Freeware, Shareware, and Cheap Mac Software for Filmmakers

It's been a long time since we've done a post that wasn't related to Something, Anything. Back in 2007 (!), I did a post on shareware for filmmakers. That's still the first hit you get if you google the term. So I figured it was time to do an update. Looking over this list, it's kind of remarkable what kind of tools you can assemble for very, very little money.

Happy New Year!

AUDIO/VIDEO EDITORS

Audacity: Free. From the audacity website: "Easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems."

Audio Hijack: $49. Allows you to record any streaming audio. Useful for all sorts of things -- skype interviews, etc. Also, you may want to compare Fission (Rogue Amoeba’s $29 audio editor) against Audacity.

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DaVinci Resolve 12: Free and Paid versions. Resolve would be on this list alone because it’s an industry-standard color grading app. What’s equally amazing is that it’s now a very useable NLE. When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro X and abandoned its venerable (but aging) Final Cut Pro 7, there was a seismic shift in the NLE landscape. Some people moved to Premiere Pro, others moved to Avid, and some adopted FCPX. I clung to FCP 7 in hopes that something would come along that was less buggy (and better supported) than Premiere, more intuitive than Avid, and more "traditional" (for lack of a better word) than FCP X. DaVinci Resolve is not perfect, but it’s elegantly designed, and the free version does 90% of what the paid version does. And of course, it's a must have for the grading tools alone.

VIDEO CONVERTERS

Apple Compressor: $50. Apple’s venerable Compressor app (part of its old Final Cut Studio suite) got a make-over when FCP X was introduced a few years ago. Now an affordable standalone app, it’s $50 and works pretty well. Users of Adobe Creative Cloud (which includes Adobe Media Encoder) probably don’t have a use for this, but some people (I’m one) still prefer it. VLC, Handbrake, and MPEG Streamclip (all below) are other alternatives, but I tend to go with Compressor.

MPEG Streamclip: Free. In their own words, MPEG streamclip is a “free video converter, player, editor for Mac and Windows. It can play many movie files, not only MPEGs; it can convert MPEG files between muxed/demuxed formats for authoring; it can encode movies to many formats, including iPod; it can cut, trim and join movies. MPEG Streamclip can also download videos from YouTube and Google by entering the page URL.”

Handbrake: Free. From the Handbrake website: "HandBrake is a tool for converting video from nearly any format to a selection of modern, widely supported codecs."

SCREENWRITING, WORD PROCESSING, SPREADSHEETS, etc.

Celtx: Free (for scriptwriting app only; other features are paid). I teach first-time screenwriting students, and this is the app I always send them to because it’s free. There are paid upgrades if you want additional features (scheduling and so on). But I’ve not tried those, and I’d be reluctant to use them over Scenechronize (see below). My favorite screenwriting app is Fade In (see immediately below), but this gets the job done if you have absolutely no money.

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Fade In: $50. This isn't shareware, but it's affordably priced, especially considering the competition. The best, and simplest, screenwriting app I’ve ever encountered — and I’ve paid for Adobe Story, Final Draft (vers 6, 7, and 8) Movie Magic Screenwriter, and several other also-rans (plus Celtx). Fade In works with files from other screenwriting apps flawlessly, in my experience. You can import files from Final Draft, Fountain, Celtx, Adobe Story, Scrivener, PDF, and plain text, among others. The interface is just what I want: It looks good, it puts a focus on the words, and it’s easy to navigate through the script. I actually LIKE using it. There's also an iPad app. Unfortunately it's not nearly as solid.

Scrivener: $45. Like Fade In, this isn't shareware. But it is an awesome tool for keeping notes, research, and drafts in order as you prep a project. The one downside is that the developer has been promising an iPad version for years, and during that time people have been leaving the app for other competitors (like Ulysses).

Libre Office and Open Office: Free. These are essentially open source versions of the applications you find in Microsoft Office. (Do I really need to explain what you'd use these for?) Anyway, some people prefer Libre Office, others prefer Open Office. My day job supplies me with a free copy of MS Office, so I don’t have much of an opinion. They're both free -- download them both and give each a spin. Of course, another option is to work in the cloud using Google Docs (see below).

MISCELLANEA

App Cleaner: Free. If you’re reading this, you probably like trying new apps. The problem is that when you install new software hidden files and folders often get installed all over your computer. App Cleaner the easiest way to thoroughly uninstall unwanted apps. I use this all the time.

Super Duper: Free / $28 and Carbon Copy Cloner: $40. Backups are essential, and these are two great backup and disk-cloning solutions. I far prefer either to Apple’s Time Machine (which is a different thing altogether). I use SuperDuper, but Carbon Copy Cloner is very good too.

Cyberduck: Donationware. As the website states, Cyberduck is a "FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, S3, Azure & OpenStack Swift browser for Mac and Windows." My go-to app for FTP stuff.

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Movie Thumbnails: $3.99. This is really one of the best-kept secrets on the list. Movie Thumbnails lets you “create an overview or contact sheet of a movie combined with metadata like resolution, codec details and so forth.” We used this app to create contact sheets for every video file shot on Something, Anything, which helped us check on the wardrobe continuity or lighting for a shot from previous days of filming. Invaluable!

Pacifist: $20 shareware. This is one of those apps that you may only use once or twice, but you’ll be so glad it exists when you need it. Basically it allows you to drill down into Mac software packages to extract a single file from an installer. You may think you have no need for it, but like I said, it’s great at what it does.

QuickTime Movie NoteTaker: Free. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is still supported, and I confess I've not needed to use it in years.But this made the list last time and it might help someone out, so I’m listing putting here.

Self-Control: Free. The internet is a factory of distractions. If you don’t trust yourself to stay focused on that screenplay, use Self-Control to shut off the internet for a while. It works.

Transcriva: $30. Transcription software for the Mac. I’ve not used this in a while, and some folks are using their NLE's voice recognition software, but it's still useful. While looking at Transcriva again I ran across Express Scribe -- never used it, but it also worth a look if you need something like this.

White Noise Free: Free. I get distracted if I can hear random conversations, music, etc. while doing deep dive work (e.g., writing or editing). Listening to white noise and a pair of good headphones helps me stay focused.

VLC Media Player: Free. From the website: "VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVDs, Audio CDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols." Plays almost anything you throw at it. We use this to cue up trailers at Public Cinema screenings.

CLOUD/WEB APPS:

This could be a really long list, but here are a few that I use.

Scenechronize: Free and Paid versions. I used to use a very old academic edition of Movie Magic/EP Scheduling, which is really expensive, to do stripboards and scheduling. Then a few years ago we discovered this. We used the free version of Scenechronize on Something, Anything, and it was amazing. It's so amazing that I've bumped it to the top of this section, out of alphabetical order. The paid version allows teams to collaborate.

Dropbox and Copy: Free and Paid versions. You know what Dropbox is. Copy is pretty much the same thing. There are lots of other web apps out there that do what these two do. When Something, Anything started being invited to festivals, each one would ask for their own set of (sometimes unique) deliverables. Instead of using Dropbox (which I use for tons of other things) I created a new Copy account and created files for each festival. This kept things clean and organized. Again, you could do this with one service (like Dropbox) but with so many players in the free cloud storage area, why not use a few?

Google Apps: Sheets and Forms. Free. I’m ambivalent about cloud computing (as in, it really sucks if you lose internet service), but I use Google’s Spreadsheet and Survey apps quite a bit. We used the spreadsheet app to keep track of everything fromcasting information to festival submissions to publications to approach for reviews or other coverage. Google Surveys are great, too. We used them one, for example, at the beginning of Something, Anything to poll our crew about dietary restrictions, medical conditions, and so on.

Wordpress: Free. Many a great website was built on the back of Wordpress. (In case you're interested, this site is built on WP; Something, Anything's site is SquareSpace. SquareSpace will cost you money, maybe too much money, but it's appealingly no fuss.)

STUFF I DON’T USE, BUT SOME PEOPLE SWEAR BY:

Blender: Free. Blender is used for, as the website says, "3D computer graphics software used for creating animated films, visual effects, art, 3D printed models, interactive 3D applications and video games." If you've ever seen my films you might suspect I know virtually nothing about this stuff. And you'd be right.

Lightworks: Free and Pro (Paid) Versions Lightworks was one of the first non-linear editors, and it’s been used to edit films like The Wolf of Wall Street, LA Confidential, Pulp Fiction, Heat, and Road to Perdition. You can compare the free and paid versions here. After Apple's FCP debacle in 2011, I was curious about exploring this, but by the time the Mac version of Lightworks was released Resolve had emerged as a NLE candidate.

Evernote: Free and Paid versions. I've never been a convert, but some people -- especially writers -- are almost cultish in their devotion to Evernote.

Hopefully this post introduced you to one or more apps that helps you be more creative and productive. If you like something that I've not listed, or have thoughts on any of the above, let me know in the comments, via email, on Twitter, etc.

The Music of Something, Anything

We've received a lot of messages asking about the music in Something, Anything, so here's some information about how to hear it. Alas, we can't release a soundtrack to the film because, though we have rights to the music in the film soundtrack rights are another thing altogether. That said, you can make your own at home using these links to the iTunes store. Some of these songs will be available on Spotify or Youtube, too. Purchasing music, however, is the best way to support artists, so that's we've provided iTunes links.

