A girl, her robot, an alien landscape.
When upgrading software could cost you more than your sanity.
A film about a lonely terraformer, made to the following criteria for the Sci Fi London 48 hour film challenge:
Dialogue: You can hide, but I’m coming for you, ready or not!
Prop & Action: A mug of a steaming liquid – a character sniffs the liquid, then pours it away.
Optional Science Idea: Mobile/Cellphone that controls body functions and appearance.
“…as I was watching the finished film with the mountain of kit around me and saw the perfect blend of physical and digital effects thanks to a leaf blower and some digital lightning sorcery at the climax of our film, I came to the conclusion that there is definitely value in these film challenges and angry pigs could not hold me back from doing another.”
With 48 hours behind us and two car-loads of equipment successfully decamped from the two Travel Lodge rooms, the five of us slumped down amongst the kit mountain outside of the lobby and watched our film for the first time.
We had spent the last two days working on this practically non-stop with a frantic mad scramble in post production right up to the very last second to get it completed and finished in time, but none of us had actually seen it all the way through. Even those primarily responsible for the editing had absolutely no idea whether it would hang together properly.
Whilst it felt incredibly rock-and-roll to have submitted a film to the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge practically blind, it was more than a little nail biting to hit play. Would everything be in the right place? Would the sound sync up with the video? Would the effects have rendered properly? Did we accidentally use that shot where after hitting the clapper board I got confused, ran into shot, out of shot and then in a small little panicked circle into the shot again?
The feeling of euphoria that not only did everything hold together really well but that it was probably the best short film we had produced as a team was overwhelming. Thrusting my hands up into the air I immediately forgot how to lower them and in a stunned state of sleep deprivation and happiness, all of us could barely comprehend what the Tortoisebutler crew had managed to pull off this time.
Lets do something simple this year
A lot of film challenges start with one of us saying something along the lines of “let’s do something simple this year” because most of us remember trying to film a five minute steampunk version of the Matrix.
It’s an excellent idea. A lot of the more successful entries to film challenges tend to be simple ideas that are well executed and well polished. A few beautiful shots with a subtle plinky plinky melancholy piano track underneath followed by some kind of twist that they were clones all along. Unfortunately, that sort of artsy approach doesn’t seem to appeal to any of us on the crew when it comes to making our own films. We have a few themes that we tend to revisit, such as time travel and robots and we have a slight tendency towards plots with a couple too many twists and turns than is reasonably filmable.
The weird thing is that this year, during the writing process, we thought we’d come up with something really straight forward. After brainstorming around 20 ideas, we settled on idea number 21 which appeared to plop in out of nowhere and we were even really proud that the finished script sat around the four-pages mark. At the standard rule of one-minute-per-page, this meant we would be happily under the five minute time limit. More than anything, it made a refreshing change from the forty page monstrosities that we’ve turned out in the past because one of the writers went rogue and tried to write a TV pilot instead (and I regret nothing).
Despite this we ended up with a twisted-mutated monster and an electricity-shooting robot, giving us some heavy physical effects to pull off as well as some heavy digital effects as well. In a 48 hour window, you’re probably better off picking one, especially when beyond not showering for a few days, none of you have really tried pulling off a monster effect before.
The windows within the 48 hour window
With most filming projects and projects in general, there are plenty of nested time dependencies alongside the the over arching looming deadline. In our case, we had a lot of time limitations in terms of actor and location availability as we were filming in an arts centre that was still very much in operation.
With a church group using the theatre in the morning, a children’s birthday party set to invade our current basecamp studio room in the afternoon and the centre cinema’s scheduled showing of the Lego Movie lurching ever closer, we were kept on our toes moving from place to place and generally working around the real world. How we managed to avoid traumatising the group of six-year-olds with our monster walking up and down the stairs too and from the cinema I do not know, or at least did not notice. It is possible that we were responsible for a couple of quiet mental scars after all.
All good films are made with hefty constraints imposed on them. I’m a firm believer that creativity is born in the fires of constraint and the more pain you go through on a project, the more likely it is to be of a solid quality. The pain-to-gain ratio on Lead Time was definitely evident with the quantity of chaos that we had to deal with over the course of the weekend.
