Rules For Beginning Filmmakers

25 06 2010

Michael Kammes, over at the aptly named michaelkammes.com, has a great post from a column that he wrote for POST Magazine. It’s basically a list of all of the stupid stuff that young filmmakers tend to do in their interviews for jobs. It’s definitely worth a read for everyone because he points out some really basic concepts that many new filmmakers — either DIYers looking to get hired on something that will pay the bills, or students just fresh out of school having never really been out in the Real World — just simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn.

What is his number one?

Be on time or early. I am absolutely amazed at how little this is followed. Yes, I know there is traffic. Yes I know there is rain. But that means nothing to the person who has 5 meetings after the one with you. Show respect to them and their project. Be on time or early.

That is also one of my pet peeves. It is completely true that someone who shows up late one day on a set is rarely asked back for a second day. There are pretty much no excuses which are acceptable. I’m convinced that that’s why there’s the food truck (the infamous “Roach Coach”) on set bright and early — way before call time. They say it’s to make sure that crew members don’t wander off looking for breakfast, but I think it’s because so many of us leave so early to avoid being late to call time that we end up getting to set pretty early.  And, therefore, need to put something in our mouths to distract us.

If you’re working on a big film, then holding up a shoot is costing tens of thousands of dollars each hour. If you’re working on a low budget film, then holding up a shoot is stealing coverage from the director. If I’m not at a mix because I’m late, I can’t contribute to it — including the note that the director may have given me at midnight one time that only I know about.

Besides, it’s damned rude.

Another very wise rule from Mr. Kammes:

Understand the processes outside of your concentration. What you work with is a direct result of what the previous department did; just as the next step in the post process relies on you doing things correctly. Someone will mess a step up – and you need to be able to track it down. [Emphasis is mine.]

That’s what collaboration is all about. Those of us who have worked in editing are usually the people who work with the end credits. As a result, we know better than most, just how many shoulders we stand on in order to do our jobs well and look great. So, it’s better to understand just what the lab printing process is, or the pulldown changes that the sound department needs to incorporate into their work. That way, when we talk to them we show that we care about what they need from us in order to do their job well.  And we can gain their respect. That respect means a lot more to them than how smart we are, when we have to call them in the middle of a tough day of shooting to ask them to re-send some paperwork, or to discuss a potential problem.

So… scoot on over to Michael’s Scott’s site to get some smart talkin’.



Top Film Schools and… uh… film schools

25 06 2010

Shane Rivers, over at Only Good Movies has an article called “Top Film Schools” which, while a little too broad for my taste, is a great little list of film schools across the nation. He has something interesting in it, which also talks about film schools that have acting programs. This is great, because I find that one of the things that most scares incoming students is working with actors.

In point of fact, USC has an entire acting school, which collaborates well with our film school but has one really big problem — pretty much everyone in the school is the same age as the students making our movies. This means that our students need to go outside of the school in order to do stories with anyone over 30 or under 18.  Narrow range, for sure.

However, Shane’s point is very well taken. I think I learned as much about editing as I did about acting, when I sat in on an acting class for a couple of years.



Telling Stories Without Getting Hung Up in Technology

16 06 2010

2 Reel Guys - a videocast from Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn

The biggest thing that attracted me to teach at USC full time, when I started there eight years ago, was the fact that the Dean told me that our mission was not to teach better toys (though we certainly have to teach technology) but to teach better storytelling.

I don’t know a single filmmaker who thinks that their job is to play with technology. Ask any cinematographer, editor, sound designer, production designer, actor, producer, director, etc. what they do for a living — and they’ll tell you that they’re storytellers.

So, it’s been a great disappointment that there is about fifty times more web content about what buttons you’d push then why you’d push those buttons. Sure, I learn a lot from video tutorials — I watch them all the time. I learn a ton from casts like Film Riot and Avid Screencast, as well as videos from Larry Jordan, Ripple Training, Lynda and more. But it pained me that there is so little out there about why you’d use a certain lens to tell a story, what costume designers do to help a script, how silence and sound work to push the meaning of a script, and more.

