can't see changing as cinema is (on the whole) becoming increasingly generic and it was refreshing to see three films in the same week that were genuinely unique and moved me in very different ways.

When I trawl through twitter and see Empire, Total Film, Jo Blo, Den of Geek, etc. fawning over the latest MarvelBatman vs. Superman and Star Wars movie news, it's easy to feel jaded about cinema (it often seems that certain films are being drowned out by these huge franchise films). Subsequently, I'm pleased that Spike Jonze (Her), Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) and Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) have had the chance to share these unique stories with cinema audiences...the films and filmmakers have certainly given me a new hope (pun intended) for film as an art form.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Isolation: Part 2

The New Trilogy
  • Each film will have its own unique protagonist/s. 
  • The shorts will only be connected thematically. 
Film 1

The first short will be 'Round in Circles'. The film is an idea that has been in my mind for quite some time - the story of a mother who recalls moments from her past. In fact, I began shooting such a story almost 2 years ago but abandoned the project as the film didn't quite capture the feeling that I was going for (I will discuss this attempt in a future post).

Jolene Rathmill
There are a few scenes yet to be filmed but the short is progressing well - editing is underway and I have began to think about the sound design.

Film 2

The story for this second short dates back to 2010! I'll provide some details regarding plot, characters, etc. in the coming months.

Pre-production: I've spoken to an ex-colleague about coming on board as a producer/production manager and I've almost completed the storyboards - I've been using the 'Storyboards' iPad app that Erik Knudsen utilised for The Raven on the Jetty (see 'video blog' for further details)...and here are some early examples of the boards that I've created.

Film 3

The script for this film was offered to me by another filmmaker. I'm not going to go into too much detail but they felt that the story would appeal to my sensibilities...and they were right!

I expect this short to happen later this year...

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Isolation: Part 1

I'm currently developing a new trilogy of short films...


During a lunch break whilst assisting on the editing of The Raven on the Jetty, I showed Erik Knudsen the rough cuts of two films in The Longing Trilogy. He was very complimentary and suggested that I should develop the series beyond one trilogy...this got me thinking! After a great deal of thought, I decided that I should shoot a trilogy with new characters and a new theme...and that theme would be isolation.

I've been fascinated with this theme since I started making films: one could argue that that particular theme was present in the last trilogy and you'd be right...


The main character (Terence J Corbett) is isolated throughout and often framed alone against the backdrop of a vast city. But, whilst making the film, I was always working with the idea that the film was about 'longing':

  • Film 1 - He is longing for everything that he had in the past &, possibly, for a connection in the present.
  • Film 2 - A more specific longing: a longing for the partner that he has lost.
  • Film 3 - He longs for the childhood that he never had; the childhood that was stolen.
Ultimately, just as you could argue that the last trilogy was about 'isolation', you could equally argue that the new series is about 'longing'. I guess the two themes are connected for me...beyond the thematic ideas present in the last series, the trilogy was also designed to hold together as one story - imagery, sounds and ideas are repeated & recontextualised throughout. 

  • The main character is under a bridge that trains pass [run] over in Film 1. He is on a train [a journey] during his nightmare in Film 2. Finally, he watches the trains [the world/time?] pass him by in Film 3.
  • We see our main character through the iron mesh of a car park, mesh that seems to have imprisoned him, in Film 1. But in Film 3, the camera is behind the bars with the protagonist.
  • We hear about the main characters wife in Film 1, a woman that he seeks throughout Film 2. Indeed Cold Desert is only about that search and he eventually finds her at the end of that short. But that short memory is one of many depicted in Film 3 - his regret is only the tip of the iceberg... 
  • Finally, the sound of sirens and the city, the sounds that open Film 1, are the same sounds that we hear during the credits of Film 3.
What's interesting to me is that the three films can be viewed a number of ways:
  1. You could open with Because and immediately provide the audience with the reason as to why this man is tormented. You could then screen Cold Desert, which depicts how isolated he feels, before wrapping up with him finally making a connection in Under the Bridge.
  2. Or you could screen Cold Desert first, followed by either Because or Under the Bridge.
  3. Equally you could end on Cold Desert - after opening with Because and screening Under the Bridge as a middle chapter.
Whatever way you view them, it's still the story of one this regard, the new series will be very different.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Raven in Madrid...

Some good news...

The Raven on the Jetty (dir. Erik Knudsen), a film which I was heavily involved in the production of (see: The Process), has been accepted into the Madrid International Film Festival!

The film has been nominated for 3 awards: Jury Award (Erik Knudsen and Janet Knudsen), Best Original Screenplay (Erik Knudsen) and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Fraser). Needless to say, I'm very pleased that the film has been recognised. Well done to Erik, Janet, the cast and the rest of the crew!

For further details:

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Digital downgrading…rejecting shallow images

In a previous post, I briefly discussed an approach to filmmaking that embraced a less than perfect image. As promised, I am now going to discuss this approach and provide some examples...

