A few days before the 2018 Academy Awards, we published an article about the crowd-funded British short movie "The Silent Child", written by Rachel Shenton and directed by Chris Overton, that had been nominated for an Oscar.
The movie won, which was an incredible achievement considering that Rachel had never written a script before, Chris had never directed a movie before, the movie was produced with close to no budget, and it was cut with Final Cut Pro X by an editor who had never edited a narrative movie before and who actually learned FCP X on this job.
So we were quite keen to learn more about how the production team managed to bring all this together, and we asked Chris Overton (director), Ali Farahani (DoP) and Emily Walder (editor) to tell us all about the making of "The Silent Child".
Chris Overton has been working in the industry for the last 18 years as an actor but always had a passion for what went on behind the camera.
Taking the knowledge he learnt from being on professional sets, he put his new found skills into practice. Which is where the birth of the UK’s leading Showreel production company came from. Slick Showreels has been producing a wide range of work including music videos, short films and documentaries for the last 5 years.
Chris has worked with award winning directors such as Mat King, Harry Bradbeer, Stuart Orme, Joel Schumacher, Oscar Winning director Roman Polanski, and was part of the main cast of Bafta award winning film Pride directed by Matthew Warchus. The Silent Child is Chris’s directorial debut.
What were the challenges that you faced when you said okay, let's do it? How do you tackle such a production?
Chris: As soon as we had the cast and we knew we were going ahead with the movie, I started contacting the crew members. Some production and post production people came from Slick, our company, and we found others via Mandy.com.
Like Bryne Williams, our second AC. I found him only the day before the shoot. I liked his profile picture. So I looked at his CV, I just rang him up, and I said, "I really like your photo." He just looked like a nice guy. I said, "Do you want to come down? Like, it's tomorrow." And he was like, "Shh, can I call you back?" And he called back about five minutes later and said he'd read the script, and he was like, yeah, I'm in. He did an amazing job. He had only done one music video before that, but people thrive when you give them opportunities.
Honestly, we hardly had any money to shoot with. We did not realize that, with crowd-funding, you pay fees to the crowd-funding website, you pay PayPal fees and credit card fees. So our budget was even tighter than we thought. We actually spent most of it on hiring the filmmaking gear, because we had such a great script that we did not want to make any concessions as to the technical quality of the movie.
We were like, right, we've found this incredible little girl as our star actress and amazing professional coactors, and we have a crew. And then we kind of got it together, we went into production for about 10 days in Hertfordshire, in and around a house that is peculiarly similar to the home of the real-life silent child who has inspired this story.
How many people were on the shoot?
Chris: There were some 25 people on the shoot, including crew and actors. To save money, we all stayed in the house. So we shot in the house, but we lived in the house as well, which was like a real sense of community. It was just really great.
So, when the day was done, we'd have some food that we prepared ourselves, everybody would be learning bits of sign language so we could communicate with Maisie and her family. Only a couple of members of cast, I think, were staying in a hotel nearby. Yeah, I think that really gave us something special to stay in this environment. You know, people were sitting on the floor, sharing rooms. It was a big house, but we had about 15 to 20 people staying there.
The shoot was in the middle of England in January, so it was really tough. It was really, really cold. It was cold in the house as well. We had the heater going full blast. But, it snowed one of the days, so we had to rearrange our whole schedule, and none of the actors could get to set.
We did have a couple of problems, as you always do on a shoot. But, somehow we got every shot in the film. It was so hard. I don't know why, but it was just meant to be. It was like someone was watching over us. You know, one thing could have gone wrong and we would never have been able to return to that house. We just wouldn't have. Also, Maisie is so young. You leave it a few weeks and her face changes. So we knew we had to get everything there and then.
Who was the Director of Photography?
Chris: Our DoP was Ali Farahani. He was quite big in Iran as a cinematographer. But then he had to leave his country and when he got here, he was like homeless in a bus shelter for two weeks. He got a job as an editor at the BBC, and he also applied for an editing job at our company. I immediately noticed how talented he was, and when he told us he had been a DoP in Iran, I asked him if he would shoot The Silent Child.
