Behind the scenes at ‘Alchemy’, a DarkFest 18 video workshop

The full programme for Portsmouth DarkFest 2018 will be unveiled on Monday 8th October. Also revealed will be the first in a series of atmospheric DarkFest videos created collaboratively at the ‘Alchemy’ viral video workshop held at the Groundlings Theatre in August. In this post, Supernatural Cities’ Eilís Phillips gives a behind the scenes report on the workshop.


On Saturday 4 August I attended a fantastic workshop on viral video making and marketing by Roy Hanney of Southampton Solent University.

Foyer of the Groundlings Theatre, Portsmouth, during the Alchemy Viral Video Workshop for Portsmouth DarkFest 2018
The foyer of the beautiful Groundlings Theatre

The workshop was held in the gorgeous Groundlings Theatre; a building with a lot of character, not to mention a very impressive costume and prop department. We formed small working groups with the aim that each group would write and create a short film during the day. These are currently being edited up to be used as part of the DarkFest 18 series of promo trailers. Portsmouth DarkFest is festival which runs during part of October and November, and is a celebration of Portsmouth’s macabre creative side. During these weeks, a wide range of events such as film screenings, immersive theatre, music, art, dance, spoken word and academic talks are held across the city, facilitated by a committee led by Dr Karl Bell of Supernatural Cities.

Roy started by getting us into groups to discuss what we thought were the key qualities of viral videos, that is, videos that are rapidly watched and shared by large numbers of viewers online. Cute animal antics aside [we all know how much the internet loves cats], videos that were short, and simple, containing an emotional hook, and some sort of surprise twist, appear most likely to be ‘liked’ and shared. We decided that genre also dictated popularity in terms of the viral effect, with funny videos coming out on top of the most popular. Finally, we discussed the idea that viral videos played a role in creating a feeling of ‘in-group’ community inclusivity. Those quick to catch on to the new viral theme gain kudos for being early adopters when among the first to share it with their peers on social media. Conversely, those who share after the buzz dies down are more likely to be seen as behind the curve, as once a video becomes overshared a saturation effect occurs which makes people want to switch off.

Roy Hanney leading discussions during the DarkFest 18 Alchemy Viral Video Workshop at Groundlings Theatre
Roy Hanney leading discussions during the workshop

One of the group suggested that this effect operated in the same way as trends in fashion ebb and flow, one minute cutting edge, the next minute seen as boring and cliché. Viral vids can also give us the sense that we are part of a wider movement outside our own peer circles. One example suggested was that of incentives like the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ a few years ago, where people made videos of themselves being doused in icy water for charity. Videos of charity challenges have the potential to go viral because their philanthropic incentive has that emotional pull which makes people want to share, and even take part themselves.

After the initial discussion session, we split off into new groups, and began brainstorming ideas for our own video making sessions. Before the workshop, Roy had asked me to come up with a page of short prompts that could inspire our writers to find macabre themes for their videos. This was something I had a lot of fun with, and it was a challenge to make sure I had prompts general enough to allow for any genre, but specific enough to fit in with the themes of the workshop.

After we had thrown some ideas around, it was time to head off and tour Groundlings to get a better idea of the space, costumes and props we would be working with. James Waterfield also kindly provided some excellent plague doctor themed items for us to use; the image of the Renaissance plague doctor with his heavy cloak and long beaked mask being our DarkFest mascot and logo. Once the tour was complete, we set about writing and filming our shorts.

All in all, the process took about 6 hours, and was immense fun. In spite of the high summer heat, actors looked fantastic in their period costumes. It was also great fun coming up with ideas for scenes which, for us, involved creating a bucket of fake blood, and my manhandling a six-foot mannequin slathered in hot sauce around the mens’ toilets. The less said of that the better…

It was surprising how quickly and easily things seemed to fall into place, despite the on-the-spot nature of the task. What I found interesting was being both screenwriter and actor – it made me appreciate how flexible you need to be with dialogue. As usual, I had written far more than I needed, and when it came to saying the lines I had to improvise around what I had initially intended to say in order to best fit the scene. I also really enjoyed being thrown into a creative situation with people I had never worked with before. My team members, Peace and Clare were fantastic and it was great being able to draw on their knowledge of the creative process – from the brainstorming stage right through to filming and production – in order to come up with something which (hopefully) reflected our respective ideas and abilities.

Photo from the film shoot for Cure or Be Cured showing the plague doctor with his patient
On-set photo from the shoot for ‘Cure or Be Cured’ – the Plague Doctor (Paul Jones) and the patient.

Huge thanks to everyone who took part, and to Groundlings for hosting us. Even bigger thanks to our brave facilitator, Roy Hanney, who kept the workshop fun and engaging but gave us a lot to think about, not to mention his help with camera work and other directorial duties. Roy is a part of the DarkFest team, and I’ve worked with him on previous projects, including DV Mission’s Dusk Til Dawn of the Dead film awards event in March 18. Our short film Cure or be Cured was shown on the walls of Southsea Castle as part of the opening night festivities for DarkFest 17.

Keep your eyes peeled for the fruit of our day’s labour when DarkFest rolls around – the teaser videos we created will be on online as the festival approaches, hopefully enticing you to attend the many macabre events on offer! #Darkfest18iscoming…


19th October to 11th November 2018
Portsmouth DarkFest will return for a third visitation
To celebrate the darker corners of Portsmouth’s imagination…

Check out the latest DarkFest news here.

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