Friday, January 29, 2010

Great Isn't Good Enough

I've had little sleep and two sips of coffee, but who cares? Let's get right to it.

Burn-ins, watermarks, whatever you want to call those "copy this movie and you will be killed" announcements on screeners. Studios have used them for years, and now thanks to digital making all things once cost prohibitive possible – including illegal copies – uber-indies are using them as well. Fine, no problem. We're professional. Put a little notice on the bottom of the screen. Put the name of the festival or person you've given the DVD to as a barely visible watermark behind the whole image. None of this is nearly as distracting as watching key frame numbers, etc. across dailies back in the film days. We're used to it.

What you do NOT want to do is to have "For screening purposes only" plastered across your actors' faces. It is not necessary to have the notice be so distracting that it makes the movie impossible to watch – or becomes more interesting than the movie itself. If we care about the copyright information, we'll look at the end credits, the submission form, or the DVD label. All of this showing off that you've heard this is what studios do only indicates a sophomoric attention to unimportant details. Nine time out of ten, the labor lost on the complicated burn-in would have been better spent on tightening up the edit. So… use them if you think you must (you don't, really, trust me), but keep them unobtrusive, please.

Wow, enough on that. Let's get to the screenings of last night's shorts.

Always to be remembered when making a short; it's not a little feature. The short form of any literary/performance media is an art unto itself.

Mark Twain's quote – or any of the other people reported to have said, "Sorry for the long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one," is an indication of how hard it is to write less. If your script requires a long back-story, maybe it's not a short. Or maybe you haven't figured out how to tell the immediate story in the most efficient manner. If that's the case, do yourself a favor and figure that part out before putting together a cast, crew and all your savings.

I like that phrase, "immediate story." In a short that's all you should be concerned about. Keep it lean and mean.

To that end as well, we saw a lot of "footsteps" last night. That's the term for any kind of mundane physical movements that can be cut from a scene in order to get to the action. We saw several times where a car pulls up, parks, the driver turns the car off, gets out of the car, walks around, opens the door for the other actor, they walk inside and just before they get to the front door, they start talking. Much better if you just start the scene at the front door, yes?

Oh, and the same can be said for starting a movie with a character getting out of bed and putting their slippers/shoes on – or we see an insert of their feet hitting the floor. What's up with that? It has become like starting a book with "It was a dark and stormy night…" So many films do it now that, just once, I'd like to see the movie start with the coffee, or the tired look in the mirror, or any of the other morning clich├ęs. I'll assume that they got out of bed and that their feet did not somehow miss the floor or become incased in cement instead of slippers.

Next topic: Credits. If you buy that a short is not a little feature, then apply that philosophy to your opening credits. The best shorts usually have no opening credits. On the end credits we're seeing a lot of cutesy stuff like outtakes or extra-features types of things that just makes you wonder if the movie is over. If Jackie Chan is doing stunts in your movie, cool. If not, you just come off looking self-indulgent. Save it for the DVD extras. That goes for features and shorts.

Folks, please do a quality control (QC) check on your DVD. If the sound is dropping in and out, or the picture jumps, it makes it hard to evaluate your movie. Of course, if that's the case and the film shows even the slightest bit of promise, we'll ask you for another screener – but it's annoying.

I've babble on enough for the morning. Time for more coffee. I'll leave you with the reminder that I only harp on the bad stuff. You are all doing great work, but in our business great isn't good enough. Make it better.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another Year Begins

I hope pathetic fallacy is just a literary, not literal, phenomenon as the weather was terrible for the first day of screening for year 13. Occasionally, though, the lightning, wind and rain were a nice distraction from some of the less than stellar submissions.

Somehow every screening night follows a trend all it's own. This time it was a journey into the surreal – more often than not, the very bad surreal.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good alternative take on reality. I had my formative years in the 1970's and was probably the only kid who ever sat through an entire episode of "Make A Wish."

But just because you've chosen to skew reality doesn't mean you get to skip over the elements that make for a good performing arts piece. A beginning, a middle, and an end of an intelligent story – character objectives and obstacles - are still required. Yes, I've had long arguments with modern dancers who claim that moving sculpture doesn't require a story, but I think time and ticket sales prove them wrong. Even the contortionist kids in Cirque du Soleil, who are a blast to watch, have a story – "Hey, look what I can do!"

