Or… HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER
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Everybody loves a good special effect, or, perhaps more accurately, nobody really notices a good special effect. The preferred result is to leave people genuinely believing a man can fly or that a small boy is shooting electricity at a grotesque spindly nightmare monster.
We can talk about that second one because, well… we did it, we put that in a film. And forgive the self-praise, but we think it looked damn good, especially given the time constraints placed on its production (more on which down below).
Given that success, we thought we’d spread the goodwill and share everything we’ve learnt about producing that effect and others – about how to make (and then murder) a monster…
Now, before you read on, check out the effect here in our film Leadtime, specifically the sequence from 2 minutes 39 seconds in:
So, key bit of context before we begin: Leadtime was produced as part of a 48-Hour Film Challenge. For those not in the know, that’s a competition where various teams of foolhardy filmmakers have to produce a short film from scratch over a weekend – writing, shooting, editing and yes, monster-making, all in an extremely tight, sleep-free 48 hour period.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s get started.
A special effect breaks down into three distinct parts:
- The musculature: costume forms the real-world foundation of an effect. Even CGI-heavy creations often need some form of token costume to give the actors and post-production artists something to work with.
- The bones: Your actors create the structure and underlying nature of the special effect. Good acting can be ruined by a special effect, but bad acting can rarely be saved by one.
- The skin: Digital effects in post-production build on everything to create the finished product the audience sees. Do this badly and your viewers will be quick to notice exposed musculature and bone underneath.
So, how did we go about implementing each of those elements in Leadtime? Read on to find out.
We had two fantastic, endlessly inventive costume designers working on Leadtime – Morag Hickman and Magda Durka.
Inspired by films like Pan’s Labyrinth, they set about conceptualising the monster, coming up with a design for a sinewy, insectile, carapaced entity that would almost glow in the dark.
The basis of that costume was a flesh-coloured, matte-lycra bodysuit with a lizard-like print, a smart choice for a couple of reasons:
- The script demanded an elaborate fight scene. Therefore, flexibility was a must.
- A bodysuit works as great base layer for further attachments and augmentations. And, given our designers planned for the costume to be truly terrifying and otherworldly, those would be an essential next step…
As Magda says “While working on the costume concept, I noticed that Morag had a bag of unusual materials with her. We dug into that and realised immediately that thermoplastic would be our friend. This heat-mouldable, waxy polymer offered a perfect solution for claws. Alien creatures should have claws!”
Thermoplastic is Morag’s go-to material for creating structural elements on the fly. It’s sculptable after submersion in hot water, it’s springy enough not to be a genuine danger to anyone, and it’s tough enough to stand up to rough treatment.
As the monster needed to be a clear threat, it was armed with six scything claws, a weird pointy mandible, and spines on the head, elbows, and anywhere else that felt like a good idea. Most of this was accomplished with thermoplastic pierced through the bodystocking or attached with double-sided sticky tape.
However, while this hideous humanoid alien hedgehog was coming together nicely, it still looked a bit blank and didn’t have much secondary movement to show up in our super slo-mo camera takes. Therefore, the designers hooked some rusty-looking bundles of long, fake hair through the stocking and around the creature’s multiple spines, producing a disturbing ‘hairy insect’ effect along with a great flowing motion.
Just a few finishing touches remained. One, mixing fistfuls of black and red acrylic paints with hair gel, and plastering the hair up into a stiff, animalistic mane. Two, strategically applying paint to dirty up the monster even more, giving its skin a nasty sweaty sheen. And three, encrusting the claws with a good layer of blood and gore, a remnant of its encounters with previous victims…
All of this design work meant the creature looked brilliant on camera. The pale theme made it stand out starkly against the dark sets, especially when light glowed through the thermoplastic weapons, and the silhouette of the monster allowed for some wonderfully creepy, shadow-based cinematography.
With a creature-feature like Leadtime, the actor playing the monster would usually have a long prep period to explore movement ideas with the director. However, in a 48-Hour Film situation, you only have a fraction of that: everything has to happen far, far faster it normally would.
Luckily for us though, we had an incredible actor on board, someone who could deal with those constraints magnificently: Jinny Lofthouse. Among other things, Jinny has an extensive background in fight choreography, meaning she has a mastery over physical, movement-based acting.
