Making A Short Christian Film – Life On The Rocks

It gripped me 15 years ago when I first heard it. Now it’s a short film about despair, hope, and redemption.

I thoroughly enjoyed making this with Loz, Jens, and Viv. It took a few months of planning in my spare time, three days of filming, and then a week to edit.

Kit used
Sony A7S camera + Voigtländer Nokton 35mm f1.2 ASPH II lens + Voigtländer Ultron 21mm f1.8 lens + Genus Eclipse ND filter
Panasonic GH3 camera + Panasonic 12-35 2.8 lens
DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter + H3-3D Gimbal + GoPro Hero 3+ Black
Konova K5 slider
Tascam DR-60D audio recorder + Rode NTG-3 mic
Lishuai LED508AK LED light
Black Pearl 7″ HDMI monitor
Twin suction camera mount (ebay)

Car – Mercedes C63 AMG

Background
Back in 2002 I was captivated by a recording on The Poor: The Heartcry album of the Life on the Rocks poem – six minutes of spoken word that had me hooked from the first word. Loz describes how the poem came about.

“I was asked to write a poem for a Sunday night evening meeting and I decided to write a first person narrative that was loosely based on my own experiences of despair and pain. I never thought about driving over a cliff, but I certainly remember driving and thinking about what it would be like to crash into a wall. I combined those memories with a sense that God intervenes in our desperation, and pulls us back from the brink; and there began the inspiration. A man literally on the brink being made to see sense through a numinous encounter with an ageless power greater than himself.”

I’d thought for the last couple of years that it would make a good video, as did Loz unbeknown to me. A few months ago we both went to Cambridge with some other guys for a punt down the Cam and ended up discussing turning it into a short film. I’d come to the end of making various information / promotional videos (and the end of my teather in the process) and decided it would be good to do something different and creative – so after chatting with Loz, Jens, and Viv we arranged a suitable time to film.

Wide-car

A still from the film – motorway driving with the street lights on Jens face, and an LED panel in the passenger footwell adding extra fill to the side of his face.

Visual Style
For some reason I had always seen it as black and white in my imagination – lots of high contrast shots with motorway lighting on his face, a white car, white cliffs and dark seas, black clothes, white face, and marbled rock.

Planning
Jens was up for being the main character and using his Mercedes car, Loz would direct the character development, Viv would help with kit, record audio and be someone to bounce technical ideas off, and I would be filming.
Due to the sensitive nature of the film Loz contacted the Samaritans media team and took advice from them. I then used Google Maps and streetview to find a location that wasn’t a known suicide location and sufficiently out the way of the public.

A cheerful chappy

Loz – a cheerful chappy

I went to see Loz a couple of times to work through the ending until Loz hit on what the final twist would be. Over a period of a couple of months I wrote an extensive storyboard to try and plan every shot I’d need for the whole film, and ended up with an 18 page document with a detailed list of shots and then the order we would film them over the three days.

Filming
This was the first time I used the Sony A7S camera. Viv had played around with it a few weeks after he bought it to work out various functions but it was still a bit of trial and error on the shoot. The A7S excells in low light which was a key requirement and it certainly lived up to its reputation.

The Sony A7S with 35mm lens and Genus Eclipse variable ND fader. Attached to the window with the suction mount.

The Sony A7S with 35mm lens and Genus Eclipse variable ND fader. Attached to the window with the suction mount.

I used my usual camera – the GH3 – on exterior shots of the car as the 12-35 lens has image stabilisation which helped enourmously when attaching it to the side of a car.
We split the filming into four sections – Thursday night motorway, Friday afternoon cliff edge, Friday evening driving, and Saturday morning cliff edge to get the quadcopter and ending shots. This pretty much went to plan.

The GH3 on the bonnet of the Mercedes held with the suction mount. One of the few places it could be mounted on the Merc!

The GH3 on the bonnet of the Mercedes held with the suction mount. One of the few places it could be mounted on the Merc!

