Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shrek the Third

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

The March of the Sequels continues in the month of May with another installment of that lovable Ogre voiced by Fat Bastard, er, Mike Myers. Yep, Shrek the Third continues the story of the Big Green and his Ogre-iffic wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), sidekick Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and his sidekick Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas). Will this motley crew be able to ward off the evil Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and his newly-made army of villainous cohorts? The bigger question is will we laugh in the process? The Shrek series is getting a bit long in the tooth, and Shrek the Third is only a mildly amusing entry in the trilogy.

While Shrek has inherited the kingdom of Far Far Away, he doesn’t want to rule it. He just wants his life back in the swamp with his family. Matters become more pressing when the king dies, but Shrek sees a way out when he discovers distant relative Arthur (Justin Timberlake) and attempts to bring him home. While away, evil Prince Charming is plotting to take over Far Far Away and kill Shrek in front of the entire kingdom. Sounds funny, eh?

To be fair, Shrek the Third is kind of humorous. It sticks to the basic formula of mixing slapstick with referential humor (the school Arthur attends is at “Worcestershire”), only doesn’t hit as often as its predecessors. For a movie like this to crossover, the adults have to enjoy it as much as the kids, and it doesn’t work as much on this level. There are funny bits (especially toward the end as the good guys repel the invasion), but as a whole I found myself snickering when I should have been laughing.

No fault can be found in the voice talent, who fit right into these roles like a comfortable glove. Myers is great as big lug Shrek, hitting the perfect tone and Scottish accent. Eddie Murphy also works well as the hyperactive Donkey, and even the unrecognizable Timberlake carries his weight. Eric Idle also has a nice supporting part as the wacky wizard Merlin, the retired (and retarded) magic teacher.

Shrek the Third really just sticks to the formula created previously, and doesn’t deviate much. It succeeds on the level that it’s faithful to the first two movies, but fails in that it doesn’t take on a life of it’s own. It’s sort of feels like a deleted scenes reel: sometimes funny, but not really necessary.

Spider-Man 3

Spidey Goes Goth

Spider-Man is back! The web-slinger returns to excite crowds and rake in a ton of cash as the first official summer movie, Spider-Man 3. All the principals have returned, others have joined, and the running time is very long. Does this arachnid chapter measure up to the last two, or does it suffer from sequelitis? Critic-proof as it is (it’s already made $247 million as of this writing), does it deliver? While it is entertaining, SM3 suffers from lack of focus, hyperactive action, and too much blubbering.

Spider-Man has become a celebrity. New York loves him. Long time love Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is worried about his newfound fame, and lack of attention to her. Big fan Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) might get in the way, but the real threats are from the trio of the betrayed friend (the new Green Goblin), escaped mutated criminal (Sandman), and alien goo (Venom). How is Peter Parker (Tobey MacGuire) going to take on all these baddies and pay the rent?

The biggest problem this movie has is that it develops a less interesting storyline (Sandman), at the expense of a very interesting one (Venom). Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways) does okay with the material he is given, but the story is trite (sad sack crook who just wants to pay for his daughter’s treatments), and doesn’t fit well into the Peter Parker universe, even though the writers try to shoehorn it in there.

The Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) character, is far more interesting. He hates Parker, and just wants him dead. When he becomes Venom, is a formidable foe and quiet scary at times. His plot takes far too long to develop, and when it finally does, the movie is over. This is an oversight on the screenplay level, and Sandman should have been dropped to give the Brock/Venom story room to breathe. As it stands it’s okay, but like Darth Maul, Venom is gone just as he was becoming relevant.

Another problem is the frantic pace of the action sequences. Director Sam Raimi is noteworthy for how much control he exhibits on the screen, but he seems to have lost some of that here. The first clash between Spidey and the New Goblin is so out of control, you can’t follow it, and often suffer from vertigo due to the rapid movement and cutting. Things do settle down after this, but this should be a lesson to any filmmaker: faster is not better, only more confusing.

Despite all this, I did like the movie. It is exciting, has a good foundation of familiar characters, a well paced (if misdirected) story, and a good message. Spider-Man is a hero we can all like, and would want to be (minus the poverty). Saving New York should always be this fun. I just hope this is the low point and not the high point of the 2007 summer blockbuster season.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tool Time: Camera Mounts and Gooey Gore

I thought about posting today about yesterday's results show on On the Lot, but saw Bill Cunningham's post, and decided against it. Bill gives a great list of things we can learn from the first crop of one-minute films from the finalists, so I'll just direct you there. I pipe in with my two cents in the comments section if you're really desperate for more opinion.

