I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold, sweeping claim, but one I feel is rooted in reality. The new five minute long documentary “Five Stone of Lead” (recent Vimeo Staff Pick no less) from Director Jonny Madderson might just teach us more about story telling than anything else you’ll see this year. To answer how, Jonny (and DP, Eoin McLoughlin) kindly spoke to Resource to provide first hand insight into how they’re succeeding in this new short form documentary-style storytelling format.
Taking the pretty obscure subject matter of a young, Irish horse jockey, it truly captivated me from the moment I first saw it. If you want to up your story telling game, and make better shorts, Jonny (and Eoin McLoughlin, DP for the short) have provided some beautiful insights into just how they shot and pulled this wonderful mini-doc together.
Telling ANY story in five minutes (or less) is extremely challenging – doing it consistently is a true skill, and Jonny has demonstrated time and again his capability in this area with the Just So Collective, a worldwide collection of talented artists and filmmakers with a very impressive client list.
Jonny and Director of Photography on the project, Eoin McLoughlin, kindly took some time to break down some of what I felt were key aspects of both this particular short, as well as their general approach to filmmaking.
On Finding Inspiration for Five Stones Of Lead
Jonny Madderson (JM): Young jockeys racing in silks on beaches in the wilds of Ireland felt almost like something from another age. It’s a very cinematic world and the fact that these are kids striving to become professional jockeys added the emotional tension. We travelled out to Ireland knowing the ingredients were there, we just needed to find the story. We met Dylan the night before the race. He was this tiny little guy with this huge charisma, and he was stepping up a level to compete with the older kids. We knew very quickly that he was our man.
On Keeping The Run Time To Around Five Minutes
JM: Although the film is being shown at a few festivals, the majority of our audience will find it online. The film really is made for that audience. Length is important. So in the edit it was about finding a balance between doing Dylan’s story justice and keeping it lean. We didn’t actively target 5 1/2 minutes but it just felt right. Length was not the only consideration. The first 10/15 seconds are key and we wanted to grab people’s attention from the first frame. We also edited the film to keep it relatively fast-paced, building tension all the way through.
On Collaboration Between Director and DP
JM: It was a pretty inspiring collaboration to be honest. Before the shoot we talked a lot about ideas and both did image research and shared photographs and clips with each other to establish a look and tone of the piece. We had very similar sensibilities and I think that created a sort of mutual trust. When on the shoot it was hugely collaborative and that trust was the bedrock for that.
By the by it was cool seeing Eoin masterfully handling the Red and the anamorphics with no AC and no focus puller. The man is a force of nature!
On Gear – which camera, lenses – and why? What creative decisions inform your gear choices?
Eoin McLoughlin (EM): Looking at the landscape of the west coast of Ireland we both felt that it deserved the widescreen aspect of anamorphics. The race was along an immaculate beach looking west, with the Atlantic behind, it was screaming for a letterbox presentation!
As Jonny mentioned, a lot of our choices regarding kit were based on practical implications. Sometimes excessive amounts of kit can be a burden to a shoot, especially a doco that requires you to be incredibly mobile and constantly ON. We really had to move fast, the lively tide meant the races happened immediately one after another, and the jockeys certainly weren’t going to wait for us to reload a card!
Once we’d chosen the lens format we really only had two camera options – the Red or Alexa. I knew we’d be handheld all day for 4/5 days straight without an AC so the Red seemed like the right call. We had a set of Kowa Anamorphics – 40mm, 50mm, 75mm & 100mm, and had an old spherical Cooke Cinetal 25-250mm zoom – which we only used during the races when we needed to push in on tights of hooves etc. I’d used the Kowas before so was very comfortable with them. The 75mm was probably used most often. NDs were the only filters used.
All kit came from from Vast Valley in Dublin.
On Lighting – what inspired the approach to lighting, and why?
JM: It’s a very natural, understated world and we wanted the look to stay true to that. I guess there was also a practical consideration – it was just Eoin, Matt our production manager and me on the shoot so there weren’t many spare hands for elaborate rigs and so forth. But even if we did have a budget and more crew I don’t think we would have changed much about the approach.
EM: I totally agree with Jonny here. We had to keep it minimal and I honestly wouldn’t have wished for more kit or crew. We had some lights with us but we only lit one scene, the locker room scene (where Dylan changes into his silks). We had been looking at bunch of different references, Paul Henry’s paintings and portraits Linda Brownlee had taken of kids in Achill also on the west coast of Ireland.
The light is truly remarkable in that part of the world. Its dramatic, constantly changing, and makes our job very easy! But the story in a raw one. The kids are tough, every race is a proper battle, and we didn’t want to over stylize that. The anamorphics have a strong enough look, so I think to light it and heavily grade it would have slightly removed us from the story. It had to be honest.
On the importance of personal projects
JM: This was an inspiring project to put time into because there was so much freedom. It wasn’t liked we had written a commercial treatment that we then had to execute. We had ideas at the beginning, but these could adapt and evolve as the story developed.
It also gives balance to your commercial work. Everyone involved made it purely out of love. We’d be shooting or editing late into the night – and we were incredibly happy to be doing that! It galvanizes you because you are reminded of all the reasons why working in film is such a privilege.
Commercial projects are important, and at their best can be rewarding. But I think you need projects like these to really help you find your own voice.
EM: Its a great pleasure to be able to work on personal projects every now and then. Generally on commercials you have to serve an agenda and satisfy certain objectives, so much so, that quite often your role is purely that of a technician. Whereas, a project like is developed through the purest form of collaboration. Both Jonny and I were constantly teasing out the story and discussing different avenues of thought; its a very freeing and spontaneous way of working. But ultimately and most importantly, personal projects are a great opportunity to work intuitively; to trust an idea and a collaborator. And when you get it right, its an absolute joy!
Aside from the great insights here, what Jonny and the team are doing is laying the foundation for the new generation of young filmmakers to be empowered to tell their own story. This film is part of a broader independent platform they have launched called Postcards, in association with Sheffield Docfest. In Jonny’s words, “Postcards has been created to explore the limits of the oldest film genre… We are starting a fund in 2016 and will be awarding commissions of up to £5,000 to the best and boldest submissions”.
More details on Postcards can be found here.