Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Choose Two

If you want a laugh every morning by looking at funny index cards like this, check this site out.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

...stand by...

News about my weekend film shoot for My Shortest Apposition, is coming: stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can read our scripty's blog.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

For Want of an XLR Adapter, The Movie Was Lost

Your entire movie could be out of focus, but you can't have bad sound.Thierry Pathé, NYU Film Instructor

Many of you know how much I value good sound on a low budget film, but if not, here's a refresher.

Right behind getting great acting, you need great sound. Beg, borrow, or steal... but get the best sound you can. Sound is half the movie experience, but because it's not as visible as cinematography, most low budget filmmakers assign it a lower priority, which is a catastrophic misstep: when audiences hear bad sound, they instantly think, "Oh, this is a student/low-budget/amateur movie," but if they hear great sound, they think nothing more about it and get drawn into the story. Sound is usually the first thing you experience about a film, whether it be music or sound effects or dialog, so you present the audience with a spotless first impression.

For the shoot this Saturday, I got my hands on a $500 wireless mic, a Sennheiser Evolution G2 100. Great, right? No, not great—it's completely worthless unless I could find a cable adapter to plug it into my camera. The XLR adapter isn't just a cable, it's a unit which suppresses noise from the adapter; a simple adapter cable doesn't work with my particular camcorder because the cable emits a faint "hum" which is not acceptable.

Here's how I played damage control, in a stream of consciousness:
Crap, that's right, I need a cable for this camera like we used on Metronome... oh, I can get one at Radio Shack or something, maybe Fry's... hey Jena, what's that thing called that I need? BeachTek XLR Adapter? Cool, I'm walking into Radio Shack now... what do you mean, they won't have it? Well, Fry's must have it. Only a pro camera store? Hmm, I think there's one in midtown, but come on, this is Sacramento. Maybe Adolf Gasser's in SF would have an adapter. How much??? $200??? Christ! Surely, Gasser's must rent those out. Still, that's a 2 hour drive one way. Bring the camera, you say? Actually, I don't have the camera. Hans has it. He's in L.A. Oh yeah, he could rent one for the weekend! No, he really couldn't cuz he has no time for extra stuff before the shoot. But yeah, they could messenger it to his concierge and he could pick it up before his flight. Let me look into that. Still, I'm not really fond of renting equipment because it's like flushing money down the drain. Robert Rodriguez doesn't rent equipment for that reason. So maybe there's a story nearby where I can buy an adaptor. Maybe I can get a refurbished one or something. Okay, I'm looking at a list of BeachTek stores online... hey, there's one in Oakland. That's only 80 minute drive one way. I can do that. Plus, I can visit with Dave and Nancy for a bit. Okay, I'll call this Oakland store tomorrow, but in the meantime, I'll do more research so I know what the hell I want to buy. BeachTek sells numerous models but none of them are guaranteed to work with my camera model. Wow, did they discontinue that cable adaptor? Seems so. What happens if I Google it? No shit, some dude is selling the exact model I need for only $100 and he's in L.A.! I'll email him to see if it's still free. In the meantime, it looks like I need a DXA-4S, which is definitely discontinued, but a DXA-6 might also work. Refurbished, a DXA-6 is $165 and the place in Oakland is selling it for $279 retail. Ouch. They're also selling a DXA-4 for $199, but that's not the same as the DXA-4S, or is it? It's not 100% sure it will work for my camera. Shit. Now what? A-ha, here's another model that will work and I can order it online—the XLR-Pro and a smaller, XLR-JR. If I overnight the Junior model, it will cost me a total of $143 and even save me gas and the time it takes for a trip into the bay, with baby. Yeah, can you guys have this unit overnighted to me by Friday? You can??? Great!

And there you have it—20 hours of frantic web surfing and phone calls to ensure I'd have the crucial sound equipment we needed to get acceptable sound. As principal photography approaches, a producer's job can often get hectic like this. But this nonsense won't happen again—because I bought this silly piece of metal!