Two things to note:

Eric V. Hachikian composed three original piano compositions for the film -- the opening credits music, the music that plays while Peggy writes in her journal the first time, and the music that plays at the end of the film. They're beautiful compositions and we were honored to have him compose them for the film, but they are not currently available for purchase or streaming.

The last two songs on this list are the original versions of the songs used in the film. We had new recordings done of those songs.

"Enchante" - Donald Brown

"Easley Said and Done" - Donald Brown

"Seekers of The Truth #12" - Cecil Lytle

"Easter Hymn" - Cecil Lytle

"Easter Night Procession" - Cecil Lytle

"The Healer" - Ben Sollee

"The Law" - Emily Jane White

"Dead Town" - The Vaygues Not available on iTunes, but found on YouTube via the supplied link.

"Get Left In the Dark" - Nerves Junior Note: This is the vocal version of the song. We use an instrumental version in the film, but as far as we know that version isn't commercially available.

"Know You Now" - The Someloves Note: This is the original recording from the 1980s. The song was covered by (now-defunct) Knoxville band The Young in the film, but that version is not commercially available.

"Vultures" - The Pass

"Where Did I Go Wrong?" - Dead Moon

"You Just Don't Feel That Way About Me" - Bevis Frond

"Franklyn" - Michael Nyman Notes: This is Michael Nyman's original recording of his composition. In the film the composition is performed by Tracy Cowden, but that version is not commercially available.

 

Something, Anything - By the Numbers

A year ago today, Something, Anything had its world premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Today, the film is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Vimeo, and Netflix. To commemorate an incredible, and exhausting, year of sharing the film with audiences here are some fun facts.

Something, Anything... by the numbers

22,474: miles traveled screening the film from April 2014 (premiere) to February 2015 (end of fest travel)

3333: days between emailing inquiry to Abbey of Gethsemani (first day of research for script) to world premiere (Wisconsin Film Festival)

961: gigabytes of original footage (AVCHD codec, in case you're interested)

371: days between first day of principal photography and last day of principal photography (August 14, 2011 - August 20, 2012)

159: runtime of the film's first assembly edit

127: scenes in final draft of screenplay

100+: actresses seen during casting for role of Margaret

88: runtime of film's final cut

71: dollars paid on Ebay for the main lens used to shoot the film (Nikon 50mm f/1.8 Series E)

58: locations filmed

57: Facebook posts on since April 2014.

33: speaking roles

24: music cues

14: festivals and cinematheque selections (as of April 5, 2015)

8: number of times Paul Harrill and Ashley Maynor moved from pre-production through post-production

7: average number of crew members (largest crew size was 14; smallest was 1).

6: different camera models used on various occasions through production

5: attempts made to film synchronized fireflies before succeeding

4: babies born to crew and cast members during the film's production, post, and distribution

3 and 1/2: stars (out of 4) given to film by critic Michal Oleszczyk in his review on RogerEbert.com

2: number of weeks Something, Anything was in Netflix's Top 50 streaming movies according to website InstantWatcher.com

1: scenes in which the character of Peggy/Margaret (Ashley Shelton) does not appear in the film

Released

 The head of the trail where we filmed our first shots.

The head of the trail where we filmed our first shots.

Paul here. I'm honored to announce that Something, Anything was released digitally today in partnership with the Sundance Institute. The film is available for purchase and/or rent on iTunes and Google Play immediately and will be released on Amazon in the near future. It's also now available on Vimeo On Demand.

I started writing this film in earnest in late 2009. Soon thereafter Ashley Maynor joined the journey. Then, starting in 2011, many others came along to help bring it to life. We worked on it, on and off, for a long time before it finally premiered in April 2014. It took so long to make that we joked that it wasn't a film; it was a lifestyle. And when we were making it we honestly had no idea if anyone would ever see it. That’s the truth.

Since last April I have had the remarkable fortune to travel with the film, meeting and talking with people who have been touched by it. Earlier this month the film screened for a week in New York and was reviewed, warmly, by critics and publications I’ve read for years. And, now, today it has been released out into the world. Anyone that wants it can download it now.

Thinking about this movie's digital ones and zeros -- files that were stored only on my solitary computer for so long -- now transferring through wires and cables onto others' computers, maybe even your own… It is very strange. It is also a little bittersweet. But mostly what I feel is a kind of sweet relief, which I can only liken to the feeling you get when you finally sit down after hiking through the woods for a long, long time.

Something, Anything: Screenings and Screen Forward Guests

We're very excited about Something, Anything's Screen Forward run in New York at IFP's Made in NY Media Center. Opening night is Friday, January 9 and it runs daily through Thursday, January 15.

http://player.vimeo.com/109279504

 

Follow this link to purchase tickets!

We'll be having several special guests join us after the screenings to discuss films and filmmaking. Below are several trailers and other links so that you can learn more about our guests, in case you're not familiar with them.

 

FRIDAY, JANUARY 9 @ 7:30 PM

Something, Anything followed by a Q+A moderated by filmmaker Daniel Carbone of Hide Your Smiling Faces

http://youtu.be/yDqpowHJdO4

 

SATURDAY, JANUARY 10 @ 2:00 PM and 4:30 PM

Following the 4:30 PM screening there will be a roundtable discussion featuring producers Ashley Maynor (Something, Anything), Summer Shelton (Little Accidents),  Lucas Joaquin (The Heart Machine, Love Is Strange), and Tory Lenosky (Keep the Lights On).

http://www.vimeo.com/video/112844536

 

http://www.vimeo.com/107052828

http://youtu.be/9MR1nNgSM6M

 

 

SUNDAY, JANUARY 11 @ 2:00 PM 

Post-screening conversation on Contemplative & Spiritual Cinema, with writer/director Paul Harrill and Caveh Zahedi (The Sheik and I; actor, Waking Life) and filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt (The Unspeakable Act).

http://vimeo.com/56075178

http://youtu.be/M5cjPlupfM4

 

MONDAY, JANUARY 12 @ 3:00 PM 

Post-screening conversation between Something, Anything cinematographer Kunitaro Ohi and cinematographer Daryl Pittman (White Reindeer).

http://vimeo.com/video/59124627

 

TUESDAY, JANUARY 13 @ 7:30 PM 

Followed by a post-screening Q+A with writer/director Paul Harrill, producer Ashley Maynor, and lead actress Ashley Shelton. Moderated by film critic Alissa Wilkinson, who interviewed Paul Harrill about Something, Anything for Christianity Today. Read the interview here.

 

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14 @ 7:30 PM 

Tennessee Film Night with writer/director Paul Harrill, producer Ashley Maynor and fellow makers of movies set/shot/connected to the Volunteer State -- Tim Sutton (Memphis) and John Henry Summerour (Sahkanaga). 

 

http://vimeo.com/video/88093579

http://www.vimeo.com/video/36370413

 

A New Documentary: The Story of the Stuff - Coming April 2015

An image from Newtown, CT.

Today, on the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting, we are announcing Self-Reliant Film’s upcoming web documentary, which will be released online this spring.

Entitled The Story of the Stuff, the documentary -- using video, audio, images and text -- tracks what happens to more than half a million letters, 65,000 teddy bears, and hundreds of thousands of other packages, donations, and condolence items sent to Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. 

As I worked with residents of Newtown to tell this story, I was vigilant to resist exploiting this horrific tragedy by digging into the violence of that day. This is not a story about violence; it is a story about what we do after violence. 

The story has a deeply personal connection. 

On April 16, 2007, I was at work, managing a Blacksburg, Virginia, art house cinema when a shooter murdered 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. It is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. 

In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed April 16th (I later went on to teach filmmaking at Virginia Tech from 2008-2012), I witnessed firsthand the growing phenomenon in global culture that we’ve seen everywhere from Oklahoma City to Columbine, from Aurora to the Boston Marathon bombing: After a tragedy is covered in graphic detail by the news media, there comes a massive public outpouring of sympathy, most often in the form of physical expressions of grief—for lack of a better term, the “stuff.”

Votive candles, flowers, teddy bears, Hallmark cards—these come en masse. Giant posterboards, personalized gifts, hand-written letters, and painstakingly handmade artworks—the range and scope of materials is extraordinary. 

But the tidal wave of “stuff” poses an added burden for the recipient community and the questions are countless: Where does all the stuff go? Who should handle it? Should any of it be kept forever? Where and for what purpose?

Ever since my experience at Virginia Tech, these questions have fascinated me -- as a filmmaker, as a practicing librarian, and as one who has grieved—up close and at a distance—for those lost.

The Story of the Stuff, then, is an investigation into our American culture of consumption and remembrance. The way we represent, remember, and respond to such tragedies has much to teach us about ourselves, our memories, and our grief. 

I hope you’ll join us in exploring these questions when we release The Story of the Stuff on April 16, 2015—the eighth anniversary of that fateful day that changed my life forever and inspired this new work. 

-- Ashley Maynor

UPDATE (4.3.15): The Story of the Stuff facebook page has launched. "Liking" that page will keep you abreast on the most up-to-date announcements about the documentary's launch.

Sabbatical (Brandon Colvin, 2014)

Paul here. While I've been traveling for the first series of Something, Anything film festival screenings, I've caught up with a few films, though not nearly as many as I would like to have seen. Of all of them, I was inspired to write a few words about Brandon Colvin's Sabbatical, which I saw in Wisconsin at its World Premiere.

