Far From the Apple Tree is an ambitious Scottish independent feature film, to be released next year.
In the film we follow Judith, a struggling artist who is given her ultimate wish – a residency at the home of a renowned and controversial visual artist. However, we and Judith slowly come to realise that there may be sinister reasons behind this job offer. Judith discovers that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist’s missing daughter who appears to have vanished under mysterious circumstances. A fascination develops within Judith for the missing daughter, and a horrifying secret which she begins to uncover forms the basis of the movie. Unfortunately for Judith her new mentor believes she already knows the secret…
You can view the extended teaser we made below for the EIFF17 Works in Progress event, where it was featured as ‘showcasing ten of the most exciting films currently in production’.
The visuals of this film are an intrinsic part of the story – where the style is as much a part of the substance. Being very much influenced by music videos I’ve always believed that certain visuals and music combined are equal to a good script page. There’s no doubt a film has to start with a great script – and Ben Soper has written a great one for our film – but for the films I want to make, the visual aspects remain to the forefront.
The film however does have a large amount of depth which will be covered at another time. For the moment these scribblings are about the relationship between the cinematography and storytelling, specifically the complicated reasons behind using multiple formats and how they help to tell the story.
Most of the films I’ve made have also been shot by myself but this was too much of a challenge to do on my own. We were very lucky to have Simon Vickery as the cinematographer. Simon is an incredibly experienced DP having shot many hours of broadcast drama, including Outlander, A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Lovesick. Other than being a good friend, Simon was someone I knew I could trust impeccably. He had the rare skill of allowing me to infract on his work with some of my pretty lo-fi techniques by understanding it was part of the overall feel. For the film to hold together successfully I needed a very solid, classic photography backbone for adding my broader brushstrokes, which I could not provide but for which Simon did a fantastic job.
The primary visual design of the film was to reflect the work of the artists featured – in literal form and also in a more impressionistic way. This meant there would be a canvas with cameras taking the form of the tools required to make the marks. They would take the form of would-be paintbrushes for fine work or sharp knives to crudely cut through for something more dangerous. Physical artwork and videos would be represented by different forms of recording equipment which would later be extended to the characters’ emotions, the viewer’s experience and beyond.
We could easily have just shot on one format and used VFX, Plugins and grading techniques…but that would be no fun. The shoot itself would have to reflect the work within the film so restrictions were made and no VFX could be used unless traditional pre-DI. This in effect meant that everything you see is what came out of the camera, except for small amounts of simple colour matching/reversing negative and in some cases a small amount of contrast. Due to budget requirements the film would have to eventually go through a DI so all SD material was transcoded to ProRes.
We only had a small amount of money and limited lighting but we wanted to create something unique and rewarding for certain audiences, by using the canvas as a cinematographic storytelling device rather than focussing on the more usual camera movement methods we think we’ve managed that.
Multiple formats is something that’s really apparent in every film I’ve made, though not always by design. By it’s nature Big Gold Dream had a vast range of formats that ended up fitting in well with my overall aesthetic; and vice versa. In many ways this is BGD’s evil twin sister. That film was very linear, traditional and with a clear narrative while this film is soft, ethereal and full of ambiguity; almost a dark fairytale. Both films tell the same story in different ways, though admittedly Joy Division and The Human League have even less to do with this one.
Every element in this production was an equal part of our unique film, while this writing is specifically about the different formats. Why we used them is only a small part of the overall movie. Without being too dialectical the basis of the project was to use our small budget to do what you normally would not be allowed to with a movie. So rather than show Hollywood what we can achieve in order for them to give us a bigger and better budget, and basically do the same again, we set out to make a film as we wanted to.
