Wednesday, October 31, 2007

'Alien' Trailer Shows Us How to Create Our Own



I think it's pretty safe to say that Ridley Scott's Alien belongs on just about everyone's top ten list of horror films. The 'haunted house in space' story of a rag-tag group of blue collar space truckers who unknowingly bring aboard a hostile organism has been imitated countless times since its release date in 1979. I actually prefer James Cameron's space-action sequel, but there's no denying the power and authenticity the original had to scare the crap out of you.

It also had some very effective marketing in the form of one of the greatest movie trailers of all time. I remembered it was pretty good, but finding it again on YouTube allowed me to study it, and realize that it has become what all action/horror trailers follow today. Even on our smaller level, crafting a great trailer can be the viral push you need to attract a lot of attention, and the Alien trailer is a good template. For example:

The Use of Elements Not in the Film
One thing that everyone seems to remember is the cracking egg. While there were alien eggs in the film, they looked nothing like the chicken egg featured in the trailer. Oddly textured and sitting on a strange landscape, this was a bizarre image (also featured on the movie poster) that seemed to contain something terrible waiting to emerge. The light coming out of the inevitable crack helped cement this notion. We also get music that is creepy and haunting, again something found nowhere in the actual film.

Build Up to an Explosion
When the egg cracks, the imagery changes (notice the visual link between the lights) and we get that distress signal wail sound that immediately gets under your skin. Random shots from the movie are flung at us, which don't really tell us anything, but do convey a lot of dread. We see closeups of faces, space explorers searching a foreign environment, and Sigourney Weaver running for her life. Just when things build to a head, all hell breaks loose and we get faster cutting, apparent violence, and alarming screeches of what we assume is the terrible Alien of the title. It's incredibly effective.

Silence and a Great Tagline
Then all goes quiet and we get a extreme wide shot of space centered on a tiny ship with the unforgettable line "In space no one can hear you scream." Wow.

And there you have it, the perfect recipe for the horror-thriller trailer. Remember to pick the most visual elements of your movie, create some new ones, slap them all together with an overpowering score and nail the coffin shut with some great writing. And don't go over two minutes. You don't need to.

Happy Halloween...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Blog Salad Friday on Mock-tober 27, 2007

No Whiners!
A few weeks back I posted about a great editorial from Microfilmmaker concerning criticism and how to learn from it. Gregory Conley over at Your Video Store Shelf has a running "conversation" with an emailer who ain't too thrilled about some of his video reviews. After responding once, the perturbed dude came at him again, so Greg posted again. It's more good evidence that you better develop a thick skin if you want to release your work to public scrutiny. There will always be bad reviews (no matter what the budget), so get used to it, and respect the opinions of others. Just because they may not like your stuff doesn't mean they're brainless clods.

Fangs for Everything
With Halloween upon us, I thought you might like a couple of links to cover a very popular appliance that don't cost much, but can have a striking cinematic effect: Fangs. Make Magazine has a video or text tutorial on creating some tooth fakery that is matched to your very own choppers. If you don't have the time to go the DIY route, check out the inexpensive Scarecrow Tooth Caps. They look pretty good and will only set you back fifteen bones, er dollars.

The Close Up Blog-a-thon Comes to a Close
The House Next Door's excellent blog frenzy is over, and there is now a wealth of great film analysis to pore over. The theme was the close up, and so many folks responded, you could construct a textbook out of all the great contributions (here's mine). If you haven't checked it out yet, please do. You can only grow as a filmmaker by reading about this very personal camera angle.

Tiffany Shlain on "This Conference is Being Recorded"
Lance Weiler interviews filmmaker Shlain who has the breakthrough honor of getting her indie short The Tribe on iTunes as a paid download (which is the number one downloaded short right now). iTunes has been resistant to do this in the past, so this is great news for all you content creators out there. Shlain talks about her successful short, how she got it on iTunes, and her plans for the future. I love her positive attitude and consistent energy. A good listen.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How the Netflix Eight Rules for Success Can Help You Become a Better Filmmaker

Last week I read a blog post over at Pronet Advertising called Learning from Netflix's Rules for Success. It basically took the Netfilx mission statement and related it to becoming a better blogger. It was a good post, and I did learn from it. I also saw value in applying it to movie making purposes. Not only the Netflix stuff, but the Pronet comments as well.

The following is my own take on how we can use the "Netflix Eight" to make our productions even better.

1. Netflix Delights People

Surround your project with quality talent, who are better at their given job than you are. This will discourage micromanaging (which keeps your crew happy), and allow you to focus more on directing. The ultimate delight will come from your audience when they see, and are impressed by, the final product.

2. We're democratizing movie distribution
Think about new ways to get your work out there. Create an online serial that will keep viewers returning to your site for weekly or daily updates. Make your creations available for download to various devices and portable platforms.

3. Values Matter
Whatever films you make, don't compromise your own ideals (say, for the quick buck) because at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live with yourself. Don't expect those you work with to live up to your standard if you can't--so don't be hypocritical. Have standards of respect on the set to create a creatively beneficial environment and everyone will work harder for you.

4. Rules annoy us
"Think outside the box" is a tired expression, but don't be afraid to try new things. It's the revolutionaries that break down barriers and open new avenues. Leaders and pioneers have more clout (which translates to more opportunities) than fans than followers.

