Quite a few people have asked me how the trailer for The Well was made, so I thought that it would be useful to run through the creative process.
First, here’s the finished trailer…
It’s not that unusual for an author (especially an independent author) to use a trailer to promote a book. So, as writing on The Well drew to a close, I decided that creating a trailer would be a great idea.
I mentioned this to my eldest son, Dave, and a friend of his, James Darlington, who happened to be working towards his degree in media studies. James kindly offered to create the trailer, since it would be good for his course, portfolio and CV. Dave (who had just finished his degree in music composition and production) offered to record the soundtrack.
I guess that’s the point at which I felt really lucky – to create what we eventually did takes a lot of time and, if you’re not doing it yourself, can cost a lot of money.
We kicked around some ideas and decided that we were going to take a really bold approach to hopefully end up with something a little different from the typical book trailer: we’d film it not as if The Well was a book, but as if it was a film.
All we needed was a remote cottage, an ancient well, a couple of young actresses and an amenable crow. We’ll get on to those in a moment.
Although I’m known to be thorough, I don’t like to micro-manage other creatives; it’s not fair. They need to bring to the table everything they can and not be simply told what to do. So, I gave James as much of a free hand as I could. I’m so glad that I did.
We chatted through the overall approach over a beer, as I recall. We decided that we wanted it to be short, dramatic and feel ‘indie’ in itself – of high quality, but perhaps something like Blair Witch though not quite as frenetic. We also didn’t want to give too much away: The Well starts as if it’s just about a girl who’s fallen into a well, but the story expands rapidly. We didn’t want to create any reveals that blew the lid off too many surprises in the book – therefore, much of the trailer focuses on the book’s initial premise.
James’ first step was to create a storyboard. This sketched out the narrative of the trailer – essentially having the camera moving towards a well, hand-held to give the appearance of being a point-of-view shot, before zooming into the well itself. We’d see inset shots of the trapped girl clawing at the wall, plus, when the camera is at the top of the well, the crow would land on it.
Brilliant: a green light and James got to work. The biggest questions were around those things which would be difficult to source or control: the well and the bird. The answer was to create these entirely within the computer as CGI models. This is ambitious – it can easily look rubbish or fake, especially if you’re compositing it into hand-held moving footage. Stone is pretty hard to create in CGI – and a bird is much harder. I didn’t have the budget of James Cameron and there was only so much time we could spend on something that would be on screen for less than a second.
James set to work and came back with some ‘clay renders’ of the well itself. I was totally blown away. Although these are neither lit nor textured, I thought that they already looked pretty good. Next, he worked on the broken grating at the top of the well, with equally excellent results. Finally, he laboured long and hard over the crow. In the end, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. I make this seem as if James disappeared for just a couple of days to do this – it literally took weeks and weeks of hard work.
Next, we had to film the live footage. The cottage used as reference for the book’s cover is in the Lake District and is pretty remote. What’s worse, we don’t know exactly where it is – a friend, Martin Mackenzie, originally photographed it when he was out walking, several years ago. We decided to film closer to home as another friend of mine, Rob Clarke, thought there was a very similar cottage reasonably nearby, in Macclesfield Forest.
When we arrived to shoot the cottage, it turned out that the Forestry Commission had taken a new road right up to it, which meant that it was almost unfilmable. It just didn’t look remote. But the forest wardens told us of a different cottage, so we made our way to that – it was much better.
We then spent a couple of hours arranging a green cloth on the ground, which would be where the CGI well would be added later. This is the same green-screen technique which is used so often on television shows such as Doctor Who. On the green cloth, we added white markers to give the computer software something to ‘get hold of’ when it’s combining to two bits of footage. James filmed the approach to the non-existent well several times, then got some more shots of the cottage and some establishing shots from around the forest.