Ali Farahani is a multi-award winner with over 15 years of experience in the film and television industry. He has developed a wide range of professional skills such as directing, editing, color grading and lighting, which enables him to exceed the expectations of any Director of Photography.
What kind of camera gear did you use for the shoot?
Ali: The hero camera for the shoot was an ARRI Alexa Mini, but we also used a Sony FS7 Mark II for POV shots. We shot in 4K ProRes 4444 on the ARRI and in SLog2 on the Sony. We used a light Libec crane for pan and tilt shots, and we had a Steadicam for walking shots.
As Director of Photography and Post-Production Supervisor, I tried to make an orchestration of light, color, camera movements, and choosing the right shots to make a visual poetry and add more layers behind that.
Being involved in the whole process of making The Silent Child movie from beginning to the end gave me the opportunity to make a good relationship with Chris Overton - his trust gave me the freedom to merge my DoP skills with my virtual art knowledge to achieve my biggest goal in this movie, which was finding a right style for the film as well as telling the story.
The Silent Child was a low budget short film but I never felt that whilst we were filming, because the producers managed the production process in such a high standard. It’s a dream come true, I always believed the idea from Rachel Shenton had the scope to be a real success. We just had to work hard and believe in what we were doing. It was an incredible team effort.
Emily Walder, The editor for the movie, was also involved as DIT during the shoot.
Emily: I've always wanted to be a film editor, so I studied television production originally, and I got to see all sides of TV production: lighting, cameras, sound, editing... But editing was the one that always stuck out for me. And I kind of knew that that was my forte.
I started my own business about nine years ago, primarily filming and editing stage shows, and live productions, pantomimes, dance shows, all that kind of thing.
But always in the back of my mind, I wanted to get into film editing. And so, about four years ago I saw a job advert for an editor, for a company called Slick Showreels, which is Chris's company.
So I applied, and I went to meet Chris, and the editing of Showreels looked like something I could definitely do and I was enjoying it very much. And then they started to give me bigger projects, like corporate events or weddings and things like that, and I really progressed with my editing.
And all this was on Final Cut Pro 7, which at the time was my absolute favorite. Then the opportunity about The Silent Child came along, and they said they'd love for me to be the editor. That was right after the script was finished, so quite early in the production. I read the script and I didn't have to finish the script before I knew I wanted to be involved. I came on board without any hesitation.
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But you needed to learn Final Cut Pro X for this production.
Emily: Yes, they wanted to shoot and edit in 4K ProRes 4444, so FCP7 was out of the question. Furthermore, Ali uses FCP X at the BBC and he is quite familiar with it. He said FCP X would make things much easier than any other NLE, so I accepted to learn it on the job.
It was my first experience on Final Cut Pro X. They did some pre-shoots about a month before the actual shoot. So I got some of that footage, and got my bearings of the new Final Cut Pro. And I immediately loved it. So I, yeah, got to kind of have a play around there, and see how I was going to organize things when all the footage came to me. But it truly was a learning process on the shoot.
Here you see our DIT system in the house. I had an iMac 27" plus a 10TB hard drive for the media, plus some safety backup drives. We had two back-ups, that was the initial thing. So, I set up two boxes, a red box and a green box, so the footage, the memory cards would come in to me in the "Do not format" red box. When backed up twice, I put them in the green box and they were ready to go. We had a nicely working setup.
I created one Library for the movie and I imported all the rushes into the Library. I organized the clips by scenes, following the script, and then I backed up the files by day. So, I had a folder of Day One, Day Two, Day Three, Day Four, like this. And then broke that down again into I think it was Card One, Card Two, Card Three, of the day. And so, that's how I organized it in my head that I knew if I needed to go back and find something, I'd be able to know where that was.
I was also given the external audio rushes by Graham. So, again, I did the exact same thing of Day One, Day Two audio, Card One. I think there was only one card per day, because obviously, the file size for audio clips is a lot smaller. I backed those up, and then we'd have to physically sync all the takes.
So you created synchronized clips?
