Making the Movie


Your Wednesday Links: Absolutely Nothing About Star Wars

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

IndieWire: How Jeremy Saulnier Went From Corporate Videos to Making 'Blue Ruin'

FiveThirtyEight: Statistical Breakdown of Every Blockbuster Since Jaws - The new Nate Silver news site that emphasizes statistical stories also recently had great pieces on the IMDb's worst-rated film and how Mean Girls has impacted our vocabulary.

Filmmaker Mag: "he’s frustrated by what he seems to perceive as the unthinking tyranny of editing" - There might be something to this, but the way it is being reported makes it sound colossally stupid. Film grammar to me is rooted in biological facts of how we perceive information, but, like spoken language, it is also a constantly evolving set of arbitrary structures. If you throw out those signposts, you end up sounding like Nell.

Advice to Writers: Billy Wilder's Rules for Screenwriters

NFS: What Lighting Tools Do the Pros Use? Some of the Most Talented DPs Share Their Favorites

Variety: Jeffrey Katzenberg Predicts 3-Week Theatrical Window in Future

Under The Skin and the Problem with the Adjective “Kubrickian”

Hitfix: Has life in the age of casual magic made moviegoers numb to the amazing? - This essay occasioned much discussion in the filmmakersphere. From what I hear, the new Godzilla will be an answer to the casual magic approach. It will be interesting to see how audiences respond to the Jaws approach of teasing and delaying the payoff.

Playwright Howard Lindsay (Arsenic and Old Lace, State of the Union) advised taking the great lines from secondary characters and giving them to the lead. Keep the hero the hero and the star the star.

What are Martin Scorsese's favorite films?


Your Wednesday Links: Under the Scorsese Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Guardian: How Scarlett Johansson helped me challenge disfigurement stigma - I'm still turning over how I feel about Under the Skin. Some of these anti-narrative films I like, and some, like this one, strike me as indulgent and ponderous. But I can't figure out where the line is. It might just relate to what I had for lunch that day.

Dave Chen Video Essay: Raid Director Gareth Evans' Top 5 Fight Scenes

AICN: Steven Soderbergh Takes A Cleaver To Michael Cimino With HEAVEN'S GATE: THE BUTCHER'S CUT! - And also on the subject of editing, be sure to read No Film School's summary of Thelma Schoonmaker's Tribeca Film Fest lecture on the editing of Raging Bull

Deadline: Time Warner Cable To Netflix: “Here Are The Facts” About Comcast Merger - I know my bias is against the cable companies. But in the interest of fairness, here is their argument. I trust reader judgement to see any bologna.

Deadline's Mike Fleming: Bravo Joss Whedon! For Online Launch Of Tribeca Pic - This is basically a distribution model Louis C.K. already showed works several years ago. But still, between Dr. Horrible, Much Ado and now this, Whedon is definitely one of the most forward-looking filmmakers out there, and deserves some plaudits as a real trail-blazer.

Cinema Blend: The Wolf Of Wall Street Honest Trailer Is Effing Brilliant - And also on the Scorsese tip, Joshua Brunsting argues (persuasively) that Bringing Out The Dead deserves a full Criterion treatment.

Mashable: 8k televisions are real, and they're spectacular - Once again, movie theaters are going to have to step up their game.

LA Times: How Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter rewrote Oscar campaigning

Story is about more than plot.


Avid Error of the Day: Real-time effects not displaying on monitor

When I encounter an odd error message and its solution, I make a note. This is one of those notes. I want solutions to turn up better in searches for other Avid users (and myself). As with all error posts on the site, the casual reader can just skip ahead to other less-technical content.

This is a simple one (maybe even a forehead-slapper), but I think worth throwing out there.

I had dropped real-time mask and timecode effects over a whole sequence and they didn't appear to be effecting the footage in Source/Record Mode, only Effect Mode. What happened? I had toggled off the "Render On-the-Fly" option.

Avid Render On-the-Fly Option Toggle in menu

Solution, toggle it back on. It's something that's set on by default, so I'd never taken notice of it. Turn it off, though, and you will take notice.

