Making Of: Connected

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I have hinted at the process behind the making of Connected at various points and at various places: my ko-fi post, my previous blog post, the Q&A at the GMAC in Glasgow where Connected was screened; but I never actually sat down to talk in-depth about the whole process. So why not write about it?

Before we dive in, I want to stress a few important things. Firstly, Connected was, first and foremost, my Graded Unit project for my first year studying Digital Media at Forth Valley College. Secondly, it was made in the midst of demanding full-time education. When I say “demanding”, I mean that there were other chunky practical assessments that needed to be done concurrently with Connected — we had to finish up a short video documentary, we had to make an 8-minute radio documentary, and we had Graded Unit to do, all at the same time. (The radio documentary in particular was due just a week before the development stage of Graded Unit.) Plus all the various essays, of course.

Finally, Connected was made entirely on a £0 budget — and I do mean £0. I was very poor while at university and I couldn’t spare even a single penny to make this. I used the equipment I had and took full advantage of the college, both as a source of locations, actors, and further equipment. I know that many student productions are made on non-existing budgets; the reason I mention it for Connected is because I definitely did not want it to look like it had been made on £0. I wanted Connected to look professional, well-shot and well-edited, rather than “cheap”; I wanted people to wonder if it had indeed been made on even the smallest of budgets. (Something which I think I succeeded at, given that a handful of questions at the GMAC were about how I managed to make it and have it look/sound good on £0!) Plus, I really wanted to get an A on my Graded Unit!

So then, with these premises out of the way, let’s jump right into the making of Connected.

Planning Stage

Before I even started the script, one of the requirements of the Graded Unit was the planning stage, which was worth a good chunk of the mark. The planning stage was essentially planning of the planning. It was a pretty hefty document which required knowledge of many areas of the production, such as: treatment, research for the treatment (target audience, carrying out a survey, analysing existing media, characters, cinematic techniques, etc.), copyright law, OFCOM regulations, crew and equipment needed, sourcing crew, cast and equipment, a timescale of the project, coming up with a backup project, assessing the risks of the project… and many more. The minimum word count was 700 words; I ended up writing over 3,000. My planning stage document was chunky, with screenshots and video links, and covered basically everything you could think of. I ended up getting an almost perfect score on it!

For the planning stage, there was no need to submit a script, as that was part of the developing stage. All I had at this point was the general idea of the film (“I want to make a film about online friendships”) and a general idea of the plot. I had yet to script anything, but I was already trying to source my actors through Stirling uni’s drama society.

After my planning document was approved, I moved to the developing stage — this was where the actual production took place. I started writing the script with the general idea that I had for the story.

Writing the script

Writing the script took the most time. I ended up writing three drafts: the first draft was the very first idea I had for the story; the second draft was abandoned after a few pages as I didn’t like the direction it was going in; and finally, the third draft was a completely different story from the first, but it fit way more in terms of the tone and themes I was going for.

This process of writing, rewriting, tossing away drafts, going back to the films that inspired me initially and then write again took the longest time. The developing stage started sometime in February; my third and last draft was finished in early April. Only then I actually felt positive that it was the story I wanted to tell, and the film I wanted to shoot. At that point I only had until the middle of May to put this all together! (Reminder than I had other assessments to work on as well.)

So then, you might be wondering: what did those first two drafts look like? Honestly, the first and third draft are nothing alike. They are two completely different scripts.

Look at how sassy Matt is! This sounds like an exchange straight out of a romcom.

In the first draft, Matt is way sassier and snappier at his “friends”. In this script, he’s only friends with James, who had a bigger role as the annoying friend who wanted to impress and date Roxanne (before she became Lily — in the final draft there is no particular focus on their relationship). Ethan was already in the script, but he was a massive jock who hated reading books. In this version, Matt gets dragged to a party that he doesn’t want to go to by James, where there are also Roxanne and Ethan. During the party he messages his unnamed online friend a lot, prompting Roxanne and Ethan to question whether online friendships can even be called such. This upsets Matt, who leaves the party but later gets comforted by his online friends.

Probably the funniest part of the script.

