By Will Kreth, May 17th, 2011

Where do you go to find the right team of collaborators for something that’s never exactly been done before? Who’s your Dream Team for the Unseen?  What are their roles and responsibilities? Here’s the situation: I’m a writer/director/producer of a transmedia documentary called “Get It All Out” that is now in its 4th year of development, with a goal of a feature-length film, an eBook for iPad and Android devices, a new 12+ member orchestra (playing and recording songs that haven’t been heard in nearly 30 years – this summer in NYC), and a remix contest – as just 4 of the elements of my project.  After much reading and thought, here’s a list of both people I’m currently working with, and people I’m looking to collaborate with, and why (not necessarily in order of importance):

1)  Interaction Designer
2)  Art Director
3)  Editorial Director
4)  Music Director
5)  Director of Photography

While we have located 4 and 5, the first three roles remain to be filled.  To fill these “vacancies” in the team, I will attempt to describe the who and why of these titles.

1)      Interaction Designer – With a background in information architecture (IA) and user experience (UX) design – the Interaction Designer is responsible for engaging and placing the audience in the story, regardless of interface.  I would define the person in this role as a deep, yet motivated thinker – someone who breaks down the director/producers assertions of what the storyworld is thought to be, and puts them back together in elegant and compelling ways. I think this role will only increase in importance to producers as the workflows and processes of cross/ transmedia continue to be defined.

2)      Art Director – In 1992, I had the privilege of seeing 2 designers set the direction, logo and tone of the design of what would become Wired Magazine. John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr of Plunkett+Kuhr were the team behind the look of a magazine that generated strong reactions in most everyone who saw it (both positive and negative).  Art Directors should bring a powerful toolkit, language and sensibility to a project worthy of their time, and my hope is to frame my story in a way to attract that caliber of individual.  Part of their role is authentically conveying the story behind the documentary’s “brand” – but it so much more than just branding.  A holistic mental model of how navigation, print, online, apps, signage, merch and more all play a role in the meaning-making process.

3)      Editorial Director – Is your narrative a 360° experience? I’m not simply talking about the devices it appears on, but the way in which it unfolds, reveals itself, hangs together – complementing each manifestation with integrity and thematic resonance. Here’s where the curation responsibility gets real.  Right now, we’re looking for an Editorial Director to take a collection of poems, papers, photos, lyrics, video clips, illustrations mp3’s and sheet music into a suite of artifacts for the creation of an eBook to compliment our documentary. In fact, it’s an essential part of the documentary – and the creation of the eBook will be referenced in the film and be published before the film debuts at a festival. It’s a skill-set that blurs disciplines and boundaries – and we’re looking for an exceptional generalist – someone who knows the value of richly textured multimedia object, but wants to keep Story (capital “S”) at the heart of the experience, wherever and however it’s told.

Keeping story at the center - Music as DNA

4)      Music Director – Another translator, the role of the Music Director in this instance is more about orchestrating the live instantiations of the song story DNA, and less the traditional soundtrack music supervisor of feature films.  David Terhune wears that hat in the SAS Orchestra, and I chose him for his many years of helping re-animate the songbooks of a host of pop and rock icons during his night job of helping lead the Loser’s Lounge in NYC. For some cross/transmedia producers, it’s likely that there is nothing more central to their narratives than getting the game mechanics right. For me, it the expression of the musical DNA that is at the core of Get It All Out. I’ve used the word “re-hydration” to describe our process, and it’s truly apropos – as music is like water – fluid, connecting and giving life to the spirit of the tale. These songs were basically desiccated and orphaned, and their ongoing recapitulation is both a meaning-making process and a music-revivifying process to find them new homes.

5)      Director of Photography – When I started down this path in 2008, not knowing anyone in my immediate circle of friends who was either A) a documentary filmmaker with time on their hands, or B) crazy enough to believe that this particular story was worth a multi-year journey for – I did what anyone in my position would do:  I placed the obligatory ad on Craigslist.  One persistent person who saw (and evidently liked) my ad kept emailing me, and it’s a good thing. My DP and co-director Chris Schuessler produces news and documentaries for ARTE TV of France, and teaches young people how to tell their own personal narratives with video for NYC’s City Parks Productions. His role has been traditional in a doc filmmaking sense, but invaluable in consistently getting the best possible interviews on camera.

