Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A place in France

I've spent the last few days in southern France, about two hours directly north of Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region. I went there to view an old barn that's for sale together with five acres of land, with a view to renovating it into a home. I flew into Rodez and hired a car to drive west to a friends house in Villefranche de Rouergue, a fabulous medieval town set on the river Aveyron. My friend William kindly put me up during my fact finding visit.

On the first full day there I visited the old barn and was quite impressed with the building. It was structurally sound and stereo-typical French barn-style roof. It sits on a triangle piece of land around five acres of land. The current plan would be to plant around one hundred orchard trees on half of the land, with the other half divided between vines and a terrace garden leading down to a vegetable field. The barn itself has a lean-to, corrugated iron roofed structure, which would be changed to a contemporary square glass building with a timber decking roof accessed from the first floor of the converted barn via glass doors.

The nearest town is a good twenty miles from the nearest large town and about two miles from the nearest village shop, so it is very much in a rural setting where a car would be essential.

Further away the nearest alpine ski area is Le Lioran, roughly ninety miles north east. By my calculation it would take the same amount of time to get there from the barn as it does to get from my current home to Glenshee in Scotland. Difficult to get there without a car as it would be a strangled and long route by train.

On one of the days there I took a two hour drive east to a small town called Millau.
The reason for the visit was actually to see a special bridge, designed by british architect Norman Foster and built by French structural engineers. On the way I stopped off at a fantastic ridge-top medieval town of Najac, and like the majority of small towns in France quite beautiful and partly run down.

Onto the bridge. An amazing piece of engineering standing at slightly higher than the Eiffel Tower and thus being the tallest road bridge in the world.
On edge it looks wafer thin and viewed from the town it bypasses the main supports look like angels spreading out their wings. It forms part of the direct motorway than links Paris with Montpelier on the coast, roughly another two hours away.

The barn isn't in quite the ideal location for me for outdoor sports such as mountain biking, trekking and alpine skiing, but then any closer to those areas and this property would easily be ten times as expensive. A typical renovated house near to the main town for example is well into the hundreds of thousands of Euros. So a compromise has to be made somewhere.

There is more information to gather and sometime in February I will return and see how easy it is to get to skiing either in the Central Massif or in the Pyrenees, south of the barn. One of my friends who has a property very close by is going to gather some more information for me in January as he speaks fluent French and has many contacts.

It's exciting, and now is the time to buy, but careful thought needs to be given once the romantic idea of it has passed.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Corrour to Dalwhinnie

I'm just about to head out of the door to France, as you do, but thought I'd pen a short blog about a great mountain bike trip over the weekend.

We started by getting the train to a remote station at Corrour near Loch Ossian, the station made famous in Trainspotting. It was pretty wet on arrival so we enjoyed a nice bowl of soup in the station-side cafe. sadly it is closing down at the end of the month due to the estate not renewing their lease.

The estate was bought many years ago by the people who invented the Tetra Pak, but the estate is run by a trust of which all members live in the south of England somewhere! This is another example of Scotland being owned and run by absentees.

Our route takes along a great dirt track to loch Laggan, and though not a fast downhill it was an easy ride. However, due to our late start, around midday, it was getting dark when we reached Loch Laggan and so we picked a spot to camp for the night.

The following morning was much brighter and we were treated to a fantastic autumn view down Loch Laggan complete with rainbow.

Our route runs along
another great track on the east shore of Loch Laggan, past the castle at the end, then turning east toward Ben Alder.

At this point we saw a group of five stag ponies, used in the past for bringing the shot stags down from the mountains. Nowadays that job is done by landrovers and the stag ponies are left to roam wild.
Looking at them though I reckon they are still used to some extent as they can reach into areas that landrovers cannot. It was great to see them again, the last time being over ten years ago further east at Loch Pattack in the shoulder of Ben Alder.

The track deteriorated about five miles in for about a mile. However once past this it was a fast and straightforward run to Dalwhinnie along the shore of Loch Ericht.

As you'll have read in a previous blog, Ben Alder estate was bought by an German Swiss industrialist and he's spent his billions ruining the countryside with a Disney-style castle. At one point he even dynamited a hole in the hillside so he could house his helicopter! But on this trip I learned that he had seen a church in Wester Ross and decided he liked it. So he bought it. Then he shipped it, including the crypt, to the lochside so his daughter could get married in it. However, she wasn't happy that the naive was so short and so he built an extension to the front. Once the service was over the extension was dismantled!

Clearly lot's of money, no taste and no brains! Once again our beautiful country is being raped by these rich outsiders with no respect for Scotland and it's history.

It was dark by 4.30pm and our train was not due until 7.30pm so we spent the time in Dalwhinnie's only restaurant/hotel enjoying soup and baked potatoes.

