Saturday, May 26, 2007

Star Wars- The Beginning of the End

Friday, May 25 was the 30th anniversary of the release of Star Wars. That film, along with Jaws, are the two films that changed American cinema forever. The late 1960s and early 70s was a renaissance time for American film. How about this for a partial list of filmmakers- Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich,Francis Coppola,Mike Nichols, Alan Pakula, Roman Polanski (not American, sure, but is there a better film about LA than Chinatown or the upper west side of New York than Rosemary's Baby?) Martin Scorsese- who came of age as a director between 1968 and 1975. Pretty impressive, but with the exception of The Godfather films, none of the movies made by those men were box office smashes.

But with Star Wars Hollywood changed and the studios began to bankroll big budget spectacles- even Oscar-winning Rocky from 1976 was a low-budget, no star film. It became easy, and then the norm, for Hollywood to bet 25 million dollars (now 200 million) on one BIG film, than 25 million on six or seven smaller films. Would a Harold and Maude, The Last Picture Show and Taxi Driver get made today and shown at the local megaplex? Probably not, not when Spiderman 3 dominates the screens and people's entertainment dollar.

Some quick statistics. Star Wars budget was $13 million it opened on 43 screen in the United States. By April of 1978 it had grossed $218 million. Spiderman 3 had a budget of $258 million dollars and it opened 4,252 screens in the United States, grossing $151 million its first weekend.

Star Wars is a good film and I like it. The question, however, is this: Are we better off with Star Wars and all the blockbusters that followed, or would we be better of with individual, iconoclastic films like the ones mentioned above?


Friday, May 25, 2007

The Revolution Has Begun-Again

I don't know if it is a great time to be a young filmmaker or a terrible time. It's great because there are so many more opportunities to make films and get them seen, yet if there are a million filmmakers out there and 999,997,250 of them give us films about their cat flushing a toilet, how great can it be?

I also don't know if it is a great time to be a middle-aged filmmaker and film teacher. As a filmmaker I am competing against the You Tube generation; both the You Tube filmmakers and those clients who think they are saving a buck by going that route. As a film teacher it is very hard- if not impossible- to stay ahead of the curve.

In the last 24 hours I have learned about a series of programs that allow people to shoot, edit and post their web movies, or vlogs. Here are the links, you decide for yourself it is a good thing or not. Everything you need for Video Blogging. Video editing- mixing they call it- for web movies.

As for me I am going to go bury my head in the sand.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Our Dinner With Stephen

Jim and his family just Netflixed The Queen and enjoyed it. It was directed by Stephen Frears, the man in the photograph, and when Jim saw his credit he said, "I know that guy!" And since I have been writing about voice over talent, Jim encouraged me to write about our dinner with Stephen Frears.

Those of you who have been kind enough to click on the links at the right of this page might have visited the Rainbow Soup site. Rainbow Soup is a children's television program we created about art and world culture. As part of that show we created an animated character (and if I was more clever I could probably figure out a way to get his image on here too, but no one ever accused me of being clever-Jim help!) called Lil' Will. Will is based on Shakespeare and lives in The Globe Theater. He appears and throws his magic quill (cleverly called Quill) at a spinning globe. Where it lands is where the program goes next. Brilliant, right?

So with the help of a few of my former students we created 37 seconds of cel animation. This took 6 months or more, from character sketches, through pencil tests and finally painted cells. While that was in the works we started looking for a voice over man, and long story short, Stephen Frears agreed to do it.

An aside to all people who wish to do anything that seems impossible. Just have a good idea, work hard and ask for help. You will be surprised how willing to help people can be. In the case of Rainbow Soup Stephen, Studs Terkel, Peter Gabriel and the Art Institute of Chicago gave up their time to help us. My entire career is based on asking strangers for favors.

Cut to a few months later and there we are at De Lane Lea studios in London recording Stephen Frears. He knocks off the copy in about 5 takes- though he was bothered by the fact that it isn't in perfect iambic pentameter. He sat for an interview telling us about his career path and we shared a pint. At the end of the session we asked if he wanted to join us for dinner, he said sure and suggested a Chinese restaurant in the Notting Hill section of London.

Evidently it is his local joint because he was well known when he entered. We had a lovely time. He was between films at the time so he was advising students at a London-area film school. When the check came he excused himself saying his wife had a big day tomorrow and left. (Did Stephen Frears walk the check on us?)

