Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Are You In Good Hands?

Note: Great Society has posted the final part of my "Horror 101" essay. Can you pass the quiz at the end?

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Cindy Marie Martin injured her shoulder and I have this weird throat thing going on so I guess now is a good time to talk about insurance.

I want to start out by saying that no one should trust ONLY my insurance advice. I worked with a qualified lawyer to help decide the types of insurance Women's Studies would require and why. Any would-be filmmaker would be advised to do the same.

The concept of insurance tends to freak out some filmmakers, but it's pretty easy to deal with. Film insurance works just like car, life, or home insurance. If your car is insured and you get in a car wreck, the insurance company will pay for most of the damage to your or another car. If you're not insured, the money comes out of your pocket. So, if there's some cataclysmic screw-up on your film that requires damages to be paid, you're personally responsible for them unless your film is insured.

On the low-budget level, there are basically two types of insurance to be worried about:

Production Liability Insurance - This covers things like injuries on set or damage to a location or property being used for a film. A lot of locations won't even consider letting you shoot there if you don't have production insurance. Same with that guy whose vintage 1956 Chevy Bel Air you want to use in your movie. He'll sleep a little bit better knowing that if something happens to it, it'll be paid for. (You will too.) Rates for liability insurance vary depending on the script and budget. If you have lots of stunts in your film, you'll probably have to pay a higher premium.

Errors & Omissions Insurance - E&O insurance is necessary for a lot of reasons, but the main one is to cover legal fees and damages if any lawsuit is brought forth against the production concerning libel, slander, and/or clearance issues. For example, say you accidentally get a Marlboro logo in your film, and the film gets successful. Well, Marlboro will come at you with a lawsuit saying that you didn't pay them a licensing fee to use their logo. E&O Insurance would keep those damages from coming directly out of your pocket.

Or maybe one of your characters has a line of dialogue that says, "You drive as badly as Paris Hilton sucks dick." Well, if your film is successful, Paris and her little dog might not be too happy about what you said. And trust me, she's got the money to sue you for it. Having a lawyer go over your script and your final print to catch these types of things can help you avoid these lawsuits, but you'll still require E&O Insurance. Most distributors won't even begin to negotiate a deal without it.

Filmmakers freak out and say, "I can't afford insurance!" Trust me, you can afford it a lot more than you can afford to go up against Paris Hilton's legal team. Conventional wisdom states that whatever your budget is, 3% of it will go towards liability and E&O insurance, and the quotes I've gotten have reflected that.

Unless you live in New York or L.A., finding a company who handles production insurance can be tricky. However, just call up your local home or life insurance broker. They should be able to refer you to someone who does. Keep in mind that insurance requirements can also vary from state to state.

Get insurance. Otherwise your chances of getting of your film out there are about as good as the way Paris Hilton sucks dick.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Write of the Living Dead

Short blog this week, and probably next week as well because of travel and general "busy as hell" mode within Ningen Manga Productions right now. February will hopefully bring some cool stuff.

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I announced yesterday that I'll be penning the screenplay for the zombie sequel, Deadlands 2: The New World, to be produced later this year by WetNWildRadio Films and director Gary Ugarek. While I've known I've had the gig for awhile, Gary and I held off on any formal announcement until some things evened themselves out.

I'm honored and excited to be a part of this project since a) I respect Gary, and b) I love zombie films. Though I have to admit, I'm a little daunted by the prospect of working in this particular sub-genre. I hope what I'm doing innovates rather than imitates.

Just a quick note about back-scratching in independent film. It's integral to the success of the low-budget filmmaker. The concept is pretty simple: ""Since you helped me with my film, I'll help you with yours." Gary Ugarek was an integral part of out short film, Under the Bed, and has also been a huge supporter of our efforts on Women's Studies. When someone who has been a patron to my work comes to me and asks the same favor, it's only right I do so.

Plus, it's writing which I absolutely love. I have to admit that after fifteen months of business work, having the creative outlet has been enormously therapeutic. It's renewed my resolve and love for Women's Studies, and reminded me why I do all the hard, non artistic work: To get to the good stuff.

The original film, Deadlands: The Rising will be released by Tempe Video on April 17, 2007, and features Cindy Marie Martin and I in supporting "zombie" roles. More can be found at the Deadlands website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

WANTED: Lazy Unambitious Daydreamer

A sort of off-topic blog this week as I'm finishing the script breakdown, working on securing locations, and getting stuff for and from my Art Director and Director of Photography. Rest assured that plenty of work is being done on Women's Studies. It's just kind of boring to talk about.

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I belong to roughly twelve million filmmaking list-servs, online groups, and message boards. I find them useful for trading tips, networking, and most importantly, learning from the experience of others. Recently, I've run across a lot of postings from independent filmmakers in which the lack of common sense blows my mind. These kind of clueless posts have always been there, but they seem to be in an abundance of late. Below is a recreation that incorporates ideas from many of them.

