Monday, 23 March 2015

Ashes: A Swansong

Just four of the the laurels Ashes ends its festival run with.
Hi Guys,

   Next week is a bit of a milestone - the last public screening of Ashes at the end of its official festival run.

   Back when we started, Ashes seemed like the film that didn't want to get made. People even warned me against it. We had a very difficult pre-production - mostly in securing funding and a location - and the shoot was incredibly difficult for me, too. 

   But the lead actors, Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon, worked hard to form a strong bond, and because of that they both provided the film with some seriously moving performances. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their dedication and the characters they delivered gave the film its heart, and that's thing I'm most proud of with Ashes.

Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon -
the heart of Ashes - on set
   The art department - Art Director Gina Hames and MUA Rena Kalandrani - did a stellar job at creating all the different 'worlds' with little to no money, and Neil Oseman - who has since become one of my regular cinematographers - was amazing as always. 

   It's the first time I'd used Ian Cudmore on a film score, and he did such an incredible (albeit haunting) job with the music, that I made him an official member of Triskelle Pictures pretty much straight away. Ashes was also the first time I'd used special FX on a film (in this case supplied by Scott Nolan and John Butler), and the result was striking and exhilarating for me.

   We started to high promise. The finished film was accepted into Cannes Short Film Corner the moment it was finished, prompting local BBC Radio and Television to interview me. While at Cannes, the look of the film (even when showing it to people on my then-tiny Blackberry screen) was praised, and it was offered two distribution deals, which I didn't accept, as I wanted to play the 'festival game' for a while to come.

   At the cast and crew premiere, we had some special guests. Executives from War on Rape accompanied our key supporters, Wan2Talk, and praised the film for its accurate portrayal of sexual abuse in relationships. 

   Esteemed casting director Amy Hubbard (whose name appears in credits from The Selfish Giant all the way to the Hobbit franchise) also attended, due to a well-timed invite from Adam Lannon. It was such an honour to have her there.

The cast and crew premiere of Ashes. Photo credit: Lawrence de Gruchy
  We also got a string of great press online (due to the fact that I'd just hired my fantastic marketing team, Laura Cann and Charlotte Ashton), with high words of praise in articles from Clothes on Film, Unsung Films, Gorilla Film Magazine, Awesome Magazine, Hatch'd Magazine and White Coffee Magazine, plus a small article about the cast and crew premiere in Derby Evening Telegraph. All in all, it seemed like Ashes was destined for success.

   But the festival game is a difficult one to play, as filmmaker Brett Chapman recently commented. I did everything to the book; I made a few press kits, and submitted to all the 'A List' festivals first. I was never expecting them to accept us, so I wasn't too disappointed when I received rejections from them.

   Then I moved on to the fairly prestigious festivals, then to the moderate ones, then to the smaller ones... and I had a near 100% rejection result. I submitted to at least 50 festivals, and spent £100s on entry and postal fees, to no avail. I was lucky that Derby Film Festival screened Ashes in May 2014, but we hadn't had any acceptances before that since Cannes in May 2013, and we didn't have any more in 2014.

   I started to doubt the film. I never doubted the performances of the cast, or the talents of the crew, but I doubted myself as a director. I felt as though my team had given everything for nothing, and that I had let them down. 

Introducing Ashes at Short Stack Film Night, January 2015.
   In my shame, I stopped pushing Ashes as much towards the end of its festival run, fearing rejection and criticism again. And what good is a film when even its director won't support it? 

    But, with four months left of its two-year festival life, I gave it one last push at local festivals and film nights - more for my cast, crew and sponsors than for myself. And I'm happy to say it went out with a small bang, screening at Beeston Film Festival and Short Stack Film Night in January, and 5Lamps Films and 20/20 East Midlands Showcase in March - with the upcoming Festigious International Film Festival in November. I'm still waiting to hear from a couple of other festivals.

   And so, to celebrate all of the film's success in spite of its difficulties, to showcase its handful of screenings and glowing reviews, to praise the efforts and talents of everyone involved, to once again reward the people who donated to the film, and most of all to say goodbye to this chapter of my life, I've released this new cut of the Trailer. I hope you'll all enjoy it and share it around wherever you see fit:

   It's time for Ashes to reach the last leg of its journey: online publication. Although I'm yet to decide where to host it, the plan will be to put it online at a price of £3 per rental/stream - partly to help pay off the last of the loan I took out to fund the production, but mostly to help the victims of sexual abuse; for this reason, I will be giving at least £1 from each sale to Wan2Talk, or other suitable charities in the event of their closure.

  There may be independent screenings of Ashes in the future. I'll certainly keep my eye out for them. I've learnt that there will be parts of the film, and the experience, that I'll always love, even as I move on from it. 

  I've worked with many members of the crew since then (and hopefully will again in the future), and I'd happily work with Sarah and Adam any time. I can't recommend their talents and dedication enough.

