Monday 29 February 2016

RAISING THORN : Why I'm Glad my 1st Feature was My 3rd Feature.

4 years ago today I handed over the first draft of a script to my producer and partner Anna, I had been working on it since I was about 15 and on 29th of February 2012 I finally finished it. The date was important, I had set it as a deadline almost four years earlier, because the films story took place on February 29th, it seemed fitting. 

In all honesty I always thought Legacy of Thorn (Known as Thorn then) would be my first low budget feature, but as fate would have it, it was my third. Looking back now at all the delays and mishaps that led to the film taking almost 10 years to get off the ground it all seems like a blessing in disguise. The film happening when it did was great for a lot of reasons, the main one being, that, until that point, I hadn't really been ready to make it.

I had come up with the story when I was pretty young, initially starting life as a Halloween fan film idea of sorts, I quickly went a different direction, taking the elements from my idea that were factual and therefore I could use them with out a law suit (mainly the nordic rune elements that inspired Halloweens later sequels) and then starting with everything else from scratch. Overall it was a pretty simple concept, Kind of Halloween meets The Terminator (Two films which I always felt went hand in hand in terms of tone) but told between two time zones that ran against each other. 

The problem I always had with the traditional 'Slasher' set up, was that they always have a strong opening and then 40 minutes of downtime before they got to the 'good stuff'. The solution I eventually came to was to think of it as two films. One set on February 29th 2008 and one on February 29th 2012, the first playing backwards and the second forward. This way, not only could I break up the downtime, but I could essentially conceal important elements in the story that would feel otherwise mundane. Of course, 15 year old me would have been able to understand any of that. 

So as I tried to get the project off the ground, It never seemed to work quite how I imagined it, over the years I would try and make it work, but at the time didn't have the correct understanding of screenwriting and story structure to do so and so I focused my attention on other things. I was disheartened, because I'd always imagined it would be my first 'proper' feature. Another disguised Blessing.  

Eventually, over 10 years later, after making a butt load of horrible short films and some ok ones, I felt a little more confident that I had the filmmaking tools to make it work. By this time I was in preproduction on my actual first feature 'Creepsville' that I had started to develop with another writer after we graduated. Of course, I still wasn't sure I was ready and so I decided to makes another short film to help us get our heads round using the gear we'd be shooting on. 

I dusted off the old script for short film version of Thorn I'd written (Essentially a scene taken from the bigger movie), another writer friend of mine asked if he could polish it up, and then we shot it in an evening in my friends garage, we put it out there and people dug it, it even won first prize in the Scary or Die competition in 2009 against some pretty amazing entries. It was at that point that I started to feel like 'Thorn' should have been my first feature, and again I felt disheartened. Once again, it was a blessing in disguise. 

Creepsville came and went, It was a tough shoot and that was for a relatively simple concept. We got to the end, but the shoot had been a huge mess, After graduating University a year before, that was still a shoot that I've always considered my 'True Film School'. The film suffered in a lot of ways from my lack of experience. I thought to myself, this could have been 'Thorn', I could have fucked that up, and I felt less disheartened.

In 2009 Post on Creepsville was underway and taking a long time (I was fairly hand offs with it) and rather than sit around waiting I started working on the idea for my next film. "This time" I thought "It's sure to be Thorn". 

Then out of the blue I got wind of two films that were in production that sounded scarily similar to my 2005 feature script 'Slasher House'. I panicked, SH was one of the best ideas I'd ever had (make of that what you will) and it was a pretty low budget screenplay. One location, small cast. I realised it was now or never and I polished up the script and moved the film into preproduction in a bid to 'Get there first'. (Ironically the two film never even went under the lens). 

Thorn ended up on the back burner, but this time it felt a little better. See I had planned for Slasher House to be an ensemble movie and the 4th in a series. Thorn being 1 of 3 leading up to it, The other 2 being Hollower and Cleaver : Killer Clown. This would mean that I would have to change my whole series structure, but the upside was, Thorn played a big part in the Slasher House script. I decided that Slasher House would serve better as an introduction to these characters and we could tell their stories later on. Which we did.

Legacy of Thorn (2014)
Slasher House was shot in 2010/2011 and locked picture in 2012, the day after the Premier I receive dozens of calls and messages asking of there was was going to be a Thorn movie. By the time it came out on DVD in my homeland (The UK) Thorn was already an audience favourite. Now I felt like if there was a time for the Thorn movie, it was now, but whilst making the film, I'd had an inkling this would be the case.

