Saturday, 2 November 2013

How to Write a Chart Hit in 10 Easy Steps

For the past few months, when I’ve wanted to put my mind onto something other than Shadows, I’ve been making these little Youtube videos about chart music.  For some reason it’s something I’ve needed to get off my chest as it’s worked on my mind for a few years now.  In my day job, the worldly job I have that means I can also straddle into the world of filmmaking, I have the radio on as I work. Out there I get to listen to a lot of current music.  Don’t get me wrong, I choose to put the radio on.  It helps pass the time and gives me something to think about…

What I can’t help but wonder about as I listen to the lyrics recited daily on our radios, is the culture it’s creating and the society it’s shaping.

So many songs seem to be about partying, about losing control, and losing our minds.  Having noticed these lyrical patterns, I can’t help but wonder what this effect of repetition has.  People hear these songs, they sing along in the car, kids record their own versions and upload to YouTube, wannabes belt these tunes out in talent shows or on karaoke machines at the pub, or pop star games on computer consoles.

If you've got the money, you can even pay to have a pop star makeover.

Words sung to music wields a great power – music generates emotions or resonates with existing emotions, helps people to hear that someone feels as they do, people find their identity in it, people express themselves through it, an observation made so succinctly by Stewie in an episode of Family Guy, "I took a bunch of pictures. You can see 'em on my MySpace page. Along with my favorite songs and movies and things that other people have created but that I use to express my individualism”.  Look at random profiles on Twitter and see how long it takes to find people who list pop groups and singers as part of their profile of who THEY are. Directioners, Beliebers. Young, impressionable individuals who are identified by manufactured personae from a money making industry.

This sort of music makes people feel good about themselves – tells them they don’t need to think, that they can escape their lives and join these superstars in this endless party where they can surrender to this unadulterated hedonism.  If you were particularly skeptical you’d see this as some sort of opiate – people beavering away at their 9 to 5 jobs through the week, listening to this music in their cars on the radio to and from work, through their ipods as they travel the tube, maybe even at work, pop stars singing about having a good time as every worker looks forward to the weekend and losing control through drink. 

The pop singer becomes our ever-dependable friend, promoting this lifestyle of hedonism as we’re invited to personally join them in their partying and feel as special as they are.  At the same time the news reports the acceleration of the binge drinking culture and such.  But these songs wrap their arms round us warmly and literally tell us ‘everything’s going to be okay’, making us feel like superstars as we dress up ready to hit the town and ‘own’ the night.  Come Monday morning the cycle starts again.

The line that intrigues me the most, which I open with in Part 1 is about “putting your hands up in the air”.  What is it with this particular lyric that has made it so entrenched in the lexicon of current pop music?

See, even the pope liked to throw his hands up in the air sometimes and say "Ayo, baby let's go".

Is it about surrender? We complain of governments taking away our control, but we’re so willing to surrender our control to the authority of the pop singer or the DJ. It’s an instantly accessible way of creating interaction between the singer and the listener.  “Everybody in love go put your hands up”… pop singers provide us the means to express our love by a simple action and thus help shape our identity, someone who’s in love.  Is it just a simple game, a throwback to our childhood, like Simon Says?

Or have I got it wrong and this is being used as empowerment, encouraging people to raise their hands in a salute of power?  Power over what, though?

Is it part of the celebrity culture, the idolized stars on their pedestals – or sitting in their judge’s seat as they cast their authoritative opinion on the masses who strive to be like them – exerting their authority and control over the populace?  This is a time of following and being a ‘follower’.  Is it a sign of our submission, showing our allegiance to these celebrated individuals whose voice is more important than any of us mere mortals?  Yet when our celebrities are old or dead we now seem to be learning how they were, quite literally, fucking us over.
Yeah it's him again.

I’m not really picking on any of these songs in particular (although I am inclined to for a certain few songs).  I don’t actually hate this music as much as you might think I do.  In fact, some chart songs I hear I actually do like, even some of the ones in these videos (shock, horror!).  I’m not that pompous to dismiss all this so readily.  Perhaps this chart music is necessary escapism. Sometimes it can feel that we’re bombarded by so much negativity that this music becomes a blessed oasis.

What I’m getting at is the frequency of these same messages that are repeated again and again in chart music songs.  Week after week we hear the same messages of “we’re losing control” and “we’re losing our minds” etc.  All I’m saying is, on some level, that must have an effect on the mass audience.  All I’m suggesting is that we bring a little more consciousness to this.

