A Best Of list…

Inspired by discovering this list online earlier…

David Finchers Favorite Movies

…and because I hardly ever do lists, I thought I’d take a run at my Best Movies Of All Time. By “best” I mean favourite and by “all time” I mean today. So, here are my favourite movies today, in no particular order:

 

The Godfather

The Godfather Part II

The Matrix

The Big Lebowski

The Wild Bunch

Citizen Kane

Being There

The Day Of The Jackal

Where Eagles Dare

Seven

Nixon

Sweet Smell Of Success

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

North By Northwest

The Secrets In Their Eyes

The Bad And The Beautiful

Amelie

Heat

Brazil

The Shining

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Jaws

Some Like It Hot

Man On Fire

Le Samourai

Doctos Zhivago

The Thomas Crown Affair

Point Blank

The Thin Red Line

The Ipcress File

Rififi

The Invisible Man

How to make a music video for £85

“Lisa’s asking if there’s any coke.”

“What?! No, it’s not that kind of shoot.”

“No, I think she means–“

“It’s not that kind of band, even.” 

“No, I–“

“Apart from that one time…”

“Coca-Cola.”

“Oh. I see. No, there isn’t any.”

“Or chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”

“She said maybe a Yorkie?”

“Do they still make those?”

“Any kind of chocolate.”

“There’s water and there’s some sandwiches, tell her.”

“Right…”

“Because this is no-budget. That means no chocolate and no coke. This isn’t The fucking Avengers.”

This is Day One of what will end up being a three day shoot for Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Archaeology” video. We’re in the dilapidated Sergeant’s Mess at the recently vacated RAF Uxbridge, which we have been given use of as a favour and which is unbelievably cold. The aforementioned sandwiches and bottles of water have been bought at a service station on the A40. Over the course of the shoot this “catering” will cost around about £85.00, bringing the total budget for the entire video up to a grand total of… around about £85.00.

I started doing jobs like this a few months ago, as a way to take a break from the big machinery of TV production. On a video like this one, I use my own kit (in this case, a Nikon D800, a set of lenses, lights etc) and no crew, unless you count volunteers Jim (spent the day feeling ill in the car) and Mat (shot the bare-bones of a making-of documentary that would have confused the shit out of Salvador Dali). 

The last few years have seen the means of video production become cheaper and more accessible to the point that you really can make a short film or music video for next-to-no-money. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, but it seems rare that anyone actually explains HOW they did it, so, at the risk of boring the shit out of you, I thought I’d take the opportunity to do just that. 

First off, though, here’s the video we made, so we all know what we’re talking about:

It may be that you’ve just watched that and now feel that £85 represents something of a horrific over-spend. If not, here’s the essential breakdown of how we did it:

THE IDEA: I’ve never been the most prepared director in the world but even I know you’d better have a rough idea of what the fuck you’re doing before you turn up on set. In this instance, the band and I threw some thoughts around until we came up with the concept of the ghosts as a way to represent the song’s central theme of memories and regrets. We figured the band needed to be unified as ghosts and that we’d therefore need someone outside the band to be our protagonist; someone who doesn’t know she’s dead and needs to be helped to the “other side” by members of a British electro-folk band (TOP TIP: It’s a music video, not Citizen fucking Kane). My first choice for this ghostly guest star was…

 LISA FAULKNER: Another top tip; your friends don’t need paying. If you don’t know Lisa Faulkner, it would cost you an arm and a leg to get her to schlep out to a disused airbase on the M25 and tit around for days pretending to be unaware of her own demise. If you DO know her, it costs you a bottle of Coke and a Yorkie and, as previously noted, even this payment can be deferred. The point is surprisingly valid, though. You know someone who can act, or you know someone who knows someone. That someone that someone knows might even be someone famous. Or they may know someone famous. The mantra that is core to making something ike this happen, and is relevant to every aspect of the process is:

 IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK.

