Future Man: Actors as Directors–Sometimes it works

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On occasion, I am privy to things in the course of my day job working as an on-set medic. I am the fly on the wall on film and television sets, there in case something bad happens, but, more often than not, just handing out Advil and Band Aids. This situation affords me the opportunity to observe multiple aspects of production life that most people don’t get to witness. I’ll not be getting into any deep, dark secrets or juicy gossip here (we all sign hefty non-disclosure agreements before every shoot), but having recently worked on a show with a well-known actor directing, I did want to give credit where credit is due.

Most people know Seth Rogen as a jolly, bearded stoner guy from myriad comedies. His laugh and voice are unmistakable, and his delivery is unique. Less-known (the joy of being behind-the-scenes) is his writing/producing/directing partner, Evan Goldberg, a childhood friend with whom he has worked for years. Superbad? He wrote it. Sausage Party? Likewise. The guy has pretty substantial comedy chops, is my point. When these two work together, it’s a rare situation where the separate elements of a team truly do function as a complementary unit.danny-mcbride-evan-goldberg-seth-rogen

The other day I was called to cover a few shifts on the upcoming Hulu show Future Man, a comedy starring Josh Hutcherson as a janitor and world-class gamer who is chosen by mysterious beings to travel through time to prevent mankind’s extinction. I’d never heard of it (there is always something new in the works in LA) but from what I saw in my short stint on the show, it looks to be damn funny, with awesome action to boot. And that’s what I wanted to discuss.

A lot of actors and writers with a track record in those areas are given directing gigs as appeals to their vanity, but with no real skill or experience in that role backing the decision. thumbnail-cdeab255fd2375819b7c0ffd286c57b4When that happens, more often than not, the director of photography steps in and does the heavy lifting while the neophyte director sits back and takes the credit.

This was not the case with Seth and Evan.

I cannot tell you (okay, I can, since I am writing this after all) how refreshing it was to witness such a smoothly-functioning team. This was an instance where both individuals worked in symbiosis, effortlessly communicating tweaks and adjustments to actors and department heads as needed, and all while getting a metric shit-ton of work done. For those in the industry, I’ll say this: 48 setups in a day. With action. With stunts. With effects. With kids. With a technocrane. For those not in the industry, here’s a translation: Holy shit that’s a lot of work crammed into a day.Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 6.32.40 AM

When a director knows what they want, can clearly explain what they need, and has the confidence to move on after a single take if they got their shot… well, it’s a beautiful thing. Seth and Evan accomplished that with style, and it was amazing to see. I’ve been in the industry a long time, and let me tell you, it’s rare to see this efficiency. What made it stand out was the utter confidence in their vision, as well as faith in their team. DP Cort Fey and his camera team (awesome folks with whom I worked previously on The Last Ship) are rock stars, and the communication and trust on display was a master class in how you’d like to see directors, actors, and camera all fit together like a well-tuned engine.

Complex action shots were nailed in one take. Not only because the talent and crew achieving them were skilled (they most certainly are), but also because Seth and Evan knew when they got what they needed. None of the dreaded time and morale killing phrases like, “Great, one more!” Or, “Perfect! One more for safety!” No. When they got it, they moved on to the next shot. A sign of a confident director, and quite a contrast from those who waste buckets of money shooting twenty takes of every size and every angle just because they don’t know what they want/need. It’s enough to drive any editor mad.eiseinstein_1928_editing_octoberAnd let me tell ya, I’ve seen the worst of that first-hand on other gigs. Like the unnamed showrunner who can write and produce, but certainly not direct (though his staff would never tell him even as he went $250k over budget in a single day.) Or the music video director given a feature… only to work the crew to death with his indecisiveness as he literally played other directors’ films on his laptop behind the camera to try to copy shots as he went.

To Seth and Evan I must give massive kudos. kudos-barThey seem like really quality dudes who also happen to be rock-solid in their behind-the-lens skills. As a crewmember who has seen a lot, working with such positive energy people who were also really good at what they do… well, despite the long hours, it was an absolute joy. That goofy stoner dude is a really good director. Who knew?

Now go see Future Man when it comes out later this year. It looks like it’ll be a blast, and I say that as a guy with zero fucks to give when it comes to critique. I have no horse in this race, it just looks like a cool show. I hope they prove me right.

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Sometimes the Day Job takes over

While most of us would rather pursue our deepest passions every day of the week. For me, that’s writing, be it oddball short story collections, novels, or even screenplays, but from time to time it becomes necessary to dip one’s toes back into the waters of the dreaded, “Working for Someone Else.” This usually means little time for writing, as television and film production, more often than not, leads to 14 or more hour days. Sometimes, however, the end result is so good it’s worth it.

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Oh yes. Weeks of sleep later, I’ve recovered from my recent gig for FX and I have to say, it is shaping up to be a really good show. If you’ve ever been interested in the origins of crack cocaine in 1980’s Los Angeles, John Singleton’s Snowfall is the show for you. Check out the FX trailer.

It’s coming July 5th, so please, give it a try. We put a LOT of hours into it, and the entire cast and crew sincerely hope you’ll enjoy it.

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.”

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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: 

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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.

Amazing Script Reads for Aspiring Screenwriters

Internet advice is flung at you just about everywhere you turn, but how about just providing a few really good examples of excellent, tight, and well-structured screenwriting? That’s what I’m putting up today, a pair of really well-written scripts. I hope you enjoy them.

