Final Thoughts

The film was finalised and submitted recently and, contrary to last year, I still feel excited and enthusiastic about it. Feedback had been unanimously positive and Emily and I are going to research for acceptable film festivals to send it to. The aim is to float it around as many LGBT festivals in Europe as we can afford and see where it takes us. The Sheffield Doc fest is the go to festival in this country, and one of the leading in Europe , so we will arrange to send it there. Emily and I took a research trip to the BFI Flare festival a few weeks back to try and gauge the standard of films being shown. We attended the TransAmerica short film selection – 8 films in total. Although our film wasn’t finished, we came out convinced that if we were to complete it to the standard that we anticipated, we would have a chance of being selected. Of the films, 1, at a stretch 2, were any good. Some of them had major technical issues or were incredibly minimalistic. After the rough cut and further feedback from our film theory lecturer Lara (who’d just acted as judge on a festival panel and advised us to enter to festivals), we were convinced that we might have a chance.

 

 

The year as a whole, as I write in reflection, has been the most enjoyable yet. The process of making this film seemed slow before Christmas but everything kicked into gear by January. My spirits were pretty low in March during the first editing stage. It is impossible to guess how people will react to your film and this becomes even harder when you have spent so long in the company of the content and the people who helped to make it. We all became completely sanitised by it and were left with no choice but to stick to the plan and hope that people got it. As late as the night before the rough cut screening, Alex, Emily and I sealed the rough cut and all said – “that will do for now..”. I waited anxiously for our film to be screened in the rough cut screening and was convinced that it would be torn apart. I knew how to articulate and justify my processes but I was worried that it wouldn’t work for everyone else – whether they got it or not. I was amazed at the feedback and Emily and Alex were too. We all went for relief drinks at the pub that night and the glowing comments and praise we were receiving was too much to take. I find it hard to take compliments – don’t know why – but I was buzzing inside. The buzz lasted for a week or so and re-energised me after previously feeling slightly lethargic and deflated. Receiving praise from peers and professionals always feels good.

I’ll be graduating next month and will be out into the world again. It’s no masterpiece but it does feel encouraging to have options. Whatever the grade for the film or the degree as a whole, I can honestly approach the next phase of my career with a film under my arm that I am proud of. I can be my own worst critic sometimes – so that counts for a lot.

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Secondary Role: “Cellular”

Further to my work on the music video I also worked as D.O.P on Cellular, a short drama directed by Mantas Beginskas.

The project wasn’t just a polar opposite in terms of genre and content, but also process. Mantas has a firm grip of exactly what he wants for the project and from each team member and has no difficulties expressing his ideas and desires. I had various short meetings with Mantas to discuss the themes involved and how we could create a look that befits this project but also references others from which it was inspired. Mantas stated early on that it needed to be “steady” and “slick” – to quote some of the adjectives used.

My first point of call was to look at other works that might have been of inspiration to Mantas when writing the script. The obvious choices were Her (2014, Jonze) and The Social Network (2010, Fincher) – two films that I admire greatly. Both of these films raise questions about the direction that society is heading as a result of our use of and reliance on technology. I re-watched many Fincher films and noticed how he seldom uses camera movement within a scene. In all most all of his films (Fight Club the exception) he moves throughout a scene with different focal lengths or, sometimes, a new camera position. This was my preferred take on things as well and a strategy/style I was adopting for my own film. In my opinion, overuse of camera movement can undermine the drama that takes place within a scene. Often I think that excessive camera movement is used to mask the lack of drama or poor framing and mis en scene. My favourite cinematographers are Wally Pfister, Roger Deakins , Vittorio Storaro and Nestor Almendros  – although none of them had a visual style that lent itself to this project – I explored their writings and interviews for tips and advice.

We discussed which camera to use and what format to shoot in. My GH4 was available but I had neglected to use it for my own film as I was unconvinced that it looked cinematic enough. Mantas wanted to do a lot of work in the colour grade to manipulate the aesthetic further than what could achieve in camera anyway – so the clear choice would be the black magic.

The shoot was extremely straight forward. If Mantas thinks he has the take, he’ll watch it back and then move on. This was almost always the case within the first one or two takes. We shot for two days at a rented apartment in Tottenham and had to capture about 25 shots in total. I had Sam with me as camera assistant which helped speed up the set ups. We ploughed through the shots at an almost alarming speed. Personally when directing, although I feel an element of impatience to get shots captured and  progress made to calm anxieties, I still decide to do a few takes more to explore different possibilities. For example, I might ask the actors to depart from the script and ask them to improv the scene how they interpret their characters might play it out. Nevertheless, this is Mantas’s style of directing and he seemed to be in control of the set and the actors.

Mantas left me in complete control of setting up which was nice. Once the actors were positioned, it would be my responsibility to choose camera position, lenses and advise the lighting guys. This definitely helped me feel like I had responsibility of my own role and the trust of the director – something which in previous years had been quite rare for most taking up technical roles. Mantas had created a multi page document for the technical crew named – “The Art of Cellular” – something for which he received huge amounts of teasing. Mantas is a self confessed ‘Nolanite’ and although this was a serious attempt at making things easier for the crew, we couldn’t help but see the funny side having all remembered him turning up at uni the Monday after seeing Nolan’s Interstellar with the companion book – The Art of Interstellar – like a kid in christmas morning grinning like a cheshire cat. That said, his intentions were honest and it did actually serve its purpose. Mantas had included reference stills from films that illustrated the type of composition he had in mind or he had drawn small floorpans to work from.

