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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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