…Go To War

In my last post I talked about my role as a Make Up Artist on the short film Crossed Paths. I talked about how I created make up effects for each of the two leads and gave a brief synopsis of the film, which was made by young people in Crawley.

I also worked as the Art Director for the film, making key props and dressing the locations. A lot of the action in the film takes place in a small square with shops and a pub where the characters hang out.

One scene required filming in a shop where Aaron gets a job. We were lucky to find a shop in the square where we were shooting that allowed us to film on their premises over night. The shop was closing down and the owners agreed to leave behind their remaining stock for us.

There wasn’t enough stock to fill the shop, which was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to fill the front of the shop, the till area and a central aisle. It was a good couple of hours of shuffling stock around while the crew filmed scenes outside. As often happens with set and props work, the crew only ended up using a portion of the set but I was very happy with how it all looked under the lights.

Aaron’s neighbour Hasan has given him a job in his shop, but they soon come to blows over Aaron’s growing right wing views. When Aaron’s new friend and N.E.M. member Joe asks Aaron to post flyers about their march in Hasan’s shop, Hasan objects and Aaron quits.

We used a local pub as the meeting place for the N.E.M. which was conveniently located in the same square as the majority of our shooting, in Gossops Green. The close proximity of our locations lent itself to the sense of confinement and the intensity of these different cultural groups struggling to live side by side.

The staff of the Windmill Pub were extremely accommodating and nothing like the scary looking thugs we filled their pub with. The pub was already decked out in England flags, which made for a perfect backdrop for the N.E.M. meetings. My work at this location consisted of lighting the scenes and rearranging the pub’s interior to accommodate our equipment and make the most of the location. I repositioned a lot of the furniture and decorations to suit the blocking of each scene, added some more patriotic embellishments and filled the pub with N.E.M. flyers, advertising the march.

We first see the pub when Aaron meets Joe and they go for a pint. Joe is in a similar position to Aaron, out of work and angry at the lack of opportunities. He tells Aaron about the N.E.M. who blame immigration and multiculturalism for the lack of jobs. Joe takes Aaron under his wing and encourages him to come to the next meeting.

In the next scene at the pub we see Aaron becoming indoctrinated into the group as the N.E.M.’s leader rallies them for the march. It was a tough scene to shoot as the interior of the pub was quite dark and the number of wide shots necessary to show the whole group meant that we were limited as to where we could place our lights.

As the N.E.M. are preparing to march, a group of college students plan a counter-demonstration to oppose the right wing group. We filmed the scene in the canteen of Central Sussex College in Crawley.

I decorated the canteen using Stop the N.E.M. flyers, which the protest organiser also hands out during the scene. I created a range of placards for the protest scene, some of which I left unfinished and placed around the canteen along with marker pens, paint and brushes so that our extras could be seen working on them. I also created a large banner to be used later at the protest, which I hung as a backdrop.

The action of the film all builds up to the day of the protest when all of these groups face off against each other.

As this was a Council funded projected we were able to close the roads where we were filming, which was great. It also meant that we had police officers with vehicles on hand who were happy to participate, which really added to the look and feel of the scene.

I made a range of banners and placards for the protest scene, some of which were also used in the earlier canteen scene. I wanted the various signs to look homemade and so I used fairly cheap materials. I also tried to create a difference in style between those belonging to the N.E.M. and those belonging to the students.

It was a strange experience creating protest signs for both sides of the protest, a bit like having split personalities – switching from extreme right-wing hate-speak one minute to anti-fascist imagery the next. I was also a bit worried about what my neighbours would think when I had to leave a lot of the placards outside to dry.

The film was used as part of an anti-extremism project by Crawley Borough Council. It was distributed to schools along with an education pack to help teachers explore the issues raised by the film. The pack also contained further interviews with the characters, which lent more context to the story.

