Sunday, October 25, 2009

Working With an Editor

This article appears in the Fall Issue of Filmmaker Magazine
by Roberto Quezada-Dardon

Most DIY filmmakers aspire to work with a full crew at some point in their careers, if only once. What a luxury, what a statement of having arrived, to employ a location manager, a production designer, a camera department ( ! ). And are there people, really?, whose only job is to coordinate vehicles? To wrangle actors? Keep the movie on schedule? Oh, yes.

One of the last reins for a DIY director to let go of, though, is the editing. Thanks to the personal computer revolution and software like I-Movie that arrives installed from the factory, most directors (as well as craft services, grips, juicers, and everyone in the camera department) have also been editors at some time or another in their brief careers. How you see, how you imagine a process you’ve filmed unfolding in your mind’s eye, is very subjective. When to cut to an insert, when to go to a reverse shot, the very order of shots— no two people would necessarily cut a scene the same way. Having someone else cut your vision, especially those times when it will be someone you’ve never worked with before, seems counter-intuitive if not downright scary. So what are the upsides of working with an experienced editor?

A couple of the editors I spoke to brought up the issue of how much and how often the technology used for editing changes. It is the editor’s sole job to work with these tools and if he or she is very experienced, they’ve cut many films in the time that most directors have worked on one or two. Peter Teschner (Definitely, Maybe; Borat; Private Parts), who is working with Nanette Burstein, a director very accustomed to editing her own projects, points out that from the advent of sound in filmmaking until the introduction of computers, movies have always been made the same way, “but now it’s just incredible how it changes all the time, especially at the audio end and in the dubbing stages…every movie’s a little different.” Alan Edward Bell, editor of (500) Days of Summer, is keen on the benefits of specialization and experience that editors bring to the process: “Editors build performances and shape story in very subtle ways, most of the techniques and instincts we use to do this were developed over many years in the industry.” Working with someone who has confronted hundreds of the special challenges that come up in the editing stages of filmmaking is bound to save a production time and it will help find eloquent solutions to some of the problems. On Summer Bell encountered a situation where a scene was too long and nobody wanted to lose the really interesting shot that was also the source of the problem: “It started as a tilt up off of a couch which then pushed up into a bedroom where Tom and Summer are on the bed talking. The actors did a lot of add libbing during the slow tilt up and push in. The real discussion didn't start until about 15 seconds into the move. 15 seconds can be a very long time if it's not serving the story or a character in a meaningful way for the film. So I took the couch and cut it out of the frame then enlarged it slightly and masked out the section above it so that i could then alter the timing of the shot in invisible way. I essentially cut out all the fat but was able to keep the same move the DP and Director designed when the composed the shot. I do things like that to support the movie in an invisible way on a regular basis. It's because I can see the footage in a different way and I have tools and experience to do that sort of work quickly and effectively.”

Kate Williams, who has worked several times with Fred Schepisi, Steve Buscemi, and who cut Frozen River for Courtney Hunt, downplays the importance of being on top of technological developments (that’s what assistants are for) in favor of years and years of experience developing character and shaping performances in the editing room. For her, being able to tell a story and the freshness of the point of view an editor brings to this aspect of the project are key. Regardless of what the director’s original intent was, say at the writing or casting stages of the process, there is a good chance that what’s in the can may not reflect this. Finding the material to get it back to this original vision, or developing it into a different but more interesting statement, can be very difficult for the director after a grueling shoot or after having gotten too intimate with the footage to have the necessary distance. Editing on Frozen River began long after principal photography was over. According to Williams, “At first Courtney [Hunt] was worried that it wouldn’t cut together because of the short shooting schedule, and I said to her, ‘I like the speed with which you did it and the roughness of it is what I love about it.’ In the end I didn’t cut around anything that seemed clumsy. At one point I remember saying, ‘it doesn’t matter if the camera jiggles or a head’s slightly cut off, let’s just cut for story and character…’ and that’s what we did. They did a good job with what they did get [in principal photography] and the result was a very fresh look.”

The wonderful thing to remember about digital editing is that it is non-destructive. Everything editors do on their own can be undone and done over by the director after shooting is over. Teschner describes the back and forth process this way: “It’s me saying, ‘I really think we should try another take because this is not working,’ and the director trusting me enough to say, ‘alright, let’s try it.’ It’s not like we’re going to cut the negative tomorrow, it’s just experimenting, that’s what the editing process is…you can have an editor work for several months, look at what he’s done, think, ‘oh man,’ but no harm done because you haven’t destroyed anything.”

Being able to have footage cut simultaneously with principal photography is another benefit of working with an editor. Nothing says “not-a-DIY-film” like a firm delivery date and loans that have to get paid back quickly. An assembly of the whole film ready for the director to begin her cut will help to get that film done in time for festival deadlines or the distributor’s itchy fingers. But even if deadlines or accruing interest is not a concern, having another set of eyes looking at footage daily, and better yet, cut footage daily, certainly should be. Being informed of technical problems with what’s been shot or about missing shots while a crew is still shooting on the set that’s being edited is invaluable.

