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The Value of Working for Free


Equating a Labor of Love with Actual Labor

I’m writing this while the survival of something close to my heart – the intimate Los Angeles Theater – is being placed in jeopardy. There are many conflicting values under sincere debate and the future of a cultural scene is being brought into question. At the heart of the debate lies a single idea:

How do we value and respect the creative work of others, or of ourselves?

The battle is being fought between two divided camps of a mix of professional actors. One insists that a skill or craft which is unionized is ipso-facto a wage-paying position, and whenever that skill or craft is deployed that it’s strictly a labor issue. The other camp wants a protected union space in which they can hone their craft, and make connections with other professionals, doing work which is more interesting to them than making any specific wage. The stakes of this debate – the union which bargains collectively for stage actors, Actors’ Equity Association, is attempting to change the agreement which small theaters in LA work under, and that change will force the operating expenses for small theaters to increase substantially as they require the stipended actors who work on our stages to be paid minimum wage for all rehearsals and performances.

I should state for the record my bias – I’ve been a member of Sacred Fools Theater (www.sacredfools.org), one of the intimate theaters which will be affected by this change, for six years and have been one of its co-artistic directors for two (although please note: I do not speak for them here). I believe in paying creative people for their work but I also believe that creative people should have a safe room to hone their craft, and I’m concerned that the capitalist impulse of always making money is about to discourage innovation and homogenize a rich and textured cultural scene.

Me for Hire, Me for Free

I was 19 years old when I got my first paid entertainment job – designing, fabricating, and teaching the application of special effects techniques and prosthetics for a full-time horror attraction called “Terror on Church Street” in Downtown Orlando, FL. It was a week of all-nighters (after my day job and college) for which I netted a healthy $200 or thereabouts for a few weeks of work. When it was over, the attraction opened, I was physically and emotionally spent in ways I’d scarcely known before, and I was glad for a valuable resume piece but more happy the experience was over.

Terror

That was the first of many such makeup jobs that lasted until I quit doing makeup and focused on directing, a pursuit which is still ongoing. In the course of that time, I’ve been lucky enough to work professionally in film and theater in a multitude of positions. Sometimes for pay (both good and not-so-good), sometimes for free, sometimes in that netherworld between the two which I mentioned before, a stipend.

Over time I got used to what it was like to be a freelancer in an entertainment pursuit: we bring our skill-set, experience, and (on the best gigs) taste to the table in order to help someone else achieve his or her goals – and those goals are frequently economic. Sometimes I’m lucky and my creative goals line up with those of the people hiring me and work gets to feel like play for a while. Sometimes my personal opinions about things aren’t of interest to the employer. Sometimes the process of creating a film or TV show creates unbelievable amounts of gray-hair-and-ulcer-inducing stress that I wish I’d chosen something more predictable and boring to do with my life. But that feeling never lasts after the job is over.

And when the professional work has gotten me down, I’ve consistently had an outlet in place that grounds me, reminds me why I love all of these forms of storytelling.

Intimate theater.

Intimate theater is a place where all of the creative crafts have a unique opportunity to come together and stretch. Risk. Even fail. When one fails and there’s big money on the line, companies go bankrupt. Heads roll. In the creative fields, our work needs to be honed, our crafts challenged.

Because we want to practice our crafts, exploitation runs rampant among producers who want to make money and lower expenses. So, as in every profession, unions emerge to allow for collective bargaining and to make sure that performers’ treatment is held to a proper standard.

Occupationset

The set for my current play, “Occupation.” http://www.sacredfools.org

99 Seats

In Los Angeles, there are a handful of large theaters who do amazing work like the Mark Taper Forum, the Kirk Douglas Theater, the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Geffen. And then there are a handful or less of mid-sized theaters and a universe of small theaters. The designation of “99 seats” stems from a lawsuit decades ago when stage actors sued their own union (Actors Equity Association/AEA) to be able to practice their art on their own time for personal enrichment and one of those small stipends for pay. In addition, they get all the protections of a union including things like turnaround time, restrictions on the number of hours and days they can work in a row, guaranteed breaks, and numerous other things that aren’t guaranteed in nonunion theaters.

EquityLogo

And the actors who audition for and appear in these shows, it should be noted, are doing so voluntarily. They are often professionals with impressive credits who are willing to audition for the opportunity to work on these shows. For personal enrichment. To make new connections. Because they like the material. Because even though creating though acting (and writing and directing) is a vocation, most of us got into this line of work because we actually enjoy the process.

And an ecosystem has emerged in LA that, although far from perfect, is a landscape where theater projects ranging from the most commercial to the most experimental can find a home and – if they’re good – an audience. One of the things I love about Sacred Fools is the broad range – from experimental to very commercial – which our company attempts to do and hopefully succeeds at. Shows such as WatsonA Kind of Love Story, and Absolutely Filthy have been born in our late-night Saturday anything-goes show Serial Killers and have ended up on our mainstage, published, touring, and/or winning awards outside of our community. Original show such as Louis and Keeley Live at the Sahara and Stoneface have moved to larger venues and bigger budgets, creating professional jobs for AEA actors as well as directors, designers, stagehands, etc. And Sacred Fools is only one theater in the city. Countless productions have begun at these small houses all over LA and gone on to larger productions, movie deals, on and on.

stoneface

One of literally hundreds of productions which began life at a 99-seat house and moved up to larger Equity contracts. Would “Stoneface” be worth the risk if it cost $18,000 more than it did?

 

And to reiterate, these productions are being done by people – often union people – voluntarily and under a contract approved by the union decades ago.

But the new AEA agreement, the one I mentioned before requiring actors to be paid minimum wage, has broad implications. For instance, for 6-8 weeks of rehearsal and a 4-6 week run, each actor would go from being paid a stipend of $7-$15 per show (so around $150 for the full run) to around $2,000. So for example a show with fifteen actors in it begins life at a baseline budget of $30,000 in a town where current waiver budgets tend to sit between $1,500 and $10,000 – and those theaters are generally staffed with all-volunteer (or equally-stipended) craftspeople and designers, and profits are generally funneled into keeping the theaters open – a task which frequently requires almost-constant fundraising to accomplish.

This new agreement is a move which proponents assert will change attitudes which devalue the work of actors, and opponents (of which I number myself one) argue that will break the backs of small theaters across LA, leaving the same number of AEA actors making a living wage but far fewer of them working.

Rising Action

I’m not going to dig into the minutiae of this issue here. I have close friends in both sides of this debate, and there is much written about it. I’m also not going to ascribe cynicism to those who want actors to be paid – I want actors to be paid too, and treated fairly, and given full union protections. What actors do isn’t an easy job and I couldn’t do it. I really want to lay out my non-actorly opinion here as to why I fundamentally disagree with AEA’s position that all creative pursuits – even ones which fall under the rubric of a labor union – aren’t profit-centric pursuits.

