Monday, 20 August 2012

Layer by Layer: The Ashes 'Toybox' Dress

Hey Guys,

   For all my moaning about the difficult crowdfunding session we had during pre-production, that's not to say that there weren't people who donated to Ashes. I still feel extremely grateful to the people who did contribute, and hopefully these posts (combined with Neil's - the latest of which you can see here) will show them how their money was put to good use.

   One of the people who donated to the project was none other than Chris Laverty of Clothes on Film, the much-praised costume blog (nominated as blog of the year by Total Film and one of Channel 4's top fashion blogs), so of course, as a Costume Designer by trade, his support meant an absolute load to me.
Sarah Lamesch in costume

   Therefore, as part of my 'look where the money went' posts, it makes sense for me to talk about the costumes of Ashes, and to show you how they came into being. Bearing in mind the subject nature of the film, it's not exactly one which screams out for costume design. But with my background being what it is, I couldn't resist getting a couple of costumes into the film, and I even made one of them myself. That being the nightdress worn by Sarah Lamesch in scene 3, nicknamed the 'Toybox' scene by the crew because of Rena Kalandrani's creepy make-up. 

   Since I made the Toybox dress myself, I managed to take lots of photographs throughout its production, so here is the step-by-step guide to how I did it.

   First of all, I chose the colour. I did an early piece of concept art for Scene Two which showed the lead character in a blue nightdress, just because it felt right as I was painting it. When we cast Sarah Lamesch, I knew I had to dress her in powder blue, not only because it was the perfect compliment to her colouring, but because it would match and enhance those incredible eyes of hers.

The structured inner layer
   Oddly enough, I didn't start with a blue fabric. I made the underlayer first because I knew that it would be the most structured, fitted part, and I wanted to build onto it. I also wanted to make the outer layer in chiffon, which ranges from transparent to translucent depending on quality, and I needed to see know what would show through the outerlayer. To add a little interest here, I made sure that the majority of this layer was made of lace (basically adding a print to the dress without breaking the smoothness of the blue chiffon), but of course the top half was made from a plain fabric - satin - to preserve Sarah's dignity.

   Another reason for building this layer first was that I wanted to use old fabric to save money, only buying the outer layer for the film, so I needed to pin the old pieces of fabric to the mannequin and check that we had enough.

Testing the outer-layer
   When I bought the powder blue chiffon, I draped it over the white inner layer to check how it fell, then pinned it into place. I wanted the dress to be fitted at the top, holding Sarah in where she needed support, but be A-line down the rest of the body - basically more 'floaty' - because I knew that she would be sitting down through all of the scene, and it needed to sit well around her legs. 

    However, a mix of the many bulky layers with the fact that chiffon is notoriously difficult to work with meant that the dress finished up looking fitted on Sarah - particularly when she sat down. But sometimes you have to shut up and let the fabric tell you what to do, even when you're as stubborn as chiffon yourself!

   Anyway, the chiffon outer layer was the last part to be attached, so once I'd tested the fabric, I unpinned the chiffon and returned to the inner layers. I added a layer of organza to go directly under the chiffon to bulk it out and stop it from being fitted (or so I thought), and finally lined the whole thing with an opaque blue muslin-type fabric, to stop the lower half of the dress from being see-through under bright lights.

An organza layer for bulk (left) and an opaque blue lining for safety (right).

    I always believe that the difference between a party costume and one built for a film is in the detail, particularly when that detail is applied by hand, so - once all the layers had been assembled - I went back to the lace inner-layer and added a fine coating of beads and sequins. This was mostly to add an ethereal twinkle to an unnatural scene, under the right lights. But hand-sewing is also very therapeutic, and it calmed me down in the evenings after long pre-production days (remember, I wasn't only working on Ashes when I made this dress, but also preparing Stop/Eject and shooting Wasteland at the same time).

Adding some beaded detail to the dress by hand.

    With all the layers finally complete, and edged with appropriate trim where necessary, I added thick blue straps to hold it up, and to compliment the doll-like make-up design for the scene. The last step was the fitting with Sarah Lamesch, which we didn't manage to do until the day before the shoot. To save time chopping and changing the fabric, I added a lace-up ribbon back (which I don't actually have a photo of) so that it would be adjustable.

