Kickstarting a Steampunk Webseries

The KickStarter page for “The Lazarus Machine” is now live!

The Lazarus Machine

And so begins our drive to build an audience for the project big enough to get it made. Crowdfunding is a wonderfully democratic method of funding, and it means there are no gatekeepers, no one person holding the purse strings and making a call on whether it is worth producing. If enough people want to see it, we can proceed. Simple as that.

The challenge now is making enough people aware of it’s existence so they can make that judgement. So if you’re reading this, please take a moment to let your social networks know about our little webseries. Some of your friends may be into steampunk, or independent film. Some might just like great actors like Timothy West and Sophie Aldred. Some might be keen on unusual music – and the bands contributing to The Lazarus Machine are as varied as they come:

  • retro-goth Vernian Process
  • cellist/vocalist Unwoman
  • anachro-punks The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing
  • time-travelling raconteurs The Cog Is Dead
  • crazed chap-hopper Professor Elemental
  • and the indescribable The Tiger Lillies!

    And some of your friends might just like something a bit different 🙂

    Whatever the case, please let them know about us so they can decide whether they want to see it for themselves. Thank you!

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adaddinsane/the-lazarus-machine

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  • Unleash the Steampunk!

    Time for an update on our long-awaited web serial. Things are moving fast now, so I will be posting much more frequently! As a reminder, here is the test scene we shot as a proof of concept – click through to watch the video…

    Voidship_overhead



    This was a great experience – cast and crew were wonderfully enthusiastic, the CG sets are fantastic, and we’re very happy with the results. Now it’s time to repeat the process on a grander scale to create 8 episodes of about 8 minutes each. It’s comparable to shooting a feature.

    The most important news is that the project has a new title. “Winter” has been a great working title, but it doesn’t convey anything about the story. So henceforth the flagship story of the Voidships world will be…

    “The Lazarus Machine”.

    And we’re going to need more help. We have a KickStarter campaign poised to launch, and a lot of very exciting news to reveal, particularly if you’re a fan of great actors, steampunk music or behind-the-scenes VFX breakdowns. We have all manner of ways to keep track of our progress, and we need you to share our ramblings with anyone who likes steampunk, or independent filmmaking, or science fiction, or good drama:

  • Email! Go to monstrousproductions.com and sign up to the mailing list.
  • Twitter! Follow @Voidships or @adaddinsane or @Qixotl.
  • Google+! Join The Lazarus Machine community.
  • In fact…check out the G+ community right now for our first casting reveal!

    Monsters trailer shoot wrapped!

    My knee hurts.

    Somehow in all the running to and fro between the location and our “trailer” (Steve’s house) I did something to it, and now it’s a bit swollen and painful to bend it. It’s particularly ironic since our volunteer stunt team spent two solid hours hurling each other into walls, kicking each other, lying in freezing puddles and – in one case – getting kicked in the head. And they all went home unscathed, I hope. They were fantastic, and we have some really brutal-looking footage for our fight scene. So much so that we’re planning to re-edit the mini-pilot to include this fight, because it won’t all fit in the trailer and it would be a travesty for no-one to see the whole choreographed sequence.

    Our make-up artist Donna did an amazing job, travelling from London on short notice to do fairly extensive facial prosthetics. These were required for very brief shots, but ones which were wholly dependent on makeup for their impact. She had obviously spent some time working on these before the shoot and had even prepared some additional pieces just in case we needed them!

    Our Director of Photography was forced to pull out a week before the shoot (one of the hazards of expenses-only projects) but we were saved by John, who stepped in with about 48 hours notice. I’m very glad he did, as his eye was invaluable, and his camerawork far better than mine.

    So a big thank you to the entire cast and crew – everyone was enthusiastic, even though some spent most of their time waiting for something to do. And finally…thanks to Steve for producing this shoot himself.

