When Sh*t Happens

Going Wrong

Despite your best-laid plans, at some point during the prep, shoot or post, a monster fuck-up (or a few small ones) are going to come along and take a dump on said plans. Apart from the obvious (try to stay calm, get your plan B ready) what do you do?

Shoot Something

For some reason (that’s still not clear), we lost our NYPD TCD (Traffic Control Division, who are also responsible for police presence on set) on a particular day we needed them. In New York City, you are not allowed to shoot scenes with “film cops” without real ones being around. Otherwise, some other real cops might wonder what the hell is going on.
Since we had a full day of shooting scheduled with Morton and Jess, our ‘Psychcops,’ I was in real trouble. My DP (Ben Wolf), sound mixer (Anthony Viera), and I sat down for a few minutes and figured out what angles/parts of the scenes we had scheduled that we could shoot without Morton and Jess. Meanwhile my crack PAs called Curt and Mollie (who played Morton and Jess) and told them they weren’t needed that day. According to SAG regulations, I had to pay them for the day, which sucked, but it was better than trying to pull a fast one on the police. If we had been caught in violation of our permit they could revoke it and then we’d be really screwed.
As it turned out, we were able to shoot about 80 percent of what we had scheduled, and we added a scene that we’d originally scheduled for the next day. So despite not having a plan B, we were able to salvage the day. The lesson here is to keep shooting despite the obstacles. Come up with something – anything. You can’t afford to be down for more than a couple of hours on a low budget shoot.

Replace

Sooner or later, someone will become an obstacle in your path. It could be a crew member with an attitude, a cast member with a schedule conflict that can’t be worked around, an agent who’s putting the hammer to your balls on ‘behalf’ of his client, an investor who insists on a LOT of special treatment before signing that check, a location owner or vendor that keeps changing the deal on you. These people may be your friends. They may be acting from completely benign motives – anxiety, loyalty to their client/organization, a misunderstanding, or because they’ve been burned by producers in the past. In any case, you have to make a decision: is this aggravation worth it? It may not be. Start looking for a replacement.

The horrible thing about being the boss is that you may have to replace someone for the good of the project. You will have to put your loyalties to the person to one side.

Chances are, the replacement person will be better than you’d hope for. The knot in your stomach will go away surprisingly fast.

Consult

Chances are, your crew has been through whatever fire you’re going through. In fact, they’ve probably encountered it a lot more often than you – a DP can work on many features in a year, whereas you can probably only direct or produce one every two to three. It’s not weakness to ask for advice – it’s common sense. It also invites people into the creative process, which is a good thing.

On Found In Time, we were shooting in a narrow corridor, and I couldn’t figure out how to make the script blocking match the location. I knew going in that it was a tough location but didn’t have much choice – I’d run out of time to investigate alternatives and the price was right. On the day, I was still figuring out how to position my leading man between the two leading ladies, even though it clearly wouldn’t work with the geography of the place. Ben came up with a solution instantly – just change the door that one of the characters was coming out of – and then everything snapped into place. Instead of me staring into space for an hour trying to figure it all out we were shooting in about fifteen minutes.

Punt

On Found In Time, we had a monster 15-hour day on our soundstage (as a result of poor scheduling on my part) on day 11, so everyone was pretty tired by the end of day 12. The shoot was dragging and I wasn’t getting what I wanted from anyone, including myself. My brain was the consistency of cottage cheese. I realized that if I pushed us up to the 12th hour, that we were still not going to wrap out of the scenes we needed to shoot, and the work was going to suffer. By pushing the scenes to the next day – our last day of shooting – I was taking a chance. We already had about 8 pages to shoot, and a hard out on the location and some of our cast members. Adding another 2 pages seemed insane.

But on the other hand, we WERE coming back to the location the next day. After looking at the existing 8 pages we had to shoot, we realized that we could tuck the owed scenes into the end of the day without screwing anything else up. This proved to be the correct decision – people got some sleep, we were able to start a little earlier, and we got better work done.

Consolidate, or Break Apart

Sometimes consolidating your setups is a good idea – unless it results in a complicated pretzel-twist setup or creates other problems that you’ll never get out of.

On Windows, a film I lined produced, one ten minute scene was supposed to be shot in one take. On paper it looked easy enough – two characters in a room, talking, then arguing, then fighting. But the location turned out to be full of mirrors, and the blocking got very complicated. So there was no way that the DP WASN’T going to see himself in one of the mirrors at some point.

After trying to shoot it all in one take, Ben and Shoja Azari (the director) talked it over and decided to shoot ‘sort-of’ coverage. This meant shooting moving masters from different angles, trying to avoid the mirrors as much as possible, and emphasizing different elements from take to take. By shooting the scene this way, the editor had enough material to cut with, without sacrificing the ‘feeling’ of the single take. Some people who’ve watched the film aren’t aware that it’s actually several shots stitched together.

On the other hand, on Caleb’s Door (my first film), I had the opposite problem. I was three hours behind and we were shooting a four-page dialog scene between the two lead characters, Liz and Caleb. Liz and Caleb were sitting side by side at a bar, looking at each other. This would normally call for four-to-six setups. A master shot looking down the bar at Liz, a reverse looking at Caleb, then CUs of both of them, then cutaways, then a double (if possible) from behind the bar. There was no way to accomplish this and make the rest of the day.

Then something wonderful happened. Ben put the camera on the bar for the master on Liz, which would normally just get the back of Caleb’s head. But Carl, the actor playing Caleb, ended up playing the scene looking AWAY from Liz and at the bar. In other words, he was in profile for nearly the entire scene – so we were able to get both actors’ faces in one master shot. Plus, since he was closer to the camera, it worked as his CU except for three lines, when he finally does turn to Liz. So we shot the three lines as a separate CU, then shot a CU of Liz. This gave us enough material to cut with, and saved us three setups. I wish could take credit for it, but the main point is that it got us out of a major jam. and it worked really well.

Failure Is Just Another Opportunity To Learn

It may be that nothing works, that the shoot falls apart anyway, and you don’t get everything you need. It sucks, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. But it’s not the end. There isn’t a single great painter, sculptor, writer, business owner, scientist, parent, cook – a single great anything – that doesn’t have a failure in their past. A script that didn’t come together, a restaurant that never opened or failed, an experiment that blew up, a novel that bombed. Sometimes what separates the wheat from the chaff in the film business is what you do after you fail. Do you pack it up and do something else, or do you learn what you can, file it away, then get up (after a good night or two of drinking) and get back in the saddle? I’ve had my share of failures, and it’s taken me years in some cases to see them in anything but a negative light, but now I recognize them for what they are: learning experiences.

Working With Your Editor, Part 2

Snowball Because pictures of cats are always good to post

In the last entry (wow, that month went by too fast) I talked a bit about the alchemy of editing and the director/editor relationship, and got as far as the rough cut. This time around I’d like to talk a bit about how to get from the rough to the final cut.

The Dead Spots

As I mentioned before, I have a hard time going back to the big picture after a screening. I get caught up in the atomic structure of the film, especially the dead spots. I’m always afraid of boring the audience, or myself. My first instinct was to cut cut cut. Dan never lost his sense of the big picture. He warned me about cutting too much too soon, because we ran the risk of losing the moments that were buried in the middle of the dead spots.

He was correct. The first thing he did after the rough cut was to simply go through the film and trim out small bits from many of the shots. This meant cutting a few frames from the head and tail of a series of shots in a scene, to keep the tension from flagging. Sometimes it meant getting out of a scene a little sooner (again, just a few frames). Sometimes it meant starting a scene a little later, so that the actors were already warmed up or in the frame. These small changes can make big improvements, without requiring you to rethink the work as a whole.

