SoMe wins award at Zero Festival NYC

SoMe Takes Zero Film Festival Audience Choice Award

SoMe takes Zero Film Festival opening night Audience Choice Award

SoMe takes opening night Audience Choice at Zero New York

We are happy to announce that SoMe took the opening night audience vote award at the Zero Film Festival in New York city. J G Harding of Neolight Project was in New York for the duration of the festival, which included a stunning array of shorts, features and curiosities. Keep an eye out for further Zero festivals, including LA, London and more in the near future.

Richard Hooban and J G Harding

Richard Hooban of Zero (left) and J G Harding of Neolight Project (right) at the Zero opening night after party in New York.

 

SoMeworld premiere at Zero Film Festival, NYC

SoMe premieres at www.zerofilmfest

SoMe premieres at www.zerofilmfest

Neolight Project’s debut short, SoMe, will premiere at the excellent Zero Film Festival in New York City, on the 10th of November 2011. Be sure to head over to the Zero Film Festival website to RSVP for the opening night at the Tribecca Grand. J G Harding of Neolight Project will be in NYC so if you have any questions, be sure to collar him! He’s usually found wearing a biker jacket, like here on his Twitter

For those who might’ve missed it, here’s a trailer for SoMe:

TRIPLE BILL – Above & Beyond

Above & Beyond

All film lovers have days when they want to just watch films, and if they wake up early enough, they can watch three. Just as it’s nice to make mixtapes (or playlists for the young and/or unpretentious) of your favorite music, I find it fun to create fantasy billings, where all of the films are linked in some way. So here is the start of a series called ‘Triple Bill’!

This first Triple Bill pulls no punches, and shows ambitious pieces that are designed to give a sense of the scope of life, the universe and everything, above beyond the experience of the individual. Sometimes this effect is sought by focussing entirely on the individual’s quest, others by removing them from the frame and replacing them with sounds and images, stirring up primal feelings of awe and wonder. We begin with a narrative piece and end with something more abstract, while a recent work neatly plugs the gap in-between.

I’ll not to say that these pieces are without their individual flaws, but each is truly ambitious and deserves a watch. This billing would be a film marathon of almost unparalleled intensity and self reflection. Either that or you’d just get bored, down a can of Monster and go on a Neveldine/Taylor marathon as a re-balancing exercise! Either way it’s an adventure :)

1: The Fountain

The Fountain - An ambitious piece with a wonderful score.

The Fountain – An ambitious piece with a wonderful score.

The Fountain took a critical pounding in its day, but I admire the narrative scale, and find the tale of devotion at the heart of it incredibly moving. Aranofsky’s third feature is his most ambitious, and though it’s not 100% successful, the use of three parallel stories spread across thousands of years is inspiring. A man searches for the Tree Of Life in the past, finds it in the present, and carries it to the end of time in the future. Yes: it is pompous, but it has a certain charm if you give it a chance. My favorite Aronofsky film, in case you were wondering, is The Wrestler — by far the most down-to-earth piece he’s ever made — but still, I have plenty of time for this slightly broken treasure. The soundtrack is easily in my top 5.

+ A beautiful score by Clint Mansell.

+ The scale, ambition and emotional weight of the story are great.

- The performances sometimes work against the piece.

- Rewards temporary suspension of your pomposity detector.

2: The Tree Of Life

Tree Of Life - Beautiful cinematography that revels in nature.

Tree Of Life – Beautiful cinematography revels in nature.

Carrying on the with our theme of stories that span the eons, Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life covers a period from the dawn of time itself to the present day. It’s a long piece, most of which unfolds sometime in the late fifties, in a form of extended flashback. Our present-day disenchanted busineess type (Sean Penn) searches his soul and his past for the touch of God and the meaning behind it all. The narrative relies heavily on exposition to drive it on, while emotive imagery and dreamlike footage of the dawn of creation unfurl with ponderous grace. It takes some watching. Emmanuel Lubezki deserves enormous credit for providing the bulk of the enjoyment, using natural light as a plaything, and deifying nature in the process. The feeling of reminisce that takes hold is quite something, but you’ll need to give it a chance.

+ Indescribably beautiful cinemtography, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki.

+ A quite unique cinematic journey that makes the viewer look within for meaning.