Friday, 13 November 2009

On location #9 - final day

There's a sense of relief when you get to the end of a shoot, and the nervousness you've had throughout begins to subside as the day progresses. You're no longer worried about whether you're going to get every shot, if the weather's going to be kind to you, will the talent turn up etc.
But mixed with this is a sense of sadness as well, that it's all over. At the end of the shoot day we all shake hands on a job well done, all the tensions and frustrations fade away, you all walk away from set, and it feels a bit of anti climax.

The film now goes into editing, post production as it is called, or post, for short. All the material that was shot is now taken into the computer edit suite, a process we call ingesting. Our editor, Smeegs, now works his magic to create the film I originally wrote. I hand over my master script to him which has all my notes scribbled in the margins from my thoughts on the day of shooting.
We use a type of solid state card to record the footage onto in the camera, similar to the SD cards you may use in your digital camera.
These cards are called P2 cards, and measure roughly 5cm by 8cm, and cost somewhere in the region of £1000 each. We can record true HD onto the cards with no compression, i.e. no loss of quality from what I see through the lens. Tape, and the smaller formats, all compress the information in order to fit it all on. Using solid state P2 cards also cuts down the amount of time we need to ingest it into the edit suite as it is just a case of transferring the files.

They say in the industry that there are three scripts; the one that is written, the one that is shot and finally the one that is created in the edit. The skills of a good editor are paramount to the finished product, and many editors go on to make excellent directors. This is why I took time in the past to thoroughly learn the process of editing so I could take that knowledge with me to set, and thus help my editor get what he needs to work with. There are also a number of graphics and CGi to be made for this film, and Smeegs takes care of this as well. I will not see the film again until he has a rough cut put together.
I find the process fascinating that I can write something on sheets of paper, break it all up into individual shots, shoot them out of sequence, and then see it assembled into an order that makes sense. It will not be until that point if we find out if all the research and preparation has worked.

After the edit we will assemble a focus group and do a test screening which will bring out further alterations that will be made. The post production process can take a long time, and certainly longer than filming. Case in point, Anthony Minghella's film Cold Mountain took just under three months to shoot but eighteen months to edit.

Now, I have started a new film, which I've been researching for a few weeks already, but I have been waiting to get the current film "in the can". This next film will shoot sometime in February next year.

Finally, I must tell you about a film I turned down recently. This was an offer from a published author who wanted to bring his script to life.
He had never worked with a camera crew before and had never made a film of any sort, and here he was striving to make a feature as his first film! I must admit to being concerned about this, but I knew with the right crew, and crucially, a great 1st Assistant Director and Director of Photography, we could pull it off. As well as Producer I offered to do the role of 1st AD.

We met, and he had a lot of nervous energy, and he seemed very determined to succeed. I left the meeting enthused, and late that same night sent out a myriad of emails to crew and equipment suppliers for availability and quotes. I should say at this point that the film had very little money and I had offered to give six to eight weeks of my time for free, which would be roughly fifteen hours per day, six days per week, and would involve me using a lot of favours with people I knew.

As one should, I then informed the "author" what had been done so far to keep him up to date. His reply was, to put it mildly, surprising. Here's an extract;

"I cannot be bothered with these ping pong emails unless you have some results. I'm not here to make friends, I just require you to make this film and not tell me about the film business. The deal is I expect you to schedule the entire film, before any contract is signed, in order to prove to me that you can do this job. I have a budget drawn up but I expect you to do your own. If you feel you want to respond with a two page defense this is not the job for you".

How right he is! That was a week ago, and it may surprise you to know that I was still considering it at one point. But crucially I realised I would not be able to work with him. In film making, even if you have a million pounds to spend, let alone the tiny budget this character had, you must make friends. Actually, should we not make friends with our work colleagues anyway, regardless of the job? I have since learnt he has pissed off and scared away many more people. It is a tall order to try and shoot a feature film in three weeks, but at a push it can be done with a very experienced crew. This guy will be lucky if he ends up with enthusiastic students.

I predict this film will not see the light of day, and I pity anyone who gets involved with this idiot.

The last day of filming was very enjoyable, and there was a nice atmosphere on set. It was busy but everyone did their bit without question, and as ever I am grateful to my producer, cameraman, crew and actors for getting the film finished.

It will be around a couple of weeks now before my next blog as I am away on a fact finding mission in France, which I'll tell you all about on my return.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

On location #8

Out and about today, which is always the best fun.

Our first shot of the day was to be a locked off shot, meaning the tripod is placed in one position and the camera is locked into one position mounted on it, in front of two wrought iron gates. They were then to swing open slowly and our character would walk through. This shot was to depict the thought of coming to a dead end as a carer, daunted by the journey ahead, with no easy way through. When the gates open and the character walks through this depicts a possible way ahead, a new path.

But we couldn't do it!

We were to shoot in the rear car park of a certain art gallery in Edinburgh, but the bureaucracy of the organisation clogged the works. So much fuss and unnecessary complications muddied the way and we lost the shot. Such is the frustrating nature of film making.