Just by making these kinds of cuts, Dan trimmed about six minutes out of the film. The result was much, much tighter. During this time I made suggestions but mostly stayed out of Dan’s way (at least, that’s what I recall). I started working on putting rough F/X composites and titles together, and thinking about music.

When To Bring the Music In

On Caleb’s Door, I started working with a temp score only towards the very end of the picture edit. Dan suggested bringing music much earlier into the process. This made a lot more sense, particularly given the somewhat extreme state of the character’s realities, and the pacing of the chase/action scenes in the film. Also, as Dan said, a shot that seems overly long without music can sometimes seem fine with it.

Fortunately, we both found common musical ground. Dan’s a big fan of Egyptian music, and I’d been thinking about a scoring around a particular instrument – the oud. The oud is a stringed instrument that produces a very bluesy sound, and in some musical forms plays a role similar to that of a guitar in rock music. So we started dropping in temp tracks from an Egyptian composer he’s worked with, and I looked at a bunch of different sources, including artists like Stellamarra, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and others. The initial idea was to use a Middle Eastern theme to underscore the idea that that this film was taking place in an altered version of New York.

I should tell you now, DO NOT GET TOO ATTACHED TO YOUR TEMP SCORE. Chances are that unless your composer has specifically written it for you, that you’re not going to be able to afford it. I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to recount. The record labels and publishers are only too happy to give you a great deal on a festival license, because they know that you’ll be back once a deal is on the table. At that point they’re counting on you being in a terrible bargaining position – you’ll cave into the time pressure to deliver the film to a distributor (before you see any money) so you’ll ransom your cats or your unborn grandkids to pay for the score, rather than lose both money AND time to on a sound remix.

How Often To Meet

On Found In Time Dan and I generally met a couple of times a week. My ‘homework’ in between meetings was to put together rough F/X composites and titles, and pick out temp tracks. Having things to do in between meetings helped keep me from getting too obsessed. During the actual sessions we’d drop in my temp material, look at cuts that Dan had made, and run the film through (usually from start to finish). We focused a lot on the first half-hour, since that was the most problematic part of the film.

We generally worked for three or four hours during the week, and then a longer session on the weekend. Working this way, we averaged about one cut of the film per week. With each cut we got closer to the target running time – about ninety minutes. We stopped and talked a lot during the process. Not just about the film, but about life, love and film. Far from distracting us, these chats strengthened our working relationship, and helped me get over my anxiety and deal with the film in smaller chunks.

The Feedback Screening

After about nine weeks, we had a feedback screening. It’s an important part of the process, but the feedback should not be taken too literally. There are two important factors: inviting the right people, and taking the right attitude.

You want to invite people who will give you honest, direct feedback, and are willing to get specific. A mix of film and non-film people is good. A small group is better than a bigger one.

The right attitude to take is to be open to everything, to withhold your defensiveness and feedback until after everyone’s gone. The best response to criticism is ‘can you elaborate on that’ or ‘that’s really interesting. What else?’ No matter how ridiculous the suggestion or feedback, look at the person and try to take it seriously. You may know out of the gate that what they’re asking for is impossible – you can’t afford reshoots, you don’t have the material, it would create too many problems in the third act. But what they’re responding to is a real problem that may have a solution that IS within your reach. Plus, these people are spending their precious time with you, so do them the courtesy of being polite and encouraging.

What you’re looking for are patterns. If one or two people have problems with something, then they may be more perceptive than everyone else, or they may have differing tastes than you. But if everyone has issues with the same scenes or characters, then you have an actual problem that needs to be addressed. Often good sound design and music can get people more involved in the story – watching a fine cut without corrected sound is a lot like looking at a really great sketch for a painting. Adjusting the pacing can solve a lot of problems.

What became apparent to me was that the first act was too slow. It took too long to get into the story, and Chris’s problems were over-commented on. So this is where Dan and I concentrated our efforts over the next two weeks.

In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about the transition from picture to sound editing, and how best to think about your score.

2010: The Year In Movies

I realize that it’s nearly February 2011, and we should be looking forward. In fact, I’m working on another entry about the editing process. But in the meantime, I figured this would be my last chance to talk about movies I saw in 2010. Rather than do a "best of" article I figured I’d just talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and maybe even dig out some general themes.

(NOTE that I said MOVIES I SAW, not necessarily movies that CAME OUT in 2010. This gives me quite a bit of latitude. Hey, it’s my blog.)

SHREDDING BODIES

It seems like 2009 was the year of the armored body. From Avatar to Surrogates to Terminator: Salvation to District 9, our heroes found themselves inside of various tougher, more agile bodies. By contrast, regular bodies began to look weaker, more fragile, like big bags of blood just waiting to be microwaved, ripped and riddled full of bullets. The year just past continues that trend: Repo Men Jude Law and Forest Whittaker hack, slash, and cut their way through flesh to repo the artificial organs that their clients have defaulted on payments for. In Daybreakers vampires are variously burnt, decapitated, exploded, and torn apart as they turn human. Centurion takes the sword-and-sandals genre to new heights of gore. Kick Ass features some very disturbing violence. And so on.

What is going on? I don’t know, but I’ll take a stab at it. Images of ourselves in media have always oscillated between all-powerful (see the cave paintings in Lescaux) to fragile (much of DaVinci’s work). The current emphasis on the fragility of the body may reflect our own aging (at least in the U.S.), our anxiety over the fate of the species, and the feeling of helplessness many of us have in the face of political, economic and social disasters.

It’s no coincidence that three of the movies I just cited are very political. In Repo Men, the dominant force is The Union, who are like an insurance company, hospital, bank, and drug co. rolled into one. Can’t afford an organ transplant? No problem, just sign up for a payment plan – with 20 percent interest. Can’t make the payments? Don’t worry. One of our repo men will take it back. You might die in the process, but that’s life, right? In Daybreakers (a really, really good film, by the way), vampires are the dominant species – except that in their greed, they’ve pretty much wiped out their food supply, and so are now tottering on the brink of starvation. Starve a vampire and he turns into a cannibal bat. Over-dependence on scarce resources coupled with short-term greed… sound familiar? Centurion (perhaps the oddest of the three) is set against the backdrop of a long, drawn-out war between the Picts and Romans in Britain, with backstabbing and extremism on both sides.

RESIST ADULTHOOD AT ALL COSTS

Many of the men I saw onscreen had opted out of growing up. Greenberg, Cyrus, Enter the Void, Due Date, Kick-Ass, Blue Valentine, Splice, Iron Man 2 feature men acting like petulant children or refusing to grow up. Even Inception and Shutter Island, it could be argued, are centered around adult men who are still, on some level, playing games rather than facing up to painful loss. I’m not sure what this means either. It’s possible that Gen X men are finally growing up, or that we see that growing up doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. It could be that maturity, as defined by our parents and grandparents, is a rather defeatist and ultimately fruitless way to look at life. Growing up often means giving up.

OVER-COOKED AND UNDERRATED

So here’s a quick look at the most overrated and underrated films of the year (IMHO). This doesn’t mean that the films were good or bad; in some cases, the overrated films were excellent. It’s simply that they don’t live up to their hype or aren’t nearly as clever as they’d like to think they are.

OVERRATED

The King’s Speech: I liked this film a LOT. I thought it was a humane, engaging portrait about someone who I normally could care less about (the royal family has problems? boo hoo). The performances were wonderful, the chemistry between Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush was great, and the struggle it represents is one we can all relate to. But in humanizing the King, it fails to politicize him. Apart from the obvious class differences between Rush and Firth (played for laughs, mostly), an opportunity to investigate the deeper complexities is left on the table.

