Fiction: Models of Production and Distribution: A Murder of Crows

The brief for the production of this module depicted that as a crew we were to create a short piece of fiction for small screen distribution, including the likes of television distribution and online. ‘Small screen’ initially suggests something that appears on television; however, as a crew, we found the idea of creating something for an online audience to be far more interesting. Web series are a part of a relatively young medium and therefore provide space for experimentation and a riskier imagination. As the concept of web series (and steampunk as will later be clarified) is not particularly determined in regards to rules and regulations, it gave us the opportunity to be more daring and take our production to places where television does not tend to venture. In lieu of deciding to create a web series pilot, the subject of the production would aptly be an online concept, which is predominantly the reason why creating something as a part of the steampunk genre was chosen. Starting the planning long before the beginning of the semester, so that we would have a clear story when it was time to start production, we researched the steampunk genre through sites such as Deviant Art, tumblr and Etsy. As the steampunk community is one that associates online through exchanging images, stories and ideas, it was relatively easy to research and to get in touch with people who are interested in it, in order to start building our audience. One of the reasons for choosing to create a story within the world of steampunk is that it is a very interesting concept, “Steampunk reimagines a better yesterday today. An aesthetic movement inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy, steampunk encompasses literature, design, technology, music, film, gaming, theater, and, of course, fashion,” (Gleason, 2013, p.8). Overall, steampunk is a very aesthetically pleasing genre and suits both film, television and the web with ease. The beauty about steampunk is that there are virtually no rules and each person defines it in their own individual way. What I found most interesting about the world of steampunk is that despite the fact that it is primarily a Victorian-looking society, males and females are equal throughout and this inspired the lead female character of A Murder of Crows, Gwendolyn Carrioncrow.

A Murder of Crows depicts the life of Gwendolyn, a Sherlock Holmes-type consulting detective who goes out of her way to solve mysteries within the seedier side of the steampunk universe. She trails through criminals’ jurisdictions and helps them seek treasures or solve murders of their clients. A strong, solitary woman, Gwendolyn is called to a case within this pilot that we produced and is forced to reluctantly work with Mattlock Scarran, a man who wishes to find the murderer of his friend. Whilst at the crime scene, Gwendolyn finds a bloodied knife and accidentally cuts herself at the hands of Mattlock and soon finds out that it is poisoned. Their search for the antidote therefore leads them directly to the killer and a strange partnership between Gwendolyn and Mattlock blossoms, which would then lead onto further episodes. The pilot, titled The Predestined Demise of Sebastian Cobbe, is split into two parts, detailing the convention of webisodes which are usually no longer than 7 to 8 minutes.

Arguably one of the most difficult aspects of developing a fictional product under the steampunk umbrella was the idea of making it recognisable to an audience; both those who understand it and those who do not. It should, at the very least, be identified as a period piece, ideally Victorian, “The world, instead of discovering electricity and silicone chips, continues to be paused in the 1800s, powered by steam and clockwork,” (Hewitt, 2011, p.8). This suggests that a steampunk production would be recognisable aesthetically, meaning that extra care would need to be taken in the choosing of locations and the detailing of the production design. As there are no particular rules for creating something steampunk, it was our interpretation that would demonstrate the world and costume would clearly be the predominant factor in this. The challenge in representing a steampunk world is that a lot of people are not aware of what it is due to the fact that it is an online community and not particularly mainstream. Therefore, due to this and obvious budget constraints we took the decision to keep the steampunk elements subtle, yet frequent. There are many oug.JPGdegrees of steampunk and these can drift towards the extreme in regards to costume and the tightness of corsets, which we believed would turn a lot of potential audience members away if they did not understand the costumes and would therefore feel isolated from the concept. There was much careful planning in the design of the costumes, starting even before the semester begun. (See fig. 1). One of the main elements of steampunk fashion for females is the corset, often with intricate patterns, chains or cogs featured on it. However, as director I collaborated with the production designer and we decided to not give Gwendolyn Carrioncrow a corset. Instead, the production designer developed a piece of costume that has half a skirt and features a large hood. This, coupled with a long purple coat completes her outfit, which ideally suggests steampunk, primarily due to the fact that the outfit is not a long, frilly dress, but consists even of a pair of jodhpurs and practical clothing.

