Pitfalls of Shooting Digital

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Now that digital has more or less caught up to shooting on film, though some purists will still argue that digital isn’t quite there yet and that film looks better, we see many of the constraints of working with film gone, only to be replaced with problems of a new sort.

Exhausting the actors.

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When mags of film would roll out and require a reload, directors were forced to better plan what they wanted and then do their best to capture it efficiently. Unless you were a big production, the cost of film alone prevented doing massively long takes and shooting a dozen different angles just to have more to play with in the edit. Indecisiveness and lack of clear vision was shunned. Unfortunately now with the leeway of digital, we see dozens of takes from a multitude of angles as clarity of vision is often replaced with a wing-it “let’s try this” approach. Actors love to get to try different things, and many times that produces pure gold, but when this new flexibility is abused, actors can get worn down. An entire day shooting a 3 page scene over and over and over would tire even the most seasoned actor, and performances start to drop off. Then there’s crew. They get far less turnaround between days than actors do (9 hours on stage and 10 hours on location, including drive time home and back to work the next day… Teamsters only get 8) and safety and productivity can suffer greatly as your crew wears out. nap on set

Running up the budget.

Another problem stemming from the overshooting/underplanning issue is one directors often ignore, but one that keeps producers awake at night. Budget.

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Paying an entire crew for those extra few hours tacked on to each day because of a less constrained process can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour. IATSE film crews get time and a half after 8 hours, which they almost always go past. Once you pass 12 hours your crew goes into double-time. If you go long, you’ve essentially hired an entire second crew (money-wise) for each hour you go over, yet you still get the output of one crew, and that’s an increasingly tired crew at that. Then factor in meal penalties (a union crew must be broken for meals every 6 hours, otherwise they are paid a penalty every half hour, which can really add up) and costs skyrocket. One way to avoid running long is by tacking on additional days to keep the overtime low, but we’ve seen in countless times, if you give an extra few days leeway, the 10 hour days will still often creep up to 14 or 16 hours, and now you’ll just have more of those overtime days rather than actually cutting costs.  Adult Supervision (i.e. a producer with balls to stand up to the director when need be) is vital on a set where money is an issue.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 1.21.05 PMIf you’re shooting on location, you may have to pay the location, neighbors, traffic control, security, rental bathrooms, and other equipment for extended hours as well. Long story short(ish), if you don’t rein in your director the budget can go out the window.

Those poor editors.

I worked a project recently that shot back-to-back takes of 38 minutes and 42 minutes with two cameras operating. That’s 160 minutes of footage shot in 80 minutes of work. These were unusually long takes, but are indicative of what can happen when a director goes off-book. The five most dangerous words in Hollywood are, “Hey, I have an idea.”

Marx Bros editors

If a director shoots with two cameras and averages three 10 minute takes per setup, then shoots sixteen setups per day on a 30 day shoot, you’re looking at (roughly) 16 hours of footage a day, or 480 hours of footage at the end of 30 days. That’s a month of non-stop viewing on an 18 hour day schedule, not including the actual act of editing.

Now consider that continuous rolls means no slate to break up the action and mark a moment. Unless the director is very good at telling the script supervisor which moments they really like on the fly as they happen, the director and editor will later have to re-watch all that footage to find what they want to use, searching for that needle in a haystack. Amusingly I’ve heard from several editors that almost always in this situation the director will use the first take that they come across that they like, even if there may have been something amazing further down the line.   needle haystack man

I love digital. I believe digital opens up many opportunities to be creative and efficient, but it is also important to not allow the benefits of shooting digital be erased by poor filming practices. Directors need adult supervision to keep them from shooting 2 hours of insert shots of hands from 7 different angles. I’ve seen a director (who happened to be the showrunner, so he got away with it) shoot multiple masters from different angles. The guy had so little clue how to shoot or what he wanted, he was just getting a master, then closer, then closer, then closer from every angle. no_idea_by_workisnotajobIt was a shit-show and the actors (not to their head honcho’s face of course) were even breaking composure and bitching about it.

Use digital as the amazing tool it is, but plan ahead and use it well. If you treat digital like film and follow at least some of the same production practices (for the most part, after all, flexibility of digital is a big plus) then you should still be quite able to shoot excellent material at a much lower cost in terms of money, time, and frustration, than film.

Lastly, Always Remember the 5 P’s: 

ProperPlanning

Talking Underpants Make the Semi-Finals!

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A little while back a short script collaboration with my dear Scottish friend Gillian Hay was a quarter finalist in the Shore Scripts Shorts Competition. Adding to that happy event, we just learned we were semi-finalists in the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition.

To the wonderfully quirky Ms. Hay I must give hearty thanks for springing such an unusual and fun story from her bonny noggin. ‘Twas a pleasure to write and I’m thrilled the judges enjoyed the read.

After all, who wouldn’t want talking knickers?