Now I’m not a member of AEA, but I am a member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and when I work in film, television, commercials, or the internet – basically everything besides stage – my employer must be a signatory. This guarantees all the same workplace and compensation regulations that every other union from the United Auto Workers to The Teamsters would fight for, albeit adjusted for the quirks of the entertainment business.

But a funny thing has happened to the major guilds in the motion picture industry over the last 10 or so years: Digital filmmaking, the rise of online platforms like YouTube and Vimeo and Funnyordie.com. Higher-quality picture and sound in inexpensive gear. And actors, writers, directors, producers, DP’s, art directors, composers, on and on who worked on bigger projects were suddenly able to achieve great results with fewer resources and oddly enough that could lead to more professional work. So the unions created “New Media” agreements so – for instance – my friend Bob DeRosa and I could go create a web series on our own time with our own money without having to spend thousands of dollars upfront to make the project “legit.” It’s an experiment and it could lead to something else or dead end into nothing. So if Bob and I had to pay everyone who was willing to donate a day or two to us a full living wage, we probably wouldn’t bother because we can’t afford to do that.

Working for free has allowed many people I know – and myself – to work on a lot of exciting projects and meet some great people. It has, repeatedly, led to people getting full paid work on many occasions and when I’m casting paid acting positions I often start by bringing in the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with on these “free” projects.

So Does This Really Help Actors?

As I’ve spoken to friends who want to see AEA pass this resolution, I believe it comes down to respect. And obviously paying people is a form of respect.

This is the bottom-line issue in my opinion. Obviously, nobody’s going to turn down more money, especially when they were willing to work for free. But can actors support themselves on minimum wage in LA (currently $9/hour)? Possibly, but not really. Especially when they’d be making minimum wage for no more than 20-24 hours per week on most of the shows I’ve worked on, then maybe another eight to twelve for performance weeks. So, with $216 in their pockets for a week of rehearsals and $108 for performance weeks, actors would still likely need another job in order to survive.

I would prefer to believe that this wage, then, is not designed to break the backs of LA’s intimate theaters, but consider that rehearsals for a 10-member cast would cost a theater $2,160 per week at this rate. So in order to pay for this, theaters would need to radically alter their current fundraising strategies. And given that most of these theaters are staffed with actors (Sacred Fools has a core company of around 140 members, most of whom are actors), this would mean for many a shift from volunteering to act to volunteering to fundraise, step up the grant application process, teach classes, and find other ways to bring money into the theaters. In other words, stop treating them like the creative sandboxes which they currently are, and start treating them like the businesses which they were never meant to be. There seems to be a pervasive belief that there’s money in this kind of theater that’s willfully not being spent on actors, and this assertion is simply not the case. But if it’s even a concern, AEA could require even more transparency with the financials of any of these theaters than it already does. Solutions abound, but AEA is not currently discussing anything but the impending contract – nor did it sit down with LA’s intimate theaters and discuss what might be mutually beneficial.

And if this contract goes into effect, the alternatives for union actors who want to continue in intimate theater – quitting AEA entirely or going Financial Core – would mean that they would be working in the same spaces with zero protections.

I know it’s obvious, but I’ll say this here – the arts aren’t a fixed skill set one takes a class in, then gets a job performing. They’re an evolving set of ever-changing skills, driven by personal taste and what audiences want. Driven by passions, ambitions, impulses, and an itch to tell a story.

Denouement

I would feel differently about this entire issue if this came up from within the ranks of LA’s AEA membership and they went on strike against the 99-seat houses rather than what actually happened: AEA actors marching against their own union’s current leadership.

We joined these theaters because we didn’t want the weight of the professional world and predictable execution on our shoulders every time we undertook a creative process even if we wanted to work with professionals. And with due respect, these theaters exist because, although revivals of “Oklahoma” will always pack in a crowd, many of us share the vision that theater can be a great place to try new ideas and explore creative paths which might not be lined with gold.

Everyone in LA knows that there are plenty of theaters who abuse the current contract, and I would support AEA in cracking down on them. I would support AEA on tweaking the contract in such a way that it steered 99-seat houses down roads that would help them become full professional houses in the next several years.

But if, in trying to course-correct, LA loses a slew of its workhorse small theaters, I believe the quest to respect actors will have robbed our community of one of its richest resources.

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Anatomy of a 20-Year-Old Thing


Pardon my Complete Self-Indulgence…

Sometimes I write these things to get big ideas out of my head, and to me, this is a big idea even if it’s nestled in something really small, something you’ve probably never seen, but something which was a huge obsession of mine for a few years.

Disposable Work

Here's a thing my mother painted  and my sister had turned into a t-shirt.

Here’s a thing my mother painted
and my sister had turned into a t-shirt.

I grew up in a household that loved art and artistic pursuits. My father has been involved in music and broadcasting his entire life. My mother Vici Rock, who passed away in 1995, was a painter, a weaver, and occasionally liked to draw or sculpt. Would she have self-identified as an artist? It’s hard to say, but it’s something she spent a great deal of time doing. She had aptitudes, interests, motifs, and obsessions like any artist, she had specific media she preferred to work with. And wherever we lived when I was a kid, there was always her “studio” space, an art/slop room where she could make her stuff.

But there was something I never understood about her – she was entirely unsentimental about her own work. When my father (from whom she’d divorced in 1987) had his house foreclosed upon in the early 1990’s with a bunch of her original art still in it, she didn’t bother to save her own work from the dumpster. I went and grabbed a bunch of it, and when I told her she was both touched and confused. Why did I care to save some of her work if she didn’t even want it anymore?

And from my side, I couldn’t understand why anyone would work so hard on something only to not care if it still existed. Maybe that’s one for my therapist.

Digital Hoarding

Although it can be debated whether filmmaking is actually an art per se, it’s my creative pursuit. I’ve been making films since I was a teenager, and unlike my mother I have, perhaps unhealthily so, a need to keep all the work I’ve ever done. Seriously, I had a crisis a few months ago about deleting the raw footage I’d shot for a delivered work-for-hire (I deleted it). And since making films requires a lot more energy, cooperation, and frankly money than drawing or painting, I suspect it would be impossible for me to amass a studio-full of dumpster-ready films. Besides, the final product of making a film is a movie itself – whether it’s on celluloid, tape, or digital in it’s creation and exhibition, the thing the film is on (the tape, film, or hard drive) is hardly the art itself. It’s just an artifact if not a work of art.