I have always favoured a guerilla, "just captured", low-fi approach to filmmaking. However, since the widespread use of DSLR cameras, more and more low-budget films have appeared online with the 'look' of a Hollywood blockbuster. This has often made me question whether I should change my approach to filmmaking - should I embrace the populist approach to colour grading, lens choice, etc? After a few moments, I always come to the same When everything looks the same, I quickly get bored and one has to only watch a film such as Festen to realise that the most important thing about a film is the story - not the quality of the image. Nevertheless, here are some approaches to cinematography that I have utilised in recent years.

Quality of the Image

The obvious place to start is with the quality of the image. In the past, digital technology has been accused of being "clinical" - with some filmmakers stating that they miss the grain that film has to offer. I'm not sure how true the "clinical" accusation is but many debates regarding digital vs. film have still occurred over the past 10 years or so...below is a presentation by Robert Rodriguez on some of his early work with digital cameras.


Now, for the record, I'm not against the "clean" image that digital technology creates. But I am slightly tired of how many low-budget films have a super-slick finish. So I started to consciously move away from the "perfect" digital image whilst shooting Own Worst Enemy & You Left Your Heart in the City. For OWE I blended DSLR footage with scenes shot on a Sony EX1, which was designed to heighten the gritty, documentary feel of the film. This documentary, vérité style was continued on YLYHITC as I was happy for images to be "noisy".

EX-1 example 1
EX-1 example 2
High ISO
For my latest short, starring Jolene Rathmill, I have been adding lots of grain and noise to the image, whilst also shooting certain scenes on a lens that is very 'soft'. I suppose I'm almost willing certain spectators to make a judgement about the film based on its look and therefore I can just engage people interested in story.

Besides Round in Circles, I'm currently finishing up a documentary (Man with a Cine-Cam Collection). In a previous post about the doc, I stated that I wanted "the film to challenge the notion that digital technology produces a "perfect yet clinical" image when compared with films made on older, more traditional, film cameras - and so I've stripped the film of any possible beauty". How have I done this? Well, I have allowed the exposure to blow-out on occasions, whilst also leaving the interviewee unlit from time-to-time. Finally, I have muddied up the image by adding digital film grain.

However, embracing a "dirty" image/resolution does not mean that you should have a "guerilla" approach to all aspects of cinematography. You must plan out your shots - or your key scenes at the very least. Understanding composition, and when to use a particular shot, is so, so important!

Depth of Field, Lenses and Positioning the Camera

The other, apparent, benefit of DSLR filmmaking was the ability to shoot with a shallow depth of field due to the wide-variety of lenses available for the camera...before you continue reading, please take the time to watch the following videos.

Depth of Field



In recent years, Vimeo and Youtube have become flooded with films that favour a shallow depth of field and it seems that everyone is shooting with a 50mm lens (usually a 1.8 or 1.4). Some filmmakers clearly feel that a tight, "shallow" look is, somehow, a more "cinematic" way of presenting a story. However, if you study the history of cinema, that notion is clearly misguided. Citizen Kane, often voted the greatest film of all-time, famously played with deep focus photography (as mentioned in the first video above) and even the quickest glance at a Hollywood blockbuster (see images directly below) proves that most films do not use shallow depth of field throughout.

The Dark Knight Rises
The Avengers
If we look at a couple of stills from La Haine (1995), we see an example of a filmmaker that used DOF to suggest things about the characters (a great why). The early scenes utilise deep focus photography as the characters are at ease with their environment - they are a part of the environment. However, the latter scenes in Paris are shot with a shallow depth of field. Why? Well, the city is not their home and so the characters are visually depicted as being out of their comfort zone (show, don't tell!).

Deep focus
Shallow focus
As you can may have guessed, the main impact on my work in regards to lens choice has been to shy away from medium focal length lenses. I have started to shoot with wider-lenses (Canon 17-40mm / Tamron 24mm) and I have also started to position my subjects further away from the camera than I once did.

Am I simply doing the opposite of what other filmmakers are doing on Youtube and Vimeo? No. The close-up is a powerful tool and I was once guilty of over-using it. Below is a video I created, which is designed to demonstrate to film students how sparingly close-ups were used in the classic Hollywood film, It's A Wonderful Life...

The clip is maybe 5-7 minutes in real-time and for the majority of the clip the filmmakers primarily use medium and long shots. An extreme close-up of George (James Stewart) finally occurs towards the end of the scene, a shot which emphasises the turning point in the main characters life.

Now take a look at the final scenes (3 min 11) from The Godfather: Part II. Look at Coppola's use of the close-up...

Feel free to watch the video but here are some images to demonstrate my point regarding close-ups and the importance of shot selection in general...

Long shot of family
Medium close-up for dialogue
Back to long shot - emphasising Michael's isolation
Medium shot - we move in on Michael
We end on a close-up
Nothing is said...but the scene is a masterclass in letting an actors face and shot selection do the talking. One would expect the final shot of the film to start on a close-up and pull away from Michael. Instead the director, Francis Ford Coppola, moves in on Michael and we are left wondering what is going on behind those eyes. Is he still pondering the flashback that we have just witnessed? Or is he considering the death of his brother Fredo? Or is he considering his own isolation - the notion that he has always been an outsider, the odd one out, a loner? The latter is certainly what I think during that final moment...regardless, Coppola uses the close-up brilliantly. We are invited to think, rather than be told what to think.

