This is the first of a number of posts about the web series I have been working on for the last six months – The Projectionists. We shot it back in April and I have been sorting the clips over the past month for my editor whilst doing other projects on the side. I aim to share the process with you step by step and hopefully it will provide both amusement and an insight into the process of making a new type of film. One that is marketed and distributed online in a viral capacity and for which there are currently no rules or structures to adhere to. The easiest way for me to tell you about it is probably to start at the beginning…
Back in January of this year, I had a quiet post-New Year pint with a friend of mine, James Vincent. We sat down with our drinks (beer for him, cider for me) and he proceeded to tell me about a play he had been trying to write in the latter half of 2010. It was about cinema projectionists and would be set in a projection booth over the course of one film being shown during an evening screening. The changeovers between the film reels would happen in real time and be performed by the actors. Various members of the cinema staff would pop their heads into the booth and get involved in the drama over the course of the two hours. The central idea or theme would be change – the change from analogue to digital film projection in cinemas and the effect that it has on the staff. However he had become stumped when he got about thirty pages in as he couldn’t decide on how the main plot should proceed.
James is a member of the band My Tiger My Timing and is quite a creative guy. He had written a couple of scripts before then in his own time, whilst still working on material for the band. He didn’t want to write another feature length script which would require a lot of work and probably not see the light of day, but to write something short and to the point that would get made. Then he could experience the whole process as a writer, from the inception of an idea to the completion of a project. Most importantly, it would allow him to see the reaction to it from a real audience.
At that point in time, I had just made my fourth or fifth (unpaid) music video, shot in December 2010 and put online in January 2011. Now, don’t get me wrong, music videos are great fun (and I have since shot one for James’ own band – see previous post!), they can look cool and you can experiment to your hearts content, but they are a lot of hard work for something that is promoting the musician and not the filmmaker at the end of the day. I was looking for something with a bit of depth (and some interesting characters to explore) that I could get my teeth stuck into and so I was intrigued by this idea for a play that he had. However, rather than work out the problems with the play and finish it in that format, James thought we could turn the play into a number of episodes and to put them online as a web series. This instantly got me excited as it was exactly what I had been looking for – without even realising. Something that would be episodic, with a storyline and real actors? I thought that if we did this right, it could turn into something special and if not, it would be a great calling card for the future. I told him to sign me up.
After I read the play version of the script and we had a few lengthy discussions about what we wanted from the series, some things were made clear to us about the project. Firstly, we wanted to avoid the usual pitfalls of many web series, which can often feel like a series of jokes with nothing connecting one episode to another except the initial premise of the show itself. Secondly, we wanted it to have some pathos and not to be an out and out comedy as we didn’t want the central message to be lost amongst the laughs. We wanted the audience to follow the show because of the story and characters as much as for the writing and jokes. Thirdly, we wanted it to feel as credible and ‘real’ as possible. Rather than filming in our flat or in someone’s garage, we knew we needed to source real locations and get professional actors involved instead of casting so-and-so’s mate from uni.
Luckily we both work part time at the British Film Institute on the Southbank in Central London. We work for the Front of House team and usher films, sell tickets through the box office and deal with lots of customers as well as the wide range of staff who work for the BFI. One of the reasons the show came about was due to the BFI’s recent cuts, which were due to their government funding drying up, resulting in both a loss of staff and a change in the way films are screened at the venue. The BFI is a membership cinema, which means members of the public can pay a yearly subscription and save money on the films that they go and see, whilst supporting the company at the same time. It currently has over 20,000 members, which is a lot of people who care about film. One of the main reasons people attend the BFI is the wide range of films it puts on as well as the respect it gives to the history of film and it’s dedication to their presentation, from the cinema space itself to the method of projection. This was the key to the series and we had first hand knowledge of both the type of person who loves film projected on celluloid and the type of people whose job it is to make sure that happens each and every day. They were the people whose story we wanted to tell.
James re-write the script into six short episodes, forwarding each draft to myself so that I could give feedback. To his credit as a writer, he had the whole series written in about six weeks. During this time we had been keeping the idea to ourselves as we didn’t want to tell our friends and colleagues at work about it. The BFI was making massive changes to it’s infrastructure and we didn’t want anyone to think we were trivialising a very serious matter. This has been an issue which we have had to tip-toe around through out the entire process.
Now we had a script, we needed to find someone to read it.