"Hey, I just finished my first full-length script and it's awesome! I just know it'll be a huge hit and is totally worth investing in. I think I know the answer to this already, but are there any organizations or groups that finance independent filmmakers, or do you have to go through private investors? Anyway, if there's anybody out there who wants to invest in a low budget film, hit me up with an email.

"Also, though I know a lot about how to cast, shoot, and edit a film, I know nothing about PRODUCING a film! Really, I know how to do all the fun shit in the filmmaking process. Yet when it comes to the tedious, frustrating, nuts and bolts production work necessary to actually get a film production off the ground, I just don't know how to do it. So, I'm looking for an experienced producer to help get the project up and running."

Now, I don't want to sound like an elitist here (though I'm probably going to), but unless the author of this kind of post is fifteen years old, they need to be taken out to a vacant lot and beaten severely. Actually, even if they're fifteen, they still need a good swift kick in the ass. Maybe my strong reaction is because I'm smack-dab in the middle of the real production work that goes into making a film happen. However, the lack of patience, knowledge of the industry, and work ethic being exuded by these would-be filmmakers makes me want to reach through my computer screen and throttle them.

I certainly don't think I'm any sort of filmmaking genius or guru. Far from it. I've only produced two short films and worked on a half dozen others in various capacities. At the same time, I've learned to cultivate the three traits which I believe are necessary in order to produce and complete a feature film. Notice I don't say "secure distribution" or "garner accolades and awards." That's because work as hard as I do, shit like that is out of my hands.

1) Patience . . . In my experience, nothing great happens overnight. I've been writing scripts for twelve years. (Twelve years!?! Damn, I'm getting old!) While I'm no William Goldman, I'm confident enough in my knowledge of story values and character building and my ability to translate that to the page to know whether on not what I've written is at least decent. I'm not saying Johnny Filmmaker's first script is horrifyingly bad. However, he should go through a solid revision and drafting process as well as take some time to step away from it to know for sure.

Now, should he do like I did and wait ten years to try and make his first film? Of course not. While I spent much of that time writing scripts, working on theatre and film projects, and learning more about the craft of making movies, there was also just a lot of getting wasted and saying, "Man, someday, I'm going to make a fucking movie and it'll RAWK!" There's a fine line between taking the time to do it right and simply fucking off. The key is knowing (or finding) where that line is.

Also, take the time to learn the ins and outs of filmmaking and the industry built up around it. Which leads me to:

2) Knowledge of the Film Industry . . . There actually are organizations and institutions, including the federal government that give grants and funding for filmmakers to make certain types of films. However, there are a lot of rules to receiving these grants and the type of film Johnny Filmmaker is making may or may not fit their criteria. What Johnny needs to do is take the time to research these grants and see if his super-awesome action script is eligible for any of them. If not, then he needs to turn his attention to the commercial film market and research the various ways these films can be funded, produced, and made. He should research the distribution system and decide what form of distribution suits the type of film he's making, it's budget, and it's target audience. Then he should research companies that fund, produce, and distribute these types of film. OR he can decide to do it all independently, and should then research the various methods in which this can be done. Did I mention there are about a thousand other things Johnny should try to learn about?

Learn about the movie business. I know I said I've learned patience, but when it comes to wannabe filmmakers who haven't taken the time to learn about the industry, I simply have none. There's absolutely no excuse, especially if the sentence "All I want to do is make movies" ever comes out of their mouth. There's literally hundreds of books written on the subject. The internet is strewn with articles and websites devoted to independent filmmaking. Work on other filmmaker's films. Hands on experience is ten times better than any book. Also, go to film screenings and network with other filmmakers. Ask questions. Trade war stories. NEVER think you know it all. You don't. There's always more to learn. Be the eternal student, never content with your current level of knowledge.

3) Work Ethic . . . So, let me get this straight, Johnny Filmmaker. You've learned how to shoot, direct, and edit a film, and in all that experience, you didn't learn anything about producing a film? I find that a little hard to believe you self-centered, unmotivated, lazy shitheel. It seems that you want all the fun and glory and none of the hard labor. Now, while I think I'm a semi-talented guy who has had a few lucky breaks, I've also simply worked my ass off to accomplish what I have so far.

I know that studio films employ a variety of producers who do all the work in the trenches necessary to getting a film made; negotiating contracts, fielding resumes, hiring crew and cast, location hunting, budgeting, script analysis, storyboarding. However, they have the money to pay those people to do it. In the independent world, all that production work falls on the filmmaker.

I myself can't understand how anybody would want to do all the production work themselves and then let somebody else direct the film. To me, that's like spending money on an expensive date, taking the time to dance and romance her, then taking her back to your place and letting your roommate fuck her. If your roommate isn't willing to do the hard work, he doesn't deserve to get laid.