I rarely make time to write out-and-out reviews, but I wanted to put my thoughts down on this one for three reasons: First, I've thought about a good deal in the three weeks since I've seen it. Second, it is a "difficult" film, and because of that I fear it will face some (unfair) challenges on the festival circuit. And third, I have seen few other people writing about the film. My words certainly aren't going to convince a curator to program the film, but I believe the film merits a serious look and this is my way of sharing that.

xxx

Sabbatical (Brandon Colvin, 2014)

Brandon Colvin's Sabbatical, which had its World Premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival, was described in the fest catalog as an "unapologetically rigorous work." It does not fail to deliver on that promise.

The film's story concerns Ben (Robert Longstreet), a religious studies professor who returns to care for his ailing mother. During his time back home he reconnects with people from his past -- an estranged friend (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Sarah (Rhoda Griffis), a former lover. Describing the film in this way, however, is misleading because the film's characters and dramatic arc are secondary to the film's austere formalist concerns.

Sabbatical consists of some 60-odd shots over the course of its 72 minutes with most of the scenes existing as single, static long takes. (At least two of these last over 5 minutes.) In the entire film I can only recall two instances of camera movement. There are many, many shots (or "scenes" -- as I said, there's hardly any distinction between the two) in which we see characters only from behind. And the actors, truly performing in the mode of Bressonian models, speak in virtual monotone. Throughout, the film steadfastly denies us the things we typically expect to see or hear in more mainstream cinema.

While Bresson obviously looms large as an inspiration here, because of its single-shot-per-scene approach I was also reminded of Jon Jost's work and, though it's a bit of a stretch, even Hollis Frampton's classic of structural filmmaking, [nostalgia]. Regardless of who one thinks of, audiences that have some cinematic references to draw upon will undoubtedly find themselves more engaged with the film than those who read a logline and expect to see a sensitive family drama. Within two or three scenes/shots you understand how Colvin will tell the tale, and I suspect at that point you're either with it or you're against it. The woman sitting next to me at the world premiere was, it's probably fair to say, against it. Me? I was with it. (So, too, were the many people who stayed afterward for the Q&A.)

One can't expect complete success with any film, and you certainly can't with a film that feels like such an experiment for its creator and cast. There are a few moments one feels the actors struggling to perform in the same, flattened register, for instance. Sometimes, too, the images feel more mannered than rigorous. Still, in moments like the film's final scene, or a scene where Ben discovers his mother is unconscious the starkness and purity of the film's approach works in harmony with its themes of separation and loss. Best of all was what I consider the film's centerpiece, an indelible scene of loneliness and tenderness between Ben and Sarah at a kitchen table. It's a sequence that, three weeks after seeing it, continues to haunt me.

Beyond its literal reference to the main character's break from work, Sabbatical's title has a deeper meaning. The origin of the word literally means "a ceasing", and denial is at the heart of this film -- the affection people deny to each other, the denial of death, and above all, perhaps, the denial of the typical pleasures of narrative cinema for something else. In Sabbatical Brandon Colvin challenges his viewers to look deeper, and I found the investment of time, of attention, rewarding.

Something, Anything - World Premieres

Something, AnythingAshley Maynor and I spent a lot of time -- a lot of sweat, a lot of love, a lot of pain -- making SOMETHING, ANYTHING. More than either of us have ever put into a movie. Years. Friends of ours have raised infants to preschoolers in the time it's taken us to make this film. This film has been our baby.

Not surprisingly, as we finished the film we did a lot of thinking about where we would want to premiere it. We knew wanted it to be a festival with a lot of integrity, both in the films they select, and the way they treat their filmmakers. Path

So we asked a lot of filmmaker friends, and we researched. What festivals were taking risks on premiering and screening films that we admired in the last few years? (Films like The Unspeakable ActThis is Martin Bonner, and The Color Wheel, among many, many others.)

And two festivals kept coming up again and again: the Sarasota Film Festival and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

So we shared SOMETHING, ANYTHING with programmers Tom Hall (Sarasota) and Jim Healy (Wisconsin). And we crossed our fingers. These guys look at thousands of films a year. I don't know how they do it, honestly. For the sections that we'd be eligible for, they maybe take a dozen films.

The fact that both of these programmers -- who we admire so much, and whose festivals are beacons of daring programming -- separately selected SOMETHING, ANYTHING for their respective festivals… well, to call it gratifying would be an understatement.

We're calling our screenings at both Wisconsin and Sarasota our "World Premiere" -- a co- or dual- World Premiere, if you will. The festivals happen over the same dates, and its a way for us to signify how honored we are to have all of our hard work -- and the work of so many others -- to be recognized by both festivals.

Thanks for following us on the journey so far.

Something, Anything

Advice to Young Filmmakers

ASHLEY MAYNOR WRITES:

I recently received a request for some advice from a young filmmaker in Kansas City who's conducting informal interviews with people in the industry. As I wrote my reply, I thought I'd publicly share her questions and my answers:

-What advice would you give to young filmmakers, fresh out of school, who are looking to start in the industry?

Don’t wait for permission—from funders, programmers, production companies, etc.—to make your movie. All the tools you need are within your reach. Great stories have been told with Fisher Price cameras. You can make a moving film with nothing more than clear film leader. It’s not about the camera. Or the actors. Or the budget.

Make something people want to watch. Try to tell uncommon stories. Don’t imitate other filmmakers—try to make something the world needs, a story only you can and must tell. As Rainer Maria Rilke told a young writer who looked to him for advice, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night yearning to make your work, then you should probably consider another vocation.

-Is it difficult to build contacts/connections when you are just starting out?

If you have lots of money or went to a fancy film school, it might not be. But generally speaking, building a network requires a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of rejection. Ten years into the business, I feel I’m just now getting a foothold on a network of my own. It's very possible, but roll up your sleeves.

-How do you begin to make connections?

Start in your own backyard—meet people with common geography, interests, ideas…Go to as many film festivals as you can afford. Meet other filmmakers who are doing work you respect and admire. Better yet, meet other artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, and so on. They can help to inspire you and, sometimes, help you with your film in a more direct way.

Be good, gracious, and kind to the people who find their way into your life. One of the best connections that has helped me to date was with my college study abroad advisor. I sent him postcards from all the countries I visited in college. Years later, he was repping a musician whose work I wanted to license for my first documentary.

Get a producer—they are excellent network builders. Consider following really great blogs. Try starting here or here or here. Read. A lot. The internet provides opportunities for learning and developing a network well beyond where you might live or be able to travel.

-How important/vital do you think these connections are in the industry?

Filmmaking is a collaborative venture, so by the very nature of the art and business, you need other people. Particularly, filmmakers rely on programmers to lend a stamp of legitimacy to their work and to get it in front of bigger audiences than one can get without them.  I believe the most influential network a filmmaker can have is among programmers and critics.

-What are some common mistakes you see young/new filmmakers making?

Derivative work. Work without soul. Pretty but vapid pictures. Unabashedly and unnecessarily violent films. Films that only make us more asleep, less in touch with the world and people and concerns around us.

Doing it for the money. If you’re in it for the money, there are much better, faster, and more reliable ways of getting rich. So don’t do it for the money. In fact, you're probably going to need a day job.

I make films to wake people up, to change lives—that is where I set the bar for whether or not a film should be made.

-What are some of the most difficult challenges you face when working on a film?

Every film is a tiny miracle. It is harder to do than you will probably ever be able to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. We all have our war stories for every film we make. I think it’s actually better to not know what those challenges will be or just how damn hard it’s going to be, otherwise you might not do it. So, this is one area of life where naiveté is actually a blessing. Hang onto it for as long as you can.

I once heard Jonathan Demme say, it doesn't matter if you're 19 or 91, with each film you're a first-time filmmaker. So, with each film, let yourself be a newborn.

Announcing our first feature: "Something, Anything"

Among my friends and collaborators, I have something of a reputation for being tight-lipped about films that I'm actively working on. This is one of the reasons things sometimes get very, very quiet on this blog.

Though the path to completing and premiering it is still long, Ashley and I are happy to announce that our first feature, Something, Anything, is in post-production. In fact, the Independent Feature Project announced yesterday that Something, Anything has been selected as one of ten projects from around the country for IFP's esteemed Narrative Lab.

You can read more about Something, Anything, the other projects, and the Lab in the official press release and the Filmmaker Magazine article. The projects are impressive and we're honored to be in such good company.

Friends of ours have taken their first features (The New Year ParadeSt. Nick) through the Lab, and knowing how much they valued the Lab makes us especially excited to have this opportunity.

We'll try to do a blog post or two about our experiences at the Lab. Stay tuned. Until then, here's an image from the film -- one of the last shots of the movie, but one of the first we filmed.

Something, Anything

 

Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did

ASHLEY MAYNOR WRITES:

I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master's degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I'd reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision: I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you'd spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working--as a PA or in an agency mailroom--cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It's already paid for (i.e. you've gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car--no matter what the reputation of the school--for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it's the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between--just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you're willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there's not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make--people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can't provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It's work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don't have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It's also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I've had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it's not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.

  • Great schedule.

  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.

  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.

  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.