The finished 'Toybox' dress, with the hem pinned up to show the layers.

    The funny thing is that I went to all this trouble knowing that the dress would only really be seen in one shot, when Sarah's legs would cover most of it anyway. As the director, I even designed the shot that way, to make her look vulnerable. A lot of my work on this dress was on a 'just in case' basis; I knew that under a strong key light, the chiffon would refract a block blue colour - but I thought, if we just get a glimpse of the underlayers in a close-up shot with a fill or kicker, then it would add so much interest to the shot, and look so magical.

   And then, last minute, I decided the scene would look best (and by best, I mean most creepy) if Sarah was mostly bathed in shadow anyway. I got Neil to do moving shadows to create a jumping impact on her face, but never instructed him to light the dress well.

   Yep, I managed to do what Peter Jackson did to Ngila Dickson, but to myself. And I don't regret it at all - the lighting highlighted the most important part of the scene, and the dress took a dignified back seat. I'm sure you'll all get a good look at it on Sarah in the behind the scenes documentary.

   For now, with an exclusive first look on my blog, here is how the 'Toybox' dress features in the film itself:

From concept art... reality.

   (Many thanks to Neil Oseman for getting that last still for me.)

    Right, time to go to bed and rest before another early start on the Wasteland set. And hopefully I won't have any nightmares about how (intentionally) scary Sarah's face looks in that last shot!!

Sophie x

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Looking Back at Ashes

Hey Guys,

Directing in the Dark. Photo: Rena Kalandrani
   Well, it's a week since Ashes started filming, and since we wrapped there have been photos popping up online, and Neil has already released a lovely blog about how he lit scene four (with another post in the works for scene two). Yet I have been very quiet about the whole thing - I did a couple of status updates but that's not much for saying I've finally directed the film I've been dreaming about, and which I worked so hard to get made.

   A lot of this has probably been down to exhaustion. Thankfully not physically; although my back still twinges occasionally, I am fully mobile and didn't break it by being on set (although I feel as though other parts of me got broken along the way). So I'm healthy enough at the moment, yet the Ashes shoot left me feeling rather drained, and ever so slightly crabby.

   In spite of the wonderful performances from both my cast and crew (including a wonderful A-team moment from the camera crew, which I'm sure I'll talk about at some point), I was worried I hadn't enjoyed the shoot as much as I'd expected. I experienced something similar to a post-Christmas crash, and I think the following are reasons why:

    1) The subject matter was always going to be difficult to shoot. It was such a challenge for the actors that I had to face it with a clear, somewhat stoney face and not let it affect me (at least not so that they could see). And even though creating something so raw was a good challenge for everyone, it was never exactly going to be fun.

    2) We were behind schedule, and not just a little bit. Like, a lot - and although we powered on through and clawed back the hours without getting too stressed, it did mean that I couldn't dedicate as much time to honing the performances as I'd planned. Adam and Sarah nailed the scenes as I knew that they would; I just feel bad for not being able to give them hours worth of direction. Still, what director gets that chance?

Shooting cutaways with a bad back. Photo: Jenna Cataldo

    3) Due to the fact that we were behind schedule, we had to keep going (on the most difficult scene in the film) through lunch, and members of my team were getting exhausted. A director is never more happy than any members of their crew, and I felt responsible for putting them all through it - and hoped that I was giving them enough motivation and support.

    4) We had some technical issues. Combining my luck with getting Ashes made in the first place and all of Neil's misadventures on Soul Searcher makes me think that we are a cursed couple of filmmakers. Because, seriously, every member of the crew had some of their kit break - some of which couldn't be replaced, so we had to carry on without them. And having to work without parts of your ideal kit is always so disappointing because you can't silence the voice that says "what if...?" or "would it've looked better...?"

    5) Personal problems do not belong on set, but that doesn't mean people don't have them. I had some news which affected me, but I had to shake it off and pretend I was fine for the sake of my cast and crew. The director should never be the weak link, after all! My only advice in such a situation is make sure that you have an amazing 1st AD (like I did) who finds time in the schedule to let you have a quick cry, and a quick cuddle, and put you back on set looking right as rain!

