Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Murder In Hi-Viz: The Making Of Black Spot...Part 1 - Pre-production

I'm a sucker for 3D films. I love the iconic image of people wearing the classic red/ cyan glasses in 50s cinemas. I know it's gimmicky, but I find them playful, silly but they can be immersive and thrilling.

As a kid I remember when a big deal was made about ITV showing a film in 3D for the first time. The only way to watch it was to buy the TV Times to get a pair of the red/ cyan glasses, but as we didn't get the magazine I wasn't able to appreciate it. I did of course watch a bit of the film in the hope that maybe I would be able to see something, but naturally it was just headache inducing and in all honesty to my 10 year old self it looked like a pretty boring period drama.

My next encounter with 3D was with the computer magazine Crash, which focused on my beloved ZX Spectrum. They ran a special 3D issue which meant the magazine was full of the usual fabulous Oliver Frey drawings but all printed with a 3D effect. I remember looking at one particular action packed space scene, of a spacecraft flying past leaving a trail with planetoids colliding and exploding. It had so many layers of depth and I would stare transfixed at this incredible optical illusion.

It wouldn't be until I was in my teens that I finally saw 3D in motion when on a family holiday to Florida we went to Universal Studios to the Alfred Hitchcock experience. Here I saw a scene from Dial M For Murder in 3D and again it was a spellbinding image - it felt like the bottle in the foreground was within my grasp. Then the film shifted, as the "screen" was pecked from behind, before the screen was ripped apart by a flock of birds causing chaos behind the scenes and an old style lamp on a rope swung towards the audience. Great fun.

So from these early experiences I've always held a fondness for the format and I would always be disappointed at being unable to see Flesh For Frankenstein, or Friday the 13th Part 3(D) in their original shooting format, though thankfully in the age of dvd and blu ray some of these have become available again in that format.

Then around October 2012 I was on a video games forum I frequent when I spotted a post listing a 3D camcorder for 28 pounds. As it was the run up to Christmas and my brother is always looking for suggestions for Christmas presents for myself, I suggested that as an ideal gift. The device did not have the best reviews - some dismissed it as being not much better than a toy - but as someone with dreams of owning a Fisher Price Pixelvision camcorder comparing it to a toy wasn't a bad thing! I decided to write a short narrative purely to be used as an exercise to check out the abilities of the camera.

I don't know where the idea for Black Spot came from - with the positive response to my previous horror short Creak I knew I wanted to make a 3D horror film, as that also tied in with the 50s horror/ sci fi iconography that I have such a love for. I'm not sure if I already had some shots in mind where I wanted layers of depth so was thinking of places where the landscape could feature as a backdrop, maybe I was thinking of people sat in a car. As I'd filmed in a layby around Fulking/ Poynings for my short film Stranded it's possible I had that in the back of my mind. In some ways it shares some similar compositions. Budgetary constraints were probably a massive factor in the script - I didn't want to, nor could I afford to spend much money on this film and as I was regarding it from the start as an experiment I didn't want to invest too much money in something which may simply not work in the end. I liked the idea that I may have a fun film that could stand out from other horror shorts simply by the format difference, but if it didn't work....it wouldn't be such a big issue.

The draft for the script came together very quickly and although it wasn't high art it wasn't something that I felt like I wanted to keep tinkering with and rewriting, as the point was to crack on with production as soon as possible to test the camera out. It must have come together quite quickly as I started writing it around mid December before I even had the camera and then started to try and cast the film immediately in the period between Christmas and New Year.

With one eye on budgetary concerns I knew I'd have to cast actors within the local vicinity to keep expenses costs down, so I posted on a variety of Facebook pages looking for cast. I had a good response back, but I made the peculiar decision not to cast or audition in person - again, worried that it would become a failed experiment I didn't want to invest lots of time juggling diaries to meet people which would drag the casting process out more than I wanted to - so I was looking at casting purely from showreel or portfolio photos. Certainly not a very good way of casting and I'll hold my hand up and say I was being pretty lazy, but I also know how difficult and the longwinded the casting process can be when fitting it around my work and family commitments.