5. We pay well
Even if you are working with no budget, remember that the volunteers on your movie have great worth. Feed them, praise them, and enthusiastically help them when they ask for it. When the money does finally come in, reward them for their years of dedication by hiring them at a generous rate.

6. Consistently outstanding people
Hold auditions for actors, and seek out the best technicians. Your film is only as good as its weakest link. Don't let that weak link be in a position that you were too lazy to fill with the best person available.

7. We love movies
You gotta love this work. It is so hard, and takes such a toll, your passion has to be greater than the adversity that will be heaped upon you. Keep pressing forward and remember that these things have been done by lesser individuals than you. When you're done, the satisfaction you feel will be so much greater than the struggles to achieve it.

8. We're creating an amazing future
With the revolution in internet distribution upon us, we are all at the cusp of something really amazing. Create the best work you have within you, and market the hell out of it. Get thousands of eyes to view your stuff, and get them to talk about it. You will guarantee that you will be doing this for many, many years to come. And that's the dream, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

YouTube Drops Bomb, Renders Account 'Permanently Disabled'

Well, it finally happened. After being warned by the YouTube brownshirts that I had better cease uploading copyrighted material or face account deletion, they made good on their threat. Those of you who read this blog know that I would occasionally post entire scenes from mainstream films, then comment on what I felt made them great. First my clip from The Truman Show got bumped. Then it was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Finally, my bit from October Sky sent management over the edge and they suspended my entire account.

What bugs me about this whole process is how everyone who "offends" gets lumped into the same category. If anyone is falling into "fair use", it's me. I don't alter the clips in any way, showing them in their entirety for the purpose of comment and criticism. The law is supposed to allow me to do that. Unfortunately, I'd have to go to court to prove it, and in this case, that would just be a waste of time and money. This blog did get traffic from those clips (which will be missed), but it ain't worth a court battle.

I have already setup another account, but I will no longer be putting anything remotely copyrighted in it. I will probably continue to post Scene Gems (I think they are valuable, and they get me thinking as well), but will host them somewhere else, like dailymotion. When posting my original stuff, I'll still go with The Tube. You can't ignore the potential millions of eyeballs that site can bring you. That would just be bad business.

I do wish that the folks at Google would review "offenses" on a case-by-case basis, and not just treat everyone with the same swift justice. I know they are just covering their butts and avoiding a lawsuit from the studios, but it's too bad that copyright law can't be used by the little guy the way it was intended. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Rendition


Exporting Torture

It’s Oscar season. That time toward the end of the year when the studios roll out their “serious” films that have a better chance at snagging a gold statuette than pure popcorn fare. These often include movies with a political bend, which will hopefully strike a chord and get people talking. Rendition is a film that perfectly fits into the “Hey Academy--look at me!” category. It’s got big stars and a political axe to grind. The good news is that it’s effective and well made without targeting a specific individual or party. The bad news is it could have been fantastic.

After a suicide bomber kills an American field operative in North Africa, authorities scramble to find those responsible. Egyptian-born U.S. resident Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is detained and questioned after flying home from overseas. Despite his having no knowledge of the events in question, he is still suspected by government official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep). She enacts “Extraordinary Rendition” which allows terror suspects to be sent out of the country for more persuasive information extraction, sans their human rights. When Anwar never shows up at the airport his American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) becomes very concerned, especially when his name is missing from the passenger manifest.

Rendition has several different storylines that run concurrently, but to it’s credit, doesn’t confuse (think Syriana-lite). The script by Kelley Sane is concise and efficient, suspenseful and informative. Things move along at a good clip and are never boring. The film contains many interesting characters, but none are fully developed the way they should be. They are all passengers on this train that never stops, but keeps chugging on to its conclusion.

There are a lot of good actors involved here, and they all do well, despite being given fairly little to work with. Besides those mentioned, we get Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) as the one who chooses himself to replace his murdered colleague and supervise the torture of El-Ibrahimi. Peter Sarsgaard (Year of the Dog) is his usually excellent self as aide Alan Smith who wants to help old friend Isabella without jeopardizing his political career. There is a great exchange at a party between Whitman and Smith, where Streep and Sarsgaard go at each other with restrained intensity. It’s a great actors moment, and they both make the most of it.

The story itself is very disturbing (torture under the guise of Homeland Security), but it doesn’t repel. These scenes are powerful, but this isn’t Schindler’s List. This is a movie that wants to express it’s message without forcing you to close your eyes. Some may call this a cop out, but I think it’s better to make a movie that can reach more audience members than one that only a few will see due to the hardcore violence.

Rendition is a sound movie that really pushes no envelopes to make it great. It tells a solid story of wrongs and those who think they are right, no matter what the impact on a select few. One theme in the film is that no amount of political clout has more power than that of an individual on the inside who can save the day with personal sacrifice. It’s a good message, and this is a good movie.

The Comebacks


Should’ve Stayed Home

Hoo boy. When I first saw the trailer for the new sports parody, The Comebacks, I laughed. What is more ripe for spoofing than the sports film? It’s a great idea, but my heart sank when I found out the film wasn’t being screened for critics. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to see it that bugged me, but that I knew I still had to. Then there was the lack of TV advertising, another giant red flag and proof that distributor Fox Atomic had little faith in it. While the movie isn’t quite the turd I was expecting, it still stinks pretty bad.

