It has been a question that I’ve seen resurface since Justin Beiber’s holiday movie tie-in single, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” went steampunk for their music video: Why does steampunk still matter?
The movement has been around for decades, and in recent years steampunk has become a fascination for mainstream culture. Literature remains a driving force behind its popularity. From books and graphic novels, and the colorful characters created within them, makers of both fabric and fabrication backgrounds bring to life this 19th century that never happened. Musicians such as The Men Who Will Be Blamed for Nothing, Abney Park, Paul Shapera, and even Rush are also finding inspiration from steampunk.
There is one creative arena where steampunk remains not only undiscovered country, but exciting country to explore: steampunk in film. There are many projects in production, some of which are reaching to the community for help in doing it right, but filmmaking—particularly for steampunk—offers incredible challenges. Challenges that, when conquered, can be quite rewarding.
For my own project, the challenges faced were compounded by my 2012 beginning roughly. Plans I had for the year, in particular making a book trailer for The Janus Affair, took a backseat to priorities like paying the bills while on a severance package and finding a new day job. Imagine my surprise when my good friend Linc (who had shot the Phoenix Rising trailer with me back in 2011) turns to me—immediately after I had grumbled about the frustrations of a job hunt—and asks, “So when are we shooting a trailer for the new book?” Imagine how heightened my level of surprise was when my wife and co-author of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, Pip Ballantine, turns to me and says “Yeah, when are we going to shoot our book trailer?”
After a mad flurry of phone calls, tweets, and text messages in the midst of a job hunt, I secured location shots, dates, and times. Now came the second part of pre-production: scene adaptation and storyboarding….
Wait. What was that you’re asking? Securing locations? Adapting scenes for screen? Storyboarding?! This is just a book trailer, right? I could do this on iMovie if I wanted to, right?
You could… but you shouldn’t.
Welcome to the three P’s of Steampunk Filmmaking, and my own adventure in shooting a book trailer.
Authors, agents, and publishers tend to regard book trailers with a sense of skepticism because—and let’s not sugar coat it—many book trailers are just pure crap. Why? In most (not all, but most) cases, book trailers are done with cover art, maybe (if someone invests in clip art) some still shots, and animated titles. Your end result (usually from iMovie) will be a glorified Powerpoint/Keynote presentation.
To avoid making that kind of book trailer, I sat down weeks before the first shot and began the planning process. No matter how easy you want to make it—especially if you want your trailer to look professional—planning is essential. At the very least, your book trailer should have a storyboard.
As you can see from the Phoenix Rising storyboard, you do not have to be a great artist to do this. And why worry? Your director or cinematographer shouldn’t mock you for your inability to draw (provided they are professional in even the slightest). The storyboard is your film’s outline, and where it all begins for you. Your planning continues with, in order of importance:
- Scene adaptations
- Shot list
- Scouting locations
- Shooting schedule
Take a good look at the last one—budget. I’ve received a lot of writing advice in my first decade as a writer. The best piece of advice I ever got from any writer, though, was from the award-winning juggernaut and fellow movie buff, Robert J. Sawyer:
“Look at your advance. That is your advertising budget.”
This was true for this steampunk film. Linc wanted to “ramp it up” after the Phoenix Rising trailer, so I looked at our incoming advance and allocated accordingly. Our budget covered:
- Gas money for talent
- Stock footage that we were unable to shoot (in our case, a steam train)
- Stock music
- Any additional props or costume pieces needed for the shoot
- Food for talent
Take time in this first “P” to take an inventory of the resources you have at hand and then attempt to make do with what you have.
2. Props (including costumes, cast, and locations)
If this is your first steampunk book trailer, music video or short film, my first bit of advice would be to keep it simple. For the Phoenix Rising trailer, instead of specific scenes I went for a feel for the characters and mood from our steampunk romp. The props included costumes provided by myself and the actress playing Eliza Braun, a gun commissioned by Jared Axelrod, and several locations in Staunton, Virginia.
If, however, you decide to produce something more lavish, this is when you need to call out to the community and either ask for help or increase your budget for costume and prop rental. For The Janus Affair book trailer, I turned to maker Thomas Willeford of Brute Force Studios to supply the look, and I was so thrilled when he said “Yes.” Asking artists to volunteer their work is not something that should be done lightly. Ambitious content creators tend to abuse that “I can’t pay you but consider the exposure and the experience” lure, and that is what it is—a lure. If you find yourself at the end of a budget, find other ways to compensate your artists. They are, after all, creating that distinctive steampunk look for your film.
