Troubleshooting Kernel Panic – How I got it wrong

Recently, I’ve shot, edited and delivered my first narrative short film, a sci-fi comedy called KERNEL PANIC. Overall, the response has been positive. Most people found it rather funny and (for a low budget short) well executed. It’s enjoyed a healthy number of views on Youtube. It even got a posting on Wired.com, something I was especially proud of.

I should be happy, right? Well, no. Firstly, the moment you have any form of creative success (be it completing an edit, recording an album or writing a novel), you may be forgiven for enjoying the fruits of your labour for a good 5 minutes or so. But if you have any regard for the craft you are labouring to perfect, you must immediately set your self analysis phasers to “painful truth”, place this metaphorical sci-fi boomstick against your skull and pull the trigger.

Whilst Fliss and Juliet’s performances are excellent, the crew were brilliant and the suit looked great, I cannot help but feel a little bit disappointed with the end result. It’s not terrible, it’s just not very good. Let’s not mince words here, I kind of screwed up my first shot at being a narrative writer/director. Painful as this admission may be, writing a post like this can only serve to help me as a director. Zeroing in on my mistakes is a fantastic way to ensure I do not repeat them! In a way, I’m grateful for making such recognisable errors, learning important lessons that will be applied to my next film.

I’ve already posted some background to the film in my previous post. Very briefly, the film was originally intended for a 48 hour film competition, in which we would shoot and edit a film (with completed VFX) over a weekend. I wrote a script with these limitations in mind, something which damaged the potential for the idea. For a number of reasons explained in the post, we didn’t enter the film into the competition. Which for me felt like I had shot myself twice in the foot, before accidentally shooting my other foot whilst trying to get help. We should have just made a film outside of a silly competition and I shouldn’t have written a script handcuffed to a ridiculous deadline. Though, if I’m honest, some rather unfortunate choices I made caused far more harm than anything the competition brought to the table.

We had two weeks before the shoot for me to write six drafts of the script, for us to pre-produce the film and build a spacesuit. (Adam was working during most of the fortnight, with the writing taking the bulk of my time up, too). The suit looked great on the day, despite the paint on the helmet still being wet as the cameras were turning. Building the suit was the very definition of the term ‘Kick, bollock, scramble’. For those not familiar with this quaint little phrase, I shall not explain. I think you can work out what it means.

I have to admit that I wasn’t quite on top of the suit build as much as I should have been. I under emphasised aspects of the suit design to Adam and Sadiq, our Art Director. To make things interesting, and to work as a character detail, I wanted Brianna (played by the wonderful Fliss Russell) to start off quite cool and calm about the situation. She would deal with the leaks by pirouetting in free fall, skilfully patching the leaks on her suit with a nonchalant grace. Visually interesting, with the added plus of suggesting she was a skilled, professional deep space explorer who was damn good at her job. All of which was in the script, but unfortunately lacking in emphasis and detail for it to leap off the page. From the start I should have made it very clear we needed a suit which would give Fliss all the freedom she would need to perform this kind of movement. The suit build was problematic, mostly due to the hurried nature of the production, with the paint still drying by the afternoon of our shoot. A larger problem than wet paint was the helmet, which proved a struggle to keep in place during a scene. Running out of time, we discovered that the bastard thing would only stay in place if Fliss remained standing upright, avoiding any sudden movements! So, I scrapped all the manoeuvres, all the pirouetting and what not. We spent so long on the helmet that we never really got the leaking air effect down, so we had to lose a lot of the oxygen venting. As a result, poor Fliss had to play her character, falling to her doom, having to stand fairly still, whilst balancing a fish bowl on her head. Worried that it would be visually dull (or even, just plain silly!), I felt we needed to have more energy from the start. Just before we rolled on Brianna’s dialogue, I decided to change the character (from someone who went from calm, to angry, to angry and panicking) to someone who just got angrier and angrier as they fell. To some extent, it does work as an energetic propellent, especially when combined with the swearing. But by doing this, Fliss had little room to stretch, making the character a bit one note. The film has been described to me as a rant, something you endure without fully giving yourself over to, an assessment I have to agree with. The character needed range, to develop, to have an arc. It’s a long six minutes to have someone yelling at you, no matter how funny and well played by Fliss.

What makes this fuck up more annoying for me is that I had originally envisioned the character having just such an arc. In the earliest version of my story, she begins with a total faith in technology, completely buying into the idea of perpetual upgrades, updates and developments. A true believer in the Heart Corporations intentions, blind to all criticism, deaf to all complaint, certain that her salvation is just a quick patch away. But as she plummets towards the hellish death world below, she finds her trusted, slick, glossy, life supporting accoutrement to be a rather lacking in its life preserving capacities. This failure to uphold the corporations end of the consumer-producer contract, destroys her faith in the gods of technology. She lashes out, releasing years of repressed rage. By giving her character this kind of development, her vexation would be more interesting to us. Without a doubt, this would have been a massive improvement. Deep down, I knew this was wrong, yet I ignored my doubts, convinced that I was overcomplicating what was essentially a simple story ending with a gag. The only problem with that is that I ended up with a simple story ending with a gag. The character would have had more life if I gave her an arc, making her ultimate fate more effective. If I pursued this version of the character, I would have made the same point about technology with more subtly and intelligence than the gale force ranting hurricane I ended up subjected the audience to.

