Now that we have a locked script for our John Constantine: Hellblazer fan film, with the talent, locations and money required to make it happen, it’s time to start bringing this badboy to life.
For the stages of pre-production referred to in this article, depending on what kind of your production you might be putting together, effort could be minimal; for instance, if you’re shooting a comedy or a drama short, based in a controllable environments and with plenty of time to shoot, you could just turn up on the day with your kit and actors and block out the shots as you go, deciding on angles and such with the full scope of the environment.
Nothing wrong with that, we’ve done it plenty of times, it can be a fun way to work but ONLY if time isn’t of the essence and everyone is on board to work in such a way. If there is any form of restriction in place you’d do well to plan your film more precisely.
This, we believe, is where Waking Dream Studios excels in the indie filmmaking game, we’re proficient and enthusiastic planners. We like to have our bases covered long before we even walk onto set because, usually, the most unexpected things go wrong, and if you can just concentrate on correcting these issues because all the basics have been taken care of then all the better.
This mode of operation has served us well in the past, in one case enabling us to produce not one but THREE shorts in a twenty-four hour period (our cocky and interlocking entrees for a twenty-four hour film contest), and in our finest hour enabling us to shoot our award winning debut feature, Gabriel Small, in just three weekends (forgive the self congratulatory feel of those examples, but we are incredibly proud of these feats of filmmaking efficiency).
With the Hellblazer short we have special make-up and visual FX, stylistic lighting, the continuity of poker game (filmed in a none-linier fashion) and a thirteen-page script all to deal with, and due to reasons of cast and crew availability and cash flow, just a single day to get it all (with a separate day for an additional exterior shot); which means that this project will have to be planned more then any other single day shoot we’ve ever put together.
The planning of the logistics of a shoot day we’ll deal with next time; in this article we’ll deal with the much more film specific approach of planning for visuals.
This processes starts with you asking yourself questions about the film. What does the set look like? What do the characters look like? What do they handle during the course of the scenes? What do you want the film to look and feel like?… Simple, right? Maybe, but each one of those questions could hide a microcosm of further questions, so a good practice is to give yourself lots of time to plan for your film, in the cases of ambitious films like this where no one is being paid, three months or more. People can only work when they can fit it in, so give them and yourself time and keep on top of things.
It was the unusual case this time that I started designing the look of the demons before I did anything else visually. This was simply so my make-up consultant could get to work figuring out what was doable, what needed to be changed and what kind of team she’d need to put together. More on this later, but the next stage was storyboarding.
In their simplest form, storyboards are just an efficient way for a director to demonstrate his intention for a shot, they can show in seconds what it may take a while to explain in other ways, which means so long as they do their job, they can be as rudimentary as stick figures (see Scorsese’s self drawn boards on the Taxi Driver ‘making of’) or as beautifully rendered as a comic (see Steve Skroce’s boards for The Matrix).
We at Waking Dream have three modes of storyboards; extremely rough sketches that replace shot lists on fast productions, more detailed scene specific boards with annotations to better explain more complex set-ups, and well(ish) drawn boards for every single shot with detailed notes for shoots that need to be entirely planned before we’re on set. The first two are easy enough to pull off, especially if you have an illustrator onboard who you can work closely with, the last is incredibly time consuming and not recommended if you or one of your team aren’t illustrators.
I’m an illustrator so for this complex and time constrained shoot opted to board the entire thing in great detail, which on and off took nearly a month and ended up equating to a hundred and sixteen illustrations that portray the composition, camera movement and special effect in each shot. The flip side to it taking so long was that it forced me to really think about each individual shot and transition, resulting in the film existing in it’s entirety in my head, which is a really solid place to be as a director; you can strive for what already exists in your mind, but roll with the punches if needs be.
These storyboards can be immediately referred to by your cinematographer, CGFX artist, actors or whomever else wants to quickly get the gist of the scene with the bare minimum of explanation.
If storyboards prove beyond your capabilities for whatever reason, detailed script annotations or shot lists can also be used well to build the film in your head and go some way into explaining your visual needs.