Instead, I've cobbled some fairly recent info that might help you on your next low budget shoot. I hope these will help you overcome one of many hurdles you will face on the road to completion.

Adapters for Bottom-Loading Cameras

Whoever thought it would be a good idea to insert a tape into the bottom of a camcorder should be smacked. The mechanism is always right next to the tripod thread indicating that someone might want to put their camera (and rightly so) on some sticks. However, if you want to change tapes, you have to remove the camera--brilliant! I would never touch a bottom-loader, but if you are unfortunate to have access to one, DM Accessories has an adapter letting you keep the cam on the tripod while you rotate tapes. Now that's a good idea.

Mic Stand to Tripod Mount
Here's homemade adapter that converts a broken mic holder into a tripod connection. This is for all those filmmakers that have plenty of mic stands laying around, but no tripod (hey, it could happen!). This nifty instructable is handy, small and easy to make. Great for taping those studio sessions when the band uses your tripod as a guitar stand.

Effects for the Grand Guignol Filmmaker
I'm not a splatter-hound, but I know there are lots of you out there, especially in low budget land. This instructable gives very detailed directions about making a realistic (yuck!) gunshot wound. Even if you don't need this kind of prosthetic, the materials used here could apply to many a gross effect. I'm always impressed by the amount of work that goes into this type of thing, even for "simple" wounds like this one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The ARKOFF Formula, Part 2: 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of'

'The ARKOFF Formula' was a model B-movie mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) designed all his films around. This old post by Bill Cunningham brought this paradigm to my attention, and it has great value for microcinema filmmakers. This is another part in a series of articles elaborating on this formula. Also see Part 1, 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!', Part 5, Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.

 'R' is for Revolutionary
One of the best things we can do for ourselves as filmmakers is get people to remember our work. A viral effect is created when someone sees what we've done and tells someone else about it. Even better is when when get them to talk about something in the movie that they had never seen before. Now your film is branded as "that movie with cool thing X in it". If someone is drawn to your film because of X, imagine what would happen if that person finds another X? Not only is this good movie making, but great marketing, which is at least half the equation for success.

Create a Striking Character
One thing I've been noticing in the last year is that filmmakers are using characters with an arresting image that forever associates them with the film. Last year's Head Trauma had a mysterious hooded figure, and this year's Sex Machine has a guy with different colored arms and bandaged head. These figures remind me of other stunning characters/images such as Michael Myers in Halloween (1978) and Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko (2001). When you hear those titles, those pictures instantaneously pop into your head. All these characters have their faces covered, making them mysterious and sinister (and great on a poster), another lesson we can learn.

Cast Up and Comers

Wouldn't it be great if an actor from your film went on to fame and fortune? Can you imagine what that would do to your film's sales? When casting, make a real effort to find real talent. Don't just use your family and friends (unless they are destined for fame), but audition actors and try hard to find truly talented people. Spotting a future star is a gift in and of itself, but if you notice someone with that sparkle, get them in your movie! Even if they are not right for the part they are reading, give them another role, or make another, but don't let them get away. Your movie will be that much better with them in it, and if they go on to the big time, you will really benefit.

Use Innovative Camerawork
I'm sure that when Arkoff said "Use some new photographic devices" he was referring to a gimmick such as "Shot in Insane-O-Vision!" or something of that ilk. That's okay if you're going for cheese, but what about the rest of us? Make your movie unique by shooting a sequence (or sequences) in a unique way, that will set your film apart. Even if it is just one really cool shot, it will get remembered. One thing (among lots) that I really admire about Alfred Hitchcock is that he used extreme technique when it was needed, and not for the whole movie. It was this contrast that made the cool stuff stand out. Think of Psycho (1960). Would that shower scene have worked so well if the whole movie had been shot in rapid-fire mode? Okay, so that's shooting and editing, but you get the idea.

Do Something Neat in Post
There are sooooo many tools available in the post production phase that can help your project to stand out. Aside from good editing, you can accent your piece by tinting the footage in various ways, bleeding the color out, or accenting others. Figure out what the mood of your movie is, then highlight that theme with a post-production sheen. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) had an amazing look of retro-luminosity. In my own short, Sweet Music, I bled most of the color except for reds which foreshadowed a woman in a red dress. With our current toolset, your choices are practically limitless.

The bottom line is make sure there is something 'new' and exciting for people to take away from your film. It will make their experience better, not to mention yours, when the good feedback (attached to dollar signs) comes rolling in.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day, 'Star Wars' Style!

