Making the Movie

23May/140

Your Weekend Viewing: Two Video Essays on Spielberg’s Art

After 40+ years of Hollywood career, director Stephen Spielberg is getting dissected in great detail. The first of these I saw was cameraman Vincent Laforet's very practical look at how Spielberg did the blocking for specific scenes. Then, this week I saw two wider and more philosophical attempts to categorize the Bergmeister's techniques.

Tony Zhou sees Spielberg as the last practitioner of the long (but not flashy) single take. He calls it "The Spielberg Oner".

Fandor's Kevin B. Lee, meanwhile, sees the auteur's signature stroke as "The Spielberg Face".


[via reader TC]

I think both make too much out of a pattern that's all-too-common in other directors, but there's no doubt that Spielberg has studied the greats and internalized some of their most powerful techniques. What do you think about these analyses? What do you see as Spielberg's signature moves?

7May/140

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.

YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
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.

OLD POSTS UPDATED:
What are Martin Scorsese's favorite films?

2May/140

Your Weekend Viewing: Great Director Fan Films

The first short to check out this weekend is called "Mite" and it's a brilliant extension of The Shining. CG Artist Walter Volbers imagines what Kubrick 'mite' have done if he had use of CGI.

You'll notice the importance of the sound design in bringing the digital images to life.

Another brilliant use of sound design is this "Wes Anderson Mixtape" -- which doesn't stop at remixing sound but also finds cool visual correspondences across the persnickety writer-director's oeuvre.

If you still haven't gotten enough filmmaker tributes this weekend, check out the preview for Vincent Laforet's "Directing Motion" class, which breaks down an entire Spielberg scene from the perspective of the director.

23Apr/140

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

YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
Story is about more than plot.

21Apr/140

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.

9Apr/140

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"

Kottke.org: 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

YOUR WEEKLY WISDOM:
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.

3Apr/140

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 

20Mar/140

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?

(more…)

4Mar/140

Shoot Something Every Two Weeks: A Conversation with Phil Hughes and Jenn Daugherty

Indie Filmmakers Phil Hughes and Jenn DaughertyI recently got a strong pitch for a very indie film in my inbox: Sweet Nothings, written by and starring Jennifer Daughtery and directed by Phillip Hughes.

It's a musical comedy about an aspiring chef and an aspiring musician who -- and I'm just guessing here -- fall in love. As their kickstarter puts it: MUSIC + FOOD + LOVE = AWESOME.

I spoke with Jenn and Phil via email about the project and their can-do philosophy of movie making. Read on for some great tips on script development, SAG contracts and social media marketing for filmmakers...

Making the Movie: How did the idea for the story of Sweet Nothings arise?

Jenn & Phil: We were shooting a short for USC that starred Jenn and Jason Witter1535724_277406422412561_1379230980_n (one of our long time collaborators) as these two sweet, awkward people who had this connection that you never saw in the script and we wanted to see more of them so they became he basis of the Gwen and Jack characters. Jenn really wanted to do a practical musical that was totally original and not a rehash of pop songs. She was obsessed with capturing that moment when you actually try and pursue your dreams.

What got you interested in filmmaking? How did you wind up at this place of trying to raise $50,000 for a film?

Wow. That's a mammoth question. We've both been connected to the arts since we were kids, but Jenn was the performer and Phil was the visual arts guy. We were both obsessed with movies, though Jenn was sheltered and only watched wholesome entertainment. Phil, on the other hand, had a weird dad that let him watch whatever crazy horror and sci-fi he was watching. It warped him in so many interesting ways.

The basis has always been Jenn writes and performs and Phil directs. We've been making work together for nine years and had always been experts out of making something from nothing, but sometimes that mentality can leave your project falling short of your ambition. So, we took a hard look at the script and applied our experience to what we thought we could make this particular movie right and that's our number. Phil thinks people blow so much money on films that he is always quite conservative in filmmaking. But when Jenn finished this script, he knew they could make this on an indie budget. At this level the script HAS to be gold or you're wasting your time and we thought the script was gold.

1512576_277406432412560_1363503480_nCan you talk about your process for honing the script?

Jenn goes through a draft and then Phil will give notes on it and we did several readings with specific actors to workshop certain characters and then we did a small reading with five people and finally graduated to a full reading. We will spitball ideas and come up with jokes and then Jenn makes it all work. She's the funny one. Phil is good with structure and grounding the characters.

One of the things your fellow filmmakers would be interested in how you are structuring your crowdfunding campaign. How did you decide on the levels and rewards? How are you getting the word out? (more…)

28Feb/140

Your Weekend Viewing: Timeholes

Also, if you're in the U.S. and looking to get an edge on Oscar voting, 3 of the 5 Documentary nominees are on Netflix streaming and one, 20 Feet from Stardom, is currently a $.99 rental on Amazon.

I can heartily recommend both The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom.

The foreign film nominees are harder to see, but frontrunners The Great Beauty and The Hunt are at least $4.99 rentals on Amazon and also available on iTunes in selected territories.