A group of Film Production Technology* students wrote, directed and filmed the short film ‘Black Bear’. The film has won five awards internationally and has been a part of Birmingham Film Festival 2020. To celebrate #NationalShortFilmDay, we spoke to the Black Bear production team about the process of creating the film and asked them for any advice they have for others interested in digital film production.
How did you find the concept of Black Bear? Is there a message behind it?
Peter Paton – Director (PP): I came up with the idea for Black Bear when researching various mental health issues and came across OCD because I thought it would make an interesting film. However, the more I learnt the more I realised that OCD is widely misrepresented in film and TV, that is usually involving cleanliness or numbers but in reality, it can be any obtrusive thought that is obsessed over. The purpose of the film is to raise awareness of the realities of OCD and to garner hope for those currently struggling with their own mental health issues.
Can you tell us about the plot of the film and how it unfolds?
PP: The story begins with a break-in which triggers Riley’s OCD, troubling him for the rest of the film. He obsessively feels like he’s being followed and locks the doors in his house repeatedly. The struggle continues as his relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates, he tries to explain it to her comparing it to a black bear stalking him. With help from a close friend he attends a therapy group and begins his long journey to recovery.
Where did you choose to shoot the film and why?
Liam Morgan – Producer (LM): We shot the film entirely in the West Midlands, mostly Birmingham City Centre. Since the crew were local here, and most of the cast were, it made sense to make use of locations close to us. We also wanted to show off some of the excellent locations, including St Augustine’s Church in Edgbaston, the lake at The Vale at UOB and a rooftop view of the city from Digbeth. Being students at Birmingham City University resulted in the owners of the locations being more willing to allow us to film at their locations, either for free or a small cost, since we were local students.
PP: The house represented a safe space to Riley, that is initially broken into and the gloomy street represented the never-ending labyrinth in his mind.
What do you feel was behind the success of this project? Can you describe some of the skills that were needed in order to do this?
LM: I believe that we were successful because we portrayed OCD and anxiety in a way that wasn’t fitting the stereotypes. We did it in subtle ways, and through the story of the Black Bear. We focused on how you cannot get rid of the thought of this once it is placed in your head.
We explored the parable of “The Crow and the Pitcher”, signifying that you may find it easier to deal with mental health by taking little bits day by day, rather than tackle it all at once. Our script went through 11 rewrites, to make it the final piece you see today. We had a close friend who is affected by OCD who joined our project early on, which helped shape the film and educate the audience on the symptoms and thoughts you may experience with the disorder. This allowed us to make sure the film was going to help break the stigma attached to OCD and not provide false information.
PP: There is no film without collaboration. A lot goes into making a film but ultimately, it’s the crew that need to be motivated to make the film and turn up to set every morning.
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How has your course enabled you/the team to achieve this success?
LM: Our course allowed all the crew members to collaborate on many short films previously, to find out how we work together and to know which department best suits us on set. Since we already had built up previous experience together, it put us in a good position when we filmed Black Bear. The facilities and equipment available for free from BCU’s Hires and Loans was really useful in allowing us to develop our skills.
PP: Covering a number of modules on the course has helped everyone on set have a better understanding of production. I think this make everyone more efficient and empathetic when it comes to shooting.
Congratulations on being a part of Birmingham Film Festival 2020. Tell us more about the online event.
LM: There was an online festival held on Saturday 21 November at 8pm, to announce the winners of the festival. We were nominated for six awards including:
- Best Short Film
- Best Male Actor - Andrew Joshi
- Best Local Film
- Best First Time Filmmaker
- Best Editing
- Best Cinematography
We were so pleased to win the category of best cinematography!
What was the most important lesson you have learnt from making this film?
LM: As the Producer, it is vital to plan things in advance. My third year went by a lot quicker than I thought, and Black Bear started Pre-Production in the summer before we started year three. During shooting, I was still planning and changing scenes. You can never be too far ahead, and things will always go wrong, so it’s good to have contingencies in place.
PP: Compromise. With every film there is compromise which usually stems from budget limitations. On Black Bear when one of our shooting days got cut in half due to unforeseen circumstances it took compromise to shoot just the essentials in order to make the scene work. In some ways this can help you focus on what’s really important in the scene and to get rid of any unnecessary camera shots or moves.
Did any previous experience / placement help you to create the film?
LM: Working on lots of short films really helps you get used to being on set, and knowing what to do, and what not to do. You learn each time what you can do better, so by the time I got to third year I had a pretty good idea when I approached producing Black Bear.
I had worked as a Runner on some professional sets too, like the feature film American Assassin as well as Muller Yoghurt, Furniture Village commercials and Britain’s Got Talent, which helped me understand how things work in industry. This experience meant I had a good idea how to run the set on Black Bear as a first Assistant Director (First AD) too, which I hoped would help those who hadn’t worked much on a set before, get some invaluable experience to help them develop their skills.
PP: Working at a small production company in my home town definitely helped me understand what goes into production, among other experiences. The more experience you get working on set or in production will prepare you for the next job. During filming, accidents happen and the more experience you have the better you can respond to them.
What would your advice be for students studying on the Digital Film Production course?
PP: When making your final year film - start as early as possible. I would recommend working on it during your summer holidays. Find a crew and get to work building out the story and production. Make the most of your time at University, as you’ll never get a better opportunity to try new things and develop your craft.
LM: One thing you need to do if you want to work in this industry is to work on as many projects at University as possible. You will do lots of work for free, everyone does, but you need to make sure you get something out of the free work. It is tough, but eventually you build up a network which will lead you on your way to a career, and you will start helping out each other for work. For me, and many others I know, free work eventually leads to paid work, but it has to be worth your time too. Always ask questions too, it’s the only way you’ll learn!
*As of 2021, the course Film Production Technology is now titled Digital Film Production.