Story – The Unheralded Solution

In many the filmmaking sites on the Internet I’ve looked at recently, the ones you can tell were hosted by people who aren’t well-versed in the art of STORY don’t mention it at all… they focus on how the special effects can be done better, or how to color grade, or editing tricks, but not on the fundamental thing that makes a movie better.

If the story you’re telling ain’t there, then no amount of fancy FX work or camera trickery is going to make it watchable. Sort of like putting lipstick on a pig.

First, you need characters. People inhabiting your story with enough versimilitude to hold your interest. {Remember, they don’t have to be real people, just ones that seem real enough to catch and hold your interest.}

Then, you need needs. Your main character, whoever he or she is, has to really need something. Love, a job, revenge, to get to the top of the Empire State Building to defuse a bomb, to capture the bad guy and clear his name, whatever. This need has to be the most important thing in your main character’s life.

Third, you need conflict. There has to be someone (or something) trying to stop your main character.

The paradigm that’s used is this:  There are three acts to a story – conveniently labeled “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”.  In the beginning, you take your main character and put him up a tree.  In the middle, you have rocks of various types thrown at your main character.  In the end, you get the character down from the tree.

This may not be happily done; the character may fall from the tree, breaking his neck, as an example.  But the ending is where things are resolved… for weal or for woe.

There’s a lot of other things that could be said… and will be, as we proceed in this endeavor.  But this, it would seem, is plenty.

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Out of Line – The New Editing Solution

The revolution in editing spawned by computers, “non-linear” editing, has inspired many people to jump into filmmaking with both feet… unfortunately, the “professional” editing software, Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Adobe’s Premiere Pro, and Avid’s Media Composer, take a bit more time and energy to learn than most people care to put out.

The thing is, whatever time you put out to learn these different programs will help you in their use… and can possibly be applied, if not directly, then in principle, to the others.  The structure of the programs, the “look and feel” (to use a term no longer in favor), can be configured however you will, and once you have your program set up, you can get faster with it.

Now, the distinction between “linear” and “non-linear” editing is relatively simple; when someone edits in a “linear” fashion, the first scene in the sequence is the first scene put on the target media.  The next scene, whenever it was shot, is put after the first, in sequence.  This is repeated for every scene in the project.

This is a fairly traditional  method, dating to the days of ¾” videotape.  But the digital revolution, such as the DVCam and MiniDV formats, and the “tapeless” file-based storage media, have opened up new roads.  Editing something in linear sequence is no longer a necessity.

The NLE paradigm is simple… start wherever you want, edit whatever you want, and arrange it however you want.   To someone who is used to the linear way, it’s almost a ticket to anarchy, but to those who started out in this new method, it is a relatively quick lesson learned.

The “how” of editing is simple enough… but the “why” of editing is much less easily explained.  For example, the way to connect two scenes depends on what the scenes are, where they fall in the sequence of scenes of the project, and what effect the transition is intended to have.  You could do a straight cut, a dissolve, a wipe, or a “match cut” or “cut on action”… Cutting on action is one method, and it is possibly the least understood.  I will try to explain…

If a person sits down in a long shot, and you cut to a closer shot, cutting in the middle of the action (sitting down) and going to a closer angle would mean you start this next shot at approximately the same point in the action and carry it through to its completion. Because you’re matching the action, that’s why it’s called a “match” cut.

Simple, right?
The thing is, editing is largely a matter of rhythm and timing… you develop them as you practice, and you must practice. Experiment… try different cuts, try putting things in a different order and see if it makes sense.
You may just surprise yourself.

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Comedies Are Not To Be Laughed At!

The title of this post is a quasi-quote from Samuel Goldwyn, if I recall correctly, who was referring to all the work they put into their comedy filmw.

Yes, there is a lot of work put into making a comedy. By comparison, tragedy, suspense, or horror are a cakewalk.

Paraphrasing Isaac Asimov, comedy is a target that’s all bullseye. It is funny, or it isn’t. There isn’t any “pretty funny”, “almost funny”, “kinda funny”… you have to nail it dead nuts perfect.

I’ve been seeing retrospectives on PBS recently, of comedy from the so-called “Golden Age of Television”, and shortly thereafter, such as Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows, Garry Moore and Durward Kirby, and Carol Burnett. And, like famed critic James Agee in the late 1940’s, I say it’s sad that we’re not laughing like we used to.

Comedy’s Greatest Era by James Agee.

The silent comedy was something unique… which may never pass our way again.
And that’s a pity.

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The Kindest Cut…

One aspect of making films that seems (to me, at least) to be the most overlooked is editing.

A “cutter”, as they were known in the silent and early sound days, is responsible for assembling all the footage in the order the story calls for… but that’s not all!

One of my teachers at film school said that there are three attempts to “write” a film’s story… the first being, logically enough, the screenplay.  The second attempt is the actual filming of the material, and the third is the editing process.  Here the material can be tuned, massaged, and arranged so that the story is told with no wasted motion, intelligible but not slow.