Here's a little ditty I found that should keep you entertained for a bit. Some enterprising editor as turned the original Star Wars Trilogy into a very good silent movie! Watch for the "keystone kops" fast-motion, and the great music (and explosions right on the money). It's a wonderful little tribute that emphasizes the roots of all films.

Tomorrow I return with another installment of 'The ARKOFF Formula'. Until then, have a great holiday, and I'm going to enjoy the rest of my vacation...

Friday, May 25, 2007

'Star Wars' at Thirty: Five Lessons for the Micros

Thirty years ago today Star Wars was released upon an unsuspecting public. The story of the farm boy in space that unseats an Empire changed Hollywood, and created a cultural phenomenon. Oh yeah, and it made some kid named George Lucas very rich (due to his merchandising rights), and one very powerful player. It was the death of the quest for The Great American Film, and the birth of the instant Great American Hit. Jaws may have been the first blockbuster, buy how many kids in the current generation are familiar with the phrase “You’re going to need a bigger boat”?

So what can we learn from this trend-setting film, and how do we apply it to our low budget flicks? I realize we’re talking about an effects-laden space epic, but just because something is big doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. All of us have been influenced by big Hollywood movies (I’d venture to guess it’s those that have set us on the road to filmmaking--not indies), and boiling a big film like this down to it’s component parts can help us with our projects, budget notwithstanding.

Here are five things that helped Star Wars work, that we can implement as well:

A Small Cast of Core Characters
The basic cast of Star Wars is really only five people (Luke, Ben, Han, Leia, Vader). These people make all the decisions that drive the story, and impact the sub-characters (Threepio, R2-D2, Chewbacca, Tarkin). Keep your cast small (no matter how big the plot), and your audience will remained focused. The Star Wars prequels made a big mistake by expanding the cast, which diluted interest. Writing and casting five characters in your movie is very doable, even with few resources.

A Simple Story
Steven Spielberg one said that he likes ideas he can hold in the palm of his hand. The synopsis of your film (or logline) should be one sentence long. Star Wars, while a sweeping space opera, fulfills this requirement as well. “A young farmer on a distant planet becomes involved in an galaxy-wide rebellion, thwarting an evil empire by destroying their ultimate weapon.” I’m sure this could be written better, but you get the idea: keep things simple and straightforward. Lately, I’ve been learning this lesson the hard way.

The Wow Factor
Star Wars revolutionized the special effects industry with the advent of “motion-controlled” cameras. These were basically computer controlled robotics with cameras attached, allowing identical multiple passes. In this way you could create composites using a moving camera, opposed to just static composites. CGI technology has replaced motion control, but it was new then and allowed a lot of cool stuff. I’m not saying that you need to invent some kind of movie tech, but do something people haven’t seen much of, and your stock will go way up. This is especially true if it actually supports the story, and isn’t just visual junk food.

Great Sound Design
Ben Burtt was the sound effects guy on Star Wars and he went out an recorded lots and lots of original effects required by the script. No one really knew what a blaster sounded like, and he had to create them by tapping on the high tension wires that supported telephone poles with a metal object. Tweaking in post created what we associate today with that “laser-gun” sound. Your movie will benefit greatly as well, with care taken in the sound department. Even if it’s just ambient noise in a restaurant, sound is oh, so critical. Find a good sound guy (and a good post production mixer), and you’ll be amazed at the depth of believable atmosphere they give you.

An Awesome Score
Equally important is music. Lucas’ original idea for the score of Star Wars was to use a synthesizer, but he made a wise choice with a classical-type sound that made it timeless. Can you even think of that movie without the famous theme going through your head? Even if you don’t have access to John Williams, there are lots of composers out there that will give you an original score that will elevate your film to the next level. I was very fortunate in one that I found, and you can be too. Just don’t think of a composer as a luxury, but a necessity. The difference they make is huge.

Of course I could also make a list of the five things Star Wars teaches us to avoid (hammy acting, cornball dialogue, a slow first half, an uninvolved director, and "special edition" tampering), but it's not nice to pick on someone when it's their birthday...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Bad Review and "Crossing the Line"

If you'd like to participate in reviewing my short film (featured above), please watch it first before reading below. Plot spoilers and associated comments will most likely alter your original thoughts, so please watch first and read second!

I had a unique opportunity recently. A blog I really like and respect ($1000 Film), posted about why "Short Films Suck" and then asked filmmakers to submit their shorts for review. I did, and today received quite a roasting for my short, Middle of Nowhere. This is the first in-depth review I've received, as the most I could get out of others boiled down to "it was cool" or "I didn't get it." $1000 Film's take wasn't very flattering, but I've learned some good things from it.