Also, when you do the production work yourself, you learn. I've had people approach me and ask, "Hey, can I use your business plan/budget/script breakdown as a template?" Yet, if I let you just copy what I've done are you really going to understand what it means? Things in my plans may not work for your film. Research itself is time-consuming and can be hard work, but ultimately it'll make you a better filmmaker. You may not think it when you're in the thick of a morass of jargon you don't understand, but trust me. The work is worth it.

I've been working on Women's Studies for fifteen months now. If I wanted to, I could ditch the project and simply make half-a-dozen short films without breaking a sweat, and when the going is tough (as it is now) it's tempting. But there's a fourth trait that I believe is key to making a successful filmmaker, and that's perseverance. Besides, if it's worth doing, it shouldn't be easy.

You hearing me, Johnny?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"And Now It's Time For a Breakdown."

Allow me to suck any hint of glamour out of independent filmmaking.

My main task these days is a preliminary script breakdown of Women's Studies. Less a director's task than a producer's, breaking down the script entails taking each individual scene (All 143 of them) and dividing each into categories based on elements within the scene. This breakdown will be used to decide everything from shot composition to design, continuity to scheduling. While vitally important to have done, breaking a script down has it's tedious aspects.

How does it work?

Let's look at an individual scene from the script:


Iris, carrying an unwieldy bag, meets Mary halfway up the walk. They hug, happy to see each other.

Hi, Mary.

It's good to see you. You look great.

Thanks. You too.

I was going to say "hi" to your folks if that's okay.

They're real busy. Let's just go.

Iris hurries past Mary to the car where Beth and Zack wait.

It'll only take a minute.

Some other time maybe. We should leave.

Mary looks at the house, shrugs, then walks with Iris back to the car.


Looks simple, right? But once we start to get into individual elements, we see there's a lot going into this simple scene.

First, I'll start with location: EXT. IRIS'S PARENT'S HOUSE - DAY. "EXT." denotes an exterior, or outdoor, scene. "Iris's Parent's House" is the setting of the scene (Different from a location, which I'll get into in a minute.). DAY is the time of day of the scene. Most scripts only differentiate between "day" and "night." I've always be a "morning," "afternoon," "evening," and "night" guy, though for the breakdown, I only use "morning" and "evening" (or dawn and dusk) if it's very specific to the scene.

One of the reasons I picked this scene to use as an example is that it's a location we already have. "The Lake House" is my location tag for the "Iris's Parent's House" setting. There are other scenes that take place in this setting.

Another example of why the setting/location distinction is important, the campus exteriors and interiors are likely to be shot at two completely different locations. So, while there are two settings both labeled "Dormitory," they'll be shot at two separate locations. As you can see, later when I'm creating a schedule, this distinction becomes important.

Secondly, there are two cast members with dialogue in this scene, Mary and Iris. However, in a previous scene, we've established that Beth and Zack are waiting in the car, so they'll need to be on location as well. Technically, they're extras in the scene. However, since they're main characters, I categorize them as cast members rather than categorize them as extras. Again, when I start scheduling, this will become important as Zack and Beth are characters who will need to be on location multiple days.

Also, though it hasn't been decided at this point, costumes, hair, and make-up necessities will eventually be noted on the breakdown sheet as well. Having the cast members labeled let's us know that we'll have wardrobe and make-up for four cast members.

Next we note props. In the above scene, there are only two: Iris's unwieldy bag and Mary's car. Ah, but Mary's car isn't to be categorized as a prop. Rather, it's categorized as a vehicle. This is important since a car isn't something you can just shove in somebody's trunk. (Actually, for Women's Studies, the vehicle designation is more important in scenes which take place in a car. It lets us know that we'll need a trailer and a car rig for the camera.)

Thankfully, there are no special FX, stunts, weapons, or special equipment for this scene. Once Cinematographer Aaron Shirley and I decide how the shot is going to be composed, the camera equipment and crew needed for the scene will also be noted on the breakdown sheet. Then we'll take Aaron's storyboards and this breakdown sheet and create a daily schedule and call sheet for this scene. Since it's a one-day shoot, there will only be one call sheet and one breakdown sheet. If a scene spreads over two days (as many will), there would then be two separate breakdown sheets and eventually two separate call sheets.

On set, we'll have a line producer and/or Assistant Director (AD) who will be using these sheets to tell me and everybody else what we're working on that day and what to prepare for the next day. However, by preparing the breakdown myself, I'll hopefully have a good idea what's happening even before the AD tells me which will keep things moving. Remember this is independent film, and every second counts.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dreaming in Digital

(Part 3 of my "Horror 101" series, "Werewolves and Vampires and Zombies, Oh My!," has been reposted. Go, Speed, Go!)