Choosing a suitable location was another challenge in regards to achieving the correct steampunk aesthetic. When writing the script, I was aware that I wanted an old railway bridge, mainly due to the fact that within steampunk worlds, steam trains are one of the main modes of transport, and ideally a bridge would allow an audience to make the connection ever further. When writing I had imagined that the bridge would look grand and would add to the production values greatly. This is one of the reasons swrwhy we chose Stamford Bridge (see fig. 2) as our main exterior location and it was also convenient for us as a crew, “Consider shooting at the same location during the day and at night. Also explore the possibility of using the same physical setting to represent two different locations in your script,” (Williams, 2012, p. 37) In regards to locations in particular, one of our primary shoots was in the York Castle Museum. As an expensive place to hire, this is where a lot of our Kickstarter funded money was used; however, after much discussion, it was decided that this would be a lot more effective in regards to budget than designing and creating our own set. It is the details within the steampunk aesthetic that are the most important and this is something that the Castle Museum provided.

The prospect of money was one of our first challenges and a relatively large budget would be required particularly for using the museum. From our previous projects we were aware of how Kickstarter campaigns can be incredibly useful for films and we knew that setting this up as early as possible was essential. The money would be used to fund production design, location hire, travel and actors’ food and would be the pivotal element that decided whether we would be able to make the film that we wanted or not. As we were in dire need of money, the sound designer who also acted as transmedia producer developed an event at a local bar at which we would sell homemade confectionery and hold a detective themed quiz. This gave us a lot more money and therefore flexibility and we were able to be a lot more creative with the production design in regards to detail. The money also allowed us to travel outside of York to a location that we wanted, however, we remained reasonably local so that travel money would not take too much of the budget.

The museum presented a lot more challenges than we had first anticipated. Due to the amount that it would cost per hour to shoot within the museum, we were strapped for time and had to limit the filming of three scenes to six hours’ worth of shooting. This proved to be very challenging as time would be taken when setting up and dismantling equipment, dressing actors and setting up shots. In order to minimise the time spent on these activities, we used two days during pre-production to swerfblock out what actions we would take in regards to the shots we would be doing within the museum and to rehearse with the actors as the main scene within the museum required lots of action with complicated props. (See fig. 3) These rehearsals were extremely beneficial to both the actors and the crew as everybody was able to get an idea of how quickly we would need to work and what the scenes would require of them. Another challenge with the Castle Museum was the fact that in order to have extras on location to fill the indoor street, it would cost us double. This was a significant problem as I had initially written the scenes within the street during the day and bustling with people – something that would be expected of a steampunk town centre. However, in order to overcome this, using the lighting settings within the museum, we changed the scene to an evening time which accounted for the lack of people and used members of the crew to stand in as sinister hooded people that would ideally create suspense in the atmosphere as the two main characters walked through the street.

As with any project, this presented many challenges in regards to the narrative. As the writer and director of this production, I was challenged mostly with the plot and character development. Being a web series pilot, it would need to reflect the conventions of a television series pilot in the sense that the characters and the story would need to be established relatively quickly. The narrative is reasonably simple for an audience to follow as it entails a murder mystery and depicts two key characters that the audience will be interested in. Alongside the plot in regards to importance is the development of Gwendolyn and Mattlock’s relationship; being similar to the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson set up it can be easily recognised by an audience. This was relatively challenge-free to create as Gwendolyn is intentionally a character who finds it difficult to get along with other people and Mattlock is seemingly easy going. This immediately creates friction between them and on some level romantic chemistry that the audience may or may not pick up on. Their relationship is open to interpretation within this first episode, evidenced through lots of shots similar to fig. 4. Their relationship was initially written to be at first quite traditional in that he would try to protect her, but she would push him away and handle any danger herself, reflecting the steampunk aspect of gender equality. It is this that encouraged us to create a series with a strong female lead who would not need the help of a man. However, after realising that the story was lacking in jeopardy, it was decided to poison Gwendolyn and force her character to rely on Mattlock for help; something which she would not normally do.

