Friday, April 27, 2007

Lesson Learned

In a post last week I mentioned my student, Andrew, was part of a team of four Columbia filmmakers participating in the National Film School Championships in San Diego. I saw Andrew Friday and he filled me in on the outcome.

All 20 teams were given a script last Wednesday night and had until 9am Saturday morning to deliver a five-minute film. Andrew's team read the script and immediately rejected it and decided to make their own film instead. I think this was a good plan. I believe if you can deliver something good and audiences like it- even if it goes against the rules- then you win even if you lose. What is the point of trying to make a film if you know it is going to be bad? You might as well make a film you think is going to be good and let the chips fall where they may. I think this rule applies to any creative competition or business pitch. Go with the best idea you have, not necessarily the idea you were told to come up with. (Is this what is called thinking outside the box?)

Andrew's film was about a man in a banana suit. There must be a glut of banana suit costumes out there because this is the third banana suit concept I have heard in the last two weeks. Andrew reports they shot it and it was pretty good. They cut it together on Friday night and if nothing else it wass funny, the team liked it and they felt the audience will like it.

Then disaster struck. Deciding to make one final tweak (the enemy of good is better- an earlier Filmmaking101 post) their external hard drive crashed and they lost everything. The organizers extended the deadline for them- which tells me they liked the film too- but it was gone. No film. That evening at the screening Andrew said that their film probably would have won. It had the best production values and it was funny. Of course a key part of winning the contest is actually entering the contest. Sorry Andrew.

Upon further discussion, I discovered their fatal flaw. They were shooting with the HD camera pictured above. They put the HD files into their external hard drive only. They should have put the files into their laptop AND backed them up to the external hard drive. Saving time and a step cost them in the long run.

Lesson learned.


Thursday, April 26, 2007


A hallmark of the bad student film is bad casting choices. A 20-year-old student casts his 21-year-old roommate to play a 40-year-old father, and then he casts his 18-year-old girlfriend to play that character's daughter. What you have on your hands is a pile of crap, which makes no sense whatsoever. Trust me it happens.

We spend a lot of time searching for the right actor in casting sessions. I believe actors casts themselves in the role. Sometimes you have an idea about the type you want and someone comes into the casting session and does something that completely changes your mind. I like it when that happens.

About 10 years ago right after ER began we were hired by ABC to make a commercial essentially admitting to the viewer that we know you are watching ER on another channel, but when it’s over, please turn to our station for the local news. I wrote a spot where frantic ER doctors were working on an unseen patient. The payoff comes when the doctors hit the patient with the paddles and it comes to life. The “patient” was of course a TV set and they rescued it just in time to see the late news. Genius I know, that’s why I get paid the slightly above average dollars.

At the first round of auditions an actress (full disclosure she is my friend Kristy) came in to read wearing a white lab coat. On action, she took her coat off and put it on backwards, like a surgical gown. It was a brilliant choice on her part and even before she spoke I knew I was going to call her back. We did and sure enough she got the part. This simple move with her coat is what I mean by an actor casting themselves.

So for all of the film students that read this, please take your time casting your films. While your roommate might make an excellent father- in 20 years- look for someone else. If you are making a film about a homeless person, don’t use a real homeless person (and pay him in booze). And if your film features a person on his deathbed, cast an actor; don’t use a real dying man. It will pay off in the long run.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Up in Smoke- part 2

Our first thought was that we probably lost all the film we shot that day and will need to re-shoot- on our dime. Secondly, we needed to get another camera ASAP so we could finish the food shots; third, we needed to check on studio and crew availability. Fourth, get the students out of the studio so it doesn’t look like I was spending all the time with them while an arsonist was having at the camera.

Jim, our producer and I huddled together very quickly and formulated a plan. A new shoot would cost about $30,000. Our insurance deductible is $5,000. We were in a 35K hole. It was interesting because we all acted very calmly and in the moment, but what were we going to say, “This has never happened to us before.” No, it never happened to ANYONE before. We were making bad film history.

We called our camera shop, another 35mm camera was just returned, so we could run over and pick it up. Our actress and most of the crew was free tomorrow if we needed to reshoot. The stage we were on was booked, but we found another one. Except for the rushing sound of our money going down the drain we felt we were in good shape.

As we waited on the new camera we broke for dinner, which for Jim and I meant pacing and worrying. The camera came, we set it up and believe it or not we were pretty much right on schedule. We shot the first food shot, great. We set up for the second shot, turn the camera on and … Nothing. Camera number two is dead. Wile E. Coyote has just run off the cliff for the second time.

We called our camera shop again, it’s 7pm we get their service. The owner calls back and yes, there is another camera, but you can’t record sound. That’s OK, it’s just food shots. P.A.s make another trip to the camera shop. We think we are in OK shape. The camera comes, we set it up and discover another problem.

