• Tom Doona

CSF 2021 - A technical insight into our biggest project yet.

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

This year, in association and collaboration with North West Drama, we developed and delivered a digital version of North West Drama’s education-based Children’s Shakespeare Festival (CSF); which normally accumulates in on-stage performances in front of live audiences - an obvious no-go in the height of COVID.

I will not give an in-depth breakdown as to what the CSF is specifically, as Matt Wardle, North West Drama’s Creative Director, does that much better than I ever could - and all of that information can be found here:

This post is more so to offer a somewhat in-depth insight as to what it actually was that City Projections did on this year’s CSF, and some of the key stages of pre/post/production that got us there. And if you would like to know more about what the ‘there’ I refer to is, then please have a look at our ‘CSF2021’ information page before reading on. Such can be found HERE.

I am not going to go into immense detail about all of the inner workings of the process of producing the Festival this year. Because I know that would be interesting to a very, very niche group of people (me?). But I am going to offer an insight into some of the more interesting facts, figures and approaches that we took. Because I think we did a damn fine job of it, and I am proud of how we got there. Forgive the self-congratulatory nature of this post, if that is how it comes across - it is not intended as such. I just want to give light to some of the decisions and approaches we took throughout the project.


  1. Shot-listing for both consistency and variety.

The above shot-list is something that I put together very early on in the pre-production process. From beginning to end, the key to the project, for me, was the question of how can we capture all of these performances in a way that emulates the experience of viewing them live? And the answer to that question seemed best built atop a clear visual direction, a black-and-white (not literally, we didn’t shoot monochrome..) plan of this is how each camera is going to be set up for each part of the performance.

And this became our holy grail with which we structured all of our shoot day plans, and it also helped word the questions and queries I asked when on a recce at each of the different theatres. The question was no longer how can we capture all of these performances, but now more so how can we work towards this plan, and execute it with consistency and quality. There were a number of planning documents that followed this one, which used the shot-list plan as a stencil to make sure everything was linking to the how, each time making that how more achievable.

With certainty, I can say that this shot-list was the document most commonly open as a tab on my computer. Every time I was in a limbo of hows, whys and whats, I referred back to the shot-list and reminded myself of exactly what it was we were aiming for. “Set up 1, 2 and 3” became part of our collective vocabulary - short handing a lot of repetition, and giving us the basis to which we could always fall back on. This was our square one.


2. Throwing our holy grail out of the window, for better.

The best decision made throughout our 12 filming days was by Freddie, our Filming Lead for half of our production process. On the first day of filming, himself and Gabriel (First Camera Operator) made the decision to veer away from the shot-list slightly, and have cameras 2 and 3 as handheld cameras for every single set up, leaving camera 1 as the only static, tripod shot. Of course, as the above paragraph shows, the shot-list orchestrated a lot of our pre-production decisions, but once you remove that ‘pre’, and step in the furnace of production, there can be no sentimentality attached to any pre-ordained decisions, and when there seems to be an option better than the one originally planned, you step up and make the decision to go with that option. Which is exactly what Freddie and Gabriel did - to the benefit of the footage, and the final films.

Originally, I planned for us to have at least one full run through of each class’ performance which was captured from three static shots, each one at slightly differing distances/ranges from the performance space. My reasoning behind this was because it seemed to narrow down the margin of error, giving assurance that we would definitely have a consistent run-through without any form of interruption or visual discrepancy.

But on the day, when Freddie and Gabriel were there with the cameras in their hands, it just made a great deal more sense to film each stage of the performance with more variation, operating cameras 2 and 3 handheld, capturing specific moments in a variety of shot sizes and angles. Not only did they get the consistency we were striving for from the start; but they got it more cinematically and engaging than a static tripod shot could have been. We didn’t look back after this decision, and only packed one tripod from thereon out. Spontaneity is key; it is the spark that reignites creativity whenever it shows slight signs of dimming.


3. Adjusting plans based on the topography and layout of each theatre.

One of the key rules in filmmaking is the 180 degree rule: the establishing of a line between characters, a 180 degree space, along which the camera operates for the duration of a scene, most notably during extensive passages of dialogue. It brings clarity to the geography of the scene, and stops audiences being disoriented by characters jumping across the frame between cuts. This rule was one that reared its head in different ways for the CSF, due to the fact that the filming days took place in 4 different theatres; two being traditional ‘front-on’ theatres, two being theatres-in-the-round (where the seating surrounds the stage, which is on ground level).

