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Method Acting


See This Movie

The_Act_of_Killing_

I’m going to keep this short. I’m writing this on July 29, and if you live in New York City, LA, or Washington DC you owe it to yourself to see “The Act of Killing,” Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, this week. It’s only playing in town for a week it’s only playing through Mid-August in LA, so don’t put it off. See it on the big screen. See it with an audience. Pay to see it.

Find out if it’s playing near you and go see it.

It’s a documentary revealing such profound contradictions in the human mind and of such immense power that I cannot shake the experience of it out of my head. Here’s the trailer:

It’s hard to comment on the profundity of this film after seeing it, so I’ll let two of its producers – Errol Morris and Werner Herzog – do the talking:

On this blog, I yak a lot about tech, storytelling  from my  limited point of view, and my personal narrative philosophy for what little it’s worth – but “The Act of Killing” is something different.

To me this film is one of the most perfect marriages of art, technique, storytelling, comedy, farce, and truth that I’ve personally seen in years. I’d put it up with documentaries like Frederich Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies” and Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death” in the way it reveals our humanity through people most of us would find difficult to relate to – and it somehow effortlessly manages to work in threads of irony, Grand Guignol (a fancy French term for “blood-soaked theater), camp, symbolism, farce, surrealism, and absurdism in ways that few films (much less documentaries) are able to do when they try.

The story revolves a man named Anwar Congo, who became a  national hero in Indonesia as a member of a famous death squad who (by his own account) personally executed over 1,000 “Communists” (and ethnic Chinese… And whomever the newspapers decried as a communist) during a military overthrow of the Indonesian government between 1965 and 1966. Conflating the term “gangster” to mean “free man,” Congo along with his peers went on to found the right-wing paramilitary organization The Pancasila Youth, which currently boasts over three million members who lionize the exploits Anwar and the genocide in the 1960’s.

In making the documentary the filmmakers found that the murderers themselves were so proud of their exploits in the military takeover that they were willing to participate in a movie reenacting what they’d done.

Anwar Congo is ready for his closeup.

Anwar Congo is ready for his closeup in this reenactment he created.

“The Act of Killing” is a story grounded in many true incidents, yet it contains deep and resonant themes about how the human mind (yes, yours) is able to mythologize and therefore deal with its own troubled  past. It’s a film that made me personally reassess my feelings about morality, the value of a human life, and how susceptible we all are at any given moment to the siren song of malefaction and cruelty. This movie delves powerfully into the idea of The Banality of Evil, as we witness the former members of death squads hang out in the mall with their family, teach children to have empathy for baby ducks, and explain some of he most atrocious acts of cruelty the way most of us would recall any incident from our past.

I will say no more except to point out that in this, one of the most vapid and derivative of years I have personally experienced as a film-goer, movies like this need to be seen and supported if we expect to see more films that really move us. Movies should have power beyond that of extended theme-park rides. Movies – like all art – have the power to make us experience powerful emotions, ask probing questions, experience real fear and true rage, and incite change and growth in us as viewers and even participants.

So please, please, please consider seeing this film. No offense, but “The Wolverine” can wait a week.

To see where you can find “The Act of Killing” in your local area, go to their website:

http://theactofkilling.com

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Think Different


How Technology is Making Your Creative Job Harder – And Why That’s a Good Thing

I remember when I directed my first play in Los Angeles in the spring of 1999. It was called “Golden Elliot,” and it was produced by a small theater in Hollywood called (unfortunately) “The Professional Actors’ Counsel.” We had no money for the set or props, and the “tech booth” consisted of  a step up to a workbench with a series of hardware-store-bought light dimmers (like the ones your grandmother had in her dining room) which powered some clip-lights probably purchased in the same Home Depot run, and a 5-CD changer which made a loud clunking noise every time you switched from one track to another.

Everything about the operation was primitive.

Just looking at this gives me nostalgia for a kind of frustration.

Just looking at this gives me nostalgia for a kind of frustration.

And one night after rehearsal that had run a little late I asked the cast if they minded if I sent them the run notes via something called email

A huge laugh erupted from the cast. Who did I think I was talking to – people who owned their own computers? How could I presume that anyone would have this elaborate setup, at home no less? I believe the fanciness of my trousers might have been pointed out. It was a small cast (5 if memory serves), but the percentage of them online in any way was zero.

Four years later, I was directing another play, Tom Kiesche‘s “Frankenstein, Vicky” as a late-night show at Sacred Fools Theater. And with a cast of 19 all but one of the cast had email. Shortly thereafter, that actor had it as well. And now, for actors, email is only the beginning – many have their own websites, Facebook pages, online reels, etc. There are great apps for actors even, like Rehearsal, an iOS app designed to help actors manage their scripts and learn their lines.

rehearsal-the-app-619x250

I talk about technology all the time here and obviously it impacts cameramen, sound mixers, editors, etc. on a daily basis. But those are people whose job is to operate technology so it only makes sense that their jobs change regularly, surfing the tech wave. But for the craftspeople whose work doesn’t directly require technology, the bad news is that now it does – and that’s something that hopefully works to everyone’s benefit.

But as a filmmaker, accepting technology as a part of my work has never been easy as technology either costs money or requires learning complicated new things (or both).

But the biggest obstacle I have found myself facing – and hopefully overcoming – is a result of how technology is making different kinds of stories possible; and it takes work not just to understand what can be done with current technology and techniques but to find new stories to tell in those worlds.

As filmmakers, now it's our turn to adapt indeed.

As filmmakers, now it’s our turn to adapt indeed.

Scared New World

I remember in 2010 when I saw Gareth Edwards‘ indie giant-monster movie “Monsters,” a cinema-veite, mostly-handheld, natural-lighting-filled film that somehow also managed to be packed with convincing visual effects including deadly, giant octopus-like aliens in the same handheld frame as our two angst-ridden lovers.

I’d heard a few things about the film: The director was himself a VFX artist, who’d gotten a few hundred thousand dollars to make the film, which included a great deal of improvisation. Also, he’d created 100% of the visual effects by himself on computer programs that most people could own for a modest sum of money. Most were done in Adobe After Effects, a software I already had but had not yet learned. One anecdote the filmmakers told was that they were filming a scene and Edwards instinctively tilted the camera up to a tree, not knowing what was going to be there, but knowing that he could put something in that tree (it turned out to be a very convincing-looking boat, by the way). That was the first time I realized what many had already. That you don’t have to be James Cameron to dream bigger or think differently when concocting stories.

My first thought was, "that camera looks HUGE!"

My first thought was, “that camera looks HUGE!”

Technophobia

I’d come from a brick-and-mortar film school background, where if you wanted to have someone turn into the Jackel-headed Egyptian god Anubis (which I did once), you had to figure out how to physically do it. If you wanted a table of toys to fight one another (also something I had to do), you puppeteered physical toys with rods and fishing line and figured out how to shoot it so the camera couldn’t see your trickery.

So seeing “Monsters” was both a revelation and a call to arms. On the one hand, it was within reach to tell stories of a scope that I was not used to thinking within. And Gareth Edwards wasn’t just the face of my future competition, he was here already and winning. A year later, “Another Earth” spun a fresh, character-based, microbudget sci-fi yarn using a lot of extremely convincing visual effects, and managed to tell a story that would have seemed impossibly expensive just a few years earlier. The groundswell many had predicted was happening.