First is a recent 2014 Blacklist feature screenplay titled Bird Box. While the genre may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and people certainly argue over the story itself, no one I’ve spoken with disputes the quality of the writing. I highly suggest giving it a read.

Next is from TV-Land, Jon Bokenkamp’s pilot of the TV series “The Blacklist” (not to be confused with Franklin Leonard’s Blacklist). It’s a show that is impressive in both scope and pacing, with writing that is really top-notch. If you want to see why this was the best testing-rated pilot in the past 10 years at NBC then I suggest you take a gander.

I hope these inspire you. I know personally after the rush of reading these faded, I was quite motivated to get back to the keyboard and start cranking out more pages.

Surprise, High School Actually Prepares You for the World of Television Production

You’re 17 years old. Life is amazeballs, there are tons of fun things you and your friends want to do, but at the end of first period you walk out the door with an hour of homework assigned to you. “No problem” you think, “I can bang out an hour and still see my friends.”  Then you head to second period.

Another hour of homework.

Then you head to third period.  Lather, rinse, repeat, until by the end of the day you’ve got a workload that may just take you until the wee hours of the morning to complete, effectively barring you from post-school activities and any semblance of sleep or a real life.  Funny thing is that unlike the actual lessons being learned, the exhausting work schedule is preparing you to cope with another part of post-school existence for those hoping to enter the entertainment industry.

A bunch of higher-ups who think their homework is “just an hour” and who ignore the fact that there are five others assigning tasks who think the same way… Welcome to the world of television production.

In TV-land, directors will typically rotate through episodes, often having weeks or even months between their gigs. Same often goes for their right-hand men, who handle the scheduling duties for them.  They come to their episode fresh and vital, excited to make the best product possible.  Sure, it may mean a few 16 hour days, maybe working a Saturday or two, but it’s worth it for the art, right? Of course the crew will be OK with a few weeks of long hours, it’s only natural that everyone’s thrilled to be here even if the days get a bit long.

What is so often overlooked is the crew.  We the tired minions of production-land do not get weeks off. We are there day in and day out, often working 70+ hour weeks with a 10 or even 9 hour turnaround.  For those not in the industry, turnaround is the required time between wrap and crew call the next day. 9 hours may sound like a lot, but when you factor in driving to and from work, as well as little sanity-maintaining things like taking a shower or just sitting on your couch for a few minutes, people will often wind up surviving on 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night. Sometimes for a 6 day work-weeks. This can go on for months.

Not too long ago, I experienced a show that had people on a Monday through Saturday schedule for nearly a month while working 15 hour days. Finally one of the cast put their foot down and the insanity stopped, but if not for them, the crew would have been driven until they dropped like an overworked buggy horse. We were lucky to have actors who recognized the insanity and stood up for the more easily replaceable crew. And speaking of dropping from overwork, on another project one of the crew actually fell asleep and crashed their car on the way home. They didn’t die, which is why none of you heard about it, and hours finally tapered after that happened. It’s quite sad that it takes something so extreme to get the attention of the higher-ups. Even then it is often more a liability concern than a true concern for the welfare of the worker bees.

Union rules exist for a reason, but far too often people waive their “forced call” (you are paid a premium for getting less turnaround than required) to be “production friendly.”  The problem is this undermines the entire reason for those rules.  It’s not about making huge overtime, it’s about making the act of overworking your crew so expensive that the production won’t do it. Sadly they often just factor that into the budget these days.

Don’t let this all deter you from the industry.  It’s a great life most of the time and you’ll meet and work with some pretty amazing people. Just remember, if you are going to join us in TV-Land, someday you may thank your former teachers who worked you so hard, oblivious to the workload you were already under. They may have unintentionally prepared you for a career in entertainment.

The (Exhausting) Reality of Film Production

Film production is tiring. Everyone knows that, right?  But what exactly do we define as exhausting in our industry?

Most “civilians” work 8, sometimes 10 hours in a day. This is a “normal” work day for them. Industry folk on the other hand consider anything less than 12 hours to be a short day, and if you somehow miraculously work only 8 hours, it’s called an “8 and skate” as you breeze in and breeze out so quickly. I must apologize if this seems a bit disjointed, but I just worked 47 hours in 3 days, you see.

I was lucky enough to crew on one of the top scripted cable TV shows of the Summer, and this week production on season two started up again. Awesome people to work with, from the top down, but the hours can be a wee tad brutal. A 70 to 80 hour week is not impossible when things really need to be shot, though production does all they can to avoid those situations. Still, sometimes it happens, and when it does, you’re looking at working double the weekly hours of normal folks. You don’t know tired until you’ve had to finish work at 3am on Saturday morning, only to have a 5am call time on Monday.

Of course this is nothing compared to music videos. Those notoriously run 18 or more hours in a day.  Yes, 18+.  My personal longest was a 25 1/2 hour video shoot in the desert. One director actually did a 35 hour shoot, though we all wonder what quality you get at that point. Mind you he is one of the top directors in the world, but come on already, these hours are why people die driving home.

Why post this? Because the reality of production is often far less glamorous and incredibly more exhausting than people realize. I still recommend you follow your dreams and do all you can to get into the industry if that’s what you want, but just do so with your eyes open. Of course as you now realize, that’s something that gets increasingly difficult to do as the weeks pass. In fact my eyes can barely stay open right now.

Anyway, this is disjointed and I am dain bramaged, so methinks I’ll post and edit a bit later when the ol’ noggin is firing on more pistons.