Times are tough, listener-ship is down and Clarence Lindeweiler needs to come up with a plan to save his struggling alternative rock radio station, WTYT 960. Clarence’s plan is to host a billboard sitting contest, where four lucky contestants have the opportunity to win, “a beautiful mobile home and nine-sixty hundred dollars”. All they have to do, is be the last person to survive, living on a billboard.
Two weeks ago we announced our next project, a transmedia project based around the movie Billboard an Uncommon Contest for Common People!. I warned everybody in attendance that they could shape the course of the project, be a part of it, be immersed in it or simply be entertained by it when the finished movie comes out. I guess I should warn you too. This is what has transpired thus far.
The day before our announcement we launched our indiegogo crowd funding site. Our site outlines what the project is about, how the funds will be used, a description of the perks that we’re offering and details on how contributions can be tax deductible through our fiscal sponsorship with Fractured Atlas. Check it out, donate and please give me your feedback.
Prior to the announcement we sent out press alerts to 20 news organizations in the area, in fact twice, two days leading up to the announcement and the day of. We sent out invites to about 100 people to join us for the big news. Well, it poured down five inches of rain that day but we still had twenty people show up and two people from the press. While I was discussing the project live, people at the office where emailing out press releases. Why did we feel it was important to make an announcement? The project is inspired by a real contest that took place in the early eighties in the area and we need local supporters, a.k.a. funders, to help us make the project a reality.
We’ve learned that press begets press. Press also builds credibility with potential supporters, which can help a lot. The press that we have received, has resulted in over 130,000 impressions for the project thus far, which savvy businesses could have already been capitalizing on. A buzz on the street helps too when you start making phone calls to people, but it doesn’t exactly equate to dollars. We’re attempting to raise 10% of our budget locally.
We feel by having 10% of our budget in place, will also prove to those people who are on the fence of support, that the project has some legs and carry them over to the other side of support.
That is my focus for the next couple of weeks, to seek out some local brand sponsorships before I go national with a press campaign. I may look for someone who would be willing to match donations dollar for dollar for a given amount of time up to a certain dollar amount. Maybe you or someone you know could help us achieve our goal?
Zeke Zelker – an award winning filmmaker, blends art and commerce in all that he does. His latest film InSearchOf is not only creating buzz about the content of the story line but also for his business techniques. Always creating new revenue streams by blending traditional distribution outlets, adapting others to suit his film’s needs, and pioneering some of his own Zeke has been forging a pathway to profitability. He is currently developing on a transmedia project that will begin unraveling 2010.
I wanted to take a break from the software side of things and take some time to detail some filmmaking techniques. As always I am constantly experimenting, and would love to hear thoughts on this. I’ve written other posts on technique, such as Working with Actors, and will continue to add them to the mix going forward. Also, Gary King has added some posts on technique which might really help low budget indies.
I’ve always been conscious of developing the right look for a film. In my film R.P.D.M., I worked hard to show visually the effect of a drug which slows down time in your mind. In EVIE, I came up with different color schemes to represent visually what was happening in the story. All of the main character’s climactic moments in that film are told without words, purely through images and very specific color choices. Even as far back as my horror short BLOODY MARY, the look of each scene was consciously designed along with the DP, Timur Civan. I am bringing the same attitude to THE LOST CHILDREN.
I was in Austin for SXSW, going out for dinner with another filmmaker and a camera guru. The subject of DSLRs came up because the camera guru was speaking about them in a SXSW panel. I told him that I was using the Canon 7D on my feature, and he asked how we got away with that, was it our primary camera. I told him we used it for interviews, and for generating some footage that will later be degraded. The low-light capabilities make it possible to get 1080 HD footage even at night under street lights. And if your goal is to dirty that footage up later, and make it look like “found footage,” then you get quite a bit to work with.