In researching this piece, I learned that Thierry Pathé died in 2002. Thierry was a great guy, laid back and extremely knowledgeable.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Clean Slate

Hans and I need a slate for this weekend's shoot, so I went shopping. I thought for a moment about getting a blackboard-type chalk slate, as has been used for movies as long as I can remember... that would be very cool. But blackboards aren't functional, not really. Whenever I've slated with chalk, it's messy, it's not always easy to draw on, and there's that awful risk of scratching the chalk just the wrong way.... aaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!

Yeah, not good. So I decided on an acrylic white board slate. Unlike a lot of the amateur slates—some of which are literally emblazoned with huge block letters: "HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION"—the slate I bought assumes that anybody looking at the slate knows where all the relevant data belongs and leaves you as much white board real estate to draw it in (which might drive some people batty, but—hard as it may be to believe—I'm actually a minimalist in many respects). And the true mark of a pro slate—it even has a box for the FPS.

Best of all, the clappers themselves are made out of oak, and include a magnet to ensure a nice resounding SMACK! when you need to synch up the sound track [sic] to your film:

Total cost, including shipping: $88.39

Here are its juicy specs:

The acrylic accepts dry-erase markers and can be back-lit for low light shots. The acrylic is rounded on all edges so it won't cut your hands.

The 1" thick sticks has laminate stripes (not paint that wears) in the basic Kodak colors or classic black and white. The bracket is tension-adjustable. There are magnets in the tips of the sticks to ensure a definite close and good sound. The layout is engraved so it will last no matter what and is far superior over screen printed method.

These slates measure 11" wide by 9 1/4" tall, and fit, of course, in all frontboxes.

No Imitations
Directly as supplied to many studio and film sets. This is the industry standard for a long-lasting, hard working slate. Made in the USA.

Dry Erase Marker
We recommend Marks-A-Lot brand dry erase markers. These markers are readily available at most office supply stores. (Some other markers, such as the evil Sanford EXPO, will STAIN the board.)

Monday, September 17, 2007

My Shortest Apposition, Part 2

This is a continuation of Friday's post, My Shortest Apposition, Part 1.

The film we'll be shooting is called My Shortest Apposition, a delightfully unmarketable title—were I shooting something with more mass appeal, like a feature where I had to guarantee my investor would make back his money, my title would be a little more accessible, not something that makes you go, huh?

An apposition is an interjected dependent phrase qualifying a larger statement, e.g., my car's engine, newly replaced, is sounding odd; or, Ross Pruden, a blogger who often pops up on Google searches, also directs movies.

SPOILER ALERT—this paragraph is in white text to protect those who'd rather wait until the project is finished; select it to read. In the case of this film, the title is a play on words—the entire film is one really long run-on sentence, a never-ending apposition; it is fact, my longest apposition... But the film leads up to my 6 month old daughter, who is actually my shortest apposition, an interjected dependent who qualifies everything in my life. (See "Inspirations" below to understand where this idea originated.)

Back to my problem. How do I integrate 16mm film format with miniDV?

The solution came from looking at the script, which is simply me listing things I'm certain of, things that make me cry, and thinks I love. So why not shoot all the MOS insert shots in film? My narration, then, would be entirely in miniDV and all the inserts would be 16mm. The leaves us with no problems with miniDV & synch sound, and we can shoot all the 16mm we want without worrying about the 16mm camera's noise. Grafting some of the new Digital Intermediate techniques, we'd telecine all the 16mm footage into miniDV and edit the movie on Final Cut Pro... with no intention of ever burning a copy back onto film as a true DI workflow dictates. We would be turning our weakness into a strength by integrating our format differences into a cool narrative motif... and learning a lot about both formats along the way.

Another reason I like shooting a short film is to become fluent in every aspect of filmmaking. I shot my 3 minute miniDV Metronome this way and learned about 1,001 lessons in the process. Consequently, whenever I produce/direct a film, no matter its length, budget, or number of crew, I like to produce it as if I have a million dollars in the bank. That means doing rehearsals, scouting locations, hammering down schedules for cast & crew, drawing up a detailed budget, negotiating the scheduling of shots (typically done with physical production strips, but also now done with Movie Magic Scheduling or Gorilla, or even Excel if you need to go on the cheap), creating and issuing call sheets (including directions), working out shot lists, doing storyboards, deciding costumes, preparing make-up... essentially, I like to treat a short film as if it were a Hollywood production. There are several advantages to this approach, but two big ones stand out:

  1. You learn each aspect of filmmaking when working with the small toys so that you're ready and confident when you're working with the bigger toys.

