How I produced, shot and edited a short documentary, ‘The Singer’s Tale’

This is an article about how I went about producing, filming and making The Singer’s Tale. In it, I’ll explain the entire creative process as well as the technical aspects of how it was filmed and edited.

In a recent interview I came across with Werner Herzog, he spoke about his belief that ‘stories find you’. As a filmmaker, I’m pretty much obsessed with hunting for the next idea — the next story that’s going to capture the imagination and become the focus of a compelling film. In the case of The Singer’s Tale, I’ve got to admit, Herzog was spot on.

Whilst at work I was chatting to Pip, an actress I was working with. She dropped into the conversation that she had a friend who was ‘amazing’ — Carol, a jazz singer who was involved with a choir composed of people experiencing all manner of neurological illness. This immediately caught my attention. Neuroscience, jazz, a choir — I love the mix of humanity, music and science and this peeked my interest. And that was the start.

There followed a courting stage. Having got Carol’s email address from Pip, I contacted her, explaining who I was and that I was interested in discussing the possibility of making a film with her. I also explained what I was ‘all about’ — life, love and poetry! It seems a little cheesy now but those formative stages are so important when it comes to defining your ongoing relationship with someone who will be central to your film.

I wanted Carol to immediately see who I was, to understand that we would have an open, creative relationship and that I had her best interests at heart. It worked. We arranged a call and spoke at length about the possibilities.

By way of a kind of recce, the first thing I did was go and see Carol perform. It was pretty surreal; we’d spoken on the phone but she had no idea who I was, what I looked like. Sitting in the Vortex Jazz Club with my wife, sipping some wine, it was wonderful simply soaking up the buzz that Carol’s energy created.

She emerged on stage, bright white and pink hair, full of colour and energy. I was entranced. She began her performance, an emotionally engaging fusion of song and story that gave us all an insight into her highly eventful life. It was utterly perfect and at that moment, I knew the film would happen.

I’d taken along my Sony A6000 mirrorless camera with just its kit lens (which is pretty decent) and filmed a few shots in 50p because I wanted the option of slow motion and using the good XAVCD codec setting. The intention at this stage wasn’t to capture quality shots — more of a visual mood board — but one of the shots did end up in the final film (champagne bubbles in a glass during the end credits).

The film was starting to take shape in my head. Carol’s own performance informed the idea of using the film to explore her life, her tale, but I knew I‘d need more depth to make it more than a simple biography. It turned out that Carol was doing another performance of her show at the Quarterhouse, in her own town, Folkestone. This felt like an unmissable opportunity and I wanted to capture the whole thing on film — properly.

It was only a couple of weeks after the Vortex performance — which can be a surprisingly short time when it comes to arranging access — so I immediately contacted the management at the Quarterhouse to explain who I was and what I was trying to do. Fortunately, they were totally happy with my plan and I got them to sign and send a release form to that effect.

On the day, I used my Canon C100 with an EF 24–105 lens. I always shoot in C-log to try and make the most of the camera’s sensor. This camera, for my style of filmmaking, cannot be beaten. It’s small enough not to intimidate and the form factor allows me to switch between run’n’gun and fixed shots easily. My standard Manfrotto tripod came along, 755XB, which is one of their smaller models as I don’t drive and need to be able to move around whilst carrying my gear. And the bag I use for that task is the excellent backpack, the Lowepro Flipside 500AW.

Audio was clearly going to be a challenge — I wanted to capture the whole performance but not just from my shotgun mic, the Rode NTG2, attached to the camera. I’d also arranged to have the sound engineer record the performance via his mixing desk and copy the file to a USB stick I took along specifically for that purpose. The SD cards were Sandisk Extreme 45MB/s, 16Gb, class 10.

I met Carol outside the venue, in the sunshine. his was our first real opportunity to meet and I could sense we were still feeling around each other, trying to get the measure. Inside, Carol started getting ready for the gig and also met the other members of the band — a great bunch. Perhaps slightly catching Carol off guard, I started filming handheld immediately — for documentary, I will film as much reality as I possibly can. You never know what’s going to be that perfect, resonant shot, until the edit begins and I never want to miss it. Reality doesn’t repeat itself!

Shots of her doing the sound check, shots of the band members getting ready, shots of the stage, the lighting, the props, the instruments…

For the performance itself, I was right at the back, with the sound team to begin with. With hindsight, I think a longer lens would have been better but what’s the point in regrets, right? Work with what you have. In the end, the shots of the performance were absolutely fine.

