Make Something Creative Everyday

Today I’m starting a new project where I will ‘Make Something Creative Everyday’ (MSCE). It’s a personal challenge to increase my output and to have a little fun while doing it.

My first entry is a light painting of a dragon. Thank you.

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Microbudgets and Regional Filmmaking

I recently had the privilege of writing a guest post for John Yost’s column “The Microbudget Conversation” over at FilmmakerMagazine.com. I couldn’t be more excited about this, although I’ll admit I’m a little embarrassed at the photo they used to accompany the piece. In the article, I talk about Borscht, producing for Barry Jenkins and my thoughts on making an authentic regional film. You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

Big budgets bring with them the endless possibilities of crafting just the right look out of the entirety of the world. However, with microbudget, our options usually compress down to a square block, or small city to patchwork our worlds. I was recently contacted by Andrew Hevia, a member of Borscht, a film festival and film collective from Miami. What he told me made me excited and jealous…it was the perfect example of local, sustainable filmmaking. I asked Andrew to write up something on the collective, the role place has in microbudget, and the experience he had collaborating with Miami transplant Barry Jenkins.

Special thanks to John Yost and Scott Macaulay at FilmmakerMagazine.com

On Producing: “The Bus” a youngARTS collaborative film

I recently produced a short film called “The Bus” for the 2011 Borscht Film Festival. What follows is a blog post about my experience.

Film producing as an art is equal parts left brain and right brain. In the most basic of terms, the film producer is responsible for taking the movie from concept to completion by handling any and everything that follows after someone (often a producer) says “let’s make a movie!” The first step is a story. In this case, it was a monologue written by the playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney (a fellow youngARTS alumni and Miami native) about the public transportation system in Miami. It was an epic account of one woman’s cross-county bus trip, a morning commute as designed by M.C. Escher, and the hope, terror and frustration that follows.

The second step is gathering the cast and crew. Lucas Leyva (youngARTS ’05) signed on to direct. With his strong theater background and deep familiarity with Tarrell’s work, he was an obvious choice. I knew Lucas could bring out the performances required and could find a clever way to stage the material that help illuminate the deeper subtext, rather than the superficial context.

Daniel Rosenberg (youngARTS ’11) stepped up to shoot the project and brought with him both a theatrical sensibility and an effortless enthusiasm. His deft camera work made him an easy choice, but his genuine willingness to collaborate made him the ideal choice. Filmmaking is nothing if not collaborative and the nature of this piece required an even playing field, there were no egos allowed on set. We found our composer in Tim Callobre (youngARTS 11), whose sharp musical mind and quick turnaround astonished me even more than his impeccable ear for cinematic scoring.

Unfortunately, we knew immediately that Tarrell’s gorgeous piece was more epic than we could produce and we set about adapting the monologue to the screen, choosing excerpts that would still convey the essentials without the 20 minute running time. This was a difficult and thankless task, so much of the power of the piece came from the scale and scope of Tarrell’s writing, but it was sadly necessary.

In doing so, we made two crucial choices in how best to present the material. The first was that we decided to have multiple actors perform the monologue, thereby highlighting the universal aspects of the story. We wanted different ages, genders and obvious backgrounds. The bus system is used by all of Miami and the story, while specific to a character on a personal mission, applies to anyone who’s ever contemplated traveling on the city wide transit system. The second was to stage the performances in a location that avoided the obvious spaces: we pointedly did not want the film taking place at a bus stop, or worse, on the bus itself. Not only is it complicated and expensive to arrange, it’s also nearly impossible to get quality production sound or focused performances on an active bus line. Have you ever tried delivering a 5 minute monologue, distraction free and uninterrupted in a crowded place, let alone one that stops at every light, makes wide turns and is constantly filling and emptying it’s passengers? I have, and it’s brutal.

We wanted a large space, one that allowed for movement and action while adding character and subtle commentary befitting the subject. Lighting was a concern, as was sound. This was going to be hard to find but necessary.

Casting is always a challenge, but even more so when the material dictates such strong performances. Tarrell’s cadence is specific and melodic, it requires a finely tuned ear and fluid delivery. We made the job more difficult when we decided to open up our film and cast four separate actor to read sections of the piece, rather than have one single performer. We ultimately chose Rudi Goblen, a talented actor who had worked with Lucas before and who was familiar with Tarrell’s writing, Rhett Thompson, a poet, comedienne and performer who thoroughly impressed us with her diligent character research and unforced delivery, and Andrew Rosenberg, a supremely gifted actor familiar to both Lucas and I, whom we had known for years, who added a commanding and authoritative presence.