   When we made Stop/Eject, I was left feeling a sense of accomplishment, mixed with sadness that it was over, so I knew that we'd made something special. After Ashes, I didn't feel that, and I was worried that I'd fallen out of love with a project which had been so dear to my heart.

   And then I watched the footage back...

Screengrab from the ungraded footage of Ashes

    ...and now I know that I've directed a stunning little film, which I will love tomorrow and through all of next year's festival season, at least. I am so, so proud of what everyone achieved in this film. And now I'm starting to feel a little bit proud of me, too.

Sophie x

Saturday, 4 August 2012

2 Days to Go... Sophie On: Sarah Lamesch

Hey Guys,

   Tomorrow is the big day. Or rather, the prelude to the big day. By this time tomorrow, my crew and half my principle cast will be here, and well involved in their pre-shoot preparations. I've been relatively calm up until now, in spite of hardly being able to move and in constant pain, yet today I am stressed out. As with any shoot, there are always last minute problems to sort out, no matter how much you get done in advance, and there just aren't enough hours in the day.

   But for now, I'm going to take some time out, and tell you all about Sarah Lamesch, the subject of the last Ashes profile.

   Most directors don't get the luxury of rehearsing with the actors before a shoot. What I got, however, was the chance to film Sarah in character (as 'Sarah' - the name match is a coincidence), seven months before the principle photography of Ashes. Such is the nature of indie filmmaking these days, where pretty much everyone is shooting footage outside of and before principle photography, in order to make Teaser Trailers and get more funding.

   In case you haven't seen it, (or if you want to help us get up to 2000 views before the shoot), the Ashes Teaser Trailer - shot and edited by Taylor | Winter films - is here:

   The Teaser Trailer shoot also gave me a great chance to bond with Sarah, and it gave Rena the opportunity to test out her make-up on her, which means she knew in advance which things will and won't work. But, due to the simplicity of the Teaser Trailer script (I wanted something which was striking but which cost little to make, since we were trying to raise money with it) I didn't exactly get to explore a lot of Sarah's character with her. My directions went little further than, "look peaceful... now you're scared.... you're REALLY scared now... and now you're less scared, more accepting but sad..." and so on, and so forth. Not exactly worthy of a Best Director OSCAR!

   We've also had minimal meetings. I'm based in Derbyshire, Sarah's in London, and we've both had lots of other projects in the time between the Teaser Trailer shoot and now. During the rare Skype meetings we have had, we've discussed the necessary things such as travel, costumes and other technical stuff. So, although I have no doubt in her acting ability whatsoever, I've not really given Sarah chance to prove how well she understands her character.

   This morning I received the following statement from Sarah, and then I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, she's completely in tune with who she needs to be:

    "Sexual abuse in a relationship is such a hidden topic, mainly because it's sometimes hard to tell where it starts, from an outside as well as an inside view. Where does someone  draw the line between sexual desire and abuse?

    "I feel that Mark and Sarah's story is such a complex one, they were very much in love and the love they had for each other was sincere (and real). Sarah isn't just the victim and Mark the evil abusive boyfriend. Over the period of their relationship, both of them changed without realising what happened to them."

Sarah's Audition at Studio 3b, Nottingham

   The first thing that impressed me about Sarah's audition was her appearance. Her hair type was ideal (I know that's changeable with actors but it caught my attention straight away), and she held her languid body with a vulnerable grace. I didn't notice her eyes until the Teaser Trailer; once they were well lit and lined with dark make-up, we were all blown away. Sarah Lamesch's eyes may be the most beguiling I've seen since Liv Tyler's, and are ten times more striking, making them one of the most valuable assets we have in this film.

   She brought a little vulnerability to her performance too. Immediately I imagined her in theatre, perfect in a period role, and I know that some of her experience is from performing on stage. But we both agreed that the character of Sarah needed to be more than vulnerable - she needed to be hurting, but to be strong as well. 