  2. How you present yourself to others says a lot about you. If you dress like a student, people treat you like a student, but if you dress like a pro, people treat you like a pro. (Furthermore, if you dress like a pro, your mind switches gears and you also start to think and act like a pro.) This is as true about filmmakers as it is for screenwriters. As John August says, "screenplays are read by people, not cameras." Don't write with grammar and spelling mistakes. And don't make films without call sheets!

Hans is flying in Saturday morning and back to L.A. on Sunday evening. Currently, we're firming up the shot list and storyboards and troubleshooting the really technical shots all this week. As they say in the biz, preparation prevents piss poor performance. With any luck, we'll have a film we're proud enough to submit to festivals.

The inspiration for this short comes from a bunch of places. I've put stuff that would spoil the film in white text; select it to read.

First, this brilliant short film from the makers of Delicatessen:

Another inspiration was a French short film called Routine. While I've never been able to find it on DVD, it's true genius: the entire film consists of lighting fast closeups of things we do every day: alarm gets turned off, peeing in the toilet, toilet is flushed, coffee gets ground, shower is started, soap is lathered, body is dried, coffee is poured, door locked, engine starts, etc. The whole day is covered and each day of the week follows it, except that the cuts are quicker for each day until Friday's cuts are a blur. Saturday slows down, and ends with a romantic visit from someone out of town. When Sunday's alarm clock goes off, the female visitor lazily turns it off and the film ends. Great film.

And then my dad read this quote to me years ago and I transcribed it because I loved it so much:
Haldeman-Julius, a man of Rabelaisian appetites, once replied to a priest when asked what he got out of life: "I told him I found life worth living because I enjoyed good music, fine pictures, great books, beautiful thoughts of truth and freedom, sane living, warm showers each morning, pleasant home life, charming people, lively talk, exchange of ideas, plays of sharp wit and worldly humor, beautiful women, tall glasses of orange juice, fresh trout, black bread smeared with home-made butter, crisp bacon, roast duck, thick steaks, lofty poetry, plays, magnificent orchestras, letters dictated by my grandchild, newly plowed land, dogs that eat well and then sleep quietly near the fireplace, oak and walnut logs that burn for hours and make the house smell sweet, milk that was grass five hours before, the long yawn that says it's time to turn in."
The World of Haldeman Julius, Selected Writings of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. Compiled by Albert Mordell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960.

Finally, a throw-away comment from Tom Clancy's Patriot Games. Jack Ryan is being pressed to make a judgement call that could result in an American covert action to neutralize terrorists. Admiral Greer asks him, "Tell me one thing you're certain of, Jack." And Ryan responds: "My daughter's love."

Later this week, I'll post a few pages of the script, its budget, call sheets, shooting location map, shot list, and storyboards. I always find it entertaining to follow an active case study, so hopefully others are out there just like me... like Stefano, Tyler, Ray, Meaghan, Rob, Susan -- you guys are the reason I keep writing!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Latina Lauds

It's not often I get a public "thank you"—when I do, I'm not bashful about saying so, especially when my advice appears to have made a qualitative difference. About two months ago, I did a story consultation on Pull, a short written by Gabriella Garcia, my Cuban sister. She's shooting Pull now and nestled this friendly quip in her blog today:

My main actor, Jane Vereen, plays the lead, Angela. She is amazing and I really should give props here to my good friend & film maker, Ross ( After he read my script and tore it apart (out of love of course), Ross told me "Get the best fuckin actress you can find". I took my time finding her and I'm glad I did. Jane is very talented, professional, and has been beyond prepared.

Good call, Gabs. Your film should rock!

