Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Timecode Burns

Submitted by Peter John Ross

Want to know a trick to save your expensive digital video camera from getting editorial wear and tear? Especially all you Canon GL1 owners, or people trying to pay off their cameras.

After the shoot, when you have all your footage, and your tapes all numbered, most people log their footage as they go using their non-linear editing program (Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, or Avid). Which is really cool because you can mark in and out points and you can make a digital log of your footage on each tape.

But you are running a master tape in a deck or camcorder, rewinding, fast forwarding, and playing the footage multiple times. That’s wear and tear on your equipment, your irreplaceable master tapes, and it’s also extra time.

Here’s the not so secret tip, but surprisingly most people don’t know about it.

Make a VHS tape with the timecode showing onscreen. Most camcorders will allow you to select data or timecode output in the menu or on the remote.

Now you can rewind, fast forward, and play over and over again your raw footage and not risk your master tapes or add mileage to your camcorder.

The next step is to watch and log your footage and write down on a piece of paper the timecode of the in and out points of only the footage you need. An important step when logging is to think about the filename for each clip. The official name for your sheets of paper is an EDL (Edit Decision List). You can basically edit your whole piece using the paper edit selecting angles and takes. You use your EDL’s to make the editing decisions and make an offline edit.

All of this while only wearing out the heads of your twenty-nine dollar VCR as opposed to your $2,000 GL1, which some people are still making payments on. Not to mention watching the footage again, making yourself more familiar with the raw, unedited takes.

At this stage you can then use your non-linear software to type in the in and out points you wrote down and use the filenames you made up for each clip and then tell the computer to capture the footage and it will record all the footage from the whole tape, or even multiple tapes if you like, to your hard drive.

Make sure to save the batch capture list. It can be handy later on, such as after you edit your masterpiece, delete all the raw footage and want to make changes a year or two later. If you save the list you can easily use it to recapture the raw footage. On my first few projects I can’t do this because I don’t have a capture list or even a paper EDL to refer to, so I can’t re-edit unless I start from scratch, but I’m only a little bit bitter.

Please note the other benefit – hard drive space. If you do an offline, paper edit from your EDL’s, you are only capturing the footage you need, as opposed to capturing takes and footage you do not need, and filling your hard drives with large video files that you don’t use.
So by copying your raw footage to a VHS tape with timecode you get to:

  • Preserve the life of your camcorder.
  • Preserve the life of your master tapes.
  • Have the safety of being able to easily recapture your footage.
  • Become more familiar with your footage.
  • Save valuable hard drive space.

Timecode burning – this is an old, but very effective technique.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Independent Film Clichés: An Opinion

Submitted by Peter John Ross

From the Actor’s Point of View

The Casting Call

Here's a story that will probably sound familiar. You hear about an audition. Someone posted a flyer that said something about a short film that's in the Sundance Film Festival. This sounds interesting.

You, the actors, and aspiring actors go to a cattle call for a no budget digital video short. You wait in line, although the group pf people sitting around at the public library is hardly organized enough to be called a line. You get asked to read sides and the first time director doesn't know what a slate is, but he isn't taping the auditions anyway. You leave wondering what kind of movie this could possibly be given that you read a fragment of a script that had dialog as interesting as an insurance actuarial table. After your call back a week or two later, you read the lines again, and talk about other stuff with the director including your dreams an aspirations.

The Call Back

At this point, they tell you the game plan for this incredible movie. It's a twenty minute opus about an everyman that is in some kind of struggle and it's completely original. The goal is to shoot the movie on digital video, send it to film festivals, and then get the money to re-shoot it on film. Of course there's no pay. They can't afford it. But this is a unique opportunity because the script and idea are just that good. You ask about distribution and you are assured that after the film plays at several festivals it will have a distribution deal. At that point everyone will get paid. They say this with such conviction that you buy into it.

The Shoot

You work twelve hour days on your weekend off, the first time director is giving you line readings, and there is barely any craft services to munch on while everyone stands around. Eventually you finish, and you can’t wait to see the movie. Over the next few months you try calling, then e-mailing the director to get a status report. It's still being edited. Eventually you may or may not ever see a finished product, but waiting for that film festival screening seems to be as likely as finding weapons of mass destruction in the filmmaker’s basement.

If this has happened to you more than five times, then you are an ideal candidate to attend an Amway meeting with me. I have just the right opportunity for you.

And now for the flipside...

The Filmmaker’s Point of View

You rent movies all the time. You go to the movies all the time. You have always loved movies, and you just saw the latest Steven Seagal movie that went direct to video on Showtime and you say to yourself, “I can do better than this piece of garbage!” and you have this idea that has been brewing for at least ten minutes. You download the latest freeware screenwriting plug-in for Word and start banging away. The story unfolds and the dialog sounds really good in your head.

Now what?

You read about Soderbergh and George Lucas using home camcorders to make their movies, so all you need is a Sony Handicam and you can become the next Kevin Smith! Because it's a camcorder all you need to do is point and shoot. There’s no need to know anything about lighting or cameras. You remember seeing something about Kevin Smith and the Sundance Film Festival, so when you finish the movie, you'll just send it there, it will be accepted, and you'll get signed to my three picture deal at that point. It should take about three months.