It is ironic that during B.C. filmmaking (Before Computers) when it was such a hassle to get film processed and synced up everyday for dailies, directors and DPs would forsake sleep to see rushes every single day. Now, when it is so much easier to get the footage screened and cut, especially if it’s being shot digitally to begin with, all of the editors I spoke to say that many of these people won’t even watch dailies weekly! This is probably because with HD monitors on the set, or shooting with cameras such as the Red One, what you see on-set can be very close to if not exactly what you will get at the very end of the post process. On a recent visit to a movie being shot on a Genesis camera with a state-of-the-art video village, I stupidly praised what I thought was DVD footage shot the previous day. The whole tent turned from the 31” HD monitor to give me an incredulous look. It was live action of a scene being rehearsed 50 yards away. But it looked so polished.

Teschner says that dailies every morning used to be the main interface between him and directors. Now, he says, although not ideal, they mainly text each other. There have been times when Nat Sanders has had to work with even less communication than that: “To be honest, I really haven't done that much conversing with my directors during production. For the most part, I'll just act like a detective and in looking at the footage, use clues (like things they're emphasizing from take to take, things they tossed out after the first take or two, et cetera) to figure out their intentions for each scene. And that's something that's actually worked out really well so far - my directors have always been pleasantly surprised at how close my first cuts have been to their visions for the film. And there's a lot to be said for being totally objective from the shoot, only seeing and knowing what's playing in that monitor, and being able to give a fresh take on the best form for the footage.”

Perhaps a good lead for narrative filmmakers is to follow how it’s done on some reality television shows. John Bloomgarden who edits for shows on Biography, Discovery, and for National Geographic remembers a time not too long ago when producers and directors had to come in and sit in the editing room to view everything that had been shot. The live and back and forth between editors and the people shooting the material was nearly a daily occurrence. “Now you rarely have to stop work for screenings anymore. The [cut and un-cut] material is uploaded to computers everyday and then downloaded to make DVDs for the producers to take home, look at it, and give comments later.”

Another unfortunate digital casualty is sometimes the script supervisor. The thinking on many low-budget indies is that it will somehow save money and that, because of playback, continuity is something that someone with nothing else to do will catch before the next take. But good notes from the set, regardless of who takes them, are also the responsibility of the script supervisor and they will save time and money in the editing room. Even if the director is cutting the film himself, it will save him the anxiety of trying to remember that perfect take months later when he’s editing. Having one person whose primary responsibility it is to remind the director of this and take notes is the best way to accomplish this. When shooting 35mm film, it is obvious that circled takes are a necessary effort because of the expense incurred if every take is printed. Most of the editors I spoke to felt that newer directors accustomed to shooting digital video bristle at the thought of having to work with circled takes even when what they’re shooting is film. But whether film or digital video, once a production has hired someone to edit its film that will not be on the set during shooting, circled takes or at least very good script notes is going to be a much more efficient way to work. It’s unrealistic to think that an editor will have the time (or the mental stamina) to watch scores of nearly identical takes over and over and be able to guess which one the director had in mind to use. Well, maybe just inhumane. Bloomgarden, who has also worked on narrative films notes that “the greatest difference between film and digital video is the proliferation of material. You just get so much more material thrown at you…Anyone trying to work on a reasonable post-production budget who doesn’t circle takes with direction as to why they were circled— well, the extra amount of time it takes under those circumstances is dramatic. You need guidelines, to look at those takes first and if they have problems, then you can go to the other takes to solve those problems.” Script notes or, at the very least, circled takes might be a new way to work for many new directors, but one that at some point they will really have to get good at to stay on time and on budget.

But John Bloomgarden, who cut the documentary Farmingville concedes that the case with documentaries can be a little different. Here, having someone else with the mental stamina to be able to go through hours and hours of footage, often with no clear script to work from, can be incredibly helpful if not essential. Logging is important here too, but it is often occurring while loading footage up into the computer, a process that Bloomgarden prefers to do himself in order to get familiar with the material. “[On Farmingville] I was brought in once the material was shot. That was an enormous amount of material, close to 200 hours. And in that situation I was working with two people that were extremely dedicated to what they were doing and the story they were telling, but one of them was a first-time director. The challenge when you have this much material and uncertainty about what shape this material should finally take, and so much of the material was very good material, the challenge is paring it down, paring it back, and in some cases how to move beyond the director’s love of some of the material, and ultimately your own too. As an editor, at a certain point, you also run the risk of becoming attached to certain scenes that will be hard to let go of. Ultimately you have to be gentle in your relations with a director. The editor’s job in a situation like this is to bring the director along to the point where she or he can begin to understand the need for moving past certain parts of the material and letting some of it go.” The 83-minute documentary went on to get the Audience Award at Sundance.