We shot the remainder of the film on campus and were lucky to have permission to shoot in the library. The conditions were perfect; smooth and level floors, clean environment; light, spacious and empty. Again, Mantas was very quick with the shot turnover and after starting at 7am, the day was completed by 3pm – having captured 15 shots in 3 locations. I do remember wondering how on earth a film was going to be made out of what we had captured. By my calculations we had around 40 shots in total and I struggled to see how 40 shots from 4 locations would span a 12 minute film – even when you take into account the narrative function of the on screen graphics.

I really enjoyed working on this film. Mantas gave me almost complete autonomy when on set and, for the most part, allowed me to be creative – so long as it be integral to the tone of the film. There were, of course, many suggestions I made that were not chosen and the decision was always made final by Mantas. It has to be said that our relationship throughout was a healthy one where ideas were encouraged and explored – yet in the event of them not being chosen, no offence was taken. Communication between us was clear and concise and I found it very easy to interpret what he wanted.

 

Kay comes to London: Spoken Word & Hip Hop

The Hip Hop performance section was shot very late. The spoken word even later. Immediately after the dance shoot, Kay’s life took a dramatic turn for the worse. Although I am not at liberty to discuss in detail, in short, relations with his family and the majorette organisation had reached boiling point. Kay found himself staying with friends and no longer part of the organisation. Despite this Kay was still very enthusiastic about the project and followed through on his commitment to come and record and film the Hip Hop and spoken word segments.

Kay Narration Script

Kay Narration Script 2

Kay Narration Script 3

Kay Extras

It was early April when I brought Kay back with me after a short trip to Devon. His spirits were low and he was far from his usual self. Kay had started writing the hip hop lyrics with me on his last visit and we intended to finalise during this one. Understandably, he hadn’t been able to find the time or emotional energy to do so to date. As Kay was without a home in Devon, I offered him the spare room at my house beyond the period he was due to stay for. Having his own space and being left to his own devices is something Kay seems to require.

I had written a narration ‘script’ which was an edited version of the interview transcript. I went over the transcript and highlighted anything that was of specific relevance to our story and approach or that could reference the images we had captured (Swing, Roundabout, Eye etc). From this split them into the relevant sections of the film by numbering them 1, 2 or 3. With this I rewrote a script for Kay to narrate in the recording studio. 90% of it were his own words, the rest paraphrasing. Kay’s demeanour was pretty downbeat at the time of recording and, strangely, this helped the final product. Now, for the edit, we had the same words delivered in two different tones/styles – allowing us wriggle room.

That evening we had to finalise the hip hop lyrics. I had already started long before in preparation and showed some examples to Kay but he was struggling to get motivated. His creative juices weren’t particularly flowing and it got pretty desperate. By 10:30pm , I contacted Emily and said that we’ d have to cancel. There was no way that Kay could write anything now or perform it well enough tomorrow. Just as we were about to give up, we had a brain wave and some lyrics came out that seemed perfect. Kay was uplifted at the progress and said that he wanted to give them a crack tomorrow.

We recorded Kay’s performance in Pete’s studio. We definitely felt that as it was acting as a form of narration, that the audience should remain the camera and there should be a personal element to the performance – as is the case with the empty arena for the dance sequence. We chose tight frames and quick cuts to keep visual interest but without the flamboyance to detract from the lyrics. Kay found it hard initially to grasp the flow of the lyrics but eventually found a groove. Somehow, we had snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat. Only hours earlier we considered canceling the shoot and, perhaps, the segment also. As it turns out, the segment is one of the strongest of the film. The lyrics are easily identifiable as amateur – as is the deliverance – but this was intended.

At the rough cut screening we didn’t actually have in place the spoken word performance. Although we had gotten positive feedback for the film in its current state, we were wary of being complacent and that an inferior first segment could affect the film. We were unsure of how to film the performance and were deliberating over either having Kay actually perform to an audience at an open mic night or, recreate a club type setting using an empty bar or the facilities at uni. In the end, we decided to keep it in line with the rest of the film and have no audience but the viewer. Using G231, we hired a set of DEDO lights and a camera set up and, similar to the projector shot, had Kay enter the light off camera and record his silhouette on the white backdrop. This would appear in the film before the projector shot at the end of the first segment so would set up a nice theme and style that would be returned to later. Further to this, it is the first time in the film that the audience gets any visual clue of how Kay currently looks without a full reveal.

In terms of content, it was thematically awkward to have Kay perform this segment AS the person he was at the point in question -as is the case with the Hip -Hop and dance. No 5 year old can write spoken word poetry and for him to write in the midst of a 5 year old would be incredibly strange. Another option would have been for him to read A diary that he might have kept at that time but this was also unrealistic, not to mention the fact that we didn’t have it. Kay mentions regularly his identification with the Jungle Book so I started to research the copyright laws. As it turns out, the original version by Rudyard Kipling in in the public domain and fee to be used. Even better, preceding each chapter was a short poem. I ran this past James and he was enthusiastic about the idea. It all felt perfectly rounded by this point. Not only did it take away the pressure we’d had with the Hip Hop segment, it was also personal to Kay, widely recognised, professional, free and most importantly, stylistically and thematically relevant.

Kay departed in better spirits and Emily and I had officially finished shooting. The film was done!

Post Production

 

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Alex started the process very early. Every time we came back to campus with some material, he was quick to have it on the timeline. Due to the fragmented nature of the shooting, the editing was equally as fragmented. There was never a point throughout the editing process where anything felt wholesome, including the rough cut we created.

If truth be told if you were to total all of the hours spent editing it wouldn’t add up to a great deal. Due to the nature of the film there was no dialogue to sync with the images so once they were on the timeline, at most, they would be needed to be moved later on. We gave ourselves 12 minutes on the time line and mapped out a structure on paper – placing footage in the estimated place in the film. The edit would be made up of so many fragmented sections that it seemed impossible to make progress. I would come in with Alex for a few hours here and there and just try and make as much headway as possible. It didn’t take long to assemble the archive and filled the first section of the film with photo’s and footage that was relevant to what Kay would be narrating. This was the easy part and we were twiddling our thumbs for a while.

