Sunday, 24 September 2017


After yesterday's catastrophe of light, today a gift. For the only day of the shoot, today we are away from our regular studio - The Chapel - and working in the cafĂ© space of the Nadir arts venue instead; one of the downsides of this Sabbath-honouring shift is that today's space has high up windows that are pretty difficult to cover, leaving our lighting options (supposedly) limited. But as we recreate the Manchester working person's club from where hero Harley Byrne introduces each episode of UNIVERSAL EAR, we discover that the morning light flooding through the window is perfect for the scene, and the finite splendour of its glow causes us to work with such pace and attentiveness that we manage to complete three charming shots in the time it took us to go home and get the costumes we forgot yesterday. 

A special nod goes to visiting German guest Valerie, friend of our soundist Nina Queissner, who - aside from her general assistance - stepped up to play a blinder as the waitress serving Byrne his tea. ('Should I have any expression on my face?' 'Sort of... Mancunian.' 'Ah, I think I know what you mean'.)

It all means we have time to bask in the surprise late September warmth as we prepare for an afternoon shooting something altogether less kitchen-sink: the cursed tympanum itself. Tuesday Betts will utter her first lines as the enchanted Mrs Coeur, poly-authentic incarnation of the wife of famous Jacques, who offers Byrne a helping hand (OR IS IT?) in our hero's quest. Betts has previously pointed out how big the real Mrs Coeur's hat was (in the same email that she asked whether she should prepare a French accent; I forgot to reply) so when Decerle wheels in her absurd millinery monstrosity it should be no surprise that it is impossible to keep balanced on Betts' talented head.

Costumier Gallane Decerle with her ridiculous hat.

We have the brainwave of strapping the thing to the background of the set and letting Betts kind of stand underneath it instead, offering her the reassurance that in Hollywood, no leading lady is expected to support the weight of her own hat. It proves to be the random factor we require for the sequence in which Mrs Coeur, transformed into a statue alongside Harley Byrne and Saint Ursinus, is the only one left with any mobility whatsoever: indeed, even when she turns her head, her hat remains fixed.

The static nature of the scene makes it reasonably straightforward, if it is the most complex costume set-up so far. Costumes are a lot easier than holograms, though - not least because they're not my responsibility. Still, I hope on a future project we can cross the costume/tech department divide by lowering in one of Betts' hats on a drone and having the thing carry it around over her head for the duration of the episode.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Shoot day 01. It starts promisingly as we are warmly welcomed to the Chapel by the building's guardian, forced out of bed on a Sunday - it makes a big difference to get a smile and some kind shrugs about my French language skills rather than the tuts and sighs I probably deserved. Next, an upbeat meeting between our assembled crew, all together in one place at one time, and augmented by Lockwood, our leading man. I establish some rules: clean up after yourself; one take for each shot; never forget where you last saw me put my folder (because I will). 

As regular readers will know, the UNIVERSAL EAR set opens each day with a performance of the L'Institute Zoom company anthem, Fat Larry's Band's 'Zoom'. The French contingent take to this ritual with admirable enthusiasm, although it is a crime of culture that none of them have heard this classic before (leading lady Tuesday Betts, who arrives in the evening, puts the British familiarity with this song purely down to the ubiquity of Smooth FM in our cafes, streets, schools and prisons).

Only once the song is finished do things start going downhill. It turns out I have forgotten to bring not only the clippers to do Harley Byrne's 'do', but his entire uniform; Leray and I are dispatched in different directions across Bourges to rectify this. The guest cast begins to arrive in my absence, little suspecting the wait they will have ahead of them, since on my return our efforts to perfect the hologram effects that we require for all of today's shots prove unsatisfactory. Over the past few test weeks, we managed to get the fx to what we considered to be something like 70% perfection; today, it proved a gross overestimation.

The complexity of the script was another mis-judgement; naturally, it's pretty hard for the French cast, with mostly a limited grip on the English language (though far better than my French, as the common and disingenuous disclaimer goes), to understand the esoteric and pretentious dialogue, let alone memorize it and perform it with the required (albeit limited) level of nuance.

While the togetherness and doing-ness of the day was still very valuable (we're not here to make a movie, after all, but to make a movie), it was a huge blow to lose the time that could've been spent with these wonderful performers figuring out how to best create their characters - instead we just wound up trying to get the shots. We'll try to use these shots as a skeleton and add some flesh together in the week, where schedules allow. After months of script work worrying about words, it turned out to be light itself that we had neglected.

One nice touch: Robin-Tyrek steps up to be our smoketographer; she buys a vape machine and fluid from a local tobacconist, and it is magical to discover the smoke in our movie will be of the 'Berry' variety. It turns out that this refers to the flavour of berries rather than a specific vaping blend local to the the Berry region in which we are stationed, but sometimes authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

In the evening, Tuesday Betts arrives via both Liverpool and Manchester airport, having turned up wrongly to the former and caused a security alert at the latter, and having eaten nary a Wagon Wheel since 11am. Believe it or not, more mischief and chaos may be just what the production needs. Niemczyk, whose lunches and dinners have fair sustained our bellies and souls since long before the Canon 814 rolled today, does not disappoint with her baked roots.

