Filmmaking 101: Droning on and on

The problem with doing anything for the first time is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You can read books, listen to interviews and watch instructional YouTube videos all you like, but it’s never going to compare with actually getting out there and doing it. To that end I decided last year to write and film my first short film; a simple eight-minute, two-location piece about food poverty. With drones.
Horsell Common

And so, in an attempt to test out a few ideas, I headed to Woking’s Horsell Common with two friends, two SLRs, two tiny drones and nowhere near enough batteries for more than a couple of hours of flight time. A standard battery will give a drone perhaps 10 minutes of flight time while recording HD video, but take over an hour to charge. Lesson 1: Make sure you have enough power for everything!

Our drones were the Hubsan X4; no stabilisers, no direct video feed to the handset, but quite cheap, small enough to keep in a Tupperware box and sporting an on-board 2MP HD camera. The lack of stabilisation meant that the drone pilots needed a lot of practise; the script calls for a chase amongst trees, so this meant I have a lot of POV footage of drones crashing into said trees. Lesson 2: Bring tools and spare parts for everything that’s likely to get broken.
Footage Review

The fact that there was no direct feed from the drone meant when the drone ran out of battery, it was time to download the footage, store it, review it and consider corrections. An obvious correction might be don’t crash into the trees, but considering the size of the little things, it was a matter of judging how close to each other the drones needed to get in order to be in shot and look large enough to be menacing. The reviewing of footage would have been easier with more SD cards and perhaps some assistance with the download for review. Lesson 3: Establish an efficient digital workflow to maximise shooting time.

The chase scenes themselves were a little haphazard, not just due to the difficulty in maneuvering the drones, but also I didn’t establish routes. This was especially problematic when, to supplement footage, the chase was re-enacted with two cameramen running after their prey with SLRs. Because the route wasn’t clear, in an attempt to make it look frenetic, there were too many occasions where the harassed cameramen were in each other’s shots, making that snippet of footage useless. Lesson 4: Use route markers and make a practice run.

When editing the footage together from the SLRs and the drones, another factor emerged: One SLR was set to record at 24fps, one at 25fps and the drones at 30fps. As one of the cameras was also set to Warm colours instead of Default it also meant that the footage was much harder to stitch together convincingly, and required grading and far too many hours in Premiere Pro to make it at least feel somewhat seamless. Lesson 5: Make sure all camera equipment is using the same settings.
Editing

So, after three hours of shooting and three hours of editing, most of which was spent cursing, we have 30 seconds of stitched together, not altogether terrible footage. It’s not amazing, but considering this was our first test run, it’s not bad at all. I ended up using more incidental, accidental and otherwise apparently unusable footage than I thought I would, even if it did mean trawling through countless clips. Lesson 6: Keep all footage and review it all, you never know what you might be able to use.

There was one final lesson: the drones record no sound, so the chase sequence feels uncomfortable and odd. That might be a stylistic choice, but should be intentional, not accidental. Lesson 7: Even if it’s a test shoot, bring a digital recorder to record some ambience. 

And that’s it for the first test shoot. We’ve decided we need another test weekend, bringing the flight experience and lessons to bear on the task. But all were filled with some confidence that this project was indeed achievable.

Screenwriting Competitions 2015 (February)

I had two chances to place in the top 10% of the BlueCat screenwriting competition, one for a feature and one for a short. Sadly, neither placed, but I am swallowing the bitter pill of rejection and moving on. Plenty more opportunities ahead!

I’ve listed all the competitions I know about below, sorted by date, with their associated costs, which should help you plan your deadlines. And if you prefer an Excel sheet, I have that too.

Name & URL Date Cost
Rocliffe TV 28/02/15 £21
Nicholl Early 02/03/15 $40
LIFF Feature Film Late 06/03/15 £55
LIFF Short Film Late 06/03/15 £45
Scriptalooza Regular 10/03/15 $55
Page Late 16/03/15 $59
Euroscript 31/03/15 £35
ScreenCraft Shorts Final 06/04/15 $29
Nicholl Normal 10/04/15 $55
Screencraft Comedy Final 11/04/15 $49
Page Final 15/04/15 $69
Screencraft Horror Early 15/04/15 $29
Scriptalooza Late 15/04/15 $60
Scriptalooza TV 15/04/15 $45
AFF Feature Film Normal 20/04/15 $40
AFF Short Film Normal 20/04/15 $30
AFF TV Normal 20/04/15 $30
TrackingB TV 26/04/15 $99
Scriptalooza Final 29/04/15 $65
Nicholl Late 01/05/15 $75
AFF Feature Film Late 20/05/15 $50
AFF Short Film Normal 20/05/15 $40
AFF TV Normal 20/05/15 $40
Shore Early 31/05/15 £25
Screencraft Horror Final 01/06/15 $49
Screncraft Pilot Early 15/07/15 $39
Shore Normal 31/07/15 £30
Screencraft Action Early 15/08/15 $39
Screncraft Pilot Normal 01/09/15 $45
Screncraft Pilot Final 15/09/15 $65
Screencraft Action Final 15/10/15 $49
Shore Late 31/10/15 £35
Screencraft Fellowship Early 01/11/15 $39
Screencraft Family Early 18/11/15 $29
Screencraft Fellowship Normal 01/12/15 $49
Screencraft Fellowship Final 15/12/15 $69
Screencraft Family Final 30/12/15 $49

Mobile Apps for Writers

These days many writers rely on their mobile devices, their phones and tablets, rather than (or in addition to) more analogue stationary. Anything to get ideas down on the move with a minimum of effort and inconvenience. So I’ve gathered a list of mobile apps that I find useful to this end. I’ll apologise for the slight iOS bias in these, it’s not that I think one platform is necessarily superior to any other, but it just happens to be the one that works for me. Some these aren’t free, and there are cheaper alternatives for most, but again they’re the ones that work for me.