- A little too long.

- Dodgy CG dinosaurs. Yep.

3: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi - intense and wonderful watching that will make you reflect.

Koyaanisqatsi – intense and wonderful watching that will make you reflect.

Completing this bill’s journey from epic narrative to pure imagery and music, Koyaanisqaysi takes us from the beginning of tribal civilisation to the dawn of the digital age. Though it’s ostensibly the first part of a trilogy, the other two parts are best ignored. Phillip Glass’s eerie, arpeggiated soundtrack mesmerises the viewer, as we watch the world coalesce from the forming of rock to the birth of cities. Some unsettling parallels are found in our own architecture: the grids of our cities are presented as silicon patterns, the pathways of digital slaves. Watching the disembodied engine of an Atlas rocket fall from the sky is a powerful sight in itself, but it’s never so moving or helpless as when accompanied by Glass’s drones.

+ A dazzling, hypnotic and absorbing work of art.

+ Glass’s finest soundtrack, IMO.

- Will leave you feeling somewhat dazed and misanthropic.

The making of Knock Knock, a short film for Virgin Media Shorts

Virgin Media Shorts is a pretty special competition. There are plenty of film festivals to choose from these days, even plenty of ultra-short film contests, but I can think of no other that creates quite such a sustained buzz in the film-making community. It’s great to watch your Twitter feed, and get little hints as to what your friends’ and colleagues films will be like. Virgin Media Shorts already has a strong pedigree, with some excellent films and equally impressive success stories, and serves as a kind of ‘no excuses’ challenge. Heres your two-and-a-bit minutes: prove it!

Since Neolight Thom was working on some pretty heavy-duty Cinema 4D projects and I was out of London, I decided to embark on a Virgin Media Short solo. I’d had an idea floating around my head for a while: to produce a black and white, gritty British drama complete with a dark storyline full of hints and understated performances. I’m heavily influenced by the works of  Shane Meadows, and similarly down-to-earth films such as Ballast and La Haine, so you can see the angle I’m coming from. I originally wanted to make it a 15-minute film, but the deadline for Virgin Media Shorts was approaching. I figured it’d put my skills to the test to, try and turn everything around in a week or so and keep the running-time low. I’d just bought the Sony HX9V a as a B-cam, after my buddy Andrew over at EOSHD recommended it, and having tested it enough to work-out its strengths and weaknesses (I’ll tell you soon) I decided to give it a baptism of fire on set.

 ***

PRE PRODUCTION

It may be a little contrary, but I wanted to avoid many of the standard routes to success with an ultra-short short film: tweeness, excessive gloss, stories about childhood, and most of all a heartstring-tugging reverberant piano soundtrack! Thats not to say that these things aren’t useful or are inherantly ‘bad’, in actual fact theyre all extremely powerful tools in their own right, but I preferred the challenge of treading a less-worn path: embracing dark grit and atmosphere in a short running time. The core of my self-brief was to make a piece that resonated beyond 2:20, and left the viewer wanting to know what happened before, and what happens next…

A test shot for Knock Knock featuring Chris Underwood, co-writer. Taken with the iPhone 4 processed with Red Giant Noir app.

It was the moody natural lighting in a friend’s house that inspired part of the story. I took quite a few shots around the place using the iPhone 4, and processed them using one of my favorite apps: Red Giant Noir  (if you’re on Instagram, add user jgharding for a regular Noir fix!). I also used the iPhone app called Chemical Wedding Artemis Viewfinder a to guage roughly what focal lengths I’d need to use with the 550D. The test shot above may include a pretty cheery expression, but I imagined a man waiting nervously for somebody.

‘Waiting’ films are not uncommon among shorts, but ones that are both intense and beleivable are. So there was another goal! Once I’d reached a basic story structure, my friend (and prolific author) Christopher Underwood and I thrashed out the final ideas, he came up with the title too. He wrote some lines for the short phone conversation, I edited them with vicious aplomb and we were ready to storyboard.

Here is one of the simple storyboard sketches I created in Artstudio for iPad. This shot, designed for the flashback, was eventually cut.

