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
Recently, I had the privilege of being interviewed by Philip Smolen over at Rogue Cinema. This is a two part interview and part one is out now. Part two will be out in April. In this first part, I got to look back at my early days of making short films and I even talk a little about how Stories by the River came together.
Philip Smolen has reviewed several of our SbtR short films and has had some great things to say:
“Parallel” is a beautiful cinematic tone poem that fiercely champions the idea of everlasting love. It’s a stunning achievement in romantic sci-fi.
– Philip Smolen’s review of “Parallel” (Rogue Cinema)
[Playing with Ice] is a wonderful and satisfying short that speaks volumes about what we hold inside and the damage it causes. Wisler has made a life-affirming and nifty pseudo sci-fi movie all at the same time. Bravo!”
– Philip Smolen’s review of “Playing with Ice” (Rogue Cinema)
Read part one of the interview here: http://www.roguecinema.com/an-interview-with-mikel-wisler-part-1-by-philip-smolen.html
As some of you might already know, we are hard at work developing our first feature film, Unidentified. In an effort to lay the groundwork for this process, I wrote and novel adaptation of the same story and we have been hard at work getting the word out about the novel now that it is available on Kindle. This past Thursday evening, I had the great privilege of being part of the Citywide Blackout show on WEMF Radio, in Cambridge, Mass. I got to talk at length about the novel and the development work we’re doing on the film. You can now listen to the recording of the whole show. The half-hour segment where I’m interviewed about Unidentified happens about sixty minutes into the show.
On top of this, Unidentified was mentioned in the latest news from Rogue Cinema! You can read that whole article by clicking here. We are excited to see the project continue to gain more exposure. We definitely cannot do this on our own. So please do feel to share this with friends on social media and keep an eye out for more news and interviews. And don’t forget, the Kindle book is only $2.99! Be sure to check out the film’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Thank you so much for your support and enthusiasm for this project.