Dragons, Reapers and Guerilla Filmmaking: Turning Writer to Director With My First Short ‘Brian & the Grim Reaper’

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Guest post by Eben Skilleter

Ahead of the final Guerilla Filmmakers 2 Day Masterclass next month, I asked past delegates to share their post event experiences. Here’s what Eben Skilleter got up to…

11351318_435650729934898_2394743503618352996_nInspiration, Then Perspiration – Pre-production

Trudging across a Hampshire field, in full retreat from the merciless weather, I wonder if I’ve gone too far. It’s halfway through day one on a damp October day and we’ve shot just 45 seconds of a 10 minute film. And I’ve only scheduled two days for it…

It starts so well. Last year I vowed to abandon my writer’s desk and make my own stuff. But with no industry contacts is it feasible to make professional shorts? Last year’s Guerilla Filmmaker’s Masterclass provides the answer. The event coincides with my friend’s cancer treatment, and together they spur me on to do something worthy.

It’s the desire to collaborate with other creatives that drives me on, and events like the Masterclass help make this happen.

TIP 1: If you’re writing as well as directing, have someone else provide objective feedback on the script.

This was my first, invaluable collaboration.

After honing the script I lay out my plan. I’ll shoot it on a DSLR. One location. No music, no VFX. Keep costs down, I tell myself. A humble internet release will follow.

Didn’t work out like that. We shot it on a Red Epic Dragon in 6K in numerous locations with a proper score, VFX work, and a 4K DCP created for festival submission. It cost over twice as much, but was ten times more professional.

TIP 2: 6K won’t make your film 6 times better; doing at least 6 drafts of your script, will.

The concept, as expressed in a pitch, is vital when getting something made. Needing crew, I place it on the filmmaking website ShootingPeople and cross my fingers:

“When Brian discovers his days are numbered he attempts to live in denial. But he cannot run from his fate. Brian must learn to live with Death – literally – or forever live in fear of him. There’s just one problem: Grim’s the housemate from hell.”

It works. Over twenty applications for the Director of Photography position flood in. Nearly half have shot features; one of them worked on Skyfall. I’m overwhelmed.

TIP 3: Spoilt for choice? Go for the person who shows the most passion for your project.

If they love your film, they’ll probably love you. Well, you know what I mean.

The internet has democratised filmmaking. Utilised correctly, great talent is literally at your fingertips. Casting Call Pro provides the talented and versatile Ian Pink (Brian) and Dean Kilbey (Grim). They join within hours of reading the script.

Preparation is key when you don’t have much money. I save up, pick locations, assemble props, set schedules and draw up a shot list. I’m ready. Or so I think.

It’s only after I pick my crew that I realise I’ve overlooked something: none of my London-based crew have cars. And crew bring equipment. This means I’ve more vehicles to hire in addition to other travel costs.

TIP 4: If you’re shooting away from major cites, be aware of a lack of rental companies.

I find no adequate rental houses for the hiring of lighting, grip etc. in the Dorset / Hampshire region. And the clock is ticking. All the gear must come from London. My gaffer’s a godsend and drives it down in a hire van. In return I promise him sushi.

TIP 5: Keep your crew happy any small way that you can. They’ll go the extra mile.

Even this leads to another problem; he’s under 25, so it’s more expensive to hire him a vehicle. I don’t grumble, but there are lots of small expenses on a shoot and they mount up. One company won’t hire to under 25s at all.

It’s my DoP who suggests we shoot in 4K. Indeed, he has the kit. (Crew often have their own gear, which they hire out to supplement their income.) It’s expensive yet audiences will appreciate the quality. And what if it’s my only shoot? I go for it.

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Here There Be Dragons – The Costs of Shooting in 4K

Red Dragons are expensive, hungry things. They gobble up huge numbers of gigabytes and you’ll need copious hard drive space to satiate them. A weekend of footage approaches 750GB.

Shooting in 4K means the production value of a film increases accordingly. These cameras pick up everything. For example, the Grim Reaper’s latex mask won’t do, so I’ve a fibre glass one made that can withstand the Dragon’s severe 6K scrutiny.

Ah, yes. About that 4K/6K thing. My DoP’s website specified a different Red camera to the one he turns up with. In fact, I don’t actually realise we’re shooting in 6K until halfway through day one. I keep shtum about it for fear it might harm my authority.

TIP 6: If you’re going to be an ignoramus, keep it to yourself.

The hard drives it records to need emptying to a laptop frequently, a job usually done by a Digital Imaging Technician. We did it ourselves but it takes up time. Beware.

Also, to properly light an interior scene with a high resolution requirement means a sophisticated lighting setup. In other words, more expense.

Post-production costs go up too. Your editor will need equally sophisticated software to deal with the footage. Ditto your colourist. Adobe CS6 couldn’t handle Red Dragon footage at first. Weeks of delays ensued.

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Brian, the Grim Reaper & the Cops – Production

October arrives. I’ve everyone up before dawn on day one. Exteriors first. Bad weather’s forecast and I figure it’s best to be rained off the first day than the last.

I obtain council permission for filming in two key locations and take out the required insurance. Come the shoot, however, and nearby cliff tops entice us. We indulge in Guerilla filmmaking to nab cool shots of Brian as he tries to run away from Death!

TIP 7: Never pass up a sweeping vista.

