FilmWorks, the networked professional development scheme I’ve been on for the last few months, came to an end this Wednesday with a big event at the Watershed in Bristol. The fifteen of us “native” to the Bristol hub were joined by the 30 participants from the other two hubs – Sheffield and Nottingham, plus a number of invited industry figures who would all be mercilessly pitched to throughout the day.
Stop/Eject is the project I have been focusing on throughout FilmWorks, but somehow in the last few weeks The Dark Side of the Earth – a project that’s been on the back burner for a while – returned to the fore. I was lucky enough to be able to screen the 35mm pilot for this epic fantasy-adventure in the Watershed’s biggest cinema to all the participants and mentors. When it came to the speed-pitching session at the heart of the day’s event, having arrived without any fixed ideas, I ended up covering both Dark Side and Stop/Eject, but with the emphasis on the former.
The event ended FilmWorks on a real high, after some mixed feelings for me earlier on. I have to confess that there were weeks when I didn’t want to go to Bristol and hear yet again how hard the industry is to crack into, how it’s full of catch 22s, how the statistical likelihood of getting into festivals is so tiny… It was seriously depressing me. But what always picked me up were the other participants. It was inspirational to be surrounded by so many talented and enthusiastic people, and triply so when the other hubs joined us this week.
And that networking is the biggest thing I’m taking away from FilmWorks. Right now I can’t tell exactly how these contacts will help me in the future, but I have no doubt whatsoever that they will.
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 make 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.
Cooking MCs like a pound of bacon, and so on and so forth.
This week’s FilmWorks session was called “How to Succeed at Not Doing Everything” – i.e. how to collaborate. This session really chimed with me. Like many low budget filmmakers, I suspect, I can be something of a control freak and have only recently been letting go of certain key roles within my productions.
On my 2002 action movie The Beacon I was writer, director, producer, director of photography, camera operator, focus puller, editor, visual effects artist, sound designer, sound mixer and colourist. Since then I’ve been gradually letting go of roles and almost without exception the results have been good. Giving someone a job to do and getting results that exceed my expectations is one of the most enjoyable aspects of filmmaking for me now. Neil Douek’s sound mix of Soul Searcher was light years beyond my efforts on The Beacon, and on The Dark Side of the Earth when I turned over both sound design and mixing to Henning Knoepfel, I was rewarded with a soundtrack beyond anything I could have imagined.
The roles I’ve clung onto the longest are (co-)writing, (co-)producing, DPing and editing. The writing and producing are down to the necessities of unpaid filmmaking; I’ve always hated both of these roles. I kid myself that the same is true of DPing, but it’s probably more due to an over-inflated opinion of my own abilities. Yes, I’m fairly certain that I’m a better DP than I am a director, but to think that no-one else could have DPed Stop/Eject to a good standard with limited time and equipment was somewhat egotistical.
This year, for the first time ever, I’ve handed over the editing of a project to someone else – Miguel Ferros is now working on a cut of Stop/Eject. Although I was initially resistant to the idea, I now feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I eagerly anticipate Miguel’s cut.
Gratifyingly, I’ve recently been hired by a couple of different writer-producers to direct their shorts. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to direct and only direct. (More on these projects on the blog in due course.)
To close with, here’s a simple example of the perils of not collaborating. This week I recorded a line of ADR on my Zoom H1. Coming from a technical background, when faced with a technical task and an artistic task to do simultaneously, the former gets priority unless I make a conscious effort otherwise. So I was focused on the technical quality of the recording, and only noticed on playing back the material at home that I had failed to give the actress an important piece of direction. Had someone else been operating the recorder for me, I would have caught this mistake.
Fortunately the main ADR session is yet to come. At which someone else will be pressing the buttons.
Working on my Stop/Ejectmood reel for FilmWorks last week got me thinking about the various methods with which a director can convey his vision for a film during the development process. Here are the ways I’ve used over the years, and the pros and cons of each.
The first ones are all static images, so they can be printed out and thus viewed without the need for any technology (no worries about whether the recipient will be able to open this particular file format) but are also small enough to be emailed. They’ll never grab someone’s attention as much as a moving image, but take less time to absorb and can produce an instant reaction.
If you have the skills or know someone who does, high quality CONCEPT ART can dazzle and excite. Choose dramatic moments and give the artist guidance on the colour palette and lighting you’re after.
