Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Attack The Blog - Day 2: Exclusive Interviews With Production Designer Marcus Rowland, Director Of Photography Tom Townend And Editor Jonathan Amos!

Day 2 of my unoriginally-titled week of Attack The Blockery sees us being afforded a rare insight into the engine room of a film, the technical departments rarely mentioned in the mainstream movie press when promoting a new film. Take that, mainstream movie press!

I chatted to three of the major talents responsible for bringing Attack The Block to the screen. Here are the least technically complex answers that I understood, which sadly means I had to excise Tom Townend's essay on chromatic bas-relief.


MARCUS ROWLAND, Production Designer
Before Attack The Block, Marcus was production designer on Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. In an ideal world there'd be a photo of him here but I can't find one. He may or may not have a beard.
What gave you inspiration for the design of Attack The Block?
I looked at all the films which inspired Joe, but generally I take my ideas and influences from various different sources as well as film, so I use a lot of photographic, visual and architectural references. We also looked at many tower blocks across central London, which gave us a good idea of which elements we wanted to incorporate in the design.

What combination of sets and real locations did you use for the tower block?
The establishing shots of the tower block exterior and low-rise were locations, as were the walkway chase sequences. Apart from that we built the apartments, corridors and lifts at Three Mills Studio. This involved reworking various sets which we'd built to be used for different parts of the script, which we were able to do because of the generic nature of tower blocks.
The film takes place entirely at night: how much did that affect your work?
Well thankfully all studio scenes were shot during more sociable hours! But yes, the location shoots meant we had to divide our crew up into day and night shifts. I tended to do a very long day and also the earlier part of the nights.

What's Joe Cornish like to work with?
He was great, he's such a film enthusiast. It certainly wasn't the easiest film for a first time director to make and he managed it brilliantly. I really enjoyed making the film with him.

Finally, are there any hidden treats in the production design for the sharp-eyed viewer?
I hope so, but I'll leave that up to the viewers to spot.

TOM TOWNEND, Director Of Photography
Tom has been working in the camera departments of various feature films, TV movies and programmes, commercials and music videos since 1996. Attack the Block is his first feature as director of photography.

It would be best if you didn't ask how I got a photo of him in bed. 

The exterior scenes self-consciously hark back to many early '80s films, with lots of improbable blue backlighting – how did the decision come about to reference that era?
In a way there was a deliberate choice to recreate that era - in my first meeting with Joe, we asked: “Why do the films we love of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (specifically American films such as Escape From New York and The Terminator, which both have extensive night shooting) look the way they do?” The answer I posited was that they didn’t have the resources to relight acres of city streets, and at the time municipal lighting in the US was mostly mercury vapour lamps which appear as a green blue, as opposed to sodium vapour lamps which are orange.

There’s bold use of colour throughout the film, in both the production design and costume, and it made sense for the lighting to follow suit. Street lighting is artificial by definition, and Joe wanted us to push saturated colour as far as would look plausible – partly as a reaction to the historically dingy and monochrome look of low budget British film-making, and also to up the ‘fun’ quotient.
Are there any sequences or shots that you're most proud of?
There’s a shot of a creature leaping off a bridge which, given the scale of the production, was pretty ambitious and I was very pleased when we pulled it off - not least because everything about it is ‘in camera’ live action, shooting from a fast moving vehicle. Getting it right was testament to the hard work and skill of the camera operator, Julian Morson and Terry Notary, our lead creature performer, who practiced the stunt for weeks.

The sequence I like best takes place in a smoke-filled corridor. It’s a new twist on the ‘spooky dark corridor’ idea, what with it not being dark. I can’t take any credit for it though: Joseph Cornish thought it up and put it in his marvellous script for me.

Does filming at night make life easier or harder for a cinematographer?
It makes it harder for the lighting department. There’s not a single shot where they can kick back and sunbathe. On the plus side, I can look at every shot and feel a sense of authorship over the lighting. The net result is that one becomes an exhausted egomaniac.

What challenges were presented by the film's relatively low budget?
The main challenge was that they wouldn’t pay for a car to pick me up and take me to and from set. LOL!

Other than that, every budgetary constraint became a virtue of the creative process. For example, before the advent of spiffing photorealistic CGI, filmmakers working in the sci-fi/fantasy genres didn’t linger on what they knew might look ropey. Instead the audience received their monster/alien/shark thrills by proxy through the reactions of the human characters in the scene. Joe was emphatic about getting a range of shots of characters reacting to the off screen menace, in the knowledge that these could be as effective as the sight of the creatures themselves.