Perhaps the ranting itself is a major issue. Some people have commented that as written, the characters of Brianna and the various versions of her suits A.I are too similar in nature, Thankfully, both Fliss and Juliet Valdez (who excelled in her multiple roles) gifted me with fantastic performances that breathed life into my flawed script. You could accuse me of unnecessary self flagellation for this next point, but I have been worried about all the unintentional back handed compliments I’ve been getting from friends and family about how the characters sound ‘just like you when your having one of your rants’. Maybe this lack of character distinction should earn me a metaphorical flogging after all.

The script problems and communication issues are clearly the biggest failing. From the foundation up, the story was unsound. Entertaining, perhaps even funny. But it could have been much more.

Fortunately for the film, the rest of my mistakes were not so destructive.

The environment fx around the plummeting Brianna were originally planned as in camera FX. However, due to the rush and chaos of pre production, we had no time to test the wind and smoke effects. We had to make do with what we came up with on the day, which sadly was ineffectual and unconvincing. I couldn’t blame Gregg, our DOP. He had to play the cards I dealt him, and we had about ten minutes to figure out how we were going to do the smoke. So in post production, I had to replace all of the wind FX with CGI and stock footage, which was time consuming and a massive pain in the arse. If we intended to use CGI, we would have shot it on green screen. Instead, you have a figure in black, before a black background, with strobing lighting, which made it nearly impossible to rotoscope the image out. Which is why I spent months trying to make it look right, but I was never 100% satisfied with the end results. I stand by my choice to shoot the FX in camera, as the lights on the suit reacting with real practical smoke look fantastic, better than what we would have achieved on green screen. But, christ it took a long time!

One final thing that bugs me. I should have been more imaginative with the interface that Brianna sees in her field of vision. So much more of the backstory, the situation and the technobabble could have been told visually. Juliet commented to me the other day that she felt the script would make a great radio play. I think she hit the nail on the head. It’s too wordy, too talky, when I should have been more restrained and precise with the dialogue. Using the interface to bear the load of exposition would free up the actors, making more room for the humour to play out.

But these are cosmetic quibbles. A good script would have bypassed these limitations with ease, whilst no amount of excellent VFX can save you from a terrible script. An appropriate example is Prometheus, gorgeous to look at, but with a narrative that constantly takes you out of the story with its gaping plot holes and illogical, inexplicable character decisions.

The most important lesson I shall take from KERNEL PANIC is this – Story is king! As filmmakers, we need to push ourselves, writing and rewriting till we get it right. A large part of this is ensuring your characters have a life of their own. They should be self contained entities, not part of a homogenised collective, marching in tune to the writer/directors opinionated, overblown bagpipes.

So, I messed up. Not enough to bury the film, which I’m still happy to push. Hypocritical of me? I don’t think so. I believe there’s enough in the film to justify its existence. And promoting this film can only serve to increase the potential audience for my next (hopefully much better) film. As I mentioned back at the top, its a film that has a generally positive response. I’m happy about that, just as I’m happy being my own worst critic, another vital quality a filmmaker should have.

Embracing your mistakes is the first step to not repeating them. KERNEL PANIC was a real education for me, a process that will continue over the many films I hope to make within the short span of time we get on this planet. With that in mind, I must remember to keep that sci-fi boomstick switched to the right setting…

4 thoughts on “Troubleshooting Kernel Panic – How I got it wrong

  1. Howdy, what a brave post to write. I’m exactly the same insofar as the first thing I do after finishing a project is rip it apart to find out why it wasn’t exactly as I wanted it, so I absolutely understand where you’re coming from. I have never put my findings online though, which I’m impressed by. If there was ever a way to concrete your thoughts, this surely is it!

    look forward to your future work sir.

    Moog

    • Well, the two certainly aren’t exclusive. I’ve worked on projects before that I’ve not been happy with yet others just decide (due to either stubbornness, the desire to avoid confrontation or worse still, the thought that the projects are actually without flaw) that there’s nothing to discuss or improve and pat on the back all round.
      Whilst I do love to get told my work is good (naturally), I hate knowing that I can do better, yet haven’t for one reason or another and I believe that only by being hard and honest on oneself can one improve. I want each piece of my work to be better than my last and if it isn’t, then that’s the only way I’ve failed. And If I’ve failed, I bloody well want to know why! ;)
      Muchos Kudos.

      • I think I’ve been spoiled. My circle of filmmaking friends and associates are very good at telling me what’s wrong with my work. All for the greater good, of course!
        Take care
        Martin

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