Thursday, 28 September 2017


Bourges is known for its tendency to erupt into flames: today we replicate one of the many times the cathedral has blazed, as hero Harley Byrne is tempted into a cross-element empathy experience by the mysterious Mrs Jacques Coeur. The sequence requires no small amount of desk fan breeze, tin foil flames and slinky dancing, except for the poor old character of Saint Ursinus, a statue, who has been played with uncomplaining stoicism all week by local performer Felipe, forbidden to speak or move any part of his body except his eyes. The good humour and friendliness Felipe has shown on set is the absolute inverse of the look in his eyes when the camera rolls. The power of constraints!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


We spend the day in the house that Jacques built - the Palais Jacques Coeur, which France's richest man commissioned and had erected just in time for a brief tour before he was trialled and exiled. Well, the real thing doesn't have much colour these days, but Niemczyk and team's replica is bright and warm - it's only a shame it too will be drained by the black and white film stock. 

Still, it's a pleasure to shoot shot after shot against more or less the same background, with just small re-arrangements to place us further along a corridor, or more intensely menaced by quite-possibly-sentient statues (and stained glass window). By the end of the day, my brain is spinning and I struggle to string a sentence together - perhaps the underlying structure of the building, or the pattern of the wallpaper, is indeed cursed, with the curse to be replicated wherever those structures are re-composed.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017


This morning: trying to film an intrigue and adventure sequence in a featureless white room, the inverse space of the cursed tympanum. It proves a mindboggler to orient the characters from shot to shot as the camera angle changes. Where the heck did the 180-degree line just go? 

In the spirit of the creators of the Bourges Cathedral, we decide to add 'just a little bit more' and recall our One-horned-gazelle and Monkey cherubs to perch in the studio's ready-made tympanums. They wind up playing a key role in the resolution of the confrontation scenario, if the performers - art department interns Decerle and Delevacq - are at first a little disappointed to neutralize the scene's villain with a hug rather than karate chops. Anyway, they help the rest of us find our way around the scene.

The afternoon is mostly pick-ups with the two Ursinai, shots that we missed on our madcap Saturday opener. Things run relatively smoothly. As we point out more than once today, another six months of this and the team'll be functioning like clockwork.

Monday, 25 September 2017


Worship the sun, and invoke the wrath of the rain. Well, that might be utter rubbish, but the project is certainly suffering from a severe case of hubris after yesterday's glowing successes, as today the crew arrives drenched by an 8.57am downpour. More seriously, this morning's guest actor slips on the way to the studio and, after a cup of sweet tea and the reassuring gazes of half-a-dozen medically incompetent filmmakers, returns home to rest it off: she will return tomorrow only if she's feeling much better.

But after that, the rain seems to have quenched its thirst for misery and misfortune, and instead becomes a pleasant background to our day's work, cocooning us in the studio and make the team feel a bit better about a day with the shutters mostly down.

Lockwood even begins to hibernate, after our first shot of the day - in which Harley Byrne is trapped in a tomb in the foetal position and believes himself on the brink of death - runs without a hitch. He's in a difficult place at the moment (emotionally rather than geographically - he's quite charmed by Bourges) and this moment seems important to him; we leave it as long as we can before removing him from his tomb so we can strike the set and set up the 'Bourges streets' scene. A respectful nod, for that first shot, should also be directed at intern Arthur Leray: on every shoot, there seems to be one person who gets roped into playing 'unidentifiable body parts' - yesterday he was a shoulder in a Manchester postal workers social club, and for today's opening shot a holographic saint's hand.

The 'Bourges street' shot takes up a serious wedge of the day which, as we reflect, could be considered somewhat daft, seeing as how the street itself is just around the corner but instead we've flown two artists and two actors across Europe to shoot it in shoddy cardboard replica in a studio five minute's walk away. But that's sort of the point, somehow. And Niemczyk's art and draughtspersonship, and ex-intern Yuan's legacy Palais Jacques Coeur replica, conjure a certain kind of magic in the studio when the whole wonky perspective shot is put into place.

Leray and soundie Queissner (who is stranded on set amidst mainly silent scenes today) team up to set-wrangle a simple close-up that just begged for a little complication. We add a row of houses, a moon, a reflector and some authentic Berry fog to the scene, and I only regret we didn't add any foliage. 
The city that Niemczyk built.

After that, it's back to trying to create a floor made of liquid hologram - or quicklight. It's an athletic feat, since working with a projector, a Super 8 camera with no monitor, and a hand-held vase-as-wonky-lens actually involves building up a sweat on this chilly Bourges afternoon. Lockwood, too, is pushed to his limits as he must replicate fighting for his life while sinking through a cross between quicksand, liquid light, and malevolent, dissolving floor tiles, no doubt dreaming of a warm, comfortable tomb in which to sleep once this trial is over.

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!