Interview : TF1 'Sarah's Room'. Director Grant McPhee on Shooting a Feature in 5 Days
An article originally written by Neil Rolland in early 2014. A lot has changed since then and a new update to the making of Sarah's Room will appear soon.
In this interview Grant talks about some of the ways that he and his team made this film work despite the constraints of 5 shooting days and a micro budget. He also offers advice on how to do this yourself and how changing the way we think about certain things can free us to be more creative and productive. He concludes by talking about how he feels we can create and support a film industry in Scotland.
Why Did you Direct and Shoot?
This was a tough choice. I decided to do both as I thought the pros would outweigh the cons.
Cons: An extra crew member – more expense. It might make my head explode trying to do two major jobs and only being experienced in one. Less time with the actors. Only seeing the action through a small screen, not seeing subtlety of performance and so on.
Pros: The major plus was not having to explain what I wanted to another crew member, which I probably would not have been able to do well and would have been stressfull. The nature of the speed and 360 degree action meant there was no room/time for a monitor. I’d worked as a DoP on similar features so had a lot of experience being able to quickly reposition camera/get shots/make decisions as to eyeline etc.
Tell us about the lighting design for the film.
The priority was to light simply for 360 degrees. Not ideal but it allows for very fast set-ups and strong lighting continuity between shots. The second priority was for nice photography. The two priorities are at odds with each other so if not all shots were lit nicely they would at least be unusual. The location luckily allowed for lights to be placed outside windows, and as it was a basement flat the could be at street level which would still allow us to see out of windows.
The standard daylight setup is usually to use 5.6K lights and a 5.6K colour temperature. For day shots we primarily use un-corrected 2K Blondes (3.2K). We set the camera white balance meta data to 4.3K.
Shooting at 4.3K meant the ambient light in the room would be cold and the light from the blondes would be warm giving an early morning/evening feel.
Another reason for shooting at 4.3K was that the Red One sensor is balanced at 5000K so would reduce any noise in the blue channel.
For Night/Int scenes we made use of lots of practicals. Mainly Christmas Tree type lights. A reason for this is that when put behind actors it would make bland walls look interesting.
Which camera did you use, and why?
Quick Answer: The Red One, simply as it was the best camera which was available to us. Never make the mistake of basing your film around a camera. You will either be waiting forever until the greatest camera ever comes out, or you will end up spending more on a camera when you should have been spending it on other areas of the production. If you can’t get good results from a Canon 7D then you won’t get good results from any camera.
Long Answer: We used the Red One camera for a number of reasons. It was free (which is a good reason) and it’s also an excellent camera. It’s not the easiest camera to use, and it’s not the best camera available but it has been used for some large scale Hollywood films so it’s fine with us.
The downsides are that it is 1) very unergonomic and heavy. We used an EasyRig (look it up) which is a great device that gives a half Steadicam/ half handheld look. I like it as it give the impression of the camera being lighter as it displaces the weight to other parts of your body.
The other downside is 2) The Red workflow can be tricky to get your head around if you havnt used it before, it can also add expense to your production. From my day job I already had the facilities to deal with the workflow so it was a win-win situation for me.
As the Red One is not in favour so much now (mainly as the workflow is trickier than most cameras around) you can get it very cheaply but your really have to take into consideration that you will have added expense with working with 4K and the physical amount of data being generated from shooting Raw.
Onset Data Management / Onset Editing.
I wanted to take rushes home with me and to see assembly cuts during the day.
Something else I wanted to do was view assembly cuts of the scenes as soon as possible. As it was my first film, and semi improvised I thought it would help me with the mood/where the film was going; which it did. What it also did was give me confidence in what we were doing – I could see the film coming together and could take more risks.
I think, especially for me being an inexperienced director having as much support and help was crucial. If you want to make the best film you can then there’s no place for ego’s. Surround yourself with the most experienced crew you can and listen to their advice, it doesn’t mean your not the director when someone says your suggestion wont work, or someone needs to help you with something. To me a part of being a good director is choosing people who can help you and not having crew just to tell them what to do.
Crossing The Line.
Crossing the line has probably caused more arguments than any other ‘rule’ in the history of film-making. Everyone has their own interpretation and certainly their own opinion. It drives me crazy when on a shoot and we stop because someone says ‘we’re crossing the line’. My opinion, and there are equally good good counter arguments is that in many cases it doesnt matter.
The style we were shooting was handheld/semi documentary. This helps us greatly with not having to worry too much about crossing the line.
If we were on sticks (tripods) then the line becomes a little more important. For a perfect reverse cut you usually have to measure the distance from camera filmplane to subject and match for the reverse (i.e. the actor is 8′ away from the camera). This usually allows a similar sized shot of the actors head.
And for framing you want one actor’s head to be on one side of the frame and the other actors head to be on the other. And if you keep the camera over the same camera line you should in theory get a perfect match. This is what we’re normally taught.