    Time to get cracking on the edit…

    Fun and games with the Canon 5D

    I’ve just spent half-an-hour going through the settings on the 5D we’ve hired for our Monsters pickup shoot. I had hoped to use the lenses from my wife’s 350D, but they don’t fit – the 5D has a monster mirror to go with the monster sensor, and EFS lenses are too deep to allow it to flip up!

    So I had to hire a lens from their limited selection – most of the primes were out. I’ve got a 16-35, which goes from awesomely wide to…still pretty wide. I’ll have to get within a foot of the cast to get any close-ups, but the centrepiece of today’s shoot is a fight scene, which I’ll be shooting handheld, so the wide lens will minimise wobble. DSLRs are notoriously hard to hold still, but I’m used to a camcorder that weighs even less, so I have a few tricks that will help. I’m gonna be holding it out in front of me all day though, so by tonight my arms are going to be screaming. How I suffer for my art!

    It’s a great camera though. Just tinkering indoors I can get a lovely soft bokeh behind the cats…if only they’d keep still. Looking forward to blocking out today’s shots. Spotted a couple of nice wide angles I want to use in an X-Files repeat last night, which was serendipitous.

    I’d hoped to catch up with my making-of posts by now – particularly the previous Monsters shoot – but what the hell. I’ll post a report and some stills tomorrow anyway.

    More Monsters shooting…

    Under a week now to our Monsters pickup shoot on Saturday, and we’ve just lost our DoP, which is unfortunate. We’re just filming a handful of action scenes and dramatic reveals of characters who didn’t make the mini-pilot, which I’m looking forward to – should have time to experiment a bit with the blocking and framing, which is a nice luxury.

    I’ll post more regularly in the run-up to and aftermath of this shoot. Not long to the deadline for the Trailer Festival!

    Finding a Niche

    I’ve been trying to learn Blender on and off for a few days. Sadly I’m too busy at work and prepping for next week’s Monsters pickups to really get into it, but there’s certainly a wealth of tutorial material, and lots of inspiring examples.

    I’ve also recently followed a bunch of other filmmakers on Twitter, to the extent that my feed is swamped with examples of low-to-no budget films. It’s motivating to know what other people are doing, but also slightly intimidating. How will I get anyone to notice my work amongst so many?

    But the conjuction of these two preoccupations made me think – I can stand out by playing to my strengths. My fascination with VFX and experience with CG in video games puts me a rung or two above many professional directors (in that field, at least), let alone film school graduates. Rather than playing safe with simple contemporary dramas, like everyone else, I should be working on more ambitious effects films – because in that niche, I will stand out.

    I could be wrong, of course. Time will tell. But the Monsters pickups will require some effects work to properly convey the full scope of the story, so we’ll soon see if a few VFX help a project stand out…

    Manuskript – Protect and Survive

    Watch video
    Manuskript - Protect and Survive
    This was a classic case of “not what you know, but who you know”. Mike Uwins of Neon Zoo also happened to be the lead singer of legendary pop-goth band Manuskript, and he liked Darkest Dance enough to ask me to shoot a video for their new single, launching their latest album. This was a great opportunity for me because Neon Zoo were new on the scene – and while they made a striking entrance attracting considerable publicity, Manuskript already had a huge following within the goth scene. I’d been a fan for years (in fact Mike gave me a copy of one of their hard-to-find albums to complete my collection, which was cool).

    So, we set a couple of weekends for the band (who live all over England) to get together so I could film them. Mike effectively produced the shoot – he conceived the setting, story, arranged locations and costumes. I didn’t really appreciate how much organising he did at the time. So I just turned up with as much kit as possible, and winged it…

    Day 1
    Mike had got access to a dingy warehouse to film in. It was freezing cold and certain corners smelt decidedly unsavoury, but I was too busy to notice. I did spot some obscene graffiti we had to cover with paper though.
    I’d brought my homemade dolly for it’s first real use, and the trusty halogen site lights. Mike had borrowed a PD150 to shoot with, which was a joy to use, and produced excellent footage. The guys set up in the middle while I lit the space, which was a nightmare without proper lights. I had no dimmers, no barn doors, no gels or gobos or anything really. All I could do was move the lights closer or further away. I just about managed a satisfactory look.
    Then the band mimed while I filmed, rolling back and forth across the front of the “stage” shooting two takes each of wide, medium and closeup shots. I also shot a take from a static tripod directly in front. The PD150 had good enough optics to get a nice soft background in the closeups, which delighted me. Then we went back to Mike’s for Chinese and a quick review of the footage.

