Nov 26, 2007

CLOVERFIELD Spoilers - The Marketing Tease

CLOVERFIELD is the title of the exciting new film from producer J. J. Abrams (LOST, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3). Abrams and company has done an incredible marketing job on this film, and indie filmmakers everywhere should duly take note.

Whether the modern monster movie is your type of film or not, a little web research will reveal how to market a cheap-looking (HD video) film so that everyone will be talking about it. There are two trailers available online, one being a "teaser" and the second being more polished (which, if you look closely, has also been reshot in some places -- Rob's entrance into his farewell party -- and in other places upgraded with special effects -- compare the two versions of the statue-of-liberty-severed-heads that come tumbling down a deserted Manhattan thoroughfare).

The first trailer was released with no title, only a release date and the recognizable name of J. J. Abrams. All we have to look at, in terms of visuals are some sloppy-looking homemade party video footage. The real genre intentions of the film set in when a minor earthquake seems to shake the apartment. The partygoers rush out onto the roof to witness not-so-distant skyscrapers exploding into flame. The fact that the film takes place at night adds to mystery of "the attack".

We are left with a stylistic wink to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but on a grander scale. The acting is more convincing, the set pieces more spectacular. The presentation of the trailer (and promise of the film, seemingly) is that these are real events happening to your average 20-somethings, with completely unsubtle references to 9/11, but they are presented in a horror context, so we are ready to be shocked, horrified, and occasionally mocking of the poor characters involved in this scenario.

This film is becoming popular from word of mouth. Lack of information in the teaser trailer led people to rush to the web and discuss. Speculation and rumor has taken over at this point. You can't buy marketing like that. If this film makes more money than Abrams' recent MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, and with no-name actors in the leads, then CLOVERFIELD will be a real marketing coup -- and it doesn't have that far to go ($181 Million in box office minus $150 Million dollar budget equals $31 Million).

I haven't seen budget estimates of CLOVERFIELD, but with no A-list talent and shot on HD, it can't have been too expensive. The special effects will be considerable, one presumes, but in time-tested H.P. Lovecraft fashion, the dangerous "monster" or "monsters" seem to be kept as a backdrop in the trailer, a frightening presence in the distance. All we witness is their destruction. It's not a guy in a rubber mask running around with a hatchet.

If you're thinking, "Oh, the only way they got all this word of mouth was by showing a trailer in a movie theater, which costs millions of dollars and is something out of my reach," think again. The marketing campaign for this film appears to be based on BLAIR WITCH as well. That film, as you recall, had no money and started a viral web buzz just by encouraging people to think there was a real Blair witch and that the film was a documentary. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT cost $25,000 and grossed $248 million worldwide. Creativity can beat cash any day of the week. (Robert Rodriguez has made a career out of trying to be intensely creative, flashy, and provocative, but all-the-while cheap, making even his modestly performing films very profitable.)

So soon, we'll see what happens in CLOVERFIELD, or what the title even means. On 01-18-08, we'll all finally find out if MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN continues to be the most frightening New York monster movie ever made.

Nov 13, 2007

Top Film Schools

In the past decade, numerous film schools have popped up all over the world, some with dubious intentions. A common question arises as to which ones are the best. There are the "Big Four", which are regarded as USC, NYU, UCLA, and Columbia University. These have remained popular because of the many famous alumni that have come from these schools (many from the '60 and '70s, such as Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola). Some of the most highly regarded film schools today:

  • AFI: (known mostly for cinematographers) Caleb Deschanel, Robert Richardson
  • California Institute of the Arts: (known mostly for animators) Tim Burton, John Lassiter,
  • Columbia University School of the Arts: Brian DePalma, David Brown, Kathryn Bigelow, Malia Scotch-Marmo, Joe Minion
  • The North Carolina School of the Arts
  • NYU: Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Joel Coen, Martin Brest, Susan Seidelman, Chris Columbus,
  • San Francisco State University
  • UCLA: Francis Ford Coppola, Danny DeVito, Tim Robbins, Paul Schrader, Penelope Spheeris
  • USC: John Carpenter, George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, John Milius, Robert Zemekis, Dan O'Bannon, Michael Lehman, Phil Joanou, Conrad Hall, ASC
  • University of Texas at Austin

