Perception - Short Film

I have finally, finally, got round to finishing an old project that started way back in May 2012. It's my latest short film and I hope you enjoy it.

This is going to be quite a long post, and before I show you the film (provided you haven't already seen it), I thought it would be worth explaining a few things. There are also some things that I'm going to tell you after you've seen the film, to avoid spoiling things.

So way back in May I'd just finished helping some older friends from my school (around 18, at the time I think). It was a one-day, 15-16-hour shoot all over west and slightly further west London, using a Sony FS100 and professional audio equipment owned by the school. I was 14 at the time and had not had that much fun making a film in ages.

Unfortunately, they were about to leave our secondary school, St. Paul's, to go off to college or wherever, and I was in my first year. There is nearly nobody in the 3 years in between us who is interested in filmmaking, and nobody actively doing anything about it.

So, it looked like that was going to be the most of filmmaking fun I would have for quite a while, until I was in the top years and was trusted with the best camera out of the school grounds.

And so I set about rectifying the situation. Because I was the only one of my friends who was actively interested in making a film, it looked like I was going to have to write, direct and shoot it, and cast some of my friends appropriately and get some on the crew.

I finished the first draft of Perception on the 2nd May. Over the next two weeks, I asked friends and family to look over it, do iron out the details and get it polished. I'm not going to pretend that I'm great at writing scripts, especially under time pressure as I knew we would have to have shot the whole film by the end of June. And what's more - the film would have a £0 budget.

So what came out of it was not a great script, but something to keep us going. Perhaps at this stage of my career, the goal is not to make a great film, but to learn a lot along the way and make mistakes that you'll know not to make again.

And maybe, along with the fun that we had, that was what happened with this production. It's not as good as I would have liked it to be, but we have to live realistically, and so I think it best to stop trying to improve this project more that is really possible, and to move onto the next, with fresh ideas and new perspectives.

And so, without further a-do, here is the completed short. Please go and watch in Vimeo, and if you want to support me and my friends in our future work, consider 'tipping' this film with the amount you think appropriate. The money will go towards new gear to help us improve and learn and make more awesome things.

Now that you've seen it, you might want to know a little more about how this was made.

After I'd got the script completed, I asked my good friend Henry Dyer to help me produce the film. We set about creating a locations list: we were going to need to shoot in school, in a cinema, and on the street both during the day and after dark. However, the catch was that we'd have to have access to electricity in the place we'd shoot the final fight scene.

First of all, we emailed the local cinemas to see whether or not they'd consider allowing us to shoot in their lobby for free. I'd deliberately left out any scenes inside the cinema screen itself, as it would be much harder to get access and very unlikely without having to pay anything. Initially, we contacted Cineworld Hammersmith because it was the cinema that looked the most like what I had in my head:

But they didn't respond in the ~6 weeks we had before we needed to be actually needed to be shooting. Around a week or so after we asked them, we also contacted the good people at the Electric Cinema, who were willing to let us borrow their lobby for around two hours for free. Unfortunately, when Henry went round there to see how we could film, it became apparent that it would be impossible for us to shoot the shots we had planned and that were critical to the plot. Also, around half an hour after Henry left, it caught fire. So that was a no-go.

Henry had one last cinema up his sleeve, and that was the Curzon Cinema in Richmond. They were great and said that we could have the lobby for as long as we wanted as long as it was during opening hours and that we weren't disturbing any performances. So we arranged to shoot there on the morning of Sunday 1st July.

We decided to do the shooting of the fight scene outside my house, as it would mean that we could get access to food, drink and most importantly power for the lights without buying a generator and catering services, and the other "walking scenes" as we referred to them, could be shot on the high street near my house.

Getting permission to film in school is always difficult, mainly because of excessive health and safety regulations, however it was made possible and a lot easier thanks to David Smith and Oliver Rokison, who helped us out a lot and got things organised, and supervised us after school.

Then we had to decide what gear to use. Initially, we had thought that we might be able to shoot using the school's FS100, but we would need to be supervised at all times to do that, and it turned out to be impractical. So we shot it on my 600D.

I had always been interested in Steadicam, especially having been the operator on the previous film I mentioned above, and I decided it would be the best way to film the walking scenes. Luckily, our school's Art department had a Steadicam Merlin that we could borrow and use out of school, so we went for that. We borrowed a heavy duty tripod for the static shots, as it was by far the best tripod we had access to, and although it was quite heavy, it has a great fluid head. And finally, we were lucky enough to borrow some a set of three ARRI 600's with barn doors, gels and stands. All of the lights in one bag with their paraphernalia were definitely the heaviest equipment we used - I estimate 12-15kgs, although we never bothered to weigh it. Many sore shoulders were had after carrying that monstrosity around. But it allowed us to shoot well into the night and have a decent light source with good colour, which is always a huge plus. Many thanks to Alan Newton from SPS Art for lending us the equipment and getting it all signed off for.