Because I didn’t want a simple locked-off identical shot for 90min, I played around with composition and my location. During the second half of the performance I moved to a different location to add variety. It was also fun to experiment with composition. There were times when Carol’s story suggested loneliness or isolation and it felt possible to highlight that feeling by making her appear very small in the frame, surrounded by darkness. On that note, I pushed the ISO up to 1250 but no further as I did’t want the image to start to degrade.

This was a challenge. I knew very little about Carol but wanted to capture a truly meaningful interview from her. I think hard about interviews. Especially within documentary, a good interview is the absolute heart of a film. Even if you never see the interviewee, what they say will be your narrative guide, the words and emotions that allow you to find playful or meaningful juxtapositions amongst the imagery. The interview I’d planned was long — in large part because I was attempting to cover bases — it’s far easier to have a long interview when you have the person, the lighting and audio just the way you want them than doing a short interview and then trying to go back once you realise 10 other questions you should have asked.

Carol’s home is a beautiful testament to creativity. All fears of having a dull backdrop to the interview were abandoned once I saw the space. Carol was positioned in front of her bay window to maximise natural light but I also used an excellent and highly portable (iPad sized) LED flat panel light, the EACHSHOT Amaran AL-HR672S LED on a stand, set to daylight. Audio was captured using the great RodeLink Filmmaker Kit digital wireless system.

Behind Carol, the scene looked a little flat and, due to the lightness of my kit footprint, I didn’t have additional lights for backlight, etc, so I decided to get creative with Carol’s own lights. The lamp shining on the piano in the background is there to add some visual depth of the scene and to help Carol stand out into the foreground.

I knew the interview would exhaust Carol so hadn’t planned on any more shooting that day but, after the shoot she insisted on making us some lunch. While Carol was away in the kitchen — and with her permission — I filmed anything that caught my eye; details that now gained significance after listening to her speak. She was also kind enough to give me access to lots of her photographs, which I took away using the same USB stick I’d used to capture the performance at The Quarterhouse — note: always carry a USB stick!

At the end of the interview I asked Carol if she’d mind singing a song straight to camera. Wonderfully, she obliged.

Once I’d had a chance to go through the interview a few times, certain themes started to emerge. This was great as it gave me a steer for when I went back to Carol’s home. It was important to me to be very respectful of Carol’s time, so I wanted every shoot to be important. This one was to capture Carol at home, being creative, being alive. I wanted to capture her writing, singing, reading poetry, to somehow build a picture of how significant the creative process is to Carol and her daily life.

It was a fun few hours, ‘Carol, tell me how you write a song’, ‘Carol, please sit on the sofa and go through those papers…’, and so on. Because the focus of this shoot was creativity, it felt like a good opportunity to be creative with the shoot. Carol’s own behaviour informed the way in which some of the shots were filmed. When singing, I found myself drawn towards the source of the sound, the lens looming around her mouth. Carol had already eluded to the fact that much of her life felt like a dream (a line I immediately knew would make its way to the final edit) and my hope was that an expressionistic style of shooting would compliment this feel.

For this shoot, the light stayed at home but I did bring my Rhino slider which is, as #PhilipBloom has said, absolutely brilliant. The slider is a funny piece of kit. It will not make a great film and I’ve seen it overused in short films to the extent that it becomes maddening. But, if used in moderation, it really can pull off some wonderful shots and I wanted to try and get one of these with Carol. The shot of her at the computer, writing, felt like the right shot — a sense of her being lost in her creative world.

Part of the journey to capture all relevant footage was to see Carol working with her choir. At this stage I was increasingly becoming convinced that the film was less about her working with the choir and more about her life and approach to creativity — but this was still very relevant as this was a space in which Carol truly came alive, sharing her creative spirit and energising the choir with the simple feel good factor that comes with singing at the top of your lungs!

Technically, the space was a bit dark but workable. I also used the excellent Tokina 11–16mm to capture some wide shots in addition to my goto lens, the Canon 24–105. Carol was mic’d up and audio was also coming in via the shotgun mic.

A big day ahead of us, the plan was for me to head to Folkestone and film the following:

Carol heading out to the beach

Journeying to London

Out and about in Deptford

By the Thames river

At times like this, my production streak comes to the fore. Carol knew what we were trying to achieve and why, which made my strict adherence to a schedule easier to swallow. The weather had played its own role in delaying this shoot, so when the opportunity arrived, a good sunny day — we were off!

