Do we have a new sci-fi classic movie from Spielberg?
That’s probably going to be hotly debated for quite a while, but Spielberg’s adaptation of the novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, feels like a blend of the more classic tone and adventure vibe of E.T. and the look of Minority Report. Cline’s novel seems to have divided people, with passionate responses on either end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s too nerdy and filled with too many geeky references, and ultimately follows what strikes many people as an unlikeable character. On the flip side, it’s a love letter to video game nerds of my generation, guys like me who grew up playing Atari, Nintendo, and goofy computer games like Zork.
Well, one thing’s for sure. Whatever you may have thought of Cline’s novel, Spielberg’s movie is quite different. Whether that’s a good thing or not may depend on you opinion of the book. I found the movie to be a highly watchable adventure tale though it was populated with some rather pedestrian characters. The forward movement of the plot dominates the story, which is often the case with novels of this type adapted to the screen. After all, feature films (as I discuss more in my book) are structurally closer to short stories than novels. It’s really hard to adapt even a relatively short novel down into a 2-hour movie. Add into that the world-building aspect of a futuristic society addicted to VR and it gets even harder. There’s a lot of information dumbing required and it tends to come out in bursts of explanatory dialogue between characters about things that honestly they should all already know but that they need to tell each other so that we, the audience, can hear it for the first time.
While the movie is quite fun and visually engaging, it lacks some of the darker undertones of the novel (no mention of sex with robotic surrogates while plugged into the Oasis). In part, this is due to the fact that plot takes most of the focus of the storytelling while character development is reduced to more basic and familiar ideas we’ve seen in other movies before. And in this sense, I’m less of a fan of the movie’s handling of the characters than the novel. This may come as a shock to people who find the movie’s version of the main character more likable than the novel’s. Let me explain.
I find it fascinating when people confuse the likability of a character with our ability to empathize with them. I found Michael B. Jordan’s “bad guy” character in Black Panther to be someone I ultimately didn’t like (he was a bay guy, after all) but for whom I felt profound empathy. I understood why he felt the way he did even if I completely disagreed with his violent and vengeful methods. There are plenty of stories in which we might find ourselves empathizing with an unlikable character (Breaking Bad, anyone?).
So, while I am aware that the main character in the Ready Player One novel is not always the most the likable guy around, I still empathized with his situation and his journey. For one thing, the theme of empathy is actually rather crucial to Wade’s development in the book. He begins the story as a rather self-absorbed teen who just wants a way out of his rather shitty existence. Honestly, I get it. I was quite self-absorbed as a teen too, and I wasn’t living in a dystopian world with little prospects for my future. Add to this the fact that Wade is growing up in a world dominated by technology and virtual reality where actual human contact is minimal and it should become rather obvious that Wade is going to struggle with empathy in general.
Neuroscience supports this notion. Children need to have interactions with real, live people in order to learn languages. That’s why those DVDs that claim they’ll teach your baby a foreign language are a load of crap. Don’t believe me? I recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Along with language development, children also learn to read and understand emotional cues through interacting with real people. As we continue to grow, our patterns of behavior shape our ability to empathize and be present and connected to other people. Technology can have negative effects on our abilities to empathize, as indicated by this 2014 study that suggests that the presence of a smartphone lowers our ability to empathize with conversation partners.
So here’s Wade, growing up on virtual reality. Does he struggle with empathy and thus being a typically likable character? You bet your ass he does! But in this way, the Wade of the novel strikes me as far more believable than the one in the film. Spielberg’s Wade is a wide-eyed kid who just hasn’t grown up enough to realize there are deeper concerns than his future alone. He’s handsome in a nerdy way and easy enough to like.
The novel’s Wade, on the other hand, starts as an overweight hardcore nerd who has numbed his pain at the loss of his parents by escaping to a virtual world. His natural state of existence is isolation. His goals are to ensuring his own comforts and survival. He has no real empathetic adult figures in his life that have been consistent and ever-present. As a result, he has limited empathy for the people around him even as they wind up being killed by IOI. While some people might be turned off by this, I found myself thinking, nah, I get it. What else does this kid know at this point?
What ultimately has me reflecting on the novel (but that feels lacking in the movie) is that its main character really grows by the end. To keep things shorter (and possibly give it more of a boy-saves-girl vibe) in the movie, it is Samantha who gets captured by IOI and enslaved. But in the book, Wade is the one who has developed a rather elaborate and highly risky plan to be captured by IOI and entered into their indentured servant program in order to gain the required access to the IOI systems so he can hack them. I get why the movie skipped all of this as this section of the novel could be a feature film of its own.