This is a good segue to our last consideration, what to look for in an editor. The first time a director has to go through this rite of passage might be the most difficult. Nat Sanders (Humpday, The Freebie, Medicine for Melancholy) summed it up this way: “If you're doing a character piece, you'll want to find an editor who's really strong at crafting performances. If you're looking for something flashy from your editing, you'd want to look for an editor that can bring a lot of style to your film. But outside of that, I'd say the main traits to look for are whether someone is pleasant to be around (as you'll be spending a lot of time with them), seems intelligent, insightful, hard-working, agreeable to compromises and allowing themselves to be overruled, and, probably most importantly, is excited about your script.”

The rest of the editors I spoke to agreed that the most important criteria for choosing an editor has got to be personality. Peter Teschner puts it this way: “The process is like finding a roommate. Even at the beginning level, if an editor has a resume, if they’ve cut some movies before, you will probably have a sense that they know what they’re doing. So then what becomes the big issue is personality. A director is going to have to ask, can I spend 6 months in a room with this person?” He recalls once asking a director with whom he’d made many features why she chose him over another more experienced editor the first time they worked together. She replied that the other editor had been offered something to eat during the their initial interview and that the bearded gentleman had selected a yogurt. As he scooped it into his mouth a little bit of it dribbled down into the hair on his chin and he didn’t notice. As the interview progressed, it started to annoy her more and more until she realized there was no way she’d be able to spend any significant amount of time in close proximity with this guy.” He adds that after years of working together, he and director Betty Thomas were able to finish each other’s sentences: as good a sign as any of a good working relationship between a director and an editor.

As for Kate Williams, her first impression of Courtney Hunt was very positive: “At our first meeting she walked in and we talked about our mothers for four hours…I thought, this is going to work well because we can talk about character. I really did.” Apparently, the feeling was mutual.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trailerpark: Student-Made Feature

This is an unedited version of an article appearing in the Fall Issue of Filmmaker Magazine.

By Roberto Quezada-Dardon

For nine years students in MDIA 419, a narrative video class at Ohio University, have made short films selected from twenty-five to thirty scripts that they have written. Teams are chosen, one per script, and over the course of two quarters, people work as producers, editors, cinematographers, etc. with a director who’s been chosen on the basis of his or her experience and performance on past shorts in other positions. Anywhere from sixty to 70 additional students are divided among each of the five various projects as grips, electricians, and P.A.s, and everybody working on the projects gets course credit. The course is taught by the associate professor who developed it, Frederick Lewis. This year he decided that all this energy would be focused on making just one movie— a full-length theatrical feature.

While still a student at Brown University, Lewis remembers falling in love with a book of short stories by Russell Banks called Trailerpark. Twenty-five years later, as a filmmaker screening his documentary at the Lake Placid Film Forum, Lewis finally got to meet Mr. Banks, the founder of the forum. Banks was particularly interested in the subject of the film, the artist Rockwell Kent, because of a character based on Kent he was developing for a novel. The Trailerpark characters and stories had made a lasting impression on Lewis, but when he met the writer, he couldn’t find the words to mention this as coolly as he would have liked to. Over the years, the two men stayed in touch via email after the forum.

Juniors and seniors in MDIA 419 write both an original short screenplay, and an adaptation from a published short story. In the past the course has produced short films based on stories by various published writers intrigued by this method of teaching digital film production, the most notable being Kurt Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle. But no one at Ohio University had ever attempted a feature length film as part of the undergrad curriculum. This is also uncommon at most major film schools. In fact, if Google, IMDb, and Youtube are reliable measures, “student film” seems to be synonymous with “short.”

There are some very good reasons given for discouraging the practice at most film schools. There is the fear of permitting a student to set himself up for failure, or at least distraction from directing, due to the dimensions of such a project. Or the unfair advantage a student with access to finances would have over students who didn’t. Some schools, because they are providing equipment, editing rooms, tape, and in some cases, film stock and processing, claim ownership of all projects, thus creating a problem for students needing a return on their investment to pay for everything else. Even with most necessities donated, it’s difficult to get a polished feature in the can for under five digits. And what about the sheer drain on resources that a feature would cause a school trying to accommodate the projects of many students each semester?

These obstacles apparently did not exist in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University. First of all, there’s the course instructor himself. I’ve spoken to Frederick Lewis and, frankly, he’s kind of crazy— in a wonderfully contagious way. The possibility that such a venture might fail colossally simply never occurred to him. This fed into the element of surprise. No one was expecting a full-length feature to come out of an undergraduate video course. Lewis feels that it’s fortunate MDIA 419 is not a part of a traditional film school. It is in the School of Media Arts and Studies which mainly focuses on television studio production, documentary, post-production, and animation. Nor is Lewis’s class in narrative video required to graduate. Lewis believes that this relieves a lot of pressure because students get course credit for any job they do on a production, not just directing. Everyone that works on a project like this is committed to it in a way that they would not be if they were all directors just putting in their time on someone else’s project in turn for help on theirs.

