Sunday, October 9, 2011


I can't count the number of filmmakers who have asked me "why doesn't my exported image look like the one I shot?" Getting that question from my students is not only expected but encouraged. Getting it from people who've been making movies for five years or more is a bit discouraging.

Anyway, here's why your image doesn't look right: it's called workflow.

Before you go into production on anything, start with a camera test using the EXACT camera you will use in production (I'm assuming an HD shoot for the rest of this post). Write down your settings for resolution, frame rate, etc. All of them. Write them down. With a pen.

Shoot something simple then get those images into your editing system. That system will need to know the settings at which you shot. Go get that pen and paper thing with your settings and use those to set up your timeline for editing.

Put your footage on a timeline and export it using the exact same settings at which you shot. Same ones. Exactly. Take that high-res export and put it on a Blu-ray disc. Get that Blu-ray projected onto a screen. That image should look exactly like the one you shot (if it doesn't, you may want to check the projector. Otherwise, it should look exactly like what you shot).

Now, if you want differences (color correction, changes in resolution or frame rate for effect, etc.), you can test that, too. The idea is to get the image you want on the screen from a test. Then, duplicate that testing scenario in production.

Remember, your settings in production rule the day. Every adjustment you make subsequently should be derived from those settings.

To avoid future mishaps with image quality, simply hire people who know this process forward and backward. You might be the creative force behind the project, but that doesn't mean you know the equipment. There's no shame in letting a collaborator be the expert on the technology, especially if it gets you the image quality you want.

A Good Read on the Lincoln Center Filmmaker Conference

Donal Foreman's piece on the Filmmaker Conference at Independent Film Week, sponsored by IFP, has a healthy dose of skepticism on what has largely been taken as gospel to this point on the "truly free" independent film paradigm.

Foreman doesn't simply lay down his own take. Instead, he takes elements from a number of viewpoints including prominent filmmakers and new age-ish indie film gurus. The amalgamation ultimately demonstrates how this industry is nowhere near a galvanized model of "truly free" independent film or whatever else it is to be called.

So, the quest for the new model of independent film continues.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Don't Ask. Seriously, Don't Ask.

The most common question I am asked by student filmmakers is "how will I support myself while trying to become a filmmaker?" And I give the same answer every time: if you are worried more about paying bills than making films, you will become a bill-payer before you'll ever become a filmmaker.

Filmmakers worry about making films and somehow their bills get paid. They take day jobs as waiters or pizza deliverymen or teachers or anything at all so they can focus on making movies. Their bills get paid but, ultimately, they don't care how they get paid. Because they're too damn worried about making the next movie.

Your priorities will dictate your future to a significant degree. If you really want to be a filmmaker, you have to make it first priority. Trust me, somehow your bills will get paid.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Grass Really is Green

If you ever have the urge to ask a filmmaker how she got her feature financed, don't.

Here's why:

1) She doesn't want to divulge a resource thereby possibly diluting it. In other words, get your hands out of her pocketbook. And who can blame her?

2) If it's her first film, chances are very, very good that the money came from family and friends or acquaintances thereof.
If you're worried about financing your first project, chances are great that, if ever funded at all, it will be funded by people who know and love you and will support you because you're you.

3) If it's not her first, chances are her previous successes attracted private equity investment. The best way to get another movie financed is to have the previous project get acquired by a distributor and show a little bit of a return. Or maybe win some awards.

4) It doesn't matter to your project. At all. No two movies are financed alike (other than the family and friends route) and your project will probably be no exception.

It sucks but there is no magic equation for getting financing. So, instead of asking where she got her money, ask her who did the amazing sound editing. Because great sound editors (on a low budget) are almost as hard to find as financing.

And I bet she'll be happy to answer that question.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chapman Hires Marketing Head

Recently my alma mater, Chapman University, announced it was launching a studio that would produce 5-10 "micro-budget" (I still hate that term) features a year. "Yay" for them and "yay" for small movies (I don't really like that term either)!


They just hired a marketing head from Warner Brothers. I have no particular distaste for this person (who I don't know) or Warner Brothers (in general). I do not, however, have much confidence in this move. How has the studio system ever demonstrated a full understanding of truly independent (I like this term a little more) filmmaking and its audience?

"Paranormal Activity" you say. Sure, name the one exception. And even in that case, what the studio had to sell was genre and they do that all the time. Genre films from studio divisions have rarely relied on star power. Generally, fans of thrillers want to see thrillers, fans of horror want to see horror, etc.

But has a studio ever tried to sell something like "The Exiles"? "Putty Hill"? "Killer of Sheep"? Have they ever tried to sell something with no star power, an original concept told by a unique, perhaps even new, voice?

Hell. No.

