As the Covid-19 Pandemic changes the world, the film industry takes a rather cautious intake of air as it awaits changes to on set practices. It may be a worrying time for the future of UK film production, but this hasn’t stopped powerhouse film production company Fizz and Ginger Films from shooting an entire feature Infinitum: Subject Unknown, completely socially distanced, and including cameos from heavyweight actors Conleth Hill and Sir Ian McKellen.
Fizz and Ginger Films have been around since 2009, releasing mythological folk horror feature The Isle, Two Down (which lead them to being chosen as Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow) and Miss in Her Teens. I met up with (remotely of course!) the dynamic duo behind the company, Tori Butler-Hart and Matthew Butler-Hart to discuss their new film in all it’s wonderful glory.
Tori and Matt thank you so much for joining me today. We're dying to know all about it, so first off, can you tell us what Infinitum: Subject Unknown is about?
MBH: “That's very kind thank you, and yes it certainly has been an unprecedented past 6 months for us all. At the beginning of March, a lot was starting to be cancelled, work was being postponed and even before the government announced official lockdown we'd decided to stay at home and only go out for essentials. We had been working on developing a TV series called INFINITUM which we were developing from a feature screenplay we wrote about eight years ago. We're not really ones to be able to sit back and relax, so we thought that there might be something we could do as an off-shoot story, another thread to help create the larger world of INFINITUM.
That's when we came up with the idea of Infinitum: Subject Unknown. The Infinitum Project is a co-vert experiment run by the US and UK. Its aim is to develop a team of agents who can see infinite possibilities. The test subjects are selected from a parallel world that has been discovered, but in Subject Unknown a doppelganger of the Infinitum test subject has got stuck in between the worlds. She's sort of in an abandoned isolated limbo, constantly being 'reset'.
The film follows Jane (Tori Butler-Hart) as she battles to find a way out of her groundhog day and discover the truth behind her existence.”
How easy/hard was it to film entirely by yourselves, sending the footage each night to the Editor, VFX and Colourist?
TBH: “Well we'd written the script always keeping in mind that there's only a certain amount 2 people can do! Matt directed and shot the entire thing. I did my own costume and make-up obviously, but I also did the set design, although most of the time it was very much, "okay this is what's here, so this is what we're going to shoot." We set it all in locations we could safely access. i.e. the empty flat below where we live. This meant everything was quick and easy to get. It also meant there was very little time pressure. No schedule to stick to as such, although of course we'd broken down the script into a shoot schedule, but if one scene took way longer than we thought it would, we could just pick it up the next day.
The main challenge was lighting and maybe DIT. Neither of us have any film making training and so lighting was very hard to get right, we basically used natural light for a majority of the film, but for the exterior night scenes we really struggled to get the right balance between too dark and "has a spaceship just landed off camera." Because we were filming the entire film on an iPhone 11 which only had 64gb storage and we were shooting 4k, we had the constant issue of having to offload footage onto the hard drive before we could carry on filming and that would happen halfway through a take all the time.
Our editor, Will, was an absolute life saver, he was the one we were talking to pretty much every day. He would report back to us having gone through all the footage we sent him each night and let us know what was working and what wasn't. He also let us know all the settings we needed to have the FilmicPro app on, which could have been disastrous if he hadn't! Ben, our VFX creator and Pete, our colourist was both on board with the project prior to shooting, and Ben helped us with all the blue screen VFX shots we needed to get.”
So, you both wrote and produced this film together, Matthew directed, and Tori also acted in it. That’s tons! How long did Infinitum: Subject Unknown take to shoot?
TBH: “We were shooting for about 6 weeks, but this included odd days off while we waited for restrictions to ease and locations to safely allow us to use them. So maybe 28 days filming in total.”
With creatives eager to get back into the filming driving seat but not knowing what this new world will look like once we get back on set again. Were there any challenges or surprises you hadn’t planned on?
MBH: “Continuity was always a big one that Tori had to keep an eye on. Especially as we were jumping back and forth a lot in the storyline, hair, make-up, costume, props continuity. But not having a team to bounce ideas off was probably the hardest. We'd take it in turns to have a crisis of confidence and question whether what we were doing was working or not. We both love the camaraderie you get with a crew when you're shooting a film, all in it together and all hoping to make something special and unique. It's a really magic team of people that you get to work with on a film and we missed that. When we finished shooting the final scene the wrap drinks were a little on the quiet side!”
MBH: “They both very kindly agreed to shoot a couple of scenes remotely as our lead scientists, Professor Aaron Ostergaard (Conleth Hill) and Dr Charles Marland-White (Ian McKellen). The scenes appear as videos that Jane discovers when she eventually makes her way to a research centre. It was strange not to be able to be in the room with them, all direction was given through emails at first and then chatting on the phone about minor points as takes were sent through to us. At the end of the day though, neither of them needs much direction! You tell them the gist of the scene's most important points and beats, what you're after with the film as a whole, and let them do their thing!”
When and how will we see Infinitum: Subject Unknown?
TBH: “We're in talks with a few distributors at the moment, so TBC but we're hoping to have the film finished by the end of September.”
This started off as a TV Series and I hear a Graphic Novel? What's planned next for this?
TBH: “So, the graphic novel has only started to come to life during the pandemic as well. A friend of ours, Ben Lee, is an extremely talented artist as well as actor and we asked him if he'd ever thought about creating a graphic novel. We sent him the TV pilot script and he's been madly working away at it since April. We're hoping to publish that next year, meanwhile we'll be returning to the TV series and continuing to develop it.”
You are the rising King and Queen of independent UK film production - what advice do you have for any filmmaker hoping to make the jump from shorts to features?
TBH: “Haha, that's very sweet. We always try to have a budget in mind that we know we can get, then we write a script within that budget. That for us usually means writing with locations in mind that we know we can access, being realistic about the number of cast and crew and keeping things contained. Raising finance for any independent film is really, really hard, but especially when you're a first-time writer, director or producer. You have to make your calling card, the feature film that will make the industry sit up and pay attention. It doesn't have to cost the earth, but it does have to be your unique voice. So find a team of people who you trust and who believes in the project as much as you do, that's vital because no-one will work as hard for your film as you will, but you can't do all the jobs on your own. You need at least one other person to keep you grounded and sane!”
What's next on Fizz and Gingers slate? Can you tell us about your feature in development Dragheist and your up-coming independent filmmakers book?
TBH: “We're not sure if Dragheist will be our next to be honest. We love the script and are desperate to make it, but it's about a troupe of drag queens who infiltrate an extravagant birthday party and pull off a heist, so it's very hard to achieve that whilst implementing social distancing. Unfortunately, it probably needs to be put on hold for the time being and we need to take a look at what we've got on the shelf that could be done with a very small cast and crew within safe circumstances.
Our book, "Full to the Brim with Fizz, Ginger and Fierce Determination: A guide to Independent Film Making" (yes, a mouth full we know!) is due to be out in March 2021. It's basically a look back at the films that we've made over the past ten years since starting Fizz and Ginger, what we've learnt along the way, and what we could have done differently, which is hopefully an open, honest way of giving advice rather than a how-to book.”
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