Each of these team members come from different production cultures and exercise varied production models.  “Mono-medium production cultures” (Dena) exist because individuals rightly want to master their chosen creative fields and that takes time (maybe not Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” – but years of work). My role as a producer is to both translate the different languages/dialects they all excel at into a common tongue and to orchestrate their work to align with the vision of the story.

That said – nothing can be orchestrated without collaboration. The efficacy of which may in fact be proportional to the producer’s level of transparency and quality of articulation re: the subjective merits (artistic/cultural/political) of the work/storyworld. The Catch 22 resides in the writer/producer’s vision needing a development team constituency from across disciplines to make it concrete – to give all the envisioned connected manifestations of the story life – and given the nature of the wrangling and coordination of talent that must take place, improvisational management and leadership becomes both the catalyst and the glue for progress.  So, in some ways – this dispatch (like the music when it was first created) is also an improvisation. And in the spirit of transparency, I hope to improvise further updates here as our team grows and our story develops.

More about the documentary Get It All Out can be found here at getitalloutmovie.com.   More about the SAS Orchestra can be found here

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Posted in creative collaboration doc production journal transmedia

Will Kreth is the NYC-based director/producer/founder of MediaGroove LLC - and has worked in media for more than 20 years (e.g. - public access TV; indie music soundman; audio post for film/video; multimedia; interactive TV; magazine publishing; web content; broadband services; and back to interactive TV) - at places like Apple, Wired Magazine, HotWired, Road Runner and Time Warner). All of which (to a varying degree) have led him to take on the x-media documentary film/eBook/orchestra: "Get It All Out"

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By Saskia Wilson-Brown, May 2nd, 2011

In 2009, as a reaction against an increasingly corporate-ized and fractured media landscape, I decided to start an independent film screening series. My friend and colleague Georgi Goldman was also enthusiastic about the idea, and together we began running a monthly film series in Los Angeles: Cinema Speakeasy.

The purpose of Cinema Speakeasy was to be the filmic equivalent of the slow food movement  (but a heck of a lot less boring). We aimed to process films rather than quickly consume them. Positioning CS a not-for-profit organization, I was quite set on divorcing ourselves from the intervention of brands and sponsorship in the belief that – in this particular case – other people’s marketing strategies would corrupt our intention. Thus, we were to serve as advocates for the arts in a space that was separate from corporate commerce, all while showing people a good time.

With that said, we also hoped to create an alternative and non-inflated marketplace for independent film cause let’s get real for a second: We all have rent to pay. Willingly forgoing corporate support, and not keen on the virtual trumpeting that is crucial for successful IndieGoGo or Kickstarter campaigns, we needed to find alternate ways of creating this self-sufficient revenue stream for ourselves and our filmmakers. We hoped, simply, to survive – and to help filmmakers survive – without selling out. To do this, I believed that we needed a few things: A consistent audience, good programming, and a low overhead. Attaining those things, then, became the organization’s main goals.

We are now approaching Cinema Speakeasy’s second anniversary, with a recent expansion into San Francisco with the wildly popular CS:SF events. I wanted to share some of what we have learned in running this film series over the course of the last two years: The things that have allowed us to survive (and perhaps even modestly thrive?) in a very bad economic climate for the arts. Here, then, are my golden rules for running an independent film screening series.

Golden rule number one: Maintain a not-for-profit attitude, but make sure the organization can pay for its expenses.

When we started CS I plastered ‘we give all our revenue to the filmmakers and the venues’ all over the place. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Although we have maintained that policy thus far, we are going to change it for the simple reason that we need to pay for things like web hosting, promotional materials, advertising. If we don’t pay for those things, we limit our reach, which does a disservice to the filmmakers when no one shows up to their screening.

Having said that, it’s no secret that it’s devilishly hard to make a living while staying independent. So forget about making money, at least for the first 3 years, but don’t forget to apportion a part of whatever comes in to your organization’s survival, and to share the rest!

In practice: Don’t quit your day job, and NEVER get into personal debt for the sake of the organization. If you can’t afford to do the event, consider a different approach where it doesn’t cost so much. Keep overhead low, and be sure to split the revenue at the door between yourself, the venue, and the filmmaker – but always split the money that has come in AFTER deducting the expenses incurred in promoting the screening.

Golden rule number two: Plan for low audiences, and set realistic expansion goals.

Something I learned from my days at the Silver Lake Film Festival is that a too rapid expansion = a guaranteed disaster. It always pays to underestimate the amount of people who will show up. Slow but steady wins the race, when it comes to non-profits, and small is often more fun anyways: It’s better to have a packed-feeling small room than an empty-feeling big room.