It was around that time that I worked on a project with a guy named Matthew Santoro – a visual effects artist who’d moved into directing, who could create pretty much anything he wanted on his computer using tools like After Effects, ZBrush, etc. Look at some of Santoro’s one-man-band work and be amazed:

https://vimeo.com/21627630https://vimeo.com/21627630

Matt (who’s currently directing his debut feature), I came to realize, is someone who’s not bounded by what can physically be brought to the set on the day as I had been. He’s someone who, like Gareth Edwards, like an entire of generation of filmmakers coming up behind him, knows that there’s an economical way to achieve almost anything if you have the artistry, the patience, and the technical expertise. It was after working with him that I realized that in order to stay competitive as a director, it was becoming more and more necessary to learn some of these programs and work on that technical proficiency and artistry. Even if I knew that I would never achieve his levels in either, at least I’d be able to speak that language. But does that mean forsaking the boots-on-the-ground art of directing and focusing on graphic design? Taking drawing and sculpting classes? Learning to (gulp…) code?

One of the things that brought me much solace was Stu Maschwitz‘ brilliant book “The DV Rebel’s Guide,” which demystified a great deal of digital manipulation and learning to grow one’s imagination to fit what is possible with certain technology. Between this book, all of the great podcasts made by FXGuide and the free tutorials at www.videocopilot.net (and now that Cinema 4D is as ubiquitous as After Effects, greyscalegorilla.com), many refugees from the celluloid era such as myself are finding routes into stories in us we didn’t know we had.

Buy this book. Buy it now.

Buy this book. Buy it now.

Of course the vfx rabbit hole is almost infinitely deep, and the difference between knowing some rudimentary After Effects and building a fully-realized CGI tiger is as different as shooting small comedy sketch and making “Pacific Rim.” But also gone are the days where words like “specular highlights,” “ambient occlusion,” “normal map,” or “extrusion” would make my eyes glaze over. They’re quickly becoming as essential to the grammar of filmmaking as the C-Stand or room tone.

But What to do With the New Toys?

Which leads me to the real conundrum that this knowledge brings with it – finding stories to tell utilizing these tools without letting the showmanship of CGI artistry be the only worthy part of the story itself. I would argue that we’re in a transition (perhaps even towards the end of transitioning) where the digital toolbox is just another part of the process like sound mixing and color correction, and things that used to sound complicated like planar tracking, object removal, and digital beauty makeup can be accomplished to an astounding degree in post by those who know the best ways to accomplish them. It doesn’t fix everything (like a bad script or bad acting), but as filmmakers we can choose to use these accessible tools in so many new ways that I don’t think indie filmmakers have begun to dip into the storytelling possibilities.

Better Creativity Through Circuitry

As I’ve said before, I always assumed I’d get to be the directing genius and the geek squad would come in and add finishing touches to my work. Under my supervision. To my specifications. Now I find myself using these tools like After Effects, Mocha, Element 3D, and I’m even playing around with Cinema4D now that a lite version of it is bundled into After Effects. What this ultimately means is that, even with my personal hangups with obvious or fake-looking CGI, there’s a greater and greater deal of digital all of our futures; and as it becomes more accessible and more people learn to use it well, it will improve.

For those of us trying to rise above the fray, it’s an exciting time to imagine what the upcoming crop of indie films might do… And then do that.

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A Swift Kick to the Head


Why Big Stars on Raising Money on Kickstarter isn’t Hurting Smaller Projects

KS

Allow me to start by saying that I’m not a Zach Braff fanboy. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and he seems to have things he wants to say through filmmaking. But judging based on his debut feature nine years ago as well as the pitch for his next project, the things he wants to say don’t really appeal to me. Hell, one of my early blogs even attempts to blame films like his debut feature “Garden State” for turning the interesting and edgy world indie films into a low-stakes meditation of upper-middle-class white people grappling with their uninterestingness. But hey – a lot of people like “Garden State,” and I guess even upper-middle-class white people need a banal story to call their own and a bard to weave it – so kudos to Zach Braff.

Braff

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a matter of taste, and as the saying goes there’s a reason we make both chocolate and vanilla.

But Braff – who hasn’t made a feature directorial follow-up to “Garden State” has recently brilliantly tapped into “crowdfunding” – where an artist goes to their audience and asks for funds to make their art rather than the traditional path of going to financiers and gatekeepers for the same funds. There are a handful of websites that specialize in helping artists, inventors, and thing-makers in general accomplish this task but by far the best-known one is the venerable kickstarter.com. And as the leader of that pack, Kickstarter has begun to attract some higher-budgeted projects like the movie based on the short-lived TV show “Veronica Mars” – which raised 5.7 million dollars this month and now “Wish I Was Here,” the aforementioned Zach Braff project which thusfar has raised 2 million dollars as well.

Check out his Kickstarter video here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1869987317/wish-i-was-here-1/widget/video.html

And all I’ve been hearing about this story, rather than rejoicing in a “holy crap, indie films are coming back!” kind of way is people grousing about people like Braff who are “inside the system” who’ve decided to use a tool that was presumably designed for those who are not. Take a second and read this article from The Guardian (posted on Facebook by my friend Matt) Because obviously Zach Braff could have coughed up a cool 2 million dollars of his own rather than hold his hat out in the vast interstate off-ramp that is Kickstarter – and in my opinion the people engaging in this kind of thinking are wrong.

Inside the “System”

veronica_mars

I could point out that there is no “system” to be “inside” of. Braff led an ensemble cast on the network TV show “Scrubs” from 2001-2010 and other than that his biggest splash probably was “Garden State” (which according the the website http://www.the-numbers.com cost $2.5M to produce and earned $36M worldwide – pretty outstanding). Braff made “Garden State” with outside independent financing, submitted it to Sundance, got accepted there, and found distribution. This path was well known to indie filmmakers as a best-case-scenario between the late 1980’s through today, even if it’s gotten even more difficult since 2008. And even though Braff’s first feature made a good chunk of change for the people who put it out, either his own selectivity or market forces within the industry have not brought us directorial feature to follow it up unless you count a 2008 TV movie called “Night Life.”

So Braff brought one thing to the table – his name value as a TV star. And (again, putting my personal feelings about “Garden State” aside), he leveraged that brilliantly. And now, with a track record, he’s doing the same thing on Kistarter. I don’t see anything with which to take issue here – as filmmakers we all bring whatever salable assets we have to the table, and more often than not we’re sent back to the woodshed to get more of them. A big scavenger hunt – one which I am currently undergoing – is finding a “name” actor. A name actor all but guarantees a certain dollar figure in returns and every actor’s projected sales are different.

To whatever extent Braff fits that description so why wouldn’t he use his own name to make his own work? Kickstarter doesn’t change that metric, it just allows Braff (or anyone with a built-in audience) to go straight to the people who already want to see their work and get the money like a PBS Pledge Break rather than appealing to a room full of MBA’s.

Putting the “STAR” in KickSTARter

Since the beginning of Kickstarter, I’ve been wondering how long something like this would take. In fact, I assumed it would appeal to people who were even more established. Imagine someone like Christopher Nolan making a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding video with only one appeal – “buy your ticket now.” Yes, I know Kickstarter would never allow that, but pretend for a second that they did (or that someone like Nolan just set up their own crowdfunding portal). I find it hard to believe that my experimental Nolan would not raise tens of millions, possibly creating an end-run around the studio system entirely. It can be argued that the studio gatekeepers justify their existence by simply trying to make material that’s more palatable for mass audiences and maybe that’s right – but if it’s true their relentlessness would pay off with every film being the best it can be, right?

