Monday 24 March 2014

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION : Getting The Most Out Of Your Set

READ THIS** Ok once again, this is just my approach to filmmaking, its not here to cause offence or tell you you're doing it wrong or that i'm doing it right, its just here to share my approach to the process. There is no right way, if this all seems to basic for you then maybe you don't need to read it, or it might serves as a nice refresher for you, it purpose however is to help people who don't know where to begin. But once again this is just how I do things and you don't have to listen to it. 

Locations are extremely important when working on any film. However if you're working on a low budget movie, it can make or break your film. I've lost count of the amount of films I've seen filmed in someone's mom's kitchen, living room, back yard, the field out the back of thier house. I'm not judging, you have to work with what you've got, I mean the sheer amount of movies I shot as a teenager in these kinds of environments is staggering, But it really helped me learn many filmmaking lessons, the most important one being, a good location is everything. 


When I was writing Creepsville, I spend a good few weeks wondering around at night, To judge what the locations would actually look like after dark. It would amaze you the amount of sets I've been on where people have done a recce during the day and then been surprised to find that it was completely unusable after dark. So I waited till the environments were how I would want to use them and then wandered around finding interesting locations to shoot in, places that were well lit or just looked interesting. Then I looked at which of those we could shoot legally (without a permit) and then chose my locations around that. 

For one of the films set pieces I knew that I wanted to use a garage space that they had at the university. I'd used it in my short film Before The Dawn (2006) and it had added incredible production value to my little low budget short and knowing I had access to it in the evenings, I wrote it in. We spent about 4 nights shooting one night inside and then 3 nights on the exterior before our lead took ill for a couple of weeks, knocking us back and behind schedule. 


The Original Garage Scene from Creepsville
About a week later I was wandering past the garage on my way to the University and noticed that the garage looked exteremly light inside. I got closer, only to find that they had completely removed the roof. I was in a panic as we still had about 4 more interior shots to tie the whole inside and outside scenes together. The next day I returned to find that the whole building had just gone, just like that. No warning, no nothing. We couldn't complain, as they had been kind enough to let us use it for free. But we did lose one of the biggest, most expensive looking scenes in the movie. Which was down to some solid acting by two of our actors and of course the huge expansive realism of the location.

The less ideal Reshoot Scene set in House
Luckily one of the most important things about shooting movies is 'Always have a back up', especially when it comes to Locations. We had to re shoot the scene in an abandoned house (which we had looked at for choice when scouting) about a month later, it still worked, but not on the same scale. We also lost our only real stunt sequence in the movie because of it. But more on that another time.

The biggest loss, was that the garage was a working garage during the day, and boy did it look like it. That added so much production value that we just couldn't have put in ourselves building it as a set, there were old fridges, trees cuttings mattresses, two large pick up trucks and oil and dirt everywhere,  it was incredible and it felt, well, real. Because it was.


When we came to shooting Slasher House, we began to struggle finding a building that was run down enough, yet safe enough to let us shoot in throughout the UK. We sat down and started to talk about building the set, as a bunch of interchangeable panels. It wouldn't be ideal and we would lose the realism that I wanted for the film. In my eyes the house had always been a character in the film, an ominous presence and I felt that bulding it on a set would see us lose that. 

Luckily, thanks to our leading man Adam Williams, we found an abandoned prison on the Isle Of Man, who, after a bit of persuasion, allowed us to shoot there for a small price. Of course we had to get our cast and crew out to an isle off the coast of England, but, once again, thats a whole other story. The location was everything I was looking for, it had a character all of its own, that we couldn't have artificially created in a million years. It may have cost us about a third of our budget, but hell, it worth it. 



When it came to finding locations for Legacy. Of Thorn, we had to be a bit smarter. It was written around 2 main locations, but in reality was probably about 5 or 6. The trick we had to employ here was finding an existing location that served as a potential production base whilst also bring production value to the film whilst at the same time encompassing all the other locations that we needed throughout the film. A warehouse, a hospital ward, a rooftop and some kind of medium sized cabin. A lot to ask, but essential in making a low budget film like Legacy of Thorn work. Boy did we get lucky.

The school that doubled as Avondale High
Our producer Anna managed to get us into an abandoned school complex that housed all but 2 of our locations. It was kind of incredible and, of course, there's nothing that looks more like a school than a school. However because of the size of the complex the other locations, 'the warehouse', 'the rooftop', 'the abandoned outhouse'. They were all there too and they had all been used and then abandoned, and looked horrible, which made them perfect for our movie. 

The school, we had to clean up, as it needed to look operational, which also included us re flooring the gym, whilst also trying to shoot scenes (not fun for sound). 

