Wednesday, February 28, 2007

'On the Lot' Search Feature Added by Contestant

There are just under 10,000 entries for one of sixteen spots on the directing reality show, On the Lot. All of these are available on the website, for anyone to view. The problem is that when the site was designed, a very valuable search option was left out. The only way to find a certain film was to slog through all the categories, which only reveals 20 movies at a time.

Enterprising applicant Josh Rencher has taken the initiative and created his own search engine, which addresses this problem. Now you can search by title and OTL username, which yields a list of results. Josh has done a great job with this and should be commended.

Of course, he also advertises a link to his own movie (which opens without going to the OTL website), allowing a rating and review within his search site. This is to be expected, and why not? He deserves the attention, no matter what his movie is like.

Pan’s Labyrinth

A Malicious Maze

I like a good gothic tale. Dark corners, pointed architecture and weird creatures are right up my alley. Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) is a writer-director who knows how to do gothic. He also knows how to use humor to take the edge off of his typically gruesome scenarios. With his latest film, the spanish-speaking El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth), humor is non-existent and we get a harsh crossing of real-world horror mixed with a young girl’s macabre fantasy world. It’s an unsettling film, a dark story in a fairy-tale wrapper that is hard to enjoy but easy to admire.

It’s 1944. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her pregnant mother to be united with her stepfather, the cruel Capitan Vidal (Sergi López). He has moved out to the wilderness with a division of troops to eradicate the rebels opposing Franco. It’s here that Ofelia meets a nasty looking faun, and is convinced that she could reclaim her place in the underworld by completing a few simple tasks. Meanwhile, the Capitan will stop at nothing to kill every rebel and any sympathizers--which may be under his very nose.

There are two stories going on at the same time here, Ofelia’s “fantasy” and the Capitan’s vicious crusade. You’d think that the movie would focus on the fantastical stuff, but the Capitan gets equal screen time, and then completely takes over for awhile. This is unfortunate, as Ofeila’s story is much more sympathetic and interesting, while her stepfather is cruel and unusual, killing locals (he beats one man by jabbing a wine bottle into his face), and torturing POWs (“If you can count to three without stuttering, I’ll let you go”).

The film is very gory, and often feels unnecessarily so. We get to see all kinds of disturbing images like a bone saw into a leg, a knife placed into a mouth and ripped out, and lots of bullets through the head. We get the idea, but for some reason del Toro wants us to wallow in his bloody mess. Ofelia encounters her own grotesqueries, but since they are more otherworldly, they are easier to take (that root that resembled a baby, however, was very hard to watch).

I also take issue when a filmmaker puts a young child into a hard-R rated film. It’s almost as if they’re innocence is being corrupted by placing them in a movie with such ugliness. This is a movie that no little girl should be watching, so why is one cast in it?

Pan’s Labyrinth is a well-crafted film with good performances and I have to admit I was never bored. It reminded me, in a way, of Woody Allen’s Match Point. That was another movie that was well-made, but when it was all over I found it hard to come up with good reasons to recommend it to others. I didn’t then, and I can’t now.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Don't Be a Filmmaking Tool--Use Them!

There is always some nifty gadget popping up on the web that I think I would need someday. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing something cool, deciding to pass, then needing it soon thereafter. It seems to happen on every shoot I go on, so I peruse several tool blogs looking for goodies that may come in handy. Many times I'll find stuff that may not be intended for filmmakers, but that apply anyway.

My last short film (Middle of Nowhere) was set at night, so I had several overnight shoots. Light was tough to come by sometimes, and I kept wishing I had some portable lamps to pass around. On Toolmonger, I came across a link to some cheap LED lights that would have come in real handy. They are aluminum, last 24 hours on 3 AA batteries, and only cost $6 a pair. Need some futuristic-looking prop lights for your sci-fi flick? These would do quite nicely as well.

Shooting in the field and need some more outlets? Cool Tools has a great solution to attach at the end of your 100' extension cord. It's called the Yellow Jacket 5 Outlet Adapter. It's spaced enough to allow multiple 'wall warts', can be daisy-chained together, is fairly compact, has cord locks, and only costs $7.29!

Sooner or later, you're going to need to strip a wire or two. Whether you are making some speaker cables for your editing setup or just need to reattach a plug on a frayed cord, wire strippers are a must. You probably already have a cheap pair that you picked up somewhere for free. Use these automatic strippers found at Rat Shack, and you'll never have to guess your wire size again (not to mention messing up and ending up with a shorter wire than you wanted). Very handy. Toolmonger has a tutorial on a similar (and more expensive) pair here.

These are all worthwhile buys. Even if you bought them all, you'd only be out $30--not bad for any movie-making cheapskate.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The 79th Annual Academy Awards: What Does it Mean to the Rest of Us?

Did you watch the Oscars last night? I did. In fact, I watch every year. While some may deride Hollywood’s yearly back-patting ceremony as pompous and elitist (which it is in some ways), it is also important to every filmmaker. It is one reason we all want to make movies, presenting a goal that we wouldn’t mind placing on our mantle someday.