The first notable advancement was after we returned from the dance shoot. After a day of rest I gave Alex the footage and he preceded to arrange it. Rather than sit with him we decided that it might be useful to let him have a play and see what he could come up with. We met the next day and the results were amazing! The first assembly of the dance sequence was almost exactly as I wanted but there were a few issues to overcome. We shot using GH4 and Black Magic so the footage didn’t match. The Black Magic was more raw whilst the GH4 had more saturated colours. On top of this, some of the takes from the Black Magic set ups were not focused as much as we’d like but the ones that were featured inferior performances of the routine by the dancers. The GH4 gave us a get out clause but we would have to hope that we could match the colours in the grade. For now, we cut the sequence using only the Black Magic and awaited feedback.

 

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ABOVE: A plot diagram to assist Alex with the edit

After we finally had all of the components (aside from a few exterior shots), it was really a case of slotting them into the holes that were left. We took segments of Kay’s freshly recorded narration and spaced them out into the relevant sections – tweaking the pacing of the visuals to suit. As we had recorded narration that was rewritten from Kay’s original interview we had options. The editing process in general went very smoothly. There were no major issues and our biggest problem was deciding which takes form our coverage of the dance sequence to use. This was a nice problem to have. In the end, we ended up brushing up the performance of the routine by cutting between the GH4 and the Black Magic. Instantly the routine had a better flow and this offset the initial worry about colour.

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ABOVE: More plotting for Alex and I.

The colour grade took us 1 full day. I have zero technical affluence with regards to the colour grading process and can only suggest what I want it to look like. Sam had done a good job with framing, white balance, lighting and exposure – so half the job was done. Also, as the film relies of the use of archive footage and videos, there was a decent amount that didn’t need touching. The main job was lifting the colours from the flat image the camera gives, and making the aesthetic of the frame suit the tome of the narration. We made the image more dull and flat when Kay dresses the dark periods in his life and we lifted the brightness and saturation when more positive. We did have to match the GH4 – B.Magic footage and after consultation with Ana Barsukova and a quick tutorial, we managed to get them pretty much spot on.

The final elements were sound mixing, credits and music. We got Kay into the animation suite to create the main credits using his own handwriting in photoshop. It should have been easy but Kay made particularly hard work of it. Kay being Kay, was unhappy with any of his attempts and wanted ‘direction’ of which style to write! At this stage of the process I was not about to direct someones handwriting (as if the film wasn’t embellished enough)!. With my tongue firmly bitten, I politely asked him to, swiftly, write as naturally as he could – then left the room. My brother had composed the Swan Lake ballerina box chime in advance and the the rest of the music that appears in the film – all of which, are subtle interpretations of Swan Lake where the notes are mixed to create a sense of familiarity without necessarily being able to identify them as such. Pete did the sound mix for us and it was really a case of polishing and changing levels. I can’t take any credit for the quality of the sound. It was all recorded by Emily and mixed by Pete. I did have final say but when in the company of an expert such as Pete – it’s often best to ask there advice and run with it. Pete gets a good grasp of the project pretty quickly and is good at understanding what is required. In total we spent about 7 hours on the mix. If I had more time I would have done more (recorded my own effects etc.) , but the outcome is distinctly better than the rough cut.

The whole post production process was pretty smooth. This is due to two factors: Having the write team and doing the pre prod/production correctly. This is mainly down to Emily’s organisation of the project before production and Jess’s during. Alex likes to be hands on in the edit and didn’t just rely on me telling him what I wanted. He embraced the project and put his own stamp on it. The efficiency of the dance sequence and the pacing of the film as a whole is as much him as me. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be hunting Alex when it comes to my next project for editing.

 

Secondary Roles: D.O.P – ‘Hand in Hand’

Over the last couple of years I’ve tended to look at films from more of an aesthetic point of view. A flimsy plot or far-fetched story is easily forgivable, in my opinion, if the film looks amazing. Conversely, a gripping story and/or great performances I find hard to watch if the cinematography is bland or poor. As this year we had to undertake two major secondary roles as well as our own films, I wanted to put my new found enthusiasm for operating the camera to good use and try my hand at D.O.P roles.

 

 

At the start of the year Sam Wain and I had bought a Panasonic Lumix GH4 with a Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 lens and a metabones speed-booster – giving us an extra f- stop and reducing the crop factor. I hadn’t had a massive amount of practice before the secondary roles became available, so I spent some time playing around and experimenting. I was used to the Canon D range and had plenty of experience with my own 600d and the university 7d’s – but this and the Black Magic’s we were able to use this year are a level above. 

I managed to secure 2 films as a DOP this year. The first was a music video for Hip Hop artist King Kofi, directed by Fred Iyeh. The shoot was due to start in early February but due to production issues was heavily delayed. It was frustrating trying to keep enthusiastic about a project and keeping a creative outlook when delay after delay keeps occurring. Although these issues were no fault of Fred’s, the work load of my own film was stacking up, making it even harder to find time for the video. Eventually Fred changed his producer and immediately things started moving again. By early March we were having positive meetings and his new producer, Amnah, got things back on track.

