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  • Writer's pictureSophie Black

April May Bring Anniversaries

[From then to now: Awkward 15 year old me, having just received her first camera (photo by my Dad), and me with a much more modern camera on the 'Ren: The Girl With The Mark' shoot (photo by Emma Barrott).]

It's a very busy, exciting time for me right now, and I owe you all a proper update on my work soon. But I'm in quite a reflective mood right now, so I thought I'd share a few words to explain why.


At the time of writing this, tomorrow is my birthday. I'll be 35 years old. Any birthdays with 5 or 0 on the end always feel like a time to stop and take stock of your life. I know 35 isn't exactly 'old' (although it feels like a proper 'adult' number to me, which I find quite daunting!), but this birthday marks a particularly significant milestone for me.


It was on my fifteenth birthday that my parents kindly bought me my first ever camcorder - so that means I've been on my filmmaking journey for exactly TWENTY YEARS now.


(I pointed out that milestone to someone on a shoot recently, and they replied with, "wow, you're a veteran!" I certainly don't feel like a veteran, there's so much I still want to do and I feel like my career is only just starting to take off, but I guess I should take it as a compliment!)



[Above left: Testing out my first camcorder at my 15th birthday party (photo by my Dad). Left: The camcorder in question, which came out of retirement in 2019 when we recorded some early test footage for 'A Different Place'.]

I still remember the day I got my first camcorder. Not every family had a video camera in their household in those days, because they weren't cheap, and we'd certainly never owned one before. It was a high-8 tape camcorder with LOTS of wires; the only way to get footage off it was to wire the camera to the TV, then plug the VCR recorder into the TV, and if I wanted to edit bits out, I had to painstakingly pause the recording and fast forward to the bits I needed - often resulting in a delay and a warped, glitchy noise on the final output (which, by the way, was then only viewable with a VCR player!). All this sounds like another world, rather than the recent past.


It's also notable that my first camcorders only came with a couple of tapes each, which I filled up fairly quick, and it cost a bit to get more tapes - so I didn't hold onto footage back then as much as I do now. I had to decide which footage was important, and which could be lost and taped over so that I could record something new. But that's perhaps another musing for another time.


Getting my first camcorder felt like such a momentous occasion. It meant I could start capturing the world. The day I got it, my parents took me and two of my friends to a farm, and I immediately started filming all the spring lambs. From then on, I continuously filmed snippets of my daily, teenage life, making things like a 'documentary' about my gang of friends as we were facing our final days of high school. It wasn't until I got my second camcorder, an SD DV-tape camcorder, that I started experimenting with narrative filmmaking - but I still got my mates involved in all of those films too, rather than searching for professional actors.



[Above: 17-or-18 year old me filming with my second camcorder, which used DV tapes. I was actually shooting my university application film here!]

Every single thing I have learnt about filmmaking has gone into my brain in the last two decades. The world of film is so vast, it's impossible to know it all, and I intend on learning more and more about it for the rest of my life. But I also need to pat myself on the back a little, and remind myself that I have learned a LOT in the last twenty years - about life as well as filmmaking.


In a way, I have been dreading this milestone for a while. I'm not exactly at the point I dreamed I'd be at when I pictured the 20th anniversary of my filmmaking journey. I haven't got my feature made (yet - I have come close a couple of times), and I'm currently searching for representation. I've also not traveled as much as I'd liked, and I'm not as wealthy as I hoped I'd be when I reached my thirties, perhaps because we're living through a financial crisis at the moment - or maybe the young me just had an unrealistic view of thirty-something-wealth after years of watching 'Sex and the City'!


BUT I have achieved a lot over the years; I've directed nine short films (one of which was funded by BFI NETWORK), plus all the bits and bobs I made in high school and uni that I don't count any more; I set up my own production company, producing shorts for other fab directors and creating numerous pieces of branded content for lots of lovely clients; my work has shown at numerous OSCAR and BAFTA-qualifying festivals, resulting in me being BAFTA-longlisted when I was in my mid-twenties; I've been to the BAFTAs twice; I've met or been in the same room as numerous 'big' directors I admire, including three of my all-time heroes (and I got to meet Ian McKellen and thank him for making 'Lord of the Rings', which inspired me to make films in the first place); I was a two-time member of BAFTA Crew, and I'm now a member of BAFTA Connect, Directors UK and, as of a few weeks ago, Cinesisters; I've just directed an episode of an independent series for the first time, as well as shadowing on a high-end fantasy series for AMC Studios and Sundance Now.


[Above: happy times with a great cast on my latest directorial shoot, the series 'Ren: The Girl With The Mark'. Photo by Emma Barrott.]

Not to mention the personal achievements I've had in the last twenty years; I got a degree, became an aunt (three times!), and met an amazing guy called Edward Harvey. We've raised six pets together and eventually bought our own house. I am a home owner. And in February, we got engaged.


Even just stating all the above highlights, without listing all the fun times I've spent with friends or family, or all the little filmmaking adventures like attending film festivals (such as Cannes and BFI Flare) and meeting all my amazing collaborators along the way, there is a lot to celebrate there. I may not be quite where I want to be yet, but that doesn't mean I haven't achieved a lot of fantastic things.