It used to be done by getting the workprint (if you were shooting in 16mm) or the camera original (8mm or Super8) cut apart into the scenes shot on it, putting them in order, testing ideas of where to cut (care was necessary, because you’d lose at least two frames on a splice), and A/B rolling your edit to put in optical effects (fades, wipes, dissolves, superimposed titles).  Then the cut workprint (which you would have had edge numbered, if you had the money) would be matched to the negative, and the negative would be cut, the effects would be done, and your soundrack “laid back” after editing, mixing, and equalizing, and color timing for the print.  This is the “answer print”, the next-to-last step before the final release print.

Now with computers, digital videos, and NLE software (“non-linear editing”, or editing any part of the shot out of “front-to-back” order), this sort of thing can be done on a reasonably good computer.  The more money you have, of course, the better computer you can buy, and the better your computer, the faster and easier the editing can be.

There are those who say that the “democritization” of filmmaking – more people making movies that don’t measure up to the “standards” of “Hollywood” – is diluting the talent pool, and making it more difficult to find “good” films.  Industry blogger Marshall Fine takes on this topic in this article, saying that everyone can make a movie, but not everyone should.

On this point, at least, I would have to agree.  But I say that anyone who thinks they can should try… and if they can be discouraged, they should be.  But for those of us who just keep on plugging, we only ask you to get out of the way while we work.

Is that too much to ask?

{And I’ve gone totally off topic about editing.  Oh, well.}

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What Kind Of Camera?

When I look at other photography and video websites around the Webiverse, the most asked question I see is “What kind of camera should I buy?”

The most accurate answer to this is also the least satisfying… “What do you intend to do?”, coupled with “How much do you have to spend?”

Most of the cameras I have are nowhere near the state of the art; several of mine still use Mini-DV tapes, which became “obsolete” years ago.

The most advanced camera I have is a high-end “point and shoot” camera, the Kodak Z990, with a long optical zoom, 1080p resolution (1920 X 1080 progressive scan).hdsd

The Z990, which is no longer being built (Eastman Kodak is getting out of the photographic equipment business, as I understand it), is a good camera, with standard photos coming out at 4000 X 3000 pixels, and excellent resolution of the digital movie recording. It has features that rival some of the DSLR cameras (Canon and Nikon), and exceed some of the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras out there.


In truth, any camera that records video, including VHS, 8mm, Hi-8, Digital-8, and the 640 X 480 point and shoot cameras can work. You need to do instead of just talk about doing.

(Something I have been guilty of over the years…)

So get out there, and just shoot the damn thing!

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Video and film and digital… oh, my!

I went to parochial school here in Suburban D, then was sent to a Catholic military boarding school for four years, then to all-male Catholic high schools, before going to a coeducational public university.

I tell you this as an explanation of several things, including why I don’t do as many films as I want to do.

When I was a young and (mostly) innocent punk, I wrote stories and plays, casting myself in supporting roles, and conning my acquaintances (I never really had friends) into playing other parts.

When I learned that people actually MADE movies, instead of having them just appear in a puff of smoke and a flash of light, I wrote short screenplays and conned my acquaintances (see above) into playing other parts, while I cast myself in supporting roles.

{As a note to the concept of “casting myself in supporting roles”, I felt then (and still feel today) that I truly have a face for radio… I hardly ever scare animals and small children anymore.  I don’t feel that an audience would sit still for my phiz as the lead of a picture.}


Hello kitty Steampunk

So it’s a slight problem…because of my moving around so much in my younger days, I actually don’t have much of a resource base to draw on when I prepare for a shoot, and I don’t have a lot of financial resources to draw on, either.

In the battle between trying to get the attention of someone of the female gender and consuming mass quantities of alcohol, alcohol won.  This also had a lot to do with why I never had that many friends.

I have many hurdles to get by in my struggle to get things made… no cast, no money, and, in many cases, a dearth of ideas.  But these are things that can be worked around.

And I will.

I’m  just not sure when…

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The Storage Dilemma

I do not mean the dilemma of what to do with your storage media. Solutions are available for that, including wallets for SD cards, external hard drives, and cloud-based systems like Tumblr or Photobucket.
I mean things such as cases for your cameras, lenses, and equipment that are small enough to be convenient and large enough to have what you need on hand.

Rolling case

Semi-hard sided rolling case

This case, which I picked up at Office Max (at a discounted price) holds a pretty good selection of equipment for an “on-the-go” shoot.

inside hard side case

The inside

I have my “good” camera (a Kodak Z990, shooting 1920 X 1080), an LED unit, a flash mount, a monopod, a tripod, my Zoom H1 sound recorder, a couple of microphones, and room to spare for other things I’ll probably think of later.

inside 2

inside – closer view

The blue fabric pouch contains my “mule” MiniDV cameras, batteries, connectors, and chargers for anything I plan to do with MiniDV.  (These are not my good 3CCD cameras; they’re in another case.)

I also have things I’m building from plans suggested by and , as well as Scott Eggleston’s The Frugal Filmmaker, Ryan Connolly’s Film Riot, and Dave Knopp’s They show inexpensive ways to make and do professional looking effects.

Helpful things to know.

More on my additional storage and transport for equipment as we go along. Later!

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