But everything else was gritty and dirty and perfect for the look of the movie. If we had tried to turn a set into this kind of thing, we would have been well over budget by the end of it and still would have had nowhere near the realism that we wanted. The warehouse room doubled for the store room with some clever shelf movement, but still leaving us with that used looked we wanted.

The Gym we had to refloor for the Cheerleader Massacre
I think when finding locations when you are on a shoe string budget, you have to try and be efficient. If we have one main location, I always try and make sure that we can also house the cast and crew there if possible. This also saves travel headaches, and keeps your head in the game. It also means that you have your actors with you at all times (as long as they are scheduled to be there for a few days) when it comes to quick retakes or ADR or anything like that. 

I understand that getting a location to shoot your movie seems very obvious, but by being meticulous and getting the right location will change everything about your film. It will add expense and style and most of all it will really help your actors get into scene and character and all of this will improve the final product immensely. Or maybe your film takes place in your mom's kitchen, in which case ignore all of the above.


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Monday 17 March 2014


When casting its true that I usually make the final decision on who we go with, but most of the leg work in regards to dealing actors and their auditions before we start shooting come down to my Producer, Business Partner and Better Half, Anna. Who not only gets the talent there, but spends most of her time dealing with them on set. It only made sense that she shared her wisdom when it come to the delicate and yet deadly world of... Casting.

As a low budget production company we rely heavily on recommendations and professional contacts when casting. You need a cast that will power through a difficult shoot with the end goal in sight: the finished film which everyone has put their heart into and everyone can be proud of. The last thing you need on a low budget film set when everyone's knackered, starving and freezing is constant demands for brown M&Ms and a bloody great Bengal tiger.

The most important thing for us when casting, much more important than experience, is that we can work with the actor to get the best out of them, us and the film itself.

Jade Came recommended by another filmmaker
The process we have found works best is to have a mixture of casting within our extended circle, people we know or people who have worked with people we know, and using casting sites to find our cast. We shortlist the applicants down to the people who have the right look for the role and ask them for a video audition to save them the expense of travelling to us. We give them a portion of the script to read to camera and send to us which gives us a good idea of their commitment and acting ability.

From the start, in the casting call itself, it's always best to make what you want from them very clear - if you want nudity in your film (as we almost always do making low budget horror) tell them exactly what you'll need so nothing is ambiguous. If you do require nudity, be respectful and put the actor at ease. 'Get your boobs out and I'll make you a star, baby' was never the best chat up line and I'm guessing they've heard it before. What one person could see as harmless flirting may be extremely off putting to an actor when you're asking them to take their clothes off. You might mean it playfully enough, but a lot of models and actors have had bad experiences with perverts with cameras who pretend they're making a film. Just be professional. Tell them you'll have a closed set and, in the case of actresses, you'll keep the male presence on set for that scene down to a minimum. That said, if they do show any reluctance to do nudity in a scene that requires it, don't cast them. You don't want to make anyone scared or uncomfortable and it could lead to you having an actress on set on the day who won't do the scene or may not show up at all. Be respectful and be completely up front. Also, put chastity belts and/or shock collars on your crew as necessary. You know which ones I mean, yeah those guys.

Let them know how tough it will be, they probably won't believe you but tell them anyway. Tell them it will be long hours, very little sleep and difficult conditions if you don't, you can't really blame them for complaining when they get on set, especially if they have never done a long shoot away from home before. But tell them it's worth it, because the end result will make you all proud. We use the very helpful mantra 'pain is temporary, film is forever', good old Troma!

Paris was an actor in our extended social networks
If someone's taken the time to apply for your project, take the time to respond to them even if they're not successful and to thank them for showing some interest. It's a tough world for actors at the moment with so much competition for paid work that it's difficult to put the time into applying for something they may not earn any money from. It may take a while to respond to everyone, but it's worth doing to show them some gratitude. Casting sites sometimes make this a bit difficult but when people apply by email it's no problem.

If you can only pay expenses (which again is usually the position with us in our collaborative projects) make that very clear too. If you can't pay an actor up front, explain that but tell them that if the film goes into profit then that will be split between everyone involved, just don't make any promises you won't be able to keep. It's very difficult to make money out of an independent film so make sure they know that. There are things you can do for them like provide them with references, recommend them for future work and help them along in their career with head shots, help with showreels, etc. You have skills that are worth money too.

I can normally tell whether we'll be able to work with someone from my initial communication. If they seem disinterested or unhelpful at that early stage, it's unlikely to get better. If I have to constantly chase them for a response or their audition it may be that their heart isn't in it. If they're way too over the top and are 'poking' me on Facebook every other day, I might end up killing them on a hectic film set. People are busy and sometimes life gets in the way but just use your best judgment of how well you think you can work together and make sure the relationship can be a productive one for all involved.

