From Financial Services to Filmmaking

Like many of my ex-colleagues working in the financial services industry, I was working hard climbing the career ladder just to discover that it was the wrong ladder.  I've got a lot of skills and experience in my 20 year career, but I wanted to get out of the corporate world.  Eventually I discovered that my real passion is filmmaking.  But how do you start a new creative career without taking a huge financial hit by losing a corporate job?  Here are my tips on how I achieved it:

1.  Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life

This saying is great, but it does not materialise immediately.  It takes years of learning and experience to make a living in the filmmaking industry, and not everybody succeeds financially.  But what is important that you need to take time to understand what you like.  It took me a few years of experimentation - carpentry, upholstery, photography, painting, animation, sewing. However, after I got my first decent camera, discovered the video button and did some editing, I knew that I had found it.

2.  Take any opportunity to learn both formally and informally

Once you know what you want to achieve, try to find suitable courses and networking opportunities. I have done an excellent course with the London Film Academy (about which I've written a separate post), I have done several editing, sound-recording,  lighting and camerawork courses with Morley College and 01zero-one.co.uk. I found a government-sponsored programme that gave me free of charge business mentoring service for my creative business and free facilities for client meetings.  I regularly network with filmmakers at various events, particularly short film screenings and educational workshops (for example, Shorts-on-tap, Short&Sweet, The Film Festival Doctor workshops, online cinematography forum Cinesummit).  I take every opportunity to practice, whether it is a family celebration, a paid corporate video job, a student commercial or a short film done with complete strangers through Facebook filming groups.  I am also a member of the Let's Make A Scene group on Meetup where we regularly meet to produce short films in a social learning environment and where you can try different roles from gaffer and sound recordist to producer and director.

3.  Get a financial cushion

Many filmmakers have to do additional jobs to make a living, and I am not an exception.  I chose to do property development and am now completing my second fairly large project - the conversion of a hotel to flats in Eltham, London SE9.  And guess what?  After we finished the build, not only had I reupholstered the furniture, sewn the curtains and used my pictures to decorate the place, I also made a film.

Please contact me if you are interested in the purchase of the apartments.  The properties are located just off Eltham High Street (Royal Borough of Greenwich).  Eltham is minutes away from many central London stations with direct trains to London Bridge, Canon Street, Victoria, Charing Cross and also has excellent bus connections. Easy access to both city and Canary Wharf.  Excellent schools. 

I am also happy to help if you need a film for your business.



Big League Cine Summit III - what I learnt

According to Big League, the organisers  of Cine Summit lll (http://bigleaguecinesummit.com), more than 40,000 users logged in on 21-22 January 2015 to watch this online event dedicated to the best in cinematography. And I was one of them.

As mostly self-taught filmmaker, I have to grab opportunities to learn from online sources.  But never have I previously written about my experience of such online events.  This event really stood out for me, as it gave me a good recap of some basic knowledge required for filmmaking.

There have been 9 presentations in total covering composition, camera operating and movement, storytelling techniques, lighting for low-cost productions, commercial lighting for fashion, sports and cars and a technical introduction to lenses.  These were presented by some big DP names in film and commercials - Frankie DeMarco, Kevin Shahinian, Rasmus Heise, Matthew Santo, Stefan Borbely, Shane Hurlbut, David Vollrath, David Vollrath and Matt Workman.

Here are the things which I found  most useful:

