Original Filmmaker – Be Unique But Familiar

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November 29, 2010

Original Filmmaking – Be Unique But Familiar

Creating something new and original while maintaining a sense of familiarity…

… is the hardest part of making movies. Many attempt but fail miserably, others have knack for it. Most achieve it through trial and error, so therefore the talent can be learned, it just takes a lot of experimenting and having an open mind. 

Finding a balance between something new and unique while keeping it familiar so the audience isn’t too separated from the years of pre-conditioning that has been achieved by radio and filmed entertainment is as difficult as it gets. People know how to watch movies, they’re professionals at it. They know what to look and listen for (whether they know it or not). Movies have been around long enough that the entire populace is familiar with how things are supposed to go. How do you know when you should or shouldn’t experiment with something different? What is safe or not safe to touch? This is a tough one and it took some interviewing of other filmmakers to adequately explore such a topic. I’ve made a lot of experimental films, most of which were shorts and the general consensus is that anything can be manipulated, experimented with or altered completely, but it may not be a great idea to do so in large quantity. Not unless you’re impervious to failure.

The key to achieving success while staying original is to experiment a little bit at a time. Change in the status quo is far less conspicuous when it’s little bits of change here or there rather than a big change all around. This is a common failure that can be seen on occasion, when movie ideas are turned into television shows or when a studio decides to reboot a major marketable franchise and it doesn’t work it. As time goes on and your back catalog of work builds, you’ll find that what you started out doing is drastically different than what you’re doing ten years forward and this is in large part due to experimenting outside of your comfort zone. Even if you only change one thing in every project, as long as it’s a different element each time. Telling a similar or well known story that’s been told a hundred times before, whilst using aesthetics that are not orthodox to that particular kind of story, is just one of many ways of experimenting with a particular set of ideas. An audience will be able to fall back on their familiarity with the story and be much more forgiving if the experiment in aesthetics fails.

You could also try switching it around: tell a story that’s never been told before (that most people wouldn’t dare to tell) using aesthetics that everyone is used to seeing or hearing thus creating expectations that once met, will satisfy most movie goers.  This helps audiences deal with the alteration of story or aesthetics on some level. Once a seasoned pro, go for the gold, tell a daring story that most people would cringe over, tell it in a way no one would dare tell it and be revered as a filmmaker with balls. Of course this blog isn’t meant to be instructional, but to provide incite on approach and technique. Keep in mind that my goal here is to express ideas that will stimulate the imagination and get the gears moving so that you can go about things your way… not necessarily mine or any other filmmaker, without losing your core audience.

Cheers,

-E

Official Introduction: Caroline of Virginia

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November 22, 2010

Official Introduction: Caroline of Virginia

“Caroline of Virginia” my official introduction.

Up to this point I have not been very vocal about my upcoming film “Caroline of Virginia” except to reference it in a few blogs (see “Filmmaking is Terrorism“) and the subtle release of the teaser trailer through online channels. This week I completed and released what I’m calling the featurette trailer. This is basically a regular trailer with various excerpts from the movie, intertwined and out of order, only with this I included interviews with the main cast as to their perceptions of the film while working on it and who their characters are.  Lauren Meley, the lead actress playing Caroline in the film, talks about how she worked out the character and elaborates a bit on the plot and the other characters.  Co-starMichael Scott Ross discusses the originality of the story.

You’ve probably noticed the festival portal by now (if you’re a reader of this blog or a frequent visitor to my website). If you’re not, here’s a brief copy and paste of the summary from my website:

When a deaf woman befriends a musician, she wakes up one morning
with the ability to hear.  Although at first this comes as a blessing, she
realizes there’s a catch to her miracle and it’s all at the musician’s
expense.

