90s Filmmaking: ten years too soon?

When I left school I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I was good at biology so I decided to do that but there was something else in me that said “Do this..”

In my final year of school in late 1995/early 1996 I was starting to assess career options and the one thing I landed on (before I even owned my first guitar) was that I had a huge interest in film and film making. Creative and visual storytelling was hugely appealing and so I deferred my unconditional placement to do a biology degree and persuaded my Dad to invest in an 8mm tape Camcorder and tripod for me with the condition that I enrol in a film course which I did a year later.

Along with two other friends from school, we gathered a rag tag fugitive group made up of other school pals with new pub pals and spent the next four years writing and shooting absolute messes and disgracefully calling them ‘films’…

….but it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life.

We didn’t know about focal lengths, frame rates, exposure, lenses, lighting or any of that stuff, just a vague concept of framing and that was about it. Separate audio wasn’t even a thought and it was the onboard camera mic which was beasted to within an inch of it’s puny life to try and pick up the fist chewingly bad dialogue. We just pointed the camcorder at a couple of people and hit record.

That was it.

We formed our own shitey production companies and took our crappy equipment to woods, car parks, garages and disused (and incredibly dangerous) industrial areas in order to make the toilet tier masterpieces which were:

D U E L (Written & directed by me)
Starring  – Me, Derek Barclay, Graeme Robertson, Chris Bannerman, Bruce Robertson, David Finlayson and Stuart MacLennon

Timewar (Written by Chris Bannerman & Directed by Chris Bannerman & me)
Starring – Graeme Robertson, Chris Bannerman, Me, John Mceachran, Derek Barclay

Synthetic (Written & Directed by Me)
Starring – Me, Derek Barclay

Feg Fighter (AKA Ned Fighter) (Written By Bruce Robertson & directed by me)
Starring – Bruce Robertson, me

D U E L II: Legend Of The Dragon Amulet (Written by me, directed by Derek Barclay)
Starring – Me, Derek Barclay, Chris Bannerman

NEXUS (Written & Directed by Graeme Robertson)
Starring – Greame Robertson, Me, Chris Bannerman, Derek Barclay, Marcos Rae, Gill Lindsay

Hidden Tiger (Written & directed by Derek Barclay)
Starring – Derek Barclay, Me, Alasdair Shaw and Ali Walker

The majority of these ‘films’ had pretty much zero on screen story and consisted of just a series of terrible martial arts fight scenes with maybe two or three lines of awfully childish dialogue.

The first fully realised project that we did was D U E L, an atrocious 11 minute fantasy/martial arts film written and directed by myself which pretty much ripped off Mortal Kombat, Legend and a shitload of other films. The plot was about a man who goes on a revenge quest when a demon murders his twin brother. Three dialogue scenes from the D U E L script were never even filmed (becasue fuck talking right?) and there were a few extra shots for sequences which never made it into the final edit. Rehearsals for D U E L started in summer 1996 and was shot later that year in and around the woodlands of Bridge Of Weir and Kilmacolm. The most significant locations were Woodrows, a disused and abandoned industrial estate also in Bridge of Weir and the entrance road to an old Monastery situated far out in the backroads of the village.

Other projects like Timewar, D U E L II, Feg Fighter and NEXUS followed shortly after as the group expanded from the original three man operation to a collective of about six or seven.

Synthetic was a really bad short film based on the synthetic androids from the Alien series where one murders a space colony outpost shop owner for pretty much no reason. It was shot in my garage and featured me as the android, my school chum Derek as the shop keeper and some awful on board posterize style contrast effects doubling for ‘Terminator’ vision in the first person perspective parts. As terrible as it was, the 5 minute cringe-a-thon actually got me into a film course at James Watt college in 1997.

duel
D U E L (1996)

Limit

As immense fun as it was there did come a point where we started to realise how limited we were. In 1997 we didn’t have access to any sort of editing facility let alone a digital suite (none of us even had mobile phones back then). In fact at that time I didn’t even have my own PC and didn’t start using the internet until 1998 so editing together the takes consisted of one finger on the record button of a VCR and one on the Play/Pause button of the camcorder. Effects were done via the camcorder’s own on board effects bank and a crappy plastic processing desk between the camcorder and VCR which allowed us to put letterbox bars and fade outs on the footage. Sound effects and music either came straight from CDs like Iron Maiden and The Crow soundtrack or video games like Final Fight and Final Fight 2 on the SNES with a technique of pushing the sound test and music buttons at just the right time.