One day, five years after meeting Russell Banks, Lewis brought up Trailerpark as a good example of source material for screenplay adaptations to a student in the course, Patrick Muhlberger. During this conversation, it occurred to Lewis that the various short stories in the book and all its disenfranchised characters might work as a full-length screenplay. When he said to Muhlberger that maybe they should try it, Muhlberger’s silent response was “yeah, right.” But Lewis was now on a mission.

Soon after, he emailed Banks and he explained to the twice-produced author (The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction) the concept of the class. Banks liked it and Lewis’s timing was perfect. HBO had just relinquished the rights to Trailerpark back to Banks. A couple of weeks later, Lewis and Banks had signed a simple, one paragraph letter of agreement allowing a movie to be made by MDIA 419 that could be shown only on the campus of Ohio University. No biggie. It was something Lewis had done many times before with published writers.

Lewis got Muhlberger a copy of Trailerpark and suggested he start selecting stories and characters that would all fit in one over arching story. It was a big job. Other students taking the course became involved with the project. Nick Knittel, Jeff Bowers, and Jonny Look all joined in the assignment to sort stories and characters into a single narrative. Lewis met with the students twice a month and read each draft of the script working with them on sequencing of scenes and improvements to the script.

After editing and condensing and adapting and writing for two quarters, what takes place over 60 years on the pages of Russell Banks’s book was condensed into a single year. The wheels of pre-production began to turn, and Lewis selected two directors to helm the project, Patrick Muhlberger and Jonny Look.

Each director worked with his own cinematographer, Andrew Poland, a senior in the Media Arts department, and John Veleta from the film school. Each D.P. had his own camera crew, but everyone else, the Production Designer Lauren Malizia and her department, Chief Lighting Technician Hank Wagenbach and all the grips and electricians, and the P.A.s, formed a single crew along with Conor Hogan as the coordinating producer.

Funding was raised by the students themselves and from many donors, as well as a very generous grant from the Ohio University Student Activities Commission. Andrew Poland managed to convince companies such as Mole-Richardson and Zacuto USA that this was not a typical student film and they were loaned all the grip, lighting, and camera equipment used on the project.

The scenes and story lines each director would be in charge of were agreed upon at the writing stage of production. Sets were built and dressed (including eight seventy-foot house trailers that were rented and transported to the side of a lake) and photography was accomplished in 32 days, mostly on weekends. The picture was edited during and after shooting by Ben Draher, and picture was locked four weeks after shooting wrapped. According to Jonny Look “Frederick gave Patrick and I complete creative control….He allowed us to be the final decision on set for all of our principal photography, which needed to happen, or else our role as directors may have been a bit confusing.”

Trailerpark premiered on campus at Ohio University and was then presented to the public at this year’s Lake Placid Film Forum. It was very well received. Russell Banks was present and in a taped interview said that the work of the filmmakers just blew him away. “They caught the mixture of comedy and tragedy which is really hard to do. The book has that mix and they caught that and I was very grateful for that….I just thought the level of professionalism was really extraordinary. REALLY extraordinary. I have never seen a student production of that quality in my life.” The distribution agreement he has with the school has been expanded so that the film can now be submitted to any and all of the film festivals Frederick Lewis has planned for it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why Hurt Locker Isn't Doing So Hot

uhm, isn’t The Hurt Locker an independent film? And wasn’t it Filmmaker Magazine that featured Katherine Bigelow on its cover last month? Or was that the cover of Nickoledeon or Star Magazine I saw her on? I’m pretty sure it was Filmmaker.

I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon reading countless articles, blog posts, and comments to blog posts about the humorless generation war started by Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, and Jeffrey Wells, and other critics who are apalled at how poorly the box office and the response from the youth market has been for Hurt Locker.

These diatribes were then countered, very intelligently (and sometimes humorously), by Glenn Kenny, Drew McWeeny, and Steven Boone.

But no one has mentioned, as far as I know, the fact that thoughtful independent films Never make more than summer blockbusters, even if they’re thoughtful action films. So why are Ebert, Wells, and Scott singling out this year in film and ringing in the era that will see the death of intelligent film audiences?

As for the lack of interest on the part of kids for Hurt Locke, even independent horror films don't do as well as studio films. Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, two independent films that appealed to the audiences that Ebert and Scott wish would flock to Hurt Locker, combined, and to date, have made less than 75 million. The original Terminator, a brilliant action indie, has made $38,371,200. The original Rambo (First Blood) has grossed $47,212,904 in 29 years.

It is true, if not amazing, that Slumdog Millionaire has made 141 million bucks so far, but it cheated: It got the Academy Award. The Reader and Milk, both nominated for Oscars last year and box-office runners-up to Slumdog combined made 68 million dollars.

As for past generations of intelligent film audiences, Il Postino, Miramax’s film that ran, unbelievably, for over a year starting in 1995, has made, to date, domestically, under 22 million dollars. The most theaters it ever ran in was 430.

