Monday, December 17, 2001

If I Join Islam, Do I Have To Quit Having Sex With White Woman?

Submitted by Bill the Rake

An overheard cell phone conversation between Jamie Foxx and Muhammad Ali on the Ali movie set.

The main actors on the stage were Michael Mann with his digital video dance, Will Smith, totally becoming the great boxer Muhammed Ali, Jon Voight playing Howard Cosell and everyone thinking he was Howard, and Jaime Foxx playing chess. The supporting actors were Ron Silver as Angelo Dundee who after Ali became Bobby Riggs the tennis fiend, Mario Van Peeples who with Malcolm X's daughter's approval plays Malcolm X, and the actual boxer who played Joe Frazier and almost knocked out Will Smith on many an occasion.

In short, you can sum up this movie as a hard class run by a mean teacher that everyone complained about, but the class was really the only time you ever learned anything. Forget what you thought you should have known.

Filmmaking in essence is like going to a big ass keg party. Everyone tries to stand around the keg and drink from the monitor. It's always a lot of people standing around and after about two million feet of film, voila - it's a one-hundred and fifty-three minute movie! I got to play his Uncle Jim attending the Joe Frazier vs. Cassius Clay fight in Miami back in 1960 something as well as a Houston Bubba Cop at some hotel where Michael Mann says, "Now stand against the car like youse had a hawd day at werk."

In attendance was one of my buddies dressed up as Wayne Newton. Also there was every starlet in Hollywood, who were all placed in close proximity of Jamie Foxx so he could tantalize them. Old timers who owned yachts but loved boxing, Naomi Campbell stalkers, and the most interesting was Rock Hudson's butler who claimed matter a factly that Rock would tuck him into bed each night, seriously, with milk and cookies.

All we had heard about the film before walking on to the set was that the producers were ex-hair and make-up people from Sony and that Michael Mann was the director of Miami Vice. As for the assistant director, we thought his family owned Waxman's Camera Shop in Denver and Chicago so we respected his orders for action. And well, Will Smith looked more like Muhammad Ali than say, Will Smith. They told us he had trained for two years.

John Voight told us that his old man was the golf pro of Czechoslovakia. When it came time to act Michael Mann had a hard time getting him do anything when he called him "Jon." But when he finally called him "Howard" all the thespians within earshot felt that was like a years worth of method acting classes and vowed to take those classes no more.

When Jaime Foxx took time out from his Russian style chess match, he braved playing Ali's doctor, Drew "Bundii" Brown. In between shots he related to the seriousness of the film and told us that his father was in the Texas penitentiary system on death row and that he was indeed proud to be from Texas and that Terril, Texas was the home of the Texas State Mental Institution. He also tried to get the starlets to think he was sensitive by asking them if they watched "Oprah."

Forget what you think you know.

The Ali poster says a thousand words. The expression on Will Smith's face shows the blows that he's about to receive and the true intensity of the fight scenes. He does look like he is "the greatest." He truly learned how to box and almost got knocked out on many occasions. He taunted, incited, and joked with us after every shot. I asked a child actress who's father was a boxing promoter about the Ali movie and from her response I gathered that if you thought showbiz was tough, well turn boxing up to an nth degree.

When there was a lull in the action and Will Smith had worn out all the rehearsal moves, the real live Angelo Dundee would consult the actor. When all else had failed, he would demonstrate a boxing punch much like "Popeye the Sailor Man" in full circle wind up and then release with an upper cut. The filmmakers tried to match the exact moves of the actual fight from the original black and white footage. So we spent most of our time reenacting the actual fight between Cassius Clay and Joe Frazier, so if you were there like my Uncle Jim you would be transported back into time.

With the advent of television in the fifties boxing was just far too brutal. Doctors today are rigorously trained to know when a boxer is at the point of no return. Sometimes like modern gladiators boxers would get killed in the ring, so for better or for worse Cassius Clay came along in the tradition of professional wrestling's Gorgeous George Wagner and single-handedly saved the sport of boxing with his poetry and antics, rope-a-dope wrangling Howard Cosell along the way. The Ali movie should be a testimonial to the American spirit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I'm going to forget what I think I know and watch Jamie Foxx's bald spot for continuity, as well as all the characters in the background.

Monday, December 03, 2001

The Making of Despair

Submitted by Mark Baranowski

Like countless other screenwriters awaiting their first script sale, I was getting nowhere. I'd completed five already and even helped a few minor producers fine-tune their own creations without pay. Bills were piling up and my patience was wearing thin.

Having been both an independent musician and sketch artist since 1990, the itch to test the waters of a new creative outlet, screenwriting, finally came in late 1999. I managed to complete my first script within a month's time, then immediately began pitching it to everyone; production companies, agents/managers, actors, and even composers - anyone with the slightest connection to the film industry.

Ultimately, it was all for nothing. Receiving either rejection letters or no reply at all, I stopped pitching and began my second script. Actually, I did get one somewhat positive reply, from actor Bruce Campbell. It read something like, "Never look to others to fulfill your own dreams. Become a producer and shoot the film yourself." Though I was excited to hear from one of my idols, I shunned the advice since I had no desire to get involved with the actual production of a film.

Acquiring a Hollywood manager on the basis of my second script, I kept writing, fully motivated and encouraged that I was actually getting somewhere within the business. Getting "the business" was more like it however, as a year and-a-half had passed with no progress from this "manager" whatsoever, along with empty promises from one shady "producer" after another. I'd even self-published two short books within that time, to keep my writing skills honed and my name more widely recognized (to be honest, I was desperate for some additional income). By the end of September 2001, I decided it was time to take Bruce's advice.

My wife, Ryli Morgan, had begun modeling nearly seven months earlier, with similar results. Sure, she'd gotten some terrific photos, a lot of fan mail, and a greater financial return than I'd seen from any of my own projects completed within the past three years. Unfortunately, the requests for porn and those same empty promises from people claiming to be something they weren't outweighed the positives, and she was due for some renewed inspiration.

Thoroughly disgusted with current Hollywood releases, the lack of any recent worthwhile horror films, and the misinformed notion that the production of even an independent film requires thousands of dollars, I sat down and wrote what would be my directorial debut - Despair determined to set things right.

The story was based on my own frustrations as a struggling artist (taken to extremes, of course), and with consideration of my available resources - two people (myself included) and a miniature bunny, one location and a VHS-C camcorder. Because I expected a somewhat grainy-looking film on account of the format, I wanted a befitting storyline that this would complement, thus giving it a more realistic look and feel.

I hadn't originally planned on making a short, but halfway into writing the script, I found it was nearly impossible to keep things interesting for ninety minutes, using only the aforementioned resources. No matter what length it turned out to be, however, I wanted to be certain the film would remain within the "middle ground" of the horror genre - between the watered-down, pathetic Hollywood fare and the over-the-top, gore and sex-laden indies from other first-timers.
The script was completed in three days, written while working as a locksmith, my "day job" of seven years. Filming took approximately ten hours, split equally between two consecutive evenings. I'm sure Ryli would have preferred some relaxation time upon returning home from her own job, and I must commend her on being a trooper; she helped me realize my often twisted visions in the shortest amount of time (and with as little resistance) as possible. I never could have pulled off Despair without her.

Filming would have taken less time, but I chose to edit the tape with the camera itself while shooting, making sure each scene was perfect before moving onto the next. The only difficulty I had during the entire shoot was getting that damned bunny to cooperate! Usually, if I'm sitting at one end of the couch, he'll run right to me. Once the camera was running, however, he froze, and it took much prodding from Ryli just to get him to enter the frame. He did fantastic in his final scene, though; I couldn't have asked for a "deader" animal.

The next (and most tedious) task was scoring the film. Finding suitably haunting music to accompany it wasn't the problem, it was creating a tape of nearly continuous loops to fade in and out of each scene at precisely the right moment that had me anxious to get the entire project over and done with. Once the music was completed, I transferred the film to standard VHS (from camera to VCR), connecting the audio cables only during scenes containing dialogue. Finally, a second VCR simultaneously recorded the music coming from my four-track recorder and video/dialogue from the first VCR, creating a master.

The final step was to come up with an effective package design and some promotional material, both of which were created using various stills Ryli and I had taken at the start of the production. As a bonus to potential viewers, I produced a CD soundtrack to the film and made both available at my official Website,, on October 7, a mere two weeks following the initial concept of the project.

Now that it's all finished and I've watched the film at least a dozen times, I can say that I'm completely satisfied with how it turned out, and the reviews thus far have been even better than I'd hoped for. EI Independent Cinema plan to distribute the film as extra material on a future DVD release and even plan to cast Ryli in at least one of their upcoming productions.
As for me, I've already been asked to direct a number of local producers' projects. I think it's safe to say I'm truly getting somewhere. It's about time.

Monday, November 26, 2001

What Can Become Of Me?

Submitted by Richard Yard

What becomes of a person when they have the hunger and passion for something that seems so genuine to them? What becomes of a person when his love for entertainment makes him strive for bigger and better things? What becomes of a person when his family and friends do not give him the support he needs and deserves? What becomes of a person when his age determines if he is taken seriously or not?

This is how life is presented to me in the entertainment field. I am a very talented individual but there are many obstacles in my way. I know these are obstacles that I must find a way around if I'm going to be successful. My love is for entertainment, and it doesn't start and end with directing, it includes acting, urban dance, writing, and cinematography.

I've loved the entertainment industry for as long as I can remember, but it wasn't until middle school when I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. People laughed and didn't give me the support that I needed. The only people I could turn to help me were my close friends. They seemed into the idea of writing and making a horror movie, so much so that they took up the offer with no hesitation. Soon everything was moving forward and seemed to be going well. We even started on our first movie, Satan's Secretary. I put lots of time and hard work into the film, but right before my eyes my career with my friends disappeared. They seemed to lose interest as we progressed, just as I was gaining interest. I guess that was what blinded me.

Then came life after I got into Hightower High School. Hightower is a special school that specializes in media, digital graphics, engineering, and medical science. I had to apply by filling out papers and a survey. I was overjoyed when I got the news that I was accepted. Hightower's Media Academy gives us hands on experience with equipment that movie directors, television stations, film editors, and many others use. During my freshman year, we produced a high quality news program every other day. Now as a sophomore, we put together news packages where we have to film the story, edit it, create audio tracks, and much more. During the next two years, we'll shoot short films, talk shows, and other programs. We'll also team up with CNN to produce various news segments for future broadcast.

At high school, I've gotten together with two other students that are as dedicated to film as I am. We started our own production company where we made several short films and had plans for a feature. Currently, we are moving in a different direction, but I'm still trying to gain experience in the film and television industry. As an individual, I have decided to move on to bigger and better things with or without the support of my family and friends. I've started writing a sitcom and plan to film it once the script is complete. I'm also going to start writing my first feature film. I'm currently working on several music videos in order to expand my knowledge of cinematography.

As of right now, I plan to go solo with my writing and directing. I've been trying to get my foot in the door at several production companies so I can gain some more insight into everything that goes on in the world I love. I feel that no one but myself can hold me back. I love the entertainment world so much, that even though some people look down on me, I refuse to hide my talent from the world. So everyone better watch out, because I'm right behind you.

Motion Capture at Red Eye Studio

Submitted by Maggie Bohlen

Camera! Rolling! Action!

Red Eye Studio is the Midwest's premier motion capture studio, designed to fulfill every animator's need, whether it be for film, television, video games, broadcast, medical, educational, or research and development.

Red Eye Studio recently finished work for a video game project, Hunter: The Reckoning for the Xbox™ video game system from Microsoft. Developed by High Voltage Software, Inc. for Digital Mayhem based on the popular license from White Wolf Publishing, Inc., Hunter: The Reckoning is scheduled to ship Q1, 2002.

In this article we would like to give you an idea of what it took to plan and execute the motion capture work for projects like Hunter: The Reckoning.

Every project, no matter what the medium requires planning, and the pre-production work for a motion capture shoot is vital to its success. After successfully bidding and obtaining the contract for a shoot the studio begins working with the lead artist or the director of the project. During the setup and contracting phase the client defines the involvement required by the studio. In the case of the Hunter: The Reckoning project we were called upon to assist in finding the talent for the shoot. The lead artist on the project worked closely with the studio to provide input on the personality of each character where motion capture was needed. The first challenge for the studio is finding the talent, which not only meets the physical requirements of the character but the personality as well. We find that sometimes the best performers are the artists themselves. They have a vision as to how their character should behave, how they should move. We have found that the artists prove to be great performers as they bring their vision of the character to life. Although sometimes we wonder if it might have something to do with wanting to suit up in tight fitting spandex suits with reflective markers. It does give us the opportunity for some great blackmail pictures.

