“The Island House” – Making The Book Trailer

Posie Graeme-Evans is something of a legend in the Australian film and television industry.  Among other things she was co-creator of the hit children’s series Hi-5 and creator and producer of the top-rating primetime drama  McLeod’s Daughters and a former network executive in charge of drama production.

In recent years Posie has reinvented herself as a best-selling novelist.  Her most recent book, The Island House is the second time her publishers at Simon & Schuster have taken advantage of her TV background to create a movie-style book trailer to promote the book.  As with the last book, The Dressmaker, Posie brought us in on the project with myself shooting and Clara Chong editing and The Film Bakery providing camera equipment and handling the whole of post production.

The Island House consists of two parallel stories on the same fictional island of Findnar off the coast of Scotland.  The modern day part of the book follows a young archeologist Freya Dane who inherits the island from her estranged father while the other part of the story follows a Pictish girl named Signy who lives in the days of Viking raiders.

Posie began telling us about “the viking book” while we were still in post production on the book trailer for The Dressmaker and we were excited from the start.

 

The Finished Trailer

The Shoot

Like Clara Chong and I, Posie and Andrew Blaxland form a husband and wife creative team, and they planned an ambitious two-day shoot using their home state of Tasmania to stand in for the fictional Scottish island.

Day 1 would be on the water and following Freya as she journeys to her island with Day 2 focussed on Signy and the Viking warriors.

My choice of camera was influenced by the need for a portable, lightweight kit that would work well for the boat shots as well as the studio VFX shots and the mountain location shots as well as easy travel from Sydney to Hobart.  In this case, the Sony EX1 fit the bill perfectly.  There’s nothing flashy about the self contained, lightweight and reliable camera, but it was did the job beautifully and the smooth post workflow was another big plus.  I used the film style picture profile settings that I’ve been using for several years now and you can download those here.  I used the 200D & 500D settings on the exterior locations and the 200T & 500T in the studio.

We recorded straight to the internal cards and this greatly added to the easy on set process.  Using the MxM adaptor and a 32 GB SD card meant that we were able to shoot all day without the need for on-set data wrangling.  This can be a very big advantage when shooting quickly.  With more data-hungry cameras it can be essential to data wrangle on set, but wherever possible I like to save that process for the safety and stability of a quiet room with a solid power supply.

 

Messing About With Boats

Our comfortable shooting platform.

After doing some extensive location scouting, Posie had found locations along the Derwent river that would be effective doubles for a Scottish landscape.

For our camera platform we had a single hulled cruiser captained by Eddie Carmichael.

I have worked from catamarans in the past, particularly shooting the 2003 America’s Cup for Knights Of The Sea, but I think that on balance a single hulled vessel has a lot of advantages as a shooting platform and this one served us very well.

For the action boat we had a classic dinghy powered by a vintage British Seagull 2-Stroke Engine.

Out on the vast open spaces towards the mouth of the Derwent River we began shooting with Posie’s niece Sarah Graeme-Evans in the role of Freya Dane.  Far from a bit of nepotism, Sarah, who is a practicing Osteopath, both looked the part of the attractive and athletic Freya but has also grew up on boats and was confident in control of the little dinghy.

For mid to close up shots, the dinghy was tethered to the camera boat and the ropes were kept out of frame.  For full shots of the dinghy Sarah had to take it quite a distance from the camera boat to get travelling shots.

It is an industry cliche to say that working on water is time consuming but it always seems to turn out to be true.  In this case the saving grace was careful planning and a little bit of luck with the weather.

Sarah Graeme-Evans getting briefed on operating the British Seagull Engine.

Sarah Graeme-Evans getting briefed by Peter Higgs on operating the British Seagull Engine.

In the book, Freya’s first approach to the island is dramatically punctuated by the imposing cliffs.  To capture this required shooting from the rear of the camera boat and over Sarah’s shoulders.  The stern of the dinghy was carefully tethered to the rear of the camera boat and Eddie kept a close eye on our distance from the rocks.