As producer, I oversaw all of these steps and arranged meetings, made creative decisions and contributed opinions throughout the pre production process. Working with the cast and crew, I planned our shoot days and broke down the shooting schedule, all while seeking our perfect location. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the process.

On a larger film, a location manager is someone the producer hires to seek out, contact and secure locations for filming. On a smaller film like this one, the task fell largely on me, although Lucas and Daniel gamely stepped up to help find a space. After nearly two weeks of chasing leads, hunting down spaces and making phone calls, I stumbled on an abandoned warehouse space just west of midtown. I jumped a fence, snuck into the property and snapped a few photos. I sent them to our cinematographer, who responded immediately with an excited text, sent during third period english class: “Yes! This is Perfect!” Like a detective, I searched through records and phone numbers, located the owner and approached him with our offer. Thankfully, he was into it.

Leading up to the day of the shoot, i rented equipment, gathered our tools and confirmed everyone’s start time. I secured an assistant director, Jonathan David Kane as an all around production hand, dolly grip and camera assistant. He brought with him years of experience and zen like attitude, the perfect presence for any film set.

On the day of the shoot, I stepped back from the actual production and fell into a supportive role, coordinating with the cast, making sure everyone could park on location, maintaining craft service and providing lunch for all involved. I had everyone sign release forms and carried copies of the location agreements and insurance certificates. All business, nothing truly exciting, although essential. Despite a passing rain storm, the day went of without a hitch.

During post production, I returned to an active creative role as Lucas and I edited the first cut of the film, choosing clips based on a combination of performance and camera movement. To our dismay, our first cut was nearly 10 minutes, which was almost double our expected running time. We got ruthless and paired down the film to a brisk and effective four minutes. This is a surprisingly necessary process that too often, filmmakers find distasteful and refuse to properly do. Editing is not for the weak of heart.

We turned our edit over to Daniel, who made another pass, added a few clips and then color corrected the entire the film. We chose to add a 2.35 matte to the film, enhancing the look by adding the cinematic letterboxing on the top and bottom of the frame. I then sent the final cut to Tim, who quickly scored and delivered the background music. We added titles, made one final pass and hit export.

And with that, the film was completed.

Why I Love AVID But Won’t Make the Switch

Recently, I had an email exchange with an AVID representative and it gave me an excuse to write out a lot of things I’ve been meaning to put down for a while, about editing No Matter What, Bots High and some of the things I learned during the process. I’d like to go more in-depth with some of this and may at a later date. Below, I’ve posted the bulk of the email exchange, please excuse the rough formatting.  

My DIY AVID stickers from 2007

A little necessary back story about me and where I’m coming from, if you’re late to the game. In January of last year, I edited an indie feature called No Matter What, which will premiere at the 2011 SXSW film festival. We cut the film on Final Cut and it was a series of endless frustrations. We shot both on the RED and on the Canon 7D and the mixed formats were a serious problem for the duration of our 3 month edit.

Immediately after No Matter What, I edited a feature-length documentary called “Bots High,” again on Final Cut Pro. And again, it was the source of constant headaches. We had over 100 hours of HD footage and the system was unstable and required a number of jerry-rigs and workarounds to accomplish the task. We lost weeks of productivity to a slew of problems. We persevered and Bots High is now making festival rounds, with its world premiere set to happen February 26th during the Bots IQ National Competition in Miami.  

I’m originally an AVID editor; I was trained on AVID at the FSU Film School and I spent the first three years of my career as the staff editor at an AVID based TV station. Knowing AVID got me my first job and I remain a big fan.

Avid Media composer

Avid Media Composer 5.0

1. how/why did you guys make the decision to go with Final Cut Pro?

Re: Bots High – we chose FCP because we’d heard that Walter Murch‘s assistant editor used FileMaker Pro to build a complicated shot database that integrated into FCP using XML. We set up something similar and it worked great. It was the rest of the editing that was a debacle.

Re: No Matter What – When I came onto the project, a lot of the post decisions had already been made – I think the production company had a way of working that had gone smoothly before and thought they would just transfer the workflow, using what they already had available. This was ill-considered, and we ran into a bunch of issues that could have been avoided with a little more foresight. On my part, I’d never edited RED footage nor DSLR footage before this, although I’d sat through a few edit sessions and observed the process. I’d gotten a lot of conflicting information regarding RED footage  (some people transcoded, others used the proxy files, etc) and all of it was FCP based. It was pretty much assumed we’d cut on FCP and being a multi-platform editor, i was fine with that. Also, at the time I had zero experience with the formats we were using so I hadn’t developed any strong opinions about how best to handle it all. I went with the accepted wisdom and decided I’d learn as I went along.