Another key thing to remember with surrealism is that if the audience doesn't get the point of the piece, then the artist – not the audience – has failed. Exceptions would be Kafka for Kindergarteners.

Moving on: This was also a night of bad sound mixes. Granted, part of this might be that surround sound systems have become so convoluted that our toys didn't match the filmmaker's toys, but we do make every effort to find the best setting for each film. We are also filmmakers, so we know that when the music is louder than the dialogue, turning it up won't help.

Soft-talking actors are one thing, but inarticulate mumbling that is buried in the mix is a compound offense. When narrators sounds like they recorded themselves in their empty apartment on their computer's microphone – the movie feels bad, whether it is or not.

A mantra of the digital revolution should be: just because you've bought the software, doesn't mean you have the talent to use it. Sound mixing is extraordinarily difficult – especially when you're asking a festival to play your work on speakers the size of your house. Hire professionals. If you can't afford one, find the best sound geek you can to volunteer. Then play the finished product for someone who doesn't know the script. If they can't understand the words, start over.

Some other quick notes from last night:

Why does every independent filmmaker think it's cool to put in scenes of people peeing? Why do they feel like we need to see great detail of the expelling of body wastes? Want to be original? Make a movie without any urinating, vomiting, or defecating in it. Thank you!

We had yet another film that obviously came from a cut down feature script. I've said this a thousand times, I'll say it again. Don't do this. If your feature makes a good short, then there is too much fat in the feature. If the full script is good, then cutting any part of it should make the rest fall like a house of cards.

The exceptions I've seen look as if the filmmaker has shot the incitement of the feature script (that's about the first 10 pages for those of you who didn't have as good of a high school English teacher as I did). A good incitement will have a beginning, middle and an ending that makes you want to follow the characters. That can be a good short.

Final thought:

For those of you still reading, here's a revolutionary idea I had watching the first submission of the year:

The production values (locations, costumes, art department, etc.) were fantastic. This made me think, the digital revolution may just up the ante on the quality of every other department in independent film.

Think about it. Back in the film days, most of the money you raised for a project went to the camera department and post. Now, with that same money, you can share the love. Better locations, more days of production, better everything. Sure, in the dawn of digital most projects shot on video sucked – not because of the equipment, but the lack of skills of the people involved. All the best talent went for film.

Well, those days are over. Low budget filmmakers have to bring their A-game to every project, because mush of the stuff we're seeing in the screening room is studio quality.

I think we might be entering a Golden Age of Digital Filmmaking. What do you think?

Welcome To Lucky 13

For those of you who followed this blog last year on the Dances With Films message board, welcome to the new location. The message board is up and running for year 13, so feel free to drop by and say hi to your friends.

For new readers, here's the deal:

Screen festival submissions long enough, and you start to notice trends in storylines, styles, music, etc. Like old-fashioned mimeographs, the further these copies are from the original, the harder they are to stomach.

I started this blog last year for selfish reasons. I wanted filmmakers to stop sending us the same, tired, bad movies. They really are painful to watch - and we watch them all. It was my hope that, giving filmmakers a peek into what we're seeing over and over and over again in submissions would make them think twice before spending their time, energy and money on something that has been done a million times before. If this all worked, then I'd get to watch better movies.

Because, you know, it's all about me.

As a reminder from last year, here are the ground rules:

First and foremost, these are general notes. I'm not going to identify any specific movies, so don't come looking here for insight on your submission – even though that is an almost irresistibly fun guessing game.

This blog is like a classroom setting, so I'm not going to spend a ton of time on the good stuff. That's for your premiere. Here we have the lab coats on. It's a given that just completing a movie is an accomplishment worthy of pride - but if we all settled for that, we'd be making home movies. There will be some heat in this kitchen.

How Our Process Works:

Without giving too much away about the secret inner sanctum of judging, At DWF we get together once a week - or more as it gets down to crunch time - to screen short films as a group. Features are taken home and screened individually by up to 3 judges. This blog is more about the short submissions, though I might pop in some feature notes as well.

That's it. I look forward to your feedback on my feedback.