The initial treatment was a lot more ambitious in terms of narrative 2:20 could handle, with the flashback section being long enough for a film in itself, so it was necessary to storyboard tightly in order to sort the timings out. To do this I used an iPad 2, Wacom Bamboo stylus and the Artstudio app, and exported the resulting images to Cinemek Storyboard, an iPhone app. This app allows you to punch-in timings for each shot and carry out pans and zooms, so you can create a full animatic of your piece in very little time. Even at this stage after making just a basic outline, it was clear that to maintain a deep atmosphere at the start of the film and a frantic pace at the end the piece would need to be edited far more tightly than I’d anticipated. This would mean slashing the flashback down to just a taster of what I’d intended.

Sam Russo in Knock Knock

Sam Russo in Knock Knock. Though he’s not an actor by trade we know each other as friends and musical collaborators. Performing music and acting are very similar in many ways, and Sam knows just the kind of thing I like.

***

PRODUCTION

Note: Ill leave out equipment lists here, as they can be more than a little dry, so you can read the full list here.

I roped-in some friends to assist with production, neither of whom are particularly production savvy, but again both know me well and understand my style. Matthew Swaby operated the Tascam DR100 recorder and boom, while film-buff Will Smith operated the second camera for shots that required more coverage. The HX9V is a great point-and-shoot video camera. If someone has an eye for framing you can switch the (quite astonishing) digital stabiliser to full, hand them the camera and let them shoot a B-roll. More footage to trawl through, but more chance of that golden shot! I ended up keeping the entire first spoken part as a single shot from the HX9V. Tense, gritty, handheld…

Directing the talent was relatively easy as we know each other well, though the small crew meant that did have to split my focus between directing, handling photography and lighting, operating one of the cameras and trying to hold schedule. Theres a fine balance to strike when you’re aiming for a subtle, understated performance. Cinema is invariably about the little things, and many stage actors I’ve met tend to overplay their expressions habitually, as suits the stage. The flip-side is underplaying to the point of audience boredom, or where the performance just isn’t working under the microscope of hyper-reality that is the camera. It’s half director and half actor really. Ill let you be the judge of how it turned out.

Knock Knock Production Still

The boom was improvised using the Rycote Universal Camera Kit attached to the end of a paint-roller pole, as my boom was elsewhere. The reflector is bouncing light from a 600LED panel, supporting the natural light a little when Sam sits back.

Onto the technical side of things, I kept shallow DOF shots to what I consider a tasteful level, shooting more often at f4 than f2 or wider. My reasoning is twofold: firstly, at the risk of sounding patronising, its not necessary to blur out the background all of the time. It’s a bit of a modern affectation. Secondly, films with non-stop ultra-shallow DOF and wandering focus are becoming extremely common and equally grating ever since the advent of large-sensor video, particularly DSLRs. The novelty, as it were, of being able to do it for cheap has worn off, and shallow DOF is back in the toolbox instead of always in the hand.

The Canon EOS 550D footage was captured using the Technicolor Cinestyle picture-profile, giving maximum dynamic range and more options in post for pre-desaturation grading, albeit at the expense of a little colour detail. My Canon 550D has the latest Magic Lantern firmware installed, and those whove not used it are missing out. I’ll post soon on the merits of the 550D above and beyond all the other Canon EOS models (yes, including the hobbling old 5D MKii, despite its subtle low-light advantage), so watch this space, but for the moment suffice it to say that Magic Lantern 550D is very powerful.

I used primarily natural light (as is my preference) but decide to boost the window slightly by using a 600LED panel, bouncing off a silver reflector. You can also see this in use in the shot towards the end, where Sam’s positioning meant the window light was too weak, so i gave it a kick with the LEDs. I also made use of some Rotolights in the short bedroom scene, and though the scenes where they were most effective were cut, they still gave a little push to the subject as he enters the room in the remaining shot.

As usual my Gorrilapods were unbelievably useful: holding cameras, functioning as a lightweight rig (when equipped with a quick release plate), and even supporting the DR100 during foley. Just go and buy some already! They cost next to nothing on eBay. The Sony HX9V eats batteries pretty quickly, so if you do buy one be sure to pick up a cheap Chinese spare and wall charger from eBay, or youll be kicking yourself when it dies mid-take.  The flashback shots were picked-up a few days later, after the edit was completed, and slotted in nicely. I used a Polaroid Variable Fader ND filter with the Canon. It’s not the sharpest variable ND but it costs very little and is easily good enough for the already soft EOS footage.