Fred’s video was to be narrative based and would follow the lead character and artist as he struggles to get over a previous break up. After talking with Fred we decided that a mixture of slow mo and regular speed footage would suit the film nicely. The video was to be split into 2 shoot days, the first of which would be the party scene where the protagonist witnesses his ex at a party. As there are elements of flash back, it could be used as an identifiable feature to distinguish between past and present. The slow mo would be easy, so long as it didn’t involve lip syncing, which, it didn’t. The Black Magic only shoots 30fps so is not able to shoot slow mo. You can slow the footage down but this skips frames and looks poor. In any case, it was my job to achieve as much as possible with the camera. I advised Fred that we could use my GH4 as this can shoot full HD and 4k at 96fps, allowing a smooth image. Fred was unsure exactly what speed he wanted so I would shoot at 96fps which would allow him to use that as a minimum speed that could be increased to suit. Before we would shoot the dramatic elements of the video, we would shoot in the TV studio at university. Fred wanted a master shot of the artist performing the track from start to finish in close up. It was pretty simple stuff – I set up two rotalights, each at opposing 45 degree angles to the subject and moved him away from the black backdrop, turning the house lights off. I adjusted the settings on the lights so one side of the face was lit warmer and brighter than the other – creating slight shadow and definition across his face. The opposing light filled the spots that were too dark with a whiter light- creating a slight contrast. We shot various focal lengths and position and experimented with camera movement.

The tone of the music is fairly melancholic and contemplative so we aimed to match the visual aesthetic. I wanted to avoid using to much artificial light where possible, although this obviously would not be possible for the night party scene. I visited the location with Fred a few days before the shoot to have a look around and map out the shots. The room we had for the party scene was rectangular and had floor to ceiling mirrors along one length and floor to ceiling windows along the other. Clearly this was an absolute nightmare environment in which to shoot with light bouncing around everywhere and the possibility of lights/camera/crew being visible in the shot. I suggested to Fred that him an Amnah find some black bedsheets and cover the mirrors and drape some fairy lights over it to make it less bland. The window would be less of a problem as the light source within the room would be minimal enough to cause a distinguishable reflection. We were shooting outside of the room for the intro to video where was a large decking area. In the corner was a wooden bench arrangement and nearby were some potted plants. There was no light outside so I suggested that we turn on the lights inside to slightly illuminate the area but it was still to dark. The LED Rotalights would be ideal to light the scene – as long as they were set to a yellower colour temperature. I spoke with Amnah about buying enough fairy lights to decorate the outside area as well because it looked pretty bland. If the lights were behind the characters and I shot using a low f-stop, it would give a nice bokeh effect where you could see the lights glisten, appearing larger and hexagonal. I also suggested placing candles around the area to justify shooting with a warmer colour temperature, if not to light the scene.

When it came around to shooting we had various issues. The initial plan was to go handheld and follow the character along a corridor where he has an exchange with another man. The walls, though, were clinical and sterile and the shots looked bland and uninteresting. Further still, the lights were timed and censored meaning they kept flickering on and off and from white to yellow. It wasn’t a great start. There was lots of waiting around for the evening to arrive and the darkness to fall for the party scene. All the invited extras were 2 hours late so we finally got shooting around 9pm. The plan was to get to central London that evening to shoot another scene but it just wasn’t going to happen. Fred wanted to shoot 39 shots between 14:00 and 22:00. From the get go I voiced my concerns but it was more out of time restrictions and necessity than naivety. Either way it was wishful thinking. Alex was on set as gaffer and did a great job lighting. We did the best we could with the location but, there was a lot of pressure to get the shots quickly. We wrapped at 23:00 and ditched the evening shoot, instead rearranging for the evening of the next shoot day.

A few days later we had 3 locations to shoot in the afternoon and evening. The first two shots were in Camden and would involve the character sat outside his ex’s house in the rain. Unfortunately for us, it was a bright sunny day. We managed to acquire a hose pipe and a location with an outside tap. The protagonist sat in the shade on a set of steps whilst a crew member doused them with freezing water. Fred wanted it slow mo, which seemed the right idea, but when you playback it seems to highlight the artifice of the rain. With that done we moved to a university dorm room to shoot a pillow fight. The room was tiny – no more than 10ft x 6ft. The walls were whitewash and the window was letting in harsh rays of midday sun that formed a square patch on the wall above the bed – where the action would take place. I had to use the 14mm lens to frame both characters so the frame was dominated by the blandness. We blocked the light as much as possible but had 20 minutes to get the shot. It’s, without doubt, the weaker of the whole video. In fact, Fred has now removed the scene entirely – something I think necessary. Finally, we reconvened that evening at Piccadilly circus. Here we would shoot the protagonist after leaving the party with another girl. Because of the volume of people around, we went handheld. Fred wanted me to shoot them walking around the side streets in a tracking motion but the without anything other than my tiny LED panel would struggle to make it look nice. Instead, I put forward the idea of maximising the beaming lights coming from the advertising panels at Piccadilly Circus. The lights would flicker white to yellow to pink and along with the traffic lights in the background, again shallow depth of field and distinct bokeh, would give an ethereal aesthetic. We very much improvised and experimented with movements and positions and slow motion and were lucky to be able to have such a huge wall of changing light to work with.

Fred is a good director to work with because, although he knows what he wants, he is more than willing to let you pitch in with ideas and experiment  – understanding that a fresh and objective set of eyes can offer alternatives. Fred allowed me to be ‘hands on’ on this project and try and inflict my own visual style  -even if there wasn’t much time with which to plan.

Devon Shoot: Part 2

Late March was upon us and with that meant the final stages of shooting in Devon. We rented a cottage on the outskirts of Tiverton, saving us some money as we were there for 5 nights. The Saturday and Sunday were scheduled for the dance sequence meaning we had Thursday and Friday to capture everything else. On top of the bridge, bus and roundabout shots that we failed to get last time, we needed a panoramic shot of the town, some establishing shots of Tiverton and some inserts in Kay’s bedroom.