I'd Kickstart that!

I’d Kickstart that!

Right?

So Chill Out and Lay Off Zach Braff and “Veronica Mars”

Now, to all the artists out there, I want to put your troubled minds at rest. Zach Braff isn’t here to take away your toy or to make it less special. In fact, the crux of my argument is that it’s a neutral to good development that this is happening right now. Here are some of my pitches to you as to why this isn’t just a good thing, but it’s actually a great thing.

  • Zach Braff and the makers of “Veronica Mars” aren’t taking money that would have gone to someone else. Certainly not you.

Seriously – if there’s only one thing I can manage to communicate here this is it. Zach Braff is bringing his audience to Kickstarter and not the other way around. If Zach Braff were receiving an arts grant that prevented a small clarinet co-op from bringing woodwind education into the inner cities, I’d storm this castle with my torch in hand as well. But that’s not the case. Braff and “Veronica Mars” producer Rob Thomas are simply doing an end-run around gatekeepers who might otherwise convince them to compromise the artistic content of their work or prevent them from making it entirely.

Clarinets

  • Crowdfunding is for everyone who wants to do it and is willing to do the work.

I’m sure the founders of Kickstarter.com were excited to help indie filmmakers, game designers, widget-makers, etc. do their finest work. But in order for us to have some solid crowdfunding success stories, some of them are going to have to be more mainstream and involve more marketable actors, writers, and directors. And as anyone who’s done a Kickstarter campaign will tell you, it’s not a “free money store,” it takes a lot of constant work to raise money this way. I’m sure this is only the beginning of a trend that could end up revolutionizing how the edgier indie films of yesteryear end up being made in the future. Isn’t that a good thing?

  • What if the real benefit of crowdfunding was marketing and audience-building?

I’ve always heard one of the biggest benefits of crowdfunding was to build an audience. Certainly the projects I’ve personally funded – at any level – have all stayed in touch with me and I’ve tracked their progress. I may not own a dime of the money they make, but I feel that I was a contributor to their very existence and I therefore have a stake in their success. What this means is that, in a sense, donating to a crowdfunding campaign is its own form of entertainment.

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Screenwriter Craig Mazen, co-host of the awesome Scriptnotes podcast, criticized the crowfunding of “Veronica Mars” by pointing out that the producers are going to charge the audience twice – once to get the movie made and once to see it. I see his point, but only if the funding part of the equation isn’t a form of entertainment. As the entire city of Las Vegas has proved, spending money in itself can be entertaining to some people.

  • Raising large sums of money on Kickstarter is only bringing a new bunch of donors to the crowdfunding sites, and maybe even to the idea of crowdfunding.

If Zach Braff and Rob Thomas are bringing a vast wave of their audience crashing on the shoals of Kickstarter, it’s fair to assume that some adjacent beaches might find their sands a bit more moistened as a result. Some of these people are doubtlessly donating to a crowdfunding effort for the first time, and just showing up at http://www.kickstarter.com might introduce them to other projects in need of funds.

  • Crowdfunding at this scale is allowing indie filmmaking to be reborn in the post Lehman-Brothers world.

The Lehman Brothers crash in 2008 and subsequent economy-destroying recession by some metrics marked the the grave of a lot of industries and indie film was one of them. Every industry has been slowly clawing its way back to relevance following the recession. And no strata of the film business has taken a bigger hit than indies with flagging home video sales, nonexistent theatrical distribution, rampant piracy, and a fractured audience who might prefer to stay home and watch “Breaking Bad” or Netflix streaming. I would count crowdfunding as one of the few bright spots for indies. And yes, “Wish I Was Here” and “Veronica Mars” are indies now.

Does this allow more crap to get made? Of course, in the same way that self-publishing has allowed more crap to be published and digital audio distribution has allowed more crap to be sold on iTunes, etc. But if just a single good movie comes out of this (and more than one already has), then what does anyone care?

  • Funding is just the beginning for filmmakers who still need to figure out how to make their films profitable in the horrid distribution environment we’re currently in.

This is only the beginning for Braff and anyone else who attempts this. The distribution landscape in 2004 was tough but for Braff – a TV star with an indie film at the Sundance Film Festival – at least it was navigable. At least he was able to find anyone with some kind of terms that his producers and financiers could accept at the time. These days, the studios are releasing fewer films and there are fewer indie distributors. I’d personally love it if Braff chose to release “Wish I Was Here” using a self-distribution model for theatrical and VOD, even DVD and Blu-Ray.

Double Standard

The writer of the Guardian piece (above) points out that the way Kickstarter works is that if you donate to a film and it does well (he cites “The Blair Witch Project,” a film I worked on, as an example) that you won’t see a single penny and he’s right. Kickstarter isn’t an investing site, it’s donation based. This objection is pure hyperbole and in the world where indie films rarely even get a chance to be seen or find distribution – or in a lot of cases they find distribution but never break even – citing an example from 14 years ago (and an outlier at that) frankly proves my point even more.

Outliers make terrible examples. It's what makes them outliers.

Outliers make terrible examples. It’s what makes them outliers.

Indie film producers aren’t building a second “kidney-shaped swimming pool” as the author here describes, they are struggling every day to reach an audience and stay relevant. Indie producing at best is a long-term investment in a series of hopefully-worthy projects that occasionally make enough money to keep their producers solvent. They need all the help they can get. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Ted Hope’s blog, http://www.hopeforfilm.com.

The Right to Abstain

Kickstarter obviously isn’t the savior of all things artistic and there’s a lot of work to be done perfecting the crowdfunding process. But as someone who makes things I care about from time to time, I love knowing that there’s an alternative to appealing to only financial instincts of people hired by corporations to protect their bottom line. There’s a place for that to be sure, and there’s a place for this. One doesn’t need to negate the other – it’s just a different way to get creative work made.

This new approach, still in its infancy, is a way for artists to test one avenue of funding for their whatchamacallit. And for those of us who do donate on Kickstarter, etc. – we can choose to support – or not – any project we see fit. So I personally won’t be donating to Zach Braff’s campaign not because I don’t want to see him succeed, not because I think he should have spent money out of his own pocket (because any of us actually knows his financial situation), but because it’s not a project that excites me. But I’m glad Braff is doing what he’s doing, and when someone whose work speaks to me posts a project to Kickstarter, you can bet your ass I’ll be donating.

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NAB Roundup 2013 – Forget 3D, Let’s Talk 4K!


Emerging Patterns

NAB 2013

Every year, if I’m able to do so, I make the 4-hour trek by car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to attend the National Association of Broadcasters Convention (NAB). For the uninitiated, it’s a trade show where all the manufacturers of every piece of gear involving broadcast, filmmaking, production, postproduction, you-name-it fill a massive convention center in Las Vegas for a week of every year. It’s like ComiCon for filmmakers – a chance to see all the new gear, computer programs, lenses, etc. to expect in the following months, a glimpse perhaps into our production workflow-to-come. My first NAB was exactly ten years ago, and even though I can’t make it ever year, it’s a great way to check in on all the trends in filmmaking. A way to see what will be possible in the near future.

Three years ago, I blogged about the the ubiquity of 3D technology which manufacturers presumed would be the next big thing as filmmakers prayed it would not (spoiler alert – a little of both, but nobody’s out of business because they failed to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on 3D technology for their business making industrial safety videos for the trucking industry). That year also marked the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera coming into its own. 3D was a thing we all had to know about, but small form-factor, affordable, high-quality cameras were an actual game changer.