Mood spirals and meltdowns
Question: What do you get if you put 15 creative people in an enclosed space and stop them from sleeping?
Answer: A crime scene. Or at least that’s what should happen.
I’m not sure if it is just the critical mass of experience that we’ve built up, the fact that we were all working on something that we thought was bleeding cool, or me living in a rose-tinted world and being oblivious to issues around me, but this time round no such drama occurred.
Normally some kind of meltdown will strike, often due to not inserting the right amount of food or sleep into critical crew members, but this time things felt incredibly civilised. Some of us even showered, which is an unparalleled luxury.
There were apparently a couple of hairy moments where it looked like everything was going to fall apart that happened whilst I was asleep, but there always are. I faintly remember awakening from my four-hour slumber (another luxury) and casually walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth whilst general filming preparation chaos was going off around me, but after that initial flurry, things calmed down to a much more manageable flurry.
I’m not even sure why everyone was in a generally positive mood, but it could just be familiarity. If you are making films with a crew, getting to know the crew you’re working with is incredibly useful and a loosely coherent group of us have been doing this for about six or seven years now. We know how to deal with each other’s quirks and we know how to handle ourselves in the film-making situation.
We’ve also noticed particular quirks and phrases that come up every time we do any filming and are on the verge of having a kind of swear jar for anyone suggesting that we cover something in a montage or that we fix something in post. Lead Time was no different and had the other popular choice of arguing about the criteria – we did spend a while discussing whether it should be ‘lee-d time’ or ‘led time’.
A positive outcome
A couple of years ago I began seriously questioning how much I was getting out of film challenges and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. There was talk of us doing more planned and less break-neck-speed projects over weekends at some point and we may do that again. But as I was watching the finished film with the mountain of kit around me and saw the perfect blend of physical and digital effects thanks to a leaf blower and some digital lightning sorcery at the climax of our film, I came to the conclusion that there is definitely value in these film challenges and angry pigs could not hold me back from doing another.
If you want to make films, you should absolutely do a film challenge, even if you have a small crew. Nothing gets something done more effectively than a tight deadline and nothing tests your capabilities like trying to channel your ambition into a finished project within a weekend. The outcome won’t always be good and between the Tortoisebutler bunch we’ve got a few duds, but the rate at which you improve is significant.
Film challenges can be surreal as well as a way of meeting interesting people. Experiences whilst filming can creep you out, but no matter what happens, at the end of the 48 hours you have something to show for it and an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
After the Lead Time weekend, I felt increasingly in awe of the rest of the Tortoisebutler crew. They frequently leave me feeling like an idiot-hanger-on as I lurk around with a clipboard and wonder where I left the clapper-board and I’m starting to feel that there is actually no limit on what we could achieve. I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge and am dangerously inspired to push for another project before then.
As for next year, maybe we’ll make that spaceship…with a time travelling robot monster of course.
David Hing is a Writer, Runner and Optimist. He is regarded by the Tortoisebutler Team as a cross between a Panacea and a Good Luck Charm. Attempts are ongoing to find a way of cloning and shrinking him so he can be kept on a keyring.
Lead Time is our entry for the 2014 Sci Fi London 48 Film Challenge.
We were going to make a whimsical slice of futuristic life requiring almost no effects and achievable lighting and camera work. Somehow that turned into “Lets Make a Monster movie!!!!!”. It was an idea that every single person immediately latched onto and fell in love with. That should have been the first sign of trouble.
Everything was made from scratch including a frankly disturbing monster costume our prosthetics and costume ladies (Morag, Magda and Gemma) made out of stocking, thermoplastic, a dead wig and a rather wonderful actress.
We definitely bit off far more than we had expected to chew and we’re proud of it. Featuring stellar performances from Mat McKay and introducing Zack Kebell, we hope you enjoy Leadtime as much as we enjoyed making it.
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Unfortunately while filming Butterfly System at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in 2011, a boom mic escaped. Here’s the last footage we managed to catch of it, before it disappeared irretrievably into the undercroft.
We haven’t heard anything further, so we can only hope it doesn’t establish a breeding colony in the sump.
I really wished I hadn’t asked about the ghosts.