The shot list is another important part of the pre-production work. The stage space and the cameras must be set up based on the types of moves the client wishes to capture. If the client needs someone climbing stairs, we bring in the stairs and position the cameras so we can be sure that the performer is caught at every point on the staircase. If we decide to fly a performer through the air on a jerk harness, or push them off a cliff, we rehearse the move in advance, to be sure that on the day of the shoot we have covered all the challenges we may encounter with a difficult move.

The studio staff and the performer are all briefed on the shoot; and we have a rehearsal with the director to insure that all parties know what to expect on the day of the shoot.

On shoot day the team arrives to calibrate the system, the performer is there early to be suited up, and to have the markers attached and then calibrated. The calibration process on our Vicon 8 system calculates the camera positions and orientations relative to each other and to an origin and set of axes. We have 16 Vicon Mcams, which are million pixel resolution cameras that can capture data up to 240 frames per second. Once the calibration has been completed the system and the team are ready to go when the director arrives. Of course, if we need to pamper the talent or the director, we are quite happy to step up to the task. Flowers, candy, a latte or two and we should be on our way.

The shot list is the bible for the day; the studio team works with the director to capture every move. Each shot is performed two to three times by the actor and the director will identify the best shot. The studio team will check shots through out the day to insure that all data looks good, and is clean. We need to be sure that no major markers fall off the performer during shooting. We do have the ability to clean data and replace markers that are missing, but if we feel that the move is questionable and appears to look robotic or unnatural, the shot will be redone. We have the chance to be a little creative in motion capture; unique character movement or props play an important role in the shoot. For example, if a person needs to simulate being shot, we suit the performer up in a jerk vest and we pull the performer's body part being shot to simulate the bullet impact. We have even had the fun adventure of motion capturing an iguana!

Any props are built to weigh and handle roughly the same as the real items. This way when you capture someone handling a fifty-pound weapon, the body reacts appropriately. We did one shot where the actor needed to lift a dead man's face to a retina scanner to gain entry into a secure area. We had one of our cam eramen pose as a dead body in order to get the most lifelike, well deathlike shot.

After all the shots have been taken another phase of the shoot begins. The studio's next step is to process the data and perform tracking or clean-up. During the tracking process the studio team will review each shot that the director identified as best. Any gaps in the move will be corrected and each move will be checked for any noise. The noise is not due to a big band sound, but unnatural spikes in the performer's movement. All moves go through a quality control process, where we apply the movement to a character insuring that any possible problems are caught before sending the data to the client. Our studio will deliver an average of 140 to 150 moves per week back to the client.

When not working with a client, the studio team takes some ideas for motion capture and tests those ideas out. The picture below is a result of one of those ideas. We had a guitarist come in to play for us. We applied three-millimeter markers to his hands, and then applied that same size to his face. In total there were 120 markers on the performer, including the guitar. We used all sixteen cameras and positioned them to focus on specific parts of the body.

If you would like to contact Red Eye Studio for further information, price quotes, or some sample data, please feel free to contact Maggie Bohlen at 847.843.2438.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad TV World!

Submitted by Bill the Rake

We finally went down to brave the teenage riot of fans who attend the taping of Mad TV. I'd seen a lot of Mad TV shows that even the cast would agree were pretty crappy, but this night was one of shear hi...hi...hilarity. The kids practiced their favorite impersonation of Will Sasso doing "Arnuld" or rapped about the show, hoping it would get back to Quincy Jones, one of the executive producers. Each actor is amazingly versatile and strong at portraying their satirical victims.

Watching the eccentric crew members was as entertaining as the sketches or the audience members. One wardrobe guy looked like an inebriated extra in Spinal Tap with his shoes untied. The directors even pick audience members to star in certain sketches. But as much fun as we had, the crew had just as much fun watching the audience. They seemed bored while shooting the scenes and were happy to get back at gawking at the audience.

Mad TV is videotaped before a live audience in Hollywood at the old Monogram Studios of Howard Hughes, James Cagney, Desilu, and Beverly Hillbillies fame, now known as the Hollywood Center Studios. It's the same spot where Comedy Central tapes The Man Show.

All of these shows are basically the same, with three cameras in a square, two story high, wooden barn. If you've watched the show, the closing shot is on the left, and the special guest/musical act is on the right. On this particular night, the guest was "Kenny Rodgers" portraying "Lemmy from Motorhead." The rest of the space is divided into separate stables for each scene that is taped that night. The audience is seated in the middle surrounded by two stables on each side. This allows for the taping of up to seven separate scenes with a real audience response.

Mad TV is the Henry Ford factory system of television production, belting out two shows every other week with just one audience. They've produced over seven-hundred shows since it's debut in 1993. Their rival, Saturday Night Live, has to tape in front of the same audience each week, which for some reason the Mad TV writers like to make fun of in their sketches. Mad TV is on Fox on Saturday nights and TNN on weekday nights.

One thing about seeing a live taping of a television show is that the magic is tarnished when you see the mistakes and the actors in three-dimensions. You may dream that Will Sasso can literally kick the rock's ass, but when you see that he's shorter and fatter than the rock, you know that's not going to happen. You see Alex Borstein and realize how tall she's not, but that she's still cute as a pear. Alex Borstein doesn't give credit to anything on her resume. If you're that gal that has a crush on Michael McDonald with regards to his "Rusty" or "Stuart" characters, you won't when you realize he's taller than the boom stand and older than "Rusty" and "Stuart" combined. Michael McDonald put down on his resume that he was a Roger Corman extra. You also realize that Debra Wilson is not a crack addict in real life, she's just hyper. But all in all, it's just as funny and you do get to see the outtakes when Aires "Brittany" Spears' mixer bowl falls off his head when he's portraying Belma, his fat black lady character.

The scene the audience guest starred in was a spoof of The Price Is Right. Mo Collins played that weird lady from Minnesota (Lady Lorraine) who goes on The Price Is Right. After viewing Lady Lorraine's hind quarters climbing down to The Price Is Right podiums, the audience got to see Debra Wilson's tube top fly off as she jumped for joy, mocking an actual The Price Is Right episode. Another thing about the taping is that you get to see the vulgarities and the outtakes. The kids like the vulgarities. Mad TV. Oh my gawd, it's a mad, mad, mad, Mad TV world.

Monday, November 12, 2001

So You Wanna Be a Filmmaker?

Submitted by Herk

What is this movie about?

Americans love a bargain. Not only do they want their money's worth, you better give them a hardy discount to boot. So if they're going to spend nine bucks hard earned and invest two hours on a certain Saturday night to catch a movie, you better not go cheap on the trimmings.
In the end, Americans are willing to pay for the perception they're getting nine dollars worth of entertainment, even if the final product may turn out to be only nine dollars worth of packaging. Movies today have higher production values than movies in the past. Consequently, "film criticism" today is not anymore about film as fine art, it's about whether or not you'll get cheated out of your nine bucks and two hours spent on a Saturday night. Movies have become commodities, as all art eventually will become. As everything will eventually become.

Yet there are forces at work where this makes sense and why it must be so. Fact is, film is a collaborative art and a financial reality to be reckoned with. If you're a person dying to become a filmmaker and you can't accept that, then don't go into filmmaking. Unlike a painter or an author, you can't say "I will make my film. I will realize my vision. Audience be damned."

Film is the most expensive art form and the collaboration of many talented people - many paid talented people. So what to do? Executive producers must finance a film understandably with prospects of at least recouping their money if even a little profit. We are not living the salad days of wealthy aristocratic patrons supporting the arts. Even way back when, there weren't any wealthy patrons willing to pay for food catering, for key grips, script supervisors, and fat cameramen. Film is grounded in an economic reality and any potential filmmaker not also rooted in this reality should find another vocation.

And there is no shortage of self-pitying, misunderstood artist-types who insist on their god-given right to dip ceremoniously into other people's hard earned cash to realize their "brilliant script." Any rejection of course is met by bitter complaints that "conglomerates" have become too commercial. "They're not interested in art," they say "They're only interested in the bottom line." So back they go flipping burgers. Let's see how easy it is for them to pluck down a couple million for their so called inherent right to express. As long as it is not their money who gives a damn, right?

Who is a filmmaker?

The expression of a filmmaker is through the medium, not through a "story." Any filmmaker more fascinated by the subject of his film than the filmmaking process itself, has committed the sin of reducing film to less than its medium - a sin akin to those annoying people who, unable to use chopsticks, stab at their food and then shove it into their mouths. Poetry is not prose, radio drama is not theater. So theater is not cinema. Cinema is told in images, the manipulation of which is its own unique "dialog." Or, as Uncle Hitchcock said, "We're dealing in pictures here! These words, get rid of them!" That's why most wannabes with a "brilliant script" (usually about their domestic life) don't qualify as true filmmakers and why they're never financed. And that is why as brilliant a gift Woody Allen or David Mamet has for dialog, visionary filmmakers they are not and their movies are scarcely watched by the mainstream.

A filmmakers' first allegiance is not to the "story" but to the storytelling. How will he tell the story? Through images? What angle? Through sound? Through dialog? Through editing? That is the work of the true filmmaker. Let these works be brought to life through their original medium, and we will have a much happier, less schizoid society.

If you are unwilling to sacrifice for your vision, then your film was not worth making and probably not worth seeing. In the end, those who want to be filmmakers will become filmmakers, and those who truly want to realize their vision will.

Life will imbue the gifts and the circumstances to realize true burning desires.

Monday, October 29, 2001

There's No Need to be Story-bored!

Submitted by Rhoni Doss and Mark Cooper

As a city where the traditional breakfast is mouse flakes, and the most respectable workplaces have at least one smoking area, it's sometimes said Orlando isn't exactly a breeding ground for creativity, (as in Los Angeles or New York City). But tucked away into the Conway quarter of town, between the International Airport and downtown Orlando is the Quick-Draw Studio, one of the world's more creative and experienced pre-production storyboard shops.

Storyboard artist, Mark Cooper's fifteen years of experience has resulted in quick storyboards in Orlando, Florida, the Cayman Islands, B.W.I., and Houston, Texas for clients the world over such as the "Truth" campaign, Haxan Films, Lockheed Martin, Universal, Soundelux, Nitrate Films, Seaworld, and independent producers and directors. His credits include: the motion picture Heart of Love, The Back Street Boys MTV music video of the year, the SuperBoy television series, and over one-hundred television commercial spots including Meineke, Nike, Sprint, K-mart, Dodge, Minute Lube, Super Cuts, Disney and Euro Disney to name a few. As owner of the Quick-Draw company, Mark helps bring together producers, directors and their crews on the same (storyboard) page. Mark's experiences as a storyboard artist range from music videos, television commercials and stage shows, to character development for indies and boards for feature motion pictures. He elaborated on his duties, "The boards allow producers to get accurate bids on CGI (computer generated images) effects. When boarding for a Meineke television campaign, the series of spots were cast directly from the characters I created in the storyboard art. I took that as a huge compliment and it made the casting agent's and the art director's job much easier. The crews also appreciate the boards during production by indicating lighting effects." Mark often wears many hats within his storyboard frames. One second he's a stunt coordinator and the next he's a fashion designer. He also comments that, "As a storyboard artist, you can sometimes find yourself working on the opening scene last."

One of Mark's most recent gigs was with those zany guys that directed and produced the original Blair Witch Project. He expounded on his specific storyboard experiences with the Haxan Films' project Heart of Love, "My contract began as a one and a half month project to board up only CGI scenes. Due to the writer's and then the actor's strikes, development time was doubled and the producer asked me to board up the entire motion picture." Initially, after reading The Heart of Love script, a meeting was arranged with the two directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick, to discuss any questions Mark had and to convey their perception of the main characters. Illustrations of the over 1000 storyboard frames began. The CGI scenes were primarily drawn first. All the while, storyboards where photocopied, logged, numbered, and reviewed by the directors daily. Several table readings were conducted to further scrutinize the script making minor revisions and passing them on to Mark. When nearly completed, the boards were shuffled off to one of the upstairs editing suites for shooting frame by frame in preparation for the animatics and animatic voice-overs.

