Production Notes #1: Flash
This is the first time I’ve done this, but I thought it might be useful to other filmmakers, especially those just starting out. If this actually is useful, please let me know in the comments or by liking/sharing this.
I work to a pretty tight budget when filming. I love how accessible filmmaking is these days, so my equipment is mostly cheap but reliable. My entire kit hasn’t yet broken the £300 mark, but it’s enough for me to get some really nice effects. Again, for those starting out, I thought it’d be useful to explain what I’ve done, and how I’ve used cheap equipment to get some nicer looking effects than you might expect. I’ll upgrade as I go, but for now, I’m still learning.
Because I’m learning, I tend to do all the camerawork and sound on my films. I’m treating these short films as film-school, and I figure the more I know about these things, the more I’ll know what I’m asking for when I’m working with other camera/sound operators in future.
If you haven’t watched FLASH already, this will mention spoilers in it — so take 5 minutes and check it out first.
FLASH was the first time I’ve worked with a script written by someone else. Part of that is lack of opportunity, but part of it is also that I’m more comfortable with ideas that I’m visualising from the very beginning. However, there was a coincidence involved that I just couldn’t pass up.
Nigel Auchterlounie and I followed each other on Twitter for a little while, and he happened to contact me about FLASH on the 80th anniversary of the British comic ‘The Beano’. Now, this was one of my first obsessions as a kid — I was a member of the Dennis The Menace fan club (incorporating the Gnasher Fang Club). And since Nigel happens to also write Dennis The Menace and Gnasher, it was just too cool to possibly pass up.
I also really liked the story. I did some rewriting (and Nigel wasn’t precious, which is always good) to fit the specific actors better, and we changed the ending to bring it back to the creepy neighbour that had been mentioned earlier, but the changes were pretty minor — all the beats of the story are as they were originally.
The main thing I thought about when I read it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That’s one of my favourite films — I think it’s an absolute masterpiece of horror and anticipation. The opening credits involve complete darkness, occasionally interrupted by bright bursts of light showing macabre images, with the only sound being that of the whine of a camera flash. So you can probably imagine how much the idea appealed to play around with.
The camera, by the way, is a Cosmic 35mm. I bought it from eBay along with a couple of camera flashes. It’s gorgeously designed and I fell a little bit in love with it.
I’d worked with Seb Bob-Hasi before on my previous short film, ‘The Facilitator’ — a 3 minute short that won the Streatham Film Festival 48 Hour Film Challenge. I’d also worked with him on a production of Much Ado About Nothing earlier in the year, where I’d also met Lucy Mortlock. I liked both their acting ability, and thought they’d show some chemistry on-screen. Also, they’re both cute and likeable, and it’s important that the audience would care if they were brutally murdered.
Lucy very kindly helped arrange the flat, owned by a friend of hers. I mildly panicked when we got there, as it was all very white. This would possibly have implications for the lighting, but (more importantly) I was also very aware that I would end the film covered in fake blood.
I filmed on my Samsung Galaxy S8, using Filmic Pro. The Filmic Pro app basically gives you more options to play around with when you film on your phone. The biggest ones are control over the ISO and shutter speed, along with control over the frame-rate. The ISO/shutter-speed just gives you more control with regards to how you adapt the camera to the light in front of it. Changing the frame-rate can make the difference between something looking cinematic or not.
There’s plenty of other stuff Filmic Pro does, but they’re the most obvious ones for android users. For £11.50 (on Google Play), it’s definitely worth it. I’ll go into more detail in a future post.
For something claustrophobic and small, filming on a phone seemed appropriate. I’d lose some of the prettier shots that longer lens cameras can give, but that often widens out the picture, making it seem more expansive. The short lens on the phone camera, I think, helps give it that claustrophobic, closed-in feeling.
Lighting-wise, I used three LED lights. Two were small portable ones (which have honestly become my best friends for filming — they’re small, powerful and USB rechargeable. They have two filters, which are hard and act as casing as well. I bought them for £15 each and I’ve used them on everything.
The other was my newest toy — an Ice Light. They look a bit like a rubbish lightsaber, but they’re really useful. It’s great for filling in light and helping either heighten or lose shadows. They only have six settings (three warm, three cold), but they do a pretty good job overall. Although it’s more expensive here, I found exactly the same one (unused) on eBay for £16. They seem to be pretty widely available.
