Low Cost, High Quality: Peter Stray, Craig Russell & Marc Price Talk CANARIES
We spoke with filmmakers Peter Stray, Craig Russell and Mark Price about their latest project, the very low budget sci-fi thriller CANARIES.
Traditionally, films befitting the sci-fi genre require multi-million dollar budgets. This is usually a result of sprawling sets, breathtaking special effects and ethereal costumes. Films like Moon ($5 Million) and Monsters ($500k) broke the prefabricated mould with lower budgets, receiving both critical and cult acclaim. Currently, situated in post-production is Welsh director Peter Stray’s latest project, Canaries. It promises to be a low budget hit.
Stray describes the project as an amalgam of Attack the Block and Shaun of the Dead due to its combination of dramatic and comedic elements, and with a budget equating to half the coffee expenses of Spectre, £30k. Despite the seemingly limited financial reach, the film was shot on 6K cameras and has attracted some of the film industries best and brightest, both in front and behind the camera.
Milk Industries, contributed to the films special effects – they previously worked on the ground breaking artistry seen in Ex Machina earning the movie an Oscar win in this respective category. “Without a doubt, the fantastic talent that has been drawn to working on this project is predominantly the script and making use of contacts, both myself and other members of the cast have made along the way. Basically, calling in every favour we were ever owed,” said Stray.
Independent film has made triumphant strides in the effective utilisation of remarkably small budgets, perhaps due to the creative limitations that may be enforced by studio financial backing. Stray explained, “a substantial bulk of our budget came from actor, Dominique Dauwe. Our fairy godfather. I am extremely proud of the use of our budget. It’s essentially a £1 million film made on a £30k. I thrive off it, it forces you to be smarter in your methods.”
Due to the omniscient media elements available through developments in technology, branding and distribution are more aware of promising projects. If the content is captivating, the film’s financial and viewing success is limitless.; look at Paranormal Activity and Colin. Director Marc Price explained, “I think Colin landed the way it did because of the economical climate at the time. It started as a quirky story about making a film without a budget; when people watched it they saw that there were characters to care about and an unorthodox story. Where the film demands the audience feel emotion in place of a character, who by his very nature is incapable of feeling any.”
Location, Location, Location.
A rare characteristic a film can possess is being unique – Canaries can boast that no other film utilises the combination of Welsh countryside, Vietnamese jungle and the beachy shores of Martha’s Vineyard (made famous by Jaws). Low budget features are often restricted to stationary locations, often taking on the perspective of a stage play seen in the likes of Clerks, Reservoir Dogs and more recently, Ben Wheatley’s, Free Fire. Granted, through a combination of calling in favours and taking advantage of some of the picturesque home towns of both cast and crew members, the film was able to capture some beautiful backdrops.
Craig Russell, who depicts Sid Dennis in the film and makes up part of the producing team, spoke about the sense of community in his beloved, Lower Cwmtwrch. “By shooting on home turf you instantly make a saving but Pete wrote for these locations so we had to film there. In fact, at my birthday party around twenty years ago, he turned to me and vowed he would make a film there. Two decades later, here we are. We were able to both film in and house the crew in a stunning converted chapel and a quaint old farmhouse – the owner of the latter, Gareth, even makes a cameo. We were lucky in that we could light street scenes by running cables from people’s houses.”
Through connections with Stray’s family he was able to use famous shots like the On Time ferry and the Kintner Boy beach. “You can see both in the trailer! Our US producer, Steve Dunayer, grew up there so had a lot of local knowledge. We’re all geeky fans of Jaws, so we were absolutely delighted to be shooting there.”
A Look from Behind the Lens
The two most expensive components within a film shoot are location and image capture. A daunting prospect for any DOP is matching the aesthetic you want to create to the lens you can afford on a minimal budget project. The use of cell phones and cheap cameras has become more commonplace, seen in the Sundance Festival darling, Tangerine and the financial success of horror hit Colin, using an estimated budget of $70.
“We were cursed with accessible technology of the time when we made Colin” says Price, “The democratisation of filmmaking technologies hadn’t happened at that point and we were still shooting on tape. Films like 28 Days Later were the true inspirational features getting cinema releases and being made on similar technology. We’re in a great spot now. We shot my second feature, Magpie, on a Canon 7D, which is already out of date as a filmmaking camera. It was my first experience being able to change lenses. Now, lenses are more often than not the first thing young film makers consider before embarking on a shoot. It’s very exciting!”
