Since embarking on this film in October 2014 I’ve downplayed my many roles. I assumed – perhaps wrongly – that only the most ardent film enthusiast wants to read about the mechanics of screenwriting or cameras, lenses and editing software. But in all my multitasking – after all, this is a handmade film – I confess at times I’ve felt daunted: by the script, the quest to find locations, the logistics of shooting, editing, sound design and, not least, how best to use the limited funds available to achieve it all.
In my third winter on “Voyageuse” I’m pleased to report that the film is complete, apart from the final colour grading of the last reel, a task I’ve taken on to avoid a five-figure invoice, made possible thanks to software that until recently was exclusive to £300-per-hour post-production houses. To grade a feature-length film takes around 40 hours but as a DIY colourist it’s taking me longer, partly due to inexperience and because much of the film was shot in uncontrollable situations, e.g. low lighting and exteriors. For an explanation of grading here’s a link.
The final step is to create a DCP – Digital Cinema Package – a method of coding data, image and audio files, the standard format for theatrical screenings. In 2000, my debut feature became the UK’s first digitally screened ‘film’ thanks to a company called Digital Projection who kindly supplied a prototype cinema-standard projector. Since the film was a micro-budget affair I couldn’t afford a digital intermediate – a transfer from data to film – to strike a 35mm print which in the early 2000s was the only effective way to screen in cinemas. As a result my cast and crew screening was featured on BBC TV’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’, beating Pixar’s “Toy Story” to the punch. DP also supported my festival screenings; without their generosity the film would never have been seen.
Early next year I will either borrow or hire a cinema screen to watch “Voyageuse” to assess whether it meets the accepted technical standards for exhibition. For a filmmaker it’s the equivalent of staring into a magnifying mirror where every flaw stares back. The trick is to know what’s acceptable – e.g. will the audience really care about the loss of detail in the corner of a shot, a slight colour mismatch of a wall or the volume of a particular sound cue?
Over the years I’ve paid money to watch films shown in the wrong reel order, with missing reels and once where the projector bulb exploded mid-movie. At one memorable screening at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh I witnessed a disgruntled filmmaker in a stand-up brawl with the projectionist in full view of the nonplussed audience. Needless to say, the projectionist won.
It’s a terrible admission for any filmmaker but in 2016 I rarely went to the cinema. Lately I’ve felt the effort-versus-reward equation has skewed to the point where indifference is my default response. Cinemagoing today typically means entering a faceless industrial shed attached to a retail park. Here one is unlikely to interact with another human now that the box office has been replaced by a machine and where, in addition to a hefty admission fee, the popcorn costs more per ounce than gold. Once seated, the audience is then prey to a barrage of adverts before being implicitly accused of criminality by the self-appointed FACT wagging its finger about how film piracy funds drug and people trafficking. Little wonder Netflix and VOD are winning.
During a recent visit to a local cinema to see Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”, a film acquired on 35mm, my experience was marred by a persistent patch of light on the screen, a light emitting from the projection window. That no one in the audience bayed for the duty manager’s blood suggests to me that either a) they didn’t care or b) were so rapt by the story on screen that they failed to notice. Personally I was underwhelmed by the film’s lack of narrative cohesion and overwrought grading.
Dwelling on this, I recall the only time I ever went to the cinema with Erica. It was not a success. From her letters I had noted how she was an avid, but not uncritical cinemagoer, dismissing Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” (1950) as ‘pretentious’. On a visit to her Edinburgh home, my husband and I suggested she might enjoy a trip to the local Odeon to see “Jurassic Park 3” (2001), based on a notion that as a former zoologist she might find the CGI dinosaurs amusing. On arrival however, I felt I had entered a cinema for the first time and by some strange empathy experienced the film through Erica’s eyes. Suddenly the uncarpeted theatre became unbearably live and loud, the screen overbright, the edit dizzying and frantic. Much worse was the film’s crass, anthropomorphic depiction of its creatures. Plainly, Erica was disoriented so we left 10 minutes in. It was an exercise never to be repeated.
On a visit to Cineworld to test the DCP of another of my previous films, when granted backstage access I was struck by the harsh fluorescent strip lighting, concrete floors and blank metal boxes hooked to alien projectors; the delivery system of today’s entertainment industry where 16 screens are programmed and managed by only one or two projectionists; less ‘Cinema Paradiso’ than working zero hours at a branch of Argos.
In an age of mass digital exhibition I’m struck by the persistent myth of the picture palace and how in the 21st century cinema still evokes a kind of retro glamour; the plush seating, velvet rope and red carpet. As a child raised in the inner-city slums of Glasgow, the pictures became my refuge at a time of mass demolition where – ironically – entire streets seemed to disappear in real time unaided by the chimera of After Effects. The Ardgowan (AKA The Korky), Lorne, Capital, Coliseum, Lyceum, Plaza, Bedford and Odeon were all within walking distance of our room-and-kitchen flat. These venues, often located in back streets, boasted capacities of 1200, 1400 or in the case of Green’s Playhouse, in excess of 4000 seats. Here it was possible to while away an afternoon watching six-month-old prints of Hollywood films during double feature matinees, dust, scratches and all.
Now long gone, these cinemas instilled in me a sense of wonder that somehow led me to a career in the Seventh Art. To this day I’m still in awe of the big screen so it will be curious to see how “Voyageuse” translates. Even so I’m staving off the notion it may be the only time it shows at a cinema. Hopefully 2017 will prove me wrong and that finally the film will reach its audience.
To my readers, I wish you a happy, peaceful and productive New Year.
The above image is a still grab of my husband, shot on S8mm film by his father, Gwynne Thomas in 1967.