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Filmmaking 101: Every Shot Answers a Question

A quick editing tip I sometimes find useful when I’m stuck trying to decide how to edit a scene: Sometimes it’s helpful to think of every shot as answering a question set up by the previous shot.

A simple example: let’s say you have a character who is surprised by something unexpected, and you need to decide whether to show the character’s surprise first and then cut to the thing she sees, or the other way around, show the unexpected thing first and then the character’s reaction to it.

In such a situation, try asking yourself which question you want the audience to ask: What is the character seeing that caused her reaction? Or, how is the character going to react when she sees it? This should help clarify the solution for you.

In The Art of Dreaming, when Maya wakes up and finds The Insect Queen in the room with her, I realized I wanted neither. I realized I wanted the audience to see at the exact moment that Maya does, so I cut to the shot of The Insect Queen on the exact frame that Maya’s eyeline lands on her.



Kim Production Diary: 5 Steps to Writing a Business Plan

Kim Production Diary

We’ve finished writing our business plan for Kim, the last step before we can seriously begin fundraising. It was an interesting process, and it forced us to think through 5 basic aspects of our production.

The first was figuring out how to define the film, and how to talk about it in a way that is both true to our vision and compelling enough to get people as excited about it as we are.

Practicing the “elevator pitch” with anyone willing to listen was really important, until the pitch was refined to a point where most people react to it with an enthusiastic “that sounds like a great film!”

The best bits of advice we found for this were: “describe in one sentence your story, and the twist that makes it different,” and “when you touch their hearts, they’ll open their checkbook.” We had to learn to describe our film succinctly in a way that is emotionally moving.

The second thing we had to work through for the business plan was a thorough and realistic budget for the film. To talk about that in detail would probably take a few blog posts, much more space than I have here today.

The third thing was to look at other similar films and see how they did financially. We looked at low-budget psychological science fiction films, that played down action and violence, as well as films that were more artistically oriented and films that played with the conflict of reality and fantasy. While this can’t give us any guarantee how Kim will perform, it can at least show us how it might do.

Fourth was to research and understand film marketing, and all the opportunities and challenges facing independent filmmakers today. We worked to identify our films assets – its strengths and the things that make it unique, then how to identify audiences that value those assets, and then how to contact and communicate with those audiences.

And fifth, was to look at the distribution options available for independent films. This proved the trickiest part, because it’s the thing most likely to change in the 12-18 months between now and when post-production is finished. We made an inventory of all the current distribution options, everything from VHX to Vimeo-on-Demand to iTunes to Tugg, to traditional theatrical distributors. We’ll have to continue monitoring and researching all options over the next year so we’ll be prepared when the film is finished and ready for release.

I hope you found this quick overview of our process for writing a business plan interesting, and helpful if you’re working on your own film. For us, it’s on to raising the money to make Kim, More on that as the process proceeds.



Rebel Seed’s Film Insights Podcast

I just found a great podcast for independent filmmakers: Rebel Seed.

Their Film Insights series features really amazing advice on marketing, fundraising, and distribution for indie films. It’s all very specific and very practical. I’m finding these podcasts extremely useful as we ramp up for production on Kim. Knowledge is power.

http://www.rebelseedfilms.com/rebelseedpodcast/



Kim Production Diary: Making a Budget, Fundraising and Business Plans

Kim Production Diary

Been crunching numbers lately, but before I go on, I’ll define a few terms for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of film production.

Pre-production is the time spent preparing the film before the actual shoot, this includes writing the script, hiring the crew, auditioning, casting, and rehearsing the actors, finding locations, rasing money, and whatever preparations we need for the camera crew and the art, props and sets.

Production is the time when the cameras are rolling and we’re shooting the picture.

Post-Production is everything that happens after the shoot. Editing, composing the music, doing the sound design and sound editing, festival submissions, marketing, and distribution of the final film, etc.

At this stage of Pre-production, Leeah and I have been working to finalize our Budget, Fundraising Plan and Business Plan, three essentials for proceeding with the production. With these three key components, we’re trying to answer these questions:

The Fundraising Plan: how are we going to raise the money for Kim?