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Photo by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt

When I started making films – which doesn’t seem like that long ago – in order to have the video or digital version, you’d have to shoot on film, then take the product to a transfer house and spend a lot of money to transfer the film to some crappy standard-def tape (like U-Matic 3/4″ or Beta SP), then go to a very very expensive post house to edit it. They’d use another expensive thing called a “video capture card” to bring your footage into the Nonlinear Editing system (NLE), and then you’d pay by the hour, day, or week to edit until you were done and output to another tape that you had no way of watching at home without taking it to a duplication house and striking horrible VHS copies at $3 – $5 apiece. Did this process cost a lot of money? Yes. Was it clunky by today’s standards? You bet. But for me it beat the alternative – cutting on actual film, finishing that way as well, getting a negative cut and then striking a low-contrast print so that could be transferred expensively to video and still look like a transferred print.

If I lost you in all that tech, suffice it to say that the things anyone can do today with almost any camera that shoots video, almost any computer, and a basic YouTube or Vimeo account involved multiple, expensive, compromised steps to accomplish just ten to twenty years ago. It required money, patience, persistence, technical knowhow, more money, a good sense of humor, and some more money.

Today, with relatively little gear, millions have shot and distributed their own short films, video essays, and (on Vimeo, anyway) a few too many beautiful timelapse videos to count. It’s axiomatic: When there’s a barrier to entry, most people don’t even try.

21st Century Digital Boy

TZMag

For me, in film school I saw that the video path, although clunky, was the way I wanted to go, so all of my work at least has alway existed in some tape-based medium, but remember what I said about a tape that I couldn’t play at home? Well, that tape format was Beta SP, and that’s how I’d finished my senior thesis film in college, “Meeting Mr. Subian.” The 27-minute-long short film (yes, I know that’s pretty fucking long for a short) began life as a short story published in Twilight Zone Magazine, a great source in the mid to late 1980’s for genre fiction and creepy topics in general.

And in 1988, I found that short story to be something I wanted to see made into a film. Sometime in 1992 I dug the magazine up, called Information in New York City, got the numbers for a handful of people named Roger Parson, and the Twilight Zone writer was the second one I whom I called. Despite it being late in NYC at the time, we opened a dialogue and Parson himself adapted his short story to screenplay format. I pitched it to my alma mater, the VCC film program (an Associate of Science degree program, where students learned how to be crew on film shoots rather than directors, writers, producers, or DP’s), and when the head of that program Ralph Clemente approved I was off to the races.

Here is the film (special thanks to Brian Wallis for transferring this for me!):

We shot in late March and early April of 1994. I remember Kurt Cobain killing himself in the middle of our shoot. I won’t bore you with production details as I don’t know if I have any behind-the-scenes shots to show anyway. All I will say is that it cost about $7,000 to get it in the can (all shooting expenses, film stock, processing, video transfer, etc.). We shot the whole thing in Orlando, Florida and several scenes – all of which seem painfully obvious to me now – at the Universal Studios “backlot,” several professional-looking sets which the studio was always nice enough to let film students shoot on so visitors to the park could  go back to Albuquerque and tell everyone they saw a real movie getting made.

I can’t stress this enough: The people at Universal Studios Florida were unbelievably cool to us.

Remember what I said about more money? Finishing the film for a 16mm print (required at the time by most festivals) was expensive as well, about another $4,000 to match the negative back to the video edit, to print all the credits on photopositives and shoot them on an animation stand, to transfer the amazing stereo mix that sound designer Jeremy Gilleece had done to a tinny mono optical track, lots of gnashing of teeth, dreaming of a time that all of this would be accomplishable without these stupid fucking steps, and frame rate conversions.

We were done some time in 1996. And probably the last time I might have watched the film in its entirety would have been 1997 or 1998 – before I came out to LA, before I ever got paid to shoot a frame of film or video or digital-file-based-whatever as we do today.

Creative Autopsy

Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to put pretty much every film I’ve ever made online. There are lots of reasons to do something like this, but a big one is that The Cloud will be with us for the forseeable future, but BetaSP decks won’t. Years ago I’d transferred almost everything I’d ever made to a format suitable for cutting into a reel or sharing online, but had never done the same with “Meeting Mr. Subian.” Why? It was long, and the idea of streaming a 27-minute short was anathema to the conventional wisdom of what people would tolerate online. Also, Subian had been a massive learning process for me but obviously I would do almost everything differently today if I were to undertake the same project, and it’s always scary to open one’s self up to the possibility that someone would see this kind of work and assume that’s what I still do. I wasn’t embarrassed by it, but the process of making this film had moved me past where I was when I began the process, and watching it reminded me of what it was like to not know the stuff I’d come to know.

Beta_tape_sizes_2

The Plastic Cage – Work trapped on obsolete tapes.

But while thinking about putting this stuff up (and in part, goaded into it by Joe Lynch and Adam Green on their podcast The Movie Crypt), it made me think of my mother, that room full of her art, her just letting it disappear. Watching this film today I feel like a completely different filmmaker and human being than I was twenty years ago, and yet it’s fun to see the film that as far as I was concerned in 1994 would be my greatest creative achievement (and by the time it was finished, I hoped that wouldn’t be the case). What it lacks in the kind of story and directing craft I hope I have developed somewhat since then (and still have a long way to go), it makes up in intense ambition. In film school, many of us thought that if we just made a great short at the end of our education that we might get it into the right festival, seen by the right executive or agent, and that our career might be made or broken by our choices at the student-film level.

Watching the film today, I can remember how I wanted to pour every idea I ever had about cinema into a single film. I thought intensely about composition and camera placement, camera movement, pacing, etc. I really didn’t know much about working with actors at the time and making this film made me realize that pretty much nothing is as important on-set than knowing how to talk to actors and that that’s a craft nobody ever perfects.

I don’t know if you, who are reading this, have the same endurance to sit through a 20-year-old artifact such as this, but I’m glad that we have places to preserve them, even just for posterity, today.

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Somebody Steal This Idea (No, Really)


Direct Approach

I’ve often trumpeted Shot Designer from the aspirationally-named, Vegas-based company “Hollywood Camera Work” as the best app I’ve ever found for directing. It runs on iOS, Android, Mac, and PC and helps me to generate really fast overheads for any scene, and plan out my shots and shotlists from there, and share them in a variety of useful ways. It even lets me schedule the order of my shots (although that’s more of a 1st AD thing, and I don’t really see a whole hell of a lot of apps out there for 1st AD’s). I really love this app, I use it on every shoot I ever direct.

future BF

A full Shot Designer breakdown for a short I directed a few weeks back

But it’s not the only app of its kind – Cinemek Storyboard Composer is a neat way to generate relatively-simple shooting boards on one’s iOS device, and there are a bunch of great shotlist utilities, most notably Shot Lister.