Magic Lantern 550D

Here you can see Magic Lantern for the 550D. Note the 2.35:1 cropmarks (red lines), audio meters, and picture-in-picture zoomed focus adjustment. Eat my dust, 5D Mkii…

Sound recording wasn’t perfect on the day, so I returned a few days after to pickup some foley, including bed tracks for the atmospheric sounds in the room, cigarette smoking, ashtray, phone ringing; all sorts! These allowed me to rebuild the sound in Adobe Audition when it came to post-production. I was a sound and music producer for a long time before I made film (about 11 years now), so I understand how hard it is when you’re presented with a dirty mix or track and have no material with which to patch it. A quick tip for you if you’re a film maker who doesn’t handle audio: sound is half of your film, neglect it at your peril. The final mix for Knock Knock was over 30 audio tracks, finely balanced to work with the edit and atmosphere of the piece as a whole. You can theorhetically get away with less, but why would you want to?

Knock Knock foley recording

I realised sound was going to need plenty of work in post production, so I decided to capture beds of each of the separate atmospheric tracks. Here I’m recording the hapless chirping of doomed crickets.

***

POST PRODUCTION

The Edit

Note: Ive written extensively about video editing, albeit for music promos, in Sound On Sound magazine here.

Shout it from the hills and let it be known! Adobe CS5.5, the king of speed! No other NLE software has such speedy, native editing of pretty much any codec you can throw at it. My system is no slouch, but I was able to drop HX9V footage straight into the timeline and edit natively with no problem at all. Cutting alongside 550D footage was simple enough, though of course 550D footage has a much greater dynamic range, while the HX9V footage is a hell of a lot sharper. Given all the narrative hints I wanted to include, the edit was quite a tight squeeze. As mentioned in the Sound On Sound article, the key to a quick edit when you have a lot of rushes is organising those rushes effectively. Yes its dull, but when you want emthat/em shot, youll know where to go and that’ll save you time. Of all the stages, the edit was the biggest challenge, and really did come down to individual frame shifts for some shots.

Audio Post

Adobe Audition audio tracks

Two channel strips from Audition CS5.5. Note that the right track is ‘frozen’ (blue logos). This is because Adaptive Noise-Reduction is incredibly processor intensive.

I was reviewing Adobe Auition CS5.5 for Sound On Sound at the time of producing Knock Knock, so rather than use my usual audio post process (export audio stems from Premiere, edit and mix in REAPER, import mixdown into After Effects) i decided to stick within CS5.5 for everything. Choosing Sequence -> Edit -> Edit in Audition from the menus sends your audio clips (complete with adjustable handles) to Audition for editing. Dont bother with exporting a preview video from this dialogue though, its nasty DV, you’re much better-off making your own H264 vid if you have a quick computer.

I made extensive use of the spectral editor in Audition to rid the recordings of various bits of background noise, such as bumps and scuffs, while using the Adaptave Noise Reduction plug-in to clean-up the main vocal tracks. The ability to ‘freeze’ track (bouce a track to audio in the background) is very useful when using such processor intesive plug-ins, and keeps everything else running in real time with latency.

This wasnt the most complicated audio post project Ive ever carried out (SoMe was very in-depth) but the challenge was to rebuild the soundscape to be natural enough to sit back, but sound hyper real when needed. I also kept a relatively high dynamic range, for the jumps! Crank it up, and enjoy.

Video Post

I don’t really like the look of the AVCHD compression compared to Canons I-frame codec. The use of P- and B-frames leads to more compression artefacts around motion, and the classic swarm of flies pixellation. Despite this, it thrashes a DSLR for motion shots. The small sensor means depth of field is deep and jello is controlled, plus the level of stabilisation you get with the in-camera stabiliser is astonishing! As long as you underexpose compared to the camera’s suggested level, you will protect your highlights and have plenty of detail hiding in the darker areas for grading. The HX9V footage is so sharp that I had to soften the outdoor shots to match them with the 550D and the indoor HX9V shots, which were softer anyway due to the higher ISO and in-camera noise reduction.

