INSIDE THE DIRECTING PROCESS

By - CTL
May 16, 2018
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By Clara Chong, Director at Main Course Films.

With over 8,000 submissions from 90 countries, My RØDE Reel has not only become the world’s largest Short Film Competition, but has also established itself as a showcase of talent and innovation from the global filmmaking community. Each year, the RØDE Team film their own short film to show just how easy it is to enter. Clara Chong, Director at Main Course Films, takes up behind the process.

The backstory

Main Course Films was approached by Røde Microphones to produce the company’s entry into their own short film competition My Røde Reel which has, in just five short years, grown into the world’s biggest short film competition.  Røde’s own entry serves the purpose of inspiring entrants and potential entrants while providing a rich source of behind the scenes web content for Røde.  In choosing a script for their only entry, RØDE ran a world wide script competition which was won in January by 19-year old Dawson Heistad, a Canadian film student for his script “Bugged”.

Coming off the back of two big, technically ambitious projects NSW: A Place For Every Story for Create NSW and the massive 270° science fiction actioner Wild Squad Adventures for Taronga Zoo, we were excited about going back to basics with a contained 2-hander.

Our brief was to create a fun, indie-style 3-minute short that was aspirational but achievable for the My Røde Reel amateur filmmaker demographic.  The film was to screen internationally to an audience that would most likely watch the film on their smartphones or laptops.  RØDE was also keen to produce substantial behind the scenes content to show just how much work goes into even a contained 3-minute film.

When we first met RØDE because the NSW Department of Industry asked us to produce a profile film on them for them 4 years ago and we were already long term fans of RØDE – using the NT-1 for voiceovers, the Podcaster and Procaster for recording temp voiceovers and podcasts, and the iXY for recording stereo sound effects on the iPhone, NTG2 & NTG3 for location sound and the Stereo Video Mic X for stereo ambience recordings.  So “Bugged” was a great opportunity to collaborate with them again.

A film gets made five times

The famous saying goes that a film is made three times.  First as a script, then at shoot, then in the edit.  But I’ve actually found that I end up writing a film five times.  The first three during script stage, the fourth in production, and the fifth time in the edit.

  1. Director’s Treatment
  2. Storyboards
  3. Animatic
  4. The Shoot
  5. The Edit

Dawson wrote a great little script with “Bugged” – a simple 2-hander where the action predominantly happens in just one location.   While in the script there is an additional scene that closes the film, both RØDE and I felt that the story would work just as well if we finished with the big reveal in situ.

The dialogue is terrific – but this was an interesting challenge in that while Dawson’s dialogue is integral to the story, it doesn’t actually explain the story until the very end – so it was dependent on performance to carry the story.

It’s all about the brief

DirectorsTreatment

You can direct the most amazing shot, but if it doesn’t fit the brief, then it doesn’t move forward the story, so it doesn’t help the target audience, the client or you.

The Director’s Treatment serves simultaneously as both a Pitch prior to the project being greenlit, as well as a document about visual style and process for the key Heads of Department if it does get greenlit.  It has to be impressionistic enough to hint at ideas, structure, process and style as well as detailed enough for crew to use this as a template to understand what is needed for the project.

The way I approached the script was to look for where I could add any action to liven up a dialogue-heavy story that could help add another layer to the story.  I thought fuelling the conspiracy theory themes would be dramatically interesting, and I took directorial license to add exteriors at the beginning of the script which I felt opened up the film and kept it from feeling too claustrophobic.  Also, because of the client’s audio expertise, I looked for a way to incorporate an audio competent in the story that was subtle enough to feel organic to the story.

For character depth, I asked Dawson to give the characters some back story.  We also passed Dawson’s character bios to Leigh Pickford at Maura Fay Casting to help cast “Bugged”.

From Storyboards to Animatics

Over the years, I’ve found the most time and cost efficient preparatory tool to direct is the Animatic.  With the Animatic, I’m able to work out framing, style, rhythm, mood, pace and structure.