Sidenote: if you specifically need storyboards and accuracy is important (and often it isn’t), there’s really no substitute for learning to draw. Or better yet, hire a professional storyboard artist like Anthony Liberatore for instance. Nothing summarizes it better than this:

how_to_draw_an_owl

Whoever wrote this is a genius.

Frankly, I’d rather spend 10 years in life drawing classes learning to be an illustrator than dick around endlessly with something like Frameforge 3D Studio (and don’t think I haven’t tried) trying to make something like my vision appear out of that half-a-loaf of a CGI program. Nothing like trying to be creative with your camera placement after 10 hours of building clunky virtual sets, rigging characters, and trying to use un-user-friendly posing tools on characters which flop around with a computer-generated dead weight.

Celtx, an aggressive young company gunning to be the go-to appiverse for top-to-bottom writing and preproduction has a few promising previz tools and a shotlisting utility within its writing app which allows the user to tag key words in the script and add shots in a separate box off to the side.

It’s not a bad idea – the best I’ve seen thus far – but if I may be so bold Celtx, I believe this utility is missing the point. And the point is touchy-feely.

Tactile Integration

That’s right, touching stuff. Making this process less like an analytical staring contest with a script like making a prop list, and more like a creative interaction, a tool for interpreting the script. Here, for instance, is the jumping-off point I currently use in order to turn a few thousand words into very few actual shots (from the script “Oblivion” – long before the Tom Cruise movie – written by megagenius Bob DeRosa):

photo

Click to enlarge. I’ll Explain.

In film school one of my teachers – I believe it might have been Ralph Clemente – introduced me to this technique which is a straight-up bastardization of what Script Supervisors do. Quite simply, while preparing for a shoot, you take the script and a pencil (or pen if you’re adventurous or don’t make any mistakes) and a ruler, and you draw lines on your script. Here’s how it works:

  • Each line represents a single shot.
  • Each line extends from the moment where you want the shot to start and stops where you want the shot to end (the arrows on my script indicate that they continue from page to page).
  • Off to the side of each line, the director annotates what the shot is. Master shot? Steadicam? Handheld? Insert? How specific or how general is up to the individual director, but often dictated by how much blank space one has in the margins to write.

It’s simple, it’s a little fun, and I believe it does what every process in filmmaking should do – it forces one to meditate on the script and constantly ask one’s self, “what does the script ask for right here?”

One App To Do All of This

And so it was, in the spring of 2003, I first had the idea that a computer program could do all this. And I’m not a computer programmer, but I went ahead and wrote up the idea – a comprehensive program (what we called an App when it had to run on a bulky computer), and as a non-computer-programmer set out to find a home for this idea.

I called it “Vision,” and outlined an idea that began with drawing interactive lines onto a script in any word processor or PDF, and extrapolated from that a shotlist which was as detailed or basic as the director wanted it to be.

How it Would Work

Imagine this – you have a script, you click (or in the app world, tap) where you want a shot to start, zoom down through the script to where you want it to end. The line is editable, and when you click on it you get a world of options – Check boxes for the size of the shot (wide, medium, closeup, 2-shot, profile, etc.), text entry for what lens you might use. Style of movement (Sticks, Handheld, Steadicam, Dolly, Slider, Jib Arm, Crane, you-name-it), as well as any other director-ish stuff (reference photos, storyboards, color palette, speed of movement, etc.). Each of those lines becomes a shot in a shotlist, which might be all you need; but I had ideas about where this program could grow from there. I wanted to create ways to track a character’s arc through color and lensing right in there. That kind of stuff.

The shotlist generated by this script-centric process could be expanded into overheads (not unlike the Shot Designer overheads), and ultimately to a pre-Frameforge 3D application to build actual storyboards. This would all be done in a dynamically-connected script, now a step closer to unlocking the creative potential of the film. My problem – I don’t know shit about computer programming.
And it sure looks hard.

The furthest I got back then was to pitch the makers of Final Draft. They were at the time the only company I could think of which was focusing on the creative act of filmmaking. Maybe I should have pitched Movie Magic/Entertainment Partners, but my Final Draft meeting was somewhat disheartening and left me wondering if I was wasting my time thinking about what kind of software would benefit directors.

FD

I forgot how we used to get software in large boxes.

In a nutshell, what the very friendly and nice gentleman from Final Draft said to me was this: “How many directors are there who would actually buy this product?” You see, according to Final Draft-guy, there were tens of thousands of aspiring writers who wanted to buy their $250 software, but how many aspiring directors were there?

I pointed out that in addition to all the working pros in features, television, commercials, industrial video, and hobbyists –  how many film schools there were, and that this could be something that every aspiring director in film school would very much want.

He countered that every individual director has a unique way they approach material and that there is no codified way to appeal to all of them. This is true, I countered, but many if not most of them start with a script and create shooting plans based mostly on what’s on the page. And again, I may have my own way of applying this technique but I sure as shit didn’t make it up.

Final Draft-man was unimpressed, and sent me on my merry way.

Then a few years later, Frameforge came out and I sincerely tried to make it my go-to application for previsualization, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to lay the foundation FF demands, before you get to the creative stuff.

Then a few years after that, the iPad was born, and it seemed like a promising platform to build something like this on. I mean, touching the actual script to do this seems like an equal-or-better way to do start than the ruler-and-pencil way I break down shots to this day.

Then film apps started popping up. Cinemek. Shot Lister. Shot Designer. Even Final Draft got into the app act a few years back and this idea seemed like an inevitability. But, alas, nobody has yet to create the tactile interactive script breakdown tool. And I’ve brought it up to a few of the companies listed above. One suggested I use a script supervision app called “Script Lines.”

screen480x480

Script Lines – goddamnit this is so close!

That app is a start, but it’s not designed for directors. This thing should be a creative tool, not an analytic report. Directing, and especially the act of creatively breaking apart something like a script to shoot it, needs to be an act of expression and not executing a checklist. It’s a dynamic and creative process and should be treated as such.

I feel like if I was more of a salesman, I could sell this. The merits to me are quite clear. But I’d rather be a filmmaker than a salesman (if only sales wasn’t a huge part of being a filmmaker –  a topic for another post…), and I want to see this thing exist.

So… Wanna Make It?

Is this a “million dollar idea?” No idea. Maybe in 2003 if Final Draft had decided that directors were a market worth selling stuff to, it might have been the first to market – and it could also suffer from the bloat, unremarkable updating process, and high price still associated with FD.