Given that experience, Jinny was quickly able to find an approach to embodying the monster, much of it emerging organically from Magda and Morag’s creature design. The prosthetic extensions for the fingers lent themselves to spindly motions; the clacking, clutching claws created an unsettling sound when dragged across the surface of a dry concrete wall; and the way the costume restricted Jinny’s vision meant that only slow, careful movements were possible. Given the latter, the monster became a creature that crept around cat-like, stalking its prey from the shadows until, finally, the moment came to pounce.
Of course, this costume carried a a number of practical challenges with it as well…
“As a physical actor, it’s always a great pleasure to bring an inhuman character to life.” says Jinny. “However it can come with its issues. For this project that would be the restrictiveness of the costume – I had to be sewn into it and so was unable to go to the bathroom. Then, since I couldn’t really see, moving around the location was genuinely problematic, especially when faced with stairs.”
So there’s an important lesson: when building a special effect, take good care of your actors. By transforming them into a monster from another dimension, you may have made them a lot less able to traverse our own…
Ordinarily, it takes time, effort and careful planning to create good visual effect. On a film challenge you have effort and, if you’re lucky, a lot of coffee, so things have to be sped up and compromises made. It’s an exercise in not only raw skill but problem-solving as well.
Outside of film challenges, digital effects sorcerer Cat Harris does this work professionally, generally using a piece of software called Houdini to produce complex effects for blockbuster movies. However, that’s a slow process. You need to build models and simulation setups in the 3D world, then output the 2D images from that, then composite them into the original footage. When really pressed for time, the best option is instead just to bash stuff out in 2D in Adobe After Effects.
Sometimes a spanner is found to have been carefully placed in the works without anyone realising that it is in fact a spanner and that its location is in fact the works. With Leadtime, when Cat received the footage to work on, she discovered that a key element of the monster’s screen presence was its tendency to flail around everywhere. In her own words, ‘this was not ideal’.
To explain: during the electricity attack effect, each of the lighting bolts needed to lock onto the monster’s body in a particular place and then stay attached to that location throughout the shot. You don’t want something hitting an ear in one frame and an armpit the next, as that would break the reality of the moment.
With smooth movement in the footage, you can mark a point on one frame and then another few frames later, the software working out the motion between them. However, in the case of Leadtime and the frantic flailing of its monster, Cat could only achieve the needed consistency by animating the lighting manually. Frame by painful frame.
As Cat says, “This is sloooow work”. Thankfully though, it’s also “infinitely improved by a room full of hilarious and talented – albeit slightly knackered, stressed and unwashed – people.”
So, just as you need to look after your intentionally blinded actors, make sure to give the same consideration to your overworked VFX artists…
The Finished Effect
When the crew saw the finished effect for the first time, they were speechless. Despite being produced in a hurry, it looked great, the talents and efforts of three different departments combined to make a genuinely terrifying, heart-pounding sequence.
You can have excellent acting and it will show.
You can have outstanding costumes and it will show.
You can have the flashiest CGI you’ve ever seen and people will leave thinking that, well, at least the effects looked cool.
If you have all three though, all working together in tandem, all with a shared vision of story and cinema, that’s when an audience is going to be truly blown away.
Many thanks to Morag Hickman, Magda Durka, Cat Harris, Jinny Lofthouse and David Hing for helping put this article together.
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This is a quick write up of the notes I made during filming a practice 48 challenge, hopefully others will find it useful.
Here’s the kit list with links to manuals, below it are notes on the recorders and the mixer:
- Zoom H4N Audio recorder
- Marantz PMD661
- Sennheiser Me-66 highly directional mic
- Sennheiser Me-67 Lobar mic
- Sennheiser K-6 Power module
Zoom H4N Audio recorder
This can accept two types of input into its line in ports: 1/4″ jack and XLR. It cannot accept line level inputs via XLR (although it can on the jack). This means if you’re using a pre-amplifier (we had a MixPre-D) it needs to output at mic-level rather than line, which is annoying.
This recorder *does* have internal limiter to avoid clipping
It is possible to do 4-track recording using both the internal and external mics, this might be useful for background/signal recordings for more mixing options.
One of the menu options is ‘monitor’, unlike the recorder doesn’t need to be pause-recording for this to be enabled.
Unlike the H4N, this can receive mic or line level inputs; but it can’t limit them.
The latest version of the firmware seems to have dealt with whatever gremlin made it formate SD cards in such a way that any mac would instantly destroy them.