Mark commented, "Working with directors Ed and Dan means a lot of working hard and laughing hard. Good java, the daily office foosball tournament, practical jokes, and unsolicited sales people at the door is an unusual yet creative environment. In one humorous incident, the producer set up a Tiki goddess alter, compete with a fog machine, on top of the receptionist's counter. The next morning Mike's Tiki goddess was under siege by Ed's fifty marching and flying alien action figures!"

Mark admits that many directors don't use storyboards. He addressed that by saying, "Without the storyboard art as an organizational tool, those directors routinely find themselves going over budget." The storyboard artist sets in motion the visual story telling to address issues before casting, location scouting and on set direction begins. In this light, storyboards can definitely be key in a smooth running production.

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

Rules of Ultra-Low Budget Casting

Submitted by Chris Watson

1) Never pay for an actor who isn't a name. For instance, don't pay your neighbor money to be in your movie unless he's been in at least one film. I paid Joe Estevez and Robert Z'Dar on my first feature. Bruce Baum and Eric Edwards worked for nothing. I had several unknowns requesting money or they wouldn't show, but Bruce Baum, who works regularly on stand-up circuit, The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway? worked for nothing. If they're not a name, don't pay them.

2) Make a star out of the smallest person. For instance, we had a local blues singer do a cameo. To most people it was nothing, but to a cast and crew out to make a movie it's a big thing. We also used a local model and some other local celebrities. I mean, we're in the middle of Kansas, so these people aren't celebrities. However, it added punch to a really small movie.

3) Pursue any celebrity within your reach. Bruce Baum was doing stand-up at a local club so I dragged my co-writer to go see him. We talked to him for a bit and then convinced him to do a cameo in his free time between gigs. This goes along with rule number two, which includes even the smallest celebrity. In our case, it was a blues singer, model, and professional actor.

4) Everybody knows somebody. It's true that everybody knows somebody. My neighbor knew Gene Bicknell, a veteran of multiple movies. The newspaper lady knew some ladies who had been in Spaceballs and other movies. The photographer knew Robert Z'Dar from Tango and Cash. A friend knows a lady from Baywatch. Robert Z'Dar knew Joe Estevez. Our original assistant director knew Eric Edwards. The list goes on. Pursue them without worry of appearing desperate because YOU ARE DESPERATE. The smallest name can get your film into a festival or get it distribution.

5) Always have a back-up plan. I lost two cameo actors to another production, one to a motorcycle accident, and one to surgery during the filming of Mob Daze. I also had to recast multiple parts just weeks before and even during production. If you have a back-up plan, or just know how to scrounge, then you'll feel like a king when production is over and you've saved the film by having a plethora of actors to choose from.

6) Do not count on friends. I can't stress this enough. I cast a short with friends and neighbors and one showed up. Even your best friend will not show up. It seems to be the unwritten rule of filmmaking. Cast your film with actors who have a true heart for filmmaking. Even if you have money to pay them, tell them straight-up so you can see how much they want it. This, of course, only applies to the no name actors.

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Neglected Gems of Fantasy, Horror, and Science-Fiction Films

Submitted by Mark R. Leeper

One of the things I like to do occasionally in my film reviews is to reference to some very good film that I doubt most of my readers have heard of and to which I would like to call some attention. There are a lot of decent films, and a handful of very good ones, that at this point may exist only in the film libraries of obscure television stations, and when these few prints disappear the films will be gone. I would like to generate interest in some of these films, if not to help save them, at least to alert people that if they do get a chance to see them, it is a rare chance and you should give the films a look.

Of course, there are a lot of obscure films that are showing up on videotape today, many of them very poorly made films. It is ironic that some terrific films are being over-looked, but in each case I think I can understand why some producer would think the film would not sell well on tape. I still recommend these films highly. This list was initially composed in the mid-seventies, but in the interim I have been adding to it, and in some cases deleting. I have removed Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth), still in my opinion, the best science fiction film ever made, because it is no longer really obscure. I take some pride that my efforts to bring this film to people's attention may be part of the reason it no longer is obscure in the United States. Perhaps this list will help in some small way to make some of the other films more available and perhaps be discovered by new fans. Every one of these films has something unique that appeals to me. Not every film will appeal to every viewer. If these films had appealed to every viewer, it is much more likely they would still be around and popular.

It is of interest to notice how often the name Richard Matheson shows up in this list. That is probably as it should be. Matheson is one of the great under-appreciated names in fantasy, horror, and science-fiction. He has made a greater contribution than Stephen King, but most modern fans do not even know his name. This list was intended to bring attention to neglected films, but just as important, I hope it brings attention to a neglected man.

Faust (1926)

Director F. W. Murnau is best known for Nosferatu, the making of which was dramatized in Shadow of the Vampire. This is another fine film from him. There is a lot of good visual fantasy in this film version of the famous play by Goethe. There is a terrific image of the devil spreading his cape over a village, and many other visual surprises throughout.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

The story, based on a lesser-known novel by Victor Hugo, could be better, but Conrad Veidt is terrific in the role of a man whose face is carved into an obscene, huge, involuntary grin. This makes everybody interpret him as constantly happy. Veidt conveys a full range of emotions through his eyes alone. The grinning Veidt was the visual inspiration for Batman's foe The Joker.

The Dybbuk (1939)

At times this is very slow, but also at times a very effective horror film. This was a low-budget film in Yiddish, but is now restored and subtitled in English. The "Dance of Death" scene has become an eerie classic. The story deals with a man's soul returning from the dead to possess the woman promised to him and whom he loved. Most of the filmmakers died in the Holocaust shortly after the film was made.

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Other Val Lewton films get more attention but this film is blacker and bleaker than anything ever done in film noir. This is a solid mood piece that stands above Lewton's other films. A woman searching for her sister runs afoul of murder and Satanists.

Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon) (1957)

This film has gotten some attention because of an allusion in a song in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but at the time of the original writing it was rarely seen. Now it is a little better known, but still not to the degree it deserves. That is a pity because it is quite a nice, little supernatural thriller. It suffers a little from showing the audience too much too soon, but it still is suspenseful and well-written.

The Mind Benders (1962)

This film combines Cold War thriller elements with science fiction and a compelling human story. A scientist working on sensory deprivation commits suicide and is discovered to have been passing secrets to the Soviets. Was he to blame or could his mind have been twisted while under the influence of the sensory deprivation tank? The government investigator decides to experiment to find out. Another scientist working in the same field (played by Dirk Bogarde) is very devoted to his wife and family. Can the government investigators change that in his personality while he is in the tank? This film is well acted, enthralling, and atmospheric.

Night of the Eagle (a.k.a. Burn, Witch, Burn) (1962)

When Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont co-write a screenplay based on a novel by Fritz Leiber, you just naturally expect a good thriller. This story about an empiricist college professor discovering that his wife and several other professors' wives around him are actually witches. It is very well made and remains tense throughout.

Devil Doll (1963)

This is a wildly uneven film, but it has many very good moments. There have been several attempts to do stories of ventriloquist dummies who have lives of their own. This is the most intriguing treatment of that theme. For once the secret of what is happening is not a let-down.

Unearthly Stranger (1963)

A secret project is working on space exploration right in the heart of London. The approach to exploration is a novel one. Rather than sending the whole human into space, they are working on a sort of technological out-of-body experience. One can project one's mind to another planet and there have it take on physical form. The rub is that scientists on the project are being killed in some mysterious way involving super-high energy. And the wives of some of the scientists seem to have no background that project security can trace. The script is tense and the acting is quite good, with a cast that includes John Neville (A Study in Terror, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs). This film is so obscure that Leonard Maltin's usually very complete Movie and Video Guide overlooks it.

L' Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth) (1964)

One of the more negative aspects of this film is that it started the whole sub-genre of living dead and zombie movies. It is a fairly effective adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, with the screenplay by Matheson himself. Matheson must have been disappointed with the film or with Vincent Price's performance since he had his name taken off of the film. He probably lived to regret that decision since this film is much more intelligent than most modern horror films and it is certainly better than the big-budget empty remake, Omega Man. One human remains alive while every other human dies of the plague, but returns as a sort of vampire. Now the one human rules while the sun is up, but at night is besieged by the dead. I saw it on a double feature with the above-mentioned Unearthly Stranger. Wow!

Crack in the World (1965)

The first and last ideas of this film are pretty silly, but in between this is a fairly exciting super-disaster film. A scientist uses a nuclear missile to open a passageway to the hot core of the earth. Like a crack in a car windshield, this fissure starts to spread threatening to break apart the whole world. Some of the visuals are spectacular. There is also some interesting human drama.

Dark Intruder (1965)

This film is only fifty-nine minutes long and originally was intended as a television pilot, but was released to theaters to play with films such as William Castle's I Saw What You Did - which it far out-classed. Leslie Nielsen plays a detective in late 19th Century San Francisco whose foppish appearance hides a man very knowledgeable and adept in matters of the occult and the supernatural. A series of weird unsolved murders and a friend's blackout spells may be connected and have some occult significance. Mark Richman and Werner Klemperer also star. The latter, best known as the gullible commandant from Hogan's Heroes, does a terrific job in a sinister role.

The Devil Rides Out (a.k.a. The Devil's Bride) (1968)

Richard Matheson's very faithful adaptation of the black magic novel by Dennis Wheatley takes a science-fiction-like approach to Satanism. It is fast-paced and at times fairly intelligent. As an economy measure they cheapened the effect of showing the devil by not using a lot of special effects with the ironic effect that he seemed much more immediate and corporeal. This is one of Hammer's best horror films.

Witchfinder General (a.k.a. Conqueror Worm) (1968)

A vital and well-made historical fringe-horror film about one of the great villains of English history, Matthew Hopkins. Even Vincent Price does a reasonable acting job. The original musical score is actually quite beautiful, though there is a version with an entirely different and much less enjoyable score.

Satan's Skin (a.k.a. Blood on Satan's Claw) (1970)

In some ways an imitation of the style of Witchfinder General. A 17th century English ploughman turns up the remains of a demon and the artifact exerts satanic influence on the children of the region. This is a very atmospheric film with an authentic historical feel.

Quest for Love (1971)

This film is loosely adapted from the short story Random Quest by John Wyndham. Colin Trafford (played by Tom Bell) is a leading scientist at the Britain Imperial Physical Institute when one of his experiments goes wrong. Suddenly he finds himself in a parallel London in a parallel Britain that has not been to war since the Great War in the early part of the century. In this world Trafford is not a physicist, but a popular playwright. He is also now married to a beautiful woman (played by Joan Collins) whose life he has made miserable with his selfish ways and his philandering. Can Colin convince the world he is the playwright while convincing his new wife that he is different? Then there are plot complications that lead to a fast-paced climax across parallel worlds. Denholm Elliot also stars in the story which is part science-fiction adventure and part love story.

Count Yorga, Vampire (1973)

This low-budget horror film redefined the concept of the vampire. As a reaction to the staid, hypnotic, and slow vampires of British horror films, this film makes most vampires fast moving, predatory deadly animals who hunt in packs. At the time this was pretty scary stuff and the film still has a lot of impact.

The Big Bus (1974)

Not very good as a science-fiction film, but it is science-fiction and it is a good film. Years before Airplane!, this film is along the same lines and very nearly as funny. This is a satire of disaster films as the evil villain Ironman tries desperately to destroy Cyclops, the first nuclear powered bus on its maiden voyage from New York to Denver.

Phase IV (1974)

Two mutually alien intelligences are seen in the beginnings of a serious war. It is really more about how each side collects information about the other and uses its physical differences against the other. Ants somehow develop a gestalt mind and prepare to make themselves the masters of the world. Visually very striking with direction by visual artist Saul Bass (best known for creating arresting title sequences for other directors' films). There is also some terrific insect photography.

Who? (1974)

This fairly accurate adaptation of Algis Budrys' novel had film stock problems and could not be released to theaters. That is a genuine pity. The Cold War story of the near future has a scientist important to military defense in a bad accident. The East Germans get a hold of him and return him to the West more prosthetic than living matter. Now the problem is, how do you prove that he is who he says he is?

