Stories from the Set: Lepidopterist (Part One)

[Above: photo by Richard Parker]

   Looking through my back catalogue, April seems to have been the most popular month in which to make short films (see my last blog post for another example of a film shot in April). Last month marked one year since we filmed Lepidopterist, originally known as FIFTY/FIFTY - and sadly, it also marked one year since I'd last been on set with my Triskelle Pictures team and regular collaborators. Due to the UK's Lockdown restrictions, no filming took place this Spring, and I'm desperate to get back on set with those brilliant people again - but I won't be doing so until things are 100% safe again for everyone involved, no matter what the recent Government guidance says.

   This past week also saw the launch of the Lepidopterist Crowdfunder campaign - my eleventh funding campaign to date! This time we're raising funds solely to send the film to festivals, as soon as cinemas open again, and so we're only looking to raise £800. Even that low amount might be difficult to raise in the current climate; we're so grateful to the backers who have already donated, but we also understand that people may not feel able to contribute during these troubling times. We're definitely running this campaign on a wing and a prayer!

[Above: a new video of me talking about Lepidopterist has been released as 
part of our funding campaign]

   As part of the campaign, in addition to the lovely merchandise we're offering (designed by brilliant local artists, such as Grace Moth), we also have some 'public rewards' to share with you guys. One of these is my video interview, which has just been released (see above), and there's another video to come when we pass the £500 mark; and so, I also thought it would be a good time for me to write and release this blog post. 

   I've done a 'Stories from the Set' post for most of my other films, and now it's Lepidopterist's turn. Starting with a quick flashback to 2017...


   Around the time Songbird was finished and sent to festivals, I started to plan the next intended steps for my career. I was desperate to make the move to features, with a full-length version of Night Owls firmly cemented in my heart every waking day - but I also knew that I had a couple more short films in me yet. One was a Poison Ivy fan film (which we eventually shot in 2018 and released last year), the second one was The Barn (in development now), and finally, I wanted to make a short film for the Sci-Fi-London 48hr Film Challenge. 

   I'd been aware of the challenge for some time. I know other filmmakers who have made some gorgeous, high-quality work as part of the competition - not to mention the fact that Gareth Edwards, possibly the most famous filmmaker to come out of the same film school as me, kick-started his career by winning the competition. I also knew that my entry would be self-funded, going up against professional film companies from across the globe, so I had no assumptions of winning or even placing - I just wanted to have a go. So I made it my 2019 New Year's resolution to do just that, and pre-production started in earnest in late 2018.

[Above: a glimpse at my secret Lepidopterist storyboards, photographed by Richard Parker]

   Now is a good time to admit that yes, Lepidopterist had a script. It was written by me, then polished up by my regular co-writer Tommy Draper, who also looked after it during the shoot itself. Sci-Fi-London recommend that anyone who takes part in the competition shouldn't write a script, but I'm a meticulous planner by nature. I wanted to make sure that, whatever happened in the competition, we were telling a story that we liked and that we'd be proud to share. That being said, we intentionally kept the script fairly loose, with enough opportunities to add dialogue, props and even extra scenes, depending on what guidelines Sci-Fi-London set us during the shoot. 

   From the get-go, I knew that I wanted the lead character to be an entomologist; I've been a fan of lepidoptera and insects all my life, but I was particularly interested in them when I was a child, so this film was a way for me to explore one of my 'forgotten loves', in a way. (There's more about that in the video I've posted above - including a photo of me dressed as a spider when I was about eight years old!). So, when I was writing the script and character breakdowns, I took it upon myself to research insects further, trying to find ways to work their natural traits into a Sci-Fi storyline, and that was the most enjoyable part of pre-production. I was a fountain of bug facts for weeks, whether or not people asked to hear them! (It also inspired me to re-explore my love of insects beyond the Lepidopterist shoot, and so I decided to start raising butterflies for real in July of last year.)

   There was one other element in the script which was important to me; I wanted to make sure that the lead character was written without a specific gender bias. I initially had a typical man/woman romantic storyline in my head, but I wanted to move away from that and write a character who could essentially be played by anyone. It was a fun new challenge for me, but I also think it's important for all filmmakers to start thinking more openly in terms of casting.

