Pickman’s Model

I just finished editing Pickman’s Model, a film I directed in January but had to put off finishing because other work came first. Since I had a little break in my other work, I knocked it out and now it’s online and soon to be submitted to festivals.

I thought I’d go over how I made the film a bit in the hope it’ll help other film makers strapped for cash. I shot and edited the film for $1600US, and everyone (except the producer and I) were paid. I think that if you want to make a film that’s anything more than a 2 hour shoot, you need to pay everyone. I’ve tried it the other way and you wind up with resentful people who may fuck off at any moment. So, tip #1: pay people.  Still treat them well or the pay won’t mean much but you really should pay them.  I did own a bunch of equipment already but most of it was fairly old so it wasn’t like I had a Scarlet camera ready to go.

This HDV camera may not have the best sensor you can get nowadays but it's fine and with a little deinterlacing the video looks great. Most importantly, it's got XLR plugs (bottom right of shot) which means you can plug in professional sound equipment. The iVDR has a shoe which can attach to the shoe mount on top of the on camera microphone.

Aside from that though, the film was pretty spare. For example, it was shot on an old HDV camera I’ve had since 2008 (a Sony Z1U) then I transferred the video my iVDR after so I’d have two copies of everything just in case. Since I owned all this stuff, it didn’t cost anything. For sound I used an old Sennheiser mic (and by the way, it’s “mic” not “mike.” Mic is short for Microphone, not Mikerophone.) I’ve owned since 1998 and since XLR cables can plug into the camera I used, a lot of the audio could be recorded directly onto the tape on one channel while I used the on camera microphone to record to the other channel, just in case.

The Maxell iVDR is useful not only as a recording device (if you aren't shooting more than an hour or so) but also as a safe backup for tapes. More importantly, if you use it to back up your tapes you can also transfer its media faster than real time, which means you can have your editing platform ingest the media faster than tape, which is handy.

There were however moments when I needed to shoot at a distance too great to run cables to the camera, like when we shot on location in London and we had to contend with London traffic. For that, I resorted to an old standby: my Sony TC-D5 Pro II analog tape recorder, modified for crystal sync. Yes, I still own one. It gets great sound quality and analog cassette tapes are dirt cheap these days. All I had to do was use a clapper board like with film and pretend the whole thing was being shot on a Bolex. Since analog tape gets better sound than any digital format you can get for the price point, it worked beautifully.

Here's the tape recorder I used, which is brilliant even by today's standards, as it is plugged in to my computer right now. To input the recordings to the computer you need to plug in some accompanying equipment (out of shot) and then plug the whole thing into the line in on your computer so you can record it. It's better than transferring it to the video camera because the sampling rate it superior and the computer's ability to record that sampling rate is superior to the camera's inability to record at that sampling rate. Basically, if you record to a video camera, you're getting something like the sound quality you get from a CD, whereas this gets much better sound quality. Even if you plan to output to an iPod, it's a better starting point.

Okay, it’s not really that simple. To do this effectively you need to be super organized. I had sheets for camera and sound notes in my director’s book, including things like what tape, how many feet into the tape, sound quality, if there’s a dog barking or a bell ringing or anything like this. If you’re lucky, and in many places I was, you don’t need this, but when you do, it’s essential. And it takes only a couple seconds to do. I also made sure the clapper had all the same information on it about what tapes the sound and image were on, what shot we were shooting, in what scene and what take we were on. Then before I called action, we would have our production assistant (Eleanor Chalmers, who was amazing) call out to the microphone all the information on the clapper. If the shot was MOS (or “Mit Out Sound” meaning we aren’t worried about taking sound) the clapper has to be handled differently.  Obviously, there’s no need for a sync mark on an MOS shot.  For an MOS shot, when the clapper comes into frame, the clapper loader (in our case, Eleanor) would hold it with one finger between the striped sticks on the top. This way, when I’m editing, I know not to freak out when I can’t find the sound for the shot.

The reason for all this anal organization is so that in the editing room you have some idea of what you’re looking at. I can’t count how many times I’ve been handed a film that has been totally disorganized from the get go and been expected to work miracles. The biggest factor is always this sort of thing. If you’re organized as a director, your editor won’t want to murder you. If you are both directing and editing, you will be very happy in post if you’re a little more organized in production.

Last, there were the lights.

I couldn’t just bring my lighting kit to England, plug it in and have it work because, like most American appliances you plug in there, they’d just explode.  Instead of renting a kit there though, I got some industrial flood lights and spot lights used on a farm where part of the film was shot and, since they aren’t movie lighting, made them part of the diagetic lighting and mise en scène.  The only thing I needed to add to make them look really atmospheric was a £15 a day fog machine that came fog juice included.  It worked beautifully and the electrician was kind enough to lend me the use of his lights since they weren’t needed elsewhere (meaning they were free.)  Since most of the lighting was natural (sometimes augmented with a bounce card) I only needed to use the industrial lights as nondiagetic movie lights a couple times, like as eye lights and what have you.  For this, I used a little black wrap, which I’ve had for more than ten years.  Handy stuff and it never runs out, or so it seems.

So there’s the boring stuff.

In post, I had a lot of fun.  I recorded a lot of the street ambiance at night because even though you think day street noise is fine, it’s much louder.  We city dwellers just tend to filter it out in our heads.  This meant getting a lot of great, un-planned-for sounds like someone opening a gate, the whoosh of a truck’s diesel engine, the pitter patter of rain.  It was all lovely and even lovelier when I put it into the system and ran it through the appropriate filters to make it sound like it was in the same space as the action, or coming from down the street, or the next room or what have you.  When you forget what a sound actually is, you can experiment with it in ways you didn’t think you could at the time of recording.

Then there was the opening titles sequence.  I positioned my camera over a plastic bin that I’d lined with wet paper towel.  I lit the bin and dripped black ink onto the paper.  I made the recording as close to pure 2 tone black and white as I could, then I used the black as a matte key for the text coming up behind it.  I made sure the reds in the other high contrast moments were the same as the reds in the title and the rest was easy.

The last thing I had to worry about was workflow.  I knew that in some placed I’d want to do transitions using Adobe After Effects, but I didn’t know where or how yet.  I ran my workflow more or less the way I did it at ABC News when I worked with animators there.  First, I did the picture edit in Avid Media Composer 6.  This meant organizing the footage in Media Composer and editing it into a timeline.  When I decided where and how I wanted animation, I’d subclip that section of video from the sequence (this is all in the Avid software mind you) I’d separate the clips into their component parts and I’d export it as a no compression movie for Adobe After Effects.  I used After Effects to build the wipes and such not so much because it’s any better at that than Avid is, but because AE has a better keyframing interface and tweening for its masks is easier to handle than Avid’s.  Another aspect of Adobe I prefer to Avid is that when you want to export something, it creates a queue in the Media Encoder application, which means you can shut down the program you’re using to edit or work on something else.  Anyway, all this meant that while Avid was rendering color correction, etc. I could work on something in AE and export it all at the same time.  The workflow for making test DVDs and blurays was similar.

So those are the basics of how I made Pickman’s Model from a technical perspective.  For the creative side of things, go check my director’s blog in a few days when I’ll have written about that side of things.