To the Devil, A Daughter (1976)

In spite of some scenes that are overly graphic for some viewers and a low-key ending, this is a fast-paced supernatural thriller. The hero played by Richard Widmark is the disreputable author of popular exploitation books about the supernatural. The villain played by Christopher Lee is a stop-at-nothing idealist trying to save the world in a dangerous experiment using dark forces. The writing is crisp and unusual.

The Last Wave (1977)

Australian Peter Weir built his reputation on this strange, mystical film about a lawyer who finds he might be the fulfillment of an Aboriginal prophecy. Images of nature out of balance and an intriguing story make this film a real spellbinder. This is a hard film to pigeon-hole and the intelligence of the writing never flags. This is a film of the quality of The Wicker Man, but one which has gotten much less attention.

Dragonslayer (1981)

Lots of films try to do medieval high-fantasy, but this is probably the best. With the death of a great magician, his young apprentice must see if he has mastered enough of his master's art to destroy a terrific dragon who is ravaging the countryside. There are lots of nice touches in the script and years later the dragon remains the best ever created on film.

Knightriders (1981)

George Romero says he got this out of his system and never has to make another film like Knightriders. What a pity! This was one of the best films of its year. Superficially, this is the story of a traveling Renaissance Fair that features jousts on motorcycles. But it has some terrific characters and a theme of the struggle between integrity and commercialism and between idealism and practicality. And late in the film the viewer realizes that the film has also been doing something else all along - it would be a spoiler to reveal what. This is a neat piece of writing.

Lifeforce (1981)

Very few fans are willing to look beyond the naked woman and the zombies to see what is one of the most bizarre and audacious concepts for any science-fiction film. Vampires, we learn, are really beings that leak lifeforce into the atmosphere like a tire with a slow leak leaks air. They must replenish the force regularly or they die. Much as we put bacteria into milk to multiply and make yogurt or cheese, some huge, incomprehensible, amoral, alien race seeds earth with vampires. The numbers of these vampires will increase exponentially, leaking more and more lifeforce into the environment so the aliens can vacuum it up.

Brainstorm (1983)

Okay, admittedly I do not like the last third of this film. Up to that point however, it is magnificent. This is the film that they had to patch together because of the death of Natalie Wood. Up to that point it is a superb examination of how a new invention - the electronic communication of brain sensation, electronic telepathy - is going to completely change the human race. Most films do not portray the R&D environment very well, this one does it nearly perfectly. You could make fifty films and never use up the implications of the premise of this film.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

I am not generally a fan of Ray Bradbury's poetic prose. In this film I can appreciate what he is trying to do and he does create good suspense. Jonathan Pryce really projects malevolence as the owner of an evil carnival. This may be one of the most artistic horror films ever made. This film has several very good scenes and no bad ones. I really like a scene in which the evil Mr. Dark is tempting the Jason Robards character.

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

Hong Kong for a while was making its own horror films for their own audience. Their films are fast-paced, usually liberally laced with comedy and martial arts, but also having some interesting horror concepts. No one such film is all that terrific (at least among the films I have seen so far) but some are astonishing and full of unexpected touches. Look for the Chinese Ghost Story films, Wicked City, and Mr. Vampire, which must have a different name in China since it is really about Chinese hopping hosts.

The Runestone (1990)

Not a perfect horror film, but one with an intriguing idea and some decent, humorous writing to go along with the horror. The ancient Norse hid a runestone in Pennsylvania to get rid of the thing. It is the key to releasing the Fenris Wolf and bringing about the holocaust of Ragnarok. The stone is found, setting in motion events that could bring the end of the world. Peter Riegert is great as a laconic policeman pulled into the proceedings.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Hey, my introduction to science-fiction was with Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe, who flew with a rocket pack on his back. Those serials were tacky. This is what they would have done if they had a budget. We have a stylish look at Southern California in the 1930's with airplanes, movie stars, gangsters, and Nazi agents. In the middle of all this Cliff Secord finds a jet pack that lets him fly like Superman does. This film was popular in Japan, but never found much of a market in its native United States.

Cronos (1993)

A strange but very good film from Mexico about an alchemist's invention that gives the user immortality, but only at the cost of making that person a vampire. An aging antique dealer finds the immortality device only to have it destroy his life. One of the most creative horror films to be made in years. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a very creative eye.

Dellamorte Dellamore (a.k.a. Cemetery Man) (1994)

The Italians made the zombie movie that started the sub-genre, L' Ultimo Uomo Della Terra (a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth), so it is appropriate that they also made the film that put a bullet into the genre. This film lampoons all the conventions of the zombie film by just accepting them and taking them deadpan. Francesco Dellamorte manages a cemetery, so the important job falls to him to kill the dead when they come back. It is not the world's greatest job but someone has to do it and it does allow him to indulge in occasional necrophilia. A very strange film and at times very funny if you are not turned off by the subject matter.

Richard III (1995)

An alternate history science-fiction film by William Shakespeare? I generally hate modern dress for operas and plays set in the past. Here it adds new meaning to Shakespeare's play. By setting Richard III in the 1930's, it becomes a stylish film of a fascist takeover of Britain. Ian McKellen is always great, but has never been better than as the elegant, malevolent usurper of the throne of England.

Kyua (a.k.a. Cure) (1997)

Even giving away the premise of this Japanese crime film probably gives away too much; however, since the film will probably almost never be seen outside of Japan, I will give the premise. The police have to solve a series of bloody murders, each with a different killer. The killers generally stay at the scene of the crime, but they have no memory of the crime, no motive, and are completely confused. Each case seems to be temporary insanity, but the pattern is too regular to be chance. By force of will, one person is influencing random people to become murderers. The process takes only an instant. Even knowing what is going on, the police are stumped as to how they can find the perpetrator and stop him.

Last Night (1998)

The film covers six hours, from six in the evening until midnight. Midnight is when the world comes to an end. How would you spend the last six hours of not just your life but the last six hours of the human race? The star, writer, and director is Canadian Don McKellar, who explores just that question in a film literally about the last night. This film is almost a loose and un-credited adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1953 short story, The Last Day. Still, McKellar manages comedy, drama, and a whole gamut of emotions.

Lake Placid (1999)

The fun of this film is not the monster, a giant crocodile, but the dialog as a mismatched group of investigators hunt for the creature in their local lake. The script writers formerly wrote for Northern Exposure and the dialog is very funny. The actual story of the film is decent, but that is not why the film is worth seeing.

Titus (1999)

A horror film by William Shakespeare? You better believe it. Broadway genius Julie Taymor (The Lion King) brings Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to the screen as the sickest, most violent, most perverted, and most wonderful Shakespeare film ever made. Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal seemed like a pale echo of his blood-lusting character in Titus. Jessica Lange also stars. Sudden death, rape, dismemberment, maiming, and cannibalism are all part of the story. And it is not toned down because it is for a Shakespeare audience. This noses out Richard III as the best Shakespeare experience I have ever had. Much Ado About Nothing comes in third.

© 1994, 2000, 2001 Mark R. Leeper

Monday, September 24, 2001

Mob Daze

Submitted by Chris Watson

At some point in my first year of college, I had the bright idea of making a film. It didn't start with images of money or the idea of fame. I was simply lying on my bed and in the dark, despite the fact it was three o-clock in the afternoon, and a vision came to me of my fellow classmates on my dorm floor as wannabe mobsters. One of the guys had a thick southern accent. I had the thought of a real mobster talking about how to become a mobster, and he'd say "You have to change your accents." The guy with the thick southern accent, Josh, would say "That shouldn't be a problem." Not extremely clever, but it made me laugh. Then, the real mobster would tell them they need guns. Josh would say "We've got guns."

The real mobster replies, "Let me see them." Josh pulls out a box and opens it, exposing a box full of hunting guns. Two decent jokes inspired me to contact a guy I had written with on an old magazine called Insane. Together, we decided on a story that would lead up to a short. The goal was to write a short film that would have such an impact that people couldn't help but want to pay to see more. We would make the short film, write the feature script, and pitch it to anyone with money. I pitched the idea to a film student who happened to be on my floor. He seemed to be eager to do it, so my co-writer David Lawson and I rushed out a short film script. However, this wannabe film student was the first of many to flake out, but it wasn't hard to find another film student to replace him and get us another broadcast quality camera.

Unfortunately, the flake out trend continued when this so-called director also flew the coup. Luckily, I had picked up a guy with a reasonable amount of knowledge from a filmmaking list. He was from the United Kingdom and had enough guts to be willing to pay his own way over to serve as a two bit crew member on a short film by some inexperienced college students. So Dave Thomas was awarded the director job and would actually stick with the project for well over a year.

We now had a director and David and I were now forcing a feature length script into the works. We just needed to find a format to film on. It was obvious with my bank account being under $5,000 that we wouldn't be able to shoot on film, so I started asking around about digital video. It appeared we had our format because it could be broadcast quality and also meant that the movie could be shot for very cheaply. However, we couldn't afford to buy all the equipment.
I did what I would do many times over - I went to the internet for help. I went to every independent film site I could find and put up classifieds and e-mailed local filmmakers for help and tried to get anyone I could to contribute. I got a ton of replies but very few wanted to help once they found out it was low budget - truly low budget. A few did come on board, including two with Canon XL1's. I would keep in constant contact with them, and eventually I sent out basic contracts to anyone still interested. I made a classic and major mistake in not binding them to the entire time period of the shoot. I would later have people showing up for a day here and a day there but they were useless other than to give a crew member a break for a day.

Once the crew was assembled, I began an internet search for cast members. Again, I got several replies but very few came through in the end. One of the many things I did for the movie was create a Yahoo club. I created it for two reasons. One, it was free publicity. Two, I could communicate with cast and crew and not have to e-mail everyone individually. I got two good actors from this site. A young college student came across the site and sent me a message. Brock Short began talking to me on a daily basis and would soon move from a runner to having the lead role in the project. Brock would also introduce me to a funny individual named Rist Gilgen. Rist would go on to play "Brett" in the movie, while Brock would play "Mark."

Casting flipped back and forth all the way through filming. At one time, we had one hell of a lead cast for such a small film. We had Eric Edwards from Blade, National Lampoon's Senior Trip, and Sergeant Bilko, as well as Australian actor Johan Earl from Code Black. Also on tap was semi-famous comedian Rodney Carrington. Each was working for nothing. This was a dream come true for an independent filmmaker and we were just weeks from shooting. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty. Let me start by saying we had five leads. Bryan Waller is the only actor I haven't mentioned that was lined up to play a lead. Johan got in a motorcycle accident and was unable to come. Rodney Carrington had a big money project come up, and I made another huge mistake in letting someone who knew Eric personally do the negotiating with him. I would soon find out Eric wasn't going to show up on the day he was supposed to start shooting. I had several days notice with Johan. Rodney's agent told me about his deal about two weeks before production. Bryan Waller is a different story altogether and one that I'll never understand. We had one hell of a day where the hotel we had set up at backed out on us the night we were to start shooting there. Then, while Dave Thomas and I drove around looking for hotels to make deals with, I got a call from a guy who had said he'd pick up Bryan, except he flaked out at the exact time he should have been leaving. I drove to Kansas City at a very fast speed in the middle of a storm with Dave Thomas and I in reasonably cheerful moods. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and sat around, wasting our valuable time. Waller showed and it was obvious that he was some kind of rich snot that would be trouble on the set. We are poor filmmakers, to say the least, and we were taking an enormous risk. We didn't really have the money to make a movie or to drive ten hours to the middle of Kansas. We were just guys who all wanted the same thing and we came together to do it. There would be sacrifice among all of us, and it's a bond that still stands among us. However, Waller had a different personality. His first comments to us involved getting him ahead of schedule so he could go to a concert. Long story short, he would soon bail. On a good note, he did pay me forty dollars.

The drive back to Pittsburg, Kansas, our main location, was a long one. Dave and I don't remember much, but I don't think either of us will ever forget that day. It was horrible and Dave kept talking about how everything was going down the tank. I was upset, very upset, but it was more because of the hotel situation. When Bryan Waller stepped out of my truck, I told Dave something like "I don't want him." Granted, it took me a few minutes to get it to click in Dave's head, but I think he was right there with me when I mentioned his attitude. To make a long story short, we had lost our hotel and one of the lead actors. What else could possibly go wrong?