After explaining the setup, and a connection with the Twilight Zone (one of my main influences) this comment is made:

...there is a fine line between telling a story of unexplained weirdness and just plain confusion. This film has definitely crossed the line; it just is confusing.

This perspective isn't too much of a shock, as I've had several people tell me that it went over their heads. I felt when I wrote the script that it was pretty clear what was happening, with the 'why' not needing to be explained. Maybe I should rethink this. Watching movies like Memento, Donnie Darko, and Primer may be having a negative effect on my writing. I think I need to work on clarity and use the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid!) theory.

...the issue is that there isn’t anyway for the audience to connect with the protagonists.

I totally agree, but the short form with any kind of story really prohibits this. If you want to get to know the characters well in a five minute movie, where to you fit the story in? Shorts are all about plot, a small event that the viewer peeks in on. I gave about a minute to establish that these two like each other (her head on his shoulder, he rubs her head, smiles), but I had to move on if I wanted any kind of narrative. This is probably why the reviewer dislikes shorts so much--not much connection to the characters. Not the only reason he disliked my movie, unfortunately.

Then the woman sees someone run across the road behind her in her mirror and her immediate reaction to this is to get a gun from the glove compartment and chase him into the woods — why?

This is a pretty good point. I thought I established that she was either police or military by his line of "cover me", but everyone seems startled (and/or confused) when she pulls out the gun and leaves the car. I admit that this action now seems more compelled to move the story along, rather than something born of her character. Why would she leave? If you saw something run behind your car, would you run after it, even if you were armed?

I kept hoping that there would be an incredibly clever Twilight Zone pay off, which would give the audience the one piece of the puzzle that would allow them to go “Oh, so that’s what was going on.” In which case this could have been a really good short.

I thought the screeching tires sound at the end wrapped it all together, but not this time. The only faint praise was this:

I mean it looks OK, the acting’s not bad...

This hurts a bit since I spent a lot of time on lighting and framing (especially since the whole story takes place at night in the woods--a tall order), but if your movie doesn't work for someone, technical prowess means little.

...but where I can see the actors really struggling is with why they’re doing the things they’re doing.

I was really lucky to get the (auditioned) actors that we had, and felt they did well. I wasn't able to work with them as much as I wanted, due to struggling with tech issues, which I will address the next time out. I know performances are key, and I want to contribute and be there for my actors. This is hard when you are wearing many hats and spreading yourself thin, which is pretty common when trying to do a lot with a little.

Overall, a pretty harsh review, but there are lots of lessons I can learn. Focus on connecting with the characters (which will be easier in a feature) and make sure their actions make sense. Keep things crystal clear so you don't lose your audience, and simplify, simplify, simplify!

What do you think? I encourage anyone reading this blog to review my movie and give me your thoughts in the comments below. I love input and would love to hear your opinion and how accurate you feel the above review was. Growth is my desire, so please help me with your observations. It only makes me want to do better next time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

'On the Lot' Finally Premieres on Fox

American Idol for Filmmakers hit the air last night, after a long wait by this blogger. I had created a short film specifically for entry in the Spielberg/Burnett reality show, which I thought was pretty good (of course), and would at least get me to the interview phase. Well, it didn't, and part of me was pretty dejected that my best effort wasn't good enough for even the first cut. Now the show is here and I feel much better, actually enjoying what Fox had put together.

After a gooey "hooray for Hollywood" opening, the group of 50 (down from 12,000 entrants and 200 who were granted interviews) were led into an auditorium where they met their intimidating judges: directors Garry Marshall (Georgia Rule) and Brett Ratner (X-Men 3), and actress/writer Carrie Fisher. Interesting that the one contestant who was awed sitting so close to "Princess Leia" would be the first to be humiliated on national television.

After some back patting by the judges, the first challenge was issued: pitch a movie based one of five loglines found under the seats of the competitors, due tomorrow. Everyone stayed up all night, some worked together, and everyone reported back to pitch their movies in a scenario that closely resembled the second American Idol round (only the very bad and the very good were shown).

The first (above mentioned) guy totally froze, and could barely get his pitch out. Another was really effective, eliciting high praise. Still another guy apologized in advance that his pitch was going to suck (bad idea). Garry Marshall: "No studio is going to risk $100,000 a day on someone who's nervous." It was a brutal segment (even though the judges were pretty kind), but emphasizes that Hollywood is a meat grinder, and rejection is commonplace. 14 contestants were eliminated after this round.