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If you’d care to give our little tale of talking underpants a read, here’s a link.Audrey’s Knickers

Entertainment, a New Youth-Driven Paradigm

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Adaptation is something species do over many generations, but in the entertainment industry, especially in recent years, advances in viewing technology have been arriving at a speed that seems to outpace many attempts to keep up. If adaptation in this arena is too slow, any such slowly adapting product or service will rapidly find itself in the crosshairs of something beyond simply being forced to change faster, namely the likelihood of a newcomer providing a stand-alone replacement.

In the current booming environment of startups and tech-pioneers, if a solution to a problem doesn’t exist, rather than wait for that product or service to be rolled out by the establishment, people are now far more capable of putting in some effort and sweat to build it themselves, often creating a livelihood providing to others what they originally made for themselves. This is even more true today than in the past as huge segments of the younger population are shaping the discussion by simply ignoring what they are told they can and cannot do and are instead just doing it to a level that would make Nike proud.

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Now how does this tie in to entertainment? We all know that the largest segment of traditional “Hollywood” is still largely run by well-entrenched establishment executives with long track records and huge budgets, but it seems they are often not doing terribly well at keeping up with changes in the market. What they see as “emerging trends” to study and track, I would rather tend to call paradigm shifts in production, distribution, and viewing.

There is now a generation that has never had to watch a full-length commercial. A group who doesn’t watch movies in theaters, but rather on giant home entertainment systems with incredible sound systems. And of course the portable content viewers, for whom watching a video or show on their laptop, tablet, or even cell phone is as natural as walking to class. To them those statements are obvious and self-evident, but to the less bleeding edge execs, what is as plain as day to younger people often needs to be spelled out for the older ones.

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The thing is, much of the content younger audiences are being marketed from main stream sources still comes from those who watch movies in theaters, who grew up on a few dozen channels of TV, and who are reluctant to let go of the old way of thinking that several minute commercials blocks breaking up a show is the natural way to pay for production.

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The marketplace is full of people who have, in their pockets, access 24/7 to a huge variety of content, most of it largely if not entirely commercial free. The commercials they do find themselves forced to sit through are tiny snippets and not 2-4 minute blocks. YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo and the like offer bite-size entertainment with minimal ad interruptions, and much of it is produced by peers rather than out of touch studio heads.

It is likely that for the foreseeable future there will continue to be a solid demand for high-end, high-production value product. Even with home studio technology, you just can’t produce The Avengers or Harry Potter on a C-300 or GoPro, but there are a ton of great films and programs being made for a limited budget which have surprisingly good production value. Conversely, free is not always better, and a lot of really bad filler material is out there as well. While quality sometimes rises to the top, the sheer amount of product out there requires a bit of sifting to discover the hidden gems. Fortunately an active social media network can help steer like-minded people to entertainment they’d likely enjoy. We saw it happen with music, and it is happening more and more with other entertainment as well.

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Anyone with a camera can make a short, shoot a movie, or put out a show, and many of the more talented content creators make a very good living off of viewer donations and views/ad revenue shares. The donation aspect is particularly worth noting. If you produce a product people like, the younger generation has really latched onto something great, namely supporting the content you like directly. I don’t only mean a Go Fund Me or Kickstarter campaign, but just chipping in on a case by case basis. A dollar a month to support a show you enjoy times several thousand supporting viewers can effectively let the viewing audience become the defacto producers of a show. It’s crowd sourcing at its best. No middle men re-directing funds to their pet projects, no great shows canceled by an out of touch executive (ahem, Firefly). The audience speaks with their dollars, and when directly helping those who give them what they enjoy for less than the price of a cup of coffee, many have no qualms about chipping in and supporting shows they enjoy.

Just look at how successful Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion were with their crowdfunded series Con Man.

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Yup, they raised over $3 million on their Indiegogo campaign.

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A final thing to consider is that with GoPro and Blackmagic making amazing and affordable cameras that shoot amazing HD footage and are within reach of a lot of aspiring directors and cinematographers, it is rapidly becoming a time when anyone can become a content creator, and what will set them apart is no longer the ability to somehow afford a great camera but rather the eye and skill of the shooter behind it.

Short Script Collaboration: Audrey’s Knickers

Shore Scripts Laurel

Knickers: (N) \nikərz\

Def: A woman’s or girl’s underpants (which may or may not have magical properties).

So recently my dear friend Gillian Hay  (link to her Spotlight page)

a bloody amusing Scottish actress, songwriter and all-around great gal, shared a short story of hers with me. It was a funny little tale she had whipped up about a girl with an abundance of hope but also an abundance of bad luck when it comes to men. That is, until she is visited by a pair of mysterious, talking underpants.

It was absurd and amazing, so needless to say, I was hooked. We laughed excessively at the madness that tends to spring from her mind (even moreso than most Scottish people, and that’s saying a lot), and after the revelry finally diminished, we decided to collaborate and see what would come of it. Ultimately we made some tweaks and additions here and there, fleshed certain parts of the story a bit more, and then I sat down and banged out a short screenplay adaptation of her brain-child, which got us all the way to the quarter finals in the Shore Scripts Screenplay Competition (yay us!) Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 6.13.15 PM

If you’d care to give our little tale of talking underpants a read, here’s a link. Audrey’s Knickers

Living the Good Death – Scriptapalooza 2015 top 10 Runner up!