And Full Metal Jacket (1985), not exactly an indie per se, but a thoughtful war film made by a genius, has grossed $46,357,676 to date. It was made for $30 million and it made 2 million dollars its opening weekend (215 theaters). The Hurt Locker has made 1/5 of that in 7 weeks. Are film critics not also film historians? Maybe not all of them.

The real problem is not with the intelligence of film audiences, the intelligence of films, or even the intelligence of film editors (as Boone brilliantly argues). The real problem is that distributors, investors, and production companies are supporting intelligent, original, artistic, independent films less and less. And this is truly the most depressing and only downward spiral independent films have actually been caught in since Cassavetes made Faces. Thank god for the internet.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Film vs Video...continued

In today's L.A, Times:

"[Panavision's] bright past has been overshadowed by heavy debt, CEO shake-ups and decreasing demand for its equipment as many filmmakers switch to digital technology....

Aside from a production slowdown, Panavision is grappling with a more fundamental shift: Its business was built around manufacturing and leasing costly, high-end film cameras. It was a model that worked well for decades, when its cameras and lenses became a fixture in Hollywood and had little competition.

But demand for film cameras has steadily declined in recent years. Although filmmakers still debate the merits of shooting on 35-millimeter film versus shooting digitally, the switch to digital equipment has been dramatic, especially in television, where studios have been pressuring producers to cut costs. Virtually all the TV pilots were shot digitally this year.

Panavision rents digital cameras, including its well-regarded Genesis, which it developed with Sony Electronics.

But that camera is older and generally costlier to rent than rival digital models such as the Red One, which was developed by Jim Jannard, founder of eyewear and apparel company Oakley Inc...."

Read the entire article at The Los Angeles Times

Sunday, July 26, 2009

DSLR Video and Sync Sound

One of the dilemmas associated with shooting DSLR video has to do with the discrepancy between optimum picture and optimum sound. Of the the three DSLRs on the market today that can produce video, two deliver 1080p HD, the Canon D5 Mark II and the Panasonic GH1. The Nikon D90 produces a very good quality HD image on a large chip as well (larger than the Panasonic's, smaller than the Canon's), but at 720p.

As far as an image that most closely approximates something shot with a film camera, all three cameras, because of the size of their chips, accomplish this extremely well, but not equally. The quality of their image, due to the size of their chips and quality of their lenses, I would rank like this, in descending order: Canon, Nikon, Panasonic.

So as picture quality goes, Canon is best, Panasonic is third (still a very good image). But of the three cameras, only one is rigged at the factory for adequate sound recording and that is the Panasonic (in stereo, no less). The sound recording capabilities of the Canon and Nikon are notoriously bad. So a filmmaker who desires to shoot sync sound with the Canon or Nikon would be wise to consider recording it on a separate system such as the Zoom H4n. Even someone shooting with the well-reviewed sound system built into the Panasonic might be concerned with space on the camera’s storage media card, and a separate recording device could also be a solution for that problem.

None of the articles I’ve written on DSLR video allowed space for discussion of recording sync sound, so I’d like to list some of the sites I found while researching these articles and one I just came across on Sunday:

Zacuto offers excellent tutorial videos on filmmaking in general. Here is an exceptional one on sound:

Singular Software has developed a product to sync sound from separate and multiple sources at their Web site here.

And finally, Phil Bloom’s generosity with what he learns on the job as a cinematographer is inexhaustible. Here is a step by step tutorial on how he uses Plural Eyes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

3-D Movies Here to Stay?

"Walt Disney's Jerry Bruckheimer-produced family flick "G-Force" opened with a very fine $11.5 million at the box office for what should be anywhere from a $30-35 million weekend. Hollywood types were curious if the talking rodents picture could overtake "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" after soft industry tracking, but it appears the kiddies were looking to move on to something new and the mouse house has another solid hit this summer.'

Saw the long-awaited G-Force today (please don't ask). It just opened Friday and, according to HitFix, it's narrowly beating The Ugly Truth. When I stepped up to the box-office window for the 4:20 matinee, the clerk asked for ten dollars per ticket. That might seem ok to my sophisticated city friends, but out here in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, them's fightin' words.

So I said to the guy, "I thought this was a matinee."
"It's in 3-D," was his phlegmatic reply. Well, it wasn't as bad as the twenty-eight bucks I had shelled out for two Jonas Bros. in 3-D tickets a couple of months ago (alright, I have a young daughter that drags me to these things), but today I kept the promise I made to myself then, and I got the tickets for the 2-D gopher movie playing an hour later--for the matinee price of seven bucks a ticket. "We don't like wearing those clunky glasses anyway, right?" I asked my film-buddy. "Right," she said, emphatically. Oh, I've trained her well.

So is this where we are headed? Is 3-D going to last longer than the 30 months it lasted the last time the process attempted a beach-head landing back in the 'fifties? Perhaps I should have accepted the assignment to write an article on the promise of low budget 3-D processes being developed even as we speak. But it seemed boring and so trendy at the time, three months ago.

