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The Magic of Film Sets

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

One of the things I loved most when I was on MET Film School’s ‘From Story to Screen’ course last year was being on set. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much. Before doing the course, I suppose I’d only really thought about the screenplay and the finished film, I hadn’t really given that much thought to the process of actually making a film beyond things like getting interest in my script, finding agents/producers, ‘someone’ making the film, and finally the film either doing well or not. Hopefully if it did well I would get to continue writing.

It’s only now, more than three months after the course, that I’m fully realising just how much I learned on the course. I’m an experiential learner, and as such, learn best through experience and practice. Theory is all well and good, but I only really understand something once I’ve done it myself and had my own successes and failures. I never really understood film as a language before the course. That was perhaps the most important lesson of all, the art and language of visual story telling. An art which requires much practice and many skills.

During this eight week course my classmates and I made four short films each. We also worked on each other’s projects as crew and so were on set for up to fifteen different films. We learned from our own and each other’s mistakes. We learned what worked well, what translated well to screen.

The first project came very early in the course. On day one, we were told think of a story we could tell in five shots or less. It was to be purely visual with no dialogue. We were to storyboard it that afternoon and would be filming it the next day. I decide on the cycle of life as my theme.

At first, I couldn’t really see the point of storyboarding. It seemed so unnecessary when I was making my own film and was very clear in my head what I wanted. As soon as I’d drawn up my first storyboard, though, I learned that painting a picture with words is very different to painting it with film. Some of my written pictures were either impossible or way too expensive or difficult to film. The fact I couldn’t draw some of the shots either highlighted gaps in my scripts, or proved to me that what I had first imagined would need to be adapted to make it work within the confines of time, resources and location I’d been given to work within. Drawing the story in five pictures forced me to think about what I really wanted each picture to say.

Shooting that first short film was so exciting. Seeing my storyboard pictures come to life. It was interesting to see how much changing the camera angle or frame could change the impact of the image. I enjoyed experimenting with different backgrounds, colours and angles.

The next day we moved on to editing and adding sound. This took a lot longer than the actual filming and I really enjoyed playing with the order, length, colour and speed of selected clips. Selecting the right music and sounds allowed me to add drama and mood to the story. In less than a week I’d made my first short film, Life.

Our final projects, which we worked on in the last three weeks of the course, were more ambitious. We had the freedom to chose our own subject matter, locations, crew and actors. We were also provided with professional Directors of Photography. The only restriction was that the finished film had to be fifteen minutes or less in length.

My scriptwriting had changed by this time, in the sense that as I wrote I was already thinking about how each scene would be filmed. I chose my locations for more than just their visual appeal. Could I afford them? Were they easy to get to? Would I get permission to film there? As my story was based on personal experience I decided to act in the film myself.

I kept my crew tight, there were just five of us. We only had two days for filming which meant we had to stick like glue to the shooting schedule to ensure we got all the shots in time. The crew were brilliant and we did get everything we needed. The finished film, Happy Birthday, is one I’m proud to share on my website.

During the shoot I experienced every emotion possible from paralysing fear through to unbridled elation. I felt so alive. I loved being on set. Not just on my own films but also on those of my course mates whether as first AD, boom operator or even camera. It didn’t matter what role I took on, I just loved the ‘magic’ of stories coming to life on set.

If I do ever manage to get a feature made, I definitely want to be on the set. Apart from anything else, why on earth would I give up the chance to be on my own set? To see my script coming to life? The pictures in my head becoming a reality? That would be crazy.

When Chris Brown, Creative director of The London Screenwriters' Festival, sent out an invite for volunteer extras for a short film he is making for charity, I jumped at the chance. I’d be on set again! I couldn’t wait.

Last Friday, I made my way to the location in West London. A green room was provided for actors and extras and we were asked to help ourselves to coffee/snacks and wait to be called. There were a lot of children, there with their parents/chaperons and several actors and extras. I got talking to Monika, a writer like me, who had also volunteered as an extra. We talked about film, politics, our writing, our lives and travel.

I was so pleased to have met Monika because we ended up talking most of the day. We didn’t get called in the end because filming had gone over schedule. Chris was so kind though. He didn’t want us to feel we’d wasted our day, so he invited us to join him on set in the afternoon.

It was a strange feeling, being on set with nothing to do. I didn’t like it at all. Not that I didn’t enjoy watching the actors and crew at work. I did. I just hated not being a part of it. Standing there like a spare part, feeling conscious of being in the way. I felt like an imposter, someone who had no place on the set.

I’m not sorry that I went though. I met a fellow writer who I may well collaborate with in the future. I got to see the ‘magic’ happen again. I’ll be going again tomorrow, but this time we’ve been assured we’ll be called on. I’ll have a reason to be on the set. I’m looking forward to being a small part of the magic, part of making this story come to life.

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