Art Direction for Film: ‘On location with Suzi Morris’

'Film Budgets' / CC

For many, the thought of working in film conjures up the thoughts of exotic filming locations or red carpet events in Leicester Square but what is a day on set for an Art Director in Film really like?

Today I am an abstract oil painter currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Fine Art at the University of East London. As winter starts to fall on 2016 my thoughts turn to memories of my former life as a freelance Art Director in Film.

I had just finished an intensive year-long Masters Degree in Fine Art at the City & Guilds of London Art School when I was offered the opportunity to go overseas and work on an investigative feature film. This was my eighth project with Fact Not Fiction Films, a small independent multi-award winning film and documentary Production Company based in West Sussex.

We have a crew of 12 and I am here as Art Director on the investigative thriller feature film, A Dark Reflection. This is not a studio film with generous salaries and budgets. This is a co-operative model film where we are all given shares in the film – there is no pay up front. We are all doing this because of the issues at the heart of the film, issues that could impact anyone who flies today. The film explores what many claim is ‘Aviation’s biggest cover-up’ and is the aviation version of films like Erin Brockovich or The Insider. Being part of a film that could potentially make air travel safer for everyone is primarily why I am here.

Actress Georgina Sutcliffe
Actress Georgina Sutcliffe

Our unit is in Jordan to capture the opening six or so minutes of the film that introduces our lead character, journalist Helen Eastman. The actress Georgina Sutcliffe plays the role of a tough journalist working in a hostile overseas setting. ‘Georgie’ is a delight to work with and her smile and enthusiasm for the film makes the filming more like a family holiday than a regimented studio film.

Typically the larger the production crew, the less flexibility there tends to be. The director and producer of the film is former British Airways Captain Tristan Loraine. Tristan has filmed in Jordan before and has a very clear idea of what he wants the filming to achieve which makes my life much easier.

After a hearty breakfast in the Marriott, we head off for our first location, which is a small kebab café in a nearby local Bedouin village. In a studio film, the café would be rented for the day or built as a set. We have use of it for only a few hours whilst business continues at the quiet time of the day. Consequently, we have to work extremely fast. Films are very rarely shot in consecutive order as you see the film on the silver screen as the Line Producer and Production Manager always create a shooting schedule. The scenes in Jordan are at the start of the film but the rest of the film has in fact, already been filmed.

The scenes in the café are made up of wide shots, shots that help show the location and setting of the scene and other shots such as ‘close ups’ or a ‘two shot’ (when there are two people in the camera shot). We start with the wide. Our Director of Photography (DOP) is Nick Eriksson, a young rising star in the world of film. He has a First and Second Assistant Cameraman, Joshua J.J. Green and Ciaran Maginn. Josh’s primary role is to make sure everything filmed is ‘sharp’ or in focus and Ciaran’s is to set the camera up and load and unload the film magazines. A Dark Reflection is being filmed on 35mm film as opposed to digital, digital is becoming more commonplace in TV and in feature films. 35mm is the gold standard. It’s analogous with painting using Schmincke Mussini oil colours, it’s as good as it gets. The advantages of film are its amazing latitude to capture brightly lit areas and the darker areas all in one go. Digital lacks the latitude of film and the look of 35 mm film is magical compared to digital. Using 35mm film also brings a discipline to filming often lacking on digital productions because of the far higher cost of filming. Each ‘take’ has to be properly rehearsed before actual filming. Georgina is exemplary in her deliveries; a director’s dream, as her performance is usually precisely what the director is looking for.

As Art Director, for the wide shots in this scene, my role is to prepare the set for filming and ensure the location is not in any way recognized as Jordan, as the scene is actually set in an unknown overseas location. Any logos or brand names need to be cleared by the legal team, sometimes a slow process, so it’s often easier to remove obvious ones or confirm with the DOP that any potential brands in a shot are ‘soft’ i.e. out of focus and unrecognizable. As we have a small crew on this location, I will also look to ensure there are no continuity issues.

Film scripts are usually written in a program called ‘Final Draft’. The program formats each A4 page in a very precise way. One page of script usually equals one minute in the film. Our film script is 117 pages, so the running time of the film without end credits will be in the 2-hour mark. The start of the scene we are filming this morning appears in Final Draft as:

INT. LOCAL RESTAURANT – DAY

Helen and Tom sit down opposite KAMIR, 40’s. He sips Arabic coffee, his hand shaky.

Helen faces Kamir, Tom is between them.

KAMIR

If you were followed –

HELEN EASTMAN

We weren’t.

Tom holds the camera and glances at Helen who nods for him to start filming.

