April 10, 2011

The Sci-Fi London 48 hour film competition.

I had the great pleasure, and privilege, this last week of directing a short film for submission to the Sci-Fi London 48 hour film competition.

For those who don't know, the concept is very simple. At 10am on Saturday each team is supplied with three random pieces of information 1) A film title 2) A prop and 3) a line of dialogue. Over the next 48 hours the team has to write, shoot, edit and submit a finished film of no more than 5 minutes duration which includes the elements received at the kick-off.

I had been working with a group of guys over the last couple of weeks who had decided that they would like to enter this competition, so we made the submission and our team was accepted.

The problem we had - of course - was that without knowledge of what the parameters were for the film it was very difficult to start any specific preparation. We were able, however to do things like scout for locations, sort out actors and equipment etc.

Having worked on similar things in the past I know that the key to this is to be as prepared as possible and to work out the best way of trying to get to the end result in the most efficient way. To that end one of our team contacted an actress he had worked with before. She had been in a feature film and appeared as a policewoman on Emmerdale so she had knowledge of the film environment. I also contacted a friend I had worked with on Warhorse to play the male lead and we were cast. Another member of the team had worked together with a friend of his who is a production manager for commercials etc and they had sourced a load of props and hired some equipment. We were going to shoot on the Canon 5D mark 11 and were able to source two of these along with hiring some lenses etc. We also had some fancy kit such as a Sachler tripod.

The problem we had was sourcing anything that could be used as a location. Looking at the past winner, shooting seemed to take place in one of two types of locations a) public locations such as Soho Square or the streets of London. Sometimes forest and meadows were used. b) Inside people's houses.

Graham - our production manager had scoured his extensive list of contacts and had identified a fantastic location just outside London. It was an abandoned gas turbine test facility and it had a very dilapidated steam-punk look about it with both interior and exterior locations we could shoot just about any sort of film on. I drove over there and spoke to security and they sent me the contact details of the site manager. My producer contacted him and we waited in expectation for a reply. Luckily enough the reply came back very, very quickly. No. We were unable to film there as it is a health and safety liability. The whole location is off limits.

Our plan B was then to look at places in London's Docklands area. This had a double advantage as it contained some very futuristic glass and chrome style buildings along with some older, dilapidated industrial locations that would look visually appealing. So the question of locations was settled.

The big day came and expectations were high. We all met in a Starbucks in Docklands to wait for our producer to text through the details of the challenge. Shortly before 11 we were told the following three pieces of information:

  • Title: 27 Arbour Road
  • Prop: A Circuit Board
  • Dialogue: "He was bald and she was like a bloody parrot on his shoulder".


It is vital in things like this that we have a simple plan of action based on a simple, easily understood premise. Writing a script etc. was going to be out of the question considering the time we had so we sat down to brainstorm it. Luckily one of our crew was a sci-fi nut and he immediately started giving us some thoughts on directions to take etc.

We decided - after almost two and a half hours of discussion that our story would be as follows:

A young woman breaks into a facility where she helps a male friend of hers escape. They head back to her house at 27 Arbour Street. On the way back she realises that he is not the person she knew before and - when they reach their destination and he shows no sign of recognition - she gives him a kiss and a hug before reaching up the back of his shirt and pulling out a huge circuit board installed there. He falls to the ground and thick green liquid leaks from his mouth revealing that he is an android.

This was the basic premise uncovered after a number of false starts, redirections, additional thoughts and tantrums. Personally I like the premise but I did feel we spent too long trying to get to the end result.

On his way back from the Challenge headquarters our producer, Anthony, had diverted to an electronics shop and procured an old circuit board for us. A quick check of Google Maps indicated that there was an Arbour Street in Poplar - which was a five minute drive away, so we set off.

Arbour Street in Poplar is a residential location with terraced houses down one side and apartments down the other. There is a little park at one side and it is relatively quiet. Number 27 was there and had both a number and a worded plaque with the number on it which made it stand out a little from the rest. More importantly it had a new set of apartments being built right across the road from it which gave some excellent background to shoot the reverse shots. We spent nearly two hours there filming an emotional scene where our two leads get home and she realises he has no recollection of who he is and she will have to decommission him.

Heading back to Canary Wharf we spent the next 3 hours trying to find suitable locations around the site to make something appealing and filmic whilst still telling a story. I found a set of stars rising up from a dark underground area and this turned out to be useful for an escape scene later on in the film. We shot on grassland, running between skyscrapers and overlooking the old docks areas. It was an entertaining and thrilling day.

At one point we were shooting in front of a glass fronted building and using the reflection of the grass to show our escapees. Just as we finished the shot a security guard came out and told us we couldn't film here. I asked him why and he said that we needed permission. Discussion determined that even though we were not shooting anything of the building we still needed permission from Canary Wharf. I argued that Canary Wharf was public property and we didn't need permission, He was adamant that we did. As we had already got the shot we needed I wondered off, only to turn back 10 seconds later and find the rest of the crew in a discussion with a white-shirted guy who had appeared on the scene. As I went back to investigate I saw that he was wearing a security badge and was part of the overall site security rather than rent-a-cop security for a particular building. He explained that the whole 95 acre Canary Wharf site is actually private land that the public have permission to use. But as such it is not publicly available for filming on without permission. My producer stepped in and explained the nature of the shoot, the fact that it wasn't commercial and the fact that we only needed a couple more shots to finish with. He was really nice to us and said we could continue as long as we weren't too long.

We grabbed the remaining shots and headed to our final location.