This concept came to me in the winter of 2006, just weeks after the December 2005 NYC Transit Strike, which essentially left me stranded from commuting to my day job (at the time I was working for Virgin Entertainment Group). I spent many hours during those three days at my apartment in Brooklyn, learning sign language via the world wide web.  After work resumed I had come up with the idea of a deaf woman, who is granted the ability to hear, under the condition that her love interest would give up his hearing at will. It’s a pretty crazy story and was amplified this summer when I decided to write her love interest as being a professional musician.  I’m still in post-production of this film and expect it’s completion in January, at which point I will immediately begin sending screeners to as many festivals as I can afford.  Additionally I am seeking to have public screenings in both NYC and Los Angeles within the year 2011 and want to use this blog as a forum for calling out anyone who’d be willing to help us out with that. Suggestions for movie theaters seeking original independently produced material or connections to people who know how to make these things happen. I’m all ears (no pun intended).

In the weeks following the new year, expect major progress with this film. This movie is different. I can’t tell you that with complete honesty. Nothing I’ve done rivals this and it only forces me to bring it up a notch the next time around. This film is personal, it is rich and it has the best actors I’ve ever worked with.  If you’re interested in following the progress further, updates will be posted to the portal:http://www.ericnorcross.com/carolinevirginia.html and of course via my social networking pages/feeds which are all available through thewebsite.

Cheers,

-E

Working For Clients

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November 19, 2010

Working For Clients

It’s not the same as producing specs or making films independently… but it’s fun all the same!

If you’re considering producing films and video (or other media) for clientele, then certainly you can never get enough advice. Moving from the realm of producing your work independently on spec to working as a subcontractor for a studio or media company is a major step forward. In this installment I wanted to venture into how to approach client projects (verses your own personal projects) and what to expect and not expect. When I first started producing and directing commercials for client companies I was taken aback by the lack of efficiency, the inability to grasp a vision (even with storyboards) and the overall difficulty of getting my ideas across. Even with today’s tools (animatics etc.) it is still quite difficult for those not in this business to grasp a concept prior to its creation. Early on I was lucky enough to be warned of this and prior to landing my first real corporate gig, was able to formulate my ideas in a way that a business oriented executive would understand it. A large part of communicating your ideas to people not in the field of media production is to use vocabulary that they understand and utilize on a daily basis. Being able to talk the lingo of their industry is important if you’re going to be representing them in the media realm. You’re not just directing their commercial, you’re part of their marketing department and their marketing department should know everything there is to know about their product or service. Additionally, it helps to find someone within their company who understands the creative process. Film and video technology is well known enough that there’s usually somebody you can relay information to, should you be at a loss on how to articulate your vision.

On thing to keep in mind is this: while they hire you or your company for your professionalism, coordinating and creative abilities, it’s their ideas they’re going to go with, for the most part. It doesn’t matter if they like your work or your vision for their promotional media. They know their product and they know their service better than you ever will and if they think a certain approach won’t work – then it probably won’t. Sometimes you might be able to do a version of an ad to your vision, but the likelihood that they’d choose to go with it is extremely slim. The key is to not be offended. Artists are a very sensitive group of people and business execs can be very stubborn when it comes to the creation of their media, even if it doesn’t seem like they know what they’re doing. Unless their budding entrepreneurs, they’ve probably gone through the trials of production before and know exactly how things should go.

Don’t expect all out glory. I’ve never created anything for clients that I was 100% satisfied with, mainly because any aspects of a production I would consider great, the client will sometimes refuse to utilize. Some commercials I’ve created, while pristine upon assembly, once edited at the request of the client, end up being as generic and boring as anything on the market today. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes you’re vision doesn’t fit the needs of the company. Sometimes the company isn’t ready for a risky or innovative campaign. Perhaps it wouldn’t appeal to the demographic they’re trying to court. An example I have from a previous work: I had my DP shoot this beautiful Steadicam walk-through of the client’s establishment (a service industry). It was incredibly cinematic, like something out of Goodfellas. Upon delivery of the assembly, the first comment was to lose the Steadicam shot. It turns out that the client didn’t want to reveal how big the establishment really was and the Steadicam shot revealed that (you could see three walls during the entire walk through). I hadn’t considered this and even though it was on my storyboards, it didn’t occur to them that this would be an issue until after the commercial was assembled. Most production companies would start billing overages for cock-ups like this, I on the other hand rather enjoyed the surprise (after griping about it for a week). Rather than taking my distraught feelings out on their bill, I decided to make the best of it and get creative with the editing. I ended up delivering several 30 second versions with different shots in place of the walk-through, plus a 1 minute version that included the walk-through in case they wanted a video to loop on the monitors inside the place of business. It wouldn’t matter then because the patrons would already have seen what the interior looks like.