Although all the shots had been storyboarded it’s never quite that easy in real life, so there was still lots of opportunities to be creative and overcome problems to get the shots we needed – be it shoving the camera on a jumper to keep it steady, or working out where the suction mount can actually fit on a Zafira or Mercedes. Answer – hardly anywhere.

Using the HDMI out of the A7S into a black pearl 7" monitor so I could frame and focus accurately.

Using the HDMI out of the A7S into a black pearl 7″ monitor so I could frame and focus accurately.

My Dad very generously loaned me a quadcopter to film the aerial shots as I knew we had to go airbourne to get the line “and I saw myself from way above”. A cinematogropher I follow called Philip Bloom had recently produced an amazing quadcopter film in Thailand  so I knew what was possible.
http://vimeo.com/97455734
After a week of practicing controlling the quadcopter (it’s a mission at first) I was ready to tackle flying it at the cliff edge. I looked into the legal requirements with unmanned aerial vehicles to see what was and wasn’t allowed.

Phantom 2 quadcopter with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal which keeps the GoPro Hero 3+ Black steady.

Phantom 2 quadcopter with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal which keeps the GoPro Hero 3+ Black steady.

One thing I was keen to avoid was too many dramatic shots which could distract the viewer from Jens’ plight. Only two slider shots were used and limited quadcopter shots. Most of the film is static camera shots to allow the viewer to really engage with Jens.

Answers To Prayer
When the filming was over we all reflected on the many answers to prayer we had. The weather was perfect for each session – the motorway driving had just been raining, the Friday cliff top session needed to be dry and windy, Friday evening had to be pouring with rain, and then the Saturday morning perfectly calm to fly the quadcopter. And all these happened. The location itself was ideal as there were hardly any passers-by with a rough but accessible track to tall white cliffs.

The quadcopter hovering above the waves.

The quadcopter hovering above the waves.

We had major problems on Friday evening when it appeared the SD card used on the A7S camera that day had corrupted and we’d lost all the footage from the cliff top. To say the mood at dinner time was low would be a big understatement. After trying various fixes Viv booted his laptop into Ubuntu Linux and did a disc clone to see what data came off it and left it running overnight while we went out for the next filming session in the hope it would work. And joy came in the morning as the files were found! The mood improved considerably.

A still from the film - Jens wearing the guardian jacket walking Loz away from the cliff edge.

A still from the film – Jens wearing the guardian jacket walking Loz away from the cliff edge.

Another answer to prayer came as we tried to find a hi-vis jacket for Jens to wear in the closing scenes. We had a small waistcoat style jacket but needed something bigger ideally. And out of the blue on Friday evening we were handed a jacket by Len, whose house we were staying at, and he apologised that there was writing on the back. We looked and what was written?  “Guardian”. Perfect!

The parting gift as we left on the Saturday evening.

The parting gift as we left on the Saturday evening.

Post production
Once we’d arrived back home after filming I had 5 days to edit it to play at a national Church meeting the following Saturday. The editing proved to be quite tricky and I could have done with some different angles and takes – despite planning carefully you can never have enough footage to work with. Still it was an opportunity to be inventive with some shots and use footage from other scenes.

Editing with a three monitor setup. On the left is the storyboard, middle is Premiere Pro, and right is the preview.

Editing with a three monitor setup. On the left is the storyboard, middle is Premiere Pro, and right is the preview.

I chose a wide aspect ratio for the film, 2.35:1, as this is wide enough to look cinematic but tall enough to have enough content in like the tall cliffs.
The editing process went something like this:

Voiceover -> Basic edit of shots -> Add music -> Additional sound design -> Colour grading -> Film grain

Having a fixed deadline is a great way to really focus efforts on finishing it. I managed to get a rough edit done by Thursday and then shared it with various people who gave some helpful feedback.