In practice: For the first year of Cinema Speakeasy we stayed at a small venue (the amazing Echo Park Film Center) that seated about 60 people. Once we had created a consistent series of events, we dabbled with larger venues through special one-off high-profile screenings.  Now, almost two years in, the organization has expanded to San Francisco (with monthly events run there by a trio of uber-dames: Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green), and we are starting to regularly expand to new larger venues in LA. Our larger events, which we typically do at a rate of one per quarter, are working because we have slowly built the audience to support this expansion, and because we are cautious and conservative about numbers and expenses.

Golden rule number three: Keep your eye on quality

It’s one thing to have a democratic approach, it’s quite another to show any old thing. That’s what YouTube is for.

Do not forget to maintain a level of quality. If you show ‘bad’ films, even your best friends will stop showing up, not to mention strangers. You won’t be able to grow an audience, and you will ultimately do a disservice to the filmmakers whose work you show.

However, if you gain a reputation for showing good content- as independent as you please but always to a certain standard (those standards are yours to decide) – you will gain a following and people will be honored to be included. It’s curation, and you can interpret it as you will, but do not forget to set standards – whatever they may be for you – and stick to them.

In practice: This is a golden rule I have had a hard time with, myself, and it’s only through my colleague Georgi’s prodding that I’ve begun to see the light on the value of saying no no no. It’s very hard to balance open access with good content, but it must be done.

In practice, also, if you have a lot of filmmaker friends who you want to support through your organization, consider implementing a ‘friends and family’ sub-series- an open call facet to your screening event, where you provide an audience to people just starting out, or whose work is challenging. Keep it separate from the main curated event, and do these at small venues.

Golden rule number four: Be open to oblique approaches

Be open to other mediums as a way of bringing attention to film, and this sometimes may include non-indie film. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to bring new audiences to our programming. Although every effort should be made to engage fellow filmy types, do not focus entirely on the indie film community. It’s small, it’s self-referential, and it’ll limit you.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy has partnered with art galleries, music venues and other such entities to create two-part programs around a film. For instance, we did a potato-type ransom note workshop at a local gallery in Los Angeles (Machine Project), and partnered with a local design community (Kernspiracy) to get people interested and thinking about typography. This was all in support of our screening of Kartemquin Film’s ‘Typeface’.

This, and other oddball events such as the Tranimal Makeup Workshop (that we produced, and was curated by artist Austin Young, as a part of our ‘Ultra Fabulous Beyond Drag’ screening event), have been incredibly successful at bringing new types of people to our events, and many of them have come back and proposed some awesome ideas of their own.

Guerilla menu inserts

Golden rule number five: Get the F off the internet, already.

Marketing. The evil reality of doing anything that requires other people in this age of brands and buzz.

One thing’s for certain, and all the talk about ‘the power of social media’ notwithstanding, I’ve found there to be a fairly low correlation between Facebook or Twitter followers and butts in seats. It’s easy to hit ‘like’, but it’s a very different experience to get in the car, look for parking, feed the meter, walk a few blocks, and watch an unknown movie. Put simply: A lot of online participation is not a guarantee that people will show up.

What makes people do THAT is good programming, the potential to meet sexy new people, and (with some exceptions) traditional media support. Not sure why, but in our experience a write-up in the local weekly means a full house, 152 retweets does not. Maybe it has something to do with reaching new people rather than the same people you already communicate with online all the time. Or maybe it’s because people trust traditional media cause they’re better curators.

In practice: Instead of focusing all your efforts on creating buzz online, just BE awesome, focus on showing your audience a good time and on actual word of mouth, and consider traditional publicity for the larger events. Use social media as a complementary strategy, but not THE strategy.

We at CS also tend to engage in teenage-like ‘marketing’ such as sticking handwritten flyers in menus at hip diners, posting stickers everywhere we can get away with it, and generally trying to get attention in the real world. It seems to be working so far, is viral in a way more tangible way, and – mainly – it feels authentic to who we are.

Golden rule number six: Allow the organization to have a life beyond you, but set the rules early

If you succeed with your organization, people will come and want to be involved. You need these people for the organization to succeed. But never forget to make sure you maintain control of your organization’s overall trajectory and vision.

