Monday, March 25, 2013

Life In The Digital World

We started off the night with 3 or 4 DVDs that wouldn't play.  I then picked up a package with two copies of the film, nicely labeled as such, and thought, "Here's a filmmaker that's read my blog," or possibly goes all the way back to the Without A Box's message board days.  I miss that place.  DVDs have a high failure rate, so it's always a good idea to send a backup.

And before you go saying that we should screen online, forget about it.  For one thing, our workflow requires a physical representation of the movie.  We make piles and stacks, and fill bins.  We hand movies to screeners.  Not only that, I prefer to watch a DVD on my big screen with 5.1 surround sound, not my laptop.  Yes, I know, I can (and do) connect my TV to the internet and watch downloads, but not every screener has the tech-savvy to do that, or work around problems when they come up.  So, it's DVDs.  When they fail, if you haven't sent a backup, we'll get in touch to have them replaced.  Thanks.

Now that that's out of the way, let's do a little filmmaking 101. 

Cinema is an illusion of light and sound.  That's it.  Those are the only two elements you have to deal with.  If you fail at either one of those, your best score is 50%, and that doesn't cut it in anything.  We are bombarded with films that are good, but we can't hear them.  Of performances that would be moving, if we could see the actor's face.  I know silhouettes are cool and artistic and everything, and used correctly, extremely effective – but not for a monologue!  Not for any kind of scene where the emotions of the character are important.  Let us see their faces.  Let us hear their words.  Or, in many cases, your words.  Use a bounce card to fill shadows.  Use a good post sound facility to finish your sound.  Then you will at least have a chance for a 100% score - and all you'll have to worry about are story, performances, art department, digital formats, etc.

Speaking of digital formats... Everyone has been so excited about the digital revolution in independent filmmaking.  Digital is supposed to be so much cheaper and easier than film.  Cheaper? Absolutely.  Easier?  Not in the least. 

I haven't done a study, but I would bet that over half of the films submitted have something so wrong about their digital photography that any layperson could call it out.  They might not be able to say what's a dropped frame, what's a dup frame, or inter-lacing, or whatever you want to call it, but they can certainly say, "that doesn't look right" or "this is giving me a headache."  If we were to properly QC submissions, I'd bet 90% of them fail.  If the story is good, and the acting is good, and all other elements of the filmmaking are good, chances are we'll screen it at the festival, but those filmmakers are in for a world of hurt when they go for distribution.

And often, the problem boils down to the way it was shot.  Back in the film days, a producer wouldn't think of using a cinematographer just because they owned a camera.  Now, having a camera is easy, but knowing how to use it on a professional level has gotten harder.  On big shoots a DIT (that's pronounced D. I. T., not DEET), or Digital Imaging Technician, is on hand to assist the cinematographer.  If you're currently looking for a DP, you might want to find a DIT with aspirations of getting behind the camera.

We are still seeing some good films.  One held us hostage and told us jokes for a large portion of the evening.  Loved the movie, I hope we can find space for it.  Another was less than two minutes long, which is great, and literally kicked ass!  Nice job.

Thanks for reading.  We are lining up some exciting sponsors, panels, and events for this year, so keep an eye out.  I will report news as things are finalized.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Garry Marshall Has It Right

First, a little business.  Our office computer problems are not 100% fixed, but we do have a nice work-around.  Keep an eye on your e-mails for communication from DWF, and get back to us quickly and politely.  Given a choice between two equally good movies, where one filmmaker is hard to deal with, and the other is a delight – who would you go with?

There is a saying in theatre that drama is just a breath away from comedy.  It's the difference between laughing with a comedy and laughing at a drama.  One sure way to cross that line is to have your film push the seriousness of everything.  If your cast project the attitude of, "look what an important movie I'm in," then hilarity will ensue.  If you do the big dramatic cut to the big dramatic look on the totally dramatic actor, then you are not making a drama.  In fact, I often find myself saying to the screen when the filmmaker gets too serious too quickly, "Please be funny!  Please be funny!"  If they turn it all into a joke, then they are my new best friends. 

We had a couple of dramatic dramas last night that didn't make any friends.  Remember drama, like pauses and monologues, must be earned.  Don't tell us to care, make us care.

We did have some understated, humble dramas, that generated the kind of silence among screeners that is the best of complements.  One in particular had us all ready to join a cult, then hip-checked us back into reality.  Good on ya!

But the overall theme of the night in my screening room was – WTF!?  After watching two or three movies in a row that made absolutely no sense, one of our screeners quoted GarryMarshall, "Please, just tell us a story."  I don't think there has ever been better, more concise, filmmaking advice than that.  Just tell a story.  If you do that, then you know you're on a solid foundation.  From there, you can build what kind of story you're telling and the way you're telling it. 