Coach Lambeau Fields (David Koechner) is terrible at what he does. No matter what team he takes the helm of, they always lose. Still wanting to be a winner, he gets one last try as coach of the Heartland State University Misfits, er Comebacks. Will he be able to finally prove to his dutiful wife (Melora Hardin) and rebellious daughter (Brooke Nevin) that he has what it takes?

The Comebacks wants to lampoon every sports film of late, and so we get references to (in no particlular order) Rocky, Radio, Rudy, Varsity Blues, Coach Carter, Gridiron Gang, Invincible, Blue Crush, Stick It, Dodgeball, Miracle and Hoosiers to name a few. All the cliches are there: The coach coming out of retirement, the troubled player, the big game, the inspirational speech. It follows the Airplane! style of rapid-fire (sometimes crude) slapstick, throwing a gag at you with relentless determination to make you laugh. This is harder than it sounds, because things get tiresome fast if the jokes aren’t hitting.

Sometimes the movie is funny, but it often feels like a redundant high school play. Jokes are executed, but instead of moving on, keep repeating themselves. An example: the quarterback Lance Truman (Matthew Lawrence) can’t seem to hold onto the ball. To help him out, love interest Michelle Fields (Nevin) offers up her body wrapped in a bra with football-shaped cups. He tries to grab it, but misses. That’s funny. The fact that he keeps trying and missing isn’t. The whole movies is like this--it doesn’t know when to stop.

Another problem is that many of the actors seem to know they’re in a “funny” movie. Koechner (Balls of Fury) is waaaaay over the top, chewing scenery like he hasn’t eaten for a week. Most of the actors are the same way, including Carl Weathers (who played Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films), who really embarrasses himself here. The exception seems to be Brooke Nevin (TV’s The 4400) as Michelle, who plays it straight, and is a pretty good actress. It’d be nice to see her in a film that doesn’t require her to take her shirt off to get screen time.

While The Comebacks does have its moments of stupid charm, it ain’t very good. I went in with zero expectations and was mildly amused, but that’s not what I’d call high praise--just high tolerance.

Blog Salad Friday on Rock-tober 19, 2007

Internet Marketing for Novel Writers (or Filmmakers)
TK Kenyon has written a guest post over at Read/Write Web for indie novelists, but movie makers can benefit from it also. Kenyon states: "To sell your book, (1) inform people that you and the novel exist, (2) interest readers enough to buy your book, and (3) build a relationship to keep them coming back for more." There is no reason we can't replace the word "book" with "film", and run with it. So read, and start running!

The Future of Independent Digital Distribution
Alex Afterman (co-founder of indie DVD label Heretic) has written a great article for The Workbook Project concerning the potential of digital downloading and its relationship to smaller-time filmmakers. He makes the excellent point that retail space for indies is shrinking as studios lower their prices to edge the little guy out. The internet is the great equalizer, of course, and Alex intuits that he could charge $5 per movie download and still do very well, as there is no overhead. It doesn't matter what the studios do, it's completely up to you.

Why You Should Consider an Episodal Strategy
Usertainment Watch reemphasizes a common theme found here at Film Flap: the webisode model. Here is just more evidence that the thing can work if done right (and in conjunction with marketing). UW refers to a New York Times article that covers the guys who created the "Chad Vader" series on YouTube, and how we can learn from their success. It's very exciting to see how far others have gone with this, and can inspire to do the same thing yourself.

Even Cheaper and Cooler DIY Lighting
Recently discovered filmmaker tech video blog Creativity to Spare is out with episode ten, which covers inexpensive lighting setups. Most of this is already common knowledge (foam core reflectors, Graff lights), but there is a neat bit about $12 LED lighting you can get at Costco. Not only is it affordable, but matches the light temperature of daylight, and can be used as fill in a natural light situation. Good stuff.

MobMov Harvests Field of Screens
Variety has an article from CinemaTech's Scott Kirsner that shares a new type of underground distribution that could appeal not only those who love to make films, but miss or missed the drive-in experience. MobMov is basically the organization of those who are willing to go watch an indie film projected against an outside wall somewhere. The soundtrack is transmitted over an FM frequency, and viewers can come park their car, tune in the sound and watch the movie. A complete list of cities where this is going on are listed, and if not, full instructions are provided on how to get your own outlet going. I like this idea, and wish there was one in Salt Lake City. Now if I just had a projector...

Some Bloody Links for the Horror Minded
There's always a bit of a surge this time of year for some creepy and gory effects knowledge. A couple have popped up recently that I hadn't seen before, that might get some use from you Flappers out there. First up is an alternative to the blood-squirting knife trick that is done with a chemical reaction instead of the traditional way. Nasty and neat (be sure to watch the video example--ewww!). The second is a how-to on creating a charred corpse. Every movie needs at least one of those, right?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Scene Gems: Victor Discovers the One Way to Kill a 'Were-Rabbit'



Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) is a wonderfully wacky film starring Nick Park's popular claymation creations. Previously featured in three short films (two of which won Oscars), Curse was their major motion picture debut. This time the duo of nutty inventor and trusty sidekick dog get involved in their biggest adventure yet when they go against a supernatural bunny and the swath of destruction he creates in a small town.

There is so much to love about this movie that was one of my favorites from two years ago. The characters are great and well-drawn, the animation is crisp and the script is very funny. Directors Park and Steve Box also take pride in their directing as well, with carefully placed camera angles, effective dolly shots, and really good action sequences. The film is essentially a parody of classic horror movies, and not only pokes fun, but shows obvious affection as well.

