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Categories: Features

Fox Cub Films’ Savannah James-Bayly gives us some useful tips on setting films in the past…

Welome to Fingers nightclub

The “Fingers” Nightclub. Credit: Yann Besrest-Butler

Last year, writer/director Alex Marx and I embarked on production of the short film Fingers, a 1960s crime drama based on a radical reinterpretation of the story of Salome and the Beheading of John the Baptist. It was runner-up at Enter The Pitch and enjoyed a successful crowdfunding campaign in which over 300 contributed. We launched the film online last week and we’re very proud of what we managed to create within the limited budget we had. In this article, we share the top tips we learnt on how to successfully portray another era on screen.

Contact experts.

Because experts on the period have a proven interest and passion, they’re much more likely to want to help you than someone from a generic props house.

On Fingers Alex and I went to Covent Garden market on its vintage day, where we spotted a 60s stall and went to chat to its owner, Jules. Jules had a wealth of information for us about the period and, in a stroke of luck, also had a wealth of experience as a supplier and designer of period films. She came on board as our props master, and went out of her way to supply us with everything we needed to dress the location accurately. 

Other filmmakers I know who’ve been involved in WWI and WWII film have been supplied with uniforms, props and endless information virtually free from enthusiasts whose primary concern is accurate depiction.

Fingers dancing girl

A dancing girl in “Fingers”. Credit: Yann Besrest-Butler

Look to other productions.

Look to see what’s currently or recently been shooting that is set in the same period. Often sets at Pinewood, Elstree, Wimbledon, etc get scrapped or go into storage once the production is over. Contact the production company and see if you can salvage parts of their set to help flesh out yours – and be sure to thank them in the credits! For example, recent release Rise of the Krays was able to salvage chunks of the casino set from Legend and repurpose them for their own film.

Control your environment.

Ultimately, the less locations you have, the more time and money you can put into dressing each of them. Originally Fingers had some additional scenes in an office, and a car, but that would have required us to double our budget for dressing and so we decided to keep it contained and instead add dynamism through the party scene, with 30 extras all kitted out beautifully thanks to the superhuman efforts of our fantastic costume designer, Anna Lewis. 

Avoid exteriors wherever possible, particularly city exteriors as there are endless things you can’t control without huge budgets to shut down streets: passing cars, passing pedestrians, streetlights, alarm systems, signage, etc. 

The top table

The top table at “Fingers”. Credit: Yann Besrest-Butler

Immediately indicate the period.

Each period has something signature that we all immediately recognize. If you have something iconic to the period right up front in the film, it anchors the audience and stops them looking for clues (and therefore spotting potential mistakes). In Fingers we used a title sequence of 60s newspaper articles so that as soon as you cut into the action the audience already knows the period they are in. 

Don’t take short cuts.

That said, don’t think that by placing a few key period items in your short you’ll get away with cutting corners on the detail. Unless you’re shooting on a purpose-built set, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to get everything perfect, and so it’s important to be spot on with every detail that you can, so that the audience let any mistakes slide. On Fingers, Jules, our props master, painted out the modern warning band on every single cigarette being smoked! We also swapped out all the Buffalo Bar’s wine glasses for more accurate crystal versions. These aren’t individual details that you’re likely to notice, but their combined effect is enormous.

Party guests

Party guests at “Fingers”. Credit: Yann Besrest-Butler

Look to archive footage.

There are tons of online archives who will license to non-commercial short films for nominal fees or even free of charge. Using archive footage, whether it be in your title sequence, to help set the scene, or intercut into the film itself, can add a lot of value for a very small cost (particularly with those dreaded exterior shots). For example, Shane Meadows uses period archive footage very effectively in This Is England.

For more of Savannah’s work, follow her on Twitter @SavannahJBay and visit foxclubfilms.co.uk.

Savannah James-Bayly

Savannah established Fox Cub Films in 2012 and has since produced over eight short films, starring talent such as Jason Flemyng, Bill Paterson and Alice Lowe. These films have shown at a range of festivals internationally, and in 2014 Arthouse Cinema Crouch End included a feature length collection in their December programme. She's currently working as Associate Producer on A Guide to Second Date Sex, written/directed by Rachel Hirons, and developed by Starfield Productions with the support of the BFI. She’s also developing her own slate of features. She was participant in American Pavillion's Film Programme at Cannes 2015, Film London's Micromarket 2015, Bird’s Eye View’s Filmonomics 2016, Edinburgh International Film Festival's 2016 Talent Lab, is part of the recently launched Female Film Leaders, and has served on the jury of Watersprite Film Festival 2016.

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Posted on Oct 13, 2015

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