Tools to Build the Story

Windfall Films is one of those lovely production companies where they nurture their employees and try to provide opportunities for them to upskill. So they organised a camera training workshop run by the Indie Training Fund, which offers all sorts of courses and bursaries for all kinds of skills you might need in the TV industry.

We got trained on a PXW-200 – the model with which Sony are replacing their PMW-200. At the higher end, both Canon and Sony cameras do pretty much the same thing, but the buttons are in different places. So after mastering the buttons and what everything meant on the display screen, it was time to put our theoretical knowledge into practice!

It was a real treat being taught by a highly experienced DoP (Director of Photography). He followed us around as we worked with the cameras, giving us tips and tricks that would help the final product look its best.

But I think the most important thing I’ll take away from that workshop is a clear understanding of how technology and story come together when making great TV and film. The composition, lighting, spacing, angle and focus of a shot can tell far more than a thousand words when you’re building up your story, so when you’re filming, it’s important to know which different cameras have different advantages, and what the technical abilities of the cameras can do to help you build a scene.

Tools to Build the Story

Controlling a Shoot

What a busy fortnight of filming! In the last two weeks of my contract with the BBC, we packed in our four one-day shoots for each of our films, and, as ever, it was all rather hectic. But over the course of the shoots I worked out that you can never plan too much! So here is what I think would be a good way to plan shoots for whichever happens to be my next project. The plan I lay out below may feel rather overkill, and it may seem to encroach on the director’s responsibilities, but in my opinion it’s better to have the plan prepared in your back pocket than to leave it to someone else for fear of encroaching on their remit, only to find that there is no plan.

If you are a researcher or AP working on small scale productions, in an intense dual partnership with a director, your director will thank you when you have all the crucial information at your fingertips – even if it’s as basic as knowing where the nearest ATM is.

On a shoot, you will have a balance of controllables and uncontrollables. Controllables are pretty self-explanatory, but uncontrollables include things like the weather, train delays, traffic (not only of cars, but also pedestrian traffic) and noise. As I’m sure you can draw from that, it means that outdoor shoots tend to have more uncontrollables, and need even more planning.

So here is what I hope will be a useful checklist to make sure that everything is covered for shoots.

  • Are all the locations set up? Location release forms signed?
  • Are your contributors prepared? Has their transport been arranged for them?
  • Have you bought any props you need?
  • Is your presenter prepared with any background info? Has their travel been arranged for them?
  • Have you printed off copies of the script for everyone? Has it been signed off and approved? Have you got separate documents for your interviewees with their questions, and a separate document with the pieces to camera?
  • What tech do you need? What is your cameraman bringing? Are you prepared with the right stock (SD/CF/SxS cards etc. – different cameras need different ‘stock’)? Have you got a safe place to put the rushes afterwards, and something with which to label each roll?
  • Prepare a rough schedule for the call sheet, then a very detailed schedule for your own personal use. In the detailed schedule, mark out what everyone should be doing at each point, and what needs to be being prepared for the next bit of the shoot.
  • What are your Plan Bs for the uncontrollables? E.g. wet weather alternatives, sound checks for planes.
  • Have you got spare release forms?

“’Assume’ is the mother of all screw-ups” – David Gilbert, Executive Producer, Factual Entertainment. This is so true. Even if it seems like a stupid question, ask it. It might just be the crucial question, and it’s always better to double check. Better to be a little bit annoying than suddenly discover that no one has brought a boom pole…

I noticed that often the annoying noise that crept into the sound recording was the rustling of various bits of paper that the crew were holding – scripts, call sheets etc. It would be handy to have all the documents in both paper form and on an iPad, so that they can be consulted silently.

It might even be handy to create a Master Document, dictated by the schedule, so each location has next to it the detailed schedule, the script for that sequence and the shot list, all in one easy-to-read table. I think I’ll give one a go for the next shoot and see how convenient it is! If any of you readers have the chance to try this system out before me, let me know how it goes.

Controlling a Shoot

Training Myself Up: The Canon C300

A couple of weekends ago I went on a training course to learn how to use a Canon C300. It was something I signed up for through DV Talent, the parent company of the TV job website, The Talent Manager. It was an eye-wateringly expensive course, but I had saved up and viewed it as a skills investment; I am already proficient with a DSLR 5D, but a C300 is broadcast standard – a much more complex, high quality camera. I knew that with that skill, I would stand a stronger chance of becoming a self-shooting AP in due course.

And I have to say the course was fantastic. There were only three of us, spending seven hours each day learning how to use this camera, both technically and practically. We received plenty of support and a technical reference booklet, which I know I’ll be referring to regularly in the future! In this blog, I won’t bore you with all the technical knowledge, because that’s really something you need to be shown and engage with on a practical basis, but what I will pass on is what I learned about the grammar of filming.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘grammar’. Making a film is like writing a story, but using images instead of words. So a paragraph is made up of sentences, which are made of clauses, which are made up of individual words. In a film, a scene is made up of sequences, which are made up of individual shots. So when you make a film, think about how the images you are shooting tell the story. The way a good writer tells a story defines their style; the way a good director puts together their shots defines theirs.

Take, for example, a murder mystery. Alice sat down. Her hands were shaking. What had she just seen? Could it be true? The blood, the hammer, David staring up at her, still with a faint echo of surprise in the fading twinkle of his dead eyes. She tried to drink some water but she couldn’t swallow. She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew who must have done it. And she knew that she would be next. The killer wasn’t far away…

So, imagine this as a film. You start with a mid-shot of Alice sitting down. Then a close-up of her hands shaking. A close-up of her face, emotions flitting across it. Flashback cutaways of the blood, the hammer, and David’s face. Another mid-shot of her drinking the water, drawing out to a wide of her, alone in the room, to emphasise her vulnerability. Then, to add a bit of technical knowledge to help build the mood of the film, maybe a few of the shots would be handheld and a little shaky. Maybe you would use a long lens for the close-ups to create depth of field, which makes one thing in focus but all the rest of the image blurry, and this would create a sense of tunnel vision, of concentration, drawing the eye to the one thing you want the viewer to notice.

Writing a story involves transferring the narrative of the imagination to the page, and can use narrative techniques and rhetorical devices to create a more evocative story. Film is the same, it transfers imagination to the screen and uses technical knowledge, e.g. lighting, sound, lens focus, camera angles, to create the same impression. Tech meets creativity in film, and it is crucial to have a strong understanding of both in order to create the desired effect when making a film.

Training Myself Up: The Canon C300