Let it be known that, at least in my own personal film school experience, it does not follow necessarily that a good school produces good students. Many, if not all, of these schools are famous because they attracted talented artists who then became famous. The schools themselves did not make the students famous, or add to their talents in any significant way. Film schools are technical institutions that show you how to point a camera and how to turn on lights, but they cannot show you how to tell an interesting story or how to choose a provocative camera angle. That's up to you.

Nov 11, 2007

How To Make Fake Blood

You can buy fake blood online or in the makeup or Halloween shops you see around town (like the numerous ones here in Hollywood), but it will cost you $8 per pint and up. Don't do it!

There are dozens of fake blood recipes out there, but there seems to be a standard mixture that is the most popular. Variations occur usually to solve a problem of the usual formula (i.e., it doesn't look dark enough on white fabric, it stains clothing, or it tastes terrible). Actually, the formula I'm including here tastes dandy, like pancake syrup, which it basically is. It's my understanding that this recipe was started by veteran makeup artist Dick Smith.


16 oz. Karo syrup
1 oz. red food coloring
1 oz. water

Try adding a drop of blue or green food coloring for a more realistic color, depending on your lighting situation. Try adding 1 oz. of liquid laundry detergent if you want it to stick to fabric better.

For a more opaque blood, try adding 1 tablespoon of powdered cocoa.

This blood will stain many fabrics, so only use on clothing that is expendable.

If you are making a black and white movie, use the Hitchcock formula from PSYCHO -- chocolate syrup (Hershey's or similar).

Nov 10, 2007

Build Your Own "Steadycam" for $14 Steadicam is a device that smooths out tracking shots when you don't have time to use a dolly, or you want to do something that a dolly could never do, like follow a character up a flight of stairs.

I've seen numerous ways to achieve the Steadicam effect without using an actual Steadycam. The problem with using a real Steadycam, if you are an indie filmmaker, is that they are expensive ($1500 and up) and require basic training and lots of practice to get the movements right.

Sam Raimi created a home-made Steadicam way back in EVIL DEAD (called the "Shakycam"), so that they could do a shot of the camera rushing through the woods, just a foot off the ground and racing up to a character's face in close-up. His method of smoothing out the motion of running with the camera was to strap the camera to the middle of a long two-by-four and have two guys hold the board by the ends and run like hell.

One savvy do-it-yourselfer has figured out a way to make a homemade "Steadycam" for $14, using some metal pipes and counter weight. He calls the unit The Poor Man's Steadicam, which is a model based on the fundamentals of other models which form a T-shape base for the camera to be mounted on. The only drawback to many of these models is that they are not really geared for larger video cameras, but they do seem to work well with the mini-sized cameras that fit in the palm of your hand.

Another common construction that can be found around the web is to mount the camera inside a steering wheel, or to PVC pipes that have been fashioned into a steering wheel shape. This style allows you to grip the camera from any angle, but the lack of a counterweight makes the unit a bit more wobbly than a counterweighted device.

With a little web snooping around and a little savvy, you can fashion your own camera stabilizer for less than a hundred dollars, saving yourself thousands, if you were originally thinking of purchasing a steadicam.

Nov 9, 2007

Special Makeup Effects: Realistic Gunshot Effect Without Explosive Charge

On the indie film front, there is often call for cheap bullet effects. One of the easiest methods for for firing a gun is to do it in post, which is what most of the studios are doing as well. Oftentimes, this is safer and looks even more believable than putting a blank in the gun. In this year's AMERICAN GANGSTER, there is a moment in the film when Denzel Washington's characters puts a pistol right up to the forehead of another character. After a bit of tense "is-he-gonna-do-it-or-not" dialogue, Denzel shoots him pointblank. This would be darn near impossible to do with blanks on the set -- too dangerous. Having worked on the film, I watched this sequence frame-by-frame and the shot was indeed done in post. A single frame or two of flash coming from the nuzzle, a sound effect, and we believe it.