We forged ahead to film establishing shots of a council building and the old Scottish Government buildings in Waterloo Place. It's at this point that I must digress and remind other indie film makers out there to always remember a scene from a Robin Williams movie called Dead Poets Society. In one particular scene he asks his students to stand up on top of their desks, to reinforce his notion to always try to look at things from a different angle. I, quite literally, adopted this approach for these shots. We had arrived outside the main council building, parked up, and walked toward the council offices.
At this point we could have simply shot it from street level and that would be that; an establishing shot of a council building. However, by just standing there and looking around we realised we could walk round and up to a higher viewpoint that would look down on the building, which became a much more dynamic shot. As a bonus, when we arrived there we had a wonderful view across to Calton Hill and the back of the old Scottish Parliament buildings on Waterloo Place. A much better shot than had we gone round to the front of the building, especially as the sun was on our side. In addition we saved some production time and could take a relaxed pace to get our shot.

There were a number of other general shots to achieve, one of which was a gas van. This was scheduled to be picked up another day, but when we arrived in Portobello to film the front of a bank I spotted a gas van parked in front. So I approached the driver, and by sheer luck it turned out that I knew him from my Boy's Brigade days! Sometimes in film making all it takes is a polite approach and a bit of charm and you can mostly get what you want.

Around mid afternoon we set up our steadicam rig in George Square. We then assembled four religious leaders; an Imam, Rabbi, ley Hindu leader and a christian, then filmed them in slo-mo as we walked along in front of them stood side by side.

Last shot of the day was going to be a hit or a miss, at first. We were to park up at the entrance to the Royal Infirmary emergency department and await the arrival of any ambulance that might come in.
It was freezing cold by now, and we could have been stood there for the hour we had, and nothing arrive. So I decided to approach one of the ambulance drivers that was already parked there, asked him if I could set the camera up in front of the vehicle, have him put all his blue lights on, and drive away. Job done.

Sometimes directing is about thinking on your feet and not being too stuck to the script, and taking the opportunities when you see them.

Monday, 2 November 2009

On location #7

Ahhh, film making, the sound of the camera whirring, the lights going up and, of course, the exotic film locations.


Early start and we're off north to Polmont and Falkirk today to film a typical day centre and a residential care home for people with dementia. A very blustery, and sometimes wet, drive up, so although I took the motorbike in to the production office in Edinburgh, I was glad I then left it there for the day.

When we arrived the weather was cracking, and we set up in an adjacent park to the care home, the sun streaming through the remaining autumn leaves, illuminating each leaf as if it had its own light source. We used the one metre, tripod-mounted track system to get some beautiful shots.

We're indoors next, to film some of the actual residents having lunch, and later playing a few games.

Having been involved with the dementia team for the past six months I am all too aware of the need for such care homes, but it is still heart-breaking to see those here.
Dementia is an awful disease and to see everyone here, knowing they had full and active lives before this, was difficult not to be affected emotionally. The staff at the home were marvelous, taking care of their every need, and being very supportive as and when they were needed. I'm aware that in many other countries people would be astonished that this is where our elderly relatives end up, as many other cultures take care of their grandparents until their last day. But this is our culture and this is the way we cope with the illness, and we do it well. Looking after someone with dementia twenty four seven is very demanding, and one can, and it does happen, become very isolated as a carer. Day centres, and eventually care homes, certainly help everyone, but it is still difficult to think of yourself, or anyone else you know and care for, ending their days like this.

We only had two actors on set today as the majority of shots were about establishing buildings. It's something we now don't even notice when we watch movies, but it's used all the time. The audience is eased into a new scene or setting by simply showing what we call the establishing shot, which could be as simple as the exterior of a building, to then cutting to inside the building, and possibly cutting again to a room and close in on the characters action. We now accept, without question, where we are.

For our scene we first have our carer walking past the camera and away from us toward the gate of the care home. At this point the actor must remember which foot they were on, and which hand they opened the gate with. We then relocate the camera to within the grounds and repeat the walk, except this time we see the person coming through the gate. And so on, moving the camera several times until we are inside. In the edit it will look as if we shot it in one, using five different cameras, where in actual fact it took an hour for the person to get inside, and we used only one camera.

There is one key factor to remember; we must never "cross the line".
This is a term used to describe where an actor is on screen and the camera position. For example, if they exit on the right of screen, then they enter on the left of the next, and so on. Next time you see two people facing each other watch where they are on screen. If an actor talking is on the right of screen, and you can see the back of the other actor on the left, they must always occupy that space. So when we cut to the back of the person speaking they are still both on the left and right respectively. Sounds simple but if the rule were to be broken you would notice immediately. "The line" refers to an imaginary line, drawn between two people for example splitting them down the middle. You must stay on one side of it.

A nice early wrap at 4pm but then the drive back to Edinburgh through rush hour traffic extended the day slightly. Though the crew headed home I then sat down with the producer to plan tomorrow, then I had to meet someone in person straight after who was organising something for the shoot tomorrow, so my day ended around 8.30pm.

Three days of filming to go; tomorrow, Wednesday and then the following Wednesday, but already I have started on a new film.