Some questions about NAB can never be answered, like “why is all the good food in the hall with all the radio crap when we have that sloppy Indian place in the central hall?” or “why do I end up with 5lbs of swag (I weighed it) that I will only throw away in six months?” And also, “what do the weasel-words ‘innovative network solutions for enterprise technology customers’ mean?” The world may never know. But for NAB 2013, the year was one of… Incremental progress.

Special K

2K slow motion need not represent.

2K slow motion need not represent.

Yes, 4K. We’ve moved up one number and seven letters in the alphabet from 3D, and now we’re all about pixels. 4,000 of them. I don’t know if it’s really true, but the common wisdom about 4K is that it’s approximately the native resolution of 35mm film (that plasticky/punch-holey stuff we used to make movies on). Does it matter that nobody has a monitor – otherwise known as a television – that will display this amazing 4K content? No. 4K is the thing you want. Now. Hadn’t you heard?

2013-04-10 16.37.53

Editing

As I blogged about last year, much of the nonlinear editing (NLE) world has furiously pushed to fill the void left by the departure of the venerable Final Cut Pro as it transformed itself into the aforementioned nonprofessional mistake known as FCPX. The challengers to the FCP throne have all been people who were already in the post world (unlike FCP when it first emerged), notably Avid (already the undisputed industry leader for the longest time), Adobe Premiere (my tool of choice for editing today, but something the pro editing world hasn’t fully embraced), and last year Autodesk Smoke (my opinion – too expensive, too complicated, and the NLE is too underdeveloped). So this year, add DaVinci Resolve 10 from Blackmagic Design – you’ll be hearing me talk about this company a bit more – added the beginnings of a NLE into the Resolve interface. The people at the booth claim that this is only so colorists can make final tweaks for clients in the finishing bay but when pressed I was told that one could theoretically edit an entire project in Resolve if one were so inclined. Incidentally, this functionality will be available in the “lite” version of resolve, which is a free download. Will anyone be cutting with it anytime soon? No idea – but I’d give it a year.

Resolve - sure looks like an NLE, no?

Resolve – sure looks like an NLE, no?

In my opinion, last year was really Adobe’s year. Premiere Pro finally graduated to a professional-level NLE and the leap was so profound that I was compelled to do something I’d never suggest to anyone else: I upgraded while I was in the middle of a project. That will not be happening with the new Premiere Pro (which nobody seemed to call CS 6.5 for whatever reason), as the improvements mostly seem to be under the hood except a few workflow-related tweaks. AfterEffects underwent a bigger step with the inclusion of a lite version of Maxon’s Cinema 4D. The good news/bad news of that is that now editors who just spent two years learning AfterEffects can do 3D work like big-time pros, but now they will also be expected to do that work. Time to hit some tutorial sites! Greyscalegorilla.com here we come!

Rounding up the group – Autodesk and Smoke were certainly at the show, but after a year of people trying to make Smoke work as their day-in, day-out NLE, I believe Autodesk knows that there’s more work to be done. Final Cut Pro, X or otherwise, didn’t seem to be much of a discussion point whatsoever. The dirty lowdown, however, is how many professional houses built entire pipelines and infrastructures around FCP “Classic,” only to find it valueless in the FCPX-driven future. So even as the occasional buzz of FCPX clawing its way back into the marketplace persists, it’s obvious that eventually those facilities will have to gut their infrastructure and teach their whole team an entirely new workflow.

Oh, and Avid Media composer is now $1,000 – taking a cue from Final Cut Pro circa 1999. Yawn.

On the upside, I got a snazzy pen from their booth!

At long last - Avid gives me something I can use.

At long last – Avid gives me something I can use.

Cameras

If anything can be called a “bombshell” at this year’s show, it would be from the same people who brought NAB it’s biggest surprise last year  in the Blackmagic Digital Cinema Camera. So it goes with Blackmagic Design’s 4K “Production Camera” with a $4,000 price tag. That’s right, 4K for $4K. And a snazzy “global shutter” preventing this camera from creating the annoying “jello cam” of previous rolling-shutter imaging sensors. And that’s not all… Blackmagic Design also released the “Pocket Cinema Camera,” a 16mm sensor-having, micro 4/3-mounting, HD camera barely larger than the average smartphone for under $1K.

Disruptive tech strikes again - 4K for $4K.

Disruptive tech strikes again – 4K for $4K.

I believe I have deconstructed all of the thinking that  brought about the creation and price point of this camera and it all has to do with the tin ears at other camera companies. My theory goes like this – Canon releases the 5D Mark II and creates an entire new kind of filmmaking camera in the DSLR; it’s inexpensive and the quality is better than anyone’s had in their hand before. Then RED comes along after the success of the RED One and promises a camera called the Scarlet; it’s slogan is “3K for $3K.” Then both Canon releases its follow-up to the DSLR cameras in the form of the C300 ($15,000), and when RED releases the Scarlett it’s about the same price. So there’s a niche that’s been created and then promised, allowing Blackmagic Design to fill it, with now three cameras.

A RED technician installs  a Dragon sensor in a Clean Room on the NAB floor.

A RED technician installs
a Dragon sensor in a Clean Room on the NAB floor.

Immediately next to Blackmagic (some might suggest they’re keeping a watchful eye out) was RED, the company which stands to lose the largest chunk of its lower-end market share to Blackmagic. The largest thing featured in RED’s corner of the convention floor was a massive cleanroom shipped from LA and set up in Vegas, allowing RED users to bring their cameras in to have their “Mysterium X” imaging sensors upgraded to “Red Dragon” 6K sensors for the cost of $9,000. Or by my math, two Blackmagic 4K cameras and a very expensive dinner.

When this REDcopter becomes self-aware, we're all screwed.

When this REDcopter becomes self-aware, we’re all screwed.

I’ve actually been a big fan of RED cameras, which have been used to shoot massive movies such as “Prometheus” and “The Hobbit” in recent years. Initially a brilliant disruptive technology, it would be great to see RED work a little harder to penetrate the lower-budget or indie market. But maybe like their frienemies at Sony and Panasonic, or the alternate reality at Arri, they don’t need to.

Speaking of Panasonic and Sony, there didn’t seem to be many giant announcements but there’s a definite trend in favor of Sony and away from Panasonic for filmmakers. I have begun to wonder if Panasonic really cares about cameras for filmmakers anymore – it’s hard not to think about the brilliant tech in their DVX100, SDX900, HVX200, and HVX3000 cameras. They’ve always made some of the best imaging sensors, but this year their booth wasn’t buzzing with any of that. Come back to us Panasonic – we’re loyal and still waiting for you. Meanwhile, Sony’s F65 was used to shoot the new Tom Cruise movie “Oblivion,” and with a slew of really solid cameras out there it seems that Sony’s working hard to recapture the fandom of filmmakers which they lost to Panasonic in the last decade.

Come back to filmmakers, Panasonic. We miss you.

Come back to filmmakers, Panasonic. We miss you.

Also back in the conversation was the Digital Bolex, the camera financed by some loveable hipsters and the support of crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com. This camera plans to pack a lot of attractive features aimed at filmmakers into a cool retro shell, helping us all evoke our inner Goddards for around $3,000. I want this to work and to be awesome, but will withold any judgement here until a real thing exists to talk about.