Enter The Void: this is a case of brilliant technique married to a juvenile sensibility. Gaspard Noe is the kid in class who can draw amazing, life-like penises. The craft of the film is amazing – the overhead travelling shots, the mix of sophisticated effects and handheld camerawork, the removal of the subject from the screen altogether in the last third of the film. But it’s empty of ideas, save for a rather junior and over-literal understanding of karma and reincarnation that, in turns, masks a very traditional, conservative mindset. It revels in its juvenile qualities – ooh, look, full-on sex! Drug use! Gore! A microscope-level view of a penis! It’s also misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and, worst of all, boring. But the camerawork, editing, soundwork, and effects deserve some real study and appreciation – the mechanism of how the story is told is something that opens new doors.

Inception: This is a wonderful heist film, that just happens to take place in someone’s head. It has a solid cast, some wonderful (and very organic) effects, it doesn’t waste a second of time, and it builds the tension in a way that should be studied by filmmakers everywhere. But, it’s not as complex as everyone’s making it out to be. It’s overly structured, with thin characterizations, and the dream world is in some ways exceptionally dull. Its conception of gender is rather old-fashioned (the dark heart of the main character is a woman). I really enjoyed this film and feel it deserves more attention at the Oscars than it will get, but in some ways it’s a big-budget b-movie.

Shutter Island: I found this film gripping, and the performances, setting, and use of dream imagery really, really well done. But again, where is the ambiguity? Where is the breakdown of structure? In Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Kundun and even Bring Out the Dead, Scorcese made me care about distant, unsavory or otherwise normally unreachable characters. In Shutter Island, I failed to connect with DiCaprio’s character, even after spending much of the film in his head.

Black Swan: As with Enter The Void, you have great technique married to a juvenile sensibility. If you want a meditation on the intersection between dance, identity, and madness, see the remastered The Red Shoes, which Swan cribs liberally from. If you want to see the disintegration of identity in the face of sexuality, see Fight Club. If you want to go beyond duality altogether, see Paprika. It was a fun film to watch, and had some great touches, a fantastic sound design, and featured a really good use of effects.

UNDERRATED

Daybreakers: A vampire film that manages to cram about three movies’-worth of ideas into a crisp, lean 90-minute ride. Good performances, some sly political commentary, and complex characterizations (no one in the film is completely good or bad). What’s not to like?

Cyrus: I’m NOT a mumblecore fan. I applaud their DIY attitude, their willingness to experiment and just ‘shoot their damn movie,’ but I could never relate to the results of their efforts. But perhaps because of the cast, or the story, I rather liked Cyrus. It also has something to say about gender roles, and about men of all ages who are still negotiating the process of growing up.

Splice: A gene-splicing film that’s really about the horrors of parenting, a monster movie where the monsters aren’t the obvious ones, and a creepy movie where the creepiness is psychological rather than physical. An examination of gender roles, parental responsibility, and the commodification of the flesh are all on the table here, but not in any kind of boring, polemical way. It falls short in many ways (some of the characters are a little too stock) and it could have been longer, but it’s definitely worth looking at.

Broken Embraces: At first glance, these film seems like a bit of a mess; part memoir, part mystery, part director-drag statement (the main character is a blind director). But on another level, it’s about much more – the blind spots we all have in our hearts, the things we hide from each other, the small things we only notice later. The theme of watching, hiding, touch, and how what we don’t see shapes our identity as much as what we do, make this a more interesting film on second viewing.

Kick-Ass: I’m not really sure why I like this film. Perhaps because it never does exactly what I expect it to do. I often found myself laughing and recoiling at the same time. It rather confronts us with superhero fantasy in a way that’s refreshing, exciting, and somewhat revolting. And it features some winning performances and well-shot and well-edited action scenes.

It’s a Wonderful Life: I saw this at its annual screening at the IFC Film Center, just a few days after seeing Enter the Void. Capra touches on many of the same themes – the imagined life, karma, the web of interconnection between people – but does so in a much more sophisticated and involving way. It doesn’t flinch away from showing the cost of heroism, nor does it short-shrift the miracles that are possible in everyday life (something it shares with both Ikiru and The Bicycle Thief). It’s a more adult, and less-square, work than it’s generally thought of.

Old Films

In Understanding Comics, Scott Mcloud talks a lot about the process of making art. Often the ‘new kid on the block’ is just putting a new spin or glossy coat over deeper, older territories and structures that were explored by the previous ‘masters.’ I have to agree. Many of this past years’ films were clearly built upon (and in good cases, expand) the territory mapped out by Hitchcock, Ozu, Kurosawa, Hawks, Capra, Carpenter, Sturges, Tarkovsky… the list goes on and on. If the old studio system had flaws (and it certainly did), it also had its virtues, and it established within a very short span of time most of the major genres, syntactic elements, and styles that we still work with today. So in 2011, go see some old films! Many can be streamed on Netflix, so now you have no excuse. :)

The Art of (S)logging

I promise, there will be a blog entry – soon – on production. But I wanted to delve into more detail on something that’s very important, and I think underreported: preparing your film for the editor.

In the previous entry I focused on the big post picture. Today I’m going to stick to the first three steps I outlined: transcoding, synching, and logging the footage. The goal is to get acquainted with the film you’ve shot (as opposed to the one in your head), save your editor unnecessary headaches (and you unnecessary time and money) hunting for footage, and get your brain thinking about sound, visual effects, titles, music, and other post elements.

Workflow: When To Do This

On a big enough film, your script supervisor would make the continuity book, the 2nd AC and the mixer would write reports, and your assistant editor would transcode, log, and synch, all while you’re shooting. The advantages are fairly obvious: you’ll find out about coverage or technical problems while you’re shooting, and you’ll get to a rough cut that much sooner. However, on micro-budget films, this is a comparative luxury.

On Found In Time, we had no script supervisor, the sound mixer was doing about three other jobs – though he did take very good notes – and we didn’t have an editor in place during the shoot. I’m assuming that many of you are in a similar situation.

Transcoding

The Canon 5D records to an H.264 Quicktime-playable file. H.264 is a highly compressed format that somehow retains a lot of detail despite throwing out an enormous amount of picture information. Part of how it does this is by storing frame data in a long-GOP format. GOP = Group Of Pictures. Essentially, what the codec does is analyze a group of frames (in most cases, 6 or 15). It stores the first frame, then stores the DIFFERENCES ONLY between the first frame and all subsequent frames within the group.

There’s a LOT more involved than this, but here’s the main point: editing H.264 footage can be difficult. Your cuts are probably NOT going to be on the first frame in a group, which means the computer will have to analyze and rebuild frames every time you cut picture. The result can tax your system, leading to dropped playback frames and a lot of rendering time. It’s also more difficult to do a final conform, render effects, etc. In other words, H.264 is a great origination and online distribution format, but you don’t want to edit with it.

Transcoding the footage from the original H.264 files to an I-frame format (which compresses and stores each frame individually) is thus an easy decision. But there are several software programs to do the trick:

MPEG Streamclip is preferred by many, and with good reason: it’s fast, user-friendly, free, and can batch-process clips very easily. But the quality of the resulting clips is not quite as good as we were hoping for. It also strips out the original timecode from the file, substituting its own.

Rarevision’s 5DtoRGB on the other hand, is supposed to do the best overall job in terms of image quality, but lacks a batch feature (at this time; it’s still under development). It also takes the longest to transcode.

We considered Compressor, but have had problems with batch transcodes in Compressor and haven’t been super happy with the results. After going on Creative Cow and talking to a few folks, we decided on Canon’s own Final Cut Pro plug-in, the EOS Plugin-E1. It produces decent results, processes batches of clips at a time without any hiccups, didn’t take too long, and retained the original clip timecode.