Evelyn Night Vision
But the point was this. I said I was no longer in the business of trying to make little cameras look like big cameras. Now, I prefer to embrace whichever camera for what it is and exploit it for that. If I want to shoot something broad and cinematic, I will likely go with a big cinematic camera. When I am shooting on handy-cams, it’s because I am seeking something the handy-cam can give me. For instance, I wanted some scenes shot as if on the night vision you get from some older Sony cameras. So that’s what we shot that scene on. I don’t know how we would have gotten this look in post. I mean, I’m sure there’s some way to get part of it with enough time and skill, but I don’t know if you’ll ever get the eyes right in post without serious efx work. And it’s the eyes I wanted in this shot. I wanted the eerie, otherworldly look night vision gives the eyes. And this supports the meaning of this scene.
This goes hand in hand with the post I wrote about why we chose the non-fiction format for this film. It allowed us to choose cameras for certain looks. It released us from the burden of having to keep up with the joneses in terms cinematography. And hopefully, it’s going to help us stand out some.
I started this journey last year with this post called “Cameras and Camera Tests.” So now I want to give some more on the results of this after shooting this way throughout 2010.
What are our goals?
First off, to create convincing “found footage.” Very often, you will see something in a film that’s supposed to be from a video camera, and it’s quite obviously some cheap plugin. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, if it simply indicates to the audience that this section is “video.” It serves the story. But along with the Non-Fiction format, we wanted footage that might actually pass muster on the web. As in, if you came across a bit of footage on the web, you would have to look at it twice before you realized it wasn’t real.
Secondly, our goals were to create some unique and beautiful looks. Many filmmakers these days seems to define beautiful as one thing; does it look like the movie I saw in the theater last week. I think beauty in images can mean a lot of things. On the other hand, I see many independent films shot on camcorders, where it seems like the filmmakers simply gave up thinking about the look they wanted at all.
Click for full image
This image serves two purposes. First, it’s about what I want as a “surveillance video” image. I am still doing a lot of experimentation with this, but this image is coming pretty close. Secondly, I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. It’s “realistic” in the sense that it’s a “video image,” yet it’s a bit impressionistic too. The cross-hatch pattern and the saturated colors combine to make it almost like a painted image. To my eye, it lends a bit of a surreal quality to the shot. Which again, supports the meaning of this particular scene.
What is your opinion of this shot regarding those two purposes?
This image was created by shooting the actual scene on a 7D mounted high in the room as if a surveillance camera. I zoomed in on that image in FCP. Then played back and shot my HDTV monitor with the 7D again. I could have shot this on a lower res monitor to get a little more accurate as “surveillance” footage, but I like this look and think it’s a good compromise between style and “realism.”
Playing with static
There are certain points in THE LOST CHILDREN when cameras mess up, the image goes in and out, and sometimes go to pure static. There are plugins that do this, but to my eye none of them comes close to the real thing – at least on the budget we’re working at.
Making Static 1
Making Static 2
Look at the random “bolts” shooting through that image. Both of the above were created by first running off the original footage as NTSC to a deck. Then plugging that deck into a very old TV. Fortunately, my ever-resourceful art director has everything, including this old TV hanging around, for me to experiment with. ( Next to the TV, that’s the 3 TB of RAID 1 storage where THE LOST CHILDREN lives.)
Very Old TV
This TV is so old, that its only input is a coaxial cable. Look it up, youngin’s. That little black box you see on top of the TV has a coaxial input and RCA inputs, so it’s able to connect both to the camcorder and the old TV. In the end, we replay the footage from the NTSC camcorder, to the old TV, and then re-shoot the old TV screen it with the 7D, while jiggling the loose coaxial cable to get the randomized static we want.
This image is not played back as is. But we cut up the static in FCP and add it to the timeline with our “surveillance image.” So that in the timeline, it looks like this:
Static in Timeline
We don’t play the footage back as is, because, for the parts of the scene you actually want to see, I think this little TV puts out too low resolution, so I’m worried about how it would look on an HDTV or projected.
