Judge A Book By Its Cover

When I was living in London, I used to catch the Tube to work. Everyone did, and often I’d bump into my work colleagues either on the train or as we got off at the station and walked to the office together. There was an editor who worked in our office for a few months and I remember once he came up to me as I was eating my lunch and started chatting. I was a bit perplexed as to why – we rarely spoke during work as he was hidden away in his edit suite and we’d exchanged polite small talk on the way in from the station that morning.

After a little awkward small talk, he segued into the real purpose of the conversation.

“So when I’m on the Tube, I play this game,” he says. “I look at people’s shoes and I try to figure out what their personality traits are from their shoes.” Bit of an interesting conversation topic, right? But I was kind of intrigued by this – as I do like making up people’s life stories as I watch them walking past or wonder where they’re going when they’re on the train.

“This morning, I was looking at this pair of shoes,” says he. “And I looked up and realised they were yours.”

“Oh really?” says I, even more interested now. “What did you figure out about me from my shoes?”

But he just shook his head mutely and drifted back into his edit suite.

London

To this day, I have no idea what he ‘surmised’ about me from my shoes. I figure his judgements were wrong or wildly off the mark as he was too afraid to tell me and I’m guessing the fact that he admitted the game to me was his way of some sort of an apology. I think about the shoes that I was wearing and I can perhaps guess what the outsider might judge about my appearance, but it does make me think about how you can build your characters in your story.

How do they dress? As my old workmate showed, how your character dresses immediately tells us things about them. Are they dressed in Armani? Are they dressed in worn out clothes? Are they dressed provocatively? Are they dressed for the gym? Do they take pride in their appearance? Or do they not really care? Everything is important, from the accessories in their hair to the socks they wear. Honestly. Have you ever heard the story that businessmen often wear brightly coloured socks as it’s the only thing that is rarely seen to the public? It’s true – I used to look for the different kinds of socks when I was on the train. I think my favourite pair was a Star Wars pair that were bright red sporting Han Solo and Princess Leia.

Is how they dress a true reflection of the character? Someone may dress incredibly conservatively, but be a real wild child. A sloppy businessman could actually be a CEO of a company. In the same way that the editor’s judgments on me were (possibly) wrong, what are some ways that you can create a conflicting audience view of your character through the way they portray themselves?

How do they act? What will your audience gather from how your character acts? Are they blunt? Rude? Friendly? Warm? Generous? Stressed? Are they predictable or do they make you play a guessing game with what they’re really thinking?

And, to be honest, one of the best things you can do to help you build characters in your story is to play this game with real people. Sit in a busy place and watch people come and go. Focus on someone and see what the way they dress tells you about them. About where they’re going. What does jeans and a t-shirt say that a business suit doesn’t? Are they wearing a big winter jacket in the sunshine? What about shorts and a singlet in the rain?

The snap judgments you make on other people will be similar to the judgments your audience will make on your character. So check that the signs you’re selling to your audience are the ones that you want your audience to be aware of.

Check out my script-reading services if you want a second opinion on where to take your script next!

In The Cinema: Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Fabergé: A Life of its Own

February 2011, I was living in London and I’d fallen into a job working at a documentary production company called Mark Stewart ProductionsI’m still of the opinion that it was one of those divine intervention moments – I sent off my CV to the company on Tuesday, got an interview on the Wednesday, had a second interview on Thursday and was offered the job on Friday. MSP had done a lot of varying projects – many F1 themed – and so I started work as their office administrator and slowly began to familiarise myself with the way the world works when you’re working in a boutique production company. The main thing I noticed was that the slate of films is particularly diverse but incredibly fascinating – each project an insight into a world I had previously known nothing about.

One of these was a long running project about Fabergé. It had been in production for a few months when I started – the first week I was there coincided with the first week of shooting in Russia. I think one of the first things I had to do that directly related to the project was transcribing the interviews. Transcription is a job some people hate, but I actually really enjoy it. What it did allow me to do was to start to get a picture of the world the documentary was traversing – and I did begin to become enticed into this world of jewels and death, wealth and poverty.