Emily: Honestly, at that time, I didn't know that was a thing. So, I synced everything manually. Since "The Silent Child", I have cut a second narrative movie on FCP X, called "Adam and Eve". I have used the synchronized clips feature on that one. And I was like, "Oh my God, this is so powerful and easy. How did I not know this at that time?" That is a true story, I'm not kidding.
Kind of by day two, we were all in sync with each other, and we started to put a little rough cut together. But it was difficult because I was still learning the program. And Ali was amazing, almost like a mentor to me. I would ask him all the time, "Ali what do we do, how do we do this?" You know, like a simple thing like the 235 crop to the letter box option, I was like, "Where is it?" But then I just really searched and then, yeah, just had to research. If I had a question of my own, I'd go and Google it, and you know, trial and error, really.
Regularly, Ali would come in right after shooting a scene and then he put a couple of sequences together. It was mainly to see what the shot looked like. So, Brynn would bring me the card, I'd ingest it, just so they could have a quick look to see if there were any reflections or anything. And I was really hot on continuity as well.
One day, we did a shoot in the living room. When ingesting the clips in FCPX, I noticed that one of the actress's lav mic was showing in a shot. They had to schedule a re-shoot for that particular bit but the only time they could do this was during the night. So we had to make that scene look like day again.
Those were things I was really hot on. Detecting reflections, booms, all the things that you look for as an editor. And they were grateful for me spotting the mic.
So you spent around 10 days working intensely at the house. Did everything always work out without any issues?
Emily: No, there were definitely difficult moments when we were all very tired, you know. We always started early, but we finished at a reasonable time, and I think that we just packed in so much in the day. That was kind of the hard bit, but we all just kind of rolled our sleeves up and mucked in like I was doing the lunch runs, as well as transferring the footage.
One day, you know, we had a snow day. The taxi didn't turn up, so I picked up some of the actors. We all just mucked in, and it was amazing. It was still one of the best things I've ever done.
Did you get the feeling that this was something special, from the start?
Emily: 100% from the start. Yeah, and then I know that a few people have said that as well. It just felt different. And all of our hearts were in it more than for anything else, really. Because it was just, it really was so special. Like, I'm getting tingles now, thinking about how on set it was just, it really was amazing.
Then the shoot ended, you took your editing system back home and you started doing a first cut for the movie. Is that correct?
Emily: Yes, I did the first rough cut by myself, which took me about two weeks. I was not used yet to the deeper functionings on Final Cut, so I was learning as I was going. And at the time I delivered the first cut, it was about half an hour long. I sent that to Chris and Ali as a .mov file.
Chris: I just remember my heart kind of sank when I watched the first rough cut. Me, Rachel, and Ali watched it together, and we all just went kind of, "Oh, God. What have we done?" I think Martin Scorsese said: "If your heart doesn't sink after watching the first assembly, then you're doing something wrong." And Ali just kept saying, "It's fine. Don't worry. I know what we've got." He's so experienced and he knows. So, we really trusted him.
The final editing process took a long time. And that was simply because myself, Emily and Ali we all wanted to be together. We all believed that was the best way to edit and get the best out of this film. So we had to rely on when all three of us were available out of our working hours. It just took a long time getting everybody in the same room because everybody was working for nothing.
We edited at our house, we just had a laptop and a couple of DVD boxes to try to get it to the same height as the screen. It was very rustic. But that's our Oscar-winning setup. We're actually quite proud of that, to be honest.
The movie was 25 minutes for a long time. Then, we were just doing more research into festivals, and it was quite apparent that we were going to miss out on quite a few festivals if we didn't get it below 20 minutes. Also, shorter is always best.
So we had some tough decisions to make. We really had to lose a lot of scenes from the film. But killing your darlings is always part of the editorial process. What doesn't add to the story, has to go. When we found we had the right cut, we started thinking about grading and audio finishing.
The Silent Child has a beautiful color palette. Who did the grading?