You wouldn’t get STORYBOARDS out at an initial pitch, but they’ll impress at a second or third meeting. They show you’ve thought carefully about the script and how you’re going to put it on screen. This is particularly valuable if you have complex action or FX sequences. Beware that if the person you’re pitching to thinks the script needs more work, they’ll see storyboards as jumping the gun. Get the script right first.
A MOOD BOARD is a scrapbook or montage of images from films and/or other artforms that represent the tone and style of your piece. Less skill is required to make one of these than concept art or storyboards, and although as a creative person you may balk at the implication that your film is unoriginal, execs will find it very useful to compare your project to previous ones. If you use images from a film that did poor box office, again expect tough questions about why your movie won’t fail too.
A variation on this is a BOOKLET which might contain some of the above, plus photos and biogs of attached or wish-list actors, a synopsis, a director’s statement and maybe even an outline budget. Ian Tomlinson, The Dark Side of the Earth’s incredibly talented production designer, came up with the period-style leaflets pictured at left to promote the project. In one of my Cannes video blogs you can see a bit of these leaflets. (Sadly they’re now all gone and they got quite time-consuming and expensive to produce.)
Now we’ll look at moving images. Nowadays these aren’t prohibitively expensive to produce, and can be distributed for next-to-nothing via the internet – but beware of techy problems on the other end. Even YouTube doesn’t always work. If the person you’re sending it to can’t open it, they’ll probably give up and move onto something else, perhaps without even telling you why. Frankly I reckon you’re always safer with a DVD. Playing it off a laptop, tablet computer or iPhone in a meeting is a bad idea. Execs are narrow-minded and will see your project as a cheap YouTube video rather than a big, cinematic venture. Plus the sound will be awful. In another of my Cannes vlogs I discussed the dilemma of whether it’s better to show your pilot with poor picture and sound or not at all.
Beware that many of the above materials will start giving the recipient thoughts about the budget. If your materials make it look like your vision will be expensive, be prepared to answer tough questions about that.
TEASER TRAILERS can be very useful for raising crowd-funding, but my feeling is that they’re not great for attracting conventional financing. Unless you’re going to chuck a hell of a lot of money at it and get an experienced trailer editor to cut it, the danger that a teaser trailer will look amateur and backfire is significant. You’d be better off with a rip reel.
PILOTS can also backfire. You can’t shoot it on a DSLR with a few hundred quid, then screen it at your pitch meeting and say, “The film will look like this, only better.” You have to shoot it with the production values you want the full film to have. That’s why my pilot for The Dark Side of the Earth was shot on 35mm anamorphic, and why we insist that anyone wanting to view it attends a screening of the print, rather than watching a crappy little quicktime or even a DVD. When you’re in that darkened screening room with the 5.1 track rumbling away and the image looking jaw-droppingly beautiful, only then are you doing your film-to-be justice.
Consider making a stand-alone SHORT FILM instead. My greatest regret with the Dark Side pilot is that we didn’t do this; we just took a couple of scenes from the middle of the screenplay and added an introductory voiceover and concept art montage to explain the story so far. It’s far and away my best work, but no-one’s seen it! If only I could have entered it into film festivals. Even if that hadn’t helped get the feature funded, it would have been great exposure for me and perhaps could have led to another of my projects getting made.
Another thing I tried for Dark Side before making the pilot was PREVIZ. These are filmed or animated storyboards, normally created once a project is greenlit to help plan and budget for FX, but they may also have value as part of a pitch, particularly if you want to prove you’re on top of how the FX will be achieved. The Dark Sides previz was shot with action figures and cardboard models and I’d certainly never screen them in a pitch meeting; I did them mainly for my own benefit. If they’re for a pitch, get a good CG animator on the case.
Finally, I once read about a filmmaker who created an AUDIO PITCH consisting of her own voice narrating the synopsis, mixed with music and sound effects. Whatever technology and skills you can access to best get your vision across, that’s what you’ve got to do. But remember, it has to be top quality or you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
What methods have you used to get your vision across?