I’d been working at MSP for a few months when the main director there, Patrick Mark, discovered that I had skills in production. I hinted at the fact that if he ever wanted a hand on set, I would be more than happy to oblige. It wasn’t long before I was being taken on nearly every shoot with him on several projects that were running concurrently at the time. But Fabergé was Patrick’s big project and it stretched itself comfortably out over the entire eighteen months I worked there. I went on a trip to Russia to explore secrets in Smolensk, Moscow and St Petersburg. I got to see up close these amazing, astonishing pieces that had been created over 100 years beforehand. I spent time in Sotheby’s, I met people with impossible amounts of knowledge about Russian history and jewellery. I also got to model one of the pieces which is featured in the documentary itself!

That's me wearing Fabergé!

That’s me wearing Fabergé!

I left after eighteen months working there because my visa ran out and I had to leave the UK to return to Australia. But even when I was back in Australia, Patrick asked me to review cuts of the film for feedback, to make sure the story was working, that it all made sense. It seemed that, for awhile, the film would be in a kind of perpetual production!

That is, until earlier this year when I found out that the documentary had been picked up by Arts Alliance for a limited theatrical release. There was no confirmed date as yet, but I was assured it would be a global release. I just missed the UK release by a matter of hours – I was on a plane on my way back to Melbourne when it was initially released. However, lucky for me, the Australian release was delayed until last weekend.

It’s hard to describe what it was like watching the film in the cinema. It was a full house, so that in itself was pretty amazing. I wasn’t hugely nervous as I wasn’t the writer or director of the film – but I really wanted it to be well received. The film has a special place in my heart and I just knew that all the shots covering the detail of the pieces would look astounding on the big screen.

And they did.

But the thing I noticed the most was the audience reaction. The film has a really strong emotional thread running through it and the audience responded really strongly to the story – there was laughter, there was shock, awe; even involuntary gasps of surprise. It reminded me that it doesn’t matter what story you’re telling, your audience is key. And the best way to get your audience in is with a strong hook and an emotional line that arcs and changes with your story and with your characters.

There are still some screenings of the film around the world, so check out cinema times and dates here!

AP

Breaking In The New Year

It’s the last day on January 2013. I know, where did the last four weeks go, am I right? There’s been loads of new years blogs, talking about resolutions and what you should aim to achieve this year – they go around like wildfires in the first two weeks of January. And now, on January 31st, 2013, let me ask you. How are your resolutions going?

 I never make resolutions. I never really needed to. I’m not the sort of person who loves having a clean slate for a new year. I understand people who do – it’s a great kicking off point, a point in time defined by society that everyone knows about. It certainly is a fantastic time to decide what you want to do over the next twelve months. But I think that if you want to do something, start immediately. If you want to write, write. You want to learn a language? Do it now. Don’t wait. Start exercising? Eat better? Why wait until the end of the month? Start right this second. That’s how I look at things, anyway.

 I know a lot of people aren’t like that. And that’s okay. I have a lot of respect for people who do make resolutions and even more for the people who manage to stick to them. I think it’s awesome to have a goal, a deadline, a drive to achieve something. What I get a little concerned about is when people aren’t realistic about their goals. At the beginning of a year, anything is possible. That doesn’t mean that you should expect yourself to achieve everything.

 ‘I’ll finish that script, start writing those other two, plus three short films and get one of them produced and maybe toss around ideas for a TV show.’

That sounds awesome. But it’s not a realistic goal, really. Maybe if you were writing full time and had no engagements anywhere else. If you have got enough drive to achieve that much, by all means, go for it! That’s awesome. But for the rest of us, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. And when you get to the end of the year and you’ve only finished that script and written two shorts, you might see that as a negative thing. That’s a brilliant thing! That is a fantastic effort and something you should absolutely be proud of.

The other thing I don’t like so much about resolutions is that you lose a bit of flexibility if you stuck to them 100%. If you want to finish your script before you do anything else, what opportunities are you closing yourself off to in the meantime? Life can throw anything at you – don’t shut them out because you think you should do something else in the meantime. If you’re substituting one project for another – excepting commissions and/or other work you’re being gloriously paid to do – ride it out. Go with it. You never know where it might take you.

This is my suggestion for an End of January Resolution. Keep it broad. Keep it simple. The only resolution that I would make this year would be ‘WRITE’. It doesn’t matter how much or how little. As long as I keep writing, that’s the key.

So what’s your End of January resolution for the rest of the year? Make it a verb. Choose something that will make you happy. Then go for it.

When All Else Fails

I thought it was time for an update on With A Little Help From Our Friends and how it’s going in post production. I’ve had a couple of people ask me about it, so thought I’d give you guys some updates on where we’re at.