If you use the close-up in an "MTV" manner then it loses its power. So, when I use a close-up in Round in Circles, for example, it is to emphasise a particular moment - I want the audience to know that the character is thinking or feeling something important as the camera is so close to the protagonists face and the audience are in that persons personal space.

A clear distance from the camera
Insignificant in the frame?
Close-up...what is she thinking?

There is no conclusion! I'm continually evolving and developing my style as a filmmaker. As Francis Ford Coppola once said "I am a student...So if I can come home from working on a little film after doing it for 45 years and say “I learned so much today,” that shows something about the cinema"

However, I hope this post has been of some interest to my readers and provided some insight into my particular style of cinematography and filmmaking at this moment in time...

Thursday, 20 February 2014

'The Director'

Last May, I released a post about my work as the colourist on the Will Herbert short, 'The Director'. The film has already been screened at a number of festivals (Portobello, London Short Film Festival, Screen Stockport) and you can now view it online…take a look!

I've known Will for quite a long time now, we met at the University of Salford in 2006, and he has really mastered the comedy genre in recent years. Will's Virgin Media Shorts entry, Flash, was a very funny film and recently made the 'staff pick' page on Vimeo.  

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Storyboards & shot selection

Planning is so important! 

Now, I'm not going to lie - I don't plan every single shot in my films, as I like to improvise and let the environment influence the way I shoot certain scenes. But the key moments are always considered.


This post provides a couple of examples of why I plan key scenes/moments and also offers a glimpse of some of my personal storyboards.

Example 1: The Eternal Cave

As I shot this project over many months, I needed to ensure that there was a progression in terms of how I was using the camera and where I was placing it…for example, the close-up is a powerful tool when used sparingly and so it was imperative that when I used it, I did so for a reason.

This film begins with countless wide shots, establishing the location and where our lead character is on her journey into the forest. However, once Arnemetia (Sophie Gibson) enters the hut in the woods, I begin to use close-ups and keep the frame extremely claustrophobic.

You'll also notice that, during the opening of the film, the camera is completely still and only begins to move once Arnemetia nears the hut. Once inside the hut, the film is almost shot like a documentary - handheld, off-kilter, etc. Again, this is a way in which I attempted to subtly affect the audience as the spectator may sense that something suddenly feels "off" - even if they can't articulate why they feel this way.

Once we enter the dream, I aimed to create a sense of awe - lots of wide shots of the cave, mixed with medium shots of the musicians. But when the dream turns nightmarish, I adopt the claustrophobic close-ups once more.

The final section of the film is composed almost entirely of close-ups, which is designed to make for uncomfortable viewing as the camera is so close to the subjects.

Example 2: Because
This was a film 
that I shot quite loosely, letting the environment influence the moments that I captured. However, the revelation of abuse was in my mind long before shooting began. I considered a number of ways of presenting that moment but ultimately felt that the most striking way of shooting the scene would be to use wide high-angles, wide low-angles, extreme close-ups, shadows & light to create a sense of isolation and foreboding.

Example Storyboards
Some of my personal storyboards (I even storyboard the key moments in music videos). These storyboards are, primarily, done as a way for me to think out what I'm trying to do before I begin shooting. However, whilst the specific details of a scene may change, the storyboards also prove to be very handy on set.

Hiding Place (October 2011)

Cold Desert (12/11/2012)

The Eternal Cave (No date noted)

Round in Circles (Dec 13/Jan 14)

Monday, 3 February 2014

Round in Circles (Post 4)...

Shooting continues on my latest short film, Round in Circles. The most recent filming session took place in the Northern Quarter of Manchester city centre, primarily at Montpellier's cafe & bar.

Below are some stills shot with a Sima 100mm Soft Focus lens. As mentioned in an earlier post, this lens is being utilised as it will contrast with the scenes shot on the Tamron 24mm. Not only is 100mm significantly 'tighter' as a focal length but the lens, as its name suggests, also lacks the sharpness that you would get from a "normal" lens.

I'm yet to splice the scenes into the Final Cut timeline but I'm very pleased with what I've shot. The raw footage looks, pretty much, as I had envisioned it - which is why good planning is so important! 

Finally, a couple of 'behind-the-scenes' pics of the cast and crew...

Kate Atchison (MUA) with Jolene
Me & the cast (Jolene, Terry & Corin)
  • Kate Atchison, who previously provided hair & make-up for The Eternal Cave, has been involved in creating Jolene's distinct look for these key sequences at the bar.
  • Meanwhile, Corin Silva (pictured above, far right) is a recent addition to the cast. 
There are only a few short scenes left to shoot now and I hope to pick these up very soon. As ever, I'll be sure to keep the blog up to date with the films progress...