Alfie Barker has ‘No Regrets’ When it Comes to Filmmaking
I first became aware of Alfie Barker while I was interviewing the crime writer Christina James. She told me her book had a promotional trailer and that I should have a look at it. I usually approach book trailers with trepidation, but did I was told only to be pleasantly surprised to find it captured the whole essence of the book in a few very atmospheric and evocative frames. I knew straight away it was the work of an experienced filmmaker. That much at least I had got right. What came out of the blue was that, he may have had plenty of experience, but he was still in the process of working his way through his A-levels. So when Christina said I should interview Alfie, I got myself on a train and did some travelling, because I had to meet him. I was not disappointed.
When did you first start filming?
I started filming when I was about eight. I went to a filming workshop as part of the Leeds film Festival. It was an animation day where you produced your own stop motion animation like Wallace and Gromit. It was done with the help of filmmakers who were at the festival. That really was interesting to me. When I went back the next year I had another go and I loved it.
When I was about 12, I started making films properly, by using my mum and dad’s video camera. I’d film family things and then go on to make a little film. I did get a really small pro go camera, but since then I’ve won equipment through competitions. Now I really want to carry on with filmmaking making.
When did you win your first competition?
The first competition I won was for ‘Witness’, the story about a dog in a car who is the only witness to a murder. It was my dog sat in the car. It also won the Leeds Young People’s Film Festival – UK National Young Filmmaker’s Award in 2011. The prize was £500 and I spent that on helping me make further films and meeting other people who were interested in making films. This in turn led on to other awards.
So the first proper film you did was ‘Witness’?
Yes. This was my first independent film where I got professionals guiding me on how to do it. So it’s my dog in the car and my dad was the criminal. It took a very long time to shoot, because it wasn’t easy getting my dog to do as he was told. I also got very cold, because it took several hours to do.
You father’s also helped in another film.
My dad also did the voice for ‘Imagine’. That was based on an article in the Guardian. The Guardian produced an article section on experience. It was based on people’s experiences that had been shared online and I picked one on how a man had got his sight back after not being able to see for 40 years of his life. He was able to see because he had an operation. So I made ‘Imagine’ as an experimental film. Once I’d finished it, I sent it to him to show him what I’d done. He did see it and really liked it. He said he’d watched it quite a few times.
It then went to a few festivals in America and in the UK. Recently ‘Imagine’ has been put in a few NHS hospitals for a 24 hour show reel of films about organ donation. So that was an interesting film.
How did you do the special effects in ‘Imagine’?
I made the eyelids with the eyelashes by using my sister stick-on eyelashes and attaching them to the camera. Just as I was cutting them up, she came in and realised they were hers so she wasn’t very happy with me.
My aunt and uncle are nurses, so they were able to get me some gowns and something that would make it look as if the surgeon was doing surgery. The whole thing was done in my basement, with my dad dressed up the surgeon.
Your family seem to have supported your filmmaking quite a bit one way or another.
Yes they have. My sister (whose eyelashes I stole) was home while I was making ‘No Regrets’, so she did the cooking. We were filming in the opposite neighbour’s house and so we went back and forth when we needed something to eat or drink.
My family have been very helpful, but the one thing I learned with ‘No Regrets’ is that I need a bigger crew. So I’m hoping to get a cinematographer, who’s someone who’s basically in charge of everything to do with what’s pictured on the screen, the camera, the lenses, and the lighting. He deals with how the photography looks for the film. This means I won’t have to think about so many things at one time.
What was the next film you made?
The next film I made was ‘Assumption’. ‘Assumption’ is my favourite film because of its simplicity and how well it works with the title. The boy in it was a friend of mine. Usually everyone in the film is a relative or someone I know, except for ‘No Regrets’. The elderly lady in ‘No Regrets’ was a professional actress called Margaret Jackman. I found her on a casting website and she was very good.
How much direction did you need to give in ‘No Regrets’?
Because Margaret Jackman was playing someone with Alzheimer’s, she had to be very simplistic in what she did, as well as confused. I think it was a combination of both of us working together. But it was hard to keep it looking very natural and neutral at the same time.