   Cast and crew, locations, and the majority of the props were sourced during pre-production. We also practiced a big make-up based effect which would take place at the end of the film (more on that later) - but there were no rehearsals. I didn't write out any staging plans. I barely even storyboarded beyond the final scene (which I knew we'd be filming first, and which involved the most dialogue), but this was down to my own time constraints and workload, rather than a requirement of the competition.

[Above: MUA Heather Simons does a test run of the film's big transformation scene,
with a very patient stand-in!]

   Without the opportunity to do rehearsals, I relished the meetings I had with my actors on the run-up to the shoot. I took lead actor Charlie Clarke out for drinks at a Jazz club in Nottingham, using the time to get to know her as an actor rather than an AD (the role she usually does for me) - and the night before the shoot, I was reunited with Ashes star Sarah Lamesch, our key supporting actor, and caught up with her over dinner as well. I hadn't seen her in seven years, and it was incredible to hear about her life and her career in the time since we last worked together.

   So, my cast and crew were all in place, all based in or temporarily relocated to the East Midlands, and ready to go. We were prepared to address whatever challenges Sci-Fi-London set us during the shoot. The only thing we were really worried about was the sudden weather warning. Things were about to get unseasonably cold...

   Warning: the following contains spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen FIFTY/FIFTY or is waiting to see the finished Lepidopterist in festivals!

DAY ONE - Saturday 13th April 2019

   There was frost on the ground as the crew drove into the Nottinghamshire woods that Saturday morning. The challenge dates were set in stone, but it make me question why I keep choosing to shoot films in April. I really should've learnt my lesson from that time in April 2012 when it suddenly snowed just before the Stop/Eject shoot (and the subsequent melted snow then resulted in one of our locations being flooded!). 

   The upside to the frost this time round was that it made for some beautiful cutaways of the forest floor; the downside is that the crew were in thick coats and hats for all the behind-the-scenes photographs and, even worse, we had to go to extra efforts to keep the actors warm with blankets and hot water bottles in-between takes - particularly Sarah Lamesch, who was dressed in the Sci-Fi equivalent of a thin surgical robe!

[Above: setting up for the first shot of the day with DOP Will Price and editor Theo Vann-Leeds, who monitored this camera so that Will could do some simultaneous cutaway shooting.
Photo by Richard Parker.]

  The very first thing we shot was the climax of the film, when Sarah's character Talia (final spoiler warning...) transforms. This was the shot that I'd planned most in advance, based partly on an early music video concept I pitched in 2015, and partly on my favourite shot in Songbird when leaves gather on a sleeping Jennifer; I wanted it to be a practical effect, based on stop-motion but using make-up, and done entirely in one take. 

   This was super risky, but I was confident we could pull it off within the competition time restraints - although it did mean that Sarah had to sit completely still for nearly an hour while MUA Heather Simons dived in and out of shot, building up her make-up gradually. We chose to film this shot first because of how long it took, but we used DOP Will Price's B-camera for it, so that the team were able to film cutaways and other things on the A-camera at the same time. In addition, scheduling this shot first meant that we'd leave enough time to shoot the transformation effect twice if needs be, but that wasn't necessary. Heather and Sarah both nailed it. Sarah was still as a statue for the whole hour, even with the extreme cold and her summer-weight costume!

[Above: how our transformation shot was filmed, with MUA Heather Simons lying just out of shot with her full make-up kit. She would pop up and add the make-up layer-by layer over the hour, and we edited out any frames where Heather briefly appeared. Photo by Richard Parker.]

   We were setting up to film the transformation shot as the email from Sci-Fi-London came in. They set us two props and a line of dialogue, and a new title for the film - all of which we had to use in order to qualify for the challenge. 

   The props were: two different passports (luckily myself and Boom Operator/Sound Designer Johann Chipol both had passports on us during the shoot) and two identical ID tags (even more luckily, Production Designer Charlotte Ball had already made these for a scene we were shooting on day two!); the line of dialogue was "leave it alone; it's all automated now, you don't need to do anything"- that was slightly more challenging, but Tommy was able to change one of the day two scenes to make it work well; and finally, as many of you will have guessed, the title was 'FIFTY/FIFTY'. That was slightly disappointing, as we all loved the original title, but we made it work, and we even added an extra line to incorporate the title into the scene we were filming on the morning of day one. Although it felt slightly shoe-horned at the time, the way Charlie delivered that line was so heartfelt and emotional that we ended up loving it, and we even kept the line in the extended cut of the film - although we have removed the unnecessary shot of the passports, and restored the original title.