Have a similar story of another simple but hard-to-know Avid option getting accidentally toggled? Leave a comment below.


Your Wednesday Links: The Real Box Office Figures

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 9.11.27 AMMost of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Deadline data on how much profit blockbuster films ACTUALLY make - In honor of the NCAA Basketball Tourney, Deadline ran a mock bracket between 2013 blockbusters. The data they used is closer to what studios see, and a rare peek into more realistic profitability numbers than the "dumb" box office numbers that news outlets put out each week. I really wish there was a lot more reporting around these numbers, not just silly brackets.

What these numbers do omit is a discussion of the risk and how it is distributed across a studio's slate. Disney had an unexpectedly big hit with Frozen, but they also had some recent celebrated misses with Lone Ranger and John Carter. (Or were they misses? My guess is those movies made back quite a bit of the upfront losses in ancillary revenue. Can't know without seeing the numbers...)

BuzzFeed: How many bad movies have you seen? - A far-from-comprehensive but still broadly inclusive list of cult crappy cinema.

538 crunches the numbers on female characters in Hollywood films - Far-from-rigorous but still interesting way to point out Hollywood's double-standard. Indies who are passionate about this topic should be making female-centric films and looking to capture the money that is being left on the table.

Cinescopophilia: The Amazingly Tiny one-cam Camera That Shot Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin - Also related to that film, Seth Madej's essay "Scarlett Johansson's Boob Problem" Photos taken on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Marlon Brando / Don Corleone before and after photo. - One of the great movie makeups.

Digital Rebellion: CinePlay aims to be alternative to QuickTime Pro

Film Comment Interview: Longtime Scorsese collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker

Don't be afraid to test your films with tough critics. Don't be afraid to make changes that you believe will improve the film, even if other people suggest them.


All About Movie Test Screenings (with Free Questionnaire Download!)

Movie theater by Bonita Sarita, on Flickr

Billy Wilder on audiences: "Individually, they're idiots. Collectively, they're a genius."

I'm not sure when Hollywood began running test screenings, but I know it goes way back. In 1942, two preview screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons (written and directed by Orson Welles) went over like wet blankets and RKO, the studio, lopped 40 minutes off and re-shot the ending. Likewise, the recent World War Z had a third act that tested poorly and was completely re-written and re-shot. One might conclude not much has changed.

Criticisms aside, there is a scientific method to modern test screenings, which are more often aimed at figuring out how to market the film than how to re-edit it. The two main companies that make a business of running audience-recruitment screenings -- and make no mistake, sample quality is more important than sample size -- are NRG (a division of Nielsen, expensive) and MPG (geared toward indies).

What is the standard format for a test screening?

Rent a theater, show an audience a cut, have them fill out a questionnaire.

Depending on what you want to test, you gather an appropriate audience. If you want to see how the movie plays among suburban soccer moms, you need to get out to the soccer fields and offer free orange wedges.

You can get good and useful opinions from friends and family, but it is hard to know how much bias they bring. You definitely know they bring bias. Sometimes, they over-compensate by hating on your movie much more than the general public. This is a very real phenomenon. The screening companies even try to screen out anyone who works in the film industry. (Although the recruiters they employ don't try too hard, since they are paid based on who shows up to the screenings.)

Any way, I hope you don't need a lot of convincing to imagine that the best test screening audience is one that A) Doesn't know the filmmakers; B) is not a wanna-be filmmaker; C) approximates more or less the type of audience that the actual marketing for the film will pull in.

That last reason is why you'll see screenings advertised as "GENRE starring ACTOR A and ACTOR B about BASIC PLOT DESCRIPTION" -- e.g. A thriller starring Arnold Schwartzenegger and Zach Galifinakis about a father and son trapped in an avalanche.

Free Questionnaire Template

While the screening companies are tight-lipped about their methodology, I've come across a sample questionnaire that looks very similar to ones I've seen at screenings.

- .docx version
- Google Docs

You will have to customize it, obviously, to your film and what you'd like to know. John August's favorite test screening question is, "Given a pair of magical scissors, is there anything you’d snip out?"

