Friday, January 25, 2008

Cinema Salad on J-25, Two Oh Oh Eight

Are you a Pigeon or a Cardinal?
CinemaTech's Scott Kirsner has come up with a great article focusing on how we must make our content stand out in a crowd if we want to succeed. Cardinals stand out, pigeons don't. As Scott points out, the challenge is this: "getting people to first notice that your work exists, watch it, and then tell others about it. (Don't expect the number of choices your audience has to diminish any time soon.)" His bird metaphor perfectly illustrates how the net is being flooded with stuff, and it is up to us to show off our red feathers so folks will stop and point. People shoot pigeons, don't they?

Freedom!
[Courtesy The Rouge Wave] Wow. Sheldon Bull has written a fantastic piece about the writer's strike over at StoryLink and how the beast of corporation burden is already dead. This may seem far removed from folks such as us, but check this out: "Do I mean that you should make a short movie or three-minute TV series on your own and then post it on the web for free? Yes. That’s exactly what I mean. Can you think of a more effective way to introduce yourself to the world? If you get ten thousand hits on your video, don’t you suppose that people with money to invest will come looking for you?" It's a long read, but full of good stuff and very inspiring.

A Great Viral Gimmick Starring Carmen Electra
[Courtesy Breaking Free] Here's an attention grabber that uses sex appeal and cool technology to personalize a movie ad. When you go to the link, you are shown a glam shot of Carmen with this probing question flanking it: "Ever wish a babe like Carmen Electra would fall for you?" You are then asked for a name, a photo, and a phone number. These are injected in a faux press junket video from Meet the Spartans where Carmen talks about her new boyfriend, shows his name (the one you gave) tattooed on her butt, and reveals his picture (the one uploaded) in her wallet. Then, she calls the number you gave and you get a message from Carmen. Slick.

Renart Films Podcast - Jess Weixler
I love actors. They are such an integral part of moviemaking, and if you can cast some good talent, will send your project into the stratosphere. Jess Weixler is the star of the recently released Teeth, which she won a special jury prize at Sundance last year. The subject matter is interesting to say the least, but Weixler is such a delightful interview, that she could talk about drying paint and I'd be riveted. Host Dan Schechter is always good (and very funny--love the pod quiz!) and both make for a fun conversation about movies, acting and laughter.

Don't forget the gaffer's tape tomorrow...

Cloverfield


The Godzilla Witch Project

What would you do if a rampaging monster paid a visit to your neighborhood? Why, grab a video camera and document the whole thing, of course! What an awesome YouTube video that would make! This is essentially the setup for the much-hyped Cloverfield, a new film from the J.J. Abrams camp, that creates a mockumentary-type movie with a “you are there” perspective via a hand held camcorder. It’s an interesting genre flick that provides some visceral thrills, but suffers from shallow characters and storytelling.

There’s a big party brewing for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who will be leaving New York City for a job opportunity in Japan. Party planner Lily (Jessica Lucas) gives a camcorder to the goofy Hud (T.J. Miller), to document the party and interview guests for personal farewells. Things get dicey when Rob’s ex-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman) shows up, creates a scene, then leaves. An earthquake hits the city, and when it becomes clear a giant creature is attacking the Big Apple, Rob sets out with Lily, Hud and friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) to rescue the stranded Beth. But can they get there before the monster(s) get them?

As mentioned, Cloverfield (the military’s code name for ground zero) is all first-person perspective, as if an amateur cameraman were at the helm. It’s hyper and jittery and jumpy and makes movies like The Bourne Ultimatum and Gridiron Gang look steady by comparison. It definitely lends to the immediacy of the proceedings, but is also very limiting. With no contrast of shots, we end up with what looks like a 90 minute America’s Funniest Home Video.

Cloverfield uses a bunch of stuff borrowed from other movies, only with less success. The hand held camera perspective was used in 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), then again in The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story is a direct Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) lift (only with no explanation of the monster’s origin), and there is a night vision sequence that was scarier in The Descent (2005). The cast feels borrowed from a CW soap, and there is a “get to the chopper” goal right from Miracle Mile (1988).

