Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Journey of a Thousand Filmmakers

For those who couldn't make the festival, or who didn't get around to reading this year's awesome program, here's a re-print of my article.


Ever since Sex, Lies and Videotape, scored a big distribution deal at Robert Redford's little pet project in Park City in 1989, the term "Industry," when related to film festivals, has come to mean one thing – distribution. Yes, there is currently an argument that distributors aren't as important as they used to be, given online video on demand, etc. etc., blah, blah, blah.

I would never make that argument. One need only see the thousands of unfiltered submissions to Dances With Films to know that gatekeepers play a vital role in the arts. You as the audience do not want to be exposed to the dirt from which the gems are uncovered, believe me!

But something is lost when "The Industry" only includes distributors. At Dances With Films we know that not every movie screened here is ready for a wide, commercial distribution, but there is something about each movie – be it the direction, the cast, the photography, the script, the production value, something about each of these films that stands out above the rest.

When you watch Less and you realize that actors Zak Barnett and Rebecca Noon have you believing in an impossible love, and that Gabriel Diamond's words are pitch-perfect, then you'll know what I'm talking about. When you discover Jeff Gill, Adam Soule and actor-techie Gary Henoch in The Aristocrat – which also as fantastic dialogue – then you'll feel pride in the discovery you made.

When you see Charlie Anderson's photography in Close-Up you'll want to hire him for your next film. When you see the kids Caitlin Kinnunen and Joseph Montes in Sweet Little Lies, you won't be able to stop grinning. Evald Johnson's agile comedy in Stan will have you pulling for the everyman.

The cast and script of The Corridor. The comedy of Hopelessly in June. The smokin' hot intellectual erotica of Mortem, along with the talent of their cast. The "OMG, I just saw what kids'll be into in the next two years" feeling of Night of the Alien.

Rachel Boston.

Zack Parker's twists and turns in Scalene. Jamie Greenberg's mastery of comedy in Stags. The warmth of Love's Kitchen. The camp of Millennium Bug.

And that's just SOME of the features. Never mind the heart wrenching importance of docs like Certain Proof, or the cavalcade of talent in the shorts programs. I could go on and on.

For those of us in this business, the point is not so much to hit it big with one movie, but to keep working. In order for that to happen, casting directors, development executives, below-the-line agents, production houses, production executives, and yes, distributors of narratives and documentaries need to see our work. A discovery festival like DWF is a great place for that to happen. So, let's get away from this idea that The Industry means distributors alone. Let's remember; success can be a Director of Photography getting a job that pays, or a writer being hired to punch up some dialogue, or an actor that gets a more visible role.

Giant steps are great, but they come once a decade or so. If we take human-sized steps, we can cover that ground just as fast.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Post Production Stress Syndrome

When I got PPSS I thought I was the only one, but in talking with other filmmakers I've learned two things: First, it's common, and second, everyone thinks they are the only one.

A couple of days after we wrapped Jacks Or Better, I had to fly back east for a family matter. The shoot had gone great, thanks mostly to a well-rehearsed, disciplined cast and top notch department heads. Like many uber-indie productions, I, as writer/director, was the most inexperienced person on the set. My background was theatre, so I made sure the actors were honest moment-to-moment and kept my mouth shut about the film side except to constantly say, "I'm so glad Dave [my Director of Photography] and I are making the same movie."

So for the 12 days of shooting, I was calm.

A day after we wrapped I woke up in North Carolina in a panic. "What are we shooting?"

"I don't have a crew."

"I don't have any equipment."

"What scenes do I have to get in North Carolina?"

This went on for nearly a minute. Anyone who has experienced the "where am I and what am I doing here?" wake up moment knows that a minute is a long, long time. And it wasn't just once. The first night I woke up a couple of times like that. Over the next few days, panic became my morning routine.

Eventually, it passed of course, and I had seen enough TV psychiatrists to know what delayed stress was, so no harm done.

