Short Film Draws from Art Deco, Film Noir, Architecture, Poster Design & Expressionist Films

Lights Film School was recently fortunate enough to talk with Director James Sharpe and Director of Photography Adam Etherington about their recent short film entitled “Notes”. The film, along with our interview, can be found below. Enjoy!

Hello and thank you for creating the short film “notes”. It’s beautifully shot and it’s a joy to watch. Let’s jump in and discuss how you and your team created this film.

Where did the story originate from?

The very early beginning of the film was born out of a challenge I set myself.  I wanted to improve my skills directing actors so the initial concept was to create a story with no dialogue that relied purely on the visuals, the acting, sound design, and music to convey a layered emotional story.  I cannot actually recall where the original seeds of the story began I may have even been born fully formed! 🙂 I don’t like saying too much about the story as I prefer people to take their own meaning away from it, but what I will say is the story is not really about creativity or being a ‘writer’ and more about being a human being.  I’m constantly fascinated by memory, identity and the psychological tricks people hardwire into themselves in order to maintain a certain belief and I think an element of Notes stems from this.

The shot at :12 (above) is beautiful. Can you tell us how you lit it?

For this answer I’m going to pass you on to my director of photography Adam Etherington:

Adam: We worked around a strategy of Tungsten based lighting, and looked to create a base level for the entire set that would enable us to move quickly within the environment. Our strategy was based around soft sources lighting from upstage to create shadows and silhouette’s.. Keying with the wrap from these soft sources and showing detail in highlights. A soft but contrasty feel was our goal. We selected a tungsten based package due to the softer waveform and more gentle wrap of the light. The majority of our level was created using 2.5K Arrisoft’s, 1.25k softs and Ziplights, with harder tungsten sources placed strategically for highlights and kickers. A 2k Fresnel with F2 diffusion and a blackwrap snoot provided the pool of light that falls center stage throughout the film. Due to the fact we were shooting on RED, and were on a tungsten based package, there was the potential for a lot of noise in the image due to the lack of level in the blue channel of the sensor. In order to help counteract this we underrated the camera, using meta-data set at an ISO of 200 and took care to be cautious of highlights.

How did you approach your film’s soundscape? Jamie Cattermole and Rob Newman did a great job with the music and sound. Did your sound team pre-conceive the sounds and music beforehand or did you wait until you had the picture locked before you started designing the sound for the film?

All of the music and sound is post production, we didn’t record any sound on set.  We didn’t pre-conceive anything beforehand, Jamie and Rob became fully involved as we were getting close to locking the edit down.  For me what the soundscape needed to achieve was not only a feel and texture of the character’s immediate environment but also to create a feeling of the rest of this world outside of the locations four walls.  It needed to feel vast and populated in contrast to this pocket of isolation.  I spent a great deal of time thinking about the world this character exists in – he lives deep in the city, a basement apartment converted from what used to be a London train station or tube system.  He is surrounded by neighbours on either side, and directly above him are several hundred other residences as he lives in the foundations of a large apartment building.  Trains rumble past nearby and the rain perpetually rattles against the one window in the flat.  In the end it all stems from the central character and using an expressionistic approach to portray his story and inner workings in a visual manner.

Are you re-lighting your close ups? For instance 1:18 ( the typewriter above)? Or 3:00 (note pad)?

Adam: We did perform minor tweaks for CU’s though the majority of them were lit through the primary lighting setup. The shot on the typewriter for example has a rosco light-pad beneath the keys to help add texture, there was a 1.25KW Soft lamp off-camera right for an upstage level. Due to the tight limitations of time we pre-rigged the day before to create a ‘blanket’ space that covered the majority of our areas of action. We did tweak and adjust during the day from shot to shot but these changes were relatively minor. This was the only way we were able to make the schedule work in the limited time available.

Referencing shot at 2:05 (above) – How much of that environment is designed? Did you bring in the desk? The pictures on the wall? The coffee maker? The fan etc?

Absolutely everything is designed 🙂 The entire room is a set built in a studio from scratch.  It pleases me people ask questions like this because I find it hard to not see the set when watching the film, if the audience are unaware that what they’re looking at is a set built from nothing (using rather flimsy walls) then we’ve done our job of creating a believable world.  It also makes all the time we spent staining the walls with tea bags worthwhile!

Production designer Matthew Clark did an incredible job designing and building the set.  The desk was the last thing to be found, we rescued it temporarily from a theatre props warehouse filled with the most incredible stuff.  I think about a month after we had finished shooting the warehouse was closed and almost everything in it destroyed.

You limited yourself to one location. Was that a consideration before you came up with the story? Did you force yourself to simplify the film by limiting the locations? Or did the story just naturally fit within the 1 location?