Wade’s whole plan is incredibly risky as it could well result in his enslavement for life. It also represents a big shift in Wade’s worldview. It would have been much easier for him to stick to a safer plan in which he could continue trying to be the first to the egg and become the sole victor. Instead, he puts himself in harm’s way to do what he can to ensure that IOI will not become the lords of the Oasis, ruining it for everyone and continuing its enslavement program. This side journey sets Wade up to make more self-sacrificial choices by the end of the book. But this is not something the Wade at the beginning of the novel would have done. His contact with Samantha slowly affects him and he has time to go through a very familiar maturation process for someone in their late teens: the realization that the world is bigger than one’s own preoccupations. As a result, the ending of the novel felt more satisfying for me as Wade traveled a longer distance in his personal growth.
Is the movie worth watching? Sure. But even though I know the detractors of the book might disagree with me, I think the novel’s worth more some very thoughtful reading and reflection.
[Originally published on MikelWisler.com. Republished with permission.]
I’ve been doing some research for the second edition of my book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age. One area that I’m particularly keen on expanding is the developing reality and complexities in the film festival circuit these days. The past 18 years have been marked by a lot of changes for film festivals and indie filmmakers, particularly filmmakers making short films.
The story of how Withoutabox (WAB) went from a genuinely revolutionizing tool for indie filmmakers to slowly becoming almost unanimously hated by festivals and filmmakers alike is a powerful illustration of how much the internet is rapidly changing independent filmmaking as a whole and the importance of adapting quickly. Before Withoutabox was launched in 2000, filmmakers had to do extensive research on their own to collect a list of prospective festivals they may or may not qualify for and then fill out forms for each festival individually, often having to find someone to fill out such forms in the native language of the festival if submitting overseas. Then everything had to be mailed out with a check and a VHS copy of the film. If the film was accepted, the filmmaker was notified by mail, at which point they had to provide the festival with a 35mm film print for exhibition at the festival.
But when Withoutabox showed up, suddenly filmmakers had a one-stop-shop where they could enter their film’s information a single time and then submit to festivals all over the world. It was a major game-changer. But it didn’t take long for things to start turning sour. Right away, Withoutabox filed for a rather broad-reaching patent for their online festival database and submission service. By 2004, it was granted this patent whose summary read as follows:
Internet-based film festival digital entry and back office services suite model. As new computerized methods using a database system on a global network to administer film festivals. The methods include the filmmakers inputting film information into the database, which information becomes available to selected film festivals. The system preferably handles multiple submissions to different festivals, processes applications, provides simultaneous judging of a competition, and schedules film play times at the festivals.
As quoted in “The Seismic Shift in the World of Film Festivals” by Stephen Follows
This patent made it so that it was virtually impossible for anyone to create anything remotely resembling what WAB was offering so as to compete with it. And for years, no one did. I started submitting my first films to festivals in 2004. It was at this time that I became aware of Withoutabox. I created an account and dipped my toe tentatively into the waters of film festival submissions. My first short film I submitted to festivals was one I’d shot during my senior year of college. At 37-minutes, It was long for those pre-YouTube days. It never made it into any festivals. I continued making films and using WAB, as it was the only method available for most festivals.
In 2008, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which itself had been bought out by Amazon a few years before, bought Withoutabox for $3 Million. What followed were years of stagnation and zero improvements on the same system that had been in place from day one as eventually every original member of the company left. There were a couple attempts to compete with Withoutabox by Submissions 2.0 and Indee.tv, but those were ultimately squashed by fear of Amazon’s team of lawyers, which was known for relentless protection of their patents. Click here for more on that.
Festivals were also held hostage by WAB’s insistence that to use their services at all they had to agree to exclusively use Withoutabox as their means of receiving submissions. Festivals that opted to sign up for other submissions services got strongly worded emails from WAB. Withoutabox also charged festivals astronomical fees to be listed at all, even if a festival was accepting free submissions, which resulted in most festivals having to increased their submission fees to remain viable, passing along the expense to filmmakers. In fact, things were so fishy that at one point the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into Withoutabox and it’s anti-competitive practices in demanding exclusivity from festivals. For more on this, please click here.
The one advantage to having Internet Movie Database own Withoutabox was that it suddenly became much easier for filmmakers like me to get our short films listed on IMDb simply by submitting to partner festivals. This was a welcome resume building aspect of the service, but already the site was feeling clunky and outdated having changed little in since its inception.
Finally, in 2009, a full five years after Vimeo had been launched and four years after YouTube began, Withouabox added a means by which filmmakers could upload their films to be submitted to festivals, their “Secure Online Screener” system. Prior to this, I was mailing DVDs to festivals just like everyone else. The introduction of the Secure Online Screener option seemed like good news. However, the quality was pitifully low, the system was buggy and often crashed while judges viewed films, and each submission cost filmmakers an additional $2.95 per festival. Barbara Morgen, executive director of the Austin Film Festival, had this to say about the Secure Online Screener service in 2012, “Last year, we had 1,000 online submissions, and I didn’t watch one film through that system that didn’t have a technology issue. It was constantly freezing. And that’s not the way to watch a film. And it’s not the way an emerging filmmaker should have their work shown.” For more on this, click here.