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Aside from minor details, the script never particularly changed due to our frequent meetings before a full draft of the script was written. This was to ensure that everyone had input into the ideas for the story and that I knew what I was going to write, effectively minimising the need for many more drafts and therefore saving us time during pre-production and production. The narrative, however, was developed on set and in post-production in the sense of pacing and what was to be prioritised on screen. On location we achieved a variety of shot sizes in order to give the editor more of a choice and more creativity in the edit. This proved to be very useful as at first, the rough cut of the film lacked pacing and intimacy, creating a challenge for us and we solved this by using a lot of close ups when the characters were talking, as when watching a television show or web series, an audience is often more interested with what is going on in a character’s head. Shots were also cut to prevent any long unnecessary silences and therefore increase the pace of the film and keep the audience interested. This is vital for a web series as your audience is not captive and if they become bored they will close the video and find another one to watch. It is perhaps one of the more risky mediums to use but for steampunk, it is appropriate as the majority of its followers communicate and express themselves online.

During production there were of course technical challenges, particularly in the way of sound equipment. On a few occasions the radio microphones stopped working and the sound designer was forced to use only one microphone and a boom. This is where the rest of the crew collaborated and anybody with a free hand would hold the boom pole in order to assist the sound designer on set. It was useful that we had recruited volunteers from the first and second years on the course to help out, particularly when the sound equipment failed. Another technical issue on set was the placement of the lamppost in the final scene and how it would be lit. The production designer and director of photography collaborated to set up the lamppost with an LED light which would create the illusion of the lamppost emitting light. This of course had to be manipulated in post-production through which light was added to the bulbs in the lamppost and created the effect that we needed, ultimately eliminating the appearance of an LED light and light stand (see fig. 5).

uihbAs a challenge to the production this was seemingly easy to solve as we knew about the problem before we started shooting and started to think of ideas of how to get around it even when the script was still in its final drafts. This was the case with a lot of the challenges that faced us as a crew; as we planned and scheduled everything as early as possible we were prepared for anything that may go wrong and subsequently, were able to concentrate on creative challenges rather than logistics. The time setting of the film was very important in the way of creating and adding to the suspense particularly in the final scene when Gwendolyn is dying and Mattlock is face-to-face with the villain of the piece, Warren. This allowed for interesting shots including Warren and Gwendolyn emerging from the darkness, which is subsequently complemented by the original score, allowing the film to conform to typical murder mystery revelations which may be on the television. Steampunk stories are all about drama and action, which encouraged me as a director to opt for night time scenes. I was opposed to making the film too dark and I did not want to make the audience feel uneasy, which is the reason for the lines which are intended to be funny and the fun, interesting characters that audiences would love to get to know.

As a crew, we have every intention of continuing this project as we believe it is something that an audience would enjoy and take to their hearts. When creating the idea, I had in mind that should this be something that would develop a large audience, it would be exchanged over the social websites that house steampunk in the form of fan-fiction stories, original art work and the discussion of episodes. I believe that this web series idea is something that an audience would get excited about and if released in the correct way, could be very successful. The initial intentions for this film were to create something that is not regarded as a typical student short film, but is something that an audience will just enjoy watching. As a crew, we worked hard to create something that we would like to watch ourselves, which I believe is very important to the production process as it increases the passion for the film and the drive to create something unique.

 

Bibliography

Hewitt, J. (2011) Steampunk Emporium: Creating Fantastical Jewlery, Devices and Oddments from Assorted Cogs, Gears and Curios. Cincinnati, North Light Books.

Williams, D. (2012) Web TV Series: How to Make and Market Them. Harpenden, Creative Essetials

Gleason, K. (2013) Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism. New York, Racepoint Publishing.