I have to share this amazing short film I discovered recently thanks to nofilmschool.com. HENRi is a 20 minute crowd-funded sci-fi movie about a computer that builds a robot body for itself and tries to become human. It stars Margot Kidder (best known as Lois Lane in the original Superman movies) and Keir Dullea, who flips his famous role as David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey to play the titular computer. But the human characters are only a small part of this film. Shot on beautiful quarter-scale sets, the real star is the HENRi robot, realised through a combination of rod puppetry and first rate CGI. Trust me, this is one of the most unique and awesome shorts you will ever see and well worth every penny of the £1.19 rental fee.
Last month the lastest Eric Bana movie, Deadfall, was released in US cinemas. The unusual thing is that it had already been out for a month on demand. This is one of the first examples of yet another massive shift that’s occurring in the film industry.
For the first few decades of its life, cinema was unique. Then television came along. The film industry responded by introducing colour and widescreen aspect ratios to the cinema. TV eventually caught up with both of these developments. As we approached and entered the new millennium our home entertainment options were expanding exponentially. TVs are now huge, 5.1 surround sound systems are highly affordable; you can even watch 3D at home if you want.
So why go to the cinema?
Until recently, the answer was “because you have to if you don’t want to wait months for the DVD release”. This is known as the theatrical window, the time within which a film must be exclusive to cinemas, before it becomes available in other media. Many claim this system fosters piracy. After all, if you could buy or watch a film on demand for a reasonable price as soon as it’s first released, why would you pirate it?
Many others claim that without this system, cinemas would go bust. I suspect this may be true.
I will be interested to see what happens as more and films follow Deadfall’s example. Clearly the aim is to create word of mouth with the on-demand release, building the film up to the point where people will be desperate to see it on the big screen. Sorry, I mean the slightly-bigger-than-the-screen-you-have-at-home screen.
Ask yourself this: what happened to phone boxes when the infinitely convenient and flexible mobile phone became affordable? The same fate, I fear, awaits cinemas.
Because we can all have cinemas in our homes now. If we want to ban popcorn from our living rooms and pause the film whenever some weak-bladdered buffoon has to get up, we can. Or (and I’ll never, ever understand this behaviour) if we want to make phone calls and chat to our mates all through the movie, we can do that too without spoiling anyone else’s enjoyment.
The only possible reason to go to the cinema is to watch a movie on 35mm film….. Oh no, hang on… You can’t do that any more either.
Right, I’m off out to see Les Miserables. At the cinema. While I still can. If I could watch it on demand, would I? Given that it’s f**king cold outside and Hereford Odeon only seems to project digitally now, yes, I’d probably stay home and watch it on demand. A sobering thought.
A couple of weeks ago I screened the 35mm print of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot at the last FilmWorks session in Bristol. It had been about 18 months since I last ran the print, and I was shocked how much attitudes towards celluloid had changed in that time. People were acting like they hadn’t seen a roll of film in 20 years, like I was some kind of whacked-out nostalgia hippy for wanting to shoot on 35mm. (But it still looked fucking awesome on the big screen.)
Digital cinema is one of those things that’s been lurking on the horizon for ages, then suddenly, silently… it’s here, like it’s always been here. Projection of moving images from celluloid is very, very quickly becoming extinct, as is acquisition of moving images on celluloid. Suddenly the likes of Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, staunch defenders of shooting films on film, are starting to look a bit loony, although I agree with them completely.
In September Fuji announced it would cease manufacturing of film stock, leaving only Kodak in the “market”, if such a word can be applied to an unwitting monopoly.
So we’re quickly heading towards a world in which “film” is a word completely divorced from its original meaning. Plastic strips coated in light sensitive emulsion will no longer play any part in the production or consumption of “films”.
The other day I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Although I chose to see a 2D 24fps screening, Peter Jackon’s sedate trilogy has been made in 3D at 48fps. The higher frame rate produces smoother motion which most people will associate with news broadcasts and documentaries. Overall the aim seems to be to make watching a film more like experiencing real life – sharper, smoother, three-dimensional. But is that what we really go to the cinema for?
It’s not what I go for. I want the scratches and the weave and the flicker because without them there is no magic, there is no suspension of disbelief. I want escapism. I want film. It seems I’m to be disappointed for the rest of my life.
In this week’s FilmWorks masterclass one of the speakers mentioned a filmmaker whose work was the subject of repeated YouTube mash-ups. She was faced with a choice: invoke her rights and request YouTube take them down, or embrace these creative responses and re-interpretations of her work. She chose the latter, engaging with the mashers(?) and nurturing her fan community.