Now you need to get people to be in the movie, your masterpiece. You can hold a casting call. The casting notice reads “Actors Needed for Short Film for the Sundance Film Festival.”

The Casting Call

You can't believe these people want to be in my movie. Look at all of them. You want to savor this moment and see each actor one at a time. Then you see her and she looks really good, so forget first come first serve, get that girl Jennifer in here now! You want someone to look and act exactly as you pictured the movie in your head. With sixteen people waiting to see you at least five of them should be perfect.

The Call Back

Why isn't anyone exactly as you pictured in your head? Jennifer was really good looking and she really seemed to like you. Should you cast her solely based on looks? She can't act her way out of a paper bag.

The Shoot

Nothing is as good as you thought it would be. The actors aren't doing exactly what you want and you even tell them how to deliver the lines. You know you wanted to do more camera angles, but you were running late. Everybody is mad at you and you can't seem to get it right. You can fix it all in the editing. You can't afford to buy another pizza, so whoever is late, is just out of luck. No food for them.

The Edit – Day 2

This is fantastic, this is great. Sure there are warts, but the core of this, the idea, it's so good. You can't believe you made a movie!

The Edit – Day 30

You don't feel like editing today. You just worked a full shift at the store and you’re tired. Instead you see which re-run of Seinfeld is on.

The Edit - Day 66

You’re finally finished. You can't believe you edited the whole thing yourself on a home computer with your bootleg copy of Adobe Premiere. Every word of the script is included and it's perfect. You show it to your friends and family and maybe the cast. They'll tell you if anything's wrong because they are completely unbiased.

Screening Day

You can't believe it! Your mom, your best friend, and the lead actor loved the movie! You were right. This is a masterpiece. You wonder what time the limo will be here to pick you up. Hollywood can just somehow smell talent and no doubt they'll find you. When they do, you'll hire all your friends and all these actors to work with you and Tom Cruise and make Mission Impossible 4.

After the Screening – 11 Days Later

It's been almost two weeks and still no limo. Maybe the people who smell talent have a head cold or there was a flight delay in Chicago for the connecting flight.

After the Screening – 17 Days Later

You get an e-mail today from one of the bit-part actors, what's-her-name, and she has the gall to ask if you had submitted the film to any festivals yet. She doesn't understand that you are an artist and that you have a day job too. You'll get on it soon.

After the Screening – 24 Days Later

You looked into submitting the film to Sundance and it costs twenty-five dollars. Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, all of these film festivals want money. What kind of sick bastards charge filmmakers money to submit their movies? How many submissions can they possibly have? You can only afford two, so you will definitely send your film to Sundance because that's the big one. For some reason you were under the assumption that either the film festivals were free or that the entry fees wouldn't apply to you. You guess you should have done the math. Twenty-five dollars by eighteen film festivals equals $450. That's more than your Sony Handicam camcorder.

Rejection Day - Late November Every Year

You get a letter in the mail. You can't believe they didn't pick your movie. You went to the Sundance page and looked at the movies that did make it. Why would they pick movies directed by Matthew Modine or Danny Glover? What’s this? Kevin Smith got in too? I thought these people were already famous. Why are they premiering these Hollywood movies? Why didn't hey pick my mediocre movie with no stars shot on digital video? I better avoid all contact with anyone associated with the movie. I'd rather them not know than have to tell them.
I guess I won't be able to make another movie...

How to Avoid This Very Common Scenario


When you audition, ask about the plan and the distribution. If they can't afford to pay you but plan on sending the film to several film festivals then something is wrong. Do the math. Each film festival costs at least twenty-five dollars whether the film makes it in or not, and because of simple odds (thousands of submissions, tens of slots) the movie won't get into a lot of film festivals. If the filmmakers can't afford to pay for decent meals, how in the hell can they afford to submit the film to festivals?

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't do the movie. That's not my point at all. I guess my point is just BE REALISTIC. Know that you are doing it for the experience. There are pearl's in the clams occasionally, and you won't find them if you don't look. There are some good movies and good directors, but it may take time and a few movies before a first time filmmaker becomes one.

There are other options that can make the experience and the work worthwhile. Don't be afraid to suggest...


Plan for the entire movie. Budget for the entire movie. That includes money to market the movie. The common mistake is that you spend all of your money making the movie, and then it sits and collects dust because you find out that everything costs more than you thought. Plan for it. Whatever you think it will cost, have double the money. Did you really think that because you shot your film on digital video that it would be that much cheaper? That's insane.

BE REALISTIC. The chances of getting into Sundance are slim, and winning anything, or getting distribution is a pipe dream. First of all, digital video shorts with no stars are generally as valuable as rat feces. There is no real distribution and short films, even with stars, have very few outlets for display, and even more rare are places that pay for them.

Film festivals are great but they are expensive. Plan ahead for the money you will spend submitting your film to festivals and know that you may not get in. They don't refund your money when you don't get in. Also for your information, audiences at a regular film festival range from twelve to seventy-five people, and most of them are the filmmakers and actors of the other films that got accepted. Unless your movie is about filmmaking, this may not be the best audience to judge your work.