Every year, no matter how well or poorly the show is produced, one thing remains constant: it’s inspiring. There is usually at least one montage of great films, that just makes you want to make your own stellar movie. This year the Academy paid tribute to foreign filmmaking, and while I recognized a few of the titles (like Rashomon and La Strada), there were many I did not know and wanted to seek out. Their imagery was as powerful as any of their American counterparts, reaffirming that the language of the visual is universal.

What age were we when we saw our first film? I’m guessing it was when we were very young, and we went to see a studio film with our parents. It wasn’t an indie flick, and it wasn’t on a tiny screen. It was big and loud and I don’t care what it was, it was incredible. Even if you didn’t want to be a filmmaker then, when you did, those first films left such an impression that you never forgot, and will probably pay tribute to them in your own work if you haven’t already.

For me, the next best thing to seeing a great film, is seeing great filmmakers get their just rewards. The whole process is very hard, can take forever, and is often ignored by the public. I feel totally consumed on a microbudget short film, and can only imagine what these folks go through for a huge production with millions of dollars on the line. The Oscar can be the icing on a fruitful career, or the continuation of a blossoming one.

Granted, the Academy is a big high school, and the winners are those voted “most popular” by their classmates, so travesties often occur. Scorsese finally won on his sixth try (which I did predict), but Alfred Hitchcock was nominated the same number of times and never won (he did get a consolation Irving J. Thalberg Award in 1968, however). My pick for the best movie of 2006 (Children of Men) wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, and was 0-3 in other categories. It’s too bad sometimes, but that’s democracy.

The show can also be just plain fun. Who could resist Ellen DeGeneres asking Steven Spielberg to take a picture with her next to Clint Eastwood? And then, upon seeing Spielberg’s shot, telling him “can you center our heads better”? What about the Broadway-inspired musical number with Will Ferrell and Jack Black? Or the shadow dancing troupe, Pilobolus? Or Jerry Seinfeld introducing the documentaries as “these five depressing movies”? There are always good moments worth waiting for.

Keep inspiring, Oscar, and I’ll keep watching...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cheap Special Effects Explosion

Recently in the news, the above video was broadcast showing an exploding house via a police dashcam. You never actually see the house explode (which takes place off camera), but the results of the explosion.

This is a great lesson on how to show a spectacular event which is typically out of your production budget. Notice that all that really happens (or that is pictured) is that there is a bright flash of light, the camera tilts, and debris flies in from camera left.

This could easily be faked by starting with a normal shot, then tilting the camera at an angle (no action should be taking place so the jump cut will work). When ready to portray the blast, have a ton of people off camera throwing trash into the frame (preferably up, so it will fall into it). Add smoke and a big fan, and you could pretty much replicate the above clip.

In post, add the flash and a loud sound effect. The featured video was actually silent, with all sounds being added by me, found on the web.

If you can really blow something up, I say do it (with all safety measures in place, of course). If you can't, there are creative alternatives that are the next best thing, and will save you a ton of money that could be better put into your movie elsewhere.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Free Public Domain Movies on the Web

The whole public domain concept is a pretty interesting one. Ideally, this means that when a copyright expires for anything, it falls into public hands to be done with whatever anyone wants. This has happened to a lot of stuff (classical music, for example), while others keep getting renewed, even if it means altering the law to do so.

Despite this, there are a lot of worthwhile films available on the web for anyone to see at no charge. This is a great way to see some great old stuff as well as newer stuff (like documentaries) that never had a copyright to begin with. Whatever the reason, you could spend literally hours fleshing out your film knowledge at no cost. What could be better?

The Internet Archive has been around since 1996, and not only contains films, but texts, audio, software and all kinds of junk. It currently lists 829 features, which appear in a quicktime window at the click of your mouse. This site has a lot, but my main issue is the tiny box in which you have to view the movie. With no way to expand it, you'll have to get pretty close to see any details. Still a good resource if you can't find a certain film anywhere else.

Public Domain Torrents also has a bunch of stuff, and gives you alternate formats which you can download to your computer. They even give you options to grab files that will play natively on your iPod, PSP, or PDA--great for public domain on the go. The downside is this site is a mess, with horrible web design. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done, and caters to mobile film geeks.

My favorite site is Free Movies & Documentaries. While using the same resources as PDT, it is much easier on the eyes, and features a large playback window (that can be expanded). There are even films here that I know are not in the public domain, but are somehow hosted by Google Video so they must be legit, right? Anyway, a great site with a lot of movies and good presentation.

So there you go. If you have been wondering about some oldies but goodies, now you can check them out on your computer without even a rental charge. I think I'll take full advantage and start with M, Detour, and Carnival of Souls. It's a moral imperative, you know.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What Makes a Good Short Film?

Upon entering the directing reality show competition On the Lot, I’ve had the opportunity to watch quite a few short films featured on their website. There are all kinds of genres, and a few mandatory rules. It can be no longer than five minutes in length (excluding credits), must have a beginning, middle and end (in a broad sense), and be basically PG-rated.

My experience (little as it may be) has shown that most shorts are constructed like jokes. There is a setup and a punchline. The inherent problem with this formula is that it doesn’t provide for anything in the middle. Some directors have great openings and a powerful end, but in between the two is a black hole of filler. Anytime I see people running in a short, I cringe. There is nothing wrong with a chase of some kind (as long as it’s warranted, of course), but often this just feels like the filmmaker forcing the audience from point A to B, with nothing else to say.

I like to think of the short form like a tasty sandwich. Is the bread the best part? Would you eat a sandwich with nothing in the middle? I’m not saying you discount the outside, but it must work with the meat and toppings for a complete experience. So it is with a short story. Do something interesting in the middle of your film to make people want to hang around for your great ending.

Another thing I notice is deficiencies in basic technical skill. Doing things like crossing the line, or failing to compose your shot properly, or not white balancing, or not using a microphone (forcing you to ride the volume), etc., all take the viewer out of the experience and cause you tune out. Some infractions are minor and will happen to anyone (like continuity problems), but others can be avoided with a little extra work. To be fair, you learn from doing, and if you do more, you should get better as you go. Just don’t repeat the same mistakes.

I also wish people would stop using their friends or family (or themselves) as the talent. This is fine if they happen to be actors, but when they’re not, it is so painful to endure. If I could communicate anything to other amateur filmmakers it is this: there are hungry actors all around you who want credits for their resume. Get the word out (acting classes are great resources), hold auditions and they will come. Actors can make or break you, even if you have a good script, so don’t overlook their value.

The short form is a wonderful precursor to the feature, and if you can get that right, the next step can be really exciting. I’m looking forward to it myself.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Scene Gems: Yoda's First Appearance in 'The Empire Strikes Back'

This is one of my favorite films of all time, and I love this hilarious scene between Jedi hopeful Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the grizzled Jedi Warrior. Created and voiced by Frank Oz (who has since become a fine director in his own right), Yoda was a fantastic puppet brought to life by Oz and his wonderful voice. The inverted speech patterns and throaty laughter helped make this character eternal forever after.

While the rest of the movie (as well as the series) paints Yoda as super-serious, here he is downright goofy and playful. I love this act he puts on for Luke, and that crazy laugh that has spawned several generations of imitators. I distinctly recall seeing this in the theater as a kid (yes, I'm old) and wondering why he was doing this--everyone knew he was a Jedi Master!

I also take great joy in the fact that 37 year-old puppet Yoda looks more convincing than the "younger Yoda" puppet in Phantom Menace and CGI Yoda in both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Why is that? I've concluded it must be Oz' involvement and his attention to detail, superior craftsmanship and excellent character creation. See George? Sometimes CGI isn't the end-all be-all. Let's hear it for old school!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Technique: The Ol' Revolving (or Tilted) Room Trick

Let's face it, special effects are cool and practical effects are even cooler. When you can pull of some cinematic skullduggery "live" with no post-production necessary, it's pretty nifty. One of my favorite examples of this is when the young Forrest Gump breaks out of his leg braces, and runs past the the camera. When the bullies pass, the camera pans to see Gump impossibly far ahead with a trail of dust in his wake--all in one unbroken shot. Awesome.

Another great (and as-old-as-the-hills) gimmick is the "revolving room". This involves a set with nailed-props placed in a circular "barrel" that can be turned. The camera is fixed on the same plane as the "floor", tricking the viewer into thinking this is "down". When the set turns, the actor appears to be walking on the walls, when in reality gravity is just doing its thing--it's the set and camera that are moving.

This was most famously used in the Fred Astaire film, Royal Wedding (1951), when he performs a dance number literally all over the place (Lionel Richie did the same thing in his Dancing on The Ceiling music video 35 years later). Remember when Johnny Depp got turned into a milkshake in A Nightmare on Elm Street and his blood poured up out of the bed? Or when a mutant Jeff Goldblum ran up the wall in The Fly? The list is endless (anybody can do it), and it's all thanks to our friend the revolving room.

The most innovative use of this effect is when there is another person involved. It's easy to wrap your head around this idea when only one person is in the shot, but add another actor and it's freaky. In the featured example, you want to believe the actress is laying "down", right? The truth is, it is she (along with the set) that is at an angle, not the actor.

Friday, February 16, 2007

’Middle of Nowhere’ Goes Live ‘On the Lot’--Finally!

After uploading my submission for the Spielberg/Burnett reality show almost five weeks ago, it is now available for rating and review. This is confirmation that the producers have my application and DVD, and now the waiting begins to see if I move on to the next phase of the show (interviews) or just move on.

I am a little disappointed that I didn’t make the home page under “most recent films” (you have to go to the “sci-fi & fantasy” category to find me) as that is where the most traffic is, and where you get the most views. The good news is that I can rest easy knowing that everything is in and I don’t have to worry that my stuff got lost under a pile somewhere. With today being the deadline for submissions (it has to have a postmark no later than February 16), I’m glad this part is over.

For more information on the show, you can peruse the OTL message boards, as well as read this MSNBC interview with the show’s casting director, Michelle McNulty. The most interesting tidbit found here is that the first show may contain more than the 16 finalists, which just increases everyone’s odds for getting in (or this: "they send a compilation reel to Burnett and Spielberg, who give back notes"). They say they are looking for good filmmakers who have good personalities, so here’s hoping I have both these qualities.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How to Raise Money for Your Movie

While I'm a big believer in the no-budget film, there may come a time when you'll need to raise money. You may be able to wrangle free gear and cast and crew for a short film, but once you decide to move into the feature realm, you'll need deeper pockets. It's unfair to people helping you out to continue to use them with no compensation. Plus, you may want some professional gear that you can only get from a rental house. After using a real dolly with solid steel track, I'm not sure I ever want to use anything else.

The latest issue of Microfilmmaker is out, and they have an good article on raising money for a smaller budget movie. Reprinted from the book Digital Filmmaking 101, it covers most ways a low budget producer can get some coin. Some of the points are common sense (don't use credit cards) while others are just plain silly (found money). It is still worth reading, and you may discover an avenue you had not considered before to get your production off of the ground.

One method outlined is grant money, which is "free" cash to fund your project. The trick is finding the grant that supports your type of film, then sticking religiously to the application requirements. Here is a good starting point for information on this type of fundraising.

If you are considering moving into six-figure budgets, give a listen to the recent "This Conference is Being Recorded" on Lance Weiler's Workbook Project. In this episode Lance interviews fundraising specialist Stu Pollard. Stu gives the lowdown on getting the dough and all the legal crap that goes with it. I think I'll stick with the low end, thank you very much.

He also points out an interesting concept that Civilian Pictures is trying. They allow investors to buy shares in various film projects. The bigger the budget needed, the more cost per share. While it's obvious how to become an investor, I'm not sure how to submit a film yet, but it bears investigating.

Whatever method you use, take Stu's advice and make sure your money (no matter how much) is in place before you start shooting. There's nothing worse than having to shut down your movie because the well has gone dry.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

iFilm Accepts 'Middle of Nowhere'--Atomfilms Says No Thanks

In an effort to promote my short, Middle of Nowhere, I've uploaded it to every prominent video sharing site I can think of. Two of these have a reputation for featuring short films and have been around for awhile--iFilm and Atomfilms.

Atomfilms, which pays filmmakers for accepted works based on traffic, had my upload for about a week before saying no. I was disappointed by this (who doesn't want to make a little back on their investment?), but not very surprised. After seeing a film with a similar idea recently go live, they probably felt my piece was beating a dead horse. The full details of my theory can be found in this previous post.

What startled me about iFilm (where I first saw internet sensations such as 405), was how quickly Middle of Nowhere was posted. The site said that it was up for review, but soon thereafter was available for public viewing.

This makes me wonder if iFilm has felt the pressures of other sharing sites like YouTube, and is adapting in order to stay alive. Their content no longer seems geared exclusively to artists, but is filled with viral stuff that has taken over the internet as of late. They were acquired by media giant Viacom in 2005, which may explain their shift in focus. I can't really complain, as my movie is now available in one more online venue.

It's interesting to note that for all the locations my movie is posted (which includes YouTube, Metacafe, Vimeo, Revver), the most feedback I have received comes from Stage6, the sharing site that uses the DivX codec.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lapdance: Five Reasons Why Every Filmmaker Should Own a Notebook Computer

A few years back I built a custom desktop computer for the sole purpose of editing video. I wanted lots of power, hard drive space, and screen real estate. It was a new experience for me, but one that I actually completed and used for awhile. Then my life became extremely busy with identical twin daughters and I found myself with no time to make movies while at home. I had just begun to produce a local TV show and had to be able to edit while at work.

I needed a laptop computer, and quickly found one that was small and lightweight (under 5 lbs.), but sufficient for my needs. I had started to bike into work, and didn’t want to be lugging around a monster on my back every morning (on top of the external drive I had to carry). This arrangement worked out well, as I would shoot the show on Friday, edit throughout the work week, and deliver it to the TV station the following Friday. It was hectic, but it worked, and was made possible because my whole setup (computer, camera and peripherals) fit into a backpack.

I soon discovered how useful these gizmos were, coming in handy for much more than just editing video on the go. Here are some other uses that make a laptop essential for any creator of video content.

Write Your Screenplay in the Park. Notebooks are, by nature, portable. This makes it possible to be inspired anywhere, at anytime. Go somewhere that supplies the mood you need, and write to your battery life’s content. You can always go to the library for a neutral location, which practically guarantees a wi-fi hotspot if needed. Craft your masterpiece using free software such as Celtx.

Enter a Tapeless World. Portable hard drives specifically made to capture video are available, but almost cost the same as a laptop, so why not use that instead? Plug your camera into your firewire port and record directly to your hard drive using your editor’s capture program (or something like Scenealyzer Live or DVrack). If you’re chicken, you can still leave a tape in the camera for backup, just be aware that most cameras will go to sleep under those conditions. If you have more than one port (like through an expansion card) you can record more than one camera at a time, for those multi-cam shoots (assuming your computer can handle it). You can get long firewire cables at Markertek.

Sounds better in Your Lap. Most audio circuits in cameras suck, so use whatever cool gear you have at your disposal and go right into your portable! Chances are the audio circuits suck there too, but you can always get a USB audio interface to improve your results. If you can’t seem to record directly into your editor using this method, try the famously free Audacity audio editor.

Pitch your Project Right at Your Target. When I was trying to sell the TV show, I had the pilot completed on my laptop. It was much easier to say “let me show you what the show will look like” and press play, then to pull out a DVD and say “do you have a DVD player here?” or “take this and get back to me, will you?” With the show ready to go at my fingertips, I can use the momentum gained with a potential client or investor to carry right into the movie/video or whatever.

Make Reshoots That Much Easier. When I had to reshoot some scenes for Middle of Nowhere, having a laptop was a godsend. Not only was it immensely easier to explain to the talent and crew what I wanted, but matching shots was a breeze. Of course, this relies on the fact that you’ve edited some footage already, but even access to the raw stuff can be invaluable. Scrubbing through a timeline on an NLE is much nicer than looking at tapes--especially if everyone is waiting on you.

While not obvious at first, it became clear to me very quickly that after a good camera and microphone, a laptop computer can be filmmaker’s best friend. It could be yours, too.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Viral Video Experiment: The One Minute Movie

Everyone wants to do what they love for a living, and filmmakers are no different. With the explosion of YouTube and other video sharing sites, the internet is a potentially new frontier to make some money by making movies. I’ve been pondering lately about how this could be possible, but there are several roadblocks to overcome.

While we all wait for YouTube to activate their profit sharing model, Metacafe seems to be the next best option. They pay based on numbers of views (you start building a balance after 20,000), and some have done well using this method. Revver is another possibility (the Mentos/Diet Coke videos were made available here), but relies on ads that run at the end of the video. When a viewer clicks on it, you get a small cut. I like Metacafe’s method better, as I think it yields more results. Every view counts there, while only every click on an ad counts on Revver. Do the math.

Another issue is content. The most watched videos on any sharing site seem to be non-narrative in nature. Even within my own YouTube videos, the one that has the most looks is a stack of pumpkins getting blown up with dynamite. I didn’t even shoot this one, but was given it by my sister-in-law. I put it on my site because it was pretty cool, and she used a tripod. All I did was give it some proper tags (explode, dynamite, etc.) and it’s been watched over 1,500 times in three months, and I fully expect that number to increase.

Then there is the time element. There is no way of knowing how many people actually watch a video all the way through after clicking on it (Stage6 is one site that gives you this info), and if people are like me, they click away fast. Especially on videos longer than a minute or two. I’m guessing that if you don’t grab the viewer in thirty seconds or less, they are long gone.

So I came up with an idea: the One Minute Movie. These would be fully-realized very short stories that transpire in exactly sixty seconds. They would all be different (not like webisodes of the same plot), so if you didn’t like the movie you just saw, you could come back (ideally) next week and see what the new One Minute Movie was like. Viewers could even make suggestions about what they wanted to see, to give them a feeling of being part of the whole process.

I had one of these already in the can for a Gizmodo contest I participated in last year. Called Midnight, it was a noir tale that had to be told in one minute. I changed the name to One Minute Movie: Midnight, and uploaded it to Metacafe’s Producer Rewards program. Since there was a femme fatale involved, I placed the word ‘sexy’ as one of the tags, hoping to drive a lot of traffic to the movie.

So far, not much as happened. As of this writing, the movie has less than sixty hits. This may be due to its already existing on YouTube (it’s been watched 779 times), where it is not brand new. Most likely it’s because no one knows about it. The same holds true for any movie: no promotion, no viewers. This is one area I really need to work on, and will have to aggressively if I want this whole thing to pan out.

I think the One Minute Movie is a good concept, and can even work out to pay a bill or two. But, as with all filmmakers, I might have to make quite a few movies before one of them becomes a hit, viral or otherwise.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Scene Gems: A Boy Pushes Himself to Compete with His Genetically Superior Sibling in 'Gattaca'

Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) is thoughtful science fiction, a well-written morality play set in the near future when engineering your own child for excellence is a reality. In this sequence, the "inferior" brother, Vincent (played later in the film by Ethan Hawke), not only suffers from societal prejudice, by also by the preconceptions held by his own family.

The dialogue here is very good, and perfectly captures the main theme of the entire film: no matter who we are, we can be anything we want--"facts" be damned. The visuals are powerful (water, a symbol of birth), the actors good, and the wonderful score by Michael Nyman is very effective.

Niccol would go on to strike gold one year later with his script for The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey and directed by Peter Weir. I like that movie as well, but Gattaca is one of my personal favorites.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Technique: Airsoft Guns Make Great Prop Firearms

DISCLAIMER: Remember that whatever kind of firearms you use in a production, always inform local law enforcement about what you are doing. No movie is worth the price of someone getting hurt or killed due to a prop weapon being mistaken for a real one.

When I decided to produce my short film Middle of Nowhere, one of the biggest issues was the gun used in the story. Not only is it wielded by the character of Carrie, but the script refers to her exiting the car "gun blazing". This presented a major problem: how do I get a hold of a gun that I can discharge (many times if retakes were needed) without causing the police to show up and halt production?

After deciding not to go with a real blank-firing gun due to expense, I discovered the next best thing, which is almost better than the real thing: Airsoft. Airsoft is a sport similar to paint-balling where participants fire tiny plastic BBs at each other using very realistic looking guns. The plastic versions can be had very cheaply, while the very authentic metal versions can cost quite a bit. All will work as non-firing props, but there is a certain kind that works especially well for a movie.

These are known as "gas blow back" (GBB) models that when charged with a type of propane called "green gas", have actions that blow back like real semi-automatics. They are virtually silent, and don't have to fire BBs to operate. Due to federal law, they all come with orange-tipped barrels that need to be painted or removed (alcohol worked for me), but when that's done they look great.

Of course, when using Airsoft guns on a shoot, there is no muzzle flash or ejected shell casings. I was shooting at night, and figured most people wouldn't notice the lack of brass, but the flash was very important for obvious reasons. When shooting, my actress suggested that she take the cue from the gun and flip her wrist to simulate the gun kicking. This became very important when I took the footage into post-production.

Muzzle flashes can be added in post using several methods, but I prefer the easiest: dedicated software. EffectsLab Lite is a program designed with the action filmmaker in mind, with one of its primary functions being to import footage needing gun effects. It lets you pick from a variety of looks (the prop I used, a Beretta 9mm, was actually a preset) and settings so you can make each flash unique. The best part is each of your effects can be manipulated in 3-D space, making them look like they are really pointed in whatever direction your prop is pointing.

Knowing where to add each effect was easy with the a GBB Airsoft gun. Place the flash in the frame directly preceding the slide getting tossed back. That coupled with the actor mimicking the gun's kickback makes everything look great.

The only step left was to render and re-import the footage back into the editor to tweak. This involved not color correcting the muzzle flash frames (which make it look like Carrie's face is illuminated by the flash for a split second), and adding a cool sound effect. My favorite free source for sound bites is FindSounds, an excellent search engine on the web. It gives you a ton of choices, and I found a great, loud bang for my gun.

Whatever your script calls for is readily available in the Airsoft market. It will take more work than the real thing, but the results can be just as good and give you infinitely more control and saved money that you can implement elsewhere in your budget.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

TiVo to be Portal for Amazon Unbox Downloads

Some great news for independent filmmakers has just come down the pike from TiVo and Amazon's Unbox download service. Instead of just being able to grab movies and watch them on your computer (which not many of us do or even want to do), Amazon is working with TiVo to make their entire library available for rental on series 2 or 3 TiVo boxes (but not DirectTiVos) with a broadband connection.

While this finally makes the long-desired connection between the internet and your TV a reality for movie studios, the best news is that indie content producers could have access to this distribution channel as well. Customflix is Amazon's service that allows anyone with suitable material to have their stuff available for download via Unbox (something iTunes doesn't offer). Promotion is still up to you, but with an installed user base of 1.5 million, the opportunity is huge.

Still in the beta stage, this service has yet to be rolled out. TiVos are great devices in and of themselves (my 6-year-old ReplayTV is still kicking), but this could be great new frontier for filmmakers of all budgets and abilities. Viva Tivo!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Online Video Competitions: Drive for the Prize

This Superbowl ad was the result of an online contest

“What’s my motivation?” This phrase is a long-running joke referring to what method actors say to their directors. They have to know what is motivating their character in order to produce a “realistic” emotion. The same could be said for filmmaking itself. Without some kind of motivating force, there is a very good chance that nothing will ever get put to tape or film.

If you have ever taken any kind of production class, motivation was easy: your teacher gave you an assignment. It is always a great exercise of your talent to be giving a specific set of parameters to work within. Sometimes they are pretty loose (like just a specific genre) to very narrow (an actual script). Participating in ideas other than your own can be very healthy for an artist, especially if it’s something you would not normally touch.

You’re no longer in school? Turn to the internet. The web has become a great resource for filmmakers to show off their abilities through a plethora of short film contests. Sometimes these are companies asking for commercial spots, bands asking for music videos, or websites looking to give away something cool. New ones emerge on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis, and always have some prize attached to generate interest and web traffic.