This, as you could probably tell was incredibly choppy and along with the signal degradation, VHS tracking issues and general inexperience left us with murky and flickery results that didn’t really cut it.

The passion was there but the technology, although it probably did exist at that time, was sorely unavailable to us.

timewar
Timewar (1997)

Lost potential

Film making soon became much of a muchness with the limits on us and it came to a close in the year 2000 when Derek, a part of our old team had to make a short film for a media unit as part of a university computing course. So there we were out in the woods again filming Kung-Fu scenes for the rather plageristically titled Hidden Tiger only this time Derek had managed to get his hands on an editing suite for the family PC. This opened up some new opportunities and we actually started shooting creatively with the editing in mind. Gone were the big long takes from one angle and now we started shooting much shorter shots with a view to stringing them together later on, plus things like inserts, close ups, reaction shots and proper two way dialogue scenes started to make an appearance as well. The sound consisted of one sound effect and some music ripped from a Jackie Chan film and some absolutely hilarious dubbing. While shooting, the ideas flowed freely on location and even though Derek was billed as the writer/director, myself and cameraman Alasdair all freely chipped in our ideas.

It was still terrible of course and in what was my hungover state I do regret wearing a rather garish flannel shirt for my scenes but behind the camera the team effort was really starting to flower. In fact I was so impressed with Hidden Tiger that I even gave Derek the 8mm tape with the raw footage for D U E L and asked him to do a fresh digital edit of it which he did to an infinitely more pleasing result than the one I bunglingly cobbled together in 1996 and is the version which exists today.

It was around that time when more people started to get involved in our little team, none of whom brought any skill to the table but all, of course, had their own idea for a film. Too many cooks were starting to spoil the broth and shortly after that other life tasks like bands, jobs, education, family etc. all started to take priority and Hidden Tiger marked the close of a four year amateur film making stint.

feg-fighter
Bruce Robertson in Feg Fighter (1998)

2006

I often wonder what it would have been like if we had all been born ten years later. If we had left school in 2006 it’s pretty much guaranteed we’d all have a PC, be internet savvy and probably have at least some sort of free editing software if not a shady cracked copy of something. Digital card based video cameras would be freely available too with much more options that what was on that shitty 8mm camcorder.

But at what cost? The chances are we wouldn’t have lived through the things that influenced us to be creative in the first place. The 90s would be a fuzzy childhood memory rather than a teenage growing experience and the 80s….well the 80s wouldn’t have existed for us which is something I can’t even bear to imagine.

hidden-tiger
Hidden Tiger (2000)

Greet

I’d like to make a film again as it’s something which I never quite shook the desire to do but I know it will never be as raw, as passionate or as fun as it was back then. There are a few options in the pipeline and I’m even considering going back and doing a George Lucas on D U E L for the hell of it. Of course no amount of modern tech tinkering will make it anywhere near good but the fact remains that it was never really finished and I sort of feel I owe it that. Besides, at least now after 15 years in the music production game I can do my own sound design and compose my own score.

It’s a shame that back then we didn’t have access to nor could we afford the gear which we really needed but it was what it was. It may be excuses considering people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and a plethora of film makers that started in the 60s and 70s and who had even less equipment and access than us managed to make a name for themselves. In fact it probably is excuses but in saying that at least we gave it a shot.

Besides, I never laugh so hard or feel so good as when I re-watch those old shitty films.

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Author: aviewfromaskewblog

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