Independent Filmmaking: Cameras and Kit

Indie filmmakers will argue about kit and formats until the end of the world (which, at the time of writing, is scheduled to be in about an hour according to nutjobs and the easily distracted), yet I’ve somehow managed to keep this blog going for six years or so without ever writing about it once.

This started as a vaguely conscious decision, based upon the fact that in 2003 when I was planning TrashHouse I was trying to cover up the fact that it was a digital shoot. Sounds crazy, but it’s easy to forget how much the filmmaking world has changed in nine years. Those were the days before YouTube, before home editing and before the acceptance of digital as a dominant or even viable format. I wanted people to assume that I was shooting TrashHouse on 16mm and tried to keep shots of the cameras out of behind-the-scenes publicity right up until the point I’d safely signed a distribution deal.

This is the camera TrashHouse was shot on:

Canon XM1

The Canon XM1, known as the GL1 in North America. Purchased around 2001 largely because it was a 3-chip camera and touted as ‘better than broadcast quality’ at the time, the clincher was the fact that it had DV in/out which almost no cameras in my price bracket did. I teamed it up with a DV500 capture card, which made it possible to (gasp!) get video footage onto my PC, and bought a monster PC with a ridiculously huge TWENTY GIG (ooh, shiny!) harddrive on which to edit my feature film. I tried various tricks in terms of deinterlacing the footage in a desperate attempt to make it look more like 16mm, and suspect that I fooled absolutely nobody. The stupid thing was, of course, that was I was doing was actually pretty cutting edge for an indie at the time and I really should have been pushing it as an angle rather than covering it up. Hindsight is 100%, etc. etc.

By the time the back-to-back feature shoot of 2006 rolled around, the world had moved on. HDV was the format just breaking through, and I grabbed it and embraced it.

I opted for a Sony FX1.

Sony FX1

The camera’s bigger brother, the Z1, was just slightly out of my price range, but by teaming up the FX1 with a Beachtek XLR breakout box I was able to get pretty much the same camera for a grand or so less dosh. It was at this point that I also made the jump from PC to Mac; having been haunted by endless, endless, ENDLESS system crashes whilst editing TrashHouse on a PC running Pinnacle Edition, I found cutting Hellbride and KillerKiller, on Final Cut Pro 5 and a Power Mac G5 absolute bliss.

That kit served me well. I shot KillerKiller, Hellbride, The Devil’s Music and my chapter of Bordello Death Tales on the same camera, plus countless music videos and promos. I didn’t change up until I used my cheque from the Strippers vs Werewolves screenplay to invest in some DSLR kit after seeing some of the stunning results other indie filmmakers had been getting.

So, my weapon of choice is now the Canon 7D:

Canon 7D

I used this new camera for the first time on my Nazi Zombie Death Tales chapter, and am likely to stick with it for the foreseeable future. It gives me so much more control over the image than the FX1 ever did, and as a result the stuff on screen ends up looking more like the stuff in my head. Which is a good thing.
I think kit can end up becoming a sidetrack for filmmakers planning those first few shoots. I’ve spoken to an awful lot of people who use lack of the ‘right’ camera as a reason to never film anything, but the truth is that, in my experience, it matters astonishingly little. It ain’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. The mighty Marc Price shot his astonishing debut Colin on standard miniDV (in 4:3) at a point when HDV 16:9 was considered by many to be some kind of ‘minimum’ technical spec, but the fact is that if your movie is strong enough, (in terms of grabbing the audience and taking them on a journey), then nobody really gives a shit about the tech specs.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening of Marc’s new movie Magpie a couple of weeks ago at an advance screening at the BFI. It’s an astonishingly brave, dark, beautifully performed and incredibly human movie which I can’t recommend highly enough. If Marc hadn’t just picked up a camera and gone for it back when he shot Colin, we’d have never got to see it.

So forget the tech specs and go and shoot something.

On set of Hellbride

 

PS. Since writing this blog entry I’ve stuck to the Canon 7d as my weapon of choice. I also discuss choices of camera and kit and how much (if?) it matters in my live show Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws which you can watch for free on the video below. It’s NSFW and features strong language, bloody violence and nudity. Thankfully, the nudity isn’t me.

 


 

Actors, casting and the perils of Evil Apps

A bit more about Evil Apps. It’s bubbling around in my brain and throwing its weight around, pushing other important projects to one side and shouting ‘Me Me ME’ so I might as well talk about it.

Specifically, I want to talk about casting and dealing with actors.