What this means is that you need to set the grand vision early (a mission statement and an organizational bible will help with this exponentially). But you also need to allow for expansion, changes of ownership, in short, whatever it takes for people to want to be involved, and are able to create and implement ideas. It’s basic good management skills, and it’s probably the one thing that will keep you up at night as you grapple with your own ego, sense of insecurity, etc.

One thing’s for sure: If you impose your vision in too draconian a manner, you will lose the very people who can help propel the organization to the next level. BUT, if you do not retain some leadership, you can lose control of the organization’s vision. Not an easy thing to balance.

In practice: When I had the idea to start a film series and call it Cinema Speakeasy, I had a certain vision in mind. When the organization’s current Executive Director Georgi Goldman officially came on board – right before the first screening event – she also had a vision. We were colleagues at work and used to confrontation and adaptation, so we simply confronted and adapted our ideas to one another. Together, we set a certain tone for the organization- and we set it early.

This is, and will, serve the organization well as it enters our current expansion phase. For instance, Cinema Speakeasy’s San Francisco edition was started and is run largely autonomously by its co-directors Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green (FAK!) – who have final say in their programming, venues, marketing language, etc.

But, they still also use the visual ‘brand’, as it were (set by our brilliant creative-director-of-sorts Micah Hahn), and stick to the tone of the organization, as well as certain programming guidelines. Thus they maintain an approach that is in line with the larger CS organization- and in fact, take it to the next level of cool – but still act independently of the larger organization in many arenas. It’s a balancing act, and it works out very well if you pick your partners well. Which brings me to…

Golden rule number seven: Partner judiciously

Be picky. That’s all there is to this. There are a bazillion horror stories of what can go wrong if you pick the wrong partners- and I can categorically say that I’ve lived through just about all of the bad scenarios.

As a general rule, when approaching partnerships, it helps to think of what this person/organization can bring you right now, rather than what they could potentially bring you down the road. Keep it real, and keep a focus on your current needs.

In practice: Cinema Speakeasy partners creatively with like-minded folk – not too corporate, arts-centric, and who also have their shit together. We try to find oblique approaches, as well, by teaming up with oddball venues, creating cross-promotional partnerships with groups that wouldn’t usually be so excited about indie film, etc etc etc.

I could write five pages on this, so will leave it at this: Be judicious, work with people who are like-minded, and always write out (and agree to) the terms of the partnership early on.


2009, 20 people. 2011, 300 people.

Golden rule number eight: Expect defeat, and then expect success

If your role is to advocate for film by finding new audiences for the indies, then your goal is quite simple: Get people in seats. Simple, right?

The truth is, there’s no science or method to what will bring people in, all these golden rules notwithstanding. A front page write-up in the local paper will definitely help, but chances are that won’t happen for awhile, especially if you’re in a big city with tons of other competing things going on. A celebrity helps too, but that also gets really cheesy really fast, and can turn into a sort of Faustian deal with the devil, right quick.

In practice: If you want to maintain and grow your audience but don’t have access to tons of press, pay really strict attention to how you present your organization both online and offline, program with an eye towards quality (see rule #3), partner with awesome people and organizations (see rule #7), make every event fun, sociable (and a little raucous), and KNOW that you will occasionally have a occasionally super empty theatre. It’s no biggie. We’ve all been there. Just smile and take amazing photos of the three people who showed up.

Golden rule number nine: Just keep going

When I was in graduate school for fine art, one of the tutors told me that in a class of 20, at graduation all 20 are practicing artists. In five years, about 10 are still practicing artists. In 10 years, 5 are still making their work. But in 20 years only one will be making his work, and that one person will probably be well-known.

Consistency pays off, especially in a field where so many people give up early. Make sure you are in a position where you can maintain your organization in the lean years (see rules 1 and 2), and keep the faith.

As they say in Havana: SUERTE, chicos!

More info about Cinema Speakeasy can be found at cinemaspeakeasy.com. A list of other amazing film programs that are thriving and surviving here in the US and abroad can be found here.

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Posted in audience creative collaboration distribution event festival

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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Posted in creative collaboration

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By Mark Harris, October 30th, 2010

Taking some more hiatus from the software side of things, I wanted to continue talking about some filmmaking techniques.

THE LOST CHILDREN is a pretty ambitious story to attempt on a low budget. It has aliens and hidden lairs and a massacre. These things are not easily accomplished on a budget as low as ours. It’s only due to the dedication of my cast and crew, and the help from some friends, that this film is possible at all.

