Saturday, August 30, 2014

What makes a good film?

Ah yes, what makes a film good.  That is a question which is sometimes very difficult to answer.  We all know why some films are good but not everyone can pinpoint the exact reason why.  Many of my fellow Filmmakers always believe that it is starting with a good script.  I suppose that's true but that is like saying how to make a good hamburger is to start with good meat.  DUH!  For real, is that the best you got?  You can have the greatest script known to man and a film still can be crap.  More often it's the other way around.  A Script can be mediocre or have been disemboweled by producers and execs to make it more marketable to a "larger" audience and still perform well at the box-office.

While this is a phenomena that you really cannot Google, they do exist.  Once a film starts to make money or gets an audience behind it the script is assumed to be a good script.  I mean, how else could it have been a great movie, right?  Lets take a movie like "Armageddon".  The film itself has everything you want and need to make a great movie; Cast, Music, Love, Peril, Strife, Comedy, Tragedy and more!  But if you just listen to some of the dialogue it isn't that great.  The actors did a great job of pulling it together as a great movie.  This is probably why the critics weren't too impressed by it.  The script just wasn't that good.  It made up for all its misgivings by overpowering those things with Great everything else.  Yes, having a great script can help overcome more than having great actors or special effects, but a great script doesn't come along every day.  In fact, it is quite a rarity.

Most scripts are derivatives of larger literary works.  Most of the time the original narrative is 200 to 400 pages long.  For some reason writers cannot seem to make something short.  They go on and on about the color of someones hair and how that makes the main character think about days gone by to set an emotion or the tone of the scene.  Unfortunately, it is next to impossible to do that in a film.  Do you really want me to stop the movie and take you to another place in time that has nothing really valuable to set the tone of the scene in the movie.  Ok, some of you do but most of us do not.  It causes confusion and adds unnecessary length to the narrative.  As a filmmaker I can set the tone with music, color, lighting or an addition of a small line or two that takes moments instead of minutes.  As a side note, this is one reason why books are mostly never like the movie, there just isn't enough time.

I know, as a man who knows how to make a film, that there is a better way to communicate to the audience what I am trying to say than just having more dialogue and more scenes.  It can be done by having a better camera angle, sounds, music and even the color of the film.  It is actually something that you see quite often but probably have never noticed.  One film I like to talk about from time to time is "Gamer".  No, not the film I made called "Gamer".  The film by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor that released in 2009.  It's color palette and sharpness of the film.  It has a very distinct look that brings out the hardness and the unique edge to the story line.  While this wasn't a box-office superstar, I found it to be a good movie.  It is gruesome and far fetched but that's my taste in movies.

Another movie that has a great color palette and a good sound choice is everyone'e favorite (but not mine) Avatar. The films score undertones the emotions that the director wanted you to feel and the coloring was always custom since it is just a really fancy cartoon with live action stuff thrown in.  (Have you ever seen Pocahontas?) These guys had the opportunity to change every aspect of the lighting and the surroundings.  The script wasn't a poor script and that definitively helped.

So, when we make a film we should worry about the script but even if that script is mediocre we can still make great cinema by utilizing the great tools we have in our film-makers quiver.  Lighting, sound, Actor choices and coloring after the fact.  No way is it all hinged upon the script.  There is so much more to it than that.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Great New Cinema: Zero Theorem

Tonight I was in a bad mood because of something that happened earlier in the day that was just just bad.  I won't go into details nor would you really want to hear about it since this is a blog about films and stuff.  When I got home, I decided to browse the Apple TV for anything to make my day better.  I went through everything on Netflix and just wasn't interested.  So I went to the pay movies where I found a piece of Cinematic Gold.  You see I am very interested in strange and wonderful movies.  I noticed that there was a Pre-Release download of the movie by director Terry Gilliam the maker of 12 Monkeys and the crazy movie Brazil.  Zero Theorem is a crazy film that makes me have faith in film again.  The synopsis on the about page for the movie does absolutely no justice to the actual story of the film.