Friday, 22 September 2017


A day off for the interns, since tomorrow we shoot - and we don't stop again for the next six days. So mostly Niemczyk and I in the studio, with the freedom for the occasional selfie inbetween ritual clearing-up and preliminary set assembly. Queissner and Robin-Tyrek also appear for constructive meetings. In the evening, Lockwood arrives - if not raring to go, at least pleased to get off the bus.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


Sometimes you just need to get stuck in. In the A.M., Leray and I finally build the nerve to experiment with the effects for our 'holographic floor' scene - a routine in which heroic Harley Byrne becomes trapped in a form of 'liquid hologram' known as quicklight. With a bit of lens trickey, an old net curtain, and plenty of goopy light, the effect is far simpler to achieve than we had feared.

The afternoon is mostly costume fittings and video tests with the actors, who have a similarly 'getting stuck in' sort of attitude, with one after another of them seeing the studio for the first time before sighing and saying something along the lines of, "I did say I'm doing it for a new experience...". Anyway, every one of them is amazing as I force them to perform isolated emotions from the toes up. Niemczyk and Decerle are fast becoming toga virtuosos in the costumes department. And either the hats are getting bigger or everything else is getting smaller.

Queissner, our soundist, is similarly game; she has already begun foley for the film not yet shot, mostly with an analogue modular synthesizer, which is admirably panelled in cardboard. Now, if only we can find her some microphones to record Saturday's opening scenes...

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


Another day of heavy scheduling (thankfully Robin-Tyrek - who, along with Niemczyk, is keeping this daft boat afloat with her/their renaissance-girl adaptability - has taken over this task, it being her 'specialism'), video tests with actors, and trying to rebuild the city in miniature ahead of Saturday's tournage.

Four more actors on set for costume-fittings and video tests finally convince me that we may have something here, if only we can catch their wondrousness on film (it seems to work on video). The progressive nature of the shoot, we learn, will also be augmented by the use of a live vaper on set to behave as a human smoke machine, where Panic & Disgust's cigarette-smoking (Bosnian) smoke machine now seems passé and somehow politically incorrect.

Robin-Tyrek: a lawyer disguised as a painter.

Leray: an intern disguised as a prisoner.

Niemczyk: a unicorn disguised as a horse.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017


The day begins with a confusion of keys which results in me walking to the studio by myself in the rain, a delay that I try to exploit as thinking time in which to resolve both the problems at the studio and a broader existential malaise; it is my birthday, after all. Well, I only have thirty minutes to walk, so I don't get very far with either pursuit. Mostly I wonder whether it might be good human management to make fun mandatory in the studio on my birthday.

Yesterday, however, Leray and I managed to hurtle our way through creating an entire shot list and storyboard, meaning today we each face the challenge of tedium: it's time for me to attempt to start scheduling, leaving Leray in the hands of the Tangibles - and our art team unfortunately have to delegate the less inventive jobs to their temporary ensigns (in this case, stencilling wallpaper).

The shot list seems to be quite completable in the eight days we have assigned to shoot it. Unfortunately, the matter is complicated by the varying availability of our enormous cast and our studio space - questions that I hope will be resolved over the next 24 hours, since the illusion of feasibility that comes with a draft schedule is like a warm hug in these nervous pre-tournage days.

Preliminary sub-hugs come in the form of our first actors-on-set: Felipe, who will play a security guard (and quite possibly the only biologically authentic human in 2187 Bourges) and Josephine, who will play the late Brieanne Morelle - the disgraced former heritage minister responsible for the state in which hero Harley Byrne finds the city. With their presence comes, if not the illusion of feasibility, at least the reassurance of some sort of inevitability.

They are both game, and we drape them in some preliminary costumes before attempting the canning of emotions - the back-up technique used by all major contemporary serials to ensure they can always complete the show if one of their actors should wander off or become otherwise unpresentable. It is a technique we first tried with enormous success with Stewart Lockwood/Harley Byrne himself.

This is actually a very challenging way to act, starting from a discrete emotion (hungry; outraged; numb) with no dramatic context or scenery. But it's a splendid way to get to know each other and to start figuring out the talent's metaphysical topography. 

It's also a great way to ensure the actors don't get too carried away with the ol' "method", and engage instead with preconceptions and stock characters. This tends to make Lockwood/Byrne look rather absurd as the only person who's trying to really get inside his character and create a nuanced, sensitive and sympathetic portrayal. He would never 'play' a villain, for example, because nobody believes they are a villain - just a person with certain wants, needs, and insecurities. Josephine, on the other hand, jumps right into being an awful Tory teen, and I find myself measuring her attempts at her given emotions against those of Theresa May (who is actually a great study figure for the 'I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way' type).