Last year's 3-D Journey to the Center of the Earth was made for 60 million and to date has cleared 240 million. Coraline, also made for 60 million, is on track to gross the same world wide. Regardless of its ridiculous 173 million dollar budget, Monsters Vs. Aliens has made $374 million worldwide in only four months. hmmmmm.

Granted, all these 3-D movies also play in 2-D, so it's hard to say whether or not they would have made the same amount without the gimmick, but the point is they seem to be doing better than their fifties counterparts and being produced more aggressively by more studios this time around. The competition in the past was television. Today it's blu-ray, video games and the internet that's lighting a fire under production companies to so boldly think outside the 2-D box. The truth of the matter is that 3-D this time around has already been around for much more than 30 months. It's been cropping up with increased frequency since the early nineties, but 2008-2009 must be setting some records that go beyond the sixties and eighties revivals discussed in Wikipedia

The main difference this time around seems to be that the process is being applied not just to loser titles that the studios are attempting to hedge bets on. Up opened the Cannes Film Festival, names like Spielberg and Burton are mixed up in ongoing 3-D projects, James Cameron's first movie since Titanic is Avatar. It's being hyped *because* it's in 3-D, not *just* that Cameron's doing it (for $235 million), and *all* future Disney/Pixar titles are set to be released in Disney Digital 3-D. So yeah, this time around, it does seem to be happening differently. But I think I'll wait until Woody Allen or the Coen Bros. announce their 3-D projects to write that article.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

DSLR/Video Interview with Andrew Disney

Andrew Disney is shooting his film, Searching For Sonny, in Fort Worth, Texas using a Canon D5 Mark II DSLR. He attended NYU film school and then returned to Fort Worth after the summer of 2007. "It's a great place to shoot, and I'm finding that there is money here. Everybody wants to make movies, and there's a ton of energy in Texas for filmmaking."

Disney describes his film like this "It's about three bumbling friends who go back to their high school reunion and get sucked into a small town murder mystery that seems eerily like a play from high school."

His plan after the film is completed is to begin seeking distribution via film festivals. If no distributors step forward, then self distribution is in his future. "Deep down I love the idea of self-distribution and would not be disappointed if it turns out that way. Our strategy now has been to film the trailer, create the buzz, get the fans. That way, once we shoot the film, we'll already know we have some sort of audience. And it definitely makes an investor happy to know that people want to see the film before money has even been put into the project. It makes filmmaking much more democratic and smart. Consumers get to choose."

RQD: What has shooting Searching for Sonny with a DSLR meant for the movie?

AD: With DSLR, there's going to be a great upheavel. Besides me, we had a DP, an AC, a producer, and one PA on the shoot. We used a kino flo package and an arri package. That's it, and we were able to make somthing that looks very very good [the trailer]. So if i can make a great looking movie for a modest budget, then I can just distribute to a niche audience. No need distribute to the masses. Just distribute to a certain audience, and use social networking and viral marketing to get there. In the last twelve hours, we've got 2,000 hits from China because the trailer was posted on a Chinese gadget blog -

RQD: I saw your trailer. Nice dolly move in front of the Starbucks. Did you find it difficult to get steady camera moves with the Canon? Any problems with handheld shots? How did you get around them if you had any?

AD: I was very afraid about the sensitivity of the camera to movement. I'd read alot about how the rolling shutter in the Canon 5d can sometimes give a jelly effect. If you look at the focus push at the second mark, you'll see what a lot of people are having problems with. We stayed away from handheld shots, more as a stylistic choice. We did a test before the shoot with handheld, some parts are a little too shaky. I think it'll be a new camera technique to master.

On the dolly, we used sandbags to weigh down the tripod. But even with a nice dolly with good track, we had to rehearse the shot over and over again. Every little bump could be seen on camera.

Here's a picture of what our setup looked like.

RQD: How did you record sound for the movie? Onto the camera card or separate system?

AD: We did a separte system. We've only shot the trailer. We're releasing the full trailer on April 15th. It'll have sound. We used our HVX200 to record the sound. Funny that the HVX used to be our dream camera. Now it's what we record sound on via miniDV.

RQD: Any examples/stories of how using such a small camera enhanced your project? Shots you couldn't have gotten otherwise?

AD: The size of the camera made our crew smaller. Nothing to big to lug around. A battery pack that lasted all day. It felt easier and we went tired. Moving the camera, using the dolly was just so easy. I think for a documentary filmmaker, DSLR is going to be a must.

The big plus about the camera is the light sensitivity and the size of the image sensor. We were able to shoot in low light. The starbucks shot is only lit by available parking lot lights and a kino on the side to give a hair light. (We could only use 3 bulbs because we use powering it from my car and the fuse would blow when we switched on four.) The camera can use low light so well, and the sensor grabs so much data because of its size. That was the pain with the HVX and a 35mm adapter. You'd lose so much light and the blacks turned out so grainy.