In short, Withoutabox was not keeping up with the digital revolution. They failed to understand what was happening with online video streaming and social networking and seemed more interested in nickel-and-diming filmmakers for their subpar service. Some festivals opted to leverage these systems and work outside of WAB. Matt Marxteyn, director of Red Rock Film Festival in Utah, pointed out in a 2012 interview that, “With so many free social networking sites, there are so many options now for festivals. [WAB is] a great service, but it’s not the only one around.” The internet was changing things quickly, but WAB was slow to adapt. After all, what motivation to innovate is there when you believe yourself to be the only game in town?
While some were happy to use WAB, many festivals and filmmaker grew bitter. A Facebook page called, “Filmmakers and Festivals Against Withoutabox” was launched. In May of 2012, IndieWire wrote that Withoutabox was “facing increasing complaints from festival organizers and filmmakers that Withoutabox’s technology is clunky and out-of-date, their movie viewer is substandard and claims to exclusivity are unfair.”
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2013, the non-profit film production and distribution company I help run, Stories by the River, began accepting submissions for its first film festival, which took place in January of 2014. Knowing that it would cost us at least $1,200 just to get our festival listed on Withoutabox, we opted to circumvent WAB completely. After all, the only options at that time were pay WAB’s hefty fees or go it alone. So we set up an Eventbrite page and accepted submissions through it. We skipped physical media completely. Instead, we asked filmmakers looking to submit their films for consideration that they send us a Vimeo or YouTube link. The links could be public or private. Selected films were then asked to send us an HD file of their film we could download for projection at the festival. We used this system for the first two years of the Stories by the River Film Festival. But the film festival game was about to change dramatically.
In January of 2014, FilmFreeway launched with a completely different outlook on how to do film festival submissions in the digital age. They leveraged high-quality online video streaming as means to streamline the submission process by allowing a filmmaker to use their in-house system or Vimeo at no cost. The entire process was modern, fluid, and intuitive compared to Withoutabox, which was still largely the same website it had been upon launch fourteen years before. Even more crucially, FilmFreeway demanded no exclusivity from festivals and charged much lower administrative fees. This directly resulted in lower submission fees for many festivals, which ultimately benefited festivals and filmmakers. But how did FilmFreeway get around Withoutabox’s rather expansive patent? Simple, they’re in Canada. US patent laws have no jurisdiction in another country.
As a filmmaker submitting to festivals, I had long grown weary and frustrated with WAB. As soon as I learned of FilmFreeway, I jump aboard. While I was still using Withoutabox to some extent at the time, I made my first submission through FilmFreeway in April of 2014. Eventually, as more festivals joined FilmFreeway, my use of WAB dwindled. I made my last submission through Withoutabox on May 20, 2015. It seems I wasn’t alone.
By mid-2015, FilmFreeway matched Withoutabox in web traffic, according to an article on Stephen Follows Film Data and Education, which drew its information from Alexa (a company also owned by Amazon, interestingly enough). By the end of the year, FilmFreeway surpassed Withoutabox in traffic and has never looked back. Reluctantly, Withoutabox was finally forced to make changes. Their Secure Online Screener system was improved, adding support for HD video (years after it was already standard on other video streaming platforms) and made it free to filmmakers. Costs for festivals were lowered and exclusivity demands dropped. The site itself has also seen major improvements.
The story of Withoutabox and FilmFreeway illustrates the profound importance of competition in the market and the need for innovation in response to the rapidly changing digital landscape. What Withoutabox was when it launched in 2000 was truly revolutionizing. But it failed to keep up. It failed to pay attention to what was happening to online video distribution through sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Ultimately, greed got in the way of adaptability and improvement and Withoutabox suffered significantly. FilmFreeway now sits comfortably at the top of the festival submission game.
Meanwhile, savvy filmmakers and film festival organizers kept an eager eye out for something that might disrupt Withoutabox’s stranglehold on the festival market. FilmFreeway has proven to be the perfect disruptor, which has been a welcome thing. But are there side effects to FilmFreeway’s success at toppling Withoutabox?
Well, for one thing, it’s now easier and cheaper than ever to launch a film festival. Virtually anyone can do it (at least once). And the data seems to suggest many people are giving it a go.