Monday turned out to be the day where Brock Short and I would chase down the woman with the biggest bottom in history so we could find out if our lead actor was coming or not. As it happened, David Lawson and I would be roaming around Wal-Mart in Pittsburg when we came across the woman we had been hunting. She told us about several funerals she had to attend, but that everything was okay with the actor. Later on, I got a message from her saying that the actor wasn't coming. Now we had lost a hotel and two lead actors.

Most people would probably have folded their cards here, but it had been a project on tap for too long to fail now. We moved the cast around so that the guy tapped to play an unnamed gang member was now playing "Dave." This wasn't a hard decision, since Dave Thomas and I had both wanted him as "Dave" from the beginning. However, he had to be back in Minnesota to do a play and we didn't want to rush the schedule. Nonetheless, we didn't have much of a choice. Brock and Rist were set in their parts but David Lawson was moved from "Mute Boy" to "Josh." I called David several months earlier and warned him to learn the parts for both "Mute Boy" and "Josh." I would then take on the role originally written for me, "Mute Boy."

The main cast was set and I had a couple of cameos set up that would knock the socks off the cast and crew. I knew several of them were fans of one actor in particular, and it was an actor I had talked about since the beginning. However, a small film called Bubba Ho Tep would cause me to lose not one, but two cameos. Then Campbell Cooley had to undergo surgery, leaving another role open. I was able to replace Cooley with "Maniac Cop" Robert Z'Dar, and would later replace one of the cameos with the great Joe Estevez.

One of our most notable cameos seems to be comedian Bruce Baum. Very few people fail to recognize him, and the way we got him tends to make people laugh. I was on the phone with my good friend Mike Schmille, who also subbed for us by playing another gang member, when he mentioned the fact that he was going to see Bruce Baum at a local stand-up club that night. We just happened to be filming a scene that was supposed to have a cameo in it the next day. I drove quickly to my house and picked up David Lawson, a rising stand-up comedian, and we headed off to see Bruce Baum. While in the truck, I called the owner and asked about tickets and then mentioned the movie. In turn, the owner helped us out and mentioned it to Bruce Baum. After the show, Bruce came over and looked briefly at the script. I remember telling him it was "the funniest script you'll ever read," causing David Lawson to glare at me. Bruce kindly did the cameo as he sat at a table with Mike Schmille, David, myself, and the real "Brett," while at a nearby table was a wannabe actress who had flaked out on us.

Although, casting and securing locations ended up being a major problem on the shoot, we still managed to survive through financial problems, casualties, missing people, friends not coming through, and crazy rednecks. Problems piled up, but we seemed to be able to either solve them or shake them off. We had survived the shoot, but now we have to finish the damn thing.

Our current problem is editing. The first idea was to have the director and I edit it along with a hack editor, but the director decided he had to return to the United Kingdom. The idea of the director editing it sounded logical, but there was the problem of different formats, and we'd also have to get a $5,000 camera to send over to him. So, the obvious choice was to turn to an editor who had sworn to get it out by, well, by the time I wrote this. In turn, I would help produce a film of his. As it turns out, I produced his film, but he was unable to deliver a simple trailer for Mob Daze in several weeks. So I called Robert Z'Dar and asked if he just happened to know someone. As it turns out, he did. Now I'm eagerly waiting to see what happens with it.

As it turns out, I'm glad some people actually wanted to make a movie bad enough that they'd actually show up and stick with it. I know most of the cast and crew struggled to stay on board during the shoot. However, we stuck with it, and now we have a film that no one can take away from us, good or bad. As for scraping together a cast at the last second, it seemed to turn out well. Robert Z'Dar, veteran of over seventy-five movies, called the cast the best he had ever worked with. He boasted on several occasions about the cast, and his business manager would later give me the same feeling. In the end, we had the best possible cast, both talent and personality-wise. Hopefully, the movie will be the same as I try to drum up as much advance publicity as possible, and also prepare for a small theatrical release.

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Six Cotton Balls (Or How to Make Your Own Show)

Submitted by Kian Ahmadian

I was standing in my kitchen, when I looked down at six cotton balls stuck to a piece of white paper on my counter. They didn't work as art and had been there for months. Suddenly, and slowly, names began to occur to me, and individual personalities began to form. It was then that I realized I had a show to do, called Meat Insomnia.

The first step in making your own show is having a good idea. Ideas are the most mysterious piece of the puzzle. They can't be manufactured - but when you have a good one, you'll know it.
The second thing you need is a collection of smaller ideas for stories. In the beginning, murky pieces will come to you, but the better you get to know the characters, the setting, and the atmosphere, the more stories will come out from around every corner. Now it's your responsibility to organize all this into individual episodes that will flow and work in a satisfying way.

The third part is finding the right actors for the roles. I was lucky - my actors had been living in my kitchen for months; all I needed to do was work on impersonating their voices. Being able to look at and hear your actors at work will lead to even more ideas. Some things won't work, and will have to be thrown out, while new and better things will come naturally in the form of "accidents," as the best things in life always seem to do. Nevertheless, it's all gravy.

Now it's time to make the show! When you're working with actors without audible voices, you may need to pre-record the dialog. In my situation, I drive over to the all-new Evil Troll Studios in sunny Southern California, where owner, operator, and engineer Paul Calder is happy to lend his expertise. Paul records my dialog sessions onto a hard-drive, using Digital Performer, one character at a time. The tracks are then burned onto a CD, and imported to an audio editing program, where they are broken down line by line.

The fourth step is the filming itself. Although most sitcoms are filmed in traditional three-camera setups, when you're working on a small budget, and your actors can't move, a single digital video camera would seem the way to go. Scenes may be shot in sequence, or character by character, whatever feels right for the mood of the show. Footage can then be transferred into a computer, using a method such as firewire, for use with a digital editing program, such as Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro.

This brings us to the fifth step, editing. The great part about non-linear editing is that picture, dialog, sound effects, and music can be moved and shaped easily and with freedom. Thoughts are able to flow. Things suddenly begin to take shape, and each episode blooms, right there, in front of you.

So that's it. That's all there is to it. You can see the fruits of my labor for yourself at Meat Insomnia just started a run of eight episodes, with a new episode premiering every Friday night. Totally free of charge, of course. So check it out, and see the show spawned from six cotton balls stuck to a piece of white paper.

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

No Budget Nightmare

Submitted by Natalie McRae

I came into the film industry completely by accident. Last January I was finishing up a class in music production and was setting up my career to follow that path when my teacher asked if I would help out with an independent film he was involved in. The production manager he hired was busy with another project for the first part of shooting and they needed someone to fill her position in the meantime. I took the job without hesitation, thinking, "How hard could this be?" Well, it was a lot more work than I expected, but I loved it. There were dozens of picky details to look after, a few tense moments before and during shooting, and, of course, the long days - or nights, in our case. We shot through the night for two weeks. It was totally fun, and we had a great group of people. I learned so much and hoped that I would get another chance to work on a film.

My opportunity came about a month after we finished the shoot. In mid-March I was reading a local arts paper when I saw an ad for a director's assistant and a production assistant on a local indie film. No pay, but I was anxious to work on another project and build on my resume a bit. So I met with the director and was hired as his assistant.

I was impressed with him at first. He is a very high-energy guy and genuinely enthusiastic about his script - two important qualities, I think. However, right off the top he talked about doing his movie for no money. He told me about all the people he knows who were happy to donate their time, skills, and property to him. Then he asked me if I wouldn't mind finding funding. That was a bit of a surprise, but I looked into it and found a few places that might give us some grant money. One source had an April 2nd deadline which gave us just over a week to put together all the paraphernalia they required, so we were a bit rushed. Still, it was all packaged up on time except for the required clip of any previous work the director had done. That is where everything stalled. The director said that he was just going to send the application in without the clip, and I told him it was no use - they would just toss his application in the trash without it. So he said he wasn't going to bother sending it in at all, then, because he didn't feel that he had anything worthy. After that episode he returned to his stance of doing the film with no budget, and he told me the legend of El Mariachi.

Next up was the cast and crew meet-and-greet and script read-through. It was scheduled to be held at a local media co-op, which we scoped out one afternoon. The director planned to use the co-op's A/V equipment to show some clips from scenes he had shot in the fall. Where was this footage when we were applying for the grant? He also planned on serving appetizers, which we went shopping for a couple of days before the meeting. His idea of appetizers was a tray of the large muffins from Costco, which he planned to cut into quarters. I told him that I was against that idea, but he said that's what people had to expect when they're working on a no-budget movie. I disagreed and suggested that maybe his girlfriend, who is doing the catering for the shoot, could cook up a dinner for everyone since the meeting was from 5-9pm. But he didn't agree, and we left Costco with the muffins.

At this point I was getting uncomfortable with his approach to the actors and crew. He was intent on the point that he was going to do this film for no money, and I felt he was taking advantage of everyone's generosity with their time, talent, and equipment.

But the meet-and-greet and read-through turned out to be a fun evening. The director had forgotten to get the keys to the media co-op, so we moved the meeting to a local tavern. It was a really lovely place, and we had the entire top floor to ourselves, complete with a fireplace and sofas. The director paid for a couple of pitchers of Coke, except for five dollars worth when one of the actors chipped in. I was amazed when the director took the five dollars, but it furthered his point about spending no money on the movie.

A few days later, the director asked me to come with him and one of the actors to go location scouting. I picked the director up at work at four-thirty and we met up with the actor and were on our way. We drove around the city for five hours, stopping here and there so the director could videotape the areas and discuss the scenes that would be shot there. Then he said he was done and wanted to go home. No food, no drinks. Just a very theatrical, "Thank you so much for your time and patience and goodnight." My stomach was not impressed. If I ever work on a movie for free again, I am going to have a contract stating that I am to be fed every three hours. And I'm going to charge for mileage.

I also need to mention that, while we were driving around, the director was asking the actor if he could get a plane to do some aerial shots for a couple of the scenes. The actor explained that his pilot's license had expired and he had to pay $500 and put in a few hours in the air with a supervisor to renew it. The director asked if he could come up with a camera while the actor was putting in these hours, and they could do the aerial shots for free, since the actor needed to fly anyway. To my amazement, the actor said he'd see about arranging that with the supervisor.

Following that debacle, several administrative issues started coming up. As we approached the first day of shooting and were getting everything ready I brought up the subject of insurance. The film involves several stunts, as well as borrowed high-end vehicles and sound and video equipment. The director avoided talking about insurance until I told him I was going to phone around for quotes. At this, he launched into a tirade about how our society has become rampant with lawsuits, and how ridiculous it all is. I agreed, but pointed out that although everyone is his friend now, that would not be the case if someone got hurt or if equipment got broken. I also said I was not willing to be held personally liable for anyone's safety, nor for any damage to the equipment.

It was then I told him that I no longer had time for his project. I did find someone to take over my job, and warned her about things that needed to be addressed - like the insurance. Hopefully she has better luck than I did, though I don't see the movie being shot any time soon.

As for me, I'm currently without a project, though I have signed on as a permitee with the Director's Guild and have put in some time with them. I do enjoy the work - it's a fascinating industry and I've met so many really talented and interesting people, and learned so much. I can't wait to have another film to work on, though you can be sure I'll be a lot more cautious about signing up.

Tuesday, May 08, 2001

The Enemy Within: British Guerilla Filmmaking

Submitted by by Peter Courridge


My name is Peter Courridge, one-half of Telsa Productions. The other half is Peter Davis. We are both students at the East Norfolk 6th Form College (ENSFC) in Norfolk, England. This is the story of how we created our film coursework The Enemy Within. It is basically a ninety-second trailer done in the style of the gangster/thriller film conventions. We hope it'll provide an amusing insight into student filmmaking. Without a doubt, it was a memorable production for reasons both amusing and frustrating.

The Plot

A lone man is on the run. He has been given a briefcase and has no idea of the contents. He is then kidnapped, watched, and chased by gangster style agents. It couldn't be a bigger cliché if we tried! Usually Telsa's productions are entirely original material. But in this case we had to "recreate conventions" and therefore accept no responsibility for the overwhelming "cheese" factor of our production.

The Cast and Crew

Peter Davis and I wrote, directed, edited, and produced The Enemy Within. Mike Dicker stars as the man with the briefcase and Phil Thompson is his accomplice. Agents include Ross Smith, Adam McGee, Nathan Lacey, and Phil Hill.