Like with shooting from a helicopter, through the viewfinder you always want to get closer but rely on the person at the controls to defiantly tell you when it’s not safe to go further.  For these shots, our proximity to the cliffs was particularly significant because of the need to avoid seeing the very Australian gum trees at the top!

Once we had that in the can we ventured to a nearby beach to get the shots of Freya preparing and setting off on her voyage to the island.  For some of these shots where there are white clouds behind Sarah’s close-ups I had a rare occurrence of really needing a little more dynamic range from the EX1.

In most cases the 9.5 stop range of the EX and most other recent HD cameras requires only a bit of care with exposure and in controlled lighting situations I treat it almost exactly as I would a Kodak or Fuji stock.  In this particular circumstance, the extra dynamic range of film or one of the many RAW cameras now on the market would have had a tangible benefit.

Having said that, it is still a very usable shot.

We then returned to dry land and climbed along the pedestrian walkway of the Tasman Bridge to get a cliff-top POV of Freya approaching the shore.  On the long end of the lens and with high winds, the EX1’s optical image stabiliser made a valuable contribution to the shot.

 

In The Studio

Brian Dimmick and the Viking Burial

Brian Dimmick fine tunes the dressing of the Viking Burial.

Day 2 began in the studio of the local WIN Television station where our lead viking Brian Dimmick (coincidentally, himself a director & cinematographer) had prepared a recreation of the viking burial that forms a crucial part of the book’s story.

The studio was a good working space with plenty of hanging black backdrops and tungsten lamps which were supplemented by smaller focusing units that Brian supplied from his own kit.

For the burial I used the same source to serve as both backlight & keylight to maintain the dark mood without underexposing.

A low level fill was added with a half CTO (usually used to partially correct daylight to tungsten colour) adding more warmth to the shadows.

The final touch was a slash of light with a Full CTB blue, which on the camera’s tungsten balanced setting created the impression of daylight leaking into the burial chamber from outside.

Posie adjusts wardrobe of Ella as Signy

Posie adjusts wardrobe of Ella as Signy in the studio.

We then moved onto the “hero” shots of Brian in character as the leader of the vikings and local actress Ella Rose-Dann as Signy against the black backdrops.

Again, I relied on the available tungsten sources, this time with a conventional key position with neutral tungsten, a quarter blue on the backlight and again using a half CTO to warm up the fill.

I find that adding colour to the fill and backlights can be a very effective way of getting a colour look, without the whole image going “mushy”.

Having a cold backlight and a warm fill while keeping the key a clean white light can be a great way of getting a warm glossy look, without the picture getting the slightly muddy feel that applying too much warmth to the key light can often create.

In this setting I used almost entirely hard sources in the form of direct tungsten lamps.

Working with soft light sources has become so easy now with Kino-Flo’s and LED lamps that it has become almost ubiquitous.  While it is often a wonderful thing and can be a very easy way to work, there can be real beauty in hard light sources even if they require a bit more creative discipline to work with.

While a poorly positioned soft light will never be as beautiful as a well positioned one, they are a lot more forgiving.  A poorly positioned hard light will jump out at you with ugly shadows that can’t be fully fixed in colour grading.

I’m always grateful that many years ago, my great mentor Butch Calderwood ACS, OAM, encouraged me to practice that art of working with hard light, because that discipline gives me both with more precision working with soft light and the confidence to break with fashion and work with hard light when that feels like the right choice.

For Dimmick as the viking the hard light made sense as a visual metaphor for the hardened warrior.  More surprisingly I found that it continued to work with Ella’s soft features and highlighting the attractive structure of her face.

 

Green Screen or Green Room?

It is a sad reality that the studios of many smaller tv stations in Australia, and I suspect around the world, no longer get the amount of use that justifies maintaining all of the facilities.

We had two shots that were planned as VFX shots to place Brian and Ella in front of still images of a circle of standing stones that Posie and Andrew had photographed on a research trip to Scotland.  This was an important piece of the story that needed to be covered.

For the reasons above, it is no reflection on the good people at WIN Hobart that we found the two green screens in their studio to be in a sad state of disrepair, to the extent that we found them basically unusable for our purposes.

