Category Archives: Film making

Recording Lite

Ignorance of the past condemns us to repeat its mishtakes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reproduce the mistakes you created before with entirely new circumshtances.

Take basketball, for instance. Basketball was the first serious thing we went out to film when I set up West Herts Television (aka. Parallel Pictures). Okay, it was the first serious thing we filmed after I’d made a highlights video showing clips of all the marvellous programmes we’d supposedly already made. That was shot over a weekend and edited at the BBC’s training facilities at Elstree. That was quality. No mishtake. Ahem.

Anyway, basketball. Hemel and Watford Royals Basketball team played in the national league, the Budweiser League, in a supporting role. A propping-up role, in fact, as they were usually near the bottom. Despite that, they had several big advantages as an event to film. One, they played indoors in a floodlit arena, so weather was never an issue in recording. Two, no one else filmed basketball at the time, so they liked the idea of being on TV.

Most importantly, however, the Hemel and Watford Royals were owned by the kindly Vincent Macaulay-Razaq and his partner, Christine Thompson. And they just happened to run a film company, Fine Cut Films, in London. Which meant they had equipment. Which was good. Because we only had one camera. And no recorder.

Actually, we also had no vision mixer (aka. switcher in American parlance), no sound desk, no mic’s, monitors or talkback either. But I persuaded the (largely ignorant) cable company that a switcher and monitors were essential for transmission, so they hired them in and we set up on a ricketty table with Vince’s U-matic recorder plus their camera (for wide shots) on the bleachers.

Ahh, those were the days. Those were the days when it didn’t matter about comms–I could flick the long cable connecting a camera to the switcher up at the cameraman to get his attention. It didn’t matter that the recorder didn’t work perfectly or that one camera had slightly green pictures. We’d figure it out. It probably did matter that I didn’t know the difference between “mic level” and “line level” (I do now!) but I didn’t know what I didn’t know back then.

I’m not sure who our commentator for that first game was, but they too turned out not to matter. Because, after 90 minutes of fighting with jammed tapes and stuck buttons, we eventually recorded just 16 minutes of the last quarter. With no sound. What can you do with a tape with no sound? Cunningly, I played the whole thing out on the local channel with a title card saying “Basketball Highlights” and graphics occasionally coming up saying “We apologise for the loss of sound. Our engineers are working on the problem.” Nice. Ah, those were the days.


After several weeks, we did eventually get it together and recorded complete games, with commentary, interviews and even four cameras (two handheld) recording. We graduated from zero comms to headsets made by Radio Shack (Tandy in the UK)–“Cab seventeen? Pick up in Bennetts End… Bzzt!”–then away from the taxi wavebands and up to professional talkback. We even had titles, credits and incredibly cool music thanks to the talents of Jon Tuck and Andy Trussler. We made highlights tapes at the end of the season and people bought them.

I’ll tell you, after two years, we were slick. So it was a bit gutting when SkyTV decided to buy the “rights” to Budweiser League Basketball. Even more gutting when they only showed two of the Royals home games each year.

I phoned up the Head of Sport at Sky and laid it on the line. “It’s like this. We carry your games on the cable network. You have four channels of sport and you get paid regardless. We’re not competing. Can we show the Royals games you’re not filming? We’ll put them on at a different time, so there won’t be any conflict.” “Let me think about it.” He thought about it for two weeks and then decided. No. “It would take away from our ‘exclusive coverage’ deal.” “But you’re not actually covering these games. No one is.” “Sorry. That’s how it is.”

And that’s how it was. Scumbag Sky. So we filmed Rugby instead. Rugby League and Rugby Union. One less camera, but they gave us free beer and sometimes lunch. We loved them. We also filmed St Albans City Football, who weren’t as forthcoming with the refreshments, but let us put up a huge tower and enlisted the inimitable Tim Hobbs, a local journalist, as commentator. “Looks like the referee’s had a few haircuts too many. Let me tell you about the party I went to last week… Go on, you blues!” And so on.

Events coverage. Sports coverage. We had it covered. One year, we even tried to cover hockey. That’s field hockey to those of you reading here in ‘Mericuh. It’s a fast moving sport with a very small puck. St Albans Hockey Club asked if we were interested and I asked for the usual things from St Albans Hockey Club. “We’ll need a scaffold tower for the cameras and two commentators. And if there’s any chance of a bite to eat, that would be nice.”

