Thursday 18 May 2017

The Better Villain: My first film

The Better Villain is a 16-minute silent film I made when I was 17-years old back in 2007 for an A-Level Film Studies assignment. 

Clunky and very rough around the edges, this short film is my first major piece of filmmaking. 

The Film Studies assignment it was produced for only called for a 2-minute sequence, but I decided to use the opportunity to make a full short film... which called for me to invest nearly £400 in a standard definition 30GB harddisk drive camcorder, a cutting edge piece of technology at the time.

The 2-minutes I submitted for my Film Studies assignment

At the time, I was attending college full-time in addition to working a part-time job and I would only get two days of a month. As such, I did not have a great deal of time to plan out the film; I did not even have time to write a script for it. 

However, while thinking up the visual joke of a short 2-minute sequence about two burglars who break into the same house without realising the other one is there, I conceived of a larger storyline which explained how they found themselves in this situation, what they were there for and how it was all resolved. 

Therefore, in my head, I had a rough plot outline of a beginning, a middle and a twist ending. 

The original ending... until I thought up a better one while filming the short

Me and my outrageous sense of humour had always been a fan of slapstick comedy and, about two years previously, I had discovered my fascination with silent cinema and how it was possible to tell a story completely visually if needs be. 

I liked the idea of challenging myself to see if I could make a silent short film which told its story completely visually. 

Right from the beginning, I knew that I was going to make a purely visual silent comedy in the style of the silent and not-silent slapstick comedy films I love so much. 

Key influences for The Better Villain were Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and The Pink Panther films.

Regardless of the style of the subject matter, I always intended for there to be a clear linear logic to the actions of the film's storyline. This deleted scene was just a piece of action which was not needed, it was repeated a joke which had already been told and it was hard not to imagine that the Villain 3 character had not seen Villian's 1 and 2 before closing the kitchen door. So I got rid of it.

Another key influence on The Better Villain was the films of Sergio Leone and the music of Ennio Morricone, both of which I had discovered about a year before making The Better Villain

Certainly, you can hear the influence of Ennio Morricone because I used his music for the soundtrack of the film. I did not know of copyright restrictions at the time, forgive me, Ennio! 

Leone's visuals and Morricone's music masterfully wedded together into one of my all time favourite film sequences from For A Few Dollars More.

As a result of hearing his music briliantly utilised in the films of Leone and a few other filmmakers, I developed a taste for his music and would often listen to huge chunks of his library on my iPod Touch. 

As of result of listening to his music while thinking up the plot of The Better Villian, Morricone's music became an integral part of the film's composition. While I was listening to the music, I was seeing the visual design of the film and the rhythms of the actions and characters in the film play out. 

The Morricone music tracks I used in the film...

The infernal trio - The Better Villain theme
Marche en la - Villain #1 theme
Come maddalena - Villain #2 theme
Marcia degli accattoni - Villain #3 theme
Investigation of a citizen abo - Breaking into the house
1900's Madness #1 - Fight sequence music
1900's Madness #2 - Fight sequence music

The music of Morricone became so tied up with my vision for the film that I decided that when I edited the film, I would edit it in the same way which Leone edited his films (Leone always got Morricone to compose the music first) - cutting the images to match the design of the music, which is very apparent when watching the film. 

To me, the Morricone music I used perfectly conveyed the overall mood and rhythm of each of the characters I was looking to convey in the visual storytelling of the film. 

However, Leone's use of the Morricone's music was not the only influence I drew from Leone's films. 
There is great aesthetic design to the cinematography and framing of Leone's films that fully take advantage of the widescreen format he was working with when making his films. 

I too had the luxury of working with widescreen when filming The Better Villain, the cutting edge harddisk drive camera I was using to film the short was one of the first camcorders on the market to film in widescreen. 

You have to remember that this was in 2007, the iPhone had only just come out and it would take a little longer for the smartphone market to fully take off.

The Better Villain was a visual experiment and, as such, I used it as an opportunity to play around with the framing and composition of the visuals to see what effects could be created. 

Leone's influence is definitely in The Better Villain.

As are the dutch angles of The Third Man, a film which I had not seen at this point, but I had certainly been fascinated by what tilted still images I had seen from the film.

I also wanted visual humour to be a key component of the visual design of the film. We never planned out this shot, me and James (Villain #2) discovered this amusing shot while filming his exterior shots.

The theme of 'black and white' is present throughout the film, not just in the sense that it is a black and white film, but also in the simplistic moralistic and dualistic sense - Villains #1 and #2 are visual opposites of each other and represent the simplistic black and white thinking of slapstick comedy (and most, but not all of early cinema), it's either this way or that way, good and bad, right and wrong.

Whereas Villain #3 represent the real shades of grey you get when you combine the opposites of black and white. The visual representation of Villain #3 represents this, he appears more vague because he knows there are more than just two options, this is why he is the better villain, he represents big picture thinking.

Certainly, this theme of the simplicity of black and white versus the cunning thinking of shades of grey is something which the narrative of the whole film is designed to convey and especially so with the reveal of the twist ending. 

I made the film with my two friends Matt and James, both of who had an interest in film, both of who were also studying Film Studies and both of who had very similar senses of humour to myself, so we mostly had great fun making this short. 

I would be lying if I said that Villains #1 and #2 were not based on their respective actors. Certainly, Matt could be very hilariously dim at times and James was always more sharper, but also had his moments as well. 