Our fantastic producers Steven Moore and Olivia Gifford offered us that framework. Our impeccable cast including Sorcha Groundsell (one of Dazed’s New Breed of British Actors Taking on Hollywood) and Victoria Liddelle; visual artists Lucas Kao, Avant Kinema and Mihail Ursu, veteran 1st AD Kath Wishart, editors Ben McKinstrie and Andy Morrison and all our other crew were all part of what made the film what it is. The most important aspects of the production were creating the correct feel for the film and the ability to improvise with the cast and crew. This atmosphere allowed us to create the moments which would have been lost if we’d gone down the more obvious conventional way of making the film. Small details were lost but matter little to the overall feel we created. In many ways the making of the film was the real product, though is without a doubt still included in the mass produced facsimile audiences will see.
Anyway, on to the formats….
Simon and Dragon. (photo by Paul Hartmann)
Our primary camera was the 6K Red Dragon (above) , backed up by 2 4K Red Ones (below).
We shot the majority of the film in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
The resolution, colourspace (of all cameras) and aspect ratio have important storytelling points throughout the film.
Without giving too many plot points away the 4K Red’s were used for ‘standard reality’. The 6K Dragon was for a slightly heightened sense of this reality and to help show a level of change when we dropped to lower quality cameras.
One of Judith’s methods of trying to uncover ‘the secret’ is by searching through her employer Roberta, the visual artist’s film archive. (below shot on Red One)
Roberta’s archive consists of many different formats. Partly to show a level of time changing between her work, and for the audience to not get bored of seeing the same thing – essentially a level of verisimilitude. But also, for our storytelling purposes we develop a change in Judith’s character as the film progresses. We set up a series of rules which when we break will have an impact on the audience. At first the rules are fairly simple – when Judith watches anything from the archive she is either watching in-situ, so this would be on a laptop, projector or computer screen or experiencing in other ways.
When the audience watches something from the archive out of context they are experiencing as an observer so we see everything cropped for 2.39:1. There are moments when Judith and the audience are aware of the canvas of what they are watching and we both see this framed in it’s native ratio – 4:3 but within the 2.39:1 frame we see our film’s reality. In effect we wanted the audience and Judith to experience the film in the same way, and at tother times a very different way.
We can play with the audience emotions by breaking these rules and showing the archive out of context and Judith being unaware of what we are seeing. As the story progresses and Judith’s character changes we can further play with the rules to the extent where we are not sure whether we are in reality or watching something from the archive. In many ways this allows us to use our multiple formats to manipulate time, story and offer multiple explanations of what is happening.
GET UP AND USE ME
For many of the overtly ambiguous scenes we shot a proportion of the film on 35mm which has a very similar feel but subtle difference to the Red One’s 4K. Two further elements we add to the mix are dreams/nightmares where we see our archive go beyond the ‘reality ratio’ of 2.39, the other being practical cameras: Judith, and Roberta’s missing daughter are both seen with cameras in shot, further adding to the miasma. Judith primarily uses a FisherPrice PXL2000 camera while the daughter uses a pickuptube Betamax camera.
Below is a scene of Judith running through the house. We can’t unfortunately give the exact context of this scene as it will reveal an important plot point. But for the audience it offers a level of ambiguity as to what they are seeing and what Judith is feeling as we are unsure of what format we are seeing. Here we cut from an obvious scene from the archive to Red, then to a mixture of 16 and 35mm. Later on this scene is reprised (which we can’t show) with a vastly different texture and different aspect ratios. We see the sprocket holes, melting film and see the film being scanned in the film lab (another level of reality). One of the key storytelling devices we use throughout is using the same action filmed on wildly varying cameras to dispel notions of the medium not being an important part of our storytelling tools.
In amongst the archive we have a vast mix of film developing techniques and formats, as well as old video formats.
In the below example we see Judith enter the artists house for the first time. While still a rough cut it shows how we use the formats to enter Judith’s world of wonder. We start with Red, a little MiniDV, cut to 35mm where we run to the house. Just as we enter the house we opened the film lacing door to burn out. When in the house we start on 16mm, to Red, to home processed 8mm, Sony M3, Redline 35mm, back to Epic. We filmed the entrance first on the formats and projected onto Judith’s face later.