What are the top two boxes?

The top two boxes are the two "Yes" answers to "Would you recommend this movie to your friends?" I have heard that the rule of thumb is that movie is ready to release when it scores 80 or more on the top two boxes, meaning 80%+ of the audience would recommend it. Word of mouth is still the holy grail for movie marketing.

If your film doesn't manage to score what you wanted with your target audience, then maybe it's time to rethink the film -- or the target audience.

What are the limits of audience testing?

"What is wrong with audience research? It doesn't work. If it worked, there would be no flops." - David Mamet

Audience testing is a guide, but the ultimate artistic decisions to hear or ignore it will determine whether it mauls a masterpiece (as in the supposed case of Magnificent Ambersons) or whether it rescues a turkey (as in the supposed case of World War Z).

Happy screenings!

'Movie theater' image Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Bonita Sarita 


Fully-Conscious Filmmaking: An Interview with Ethan Shaftel

Ethan Shaftel is director, writer and editor who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and John Legend. He also makes visually-arresting, mind-bending science fiction films, the latest of which is the short "Flesh Computer". Check out the trailer:

I had a chance to speak with Ethan via email about how he pulled off the complex digital and practical effects you see above. Filmmaker Ethan ShaftelHe also talked about recruiting top talent on a low budget and, oh yeah, the philosophy of consciousness. Lots of great info for fellow filmmakers. Enjoy...

* * *

Making the Movie: Where did the idea for "Flesh Computer" come from?

Ethan Shaftel: I had been mulling over two very different concepts for quite some time before I connected them and realized I had the makings for a really cool short.

There was a time when I had fruit flies living in all my potted plants. Since I work at home, I would kill literally dozens of flies every day just by clapping them with my hands and casually brushing their carcasses into the trash. They are so small it didn't even seem gross, I wasn't even aware of "blood and guts" spilling out onto my hands. I couldn't feel their bodies being destroyed. And at some point I realized that my actions would be horrific if the flies were even just a little bit bigger -- if they were puppies, or even small birds, crushing one in my hands would be absolutely disgusting and upsetting.

And the reaction of the creature itself -- the wriggling, the frightened cries, the accelerated heartbeat and struggle to escape -- would make it very clear that it's own death is not something it regards ambivalently. And this is regardless of the mechanism that controls those reactions -- as consciousness is not a given even if the creature flees pain and is driven to survive. The question of how much awareness the fly might have of it's own destruction leads one to think about the fly’s awareness of it's own existence. Which is the connection with the next idea that lead to the short as a whole...

Ethan Shaftel on the set of Flesh ComputerI have long pondered the relationship we have with our electronic belongings, imagining a future where one would care about the welfare of your computer in a much more visceral way, as someone might view the safety of her pet or even her child. So I imagined a parent figure who cares for a computer that is as helpless and alive as a small child or an animal.

Again, the logical next thought is about the awareness or consciousness of the computer itself. The main connection between both these stories is not so much the quality of the consciousness of the various creatures, but just the vast power differential that exists between different pairs of beings: the fly exists as an unimaginably tiny and insignificant thing to the man who carelessly swats it. To a lesser extent, that differential is also found in the various pairs of Owner/Pet, or Parent/Child. The greater of the pair understands the lesser completely, while simultaneously assuming that the lesser has no sense of the richness of existence. Other relationships with power differences presented as contrasts in "Flesh Computer" include the Bully vs the Victim, the Child vs. the Toy, and even the Conscious (in the sense of being awake) vs. the Unconscious -- the person who is simply asleep, and thus unaware and defenseless.

Ultimately "Flesh Computer" is about the concept that everything has a point of view, and in some way everything is conscious. And since that question is so big and so scary and could lead us in so many directions, I decided that the best way to tie together the story of a computer and its caretaker with the story of a fly's death was to get a sense of the "state of the art" in the philosophy of consciousness by weaving in an interview with a philosopher working on the cutting edge.

How long was pre-production vs. the shoot vs. post-production?