Ironically, the clip I have chosen from the film is a scene with two of the sub-characters, with neither Wallace or Gromit to be found. It really doesn't matter, as it is a perfect example of the many things the movie does right. The cinematography, the humor, and the great voice work (by Ralph Fiennes and Nicholas Smith) is all there. Watching this clip doesn't give any of the surprises away, but watching it made me want to see the whole thing again.

Pay attention to the level of detail that Park and Box go after. Notice the rain splashing on Victor's coat, or the burning candle (which is probably digital), or the jokes on the "Nun Wrestling" magazine. I also liked the tracking shot that follows the Reverend to the window. Despite being animated frame-by-frame, it still looks like a smooth tracking shot! Amazing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Creator/Director Joshua Sikora Talks about Webserials.com and 'Project X'

Last week I posted about Webserials.com, a site that currently offers two web shows with weekly five minute installments. Project X is a sci-fi/horror story similar to Alien, and Cataclysmo and the Time Boys is a goofy sci-fi/comedy. Both shows have merit, and are just more proof that the short, serialized model is one way to get your work out there.

When compiling material for my original review, I emailed one of the Webserials guys who originally contacted me. He is Joshua Sikora, and Project X was his baby. I had a series of questions for Joshua, and he gave me some great, detailed answers. Very little of that exchange made it into the final product, so I thought I'd share it here. There is some great info that we can all benefit from, and I always like giving some attention to other filmmakers that are finding some success.

Film Flap: What was the genesis of Project X?

Joshua Sikora: Project X was conceived and produced as a feature film. It was my first feature and it was meant as a learning experience as much as anything else. It was a pet project of mine that I'd been working on for several years. We chose to do a creature film for a variety of reasons, but I think the main reason was simply that we had access to a power plant and it just seemed like the perfect location to stage a film of this sort. While I love suspense, horror and creature flicks aren't high on my favorites, and I think if I had to do it over again, I'd approach the story a lot differently.

My goal with the film was to produce a independent film that we could distribute directly to our audience using the web. This was back around 2004 and 2005, and at the time a lot of people were downloading films over Bittorrent and the studios hadn't really begun to start offering their films to online audiences in any legitimate ways. At the time, we felt that if we worked hard and made the best film we could, we could take advantage of that and give people a free alternative.

Film Flap: Is that what inspired you to serialize it and put it on the web?

Joshua Sikora: Well, time passed--we spent a long time in post-production and I focused a lot of time on other projects. YouTube came out around this time and very quickly we saw a shift towards short content. At first, I was disappointed that YouTube limited videos to ten minutes, but in retrospect I think that's how they beat their competition.

I think we consume media like we consume food--we have our meals, which are scheduled, and filling, and take time to sit down and eat. That's how TV and films have always been for us. We have our weekly diet of Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Grey's Anatomy and we look forward to those filling shows each week. Sometimes, we go out to eat for a nice meal--we catch a new film on Friday night. But there's also snack food in our diet. I think the web is still the place for "bite-size entertainment," which is ultimately what led us to WebSerials.com.

Our serials are snacks. Hopefully, they're tasty and addicting. But ultimately, I think they may serve a very different purpose than the traditional entertainment that we get from our TV or theaters. I see all of this coming together in five years, ten at the latest--TV streaming in over our internet, HD movies that you buy and download straight to your computer. I want WebSerials.com to adapt with those changes and always find ways to bring fresh content to audiences.

Film Flap: What do you see happening in the future?

Johsua Sikora: For me, the vision I have for the future is one where a lot more people will have the opportunity to make films and have them seen. I live in L.A. and I hate that people feel like they have to move here and work in Hollywood to make movies. L.A. isn't all that great, and when everyone who makes movies lives here, all the movies look and feel the same. I'm excited that the web offers people around the country and around the world the chance to make their own films, their own way, and have them seen. That's ultimately our goal--making it easier and easier for us and others to create new films for the world.

It's very exciting, as an independent filmmaker, to get the kind of response we've had with our web serials. Our audiences have really fallen in love with these stories and these characters. We have people counting down the days until the next episode. If we're even an hour or two late in posting an episode, we start getting complaints. And I can't believe how many people are watching! We haven't spent any money on marketing yet, but in the first twelve weeks of release, our videos have been watched more than 325,000 times! That's incredibly rewarding.

One of the best highlights was when YouTube listed our two shows alongside Michael Eisner's Prom Queen and Satacracy88, which one the Emmy for broadband entertainment last year--YouTube called our four shows "some of the best dramas the web has to offer." We took that as a pretty high compliment.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Windows to the Soul: The Eyes of 'Saving Private Ryan'

The House Next Door is having an absolutely fantastic blog-a-thon right now that every film nut should read and participate in. The theme is 'The Close Up', and runs until October 21. There are some really great entries, and I am learning a ton from others who report their favorite tight shots and why they are effective.

My entry comes from Steven Spielberg's war epic Saving Private Ryan. While there could be many selections from this great and powerful film, I chose two shots that are linked, but not in the way a first time viewer might suspect. If you have not seen this movie (what?), I suggest you stop reading as this post contains a major spoiler. Watch it first!