No, it was our pleasure. If you haven't seen The Queen, see it as well as these other Stephen Frears directed films.
Dirty Pretty Things
Mrs. Henderson Presents
The Grifters
Dangerous Liasons
Prick Up Your Ears
My Beautiful Launderette

I want to see a BBC film he directed, written by Peter Morgan who wrote The Queen called The Deal. If anyone has seen it please let me know.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

voice over

Writing yesterday about the Consort commercial got me thinking about voice over recording. One of the highlights the Consort spot was going to the voice over session and watching Pete Stacker record the track. Pete is probably most famous for being the booming voice on the Bud Light Real Men of Genius radio spots. He is a big guy, who looks a lot like his voice. When he recorded Consort, I wished we had a camera because he emoted and contorted and twisted his body and out came lines such as "Consort Hair Spray.... Hair Spray for... MEN!" It was funnier than anything in the commercial and his read saved the day.

On the other end of the voice over spectrum is Jeff Morrow. We have worked with Jeff a lot and it is a real joy. He takes one read of the script and then just knocks it off. The first time we worked with him, I think his entire session lasted under 10 minutes. I only asked for a couple of alternative takes, because he just got it. What is great about Jeff is that his reads make our writing better. If he read this blog aloud to you it would be so much better.

We first met Marty Peterson when she auditioned for a TV infomercial we did. She was great and we cast her. While working with her we discovered she also did voice over work- using a slightly different voice. We have hired her several times and without fail she is a pro. She is so good for the infomercial she introduced her own on-camera character and you would never know the same person read the intro and was on camera.

We have also recorded French, Arabic and Serbian voice overs for films. With a translator in the studio and in the editing room it worked out just fine and we had the added benefit of seeing our credits in Cyrillic.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Wiener and Still Champion

The only thing I remember about the film Reversal of Fortune is Jeremy Irons saying, “You have no idea” in response to a comment from Ron Silver telling him he is a very strange man. That line- you have no idea- could be our mantra when talking with ad agencies. I have written here before about the battle between good and better. A bigger problem, one I often see with students, is when there is no real idea, just sort of a general concept. The thinking goes, “We’ll figure it out later,” or “We’ll save it in editing,” or “We’ll fix it in the mix.” It never works out.

A few years ago Jim and I were hired by an ad agency to make a TV commercial for Consort Hairspray. The copywriter came up with what he thought was a brilliant, funny idea- “It’s gold, Peter!” It was maybe tarnished copper at best. Here’s the gag. A man is acting “cool” in a series of shots. We hear James Bond-esque music. At the big payoff, we see him filling an inflatable pool as his embarrassed wife watches. Hysterical, I know.

It goes from bad to worse. At casting instead of looking for character actors who could be funny, we look at male models- mimbos. Walking and talking at the same time is not their strong suit. After seeing 50 of these guys we insisted on seeing some actors, so the next day we saw some. One in particular was great- I am not mentioning his name to save him embarrassment, but he was in Second City, you have seen him on film and television and most recently he did a two-man off-Broadway show in New York. In the casting room he was making us laugh, he would have been great. But no, the copywriter wins, we hire a Haircut to be our lead actor.

On the shoot day we have a male model making his first TV commercial, and instead of hiring a character actress as “the wife,” we get another model, Ken and Barbie. Both were very nice people and would have made for a great print ad, but this is TV and we are asking them to act.

About six hours into the shoot we are filming the hysterical filling the pool shot. It’s not working. I know it, Jim knows it, the actors know it, but we keep tweaking. After the 10th take the copywriter bellows, “That’s not funny!” Immediately both actors assume it is them who are not funny and begin apologizing. What little confidence they had left, just went away. I tried to console them, while Jim spoke to the agency, then we traded places. It was a mess.

We shot for a few more hours. The gloom was palpable. Funny, was nowhere in sight. The next day we transferred the footage and began the edit. We ended up with a spot that aired on TV. I can’t say we saved it in editing, but we salvaged something. The funniest thing in the entire commercial was Jim’s dachshund, Molly.

When the funniest thing is a wiener dog, you know you have no idea.


5x8 Film Festival-part 4, Conclusion

The Edit

The Gushing Artery team left Galina Shevchenko’s apartment at 4:30. She slept for a couple of hours and began editing at seven. For Shevchenko, an accomplished artist from Moscow, this is her new art form. “I used to buy paints, now I buy hard drives.” She participates in the 5 x 8 because, “It is a challenge. Like running a marathon, it’s a way to check yourself, and there is a great party afterwards.” It is now about 11 and the film is beginning to take shape. There is a lot of the middle of the film- funny scenes, but no clear-cut beginning or end. She anticipates working until four before outputting the film and heading to Atomix.