Don't worry, No spoilers here.  The film is about a man who always refers to himself as "We" instead of I or me.  It is distracting for about a minute but it becomes endearing.  Making you want to feel for the man and his plight.  The character Quohen Leth (played by Austrian actor Christopher Waltz) is a simple and delicate man who is stuck in a job he likes but is always in a hurry to go home to catch a phone call from a mysterious being.  The cast of actors grows from there, David Thewlis (Prof, Lupin from Harry Potter fame), and Matt Damon to name a couple of better known folks.  The acting is very good with no flaws other than some minor characters who are there for their looks more than their acting abilities.  The characters are fleshed out with little hints of back-story here and there, just enough to make me feel like I understand them.
The filmmaking is absolutely great, as you would expect from Gilliam.  Crazy shots that span the close but expansive sets that litter the film.  In fact, most of the film takes place in the home of Quohen, which is a burnt out church he got at an insurance auction, but you never feel like you are constrained by the walls of the building, in fact, just the opposite.  And, of course, the dark comedy of Gilliam comes out through out the film.  Remember the church that he lives in?  It was inhabited by monks who took a vow of silence so meaningful to them that no one bothered to yell "fire".  Its not a direct quote, but it gets the point across about the morbidity and darkness of the subtle comedy that is very pervasive within the film itself.

One of the things that I really liked was the color scheme of the film.  All the tones match very nicely with Tacky notes of crazy costumes thrown in.  It hearkens back to his earlier works and holds true to the stylistic tones that are always very interesting.  The good news is that these aren't too overdone like the seventies counterparts to this film and it's genre making this a real pleasure to watch.  Every scene and shot was not only there to show the action but to tell its own story in conjunction with the narrative itself.  Something that modern cinema lacks, as I have stated before in my past blogs.

If you are looking for something different and true to the art of filmmaking, I recommend seeing this one.  Zero Theorem is most positively one of the films I recommend for any cine-file in 2014.  It turned my Very Bad Day into one that I am glad to have lived.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

How Much Movies Have Changed: Review "The Long Goodbye"

As a filmmaker I am tasked with watching older works from the long ago past to keep a measure of style.  Sometimes I have a hard time finding that odd old film or two that is worthy of my attention.  I scour Netflix and Amazon Prime into their deep dark recesses and look for interesting blog, like this one, to help point me along the way.  Today I found that Netflix recently added "The Long Goodbye"

by Director Robert Altman (screenplay by Leigh Brackett).  The tale is of a Private Detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) and his accidental trouble brought on by his friend.  The movie has its expected 1970's nakedness from the hippie chicks next door and lots of Smoking.  The obligatory wife beating and mobster fiends who want blood, also a 1970's must have.  

One of the things that I found very interesting is the chasm that separates that film and many others from that era, from the films we make today.  For one, this film seemed to drag on and on.  I was interested for the most part but found that I was slightly bored with the cinematography and the slow story.  At first I was very interested in the strange tale of a man feeding his cat and the long takes of the camera lens, but they wore thin by about thirty minutes in.  In comparison to films of today the way it was shot is not to dissimilar in framing yet very dissimilar when it comes to duration and angle.  They had steady cams (hand held camera rigs) back then, of some sort, but it was all steady pedestal or dolly shots.  I guess you cannot fault them too much for that since the cameras weighed much more than they do now.  But the color of the film was very interesting.  We live in an age that is 80% digital in theaters and even more than that on TV.  That is no excuse, however, for the way our entertainment looks these days.  You see the color palette of the film is very different from today.  I thought about it a minute and although I couldn't find a similar movie, in my mind, that has came out in the past few years that is the same as "The Long Goodbye" I did find a period piece that may just foot the bill.You know is, "American Hustle".  It tries hard to get the period right but as far as the look of the film, it doesn't do it.  Here are two stills, back to back.
I think you can tell the difference.  One is fluid and the colors are intentionally captured in camera with an eye to the artistic side of things.  The other, well, it looks digital, even if it isn't, I mean, "American Hustle was shot on a Fuji Stock but it sure doesn't look like it.  Ok, maybe it does a little.  Regardless, the two film stills are worlds apart from each other.  I much like the look of "The Long Goodbye" much more than the slightly sanitary look of "American Hustle".  