The first shot is at the very beginning of the film when we see an older gentlemen walking with his family toward the graves of fallen war vets in France. We see both American and French flags, so it's safe to assume this is Normandy, the site of the D-day invasion of 1944.

The old man (Harrison Young), walks through many headstones until he comes across one, then falls to his knees, weeping. His family rushes to his side.

The camera slowly pushes in...

The old man looks up, and the camera continues to creep closer...

Finally stopping on an extreme close up of his eyes, which fill the frame.

This is our intro to a flashback to some of the most harrowing images captured on film, a reenactment of the D-day Invasion on what the Americans called Omaha Beach. This is the sequence this film is most remembered for, and you won't soon forget it, either.

It's here we are introduced to our core group of solidiers, led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks).

Once they have completed their mission and regroup on the beach head, Miller stops to take a drink from his canteen...

The camera again pushes in...

Right into Miller's eyes.

It's clear from these matching shots that Spielberg wants us to assume the two men are the same person. Not only is the camera move identical, but the final close up is almost a carbon copy. As those of you who have seen this film know, this is a cinematic deception. The old man is not Miller, but the Private Ryan (Matt Damon) of the title.

Why does he do this? The reason is clear, and just more evidence of Speilberg's genius behind the lens (I'm not sure if screenwriter Robert Rodat had a hand in this, but I should give him credit anyway). When we assume Miller is the old man, we attach to him, thinking that he has already survived this grueling tale of combat and sacrifice. When he is killed in the final battle, we are shocked. How can he die? He's the old man! As Private Ryan comes to his aid, Miller's final poignant line is uttered--"Earn this", and Ryan morphs into the old man, back at the grave he first knelt at. It's the grave of Capt. John Miller.

What's really interesting is that we also assume the old man was at Omaha Beach, since he seems to be flashing back to it. We learn later he was a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines, and never even saw Omaha. When the beach has been captured, we see a long shot ending in a close up a fallen soldier with the name Ryan inscribed on his backpack. Could this be the old man imagining how his brothers died? We know Miller and crew are real, since they rescue Ryan and he survives, but what about everything else?

Whatever the reason, it's a pair of very effective close ups in a very effective (and affecting) film.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Blog Salad Friday on October 12, 2 double-aught 7

Free 411 from Google
This may not seem filmmaking related, but after hearing about it, I knew I had to share. In Google's quest to take over the earth with free services, they now have a phone number that anyone can use for information. Just give the city and state you need, and what you're looking for and presto! No more charges to find the nearest store to get batteries, food, etc. It's a great freebie and you can even speak a keyword and get a list of results to choose from. Not only that, but they will connect you for free! The number is 800-GOOG-411. Put it in your cell phone now, because you will need it.

Halloween Scene Contest at Rouge Wave
Here's a friendly writing competition that can sharpen your brain. Julie Gray is challenging her readers to submit a one page scene that is Halloween themed and uses the words pumpkin, periwinkle, and paradox. The prizes are modest, but that's not really the point. It's a good way to interact with other writers (and Julie, who is very cool) and hone your skills. It's only one page, so do it! The deadline is October 28th.

FreshDV Sports Gaggle of Good Content
These guys have been really busy this week. First they give two great links in the form of a depth of field video tutorial, and a really cool instructional about using anamorphic projector lenses on your DV camera for Uber-Widescreen. Then, they go and start their own live podcast call-in show dubbed FreshTV. It debuted this past week and will air every Tuesday at 9:30pm Central time. Like the website, FreshTV is gear oriented, so tech-heads rejoice! You now have a weekly show you can participate in, and get a lot out of.

Viral Blitz Arrives before Show it Promotes
Here's a great article in Wired that spotlights some more viral buzz creation. The difference here is that the show, Alive, doesn't even have a pilot episode yet. The producers are subversively trying to ignite a fan base with info, video clips, and websites that they are spreading around the net. Information is then "leaked", and away we go. With so much attention, people will want to see the actual show, right? That's the hope, and the creators are hoping to get some backing this way. It reminded me of past schlockmeisters like Samuel Z. Arkoff, who would pre-sell their exploitation fare to the drive-in circuit with only poster art. That money would then be used to make the movie that filled the orders. Genius.

Soundsnap Lets You Share Audio Samples
Editblog has clued me into this new site with a great idea. Have a great sound effect? Share it! Soundsnap lets you do this, placing the entire library up for others to benefit from. I still use Findsounds, but I can see how Soundsnap could really go huge. We are all encouraged to upload original material which would free us from potential copyright infringement that is a possibility with Findsounds.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Comedy and a Creature from Webserials.com

Serials! I love 'em. What was once standard movie fare in the silent era is enjoying a resurgence on the internet as of late. These feature short chapters of a longer story, released on a consistent basis until the story is played out. Each chapter would find our hero(es) in some impossible scenario from which there appeared no escape. Hanging from a cliff was one such example, and is the origin of the word 'cliffhanger'. This plot device ensured the audience would return to see what happened, and is still used today. It's also a great way to market a film.

Last week I received an email from one Joshua Sikora who told me about a couple of new serialized movies he was producing on the aptly named webserials.com. He mentioned that he got some good press from YouTube, and was excited to compete with the larger-budgeted fare being released by those with bigger pockets. Interested, I gave Joshua's movies a look-see, and was nicely surprised.