It still kinda boggles my mind how different this script is to what Connected ended up being. The online friends didn’t have any names, Wyvern as he “appears” in Connected does not exist here at all. James, Roxanne and Ethan were way meaner in this script, Matt was not nearly as shy or as introverted. The only thing that’s remotely similar is the last scene with Matt at the computer and the online friends’ messages being voice-overs. There were five voice-overs, but none of the online friends had names. We never spend any meaningful time with the online friends, either, and all the focus was on Matt’s real life encounters.

The most quintessential jock line I will probably ever write. And no, Ethan in this version didn’t listen to music, either.

Perhaps worst of all, the message was way too much “in your face”; it was not handled well, at all. As a fan of David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and similar directors, I much prefer when the “message” or “meaning” of a film is handled subtly and is often interconnected with other themes. Moreover, Matt’s online friendships were not nearly as prominent or as fleshed out as they ought to be.

Gasp! Matt did actually cuss in the first draft. I know, I can’t imagine it, either.

Basically, this script was a mess. I wasn’t happy with it in the slightest, and a day or two after writing it, I quickly started hating it, because I realised it really was not like I had intended it to be — it did not reflect my vision at all. I had trouble tweaking this script and this particular story in a way that worked. Even if I added or cut characters, it was, at its very core, not the style or the story that I wanted.

So it was back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I went back to rewatch bits and pieces of Beginners and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the two films that best aligned with what I had initially envisioned. These types of monologue scenes from Beginners, in particular, were the main inspiration for the monologue of Connected. I downloaded the screenplay of Beginners to best understand how to write those sort of scenes in my own script. Matt finally went back to being the Matt I had first envisioned — a character more similar to Oliver (Ewan McGregor’s character in Beginners), Joel (Jim Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine) and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her).

Laying out the themes clearly was key in coming up with the new script. When I wrote the first draft, I only had a vague idea of the themes and was extremely focused on the “online friendships” part. However, as I wrote down my thoughts on paper, it became clear there were other, more prominent themes that I wanted to explore: alienation, loneliness, feeling “trapped” in friendships that don’t necessarily suit you but being too scared to leave, friendships forming “by chance”, and how true friendships are based on trust, mutual respect and understanding, opening up and being honest to one another. They all interconnected nicely with the story about online friendships that I had going on, they added another layer to Connected and hopefully something the viewer could relate to, as well.

Finally, with my characters more defined and having come up with a new structured story, it was time to write another draft. I started the second draft by writing the monologue… but I was not in the right state of mind for it and it ended up just being a rambling mess. I cleared my head, tried again the next day, only taking bits and pieces of the monologue from the second draft, and finally, I came up with the third and final draft of Connected — which is ultimately what it ended up being.

As I mentioned previously, this took about a month and a half to write, and it was in the midst of many other assignments. While taking so much time to perfect the script meant that my production and post-production would need to be done quicker, I honestly preferred it this way, as I ended up with a much stronger film than if I had just run with the first draft in order to get it done “faster”. Because of all my time and effort, I can say that I’m really proud of how Connected turned out.

Other pre-production struggles

Writing the script was not the only struggle of pre-production.

Sorting out actors became the other big obstacle. For weeks I had been trying to get somebody from the university’s drama society to act in my film; unfortunately their response times were too slow for the timescale that I was working with. This did stress me out, until eventually I just decided to ask my classmates to be my actors — and they did such a great job!

Filming

Filming was mostly done in just 3 days. The craziest part of the whole process was seeing all the scenes come to life from my storyboard!

Many of the indoor scenes of Matt were shot in my own flat, so those were relatively quick to get done. I asked my boyfriend to be Matt and he accepted, as he saw how stressed I was at the drama society not responding to me. This worked perfectly because we were already living together, so it was pretty easy and quick to film those scenes.

Peter Murphy as Matt in the cafeteria.
(Photo by Innes McVey)

The cafeteria scenes, as well as any scene with James, Lily and Ethan had to be filmed at college, and they took two days. We filmed in the cafeteria first, on a bright morning, before lunchtime, in order to avoid the rush of people coming in and needing to sit at the tables. The day after, I filmed the individual headshots of the characters for the monologue in another room of the college. And that was the whole film shot!

The filming of the cafeteria scenes.
(Photo by Innes McVey)

The day before the cafeteria scenes were due to be shot, I was extremely nervous. I had never directed a group of actors or crew, so I didn’t know if I could do it. However, once we got to work, I quickly grew comfortable with directing people (I had done it before during my photoshoots) and got totally lost in the work that we were doing.