  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we'd give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II

A Creative Producing Storm

ASHLEY MAYNOR WRITES:

Our blog has been silent over the past few months, but don't let that fool you--we've been busier than ever! In this short span, Paul and I began work as managing producers for a new film production company dedicated to producing feature films in the American South (more on that soon); one of Paul's scripts was selected for IFP's No Borders Co-Production Market; and I spent a week at the Sundance Institute's Creative Producing Lab and Summit as the 2012-13 Sheila C. Johnson Creative Producing Fellow. Oh, and we've also been filming a feature film! More than anything, it's been a time of growth and change as creative producers, so I wanted to share a few gems I heard at the Lab & Summit on this under-appreciated role :

"You have to the calming center [for the production] ...but you're also the punching bag for everyone." --Lynette Howell, on the paradox of a creative producer's role.

"Producing is the credit that everyone wants and that no one values." --Anne Carey, on the constant struggle to define and protect producing credits.

"We're like cockroaches. When the nuclear blast hits and we have to eat plaster, we eat plaster." --Christine Vachon, on how she and her company, Killer Films, have stayed in the business for so long.

P.S. For even more of a love song to creative producers, check out this video, called "The Unsung Hero of Indie Filmmaking" made by the Institute.

DIY Catering Part II: 4 Easy Ways to Go Green(er)

ASHLEY MAYNOR WRITES:

A few posts ago, I shared the first part of this series of tips on DIY Film Catering. (To read about 5 Essential Catering Tools under $50, go here.) This time, I focus on the seemingly impossible task of making a film with a small environmental footprint--there always seem to be compromises for the sake of convenience, time, or the other kind of green (money). While it's not always easiest or cheapest to take the eco-option, I have found four simple ways to keep our film catering a little bit greener without taking up too much time or cash:

1. Use Recycled Paper Plates + Compostable or Metal Flatwear: When faced with on-the-go shooting days, rustic or outdoor locations, recycled compostable plates and compostable corn-based flatware make clean-up easy and more affordable than you might think. Even Sam's carries 100% recycled, chlorine-free plates these days, so this "green" step can be nearly as cheap and convenient as using their plastic and styrofoam counterparts.

When we find ourselves in a semi-equipped location (i.e. an indoor location, especially one with a kitchen), I'll bring metal flatware, which cast and crew place in a plastic bin at the end of meals and I throw into a dishwasher that night for the next day. Caterer style stainless steel flatware sets can be had for cheap -- and, in the long run, are much more cost-effective than the environmentally-friendly disposable kind: They will last a lifetime!

Finally, if disposable coffee cups are a must for your set, opt for something like Chinet's Comfort Cups or Dixie's Vanity Fair Cups which paper-based and have recyclable plastic lids. Again, these are found at most major retailers and are less evil than their styrofoam versions.

2. Require BYO-Bottles &  Provide A Refill Station: Our film sets are BYO-water bottle for all crew. I also keep a few extra stainless steel bottles on hand for talent, PAs, and the inevitable forgotten bottles. Having designated, labeled bottles helps to cut down on waste--no more unidentified, half-drunk plastic bottles lying around! And I've found that many crew will keep their bottles attached to their belt loops with a carabiner. This constant access equals more hydration and less fatigue on set.

I recommend stainless steel over plastic since (a) you can avoid the whole BPA issue, (b) they are less likely to develop odors/bacteria, and (c) they can go through the dishwasher. You could even have some specially printed for your crew to keep as mementos from the shoot! (If you really want to go all out, you can get hot/cold insulated ones that will keep water cold and coffee hot and that don't "sweat" with condensation.)

Secondly, part of our BYOB system includes a refillable 2-gallon Brita Filter water dispenser to provide fresh, tasty water on set, using any available tap, without contributing at all to the world's bottled water dilemma.

3. Use Aluminum Food Prep Containers: Any Costco or Sam's can set you up with the industrial strength, catering style disposable aluminum pans. Because they are so heavy duty, you can actually use them several times (but don't put them in the dishwasher--they will turn brown!). Unlike glass casseroles, they won't break and unlike plastic they won't retain odor from other foods. They are great for transporting and storing cold food or you can also use them to heat hot food, either in the oven or using a sterno-catering setup on set. Best of all, you can recycle them at the end!

4. Keep Trash & Recycling Bins on Set: It can be a pain, at times, to provide both trash AND recycling bins but I just can't stand the waste on film sets. Even with our BYO-Bottle system, caffeine can create lots of waste on set. So, I make an effort to buy all sodas in aluminum (since it can be recycled many more times than plastic and without the toxicity) and recycle those at the end of each shoot day. If this seems like too much of a hassle, try using something like the Flings pop-up recycle bin and trash can--these are reusable, much more portable than traditional bins, and they might just make it easy enough for you and your crew to go greener!

 At Self-Reliant Film, we believe that the way you make something shapes what that thing is. So, while recycling on set or using biodegradable products might seem like a low priority, especially when working with budgets where every cent counts, we think even these small decisions can shape the work we're making. We want the stories in our films to be responsible (i.e. to tell uncommon stories with integrity and respect for the region where we make and set our work) and we believe a big part of that responsibility begins with how we treat the set, our crew, and the environment that makes it all possible in the first place.

If you have other easy ways to keep film sets more eco-conscious, we'd love to hear about it. Please share in the comments!

 

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Fiona Otway

Given the recent closure of the iconic letterpress printing shop, Yee-Haw Industries, whose work adorned everything from Jack Daniels to Le Sport Sac to the movie posters for Self-Reliant Film, today's post on Kiss the Paper, a film about letterpress's decline and revival, seems especially timely.

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Fiona Otway is a director, cinematographer, editor, producer, and media instructor whose work is influenced by her background in cultural anthropology, critical social theory, and experimental filmmaking. She has edited three Academy Award nominee films, including one of the three stories in James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, which garnered a "Best Documentary Editing" award at Sundance.

Her latest short, Kiss the Paper, is a documentary portrait of Alan Runfeldt, a man who has been a letterpress printer since age 12. Told through poetic camerawork and moody, natural lighting, the film both paints a portrait of its subject character, Alan, while also exploring the world of tactile printing--a world that stands in opposition to and is threatened by the computers and cell phones even this hardcore letterpress printer has come to adopt and rely upon.

An example of thoughtful, poignant, and self-reliant filmmaking, Kiss the Paper is a meditation on art versus profession, trade versus craft, and the ways in which analog is hanging on in a digital world.

For those readers attending Full Frame Festival in Durham, you can catch the film today!

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How did you meet the subject of your film, Alan Runfeldt, and what inspired you to make a film about him? 

I had been wanting to make a film about letterpress for a long time and was living in Philadelphia, where there is a lot of printing history. I started talking to folks in the letterpress community in town, asking whether they knew of any printers who had been around long enough to witness the past few decades of changing letterpress history. A few names were suggested, but to my dismay, these printers had already retired or closed their businesses and were very hard to track down.

So I started expanding my search beyond Philadelphia and when I heard that Alan Runfeldt had filled an old chicken barn with a collection of printing presses he had rescued, I knew that I wanted to talk with him. From our very first conversation, it was obvious that Alan is a man filled with incredible passion.  He was very friendly and eager to share his many decades of accumulated wisdom. Soon after we chatted, I traveled to Frenchtown, NJ to visit his print shop and discovered a treasure trove of beautiful, beloved machines under his care. Since I was interested in exploring the themes of tactility and obsolescence -- both visually and through a character portrait -- Alan and his presses were the perfect subject.

Your credits on the film are producer, director, camera, and editor. Tell me about the process of making this film, which appears to be a more or less one-woman show. Were there any challenges or benefits to making the film in this way? 

I had a very narrow window of time in which to make the film (between other projects), so working solo was partly a practical issue of flexibility and expediency. It’s easier to shoot a film on the fly when you don’t have to coordinate schedules and availability with a lot of people. I also simply didn’t have any budget to hire other professionals to work with me one this one. But I wasn’t completely alone; my friend Ginger Jolly came with me on one of the shoot days and was a huge help in setting up lights, recording sound, and schlepping gear -- not to mention the creative support of bouncing ideas around together.  We had a lot of fun.

I have to admit, although it can be more difficult to work solo, I also really like shooting and editing my own material.  I had a pretty strong vision for this piece from the very beginning, and there is a creative joy that comes with being able to shape the material in such a hands-on, start-to-finish process.

Of course, collaborating with others to make a film can be an incredible experience too. I also freelance as a shooter and editor, so I know firsthand that sometimes it just makes more sense to have a team of people creating a film together.  A film can be greatly enhanced by individuals bringing their unique strengths, talents, and perspectives to the process.

In addition to this film, you've also edited a significant number of successful films, including James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, for which you won Sundance's first ever prize for "Best Documentary Editing." How do you go about the process of editing another person's film? In other words, how do you go about crafting footage into a story? What is your process of collaboration? Do you have any special processes or techniques for getting through that first assembly or rough cut?

The process of collaboration is unique to each project.  As an editor, I’ve found that every director has their own working style and each project has its own creative needs.

In the beginning, my job as an editor is to really get to know the footage — its strengths, its idiosyncrasies, its potential. I’m also engaging in a rich dialogue with the director, absorbing as much information as I can about their vision for the film. Sometimes I end up doing my own additional research on the subject matter, so that I can understand the context of the story better. I might also study other films for aesthetic inspiration and use these kinds of films as a reference point for ongoing discussions with director.

