Logan Must Make Star Wars

Standard

Our new short film, “Logan Must Make Star Wars”, is now on the YouTubes!  (well, actually, it’s been up for a week or so, I’m just a lazy blogger).

It was a hell of an experience, as all these 48 hour movies are.  We were honored to win Best Story, Best Directing, and Best Comedy at the 10th Anniversary Almost Famous Film Challenge.

It’s probably our last 48 hour movie, as we’re moving forward into features (fingers crossed), but as both Sean Connery and Justin Bieber say … Never say never.

IMG_5164IMG_5159IMG_5169

Photo courtesy of Almost Famous Film Festival

Photo courtesy of Almost Famous Film Festival

Advertisements

Living During A Filmmaking Revolution

Standard

This blog is not so much me telling you the answers but looking to start a dialogue on the subject.  Please post your comments here or on the Squishy Studios facebook where I’ll be linking this blog.

I’ve always wanted to live during a filmmaking revolution, like the invention of sound, to see if I could have endured that time of change.  I dunno, I have a huge amount of romanticism for that age in particular.  That’s one of the reasons I love the movie The Artist.  It just seemed like such a thrilling time of invention, yet fraught with human drama.  Make no mistake, the invention of sound flipped the movie world upside down.  It ruined countless careers, put so many people out of work …  Akira Kurosawa’s brother, who worked in silent films, killed himself over this transition.

DSLR filmmaking has certainly been a revolution in low-end digital quality, but it’s nothing to the level of change that social media and the internet have created.

But the thing is, we DO live during a time of DRAMATIC revolution of the film industry.  I’m not talking about Digital vs Film.   That’s a change in the medium of “filmmaking” that’s big for the filmmakers but the audience is barely aware of.  Hell my jaw dropped to find out that virtually every film that I’ve seen here in the valley in the last few years has been a digital projection and not a film print.  DSLR filmmaking has dramatically changed the level of quality for independent productions, but it hasn’t really affected the industry itself from top to bottom.  It hasn’t affected how people watch movies.  No, I’m talking about the internet … and social media in particular.  And it’s a little less perceptible because the internet is basically changing how we do everything, not just movies.

One of the things that got me thinking about this is subject is a comment that Wil Wheaton made here. Here’s the short version, “This is the best time in history to be a creative person, because all you need is an idea and a lot of hard work. You don’t have to go impress one person who is a gatekeeper; you just have to be awesome in your own way, and get your creation in front of an audience.”

Just think about how YouTube, Netflix, internet piracy, Facebook, and Kickstarter all have changed the landscape of filmmaking.  You can now build fan bases through social media, distribute your work online, get crowd funding financing through that same fan base…

Squishy Studios isn’t so much a traditional production company, as it was originally created to be, but a true independent “studio” that exists in the new age of digital filmmaking.

Now there’s downsides to this, of course …  It means a hell of a lot more work because you now have to be your own publicity machine.  I mean seriously, promoting your work is your new full time job, with the only ray of hope being successful enough soon that you can delegate some (not all) of this stuff too.  Because now, with ten million channels out there, your greatest obstacle is obscurity.  Oh and you probably won’t get paid any time soon too …  BUT for the creative soul, who’s willing to put in a hell of a lot of work, I do in fact feel it is one of the best times to be alive.

I just wish I could get more sleep!

Making a Web Series Part 1 – Some of the Whats

Standard

Why the heck would any sane person make a web series?  That’s a legitimate question because creating of a show completely consumes your life, absorbs all of your natural resources, taxes your relationships, and in the end you’re probably never going to break even.  So why even try?  Well that’s the exact same argument against the logic of being a filmmaker in general.  So the answer?  Because you must!  (…and it’s fun)

Over the past four years or so (when everyone and their brother in Phoenix seemed to be developing a web series) I’ve seen a lot of local filmmakers make web series for the right and wrong reasons, do terribly clever things, make awful mistakes … I’m by no means a success story, my two web series are just beginning to launch, but I can share with you some of the things I’ve learned…

Director of photography Josh Gill sets up a shot with director Nathan Blackwell and actors Frank Kitchen (left) and Bret Anderson (right) for the web series "Normally This Weird"

* What is a web series?  Web series’ closest relative is a TV show.  Sometimes I like to think of it as the great-great-great grand child of the old B&W cliff-hanger serials.  But like a TV show, your audience wants to connect to the characters and return again and again to world of your show.  And because web series are like hand-made products, there’s an even closer connection that the audiences and the creators share.