The two films are of different genres, namely horror and sci-fi/comedy. The first is entitled Project X (not to be confused with the Matthew Broderick monkey movie), and is a modern day creature feature set in a power plant. The second is the very serially-named Cataclysmo and the Time Boys, where two very different soldiers of the future go back in time to stop whatever screwed it up. Both are right in the middle of their 24 episode run, with new episodes released every Tuesday or Friday depending on the show.



Project X (subtitled The True Story of Power Plant 67) is your basic monster movie modeled after Ridley Scott's classic, Alien (1979). Something horrible is loose in the plant, feeding on electric power and killing anything that gets in its way. The cast is good and there is real character development before the monster shows up! I also liked director Sikora's directing choices. He knows how to point a camera and move it, as well as get some good performances out of his actors. The set looks authentic (shot in a real power plant), and the monster moves too quickly to be seen, or spends a lot of time in the shadows for a "less is more" approach, which works well.

The movie is scary at times, creating genuine suspense despite some typical horror film trappings. The best episodes so far are 6 and 7 ("In the Dark" and "Dead End") where the people get their first close encounter. Sikora uses the dark and audio stingers for some good gotcha! moments. I had to snicker when the one poor sap sent to investigate the phone outage is whistling (what could that mean?), or when the group locks themselves in the control room and none of the men advise one girl to get away from the door. Despite a few eyebrow-raisers, I look forward to see how Project X resolves itself.



Cataclysmo and the Time Boys is an over-the-top comedy about how our future is overrun by gun-toting gorillas, and how two men are sent back in time to stop the mysterious Cataclysmo, which apparently brought about the whole mess. These two men are super soldier Johnny Zanzibar and plucky sidekick Bucky Stallion. Both actors (Brian Walton and Chris Hartwell) seem to be having a great time chewing the scenery and hamming it up. Hartwell especially plays his goofy role to the hilt, stealing almost every scene he's in. Walton does his best Snake Plissken impression, and is a good tough guy.

The good news that Cataclysmo is funny, and I did laugh. The chemistry between the two leads is solid, and I loved the gorillas. In fact, I got the impression that when the plot was lagging, the gorillas would show up to the save the scene. When in doubt, more gorillas I always say!

The bad news is that once our heroes hook up with the cute Samantha (Erin Sullivan) in Episode 6, there seems to be a conflict of acting styles. The two guys are way out there, and Sam is very down to earth and real (and why she doesn't kick their butt when they grab her iPod, I'll never know). Perhaps in the future we all act zany? Whatever the reason, it doesn't derail the show, but seems curious nonetheless.

Both shows have one thing in common: slick production values. They both have custom opening sequences which are excellent and scored just right, setting the mood perfectly (I really liked the Cataclysmo open). The video is shot well, and the effects work is top notch for a low budget and small screen. The audio is professional, and everything is lit well. Kudos to all involved.

So check out webserials.com and the two shows currently featured. They are an entertaining snack that will get you addicted and eagerly awaiting the next installment. Here's hoping Sikora and company continue with this obvious labor of love, with more episodes and new movies in the future. And more cliffhangers, please!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Where, Oh Where, Has the Mic Input Gone?

As is my nature, I've been poking around lately for the best possible camera for the least amount of money. I still own and use my trusty Canon Optura Pi, but it is showing its age. I've wanted to snag a Canon HV20, but available funds (and constant car repairs) have been a problem. So, while I can't exactly upgrade right now, I sure can look.

I've also been intrigued by the idea of the "fast-cam", which is something small enough to fit in your pocket, encodes video to an SD card (which keeps it compact) and is simple to operate. I think cell phone cameras will eventually fill this need, but right now the video is compressed so horribly (in the .3gp format) that I'd be embarrassed to even put it on YouTube. Not to mention that you'd have to convert it if you wanted to edit, then render it out to something else. Not worth it.

There are quite a few neat little cameras out there that fit this bill, even spilling over into the hard drive camera market (despite them not really fitting into a pocket all that well), with one problem--mic inputs are becoming scarce on entry level models. I went into Best Buy a few days ago and asked an employee which models had mic jacks and snickered when they pointed to the A/V port.

It used to be that every camcorder had a way in for external audio (which migrated over from Super 8 sound cameras), but no longer is this true. If you want to open up your sound world to an external mic, you're going to have to spend at least $600. This may "sound" silly to some ("just get a real camera!"), but there is nothing wrong with learning how to make movies on a cheap camera. What is wrong is not to learn the importance of audio by using the built-in camera mic. It will set a bad precedent, and when you do want to graduate to audible sound, you may be stuck with a camera that won't let you.

This recent development leads me to a bit of a rant. Why has the mic input (and its brother the headphone jack) become scarce? How much money and camera size is really saved by eliminating these very useful connections? Could it be a steady diet of crappy clips has desensitized the public to quality? My guess is that most people don't care. Joe Six Pack never used that little hole anyway, so why start now?

So, when looking for a camera to buy or borrow, make sure you get a mic input. The "fast-cam" is great for shooting spontaneous stuff, but would be even better if you could interview someone without having to jam the camera up their nose so you can understand what they are saying. A cheap external mic is better than the most expensive built-in one.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Kingdom


Comes with a Hail of Bullets

There has been a lot of gunplay in movies during September 2007. Clive Owen, Russell Crowe, and even Jodie Foster have all had their hand in the armory and come out shooting. Now we get The Kingdom, Peter Berg’s story about a team of FBI agents who go to Saudi Arabia to solve a terrorist bombing. What starts out as a crime procedural, ends like a war movie. There’s some shoehorning of important themes and modest character development, but at it’s core this is a tense, violent action picture, and on that level it works.

There has been a terrorist attack at an American compound of oil workers in Saudia Arabia that has killed over one hundred people. Being the duty of the FBI to investigate these kinds of crimes perpetrated on U.S. citizens abroad, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) wants to take his specialists and go in. They are forbidden, however, when deemed they’d be just the target that terrorists would zero in on. Fleury balks and goes in anyway, teaming with the Saudi Government and Chief of Police Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who seems to be blocking their investigation of the crime. Can the agents solve the crime in the five days allotted, or are they just being set up themselves?

The nicest surprise about this film is the relationship between the American agent and the Saudi cop. Like the Foxx character, we are suspicious of Al Ghazi’s motives (some American bias in me, perhaps?), but the two men become friends and really bond. Faris is by far the most complex character in the story, and he is given a lot of screen time. Newcomer Barhom plays him extremely well, and like Fleury, we grow to like him and trust him.

Foxx (Dreamgirls) is serviceable in his leader role, and the rest of the cast is fine, if underdeveloped. The team consists of some one dimensional types all played by good actors. There is the Crusty Vet (Chris Cooper), the Wiseguy (Jason Bateman), the Hot Girl (Jennifer Garner), and the Sweaty Ambassador (Jeremy Piven). All work well together, but their portrayals are subverted by the plot machinations that move so fast there is little time to get to know these people.

As mentioned, this is an action movie, and Berg (Friday Night Lights) keeps things ticking, especially in the last act. When the bullets fly, The Kingdom is at its best, creating real suspense that I haven’t felt since The Descent. Some things transpire that create real urgency for our heroes, and we are right there with them, on the edge of our seat. This portion is directed with head-spinning camera work that emphasizes the disorientation of combat--it’s visual adrenaline.

The problem is, the rest of the film is directed this way also, with what looks like an epileptic cameraman. This “style” is all the rage these days (see The Bourne Ultimatum, Gridiron Gang), with hyperactive panning, quick zooming, and jumpy handheld photography being the norm. It works when portraying action, but it’s really distracting the rest of the time. Where is the contrast of styles? Where is the tripod?

The Kingdom is an effective visceral rollercoaster. What it lacks in restraint and depth, it makes up for in sheer thrills. The relationship of the two leads is great, and that Barhom guy is perfect. While the movie tries to be more self-important than it really is (Munich it’s not), it is still worth seeing. Just take it for what it is, and don’t look too hard for enlightenment.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Blog Salad Friday on October Fifth, Two-Thousand Seven

Filmmaking Without a Camera
Eric over at Camera Stilo had a great post yesterday about how you can still participate in m
aking movies even without what is normally considered the most important element: a camera. His gave up the ghost, and he has come up with a great list of what he (and you) can do in the meantime while it's being repaired. It's a great example of how you can still maximize your time even when you appear to have been dealt a severe setback. I like Eric's thinking and optimistic approach. His entire blog is like this and deserves a read. Check it out.

MicroFilmmaker #24 is Out
The online low budget mag MicroFilmmaker has just released their lastest issue. There are lots of good articles (as usual, but what caught my eye was the feature on lighting with no budget and a great editorial called "The Wounds of a Friend", written by editor Jeremy Hanke. It it, he mentions the people who submit their films for review in MF then whine when they don't get their ego stroked. I liked his analogy to American Idol's Simon Cowell, who is the most brutal of the judges, but also helps artists (or would-be artists) grow the most. I know the feeling.

New Blog Creativity to Spare Worth Watching
While prowling on the forums of DV Magazine, I came across a
post that spoke of a video blog concerning building your own lavalier microphone for $20. Intrigued, I watched it and was pleasantly surprised. It was part of blog with video episodes that detail some really great low budget tips. The most recent episode feature making your own Fig Rig camera stabilizer, and while not that original (like the mic building show), is still very welcome. I'm all about supporting others who are trying to make the best movies they can and share their experiences in the process. It's a way we can all succeed together.

FreshDV's Three Parter on Follow Focus Wraps Up
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the Fresh guys had a great interview with First AC (Assistant Cameraman) Bob Sanchez. Somehow I missed the second episode, but now there is a third and all three are now available for your enjoyment in one post. There is also a link to more information about five follow focus systems available and a review of each. It's a ton of good stuff and if you are technically highbrow enough to have a rig that supports this kind of gear, then you owe it yourself (or your DP) to process all of this info and use it accordingly.

Podcast Roundup
"Your Video Store Shelf" - Gregory Conley interviews director Dave Payne who cut his teeth on low budget fare in the 90's with Roger Corman's New Concorde Pictures. Dave is a fast talker and has a lot to say, and makes for a very entertaining interview. A great story he tells is after selling a script to his bosses, he had to prove he could direct a movie, since he was employed in Craft Services. He was told to take existing sets, props, and actors and write a script around them--in three days. He did it, and worked for free on his first feature, Alien Terminator (in which he notes, "There is no alien, and nothing gets terminated.").