Make-up and wardrobe
Many no-budget films, especially those set in contemporary times, forgo the character design and make-up process, which is absolutely fair enough, the skill required to do those jobs well takes time to acquire and those who do it well don’t often do it for free, but to include a make-up team ups your production quality no end. You’d be surprised how much the look of even the most average character can be improved and rendered more ‘filmic’ with the input a smart make-up artist. A junkie can look messed up, an overwrought person can look knackered and a pretty person can look glamorous. Be warned though, bad make-up, like a cheap looking prop and bad sound, can actually work against your film.
Some low level prosthetics, flesh bites for instance, can be purchased online, with handy instructional videos being readily available to view on You Tube, which together can be used to create your own homemade physical FX to some level of success (we’ve done some of our own in the past), but for more complex stuff I would always recommend you find someone who’s good at it or give yourself a huge chunk of practice time and materials.
Being an illustrator I already knew the kind of look I wanted for my demons. I didn’t want them to be fully covered in prosthetics, but to look kind of human but with terrible deformities, and already knowing what the actors looked like, I could work their real features into the designs. After Clare Gregory, my make-up consultant, okayed my initial sketches for these demons I went about putting the designs together in more detail using photos of the actors and Photoshop.
Once this was done I had a number of meetings with Clare and our second make-up wiz, Jayne Hyman, in which they decided what materials they would need and which techniques they would use to bring the designs to life. Then we got the actors in for make-up tests and life-cast so that prosthetics could be sculpted.
It must be noted that due to circumstances and tweaks you won’t always get something that looks 100% the same as the initial design, but as long as it looks good then you’re gravy.
Deciding what your characters is like, looks and wardrobe wise is all a matter of logic; the kind of characters they ARE determines what they should wear and look like, for example, the demons in this film, though humanoid in shape have abnormal faces, so logically, to get about by day they should required some cover, so I decided that all the demons would wear hoodies, where as our lead character, John Constantine, already has an icon look that entails shirt, trousers, tie and a vintage, eighties trenchcoat, so we rolled with that.
Props are another thing that a lot of indie filmmakers don’t put too much effort into going above and beyond the call of duty with, but it will always register on some level if you put extra thought into how to dress your sets and what, beside the necessary, your characters interact with. It’s good to think about what the life of each one of those little objects or settings has been like, then putting the work into making them look that way.
Props usually have to be found or purchased as they are, modified to look a particular way or built from scratch. On this film myself and my prop-partner, Jayne, did all three because quite a lot of specialised props were needed. Auction sites are great for finding singular or specific items but for pretty much everything else it’s just about searching the shops and online for a decent quality to price ratio.
Such things as playing cards and Johns signature coat had to have a specific or identifiable look, so cost came secondary to looks, but we got them easy enough.
Our poker chips had to be modified to look battered then have a kind of hieroglyph scrapped into them and ‘brought out’ with highlights, so once suitable chips were purchased each had to go through this process, which is fine until you realise that seven hundred chips is quite a lot and takes quite a long time, being that there’s only two of you doing it.
Being the FX wiz, Jayne was put in charge of making a demon heart, which she did with a heart mould and coloured silicones, and a fine job she did too. This prop will have to be further treated though, first for extra texture, but on the day, gross gore will be added to give it that just ripped out feel, Mmmmmm.
The last big prop I worked on was the poker table itself. One could have been sourced easily enough, but I needed a table of a specific size so that some of the shots I’d design would come off, so a large piece of MDF wood along with some felt and spray paint were turned into a suitable table, with enchanted hieroglyphs an’ all.
With this production having such a stylised look, myself and Jordan decided that it would also be prudent to do some lighting tests, something we, regrettably, don’t usually have time for. This is a relatively simple exerciser to pre-design the ‘look’ of your film, or decide if the look in your head is achievable. This might not be an option if you’re going to be running around lighting lots of different locations, but if you’re going to be creating a lighting look for one given set that you’ll be working on for the duration, and you don’t have much time on the day, creating that set up beforehand and then replicating it should save you loads of time.
With all this in the bag it is now time to plan the shoot day itself, which we’ll touch on next time. Catch you then.