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Whaam! Shorts Two - Interview with Producer Steven Donnelly

Where did the idea come from?

Sheepo came about in quite a long-winded way.

Archie is and old school friend, and he’s a sheep shearer, many of my friends are sheep shearers. He always wanted to travel the world shearing sheep and seeking his fortune.

I was in my early twenties and Archie had spent two or three years on the global sheep shearing circuit. He was home for a summer to shear in the UK. We met up for a few pints as old friend do, and we got talking. We drank some more and we talked a little louder.

Anyway, a week or so later we were on a flight to Australia.

I spent about 8 months travelling Australia and New Zealand with Archie and many other boys who became good friends. I worked in the wool sheds herding sheep and pressing wool. Once we finished the muster at one shed we’d move onto the next.

I loved it. We loved it.

I found the people who worked in this industry to be completely unique. A real bunch of adventurers in a world where adventure is now a marketplace.

The work was hard, physically hard. Every day, lifting sheep, throwing sheep, fighting sheep. And slowly I became aware of how much skill there was involved in shearing sheep. It wasn’t just a case of pinning it down and giving it a number 3 back and sides. There was true skill and once you started looking at the skill it became beautiful to watch.

From that point on I knew I wanted to make a couple of films, and one in particular about the skill and grit involved in shearing a sheep. That film became Sheepo.

Previous experiences.

All of life is experience in a way.

I work within film and television and I have passion projects on the side. Sheepo is one of the passion projects.

I spent over two years as a camera technician in a facilities house and whilst there I borrowed cameras and lighting equipment and learned how to use them on shoots.

I’ve spent about four years assisting some great cameramen and fantastic DOP’s, mainly in documentary but also within drama. I am lucky enough to have worked on jobs that have taken me to meet some incredible people in fascinating places.

I love documentary films because I’m fascinated by the lives of others and intrigued by death. If a documentary can explore either of those two things then I’m hooked.

Where did you start

After I had written a pretty solid concept and treatment. I made some strong decisions about the production, which would later affect how it came to be made.

A couple of those decisions were:

  • I wanted someone else to come in and co direct/produce it with me.

  • I didn’t want to do any of the production management side of things.

  • I wanted to find someone who had either music video or commercial experience.

Right from the start I knew how I wanted “Sheepo” to look. Ididn’t want to look like an agricultural film. I wanted it to have a hint of car commercial about it.

Once I had the list of what I wanted from someone then I went though my list of contacts and Ian seemed like a perfect match. We had worked together previously on a feature film and had collaborated quite closely on one of the scenes, so I knew what he was like to work with. I asked him to meet up for a pint where I pitched the idea to him.

He was on board straight away.

Ian spent some time knocking together a more professional looking treatment and pitch.

Archie, I had to work on. I had to spend a lot of time with him talking about what I wanted to do and reassuring him that I didn’t want to make a film that was poking fun at sheep shearing.

I think he knew I was serious and after a few dinners with him and Ian we eventually all ended up on the same page.

Where did the budget come from?

We were lucky enough to have been funded thorough Creative Scotland’s Ideas Tap.

I was quite prepared to make the film with no money but I knew that some funding would help.

Thankfully once we were selected CS was quite helpful, in that they allowed us to develop the film on our own. They assigned a mentor and Ian used him to help develop his interviewing techniques.

But for the most part they were quite hands off. Which was perfect for us, as we didn’t want someone breathing down our necks.

How long was the shoot and what kit did you use.

It was quite a short shoot. We managed to shoot it all in one day. There were many reasons for this but mainly, it’s because I didn’t want to take up too much of everyone’s time as they were giving it freely. Archie could have been working (as he always reminds me) and so could many of the other guys who came in and crewed up the job for me. So it was mostly out of respect for them and to try to minimize any losses they might be making.

We shot the interview (which you don’t see in the finished film) in the morning and then we went to the Royal Highland show grounds in the afternoon and shot the stylized sequences with the sheep shearing.

I spoke with the guys at Progressive Broadcast and they very kindly made my budget fit the camera and lighting package that I was after.

We shot on the Alexa Plus with the Zeiss LWZ 15.5-45mm and the CZ 70-200mm lenses.

I would have loved to have shot it on Primes but you cut your cloth to fit. We simply didn’t have time to be changing lenses nor did we have the budget.

What was the post production plan

There was a postproduction plan that completely fell to bits. Once we finished shooting we had an editor string us along for a few months before finally pulling out. We were left with the dilemma of finding a new editor who would be able to bring a very particular style into the edit.

This film was always conceived as being quite heavy in the edit & dub so we needed someone who got it.

We didn’t find anyone, certainly no one willing to do it for free so Ian decided to give the film a first cut whilst he had it. It turns out Ian’s a pretty good editor. So we agreed to let him work on the film for a few months to see how he got on.

In the end I think it took about 5 or 6 months to get a final cut. After we were both happy with it we sent it to the grade, the dub and the VFX all at the same time so it only took another month or so to be a completed film.

In all, I think it took around 10 months to be completed.

Sheffield Fest

Once we completed the film we decided to run it through the festival circuit as best we could.

We submitted it to most of the film festivals and luckily got selected for quite a few.

Premiered at Glasgow Short Film Fest, selected for Edinburgh Short Film Fest, Selected for Sheffield Documentary Festival and then curated by Sheffield at Latitudes music festival.

Sadly neither of us were free to make it to Sheffield doc fest as we were working. But we are told that it went down very well. It screened on one of their open area cinema screens. So viewing figures would have been high, which is exactly what you want.

After Sheffield we got an email asking if they could curate the film at Latitudes Music Festival.

We also had “Nowness” the popular exhibition website for arts and documentary short films, get in touch. We allowed Nowness to have the Film shown on their website for a month as we both sort of felt that having been selected for Sheffield was pretty much our highest aim for the film….. Short of being able to sell it.

Shot off your own backs.

In this game, and it is a game, you have to be completely self-motivated. Don’t wait for funding that might never come, don’t wait for some distributor or producer to come and hold your hand, because that’s not how it works.

I’m mainly interested in camera and lighting, but sometimes the only way to shoot and light the projects you want to work on are to make the project happen in the first place. I got the project off the ground but it wouldn’t be the film it is today without Ian.

It’s all about relationships and communication, and even more so in documentary. You have to believe in the story you are telling and I think you have to be completely honest with your contributors about what you are trying to say with the film.

If the contributor isn’t on board with you and your idea then you have no film.

Showing Archie the film for the first time was the most nerving moment of my film-making career. If he had had an issue with the film then I would have pulled it and we wouldn’t have done the festival run. Thankfully he seems to think that he comes off looking rather good.

If you have a story to tell, or an idea to express, tell it as best you can within the constraints around you.

Advice to new directors.

I don’t really have any advice. I’m just a guy who enjoys making films. I really wanted to make this one. I got some people together and we made it.

I made this film in the middle of a house move, right before my son was born whilst working long hours on a drama project…..

If you have a story to tell, the only thing holding you back from telling it is you.

Whats next for you after this short

There are many more stories to tell within the sheep shearing industry and I think g there is a long form documentary to be told. So I’m working on a couple of ideas that I hope to be able to pitch for some funding. If I don’t get the funding, I’ll just make the films anyway.

I’m also putting together another short film, which is still in very early development.

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