But there's still the problem of the quick-and-easy fix for getting shot in the body and seeing blood squirt out. Rigging the usual blood-filled condom to a person's body with an explosive charge can be done relatively cheaply (Robert Rodriguez did it on the no-budget EL MARIACHI dozens, if not hundreds of times, and to great effect), but not all of us are comfortable working with explosives in that way. There's just too much at risk.

Legendary makeup artist Dick Smith (EXORCIST, ALTERED STATES) created a method of using tubes filled with blood and hiding wax plugs on people's flesh that would be pulled out on cue. Blood would then be pumped over the person's skin from what looked like an open wound.

One ingenious indie makeup artist has figured out a quick and dirty way to make a realistic bullet hit (in a clothed area of the body) in the following video. The cost is only a couple of bucks for a condom, a steel washer, super glue and fishing line. Oh, and plenty of Karo syrup blood. I think we have a future Dick Smith here (actually he looks slightly more Tom Savini-ish, but we'd need to see him with a mustache.


Nov 8, 2007

Cinematography - How to Light a Scene, Part 1

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.There are numerous styles of lighting, and all depend upon the look and emotional feel of the scene you are presenting. I could go on about high key and low key lighting, but this website is about getting things done quickly (and still artistically) and not getting caught up in a lot of theorizing about what could be done.

The first thing to do when figuring out how to light your scenes is to watch your favorite films in the same genre. Which films have the same look that you are going for? If your film is a comedy, it's best to focus on a comedy, etc. If you you are about to begin shooting an intense, dark drama, and you focus on your favorite comedy film for an "aesthetic look", you could be fighting a losing battle, but creatively speaking, you could be creating something new and enduring as well, so it's up to you. Generally, though, I would suggest studying films that elicit the same emotional reactions that you are going for in your own film.

There are two basic factors in figuring out how to light your scene.
1) Where would the light really be coming from? (A window? Desk lamp? Candles?)
2) What lighting looks nice on your characters' faces?

These are always two internal questions I'm asking myself when I'm lighting a scene.

Today, we'll just focus on the first issue. Although there is definitely an "art" to lighting, there are some basic fundamentals to keep it from looking "fake" and "bad".

Start from a scientific point of view of the scene. Let's say a character is sitting on their couch reading a book on a sunny afternoon. You ask yourself, "Where would the light be coming from?" The brightest spot would be the window. Sunlight beats any interior lighting any day, in terms of sheer brightness. So you let that be your main source of light.

If we are on a low budget shoot and shooting quickly, here is how we light it. We scoot the couch somewhere near the window where we can get an exposure on the character's face or shoulders (i.e., it's not grainy and we can see the details in the actor's features). The window is our main light source, also called our KEY LIGHT. (It can be real sunlight or an artificial light mounted outside the window and out of camera view.)

The second thing we are going to do to light this fast-and-dirty scene is to use FILL LIGHT. This is not expensive. A large white board (say 4 feet by 4 feet) will suffice. Look at the darkest places in the frame. Is that okay for your shot? Oftentimes, the character's face will fall into darkness in a situation like this and the way we supplement their face with light is to place the white board (called a BOUNCE BOARD) just outside of the shot, so the camera cannot see it. Angle the board so that it is reflecting light from the window back onto the actor's face. The board could be on the floor, or slightly angled back toward the window. This will give you a beautiful, naturalistic looking shot. All we are doing is boosting the light in the shadowy parts of the frame. In the Vermeer painting below, the bounce light is coming from the white papers on the drafting table. See the glow they are giving the standing character, just under his chin? This light is literally "filling" in the shadows that would otherwise be on the lower half of his face. In brief, it makes the shot "pretty" and a little dreamy, not so gloomy. But if you are shooting a horror film or a suicidal drama of some sort, you may throw bounce boards out the window and revel in the darkness. Film Noir is full of dark shadows, which can be very beautiful, but that's another style for another day. In order to shoot an attractive, modern, slick-looking and digital-friendly scene, this naturalistic style will work wonders.
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.
If you look at some Vermeer paintings, you will see his use of natural light in this way. Vermeer is tremendously influential on modern cinematographers (as you can see in the films of director/visual stylist Ridley Scott, such as BLADERUNNER). His characters are almost always illuminated by a window, and you can see the shadowy part of the figures have a nice bounce light on them, giving them a sort of soft glow. Look at the faces of the subjects in Vermeer painting.

