A Nerve-Wracking Shoot Comes Good For Shiona Penrake

SENIOR COPYWRITER AND FILM DIRECTOR. I help company owners humanise their brands by telling authentic, immersive stories that inspire, entertain and educate us.
Shiona Penrake with Lydia Barnes

“Come on Nic, are you not going to call it? It’s a wrap!’”

It was around 8.30 p.m. Sunday April 15th in Camberwell Studios, London, and Jonathan Brann, our production designer on our short film, Look Inside, wanted me to make it official. I was too exhausted to announce anything. Besides, some of our crew were still working – shooting a black and white checkerboard, known as a deformation grid, for our VFX generalist, in the studio corridor. But, yes, the shooting day was essentially over.

Wind back a few hours to the morning of Saturday April 14th, Shiona and I had arrived at Camberwell Studios facing the gut-wrenching task of completing around 40 shots in a day without a set that was fully operational.

The night before we were due to start Shiona and I had stayed late at the studio, helping Jonathan paint door, hang doors on hinges, screw handles on doors and retouch surfaces. At 10.30 pm the studio manager came round to say was packing up for the night and we were nowhere near done!

Shiona and I set off home on foot in a fairly desperate state, physically very tired and mentally anguished over the predicament we found ourselves in. On the tube home I could see Shiona’s courage had taken a beating.

“Dad,” she said, “maybe I’ve just been unrealistic about Look Inside... Maybe I was too much of a perfectionist to hope that I could create this film the way I’d dreamed it to be…”

I told her we could still turn this around. We just had to rejig the schedule and focus on the task in hand and hope to hell the production designer could put things in place while we were working. I have to admit, though, to use a football analogy, it felt awfully like being 3-0 down at half time.

I went to bed fighting against despair, feeling desperately responsible for having dragged my daughter into a project that had absorbed all of her last savings and was about to go down badly… and break her heart.

Day 1 - and a better start than we'd expected

The next morning Shiona looked refreshed and quietly determined. We spent the tube journey down to Brixton working out which shots we could do that would NOT involve opening the doors. We reckoned Jonathan had about 2 hours to get 3 or 4  of the doors on their hinges, after which we would be stuck and important shots would have to be jettisoned.

We started turning over just after 9 am. While we got busy with the opening scene and close ups of our female lead, Lydia Barnes (16) as she crafted a small wire tree, Jonathan continued hanging and shaving doors and adding handles. And that’s how we started the shoot – with production design trying to stay one shot ahead of camera as we went through the shot list at break neck speed. 

I can’t remember being on more than a couple of film shoots where the pressure wasn’t there – but this was a totally nerve-wracking experience, knowing that if Jonathan couldn’t keep up we would likely end up without insufficient footage with which to cut a film.

We’d grabbed our first few shots, when the crash of glass interrupted our rhythm. Some kind of contraption holding in a glass dioptre in front of the lens had unexpectedly worked loose and our DP Lorenzo Levrini hadn’t been able to catch it in time. My first thought was, we’ve just lost a bloody lens. It wasn’t quite that serious, but it would cost, I was sure of that. But there was no time to discuss – we simply pressed on.

Unlike most shoots I’ve been on, we got into a nimble rhythm early on. Clearly the long meeting between Lorenzo, Shiona and me to discuss shots and schedule a few days beforehand was paying off – we were well prepared and wasted little time discussing performances or shots. 

To Jonathan’s credit, he continued working on the set outside in the studio driveway when we were shooting and inside between takes and that way he managed to stay one step ahead of the next shot by a margin of 3-4 minutes.

Wonderful female lead in Lydia Barnes

We were also very fortunate to have such a wonderful young lead in Lydia. Not only were her performances for each take consistently good, she remained unruffled by all the rapid costume and make-up changes she had to do, largely unassisted.

For some scenes Lydia had to lie on a cold floor with her legs in water and needed to be mopped down between each take to remove white emulsion that was coming off the floor and mixing with the water we were putting down. And at no point did she so much as let out a sigh about any of it. And more importantly, of course, she just got the part, and worked well with the director.

Getting a handle on Day 2

At the start of Day 2, Jonathan still had a few more doors and handles to fix. And again we had to work round the ongoing adjustments and additions that he was making to the set. As if this weren’t enough, we had another major problem: the condition of the floor…

On Thursday night, at our request, the studio had put down white emulsion over green. With the movement of crew and dolly over the floor, however, the white had begun to peel away. By Sunday, when we had to create puddles on the floor, the white was peeling away faster than we could paint over it!

Worse, our supply of white emulsion was running very thin. Luckily, we had just enough to cover up the green as we prepared for our final VFX shots. By lunchtime we’d got through most of our VFX and were still on schedule for an 8pm finish. It was still looking very tight, though, absolutely no room at all for error.

Shots we wished we had

By the end of the day, Shiona said she was sorry not to have had the time to capture one or two more wide shots. “Well, that’s filmmaking for you,” I told her, “there’s always a bunch of things you wish you’d got but were stolen from you by the clock.” I reminded her that along the way we’d chanced on a few good shots not on the schedule, including one very nice wide from overhead.

The crew had done us proud in the time, we couldn’t ask them to stay for longer, and we still had to pack up before the studio manager came round to lock up. Luckily the studio we were in wasn’t being used on Monday, so we had the next day to empty it and clean up after ourselves.

Wrapping up

As all the hire places were shut by the time we’d finished, we could only stack and tidy up. Jonathan picked up his drill and started loosening the screws that held the flats together. And at around 9.30 pm, we started saying our goodbyes.

Monday morning, Shiona and I were back down at the studio helping our driver load the van with camera kit and props. Once that was done, we helped Jonathan strike the set and carry the cut-down parts to K Block, another unit within Chartwell Business Park, just a short walk away.

I’d just got back home to Wembley that afternoon, when I got a call from the pastor who had kindly let us use a unit on the lot as a set-building space. He was sorry to ask me to come back down, but he thought it would be a good idea if I did as he'd just managed to get hold of a guy who was willing to take the broken down set away for us for a reasonable fee. So I knocked back my coffee and set out again.

On my way there I heard from my driver that the lighting company was missing a few items. And so it went on. It seems no matter how hard you plan, one or two things will always come unstuck and people will make mistakes. There was no good groaning over these new and seemingly unnecessary expenses headed my way, I just had to suck ‘em up and get them sorted. We were on the final stretch at least.

By the end of the day, I was able to remind myself we’d done really well in turning the production around. To go back to that football analogy, it felt like we’d won in extra time – at 4-3. It’s now down to Shiona and our VFX generalist to create some magic in post.