By Mark Harris, June 28th, 2010

I know I’m pretty late to the party on some of this stuff, but I wanted to point out a couple more instances of “new”-ish entertainment and storytelling possibilities which I think indie filmmakers can explore.

I only recently discovered You Suck at Photoshop.

One thing I love about this is it’s low-budget nature. It’s dependent entirely on the writing and the performance. Anyone with skills in those two things can do this. You don’t need a crew. You don’t need a RED camera. You don’t even need a budget. Something good for poor indies to think about here…

Here’s another great recent example. This one is particularly funny to people in technology.

Again, the key thing here is that it’s dependent on writing and performance.

What I also like about this is, it’s a kind of entertainment purely made for the web. Sure you could have done this on TV, or in a film, but I think the length of the piece and your expectations for the length of web content combine to make this only really possible on the web. You will check this out at your desk when your boss isn’t looking, but would you sit down on the couch and tune into this? Probably not. Likewise, the concept, funny as it is, can only really be carried on for a few minutes at a time.

Or can it?

Enter Mr. Plinket

So this guy started doing these reviews online. He’s done a number of sci-fi movies, which kind of gives him  a built in audience. What’s striking is that what he does is a mix of an actual good review, and comedy. He plays a character while reviewing. But what he says is usually very sharp and spot on. So what is this beast? A review? A comedy sketch? Whatever it is, it’s pretty telling that I’ve watched Phantom Menace twice; once when it came out, and one more time just to make sure I wasn’t on drugs the first time. But I’ve watched this guy’s entire review series for Phantom Menace 6 times. That’s the whole batch of 7. I’ve watched some individual episodes many more times than that.

Here’s the first one for Phantom Menace. But I strongly encourage everyone to go watch the rest. These will probably have less of an effect if you’re not a fucking  geek, but I think you’ll still get the point. Would love to see him do Sex in the City 2 though.

So we’re looking at some entertainment here made specifically for the web. But what else is it about these? POV? They are all subjective camera? They are all from the protagonist’s POV. They all primarily tell their stories through speech and screen-capture. Plinket’s videos have some inter-cut “scenes,” which I find far less entertaining than his actual reviews. But for the most part, it follows this model.

What else can you do this way? A Sci-Fi story, for sure. A horror story? A Drama? Let’s try something. Anyone have any good story ideas you think would translate to this as a medium?

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Posted in Storytelling transmedia

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 Zak Forsman, June 21st, 2010

WHY DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?

About a year ago, there was a lot of talk about the merging of broadband internet and the televisions in our living rooms. That has since been subplanted by a shift in focus toward the creative process and making better films. However, when Google TV was announced not long ago for a Fall release, I found myself revisiting the importance of discovery and distribution for a 24 hour period in which I built my own video on demand portal. If Google TV is able to populate amongst our TVs and other home theater devices as quickly as Netflix Watch Instantly did, we could be having some interesting conversations a year from now. In anticipation, I began digging into what it would cost in time and money to launch such a portal online for the films of Sabi Pictures and the films we’ve curated via the CINEFIST Screening Series. We’re calling it CINEFIST TV.

First I looked into services offered by Youreeka, Maxcast and others – disappointed at the cost, how little of the purchase price would go into our own pocket and the fact that the customers had to start accounts with these other companies. So then I began to look into doing what they do, but on our own site. I wanted to mimic the Netflix Watch Instantly experience — streaming video, a simple interface, a way to pay for the content with the option to make it free, and I wanted it cheap.

Now, I’m sure there are a few of you that are ahead of the curve on this one. This might not be for you as these are the discoveries of someone who has never done this before, but maybe you could offer some insight that would improve it a bit. That being said, this article assumes you know how to compress videos for the web and that you’ve got a handle on building web sites, registering domain names and setting up a hosting service. What follows is just the first incarnation of our VOD portal. It will evolve.

THE FOUNDATION AND PORTAL INTERFACE

First I needed a platform that would work in any browser. I’ve long been using Wordpress for all our sites and have become a great admirer of the premium video-based themes designed by Jason Schuller at Press75.com. For purposes of this VOD portal, I chose the appropriately named “On Demand” theme. They have a number of themes that would work equally well.

After securing my new .tv domain name, I uploaded all the Wordpress 3.0 files to my server and the theme files were uploaded to its theme folder. I created a mysql database with my hosting service and entered the appropriate information into my Wordpress config file before uploading that. Then, by going to my url for my new site, I followed the installation procedure for Wordpress and within seconds the site, devoid of content, was up and running.

If you are familiar with php and css stylesheets, the Press75 themes are easy to customize, and this theme in particular has a number of customs settings one can set in your Wordpress admin control panel.