The next decision: what to transcode TO. The obvious choice for editing in Final Cut was Apple ProRes, but ProRes comes in several flavors, ranging from Proxy (small file size/lower quality) to HQ (huge file size, better quality). After thinking about it, trolling the forums, and consulting with some experts, we decided on ProRes LT, which is somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum. The data rate is approximately 100Mpbs, roughly the same as DVCProHD, and nearly 3x the 5D files’ 40Mbps. This means in practical terms that we were getting something very, very good – that we could put together into rough cut shape if we needed more investors or to assembly a festival screener out of – but we wouldn’t kill our hard drive.

The long term plan, once the film has been picture-locked, is to note the selects (the clips that make it into the locked picture), and re-transcode the camera originals to QuickTime HQ using the 5DtoRGB utility.

Setting Up Final Cut For Transcoding

At this point, we set up a new Final Cut project with a sequence default of 1920×1080 23.976p, with 48KHz 16-bit stereo sound. During the shoot the DP created folders by day, running to lettered bins if he had to copy more than one card per day (so we have Day1, Day1b, Day2, etc. folders on the hard drive). We started out by creating camera reel bins to mirror the originals. Within each bin, I created three sub-bins: Scraps (for NG or goofing-off material), Video (for source video clips), and Audio (for source audio clips).

We also created a database in FileMaker (which is cross-platform, by the way), to capture information on each clip. Initially, we just dumped a directory listing of all the clips into a text file then imported that into FileMaker, so we’d have a list of the 840 video clips and 735 sound files (we had a good number of MOS takes).

During the transcoding process itself, we renamed each clip to "sceneshot-take" format, then also filled in the scene, shot/take, reel (camera reel), angle, and loggingNotes fields. We went in shoot (as opposed to scene order), and limited the batches to one-or-two scenes worth of material depending on the number of individual clips. The entire process took about four days, and was highly automated. A good tutorial on it is on Canon’s own site. TWO THINGS TO NOTE:: when you name the clip (scene-shot-take), the utility actually renames the transcoded Quicktime file. So if you ever want to go back to your camera masters for retranscoding, make sure to keep a list of the original filename and the new one.

Also, the utility REQUIRES that all the clips be inside of a folder called DCIM off the root of the hard drive. That’s because the plug-in is expecting to be reading from an SD card (which uses DCIM as the main folder to put all saved video and still files in). Note that you CAN nest folders inside of the DCIM folder.

Once each batch was done, I moved the transcoded clips into matching day folders on the edit drive. This way instead of having over 800 clips in one folder to sift through, I would only have to look through a few dozen at a time.

Synchronizing

This was probably the most boring part. Anthony, our sound mixer, had wisely named nearly every sound file in the scene-shot-take format. So figuring out which sound take went with which video file was relatively trivial.

This is where Pluraleyes, from Singular Software, saved my butt. It’s a standalone program which works with Final Cut sequences and synchs video-to-video (in the case of multi-camera shoots) and video-to-audio footage. It creates a new sequence for each synched clip. So instead of going clip-by-clip, I was able to drag a dozen or so clips at a time to a sequence in my Final Cut file, line them up very roughly to their matching audio sequences, and click "Sync" in Pluraleyes. A few minutes later I had a dozen sequences with synched sound. Since we used a slate and had the original camera audio as a reference, Pluraleyes rarely had difficulty finding the right sync point. (BTW: the software is free to try for 30 days).

NOW, there was one surprise. For whatever reason, the audio in the original camera file was exactly one or two frames AHEAD from the video – you could tell because the slate was ahead. However, there was no drift. So I had to manually check the sync on each new sequence and adjust by one/two frames – but again, because we had the slates, this was a no-brainer. Other people on Creative Cow have complained of the same problem. There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution, nor does it seem to be universal.

After moving the sound one/two frames, I muted the original camera audio, clipped the trailing and leading audio so the sequence would start on the first frame of video, and changed the sequence timecode to match the video timecode (so instead of starting at 01:00:00:00 the TC would start at 18:31:15:00, for example).

Last (but not least), we took the synched clips, along with the source video and audio files, and the scrap clips, and put them into scene bins. The scene bins ultimately replaced the day bins we had established, and had the same structure (Audio, Video, and Scrap sub-bins). Synched sequences went into a new sub-bin called Sync.

This process was also fairly mechanical, and took about two weeks (working part time).

Logging

Now I was ready to log the footage. This consisted of two parts: makes notes about each clip in my database, and lining the script. Lining the script is a BIG topic, and I’m no script supervisor, but the gist of it is that you want to visually indicate where each individual camera setup begins and ends within each scene, what lines and blocking have changed from script to shoot, what scenes have been omitted or added, and what gaps in coverage you might have. As you can imagine, this is a fairly time-consuming process.

In my database I had the following information already:
* individual clip name
* the scene, shot and take number
* the timing (media start, end, and duration)
* The angle (Master, CU John, OTS Jane on Jack, ECU pill bottle, etc.)
* Logging Note
* The original (camera source) filename
* The sound take file name

Most of this information I was able to get by exporting a file list from Final Cut, importing it into the database, then going through it quickly to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

To this laundry list of information I added:
* the first frame of action (usually after the DP calls "frame" or set but before you’ve called "action")
* A description of the shot
* Some kind of evaluation of the shot
* A list of visual problems in the shot (boom dips in at 23:04:10)
* Sound problems

On Found in Time, we shot 840 individual clips. Of these, about 75 or so were complete mistakes, goofing around shots, slates for MOS series, and otherwise unusable bits. These didn’t take long to log.

I later figured out that I was able to log between 10 and 20 clips per hour, depending on how complex each clip was. I managed to log everything in just over two weeks.

Why Do This To Yourself

You can get interns to transcode and synch, and maybe even do some of the logging, so why do this yourself? In my case, it was a way of getting familiar with the film that we shot (as opposed to the one in my head). This way, I don’t have to waste time having this discussion with the editor: "don’t we have a shot of…" No, we don’t.

It also got me thinking about how to solve certain coverage problems, what effects shots I will need, and what kind of sound design/music choices would work. The big thing is that the editor didn’t have to do this work – he was able to just look at the footage and start cutting. That is a huge time and money saver on any shoot.

Okay, so this post has probably been about as fascinating as watching paint dry. I promise, more fun posts to come!

Post Production Workflow

The shoot is over. I’m still figuring out all the things I learned, and at some point I’ll integrate it and write a short blog entry on the topic. But at the moment my energy is going towards getting ready for the next step: cutting the film. What follows is a synopsis of the post workflow for Found In Time It’s based on things I’ve learned while making this film, my experience as post supervisor on previous features, and a lot of consultation with other folks. Many thanks to Josh Apter, head of Manhattan Edit Workshop, Creative Cow Magazine, and as always Ben Wolf.

Don’t Just Start Cutting
The temptation is probably just to dig in and start cutting scenes together, using the camera master footage. This is almost always a mistake. First off, if you’re the director, you have no perspective on the footage. I know I don’t. Secondly, you need to organize both the “physical” files on the drive, giving them a proper reel name and folder to live in; and the names of the clips in your NLE. Thirdly, you need to set up a schedule – what you want, when you want it, and what the end goal is. Hopefully you’ve done this before you shot anything, and now you’re just revising it to match your remaining money/schedule/expectations. But if not, now’s a good time to set it up.

The Schedule
Take a BIG step back. Forget about the footage burning a hole on your hard drive. Think carefully: when can I realistically finish this film? What are the steps I need to take to get there? Who’s going to do those steps?
At this point, post breaks down into nine BIG steps, that generally (though not always) follow the order below:

1. Backup, Transcoding, Logging. In an ideal world, this is happening on a daily basis. Every night the Assistant Editor takes the day’s work (either on cards or drives), backs it up to another drive, then transcodes the footage to the editing format, usually while also logging it into the NLE.