As of now, a lot of the tools – except this most important and script-driven one in my opinion – already exist and many of them tend to languish without updates for long periods of time, so maybe FD was right and people don’t want this. Or maybe they’re all missing this simple link. And simplicity is the key, along with scalability. What I continue to love about Shot Designer is how within 10 minutes of ever hearing of the app, anyone can sit down and start using it. I’d like to see that happen here. Does anyone else want to see it happen now?

I know there are some filmmakers who also design apps out there. Like Stu Maschwitz or John August, both of whom create software for niche user groups at a reasonable price. Maybe I need to be more pushy with this concept, whose time has come.

If this actually reaches anyone in the app-development world and you have any desire to discuss this concept, reach out to me. If you decide to steal it, please let me know – I’d like to be on the beta team or even consult in its creation. If anyone actually wants to partner on this, I’m all ears and would love to see this thing in the world.

Whether it’s something that is bound to make lots of money or not, 11 years later I still believe there’s a market for it, that there’s value in it, and that it’s an inevitability. Wanna make it happen?

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So I Made a Podcast…


Lend Me Your Ears

As I’ve said before, the first time I stuck earbuds in my ears and fired up a podcast (I think it was the Slate Magazine daily podcast at the time), I had a “where has this been all my life” moment. Today I barely listen to the radio – I listen to podcasts – I’m currently subscribed to 72 of them. Filmmaking, news, science, NPR shows, visual effects, awesome horror short stories, on and on. I’ve even blogged a few times about podcasts that I believe filmmakers should consider listening to. And now I’m making one of my own. CP_White_Inner_Glow_HRC_Image

A What?

Shortly after I bought my first iPod (I want to say around 2006) and discovered podcasts, my good friend and fellow camera geek Illya Friedman was working at the now-defunct Dalsa Digital Cinema offices in LA. In these pre-RED days, Dalsa was the only camera capable of the coveted 4K resolution, a sort of holy grail at the time for digital cameras to reach in order to (theoretically) equal the majesty of celluloid. Dalsa had tackled the problem by creating a pretty awesome custom 4K chip and then encasing it in a rather large camera-shaped computer called the Dalsa Origin – not exactly the most practical thing in the field. But they did their best.

dalsa_side

Large and In Charge – the Dalsa Origin

 

But the massive, bone-breaking, cumbersome size of the anvil-with-a-lens-like camera aside, big-time DP’s were intrigued by the possibility of a digital workflow that equaled or surpassed the quality of film.

And as Illya laid out for me the virtual who’s-who of cinematographers who came to check out the new camera, it occurred to me that Dalsa could easily own the cinematography space in the podcast world, so I suggested to Illya that Dalsa start a cinematography podcast.

Not a podcast, I said, about Dalsa – but a podcast about cinematography underwritten by Dalsa. Really, they’d just have to provide two microphones and some office space, I could do the rest because that’s all you really need to produce a podcast. Introduce the thing with some information about Dalsa, interview lots of cinematographers, maybe plug Dalsa again at the end. It would be a podcast about creative process, I said, not a podcast about Dalsa. Great marketing and PR, letting people know that Dalsa was on the cutting-est of edges with their shiny new podcast.

“What’s a podcast?” Illya asked.

Why Cinematography?

It wasn’t long before the RED One camera came out with a great PR push and a more production-friendly workflow and form factor, marginalizing Dalsa’s giant Origin camera and even its follow-up, the Evolution. Then the company, known for high-end sensors for satellites and spy planes and such, left the cinema business for good.

Illya worked for a few other companies before going all entrepreneurial in 2009 with his innovative MTF to PL mount adapter (basically allowing professional movie lenses to be put onto digital cameras anyone can buy for under $3,000). And by then Illya knew what a podcast was and the value it might have for his business, so we resurrected the idea of doing one except now for his cool, scrappy, cutting-edge company Hot Rod Cameras.

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Birth of an empire – the Hotrod PL Adapter

Also, in the intervening years, podcasts – which I would never say had gone “mainstream,” had at least become something more common and listenership was gaining. Household names like Adam Carolla were casting aside terrestrial and even satellite radio in favor of building their own audiences and listeners were getting used to the idea of long-form interviews. By the time Illya and I revisited this idea in 2010, comedian Marc Maron had reinvented his career with his groundbreaking WTF podcast, and the subjects covered in the podcast world were vast.

And yet cinematography was sorely underrepresented.

And as a new breed of digital cinematographers tackled the visual image with vigor, there were some good podcasts out there but none that (in my opinion) were covering what I wanted to hear covered. That is the art, craft, and philosophy of the moving image rather than the tech. For the best in camera tech, I would suggest checking out The RC or That Post Show (which, despite it’s moniker, talks about a lot of camera and production tech).

Basically, we wanted a conversational, WTF-style approach to the medium that was unbound by time constraints and hopefully evergreen in content because creative processes, art, and problem solving are pretty common issues that all creative types need to tackle.

And although I’m not a cinematographer myself, I enjoy shooting and I find the work of great cinematographers to be alchemy of the highest order and I want to understand it. So in our “free” time Illya and I (we’re co-hosting the thing) have finally resurrected and published the 7-year-old idea and you can get it for free. Now. My good friend and frequent collaborator Kays Alatrakchi provides all the music – he’s the best and you should hire him for your next project.

And you should.

Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts (I personally use the awesome app Downcast, which I think is far superior to Apple’s clunky alternative). If you like what you hear, give us a rating. Leave a review. Leave us suggestions – we want to improve it and make it more what people are looking to hear.

Currently there are 3 episodes up – featuring in-depth interviews with Jason Wingrove, Chris Chomyn ASC, and Frazer Bradshaw – and we have more in the can and are working through them as we go. I hope you enjoy it!

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What’s On Second?


My 1st Foray 2nd Unit

Being a freelancer in the entertainment business in LA (as I have since 2000) can be a stressful balancing act, and after being at it a few years I began to notice certain trends – especially the times of year that work becomes more plentiful or… Less so. And as scarcity goes in the business, one thing is pretty consistent: If I’m not working by mid-November, there’s a greater-than-average chance that I might not be working until mid-January at the earliest. Why?

I don’t know if every industry allows itself to shut down so dramatically or if it’s just the slothlike nature of entertainment, but a week or two before Thanksgiving anyone who might hire me seems to check out of being alive in LA. Nobody wants to deal with a big shoot between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Stars are out of town, weather tends to be colder and even rainy, people’s heads tend to not be in the game. I’m not saying there’s never any work (as my feature Alien Raiders began shooting on December 2), but it’s scarce.