In terms of lenses, we used my Canon 50mm f/1.4 for most of the tripod shots, and my Sigma 20-40mm f/2.8 @20mm for all of the fight scene shots, and the other tripod shots. I used my 18-55m f/4-5.6 kit lens for the Steadicam shots, because it weighs next to nothing and has image stabilisation built in, which helped to get rid some of the jitters caused when flying the Merlin without the arm and vest.

Then, for sound, we looked to the school's Drama department. They have a RØDE NTG-2 with a Marantz PMD661 and a boom pole, and we got Nathan, who regularly does technical theatre (backstage, lighting, etc.) with me and Henry in the Drama department, to record the audio for us. Again thanks to Edward Williams, head of Drama at SPS, for authorising us to borrow equipment, and to Dan Staniforth for putting up with our unreasonable requests and unlocking the cupboards and getting us the forms to sign.

Casting was difficult. In Year 9, it's hard to find people who take you seriously when you say you're making a film. But I also have a great friend, Amos Jackson, who agreed to act, who knew Ella, who also agreed.  Hugo was an old friend, and agreed to help me out, and Henry knew and persuaded Hilton to play the lead.

Scheduling is hard. So hard in fact, that we didn't know which roles anyone other than Hilton and Ella would be playing until 4 days before we started shooting. Nobody could be in the right place at the right time or stay long enough. Somehow though, we managed. And that's one of the main difficulties about making a truly independent film - you haven't got a governing body, like a film school or film course or something to take care of scheduling for you and so you have to do all of that yourself.

So then the first day of shooting arrived. It was near the end of the summer term, and the holidays were just around the corner. It was the 15th June, and we shot the walking scene of Ella and Hilton, as well as the first half of the fight scene. I was intending to finish it that night, but that was going to be impossible as it was 9:30pm Hilton had to leave early and everyone had to get home, so I had to organize the second part of the scene to be shot later.

I used a cold hair light, with a diffused orange backlight and key. That gave us some nice areas of shadow, that I could use to my advantage with the thugs.

The next shoot was the school scenes, and we did those on Tuesday 26th. The first bit was shot in our sports center, and I would have loved to do one of my long introductions with music and text, but I forgot to shoot a static locked-down shot and didn't have time to come back later.

I didn't have any proper storyboards, none that weren't in my head, so I told the actors to perform the sequence of the turning corner and the mini-discussion with the friend and I filmed it from several angles to see which one looked best, and I'm quite happy with what came out of it. We put two of the 600W ARRIs at one end of the passage, bouncing off the ceiling, to fill out the shadows a bit.

Then we moved up to the computer gallery. The challenging part with this room was that the whole wall on the right was reflective, meaning that anything we had behind the camera would also be in front of the camera if we weren't careful. The tracking shot to the right as Hilton walks to his computer unfortunately included the reflections of Hugo holding a clapperboard, Nathan holding the boom pole, and one of the lights on its stand. It was too good to cut however, so I marked it down as needing some serious work in post.

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The actual Facebook conversation on the screen wasn't filmed until this month, basically down to a lack of time because of other projects I'd been working on, and Christmas.

The last day of shooting was the day after school ended, the 1st of July. We had scheduled to film in and outside the Curzon in Richmond from about 10 in the morning. We arrived early so we could shoot the scene outside the cinema first. This scene was going to have to look like night, so we used a reflector to cancel out as many of the shadows as we could, so that I could colour grade later to make it look like night.

Unfortunately, nobody was there to open the cinema when the time came for us to shoot, so we waited. Then Iesh Thapar, one of the employees of the Curzon, who also makes short films, arrived, and it turned out that he also thought the cinema was going to open at around 10, but in reality it wasn't going to happen until the first screening at around 11:30.

So Nathan and Theo went round the corner to see if Tesco was open, but it was shut until 11. Eventually they found that Sainsbury's in Richmond Station was open, and picked up as much as they could carry.

I was quite worried at this point because the window for us to get our shots inside the cinema was closing, but luckily when Steve Forman, the manager arrived, he apologised and said we could shoot during one of the screenings.

Even more luckily for us, the screening was of a four-hour opera with an interval, so we had two hours to get in, set up, shoot and pack up before we started interrupting the paying audience. And with the help of Iesh, we managed with 20 minutes to spare.

For the most part, Nathan was standing on one of the tables to get the audio we needed, unless that would have been in frame, and in that case he went under the counter of the bar.

I have to thank Iesh for the help he gave us, and without him the mirror shot at the beginning of the interior scene would never have happened. He also helped as a clapper loader, which really helped to speed up proceedings.

I had scheduled the scenes that we didn't finish on the 15th for that evening, so many some of the cast and crew came home with me to spend the day, and others went off and returned later.

That evening, at around 6pm, we started setting up the fight scene outside my house to look as much like the previous shoot as possible. But, to my dismay, the bulb of one of the three lights that we were going to use for the outside scenes blew, leaving us with only a two-light setup, which causes awkward shadows and overexposed areas. Luckily, I had two LED Par cans that were roughly half as bright as one of the ARRIs each, so I could get a match to what I had had previously.