  Soon it will be time for Night Owls to enter its festival journey, and the 'love affair' of film making begins again. I wonder what kind of adventure this one will turn out to be!



Saturday, 21 March 2015

How to Shoot an Eclipse (Might be Useful in 2026!)

Hi Guys,

   I remember the last eclipse fairly well. I was 9 or 10, my Grandad took me and my brother outside on a bright summer's day, and showed us how to watch the shadow of the eclipse forming between some sheets of paper. It was a lovely childhood memory.

   But this time, I had an SLR!

   In advance of the 2015 eclipse, I researched the usual viewing methods - special glasses, DIY pinhole viewing boxes etc - but the only advice which really appealed to me was how to film or photograph the eclipse properly. After all, this is the 21st century.

   The easiest way to shoot it without blowing out the image or, worse, damaging your camera was to buy a solar filter to attach to your lens. But these cost around £80, which was a lot for a single use, and plus the delivery time meant it would arrive a day or two after the eclipse. Strike that idea.

   The other advice was to use a pinhole camera - or to convert your camera into one - so that 90% of the sun's rays wouldn't make it into the lens. Again, you could buy a 'safety guard' for the end of your camera, with a pinhole in it, but that also involved money. There were a few examples of people converting lens hole covers into a pinhole lens by drilling a small hole in the camera... but I don't own a drill.

  And so, taking all this research into account, I set about building my own DIY pinhole attachment for my camera - and I planned to do this as cheaply as possible whilst still creating a good-enough quality image, and protecting my camera from harmful rays.

   Using the BBC's guide to building a pinhole projector, I adapted these steps into creating a little pinhole cover to attach to my lens. I did this using cardboard, foil and gaffer tape, and made sure to pull the foil taught. I then put in the pinhole using one of my sewing pins.

  Attaching this to a lens was the tricky part. First I put my basic UV filter inbetween the two (I wasn't taking any chances!), then I used low-tack blue tape to stick it onto the lens - the kind you use on film sets to give an actor their mark. It has a very low residue, to risk making my lens sticky and ruining its zoom function. High tech stuff indeed! (Unfortunately it was so low-tack that the whole thing had fallen off by the morning of the eclipse, so I had to secure it with Gaffer tape in the end).

   Unfortunately the longest lens I had was my 80-200mm zoom, so I was never going to get a close, crisp image of the eclipse. But on the plus side, this was a vintage lens I got for £30 to experiment with, so it wouldn't have been too much of a loss if I had covered it in tape residue!

   The best view of the eclipse was from my bedroom window (which was rather dirty - you can tell that in the final footage!) and luckily I was in one of the only areas of the UK with no clouds that morning. 

   I didn't think the pinhole attachment would work at all (foolishly I thought I'd just see a black frame with a tiny dot of light poking through the centre), but I tested it on a lamp the night before and it worked perfectly. As you can see from these images, at first the sun was still too bright to see the eclipse, but it created some wonderful coloured lens flares, and you could make out the shape of the eclipse in these.

   Below is the footage I got, for better or for worse. Very little happened for a long time, but I used some timelapse, and this made it more interesting (and more creepy) because you could see the lens flares spreading apart, and the clouds moving.

   I hope the above information is useful (or at least interesting) to you all. It's very, very low tech, and will no doubt be completely outdated come the next eclipse. But since I might not even be around to see that one (you never know what the future brings), I hope anyone reading this at that time have as much fun experimenting with lunar photography as I did in 2015!


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Stripes on Film part 2 - assembling the dress

Amelia's Letter - The Poster
Hey Guys,

   So, almost exactly a year ago, I did the first half of my blog posts about costuming a film called A Cautionary Tale, and the challenges of working with striped fabric on film. This blog post had a few shares - thanks to the film's director, Neil Oseman, and my frequent supporter Clothes on Film - but I promised to hold off releasing the second half of the blog post until images from the film had been released, so as to not reveal anything important from it too early.

   The film, now called Amelia's Letter, is almost ready for a festival release, resulting in an increase in publicity. It has pages on IMDb, Facebook and on the website of production company Stella Vision Films (also one of the companies behind my film, Night Owls). And so, because of this, there are now lots of beautiful images from the film floating around, including this beautiful poster (above).

   And in the poster you can not only see the lovely lead actor Georgia Winters (who I've been incredibly fond of ever since the shoot), but also the finished striped dress I have been referring to in these blog posts. And so, the time has come to reveal how that dress was made.

   So, where were we? In the last blog post, I'd gone through the process of choosing the fabric, and making sure I'd picked the right sized stripes to stop the dress from appearing to 'distort' when placed in front of the camera. This was the first challenge of working with stripes. 