For anyone who has ever languished through the festival circuit, these contests are a godsend. Gone are the expensive entry fees. Gone is the cost of duplication and mailing. Gone is the rejection of not even being able to get in. All that is usually required of you is to encode your project in a specific format, fill out an electronic form, upload and wait. Another nicety is that you’ll usually get to see your competition’s work before the deadline, which is unheard of in a festival. Traveling to the fest is also disposed of since any computer with an internet connection is the actual venue!

While winning in and of itself is always a satisfying payoff, victory can really rake in the rewards. The first contest I entered was giving away a shiny new laptop worth $1500 (I didn’t win). Another promised $1000 cash and a trip to New York (I didn’t win). Still another dangled a $5000 gift certificate to a popular online film and video outfitter (I didn’t enter). It’s mind-blowing what you could come away with, and a pity if you don’t at least try.

The trickiest part of this whole scenario is finding the contests. Those with deep pockets will advertise, but others can be trickier to locate. Google can be an effective tool in this quest--simply search for ‘movie contest’ (and its variations), and you’ll get quite a bit to peruse. This blog can also keep you informed, and I am adding a ‘contests’ link in the sidebar that will list online competitions and their due date. The only requirements for this list is that there is no entry fee and some kind of actual prize.

Something else you should be aware of, are contests local to your area. Radio stations do this kind of thing all the time (usually with cash to give away), and can be ripe for the picking. Remember, many folks who enter these things are not filmmakers, giving you a distinct advantage. Just don’t be shocked when an obviously inferior product beats out your masterpiece. You are still at the mercy of one or more judges, who may not share your eye or agree with your perspective. It’s a crap shoot, and all you can do is put forth your best effort and hope someone recognizes it.

Getting out of your comfort zone in this manner is a wonderful step toward developing whatever skills you now possess, and discovering new ones you weren’t even aware of. Your reel will expand, your desire will increase, and you may even be a few bucks richer. Even if you don’t win, you can’t lose.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Everything's Been Done...Again

WARNING! Please do not read this article until you’ve seen my short film Middle of Nowhere, or the above short, Reflexus. I comment heavily on the story structure of both, completely giving away any surprises these stories hold. Half the fun of movies like this are watching them unravel to their Twilight Zone-style conclusion.

About a week ago, I submitted my most recent short film, Middle of Nowhere, to Atomfilms. They pay filmmakers for the films they accept, based on how well the website does, as well as how may viewings your movie gets. I like this model, and wouldn’t mind recouping some of my $900 budget.

When I went to the site recently, I found a short film called Bullet Loop on their home page. After watching it, I was bummed to find it had the same story structure as my film, probably lessening the chances I’ll get accepted. I think Middle of Nowhere is far better than Bullet Loop, which doesn’t go any deeper than the looping story gimmick, and looks cheaply produced.

In the comments someone called it a ripoff of another movie on the site, Reflexus. This movie boasts excellent production values (it looks like it was shot on film), tries much harder at holding viewer interest, and is well thought out. While the submission date is listed as 2001, someone comments that they first saw it at the St. Louis film festival in 1997, predating my movie by ten whole years.

I had never heard of Reflexus when I wrote Middle of Nowhere two years ago. I had, however, seen several professionally produced products that definitely influenced the creation of my story. These fall into two categories: (1) the time loop, and (2) bumping into copies of yourself.

I first encountered the Time Loop story structure in a short film shown on HBO called 12:01pm (1990). It followed a man who was trapped in a time anomaly, and kept repeating the same hour of the day over and over. Then came Groundhog Day (1993), the very popular studio film which had weatherman Bill Murray doomed to repeat the same day over and over. Two other examples I can cite are the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” (1992), and the X-Files episode “Monday” (1999). All of these followed a “rubber band” structure: the plot plays out until a certain event transpires, then time snaps back to the point of origin.

Bumping into Copies of Yourself also occurred in the Star Trek: TNG episode “Time Squared” (1989), as well as Back to the Future Part II (also in 1989). I also found this type of story to go as far back as 1941 when Robert A. Heinlein published his short story “By His Bootstraps.” These stories all find the main character interacting with one or more versions of themselves due to time travel.

I had admired all of these (although I had never read the Heinlein short) when I wrote my script. While I liked most of them (I wasn't a big fan of the Back to the Future sequel), I didn’t want my film to just be a copy of what had gone before. I wanted my plot to be more circular, with characters to make decisions that would perpetuate the loop, instead of fate jerking them back to the beginning. I think I succeeded, but like all good ideas, I was not the first one to use it.

Reflexus was written, directed, and edited by Mark Yoshikawa, who has since gone on to become a feature film editor. His last movie was The New World, where he worked for acclaimed director Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). Next up is The American Pastime, shot here in Utah and due out this year. I can only hope that ten years after my film, I will be in a place as desirable as Yoshikawa’s.

