Category Archives: Film discussion

Eye Spy

If you are a fan of the spy genre (which is my favourite) you are in for a treat this year. We have been spoiled with three new trailers just within the last week or so:

Spooks: The Greater Good
Based on the TV series (known as MI5 in the States). Great to see the wonderful Peter Firth back as Harry Pearce (plus Tim McInnerny playing the shifty Oliver Mace). Those familiar to the series will know no-one is ever safe, which should keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation
Rather aptly as abbreviated as MI5. This one was a bit of a surprise, looks great fun. Yes, Tom Cruise did that plane stunt for real! It was also filmed at nearby Blenheim Palace. I just hope it hasn’t given all the best bits away. It also has the original Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) who will hopefully add an additional degree of class.

Spectre
Last but definitely not least – the new Bond teaser. This one also filmed at Blenheim. I must confess, I was worried it would be eclipsed by the MI5 trailer. I needn’t have worried! It is very much its own beast and wisely takes and entirely different (and more broody) approach than the usual slam-blam antics of other trailers. It does exactly what it should – it leaves you wanting more. Fantastic to see a washed-up Jesper Christensen spouting some lovely dialogue in amongst all of the stunning cinematography (which I think looks even more impressive than Roger Deakins efforts for SkyFall).

The only thing I wasn’t entirely convinced about were the toy-chromatics at the end, followed by familiar trailer blasts (I would have opted for something more creepy/less cheesy). But hey, it works well enough.

I should also give an honorary mention to The Man From Uncle.

This looks like Guy Richie keeping his lighter tone and substituting Sherlock Holmes with the 60’s TV series – much like his former collaborator Matthew Vaughn did with violent comic-books (Kickass’ superhero antics vs Kingsmen gentleman spies – yet another spy film which was released this year). For me it offers the opportunity of watching short-listed Bond candidate Henry Cavill in action.

There is also Steven Spielberg’s cold-war thriller “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks which I can’t wait to see. Also nice to see the ladies get a shout as well in the comedy “Spy” (which stars Rose Bryne who made the short-list for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale). But right now for me – it’s all about that Bond teaser!

It looks like 2015 is shaping up to be the year of the spy.

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Not so super

The other night I watched the latest Spiderman film (The Amazing Spiderman 2), Spiderman 2.2 if you like. There was a lot to like about it on some levels: it looked fantastic, it was exciting + well paced considering the two and a half hour runtime, the lead characters (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone) were superb and had genuine chemistry. In fact I’d even go so far to say that Garfield is pitch perfect as both Peter Parker and Spiderman (especially if you are familiar with the comics). Yet despite having much in its favour, there was an awful lot “off” about it.

Spidey

1. Some scenes were far too convenient for their own good. Plausibility was beyond breaking point in the same way Silva calculated all of Bond’s moves in Skyfall (and interestingly one such scene is also set in an abandoned subway station).

2. The baddies were all under-developed (a shame as Dane DeHaan did some fine work here). Everything plotting their fall from good to evil felt rushed, incomplete and false. It appears they tried to juggle too many baddies in a single installment again, generally a recipe for disaster (even if it is isn’t anywhere near the disaster Batman and Robin or Spiderman 3 were).

3. It seems the script-writers were ticking boxes for the studio. The actors are let down by a clunky/poor script which is more interested in setting up merchandising and future installments rather than actually telling a good story (Iron Man 2 syndrome)!

4. The core problem (which ties in with the other points): it was really two movies masquerading as one. So instead of having two good movies with genuine punch/pay-off we end up with a frustrating mess of a movie.

5. Inappropriate music. Songs are shoe-horned in but they don’t fit the tone of the film (the end-credits in particular). Hans Zimmer (the “new” Danny Elfman?) turns in another bland super-hero score – the “wub-wub” stylings trying too hard to be edgy and cool (no – it’s like every other damn action trailer I’ve seen in the past two years). Shouldn’t it be “ELECTRO” rather than “DUBSTEP” anyway? The score feels a mixed bag (much like the film itself) despite a nice rousing brassy-blast for Spidey’s theme and suitably sinister motif for Osborn (which is itself ripping off Inception and Inside Man). Personally I like more consistency in my scores. The last three Spidey films in the franchise have all had different composers/themes, time to give Mr Elfman a call again!