The interesting thing about all of this is the standing fact that these movie makers CAN make their films look any way they want them to look.  Just look at some of the latest action flicks.  Many have that green tinge to them that we all know and love.  It is very easy to change the look of a film these days without worry of destroying it.  In fact, many films of the past had a reel or two destroyed by trying to change the way it printed out.  That is the price you pay with film stock sometimes.  Just to prove a point, here is a nothing film I shot so that I could play around with film emulation styles.  

Not only is the look of films different for today's audience, the way the story is told is much different.   It is said that modern audiences insist on having a fast paced and quick feeling movie.  If it doesn't move along, no one will watch it.  This may be true but I fear it is the film making community that caused it.  The long story line is often covered up by small quick actions that make the audience wake up.  Sometimes that long play is lost in the quick running waters of trying to stay relevant.  Now the audiences have gotten used to it, myself included, and if it takes too long, we walk.  But should we be like this?  Well, no... we shouldn't.  It will take a story that is worth its weight in gold and some better actors to get something like this to play out.  

I'm not saying that we should make every film like "The Long Goodbye".  It was, after all, really long and slightly boring with the story being replaced for just a moment with pretty pictures that meant nothing to the over all tale.   What I would like to see is a little more patience when making the films and a lot more attention being paid to the art behind the film itself.  For that is what I believe we have begun to loose, the heart and soul of our films.  The over all tonality needs to reflect more than a producers need to make money and more about what the film itself is adding to the story.  

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Can You make a movie with little to no Money?

As you may have suspected I am a Film Maker.  I make very short films that I like to call "Micro Budget" films.  These small movies consist of less than 15 pages of script and last, on average, three to five minutes.  I make these films so small because I have no money to pay anyone and the only way I can guarantee that it will get done and on time is to finish it in one day.  Yes, I know, those are historically called shorts but even a short film usually lasts 30 minutes or so, but when you are working with about $35 bucks for a production budget that can be a tall task.  More over, my actors are usually interested in only working a few hours and want immediate results.  I might be inclined to call myself a short order cook filmmaker, that sounds about right.  You see, I do not live in LA, Denver or even a smaller big city like Little Rock.  My acting pool comes from a very limited pool of actors and crew out of a little North West Arkansas town called Fayetteville.  Fayetteville has a population of roughly 75-80,000 people.  While the art scene here is quite plentiful it is not accustomed to making film, or even shorts.  Now, I am not saying that it is devoid of talent.  There are many here that make great films and more.  What I am trying to point out is the little problem of not having the funds to pay people to work.  Because the area is unaccustomed to the idea of making films, local investors tend to loose interest after saying hello.

Recently, in the past few years we have had some folks who were able to pay for the actors and crew to film in NWA (Fayetteville) and it spoiled the acting pool a little bit.  Films like "Greater, the Brandon Burlsworth Story" and "Valley Inn" as well as a few others paid a lot of people to work on their films.  This was great!  However, some of the films (of which I am not going to name names) had some missteps when it came to paying extras and eventually soured the taste for such things around the community.  Maybe it is starting to fade a little, this pain of working for nothing at all (in one case the extras weren't allowed to even have a bowl of pea nuts from the craft table), but shouldn't a film pay for the services of the people?  Yeah, they should.  I have tried numerous fundraising outlets to get a film going where everyone gets paid and paid fairly.  Those attempts have fallen flat, but at least I have tried, I really have.  So I stick with micro shorts and keep plugging.  Trying to make them as interesting as possible in a small amount of time.  So, it seems that you may need to have lots of money to make a film.  Ok, that makes sense.