Where the movie spends all of it’s money is in effects work, and it does look convincing. A zoomed-in-on explosion, the huge thing lumbering in between buildings, the smaller insectoid things, the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Lady Liberty’s decapitation all look very real. While I was impressed by all of this, I had to admire Blair Witch even more for its restraint due to lack of budget. Everything creepy in that movie took place in your head, with suggestion filling your brain with images more disturbing than anything the filmmakers could show you. Cloverfield holds back a little (which insures the PG-13 rating), but ultimately shows you the entire shark.

Due to the nature of presentation (and “real time” span), some things don’t work so well. Character development is virtually nil, which is what you’d expect if you actually hung out with someone for 90 minutes. While things do tend to feel “real” you also have to wonder why the characters don’t drop the camera and run like hell when a thirty story mutant creepie is breathing down their necks. The also movie feels too long. There are several false endings that lessen in power each time one takes place. While these may have been implemented to pad the running length, it doesn’t work so well (especially when Rob pauses to tell us what we’ve just seen), and just brings the movie to a stop.

Cloverfield is a curiosity, a one-note genre movie that kinda thrills, but in the end left me empty. It’s great to cast unknowns so that you don’t know who will live or die, but not investing in them as characters makes me not even care. The monster does look cool, but without fleshed-out people to eat, is left hungry for more. And so are we.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Film Flap Turns One

Okay, so I've been doing this for a year now, and instead of celebrating something really original, it's time for the one year rehash of old posts! I admit that my original purpose of this blog was to build an audience for a web movie/serial release, but have calmed down a bit. I'm no longer concerned with posting every day, and rabidly trying to increase traffic. Nope, I just want to maintain a good place for information that I'd like to read myself. With that said, here's some stuff you may or may not have read, that wasn't half bad...

Most Popular Posts:
More Canon HV20 Goodness
Five Things I Hate about Microbudget Movies
Airsoft Guns Make Great Prop Firearms
The Canon HV20: HD and More for $1000
Ten Ways to Make your Movie Great, from Ten who have Made Great Movies
How to Write a Movie for the Sci-fi Channel in Six Easy Steps
Cheap Special Effects Explosion

Stuff I Thought Was Worthwhile That No One Read:
Five Things I Love about Microbudget Movies
Promoting your Film with a Titillating Title
The ARKOFF Formula (the full 6 part series)
Is Filmmaking a Young Person's Game?
Write your Screenplay from the Inside Out
Getting your Hooks into the Viewer

Enjoy, and leave a comment about what you'd like to see more (or less) of on this blog. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Does 'Cloverfield' Lower Standards or Raise Them?



Like many of the movie going public, I went to see the J.J. Abrams backed Cloverfield, which follows a small group of people via camcorder as they endure an attack on New York City by a Godzilla wannabe. The film cobbles together many influences, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999) which also used a documentary POV style, but is more successful because it leaves much more to the imagination.

Cloverfield is an interesting experiment, and considering the record-setting box office, is one that paid off. My first reaction was that this looked like a no budget film made with real money (the $25 million must have gone for effects and military hardware), which taps into lapsing production expectations due to the YouTube phenomenon, as well as a tried-and-true genre element: the monster movie.

While the movie is passable, I have to wonder what kind of influence on the younger up and comers a film like this possesses. I hate the shaky-cam "style" when used for an entire film, but it seems to be all the rage these days (see The Bourne Ultimatum), but Cloverfield goes one step further by completely losing control of it's camera, not only to demonstrate an everyman effect, but to obscure the monster(s) at critical times. I'm fine with that, but also have to wonder if younger kids will ignore classic technique for the quick and dirty. It's fine when it has a purpose, but seems to be par for the course for lazy filmmakers who can even bring themselves to use a tripod. As as result, what happens to things like lighting, audio, and acting?