As I get deeper into the edit, I am working to find a structure that will carry the story. I write outlines, start assembling scenes that I think are especially strong, build spreadsheets, make notes on index cards, and begin playing with ideas and possible approaches for a story arc.   To get to the first assembly or rough cut, I’m searching for interesting resonances in the footage and in the story — the questions and themes that become more nuanced over time and make the material come alive for me. One of the aspects of editing that I love the most is that it allows me to tap into a deeply intuitive level of creativity.

Throughout the entire editing process, I’m continuing to have conversations with the director.  We are constantly working to refine our vision for the movie.  We’ll watch rough cuts together, make notes about what’s working and not working, and then chisel away some more.  At a certain point, we’ll start showing rough cuts to a trusted circle of friends and colleagues in order to get feedback from outside the edit room. This invaluable feedback gets folded back into the editing, and the process continues in these cycles until a movie is born.

kiss_the_paper OTWAY 1

The lamentation and nostalgia that your film's subject, Alan, expresses about the decline of analog technology seems especially poignant, given this film's digital format. Did you question making this film digitally, or was that an intentional juxtaposition from the start?

KISS THE PAPER is actually shot on both super-16mm film and HD video, which was a very deliberate expressive choice from the beginning. With the recent news about Kodak’s bankruptcy, there are obvious parallels between filmmaking and letterpress printing. While KISS THE PAPER isn’t making specific commentary on the the decline of celluloid, I was very interested in the formal subtext of combining film and video in the making of the piece.

At one point, your film's subject Alan says, "Technology moves towards efficiency, but art moves towards emotion and feeling." Your cinematography, which turns heavy, oily letterpress machinery into a cinematic poetry of sorts, would seem to agree. Is this an edict that you feel accurately describes your work? How so?

I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for old technologies and tactile media, but I’m not opposed to the evolution of technology. I do, however, sometimes worry that we live in a culture that blindly worships technological progress for its own sake.

As a filmmaker, I make no apologies about working in a digital medium. In fact, the digital revolution in video is what has enabled me and others like me to have access to the tools of filmmaking in the first place. But at the same time, I want to create work that connects with people and enables people to connect with each other. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how digital technologies and digital media can either support or inhibit these goals. I often contemplate what is lost and what is gained in the fact of our increasingly digital lives and in the march towards ever-increasing technological efficiency.  These are some of the questions that led me to make KISS THE PAPER.

The film premiered this January at Slamdance and has also screened at Big Sky Documentary Festival. Where else can audiences hope to catch this film?

KISS THE PAPER premiered at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in 2011. The film is still in the festival circuit, and has screened at Silverdocs, the Citizen Jane Film Festival, Red Rock Film Festival, Slamdance, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. The next few confirmed screenings include Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, then DOXA in Vancouver BC, and at the 2012 New Hampshire Living History event in August. Additional screenings and the eventual DVD will be announced on our 

Facebook page

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Brian Bolster

Because short films are often neglected in film festival press and buzz, the next two installments of this series focus on powerful films in short-form packages. First up is an interview with Brian Bolster, a native of Boston and graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His film, The Lookout, premiered at Slamdance and recently took home the "Big Sky Award" at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The Lookout is a sixteen-minute documentary about a fire lookout--a term which describes both a person and a place--in a remote area Montana's Flathead National Forest. Lookouts serve to detect and fight wildfires and, despite their ongoing use, seem a thing of the past.

Bolster's film is a reflection on solitude and voluntary simplicity in a landscape where, as the lookout puts it, "weather dictates life." Told with stunning cinematography of big skies and mountains, stars and sunsets, it is a carefully crafted film that celebrates quiet and natural beauty.

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It was your awesome hand letter-pressed card that first led me to want to watch this film, and in the film's press kit, you also included a letter-pressed business card. Why did you make this aesthetic decision to represent a digital film/filmmaker? How does this style of printing relate to your work?

This was the first time I have used letterpress printing for any of my projects. Initially, I was going to follow the formula that many filmmakers use at festivals, a glossy postcard with a still from the film on the front and standard screening information on the back.  However, I truly felt that this particular project warranted a less traditional feel promotional-wise. The Lookout has a rustic sensibility, and I wanted the marketing materials  to embody that as well. It was Fiona Otway’s beautiful film Kiss the Paper about a letterpress printer in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (which incidentally also screened along with The Lookout as part of the documentary block “Americana” at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival), that served as my inspiration to give letterpress a try. [Note from Ashley: This film, Kiss the Paper, is the subject of our next fresh filmmaker interview!]

Using an older, nearly forgotten art form to bring an element of nostalgia to the collateral materials just felt right, and in the end, I couldn’t be more pleased with unrefined texture of the output and how well both the postcards and business cards represent the film’s aesthetic. Fire lookouts and letterpress printers are similar in that both can be considered dying breeds of sorts, and I’d like to think that I played a role in preserving both of their crafts to some extent, by making a documentary film about one and successfully promoting that film with the other.

Most of my films examine an individual or group’s relationship to structures and/or the environment in which they work, live, worship in, etc. Given that spectrum, I don’t think letterpress print would be the right medium for every project.  For me, the film’s aesthetic should really dictate the look and feel of all its ancillary touch points. That said, my next project profiles the owner/operators of an old fashioned mercantile, situated at the end of a long dirt road in rural Montana. It definitely has a rustic feel similar to The Lookout, and I’m certain that letterpress print would, again, yield tools that would both perfectly complement and promote the film.

You made The Lookout with a one-person film crew and had to hike twelve miles to and from Thoma Lookout to bring up the equipment for you shoot, not to mention you went without bathing for the week of filming on the mountain. Knowing these challenges from the start, why did you pursue this film? Why did you feel this was a story you had to tell?

Fire lookouts and the individuals that staff them are an important part of our nation’s history, and I really wanted to showcase their work to audiences who may not be familiar with their unique, yet often times unnoticed, role in fire management. Additionally, though they remain  critical front-line components of our forest system’s detection and prevention of wildfires, they have recently dwindled in numbers, due largely to the proliferation of advanced technologies.  Because of this, I knew that I not only wanted to document the working life of a fire lookout, but also play a part in preserving their history in doing so.

As far as the physical challenges of getting this film made, backpacking and hiking have been a part of my life for a long time, so the camping and making the two 4-mile one way trips (personal belongings on one, film equipment on the other) up and down the mountain on the front and back-ends of the shoot were definitely much more a welcome adventure than an issue.  Also, while not showering for a week may be have been a little unpleasant, that too is something I’ve become somewhat accustomed to over my years of being an avid hiker.

The Lookout

The subject of your film, Leif Haugen, is a fourteen year lookout veteran, who chooses to spend solitary summers in a remote post with only a two-way radio as his connection to the outside world. Haugen is surprisingly natural on camera and I imagine there had to be some sort of negotiation for you sharing the small, tiny hut for a week of filming. Tell me about that process. Given his habitation to solitude, how did you achieve the intimate footage in your film, which gives a strong, cinema verite impression?

To my surprise, Leif was very comfortable in front of the camera.  While we had talked briefly on the phone once or twice about logistics and such, we had never met in person until the first day of shooting.  The hike up to the lookout gave us a chance to talk, and Leif was nice enough to accompany me on both trips up and down the mountain, allowing us to get to know each other fairly well in a very short period of time.

Overall, the weather at the lookout proved to be a real challenge and in many ways ‘co-directed’ the shoot, if you will. We experienced everything from wind and rain to snow and sleet, with one or maybe two warm and sunny days over the course of the week. On the days where the weather was particularly bad, we stayed inside the lookout and shot Leif’s interviews which ended up taking much of our indoor time. Other than that, our days would mostly involve discussing Leif’s plans for the day over breakfast, followed by my doing my best to shadow him as his went about with his routine, whether it was a trip to get water, chop wood or cook dinner.

Thoma Lookout is very small and tight space, and that, coupled with the fact that Leif is used to spending so much of his time in complete isolation at the lookout, often times left me with a sense that I was invading his world with my presence. Fortunately, due both to his dedication to his work as a lookout and our mutual desire to share his experience at-large with others, we were able to successfully navigate any discomfort.

In addition to being a fourteen-year veteran of the Hungry Horse/Glacier Ranger Districts fire lookout program, Leif also helps train newly hired lookouts as well as restores older lookout structures back to fully operational states. After Leif saw the film screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I asked him what he thought of seeing it for the first time in such a large format. Though he was beyond pleased with both the end product and the audience reaction, he also mentioned that the film left him feeling a bit melancholy because he missed his life at Thoma – a clear demonstration to his passion and commitment to his work as a fire lookout.

The Lookout5

How did you prepare for your week of filming at Thoma Lookout. (I imagine you wanted to get everything in one trip, given the struggles of getting there!) What forms of previsualization did you use (e.g. storyboards, shot lists, etc.) to plan your shoot, if any? Did you plan any sequences ahead of time, such as a stunning time-lapse sunsets or nighttime skies?

I did have some pre-visualization of what the end product would look like, but it was minimal since I had never visited this particular lookout and had no idea what to expect other than being told that the views from the site were stunning. I did find some inspiration from the films of Terrence Malick and John Ford’s film “The Searchers” before and after the shoot, and I did have a good idea as to what I thought was important for viewers to experience - but that information was primarily gleaned from Leif’s interview. Additionally, I also knew that I wanted as little camera movement as possible because I wanted viewers to be in and experience Leif’s world. The time-lapsed night time sequence in the middle of the film was the only segment that was preplanned before I left for Montana, and I knew I would include it in the finished film - although, it was pure luck that I happened to catch an electrical storm passing through that particular night. Other than that, everything was shot on site at Thoma.

