Jon originally interviewed Paul in January for the February 2017 print edition of the international magazine Film and Digital Times, covering everything from the original concept and getting the project off the ground, to the technicalities of shooting a film like Magpie. It marked a brilliant start to the year and spawned further press coverage of the film throughout the year.
JF: In a couple of sentence, please describe Magpie. The “pitch,” the concept. Why the title?
PC: Magpie explores the life-changing effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder directly after World War II. The film is set amidst the context of the ‘Friendly Invasion’, a period of time myself and the director Carmel Hannant are both fascinated by.
Our aim with Magpie is to tell the stories that are seldom heard from the war; “shellshock” or “battle fatigue” (now called PTSD) is well documented, but how did it affect those living with it? How did it affect their loved ones? How did the vast numbers of USAAF coming to England shape the towns and communities they arrived in? Between 1942 & 1945 hundreds of thousands of American Air Force personnel moved to East Anglia and the huge impact on the people and landscape makes it an incredibly interesting period of time.
Our aim is also to make a film that by most standards requires ten times the budget! By forming close partnerships with various organisations and individuals we’ve brought an amazing team of people together to get this film made. The passion and interest for this period of time and the legacy of those that lived it is incredibly strong in both the UK and United States. Here in East Anglia there’s a huge amount of interest and a lot of amazing work being done to remember those that fought.
The title of the film refers to an old wives’ tale about Magpies and an accompanying rhyme. The rhyme speaks of ‘sorrow’, ‘joy’ and then later ‘a secret never to be told.’ Various versions of the rhyme exist and we particularly liked that one of them went on to mention ‘a letter from overseas’ and ‘true love that will never be.’ The main conflict of the film is not in the literal sense of the ongoing war in Europe but instead the personal battles fought by our main characters Lily (Hannah Morrish), her husband, George (Matt Downton) and US serviceman Charlie (Mateo Oxley). It’s three individual journeys that become entangled in a difficult love triangle.
JF: How did it start?
PC: In around 2012, having long supported and volunteered at the USAAF museum The Red Feather Club in Eye, Suffolk (home of the 95th Bombardment Group) Carmel dreamt the storyline. She told me her dream and I encouraged her to begin writing it into a screenplay. From there we spent around 2 years writing and rewriting it together until we had a full-length feature script. From there we then decided that it needed to be condensed and shortened to fit a short film length. Aside from budget reasons we also felt that making it shorter to begin with would allow us to find our way with the project and develop it as we went. We still very much hope to extend the film into a feature.
I had personally always had a fascination with World War II cinema and the stories that can be learned and told from that era. I had already dabbled with the era on-screen with student projects and my final degree film at university. After that I then also wrote and directed a short film which is where I first met Carmel and the Liberation ’44 reenactment group who have since always supported the project and feature in the film.
JF: Funding: You had a crazy low budget but achieved great production value? How?
PC: In 2014 we launched a Kickstarter campaign for the feature length Magpie screenplay with a target of £20,000. I think the sum we raised in 4 weeks of campaigning was under £1000! So needless to say we simply couldn’t get it off the ground at that point. So we went back to the script and did another round of rewrites to produce a 53 page short film that covered the key plot elements of PTSD and the contextual backdrop of the USAAF coming to East Anglia. Other subplots were left in the feature but couldn’t feasibly be included in the short.
Later down the line I then had the idea to make a new pitch for Kickstarter that would really grab attention and make people want to share it around amongst their friends and peers. Previously we had created a traditional (some would say ‘boring’) pitch video; simply us sitting down and pitching our idea, who we were and how we’d do it. This time around I wanted to prove to people that what we were pitching was possible making it cinematic and high production value. That way it would show off our skills, support and resources. And that’s where my idea of a one-shot single take pitch video was born. Our director and lead cast member Matt Downton delivered our pitch amidst a high production value action sequence. This certainly seemed to work and with the support of Vitec Videocom who brought in Curt Schaller and his newly invented Artemis Trinity product to shoot it (a steadicam-come-gimbal) we produced the new pitch film.
Magpie is a thoroughbred passion project; I’ve financed the remainder of the budget privately by subsidizing it with my earnings from day-to-day work in corporate and commercial video production. Once you’re a number of shoot days into a project and you’ve established a benchmark of quality and production value, it’s impossible to disregard that. Even though the film has gone over-budget and cost far more than I imagined, the results are worth it and we are often complimented on the quality of it considering the still-micro budget.