2. Picture Cutting. The film is put together, reel by reel, by the editor.

3. Reshoots/Inserts/Additional Photography. You need it, you didn’t get it. Now go get it.

4. F/X and Titles. As the film nears completion, visual effects artists go to work on the more complex material. In an ideal world, sequences are finalized in time for the online. In many cases, the online has to be pushed back until after the sound mix is done, to give the effects artists more time. Titles are usually done at this point (end credit crawls are often finalized only at the final output phase).

5. Online. The film selects (from the final cut) are retranscoded at the highest possible resolution/setting. The footage is color corrected, basic transitions (dissolves, fades) and effects work (taking out booms, minor tweaks, etc.) are done. F/X and titles are married to the locked picture.

6. Sound Editing. The dialog levels are evened out, and the “sound world” of the film created – effects, foley, music, voice-over, are inserted and brought together.

7. Music. The composer scores the final cut of the film (sometimes this happens during the editing process). Existing music is licensed (don’t do this at home, kids! You don’t have the budget. Trust me.). The music is premixed (ideally).

8. Mix. The various sound elements (dialog, effects, foley, music, ambiance) are brought together and leveled, to conform to both artistic and broadcast standards. The mixer creates final “bounce files.”

9. Final Output. The conformed film is married to the bounce tracks, and the whole thing (all the reels) are output to the “final” master medium (tape or film).

So with this outline in hand, you have to figure out: who’s going to be doing what (personnel)? With what tools (gear)? For how long (timeframe)? And what are the things each step requires (inputs) and what are the results (outputs)?

After doing some research, and thinking about what’s worked best on previous low-budget films, I came up with the following chart.

Num. Step Inputs Personnel Gear Outputs
1 Transcoding
Organizing bins
Logging clips with scene/shot/take/other info
H.264 Clips on drive
Sound WAV files on drive
Myself Final Cut
Canon5D FCP Plugin
Final Cut Project File w/bins
Named ProRes LT clips in folders on drive
Logging notes of some kind (database, spreadsheet, something)
2 Syncing ProRes LT clips
Audio files
Final Cut Project
Me Final Cut
PluralEyes
Final Cut Project File w/bins
3 Script Notes Final Cut Project
Script
Me Final Cut Pro Lined script books with notes
Binder with notes, sound reports, production reports, etc.
4 Picture Edit Final Cut Project
Binder
Hard Drive
Editor Final Cut Pro Sequences in reels
5 Feedback Screenings Rough or 2nd Cut on DVD Editor, Me, Trusted friends DVD projector Notes for next cut
6 Reshoots/Inserts Wish list of shots Skeleton crew and cast Basic camera/sound unit
Props, set dressing
Video/audio footage
7 F/X and Titles Final Cut Project
F/X footage (shot on location)
Add’l computer-generated footage
Ben Wolf
Me
Visual F/X Artist
Editor (possibly)
Final Cut Pro
Photoshop
Motion
After Effects(?)
Locked VFX sequences and titles
8 Transcode for Online FCP sequences (reels)
Camera master files
Me Final Cut Pro
5DtoRGB tool
ProRes HQ (422) or ProRes 444 versions of selects only (clips that made the final cut)
Notes
9 Conform ProRes HQ clips
Offline Final Cut Pro sequences (reels)
VFX and title sequences
Me Final Cut Pro Final Cut Pro sequences, linked to ProRes HQ clips
10 Color Correction/Basic Compositing Final Cut Pro sequences (reels)
Notes
Colorist
Ben (DP)
Myself
Final Cut Pro
Color
Motion
After Effects
Color corrected reels with all titles and effects in place
11 Prep for Sound Edit Audio files
Final Cut Reels (preferably color corrected, but at least the final conforms
Me Final Cut Pro Quicktimes for each reel per the sound designer/composer specs
Sound tracks grouped per spec
OMF files per reel
Sound Design Notes in binder
12 Sound Design OMF files, etc. as above Sound Designer
Foley Artist?
Dialog Editor?
ProTools or other sound software
Final Cut Pro
Stereo LTRT session files
Possibly 5.1 session files
13 Music Quicktimes and sound notes Composer Instruments
Music mixing software
Soundtrack, broken into reels, premixed
14 Mix Session files
Quicktimes
Soundtrack files (if not already part of session files)
Sound Designer
Mixer(?)
ProTools
Mixing hardware
Bounce tracks
15 Final Output Blank HDCAM and Digibeta stock
Final Cut reels
Bounce tracks
Me
Post House Editor
Mixer?
Online suite Projection master
SD tape master
DVD master (Quicktimes)

Some specifics:
1. We picked ProRes LT because it offers the best compromise between file size and quality. H.264 can be difficult to edit with natively – it’s a long-GOP format, which means that Final Cut has to do a lot of math to reconstruct the frames at your edit points. This can cause machines to chug and drop frames during playback, which is not good. The whole long-GOP vs. i-frame discussion is beyond the scope of this article; but I’ll dig up some good resources for you or talk about it more in-depth at some point.

ProRes LT is an i-frame format (individual frames are stored instead of groups of frames), but the file size is manageable.

2. Pluraleyes is a stand-alone program that can take clips in a Final Cut Pro sequence and line them up. Assuming you have camera audio, Pluraleyes can line up your separate-source audio files with your video (with camera sound) files.

3. I’m glossing over a lot of the sound post process (which could have its own diagram); I’ll save that for another blog entry.

So now you’ve got a basic idea of what we’ll be doing over the next few months. Future blogs will focus on the individual steps, with more specifics and how-tos. I’d go into more detail but this entry is getting pretty long as it is. Until next time then!

Scouting For Fun And Profit


So over the past few weekends, my director of photography Ben Wolf and I have been hitting the pavement. Starting in Astoria, jumping down to LIC and Greenpoint, and finally hitting some major paydirt in the Bronx, we’ve been taking in the sights and sounds of NYC.

We’re looking for a side of New York that isn’t often seen. Our everyday experience of New York, especially of Manhattan, is of a very close horizon with tall buildings and not much in the way of sky. This first image, shot in Astoria, is of the Hellgate Bridge. The vines growing up the supports help beautify the bridge, and the slight incline allows for a dramatic view. There’s also a good contrast between the enormity of the bridge and the small (two-to-three story) houses next and under it.



The next couple of pictures, also taken in Astoria, show some nice diversity as well. The parking lot/alley, while generic in some respects, is broken up by the trees poking through the fence. And the park (Astoria Park) has several meandering paths and a nice incline. This allows for some good foreground/background blocking, creating depth in the frame.

The Bronx

The Bronx offers a “hilly” landscape, featuring a mix of residential and commercial buildings, lots of sky (a good lighting source, as well as a nice break from skyscrapers), and constant activity. The incline allows for some blocking opportunities that can create depth in the frame. The wide sidewalks are a big boon, since they will allow us to do profile shots without having to walk in the street. Many of the scenes take place on a “street vendor” corner, which means we need room for the camera, passersby, vendors with folding tables, and customers.




I’m also looking for a few other things in a good location:

Access to holding: Industrial landscapes and abandoned buildings are beautiful, except when you have to go to the bathroom or eat lunch, change wardrobe, or go somewhere to be quiet. I usually try to make a deal with the nearest church/synagogue/temple/mosque, community center, or hotel/motel.

Power: This is mostly for interiors. Gaffers usually love bringing along a generator and distribution, but on a low budget, it’s impractical. Tie-ins or “plug-and-pray” are your better bet. Look out for tie-in-proof boxes (where they’ve sealed the distribution box cover so you can’t get at the leads), old wiring, or 10 amp circuits (I still see some of these in old apartments).