It all seemed ideal. The cable company’s local marketing coordinator, Catherine Steele-Child, even procured us the use of their marketing caravan as a control room. This was luxury a cut above sitting at the back of a boiler room in the rugby club, or in the outdoor hut which served as their gym. A caravan! With a generator, no less. We had arrived.

Saturday came and we did, indeed, arrive. After a night of constant rain, I was driving a large-horse-power pick-up truck at a top speed of ten miles per hour. This was as fast as it would go because Catherine’s caravan turned out to be made of extremely heavy steel. It certainly wasn’t going to blow away as the wind and drizzle picked up again. Actually, it wasn’t even going to make it to the hockey pitch. As I slowly towed it across the croquet lawn at Clarence Park, it dug ruts–deep ruts, about six inches down. Then it stuck.

Half an hour of pushing, shoving and heaving this nightmare, we eventually got it out of the park’s unexpected new obstacle course and around to the side of the hockey pitch. Time was short now and we were sweating like pigs but the cameras were already set up. All we had to do was fire up the generator. I pressed the button. Nothing. Mickey pressed the button. Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing.

Eventually, after everyone had pressed the button (nothing), I decided to record separate tapes on the back of each camera and edit them afterwards with the commentary. No problemo. No. Problemo. Except hockey. Ah, yes. Hockey. Fast moving. Small puck. In fact, a puck which is invisible in a two inch viewfinder. We missed all four goals because the cameras were looking the other way. It was, as they say in the trade, an unmitigated disaster (although, naturally, I still put it on the air).

Next week, I received a rather brief letter from the chairman of the hockey club, stating that they’d rather we didn’t come back to cover the other three games we’d agreed. I wrote back expressing my regret that the “experiment” had been unsuccessful and hoping we could still report their results. No one mentioned the croquet lawn. Ever.


Now, here I am, more than a decade later, in a different country with plenty of experience under my belt and, on Sunday, I’m out filming Candide with two cameras for the Michigan Theater. I have fully charged batteries (so I think) and a sound feed to a separate minidisc recorder from the main desk. It’s too easy, isn’t it? Of course it is.

Laura’s never used the minidisc recorder before and, in my brief explanation (was it a whole sixty seconds?), I neglect to mention that she needs to press another button after pressing “Record”. The record indicator duly flashes when she presses it and I’m up on the balcony fighting a tripod with no fluid head, so I don’t see that the disc isn’t actually going around. We have four seconds of sound from the brief sound check I did when we set up.

Worse is to come. I’ve clamped a small camera on a balcony behind me for a wideshot while I operate the close up camera on the (non-fluid head) tripod. Naturally, the locked off, unmanned camera has a battery failure. I manage to get 45 minutes on that tape, although all of the audio (often distorted) and all of the pictures are on the close up camera, albeit often jerkily (did I mention there was no fluid head?).

And so it comes to this, dear readers. I’ve done it again. No clean audio. After more than a decade, I’ve made the same mistake twice. Haven’t I? Really? Um, well, actually, no. I haven’t. It wasn’t line level/mic level. It was that I hadn’t briefed my crew. And, the day is saved because the Michigan also had a CD recording made of the entire show for each performance, so there is a great soundtrack and I was relying on it.

If anything, I learn to arrive early enough to have some kind of technical rehearsal but that’s the future. We saw the performance right through on Friday, so I knew pretty much what was going to happen when, which meant the close-ups were anticipated and I got them. The wide angle camera pictures aren’t as good as I’d like (I had everything set on “auto” for that and it only worked so well). Really, I really needed one more crew member. But still. Quality. No mishtake.

Keeping It Reel

Nothing beats a great reel. And this, my friends, is a production company with a great reel.

I’ve been busy and hence putting off getting a showreel together. But we went to a Chamber of Commerce networking meeting this morning and as I’m handing out business cards, I’m thinking to myself (not for the first time) that not only do I neeeeeed a reel, but I really ought to overhaul the Ascalon Films website.

It could happen. It will.

Meanwhile, for more cool stuff, go to Ridley Scott Associates site and check out the directors’ reels there. One caveat: it *will* resize your browser. I hate that. But it’s worth it.

Critic’s Choice

I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy in my entire life. We’re just back from the East Lansing Film Festival where we discovered The Car had gotten a great write up in the local paper and was selected as “Critic’s Pick”. That’s almost like another award, I’m thinking. To say the least, I was completely blown away.