The plan had originally been to use the Kew Bridge Steam Museum until about 2AM which is when a group of ghost hunters had arranged to visit the premises and do their scanning for other-worldly readings and what have you. When the ghost hunters didn’t show up and we were given the go ahead to carry on as we were, I casually asked the caretaker who was looking after us if there were any ghosts in the museum and ho-ho, wink-wink, isn’t it silly that people are looking for ghosts?
“We’ve got a couple, yes. A few confirmed sightings anyway,” he replied casually, initially making me smirk, but after a few seconds making the colour drain from my face due tothe very matter of fact way he had said it, as if he had just informed me that the kitchen had a bit of a mouse problem in the summer.
It doesn’t matter what you believe, when it gets round to 4AM and the only thing keeping you awake and just ever-so-slightly twitchy is about a gallon of instant coffee and a Mars bar and you are faced with finding your director and cameraman who have disappeared into some unknown part of the building, you find yourself remembering that caretaker very casually informing you of the “confirmed” presence of at least two ghosts in the vicinity. Staring into a long dark room that I hadn’t seen before and that appeared to contain several items of furniture with a few surfaces eerily reflecting what little light there was, I was unable to find any sort of switch to activate any sort of light source. It was then that the clink of chains in the distance made me stop calling out and drawing attention to myself. Whatever was out there could very easily be coming towards me, and if it was who I was looking for, surely they would have called back?
The reason I’m talking about nearly letting myself down in a steam museum is that often, an old place or a place where lots of old things can be found can make a really excellent location. Whilst the possibility of ghosts being present is not a necessary box to tick, the fact that there is cause to believe ghosts could be in a location is an excellent litmus test for something’s intrigue value.
The Kew Bridge Steam Museum for example was an excellent location. Full of old and beautiful machines and set in a large compound that is Victorian in style, it is hard to find somewhere to point the camera that does not make it look interesting. In fact, the only real issue that you are likely to run into there is accidentally picking up an emergency exit sign or a low lying do-not-cross-this-chain chain that will mark it out as a museum.
Older buildings have a certain flare to them. It is normally why they have survived from their original age – someone somewhere just can’t bring themselves to knock them down and they won’t always know why. Regardless, you can use that intrigue to bring something interesting to your film.
Self contained and singular
The title of this post is what makes a good location, not locations. This is very deliberate. Whilst it is by no means a hard and fast rule that you only want one location on your short film, having just one location definitely cuts down on the points of failure you are likely to encounter. This doesn’t mean you can only have one location in your film, but try and ensure that all your filming takes place in a single physical real world locale.
The film we shot in the Kew Bridge Steam Museum has more than one location in the film, but all of them are different areas of the same facility that we were housed in for the night. This not only keeps the film looking self contained and vaguely thematic, but it cuts down on a lot of the organisation faff you will inevitably run into as part of your filmcraft.
The more control you have over your surroundings the better. With Kew Bridge, we had a small group of unfeasibly helpful caretakers and volunteers to look after us and make sure we didn’t run into any issues. Not only that, but they were even keen to help us get closer to the steam engines themselves and even ran one of the larger ones for us for use in one of the opening scenes.
If you are somewhere that the public has access to, that will require a handler to try and ensure they don’t get in your way. If you are filiming somewhere with limited permission, you’re going to have to tread very carefully and make sure you don’t overstay your welcome. If you don’t control things like light and noises going off in the immediate vicinity, then your shots themselves are going to suffer.
Not too self contained
To go to the other extreme of Kew Bridge, filming in someone’s flat might not always be the best idea. Whilst this satisfies the controlled environment to a certain extent and the single location rule, once you start getting even a small crew in around your actors, it can cause a bit of a strain. There’s a reason why professionals tend to film interior scenes in a set after all.
Depending on the flat and the film that you’re shooting, you often have to put a lot of effort into making a flat look interesting. Filming Infinite Loop in my old flat in Camden for example was relatively successful, but the amount of set dressing required was astronomical, and the weekend was definitely fairly cosy.
How to get an exciting location
How you can get hold of an interesting location could be a post all by itself, but a lot of the time, you’re going to be down to beg-borrow-steal mode when it comes to finding locations. You can often film in public, but it’s always worth checking out if you are actually allowed to film there without some kind of permit, which local councils might sometimes require.