About a year ago, Larry Jordan (FCP guru, trainer and co-host of the necessary-to-listen-t0 show The Digital Production Buzz) and I were talking about working together, and it occurred to me that, together, we could create just such a videocast. Now, Larry is way more comfortable in front of a camera than I am, but I’ve been doing teaching and speaking for years, and had developed a number of very teachable concepts about story construction that I’d written about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT. Surely, we could pool our overlapping talents and come up with something that could help fill that gap.

Well, thanks to the support of Avid Technology, we’ve been able to do just that. We’ve already shot, and are finishing, 20 episodes of a new videocast called 2 Reel Guys in which we talk about the concepts of the Lean Forward Moment in storytelling. Each episode deals with a different aspect of how to use the initial storytelling concepts that we talk about in the first two episodes. Some of the concepts that we deal with (in 6-10 minutes each) include: how to work with actors, how sound design and camera techniques can help enforce the story that you want to tell. We’ll talk about editing, costume design, collaboration and much much more over the run of the series (which will hopefully go beyond these first 20). Starting yesterday, we’ve released the first two episodes of 2 Reel Guys, and we’ll unleash a new episode every two weeks — on the first and the fifteenth of each month. It’s the start of something which is quite exciting to me — bringing the concepts that we’ve been working with and teaching for years — to you; all for the low low cost of nothing.

That’s right. You can leave your wallets at the door (or on your night table, whichever is safer).

Give it a try and leave comments on our website.



Working With New Muscle Memory

15 06 2010

The new release of Avid’s Media Composer 5.0 has a ton of little interface changes in it, some of which initially made me crazy as I continually had to remember what they were (Steve Cohen has a great tutorial up on his blip.tv page which is well worth a viewing).

This got me to thinking about how most filmmakers who I know have to develop a set of learned reactions in order to their job properly. As editors we learn the NLE tools when we’re first exposed to them (whether it’s Media Composer, FCP, Premier, After Effects or any software tool) and develop a muscle memory about how to best use those tools. Keyboard shortcuts are just the most obvious examples of these, but even something as simple as figuring the best way to create an overlap or L-cut, where picture and track are not edited at the same frame. (Naturally, Steve has a great tutorial on a trick for doing this at the end of a sequence). Over the course of time, we build up a repertoire of methods and techniques that help us to do our job more quickly and efficiently, allowing us to think more and do the mechanics less.

But, like annual releases of cars, every new release of a piece of software introduces new features and it’s way too easy to ignore them and simply continue doing our work in the Good Old Way. This means that the NLE that is released in 2010 is not the NLE that I learned on in, let’s say, 2007 (though, truth be told, I learned my NLEs waaaay earlier than that — don’t ask). But we’re probably still editing with it as if it’s 2007.

In one of the editors’ groups that I’m a member of, I’m continually amazed at how many of us didn’t know the feature that another one of us is using. The same goes for many of my students at USC — the way that they taught themselves FCP in high school is the way they’re using it today — even though it’s changed since FCP5.

The problem, in my mind, is muscle memory. Our brain and body have been trained to think and act in a certain way, and it is damned hard to get them to work in any other way. It’s not a trait peculiar to filmmakers, of course. People drive the same route to work every day, have the same eating habits as they did when the got out of college, and maintain many of the same traits — for better or for worse — as ten years ago. It’s why my mother still can’t text people and it’s why we all misspell or misuse the same words year in and year out.

But that muscle memory tends to get in the way all too often and one of the chief responsibilities of a good filmmaker today is to keep on disrupting that muscle memory. If we’ve figured out an efficient way of lighting for 35mm film, we may need to relearn the methods when we move to HD-DSLR. Every time I finish a job it feels like I have to relearn the tools all over again.

And that’s because we do.

