Published on: 02 June 2016 in Longform

Challenge ALEXA 2016

Reading time: 13 minutes and 7 seconds

Our Challenge ALEXA-winning directors have completed their short films and are ready to screen them at a special preview event tonight at BAFTA in London.

This year’s selection offers a rich mix of stories, trailers and genres, each one giving its own unique take on the comedic theme. Before tonight’s showcase we managed to catch up with each of the directors to ask about their films, how they found using the ARRI ALEXA shooting package and what they’ll take away from the experience.

The questions

Douglas Ray, <i>The Swing of It</i>
Douglas Ray, <i>The Swing of It</i>

What is your ALEXA film about?

Chris Chung: My challenge ALEXA film is a short action comedy which drops the audience into the third act of our overall story where Shun (played by Alan Wai) is confronted by two opposing Triad gangs, as he has been mistakenly identified as the legendary, never-before-seen hitman, Soho Jimbo.

Jan Dunn: Mine is a teaser for a bigger film. I've selected a couple of scenes from Sacred Country, my screen adaptation of Rose Tremain’s wonderful novel about Mary Ward, born in post-war rural England who decides at a very young age that she isn't a girl and is in fact a boy. The film takes in the landscape of a rapidly changing England as Mary's own body changes over the next three decades.  The purpose of the teaser will be related to the next and most difficult stage in development, a tool to help close finance.

Rich Elson: The Sound of Fear. Michael suffers from ‘musica telephobia’, scary music follows his every move. His life is plagued by people running from him and being terrified by everything he does, can he find a cure?

Simon Gibney: The Mixture, is a bitter sweet short film about Wanda, who uses all the ingredients she knows to protect her world. This modern Grimm fable tells a tale of loss that fuels frustration, and awakens a power deep within.

Douglas Ray: The Swing of It is a comedy about two couples who try swinging for the first time and discover they're not really cut out for it. But the underlying theme is love, life and coming to terms with growing older. It features some fantastic performances from Phil Davis, Di Botcher, Amanda Donohoe and James Wilby.

Jan Dunn, <i>Sacred Country</i>
Jan Dunn, <i>Sacred Country</i>

What has the ALEXA shooting package allowed you to explore that you otherwise couldn’t have done?

Chris Chung: For me it has to be the cinematic feel – the ALEXA has such a gorgeous way of handling skin tones and texture. The team at ARRI was also very helpful in gifting us equipment I hadn’t known existed! By having a wonderfully experienced camera department - who knew how to best utilise the ALEXA – it allowed us to realise the potential of the sequences. This also gave myself and Kit Fraser all the more room to play with and best convey the story and key moments.

Jan Dunn: Shooting a period piece on a budget in Thanet. On hearing we’d got it, I was on full steam with my friend and art director Vinca Petersen, finding locations to dress for 1950s England and a cast of nearly 30 to find costumes for. I was able to discover that I could source everything for the main film locally, which is brilliant as I would love to inject the actual film budget into the local economy once we make the film. Thanks to vintage stores like Breuer & Dawson in Margate, who I now know can supply the costumes, and various other vintage stores such as the Arch 16 on Ramsgate Harbour, who supplied over 300 props.

Rich Elson: Flexibility in the grade and a brilliant image quality.

Simon Gibney: It was great to be able to explore framing and use the whole screen for storytelling, whether it was to fill the anamorphic widescreen or to utilise negative framing. Also in this modern world of multi formats and various platform needs, and seeing this was our project to explore, we did not need to compromise for safety framing, e.g. action safe, title safe etc. The full screen was ours to play with!

Douglas Ray: Obviously the lenses are stunning and the colours and detail you get off that chip are still the gold standard of digital cinematography (in my opinion). I’d never worked with anamorphic before and I loved the look and feel of the image; it’s almost imperceptible if you’re not pulling focus, but it’s there and gives this slightly timeless and very pleasing aesthetic. Also our film is basically four people talking in a very small location, not necessarily the most “cinematic” premise but it doesn’t feel that way. So the ALEXA package made a big difference from a technical perspective.

Also it slowed us down and forced us to think. A lot of the work I’ve done recently has been on smaller camera/lens set ups, where it’s pretty fast to move the camera, change focal lengths, and adjust things. It can be tempting to try a few things, move things around, work it out as you go. But the discipline of having only three anamorphic lens lengths for the whole film, plus all the other constraints that come with it, forced me to really think about exactly what I needed - so it was really carefully planned. We shot something like 45 set ups across the 2.5 days and I think 42 of them are used in the final film.

And finally being able to approach the cast and crew having the involvement of partners of the calibre of Directors UK and ARRI - being able to explain that they had selected this project - really helped a lot. So we’re really grateful to everyone involved.

Rich Elson, <i>The Sound of Fear</i>
Rich Elson, <i>The Sound of Fear</i>

How challenging was it to get everything done in two days? Was it a help or hindrance?

Chris Chung: I’d say it was a big help, I’m no stranger to trying to shoot a short in a day or two, however no matter how many days you’re presented with shooting, as a filmmaker I feel that you’re always faced with constant challenges. I think given the fact that the amount of equipment and people on the project made it logistically tricky at times, it was also a great test for the team and myself in knowing exactly what we needed.