At other times, it will be a case of finding people you know in positions of relative power and with access to interesting locations, be it their workplace, somewhere they volunteer, a bar where they are friendly with the landlord, or somewhere their family can let you use. If you ask around your film crew, you’ll be amazed at some of the interesting places they can get you into without them realising it’s a big deal.
Realistically, despite my preference of “somewhere that could have fostered the creation of a vengeful spiritual entity”, anywhere can be an interesting location to film. Some locations take less time and effort to make interesting, but working with what you’ve got can often yield unexpectedly excellent results and I am a huge proponent of constraints directly contributing to great art and entertainment.
The possibility of ghosts has to be a good sign
Back in Kew Bridge in the harsher light of day, I found myself sitting in the room I had been too scared to venture into the night before and whilst propping myself up with a slumped arm reflected on how I should probably never admit that I had been terrified to go into the museum’s café. I realised that if the location we were filming at was interesting enough to spark all sorts of inner paranoia in me, that had to translate to something beneficial for the purposes of filming on some level.
It’s Monday 4th April 2011, 3am. I’m in the middle of a dream about travelling through time.
I jolt awake. Looking around, I see I’m on the only bed of a small hotel room. The room holds three other people, two of whom work on laptops and pay no attention to me, one of whom stands over me, holding out a cup of tea.
I have no idea who these people are.
Nor where I am. Nor why I’m here.
As my memory floods back in, it turns out I have met these people before, albeit for the first time only two days earlier and in highly peculiar circumstances. For about half the time since I’ve known them I’ve been wandering around the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in one of two costumes- either dystopian machine-slave dressed in torn-up sheet or dapper top-hatted resistance fighter. For the other half I’ve been sitting in various tiny out-of-the-way spaces (the most recent being this hotel room), in front of Final Cut, steadily going insane as I work on cutting a short film together.
We’re doing the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge. You get given a film title, a prop and a line of dialogue at the beginning of the weekend and have to hand in a science-fiction film, including all of those criteria, by the end. We’re now in hour 39 of the challenge and I’ve just had my first (very short) sleep of the challenge. It hasn’t helped- I feel worse now than before.
The people around me are those still left after all the filming finished, the post-production team: Cat on VFX, Jon on sound and me on editing, as well as Alia, the director, the one holding the cup of tea. This production team, known as Tortoisebutler, needed an editor ASAP- I was a friend of a friend of a friend who said he could edit. One week later and I’m cutting together their movie.
Despite my dream, the film is not about time-travel. In fact, now that I’ve come to know this group of people in the years since, it’s especially surprising it isn’t about time-travel- the device seems to turn up a lot in their films (check out 2013’s challenge film, ‘Crosses’, for my favourite).
The film is instead a sort of steam-punk cousin to ‘The Matrix’, depicting a rebel group’s attempts to free enslaved humans from the grip of the overlord machine race. The machines are being played by the massive, marvellous steam-engines of the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, who were kind enough to not only let us shoot there, but also to switch on the machines specifically for scenes in our film.
Editors usually hate it when their job is misrepresented as “cutting bits out of a film” or “making it shorter”, but in this particular case, that’s actually a large part of what I need to do. The challenge organisers only accept films of five minutes length, maximum. Our film could easily stretch to double that. As the 48 hours run down, Alia and I strive to chop big chunks of story out of the film, using elliptical voice-overs, nightmarish jump-cuts and highly dramatic music from Jon to paper over the cracks.
We do manage to finish and hand in the film, ‘Butterfly System’, on time, only moments before the deadline. The final product is mad as anything, but I love it very much. My dad tells me he understands the plot, although I haven’t quizzed him on the specifics. You can watch it for yourself right here..
Three years, two more sci-fi film challenges and various other projects later, and we’re about to enter into another insane weekend of film making. We get the criteria 10am on the morning of Saturday 12th April, just two days from now.
It’s going to be a very strange 48 hours. I cannot wait.
Sci-Fi London 48 Hour FIlm Challenge 2013.
Dialogue: “There’s no way of knowing I’m afraid. Only time will tell”
Prop: “A torch – A character shakes the torch, pulls it apart, and puts it back together again. It still doesn’t work.”