Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear The Reaper. If my iPod had chosen to play another song instead of that one I wouldn’t have spent the best part of two years devoted to a single idea. But, my iPod did play that song and with that, while half asleep on a summer’s morning in 2010 the Idea of Grim was conceived: group of Grim Reapers chasing another Reaper. They weren’t skeletons in robes. They were just average looking people wearing all black garments, but somehow I knew they were Grim Reapers. That was it. Nothing else and nothing more. It lasted for a few minutes only but it was enough to expand on. Since that morning a whole fictional working world has been built, with layers of Reaper history, a political system among the elders, a division of working districts, laws and orders, races of different creatures, cultures, beliefs and, a way of life.
This is how the web series Grim: A Tale of Death was born, and how it’s so close to death. But before I tell you it’s story, you should know its premise.
Grim is a tale of love, life and death placed within the contextual world of the Grim Reapers. The Grim Reaper (Angel of Death) is widely known across many cultures and religions as the personification of death and guides the souls of those who have recently died to the afterlife… or the underworld. Our story focuses on what happens in-between these guided trips. The stories these beings encounter in the in-between realm.
Grim was never planned to be a web series, only a ten minute short film about the once human Valac trying to regain his mortality. In one hand I had the newly released Canon T2i/550d with a $100 50mm 1.8 lens to get the shallowest depth of field I could get (on every shot, all of them), and in the other hand I had the Rode VideoMic. My two best friends who were budding actors were instantly hired along with my other friend who wasn’t an actor, but that didn’t matter as I had a ton of YouTube acting videos to show him. He would be the finest actor within hours. I was ready. Ready to create the best 10 minute short film that would ever grace YouTube. I even had a nifty tripod. Who was to stop me?
However in the first and only week of filming I found out there was only so much one can do with a 550d, a Rode Videomic and a nifty tripod carrying case. Dreams of dramatic scenes were shattered when I found out you need something called a Neutral Density filter to film in open sunlight and at wide aperture. However, as I was certain that within weeks of uploading the film to YouTube for my 23 subscribers to see, I would be deemed the next Peter Jackson. So non-deterred we planned to re-shoot when I was back from film school, as at the end of that very week I was to move out of my family home to study at the International Film School of Wales.
Though, Something good did come of our first week of shooting. On our final day, James, who stars as lead antagonist, suggested that we should do a spin-off following a different story of each character, maybe the origins and how the characters got to where they are now in the short film. I laughed it off. It was a ridiculous idea… and also the best one we ever had. It altered everyone’s path and still continues to do so, as on that day the web series was conceived.
I didn’t know much about web episodes. In fact, I knew nothing at all. At the time, according to Google, a web series was a series of episodes released onto the internet, similar to a television series but much smaller in production size and episode length. In 2010 the average web series episode was 4 minutes long. With the notion that audiences (my 23 subscribers) will watch anything if the content has high enough quality, we went with the expansion of 3 episodes, 8 minutes in length each.
The Web Series
I arrived at film school and, unlike every other student, rather than spending my nights going out getting drunk and going to parties, I admittedly spent them creating a fictional universe. J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are of my greatest inspirations. How they have managed to create a real world that one can be fully immersed into has always been one of my goals. I love everything about fantasy worlds: the names that you can never pronounce like Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (Star Wars Episode IV) and Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones). How walking next to an alien or seeing a dragonfly overhead is just part of normal life. How anyone with a grey beard instantly knows more than anyone else and how simple titles hold the most powerful of meanings e.g. The Ring Bearer. I wanted this and I was going to devote every second I had to doing so. However Tolkien was a Professor of English Language and Literature and I was a 19-year-old film student, there was no way I would be able to create such a spectacle as he has. But I gave it my best shot.
Over the next 2 months of attending the film school, the scale of Grim changed enormously. The theoretical world started to blossom into a working world. I created the universe before I started working on the story. I wanted there to be a place where I could go back again time and time again without needing to relate to the story. If there were to be a forest near Lake Danima I wanted there to be a forest because it has grown over thousands of years. I didn’t want there to be a forest because in scene 7 of the second episode Valac walks through it. I wanted everything to be in the world to be there organically.
