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When Alucinor began working on a DVD for Legal Aid WA in October 2011 it was commissioned as a 45 minute DVD, a mix of drama and documentary/informational pieces. It became a 77 minute DVD and web series that fortunately surpassed expectations and set a new standard for video-driven legal resources in Australia. Here’s how it all came together.

Scriptwriting

The scriptwriting process began with us having numerous meetings with the team from Legal Aid and immersing ourselves in the Family Law legal frameworks and processes. We needed a base of knowledge before we could start throwing out ideas. We narrowed down the key messages, events and scenes that had to be included as well as the characters and then began drafting stories to fit it all together.

From the outset, Legal Aid wanted to do something a bit different in order to engage their audience. The DVDs needed to plainly explain some complex legal information without boring people, so our initial focus was to start with a strong key message to be conveyed throughout the entire project. This message centred on the children of separation. We needed to impart on the audience that putting children first must be the highest priority and that whilst separation is painful and difficult there are better and worse ways to go about it.

We went through multiple drafts before the scripts were approved and whilst the scene structure remained largely unchanged the dialogue evolved and continued to be edited. It was a balancing act between telling a grounded and engrossing story and communicating important messages.

We made a conscious effort to ensure many key messages would be conveyed without dialogue and instead by what wasn’t said and the way characters interacted. Although there are some important dialogue-driven messages in the video, some of the strongest messages are the subtle ones. At the scripting stage it can be quite difficult to foresee how these types of messages will actually work, and Legal Aid showed a great deal of trust in allowing us to convey some of these key messages more subtly.

Pre-Production

The scripts called for a range of actors from kids as young as two, to grandparents. Alucinor recommended certain actors based on their experience with them in theatre and other video projects. Other roles were cast from auditions with talent from Perth casting agencies. A special moment was discovering Josephine Langford who played Hayley. Her audition was amazing and her performance didn’t disappoint.

The dramas were scheduled to be shot over eleven days straight over January – February 2012. It was a logistical puzzle for the team planning multiple shoots, across many diverse locations throughout Perth with both day and night shooting on most days.

We began scouting locations and did lighting tests in the key suburban locations before filming. It allowed us to know the locations we were going to film in and make the best use of time, understanding where natural sources of light were coming from and allowed us to get the best quality footage we could. It also determined where we’d position the camera so when we got to the shoot we had a specific plan of action. We only had 11 days to shoot what would end up being an hour of edited video so the preparation was integral to making it all work.

Rehearsals were held in the weeks prior to filming and these doubled as costume tests. After that it was time to shoot.

Production

We’ve probably never worked as hard as we did over the first eleven days of filming, but it was an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. The first day or two we were kind of finding our groove as a crew. Stephen Burge came on board as assistant director (and a bit of everything) as well as experienced broadcast soundie Jason North who fitted in perfectly. Alucinor was also blessed with the hair/makeup talents of the amazing Kristen Ashton (who is amazing). After a few days we were working better as a team and the experience became more intimate. Even though we were having very late nights and little sleep (running mostly on adrenaline and coffee) the work on and off screen really stepped up.

We wanted ‘When Separating’ to look as naturalistic as possible because we wanted people to be able to invest in the story. We tried to use a lot of natural light or blend it with our lights when we could. There had to be a reason for a light to be where it was (especially when using lights on set) it had to make sense in the scene whether it was a streetlight, the moon shining through the window, a ceiling light or light from the TV.

For the opening of the Domestic Violence chapter we went for a darker, grittier tone and intentionally created a lot of shadows. The scene was very different from the rest of the DVD. It dealt with darker themes and we wanted the look of it to reflect that.

For this project we both (Dean Butler and Shane Piggott) shared the load on camera duties. We’ve been shooting together for thirteen years so we communicate pretty well and shoot very similarly – which helps keep the shots feeling consistent.

Post Production

Between February – May 2012 the Alucinor crew was simultaneously in post production on the dramas and filming the three documentary chapters primarily scripted by Legal Aid. Documentary filming finally finished on the 27/04/2012 and this was the first time we were able to focus solely on post production. Editing duties were mostly shared, whilst Dean attended to the visuals (colour grading, graphics and effects) and Shane recorded and sourced additional sounds (not recorded at the shoot) to perform the sound mix. Thankfully Jason North’s sound work for the dramas made mixing much easier (it didn’t even matter if there was air con or something on in the background during the shoot, all of his sound was clean and consistent).

We shot the drama’s on a 5D Mark II with Zeiss prime lenses, a selection of Cinevate gear including their follow focus, Atlas 30, rails and counterweight, quick release and from Small HD the DP6 HD monitor.

We’ve been really happy with all the gear we used. The Cinevate gear is tough as and the small HD monitor false colour and focus assist worked beautifully. Shooting on a DSLR, we didn’t want to have to push the colour grade too far so setting the white balance just right on set was vital. We opted to shoot using the cinestyle picture profile (and transcoded the footage to cineform neoscene). For the most part we didn’t have to grade/alter the colour too much, we were mostly working with getting the curves and contrast right.

When the rough cut was on the verge of hitting a 90 minute run time, Alucinor and Legal Aid made some tough decisions to cut a few scenes from the dramas and a large chunk from some of the documentaries to keep the content digestible. We were concerned that too many messages were being heaped in at the expense of clarity and quality. We are firm believers that you can’t just say heaps of things and expect people to listen, let alone take it on board – and fortunately Legal Aid felt the same.

Release

In late May ‘When Separating’ was finished and sent for an initial duplication run of 1,500 copies. The videos have been met with praise throughout the family services community in Western Australia, from the Family Court through to Family Relationship Centres. Due to requests from other states, the videos are now set to be rolled out Nationally to Legal Aid WA’s eastern counter parts.

Many of the compliments Legal Aid’s received for the DVD include that it just didn’t look or feel like a government-funded video at all; it felt more like a TV show. This has been exactly what we were hoping for and we have been pleasantly surprised with the amount of praise these videos have received.

Finally a big thank you to all who were involved! First, we have a really solid cast to thank. We were shooting at such a fast pace and for them to hit the performance level they did is a big credit to them. We were also lucky to be working with such an excellent crew who not only made a very challenging job much easier but also more enjoyable – so a big thank you to them. Finally, a massive thank you to the team at Legal Aid who made all of this possible and were instrumental to lifting ‘When Separating’ to the level of quality that it achieved. It has been an excellent experience working for such a passionate group of people.

Alucinor Branded Storytelling
Alucinor Narrative Drama

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Dean Butler

About

Dean is a co-owner/director at Alucinor Productions, a passionate filmmaker and lover of cinema. He writes, directs, edits and colour grades video content for broadcast & online. He is currently developing two short film projects.

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