Ultimately what is my real problem? I’m suffering Franchise fatigue towards Superhero films (which seem to be all that play in cinemas these days – thanks very much Marvel!). The initial blame could perhaps be leveled at The Dark Knight. Now we have Marvel setting up The Avengers universe and releasing a new film each year, DC trying to get in on the action with Superman/Batman/Justice League. X-men has already had spin-offs with Wolverine, there is a new X-men film out this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Mystique film in the near future. Now there is Spiderman setting up The Sinister Six. The Spiderman franchise was already rebooted in its relative infancy and everything still feels a retread of the Raimi films. I’ve just read that Daredevil will be the next to get the reboot treatment. Great, we all want that one!

To be perfectly blunt – this genre is becoming dull and clichéd. Even the marketing falls into cliché: the director of the current installment always announced in advance as being the director of future installments (ala Captain America 2/3, Man of Steel/Superman vs Batman/Justice League, X-men, The Amazing Spiderman 2/3) as if to create a false sense of spectacle. Of course the next installment will always be bigger better etc. and will end in yet another destruction of some city. And please remember to stay for the end-credits if it’s a Marvel film (This new Spiderman film features perhaps the most bizarre “Easter Eggs” ending of all – completely unrelated to the franchise). I’d love to see this genre take a sabbatical and come back when it has something which is fresh and new to say. Sadly this doesn’t appear to be the case and it looks like we are going to endure many more years of spin-offs and “the same old”. Hmm – perhaps Batman and Robin wasn’t so bad after-all!

After the Bombs

Most of the films shown at Film Oxford’s monthly 10×10 meetings showcase documentaries/causes/charity work. This month had a fictional film in the mix called “After the Bombs”.

After the Bombs

During this session I realised the following:

1. In film terms I prefer fictitious work over factual pieces. This is the polar opposite of how I generally feel about books.

2. In the 10×10 sessions people tend to be much more critical of fictional work. The audience are more forgiving towards documentary work (even if details are incorrect, an argument is one-sided or the quality of coverage/footage is poor).

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Catch-up

Apologies for this posting being a bit of a mixed hodge-podge (I will try to keep it brief). With most of my outstanding projects now dusted off – I’ve been out hobnobbing with other local film-makers at various socials. Discussions about what we’ve been up to, various projects and some techy stuff (warning: the next part might contain some geek-speak):

We have all been talking about lenses, speed-boosters, new Zoom vs Tascam audio recorders and of course the (once again) delayed Black Magic Pocket Camera.

BMPC

Phil Bloom has recently posted a couple of online reviews for this camera. It looks exciting indeed, but it is also good that he points out both good and bad points:

Good: portability, aesthetics, 13 f-stops of dynamic range, removable battery, no touch-screen, active MFT mount

Bad: the battery life (ouch!), limited SD cards and sound recording issues. Of course the biggest drawback right now is it’s availability (which appears to have been delayed for yet more time).

You can see Phil’s reviews below (part one being initial impressions, part two being how it performs in the field):

Hopefully we may be able to conduct a few of our own Panasonic GH3/Black Magic Pocket Camera tests in the near future when it is finally shipped. I know I am curious to see how the two look side by side.

So what next?
Who knows! Some of us discussed the possibility of entering The Nation Archives “Files of film” competition, although we have clearly left this a bit late. We turned our attention to spit-balling concepts and ideas. I came up with a crazy idea (for once!). Nothing significant as of yet, just a concept (which is essentially a mash-up of genres, but it is something which would be great fun and has an instant “hook”). Everyone seemed to endorsed the concept so fingers crossed it might have legs! I have also been chatting to other film-makers at the 10×10 event held in Oxford recently. Being as I am on the look-out to help out on other film projects right now – hopefully I’ll be reporting some new developments in due course.

Casting Doubts: Batman

Last Friday, the world awoke to the news that Ben Affleck will be the new cinematic incarnation of Batman. This was to largely inglorious and negative  backlash. I’ll be the first to admit I am not Affleck’s greatest fan (plus he is a better director than actor). Does anybody remember what happened last time he played a super-hero in Dare Devil? Yet despite this, I am still going to give him a fair chance.

WidescreenBatman2

There is no doubt that this is not who I would have picked for the role. But then neither was Matt Smith as The Doctor. Neither was Daniel Craig as James Bond. And look how those turned out. Even in Batman’s own Universe –  both Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger were derided at the start. Poor old George Clooney frequently goes on record and beats himself up over the Batman and Robin saga. Again he wasn’t a casting choice I would have made, but the problems with that movie shouldn’t be attributed to Clooney (in fact I would even argue he was one of the better things about the whole sorry film). Sometimes going with an unsafe choice is interesting, especially if the actor has something to prove.