And I've also just received perhaps the biggest directing opportunity in my career to date... I honestly can't wait to share that news with you all, and I'll spread the word as soon as it's been announced publicly.


_


In addition to getting my first camera, I did something else when I was fifteen; I started writing the feature-length script that eventually became called 'Night Owls & Early Birds'. I wrote the first draft in an English course notebook from school, in the summer holidays, and it's changed drastically in the last 20 years. I've chucked bits out and sometimes totally re-written it when I've learned more about filmmaking (and about life!) along the way, but I still love the characters and the premise as much as I always did.


The pessimistic side of me wants to say, 'I've been working on that feature for 20 years and I still haven't been unable to get it made' (apart from a terribly amateurish attempt, back when I was 17/18, self-shooting with my second camcorder and using a group of my mates as actors!), but again, I need to acknowledge the fantastic meetings and kind words I've had about the script from production companies recently, including some big names that teenage me would've never even dreamed of meeting with.


And if I'd made that film sooner, it wouldn't have been as good. In so many ways, I'm glad that I've got more experience under my belt before diving into long-form work. I'm coming at the script now from a very unique position; one of the lead characters, 'Mari', is 15-16 in the script - the same age I was when I first started writing it - and the second lead, 'Kent', is 35. That's the age I'm about to be. So I've been able to write the latest draft from an age-relevant perspective for both characters. It's a perspective I cherish, and it's only made the script stronger.


(Although, in an earlier draft of the script, Mari did comment on Kent's age as being 'mathematically middle-aged'. Thanks for that, teenage Sophie!!)



[Above: 25-year-old-me rehearsing with the brilliant cast of 'Night Owls', Jonny McPherson & Holly Rushbrooke.]

The short pilot version of that film, 'Night Owls', is also about to celebrate an anniversary. On 8th May, it will be a whole decade since we shot it! Time does fly - particularly when you look at the 'Night Owls babies' the crew had while the film was in post-production. But I can still remember a lot of that lovely two-day shoot when we invaded my Godmother's beautiful home and lived in a world of 'simulated night' for hours on end (all the windows were blacked out, but we could still hear summery birdsong outside, which was very surreal!).


'Night Owls' the short still means so much to me. Now that it's ten years old, some of its age is starting to show - coupled with the fact that I've learnt a lot about directing since I made it - but a lot of it still looks beautiful, too. I'm still proud of what the brilliant cast and crew achieved on next-to-no budget. It's also perhaps still the film that represents my 'voice' as a filmmaker the closest.


In addition, I wouldn't be where I am today without 'Night Owls'. It was the first of my directorial films to get into a BAFTA-qualifying festival (London Short Film Festival), which gave me the qualifying credit I needed to then be accepted onto BAFTA Crew. And having BAFTA Crew helped to get me onto BAFTA Connect and to receive BFI NETWORK funding, like a chain reaction. Most importantly, 'Night Owls' was the first time I co-wrote a script with Tommy Draper, and he's been my creative partner-in-crime ever since.



[Above: me and my co-writer, Tommy Draper, excitedly watching a take during the 'Night Owls' shoot. We look so young here!! Photo by Elly Lucas.]

(I'm going to try and do some anniversary posts on social media, to celebrate Night Owls' big birthday, if my schedule allows. But in the meantime, you can still watch the finished film on YouTube or Vimeo.)


And finally, 2024 marks one more milestone for me; it was in 2014 that I left my cinema job to work at Dynomite Productions, a local video production agency where I happily worked for 7 years before becoming employed by my own production company, Triskelle Pictures. That means this year marks 10 years of me making a living from filmmaking and filmmaking alone! Wow. Things may be a little tight right now, but mostly it's been stable, and I've certainly not gone bankrupt or ended up taking on other work in the last ten years. So that's a huge achievement, and long may it continue!


_


I guess there may not be much of a point to this blog post, beyond feeling nostalgic and celebrating a few milestones - and reminding myself to acknowledge the wins rather than just drowning my sorrows over the missing pieces. But I will end this post with a few closing thoughts, based on conversations I've had with some of my fellow creatives recently:


It is so tempting to look back at what filmmaking was like in the 'early days', and to moan about how much easier it was to stand out before digital cameras came along and the world became over-saturated with younger filmmakers, who have access to recording equipment the moment they get their first mobile phones (although I am very grateful for digital editing software, as it means I don't have to rig up loads of wires to my TV these days!). It's also tempting to look begrudgingly at current marketing trends such as TikTok, where all video makers have to become 'social media celebrities' in order to get their work seen, and feel sad because all you want to do is make cinematic (landscape-framed!) work and watch quality making-of documentaries on physical disks. BUT nostalgic sadness doesn't move you forward. It's ok to miss the past, but don't get stuck in it. You have to keep adapting and accepting the opportunities you have around you right now - not the opportunities you had before or want to have in the future. Never give up, and keep trying new things whenever your existing methods don't work the way they used to. And if you're really successful, then you can make your films and show them in whatever format suits you best. You'll have really earned it.

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