1.  Camera Operating, Composition and Storytelling Techniques

  • Thinking as an editor helps to be a good DP and Director - think about what you need to tell the story and what is required to connect the scenes/shots
  • Still photography is a great source of inspiration for the style and look of a film
  • When framing and composing, try to think how it should look like if you were watching a good movie (e.g. if you are doing a horror scene, would you be scared given current set-up, do you need to add more contrasting shadows?)
  • Here are a few examples of how to use frames and composition to express the mood / emotions / ambiance:
    • When filming 2 people conversion, use over-the-shoulder shot to show connection between people, and you can use shots that show each character in a separate shot talking to each other if their relationship is broken or there is no much connection
    • Shifting a character to the left of the frame, making him look into a "negative space" (e.g. on the left side away from another character), and revealing the space behind his back which is visible to the viewer, can add horror feel to the scene
    • Use selective focus(blurring/out of focus) to show memories/dreams vs sharper images of reality
  • Visualisation of camera movements can help to create the most suitable look for the scene.  It was interesting to see the demo by Matt Workman. In his example, a character crosses the road and enters a building - and you can achieve equally interesting but completely different looks by using tripod, dolly/slide and crane.  
  • With all the methods of camera movement (handheld, tripods, dolly, tracks, rigs, steady cam etc), you actually can work from the emotion of the scene to choose what works best. Some of the advice given is that:
    • Dollying into the character is good to show emotion (e.g. showing somebody falling in love). You show the movement through space and perspective, and can even pass something on the way to get closer.
    • Zooming in is good to demonstrate the thinking, idea generation process.  Zooming works well when you are looking into the mind and eyes of the person.
    • Leaving the camera still/lazy on tripod can work well when actors are active in the frame.
    • Be experimental with your framing - sometimes unconventional composition can add character to the film (e.g. introducing the character for the first time in an unconventional (e.g. upside down) frame that focuses on the environment rather than the character himself might better drag the viewer into the story)
    • Think what works better for the scene - subjective interpretation (when you show character, and then his point of view) or objective interpretation (nobody’s point of view)
    • When reviewing shots, it is worth reviewing all aspects of physical operating - focus, framing, focal length, distance to subject, f-stops, lenses, etc. Sometimes it is worth experimenting to find the right look for the scene, so don’t be afraid to change the set up (provided you have time for it).

2.  Kevin Shahinian - my Inspiration

Now I want to talk about the presentation that inspired me. 

How many times have you heard that if you want to make a serious career in film industry, you should avoid doing commercial work, and, as a cinematographer, if you are doing weddings, then you are at the bottom of your profession?  Well, Kevin Shahinian proved it wrong. 

Singlehandedly, he revolutionised the wedding cinematography.  His clients pay anything from $10k to $100k for a short film made with a DSLR.  I watched everything he’s got on his website http://www.pacificpicturesblog.com/blog/ and I find it really impressive that these films have been produced without super-expensive Hollywood equipment, and, more importantly, without huge teams.  In fact, some of them have been done by Kevin completely on his own.  So how does he achieve such amazing results? 

The main thing which makes these films special is that all these films are narrated/scripted productions.  The inspiration for the script comes from the personal stories/experience of the clients, and usually no professional actors are involved.  Kevin takes into account the talent and abilities of the clients and shapes the characters to suit the ability, and takes rather structured approach to script development:

  • Structure. Reliance on basic 3-act structure: 1) the first act establishing the status quo and showing emotional low to engage the audience, 2) the second act showing a “life-changing” journey, with maybe another emotional low at the end, and 3) the third act showing resolution.
  • Science of emotional engagement. Use of tools that grab audience attention such as ‘cliffhanger opening’ (where a character is presented with a difficult dilemma from the start) and ‘in medis res’ (where the story starts with mid-point dramatic action rather than set up of characters and situation).  Interestingly, Kevin also refers to the work done by neuroeconomist Paul Zak (http://youtu.be/rFAdlU2ETjU) that relates to measuring hormones cortisol and oxytocin that are proved to be responsible for feeling empathy, trust and engagement with a character.  Can it be more scientific than that?
  • Mythology and use of semiotics.  Taking inspiration from the history and myths, and specifically from the mythology analysis done by Joseph Campbell.  Leveraging semiotics to build into the story signs and symbols that are meaningful to the characters.

In terms of technology, it has been incredibly useful to see the list of used equipment which shows that you do not necessarily need ARRI Alexa or the most expensive Black Magic to produce Hollywood-style look.  Most have been shot on Canon 5D Mark III with 3 Canon lenses (24-70/2.8, 70-200/2.8, 24/1.4).  A few other gadgets, including tripods, Glidecam 4000HD.  Of course, some shots required a bit more than that – so you also see Jimmy Job, Phantom 2 with GoPro.  Not sure what sound equipment Kevin used given that some films he does completely on his own – so there wasn’t anyone running around with a boom – there must be some radio mics.

Overall, my conclusion is while the equipment you use matters, but what you do with it is much more important.  I am amazed by both what can be achieved by a single person and the amount of knowledge and skills that goes into this. Simply inspirational.

3.  Caleb Pike - Lenses (best technical presentation)

Talking about technical side, the presentations on lighting and lenses have been really useful, and I am particularly grateful to Caleb Pike for his presentation “Everything you need to know about lenses”, which really gave me confidence in understanding how to choose lenses whether it is buying a new lens, or just choosing the most appropriate lens when filming.

