Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Songbird: An Insider's Perspective

Giller leading the team on the
warmest day of the shoot
   There is a crew member that's right down the bottom of the hierarchy ladder, but more valuable than most. They're always waiting in the wings, never in the way, but always there whenever you need them. They'll never be nominated for an OSCAR, but they need to have a wider range of skills than anyone else. That person is your production assistant - and the best production assistant I know is Steve Giller.

   Production assistants rarely get a voice, but they are a friend to everyone, they're on set every day, and they see literally everything - the good and the bad. So I thought it would be interesting to look at our latest production, Songbird, from Steve's perspective - and to share the personal photographs he took on his phone throughout the shoot. It's an insight into the crew and our Songbird 'life' that no-one else would've seen, and it's certainly not a view we would've requested to be captured by our professional photographers! If anyone's ever wondered what it's really like to be on a film shoot, this is probably the most realistic taster you'll get...

[The line-up on day one! We obviously weren't prepared for this photo, but I love it because it captures the genuine joy and excitement we had to be making the film - particularly early on.]

   "Working on films is something I stumbled into when I got the chance to be a zombie (who wouldn't say yes to that?), and being around people who were so passionate and dedicated about what they do got me totally hooked," says Giller. "The best thing for me about the shoot was the camaraderie and professionalism." 
[Another sneaky photo that captures so much. AD Liam Banks is prepping the background actors whilst DP Chris Newman and I are having a hug. I can't remember why exactly - I'm quite a huggy director generally - but we got some beautiful footage that day, so we're probably just excited about that!]
[Speaking of background actors, here's another side of film production people rarely see - all of our supporting cast had to wait very patiently off set (and in this case, in the hot sunshine) while waiting for their scenes. What a brilliant bunch!]
[Lying on the floor photo #1: Camera operator Dave Mullany & DP Chris Newman (of Motion Click Productions) will literally go to any angle to get the perfect shot - and I always tried to be right there with them!]
[How the 'voice stealing' scene was shot: in a real alleyway, all squished in together, fighting against the dying light. We didn't built any sets on this film - we just used the beautiful locations the Midlands had to offer.]
   Giller continues, "Songbird was the most fun I've had to date by far, partly because in addition to my normal duties I got to drive the star around! I was a bit nervous about that, as you can probably imagine, but Janet (Devlin) was really lovely; friendly, open, and easy to talk to, as well as very professional - when she wasn't working hard on the film she was keeping up with her commitments to her fans on social media. And she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty, as you can see in the film's trailer!"

[Left: Janet, working hard in-between takes and chatting to her fans. Right: DP Chris, stealing her board later on in the day to ask for help in carrying the kit inside. Giller, where were you when he needed you??]
      On what it was like to 'live' Songbird for a week, Giller said this: "The food was great! We even got to sleep in a cabin on location in preparation for the now legendary Scene 17.
Despite the weather ranging from blisteringly hot on the first couple of days to torrential downpours on the last, the cast and crew kept each others' spirits high, and no-one hesitated to muck in where additional help was needed to overcome the difficult conditions."

[The team literally lived in the woods for two days and two nights. The landscape was our film set, and the trees were our furniture!]
[The log is ready for its close-up! This shot may look strange here, but it will make perfect sense when you see the film.]
[Lying on the floor photos #2 & #3: Sometimes the crew would offer to stand in for Janet, when she was getting her makeup done, or when we wanted to keep her out of the rain for as long as possible! This was done for the sake of the camera team, so that they could line up the shot ready for Janet's return. In these photos you can see myself and AD Charlie Clarke standing in - but I appear to be having a better time!]
Giller took so many photos of a hard-working but fun-loving team, so it was hard to decide what to share with you guys. We all have some incredible memories, and so some of those photos will be retained for the crew, to help enhance and strengthen those memories for years to come. In closing, the wonderful Giller had this to say (and I swear I didn't pay him to say it):

"Having seen how beautiful the shots looked played back on the small screen of the camera, I'm so excited to see the finished product on the big screen, it's going to look fantastic."

[The final battle. We literally filled the forest with smoke on the last shooting day, although the unexpectedly terrible weather meant that it didn't linger on camera for very long. And the man responsible for firing up the generator and spreading the smoke? That was Giller, of course!]

This special blog post was released as a public reward, as part of our Livetree funding campaign. Please help support our post-production and inject a boost into the film's festival run by donating now. You can even pre-order a copy of the film itself, if you want to see the fruits of all our labours!


Monday, 13 March 2017

The Best of Beeston 2017!