The next challenge was to team up in groups of three and write, direct, and edit a two-and-a-half minute short based on the same logline using specific locations and supplied actors. Oh, and it had to be done in 24 hours. This is were the real drama began, as egos clashed and disagreements ran amok. The show ended here, with the next episode coming Thursday. I'm interested to see how some of these shorts turn out.

The main thing I came away with was that we in Low Budget Land have a great luxury that no one does in Hollywood: time. We can fiddle and tweak and recast and change, all with no deadlines. Some parameters are good, but those imposed by the Hollywood system (and on this show in a smaller scale) are crushing. It's all about stress and getting done before someone starts breathing down your neck. I'm glad I'm watching On the Lot, but even gladder that not getting on has sent me down a different path that will ultimately give me my dream anyway: to make a living as a narrative filmmaker. I may not make seven figures, but who cares?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Blog Salad: Disaster Mystery, Viral Marketing, and Lame Names

Time to be scatterbrained! The following references are posts I've come across that have no relevance to each other, but are very relevant to the beloved movies we want to make. Peruse and enjoy, and don't forget to apply what you learned to your own microbudget efforts.

Mysterious Phenomenon Causes Nearly 2,000 Deaths
Here's a real doozy taken from the pages of Uncle John's World of Odd, and reprinted by Neatorama. Check out this setup: in 1986 a man is riding his bike toward the village of Num in Cameroon, a province in western Africa. He comes across a dead antelope, and not wanting to waste it he puts it on his bike. Continuing his ride, he notices dead rats, a dead dog and other lifeless animals. Coming upon some huts, he stops to inquire about what's going on--and sees dead human bodies everywhere. What follows is a fantastic mystery involving a crater lake and a giant smothering cloud of CO2 gas. A fascinating read that deserves to be a movie.

A Viral Marketing Lesson
Looking for new and inventive ways to promote your labor of love? Warner Bros. recently tried something cool to garner attention for the new Batman flick, The Dark Knight (thanks, Pronet Advertising). This was due to a website going up on the WB site, with only the Bat logo. The screen would then change to an ad for the character of Harvey Dent, played by actor Aaron Eckhart. This page could be interacted with and one pixel could then be removed for each email address entered. The final result gives a peek who's to pay Bats a visit in the film. This idea is a bit far-fetched for us micros (who would care?), but illustrates another use of the web in creating buzz for an upcoming film.

Movie Titles to Die For--No, Really
Scott Weinberg over at Cinematical recently posted about the latest Sci-Fi Channel movie dubbed Ice Spiders. He goes on to list a truly ghastly group of titles that Sci-Fi has given to their cut-rate films (my favorite: Mansquito). I'm all for a catchy B-movie title, but you have to be careful. As we learned from Christopher Guest in This is Spinal Tap, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid." You want viewers to think you're the former and not the latter (budget aside), so pick a name that will emphasize that point. Of course, if you're going for Z-grade schlock, the above list will inspire and uplift you.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The ARKOFF Formula, Part 1: 'Action Them 'til They're Dizzy'

Samuel Z. Arkoff was a producer of genre films in the 50s-70s and the creator of American International Pictures, his own distributor. His films include such 'classics' as I was a Teenage Werewolf and Blacula. I remember reading Roger Ebert's review of Arkoff's Q: The Winged Serpent, where this exchange between Arkoff and critic Rex Reed was recounted:

Reed: Sam! I just saw The Winged Serpent! What a surprise! All that dreck--and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!
Arkoff: The dreck was my idea.

I came across an old blog post from Bill Cunningham who reprinted parts of an interview by Julian Meyers from 1998 about the 'ARKOFF' formula. In it, Samuel Z. takes the letters of his last name, and details what makes a good B-movie. There is a lot of relevance for microcinema, and it bears expanding upon for those interested in making movies of a similar ilk (just try to avoid the dreck whenever possible). 

'A' is for Action
Lots of people love action, and since were talking genre films here, you'd be wise to include some. This can be a tricky proposition for the micros, since it is much easier to write an action sequence than it is to stage one and make it believable. Hollywood has set the standard for action, but they have an immense budget for pyrotechnics, blank-firing weapons, stuntmen, and expert consultants. We can learn from them, but be careful that you don't try to BE them. You may bury yourself before you even start. Don't spend your whole non-existent budget on one sequence.