Theory and definitions recap:

 Focal length measures the distance from the optical centre of a lens to the imaging sensor when the lens is focused at infinity. It has an impact on the image you get as it affects the perspective, background and features of the subject through the following:

  • Field of view (FOV) – how much you can see in the frame
    • The wider lens (smaller focal length number) – the larger the FOV
  • Depth of field (DOF) – how much is in focus in your shot
    • The longer the focal length (bigger focal length number), the shallower your DOF; the shorter the focal length, the deeper your DOF.  Of course, focal length is not the only thing which determines depth of field – you need to look at the combination of focus distance, aperture and focal length (that is why you can see on the web a lot of DOF calculators!)
  • Lens Compression – how distance and subject size is rendered in your shot, the level of distortion (e.g. things appear closer or bigger than they are) – which is useful when you want to make compositional choices which would not be possible without degree of distortion
    • Lenses longer than 50mm will compress the image, lenses shorter than 50mm will decompress the image

Compression

  • distorts the relative distance of the scene and affects the way a subject’s size is rendered
  • can be used to isolate subject or hide unnecessary details such as microphones and lights
  • can be used exaggerate subject or action
  • opens up space (when filming in small spaces)
  • can flatter the face of the character

Decompression

  • Can give monstrous look to the subject (good for sci-fi or horror)

This is an image produced by Stephen Eastwood which is widely used on the web to illustrate the point:

Lens Aperture (f-number) – a set of blades in lens that opens & closes to control how much light hits the sensor. All lenses have max aperture range (larger aperture = smaller f number).

  • A larger opening (=smaller aperture number) gives you more light and shallower DOF, and a smaller opening (larger aperture number) gives you less light and deeper DOF
  • Advice on aperture use:
  • When thinking of desired DOF, use aperture together with focal length as both affect DOF
  • Don’t change aperture once the camera set for a shot (it is ok to change aperture if moving from wide to medium shot)
  • Set aperture first and then change ISO to get the desired exposure
  • Zoom lenses have either a “constant” aperture or “variable” aperture that changes as you zoom.  To have better control over aperture, the constant aperture zoom lenses are more preferable.

Sensor sizes – there are 4 main sensor sizes: Full Frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro4/3, Super 16mm – knowing your sensor size is important when choosing a lens because each lens is designed for a specific sensor size.  If you are using lenses that were not made for your sensor, you get side effects:

  • Cropping – when you put larger lens on smaller sensor (cropping ratio will indicate how much you are cropping from the full frame)
  • Vignetting – when you put smaller lens on larger sensor

Caleb compares the above with mattresses and sheets – if you put larger sheet on smaller mattress (cropping) – it is OKish and, but if you try to put small sheet on big mattress (Vignetting) – not so good.  However, there are adapters for some lenses that can correct these side effects. 

Adapter types:

Metabones.com appears to be the leading company producing all types of adapters except for the Throttle one.

The above knowledge gives a whole new meaning to the way you think about cameras and lenses, and encourages you to experiment with different lenses.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Caleb’s presentation was his analysis of the lens/mount compatibility and his explanation of why he prefers certain cameras.  He compared camera mounts Canon EOS, Nikon F, Sony E and Micro 4/3 to lens mounts Canon EF/EF-S, Nikon F, Sony E, Canon FD, Micro 4/3, Olympus OM, M42 and C-Mount.  Amazingly, Nikon F, who are famous for the high quality of their lenses, have the worst compatibility  which means that you cannot lenses other than Nikon F and Olympus OM – so you cannot experiment with a variety of lenses from other brands.  On the opposite, the Micro Four Thirds have the best lens compatibily with only Sony E lens mount not compatible.  And that was the main reason why Caleb loves using Micro 4/3 as it allows him to experiment with lenses including those designed for larger sensor – the use of booster adapter fixes the issue of cropping and gives perfect results.

Another article which I found useful on the above topics is HERE

4.  Lighting

The CineSummit provided us with several presentations on lighting – from low-cost options to lighting beauty, sports and car commercials.  And the complexity of knowledge you need and variety of approaches overwhelms me.  I am not even getting into discussion about the cost of proper lighting in commercials – it is way beyond my budget.  However, here are a few learning points that I picked up for myself: 