   This past weekend was my favourite local festival, Beeston Film Festival. In spite of their size, and the fact they've only been running for three years, Beeston has an incredibly high standard of international films on show, so I knew I'd be in for a fine show. In fact, the films are so good that I can easily remember and name great films from the festival's previous years: for example, Humanexus, Moving Day and Bunny from year one, and (En)vie from year two. You should watch all of those films - they're all different genres, and they're all from different countries, but they are universally brilliant.

   As well as being international, Beeston also supports local films and filmmakers, and that includes myself. In year one, they screened Ashes; year two, they screened Stop/Eject, which I produced. This year they not only screened Night Owls (twice), but it was also nominated for five of their awards: the beautiful 'B'OSCARs'.

   Because they support local filmmakers, there were a few films this year that I'd seen already. So, while I won't go into too much detail on those films now, here's a quick shout out to the brilliant films at this year's Beeston Festival by filmmakers that I know: Cadence by Siskamedia, Big Bad Wolf by Sojo Animation, Stereotype by McGibney Films, Dolls by Badshoes Film, Hinterland by Small Person Productions (a group of incredibly talented teenage filmmakers!), and Transcended & Hollow Men by YSP Media. All great films, but all of which I had seen before.

   So which films, that were new to me this year, were my highlights of this year's Beeston Film Festival? I could name absolutely tons of worthy entries, but somehow I've managed to narrow it down to my top ten favourites... (warning: contains mild spoilers)

10) Butterfly (dir. Alex Withers)

   A drama about a teenage girl, whose shot at a professional swimming career is held back by the discovery that she is epileptic. I know that the crew behind this spent years making sure it was right, so I've been keen to see it for a while, but it was worth the wait.

9) Apollo 11 (dir. Chen Chih Yin)

   Another coming-of-age drama: A teenage girl grew up idolising her Dad and his love of space so much, that she went into a career in an astrology museum. However, in a heartbreaking moment, she discovers that her Dad had a son with another woman - and she finds out because the boy shares the same love of space, and uses the same catchphrases her Dad used with her. Definitely a film about having to face maturity faster than you'd choose to.

8) What a Peaceful Day (dir. Eden Chan)

   An animated film that really appealed to my daft and quirky sense of humour. An old woman goes on a camping trip - and finds herself suddenly in the companionship of a deer. But when a hunter goes after the deer's horns, the old woman and the deer (driving!) have to make a dash for it in the old woman's caravan. An epic battle ensues. It involves a ladle. I'm not even kidding!

7) Time Thieves (dir. Fran X. Rodríguez)

   Definitely the best-edited film of the festival: such great rhythm, and more match-cuts than you can shake a stick at! The film revolved around a man trying to literally steal time from the most prompt and routine-driven man you could hope to meet. A funny film with a touching ending.

6) Transmission (dirs. Varun Raman & Tom Hancock)

   A man wakes to find he's trapped in a hangman's noose, in an underground bunker, being mentally and physically tortured by a very dapper chap. I can't say I always understood this film, but the cinematography and set design looked incredible (it was shot on 35mm), and so I was surprised it wasn't up for any technical awards.

5) The Bread Bear (dirs. Eason Lu & Yichin Tsai) 

   Another very silly film - in fact this was, without a doubt, the most random film of the festival - but it had everyone in stitches. A bear with a bread shop finds his sales rising when his customers discover an addictive creamy filling inside his loaves. But then the bear discovers the filling is actually flamingo poo... and things take a dark and (even more) bizarre turn... Lots of quirky touches in this film, like the fact the bread is 'grown' in the bear's garden. What's more, the film was made in stop motion, which is always such a treat.

4) Twiddly Things (dir. Adara Todd)

   The second stop motion film on this list, but the polar opposite of The Bread Bear. Twiddly Things is a beautiful, dark and haunting portrait of Alzheimers, using the metaphor of things literally unraveling. The fact that the voiceover came from a genuine Alzheimer sufferer made it all the more poignant. 

3) First Snow (dir. Lenka Ivančíková)

   The last animation on my list (I was surprised by how much animation I absolutely adored this year). This film was so epic and beautiful, with an incredible set and fantastic puppetry. An adorable hedgehog wanders away from hibernation in order to witness his first snow, but when he can't find his way back to his parents, and he realises the world is a dangerous place, the adventure really kicks off. Even if you don't like adorable things (what's wrong with you??) then watch this film for the stunning eagle puppet - particularly the way it lands.

