Establishing a Life in less than 20 Seconds

Hey Guys,

    As of last week, the colour grade for Ashes was completed, and the sound guys worked late into the night to create a rough score, so that we had a 'work in progress' version done in time to send to Cannes. When I put it in the post to them (travelling further than I've done myself), I couldn't help but think, "God speed, little parcel - and good luck!"

    Since then, the film has been put under proverbial lock and key again, to be opened up again when Ian Cudmore returns from honeymoon (congratulations Ian!) to complete the score. But, as I'm dying to show you my macabre but beautiful little film, I thought I'd give you a sneak peak. So here's my breakdown of the opening credits, and the important part the set dressing played in it.

    One of the main challenges from the script was the fact that we had to establish the characters' (previously) loving relationship straight away, in a film with minimal dialogue and very little set within the 'real' world. There were little things we could do on camera with the actors (such as having them cuddled up and smiling) and with the lighting (a dreamy summer glow made the scene look particularly comfortable). Plus the fact that Adam and Sarah had built up a strong bond over the months leading up to the shoot certainly came across. But the biggest asset we had in establishing the characters was the opening credits.

    This sequence was comprised of cutaways of objects in the room, all of which told the viewer something about the characters. I worked together with designer Gina Hames to cover the room with a mix of masculine and feminine items to also suggest that these were two people cohabiting together. (And for the record, although we worked on a location - which would suggest Art Direction - I'd classify this work as Production Design because a lot of concept art was done in advance, or Set Design because we were able to fully paint and decorate the set).

    And so, with exclusive screengrabs from the film itself, here is a breakdown of the set dressing in Ashes, and how it helped to establish the characters:

Set photo by Jenna Cataldo
    1. The opening shot of the film shows a vintage camera and a handmade card. The camera quickly suggests that one of the characters likes cameras, and that was because actor Adam Lannon saw Mark as an amateur photographer. I wanted the character of Mark to have an interest, near obsession, in capturing the human body; I initially wanted him to be a painter but Adam wanted to expand this by making photography his hobby instead. The fact that it's vintage is purely a stylistic choice (that's actually a camera I own).

    The valentine's card was mentioned in the script. It's supposed to look a bit curled at the edges to show that it was made a while ago (establishing the length of the relationship) but kept out of sentimentality. The fact that it's handmade (in reality, by me) also suggested at the characters' creativity - in this case, Mark's. I even wrote inside the card, not that you see this on camera, in case the actors saw this. The note inside established that Sarah and Mark had been arguing recently, but that Mark loved her and wanted to move past it - an idea I'd discussed with the actors in deciding the point that their relationship was at.

Screengrab from the film itself!
    2. The quickest way to establish the character's long relationship was by showing a lot of photographs of them together. These also supported Adam's idea that Mark was a photographer. A lot of these photographs were taken during Adam and Sarah's meetings in post production, and they made sure to wear different clothes in some of them.

Set photo by Jenna Cataldo
    One of the most disjointing items in this opening sequence was the palmistry hand. This wasn't to suggest that one of the characters believed in palmistry (although Sarah's character was the more dreamy of the two), but to explain why the stone hands appear in her subconscious later one. These latter hands really symbolised the presence of Mark's hands on her, but their presence doesn't jarr as much as they would do if we hadn't seen an ornamental hand at the start of the film!

    In this shot we see a framed photograph of Sarah at a dance class. Sarah's character is a dancer, although one who is struggling to find work, and we wanted the audience to know this about her. Another way we did this was with the presence of dance shoes on the set (see below), which were actually the shoes from The Opening Night, but these are only briefly seen in a wide shot towards the end of the film.

Set photos by Jenna Cataldo (above and below)

    3 - 4. The following two shots showed items on a sideboard. Shot 4 showed some of Mark's stuff, and shot 5 showed some of Sarah's. Sarah's is basically jewellery and perfume bottles, which were visually pleasing, but Mark's possessions say a little more. It's a series of paintings and art supplies - suggesting, as I wanted, that Mark liked to do art in his spare time. But, if you look carefully, all the drawings are of Sarah. This might suggest love, others could read it as an unhealthy infatuation, but either way it shows he likes to observe the human form. It also represents the story of how Mark and Sarah met, which was known to me and the actors - Adam wanted to do a visual project on ballet dancers (be it through the medium of art or photography) during his final year at university, and Sarah was in the class that he went to observe.

A screengrab from the film, which I put on the Facebook page when the colour grade was finished
    And finally, shot 5. In which we first see roses, and the couple is revealed in the mirror through one of my trademark focus pulls. These roses were important - another gift from Mark, one which was inexpensive but treasured enough for Sarah to keep them until they started to fade. Although these are a sprig of wood and paper roses, in Sarah's mind they are transformed into a large bouquet of luscious, fresh flowers (as we see in scene two), which shows how much they meant to her. And the fact that she's a rather romantic character!

    So, there you have it - a whole relationship portrayed in five shots. And who says film design isn't important?!

   There is of course the wallpaper, and the keen-eyed of you might be wondered why we opted for the 'empty birdcage' pattern. But it's getting late, so I'll leave you guys to wonder that.

    Wish us luck in our festival run, dear followers!

Sophie x


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