The film playing at Sheffield Praise Day

The film playing at Sheffield Praise Day – watch the day again on Livestream

Improvements to make
There were a few things I’d have changed in hindsight. I’d have got some wider shots of Jens to help when it came to editing. The A7S seemed to be over exposed for a few shots which made grading difficult and I could have done with stabilising shots with a chest stabiliser or tripod. On the GoPro / quadcopter shots you can see the jello effect, especially when the camera is moving up the cliffs. I’ll have to try and get an ND filter for the GoPro and work on there being less vibration.

The Phantom 2 ready to do the shot looking down on Jens.

The Phantom 2 ready to do the shot looking down on Jens.

Conclusion
I think this video does what we set out to do – to make people think. What is this guy doing? What stopped the car? What was the ending about? Was Jesus in it?
I’m at a stage with film-making where I want to leave the viewer with more questions than answers at the end. If people go away thinking then I’ve done my job.

Many thanks to Jens, Loz, and Viv for volunteering their time and services to make this happen.

Looking forward to the next project.

Zambia: From One Side To The Other

The I.T. training was in full swing, made slightly more interesting when new people arrived who also hadn’t used a computer, so I had to cater for these ones as well as those that now had a few days experience. I did manage to get to see a different view of the complex though thanks to a friendly engineer.

The mobile network mast behind the church complex towered above everything around it.

The mobile network mast behind the church complex towered above everything around it.

I got chatting to a mobile network engineer called Louis that had just turned up to do some maintenance work, and after asking him to take me up to the top he agreed! So we climbed up - made slightly harder by carrying the camera in one hand but the views were well worth it.

I got chatting to a mobile network engineer called Louis that had just turned up to do some maintenance work, and after cheekily asking him to take me up to the top he agreed! So we climbed up – made slightly harder by carrying the camera in one hand but the views were well worth it.

Looking across towards the town of Kitwe

Looking across towards the town of Kitwe.

And that's me. Slightly out of breath but glad to get the opportunity to see the surrroundings from a different view.

And that’s me. Slightly out of breath but glad for the opportunity to see  the surroundings from a different view.

Lusaka

On Thursday I went by myself on a 6 1/2 hour coach journey to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka, to meet Farayi’s brother KC. He works in a government I.T. department doing programming and project management. Lusaka is different to Kitwe as there was many more buildings and commercial complexes. There is still the human touch though as during peak hours the police guide traffic at intersections like this one.

Something I had always wanted to see. KC had a meeting down in the south of Zambia, in Livingstone, so I got on another coach journey and 8 1/2 hours later we arrived. And it was well worth the travelling time as this is where the Victoria Falls are.

Something I had always wanted to see. KC had a meeting down in the south of Zambia, in Livingstone, so I got on another coach journey and 8 1/2 hours later we arrived. And it was well worth the travelling time as this is where the Victoria Falls are.

It was the end of the rainy season and water levels were very high, so it made for an incredible sight and sound. The huge volume of spray from the falls meant that visibility was poor.

It was the end of the rainy season and water levels were very high, so it made for an incredible sight and sound. The huge volume of spray from the falls meant that you couldn’t see across to the other side.

The bridge connecting Zambia to Zimbabwe.

The bridge connecting Zambia to Zimbabwe.

We wandered around enjoying the sights for a couple of hours till the sun set.

We wandered around enjoying the sights for a couple of hours till the sun set.

International Womens Day

On Saturday it was International Women’s Day, and that was the case in Livingstone too. Thousands of people packed into the centre to celebrate and wear very colourful dresses. Apart from the men.

Umbrella

Ladies

People here didn’t seem to mind being photographed unlike everywhere else in Zambia.

Tractor

A Massey Ferguson 275 at the market in Livingstone. This was a more traditional place away from the tourist designated centre.

Me-and-KC

Both dressed in our Sunday best. We were back in Lusaka for church on the Sunday. KC is a part of a large congregation of around 5,000 people, and there are two services to cater for them all. The guy leading this church was an American who had been here for around ten years.

Outside church

The Miracle Life church. This was vastly different to the previous week at the Harvest church, and despite my reservations about mega church and American pastors I found the teaching to be challenging, and the humble pastor humbled me.