 THE LOCATION: RAF Uxbridge is a disused MoD base which is now used as a film location for shows like Silent Witness, New Tricks etc etc. Those shows all pay good money, sometimes thousands of pounds a day, to use the place. However, many locations like this will charge a lot less, sometimes nothing, if they know that you have no money, are going to cause no disruption and are able to work around their schedule. Again, it never hurts to ask. On a previous promo (Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Joyful Reunion”) we were able to get the Phoenix Cinema, the oldest purpose-built cinema in London, to let us have their auditorium during off hours WITH a projectionist on hand AND the use of their cafe for a tiny fraction of what they would charge a “proper” production. Even I didn’t think it would be possible until I finally just picked up the phone and asked.

 EQUIPMENT: And here’s where it gets a little sticky because on this video I was using a Nikon D800 which is about as good an HD camera as you can get for realistic money. (It costs nearly £3000 so by “realistic” I mean it’s cheaper than the £100,000+ cameras we use on TV and film). The lenses I use were mostly bought second hand on ebay, but they’re still not necessarily cheap. HOWEVER, you don’t HAVE to use an expensive camera. With the right handling and with some creativity, you could shoot a pretty damn good short or music video on a domestic camcorder, a Flip or even an iPhone. The key to doing this is…

 LIMITATIONS: Specifically, knowing what your limitations are an exploiting them. The Nikon, in common with most DSLRs, doesn’t like to pan fast. It has something called a “rolling shutter” which makes panning shots judder horribly. There are software fixes for this, but none of them are very elegant. The solution is simply DON’T PAN. In the same way, the Nikon is a pig to operate and focus at the same time, or at least I can’t manage it; I can’t have someone walking directly towards camera and keep them in focus the whole way. That’s a hard thing to do and very talented people are paid very good money on film sets to do just that. I can’t afford to have a professional focus puller with me on a shoot like this, so I adopt a similar solution to the one used in the panning problem; I don’t pull focus. You see those shots of Lisa walking towards camera where she only comes into focus when she arrives at her end position? Well guess what, I can’t pull focus so we make a virtue out of that and call it “art”. 

 EMBRACE THE LIMITATONS: With a camcorder and a few actors, you can’t make “Avatar”. But you CAN make “Paranormal Activity” or “Rec” if you use the limitations to your advantage.

 LIGHTING: For me, lighting has always been the scariest discipline. Standing on a TV or film set as a director, peering at a set of monitors, I’ve always been confident in saying what I do or don’t like about the lighting but I had NO IDEA how the effects were actually achieved. To try and fill this gap in my knowledge, I got into shooting stills a couple of years ago and that taught me enough about f-stops, exposure and histograms (don’t ask) to provide some sort of foundation of knowledge. I’m still barely scratching the surface of what I’d need to know to be even a bad Director of Photography but I can kinda sorta get by. One thing I’ve learned shooting these low-budget bits and pieces is that, if it doesn’t quite look right on the day, it’ll look even worse when you get it into the computer. Spend the time to tinker and get something that looks halfway decent. 

 Wherever possible, I shoot with available (natural) light. It’s just easier to position people where they’ll look nice in the room than it is to light them single-handed. RAF Uxbridge has no electrical power, so it wasn’t possible to put big lights in there without a generator, which we couldn’t afford anyway, so once again, we embraced our limitations and I brought along three battery-powered LED lights. These things are generally frowned on by professionals because they’re so cheap (only £25-35 each. Weirdly, you can buy pretty much the exact same thing for £1000 a piece and apparently THOSE ones are perfectly aceptable – whatever) but the simple fact is that they work, they provide enough illumination to stop your shadows going complete black and plonked on a stand or on a shelf high up somewhere (in our case, sellotaped to the top of a door) they provide a perfectly acceptable backlight. In the video, there’s a shot of Lisa in silhouette, walking down a corridor. As she gets close to camera, the light from a doorway catches her and lights her up really nicely: that was one of these battery-powered lights, propped up on a broken chair. 