Now, lets look at the flip-side of the coin.  Large movie companies are making bigger and bigger budgeted films in the past couple of years, and while they actually get the film to market and advertise incessantly, a lot of them have failed.  In 2014 there have been at least three big budget films that have fallen flat on their face. 
"Transcendence"  the movie with Johnny Depp uploading his consciousness to a computer cost 100 Million to make and only made 43% of it's money back.  Ouch!  That film even had high end great actors in it!  Another was the film Pompeii with Kit Harrington and Carrie-Anne Moss had an estimated budget of 100 Million as well and has of today made $108 million total.  That sounds like it has made money but don't forget that this includes the theater and distribution monies in it, TriStar/Sony/Columbia (all are virtually the same company) didn't get to take all that money home and spend it on Lambo's and pool parties.  All the while little films like "The Conjuring" with its budget of 20 million and "Paranormal Activity" with an astoundingly minuscule budget of 15 Thousand dollars brought in big money.  Makes these mistakes with big budgets look like the end of the world.  

To make a small film of about an hour to an hour and a half takes a little investment.  My friend Todd, who is the creator of the film "Neapolitan" (I am one of the "Stars") is to be released sometime, eventually... maybe.  Todd bankrolled the entire film and thought it would only cost a few thousand dollars, but that quickly ballooned into a figure that I am not privy to but I know it was a lot more than he bargained for.  He paid everyone of us a good wage and then paid some people who shouldn't have gotten as much as they did.  I am not bashing Todd, he did the right thing and no one is mad or upset about money.  The question I have is, could he have done it for less?  Probably.  Would it have hurt production? Maybe.  

I do know that you Can make a movie without spending money on more than pizza, gasoline and a hotel room or two.  The quality will not be world class but that may not matter much.  What does matter is the story.  A great story can outshine even the most mediocre of an actor, director, cinematographer and editor.  The sound could be "just ok" and not even matter.  Finding a story that will make people pay attention and draw them back in for another go is always priceless.  If you don't have that great story, it can be hard, but we can still make a film.  It is all about perseverance, and dedication.  

To make a no budget film that is watchable you will need to pay attention to every detail and you will need to be surrounded by dedicated and deliberate individuals.  Finding the people who actually care about the craft of filmmaking and will stick through the project no matter what, will allow you to make a movie without a mention-able budget.  It can be done.  Unfortunately for me, I haven't quite found the right folks, YET.  So, if you want to be in a film and can spare every free moment of every day making it happen, you and I need to talk.  I have great gear and the skills to make it work without having to break the bank.  If you wanna make a "Micro-Short", well, I am free on Monday.  How about a sequel to this one?

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Who owns a photograph and why you should pay to use them

Do you know who owns the photograph you just ogled over on Facebook?  Chances are you probably don't.  Many of the photograph we see on Facebook are legitimately owned by the one who posted it.  They are of family, friends or an event.  Sometimes, all we get is very poor quality pictures of someones lunch.  I must say, I have never been inspired to visit a restaurant by a cell phone pic, yet these photos are moments of pride and awe shared with the rest of us who just aren't as hungry.  The rest of the photos, however, might have been pilfered off the internet using a quick Google Search.  It seems harmless enough, grab a pic to make a post about something, but it isn't harmless at all.

In the past it was very hard to take a great photograph.  I did a little searching for an example to post here that would knock your socks off but none of them hold a candle to what we can make today.  Back then if you wanted to take a photograph and do it right you needed great film stock, great lenses and a fully stocked light room.  There was no Photoshop or color correction anywhere near what we use in even a simple application like Instagram.  If you were in a big city or if you were lucky in rural areas you might have had a druggist that also developed film the right way.  I remember my mother having to mail off the rolls of 35mm film to the developer and wait three to four weeks before getting them back.  All this being said, it took a long time and they were precious keepsakes even if they weren't very good.  We showed them to our family, neighbors and whomever we could rope into it.  Everyone, just about, found it interesting and fun, much like we do today...  sort of.  

Today's world of photographs is HUGE!  Now that taking and developing photographs takes only a fraction of a moment to create and costs next to nothing.  Everyone takes photos at every opportunity.  Selfies, kids first day at school, new car, new shoes and of course, lunch.  