Digital Bolex - Vaporware or Revlution?

Digital Bolex – Vaporware or Revolution?

Oh, and Phantom had a new high-speed 4K camera for those times when you need 1000 frames per second of 4K.

4K!!!

Im not 100% sure why GoPro chooses to show at NAB. I suppose a lot of reality shows use those cameras, and nothing substitutes for their smallness (apparently not even picture quality). Don’t get me wrong- I love me some GoPro footage, but as a storytelling device it’s not the most versatile medium. I mean, has anyone ever been surprised that something shot on a GoPro was GoPro footage?

Cosplay invades NAB, setting our nerd standards higher than ever.

Cosplay invades NAB, setting our nerd standards higher than ever.

Still, their area felt like a giant beach party, and then there was this guy who showed me that Cosplay can happen anywhere so next year I’m going to dress up as a Zoom H4n.

Rounding out the camera experience, I felt like a trip to Canon was a trip to Canon last year. They recently released 3 new models of lower-end DSLRs, all of which do video quite nicely, but the professional and prosumers among us had nothing new to ogle over. Even so, I refuse to lose hope. So same time next year, Canon?

Did I Mention Everything’s 4K? Well Suck on 8K, Future-You!

Super High-Vision, the inevitable wave of the future.

Super High-Vision, the inevitable wave of the future.

 

I recall the first time a friend of mine caught a demo of HD in the early 1990’s and said “it’s like looking through a window.” Now of course we all have those “windows” in our lives, but the monkey of highest-possible-resolution will never get off our backs. With that in mind, I was told enthusiastically about a Japanese innovation called “Super High-Vision.”

So I’ll start with my conclusion: No, it’s not like looking through a window unless everything outside my window reeks of ugly, interlaced video. Imagine a video quality reminiscent of “The Hobbit” on a giant panel TV. At best, it’s like looking at a really high-resolution photograph blown up to a giant size. I have to admit the clarity is impressive and just the fact that this is intended as a broadcast standard is audacious – I just wish the fine folks explaining to me why this is how I will view everything in the future would go the next step and assume I don’t want everything to look like interlaced news photography. Can’t they go all IMAX on this stuff and really blow minds?

2013-04-10 11.14.31

Incremental Progress is a Good Thing

Besides the MoVi, an impressive (if overpriced) $15,000 stabilizer for your $4,000-and-under camera, there was little brand-new to be seen on the expo floor.

MoVi - the newest addition to the "priced to rent" category.

MoVi – the newest addition to the “priced to rent” category.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I was hoping for more from Adobe, Apple (who was rumored to release a new MacPro tower during NAB this year), Panasonic, and Canon. But NAB did deliver in one way: What used to be called “Digital Video” has grown up a bit, and when you grow up you realize that your outlandish promises and expectations are going to be tempered by reality. Although I was hoping to see Adobe release an iPad version of “Adobe Anywhere” so I could continue to work on my edit while waiting for coffee at  Starbucks, it’s fair to understand that companies like Adobe, Blackmagic, Red, Sony, Canon, Panasonic, and even GoPro have taken users a great distance in the last 5 years or so, and we all need to have high-yet-realistic expectations as we push forward into our crazy high-resolution futures.

Whaaaaa?!

Whaaaaa?!

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Post-Mortem: Two Years After the Fall of FCP


What A Difference Two Years Hasn’t Made

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since the stalwart Final Cut Pro shat the bed and drove countless editors into the hinterlands. At NAB 2010 2011 (thanks to Dave Camp for pointing out my error) when Apple took over a Final Cut Pro Users Supermeet to debut their revolutionary new software, the editing world (except those who never left the safety of Avid‘s walled garden) took a deep breath. Was it a gasp of surprise? Shock? Disgust? Apple was after some big game – They went from FCP 7 straight to FCP X – a jump in 3 versions as well as a jump from arabic to roman numerals, perhaps redesigning the way people edit. New interface, new workflow, even new terminology (really? “events?”).

Oh FCPX - How I love to hate you...

Oh FCPX – How I love hating you…

Then two months passed. Then, one day, it was available on the app store and… Pretty much everyone hated Apple’s new cyclopean idiot man-child.

The new version sported a COMPLETELY re-imagined interface, snazzy 64-bit rendering, and an “X.” And as a member of “Generation X,” I know that an “X” immediately makes something cool even if it’s not. The late Steve Jobs, when talking about his position on innovation, was known to quote the even-later Henry Ford when he (supposedly) said “If I’d asked my customers what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”  Well, after checking out the horesless carriage of FCPX, most of us still went equestrian. And so, as I said here, I saw the writing on the wall and moved to the Adobe Creative Suite and haven’t looked back.

We’re now just over two months away from the big NAB show when everyone rolls out their new stuff but all seems relatively quiet in the rumor mill. So before the hubub starts, I think it’s useful to look back on the what’s happened in the last two years to post.

The Biggest Change is No Change

Why can't we quit you FCP7?

Oh FCP7 – I wish we could quit you.

I still talk to a lot of filmmakers and editors who have stuck it out with the tried-and-true beast that was. Final Cut Pro 7 despite how behind-the-curve it is, technology-wise and despite the fact that each passing day brings it closer to not even being supported by Apple. On the few occasions when I’ve been forced to open an old FCP project, it brings back a strange flood of emotions that can only be compared to hooking up with an ex. I know how everything works, I feel completely familiar, but I know it’s not going to last. And although there’s something in here that I have missed, messing around is only going to make the next separation ickier.

Less fortunate are the post businesses who based their entire workflow, therefore most of their business model around the continued use and expansion of the Final Cut Studio suite of applications. Sure, Cinematools had lost most of its use since video cameras started shooting 24 actual frames per second, and sure LiveType had somehow relegated itself to titling for late-night commercials – but Color allowed FCP users to color correct professionally, Soundtrack Pro hadn’t necessarily replaced ProTools, but it sure got a lot of sound work done, and if Motion wasn’t exactly kicking AfterEffects‘ ass, at least it was a functional way to do lower thirds without having to watch a bunch of tutorials. But now those facilities have been forced by Apple to change platforms even if that means sticking with the not-pro-ready world of FCPX, meaning that many are hunkering down (rather than spending tens of thousands revamping a tech infrastructure), but one day will have no choice but to move – and I’m not betting that FCPX is where they’ll go.

The Fairest of Them All

Long live the king.

Long live the king. And longer live their cool logo.

Last year at NAB, I took note of the effort to fill the void left by Final Cut. The obvious contenders were Premiere, Avid, and Sony’s Vegas Video. I still think Avid’s probably been the biggest winner thusfar – the clients who want dependability and usability, those who tend not to be early adopters have good reason to flood back to Avid – the company that started it all. And Avid seems to have responded by dropping their premium price, adding features, and in general reaching out to indies. As a non-Avid user, I’ve probably felt the biggest attraction to the editing stalwart over the last two years as they’ve really gone out of their way to attract everyone from indies to reality shows to blockbuster movies.

My weapon of choice.

My weapon of choice.

The first runner-up is probably Adobe Premiere (what I currently use), who have turned their attentions to the core of the FCP user base. They even got Conan Obrien’s editors to make a video extolling the release of Adobe Premiere CS6, calling it “Final Cut Pro 8.” This year, Adobe sponsored the Sundance Film Festival and it seems that Adobe has chosen to steal a page out of Apple’s book, targeting indies and small shops who need to turn a fine product around for a price and giving them everything they could want. The Adobe Creative Cloud is just that – an inexpensive way to get the entire Adobe suite – Premiere, AfterEffects, Photoshop, Encore – you name it – for less than Avid’s “discounted” price for just the editing software. Honestly, Premiere bundled with AfterEffects was enough to sell me.