To it's credit, Cloverfield does cheat quite a bit. It's pretty obvious that we're not looking through a real consumer camcorder. The images are too sharp and the sound too good (and in Dolby 5.1 no less!) for it to be the real thing. So before you grab your Flip camera and set out to make a feature, remember that while you can get away with a lot, there is no cheap alternate for character and story, something even Cloverfield only gets half right.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cinema Salad for January One Eight, Oh Eight

Q&A with Metacafe's Erick Hachenburg
Ever wonder what it takes to make some cash on one of the best sites for content creators? CamcorderInfo recently interviewed Metacafe's CEO, and he divulges some good advice for those looking to make some bank. He talks about how to get on the homepage, how the payout works, and what the review process is. Some folks have done very well with their stuff (like KipKay), and these are some good tips on how the rest of us can do the same.

J.J. Abrams and his Mystery Box
[Courtesy Indy Mogul] Writer/Director wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Mission Impossible 3) gives a great speech over at TED Talks that covers some great topics such as character investment, using what you don't see, and how magic relates to storytelling. A natural performer, Abrams is fun to watch, is very funny, and shares some great anecdotes and history of his creations. Make sure you stick around for the very end when he shares a no-budget trick he used on MI:3. It's something any of us could pull off.

Navigating the Digital Divide
Micro-friend Lance Weiler (Head Trauma, The Workbook Project) has a fantastic article in the most recent issue of Filmmaker magazine about digital distribution. It has to be one of the most comprehensive sources on the subject I've seen, and is loaded with good information. Anyone thinking about distributing any of their work needs to read this and keep it handy, because you will be referring to it more than once. Aspects of this piece are scattered all over the web, but I'm grateful that Lance could bring it all together so well in an organized fashion.

$30 Chainsaw Arm and Hilarious Short
I've mentioned the goofballs at Indy Mogul before, but stopped when I slapped their video episodes into my sidebar (where it still resides). Their tips on low budget effects are always entertaining, but their test film using an Evil Dead style chainsaw arm had me in stitches. By far their best work since the "Laser Death Duel" sequence in How to Build a Big Effing Gun, you have to check it out. If you are a familiar with Sam Raimi's early stuff, you'll laugh hard, but you can equally appreciate Eric's extremity-enhanced IT expert. Groovy!

Microcinema Scene is Back Up!
And with a shiny new coat of paint, too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Juno


Surly Temple

Unique voices at the multiplex seem rare these days. With the past year full of sequels and remakes, it’s always nice when a true indie pokes out its colorful head and gets real distribution. Juno is such a film, a movie with a character and charm all its own. Filled with fun dialogue, great performances and compelling characters to propel it forward, it is a film worth seeing. I don’t think it’s as great as all the hype surrounding it, but it still makes for a solid view.

Free thinker Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is sixteen years old and pregnant. After changing her mind about abortion, she locates the perfect couple who could adopt her baby: the well-to-do Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). In the meantime, she tries to keep a good relationship with boyfriend/father Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), her dad (J.K. Simmons), stepmom (Alison Janney) and best friend (Olivia Thirlby). Another friendship develops as she gets closer to dad-to-be Mark, who is pretty cool for an older guy. When things don’t go as expected, can Juno maintain her upbeat attitude and snappy one-liners?

The first thing you’ll notice about Juno is the writing. Penned by first time screenwriter Diablo Cody, Juno exists in that world where everybody is quirky and witty and clever. Sometimes this can be off-putting and phony, but it works here. Juno is your basic smart-alec who speaks in pop culture references and snarky put downs. She’s still a kid, however, and it is refreshing when the wall of her sarcasm drops, that she’s a vulnerable teenager that doesn’t know everything and has real feelings. The screenplay reflects this, and as things become more real, so does the dialogue. It’s also a credit to Cody that she gives everyone three dimensions, not just the leads.

The acting here is first rate, and everyone is excellent. Ellen Page is simply perfect as the well beyond her years title character, and she proves that her strong work in Hard Candy (2006) was no fluke. She absolutely nails this part, with her pixie face showing all kinds of emotion and range, underplaying everything. The rest of the cast is equally as committed, with one of my favorite character actors Simmons (Spider-Man 3) shining as dad Mac MacGuff (the way he delivers lines like “dating in your condition is pretty...messed up” is hysterical), and Cera (Superbad) who could play the awkward nerd in his sleep.