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Walking On A Dream

For my major project at University, I wrote and directed Elysium, a short film based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film combines live action with stop motion animation. I also designed and built sets and puppets for the film.

In the original story, Orpheus’ lover Eurydice is bitten by a snake on the day of their wedding. She dies, and Orpheus travels to the Underworld to beg Hades to return her to him. Hades agrees, but only on the condition that Orpheus leads Eurydice through the Underworld and back to the land of the living without looking at her. Orpheus finds Eurydice and leads her through the Underworld, but at the last minute he looks back to see her and she dies a second time, this time forever.

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In our adaptation of the story, Chris is the Orpheus character and his wife Laura, Eurydice. Laura is in a coma and the doctors have told Chris that there is no hope of her waking up. Chris visits a strange organisation, who offer him the chance to bring Laura back by travelling into her dreams to wake her up. The real world is filmed in live action, on digital video, and the dream world is animated with stop motion puppetry.

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We constructed a hospital set in the studio, using flats that we wallpapered and painted and then hiring hospital props to give it an authentic feel. We visited an amazing company in London that had a huge warehouse full of hospital equipment.

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We wanted the film to have a very stylised look. As we were dealing with fantasy it was really important that the film have a dream like look and fluidity. This was the opening scene and I wanted it to be moving and enigmatic. I chose cold blue lighting and arranged it to look like a spotlight around Laura, focusing attention to the centre of the screen and making the edges of the shot shadowy and vague.The idea of this scene was to introduce Laura and her plight in a way that was heightened, as if it was Chris’s nightmare. I wanted to represent Laura as a Sleeping Beauty and suggest the danger that she is in. I decided to show this by using an imperfect match cut from the tubes in Laura’s hand to a snake coiling itself around her wrist, drawing on the imagery from the original myth.

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We used a real snake for this shot. We hired it from a taxidermist. It hadn’t been stuffed yet and it was being kept in a freezer. We needed to defrost it and keep it in the fridge between takes. It smelt horrible, and it was a pretty gross thing to handle. Our actress had to be really patient and keep her hand perfectly still while we animated it frame by frame. I was really pleased with the final effect.

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For the organisation itself I wanted to create the idea of the afterlife as an inefficient bureaucracy. I had in mind that any organisation that deals with the public en masse – the tax office, the passport office, the job centre is a place of waiting rooms, queues and endless paperwork. If there is an afterlife, then in centuries of human existence it will have been inundated with souls that would be a nightmare to process and organise. For this reason I saw the lord of the underworld as an overworked filing clerk or administrator.

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The passage from the waking world into Laura’s dreams was a difficult one. Not only did the character need to cross a metaphysical plane, but we also needed to make a transition from live action to animation. I have always been attracted to the illusion of cinema and so I decided to represent Chris’s journey as a magic trick of sorts.

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Later in the film we mirrored this shot with the animated Chris.

To further the magic trick imagery we built a box for Chris to climb into. We wanted to create a magic and shamanistic method by which he could make this journey, and we used images of boxes and doors being opened throughout the film.

Chris is shut inside the box with a poisonous snake. We wanted to use the snake to link Chris to Laura through this experience, and also to suggest that the snake’s venom would cause Chris to hallucinate. Chris loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, he is a puppet inside Laura’s mind.

For the first dreamscape, I wanted to create a sort of Dali-esque wasteland. This set represents the outskirts of Laura’s mind which at this stage I wanted to show as a sort of cluttered lost property of artefacts and memories. As we are now in the realms of the imagination and dealing with dream logic, I wanted to create a confused sense of scale. I also love to combine real objects with puppets when I animate which is a theme I developed throughout the sets for this section of the story.

I wanted this to clearly be a female landscape, and so I littered the set with items you might find at the bottom of a woman’s handbag. Laura’s condition throughout the film makes her a distant character, as these sets represent Laura’s internal world, they are a way to provide small character details visually.