FilmFreeway allows users to sort festivals by many criteria, including the number of years a festival has been running. In January of 2018, setting the display options to show only festivals that had run for a single year resulted in a list of 1,374 film festivals. There were 999 festivals that had been running for two years, 730 for three years, 516 for four years, and 384 for five years. Maybe some of these festivals existed in other forms prior to using FilmFreeway, but the reality is that the majority of these numbers likely represent festivals that launched in earnest in recent years. Even if only half of those numbers represent truly brand new festivals, this trend indicates a steady rise in the number of film festivals being launched each year. At some point, this bubble will have to burst, but the trend continues for now and this indicates that more people and organizations are creating their own festivals. In short, there are more film festivals today than ever before.
What this suggests to me is that the purpose film festivals serve is fundamentally changing. Especially when it comes to short films, it is now quite unrealistic to expect that getting into festivals will get Hollywood studio executives or distributors to see your work and come talk to you about making more films. These executives, producers, and distributors simply are not in attendance. On the other hand, if your goals are to get your film in front of indie film enthusiasts, share it with appreciative audiences that will see your work projected on a large screen and not on a smartphone, and do some networking with other indie filmmakers, there are now more opportunities than ever.
For more on the rapidly evolving reality short films face today thanks to the internet, check out my book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age, available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I got to use those same lenses for three projects early on in the first couple of years of creating projects for Stories by the River. The projects were two sci-fi shorts I directed (“A Silent Universe” and “Playing with Ice”) and one drama I DPed (“Melt”).
I miss real Cine lenses sometimes. But I stand by my choice to purchase the much more affordable Rokinon “Cine” lenses. I put “Cine” in quotes there because there are certain factors that make these entry-level lenses not quite what a pro cinematographer might want. In essence, they are still photo lenses reverse engineered to work more or less like traditional Cine lenses. But they lack sharpness wide open, they can be a little too contrasty, and the build quality is understandably not the same as Cine lenses that cost ten times as much.
Still, I do believe that the Rokinons have offered up great results. They’re like any tool in the micro-budget filmmaker’s toolkit: you have to know a given tool’s limitations and then you can make the most of it. So I don’t tend to shoot wide open on my Rokinons, for one thing.
For fun, here’s a look back at two of the films I directed using the Zeiss Super Speeds.
“A Silent Universe.” Cinematography by Teresa Rinehart.
“Playing with Ice.” Cinematography by Bryant Naro.
And finally, here’s two short films I directed using the Rokinon lenses.
“Parallel.” Cinematography by Rajah Samaroo.
“Intrigue.” Cinematography by Trevor C. Duke.
What are your thoughts on the quality difference (real or perceived)?
[This post first appeared on mikelwisler.com on December 9, 2016.]
Before I was a filmmaker, I was a sci-fi writer. I’m still a sci-fi writer. What can I say, I’m a huge nerd and I love it.
I recently came across a video I hadn’t seen of Ben Affleck doing part of the Criterion Collection edition commentary on the movie Armageddon. It brought back some memories and made me realize something about the film I hadn’t years ago.
I haven’t seen Armageddon in a long time. I saw it in theaters and then got a VHS copy of the film for Christmas. I was only in high school in ’98 when the film came out. But even as a high schooler, I have to admit that between Armageddon and the other “a huge asteroid is about to hit earth” blockbuster of that era, Deep Impact, I was a little more into Deep Impact. The plot and characters struck me as slightly more authentic than Michael Bay’s rather silly concept of a gang of oil drillers magically turned astronauts.
Take a look at this short segment from Affleck’s commentary for Armageddon:
It’s pretty hilarious, in my opinion. Maybe Affleck just doesn’t care anymore what Michael Bay thinks of him, or maybe Bay is really a good sport and now recognizes this particular glaring logical misstep in the movie’s concept. Either way, seeing this video pop up on my Facebook feed made me realize that Armageddon ultimately is not very kind to scientists, in particular to everyone working for NASA.
This strikes me as sci-fi written by non-science-loving folks. Or at least, created by people who don’t understand what scientist really do. Meanwhile, screenwriter Drew Goddard has openly stated that his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, is intended to be a love letter to science. And that makes sense. Weir’s novel features a scientist, Mark Watney, who is both endowed with intellect and profound humanity. He’s got a dark sense of humor, makes mistakes, but learns and adapts. And in the end, it’s his determination to do the math and work through the logical and scientific challenges he faces that keeps him alive.
Armageddon isn’t alone in portraying scientists poorly. There’s a danger in sci-fi to rely on the notion of the “mad scientist” who brings about some grand threat to humanity. Now, that’s not to say that sci-fi writers are not allowed write stories where scientist go too far and bring about problems. I’m a fan of such stories and I’m even prepping to publish a two new novels of my own that deal with ethical problems brought about by greed, fear, and other factors influencing our scientific pursuits. But the important thing for me is that these are universal human shortcomings we all face, scientist or not. And scientists are definitely quite human.