Pre-production -- including writing the script from a set of loose notes -- took three months. Production was four days, not counting a couple pickup shots a little later. Post was spread over nine months. Of course, when there is considerable CG work, the distinction between post and production is less clear. The plates for the fly sequence were shot in less than half a day, but that animation work took several months.

What were the challenges in each of these chapters of the process?



Your Wednesday Links: Wrap on Ramis

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

RIP Harold Ramis - As @NotoriousJLD pointed out: "In an 8-year span beginning at age 34, Harold Ramis created Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Back to School."

Filmmaker Mag: Making a film is like having a child. - The responsibilities continue after birth...

Tim Berners Lee in WaPo, Josh Gans in Digitopoly - Some different perspectives on the recent Comcast/Netflix blow to net neutrality.

Q. Will this Comcast/Netflix deal harm indie filmmakers? A. Time will tell. Not a very conclusive answer, but accurate.

Q. Why did it happen? A. Looks to me like Netflix read the tea leaves, found net neutrality was going to die a slow death and decided to get a lock in an early sweetheart deal. In return, Comcast has bought out one of the biggest opponents to the merger with Time/Warner Cable. Welcome to the brave new world of pay-for-cable-play.

Movie Morlocks: Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

Daily Beast: An Oscar Voter Spills Secrets on Woodygate, Wolfgate, and Awards Scandals

Vanity Fair: The Most In-Demand Composer in Hollywood Shares Stories About His Latest Collaborators

John August: Scanning scripts on your iPhone with Weekend Read + Prizmo

Steven Soderbergh on Joseph Von Sternberg

SlashFilm: Watch Extensive ‘A Field in England’ Making-Of Footage

A new goal for myself: make more eye contact with performers and less with screen/paper. #recording
-Audio Craftsman @RandyCoppinger

Only Connect: An Interview with Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza - The trailer for his Kickstarter success, Know How, a musical by and starring foster care youth, is now online.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Reel Breaks - Added more information on reel length standards and rules for where to split reels.


Your Wednesday Links: Guns in Theaters Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you'd like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

FilmDrunk: Follow-up: The Man Who Killed Another Man For Texting During Previews Before Lone Survivor - This is a sad story. Surprised it is not getting more attention given that other "violence and the media" stories saturate the news.

LATimes: Richard Linklater's 12-year project Boyhood to premiere at Sundance - Super excited about this film. What an epic project!

BuzzFeed: 25 Things You Didn't Know About Fight Club - Well, I knew some of them.

Forbes: Negotiating Dynamic Changes Between Netflix and the Studios - You heard it here first, of course.

No Film School: How to Set a Living Room on Fire with VFX in 4K

The Dissolve: The Simpsons pay an inspired tribute to Hayao Miyazaki

Top Rated Films by Location They Were Shot - Created by a Reddit user using IMDb data

Martin Scorsese's open letter to his daughter about the future of cinema

"Bored by the scene you're writing? Cut away. Maybe cut the whole scene. Get out of there, man." -@jonspaihts

Free Film Leader Download - made some changes to the files, now improved for v2


Avid Error of the Day: AvidBinIndexer works locally but not on external Unity drive

Search Data FolderWhen I encounter an odd software error and its solution, I make a note. This is one of those notes. I want solutions to turn up better in searches for other Avid users (and myself). As with all error posts on the site, the casual reader can just skip ahead to other less-technical content.

Running MediaComposer 7.0.2 with a fiber Unity on MacOS 10.7.5. The project was originally set up locally and Avid Search worked fine, finding lots of sound effects by name across multiple bins. Once we moved the project to a Unity drive, the search no longer worked, even after deleting the SearchData folder to force a rebuild. Even after changing Find > Settings tab > Search Data Folder to "Local Default" from "Default" (the Project Folder).
Avid Find Window
I tried all kinds of things, including re-importing the sound effects manually in various projects. Search would find sequences and audio mixdowns but it just wouldn't find the video or audio media, even if the clips were moved into fresh bins.