Following the DVD release of my 2005 feature film Soul Searcher, I became aware of numerous pirate copies floating about on the internet. My feelings were mixed. On the one hand, given the years of my life and the thousands of pounds I’d put into making the film, I was furious that people were ripping it off. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be flattered that people had thought it worth pirating. One Russian pirate (arrrrrsky!) had even gone to the trouble of dubbing it into his language, albeit doing all the voices himself without any attempt to differentiate them or act in any way.
Having spent the last year crowd-funding Stop/Eject, I am all too aware of the importance of posting free content online – like this blog, or Stop/Eject’s behind-the-scenes videos – in order to promote myself and my current projects. But promote myself to what end? Like many filmmakers, my ultimate goal is to make feature films for a living, but how can I or anyone else making a living in a world where almost all media content ever produced can be obtained, free of charge, at the click of a mouse? In the last few years I’ve already witnessed the specific type of filmmaking it’s always been my dream to work in – the kind where movies are shot on real sets with real actors on real celluloid and exhibited on real celluloid – start to disappear. But is the industry as a whole doomed to oblivion by piracy?
Maybe not. Perhaps crowd-funding demonstrates a glimmer of hope. Even though some people would rather pirate Hollywood blockbusters than pay for them, some other people will pay for independent films that haven’t even been made yet. How can we account for this dichomoty? Community engagement. Sponsors of a crowd-funded film feel part of the project in a way that they never could with the latest Tom Cruise juggernaut. Perhaps if I could have talked to that Russian pirate (arrrsky! That will never get old.) while Soul Searcher was still in production I could have involved him in the project, making him the official translator or the online publicist for Asia or something. Co-operation rather than competition. Perhaps that is the way forward.
I’ll leave you with some highlights from the Russian bootleg of Soul Searcher.
Exactly a decade ago today, I flew out to New York to serve as director of photography on Tom Muschamp’s microbudget thriller Beyond Recognition. It’s the story of Geoffrey Mills, the world’s best plastic surgeon, who gets ensnared in dangerous machinations when he refuses the mafia’s request to alter their don’s face.
To this day it remains my favourite of all the shoots I’ve been on. I was 22, I’d made The Beacon (an experience which largely led to me getting the job, I think) but I’d never DPed a feature for another director, and I’d never been to the States before.
Tom, a Brit, had met an American producer who offered to source all the locations in upstate New York and host the cast and crew at her mother’s house, which was massive in a way that only American houses can be. There is something quite post-modern about the fact that, although I was there to make a film, I was seeing and experiencing things which had hitherto been confined to films for me, like screen doors, root beer and morbid obesity.
The gaffer, the first assistant director and the runner (Tom’s cousin Ed Reed, who later production-managed Soul Searcher) travelled from the UK with Tom and I, but the cast and the rest of the crew were American. For the most part the atmosphere was fantastic. We were all young and enthusiastic and bonding over the trials of shooting an ambitious script with minimal resources in roasting temperatures – in fact “Hot in Here” by Nelly became the anthem of the shoot. Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” and Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” also have strong associations with Beyond Recognition for me, as one or other of those songs seemed to be playing on the radio every time we piled into our hired minibus to go to the next location.
I’d sent a wish-list of lighting equipment to the production team ahead of time, including several large HMIs and a whole bunch of other kit. When I arrived in New York they said, “Er… well, we’ve got the gels you asked for…” A quick trip to Home Depot was called for. I think that was my first experience of lighting with halogen work-lights, otherwise known as DIY lights. Later Tom splashed out on a set of four Arrilites, which he kindly let me keep at the end of production, and most of which I still have and use to this day.
Many scenes were shot in what became known as The Star Building – a small, disused factory in the grounds of the house we were staying in. It was full of junk, which we were constantly shifting around to enable us to film in different corners. The toilets didn’t work properly, and I distinctly remember an incident in which the first AD disappeared for a bowel movement, and shortly afterwards some suspiciously brown water started dripping from the ceiling.
There was a lot of night shooting, which was great experience for me and helped me develop the Cameron-esque blue look that would define Soul Searcher. When it came to exteriors, my memory is that daytime scenes were typically shot at night and vice versa, though God knows why. We were forever blacking out windows or setting up artificial suns.