Luckily, down the hall from the studio was a small lunch room that had a perfect green wall (I suspect painted with leftover paint from the greenscreen!).  So we moved down to the “green room” and did our VFX shots there.  The downside was very limited space with the camera positioned as far back as was possible in the room to get just a midshot.

You might also notice that we had to rotoscope the light switch which was inconveniently located for this shot!

Viking on Greenscreen

Brian Dimmick as a Viking on a makeshift Greenscreen

 

The finished composite shot.

The finished composite shot.

 

Mount Wellington as Findnar

Signy on Findnar

Signy and the fictional island of Findnar

Mount Wellington sits behind the city of Hobart, the core of a long gone volcano, surrounded by high hills and and other mountains that veil it’s four thousand foot height.

At the top of the mountain is a wide, treeless plateau that could convincingly pass for the ground of a desolate island off the north coast of Scotland.

Although we had originally planned to use Steadicam on Mt Wellington the high winds made it impossible on the day and we were left with tripod only.

In the end this meant that the viking burial as the only Steadicam shot in the trailer and this adds to it’s other worldly feel and impact.

Brian led his team of viking warriors and their handmade costumes were so amazingly detailed and accurate to the period that it gave us a lot of freedom with shooting close ups without fear of breaking the illusion.

After several takes of one of the battle charge shots, Posie gently asked if they would be okay to do one more take to which one of the vikings replied “Are you kidding?  …we live for this!”

With no control over light or rapidly changing weather on the mountain, all we could do was work quickly and get as much variety of coverage as possible to give plenty of options to build the sequences and timeframes in the edit & colour grade.

Even on a camera like the EX1 I find that, wherever possible, setting exposure by lightmeter gives me more reliable results and more consistency when I start grading the images.  With the naked eye having to constantly adjust to changing conditions at a location like Mt Wellington, this becomes all the more important and the camera’s histogram becomes a valuable double check, while the viewfinder and flip out screen serve just as a framing and focus reference like the viewfinder or video split on a film camera.

Ben Allan ACS and Posie Graeme-Evans

Ben Allan ACS and Posie Graeme-Evans on location.

 

The House VFX

For the final shot of the house Posie and Andrew managed to find an almost perfect location in Scotland and snapped a great photo for us to work with.

SONY DSC

The original photo of the house.

Although the photo captures the isolated house in it’s dramatic location, we felt that it could be enhanced by replacing the sky with something more interesting.  This also gave us the chance to turn the static shot into a moving one by adding time-lapsed clouds.

We used Combustion to do the compositing, which although a discontinued product still serves us well for this sort of work.  The first step was to cut out the sky, which was quite an easy task on the still image using a simple spline mask.

TIH Comb House 02

The sky mask in Combustion

 

Next we added a stock footage shot of a time-lapse sunset.  You can see in the screen grab below that we experimented with a couple of different skies.  We also added a lens flare to the background to simulate the setting sun in a good position.  This was done with the central flare only because the reflections flattened out the shot too much for the feel we were after.

TIH Comb House 01

The new sky & sunset lens flare

After this we rendered out a ProRes HQ file from Combustion and added a blue grad to the sky and some overall shading to focus attention on the house.  For efficiency, this was done back in Final Cut Pro using our own plugins, The Grading Sweet and The Gradient Sweet.

The House Final

The finished shot of Compline House, Findnar

The Evolution of an Edit

After the shoot we created put a copy of all of the raw footage onto a portable hard drive and left it with Posie in Tasmania.  This served a dual purpose in giving us an extra backup in case our drives were damaged on the flight back to Sydney and also enabling Posie to look through the footage and send us notes with timecodes & clip numbers without having to leave her farm.

Back in Sydney Clara stepped in to do the edit.  While it is very unusual for her to edit something that she hasn’t directed, the process worked well for the trailer for The Dressmaker and we all agreed that she would bring the right approach to The Island House.