EXT. SHOT LIST – MARCH

SHOT LIST – MARCH 2

NEW HALL SHOT LIST

New-Hall-Floor-Plan (Of Building, Not for Director)

Thursday and Friday went pretty smoothly. We now had permission to get on the bus so had 15 minutes to get the shot that I wanted. Sam, Kay and I got on the 55 bus to Exeter and quickly got as many shots as possible whilst Emily and Jess followed in the car behind. It was a sunny day so perfect for the bridge shot. The terrain wasn’t immaculately level so we had to buy some lengths of baton to shore the tracks up. Getting the shot was challenging but after dozens of takes, were happy that we had the shot. We shot with various focal lengths to give us options. The roundabout shot took a little bodging to get but we managed it. We had to set the tripod up on top of some garden chairs from Kay’s to match the angle and frame that we had from the turntable (the shot from which this one would transition) We managed this using a still from the shoot of the turntable. Off screen I was spinning Kay around on the roundabout, trying various speeds. There was obviously a limit to how many times this was possible and Kay wasn’t having much fun being constantly spun.

We had hired a large concert hall in the centre of town for the dance sequence at a huge cost. We paid in the region of £400 for half a day on Saturday and the whole day on Sunday. We brought all of the equipment along on the Saturday and intended to use the time testing camera movements with the choreography and farming the set ups I had drawn up on the floorpan. This day was, probably, the darkest day of the whole production. Kay and the majorettes were due to arrive at 12pm to start rehearsing but none of them were. Kay had been out drinking the previous night and was one of the last there at around 1pm. His sister, Kelly, who was featuring largely in the dance, ended up arriving around 3pm. Two dancers didn’t turn up at all. Even worse, despite constant reassurance from Kay, it was clear that no real efforts had been made to develop the dance any further than where it was by the time we left in January. The track that Kay had had for months, was suddenly not structurally sound for the way he wanted the choreo to go. To his credit this was true but only became apparent to us whilst there. Kay should and could have known weeks ago. Emily and I had to re-cut the music on set and managed to make an edit 2 minutes long that featured a mixture of the moods within the original.

Kay was under a lot of pressure to guide the majorettes through their own competitions, as well as his own media work, nevertheless this was unacceptable. Kay is of the impression that he is capable of doing everything at the last minute and planning is unnecessary. We had stressed exactly what our plans were and exactly what was expected of him, but still, he saw fit to do it his own way. I was furious and hid myself away. If I had of acted on my emotions at that time, it was entirely possible that I may have said something that could have compromised the whole production. Emily called a break and walked with Kay to the shop and have a diplomatic chat with him. Diplomacy is a great strength of Emily’s and she was far better suited to that conversation than I. Sam pulled me to one side and made it clear that this could not happen on Sunday. I agreed and took some time to calm down and think of my approach.

The day was a write off for the crew. Only within the last 30 minutes was there a completed dance routine that could be filmed. All that was achieved was getting things to the level they should have been on arrival. I was massively deflated and felt extremely anxious about how tomorrow might go. Would they turn up on time? At all? Even if they did, what would the gimbal shots turn out like that we had planned but not tested?

Kay and the dancers were due at 8am sharp. They all arrived at 8:30 although had contacted us to inform us. We wanted to start the cameras rolling by 9:30 to give us time to set up and the girls to get dressed and in make up. What actually transpired is the first shots being captured at 11am. We had the hall until 4pm and had to factor in breaks so the pressure was on. Shooting 3 positions at the same time: A wide master on the GH4 and the two raised altar positions, we ran the performance through 5 or 6 times before breaking. The dance is pretty explosive and energy consuming so regular water breaks were necessary. With each take the dance got better and better. After 11 0r 12 consecutive takes, with Sam moving between each position, we definitely had the whole performance covered between the 3 set ups so we stopped for lunch.

The crew and I felt a lot more positive at this stage but still had to get the shots on the stage using the gimbal and in front of the stage using the dolly –  all in 3 hours. The dancers were becoming a little fatigued and their knees were beginning to sore. Fortunately the gimbal shots would be the last shots requiring the dance to be performed from start to finish with the rest being fragmented. Sam was excellent on the gimbal. The shots were specifically planned but it took a lot of craft and intuition on his part to be able to position himself amongst the dancers and anticipate their movements. His work on the gimbal gives the performance a new dimension and places the audience right amongst the dancers – all at the perfect place in the track – something we had only minutes to plan.

Luckily for us the dancers peaked whilst we were on the gimbal. By the time we were on the dolly at the front of the stage, they were all exhausted. We got all of the remaining listed shots but by this stage, everyone had had enough. I couldn’t communicate clearly what I wanted and found myself rambling incoherently. Sam was getting frustrated, the dancers tired and the performances were suffering. We all became snappy with each other and tensions were rising. By this point the crew had spent 5 days living and eating together in the same house and working with each other every day. After a stressful day yesterday and a long day today – with no daylight listening to the same piece of music on repeat for 8 hours – it was clear we needed to wrap up. In the end, we pulled the final shots out of the bag and were wrapped by 15:30. We thanked Kay and the dancers and gave them a parting gift of some chocolate – for which they were grateful.

That evening we all felt exhausted but accomplished. The film was almost there. All that remained was the filming of the hiphop sequence, spoken word sequence and narration.