* What kind of web series are out there?  Most series are fiction-based, but there’s also non-fiction shows out there as well.  Many are do-it-yourself instructional shows, like Film Riot and Indie Mogul that teach low-budget filmmaking techniques.

* What do I make my series about?  You know how there’s a billion channels on cable, which each catering to a specific niche?  Web series are the same, but with even smaller and more specific audiences.  You want to tap into the energy of a specific niche group and give them a show that they can be excited about.  The Guild, one of the most popular web series out there, is about online gamers.  The local web series Mantecoza is doing a great job of tapping into the growing and largely unrepresented genre of steampunk.  Another local series, Western X, is … well, you guessed it … a western!

Our show, Voyage Trekkers, is aimed not only at Star Trek fans (which the show is closely based off of) but people who love science fiction.  I was conscious of making sure that it wasn’t a singular parallel with Star Trek … but that there were elements of Flash Gordon, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Star Wars peppered in throughout.  Also, our promotional material is aimed at the nostalgic love of sci-fi, with old Hollywood B&W production stills, choose-your-own-adventure books, and a japanese-release version of our poster.

Production still from "Voyage Trekkers"

* What length should I make the shows?  For narrative shows with a continuing story line and developing characters, five to eight minutes seems to be the sweet spot.  Not too short and not too long.  It’s enough time to develop the meat of the characters and story, to tell a single episode story arc while continuing a season arc, and yet short enough for web attention spans.  My show Normally This Weird is like this.  There’s also more “bite sized” shows that run two or three minutes, which are more skit-oriented, and that feature the same characters but don’t necessarily have a connecting plot (like Voyage Trekkers).  I’ve noticed a lot of non-fiction shows go to ten or even fifteen minutes long, but usually they’re segment-oriented, which allow you to ingest just what interests you.

* What does it cost?  There is a huge, massive, and generally quite large difference in the costs of web shows.  Let’s just make these two distinctions then:  The No-Budget (it’s a labor of love … no one gets paid) and the Professional Low-Budget (everyone gets paid a working salary … there’s still a lot of sacrifice, but in general, it’s produced like a legitimate production with a full crew).  There are also Big Budget productions, but that’s on par with fully financed Hollywood films and out of the sphere of my reality.

The price jump of doing a No-Budget to a Professional Low-Budget can be significant.  The No-Budget pilot episode of a show, shot with family and friends and in someone’s living room, can cost five hundred bucks.  Then the very next episode, now fully financed, could easily cost eight to fifteen grand.  In fact the going rate for shows like The Guild or The Legend of Neil, who have backers like Atom.com or Microsoft, is about that amount.  The general rule of thumb is about a thousand dollars per finished minute.  At first glance (to us No-Budget filmmakers) that seems insanely expensive … but a 90 minute feature film made for $90,000 is definitely very low-budget.

I’m in the No-Budget category.  I wish I could pay people but because I’m using my own meager income, and donations from friends and family, all my budget has to go to food, props, and costumes.  We do what we do because we love it and we’re fools.  But in terms of budget, absolutely nothing is set in stone, and there’s a big variability between budgets that you can get away with.  I’ve seen single episodes shot for a thousand bucks each and I’ve also seen an entire season made for the exact same price.  It all comes down to what you can get for free, who wants to work with you, and how clever you can be with using the resources you have.

Next week I’ll continue this topic with Part Two with the nitty-gritty of the “Hows” of making a web series!

For more on Voyage Trekkers, Normally This Weird, and our other crazy movie projects, please check us out on facebook at www.facebook.com/squishystudios

Filmmaking tips for kids

Standard

One hundred and seventy-five kids at Screenwriting Day at the Phoenix Film Festival

Last Thursday I had the honor of sitting on a panel of filmmakers at the IFP/PHX Kids Day at the Phoenix Film Festival that shared their filmmaking advice and experiences with kids Grade 6 through 12.  Since I was making movies at that age, I had a ton of ideas on the subject, not all of which I had time to mention on the day.

