Short Film: Picturebook Romance

How to disappear a man into a book after he falls in love with drawings he made as a teenager. These are the challenges that befell us in as we made a very short film in the most challenging of spaces. 

This year we finally entered the Virgin Media Shorts competition after many years of thinking about maybe possibly doing it. The rules are simple- a film that is 2 mins and 20 secs including credits. After much procrastination and bouncing of various ideas around, my erstwhile co-writer Sam and I came up with a vague idea that stuck along our usual recurring theme of escape. A man, clearing out his attic and desperate to get out of a dinner party finds his drawings of a girl in an old picturebook, who he promptly falls in love with and ends up in the book. Finishing the script in an unusually quick amount of time, I began storyboarding on my iPad. I traditionally use the app Paper for storyboarding, but I thought I’d give the Moleskin app a try. It’s really nice, I like the simple black and white tools and the texture of them when used, however it’s painfully and frustratingly slow on my iPad 3, it hasn’t got enough hamster power to keep up.

Old things are kept in boxes and boxes are kept in an attic, and I found the former, surprisingly easily, at my office (thank you DoTank). The latter however was not the easiest location to source, attic’s are strange shapes and sizes with sloping ceilings, unstable flooring and hard to actually get human beings up to let alone any kind of equipment. Before briefly considering a shed (sloping wooden roofs?) I found an attic conversion room in a friend’s house (thank you Paul) and what a room it was. Up a rickety old ladder (with steps missing, of course) with a sheer vertical drop and a 5 min body twiddle to actually get from the top rung to standing upright, greeted with a veritable war zone left temporarily abandoned by the temporary lodger for reasons not yet explained. An old cup of coffee which had hardened with it’s own ecosystem inside, fag ends, beer bottles, a broken chest of drawers, 2 (unplugged) tv’s, various exciting pairs of shoes, masks (?!) and the less I speak of what was under the ‘bed’ (2 mouldy mattresses), the better. With the funny smells and the only form of ventilation coming in the shape of a skylight window which was half broken, we had one humdinger of a location to spend our day shooting in.

We were shooting on a bank holiday (which is whole purpose of Bank Holidays), arriving the day before to set everything up, Sam and I somehow managed to get boxes, props, cameras and lights up the ladder of doom to replace the war zone clutter with more war zone clutter. Our boxes precariously held together by a smattering of brown tape, set next to rugs, clothes, and more boxes. New toys for this shoot included the Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G lens, another lovely piece of glass by Nikon, to make the most of capturing the small space, which it did brilliantly. We tried pre lighting the space with a couple of Arri’s but they flooded the room too much, our Dedo’s and china ball however were perfect, we bounced them off various things to make it look like the room was lit with tiny light sources like the lamp in shot at the back of the room (swapping a 60w bulb for a 40w as it was too bright).

To do some actoring in front of the lens I had the excellent and massively funny Roisin to play Helen, who I’d worked with before on Rule of 3 comedy sketches and I know had a good line in nagging girlfriends (and also many many other things!), to play Hugh she suggested Simon (think, George Mason from early 24) who does a good line in booming Shakespearian voices. With Sam A/Cing, Gaffering and generally having the best haircut on set, I roped in fellow filmmaker Vicky to do the sound and keep time and we were set, mainly because any more people up there and we would run out of air.

To add to the excitement of sharing a very small room, and the limited air in it between 5 people and a bunch of fairly hot lights, our location was handily located under a flight path, and the path of a noisy ice cream truck, in the vicinity of some noisy people downstairs chuntering away. With all these exciting challenges I would fire the guy responsible for finding the location, but that would be rather unproductive and ungentlemanly (it would also be me so let’s move on). So we powered forward, ever forward in the quest for art, scene after scene of powerful prose energetically emoted; Roisin finding new and beguiling ways of shouting “Hugh”, Simon finding exciting ways of waving at a blank page of a book….. (just trying to inject some poetry into this account, we all know what a set is like, tiring, hot, and repetitive).

Retiring from the attic before we all turned on each other like Lord of the Flies (and because we had used all of the allocated air supply) we set about shooting the animations in the book. Roisin was also playing the part of Julie (with the aid of different wigs and costumes), Hugh’s girl that he drew in his book when he was a young’un. Julie represents everything about Hugh that he wants to hark back to and wants to join her. Due to basic maths we worked out that had Hugh have drawn in his picturebook in his teens that would have placed him in the early to mid 1990’s, which we referenced in subtle ways culturally as he reminisced in middle age. Band posters and tshirts probably would have a nightmare with copyright, so Simon, finding a 90’s early Britpop fisherman’s hat, with some of the pictures he ‘drew’ referencing films of the era like Robin Hood (Prince of Thieves, 1991, class film, best Sheriff of Nottingham). Ro and Simon were shot on a white screen background so that Ben our VFX guru could key them out later and plonk them in the book (I can hear Ben’s teeth grinding for referring to his complex work as ‘plonking’).

Wrap time: 8/9pm (within margin of Daniel error)
Wrap photos: Just the 1
Half Time Food: Pasta (obviously)
Cast or Crew Injuries/Deaths: 0 (not counting anything ‘living’ in the mouldy coffee cup or shoe box injuries)
People running in a DDM film: 0 (I have no explanation for this, if the Attic was bigger, I definitely would have made them run somewhere)

As a general rule of thumb 1 page of script = 1 min of screen time, and I’m pretty sure we stuck to this rule, which why I was perplexed as to why the first cut of the film turned out nearly 5 mins of screen time for a film that had to be a little over 2 mins! I hate badly paced films, especially in comedy it’s so detrimental, but I’m all for working within limits to produce something more focussed; so like George Osbourne on budget day, I cut cut cut with very little to show for it, amassing a 2 - 15 measly earth seconds (which is actually quite a lot) every time. Shot, lines, necessary and carefully planned pauses all faced the axe, getting it down to the bare minimum whilst retaining maximum feeling.

The ‘drawings’ in the book were all composites of backgrounds and photos, rendered like pencil drawings, and ditching a plan to print the drawings onto the books at a later date and reshoot the footage, Ben managed to attach all the still ‘drawings’ to the blank page footage. The animated footage was rendered the same way and tracked to the page movements, even given a little animation on the tissue tug (this’ll make sense once you watch it).

For the music I turned to my talented composer Patrick, who devised an impish, characterful score to go with the film. We had plucked strings to mirror footsteps, acoustic guitars to give it a laid back vibe and sound effects from the some of the foley we recorded to give it some extra quirkiness, with a dreamlike state when he opened the book to reminisce. As usual it was a fight to the finish, and battling illness, equipment problems and deadlines new voice over was recorded with my dedicated team staying up to finish off their respective parts, Ben dropping off at 1am, Patrick at 2am and me at 5pm eventually managing to upload to the VMS website after being given an error message.

I’m pleased with the final film, the time limit led to stronger parts and a more choppy narrative, it’s similar to a larger story that Sam and I have that we hope we can use as a springboard. Massive thanks to dedicated cast and crew for making it happen, you can watch the final film here on the Virgin Media Shorts Website OR just right here. *points below

Roisin Rae - Actress . Simon Cole - Actor . Sam Holtmon . Ben Revens - VFX . Patrick Moore - Composer . Vicky Howell - Systir Productions

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