My costume sketch
   The second challenge was the type of fabric I used. We decided on a stretch jersey fabric, not because it was accurate to the near-Edwardian period (obviously), but because it gave us the largest stripes. And anyone who's worked with stretch jersey will know that it's a bugger to assemble anything out of it. You'll think you've cut out the piece you need correctly, but as soon as you remove the pattern, it's suddenly warped into a completely different shape. The horror!

The 'tunic' blouse, pre-sleeves
    Which is particularly disruptive when it came to my third issue; the consistency of the stripes. If you're making a striped garment, the stripes need to match up and flow across every single seam. Which wasn't too difficult down the front; the blouse (which was assembled using a vintage 1970's men's smock pattern that was already in my collection) didn't consist of many pieces, and lay pretty flat, and the front panels of the skirt were equally straight. So I was able to get the stripes lying perfectly neat and straight all the way down the front of the outfit - providing the skirt didn't 'swivel' away from the blouse while it was being worn.

    But the back of the skirt was a different kettle of fish. It consisted of four different panels - two in the middle, to create the train, and two either side - and these had to be cut diagonally across the fabric rather than straight, but still have the stripes match up at the seams. A fiddly matter at the best of times, but even worse when you're working with rebellious, stretchy fabric!

   After many trials (mostly of my patience), I figured out that, if you mark where the stripes lie on the pattern piece before you cut it out, it'll be easier to line these up on the next piece you cut, which will then create a sense of uniformity when you assemble the whole thing. That may not make sense to anyone who doesn't sew, but trust me, it's a useful tip!

   I also realised early on that I had to prioritise, and that I was never going to match up every single stripe on every panel perfectly. The main ones which had to meet at the seams were on the train - so I made sure those lined up first, and then worked my way back to the other panels. And as you can see from the photo on the right, I think I managed this part fairly well (this photo was taken when the dress was in progress, hence the raw hem!).

  Main dress assembled, I could then worry about the smaller details. The stripes were chosen in the first place to represent the idea that Amelia is trapped, or caged, inside her current situation - a technique I've often echoed in the past with my production design - so I wanted to carry that idea onto other parts of the dress. Firstly, I created 'shackle shapes' on the cuffs using lace and button closings. This is a very subtle, and something to keep an eye out for in close-ups in the film. 

  Secondly, I wanted to create a cage shape with the belt (which would also add a bit of body definition to a loose fitting, art nouveau period garment). Originally, as you can see from my above sketch, I wanted to find a structural cage-shaped belt, similar to a cincher, but I decided this was too modern and so wouldn't look realistic. So I looked at different knots and uses of rope to create a cage shape, as it seemed more believable that the artistic character would tie a simple cord around her waist. This idea worked well for a bit, but fell out of shape the moment she moved, so I don't think I achieved a cage shape there. If I try that method again some time, I'll use loops or even hooks to hold the rope in shape.

The underskirt featured meters of frilled hem for movement; this had to be hand-sewn and took SEVEN HOURS!
Bath time for the dress!
   So, with the final dress fully assembled, underskirt and all (see above), the next job was to make the fabric look believably aged and worn. The first step is usually to tea-(or coffee) stain the fabric, which darkens it and fades the pattern. The finished dress was so big that the only thing for it was to brew a bathtub full of tea, and chuck the whole thing in there, and leave it overnight. My bathtub is now heavily stained, and there is every possibility the landlord is going to kill me when he realises this!

   The final step was to age and distress the fabric physically as well as visually, using sandpaper. The entire dress had to be done, and so I was sat with the it on my lap and a block of sandpaper in my hand for many an hour. But this step was particularly important because not only did it make the fabric's texture look weathered, it also thickened it up and gave it a fluffier appearance, similar to wool. Wool is a more believable fabric for the period than stretch jersey, so this was a highly desired result, and one which I definitely think I achieved.

Compare the two: actual grey wool (left) next to the weathered dress fabric (right).

The finished dress with boots.
   The dress was still yet to undergo its biggest trial, and one which was made harder by the fact we didn't have any duplicates. It concerned the biggest moment of the film, which tested it the dress to its limits, combined with the fact that the film's location was full of beautiful overgrown bits of woodland, all waiting to get their hands on that long train! But I won't reveal any more than that. If you want to see what the costume goes through, you'll need to see the film itself.

   I want to talk about the other characters in the film, and their costumes (one, in particular, caused me a bit of a last-minute panic), and I want to talk about the close relationship between the colour of the costumes and the film's set design (skillfully provided by Production Designer Amy Nichols and Set Designer Anya Kordecki). But, looking at the length of this blog post already, it seems that I have run out of time and space. Those stories will have to wait for another day.

   In the meantime, I hope that you'll check out the Amelia's Letter Facebook page, and follow it for updates on the film's progress. I'm certainly looking forward to the finished piece. If it's anything like Neil's previous work, it's definitely going to be one to keep an eye on!


p.s. want more information about the costumes in Amelia's Letter? Don't mind rambly geeky people? Then check out this interview with me that was recently released: