"Willow" BTS: How we shot 12 minutes in 12 hours:

"Willow" BTS: How we shot 12 minutes in 12 hours:

Film-making, in my mind, is very much a team sport. Sure, there are auteurs and on-set autocrats but I never felt I thrived as either. In my opinion, my most unbearable films are the ones where I only listened to myself and took myself too seriously.

That's why, when I returned to my hometown over the 2016 holiday, I wasn't sure whether or not I'd even be able to shoot anything. A great deal of my film-making buddies were still in the area but, it being the holiday season and all, I wasn't sure if any of them would have the time or stamina to shoot a film. 

I knew three things for sure. First off, we'd need to shoot this in a day. All my actor and crew friends had very tight schedules and scheduling multiple people for multiple days quickly became impossible. Second,  we would need to improvise a great deal to tell the story we wanted to tell. And lastly, I knew I couldn't count 100% on anything. 

I wrote up a script two days before we ended up shooting and sent it to Dave, my good friend and actor. Once he was fully on-board, I knew we'd at least try to shoot this thing. Whether or not we'd fail was still up in the air.

The thirteen-page script was ambitious. The last time I shot a film that long, it took me four days. With the actors improvising almost all of the lines after having no real prep time with the material, I knew there was a chance the edit would be impossible once I played back the footage. 

We ended up scraping together a merry band of actors who could donate a few hours of their night to our project. Much to my delight, every single one of them knocked it out of the park. As a Producer/Director/DP on this project, I wasn't able to spend the time I usually like to with actors, and having only one other crew member, the actors were often left alone with each other while I untangled myself from a nest of cables.

What made this whole thing possible to shoot and edit was something people in comedy call "The Button." It's an endpoint in dialogue that triggers a following sequence. Perhaps it's an action by the actor or a simple line or phrase.

For example, when Danny (Alex K. LaGrange) is improvising in the car with Dave, he knew he had to somehow get to the line, "When was the last time you even spoke to Willow?" Everything up until that point was improvised by the actors, and then repeated in subsequent takes with varying degrees of consistency. Every scene had a precise sequence of 'buttons' and made editing for continuity much easier.

The most important hurdle that made this film possible was that the actors could relate to the source material. I didn't need to give much direction because everyone had experience with the subject matter. It's easy to riff off of one another if you've already thought about the topic thoroughly. 

Lastly, the production was small and simple. I refrained from moving the camera, letting the actors drive the movement. This was partially because we didn't have enough hands on set to do anything fancy, but also because I didn't want to distract from what these characters were saying. 

Lighting was minimal, using a small LED panel and a set of battery-powered rope LED lights. Everything else was practical, from porch lights to car headlights. The simplicity of the visual story was never a concern for me because it played an important part in the film-making.

 Throughout the story and especially in the last scene, I wanted it to feel almost like an amateur music video for a local band. That's usually a visual taboo that's best avoided, but I felt our story needed a touch of that homegrown feeling. It brings authenticity to the theme of "millennial heartbreak in the heart of the Rust Belt". It's a story about non-extraordinary people in non-extraordinary circumstances, doing the best they can with what they have. Growing up in the Rust Belt, that was sort of the anthem of my people and it served as the emotional core of this piece.

In all honesty, I expected the worst when going into production for this thing. Too much could've gone wrong and nothing was certain. Luckily for us, everything that could've gone right did.

Thanks to everyone who took part in making this happen. We had so much fun making it. We'll see you later in February for the next film.   

Directing a Feature: 7 Steps to a Better Film

Directing a Feature: 7 Steps to a Better Film

Congratulations! You're directing a feature film. Maybe it's a micro-budget indie flick or something you're shooting with your friends (or both, ideally!). Directing a 90+ minute piece presents a whole new series of challenges that are unique to longer productions. In this post, I'll detail the 7 steps to making a better film. Some of these I had figured out long before my first feature, and others are things I had to learn the hard way. By writing this, I hope to save future filmmakers some of the headaches I had, enabling them to make better films. 


1. Know What Your Film is About

Every film has a core - an essence. Black Hawk Down is a story about brotherhood and doing whatever it takes to keep your buddies safe. Jurassic Park is a story about the intersection of man and science and its often unforeseen consequences.  Knowing what lies at the heart of your story means the difference between a film with a voice and a film that wanders listlessly. (i.e. the "Student Indie Film Syndrome")

Having this singular understanding of your film's core will help inform every decision you make in the directing process. It drives the visual narrative, the characters and the soundscape. By adhering to this school of thought, your film will emerge from the editing bay more coherent and idiosyncratic. 

The unfortunate side of this tip is that, very often, you are not the singular creative voice contributing to your film. Your D.P., writers, executive producers, production designers all have their own ideas of what your film should be. In my personal experience, The writer, my co-director and myself were rarely on the same page when it came to the film's core and themes, leading to a very (in my opinion) dull film.  Remember to stick to your guns and make your voice heard. The more you can unify your crew under a singular idea, the better off you'll be!

2. Coverage is Everything

I hear this a lot from D.P.'s: "We should be careful not to over cover this scene." Your shot-list then dwindles from the seven shots you had planned down to a measly three. In our experience, time and crew problems generally only allowed for four shots and an insert per scene. As a result, we had to start getting creative, covering an entire scene from one or two angles. It felt very akin to the Golden Age, when camera moves and quick cuts were far less prevalent. 

The issue with this school of thought is that you're essentially giving up options in the editing room later on. All editors know that editing a movie is down to one principle: Knowing whether or not to cut. Sometimes all an editor needs is two shots. Sometimes the scene demands it be all in one-take. Other times, a series of inserts will best tell the story. By making the decision to shoot as few angles as possible without considering what the scene really calls for, you are essentially guaranteeing the scene won't flow properly in post. 

Be sure to go over the shot list with your D.P. and 1st A.D. before the shoot so there are no questions as to whether or not this insert of a tea kettle is "really necessary." If that insert is the defining moment of your scene, you fight for it! 

3. Talk to Your Actors

I think a lot of directors starting out want to have a lot of input on what the camera is doing. "Aw, yeah! Let's dolly in!" or "Put it on a MoVI and spin around him!" or even "I'm thinking we hit the wall with some HMI's and put a ton of CTO on those practicals." Stop right there! If you have a good working relationship with your D.P. and you've prepared in advance, none of this needs to be said. They know what shot you want and if they don't they'll ask.  (I'm super guilty of this one, myself.)

What you should be doing instead is speaking with your actors. And by speaking with them, I don't mean telling them what to do. Working with actors means listening a lot. Let them give you their input and their ideas. Building characters is a collaborative effort, after all. Make sure they are comfortable with the scene and RUN A DAMN REHEARSAL. Unless you are going for spontaneity and have a good relationship with your actors, you should always run a rehearsal or two so you don't burn through three takes by the time anyone knows what's going on.  

4. Don't be Afraid to Speak Up

There's a fine line between a dictatorial director that runs the set with an iron fist and a lame-duck director that sits back and lets the D.P. and 1st A.D. take the wheel. Film-making means compromising a lot of the time and you must, first off, understand that you aren't always going to get exactly what you want. That's just the nature of making films. 

However, it is all to easy to fall into a pattern of saying "yes" to everything and, slowly but surely, you watch as your film ends up being in everyone's hands but yours. Yeah, it would be great if holding your ground means not ruffling a few feathers, but that's not how the game is played. Especially on indie/student sets, people will go out of their way to make it known that they disagree with your direction. I'd say 40% of the crew on the film I directed had many less-than-supportive things to say to my co-director and I. That kind of subordination is generally eliminated as soon as you step onto a set with a reasonable day-rate, but not every first-time director is that lucky. 

I can't emphasize this enough. Stick to your guns. If you change a scene's blocking because the 2nd 2nd told you it was stupid, you're giving up your creative vision to someone who is far less qualified at directing than you are (you got the job after all, didn't you?). Taking criticism and input is important for any filmmaker, but take it at face value. If a producer says "More fart jokes!", don't be afraid to plant your foot and say, "No."

