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Archive for October, 2009

“I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking and that if you’re totally persistent and want to follow through with something, you’ll get it done.”
Oren Peli

For Halloween day I’ll step away from my Once Upon a Time in Hollywood posts to interject an update about the movie Paranormal Activities. The seven day results fro Friday October 23 through Thursday October 29 had Paranormal Activities number one at the box office.   I wouldn’t call it paranormal but that is highly unusual. Especially for a movie that opened five weeks ago and had yet to have a number one week.

That’s the power of word of mouth and a great marketing plan.  On halloween night the film will also pass the $70 million mark. Keep in mind that the budget has been said to be between 10,000-15,000. No typos there. Less than most used cars. I saw the movie this week and they keep the budget down by shooting in just one location (the writer/directors house) and using just four actors (two of which are on the screen for just a couple minutes). And one of the actors doubled most of the time as the cameraman using just  a $3,000 video camera.

So the film made for $15,000 bringing in $70 million in the box office according to several sources is now the new box office record holder as the most profitable movie ever made. Ever. A film made by the  39-year old Oren Peli, a first time filmmaker who was born in Israel and living in San Diego. (Passing the decade old record set by The Blair Witch Project.)

I’d like to say it was in the spirit of what I’ve been writing about for two years hear at Screenwriting from Iowa. Something big happening by an outsider to the Hollywood film industry. The only problem is there wasn’t a screenplay written—at least in the traditional sense.

“There was no dialogue. There was only an outline of the story, the actors never received any script. They didn’t know about anything they were getting into. All they knew is they were going to do something about a haunted house and basically discovered everything as they were shooting. There were no lines for them to follow. Everything was spontaneous.”
Oren Peli
shocktillyoudrop.com

The film was shot in just seven days in 2006, but took 10 months to go through the 70 hours of footage. The first version of the film was made in 2007 and several different versions were completed and tested a various film festivals. The film hit the jackpot when a DVD found its way to Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks picked up the film first with the intention of Spielberg remaking the film but then it was decided that that wasn’t needed. Like The Blair Witch Project hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to enhance the film that eventually made the theater. But essentially it’s the film Peli made for $15,000.

They did a masterful of using social media, most notably Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. While the success of Paranormal Activities is off the charts and against all odds, I think you will see more of its ilk in the future. Not just horror films, but films in general where lovers of film tap into the resources that are out there and make a film that finds an audience. I’ll talk more about those resources tomorrow in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Part 9).

Scott W. Smith

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“I had been thinking about this project for a long time.  As a camera fanatic and a product builder, this was something I seemed destined to do.”
Jim Jannard on developing the RED camera

Today the folks over at RED announced plans for the release this year of their RED EPIC camera.  To date RED cameras have been used on over forty feature films including The Informant! starring Matt Damon, District 9, and David Fincher’s The Social Network. What’s amazing about that if you don’t follow such things is the RED Digital Cinema Camera Company hasn’t even existed for five years.

Jim Jannard founded the compnay in 2005 and when he released the specs for his newly designed camera many laughed. Jannard didn’t come from a Hollywood background or with lots of camera experience. What he did have was passion and vision. As well as some cash, investors, and  business expertise that included running and founding a company he used to own; Oakely sungalsses.

He pulled together a team of expert engineers and designers and the like to make something special.

“We needed a bunch of guys who were inventors to come up with entirely new ways of getting to the finish line.”
Jim Jannard Wierd magazine

His new RED  company began taking deposits for the camera in 2006. At the 2007 NAB convention they released footage that (Lord of the Rings) director Peter Jackson had shot on the yet to be released RED camera. The footage stunned a lot of people and it caused a backlog of orders.

“There’s talent on the streets, kids with ideas who have stories to tell and never get a chance. Up to now, they’ve been limited to tools that confine their stories to YouTube.”
Jim Jannard

Maybe Jannard and his team haven’t changed Hollywood yet, but the fact they are even mentioned at all in an eight part series (so far) on an overview of film history shows the potential they have to change the future. Keep in mind that the company has been in business less than five years and has only been selling cameras for a couple years now.

But its combination of high quality images and low costs to own many have said it is the film blow for films to technically still being shot on film.

“This is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole career: jaw-dropping imagery recorded onboard a camera light enough to hold with one hand. I don’t know how Jim and the RED team did it–and they won’t tell me–but I know this: RED is going to change everything.
Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh’s last few films have been shot with the RED camera.

