Gorilla Film Magazine is a firm believer in doing, not just talking (which is why we
foolishly bravely started a magazine when we didn’t know anything about publishing), and Turtle Canyon Films are most assuredly ‘doers’. The independent film production outfit has built up a hefty short and feature film catalogue over the last few years, and they’ve even managed to parlay their production skills to build up a profitable business too. Following the recent premiere of their new short, The Bird, starring Julia Davis (Nighty Night), Gorilla had a chat with Stuart Laws, one of the founders, to get an insight into this independent and prolific outfit.
Gorilla: Starting from the top, how long has Turtle Canyon been running for?
Stuart Laws: Turtle Canyon was formed in late 2008 when Al and myself, who I ran a small production company with, met Nick and an investor who wanted us to team up and provide post-production services.゠Prior to that the production company I ran with Al was established in late 2002 with the express purpose of doing corporate work to fund equipment and wages so that we could then make films. In 2003 we made a short film DVD and in 2004 we self-financed a feature film. We were 19 when we started the film and 20 when we finished but felt like we’d aged ten years through the experience. We’re proud of the achievement, less proud of the film – but that’s mainly due to the script, my script. Technically it’s still pretty decent for a film shot on Canon XL1s with a crew of four.
How many films have you made?
In the eleven years it’s very difficult to even guess how many films we’ve made. If we restrict it to features then 5, live events; over 30, short films or sketches; over 100, TV episodes; over 120, corporate films; over 800. That’s a conservative guess. We’re believers in making films, not talking about it. Unfortunately, the industry is heavily reliant on people talking about the films they’ve made, otherwise no-one finds out about you. So in the past three years we made a purposeful shift to making films for the festival circuit, talking with other film-makers and trying to get along to screening events. In a way I’m glad that we had 8 or 9 years of making films before we really started telling people about them, it allowed us to make so many mistakes and learn so many lessons while only our friends looked on supportively.
So what did you do with those first shorts and features that you say you didn’t really talk about?
We did short run DVDs, gave them away to cast, crew, friends, other people in Pinewood Studios (setting our careers back a few years I imagine), and when YouTube kicked off we started to upload them there. Then hid them. A few still exist online, including a short called Voices that played at a few really small festivals. Really proud of them all but not enough to let everyone see them without context. Maybe in the future we could do a retrospective film night where we tell the story of us and show clips of all these hidden films. To justify that though we’ll need to be successful filmmakers. So they may stay hidden forever!
How do you finance Turtle Canyon Films and how has it changed since you first started out?
Corporate work; it’s how it’s always been. We make very little from our short films and self-finance most of them. We’ve used crowd funding once, it was a good but tiring experience and not appropriate for every project because you’re essentially asking friends and fans to give you money to do what you’re already doing. We do it how we do because our corporate work gives us the financial stability to do so, we make films because we love making them and secondary to that we think it’s effective proof of our ability, so when the money people look over our feature film projects and TV pilots they’ll know we can do what we’re promising to do.
How do you guys go about getting the corporate work in and any tips for people looking to do the same?
We’ve tried so many different tactics: cold calling/emailing, networking events, a weekly blog, internet marketing, production databases, project pitches, exhibition stands, social media etc. The most valuable thing though is word of mouth. Almost every single bit of work we get is because of word of mouth. Be good, be fun to work with, be professional, be memorable. There are so many people out there who can make videos now, all to a similar level, so marketing yourself is difficult. If people like working with you and they value your ideas and your final product, they’ll keep talking about you and keep remembering you as new projects come up. We still work with our very first two clients from 2003.
You’re split between London (Pinewood) and Seattle, how does that work?
We’re all very influenced by American cinema and Al cites Back To The Future as the reason he wanted to be a director. As a company we make a very concerted effort to try new ideas and push the company forward – it’s something we learnt early on, when we were making extensive losses as 22 year olds. We assumed the work and the future of the company would continue to be good, so when it dried up, we didn’t know how to deal with it. That’s why we started the company in America, we met Victoria through a project we were working on and after getting to know her better and discovering her production ambitions, we knew it was the right time to have a fourth Turtle. Victoria has the same ethos and belief in making films and getting work done as us and we knew she was the right person to lead our expansion into the USA. We offered financial and technical support and she offered an understanding of the market and a passion for film that we have great belief in. Having a USA office gives us further scope for corporate work and a chance to develop projects across both countries. Mainly though we did it because we thought it’d be cool to be a multinational company.
It’s always cool to call yourselves multinational. So what’s the split of work between the US and UK?
At the moment they’re very much their own independent companies. With more experience and kit over here in the UK we help finish projects off or help develop certain projects further. The dream is that eventually we will be flying over to work on projects over in America, as and when necessary. For now we’ll just be happy to have another Turtle to shoot ideas back and forth with and who is developing the company in a new market.
So there’s a core team of four with you, Victoria, Al and Nick. Do you all take on clearly defined roles, or does it change project to project?
