The original thinking behind The Onlooker was to explore the notion of how one shot can change the audience’s perception of events. Throughout the film, I wanted the audience to begin to believe one thing, before turning it on its head in the closing moments, but with some foreshadowing earlier on so as not to make the revelation “out of the blue.”
I decided upon the idea of a murder mystery because I am very comfortable with the techniques used in this genre of film and I felt it made sense to begin the course by applying my area of “expertise” to the new equipment available to me.
At the start of the film, in a cold opening, a woman, Sarah, mysteriously collapses to the ground with a knife in her chest. The events prior to this, an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend Rob, are detailed in a flashback and the story then continues later in the evening once the police have found the body. The audience, and the police, are led to believe Rob was the killer, but in the closing shots, it is revealed that it was their milkman, who is seen briefly following the argument, placing a milk bottle by the open front door. The one constant throughout the film is the couple’s pet parrot, the onlooker, who witnesses everything. During the argument, Rob takes out his anger on the parrot, telling it to “shut up.” The parrot grants his wish, and at the end of the film, does not tell the police it was the milkman, leading to Rob’s arrest off-screen.
The main ideas for the film did not change drastically in the final production, but during the pre-production process, I did not have a clear idea of the time scale for the end of the film – “what time does Rob return to the house?” “would the police still be inside when he arrives?” – nor a definite idea for the resolution; originally, the milkman returned that evening to deliver to the house next door, a small drop of blood dripping down the bottle revealing him as the killer.
I colour graded the film with Magic Bullet Looks to give the film a consistent colour palette. The colouring to differentiate each time of day changed from my original idea; initially, I was going to give the flashback a warm hue, the present a neutral, cold hue, and the future a dinghy blue hue. I instead settled on black and white for the flashback and more subtle colour tweaks for the present and future. The scenes with the police were originally going to be flash-forwards; during the editing process, I set them to inverted black and white to differentiate them from the flashback, but in the end, I decided this was not necessary as everything from that point on was set in the future. I instead changed the editing of the sequence so that it would be clear that we had jumped forward in time, and weren’t going back, by instead only de-saturating the colour slightly to both give a sense that it is the evening, and to give the scenes a neo-noirish look typical of film crime scenes.
The film’s main influences are both TV series; the BBC series Accused inspired the film’s aesthetic, and Channel 4’s Black Mirror influenced my desire to feature a twist in the plot. Although both are TV shows, each episode of both series is self-contained, which was easier than film for me to see how a plot can be introduced and resolved in a short space of time.
Overall, I am very pleased with the finished work. The tone is exactly as I intended, and the gradual building tension keeps you involved in the plot. The audio is especially effective. The music, a royalty-free track from Freeplay Music entitled “The Arrival”, immediately sets the sombre mood. The diegetic sounds, like the dripping tap, ticking clock and ringing phones, are very powerful; I tried watching the film without the music track, and it really worked in the “present day” scenes, but not so much in the flashback, which really benefits from the music to heighten the sense of Rob’s anger.
I am also very pleased with the quality of the video footage. I used the JVC GY-HM100 camera, which is susceptible to grainy images if the lighting is not correct, but for the most part, I managed to avoid substantial noise on the footage, which makes the few occurrences where there is a lot of noise more noticeable. In the flashback scene, I deliberately added noise to subtly make it look older, but in the shot of the milkman walking towards the camera, the lighting is overcast. This shot is the only time you glimpse the milkman’s face, so it is a shame the lighting is not perfect; increasing the brightness and contrast made his face brighter, but also more pixelated.
There are a few things I would change to improve the clarity of the plot. As I began editing, it became clear that I would need a lot of visual clues to inform the audience of the different times and Sarah’s mum’s numerous attempts to contact her. This led to me cutting away at shots that lingered for a sizeable amount of time, meaning the finished film probably has a cut every 5 seconds, which is possibly a bit disorientating. If the plot was a bit simpler, I could have allowed the viewer to take in each piece of new information instead of ramming it down their throats! My script was too complicated for the 3 minute running time, but if I had cut anything out it wouldn’t have made much sense, and the plot holes, such as “why doesn’t Sarah’s mum call Rob?”, would have been much larger.
I don’t think the shot with the milkman and the open door is long enough to make an impression on the viewer, which therefore takes away from the ending slightly; the idea was that when the audience sees the milkman with the bloody glove, they would remember the earlier scene with the open door, but the brevity of both the door shot and the shots of the milkman’s face serve to lessen the impact.
Finally, I am not happy with the parrot’s voice. It is not as loud as I would have liked; this is because the high pitched dialogue is not very convincing – any louder and it would have been a lot worse. It was impossible to find a way to change it to sound like a parrot!
Watch the film on it’s portfolio page.