ONLY THE LONELY PART 3: LONELIEST HOUR SHOOT / by Karl Dixon

In my first blog posts on this topic (ONLY THE LONELY PART 1 and PART 2) I described the pre-production processes of 2 music videos. The posts provide the highlights of what was essentially a drawn-out process over the course of 2 months. This week I will be publishing 2 more posts that detail how the production itself panned out, across 4 days in November.

As I mentioned in PART 1 the design of our cardboard spaceship was very modular, with the craft being broken down into walls and each wall being worked on one at a time. It was designed this way out of necessity as I was without the luxury of having the space and time to give the craft a test-build. As such the first few hours of our first prep day was a brilliantly nervy experience, as the spaceship took 3D form for the very first time.

This project was filled with inevitable highs and lows and there were few highs that left me feeling as giddy as the experience of seeing this space I had pictured for months take physical shape before my eyes. With the invaluable help of Dave Cowley and my brother Russell Dixon our noble spacecraft swiftly slotted neatly together, each wall being adorned with dozens of velcro shapes for our array of switches and panels to attach to.

STARLIGHT FEELS EMPTY         WHEN NOBODY'S THERE

One significant step I skipped over in last week's pre-production processes was the securing of a film crew that could jump on board both videos and bring them to life in the best possible way. 

I met Filmmaker, Video Designer and DoP Tim Baxter 4 years ago when I joined the video department of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Tim had spent 6 years creating world-class marketing, documentary and video design content for the company's many productions. We only overlapped for a few months before Tim left to begin his freelance career up in Manchester but in the time spent I got to see first hand the inventiveness, enthusiasm and creativity he brought into every project. These traits have served him brilliantly in the 4 years that have passed and he has worked on a long list of exciting projects, notably as DoP and Producer on the Royal Television Society award-winning BBC drama Black Roses and then founding his own company.

When Tim left we stayed in touch and when I made my own freelance move to Manchester in 2015 I started working with him again, editing the short drama The Last Conjuror which he had DoP'd (Dir Jordan Hogg) and then working on a variety of theatre production recordings. As such he was an obvious choice of DoP to approach once I had decided to make these projects and it was great news when he enthusiastically agreed to get involved.

Tim brought all his experience and inventiveness in with him (as well as an impressive amount of equipment!) and was quickly able to identify uniquely cinematic camera and lighting options that gave our set life.

Working alongside Tim was a brilliant camera team comprised of Jim Craven and Amy Green plus production support from Bloc+Blur director Louise Cowley, Jenny Got Famous/Pleiades guitarist Andrew Packwood, carpenter/sculptor/artist Dave Cowley and my filmmaker brother Russell Dixon (who also took most of the brilliant production stills found on this blog). I've had the pleasure of working with everybody on the crew several times over the past 18 months and they all possess extensive technical and creative ability that they brought in spades. Everybody combined together brilliantly to form a sublime team that meant we finished both of the Loneliest Hour shoot days having nailed my desired shot-list.

I'm COMING HOME...TRULY ALONE

Every team has its weak link however and ours was no exception...and so it was that our leading man Oliver Warne sauntered on set 3.5 hours late on day 1, armed only with a tall tale about a train delay and two bags of conciliatory donuts. Fortunately for Oliver the donuts were pretty great and our call sheet had shipped him in deliberately early to allow for such an incident (he was, after all, travelling down from the Kingdom of the North...Edinburgh).

Now, I want to be 100% honest with this blog and not just blow smoke up people...this was the element of the Loneliest Hour shoot that made me a little nervous. I had planned every controllable detail to the Nth degree and prepared for everything I possibly could. I had engaged in hundreds of phone calls, emails and coffee meetings with crew members, kit-hire companies and location staff to try and work out everything that could go wrong. However there was one thing I knew I had no control over...

Oliver is not an actor.

It's a mistake a lot low-budget filmmakers make; despite all the time and effort spent on planning their film they end up hiring friends to act in them rather than making the most of the thousands of professionally trained and uniquely talented actors dotted all over the country.

I was well aware that this could be a challenging performance for Oliver. He would be playing the solo astronaut on board our ship and would therefore have to build his performance out of motivations found within the set around him, rather than being able to interact with other performers. In addition to this a film set can be a strange and intimidating place for somebody not used to one; Oliver would be surrounded by a crew of strangers wielding large camera equipment in his direction.

In order to help Oliver - as well as myself - I produced a thorough storyboard of the film and then created a video storyboard, cutting the still frames in time with the music. This allowed me to ensure I had plotted the necessary beats in the appropriate places, but also allowed Oliver to see the tone, style and pace of the film we were trying to make (I won't reveal the full storyboard yet as I don't want to show the whole story, but I might do a side-by-side comparison at the end of the journey!).

So, I was deliberately repeating the mistake that countless low-budget filmmakers make by casting a friend, but I wasn't being deliberately naive; I wouldn't have used Oliver if I didn't think he was capable of producing the performance that we needed. Oliver does have acting experience, having appeared in 2 school plays that he and I co-wrote and co-produced with 2 other students when we were 14 and 16, and then having appeared in the über low-budget Jenny Got Famous video, Walk Away. The latter was a key reason for wanting him to play our astronaut; he is the singer of the band we would be hearing and it provided a neat circularity having him perform in another video some 6.5 years after Walk Away.

One of the major benefits of shooting narratives within music videos is that you are rarely recording sound, which means that as a director you are free to talk to the actors in the middle of a take. It's a silent movie technique and one that some modern actors dislike (it can interrupt rather than guide their thought processes) but others thrive on. I tried to keep my suggestions open for Oliver to play with rather than straight-out commanding him too much (so "what happens if you press that switch?" rather than "press that button and show us how nothing happens"). It was a method that both Oliver and I enjoyed and seemed to work very well.

Now the edit is in its early stages so I don't want to give too much away, suffice to say that any anxiousness I had around Oliver's ability to act in the role was proven completely needless very early on. In fact as soon as Oliver arrived he bounded into his cockpit chair and began to play with the controls like a big kid, which was essentially exactly what we needed from him. As we began to roll Oliver provided us with some great comic moments and with any luck his finished performance will come across as something akin to a tongue-in-cheek Dave Grohl performance in a Foo Fighters video.

NEXT:

ONLY THE LONELY PART 4:         ONLY SECOND COUSIN