I found that creating obstacles, laws and orders for a fictional world at the very start most beneficial. Once you knew what these characters couldn’t do, you would understand what they could do and why they could do it and if you strictly stick to that when creating a fictional world you will find plot obstacles occur naturally rather than instantaneously. For example. if the character Bathin has to sneak into the great Hall of Morte, but the entrance is guarded day and night and because you know every square perimeter of that building and know that there is not another way in, Bathin then has to come up with a plan to get past the guards; make a distraction, impersonate someone and so forth. If you have created the building for a simple plot device, then you are the architect while writing that scene. If there is a problem you may be swayed to fix it with a secret door around the side or trapdoor on the roof. This has been the most important thing I’ve learned from writing about a fantasy world. Constructing the world beforehand helps give the plot a natural flow.
I had spent months crafting this universe. Working out its kinks and flaws; how the reapers would travel, how they lived, communally or alone. Nights would be spent dividing the British Isle into districts the reapers would serve under. Then the British isle slowly turned into Europe and before long the whole world was divided into districts and as Tolkien said:
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
I now had to bring people in. The world was maybe too big for my 23 subscribers to walk around in, but I knew they would enjoy it, even if two of the subscribers are my other accounts used for liking my videos. It was time to create the characters and write the web series.
Each episode was going to follow a different character more predominantly than others, much like how HBO’s Game of Thrones follows different families more predominantly each episode while still for the most part includes the other character’s trials and tribulations. I wanted to make sure each character was completely different to the other, so each episode was a new experience. I turned to music to help me do this. I’m a huge fan of all music genres, but if I had to choose two genres as my favourite they would bizarrely be classical music and hip-hop/rap.
Music for me has always played a huge part in creating the flow of scenes and igniting the flame of inspiration to create characters. There’s a pro and con for using this method. The pro is that you may have the foundation for a character within hours, know their attitude, their insight into things; everything. The con is that if you’re withdrawing elements of your character from a single piece of music then there are other options you will never explore; great scenes may be bypassed because it wouldn’t be the character’s intention to do such thing as it wasn’t harvested from the piece of music. Nevertheless this was my chosen method and each characters inner moulding has been crafted around Gustav Holst’s: The Planets Suite. Each character holds the characteristics of each planet:
- Colossal – Mars – Bringer of War
- Valac – Venus – Bringer of Peace
- Bathin – Jupiter – Bringer of Jollity
- Gusion – The Planets Suite: Uranus – Magician
- Andras – The Planets Suite: Mercury – Winged Messenger
- Nina – The Planets Suite: Saturn – Bringer of Old Age
- Shax – The Planets Suite: Neptune – Mystic
On a side note I’ve tried to capture the emotion of the music in the characters promotional photographs. This is Shax’s:
If you listen to the music in this video, at around 3:00 you can see the glass waltzing through the air.
Writing the Script
My writing weapon of choice was Final Draft. There were far too many confusing names of characters and locations to spell correctly and the SmartType feature on Final Draft was a god send. A good portion of my first year at film school was missed as for 8 months I spent every waking moment at my desk working on the first draft, which turned out not to be that great. However, 2 years later after constant feedback, criticism, suggestions, 18 re-writes (as Alexander Mackendrick says “Screenplays aren’t written, they’re rewritten and rewritten and rewritten”) an expansion from 3 episodes to 20, an introduction of 40+ characters with names that are still too hard to pronounce or spell and an upcoming festival appearance for Europe’s only web series festival (Marseille Webfest), we are ready. Ready to show those lucky 23 subscribers what they have been waiting for!
Well actually, the whole world of Grim: A Tale of Death is lingering in the hands of death himself. After countless rejections from funding schemes we’ve took to the overpopulated world of crowdfunding and now the future of this world resides in the hands of others. http://www.indiegogo.com/ataleofdeath
In part #2 I’ll be walking you through our pre-production phase for this little but colossal project.
Lewis McGregor is a young, ambitious filmmaker who has taken a break from studies at the International Film School of Wales to produce his magnum opus. Learn more about the project by clicking here.