I tend to deal with movies that are, to some extent, ensemble pieces. KillerKiller revolved around a group of murderers, The Devil’s Music revolved around a group of musicians and a separate group of people being interviewed about them and even TrashHouse and Hellbride both had substantial casts backing up the leads and getting a decent amount of screen time. The dialogue in my chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales was (fairly) equally spread across different family members.

The odd-one-out, really, is my chapter in Bordello Death Tales. Other than a short sequence at the beginning crossing over with the other chapters in the film, it’s very much a two-hander. Cy Henty and Danielle Laws do all the heavy lifting in the story, and the whole damn things stands or falls on their performances. I was pretty confident that this would work out okay (and I think it very much did) based on the fact that I’d worked with both of them before and I knew what they were bringing to the table in terms of professionalism and ability.

bordello2

I knew I could rely on Danielle and Cy. I knew how things were going to pan out, and that gave me the confidence to leave the whole damn story in their capable hands.

If I hadn’t had that confidence, I’m not sure I’d have written a two-hander. Working with actors is always a fascinating experience for me, even if we make mistakes along the way. I realise that I’m not the most actor-focused director in the business, although I’m trying harder and getting better as I go along, and so I’m aware of the fact that I’m relying on these guys really bringing the goods to the table. By the time I’m actually deep in a shoot, I’m often juggling too many balls to be giving in-depth notes on performance. I hope that myself and the folks on the other side of the camera can reach a kind of synchronicity before we start shooting (which is why I’m getting more and more into rehearsals as my career chugs onwards) because often, on the day, I’m only really clocking the nuances of performances on a particular take if there’s something happening that I really don’t like. The rest of the time I’m looking at what’s through the viewfinder (or on the playback when I have the luxury of a separate DP) as a whole, and I’m rarely taking enough of a step back to think whether the performance is the very best that the actor in question is capable of.

This approach gets you through production on schedule, but often comes back to bite you on the arse in post. There have been a few occasions where I’ve looked at a finished sequence and realised that an actor did a certain bit of business in rehearsal (a look, an inflection, a way of delivering a line) that they dropped ‘on the day’ and I didn’t notice because I was too worried about losing daylight or whether a blood explosion was going off at the right time. And that stuff hurts a bit, because you realise that the movie has just lost a nice moment that could have been saved with a *sentence* at the right time to the performer.

So, what’s all this got to do with Evil Apps?

Well, Evil Apps is very much a two-hander. I never planned it to be, because I never really planned  And this isn’t a 24 minute anthology section, this is a feature. I can’t use any of my regular ‘go to’ cast, because the ages don’t fit the characters, which means that if I were to put this feature into production I’d be resting the whole flick on two performances from actors that I’d never worked with before. That’s an idea that I find kind of scary.

The things I find scary, I also find fun.

Evil Apps

There’s a script called Evil Apps which, frankly, shouldn’t exist.

As I write these words, the week before Christmas in 2012, I’ve already got two screenplays in fairly decent shape. They need a bit of a tweak here and there, granted, but my old friends House on the Witchpit and Chainsaw Fairytale are sitting cheerfully on my hard drive awaiting their fate, (which will be, in each case, to either end up in front of the lens as a Jinx Media feature or get sold off to another company and be put into production over there). Those should be my top priority.

Not to mention the fact that I’m also putting together delivery packages for various DVD releases at the moment (including the director’s cut of The Devil’s Music that will be going out through Cine Du Monde in the new year), plus assembling a new version of the live show for Horror on Sea, plus the various lecturing and stuff that I do as well.

In other words, there is no room in my life for a new script.

And then, out of the blue, I tweeted:

 Image

So, yeah. It was a script that was an ‘idea I’d never get time to write’ on December 5th.

A week and a half later, I had the majority of the first draft written. Weird the way these things sometimes drop into your head more or less fully formed. It was absolutely the easiest writing experience of my life, even beyond the oddly simple first draft of KillerKiller back in 2005.

Evil Apps went from being a cute idea to a fully functioning script with characters I cared about and a (hopefully) engaging plot in a matter of days. Crazy.

So, how does this affect my plans for next year? Well, time will tell. Once the honeymoon period with this project ends, we’ll see where we stand. Either way, it’s been a hell of a productive couple of weeks.

So, yeah. Stay tuned. Make sure you follow me on Twitter to hear how the whole thing develops. And come along to the live show, because I’ll probably talk about it there too.

I love this planet.