Lessons in art direction

I am blessed to have an Art Director who is an artist in his own right. He’s a perfectionist, not because he’s well paid, but because he takes pride in his work. This film could not have been done without him. We learned a while back that art direction is often the most critical piece left out of micro-budget films. So this post is to encourage everyone to think about it.

Lesson 1: Location, location, location

When you’re able to get hold of good locations, your art direction is handled for you. And in ways you could never ever accomplish on a small budget. We needed an abandoned insane asylum from the 19th Century. We would never be able to fake this. So we had to find one. We wound up using an abandoned prison in Philadelphia.

Prison Cell 1
Prison Cell

All of this stuff was in the place when we got there. The only art direction we added were props specific to our story. But when we got in and saw the location, we realized nothing else would need to be done. We got miles and miles of production value for free. Or I should say, included in the location fee.

Likewise with the location below. Clearly we would never be able to fake or build an observatory. But again, miles of production value built in.

Josh Observatory
Josh at the Observatory

Sub-Lesson 1.1: Cinematography is 50% art direction

Many in the low-budget film community obsess over cameras. They should be obsessed with art direction. If you have budget for either a RED and a so-so art director, or an AF-100 and a good art director, always, always, always, always choose the latter. What you point the camera at in the first place buys you a lot of cinematography. Again, on micro-budget productions this is a way to get more production value out of your budget.

Sub-Lesson 1.2: The city is already art directed

If you are lucky enough to be living and working in NYC, you have the world’s greatest backlot at your fingertips. Permits are free. You can shoot all over the place. On a low budget, you get a lot of production value for next to nothing:

Bklyn Heights shot from an early short
Bklyn Heights shot from an early short

The same lesson can be applied to any city you live in. I know in Ohio where my mom lives, many small towns have some great main-streets, old factories, barns. Use them.

Lesson 2: Be specific

Just as in scripts and acting, and everything else, the choices you make in art direction should be specific to the story. On our set, you could walk into Jared’s office, examine the things on his shelves and desk, and never know it was a movie. Each and every thing in this set has meaning to the character and story.

Jared's Office Detail

This symbol is very specifically designed, each element having a meaning:

K'Taan Symbol
K’Taan Symbol

And this is becoming more important than ever, as your movie may move beyond the screen into other media. There might be some little thing on screen that winds up playing out more in shorts, the website, etc. So you have to know exactly what that thing is. Take the time to make every detail very specific.

Lesson 3: Smoke it up!

A little fog goes a long way. We’ve been using this for a long time. Now fog machines can be purchased at any halloween store. Hell, I got mine at a $.99 store in Brooklyn. They can also be purchased at places like Guitar World. They go for about $40 now, and they will come in sooooo handy.

El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store
El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store

Professionals use something called a hazer, which more evenly spreads the smoke. So when you crank up your el-cheapo smoke machine, make sure you have a big piece of cardboard around to waft it into an even pattern.

Now, you can use this fog for a couple of things. First off, it can help make your location look creepy as hell. But it can also be used like the Hollywood people use it, to diffuse light and give depth and atmosphere to a location:

Blade Runner Master of Haze
Blade Runner Master of Haze

Blade Runner is of course an extreme example, but I just saw the hazer used on the HBO show “Bored to Death”. In the Old Town bar. Once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. And it’s an effect you can apply yourself for very little money.

Or you can use it just to make yourself look like a bad-ass:

Bad-ass Mark
Bad-ass Mark

Makin’ guts: Practical effects on set

One scene in THE LOST CHILDREN involves a massacre. This means blood and goop and guts. The fun stuff. These things can be composited in after the fact, and I have seen some low budget films do that. But I don’t really have that skillset in house, so it would raise the budget. It was much more cost effective to do these EFX on set.

I had researched a bunch of tutorials on the web, and you can find them too with Google. But the technique I settled on for making our entrails, is this:

1) Get some skin-colored liquid latex and paper towels. This latex can be had from Halloween shops, or of course professional make-up suppliers. But these days, it seems like Halloween shops have nearly everything you need for a film.

Ben Nye Liquid Latex
Ben Nye Liquid Latex

2) Get a paint brush and some pretty smooth surface. I’ve seen plexi-glass recommended, but I used a shelf from Ikea. It’s laminated, so will not soak up the liquid latex, yet allows for some imperfections. In all things guts, imperfections are your friends. Paint the liquid latex over your surface. It can be pretty thin. Don’t sweat trying to make it smooth and perfect, just get a good membrane laid down.

