Writer, director, editor, camera operator, composer, VFX artist and actor, surely that’s too much work for just one person? Not if you’re Scott Tanner…
“I also wanted to make the film in a way that was sustainable or at the very least, low impact.”
Wex Photo Video: Can you describe the type of filmmaking you normally do?
Scott Tanner: I’ve been working as a full-time digital media officer for video at The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association [Guide Dogs] since summer 2016. I make video content for our online and social channels. Collectively, my projects for Guide Dogs have amassed over seven million views. The work is challenging and varied, and I get to meet inspirational people and their amazing dogs, but it's predominantly non-fiction. The WexShorts film competition gave me the opportunity to scratch a narrative filmmaking itch that had been growing for several years, since my last proper short film.
W: How did you come up with the concept?
ST: Ancestors was made specifically for the WexShorts film competition, although I knew I wanted to make a short film this year. I've always had an interest in ancient history and archaeology, and I've often wondered how the world of today will be regarded by future generations in hundreds or even thousands of years’ time. It's a concept I wanted to explore in a film, I just wasn't sure how until I heard about WexShorts. The theme of sustainability made me think about how our impact on the world, now, will affect our legacy and how future generations might regard us. Ancestors takes a fairly pessimistic view that we'll have totally wrecked the planet, which I hope doesn't actually happen!
When writing the script, I was mindful of what locations I knew I had access to, what props I thought I could source and what visual effects I had time to create. I also wanted to make the film in a way that was sustainable or at the very least, low impact. I spent several hundred pounds on my last short film and it never went anywhere, so with Ancestors I set out to spend nothing. I usually occupy multiple roles on my films, so making it entirely myself was only a small stretch from the norm. I also banned myself from driving to the location, to cut down the film's carbon footprint.
Scott maximised his limited time by adhering to a strict production schedule.
W: Can you tell us about your pre-production process?
ST: Pre-production lasted about four weeks. During that time, I honed the script, recced locations, designed and modelled the spaceship, built props, made costume details and tested as much as I could. I tried out different lenses, trialled some visual effects shots and even dragged a suitcase full of kit around the location to test its suitability (I knew the terrain would pose a challenge). I didn't do full storyboards for Ancestors (I often don't), but I almost always do thumbnail sketches in the margins of the script to help me visualise shots. They may be basic, but they do get me thinking about where I'm going to place the camera, how I might block a scene and what visual effects might be required.
The exterior scenes were shot on one long, cold day in late February. I insisted on taking public transport to the location, meaning a journey that would have taken me twenty minutes to drive actually took two hours and involved three buses. Then I spent eight hours lugging around my little cabin suitcase full of kit and props, on a seven-mile round trip, in close-to-zero temperatures. That was a tough day, but at least it was sunny – a week later and I'd have been trudging through snow at -8°C...
The following week I shot all the green screen material in my bedroom. My prior tests helped me adjust my lighting setup to get a better key from the footage. I then had a very tight post-production schedule through March, to finish the film in time for submission – this wasn't helped by the fact I had to leave the country for five days to go to Rome. I was also neck-deep in shooting two big projects for work and editing a third. So basically, every day in March consisted of spending eight hours a day working on films for work and the other eight hours working on Ancestors.
W: This was a lot of work for just one person to pull off. Can you tell us a bit more about how you managed it?
ST: Ever since I started filmmaking, I've always had to do most of the work myself. When I was a teenager, it was because no one else I knew was interested in filmmaking, but nowadays it's because I don't like asking my filmmaker friends to work for nothing. Writing, shooting, editing and doing the VFX didn't pose too much of a challenge, because they're all tasks I do daily for work. Acting while directing and shooting was challenging. I normally wouldn't recommend it and still think I would have shot a nicer looking film, had I been behind the camera exclusively. At least – by being the writer as well – I understood all the character motivations and emotional beats.
For me, the most challenging aspect was writing the music. I'm not musically talented in any way and my only experience of writing music was mucking about with MIDI instruments in Cubase. But since I couldn't buy music and I'd set myself the goal of doing everything myself, I had to create my own score. I'm sure to a trained ear, the music sounds terrible but I'm quite proud of my little Blade Runner/Interstellar-inspired soundtrack – especially considering I made it in two days.
W: Did you experience any unexpected challenges during the project?
ST: When I arrived at the first location, I tried to finish attaching details onto my costume and some of them proved troublesome. I made the silver strips, on my shoulders, out of tinfoil mounted onto double-sided sticky foam. But guess what? It’s no longer adhesive at 3°C and nor is camera tape! Dealing with this constantly throughout the day took time and put me behind schedule.
By reducing my lunch break to ten minutes and rejigging the schedule, I eventually caught up and managed to shoot nearly everything I wanted to. I had just finished, and was heading to the exit, when I got chased by a cow… Yes, a cow! I guess it thought my suitcase had food in it.
W: What gear did you use?
