It’s Valen-time for Another Post

Valentine’s Day has come and gone for another year, and I spent it in the company of Adobe Premiere Pro, and an old friend. I am of course referring to Jessica 17, a film which was rivalling Duke Nukem Forever in the category of time spent as vapourware.

The Story of a Troubled Teen

Jessica 17, written by my sister Claire Douglas, can be traced back to the year that gave us the Xbox 360, Hurricane Katrina, the 7/7 London bombings and the spread of the bird flu pandemic to Europe. Newforge Studios hadn’t yet appeared in its current form, and most of our movies were of the home variety. The original horror classics including “The House” wouldn’t appear for a number of years.

Claire was an aspiring screenwriter, and had developed the script in a workshop with Richard Crawford, one of the writers for the 2002 film “The Abduction Club”. We set out that summer to produce the screenplay, despite having little to no experience in the process. Not much has changed since then…

It Begins

Back in 2005 my passion for filmmaking was yet to take hold. Armed with a makeshift pole assembled from a monopod, I was the boom operator for the production of Jessica 17. Yes, you can thank me for all the handling noise. In my defence, I was 13, and using improvised equipment. Dad was on camera, with a Panasonic miniDV camcorder shooting in 4:3 (no, we hadn’t discovered the joys of widescreen). Most camera sensors were 4:3 at that time, and if you wanted 16:9 all the camera would do is put bars on top and lose precious pixels.

Directorial debut

Everything was prepared, and my grandparents had given us the house as a set for the day. And that day, the 11th of July 2005, was one of the hottest of the year with temperatures in the high 20s (degrees Celcius). It was time for the magic.

I don’t remember much about the day itself, save being repeatedly told to lift the boom and keep it out of shot. Easier said than done, and my arms were most definitely done by the end of filming. Claire had cast two friends, and one of dad’s co-workers as Jessica’s family. The actors had a range of experience, but back then the purpose wasn’t to make a video to put online. YouTube had only just been launched, and wasn’t ubiquitous like it is today. No, it was to make a DVD which could be shown to the cast, friends and family, and maybe even a film festival depending on how it went.

What happened?

That was thirteen years ago. Exactly what happened between then and now is hazy. We weren’t film editors, and I don’t remember having access to any video editing software until a while later. I can’t even remember who got the ball rolling. It was probably dad, and we did have a semi-watchable draft at that stage. Problems came to light shortly after the editing began. There wasn’t enough B-roll. There were few close-ups and other shots that would’ve made the edit come together more smoothly. And there were too few takes. I can’t remember a time when I’ve said “It’s great, but you tried that too many times”. Having that variety with actors delivering lines different ways is is worth taking the time over.

Music was always an issue. We just weren’t that good at it, having little experience in sound design. Dad slapped a melodramatic tune on it at one time, but it made light of the drama and wasn’t true to the story. I didn’t help by putting in a grating ringtone that somehow dated the film more than the aspect ratio.

I briefly revived Jessica 17 in 2013, with a limited viewing after a re-edit, but it was still without a soundtrack. And it retained all the original charm of the boom pole noise. Music can make or break a film, and in this case, Jessica was broken.

Another production shot

It’s Alive!

Fast forward another six years to 2019. I stumbled across a copy of the 2013 rehash, and an idea suddenly occurred to me. I know a composer. This particular composer has helped me out on a great number of projects, from scoring, writing, directing, and even acting. And to top it all, he wrote a beautiful song for my wedding. Enter Calum McCormick, the saviour of the project.

Calum was brought in at short notice and tasked with writing music for Jessica 17 to coincide with Claire’s birthday. And that he did, but after watching with the new music, I couldn’t release it. Now the music demanded more of the film, and it was back to the editing suite for another few sessions.

As standard, I was using Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2019 and Adobe Audition. I tried my best to clean up some of the audio, replaced the garish ringtone with one I recorded using the Zoom H1n, and tidied the edits. There was only so much wiggle room given the lack of B-roll, but I did my best to tell the story as it was intended.

Thanks to all of those involved. To Serena, Donna and Grace for acting. Claire for writing and directing. Dad for filming. Granda and granny for the use of their house. And of course, Calum, who’s music saved the day.

And you know what? It just occurred to me that Jessica 17 has just become a teenager at 13 years old. Time flies when you’re having fun.

Check out Jessica 17 on YouTube (Apologies, the video is refusing to embed.)

Some Filmmaking Backstory

The Canon XL1, which almost became my first camcorder

When I started to get interested in making films, my first purchase was a Canon HV30 camcorder. I can attribute this to some very sound advice from dad. I had almost bought a Canon XL1 or XL2 SD pro-sumer camcorder, though dad had an XM2 at that point, and he suggested a different course of action. There was a compact camcorder popular with the indie film scene, which was amenable to modification, and filmmakers had been getting great results with. Using a custom lens adapter, you could even use Canon DSLR lenses. It mightn’t sound like much, but being able to use relatively expensive glass with a decent quality camcorder opened up a whole realm of possibilities. This was before DSLR filmmaking exploded in popularity. That camera has travelled all over the world with me, and is probably one of the best value purchases I have ever made. Cheers dad.

The Canon HV30-based rig!

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