You can only monitor when in pause-record
Can only 2-track so if a clever signal/background rig would be wanted an extra microphone would have to be dedicated to
This thing has a lot of functions. My current favourite is trying to adjust the limiter (hold ch1 and ch2 whilst turning the headphones volume), if you miss one of the channel buttons (easy to do) you instead assign ch3/4, this will then mean you can’t get the tape return audio back which is *very* confusing.
Basically: this is a lovely machine, from a user-interface point of view it’s a train wreck. Be careful with those buttons.
No, this post isn’t about the delusional Cthulu horror film that Sam wants us to film, or the romantic comedy about the giant squid that escapes London Aquarium to find Friendship and True Love.
You’re surprised, I can tell – we don’t usually blog much and, and we certainly don’t do kit reviews over here at Tortoisebutler, so imagine my surprise at finding myself sitting here writing a kit review. That said, when the Tentacle Sync project currently raising funding over at Indigogo the device looked a too good to be true and we just had to give it a go.
The device is a very small, very simple time code generator which weighs about 30g.
Here’s a photo of one.
Cute isn’t it? It is formed from lightweight plastic and the bottom will stick to velcro or felt (discovered after putting it down on a felt sofa and encountering resistance on removal)
Imagine two secret agent’s synchronising watches at the beginning of a mission. This is the basis of what Tentacle Sync is and does.
We thought of lots of use cases for the Tentacles but the most likely scenario is going to be something like this:
You have a DSLR and you like making films. You’ve stopped using the camera’s on-board microphone for your films because frankly the sound quality lets down your beautiful beautiful pictures. You’ve bought an external recorder and (if you’re lucky) you’ve convinced someone to operate a boom mic for you – or you’ve put the recorder in your actor/interviewee’s pocket and plugged a wired tie-clip mic into it.
Or you’ve found someone to handle even more complicated microphone setups for you!
(Don’t ever do this one by the way, the second anything gets disconnected you’re stuffed)
Now you have great sound to match your wonderful images, but you’ve got to sync the damn recordings up. After going cross-eyed trying to line up the clean sound to the crap camera sound (and therefore the video), you buy a clapperboard and clap at the start of each shot (clapping your hands mostly works but feels cheap and tawdry). The clapperboard makes you feel like a proper filmmaker and it makes a neat vertical line in your audio waveform which you can use to match up the clean sound against the crappy camera sound. You discover software like Dual-Eyes and Plural-Eyes which even automates the process of lining up the audio for you. For a time everything is wonderful.
Then, as you shoot more and more, cracks start to appear in the relationship. Occasionally the software inexplicably fails you (the background noise is too high, there are other confusing sounds going on, the planets are unaligned, who knows). Sometimes you have to deliver the files to an editor in a hurry and they don’t have sync software or the time to do it manually. Sometimes your clapperboard person freezes almost solid in a midnight shoot by a canal which we absolutely had permission for, their hands chattering like teeth, the staccato rhythm of the clapperboard now confusing as all hell and sheer humanity causes you to send them to the pub to thaw out – at which point any remaining defrosted member of the crew now has another job to take on. Sometimes you are filming a soulful confession between a has-been magician and their loyal rabbit and the clapperboard freaks the magician out. Or the rabbit, whichever. You get my point. Clapperboards are great, but wouldn’t it be lovely if we didn’t always need them?
In my day job I shoot sensible things with sensible cameras that have timecode generators built in. These cameras always know what time they think it is and they can be synced to each other – our audio recorders can use (relatively) expensive add-on timecode boxes, so everything is operating on the same clock. Since devices are synced up before shooting, the resulting recordings don’t have to be painfully synced up afterwards. More often I just plug a high quality microphone into a professional camera, (which has all the inputs to allow me to do that) and I don’t even have to worry about the clean audio being separate from the good video.
In everything other than my day job I shoot sound separately because I film with impossibly small micro four-thirds cameras, DSLRs, go-pros, beautiful modern kit with needlessly complicated lens systems involving Dad’s old glass, Ebay adapters, soviet lenses, cheap and ill-advised wide-angle converters, sunset filters and vaseline… I like being able to play with lenses, I like being able to run about with lightweight kit and the kinds of video cameras that suit this sort of messing around are a lot cheaper than the ones I use at work and do not come with timecode generators.
Back to the tentacles then.
When I read about Tentacle Sync over at it’s indigogo page, I imagined two tiny squid with digital wrist watches which they synchronised at the beginning of the shoot, one squid sitting on the camera with a tentacle plugged into the microphone port, and the other squid wrapped around the sound recorder with a tentacle plugged into a spare microphone channel. These two cute creatures would helpfully feed the correct timecode into the camera and the sound recorder, and needed to be fed occasionally only on electricity.
