I’ve been doing a huge amount of writing in the first third of 2015, and to keep me sane I’ve been bouncing around from genre to genre with promiscuous abandon. Electro-dubstep, gentle-synth bubbling corporate stuff, happy ukulele & whistling as well as the more cinematic music I wrote for feature films Heathen and Darkest Day.
Courtesy of the fantastic composers forum Vi-Control, I got the opportunity to do a recording session with a decent sized orchestral string section for a great price. With only nine days to write two pieces, I thought it might be fun to video some of the composition process. Film trailer music was going to form a part of this particular music library submission, so it made sense to write those tracks in a way that would take full advantage of having live players. Virtual strings are fantastic these days – I use Mural mostly, from Spitfire Audio – but there are things which are all but impossible to do well without real strings. The second track at the end of the video, for example, is based on a three triplet rhythm. First two triplets are spiccato, which virtual instruments deal with well as it’s essentially a percussive articulation, but the third triplet in each phrase is slurred. At that speed, the nimbleness required to pull that off is something only real players can do properly. Regardless of the musical specifics, a good set of live players will always bring something to a piece that virtual instruments, accomplished though they may be, cannot.
Here’s the vid. Some waffle on the process, and videos of both pieces – swapping back and forth between rough version and final – at the end.
I make light of messing around and procrastinating to a degree, but I actually think it’s an important part of the process. I liken it to an athlete warming up or stretching – even though I’m playing unrelated stuff – Liberace arpeggios, ragtime TV themes etc – it’s getting my mind ‘into the zone’ and making me think musically.
Also, the comment on simplifying and changing parts – that was a really difficult thing to do. I’ve always been bad at scrapping bits of music that took me hours/days to write, but I’m now getting a lot better at realising when something (nice as it may sound) isn’t working for the project and having the conviction to start afresh on that section.
It’s fairly light on the ‘piano outline to mockup’ stage, as that would’ve taken forever to record and edit. I’ve seen a few composers do videos of that process, and might do something similar next time if I get the chance.
I may well be doing another session with these guys, but adding brass (and possibly woodwinds) towards July, so I’ll make sure I get some footage from that session and post it up here.
Since last year’s relatively successful entry into the 48hr film competition as part of London’s Sci Fi Festival (we came 6th) I decided I wanted to have a crack in 2013. Being an egotistical maniac, I wanted to write, direct, act, edit, do visual effects, props and teach myself prosthetic makeup so I could have some nice practical effects rather than slathering the film in CG, which is what a lot of entrants tend to do. And do the sound fx/score.
The competition rules are simple: You get a text before 12pm on Saturday, containing your film’s title, a line of dialogue, and a prop. You then use this information to film, edit and upload a film of 5 minutes or less before 12pm on Monday, two days later.
So some preparation is possible, and to some extent encouraged. This usually means finding some actors, props/costumes and a cool location, and getting together some vague plot ideas that you can mold around your title/dialogue.
The coolest of all cool locations turned out to be Pyestock, an abandoned jet propulsion test facility, less than an hour away. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to film there for many reasons, like the fact it was being demolished.
But it looks amazing!
Thankfully, I managed to get the hovercraft location from last year’s shoot for a few hours, and a handily located, albeit plain meeting room for when we arrived back in Brighton.
Making the prosthetic makeup
After doing some headache-inducing bouts of internet research, I ordered my alginate (seaweed-based stuff in powder form) which is used to make casts of teeth, and plaster bandages to toughen up the cast once it was ready. Then with some invaluable help from Sophie, we mixed up the alginate and then encased my head in it for 30mins.
This feels very strange.
The result is negative mold of my face.
…which gets filled with plaster to make a bust.
Wait for it to dry…
Take off the bandages.
And eventually, my very own head!
Then, I used (oil-based) clay to slowly sculpt up a clay version of the final prosthetic bit I wanted to stick on my face.
This took forever, ’cause it turns out oil-based clay is rock hard, and it was a freezing day. And the 99% alcohol didn’t really seem to help much with smoothing it.
Once that’s ready, I needed to make a well around the sculpt to hold the wet plaster I then poured over to make a negative mold of that clay sculpt.
The point of this is to make a negative mold of face plus prosthetic. When you sit that on top of the head cast, the gap between them is exactly the same size/shape that you sculpted out of clay. So you fill the negative mold with silicone/latex – or gelatin, which I used ’cause it’s cheap – and then squash the two molds together. The extra gelatin gloops out, and hopefully you’re left with a gelatin prosthetic which perfectly fits your face.
I squashed my head cast together with the gelatin-filled mold you see in the last picture above, and waited.
After leaving for an hour to dry, I ended up with this:
Which, once painted and glued on to my face (which is a bizarre experience – you have to glue your eyebrows flush onto your face so they don’t get all stuck to the gelatin) – looked like this:
It was nigh-on impossible to get the edges thin enough to blend seamlessly with the skin, but with enough shadow and careful angles, it didn’t look that bad.