Like I said at the beginning, a few months earlier on February 29th I had handed the first draft of a script to Anna and during this time I had been working on getting the final script ready. The script was HUGE and there was no way that I, as an inexperienced filmmaker, could have made it as a first feature, I mean the finale features a goddam Helicopter for crying out loud. 

The true blessing was that the film allowed itself to be ready before it would allow me to make it and I'm glad it did. Legacy of Thorn is one my proudest filmmaking achievements and had I made it earlier I'm not sure I'd be able to say that.

In February 2013 we started preproduction of Legacy of Thorn and one year later it Premiered in London on February 28th. Of course there was a whole adventure along the way, but that is another story for another Leap Year.


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Monday 15 February 2016


If you've been following this blog or if you watched any of our movies, you'll know that we love to try and do things as practically as possible. We try and capture as much as we can in camera, from colour to practical effects. In the age of 'Fix it in post' I have to say that I've always felt more comfortable getting as close as I can to the final product on set than I do trying to get the same effect in post production. Thats just me and how 'I' do things though. 

Ungraded shot from Hollower (2014).
I get it, digital effects and post production does a lot of good, I do use a whole heap of things from Colour correction to Masking to CG and I'm a big promoter of visual effects and post work, if it is needed,  just not if its done for the sake of it. I've saved many shots and even whole scenes in post, because something just didn't work on the day, but surely the goal is to get it right at 'showtime', or as close as you can. My 'opinion', and thats all it is, on digital effects and heavy post production is that its a great tool to help you when all else fails. You're main goal should be that all does not fail.

I started shooting my fourth feature at the end of 2014, the film, Hollower, is the story of anagoraphobic who can't leave his studio apartment. In the film there was a scene in which he attempts to leave his 'fortress of solitude' only to find that his condition won't allow it. My first thought was how I would present this visually, and I immediately jumped to what digital effects I could add in post production to represent the severity of his illness, immediately light leaks and an adding various blurs and distortions sprung to mind. I stopped myself there and just took a step back and remembered my 'Don't fix it on post' rule. How could I do what I wanted to do 'In Camera'? 

Then I realised I had the answer.


Lens Whacking is an old school and pretty well documented photographic technique, that involves creating light leaking directly onto the cameras sensor rather than being filtered solely through the lens. The technique also adds some very interesting blurs and distortion due to the way that the lens is held in front of the camera. In terms of the effect I was looking for in the film 'Lens Whacking' was clea the way to go.

Interchangeable Lens System Camera (Canon 600d/T3i)
First of all, your camera will need to have an interchangeable lens system, this is much more common these days with the advent of DSLR'S and Mirrorless system becoming a pretty standard part of the No/Low Budget filmmakers arsenal.

Remove lens from Camera.

The effect comes from removing the lens and setting your cameras 'Operate without lens attached' to on (It called something different depending on the camera model, but its a pretty universal feature and on the Canon it just involves hitting the Video button without a lens attached) this allows your camera to shoot without having your lens attached (Obviously). 

The option looks different on the Panasonic G7.
Now you have pure, unfiltered light hitting your sensor.  You can now simply hold your lens up to the sensor, but instead of attaching it, you allow light to slip in through the gap between the contacts. Moving it around until you have the desired effect. 

Hold the lens over the sensor without connecting it. 
I've found that the effect works best with Normal or Longer focal lengths and shooting on a Canon 600d (T3i), I got the best results from using the 50mm 1.8 as the shorter focal lengths seemed to give less desirable results. It takes a little experimenting to get it right, but the results can be something fantastic. 

 Get Legacy of Thorn on DVD and Digital HD now.


A few months after shooting Hollower, I was hired to shoot a video for The Pinstripe Pigeon Band to go with their new track 'Never Be Apart'. The song was a slow ballad and the band wanted something that had a restless, dreamlike feel to go with the song. I immediately thought of 'Lens Whacking' as a way to achieve the look the band wanted. I explained my approach and they loved the idea and so thats what we did, I also shot at high frame rate and played the song a double speed (So that it matched when conformed back to 25fps) to help sell the dreamlike visuals that they were going for and I was very pleased with the results.
Still from 'Never Be Apart' The Pinstripe Pigeon Band

I did hit a snag however. After we shot the story elements using the technique, we arrived on location to shoot the bands 'performance' element. Because we were based about 4 hours away  and the video had come together in relatively short notice, we hadn't seen the location outside of photographs and it was actually much smaller than we thought it would be. This was fine for close ups, but the wide shot was a vfx shot and had to be locked off, this meant that I couldn't take the lens off for the shot and so it suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the video. 