In my next post, I will show a reverse-approach to the same situation.

Happy filming,

Nov 6, 2007

Free Film School Class: Hitchcock 101

For the beginning filmmaker or the seasoned professional, there is one film course that is mandatory. It's as fun as it is educational. It's as visual as it is intellectual. It's arty, it's commercial, and there's one way to take a film class taught by two of the best filmmakers ever to have lived, even though they are deceased.

There are two requirements for the class. The course text will be "Hitchcock, by Truffaut". You can get it at Amazon or at a used book store for cheap. The second requirement is a membership with Net Flix or a well-stocked video store with an extensive Alfred Hitchcock section.

As you read the book, you will see it is divided up into sections, based on each of Hitchcock's films. I would suggest cracking open the book and reading, and then when you come to a film that sounds interesting, rent it. Having read hundreds of filmmaking books over the years, I can guarantee this book is one of the best. Filled with photos, descriptions of techniques (both in writing and production), anecdotes, etc., the book is a real treasure. I'm betting it will remain on your shelf for the rest of your filmmaking career.

BOOK: Hitchcock, by Truffaut

How To Download YouTube Videos To Your Computer

When it comes to building your free film school library, you may have been scratching your head as to how to download the videos from YouTube. There are some classic clips and famous scenes that are great to analyze on the website, but when you watch them, you are forced to use their viewer and watch the video at the speed of your computer and/or modem.

There are now a number of free websites that have a simple window in which you can paste the url of the video you wish to download, and they will convert that address into a "source target" address and download it to your desktop. In short, you will be able to watch the videos on your computer without the YouTube viewer and without being connected to the web.

Two examples are:

Aug 16, 2007

Writer/Director Kevin Smith Discusses Working in Hollywood

A very funny discussion about working with Jon Peters, writing drafts of the new SUPERMAN movie, and dealing with film director Tim Burton.

Aug 9, 2007

Breaking the Bank: Film School Tuition 2007-8 and How To Beat It

Egads! Film school costs are up again, costing as much as the average American's take-home salary for a whole year. The numbers for a top west-coast and a top east-coast film program:

New York University, Tisch School of the Arts (NYU) Tuition and Fees (Per Semester)

  • Full-time Tuition, 12-18 point flat rate, per term: $17,397
  • Nonreturnable Registration and Services Fee: $943
  • Film Production Lab and Insurance Fee: $448
  • Cinema Studies Projection Fee (per point): $12.25
  • Photo Lab and Insurance Fee: $310

University of Southern California, (USC) Tuition and Fees (Per 2 Semesters)

Based on the 2007-2008 academic year, the following are estimated two-semester costs at USC for a full-time undergraduate (taking 12-18 units each semester) living in university housing:

  • $35,212 Tuition
  • $598 Mandatory fees
  • $10,858 Room and board
  • $750 Books and supplies
  • $1,600 Personal and Miscellaneous
  • $580 Transportation
  • $49,598 Total (add $144 for your very first semester at USC orientation fee)
If your funds are liquid and these costs are not a problem, by all means consider going. If you are stretching your budget to the limit and considering going into heavy student loan debt, proceed with caution. I have a friend who has been out of film school for ten years and is still drowning in student loan debt.