Action is an Element, Not Everything
One thing I observed about the countless On the Lot entries (yes, I entered), was that there were often action sequences that only served to pad the story. I can't count the number of shorts that featured people running for no reason other than to connect the setup and the punchline. I still believe in the 'sandwich' theory (which applies to features as well as shorts), dictating the middle of your film needs to be on par as your beginning and end. There better be a good reason for that action or you risk boring the viewer.

Too Much CGI is a Bad Idea
Computers are a wonderful thing for filmmakers, but where effects are concerned, less is more. I've seen some shorts that are obvious effects exercises, where the eye candy is put first in front of story and characters, and they quickly become boring. There is also a high risk of looking extremely fake with low-budget computery effects shots. Big budget CGI often looks goofy and fake, so what chance do you have in pulling off a cinematic illusion? Some suspension of disbelief is possible here, just don't use it as a crutch or as an easy way to pull off something fantastic you've written (rewrite instead!). You'll lose your audience.

Practical is Where It's At
'Practical' effects are those done live as the camera rolls, and are often the best ones. Granted, you can't really blow anything up on set (or can you?), but lesser effects (bullet hits, wind, fog, etc.) are great because you see what you are getting, and so do your actors. It's much easier to play off something that is there rather than reacting to a director barking "you see the monster! It's horrible but you can't tear your eyes away! Scream! SCREAM!" Be creative with your limits, and you'll be rewarded.

Please Be Careful
When staging action, always have some kind of safety measures in place. Even in the bigs people die or are hurt due to carelessness. If an accident ever happens on one of your cheapies, you can kiss your talent pool goodbye. Anyone in their right mind is not going to want to work on a dangerous set--especially for no compensation. Have someone around who knows what they are doing (a gun wrangler for example), and always practice discretion with hostile props. Informing law enforcement is a good idea, but this will increase the red tape during production, so be prepared.

Action can be a great asset to your story, not to mention wonderful trailer fodder. Heed Mr. Arkoff's advice and use it, but heed my advice and don't let it subvert the main thrust of your story. Arkoff didn't care about bad reviews (like Roger Corman, his films were critic-proof), but you should if you want to create buzz, and later sales, down the road.

Also see: Part 2, 'Revolutionary Scenes Get Talked of', Part 3, 'Kill Colorfully and Often', Part 4, 'Tell the World about Your Picture!', Part 5, Fantasy is what Audiences Spend Money for' and Part 6, 'Foreplay is as important in Dramaturgy as in Bed'.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Getting that Underwater Shot

Sometimes you're going to write something that you have no idea how to shoot. It may be a tough-to-get location, or elaborate action sequence, or anything underwater. It may sound great on the page, but implementing said words may prove difficult for the movie with the $1000 budget.

Submerged shooting is tough, and usually solved by some expensive piece of gear. Since we don't buy expensive gear on this blog, what do we do? What if we want to be the next Cousteau, or just want that cool angle of the body falling into the swimming pool?

There are viable solutions out there, costing from as much as $70 to about $3. You still have to obtain scuba gear or just hold your breath (the perfect microbudget solution), but the following are some ways others have found to waterproof a video camera for that below water adventure you've been writing.

The Home Depot Housing
Bobby_M over at Instructables has designed a great looking professional style rig for $70 in parts from your favorite hardware store. It's the classic model, using a large PVC pipe with window and compression spring latches. A rubber O-ring keeps the water out, and two nice handles flank the tube for aiming whilst you propel yourself through the water. There is no access to the monitor (or any manual controls), but you should be able to peer through the viewfinder. If not, just shoot wide and aim in the general direction. This rig is built for a specific camera and could not be used if you acquire anything larger in the future.

The Camera in the Plastic Bubble
Nick Papadakis has a design that is cheaper (but how cheap?) than the above, provides access to all controls, and can be used (or easily adapted) for any size camera. Basically a urethane bag with a window, this "soft housing" contains a bracket that you simply mount the cam to, reverse the bag (which is attached to the window), seal and shoot. I don't think this model could withstand the pressure as deep as the first, but it is very flexible and would be a great addition to any gear box.

"Rubberizing" your Camera
This method is the most resourceful, the cheapest and can be put together in a matter of minutes. It's also the second-best use for a condom I've ever seen. Yep, it's your camera covered by a prophylactic to keep the water out. You are limited by camera size (you'll have to use a digital still camera with video capability) and your footage may be a bit fuzzy, but this is the epitome of microbudget cinema. It also makes for a hilarious production story.

