The Essay | Diary

  • March 1999

  • The following extract is taken from our book, "How To Make Great Short Feature Films: The Making Of Ghosthunter". Published worldwide by Focal Press.

    Amulet's first 16mm film was a short piece called "The Essay". They were fortunate, of course, that they didn’t have to go out looking for cast. The Essay was written for Alison to perform. Simon was director/cameraman.

    Alison: Simon and I wanted to shoot on film – we’d been reading Robert Rodriguez’s book "Rebel Without a Crew" and were inspired to get out there, get a camera and make a film – so we thought, ‘let’s just do it’.

    To drive ourselves along we set ourselves a day in the not too distant future to shoot our film and set about writing our script. Then we set about learning all the things we needed, to make this short 5-minute film. So it was back onto the Internet for more research. I was digesting script-writing books and Simon was busy reading all he could find on the technical aspects of filming.

    Simon: The script we actually wrote very quickly. We discussed a very simple idea, sat at the computer and within an hour, hot from the printer, we had our first draft. We’d decided to film on a Monday as this meant that we could pick up the equipment from the hire centre on the Saturday afternoon. That would give me the whole of Sunday to look at the equipment and get myself familiar with it, it also meant we’d still only be charged for a single days hire.

    They hired an Arriflex 16mm camera from a rental company. Simon had previously gone to the Arriflex web site and downloaded the camera’s manual, which he had read from end to end - probably something very few cameramen have ever done. But he still didn’t quite know what it all meant, since he had never actually held a 16mm camera in his hands.

    Simon: Once I’d hired all the equipment and paid the deposit I said to the girl on the desk, "Now, can I talk to someone who can show me how all this works"? She looked a little surprised but found someone to help. This guy, Steve, came out from the back and asked when we were filming, I said "Monday", he took a deep breath and said, "Well, we’d better get on with it then". He spent two hours with me and was very helpful. I was able to experiment with the camera and the lenses and he gave me a brief overview on the lighting and sound equipment we’d ordered, then wished me the best of luck with the film.

    Then there was the problem of loading the camera. Film stock is not cheap. If it isn’t loaded in the magazine properly, not only might it become fogged, it might scratch or jam as it runs through the camera.

    Simon: I’d practiced at the hire centre with exposed stock and I’d asked Steve to show me all the things that can go wrong when loading the film. I felt fairly confident but when faced with our precious un-exposed stock I wanted to take no chances. I took the changing bag and film stock into a room that didn’t have any windows and turned out the lights. Halfway through loading the magazine I realised I also had my eyes shut – like that would help - but I later discovered that camera assistants often load film with their eyes closed, they say it helps them concentrate when they have to work by touch.

    We were up at the crack of dawn on the Monday, as we had to get everything back to the hire centre before 6pm. I was determined to shoot the film on a single roll on 400’ stock, so we were very tight on ourselves and made sure that we only did a single take on each shot. We almost made it; I spotted a light reflection in a picture on the wall that meant we had to go again on this particular shot. We actually went over by 30’ so it was a good job we decided to buy an extra roll, just in case.

    Alison: Simon was director, cameraman, DoP and sound mixer. I was taking care of the clapper, camera sheets and continuity sheets – then putting them all down quickly and acting when Simon called, "Action". We had a mike taped to a lighting stand and off we went. It was an exhausting day, because it wasn’t just filming and getting all the shots in – but also the unpacking and packing of all the equipment and moving it around, we were also on the 7th floor of an apartment building. All the equipment was due back at 6pm, it was close but we just made it.

    "The Essay" is about a situation that’s familiar to most people: an essay (or a script, or a book) has to be written. You’ve done all your thinking. You’ve sharpened all your pencils. It’s time to start writing. So you get up and make a cup of coffee. Or read the paper. And make another cup of coffee; until it’s the end of the day before the writing has begun...

    Alison: It was a story that was easy to film and it was very exciting to get the rushes back from the lab, "Did it come out? Was it in focus?" Our excitement was tempered though as they’d sent us the wrong tape. We ripped open the parcel, put the tape in the machine, pressed play and settled down to watch a Cadbury’s Crème Egg competition film!

    We eventually, after an agonising wait, got our own rushes and were subsequently whooping around the room when we discovered it was exposed and in focus. We were very pleased in the end. It’s very basic, nothing like "Ghosthunter", but the experience was fantastic, not only from a learning point of view but also from appreciating the jobs of everyone on the set – from focus-puller to runner – how important they all are.