Christine [Cheung, producer] also ran a tight ship, well prepared and covered, I felt very safe in going wild for what was needed over the days. Every angle was used and nothing wasted in the edit, we shot an entire previsualisation of the short which was also a great way for Christine, Kit [Fraser] and myself to gel together in the early stages.

Jan Dunn: I’m very used to working on a quick turnaround having made three micro budget feature films, and so for me this was more about seeing if we could show that the film could be made in the South East, rather than if we could fit in everything we needed in two days. I’m happy that with no rehearsal time and very limited resources, we’ve presented a tiny essence of what the film could be. It was all meticulously planned. The only thing I didn’t have control over was the actual camera kit and finding out I had to get it to Ramsgate myself; that was a bit of a hindrance - not the kit - but getting it to the location.

Rich Elson: Very challenging; several of the crew swore at me when I told them how many locations and scenes we were planning to squeeze in. It was a hindrance caused by my ambitious number of very specific locations. We had a great, dedicated team who kept everything managed very well and the kit was fairly straight forward to look after.

Simon Gibney: Just like all current projects, there is never enough time for us directors to capture and create on set! But part of the ALEXA Challenge is to direct a short in two days, so yes the script and scenes had to be adopted to suit the shooting schedule. But I am happy the story and style stayed in line with the original idea.

Douglas Ray: It was challenging, certainly. We sort of cheated and had half a day on the evening before the main two-day shoot (with permission!), which was the only way we could get it done. But we were still always moving fast.

We were quite ambitious. It’s a 10-minute film, but it was a 14-page script, and by the time you’ve got all the stuff out of the van, into the location, set up etc. - even with only one location and a great cast and crew - you’ve got very little margin for delays.

Also the main location was very small and we had a lot of people, with lots of equipment. If you watch the film closely and know where to look, you’ll see actors are actually stepping around gear in shots some of the time. And every time we turned around, we’d have to empty the other half of the room, completely re-light, redress and get 20 people in and out of it.

The film is set in one evening, and we were filming in March when it got dark at 6pm. But we decided to set it in midsummer so that we could have daylight throughout the film and not have to black out windows. So we stuck fake flowers in the garden and blasted warm light through the windows and fortunately got lucky with some beautiful spring weather for the exteriors.

Simon Gibney, <i>The Mixture</i>
Simon Gibney, <i>The Mixture</i>

What are you working on next, and what will you take with you from your ALEXA experience?

Chris Chung: This is my next project! The team and I are hopefully reuniting on a feature version of Soho Jimbo. We had such a blast with so many lovely and hardworking individuals - why not do it all over again? And from a learning perspective, I learned what it takes to work with such a large team and that I want to shoot on the same package again! On another note, I have also just completed Wok, an independent TV pilot, and I’m looking to take that forward into development.

Jan Dunn: The Sacred Country film is hopefully my next project. What I’ll take from the ALEXA experience is some of the new crew members I met, particularly Laura Gallop and Eric Yuhico, the two sparks who were life savers and who also worked on another of the ALEXA films. Nic Morris also brought Ralph Mercer as 1st AC who I hadn’t worked with before, and also on the camera crew were Focus Puller Samantha Patterson and 2nd AC/Clapper Loader Karina Genis. So not only was it a female-heavy camera crew, but we actually worked out that by sheer chance the entire crew was 69% female.

Rich Elson: My next project is another ARRI competition, this time a documentary for Sheffield DocFest. I don’t appear to have learnt the lesson about cutting down locations, as this one involves 78 different set ups on screen, but I have learnt lessons in streamlining that will hopefully help.

Simon Gibney: One of the interesting things I experienced using such wide lenses/framing, is what it means for coverage and cuts in the edit. I wished for scenes to play out and in doing so found that the nature of letterboxing caused a narrower view on the world - but then I am not used to being a tele brat! But what one gained in the wider scope of the framing is better for storytelling.

I am currently on a Jim Henson Company/Sesame Street show with a full puppet cast, so the anamorphic lens and framing - whilst not TV friendly - would be a great format to use to hide puppeteers and obtain the golden aim of the puppets eyes being above the halfway horizon of the frame.

Douglas Ray: I’ve worked with a lot of great people who I’d love to work with again. I really enjoyed working with a writer (as I’m often writer and director) especially such a clever, funny and generous collaborator as Violet. Although we directors often get a lot of the credit in films, this film really was a total team effort - not just in terms of Violet and I, but the two amazing producers Louise Palmkvist and Kristina Goncu who worked utterly tirelessly to make the film and first developed the script with Violet.

I am now preparing to make my second feature, rewriting the script ready to go to cast and setting lots of scenes in big, wide open spaces!

<p>Chris Chung: Soho Jimbo</p>
<p>Chris Chung: Soho Jimbo</p>

Find out more about the directors and their other work:

These films were made with the kind support of ARRI Rental, The London Filter Company and Audio Network.

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