I was very straight with all of the actors upfront and sent them a link of the camera that I would be shooting on and fully explained that I had no idea if the film would work or not, so there was a level of risk (or at least a potential waste of their time if they had nothing to show for it for showreel etc after it was made) I had one bewildering exchange with an actor who only wanted to know 2 things - what was I shooting on (er, already explained that and sent the link clearly) and would the film be on imdb...it seemed the script wasn't his main concern at this stage, whereas I thought that would have been the first question from any actor...

From the people on Facebook I was able to cast the lead of Paul with Raine McCormack, the role of Mummy McKenzie from Alexxa Charles, Jason Rhodes would play Junior McKenzie and after not really seeing anyone that suitable I was lucky to get Andrew Calverley, who I'd met on the set of local film House Trafalgar, to play Daddy McKenzie. Paul's wife Linda would be played by my wife's friend Helen Ball.

With the camera in my hand during the festive season I began to have a little play with it, but shooting some moving footage of my kids running around, or taking 3D photos didn't really seem to show me what (if anything) it was really capable of. Seeing the 3D capability on the tiny screen of the camera didn't give the best impression either - sometimes I could see the 3D effect, other times not.

I don't remember why, but the film just didn't come together at the start of the year - costumes and props weren't ready for starters - and I was trying to juggle also shooting another short Pick-Ups, which was proving difficult to line up with cast and crew, so it was probably as a result of that more than anything that it was more towards May when the shoot started to come together. I was planning a weekday shoot, which meant that Andy was only available to film during school holidays which also limited when I could shoot it. Disappointingly as I'd missed my winter shooting date the cold, windy, overcast day I was hoping to shoot on would most likely not happen as we went further towards summer.

There were several props I needed for the film, which with the no budget were an issue - there was a sequence where Paul comes across an old style roadside SOS phone, with a missing persons poster blowing in the wind taped to the back. Paul would have opened the box and found the phone line cut, replaced the phone and continued on his journey looking for help. However, you just didn't find the SOS boxes on  many B roads as they were all found on A roads and many of the old style orange boxes that envisaged had been replaced by modern concrete pillars. Even if I had filmed at one of them, it would have been unlikely that I would be lucky enough to have the road quiet and no doubt would draw attention to myself by attempting to film at one.

I looked into prop houses, but the nearest one which had SOS boxes were outrageously expensive and nowhere nearby. I was hoping there may have been some sort of highways agency scrapyard where I'd be able to get one, but all enquiries led nowhere. My friend and prop maker Jenny Ray suggested I try and make one - I was hoping to get hold of an old metal box with hinged lid, maybe something from a scrap merchants or army surplus, but had no joy. I was conscious that I had to place this heavy box on something that could support such a weight - a thick metal pole or something - and find a way to secure it to the ground so it looked right on camera.

All of this led nowhere, to the point where I used cardboard box as a starting point and built around it, with two thick tubes as the planned pillar for it to stand on. I stupidly spent a comparative amount of money on orange spray paint and tried to distress it with dirty water and brown paint, hoping that it would mostly be seen either from a distance, or out of focus close up (with the missing person's poster also covering one face of it) then I may get away with it being cardboard. I bought a metal handle to put on the box, picked up an old plastic phone from a charity shop and also spray painted that received orange. But my cackhanded prop making bodged the telephone receiver symbol and SOS lettering and numbers on the side, with the white spray paint running on the outside, or looking splodgy and badly defined. It didn't look good and when precariously balanced on the tubing pillar (also spray painted orange) it looked ropey and I also had no base to put the thing on.

Even though I was going into this completely no budget, I thought this looked a bit shameful and in the end decided not to use it, even though I was working on it very close up to the shooting date - I think I decided pretty much a couple of days before not to bother with it. In the end this unused prop ended up almost using the biggest chunk of the entire cost of making the film...

There was another prop which I was unable to make in time either - as I had the characters Paul and Linda I was hoping to put in a specific music reference to Paul McCartney, based on the conspiracy of him being killed and replaced by a lookalike...so I wanted the car that Paul walks away from at the start to have a nod to the LMW 28IF registration plate on the front of Abbey Road - but again I couldn't mock up a registration plate that would have looked plastic and flat enough to pass for the real thing, so this little inconsequential aspect didn't make it in either.