"Necessity is the mother of invention", not to mention motivation for a filmmaker with little or no money.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Technique: Adjusting Scan Rate for Cool (or Practical) Anti-Strobing Effect

The video above is an awesome example of a practical in-camera effect you can get by messing with your cam's manual settings. In this example, the helicopter's blades appear to be stationary because the film camera is set at a frame speed that matches the rotor speed (notice the tail rotor still appears to spin slowly). This same basic effect happens in the human eye when the spokes of a moving bike or rims of moving car appear to spin backward.

In the low budget world, this effect is impossible. You could adjust the video scan rate on a high-end camera, I suppose, but who has access to such a camera, and what purpose would it serve? A cool gimmick perhaps, but not one most of us have a use for.

The best purpose for this type of effect is probably the reverse of how it is applied here. When shooting computer monitors, they will typically appear to strobe, or have nasty black lines through them. This is due to the non-matching scan rates on both camera and monitor. Since you can't (in most cases) adjust the camera, adjust the monitor instead. Setting the monitor's refresh rate to 60 Hertz should take care of the problem.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Idea Mill: News of the Wierd to get Those Creative Juices Flowing

Working in a news station, I'm always seeing the strangest real-life stuff that you couldn't possibly make up. Much of this is wonderful screenplay fodder, and I think more of it needs to brought to the attention of filmmakers. Truth, as the adage goes, is stranger than fiction, and who knows what actual accounts will give birth to a great story somewhere. I hope these ideas will inspire you.

64 Year-Old Bullet to the Head
A Chinese grandmother complaining of a headache was found to have a bullet lodged in her brain dating back to 1943! Shot during WWII, she was unware of the injury after quickly healing. An x-ray (pictured) revealed the obvious source of the pain: a rusty bullet. This scenario reminds me of Phenomenon, where John Travolta had powers due to brain cancer, or The Simpsons episode where a crayon pushed up Homer's nose as a child is what made him stupid all these years. What if the bullet was no bullet at all, but a time capsule of some sort? What if the "bullet" was self-inflicted, damaging the memory of what happened in the first place? Maybe the projectile was some sort of metallic parasite that only resembled a bullet...

Mummified Body Found in Spanish Home
Here's what every new homeowner wants to find when moving in: a six year-old corpse! The woman had stopped making payments on her house, which was then repossessed by the bank, but never checked out. After being sold at auction, the new owner found a little more than just a house was now his. This story brings up a lot of character questions. Why had no one reported this poor woman as missing? She was estranged from her children, but were they that unfeeling (or was she that horrible) that no communication was even attempted? I think this works more as a character drama, but the setup sure sounds like something from The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en.

I was a Teenage Coroner
Amanda Barnett, age 18, has become the youngest deputy coroner in the state of Indiana. Inspired by her dad, the county coroner, and the show CSI, Barnett scored a 97 on the state certification test. Still in high school, she plans to attend college to become a forensic nurse examiner. This story needs no alteration to translate into a script of some sort. Follow Amanda on her many grisly adventures solving crimes while looking trendy! Attach someone like Emma Roberts, and you've got the perfect TV show pitch. A dark comedy angle would be even better, but that idea would probably never work on the tube. An indie flick, however...

For a good up-to-date list of weird news, check frequently on the urban legend verification site, There is so much idea gold on that page, you'll be sure to have something to write about if you didn't already. Just be prepared to get lost for a few hours.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Article on YouTubing can also Benefit Filmmakers

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal Online published an article by Michael Totty entitled "How to Be a Star in a YouTube World". This feature covers the basics of what it takes to create a successful video blog or podcast, but I found many crossover elements to making movies. Several of the points they make could be considered universal to entertainment, however the internet angle is really the focus here.

The main points are these:

Be Consistent.
Many of the most popular podcasters and video bloggers take a lesson from traditional media and offer new content with a disciplined regularity. This is more in reference to video blogging and podcasting, but I can see how it could apply to any body of work. Make good stuff and release it regularly, and you will have a following. Wait too long between projects, and your audience will evaporate. Good advice for any kind of blogger as well.

Get in Early.
Since it's harder to break in now, aspiring stars must do more to stand out. They must have a new twist on an existing idea or do an old idea exceedingly well, such as produce a video series with very compelling storytelling. They give the example of how "Rocketboom" was one of the earliest video blogs, and how they capitalized when opportunity came along, making them very popular. The best parallel for this is probably that when you have a good idea (like releasing an entire movie for free on the internet to drive DVD sales), you might want to use it now before everyone is doing it, making you less relevant.