At the front-on theatres, the rule was easily followed - our cameras were positioned where the theatre audience would be, so the 180 degree line would be marked by the stage line. But when filming in the theatres-in-the-round, there was a bit more of a decision to be made: Do we position all of our cameras on one side of the circular stage, drawing our 180 degree line through the centre of the performance space? Or do we position each camera equidistant around the whole stage, capturing each angle of the performance? The decision made here was one that went against our instinctive filmmaking nature, but it was made to serve the fact that the performance pieces will have been devised so that different areas of the performance would be delivered to different sides of the stage.

So, as can be seen in the right-hand floor-plan above, we put cameras on different sides of the stage. And yes, there were times where the footage did feel a little bit disorienting because of how the children seemed to bounce around the stage with each cut, but we edited around this (which was a privilege awarded to us by the use of 3 cameras, as 2 of them always followed the same 180 rule) - and what this meant was that we always saw the performance from the front-on. And to the children, it was much more rewarding to see their faces on screen than the back of their heads, regardless of whether that footage followed the film industry’s age-old rule. The children were at the centre of the project - and this was a decision made to offer them the most rewarding outcome.


4. Making sure our creative visions were being cut from the same cloth.

The best thing about collaboration is the coming together of minds; of skillsets; of viewpoints and approaches that offer fresh angles and takes on the same thing. And a key to managing project that involved a number of creatives/filmmakers is to make sure that this individualism is allowed to prosper.

We had 7 filmmakers working as part of City Projections on the CSF, and retrospect gives me certainty that every single one of us brought something unique to the overall project. Whether that be in the way we worked, or in the way we operated a camera, or the way we edited together the final films - there are obvious individual fingerprints on every element of the project, and that brings forth a real authenticity, a feeling that the films were achieved holistically by allowing each person to put their own cards on the table.

But, of course, there was also a real importance in the fact that we all knew the objectivities about the festival, alongside which our subjectivities could find their place. And to help this along, once we had all of our crew on board with the project, I went through a very lengthy presentation which, essentially, told everybody everything: about visual styles, filming day personnel, safeguarding procedures, et al.

It may seem that the presentation (66 slides…) was pretentiously overlong, but the idea of it, as Project Manager, was that I wanted everybody to have the opportunity to know everything I knew. Not so that they could remember every last detail of it, but so that they could pick upon the key details that helped them tune their creativity into the overall frequency of the project (although, of course, details such as safeguarding were there to be remembered and acted upon directly). And we managed to get through 66 slides surprisingly quickly...

  1. Managing the workflow of terabytes of data.

Each shoot day, across our 3 cameras (each shooting 4K, 8bit) and 2 sound set ups, we averaged about 200gb of data on 8 different SD cards. After 12 shoot days and 8 individual edits (without time for proxies..) our harddrives were making noises we had never heard before. But behind this was quite a complex process of distribution, both physical and digital. Here is the average process of file transfer that took place after every single shoot day:

  • Wrap at the theatre. Joe (sound operator) brings the SD cards back to Tom (producer).

  • Tom names all files and transfers them onto the correct harddrive.

  • Once the files have transferred, Tom either starts editing or drives the harddrive to Rowan (second editor).

  • Files transferred onto Rowan’s harddrive.

  • Copy made on a second harddrive.

  • SD cards formatted in preparation for shooting the following day.

Now, this may not seem like the most straightforward way of managing the transfer of files - but with how time-sensitive the project was, it was the safest option. And in the end, we pulled it off 12 times without a single issue. Many times I had dreaded the worst: What if this hard drive corrupts? What if the SD card corrupts? What if I trip up on my way to Rowan’s flat, drop the harddrive on the road and watch as a JCB turns it to dust? (A slightly more infrequent worry, admittedly). But we got through it unscathed, and in the face of those worries we managed to pull off each file transfer exactly how we had planned, with such a narrow margin of error. It may seem an odd thing to be proud of, but... there you go!


I could go on for an eon with details about each stage of the project, but I won’t. All I will do is end this post with my thanks to everybody that worked on the CSF this year, and for the incredible hard work and professionalism from beginning to end. Producing and managing the project was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, and it was an enormous learning curve for me, and I am sure it was similar for all of those involved.

And to Matt, and North West Drama, thanks for continuing to deliver the festival in such a universally valuable and rewarding way. Thousands of people benefit from it, year in, year out. It was our pleasure to play a part in it this year.

For now,

Tom Doona

City Projections