Art department: Building the armoury

In today’s guest post, director and art department lead Nigel Clegg writes about the experience of creating an army’s worth of weapons, devices and costumes for the web series.

The original Arms Race short film largely came about because I built the brass gatling gun, ‘Mrs Caruthers’, and then wanted to make a short film to show case it, so the props have driven the story to a large extent right from the start.  It is an odd way to put a story together, but in this case worked. When we decided to put together a web series to follow on from the original Arms Race short film we knew that props would form an important part of both the story and pre-production preparation.  To produce a steampunk project and not spend a lot of time creating props would have been a mistake, as the hardware is an integral part of the genre.

As part of the brief for the web series our scriptwriter Chris Burdett was asked to try to include at least one new steampunk device in each episode and to make sure the props were integral to the story.  As soon as the first draft of the scripts were finished the prop building started.  We had built in quite a lot of lead time into the schedule before we planned to film as there were a considerable number of props to build.  The original plan was to get several people to build different props but due to time constraints and availability I had to build the majority.

All of the prop builds started with gathering together the raw materials.  We knew what props we wanted in terms of the story and that influences their functionality, but the look and the exact details were left open.  This is largely because to maintain a Victorian look to the props we needed old brass objects to act as the focus for their construction.  I spent many weekends  going to car boot sales and flea markets to see what was available.  Car boots sales are usually very cheap but it can take a while to find the right objects.  Flea Markets often have better choice but can cost a lot more.  By being flexible for all of the prop builds it allowed me to create items based on what I could find, rather than requiring specific items to be hunted down and bought (which would have been the more expensive way of doing it).   The web series was entirely self-funded by It’s A Trap so costs were an issue throughout the production process which affected the money available for prop building.

At an early stage it was decided to film the prop building process, the main reason behind this was that it would be useful additional material to help promote the series, but in many ways has become a feature of its own.  We took a simple approach; at each step in the building process stop and film a short description of what was done and describe what the next stage would entail.  These sequences were then edited together to produce 2 – 5 min short making of videos.   Judging from the reaction from the viewers on our YouTube channel these are proving useful both to keep people interested in what we are doing but also to give people ideas for their own projects.

All of the builds and the associated filming were done in a small back garden and shed.  This is not the ideal environment, as the space was extremely limited, but did have the advantage of allowing me to work from home and in any spare moments run out to the shed to add extra layers of paints or glue the next components together.  I can only guess what the neighbours were thinking.  A workshop would have been useful, and with more space several projects could have been worked on at the same time, but with the financial and time constraints that we had that was not possible.

One of the main learning experiences in terms of props that we got from filming the Arms Race short film was that the quality of the props, especially the fine detail, should be determined by how close up that prop would be filmed.  Several rifles were constructed for the very short battle scene that we filmed for the Arms Race short film.  I spent a lot of time adding fine details to the guns and painting them, none of which you can see in the film.   This affected my decisions on how much time to put into the detailing for the new props.  A hero prop that is going to be handled and viewed close up needs more detail than background props.

We also learnt from the original short film that any workings for a complicated prop are likely to become a problem during filming.  When you least want it to stop working is precisely when it will conk out.  During the shooting of Arms Race Mrs Caruthers decided to play up: the drill battery powering the gun ran out of power (even though it had been charged up the night before) and the barrel heated up through over use and started to bend due to the heat.  Unfortunately as the prop builder it meant that I had to repair the prop, which caused problems as I was also directing the short film.  When you have only one day to get all the filming done, this can become a big problem.  To help avoid this problem for the mini-series I decided to both enlist the help of two other prop builders to be available during filming to repair any damaged props and also to make all the props as rugged as possible.

The script called for several battle scenes with extras falling repeatedly, so the props had to be tough enough to be thrown around and still be available for use later in the filming.  Most of the props survived intact, a few were broken but running repairs kept them available for use throughout the whole 9 day shoot.  I was surprised based on how much some of the props got thrown around how well they survived.   To be clear, this wasn’t misuse of the props, as to get a convincing fall or death scene the props were always going to be abused and thanks to the lessons learned from the short film, filming of the web series was not held up due to problems with the props.  As with all of our films this has been a learning process for me and I would have built some of the props differently after seeing them in use, but that is part of the fun of prop building, working out how to do it better next time.

Check out our YouTube channel for lots more behind-the-scenes prop building guides!

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Director Nigel Clegg interviewed

Arms Race director Nigel Clegg has been interviewed by the Spiffing Review podcast. He talks about the genesis of the Arms Race project, techniques for building steamtech props and miniatures, how to work on a tiny budget and what’s he’s going to be working on in 2011.

You can download the podcast episode by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can subscribe on iTunes.

For more information check out the Spiffing Review website.