The locations for the story were always supposed to be limited; in the original script there were three rooms we saw, the main room comprising of living space and kitchen, a tiny box bedroom and a corridor. We ended up seeing little of the box bedroom and we had to drop the corridor set, which was only going to be used in a few shots to build to the reveal of the room full of post-it notes.

The story did naturally fit with one location, especially after fleshing out the character through meetings with Ben during pre-production.

What was your approach to wardrobe, design and styling?

The approach was to make something timeless but with a hint of the futurist, a kind of nowhere time.  One thing we wanted to avoid was Steampunk, which in recent years has become overtly stylized when what we were going for was subtlety and a feeling of familiarity but of another time.  Art-deco was a large influence (I referred to the film as an art-deco noir for some time) drawing on New York / Chicago architecture, the London underground and the poster designs of that era, which actually feature on the walls of the set.  I’m quite influenced by expressionist films but have never had the control over a films environment before to explore such ideas, but with Notes I wanted to go down that darker route where the sets and lighting are almost part of the protagonists mindscape.  The wardrobe was quite simple and not overtly stylized or stylish, focusing on what the character would chose to wear living alone in this place.

What camera did you shoot “Notes” on?

We shot on the RED one camera.

What lenses did you use?

Adam: We shot on a Cooke T3.1 20-100mm Zoom lens. I’m a big advocate of using older glass on more recent digital formats, as the softness of the optics helps greatly in offsetting the hard edge of the digital image. You have to choose carefully with older glass as it can sometimes struggle for resolution when projected, but the older Cooke’s really do hold up well, particularly if you can build enough level to shoot around T4. We also selected Cooke glass in particular, as the warmer more gentle contrast ratio and colour rendition played to the themes of the narrative, and into our strategy as a whole.

Referencing the shot at 3:25 (above) – Do you naturally gravitate towards compositions with a strong sense of depth (foreground, middle-ground and background), or do you need to remind yourself to look for depth in a shot?

I try to as much as I can, there’s nothing worse than coming away from a shoot and finding that you’ve shot what could have been potentially great shots in a rather flat and dull way.  One of the great things about working with Adam is that he’s not afraid to tell the director that a shot looks flat and boring and that we should try something else.  I don’t go out of my way to find depth or include it for the sake of it

Referencing shot at 3:36 – Great shot! So even the wire coming down from the top left corner is a prop?

It’s a prop. One of my favorites.

Referencing shot at 3:55 (above) – How are you lighting this shot?

Adam: This was some time ago now, however I believe we were using a 2.5K arrisoft with F1 diff hung high above Ben, bouncing off the wall in front of him as a key, with hard tungsten sources directed down the wall to pick out detail on the notes. Falloff around the artist was controlled with flags and cutters. The majority of our close up work involved a bit of control of falloff using flags in order to isolate our level and pick out the subject. Our aim was always to keep it contrasty but very soft.

Referencing shot at 1:05 – What lens are you using for the close ups?

Adam: This would again have been the Cooke 20-100mm. Although this shot isn’t particularly representative of this, It’s handy to note that one of the most useful assets of this lens, and also of it’s slightly sharper younger brother (The Cooke 18-100mm T3 Varotal) is the wonderfully near focal distance of the close focus. Even at 100mm the lens is capable of a CF of around 2ft 4ins (I think off the top of my head?) making it an incredibly versatile tool for the fine close up work so crucial to visual storytelling.

Great shot at 5:43! (Not a question… just wanted to throw it in there!)

Thanks! 🙂

Referencing the shot at 7:06 (above) – Do you prefer lighting from “upstage” keeping your shadows towards the camera?

Adam: Very much so. I’m a big fan of creating contrast by using very soft sources directed upstage. By creating a large soft source and directing it towards camera you are able to bring texture and detail to articles and surfaces that may before have been quite plain. This strategy is taken to it’s extremes in ‘Notes’, and it was slightly experimental in this respect; using almost no fill and relying on the soft wrap of the tungsten light to provide detail.

You have a great team of people. How did you find such a talented group of people to work on this project? The directing, editing, sound, cinematography, design, performance… it’s all there.

Thank you, I’m really proud of everyone who worked on the film. With a few exceptions most of us have worked together before on smaller projects but for Notes it was great to gather together people who I respect and know are talented and have the opportunity to work and collaborate on a larger, more detailed project.  I think everyone more than rose to the challenge.  Adam (DoP) and Ben (actor) are the exceptions, Adam and myself have worked on projects since Notes, mostly making music videos. I would love to work with Ben again.

How did you go about funding this project? How much did it cost you to shoot?

The whole thing was (stupidly) funded by my credit card.  I cannot recall exactly how much we spent in the end – it must have been under 1.5K, at least I hope it was.  It took me some time to recover financially from making Notes.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us about your film. I know I speak on behalf of our blog readership when I say “thank you”.

Thank you, I’m really happy you enjoyed the film so such and I hope your readers enjoy it too!

Director James Sharpe
Director of Photography Adam Etherington


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