For a good example of this, I recommend checking out Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks. I’m working my way through it right now and finding it to be incredibly enlightening to the humanity of scientists in both their great reliance on intuition and their hubris that has caused many problems throughout history. It’s a fascinating read and really brings valuable perspective.
So what am I getting at? I believe in the three-dimensional portrayal of characters. Armageddon, in its effort to get us to buy what is ultimately a ludicrous concept (that a bunch of oil drillers can be transformed into competent astronauts with a mere week or two of training) ends up being quite insulting to actual astronauts and all scientists who work for years to make the breakthroughs that allow our knowledge and technology to advance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that oil drillers are buffoons. It’s not a simply either/or situation. If a movie were to portray a plot in which a scientist, let’s say a chemist, where to show up and save the day by fixing a car a bunch of mechanics had been unable to fix, I would find that equally ridiculous. You’d have to set up clearly that this chemist has a background as a mechanic. But still, if the chemist has been working as a chemist for years what’s the likelihood they have the real-world experience as a mechanic to do a far better job than any actual mechanics? It could happen, but it’s incredibly unlikely. More importantly, how are the mechanics portrayed in such a story?
In the case of Armageddon, NASA’s scientists are presented through the lens of our oil drilling hero who seems to think they’re all incompetent. But it can go the other way too. One of the things that bug me to no end about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that the film is incredibly uncharitable to farmers and to some extent even undermines environmentalism. The main character is a reluctant farmer who feels the call to exploration. There’s nothing wrong with this. We’re not all farmers. We’re also not all explorers. The real problem is that the only other farming character in the film is portrayed in a rather villainous light. Combine this with the film’s thesis that humanity is not supposed to be mere caretakers but explorers instead, and Interstellar sadly comes off saying (in this capacity, at least) that there’s no point taking care of our planet and placing value on those who feel called to stewardship of our resources and the growing and raising of food for humanity. In short, once we pillage what we can from Earth we’ll be saved by those bold enough to take us to new planets. Of course, we’re going to need farmers to keep feeding us once we land on a new habitable planet, so …
Meanwhile, a novel and movie like Jurassic Park presents scientists of various disciplines arguing the moral responsibility and prudence of cloning long-extinct creatures. This strikes me as a somewhat more balanced approach. Granted, one could make the case that geneticists are not presented in the best light while paleontologists and mathematicians are. However, it is worth pointing out that Jurassic Park is a story about cloning, so, of course, the particular geneticist in this plot are the ones that said, “Sure, let’s do this. Damn the consequences.” In the novel, the real bad guy is the park’s owner, a businessman. Sorry businessmen.
As a sci-fi writer myself, I hope to engage in more nuanced portrayals of both scientists and non-scientist characters. I grant that any given story is only a limited perspective on our reality and can only be populated by a limited number of characters. There are many aspects of Interstellar that I really love and I grant (well, sort of) that maybe there just wasn’t time in the movie to portray farmers in a better light (though, come on, that thing is long). So I continue to learn and seek to write well-rounded, three-dimensional characters that wrestle with the real ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the advancement of our knowledge and technology. I doubt I’ll get to write a blockbuster like Armageddon, but I hope to contribute my own small way to more thoughtful portrayals of science and those who dedicate themselves to discovery and exploration.
In the meantime, I look up to guys like Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, two people who have braved spending a whole year in space aboard the ISS. Now these are some badass scientists right here!
[This post first appeared on mikelwisler.com on December 8, 2016.]
I don’t always get the luxury of having a set to light well in advance of shooting a project, either as director or as cinematographer. But this weekend I have exactly that opportunity. I’m the cinematographer for a new short film being co-produced by Stories by the River. The film is a comedy written and directed by Chris Esper. This is our first partnership since meeting a few years back at the very first Stories by the River Film Festival.
We’re transforming our space at The River South Center to serve as the primary location for this new short film. We’ve done this in the past with my short film, “Parallel,” which used the main room at the Center for two key locations. The current set-up really takes advantage of the open ceiling and metal rafters that allow us to rig lighting into place as if we were on a small sound stage.
I opted to work with tungsten balanced instruments for this set-up as we’re using the dimmable perimeter lights that art part of the space. The lighting is mostly compact fluorescents (CF) and LED lights to minimize power draw and heat production. The notable exception is the SourceFour 750w Par in the left of this picture that is being bounced into a flex fill to provide a large amount of ambient fill light of one of the key areas of the set.
I opted to keep things very simple and practical for this shoot. So most of the lighting instruments are actually rather common units. Two Chinese lanterns hang over the main table to provide fill light and help sell the idea of implied overhead lights that will never be actually seen in the film.