For the brighter sequences, I used a combination of all three lights — two on the actors and one on the background to dispel the shadows a little.
For the darker sequences, I only used the Ice Light, on a low setting, mostly held away from the actors, so to light as little as possible. For the camera flash effect, I added in one of the LED lights on its brightest setting, briefly switched on and off. The actual camera flash was used as well, but see ‘What I learned’ for more on that.
On both lights, I used a blue filter — because I was doing this on a budget, I thought I’d try something and bought a few blue transparent document wallets. I then cut one into small squares and fit it into the LED lights, and turned the other one into a wrap for the Ice Light. It worked really well for that blue wash effect although if your lights produce heat, you’ll want to go with something that’s not in danger of melting).
While shooting, I’d shoot first on a tripod, and then using my gimbal (a hand-held gyroscopic stabiliser, that’s a little like a Steadicam) and moving it around a little. I was only filming on one camera, so I had to do multiple takes on each, so I’d have more flexibility in the edit.
I recorded sound on a shotgun mic. If you’re on a budget, this one is £13. It needs an AA battery, but the sound quality is surprisingly good. It plugs into the phone, but you’ll need an audio in/out splitter to use it with Filmic Pro (although you can pick those up for a couple of quid). As with the lights, it’s not pro level by any means, but it’s light-years beyond trying to just record the sound from your phone.
I had the actors re-record all of their lines afterwards, as so much of it was in the dark — so dubbing in dialogue would be pretty easy. I also recorded the camera flash whine (yes, that’s genuine) and the sound of the keys, to dub in. A couple of other sound effects, I sourced online.
Things I learned
- The camera flash didn’t show up great on film — at least not consistently. It would often just show up as a white box covering the lower half of the screen. This was because it was faster than the frame-rate, so it didn’t show up wonderfully. I had my production assistant flash the LED on and off each time we used the flash. When I edited, I took the best takes of the camera flash and pasted it into the shots, mixed with the LED effect.
- I try to avoid having the actors just against a wall, as it looks flat. However, I didn’t have many options. If I had more space and time, I’d have moved the sofa quite a distance from the wall to create some depth for the shot in front of both of them. In the end, I just used that angle sparingly. I don’t think it looked that bad, but I preferred the other angles.
- The angle from the left on the sofa (over Lucy’s shoulder, on Seb) was my favourite one as I loved the dark, noir look it gave. It was the last one I shot too. I didn’t think about having to match up everything I’d already shot, so it didn’t stand out too much. Colour correcting all the rest of it was a bit of a nightmare, and not something I’d done before. However, I really like how it came out. It doesn’t look naturalistic, but I think it adds to the atmosphere. With so much white in the background, it also made it all look less flat, which was a definite bonus. The dark, warm colours weren’t what I planned for, but I liked it.
- That light flickering effect. We got it by holding the switch between on and off, and frantically hoping we didn’t blow the bulb. I then sped up the footage a bit while editing — partly because filming that close to a lightbulb gives a strobing effect, and partly to make the flickering seem faster.
- A little bit about cropping. The corridor at the end isn’t actually a corridor — it’s the same room that most of the rest was filmed in. We were lighting around it, which worked pretty well for the most part. But with my favourite shot of the attack at the end, it was really obvious at first (and there was a light in shot). I had other takes where it wasn’t, but it was my favourite axe-swing. So this gave me the opportunity to learn about the cropping and feathering tool in Premiere Pro — it’s still not perfect, but looks a lot better. Plus I figured the attention would be more on what was happening, so it was more about not actively breaking the audience’s sense of where they were rather than aiming for perfection.
6. Avoid silence. Especially with the darkness, cutting to actual silence would be really noticeable. So I made sure there was sound and noise added — the clock ticking (and getting louder when the lights go off), breathing, shuffling, etc. Even accidental sound helped, as it was all about creating tension. At one point, I actually layered Lucy’s breathing, my own breathing, and two separate takes of her dialogue — I wanted it to feel disorientating in those final seconds. So despite the relative quiet of the film, this was probably the most layering of sound I’ve done, all to avoid too much quiet.
Seb Bob-Hasi is a talented actor, who is also irritatingly young. He’s also a fidgeter and slightly easily distracted. So here he is messing around with the camera and twatting himself in the face with it. If I sound irritated, it was more because I was trying to avoid getting the giggles and keep everything moving smoothly. This made me very happy.