[Above: Sarah and Charlie perform the film's most emotional moment.
Photo by Richard Parker]

   Of course, it wasn't just that line which Charlie delivered well; the first scene we filmed was bursting with emotions, and both actors gave some incredible performances. The fact that they were surrounded by a sea of silver birch trees just added to the beauty of that scene. During the filming of one particularly touching moment, I looked round at my crew and noticed that I wasn't the only one with tears in my eyes. It made me wish that the script had more scenes, so that these two actors could've had more screen time together.

   So it was a stunning scene in a gorgeous location - but our enjoyment of filming that scene was very nearly ruined by the weather. It wasn't just cold, it was completely unpredictable, with ever-changing sunshine between mottled clouds, and the occasional rain and even hail! It made it very hard to match the lighting between takes (sorry, Will!) and added extra challenges in the colour grade (another 'sorry' to Will, because he was also the colourist on the project!). Add to that the fact that we had a huge wooden box to assemble and lug around the forest, whatever the weather was doing, which made for even more of an endurance test for some of the crew. I promise to never write another script which revolves around a large wooden box!

[Above: Production Designer Charlotte ball assembled the cumbersome box prop on the morning of the shoot, aided by writer Tommy Draper. Photo by Richard Parker.]

   In spite of the weather, we wrapped on the first scene in the woods pretty much on schedule, and we were very happy with what we'd filmed. We packed the kit away (in a bit of a mad dash, as it had started raining again), wolfed down some takeaway chips, then it was time for the majority of the crew to move on to the next location, in convoy, while editor Theo Vann-Leeds went back to unit base to start assembling the film.

   The next scene to shoot was comparatively simple; we had to film the majority of the shots of Charlie driving in the van (which actually belonged to Will), and we pulled up near a country road to do that. But it was a little stressful for poor Charlie, who was understandably less comfortable driving a van than a car - and had more emotional scenes to deliver in the process - and also for the crew members who had to sit out in the cold while we filmed these scenes (randomly, some of the crew found a ditch which was quite warm to sit in, and I used to have a photo of them sat in it, but I don't know where that's gone). This scene also required us to use some extremely guerrilla shooting techniques, in order to get the shots of the van on the road... it's better if I don't share our techniques with you guys, because it was definitely a 'don't try this at home' moment!

[Above: Our roadside base was not glamorous and certainly not warm,
in spite of the occasional burst of sunshine! But at least the roads were quiet.]

  And then finally, it was time for us to join Theo at the unit base: the Dynomite Productions offices, where I frequently work. The office was going through renovations at the time, so it provided us with the ideal blank space to create a makeshift laboratory set, as well as being a space where the crew could warm up, have coffees and also record some audio pick-ups -so I'm very grateful to the Dynomite team for the use of their place!

   The last scene we filmed on day one was the opening scene of the film, the aforementioned lab scene, which was Sarah's only other scene. So once we finished filming, late at night on the Saturday, it was a wrap on Sarah - and I was sad to see her go! Hopefully it won't be another seven years until we can work together again.

[Above: filming close-ups in the 'lab scene', late in the evening on Day One.
Photos by Tommy Draper]

   The shots we filmed that night were some of my favourites of the film. Will used different focusing techniques, such as lens whacking, to add some tense and extra-terrestrial effects to the creepy moment where scientists' hands came down over Talia - and I think we all went to bed that night with Sarah's ear-piercing scream still ringing in our ears!


   Day One of this shoot was definitely the biggest, in terms of the amount of scenes we had to film - and as a result, this blog post has ended up slightly longer than I intended! So I'm going to leave it there for now, and cover Day Two in a separate post. I hope you've enjoyed reading this 'Story from the Set' so far; if you want to support the project, please consider donating or sharing the Crowdfunder campaign. Any way you can spread the word will help our cause.



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