Prisoners Workshop

Posted on May 29, 2017

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of directing a short film workshop for an old script I had found from a few years back, titled Prisoners. Joanna had recently acquired a new camera (Sony A7s) and wanted to shoot some test footage to try it out. We decided we could try a few scenes from this script and she organised a couple of actors to help out, Danxia Yang and Jimmy Sky (who we had previously worked with on Nightfall).

We prepped to shoot the middle scenes of the script (simple dialogue between two characters), totalling around seven pages. On the day, we only had a few hours to setup, rehearse and shoot, and there wasn’t much notice given to the actors, so it was big ask for them to learn seven pages of dialogue. Nonetheless, they picked it up really quickly with minimal rehearsal and we began shooting.

We were able to get through it quickly, with a couple of camera setups for each scene. I didn’t bother with coverage for the second scene as we were short on time, and I wanted it to feel more intimate anyway, so we just did a two-shot, with two takes back-to-back. It would have been nice to have a bit of coverage and some inserts to help with editing the two takes together, but I managed to scale the two-shot image up to become a close-up for each character, since we shot in 4K, so that helped hide cutting between takes.

This was a great idea by Jimmy, to have Sam sitting here. Really helps show how trapped he is too.

For the final scene, I wanted it to feel more energetic and unstable, so we shot it mostly handheld with a moving camera. I did want an angle on Danxia with the tripod, so she felt stable and in control, until the turning point in the scene, which is when we swap to handheld for her as well.

Why so serious?

After the shoot was done and I got back home, I began reviewing the footage and began the edit. Firstly, as always, the boring stuff. Organising video and sound files, syncing audio tracks (luckily PluralEyes handled most of that for me) and setting up the timeline. We shot 4K at 16:9, so I just used that for the sequence and added my own 2:39 overlay.

The edit itself was fairly straightforward. I just worked on the scenes sequentially, cutting together the best of each take, though we only had a couple of takes for each setup which posed some challenges for certain moments. One small, but annoying thing, was a continuity error with the background in this shot.

The right side of frame has the beads tied up.

After this take, Joanna suggested putting the beads down to help cover the obvious kitchen behind and provide a cleaner, less distracting image. I also wanted Jimmy’s leg in the foreground to add some depth. It definitely improved the shot, but meant it kept changing when cutting between the two takes. I didn’t want to only use take two footage, as there was great stuff in the first one, so I opted to just composite the right side of frame from the first take, on top of the second. This was simple for the most part in After Effects, since both shots were done from a tripod which didn’t move, so it was a simple copy-paste with a mask on top.

The magic of VFX!

The only issue was when Jimmy walks across the frame in one shot, so I had to rotoscope his legs out, but that didn’t take too long.

Rotoscoping is the data entry of VFX.

Early on in the edit, I was playing around with Lumetri to see how much I could manipulate the colour, as I had never shot on this camera/format before (S-Log), and the initial image is super duper flat. Turns out, it is very pliable, even though it’s not a RAW format, which was a great surprise. I actually stumbled upon the grade for this film accidentally. I had started with a much less aggressive day-to-night and colour palette, instead just trying to add contrast and a little colour.

As I was trying things, I accidentally duplicated the Lumetri effect on the shot so it was applying it twice. As I was about to undo my mistake, I noticed that it actually looked really cool, and was far more aggressive than I had even considered trying. I didn’t think it would have been so easy to make it seem so dark when I first reviewed the footage, but the footage held up really well. I changed my grade to match the doubled-up shot and it turned out to be a pretty convincing dank, dark room, as opposed to a bright happy apartment.

My initial testing grade vs. the doubled up effect.

You copy that grade across all shots, make some tweaks where needed, and you have a stylin’ film!

Before and after colouring.

Once the grade was done, all that remained was the final sound mixing, which I did in Audition as usual. Some of the levels were a little low for Danxia’s shots, but I was able to boost them well enough. A bit of noise in the background, but definitely high-quality audio for a simple workshop. I am very grateful that Jo was willing and able to provide and operate the lavs, as well as camera.

Editing timeline for Scene 1.

Then all that was left was the final render! I did have a bunch of issues with that though, as Premiere decided it didn’t want to export properly, but I got there in the end and the final result is embedded above. Watch, enjoy, and hopefully it makes some sense to you, even though there are two scenes missing, one before and one after this excerpt. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to shoot the entire film for real sometime.

Huge thanks to Jimmy and Danxia for coming out for this shoot and lending their talents and time, as well as one-woman-band Joanna for doing lighting, audio and camera. Couldn’t have done it without you all, and I’m super pleased with the end result. A great learning experience for me and a good trial run for the future. Special thanks to Billie as always for her hospitality and for all the fruit!