: Are there any limitations for what people will be able to watch/project your film on or with?

: That's a big question a ton of people have been asking. If it's projected on a movie screen... maybe. But then again the best projectors out there are only 2K. I'm waiting to see the RED Scarlet. Maybe that'll be the camera to shoot on. The only problem with that is the price will be more and it won't be fun to buy so much disk storage. Many people decry the compression on the 5d but I'm okay with it. It looks good to my eye and the people around me. Star Wars Episode 1 was shot on 1080p. And the film may not even play in theaters. If people watch it on Blu-Ray, DVD, iPhones, the internet, the Canon 5d is perfect.

: Anything else you'd like to add will be appreciated. I just need a couple of paragraphs to round out my article.

: I like all other DSLR filmmakers am waiting for the Panasonic GH1. The 5dm2 does a great job, but there are so many work arounds. You can't control the light sensitvity and we had to use nikon lenses on a nikon adaptor mount to control the aperature. No filmmaker want to shoot 30p either. Hopefully the GH1 will be the standard.

All I know is I'm not going back to 35mm adapters. I'm a DSLR filmmaker from now on.

Looking for Sonny Web site and trailers
Here are some links to good technical information on his use of the Canon D5:

Early tests




This interview was conducted for an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Filmmaker Magazine

Monday, July 20, 2009

Canon 5D Post Workflow

New from Phillip Bloom: Canon 5D MarkII 24/25p workflow presentation from London Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet 2009.

The Perils of HD

A few years ago I had a job shooting self-help lectures on digital video for a sort of EST-like cult group. It was a pretty good gig. The pay was very good and the calls were fairly steady— one long weekend every month or so. The head of the organization was both the producer and the talking head I photographed for these video courses. After about a year of shooting these things, she wanted to know how we could improve on the production value of what we were doing. She had no problem with the sets or my lighting or anything like that. She liked how she looked in these things and that’s what kept her calling me back for more.

Anyway, in an effort to address her production value concerns, I suggested something that I actually knew very little about. I suggested that we shoot these sessions in HD. She’d seen HDTV at Circuit City and she liked the idea. The organization she had built up over the years was pretty well off now and they owned all of their studio equipment. I was dispatched to B and H the following Monday to buy two cameras and some monitors. Cash.

There were a few weeks left before the next shoot and I used the time to learn all I could about the cameras. When I got the call, I drove up north of Albany where the cult was based and once there proceeded to prepare the set, light her stand-in, and set the cameras up. Everything went smoothly, she stepped in, and as she started speaking off her cue cards the director and I turned to each other with horror in our eyes. Every pore and wrinkle we had never noticed was magnified in living HD color. The separation between each individual hair along the sharp edge of her forehead made it look as if she were balding. Between takes I was frantically looking in the manual for anything that would knock the damned cameras out of focus without them looking like they were out of focus, and finding these controls buried in the menus I set them all the way to 10. It hardly helped.

As was her customary way of working, she proceeded through the 30-minute session without looking at anything in playback. She trusted me and her director. As we approached the end of the first section, it began to dawn on me that this would be my last day at this job. When she saw herself in playback, the producer-owner-spokesperson was very mellow. She noticed what she looked like and the line of her polite questioning indicated to me that she did not like what she was looking at. We continued shooting. I was desperate. At one point, the black stockings I requested from a CVS arrived— stretched across the back end of the lenses, they didn’t help much either.

We finished up the day, struck the set and boxed up all the lights and cameras and I left for the long, depressing drive home. They never called again. When I ran into the director a few months later he told me that they figured they could do it all in-house now with the interns I hadn’t realized I’d been training, and that they’d gone back to shooting on regular DV.

In this month’s Esquire I ran across this quote in a Larry David interview: “You know, the show’s in high-definition now and I said to the producer, ‘Listen, this is crazy. I look like I’m 75 years old [he’s sixty-one]. Nobody wants to watch an old man being funny. That’s just a fact. No one wants to see this old man on TV.' ”

I’m sure it isn’t as bad as the age of talkies ending scores of careers for actors who had funny-sounding voices, but I wonder what the consequences of this heightened definition have been and what's going on in make-up rooms and soft-lit sets across the country?

Friday, July 17, 2009

DSLR/Video Interview with Zak Forsman

In the last four months, I have written three articles on digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) that can shoot high definition video. The first one was for a periodical published in both print and online formats, Filmmaker Magazine. I wrote the second piece for an online journal produced by Focus Features called Film in Focus. The third article I pitched to Filmmaker Magazine, and they deemed it different and interesting enough (and the first one popular enough) to have me do a follow-up.

That the first two articles were assigned to me although I am a freelancer is an indication of the amount of buzz this new technology has generated at least among the readers of these periodicals. The first article was about filmmakers actually making long form films with Nikon and Canon DSLRs. Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker, furnished me with email addresses and phone numbers of three filmmakers and away I went. The article about the new technology and how it was used by Andrew Disney, Tom Quinn, and Zak Forsman is called Shutterbugs.