JF: Who were the key crew?
PC: Aside from Carmel and myself undertaking a number of the key roles as writers, directors, producers and myself as director of photography, the key crew on Magpie was comprised of close friends in the industry and crew that came recommended by them.
Our main focus puller for the shoots in August and November (and secondary role as DIT) was Ross Turner, a filmmaker I had met at th University of East Anglia during my degree. As 1st AC, and due to budget restrictions ruling out a wireless lens control system, he worked alongside me using the O’Connor O-Focus with the whip & shaft attachment. On the initial 2 days of shooting, because the workflow of using the FS7, XDCA unit and Atomos Shogun was quite complicated (which all worked together to give us a raw 4K CinemaDNG image), Ross acted as the DIT on these days. My 1st AC at that point was the fantastic Aadhar Gupta, an MA Filmmaking student from Goldsmiths University, London.
My gaffer for the duration of the shoot was Benjamin Starkin who I had met through his previous job at Cirro Lite. Ben then went freelance as a gaffer and so I was keen to get him on board as he has this amazing can-do attitude. Even with our limited lighting budget and pressurised shoot schedule Ben always managed to work with me to create some fantastic lighting design. He also has a great resourcefulness and was able to save the film quite a bit of money in certain areas that as a producer and key financier I was extremely happy to hear!
Other key crew were sound recordist Len Usselman, boom op’ Charlie Hurst, 1st AD Capucine Offer, Art Department Lee Martin and Sophie Green, 2nd AC Joel Court, Hair & Makeup Carla Jones.
JF: What locations did you shoot at? And who were your re-eneactors?
PC: We were very keen to make this a project that championed local creative talent and locations within East Anglia – not only to achieve authenticity but to really shout about the region as a great place to make a film. Suffolk and Norfolk are beautiful places and are steeped in the history of WWII – many of our locations were secured through a shared interest in telling the stories of everyday people who lived here in 1940s and those that came here from America.
We have been overwhelmed by the support of airbase museums particularly and we couldn’t have made the film without their help. The 95th Bomb Group Hospital Museum in Horham was an ideal location for our hospital scenes where we were able to use many original artifacts in our set dressing and re-arrange rooms to suit the script. We then shot the USAAF scenes at 3 key places in Suffolk; the 95th Bomb Group Museum in Horham, the 100th Bomb Group Museum in Thorpe Abbotts and the 390th Bomb Group Museum in Parham. At these locations we’ve shots dance hall, bar, barracks and control tower scenes with incredible attention to detail and accuracy.
Other locations included the fantastic Greyhound pub in Tibenham (a local pub during the war for airmen of the 445th Bomb Group), Electric Picture Palace cinema in Southwold and a restored vintage house in Aldeburgh.
JF: What favours did you call in on this?
Around 5 years ago a friend of mine introduced me to some of the folk down at Vitec Videocom, which is a stones throw from me in Bury St. Edmunds. Since then I’ve worked with them testing new products from their various brands and just generally giving my perspective on the industry. On Magpie we tested Sachtler’s new FSB10 tripod and they also very generously provided a whole host of kit for the film on a loan basis, including Litepanels Sola 12’s, Inca 6’s, O’Connor O-Box, O-Focus and baseplate and various Anton Bauer batteries.
I think Magpie will come to be known as a film built on favours and good will. We’ve been really lucky to have such a passionate, hard-working crew and a fantastic group of supporters of the film. I’ve personally found through the process of making Magpie that East Anglia is definitely a hub of talented and creative crew. For example I was so grateful that a local jimmy jib owner-operator Bernie Totten (@Jibshot) got in touch with me regarding bringing his crane down to get some amazing shots for us. He did this free-of-charge and we’ve got some stunning shots that really do the airbase at Thorpe Abbots justice. Likewise, tons of family, friends and colleagues loaned us equipment, provided us with behind-the-scenes stills, chipped in as extras, provided catering and transported and even accommodated actors during the shooting periods! Without all of these acts of kindness we’d have had a huge struggle to make it come together the way that it did.
JF: You used a beta product of the new Sachtler FSB10 tripod on the film — how did you find the tripod on set?