I get it done as quickly as possible and I make sure that I have plenty of chocolate to give them. I go and buy lots of chocolate before I do the filming. Every time we have a break I give them a bit of chocolate and then promise more if they do the next bit. I find that really helps to get them to cooperate.
There’s a lot in your films, particularly things like close-ups that are an important part of telling the story. Do you storyboard your films?
Funnily enough I don’t actually storyboard a lot of them. The only one I storyboarded was ‘Earth’. But realistically I don’t storyboard, I actually use a shot list, because everything’s in my head. I can get away with this at the moment because I’m not working with big teams. So it’s all there in my head for me. At the moment it would just take extra time writing it all out and I haven’t got time to do that. When I’m filming I can see what’s going on through the camera.
‘Earth’ is very complicated. There’s a lot of footage from elsewhere. What are the copyright issues with this?
‘Earth’ isn’t something I’ve been submitting to festivals, and acquiring copyright is something I would have to do before I could submit. I did actually get copyright for a few of the clips from Channel 4 through YouTube, but really it was just an experimental piece just to see if I could raise awareness about climate change.
So you use the script as a guideline. How do you work with the story when you’re filming? For example what you do if you decide to try something else?
I’ll try and do whatever I can on set, because spontaneity is a big part of my filming. I often have to work with whatever’s around me and I use other people on the set to bring out the story to its best.
I did notice though that although you are making short films, the narratives are actually quite complex. For example in ‘No Regrets’ you have the issue of the lady with memory loss, but also the son involved in an accident, and there is also the possibility of the frying pan catching fire. So you have several things going on at one time. How do you create these storylines?
‘No Regrets’ uses a parallel narrative. I begin working out how I’m going to film mainly with the story more than anything. I actually did the script for ‘No Regrets’ and ‘Assumption’, fairly quickly. Although the script is not the most important thing, it’s there to give direction to where the story is going. It’s the actual story that’s the most important thing.
In ‘Assumption’ there’s a strong message about overcoming bullying. Do you like to incorporate an underlying issue in your films?
Oh yes. I always hope that after the audiences watch the film they can go away thinking about the film and any issues that it’s raised. I’m just trying to create awareness of all sorts of different things. I was experimenting with two different kinds of worlds, ‘Assumption’ and ‘No Regrets’, and trying to show the differences between a young boy and someone with Alzheimer’s and trying to juxtapose the two.
What sort of ratio is there normally with regards to the number of hours you spend filming and the amount that actually ends up with on screen?
It varies. As I’ve got more experienced it’s taken me less time to get really good shots. Take ‘Witness’ for example, one of my first proper films. You look at it and think my dog is an angel and a perfect actor, but if you met him you’d soon find out he’s nothing like that. I took about two and a half hours of footage for ‘Witness’, just him getting to sit there and look the way he did, and the film’s only two minutes long. ‘No Regrets’ took about the same amount of time to film, but this time for a six minute film. It just depends how prepared I am and as I go along I get better because I’m constantly improving my technique.
You put music over the film. It must be difficult to get the timing right for this sort of thing?
Music is very important. In fact I think it’s one of the most important things in the film. They say it’s 50% of the film. It’s important in terms of timing, but somehow when I do it, everything just seems to fit into place. Normally I fit films around a piece of music. Without music I just don’t think that films would be the same, because it creates so much impact on the whole experience.
So it’s a bit like a puzzle where you have to move everything round into place?
Yes. Even when I’m writing I have a piece of music in mind.
‘Imagine’ seems quite a complex piece, a kind of puzzle you’ve had to work out how to do. There are lots of images from people’s films in it and at one point there some animation in it.
Yes the drawing of the birds was made up of four pictures so I just moved them along the table like a stop motion animation.
How do you fit all this activity into your normal schedule?
I can fit pre-production things in, like writing scripts and the story, at night. I do a quick draft and have good look at things. As far as the shooting is concerned, I usually build up to that and it’s usually done on a Saturday, then I’ll do the rest of my work on Sunday. I space it out over a long time and then if I need to finish it I’ll cram it in over a weekend and keep going until it’s finished.
How long would you say it takes from the moment you start thinking about a new project and having an idea, to finishing it?