For the costumes it was a case of asking the cast what they had to suit the look I was going for - Paul was always supposed to be semi smart, but with a big of a 5 o'clock shadow implying he's slept over in his car, dressed in black shirt and trousers for that Hitchcock subtext of his moralistic side - as Raine wasn't married I was hoping to get a ring for him, or some make up to leave a pale band on his wedding finger for a reveal at the end of the film. However Raine didn't have any black trousers of his own, nor a black shirt...so in the end we ended up with his own grey trousers and I wasn't able to source a cheap black shirt for the role (plus I couldn't see a black shirt/ grey trousers looking right) so in the end had to get him in a white shirt. As he had a paid role coming up he couldn't guarantee the look of his facial hair either - it was a case of I had to accept how he came...

I envisaged Junior McKenzie as wearing red braces, which Jason was able to provide, but also a tight fitted black t-shirt and trousers  Daddy McKenzie would be a bit more respectable as head of the family, in suit jacket and trousers, but with a bloodied stomach area of his white shirt - as Andy was able to supply the suit all I had to supply for his costume was another white shirt which I could get covered in blood.

For Mummy McKenzie I really wanted some sort of evening gown, something quite classy looking, which would have looked quite out of place in the daytime, but then something dressy for afterwards for the finale but I no dress stood out when my wife and I searched the charity shops. We did however come across a dress which wasn't what I had pictured, but suddenly added a great subtext - it was a short sleeved and short length dress, but with black and white almost zebra like stripes. As Mummy McKenzie was supposed to be gutted open in this dress I loved the implication of a hunted and slaughtered animal that it gave, so that's what I went with. Alexxa's additional attire that she would bring on the day for the end titles wasn't what I had hoped for, but actually worked well - it was much more conservative and plain and provided a good contrast to the look in the rest of the film. I'm pretty sure I always saw Mummy McKenzie as being blonde, so I'm not sure how I ended up having Alexxa with her hair dyed red - perhaps she was blonde when I cast her - I vaguely recall her mentioning upfront that she'd dyed it for a specific purpose but it had faded somewhat since then and whether that would be an issue, but beggar that I was I couldn't be choosy so it was a case of she came as she came.

The zebra dress needed augmenting with the gaping wounds that her body was supposed to have, so I bought a handful of a variety of latex scar wounds from ebay, not really being able to tell upfront how big the scars were. When they arrived they were a bit smaller than I had hoped and putting a few of them together in a line didn't really give the impression of a thickness of flesh cut apart. I precut holes in the dress and stuck the wounds behind the dress material, hoping that it would look like it was cut and opening to reveal the wounds. A blood mixture that I made up which turned out to be very sticky from being overcooked so poured on the wounds and also on Daddy McKenzie's shirt - hopefully Alexxa would be able to just slip on the prebloodied dress, add a touch more blood to her hands and face and we would be ready to shoot with her.

Our washing line looked a bit peculiar one day...

As I was concerned with shooting on a lonely road but with a knife wielding maniac running around a car I figured it prudent to try and draw some hilarious "official" looking aspect to the film making for the sake of the general public, so I bought some hi-viz vests from the internet for myself and any crew to wear.

I knew that I was going to shoot this film and being what it was there really wasn't much point asking Darren, who had shot Creak and was due to be the cameraman on several other shorts in pre-production, to shoot the film on a camera which had no manual controls as such. I also knew that if I had a general assistant/ stills crew member then I wouldn't be able to get anyone else in the car bar all the cast except Raine...so basically I decided that the limited dialogue could easily be dubbed afterwards and removing a sound recordist would help speed up the shoot - I'd storyboarded a lot of shots and then we had to be moving as fast as possible, so not having a sound recordist was a gamble I was prepared to take.

Luckily my local film making friend Mark was up for helping out on the shoot filling in the assistant and stills photographer role, as well as a tiny acting role he'd discover on the day...

With the help of my friend Terry I was able to shoot some ridiculous test footage of myself brandishing a banana at him and running around the outside of my car parked near to our house. I'm sure the neighbours never batted an eyelid at such a sight.It still didn't give a complete insight into the capabilities of the camera and I wished I'd done more testing, in particular to see how close you could get to the camera before the 3D aspect becomes a blur, or whether zooming into the shot would allow close ups that would remain in 3D. I should have also had a look at editing this footage to give me some familiarity with the software which seemed to have come bundled in the camera as this would have saved some issues later.

With the usual cobs made the night before and a boot full of snacks and drinks for cast and crew we were ready on the 30th of May to commence shooting!