ST: I shot Ancestors on a Panasonic LUMIX G7 in 4K and using the Cinelike V picture profile. It’s actually my work camera (Shhh, don't tell them). I wanted to shoot anamorphic footage using my SLR Magic Anamorphot Adapter 1.33x 50, but this tends to introduce some softness to the image – the decision to shoot in 4K and downsample during the export was partially to combat this. I paired the G7 and Anamorphot adapter with my personal lenses: a Panasonic 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 G Vario ASPH Power OIS, Olympus 12mm f/2 M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED and Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 Nokton II. The green screen footage was shot without the Anamorphot to produce the cleanest image for keying. I then reintroduced chromatic aberration and barrel distortion into the VFX shots, in post, to match the look of the Anamorphot.
I had to keep my kit to a minimum, when shooting on location, to save both weight and space. I somewhat optimistically packed a lighting stand, battery-powered LED light, and 5-in-1 reflector, but had no time to set the light up and the winds were too strong to permit the use of the reflector. Sound was captured using an old RØDE VideoMic and a Zoom H1.
W: Can you tell us about your post-production process?
ST: One benefit of writing, shooting and cutting a film on your own is it streamlines the editing process. I was making preemptive editing decisions while sketching those thumbnails and played around with the edit in my head, well before I got on location. I shot less coverage than I normally do, because I knew I wouldn't need it. I still seized opportunities to grab interesting shots on the day, if I discovered a new angle or the light was better in a particular direction. It's important to have that flexibility, because it can really save you in the edit.
I've been editing all of my personal projects in VEGAS since 2007 – initially, in the cheaper Movie Studio Platinum editions. But, Ancestors is the first short film I've cut in VEGAS Pro 15. I'm getting better at Adobe Premiere Pro, thanks to my day job, but I can still work faster in VEGAS. Plus, I really like its sound editing tools.
Initially, I approached each scene without dialogue, selecting shots and cutting for pacing and movement. I then did a second pass with a temporary voiceover, which helped me to trim the edit further. I added in the green screen footage on my third pass. I had to guesstimate how long some visual effects would last, as I hadn't made them yet.
The spaceship was modelled, animated and rendered in Anim8or, a free and easy-to-learn 3D modelling and animation program. It's very basic in comparison to, say, Blender (which totally baffles me). I've been using Anim8or for over a decade and know how to get the best out of it. I drew lots of sketches of potential ship designs before settling on the dragonfly one. It then took three weeks to model and texture, and another week to rig and animate.
I also modelled the lab interior in Anim8or and did several renders of it from different angles in Kerkythea, a now unsupported ray-traced renderer. Again, it wasn’t really ideal for this purpose but it was easy to use and free. All 2D effects (chroma keying, animated screens and compositing) were done in Adobe After Effects. In total, I completed 26 VFX shots for Ancestors. That's 50% of the film and more than I had originally planned. I then graded the film in DaVinci Resolve 12.5. For all the setbacks during the shoot and in post, I actually finished the film a day earlier than planned.
Here are some of the details that Scott created for his costume and props, including the troublesome shoulder strips.
W: Do you have any key tips for anyone who wants to do something similar?
ST: You have to accept that by wearing all the hats, some aspects will inevitably suffer. To mitigate such effects, you need to plan and test as much as you can, beforehand, and be prepared to make sacrifices and mistakes. I had to sacrifice all camera movement, accept my music wouldn’t sound like a Hans Zimmer score and deal with some of my shots being soft. But, little technical aspects are ultimately all subservient to the story and that's something you can control. Look at what resources you have: the props you can acquire, the locations you have access to and even what equipment you can source. Then, tailor your story to those limitations and find ways to maximise them. Plan everything: do sketches, do shot lists, do shooting schedules, but don't be afraid to chuck all of that out the window, should an unexpected opportunity arise.
Only experience will teach you how to improvise on your feet, how to claw back time when you're two hours behind, how to re-block a scene when you realise the sun is at a totally different angle than you thought. The more you do it, the better you'll become. If you're going to make a film on your own, or even mostly on your own, don't be daunted by the size of the task. Just work on each little problem, one at a time, and chip away at it piece by piece. If it helps, write yourself a checklist and tick things off as you go.
W: What’s next for you, what projects have you got lined up?
ST: My job means I'm always working on several videos at once, so there's plenty of Guide Dogs content in the pipeline. As for personal projects, I've had a handful of concepts bubbling away for a few years now that might form the basis of another short film. I'd like my next one to be between 10 and 15 minutes long, and have a decent budget, possibly from crowdfunding or a grant scheme. I may look to create something totally original for another short film competition as they tend to help me focus and give me a definitive deadline.
For now though, I think my family and my girlfriend are just happy to have me back. I basically didn't see them for the two months I was working on Ancestors...
Want to see more of Scott’s fantastic work? Visit his website.
About the Author
Kristian Hampton is Wex Photo Video’s Technical Editor for Pro Video. A video specialist who has worked in corporate studios for companies such as Vodafone Group and PwC, as well as working as a freelance grip on various TV productions and features. He also runs Krade Media, providing enterprises with production services. Follow Kristian on twitter @KrissHampton