I’m not exceptionally concerned about how this film looks on the big screen because I think in the end, the big screen will be a minimal part of our distribution. But it never hurts to do the best you can to make sure your movie will look good wherever. We gave ourselves the added challenge by shooting on many cameras, in many codecs, in many frame rates.
But using these little bits of static along with our regular footage does a pretty good job for us. The static comes and goes quickly enough that it gives us the illusion that the static is actually in the footage we’re seeing. Combine that with some nice static noise and the illusion is complete. If you want to play with this yourself, FCP Studio comes with some static noises. Also, this site has a lot of sound effects. I don’t think they are really professional quality, so I may not rely on them for final output. But for working with your rough, and for learning, it’s a great resource.
That brings me to the final point about the look. One more reason I avoid plugins is that they are only going to make your movie look like other movies. At least at the level most of us are working now. I’m sure in Hollywood, they have all kinds of insane software for creating these effects. And I’m sure that with enough money, you could do it all in post. But at the low budget level we work, we’re usually limited to retail tools. So I feel like if we depend on those tools, it’s only going to work against us. I’ve seen sooooo many indie movies using the effects you get in Video Copilot. I appreciate what Video Copilot does, but I also think it encourages laziness, and I’m often able to spot it within seconds. Low budget filmmakers like it because they think it makes their films looks like Hollywood movies. But I believe that in the end, you just end up looking like everyone else.
And as I’ve said in a number of my posts, we are working hard to stand out, not blend in. So creating our static the way we did, and using the techniques of shooting and re-shooting on our specific screens and our specific gear will give us a look no one else will be able to easily replicate. And hopefully make us stand out.
The camera guru I mentioned at the top often says something on our filmmaker message board, DVXUser: To paraphrase: “Hollywood is already good at a lot of things. Why not make something they can’t do? That’s the way you can stand out.” Whenever I’m making decisions on how to proceed, I use this as a guiding principal.
Stay tuned, I will soon blog about the fun to be had making fake entrails and shooting a massacre!
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
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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?”
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.
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
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This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.
DEFINING THE ROLE OF A PRODUCER
Producing is one of those jobs that has seeped into our collective unconscious while simultaneously lacking any by-the-book definition. Everyone who hasn’t done it yet thinks they know exactly what it means. Then, one day, they find themselves staring blankly at an email containing the germ of an idea expressed through incoherent but promising snatches of a story. “Hey you should produce this”, someone says, and the expectation is set. They are to, you know, ‘make it happen’.
But what exactly they’re meant to ‘make happen’ next is just not all that clear. They see the finished product in their mind’s eye, they feel the enthusiasm of what partners they already have, but the progression from now to premiere is a muddy gray area of questions: What is a producer responsible for, exactly? What is their primary function? How much creative say do they have? At which point do they need to start raising money? What documents do they need? Should they start an LLC for the project right away? Do they need a PMD? What about co-production? How do they get distribution? And what the hell is the difference between a ‘creative producer’ and a regular producer, anyways? The list of questions goes on and on and on, and it goes without saying that this process is incredibly intimidating when it’s your first or second project and you only have a cursory understanding of what producers are meant to do, in the first place.
To help define how to begin a project, and to begin attacking these questions, I’ve found it helpful, thus, to define the role. To better do this, I’ve gone out and asked a few producers I admire for their insight on their job. First up is Katie Holly of Blinder Films in Dublin Ireland, most recently producer of the indie darling One Hundred Mornings(dir. by Conor Horgan).
Katie Holly, Blinder Films
1. What in your experience are the producer’s primary responsibilities with regards to a project?
This can be a hard one to answer as so often the primary role can vary, depending on the nature of the project and the needs of the film and the director.
But above all in my view the job of the producer is to bring coherence, and have clarity which is communicated to the whole creative team, financiers, and other partners such as sales agents etc about what the film is, and frequently, how best to market/sell it.