I can’t find the laurels to make cool award-style graphics with but I can say it was a great weekend and adds up to two film festivals in one week (one of which–Ann Arbor–I wasn’t in, but hey). And coming up fast is Cinema Slam tomorrow night, which seems to be gathering momentum and getting increasingly popular.

Today’s been spent shooting a commercial for John’s sister and doing a recce for Artrain USA while Laura’s been hard at work with more painting at the new house, plus graphic design for tomorrow’s slam and the Ann Arbor Women in Computing group. Oh, and she’s helped me with some subtle redesign of the Ascalon Films logo in preparation for getting some crew T-shirts made.

Cinema Slam looks like it’s going to be really popular tomorrow. I met one of the filmmakers up in East Lansing and he’s bringing a whole group of people with him.

Among other great movies, we also have a very cool film titled Death Star Repairmen which I found on the internet and contacted the filmmaker to ask if we could include it. Nice guy named Darryl from Canada. He said, “Yes!”. For those of you miles away, I’ll post a link on the site after the event. Oh, and we got Bananaman which was made by a student at the U of M. The guy who made that is going places!

Plus, of course, there’s my own first venture into shooting in the USA: American Short Film which has a great script and should make people laugh.

Tomorrow’s another house painting day plus the electric guy is coming round to wire up all the rooms for cable and ethernet. Wednesday is fingerprinting at the immigration services in Detroit. Yes, they fingerprint residents who aren’t citizens here. Civil liberties. Bwahahaha! Kind of pointless, though, as it’s so cold you have to wear gloves all the time in Michigan.

Later, on Wednesday afternoon, there’s more filming with the first day of shooting at Artrain USA. Thursday: even more filming. Friday: even more painting. Saturday: furniture moving. Sunday: filming again. There’s also at least two parties in there. Okay, three.

I’d love to write up some more about the A2 Film Fest and the East Lansing Film Fest. We watched tons of films. Great people. Great movies. We danced and partied to 1.30am on Saturday then stayed in a motel. I was horribly hung over from Black Cutter whisky but got invited to join a panel of visiting directors on Sunday morning to answer questions. I think I was outspoken and possibly coherent. Who knows.

I’m worn out. Laura’s out at a meeting and I’m letting the boys stay up late to watch TV. Does this make me a good step dad or a bad influence? Possibly both. Life is good. Busy. But good. And, hey, it’s stopped snowing!

And Today…

Today I have a lighting kit. Three Mole Richardson lamps. A 350W and a 600W Fresnel plus a flourescent called a Biax which is based on color-corrected, full-spectrum Kinoflo lamps. There’s also a lightweight Lowell DP lamp, stands, clamps and a large flight case. It weighs 68lbs fully laden. It’s a good job I’ve got work coming up.

Yes, there is more work. In April, I’m off to Arizona to film part of a short film for a national charity. Laura is coming along to assist so we’re going to include a mini-holiday while we’re there. This is really exciting. I’ve never been to Arizona before. I’m expecting it will be hot. Maybe even dusty. I can barely lift the case of lights up (it has wheels), so I figure I’ll just take the DP light.

Tonight is a meeting of the Ann Arbor Screenwriters Group. I need to go along because I keep missing meetings and they’ll eventually forget what I look like. Fortunately there’s no homework assignment for tonight’s get together (there’s usually a script to read). I say fortunately as we’ve been so busy doing house stuff (ie. decorating) that homework would have been impossible.

And after that? This weekend I’m helping John film some commercials. Then I’ve got to get all the Cinema Slam films compiled on to a DVD. I’m trying to learn some more After Effects so I can include a cool animation to go with that.

In short: busy.

Award Winning Filmmaker

The Car has won Best Short Film at the Texas Film Festival. Yay!! A big envelope arrived yesterday which I thought contained a copy of my DVD and a festival guide or something. It turned out to be a plaque. I am really really pleased. Really.

Almost as amazing as that is a story about the local cable company, Comcast. They had an offer on at the local mall to install digital TV at a reduced rate for six months if you have a satellite dish, which they’ll take away. By chance, our new house has a big dish stuck on the side. So we signed up.

Come the day of the install, Joe Honest turned up to provide us with service. Honest Joe called his boss and then refused to take the dish away or give us the discount. “You don’t have a contract with a satellite provider, so my boss says to leave it,” Joe said. So we downgraded to basic cable and off he went with the digital box.

This was kind of irritating so I phoned up Comcast and spoke to the lady who sold us the package. “I’ll look into it,” she said. And she went away. She called back later to say she was going to speak to her supervisor. Then we heard no more. Thursday went past, and Friday went past, and then the weekend. Until today.