* Write a script.  I know, this one sounds obvious but it’s was a distinct stage in our career (probably the tenth grade) when we moved away from “spontaneous filmmaking” (getting together on a Saturday and making something up) and “deliberate filmmaking” of actually planning out a story ahead of time.

* Finish the script before you shoot. I’ve committed this sin on virtually every short film I didn’t finish.  The ideas would keep ballooning until the whole thing was so out of control that it was too much work to complete.

* Keep it short.  Eight or ten minutes is a good rule of thumb.  I can remember distinctly, as my ambition grew, so did the page counts of these stories …  Twenty-five pages, forty-pages, even seventy pages …  And none of these projects were finished.

* Treat the script like it’s a stage of the filmmaking process. Too often we’d finish the first draft of the script and then immediately film it.  Don’t be afraid to show it to people, to get feedback, and then rewrite it.  This is one of those pieces of advice that I didn’t do when I was young.  Instead, I always felt like I had to keep the story a secret so that people would be surprised when the movie came out.  Rewriting is key to improving your script.

Our Tenth Anniversary poster for our Blackwell Moo-Vs (1997)

* Work with actors you don’t know. You’d be surprised how rewarding working with someone your age who’s had theater training will be.  And how much better it’ll make your movie!

* Have a premiere. Even though you can put online right away, it’s still fun to get your friends together at somebody’s house and give the film a proper debut.  Plus, in-person feedback is ALWAYS more important than online comments.

* Put it online.  Use social websites to get your movie out there and to develop your fan base.  Sharing it with classmates and people your age.

* Submit to film festivals.  There are a number of film festivals that have student categories and this is a great way to get your movie out there.

* Experiment with camera techniques. You can create different emotions with the way you use the camera.  Tilts, movement, close-ups, pans, hand-held, P.O.V.s, etc.

* Have good sound. This is a huge hurdle a lot of early filmmakers struggle with.  Really try to get good audio from the actors in the scenes, because nothing is more distracting than bad audio in a movie.

* Make music. Or get someone else to make it.  Using copyrighted music, which will honestly probably sound better than anything else you could come up with, is prohibited by many sites and film festivals.  Plus it’s a vital part of the filmmaking process.

* See movies by other people your age. Either online or at film festivals, this is a great way to inspire new ideas, learn filmmaking techniques, and to get a little healthy competition going in your blood.

* Do timed challenges. Like 48 hour challenges where you have to write, shoot, and edit a movie in just two days.  These can be fun and it forces you to work very quickly.

* Push yourself to grow. If you’ve decided to become a filmmaker, push yourself into new learning experiences.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Direct something you didn’t write, write something for someone else to direct, act in someone else’s movie, try a totally different genre than what you’re used to.

—–

Lastly, I thought I’d include an abridged filmography of my earlier filmmaking endeavors.  For the full list check out my blog post “Before Squishy Studios.”


Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Black Sheba (1987; age eleven, Grade  4)

My first real movie.  Indiana Jones (played by me) must recover the legendary Black Sheba idol, doing battle with the villians who oppose him.  The best parts have to be Gabe as the Bartender, our “parachute” special effects, the gun fight, the walking through the jungle, mom’s hand in one shot, and the whip effect.  Not to mention Logan as the ever smiling villain.  Shot on Super 8.

Bo’s Bo (1991; age 15, Grade Eight)

The epitome of amateur filmmaking, we had a cool prop and made an entire movie about it.  But in our case, our “cool prop” was a large stick (AKA a japanese “bo”).  The synopsis is this:  Gabe beats people with his bo staff.  We made a restaurant/bar out our living room.  We had this great worms-eye-view shot of Gabe holding out his bo and we turned on the title effect Gabe’s camera could do (using the same effect we used in “The Little Game” with the monster).

Star Trek: Episode One (1991; age 15, Grade Eight)

Our first shoot that extended beyond a one day attention-span.  Craig, Jason and I star as crew members of an underdog cargo freighter, the USS Calgary as we encounter the adventures real Star Trek crews wouldn’t bother scraping off their shoes.

Death:  The Movie (1993; age 17, Grade 10)

In this paean to senseless violence, Gabe O’Bryan plays a karate mentor who is assassinated because of…some reason.  With the success of “That Dirty Rat”, prat falls and falling comedy was in, and “Death: The Movie” is smothered in it!  The fighting music you hear is from “Street Fighter II”, cranked up on the TV behind us.  For Gabe’s legendary head-smashing scene, you can notice beforehand that we had him fill his mouth with a lot of ketchup and tomato juice.