My Animatics start with Storyboarding.  The degree my boards differ from the final edit depends on if any blocking doesn’t work due to character motivation or location space etc, or we find betters ways once we start to experiment during rehearsals.

[Storyboards]

There never seems to be enough preproduction time to bring in a storyboard artist as I like to keep refining shots right up to – and including – on set.  So I’ve struggled to find a balance of showing storyboards that looked professional, but that I could manage to get enough elements across to the Heads of Department.

I discovered Procreate last year – and being able to trace out elements from visual references and combine in one image to create a frame that approximates what I’m seeing has been a game changer.  It now takes me seconds rather than minutes to mock up a frame, and I can change these easily if I layer these elements up.

 

While TV Commercials and action sequences require strict storyboarding so what is signed off on ends up as close as possible to the final film, with drama, and especially with performance based stories such as “Bugged”, with these boards, and eventually, Animatics, are a plan of how the film is able to be edited together.  Ideally, I will have recce-ed and rehearsed with the actors before I finish the Animatic, but this is not always the case.  With “Bugged”, I had competed the recce but I hadn’t yet rehearsed, so the Animatic changed a bit after I’d worked through the blocking with the actors.  While initial rehearsal followed a mud map I’d worked out showing the setups in the location space, it’s always different when you’re there in situ.

So often with projects, there is little or no rehearsal time allocated for a project, but over the years we’ve discovered that rehearsals are the most time and cost effective means to bettering a project.  It’s vastly cheaper to have a rehearsal day versus spending time on set on shoot day working out blocking or discussing character motivation or journey with the actors.

I settled for quite a fast paced style of editing that I felt made the film feel more modern and fresh.  I voiced out all the dialogue and laid in a temp VO track that I cut together with some basic sound design and temp music which I based on the international trailer for Baby Driver.  I loved the driving beat of the Baby Driver trailer, which I felt reflected the suspense I wanted to build up with the story.

I had worked with Jesse Hyde before – on “Wild Squad Adventures” for Taronga Zoo.  Leigh (and Marianne Jade) also cast this project and it was auditioning for the role of LUCA, the teenage son that I was introduced to Jesse’s work.  Jesse stood out because of his natural instinct to keep things real, and I felt very strongly that his kind of outwardly calm, chilled vibe would work well for the role of MICHAEL.

As a minority Director, I feel a responsibility about the importance of recalibrating our on screen representation of actors to the multi-ethnic world we live in.  We gave Leigh an instruction that any ethnicity would work and he put forward a diverse short list of 14 excellent actors for KARL.  I chose Callan because his intelligence stood out – I could feel him thinking as his character within a scene and he had a boyishness with athletic physicality that would well opposite Jesse.

I thought it would great to have Michael & Karl to have reverse parallel journeys.  We were able to plot Michael’s reactions throughout the story – from chilled to confusion to frustration to full throttle anger – but it was Karl’s character and how we contrasted this to Michael that was the trickiest to navigate.  Initially, on reading the script, I had interpreted Karl as quite paranoid – jerky, dramatic etc, but as we rehearsed the scenes, Callan and I quickly realised this wasn’t working as it felt too over-the-top.  The character of Karl was most definitely quirky – but going the opposite direction and having him try to come across as ‘normal’ made him even more interesting to watch as we made Karl’s journey from ‘paranoid’.  Jesse likened the relationship of the two boys as an X Files Mulder-Scully relationship.

Getting it in the can

I strive for a calm set.  I think Directors have a responsibility to help create an atmosphere that is collaborative and where everyone feels safe in offering up solutions.   And there are so many elements that have to come together in filmmaking, so what ends up in the can isn’t always what is storyboarded or shot listed.

The location we found was perfect in every way except for the white walls.   In real life they look great, but on screen, even with the most amazing production design, when you cut into a close up, it’s still just a white wall.  We painted the walls because I’d blocked out scenes to play out with lights on and lights off.   I liked that when it was a dark scene, having the actors face stand out in the darkness rather than blending into a white wall.  I liked the deep purple shade because it felt retro and felt potentially conspiratorial.