Grading was carried out with a combination of Magic Bullet Looks 1 and Colorista 2. Aside from the old film saturation in the flashback sections, Knock Knock is mostly black and White. I chose to shoot in colour simply because it gives so many more options for grading. Many will simply desaturate their colour footage, and the result can be flat and lifeless! In reality, how you treat your colour before desaturation has a huge effect on the mood and balance of a scene. As with black and white film photography, quite extreme colour filtration can work absolute wonders for a scene. Simply place a plug-in with zero saturation at the end of your chain, and switch it on and off to preview your changes. One particularly challenging piece of footage was the walking downstairs scene, where the HX9V’s automatic exposure changed dramatically throughout the shot. To fix this, I created two duplicates of the shot, matched each to a similar exposure, and opacity blended between the two layers as the camera travels round the corner. Tricks of the trade!

I also used Neat Video to clean the noise from some shots (though noise was very nice on a few), which upped the final render time significantly. Ordinarily I’d ‘bake in’ the noise reduction while transcoding the rushes to DNxHD or a similar intermediate codec, but time was of the essence here, so I ran everything native: testament to the power of Adobe’s Mercury playback engine. I also added some film grain throughout to bring more life to the footage. I use quite an odd, manual process to add grain, and if you keep an eye on the blog here I’ll be posting the technique at some point in the future. ;)

 ***

AND FINALLY…

The tight time-limit of Virgin Media Shorts is a tough master, but its also the best thing about the competition. The duration is not so short that you cant tell a story, but it does challenge you to use your time wisely. Will you use only a few simple shots, or fill the space with intense rhythm? Will you use a single narrative thread, or dance between a multitude? The initial reaction that its easy is quickly replaced by a white noise of options, and creating a film that does justice to your idea in such a short time, while also remaining original and compelling, is a wonderful challenge. I hope you enjoy Knock Knock, and want to see more. I also hope youre left slightly unsettled by it. With that, Ill thank Virgin Media for running the competition, and all those who entered for keeping me entertained for so long with so many short films! Ill keep my fingers crossed!

If you like the film and want to collaborate with Thom and I or have us work for you then don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’re always happy to see showreels from everyone from graders to grips, actors to audio guys and gals, so why not share the love? We have some great film and promo work coming up, and the contacts book can never be too full!

 

J G Harding

 

The making of my promo for Jealous, Don’t You Know? by The Heartbreaks

I though it’d be nice to talk a bit about this project, since it’s not only a video I’m very happy with but one that made me realise what DSLRs have really done for film makers. This is my first music video since DSLRs broke the mould. It was completed for broadcast on traditional television networks, with NME TV play-listing confirmed and hopefully more to follow. I shot it with a single Canon 550D.

It’s also entirely my own product, from a creative point of view: I wrote a treatment, made some storyboards, drew up my equipment list, transported my own camera gear to location, sparked, gripped and lit the scene, directed the band, operated the single camera, and later edited and post produced the piece too, all in a two week time-frame with a two-day shoot. Phew! I’m tired just writing that! I had an excellent producer in the band’s manager Nian Brindle, who handled securing of the venue (the breathtakingly beautiful Morecambe Winter Gardens), equipment hire, locating a dancer and other such logistics, leaving me free to wear a whole heap of hats! I also had a pair of production assistants to help with purchases, manual labour and the like. The creative “team”, however, was just myself.


The breathtaking stage of the Morecambe Winter Gardens.

Working in such a manner requires an excess of stamina and discipline, and inevitably involves making some compromises, but what I find amazing is that it’s now possible due to DSLR. I’m aware that people have always made work on skeleton crews with low budgets. They’ve used 8mm film, Hi8 video, DV and now DSLRs, but it’s only with this latest generation that we have access to a high-budget feel, with such a large sensor and high-quality prime lenses. Shooters on a budget are no longer forced to use the old “documentary style” of Hi8 or DV, making the low quality of the footage itself part of the narrative or feel. Nor do they have to deal with bulky 35mm adaptors to achieve a shallow depth of field. The file-based workflow and software advancements like the Mercury engine in Adobe CS5 are Godsends too, allowing high-quality output to be turned around on extremely tight deadlines without any transcoding or long-winded ingestion. These great features, coupled with the tiny form-factor of the camera, make creating slick-looking promos with minimal crew a (just about) practical reality.