Yes, I know there are schools of thought that experiment with Jackson Pollock style "remove the artist from the equation" ... stuff (to be polite).  I've had arguments with modern dancers who talk about "movement for movement's sake" or "moving sculpture," and to them I say, "If a girl comes out and dances, I want to know who she is and why she's dancing.  If she's joined by another dancer, I want to know what the relationship is between the two."

It's human nature.  We are animals who have a deep need to tell and hear stories.  Why is it that artists will insist that their salads be all organic, but they turn their work into some kind of freak of nature? 

So, please, do like the Wise Old Man of Hollywood says.  Just tell us a story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Home With A Cold

I missed this week's screening.  What can I say?  I have that same bug that's going around.  It happens.

So what do we do when a key player can't make the shorts screenings?  The answer lies in how we approach the entire selection process. 

All movies are screened by at least three people.  Most of these folks are alumni; filmmakers who know what it is to have struggled so hard to turn one's imagination into something tangible.  Other screeners are just people who like movies.  The logic being, there should be no prerequisite for an audience member to enjoy or not enjoy a film.  Whether you're doing Samuel Becket-style absurdist theatrics, USC Film School Space Adventures, or a David O. Russell character study, the experience of the viewer – beyond speaking the same language of the film or subtitles – is not relevant to the success of the storytelling.

Often screeners' notes from features will come back, "I think this is a good movie, but it's not my favorite genre, so someone else should look at it."  So we do.  We all want to see movies we like, and since many of us have been doing this for a while, we've learned each other's taste.  Often a film will be handed to an experienced screener with, "no else has liked this movie yet, but you seem to enjoy this style, so you should take a look at it." 

Believe it or not, we're fighting hard to get your movies into the festival.

For short films, all three (or more) screeners watch together, but our opinions are noted separately.  There is no pressure to make your opinion match everyone else's.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  We want more diverse views, not less. 

Films that are universally unliked have a hard row to hoe.  Leslee, whose heart is too big to pass on a movie out of hand, will probably pop it into her machine to confirm the reviews, but after that, the film will wait to see if by some stretch of fate someone's "maybe" might be enough to pull it from the depths of the "thanks for submitting" bin.  Films have come back from the dead many times, which is why we don't send out pass letters until the entire slate is full.  So not all hope is lost.

Since we have two screening rooms running at once, I will take home the shorts I didn't get to see that have anything better than a failing grade, and Leslee will more closely watch the films she didn't get to see.   Since I missed this week, I'll have two rooms worth of movies to watch over the week.  I hope you guys have made good ones!

Features are done pretty much the same way, but screeners take them home.  It's fun to hear us talk at the weekly screenings.  "Have you seen that one?"

"No, not yet."

"Okay, then I won't say anything, but talk to me when you have, because... I think it got weird and I want to know if it was just me."

All of this is to say; we're watching and talking about your movies – even when we're home with a cold.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 4, 2013

If Time Is Relative, Why Didn't I Get A Birthday Present?

For those who care about these things, we've reached 3,000 likes on Facebook!  Is that good?  I don't know.  When asked about this momentous success, co-found Leslee Scallon said, "I want four!" 
I hope she meant four thousand, but I still don't know how to gauge the level of success.  Like Time, Facebook likes are relative.
Speaking of Time, this year we are making Dances With Films run longer.  You do not need to do the same for your films.  Anyone who doubts the relativity of Time need only screen film festival submissions to see how it can expand or contract.  We see ten minute movies that never end, and twenty minute ones that go by in a flash.  Though, the latter is rare.
All of this prompted me to write the note, "slow is different from paced."  A movie feels slow when nothing happens for a long time.  Paced can mean the rhythm of dialogue, edits, etc. but within the pace stuff happens.  So make sure "stuff" is always happening in your movie.  Please.
Every year we see shorts and features that spend money in all the wrong ways.  A house with no foundation will not sell, no matter how pretty the lawn is.  Money will not make the audience care about your characters.  High production values will not make a bad actor good.  Before you spend a dime, find a script that jumps off the page, gets under your skin, and keeps you awake at night.  If you're going to spend money on cast, get your money's worth in talent.  High production values then become a wise investment. 
That's it for this week.  For those who have submitted, sit tight, we're still watching.  For those who haven't, our regular deadline is coming up in a couple of days.  If you want to save some money, submit ASAP.  If you need the time to make your film better, do.  We'll be open for submissions for a few more weeks.
For those who haven't made their movies yet.  Good for you for doing your research.  I look forward to seeing your work.