Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Murder In Hi-Viz: The Making Of Black Spot...Part 2 - Production

It's been over two years since the shoot of Black Spot and my memory has probably become a bit hazy, but it would end up being one of the oddest I've ever done. It was all my fault, by just not testing my camera properly beforehand and being presumptuous about certain things.

I picked up Andy and Mark from Worthing and we headed over to Brighton to get Jason, then we pulled up to pick up Alexxa. I nervously waited on the double yellow lines across the road from her flat until she came out. She jumped in the car and seemed very quiet, very shy...I was a bit concerned that it was going to be a bit awkward and that perhaps she would end up giving a subdued, self conscious performance.

I needn't have worried about the latter bit...later Alexxa did explain to me why she felt a bit nervous - she was basically getting in a car with a bunch of men, none of whom she'd ever met, to go off filming in a remote location. It suddenly struck me how naive I can be with presuming everything is cool with everyone getting together filming and never even gave this any regard upfront but once she explained it made absolute sense.

We headed out to the location. I'd ironically wanted a cold, crisp day for the shoot and was disappointed that with a spring/ summertime shoot I was unlikely to get this. Instead, I had a supremely grey, drizzling day with odd flashes of clear skies. It was very temperamental. The layby was thankfully empty so we pulled up and waited for Raine to turn up, hoping he'd spot us and find the correct layby.

He arrived and parked just slightly in front of my car - enough that his car wouldn't be in any profile shots of my car, where most of the action would take place and he'd move his car for the moments where the road ahead had to be clear. We tried to crack on as soon as possible - I had a very very long shot list, which I was optimistic about as there was no sound crew or lighting to wait for, so in theory there wouldn't be any hold ups in that regard. So, leaving the others in the car, myself, Mark and Raine set off down the road to capture footage of Raine's solitary walk and finding the Missing Persons notice (with a photo of myself cunningly placed on it.)

Handily this one stretch of road, with some clever angling, could cover a variety of went along the road and filmed the shots with the missing persons sign, which had some great depth of field of a fence leading up away from the road, horses in the background and the high hills of the South Downs. We got him walking past a roadsign with some aged flowers tied around the sign, another nod of death that I wanted the opening to have. We simply turned around this point to where the road became heavily tree lined and curved around the corner into darkness, which gave a great angle for Raine to emerge from.

But then the first shutdown happened. The battery on the camera ran out already. It probably started drizzling a bit by this point so the three of us quickly retreated back to the cars.

I'd heard the battery on the camera wasn't great and I was aware that there was no way I'd be able to do all the day's filming on a single charge, but my plan was always to plug the camera into my car's USB port so I could charge the camera while filming all of the interior shots in the car. I'd also basically been an ass with charging the camera the night before - as I'd used the camera so little, I presumed I hadn't actually used much of the charge, so when I charged it for filming I didn't think the red charge light ever turned green to indicate the battery was fully charged - it would have done, if I'd left it long enough. So basically I went to the shoot without the battery full charged.

So, damage limitation time - the battery doesn't last as long as I'd hoped, but we could shoot interior shots while it recharges, then once we've got enough charge go back out and shoot more exterior shots. Wrong again. Once the camera was attached to a USB port it presumed it was connected to a PC to upload the footage - it couldn't actually be put into camera mode as soon as it was connected to a USB port, so my plan of filming interiors and charging was, frankly, fucked.

They say that the vast majority of film making is actually waiting. In the case of making Black Spot that holds completely true. We could do nothing but sit in the car and wait for the camera to recharge. Stupidly I also didn't think to keep my car engine running - at one point the car barely started, but thankfully did, which would have been further insult to injury.

The nearest facilities down the road and around the aforementioned dark corner (to the pub, which thankfully did take away coffee) there was a variety of tag teaming and wandering off between spurts of limited battery power.

With the battery slightly charged we continued to shoot in sequence, capturing the rest of Raine's solitary walk (again, two shots conveying passing of time and distance were basically 5 metres apart) with again some nice depth of field - long, waving grass in the foreground, pylons and electricity cables disappearing across the flat greenery - and at one point we had low lying cloud drifting across the tops of the hills in the background. I had no idea how well these moments would come out with the limited quality of the camera, but had to hope for the best.

Once Raine had reached the car and discovered the "dead" body of Mummy McKenzie it was time to prepare for one of my most ridiculous shots. I zipped up my cagoule, pulled the hood up tight, put on some plastic goggles and with Mark's suggestion stuffed some tissue up my nose. The camera was then bound tightly in cling film with the hope that would be enough to keep it water tight, or thereabouts. I laid down on the ground, Raine took a big swig of supermarket own brand chicken soup, then threw it up all over me, splattering the lens in the process (and me)

And here I am afterwards...mission accomplished...

It didn't quite capture it in 3D and Raine didn't quite get it completely on target, but it was a suitably over the top ridiculous shot that I think you expect in 3D films.