We were given a clear instruction from by Anabel Pandiella from Simon & Schuster to keep the duration down, ideally to 30 seconds to help stretch the marketing budget.  Posie agreed with our instinct to cut a longer version initially to get a handle on what we had and then work on cutting it down.

A Note On Version Numbers

At The Film Bakery we use a system of version numbering that we have refined over the years and we find to be extremely effective in keeping track of the inevitable variations as the edit of a project evolves.  Every time the project is sent or shown out of house, eg. sent to the client for preview r shown to a test screening audience any subsequent changes get a new version number.

For significant internal changes such as experimenting with a different music track or duration we increase the sub-version and for minor changes that we still want to keep track of we have a further sub-version.  These numbers are separated by dashes.  So the version-1 that you see here, actually exists on our systems as TIH-v1-7-4.

 

The Edit Version 1

1 min 30 sec.

This version isn’t colour graded or mixed and the music is temp working tracks.

At over a minute and a half this version told a story but was three times the length that the marketing team were budgeting for placing.  So began the inevitably painful process of getting rid of shots to get the running time down.

The second version of the edit was trimmed mercilessly to fit exactly 30 seconds.

 

The Edit Version 2

30 sec.

On this version we began to experiment with colour grades in Final Cut Pro using The Grading Sweet to differentiate the modern and viking eras.

Although Clara managed to get it to the desired length we all felt that it was too rushed and confusing.  So, with Anabel’s approval, Clara began finding the rhythm and restoring some important shots.  Importantly, Clara also suggested that text would be useful to help the audience quickly grasp the complex story.  Over the next few versions this continued to evolve.

 

The Edit Version 5

45 sec.

By version five Clara had a working 45 second structure in place and Posie had written the title text.

 

The Edit Version 7

45 sec.

With a few more tweaks we were all happy with the picture edit at version seven.
I once worked with an experienced advertising copywriter who told me that he’d been writing ads for so long that even when he wrote a letter to his mother it could be read in exactly 29 seconds!
With a bit of tweaking we managed to get a more concise version of the text working to make it a little easier to read in the short amount of time.
This version was also the first where we could lay in the original score by Chris Harriott.
In this version we also had a Colour Grade (using The Grading Sweet in FCP)and Sound Mix (in Apple’s Soundtrack Pro) that we were happy with and considered this a finished version except for the end tag which we needed the finished cover artwork for.
This meant that we had the rare luxury of walking away from the project for quite some time before finalising it.

 The Final Versions

On returning to the trailer a couple of months later to add the final graphic with the actual book cover, I felt that the viking footage wasn’t as dramatic as it could be.

On the viking shoot day we had a lot of blanket grey sky to work with.  So we decided to undertake sky replacements on a couple of the viking shots.

A viking shot with the real sky.

A viking shot with the real sky & original Colour Grade.

Replacing the sky in a still is one thing, but in moving shots it’s a whole different ball game with the matte changing with every frame!  In the end, we used the Keyer in Combustion to key out the white sky as best we could and then used the paint tool to manually paint onto the Alpha channel, frame by frame, to do things like restore parts of the metal swords and helmets that had reflected the white sky.

Screen grab from Combustion of a sky replacement and the Alpha channel matte.

Screen grab from Combustion of a sky replacement and the painted Alpha channel matte.

Luckily Combustion is in it’s element with this sort of work and because the shots were relatively short and the effect so dramatic, we decided to expand this work out to most of the viking shots.

In the end only two of the viking era shots retained their original sky and we also added “sunset” lens flares to every one of the viking shots as well, often right on the edge of frame.  On some of these we used both the central flare & the reflections to help tie the comp together.

 

Book Trailers

The relatively new medium of the Book Trailer is rapidly gaining ground as a tool for publishers as more and more of their marketing moves into the online world.  At the same time video ads online are advancing in general as consumers spend more and more time consuming web video across all of their internet capable devices.

From a creative and production point of view this is a wonderful thing.  Combining the concise, focussed form of a TV commercial with the drama of a narrative film, Book Trailers can be a great way to push the boundaries both technically and creatively and are a lot of fun along the way.

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