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The future of filmmaking is digital. Anyone who says otherwise has A LOT of money sunk into film gear.

For the indy filmmaker, this is nothing but good news. Digital equipment is more readily available, less expensive, and requires less resources and personnel to use. The home video arena, the most likely avenue for independent film distribution, has already embraced films shot on digital video rather than film.

Yet even movie theaters are slowly but surely moving towards digital projection as more studio films are being shot on high-definition video rather than film. Both Episode II and III of the Star Wars prequel trilogy were shot on HD video, as was Sin City. Most recently, for 2006's Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer elected to shoot not on a traditional 35mm film camera, but Panavision's Genesis digital camera system (co-designed by Sony.)

I'm not a techno-geek. A lot of filmmakers get their rocks off talking about the gear, specifically the camera. They'll go on about aspect ratios, codecs, imaging chips, and a morass of jargon that honestly makes my head spin. To me, the camera is a creative tool, same as the lights, make-up, and sound gear. As director, I won't be directly working with these tools, but instead working with skilled technicians who will employ these tools to help me tell a story. And from my experience, most cinematographers, sound engineers, and editors like working with a non-technical director like me because I just tell them what I want, not how they should go about giving it to me.

Still, choosing the right tool is an important part of any job. An inferior tool can create an inferior final product. Though both Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley and I felt a cinematic 16mm or 35mm film "look" would benefit Women's Studies most, our budget dictated we shoot digitally. Per my directing style, I told him what I needed from a camera and left it to Aaron to decide which camera would best suit those needs. Fortunately, he knew there were a great deal of tools at our disposal.

And my needs were ridiculously simple. I asked for a camera whose footage would have film characteristics such as running at 24 frames-per-second (FPS), a 16x9 aspect ratio, and the ability to create a shallow depth-of-field. (In layman's terms, "shallow depth-of-field" allows a camera to focus crisply on one item in the frame while leaving other items out of focus.) I also wanted it to have the ability to adjust the exposure levels for different visual effects, and variable frame rates in case we wanted to shoot slow or fast motion.

Any bells and whistles were Aaron's call. After a long period of research and debate, much of it with himself, Aaron decided on the Panasonic HVX200 with a Redrock M2 35mm Adapter.

Panasonic HVX200

Like I said before, I'm not much of a techno-geek. However, I realize a lot of folks are interested in the tech specifics. So without further ado, I give you the high priest of the HD, Women's Studies DP Aaron Shirley:

"Even though I went to a video based film school, and I make a living in video production, I've always had an aversion to story telling in video. There are several aspects of film that just draws one into the story. Even though the average viewer can't quantify what it is about film, the brain sees the rhythmic 24 frames per second with no jaggy lines (24P), the accurate detail that can only be achieved by an imaging surface with higher resolution than what is being seen (1080), and the gradual rounding of shadows into black as well as the gradual rounding of highlights into white (Cinema Matrix), and the brain starts expecting a story.

"I did what I could with video on other people's projects, but when it came to my own, I've relied on film. But the price of using film is high, and not just monetarily. In the past ten years I've completed one music video, one short and two-thirds of a movie on film. Film is difficult to use, and very difficult to use inexpensively. And you can take how hard and expensive film is in production and multiply that by ten for post-production.

"When Panasonic came out with their 24P miniDV camera (DVX100) several years ago, I dismissed it without really giving it a chance. It was video, and so what if it's 24P, that's only a third of what makes film look like film. It wasn't until I went to a seminar on high-end post production that I finally saw some professionally shot footage from it. It was footage for a Christian Children's Fund commercial where they used a million dollar color correction machine (that was really made for digitally enhancing 35mm film), to make the village look drab and scary. Everyone in the audience (including myself) thought it was film footage even before any correction had been done to it. Almost at the end, someone asked what the footage had been shot with, and when the shooter said, 'the DVX100,' everyone gasped. It's Cinema Matrix was that good.

"Since then, I've shot a short with the DVX100, taught a class on how to use it, directed a short with the HVX200, and shot a full length concert with the HVX200. The High Definition (1080) is the icing on the cake that the HVX200 adds to what the DVX100 could do (as well as better rendering of colors and tones). I spent a lot of time trying out the other High Definition cameras in the indie film price range, and they were all very close, but none of them were perfect, and the HVX200's imperfections, I decided were the least problematic of them all.

"As for the 35mm adapter, 'selective focus' is a commonly used technique in film to guide the viewer's eyes to the important areas of the picture. Your eye tends to look at what is in focus and ignore what is not. It is seldom used in video because of optic constraints of the cameras (shooting from a long distance with several settings at their maximums is the only way even some video cameras can achieve it). I looked at a lot of footage shot with different adapters and I chose the Redrock M2 because it had the best clarity and engineering of all the adapters available in it's price range."