My Shortest Apposition, Part 1

If you want to spend more time with your friends, do a project with them. —Josh Mehler

I've been quiet about this next film project I'm working on because there hasn't really been a need to talk about it, but I'm in the final stages of preparation for a short I'm directing a week from today. My old friend Hans, a highly talented still photographer, was finding himself spending an alarmingly disproportionate amount of time listening to DVD director commentaries. Finally, earlier this year, he emailed me with this singular resolute sentence: "Dude, we've got to make a film together."

Of all the people I know, Hans is certainly the most meticulous and I know he'd take the studying of, and the craft of, cinematography very seriously. Naturally, I was stoked he wanted to shoot something for real. The plan is one day to do features, and hopefully many of them.

Instead of horsing around with random shooting experiments, we decided to do a short film and learn about each stage of the filmmaking process. I strongly believe in the power of experiential learning: you can read a million books, take hundreds of lectures, even do correspondence clsses, whatever—in the end, the only way to gather and retain life lessons is to go out and make actual mistakes. Some schools embrace this philosophy by offering hands-on experience before you make expensive mistakes in the real world, but too often schools teach children to avoid making mistakes. Thus, Hans and I decided to use an experimental short film to make a bunch of mistakes and not feel too guilty about them. (NB: Depending on the goal of a short film, i.e., whether it's a souped up home movie vs. striving to win an Academy Award or some other prestigious award, I have firm opinions about how much money should be invested on short films.)

Initially, we were going to do this whole short in miniDV to let our hair down and really experiment, but then Hans bought a 16mm camera and we starting thinking of ways to experiment shooting with film, too. The problem is, film is expensive. It's expensive to develop, it's expensive to transfer to a digital format, and—if you go that route—it's expensive to transfer an edited digital version back onto film. Plus, adding sound into the equation is another financial headache. Video is an infinitely better medium to get your feet wet in filmmaking without completely jumping in. Nevertheless, Hans and I were moving in the direction of shooting a feature on celluloid, so why not learn sooner rather than later?

Great! I thought. This short will look beautiful if we shoot it on film. After all, shooting a film with celluloid is how Vin Deisel made his superb breakthrough short Multi-Facial (which Steven Spielberg saw and instantly hired him for Saving Private Ryan). But shooting in film would also skyrocket our budget... could we combine the financial advantages of video with the sublime beauty of film? More importantly, how could we shoot in 16mm without blowing so much money that we'd start to get gunshy? If our goal were to be experimental, we couldn't constantly be worried about burning film; it would kill any desire to embrace our mistakes and thus stifle our ability to learn.

As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of integration—if something doesn't belong in the story, it's gratuitous. If the bulk of your film is shot in video, you don't just shoot film because you can. It's weird and distracting and isn't true to the nature of weaving a compelling narrative spell. If you put something in, it needs to serve a purpose.

My next thought: shooting in film is expensive. That's its weakness. Film is also troublesome when doing synch sound, especially since the 16mm camera Hans bought was quite noisy. So if we shot anything in 16mm, it would have to be MOS (silent), or the camera would have to be so far away that the mic wouldn't pick any of the noisy reel clatter. How could we turn this weakness into a strength? And how could we integrate these two formats seamlessly?

Tune in tomorrow to find out...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

RECOMMENDATION: Voyage to the Planets

I can't remember now how I first heard about Voyage to the Planets, a two part documentary about space travel, but it's one of the most educational and compelling I've ever seen. Made by the BBC—the best documentary filmmakers in the world—they pose the question, What would happen if mankind were ready to make its next great venture to the stars? The result is a 2 episode faux documentary, a future history of astronauts on one long "grand tour" of our solar system: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Io, Europa, Saturn... in real life, such a voyage would never be attempted, but it is a clever construct to hook the audience, and it works.

Five astronauts embark on a six year voyage collecting samples from planets, facing hazards at every turn. It's crazy. It's the kind of shit you dreamt about when you were a kid. It is, in fact, the real Star Trek.