Noise: The only downside of the part of the Bronx we saw was that we were only two or three blocks away from the elevated 4 train, and there was a tremendous amount of car and pedestrian traffic. We were there on Saturday, however; I’m going back during the week at some point to see how bad it is. The subway is on a somewhat predictable schedule and may be far enough away. Or we will have to decide to use it as part of the mix.

There’s a lot of construction in Astoria, though not as much directly under the bridge. The Hellgate only sees the occasional freight or Amtrak train.

Goods: How far away are you from the nearest hardware store, supermarket, office supply place, and copy center. The last one is especially important at the end of the day when it’s time to distribute callsheets.

Emergency: I worked on a film last year up in the Catskills that only had a part-time medical center in the nearest town. The closest full-on hospital was a good 30-to-45 minute drive. This was a little scary. On the other hand, the State Trooper barracks wasn’t far away, and the volunteer fire department was fairly close by. The nearest snowplow and towing services were down the road.

If you’re in the city, you can sometimes walk or drive faster to the nearest emergency ward than if you wait for the ambulance. So at least learn where the nearest fire/police/hospitals are.

Breakfast and Lunch: I usually try to find a variety of diners, restaurants, delis, etc. nearby so I can either send everyone away for walk-aways, or make deals for catering. It’s almost always better to contract a local business for catering (they won’t get lost, for one thing), but it’s important that they understand the differences between Kosher/Halal, vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Astoria has a ton of restaurants. We spotted a number of good choices in East Burnside (the Bronx).

Public Transportation: Astoria is dependent on the N train and a couple of buses, while you have more options in Burnside.

Parking: No matter how hard you try, you’ll end up with more vehicles than you’d like. If you have a shooting permit that gives you street parking (as opposed to “parking as available”) AND you’ve coned out your parking the night before, you CAN technically ask for a tow service. But do you really want to piss off your temporary neighbors? Sometimes its better politics to find a cheap nearby garage.

Time To Location: A long commute will either be on the clock, or at least impact the turnaround, resulting in a “creeping call.” It will also eat up gas and toll money (all non-production-value-enhancing costs). So shoot locally whenever possible.

Well, that’s it for now – more scouting to do. Now that the rewrite of the script is done (finally), I have to break it down for the next draft of the schedule, and start thinking about interiors, props, and wardrobe concerns.

Being Smart About Money

I’ve seen this happen. Genius starts a business. He’s got a great product (or film), a lot of goodwill and interest from people, and a loyal team.

What’s the first thing he does? Gets himself in hock buying or renting a LOT of stuff. Spending money (either his or his investors) on “publicity parties,” glossy packages, and a really really impressive desk. He rents an office space.

Everything’s going great, until the bottom falls out of the market, or Genius B comes out with the same product only cheaper, or your investor decides to shut the faucet off. Then Genius is left with a set of awful choices: close up shop, plow whatever’s left into finishing the film/product, change horses and make something else, lay everyone off and try to go it alone, ask everyone to take pay cuts, and so on…

In the BEST-CASE scenario, the movie gets made, the software comes on the market, the appliance ships. It does reasonably well and the company skates by, but Genius has now burned pretty much everyone around him (usually including his spouse/significant other), is in personal debt up to his eyeballs, and may have to close up and go back to work for someone else for a few years before getting another chance at-bat.

I witnessed this behavior first as a computer consultant, then as a line producer. At this point I’ve been around long enough to watch small businesses in just about every sector fail. In trying to keep my own business afloat, I’ve had to learn (sometimes the really, really hard way) how to be smart about my (and my investors’) money. This is a WAY-TOO-SHORT list of things to think about in this regard.

Limit Your Overhead
This should be obvious, but for some reason it’s not. To start making a film you need (a) a cellphone, (b) a computer, (c) a printer, (d) your brains. [obviously you need more than that as time goes on] If you need to get away from the house because it’s too distracting, find a cafe/bar/library/someplace, preferably free. Or make or buy a cheap desk and stick it in a corner of your room. Likewise, hiring people before you’re ready to use them, buying lots of gadgets (more on that below), throwing launch parties, buying expensive desks… not good uses of money.

Get Good Tools
This seems to contradict to what I just said, but not really. You will need a smartphone, a computer, a printer, and probably some piece of furniture to put them on. Fortunately, good tools aren’t always expensive. Almost any machine you buy from HP, Apple, or Dell will give you decent horsepower and all come with good warranty options. You’ll need a laser printer (but not an expensive one) if you want to print bulk copies of scripts and business plans (it’ll be cheaper than Staples or an inkjet). Most cellular plans come with decent promos for smartphones. A desk can be put together for about $50-60 in lumber or a trip to Ikea, or by salvaging a door and some filing cabinets (one of my favorite methods). A decent office chair (or better, a stool) can be gotten from Staples or Quill for cheap.

The price of buying bad tools that break or underperform is high – lost productivity due to tech support calls, cash spent on replacing items that are just out of warranty. Investors also take stock of your tools when you meet them (just as they do your clothes and hair). Appearing somewhat thrifty is good; appearing too cheap suggests that you don’t have a good gauge on when to spend money.

Renting Gadgets vs. Buying Them
If you’re a DP, a sound mixer, an editor or compositor, then your livelihood depends on having good tools (see above) and being able to use them when you want/need to. Purchasing a camera, lights, an editing system and/or DDR may make sense. But if you’re a producer, buying gadgets usually doesn’t make sense, and here’s why:

* Unless your business model includes working for hire and bringing the gear along (for a fee), or renting the camera out to other people, then your gadget will never make back its cost. When I bought a Mac to edit my first film with, I also used it as my main computer for four years; between web programming gigs, line producing and the occasional editing spot, I’m sure I was able to pay back the cost of the machine. Can you say the same thing?

* If you rent something and it breaks down, you call the rental house and they replace it – on their dime. If you buy something and it breaks down, it’s your responsibility to fix it. As a computer geek, buying a computer (vs. leasing) made sense because I could fix most problems myself. But if you’re on set and your camera dies, you’d better have a backup unit or a good relationship with a rental house.

* Are you looking at the real cost of ownership, or just the basic model price? If you’re buying a camera, did you include the tripod, carrying case, cables, spare batteries, and additional cards?

* Today’s gadget is tomorrow’s doorstop. Make sure you aren’t buying something that’s going to be outdated in a year when the next model comes along – then you won’t even be able to rent it out as frequently.

It’s often more cost-effective in the long run to rent gear when you need it. An important exception to this is documentaries, where you may have to pick up and go on a moment’s notice, or if you’re shooting somewhere way far away from a rental house for months on end (then you might as well buy, and just take really good care of your gear).

Take The Cost of Living Into Account
The cost of living – due to real or artificial inflation – goes up roughly 3% or more per year. It’s hard to measure exactly, because some goods stay the same in price while others rise.

But most people don’t take this into account. If you have a savings account that’s earning below the cost of living increase, you’re essentially losing money every year (less than if you put the money under your mattress, but still). Likewise if you go without a raise for a couple of years at your day job, you’re effectively taking a pay cut. This is also why you can’t use a budget from a film made more than a few years ago as the basis for your own (which you shouldn’t be doing anyway). El Mariachi and Blair Witch would still cost more if made today, even if NOTHING in the way they were filmed changed.