Today, she called back. “I’m really sorry to take so long getting back to you,” she said. “My supervisor was away. Anyway, she’s very apologetic and has said you can have digital at a reduced rate for 12 months.” Wow! We were absolutely stunned. And pleased. Comcast’s sales staff went the extra mile for us, I have to say, just to keep a new customer (me) happy.

Can you say “awesome”?

Doing Business As

If you want to start trading in the UK, you can simply go ahead and do it. The US, not so. Americans love their bureaucracy and setting up as a sole trader is no exception. So on Monday, I went down to the County Clerk’s office and registered Ascalon Films as a business.

I’ve been using that name for filmmaking for the past five years but it’s only this week that it’s become official. Ascalon Films is now a publicly registered film and video production entity. Okay, well it’s still me, trading as Ascalon Films, but somehow it feels different.

After the County Clerk, we went over to TCF Bank to open a business account. TCF is a bank with branches only around the Mid West. Their big advantage is they offer free banking to small business paying up to 100 items a month and processing 200 payments. Nice.

Sitting at the desk is like sitting in another film set. Yes, American banks have those big safe doors open at the back of the room and everything is open plan, like every heist movie you’ve ever seen. It took about half an hour to open the account and now I have Ascalon Films checks (as opposed to cheques).

And there you have it. I immediately sent out my first invoice to the Michigan Theater for making a short film featuring the life of one of their main supporters, Judy Dow Rumelhart. My first paid work in the USA. I’m looking forward to many more to come. And they enjoyed the film too!

All this plus moving house (closing is today–we get the keys!), dealing with appliances being delivered, finishing American Short Film, bidding on another film project (more paid work, yay!), the insurance claim for lost paintings (bah!), purchasing lighting and sound equipment, accounting, organizing Cinema Slam and a heap of other stuff. Oh, and the boys are off school for the week and running riot.

Life is happening extremely quickly at the moment. It’s a lot of fun and lots of good things. Tonight, basketball. Sunday, Oscar party. Next week, birthday. Phew.

Three Years From Then

So someone reads through those posts on The Attic and they post a comment which finds me this evening through the miracle of the internet. And I go back and glance at the post they were commenting on. Then I look at the some of the posts near that one. And I discover that three years ago I promised myself I’d be directing a feature film in 2004.

Three years time? I want to be playing in the mud at the bottom of the swamp and making people come to life out of the clay.

So, what have I done in the meantime? What’s got me any closer to that goal? Well, compadre, quite a bit, I think. I’ve now shot four short films, three on celluloid, and entered them in festivals. Thanks to that process, I’ve learned a whole heap of valuable lessons. Lessons about storytelling, about not cramming too much in, keeping the audience entertained, keeping things simple, and I’m starting to learn how to pace things.

I’ve also learned lessons about casting, about getting not just great actors, but actors who I can work with on my team and also making time for them on the set, working with them first and foremost. And I’ve learned how to shoot. I continue to learn about that, especially through cutting and watching other films critically. This week, for example, we watched Confidence. The editing is beautiful. It’s accomplished and eye-catching at the same time. Some would call it self-conscious but I look at it and see art. And I am entertained.

So, where’s my script? The one I promised to start writing three years ago? I’m getting a better and better idea of what a great feature film script should look like–and by that I mean a script that I would enjoy making and could commit five years of my energy to complete. So where’s the feature film? Do you know, compadre, I don’t know. The time has been eaten up with a combination of running on a treadmill at the BBC while learning all the lessons above and more. I’ve joined Ann Arbor Screenwriters Group. We’ll see.

More importantly, there’s a wedding coming up this weekend. That’s the most exciting thing in my life right now. Outside the snow has turned Ann Arbor magically white. It’s beautiful. Life is beautiful. Being with Laura is beautiful. I feel more creative and inspired just sitting here working in the same room with her, sharing ideas every so often. Three years ago? That was then. This is now.

American Short Film

First day of filming. We have a DV camera. Just. A Canon ZR40. Detroit Film Coalition loaned us one for five days for $75. After a night of being plugged in, I can now confirm that the battery doesn’t actually hold any charge so we will have to run it off the mains, even for exteriors. That, however, is the least of our worries. Two of the main actors have flaked out on us in the past two days.

Laura’s friend Mark might be able to play one of the roles but he’s not available weekdays. We don’t seem to have enough extras but only three people came to the audition. I recruited another actress last night at the end of term student film awards for the University of Michigan. (I was one of the judges–it’s a long story and I haven’t blogged it yet but the standard was exceptional.)