Your job isn’t to creatively direct a project as much as it is to be a reassuring presence during the period in which they are producing their media. You’re going to be more of a consultant than anything, especially during the pre-production and post-production processes.

Things that are most likely to bother you when working with clients:

1. Removing shots: as discussed above with the “steadicam” walk-through.
2. Music:
 I’ve had clients choose low quality stock music over beautifully composed original score. In this case there’s not a whole lot you can do except use the music they think will best serve the intentions of the media. After all, it’s their media not yours, all you can do is advise them on the pros and cons and let it be.

A common resolve to any of these problems: If you’re editing it yourself or have a good relationship with your editor, have two versions done. Use the version of the commercial you want for your portfolio and deliver the version the client wants for broadcast.

Don’t let any of this scare you. Working for clients can be quite rewarding and help you establish a good footing in a very saturated and difficult industry. You’re a professional now, creative control isn’t something everyone is able to hold onto (even the guys in the big leagues).

As Optimus Prime says “No Sacrifice, No Victory”. I couldn’t agree more!

-E

 

 

When It’s Time For A Change

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November 16, 2010

When It’s Time For A Change…

A small change can go a long way, but a big change can go hundreds of miles.

Changing your approach is a big deal. Changing your usual cast and crew: HUGE. Anyone that follows my resume of film work will see that the first bunch of films and videos I have produced and directed will notice that I’ve used most of the same cast and labor for most of these projects. Only recently did I decide to shake the tree free of those that have performed valiantly for my films in the past. This year I went on to experiment with a new cast and a new crew of behind the scenes wizards… so to speak. Some directors like to start fresh on every project and I could always see why: it is an effective measure to prevent the director’s work from going stale. It keeps the work fresh, new and different: unique from any previous works.

I had always been nervous about straying apart from the clan I had inadvertently created. I knew how everyone worked, knew their rates and found it more efficient to build the productions based on this particular knowledge. To break free and experiment with other talent I started small, beginning with Steinway Street (a film currently in post-production). For this I opted to use as little crew and talent as possible, to see if I could make a film without them. When this proved to be a success I decided to go back to my traditional style of film making with Caroline of Virginia, an extended short or short feature (depending on the festival). This time I had a cast I hadn’t worked with (or briefly worked with on previous projects) and completely new behind the scenes talent. With new talent comes a new approach, a new experimental relationship between people passionate about what they’re doing. As a result, both projects stand out among all of my previous pieces. They are fresh, they are new and I’m happier than ever that I took such a risk. Additionally the fresh faces and their drive had also inspired me to take risks in the shooting of the film, thus improving the aesthetics all around.

How do you know when it’s time to change your regulars? You’ll know. Sometimes they’ll know too. Sometimes it’s mutual, other times it isn’t. You may get bored with what they’re delivering to your projects every day, they may get bored with you and/or your projects. The key is to just move onto the next project as if it were expected by both parties, keep them in the loop with what you’re doing, but not so much so that they expect they’ll be asked to participate. In the end, if there’s no role for them, there’s no role. You have the right to work with other people and you absolutely should. The worst case scenario is you’ll break these relationships inadvertently through actions that can only result via exhaustion. I hadn’t realized it, but a couple years ago after shooting multiple shorts and a series of television pilots, I had grown tired of working with the same cast for the past few years. They were talented and dedicated, but my work was going stale and I saw no mechanism for elevating my career any further at the rate I was going. Likewise, I could see that their dependence on me and my projects were hurting their ability to get work from other filmmakers. They felt the same way but were afraid to confront this fact. With some it was subconscious and they weren’t sure how they were feeling.

