It seems a very long time ago that I was approached by my (then) housemate, Charlie Steeds, and asked if I would like to work with him on his new film, “Erotic Green”. At this point in time I was still at film school, had only just started The Night Factory and, above all, still felt quite insecure about my filmmaking skills. A few months earlier we (The Night Factory) had been working with Charlie to shoot the most ambitious film he had ever made – “God Will Fall”. I had been the Camera Operator on this project – a role that I had always enjoyed and felt very comfortable in. For Charlie to ask me to then step up and DP “Erotic Green” was a huge thing to think about. Up until this point I had never really wanted, or felt that I had the skill, to light and shoot a film myself. My only lighting experience had been in theatre or nightclub work – surely film lighting would be completely different? Despite my slight concerns about my abilities, I accepted Charlie’s request, started work on “Erotic Green”.
The script had actually been planned to be shot quite some time before I became involved, but due to unforeseen problems the shoot had been cancelled. Despite the fact it was now being made after (almost) “God Will Fall”, it was quite a lot shorter and appeared to be less ambitious. This was all due to the fact that Charlie just wanted it to be done, and not to worry about raising money for it. This meant we had to work with what we could find for free. Previously we had used a rented Blackmagic Cinema Camera, but with the lack of money available for “Erotic Green” I had to look elsewhere. Luckily I managed to borrow a 5D Mkiii from a friend. Up to this point I had never actually shot any video on a DSLR. After several nights of reading online and shooting test footage, I started to get my head round it. Lighting equipment came from the Film School, as well as my own selection of theatrical lighting. At this point I already felt less than confident. I was using a camera I was new to, using lighting I was not sure would be suitable for the task, and also in a role I was inexperienced in.
The shoot itself took place over several weekends in several different months, and in several different locations. It was not planned this way, but due to commitments from other projects, we all had limited time. On the plus side however, it did give me plenty of time to plan each location before we shot it!
The first, and most daunting, scene to shoot was the nightclub. This was built in one of the small studios at Met Film School in true “Steeds” style. The walls were made of fabric, the stage was made of tables, and the props were from his bedroom. As usual, however, it managed to hold up, and look really quite convincing. Then it was my turn to add the lighting. As per my plan I used as much rigged top lighting as I could. This was both for the ease of shooting, as we could virtually point in any direction, and also to match what one might actually see in a nightclub. I used strong red colours to backlight the stage, with a very cold blue spotlight from the front. This was contrasted with several green uplighters around the walls to bring out the colour of the fabric. I then used some small tungsten fresnels to pick out the areas of key action in both harsh backlight and defused sidelight, and finally a mirror ball to really cement the atmosphere of a club. Once the smoke had been added, and the extras sat in, it all started to look really authentic. The shoot in this location took two days. Two days of hard, fast work and everyone getting covered in fake blood. As this was mostly the climax of the film it allowed us to know from early on that “at least the ending would work”.
The second set was the long corridor (made out of fabric). For this I wanted to keep the top light, mainly for ease, and the green from the club. I simply rigged small fresnels all the way down the corridor in alternating green/open white. The majority of the scenes shot in here were on a glidecam. This was something else I was very new to, and unfortunately didn’t master very quickly. However, the main shots it was need for came out reasonably stable!
The third set was the storeroom where the monster was kept. This actually became a very challenging set to light, mainly due to my lack of planning. For some reason in my mind I had thought that it would be really easy, but it certainly was not. The sources of light were broken up shafts of light from the ceiling, with some low power ambient fill from ground level. The main problem for me was finding the sweet point between it looking too naturalistic and too stylised. Due to the limited capabilities of the camera, the contrast between the back/toplight and the fill was quite often too much. Then there was the problem of getting interesting shadows without plunging the actors into darkness when they moved. After we had lost quite some time trying to perfect it, we accepted what it was, and went with it.
The next set of locations were all in our house. The bedroom scene gave me an opportunity to try some more naturalistic, almost beauty, lighting. I remember actually using flags and silks properly for the first time, as well as a light meter, which I think was mainly to make me look more knowledgeable! The bathroom scene was deliberately the most naturalistic in the film because we wanted to set the horror of the action against a very plain soft background. I simply diffused the windows and punched as much light as I could through them. I then used bounce boards inside the room to soften everything as much as I could. The kitchen and hall scenes were a good chance to use “classic” moonlight. I had hazy shafts of blue light through the windows giving long shadows and some lovely silhouettes.
The final scenes to be shot comprised of Chinatown (one night, one actor and us, just walking around not really knowing what were were doing) and the scene out the back of the club. Due to us not really being allowed to be there I had to use battery lights such as LED Panels, and also bike lights!
This finally brought the whole process to and end. Luckily Charlie found that the footage from the camera was exactly what he wanted, so therefore did not need grading (which was lucky). This meant that I did not really have any post production to do at all!
Making this film taught me a huge amount. It threw me in to the deep end on a project that I was actually passionate about, and therefore had to work hard to deliver the standard I felt it deserved. It forced me to find myself a style in lighting, as well as camera work. It gave an opportunity to see what it was like to be the DP. I had to read the script all the more thoroughly to understand the dramatic direction of each scene, and how the look of the film could reflect that. I also had to work differently with the director. Not only did I have to present a shot list, but I also had to go over the lighting plans and image styles. On set I was now the person that I would usually ask questions, and I had to have those answers.
Luckily, it turned out that I actually quite enjoyed this new experience. Yes it was nerve-racking, would this lighting work, would I have enough, is the colour right, does it match, but very quickly I felt that I was in control. I also greatly enjoyed the experience of having a very small crew. Most of the time it was just myself, Charlie and a sound man. This meant decisions were made quickly and there was less time wasted explaining it to a crew. It also meant that I got to do other things, such as set building, which might normally get left to someone else. I am very thankful that I was asked to do this project as it has now opened my eyes to the possibility of doing further projects in the role of DP, and also changed how I watch films and observe others on set.