There was another "into the camera" shot immediately after this, as Daddy McKenzie first appears, stumbling towards the camera. With this sequence there was definitely a nod to one of my heroes, George Romero and in particular to Night of the Living Dead (a film I appreciate, but don't love in the same way as Dawn or Day of the Dead.) So Daddy's appearance and the struggle between him and Paul was supposed to be similar to Jonny's struggle with the first graveyard zombie in NOTLD, then the push away of Daddy to reveal Junior in the background with the knife was a nod to a celebrated shot from Night, where a zombie is pushed back from the farmhouse porch, but then reveals numerous other zombies approaching the house.

Following a brief stand off with Junior we got the character of Paul into the car, where he would stay for most of the film.

The stop/ start recharging of the battery nature of the shoot added an air of urgency and tension with the shoot - I'd view the run through with the camera in 2D mode (which saved on the battery) then flick it to 3D shooting mode only as soon as we were ready to shoot. But through the course of the day 2 things became apparent - the level of charge in the battery reflected the mode you were using, so we could be rehearsing with half a charge but as soon as we shifted to 3D mode we'd be operating with only a quarter of a charge...and when the battery started to get very low there was no rhyme or reason as to how much longer you would be able to shoot. Sometimes there would be a quarter of the battery left and it would suddenly switch off in the middle of a take, othertimes the battery gauge would flash red and empty and you'd still get some shooting time out of it. It was very frustrating for me to be watching a great performance in camera, watching the battery light flashing and praying that we'd get to the end of the take, but unable to prompt the actors to speed it up or give any direction without distracting them from their performances.

The battery was of course not the only issue - the rain showers continued on and off throughout the shoot, so sometimes we'd all have to dash back into the cars even in the middle of a take, use the opportunity to continue recharging the camera and wait for the rain to stop.

Eventually we were ready to do something with Alexxa apart from her be an inanimate body...and when the time to scream came, jesus, did she scream, A hollering banshee wail that had everyone's eyeballs popping out (she told me she'd been using some memories of giving birth to her kids) It's always the quiet ones....

It's probably during this sequence where we captured one of my favourite images - Junior to the left of the frame on the windscreen, Daddy in the background, coughing and spluttering at the window, Mummy coming into the right of the frame gasping in pain with Paul in the middle with his head in his hands. It looked and sounded horrible, painful, disturbing in an over the top uncomfortable manner.

We got various images of this sequence and Jason threw himself completely in to the role, especially when raging on top of the bonnet, smacking the windscreen with his hand, I think even going so far as to headbutt it at one point, a really deranged performance, completely over the top but perfectly suited ot the pandemonium I wanted. This continued with us getting the footage of the monkeys running wild, with Junior and Daddy running around the car, jumping, hollering, bashing the car, pushing it, kicking it.

I was probably most concerned about this sequence attracting attention from people passing by (perhaps more than Alexxa in her bloody dress, though for the most part she was hidden in the car) In preparation for the shoot in order to look (ahem) more professional and to hopefully avoid any queries regarding what we were doing Mark and I wore hi-viz vests. I also left a tripod stood up in the vicinity of the shoot which would be very easy to see if passing by. I needn't have worried - not one person every slowed down or showed the slightest bit of interest in what we were doing, the only reaction I really recall was a bunch of cyclists grinning at us as they rode by at high speed. If anything, that showed that the best way to get away with murder must be to be ridiculously visible with it...

As I was mostly shooting in sequential order we then did Junior and Daddy looking for the keys, with Daddy giving Junior a pretty good smack round the head for spoiling their fun. Some shots were taken in the car of Paul's viewpoint looking out (sadly with a blatant continuity error of rain spots on the windscreen - I should have probably put the wipers on but then the windscreen may have been smeared.)

We did some additional shots of Paul and his lonely opening walk - one was a particularly lovely looking low angle shot, with the camera almost on the road, the rain had made the road shiny, there was a tree in the distance and the light was beginning to break behind the clouds, back lighting the man walking the road. It looked pretty good, but then as I was shooting this all hand held, with myself holding the camera in my hands very low to the road, the camera slipped from my hand. It seemed okay, but then the buttons weren't responding. Then the screen was all corrupted. Uh oh.

Thankfully the tried and trusted removing of battery/ memory card and switching everything back on solved the issue before I started to panic at being unable to complete the shoot, but it did make me aware that I was shooting on a very cheap camera, which had no guarantee of reliability over a long period of shooting. I just hoped there'd been no permanent damage.

We were into the final stretch now, which involved utilising a different camera we shot the unconscious Paul POV shoots when his body is carried to the boot of the car - for the POV on Daddy I was carried by Raine and Andy as I filmed. For the POV on Junior and Mummy it was Andy, who played Daddy, being carried by myself, Raine, Alexxa and Jason.

For the final car sequence there's a tiny tiny blink and you miss it cameo from Mark. I'd always hoped to show several other bodies in the boot of the car, to suggest the family had been out on the hunt all day, but it would have been impossible to get myself, Mark and Raine all in the boot (much that I was tempted to try.) In the end Mark was squeezed into the boot with Raine next to him, but so tightly that you never really noticed the person behind him, especially as the shot isn't very long in the final film. Oops.