Getting Chosen…

And so it was this past December until I got a FaceBook message from Toby Wilkins, a director whose work I much admire. He was contacting me about possibly shooting 2nd unit for him on Chosen, an original series for Sony’s web juggernaut Crackle.

Having spent the last few years primarily editing for money, and having never directed 2nd unit, I agreed immediately.

Don’t get me wrong – I love editing. But there’s something about being in the field, in the shit that I never get in a clean, dry, air-conditioned edit bay. Plus, this show – filled with action, stunts, guns, suspense, and violence (not to mention very sharp writing by creators Ben Ketai, Ryan Lewis, and Evan Charnov) is the kind of work I want to be doing, regardless of which unit.

Incidentally, if you’ve never seen Chosen, I highly recommend you do. Click this link, and watch seasons 1-2 for free right now:
http://www.crackle.com/c/chosen/the-box/2488630

Now asking someone to direct 2nd unit – when they’re an autonomous director in their own right as I like to think of myself – is akin to asking someone to replace his or her own creative instincts with your own and to put your priorities above theirs. In short, to be you when you can’t be there. To pick up things either too small or too time-consuming for 1st unit – closeups of props, POV shots, inserts of hands, driving shots, stunts, special effects, etc. Greatly, dramatic connective tissue. Working with actors – or even having audio – would be minimal.

Sometimes it would be about flying into an already-lit set to pop off some insert shots at the last minute with the hand or foot of a body double, sometimes it would be about recreating an insert-sized piece of set and lighting from weeks earlier in a location from miles away. Sometimes it would be about spending many hours setting something up that the 1st unit would never have time to do in their 8+ page day.

20 Days in the Trenches

So it was, with a 6am call the week before Christmas, that we began shooting season 3 of Chosen. In many ways, 2nd unit is just a scaled-down version of 1st unit and everyone needs to be at the top of their game. My crew, which included a producer/AD, a Director of Photography, an AC, a script supervisor, and a production assistant, had been selected by production. Obviously, this can go in many different (potentially unpleasant) directions if our team doesn’t gel properly, but luckily for us that was never an issue – we did our jobs, worked long hours, and wheedled our way down the lists that our producer – an amazing young guy named Jeff Overfield – produced daily.

Often we’d find ourselves doing stuff with cars. Or guns. Or special effects makeup. Occasionally, we’d blow something up or stage other horrible violent things (and if you know me, you know those were my favorite days). Unfortunately I can’t talk in any more detail about what we did without spoiling massive plot points of the season.

As the shoot went by and I found myself understanding my job better, I kept comparing what we were doing to the “code” Harry Dean Stanton gives Emilio Esteves in Repo Man. Apart from us going into tense situations, I couldn’t really find any other parallels. Certainly no cocaine.

I did, however, start to collect some rules of thumb that I would encourage any would-be 2nd unit directors to consider:

  • ALWAYS BE SHOOTING. We would say this to ourselves many times daily, and I would always imagine Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross screaming it at me. Since we’re not shooting on film (or even tape) anymore, we had virtually no limit on how much we could shoot. Pretend you’re being paid by the frame.

  • An insert shot is only boring if you let it be boring. There’s always some story being told at that microscopic level and it’s important to think about what that story is. As one extremely seasoned 2nd Unit director said to me, “Watch Michael Mann movies and note how much of the scene is made up of inserts.” Toby suggested for the purposes of Chosen to also watch the films of Paul Greengrass. They were both instructive.
  • Make friends with the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician). You will be bothering him or her a lot digging up footage shot days or weeks earlier that you will have to match. The 1st unit script supervisor can be helpful, but he or she is likely tied up with 1st unit business, and the DIT will save your ass every time. It should be noted that the DIT on this show, Earl Fulcher, was outrageously nice, helpful, and fast at pulling up footage. And I still owe him a copy of John Carpenter’s The Thing.
  • Few people under the age of 35 know how to drive a stick shift.
  • Become a master of Zen-like detachment. If there’s an element you need for your shot (an actor, a prop, a lens, a light, an entire camera and the DP) that 1st unit needs, they always take priority. Let it go. Figure another way to do it. Do something else while you wait for that element. Go over the sides again and highlight anything that might be an insert later. Go mount a small camera to a picture car and get a new mounted angle of it driving around. It might be a wasted effort, but it will save your ass more often than not.
  • Already shot the thing you came to shoot and you don’t have anything to shoot? Shoot it again from another angle. Who knows what angle will work best in the cut?
  • When you’re lucky enough to have the real actor there for an insert, contrive some way to get his or her face into the shot.
  • Re-creating anything is possible in closeup. Once, with an hour’s warning, we had to re-create an important moment that was shot on the ground in a park and we were miles away from anything like a park. All we needed was a patch of dirt that matched the park wide enough for us to get our shot and we did it in about an hour.
ElysianPark

You will never know that the future contents
of this shot didn’t happen on a sunny day in a park.

  • Get everything the way the 1st unit director wants it before getting it the way you want it. That way if you only have time for one version, you’ll have the version the director wants.
  • Showed up to location and the grips and electrics can’t spare you any lights or hands to do the lighting? Go shoot establishing shots. The editor could always use more of them. Think you have too many? Do them anyway.
  • Every day, 2nd Unit should always get the first shot off, way before 1st unit. If 1st unit shoots before 2nd unit, the only acceptable reason is that 2nd unit has a very specific thing to set up at the beginning of the day that takes as much (or more) time to create than whatever 1st unit is doing. That being said – does that setup require the camera? No? Go shoot some establishing shots. ALWAYS BE SHOOTING.
  • Even when you’re working with a skeleton crew, car stuff will take you 4 times longer than you think – if only because of traffic. Anything that can be done  in a static car (or a static car with a light gag to indicate movement) is going to go faster.
  • Learn to think inside a restricted frame. Why bring the whole car into a garage for a shot when all you need is the tire? Sure, this is a one-off anecdote of how we got an insert shot that we couldn’t have gotten otherwise (as we couldn’t get the whole car into the garage for a number of reasons), but the quick thinking of our intrepid and talented DP Spencer Hutchins turned a negative into a positive for a must-have insert.

BdvwOZaCEAAYFqk.jpg-large

It’s hard to believe that over two weeks have flown by since we wrapped the season. Since then I’ve caught up on sleep, shot and edited the first episode of a web series my friend Bob DeRosa and I created, got sick, read a pile of theater scripts for Sacred Fools, got well, and had auditions for an amazing play I will be blogging about more.

