'Dear Tom' is August 2018's Film of the Month

28 Sep 2018 in Film of the Month

7 mins
'Dear Tom' is August 2018's Film of the Month

We are delighted to announce that Dear Tom is the August 2018 winner of our Film of the Month competition! A moving look at siblings who are pulled apart during World War II, made by 16-year-old Anna from Bedford.

Dear Tom (Engaging for ages 7+) sees two siblings separated when their older brother is sent to war in a historical drama that is movingly narrated by his sister. This is a thought-provoking film that explores the emotional impact war can have on children and young people.

This film really struck a chord with me; I found it evocative and moving - beautifully done. The expression in the voiceover is so emotive and powerful.

Film of the Month judge on 'Dear Tom'

We got in touch with Anna to find out more about her winning film. 

How did you feel when you heard you'd won the Film of the Month competition?

I was really happy. It was a real surprise because I was sure my film was too short.

How long have you been making films?

I made my first film with my brothers when I was 6, and spent the day running around dressed as a giant Christmas present being chased by a panto reindeer! I then went on a couple of stop-motion animation day courses and acted in other people's films. But I only started making my own films about two years ago.

What gave you the inspiration to make Dear Tom?

I wanted to make a short 90 second film for a competition on the theme of "hope". My oldest brother had just left on a gap year (a year off between the end of A' Levels and the beginning of University when a lot of people go travelling) and I was really missing him. At that time there were a lot of reports about wars on the news which made me realise I was lucky he was safe and would be coming home. It also made me think how hard it must have been if your brother went off to war and you didn't know if they were ever coming back. World Wars I and II were meant to be the wars to end all wars. I wanted to make a film to remind people about the impact that war has on children and young people.

I thought about where I could set the film. It needed to be somewhere without modern buildings, so the wood was obvious, and I had been to the railway before, so that gave me the idea to stage an evacuation scene. My original idea was to show the three children playing, then cut to Tom repeating the same actions but this time in a war situation, fighting for his life. This changed because my brother was revising for exams so he could only spare a limited amount of time for filming. Also it would have been complicated to get hold of the props I needed. 

I realised I could create an interesting tension between the happy, carefree and energetic shots in the wood and the contemplative, still shots on the train. Lastly, I added a voice-over of the sister's letter to show the girl's perspective.

The storyboard was done in advance - did you stick to it, or did you improvise at times?

I drew up a detailed storyboard for the two shooting days. We started with the shot of us walking up to the woods and tried it several ways. Most of the better shots in the wood were spontaneous, such as jumping the gate, or sticking flowers in Tom's hair, because we were genuinely having fun. We also just happened to find a wigwam someone else had started which felt perfect for the period. We found the log in the opening scene in a nearby field of cows, and I wore the coat to try and show it was a different season. 

We experimented with handheld filming and using a tripod. Some shots are meant to feel as though you are the third child walking alongside the others, so those are a bit more shaky. I planned another storyboard for the railway day, and this time we mainly stuck to the plan. One of the hardest bits was trying to make sure no one else was in the background in modern-day clothing. 

My favourite planned shot is when the train passes as Ben pulls up his sock. It is filmed from a low angle to try and show that he is vulnerable and is now relying on his sister for security. It was another really sunny day and we wanted to create a sad atmosphere, so we had brought a spray bottle of water and misted the inside of the carriage windows to make it look as though it was raining outside. In the end, I only used five shots from the whole day's filming.

Dear Tom has a lot of emotion provided by the score. How did you compose the music?

The film really needed more than a voiceover to add atmosphere. I do not play any instruments so I stuck numbers onto a keyboard and played about until I came up with a simple tune. I wrote the numbers down so I wouldn't forget it and then recorded the first line. I then added the other parts of the tune individually. It was the first piece of music I have ever written.

I had roughly edited the scenes together and tried to fit rises and falls in the tune to the action in the film, e.g. the notes rise as Tom jumps over the gate or helps Ben up, which sounds more positive. I fitted head nods, the walking stick hitting the ground, the train door slamming and Ben blinking on the train with distinctive moments in the music.

I ended with just a bird singing, which I recorded with a dictaphone in the wood, as I imagined that would be the only sound on a battlefield, after the fighting had finished.

The film has fantastic attention to period detail. Where did you find your costumes and props?

The film is meant to be set during WWII. Our gas mask boxes were made from cereal packets and weighed down with water bottles inside so they looked authentically heavy. The biscuit tin and suitcases were mine and I got the old book from our grandparents. Most of the clothes we already had, like the hand-knitted scarves, and others were from charity shops. Some clothes I adapted; my cardigan was a zip up, but by sewing shell buttons down the edge it looked more like a 1940s one. The only thing I couldn't get quite right was my black shoes, but I ran out of time to find a more authentic pair. 

I chose happier, warmer colours, like burgundy and green for when Tom was around; and duller, colder colours, like grey and navy for the evacuation scenes. I was trying to show time passing and a different season, so the wood was springtime and the letter writing and evacuation were meant to be in autumn. 

What are some of your favourite films and how have they influenced you as a filmmaker? Did they influence Dear Tom?

I love The Book Thief, which is a beautiful film about a young, adopted girl living in Germany during WWII. I love the camera angle at the beginning onto the train and the music is amazing. I loved the film so much I later read the book.

The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas is also incredibly moving and shows an innocent child's perspective on war. It has a very powerful message.

What advice would you give to a young person about to make their first film?

Make sure you take a spare battery (or a charger), and a spare SD card or a computer to download the film onto. The first time we tried to film the train passing, the card ran out of storage just as the train drew level with us and the camera cut out before Ben pulled up his sock. We had to wait an hour and a half for the train to go all the way up the track and down again and spent the time trying to decide which takes to delete. We then only had time for one take and Ben had to time the sock just right, which was a bit tense.

Be ruthless when editing. I had about three takes of each shot and loads of scenes I never included. In the end, I used 26 different shots in 90 seconds. Keeping the film short made me only use the best takes. Looking back on the other films I have made, the worst bits were where I kept scenes going too long, which made them really uncomfortable to watch.

Dear Tom will now be showcased to over 300,000 film club members online and all of this month's films can be seen on our YouTube channel. Anna has also won a £100 Amazon voucher and a DVD! If you've been inspired by this month's winner, find out more about how you can enter our ongoing Film of the Month competition.

If you enjoyed Dear Tom why not try these related films:

  • The Railway Children (1970, U, 106mins) Engaging for 7+
    Classic British film about three children moving from London to rural Yorkshire when their father is falsely imprisoned, touching on events that led to the First World War.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, U, 180mins) Engaging for 7+
    Adaptation of Anne Frank's world-changing accounts, following Anne and her family's experiences while hiding from Nazis in occupied Germany.
  • This is Exile (2016, Unclassified, 55mins) Engaging for 11+
    Moving and intimate documentary about the experiences of refugee children as they are forced to leave their homes in Syria and move to camps in Lebanon. 
  • The Book Thief (2013, 12, 79 mins) Engaging for 11+
    Book adaptation about a young girl who is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany.

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