Part 3/4 of project writeup, on short dance film “Suspect Number 4”
It was 5 days till deadline day, and we had a cut which we were nearly happy with. East London Dance had arranged a meeting with an award winning international video artist called Gerry Fox to watch the rough cuts and advise on how to improve them before I locked the final picture. Gerry was really impressed with the cut we showed him, describing it as a “really powerful piece” “….a symphony of chance…”, which I was tempted to rename the whole project as. He liked the subliminal nature that I had given to some of the images and the double exposure look, which he saw as the separating of the characters as they danced.I had ended up with nearly 4 hours worth of footage from the shoot, enough for a feature presumably, but my challenge was to construct a murder mystery narrative in the space of 3 minutes. Still working with the Merce Cunningham “chance procedures” I ploughed into the edit, not fully knowing what I was about to edit….
LOST THE PLOT
Now, I can’t obviously give you the plot here other then it’s a murder mystery based on the board game Cluedo, someone dies and someone done a murder, and some dancing in between. I started by cutting together the 7 dances so I could see what I had to work with. All cut together nicely as sequences in their own right which I would come back later to finish. The challenge now was to begin piecing together a picture of the fictional event and the character’s involvement; the dances with the exception of the victim’s were meant to have taken place after the dinner party, showing them wallowing them in their implied guilt and suspicions, and hiding their weapons.
Constructing a narrative after you’ve shot everything is hard, I like to scribble things down and work out an edit on paper first, and break it down into sequences so it’s clear in my head then play around with everything on the timeline. The first cut was terrible, it was a mess of abstraction that garnered initial feedback such as “eh?”, “looks very abstract” and “is it about a self harm group?”. Back to the drawing board….
20-30 scribbly pages of notes, various flash cards, post it notes, and white board squiggles later, I was still none the wiser what the narrative should be. We shot a group dance scene in the grounds of the garden, this acted as a lynch pin for everything else, cross cutting between this and the dances as flashbacks. To tie it further together and to give it a more emotional grounding, I tried to work it around how the victim was feeling at different stages of the story through different levels of paranoia. This was coupled with several reveals designed to shock at various stages, which I moved around a lot for impact.
I wanted to create a mood of unease and heightened paranoia, so I moved onto creating visual effects and grading. Creating a double exposure look, made it look quite trippy; elongating and accentuating dance moves at key points, juddering around to fit with a moment. This was done by doubling up clips and staggering the top one slightly on the timeline, changing the opacity. The colours from the DSLR were great, I dimly lit a lot of shots which the ISO handled ok, but I wanted to give it a darker, grungier look, desaturating each person a bit and changing the tones of the image. Each character wore black with a hint of their character’s colour on them EG. Red hat for Miss Scarlett, Green hairband for Rev. Green etc., I would have liked to highlight each person’s colour more, but was near impossible because of the colours of the rooms! Miss Scarlett’s room was mostly green, Rev. Green’s room was mostly red, Mr White’s room was quite yellow! By this time, the timeline had ended up looking frantic, as were the squiggles on my 20 pieces of paper.
Music and sound design are vital in guiding and enhancing a narrative along and one of the many things that I love about filmmaking. A good score can really give a film a lift, set a mood and put ideas in your head about theme, all without you even realising it. When I edit, I like to use soundtracks to cut to, to help me form ideas about the cut, the music, the mood, the shape and the colour of the sequence that I’m editing (also I can pretend that my film has been scored by some of the great film composers!) To use as guide tracks I played around with tracks from the soundtrack to ‘The Social Network’ (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) , ‘Black Swan’ (Clint Mansell) and‘Casino Royale’ (David Arnold). I liked the abstract, electronic vine of ‘Social Network’ which leant itself to the intro quite nicely, sounds coming in and fading out, a very non descript piece. The dark, contemporary and dramatic nature of Clint Mansell’s excellent ‘Black Swan’ score which takes you through a journey really worked with what was going on in my film, and also had an unintentional dance link. The James Bond track “African Rundown” I did try to give the ending a bit of pace, but unfortunately left everyone I showed it to in stitches, because it’s a ridiculously overblown chase track that I have used a million times before, with horns that summons images of lions and tigers leaping out at you after every turn.
