In February Sony asked filmmaker and film educator Den Lennie and director Bruce Logan ASC to make a short film using three Sony cameras. They also asked Lennie to make a series of short behind-the-scenes films about the making of Les Bohemes to act as a useful guide to filmmakers wanting to find out more about the filmmaking process from pre-production to production and post. In this first of a trio of “making of” films, Den Lennie and Bruce Logan ASC talk about the pre-production stage of Les Bohemes.
Shooting Les Bohemes
Les Bohemes started life just a month before shooting was scheduled to begin in March. Sony had asked filmmaker Den Lennie to make an uplifting short story shot on three cameras from Sony’s NEX range of camcorders: the NEX-EA50EH, NEX-FS100E and NEX-FS700E.
The challenge was to make a film that would be global in nature, and could be watched by anybody from any culture without causing offence. Its second key objective would be to provide valuable tips useful to any filmmaker regardless of whether they were making a Hollywood blockbuster, a corporate film or a wedding video.
Lennie’s first stop was to approach well-known Hollywood writer and director Bruce Logan, who has credits on classic films such as George Lucas’ Star Wars, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Airplane, to come up with a script which could be accommodated on a budget between €20 and €25K.
Logan came up with Les Bohemes, a light hearted romantic drama which payed homage to French director Francois Truffaut’s 1962 new wave classic Jules and Jim.
Creativity in pre-production
As Den Lennie stresses the pre-production stage of any film is crucial, and thinking creatively at this stage has a wide range of benefits.
Lennie underlines: “Creativity in filmmaking isn’t something that starts when the camera starts turning over. It comes at the beginning of pre-production, where you are constantly trying to make something out of nothing.”
It’s really useful to have somebody on board with experience, who can tell you where it makes sense to put the money and where you can save.
The budgetThis is likely to be one of the most inflexible and important features of any shoot. It determines the scope of the film in the most general terms. The budget, or lack of it, will govern how big a production you are going to be doing, the size of the crew and which key paid professionals you will be able to afford.
You have to decide what is absolutely essential to your film and where economies can be made.
One area where filmmakers can save right from the start is in communications. Lennie and Logan spent a large part of the pre-production period communicating with each other from the UK, US and Sweden via Skype, which provides free online video calls.
Lennie recalls: “We communicated via Skype for the first three weeks as we travelled about covering our other commitments, during which time we tried to work out what we would be able to shoot on our €20-25K budget.” Logan adds: “Initially we spent our time focusing on the concept and the story, sticking our fingers in the air and estimating what kind of locations we would be able to afford on our budget.”
“It quickly became obvious that our original setting – the South of France – would be too expensive a place to take a cast and crew of 12.”
In mid February the film got the go ahead from Sony and everything began to get more concrete. First Lennie and Logan needed to finalise the cast and the locations quickly.
The cast and casting is a crucial part of any dramatic pre-production so it’s an important place to focus resources to get the best results. “I employed a casting director to get on with the process of narrowing our actors down from 30 to a shortlist of 15. Once that was done we were sent footage of the most likely candidates,” recalls Lennie. “Normally at call backs, casting is done one at a time, but because money was tight and time was short, I asked our casting director to send actors on the short list in in groups of three to immediately explore their chemistry. As it turned out the first group ended up being our final choice.”
Lennie and Logan did the pre-production side of location management themselves, starting the search for possible locations on the internet, with the working assumption that there was no budget for dressing the set.
It was also decided to limit the shoot to six locations all less than 30 minutes drive from one another to minimise the time spent travelling from one set to another. That way the whole film could be shot in 3 days, including one scene shot on Saturday at London’s Piccadilly Circus.
Saving on accommodation and set dressing
A location that was just an hour from London meant that the shoot could make big savings on hotel bills for the cast and crew.
It was decided to shoot the film at six locations in and around the picturesque seaside town of Southend on the South East coast of England because it was less than an hour from London, and offered a set that wouldn’t need dressing.
“Having locations which were already fully dressed saved us a ton of money,” reveals Lennie, “because there was no need to build sets and fill them with props”.
Tools for location scoutingAlthough Logan was still in the US, he was kept informed of the scouting trips that Lennie had made with emailed location stills and video.
“We took the NEX-EA50H on location because it has a 16 megapixel camera for taking location stills – which I could send in high res,” explains Lennie. “Plus I could use it to cut a sequence of video together to show Bruce in LA. The good thing about the NEX-EA50H is that it can flick easily from stills to video mode.”
Another useful feature of that camera during pre-production is its powerful zoom, enabling Lennie to get an idea of focal lengths on different shots.
Devoting time to location scouting is important, says Lennie. He approached local hotels and bars, explaining that he was making a production diary and although he didn’t have a lot of money, the film could be good publicity for local businesses.
“The people in Southend were, on the whole, incredibly helpful. We also got the local paper involved so that word got around and people got to know about us. We found plenty of bars and hotel locations which were prepared to help out for nominal amounts of money.”
Catering costs The shoot decided against the expense of a catering van, instead organising the shooting schedule so that there were places to eat nearby. “On one occasion we got a pub to open up early to feed the crew,” reveals Lennie.
Prioritise spending on key personnel It was decided that the production needed a make up and hair stylist, who also doubled up as a production designer. Lennie adds: “We also needed a 1st AD, although he didn’t come on board until a week before shooting began.”
Health and Safety
Like most people on the shoot, the 1st AD had additional skills – such as Health & Safety training, which was reassuring for the cast and crew when four inches of snow fell in Southend the night before the shoot began in March.
The crew decided to get hold of some grit and brooms just in case the snow lingered, to make sure there were no unintended accidents.
“The film involved bicycles and vehicles moving so it could have been dangerous,” recalled Lennie. “These are the kind of risks you face in the UK all the time. But by the time we came to shoot all the snow had melted.”
Camera department kit listKeeping a careful inventory of kit and props that need to be hired in is important. In the case of Les Bohemes, vintage cars and bikes were needed as props, with the cast bringing their own clothing.
Cameras, media and lenses were free, but additional kit included a five-foot slider, lights and a jib.
Multi-tasking is essential
One good idea is to get everybody to do two or even three jobs; for instance Lennie was director of photography, producer and editor of the behind-the-scenes films. Bruce Logan was the film’s writer, director and colourist.
Creative planning timeWith preparations well advanced, Logan arrived two weeks before shooting began. He admits it’s always very different when you arrive on location for the first time to how you imagined it might be, so it’s important to give yourself enough time to prepare properly. “It’s at this stage that for the first time you can start getting specific in terms of the angles you want, mapping out what the crew are going to be doing on an hourly basis on each day of the shoot.”
“I planned my own moves, allowing me to estimate exactly how long I needed in each location.”
Devising a workflow
When planning a shoot it’s important to spend some time thinking about media and how you will manage your workflow on set.
Says Lennie: “We decided to use the camera’s internal AVC-HD codec and record to low cost SD cards because we planned to shoot a lot of in-camera slow motion. In addition we would also record externally to a third party Pro Res recorder so that we had a back up file already transcoded that we could edit with straight away if we wanted.”
“My experience with AVC-HD has been very good – it's a robust and solid codec and we could fit a full day’s filming on a 16GB card. That meant we could simply store the video on the cards until the end of the production,” he adds.
In pre-production it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and organization that’s needed. Lennie recommends tabulating everything into a production spreadsheet so that you don’t forget important details.
“I find that by noting everything down on a spreadsheet it becomes more manageable. On Les Bohemes I created separate columns for location notes, cameras department, cast and crewing and budget to keep track of everything.”
It’s also a big help in the preparation of the call sheets, which will be needed on shooting days.