At a certain point we decided to take a break to sort things out. Get our thoughts into order and figure out why things were becoming hostile between us. On my end it was meant to be a temporary break, on their end it was for good. In the end it all came as a blessing. They went back to working with the filmmakers that they had first started working with before they met me and I was able to experiment more with concepts they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Some time ago a composer/sound designer and close friend who I had literally worked with since my first film project, decided to up and quit on me. There were a lot of reasons why, mostly because he wasn’t psychologically fit to handle a career in film. For a while I was at a loss as to who could fill his shoes. To this day I haven’t been able to replace him, but this hasn’t thwarted me in getting things done. All this has done is allowed me to find ways of networking with new crew, new talent and ultimately learn how to take on more post-production tasks myself.

With a sudden change of resources we are able to elevate ourselves in ways we cannot possibly imagine from the comfort of routine.

-E

 

 

The Photographer’s Bill Of Rights

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The Photographer’s Bill of Rights, special thanks to PetaPixel for providing these:

July 2010 Edition

1. You can make a photograph of anything and anyone on any public property, except where a specific law prohibits it.
i.e. streets, sidewalks, town squares, parks, government buildings open to the public, and public libraries.

2. You may shoot on private property if it is open to the public, but you are obligated to stop if the owner requests it.
i.e. malls, retail stores, restaurants, banks, and office building lobbies.

3. Private property owners can prevent photography ON their property, but not photography OF their property from a public location.

4. Anyone can be photographed without consent when they are in a public place unless there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
i.e. private homes, restrooms, dressing rooms, medical facilities, and phone booths.

5. Despite misconceptions, the following subjects are almost always permissible:
* accidents, fire scenes, criminal activities
* children, celebrities, law enforcement officers
* bridges, infrastructure, transportation facilities
* residential, commercial, and industrial buildings

6. Security is rarely an acceptable reason for restricting photography. Photographing from a public place cannot infringe on trade secrets, nor is it terrorist activity.

7. Private parties cannot detain you against your will unless a serious crime was committed in their presence. Those that do so may be subject to criminal and civil charges.

8. It is a crime for someone to threaten injury, detention, confiscation, or arrest because you are making photographs.

9. You are not obligated to provide your identity or reason for photographing unless questioned by a law enforcement officer and state law requires it.

10. Private parties have no right to confiscate your equipment without a court order. Even law enforcement officers must obtain one unless making an arrest. No one can force you to delete photos you have made.

When confronted, threatened with detention or the confiscation of equipment, ask the following questions:

* What is your name?
* What is the name of your employer?
* May I leave? If not, what is the legal basis of my detention?
* If equipment is being demanded, what is the legal basis for the confiscation?

Again, thanks everyone for helping me bring this serious subject matter to light.  Hopefully with a little education we can ultimately change the fears of the percentage of the security populous and educate them as to what the real laws regarding photography actually are.

Cheers,

-E

 

 

Personalize Your Films

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November 12, 2010

Personalize Your Films

Many indie directors just starting out have expressed that they don’t feel like it’s their film if they don’t write , shoot, edit or direct it and some even feel they have to act in it. But the truth is there are lots of ways to spread the work (and fun) around without sacrificing the personal aspects of your project. You don’t need to work every position on set to make it yours. Some ways I’ve integrating my personal beliefs, history and interests into past projects without risking the integrity of the production are as simple as writing in your history and beliefs into the characters that are being portrayed. Sometimes props and sets may be of use on this front.

