Views from a micro-budget filmmaker - Sophia Ralston
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
In this blog we talk to Sophia Ralston, director of the eco-themed sci-fi short,'The Red World'.
Q1: You started off studying acting, how do you feel this prepared your later for filmmaking? After the first film I made in high school, I wanted to become an actress, but I soon realised directing and making creative decisions was more fulfilling for me. So when I decided to take a six-month part-time “acting for film” course, I was mainly gaining valuable insights to acting methods to be able to apply these when working with actors. Not only did I learn what kind of directions help an actor’s performance, but it also let me have some acting techniques and exercises up my sleeve. It’s easier to give directions if you’ve experienced it from the other perspective. I strongly recommend every filmmaker to do this, especially in the early stages. Q2: How do you feel working as an intern has helped you and is it a route you’d recommend for young filmmakers to take? In Switzerland and Germany, it’s mandatory to have at least 12 months of practical experience before going to film school, which to me makes absolute sense. Only after working in the industry for a certain amount of time, you can really tell if you can cope with the stress, sacrifices and irregular working hours, and if it’s all worth it for you. People underestimate how tough it is, and why go to film school if you’re going to throw in the towel as soon as it gets serious. Film school aside, I’d definitely recommend this route in any case. First off, it’s a direct foot in the door into the industry and a girl needs to eat. You also learn what it takes to make a film, what all the departments do and what actually happens on set. You might go in, wanting to be a director and find out you're passionate about set design or production. Internships are also great for networking. You meet likeminded people, maybe other interns, as well as industry professionals who can give you advice or might even take you on to other projects if you prove yourself during this time. Be prepared to work long hours for little pay, but don’t let them exploit you.
Q3: Your body of work is very diverse, do you look to keep your work this way or does it depend on what project attracts you at the time? It was never a conscious decision I made, the projects I was involved in all had different starting points. My first film was my high school graduation project so talking about ADHD made sense. Other projects were either challenges with a set topic, or some were made in courses and camps, partly in collaboration, so naturally the style of each is different. I do try not to repeat myself and I like to try out new things but the main reason is probably that I am interested and passionate about many different topics and genres.
Q4: Your film, ‘The Red World’ is a really unique and totally relevant sci-fi film, where did the concept come from? That is actually a funny story. I wanted to apply to the “Royal Conservatoire of Scotland” and I saw online the topic was green. So I thought about what the word meant to me, and the first image that came into my head was this little boy with a small plant in his hand, sitting in a dark room in front of a massive wall of TVs stacked on top of each other. I imagined what war would look like in the future and if they might develop “eco bombs”. I started developing the characters and researching environmental issues or the probability of human civilization on Mars. When the image of a solder holding a gun to the child's head came to mind, everything started snowballing. I wanted to make a statement about overpopulation and explore the meaning of responsibility. I usually avoid didactic messages in my films. I like to shine light onto different perspectives and play the devils advocate. The only problem was, I had to fit it all into 3 minutes. Turns out green was last years’ topic, which was a relief because this meant I was able to build out the story without cramping it into the given time frame. Growing up with fantasy and science fiction series and films such as Doctor Who and Hunger Games, I always wanted to make a sci-fi film myself but never thought it would be possible on a low budget. Turns out it is. Q5: ‘The Red World’ looks incredible on such a small budget, what were the key things you did to get the look of the film so good? I was very lucky to have had such a talented cast and crew offer their time to help me on this project and I really relied on their goodwill, which is always a favour I insist on returning sooner or later. Additionally, a big part of what probably makes “The Red World” look good are the locations and the realistic special effects. We tried to make the VFX look as natural as possible which I believe gives the film it’s touch, and with a low budget it’s hard to avoid it looking cheap. Overall I put a lot of thought into the visuals, from the colour pallets of lighting and set design, to the actors and their costumes. Good lighting for example is often overlooked and can make a huge difference. I also spent months on the editing which is where my obsessive compulsive perfectionism tends to pay off. Not sure if the other people in postproduction such as our VFX and matte artists, colour grader and music composer were expecting this many late night working sessions.