As much fun as it was learning this stuff and prancing about with pork glued to my face, I didn’t realise quite how uncomfortable it would get. Once I was halfway through the two hour drive back from Portsmouth, sweating in the lovely sunshine after a pretty stressful 6 hours out of the 48, I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much. So I got home and snipped off everything from the top of the nose down and tried to blend it in so it didn’t look too bodged.
Although not perfect, this meant I could carry on with the rest of the day’s shooting with relatively, rather than dangerously high stress levels. Plus I could breathe easier. And the stuff we’d shot of me on the hovercraft was all medium-far shots so you couldn’t see the face that clearly anyway.
Despite all the usual problems and strife encountered while trying to do something creative with no money or time, we managed to get something done and handed in on time. The biggest spanner in the works was getting the text message with our crucial info at 1:30pm, when we were supposed to receive it before 12. That pissed me off. I’d already shot a fair bit of stuff by then and struggled to self-apply and paint my makeup, in a small public toilet visited annoyingly frequently by very bemused hovercraft enthusiasts, who were greeted with me wearing a monk’s robe and in various stages of face-painting and gelatine-gluing.
Time was against us as we raced to the station to drop off Brad, one of our lovely actors, so I decided to shoot some things I’d planned for the hovercraft location at home, against a green screen, and ‘fake’ the backgrounds later. On the way back to Brighton I worked out a vague story which sort of combined the stuff we’d already shot with what we needed to inclue from our text message rules, and then started fantasising about sleep and chips.
In the second location we got to play around a bit more with my props, which consisted of loads of weird/stupid light things that made everything look slightly more sci-fi, and some light-up guns which I’d sandpapered and painted to give them a more substantial and weathered look.
Some more lovely actors and crew people met us in location two, and we just about managed to film enough stuff before our 10:30 leaving time. Soundman Rob and assistant director/driver/actor Simon were fantastic and helpful, as were my actors Sam, Russ, Chrissy & Simon. I probably murmured something incomprehensible and angry-sounding, which in my head meant ‘I love you all dearly’ before heading back with Simon for chips and sleep.
Before I tucked into my chips, I made what turned out to be a very good decision, and got Simon to film me against greenscreen while I was still in makeup. I did some generic reaction shots, evil eyes etc in case I needed footage to stick in somewhere of me all aliened-up. I’d already decided I couldn’t be arsed applying the prosthetic/makeup again for a second day, so this was my last chance to get those shots.
After just under four hours sleep, day two began! Some more greenscreen shots, but from behind me (so I didn’t have to have any makeup on), and then the mammoth task of editing something vaguely comprehensible out of the footage, before sending it off to Rob for sound syncing and sound design, and Dan & Russ to work their special effects magic.
While those guys were doing their thing, I trimmed and tweaked the edit some more, and did all the greenscreen shots. Which was interesting as I’d never done any greenscreen stuff before. In fact I hadn’t really done any effects stuff before, so I had to learn quickly!
After some emails, phonecalls, three hours sleep, surprisingly few technical hitches, and starting the music 40minutes before the deadline(!) I managed to get a file uploaded with five minutes to spare. Phew!
It’s a bit of a mess, and some bits work better than others, but I’m immensely proud of having done it for the sheer amount of work in such a short space of time, and for all the new stuff I learned with regard to makeup/prosthetics, editing, directing, props, etc etc. The fact that we managed to finish something, no matter how iffy, is brilliant.
If I’d been less of an egomaniac and delegated a couple more things and not tried to do quite so much myself, the film would no doubt have benefited, but I was determined from the start to try and do as much as possible myself, just to see how far I could stretch before exploding.
So here’s the final thing, but with some tweaks to fix a few things that didn’t quite get finished for the deadline. I’ll link to the one I submitted when I can find the link, but this is a slightly polished version with respect to the sound/music and vfx. The edit’s exactly the same, I think.
Given that Darkest Day had a screening at the Duke Of York cinema last Sunday, I thought I should cobble together some bits and pieces from the making of the film. We should have some proper behind-the-scenes/making-of stuff on the DVD (assuming we get some form of distribution) but I have executive permission to share some stuff on my blog.
Once, there was a Dan.
And that Dan had a dream…
Actually, that Dan had a spare weekend and a camera. And he filmed some zombie-related buffoonery around Brighton, then did nothing with it for a while, and then a year or so later assembled some friends to do a bit more filming, with the aim of assembling the footage together into a short film.
I’ll leave the details of when/what and how the film became a feature (or, to quote one of our hero zombies, “an actual film”) to the people who actually know. Suffice to say we soon found ourselves making a 30-minute film. And eventually that 30-minute film mutated into a feature film, which was brutally cut down from a Kubrickian three-hour initial edit, into the svelte, lean, 90-minute sexy beast we ended up with.