    So I made her do the monologue again (twice, if I remembered correctly), and got her to be progressively angry until she was staring directly into the camera, and nearly shaking. Then I knew that Sarah, the actress, had a fire inside of her as well as a sense of grace. And she got the part.

    Directing some of the scenes in Ashes is going to be one of the hardest things I've had to do, even though it's something I feel that I am ready to face. It's going to be equally as challenging for the actors, but I know that both Sarah and Adam can do it, and Sarah's closing statement shows that she is ready too:

    "Playing the role of Sarah is going to be challenging, one of many reasons why I wanted to be involved in this project. I'm looking forward to going on Mark and Sarah's journey and playing the different stages of their relationship."
Sarah Lamesch on the set of the Teaser Trailer shoot
   So that's it. You've read every one of the special Ashes profile blogs. If I get chance tomorrow, I'll pop online and do a little rundown of all of them, but I have lots of things to get ready which are much higher priority.
   It's time for me to stop writing about this film, and to stop thinking about this film, but to just bloody well go and direct it. Wish me luck, dear followers!

Sophie x

Friday, 3 August 2012

3 Days to Go... Sophie On: Adam Lannon

   Interestingly enough, one of the elements of this production which I'm most proud of is also the one I've been most keen to keep hidden, and to protect. It's also one of the things I've had to work on most. You see, as a female director, making a story from a woman's point of view is never going to be challenging. And getting sympathy for a female character in a situation which borders on sexual abuse is not difficult. What's more, I had the added bonus of working with Sarah Lamesch in character during the Ashes Teaser Trailer shoot, so I know that she will nail the part without needing much rehearsal time. 

   What is difficult, on the other hand, is finding an actor who is able to play the other character in the relationship, the one who turns on his girlfiend in such a shocking way, and not portray him as a 2-Dimensional villain. As the director, I have to understand the scenario from this perception - and from that of a masculine being - and bring his motives across on screen. All of this with barely four lines of dialogue to give to the actor playing this character.

   Casting for Ashes has been one of the most difficult decisions of my career to date, and there were a couple of applicants for the part of 'Sarah' which blew me away in the auditions, so I was nearly pulling my hair out for months. But as soon as I met Adam Lannon, I knew we had found the right man to take on the difficult challenge of 'Mark'.

Adam Lannon's audition at Studio 3b, Nottingham
   Up until his audition, I didn't know much about Adam. But, having since looked at his IMDb page, I know that his background is a very active, sporty one (he was once sponsored by Converse as a proffessional basketball player), but he moved into acting through evening classes. Since then he hasn't stopped working as an actor, and shall be doing so right up until the night before the Ashes shoot, when the rest of us will have put up all the lights, made the last minute costume changes, and are winding down to cooked food.

   But what really stood out to me about Adam - apart from how quickly he responded to direction (seriously, I ended up throwing stuff at him on the spot because we bounced off each other so well) - was the fact that he completely understood and embodied the character of Mark, but it disolved completely the second I called an end to the audition. I don't mean in a bad way (sometimes actors stop acting between lines in a really obvious way which makes their performance seem fake). I mean that Adam is completely different to the character of Mark, but that he could naturally move from one persona to the other, and completely become either.

   The reason I'm so protective of Adam, and why he hasn't been so public about his role in Ashes until recently, is because I don't want people to judge him for the part that he plays. I don't want people immediately seeing him as a villain or seeing his character as him, due to the fact that he plays it so magnificently. And that is why I've been working with Adam more than I have done with Sarah, even though Mark is a secondary character to her. With minimal screen time, myself and Adam need to show the audience a character who has a problem, and not one to be in any way dismissed, but who isn't a bad guy.

Sarah and Adam in character together
   As the polar opposite of Mark, Adam is easy-going, open about his feelings and very warm with people. So much so that he and Sarah have gone beyond the call of duty and had regular meetings, in character, so as to build the bond of friendship and trust that they will need for a shoot as raw as this one.