Millenium Mills is an old factory building on the banks of one of the wharfs in Docklands. It used to be where flour was brought in and made into bread and other baked goods, I believe, and used the water as a means to transport raw materials in, and goods out. At the moment it is derelict and patrolled by security. My DOP, Russell, had recce'd the place the day before and was convinced we could sneak in and grab a shot. We did indeed sneak in, crawled under a gap in the fence, shot our two set-up's with minimal problem and made our way out.

As we left I went over the footage we had filmed in my head and realised we hadn't shot the actual removal of the circuit board yet. We looked around to try and find somewhere we could shoot it and Russell suggested a nearby public park. As we drove there we saw an absolutely spectacular sunset which we stopped and filmed before setting up for our final couple of exterior shots. It was very nearly dark at this point, however, so we had one of the production vehicles wheeled into place with it's lights on and covered them in an old opaque shower curtain I keep in my car for just such eventualities. With the low-light capabilities of the 5D's we were able to get some absolutely fantastic shots which looked amazing.

Just then a police car wondered over to see what was happening. Anthony and I wondered over to see what he was doing and the following conversation took place.
"Evening officer"
"Evening. How are you?"
"Fine thanks."
"Shooting some photos?"
"It's a bit of a short film we're doing. Shouldn't be-"
"Don't want to know. Don't want to get involved"
"You could turn the lights on for us and we could get you in a shot?"
"Nope. I'm outta here. By the way they'll be locking the gate soon. Don't get locked in"

And with a smile and a wave he was gone! It was only later that I stopped to think what the situation must have looked like to him: Here were six people gathered in a semi-circle on the grass around a couple who were in a passionate embrace on the floor and we were taking pictures of them in a public park after dark! I'm sure there's a term for that sort of activity, but I'm not sure what it is.

Five minutes later a park official informed us he was locking up and we convinced him to give us another five minutes to finish 'the shot' we were on. We actually managed another two shots after he left before heading back in pitch black to film the interiors.

We adjourned to Russell's apartment in North London. This would form the location for shooting the opening of the film, set in some sort of institute. The problem was - of course - that when we got there we couldn't find anywhere that actually looked appropriate for the filming.

However with a little bit of lateral thinking we solved our dilemma. The advantage of the Canon 5D cameras we were using is that the interchangeable lenses allow really tight shots to be used. Couple that with a glass panelled door at one end through which we could shoot and we were able to create a shot that looked almost as though we had planned it that way.

The cast wrapped around midnight and I headed home shortly after that leaving the techies to transcode the footage from Canon 5D format into something we would be able to use for the edit.

The following day I was back in North-East London ready to work on the edit. All the footage had been transcoded along with the sound recordings we had done on an additional machine. However the editors hadn't had time to log the contents of the footage to determine what was on it. This meant that finding a shot involved looking through all the clips to find the one we needed. Considering we had used two cameras and each camera had used two memory cards for recording it did mean we had a LOT of stuff to go through. The obvious learning for the next one is to either keep a very detailed shot log and slate each take, or to make sure when the footage is transcoded that we tag the scene in some way to make retrieval easier. I estimate that over the next 12 hours we lost around 1 hour from not having done that.

'Graham the production manager' became 'Graham the editor' at that point and spent all of Sunday putting together a great initial cut. Sure it needed tweaking, but it was well paced, had all the right emotional beats in it and would form a great basis for a final cut.

Considering the terms of the competition were that we would need to turn in a film of between three and a half and five minutes we were anxious to make sure we had, indeed, edited it to the required length. So - around 11pm Sunday evening - we ran the first rough cut through from start to end. It ran for seven minutes without credits!

The next 90 minutes were spent cutting, trimming, honing and retiming everything in the cut to get down to the requisite time. I was all in favour of cutting out complete sequences, but Graham (and Russ, the DOP) convinced me to focus more on shortening what we already had to let the story come through without doing a “Brazil” on it.

Finally - at around 1am Monday morning - we had a completed edit of 4 minutes 59 seconds with credits.

Now the hard work was to start. All the audio and colour grading had to be completed. Graham left (anxious to make sure he got some sleep before he started his day job on Monday morning), and Russ and I were left to try and sort out the sound.

Our first job was to synch up the audio from the dialogue scene. I had made a decision early on that there would be minimal dialogue and this was what actually transpired. We had, basically, about 90 seconds of footage with dialogue. This was recorded onboard the 5D’s but also it was recorded to a separate sound recorder (actually a Sony EX1). The problem was we had started editing without synching this sound and were now left with having to match up individual snippets of sound with the actors mouths. Fortunately our sound recorder had insisted on recording one complete take of the dialogue as wildtrack (i.e. just the sound, no acting, no movement, no visual) and we were able to use a lot of this.

Our final job was to add some sort of colour grade over the whole film. Using Magic Bullet Looks we were able to both colour match different camera views of the same take as well as grade the overall look of the film. We went for a fairly contrasty look with colour either saturated or desaturated depending on the nature of the sequence being filmed. The final shot was graded at 6.15am Monday morning at which point i went home and collapsed. I awoke at 11am and contacted Russell to make sure things were still on track.

Russ had encountered a couple of rendering problems with the colour grading. This had resulted in the render taking longer than expected and he was now struggling to get the thing done on time. I left him to it

Then everything went quiet.

The deadline of 1pm came and went and I heard nothing.

Finally, around 3pm he texted to tell me he’d left his phone at home, finished the movie, burned it to DVD and jumped in a taxi to get him to the venue. Two miles from the venue the cab had encountered heavy traffic and so - with very little time left - he had sprinted through London’s side streets, arriving literally with 1 minute to spare.


Anyway, to anyone who was involved in the shoot who is reading this I would like to say: Well done everyone. Let's keep our fingers crossed for a good result and regardless of the outcome I think we did really well and should do it again next year!

UPDATE: Here is our completed film: 27 Arbour Street

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