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Reflection on Air Mail | John M Morelock: Storyteller
May 12, 2021

Reflection on Air Mail

By In Blog, Narrative Structure

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Air Mail

Film is a visual medium.  This is something that we are told time and time again, but it’s easy to forget when crafting stories.  Often, as a writer, I get tied down in dialogue and exposition.  But when your story is transferred to the screen, there is no where to hide.  Everything must be visually interesting.  Black Snyder talks about “The Pope in the Pool” in his book “Save the Cat.”  If you want to get across lots of boring information, it’s imperative you put something interesting on the screen.

But what if you want to create something without any dialogue at all?  Plenty of films have long sequences with no spoken words, and they can often be some of the most interesting.  When given just such an assignment, my mind immediately went to the old Pixar shorts.  I thought about Geri’s Game and For The Birds.  These are hilarious and impactful shorts. Without a single word spoken the audience is totally invested in the story. The utilize audio visual storytelling to their maximum extent.

I wrote out a short story based on this inspiration.  What I ended up with was Air Mail, a story about a lonely model maker, too shy to speak to strangers, who learns to make paper airplanes so he can send a letter to his secret crush who lives opposite his alley way.  The short story was 12 pages in length, but it identified the core of the story. The opportunity for visual and editing jokes excited me.  I knew there was a lot of room for sound design, with the crunch and flapping of paper, the creation of a world.  When I presented the idea to the group, they immediately expressed interest, reaffirming my original ideas.

GIF of title

I set off to write the script and produced something I was quite proud of.  I transformed my 12-page short story into a 2-page script packed with visual jokes.  I got it quite close on my first attempt, and the feedback I got was positive.  However, I would have liked a more critical eye to have looked it over.  But without much constructive criticism to work with, I felt pleased enough to move on to the next stages of pre-production.

The logistical details of this film quickly proved to be a challenge.  With half of our small team located in other parts of the UK, getting together for a shoot was going to be an impossibility.  The other group members, bar one, also did not have access to working editing software, so it quickly became apparent that I would have a larger workload than I originally anticipated.  I was also the only person in Edinburgh with a camera, so I was looking at taking on the vast majority of the responsibilities for this film.  Trying not to dwell too much on this, we set forth trying to find a location.

This film in particular is difficult to find a location for.  We needed two windows facing each other in an alley way, and access to both flats.  It quickly became apparent that this would be impossible.  We played with the idea of using a green screen to fake the location but trying to hang a greenscreen from the outside of my window felt quite dangerous, and it was quickly nixed.  In the end, we had to use creative camera angels to create the illusion.  Luckily, the actress I found lives in my same building, so the brick work was identical.  This helped sell the illusion in a massive way.  There were certain shots which proved unusable due to the location, but that was something that I didn’t realize until I was editing.

The shoot went well, utilizing the story board Katie put together.  But everything felt a bit rushed.  We hadn’t properly planned out everything ahead of time.  Some of the decisions made on set locked us in to a certain order of shots.  A couple of the shots were out of focus, something that was very difficult to tell on my small DSLR screen.  I felt limited due to not having access to a monitor from the University’s film stores.  I found out after everything was said and done that more of the restrictions had been lifted, and we did have access.  This really upset me, as I felt some of the soft-focus shots really pull the viewer out of the film.

In the edit, I had to do both the picture edit as well as the sound design. Another group member had previously made themselves available to do this, but they failed to deliver. It was down to me once again, a recurring theme on this film. I focused on quick pacing in the edit, removing as much fluff as I could. I tightened and increased the speed of sequences at multiple points in the process. I partially solved an eye-line issue by flipping several of the shots. There were numerous challenges to overcome, but nothing too intense. I did find myself wanting to make several changes, but they would have required reshoots.

In hindsight, I should have realized that a 2-page script without dialogue would run much longer than two minutes.  If I could have, I would have edited the first sequence of balling up paper and the second sequence of sending the airplanes into a single sequence.  I feel like it is the same joke told twice, with only one punchline at the end.  Not only would the film be within our time constraints, but it would also be snappier and more interesting.  This single change would have totally changed the pacing and would have drastically improved the film.  However, it would create continuity issues within the footage.  A change as drastic as this would require a complete reshoot.

Into Sound Design, I focused mainly on the diagetic sounds. While I did at some atmos, with street and bird sounds, the majority of my work went into making convincing paper rattling sounds. I wanted to capture the russle of paper as the airplanes flicked through the air. The crunches, the impacts, the folding. All of these were taken into account. In the crit, my criticisms were mainly regarding when I chose to leave in production sound. The hiss of my microphone was evident. This film would have likely benifted greatly if I had completely removed 90% of production sound, rather than the 50/50 that exists in the film now.

Ultimately, I feel my biggest mistake was in leadership.  I failed to communicate well with my group, and as a result I got very little out of them.  I didn’t create the urgency within my group members to get much help until it was too late.  How could I possibly complain that I did 90% of the work on this project if I failed to act as a leader.  Instead, in many ways, I acted as a lone wolf.  I didn’t feel like people had my back.  One group member didn’t seem bothered to do much of anything, another was enthusiastic, but their hands were tied in their ability to help, and the last group member simply failed to deliver on the tasks given to them.  I simultaneously like I was pulling teeth to get anything done, and also as though I wasn’t including them.  I feel somehow responsible for their lack of participation.  Without doubt, there were times where I didn’t ask for help when I should have.  But on the other side of the coin, there were times when I felt left out in the cold, to do it on my own.  The coronavirus situation threw so much complication into the process.

I’m pleased with the final result as a proof of concept.  The story works.  But as a film, I’m not as proud of it.  There are glaring issues with pacing, cinematography, and set design.  To be entirely honest, if I had a choice, I would take this film all the way back to the script, trying again with a better plan, and more effective leadership.  Given more time and a team I can trust behind my back, I have no doubt this film has potential.  But as it stands, it isn’t to my standard of quality.

At any rate, between all of my other assessments and bearing the workload on my own, I did the best I could at the time.  Fretting over what I would do differently can only help with the future.  I’m happy enough with the end project to present it to others, and being aware of the issues will help me to not make the same mistakes in the future?  What do you think?  Do you agree with my assessment of the film, or do you think I am being too hard on myself?  Leave a comment down below.

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