Third place goes to – Final Cut Pro X. I know, I’m spending a lot of time railing against the mess that was made out of one of my favorite software packages of all time – but FCPX has started to turn itself around. This is not to say that it’s ready for the professional use that FCP7 enjoyed – I believe FCPX is years away from pro, and their attitude is often hilarious – like when they added multicam and called it a “new feature” (you see, I still remember when it was a “new feature” in 2005). Or when it gave us a viewer window (as seen in every NLE since the dawn of time including FCP’s 1-7) and again touted it as a “new feature.” But interestingly, FCPX has spent the last 48 22 months limping back to usability.

Oh Smoke, your logo confuses me even more than nodal compositing.

Oh Smoke, your logo confuses me even more than nodal compositing.

Honorable mention goes to Smoke 2013. Smoke is an amazing high-end compositing product that has little day-to-day use for most editors in its current form. So to steal the FCP crowd, Autodesk added a mediocre NLE to the platform in hopes that FCP7 users would jump ship, pay $3,000 (three times the price of FCP Studio), and start using this not-ready-for-prime-time NLE and find use for its highest-in-class compositing and finishing tools, many of them nodal and therefore confusing and inscrutable to those of us accustomed to working on a timeline.

…And the Rest

C'mon Vegas. Try harder!

C’mon Vegas. Try harder!

I will never understand why Vegas Video isn’t a bigger deal, but it just isn’t. There is about zero professional market penetration from this product that’s been around almost as long as FCP. And I honestly don’t get it – it’s always done the exact same thing as all the other packages – often ahead of the pack. It has a dedicated and loyal user base, but it’s permanently relegated to “also-ran” status. Even Media 100 had a few years to bask in the sun. Get on it, Vegas! You should have the best slogan at NAB.

Dunno what it will be, but I like the cut of their jib.

Dunno what it will be, but I like the cut of their jib.

For years I’ve been following the exploits of “open source” video editing platform Novacut. It all seems cool and utopian, but I’m still waiting for an actual tool to be delivered that could be used on the Mac and I have to say that developing an editing tool that’s not available for the Mac might undercut most of one’s projected market. Still, I love the optimism of whomever’s behind this – even if all of their Facebook posts sound like a bunch of hacker digerati utopianism. All I want is a thing I can use – but still, I’m keeping an eye on them because maybe we all need a little more utopianism.

The dark horse of all the editing apps out there, which might-one-day promise to revolutionize how we do all this stuff, is the rise of tablet computing. Be it iPad, Android, or even Surface – there are a lot of people trying to crack the nut of allowing us to cut video on these brilliant little devices. Apple originally had iMovie for the iPad, then Avid released an app – which quickly transitioned to being a “Pinnacle” app (read: Avid’s consumer-minded little cousin), and this week we saw the release of an app called TouchEdit (created by Dan Lebental, ACE – editor of the “Iron Man” movies) which I’ve already played around with only to discover that it’s cool but it’s clearly a .1 release. I will track this as it goes (and thanks to Michael Monello for letting me know it was out there!).

Impressive start. Let's see where this goes!

Impressive start. Let’s see where this goes!

None of these apps (I have all 3 myself) are ready for day-in, day-out use as a main tool, but all work fine for crushing crude cuts together in a hurry on location to give filmmakers and clients and idea of what’s going to be. All have problems getting media into their systems, and are restricted by the relatively constrictive storage capabilities of their host tablets. And I have to say the idea of of spending hours transcoding proxy files today sounds unnecessarily retro and wastes all the time you save by having these things being so portable.

My One Prediction…

Currently available - an iPad-driven control surface for FCPX. The downside - FCPX

Currently available – an iPad-driven control surface for FCPX. The downside – FCPX

So where is this all going? What will we all be jawflapping about in months to come? We know a few things – Adobe will release a .5 release of their Creative Suite, bringing us up to CS 6.5 (although I can currently find no rumors about ANYTHING in this suite). Avid will definitely continue its push for a greater market penetration, reclaiming swaths of the editing countryside it lost to Final Cut Pro over the last decade. But my real prediction is that we’re going to see more tablets than ever. Tablets will be used to drive mechanical things, control surfaces for editing systems, you-name-it.

If I could dream big, I would love to see Adobe crush the competition by using things it already (mostly) has and delivering real onset editing on tablet via Adobe’s “Anywhere” technology – allowing filmmakers to park all of their footage on a main server and access it via the internet. Adobe currently has no tablet-based version of Premiere, and has only shown demos of “Adobe Anywhere,” but if we were looking for a game-changing bombshell that would be the one. The rest (and most of what we’ll be seeing) will be awesome, incremental improvements as to be expected.

The Calm Before the Show

Las Vegas

Las Vegas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, the National Association of Broadcasters Convention (NAB) is coming up fast – April 6-11 in soul-killing, drunken, grab-you-by-the-ankles-and-shake-the-money-out-of-your-pockets hellhole Las Vegas. And as much as I “love” Las Vegas, I truly and unironically love the NAB show. It’s where all the camera manufacturers, widgetmeisters, software developers, and even people who refer to their products as “solutions” show up to pimp next years’ wares. The talk of the show last year was Blackmagic’s Digital Cinema Camera – which has barely begun shipping but is making waves nonetheless. And prior to the show, nobody knew squat about it last year, nor Smoke’s plan to become “affordable” after all these long years.

So if you’re driving distance to NAB, I highly recommend you make the journey. An “exhibits-only” pass is free after all!

So what will this year bring?

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What in Hell Happened to Zombies?


After a 10-Year Run, Have Zombies Lost The Ability to Scare Us?

This is not written as a missive against the #1 movie in theaters this week, “Warm Bodies.” I am not a film critic and will leave that job to my betters. I actually enjoyed “Warm Bodies,” but to me it’s a bellwether of a trend in horror, an undead canary in the coal mine if you will.

warm-bodies-movie-poster-7

You see, to me zombie movies are about the end of the world. They’re uncomfortable and sweaty and bloody. They’re often disgusting – even the funny ones should make the average teenage girl puke and your parents worry about you for wanting to see them. And I feel that this is slipping away from zombies faster than you can say “Twilight.”

Before Blockbuster Video…

I’m a little ashamed that I’ve completely forgotten the name of the store.

When I was about 14 years old, there was a video store a short bike ride from my house that had a stunning array of horror titles and an even more stunning apathy when it came to renting them to 14-year-olds. To walk down that aisle, I always felt like I was doing something a little wrong – like I was making society at large a little sad that I was extremely curious about what movies could be represented by the creepy rotting faces and prosthetic horrors on that shelf. That year on Halloween I rented George Romero‘s “Night of the Living Dead” and watched it by myself. Twice. I mean, I’d seen movies – and I’d seen horror movies. But I’d never seen anything that felt as weird, dangerous, and transgressive as that movie.

DOTD

As a teen, zombies appealed to me by speaking to my inner Holden Caulfield. They were outsiders, they brought down society, and in so doing they brought all the flaws of living people to the surface. They told me that under the thin veneer of polite society, many of us are merely caged savages looking for an excuse to take control of the world. They told me that some people are selfish enough to connive and cheat in order to win.