Since I’d written music for a couple of Dan’s film school projects, I volunteered to write the music for Darkest Day (back when it was planned to be very short). Dan happily agreed, and giddy with enthusiasm also decided to give me a part in the film. Doing acting.
Thankfully there’s not much in the final cut from my first day of shooting. I remember saying “Ben’s Dead” about thirty times, and trying to look sad.
My only real contribution to the character at that point was a desire to wear glasses. Sadly the glasses I used were prescription lenses, which meant my eyes didn’t feel too perky by the end of a day of shooting. And there were many days of shooting…
But I bravely soldiered on, energised not only by Dan’s meticulous and passionate directing style, but also by the dedication and professionalism of the cast and crew.
We didn’t spend all our time hitting stuff, running into things and gurning though. Everyone contributed enormous amounts of time, creativity and effort to help out.
Producer Simon Drake managed to juggle his three hats throughout the film – actor, producer and AD/Shoutyman.
I sadly don’t have the footage of him legging it down stanmer park, chased by thirty zombies, screaming “EAT ME..! EAT ME..! RAGE…!!!” through a megaphone. We’ll stick that in the official making-of, for sure, but it really helped having someone to make sure the zombies were looking bloodthirsty and threatening enough on such a lovely sunny day.
With such a small crew, everybody ended up chipping in, whether it was shouting cues off-camera, holding a tripod still, or choreographing a zombie attack whilst trying to avoid bashing the poor chap with a real baseball bat.
While we’re on the subject of multiple roles, I thought I’d help Dan out with some graphic design. He hasn’t got back to me yet on the poster designs I sent, but I presume he’s just deciding on the best one to use.
Eventually, I ended up working on the thing I was originally asked to do… the music.
After some discussions about style, I knocked together a demo reel/suite full of ideas. Although there’s some guitar stuff in the score, we didn’t want to go too far towards the sound of 28 Days Later, and we wanted to keep it on the fun side of scary, rather than doing a completely bleak ‘horror’ score.
(You can hear the seagulls outside my room at around 8 seconds in.)
Dan, Simon and Sam all had a listen and picked the stuff they thought suited the film, and I went off to start the opening music. We decided to start with that to set the tone for the overall score in terms of scale/sound/instrumentation etc. I wrote a very simple theme for Dan, which comes back in various forms throughout the film, and follows him around, changing as his journey evolves.
Sometimes it’s just quoted once, as these five notes, and other times it appears in a harmonic context – like the start of the film – using Cm, Eb, Ab, F#m chords.
As well as Dan’s theme, I had some textural themes in mind for other elements – there’s some ‘ticking’ bass and percussion elements that Dan was keen to include, as well as low brass clusters and snare drums for the military. Guitars and distorted synths tend to represent the zombies, Dan and the gang are often accompanied by zither, piano and strings. As well as hopefully giving some sense of connection between visuals and sound, this reduces the amount of directions I can go in when writing the music from ‘infinite’ to ‘lots’ – which massively speeds up the writing process.
If I know roughly what instruments I’m writing for, and especially if I have some melodic or harmonic idea which has been previously used for a similar scene, then I have a starting point. I find this makes a massive difference when I need to get something written quickly.
The very first bit of music written for a specific bit of the film was this part of the opening scene. It started off with some sparse piano touches, with apologies to Thomas Newman.
Then it got a bit more string-based, but went too far away from the mysterious/relaxed vibe.
Some of the synth stuff returned for the third version.
The opening music went through seven (I think) revisions before we found the version that stuck.
As one of the more musically-literate directors I’ve worked with, Dan would often play me excerpts on the piano – ideas he’d had relating to certain characters or situations – here’s a few examples of that, followed by a bit of footage of him reacting to the sixth or seventh draft of the opening music (thankfully he liked it).
Here’s some unused guitar-based stuff. Early demos for Reel 4, which includes one of the characters kitting up to go on a killing spree, and then fighting off hordes of zombies on the beach.
For the final versions of both of these, we went much more crazy/noisy, with sound design playing more of a part for the first section, and less measured/musical.
Here’s a comparison of an early idea for a scene where one of the key characters makes a difficult decision. The first demo idea was too in-your-face emotional. It was the right sort of mood, but too overt. We smoothed out the music to be more of a constant, flowing ‘bed’ of sound, but kept the same sadness running through it.
You’ll hear the demo first, followed by a section of the finished cue.
Some of the cues had one or two major revisions, others went through many more, but I’m happy with the end result, and I think the director was also. I’ll see if I can grab him for a video interview soon to grill him on his thoughts about the music now the film’s finished.
Hopefully that gives you some sort of semi-serious insight into what went on behind-the-scenes.