Consider: What else could I do with $50,000 per year that would give me practical film experience? Make movies. Some possibilities:

Buy a $3500 HD video camera and shoot short films with friends. Have them chip in for the time they use the camera.

Buy a $3500 or better HD video camera and $10,000 worth of fancy, fancy lights (you could get a serious lighting kit for this amount of money) and then post on Craigslist, etc., that you will rent the equipment out to students. Suddenly, you've created your own film school!

Rent a camera and lights and shoot a short video and your budget can be under $1000.

ULTIMATE CHALLENGE: Buy a camera and rent or buy lights and shoot a feature film. This will immediately give you a better education than film any $150,000 film school education because in most film schools, you will NEVER make a feature film. If you work on a feature at some point while in school, odds are it will NOT be directed by, written by, or edited by you. So, if in three years time, you shoot three $50,000 feature films, you are far beyond the film school pack in terms of practical experience (even if it's mostly by trial and error) and film ownership (you will own your films). And you will have just as many filmic friends as you would have made in film school, but these will be actual HARD WORKING people who want to make movies, not just students trying to make a passing grade.

Am I oversimplifying this? Not really. I've done both -- gone to school and worked on indie film sets. I personally think the current cost of three or four year film programs is ridiculous and exclusive. It doesn't have to be that way.

If you really want a taste of film school and some technical experience in an educational setting, I would suggest the more condensed & pocketbook friendly film programs (like summer film classes or adult education programs). Then follow up one of these programs by making a few films with the people you met in these programs. In the end, you'll have a lot more money to play with when you make your own films.

Aug 7, 2007

Should I Go To a Famous Film School?

I was lucky enough to get admitted to a famous film school (graduate program) and stick around long enough to get an MFA degree. It was a three-year program that stretched into five years for reasons of running out of money in the middle, and having to take the additional time to complete a thesis film (nearly impossible to finish within the third year of school).

There are many film schools around these days, but the big four remain, as always, USC, NYU, UCLA, and Columbia University. It is generally considered more prestigious (and possibly less expensive) to attend them as a Graduate student rather than as an Undergrad. NYU, for example, accepts approximately 1000 undergrad film students per year, but only 50 grad students. Competition for the grad programs can be ruthless -- but don't despair! There are many alternatives, which we will eventually look at. But first:

Film School PROS:

  • You can tell everyone you went to a famous film school.
  • Sometimes you have famous alumni visit and talk about filmmaking.
  • You can witness first-hand the struggles of your artistic peers and quickly realize there are no geniuses -- well, very few.
  • You will be forced to adhere to deadlines and finish your films (or fail the class). This is a not-to-be-underestimated benefit to all procrastinators out there (we know who we are).
  • You may find an instructor particularly inspiring (this is the rare exception, though, in my own experience).
  • You can tell everyone you went to a famous film school.
  • You get to live in a metropolis for awhile (if you haven't yet).
  • You get to drink microbrews and talk about movies all the time. All the time.
  • You can tell everyone you went to a famous film school.

Film School CONS:

  • A three-year grad program runs about $100,000 and up, not including film costs.
  • It takes over three years to complete when you could be shooting your own films.
  • Working on other students' films because you "owe" them can be really draining, especially when they aren't as knowledgable as you.
  • Many film school professors don't try very hard.
  • Film school, like any institution is very political and professors play favorites with certain students, which has nothing to do with the student's level of talent.
  • Many students come from very wealthy families and this can be a little disheartening if you are scraping to get funds together for your own films (especially after paying over 30K tuition per year).
  • A degree in film is worthless unless you want to eventually teach film or consult. Unlike other academic degrees, a film degree -- like any art degree -- does not mean higher pay on future jobs. Granted, you are probably not interested in going to film school for the actual diploma, but more for the experience of being in film school atmosphere.
In a future posting, I'll look at film school alternatives -- yes, you can can have your celluloid (or video tape) and eat it, too! Good luck to all.

B. Nathan