VHS: diary four, the post-production


So it seems that film production is a sandwich. A flavoursome all-action filling (the shoot) with two hefty slices of staring at computer screens slapped either side of it: the writing, and the cut. The mac-bashing bit goes double for yours truly on all my dreams on VHS, as I co-write the soundtrack with angel tech.

I’ve got this pet theory about film music, holding that it has to sound as if it’s in the same ‘space’ as the images. This isn’t to say it literally has to sound as if it’s being bugled from the toilet bowl… but I feel a huge orchestral score, strings, horns and sodding harpsichords, is not really going to suit a drama which barely moves beyond the living room. “VHS” is a light-hearted, uncomplicated sort of film. Never really a work of intense depth. So laying a cooly abstract electronic score around the action would be a bit like constructing something with tact and rigour, then putting an enormously silly hat on top.

Bottom line? When it comes to the music, I’m picky as hell.

Creatively, this translates as: deliberately avoiding the issue for as long as possible. Whilst pulling together various cuts of VHS, editor Stuart Davies and I drop different pieces of music in as placeholders. It helps Mr Davies no end in terms of rhythm and dynamic, but I constantly ask to watch the edit back without the temp tracks. It distracts me too much.


The first rough cuts also tell us that we need to acquire a few more close-ups of our immense collection of tapes… just a few angles, you understand, ones we didn’t have time to grab on set – plus the odd glimpse of hot VCR action. We fill several cardboard boxes full of tapes and haul our way out to Farm Studio on the edge of Bristol, where I spend a happy afternoon in Stanley Kubrick mode, filming my favourite labels with great attention to their arrangement. It probably translates into 2 seconds of screen time, but it’s well worth it.

In the end, the soundtrack is spliced together using some randomly recorded acoustic guitar and an ancient Casio PT-30 that has a habit of detuning when its battery runs low – and very little else in the way of instruments. I’m surprised to find myself gravitating towards some very sweet and naive sounds, but the interplay between the actors seems to call for it… anything else undercuts their natural charm. The final mix is done at Wounded Buffalo, where I happily doddle around the foley booth performing ‘tea-making’ noises, and the grade and online edit (including some amazingly convincing ‘added camera wobble’) are done with surgical precision at the Bristol post-prod powerhouse Films At 59. In the past I’ve usually attended post-production in a composer’s capacity, so the lovely toys available to graders and online editors are relatively new to me. I start thinking about making entire films that look like a moving photocopy.

We then chuck the finished film onto a variety of formats, and begin to fling it around the wider world.

By way of rounding up, here’s an interview I did for Metropotam zine in Romania, after VHS’s screenings at NexT film fest, Bucharest:

Congratulations again for winning the Audience Award. Did you try out the camera? :)

Thanks! Yep, I’ve unpacked and assembled the camera. Very exciting. I’ve already got an idea for a short film I might make… involving a lot of trees… and a dark room.

You mentioned something about dreadful festivals in the ‘Making of’ video for the NexT Festival. Can you tell us something about the biggest Short Film and Independent Film Festivals in the UK? How are they organized and what kind of people attend?

The biggest short film fest in the UK is, luckily for me, in my home town — it’s called Encounters and happens annually in Bristol, over a long weekend at the Watershed cinema complex. It’s great; last year I managed to see 82 films in 2 days. It’s attended by a truly diverse audience… all ages, shapes and sizes.

My other favourite is the Edinburgh Film Festival which has a wonderfully eclectic international programme. I’ve seen one of my favourite film-makers, Yuri Norstein, speak there.

Raindance is probably the best known, taking place in London every year. I’ve never been, but hope to change that this year. They have a fantastic website full of top tips and articles for indie film-makers.

I guess my comments about film festivals on the NexT “Making Of” doc were more about matters of taste than quality per se. I don’t actually think the majority of festivals I’ve been to have been dreadful… it’s just that every so often you attend screenings where a film about domestic abuse will be followed by a film about a car crash, which is then followed by a film of a man masturbating in a shed and crying to himself etc. Short film makers want to make an impact, I know… but sometimes the misery, degradation and death piles up and leaves you with a slightly numb feeling.

I thought Andrei did a fantastic job in the NexT competition programme of balancing contrasting tones and content, so you had a selection of films that felt vibrant, alive, different. For instance, it was wonderful to see my own light-hearted film alongside something stately and poetic like Imn.

Now some questions about All my dreams on VHS! Are you trying to tell us that men are scum?

Oh good lord, no.

