Monday, June 30, 2008

Conversations With Other Women

Conversations With Other Women is a quite remarkable film, for two reasons. Firstly, it has one of the sharpest and best scripts for ages, superbly acted, and utterly convincing. It's a character study of two people who meet up at a wedding, and, well, I really can't say any more without giving away the plot. The whole film basically consists of just these two people, played by Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter, and it takes place in a single night. The emotional intensity they deliver is something you more normally associate with the stage, rather than the screen. However, they don't act like they're on stage; they make the events seem completely real.

The other thing that makes Conversations remarkable is that it's filmed in split screen throughout, one half focused on each of the two protagonists (mostly). It takes a little while to get used to, and I have to confess that after about 15 minutes I really wasn't sure whether I was going to sit through the rest of it. But I'm glad I did. Unlike Mike Figgis's Timecode, which is incredibly clever but unwatchable, this works really rather well. You just get used to having two viewpoints on the same scene, and effectively doing your own editing. Your eyes naturally flick between the two sides of the screen, depending on who you're interested in at any one moment. This is occasionally disorienting and disconcerting, but as a story-telling device, it's really rather effective.

Conversations is more than just a piece of technical trickery. In its way, it's as intriguing a piece of work as Memento, albeit with a focus on romance rather than action. It won't be to everyone's taste, but I'd strongly recommend that you see it and make your own mind up.

Friday, June 27, 2008

It was all a dream...

I dreamt I was about to release a movie, and then I woke up.

In a strangely self-referential approach to machinima, I decided yesterday to treat the rough cut of Cormorant Close as a pre-viz exercise, and reshoot the whole thing from scratch. I was going to have to redo so many little things that it was looking like it would be quicker to start all over again. The movie is constructed out of several scenes using the same set, so I was having to make the same changes to each copy of the set, and try and match them. (And nope, turning it into a stock set doesn't work, because of some quirks of the Moviestorm architecture.) And there's a load of other stuff like that.

I was looking forward to getting this out and moving onto Stalker, dammit!

This time, though, I should know exactly what I'm doing. I know precisely what will be on screen, so I won't be wasting effort on building gestures or set dressing that will never be shown, or framing up cameras that won't be used. I know exactly how many cameras I need in each sequence, and I have a nice little shot list and full shooting script that tells me exactly what I have to shoot. Doing it this way means it should be much easier to light each shot separately, pull some tricks with props, and get frame-level precision by doing much more of my editing in Premiere.

It also means I can use this as an interesting test case for the next version of Moviestorm. Cormorant Close is made entirely with the release version, and just one tiny mod (which doesn't need the modder's workshop), so there's nothing in there that couldn't be done by anyone else. But then I plan to reshoot it, shot for shot, with the newest version and see what difference that makes to both the shooting time and the finished film.

When I'm done, I plan to release not just the finished movie (in both versions of MS), but also the pre-vis version, the Celtx project, the screenplay, and the shooting script if anyone would be interested. And, perhaps, the original voice recordings, with all the retakes and bloopers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cormorant Close - the first trailer

OK, 26 minutes later, here it is. It's still rough and ready, but it's the first trailer for Cormorant Close.

(I really must sort out that blasted teddy bear!)


Just got the first draft of the intro music for CC through from Tash, and it's perfect. Real daytime soap fare. I'm all excited now!

If I have time before I leave work, I'll cut a quick trailer together.

How hard can it be?

I just read Movie Magic, by John Brosnan. (Now out of print.) Whenever you start to think that making movies is getting complicated, sheesh, just go and read a book on special effects. That should put everything into perspective. The lengths some people will go to to get a single shot is just awesome, particularly in the early days of film.

For Cecil B de Mille's Ten Commandments, they had a team of 80 people working for 6 months on the parting of the Red Sea. That's 40 man-years of effort for a single moment of movie magic, folks! (Not including the time it actually took to shoot, post-produce, and edit the scene.)

All of a sudden, "can I be arsed to spend an hour redoing that shot?" seems like a damn stupid question.

Friday, June 20, 2008


I started re-editing bits of Cormorant Close yesterday. There's one weak bit early in the scene which just has too much waffle. So I cut out a few lines, but now the conversation doesn't flow right. For the first time, I've hit one of the limitations of RealFilm, and it's come as quite a shock after being used to the luxury of machinima and endless reshoots. I need to re-record one line of dialogue. Just one. But David, the actor, is away for the rest of the summer, so I'm stuck with what I've got.