2. Was Media Composer considered?

Re: Bots High – No. The FileMaker Pro database was the deciding factor, and the director had already encoded his 100 hours of XDCAM EX to ProRes, so we were sticking with FCP.

Re: No matter what – Yes, but much too late in the process to be feasible. I arrived on set a week after production started and was tasked with organizing the dailies and cutting up to picture. I was a week behind the shoot, so the first few days were long ones, lasting 18, 20 hours at a stretch. Two of the days had me sleeping in my editing chair and working round the clock to figure out a system that would work. This is when I learned the extent of the mess we were in and started to develop strong opinions about how to avoid it next time. This is also when I brought up the idea of using AVID instead of FCP.

In order to cut the movie, I’d taken leave from my job as an editor at Miami’s AVID based PBS station and my experience there was generally positive. We used XDCAM discs and the AVID proxy workflow was a dream to me. I loved the simplicity of the lo-res proxy files and the ease of high res-ing. I loved the tiny file sizes and media management. By contrast, I hated FCPs XDCAM workflow and felt that AVID must have a better solution for the task at hand.

So I mentioned to the producer that I was proficient on AVID, and while I didn’t know for sure that the workflow was better and had no idea how it would integrate into the color timing process, i was confident it would be a better solution than the options before me. We had a conversation about it and answered many of the above questions but ultimately decided to tough it out and stick with FCP.

This decision was influenced by several things:

  1. We had six computers on hand (at least) and all of them had FCP. Not one had Avid. Our DIT station was FCP, our edit station was FCP, our DP’s laptop was FCP. My laptop was FCP only, our producer (FCP) and our director (FCP). Although we had different versions so not all were compatible, it was infinitely easier for us move media when everything stayed FCP. If they needed to pull up a scene on the DIT station on set, they used FCP. I could cut something together, email the project file and the could attach the media – AVID would have disrupted this.
  2. We were in Chipley, FL and the closest store that would stock AVID was 90 minutes away in Tallahassee or 2.5 hours away in Jacksonville. We would have had to ship a copy and we would have lost more time waiting and then transitioning. Since I’d already worked out a solution using FCP and could implement it immediately, I would be up and running before AVID even arrived.
Now, in case you’re curious, these are a few things I learned about working with RED, DSLRs and Final Cut Pro. *(true as of January 2010)

  1. In order to edit H264, you have to transcode to another format, preferably Apple ProRes. This is a 1:1 process. An hour of footage takes an hour to transcode. Ugh.
  2. If you “bake” R3D files into another format (Apple ProRes) you lose access to the 4K original files, thereby downgrading the image permanently. It is also extremely time consuming (I’ve heard anywhere from 2:1 to 30:1).
  3. RED proxy files come in a REDCODE format, which is extremely frustrating. Not only does it not take titles or alpha channels or transitions, it also does not allow other formats – a ProRes file on a REDCODE timeline renders out as a gray frame. REDCODE can go into ProRes, but not the other way around.
The end result of these three things was this: I had to separate my timelines into three – one was for all the scenes shot on RED, another for all the scenes on the 7D (now ProRes) and the final for the combination. In order to watch the continuous movie, i had to render the mixed combination sequence into ProRes, which took precisely forever. If I made edits, i lost all or part of the render. Since 70% was RED footage, the render time became such an obstacle that I mostly just stuck to the separate timelines. I think I only watched the entire cut three, maybe four times during the entire 3 month edit (not counting the DVD based cut screenings or the quicktime screenings).

Re: Bots high – Things I learned about FCP and massive amounts of documentary footage

  1. FCP has a secret file size limit for large projects and becomes massively, confusingly unstable when this limit is reach or surpassed. If your project file approaches 100 mb, the system crashes near constantly. it also takes eons to open. We found that keeping project files under 75 mb was ideal.
  2. Our solution to the above was to create several projects, each one devoted to a different topic like “interviews” or “robot battles from the first act,” keep the media from that topic confined to the project and build the movie on a third project called “movie.” We then opened all of the necessary projects at once and kept them like tabs in the project window. It took weeks before we figured this system out.
3. Is there anything in particular that’s an influence when making the choice of editing platform?

Ubiquity and cost. Every editor and almost every filmmaker I know has a copy of FCP on their macbook pro. Most us got them while we were in school – early 2000s, when we could buy them for the student price, or bootleg them from the film school post hall. It was easy to learn and didn’t require any hardware or a dongle, which made it impossible to borrow or steal or “test drive.” Now that we’re all working and paid, my colleagues are upgrading, purchasing and making major post decisions based on what they worked with: FCP.