 

 

 

 

Kay Comes to London: Stage 1

Before we were due back in Devon, Kay was booked in to do two days of shooting with us in London. For this shoot period we would capture:

  • Choreography prep shots with projector
  • Extreme close up of Kay’s eye watching sex-ed video
  • Bathroom shots of Kay shaving
  • Underwater/inside sink shot
  • Bedroom shots of Kay prepping Hip Hop performance

Shot List 34c

The idea was to have Kay, in the final section of the film, dancing in front of a projector using the archive images of himself projected onto it as inspiration for his choreography. Initially the plan was to not have Kay in silhouette and instead see the images projected onto him. I asked Alex to compile a short reel of the archive footage for the process. We booked G231 for the day of Kay’s arrival and in the morning started lining up the shots. It was very clear early on that getting the planned shot was not possible or necessary. The image was not distinguishable enough on my face when tested and it just appeared as a poorly lit shot. As we were trying to keep Kay’s appearance restricted, it just didn’t work at all. Instead, when I stepped towards camera a few feet, my whole body was in silhouette. Kay arrived and against the grainy saturation of the archive it looked really nice. Further to that, the silhouette added a mysterious quality and an interesting juxtaposition of images. In the same frame Kay was visible to the audience but only via his current shape and previous appearance. This, thematically and aesthetically, was absolutely perfect. We ran 4 or 5 takes and we had it.

ABOVE: The archive reel we stitched together to project behind Kay

Next up was the shot of Kay’s eye watching the 1950’s sex education film. I had seen a shot similar in the documentary Gascoigne – about the footballer, Paul Gascoigne. In the shot he watches a TV screen playing clips of himself playing football for England during the 1990 world cup – a memory that is melancholic for him. The lens is so close that you can distinctly see what he is watching in the reflection of his eye – all the while able to see any twitch of emotion in his eyebrow or eyelids. Now that I was going to incorporate the sex ed video into the film, i wanted to get a similar shot. Sam and I had tested it with the 85mm Samyang lens but we couldn’t get the definition in the reflection or close enough without losing focus. I managed to source a 100mm prime lens from Jon Cox and it gave us the perfect shot. I didn’t tell Kay about the plan to incorporate the sex ed film in order to try and capture some emotion in his eye. He was very co-operative throughout the whole filmmaking process anyway, so when we asked him to sit and watch my laptop he duly obliged without question. Despite having no idea what he was watching, he kept his eyes glued to the screen with subtle flinching or eye movements as he grimaced at the content. I felt odd betraying his trust in order to get the shot but I definitely think it was necessary and I’d certainly do it again.

The next day we had a mixture of some very simple shots to capture and 1 particularly difficult shot. In the morning we got all of the shots in the bathroom of Kay shaving. It was all straight forward and, as expected there were no major issues. The only difficulty was getting the shots in one take from each angle to avoid Kay running out of hair. We moved into the bedroom and got a few shots for the second segment in the film of Kay writing the Hip-Hop track (this wasn’t him actually writing it), placing a record on the deck and stepping away to start his performance out of focus. The final shot was an overhead of the record on the turntable. This I wanted to transition – whether it be by cute or fade – into an overhead of Kay sat on the roundabout in his local park. As we were still to capture the latter, we would use this shot as the template for it. With all of these successfully captured, we set about getting the underwater shot.

kevin12

ABOVE: The underwater shot in We Need to Talk about Kevin

The shot was there for two reasons. 1: To add visual interest and, 2: To allow the audience a brief look at Kay’s face in full – albeit distorted by the water. I had seen this shot in We Need to Talk About Kevin and set about trying to create it for myself. I bought a large plastic storage tub and filled it with water. At home I have a dining chair that has a removable seat panel – leaving a square frame. I laid my GH4 on the floor facing upwards, pressed record and placed the tub over the chair. After a few attempts it looked as though it would work. As I had tested it by myself, the rest of the group had to trust that it was possible. When they saw me setting it up they were very trepidatious – Emily in particular. We had the Black Magic so could make use of the monitor and the record button on top. We had Jess, Emily and Alex holding the tub whilst I lit from underneath with a small LED panel. After a few takes,lens changes and propping of the camera on books, we had the shot.

This was the most successful period of the production process to date. We encountered no issues that caused great stress and any that did arise, were logically addressed by the team.  Kay left at 16:00 and headed back to Devon where we would next meet for the second phase of the Devon shooting.

 

 

Archiving

It was going to be another 5 weeks before we would have the cameras rolling again but there was still masses of work to be done. Kay was due in London for 2 days of shooting in early March – giving me enough time for further development and to plan the next stages. Before any of this could be done, though, there was the small matter of 20 hours or so of VHS tapes to scour through.

Luckily for me the media office at Uni has a VHS machine that is compatible with the mac’s, enabling me to record straight onto the desktop using Quicktime. I needed a system to be able to archive efficiently and to make sense of the hours of footage. To avoid creating too many files I recorded the videos in their entirety and kept a log of the elements of each that were useable. Each VHS would have a number and description, and every moment that was useable would be logged with a description and timecode. There were a couple of tapes that were irrelevant or had been recorded over, but in any case, it was necessary to watch every one through to the end such was the fear of missing out on one priceless moment.

I felt deeply privileged to have access to this material. I felt like a fly on the wall of every family function. Included in the tapes were Kay’s christening, second and fifth birthdays, family weddings, Kay’s brother’s birthday parties and family barbecues. It’s hard to think now what I would have done without it. Although the task was draining at the time, it was more than fruitful. In the end I managed to log 40 or so clips that were useable for the film. I passed them over to Alex, our editor, and he started filing them for later on.

KJB Days 1-2 Transcript

There was also the tedious task of transcribing the interview. Emily divided the interview into 3 segments – one for herself, Jess and I. Emily and I were very unenthusiastic about the process but by the time we had gone around to do it, we opened our emails to find that Jess had completed the lot! This was typical of Jess and one reason why she was a valued member of the team.

With 4 weeks to go until the next shoot, as it stood, we had a decent amount of material to play with and felt buoyant as we took some time to develop the next stages and work on our other films in our secondary roles.