In one of the other areas of the film set, I hung a single lantern with two CF bulbs in it. Each bulb gives off the equivalent light to a conventional 150w tungsten bulb. So it’s like having a 300w Chinese lantern. On the left of this picture is also simple clamp light with a single CF bulb (100w equivalent). It will serve as side/backlight (depending on shot angle). Because of this, I left the bulb naked rather than defusing it.
I’m mostly using clamp lights anyone can grab at a hardware store. This allows me to attach the lights to the metal rafters and hang the Chinese lanterns from them. In some cases, like the clamp light in the left of this shot, I used the metal cone they come with to help provide a little shielding for the LED bulb in the instrument as well as having somewhere to clip my diffusion.
For the key light for the main area of the set where much of the action take place, I actually went well off the beaten path and used a painter’s LED light that I had been using for home renovation work this summer. The light is powerful, putting out 4,000 lumens. It’s essentially daylight balanced (around 5,000 degrees Kelvin). So I threw a light CTO gel and some diffusion on it.
We’ll be shooting with two BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Cameras through the weekend. Likely, we’ll need to make small lighting adjustments as we go, but being able to work with Esper head of time light the set on Thursday means that we’ll be up and running tonight for our first night of shooting in no time at all. The project wraps Sunday, but this location will be wrapped at the end of the day on Saturday.
As a filmmaker who has become a published author, I continue to seek out information that will help me grow as a writer. One of the main things I continue to dive into is anything that will help me reach out and connect with my target audience. Marketing is a pretty major thing whether you’re starting out or you’ve been at things for years.
I recently read Bryan Cohen’s Kindle book How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good. The ebook is short but chalked full really insightful steps writers can take in developing and polishing a really compelling and effective blurb that can attract readers. As I read through the book I sought to apply what Cohen advises writers to do by revising the blurb for my first novel, Unidentified, which is currently out on Kindle and paperback. I kept a file with each new draft so I could see how my blur evolved with each exercise at the end of each chapter. Toward the end of the book, Cohen also invites readers to join the Facebook group he started as a collaborative forum for authors to be able to help each other with marketing and selling their books. I hopped on there and shared my developing blurb and got some great feedback that helped me continue the polishing process.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “but I’m a filmmaker, not a novelist,” please don’t be too quick to dismiss this post as not relevant to you. I can say with confidence that what I’ve learned through the process of reading this book and revising my novel’s blurb several times will be quite applicable to any short synopsis I need to write for my short films and any pitch material I develop for feature film projects. Cohen’s book really helped me see the craft and purposeful art that goes into writing a compelling blurb that engages the reader quickly and on an emotional level that peaks one’s curiosity to find out what happens to these compelling characters they’ve just been introduced to. So, even if you’re not a novelist, I still think there’s a lot you can gain by reading How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis.
Now, I’ll leave you with a tangible example what I learned in reading this book by sharing with you two versions of the blurb for my novel (which is also a feature film currently in development), Unidentified. First, I give you the version I had on Amazon before reading Cohen’s book. Finally, I’ll share the latest version so you can see how it changed.
One year ago, a boy mysteriously vanished after claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings multiple times. No trace of him has ever been found.
Now, Boston-based Special Agent for the FBI, Nicole Mitchell, is brought back from administrative leave when a girl in the same New Hampshire town also claims to have been abducted. Disturbing similarities connect the girl’s case to the missing boy Mitchell failed to find a year ago.
Certain that someone is manipulating victims by using the powerful suggestion of UFOs and the alien abduction scenario in order to kidnap these kids, Mitchell enlists the help of paranormal debunking psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Evans. But who among the locals knows the truth? Is it the girl’s parents, the peculiar new pastor in town, the local police? As the case unfolds, Mitchell and Evans are confronted with a much darker and far more sinister reality than they ever expected. But can Mitchell shake off her own dark past in time to help this girl? Nothing could have prepared any them for what they are about to encounter.
Troubled FBI Agent Nicole Mitchell is brought back from administrative leave and offered a second chance to solve her most haunting case. A disturbing series of kidnappings has a small town terrified. Mitchell is certain that a serial kidnapper is exploiting local fears of UFOs and stories of alien abductions to hide in plain sight. Desperate to uncover the truth, Mitchell enlists the help of a skeptic who questions even her theory.
In three days, a local girl will vanish for good. As Mitchell rushes to solve the case in time, she uncovers a far more sinister reality than she ever imagined. Mitchell must shake off her own dark past if she’s going to save the girl. But could this case be her undoing?
Mikel J. Wisler’s debut novel blends sci-fi and horror in ways fans of the darkest episodes of The X-Files are sure to enjoy while looking at UFOs in a new way. As an indie filmmaker turned novelist, Wisler is prepping to make Unidentified into a feature film. Buy the Unidentified novel today and help the movie get made.
