DON’T. STOP. RUNNING is a feature-length adventure movie, shot in the South West of England, and London. It’s about two estranged brothers – thrown together for a treasure hunt – who soon find that they are the ones being hunted. As they race across a wilderness they realise that if they want to survive they’ll have to work together.
The main body of the shoot (24 days or so) finished in August 2014, and since then we've had around 7 days of smaller shoots for scenes that were difficult to schedule at the time - because they involved a boat, for instance. Or a grave. Or a library from the early 1800s...
DON'T. STOP. RUNNING is a microbudget feature. I can’t go into the exact tininess of the budget at the moment, but if I say that there are LOTS of short films that cost the same as our feature, it’ll give you a fair idea. Over the next few months I want to use this blog to share as much making-of information as possible, in the hope that it might help one or two others as they get their own features made. I'm all too aware how much work it takes to get a microbudget feature made - I'm the director of DON'T. STOP. RUNNING, and I'm also the writer. And part of the costume department. And props. And transport.... etc.
And, as it’s a ridiculously low-budget affair, I also shot it.
That probably sounds like lunacy. In fact, having come through a 24 day shoot I can categorically say it IS lunacy, but it was also an absolute necessity if we were going to get this film made. It was a choice between, ‘wait a year, maybe two’ or ‘get on with it now’… and I’m not great at waiting.
So, a little background. DON’T. STOP. RUNNING is the fifth (maybe sixth…?) feature length script I’ve written. The rest are all sitting around the house, with scribbled notes all over them. I think the first feature length script I wrote reached draft 17 before I finally put it to one side and decided it was horseshit. I might go back to it soon and give it a kick and see what happens, but I suspect it hasn’t transmuted into gold in the intervening years.
So, December 2012 – on a little break over Christmas – I sat down and decided to write something that obeyed three simple rules:
Rule 1) It has to keep people entertained for roughly 90 minutes. I’ve seen too many low-budget films (feature length and short) that have bored me within 5 minutes. If I can make a feature that keeps people watching for its whole duration, then there’s a good chance someone will give me a chance to make a second one, a third one etc.
Rule 2) The story has to use locations I can access easily. Write it around what is available to you.
Rule 3) Think of the budget and keep it lean – in particular, limit the number of characters.
These rules would allow me to write something that I could actually make myself. The previous scripts I’d written were always a little TOO big. Not much, but enough to make them a bit too hard to make on a budget.
Over the next 2 months I plotted out the story meticulously. I wrote the first draft in around a week (12 – 15 pages a night – I always try and get the first draft done as quickly as possible).
After that, each draft took around a month to 6 weeks. And there have been lots of drafts… Lots and lots. I quite enjoy this part of the process, so that’s fine – I did an MA in English Lit at uni, and I’ve been writing scripts for about 10 years (not that I’ve ever really done anything with most of them). If we have any degree of success, it will in large part be thanks to the time spent on rewrites (and the people who gave feedback). The rest of the credit will belong to the actors.
I started meeting with actors in around May 2013, continued throughout the summer and well into 2014 – until I finally found the perfect pairing for the two brothers who are the lead (and pretty much only) characters. It took a long time, but it was definitely worth it. I don’t know if you can rescue a project if you’ve miscast it.
In February 2014 DON’T. STOP. RUNNING attracted a bit of BBC attention through their Writer’s Room scheme, and that gave me the boost I needed to really start pushing ahead with the project.
March to July were a whirlwind… I wrote an enormous funding/distribution/marketing plan for the film, which allowed us to secure SEIS relief (a government supported tax relief, to encourage people to invest in risky ventures like films), and together with my producer we started finding investors. The majority of these are personal contacts – friends, family, colleagues. One or two have come through other connections. The whole thing has been a bit baffling – but somehow by late July we had enough funding to get started.
So.. directing. And shooting. Gulp.
I’ve shot quite a lot of stuff in the past – documentaries, short films, corporate stuff (oh-so-much corporate stuff) and I’ve directed all sorts…
But it had been a couple of years since my last short film, and I was about to shoot enough footage for an 90 minute film, almost ALL exteriors, in a British summer…
In preparation, I spent a lot of time with my two actors – we had weekly rehearsals for around 10 weeks beforehand – and did lots of camera prep. The film was shot on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (apart from a couple of inserts on a GH3, an in-water scene on a GH4, and nighttime interiors on an A7S). I’d been impressed with the picture quality from the BMPCC – I don’t really know how to describe it, but the image has a texture and richness that I like – and knew that the deeper focus (a result of the small chip size) would actually be beneficial on a low-budget shoot – particularly because I had to pull focus myself. Ouch!
I also knew that I wanted to shoot RAW and have as much latitude to play with in post as possible. We don’t have the budget to light large exterior scenes, so we’ve been working with available light, a sun-direction app, and several reflectors/negative fill sheets. Shooting RAW would enable us to work with difficult exposures (bright skies, dark forests etc.) and still get great looking footage. The issue would be disk space… We’ve currently filled at least 5tb with RAW footage (not counting transcodes) and have that triplicated as a backup. Then we've made ProRes LT transcodes of the footage for the offline edit, which will again be duplicated… RAW is great, but make sure you’ve got way more than enough drive space before you start.