The producer has an overview on all aspects of the film, from the script, to the finance, schedule, casting, crewing up, and all across the post production process and they need to ensure that the needs of project are being met all across the board, albeit also on budget and on schedule. On a practical level they also raise the finance, negotiate agreements and handle the legal process of closing finance in conjunction with their lawyer. They work closely with the line producer, production accountant and first assistant director to ensure that the budget and schedule are not only achievable but being properly managed, as well as keeping a creative eye on the project, via the writer and director. During prep, production and post they are also the person responsible for handling any issues as they arise across all departments.
2. How does the producer relate to the creative process (for instance, in film direction)?
Again this can vary as there are different types of producers out there. Coming from a background in script development and story editing as a producer I’m extremely focussed on the creative side of the process, not in terms of the actual direction of the film which I would leave entirely in the hands of a trusted director (who the producer would generally hire). Very often producers can be the originator of a feature idea that they then seek to place a writer or writer/director team on. Other times a script or idea might be pitched which the producer undertakes to develop and produce.
Again, I would say that the producers responsibility is to bring coherence – now that I’m pretty busy on production I tend to spend less time with the writers and directors actually working out the story (though I still love this and on certain projects it’s crucial that I’m a part of that process).
But often not being ‘in the room’ so to speak can work well: When a draft is delivered you have a certain ‘distance’ and are able to critically engage in a way that you might be less enabled to if you were part of the process of why certain character or story choices were made. On every treatment and draft that is delivered, I would read a number of times, give detailed written notes and do meetings before we all collectively agree on an approach for the next pass. But as I said the level of creative input can vary hugely – on One Hundred Mornings, I didn’t collaborate with Conor during the scripting process, though during prep and even during the shoot we developed a very good dynamic in terms of doing rewrites, merging or cutting scenes as required by our demanding schedule. On my next feature, SENSATION, which recently premiered in Toronto, I came on board from treatment stage and worked closely with Tom all through the process. On The Savage Eye, the scripted comedy show we currently have in production, during prep I spent the majority of time in the writers room, as that’s what that particular show demands.
In terms of film direction – that I would absolutely leave in the hands of the director. Of course you will have had discussions about the creative approach during development and prep so there is clarity and agreement on how the film will be handled, and casting would generally be done in collaboration. Beyond that it’s the directors gig.
I would [also] of course watch rushes and discuss them with the director and the editor during the shoot [staying] very involved in the editing from rough cut onwards. You would give the director space to work on a first cut, and from there on give detailed notes and do meetings until the shape of the film emerges and is agreed on by all.
3. How has a producer’s role changed with the advent of new media/new crowd-sourcing or social media technologies?
One advantageous thing with new media and technologies is that there are very cost effective ways of actually getting a film made and there are also many fast and cheap ways to find and build your audience. Simply put it’s certainly easier now to make a feature film (albeit a micro budget one) than it was back in the days when film was your only option…
This also creates a challenge however in that there are so many more films getting made the market is incredibly crowded and distribution is extremely difficult to secure.
As a result the producer’s role on a film has extended far beyond the traditional model of handing it over to a distributor and sales agent and letting them take it from there. This has both advantages and drawbacks – you keep control of your films rights, or assign them for much shorter terms, and you, the filmmaker, are part of the process of selling and releasing the film. On the downside this process can take a very long time, and on a film that was made for a very low budget it can be hard to make ends meet or get back to your primary job of producing.
We’re still very much in a time of flux and I am hopeful that in the next five years new models of distribution will have emerged that will allow producers of low budget films to recoup their costs, (provided the films are good, of course!). New festivals that share revenue with the filmmakers are a recent interesting proposition as are recent experiments to use your festival premiere as a release – capitalising on the attention the festival affords you to sell DVDS, from VOD and also book other theatrical dates.
In Ireland we don’t really have things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo up and running yet but I’m also really excited about those kinds of crowd sourcing tools and have no doubt they will also continue to mushroom over the coming years.
Further posts detailing the role of the independent producer are forthcoming, to be followed by a whole lot of nuts and bolts about what it takes to produce a film.
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.