We’re very excited to announce that we are in pre-production for a wonderful short comedy called “Undatement Line,” written and directed by Chris Esper. “Undatement Line” deals with the whoas of dating in the online age. We’ve had the pleasure of showing some of Esper’s previous short films at theStories by the River Film Festival and we appreciate his focus on story and exploring meaningful topics from fresh angles. In fact, we’ve shown an Esper film at every single one of our festivals thus far and his short film, “Always a Reason,” took home the SbtR Award for Excellence in Storytelling at our 2015 festival. So we are very much looking forward to working with him on this new film project. The casting process for “Undatement Life” is underway with production scheduled for this fall.
Esper has also authored a very engaging book, The Filmmaker’s Journey, detailing his journey so far as a filmmaker where he shares many great insights into the growth process every filmmaker has to undergo as they set out to develop their visual storytelling and writing skills. The book is available in trade paperback and on Kindle through Amazon. You can check it out here: www.amazon.com/dp/B01F6J3W5O/
Recently, Esper’s book was reviewed by Mike Knox-Smith. You can read that review here. I’ve read the book and highly recommend it!
So you’ve got a great idea for a short film, possibly even an awesome idea for a low budget indie feature? Maybe you’ve even cranked out and polished the script. That’s awesome! Congratulations! For a lot of new filmmakers, at this point it gets real tempting to quickly amass a crew and cast and get to the fun part: shooting the movie. But what a lot of new filmmakers overlook is how crucial it is to carefully plan head. Thorough pre-production and thinking through all the logistics of filmmaking are a huge part of the whole process. But it’s easily the least glamorous part of filmmaking, which makes it easy for novice filmmakers to want to rush through so as to get to the more exciting stuff, shooting and editing.
There’s also the temptation for new filmmakers to believe the myth that planning ruins creativity. For some people, the dominant idea of creativity is that of a person doing some sort of free association mental gymnastics on the spot to come up with something brilliant that seems to happen spontaneously. The truth is, the most brilliantly creative filmmakers are painstaking planners! Recently, I made a short video in an effort to address this myth and talk about why planning matters. In it, I bring up some key ways that planning is essential to any film production, no matter how big or small. Take a look below.
You can read more about how to think like a seasoned producer and about how the whole medium of short films have changed dramatically in the past ten years by checking Short Films 2.0 on Amazon. The book addresses the unique challenges that short films face when compared to feature films and includes real-world examples and stories as well as loads of links and bonus materials like sample scripts and suggested reading. The book is out now on Kindle and will be out in trade paperback on June 7, 2016.
If you’re new to filmmaking, it can be tough to wrap your head around the idea of creating a shot list. It does take some time to develop good shot listing skills. Because of this, I’ve met new filmmakers tend to think they’re better off just figuring out how to shoot each scene in their film on the fly. I’ve even worked with filmmakers who believe in the value of a shot list, but can’t seem to get around to making a shot list in advance of shooting. Because of this, I made sure address the importance of shot lists in my new book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age.
I have also created this short video describing a helpful exercise for new filmmakers looking to get the hang of creating a short list. Check it out below.
But why does this all matter? Well, let me give you one example. The following is a short excerpt from Short Films 2.0, which includes the steps in the exercise :
I once was involved with a project by a very green director who never made a shot list. Everyday we would show up to set with no real plan other than knowing what scene or scenes we were going to try to shoot that day. The first two hours or so of our shooting day were regularly lost to the director standing around and starting at things on set, thinking about how to shoot the scene. At times we did some blocking with the actors, which was followed by more standing around. Finally, he would have an idea of where to start shooting the scene and we would at last begin shooting. But, as we proceeded, he would invent more and more shots. Even though I was rather green myself, I had studied filmmaking at the LAFSC [Los Angeles Films Studies Center] by this point and cut several of my own early short films. I knew enough to know that many of the shots this director was coming up with on the fly where not shots any sensible editor would ever use when cutting the film together: they would not fit with the flow of the scene; they would create awkward jumps in perspective; they would likely create an inconsistent visual style. On top of this, many of the shots he invented on the go overlapped material that we had already covered in two or three or four other angles.
Any sensible director or cinematographer is always thinking about how a scene will ultimately cut together and make camera placement and shot decisions based on how they envision the edit playing out and how they are utilizing the visual grammar (shot size, angle, movement, composition, lighting, color, so forth) of the particular style they have embraced for a given project. The problem was that this green director was his own cinematographer and his own editor. The concept of visual grammar was not even remotely on his radar, as the end product ultimately demonstrated. And, in spite of my warnings that he would likely never use certain angles in the final edit that he wanted to get on set, we spent a lot of time covering scenes with more camera set-ups than most Hollywood studio movies. This resulted in an incredibly slow and draining shooting pace on set that just drug on. And the real kicker? We were shooting a feature film! It’s one thing to pull this kind of amateur stunt on your first short film over a grueling weekend. People are likely to forgive this and extend some grace to a first time filmmaker shooting his or her first short film. It is quite another matter to try to direct in this fashion on a feature film project. The patience of your cast and crew will run out long before you complete production.