How were the alien effects achieved?
The aliens were real. This was a trick question, right?
Once the shoot was over, what further input did you have?
I popped into the edit from time to time but mostly to natter to Joe about stuff like The Only Way Is Essex and Lady Gaga. The grading of the film (the digital refinement of colour balance and contrast to ensure visual uniformity across an edited sequence) is where I got my fingers back in the pie and enjoyed myself. It’s the icing on the cake. Pie. Cake. I think of the sound mixing and the music as the custard but I didn’t have anything to do with the custard.

Any juicy gossip or funny stories from the shoot?
I have to confess that it wasn’t a very gossipy shoot. The frantic work pace led to a very busy and tired cast and crew, whereas for hilarity and shenanigans one needs to be overfed, under-worked and put up in a luxury hotel with a well stocked bar miles from anywhere. I should just make up some shit like how Paula the continuity woman continually forgot where she’d locked up her bicycle, but that wouldn’t be true.

Was Joe Cornish a lovable idiot or a menacing tyrant?
He was somewhere between the two: a lovable tyrant and a menacing idiot.

Jonathan has edited several TV series, including Peep Show, Spooks and Ashes To Ashes. Attack The Block is his second feature film, after co-editing Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with Paul Machliss.

I couldn't find a picture of him either so you'll have to make do with this photo of his near-namesake, John Amos from Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

Attack The Block runs a satisfyingly taut 88 minutes. Is that the running time you were aiming for or did you just cut the film to a length that felt right?
Joe really wanted the film to clock in at 90 minutes, but as you get into the fine cut process, changing factors pull the edit in different directions. It sometimes feels like sculpture: you start with this big piece of rock - the script - and you chip away the layers. Eventually it becomes an organic and instinctive process of shaping and fine tuning the dialogue and the action, then the film just becomes whatever length it should be.

What were your stylistic aims as you approached the edit?
The shoot and edit were partially influenced by the genre films which inspired the script, and Joe wanted to carry over as much of the aesthetic of those films as possible. We deliberately tried to avoid a lot of the tropes of modern action movie editing, and during the process the film inevitably takes on a character of its own.

The turning point was when we tightened up the initial mugging; we really wanted that to be as shocking as it would be in real life. The first creature attack then provides a similar counterpoint for the gang, equally shocking and kinetic. The cutting in these, and the subsequent gang dialogue scenes, really provide the rhythmic backbone for the entire piece.
Which films did you use as references for the editing of Attack The Block?
The films that Joe was influenced by, like Aliens, Predator, Gremlins, Streets Of Fire, The Outsiders, The Warriors, E.T., and Assault on Precinct 13 gave us an aesthetic root from which our movie could find its own identity. Of course things have moved on since then so we never limited ourselves by rigidly obeying a strict visual grammar, but because we started from a slightly different place [to most modern films], Attack The Block ended up having quite a unique tone.

What challenges did you face in the editing process?
Working with practical creatures was probably the trickiest element. Our aliens would be on screen throughout the picture so we had to be very careful how we edited them, keeping the performances kinetic and animalistic without exposing any humanistic traces. Also there wasn't a limitless pot of money to enhance the creatures, so we had to work quite judicially to bring the edit in on budget without compromising the quality of the movie. We were fortunate in this regard to work with Double Negative and Fido whose SFX work was beautifully judged. It's a huge compliment to them that it's sometimes impossible to gauge what’s real and what’s digital.

Finding the musical tone was also difficult - Joe described it as John Williams going over to Roots Manuva's house and having a stoned jam. Clearly that was never going to happen, so piecing together a satisfactory temp track to give a sense of what the film would eventually offer proved very tricky. It wasn't until Steve Price and Basement Jaxx came on board that the concept really came alive.
What was it like working with Joe Cornish?
Joe is incredibly passionate about films, and finally getting the opportunity to make this film is the culmination of a ten-year dream. It’s that passion that made Attack The Block the film it is, and it was a pleasure to assist him in creating his vision. Joe really drove every aspect of the film, and without his dedication, care, and attention to detail, such an ambitious project could have easily faltered.

Come back tomorrow for a mildly exciting competition and some exclusive artwork designed exclusively by Tom Townend exclusively for The Incredible Suit! It's an exclusive!


  1. Excellent journalism, asking the questions most readers would want answers to. This is the kind of fresh original substance that makes a visit to The Incredible Suit worthwhile.

    I will check in every day for more.

  2. Having followed Tom's tweets for over a year and now reading this, I'd love to know if Joe taught him all he knows about being a loveable idiothole or if he came to the project deliciously pre-looned.

    I quite literally cannot wait until tomorrow's post. I shall go to bed immediately and sleep until it arrives.

  3. prairie_oysters10 May 2011 at 16:50

    "chromatic bas-relief" sounds like something one would do down the lav' after 9 pints of Stella.

  4. I know. Who would talk such cockwaffle?