Archive for the ‘Production’ Category

HD Camera Comparison: A different perspective

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

DV.com has recently posted Adam Wilt’s coverage of a shoot-out between the big (at the moment) four prosumer HD camcorders: Canon XL H1, JVC GY-HD100U, Panasonic AG-HVX200 and the Sony HVR-Z1U. The test has been getting a lot of attention on the blogs I read and respect: FresHDV, HDforIndies, and DVGuru.

The article in question is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re in the market for a camera or interested in the advances in the latest prosumer video technology. Adam Wilt knows his stuff and is a superb writer on tech/video issues. Whenever I see an article by him, I read it. This one’s no exception.

Having said all of this this, I’d like to offer a somewhat different (dissenting? contraraian?) perspective about this and other camera shoot-outs.

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Remix, Reuse, Recycle: Open Source and Public Domain Films

Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

CinemaTech has an interesting, brief note about a “remixable movie.” Kind of the antithesis (not a bad thing) of the “self-reliant film”, a filmmaker is posting her all her footage and letting anyone that wants to take a crack at editing it. Could be a desperate gimmick for attention, could be really great… I’ll have to find out more.

Reading about it made me think of a few other projects that attempted something like this (say, the now-defunct Madstone Films’ Rhinoceros Eyes“>Rhinoceros Eyes). Probably the most exciting approach was taken by the filmmakers of the conspiracy-pseduo-mock-documentary Nothing So Strange. The film concerns the 1999 assassination of Bill Gates. (Hey, I said it was a conspiracy film.) In addition to the filmmakers’ “official release”, they also released their footage to people that would like to take a crack at editing it themselves. “Open Source Filmmaking” was what they called it — a brilliant concept to apply to a film about the big daddy of closed-source computing. You can read more about the open source initiative (and download footage) here.

The flip side of this approach, of course, is public-domain (aka found-footage) filmmaking — that is, making films with footage from public (or not-so-public) domain archival film. For the uninitiated, Bruce Conner and Jay Rosenblatt are masters of the form. The as-darkly-funny-as-Dr. Strangelove Atomic Cafe is also, I think, required viewing.

If you want to get in on the action, check out Archive.org where you can download movies to watch and, well, make movies with.

Wikipedia’s Movie Making Manual

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to cut down the time you spend on the internet you should probably steer clear of Wikipedia’s open-content textbooks. The “books” cover everything from How to Build a Computer to learning Mandarin to Monopoly strategy. Like everything else on Wikipedia, the content is entirely user-contributed.

Considering Wikipedia’s communal spirit, it’s fitting that one of the few readable articles in the otherwise undeveloped Movie Making Manual is a brief but interesting section on film equipment timeshares. The article discusses the pros and cons of owning equipment and includes a draft of a sample timeshare agreement. And, yes, even this is a work-in-progress, but then isn’t everything on the ‘net?

Documentary Cookbook

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

UPDATE 9.1.2009: Looking for the Documentary Cookbook article for our students at Virginia Tech we noticed that it’s been taken down from the UC Berkley website and appears to have disappeared from the internet… except in this mildly abbreviated copy/paste job.

I first read the UC Berkeley Center for New Documentary’s “Cookbook“ essay over three years ago. It’s a fairly straightforward essay that investigates, through theory and practice, the question of how one can inexpensively produce intelligent, saleable documentaries. In its subject matter, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the Cookbook — people have been making movies cheaply for years, and people have been writing about how to do the same for nearly as long. But a couple of things make the Cookbook a keeper (aside from the fact that it’s free, of course):

First, it’s written by working filmmakers, about working filmmakers, for working filmmakers. It’s very, very readable. A damn good read as far as these things go, in fact.

Secondly, it’s written from the conviction that all personnel on any film should be paid the going professional rate for the work they do. Salaries are not reduced, deferred, or eliminated from the budget in order to “get the film made.”

This second point is critical. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if you have access to a camcorder you could theoretically shoot a feature for about $10 (the cost of two 60 minute MiniDV tapes) these days. Making a movie on the cheap and paying all parties involved is much harder. The Cookbook’s focus, then, is on helping “journeyman filmmakers” (their term) find ways to make a living while producing vital work. Good stuff.

What makes all of the Cookbook’s ideas especially seductive is the reasonable, intelligent voice of the writing, which avoids the unrealistic cheerleading (or sketchy used car salesman vibe) you sometimes find in these You-Can-Do-It essays.

Of course, the question is: Can these ideas work for anyone? The Cookbook was written in 2002, and as far as I know it has not been updated since. How have documentaries using the Cookbook’s guidelines fared, both critically and in the marketplace? An email asking about updates and further thoughts, which I sent to its authors last week in preparation for this post, hasn’t been answered. I was hoping they would address what the Cookbook spends the least time discussing: distribution. After all, the key question these days is not “How can I get a movie made?” but whether or not it will be distributed.