At 2 p.m. Joe Winston sits behind his Avid at Superior Street. He is waiting for one scene shot during the day today to be delivered. Finally, at 2:35, Ted Hardin, the other Columbia faculty member on the team, arrives with a tape. It is of a young girl on a swing who says to the camera, “I know what happened to Group 18. It’s a secret.” It is the scene Winston promises that, “will tie the film all together.”

In Sean U’Ren’s apartment he and Christian Matts edit what they have. They are feeling good. When they arrived home Friday night’s shoot, Matts’ drunken neighbor agreed to be interviewed on camera, sharing his feelings about the disappearance of Group 18. Matts, rewound the one tape they had, and taped over U’Ren’s and Paul’s bus stop argument. U’Ren grabs a CD of accordion music and plays it underneath images of the drunken neighbor. Despite the unexpected benefit of the drunken neighbor interview, U’Ren explains his film still has problems. “There is not great audio, and it is lacking a plot, clear characters and any hope of resolution.”

Just before 5 p.m. bleary-eyed filmmakers begin dropping off tapes. A mini-traffic jam forms on Chicago Avenue in front of Atomix. Contestants leave their cars in the middle of the street and race inside, waving their tapes at Atom. Since, Rainbows 4 Jeebus cannot edit, their film is the first one in. The bad taste from last night has left Tyler. She is feeling pretty good about her film. “It is our best one yet, and I think people will like it.” By 5:30 all the tapes have been received and all 28 groups that showed up Friday night made a film that will be screened.

The Screening

250 people wedge into the Buddy Artspace on N. Milwaukee. They sit on old couches, lawn chairs, and folding chairs. They lean against the walls and crash on the floor. Two video projectors are aimed at walls at right angles to each other so everyone can see. Eventually, the owners of the building tell U’Ren and Paul the room is a fire hazard and people are turned away. The screening begins at 8:15 with a home movie Sean and Atom made to describe the rules and provide context to the festival. It is better than the film they entered.
For the first time 5 x 8 feels like a film festival rather than a contest. The first film begins. Group 18 is depicted as a guerilla commando group who find it difficult to make the transition into guerilla filmmaking. It is funny. The crowd likes it. When it is over there is a big round of applause. The festival is underway. The second film is Rainbows 4 Jeebus. It is perhaps the most experimental of the bunch. Since they could only edit in camera, there is a place where about five seconds are repeated. It is received with polite applause. No one seems offended by their parable.

The films play one after the other. Most are funny. Several are mockumentaries. If the MPAA was involved they would rate the evening PG-13 for language and mild violence. Some, like Rainbows 4 Jeebus, and one set in an insane asylum are experimental. It is almost impossible to tell a difference between films made by the film “professionals” and the “amateurs.” Many films, Ow MyEye, Gushing Artery and U’Ren’s and Paul’s pass by largely unnoticed by the crowd.

By 10 p.m. the screening is over and the climatic moment has arrived. It is up to the judges to decide the winners and clearly six or seven films are better than the rest. The ones that stood out paid close attention to details. Props and wardrobe make a big difference. Of the six prizes awarded all had some form of art direction, be it a giant joint in “Stoned to Death,” or a guy in a clown suit smashing a watermelon in “Seven Short Films About Group 18.”

At the end of Hearts of Darkness Francis Ford Coppola says the great films of the future will not be made by Hollywood, but by a “little fat girl in Ohio” who borrows her father’s video camera and makes a great little movie without studio interference. Coppola might be on to something. The winners of the 5 x 8 Video Festival are not professionals. They are architects.

The winning group is number 16, Secretly Blonde, and their film is called, “What am I doing?” Secretly Blonde is led by Deborah Chase, and of the winning films it the one that least hammers home the theme of what happened to Group 18? Secretly Blonde finished 4th at the last festival and this time, “we knew we were bad asses.” They, too, were unhappy with the topic, and until midnight they were going to make another film. The group couldn’t agree on concepts so they drew ideas from a hat. They shot on a borrowed camera and edited on Deborah’s home computer with iMovie.

In the film, we follow a member of Group 18 as he makes a series of mistakes and bad judgements while repeating the phrase “What am I doing?” It is very funny and features perhaps the most interestingly composed shot of the entire festival. Using a wide-angle lens the camera is in a moving shopping cart going through a grocery story. The camera feels as if it is floating through space behind two giant cans of tomatoes.
Chase will get the editing software because she paid the 15-dollar entry fee. She says the festival, “was the most fun I have ever had, almost.” Secretly Blonde plans on entering the next 5 x 8 festival in October, but first Chase is going to get copies of her house keys made so her teammates can use the software.