‘MT’ has a history of shooting video fast, whilst simultaneously controlling a potentially unruly crowd of children and teenagers. It’s a tricky combination, made even more so by tight schedules and a lack of funds. Well that’s what you get when dealing with shoestring projects that try to reach for the sky - or at least punch above their weight.
It’s over now, but for more than a decade he dealt with community-based video, organised via a local arts centre, drawing in regular crowds of diverse participants with a wide range of motivations, outlooks and backgrounds.
Imagine the wide-eyed, the dedicated, the curious, the adult, the child-like, the disciplined (or not), the attentive, the not-so focused, the hopeful and the hopeless; all corralled into one room or set with the aim of making a video production and pulling in roughly the same direction. How did he do it? That’s both a literal and a rhetorical question.
“I’ve had three decades of experience” he tells me. That’s the first clue. There’s no shortcut to that. ‘MT’ also has an exuberant personality. He knows it and he knows how to use it as an asset. He speaks about motivation and “energy levels”. Often the struggle is to maintain a level of interest/excitement and to cultivate “staying power” and the mindset that “they (the participants) want to be part of it”, he reveals.
It’s hard, ‘MT’ contrasts the above scenario with the big budget features that he has been involved with where: “no matter how many takes they shoot, they (the actors) always give the whole of their performance”. Back at ground level, the amateurs need “constant direction” to maintain their functionality. “Documentaries are even worse; people don’t want to hang around!“. Of his low-budget adventures, he surmises:”I’ve been lucky”, adding in addition that it can also be hard to bring amateur cast-members back for re-takes or extra footage once, in their minds, the job had been done and the agreed time frame, expired. The mindset is completely different.
Even though the productions were small, fast and tightly run, the finished product had to belie much of that fact. Each finished production, screened publicly in front of friends, relatives and curious third parties became next season’s advert, calling card and recruitment drive. Things were getting ambitious; even to the point where animated VFX were included, from gun muzzle flares to dinosaurs - that’s not to mention varied set locations, props and period costumes as appropriate.
I ask ‘MT’ about his speed-budget process, The key is “three safety’s”, he tells me, from which everything else grows, outward. He’s referring to a three main safety shots for dramatic scenes, adding that the same principle even works with action footage. There’s his establishing shot, an over-the-shoulder shot from the main protagonist to the subject and then a reverse, from the subject back to the protagonist again. This is the barest of bare bones and in emergencies “it will edit”, ‘MT’ asserts. Hopefully there’ll be time and resources left for extra mid-tones and even some flourish, though it’s all dependent on time and resources.
Today, such concerns and constraints are confined to memory and to the tracks of DVDs. He still has to work within budget and time limitations however - very few do not, but his creative output centres around in-house video for a publishing company. The productions filter out principally through the ubiquitous medium of the cover disc. Money and work are regular, content is varied and the equipment has shifted up a notch from yesterday’s DSLRs though he maintains: “I still like the look of DSLRs, -and they’re cheap to buy”. So what happened?
He was freelancing for years and had progressed to the point of hiring and training staff, but they always moved on: “it’s the nature of the business”, he states, pragmatically. Small, independent productions have a role, but for some they are essentially an extension of (or a replacement for) film school, a sentiment echoed by Chris Foster on Filmmakingstuff:
“If you learn to light a scene, you won’t need a 4k camera. Practice. That’s what short films are for. The more you shoot, and the more you light, the better you’ll get.
The recession bit hard, forcing ‘MT’ to chase ever-decreasing work, then around 3 years ago;the chance of a full time in-house studio director’s role appeared. Having thoroughly trodden the independent, micro-budget path, it was too good an offer to refuse. It made sense then, but today he is still content, motivated and even excited about the way things have turned out. “Every day is different, the productions are high-end, we’re looked after and all the gear is laid on”. That’s a result, right there!
Fragments of the old days still surface however: “I still get people phoning me up and telling me that it was the best years of our lives!”. As a parting shot ‘MT’ is still quick to defend the indie scene, however. He enthuses: “You meet a lot of people, you learn a lot about responsibility, teamwork and motivation. If you are passionate and get something from it, don’t give it up!”.