EVERYTHING’S GONE GREEN or COLOURS FLY AWAY
One aspect of using these ‘real’ formats rather than VFX is they ground the story in reality, giving a persistence of belief as the subtleties of the format can not be easily achieved in post. This helps – we hope – give the audience a sense of dread when things that are not quite right, or generally not believable start to happen.
For the below scene we have started to develop a level of interaction between Judith and the archive.
AFTER CEASE TO EXIST
Non Red digital formats were used, often for single shots within scenes. The A7sii was used extensively for it’s size as well as it’s high speed options. I used the A7sii extensively for a previous feature because of it’s amazing low light options where it would be de-noised afterwards. For this we decided to use it’s noise as a feature of the film, another texture.
In the scene below, for Judith’s journey ‘below the bath’ it’s used in a very traditional way. Small and unobtrusive. A Canon 7D was originally used (in waterproofing) to obtain the underwater moment. Unfortunately this did not work as hoped so a Canon500D was sacrificed for the cause in a slightly less waterproof house.
As the film progresses and we establish our rules and introduce the formats the narrative, like the medium itself starts to disintegrate. We become very unsure whether we are observing a dream or experiencing reality. The timescale of formats becomes skewed as we introduce newer formats and become unsure whether a camera is ‘live’ or we are watching a recording.
To make things difficult we needed to see much of the archive footage in shot practically. Judith watches and reacts to it, she handles it so we need to see it onscreen, and as we only had 9 days to film with our actors not available full time this proved tricky. Our simplest option was to cheat but that would destroy the integrity of the film so we ended up making our own film laboratory. We actually made two. Avant Kinema would run one and Mihail Ursu would run the other.
But even these logistics would prove difficult to schedule as our Telecine Machines were also practical (you can see them in the stills). Judith had to be able to operate the telecine machines to watch the archive live so we had to transfer our footage outside of those moments. They worked nearly harder than anyone else. Although the nature of the movie is unconventional we stuck to industry standard filming days and practices – 10 hours per day with call-sheets so Kath and the team did something pretty amazing which I’m incredibly grateful for.
Organising the kit.
Below are some examples of our different textures and formats.
The not full, but still extensive list of our differing formats are:
Ektachrome 7285 – developed in E6 and telecined in our lab.
AGFA Moviechrome – developed in C41 and telecined in our lab.
Svema Soviet era film – Developed in D76 and telecined in our lab.
Kodak Kodachrome – Developed in Caffeine, scratched and painted by Avant Kinema, telecined by them and transferred through to us (though were only available for the first two days sadly).
Kodak 7219 – Developed and Telecined by CineLab London (we needed very high quality transfers for a couple of scenes)
Kodak 7207 – As above.
All shot on a Nizo Professional.
Mihail and Simon in the ‘lab’
Fuji F500D – developed and telecined by CineLab London
Kodak 7219 – developed and telecined by CineLab London
Fuji F250T- developed in D76 and telecined in our lab.
Kodak 7222- developed in D76 and telecined in our lab.
All shot on Arriflex SR2
Fuji – F250T – Developed in Caffeine, scratched and painted by Avant Kinema, telecined by them and transferred through to us (though were only available for the first two days sadly).
Fuji – F250T – developed in C41 and telecined in our lab.
Shot on Bolex H16 Reflex (for fogging film) , Bolex H16 non-reflex and Eclair NPR (for sync sound)
Kodak 5219 – developed and telecined by CineLab London
Kodak 5219 – loaded emulsion side in and developed and telecined by CineLab London. AKA Redline – to create sinister strobing shadows.
Kodak 5207 – developed and telecined by CineLab London
Kodak 5207 – scratched and re-telecine’d and melted live at home telecine. No longer exists
Kodak 5219 – scratched, inked and re-telecined while being filmed at CineLab London
Kodak 5219 – home processed in C41 and not telecined to acquire still images.
All shot on Arriflex 435
Two were used – one practical, as used by Judith and one to film Judith as she filmed with hers. The second camera was circuit bent for extra gain and to record onto a BlackMagic Video Assist.
