Ghouls and Glamour for St Andrews cinephiles

Teresa McIntyre takes you inside The Half Cut Film Festival

The Half Cut Awards, held this year on 22 April, took its glamour up a notch by starting with a talk by BAFTA-winner Robert Sproul-Cran and a black-tie reception at the Golf Hotel. I was lucky enough to attend both, catching a glimpse into St Andrews’ thriving filmmaking culture.

Robert Sproul-Cran, one of the four Half Cut judges, gave an hour-long talk on his short film ‘The Elemental’ at School Six to an eager audience of about fifty aspiring filmmakers and movie fans.  In addition to his prodigious filmmaking abilities, which won him  a BAFTA in 2004 for In Search of the Tartan Turban, Mr. Sproul-Cran revealed himself to be an entertaining and refreshingly modest speaker.  He began his talk with a puzzling explanation for the “corpse” he brought with him to the talk.  We were then told that the corpse was Charlie, one of the protagonists in Mr. Sproul-Cran’s short horror film, The Elemental, and was thankfully made of plastic and latex, not flesh and bone.  The morbid joke was a funny introduction to his short horror film, which comes with the gripping tag line: See it and die.

Robert Sproul-Cran

When a friend criticised that tag line for being too commercial, Mr. Sproul-Cran said, “I was thinking, ‘yes, that’s what I want’.” It is refreshing to hear an artist openly acknowledge his aspiration towards the Hollywood style without worrying that he will seem too commercial or shallow; the mainstream is exactly where Mr. Sproul-Cran, and many other ambitious filmmakers, want to be.

The Elemental is about a creature from Mr. Sproul-Cran’s childhood. At the age of nine he first read about the creature, called the elemental—so evil that if one looks at it one dies—in a Victorian ghost story book that belonged to his mother. He said he slept with the lights on for months after discovering the beast. Last year, finally with the facilities to make his own film, Mr. Sproul-Cran brought his nightmare to life.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s career is inspiring: he began studying architecture, failed, and then studied English followed by pure mathematics. He casually applied for a job as a radio announcer for Radio Scotland, and miraculously passed his interview. He then worked for Radio Scotland for ten years, though he modestly asserted that “they were so desperate to get rid of me.” Eventually, he offered to leave on the condition of getting some work experience in television, which his supervisors kindly set up for him.  He said that if had he pursued film straight away, he wouldn’t have had the life experiences he did. “I just didn’t have an idea it was a potential career,” he said of his childhood passion for storytelling.

Mr. Sproul-Cran set up his own production company, and quickly realised how difficult it was to find work and come up with new, interesting ideas. He wasn’t doing what he wanted, he said, “never having a chance to make a story dramatically from start to finish.”

The leap came when he decided to sell his comfortable home in Aberdeen, move to London, and use the extra money to make his first short film. Although it took him years to decide what to do, and then how to do it, sacrificing his family home on the way, he said has no regrets about his career.

With The Elemental already in mind, Mr. Sproul-Cran did some early sketches, and then  developed a suitably grotesque black latex beast. Slides of the creature and the film’s various characters as they evolved provided insight into the pre-production process for the audience, and demonstrated how much work it involves.  Mr. Sproul-Cran said he learned all sorts of bizarre creative techniques on the internet, like how to best recreate the texture of human skin (involving an orange and dental paste), which allowed him to make the film without any formal technical training.  Ellie is made of wood, fur, and latex, and is appropriately revolting on first impact.

Once he had his vile protagonist, Mr. Sproul-Cran then established different settings and characters. The story exposes the suffering of a blind elderly wife, caring for her husband, who suffers from dementia. The two of them live a squalid existence, perpetually in fear of the elemental, who their daughter confronts when she pays them a long overdue visit.   After finding a wonderful staircase at a council estate in Edinburgh for the main shooting location, he  said he felt his long-held  dream coming to life.

To express his vision in the best possible image quality, Sproul-Cran filmed the short on a Red-One camera, using his storyboard as a checklist to guide him through the scenes.  The crispness of the high definition digital footage showed off  “Charlie the Corpse” and the elemental well.  After the screening, Mr. Sproul-Cran took questions from the audience, who revealed themselves to be eager to make their own films, asking specific questions about how the film was made.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s film cost £28,000 to produce. “It’s possible to make films with zero budget,” he said. He, however, wanted a professional crew, and so combined some of the money from selling his home in Aberdeen with financial aid from a friend. The production team also received £7,000 funding from the UK Film Council after a rough cut was completed, and was used to make a 35mm print of the film with high quality surround sound.  Mr. Sproul-Cran said the funding helped him get selected at several festivals around the world, including The Edinburgh International Film Festival.   He said the final result was well worth the 15 months the project took to complete.