The Shoot
Hostage Scene - April 5, 2000

At lunchtime, Peter Davis, Mike Dicker, Ross Smith and I filmed the kidnap sequence in a science lab. The science lab was equipped with blackout blinds. Mike sat on a stool in the middle of the dark room. Peter Davis pointed a single light down on Mike while I filmed Ross doing the interrogation. However, Ross, is actually harmless and pointed that out to Mike during a take: "Please don't do that because I am actually weak. I have about as much anger in me as a piece of cardboard that's been chewed." Everything went well, until next week.

Castle Shopping Mall - April 12, 2000

I got permission from the local shopping mall in Norwich to film there for a day. But before we even got there, things started going wrong.

9.55 AM - Leaving College

Peter, Ross, Mike, Phil, Adam, and I, along with our friend Sarah, who came along for the ride, set off from college to the Yarmouth train station in costume with our bags and camera cases. Our train was due to leave at 10:20 AM. Unfortunately, our bus was late and we arrived minutes after the train left for Norwich.

10:25 AM - Stranded

The crew was now stuck at the train station for an hour until the next train came. To save time I decided we should film while waiting for the next train. The first shot, in the men's bathroom was a scene where Adam, Nathan, and Ross had to kick in the stall doors. By the time the first shot was complete, Adam had broken his shoe and Mike had purchased some condoms. We were all a little excited, especially Adam, who couldn't stop firing his gun. He even asked the woman at the ticket office if she'd like to be in our film. Naturally she declined. As we discovered later, it wasn't a good idea filming there.

11:25 AM - On the Train

Another not so bright idea: filming on a train full of passengers. I thought it would make for a good shot. But the conductor stopped us, and rightly so since we had no permission. We said no more about it until we reached Norwich.

11:45 AM - Norwich Station, Reported

At the Norwich station I asked the same conductor if we could shoot here. It was our intention to do a couple of shots before we moved on. He made our situation clear. We had been reported by the woman at the Yarmouth ticket office for carrying "authentic firearms." These were cheap cap guns. Besides, who were we kidding? It was obvious we weren't real gangsters. The conductor claimed we were close to having the police waiting for us at Norwich. Whether this was true I have no idea. I said no more about it and got everyone to hand back their "authentic firearms" before proceeding to the Castle Shopping Mall.

12:05 PM - Castle Shopping Mall

Events went smoother for a while. Filming in the mall was interrupted by the occasional security check, but largely we were left alone. Except when Adam attracted some unwanted attention in the shape of two large middle aged ladies. I felt very cautious looking around the balconies. We were attracting a lot of attention. I didn't want to lose any equipment while filming. Thankfully, Sarah kept an eye on our bags while we ran around filming. Our chase sequences looked good, with one minor defect, Ross can't run. After a couple of hours we packed up and went to KFC.

3:30 PM - Home, Disaster

We took two cameras with us. To my complete horror, the main Hitachi camera had not recorded a thing, with exception of the bathroom scene back at Yarmouth. A whole day of footage was lost. I called everybody to break the news. Mike and Peter were still both in good spirits.

The Re-shoot - May 2000

With the re-shoot, we couldn't go back to Norwich, so made use of the local harbor. Nathan Lacey now had full-time job and Adam McGee was on vacation. So we ended up replacing them with Philip Hill. The re-shoot went well except when Mike jumped over a concrete wall and sprained his ankle. We also had a lot of fun trying to get Mike, to say his one line. He had to dangle the briefcase over the harbor edge and say "tell me what's in this." Simple enough but here's how it turned out on camera:

Mike Dicker and Peter Courridge are both giggling.

Ssh. You can't do it can you?


Alright. Alright. Go for it then.

Tell me what's in this.

That's pathetic.

Ah, f*** you. Tell me what's in this.

One more time, louder!

F*** sake.

Louder, come on!

MIKE(grits teeth)
Tell me what's in this.
Philip Hill(mocking in the background)
Tell me what's in this!

Don't grit! Just Shout!


PETER(lighter tone)
That's good, excellent, well done.

The Aftermath

Happy days! Of course it was all done in good spirit. I hope this has given some insight into the world of "guerilla" filmmaking. It's obvious, we still have a lot to learn. Since The Enemy Within was completed, Peter Davis and I formed Telsa Productions and have been making short films ever since. Now we stand at a crossroad in our lives. University. But with any luck there'll be more films made before we actually have to get a real job.

Friday, April 13, 2001

Ya Wanna Make a Movie?

Submitted by Mike Hirsch

My youngest brother's daughter got married on the 27th day of July. I will remember her anniversary easily as it coincided with the 35th anniversary of my wife and me. We didn't go to the wedding. This is not about a family feud or uncaring relatives or any of the other things that make good soap opera. This is about being too old and broke up to handle a 1250 mile drive. It's odd to have finally come to the point where I dread jumping in the car and driving anywhere.

In the 40 years or so that my wife has been my girl one great joy in our life was filling the gas tank and running it dry as many times as we could between things we had to do. My heart still wants to travel, my head still takes me to places I've been, but my body won't stand the pain. I think that parts of getting old are hard to take but losing wanderlust might be the worst.

I have a friend who's visiting his sister in Pueblo, Colorado. He made the trip from San Jose, California, and is looking forward to sitting around doing nothing. In my last phone conversation with him I gave him an itinerary of 2,000,000 places (I hate exaggeration) he could visit within 150 miles of his sister's house that beggar description. Colorado, whether mountain or desert, is a marvelous place to wander. I think he may live long enough so that he only regrets the things he didn't look at. I know I have.

No matter how odd some of my articles appear, they are all about using the freedoms we take for granted to make movies. We probably live in the only country on earth where you can set your mind free and follow it anywhere it leads. I don't know the New England states - I don't know Nova Scotia - I've never been to Mackinac Island - I miss them as much as I enjoy the memories of the places I have been. You only get to do this once, and you get in the box alone. If memory must last for an eternity it would be sad to be plagued by the regretted things you didn't do.

Film is ultimately about having something to say that drives you. A vision that fills your mind so clearly it has to be shared. Waste gas - don't waste time - make movies.

Thursday, April 12, 2001

The Lodger (1926) - A surprising look on a promising Career…

Submitted by Sebastien Smith

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

I saw the silent film "The Lodger," part of the Alfred Hitchcock, Fatal Coincidences exposition on December 8th 2000, presented at the cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal. Despite the fact that "The Lodger" was created in 1926, it is filled with surprises and tension.

A psychopathic killer, whose victims are always young blonde women, is on the loose in London. The murders occur only on Tuesday evenings. A landlady and a jealous man who is in love with the main female character begin to wonder if the new lodger (Ivor Novello) is the murderer. It is on this uncertainty that the suspense turns, Hitchcock's concern is not with the murders themselves, but with the observation of the characters and the way in which the story unfolds, even in the most ordinary settings. He felt that he had found his niche in the creation of suspense and tension through visual means. "Suspense," Hitchcock said, "as opposed to mystery, is giving information to an audience in order to make them worry. Whereas mystery is merely withholding information."

This motion picture is a surprising look forty years ahead of it's time. We already see some topics that will become part of the Hitchcockian style. Beautiful blond women, a symmetry and a geometry that is virtually perfect, a long, heavy and arduous mood that begins in a nerve racking sequence of a woman screaming (similar to Janet Leigh in Psycho). In this film we can already see the strong influence German expressionism had on the British director.

I was blown away at a relatively simple detail, and not as particular compared to the amplitude of this powerful thriller, this is a sequence of animation. Put yourself in that time, animation being invented only a few years prior, but no filmmaker had ever successfully fused the two in filmmaking, this was for me a true achievement and such a surprising thing to see.

"The Lodger" was accompanied by a pianist on location. He, amazingly, had the ability to recreate a rich, subtle sounds filled with small details that incorporate anguish and context in a very powerful and logical height.


How to Change the Scenery and Set the Mood

Submitted by James Cole

In this article I'll talk about how to replace the backgrounds in your shots. Some shots are really easy and require only a simple sky replacement against a hard edge such as a building. Others require a bit more work, like this shot:

I replaced the background with a destroyed city and mountains behind that and some cool looking clouds to set the mood. As you can see, I didn't have a nice straight edge to work with either. The city in particular had to go behind a treeline. And to top it off, the whole shot had slight camera movement.

I have divided this article into three parts as there are quite a few elements involved in piecing this shot together. Part one is Destroying a City Without Killing Anyone. Part two will be Preparing the Shot for Compositing, and Part three will be Putting the Puzzle Together.

Destroying a City Without Killing Anyone

The first part of the process was to make the city look as if it had been destroyed by a meteorite collision. First I needed a still photo of a city. Living in Melbourne I thought it would be easiest to use a photo of Melbourne. Digital stills photographer, Emma Jaques took the photo (left) for me to use. I began by importing the photo into Adobe Photoshop and removing the sky and cropping out anything I didn't need. Once I was left with just the buildings I wanted, I began cutting chunks out with the eraser tool leaving jagged edges.I painted on some broken windows and even cut a hole in one building. Wherever I had an extruding chunk of building, I underlined it to give the impression that you could see the ceiling of the floor above, to add depth.

I added depth and detail to the buildings by cloning an image of another building that was already destroyed to add different floors and all the junk inside. This was still far from being finished though. The buildings were too clean and there just wasn't enough of them.

One thing I decided early on in pre-production was that I didn't want Lost set at any recognizable place. It is essentially a fantasy world. This gave me the freedom to add buildings that weren't really there. I wanted this to look like it was once a busy skyline. I took buildings from other photos and gave them the same destructive treatment as I had with the original photo. Now it was looking better. Still too clean though.

To dirty up the buildings, I created 3 layers. I had to think about how old these buildings were and how long they had been destroyed. The movie is set 33 years after the meteorite hit so there would be some sort of plant growth covering the buildings as well as the general dirt. The first layer, I just painted on browns and oranges and some blues. The second layer I used as the vegetation layer. I cloned areas of grass and distant trees and water from landscape photos. The final layer was just painted with smeary blacks and greys to dull everything down. The picture (left) shows the three layers and the final mix.

Once these layers were in place, I played around with the opacity and different blending modes to get the right look. I left the finished picture a little more colorful than it should be so that I would have more freedom once it was imported into Commotion to composite into the shot. I eventually desaturated the picture quite a lot to make it blend in better with the foreground.

To insert the city, mountains, and clouds into this shot, I first had to get rid of the sky. When I first looked at this shot I though it would be a simple key using Primatte Keyer in Commotion due to the fact that the sky was a completely different color from everything else in the shot. This however was not the case. As the sky was so bright compared to the dark trees that made up the skyline, the light wrapped around the edges giving them a very blue tint. Some areas of the trees disappeared due to the very fine detail.

In order to fix this I took a single frame into Adobe Photoshop. The first step was to erase the sky. I did this by using the magic wand tool and a little fine tuning with the freehand selection tool and then deleting it. Using the clone tool I erased the two characters as they will need to be walking in the finished shot. Continuing with the clone tool I corrected any area in the trees that had the background light wrapped around it. This also included filling in any gaps left by the leafless branches. With the smallest brush, I traced over the entire edge of the tree line keeping up the jagged edge that the foliage would normally create.

Now that I had a solid tree line, I had to reinsert it into the shot and make it look natural. The shot originally had a large pan in it but during editing I cut most of it out. However there was still a slight camera movement. To place the trees back into the shot seamlessly I had to first match the movement of the shot. I used the corner of the door on the house in the background and also the tip of a power pole you can see midway between the character and the right edge of the frame. This gave me the movement of the camera both up and down and also the rotation.

To blend the still frame into the shot I found a natural line running along the base of the trees and over the house. I made a rotospline that would follow this edge but made sure that the characters heads did not cross it. To complete the task I feathered the edge of the rotosplines and placed the still frame behind the main shot. As the trees were motionless I added noise to bring them to life. With the movement of the camera matched perfectly the work is unnoticeable.

Now that I had all the main pieces ready for the shot, it was time to put them all together. I began by inserting the city behind the trees. Using a combination of tools in Commotion such as levels and composite color matcher, I toned down the brightness and the contrast of the buildings to make them appear in the distance. I also added various blurs including super compound blur to marry the city to the original shot seamlessly.