A STREAMING VIDEO SERVER IN THE CLOUDS

I needed a cost-conscious streaming server. Most charge so much that selling a 99¢ stream would be a losing proposition. I turned to Amazon Web Service’s CloudFront service and started an account. Their pricing is much more manageable at 15¢ per GB. Considering a feature-length stream is in the neighborhood of 1 to 2 GB, this was a no brainer.

So I first set up an AWS Simple Storage Service (S3) account where the media would live. Using my existing Amazon account and a credit card, I was receiving an email containing a link to my S3 account details within seconds. When you follow that link, the first thing you want to attend to are your two password keys — the Access Key and the Secret Key.

To manage this new account’s files and folder and various settings, I downloaded S3Fox Organizer plugin for Firefox as its really the best thing going for managing your files on an Amazon S3 account. With this I was able to upload all my media files (trailers, previews, shorts and features) and make them public and read-only. Here’s how:

Click on button that reads “Manage Accounts” in the upper left corner of the S3Fox interface. The window shown above will prompt you for an account name and your two access keys.

Now, you’ll need to create a “bucket” (aka a folder) in S3 where you’ll upload your videos. Click the blue folder button at the upper-right side of the screen and enter a name for it. I chose to use the domain name for the site it would serve videos to.

When you’re ready, this is where you’ll upload all your video files to. Each file will have to have its permissions set to be read-only for public viewing by right-clicking on the file, selecting “Edit ACL” from the menu, and changing “Read” + “Everyone” from a red X to a green checkmark. You can’t do this as a batch as far as I can figure so its a long process if you have a lot of videos.

Next you’ll have to set-up a “Distribution” in Cloudfront. Go to the AWS Management Console and add the EC2 and Cloudfront services to your account, if you haven’t already. Then go back to the main console and click the tab for Cloudfront. Click the button for “Create Distribution” and select the “bucket” you made earlier. Then set the delivery method to “Streaming”.

Now you’re looking at a list of your Cloudfront Distributions. Make note of the assigned domain name that looks something like a1b2c3d4e5f6g7.cloudfront.net. You will take that domain name and build the url to your streaming media as follows:

rtmp://cloudfront_domain_name/cfx/st/your_video_file.mp4

The /cfx/st/ path is required. While “your_video_file.mp4″ is the video you uploaded (or will upload) to your bucket.

VIDEO PLAYER AND ADAPTIVE DYNAMIC STREAMING

Dynamic Streaming is where the video player monitors the user’s broadband capabilities and selects one of several videos files to play that are identical in duration and content but differ in size and datarate. The player is capable of switching on-the-fly seamlessly.

As tedious as it may be, you’ll want to encode multiple versions of each video at different datarates. I chose to do three at 500kb/s, 900kb/s and 1800kb/s to support viewers with a variety of bandwidths. The player is given a list of corresponding videos in the form of an XML file and it plays what the user’s system can handle without stuttering and stopping. It’s not always flawless, but it’s pretty remarkable how well it works.

Here’s how I set mine up:

First download the free JW Player and upload the “mediaplayer” folder and all its content to your web site’s FTP. I placed mine in the directory labelled “wp-content” where other items like Wordpress themes and plugins are kept. Next, in your Wordpress admin control panel, go to the settings for the “Simple Video Embedder” (a plugin which comes with the Press75 themes) and enter the location of the JW Player files as: http://yourdomain.com/wp-content/mediaplayer/

Next open a text editor and create an XML file by saving an empty text document with a .xml extension. You can download an example xml file here. Be sure to fill in the names of your video files and your unique cloudfront domain name where indicated in the code. You’ll need to make on of these XML files for each video and once you’ve filled it out with your own info, upload it to your web site’s directory.

Next, use this code to embed the JW Player with instructions to call for the XML playlist. If you’re using the On Demand theme from Press75, create a new post and scroll all the way down to “Post Video Options”. This is where your embed code goes.

MAKE ‘EM PAY!!!

Finally, unless you’re happy giving all your films away for free, you’re wondering how do I make certain videos viewable only after a customer has paid to see it? This is the area I’m still experimenting with and I’d love to hear some ideas in the comments below. For now, I’m using a Wordpress plugin called S2 Member that allows you to lock specified posts and pages as “pay-only” content using Paypal to process the transactions. This plugin was desgined for bloggers who wanted to have premium content on their sites, and since each video we host is essentially its own blog post, this works well enough for now. The instructions it comes with make it easy to set-up so I’m not going to repeat them here, but quickly i will note that you have the option to be post/page specific or to offer a subscription that opens up all the content for one price.

Still, I’d like to have the pay system integrated into the player itself, so it can be embedded on other sites as well. The JW Player has an add-on that allows for Paypal donations to be made, but that’s not quite what we need. So these are the primary areas we’re working on before the official launch in the Fall to coincide with GoogleTV. In addition, we need to replace the video player with an HTML5 compatible one so the videos can be viewed on Apple devices too. The challenge being that no HTML5 players do true fullscreen which kind of kills the home viewing experience when you can see the browser. And its the home viewing experience we’re building this for.