  • Start from lighting the space rather than lighting a subject/object.  Think of everything which produces light on the set, how it can bounce or change, and how it all falls into place. 
  • Try to set up lighting which works in all directions for the scene.
  • If there are art designers involved, leverage what they can do.
  • Find stuff which is already beautiful and get inspiration from the nature and real life.
  • Always be prepared for change (think of spare/extra lights) – lighting changes continuously.
  • Experiment with materials (gels, filters, fabrics, paper, muslins…) that reflect, diffuse, bounce, block, filter light or change/modify light in any other way.
  • Use Hazer to add texture to your light (you can see the light rays with it), play it against darker objects, but be careful to ensure consistent atmosphere for the scene
  • You can achieve interesting results by using cheaper lights (fluorescent lights, light-tubes (particularly Philips give good colours), LEDs – can be bought in hardware stores.  You can be experimental and spray-paint cheap lights to give various looks.
  • Using two or more colours in one scene can give interesting looks (and also might give benefits in post-production as different colours will be easier to separate)
  • Beauty commercials – to create heightened reality you need lots of light and filming at high speed (150 fps) is not unusual.  Briese light is one of the best key light for beauty stuff. 


These are my take-aways from CineSummit III and I am looking forward to the next event.  Huge thanks to the organisers.  

P.S.  I believe you can still get access to full set of presentations on their website for a small fee.  Highly recommended!

From Script to Distribution - Part 2

Following some interest in my notes on the workshop about film production process, I decided not to miss the second part of this event run by Rebekah Smith at  01zero-one.co.uk for filmmakers.  This time the speakers included producer Enrico Tessarin and social media expert Jonny Bunning.  This gave a really good mix of two diiferent perspectives - director/producer and distributer points of view.  Here are my learning points:

  • Do not postpone social media work till you finished the film.  Distributors advise that you should start promoting your film before you started shooting.  Engage early.  Grow audience organically.  Be creative and interesting - invite people to contribute to the film development, play back the fans' content, get people involved - and they are more likely to support you and see your film when it is out.  

 

  • Don't underestimate the importance of posters whether they are online, on the tube or on buses - you have to have budget for it.  If people do not see a poster, how will they know that the film is on?  

 

  • Jonny also stressed the importance of engaging with critics/bloggers in non-traditional ways - some PR agencies go to great lengths to raise awareness about new film by sending out weird stuff, just to attract attention.  You can have an amazing social media engagement, but bad reviews can kill your campaign.

 

  • Think Big.  It often takes as much effort to produce a low-budget film as to make a really expensive film.  The difference is that you get on board more expensive, more experienced and, more importantly, famous people to do the same thing.  However,  the right crew and right cast will dramatically increase the odds of commercial success.  Enrico highlighted that making a few successful low-budget shorts might enhance your career, but when it comes to doing a feature, his advice it to go big, hire a Casting Director and try to get stars. 

 

  • Think Global.  Enrico highlighted the importance of new markets.  Did we know that Turkey is the 6th largest cinema market in Europe?  Will people in China, India and Russia want to see your film? These are rather significant markets which cannot be ignored.  It is important that the film idea appeals to different cultures.  A good example is the TV series Sherlock Holmes which is the most commercially successful British series. I have to say that, being a Russian, I can confirm that these series have been incredibly successful in Russia - everyone knows and loves the character, the Russian series of Sherlock have been very successful in the past too.  But having a modern twist to the story and the way of filming plus internationally famous stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman make it totally irresistable for any audience.

 

  • Finally, Be Prepared and Don't Rush into Deals.  Enrico talked about agreements/contracts you can have with various parties - investors, agents, actors - and how important to have documents drafted, ready for signature and reviewed by lawyers and accountants.  Rebekah started a discussion about what a good distribution deal is, and advised not to rush into deals which limit your distribution potential, but instead, split the rights for VOD, DVDs, airline, theatrical etc distribution into several packages and sell these to different distributors.

 

Hope this is as useful for you as it was for me.

To read article on the first part of the event CLICK HERE

The journey from script to film distribution

Attended another brilliant workshop about filming industry hosted by Rebekah Smith and 01zero-one.co.uk.   Rebekah invited two guests Gary Poyntz and Rob Craine, the media consultants, who deal with the selection of scripts on behalf of investors.   

As a person, who is interested in producing and directing short films which have potential to go beyond YouTube, this workshop was very valuable - particularly information about the process for obtaining funding and various aspects of distribution.

Having a brilliant script with captivating plot and engaging characters is a must - that goes without saying.  But there is much more work to be done before your script gets noticed. 