Reality so often disappoints, but in this case I found I wasn’t actually too far off the mark. When the test units arrived in an impossibly light parcel from Germany, I found myself holding two tiny boxes (tentacles!) and a pile of leads. While charging both tentacles up via their micro USB ports, I leafed through the manual. Synchronising the clocks on the devices is straightforward. Plug the devices into your computer, set the time and the frame rate of your project using the supplied app (the units can currently handle 24, 25, 30FPS and will – I am assured – be able to do 50 and 60FPS at time of shipping). Now turn unit A on in ‘Master’ mode (long press of the ‘on’ button so that the LED lights up green) and unit B on in ‘Slave’ mode (short press of the ‘on’ button so the LED lights up red). Plug the two units together using a dual-ended 3.5mm audio cable and after a moment both units show green LEDs. That’s it – you’ve jam-synced the devices together, the clocks are synchronised, you are good to go.
One tentacle was plugged into the 3.5mm mic input of a Panasonic GH3 camera (it was so light I could actually secure it in place with washi tape) and the other unit into the 3.5mm mic input of a Zoom H4N audio recorder set to 4-channel mode.
Since the tentacles produce audio timecode, any attempt to monitor sound on headphones at this point leaves you with to what sounds like the chattering of friendly but excitable aliens all over your audio. The correct thing to do (for the Zoom audio recorder) is to set the levels for the alien chattering to be loud, but not clipping, and then to mute that channel completely. You can now monitor and adjust the sound of your actor on your other channel(s) as normal.
This done, we set out with our actor to film something. We wanted to be thorough so we filmed in a variety of places – a quiet railway bridge which occasionally had a train going under it/a busy road with loud traffic and wind in the background – and did things like
- turning the camera and audio recorder on at the same time
- turning the camera on at the start and the audio recorder on mid-shot
- turning the audio recorder on, recording sound and then turning the camera on and off throughout
in an effort to try out the most likely scenarios.
Once the files from both devices were dumped to a computer (in this case a Mac running Mavericks), the Tentacle Sync, Sync software was fired up and the files imported in. Something unexpected happened at this point – instead of getting the expected neat list of which audio files matched up to which video files, we saw all our recordings correctly laid out on a timeline. It was clear what portions of audio had corresponding video and vice-versa.
It was possible to play back the timeline and see if the syncing had happened correctly (it had) and even better, it was possible to export the timeline as files that could be imported into an editing programme to recreate the timeline there. Lastly we exported the all the clips as Prores video files with the synced clean audio only.
Here’s my favourite clip from the shoot – apparently if you ask an actor to monologue ‘anything you like‘, this is what happens.
This is the file exported from the Tentacle Sync software, converted to an MP4 and uploaded to Vimeo, it’s had nothing else done to it, as you can hear, even with a very directional boom mic, the traffic is loud enough to be audible. I’m pretty cheered by the fact that we weren’t able to freak the alignment software out at all.
So would I use this device again? Actually I’d jump at the chance, especially if I was shooting on my own, just to be able to lose the faff of having to use a clapperboard.
My favourite thing about the tentacle units is just how quick and easy it is to jam sync them together. The software is extremely pleasant to use and the units themselves are very light and unobtrusive. I was holding them onto the camera with Washi tape, which hardly supports any weight at all. As a solution, at the indigogo prices, they are more expensive than a clapperboard and less expensive than everything else you can currently buy – to my knowledge at least.
A final few points
- The tentacle units maintain their sync for 24 hours before needing re-jamming, and the battery lasts for 40 hours
- There is apparently an on-board mic you can use to capture camera reference sound (although I didn’t test this)
- These units aren’t exactly new technology – we’ve had timecode generators for years – but they are cheap and I do like the software
- The sync software at the moment exports video cropped to the start of the video, not the start of the audio. In an ideal world I’d like to have it export files starting with either audio or video (whichever happens first) and have black video frames over any audio that has no corresponding video. But then I have a habit of using the audio channel to add log notes before I start the camera rolling, which isn’t particularly standard.
- I’d love to put one of these on a drone/UAV to sync to other cameras as part of a multicamera shoot
The project has 6 days left to run at indigogo and is currently only 50% funded, so it will be interesting to see whether the pro/semi-pro video community jumps on the opportunity to have a cheap timecode solution.
“…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.
Tweet, share and spread the love.
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.