With all the roadside elements shot, we packed up and headed back along the road to the local pub which had been the source of the hot drinks throughout the day. Outside we got the shot of the family walking away from the car and then we all settled down for a quick drink, Alexxa changed into her conservative Mummy clothes and we got the final image of the family having a normal drink, with Mummy admonishing Junior's speed at guzzling his pop.

It was a much longer day than expected, but that's atypical for my films, and I did feel bad as I'd told Alexxa that I expected us to be finished and back in Brighton for around 3pm, instead it would be closer to 6pm by the time we were back.

So a lot of tribulations with the camera and weather, but a fulfilling day. I think the aspect I enjoyed so much about the shoot was that it felt like a real throwback to my college days, when we'd be armed with a video camera and we mostly shot from the hip, no lighting, just get a shot and move on. Obviously I was more prepared with quite an intense storyboard and shot list, but the freedom (battery permitting) of skipping from one shot to the next, without slow downs for focus pulling, tweaks to lighting, problems with sound and all that made it feel like such a liberating shoot. Working with such a miniscule camera was empowering too - being able to but the camera in places a normal camera wouldn't fit, or there'd be issues with the lens not being wide enough - was such a refreshing experience.

The rest of the film would be a piecemeal fashion unbelievably over the rest of the back to business as usual! The first bit I tackled was filming footage for the end titles where we travel the road and see the McKenzies as a family in the car. I went to the area around Devil's Dyke in Brighton and with my new suction cup camera mount put the camera low down around the wheel arch and went driving in a long circle, parked back up and moved the camera to the bonnet. Like a twonk on one such journey I hadn't hit record properly...the footage was far shakier than I'd expected, but I was able to claw a few seconds from here and there.

I then picked up Jason one day and did the same with him, this time filming him being the family dog and putting his head out of the window (thanks to the camera mount I could put the camera on the driver's window to get a good view point on this. Another day I picked up Alexxa and did a similar trip again, this time capturing her as she chatted and adjusted her make up. Andy's footage would take a long time to arrange and was finally captured further into the summer - I needed a quiet road where he could drive the car, as for insurance purposes he probably shouldn't have been, but also needed countryside out of his window. Luckily I'd found a good quiet road near Cissbury Ring in Worthing, which was a quiet residential road with houses on one side, but fields and hills leading up to Cisbury Ring on the other. Unfortunately whereas the days with Alexxa and Jason had continued to be grey and overcast the day I finally got chance to shoot Andy driving it was bright and sunny, with an obvious continuity error. Again, for the small amount of screen time this would be for I didn't feel the point in going back to get this again on another overcast day.

There were two things left to shoot - the argument between Paul and Linda and the titles. We shot the argument at Helen's flat on Brighton seafront. Raine and Helen did a little improv sequence which became more heated, leading to the violent scuffle and Helen running to the bathroom. It was a pretty easy going shoot and fun to try and get some levels of depth for the 3D, including a shot of between Raine's legs as Helen's foot comes into the foreground to kick him in the balls (though this didn't work in 3D unfortunately.)

Unbelievably the titles would end up taking me sodding MONTHS to shoot. My regular collaborator Nick Gripton had created me a set up fantastic road signs for the title sequence and I didn't really want to have them just as graphics (plus I wasn't sure how that would work when mixed with the 3D footage) so I was determined to shoot them on the camera. Much that if I had ANY budget for this film it would have been amazing to have got the titles made on something more heavy duty, but this being a Faster Production I had to use the old standby of paper and cardboard, printing the signs out large at home and putting them on thick card.

Typically the corrugated cardboard kinda seeped through, revealing the ridges of the cardboard underneath. I was also concerned that they were very matte and had the obvious paper edge lines visible, so I decided to cover them with contact paper to give them a gloss look, which worked to some degree but in other places left strange crease marks where it hadn't stuck down as well as hoped - the time between making the signs and actually shooting with them probably also affected this, so by the time I came to shoot them many had plenty of odd glossy blemishes and air bubbles. (Sigh.)

Ridiculously trying to find somewhere to shoot these, on a standard metal post sign post that wasn't on a main road which also didn't have buildings in the background proved to be more difficult than I expected. In the end I returned to where I had shot the footage of Andy driving at the foot of Cisbury Ring and attached them to a metal pole there. The first time I went to do it, duct taping the signs to the post, the wind was blowing the flimsy cardboard signs. Upon viewing the footage, I had to admit it looked awful. So I had to go back again another day when the weather was calm, which was no easy task as we hit the autumn and winter months...and unsurprisingly a resident from the other side of the road came out to ask what I was doing, confused by someone duct taping fake signs to a post and grumbling as the wind continued to move the signs about. From this I sorta had okay...ish shots of the signs, though if I remember rightly one or two were still too wobbly, so rather than go back for a third time I attached it to a post near my house and carefully tried to frame the shot to ensure no houses were in view in the background.

With this arts and crafts silliness over, the film was in the can.

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