This was the one place I knew I would have to 'fix it in post' and add my leaks after. It came out ok, saved by some time in the edit fixing the problem, but it really did hit home just how much difference doing something practically actually makes. It also serves a good example of both approaches. You can check out the full video for 'Never Be Apart' below. 

So overall my point is that you should rely on post to save your ass, doing things after the fact is great, but giving a little bit of forethought to how you want your final piece to look can really, doing as much as you can there physically on set can bring your stuff to life, Plus its a lot more fun :)


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Monday 8 February 2016


Last week I talked about the advantages of getting your image how you want it 'in camera', this saves me a lot of post production work, especially when it comes to grading. A lot of projects I work on have to have a fast turn around and I know that a good deal of that will be grading the footage right at the end to give it its final look and bring out the colours and depth that the production needs.
Raw Camera Image (Ungraded/Corrected) Slasher House 2

As a general rule, I try to get my image as close to the final product and the truth is, these days, I do very little colour correction after the fact as well. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mainly because its the that I personally like to work. As usual, Its not the right way or the wrong way, just my way.

As chance would have it a friend of ours, Georgie Smibert (Who played Deputy Howells in our latest feature film 'Cleaver : Killer Clown' and our Short 'Slaypril Fools Day 5' ) needed to shoot an audition for a film role she was applying for. As recompense to our actors giving up their time to work on our stuff we're always happy to help with showreel and audition stuff  (A good habit for No budget filmmakers to get into) and she wanted to shoot the audition as a 'scene'.

We made the choice to shoot the scene as if we would shoot it on a set, but just from her angle, as if it were just that take from the overall coverage, this was mainly so the other actors didn't distract from her performance.

Now Georgie was going to cut it herself on a basic windows editor (Movie Maker I think) and so therefore I knew she wouldn't have access to correction tools or anything like that. So we decided that we would get the footage that she needed ready to go straight from camera, but it also gave me a chance to take some reference pictures in terms of how I approach colour grading.

I do my colour grading and correction 'in camera', before I even start shooting, I hate to rely on post for 'anything' and as such I approach shooting in a very practical way, so that, for the most part, I'm just making cuts and not spending weeks on trying to get colours, tones, grades right. I think about it at the time (or usually months before hand) and then make sure I get the desired image there and then.

Original 'Flat' set up for room to Grade/Colour Correct
The camera I use currently is the Panasonic G7, which give me unbelievable control over everything from Curves, to Contrast to Saturation to Colour Temperature and beyond. All things that I would tweak in post otherwise I can now just do in the camera itself. I used to a lot of this on the Canon 600d too, although that gave me a little less control overall, its still had an unbelievable amount of control via its picture profiles and my last 3 features were shot on it, I had to do very little in way of correction or grading in post even on Canon's Rebel series. I'm fairly new to the G7, but so far it makes controlling my image input a breeze.
'In Camera' Colour Correction

To me the change is very noticeable and a much nicer image. I added a 'hair light' at the rear just to bring out Georgie a little more. But that was a cool LED with no gels or filters or anything, all the colour came and depth came from just working with the cameras Profile settings to get the desired level of Contrast and Saturation and of course Colour temperature and White Balance. I also enhanced the sharpness a little too, but thats really just lends a hand with focus and as we weren't doing any post at all this would really be my only chance to fix that.

The biggest thing I've found is the use of white balance and how it drastically effects the tone of the image, I was always advised to balance to white of existing light in the room, but really experimenting with the colour balance opens up a world of style right in your camera. I may do a colour chart to demonstrate how balancing to different colours effects the image, if you want something like this, let me know in the comments below, I tried finding one online, but so far, no luck.

Anyway back to Georgie's Audition, the scene in question was quite light and fairly comedic, So I went for a brighter, lighter colour to keep the tone light, pushing the cameras colour temperature toward a warmer Orange tone. If I were doing a Horror or a Sci-Fi or a Thriller I would make a drastically different choice in terms of what colours I would balance to. This is how I apply a grade 'in camera'. 

Now, obviously this approach gives you less control in Post, but for me that is the intention. It forces me think about the decisions I make and, of course, it forces me to be a little more prepared. Now balancing to different colours can give your image a completely different feel. I'll make these choices fairly early on in larger productions and do tests with lights/gels etc to get the look that I'm after. 

Adam Dillon (Nathan from Slasher House) dropped in on his way to the Premiere of our other new feature Hollower last weekend and I stole a moment from him to demonstrate the approach and the drastic difference it can make. I had my camera set for a a few different looks I'd been working on.

