I am an amazing actor.
Well, I’m amazing at making a man dicking about in a top hat seem like Joseph Bazalgette. As long as it’s silhouetted and tiny and there are other things to distract you from the acting.
I’ve pretended that this process of videomaking is all me, me, me, but in this stage I had a lot of help. Filmmaker and editor Hugo Horvath was living with me when I started to go down the Greenscreen route, and he has a LOT of experience in using Adobe After Effects, which I used a great deal to do all the layering and compositing. Actually I’m not sure what that word means, I’m going to stop using it.
I do understand greenscreening. When I was a kid it was called bluescreening and I’d been to the Museum of The Moving Image in that London and pretended to be Superman so I’d even seen it in action. It’s also called chroma keying, but I don’t know what that means so I won’t call it that. If you’re not familiar with the principle, it’s a very old movie technique (1930s, apparently) whereby a scene is filmed with a green backdrop, and then anything green in the footage is replaced with a background like an exotic location or moving scenery if you’re filming superman flying or a care chase or something. Why green? Well, it’s very unlike most flesh tones, so you’re unlikely to chop out someone’s face or skin by accident – you could use pink or white or brown or red as your background but you might “disappear” the actor as well as the background when their skin tones are the same as the background.
Doing Greenscreen properly requires lots of space between the actor and the background to avoid shadows and reflection, several strong lights from different angles, and a smooth unwrinkled backdrop. Doing it badly requires £14.99 of green cotton muslin from Amazon (I know, I know), a couple of builder’s lights and a spare room. Wrinkles are bad because a good Greenscreen requires a consistent colour you’re “keying” to – shadows caused by creases and actors mean the colour is inconsistent. It turns out that if you’re taking the subsequent image and flattening all the colours to black and projecting a tiny version of it, this doesn’t much matter. Neither do the reflected bits of green that come from standing too close to the backdrop. Half way through filming, one of my builders lights broke, leaving me with one which frontlit me and left huge shadows on the cloth. By playing around with settings in After Effects, I pretty much got away with it.
Partly this was because, once I had removed the background using the greenscreening process, I made the actor silhouetted by using the “curves” function on After Effects and setting all the colours to black (the background stays transparent in this case, and lets you see whatever is underneath). You can fiddle around with the settings in AE to make it work, but it probably would look rubbish if I’d retained all the original colours. Anyway, if you’re serious about this, you can rent greenscreen space.
I’ve so far derided my on-screen acting skills, because I know nothing about acting and have never done physical acting before, but I did actually think a bit about how to get across some of the scenes when I shot it. Most notably, when something is silhouetted and projected silently in tiny, it’s hard to get across what you’re doing. How would I act “the sultry sky sent me 10,000 love letters… how could she know me, when I never once met her” or “he hated the attention from 10,000 plumbers and their endless questions”? I tried to think of simple scenes that would convey the elements of the story; a lonely observer of the rain; a man happening across a message from the sky; Joseph Bazalgette being exasperated with a plumber; his acceptance speech at an event celebrating him; his descent into a weird brick labyrinth; his exhaustion from moving through this, searching for an exit. Generally, I had to “act” bigger than I expected to communicate things. The props helped – the top hat to signify Bazalgette, the massive hammer and spanner (made from a bit of wood with some card attached), and the umbrella that Emily uses in the final shots.
My friend Emily was my other collaborator in this – she’s Joseph Bazalgette’s great-great-granddaughter and I thought it would be brilliant to have her feature as a cameo in the video. The umbrella is nice because it’s what nice Victorian ladies might carry (or possibly a parasol) but I also quite like the fact that through this video, which features rather a lot of rain, not one of the male characters thinks to use an umbrella. Her appearance at the end of the video has a sort of resonance to me of a future that doesn’t feature tophatted patriarchs having psychotic episodes in sewers, and is altogether more sensible.
So, the basic workflow was to get things lined up in After Effects, and all of the layers (people, trees, rain, clouds, whatever) and then render that to a .mov file, which I then projected using QuickTime player, which meant I could rescale the projection a bit too. Lining up these elements with the set was a real pain. When I’d sort of figured out what I was doing, I had the projector hooked up to my desktop computer while I was editing in After Effects so I could line up the characters with the set even before I rendered it down to a video (which takes a few minutes). Of course, what your eye sees is very different from what the camera sees, and what the camera sees depends on the lens you’re using and the focal length, so I had to have the camera set up and line the characters up with the windows and doors and apertures based on the view through the SLR. This is kind of how it looks:
Initially, I thought I’d use a lot of long shots where you could see everyone going about their business, but actually you can’t see what individual characters are doing in these wide shots, so I only used that in the “teardrop theatre” scene. For all the other scenes, I relied on close ups, which meant I could cheat a lot more – I didn’t have to get everything lined up or scaled correctly in After Effects, I could do a lot of that afterwards by moving around and rescaling the QuickTime videos. As long as the close up was framed correctly, the rest could go to hell.
(I note in passing: my inspiration for a lot of these techniques, the McGuires, do get everything lined up correctly because they use a lot of long shots, and/or the work is meant to be performed live. Whether they do this by trial and error or mathematical formulae, I have no idea. My sets are relatively small and have a lot of depth relative to their size, and as I’ve said before, I’m not as good as the McGuires.)
After I’d got the various shots of the set, I layered and cross-faded them in Final Cut (Express) – this seemed a bit more happy to give me real-time previews so I could see how the fades worked when they were timed to the music. I used very long cross-fades because I’ve always liked long fades, maybe because that’s the speed my brain operates at – but for this song and presentation of this story, it seemed to work.
I think that’s about it. All I needed to make this video was a cheap SLR, a green sheet and a bit of space, a silhouette cameo, a mac with After Effects, Processing 1.5 and Final Cut Express, a data projector, an ikea picture frame and a load of card, the time to learn to use all of these things to a highly amateur standard, a professional filmmaker who could tell me what I was doing wrong and a Victorian engineer’s distant descendent.
When I put it like that, I don’t know what I was making such a fuss about.