Also, like I said at the beginning, the independent film network is usually a fantastic and supportive place to be. I've been more than happy to recommend actors I've worked with to other filmmakers and I've also asked for references off filmmakers as well. This way, the people who are great to work with will be pushed forward and the people who aren't won't be. It's invaluable when working within low budget constraints to get some kind of vibe about how they are to work with from other people. If someone was a no show on someone else's film for no good reason then you don't want to take the risk with them on yours. Ask questions you feel would be the most important for your project: Did they perform well and were they respectful to the set and the other cast and crew? Did they throw a massive diva strop and murder anyone? Well...that they weren't supposed to murder.

Craig and Jane were cast in Legacy based on their Previous work and their auditions

It's worth bearing in mind that actors speak to each other too and will compare their experiences in dealing with you as well. They're your family for the duration of the project, just treat them like that. Unless you hate your family, in which case maybe treat them like your therapist's family, I guess.


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Monday 10 March 2014


One of the first things I do after we lock the script down is start Storyboarding. Now I know there are many schools of thought on this, some people don't like them, some people will only shoot if the entire film is storyboarded and some filmmakers fall into the middle. I would be one of those filmmakers.

See for me how a film is going to look visually is massively important, in regards to shot choice, colour and even placement of actors, I like to think about all that before going into a movie I'm shooting. Weather it be for me or someone else, its important to try and use that visual style to convey tone, size and of course most importantly use it to tell your story better. 

Storyboard from Creepsville 2009
I come from a background in graphic design and so when it comes to storyboards, I get to save on budget by doing them myself, which suits me as a low budget filmmaker, although I know guys who have less budget than us who hire people to draw storyboards because they find them THAT important. It helps filmmakers on various levels, whether it be shooting faster on the day, locking down there ideas or conveying the visual ideas to other crew members. Every filmmaker i've ever met has different reasons for using them.  

However my problem with storyboards lies here, because I have a habit of going into too much detail. On my first feature, Creepsville, I started spending anytime we weren't shooting drawing storyboards out for the upcoming evenings/weeks shoots. Which is a time taking process, but our cinematographer decided half way through the shoot that he wanted them to make sure we got all the coverage we needed and so I was happy to help him as much as could to speed the process along.

Storyboards from Slasher House 2010
When it came to Slasher House, it was requested of me that I storyboard the entire movie for the cinematographer from the offset, who wasn't going to be me at the time, and so I started drafting each shot. After about 2 weeks I had storyboarded the first 5 pages (albeit in great detail) and realised that this simply wouldn't be ready for shooting if I carried on this way. 

After that the cinematographer pulled out and I realised I was going to be stepping in to fill his shoes and so I looked at what I needed to storyboard and decided on only storyboaring the bigger set pieces in the film. Each one still took me weeks, but this made it much more manageable at the time, Because quite honestly, story boarding simple conversation scenes and even very basic action stuff suits became more trouble than it was worth very quickly. 

But an interesting thing happened as I started working out the movie visually, it started to get its own distinctive voice. When I draw I use specific colour pallets, something I carried over from drawing comic books, and it wasn't long before I fell in love with the storyboards visual style and I
The final look of the film based on the Storyboards
realised I was going to have to try and achieve the look of the storyboards in the finished film. We shot some test stuff and graded it and for some reason it worked(This might sound strange but the films storyboards were based on a very intense green and red scheme which I figured would never work in terms of a film), and so pre production became geared toward also making that colour scheme work within the film. 

Less detailed storyboards for Legacy Of Thorn 2012
When it came to Legacy Of Thorn, I had this in mind from the start and so Storyboarding began as a process of quicker sketches to secure the shots we needed for the much more intense action sequences and everything else was planned out verbally in production meetings and then on set when actors were running lines, I would be looking at angles if I hadn't pre planned them already (which wasn't always possible due to the tight schedule) but I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted from the get go. 

What I've learned to do is applying Storyboarding where it's really needed and use pre planning to shoot more conventional stuff is the best approach for me. Storyboarding is useful to me and I enjoy it to a degree, but ultimately it's not always nessassary and really comes down to is how confident you are that you can get what you need in the day in time you have to get it. It does have other important uses within the process though.

So the question is are storyboards important. I would say that,
to me? Yes. They help me find my films voice, and help me to find a better way to tell my story using my visuals. They also help me shoot more intricate scenes a lot quicker, which is helpful on the usual tight schedules that we end up having and on top of that they force me to thick about my film and every shot in much greater depth, So to me they serve a great many purposes. 

However famed action director John Woo doesn't use them, and it might be that you just want to figure out what you're doing when you get there, it really doesn't matter in the end as long as you get what you want out of your film. 


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