2) Cinephiliac (dir. Matthew Tichenor)

   This film was the most epic of the lot, and it nearly made my top spot for sheer cinematic storytelling. A woman chases the man she's meant to be with through every genre of film: romantic comedy, thriller, western, film noir, sci fi... the film nails every genre and utilises every aspect ratio. There's even a little loving homage to the wonderful Metropolis. But the film is most lovable and relatable when it moves into the real world. If it is the real world...

1) What Is Hidden In Snow? (dir. Loic Gaillard)

   This was one of the first films I saw at the festival, but it stuck with me throughout. It's at once hilarious and brutal, colourful and bleak (the production design and costumes are so bright it's almost uncomfortable). In the near future, a man uses a performance-based simulation service to act out the revenge he wanted to take on his cheating wife. Meanwhile, a group of plastic-faced staff with huge, constant smiles watch on encouragingly. Definitely one for the Black Mirror fans!

   And finally, honourable mentions to Anoesis, (a dark and engaging portrait of an outcast, featuring some raw and watchable performances) and I Am God, And Severely Underqualified (a set dresser's dream, with an enigmatic lead performance and a subtle Edgar Allen Poe feel to the script). I loved both films, both of which featured local actors, so they nearly made my list!

It didn't say 'La La Land', but I still couldn't believe it!

   So, how did Night Owls do? Unfortunately we didn't win any of the awards we were nominated for (the quality and budgets of our competition were just too high), but I did come away with a special, unexpected award: Rising Star, an award that comes with industry mentoring. I was so surprised to have won anything that it didn't sink in for a bit: I just carried on clapping without realising I was supposed to go up and make a speech!!

   Thank you to John Currie and all of the Beeston Film team for another great year. I'll be sure to support you guys again in 2018!


Saturday, 4 March 2017

Songbird: Mastering the Songs

[Up at first light for our road trip... and a teasing glance of the famous zebra crossing, which we posted to make people guess where we were.]

   So, once again my film life gave me the opportunity to dip my toe in the world of music, as recently myself and Songbird's writer, Tommy Draper, got an inside look at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios. We were there with Songbird's leading lady, Janet Devlin, her wonderful manager Rick, and music producer Graham (who is also a bit of a legend) to master Janet's two songs for the film: Chandeliers and Once Upon a Time.

   I believe the mastering went well; I don't know anything about sound mixing (although I'm sure some of the sound guys I work with would've reveled in all the gear we saw!), but the songs sound beautiful, and there of course was no doubt that the tracks were in safe, experienced hands!

   The 'work' side of the day was relatively brief for myself and Tommy - it was really a chance to catch up with Janet and get some footage for the Songbird behind-the-scenes videos (see below) - so a good portion of our time was spent on general music geekery. Did we walk across the famous zebra crossing? Yes, but only because we actually had to cross the road, and we had to wait for some tourists to move. It still felt pretty damn cool.

[The mixing desk at Abbey Road. It's all a mystery to me, but it certainly looked cool!]
[One of Abbey Road's original vinyl presses - from back before vinyl had a comeback!]
[Janet watching and listening carefully nearby as her tracks are mixed]

   What else did we take away from our time there? Well, we were allowed a quick and cheeky look inside studios one and two, which felt amazing: not only did we see the piano 'Let it Be' was written on (it's still there!), but also the studio where the scores for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films were recorded. I was barely able to keep my cool at that point! Anything Peter Jackson-related leaves me buzzing.

   Looking at all the amazing names of people who had recorded at Abbey Road, I saw Kate Bush listed, and I couldn't resist asking questions about her. I found out that she had worked in many of the rooms there, including the very room we were mastering the Songbird tracks in (again, another moment where I struggled to keep calm!). And, mentioning no names, I now know someone who claims to have got stoned with Kate Bush - and he also once went clubbing with David Bowie! When I asked him what Bowie was like, he said "he was one of those people who seemed incredibly normal and incredibly special at the same time." In all honesty, that's exactly how I felt about Janet when I first met her.

[Janet, myself and Tommy in the studio, beneath some platinum disks! Photo credit: Rick at Insomnia Music Management]

   Moving back to the Songbird songs themselves. They really are lovely pieces, both of which perfectly capture the two sides of Jennifer's personality; Chandeliers is beautifully delicate and haunting, and Once Upon a Time is a happy, catchy, confident anthem for anyone who has overcome a difficult personal challenge. For those of you who pre-ordered copies of the songs during the last campaign, the tracks should have just been sent out. If you missed out on the chance to buy them back then, you can do so via our 'festival booster' funding campaign, which will be launched within the next few days. Watch this space!