We are surrounded by photographs and have quickly learned to take them for granted.  Thus making the value of all photographs shrink in the eye of the general public.  I hear all the time that "it's just a pic" when I mention that a photo they used in a blog post or in a small advertisement should be at least credited to the photographer who took it.  To say the least, I am aggravated by the casual dismissal of someones work and sometimes I am down right disappointed in the person who used it without permission.  

The real down and dirty of it, the essence of my point is that someone took time to create that photo, make sure it's right and poured part of their essence into it.  They also, in the case of many really good photographs, took valuable time to make it what it is.  Should that photographer be paid for their time?  You betcha they should.  

I am a professional photographer, as many of you know. Although I am not, at the moment, a well known photog like Dave Hill (whom I admire professionally).  I do fairly well at what I do and my photographs have been used many places where I have gotten not a dime for my efforts.  What I have got is attribution for the work which is enough, depending on the photograph.  This leads me to wonder how many times my work has been used without my permission.  All one has to do is search Google to find my work on the interwebs, right click and save.  Without a watermark (which I have been advised against using by other pros) there is no way tell who took the photo or track them down.  

I used to work as a portrait photographer.  I do it very rarely now because it is a tough business these days. The last solid quote I gave was for a measly $150 to do some engagement photos.  I quoted the gig and told them that the total would be $160something because I had to charge sales tax.  The text I got back was more than I could take.  She said "That's just too much for someone to just take a photo".  Really?!  This wasn't the first time I had heard someone say this, but I wish it was my last and I know I will hear it again. First off I was quoting her at the request of a friend at a DEEP discount.  Normally a session like that would run five hundred or more.  

There is so much more to it when doing portrait photography.  It takes time to make that photo more than just a snapshot.  The average time it takes for me to touch up one photo is about an hour.  It's the little things that count.  Especially if you want to be thinner (don't ever ask a photographer to do this, BTW)!  This is also true for any photo.  Most of the celebrity photographs you have ever seen in the modern age are photo-shopped and meticulously poured over to make every detail right, no matter how beautiful the model is.  The photograph below is one of my personal favorites.  I took this in a studio setting and got the light perfect and the focus crisp.  The model was great and required little for me to appreciate her natural beauty.  Everything was perfect and the photo turned out just like I wanted it.  But you know what?

This photo took three hours of Photoshop to get right. 
Not So Cold

In the modern world of Photoshop and Composite Photography it takes even longer.  My favorite example of this composting style is one of Dave Hill's works of art that consists of Hundreds of separate images combined to make the final, single image.  It takes months of work to make a photograph like this.  Why then would we want to use this work of art without paying or at least attributing the creator?  Shouldn't we show our appreciation for things that we love?

So next time you are sharing something or downloading a pic someone else has taken.  Consider how you would feel if your boss decided to not pay you and say, "it's just a spreadsheet".  When it comes to photography or any art share-able on the interwebs, we should all take a moment and think to ourselves, "Could I make that?"

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Even YOU can make a movie! Or, maybe not...

Every day I read more posts from people on this here interwebs that talks about how the art of filmmaking is changing. I do agree that it is a brave new world for cinema. Cameras are getting better and better and the tech to create things like VFX (Visual Effects) is getting cheaper and cheaper. All you have to do is look to me for an example of this phenomena. In 1990 when I was just a wee high school student there was no way that I could ever have made a film for just the cost of a camera and an editing suite such as Adobe CC (Photoshop, After Effects and Premier Pro). I would have had to buy the camera, film, a projector and possibly even machines to help with the editing. Sure, I could have used the crappy video cameras of the day but they were so bad that no self respecting cine file would watch something made with one unless it was something like a XXX movie, because no one cares what that looks like. But you see, I care, I care deeply about the look and feel for my work. I slave over every detail in everything I do. Because of this it was only recently that the technology was available to make great film (and sometimes not so great) for just the cost of a computer, software and a camera. I mean good Quality film. Some of these $800-1,500 cameras have been used to film Feature films and they show up on television more and more as the quality keeps rising. Films like "Red Tails" from Mr Lucas Himself was shot on a dslr by Philip Bloom.