To complete this film, you worked with an editor, Amy Glickman Brown. How much footage did you have to work with for this 16-minute film? What was your process of collaboration for winnowing down the footage?

This is the second time I have worked with Amy, and she definitely has a knack for finding the heart of a story.  At all points throughout the editing process, I always sense that she is just as invested in the project as I am, and she has never shied away from arguing her points when she feels that I may be making decisions counter to the project’s overall message.  I place great value on the pacing of my films, as I find that central in setting the mood for the entire piece.  With The Lookout, the only instructions I gave Amy were to edit the film with a pace that was slow, deliberate and with a very “day in the life” feeling.  She found the pacing quickly, and with limited footage (only about twelve hours total), was able to add a breadth to the end product that I never thought was possible.  In the end, I felt that the final cut of sixteen minutes captured my story perfectly – and I had originally envisioned a total runtime of only about eight to ten minutes prior to our post-production work.

The Lookout is a quiet film, whose soundtrack is composed by the wind, rain, and other elements of Montana's Flathead National Forest and the crackle of the dispatch radios. When and how did you make the decision to not use music? Was this a directoral decision or one you made in tandem with Drew Fuccillo, your sound mixer?

If nothing else, I really wanted viewers to experience the same sights and sounds as Leif, so the decision to not use music in The Lookout was indeed a deliberate one. Perhaps I should also credit some of my inspiration in this regard to the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds as well, as I have always admired Hitchcock’s choice of using the sounds of the birds in place of a musical score.  However, my choice to use the crackle of the radio was made while shooting at Thoma. I loved how the radio would suddenly disrupt the quiet solitude. The crackle was jarring, and I wanted to incorporate that noise into the film as an auditory reminder that Leif was still connected to the outside world.

The budget for your film, $2500, seems fairly modest given the travel that must have been necessary for the filming. Do you often make work with small or micro-budgets? Do you produce work this way for practical, aesthetic, or other reasons?

In many ways this shoot was really an extension of a typical backcountry camping trip. The only difference being that I had a camera and tripod with me. Air travel aside, a hiking and backpacking trip is inherently a non expensive outing. Therefore, taking on a film shoot on such a trip definitely assisted in helping me keep costs low during production. While this helped me to keep costs down, it was by no means an aesthetic choice but rather a practical choice. Most of my costs for The Lookout were post-production related.

After its premiere at Slamdance, your film went gone on to screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Big Sky Award. Where else do you plan to screen the film at this point? Do you have any long-term plans for VOD or digital distribution?

Currently The Lookout is making the rounds on the festival circuit. After the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, it screened at the Durango International Film Festival and will have two screenings at the Florida Film Festival next month in April and screenings at Independent Film Festival Boston. To-date, there has been some initial interest from a couple of distributors, but I’m definitely still open to exploring and discussing any short or longer-term distribution opportunities which may present themselves. Down the line, I’m also considering packaging The Lookout with some other similarly-themed short films in which I am currently in post-production. In the meantime, I welcome anyone interested in learning more about the film to please check it out at facebook.com/TheLookoutMovie.

The Lookout3

DIY Catering Part I: 5 Essential Tools under $50 for Low-Budget Film Catering

As we take a short break from our Fresh Filmmakers interview series, I'd like to share some of my tips and tricks for catering even the most low-budget of film shoots. Preparing your own meals rather than hiring professional catering or eating out can mean BIG savings, not to mention healthier and more eco-friendly options. With a small investment in a few tools, this can also become a relatively easy thing to DIY. Here are some essentials for the novice film set caterer (or micro-budget producer who is also caterer!) getting started:

--Hot Beverage Airpots--At just $15-25 each, these are worth their weight in gold; industrial quality ones with glass interiors will keep coffee and water piping hot for 8 hours. I use three on set (2 for coffee, one for water for making tea) for a crew of 10-15. These are easily purchased at a nice discount compared to online stores at most big box grocery outlets, such as Costco or Sam's Club.

--Crock Pot--Whether it's a soup-n-sandwich lunch, a roast dinner, or a hearty mac-n-cheese, crock pots make it easy to have a hot meal on even the most bare bones of sets/locations--all you need is a place to plug in! I recommend you get a big one; plan to spend between $30-50. For even more rugged shoots with no power source available, you can also consider a camping stove or single, kitchen-grade (portable) gas burner, combined with a large pot or skillet.

--Rolling Cooler--While I use reusable water bottles on set (more on this in a future post), a cooler is essential for toting sodas and perishable food items or cold meals. Do yourself (and your back) a favor and get one with wheels for about $50.

--Ziplocs, Post-It Labels & Sharpie--I find myself labeling bags of food for actors with special diets, repacking bulk food items into smaller containers to save money, etc. Also, after each shopping trip, I label all of the food in the fridge with the corresponding shoot day. This allows me to easily delegate food prep to other crew members or PAs on hectic shoot days.

--Camping-Size, Adjustable Folding Table --This miniature version of the traditional folding table will pack up easily in the backseat of a small car or standard size trunk and can easily turn a parking lot space into a craft services area. Budget about $50 for one of these online.

I will often open the hatchback trunk of my small SUV, instantly turning the trunk into ongoing coffee/beverage area and provide snacks (all-day) and meals (every 5-6 hours) available on the folding table. I use a combination of the rolling cooler and a few $10 Ikea folding chairs as seats when the location is too small, when all or part of the set is "hot" and food poses a continuity danger/problem, or when locations aren't able to accommodate our crew for this purpose. So, for a mere $150, you can ensure the ability to serve food on a film set most anywhere.

While craft services and good food might seems like a luxury for low and micro-budget filmmakers, I believe that providing quality food, beverages, and snacks on set keeps morale high--especially when folks aren't being paid. From a producing standpoint, there's simply no better cost-to-value line item in my budgets.

In upcoming installments, I'll share more ideas for making greener, healthier, and relatively inexpensive menu and catering choices. Stay tuned!

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Isaac Brown

I met director Isaac Brown and producer Ana Paula Habib at the Slamdance premiere of their hour-long documentary, Terra Blight. This duo is regionally based in Jacksonville, Florida, and is committed to producing socially-conscious yet nuanced documentary films. Their latest work, Terra Blight, is a compilation documentary that sheds a light on the global impact and dangers of e-waste. Using a combination of archival, live-action, and animation, viewers meet a cast of compelling characters, including, George Laurer, a retired IBM engineer who invented of the UPC symbol; Mike Anane, a Ghanian journalist, fighting to end e-waste dumping in his country; a sales manager at CompUSA; a middle American family of computer gamers who make an annual trek to QuakeCon; and the endearing Isaiah Atta, a young boy who supports his family as a metal scavenger at and who one days hopes to become a preacher.

More essayistic in its approach than propagandistic, Terra Blight highlights both the innovation and peril brought by America's tech-obsession and desire to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest. Viewers are challenged to find their own ways to solve the film's great paradox: in a world in which we have become computer-dependent, how do we temper our addiction before it leads to self-destruction.

Below is an email conversation I had with director Isaac Brown shortly after the premiere.

Shoppers test out computers at Comp USA in Jacksonville, Florida.

At your Slamdance premiere, you described the making of Terra Blight as a four year process that began with reading news articles and culminated in a trip to Ghana. Describe for us what initially sparked your interest in this topic and how the film took shape over that process. (I'd be especially interested in your recounting one of the challenges you mentioned at Slamdance--your agonizing over the decision of whether or not to upgrade to HD and to start over shooting this project.)

I think the process of coming up with the idea/concept of Terra Blight started years before. I was a photojournalist major doing a photo essay on American waste. A couple years later, when I started making documentaries, that interest manifested itself into a project called Gimme Green. This was a 27-minute short I co-directed that explored America's obsession with the residential lawn and all the resources it takes to keep them green.

We were very successful with this project; it won over a dozen awards and screened on the Sundance Channel. When looking for another object in our everyday lives that we take for granted that we could build a film around, we naturally started gravitating toward the computer. We read numerous books, articles, and blogs and started writing a treatment/proposal.

After shooting for a year (and 20 hours of footage) on the same DVX100a that we filmed Gimme Green on, we realized that the film would be pretty dated by the time we got it done (standard def, 4x3, interlaced lines, etc). So we made the agonizing decision of starting over and investing in new equipment (the HVX200 with p2 cards).

It was painful at the time, but I'm really glad we did. I always think you should shoot a film with the nicest equipment you can manage to obtain. Our budget was small, but we put the entire thing on the screen.

Your production company, Jellyfish Smack Productions, is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. What regional influence, if any, shaped your production? Where there any challenges you had to navigate (e.g. funding, equipment, etc.) that were either hurt or helped by your FL home base?

Northeast Florida is our home, so naturally our company is based there. I love it. We have the woods, the beach and international airport 20 minutes away. (what else can you ask for?)

As far as locating funding for the project, living in Florida actually helped us. Ana [the film's producer] and I are both recipients of Florida's Individual Artist Fellowship for Media Arts. We both feel very supported by our state.

QuakeCon is the largest Local Area Network (LAN) party in North America

One of the strengths of Terra Blight is the rich cast of characters, who represent several different perspectives on the issue of computers' utility and their life cycle. How did you identify/connect with/discover the key characters in your film? Was the multi-character structure carefully planned or envisioned by you, or did this come out in the edit? How did you, from an editor's perspective, go about structuring and combining these seemingly disparate stories?