One of the most important things your not normally taught is tilt angle. Usually the camera will be at the same height but quite often it has to change depending on background, actors heights and other factors etc. I usually find that rather than actual eyelines causing problems it’s the height/tilt of the camera that makes cuts more noticeable. When off the sticks I find it still noticeable but camera distance to subject less, also I think that once the geography of a room has been set (positions of actors relative to the room) then crossing the line becomes possible.
If you start off a film, establishing that it has a wild documentary feel then imperfect cuts become less noticeable. And if you establish actor geography then crossing the line becomes less noticeable.
As I said, providing you have a similar tilt/height you can get away with A LOT. There are obvious things which are more difficult and can only be used for a dramatic effect such as the traditional football analogy (you film a footballer running up the pitch left to right, move the camera to the other side and it looks like they are now running the opposite way). And interview type scenarios. You can cheat the eyeline if you are knowingly crossing the line.
So don’t get hung up on it, providing the situation calls for it.
Someone once said to me ‘the line is for dafties’.
If you don’t shoot quickly then your in trouble. Get your priorities right. Do you want one shot worthy of an Oscar and no film, or a film with compromised shots?
In an ideal world you don’t want to make compromises but this is the world of 5 day features. The most important aspect is getting your film made.
One of the big differences to working on films in your own time and films being paid for by someone else is that time is money. You will always be compromised so get used to it. It’s a great way to teach your brain to think quickly and learn to compose nice shots quickly.
When you get your chance working on a $100m+ film you can still use those techniques but spend the time on something else.
What we did was to spend our time with the actors, and what time that was left we grabbed shots.
Tripods slow you down, tracks make you go at a snails pace. Handheld is nice and quick; I think it also gives you an intimacy you don’t get with other forms of support but understand it doesn’t work for all projects.
Another double edged sword is streamlining. If you only have a small amount of money you can’t have large crews so someone has to go.
Everyone does an equally important job in the big cogs of filmmaking. But you have to decide who you can get away with not having on your film, and each production is different.
I decided to not use a make-up artist, or wardrobe supervisor. We kept costume changes very simple – a jacket on or off and no major make-up. If you were shooting a zombie film however, or a period drama then I’m sure your priorities would be different.
It also makes it harder work for everyone, most people will double up on roles. Sandy, our 1st AD took over many continuity roles. However this also makes the experience exciting.
As mentioned, our 1st AD took over continuity duties to an extent. It meant that it would be more difficult for the editor as there was little in the way of continuity notes, and we were also putting ourselves at risk by having a continuity problem that would effect the cut of the film.
We decided we would go down this route as we had so little time on set that the extra time in the edit was worth it.
Creating and Supporting a Film Industry in Scotland.
I think one of the mistakes people make when pursuing a career as a film-maker is to not think of the long term goal. Think about why are you doing this!
Is it to continue making micro budget films with little money?
Is it to make a name for yourself so you can work on larger budget films?
A lot of people seem to want to destroy the current film industry model. It’s natural to think this way if your not already part of that system but I think it’s a big mistake.
There’s no reason why both industries can’t co-exist. And there’s lots of good reasons why that can be really beneficial to everyone.
There’s a danger in the long term that there will be an elite 5% making large budget features and everyone else will be making 0 budget films in their spare time. Maybe a slight exaggeration but at the end of the day technological progress and the current financial situation are leading that way.
It’s really important to create an infrastructure and a sustainable industry.
It would be a massive shame if, like Punk Rock, all new film-makers got rid of the old and started again.
Some of the best producers, production managers and co-ordinators in the UK work in Scotland. They have such a wealth on knowledge that it could only benefit indie film-makers. If we build a system where you automatically set aside a part of your budget to paying crew, it does not need to be much.
Even if your budget is £200, set aside some to pay crew. Prepare your film with budgets, accurate schedules and stay within them. This way your film can easily be scaled up.
The current industry, in most cases works in a certain way – because it works. If you stick within this system your next film can fit within the existing industry.
In addition try and use experienced crew members who may wish to ‘step -up’. i.e. an experienced production manager could produce your job if your budget is slightly larger; if it is smaller then maybe a production co-ordinator may want to produce. If it is tiny then maybe an experienced office runner can produce.
Using people’s existing skills really helps your shoot run smoothly, and I can’t stress that enough. This also allows a simpler way for newer crew members to move up to larger productions.
If a Production Co-ordinator who regularly works in industry films is producing your film then they can offer so much knowledge, guidance and experience to someone who may be working as a production runner for the first time. This runner can easily be employed on a larger budget film at some point as they have been working with in an industry standard and will have made contacts.
Basically, don’t re-invent the wheel. So much time is waisted making the mistakes that have been made before, someone with experience can guide you out of that so that time/money/stress can be spent somewhere more beneficial.
It’s a win win situation.
If we can get to a stage where micro budget films are made in a scaled down version of current industry practices then there is so much scope for training brand new crew members, but also scope for existing crew members to get more producing experience.
I would think an industry production manager would do a better job having experience of producing a low budget feature than one who has not. It’s about showing exec producers and funders that you can work within industry practices and standards. Less of a risk for them. And it’s not just production, this model can apply to every department.
By Neil Rolland