So this what the original 'Normal' image looks like. Set for the the rooms natural White Balance. A fairly standard shot. To grade it i would probably pull the curves out to make the shot a little more 'Flat', like in the first example (The G7 isn't really the best for shooting flat images, so you work with what you've got) but this is pretty close to how I would shoot, if I were preparing to do colour work in post. As you can see its a fairly bland image in terms of colour. Below I've worked on some quick picture profiles, just to show how much of difference shifting colour can change the tone and style of an image. 

Obviously its a fairly quick example. On set I'd take much more time in lighting my subject and  surroundings first, but for the sake of a quick reference of what I'm talking about, this should demonstrate it fine.

All of these images are raw JPEG frames from the camera (The Panasonic G7 allows you to save stills straight from the footage in camera), uploaded straight from the card. As you can see each Grade changes the mood of the image dramatically, each one of these grades was created 'in camera' by adjusting the cameras visual settings. I used a cool LED to give me a little back light, but that was it. My camera only stores 4 looks, but really the looks you can create using just your camera are almost infinite. This is before I've even started to bring other colours into the mix using gels/filters etc.

I understand some people just won't understand my approach, its extremely counter intuitive to the way most people have become used to working, you just have to look at a modern standard film workflow and how big a part 'grading' and 'colour correction' play in that to know why this approach won't suit everyone. It 'sometimes' doesn't suit what I'm doing either, as I talked about last week. If I can though, this is my preferred way to work, to me I see it like painting on set and its a lot of fun. 

This is just one of the many ways I work, and it suites me, it might not suit you, but for me filmmaking has always been about thinking outside the box and trying things that are new to me.  


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Tuesday 2 February 2016


I was recently asked by a filmmaker friend, if he should shoot flat to give him some room to colour correct and grade in post or if he should use physical lighting to get the look he wanted. I thought it was an interesting question and it had me look at how I approach that aspect of filmmaking and how and why that has changed since I started making movies. 

Ungraded shot from
Code of Silence Music Video
If you've seen any of my work, you'll know how important colour is to me when I'm putting together ANY project. It is one of the first things I consider when I begin pre production. A lot of inspiration for this comes from Italian Director Dario Argento and his use of colour thematically across his work in the 70's and 80's as well as the fact that I grew up reading comic book and 'marvelling' at their use of vibrant colour as a language. As result colour always seemed like an equally important aspect of any visual medium to me. Especially filmmaking. 
Graded shot from Sinnergod/Blaze Bayley video 2012
Its strange to think that, even as short a time ago as the late 90's, colour wasn't given a lot of thought when putting together the look of a film. Go back and look at almost any big budget film shot in the 90's, they all have a the very same, flat, grey cinematic look, that not exclusive, but for the most part. I mean back in the early 2000's David Fincher was still considered a stylised 'out there' director and he was certainly one the directors who paved the way for this line of thought that 'colour' was, in many ways, as important as anything when telling a story. 

As we come closer to the new 20's, every film that appears in theatres is now heavily 'stylised' in its own right, a far cry from their 90's counterparts. Grading is now a permanent part of the workflow and it looks like its here to stay. So today I wanted to talk about my approach to colour and grading and how it has evolved over the last few years since I started making feature length films.

*Please remember, as with resolution, lighting, lens choice and compression, Colour and grading is a very small part of what makes an image look 'cinematic'.


Since I started filmmaking I've graded hundreds of projects. Being an early adopter of programs like HITFILM (Back when it was called AlamDV over a decade and a half ago) one of the programs primary functions outside of VFX was colour grading and it was a new an exciting tool for us as backyard filmmakers. Soon everyone was adopting it and grading became a huge part of the no budget workflow in a world where there had been no room for it before and it opened up a world of possibilities for us as visual storytellers.

The problem arose for me when I started to notice a trend, a well documented trend, that you've most likely come across before. All films started to look the same and when Hollywood finally took the tool to its full extension we started to notice that every film came with the same look. 

That 'Orange and Teal' thing that you now see on every big budget movie that hits theatres in this day and age. I hated it. Not the grading itself, I actually really like the look of a lot of these films, but just the fact that all films both low and high budget started to all just look exactly the same and in the medium of visual storytellers that is dangerous ground to walk on. In many ways, 'grading' films has made us lazy, its become the go to tool of the 'fix it in post' generation.


When I made Slasher House (back in 2010) I didn't have the equipment or the know how to really get the look that I wanted for the film. I had a clear idea of what I wanted and how the final film should appear on screen, but I was left with the option of lighting it flat and colour grading it in post. The film, for better or worse, is known for its 'nuclear' grade' and, for the most part, taking the grading approach and pushing it as far as I did really helped get the film noticed. But for me, I just wasn't happy. It didn't feel natural, it felt artificial. It felt lazy.