Did I mention the movie was funny? There are some genuine laughs here, many of them born from the expressions on faces, and wry observation, not slapstick. There are no gross-out jokes, although the film is a bit crude, much like the cynical Juno. I loved the fact that Juno has a malfunctioning hamburger phone, and that Bleeker’s one vice is orange Tic-Tacs. Many jokes are based on pop culture knowledge, so those in the know will be chuckling more than those who aren’t.

While Juno does a lot of things right, there are a few things that held it back for me. The main one has to be the somewhat flippant attitude the movie takes toward teen pregnancy. Since there is a turn toward more seriousness, Juno opens the door for this issue to be handled in a more serious manner, which it doesn’t. The baby is basically a plot device, and no one seems truly impacted or made responsible for their actions. Life goes on and we can all just forget about this little bump in the road. I expected more from of movie of this quality, but the film didn’t give it to me. As a result, there seemed to be an underlying sadness that lingers throughout this movie, one that I couldn’t ignore.

Despite this, Juno is a good movie. It is funny and unusual and thoughtful, and Ellen Page hits one out of the park. Diablo Cody is worth following, and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) didn’t choke on his sophmore feature. Some have referred to Juno as the “female Napolean Dynamite”, but watch out if you adhere to that label. Juno is smarter and more streetwise than that film, and while it may not make teen pregnancy look so bad, it will make you think and smile at the same time.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cinema Salad on One, Eleven, Oh Eight

How to Afford Anything (including a movie budget)
There a few things more empowering than financing your own flick. You don't answer to anyone, and you make your own rules. This prospect can be tricky, but photographer Ken Rockwell has a great post about how to hack your life so you can afford what you really want. It's all about frugality, with so many good ideas that I won't even try to go into them here. Just click on the link and learn what you can sacrifice for the creative greater good. There are no more excuses.

Omaha Beach on the Cheap
[Courtesy Indy Mogul, ProLost] Now here's something really inspiring. Want to duplicate Spielberg's D-day invasion from Saving Private Ryan with few resources? No problem! Just check out this video that quickly details how some enterprising types did just that for a BBC special. The results are very impressive and fall in line with Stu Maschwitz's (author of The DV Rebel's Guide) philosophy of using time instead of money to achieve quality results. Of course you'll need some extensive compositing and 3D knowledge, but what do you want, the moon?

Originality Doesn't Make Great Drama
While their posts over at $1000 Film are less frequent these days, when they do write, it is well worth reading. This time out, Clive comments about the misnomer of indies trying to be so "original" (and treating convention with disdain) that they end up shooting themselves in the foot. There is much to be learned from those who have gone before and ignoring things that have worked for decades is just plain foolish. This isn't to say you can't bend the rules, Clive adds, but just that there should be a reason for doing so, and not just maverick pride. People may not "get" your stuff because it's just not gettable, no matter how original it may be. A very good object lesson we can all learn from.

Good luck with those actors this weekend...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Could a Digital SLR be your Future Video Camera?

Casio has pulled an impressive rabbit out of their hats at this years' Consumer Electronics Show. The EX-F1 is a digital SLR still camera that has some impressive features that a filmmaker would love, including true slow motion that can record at an astonishing 1200 frames per second! Sure, the resolution is dropped considerably, but slower frame rates are very usable albeit in Standard Definition. Casio seems to be onto something here, and future cameras from them (or others) could turn into a sub-$1000 super camera for a number of reasons other than the slow-mo hook.

It can shoot in full HD resolutions. We should all be shooting in HD, and any camera that does this is worth looking into. Even if you plan on producing content for YouTube, you can always scale down material to fit that format. That way, you'll always have an HD master that you can use in the future for HD projection or download or sharing or DVD (whichever format wins) or whatever. I'm not sure of the real quality of the EX-F1 (it records compressed MOVs), but even if it doesn't look good now, it soon will.