So that, believe it or not, should do it. You can poke around on the site for the JW Player to learn how to use different skins and add-ons too. It was important for me to share how this is done, how easy it is, and how little it costs so you can avoid being taken advantage of. There’s little need to give away 50% or more of your potential online VOD revenue just to have it available in this manner. Anyone with $100 and a couple hours can do it.

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Posted in tools and services video on demand

Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”

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By Mike Ambs, June 21st, 2010

In a recent post here, Ted Hope listed “38 More Ways The Film Industry is Failing Today“; many of the questions and points made among the 38 stood out to me, and I’ve spent the last several days trying to openly brainstorm steps that could lead towards change. But today, I wanted to write about one in particular: Ted asked why we don’t encourage, or even demand, that a film build it’s audience (say, 5,000 fans) prior to production and greenlight.

For starters, I love the idea of audience builds. I think the practice of audience builds before a film gets too far off the ground would be a great shift in how we think of films, how we approach them, how to involve the audience long before they ever sit down in a theater – but it raises a few key issues:

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are told many different ways and take very different paths. Because of this, it might not be the best idea to mandate audience builds. One reason for this is it could, if taken advantage of, create yet another “door” that is opened easier only for some.

So the real question is, “why” take this route? If you had a fork in the road, would you, as a filmmaker, only take the path of audience building prior to production because it was the path less traveled? Or would it come with it’s own real incentives outside of “popularity”? For example, would studios honor and take seriously independent films that have done the hard work of pre-building their audiences? Or would certain grants and financial benefits kick in at such a watermark? It’s important to help build that distinction and give filmmakers real incentives at thinking of storytelling in this way: your supporters are your foundation, build that first, then your film.

This topic of audience builds is interesting to me because, as much as I agree with the idea of pre-building your supporters, I’ve been very hard at work on For Thousands of Miles for six years now, always with a strong interest in the community that can grow around a film, and I still fall short of that hypothetical benchmark of 5,000 supporters. Even with Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, Kickstarter, production-blog subscribers, Vimeo community, etc: we are not above 5,000 people. Have we overlooked the importance of forming a relationship with the audience beforehand? Does our film’s approach and idea need more work before people really begin to relate on a larger scale? And on top of this, these supporters overlap: people who follow the film on Twitter, also might be subscribed to both our blog as well as our mailing list. Which raises the questions:

How do we keep proper tally of the numbers during an audience build without counting one person two or three times? How would an outside review separate individual supporters across multiple social tools? And more importantly, who would do this validating? Should we be building stat tools and options for keeping these aggregated numbers public, letting the film’s own growing base self-check it’s own real-world size? Does this public display beg for popularity contest, where growing your numbers by any means necessary as fast as possible becomes the focus, instead of slowly and steadily reaching out to people who will really follow and support your work over the longterm?

Measurement can be relative when it comes to films, support can vary wildly depending on how a filmmaker goes about engaging people beyond their film. So how do we really measure this? Hitting a set number of followers / supporters / fans / backers could be one way, or if anything, the first step in audience building. From there it’s what you do with these people: how you involve them in the process, what they get out of supporting your project. As filmmakers we cannot change the future of storytelling without the audience’s full support – we need them to fall in love with a new “norm” of getting involved and be right there next to us when going head-to-head with the old ways of industry.

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Posted in audience distribution

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.

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By Gary King, May 26th, 2010

I’ve been asked by a few people to cover the post-production workflow. I already talked about the shooting, editing and test screening process. So now I plan to address the score and sound design component and how everything — in theory — comes together in the end.

Here’s a snapshot of the final project in Final Cut Pro: (remember to keep your dialogue, sound f/x, music all on separate tracks)

This review is all just based on my experiences as I’m sure if I had a post-production supervisor and budget to hire a post-house things would be a lot different.

SCORE

Tackling the score with two different composers (Ken Lampl and Jonathan “Electronathan” Sorge) was no easy task. First off, I had to see if they were even open to this idea.

The reason I was interested in having two composers is I enjoy both their work for different reasons and skill sets — and it’d be an easier time commitment for each (if they split the duties) as they would be doing it as a favor for me. I showed them the rough cut to see if it was something they’d be interested in working on…thankfully they liked it and found it to be a great challenge they wanted to take part in. The main factor that I believe hooked them is that “Lovely” is definitely a score-driven film.

Admittedly, I was a little afraid to even bring up the idea — but knowing each guy personally helped make this a realistic option. They are true gentlemen and professional so I knew approaching them about it would at least be entertained. However, it’s a very risky thing to ask any creative person to join forces (almost like asking 2 filmmakers to co-direct together) — as it leads to potential conflicts. After a few phone calls to clearly define the roles/responsibilities and give each their own autonomy over specific scenes we were off to the races.