This had to be a minimal shoot — no lights, no tripod, just a camera. I knew the aim was for it to be handheld so all I took was a stripped down (the handle removed) C100 with the 24–105 and 11–16mm lenses, just in case I wanted a wide shot. The Rode wireless mic was taped to Carol in her home as the source of audio and off we went.

The first stage was straight down to the beach — a truly beautiful part of Folkestone. Off we went and again, I think I surprised Carol with my immediate filming of reality — her walking along the streets, down the paths, etc. But it’s always fascinating what you catch — I mean, how many people talk to seagulls?!

At the beachfront, there was one specific shot I wanted so I could match cut it later with one of Carol by the Thames but other than that, there was no strict direction. I asked Carol to find somewhere to sit and we had a chat, allowing her to steer the conversation wherever felt natural.

Next we were heading to London. To get to the train station, Carol decided to take us via an old, water-powered lift, an unexpected treat. On the train — which I only narrowly managed to capture coming into the station as I was mid-bite of my lunch — I tried to capture some shots of Carol looking thoughtful, off guard. We were heading to a place she’d absolutely loved living, Deptford, and I wanted a sense of her emotions at the thought of returning.

Once in Deptford, off we went, the singer and the filmmaker, roaming the streets, following a trail of memories. Carols favourite place is by the river, so this is where we headed, a location that would echo our earlier visit to the beach in Folkestone. You really could see her visibly relax and I wanted to try and get a sense of that unwinding, that pleasure at being by the water. Thanks to being mic’d up, Carol also revealed one of the film’s most powerful lines — a fact I put down to her feeling she was in a safe place, with someone I hope she’d grown to trust.

After sitting for a while, the clouds suddenly came over, the rain started to drizzle and we headed back. Before parting on the Underground, I apologised to Carol because I knew what was about to happen. While I was about to immerse myself in her life, her words, the deeply personal shots I’d acquired over the weeks — to Carol, I‘d essentially vanish, gone from her life. We agreed we’d see each other again and keep talking…

I love editing. Possibilities are endless, opportunities emerge and mistakes can be the best thing that happen: for me, it’s the purest form of creative expression. On a project of this nature, the first thing I do is get to the interview and trim it down — over and over — looking for themes, poignant moments, an emergent journey.

After this phase, I’ll hand write the remaining words down, often on an A3 sheet of paper — I want to see the entire film in one glance. At this stage it’s entirely unstructured — just the ‘best bits’ that have survived.

But once on the page, in this form, it becomes clearer to see motifs, repetition and structure. Now is when I’ll start to delete paragraphs, use highlighters to point to key statements and my own numbering system to start ordering the paragraphs into their final form.

This process might sound laborious but it’s faster than you’d think, taking just a couple of hours to transcribe, the paper editing and reordering is all usually completed in the same day. In the course of a few hours, you’ve gone from the ‘best bits’ of an interview to the foundation — the skeleton and heart of your film. This paper structure is now mirrored in the timeline, something I find easy within the environment of FCPX.

Having used Final Cut Pro since version one, I’ve always been a fan. The shift when it became FCPX was hard at first but I persevered and now, with the advent of version 10.4, I’m glad I did. All of the imagery I’ve captured is organised by events and keywords; these are then gone through to find my favourite shots. This initial setup makes the editing process much faster. It’s simply great to think, hmmm, a shot of a harmonica would go great here — dive into the event labelled ‘Quarterhouse’, the keyword selection, ‘instruments’ and 10 seconds later I’ve got a shot I like.

Whilst editing, I’m trying to visually tell the story, to engage emotions in the viewer, to surprise through juxtaposition.

There came a point where Carol was referring to a specific piece of work by the artist, Chagal. It was such a key part of the film that I knew I needed to see that piece of art, or something like it. Having contacted The Tate, it quickly became clear that my no-budget film could end up costing a pretty penny if I wanted the rights to display this piece of art. So I got creative — or rather my friend, Bret Syfert, did.

I sent Bret the sequence in question — just the filmed interview, with no cutaways on top, and explained my situation. Now, Bret happens to be a brilliant designer, artist and filmmaker in his own right and he casually said, ‘leave it with me’.

A week later, he sent me some video files and my mind was blown. Bret had created an incredible, ‘mechanical’ drawing directly representing Carol’s song in the style of Chagal. I was speechless.

After several days editing, I was happy that the film said what I wanted it to say. And I hope it speaks to you — enjoy the ride.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker, author of The Rough Guide to the Brain. Founder, Digitalis Films,