Q6: What was your biggest learning experience from ‘The Red World’? The biggest would probably be the importance of knowing what you want and taking the time for it during preparation as well as on set. Mood and story boards are crucial and take time in preproduction but save you time on set in return. What I wished I had done during the shoot of Red World and what I have been doing since then, is to take 5-10min before announcing a wrap for the day, and sit together with my assistant director and if you have one (which I recommend) script supervisor, to go through the story board / script to make sure I have all the shots I need and that I’m happy with them. I also learnt to trust my instincts. Since I had an extremely capable technical crew, I tended to focus mainly on the actors and while feeling under time pressure I sometimes forgot that I was the creative director of other departments too. Even if I had a feeling that something wasn't quite how I imagined it, I ignored it which I regretted as soon as I sat down in the editing room. Don’t be afraid to change your mind, speak up if you’re not satisfied. You won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It might feel like you’re wasting peoples time, but it’s much more of a waste if the end product has to suffer because of it. It’s not about right or wrong but you are the only one who knows what the big picture should look like in the end. Literally. Q7: The father and the soldier in 'The Red World' are both professional actors. Do you think it’s important to have professional actors for the film to be good?
Not at all. Working with experienced actors is great because you can learn a lot from them when you’re starting out and you have a better chance of them giving you a good performance even if you don’t really know what you’re doing. However, it can be intimidating. You want to make a good and professional impression and you might be hesitant to tell them if you are not yet satisfied with their performance. However, I did feel very comfortable working with Roger Bonjour and Anna-Katharina Müller.
I’ve actually made the experience that amateurs can surprise you with hidden talent. If you’re lucky, they have a very natural approach to the role and don’t overthink, or for that matter overact. Every actor is different so you will always need to find out what works best, but don’t judge an actor simply by the amount of experience they have. An actor who is suitable for the role is more important than big names.
Q8: In both 'Roller Coaster Through the Clouds' as well as 'The Red World' children played larger roles. What was your experience working with young actors?
Working with kids is risky. You don’t know if they are going to be brilliant or ruin the film. They are unpredictable and need more attention than adults. Especially if they are very young, it’s good to have an extra person on set that can look after them. As a director the last thing you want to do on set is babysit. Another tricky thing with kids or young teenagers is their attention span. They have a lot of energy but not always for a sustained amount of time. Especially during a take you don’t want them to loose focus and fall out of character while they’re not speaking. Give them enough clearly defined breaks and don't let the day get too long. Even waiting can be very tiring. I was extremely fortunate to have Leroy Tapsell (13) who was very self-sufficient and behaved very professionally.
Children need a different form of direction too. Adults can relate and draw from past experiences. Kids more often than not, don’t have many past experiences to fall back on. But they are masters in copying. You should avoid demonstrating with adults, especially professionals. First of all, they won’t be able to copy you exactly anyway and second of all, you are basically treating them like puppets and discredit them this way. With a child it’s the opposite. I was amazed by how quickly Leroy was able to adapt.
Q9: What advice would you give to young filmmakers who have a limited budget to work with? 1. Make a realistic budget plan, and find free stuff. We saved a lot by asking restaurants if they could sponsor us with catering. In return we’d mention them in the credits and/or offer product placement. Food and travel expenses are usually where inexperienced low-budget filmmakers struggle the most. Borrow props and equipment, have the crew/cast crash at your place, and find people to join the team who are as passionate as you are while avoiding people who are just in it for the money. Make a realistic budget plan (you can find templates online). Young filmmakers tend to underestimate unexpected costs. The first draft will always be over budget, so make necessary cuts until it’s right. Better be prepared for higher costs than having to go over budget later on. What you end up spending will never be what you thought anyway. 2. Keep it real! Don’t turn your bedroom into a classroom or a club. And choose appropriate actors for the roles. Don’t dress up a 16-year-old as an old person. That immediately makes a film seem amateurish. There are plenty of adults who would enjoy the experience. Or if you want to work with your friends, tailor your characters to fit the actors, not the other way round. Ask people for help. Want to shoot in a classroom? Ask your former teachers. Need a club? Contact some local clubs or youth centres and ask your friends to be extras. Worst case, they say no but they might say yes. Also, Google is your friend. 3. Find a balance between keeping it simple and maxing out your possibilities. Don’t go overboard with fancy effects or pretend you're a Hollywood production. Be aware of what you have available. But more importantly, don’t be intimidated by your budget. Probably every time I’d pitch a film idea to my friends or family they’d tell me “that is way to complex, you won’t be able to do that”, but every time I proved them wrong. Think about what you want and what realistic options there are to achieve it. Even if it seems unrealistic, it can’t hurt to try.
More information on Sophia can be found at https://www.sophiaralston.com/