We’re all competent at every aspect of a production, it’s one of the strengths of our company that you can talk to any of us, at any stage of a production and we can answer technical and creative questions because we know the exact process that the project is currently moving through. That said, we do have unique strengths and we’re very keen to make the most of those as well. Nick is a superb producer and has a great ability to look at an idea and immediately have a good grasp on budget, potential locations, scheduling etc. He’s also the resident tech support, which is incredibly valuable. Al is a really instinctive director and director of photography, someone I completely trust to get exactly what is needed for any style of shoot and genre, from corporate to film. He’s also someone you can go to during an edit and say: “I need this bit to look sexier, to flow better, any ideas?”. He’s also an excellent composer, that’s a HUGE bonus, having a really talented musician who can judge the tone of a film and the director’s vision. Victoria has a keen eye for script editing and is someone that can bring a new perspective to a project that you didn’t expect. She’s also a great doer, gathering a group of people and making sure the project gets done and done in a happy, productive atmosphere. I like writing, I perform stand-up comedy as well, so I have a keen focus on developing comedy projects and getting the best from some of the great talent we’ve worked with. That’s the main thing for Turtle Canyon: how can we use our platform and our abilities to best work with really talented people and create superb films?
I know one thing that puts-off, or ends up sabotaging, new filmmakers is picking equipment. What advice would you give on equipment in terms of essential bits you should get, and what you should perhaps spend a bit more on?
Sound is most important now, it probably always has been. You can work with image quality and make a film that fits with what camera you are filming with – whether that be the HD video from an iPhone or an 8mm film camera you found. Sound quality can be far more detrimental to a film: hearing motor and handling noise or auto levels and excess hiss will mark your film out as amateur. Spend £300 on a decent directional microphone, cheap boom pole and cables and then shoot on whatever camera you can get access to.
What’s your camera of choice? Are you one of the apostles of the 5D?
The first camera we bought for Turtle Canyon, in 2009, was a Sony EX3 – a real workhorse, completely solid, reliable camera that has lasted four years of filming everyday in all conditions. Gives you decent options in post-production to play with the footage and retain image quality as well. In 2012 we decided to go for a Sony F3 with compact prime lenses (the Alexa was out of our price range) and love the results, especially with the SLOG update recently. The shame was that about four months after we bought it Sony announced the replacement and the specs on it are so far beyond everything that came before. Complaining about that seems churlish considering I started with my Dad’s Hi-8 Camcorder. When we have the budget our camera of choice is the Arri Alexa – truly beautiful images. Wish we always had a budget.
Any key features or specs you’d advise people to look for when choosing a camera?
Look at the bit-rate of the image compression, that’ll make a big difference in post-production. If you’re on the lower end I’d prioritise things like manual focus rings on the lens and decent sound input (preferably XLR). The ability to manually control shutter, gain, iris, white balance etc is the most important part – you want full, simple control of these. In 2013 the basic quality of a camera now is so good that as long as you’ve got manual controls, decent bitrate and a computer that can handle the footage then you’re going to be alright.
While affordable kit and editing facilities have opened up filmmaking to more people, the ability to distribute via the internet is arguably the biggest change to hit low-budget/independent filmmaking. How do you approach distribution now in terms of publicity and platforms?
We try out multiple techniques, we want to explore all potential options and have an understanding of what works, what doesn’t and what gives the best public response and what gives the best industry response. We try and work out who we know, whether the film we’ve made is of interest to them and how good our friendship is with them before we foist any project in someone’s direction, asking for help.
The festival route is still a superb way of getting your film screened to real people, in real places and if you can also attend and build up the courage to talk to other people then you can meet lots of interesting people who can help on future productions, help with further distribution or, more importantly, be a friend with a similar passion. Film festivals lend your film credibility and that can be used when you approach an online release. Making films to specific competition briefs is also a good idea, it channels your creativity into a narrow focus and gives you the potential to win an award or even cash, often with far more publicity than a regular film festival. Identifying the audience for your film and specialist contacts that may be interested is important, we recently made a short film about actors and made sure we targeted press releases to relevant blogs, Twitter accounts and individuals.
Our basic approach is: write a press release, identify appropriate publications and promotional targets, choose between YouTube or Vimeo and then treat the day of release as a full-time day of work getting the news out to everyone through forums, social media, emails, friendships etc. We chose to release one film on a specific web page with a countdown to broadcast on a Friday evening. The film had a larger cast and the friends of the cast had a big interest in the film, we knew that creating an event out of the release that encouraged viewers to join in and watch at a specific time would spike interest. We spent no money on promoting the film, managed it in-house, with the support of the main stars and got just under a 1000 views on that first day.
Another film had the attraction of being written & directed by comedians who had been nominated for a comedy award at the Edinburgh Fringe so we hired a comedy PR specialist to manage an online release, getting front page coverage on The Huffington Post and multiple comedy blogs and Twitter accounts. Another film was a pure comedy and so we released on YouTube, instead of Vimeo, to capitalise on the more casual audience and the increased likelihood of sharing that it offers. The film was written about and featured by multiple comedy websites and was tweeted by many popular comedians.
There are loads of short film distribution networks out there that can offer potential financial reward but the renumeration is often paltry and can result in you losing control over where your film is available. Short films aren’t about making money, they’re about making the film you want to make and being able to show the world. Get it off to festivals, submit to competitions and release online. Let people know you’ve made a film and you want them to see it. Don’t go mad though, no one will enjoy a film they’ve been pestered to watch.
Stuart Laws is one of the filmmakers featured at Whirlygig Cinema Spotlights short film showcase on at Ritzy Brixton, 4th December 2013