The Budget: How are we going to spend the money once we get it?

The Business Plan: How are we planning to make the money back once the film is made?

Investors and funders will certainly want to see the Budget and Business Plans before they contribute money, but they’ll probably also be interested in seeing the Fundraising plan to make sure that our plans are solid and we’ll be able to raise the rest of the money for the production.

As we finish up the Budget, some of the issues we’re facing are trying to nail down the locations and the costs for the locations, deciding the size of the crew we’ll need on set as well as the length of the shoot, and deciding how many paid pre-production days we’ll have for the actors, the art department, and camera crew. We also need to include money in the busget for post-production or be forced into a second round of funding after the film is shot, as well as a little extra contingency money for unforeseen emergencies (usually about 10% of the budget).

Our Production Consultant, Jenna Payne, has been invaluable to the process, providing us much needed insight and guidance as we nail down the numbers. With her experience and expertise, she’s helped us cut expenses and helped us stay realistic in terms of what things will actually cost.



Filmmaking Resources Update

I haven’t updated the site for a while with any new resources for Independent Filmmakers. Here are some interesting sites and articles I’ve come across recently.

First off, here’s any amazing interview with Morrie Warshawski, author of Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video, on raising money for the arts, with a focus on independent films. It’s a little dated on internet stuff, but solid on the timeless aspects of fundraising.

Interview with Morrie Warshawski

Here’s some great advice on how to find name actors for low budget films.

13 Ways to Cast A-list Actors in Mcrobudget Films

Next up, is Film Freeway, a site filmmakers can use to submit to film Festivals. Created as an alternative to Without a Box, Film Freeway is always free for filmmakers (no added fees added to the festival submissions fee) and it has HD online screeners, unlike Without A Box whose online screeners look terrible.

Film Freeway

I linked to this in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating. It’s an article detailing how Tangerine, a hit at Sundance this year, was shot on the iPhone 5s. It’s essential that independent filmmakers start thinking creatively about how to save money and use their resources wisely.

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

Finally, here are some great tips from Mark and Jay Duplass for low budget filmmakers. I love their emphasis on the 250K film, both to retain control and to make sure your money is being used wisely.

This Is How You Do It: 10 Filmmaking Tips from Mark and Jay Duplass



Kim Production Diary 1

Kim Production DiaryAn ongoing series chronicling the production (pre, shoot, and post) of our new movie Kim.

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing diary of the production of our new movie, Kim, from pre-production, through the shoot and post-production.

We’re very much at the beginning of the pre-production stage right now, so it’s a perfect time to start a production journal. We’ve got our script, an 80-page feature. We’ve assembled a great team: myself (Bob) as Writer/Director, Producer Leeah Odom, Composer Lenny Gonzalez, Cinematographer Matthew Boyd, and Production Designer Elle Kunnos de Voss.

We have a website for the film that we will continue to develop as the production evolves.

Producer Leeah Odom and I are having weekly meetings either by phone or in person to discuss the film, review the previous week’s accomplishments, and set goals for the next week,

At this point, we’ve identified four key areas that we need to focus on.

1. Finalizing our budget and business plan, so we can start up our fundraising push.

2. Finding a location for the shoot.

3. Beginning to search for and audition the cast.

4. Create awareness and buzz about the project.

More on each of these as the weeks go by. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these insights and behind the scenes peek at the nuts and bolts of film production.



A Nonprofit Model for Independent Films?

Nick Toti has an interesting article over at Indiewire.com suggesting that independent filmmakers should start using a nonprofit model to raise money for their projects. When I first transitioned from experimental dance-theater to filmmaking, I was struck how films had developed a different funding model from the other arts. Whereas most arts groups fund themselves as Nonprofit Organizations (501(c)(3) status under the IRS code), films have historically been funded as for-profit ventures.

This has a lot to do with the expense of making films, of course. It takes millions of dollars to fund and market even a low budget production, whereas a few thousand dollars may go a long way toward funding a performance of a small dance company. So films have developed a system where studios fund their massive budgets from investors looking for a return on their investments and where the massive hit film can help fund the market misses.