This move tells me the micro-budgets my beloved Chapman will produce will all or mostly be genre pieces and very little envelope pushing will be afforded. It doesn't mean great movies can't or won't be made, but it does reduce the chances.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Thank You Los Angeles

Thank you to everyone who made our screening at the Downtown Independent a huge success. I would especially like to thank the great people at Film Courage who hosted the screening.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

California Love

The Los Angeles premiere of south loop is Monday, May 30th at 7pm at the Downtown Independent.

Actor/Producer Juan Ramirez will be there for a probing, detailed Q&A after the screening. Make sure to ask him about taking his pants off in between takes.

And he'll be selling DVDs. Of south loop.

Friday, May 6, 2011

He's Really Not That Angry

Kelley Baker, known as the Angry Filmmaker, just put up his interview with me on the making of south loop.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing on a Micro-Budget Doesn’t Have to be so Hard

As I write a draft of the screenplay for my current feature Measure (based on the work of Trevor Thomas), I am reminded of something I tell my students all the time – rewriting is hard. It’s harder than the moment the idea comes to you. It’s harder than getting the first draft done. It’s harder than reading your first draft and realizing how awful it really is.

But it is in the rewriting where the movie becomes a movie.

Rewriting a micro-budget feature is additionally difficult because it is almost impossible to ignore the producer in your head constantly reminding you that he can’t afford the location you just added in the last scene. Now, the writer in your head has no problem ignoring the producer because the story is what matters most, right?

As a way to get around this particular brand of schizophrenia, I tried a new approach (well, at least new to me) on my last film south loop.

Once I knew I was going to produce and finance my own movie (along with my producing partner Juan Diego Ramirez), I made a list of everything I knew I could get for free. That included locations, actors, crewmembers, musicians, props, and so on. I also included the streets of Chicago because, as a guerrilla filmmaker, I could. I included family members that might be willing to cook for the production. I also, with some fatherly hesitation, included my children in case the story I generated needed some toddlers.

So I ended up with a long and diverse list of resources. And a quick glance over the list made me realize I could effectively set a story in the world of real estate. And by effectively I mean that I could develop a narrative and shoot it in a way that allows the audience to buy into that world. Now, if my list had been a lot shorter I might have ended up producing a movie that took place entirely in my apartment. And while there are plenty of movies that tell great stories visually primarily in one location (see Dogtooth), my list of resources took me in a different direction.

As for Measure, the previous drafts were written with these restrictions in mind so I inherited a script that already takes advantage of the resources our production has in hand. And that’s a good thing. Still, I find myself trying to strike a balance between the producer and writer in my head. While I am not adding helicopter chase scenes to the script, I am still adding scenes that require resources we don’t have currently.

For example, I have added a scene that takes place in a banquet hall. The scene is significant for establishing our protagonist in the way she deals with the politics of her job. Again, no helicopters needed. And it’s set in a banquet hall because that particular context adds to the subtext of the scene (or at least that’s the hope). So, at least in this case, the writer in my head wins because, ultimately, story really is what matters most.

But let’s say we never get access to a banquet hall. That will hardly hamstring us because the mechanics of the scene – people talking to each other and the staging of characters – can easily take place in another location. If we have to stage the scene in a restaurant or someone’s home the script will simply be rewritten to reflect that change in context. Rewriting that won’t be so hard. Well, at least not as hard as turning a helicopter chase into a conversation at a bar.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

DIY Film to re-post from Take 58

I will be writing a production blog for DIY Film on my current production "Measure". Those same posts can be read here among all the other nonsense I post.

Thank you to Laura Zinger.

Thank you to Robin and everyone at the Chicago Art Magazine Network.

'south loop' in Los Angeles

south loop will screen at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles on May 30th. Lead actor and producer Juan Ramirez will be for an awkward Q&A following the screening.

Monday, April 4, 2011

'south loop' on Film Yarn

Today I was interviewed for the Film Yarn podcast. I am flattered to be the first filmmaker interviewed for the podcast. Traditionally, the hosts, Fredo and Frank, discuss movies they've seen (quite intelligently, I might add). Fredo attended the south loop screening at College of DuPage and asked me to be on the podcast. It is probably the best discussion about the movie I've been a part of.

Thanks, Fredo.

We Got STIFFed (but that's a good thing)

south loop is an Official Selection of the 2011 Seattle True Independent Film Festival. More details to come.

Friday, April 1, 2011

You Don't Get What You Don't Ask For

I’ve recently been hired to direct “Measure”, an ultra-low budget crime drama. We’re shooting primarily in Cincinnati with some exteriors being shot in Chicago. This has a lot to do with the producers having a wealth of resources in Cincinnati, which leads me to today’s post.