"This Conference is Being Recorded" - Lance Weiler interviews entertainment lawyer Dan Satorius about the digital future of online media. While Satorius is mostly focused on music industry, Lance points out that film has followed music in many ways web-wise (such as iTunes). While a relatively short chat, there's some good info if your future involves internet distribution (and it probably will). Dan's best advice concerning monetizing your content: "I would jump in."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

First Impressions Matter: Crafting a Great Opening Credits Sequence

In the past, movie credits used to be nothing more than glorified title cards set to music. They were mostly static, with maybe a page turn effect to transition between credits. They were boring, but got the job done. After all, you didn't plunk down your hard-earned cash to watch a bunch of words, right?

Well, time's have changed, and for good reason. Since the first thing you are going to see in a film is the credits, why not make them the best thing possible? If you are going to be immediately judged, you had better do something great right off top, or you risk your viewer tuning out. Some movies do away with these entirely, but they can still be a great hook to precede a great hook. I say don't make the credits the last thing you think about, but one of the first.

I think a good credit roll has three things in common:

1. The right font
2. The right music
3. The right visual

All modern Non Linear Editors allow you to use system fonts, and there are a ton on the web available for free. I've found a great selection at FontReactor that cover just about every kind of mood. Download, install, and use! It's that easy.

Music and visuals are paramount in any movie, and it is no different here. Get a composer to tailor something to your credits and shoot something specifically for them. Make them their own "mini movie", and you'll set a good precedent for the rest of your film. Hopefully your titles aren't the best thing you have to show, so be careful about where you set the bar.

The following are five examples of really great opening credits. There are many more that you or I could cite, but I've tried to focus on those that could easily be duplicated by us film jockeys with little or no money to spare. RSS readers can click on the movie title to access the YouTube video directly.



Seconds (1966)
This film centers around a guy who "trades in" his old body for a younger model. The open definitely creates a weird, disturbing vibe with the warping facial images and creepy music. The font is normal, but the images (created in-camera with something akin to a fun house mirror) and the music are surreal and set the tone that something uneasy is approaching. Created by the late, great, Saul Bass.



Napolean Dynamite (2004)
Here's a nifty departure that perfectly captures the whimsical lighthearted feel of this quirky flick. There are no fonts at all, only credits written in various condiments, drawings, and product labels. The colors are bright and fun, and remind me of the very first credit sequence you'd try as a kid. The music fits right in, becoming a nice frosting to this yummy cake.



Memento (2000)
This example is about a simple as you can get, and employs a very easy post production trick--the backwards shot. In the movie, the protagonist has memory problems so he takes Polaroid pictures of everything he wants to remember. The movie also has a timeline that moves in reverse, which keeps the audience in the same mindset as our poor hero. These credits perfectly embody both of these plot elements, and the sad music wraps it together in a very melancholy package. Hang around after the titles for more backwards weirdness.



Enemy of the State (1998)
This film deals with the invasion of privacy from snooping government goons on wrongly accused Will Smith. This sequence really hits home by mashing up footage we've all seen on the news. Sure, there are custom helicopter aerials, but most of this is just tinkered with public domain footage. Any of us could find a ton of this stuff on YouTube and do the very same thing. The fast cutting and sped up nature of this clip also prepares you for the kinetic action that is to come. Well done, and very Orwellian.



Sex Machine (2005)
Here's a great example of doing a lot with a little. This sequence uses the "hook within a hook" method by interspersing story with every title featured. While our hero runs away from a massacre he apparently caused, we see animated titles (created in After Effects) in between his sprint to safety. What makes this even better is the credits are made up to look like the tattoos that we later see cover one of our hero's arms. Excellent implementation, especially for an $8000 movie.

Any of you have a credit sequence favorite? Tell me which one and why by leaving a comment below!

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Tapless Camera and the Portable Production House

A couple of weeks ago New York Times tech reporter David Pogue wrote an article called "Beware the Tapeless Camcorder". This article got a fair amount of attention from the community that this blog serves, being linked to by FreshDV, Digital Camcorder News and Video Guys to name a few.

Pogue makes a lot of good points, mainly that tape is an instant archive where flash/hard drive formats are more compressed, harder to edit, and have to be burned to a disc, making them less convenient than first thought. While true, I also have to contend that tapeless has its place just like any other format, it's just a matter of selecting your tools for a specific task.

Where I see tapeless most useful is when your output needs to be quick, handy, and portable. I like the idea of having a camera small enough to carry in a pocket (ready at a moment's notice), able to record to cheap SD cards, and ready to edit on a laptop. Granted you're going to have to deal with MPEG-2 or MPEG-4, but if you're just cutting and need little effect work--who cares? I see this being very useful for a run-and-gun shoot/edit/upload scenario when time is of the essence and you have to carry all your gear on your back.

There are all kinds of these camcorders, but only one that I've found with a mic input. This is disappointing, as a mic input and headphone jack (invaluable in an interview situation) used to be standard equipment on even the cheapest of camcorders. Now it seems to be luxury, with only the in-camera mic to depend on. And you just can't. I hate distant, echoing sound from someone on camera, and recording double-system is just too much to ask--a mic input is not.

Time will most likely heal these wounds. The formats will get better, or software will emerge that can better handle them. Cameras will improve and you will get better and better video recorded in a solid state format (Panasonic's P2 cards are evidence of this now) at an affordable price. Every piece of tech can't be everything to everybody. For some somebody's however, it can be just what you need.

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