Two were used – one practical as used by the daughter and one for us to film with. Iain Forsyth adapted the DC input to run from 12v batteries. The camera had no play buttons so we transferred from a Betamax C20 Player onto an Elgato HD Game Capture device. The camera uses a single tube pickup device to give a ghosting effect not seen on other cameras.
An 80s professional ENG camera. Used for our news archive. Later ‘hit’ to put the tubes out of calibration. The camera used 3 tubes and once out of alignment would give a strange rainbow ghost effect. Turning the camera on/off while filming would heat up and cool down the tubes giving us a very strange psychedelic colour shift. Iain Forsyth converted the camera to run from 12V power. We used a 5v Nintendo composite to HDMI adapter to connect to a BlackMagic Video assist to record as ProRes.
JVC 1976 Reel To Reel ½ Inch Camera
Never worked fully but used an iPhone to film through the viewfinder which was filming a screen to give a strange effect.
Used extensively. 4 were used. 1 for back-up 8mm effect footage/guide for onset editing. The others were used to film in small spaces such as inside other cameras, recorders, glasses etc.
The below scene is us filming Sorcha playing Judith who is filming herself playing someone else. We later film her filming herself on the Red with her watching incredibly zoomed in photos of herself on the iPhone from this scene. Another strong theme of the film. We can’t show much from the archive room due to plot spoilers but we often filmed multiple ‘films within films’ with characters analysing subtleties of themselves.
Used as part of Roberta’s current film archive. Hidden in discreet locations throughout.
We wanted a more modern feel which would still feel retro. It was broken and had digital artefacts. Primarily used for short inserts to unsettle the audience/break our set of rules throughout.
Sometimes the actors were talking to crew, or crew visible which we liked.
PD100 and VX1000
Infrared Film Developing.
We bought 2 infrared LED lights and an infrared nature camera to film a negative being developed. While prints have been seen developing in movies for years I don;t think a negative ever has been seen. This was probably our most difficult shot and Mihail and Lucas managed to pull it off. The nature camera was not sensitive enough to the infrared from the lights so we could not see it. Mihail managed to utilise a broken minidv camera which had a damaged IR filter which allowed us to create this shot.
A harder shot was the disappearing complimentary shot of the daughter. It was to be exposed to light and fade in front of the camera. Unfortunately it took far too long to disappear. It was eventually made by using a black magic pocket and altering the bleach process of the developing. More detailed instructions for another time.
They are my favourite shots and sum up the film best. Easy to fake, and would look better if faked but being able to achieve them without anyone thinking they are fancy is what I like best about them.
Overall really this is the subtext of the film. We only had a very, very short time to make a feature which we could have completed in a far simpler, more conventional and more acceptable manner to the public. My directing time could have been spent more on story nuances but the atmosphere we created, and the time spent creating that – where everyone contributed and was led to not think of the easy option first far outweighs any small detail missed. Because this is what makes our film different.
Other cameras used very briefly were the 4K Black Magic, Canon 5D, 2 Canon 7Ds, Canon 500D, Sony A7sii, Sony A7si, various still cameras, and single ‘post’ shots utilising broken 80s cameras and projectors.
A big thank you to our camera crew who went above and beyond, and this film could not be made without:
DoP Simon Vickery
1st AC’s Andy McKelvie, Alan McLean
2nd AC’s Alan McLean and Simon Messer
Operators Steven Donnelly and Beth Woodruff
2nd Unit DP Steven Donnelly
Mihail Ursu, 2nd Unit DP/Lab Operator
Avant Kinema ( Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian ) 2nd Unit Archive and Lab Operators
Lucas Kao, Photographer, Artist and 2nd Unit Camera
Iain Forsyth for his technical knowledge and allowing our 40+ year old cameras to run.
DIT – Marc Campbell – Who dealt with a vast, vast amount of footage; and with Ben McKinstrie was able to turn around footage required for onscreen usage. As well as helping us edit onset as we went. Also Tea operator
Photos by Paul Hartmann and Lucas Kao.