I enlisted my good friend Ben Revens of the excellent band Paradigm Shift to compose the music. By day he is a VFX artist, but by night he is part time rock star (of sorts), a talented keyboardist who was stupid enough to mention that he had always wanted to compose the score for a film. The finger of fate tapped him on the shoulder to lead the charge to conjure up a euphonious arrangement to accompany the histrionic visuals (this is getting very dramatic now, but it’s fine cos it fits with the drama of the piece, go with it). We talked through the tracks and the feel we were going for, really wanted something contemporary with hints of danger and melded in a lot of sounds and more abstract elements influenced by the main tracks I was working with (not the Bond track though, there aren’t any lions and tigers in this film). The aim was to begin it sparse to build up the tension in stages, as the dances progressed and the victim’s paranoia grew, with flourishes at various points to highlight dance moves and pointed actions. Whilst all done on his keyboard, Ben managed to broaden the sound out using percussion like church bells, traditional keys, strings and To insert a human element and give it a bit of backbone, the drums that underpinned it had a heartbeat rhythm to it which really worked to the dances and fit in with the victim’s growing tension.
My usual un-nuanced use of sound design generally involves a lot of loops that just go “BOOOM” very loudly… actually, used quite a few of them here as well. Don’t judge me, it’s a brilliant ‘crash metal’ loop that “BOOOM”s pretty well, it’s exciting to listen to. Alright it’s not that exciting to listen to, but it does go BOOOM” (can you go BOOOM? No, didn’t think so. Didn’t think so). Adding to the overused crash metal booms I decided a wall of sound to accompany Ben’s terrific score to heighten the tension, movements and narrative.
During the shoot, I was eager to try out my new toy the Zoom H4n audio recorder, so after each dance, we recorded foley sounds of the performers doing their dances in their rooms, just in case I would need to use it at any stage. As it happened this was the best decision I took, as it was instrumental in building up an organic wall of sound not only to highlight movements and provide a grounding, but a more unsettling feel to stages of the dances. Adding filters to parts of the foley would distort and heighten sounds to such an extent as they sounded a bit supernatural. My favourite filter on Final Cut audio filters was one called “Reverberation” which allows you to pick where the audio is placed EG. in a tunnel, an auditorium, a small room etc. to give it differing ranges of reverb. This built up nicely and soon I had an army of audio, from gasps to laughter, shuffles to stamps, footsteps to all sorts of things creaking.
His feedback was amazing, it’s always refreshing to gain feedback from people who haven’t seen anything you’ve worked on before and for them to spot things that you haven’t spotted at all. I have a real problem with brevity especially with editing, people think editing is about just cutting stuff out, when actually I see it more about joining things together, giving it shape and colour. We had a remit of a film which could stretch to 3 and a half minutes, it had to be punchy and impactful and tell a narrative and that is usually better then to have something which is overlong and has a lot of the same images in it making it less powerful. In the cut we showed Gerry, our intro was about 30 seconds long and gave a kind of overview of what was going on before the title card. The first thing he pointed out was that this basically gave a lot of what was about to come away to the audience, building the fear was part of the journey that we had to take people on. The impact of the titles coming in abruptly also felt like it was stopping the dance film aspect, halting the continual involvement of the viewer temporarily to read the title of the film which almost felt like we were introducing each character one by one “a numbers game that doesn’t quite resolve…. setting something up that doesn’t come to fruition”.
This was all valuable advice, just thinking about how the intro should be structured, cutting it down to a 10 second unsettling flavour of what was to come to ramp up certain elements. Based on these notes, I duly went back to the edit to make these changes, spending the remainder of the week (to Ben’s mortification) re cutting new versions every day, hacking it down so we ended up with close to 3 and a half minutes as possible. To his credit, Ben spent 5 days working on the score in total getting it done in a crazy timescale, and when I say days I do in fact mean evenings/mornings! The whole score sounds amazing, really dramatic, lots of textures and works well with the sound design. 11 versions after I first started, with our final version cut, with credits done, looking and sounding swanky as a panky in a hanky (technical term), I was pleased and proud of everyone’s work in getting this “Symphony of Chance” made. Now all that was left to do was get the thing screened a week later at Merce Circus….