Midway through the day, before Felipe's arrival, our daily screening of Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers is interrupted as the Bandits-Mages team invade the studio with cake, sparklers, pink booze and other surely contraband materials. Somebody clicks play on iTunes and by coincidence, Lockwood's singing voice rings out as the track happens to be cued up to his guest vocal on Duett's Running Scared. Niemczyk is noted to have made herself quite at home in the studio, since she is wandering about in her socks (in fact a result of the rain/wet shoes). She hunts out the giant pink monster-feet slippers that Chaillou has found for her, and wears them around the impromptu party, apparently being all about the mandatory fun. Getting nervous, I draw the fun to a stop before Felipe walks in on us: there is already too much to explain.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Today Niemczyk and I made a pilgrimage to the Rue Patrick Dewaere, named for my (obsessively) favourite actor, although he seems to have no actual connection with the area. Indeed, the nomenclature around the peculiar puzzle-shaped new build community to which the street belongs is all cinema-based. The eerie quietness and absurd, almost autoparodic architecture stirs the need to come back and make a new film in Bourges, outside of the studio; likewise the Lego buildings and artificial lake ('Bourges beach') that we ride around in its entirety as part of the route to Patrick Dewaere. Sorry for the awful photos - click'em for more details. And oh, those clouds!

Friday, 15 September 2017


Aside from the loss of Yuan's talent and personality from the production team as she leaves us for the bright lights and shimmering pavements of the Sorbonne just before lunch, it means that our Intangibles unit - the team researching light and sound for the forthcoming shoot - is mostly male. We have Queissner, of course, but she's currently hunting ambiences off-site, leaving just Leray and myself to spend the day trying to improve our hologram set-up. 

The main issue is that the ideas that go into our shambolic form of mediation should be - however shambolic - not just derived from a couple of blokes; our vision of a future virtual reality interface and environment requires greater diversity of thought, feeling and representation (cf). However, Yuan lives on in the project through the ideas she provided in our early experiments (when it was just her and me), and through the cardboard cut-out we made at the time and are using as our stand-in dummy for holographic projection tests today. Indeed, she now exists twice on set, simultaneously as cardboard and as light. Perhaps big businesses that are trying to increase workplace diversity could take a leaf out of our book: with carefully placed mirrors and projections it's possible to multiply the female presence in the office.

Still, Aleksandra Niemczyk makes not infrequent visits to ours, the altar end of the Chapel, to variously provide better ideas/improve our existing ideas/articulate our developing ideas more quickly and succinctly than we boys are able. We spend some time trying to reconstruct the set-up we had the other day, which was around 60% as effective as what we're looking for, but even that proves difficult. 

Matters are complicated by the peculiar light politics of the studio, a combination of electro-shuttered windows, analogue barn doors, an enormous multiple automated light rig overhead that functions via a haunted control panel, and some traditional floor-bound fresnels and what-have-you; not to mention the projector and various laptop displays, iPhone screens and the occasional flash of a camera. Delphine Robin-Tyrek, project assistant by name (but we need to find a job title that more fully represents her enormous and varied contribution), whispers with the haunted control panel and with the Tangibles (the team building our sets and scenery, who thus also need light), and eventually we have a functioning democracy of light in which we are able to reliably create our hologram effect.

Top: cloudy tissues. Bottom: Mondial Tissus. Later: We all fall down.

The problem now is finding the right fabric to use as a screen, so as not to draw too much attention to the machinery of the hologram (although a little clunkiness is desirable) but to make it clear enough to show up on Super 8 next to the real (meaty) actors. We have a few scraps and shapes to try, including a mosquito net that acts like a kind of column of tulle. It seems to have the best level of transparency, but while it's great for human figures it's a bit too specific for the scene in which two holographic saints stand alongside a holographic tombstone. We decide instead to try to make a screen of the material, which means a trip to 'Mondial Tissus' with our resident fabrics expert Decerle, to invest almost as much in soft netting as we spent on the entire production of A Flea Orchestra In Your Ear. Still, as I assure the team, if we can get this effect right then we will probably be head-hunted as a unit to create Star Wars X.

Pride before fall.

Back to the Chapel, and I hang the curtains with Leray. We fire the whole thing up, and it looks kind of good, but too faint, somehow. Have I blown a Flea Orchestra sized wad of Euros (around twenty-five of them) on the wrong material? The size we got is also too awkward to start tripling it up (it's already folded over double) if we want it to fill the whole screen in a wide-shot. But anyway, frustrated, I walk over to give it a try. My foot gets tangled in the low-hanging cable of the projector and the stupid thing falls off its perch, instantly breaking.

Tripped by the light, my pride hurt, the clock ticking, we decide it's best to spend the last few minutes of the day 'clearing up'. What's most frustrating is that today was the day when I'd resolved to start being a bit neater about our experiments - to slow down and consider and also to be tidy and elegant. But I considered not the low-hanging cable.

In the evening, back at the house where Leray now rooms with us, the cable of another guest's computer is strung across from the kitchen counter to the work table. Leaving the kitchen, I manage to catch my foot on it and stumble, if no damage is done to the machine (thanks, for the millionth and first time, to Apple for their quick-release magnetic power sockets). I apologize to Leray, assuming it's his computer; he tells me it's not, and he had tripped on it himself only minutes previously. Filled with pride, I repair to my room: we may not have solved the hologram issue today, I may face hundreds of Euros worth of repair bills, but it is heartening to see our young apprentice learning from my clumsy example.