What also makes it really appealing to me is that Zoë, my 5 month old daughter, is among the generation who will explore the stars as described in this program. If the earliest launch for an unmanned probe to Europa is 2015 (when Zoë will be 8), then a manned launch to Europa is sure to follow 20-25 years later, which puts her at 28-32, exactly the right age range. It's not that I even want Zoë to be an astronaut, but it's exciting to feel how tangible that possibility is. What mysteries will they uncover in the last great adventure in human history?

The program employs another tactic very effectively: they take pains to get you to care about the astronauts from the very beginning. Like any documentary, you are documenting the explorers as much as you are what the explorers are exploring. You want to know who they are, how they get along, what their whimsies and foibles are. Once you care about these people, you care what happens to them. My wife didn't think she'd like this documentary, but every time the astronauts suited up, she was stressed out for them. Given the range of hazards they face on their voyage, there's no shortage of entertainment watching them insinuate their way to safety.

And did I forget to mention that one of the astronauts was named Zoë?

Pink Pages

I was an Associate Producer on a feature about six months ago and way too many script changes were flying around. Nobody seemed to be aware of the utility of having locked pages or how to manage script revisions using pink pages, so I took the initiative to detail the pink page process I learned years ago. (Some parts of this process aren't exactly standard Hollywood because I work as a Script Supervisor and use Final Draft, the industry standard for writing screenplays, but my guidelines do seem to make things easier to follow, so take whatever's helpful and leave the rest.)

Anytime revisions are made to a script, it's often hard to keep track of them. Visual markers are needed to quickly show everyone what was changed. To solve this, asterisks were added in the right margin on each line that was changed, but that wasn't enough—each page with a revision was also printed on a colored page. New sets of revisions, or "pink pages", are circulated until more than a quarter of the entire script has been revised, after which a pristine white draft is reissued and the process begins again.

First of all, each draft's page numbers are locked—they will not change. This means breakdown sheets can be done without scene and page numbers changing on the fly and everyone can literally stay on the same page. You can always tell which draft you have because the draft number and date is printed at the top right of each script page, just to the left of the page number. If you are looking at a revised page, the top right will instead have the revision set number and the date of that revision set.

REVISIONS: Chain of Command
1) You see a typo, a continuity problem, or anything which doesn't make sense and probably needs to be fixed in the script.
2) You bring your comment to the Script Super first, not the Director.
3) The Script Super adds all revisions to the latest list of revisions, but doesn't change the script yet...
4) The Script Super shows all the changes to the Writer, Director, UPM, the Line Producer, DP, and the 1st A.D. Once all those department heads approve the changes, or adjust them as needed, the Script Super adds the revisions to the script and prints out a new revision set, assigning it a revision set number and a date on the top right side of each page, to the left of the page number.
5) Revised pages are copied on a color-coded page corresponding to that set of revisions (see below).
6) Everyone gets a copy of the newly revised pages, although when the next set of revisions is distributed depends on how urgent the corrections are. (Obviously, actors get dialogue changes pronto, while the Line Producer needs changes that affect the budget, etc.)

REVISIONS: Methodology
Whenever revisions are made to the script (scenes added, omitted, or altered), redistribute new pages for everyone. With each set of revisions, the pages should be copied on different colored paper and have the date of the revision in the top right hand corner: "Rev. 8/31/06"

These color-coded revision pages are commonly referred to as "Pink Pages", even though they are not necessarily pink.

This is the color key for each set of "Pink Pages":
1st Revision—Blue
2nd Revision—Pink
3rd Revision—Yellow
4th Revision—Green
5th Revision—Gold
6th Revision—Back to white

"Someone handed me a set of revised pages (or 'Pink Pages')... what do I do?"
Use the page numbers as a guide to replace the pages in your script with the revised pages... and throw away your old pages. For example, if pages are added between page 16 and page 17, you will be handed revised pages with numbers 16A, 16B, 16C, etc.—put these in between pages 16 & 17; if pages are deleted between page 16 and page 24, you will receive a new page 16 with a page number of "16-23"; any omitted scenes will simply say 10 OMIT 10 (for scene 10).

The following people must receive copies of the Pink Pages:
Script Supervisor
1st A.D.
Line Producer
All lead actors

If at any time during the shoot, you are missing a set of "pink pages", ask the Script Super.