Although the cottage is notably different from the one on the book cover, I really didn’t mind. We had to be pragmatic – it wasn’t practical to trek for a day or more to find the original cottage. But also I firmly believe that the trailer needed to be the best possible trailer – it doesn’t need to be slavishly accurate to the cover. (Indeed, I took the same approach with the cover, which differs from the book’s description in a few respects.) This thinking wasn’t just applied to the cottage – the well is smaller than how it’s described in the book and, when you look at the shot from inside looking up, it isn’t as deep. But changing the size and shape of the well made the trailer better, much better. For example, if the well’s grating really was twenty-five feet above the grasping hands, the shot would be far less dramatic.
Next, we needed to add live actors. The daughters of two friends were asked and were both enthusiastic about taking part. Elizabeth Swindells played Becca, the girl in the well. It’s almost a shame we see so little of her – she’s perfectly cast, though prettier than how Becca is described. Samantha Clarke played Hannah – while her father, Rob, held the knife to her. She can report him to Social Services later. They both did a great, great job. Elizabeth was filmed against a green screen: James added her to CGI footage of the inside of the well later. Yep, when she’s slapping the well wall, she was originally slapping me, holding a cardboard box for her to hit. When her hands reach upwards, she was filmed reaching forwards against a green screen, again the well was added later. Samantha was filmed in Rob’s garden.
Then the really, really hard part. James combined all of that footage together to make a seamless narrative. There is a lot of CGI and post-production work that isn’t evident. Elements were removed from the landscape, or added – I won’t go into detail, but you’d be amazed at how much James changed.
The rendering of the final piece at 1080p (full HD) takes around a day. Once it was rendered out, we made quite a few small changes, tweaks to this, that and the other – I think we ended up going through perhaps a dozen iterations towards the end, until we had something with which we were totally happy. (The final video isn’t at full HD, it’s at 720 HD, more than enough for use on the Web.)
Next: the sound. Although James’ work is by far the biggest and hardest, the sound is what sells the video. Dave set to work by adding first the ambient noise of the forest, the water, the thunder, the crow and so on. He wanted to get this to work from end to end before even thinking about the music.
We brought Elizabeth back to cry, whimper and scream for us while we recorded her misery. Good grief, she was good (once we’d stopped her giggling) – when Dave recorded it, we played it back and I have to say it was very unsettling. And she can scream for England – I’m amazed the neighbours didn’t call the police. It’s my voice you can hear saying “do you want to live?”
Effects were then added to all of the sounds – so that the screams echo around the well wall, for instance.
Once done with the sound effects, Dave set to work on the music. We discussed approaches – not wanting ‘tunes’ as such, more mood tones to create a brooding atmosphere. I was also conscious that The Well is a fast-paced read – I didn’t want the music to be too dreamy or ethereal. Yet, the trailer isn’t much more than thirty seconds, so Dave didn’t have scope to compose something with too much structure.
Dave has such a natural talent for music composition (listen to some of the songs he’s writing for his band, Coroner for the Police).
Dave’s music for the trailer is perfect – ominous, but not operatic.
A key balancing-act is mixing the sound effects (such as the crow squawking, the river running and the girl screaming) with the music. Getting these at the right level in the mix took a fair bit of discussion between James, Dave and myself. It’s easy for one to drown out the other, we needed to get this just right – also, the Web isn’t a medium where you can convey a vast amount of subtlety in the audio. Many people would watch the trailer on a laptop, where the audio will be heard through relatively low quality, built-in speakers.
The combination of the video, acting and sound is better than I could have imagined. As I said, I feel lucky to know such talented, giving people. Everyone worked really hard to make everything as good as it could be. End to end, the whole thing took perhaps six months – I don’t think any of us could have predicted that, but the work was harder than expected at pretty much every turn. (For example, the crow is only on screen for a fraction of a second, but it took days and days of non-stop work to create.) In fact, the finished result looked so much as if it’s advertising a film that we had to make sure the captions said very clearly that it’s advertising a book!
I can’t thank everyone who helped me too many times. I can only hope that, perhaps in twenty years, a successful James Darlington name-checks the trailer for The Well as one of his lifting-off points – and perhaps Dave and Coroner for the Police will be household names. Who knows? I’m grateful for their talent.