But I would put 2nd Unit directing the third season of Chosen as one of my favorite jobs I’ve had in years. I’ve often wondered if web series is somehow the rebirth of independent filmmaking, and even though Chosen is more like traditional television than “Annoying Orange,” participating in a project like this demonstrates that the independent spirit can work quite well in the “new media” economy. I wish them many happy returns (hopefully with me around somewhere).

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An Open Letter to Spec Screenwriters


Confession time:

I am the world’s worst reader. A former manager of mine used to refer to my pile of unread scripts as the “Rockpit.” It was a steadily-growing 8 1/2″ by 11″ rectangular stack that sometimes grew so tall you’d think I was trying to turn it back into a mighty oak. I’ve finally broken that habit, but it’s taken a constant level of self-control.

Recently, I stepped it up when I made it a goal to read 2-3 screenplays per week, which seems modest enough but I assure you it’s a huge improvement for me.

And it’s not easy.

First World Problems

In order for me to read a screenplay, I have to block out time, turn off my phone, load the script onto my iPad, sit in my office chair, and tune out the world. I have to hope that nobody sends me email or a Facebook message because I lack the discipline to disable those things on my iPad. Especially if the screenplay itself isn’t holding my attention completely.

And then, while reading, I have a horrible tendency to actually fall asleep – even if I love the script. That’s been happening my entire life, and has always bedeviled my otherwise avid love of reading. So sometimes I’ll have to take a break mid-script, drink coffee or do something else, then finish the script. For more challenging-to-get-through scripts, I will take more breaks.

And I seriously doubt I’m the only one who does these things.

And as much as I hate myself for my pathetic reading habits, I’ve still managed to read a multitude of scripts over the years. Some for friends looking to develop their material further, some to consider shepherding as a filmmaker or theater director – and this year alone about 35 play scripts as a co-artistic director at the Sacred Fools Theater, to build a season of 5 shows (a blog topic in and of itself, and maybe I’ll write that one of these days). And yes, I’ve written some screenplays myself and developed even more with some amazing writers – a few of which I’m actively working to get made right now.

Thankfully, there are those scripts that I can’t put down, that hook me and demonstrate the power of words and storytelling like no other. When reading one of those, it’s often clear within the first page that I’m in the hands of someone who understands what script writing is and isn’t. Those moments are magical, the best kind of communication between the writer and a reader.

Before You Ask…

My friend and awesome screenwriter Jonathan Mangum once compared asking someone to read a script to asking for a ride to the airport. I have since stolen this line and used it many times – although I like to point out that when giving someone a ride to the airport you have company for half of the process. When reading a script, you’re always alone the whole way.

So I’m writing this maybe as much for myself as I am for the hardworking writers of spec scripts who might find my blog somehow. And it’s a call for mercy, a literary cease-fire. Understand that while writing your script required a massive amount of work, reading it will also require effort. Understand that your job is to tell a story that will ultimately be very different than the PDF you shoot out to the world, and that many people are as wracked with antipathy about reading a spec script as they are rapturous with joy at the thought of making a film.

And I am one of those people.

Nothing special qualifies me to write this. I’m not an accomplished screenwriter myself (not for lack of trying), and the only feature I’ve made bears the unfortunate tile “Alien Raiders.” But I’m a filmmaker like a lot of others, constantly on the lookout for a new project to direct or a new writer with whom to collaborate. And it all starts with the script so I’m always on the hunt for what could be the next project.

Not A Top-10 List

So here are ten thoughts. I didn’t set out to make a “top ten list” of these and they aren’t in this order for a reason. Just consider them, maybe before you write a film and certainly as you work on your rewrites:

1) Understand Basic Screenplay Structure Even If You Refuse to Adhere to it.

Seriously, “structure” isn’t to be conflated with “formula,” and even if it is – it’s something every reader is looking for. Bad structure is what will make readers (and audience members) feel bored, feel like the story is dragging, feel like they want to check their FaceBook page to see if their aunt responded to the video of kittens on a Roomba.

I’ll make it easy: Your first act should probably end around or just before page 30, your second act should probably be about half of your script, and whatever’s left afterwards – that’s your third act.

The 30/60/30-page plan assumes a two-hour film, and in my opinion if you’re writing a spec you might consider keeping it at or under 100 pages but that doesn’t necessarily mean that each act shrinks proportionally.

And please remember – the act hasn’t changed because you’ve crossed page 30, it’s changed because the main character has irrevocably changed the course of the story. With willful effort. As a rule (if I can be so pretentious), stories that happen to characters are less dynamic than characters that push their own stories (more below).

And if you’re one of those people who refuses to adhere to the structure, know that you do it at your own peril. Lots of great scripts violate the structure beautifully and have made brilliant films – but expecting any reader (much less simple-minded me) to understand the narrative revolution you’re about to spark is a dangerous game and unless your writing has a hook that makes it impossible to put it down, you might want to consider paying some deference to the red flags that will appear to any reader who knows what the industry and (presumably) audiences are looking for.

2) The WRITER Makes One Page Equal a Minute, Not the Format – And Page Count Matters.

Different producers will tell you different rules of thumb regarding how a page count translates to screen time, but I’ve always been a fan of the One-Page-Equals-One-Minute theory. But the truth is this: The writer is the one who makes that so.

The legend goes that a single line in the script for “Gone with the Wind” reads “Atlanta Burns.” I implore you, don’t do that to your reader.

Part of your craft is looking at a page and asking yourself if it equals a minute and adjusting accordingly. How? Try reading it out loud with a stop watch. Bring in some actors and do a staged reading. Ask yourself, are you describing the action in forensic detail? Not enough detail?

I will tell you why this matters a lot: Movies are scheduled by the page. I’ve shot a 3-page day and I’ve shot an 11-page day and everything in-between. If the writer has crammed, let’s say, 1:15 worth of screen time into a page, then a 6 page day is actually a 7.5 page day (or in the parlance of production management, a 7 4/8 page day) – and you can bet that day is either going to run over or at least long. And even to a reader, the pace of reading will be off.

Conversely, wordiness is your enemy and can make a page of script really feel like about :20 of screen time. And as a reader, that :20 will feel like an hour.

Lastly, every person I know who spends time reading screenplays starts any screenplay by looking at the page count. A 90-page script somehow sounds so much more conquerable than a 115-page script. And a script over 120 pages had better earn every letter.

3) Figure Out Who Your Hero is and Let Them Drive the Story.

I don’t know how to say this in a more basic way, and yet I’m often perplexed at scripts that seem to have no protagonist. Or they have a main character who doesn’t make willful decisions that drive the story. Do they have to drive every beat? No, but I personally believe they should drive the major beats, like the ones that get us into act 2 and act 3.

I would suggest that if your hero isn’t moving the action on at least those beats, that he or she isn’t the hero.