3) Then get a hair dryer and blow that stuff dry. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting there all day.

4) When it’s dry it will look like rubber. It might seem like it got transparent, but don’t worry about that, it’s all good. Take the paper towels and roll them up into sort of thin sausages. The length can vary. Again, not perfect is perfect.

5) Once you have the paper towel sausages, put them on one edge of the latex and roll the latex over them, as if the latex is the sausage casing. Roll it up until your paper towels are contained in the latex casing. Use several paper towel sausages so that you get some intersect points, as illustrated in the photo below.

6) Repeat until you have all the guts you need. This can be time consuming, even with the hair-dryer, so make sure to give yourself enough time. I think I spent about 8 hrs making the guts I needed for…2 people. But you can re-use them in several shots, I think. I don’t know how they keep, because we only needed them for one shoot-day.

You can add more layers of latex, if you like. I think we did two per entrail. But the end result looks like this. See how it looks like there are three sections? That’s due to three paper towel sausages.

Latex guts
Latex guts

Now, add some blood mixture, tear open a shirt, and Voila! Actually, I had made a sort of…plastic-bag-bed-gut-holder under the actor’s shirt, so he wouldn’t have to sit there with it on his skin. It also made clean-up easier, which saves time on set. Reads great on camera and gives people a jump. Even on set, people walking into the room would jump when they saw this.

Skulls: Everyone has one, but how often do you get to play with it?

One of our shots involves a pile of skulls. This is one department where Halloween stores will not save you. If they do have skulls real enough to pass muster, they will cost you an arm and a leg. Okay, bad joke. Instead, I found a great website: http://www.skeleton-factory.com. You want bones, they got ‘em. And cheap. Here you can buy skulls of many qualities at various prices. I chose the cheapest, knowing that the fog and the muck, etc would cover up any imperfections. These run $8.95 each. I got 10 for our shoot.

$8.95 life-sized skull
Insert Yorick joke here.

Rip all the hardware off. You will need to sandpaper some ridges, maybe putty up some cracks, spray paint them. depending on how they will be seen. But if you don’t mind putting in a little elbow grease, these are a fantastic solution for the micro-budget filmmaker. Here’s how they came  out in the film:

Skulls in shot
Skulls in shot

Okay, that’s it for now. Send questions if you have them. I am talking to my art director about writing something as well, detailing some more of his processes.

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Posted in The Lost Children creative collaboration production journal

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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By Mark Harris, October 5th, 2010

So blah blah blah how do we sustain, how do we distribute, blah blah blah. But I’ve come to a realization lately. Well, I’ve come to admit a realization. Many many micro-budget Independent Films just aren’t very good. Maybe if they were better, some of these other problems would be easier to solve. I’ve heard this from many people in the Indie-Film-o-sphere, but usually in blog comments that offer little more than snark.

So I’m going to try to look at the problem and break it down some. We’re always dealing with these things in THE LOST CHILDREN. And be warned, most of the lessons come from Hollywood. Because though they often make really bad choices, they typically know what they’re doing.

What happens next?

What happens next? This is the number one thing we need to strive for. Soap Operas could last decades by effectively posing this one question week after week. How many of us actively focus on this question? Working through post on THE LOST CHILDREN, it’s always, always on my mind. At the end of every scene, at the end of each act, I’m constantly asking: “Will they want to know what happens next?” If that one question isn’t in the air, you are left to founder on ambiguous things like your “voice” as a filmmaker. Which probably isn’t original. Or even worth listening to.

Right now my fiance and I are almost done with Season 3 of Mad Men. Last night we finished an episode that was so good, we had to stay up and watch the next one. We had to know what happened next.

I remember finishing The Wire, Season 1. I got Season 2 in the mail from Netflix. I put it in at about 11PM. I could not stop until the season was done, about 7AM the next morning. I had to know what happened next.

I had the same experience with Buffy. Finished a season, and ran out to Tower at midnight to get the next one. Had to know what happened next.

I know these are all TV shows, but I think the same rules apply to films. The last time I think I had to know what happened next in a film, was No Country, Inception…I can’t remember the last time I felt this with a micro-budget independent film. Primer?

I think there are exceptions to this. I actually found The Watchman movie pretty compelling, though to a large extent it was slow and moody. I felt like the film gave me the same experience the comic had. It allowed me time to ponder the ideas presented. And I think that was part of it structure. Intentional.