There’s nothing wrong with each of these songs in and of itself. Taking time out, letting one’s hair down, having some fun… that’s all part of the human experience.  But it’s not the only part, and I think the music industry has got it out of balance.  Whether it’s an opiate, or whether the industry has just stumbled upon a winning formula which it’s keen to repeat, or whether it’s a combination of things, I think it needs questioning.

Can you think of any lyrical clichés that I may have missed?  Am I looking at all this too literally?  Am I too cynical and could do with loosening up?

Because I go on a bit, I had to split these videos up into 3 parts.  I have to give a word of warning about part 3 as, although it starts with my satirical silliness, it also has some graphic visuals in it along with, as Simon Bates puts it “sexual swear words”.

All the video material and songs that appear in my videos were taken from YouTube.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Jurassic Park and the Shadows of the Past...

I’ve been thinking back this week, way back to when I was a young teenager in my formative filmmaking years. What started it off was my brother mentioning to me about seeing a Jurassic Park t-shirt and it reminding him of a little dinosaur film we made as kids.

Let me set the scene: it was the summer of 1993, Jurassic Park was just about to hit the cinemas and the hype was everywhere.  I’d always been a big Steven Spielberg fan, and I couldn’t wait to see it.  On July 24th that summer we were over in Warrington visiting family, and it was my cousin’s birthday. 

Whenever I met up with my cousin Phil it wouldn’t be long before one of us said “Wanna make a film?”  We would then borrow his dad’s camcorder and goof around shooting some crazy movie, dragging my other brothers and cousins along for the ride.  Phil and I were both budding filmmakers and were forever shooting stuff in our back gardens.  On this particular day Phil was adamant he wanted to make a dinosaur film.

“Well that’s about the dumbest idea you’ve ever come up with!” is pretty much what I said to him.  Although I hadn’t actually seen Jurassic Park by that point, I’d seen the trailers, seen the news reports, seen behind the scenes tv spots, and I was well aware that Spielberg’s film was a special effects extravaganza and asking two teenagers with a camcorder to make something along those same lines was like asking a Skegness beach donkey to race the Grand National.

“No, I know we can’t make anything like Jurassic Park.  We’ll make it the most blatant and shoddiest rip off possible.”

“But it’s going to look crap!”

“That’s right!  We’re going to make a crap film!”

And then a switch flipped in my brain.  “We’re going to deliberately make the crappest rip off of Jurassic Park possible???  Let’s do this!”
So shameless were we that we even stole all their branding.

And about 5 minutes later we began filming – the titles involved us filming written credits on paper while we sang some improvised a cappella.  We dressed in crazy costumes, we delivered terrible, terrible dialogue, we made up (as we went along) a completely implausible plot.  We didn’t have any clever stuff about extracting dino dna from a preserved mozzie… Me, playing some sort of scientist, just happened to discover a dinosaur egg in my freezer and ascertained it must have somehow been there for the past 65 million years.

Look how long my hair was back then.

 And so then we opened our very own… Dinosaur Park! As you do.
We'll just leave this t-rex egg here for a few weeks then come back see what's happened. Yeah, what could go wrong?

What then ensued was lots of running around in the back garden as we were chased around by these dinosaurs.  And how did we pull off that particular special effect?  Well, the dinosaurs were actually part of Phil’s birthday cake decoration, which we shoved right in front of the lens against the sky.   
You knew I'm a consultant for ILM, right?
We even put the family singing happy birthday to him in the film, making out it was a ‘happy birthday opening celebration’ for the dinosaur park.

As you’ve guessed, the film was indeed the biggest bag of shit in cinematic history.  But somehow, when the family sat around the television later that evening watching what we’d filmed, everyone loved it as they roared with laughter.

As it went down so well, we made a decision I don’t think we’d ever made before, that we would actually finish it.  We had to wait a few months to do that, but when I was next in town, we did just that… (and set up a sequel, of course!)  Phil later topped and tailed it with some better titles (that a cappella opening title sequence didn’t make the final cut, I'm afraid - trust me it really was cack).  And then in 2003, as part of the 10 year anniversary, I ‘remastered’ it as I put it on DVD.

20 years on, I look back on that period of my life with great fondness.  Certainly we were never making any films that were great technical accomplishments, but making films in this way taught me a lot.  By breaking all the rules, by making so many mistakes, I feel it was the best way of slowly working out what worked and what didn’t in filmmaking.  Primarily we were bringing a spirit of fun to our crazy little films, and that’s something you can't really be taught to do.

It’s something I’ve held on to ever since, that it’s not just about following the rule book and painting your film by numbers, but you’ve also got to connect with your audience spontaneously.  By reducing your pretensions and not letting the filmmaking process become an ego trip, you can find that audience connection. 