A responsible filmmaker must spend way more time teaching him or herself new technologies, new interfaces, and new methods before, during and after every job. At this past weekend’s EditFestNY conference, the editors of AVATAR talked about how the production was literally inventing the technology as they went along. By its very necessity, they had to create new muscle memories all the time. Most of us are not so directly challenged in our daily work, and we rarely are given leave by our employers to experiment. Our jobs reward doing things in established ways. There’s very little room for learning new methods and the mistakes that generally come with that exploration.

But, to my mind, the way in which we thrive as filmmakers is to continually put those shortcuts and workflows aside periodically and asking ourselves what could be done differently. We need to go to user group meetings, read blogs and view videos, to force ourselves to see how others work.

It’s how we’re going to keep useful to new employers and excited by our work.

=============

Speaking of user groups, the geniuses at the Final Cut Pro User Group (notably Mike Horton and Dan Berube) are putting on the first ever Supermeet in Boston later this month — June 25th to be exact. There’s going to be some exciting presentations there, including some CS5 and Canon HD-DSLR workshops (remember what I said about muscle memory). and it’s only fifteen bucks!!

You should hustle on over to the supermeet.com website and learn more about the program and the details about it. Supermeets are always a bundle of fun and, if you live in the Northeast, you should wend your way to Boston on the 25th.



The One NLE To Rule Them All

9 06 2010

No, no, no.  I  don’t think that there’s one editing platform that rules over everything.  And I never have felt that way. When I edited on film, there were debates as to whether a Moviola upright was superior to a flatbed (too noisy!!  too assistant intensive!!) and I used both.  And once people moved increasingly over to the flatbeds, there were debates as to whether the KEM or Steenbeck or Moviola was the best. And I used them all.

So, this argument about Final Cut and Avid tires me out.  I feel old.  I’ve been there and done that. And I use them both.

Avid's Media Composer 5.0But one thing that the imminent release of Avid Media Composer 5.0 (this Thursday, June 10th) brings to mind is just how much we want our editing machines to do exactly what we want them do. There is a tremendous amount to like in this great improvement to MC (as we cool and insufferable editors like to call it).  Personally, I love the new stereo tracks — which enable me to save great amounts of screen real estate and put keyframes and volume graphic moves on both channels of a stereo sound simultaneously. And I like how I can mix and match frame rates, raster sizes and a slew of other crazy stuff that I don’t really understand, right in my timeline without doing complicated conversions.  Oh, the conversions are still there, but now I don’t have to do them — MC does them  in the background for  me.

I’m lazy like that. And I don’t really understand it well enough to not be lazy.

But some of the coolest things in the new release are not really new, they’ve been in Final Cut for a while — editing directly in the timeline without switching back and  forth between Avid’s modes, for instance. Personally, I like the old trim mode in Media Composer, but if you’re used to dragging and dropping on the Final Cut timeline, this is going to seem very familiar to you.

Another thing that I really like in the new Media Composer is that I can edit directly in QuickTime, without conversion or transcoding to Avid Media files. Yeah, just like Final Cut does. I can also edit Red files directly, along with AVCHD and P2 and XDCamEX. But that QuickTime editing is great.

So, now (to a great degree) I can have some of what I like in Final Cut right inside Media Composer.

It gets even better.  Though I haven’t tested it yet (Boris!!  Are you listening??) Boris released a video today talking  about a new product that they’ve got coming out called Boris AAF Transfer. If this software lives up to its hype, it will make it very easy to edit a sequence in Final Cut and export the timeline to Media Composer and easily relink everything to the original media without complicated transcoding. In fact, with Avid’s QuickTime AMA (new in 5.0), you can simply link the transferred timeline back to the original FCP media and — voilá — you’ve got an Avid Media Composer project ready for editing, finishing, sound work or whatever you want to do.

For years, people have been doing a similar thing using Wes Plate’s awesome Automatic Duck, though it did take a few more contortions and is twice the price of Boris’s solution. Without testing Boris AAF Transfer it’s  impossible to know whether it can handle sequences of the complexity that Automatic Duck does. Wes’ plug-in has been so reliable for so long that it’s hard to imagine that Boris’ 1.0 version can come  close.