5. It's Not Your Fault

From the table read to the release day, every single issue with the script, the film and everything surrounding it is going to be pinned on you. We still live in a world where people - in and out of the industry -  give directors way too much credit. Given this unfortunate piece of cultural misconception, you'll be spending a great deal of time trying to fix things that aren't your problem. 

The producers forgot to buy the props you needed? The casting department told your actors they could get their hair cut? The marketing team thinks you're making a documentary about the rise and fall of KFC? It's easy to try and micromanage every aspect of your film because, in the end, it reflects on you. 

There's a point where you've done all you can do. The damage is done and you have to make the best with what you have. From my own personal experience, our entire crew was filled with students and people inexperienced at their positions.  As a result, more went wrong than you could possibly imagine. During post-production, my co-director and I had to spend a few months working 30-40 hours a week after coming home from full-time jobs just to fix what we could before release. I'm proud of the progress we made but there was just too much to do in too little time. 

In the end, you must understand that even if everyone's putting all the blame on you, it's not (usually) your fault. Take a breath. Relax. Welcome to directing indie features.

6. Be Prepared

Most new directors waste a ton of time on set because they did not come prepared. The second you make eye contact with your D.P. in the morning, she should know the scene back and forth, how many shots there are, what gear she'll need and what the lighting setup will be. You wave at the casting department and 1st A.D. as they walk by. Because you discussed the blocking and shot order already, you're free to grab some eggs and sausage from the crafty table. 

Shooting a feature is like fighting a war. You need to keep your generals informed on your strategy if you want to win, planning carefully for the battles ahead. When you get the chance, speak with your actors about some of the scenes coming up within the next two-to-three shooting days. By getting them thinking about the scene, they're more likely to go back through the script and come to you with more prevalent questions and ideas the day-of. 

Some great ways to prepare are crafting a shot-list or storyboards with your D.P., reading the script over to make sure nothing is missing/needs to be addressed, or meeting with the production design team on exactly what you need the set to look like long in advance.

7. Directing is Writing

Very few good directors working today leave a script untouched and shoot what they've been given on the page. A director is ideally hired before the script is finalized, so they have time to add some input or thoughts of their own to the story as the writer finishes up the later drafts. 

As a director, understanding story, character, motif, theme, plot devices, rhythm, perspective and style are absolutely key to crafting a meaningful, memorable film. Assuming your writer is open-minded and willing to collaborate (As most professional writers are), have a few meetings with him and give him your input. It will greatly benefit your film in the long-run. 

BONUS TIP

RELAX! Seriously, there comes a point where the D.P. just needs a sec to set up the shot. The actors are prepped and everything is set for the next day. Have a laugh with the actors. Grab a juice box from crafty and take a seat in video village. Maintaining your sanity is key in an environment that can be incredibly mentally draining.


I hope these tips helped shed some light on the process of making a feature. Obviously, there is a ton more I could write about, but these are just a handful of the biggest takeaways I had from the whole experience.  If you have any specific questions or tips of your own, drop me an email on the contact form or submit a comment. Maybe I'll do another one of these at some point! 

As always, keep on shooting!

NAB 2016

NAB 2016

Like a flash, NAB 2016 came and went! After a 36 hour day trying to get home, I needed a moment's rest before diving into my thoughts and experiences from this year's show. Check out the above video for my initial thoughts and reactions. I'll go into more depth in this blog post, so stand by!

VR (Virtual Reality)

As we all know, VR is taking the industry by storm. The VR pavilion was tucked away in the North Hall this year, far from the cameras, drones and post-production tech. It was small and very understated, with a handful of booths advertising their products. 

Nokia came with the most gusto, demoing their Ozo, a 360 degree camera with 8 2k by 2k sensors. I watched some demos on the Occulus, Vive and Gear VR. Aside from my usual concerns about the headsets (Low pixel density, poor refresh rate, why does the Occulus have terrible built-in headphones?), I was extremely impressed by the demo. 

The Ozo uses a stereo image for a true 3D experience, unlike your standard 360 video. The 3D didn't feel gimicky and after adjusting my eyes to the low resolution of the headsets, the experience was extremely immersive, and the world around me was slowly drowned out by the awesome images strapped to my face.