Now that Chris has left the physical world, dream logic rules over everything and that includes the dimensions of the sets. Items move between shots and each set was designed to overlap so that we moved between scenes in a fluid way, as if dreaming. The staircase leads up to a landing where the next scene takes place. In order to overlap the two sets we built a detachable stairway into the landing set, so that it could be used for Chris to travel from one set to the other. We also tried to blend the stairway into the wasteland set, covering it in sand so that it seemed to have risen up out of the set organically.

The landing set is a deeper level of Laura’s subconscious, where we begin to see elements of her memories and dreams. The scene is actually based on a recurring nightmare I had as a child, about trying to walk along  hallway without waking someone up. In the layout and lighting of the set I wanted to convey a sense of unease and tension. The landing is narrow and the bannisters of the stairs cast threatening shadows.

We constructed the base for the sets out of dense polystyrene, which I tend to use as a base for most animation sets as it is a good material for pinning the puppets into. This might be the most difficult set I’ve had to build. Firstly, it had so many dimensions, two staircases and landings that needed to be measured out and fitted together perfectly. The staircases then had to be carpeted with adhesive velvet that needed to be cut to fit, then we had to build railings and bannisters. I also needed to be able to remove one set of stairs to slot into the wasteland set for the transition from that scene to this one and in the second scene this set was used for the whole thing needed to fall apart on screen. We had to do a lot of planning and make sure we had all of the shots we needed from each scene before filming the final destruction.


The third set built for the animated segment was the nursery. This scene is probably the most abstract in the film and deals again with a combination of  Laura’s dreams and memories that are difficult to interpret.

With this set we played around with scale again, using a combination of real childhood toys alongside doll’s house furniture and toys that were made to a much smaller scale. I like the strange quality it gives to everything. As we weren’t trying to represent the real world we were able to have a lot of fun with the set and characters for this scene. the Rocking Horse is my favourite puppet, which I will talk about in more detail in a later post. We also created a nightlight effect by cutting stars and crescent moons out of paper and moving it across a spotlight throughout the scene.

Hungry Like The Wolf

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The Hunger was my first stop-motion animated short, which I made with friends at University. It’s a twisted take on the Red Riding Hood fairytale.

There were two main sets involved in the production. One was the forest (pictured above) which we created using a combination of cardboard cut-out trees and papier mache trees on a base of fake grass. We also created a simple backdrop of the night sky, including a light up full moon in 3D relief. We wanted everything to look quite homemade and infantile, as it was an adult take on a children’s story.

I had worked on some basic claymation experiments prior to this, but the Big Bad Wolf was my first fully articulated puppet with an armature. I used styrofoam to shape and bulk out the wolf, whilst keeping the puppet light. I gave him large rounded shoulders, and sank the neck into his chest to give him a more hunched appearance. His posture really helped to bring the character to life, as it informed how the puppet would move. The wolf is hunched over as he creeps through the forest, but he is also a comedy character and so he is cumbersome and loud as he stalks Red Riding Hood.

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We had fun reversing the idea of the Big Bad Wolf, and turned him into the unwitting prey of our Red Riding Hood/Princess character. As the wolf stalks her, he fails to realise that she is luring him into a trap.

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Red Riding Hood kidnaps the Wolf and drags him back to her castle, which was the second set we built for the production, using a combination of fabrics, paper linings and decorations from Doll Houses. Once she has the Wold entrapped in her room she produces a pair of clippers and begins to shave the unconscious wolf, revealing a man beneath the fur.

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The clippers were a puppet in their own right. We produced the effect of the blades moving by creating removable blades of varied lengths that we could alternate in each shot. For ease of animation we made a small pair of clippers for the full sized puppet to hold, and then a larger, moving version in an enlarged puppet hand, which we filmed in extreme close-up. This was one of my favourite shots in the film because of the exaggerated shadow. It has a very B movie feel in its melodrama.

Here is the full film so you can see it all in action plus there are more shorts at my YouTube page.