One key thing I learnt from Beyond Recognition is the importance of having your cast and crew sign contracts before you start shooting. The lead actor was very unreliable, but made all kinds of demands once the film was in the can and Tom needed his signature on the dotted line. The lead actress was a bit ditzy as I recall, repeatedly plugging in her hair-drier at a hotel location and blowing the fuse every time because of all the lights we were running. And then there was the actor who, when we needed a bug detector as a prop, said “I’ll bring mine,” and was sent to prison a few years later when he was caught defrauding hundreds of thousands of dollars from a hide-out in the basement of the World Trade Centre. And you think I’m kidding.
Crew-wise, we seemed to splinter into two factions towards the end of the three week shoot – those who were happy to do whatever it took to get the movie made, and those who just wanted to moan and slack off (I will never understand why these people sign up to unpaid shoots in the first place). The hours were very long and there wasn’t a single day off in those three weeks, but I’m afraid that’s what micro-budget filmmaking is like. I loved it.
Like many Brits returning from the US (especially New York) for the first time, I was quite depressed afterwards and for a few months could think of little other than wanting to return to New York and how much cooler everything is over there.
But principal photography on Beyond Recognition was not over when the New York stuff wrapped. Part of the film is set in Italy, and Tom had lined up locations in the picturesque Fai della Paganella in the Dolomites. So on September 29th I was back on a plane, this time to Verona. The crew line-up had changed a bit; strangely the members of the second faction mentioned above were not invited back, and a couple more Brits joined us including Simon Ball and Max Van de Banks, both of whom I’d worked with before and who would go on to work on Soul Searcher. Ed Reed, meanwhile, had been promoted to first AD.
The Italian leg of the shoot ran smoother than the US leg, as far as I remember, although we were not popular in the town by the end of the shoot. This was mainly due to the unruly actors, who tended to help themselves to alcohol from the hotel bar (leaving money for it, I should add) and generally act like they owned the place.
I finally got my HMIs in Fai. Tom hired two 4Ks from Arri in Milan, which I used to light the town square. I also got to film a craning shot up in the mountains from a cherry-picker.
All in all, the project was an amazing experience for me, and left me with a burning desire to work far more regularly as a DP on indie films, an ambition I sadly still haven’t succeeded in. But besides helping shape Soul Searcher, both in terms of its look and Tom’s distribution experiences which I drew on when selling my film, it did lead to other work and in 2007 to my DPing Tom’s second feature, See Saw, on which I met my wife Katie.
Beyond Recognition was released on DVD in the US and other territories, but is only available in the UK as an import. I’ll leave you with the trailer.
Historically, the films that I’ve made off my own back have not been money-spinners. The Beacon clawed back only a few hundred of its £3,000 budget, Soul Searcher made money for the distributors but not the investors, and The Dark Side of the Earth‘s hellishly expensive pilot has so far failed to raise any production funding.
But at last one of my films has made a profit. Gasp! Swoon!
Which one? Ironically, the easiest and cheapest to make: The Picnic. Shot in a single day last June for £100 and running to only 140 seconds, The Picnic is about a man who turns up to a romantic picnic only to find his beloved in the arms of another man. You can watch it here.
Although it failed to win any prizes in Virgin Media Shorts, the competition for which it was made, The Picnic found another, completely unexpected source of revenue.
At a networking event late last year, I got talking to a local composer who I’d worked with indirectly several times. He told me that he was involved in writing an exam paper for music students, and that he was on the look-out for a three minute film with little or no dialogue which could be given to said students for them to compose a score to. Naturally I showed him The Picnic, and after a few months of back and forth the exam board purchased the rights to use the film.
Okay, it worked out at only £50 for each of the actors and crew, but since we weren’t expecting anything, it was a nice surprise.
When selling films on-demand on the internet became a reality a few years ago, it wasn’t that different to other modes of distribution. The filmmaker licensed the exclusive IP (internet protocol) rights to their film to the platform – Joost, Babelgum, whatever – and it was then largely up to the platform to bring in the traffic. The platform then took a big slice of the financial pie and passed the dregs onto the filmmaker.
But in the last couple of years a different model has emerged, championed both by Distrify and Dynamo Player amongst others. Their set-up is more a like a YouTube with money. You upload your film to their site, you embed the film on your own site and wherever else you want, you drive traffic to it, and they take a relatively small cut of the money the film makes. No exclusivity, no middle men, no chasing sales reports – just log in and check the stats.
Distrify in particular has two unique features that appealed to me.
Firstly, the Distrify player doesn’t just allow the viewer to watch a free trailer and pay to stream the whole film if they like what they see; it lets you sell anything you want – other films (perhaps behind-the-scenes featurettes), downloads of films or any type of file, or physical objects which you mail to the buyer like you would with eBay.