Letters From Iwo Jima

Unique Perspective on Famous Offensive

Earlier this year Clint Eastwood directed Flags of Our Fathers, a WWII drama that focused on several soldiers and how they fit into the famous photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Now comes Letters from Iwo Jima, also from Eastwood, that tells the story of the Japanese soldiers involved in that very same battle. It’s a very refreshing change, not only due to the altering of perspective, but simply because it’s a much better film.

It’s 1945, and U.S. forces are closing in on the strategically important island of Iwo Jima. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is put in charge of defending it from the massive assault by the Americans. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a simple baker drafted into service, is one of the many who feel they will never see their families again. All have vowed to fight to the death to protect the Empire--whether it be at the hands of the enemy or their own.

The first thing that jumps out at you in this movie is that these are all Japanese actors, speaking in their native language. Letters is subtitled, which makes for a more real experience, despite the fact that you have to drop your eyes to the bottom of the screen to read what everyone is saying. You get used to it quick, so don’t let this keep you from seeing the movie--you’ll be missing out.

Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha) is his usual powerhouse self, being firm and demanding when called to rally the troops, but is soft and understated when he needs to be. This is a complex man who wants so desperately to beat back the attack, despite the overwhelming odds. He also cares about his men, and would rather see them fall back and regroup rather then kill themselves in ritual suicide, something his officers don’t understand.

The young Ninomiya is equally as good, as the counterpoint to the General. He just wants to go home and reunite with his wife and daughter (whom he’s never seen). He’s a terrible soldier, but a compassionate man. It’s him who we relate to and really care for. He’s us.

As with all war films of late, Letters is pretty gory, but doesn’t linger on it. In one horrific scene, Saigo’s platoon is falsely told they are to kill themselves, which most of them do--with hand grenades.

There are also effective quiet moments that convey the idea that the Japanese soldiers were very similar to their American counterparts. When a letter from a dead American’s mother is read by a bilingual officer to his men, it’s clear that the letter could have been for any of them.

Letters from Iwo Jima is good movie from Clint Eastwood, far more focused and well executed than his sister film, Flags of Our Fathers. It’s a rare look from the eyes of those who were more like us than we may have ever imagined.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Scene Gems: Grace Kelly's Entrance in 'Rear Window'

Grace Kelly was one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on the silver screen. Alfred Hitchock knew this, and put her in three of his movies. Rear Window is the best of these, and one of the best ever. In this clip we first meet Kelly's character Lisa Fremont, who desperately wants Jimmy Stewart's Jeff to marry her. He's resisting for some unknown reason...

I like this scene not only for Kelly's smoldering introduction (and a great on-screen kiss), but also the instant chemistry demonstrated by the two stars. There's some snappy dialogue (penned by John Michael Hayes), and notice the command Hitchcock has over his camera, even in this brief example.

Children of Men

Raw Power and Long Takes

Last year was a pretty bad year for the movies. While there were some very good ones, I was disappointed that I had not seen at least one film that I would give my highest rating to. I had heard of a new film from Alfonso Cuarón whose most mainstream success was the third (and best) Harry Potter movie. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that this would be the person who would co-write and direct Children of Men, easily the best and most powerful film of 2006, just now going into wider release.

In the near future (2027 we are told) infertility has ravaged the planet--no one can procreate. It has been 18 years since the last human birth, and that person has just been killed. With the human race at death’s door, society has collapsed into chaos. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) seems content to keep to himself and not get involved. When contacted by old flame Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo reluctantly agrees to help transport the young girl Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who turns out to have the answer to the world’s dilemma--an unborn child.

Children of Men was shot using a hand-held camera for the entirety of the running length. Despite the fact that I typically hate this choice of cinematography, it plays very well here. The camera follows Theo around practically becoming a character in itself, as if it were a documentary. This is reinforced by the very elaborate action setups that play out around the actors often for many minutes between edits. It’s impressive (especially later when the characters enter a war zone), and make the proceedings feel very real.

There is also a powerful emotional core that anchors you to the characters. Theo is the protagonist, and we witness his change as he goes from aloof worker drone to a very involved, weaponless action hero. He knows how high the stakes are, and is obsessed with getting Kee to The Human Project, which could save humanity from extinction. Owen (Inside Man) plays Theo to perfection, as we see the gamut of emotions that play out across his craggy face.

I also liked the risks the movie takes on the story level. We all know that some twists are coming to end Acts I and II, but I was startled both times at what transpired. The second twist is especially shocking, immediately upping the ante for all involved. This is an excellently constructed story, and at 100 minutes, is just the right length.

Children of Men slowly tightens its grip around you and doesn’t relent until the final credits roll. It’s well constructed, expertly acted, and emotionally stunning. There is a sequence toward the end of this film that is so powerful and profound, it became a transcendent experience and had me in tears. It’s that kind of movie, and it gets my highest rating.


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