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Famed graphic novelists Neil Gaiman (screenwriter) and Dave McKean (director) combine their talents to create a dazzling, imaginative creation that resembles a cross between Labyrinth and Alice in Wonderland, but is entirely original. Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15-year-old girl in a family of circus entertainers, often wishes she could run off and join real life. After a fight with her parents, her mother (Gina McKee) falls dangerously ill and Helena is convinced she is to blame. She dreams she is in a strange, doomed land with opposing queens, bizarre creatures and masked inhabitants, and only she can restore the balance by finding the MirrorMask.
 

 24 Lessons A Second

1 Don’t stick to the brief. MirrorMask began as a proposition from Columbia TriStar by way of The Jim Henson Company. If Neil Gaiman and I could make a fantasy film for a family audience and $4M, then we had a deal. There was a tentative title: The Curse of the Goblin King. We set about writing a film without curses, goblins or kings in it.

2 Gift horses are rare, but do exist. I spent the months surrounding the writing of the script and the doing of the deal waking up every morning and assuming I would be fired today. I couldn’t really see why these nice American people were writing me a check for this much money, which, although a tiny amount for an effects-driven fantasy film, was still more money than I’d ever seen in one place.

However, we were left alone, and although notes were emailed occasionally, they were always in the spirit of suggestions rather than demands.

3 Work out a snappy way of telling people what the film is about as early as possible. I had many conversations with mostly patient executives, which included liberal uses of the words ‘sort of’ and ‘feels like’ and ‘it’s analogous to’ and ‘dream logic.’ This is really not good.

MirrorMask follows a young plucky girl from a circus family as she tries to save a fantastical city from dark and dangerous forces, and in so doing wakes the Queen of Light and saves her mother’s life. Now this is not really what it’s about, but it’s dramatic and easy to follow. The film is actually about the aforementioned girl, arguing with her mother who promptly falls very ill. Then our girl, crushed by guilt and a life careening out of control, retreats to a simpler dream logic (uh oh) world of two kingdoms ruled by light and shadow queens who sort of (um...) feel like (arrrgh!) her mother.

She tries to regain control over her own life by attempting to help in this analog...erm... other world...and there’s a mask which represents...hello? Are you still there? Hello?

4 If the new digital camera you want is still in pieces, and the only other one in existence is also in pieces, and someone called Gavin somewhere in the bowels of the camera hire company says that it will probably be okay on the day you shoot, if that should happen, well, boring old 35mm film starts to look really interesting again.

5 Don’t panic when the cast still isn’t in place with one week to go before shooting. We got the okay for our male lead Jason Barry in the proverbial nick. Seasoned producer Martin Baker wondered what all the worry was about. I removed the noose, and got back to storyboarding.

6 Actors are not props. I always suspected this, and after making a handful of short films with actors in masks, I was unsure. But I can safely say that it is true, they are not props, clothes horses, mark-hitting puppets, or as many people who really should know better have said, cattle. Actually they are very nice, very surprising, very enthusiastic, quite magical basket cases. At least my lot were.

7 Shoot a sound film in a sound studio. Yes, it’s extraordinary how simple that looks on paper, but you will be tempted. A big empty building, with no neighbors at the time you are shown around, the lure of a 90% soundproofed studio at a big discount, how we scoffed at all those wasteful British productions paying through the nose for their 100% soundproofed studios. Six weeks surrounded by neighbors with cherry pickers, exploding props, ice cream vans, trained crows and something that sounded like a huge trumpet saw, and I was ready to blow the place up.

8 Bluescreen acting is a knack. Some people can tell a joke, some can’t.

Some people can imagine sharing that joke with a collective noun of monkeybirds*, and fortunately our wonderful leading lady, Stephanie Leonidas, could.
(*Either a trock, or a floupe)

9 Editors like rules. I think because the process of assembling a film is so chaotic, there is a need to find order in the chaos. The only rule that works is the one that states that no rule will work more than once a day.

10 Don’t try and set up a computer animation studio during production. All these computers really don’t like each other very much, and need a few months just sitting in the same room before they feel comfortable in each other’s company. Then one day they might start working together, and only then is it worth bringing in an animator to sit down with them and suggest that they might like to try rendering something.

11 For god’s sake, don’t set up in one location and then move to another one. I don’t care if we needed a half-way house before our proper place was ready to move into, never again.

Computers may look like cold metal and plastic boxes, but they actually put down tiny follicles of psycho-digital root system into the floor. Sever those at your peril!

12 Try not to render anything over summer. Render nodes melt in hot weather and only a small army of air conditioning units can convince them to carry on.

13 Make sure you have enough electrical feed for a small army of air conditioning units.

The scent of deep fried mains supply lingers in the air, and doesn’t fill visiting producers with confidence.

14 Don’t, and I really mean this, don’t composite a whole feature film yourself. It’s not big, or clever, and you just end up losing track of time, sanity, your family, world events and the will to live.

15 Animators are people too.

16 The amount of time it takes to create a computer animated shot, in days, is four times the estimated time, plus the age of the animator, minus his inside leg measurement, plus two and a half times the re-estimated time squared. Or, “it’s very hard to say.”

17 Animators rule: the only sphinx with a human face that doesn’t move at all is a dead sphinx with a human face.

18 Photo-real CG is like training a mouse to play the piano. It takes a huge amount of time, trouble and expense to get it to work, but then it’s only ever going to play a couple notes. There’s a whole keyboard out there, think of the infinite possibilities. So, much better to train a monkey.

19 Edit with music. It completely changes the mood and tempo of a scene and tells you if it’s working or not.

20 Don’t use temporary music. You just fall in love with it and then your composer has a thankless task trying to match it.

21 Don’t get your composer in too soon. The film keeps changing and the timings move, and the four beat bars become five, or eleven or three and bit beat bars, and it just upsets him.

22 Don’t leave it too late to get your composer involved. The sooner the better really, bearing in mind lesson 21. And 19.

23 Is music really necessary? Yes, but it’s very hard to know when to get your composer started. Better to get him or her to write about eighty-four hours of ravishing score taking in every imaginable mood and flourish, and then cutting out the bits you like and sticking them in when you’re editing. Or not.

24 Practice saying the words, “yes, it’s finished.” I still haven’t got the knack. That old adage is right: films are never finished, or abandoned, they just need a final bit of work on reel six.