Inside church

The church was well built from the congregations donations. They also ran several projects in Lusaka for orphans and street kids. Interestingly the sermon led straight into a gospel spot for people to give their lives to Jesus, and quite a few did. I came away from here having seen God at work but the place I felt at home in was the Harvest church and with its people.

Huts

I said goodbye to KC, glad of the time with him as he’s an important contact for future work here. I then met up with Farayi who was returning from Malawi and we travelled back to Kitwe together. On the way back I spotted the odd place that had traditional thatched roofs but most village housing now had corrugated sheets, electricity etc so sights like these were rare.

Tanzania to Zambia railway

The Tanzania to Zambia railway line.

We returned late on Sunday evening after the coach broke down resulting in a 9 hour journey, and then after a Skype call home I started preparing for the final few days of I.T. project work and filming.

Zambia: The I.T. and Literacy Projects

On Monday and Tuesday the I.T. and literacy  projects were in full flow. Here’s a look at what we’ve been doing.

IT crowd

Monday morning came round and with it the first of the teaching sessions. At the Multiply conference a few days previously Stephen had encouraged pastors to come in and learn how to use a computer, as it is becoming more and more important for communication in Zambia.

James

And come they did – more than 30 of them crammed into the small I.T. classroom for the first session. I didn’t know what level to expect and it turned out that almost all of them had never used a computer before. This was going to be interesting. I started on the basics like how to hold a mouse, moving the cursor, using a keyboard etc. I worked it in stages so 10 people had a go then swapped with another 10, so those who had just tried taught the newcomers. This is the best way of learning – teach what you have been taught.

Ladies group

In the afternoon a smaller group of mainly women came and there was still the same need – to know the basics of using a computer. It took one person ten minutes to use the mouse to click on an icon and then the keyboard to enter a password, but by the end of the lesson she was one of the most confident users there.

Group photo

A happy crowd of Zambians after the second days teaching. In total we had more than 50 people come for lessons, and I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. The lessons will cost them a small amount of kwacha (local currency) and this money will go towards running the orphanage and improving the school.

Ali giving books

On Monday morning Ali gave a presentation to the school of all the books and teaching materials that have been sent over. This was gratefully received!

Ali crowd

Ali had a big task on giving an English literacy lesson to a large amount of people, some of which hadn’t come to the assessment the previous day so it made it harder for her to work out what they should be learning. She coped brilliantly though and the conversations and laughter carried on throughout the afternoon.

Ali teaching

Hannah teaching

Hannah meanwhile was showing some of the school children and orphans how to use a computer – as with the older generation most had never tried before. The power to the local area had been cut all day and by the time mid afternoon came only one had any battery life left. Still, more than 4 hours in use on battery is a good run. These laptops have been a great buy – thanks for your donations and for Tony at Form I.T. for sourcing them.

Watching

Happy

You can’t really describe what it is like seeing an adult or a child learn something they never thought they would have the chance to learn. It’s a mixture of joy and disbelief. This picture sums that up.

Dinner

And talking of joy – here was one of the meals that was presented to me in the evening. Sharon really does put a lot of effort into fattening me up: coleslaw, fried soya bean, sausages, eggplant, and boiled potatoes. Finished with some pineapple for dessert. Even for me this is a lot of food and I’ve rarely finish a meal. I think that’s a compliment. Could be a grave insult though. Oh well there’s not much I can do about that.

Fish

Another traditional meal I’ve had. Fish (bream), a bean and nut mixture, and nshima (ground maize).

Grrr...

Grrr… yep I ate that all up. And it was actually very tasty.

Sunset

On Tuesday evening I got back home noticing that there might be the first real sunset of the trip. After the customary bath time the sun had almost set (it goes down very quickly due to the angle of the suns movement) but after asking Matthew he quickly took me to a place where I could get the last few rays of light.

It’s been a busy, and somewhat tiring few days for us all but we’re seeing real progress with the project work. It’s making a difference not just to the church, school and orphanage, but to the people of Kitwe as well.