Once you have your props at the ready, it’s time for the final “P.”
3. Production (filming, editing, and presentation)
When filmmaking—especially depending on how you are compensating the people that are working with you—be patient and understanding with your talent. Talent, regardless of what some filmmakers may say, covers cast and crew. Our budget was tiny, but everyone involved with The Janus Affair book trailer was compensated with food, on-location lodging, and gas money. These incredible people, in my eyes, were (essentially) volunteering their time, talent, and effort for me and Pip; for our book trailer. So when lines didn’t come out as fluently as I liked, when I didn’t capture that one scene I had hoped for, and when things on the set didn’t look exactly as I had initially pictured, did I complain?
No. I followed the teachings of St. Fu and made it work.
I watched everyone carefully. I didn’t push anybody too hard. I didn’t want my cinematographer to get punchy in the late hours of the day. In short, I was going to make the most of what my talent could deliver. Above all, I wanted to make sure we had fun making a bit of steampunk intrigue. And we did.
Fun, however, did not mean that we didn’t work hard. When a cinematographer is setting the scene or when the cameras are rolling, there should be an expected level of professionalism. This professionalism extends to post-production: editing, mixing, and final processing. You need to make sure that your deadlines are set (and realistic), that there is flexibility in those demands, and that you are working with people who understand what it is you are creating.
Once shooting is wrapped, the real nitty-gritty work begins: editing. On this project, I learned the value of working with an editor who has a track record. Linc’s experience includes short films, feature (indie) films, and a documentary about Vapers, currently in production.
So in many respects, I allowed Linc to educate me and show me alternatives to what I had originally envisioned, creating incredible lighting effects, title sequences, and visual effects.
While there are a lot of conditions you have to juggle in putting a steampunk film together, the last word falls to you, the producer and (if you feel up to the task) director. It’s your book trailer. It’s your web series. It’s your short film. You make the final call on set. If you don’t like an effect, you ask for a change. If you don’t like the way a scene is lit, you can ask for a change there as well. This project has your name associated with it and this is your vision. An editor might make an argument like “This is the way I envisioned this transition to be…” but you need to remember this project is not the editor’s vision but your vision. It’s the editor’s job to make your vision as good as it can be.
There is one more thing you have to give yourself plenty of when putting together a production. Whether it is Urtext Film Productions working post-production touches on their short film Aurora, the League of S.T.E.A.M. putting together their next season of steampunk hijinx, or two authors making a book trailer, a film will always need time. For The Janus Affair trailer and its six minutes of running time, it was an investment of seven weeks. Time well spent, in my eyes.
Can I pinpoint who, since its release, bought The Janus Affair on account of our trailer? No, I cannot. However, I know of readers who found Phoenix Rising through the book trailer, who subscribed to Tales from the Archives and watched the video when it appeared in their feed, and who have shared our trailer through Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts. So while I can’t say for sure if the trailer was instrumental in getting our book in September’s Locus Bestseller list, steampunk filmmaking is an adventure and one worth taking so long as you are ready to make the investment. You plan. You collect props. You produce. And you educate yourself the nuts, bolts, gears, and cogs of filmmaking.
This is why steampunk still matters. There are still so many stories to be told within this exciting visual medium. So, undertake an adventure. Don a pith helmet and grab the nearest æther-oscillator.
It’s time to go exploring.
Tee Morris began his writing career with his 2002 historical epic fantasy, MOREVI The Chronicles of Rafe & Askana. In 2005 Tee took MOREVI into the then-unknown podosphere, making his novel the first book podcast in its entirety. That experience led to the founding of Podiobooks.com and collaborating with Evo Terra and Chuck Tomasi on Podcasting for Dummies. After several successful titles in social media, Tee returned to fiction in 2011 with Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, co-written with his wife Pip Ballantine. Their first adventure in this steampunk series won the 2011 Airship Award for Best Steampunk Literature. In 2012, the sequel The Janus Affair was released, reaching LOCUS Magazine’s Bestseller List for September. Tee & Pip’s companion podcast Tales from the Archives swept both short story categories at this year’s Parsec Awards. Currently, Tee is current wrapping up for submission the third installment in the Ministry books.