Mr. Sproul-Cran, encouraged by the success of The Elemental, said he is now writing story outlines for feature films. He has a couple of scripts he will put forward for film development funding, and hopes to be shooting a feature film within the next twelve months.

Mr. Sproul-Cran’s inspiring talk left attendees with 45 minutes to get from School 6 to black-tie at the Golf Hotel.  The mad rush was well worth it, however; the reception was a fittingly glamorous opening to the evening. A live band and gold-dust cocktails welcomed guests, who included student filmmakers, Rogue Productions committee members and actors. I was slightly disappointed by the small crowd of only thirty cineastes, but everyone looked glamorous and excited for the evening ahead.  Guaranteed one drink with their tickets, attendees quickly took advantage of the low turn-out and finished off the surplus of cocktails, making the reception a warm introduction to the awards ceremony.

Rector Kevin Dunion attended, like last year, as one of the four judges for the evening, alongside director Robert Sproul-Cran and two Pixar animators, Lindsey VanderGalen and Jaime Landes.  Mr. Dunion told me he was impressed by the new black-tie dress-code, describing Half Cut as a “high class event…one of my favourites.”

“Four animators had asked to come,” he said of the festival’s prestige. “A pity that in the end, not even one made it due to the volcanic ash!” Instead, the two lucky Pixar judges watched the films in California and video-conferenced with our two judges present at the event, and so still managed to participate and judge the films.

At the New Picture House approximately 150 film fans strolled the festival’s red carpet, with 50s style paparazzi snapping at the elegant filmmakers, actors and viewers. The screening began punctually, and the eleven shorts were showered with applause.

Audience reactions were mixed, with some saying the standard of the films had dropped compared to the previous two years, while others found “the quality is really high.” All were agreed on one thing, though: the ambience was great and the evening was a well-organised, elegant event.  After a twenty-minute intermission during which the judges convened to decide on the winners, and the filmmakers paced in the New Picture House Lobby, four winners were announced.

Unrealistic Expectations About Love

This year, nominees were divided into categories: instead of a simple 1st, 2nd and 3rd in previous years, prizes were awarded for Best Technical Achievement, Best Screenplay, Best Acting and Best Film. This new system allowed for films that were weak in some areas, but strong in others, to be recognised.  For example, The Search for St Andrews, with a particular humour not suited to all, nevertheless contained a great performance by the lead actor and received a nomination for this redeeming quality.

Night Shift

A Beard Film and Volumes 1 & 2, two stop-motion shorts, and Night Shift, a Star Wars-inspired take on a battle between two janitors, were nominated in the category for Best Technical Achievement. Night Shift won for the quality of the light-sabers and accurate perspective.  Robert Sproul-Cran called it “a well realised film.”

Unrealistic Expectations About Love and Dog’s Dinner were nominated for Best Screenplay. While Unrealistic Expectations About Love had a “truthful, genuine voice,” according to Mr. Sproul-Can, Dog’s Dinner took the prize as a “well-crafted piece that had clearly had a great deal of work put into it,” he said. This film, with gruesome and bizarre action set to an equally disturbing poem in voice over, gripped the audience from start to finish.

London Lite

London Lite, The Search for St. Andrews and Unrealistic Expectations About Love were all up for the Best Acting award. Mr. Sproul-Cran criticized The Search for St Andrews for being too long—although the acting was strong, the other aspects of the film brought it down, he said. London Lite won for the genuineness of its two lead performances. The short, about strangers on the London underground and their peculiar behaviours and habits, was the first film shown, and made a fantastic start to the evening.

The judges struggled with many strong contenders for the Best Film category, but the film that they found to be consistent as “a film you could immerse yourself in”, said Mr. Sproul-Cran, was Unrealistic Expectations About Love.

With three nominations, Unrealistic Expectations About Love was a  clear favourite for Best Film. Julz Newton, the writer, director, and editor of the film, said she was overjoyed with her success, and gracefully accepted her prize with a radiant smile. I believe her film was an excellent choice for Best Film at the student film festival: it captures student life, and dealt with the trials and tribulations of student existence with wit and honesty.

Though there could only be four prizewinners, there were many strong films, including those nominated, such as A Beard Film and Volumes 1 & 2.  For example, I felt that the judges ought to have nominated Agro Vancouver, a thoroughly engaging, witty and elegant film that was one of my favourites. Paranoia, another amusing film about student life, was a favourite amongst the audience, and therefore warranted more mention than it received.  Not every film received the recognition it deserved, but, as anyone who has ever watched the Oscars realizes, this is always the case. By offering something to serious cinema aficionados with Mr. Sproul-Cran’s talk, as well as catering to more casual film fans with a glamorous festival experience, Half Cut 2010 was a success all in all.

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