The project was at the root level of the Unity workspace. Moving it up another folder level made the search work. Simple and Avid recommended, no hacky-panky. Thanks to my friend JCB for helping figure this out. (more…)


Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Reel Breaks

A holdover from the days where films were shipped as individual reels of film, modern editors still break feature films down into 10-20 minute sequences called "reels".

These reels are a convenient length to send to the sound editing team, the composer, the colorist, etc. This is called in the biz "turning over a reel" or "turnover".


The editor I'm currently working with cuts individual scenes as dailies come in, quickly grouping them together into short sequences. From 87 scenes, he ended up with 21 groups. When those were all done, the groups were stitched into the first assembly.

Traditionally this "editor's cut" would then be shown to the director. This typically will make the director suicidal, as they must confront the movie that was shot, not the perfect vision imagined in their head.

Another way to go is to break the assembly into reels immediately, and go through these one-by-one with the director, which will help keep the director from being overwhelmed. The editor can do quick notes passes on each of the reels. Only then is a longplay assembly made. This way, the first time the director sees a whole cut, there will be no rude surprises.


At whatever point in the process you decide to "break" the film into reels, there are some things to keep in mind...

- Maximum length of reel for 35mm 4-perf will depend on the studio specs. The longest my sources have seen was just under 2100 feet (that's 23 minutes, 20 seconds according to the Panavision footage calculator). UPDATE: According to the book Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures, 2nd Ed., the limit is 2050 feet.
- To find the break, add 2000 feet to the previous break and work down, looking for a picture cut that is a good break point. (Most reels lose length during the editing process. See "rebalancing" below for what to do if they get too long, or short enough to combine.)
- Having as few reels as possible makes the film less costly to deliver down the road. This thread says the industry average is around 1800 feet per reel.
- Look for a place where there is a clean sound break, preferably between scenes. Sometimes you'll need to break in the middle of a scene. If so, look for where the camera reverses angle completely, which will hide any color shifts between film reels. Always choose to break between shots that can be rolled out a little longer.
- Also, according to Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures, "Avoid splitting within a musical cue or a place likely to have one later. ... Don't allow any significant sound within the first second of a new reel. This sound will fall within the changeover and could cause trouble."
- The first reel should be shorter to leave room for credits and studio titles. Absent any specific direction, 1500 feet is the rule of thumb -- or so I've been told.
- You will also want to leave 800 - 1000 feet on the last reel for the end crawl and any "main on ends" -- main credits sequences that are increasingly placed at the end of films.
- If questions remain, ask an experienced sound editor.


- Leader is added to head and tail of each reel. The 8 second (12 foot) Academy Leader has been superseded by the longer SMPTE Universal Leader, but in my experience people are using only the last 8 seconds of SMPTE Universal to match the timing of the Academy Leader. SMPTE Universal Tail Leader is 6 seconds, and again my experience is people extend this another 2 seconds to make it 8 seconds. Learn more and grab a free download in this post.
- Each reel starts with the hour of the reel. Reel 1 starts at 01:00:00:00, Reel 2 starts at 02:00:00:00, Reel 3 starts at 03:00:00:00 etc. As of Avid MC5, this setting is accessed by right-clicking on the timeline and selecting "Sequence report..." You will then click "Apply changes" and, unintuitively, "Cancel".
- The edgecode (EC) starts at 0+00 for all reels.


- While cutting, some reels may get too long or too short and the film will need to be "rebalanced."
- The same rules for finding new reel breaks apply.
- Most films end up being 6 or 7 reels long. Shorter films can do it in five.
- Fun fact: Early screenplays were written in sequences meant to correspond to reels. In those days a "feature" was a movie with four or more reels, while "shorts" were anything from a "two-reel comedy" to a single "newsreel".
- To get a change list (from Avid FilmScribe, at least) to play nice after a rebalance, you may have to create versions of the old sequences which match the same cutting point. Sound auto-conforms then hand-conforms using a hand-written change note with what is added or subtracted from the head and the tail of the reel.

Anything to add? Still something you want to know? Leave a comment below.

[Special thanks to AE reader MT for the fact check.]