Mark Goodbrand as James, Slavena Boycheva as Lily.
(Photo by Innes McVey)

Fun fact: James was initially meant to be played by another person; however, on the very morning of the cafeteria shoot, the person emailed me saying they wouldn’t be able to make it. I don’t know how but I didn’t freak out; instead, I grabbed one of my classmates who had also previously volunteered to be an actor and got him to play James on the spot. Problem-solving in a matter of minutes!

Filming the cafeteria scene where Matt shows his writing to his friends, working along with Frank Robertson as the second cinematographer.
(Photo by Innes McVey)

I filmed a couple of extra shots during post-production to fill in just a few seconds in the monologue, but other than that, filming was finished on schedule! Leaving me with two weeks for post-production.

Post-production

In the midst of production and post-production, a good friend who is a composer volunteered to write the music for Connected. He had known about the project for a while, but it never occurred to me that I could have music specifically composed for my film! So when he volunteered out of his own will, I was incredibly honoured. I sent him some samples of the music I had envisioned for the film and gave him some (very jumbled, I’ll admit) descriptions of the mood and the vibe I wanted. He made sense out of it all and came up with the soundtrack for Connected as you hear it in the final film!

In order for him to understand where certain beats would be in the story, I had to quickly edit a super rough cut that he could use as direction. I think I did that in a day or two? I also used Final Cut Pro to edit it on, as that was the software I had grown accustomed to during the year. The composer lived in another part of Scotland at the time and it was hard for us to travel to see each other, so we collaborated exclusively remotely.

He swiftly finished the music while I got my boyfriend to record the voice-overs in our college’s radio studios, and similarly, I got one of my online friends to record the lines for Wyvern. (He lives in the U.S.A., so again, a totally remote collaboration.)

With all the footage and audio ready, I could finally chip away at the rough cut and turn it into the final cut. Here’s another fun fact: I completely hated the rough cut, and it took a few of my friends watching the final cut and tell me it was good for me to realise my film wasn’t bad! That’s one of the things nobody tells you about filmmaking: you might very well hate your first cut, but you have to persevere. In that respect, I have something in common with George Miller, the director of Mad Max, who has said he hated the film when he first saw it cut together.

I didn’t have much time to edit Connected together, so I did the best that I could in the limited time that I had. In hindsight, Final Cut Pro really was the best choice to edit it on at the time, because I could edit quickly and the text effect that I used throughout the whole film was extremely easy to add without having to do any complicated VFX. Unfortunately, I also did minimal colour grading because FCP didn’t have that many options, and I hadn’t developed enough knowledge on colour grading at the time.

I still like how Connected turned out. It was meant to be a slow experience and to let the characters’ emotions really settle; I think I achieved that with the editing. Will I ever re-edit it or colour grade it using another software down the line? Maybe, but for now, I’m happy as it is.

In conclusion

Connected was selected as one of the short films for the college’s end of the year screening and honestly I was so happy to see my lecturers putting it forward as a really strong suggestion for the screening! I was told to consider entering it in film festivals, so that’s what I’ve been doing. I was really honoured to be told that it should be entered into festivals, as I hadn’t been thinking about that at all while making it.

In November of 2019, Connected was screened at the GMAC in Glasgow and it was very warmly received, which in turn warmed my heart! I have another post planned for that particular night, but suffice to say, it was really amazing to see it on the big screen and to see people’s reactions to it in real time.

So, as you can see, I didn’t spend a single penny on Connected. The actors and crew were volunteers; the music was kindly composed by a friend who volunteered to do it; I had my own camera (which I had bought way back in 2016, second-hand, for my photography), but failing that, I could have easily borrowed the exact same model from the college; all the equipment I needed to record voice-overs and whatnot was borrowed from the college; the locations were my flat and the college.

I didn’t let the non-existent budget get in the way. I was realistic on what type of story I wanted to tell, and could tell, with the resources and time that I had at my disposal. I hoped to show how much the quality of my film really mattered to me, in every way, even without any money to make it — I wanted to show that money, or lack thereof, doesn’t always mean low quality or lack of depth in a work of media.

Finally, Connected did indeed get me an A on my Graded Unit mark — a 95 out of 100, to be exact, which is the highest mark I have ever gotten on anything. I’ll take that as a good sign that I’m in the right field.

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