I can rebuild and reshoot every other damn thing in the movie: I've already replaced the original characters, redesigned the set, reblocked the whole scene (twice), added in whole new shots and tried several different edit patterns to give different emphasis to the scene. I've switched lines around, I've cut lines, and I've experimented with various different takes of each line. But the one thing I absolutely cannot do is change "I grabbed a pie and chips on the way home" to "I have." It's a tiny change, but the new line neatly segues into the next sequence and hides the fact that there's about half minute of dialogue missing. (Incidentally, the original dialogue worked fine when we did the piece in the style of a stage play, and when we did it as a radio play, just doesn't work on film. It's too much of a digression, and we need to get to the meat of the scene quicker.)

Hmm. Some creative editing will be needed.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Woo! Music!

The first draft of the music for Cormorant Close arrived last night. It's certainly got a lot of promise. We're getting together tomorrow afternoon to go through and really hammer the sound and music design into shape.

And the crew is growing, little by little: Tash dragged in a friend of hers, James, to play some guitar. It's all good - the more skills we can bring in, the better, as long as we keep things moving and don't get bogged down in too many ideas, endless discussions, and logistical nightmares.

Somehow I need to find the time to reshoot a few bits, work around some of the glitches, and tighten up the first cut of the editing. And, ideally, relight the whole scene. Oh, and, of course, redo the credits and add more people in... Not sure when I'm going to fit that in, though, as the next week or so is seriously hectic.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Credits and titles

I finally got the movie shot and edited at about lunchtime, then started putting on the credits and title sequences. For some reason, these seemed to take far longer second for second than the actual movie.

But anyway, it's done, and on its way to the composer.

Fingers crossed for a release in a week or so!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cormorant Closer

Cormorant Close is finally getting there. The main sequence is done, and I have a rough edit. I just have to make a few insert shots, and the roughs of the two credits sequences, and then it'll be ready to go over to Tash for music & sound tomorrow.

John and Louise hear the shocking news about Kevin and Amy
Cormorant Close, starring Kiran Gill as Louise, and David Brown as John

While she's doing that, I can mess with the final lighting, put the rest of the set dressing on, make final costume decisions, and so on, and I aim to have the final edit ready next week.

Meanwhile, it's time to think about casting Stalker, and set up the recording for that before everyone disappears for their summer holidays.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Looking for machinima documentaries

I'm giving a talk at the Serious Games Conference in Cambridge in a couple of weeks' time. One of my co-presenters asked me the following question. Can anyone help?
Do you know of any machinima-based instructional vids (i.e. with a machinima presenter instructing you on how to cook/drive/whatever)? Or any machinima scientific visualisation (inside the aorta, car engine, planets etc)?
Any suggestions, anyone?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

End of day one. Behind schedule already.

Today I managed to get all the dialogue in, the entire movie blocked out, and the camerawork and detailed choreography for the first half sorted. Then I got distracted by roasting a chicken and watching the Canadian GP, so I didn't get round to finishing the choreography and camerawork, let alone putting together a rough edit, credits or titles. MaƱana.

I also got distracted by watching Pathfinder, which was a big mistake, cos it was utter dross. Imagine a mish-mash of Apocalypto, Rambo, The Thirteenth Warrior, Black Robe, and Conan The Barbarian, shot by a music video director who wishes he was Ridley Scott. It's solid action, with an interesting premise (Vikings vs Native Americans), and yet it completely failed to engage me on any level. OK, the sound engineering was damn good. But that wasn't a good enough reason to get all the way through it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Audio joy

Last night's dialogue recording on Cormorant Close went really well, with none of the audio problems I had feared. We started with several takes with all the cast speaking into a single mic, as if it was a radio play. This worked really well to get the dynamics of the scene and the rhythms of the individual lines into context, and helped the actors work together effectively. Over the course of the evening, we changed the interpretation several times, and ended up with something much more edgy, and with more implied dark undertones.

As the evening went on, the actors also learnt to give each other a little space at the end of each line, so as to make it easier for me to pick out the individual bits later. (They also learned to stop moving their heads around so much, which kept the levels constant!) We then did a few pickups of individual lines with one actor at the mic, to catch those few lines where they did run together, but not as many as I'd expected.

Of course, the great advantage of recording this way is that the ambience, tone, and mic sound is identical for everyone: I don't suffer from one person sounding a bit tinnier, or having a different reverb, which is pretty well inevitable when you record over the Net or in several different sessions in different places with different kit.