    Day 2
    A few weeks later, we reconvened at a Saturday night gig in a pub (a very small venue for Manuskript). A military enthusiast friend of Mike’s was providing all the costumes and fake guns for the Cold War Berlin setting. Mike had also recruited a model who had come all the way from London on the train to star opposite him. My wife and I had booked into the same hotel as her for the night, which was going to double as our first location. We didn’t have permission to film and were worried about being denied it, so we decided to start shooting the corridor scenes at 7am, hopefully before anyone would be around to notice us.
    Mike and I had worked out the rough story beats on the phone, but I hadn’t visited any of the locations, so I had to make up the shots, blocking, lighting and camera positions as I went along. This continued all day, but Mike had conveniently arranged to visit the locations in sequence, which helped enormously.
    For this shoot, the PD150 was unavailable so I was stuck with my JVC DV4000, which was noticeably poorer. I relied on practical light in the hotel corridors, and created a cheap steadicam by bolting the camera to a folded tripod and just holding it at roughly the centre of gravity. We got the shots, and moved into one of the rooms.
    Again, lighting was a nightmare. The uncontrolled halogen light bounced around the magnolia walls turning everything yellow, and I was in such a rush I forgot to white balance. It’s still an ugly yellow in the final video, because the DV footage didn’t have enough latitude to grade it out. But we got the shots and moved on.
    Next location was a pub with a small cave behind it (Nottingham is riddled with caves), for the prison cell. Another nightmare to light, because I could only put lights at the front of the cave for the wide shot. On the closeups I used a small light at the back to outline the cast. This sequence had some simple dialogue that had to be comprehensible without audio and some simple action. It was remarkably fun to direct, and the band members were wonderfully cooperative. We also did a couple of shots outside in the street, where a row of trees and brick buttresses disappearing into the morning haze looked very appropriate for Berlin.
    We grabbed lunch on the way to the final location – the band’s studio, in a converted mill building with an enclosed courtyard which looked suitably bleak. A car was parked right where we wanted to shoot, and looked like a modern Renault even with a tarpaulin over it. My wife brilliantly suggested stacking some stuff under the tarp to make it tank-shaped.
    Mike’s military expert arrived to brief the band on how to move and salute like soldiers while I planned the blocking and camera moves. He did a superb job. We finished the elaborate exterior scenes and moved into a stairwell inside for the climactic gunfight just as dusk fell.
    Inside, the lighting setup I was obliged to use was bold but workable. All shooting was mimed ready for muzzle flash in post. My long-suffering wife almost froze in the unheated building, but finally we wrapped.

    Post-production
    Editing this was a challenge. First I synced up the band footage on parallel layers so I could switch between them. I did a quick pass picking out all the coolest shots of the band performing, and then started fitting the “story” sequences in between. Sometimes I’d need to add a bit more of the band performing to bridge two story scenes, sometimes I’d have to cut shots I liked to fit the story in.
    I had to add muzzle flash to gunshots, paint out a couple of UK signs, find establishing shots of Berlin landmarks on the internet, and grade everything to look as good as it could.
    Finally I rendered it out in three different formats and created an HTML frontend for the data section of Manuskripts enhanced CD single. Mike and I both worked through the night communicating by phone and email to get the CD master ready on time. It was surprisingly fun.

    Publicity
    This is where I failed. Once the video was delivered, I relaxed. I did submit it to a couple of festivals, but it was a half-hearted effort. I should have posted low-quality teasers all over the web, visited forums, hit every music and film fest I could. But at the time, I was just pleased to have completed another project. And I’m still very proud of it.