However, with a retail price of $60,000, the Ozo just isn't a feasible 3D VR solution at the moment. Options like the GoPro rig or the Kodak cameras are much more affordable, if a little messier. The GoPro rigs all require some sort of stitching and syncing mechanism, where as one of the Nokia reps I talked to said the Ozo produces a latlong automatically because it is a single camera with multiple lenses and sensors. Pretty cool, but not $60k cool. 

Overall, the VR booth was incredible. Though I think we're a couple years out from a solid range of quality solutions, I am extremely excited about seeing where all this is headed!

Drones & Gimbals

Of course, the gimbal and drone hype was huge this year. It felt like everyone had DJI inspired quadcopters hovering around their designated flying zones. Even more companies were offering their own handheld gimbals for cellphones and GoPro. 

The existence of these gimbals is very questionable to me. Most of these gimbals don't do that much to stabilize the camera and, with a wider lens, those small shakes from your hand pick up less on the image. The above video was shot with a GoPro and all of it was me just holding it with one hand. Any shakes, I ironed out with warp stabilizer in post. Hardly worth the $800 price tag of some of these gimbals, if you ask me. 

On the other hand, the gimbals for larger, professional cameras were really taking off. MoVI and Freefly Systems are still going strong, facing stiff competition from DJI and countless other manufacturers. These systems are incredible at stabilization, and the tech gets better every year. However, The vertical, Y movement of cameras on these systems are problematic and often you can tell they were shot on one of these systems, just by watching the camera bounce up and down as it glides through the air. 

I remain a firm Glidecam/Steadicam supporter, however. They aren't easy to learn like the 3-axis gimbal systems, but the results are far better if you ask me. Additionally, the ease of balancing, lack of batteries and better results make those Steadicam systems more appealing in my mind. However, the gimbals are very versatile. In the end, I think they are different tools for different tasks. 

Back to drones. DJI is clearly still the king, with a massive booth right in the front of the hall by the concourse, letting everyone know they exist with a massive, flashy booth. I talked to all the other drone creators, with Autel catching my eye in particular. Most of these companies are offering a very similar product to DJI at lower prices, but they lack the reviews and sheer time on the market that DJI has had to make anywhere near the same impression. I'm hoping we start to see reviews for these pop up soon! (I'm in the market!)

8K

Okay, before you start throwing fruit, I recognize that 8K isn't going to be in the hands of consumers for a long while and that the difference to the untrained eye is negligible. What I like so much about 8K is that it took a very strong magnifying glass to see the pixels on the screen. We are quickly reaching a point where resolution is getting as good as it can be, which means we have to start paying more attention to our capture methods to improve the image. 

We saw a demo at Canon, where they put us in a theater, flanked by 3 massive 8k screens. It was an incredibly immersive experience and I was blown away by how vivid it was compared to the 4k screen I'm used to. We might not be watching TV or movies in 8K for a while, but when we do, the difference will be noticeable to video professionals, especially on a larger screen.

HDR

This last topic is near and dear to my heart. HDR couldn't come fast enough. I remember watching some HDR demos at NAB 2014 and thinking to myself, "This. Is. The. Future."

For those unfamiliar, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It allows for more latitude for color data, which means a picture with richer colors without the use of the much-maligned post-processing by your TV set. In addition, the dark parts of the image are hard to see, as where the bright parts make you squint to see at times. It feels so similar to what our eyes experience, that the experience is very immersive and a noticeable improvement from the current dynamic range of consumer displays. 

Atomos is currently pushing their HDR recorders as hard as they can, offering more latitude, while letting you record to ProRes, RAW, and a multitude of other formats in rec .709, giving colorists a massive amount of range to work with. If there was an award for "most promising new tech", HDR would be it. 

CONCLUSION

As always, I had a blast at NAB. It was great to see where the industry was headed as well as meeting cool people who have taught me a lot about film, VR and technology. I finally met Wren Weichman of Corridor Digital, who turned me onto Octane. I also accomplished a life goal of shaking hands with Andrew Kramer of Videocopilot.net. Among others were Phillip Bloom, The guys behind Wizard of Aus, Devin Graham, Phil Arntz and Ben from Atomic Productions.

