Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Revealing Diary - a short film by the Guerrier brothers

SFX exclusively reports that the Guerrier brothers and a handsome gang of desperadoes made a short science-fiction film, Revealing Diary. You can watch it here:


We’re really pleased with the film, which was made as part of Sci-Fi London’s 48-hour challenge (#sfl48hr) – though a last-minute technical hitch meant we missed the deadline.

That’s especially frustrating given the hard work of the cast and crew – who gave their time for free – and the amount of preparation that my brother Tom and I put into it. But we weren’t alone: of 368 entrants, 161 films were submitted. In the hope it helps future entrants – or just because it's of interest to anyone else – here’s what we did and how it went wrong.

I've included links to the cast and crew's Twitter accounts where available. They were amazing and you should give them paid work.

Spoilers obviously follow. Watch the film before proceeding. 

The competition is to write, shoot and complete a film of between three and five minutes within 48 hours, based on elements given to you at 11 am on the Saturday morning: your film’s title; a line of dialogue; a prop; and an optional scientific theme.
“The 48 hours begins from when all teams have their brief (around Noon on April 14th) and all the creative work must take part in that time period. The only pre-production permissible is the organising of cast and crew (the Team), securing equipment and scouting for possible locations.”
Rule 12 of the 48 hour film challenge rules 
Tom (the director, @guerrierthomas) and I had talked about the 48-hour challenge before, but started to get serious on 28 March, when Tom emailed to ask if I was free the weekend of 14-16 April. I was, so that was that: we’d do it.

Pre-planning in Starbucks
Over the next week, we read the challenge rules, spoke to friends who’d taken part before and watched lots of previous winning and not-winning entries. We made notes on what we saw, and on what we could do that might help our film stand out.

A lot of previous films were set in apocalyptic ruins or wastelands. A lot were very bleak and graded brown and grey. A lot starred men who looked like Tom and me (30-something nerds who needed to shave and spend more time in the gym). So we wanted something present-day, colourful and chirpy, and with prominent roles for women.

Since we – as filmmakers – had to respond to whatever brief we were given, I suggested setting our story in a TV studio. Our characters would be hosting a live, cool show and then respond to some sci-fi event. They might get reports of a plague or alien invasion, or they’d interview the boffin behind some new invention. We gambled on me being able to make that setting work whatever we were given.

Tom planned to shoot most if not all of the film on the Saturday afternoon and evening. If need be, we could shoot a small amount on Sunday morning, but we’d need to wrap by lunchtime so that he could concentrate the remaining hours on the edit, sound mix and grading before delivering the completed film on Monday morning. Again, we gambled that I’d be able to write within that plan.

As our stars, I suggested two actresses I’d worked with since 2008 on Doctor Who and Graceless audio plays for Big Finish (@bigfinish). I rang them both on 4 April and they agreed to take part. My tentative plan was that Ciara Janson (@CiaraJanson)would be a presenter on the TV show and Laura Doddington (@LDoddington)her director.

Tom suggested the other three actors, though we wouldn’t know who they’d play until we got the brief. Once I knew we had Anton Romain Thompson (@This_Is_ART) and Adrian Mackinder (@AdrianMackinder) onboard, and James Rose just for the Sunday, I made notes on possible roles they might play.

For example, Anton was eventually Ciara’s co-presenter, but he could have been a guest – either showing off an invention or giving a first-hand account of some sci-fi event. We asked Adrian to bring a suit to the filming because I thought he might be Laura’s executive producer, arriving in the midst of the crisis and ordering her to change the content of the show… This was as much as I could prepare in advance for whatever brief we got.

Tom also pointed out that a lot of the previous winning films had at least one striking special effect. Tom worked in special effects before becoming a director, so we discussed the kinds of simple but striking effects that were feasible. He made sure our crew included CG supervisor Chris Petts (@ChrisPettsVFX), as well as a strong art direction team in Simon Aronson (@TheMakingSpace) and Gemma Rigg (@MUTEtheFILM). Again, that kept our options open.