I firmly believe that the spirit in which a film is made on some level translates into the final product and that your audience will pick up on it.  You always bring some of yourself to your films, and so it makes sense to make films with passion and a belief in what you’re communicating, not to mention fun – after all, this is an entertainment industry.

Intentions always seem to carry in films, and indeed any art form – like sometimes when a studio sets out to deliberately make an epic, it seems like just that, trying to be an epic.  We’re all too concerned about the next big such-and-such, always harking back and comparing to things of the past rather than being in the now. The filmmaking process seems to have become so self-conscious in this ‘being concerned with our own place in history’ age, but then that’s probably a blog for another time.

So yeah, as a 30-something as I make the most elaborate feature film of my life, I still remember how me and my cousin entertained our family on July 24th 1993, and I hope that audiences will be very entertained by Shadows of a Stranger.

In the meantime, for the first time ever, I’ve put some of Dinosaur Park on Youtube for the world to see. So... prepare to have your mind blown:

It may seem strange how I could go from making silly films like this to something dark and depressing like Shadows of a Stranger, but I think that’s why Chris and I have worked so well together on it.  At heart we’re both a pair of rascals.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Shadows at the End of the Tunnel?

Most of this blog has been written between renders, when the visual effects software is engaged in giving me a preview of how my current scene is looking, and so all I can do is sit and wait for the computer to do its thing.

Not many people see us as we’re busy at work so it would be understandably difficult to know why this film is taking so long to complete.  For me it has become something of an obsession – pretty much every available moment I have I’m working on the visual effects.  Most nights I’m also ‘working’ on it in my sleep.  My dreams have become an incomprehensibly surreal mélange of layering and adjusting parameters and composing realities with my fingertips as I do during my waking hours.
I once had a dream about a scary half naked clown too, but that's a story for another time.

For those of us who don’t know our story till this point, let me give a brief recap.  In 2009 I presented my partner in crime Chris with a script of mine.  We decided at some point that summer that somehow we were going to get this film made.  Because of the nature of the script, and the fact that we had very limited resources, Chris suggested that we shot everything on blue screen.  Late that summer we shot a sample scene to see if this whole thing would be feasible… We judged that it was.
A still from the original Shadows showpiece. Chris has undergone 217 hair colour changes since then.

It wasn’t until the following summer (2010) that we went into full production, shooting most of the film in a dusty barn down a remote fen road.  Post-production started during October of that year, once we’d deconstructed our blue screen studio.  Our first task was to create a rough cut, or a ‘blue edit’, as everything was still against our monochrome background.  It wasn’t until April 2011 that we’d edited the entire film (clocked at over 2 hours long) and the next stage of post-production could begin.

And, nearly two years on, that’s the stage we’re still on now – getting rid of the blue and creating the world that our characters live in.  We always had a good idea that this stage was going to be very intensive and very time consuming.  I guess the one thing we’ve learnt is that no matter how adept you get at creating these visual effects, there are never any easy scenes and there’s no quick way of going about it.

At first, I personally wasn’t hands on in creating the visual effects, but seeing that we were progressing at a slow rate, I decided it was best if Chris trained me up on the techniques so that I could be working on it too and take some of the workload off him.  Fortunately I’d been on hand to see most of what Chris had already created, so I was in the best possible position to take on the job.
The art direction department had an easy job in the blue screen studio.

So that’s how we’ve been operating since June of last year.  We’ve often been asked during the post-production stage how far we are through it, and we may have glossed over that subject in our answers.  I have actually had a very good idea about how many scenes we’ve completed for a little while now.

And how many have you done, hmmmm, Richard? Well... the good news is we’re past half way now, the bad news is we’re not that far past half way.   However, we have been doing the more difficult scenes first.  At the beginning of January Chris and I had a good look at everything there was left to do and shared the scenes out between ourselves.  Based on what we’ve completed so far, we’ve also come up with a realistic timescale for completing the entire thing.  We anticipate we’ll complete the visual effects some time in the summer, and then use the remaining months of the year doing the next edit, sorting out the sound, finalising the soundtrack etc.  Our goal is to have a finished film by Christmas (and yeah I know we said that way back in 2011).

Don’t be surprised if we go over that schedule and complete it in 2014 (as much as I don’t want to), but I can’t see us going very far into 2014 at all if we do.  For now we’re definitely focused on completing this year.
An artist's impression of how the future will look when Shadows of a Stranger is finally completed.

And there we have it.  That’s exactly where we’re at.  Better get back to work now.