At around 7pm, we were all ready to shoot except for one person - Simran, who plays the lead, had had a minor family emergency and didn't arrive until 8pm, having lost an hour of shooting time. It would have been fair to say I was fairly stressed at this point.

When Simran finally did arrive, we managed to get the remainder of the fight scene choreographed (yes that's right - we hadn't even had time to choreograph it properly yet) and shot it fairly quickly. Here's an interesting fact - the noise Amos (Slide) makes when being punched in the stomach was not a sound effect, it was a real live recording of him falling to the ground.

The light was fading fast, and most of the cast headed off home, except for the three thugs, because we still had to shoot their walking scene. It was around 10pm and people still had to get home, but we managed to get six takes of it. We must have been quite a sight - three thugs walking forwards with me walking backwards with a Steadicam and Nathan walking backwards holding a 3 meter boom pole trying not to get in the shot. And, right in front of us all, Henry, who walked into the road to make sure we weren't going to get run over while crossing the road and not looking. Unfortunately we didn't get a picture of that - we were all to concerned with getting the footage.

In the end, I'm very happy with the footage we got from that, and although the audio was not excellent, it was the best we could to with the equipment we had in the time we had. Maybe that's the most anyone can ever do in situations like that.

And that was the end of principal photography. "A wrap". A relief.

And then, on to editing. Here's a brief screenlapse (I just made that term up but I quite like it) of the first stages of editing.

Editing Perception from Alex Forey on Vimeo.

I edit my films in Adobe Premiere Pro and do VFX in After Effects, by right-clicking a clip in the timeline and choosing "Replace with After Effects Composition". This allows me to edit things in AE and have them automatically update in my timeline, so when I export that timeline, the whole movie is exported in one go.

I used Magic Bullet Looks for colour correction and grading, and it's the best piece of software I've come across for grading in the timeline. It's fairly lightweight, but can occasionally go completely buggy on you, so you have to restart Premiere to fix it.

I also recorded some foley sound effects to supplement the live sound. Here is my setup:

It's not ideal, and I don't have a dedicated audio recorder so I record the sound into the camera, but it works. It's on its side so that I can get the microphone close to the keyboard and so I can see the monitor through the camera, making it easier to sync up later.

The timeline itself was in 1920x1080, but I put a 2.35:1 (the aspect ratio that most films use) letterbox over the top as a guide to how to position things, as I would later export in that aspect ratio.

Between starting editing and finishing, I created a rough cut for the cast, crew and original composers of our score (who sadly got bogged down with work and were unable to complete it), and a second cut more recently for Henry so he could see how things were going.

Here's what the finished timeline looked like:

Another perk of the post production job is that I got to make the fake Facebook accounts. We had initially created some when we shot the scene in the computer gallery, but had forgotten the passwords, so when it came round to shooting the chat windows, I had to make some more. Here is my desk with Jason's Facebook on the left, mine in the middle, and Abbey's on the right.

Both of them were friends with the cast and crew in real life, to make them more realistic. I roped in my sister to type on the other end of the chat while I filmed Jason's side. I used an old HP monitor, which isn't pictured above, because it was the closest I could find to the monitors we used at school.

Once I'd done that, I dropped it into the timeline and we were about ready to go. I did a final audio pass, in which I went through and corrected some wonky levels (Premiere lets you do it while playing back the timeline, without pausing) and I deemed it ready to "ship". I put the Cinematic Mob intro on the beginning and the ident on the end, and exported it in 1920x816, which is roughly 2.35:1.

My specific settings were: H.264, 15mpbs, Level 5.1, 23.976fps, VBR 2-pass encoding with AAC 320kbps audio. The film, at 7 minutes and 37 seconds took 1 hour and 36 minutes to render on a 2010 iMac with quad-core i3 and 16GB of RAM, which isn't too bad considering all the grading and stabilisation I used.

One really cool thing that the whole Premiere Pro / Media Encoder suite can do for you is automatically upload your finished file over FTP, and it can even send the local file to the trash if you want it to. I used this to upload them to my home server, so that I could share it with Henry and a few others for review.

Playing back the final product I realised that I'd entered someone's name twice for the same thing in the credits, so I edited the Photoshop file, hit 'reload footage' in After Effects, and then rendered Premiere sequence out again using the same settings as before in Media Encoder, this time overnight.

And, after uploading to Vimeo, that was that.

Before I go I'd just like to say a huge thank you to everyone involved, including the cast, crew, everyone at the Curzon and at St Paul's for making this possible, and especially to my long-suffering parents, who had noisy children making a loud film outside their house until 10pm on two separate nights.

As I said before, it's not perfect, far from it, but it was a great experience - I had a lot of fun, learnt a lot of things, and made some new good friends. Now, what's next?