Chris: We had a guy called Mick Wakeling, actually. He worked in Soho, at a place called Smoke and Mirrors. And we were allowed to go in there after hours. Me and Ali would be cycling home at like 4:00 am in the morning after doing a full day of work, and then color grading on DaVinci.
Mick was just brilliant. He really gave me and Ali a lot of freedom. I was there for like the first week and then Ali just really, really, really went on the grading. I'm sure he spent about six weeks on it, you know. Just going through, and going no, this isn't right.
We found our color palette, and I would come back to have a look, and it would be like we've got to start again. So, I think we started again three or four times, and this poor guy was giving his time for absolutely nothing, just to get the experience.
And how did you handle the final audio mix?
Chris: Again, we had someone come to us and had heard about the film and what we were doing, and he said, "I'd like to offer my services." And it was literally just across the road at Silk Studios. It was a guy called Greg Claridge, and he offered to do the mixing and the sound design.
So we were very lucky. We got both of those again for nothing. Just someone who wants to jump on board because they believed in the story and the message we were trying to tell. So we spent a lot of time in the sound design and the mix. We were back and forth quite a lot with Greg.
The deadline was the 31st of May. So we always knew that we had to get our work in progress version to be finished by that date. And the first festival we entered, we won the grand jury prize, which enabled us to submit our movie to the Oscars. That was in Rhode Island.
I remember the day before we had to send off the file to the festival, we were all around in my flat just checking the very last version. It was 12 at night, and we had to post it first thing in the morning. There was something on the third shot of the montage, like a shadow or something, that shouldn't have been there. And we were like, "No! Oh, my God! ".
So, the next day, I went to Emily's place over in Kent to fix that problem. We got it fixed, then I went all the way back to get the movie posted. I could have very easily gone, "Ah, it will be fine," but we just worked far too hard to accept any glitches in it. I could never have lived with myself sitting at the world premier and seeing that shot with an error.
Emily, now that you are getting used to the application, what are the things about Final Cut Pro X that you like most?
I simply love the organization of it, and to be able to look and search within the events, And you can make a new project within each event and it's just straightforward. It's very visual, and you can find anything you need in a breeze. It's easy.I love being able to scroll through clip in the browser. I love that. I love being able to favorite, so it will come up green. That's like one of my pet things. So, I can just go back, and be like, "Well, I've already been through the takes. So, that's the one I want."
I also like the fact that you can preview a transition, or an effect. That really helps you to see the result without actually putting it in, and then take it back out. Just makes life a lot easier, and save a lot of time.
In some of the screenshots you have sent me, I notice you don't use the Magnetic Timeline. Why is that?
That's a good point, because I initially didn't get on with it. I think it was because I was so used to Final Cut Pro 7. I couldn't get my head around it. So, in the first stages of the edit, I switched the Magnetic Timeline off and worked in a traditional way.
I am much more familiar with the Magnetic Timeline now and I use it all the time. It's interesting how different Final Cut Pro X initially looks, and then how quickly you adapt to it, that's the biggest thing.
Since The Silent Child, I have used FCP7 again to finish some old edits and, honestly... it was like alien. It was bizarre. And that's really strange because I had been working with Final Cut Pro 7 for years, and years, and years, and I was like, "I don't want to make the jump." Or, "I'm scared." But now that I have actually learned FCP X, I think it's the best thing I've ever done.
Final question: I heard that you are considering making a feature film of The Silent Child?
Chris: We are, yeah. Rachel is writing the first draft of that at the moment. It's still in the very early stages but, yeah, this story is so interesting that it could definitely be extended.
Will you be editing the feature film on Final Cut Pro X as well?
Yeah, of course. We definitely wouldn't want to steer away from that. Now that I have seen how well the application works, and I have learned it myself, I wouldn't work with anything else. We're all comfortable with Final Cut Pro X now, and it works very well for us.
A huge thank you to Rachel, Chris, Ali and Emily for having given their time to share all this information with us. We wish them all the best pursuing their new venture, turning the compelling story of"The Silent Child" into a feature film. And we hope that their work will continue to increase public awareness for the deaf community.
© 2018 Ronny Courtens/FCP.CO