Secondly, Distrify encourages people to promote your film by giving them a cut of the profits; anyone who shares your film by embedding it on their website, posting on Facebook, etc, etc, gets a percentage of the money the film earns through this embed/post/whatever.
So what this means in practice is: if you click the Share button in the player below you can earn yourself some easy cash – a 10% cut for doing pretty much nothing….
Here are some of the lovely things reviewers have said about the film:
“A fantasy action movie in the grand style… It looks great and moves beautifully… As a statement of potential, Soul Searcher must be one of the best-value films ever made.” - The Guardian
“This is ground breaking digital film-making, it has heart and soul, and action and excitement. You should be watching this George [Lucas]! If it doesn’t get itself a cult following, I’ll eat my keyboard!” - Impact Magazine
“British low budget film at its cheekiest, but at times breathtaking, best.” - Shooting People Review
“Miles ahead of some of the multi-million dollar blockbusters I’ve seen.” - Disorder Magazine
“Oseman’s film is entertaining, beautifully directed, well acted, and spins one hell of a fantasy yarn that you’ll dig.” - Cinema Crazed
“An enjoyable triumph of a piece.” - Rogue Cinema
“Soul Searcher defies its limitations to show itself as the work of a director and his crew genuinely intent on contributing to cinema.” - Frightfest
“I’m a little bit in love with this film.” - Horror Talk
So what are you waiting for? Get on over to neiloseman.com/soulsearcher
Going to Hell is a 90 minute documentary which tells the whole tortured story of Soul Searcher’s production. This is not your typical “HBO First Look” style programme. It is not filled with actors explaining the plot of the film you’ve just watched and patting each other on the back. It’s a no-holds-barred, warts-and-all record of the many ups and downs (mostly downs) of the production. It’s like Lost in La Mancha, only Soul Searcher somehow got finished.
I was delighted to discover that Raindance selected Going to Hell as one of its top six documentaries about filmmaking, alongside such towering classics of the genre as the aforementioned Lost in La Mancha and Heart of Darkness. Read the article here.
Here’s the official Going to Hell synopsis:
In April 2002, writer-director Neil Oseman and writer-producer James Clarke set out to make an ambitious fantasy-adventure movie. Telling the story of an ordinary guy who is trained to be the new Grim Reaper, Soul Searcher requires martial arts, countless special effects and a climactic chase between a 1973 Ford Mustang and an express train to Hell. Despite the pair’s optimism and over a year of development work, they are unable to raise financing for the project. Oseman decides to go ahead with the film on a shoestring budget, and although Clarke has reservations, he agrees.
In October 2003 they begin a six week shoot, taking place almost entirely at night, with an unpaid cast and crew. They have just £7,000 in the bank. The shoot quickly becomes a nightmare with freezing temperatures, props that fall apart and a malfunctioning camera.
But the problems are just beginning. Two weeks in, Clarke quits, leaving Oseman and his heroic Assistant Director Ed Reed to carry the project. The schedule overruns, exhausting cast and crew as they shoot from 5pm to 9am more than once.
As post-production arrives, the troubles continue. Reed drops out, the money is long gone and there are 250 FX shots to complete, not to mention that Oseman is dead-set on recording the score with a real orchestra. Can he complete what may just be the most ambitious movie ever made on a five figure budget?
Also from Monday, for £3.95 you’ll be able to rent the deluxe edition of Going to Hell, which includes some invaluable “how to” featurettes for any indie filmmaker covering low tech FX, lighting, martial arts, props and sound design. That’s almost two and a half hours of content for less than £4 – bargain!
You can say what you like about digital distribution, but nothing beats the feeling of opening a box of DVDs fresh from the duplicators, all packaged with lovely covers and on-disc artwork. The download generation will really miss out on an experience there.
Yes, today the DVD dupes of Video8 and The Dark Side of the Earth: Making the Pilot arrived, so I spent the morning signing them, parcelling them up along with thank you notes and posting them to the Stop/Eject sponsors. If you contributed £50 or more and you haven’t given Sophie your address yet, then please do so because you’re missing out on your well-earned rewards otherwise.
The other thing that happened today is that Soul Searcher‘s five year distribution deal expired. If you’re interested to know how that worked out for me financially, just click on the donate button to the right and you’ll get access to an in-depth video on the subject.
As for the film’s future, I can now reveal that Soul Searcher will be online to view in full for free from next Monday Februrary 6th. Watch this space for the link.
In the mean time, here’s another DVD extra that never made it to the disc…