We knew from the beginning of the project that we wanted to have a rich cast of characters in Terra Blight. We very much envisioned the film as the life cycle of the computer and all the different hands that helped it along its journey. Of course we filmed many more folks than the ones that appear in the movie; the real challenge of editing was finding the narrative arc in the massive amount of footage that we accumulated. We used a lot of index cards, had dozens of conversations, and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours editing.

When I'm working with student-filmmakers, I often ask them before they embark upon a documentary project to define what impact they hope to have on their viewers--that is, what is it they hope the audience members will do after they see the film. What is the impact goal of Terra Blight? Was this goal the same when you embarked upon the project? If not, how was it shaped along the way?

We have always had the intention when making this film of raising awareness about the dangers of e-waste. We want the audience to think about all the resources it took to make their electronics, and to be responsible consumers when their machines become obsolete. Please don't just throw them away! Find a responsible recycler from www.ban.org.

We also hoped that the computer would become a metaphor for the countless products we create and dispose of at the expense of the earth.

Finally, how can interested viewers hope to see Terra Blight in the near future? How else might they connect with you and your work? And what else should we look for from you down the road?

We have just begun our distribution/outreach journey for Terra Blight. Check out www.terrablight.com to see where the film ends up. We are hoping for a traditional broadcast and plan to eventually have DVDs/streaming available.

We have a couple other projects in the works; check out Jellyfish Smack Productions to follow our future/past projects.

IsaacBrown05

And of course, like our Terra Blight page on Facebook and help us get the word out. It is going to take all of us working together to stem the tide of e-waste from flowing to the wrong places...

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Keith Miller

Paul and I returned recently from a week in Park City, where we were able to see some of the many films screening at Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. At both festivals, we encountered self-reliant filmmakers making challenging and fascinating work. So, to give blog readers a taste of some of what we encountered, we'll be posting a series of short interviews with some of the makers to highlight and showcase some of the fresh, new work out in the world. Up first is an interview with filmmaker Keith Miller, whose feature, Welcome to Pine Hill, premiered at Slamdance and took home the grand jury award for narrative feature. We corresponded via email shortly after his premiere and before his award.

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A still from Keith Miller's debut feature, WELCOME TO PINE HILL.

Welcome to Pine Hill is, as writer-director Keith Miller, put it, an example of "committed and concerned filmmaking that is engaged with social realities." Based on a real-life argument and encounter with Shannon Miller, a non-actor who portrays a character similar to himself in the film, Welcome to Pine Hill explores the disconnect between social classes in Queens and the challenges that come with trying to turn one's life around with a filmmaking approach that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Told in long takes with exceptional handheld photography, it is a moving portrait about privilege, social ties, and mortality.

Welcome to Pine Hill is also a 2011 Independent Filmmaker Lab participant and Miller's debut feature. The short film, Prince/William, that the feature expands upon can be seen on feature's Kickstarter campaign page here. SRF readers might also be interested in this video interview with director Keith Miller by Filmmaker Magazine.

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Your film, Welcome to Pine Hill, was inspired by an actual argument that you had upon meeting Shannon Harper. Because Shannon portrays a character in the film much like himself (i.e. his character's jobs are ones Shannon actually had in the past; Shannon is from the area where his character resides, etc.), I'd like to hear more about your process of collaboration with Shannon and the other actors/non-actors in the film. What kinds of input did Shannon and others contribute to scenes and/or the film's storyline? Were they involved at all in the editing process of the film? Along these same lines, you are credited as the film's screenwriter. Approximately, how much of the film was improvised/non-scripted?

Working on the short, Prince/William, Shannon and I had a number of long discussions about the implications of our initial meeting and, from these developed the basic plot for Prince/William. When we were shooting, we worked through the conversation in a number of different ways, repeating sections, until it felt like we had created the scene that we were going for.

The process of Pine Hill was a bit different. I had been planning on working with Shannon again, and he was interested, so I began writing the framework of the story based on elements from our conversations and other ideas I had for the storyline. I worked with the actors in very direct ways, both before and during the actual shooting. Before shooting I worked with them to get a sense of who they were and then talked to them about who their characters were and where we were going to go with the them.

Altogether the final script is about 30 pages. Some sequences are a single line in the script but are over ten minutes in the movie, like when he goes to the woods or after the doctor’s office when he is alone at home. Once we began shooting a scene that was not scripted I was constantly pushing the conversation in one direction or another and working with the actors in real time.

To put it bluntly, you're a white, middle class NYU arts professor telling a story about a nearly all-black cast in an impoverished area of Queens. How did you "unpack" the proverbial knapsack as you made this film? What role, if any, did the cast play in helping you navigate the racial/ethic/socio-economic spaces of the film's setting and story?

Addressing issues of race head on was one of the initial impulses for the short. This is so central to my thinking about the movie that I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post called, Who am I to tell this story?. One of the central issues for me is that discussions of race are often so gingerly touched upon that it really never gets addressed in a serious way by a lot of people. That said, I see Pine Hill more as a story about a personal journey that is set in black culture. One of the reasons I felt drawn to it was not as a window into the black world, but as an exploration of one man’s experience. In some ways, my being an outsider –being white in a black world- was one of the things that informed the storytelling process throughout. Shannon and I are very close and when we were working through scenes or discussing specific ideas, the issue of race was always present, but much more central were our many overlapping concerns, such as how he would react in a situation, what the meaning of that reaction was, what the choices were in a certain situation. When I was working with the other actors I pushed to get an intimate sense of who they were and how to most gracefully get them to put that forward with cameras rolling. Whether it was age or race, class or interests, I feel like our differences, the cast and mine, was what made me more able to work with them. The otherness that happens in front of the camera, the very artificiality of it, was what I was trying to undo; seeing that difference, between the actors and me, reality and filmed events, pushed a lot of those scenes into the space between both.

This film began as a short, which you premiered at the Rooftop Film Festival in the summer of 2010. How did you embark first upon making this film? What kinds of resources did you gather then and what additional ones were needed for the making of the feature-version?

This film was made almost completely with the energy, dedication and talent of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. We are a very tight knit group of diverse filmmakers who workshop our passion projects. So when it came time to shoot, I proposed it to them and little by little they jumped on board. Another big help, in terms of the gear, was Ed David and his Kitty Guerilla Films. Without his generosity we would have shot on iPhones or something like that.

As the project moved forward, people began to take a liking to it and offered to help in a lot of different ways. A number of my former students (from NYU’s Gallatin School) came on board; more of the BFC members offered their help. The music is from the crews’ friends’ bands and the post people came from word of mouth. Being selected for the IFP Narrative Lab was yet another another boost as both the filmmakers and the IFP crew have been extremely supportive. In the end, the making of this movie was an amazing community effort.

The film captures a number of intimate and poignant scenes (for instance, an older man "lectures" the group of men drinking beer in the backyard with Shannon, telling them how to make their life count). How, literally and figuratively, did you capture these performances? What motivation or prompts did you use with to get these scenes going?

Most of the actors had not acted before and my focus was on getting a sense of who they were and then working with them to bring that out within the context of the scene we were shooting. It was a very hands on directing style but since the takes were so long and the camaraderie genuine, the tension you could feel or the potential stiffness of some situations, quickly faded away.

In most of the ensemble scenes we were shooting with three cameras rolling simultaneously, often doing takes of up to 45 minutes. We worked together to get a sense of the camera movements, the general tone, and how we would move as a group- all three cameras, the AC, the Boom op and me. The DPs are all experienced hand-held documentary film shooters with great skills and eyes, and the ability to keep a feel for the heart of the moment.

Finally, how can interested viewers hope to see Welcome to Pine Hill in the near future? How else might they connect with you and your work?

For the moment, the best way to connect with us is through the Facebook page. We plan to be playing some more festivals soon, but are still waiting on where to go next.

Writer-director Keith Miller

A Dozen Useful, Low-Budget Camera-Related Items

As you may have gathered from Ashley's recent post about art department lifesavers we have been doing some filming lately. After several days on set, I've come to deeply appreciate some small, even seemingly minor, accessories and pieces of camera-related equipment -- "kit" in industry parlance. I thought I'd discuss a few of these items, each of which is under $200. We're using a Sony FS100, a Red Rock Micro follow focus and low-rise baseplate, an assortment of Nikon lenses, and a Heliopan variable ND filter, but many of the items listed below would be at home on a DSLR-based shoot or a shoot with a more traditional video camera (Sony EX1, Panasonic HVX200, etc).

Zip tie lens gears. Lenses that were designed for stills, not cinema, lack a gear that allows them to be used with a follow focus. One solution would have been to use the gear rings that we had from Red Rock Micro. These are functional, but they have a number of disadvantages: they're large, they can be time consuming to put on/take off, and at $40 each, they're overpriced. Zip tie lens gears are inexpensive and easy-to-add to every lens you own. Once on your lens, you can forget about them. $40 for 3. 

Wet Erase Markers A good set of wet-erase markers will help you make marks on your follow focus ring. We like wet erase, not dry erase, markers because the dry erase ones will smear. $7.

Filter pouch. Our Heliopan Variable ND filter comes in a less-than-ideal case. It's a very tight fit, to the point of seeming like it could scratch or scuff the glass. We quickly bought a filter pouch to protect our investment. $9.