I’d had a TV studio in mind for the shoot but it wasn’t available. Tom and I called round various contacts looking for alternatives. On the Tuesday and Wednesday before the challenge, me, Tom and Sebastian Solberg (our Director of Photography, @SebSolberg) visited three possible locations – all working TV studios. Millbank Studios offered us eight hours from noon on the Saturday. At first, this was for more than our budget would allow but they thankfully then offered us a discount.

To give the film a sense of scale, we provisionally planned three ‘sets’ – the studio, the gallery and a green room. Tom suggested that the green room scenes would not need to be recorded at Millbank – where we were on limited time. If those scenes were kept short, we could use another, cheaper location on the Sunday morning. I begged use of a meeting room at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, which would need minimal set dressing – just a table with a mirror.

Tom planned to have an editor assemble footage while we were still shooting on Saturday and then work through the night, so that we’d have a rough edit of the whole film relatively soon after wrapping on Sunday. We would have a finished edit by about 10 pm.

Tom and I would then stay up Sunday night and Monday morning while the sound design by Tapio Liukkonen at Kaamos Sound, soundtrack by Matthew Cochrane (@matcochr) and grading were completed. It was a tight schedule, but we had a certain amount of “give”. The whole thing had to be made in 48 hours but we were determined to produce a high-quality short.

We were still calling round for crew on the Friday evening – several people were keen but had other commitments, while others (understandably) wouldn’t work for the terms we could offer. Some people could only work one of the two days, or only for a part of the day. But finally we had a full team, including Natasha Phelan (@natashaphelan) as 1st assistant director and Simon Belcher (@nimbos) as sound recordist.

Our crew was largely made up of professionals working in TV and film. Two members of the crew had worked on 48-hour films before. We felt we were as prepared as we could be. But I still hardly slept the night before…

We agreed to meet the cast and crew at 11 am at the Pret down the road from Millbank. I took my laptop, with Final Draft loaded on to it.

I had to write the film based on the brief we were given. Tom received our brief by text message at 11.05:
Title: Revealing Diary

Line: I should probably leave around Noon to be safe… Can you make that happen  
Prop: “Sketch: We see a character write a list of 6 words, the first word beginning with R (does not need to be a name or real word) – they then do a small doodle by the last word”
Optional: Man in coma explores mind as environment 
Once we got the text message, I had to act quickly, deciding the rough outline and what roles the actors would play. Our costume supervisor Becky Duncan was only available that morning, so once she had a rough brief from me, she quickly took Ciara and Laura up the street to go shopping in Primark. I sat typing the script at my laptop while Tom and the crew discussed how they’d shoot my story. We agreed that Simon A would provide us with a fake book and a trick mirror.

At noon we moved from Pret to Millbank Studios, where the crew prepared the “set” for filming. They asked me questions as I worked – such as what the live TV show would be called. I needed an answer on the spot. Our given line of dialogue said “by Noon”, so it had to be a late morning show. I suggested “Late Wake Up” and Tom rang Alex Mallinson (@HelloAlexBam) who quickly emailed over different graphics to choose from.

Set photo from Revealing Diaries by the Guerrier brothers
The set of Late Wake Up
By half twelve, I had a first outline of the script, which Tom read through and made notes on. By one, he’d agreed the script, and Ciara and Laura had their costumes. Tom led us through to the TV studio “set” where the actors read-through what I'd written, with me doing the stage directions. The cast and crew asked questions and clarified some points, we read it again, and by half one we were ready to start filming…

Sebastian (our DoP) shot the film on a tiny, handheld Canon 60D and used a Glidecam 2000 to keep the shot steady. He and Tom went through the shots while I was still writing, working out an opening shot to play the titles over. They went for a fairly standard shooting style, playing the scenes out in their entirety, starting with wides and then shooting close-ups.

We shot everything twice – given the limits on us, that was the quickest and safest way. We shot quickly, Tom keeping the atmosphere friendly and fun – as you can see from the photos. The first scene took several hours to complete, the longest part of the short. It was quite dialogue heavy, which takes longer to shoot and cut – a lot of competition films had kept the dialogue to a minimum. We made it work because the rest of the film (effectively two scenes) were more visual and could be put together quickly.

