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

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.


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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

The Great Divorce – A Parable In Film

I stumbled across this little beauty the other day. It’s rare to find a parable that’s both so simple and so rich in layers of meaning.

At 15 minutes this is more than a snippet of video, rather a short film. Well worth watching right through to the end.

“A home begins life as a blank canvas of walls, ceilings, and floors. Room upon room of precise measure. Angles and architraves. Plaster, brick, wood and glass. Beautifully rendered surfaces effortlessly hide the strength of the solid foundation within. And yet home is more than a design of rooms and things.

Home becomes the unacknowledged witness to the raggedness of our living, breathing humanity. These floors know the first tentative steps of infancy. The stampede of children’s play. The collapse of a grief-wrapped body failing utterly. Doors that observe good night kisses. Others slammed in fits of rage. Darkened corners watch frustrated tears. Hear desperate prayers. A home endures much as it’s inhabitants sculpt it with their living. As life’s journey unravels, a home is shaped with human lives clutched close to heart. A home speaks a terrible and beautiful tale of humanity’s journey from, and to, home. This home speaks of us.

A home is not merely a structure of wood, brick, stone, or steel. A home speaks. It’s voice reflecting the terms of our occupation, reminding us of what we deem most important. This world boasts it’s carnival of architecture; something for everyone and everything, no matter the cost. Oppressive skylines crush the soul. Hope struggling to breathe under the weight. Passion wanes as the opulent man trades concern for apathy.

Our surroundings influence our thoughts more than we care to admit, shaping our identity, altering our perception of truth. Prone to wander, the human heart is easily led from it’s intended home to lifeless counterfeit. Presented with such choice, how then should one build? And to what pattern remain true?

Ever planning, the Architect’s design is hidden to eyes that do not see. Regardless, this architecture portrays vividly who we might ideally be. Patterns. Strength. Intricate. Unexpected. How then to build with the majesty of a city on a hill, and the humility of a swallow’s nest? A building poetic in it’s understated simplicity. A home created to train hands for service, guiding hearts towards others. A lamp light burning bright. A door open in welcome to those yet unknown.

Regret burns, the realization of this great divorce made manifest. With heart bruised and hope fading, home is remembered once more. Rebellion surrenders to remorse. Repentance and footsteps turn homeward. Eyes weary. Hesitant. Familiar recollections of home dimmed by the journey away are recalled. Glimpses of what once was and could be again.

In this place we are known. And we know it. This place of origin, where we are allowed to simply be.

With every agenda surrendered to the will of the Architect, every piece finds it’s appointed place. A single floorboard with it’s individual grain and knots is not diminished when joined to the carpenter’s geometry. Fixed in formation by iron nails, a single voice becomes a choir. Steel tempered in the furnace, graciously bends to a higher function. Vision, giving strength it’s purpose. Structured frames lend their support to others and together a home for the wandering prodigal is built. Freedom for many found in holy submission.

Some come with boldness and urgency, sensing their inherited place. Others stoop on bended knee, scarcely believing the invitation. Some bear wounds and enter with hesitant, faltering hope. But it is the coming home that matters most. This same final step shared by all. Acceptance is found within. Undeserved and scandalous favour.

It is in a dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. And it is through great pain and sacrifice that this home is fashioned. A table is set and the places long ago prepared are finally filled. Words always known, finally understood. Returned prodigals from a disappointing land look around their former home and remember who they really are.

Wandering hearts who have come home to be free.