Again it depends on what’s going on. For example ‘No Regrets’ took a long time for me to write, because I kept on redrafting it, because I wanted it perfect. So it took about three months. But normally things don’t take this long. In ‘Assumption’ everything came to me instantly, so that it only took about a month. So it really does depend on the story. If I have it all visioned in my head, it’s all laid out for me.
You seem to redraft in a similar way to any writer. How do you write your scripts? Do you scribble everything down at once or do you take time and redraft as you go along?
Everything that comes into my head about that theme, story or idea gets written down straight away. It does look like nonsense at first, but I keep going. Then I look through it and pick out the bits I want, then I structure it into a story. Once I’ve got the story written out as a short paragraph, then I can turn it into a script and screenplay.
Are you able to combine this with schoolwork?
Yes, I’ve just finished media and film studies at school in GCSE. I used ‘Imagine’ as a filming project and yesterday I’ve just finished my media AS-level project called ‘Back to School’, which is about another dog. I’m doing A-level photography, English literature and media.
What you do in media A-level?
There’s a lot of theory, which is looking at films and analysing them. Things like Hollywood films and why they use a particular costume, director, or way of expressing themselves. We look at how the director communicates with the audience through the images. But there’s also a lot of practical, which is pre-production to post-production, which is basically making your own film.
For those people that don’t know, would you go through these terms?
Preproduction is everything before you physically go and shoot the film, which is writing, storyboarding and getting everything prepared for the location. Production is the time of shooting. This would be when you’re dealing with actors and everyone else on site, making sure everybody’s got something to eat and drink, basically everything that is happening that day. Postproduction is after the filming and is about editing and everything to do with completing the film so you have a finished product to show.
How do you edit and what sort of equipment do you use?
I use Final Cut Pro, which is film editing software I got off a friend. I use it on Mac computer which was funded through an award I won at the AXA Ambition Awards in November 2011. In terms of editing; you put all footage in and then you’re able to put it into a timeline, which then allows you to cut between shots. Then you can add text and music and really bring the film to life.
The editing process seems to be a similar process to the way a writer edits. How do you know what to cut out and leave in?
I suppose I keep going until it feels right and I’m happy with it. But then I take about a week off and don’t touch or look at the film. That means I come back a week later with a fresh mind and take another look at all the problems I might have with it. If I’m on top of it all the time I’m too involved, which is why it’s good to take a break and then go back to it.
When people write they talk about ‘killing off their darlings’, for example there might be a particular line that they just love but isn’t right for the rest of the piece, so they have to get rid of it. Have you ever had to do something similar with your filming?
Yes. I did an incredible shot through the glass of the hall door in ‘No Regrets’. It was all refracted because the sunlight was coming in and it looked wonderful, but it didn’t work, so I had to get rid of it. Originally I had the idea of having post-it notes everywhere, so that she is unable to do anything without the post-it notes reminding her of what she’s supposed to do. But then I shot all the post-it notes and scenes with them and got into the editing I realised it just wasn’t working. So all those shots had to go. I did manage to leave something of that in because, if you look carefully when she’s coming through the hall and going into the kitchen, there is actually post-it note next to the light, so that’s all that’s left.
Do you use different cameras or the same camera when you’re filming?
After starting off with mum and dad’s camera, seven years ago, I then bought my own camera, once I’d saved a bit of money. Winning the AXA award helped me to fund a much bigger and better camera, which does slow motion and all those sorts of things as gimmicks.
How do you know how to frame the shot, what sort of training have you done apart from your GCSEs and A-Levels?
I’ve done a few film courses all over the country. I go to film festivals where they have workshops. But really at the end of the day it’s all just me doing it.
If someone of your age group wanted to start making films, what sort of advice could you give them?
I would say just apply for every course that you see and any opportunity you get to film, just go and film. I’ve spoken to quite a lot of people on these courses and one of the big things is that they’re scared of picking up a camera and beginning to film. I can’t really understand it, but that’s probably because I started doing it when I was so young. It never occurred to me that was a problem, but then everyone is different. So really you’ve just got to give it a go.
How confident were you about your abilities as a filmmaker when you went into your first competition?