Fulci_zombie

 

…And this was YEARS before “Survivor.”

And then there were the makeup effects and gore. I always loved watching these films and trying to dissect the magic trick that had resulted in the mayhem. I’d already started reading Fangoria magazine, and as I read about the classics of this other kind of film and this video store had several. They had “Zombie” by Lucio Fulci, and the entire Romero Zombie trilogy (“Night” plus “Dawn” and “Day” of The Dead). They had Dan O’Bannon‘s “Return of the Living Dead” (the first movie I ever saw with running zombies) and a bunch of other stuff that I’m not going to talk about now because I want to talk about zombies. And where they’ve gone right and where they seem to be going today.

Culminating, as I said, in a perfectly entertaining movie I saw last night called “Warm Bodies,” which to me indicates that this incarnation of the zombie has finally jumped the shark (at least in terms of being either frightening or transgressive) – a shark literally supplied by Lucio Fulci in 1979.

The Return of The Living Dead Movies

28-days-later-empty-street-small

I recall around 2000, a writer friend had written a script involving zombies. His manager told him he’d have to change it – zombies were out of fashion at the time, and he found another suitable mutation from the human form to chase the protagonists around.

Romero hadn’t made a zombie film since 1985’s “Day of the Dead.” There were monsters that resembled zombies in the abstract, like the Deadites in the “Evil Dead”/”Army of Darkness” movies. And I’m sure there were lots of foreign or indie horrors that I personally missed which featured the walking-around horde – but it wasn’t until 2002 and Danny Boyle‘s fantastic “28 Days Later” that I’d seen them come back.

And yes, I know Boyle makes it clear that they aren’t zombies in the pure sense. But they’re zombies at heart.

DawnSnyder

That same year, we saw the first of 12,000,000 “Resident Evil” movies, the first of which directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and featured a then-fresh take on the Romero-style zombies. A year later we saw the Spierig Brothers’ Australian UFO-driven zombie shoot-em-up “Undead.” Then, one year later we saw Zack Snyder‘s remake of the classic “Dawn of the Dead,” which I found myself arguing with purists about how Snyder (and screenwriter James Gunn) had taken an allegory-rich zombie story and found a fresh allegory that could scare us in the post-9/11 world. The same year was the first high-profile zombie parody in this particular wave, Edgar Wright‘s masterful “Shaun of the Dead.” It should be noted that Wright created a film that worked both as a comedy and a zombie film by never making the zombies any less than a real threat. More on that later.

What followed was a mushroom cloud of zombie films. Whatever you taste is, there’s a zombie movie to fill that niche. Besides the aforementioned barrage of “Resident Evil” movies, we had “28 Weeks Later” (I know, still not technically zombies), a relatively-forgettable remake of “Day of the Dead,” 2006’s “Pathogen” – an ADORABLE zombie movie written and directed by 12-year-old Emily Hagins, microbudget zombies in Steven C. Miller‘s “Automaton Transfusion,” existential French angst-ey zombies in Robin Campillo’s “They Came Back,” and teen  zombies like in Greg Bishop‘s “Dance of the Dead.” Even zombie-genre-creator George Romero got back into the fun with “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead,” and “Survival of the Dead.” And in 2010 we even got a great zombie TV show, “The Walking Dead” (based on the also-awesome comic book).

And many, many, many more.

netflix-gets-the-walking-dead-and-more-from-amc-f36a4e04b7

The new breed of zombies was extra-dangerous. The weapons-grade version of Romero’s walkers and very creepy. With the addition of modern filmmaking technology, the special effects were no longer constrained to what could be executed live on the set so we had some CGI enhancements. And since zombie-loving filmmakers had stewed over the plot holes in the 1970’s zombie movies, the stories often seemed tighter, characters more lucid. Self-aware if you will.

And although in 2009 I thoroughly enjoyed Ruben Fleischer‘s “Zombieland,” and Tommy Wirkola‘s “Dead Snow,” I could feel the self-awareness had a price – the danger began to trickle out and with it, the sense of transgression around these movies. We were running out of zombie stories, but audiences still wanted them, so filmmakers would make zombie movies as a comment on other zombie movies. And that’s how zombies attained postmodern hipster status. And they were becoming downright cuddly.

Zombieland-movie-poster-Woody-Harrelson-Jesse-Eisenberg1

I, Zombie

And that’s what “Warm Bodies” is – a self-aware zombie who makes fun of himself and all the zombie tropes because by now we’re all wondering lots of things about the inner lives of zombies. And because if you dissect any mythology in the right way, it can be shown to be ridiculous.

warm-bodies-poster-teresa-palmer

It’s obvious and expected that zombies get a sendup in a la the “Scary Movie” franchise. And “The Walking Dead” has chewed through just about every zombie scenario there is to eat. But here is something I never expected: I was in a theater for a zombie film, and a sizeable chunk of the audience was the very teenage girls who would lose their lunch 10 minutes into “Bay of Blood.” And by the end, the girls are audibly swooning over the deadly-sincere antics of the Shakespearian star-crossed lovers. Is there anything actually wrong with that? Absolutely not. But for me, it’s akin to that feeling of when the really cool alternative band you loved broke mainstream and suddenly so did their music. And now we’ve lost both what made that band special and what being a fan of that band really meant.

So zombies: I don’t know if we can turn this around or if we even should. Perhaps this genre has become too easy, or those of us who grew up on it have stopped dreaming of newer ways to make subversively entertaining movies. Maybe zombies are the new superheroes – previously relegated to a small cohort of nerdy fans but destined to be the biggest, most explosive entertainment we’ll see in years to come.

Or maybe the genre needs to exhaust itself so that 20 years from now a new breed of filmmaker, living in a different sociological climate with different filmmaking tools in her arsenal will rediscover this stage-blood-soaked thought experiment of what happens when society literally eats itself. I guess we’ll know the direction this summer.

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10 Apps That Will Make You a Better (or more effective) Director


Here I Go Again…

Recently I blogged about Hollywood Shot Designer app, a product I’ve come to know and love. And use – on every shoot. I went the next step, geekdom-wise, and even joined their beta team so now I’m one of the people testing new versions before the public gets them. It’s an app I really believe in because it does a few things supremely right:

  • It takes something I already do and makes it faster, easier, and readable by others.
  • It takes the shit work completely out of the equation. The majority of my thoughts while using it are about the creative work I’m doing.
  • It DOESN’T try to think ahead for me, rather it it lets me use it as much – or as little – as I want.
  • When I’m on a set, it’s right there in my pocket – helping me to get rid of my bulky, always-getting-lost binder of random crap.
  • The price ($20) is totally fair.

There are plenty of apps that I won’t list in this post because I’m really just interested here in helping people find stuff that works. Maybe I’ll do a blog later that craps on stuff that doesn’t. Also I should point out that I’m in the Apple universe (iPad, iPhone, Mac computer). I will try to let you know if these are available on other platforms, but I can’t attest to their usefulness outside of Apple’s walled garden.

But, Before I Start….

You coulda been a contender...

You coulda been a contender…

I want to highlight an app that by all rights should be on this list, if only it would let itself become as great as it could be. That app is Dropbox. Just about everyone I know has glommed onto dropbox over the last few years because it took everything that was utilitarian about FTP transferring and made it as easy as putting things in folders.