There are times when I’ve included things like my favorite poem “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the basis for the forth episode of Family Practice. In Gnarled Hollow Road, the second experimental short in the Lancaster Horror Series, the radio commentator we hear throughout is a Maine native by the name of Mark Persky. I grew up listening to Mark’s morning radio show on WBLM 102.9, through middle school and high school. The use of his talent was strictly personal: I always thought if the world was ending and I was to find out through mass media, I would want the news broken to me by someone with Mark’s humor and sensibility. The earlier films were more in-your-face with my personality, Juror 3is a prime example. At one point in early 2009, I was interviewed to be a juror on a malpractice case. My code name (because they couldn’t use my real name) was Juror 3. Additionally, the entire film came out of my experience going to jury duty in Manhattan. As my filmmaking skills developed and I experimented more (this is the beauty of the short film), I began finding other ways to integrate myself into the project, without making it too obvious.

For example, in my latest film project “Caroline of Virginia“, there is a scene where the character Caroline is being taught the basics of guitar. In the scene she is holding a single cut Taylor acoustic/electric. Also in the scene, she is learning the C chord. That Taylor guitar is, well, a fairly expensive model and on my list of dream-instruments I’d like to obtain someday. To have it included in the film is a wonderful (and personal) feeling. Additionally, the first chord I ever learned on guitar (and piano for that matter) was the C.

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Consider where the locations for some movies were filmed. The use of the director’s parents house because the director wanted a record of where he grew up, or the use of a convenience store because the director saw a new movie every time he clocked in for work. Personalizing your films is important, otherwise all you have is generic story with no heart. But to personalize it with taste makes it all that much more rewarding. So the next time you’re watching a film, wonder to yourself how much random information is included, simply because the director wanted to subtlety personalize it.

-E

Don’t Wait – Just Make Your Movie!

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November 10, 2010

 

Don’t Wait To Make Your Movie: Just Make It

 

If you’re like me and want to spend as little financial resources as possible into your film project, the best investment you can make is to take the time and learn how to utilize what equipment you have to the max. Most people, regardless of their experience and knowledge, rarely maximize the equipment they have access to. For the past two years I’ve been shooting on a Canon XH-A1 for the most part, with the exception of a few medium budget client projects that required my company rent higher end cameras. Through shooting commercials, plays, music videos and my own films, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much I use this camera, I will never realize it’s true full potential. The XH-A1 is an amazing camera, and the funny part is, with the proliferation of memory cards and hard drives instead of tape, my camera is practically obsolete (which kind of creases me, seeing as how I paid $3,500 to get it going).

It’s a shame though, this baby has paid my rent since I first started shooting with it and hasn’t failed me yet. She works in low light conditions, bright conditions, and not a single weather pattern or climate has quelled it’s performance. It’s a trooper, a workhorse. If you’re like me, occasionally you probably get the idea that you should hold off on certain “special” projects until you acquire a bigger budget or a better camera. But what I’ve come to realize after being out of the indie-film game for a few years (between the ages of 24 and 26), is that once you start waiting, you’ve basically given up on the idea altogether.

Dream projects are possible, even if executing them isn’t the vision you had when you first conceived these ideas. The mindset is the first thing you need to get control of. Stop thinking about what equipment you don’t have access to and accept what equipment you do have access to. In the end all you need is a camera, a tripod, a couple of lights and a device to record separate audio (or a good shotgun mic to attach to the camera). Beyond that, everything else is fluff. You don’t need more than three lights on average, you don’t need a glidecam, a jib, dolly, slider or a second unit camera. Some folks just starting out may not realize this, but if you back yourself away from the subject your filming, and zoom in, you can easily create the out-of-focus background effect without any additional lens attachments. Check out this still from my upcoming film “Caroline of Virginia“:

No fancy attachments, just me several feet away on a zoom. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a little bit of experimentation. It’s also wonderful to be able to compete with films that have used such devices and for the filmmakers of said films to assume you utilized the same tools. Now this has happened and the look on their faces when you tell them you didn’t, well: sure it’s a look of disdain mixed with disbelief, but it’s still satisfactory on some level. If you’re interested in tips/tricks to increasing the production value of your film, without spending a dime, subscribe to this blog.

Cheers,

-Eric