In my experience, this is what always happens with high-end software. I bought my first NLE system when I was 11 years old: I paid 5 bucks for a bootleg version of Adobe Premiere, which came to me on a set of 3.5 floppy discs. I learned to edit video on a computer using Iomega Buzz and a hi8 camcorder after tape to tape editing on the home VCR got too tedious. I learned photoshop the same way and at the same age. I eventually graduated to Final Cut because my high school bought me a copy I could use during an independent study film course.

In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to AVID entering the DIY market is AVID’s exclusivity and rather impressive security. It was too hard to get a bootleg copy when I was 12 and I couldn’t afford one on my 5 dollar weekly allowance, so I stuck with Premiere. I got my first taste of AVID at Film School, which was expensive and hard to get into. After graduating and moving back to Miami, I got my job at WLRN because I knew AVID and that was rare (especially in Miami). While I was working, they had such a problem hiring new AVID editors, that they began transitioning to Final Cut Pro so they could slowly phase out the AVID system.

The reason I don’t own and use AVID on my own projects or at Borscht? It’s too expensive to switch. My laptop, which I purchased with graduation money, is now too old to work with the newest AVID. A new macbook pro 15 inch will cost me $2,000. Now that I’m no longer a student, the software is $2,300. Do i think it’s a better, more stable system? Absolutely. Am i willing to pay $4,300 when the system I already have still works, even if it can be clumsy and unstable at times? Definitely not.

4. Are there trade mags or websites you keep up with for information on developments in film tech?

I’ve recently started reading NoFilmSchool.com and I love it. I get most of my information from there, or from IndieWire. My partner in Borscht, a filmmaker named Lucas Leyva, recently attended CES and came back with an eye on new tech, but for the most part I have geeky conversations with fellow filmmakers where we make JKL jokes and debate the merits of trim mode (I, for one, remain a fan).

Hulu ad prices and more!

This article from NewTeeVee.com is a fascinating look at ad revenue online and in traditional broadcast. To quote:

when it comes to monetization, Hulu’s ad platform beats nearly everything else out there. Hulu reports that it averaged $0.143 in ad revenue per episode in 2010, which is better than broadcast DVR ($0.097), cable ($0.106) and cable DVR ($0.048). Hulu doesn’t yet top ad revenue for the typical broadcast TV show, but the startup appears to be on its way to doing just that: in the fourth quarter: Hulu monetization rose to $0.185 per half-hour episode, compared to $0.216 for broadcast TV.

The rest of the article has charts and other interesting speculation about Hulu’s future, but the aspect that intrigued me was the final price point  – Hulu makes $0.185 per half hour while broadcast TV averages $0.216 for the same. Which means the best available ad supported program on broadcast makes less than one quarter per half hour. I’m not sure what this means, but it’s something to think about. Thoughts?

Mobile Posting

This is less a complete post and more of a quick thought. I just got an iPhone and all of a sudden, I understand at the fuss is about. I’m updating my blog from Miami beach! Untethered and fancy free. However, the wordpress app blows- this is slow as hell.

Ed Burns is Kickin’ A$$ and Takin’ Names

I just read an article on NewTeeVee about Ed Burns and his new media efforts. Word is, he’s trying to recreate the Brother’s McMullen in the digital age. I was unfamiliar with his 10 episode webseries ‘the lynch pin‘ before this and I am impressed. It’s a familiar story about a bad ass suit wearing assassin who wants out of the game but “the only way out is in a body bag.” Well executed with Mr. Burns as the titular assassin, the show has a paltry view count on YouTube, which is unfortunate but not unexpected. I wonder how it fared on iTunes? The drop off rate is noticeable and, after watching a few episodes, understandable. The lynch pin suffers from the same curse as most other short series – “Opening Title Fatigue.” After seeing the same intro six times in 10 minutes, it gets old. This is something we’re struggling with on Sexual Miscreant and something I’m looking to solve. The need to constantly remind the viewer what show they’re watching ruins the experience of the narrative. At the same time, lumping the episodes into one large chunk has disadvantages as well, longer load times being the least of them. I’m going to expand on this idea in a future post, so for now, back to the matter at hand. It’s a quality show and a strong effort, well produced, shot on RED and cut with snap and vigor. Well played, Mr. Burns. Well played.

According to the article I linked above, Mr. Burns feels that the $30,000 direct-to-consumer filmmaking model is the way to go, where the only compromises you make are the ones you choose to make. His newest no-budget film is called ‘Nice Guy Johnny’ and it hits iTunes and VOD on October 26.