   At the audition, way back at the end of 2011, I asked Adam why he wanted to work on Ashes, and this is how he responded:

    "I think it's a very daring, risky script that covers a lot of areas that people are afraid to address, and go to. There's kind of a lot of beautiful imagery, but underlying that is there's some very painful dark emotions that some people are going to face and often not discuss, as couples. And I think it's pretty marvellous that it's doing that.

    "I was entranced by the imagery. I mean, metaphor-wise, it's absolutely loaded.
    "It's so easy, at this point, to make Mark's character a villain. And to turn around and say, 'he's just a guy who...' and there's so much more to that, I think."

   Tomorrow I'll tell you all about the second half of the 'couple', and the central figure of our film - the driving force that is Sarah Lamesch.

Sophie x

Thursday, 2 August 2012

4 Days to Go... Ashes Cinematography

Hello Everybody,

    And thanks to everyone who's joined the 'Get the Teaser Trailer up to 2000 views before the Ashes Shoot' campaign on Twitter! I don't know if we'll get there - it'd blow my mind if we did - but I'm already so grateful to everyone for trying.

   Baz Luhrmann and Peter Jackson have three things in common (well, they may have more than three, but here's three for now): 1) They are my favourite directors, 2) They both have films coming out this December, and 3) They've both chosen to shoot their latest films on Red. As I come to Direct my first film in two years, I can now announce with all excitement that I am going to follow in their footsteps. Except that they both shot in 3D, and although I'm not against the medium, I'm not quite ready for it yet!

This is what a Red Scarlet looks like!
   So there's big announcement #1. Ashes is going to be shot on Red - the Scarlet in fact - with muchas gratias to Panny Hire for loaning us the equipment!

   But, being the oddly nostalgic, romantic, somewhat post-modernist person that I am, I couldn't take leaps forward in technology without taking a few back as well. So yes, I will be Directing my first film shot on Red... but we will also be shooting on Super 8 as well!

   The reason for this is not a desire to look at/handle lots of cameras (okay, that might actually be one reason), but that we intend on creating a completely different look for each of the scenes - or 'worlds' - in Ashes, each of which have completely different moods and styles, depending on the mood of the lead character at the time. Two of the scenes will also be shot on our third camera, the Canon 600D, to help us portray this.

   Finding a cinematographer to take charge of not one but three very different cameras is no easy task, but I have found one, which brings me to my second big announcement. Anyone who knows me will have already guessed who is shooting Ashes for me, but I'll give you a hint: the Canon which we are shooting two scenes on is the very same one used to shoot the last film I Co-Produced...

Neil Oseman and me on location for Stop/Eject. Still from footage by Brett Chapman

   It's funny to think that, just over a year ago, I was too in awe of Neil Oseman to speak to him when I brought him a coffee. Four films later - the one which I Co-Produced being, of course, Stop/Eject - and I am now Neil's director. Life has a wonderful way of dancing with you sometimes!

   You can find out more about Neil by checking out his website, which he updates regularly, but here's the basic breakdown of his achievements for those who don't know. Neil got his first paid Directing job aged 19, won the Channel 4 Ideas Factory's Creative Class in 2005, has Directed two features and has another in the pipeline. His last feature, Soul Searcher, was distributed on DVD around the world, and publicity for that film caused the Guardian to dub him "the Spielberg of Hereford". Actors he's worked with not only include The Worst Witch star Georgina Sherrington but also the wonderful Mark Heap, and the one that most people talk about, Benedict Cumberbatch.

    So why would the 'Spielberg of Hereford' want to D.O.P. a film for me?

    "[Ashes has] an intriguing script that bravely tackles a complex issue and provided a lot of visual opportunities. As a DP I thrive on those opportunities. I want to know that there will be carefully chosen and dressed locations and beautifully designed props, costumes and make-up, otherwise what's the point of lighting them nicely? With Sophie's eye I knew I was going to get those things."

Neil and Colin shooting Stop/Eject
   Of course, Neil won't have to manoeuvre all the equipment on Ashes alone. As with most of the films Neil has made, he will be bringing with him his right-hand man, the loyal (and ever so slightly long-suffering) Colin Smith. Colin has three credits on this film already - Gaffer, Focus-Puller and Super8 Technician. In fact, it is mostly down to Colin's knowledge and love of Super8 that we will be using it in the film at all. 