We had some last minute challenges with location which meant that my opening shots of Michael arriving on skateboard couldn’t be shot outside on the street so I had to rethink how we were going to attack the day so I could reword the opening – especially since we only had the one shoot day with the actors.  I knew we could pick up the smashing of the toaster close ups and exteriors, but I had to figure out a way to make the opening work without actually having Jesse as Michael in shot.  Fortunately there was one area out the back of the house that we could fudge as the exterior of the house, so I reworked the opening here and decided to change the opening to a more conspiracy theory related montage.

But, reworking the opening had a ripple effect on what I had planned with boards and my Animatic, so there wasn’t going to be enough time to shoot what I had boarded, so I needed a Plan B.   While I had planned on a style that was fast paced and relied on sequences of shots without a classic master shot, I realised because you could look down he hallway into the kitchen from the lounge room where the main action would take place, it was wiser to take advantage of the setup and shoot a master.  I think in the end, this worked out far better as it gave you a clearer feel of the space and the actors could move naturally within the two rooms.  I also ended up having to lose part of the blocking – eg. opening the fridge as after we blocked through in situ with the new master, there was no time to leave this in, and it was extraneous in any sense because we didn’t need to see what was in the fridge.  This was a classic case of where ‘mistakes’ can sometimes be a good thing for a project, and it’s only over the years that you learn to embrace the unexpected.

 

Driving the beat

I’ve known Composer Carlo Giacco for over 15 years, so we know each other very well.  I love Carlo’s orchestral compositions and the way he’s able to further the emotional journey of the characters and add musical layers to help tell the story.

The way we work is to set the tone for the theme at the beginning of the project – in this case, the driving key theme – and we settled on hand claps, taiko drums and hi hat as possible instrumentation for Carlo to compose a score with.

Editing “Bugged” was a great challenge as this was drama with a twist of comedy – but comedy that came about through the dialogue not meaning what it was on the surface.  The challenge was to  keep the story coherent enough visually so that if you kept up, you’d appreciate the twist at the end.

Music added so much to the story as it helped point the viewer to critical moments in the story.  While in the Animatic, I structured the story on the “Baby Driver” animatic, after the shoot, the locations leant in a more X Files kind of way, but it needed a more driving beat.  I stumbled across Ennio Morricone’s score to “The Untouchables” and realised this was a thematically better reference for “Bugged”.  Carlo translated this into a more urban retro theme and I loved how he pushed the key instrumentation to the max.

What was also interesting to come out of the edit was how the opening exteriors ended up adding another layer to the conspiracy theory.  We actually shot the opening sequence last and this was the section that was the most problematic to make work within the story.  Originally, I had a whole backstory of Michael coming back from work.  I had storyboarded shots of Michael changing from his “Splashe Cola” work shirt into his normal skateboarding shirt, this sub-sub plot didn’t make into the final cut as there wasn’t enough time to explain this.  ie. on the location recce, there were tons of boxes of “Splashe Cola” lined up around the outside of the house, so I thought it’d be a great added layer of character for Michael.  Dawson had written up Michael’s backstory as working part time at a family restaurant or such, and the Splashe Cola had a great logo that I thought would work well on a ‘family restaurant’ uniform.  The idea was that Michael had worked late and had come off the train and changed tops – but in the edit, it was so fast it just got confusing.

It was having access to a friend’s amazing 38th floor penthouse apartment in the middle of the city with incredible views looking down on the city that I realised would help roundtrip the story – I could start with bugged voices and then end with the sound of the surveillance bug in action at the end.

The end result is a tight 3-minute homage to old fashioned conspiracy theories – a fun indie short that hopefully viewers will enjoy and have a laugh.  Directing “Bugged” has been an unusual opportunity where the client has encouraged me to share all insights into the behind the scenes working process of a director so they can help and encourage the next generation of filmmakers around the world to develop and keep developing their craft.

Watch the film HERE.

Header image: Courtesy of John Slaytor.

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