Our shoot was on such a low budget that the backups and any transcodes were made by me, as we went along. That meant that each evening I would take my four 64gb Sandisks and slowly back each one up. Then, because my laptop at the time was too weedy to run DaVinci Resolve (a bit embarrassing…), I would take the footage into After Effects via Camera Raw (applying a rough grade on the way). Then I could view the footage, and leave any tests exporting overnight. It wasn't ideal – and robbed me of sleep/relaxation time each evening – but you do what you've got to do, and somehow you get it done. Thankfully the transcoding for the offline was done by a friend of mine who's a DIT - which meant we could start editing before 2018.
In the run-up to the shoot I started collecting lenses – mainly via eBay – and bought a couple new. In the end, I had far more lenses that I needed… I shot the vast majority of the film on the SLR Magic 12mm (including a lot of close-ups), with the Voigtlander Nokton 42.5mm as my long-lens of choice. The Kowa LM8HC 8mm also saw a lot of use, as did my Angenieux 12-120 zoom. My Pentacon 300mm and Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm were both used in one or two scenes.
So, that’s 6 lenses in total… Out of around 14. Still, it’s always better to have lenses with you and not use them, than the other way around.
My rig was pretty simple:
- A set of rods and a manfrotto fixture from an Indian eBay seller (possibly Cinecity)
- A cheap cage from South Korea,
- Fotga swing-away mattebox from Amazon,
- Anker Pro 2 battery pack (bodged onto the back of my rig)
- A set of donated Tiffen NDs (with homemade wooden frames, as they were too big for the 4x4 Fotga)
- Hoya 82mm Polariser (sitting in a filter tray adapter – left in for the whole shoot).
- Lilliput 5D ii monitor.
In the run-up to the shoot, I wrote some letters to different grip and hire companies and managed to wangle for free/reduced rate the following…
- 40ft of Ronford Baker dolly track.
- A 5 foot, sectioned, camera bazooka (to mount on the dolly)
- A wireless clip-mic
- Lots of wedges
- Lots of bits and bobs of wood.
I wanted to shoot as much of the film as possible on a tripod/bazooka, as it would fit the look I was after – a kind of low-budget version of the Spielberg/Slocombe collaborations on the Indiana Jones movies. Without the generosity of the hire companies, I don’t think we’d have had the budget to make that an option.
About a year before the shoot I’d met an engineer who was into home-build projects, and I paid him (a tiny amount) to build a standard gauge dolly for me. That dolly had been down at my parents’ house for the best part of a year, and had never been tested on track before. It’s hard to express the level of relief I felt when I tried it on the track we’d been lent for the first time… and it fit perfectly.
We were also very lucky with another source of kit – a media charity in the South-West of England that had trained me and most of my crew. The Engine Room – in Bridgwater, Somerset – is an accessible community media centre, and is the main reason I’m working in this industry today. They kindly lent us an audio mixer, shotgun mic, boom pole, a set of clamps, tripods… all sorts of things – to help us get the film made.
My shooting approach has been relatively simple – check the sun app and try to block scenes so that the actors are backlit where possible (and where preferable). For an evening look, try to block things so that the actors are side-lit rather than backlit. This hasn’t always been possible, but it has at least been the foundation of my shooting – and has been a good starting point.
I’ve used reflectors a lot during the shoot – sometimes as fill, but more often as either a backlight, or as negative fill (we’ve got reflectors with a black cover you can swap around) to deepen shadows or block sunlight.
We’ve also used a portable Artem Gun smoke machine A LOT. In fact, probably too much at times, but once you get started it’s hard to stop. Smoke is great on exteriors for adding depth and giving some texture to the light and…
…It’s also bloody hard to control – which meant that quite a few takes had to be repeated as the wind changed and the smoke wouldn’t go where we wanted.
There were definitely times on the shoot that I regretted my decision to set 95% of the film outdoors - We had awful weather throughout August with torrential rain for days on end, high winds, the tail end of a hurricane – but the end result looks good and I think the slate-grey skies we had for most of the month were probably a blessing in disguise as they softened the light a lot.
That said, I’m not sure how I’ll feel the next time I see a script where every scene begins ‘EXT.’
We’ve got one day of shooting to go, and the edit is coming together nicely. Somehow we’ve made it through the main part of the schedule. That hasn’t really settled in yet. I’ve been wanting to make a film for years and for whatever reason (probably a potent mix of laziness and fear) hadn’t got around to it… and suddenly I’m in a situation where I’m 99% of the way through my first feature shoot. I can’t predict what the reaction to this film will be, but I hope that it might give a couple of other people the kick up the ass they need to go and make their own films. I waited too long and wasted a lot of time not doing the things I wanted to do. I could easily have sat back and held on to this project for even longer – but it’s more important to make something – ANYTHING – now, than to daydream about what might be possible if the 500k budget materializes in a year or two. If you’ve got a script, rewrite it. Find kit. Beg, borrow and steal (well, beg and borrow) and get the thing made. If your budget dictates that it has to be all handheld and natural light, great – Christopher Nolan shot Following that way and it worked for him.
I’ve definitely caught the bug making DON’T. STOP. RUNNING, and I’m looking forward to making the next film. I know the statistics – something like 80% of British filmmakers only ever make one film. Whether I get a budget or not, I’m making another – I can write a script, I’ve got the kit and I can get the cast – I might be naïve, but what more do you need?