Make movies for the experience to start. Don't be delusional. Do you want to help yourself, your film, and the actors who starred in it? Get some exposure. Get your work seen by as many people as possible. Put your film on the internet, public access television, and anywhere else you possibly can. Get your actors seen by as many people as possible. That's the least you can do.

You have to ask yourself why you made the movie or why you got involved in the first place. Was it to get famous or make money? You're better off buying lottery tickets. You'll have much better odds in a casino. Did you make your movie to tell a story? Great, now share it with people in as many venues as possible. Film festivals are good but expensive. Have other options available.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Dreamcatcher and William Goldman

Submitted by Richard Hogg

In my previous article I wrote a brief piece about the William Goldman quote “nobody knows anything.” As a great admirer of his work I decided to go and see Dreamcatcher when it was released.

Looking down the credits it was hard not to take each name as a benchmark of quality. Surely with this many names, this many years, and so many movies between them they might be able to do justice to a book written by one of the, if not the best selling fiction writer of modern times.
But Mr. Goldman’s quote came back to bite him on the ass, and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll get the little joke. If you haven’t seen the movie some of this article may pass you by.

WHAT A LOAD OF CRAP. In a lot of films the script gets the bad press as a lot of people who know nothing about script work start throwing about words like poor structure and loose characterization. Here the common complaint from critics was that the plot was incoherent. If this means they spent more time looking at their watch than the screen as I did, then I agree.
Forget the three act structure and all the other supposed requirements of a script. The simple fact was that the story on screen was about as appealing as a holiday package to Iraq.

To sum it up. Aliens crash land-telepathic friends get caught up-insane special alien task force general goes insane-friend taken over by alien entity-other friends killed-alien tries to escape to spawn and infect others-remaining friends collect other strange friend-strange friend and alien do battle-humans win-hooray–the end. At this point most would be cursing the two hours they’ll never see again, but for a scriptwriter watching something this bad has proved to be more useful to me than watching something of real quality and I’ll tell you why.

The day after deciding I wanted to give this screenwriting thing a real go, my mum rented out The Shawshank Redemption. That night I lay awake, distraught, a broken fourteen year-old boy. I was convinced I would never be able to write something that good. What the hell did I know about the power of hope above all things, desire for freedom, and life inside an American prison (the other prison films I’d seen up to that point involved women only, but those films were altogether different). Two days later I went to see Street Fighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme. With my confidence restored I set about writing down some ideas for my first film.
The lesson I learned and stick to to this day, is never to compare my work to that of others. Learn from it sure, but don’t get depressed and give up if you see some hotshot twenty year-old write an amazing script. By the same token don’t get all cocky if you see something that’s not as good as your own.

The second thing I came away with was the limitations of the writer. I’d never really given it that much thought before, especially when writing. When I write I can see a clear picture in my head. Not only the action takes place but also the expression on the character’s faces. In Dreamcatcher we have some excellent actors and a few mediocre ones. Morgan Freeman is my first example as he seems to be the one with highest pedigree. Such talent, presence, and charisma, and yet here he delivers lines where his expression doesn’t change for the entire film. Does he hate the dialog (not Goldman’s best, for example take “the shit has hit the interplanetary fan”), or is it simply him putting his own take on the character, whereas Goldman was picturing something completely different. He just seemed empty, as if there was nothing to him. He may shoot a guy through the hand for disobeying orders, but I always felt as if I was grasping at thin air when trying to get inside this guy’s head.

Then there’s Damien Lewis (the ginger one). Outstanding in Band Of Brothers and the BBC dramas he’s been in. Here he appears to be underplaying the role, as he seems deadpan for the most part with the only meaty bit being when he’s taken over by the aliens. Here he has to change mannerisms and accents. Surprise, surprise, the epitome of evil has a upper class English accent. We’re not all bastards you know.

I hate to criticize a fellow Brit but the criticism is lessened by the fact that he’s still better than most of his companions. I won’t give a rundown but the one thing that stood out for me was that for a group of friends who are so close, they hardly react when bad things start to happen. Military quarantine-rant a bit; best friend dies-take a moment, wince, and then go about your business.

The lesson from this film was one I still find hard to do. You must know you’re characters. Instead of writing lists of favorite foods and colors as the books suggest, I try to get inside their skin when I’m just going about my day. I think to myself how a certain character would act in this situation. Another tool I have found to be very useful is to write short stories involving the main characters. This helps set up the world in my head as well as give me story ideas, and because it’s prose I can describe what they’re thinking. I recommend you try this.
Lastly, read you’re script out loud. That includes the descriptions. If Goldman and Kasdan had done this and still gone “Yep, this sounds good,” then I refer you back to Goldman’s famous quote.

Going to see bad films made by talented people can be enormously helpful. You may recognize similarities between the film and a script you’re working on. For example, do all of the characters speak in the same way? For me though, the benefit is much less practical and far more superficial. I come out thinking if that script which was deemed good enough to get passed through dozens of money men, as well as those with creativity, and all the changes that were supposed to make it better resulted in what I’ve just seen, then maybe the odds of my making it aren’t as bad as I thought.