In spite of this director’s lack of editing experience, it would still have been incredibly beneficial for him to at least think through each scene and try to compare it to other movies he felt were similar to the one he was making. If you find yourself having a hard time making a shot list, I recommend the follow exercise:
- Choose two or three scenes from major movies by seasoned directors. Be sure they are movies or scenes that are similar to the scene you are about to shoot.
- Carefully watch the scenes a few times, making notes about the size of the frame, shot composition, and camera placement.
- Note how the scene progresses. Does it start with a wide shot then cut into mediums or close-ups? Does it start on a close-up and cut to a wide in order to first introduce a character and then reveal their whereabouts? Does it use an establishing shot?
- Note if the camera moves, is hand-held, or stationary. Does the camera pan or tilt to follow the action on screen?
By analyzing scenes that are similar to yours, you will be able to develop an understanding of how seasoned directors might approach shooting analogous material. Initially, such analysis can provide you with at least a rough template to follow. But as you work through this process a few times you will begin to grasp why directors make certain choices and why you might want to make similar or different ones depending on the nature of your film project.
I wish the above director had engaged in this kind of preparation since he felt unable to create a shot list ahead of time. More importantly, he might have managed to grasp the nature of style and visual grammar and made better choices about how to cover each scene. He might have grasped how movement, low angle shots, high angle shots, composition choices, frame size, and other cinema grammar elements could be best used to tell his story. His problem wasn’t so much that he lacked knowledge as much as he was in too much of a hurry to become an indie filmmaker making feature films. He should have taken the time to read good books on filmmaking and make several short films first, in order to develop firsthand knowledge of style and visual grammar before taking on a feature film. His haste led to him being ill-prepared to make a feature film and this was only compounded by his continued unwillingness to even try to plan ahead with a basic shot list. In the end, we lost countless hours on set and it hurt the final film significantly.
You can read more about shot listing and about how the whole medium of short films have changed dramatically in the past ten years by checking Short Films 2.0 on Amazon. In fact, Zach Lipovsky, the creator of a fantastic app that helps with creating and managing a shot list and schedule, Shot Lister, has endorsed the book and called it “a practical tool for filmmakers facing the challenges of not only making short films but getting them in front of viewers.”
Short Films 2.0 addresses the unique challenges that short films face when compared to feature films and includes real-world examples and stories as well as loads of links and bonus materials like sample scripts and suggested reading. The book is out now on Kindle and will be out in trade paperback on June 7, 2016.
It’s been over a decade since YouTube launched its video sharing service. While it is true that most of us, myself included, tend to use YouTube primarily to find videos of crazy cats and hilarious fails, sites like YouTube and Vimeo have also become platforms where indie filmmakers have been able to share their short films broader audiences than ever before. But more than just a great means to reach a global audience with your latest project, the advent of online video sharing has changed the very nature of short films, how they’re made, how they’re structured, and how they’re seen. Understanding these changes has been a particular passion of mine over the last several years of making short films with Stories by the River.
For one thing, short films have gotten dramatically shorter in recent years. New filmmakers are finding increasingly creative ways to tell complex stories in a very short time frame. A lot of what is happening with short films today involves a move away from making short films that have what I call a “mini feature” structure that sticks closely to the traditional three act structure and usually takes between 20 to 30 minutes to play out. But the short films really making a splash online these days are often between 5 and 10 minutes. Some are even shorter still. In many ways, modern short films have dumped all the excess baggage of drawn out opening credits, mood setting, and lengthy exposition. Within seconds, the central conflict of the film is introduced. Often times, the best short films today are the ones offering up just glimpse of a moment that is sure to change the characters. Here’s a quick video I made explaining how new filmmakers can focus their short film script in a similar fashion.
Based on my experiences making and distributing short films, as well as battling for attention in the film festival circuit (which has been greatly altered by online media as well), I wrote the book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age. The book is out now on Kindle and will come out on June 7 in trade paperback. In Short Films 2.0 I discuss how short films have changed as a result of YouTube and similar sites as well as how the most effective short films today embrace a very a different core philosophy than short films of decades past. I also explain why understanding these changes matters to filmmakers, and even draw of philosophy and neuroscience to help filmmakers think about how their short films are being seen and experienced by online audiences. I provide lots of practical examples from short films you can watch and even bonus materials like short film scripts and lists of helpful books, websites, apps, and more.
You can grab your copy of Short Films 2.0 by going to: www.amazon.com/dp/B01ESCNCP0