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time…back in the 80s while in film school I did some assisting for a fashion photographer in L.A. and I noticed that his digital Minolta digital light meter was easy to use and asked a teacher at school why film people didn’t use a digital meter. He said the Spectra light meter (that you had to add slides to and make calculations) was the standard for the industry.

Today Spectra light meters are digital, but that’s when I first realized how slow Hollywood is to change. In the 90s as non-linear work stations for audio and video editing started to gain ground there was much debate in Hollywood in the role of this technology. Flat bed film editing systems (Steenbeck, KEM, Moviola) were the standard in the industry for decades and many said that would never change.

AVID made a splash at the 1989 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) basically saying that the future of video editing was about to shift dramatically. There were plenty of scoffers but within a couple years a small number of feature films started to be edited on the AVID and by the mid-90s there were dozens being edited on the system that was said would never replace traditional film editing. In 1996, the first film to be edited on an AVID (The English Patient) won an Academy Award for editing (Walter Murch) and also won best picture. Today almost all feature films and TV programs are edited on an AVID or some other kind of digital non-linear editing system.

The evolution and demise of traditional film and sound editing was actually a fairly slow process because it was expensive at first, untested, and required a new way of doing things. (Plus the streamlined techology of the editing process threatened jobs making it not real popular in some circles. ) I first worked on an AVID in 1994 and instantly loved the way you could try new edits without having to use a splicer and tape.  But not everyone agreed with the new way of doing things, and unless he’s recently changed Steven Spielberg still edits the old school way and it’s worked out pretty well for him.

Cameras have been a little slower in changing over to the digital side. Many independent filmmakers embraced the digital cameras instantly because it eliminated the high cost of film and its related expenses. And just like on the editing side many have said that tradition film cameras would never be replaced. The image of a 35mm film is beautiful and once again that has been the way that movies have been made for over 100 years.

But as the digital cameras improve in quality more and more directors and cameramen and making the switch to the digital cameras. And not just for costs. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was shot with the Sony F-900, Slumdog Millionaire was shot with the Viper camera, and both Arri and Panavision also have digital cameras. It’s getting harder and to deny the digital shift taking place. But the somewhat affordable RED camera is causing the most excitement for independent filmmakers around the country.

David Fincher came up through the ranks working at ILM and directing music videos before going on to direct Alien 3, Seven, Fight Club, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons. He is currently shooting The Social Network (about the founders of Facebook) which was shot on the digital Red EPIC camera. Here is what he said recently about digital cameras totally replacing film cameras;

“The writing is on the wall. If you don’t believe me, I have some stock in Kodak I’d like to sell you, because this is just not the way motion pictures are gonna be made three years from now.”

For a more technical explaination here is the cinematographer of that film had to say;

“To say that RED and the new Mysterium-X Sensor is impressive is tantamount to saying that Napalm is a little itchy. The sensor’s increased resolution is an obvious bonus but the expanded latitude especially at the high end and the dynamic color range makes this camera a tremendous asset to any cinematographer’s arsenal. The Mysterium-X’s amazing ability to handle both mixed color temperatures and low light situations affords us exciting opportunities to push the boundaries of our craft.”
Jeff Cronenweth, A.S.C.

The chances are good that wherever you live in the United States there is at least one RED camera nearby. You write the script, he or she shoots the film (shoot the digital will never sound right), and see what happens. And, of course, there are plenty of other cameras out there  that can do a solid job. But the day is coming where at least from the technical side the same cameras used on Hollywood features will be commonly found in your neck of the woods.

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …1999-2009

While Titanic was the pinnacle of the Hollywood blockbuster there has been a somewhat quiet movement in the film industry which came into prominence in 1999.

While use of video came on the scene in the 1950s it’s claim about the death of film were greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later those claims are starting to resurface.

In 1995 Sony released the Sony VX1000. The first digital video camera that independent filmmakers got excited about. Lars von Trier jumped on the digital bandwagon in directing and shooting the feature film The Idiots with the Sony VX1000 which was shown at Cannes in 1998.

As digital filmmaking became more popular the debate continued over whether this was really filmmaking since film was no longer being used. I remember being at a film festival in the 90s when a New York filmmaker stated that he didn’t make videos, he made film.

Then this little hybrid movie came along in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project that was a game changer. Shot with a mixture of 16mm film and a consumer video camcorder (Hi8 I believe) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale made the film for $35,000. that when on to make in the ballpark of $250 million worldwide. It still has the record for box office income against production costs. (We’ll see if Paranormal Activity beats it. A film inspired by The Blair Witch Project.)