    The camera crew is complete with a third member, Chris Newman, my 1st AD, who will also be doubling as a Camera Assistant.

   With four days to go until the Ashes shoot, after everything the film's been through, I'm now at a place where it all feels ready to go (fingers crossed), and that everyone involved will make it a wonderful shoot. And it sounds as though Neil is looking forward to it as well.

    "[The Audience should] look out for candles. Look out for shadow puppets. Look out for Super-8. Better still, don't look out for any of those things. This will be a disturbing and thought-provoking film, so although it will have a lot of interesting visuals, first and foremost I hope people are engaged by the story and the issue behind it, and come away questioning their own feelings and attitudes."


    So, that's everyone on the main crew introduced to you now. With two more blogs to go (and a third epilogue blog) before the Ashes shoot, I look forward to finally writing about my amazing cast, Adam Lannon and Sarah Lamesch.

Sophie x

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

5 Days to Go... Assisting the Director

Hey Guys!

   Ingmar Bergman once said, "to shoot a film is to ogranise an entire universe" (thankyou BFI for that one!), and that's probably the truest quote I've ever read. Plus Bergman didn't have to do so whilst being forced to stay in bed and rest his back, as I have been doing!
   In the event of trying to organise a universe, you can forgive me for missing out one blog post. Day 6 may have been missed out but we shall crack on with Day 5 of the 12 Days of Ashes. What's particularly great is that today I get to write about one of my new favourite people, Christopher Newman.
Chris shooting my Costume Advert

   Chris, who specialising in Cinematography and Colour Grading, has a 1st Class Degree from Derby University (the swot!) and now works for Light Films Ltd, which is how I met him. We first worked together on Wasteland - in which Chris is the DOP - but didn't really spike up a bond until the second day of the costume advert Light Films shot for me. I was directing Chris to shoot some 'attractive ivy' when a certain incident with dog poo happened (all captured, of course, by my Diary Cam). This was followed by a great deal of inappropriate laughter, and we've had a sort of 'Bromance' ever since.

   Stop/Eject director Neil Oseman recently wrote a blog about the importance of a full crew, particularly how the film would've benefitted from the addition of a 1st Assistant Director. Now, I always seem to make the stupid mistake of Directing films without a separate Producer, and I'd been keen to delegate some of my jobs somewhere, when Chris contacted and told me that he would like to work on Ashes. He didn't say what job he wanted, he just wanted to experience of being there, but I instantly made him my 1st Assistant Director. And now I couldn't imagine having anyone else.

   I could ramble on for ages about all the support Chris has shown me this year, but I'd rather you heard from the man himself about why he's working on Ashes. Because, trust me, I'm not the calmest of directors to be a right-hand man to, particularly during pre-production!

    "There was a number of things that attracted me to being involved with Ashes. When first speaking about the project with Sophie we were working together on Wasteland where we grew a great working relationship and I said I'd love to be involved with any future projects. 

Chris getting stuck in on one of our long scheduling days!

    "Upon finding out more about the story of Ashes my interest grew. The subject matter I feel is something that is often avoided by filmmakers because it is so sensitive and controversial, so I knew that it was something I wanted to be involved in because essentially the film is to raise awareness of the sensitive subject, but also because of Sophie's vision and brilliantly written script. 
    "I think that the audience has a real thought provoking and touching film to look forward to, but also something very different in terms of story than a lot of films that are currently being produced independently and in the mainstream. What I'm most looking forward to seeing as an audience member (and also on set) is the style of the film, because not only is the whole style going to be quite dark and haunting, but also beautiful!"

   So now I've introduced you to my 1st AD, which means there aren't many members of my crew left to talk about now. But do tune in tomorrow, because that blog is the one I am most looking forward to releasing. For a start, I'm finally going to announce which camera we'll be using to shoot Ashes. Or should that be cameras...?

   Shooting a film is like trying to organise an entire universe. But here's one thing Bergman forgot to mention. If you're going to even attempt to do that, you'd better not try and do it alone!

Sophie x