 

The First Shoot

We had booked 4 days at the same BnB we had stayed in for the Recce. Jess was with us this time and we were off to Devon to start making the film. Scheduled in for this week was:

  • On screen Interview with Kay
  • Inserts in Kay’s house
  • Kay on the Bus (Listening to his headphones a’la 8-Mile)
  • Kay in playground on swing & roundabout
  • Kay underneath bridge
  • Majorettes practicing Kay’s choreography

First on the agenda was to interview Kay. Although we were still intending of the narration being primarily through performance, we were taking no chances and saw fit to capture an in depth interview with Kay to give us a plan B and options in the edit. Kay was particularly excited when we arrived and set up all of the equipment in his room. Just that morning he had appeared for the second time on The Jeremy Kyle Show and, it’s fair to say, his ego was  certainly buoyant by the end of the day. I had never interviewed anyone before, let alone on camera, so was feeling a little anxious. I had prepared a short list of questions – no longer than 20 – and was hoping for the interview to feel more like a discussion. I wanted Kay to feel comfortable to encourage candour, so was worried that the camera may affect his answers. Luckily for me, Kay, by now, is no stranger to the camera and if anything, he felt less nervous than I.

Kay – Shot List

The interview went very smoothly with Kay offering amazing insight and showing great intuition to steer his answers in a direction that he sensed I was hoping to go. The answers were honest, as I can confirm from our previous discussions, but they were sometimes filtered of things that Kay understood to be unnecessary to the film and/or punctuated with a closing sentence to confirm the curiosity in the question. This would prove vital if we were to use either the footage or the audio in the final cut. After about 2.5-3 hours, we set about capturing the inserts. On top of those that were listed, Sam captured as much as possible of Kay’s house to give us more options. This type of overshooting would do us well throughout the process. We captured abstract images of Kay’s fish tank, candles burning even cats! By this stage I think the Julien Temple films had gotten the better of me. Towards the end of the day Kay’s mum approached us and provided us with a box full of archive material. In it was half a dozen family albums and a dozen or so VHS tapes. This was absolute nectar for us and Emily and I were excited about what they might contain.

The next morning we headed to the small park near Kay’s to get the shots on the swing. The weather was looking really gloomy and the clouds were affecting the exposure levels massively. Sam was struggling with the constantly changing light and to make matters worse it started to rain. We shot from both sides of the swing for around 30 seconds each take and had to pack up quickly. Although the ND filter makes the final shot quite dark, the shot was that nice that we didn’t bother trying to re-shoot and, in fact, the darkness was ideal for the tome of what Kay would be talking about over the shot. The rain meant we had to ditch the overhead shot on the roundabout so we headed to try and get a shot on the bus. The council had given us permission to shoot anywhere in Tiverton as long as it wasn’t private property. The bus company wasn’t council operated so we took our chances without permission. We waited in the bus queue with the black magic on a shoulder rig and it stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no way we were going to shoot this guerrilla style so conceded to ask the driver’s permission. We tried 4 buses and all of them refused or said that they were unable to make a decision. There were cameras on board so we conceded defeat. The week had started well yesterday but our plans were somewhat falling apart today. We drove to final location of the day – underneath the motorway bridge – with our spirits quite deflated. We walked over to the bridge and I could tell that spirits were low. It was windy, cold and raining and there wasn’t a massive amount of shelter. On top of that, the views in the distance were heavily impaired and the cloudy skies made the area underneath the bridge very dark. I suggested to Emily that we cancel any exterior shooting today and go back to the BnB to rest. We were due to shoot with Kay and the majorettes at 7pm for 2 hours so the downtime would be appreciated by all. It wasn’t ideal that we were giving ourselves more to do for the next shoot period, but it was the lesser of two evils. I would rather that than compromise the shot and demoralise the crew. We headed back to the hotel and spent the time sorting through the archive photos – in the warm.

Emily had managed to secure the rights to Swan Lake remix that we wanted to use and Kay had spent the last few sessions with the majorettes prepping them. Our intention was to come and record the early stages of rehearsal – so were happy for the routine to be raw at this stage. Freshly rested we headed to the training hall and very efficiently got all of the listed shots. What was encouraging was the fact that, despite only having a maximum of 15 minutes on the project  in the weeks prior to our arrival, and a further 5 minutes once there, the girls took to the routine straight away, getting better with each take. Within an hour we had everything captured, so Sam set about using an extra 30 minutes to get anything extra. We packed up and called it a wrap for this shoot.

Our spirits were lifted after returning to form and salvaging the shoot when it looked like we might have returned to London with a lot less than planned. In reality, we were only three shots short of what we had scheduled so all was certainly not lost. It did mean that we would have to schedule an extra day for the second shoot period – a drain on the budget – but also rely on the Devon weather in March.

 

 

Theoretical Research

This year I am directing a short documentary about a transgender man from my hometown of Tiverton, Devon. His name is Kay Jane Browning and he was once the annoying younger sister of an old friend, Gavin. Last year I witnessed an article about Kay detailing his recent appearance on ITV’s Jeremy Kyle Show. I watched the episode and marveled at the striking contrast in Kay’s current appearance from that embedded in my memory, and over brimmed with pride as I watched him endear himself to the audience and host alike. We reconnected via social media and the idea of a documentary was discussed. Kay offered himself unreservedly to the project giving me absolute exclusivity. To make the film successful, two major issues needed to be addressed. Before we get to the ethics, politics and representation of Kay and the trans community, there is the issue of genre mode and style. Having zero experience of either, there were a number of theoretical avenues to explore in order to carry the project to fruition.

