How being stuck-in-a-rut forced me to become a more resourceful and innovative filmmaker.
By Derek Boyes.
For various reasons I had not been able to make a short film in over five years and by 2016, I was becoming increasingly frustrated. Fearing I would go mad, I decided to work out a way to make short films with minimal resources, utilizing current and emerging technology and streamlining every aspect of the process to create a more affordable, intimate and organic filmmaking experience.
Having recently re-mastered my 1996 student 16mm short thriller (Blackout), it occurred to me how differently I might have made the film today. Not just in terms of utilizing modern filmmaking technologies, but in confronting gender equality by experimenting with character. Rather than re-make Blackout, I decided to re-imagine it, flipping the original premise on its head so that the protagonist was female and the victim male.
Blackout Film Link here
By reimagining a film I had already made, I realized I was far less precious about it, which turned out to be really liberating, as it allowed me to take far more risks, which in turn tested my skills and abilities.
To keep costs and shooting days down, I stripped down the filmmaking process to its basics. I ran a very small run-n-gun style production, using small, cheap, alternative filmmaking equipment built around the iPhone 6s. I took on multiple roles as writer, producer, director, lighting, camera, SFX make-up and editor and used a skeleton crew of four students (borrowed from the UCA’s Television Production course based at Maidstone Television Studios), who assisted me with sound recording, lighting and essential epk material.
I put aside £3,000 to fund the film, the same budget as my 1996 short (though with inflation it would be closer to £5000 in today’s money). Back in 1996, all the film equipment was provided for free by the university. The biggest expenses came from film stock, processing and telecine, which just doesn’t exist in today’s digital world. In contrast, I spent two thirds of this budget purchasing ALL of the required equipment (mostly second hand), which meant I could potentially spend two-thirds less on my next short.
The films aesthetic is as much a result of the limitations of the production as it was a purposeful nod to film noir. With my limited experience in cinematography, making the film in black and white also saved me from having to worry about colour temperature and CRI ratings. This allowed me to use pretty much any available LED light I could find.
The iPhone’s ISO was set to its maximum (736) in order to get a usable image at night from the cheap (but versatile) Yongnuo YN600 Air and YN216 battery powered LED lights. This meant there was quite a bit of video noise to the 4k image, but scaled down to 2k, it looked more like 16mm film grain, adding a ‘grittiness’ to the film noir aesthetic.
I was able to get professional functionality with the phone’s camera through Filmic Pro (Version 6) and the Mavis App, but having a fixed aperture and lens (24mm equivalent), there was no way of achieving a shallow depth of field. To counteract this restraint I used Moondog Labs’ anamorphic lens adapter, purposely favouring extreme wide shots and close-ups (as opposed to bland medium shots), as an alternative way to attain a more cinematic feel.
99% of the footage was handheld using either a pistol-grip mount or the original DJI Osmo Mobile gimbal. This gave me a lot more creative freedom and added an uneasy edge to the action, saving a lot of set-up time from using cumbersome dollies and tripods.
I experimented quite a bit with POV to heighten the tension and give audiences a more immersive experience. I wanted them to get a real sense of being inside the main character’s head, to feel her fear and dread. Because the iPhone camera rig was so small, I was able to get some really nice tight POV shots that would have been almost impossible even with a DSLR camera.
We filmed over three consecutive nights in October 2017, on location in and around Maidstone in Kent and at Harrison’s Rocks in East Sussex. It was far more stressful, challenging and physically demanding to work in this way, but at the same time, it created a camaraderie between the cast and crew that would be hard to match on a larger scale production.
My only real regret was not having a producer. I missed having someone to share the burden of responsibility with, an equal partner who would take care of all the practicalities of the production and allow me to focus purely on the creative side of things. At times I really did feel the pressure of not having that support which undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the final film.
Ultimately though, I hope I’ve proven that you don’t need to rely on funding to keep making films. If you’re genuinely passionate about filmmaking and at the very least, you own a smartphone, there‘s really no excuse, so go and make that next film!
By Derek Boyes