The Canaries DOP, Alex Nevill, was able to utilise his connections with a local university to full effect according to Russell, “He and I had done three or four films previously and I loved his style, as did Pete. He recommended the sound man, David. Plus, he was doing some lecturing; he was able to get some great students on board and some incredible savings on equipment hire.” Incredible savings would be an understatement, for the particular lens aesthetic that was required for the film would have traditionally set the budget back £500k – £1 million in the days of 35mm.
The Sound of Music
Another feature that filmmakers must consider is sound, that works cohesively in unison with the vibrant images we see on screen. It can sometimes serve to enhance the quality of the movie even if it was shot on a home video camera. Thankfully, Canaries was shot Red Epic Dragon 6K cameras so there was no chance of sub par quality on screen.
“You can cut corners nearly everywhere when filming but definitely not sound! If you do, it will end up costing treble in post,” said Russell. The film’s sound team was made up of David Bekkevold, assisted by two students for the UK and Dmitri Kouri in the USA, the latter whose previous work included working on HBO’s, High Maintenance. Canaries is currently in the final mixing stage under the careful eye of Paul Tristram, “today I was on hand to throw myself around the studio for a fight scene – decent cardiovascular as it turns out!” said Stray.
Whilst all the aforementioned factors contribute to the overall film’s success, a movie score and soundtrack can draw both prestige and additional revenue if orchestrated well. For Stray, it was always a paramount feature: “I’m a huge score geek and was delighted to work with composer Marengast on creating a score that felt both contemporary and brought us back to the days of hummable themes. So much of film music nowadays is an indecipherable series of chords. Sorry, I sound like a right old fart!” Working in unison with Tristram, music mixer Aggela Mourgela is creating a creepy and unearthly soundscape to match the film’s dramatic pace.
Friends with Benefits
All the work behind the camera would be nothing without what goes on in front of it. A temptation for film makers to cut costs is to cast their friends, normally this could lead to the downfall of the film as naturally your comrades are not trained actors of stage nor screen. However, Stray and Russell were able to draw on their fellow cast mates from previous works.
“Communication was easy and they were very generous with their time and talent” said Stray, “Many were Craig’s contacts and I would have never gotten in contact with such talent without his introduction. I think a combination of the script and working with friends in a fairly relaxed environment was enough of a draw. Everyone took it seriously, it was apparent that they relished in doing a good job alongside each other.” All members of the cast, apart from Sheena Bhattessa who played Sunita, were friends with members of the crew beforehand.
Film Festivals & Social Media
Before the evolution of social media, it was up to directors to submit their projects to the film festival circuit and go on tour, garnering a respectable following – hopefully enough to attract distribution offers. “We think the film can appeal to both the Sundance and Comic Con crowd. It’s a fun genre film that also explores deeper issues if you want to look for them” said Stray.
Now with social media like Twitter and Facebook, films have reaped the benefits at relatively low cost. After the Star Wars: Force Awakens was uploaded online, the trailer had accumulated over 1 million views in the first twenty minutes. Comparatively, Canaries didn’t have the $245 Million budget that the Force Awakens had, social media was not a necessity but, essential for the films promotion. “Its free and with a little help form well known friends we could get out there pretty quickly, Michael Sheen tweeted about our trailer and the figures leapt up by over 300 hits. Not bad considering the film isn’t even finished.”
Release the Canaries…
Canaries has managed to break the mould set by its predecessors, utilising a very minimal budget to the absolute limit. Its articulate script and talented team both in front and behind the camera have attracted award winning artists in effects and sound. Through clever connections made in earlier projects, Stray and Russell have managed to use a variety of exotic locations – Wales, Martha’s Vineyard and Vietnam – a previously unheard of feat with such limited funds. Not forgetting getting equipment at cost, that would have been many times the budget normally. The film has fantastic foundations to be successful at the box office, but, whether it reaches the comparable cult status of Shaun of the Dead and Attack the Block remains to be seen.
The next steps for the film will be a screening at Martha’s Vineyard, a dedicated evening of directors with ties to the infamous island, “We’ll be in an evening double bill, with a new film from Doug Liman. He has been very encouraging since I hatched the idea of doing a film in Wales on the Vineyard. He said to me when I was prepping the film, ‘I can’t think of two more beautiful places to shoot a movie’,” said Stray. “I remain hopeful, the movie is being submitted to festivals and showcasing special screenings around the world. Mirroring the film itself, I suppose. It almost seems comical when line up together.”
What do you think are the key features that make a good sci-fi movie, both low budget or blockbuster? What’s your favourite film of this genre? Any films that you feel should have been mentioned?
Canaries will be released soon. Keep up Canaries on Twitter .
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