Ungraded shot from +Slasher House 2010
Final Grade from +Slasher House 2010
 Grading is an extremely useful tool, when I'm pushed for time on set its sometimes easier for me to shoot with a flat profile and spend my time in post just getting close to the look I want. It is an extremely powerful in terms of setting tone and it can help tremendously if you are relying on your post production time.

Graded shot from the MychoTV web series. 2011.
I directed a web series in 2011, and we had very little on set time. Sometimes about 2 hours to shoot entire sequences and we just didn't have the time or the equipment to light the way I would want to, so shooting flat and taking care of it in post was the best way to go. Its very much the same story on a lot of music shoots, with limited time with bands or performers, I'll make the choice to shoot flat as possible and do the work in post afterwards. For short form stuff, its an approach that works great for me, but in terms of how I want stuff to look, its still a compromise.

The same thing happens when I'm shooting bright, daylight exteriors. Apart from work with colour temperature, there isn't really too much I can do in terms of lighting when I'm working on a low/no budget. So I'll usually make the choice to shoot smart with available light, shoot with a flat or neutral profile and make any adjustments in post if needed.  

For me, this comes with drawbacks, It feels artificial at times and thats not the aesthetic I look for when I'm shooting. After doing this for a couple of years I decided to rethink my approach.


Ungraded shot used in Legacy of Thorn 2013
For my next feature in 2013, Legacy of Thorn, I was determined to evolve the look of the film and made the choice very early on that I wanted everything to be as physical as possible and I decided that I wouldn't stop with just pour practical effects. I decided that I would shoot everything as I wanted it to appear in the final film 'in camera'. The result was far better, it felt more natural, more real. I'd never been happier with how one of my films looked and I knew, for me, that this was the way I wanted to do things from here on in.
The next too features I worked on had very little in the way of colour correction at all. In fact Cleaver : Killer Clown, had none apart from a couple of slight colour balance shifts and some adjustment to brightness and contrast in the odd shot to match colour, but again, for the most part the film footage you see on screen is the footage I shot in camera with nothing altered. 

Ungraded shot from Cleaver : Killer Clown 2014
After getting through 2 films using almost no colour correction at all, I felt that I had found comfortable space to work in, that really worked for me and the style that I wanted to bring to my films. Using combination of lighting, gels and colour temperature in camera I found it easy to get the look I wanted without ever having to run it through colour software at all. This had some huge benefits for me.
Ungraded shot from Hollower 2015
First off, because I was doing it this way it made me think about the film and its colours in a lot more depth, right down to props, costumes and even hair colour of my actors. The approach 'forced' me to look at how I was using colour to help tell stories and best of all, saved me, literal weeks in post production because the footage was as close as I wanted it to final product meaning that a large part of my post workflow suddenly just disappeared.

Now technically I actually DO do 'some' form of colour grading, the difference being that I do it 'in camera' before I even shoot anything, but I'll talk more about that next week.


Graded shot from Slasher House 2010
When it came to Slasher House 2 I was faced with an 'interesting' dilemma. The look of the original film had been popular with the vibrant colours of the grade really standing out as a feature, but I had evolved my filmmaking style since then to use as much in camera lighting as possible. The challenge was taking the style of the original film and recreating it, physically, in camera.
The approach I took was using gels to emulated the colours and choosing costumes and locations as wisely as I could in order to keep the unique colour aesthetic, whilst helping it match the 'in camera' style that we had now employed in our filmmaking. This mixed with adjusting the cameras colour temperature and the contrast/saturation on my 'custom picture profile' helped me get the look I wanted, that has way more depth than I could ever add with a computer in post.

Ungraded shot from Slasher House 2015.
The added bonus of this, now that we're shooting our first 4K film, was that I could cut my footage with very little post processing, meaning I risk very little degradation in the image, which is more common when shooting compressed images. It also means that I can work faster and have a finished product in much less time simply by taking a little extra time on set getting it right.

Overall the most important thing is that this is what works for me personally, everyone has their own style of working and their own way of doing things and above all, you should be finding the approach to the look of your film that makes you the happiest. 

Ultimately my advice to my filmmaker friend was, "do it however YOU want to do it, its your film after all". I understand the importance of both approaches and I've seen some amazingly well graded stuff that puts my stuff to shame, and the same is true when watching people get their look right 'live on set'. It doesn't really matter how you achieve what your looking for, its all about making YOUR films YOUR way. In the end, as always, thats all that really matters.


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