 A mix of natural light and these same LED video lamps was used on this video for Piefinger. I mention it here because it was shot on a much cheaper camera than the D800 but I think it still looks good:

And that brings us to…

BLACK AND WHITE: Given the limitations we have in terms not just of lighting and camera equipment but also make-up, costume and production design, it’s generally a BAD IDEA to shoot colour if you want to be able to control the look of what you’re doing. Colours clash with walls, lipstick clashes with nails; it’s all horrible. More to the point for us cheapskates, colour temperature is a problem when you shoot colour; daylight rates around 5600k (nearly white) while a bedside lamp will be much warmer (more orange). Light doesn’t usually mix very nicely in colour. HOWEVER, colour temperature is NOT RELEVANT when you shoot black and white which means that you can light the thing with a mix of daylight and any household lamps/torches/whatever and it will still look good as long as you give some thought to positioning of lights and subject and exposure etc. 

 CAMERA MOVEMENT: Unless you have money to burn, don’t spend thousands of pounds on some kind of steadicam rig for your camera. The money buys you the equipment, not the ability to use it; professional steadicam operators get paid a fucking HUGE daily rate on movies for a reason. Most of the “Archaeology” video was shot on a tripod, partly because the ghost effects we were doing need the camera to be “locked off” to shoot background plates (shots of the empty room) that could them be composited together with the shots of the band. The tiny bit of handheld work was done on one of THESE, which costs about £20 and does a pretty good job. Again, embrace the limitations and don’t try to pull off fancy camera moves if you don’t have the equipment or know-how; you’re much better off framing a nice shot on a tripod.

 What else? Oh yeah…

 PLAYBACK: Music videos normally need to have people lip-syncing to a backing track. In the professional world, that means a sound man, equipment, digislates and all sorts of peripheral bullshit. Luckily, we’re enthusastic amateurs and we can make do with an iPod and speakers or a laptop doing playback. The ONE BIG TIP for this, though, is to have playback loud enough that the microphone on your camera will pick it up clearly. Even though you’re going to replace it in the edit with the real track, that recording on your camera will allow any number of different editing programs to sync the audio waveform from the camera recording to the clean track and low-and-behold, you have perfect lipsync without breaking a sweat. 

 Okay, I’m bored writing this, and I can only imagine that the three of you still reading must be suicidal by now, so I’ll save editing and post-production for another post if people are interested.

 If you take nothing else away from this, PLEASE remember the mantras:

 – EMBRACE THE LIMITATIONS and plan your shots accordingly

 – DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK, for locations, for actors, for equipment; you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll hear “yes”.

 Okay, wake up. I’m done. It’s over. Go make something. 

 

 

Never Make Friends With The Actors The Worst Piece Of Advice Ever Given.

This was fairly early in my career. I was dicking about on set. Actually I was directing a TV show but, to the untrained eye, the distinction is nigh on impossible to make. We were between takes and I’d gone on to set to give notes (NEVER yell out acting notes from behind the monitors; no one but the actor in question needs to know your thoughts on a performance) and then one of the actors had told a joke and that had given rise to an anecdote and now people were standing at the edge of the set looking at their watches. This happens a lot (to me) and needs to be ignored (by me) because putting actors at ease leads to much better performances than rushing them through the day (this is my story and I’m sticking to it). Anyway, I went back to the monitor and sat down ready for another take. The producer leaned over to me and said:

“Never make friends with the actors.”

This sounded like the kind of advice that was hard-won by the giver, so I turned it over in my mind. But whichever way I looked at it, it seemed to be utter bullsh*t. It was, in fact, the WORST ADVICE EVER. It was also impossible for me to follow, even if I’d wanted to, because I like actors; I like hanging out with them and I love watching them work. How could I be a director if I didn’t like actors?