We all reviewed the film together in late November 2009. Then they took several movie files from me in order to work separately in their studios to create sketches of ideas. I let them work their magic until January 2010 when I checked in and previewed their cues. There was definitely some back and forth of feedback and revised cues — and by the end of February the score was locked and I was truly amazed.

In fact, the score is now so alive and adaptable with each scene in the film….it moves seamlessly from cue to cue (composer to composer). To me there is no sense of schizophrenia with the score – or at the very least their styles gel quite nicely together where it doesn’t take me out of it. In the end, the audience feedback is just that they truly enjoyed “the score” which is a win for everyone.

SOUND DESIGN

Dialogue clean up and sound f/x were completed by a talented music student — Keith Ukrisna — that I had met while he was interning for a post-studio I was using for “New York Lately“. I delivered the film to him and off he went.

We primarily used Google Wave for our entire communication/review process. There were definitely some lengthy waves going on, but for the most part it helped us keep organized over the entire scope of the film.

Keith spent the majority of time working on cleaning up the audio (primarily the dialogue scenes). Note: Remember to record “room tone” so that you can lay it under your scene to help smooth things out. He worked wonders on some of the scenes. Thankfully we had pretty clean sound throughout, but there were definitely a few locations that had some issues (ex: bar refrigerator, traffic, etc)

I asked him to put all his ideas into the sound design — and then we could scale back as needed. I preferred him to explore the soundscape as I thought there would be things he developed that I never would think of — which happened. There were definitely times where I did say I wasn’t too fond of things and they were removed.

It was an easy process/workflow. We divided the entire film into separate sequences for him to work on and referenced every shot with a timecode window.

Once sound was approved for each scene, Keith would deliver the sound design files associated with the scene (referencing the timecode on where the file should be plopped in to the timeline to sync up with picture).

The only drawback in asking a student to work on your project is they have school and other activities that may cause delays if you’re on a strict timeline. But for me, the cost-saving advantages far outweighed any hard deadline — even though I kept him on one to keep things on track. Keith did a phenomenal job and I plan to work with him again.

FINAL MIX

I did the final mixing myself on Final Cut Pro. Not the ideal whatsoever but it worked. I had all the separate files (music, sound design, dialogue) on discrete tracks so I could easily mix the levels to what I needed. And since the film is in stereo 2.0 (and not some complex 5.1 or 7.2 mix) I felt I could handle it.

Again, not my choice to do it (I’d really prefer someone else) — but to save money and not burn any favors — I believed I could spend about a week on it. If I had any trouble I had friends willing to help out which was a great safety net.

AFTERTHOUGHTS

The best part was at a recent sneak preview of the film we had the audience comment on how great the music and sound was — which is an incredible testament to my team. They were truly amazing to work with and I hope I can keep them around (and pay them next time!). Sometimes I have to take a step back to really appreciate the amount of talented people that are willing to work with me for very low (or no) pay. I definitely don’t want this to be a regular thing and — as evidenced with my next project “How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song” — I’m able to move up and gain a little funding which I’m more than happy to share with the people who’ve been there the whole time believing in what I’m doing.

That’s sometimes the best part — to look around at the people who were there with you from the beginning….and to see everyone moving up together. Helping each other along the way. That’s independent filmmaking.

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Posted in Storytelling distribution editing post-production production journal

Gary King is a contemporary DIY American filmmaker whose work is known for powerful performances with an emphasis on a strong, visual style. He has written, directed and produced several critically acclaimed feature films as well as award-winning short films.

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By Lance Weiler, May 24th, 2010

With 40k in hand Wyatt McDill and Megan Huber set out to make a first feature on their own terms. Having spent a few years pushing a script through development hell they came out on the other side wanting to “just make a movie.” The end result is a DIY voyeuristic web thriller entitled Four Boxes

THE STORY: Trevor, Amber and Rob run Go Time Liquidators – an ambulance-chasing eBay auction business. In a dead man’s destroyed suburban house they start watching a bookmarked surveillance-cam website:fourboxes.tv. If fourboxes.tv isn’t just more internet BS, then a crazed creep they call Havoc is building enough bombs to, like, kill everybody in the U.S.

Designed to embrace and work within the confines of an internet experience the films stars Justin Kirk from (Weeds). Four Boxes enjoyed a festival run with stops at SXSW in 09 and has just recently returned from the Cannes Market. This fall Wyatt and Megan will stage a hybrid release of Four Boxes with a mix of touring, VOD, along with few special internet surprises. We caught up with the husband and wife filmmaking team to discuss the project and the freedom that can be found by working within your limitations.

Step into the world of Four Boxes

Download Adobe Flash Player.

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Posted in Storytelling biz distribution festival podcast screenwriting transmedia

Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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