But for the most part, I think we really need to be asking: “Will the audience want to know what happens next?”

Characters

This should need no explanation, but it took me so long to learn, I figure others may not get it yet. It’s not about you. It’s not about your vision. It’s not about the filmmaker. Nobody cares about you or what you have to say (which is probably not original or unique anyway). It’s about the characters. They don’t by any means have to be “likable,” but they do have to be compelling. Some of my favorite characters ever are scumbags, or at the very least massively flawed: Walter White. Don Draper. Scorpius. Vic Mackey. Omar Little. When was the last time an indie created characters like this? Are we working hard to create compelling, memorable characters?

Use the Red Letter Media smell test for characters: Ask people to describe your characters without using their looks, clothing, or profession. I’m working on a web series now for next year, and this is probably the single more effective tool in our writers’ toolbox.

Writing and acting

Just like it says. One of the biggest issues with micro-budget film is the belief that just having access to cheap gear means you know what the Hell you are doing. You don’t. And out of all of the things you need to do to make a film, it seems that writing and acting are the ones people think they need the least skill in. Many micro-budget films shoot scripts that are…to say the least, underdeveloped. People think that just because they can type, they can write. They think that just because they have some (probably not original) idea, they should just run out and write it down and make a movie. We often had the same issues at the DVXFests. People would come on the board and say things like: “Script done in 3 days!” yes, your script sucks. And no I don’t even have to read it to know that. Because if you wrote it in 3 days and your name is not Epstein, you didn’t spend enough time on it, and are probably not even aware of which questions you need to be asking. If this is your first micro-budget feature and you have never written a feature before, you should spend at least 1 year on the script. At Least.

I find it painful to watch the acting in many micro-budget films. Often you don’t have access to professional actors to begin with. And on top of that, you may not know how to direct them. Meaning, you haven’t learned the actual, demonstrable skills a director needs to do his/her job. Do you know what an objective is? Do you know what actions are? Can you communicate your needs to an actor in these terms? Do you know how to get an actor to do nothing? Do you know what that means? When you have very experienced professional actors, you can sometimes let them go their own way. Meaning, if you don’t know how to direct, they will still be able to turn in a pretty good performance, because they know how to break down a script, figure out actions, etc. But with inexperienced actors, if you don’t know how to direct, you’re in trouble.

As we work on our film, I am constantly applying this test: I watch a real movie, a Hollywood movie or TV show with professional actors. And then I ask myself: “Does the acting in my movie/scene look like that?” If the answer is “no,”  I know we have a problem. You should always be holding yourself up to the best work you can find and asking: “Is it as good as that?” Always.

Feedback: focus groups

This term I’m sure, causes many an indie to sprout hives and die. But it will save your butt. I encountered this first in the indie film world when Zak Forsman invited me to be a part of a focus group for Heart of Now. I was no stranger to feedback. I had long participated in DVXUser short film competitions. And those generally led to a lot of good feedback from filmmaking peers, mostly on technique. And in the software world, I had led teams and held code reviews. But with Heart of Now, it was the first time I had been invited to an actual focus group for an independent film. I think I was pretty honest with my feedback. I tend to be pretty objective about work, including my own. Zak then screened Heart of Now for about 50 people who weren’t friends, past collaborators or “fans.” And this is critical; showing it to people who don’t know you and have no stake in your success. Absolutely critical.

When we started THE LOST CHILDREN, we made a series of small videos representing parts of the story. You can see them on the film’s site. They are right at the top of the home page in that little rotating carousel. Before embarking on the actual film, we created these and showed them to a focus group. Then we asked them a series of questions. We used that data to alter the script. It’s not about pleasing or pandering to an audience. It’s about trying out your material and seeing if you are even being clear. Do people even understand what you’re talking about? Do they get the points you’re trying to get across? Do they find the characters compelling? Are they with you for the ride?

We are fortunate enough that a small group in LA is putting on a rough cut focus group for us later in the year. And we are doubly lucky in that the audience (hopefully) will be made up of people who don’t know us. We did this in the example I mentioned above too. We asked friends to send us people who don’t know us. People who have no interest in our success, so will hopefully let us know if we just wasted their time. Again, critical to the process, I think.

I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, I ‘m brainstorming ways to create some safe review processes through NEW BREED.

Let’s all make better movies.

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Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children creative collaboration editing

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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