First of all, given my background in financial services industry, it came as a surprise that film industry has their own term for business case - it is called "package".   Package is what turns your script into a potential project to invest.  It will contain not only information about the script, its synopsis and illustrations to demonstrate the mood and feel of the future film,  but also detailed information about the costs of production and, if you are very good, costs of distribution.  It will also cover the potential revenue, which you are unlikely to estimate yourself without experienced sales agent.  

Second, the presenters were very clear that if you are applying for funding from serious investors, your "package" will be rather useless if you do not reserve appropriate film star to take part in your production. It does not have to be an actor, it could be a commercially successful director.  But in any case, you will need to demonstrate their interest - perhaps an email from an agent of a "star" saying that they like the script.  It would be a job of a producer (or in some cases sales agent) to obtain that interest.  

Final point which I took away from this workshop, it that costing process could be rather complicated, but it is important to make sure that not only production costs are covered, but that you take into account the costs of sales agent, media lawyer, and, what many people forget, the other costs of post-production distribution including applications to festivals, travel costs, advertising, media consulting costs, etc.

Overall, the conclusion is that you need to be prepared to spend a lot before you start getting any money back and the time gap between the two could be quite significant. 

Have you been put off by the process yet, my fellow scriptwriters and filmmakers?  Hope not.

 

PS You can read the article on the second part of this event CLICK HERE 

 

Welcome to the jungle - surviving film industry

Last week I attended seminar "How to survive the film industry" run by passionate Italian Enrico Tessarin, who has great experience in producing short films, documentaries and commercials, and confident Rebekah Smith, who runs promotional business for filmmakers.

Reassuringly, the name of the opening slide was "Welcome to the Jungle", which perhaps reflects the tough nature and the level of competition in the industry.  

While the whole event was really informative and useful, I just want to highlight three take aways that were valuable for me.

First, if you are only starting in the filming industry, it is very important to apply for funding - not necessarily because you need money to produce film, but because the fact of obtaining funding is a credential in itself.  That means that somebody assessed your potential and recognised your skills to produce a good script.  This matters when you apply for festivals or jobs.

Second take away is that, when you are starting in the film industry, it is almost impossible to make money on film production (particularly short films) if you do not have other streams of income such as filming commercials or corporate videos.  However, once you are an established award-winning player, then doing commercial work may damage your reputation of the filmmaker.

Finally, third take away.  If you are serious about filmmaking, you have to apply to competitions and festivals.  You absolutely must do it as a prerequisite to get any attention from more serious players, for example, if you want work commissioned by a TV channel, or if you want to apply for certain funding schemes which will consider you if you have not got certain awards.

What do you think are the other tips for surviving in the filmmaking jungle?

 

 

BBC Experience - How Green is the News Studio?

I had an opportunity to visit BBC news studio and even play with a professional camera used for live shows.  It is hard to imagine what it's like if you've never been there - high tech equipment, a hundred of different lights above you, special table with screens hidden under the surface but visible to presenter.  And it is very green with suitable graphics added on screen depending on the programme.  Most of the technology is controlled from a separate room called gallery.  

I have to say that playing with professional focus and zoom devices on a camera made me feel very jealous.  I do not have this on my DSLR camera!

Sweet and colourful

IMG_3644.JPG

Life is sweet and colourful like the choice of cupcakes in the Patisserie Lila near Borough market. Business is picking up.  Yesterday filmed London reception for 70th anniversary of my university MGIMO, today had a meeting with potential client in railways industry, tomorrow meeting with a medical charity to talk about their video needs, filming on Saturday for 2 social enterprise companies, and filming comedy scene with "Let's make a scene" group next week!

The website is live

Logo for web-01.jpg

Quite a steep learning curve.  First, had to master the basics of Adobe Illustrator to make the logo.  Now, after unsuccessful experimentation with a couple of WorldPress templates, I have finally adopted Squarespace platform which made this website happen in just a couple of days.

http://www.shortlisted-productions.com

Any comments how to improve the website would be greatly appreciated.

Woodwork Course at Southwark Adult Learning Centre

This was the first video I produced, and I like to think that I have improved since then.  This video was produced to raise awareness  about Woodwork Course as Southwark Adult Learning Centre in Peckham Rye.  The footage proved to be popular with various websites and bloggers who cover this area of London or collect videos about woodwork - which raised further awareness about the course. 

I personally completed 2 upholstery courses, 1 woodwork course which I found challenging and 1 picture-framing course at this fantastic venue at Peckham Rye, and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in the subject.  Here is the link to all available courses http://www.southwark.gov.uk/info/100009/leisure_and_culture/1001/adult_learning