The cut is picture locked. This means that there will be no more edits to…well…the pictures. It was a bit long so I, with a slightly heavy heart, cut a few sections and the running time is down to around six minutes, which I think is a good length for a comedy short film. The sound is locked too, I just need to track down some credit music to run over the end of the film. I’ve been trying to hunt out a colour grader for the past few months and, after a couple have fallen through, I’m going to try to do a basic colour grade myself. If anyone knows anyone else who might be interested in helping out, any suggestions would be much appreciated!

It is tough going when you don’t have much incentive for people other than a great project and showreel material. It’s even tougher when you have to rely on other people to get your film finished and they don’t come through so that things drag for months and months. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast in some ways when you’re working with friends of friends on a favour.

So, when all else fails, it’s good to have the skills to do the job yourself.

I’m not suggesting that you become an expert in every single aspect of filmmaking. But I’ve found that a small amount of knowledge of the other areas of the job really helps for cohesion when you’re working together. I’ve worked in lighting departments before, so I know the simple things like don’t ever touch the lights. EVER. I’ve had great DOPs who were willing to teach me little bits and pieces about white balancing and focus pulling. I’ve cut several projects before so I know that sometimes the best way to get things done is to give your editor an idea and a deadline and let them work themselves.

That’s not to say if my DOP pulled out, I’d immediately step behind the camera. Not at all. But if his camera assistant was still there and wanted to have a shot, I’d be happy to let them try and work closely with them to make sure they were across everything (which they usually are. Camera assistants generally rock).

So, with slight trepidation, I’m going to attempt to do a basic grade on the film this week to get it properly locked before going on to hunt out music.

Wish me luck!

(Seriously though, if you know someone who might be interested in helping out, I’d love to have a chat.)

The Filmmaking Olympiad

In case you guys hadn’t already noticed, the Olympics have just started in London.

It’s sports, right? It’s not about creativity, it’s about muscle and precision. It’s a collection of events – some so obscure that people would never usually watch – but it comes around once every four years and everyone gets obsessed with it. So what can someone who is creative and not athletic learn from it?

Loads.

Seriously.

People from all over the world are swept up in patriotic pride and barrack their hearts out for athletes who they’ve probably never heard about before who represent their country. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re watching – swimming, gymnastics, canoe slalom – if you see the flag of your country, you’re supporting them in that event. Without question. In other words, they become your protagonist.

The antagonist is their biggest threat stopping them from getting the gold. This could be the athlete from a country you don’t like. This could be the athlete that’s the favourite to win it and maybe your protagonist is the underdog. This could be the athlete that’s been qualifying a millisecond before or after your athlete. They’re equals and the antagonist could definitely come and beat your protagonist if they don’t keep fighting until the end.

The anticipation of the beginning of the Olympics also gets people excited. They know when it’s going to happen – every four years. They know they’ll be in for a good show, regardless of how it ends for their country medals-wise. It gives them something to talk to other people about and makes people get up at 5.30am to watch the Opening Ceremony (myself included). Because the audience knows what is going on (i.e. marketing and advertising) plus when and who to get excited for, it’s easy to get invested in. Make sure your audience knows when to get excited for your film. Make sure you’re telling people about it so they’re aware of it. Give them something to invest in.

The biggest factor a filmmaker can take out of the Olympics is this – the Unknown factor.

The most exciting events to watch are the ones where you don’t know who is going to win.

Whether it’s waiting for the score and hoping against all hope that it’s higher than the highest ranking athlete or watching a race that’s neck and neck and urging for your team to dig a little deeper to get across the line first – they’re the moments that go down in Olympics history and are the most thrilling. When a swimmer or boat is two boat lengths in front, that’s not interesting to watch. More often, the focus then shifts to the competition for second and third places. When the stakes are so high and it’s going to take a whole lot of effort to get what they want. When you don’t know what’s going to happen.

That’s what you have to do with your film.

Give the audience a protagonist they can trust, support and get behind. Give them an antagonist who is a real threat in terms of stopping them from what they want to get. Set up the stakes so the audience understands exactly what the protagonist has got to lose. And make sure that the audience can’t see what’s coming a mile away.

Keep it tense. Keep it exciting. Keep it breathless.

Watch a few events and take note of how you react. How do you feel about events where an athlete wins by a mile? How do you feel about events where it’s close? When it’s close, it’s exciting. That’s how you want your audience to feel over the course of your film.

So make them feel it.