Yes, among all that crazy gear is a little DSLR you can go buy at the local camera stores or even Best Buy. Now, I am not saying he is using a Cannon T2i. That is (according to Bloom) the Cannon 5DmkII that was at the time a little pricey but now you can get one from $1800.00. I know what you are thinking "$1,800 For A Camera?!". Well, my friends, that's a steal! The Red Epic suited up with the correct gear to get the job done right is about $85,000! You heard me right, and that is just for the camera! You still have to buy lenses and tripods and mixers and... You get the point. 

Back to my main topic. You must pardon me, I am building a website, editing graphics, talking to my mother and holding a text message while I am writing this blog. When I hear people telling folks that all they need is a camera to make a movie, a cell phone camera even, I cringe. Technically They are right, I guess you could make a great movie with just a cell phone but that would have to be one hell of a story with the best actors on the planet. To make a film you have got to have methodical planning and logistics. Even with a small film, you Must know what you are doing. Talent carries me some of the time but it's more than that. Even when I am "running and Gunning" I am plotting and thinking about the next camera angle, the color of the light against the next angle, shadows, sound, what's behind the camera and most importantly, the performance of the actors. One of my best stories so far was shot as a run and gun but I knew ahead of time what I needed to do with color, sound and lighting before I ever started shooting "Remorse"

To make a bold statement that "Anyone Can Make A Film" just shows a lack of understanding of the process. In fact I have seen many local folks who are actually involved in the legitimate entertainment industry try and do just that. I do not want to bash people for trying but it was horrid. They filmed the whole thing with their cell phone vertical instead of horizontal. In other words it looks like a cell phone made movie from 2005. Yet, it was a movie, i suppose. Well, maybe just a short film. 

This concept that making art is easy is a prolific scab on our modern society. Photographers are degraded by the moms out there that say "it's just a picture" and now it is filtering over into filmmaking. All I can say is, Thank God For Karaoke. For everyone has their chance on stage and most everyone figures out that, no, it isn't that easy after all.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Correct way to use Your Phone as a Camera

I love to film stuff. It says so right here on the title of my blog. I mean, really, how could you have missed that? I work very hard to make my photographs, no matter how mundane the subject, look and feel as great as I can. I love to look at great photos on the interwebs as well as great short films by filmmakers like Philip Bloom among others. For those great social film makers like Bloom, you know, the ones that have it all. Great photography, editing and tonality with a great voice. You just cannot help looking at the work they put out and saying "Wow". 


The rest of the world has a problem. I am not saying that Everyone in the world has a problem. I mean there are some people that have never owned a smart phone after all. But for the rest of us like the Soccer moms, working moms, dads with a tech handicap or grandparents that want their keyboard back, they have a PROBLEM! That problem is using your camera phone (especially when using video) the wrong way. You have seen the Facebook posts, you know, the ones that look like this one I took of my wife one snowy day a few years ago. It wasn't meant to be anything other than what it is. I crappy picture. I wanted to share this so we all could understand that even Pro's take crappy pictures, sometimes.

I do believe that there is no excuse for taking pics like this ALL THE TIME!  That is where the problem lies. Even worse is when people use their phone as a video camera and do the exact same thing!  You have no idea how many times my studio has been asked to edit into a coherent piece of cinematic gold video that has been filmed vertical.  Some of my friends do it but I Always Refuse.  There is no way I am letting my reputation be smeared by something like that!  Ok, I know I am being harsh but someone has to do it, right?

So, the next time you see someone holding their phone vertically grab them and stop them, for the love that is all holy, please stop them.  Show them the right way.  All I ask is that we all do our part to end these horrible picture from ever being seen again.  One last thought before I go.  No one will ever get the current camera phones to take a picture like this last one.  What you see is what I took.  No photoshop, no manupulation, Just good old fashioned camera work.

Happy Shooting!