set-build-studio 1

The premise was suitably intriguing; I was game for designing it. I’d been working as a stage designer but was becoming ever-more interested in the discreetly manipulative language of filmic design. The proposed feature film in question, Aghori, is a Kurosawa-influenced Spaghetti Western. Written, produced and directed by Tarun Jasani, it concerns a town under the grip of a corrupted religious order. Living in pain and hunger, the townspeople turn to a morally dubious Aghori (purveyor of black magic) as an unlikely figure of salvation. Ranji, the film’s fictitious town, bears a close aesthetic resemblance to the idiosyncratic town of Kagbeni in Nepal. The world of the production is corrupt and bloodied; the action set largely in dank alleys and rotting mud huts.

It was, however, an ambitious world to create on a tight budget. A lot of the action needed to be shot on location in Kagbeni (the cliff-edge fight scenes, for instance) but we decided that built sets in a studio would give us infinitely more creative scope. The script encompassed numerous locations – a venerable maze of alleyways, an ashram (temple), several rooms in an inn and two huts. Tarun and I did numerous recces in studios across London, but nothing seemed quite viable.

Camberwell Studios immediately struck us as a good fit. Andy and Joseph were welcoming and enthusiastic about making feature films, and the package offered was straightforward, with no unnecessary thrills. By doubling up sets – removing walls from the tessellating alleyways and inn set to create the ashram space – we could economically utilize every inch of Studio 1. Muddied curtains and dust sheets, bits of garden screening and fake stone walls (made from foam packaging I salvaged from the gift shop where I worked) gave us location dressing options.

We found ways to lower the set build cost, too. The carpenter, Piran Jeffcock, sourced our walls for free using the website Set Exchange. Their daily postings include everything from houseboats to fully functioning kitchens, and we scavenged Pinewood Forest for dilapidated wood. Munificent workshops were coerced into letting us build in their spaces for alcohol-based rewards, and I built our mud huts to shoot in the director’s parents’ conservatory.

The crew sent each other streams of reference images on a daily basis – trivial touches to make the set believable. I was palpably envious as the cast, director and DOP flew off to shoot in Nepal whilst I made props and prepped for the shoot in South London – sporadically checking Facebook for soil colour references in the backgrounds of the cast’s beautiful travel snaps. My housemate, who works in the City, became used to headless dummies and severed hands adorning our living room.

The get-in weekend and shooting fortnight were intense (and, in my case, heavily paint-splattered) but there was a glorious feeling of comradery between cast and crew on set. Camberwell Studios were supportive throughout the process, and Joseph was immensely helpful on set. Our props became shoot mascots – favourites included resin skull Champak bhai and headless dummy Norman, and we mostly subsided on mince pies throughout the shoot (concentrated energy. And delicious). Upon wrapping at Camberwell, we hosted an exuberant, prosecco-infused aftershow party in our ashram before breaking the set to splinters and stumbling off to spend the Christmas period horizontal on our respective family sofas. The film is currently in post-production, due for release later this year.

Conclusions from the experience and advice to other aspiring filmmakers?

  • Don’t be daunted by the scope or ambition of an idea – think vast and adapt accordingly depending on what you and your crew can find
  • Give yourself as much time as possible to plan before the shoot. We had five months, which enabled us to scavenge around for low-budget set solutions
  • Aim to work with people who you already know professionally (or shoot a short with your team before embarking on a feature). With skeletally-sized teams you can’t afford a member who bails on the project or doesn’t pull their weight
  • Allow team members to put their own stamp on the project. Creative generosity breeds more interesting results
  • Start doing favours for all your friends now. You won’t feel guilty when you ring them in the weeks / days before the shoot begging for help

An induction-by-fire into the world of filmmaking. I currently art direct music videos with EPiK at Camberwell Studios and can’t wait to make another feature.

Instagram: @isobelpowersmith

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