Credit Card Debt Vs. Savings
Most of the time, saving is better than spending. HOWEVER, there are exceptions. Right now, CDs are offering less interest than the rate of inflation (see above). Credit card interest, on the other hand, has not come down as much, and credit card companies are constantly finding new ways to stick it to us – late fees, interest rate jumps, new ways of calculating interest, membership fees, “rewards program” or “fraud protection” fees, etc…

If you’re putting money into a savings account (or IRA or 401K) but are also carrying credit card debt, STOP saving and pay down your debt first. Start with the highest-interest cards first, and “snowball” your payments (as you pay one card off, apply the payment to the next card).

Don’t pay your taxes on your credit card. The IRS will take monthly payments, and the interest and penalties charged are usually far less than the credit card companies will charge you in interest.

Don’t put staple goods on your credit card – food, gas, etc. – unless you can pay it off every month or you’re using a debit card. If you can’t pay for your food in cash, that’s a sign that you’re living above your means.

Don’t buy into fraud protection insurance or any of the other crappy insurance programs offered by credit cards. They add very little value to the protection built into your account (and enforced by law). Likewise, be wary of rewards programs – they tend to encourage spending.

I’m all for having a little rainy-day fund in case you get laid off. But nothing will eat into that fund faster than debt, so I still think it’s better to pay the debt off first and save later.

Get Organized
If your car ashtray or shoebox is your bookkeeping system, you need to upgrade to something better. If you have investors, they will sometimes ask you how things are going with their money, and you’d better be able to answer.

I recommend learning QuickBooks. It’s hard to get a reliable, good bookkeeper for what you can probably afford to pay (which is usually next to nothing). It’s not an easy program to learn, but once you do you’ll be working with the industry standard. You can budget and track expenses, add credit cards as well as bank accounts, and generate statements and invoices.

Keep Your Money Separate…
… from your investors’. It’s VERY tempting to use investor money for personal use. Maybe you think you deserved a dinner on the company’s dime because you worked late. Or you think you should lease a car. Or have the company pay part of the rent on your apartment (since it’s the production office anyway).

There is a legitimate case to be made for each situation. If you’re in preproduction and you’re saving money because you didn’t have to hire a PA to collate all those scripts, then having dinner makes sense. If you’re in production and your shitbox isn’t big or reliable enough to transport your actors and crew, you should rent a vehicle. If your production office is your apartment, you may need to reimburse yourself a little (at least to cover bumps in utilities, furniture breakage, and/or spousal irritation).

But if you’re in development or postproduction, these arguments don’t really hold up as well. If you’re in development you should be saving as much money as possible; if you’re in post you’re probably coming close to running out of it. Your investors may or may not scrutinize these expenses. If they think you’re using their money as a “free ride” they may not be as generous the next time around. Or they might want some of it back.

Auto Pay Is The Way
Especially when you’re in production, you really don’t have time to keep track of your personal finances. Many of us (myself included) hate doing it in the first place. So I get the bank to some of it for me – I have my bank account automatically pay all my bills. I have an overdraft on the checking account so I’m not worried about a bounced check. Since doing this my late payment fees have dropped to about $15 per year; also, my interest rate increases (due to late payments) have disappeared. The few times I’ve had a shortfall – when a payment has come out of the overdraft because my paycheck hadn’t cleared – the charge was nominal. At the very least, turn this option on during production.

Don’t Let Out Of Pocket Expenses Accumulate
Your first instinct will probably be to let the crew pay for their expenses, then reimburse them after they submit receipts. After all, there’s always the chance that if you hand them their money, they’ll just walk away with it, right?

The truth is that most people won’t do that. They want to work again. The short-term gain is too small. They have pride in their work.

The solutions are to give them floats, give them credit cards with specific limits, and/or pay for certain expenses directly. Review their spending on a weekly basis and stay on top of things (or hire a line producer to do it).

If you give your department heads piles of cash and say “that’s all you’re getting,” they will spend that pile. If you tell them you’ll reimburse them later, they’ll spend more than that pile, and be upset if you say that you won’t reimburse them for everything. This is not evil on their part – they’re just trying to help you make your movie, and are often going above and beyond to do that. But people don’t tend to keep as close track of their own spending, or they just assume that you’ll cover it anyway, or maybe they’re a little pissed because they’re going out of pocket… for a variety of reasons, you’ll end up spending more.

Think Opposite The Herd
When everyone sells, that’s when it’s time to buy. When everyone’s buying, that’s when it’s time to sell. That’s the best way to survive in the world of investing.

This principle applies to filmmaking in general, however. Make a film in the winter (when no one is working), shoot in a town where no one else goes, pick atypical locations, cast under-utilized actors… you get the idea. If everyone is shooting a romantic comedy, maybe you should put yours on the shelf and take down that horror film – otherwise, you’ll end up with just one more low budget romantic comedy, aiming for the same jackpot your competitors are.

Student Loan Consolidation? Think Carefully…
Consolidating your student loans may lower your immediate overhead, but it will usually cost you more in the long run. The consolidated interest rate can often be higher than at least some of the individual loans. And of course you’ll end up paying more in interest over the long haul (sometimes three times as much). Some of your loans (particularly certain types of Federal loans) aren’t “consolidatable” in any case.

Hire Good Professionals
You’ll need a good lawyer and a good tax accountant (unless you’re skilled in either of these areas). Build their services into the film’s budget. I’ve seen far too many people get into trouble because they wrote their own (badly worded) contract, or filed the wrong LLC forms at tax time or when forming the corporation.

Pay Yourself Last
Yes, everyone says “pay yourself first,” but if you’re making a low-budget film, your crew really aren’t going to understand why they’re working deferred or at a low rate if you’re getting a better deal. If you want people to be loyal to you, it’s better to forgo some perks (a fancier desk, a better salary, early-day Fridays) and work your ass off.

People Are Your Best Resource
You don’t have to suck up or even be particularly nice to the people working for you, but you do have to publicly acknowledge that their contribution is valuable. This doesn’t always mean spending a lot of money – sometimes a sincere “thank you” or a drink, or hiring them on your next better-paying job, are sufficient. You can’t buy people’s loyalty and trust, you have to earn it through your deeds.

Well, that’s it – really truly. Time to get back to rewriting.

Video Pitch Online

We just finished and uploaded a video pitch for Found in Time. You can check it out on IndieGogo.com. In it I try to describe the story, what we’re trying to do in making it, and how you can help us make it happen.

I want to take a moment and thank everyone for their donations of time, energy and money. The making of the video actually highlights another aspect of the DIWO (Do It With Others’) ethos. My friend, writer/director Rick Mowat, donated his video and sound gear. Several other friends and colleagues watched various early versions of the pitch and offered excellent constructive criticism. Bob Seigel, another long-time friend and the legal counsel for the film, made sure all my i’s were dotted and t’s crossed. And Vimeo, Indiegogo, Facebook, Blogger, and Contactology have made it possible to tell people about the pitch for little to no dough.

If you had to add up the real cost of that advice, service, gear, and hosting, it would be quite a bit. So thank you to all who’ve taken time out to help us in our quest to bring the film to fruition.

Some More Business News

As I said in one of my previous posts, the temptation is to just shoot the damn thing. But while you definitely need to have that energy and enthusiasm, you also need to cover your butt and do a few business-type things first. You’ll be happy you did in the long run, and while it will drain some of that enthusiasm away at first, later it will free you from various worries and let you make your film. So here’s an all-too-brief overview of the steps you should take to get your film on the rails.

1. Copyright the script with the U.S. Copyright office:http://www.copyright.gov. For $35 you get your work protected (at least somewhat). Also, SAG will usually require a proof of registration of the script, so just do it.

2. Do a breakdown, schedule and budget for the script, so you know how much to ask for and about how long it will take to shoot. You can hire a line producer for this job (the cost will range from several hundred to a couple of thousand), or do it yourself.