Everyone mucked in. Most of the crew appear on screen at some point as extras. There wasn't much need for Chris' VFX brilliance while we shot, so he played the most prominent cameraman. Even Gary, the technician supervising us, had a role in our last shot – that all helped make the film look more expensive.

Chris, Laura and I all took turns holding the boom mike – it's not heavy, but holding it high up and out over the actors is knackering.

Meanwhile, Gemma and Simon hurried to the nearby Oxfam Bookshop to buy a hardback book that Adrian's character could plug on the show. Simon then battled technology to produce a bespoke dust jacket, with Adrian's best photo on the back.

Shooting the green room scenes
Sunday’s shoot at the Petrie museum should have been quicker, but we’d not anticipated the complexity of the effects shot – and weren’t ready to start filming until after our 1 pm deadline. I'd already agreed to provide some writing work for the museum on a quid pro quo basis. Tom negotiated an extension on the shoot by offering to do some video editing.

The delay was worth it as soon as Gemma and Simon presented the trick effect, and once we were filming we got through the material quickly. We were wrapped and packing up by 3.

We decamped with all our kit to the Marlborough Arms round the corner for much-needed late lunch – and beer. It had been a brilliant, fun shoot, the cast and crew a delight to spend the weekend with.

Tom called the editor to ensure things were on schedule, then stayed for an orange and lemonade with the crew.

Tom and I took a cab to the “unit base” (Genium Creative, the office where Tom works. The editor hadn't finished the edit of all Saturday's footage, so Tom worked on editing the Sunday material and I made a quick dash home.

Having fought the Sunday service on public transport, I was back for half 9 and the takeaway Tom had ordered. Things were going well – and the footage looked amazing.

But as we tried to put the footage from both days together, we discovered a problem with the synching. The more we tried to trace the fault, the more embedded it appeared. Then the computers crashed. At 11 pm – 12 hours from the competition deadline – we effectively had to start the edit again from scratch. We had lost 24 hours of edit time from the 48-hour schedule.

Tom ploughed on anyway, finding me tasks to do such as making tea and compiling the credits. The editor left us at midnight – the time we'd always agreed he would work to.

That was our main failing. If we were doing this again, we'd make sure we had more than one person able to edit footage working through the final night. It would help if I knew how to do some basic assembly – I've since read Roger Corman's advice that the crew should all be competent in every part of production.

The morning wore on. Tom had worked for six hours non-stop when we took stock of the situation. We were both tired, and there was still a lot of work to do. We would be able, Tom thought, to deliver a rough edit of the material to the competition – the scenes in the right order, with basic sound and no grading. Or we could miss the deadline and finish the film later in the week, properly.

We drown our sorrows at 7 am
We made the decision to hold off and, exhausted, went for breakfast and then home to bed. Later in the morning, Tom emailed the cast and crew to tell them what had happened. Everyone was very supportive – again, a testament to the sense that we'd made something good.

In the next few days, Tom worked on the film, fitting it round other commitments. In principle, he tried to finish it within the time we felt we'd lost, the new cut taking him 12 hours in total. That self-imposed limit proved less practical when it came to tweaking the edit and working on the grade and sound.

It was frustrating to miss the deadline, but we don't regret a thing. We'd strongly recommend taking part in the 48 hour competition, whatever your experience in film-making. Apart from the technical problems at the last minute, we had a brilliant time making our film and have learned a lot that will be very useful on our future projects. We're already planning our next films.

We didn't submit Revealing Diary to the competition because we thought it was a good film in its own right and wanted to finish it properly. We're proud of what we achieved and very grateful to all those people who gave their time and expertise for free.

Sci-Fi London has announced the shortlist of top 20 films from the competition and the winners will be announced this Sunday. Congratulations to them – and to everyone who completed their films on time. We appreciate what an achievement that is.

Simon Aronson has posted more photos from the shoot.

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