It’s an exciting time to be a DIY filmmaker. There’s a whole range of DSLR cameras available now that can produce professional level image quality. I know, because I have one myself. A Canon 7D. Though I own this formidable piece of technology, I am yet to master it. I can’t wrap my head around the relationship between ISO’s, F-stops, and shutter speed. Every time I decide to experiment with a short film, I promise myself that I will sit down and learn why these variables matter. I never do and they remain inscrutable, baffling terms.
Shooting the trailer for Winter’s Light was no different. Half an hour before I was due to pick up Genevieve (my Winter) I was on YouTube watching Canon 7D tutorials. The preliminary kind that explain what a lens cap is and how to take it off. It’s a miracle I was able to capture any image at all. Along with being tech savvy, most filmmakers usually spend some time preparing for a shoot. They do a storyboard or a script. I did neither. I figured I was only shooting a vignette: Winter on a beach, holding the lodestone. How complicated could it be?
After picking up Genevieve (who was incredibly lovely and generous to donate her time) my crew and I drove to Miner’s Beach, which is a semi-hidden stretch of sand between Shelley Beach and Lighthouse Beach in Port Macquarie. I’d chosen the location specifically because of its remoteness. The weather over the Easter Long Weekend had been surprisingly balmy (usually its monsoonal) and the beaches were teeming with tourists. I figured Miners would be sparsely populated because it was off the beaten track. It’s also got a reputation for being a nudist beach which I hoped would mean less people. Sure, there might be one or two naked folks sunning themselves but I was confident I could frame my shots without any extraneous appendages making a guest appearance.
(In the previous paragraph, I made reference to ‘my crew’ which might be misleading. The word crew, in relation to film production, usually calls to mind images of teamsters, grips, gaffers, best boys, focus pullers and the like. The Winter’s Light Trailer crew was comprised of myself, mum, dad and my fiancée, Greta. However, what they lacked in industry know-how they more than made for with enthusiasm and I appreciated their presence, despite my Dad’s propensity of popping into shots from time to time. It’s not his fault; he’s a giant and thus difficult to hide. For future shoots, I might actually paint him blue so I can digitally erase him in post production.)
So, with cast and crew in tow we set off for Miner’s Beach. In my head, I’d imagined a lonely stretch of sand, with Winter sitting down near the water and not another soul to be seen. When I got down to Miner’s beach, I was a little disappointed to find the beach didn’t really match my pre-visualization. It was a lot shorter than I remembered (it’s been a while since I’ve been a nudist) and, worse still, was crowded with people.
Well, crowded is an overstatement. The beach was empty when we first arrived; it was only after I started shooting that the entire population of Port Macquarie decided to pass through. Apparently, nudist beaches don’t have the stigma they once did. While, I applaud my hometown’s progressive attitude towards the human form in its natural state I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated that my supposedly isolated beach wasn’t so isolated. Whenever, I went to do a wide shot of Winter, invariably some jogger or kids with a dog would wander into frame. As such, my coverage was limited. I only did one wide shot which resulted in many headaches when it came to editing. Watch the trailer again, and see if you can spot a pretty egregious continuity gaff towards the end.
The beach didn’t resemble the one I’d created in my mind so I had to adjust my blocking. Instead, of having Genevieve sitting down near the water, I decided to put her on a rock. I don’t know why I did this? I saw the rock and made the impulsive decision to incorporate it into the scene, rather than ignore it and try and force the composition I’d previously pictured. I think the trailer still works, but ultimately it probably would have been more interesting visually to have found another beach and put her down near the water like I originally planned. Shots like the one where the lodestone is in the foreground with Winter behind it would have been much simpler to achieve as well. Unfortunately, when you’ve only got an actress for an hour and the light’s beginning to fade you have to make do with what you’ve got.
Despite the setbacks of awkward location and unwanted extras, I carried on, directing Genevieve to perform the same series of actions a number of times while I captured her from different angles. It’s very difficult to direct a performer, when you’re preoccupied with the technical aspects of filmmaking. I was too worried about the shot (the composition, angle, exposure, how it would marry with the other angles, whether or not there were joggers or dog walkers in the background) to worry about the subject of my image. Poor Genevieve didn’t know why she was sitting on the rock, staring at a painted green crystal. She’d started reading Winter’s Shadow but hadn’t made it to the end yet so the significance of the moment was lost on her. She needed motivation. She needed a director and at best I was a flustered camera man. Eventually, I managed to give her a garbled explanation of what I was hoping to achieve with the scene, but it’s a testimony to her acting ability that she’s convincing in the role. It’s certainly not down to my ‘direction’.
For the climatic moment of the trailer, when the lodestone starts flashing, I wanted Genevieve’s face to be lit by a flickering glow. I’d tested an effect using a torch and a piece of paper that looked pretty good at home but for some reason the technique didn’t work outdoors. The light was too diffuse or something. I had to trust that I’d figure out some way I could do the effect digitally in post production. This is always a scary proposition when you’re not tech savvy.
When we were finished I took some random shots of the ocean and the rain forest behind the beach. Thank god I did this as this footage was vital in the edit suite. A few instances I didn’t have an elegant solution for cutting from one angle to another so relied on the extra shots to smooth over the transition. Tip for would-be filmmakers: capture plenty of cutaways as you’ll never know when you might need them.
All in all the shoot lasted less than an hour. My greatest fear was that I’d wasted – not only my time – but Genevieve’s, dad, mum and Greta’s. That the footage I’d captured would be unusable. Upon reviewing it when I got home, I was relieved to see that it didn’t look too bad. The footage was a little under-exposed (I really need to learn about ISO, shutterspeed etc.) but this wasn’t a major problem. Eventually, I wanted to grade the trailer with a shadowy atmosphere anyway. The important thing was you could see what was going on and it didn’t appear too amateurish.
So with the footage in the can, it was on to the most rewarding (for me anyway) part of the filmmaking process.
(To be concluded in Part 3; where I learn you need a degree in astrophysics to operate Adobe After Effects)