There are definite pros to hiring a line producer. If they have any experience at all, they’ll find and show you the expensive elements in your script, and give you at least an ideal schedule. They also have a good sense of what things cost in the particular place you’re shooting (labor prices, as well as goods and services, vary from region to region).

But I recommend that you do it yourself instead and hire a line producer to check your work. Just don’t kid yourself about how much time it takes – you’ll need a month or more to do this step. But you’ll be learning a valuable skill, and you’ll get to know your script inside and out. It may even help you do a rewrite, both to make things cheaper and also better dramatically.

3. Decide if you’re going to need investors, or if you can get by with your own money plus lots of favors (probably all of them you ever had coming to you) plus a credit card, loan, grant, second mortgage, etc.

I STRONGLY advise you to consider the POSSIBILITY of having investors. It affects many business decisions you’ll make from this point on (see points 4 and 5). And yes, your mom or uncle or whoever who wants to give you money for the film – unless it’s under $1000 or an outright gift – should be considered an investor. Even if you go it alone, any bank down the road will want to see some kind of corporate structure in place before they give you a loan. And psychologically, I think that having to think of other people and their money while you’re making your film can be a good thing – it forces you to examine the film from an outsider’s perspective.

4. If you need investors, put together a business plan. This is a 30-50 page document (or a PowerPoint slideshow) that explains, in as simple terms as possible: what your story is, why it’s special, how it fits into the film marketplace, what your financial goals are with the film, and why anyone in their right minds would want to invest in it.

You can hire other people to do this for you (be prepared to pay a few grand) or learn how to do it yourself. The best book I’ve read on this subject is Louise Levison’s Business Plans for Independents. Again, I recommend you at least try to do it yourself. You may find it a STEEP learning curve, but it will force you to consider your story from yet another perspective.

5. Decide on Incorporation. You’ll need an entity separate from yourself to make the film, hold onto your investor(s)’ money, and deal with all the vendors and crew and SAG. There are several types of business entities, but the most common are:

Subchapter S Corporations: these are designed for small businesses. They offer a “pass-through” mechanism so that income from the corporation is allowed to pass through the corporate “veil” to the owners. S Corps are easy and cheap to form, don’t require a lot of maintenance from the IRS and state tax agency, and can have investors (they become shareholders). You can set up a mechanism whereby you will always own the majority of stock. This keeps you in the driver’s seat while allowing other people to put money into your project.

So what is the problem? Well, because of the “pass-through” regulation, S Corps do offer somewhat less protection from lawsuits which would see to pierce the corporate veil (ie, go after your personal assets). In most states, there’s an upper limit on the number of investors that one S corporation can have. And other corporations or entities can’t become investors.

C Corporations (C corps) offer a solution to all these problems, but aren’t really set up for small business owners. You have a MOUNTAIN more paperwork to file and track, and depending on your budget, you may have to file with the SEC. Trust me on this, you don’t want to create a C Corp.

Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) used to be the entity of choice for filmmakers. You become the managing partner; investors become limited partners. The company is structured to give you most of the creative and strategic control, while protecting the investors’ money and legal responsibility (the middle “L”) in case you screw up. But these are relatively clunky, and are treated by the IRS as partnerships, not corporations.

Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) combine elements of corporations and partnerships. You become the Managing Member; investors just become Members. An operating agreement defines the different roles. You’ll have to do a few things (the next few steps) to set up the company.

If you think you’ll have more investors than, say, your uncle, you’ll want to form an LLC. It offers the best combination of protection, paperwork hassle, and flexibility. It’s also “the devil you know” – any investors who are NOT your friends or family will be expecting you to have an LLC.

You don’t have to form an LLC right away, but should do it within the same year you go into production. You’ll need a few weeks to set it (and all your other stuff) up, so you should schedule accordingly.

6. File the incorporation paperwork. Here’s where I get lazy. You can file the paperwork with the state yourself, but I usually use Inc It Now‘s service for the initial filing. They charge a premium but can deliver the filing receipt and other paperwork faster than you’ll get it back from the state otherwise. Expect to pay about $450 or so. Most of this goes to the state filing agency, with the rest paying for postage, your “black beauty” (the big thick book containing your corporate seal and all your corporate documents), and Inc It Now’s service fee. For this you’ll get a filing receipt with the state you incorporated in, a black book with stock certificates and other paperwork, your corporate seal, and your initial articles of organization (a brief contract explaining how the LLC works).

I recommend you incorporate in the same state you’re doing business in. While you can incorporate in a different state, you’ll have to file additional paperwork within your own state to be treated as a “foreign corporation.” You may also have to pay some taxes. It’s more of a pain. Some people maintain that it’s worth it, however, because each state taxes corporations differently. That’s why you’ll see a lot of LLCs that were incorporated in Delaware but do business in New York.

A word of advice on Inc It Now’s services: they have several “packages” available. The best value for your money, however, is to just let them do the initial filing, and for you to handle the following steps (below) yourself.

7. Get an EIN. Once you get the black beauty and the filing certificate, go to the IRS website and file for an EIN. An EIN is the corporate equivalent of a social security number, and you’ll need it to do just about ANYTHING else. Their new online form is pretty good – it’s actually written in English, as opposed to IRS-ese – and you’ll get an EIN right away. Doing this yourself will save you some $$$ over letting Inc. It Now do it for you.

8. Get your filing receipt. A couple of days to a few weeks after you get your black beauty, you’ll also receive a copy of the filing receipt from the state, with a state seal stamped on it. You’ll need this later, so hold onto it.

9. Publish. Depending on what state you incorporated in, you may need to publish a notification of your company’s existence. Two newspapers or circulars publish a daily classified listing stating that your company exists. This is possibly the biggest pain in the ass in this whole ordeal, and apart from a payola scheme, I don’t really know what purpose it serves anymore. I recommend contacting Hudson Advertising if you live in New York (212-732-0337). They get paid by the publishers, so there’s no surcharge to you above the advertising fees (which range from $600 to $1800, depending on the state and, believe it or not, the county of your company’s address). The problem is that if you don’t do this step, the state government can simply declare your corporation invalid. Then you’ll have to start over again.

10. Open a bank account. Once you have your filing receipt and your black beauty, you should open up a checking account with a bank you can tolerate. If you have a budget big enough to justify an escrow account, you’ll want to set up an escrow/production account. This is really two accounts bolted together: an escrow account (where the investor money goes into), and a production account (where you write checks from). You can’t tap the escrow account until you’ve hit the break point (this is up to you to determine). The escrow account can be further set up to track individual investors’ monies, so the bank can send statements back to each investor.

If you’re doing a film for less than $100K, chances are you need whatever money comes in AS it comes in, so you’ll probably want to just set up a simple corporate bank account. You’ll need your EIN and usually the filing receipt or articles of organization (that’ll be in your black beauty), as well as your personal ID.

One important consideration: how many ATMs does this bank operate in the city/town you’ll be shooting in? During production, you’ll often find yourself in need of cash, and you don’t want to piss away money on ATM fees, do you?

11. Set up Your Online Merchant Account. Next (for now), you’ll want to set up an Amazon.com merchant account, and possibly a Paypal account so you can take donations online. These accounts link back to your bank account. Most crowdfunding sites require one or the other (Indiegogo requires an Amazon account).

There are a few more steps to take but you’re probably exhausted from reading this far, so we’ll cover the rest in the next post (I promise). While it all seems like a lot, and it can be somewhat intimidating, if you leave yourself enough time, you’ll be rewarded by (a) learning a lot of new things (which is never bad) and (b) preparing yourself to think like a business person, which you’ll need to do at the other end when you’re trying to sell your film. You’ll also get more acquainted with your script, and may see some things that need changing (it’s always cheaper to figure this out early).