Torrential rain defeats us on the first morning, so we start on the interiors. My DoP Ewan Mulligan asks if I want to shoot the film’s longest scene in chronological order. It’s my first shoot so I say I do. Plus visual gags are up first and they require many takes to get right.

TIP 8: Schedule time-consuming scenes first, so that if things overrun at least they’ll overrun up front.

This’ll give you more time to decide what not to film later on.

Rigidly adhering to storyboards and shot lists slows us down and blocks spontaneity. Ewan and I are in total agreement regarding the look of the film, so we stick to the shot list for key shots, not every shot.

In the evening we strike out from home base to finish off shooting exteriors. With the scenes shot at different times of the day, it’ll take both a good colourist and a VFX artist to maintain continuity in the scenes. I hadn’t originally budgeted for the latter.

TIP 9: Shoot footage of clouds on the day – you can insert them digitally in post.

Thank God I’ve secured permission to shoot elsewhere. While we shoot on the street an old man in a dressing gown, presumably watching the Grim Reaper ashen-faced, calls the cops on us. With council permission secured, however, the Police are on our side. Just as well: if we’d been shut down and moved along we’d have run out of time to complete the film…

Soon it’s the end of day one and we’ve shot three pages. (The visual gags took even longer to film than I thought.) I bite the bullet and cut over a page from the script – gags and two transition shots. They’re not essential to the story so they’ve gotta go.

Before my sleepless night I record some Foley with my sound recordist. We do this in the actual rooms we’re filming in. This provides a useful library of sound effects.

I think one of the keys to creating a no-ego set is to keep things relaxed and allow people to do their jobs. They don’t need to be reminded there’s little time left, and they’ll be happier for it. Day two runs smooth as silk.

Despite the time factor I let my actors play with their characters. A dull transition shot turns into one of the funniest scenes in the film thanks to some acting improv.

TIP 10: Always leave room for spontaneity, especially if it’s a comedy.

I found it so helpful to have friends I could count on for support. They pull you through the dark times and enrich the good ones. Like day two.

We finish the hitch-free second day just as the sun goes down, the latest we could possibly finish. I now know the relief Luke Skywalker felt when he destroyed the Death Star at the very last second. I thank my crew for a great job. I pay everyone within a week. They made it happen.

Grim Prepares For His Close Up

Reaping What You’ve Sowed – Post-production

All decisions, good or bad, come back to haunt you during post. At this stage, a film’s journey takes it upon a vast ocean of competing codecs and file formats, whose complex rip-tides try to pull you under. I’m no match for the convoluted Redcode or the hefty DPX sequence; I rely on my post-production team to get me through.

I still make mistakes. I hesitate in getting the actors back for ADR. Post-production is well-advanced by the time I make this choice, making it trickier to incorporate.

TIP 11: ADR should be among the first things you do in post-production.

My 18 year old editor Shiona Penrake (already an award-winning filmmaker) pares down the edit to less than 10 minutes. She injects real pace and energy into the story, and also overrules my choices on occasion too. For the better.

TIP 12: A good editor should know when to tell the director he’s mistaken; a director should know when to listen to her.

Keep a copy of the footage to refer to: my colourist and my VFX artist both request timecodes on the footage to help them with gaps in the EDL, amongst other things.

In case you wondered (as I did) about what a VFX artist needs in order to work his magic, it’s either a DPX or TIFF sequence of the scenes he must work on.

TIP 13: A DCP really requires 5.1 sound – a stereo mix won’t do.

Here’s my ideal post-production workflow: Editing > ADR > VFX > Sound Design / Foley > Music > Sound Mixing > Colourist > DCP creation

A couple of these can run concurrently, but this is generally the right order.

So how could I afford this film if it cost well over twice as much? Well, post-production drags on so long it allows you to stagger the costs.

TIP 14: Save up enough to get the film in the can (production), then save up again. You’re essentially paying for your film in instalments.

It’s January, halfway through post, when I receive word that my friend has died from lung cancer. I can’t remember feeling this low. I’d loved to have shown him the finished short. Given its subject matter, would it have been awkward viewing? It’s tough to say. I dedicate the film to him.

March this year. The film is complete. With the test screening a success I start submitting my short to film festivals while a trailer is cut (see link below). I’m drained but I’m already writing another.

TIP 15: Those who say you should wait till you’re ready to make a film have invariably made it already.

You’ll never find out if you remain at the dreaming stage!

Making a film is like giving birth; there’s pain and there’s joy. During its production I lost a friend but found a role. I am now an independent filmmaker. With no experience and no training I produced a quality short for audiences to enjoy.

You can do it too.

11351318_435650729934898_2394743503618352996_nEben Skilleter is a writer-turned filmmaker. His new website has a blog on which he shares further info on making his short, plus updates on the making of his next one.
Follow Eben’s journey: www.ebenskilleter.com
Watch the trailers on his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMHoFAIgl8wTtc8NNqCEqdA
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EbenSkilleter
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eben.skilleter

If you want to come to the final Guerilla Filmmakers Masterclass, you can get more information HERE.

Filmmaker (LivingSpiritGroup.com), screenwriter, author of the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbooks (GuerillaFilm.com), founder of Create50.com, CEO of The London Screenwriters' Festival (LondonSWF.com) and certified firewalk instructor.

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