What about ensemble scripts? Well, those have heroes too. Somebody’s making decisions and if they aren’t then the reader (and audience) will feel bored.

4) If a Block of Action Exceeds Three Lines, Consider Breaking it Up.

This isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule (because apparently I’m making up rules now), but a guideline. I would say that in general, a block of action that takes up five lines is probably at least two actions. If it’s two actions, put a space between them.

This really has an effect on page count, and can make a script that’s 95 pages long really read (and get produced) like a script that’s 100 pages long. Which might mean that it should have been budgeted for an extra day of shooting.

And one day of shooting costs a lot of money.

If you have five lines that are one solid action and you can’t find a way to break them up, PLEASE consider shortening that block.

5) Wow The Reader With Your Great Storytelling, Not Your Great Wordsmithing.

The craft, cleverness, and creativity in screenwriting are never about the writer’s novel construction of scene description, but the writer’s novel use of economy in that description.

This took me a long time to get my head around in my own writing as well. In fiction writing one strives to find significant details to bring the story to life but in screenwriting the significant details will spring forth from actors, designers, cinematographers, etc. This doesn’t mean to throw away all significant detail, just understand that if you say a character drove an old Dodge Dart, that’s more useful than saying they drove a 1973 green Dodge Dart with old blackish-reddish mud caked on the wheel wells (unless all of that is crucial to the story).

I recently read a script by someone who probably should be writing novels and the issue I kept encountering was that it was impossible to hold all of the significant details from the script in my mind at the same time as the movie. What resulted was a maddening read. The film felt opaque, the prose impenetrable.

Don’t be afraid to skip your own cleverness and say exactly what something is. I think I’m saying this: More Hemingway, less Faulkner.

6) Write Like You’re Already Watching the Movie, Transcribing as Fast as Possible.

I suppose this is a corollary of my last point, but it’s important enough on its own: All of the best screenplays I’ve read work like this. They have a savage economy of description and reading them is like a constant reminder that it’s a movie. That it’s character, action and dialogue to tell a great story.

My friend Bob DeRosa has this technique down to a science. I’ve never read a script of his that didn’t leave me with the feeling that I’d already seen the movie. That feeling – one of having seen something rather than having read it is what I wish more people were going for.

To this end, always remember this: If it can’t be seen or heard, consider taking it out. If you say something like “He stops, he’s seen this a thousand times before,” understand that the viewer of the movie will have no way of knowing what he’s seen before.

7) Don’t Take ANY of the Screenwriting Gurus too Literally.

I’ve read many of them – Robert McKee, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, etc. They’re all food for thought. They’re all serving suggestions; but if you’ve used someone’s idea of structure as formula, the reader will feel every beat coming a mile away.

I know that a lot of learned people like Craig Mazin and John August (who host the amazing screenwriting-centric podcast “Scriptnotes” – a thing you should be listening to regularly) disparage a lot of these writing gurus and probably with good reason. But I believe that many of them do have a lot to offer so long as you don’t take their suggestions as gospel truth.

Also, know that if you’re sending the script to producers, readers, directors, etc. – many of them have read those books too. So in my opinion the best reason to read them is to know what readers are going to expect, and then think about how to pleasantly surprise someone with that set of expectations.

8) Don’t Give the Reader ANY Reason to Stop. 

I would bet you money that your relatively new script has some typos. Or formatting issues. Or you wrote “your” when you meant “you’re.” Eradicate all of that. If you don’t know when to use there or their or they’re on-sight, you might seriously consider getting someone you trust with a black belt in schoolmarmish grammar to mark your script up like it matters – because it does.

When I started reading specs probably 12 years ago, I remember thinking to myself “what difference does it make if it’s not in courier font?” I was, at the time, too naive to realize that the font could affect the page count but beyond that, I can honestly say that I’ve never read an improperly formatted script, or one which employed Times New Roman (or any non-Courier font), which was producible.

Never? Correct, not ever. Ignoring the basics seems to be a guarantee of not even being aware of deeper craft.

And today there’s no excuse. Final Draft too expensive? Get Celtx. Get Adobe Story. Use Scripped or Fountain. Learn how to set up your current word processor to format correctly. Understand the format you’re writing for, or don’t get read. It’s that simple.

I may be paraphrasing something John August once said on “Scriptnotes,” when I say: Your script is a contract with your reader that you’re about to tell them a fascinating story that will pay off.

The easiest way to violate that contract is to not have control of your language or format, or to appear sloppy with either.

9) Don’t Be Afraid to Keep it Short.

I would not be surprised to find that more readers get to the end of a 90-page script than an equally-good 120-page script. Does your script need to be longer? Write it longer – but economy in storytelling goes a long way toward keeping the reader (and viewer) engaged.

10) It Bears Repeating – Be Spare in Telling Us What The Camera is Doing.

When I was in film school, it was something our teachers pounded into our heads – don’t write out what the camera is doing, that’s the director’s job. I don’t agree with that 100%, as sometimes the camera is an active participant in how the story’s being told.

Also, I appreciate some “non-camera” camera description techniques like:

ON THE KEYBOARD

I get it – it’s a closeup and you didn’t have to say “CLOSEUP OF THE KEYBOARD.”

So if, here and there, the camera is somehow mentioned or the kind of shot we’re seeing is described because there’s no better way to tell that part of the story, then write it. But at the same time, camera direction is one of those things that readers tend to skim over and the more frequently it appears in a script, the less importance it will have.

I’m just saying, be careful and be spare with that stuff.

Thanks for Considering Any of This

Although the act of writing this list might come across as bossypants or arrogant on my part, I’m really doing it to make the life of whoever’s reading scripts out there easier and therefore get more good stories read.

Writing a script takes an insane amount of effort. When you write “FADE TO BLACK” on that last page, you know you’ve done an honest day’s work and you want people to appreciate it. But before you beg for validation and send your script out to those of us who get to read it, imagine “The Rockpit.” Imagine I’ve just whittled it down by half, and instead of calling it a day I’ve decided to open your script.

Now keep me hooked.

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New Digs


Really short one this time – Just a plea for you to check out my new website. I’ve really put the media first, enabled it for tablets and devices and such, and hopefully it’s an easier place to check out all the friggin’ media I’ve spent decades slaving away at.

And in case you’re interested, this was all done on Squarespace.com. I LOVED my old website – but it was encoded in flash which meant:

1) iOS devices couldn’t see any of it

2) I had to remember how to code it whenever I had a new project to put up there – which I did not. So I didn’t put new stuff up there.

Please check it out! I’d love to hear your feedback if you want to send me a message.

http://benrockonline.com

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