Also, of course, the immense payback potential for a hit movie has made films an attractive prospect for many investors. And the historical predominance of films as America’s premier popular entertainment medium has also contributed to relegating most films to commercial, for-profit ventures, thought of as commerce first, and art second.

But as film production costs and marketing costs have soared, the big studios have become less and less interested in funding small, risky films that don’t have the chance of a big payoff. They’re more interested in tent pole pictures and franchises that have a bigger likelihood of being a financial success.

And having a for-profit model for filmmaking has meant that individual filmmkakers generally can’t sustain a career if they don’t consistently make a profit in the market place with their films, a burden that nonprofit arts groups don’t necessarily face. Very few Performance Arts groups could survive if they had to rely on ticket sales for income (including such mainstream civic bulwarks as world-class symphonies, ballet, and opera companies in major cities). Tax-exempt donations have been crucial to the survival of arts in the U.S.

What will it take to allow filmmakers to successfully move to non-profit model? Even with the inexpensiveness of digital production, it can still take a couple of hundred thousand dollars to produce even a micro-budget feature film, still a daunting amount of money to raise.

I’ve long been an advocate of re-thinking our aesthetics to move away from the mainstream Hollywood aesthetics of films, to produce movies that are both less expensive to make and more personal. For those growing up now with an iPhone in their pocket, this is happening quite naturally. This is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker, but we must rise to the challenge of seeing art and the world in new ways, and not simply repeating tired (and expensive) styles, genres and working models.

If we can do that, the time might be right for some filmmakers, like most other artists in our culture, to turn to Nonprofit Organizations for funding. This could mean an individual forming a Nonprofit for his or her own work, but more likely a production company setting itself up as a Nonprofit. Alternatively, films productions could raise money through another Nonprofit that acts as an umbrella agency, (called Fiscal Sponsorship). Currently, Fractured Atlas offers that service for filmmakers.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the need for hard work, dedication, and perseverance. That will always be necessary.

Why Nonprofits are the Future of Indie Film

Film As Cheap As a Pencil and Paper

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

The Feature Film That Blew Everyone Away at Sundance Was Shot on an iPhone 5s

Fractured Atlas



Weaving A Different Magic, Part 2

The obsession with the “rules of screenwriting” that I described in two previous blog posts (this one and this one), can be expected, of course, in books about screenwriting by screenwriters. This reflects a natural and understandable tendency on the part of screenwriters to think of their work as the primary basis of film. But this is a little myopic on the part of the writers, as if the final movie is simply a translation of their work into a different medium.

The screenplay is only one element that goes into a movie, and is no more determinative of the power of the final movie than other elements, like the acting, the cinematography, or the director’s style and choices. Filmmaking as an art is not about accurately translating the story of the screenplay to the screen. It’s about using the screenplay as one element among others to create a separate and new work of art that can certainly have different and greater artistic goals than the screenplay’s narrative.

The non-narrative aspects of the film experience are as important to the art of film as the story. We must always think about the experience of the audience, what emotional or mental states the audience goes through, the journey they go on, which as Werner Herzog pointed out, is different from the journey the characters go on. This is created as much by the style of the film, which involves the director’s, cinematographer’s and actors’ choices, as by the script.

Screenwriters often forget this, and too often when screenwriters get a chance to direct, their movies are stylistically unimaginative, workmanlike, competent, with the focus on a straightforward, classical re-imagining of their script to the screen.

We also see this almost-exclusive focus on story in a lot of film criticism, as Matt Zoller Seitz talked about in a recent blog post. Seitz observes how most current film criticism avoids talk of style or form and focuses instead mostly on issues of narrative, plot and characters (with occasional nods to good acting or beautiful cinematography).

But, as Seitz insists, the art of movies is as much about how a story is told as the story itself. The style, the filmmaking, is what makes it a movie, and not a novel, or a play, an opera, or a dance, all equally viable forms in which to tell a story.

Is the editing fragmented or languorous? The camera in motion or static? The lighting naturalistic or stylized? The color palette vivid or subdued? Why is this shot held so long? Why is that scene shot from that particular angle? And how do all these choices affect the mood or contribute to the communication of a point of view?