One of the most common criticisms of young directors emerging from film school or graduating from music videos or commercials to film and TV drama (yes, I said graduating, because drama is INFINITELY more difficult than adverts and anyone who says different is either lying, stupid or bitter) is that, while they may be technically adept, they don’t know how to talk to actors. I’ve never really understood that barrier between directors and actors, I suspect it might be to do with somehow not seeing actors as people but as something… other. But being able to direct actors is crucial to making drama of any kind. Learning about lenses, lighting, editing etc is easy – it can be picked up fast and improved upon with practice. Being called a “technical” director is no real accolade at all.

Orson Welles had a bee in his bonnet about critics describing a film as “well directed but poorly acted”; a poorly acted film can’t be well directed because it’s the director’s responsibility, through casting and um, directing, to make the performance work.

In the commercial world (not the world of commercials – see disparaging comments above), a director’s livelihood depends on his or her relationship with actors; the ability to attract good names to a project because they want to work with you makes you a desirable commodity. I recently made a radio play, the script for which was so hideously late (I was also the writer) that there was no way we were going to get it out to cast in time for them to read it and agree to do it before the recording dates. Fortunately, having ignored that advice I was given years ago, I was able to assemble a cast of friends-who-act who all agreed to do it without even seeing the script. Not following that advice saved me. Again.

No two actors are the same. Most are actually lovely people but some can be grumpy, temperamental and precious (this is also true of plumbers, estate agents, doctors, tramps, astronauts etc). There is therefore no hard-and-fast rule as to how to direct actors; you just have to figure out what makes them tick; what motivates them, what relaxes them, and adjust your approach accordingly. Once again, being friends with them really helps here; you already know a lot of this stuff about them and you develop a shorthand which, dicking about notwithstanding, saves time. I’ve worked with the brilliant Nicola Walker a number of times and we’ve reached the stage where she can read a slight twitch at the corner of my mouth and respond with “Yeah, that was shit, sorry. I’ll do another one.” It’s these kind of relationships we should be striving for because they make the work better and they make it a Hell of a lot more fun. If you don’t believe me, read THIS PIECE on Joss Whedon’s regular actors and tell me they don’t sound like they have a ton of fun at work.

If you’re a new director, or a director struggling to get gigs, MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ACTORS; it can only make the work better and everyone, including the audience, benefits from that.

While I’m at it, a few bits of GOOD advice:

NEVER tell an actor to “just throw it away”. No one really knows what that means and it’s a bad note.

ALWAYS address what the character is trying to do or achieve in the scene, rather than focus on specific lines or movements.

NEVER EVER EVER give line readings to actors.

NEVER let anyone rush you when you’re giving notes to actors; the time you supposedly save is lost several times over in multiple takes because the actor didn’t get a chance to understand what you wanted.

ALWAYS know the story better than anyone else so that you can answer questions about dialogue or intention with confidence.

ALWAYS let an actor try something out, even if it sounds like a dreadful idea – sometimes it turns out not to be, or it prompts something even better than you had in mind.

If you’re filming, have your breakfast on the make-up bus. This is where the actors hang out, gossip, bitch, moan and talk about the script. This is where you get to pick up on any anxieties, answer questions and generally put them at ease away from the pressures of the set. It’s also more fun than panicking about the schedule with producers, which is usually the other breakfast option.

When an actor arrives for their first day, even if it’s their only day on the shoot and they’ve got two lines, go and say hello to them when they arrive at unit base. It takes two minutes to say Hi, answer any questions and start to put them at ease. There’s nothing worse for a nervous actor (and on day one they’re ALL nervous) than to walk on to a set full of strangers and even the director hasn’t bothered to welcome them. You’d be amazed how often this one is overlooked.

Lastly, a secret weapon I picked up from a Scorcese interview that really works: the “f***-around” take. When you’ve got a good version of the scene, let the actors know that you’re happy to move on, that they’ve done everything they need to do but, if they fancy doing it one more time with the pressure off and the chance to play around, they can have it. That’s almost always the take you end up using in the edit.

All most actors crave is a relaxed, fun environment where they are comfortable trying things out without being made to feel foolish; an atmosphere, in other words, created by friends working together.