PC: I had already been using the FSB10 on most of my day-to-day work in the lead up to shooting Magpie and it had proven to be an ideal combination of weight, speed and payload for the FS7. Typically the camera is rigged much lighter than the set up we had for Magpie so I was unsure what the weight of the camera would be once it was rigged. In it’s heaviest set up for filming the camera weighed just under 12kg so the FSB10 was a well-matched tripod for it.
We used the touch and go version of the head which is a top loading style plate as opposed to the sideloading style I have been used to. This seemingly small detail actually aided us on a daily basis and made shooting and maneuvering the camera and grip within small locations much easier. Many of our locations were small, tight spaces in which framing for a wide shot on the 20mm or a close-up on the 50mm or 85mm would result in myself and our 1st AC being against a wall.
A sideloading plate would’ve meant we’d have to move the whole tripod in order to make space to slide the camera back and off the head. With touch and go we could just pop the plate lock and take the camera straight up and off.
We really grew to love the FSB10’s simplicity in balancing the camera. The 5 steps for the pan and the tilt, and 10 on the counterbalance gave us plenty of flexibility in getting the camera perfectly balanced. And of course the quality of the fluid head impressed me the most. I could shoot at 135mm (equivalent to nearly 200mm on the FS7) and achieve very precise, delicate moves without any judder or shake whatsoever. This was particularly important considering that Ross (1st AC) had to use a focus whip for most of the shoot which sometimes meant forces beyond my control could be acting on the camera during a take. I very rarely got any push/pull feeling through the tripod despite effectively being tethered to Ross for every shot!
JF: What was the main camera equipment y0u used?
PC: As I already own the FS7 which I believe is still a hugely capable camera and one that I am well accustomed to, it seemed sensible both practically and financially to stick with it as the core of our shooting package. To beef up the camera and get the very best quality footage from it we borrowed and rented a whole host of equipment. We hired the XDCA-FS7 unit that outputs a 12 bit raw signal from the camera and then, quite luckily, Atomos had just released a beta firmware (AtomOS 6.4) for their Shogun monitor/recorder to record FSRaw to 4K CinemaDNG. This was slightly daunting due to the lack of experience any of us had with recording in this way. We had very little time to test it too as the beta was released around 6 days before our first day of shooting!
Once that first day of shooting came around we were still a little unsure of how we would work with the footage in post. Some caveats of the workflow (including all scratch audio for every take being named ‘Audio.wav’ for example!) meant that our DIT’s first job was to write a script in Automator which would rename the files so that linking the video with the audio in post would be easier.
CinemaDNG is also a really hungry file format and it meant that for every 21 minutes of footage we shot filled a 500GB SSD. We used a great piece of software called SlimRaw to reduce the file sizes by a ratio of around 3:1. This was lossless compression too so the quality of the image wasn’t compromised and we backed up to 2 x 5TB drives (instead of needing 6 of them!)
I called in a number of favours to get the camera package together including borrowing some Sony CineAlta PL primes from a DP I know and the Atomos Shogun from another friend. The mattebox, follow focus and baseplate was loaned to me by Steve Turner, Product Manager at O’Connor and our power (Anton Bauer Digital and Cine batteries) was loaned to us by Andrew Butler, Product Manager at Anton Bauer.
The rest of the kit I owned myself or rented. A fantastic place in nearby Norwich called White Label Media Solutions rented us a set of Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filters and I typically used the ¼ or ½ Black Pro-Mists throughout to soften the contrast slightly and bloom the highlights to add to the period look. I opted to use the stronger 1 and 2 filters for some of the scenes in the film where we needed to create the feeling of a memory or a dream.
JF: What’s your plan for editing and post-production?
PC: As we are only now beginning the post-production on the film, most of my time in post at the moment is being spent getting the workflow streamlined and manageable. We are creating Apple ProRes Proxy format proxies in Da Vinci Resolve to then bring in to FCPX for editing. Once we have picture locked we will then be bringing a colorist on board to do a professional grade and a sound designer and composer to create the soundtrack and sound design of the film.
We shot the whole film in 4K DCI 4096 x 2160 with 2.35:1 guides. This will give us some considerable room for stabilization and option for reframing in post if we choose. Delivery of the final film will be in 2K and/or 1080p.