Cardiff TAPS

This weekend, I shall mostly be on a TAPS Continuing Drama course in Cardiff.

TAPS is an industry training scheme for writers. For two-and-a-half days you get taught how to write a Continuing Drama (with particular emphasis on Emmerdale), and then you go away and write a short drama using the Emmerdale sets.

Some of these even get filmed and shown to Important People.

But that’s in the future. Or not, depending on how well I do.

More important, is this:

I’m going to be travelling up the night before, that’s this Thursday (the 28th). Should be arriving in Cardiff about 9:30pm – so if you’re on TAPS yourself, or are in Cardiff generally and fancy meeting up on the Thursday night, let me know.

Screenwriter Training

An interesting post the other day at Tim Clague’s gaff on training courses got me thinking.

In any job you get, there’s a training budget.

If we’re professionals, then we should have a training budget too. For things like screenwriting courses, conferences, residential workshops and so on.

(Or, if you swing that way, on script reading services – that’s part of the training budget too. I don’t bother myself, because I think that money spent on script readers by writers is wasted. YMMV.)

So what’s best practice? If we were in charge of a business, we’d pay for our employees to go on training courses – how much would we spend on them?

Well, Tim’s had an ask around, and best practice in the training industry is 2% of income.

So as a screenwriter, you should be spending 2% of your salary on training yourself. That’s £400 a year if you earn 20k. Or £600 if you’re on 30k.

Obviously you could spend more or less, but that’s a good figure to start from.

Now there’s two ways of looking at that. You can either count your salary as what you earn from your writing, or add in what you earn from your day-job (if you’re not supporting yourself from the writing just yet).

I say: do it from the day-job. After all, a decent company is going to be training you for responsibilities yet-to-come, not just helping you to do the things you’re working at now.

So invest in your own future. Figure out what you’re going to spend your training budget on this year.

Short Films – Lessons Learned

I made a short film, Fatal.

The absolute best thing about making a film is that you learn what not to do next time. So in the spirit of saving you some trouble when you make your first short film, here’s a few things I learned.

Have a suitable script

I knew that the film would be a one-day no-budget shoot. So that means, realistically, two or three actors in one location.

I considered going as far as the garden, my bedroom, or the local Travelodge, but in the end decided that my front room would do. Then I wrote a script featuring two actors in a front room. So the shoot itself was quick and easy.

Record your sound separately

Seriously, this is the most important thing I learned. Always have a separate soundtrack.

I knew one sound guy, and he’s no longer working in the business. I tried a couple of other leads, but time was getting short, and the DP swore blind that we could just run the sound from the boom mike into the camera and it would be fine.

Not having a separate sound guy is the worst mistake you can have.

If no-one’s monitoring the sound levels when you’re shooting, this means that you can’t match sound in editing. There were some great shots I couldn’t use at all because the background traffic noise was too high. Sound levels vary from scene to scene because no-one was watching the meters, so the actors don’t sound their best – the recorded dialogue is either clipped, or too quiet and had to be boosted (with loss of quality, and added background noise).

Editing the film took maybe twice as long as it needed to because I had to dance around the sound problems all the time. Even now, there’s one particular shot where the traffic is super-loud – and that was the best take, even after playing with it to filter out as much background noise as I could.

And then there are the scenes which sound the way they should. But, of course, they don’t match the rest of the scenes. To make it work, I had to add extra traffic noise throughout, so that although it’s noisy at least it matches.

Sound guy. Don’t believe anyone who says you can run it into the camera.

One small crumb of comfort is that even Joss Whedon can get it wrong. Check the traffic noise suddenly springing up in the laundrette in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog when Captain Hammer confronts his nemesis.

Be aware of the background

I cleared out a lot of the front room to get a nice background. (See those nice empty shelves next to the music system?)

Not enough, though. All the clutter in the background distracts you from the important thing: the acting.

Also, there’s a piece of gaffer tape that appears and disappears from the bannisters, because it got stuck there to keep it out of the way and no-one noticed it was in shot.

Have more runners than you think you need

It was a five-person crew, including me. As little as one extra runner to make tea, sort out food, and check the background would have freed me up to do more actual directing.

Assign someone to be the production manager and deal with everything that’s not directing. If you’re the director and production manager on the same shoot, both jobs are going to suffer.

Mark off your coverage

I had a shotlist, but I didn’t make sure that all the dialogue was covered twice. In one place I had nothing but a master shot.

Fortunately, I had a master shot. The master shot is the first thing you shoot when you do the scene: Camera static, everything in view, run the scene from beginning to end. It meant I had something to fall back on when I was short of footage.

Which I was, because I didn’t mark off my coverage.

So there you have it. With my next film, I can look forward to making lots of exciting new mistakes.

Letters from America: Late in the night.

I finally cracked my problem with the Enterprise plot breakdown
last night.

It was a matter of reconciling inner and outer conflict, as
recommended in all the best screenwriting books.

Only once T’pol is able to come to terms with the fact that she’s
metaphorically gay can she work out how to destroy the monster
that sucks peoples’ brains out through their eyeballs. Then her
mum shoots it.

I feel much better now that’s sorted.


letters from america