It records to SD memory cards. Tape is a quickly dying format, and the next wave is definately recording directly to a file that you can just drag into your editor. Granted, shooting any decent amount of time in HD is going to require larger memory cards, but as prices continue to drop, it will be a moot point, even for those on a very small budget. Even if you have a limited supply, offloading to a computer is a fast and painless process. Just take care, and backup valuable footage.

It uses a real (non-detachable) 35mm lens. There are several companies (like Cinevate) that are selling adapters that allow you use 35mm still lenses on your video camera. These devices create true depth of field, and make for more cinematic results. These are also very expensive, and at around $1200 (which doesn't include the price of the lens) often cost more than the camera you are using. The EX-F1 has a real 35mm lens built in, and as a result, should also have real depth of field, all at a price less than one of these adapters. If future models feature a camera body that can accept multiple lenses, watch out!

It sports a mic input. This is real evidence that Casio is going after the filmmaker--you can record audio via an external microphone. There are many products that will allow quality microphones to plug into this little jack, opening up a wealth of audio options. While there doesn't seem to be an headphone jack for monitoring, or any indication of manual audio control, it is a very good sign.

While the Casio EX-F1 doesn't seem to be the "everything box" I'm wishing for (and it won't even be available until April for inspection), it seems to be a very good sign that amazing things will soon be possible at a very affordable price. Give me a digital SLR that shoots HD to a card, records slow motion in HD, uses interchangeable glass and features real video camera manual controls and options for under 1k, and you'll have one very loyal customer.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Cinema Salad on Friday, January Four, 2008

I know it has been awhile since I've posted anything, and I apologize to all those who enjoy reading this blog (you are out there, right?), but life can sometimes take over and needs addressing. I am returning to some sort of normal schedule, so I hope to go back to a more consistent 2-3 posts per week, with information that should be worth reading. With that said, here are some links from the past few days that have caught my attention...

Best and Worst Online Marketing Gimmicks
[Courtesy CinemaTech] The L.A. Times has published an excellent article on some methods movie studios have used to get some viral attention. The first (and best) is the Simpsonizer, which allowed millions (including me) to create Simspons characters out of an uploaded picture. Several different examples are cited, as well as if they worked or not to increase box office returns. Granted, we don't have these kinds of budgets, but there are some good ideas in this mix that could help us promote our own films. We can make websites too, you know!

How to become Popular on YouTube without any Talent
Kevin Nalts of Will Video for Food is releasing a free e-book that chronicles his foray into the viral video world, and how he succeeded at it. I haven't had a chance to peruse the entire thing yet, but this soft-release (an official one is supposed to come out today) has lots of great info that can help anyone trying to break out of their viral shell. A lot of it is common sense, and may not be anything new to the experienced, but those not in the know will benefit greatly.

HD Quality on YouTube
[Courtesy DVXUser] Speaking of the video sharing monolith, someone name goyomora has posted a video that details a nifty trick to get your HD video to look like HD video on the Tube. It plays funky with the player (the time of your video is incorrect), and requires you to download some (free) software, but the results are pretty impressive. I don't have an HD cam yet, and my attempts with good SD footage looked pretty terrible. Check out this clip shot with a Canon HV20 and you'll see what is possible. Not bad.

The New World of Immersive Games
While I've mentioned before how Alternate Reality Games can be a great marketing tool, Wired magazine probes the idea of ARGs going beyond this nefarious purpose and actually becoming it's own form of storytelling. It's a pretty compelling article, complete with it's own game built right into it. I still think that these are great for pushing your film, but another use is to incorporate your filmmaking skills to push the game. These are "movies of the mind" after all, and there are a lot of exciting possibilities here. The article is quite long, but it's pretty cool as well.

This Conference is being Recorded looks at 2007
In this two part podcast, Lance Weiler talks with Scott Kirsner (of CinemaTech) and Woody Benson about some of the important changes that occurred in the past year. There's a lot of technobabble, but some interesting points are made that can apply to us low budgeters. A couple of my favs are the awareness that content made for the internet must be different than just ported TV content, and that cell phones are with almost every person and are the last bastion of video distribution. I like the ideas presented here and look forward to part two of Lance's retrospective.

Have a great weekend.

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