Find a Niche.
Newcomers could also look for a niche that hasn't yet been filled.
A common theme among low budget movie bloggers is to identify your audience first, then make a film for them. If you can establish this before you write word one, you can start generating attention very early on. Having a built-in crowd (such as sci-fi or horror fans) is much more practical than trying to create a brand new one. Being unique helps, but using a popular genre is just good business.

Work Your Network.
Online hits depend heavily on word of mouth -- and Internet stars are good at working the virtual room. Using the internet to your advantage is critical to successful low budget distribution. Whatever online social networking service you frequent (YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, etc.), be sure to use their tools of subscriptions and communication to promote your stuff. If no one has heard of your movie, no one will want to see it. Create a void in people, then fill it with your creation.

Act Like a Pro.
The Web is full of mat
erial that looks like it was produced by amateurs. The most popular material is definitely more polished than the rest of the pack -- even though it may look rough by TV standards. This is a critical point, and one I've mentioned before. Use sound filmmaking techniques and you will rise above a lot of the crap that gets slapped online (not to mention on DVD). It doesn't have to be broadcast quality, but should be the next best thing. Equipment and techniques are easily at your disposal--use them and make your movie that much better.

Beauty Sells.
People who are unusually attractive stand a much better chance of getting attention. This is the biggest no-brainer of them all. Casting good-looking actors can only help your cause, especially when promotion time comes along. We all like pretty people, and they are a dime a dozen in the film world (even in the microbudget arena), so be smart and cast some of them. Just don't go crazy. Sacrificing acting chops for looks is never a good idea, unless you're making exploitation, in which case it's expected.

Be sure to read the entire article, as it's very enlightening. Also check out a similar post from Lance Weiler called "Cutting Through the Static". It hits a lot of the same ideas, but is aimed directly at the filmmaking crowd.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Five Things I Love About Microbudget Movies

Last week, Problogger issued a challenge to all bloggers everywhere: post a "Top 5" list and maybe win $1001. I didn't really think I'd win the random drawing (and I didn't), but it was a good exercise for me. As it turns out, "Five Things I Hate About Microbudget Movies" became the most popular post in this blog's short history, and was linked to from six or seven other blogs. It seems that list struck some kind of nerve.

Granted, it's always easier to be negative than positive, and one comment I received from da weave wondered what I liked about microbudget stuff. In an effort to be fair (and to respond to any reader), here is that list. I should point out that while the last list focused on the watching of low budget stuff, this time it's all about the making.

Low Expectations
No one is expecting your project to be very good. The world is full of naysayers, and they all want you to fail. What a wonderful feeling it is to blow people away with something you made on a shoestring. I have the exact same reaction when I come across a movie that has no business being good (mainly due to budget), but is anyway. It's a wonderful surprise and makes me want to create the same reaction in others. My favorite comment from someone who has seen my past work is always: "what are you working on next?"

Personally Funded Films
I don't think filmmakers should have to be financiers as well. Spending months and months trying to secure a "real" budget is time that should be spent in some aspect of production. If you provide your own budget, not only will you feel empowered, but your spending will be wiser, and you won't have an investor breathing down your neck because "they should have a say". Financial autonomy means creative freedom and accountability to yourself, not Uncle Steve.

Gear That Levels The Playfield
When Sony introduced the VX1000 camera in the mid-1990s, it was a sign that the low budget digital video revolution was here. This was the first high quality prosumer camera with a digital output, that meant exporting footage with no quality loss. The camera was an "affordable" $3500 that raised the bar for what video-for-less could look like. Other cams followed, as did mics, flash recorders, lights, NLEs, etc. A tool is only as good as the craftsman that wields it, and these tools can give us all equal footing with professionals (who use them as well!).

Quality Folks That Work (Temporarily) For Free
Movies aren't created in a vacuum, and the more talent you surround yourself with, the better your film will turn out. Lots of these people will help you just because they believe in your script (they do, don't they?) and give you input that never occurred to you. Network and get to know who these people are, then convince them to participate in your project. Just remember to feed everyone, and pay them whenever it is you get paid. And give them more work.

Permit? What's A Permit?
A great perk for us guerrilla types is that we will shoot anywhere, with little fear of reprisal. If you have a very small crew (or just yourself and the actors), you can get some great location stuff by just showing up and shooting. Many DV cameras look just like camcorders, and draw little attention. When people do approach you (and you choose not to run), you can always hide under the guise of "it's a student film". Just be aware that if you want to distribute for profit, it's always a good idea to have a location release. No microbudget person can afford a lawyer.

There's your positive karma. Now get out there and make something great!


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