Intruder (1994; age 17, Grade 11)

Made without dialogue as part of an assignment in my video production class, this is the first movie I ever made to show to an audience I didn’t know.  I can still remember feeling the charge it gave me.  I star as some sort of evil guy who fights the likes of two students, leaving bodies in my path.  We zip from location to location across South Mountain High School, to behind the stages of the drama theater hall.

Joe Spade:  Ace Detective (1994; age 18. Grade 11)

Our big scripted epic.  A murder has been committed and Joe Spade Ace Detective, has been hired to solve it …  unfortunately, however, he’s the most clueless person on the planet.  It was the first “mmo-V” to extensively use editing and music, the first to use actors outside our circle of friends, and not only exceeded the typical “one day concept/same day shoot” doctrine, it stretched five to seven days of production (memories a little foggy here) with (gasp) a the first Moo-V to actually have a completed script!  In addition to all this, Joe Spade was also the very first Moo-V to be screened by a mass audience who were not directly related to the people involved.

Immortals [unfinished] (1995; age 19, Grade 12)

The most epic and notorious unfinished Moo-V in existence.  The race of immortals, a group of being who’ve harnessed special powers that have allowed themselves to transcend human evolution is being threatened as someone is slowly killing them off.  “Immortals” is an adventure into pretentious dramatic speeches, a lot of fighting scenes, and gallons of special effects sequences that had no chance of being completed.  It was cast completely with actors outside of our “stock troupe”, from the drama department of South Mountain High School.  This Moo-V is so pivotal because it bit off not only more than it could chew, it bit ten times off more than it could chew!   Directed by Nathan Blackwell and Bracken Batson.


Duct tape and chicken wire

Standard

Squishy Studios is all about scrappy, do-it-yourself filmmaking.  We’ve never had much resources to make our movies (budget, equipment, etc.), even compared to some of our equally broke filmmaking peers.  I’ve always been proud with what we’ve been able to pull off.  But I don’t think this “duck tape and chicken wire” approach can be solely attributed to my meager income (although that’s certainly a factor!).  I think it comes down to a philosophical difference in what making movies means to us.  Or to me, at any rate.

I don’t know, I worry that putting more time and money into a single endeavor is a better way to impress people who may potentially hire you.  That creating a meticulously crafted and slickly presented piece is a more successful route for the advancement of one’s career.  A “calling card” film, if you will.

That may be one of my problems, that that’s a secondary goal to me.  The first being that I just want “to play.”  I want to be an author that create worlds and stories.  Instead of a telling single story I’d rather tell several for the same amount of money.

The heady days of film school - "Without Allies" 1996

In film school students usually don’t make a lot of films.  Maybe three or four.  And their big senior thesis film … their “Capstone” or TCM275 project … can easily cost $2,000 or more.  At USC, where the pressure to stand above the crowd is even greater, we’re now talking tens of thousands of bucks.  And don’t get me wrong, these things look great.  And they’re fantastic calling cards.

My problem with this is that “story” and “character” take a long, long time to master.  Storytelling is THE craft of moviemaking, in my humble opinion.  But by doing so few films, you’ve barely stretched your wings as an artist.  More than cinematography, it’s the storytelling that will set you apart from other filmmakers.  Or at least that’s my thinking.  Maybe I’m wrong.  It’s not like we don’t want to impress these potential people who could hire us — we DO want that very much!  A career in filmmaking is the ultimate goal.

The combined budget of  five our movies, “The Lords of Dragonhoth”, “The Hand You’re Dealt”, “Until the End of Everything”, “Masters of Daring”, and “Zombie Team Building”, is approximately $1,400.  We’re currently shooting forty minutes of new “Normally This Weird” episodes for a dollar sum even less than that.  Maybe this is a testament to our low-budget knack, but the reason I bring it up is that it’s also a design observation.  There are of course sacrifices we make by going this route.  We never have all the equipment, we don’t have the make things look perfect … we basically have to run and gun.  And with any kind of sacrifice you do give something up.

This “choice”, which I don’t know think was ever really consciously choice, has come out of the simple desire to tell as many stories as possible.  It just seems more fun, really.