Firstly I had to purge exactly what I was intending to say and if it had any pertinence. Was this to be a film highlighting what it was like to be transgender? Maybe it could explore a more philosophical avenue? I could have made a film that consisted of interviews with Kay and b-roll footage, but felt that I wanted to tell the story without compromising on visual style and cinematic impact. Maria Pramiggiore and Tom Wallis write effectively on the contextualising of motivations for documentary filmmakers. They write, “The goals of avant-garde filmmakers, like those of documentary filmmakers, vary widely, but two principal concerns dominate. The first is to explore the artistic and technological capabilities of the medium, usually by rejecting the conventional use to which film has been put: telling stories”. (Pramiggiore, Wallis 2011, p.276) Upon further exploration it was becoming clearer as to how this might be possible. Renowned documentary scholar Bill Nichols organises approaches to documentary storytelling into six generic modes. One of these is ‘The Poetic Mode’ and he writes, “The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the “objective” reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner “truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation” He continues: “Codes emphasize visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages, and formal organization favours mood, tone and texture.” (Nichols 2001, p.162) Although this would be my preferred style, it seems that, aside from a creative and/or aesthetic desire, there would have to be a legitimate reason for this application.

During my research I realised that Kay has a passion for creative arts. Poetry, literature, hip-hop and dance (often combinations of all) were the areas in which he thrived. It was my suspicion, and later confirmed, that Kay’s relationship with art was not wholly natural and instead grew out of the circumstances of his early realisation and discovery of his gender complexity. Growing up in rural Devon in the 1990’s was not conducive to transgender equality and art provided an avenue of expression otherwise suppressed. Because of this, Kay has had a performative outlook on life as a direct result of being unable to live his life true to his gender. Kay’s ability to perform is a survival skill stemmed from both pretending to be a girl and proving himself as a man. With this in mind, it seemed both applicable and necessary to explore Kay’s world through a poetic context. Kay will narrate us through three different eras of his life using the forms of expression that are most natural to him with heavy use of visual metaphors and constructed situations (Masculine imagery, choreographed performances, urban buildings amongst green fields). The power of a metaphorical approach is outlined by Bill Nichols who states, “Documentary film as an organized sequence of sounds and images constructs metaphors that assign or infer, affirm or contest values that surround social practices about which we as a society remain divided” He continues, “The selection and arrangement of sounds and images are sensuous and real; they provide an immediate form of audible and visual experience, but they also become, through their organization into a larger whole, a metaphorical representation of what something in the historical world is like” (Nichols, 2001, p.74) This approach along with the emphasis on performance lends itself to the synthesised nature of the subject. For example, his physical appearance and voice have dramatically altered from that which nature gave him. Further to this, Kay’s narration via spoken word poetry, rap and dance are all choreographed and rehearsed. If documentaries serve to offer a truth, it could be argued that the only real ‘truth’ in the film, and perhaps Kay’s life, is that that cannot be witnessed – his gender. Therefore, it is rational that the way in which the truth is explored in this film is a direct manifestation of the way in which it’s subject explored it, thus offering it’s own truth.

Representation and correct use of terminology for Kay is paramount in this film. In their book Understanding Film Theory, theorists Christine Etherington–Wright and Ruth Doughty outline a the terminology: “Transgender: The term serves to define people who do not conform to the gender they were born with. It is problematic because trans people do not fit into the traditional neat categories of male or female and the term ‘transgender’ is a similar label: a third category which is rejected as oversimplifying the complex nature of the condition” (Etherington-Wright, Doughty 2011, p.191) Although Kay identifies as a man, he is considering the both child birth and complete gender reassignment. These paradoxical desires create further complications of categorisation – something explained in more detail by cultural professor Marjorie Garber: “ The third is that which questions binary thinking (…) the ‘third term’ is not a term. Much less is it a sex, certainly not an instantiated ‘blurred’ sex as signified by a term like ‘androgyne’ or ‘hermaphrodite,’ although these words have culturally specific significance at certain historical moments. The ‘third’ is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility” (Garber 1993, p.11) In this film, gender is to Kay what genre is to the film. The lines are blurred.

Exploration of ‘Queer Theory’ conventions was also important to appreciate audience and how the film could be categorised or understood. According to Benshoff and Griffin’s Queer Cinema: The film Reader, ‘Queer Theory’ is not a label of sexuality referencing the negative connotations in the definition of the word ‘queer’, but instead a term that expresses and encourages inclusion and challenges or deconstructs the preconceptions of gender. They write, “The term was meant to gather together multiple marginalized groups into a shared political struggle, as well as fling back at mainstream heterosexist culture an epithet that had been used to oppress people for decades” (Benshoff, Griffin 2005, p.5). This raises questions about how Kay is visually depicted. My stylistic preference is to withhold the audience from fully seeing Kay in his current physical form. Although my reasons are for impact and to reference the gradient of his arrival as a man in real life, this could undermine what is, in fact, supposed to be a celebration of the bravery involved in transcending gender. An example of this style in action that springs to mind is The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980). This is an alarming comparison and something that I hope to avoid for any reason other than restrictive access to the subject to garner a reaction.

In conclusion, gaining a deeper theoretical understanding of the flexibility and lucid nature of poetic storytelling has allowed me to explore avenues that would otherwise be considered out of context or unconventional. Although on surface level it appears that genre and/or mode conventions may be relaxed or less restrictive, what actually materialises is a much more profound journey of discovery towards your understanding of the subject and the possibilities of how to tell their stories whilst somehow trying to maintain a personal viewpoint or philosophical attitude. I feel that after discovering the theoretical approaches to both the poetic documentary mode and queer theory, the two are perfectly suited to one another when considering the fluid and non specific place on the spectrum of definition.

James Land

 

Bibliography:

Benshoff, H. M. and Griffin, S. (eds) (2005) Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, New York: Routledge.

Etherington-Wright, C. and Doughty, R. (2011). Understanding Film Theory. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Garber, M. (1993) Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, London: Penguin.

Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pramaggiore, M, and Wallis, T. (2005) Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King. Print.