But Boris has been doing fantastic FX plug-ins for FCP and Avid (many of their effects come standard with the full version of Media Composer — sorry students) that it’s an exciting development. Often I go for their plug-ins over Apple’s or Avid’s.  So I am encouraged and hopeful.

And that leads me back to my original point. What I’ve observed over the years is not how different editing systems are, but how similar. When Avid was just starting, they looked over the shoulder of companies like Lightworks and saw that — holy splice mark Batman!! — you could actually edit in the timeline. And, lo and behold, trim mode was born. When Randy Ubillos, creator of the original Adobe Premiere, first created what would become Final Cut Pro, he was able to take a look at what both Premiere and Media Composer were doing wrong, think hard, and improve on them (Lightworks was, by then, a non-competitor). And now, with every release of each NLE, they’re looking at what their competitors are doing better than they are, and putting it into their own software.

No one knew they needed “select to the  right” until FCP introduced it. It is now in  MC (since 4.0 or thereabouts).

So, in my opinion, there is not “one NLE to rule them all.” The best NLE is  all of them together, especially when there are companies like Boris and Automatic Duck to build bridges between them. Especially when companies like Avid take a look at what Apple and Red and others are doing, and put it in their software. Especially when there are editors out there who keep on pushing those companies to create better and better NLEs.

[Don’t even get me started on Get. Though not as cool as Avid’s ScriptSync, it is so way cool that there were editors at a recent LAFCPUG meeting ready to throw down their hard-to-come-by-recession-dollars for a copy.]

What we want, when you really get down to it, are our favorite companies out there — Apple, Adobe, Avid, Sony, and a host of others — to keep running scared and looking at others who are doing  great innovation and trying to figure out how to do it themselves.

Then I can have one or two or three of them sitting on my Mac, and move effortlessly between them.  Then it won’t be the software that will rule, it will be the Mac sitting on my desk that will be the one true NLE to rule them all.



Help Me Interview 5 Great Editors

7 06 2010

This coming Friday night (June 11, 2010), I’m going to be running the opening night panel at EditFestNY enititled “The Lean Forward Moment” (try and guess where we got that title from) during which I’m going to be interviewing five great editors: Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E. (Sex and the City 1 and 2), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Precious, Junebug),  Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Remember Me, Chocolat, The Sixth Sense),  Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), and Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Wrestler).

Now, here’s where you can get involved.  First off, if you’re in the area, register for this two-day event.  It’s going to be well worth your while and, honestly, with the discounts for students, or many user groups (both FCP and Avid) you’ll more than get your money’s worth — cocktails on Friday, pizza and beer on Saturday, along with some great panels.

But here’s another way that you can involved.  I am going to ask each of the panelists to show a scene from a film that influenced that filmmakers, and then all six of us are going  to talk about it. Here is a preview (the first look — never before announced) at what you’ll see if you’re there:

  1. Michael Berenbaum is showing the opening sequence from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, directed by Sergio Leone and edited by Nino Baragli in
  2. Joe Klotz is showing an early scene from DOG DAY AFTERNOON, directed by Sidney Lumet and edited by Dede Allen in 1975
  3. Andy Mondshein is showing the last scene from BONNIE AND CLYDE, directed by Arthur Penn and edited by Dede Allen (again!!  how fitting) in 1967,
  4. Sandy Morse is showing the opening of THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, directed by Julian Schnabel and edited by Juliette Welfling in 2007,
  5. Andrew Weisblum is showing the “birth of the hula hoop” scene from THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, directed by Joel Coen and edited by Thom Noble in 1994.

Whether you’re going to be at EditFestNY or not, what I’d love for you to do is submit questions for these editors.  I’ll select a few and ask them for you.  What is it that you’d like to know about that scene or how it affected each of these editors.  You can submit the questions here, or tweet them to me on Twitter.  My name there is @schnittman.