Flash forward a few years later and I'm acting in a student film. The director was a sweetheart, and cool as I remember myself being, though she faced insane challenges. Over the few days of the shoot, the weather had to be perfect, the actors were on horseback, and there was a period gun duel that had crazy-difficult coverage issues. She handled every bit of it without a problem and the days past without any major issues.

This sounded familiar to me, so I told her, "Don't be surprised if you have Post Production Stress Syndrome."

She laughed and said that wasn't like her. I told her my story, which she appreciated but didn't think it was a cause of concern.

A couple of days after we wrapped I got a call from her. Sure enough, she'd been waking up in a panic, freaking out, not knowing what was happening. She thanked me for the heads up and I thanked her for verifying that I wasn't the only one to go through this.

At the closing night party for this year's festival, I asked one of the 2-Step filmmakers – who was directing for the first time – if she had post production stress. She said yes and we shared stories.

So I'm not the only one. If you've had this, you're not either. If you're about to shoot, don't worry if you're calmer than you think you should be – your nerves will catch up to you and kick your ass as soon as they know you can handle it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And the winner is...

As you might recall, this year's 2-Minute 2-Step featured a new twist – Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5 editing software instead of the default Final Cut we'd been using for the past four years.

I say "default" because when talking about editing in the independent film world people practically assume you'll be on Final Cut. That's the system everyone knows. They've cornered the market, right? They certainly act like they have, as they pretty much ignore you once you've bought their hardware.

Since year one of the 2-step, I've been saying that Final Cut is vulnerable to a takedown by a company that evolves the software, provides cross-platform capability, and understands the needs of production. Has Adobe done that?

Judging from the spontaneous cheers that broke out when I mentioned their name at the closing night party, I'd say yes.

From Left to Right: 2-Step Winners Jon Hill, Tommy Smeltzer; DWF's Robert Mellette; from Adobe, Michael Kanfer; from Canon, Tim Smith

During the 2-step, we had a couple of Final Cut editors hit the ground running on Premiere Pro and finish our high-pressure competition without a hitch. Not only does Premiere Pro provide options for Final Cut users to automatically set the keyboard to FC standards, but their best technicians were sitting in the chair next to the editor answering every question. Not that there were many, but try getting that kind of support from Apple. You won't. I know, because we tried for four years.

And I haven't even talked about native editing of Canon 5D files, aka, no conversion time. Cards were flying out of the camera, over to the editors, and back to the set before the crew finished the new set-up. In most cases, editors were twiddling their thumbs waiting on new footage. Compare that to last year when we had to wait, and wait, and wait for the time-and-a-half conversion of the 5D footage. As I told the audiences when introducing the 2-steps, I got a lot more sleep because of Adobe.

Thanks, guys.

On another topic. We had some films, including the 2-steps, screen off of Blue Ray DVDs, even though we strongly, to the point of pretty much require, films to screen from HD-Cam tape. Why? Because Blue Ray is still a DVD, and homemade/semipro made DVD's fail at an extraordinarily high rate. For the purposes of a live audience screening, they are pretty much one-and-done, and even then run a high risk of failure, as one film experienced.

I know a lot of smaller festivals around the country only screen off DVD or Blue Ray, so as a word of warning, I suggest only do this as a last resort, definitely have a back-up in the booth, and make sure it is a brand new disc.

That's it for now. This year's festival was logistically the biggest we've ever had, so thanks so much to everyone for your patience and understanding. I hope it was as fun and informative for you as it was for us.

If you weren't in this year's fest, but are thinking about making a film, I hope you will read through past posts on this blog. They are written with you in mind. Please share them with your friends before you make your movie – so I won't have to see the same kind of mistakes over and over next year.

Posts here will slow down during the off-season, but keep checking in as you never know.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Breaking News

Cinematographer extraordinare, Russell Carpenter, (Titantic, True Lies, and more) will be dropping by the filmmaker's lounge at 4:30 for a chat with this year's DWF class. Our little lounge is becoming the place to be in LA. Like, kewl, ya kno?

