Thursday, 31 July 2014

It All Started With a Text...

I still remember clearly a particular moment one day in July five years ago. It was break time in my day job, and my phone buzzed with a text message from Chris. He’d been having some thoughts about the future and had come up with a few options. Either we gave up on filmmaking or it was time to just bite the bullet and make our own film.

A couple of months previously, Chris had read my Shadows of a Stranger script (or Strangers as it was simply called back then). It wasn't written as a script that two filmmakers with no money could make in the rural land of Lincolnshire. It was a multi-million pound film to be shot in a sprawling city. But Chris had a plan, which he mentioned in the text, and which was crystallised in my head when we watched Sin City a few nights later. We would shoot the whole thing on blue screen, get all the performances on camera before putting them in a stylised world in post-production.

Actors in the blue... The 'Before'...
I was immediately sold by the idea. In all honesty, I didn’t have much else going for me at the time, and it would be a dream to make my own script with the ambition that Chris was showing.

The downside was that with a 2 hour feature shot entirely on blue screen, it was going to give us a hell of a lot of post-production work to do. I didn’t imagine that it would be five years before we reached the finish line, but that was the case, essentially to the day that Chris had sent me that text. I still have that particular text you see, as it was on an old phone which I happened to replace soon after. So I know that today, the 31st July, is exactly 5 years since he sent it, the moment the Shadows of a Stranger journey started.

My old mobile phone - isn't it amazing how much they've come on in the last 5 years?

The other day I was watching some of the bonus features on the season 7 DVD of 24. One little video took my interest in particular because it was about the program makers’ use of green screen. I know green screen is used a lot these days, but shows such as 24 aren’t really associated with green screen being an intrinsic part of the production process.

The video informed how green screen was used in a small scene in an airport. To save on production costs, this scene was actually shot with the actor on green screen, which was then superimposed onto a background plate of the baggage collection in Washington airport. Instead of lugging an entire crew with actor into a busy location, it was deemed simpler to plop a camera in the airport to film a quick bit of footage, and then film the actor in the much more controllable environment of the green screen studio.

Another green screen shot before and after: Jack Bauer and Tony Almeida in Washington.
I bet all of that new series where Jack is in London was all filmed in a green screen studio in Los Angeles.

In essence, that was the reasoning behind why we took this approach with Shadows of a Stranger. The chroma screen route has enabled both of us to tell our stories using the budget available.

Whilst you wouldn’t really know this scene in 24 was shot on green screen because you wouldn’t be expecting it or looking for it, obviously our project has been described as a blue screen film from the outset, and so the audience would have preconceptions about how our film is going to look and feel. Our blue screen approach isn’t therefore meant to be one giant trick – can you believe this whole thing isn’t real and was in fact shot on blue screen??? Nope, that wasn’t our plan. The blue screen route has enabled us to tell our story, but we’ve also embraced the limitations that blue screen brings and built our style around that.

But seeing this 24 featurette after 5 years of working on this project was reassuring in a sense, that we would have something in common with a massive television production. With a big budget we would certainly have been out in the real world shooting our film. The ultimate goal though has been to tell a story using the resources available as creatively as possible.

The After: this is how that scene above ended up.
So now it’s all finished, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what the world makes of our film. And I guess whatever I do next, if 24 is anything to go by, I probably haven't seen the last of working with green screens and blue screens!


  1. A long and fruitful journey - one I'm very happy to have been associated with, if only briefly... Now to see the finished product. When's the premiere?

  2. Thanks, Tim. Currently in the process of organising a date in September but will let you know when it's booked.