No, there’s no gender politics at work here. I’m just telling a story about two specific people, and I think one of them (the woman) is focussed and driven, and the other (the man) is a bit of an airhead. If you look at the room in which the majority of the film takes place, I wanted it to be a sparse version of one of those dens that hi-fi buffs construct for themselves, where they’ll have just an armchair and two speakers arranged for perfect sound. Except in this case, our man has a chair, a TV, and 1,600 video tapes of his own dreams. Somehow I don’t think he lives in the real world…

How did you end up with the running time that you did for All my dreams?

I had a general brief from my producer to write something around 10 minutes, just for practical reasons. Once I had the idea, I wrote like a demon (I think the first draft was completed in 20 minutes!) and discovered I had a 12-page script. Despite various re-drafts and re-thinks it stayed that length right up until the shoot. You add titles, you add credits: bingo, you’ve got a 13 minute film.

Was it supposed to be longer at some point? Shorter?

I did toy with the idea of speeding the edit up to make it slightly shorter. But I just decided that I liked spending time with these two people, and it would be a mistake to mess around with the charm of it.

How much footage did you actually shoot?

We shot for two 12-hour days, and almost didn’t get what we needed to tell the whole story. It was only the generosity and professionality of our cast and crew that meant we were able to quickly capture the last 2 scenes. For a few horrible hours I thought we might have to end the film at the 10 minute mark, on an abrupt moment that would have made it seem like a joke, a shaggy dog story. But we got there in the end.

After a few days in the edit we decided we needed some more pick-up shots of the VHS tapes, so we built a stack of them in a studio outside Bristol and shot another 10 minutes of material. I think, all in all, we had about 90 minutes of footage, an average of 3 takes for every setup we did.

What happened with you and the movie in the months between the completion of this project (October 2008) and NexT Festival (April 2009).

Tanuja (the film’s line producer) made a big list of festivals around the known earth and started sending DVDs to them… and the British Council kindly took “VHS” under their wing… beyond that it’s largely a waiting game. Meanwhile I’ve been working on two theatre commissions and our next short film, which is an attempt to finish a project Tanuja and I began in 2001! It’s called “I Will Do It For Science”.

Going by All my dreams on VHS and your stage play The Dead Phone, you seem to like to play around with science-fiction, fantasy and reality?

Yep. I think I’m also interested in doing so in a very unapologetic, off-hand way that immediately dilutes the sci-fi or fantasy elements. Explaining the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ is the meat of proper sci-fi, but I’m not particularly concerned with that, I just like the dramatic implications you can get from sci-fi ideas, and how they affect the characters. I figure that if I begin by completely ignoring or skipping over the technical details, then hopefully an audience will get the idea pretty quickly and ignore them too.

For instance — in “VHS”, there’s actually a manual for the machine that extracts dreams from James’ head. I wrote pages and pages of technical crap for it, and Jodie, the production designer, created some great images and printed out a prop booklet. You see it for 1 second on screen and then it’s completely forgotten for the rest of the film.

That’s also why you don’t really get to see any of the dreams. It would make the technological process the centre of the film; people would be sitting there judging how ‘dream-like’ the images were, thinking about how they got onto tape. I don’t want them to sit there mulling over the machine, I want them to watch the characters. Plus I think dreams in themselves are not all that interesting; they’re only interesting in what they tell you about a person; and in turn, that means a dream is only truly interesting if you’re close to the person who dreamt it.

Wow. That got deep for a moment, didn’t it? Moving on…

Who’s your favourite Doctor? :)

Ha ha!

That would have to be David Tennant. I didn’t really grow up with any particular Doctor — I spent my childhood in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, in the days before video players, so didn’t see much of the original TV series. I fell in love with Doctor Who through the novels. But I watch the modern series like a kid: open-mouthed, completely rapt. So David it is.

What is the best part about going to a short film festival in a foreign country… besides in your case I guess, winning.

Outside of meeting and talking to all sorts of wonderful people, it’s seeing the film ‘travel’, experiencing how it’s received by different audiences. I was slightly worried that the dry humour of this film wouldn’t necessarily translate. But as soon as the first screening began, and a couple of Romanian guys behind me started laughing, I knew we were going to be OK.

But yeah, the audience award — well, it was such an honour. It’s amazing to receive that kind of vote of confidence for the first public screening of your first film. THANKYOU BUCHAREST!

Are you going to write in your blog about your experiences in at NexT?

Ohhhh yes. I’m a crap blogger, though. I ignore the website for months at a time then suddenly ‘splurge’ on posts. But I’ll get round to it… eventually.