77mm step up rings and lens caps. We use a 77mm variable ND filter on set, which at that size has the ability to cover all of our lenses when using step-up rings. After a few days of filming with one step-up ring per size needed (e.g., a 52-to-77, a 62-to-77, etc.) we found that we were being slowed down by having to unscrew the step-up rings from lens to lens, particularly when so many of our most-used lenses (e.g., 28, 35, 50) all had a 52mm threading. So we splurged and purchased the necessary step up rings for all of our lenses. Now all of our lenses have a 77mm "face" (and accompanying lens cap). Though step up rings seem like an inexpensive piece of kit, read the reviews and buy a reputable brand like B+W, Heliopan, etc. Lesser step up rings can seize up, making that expensive variable ND filter a big headache! Step-up rings: $25 - $45.  Lens caps: $5.

Lens cleaning tools.  We switch lenses and filters often, which means more chance of dirtying them. We keep our glass clean with: Nikon Lens Pen. $7 Kimwipes. $5 Purosol Lens Cleaner. $8

Lilliput 7" 668GL On-camera HD Monitor In 2010 I read about Lilliput's small, inexpensive HD monitors. At the time, they only seemed to be sold on Ebay. I bought one off almost as a novelty, not expecting much from it since it was so much cheaper than other HD monitors on the market. While its picture is not as vivid or high resolution as that of other portable HD monitors I've used, it works, it's lightweight, and it's far more affordable. The one I bought over a year ago didn't have a battery pack like the new ones they make, so I had to buy an Ikan battery AC/DC adapter plate, which allows me to use Sony batteries with it. The new models, which you can purchase through Amazon, now come with their own battery solution and component inputs. As for its application, I tend not to use it if I'm operating camera myself, but when working with a DP or camera operator I use it as my "director's monitor." It's especially useful when filming in tight spaces (like a car -- see below) where using your camera's LCD monitor or viewfinder isn't an option.  $170.

HDMI Cables It's nice to have different lengths of HDMI cables to use with the Lilliput monitor. I've used these Insignia brand cables on set for a few weeks and haven't had any problems. One's a 9 footer, one's a 3 footer. $10.

FilmTools Gripper 116 XL car mount. Trying to shoot smooth car footage handheld , particularly with a CMOS sensor prone to "jell-o", can be a test of one's patience. This FilmTools car mount affixes to your car's windows or windshield with a large suction cup and will support cameras up to 9 pounds. $110.

Coleman LED Quad Lantern This ingenious LED lantern can be split into four smaller LED sections, which have a functionality similar to micro Litepanels at a fraction of the cost. We've used the "quads" for driving shots by hiding them on the ceiling, in the dashboard, and on the floor. Beyond driving, they're useful for any situation where you might not have access to power and don't need to light a large area. And if you need more light than one puts off, you can gaff tape them together. Though they're not necessarily color corrected like a those designed for video use, they work great if you throw a gel on them or dial in the appropriate color balance setting on your camera. Plus, when you're not filming, the lantern can be used for camping -- you can't say that about a micro Litepanel! $58.

Two-Way Radios Or, as laymen call them, "walkie talkies." I'm usually not working on a set that's so large that we all need to be outfitted with professional two-way radios and headsets. That said, it's nice to have an inexpensive set on hand for those occasions when your cast and/or crew is in different areas. I find them essential when shooting exterior car scenes (i.e., those in which the camera's outside the car, filming actors driving). It's the easiest way I know to cue talent or ask for another take. Roughly $35-$75, depending on features.

Canare breakaway cable For the uninitiated, a breakaway cable consolidates multiple XLR and mini cables into one neat cable, which can be run from a location audio mixer to a camera (or audio recorder). Though it may seem overpriced for what is seemingly a bunch of XLR and mini plug cables wrapped together, if you're using a mixer and feeding that audio into your camera the simplicity, organization, and mobility that a breakaway cable provides is well worth the cost. In addition to feeding your camera two tracks of audio with one cable, a good breakaway cable also give the sound mixer a means to listen to the "return" audio instead of the audio from the sound mixer. This is the best way to monitor the audio being mixed, so for me it's worth the investment. $190.

15 Essential (and Inexpensive) Tools for Wardrobe, Hair, & Make-Up

Filmmakers love to talk about tools. The blog-o-sphere is rampant with posts about cameras, lights, and cinematography accessories, but despite all the attention on achieving great looking films from an equipment/technology standpoint, there is far less discussion about low-fi ways to make your film look like a million bucks via attention to wardrobe, hair, and make-up. I've recently jumped on the Mad Men bandwagon, catching up on the last four seasons. Whether you love or hate this show (a quick look at the Mad Men Wikipedia page will give a sense of the heated debates this show has provoked among critics), it's hard not to be in awe of its production values, in general, and art direction, in particular. While probably no one reading this post has the budget that Mad Men does, it doesn't mean we shouldn't attend to art direction with the same care.

Both as a film festival programmer and as a university instructor, I have seen how, all too often, art direction (much like sound design!) is neglected in first films and student films. It's easy to spot an amateur effort when gangsters are wearing Converse One-Stars (yep, I've actually seen this) or an MRI machine is made out of cardboard (After Last Season, anyone?).

A single post can't address the complex and time-consuming process of art direction--how to do it, how to do it well, and how to do it on a budget--but assuming art direction is receiving at least some of the attention it needs in your production, here are fifteen of my favorite inexpensive tools--none of them should run you more than $25--to help get you through the inevitable wardrobe, hair, and make-up emergencies:

  1. Fanny Pack -- While these might conjure memories of bad '80s fashion or annoying tourists, a good art director has essential tools on her at all times (without needing to run to find her tool bag) and needs her hands free. And, unlike decades past, you can find cute and functional fanny packs these days. Try Natural Life for styles with flair or Mountain Smith lumbar packs for a more muted look. All of the supplies/tools below should fit into your pack.
  2. Downy Wrinkle Releaser -- Wrinkles are a continuity nightmare, and on a DIY set, lugging and plugging in a clothing steamer or iron isn't practical. This spray works best on cotton or cotton blends; avoid using it on delicate fabrics (e.g. silk, satin).
  3. Mini Lint Roller -- Keep hair, link, and other fuzzies off of clothing to help preserve continuity.
  4. Mini Sewing Kit, with needle/safety pins and mini scissors. -- Fix rips, tears, or buttons right on set. In a pinch, borrow some gaffer's tape to repair a seam--I've created makeshift curtains on set with fabric and gaff tape alone.
  5. Seam Ripper -- If you have never used one of these before, prepare to be amazed! Seam rippers are specialized tools--something between a razor blade and scissors--with a very pointed tip and sharp base. Unlike scissors, the tiny point can be easily threaded under a stitch for easily cutting out seams without hurting the surrounding fabric or causing holes. Remove an annoying clothing tag, lengthen a hem, or deconstruct a garment in seconds!
  6. Flexible Body Measuring Tape-- You'd be surprised how often you can use this, either for wardrobe measurements or on loan to the camera department for focus pulling and actor marks when they've forgotten or misplaced their measuring tape.
  7. Instant Stain Remover (such as Tide To-Go mini) -- This really works on stains caused by foundation, lipstick, and coffee -- three common art emergencies. I prefer the stain remover pens to the wipes, as they don't rub the stain into the fabric.
  8. Clear Medical Tape (and/or double-sided Fashion Tape) -- Medical tape is sweat-proof and nearly invisible on skin--great for taping lavs to bare skin or securing clothing straps. Fashion tape comes in pre-cut double-sided strips and is great for invisibly holding clothing in place.
  9. Mini First Aid Kit with Blister Cushions and assortment of travel size packs of Acetaminophen/Ibuprofen/Aspirin/Pepto Bismol/Bug Repellant/Sunscreen -- The producer should have a full-blown first aid kit on set at all times, but I like to have supplies of my own for the unexpected emergency situation or when that kit is out of reach. Blister blocker band-aids are amazing for stopping blisters but can also be used to protect skin from irritation from mic packs or other costume nuisances. Having pain killers and stomach ache cures on hand is essential for keeping talent and crew happy. I also like to keep Hot Hands available for cold mornings on set.
  10. Assorted Bobby Pins -- Having a few sizes and colors (gold for blonds, black for brunettes) will help hold stray hair in place, pin back clothing, etc.
  11. Sharpies -- I use black to cover scuff marks, silver for writing on black gaffer tape, and red for when I need what I'm writing to be seen! You might want to get the mini sharpies that can be tied to lanyards for instant access around your neck.
  12. Concealer, such as Max Factor Pan Stick , to cover blemishes. This pan stick will also cover tattoos fairly well (if airbrushing isn't in your budget--ha!) and the price is right. A shine reducing, translucent powder is also make-up's best friend.
  13. Hand Sanitizer -- Alcohol based ones double as stain removers and can take out ink stains fairly well.
  14. Breath Mints or Gum -- Again, the talent will love you for this.
  15. Super Glue -- I recommend a few of the mini tubes for situations where tape won't do.

If you've got other art tools you can't live without, please let me know in the comments!

Attending to wardrobe, hair, and make-up comes with less glory (and, perhaps, on the positive side, ego) than that of Cinematographer or Director, but it's no less responsible for making the difference between a successful film and an unsuccessful one. It can make the story world credible or incredible, real or surreal. What's more essential than that?