I selected a photo of a mountain range that I thought looked pretty cool and also one that was lined with trees at the base so that it would match the shot better. I placed this behind the city layer and once again played with the color and contrast to blend and give the illusion of distance. I feathered the top edge of the mountains quite a lot to give the feeling they were almost touching the clouds. Finally I placed the footage of the clouds behind everything.

I went over the image to give it some fine tuning, including feathering the edge of the trees so they would blend into the new background. The trees on the left required more feathering to blend into the background mountains than the trees in front of the buildings. To do this I copied the layer of trees and using the rotosplines I cut them in half. This way I could add different amounts of feathering, blurring, and blending to the different sides. For a final touch I added different noise levels to both the still images of the mountains and the city buildings. By adding noise it adds to the feeling of movement of the otherwise still image. Most people will never notice this, however if it wasn't there I'm sure people would feel that something was wrong with the shot without being able to put their thumb on it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Designing A Movie For Sound

Submitted by Randy Thom

The biggest myth about composing and sound designing is that they are about creating great sounds. Not true, or at least not true enough.

What is Sound Design?

You may assume that it's about fabricating neat sound effects. But that doesn't describe very accurately what Ben Burtt and Walter Murch, who invented the term, did on "Star Wars" and "Apocalypse Now" respectively. On those films they found themselves working with Directors who were not just looking for powerful sound effects to attach to a structure that was already in place. By experimenting with sound, playing with sound (and not just sound effects, but music and dialog as well) all through production and post production what Francis Coppola, Walter Murch, George Lucas, and Ben Burtt found is that sound began to shape the picture sometimes as much as the picture shaped the sound. The result was very different from anything we had heard before. The films are legends, and their soundtracks changed forever the way we think about film sound.

What passes for "great sound" in films today is too often merely loud sound. High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations do not constitute great sound design. A well-orchestrated and recorded piece of musical score has minimal value if it hasn't been integrated into the film as a whole. Giving the actors plenty of things to say in every scene isn't necessarily doing them, their characters, or the movie a favor. Sound, musical and otherwise, has value when it is part of a continuum, when it changes over time, has dynamics, and resonates with other sound and with other sensory experiences.

What I propose is that the way for a filmmaker to take advantage of sound is not simply to make it possible to record good sound on the set, or simply to hire a talented sound designer/composer to fabricate sounds, but rather to design the film with sound in mind, to allow sound's contributions to influence creative decisions in the other crafts. Films as different from "Star Wars" as "Citizen Kane," "Raging Bull," "Eraserhead," "The Elephant Man," "Never Cry Wolf" and "Once Upon A Time In The West" were thoroughly "sound designed," though no sound designer was credited on most of them.

Does every film want, or need, to be like Star Wars or Apocalypse Now? Absolutely not. But lots of films could benefit from those models. Sidney Lumet said recently in an interview that he had been amazed at what Francis Coppola and Walter Murch had been able to accomplish in the mix of "Apocalypse Now." Well, what was great about that mix began long before anybody got near a dubbing stage. In fact, it began with the script, and with Coppola's inclination to give the characters in "Apocalypse" the opportunity to listen to the world around them.

Many directors who like to think they appreciate sound still have a pretty narrow idea of the potential for sound in storytelling. The generally accepted view is that it's useful to have "good" sound in order to enhance the visuals and root the images in a kind of temporal reality. But that isn't collaboration, it's slavery. And the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only when each craft influences every other craft does the movie begin to take on a life of it's own.

A Thing Almost Alive

It is a common myth that the time for film makers to think seriously about sound is at the end of the film making process, when the structure of the movie is already in place. After all, how is the composer to know what kind of music to write unless he/she can examine at least a rough assembly of the final product? For some films this approach is adequate. Rarely, it works amazingly well. But doesn't it seem odd that in this supposedly collaborative medium, music and sound effects rarely have the opportunity to exert any influence on the non-sound crafts? How is the Director supposed to know how to make the film without having a plan for using music? A dramatic film which really works is, in some senses, almost alive, a complex web of elements which are interconnected, almost like living tissues, and which despite their complexity work together to present a more-or-less coherent set of behaviors. It doesn't make any sense to set up a process in which the role of one craft, sound, is simply to react, to follow, to be pre-empted from giving feedback to the system it is a part of.

The Basic Terrain, As It Is Now

Many feature film directors tend to oscillate between two wildly different states of consciousness about sound in their movies. On one hand, they tend to ignore any serious consideration of sound (including music) throughout the planning, shooting, and early editing. Then they suddenly get a temporary dose of religion when they realize that there are holes in the story, weak scenes, and bad edits to disguise. Now they develop enormous and short-lived faith in the power and value of sound to make their movie watchable. Unfortunately it's usually way too late, and after some vain attempts to stop a hemorrhage with a bandaid, the Director's head drops, and sound cynicism rules again until late in the next project's post production.
What follows is a list of some of the bleak realities faced by those of us who work in film sound, and some suggestions for improving the situation.


If a script has lots of references in it to specific sounds, we might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that it is a sound-friendly script. But this isn't necessarily the case. The degree to which sound is eventually able to participate in storytelling will be more determined by the use of time, space, and point of view in the story than by how often the script mentions actual sounds. Most of the great sound sequences in films are "pov" sequences. The photography, the blocking of actors, the production design, art direction, editing, and dialogue have been set up such that we, the audience, are experiencing the action more or less through the point of view of one, or more, of the characters in the sequence. Since what we see and hear is being filtered through their consciousness, what they hear can give us lots of information about who they are and what they are feeling. Figuring out how to use pov, as well as how to use acoustic space and the element of time, should begin with the writer. Some writers naturally think in these terms, most don't. And it is almost never taught in film writing courses.

Serious consideration of the way sound will be used in the story is typically left up to the director. Unfortunately, most directors have only the vaguest notions of how to use sound because they haven't been taught it either. In virtually all film schools sound is taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.


On the set, virtually every aspect of the sound crew's work is dominated by the needs of the camera crew. The locations for shooting have been chosen by the Director, DP, and Production Designer long before anyone concerned with sound has been hired. The sets are typically built with little or no concern for, or even awareness of, the implications for sound. The lights buzz, the generator truck is parked way too close. The floor or ground could easily be padded to dull the sound of footsteps when feet aren't in the shot, but there isn't enough time. The shots are usually composed, blocked, and lit with very little effort toward helping either the location sound crew or the post production crew take advantage of the range of dramatic potential inherent in the situation. In nearly all cases, visual criteria determine which shots will be printed and used. Any moment not containing something visually fascinating is quickly trimmed away.

There is rarely any discussion, for example, of what should be heard rather than seen. If several of our characters are talking in a bar, maybe one of them should be over in a dark corner. We hear his voice, but we don't see him. He punctuates the few things he says with the sound of a bottle he rolls back and forth on the table in front of him. Finally he puts a note in the bottle and rolls it across the floor of the dark bar. It comes to a stop at the feet of the characters we see. This approach could be played for comedy, drama, or some of both as it might have been in "Once Upon A Time In The West." Either way, sound is making a contribution. The use of sound will strongly influence the way the scene is set up. Starving the eye will inevitably bring the ear, and therefore the imagination, more into play.

Post Production

Finally, in post, sound cautiously creeps out of the closet and attempts meekly to assert itself, usually in the form of a composer and a supervising sound editor. The composer is given four or five weeks to produce seventy to ninety minutes of great music. The supervising sound editor is given ten to fifteen weeks to-smooth out the production dialog-spot, record, and edit ADR-and try to wedge a few specific sound effects into sequences that were never designed to use them, being careful to cover every possible option the Director might want because there "isn't any time" for the Director to make choices before the mix. Meanwhile, the film is being continuously re-edited. The Editor and Director, desperately grasping for some way to improve what they have, are meticulously making adjustments, mostly consisting of a few frames, which result in the music, sound effects, and dialog editing departments having to spend a high percentage of the precious time they have left trying to fix all the holes caused by new picture changes.

The dismal environment surrounding the recording of ADR is in some ways symbolic of the secondary role of sound. Everyone acknowledges that production dialog is almost always superior in performance quality to ADR. Most directors and actors despise the process of doing ADR. Everyone goes into ADR sessions assuming that the product will be inferior to what was recorded on the set, except that it will be intelligible, whereas the set recording (in most cases where ADR is needed) was covered with noise and/or is distorted.

This lousy attitude about the possibility of getting anything wonderful out of an ADR session turns, of course, into a self fulfilling prophecy. Essentially no effort is typically put into giving the ADR recording experience the level of excitement, energy, and exploration that characterized the film set when the cameras were rolling. The result is that ADR performances almost always lack the "life" of the original. They're more-or-less in sync, and they're intelligible. Why not record ADR on location, in real-world places which will inspire the actors and provide realistic acoustics? That would be taking ADR seriously. like so many other sound-centered activities in movies, ADR is treated as basically a technical operation, to be gotten past as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Taking Sound Seriously

If your reaction to all this is "So, what do you expect, isn't it a visual medium?" there may be nothing I can say to change your mind. My opinion is that film is definitely not a "visual medium." I think if you look closely at and listen to a dozen or so of the movies you consider to be great, you will realize how important a role sound plays in many if not most of them. It is even a little misleading to say "a role sound plays" because in fact when a scene is really clicking, the visual and aural elements are working together so well that it is nearly impossible to distinguish them. The suggestions I'm about to make obviously do not apply to all films. There will never be a "formula" for making great movies or great movie sound. Be that as it may.....

Writing For Sound

Telling a film story, like telling any kind of story, is about creating connections between characters, places, objects, experiences, and ideas. You try to invent a world which is complex and many layered, like the real world. But unlike most of real life (which tends to be badly written and edited), in a good film a set of themes emerge which embody a clearly identifiable line or arc, which is the story.

It seems to me that one element of writing for movies stands above all others in terms of making the eventual movie as "cinematic" as possible: establishing point of view. The audience experiences the action through its identification with characters. The writing needs to lay the ground work for setting up pov before the actors, cameras, microphones, and editors come into play. Each of these can obviously enhance the element of pov, but the script should contain the blueprint.

Let's say we are writing a story about a guy who, as a boy, loved visiting his father at the steel mill where he worked. The boy grows up and seems to be pretty happy with his life as a lawyer, far from the mill. But he has troubling, ambiguous nightmares that eventually lead him to go back to the town where he lived as a boy in an attempt to find the source of the bad dreams.

The description above doesn't say anything specific about the possible use of sound in this story, but I have chosen basic story elements which hold vast potential for sound. First, it will be natural to tell the story more-or-less through the pov of our central character. But that's not all. A steel mill gives us a huge palette for sound. Most importantly, it is a place which we can manipulate to produce a set of sounds which range from banal to exciting to frightening to weird to comforting to ugly to beautiful. The place can therefore become a character, and have its own voice, with a range of "emotions" and "moods." And the sounds of the mill can resonate with a wide variety of elements elsewhere in the story. None of this good stuff is likely to happen unless we write, shoot, and edit the story in a way that allows it to happen.

The element of dream in the story swings a door wide open to sound as a collaborator. In a dream sequence we as film makers have even more latitude than usual to modulate sound to serve our story, and to make connections between the sounds in the dream and the sounds in the world for which the dream is supplying clues. Likewise, the "time border" between the "little boy" period and the "grown-up" period offers us lots of opportunities to compare and contrast the two worlds, and his perception of them. Over a transition from one period to the other, one or more sounds can go through a metamorphosis. Maybe as our guy daydreams about his childhood, the rhythmic clank of a metal shear in the mill changes into the click clack of the railroad car taking him back to his home town. Any sound, in itself, only has so much intrinsic appeal or value. On the other hand, when a sound changes over time in response to elements in the larger story, its power and richness grow exponentially.

Opening The Door For Sound, Efficient Dialog

Sadly, it is common for a director to come to me with a sequence composed of unambiguous, unmysterious, and uninteresting shots of a location like a steel mill, and then to tell me that this place has to be made sinister and fascinating with sound effects. As icing on the cake, the sequence typically has wall-to-wall dialog which will make it next to impossible to hear any of the sounds I desperately throw at the canvas.