I don’t want to denigrate the need for a great script as part of any great movie, but don’t be misled into thinking that relating a narrative is the only and ultimate objective of filmmaking. It is conjuring an experience for the audience that is the ultimate objective, and in creating that experience, narrative is only one element, no more important than all the others.



Weaving A Different Magic

I saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood over the weekend. In case you don’t know about this film, it tells the story of a fictional boy’s life from the time he is six years old to eighteen. The unusual thing about the film is that it was shot with the same actors over 12 years, so in the course of the 2 hour and 45 minute film, we watch the actor playing Mason age from a young child to a young adult. We also watch all the other actors age around him.

It’s a remarkable work of art, for so many reasons, but I want to talk about it in relationship to the so-called “rules” of good screenwriting.

In a previous post, I talked about how good drama involves working toward a goal against obstacles, but also how, other than that, the standard rules of a good screenplay are artistically limiting. (By the ”standard rules,” I mean, put simply, that in a good screenplay, the protagonist must have both an overarching goal and some growth that needs to be achieved. The obstacles the protagonist faces are such that the he or she must achieve that growth in order to successfully reach the goal).

Most every how-to-write- a-screenplay book buys into this notion, and even people like John August and Craig Mazin, who in their Scriptnotes podcast are usually pretty insightful about screenwriting, subscribe to it.

But, as I stressed in that previous post, this is only one type of story among many that you can tell in film, and I encourage every one to use their imagination, honesty, and life experience to free themselves to the possibilities of other stories.

This is what Linklater does in Boyhood. There is no over-arching goal providing the main thrust of this movie. In individual sequences and scenes through the course of young Mason’s life, there are goals to be achieved, but what provides the forward thrust of the film isn’t any overarching goal, but the cinematic magic of seeing Mason grow up before our eyes. That provides a sense of wonder and melancholy and even spiritual wisdom that is far removed from the usual goals of traditional, mainstream screenplays.

If that same script had been filmed with different actors playing Mason at different ages, that magic would have been lost, and the script would seem mediocre, but this doesn’t mean the script is lacking anything that would have made it better. As with Russian Ark (a 90 minute film shot in one continuous take), the means of creation becomes as vital to the power of the film as anything. And creating some kind of overarching goal for Mason would have diminished the impact and truthfulness of the film, which remains honest to the rhythms of a young boy’s life.

That is real magic, and it reminds us that film can accomplish many different things and tell many type of stories. Don’t let you imagination be limited by the rules others set for us!



Startup Film School Podcast

I’ve come across a wonderful new podcast series presented by Stacey Parks, whose website Independent Film Blog I mentioned in an earlier post.

It’s called Startup Film School, and it’s basically a primer on film financing, distribution, and marketing. These podcasts are simply amazing! All independent filmmakers should listen to them.

The podcasts teach through interviews with independent filmmakers, so you get to see actual success stories and learn what works in the real world. It covers everything from developing a business plan, to how filmmakers use The American Film Market, to how one filmmaker made a feature film for $500.

Stacey’s main focus is encouraging independent filmmakers to make movies that make money, so they can have sustained careers. One episode covers in depth the “5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready.” Here’s she’s not talking about making the most commercial movie ever, but how to make your film attractive to people who might actually finance it. She covers these steps in an interview with filmmaker Brooks Elms so you can see how it works in an actual film in production.

5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready

1. Do Your Research. Find out how similar films have done financially so you can have a realistic idea of what your film can do in the market place.

2. Develop a Budget and a Business Plan. How much will your film cost to make and how do you plan to make that money back (knowing, of course, that all filmmaking is a risky venture)?

3. Put a Team Together. If you approach investors as a writer/director working alone your project is not going to be that attractive. But if you put together a team with an experienced Producer, DP, Casting Director, etc. you’re going to make your project more attractive.

4. Put Together a Cast with some Marketable Talent.

5. Develop a Pitch, with Compelling, Professional Visuals.

The podcast goes into much more detail about all of these steps. Check it out, and the rest of Stacey’s podcasts, right now!

Startup Film School.



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