The interviews with the filmmakers were conducted as background for the piece and for occasional quotes. I was sorry I couldn’t use more of each one in the finished article so I am publishing them here. Zak Forsman is directing and shooting a feature called Eloquent Graffiti with a Nikon D90.

RQD: You seem to be working on multiple projects right now. What are your plans regarding distribution for each film?

ZF: I'm currently using the D90 to shoot a feature titled Eloquent Graffiti, as well as a short prelude to the film called Model Photographer. The plan for this project is to create a work using available resources and a bare minimum budget so we can release the film online for free at the end of 2009. It will be part of a larger universe residing online called WANDERLUST and preceded by ancillary content such as in-character video diaries, internet radio shows, an online comic book, the short film and a faux social network -- an entire universe that our growing audience/community can navigate with our portal. Eloquent Graffiti will not be the only project that is part of the WANDERLUST network, but it will be the first.

The purpose of giving it away for free is to expand our audience/community while capturing their metadata and using that to leverage sponsorships and advertising opportunities to keep it free. Minimizing the budget to a nano-budget also minimizes the financial risk making this kind of experience with evolving models of distribution much easier to stomach.

RQD: Does shooting your films with a Nikon come up when you meet with a distributor? Does it help or hurt your chances of distribution?

ZF: As we are distributing this 100% ourselves, it hasn't come up.

RQD: What are your plans regarding future use of a still camera to shoot your projects? If you raised, say, $250,000 for a picture, would you still use the Nikon? What amount is the tipping point between a Nikon and something like a Red camera?

ZF: I use the camera by accepting its shortcomings and playing to its strengths. It doesn't look like a film or video camera so you can shoot incognito when needed. It has the visual characteristics of 35mm, it is extremely sensitive and excels in low-light situations to the degree that one can shoot under street lights. However, the reality is that the D90 is going to be improved on very soon, if it hasn't already. It won't be my "go to" camera for much longer. A recent photo of a stripped-down handheld Red Scarlet prototype shows it has the same advantages of a DSLR form factor, plus a sensor with 5K resolution and a fast read-reset to
eliminate image skewing. So while I'm not delaying ELOQUENT GRAFFITI for the Scarlet, I expect subsequent films by SABI PICTURES to be lensed on that line next year.

RQD: The footage I saw has a lot of hand-held camera work. Isn’t the D-90 awkward to hold for this kind of shooting?

ZF: The D90 is very comfortable for handheld shooting given its DSLR form factor. I hold it securely with my right hand while cradling it and pulling focus with my left. The camera's sensor has a slow read-reset which results in skewing of the image when panning left and right. This effect is minimized in much the same way you soften handheld camerawork -- with wide lenses and stabilization. I won't shoot with anything longer than my 28mm without a tripod. Even so, it takes a good amount of familiarity with the D90 to work within its technical limitations.

RQD: is your eye up to the eyepiece while you're shooting hand held like that? Or does the image appear on back of camera?

ZF: I compose the frame and pull focus simply by monitoring the LCD display on the back of the camera.

RQD: how do you record sound? Wireless?

ZF: The camera has a built-in mic that is nearly worthless. It records a mono track at 11khz resulting in audio that is good enough for a scratch track to sync your double-system recordings to. There is no auxiliary input for sound so we use a variety of double-system solutions. For ambience, a Zoom H2 provides a 4 channel surround recording for building a 5.1 mix. For dialogue we stick with a Sennheiser 416 to a Sound Devices 702 compact flash recorder. When necessary, we use a wireless kit.

RQD: What is the workflow from the last time you say "cut" to the end of post?

ZF: My goal for post is to get the captured media into a form where the image quality is protected from subsequent renders and the format meets broadcast specifications. This means two things, transcoding to Apple ProRes and retiming the framerate from 24fps to 23.98fps. I have created a droplet in Compressor that does both. As with any double system shoot, dailies need to be synced in post. There is no timecode here to automate the process so my editor, Jamie Cobb, uses the slate or an alternate means of a sync mark such as clapping hands.
Here is an article written by Zak Forsman titled My Nikon D90 Workflow
Zak’s web sites are:

This interview was conducted for "Shutterbugs", an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Filmmaker Magazine

Public Enemies

The careful consideration behind the decision to shoot Public Enemies on HD instead of film is discussed in this month's American Cinematographer. Some of the reasons listed are that the camera selected (F23) performed well in low light and there were many scenes planned for night ("in the end, the F23's rendering of night scenes sealed the deal"), the fast zoom lenses available for that camera, and the deep focus that results from shooting on such a small chip. Article is by Jay Holben.

Full Disclosure

I had to walk out of Public Enemies. It's either terrible cinematography or I'm not ready for bald-faced HD video for a 1930's period piece.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pimp Your DSLR

Summer issue of Filmmaker Magazine hits the newstands this week with my article "Pimp Your DSLR":

I will post unedited version next month.