DFC (located in a less than savoury part of the Detroit–okay, that’s pretty much any part of Detroit) is closed for the holidays now until January 12th but I’ve arranged to get lights and camera kit back to them on Thursday as a special favour. This means we only have until Thursday to complete our 15 page parody of American Movie.

The crew consists of myself (director/camera), Gordon (a student and writer who is doing sound and lighting), Janet (our production assistant who is partway through a gender change) and John the producer/writer/star. John has a mains adapter for his car so we can run the camera outside otherwise I think we would be… oh, what’s the phrase? Stuffed. Yes. But we’re not. Not yet.

Oh, and to add to the insanity, it’s snowed overnight. Just a light dusting but it’s still falling. The forecast is two to four inches. The temperature outside is 28F (that’s -2C) with a windchill bringing it down to 22F (-5C). Today we’re filming a barbeque scene. I’m looking forward to getting that shot where someone goes to pour a Coke and nothing comes out because it’s frozen.

In other words, same old same oh.

Progressive Moves

Training seminar today up in Farmington Hills. Farmington Hills appears to be where all the film and TV facility companies are located. It’s where Stratton Camera is located. Stratton Camera is the only film camera rental house in Michigan and they’ve just taken delivery of two 24-frame progressive scan Panasonic digital video cameras.

My invite to this event came from Robin Browne, a cinematographer friend of Geoff Glover’s who shot Last Train with me several years ago. I contacted Robin through the BSC and it was a pleasure to meet him. He tells me to register with the Michigan Film Office to get in their 2004 directory, which I do. He also tells me most of the work here comes through the union. The union wants a $4,000 “introduction fee” before you become a member. Erk alors. We shall see.

Everyone at Stratton was really friendly and I left a few business cards. Lon and Diane Stratton provided lunch, which was nice, and insisted I take some food home. Either these people are wonderfully hospitable or I’m looking a bit thin. The seminar lasted three hours and all of that time was spent going through the various camera set up menus. Hmm. Who has three hours to set up their camera? No one, of course. The idea was to give everyone an idea of what’s possible.

Talking of what’s possible, of course Panasonic haven’t provided any firewire ports on their camera and, of course, Panasonic’s DVCPRO format is incompatible with Sony’s DV formats. However it is compatible with Final Cut Pro and the camera is very sexy, especially with 35mm film camera lenses on the front.

Later I will worry about work and not having a job and how on earth am I going to make this all happen. Later. I don’t have time right now. Right now I’m an independent film maker between gigs. So there.


This afternoon I had a second meeting with John Ardussi who wants to be a film producer/writer. Actually, I say “wants to be”. In the American sense that seems to mean already sees himself as this person and is taking the steps along the path. Anyway, producer/writer is great because I want to be director/DP so if this works out it will be perfect. Okay, I am a director/DP; it’s how I see myself. Perception is everything.

John has a script called American Short Film which is a parody on a longer feature. John gave me a DVD of the feature to watch. It won a prize at Sundance. Frankly, I think we can kick it’s butt in the comedic arena. I’ve come up with a general treatment for it which involves parodying several other films and genres. Working on that treatment put me in such a great mood, I can’t begin to express how satisfying it is to come up with a whole string of improbable creative ideas. So I won’t.

I blame Quentin Tarantino for this whole parody culture. We went to see Kill Bill a couple of weeks ago. It was excessively violent. It was undeniably art. It was the work of a master in the same way that sculpting in poop is art. You can’t deny it’s pushing the envelope but you don’t want to look for too long.

The blue backlit fight scene is balletic. I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It was infinitely better than the flawed Matrix Revolutions (which we saw on Thursday) or the ill-conceived T3 (why, God, why). Kill Bill provided far more stimulation on all sorts of levels than anything else I’ve seen for ages. It was, as I say, art. I want to make art on this level while telling stories. I want to explore themes and enjoy the process. So I will.

Today’s meeting was over at John’s apartment in Scio township. I want to pronounce this “Ski-Oh” but Laura tells me it’s “Sigh-Oh” like sci-fi. Still that makes more sense than pronouncing water as “wodr”. I order beer later when we go out for “genuine Louisiana barbecue” over at the Smokehouse Blues in Ypsilanti. 24oz beer and enough food to feed six. We eat enough for four and take the rest home. Note for future: kids eat free Monday to Thursday.