Kate Morgan our young Third Assistant Director is also acting as continuity girl in Jordan. Kate ensures the script is followed and provides the editors with all the details of every take, such as lens used and if the take is useable or not. Jane Williams who is Head of Hairdressing on the film also works as a make-up artist in Jordan. Everyone here has more than one role. Even our Executive Producer Captain John Hoyte and his daughter Lucy have to act as crew members.

Once Jane has got the actors ready, the ‘wide shot’ is filmed quite easily with a few local extras keen to be part of the film. The wide sees Georgina and Tom, played by young actor Luke White, enter the café and sit down. This is followed by single and two shots of the three characters in this scene before we come to the main part of the scene: the shooting.

The scene sees two characters in the café shot by an assassin with an AK-47 assault rifle. The consequences of being shot in the head by a high-velocity rifle are, as you would imagine, visually quite shocking. The bullet enters with a very small entry wound and basically takes out the back of the person’s head. This needs to be reproduced on the walls close to where the two characters are sitting. The exact trajectory is worked out for complete accuracy. I am now painting the walls of the café with the highest quality of stage blood the market can produce. At £50 a bottle, it looks so real local bystanders ask themselves if the café is now a butcher’s shop or if the last customer perhaps failed to pay his bill. It’s totally water soluble so washes off the walls very easily after filming.

Each camera shot is called a ‘set-up’ with a slate number identifying the setup and ‘take’ written on the ‘clapperboard’. This is used to allow the editors in post-production to sync the sound, which is recorded separately to the film footage being filmed at 24 frames a second.

The last ‘set-up’ is where the day gets really interesting. The director, keen for accuracy in the film, has a real AK-47 being used and firing blanks as opposed to a plastic weapon. Before filming the gun being fired and using up valuable film stock, he asks that the weapon is fired to make sure it all works properly.

Location Manager Mohammed Nawafleh
Location Manager Mohammed Nawafleh

The weapon check is carried out in the street by one of the local production managers, Mohammed Nawafleh, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He clearly knows a lot about weapons. Not surprising really, as the last film he worked on was the Academy Award Winner Zero Dark Thirty. I look around at how nobody seems concerned that an assault rifle is being fired in the street and remember I am not in London anymore. It’s exciting – you remember that in the world of film – anything is possible.

Being an automatic assault rifle, it fires a round and automatically reloads itself in the blink of an eye. The test firing, however, highlights a problem. The gun does not reload automatically because the blanks being fired don’t have enough gas release to reload the weapon. It’s suggested that the gun is manually reloaded but that is not part of the story and not realistic, so the director jokingly says ‘we need some real ammunition’. Much to my surprise an unknown local steps forward and says he can supply as much ammunition as needed ‘for a small fee’. 30 rounds are ordered and the crew starts to look a bit worried! Five minutes later the ammunition arrives. Georgie’s father was an elite soldier so she remains un-phased. Clearly for the ‘reverse shot’ of the gun being fired we need another location or the café owner will be rebuilding the place after we have gone. The location manager ‘has a cousin’ and we all drive off to a remote farm.

The farm looks over the most scenic of valleys. Once all the livestock is moved away to safety, the film camera is set up beside the gunman to capture the shooting. Just before we ‘turn-over’ the camera and ‘roll sound’, I turn to the director and highlight that it’s amazing that the man using the weapon, actually one of our local drivers, has been given the AK-47 to fire and yet never asked for any tuition. He smiles and says ‘I hadn’t thought about that – I guess everyone can fire an AK-47 over here’ and smiles. After the filming, he and Georgie also fire the weapon easily.

After a wonderful meal and break back at the hotel, it’s off for more filming. This time at the local hospital, arranged by ‘another relative’. The scenes we are filming are the arrival of one of the two people shot in the café. The hospital is a working hospital and they have kindly agreed to let us film after 11 pm when they are fairly quiet.

My role as Art Director in the hospital is to ensure everything is as real as possible. We remove any signs that identify the hospital location, apart from that it’s ready-made.

It’s not a set; it’s the real deal. I was also very fortunate that we had extras that all work at the hospital.

Wrap photo in Petra Hospital
Wrap photo in Petra Hospital

Doctors, nurses, and specialists simply acting as extras in what they do every day. I supply the expensive missing blood in generous quantities.

After we ‘wrap’ the filming, we leave the hospital under an ocean of stars, its 2am in the morning.

It’s a long day but one that I will never forget. It’s the amazing world of film and A Dark Reflection is a film that will make a difference and I am glad to have played a small part in helping to make it happen.

For more information please visit: www.adarkreflection.com or www.suzimorrisart.com

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Suzi Morris 1 Article
Scottish born Suzi Morris is an artist and writer. With an MA in Painting from the City & Guilds of London Art School, she is now undertaking a practice based Professional Doctorate in Fine Art at University of East London.

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