Dropbox

(Cost £0. Available for IOS/Android/Windows Phone/Windows/Mac)

Dropbox is really just your basic minimum, it’s a syncing, backup and file storage solution. Install it on your computer(s) and it’ll keep the folder synchronised across everything and make the files available to your on all your mobile devices. You can also share people links to files or entire folders, rather than sending documents backwards and forwards. Importantly, some apps listed below also allow direct access to Dropbox, meaning you’re not linked into any device specific ecosystems for file access and sharing. While the basic Dropbox package is free for 2Gb of storage, you can get 1Tb of storage for £7.99 per month.

Drafts

(Cost £7.99. Available for iOS only)

Drafts is sadly iOS only. All Drafts does is give you a blank page to create text notes, and that really is all. It gets you in fast, files your snippets away, and then gives you the opportunity to transfer the notes to social networks, Dropbox, Evernote or a variety of other destinations by a powerful series of tools. Drafts also support Markdown, for those people who use that. Use it when you need minimal friction between your device and the words battering away at your brain.

Evernote

(Cost £0. Available for IOS/Android/Windows Phone/Windows/Mac)

Evernote is a great way of organising all those little snippets you acquire over time, the little notes and photos and ideas and documents. All can be tagged and sorted and organised, making it easy to find those ideas again when you’re looking for a specific note or some inspiration. I use it by using the web clipper to clip web pages I find as I browse, sending notes from Drafts and using IFTTT to sync favourited tweets and photos.

Microsoft Word

(Cost £0. Available for IOS/Android/Windows)

As opposed to Drafts, Microsoft Word is a fully fledged word processor, and the mobile implementation, especially for tablets, is pretty good. It can even open documents from Dropbox and save them back there. Much as some would like to leave the hegemony of MS word, people are still going to use it and so we need to be able to open and edit the documents.

iAnnotate

(Cost £7.99. Available for IOS/Android)

There is a lot of competition amongst mobile PDF annotation apps, but my vote goes to iAnnotate. It does the job well, and is incredibly useful when someone inevitably send you a PDF of their work to review. It too can open from Dropbox.

Fade In Mobile

(Cost £3.99. Available for IOS/Android)

I’m a big fan of Fade In screenwriting software, and the mobile implementation is pretty good as well. And, it too can open from and sync with Dropbox.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus

(Cost £2.99. Available for IOS/Android/Windows)

The M-W dictionary and thesaurus app is excellent. There are cheaper versions out there, and even British English specialised dictionaries, but I find that M-W blows them away, and also differentiates between British and American usages.

Do you have any others you can’t live without? Any replacements for any of the above, or comments on the ones I’ve chosen? Let me know!

Screenwriting Back To Basics

Last year, Scott Myers of Go Into The Story posted up a series of articles that were useful but I felt didn’t get as much traction as I thought they deserved. So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you Scott’s complete Screenwriting Back To Basics series.

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 1: Writing Scenes

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 2: Protagonist Metamorphosis Arc

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 3: Plot = Structure

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 4: Character = Function

Screenwriting Back to Basics, Day 5: Reader Identification

 

Review: Big Hero 6 & Feast

Sometimes fortune can smile on you, and a meander past BFI Southbank and a peruse through the available films led me to successfully enquire about the scant remaining tickets. And so I found myself in NFT1 on a Sunday afternoon with an auditorium full of exciting young people for a preview of Big Hero 6.

Feast DogAs has once again become a tradition with Disney, the film was preceded by a new short film, the Oscar-nominated Feast. Disney uses these animated shorts as a testing ground for talent and technology, and Feast continues this as Paperman did in 2012. It’s a charming dog’s-eye tale of food and love, and it utterly delighted the audience, myself included. Considering though that Disney doesn’t see their animated shorts as commercial endeavours, it’s a shame they don’t do more to make them publicly available once the film festival screenings are over.

But the main event was Big Hero 6 itself. Some people have described it as ‘Frozen for boys’, in that both cover the theme of siblings and dealing with loss, but it didn’t have that feel for me. While the theme may have been a match for Frozen, I thought it felt more like How To Train a Dragon crossed with The Incredibles.

Based on one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, this is ostensibly a superhero team origin story, though this is an aspect of the story that is rapidly glossed over. Something I’m not too unhappy about, after all, aren’t we all a little saturated with origin stories?

It allows Big Hero 6 to focus on what Disney does best when Disney does it well: the emotional journey and general cuteness. In this case they have done very well indeed. There’s no doubt that with inflatable ‘personal healthcare companion’ robot Baymax, whose walk was modelled on that of baby penguins, they have created an endurable character, utterly different from other robots and from its Marvel origins. And the slightly trippy emotional climax at the end hugely affected the audience.

After the film, which the mostly younger audience loved, there was a Q&A with director Don Hall and producer Roy Conli. There was some curated talk about creative process which was good, but the questions from the audience were worth waiting for, once they got restricted to the under-12s. My favourite was by a little girl who was baffled as to how the humans were made to fly for the film. Director Don Hall did a sterling job answering the question in such a way that didn’t dispel the illusion that there was no difference between animation and people than can fly.

I’m not sure Big Hero 6 will attain the popularity of FrozenTangled or the peaks of Pixar’s output, but I enjoyed it and, more importantly, its target audience did too.