In recent years there has been a trend, which may be in insidious influence of bad television, toward non-stop dialog in films. The wise old maxim that it's better to say it with action than words seems to have lost some ground. Quentin Tarantino has made some excellent films which depend heavily on dialog, but he's incorporated scenes which use dialog sparsely as well.

There is a phenomenon in movie making that my friends and I sometimes call the "100% theory." Each department-head on a film, unless otherwise instructed, tends to assume that it is 100% his or her job to make the movie work. The result is often a logjam of uncoordinated visual and aural product, each craft competing for attention, and often adding up to little more than noise unless the director and editor do their jobs extremely well.

Dialogue is one of the areas where this inclination toward density is at its worst. On top of production dialog, the trend is to add as much ADR as can be wedged into a scene. Eventually, all the space not occupied by actual words is filled with grunts, groans, and breathing (supposedly in an effort to "keep the character alive"). Finally the track is saved (sometimes) from being a self parody only by the fact that there is so much other sound happening simultaneously that at least some of the added dialog is masked. If your intention is to pack your film with wall-to-wall clever dialog, maybe you should consider doing a play.

Characters need to have the opportunity to listen.

When a character looks at an object, we the audience are looking at it, more-or-less through his eyes. The way he reacts to seeing the object (or doesn't react) can give us vital information about who he is and how he fits into this situation. The same is true for hearing. If there are no moments in which our character is allowed to hear the world around him, then the audience is deprived of one important dimension of HIS life.

Picture and Sound as Collaborators

Sound effects can make a scene scary and interesting as hell, but they usually need a little help from the visual end of things. For example, we may want to have a strange-sounding machine running off-camera during a scene in order to add tension and atmosphere. If there is at least a brief, fairly close shot of some machine which could be making the sound, it will help me immensely to establish the sound. Over that shot we can feature the sound, placing it firmly in the minds of the audience. Then we never have to see it again, but every time the audience hears it, they will know what it is (even if it is played very low under dialogue), and they will make all the appropriate associations, including a sense of the geography of the place.

The contrast between a sound heard at a distance, and that same sound heard close-up can be a very powerful element. If our guy and an old friend are walking toward the mill, and they hear, from several blocks away, the sounds of the machines filling the neighborhood, there will be a powerful contrast when they arrive at the mill gate. As a former production sound mixer, if a director had ever told me that a scene was to be shot a few blocks away from the mill set in order to establish how powerfully the sounds of the mill hit the surrounding neighborhood, I probably would have gone straight into a coma after kissing his feet. Directors essentially never base their decisions about where to shoot a scene on the need for sound to make a story contribution. Why not?

Art Direction and Sound as Collaborators

Let's say we're writing a character for a movie we're making. This guy is out of money, angry, desperate. We need, obviously, to design the place where he lives. Maybe it's a run-down apartment in the middle of a big city. The way that place looks will tell us (the audience) enormous amounts about who the character is and how he is feeling. And if we take sound into account when we do the visual design then we have the potential for hearing through his ears this terrible place he inhabits. Maybe water and sewage pipes are visible on the ceiling and walls. If we establish one of those pipes in a close-up it will do wonders for the sound designer's ability to create the sounds of stuff running through and vibrating all the pipes. Without seeing the pipes we can still put "pipe sounds" into the track, but it will be much more difficult to communicate to the audience what those sounds are. One close-up of a pipe, accompanied by grotesque sewage pipe sounds, is all we need to clearly tell the audience how sonically ugly this place is. After that, we only need to hear those sounds and audience will make the connection to the pipes without even having to show them.

It's wonderful when a movie gives you the sense that you really know the places in it. That each place is alive, has character and moods. A great actor will find ways to use the place in which he finds himself in order to reveal more about the person he plays. We need to hear the sounds that place makes in order to know it. We need to hear the actor's voice reverberating there. And when he is quiet we need to hear the way that place will be without him.

Starving The Eye, The Usefulness Of Ambiguity

Viewers/listeners are pulled into a story mainly because they are led to believe that there are interesting questions to be answered, and that they, the audience, may possess certain insights useful in solving the puzzle. If this is true, then it follows that a crucial element of storytelling is knowing what not to make immediately clear, and then devising techniques that use the camera and microphone to seduce the audience with just enough information to tease them into getting involved. It is as if our job is to hang interesting little question marks in the air surrounding each scene, or to place pieces of cake on the ground that seem to lead somewhere, though not in a straight line.

Sound may be the most powerful tool in the filmmaker's arsenal in terms of its ability to seduce. That's because "sound," as the great sound editor Alan Splet once said, "is a heart thing." We, the audience, interpret sound with our emotions, not our intellect.

Let's assume we as film makers want to take sound seriously, and that the first issues have already been addressed:

1. The desire exists to tell the story more-or-less through the point of view of one or more of the characters.

2. Locations have been chosen, and sets designed which don't rule out sound as a player, and in fact, encourage it.

3. There is not non-stop dialog.

Here are some ways to tease the eye, and thereby invite the ear to the party:

The Beauty of Long Lenses and Short Lenses

There is something odd about looking through a very long lens or a very short lens. We see things in a way we don't ordinarily see them. The inference is often that we are looking through someone else's eyes. In the opening sequence of "The Conversation" we see people in San Franciscoís Union Square through a telephoto lens. The lack of depth of field and other characteristics of that kind of lens puts us into a very subjective space. As a result, we can easily justify hearing sounds which may have very little to do with what we see in the frame, and more to do with the way the person ostensibly looking through that lens FEELS. The way we use such a shot will determine whether that inference is made obvious to the audience, or kept subliminal.
Dutch Angles and Moving Cameras

The shot may be from floor level or ceiling level. The frame may be rotated a few degrees off vertical. The camera may be on a track, hand held, or just panning. In any of these cases the effect will be to put the audience in unfamiliar space. The shot will no longer simply be "depicting" the scene. The shot becomes part of the scene. The element of unfamiliar space suddenly swings the door wide-open to sound.

Darkness Around the Edge Of the Frame

In many of the great film noir classics the frame was carefully composed with areas of darkness. Though we in the audience may not consciously consider what inhabits those dark splotches, they nevertheless get the point across that the truth, lurking somewhere just outside the frame is too complex to let itself be photographed easily. Don't forget that the ears are the guardians of sleep. They tell us what we need to know about the darkness, and will gladly supply some clues about what's going on.

Extreme Close-ups and Long Shots

Very close shots of peopleís hands, their clothing, etc. will tend to make us feel as though we are experiencing things through the point of view of either the person being photographed or the person whose view of them we are sharing. Extreme long shots are wonderful for sound because they provide an opportunity to hear the fullness or emptiness of a vast landscape. Carroll Ballards films The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf use wide shots and extreme close-ups wonderfully with sound.

Slow Motion

Raging Bull and Taxi Driver contain some obvious, and some very subtle uses of slow motion. Some of it is barely perceptible. But it always seems to put us into a dream-space, and tell us that something odd, and not very wholesome, is happening.

Black and White Images

Many still photographers feel that black and white images have several artistic advantages over color. Among them, that black and white shots are often less "busy" than color images, and therefore lend themselves more to presenting a coherent feeling. We are surrounded in our everyday lives by color and color images. A black and white image now is clearly "understood" (felt) to be someone's point of view, not an "objective" presentation of events. In movies, like still photography, painting, fiction, and poetry, the artist tends to be most concerned with communicating feelings rather than "information." Black and white images have the potential to convey a maximum of feeling without the "clutter" of color.

Whenever we as an audience are put into a visual "space" in which we are encouraged to "feel" rather than "think," what comes into our ears can inform those feelings and magnify them.

What Do All Of These Visual Approaches Have In Common?

They all are ways of withholding information. They muddy the waters a little. When done well, the result will be the following implication: Gee folks, if we could be more explicit about what is going on here we sure would, but it is so damned mysterious that even we, the storytellers, don't fully understand how amazing it is. Maybe you can help us take it a little farther." That message is the bait. Dangle it in front of an audience and they won't be able to resist going for it. in the process of going for it they bring their imaginations and experiences with them, making your story suddenly become their story. success.

We, the film makers, are all sitting around a table in pre-production, brainstorming about how to manufacture the most delectable bait possible, and how to make it seem like it isn't bait at all. (Aren't the most interesting stories always told by guys who have to be begged to tell them?) We know that we want to sometimes use the camera to withhold information, to tease, or to put it more bluntly: to seduce. The most compelling method of seduction is inevitably going to involve sound as well.

Ideally, the unconscious dialog in the minds of the audience should be something like: "What I'm seeing isn't giving me enough information. What I'm hearing is ambiguous, too. But the combination of the two seems to be pointing in the direction of a vaguely familiar container into which I can pour my experience and make something I never before quite imagined." Isn't it obvious that the microphone plays just as important a role in setting up this performance as does the camera?

Editing Picture With Sound In Mind

One of the many things a film editor does is to get rid of moments in the film in which "nothing" is happening. A desirable objective most of the time, but not always. The editor and director need to be able to figure out when it will be useful to linger on a shot after the dialog is finished, or before it begins. To stay around after the obvious "action" is past, so that we can listen. Of course it helps quite a bit if the scene has been shot with these useful pauses in mind. Into these little pauses sound can creep on it's stealthy little toes, or its clanking jackboots, to tell us something about where we have been or where we are going.

Walter Murch, film editor and sound designer, uses lots of unconventional techniques. One of them is to spend a certain period of his picture editing time not listening to the sound at all. He watches and edits the visual images without hearing the sync sound which was recorded as those images were photographed. This approach can ironically be a great boon to the use of sound in the movie. If the editor can imagine the sound (musical or otherwise) which might eventually accompany a scene, rather than listen to the rough, dis-continuous, often annoying sync track, then the cutting will be more likely to leave room for those beats in which sound other than dialog will eventually make its contribution.

Sound's Talents

Music, dialogue, and sound effects can each do any of the following jobs, and many more:
suggest a mood, evoke a feelingset a paceindicate a geographical localeindicate a historical period, clarify the plotdefine a character, connect otherwise unconnected ideas, characters, places, images, or moments, heighten realism or diminish it, heighten ambiguity or diminish it, draw attention to a detail, or away from it, indicate changes in time, smooth otherwise abrupt changes between shots or scenes, emphasize a transition for dramatic effect, describe an acoustic space, startle or soothe, exaggerate action or mediate it

At any given moment in a film, sound is likely to be doing several of these things at once.
But sound, if it's any good, also has a life of its own, beyond these utilitarian functions. And its ability to be good and useful to the story, and powerful, beautiful and alive will be determined by the state of the ocean in which it swims, the film. Try as you may to paste sound onto a predetermined structure, the result will almost always fall short of your hopes. But if you encourage the sounds of the characters, the things, and the places in your film to inform your decisions in all the other film crafts, then your movie may just grow to have a voice beyond anything you might have dreamed.

So, what does a sound designer do?

It was the dream of Walter Murch and others in the wildly creative early days of American Zoetrope that sound would be taken as seriously as image. They thought that at least some films could use the guidance of someone well-schooled in the art of sound in storytelling to not only create sounds but also to coordinate the use of sound in the film. This someone, they thought, would brainstorm with the director and writer in pre-production to integrate sound into the story on the page. During shooting that person would make sure that the recording and playing-back of sound on the set was given the important status it deserves, and not treated as a low-priority, which is always the temptation in the heat of trying to make the daily quota of shots. In post production that person would continue the fabrication and collection of sounds begun in pre-production, and would work with other sound professionals (composers, editors, mixers), and the Director and Editor to give the film's soundtrack a coherent and well coordinated feeling.

This dream has been a difficult one to realize, and in fact has made little headway since the early 1970s. The term sound designer has come to be associated simply with using specialized equipment to make "special" sound effects. On "THX-1138" and "The Conversation" Walter Murch was the Sound Designer in the fullest sense of the word. The fact hat he was also a Picture Editor on "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now" put him in a position to shape those films in ways that allowed them to use sound in an organic and powerful way. No other sound designers on major American films have had that kind of opportunity.

So, the dream of giving sound equal status to image is deferred. Someday the Industry may appreciate and foster the model established by Murch. Until then, whether you cut the dialog, write the script, record music, perform foley, edit the film, direct the film or do any one of a hundred other jobs, anybody who shapes sound, edits sound, or even considers sound when making a creative decision in another craft is, at least in a limited sense, designing sound for the movie, and designing the movie for sound.