I wasn’t even going to bother entering ‘Witness’. I was part of the Leeds People’s film consultants when I was aged 9 when they said there’s a competition if anybody wants to enter any films. So I thought, ‘Oh, I might as well.’ I didn’t really understand what a film festival was back then. So I entered the film and it got shown on big screens there and I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ I won about £250 for Best Film Under 14’s category and then I stayed and watched all the groups categories, only to find there was another award. By this time all my family had gone home and it was just me and a few of my mates watching the older competitors being given their awards. Then my name was called out again and I’d won another £250. I thought, ‘What is going on?’
So I think it’s that buzz of getting an audience and seeing them appreciating it. It’s a great feeling, and that’s what made me enter more. But entering film festivals does cost quite a lot of money. Big festivals might be £60 per entry, just for a short film and a feature film, which is anything longer than 45 minutes, would be an awful lot more money. It costs me around £200 for everything I’ve just sent out for ‘No Regrets’, which is about 20 to 30 festivals, because you have to pay for the postage of the DVD as well.
You’ve recently done a couple of trailers for new novels, your first being In the Family by crime novelist Christina James and the other Take Me to the Castle by F C Malby. How did the initial commission come about?
Christina James had seen my work and approached me to ask me if I would do a trailer for the book. I’ve never done one before, but I thought I’d give it a go, because it seemed like an interesting project. It proved to be quite incredible, because it was shot on my new camera which does slow motion. So it was a steep learning curve for me trying to get used to using it, as well as putting the shots together that I needed for the trailer. I’m not really a big fan of slow motion, and I know a lot of things now have slow motion in them, but sometimes it becomes a bit of a gimmick to impress. But I thought about the summary I had been given of Christina’s book and that made me think that slow motion would be the right thing to do, because you appreciate what you’re seeing more.
Although I didn’t read the book, I still had to go through the characters, the setting, the theme, the mood and the narrative of the story. So although I didn’t read it, technically I did. Basically I had a very long conversation with Christina about the book so that I knew exactly what I needed to do. Even so, she allowed me to run with my instinct, rather than tell me exactly what I should be doing. So she gave me a great deal of freedom to do what I wanted.
Just go through the sequences in the trailer for ‘In the Family’ and tell me how you went about filming them.
First of all I realised I needed some builders. A week later some builders came to work a few streets away from me, so I thought, ‘I’ll have that.’ I got a few close-up shots of them. I did make sure I asked at least one of them if it was okay, but you can usually tell when you’re filming people whether they’re comfortable with you doing that or not. They’ve usually got their eye on the camera if they don’t want you to film them and then spend a lot of time looking away. So you can tell from the body language whether you should be filming them or not. If that sort of body language happens then you turn the camera away from them and don’t film them.
I didn’t go for many close-up shots. The close-up shots were of people I knew, for example the old lady is my grandmother. The hand of the dead woman was my sister’s hand, made up. Otherwise the long shots that I used in the trailer were pictures of people that I saw when I was around filming. But I was able to use that without copyright because it wasn’t a close-up shot and you wouldn’t recognise who they were.
There are some places in the country like Trafalgar Square where you would need permission to film, if you are doing it for commercial purposes. Sometimes you also need permission from the council for certain places. At the moment I’m under 18 so it actually isn’t a big problem, but when I’m over 18 then I may have to start looking at getting special permission to film in certain areas. This is because the copyright laws of different when I’m 18. At the moment I have a license with the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) so I can use copyrighted songs, as well as YouTube videos, so that I can enter my films into international competitions. The advantage of belonging to an association is mainly the music licence fee and they have a film festival every year.
What about the ‘Take Me to the Castle’ video?
Fiona Malby’s trailer for ‘Take Me to the Castle’ is shorter than ‘In the Family’, which was four to five minutes long. The ‘Take Me to the Castle’ trailer is only a minute long. The preparation was rather rushed for it, because it started snowing and I didn’t know how long it was going to last. The trailer needed to have the feel of the Czech Republic in winter, so it was quite a challenge try to match that. So I just shot everything I could while it was snowing and let her pick and choose what fitted her vision of what the book was.
Where do you see yourself going from here? Are you going to continue to make short films?
I have a plan to make a short film and I’ll start working on it at the end of this year. It will need quite a big budget, so if I can make a successful short film from that, then I can hopefully go on to make feature length films in the future.