We had been shooting 1000 foot loads of film. This camera only accepted 400 footers. We had a square peg,round hole deal on our hands. Our assistant cameraman thought he could go into a dark room and break our 1000s into 400s, but he wasn’t certain. Our prop man was shooting a commercial the next day for another company. He said they were shooting 400 footers, let’s get film from them.

8pm. The other company gives us 2-400 foot loads with our promise of replacing them in the morning for their shoot. Camera three is up and running and for the next two hours we knock off food shot after food shot. We call wrap at 10:15- Fifteen minutes past the magic 14 hour mark, We are into a double day. Our crew is cool, though. And realize what we went through and agree to not hit us for going 15 minutes over. (We still blame the agency. The delay in selecting a popcorn bowl cost us probably 30 minutes or more.)

We are not off the hook yet, we need to process the film and see what we lost. We sent it to the lab and the next morning they report it is fine. We only lost a few frames of footage right at the time of the fire. Later we learned that camera had a wiring problem which caused the fire. The second camera had dead batteries. In our rush to get another camera we didn’t check the battery power. We replaced the 400 foot rolls of film and when all was said and done, we paid our $5000 deductible and pretty much broke even on the shoot.

We got a good story out of it though.

You can see the Molly McButter spot at click on film demo reel .


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Up in Smoke- part 1

So we were shooting a 30-second commercial for Molly McButter. (You know it has BIG butter taste, without a bit of butter fat-says the jingle which the ad agency spent a mint on,) It was a nice spot- live action with an actress and lots of food shots- bite and smiles, plates of food, 35mm film, we were going to do the edit. Nice. To get the job we had to bid it as one 14-hour day, rather than two easy 10-hour days. In the commercial business crew gets paid time and a half from 10-12 hours, double time 12-14 hours and a double day of pay for more than 14 hours.

Things got off to a rocky start because we couldn’t decide on the correct bowl to hold a bowl of popcorn. By “we” of course I mean the ad agency art director. Our stylist had five of everything (the rule of fivesies) and in this case it was probably too many options for the agency. Finally they decided on a bowl and then it took some time to get the popcorn just right. The bowl had to be brimming with perfectly cooked kernels, and the actress had to be able to hold the bowl at an angle to the camera. If you attempt this move at home, your popcorn will be all over the floor, but thanks to movie magic- and a great prop person- we put a ball of clay in the bottom of the bowl and affixed the popcorn to that. Imagine a popcorn wig placed in the bowl and you get the idea.

Once the great popcorn debate was settled (By the way I can hear Jim saying now, “Look it, the agency was supposed to come to the set the night before to pick out props but they didn’t.” True, but I digress.) We were able to shoot. The scenes with the actress went very easily. I had students on the set and we had enough down time that I could really teach as well. It was a good day.

At about 5:00p.m. we wrapped with the actress and had about five hours of food shots to finish. I was across the studio on the telephone when I saw what looked like smoke coming from the camera. “Couldn’t be smoke,” the dumb filmmaker thought to himself it must be steam coming from the food. Just then a production assistant said, “Hey the camera is on fire!” Sure enough flames were shooting out from this $300,000 camera.

You know when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff and has that moment in mid-air when he realizes what happened but can’t take it back? That was me. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for how to act when your camera is on fire. So being the Optimist’s son, I walked over to the smoking camera and tried to act as if everything was fine. By the time I got to the camera and saw the soot, I knew things were not fine and we had to shift into plan B (also called panic).

Part 2 tomorrow.


Monday, April 23, 2007


I saw a great film over the weekend. It is called Infamous and it is the other film about Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood. I like Capote and think Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are very good, but for my money Infamous is the better film.

Toby Jones, a diminutive English actor, is Capote, Sandra Bullock is Harper Lee and James Bond- Daniel Craig- is Perry Smith. All are great. It’s been ages since I read In Cold Blood but what struck me was the way Capote humanized the killers, while making the death penalty- state sanctioned murder- such an inhuman thing. That aspect of In Cold Blood comes across in Infamous. You see how writing the book tore Capote apart. After In Cold Blood he was never the same writer and since he was defined by his work, you could argue, never the same man.

Douglas McGrath, the writer and director, uses stylized techniques where the other actors talk directly to the camera- in past tense- about how In Cold Blood changed Capote. In a beautifully haunting scene near the end of the film, Craig’s Perry Smith sings “Goldmine in the Sky” directly to the camera. This image is intercut with Capote listening to it on a tape recorder.

Now a word about Douglas McGrath, the director. I have been a fan of his since he co-wrote (with Patricia Marx) a book called Blockbuster, a hysterical novel about a feature film production run amok. He also shared writing credit with Woody Allen for Bullets Over Broadway and made a nice film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. I hope he makes more films and people go see Infamous.



The wheel that my mouse runs on that gets the filmmaker101 house onto the internet is on the fritz (or I am out of cheese) so there will be no post until it is repaired.

Stay Tuned.