It was great seeing the RodyPolis Team, Niko and Sam from Corridor Digital, as well as Josh and Andrea from Hitfilm again. Everyone is such a huge inspiration and without this community of talented people, I'm sure I wouldn't be doing what I love today. 

Next year, I hope to see more of you there! We can go to Yard House and eat the best food on the planet. 

 

Let's Talk About Hitfilm

Let's Talk About Hitfilm

When I was a wee lad of 13, I had big plans for my mini-DV camcorder and the movies I made with my friends after school. However, I was limited by the capabilities and constant crashing of Windows XP's Windows Movie Maker.  Eventually, I stumbled across a platform that would enable me to create effects beyond my wildest dreams! Muzzle flares, lightsabers, matte paintings, oh my!

We didn't have a lot of money growing up, but my mother somehow was able to scrounge enough together to buy this software for me. It was called Effectslab Lite from a company called FXHome and, from that day forward, I was hooked. Staying up late on school nights rotoscoping three-second clips of my friends taught me that hard work could be fun and rewarding. 

Flash forward ten years later. I'm working in the video field, supporting myself full time and FXHome is steamrolling the indie film scene with their powerful suite of software, called Hitfilm. The software has been used by Film Riot, Rocketjump and Corridor Digital, to name a few.  A free version of the software, dubbed Hitfilm Express is also available for beginners. Just to show you how powerful this software is, I threw together a custom plasma burst made from free stock footage and built-in effects. I was in and out of the software in under five minutes:

In addition to their incredible software, FXHome offers a suite of plugins for After Effects and other compositors. These are my bread and butter at work and their prices are incredible compared to other, similar quality plugins that are more or less industry standard. 

In addition to software, FXHome has built an incredible filmmaking community on the Hitfilm website. The company breeds a culture of creativity and encouragement for beginners through professionals. In addition to the mind-blowing amount of free tutorials they offer, the team at FXHome is very keen on engaging with the community, aiming to create a product that benefits everyone. 

Whether you're a newbie at making movies or a professional in need of some better plugins, I highly suggest you pop over to Hitfilm.com and say hello!

 

*Full disclosure: The statements made in this blog post are of my own opinion and I have had no discourse with the team in regards to this blog post. I find myself recommending this software so often that I felt I needed to write something down that I could direct people to! 

 

Taking Your 3D Renders to the Next Level with Octane

Taking Your 3D Renders to the Next Level with Octane

For many 3D users, rendering your project is a tedious process. Without access to even a small farm or an incredibly beefy machine, rendering with full GI can take an unnecessarily long time, often putting a halt to your productivity if you only have one machine to work from. 

Like many other 3Ds MAX users, I started with the tried-and-true Mental Ray engine and was able to get some great results. After a while, I began hearing the chants of other VFX artists claiming the almighty Vray was king. To this day, multiple studios I have worked with see Vray as the be-all, end all render engine. 

It wasn't until Wren Weichman of Corridor Digital recommended the Octane render engine that I began having second thoughts about my current rendering bedfellows. Until that point, I was resigned to my fate, planning renders for the evening and weekends with my now-outdated system chugging along through the wee hours of the morning. My very first VR video took over 500 hours to render in Vray. Luckily, since I was on set for my feature film, Unlucky, I wasn't using my workstation for 53 of those days.  If I had needed to use my workstation at any point, that video would not have been possible.

When I first installed the Octane plugin for 3Ds MAX, I had heard it was fast but I never expected it to be that fast. Render times dropped almost tenfold and I was suddenly able to pump out minutes of 4K VR content at incredible speeds of ten seconds per frame; an impressive number for my three-year-old rig. 

Octane isn't without its own limitations, however. Full integration with FumeFX and Phoenix FD are still on the horizon and render times can really add up when pushing the sample limit for detailed reflections, especially when rendering in 4K. However, Octane's adaptive depth of field and beautiful post-processing options make it incredibly powerful for VFX artists and motion designers alike. 

Octane has a free demo as well as their own standalone program, so I highly encourage everyone to check it out! I know I'll be using it as my flagship render engine for the foreseeable future!