I’m also interested in what the Cookbook has to say to narrative filmmakers. Obviously, the issues facing the genres aren’t identical. To name just one, documentaries are marketed on their content far more than narrative films, which typically rely on the use of one or more “name” actors. Since a $100,000 budget isn’t likely to cover the salaries that name actors command, productions in that budget range are usually at a substantial disadvantage in the search for distribution. For that matter, just paying your cast SAG scale would strain a $100K budget.

It’s for this reason that the Cookbook probably has the most application to filmmakers that are working “regionally”since they typically are working with fewer resources, a smaller crew/talent pool, and in a style that’s more humanistic than spectacle-driven. Reading over the essay again tonight, I was inclined to think of filmmakers like John O’Brien, Todd Verow or Caveh Zahedi whose films blend fiction and non-fiction, actor and non-actor and, script and improvisation in rewarding ways. Soderbergh’s upcoming Bubble is another film that springs to mind.

The Cookbook’s ideas aren’t radical. Or if they are, they’re not alone in their radicalism. InDigEnt‘s production model (as just one example) is not so very different from what the Cookbook proposes. InDigEnt productions (from what I remember) are made for about $300,000, and feature name actors (Sigourney Weaver, Katie Holmes, etc.). The main difference is that talent and crew are paid minimal wages up front and deferred the rest through profit participation. But that is a big difference and, in fact, is the distinction that separates the Cookbook from other models.

One way or another the essay‘s worth a read… I’d enjoy hearing your comments on it.

Japanese Manufacturing Techniques?

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

I’ve taught various aspects of filmmaking on and off for nearly ten years, and in this time I’ve seen a number of student filmmakers excitedly adopt a nearly Fordist model of production when it comes time to make their “big student film.” Where they once wrote, directed, edited, and shot, now one person writes, another directs, another shoots, etc.

Naturally, sometimes this produces a better film since, as students, they are able to focus their developing skills in the areas where each student is most experienced. But I’m troubled when the approach seems to be adopted for no other reason than because the filmmakers think it’s the way “real films” are made.

This is, of course, completely absurd. Movies like Tarnation or Primer, for example, aren’t less “real” because they were cut on iMovie or lit by their writer-director-actor-editor.

And even if these students equate “real” movies with studio films they’re not seeing the whole picture. While it’s undoubtedly true that large, task-specific crews and creative personnel were used to make Hollywood films during the Classic era, times have changed. Even making films for a studio today doesn’t mean that, by definition, a filmmaker can’t exercise principles of self-reliance. Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez, for example, shoot and edit their own films. Are they the exception? Sure. But the fact that there are exceptions at all says something.

If these students were making cars instead of movies would they consider Japanese manufacturing techniques any less legitimate than Detroit’s way of doing things? This summer in the library I ran across Richard Schonberger’s Japanese Manufacturing Techniques: Nine Hidden Lessons in Simplicity. Not being someone who’s studied logistics and transportation most of the book was over my head. Still, reading about Kanban and Just-in-Time was fascinating.

One thing that caught my eye was a breakdown of production line techniques, which I photocopied before returning the book. Here’s an excerpt:

Western Japanese
Top priority: Line Balance Top priority: Flexibility
Strategy: Stability – long production runs so that the need to rebalance seldom occurs. Strategy: Flexibility – expect to rebalance often to match output to changing demand.
Assume fixed labor assignments. Flexible labor: Move to the problems or to where the current workload is.
Need sophisticated analysis to evaluate and cull many options. Need human ingenuity to provide flexibility and ways around bottlenecks.
Planned by staff. Foreman may lead design effort and will adjust plan as needed.
Plan to run at fixed rate; send quality problems off line. Slow for quality problems; speed up when quality is right.
Conveyoritized material involvement is desireable. Put stations close together and avoid conveyors.
Buy “supermachines” and keep them busy. Make (or buy) small machines; add more as needed.
Run mixed models where labor content is similar from model to model. Strive for mixed-model production, even in subassembly and fabrication.

Obviously the metaphor isn’t perfect. Both the Japanese and Western models are trying to produce identical versions of automobiles (i.e., what’s under the hood of one 2006 Camry should be pretty much like the next) while, on the other hand, even the most “Fordist” studio approach still tries to produce different films (even if they’re only nominally different, like Miss Congeniality and Miss Congeniality 2).
Still, looking at it again, I think the Japanese approach has some relevance to the project of this blog: Ingenuity, a “foreman” that also leads the design effort, reliance on small machines. These are hallmarks of self-reliant filmmaking.
Finally, in spite of all the above I’ve written, I should mention that I like some of Ford’s ideas. After all, he’s the guy that believed that factory workers should be paid enough to be able to purchase the good they were producing. That’s one idea that, sadly, in this age of global “outsourcing”, again sounds quaint and unconventional.