Every client I work with, every vendor, and yes – many apps use Dropbox to synch stuff across multiple devices. But for some reason in the development of the Drobox app itself, something went wrong. I can load anything onto dropbox from my computer, but even if I have the proper app on my iPad, I often can’t open a dropboxed file in that app. When I trick it into opening a file, I am confronted with a useless pageful of code. I have ZERO doubt that this will be fixed one day, but one day can’t come soon enough.

Please Dropbox, become Neo. Become The One. Be The Cloud.

With all of that in mind, I thought I’d run down some apps that I find actually useful in the real, actual world.

Hollywood Shot Designer (iPhone, iPad, Droid, Mac/PC)

Cost: Free to try, $20 for pro features (which you’ll want)

Hollywood Shot Designer

I put this at the top here, even after writing about it at the top of this post and blogging about it earlier. I do that because I’ve never been so enthusiastic about using an app to do something creative since the first time I saw a word processor. As I said in my blog, I’ve downloaded and played with about every storyboarding app I’ve ever found, and have come to a startling conclusion – if you want to storyboard, learn to draw. Or hire a storyboard artist. As for Previz, if you really need it (because you’re making “Star Wars Episode 7”), chances are that you’re going to work with a professional facility. What most of us really need is Shot Designer, not because it replaces the need for storyboards, but because it creates the information necessary to do them in the first place.

MagicPlan (iPhone, iPad… Maybe Droid some day)

Cost: Free (although if you want non-watermarked plans you’ll have to pay)

Magic Plan

This app falls into almost another realm of what an app can do than anything I’ve ever seen. Basically, center yourself in a room with your iPhone or iPad. Interactively show the app where corners, walls, doors, etc. are. Then it makes a schematic of the room for you. I’m too much of a cheapskate to buy one of the subscription-based plans, but you can pay just $2.50 for one plan and that might really be worth it if you’re planning a shoot of any complexity.

QRSlate (iPhone, iPad, Mac)

Cost: Free for iPad/iPhone slate, $49.99 for the desktop ingest utility (without which the iPad app is useless). So let’s call it $49.99

QRSlate

Since my iPhone 1 days, I’ve experimented with tablet-based slates. I’ve actually purchased a few of them, but most of them had an insurmountable task to overcome – how to be more usable and useful than a regular-old slate. You know, a dry-erase marker board with a clap stick on top, easily purchased for $20-$30? Most of the slate apps looked cooler but when I’m sitting in front of my NLE later, trying to synch material, they offered me NOTHING new.

QRSlate, however, did it VERY differently. When the camera assistant tapped the tablet to make a beep sound for later synching, it also threw up a QR code. That code contains all the metadata (scene/take/circle take, roll, etc.) as well as any script notes that can be input into it. So basically your script sup can input script notes into the slate app and on ingest they’re attached to all your footage via XML (for Premiere and Final Cut users) or whatever it is Avid uses.

Here’s the rub – you have to purchase a $49.99 desktop ingest utility to make the most out of this. And the utility is, shall we say, less-than-totally-elegant. If your QR code is obstructed in any way or is out of focus – or has a spot of glare on it, you’ll have to manually connect the take to your data (a reasonably quick process). The ingest utility is  also somewhat prone to crashes, and doesn’t let you save the session when it would be most useful. But I’d say 2/3 of the time it works flawlessly and the other 1/3 of the time it works pretty-well. Although they haven’t updated it in a while, I sincerely hope the makers of QRSLate update both utilities and turn this into a must-have item on every set.

Final Draft Writer (iPad)

Cost: $39.99

final draft writer

I know there are a lot of other screenwriting apps out there nowadays that get the job done quite well and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to cut the chord to the tried-and-true, sometimes-bloated screenwriting juggernaut that is Final Draft. And sure, the desktop version is overpriced ($250), but at $39.99 you really do get a desktop-worthy app on your iPad. And a huge benefit is that your work is all compatible with anything you’ve ever done without having to port it over to another app and risk having to reformat lots of stuff. They’ve even added some new things – like coloring revised pages and Dropbox synch. My biggest question now is this: how does Final Draft for desktop computers remain at $250 when one can get a full, functioning version for $39.99?

iBooks (iPad, iPhone)

Cost: Free

iBooks

There are a LOT of PDF readers out there, and I’ve tried a bunch of them. But honestly, nothing beats this free reader that comes with the iPad. Why? Feature creep, that’s why. Each PDF reader I’ve encountered has had a horrible need to add ways to annotate, etc. Honestly, I want a simple way to have my script on my iPad at all times, and I want to be able to access it quickly without printing it out. That’s literally ALL I want. If I want to annotate it, I’ll get it in Final Draft format and bring it into Final Draft Writer.

Artemis Director’s Viewfinder (iPhone, Droid)

Cost: $29.99

artemis

Probably the first “expensive” app I ever bought for my iPhone, Artemis falls into the “find one thing and do that exceptionally well” category of apps. For directors, it’s always tricky to visualize the shot before you’re really there doing it. You have to find your lens, then find your frame. And with the tossed salad of formats (full-frame, S35, micro 4/3, 2/3″ CCD, etc.) that filmmakers might be dealing with from show to show, Artemis does all the math to figure out what each lens will see on each camera. And they’re really good about updating it as new cameras come out. I think I could do a separate blog about apps for cameramen (and I won’t at the moment), but this app really helps on set when no other app will do.

Panascout (iPhone)

Cost: Free (“Lite” version), $9.99 (the actual version you will use)

panascout

I use this app on every professional scout I ever do now. It allows you to take a picture and the app uses all the of the guts of the iPhone to record the GPs coordinates of the shot, the magnetometer reading of the exact direction the camera is facing on a compass, when sunrise and sunset is as the location, and emails it off to the production office without a fuss. And although you can crop the shot to your aspect ratio, make no mistake – it’s no Artemis when it comes to lenses and it isn’t trying to be.

ShotList (iPhone, iPad)

$11.99 – and you have to buy it individually for each device

shotlist

Although Hollywood Shot Designer has taken a bit of this functionality, I’ve used Shotlist quite a bit. Functioning as an aesthetically-pleasing database app, it allows the user to build shot lists with as much or as little detail as they want. Storyboards (or photos from the iPhone or any source) can be attached for reference, and then each shot is reduced to a strip. For users of products like Movie Magic Scheduling (or even old-timey scheduling strip boards… Oy), this should be the most obvious exercise in moving strips around to get the best schedule. It’s really smart, and if you get it for both the iPhone and iPad (as I did) you can share the databases across the two devices.

Vimeo (iPhone, iPad, Droid, Mac/PC)

Cost: Free

vimeo

Possibly the most uncontroversial thing I could say is this – I use Vimeo constantly to show people my reel. This is not a knock against YouTube – but Vimeo is a cleaner interface, and its app is an extension of that. And increasingly clients want material password-encoded on an idiot-proof online format that they can watch anywhere. Seriously, this is it.

Pinterest (iPhone, iPad, Droid, Mac/PC)

Cost: Free

pinterest_badge_red

Pinterest? Really? Yes. Here’s why Pinterest is great for filmmakers – We’re constantly compiling reference material. We’re going online and finding shots, paintings, insects, examples of wardrobe, etc. Sound like great topics for Pinboards? It does. I’ve been known to build reference pinboards for makeup FX, set design, and camera. My only wish is that I could make them private so I could go into more detail about why I was pulling these references, but still it’s a great resource and about the fastest way to organize online references that I’ve ever seen.

What apps do you use? I really REALLY want to know.

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