As nice as the footage and workflow are, there are some issues with the 550D. None of us like Moiré, but your average viewer rarely cares. Unless you happen to capture a particularly hideous example that dominates a large portion of the frame, the problem is usually ignored. Double frame-rates are only captured at 720p, but then if you look at the footage close up, the EOS version of 1080p doesn’t look much sharper! There are also some oft-mentioned camcorder creature-comforts that I miss from my days of using the Sony Z1 and EX1, and for certain wide-angle shots, landscapes, and perhaps running about like a wild animal I’d still consider packing one of the two, along with a friend to carry it! But camera technology is moving very quickly, and hopefully these issues will be gone in the next few EOS updates.

Since completing this project I found myself asking: if I could have hired a Red, a separate DP, a lighting guy and some more hands on deck, would the resulting video would have been ‘better’ overall? Perhaps. Or perhaps it would just be of higher-resolution. Perhaps it’d lack some idiosyncratic charm, perhaps it’d be a little less ‘me’. I can’t really be sure, but as high-quality solo work becomes a reality, I think it’s food for thought. Is high-end gear and as large a crew as possible really always ‘right’ for the project? Homogenisation is a real danger…

I should make it clear that I don’t recommend working as a lone-gunman at all times, or on all endeavours! If the option (and/or budget) is available to have knowledgeable hands on set, and you feel the production warrants more crew, then you should probably hire them. But if not, a combination of low-cost technology and the helpfulness (I try to do my fair share) of a broad community of enthusiasts, hobbyists and career creatives, allows many film-makers to get going with smaller teams.


On stage with The Heartbreaks and a 550D. Note the huge counter-weight on the shoulder rig!

DSLRs have removed some of the financial and practical obstacles that can stand between the mind’s eye – the endless scope of internal vision – and crafting an on-screen reality. These odd, hybrid cameras bring ever greater creative freedom to many more users with each new hardware generation, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Sure, we’ll all have to put up with many derivative works as more users learn in public, and there’ll always be a Vimeo full of “test” files (hint: add -test -tests to your search to help preserve your remaining sanity ;) ). But on the plus side there will be plenty of talented people coming to the fore who, until now, may have found film making to be prohibitively expensive.


Here I’m operating a simple dolly, while one of my production assistants stands by.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about what constitutes ‘professional’ equipment, and whether the latest camcorders – with which manufacturers have sought to blend the best of both worlds at a price – are ‘worth it’ or not. The debates go round in circles, and as far as I can see, it’s because what’s ‘right’ is what fits your abilities and needs on a given budget or project, whether that’s an iPhone 4 or an Arri Alexa. A friend of mine recently used a £100 Harinezumi on a high-profile promo shoot because it was right for the project, while he used a Red for the shoot before. I’m not about to argue with him or his fee. Equally, some of those I know who work in large-scale broadcast have strict limits placed on acquisition codecs, colour-sampling and resolution that may not affect others, while others work shooting sports, and could never use DSLRs for their work. I have no desire to argue with them either. I think there’s a lot I can learn from everyone.

The one thing that does annoy me is obsession with more expensive SLRs. A 7D is not as good as a 550D for video. Full stop. There is no rational argument that can support any other conclusion: it has no Magic Lantern firmware, it has precisely the same sensor and capabilities but a much lower resolution screen, weighs a ton. Unless you’re shooting in the rain with an L lens, save your money! Same goes for 5D MKii in my opinion. I’ve used them all, they all look good, but no different to the 550D in the end, plus they’re a pig to control and have an atrocious screen. Don’t think with your wallet. The 600D with Magic Lantern is now the king of EOS video, if you think otherwise, you’re reading the price tag.

For me, the most important thing is to become absorbed not just in technology, but in the overall (and sometimes overlooked) craft of film making: pre-production planning, casting, lighting, motion, composition, appropriate treatment and direction of talent, editing and pacing, balancing my own desire with the needs of the audience and the client, anaesthetising my ego for the sake of the piece, the list goes on and on. One fun way I find to do this is, just sometimes, to do it all myself! But whether working solo or in a team, I find that as I develop the ability to use more of these elements in balance, the box on the back of the glass starts to matter far less than my own imagination.