Today's job is to go through everything I recorded, catalogue the lines into individual files, and pick out the best takes of each one. I'm hoping that's going to be relatively easy - there's one great take of the first half, and one great take of the second half, so I'll use the lines from those takes as far as possible, and then hunt down the pickups for the rest.

Using real actors instead of recording all the lines myself is an absolute pleasure. Working on a film becomes a totally different experience. Hearing my script come to life is fun, especially when the cast deliver an interpretation I wasn't expecting. Even if I don't go with their way of saying the line, it forces me to think about other ways of seeing the scene. (I'll blog later about some more aspects of voice recording and how to get the performance you want. Then Ricky can tell me why I'm doing it all wrong.) It's also left me re-thinking about how to shoot some bits; during the session, everyone came up with a lot of ideas about the characters and how we should view them, and I'm now considering how to bring those out in the camerawork and choreography.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Audio woes

Despite Julian's best efforts, we couldn't get the sound recording set up the way we wanted for tomorrow night's session. Let me share a few painful lessons with you.

Samson C01U USB microphones are great for recording podcasts, or when there's just one of you. Really nice. But trying to connect two of them at the same time, so you can record two people having a conversation onto separate vocal tracks, is a total bitch. Don't do it. At least not under XP. (And don't even think about it with Vista or Linux. You may have more luck with a Mac.)

For a start, the audio recording software has to be able to cope with two inputs. Audacity can't, so we install an old version of Sonar LE, which came with the mics. (Sonar 4 - the current version is Sonar 7.) I'm not a big fan of Sonar, but hey, you go with what you have, right? Well, it takes Julian about an hour of frigging around before he gets both mics to input simultaneously. At all. But even when we have both inputs, one mic is really loud, and one is really quiet. Actually, that's not quite true. One appears quite loud, but when we record it and play it back, it's also really quiet. That's partly an issue with using USB mics, they just don't have the power going through them.

So we install the Samson SoftPre pre-amp software to boost the mics a bit. This comes with a somewhat ambiguous warning that basically means it doesn't work under XP if you have two mics connected at the same time; it can only cope with one mic. (In my experience, I couldn't even make it work right with one mic, but we had to try.) However, with even more frigging around in the bowels of Windows drivers, SoftPre and Sonar, Julian eventually persuades both mics to input at a reasonable level. His audio ninja skills are strong.

So now we have a stereo stream coming off each mic. This isn't what we want for voice recording, we want two mono streams. More messing about, but eventually, we get there. At this point we discover something interesting. The mic input is completely different depending on what USB socket it's plugged into. Plug it into the top back one, and it's detected as a "Samson mic". In the lower back, it's an "Unknown mic". And in either of the two sides, it's a "Samson C01U". And the input volume is different on each port. Aargh!

Now we only have one problem left. The mics have too much range, so my mic is picking up Johnnie in the background, and his is picking up my voice. We try gating the recording, but that doesn't work. So we try gating the input, and that doesn't work either. It just clips things off. Basically, the C01U is a condenser mic, and that's just the way it works. We'd need to build isolation booths.

Finally, after his third cup of tea, Julian delivers his professional opinion.
  • Buy different mics, not condensers and not USB.
  • Get some different audio software, not an old version of Sonar.
  • Don't try recording on a laptop.
  • And don't expect decent audio quality if you're recording in the dining room.
And with that, he gives up and goes home. But that's what sound recordists are for. They know this stuff. I don't feel so bad that I couldn't make it work.

Oh well, I'll have to see what I can set up later in the summer. For now, I'm going to fall back on the tried (and mostly trusted) system of using Audacity and a single C01U mic, hope I don't get too many bits with two people speaking at once, and re-record individual lines when I do.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Don't stop me now!

All my actors have accepted their roles in Cormorant Close, and my first choice composer is on board too, so I can't back out now. The final draft script went out at the weekend, and the voice recording session is booked for Friday.

Meanwhile, Julian, one of the Moviestorm programmers, has revealed that in addition to moonlighting as a lighting engineer, he knows his way round a sound deck too, so I have an audio engineer to set everything up and press buttons, leaving me to concentrate on getting the performances I'm after. It almost feels like we're doing this job properly!

All being well, the rough cut will go to the composer next Sunday, and I can then start casting the next one, Stalker. I finished the script for that last weekend, but I'm waiting to hear the next two batches of actors before casting it.

And in the meantime, I'm waiting with bated breath for Overman's new movie, which is due out shortly. He's promised me a sneak preview in the next day or so.