This Wednesday saw the second session of FilmWorks, the “networked professional development” scheme which I’m on. In the masterclass section, Chris Hainsworth (managing director of AV Pictures) and Christopher Simon (producer of The Sweeney) talked about all the things you can do when developing a film project to attract pre-sales and financing. I must confess I found this a bit depressing, because they were all things I’d done with one of my feature projects, The Dark Side of the Earth, and I still haven’t been able to get it off the ground. I had the production designer create pages of fantastic concept art and a beautiful leaflet containing images, a director’s statement and a synopsis. I attached Benedict Cumberbatch, and shot a very expensive 35mm anamorphic pilot with him. I developed the script for years and hired a well-respected script editor to fine-tune it with me. The producer and I went to Cannes two years in a row and pitched to some big companies. And still the project remains unfinanced. (Although the pilot isn’t online, there are images and loads of behind-the-scenes videos at www.darksideoftheearth.com.)
It was heartening at least to find that I hadn’t been doing it all wrong. As a new director, no matter how many hoops you jump through, you will always be a tough sell. And luck will always play a large part – having just the right project with just the right elements that the person you’re pitching to is looking for at that moment.
The second half of the evening was much more positive for me. Even though I felt my mood reel was rushed, several people had nice things to say about it and wanted to hear more about my current project, Stop/Eject. And it’s a joy to hear more about everyone else’s projects as the course progresses. Already the seeds of future collaborations are being sown, and I have no doubt that this will be the greatest legacy of the course. It’s just a shame that the sessions seem to end just as they really feel like they’re getting going. At least they end for me, as like Cinderella I have to run off at nine on the dot in order to catch my train back to deepest, darkest Hairy Ford. I think I may have to start sucking it up and getting the later train, even though it means I won’t get home until after 2am.
A few days ago I re-read the FilmWorks homework instructions and noticed the hitherto-unnoticed word “edit” lurking after the phrase “mood reel“. Cue mad dash around the DVD shops of Hereford, frantic googling for software that will rip region 1 discs and even filming YouTube videos off my computer screen. I fear the technical aspect of the exercise may have overshadowed the creative one, but anyway here it is:
It’s probably the most random thing I’ve ever edited, but I can already see its value. Mashing up the romantic drama genre with sci-fi is not easy, and the Venn Diagram of audience demographics for those two genres has little overlap. I see the audience for Stop/Eject being males 25-45 and a wider female audience of 14-45.
Despite the difficulties, some films have straddled the genre gap successfully, The Adjustment Bureau being the best example to my mind. Sci-fi is at its best when using fantastic devices and situations to explore the human condition, and if I can pull off a moving personal drama against a fantasy backdrop it should be quite powerful. I think this is nicely encapsulated by Stop/Eject’s tagline: “What would you rewind?” – a classic “what if?” type question.
Last week I was delighted to be accepted onto FilmWorks, a fast-track development scheme for regional filmmakers, based at the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol. As part of the programme we’re encouraged to blog about our progress on the FilmWorks site, and I’ll be duplicating some if not all of those blogs right here on neiloseman.com, starting now.
FilmWorks kicked off this week with a masterclass on developing an idea. “Where do you get your ideas from?” is never an easy question to answer, but the speakers had plenty of interesting things to say on the subject. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Peter Lord, co-director of Chicken Run and Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! Apart from a few FX shots in my feature Soul Searcher I haven’t worked with stop motion animators, but I’ve always admired and been fascinated by their art. Peter was very open and generous with his knowledge when I briefly chatted to him, which seems to be the spirit of FilmWorks.
The masterclass introduced me to mood reels, montages of clips from other films which demonstrate the tone and style of a project you’re pitching. In the past I’ve used concept art, scrapbooks, videomatics and even once a full-blown 35mm demo scene (see darksideoftheearth.com), but I never thought of just half-inching other people’s films!
The workshop session afterwards was mostly about us participants getting to know each other. The organisers have pulled together a nice mix of people and I’m sure we can all learn a thing or two from each other.
As the session drew to a close, it was time to focus on our own projects. In my case it’s Stop/Eject, a fantasy-drama about a bereaved woman who finds a mysterious old cassette recorder that can stop and rewind time – but can she undo her husband’s death? Currently it’s a short film in postproduction, but co-writer Tommy Draper and I have just embarked on the development of a feature-length version.
And what would be on my mood reel? Films that cover similar ground in terms of emotion, tone and story elements include The Adjustment Bureau, The Time Traveller’s Wife, A Thousand Kisses Deep, P.S. I Love You and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ll continue to ponder this.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading up on my fellow FilmWorks participants, checking out their websites and watching their work. (Hmmm, sounds a bit like creepy cyberstalking.) I particularly enjoyed Matt Freeth’s short, Luke and the Void, which you can check out here.