Villain #3 is definitely based on me, which makes sense becuase he is played by me, I the slightly manipulative one who was always trying to outsmart the other two... just my onscreen had more luck. Like Matt and James, I am also a bit of an idiot in real life.

I was a bit of a tyrant on set mainly due to the stress of getting everything I knew I needed to get shot in a very short space of time; while also trying to figure out solutions for some of the plot holes in the story outline.

However, one of the time-saving advantages of filming a silent film is that you do not have to worry about what the microphone picks up while filming, meaning you can direct your actors while you are filming.

Ultimately, because I had lacked the time to thoroughly plan out the shoot, I ended up over shooting on material with multiple takes of most of the sequences. 

And then after we had finished the two-day shoot, I discovered that there were still some shots I was missing in order to make the full plot make sense, so we went back for another half day's pick-up shoot. 

Joey "Deadwood" Waller - the original character name of Villain #1

The editing of The Better Villain took a while mainly due to a continuing lack of time (due to my work and college commitments) and because I had to work with the world's slowest PC!

However, immediately after filming, I did begin to edit the footage together and I was assembling it in chronological order according to the film's plot.

Florence "Flerr" Mingo - the original character name of Villain #2

Watching the early versions I edited you can see that I am discovering the editing process and I remember hugely enjoying this process.

I edited this first version of "The Third Man" a.k.a. the introduction of Villain #3 after we had concluded filming on the second day, hence why they are caption shots describing the pick-up shots I needed to complete the sequence. By this point, I knew what the film looked and sounded like in my head and this is why I was able to assemble this rough sequence and the other two in a relatively short space of time. 

We filmed the The Better Villain in the February 2007 using the half-term week we had off college and I had also booked the week off from work, so this gave me time to devote to three days of filming and the rest to editing. 

However, one week was not enough!

I was running out of time, so I finished the 2-minute sequence for my Film Studies assignment and what else I could of the film.

Then I did not do much work on the film after that... for a good two-years it sat lifeless on my harddrive.

This neglect was down to lack of time, but also because I had lost interest in editing a film which I came to believe I could never make work... so I procrastinated. 

In the hiatus I managed to shoot and edit the first two films of The Not Even Gay Trilogy and I also managed to experiment with the editing of two trailers for The Better Villain...

Both trailers are heavily stylised.

And both trailers play with genre conventions.

I did not have to make trailers for the film, but it was another way for me to practice my editing and to explore what you could do with establishing a mood in the visual form. The trailers were produced as a result of creative procrastination. They stand as examples of some of my earliest editing work. 

It was in 2009, about March if I remember correctly, that I finally found my way back to editing The Better Villain

Thanks to the 2008 financial crisis making me jobless from the beginning of 2009 to when I started university in September of 2009, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, so I set about completing that crazy little film I had made back in 2007.

By this point, I had become a much more confident editor and my understanding of film form had greatly improved since filming The Better Villain/

The first thing I did was start over from scratch. 

I scraped all the sequences I had already edited for The Better Villain. I did this because, at this point, I was using different editing software. I also wanted to have a stab at editing it properly this time over. 

I had received a new laptop for Christmas 2008 and, as such, was now able to edit on a reliable computer that did not keep crashing and disrupting the flow of the editing process. 

If I remember correctly, I produced a rough cut in about a week, which I showed to Matt (Villain #1) and James (Villain #2) not long after. 

Then it was left to gather dust for another year, until I came back to it in 2010 to give it another polish and then I finally got round to adding the final coat of gloss in 2015, after I had finished my time-consuming BA (Hons). 

The 2009 and 2010 versions are basically identical to the 2015 version featured at the top of this post, the only differences can be found in how I have reframed, straightened and tightened a few of the shots to make it look visually better all round. 

I also shot and added in a new shot of the can of air freshener Villain #1 sprays in the toilet, because it was never clear what he was doing. 

And now, in May of 2017, ten years after it was originally shot, I am finally posting it on my film blog.

I've also produced a reflective commentary on the film, which I recorded in 2020...

They say that a film is never really finished, it is only abandoned and I have now abandoned The Better Villain to live out the rest of its life on this blog. 

However, I may yet use the hours of footage which were produced from the original shoot and feature the audio of my directing behind camera to edit together a short documentary about the mistakes to avoid... or definitely not to avoid if you want a thorough learning experience when making your first film. 

If I ever do get round to cutting together this monstrosity, then it will be called Don't Look Into Camera, a phrase I used at several points during the shoot.

No film is ever perfect and especially so for a first effort. 

The Better Villain is my rough diamond, if I were to do it all over again, of course I would do it differently, but for the effort I produced from only a very vague visual joke and in an incredibly short and stressed space of time, I am actually very pleased and impressed by my first filmmaking effort. 

I think that it demonstrates a confident understanding of narrative structure, film form, subtext and how to bring them all together into a humourous whole. 

The Better Villain - my rough diamond

Ultimately, for making The Better Villain, I am now the better filmmaker!

And there is moralistic lesson to be learned from my first film too... thieves may prosper and fools may pay, but it is the one dressed in sheep's clothing, the better villain, who shall govern the way. Or so says an old Arabian proverb... otherwise known as my reference to the 1933 King Kong.

If there is one message I want the experience of my first film to convey, it is to have fun making films.


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