I just came from the screening of one of the best little movies you'll ever want to see called, modestly, Less. Casting directors, filmmakers, and anyone who want's to follow talented actors take note of this cast. There's so much honesty on that screen that it makes you forget you're in a movie theatre - especially if you got rained on while waiting in line.

I was reminded by this film about the difference between trendy and quality.

The trendy people in Los Angeles cling to the stereotype of what they think this town is supposed to be. Oddly, they are usually the ones who haven't been here very long or are just visiting. Sure, they may be the beautiful people, but are they the attractive ones? If they stood next to a full length mirror - as they often do - could you tell the difference between the reflection and the real person?

This is not to say that people chasing the lastest and greatest aren't good people, or even quality people - but they are so busy chasing the spotlight that they can't see the lives they are running away from in order to get there.

The quality artists careless about the light shining on them, and more about it shining from them. During this festival it gives us all great joy to give these people their time in the light. To thank them for guidance their work has given us all.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How Cool Is This?

It was about 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Dances With Films and our 2-Minute 2-Step filmmakers were kicking back with a beer in the filmmaker's lounge after having made a movie that morning. Alan Heim was due to drop by for our new "Conversations With" series.

Now, you may not know that name, so click on the link to IMDB. Take some time to explore the movies he edited. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Are you back? I bet at least one of your favorite movies is on his résumé. The man is the real deal.

Before he arrived we were sitting around trying to figure out what to do with this new "Conversations With" event, and someone said, "why don't we set up an interview?"

The best thing about the Dances With Films filmmaker's lounge is, we make movies there.

Two-Minute Two-Step line producer Charlise Holmes comes from a news background, so this was right in her wheelhouse. Before you know it, the Canon 5D Mark IIs are out and on tripods - not as good as an A-1 for an interview, but not for zero notice. The sound mixer from the 2-Step was still around, so he grabbed his stuff, and in a heartbeat, I'm sitting down in front of the Adobe edit bays to have a chat with Mr. Heim about All That Jazz, Lenny, Star 80, Network, and on and on.

When we have the interview edited, I'll post a link.

I've always said that the best artists are very often the best people. Alan is a good example. You can't help but feel good about life after a conversation with him.

Thanks for reading. If you're in Los Angeles, come out and see some of the movies I've been writing about all year.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tips From The Fest

I'm tucked away in a corner of the filmmaker's lounge where a 2-Minute 2-Step film is being edited, posters are being printed, and crew members are solving the problems of the world. The shooting is happening one room over. All of this is to say, this might not be the best-written article I've ever done.

The president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ken Howard, stopped by our opening night party yesterday and it got me to thinking. Film festivals all claim to be "about the films" or "about the filmmakers." Good, great, no problem. The principle creative person on a film lives with it years before it is shot and years after it's finished, and to the general public, they are largely unknown. They deserve their time in the spotlight, and what's good for the film is good for everyone involved.

But Dances With Films is a discovery festival in the entertainment capital of the world. A screening here is a business opportunity for more than just the filmmaker or the film. The cast especially have a chance to take advantage of the screening, but how? Old-school LA actors have tons of experience drumming up attention for their 99-seat Equity-Waiver productions, but that's because they know how it feels to stand in front of a bunch of empty seats. I'm not sure the younger actors have that same experience. Some are great at it, some think "if you screen it, they will come."

The question I'm wrestling with is how can SAG, SAGIndie, and the festivals help get the casting industry off their butts and into the theatre to see new talent? That's an open question – please discuss in the comments below.

For the techie folks, here's the big discovery we've all made. TASCAM DR100 or DR680 digital audio recorders instead of the Zooms – which everyone seems to use. They are cheaper, have some sweet functions the Zoom don't, and can take advantage of the 5-D manual audio settings to patch directly into the camera. That's your filmmaking tip of the day.

Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.