Shooting Arms Race

Arms Race was shot in a single day in late summer 2009, which gives you an idea of how long it’s been trundling through post-production. Such is the way of micro-budget, volunteer productions. For such a small production it nevertheless had a well-staffed crew, with dedicated teams taking care of production design, audio and visuals.

The day started early for director Nigel Clegg and the art department, all of them arriving at the location: a field in north Norfolk, well away from prying eyes and shot-breaking passers-by with yappy dogs. Their job was transform an innocent slope into a war-torn trench from the Crimean War. The combined efforts of Lucy, Ben, Pete and Gill worked wonders and by the time the rest of the cast and crew arrived a few hours later everything was ready to roll.

While make-up and costume were applied to Jon Creek, the original actor to play Private Higson, the first shots were captured with Neil Dabson as Captain Clinton. Perhaps unwisely, these first few shots involved running repeatedly up and down the same stretch of ground, which left both cast and crew slightly breathless. As a tip for fellow filmmakers: don’t start the day with the most physically exerting shots.

Moving on to the trench scenes, the production encountered its first calamity: while traversing the uneven terrain, Jon twisted his ankle and found himself unable to continue in the role, despite valiant efforts and determination on his part. While Jon’s ankle was taken care of the production team worked on a solution to the problem: rescheduling wasn’t an option, so a replacement actor was required. All eyes turned to Chris Burdett, writer of the film and somebody who, deep down, everybody suspected would look just right in a period war costume.

With costume and make-up hastily transferred the shoot continued, now considerably behind schedule and racing against the sun, which was now at its peak and bearing down on the site. Every passing hour brought us closer to dusk and too little light.

Luckily the team pulled together and rattled through the shots at an efficient pace, aided by the slick, essential assistant directing of Christopher Puttock (who had only officially joined the shooting team the night before) and the professional sound recording provided by Bennet Maples and his furry friends (boom mics).

The shoot wrapped early evening with all planned and storyboarded shots completed, despite the morning’s setbacks. There was even time for a small, rather exhausted and low-key wrap party once everybody had returned to Norwich and wiped the dirt and dust from their skin.

Despite the mammoth efforts from the art department and the sterling work by the cast and crew, for a film of this genre the shoot is only the start of a long, winding road which would see another year pass before the short film reached completion. That, however, is a story for another blog post.

Who made Arms Race?

Given that not all of you will be entirely familiar with It’s A Trap! or those involved with the Arms Race short film, we thought it best to do a quick round of introductions to a few of the main players.

Please do note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of everybody involved (for that you can pop over to the Cast & Crew list).

It’s A Trap!

The It’s A Trap team formed many years ago, initially to organise and run LARP events around the UK (if you don’t know what LARPing is, prepare for an entertaining Google session). Around 2006 the focus shifted towards making short films and, later, audio dramas. In the latter medium It’s A Trap found online success with the Squadron Leader Jack Steel And The Starblade pulp adventure series which spanned the limits of time and space and ran for two series. After producing the monster b-movie NfN (Normal For Norfolk), It’s A Trap member Nigel Clegg decided to step up to director duties for the team’s next project.

The director – Nigel Clegg

Arms Race is Nigel’s first film as director. A lifelong interest in constructing unlikely contraptions led him to creating numerous props and devices for local short films, with Arms Race being the culmination of his efforts to date. Initially conceived as a test shoot for a couple of new props, the short soon ballooned out into a proper short film, complete with a volunteer team drawn from theatre and commercial filmmaking. Working both as creative lead and lead prop and miniature designer as well as director, Nigel used the film as an opportunity to explore an underused genre and period, working directly with regular It’s A Trap writer Chris Burdett.

The writer – Chris Burdett

Brought aboard the project to turn a simple prop test into a genuine story, Chris brought his own experience from penning both series of Jack Steel as well as being lead writer on the forthcoming Ravenskil Chronicles audio drama. Arms Race proved a different challenge altogether, working within the restrictions of the subject matter imposed by the props, although the production design went hand-in-hand with the script, soon requiring additional items, costumes and a convincing war trench to be brought to life. As the story came together the production team began to assemble.

The cameraman and post guy – Simon Jones

Simon was originally brought on as the visual effects supervisor, having cut his teeth and on various super-low budget projects, as the trickier aspects of the script became increasingly apparent. At some point during pre-production and largely without him realising, Simon was upgraded to director of photography (he insists that ‘main cameraman’ is a more accurate term in this case), such that on the day of the shoot he was the man in charge of lensing all the action. Once Arms Race entered post-production Simon took on multiple roles, first editing the film, then creating the visual effects, editing the sound and, finally, grading the finished product. A source close to the production states that Simon was last seen throwing a computer out of a second storey window while shouting “keyframe this!”

We’ll be taking a look at some more of Arms Race’s crew next time. Being a volunteer production the film could not have been made without the support and hard work of all involved. In future blog posts we’ll also be shining a light on the shoot itself as well as the lengthy post-production period.