I suspect if anything the success with this new Superman vs Batman project will hinge on having a decent script. If I am honest, the story concept is the thing I have the biggest issue with right now (although this might ultimately prove unfounded). Benefit of the doubt! One of the more intriguing questions for me is whether Hans Zimmer will return and mix in some of his Dark Knight motifs to the Man of Steel. That could be interesting.

For me, the work of Danny Elfman (and to a lesser degree the largely underappreciated work of Elliot Goldenthal) take me to the heroic swirling gothic world of the Batman comics. I find Hans Zimmer’s Batman music mostly generic which could be used in almost any action film (even if it does fit the “everyday” tone of Nolan’s films). This said there is one theme he composed which never fails to rouse me. Last night, I decided to take the keyboard and create my very own take on that theme. This was great fun to make and the part just after the minute mark is the rousing bit I refer to:

Purse Strings

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a big fan of film-teaching guru Chris Jones. Not only is he willing to share his wealth of film-making experience, he has a rare candid honesty making him extremely affable. Recently he posted two blog entries about film music, which as you may know is a subject close to my own heart.

I found the latest one about hiring an orchestra an absolutely fascinating tale. I applaud both Chris for promoting it and Josephine Halbert for getting out there, doing it, sharing the experience and listing the steps. Perhaps I am also experiencing a bit of Macedonian fever after watching The Third Half.

The second post was Chris’ notes to composers. This one I found interesting and I agree with the majority of his advice, but some of this is also down to the personal taste of the director. I would agree that small is often more beautiful. It can be argued too many people are overloading their music and trying to make everything sound like over-dramatic trailer music/Hans Zimmer.  Even I have recently fallen foul of this (albeit intentionally).

But the problem is that music tends to be one of the most subjective things on the planet, along with humour. If I asked everyone reading this post who their favourite band or composer was, would we all pick the same?

In terms of music, I don’t claim to be an expert. The majority of music I compose, I do out of love and it’s usually tailored to my own musical tastes. I play by ear, I have no musical training – but I love composing. I tend to approach film-composing slightly differently. I try hard to raise the bar with this work. It has to fit, be thematic, a character in its own right. This is important to me.

This passion all stems from my very first film. I had an excellent score written for it, one which worked fine. Yet something was niggling away at me. It was technically extremely accomplished, but it was synthetic, cold and clinical – which it could be argued DID suit the visuals accompanying the film. But I really wanted to give the film more heart. By this point the composer (who was an established games composer) had run out of time to change things with other projects piling up in the background. He composed the score as a favour. It was at this point I decided to buy a Midi keyboard, a DAW, research, acquire some virtual instrument libraries and get to work. To be honest I’ve never looked back.

Midi

The score was composed within a week. I probably didn’t sleep much that week, I was probably completely unbearable to be around – but hey – I was ecstatic with the result. Sure, it was lacking some of the technical finesse which the original score had, but mixing synthetic sounds with traditional orchestral ones  gave the film the heart I was seeking. Next came the important part – testing both scores on people. I didn’t tell people anything about them, so it was an amazing feeling when the majority went with the more traditional score over the synthetic one. Of course, some did like the other score, which is also absolutely fine also. Subjective! It’s interesting how both scores work in different ways – such is the power of music in film. There is a blu-ray with both scores on and it which makes for an interesting “extra” on the disc.

The other score I feel particularly proud of is Legacy. As the film is about an abused childhood, I wanted to invoke certain tones. It had to cover a range of different character emotions. I sourced instruments that I felt supported the piece. For internalising I’d use weird electronic ambiences. I used a music box instrument and whirly tubes (which gave things a really nice eerie atmosphere) to symbolise a childhood crumbling away. There are some singing glasses which are used to bring out the brittle and fragile nature of the main character. There are some tender flutes, soft pianos, strings and a basic “ahhh” choir to add a little more warm backing. This isn’t the entire picture – but here are some end credits to give you a bit of a taster:

Anyway, enough about me banging on about this. Essentially I believe there are no rules between traditional and synthetic. I don’t see any reason of using one over the other, or both – so long as it is true to the tone of the film. Here are a few comments (also arguable subjective) which I’d like to add being as I have seen both side of the equation:

1. As a director if you are able to compose yourself,  why not go for it? Not only is it great fun – you can also make sure you get the results required and hit the moments you wanted. Need convincing? Well John Carpenter, Robert Rodriguez, Clint Eastwood, Alejandro Amenábar, Dario Argento and David Lynch all have done this! Composing and editing can also go extremely well together also, such as John Ottman (Usual Suspects, X-men 2).

2. Make sure the musical tone fits the work in question. This is fundamental! I would say that I spend more time finding the correct tone and spotting than I do composing. The mock-ups happen generally quite quickly. I then spend quite a bit of time tweaking things to make sure they sound right after this.