After scoring an 8 on The Blacklist, making the quarter-finals of Cinequest, achieving listing on Spec Scout with a 76.8 rating, and recently making it to the Scriptapalooza finals, my dark romantic dramedy Living the Good Death was just announced as a Runner Up (top 10 out of over 3,000 scripts) in the 2015 Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition.   

Needless to say I’m thrilled and honored the competition’s readers enjoyed my little tale about a quirky young woman claiming to be Death incarnate who finds herself locked in an insane asylum. That they liked it enough to warrant a top-10 ranking… well let’s just say those heart-cockles or mine are certainly warmed.

Ya know, they say writing is re-writing, and Living the Good Death has certainly gone though many revisions before arriving at the draft we have today, and it’s been a fun, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding process. So what does this particular bit of good tidings mean? Why it means it’s time to do exactly what I was doing when I heard the news… keep working on the next script in the pipeline. Writing is like a shark in the ocean… keep moving or drown.  That and it’s just so darn enjoyable.

Here’s hoping the next one will be as much fun to write and as well received. 

Don’t Be A Boring Shirt

I was at the laundromat and noticed something that I thought was an interesting parallel to screenplays these days.

The preponderance of boring shirts.

Oh there were blue striped ones, blue plaid ones, and of course various shades of good old blue, but as I scanned the racks it really struck me just how many variations of the same plain shirt people were having cleaned. Of course there were also beige and white shirts, gray and black coats, but near everyone, it seems, has “safe” blue shirts. What also stood out was that as the electric conveyer rack spun by, once in a while a shirt with color would pass, catching the eye and standing out. With so many trying to play safe & by the rules, the different one was easy to pick out. With thousands of screenplays written every year, the parallel is clear. Make yours the one that catches the eye.

Screenwriters often follow templates and guidelines when crafting their works, which is fine, but in a world where seemingly 99% are following the Save the Cat or similar formula (a bit too strictly for many), those who can work with structure yet offer something different, something that makes a reader pause and say, “wait, that’s unique” are the ones who stand out from the pack. Sometimes it’s a bright red shirt, but sometimes it’s just a thread of color that turns an otherwise plain piece of cloth into a fascinating design. Strive for fascinating, keep readers entertained.

Now obviously this doesn’t mean go write a script with charcoal and crayon on the hides of animals you killed with nothing but a fountain pen. That’s different alright (and pretty awesome if you actually used only a pen), but not what we’re talking about. The thing is to create a story that fits in the basic rules yet doesn’t plod along predictably from a-z. Everyone will have a different way to do this, but when reviewing your draft, look at it as though you were a reader tasked with slogging through 200 scripts a year. Are you more or less writing what everyone else is (within your own story naturally) or are you writing outside the box? What makes yours stand out? Ask yourself that question on a regular basis and you may just find yourself rising above the cookie-cutter mire of uninspiring scripts.

Screenwriting: When Less is More

Brevity.  Clarity.  Subtext.

In reading the work of some of the more influential screenwriters of the last few decades, one thing (with a few exceptions) holds true across the board. These top-tier writers are both thrifty with their use of words, yet also able to convey so much more than most with the words they commit to the page. Sure, every writer knows about subtext, yet some are true experts at crafting dialogue and descriptives that can fill a reader’s mind with a full-frame of information from just a few brief lines.

The Script Lab

Be Clear. Be Concise. Be Creative.

The Script Lab recommends “The Three C’s” as a simple guideline to keep in mind. Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m not a believer in following cut & dry methods (and don’t get me started on Save the Cat), but I do believe “The Three C’s” is actually a useful and easy to remember tool when you find yourself questioning if something is perhaps too wordy, too vague, or too bland.

For an example, let’s turn to arguably the most well known script from the legendary William Goldman. I’ll link the shooting script (there’s a bit more included in shooting scripts, such as direction for camera and whatnot, but you’ll get the idea). Look at the economy of words, the quality of words chosen, and the mental picture painted with them.

Goldman’s writing is a classic example of The Three C’s well before that was even a thing. His writing is Clear and Concise with not a wasted sentence as he crafts the world, the scene, and the dialogue, yet even his shortest of lines has that Goldman Creativity. The man had a way with words, on that we can all agree. If anyone says otherwise, I have but one word for them…

Inconceivable!

For further insight into screenwriting, as well as occasional amusing nuggets, The Bitter Script Reader Twitter feed can provide an enjoyable barrage of quips and commentary that are often surprisingly on-point.

He’s been an industry script reader for a decade and his exchanges with fellow readers can be downright hilarious. You’ll likely notice that followers of the “more is more” and “fill the page, let the reader figure it out” school of writing tend to be pet peeves of the pro-reader crowd. In other words, the pros tend to agree, Less is More more often than not.