Joe and Julie, the producers of “Measure”, put out an email to people in that area with whom they’d worked on previous projects. They basically gave a list of things we’ll need for production – locations, props, costumes, crew positions, roles, catering, and so on – and graciously asked their colleagues and friends for whatever they might be able to provide us.

And that’s how all ultra-low budget movies should start – by looking for free (or really cheap) shit. It takes a wealth of services and goods to make a movie and, for the most part, they all cost money. However, truly independent movies don’t have money to pay for everything needed. So, you take all the free (or really cheap) shit you can get.

And that can be tough for most people. It isn’t easy approaching family, friends, or colleagues and basically begging for stuff. Luckily, that isn’t a problem for my producers or me. And it shouldn’t be a problem for any filmmaker dying to make her movie.

And this should make it easier – you, the independent filmmaker, are likely surrounded by well-grounded, pragmatic people who wouldn’t dare try and make a movie. But they probably would love to be a part in seeing that your movie is made. The truth is that there is an overwhelming abundance of good will out there for independent filmmakers. We dreamers can only fly among the clouds because we are surrounded by loving and supportive people who enjoy helping us get off the ground. So they give us free (or really cheap) shit, and we thank them however we can.

And don’t forget that part. Whenever you receive free (or really cheap) shit, you reciprocate in some fashion. More times than not that means a “Special Thank You” in the credits, a DVD copy of the movie or maybe even a credit of some kind should the size of the contribution warrant such. Sometimes, you can or perhaps should give small, walk-on roles to people who are helping you get your movie made.

Still, don’t forget that you’re making a movie. You don’t want to simply hand out roles to just anyone. The integrity of your movie isn’t worth the free (or really cheap) shit you’re receiving. Make a great movie above all else. So, hand out walk-ons to people who can be great in the part, and they just happen to be contributing something else to the movie along the way.

Another common contribution to the truly independent movie is favors given by fellow filmmakers. You could have some very talented collaborators take a huge cut in pay or loan you equipment or put you in touch with a vendor that gave them an unbelievable deal. The best way to thank your fellow filmmakers is to do the same for other filmmakers. In other words, if you’re on the receiving end of an email like Joe and Julie’s, be one of the first to offer whatever resources you can.

Finally, don’t forget to be creative in who you approach. Of course, start with those who love and support you, but it doesn’t have to end there. I once had a student production of mine completely catered by Olive Garden because the manager of the local franchise went to the same school as I. All I did was walk in the door and ask if he could give me a good deal.

Joe and Julie just sent their email a week or so ago and already we have had a wonderful response. We’re being offered locations, props, places to house cast and crew, and more. Of course, some of this is due to Joe and Julie’s abilities to forge great relationships. Julie spent years creating a network that paid off with her and Joe’s first production “Joy”. And giving their collaborators a wonderful experience on that first production garnered the loyalty that Joe and Julie can count on for future productions. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be receiving all the free (or really cheap) shit that we are.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Change of Address (kinda)

I'll be occasionally posting media on my tumblr page:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Next Thing

I recently signed on to direct an ultra-low budget crime drama called "Measure". Some old friends from film school (Chapman University) are producing and I'm flattered they thought of me. This will be my first time directing something that isn't my original idea, but I look forward to the challenge.

Much more on this to come.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

south loop at College of DuPage

The Indie Film Group at College of DuPage is sponsoring a special screening of south loop at the McAninch Arts Center on Wednesday, March 30th at 7pm. The screening is a fundraiser for the group so please go see the movie and give what you can to some young filmmakers.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Great Minds

I can't stress the following point enough: when making a micro-budget movie, well, any movie really but this kind especially, you need to be surrounded by people of a like mind. The last thing you need going into a production is some member of your team thinking he is above the project. Eventually that turns into snide comments and a lack of focus you can't afford (literally and figuratively).

It's hard enough to get a movie made but it's doubly so when making one with a team member pulling in a different direction. It's worth the extra time finding someone who appreciates the common goal.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

While I Have this Chance to Breathe...

Our effort to sell south loop has hit a point where we're a little less busy than usual, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to look back on a few things I might have done differently in the making of the movie.

First, I would have put together the self-distribution plan while in pre-production. I made a bunch of little mistakes that would have easily been avoided with some foresight: getting the right printer lined up, mastering the disc, designing the one-sheet, etc.

Second, I would have spent more time in pre-production working on the visual design. Don't get me wrong, I love the way the movie looks, but my DP (Kirk Johnson) and I both wish we had given ourselves more time to discover a coherent visual strategy.

Thirdly, and finally, I would have hired my entire post-production team in prep. In fact, we did try to do so but it just didn't work out that way. I would have tried harder.

In short, DO IT ALL IN PREP and the rest gets easier.