3. Composers should keep it clean, there is a tendency to over-complicate. Experiment by all means, but a bit of nicely placed subtly and restraint will go a lot further than over-orchestrating or trying to be clever with the “whistles and bells”. Don’t try *too* hard! It should be organic and natural. You know when it happens.

4. Make sure everyone is aware of rights. One of the good things about getting a solo composer who uses sound libraries and a keyboard to compose is that the rights are likely to be significantly less tiresome, expensive and time-consuming.

5. As already said, music can be extremely subjective. Ask me how you think one scene should be scored, I will give you one answer. If you ask another director, you will probably get an entirely different view.

6. Obviously every film-maker/composer wants to work with an orchestra, just like every director/DOP wants to work with the best equipment they can obtain. This is only natural. If you can afford to get an orchestra, fine – go off get an orchestra.  The costs will vary depending on how much music you have and where you are recording it (most probably in the £4K-20K bracket). It will sound better with greater nuance. And yes, you will get the buzz of seeing the orchestra perform music live to your film in a recording studio. But also consider these simple realities:

i) Chances are your film will struggle to be profitable. If it is, that’s brilliant, thanks for reading my blog, hire me next time and I’ll happily do the orchestra thing for you! 🙂 Most indie film-makers can’t really afford this luxury. You can definitely get a professional sounding midi soundtrack for significantly less. And I mean significantly! There is an overwhelming amount of talent out there, people willing to prove themselves. This will save you money which you can spend on other areas of the production (eg. promotion).

ii) Seasoned professionals might be able to tell the difference between a live orchestra and a midi keyboard. But the gap is closing and things are becoming more convincing as time progresses. The bottom line is that this music will likely be mixed down anyway and when done well – the audience can’t tell the difference, plus they won’t care either! Simply put, a good score is a good score. And a bad score is far more likely to be noticeable than a good one, unless your name is John Williams! 🙂

iii) You could still use a handful of live performances to add more depth to a midi track. This is almost certainly going to work out cheaper than organising an entire orchestral ensemble. Some virtual instruments work better synthetically than others. Strings tend to work well, brass can be trickier.

iv) Time is money. Composing on a keyboard is a lot quicker. You have less people to deal with. The scoring part has probably been left to the last moment. Any last-minute changes are far more likely to be accommodated!

Right – I now feel the need to tickle the ivories (okay – it’s a synth), so watch this space! And if you need a composer for your production for a reasonable rate send me an email… 🙂

Meanwhile if there are any potential film-makers out there who might be sitting on the fence as to whether to attend Chris’ next Masterclass – just do it! It will be some of the most worthwhile  money you’ll ever spend. You will meet fantastic people. You will learn lots. You will come away shattered. You will be inspired.

Premiere League

Last week I was in conference manager mode overseeing the official UK premiere for the Macedonian film The Third Half.

ThirdHalf01

I will no-doubt review the film soon, but this isn’t the main focus of this post. Like most event management – organising a premiere is an exhausting process requiring a ridiculous amount of forethought and planning  (for what essentially lasts only a few hours). If it goes well, it should be seemless. If it doesn’t, well that doesn’t even bear thinking about!

Having run a couple of my own film premieres in the past, I was already reasonably aware of the type of requirements involved. This was on a grander scale however. We needed to make sure everything would run smoothly but there were a couple of bumps to overcome beforehand:

1. The local AV support team were down in numbers or unavailable to cover the event. Therefore I had to step up and make sure I was completely up-to-speed on any technical issues which might/might not occur during the evening.

2. The film was passed on in a format which would not work with our systems. I needed to convert the film into a compatible form. This wasn’t totally straight-forward and took a bit of time to figure out. The biggest obstacle were the subtitles.

3. Despite having a guest-list it was impossible to predict the exact numbers attending (film journalists/media were invited, but we were not sure if they were going to show). This made things interesting as a drinks reception planned for the end of the evening. It needed to be flexible, classy but not  over-indulgent. We couldn’t afford go wildly over-budget or under-cater, a surprisingly tricky balance.

4. We were planning to do a Q&A with the director Darko Mitrevski. Unfortunately it transpired Darko would in LA for the premiere date agreed, so we needed to do this using the wonders of technology (also factoring in any time-differences). This created some additional complexity to the event.

Thankfully, I’m happy to say all the hard work paid off and the entire team helping (many of whom were volunteers) did a fantastic job. There is usually something a bit magical about a film premiere. Even though I was there in an official capacity, I’m pleased to say that this was no exception. Well done to all involved!