When film historians look at the shift in the film business I think they will look at The Blair Witch Project and 1999 as the most important year for change. The Blair Witch filmmakers were not only from outside L.A. (they met in Orlando), not only found great success making a film shot in part on video, but they used the Internet to market the film in a whole new way.

Because I was living in Orlando at the time I like to point out they the Blair Witch filmmakers pointed out that Ralph Clemente who heads up the film program at Valencia Community College was a great inspiration to them in making a different kind of film. I studied with Clemente when he was teaching at the University of Miami film school and was happy he got a special nod.

The list of films made digitally grew and grew. In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode. Also in 2002 Steven Soderbergh shot the DV feature Full Frontal and Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002).

Another landmark film was released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark— a film that was shot digitally in one take. I saw Russian Ark in one of those grand old theaters in Chicago and I really thought it was a perfect mix of the past and future coming together.

What was different about Russian Ark from the DV features is it was shot on a high end Sony HD camera. The quality difference between DV and 35mm is great when projected on the big screen. And films up to that point used DV for a variety of reasons usually related to budgets. Russian Ark reached new heights by shooting a type of film that not only couldn’t physically be shot on film (due to the nature of film loads being limited in time) but the quality for the average viewer was matched on the screen.

Also in the year 2002, Gary Winick’s  who directed Tadpole (shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera) won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance used to have a policy that said they only took films made on film. No videos allowed. The world was changing.

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”
Gary Winick

In 2003 Peter Hedges (known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) released the DV feature Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes.  It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I love that film and it shows how a story and talent can overcome some technical deficiencies. Hedges pointed out in interviews out that financing had falling through a couple times before when it was budgeted for film so the $150,000 film would not have been made without shooting on DV.

In 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography for the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Also in 2004 at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards. So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

Here’s what I wrote in a post last year called New Cinema Screenwriting:

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences. You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station.

And the standard def DV video cameras have now been replaced by digital High Def cameras that in the right hands can give a wonderful look. The crazy thing is these are cameras in the $5,ooo dollar range. And they are not being used on just low budget features. The Panasonic HVX 200 was used on the $30 million film Cloverfield.

But let’s not forget Paranormal Activity that is purposively meant to look like an amateur video and as of this writing has made over $60 million at the box office.

Yes, this is the point where I bring out the visionary trunk monkey Francis Ford Coppola (the grandfather of the digital filmmaking movement) who had this to say back in 1991:

Coppola was right on track. But can you imagine if he would have said that “some day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a film with her cell phone camera….”—the response might have been, “Yeah, right when we’re flying around like the Jetsons.” Yet, in 2005 a feature was shot using a cell phone. Today there are several cell phone film festivals around the world.

Coppola recently made and released Youth Without Youth shot digitally with the high end Sony F900. The Sony camera (along with the Viper camera) are reaching quality levels that match film resolution. But the biggest talk about the digital filmmaking seems to center around the Red Cameras and we’ll address that in Part 7.

The film verses digital debate is coming to an end.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 7)

Scott W. Smith



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Once Upon a Time  in Hollywood…1977-1998

Whatever blockbuster door JAWS opened in 1975 Star Wars boldly walked through and became one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the last thirty plus years. Five other Star Wars films followed the first one bringing in a total of more than $4 billion at the box office. (The original Star Wars movie’s $775 million worldwide box office grab almost doubled what JAWS made.)

Of course, Star Wars didn’t just stop making money at the theaters. There have been books, video games and it rewrote the book on spin off merchandise that still sells to this day. (Just this weekend while watching a football game on TV I saw a fan wearing a huge Darth Vader helmet.)
Star Wars has its own section on the American pop cultural shelf.

The success of Star Wars also took the use of special effects to a new level and its influence is heavy on many of today’s films. Lucas also put film school on the map. When I went to film school in the early 80s Star Wars was by far the biggest influence of why students said they were there. The early film school graduates of the 60s coming into prominence in the 70s brought a whole new wave to independent filmmaking. And that door for the independents hasn’t closed since.

At first they came from the top film schools USC, UCLA, AFI, NYU (Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch), then they started coming from lesser known film school FSU, UT Austin (Wes Anderson) and then they came from no (or just a little) film school (Quintin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith) . The progression makes sense in that the usual way to learn filmmaking in days of old was to be on a movie set and work your way up through the ranks. Film schools in New York & L.A. gave others a chance to learn about film and to make their own. Then schools outside New York and L.A. started offering film classes and degrees.

Then intense film production workshops started popping up around the country offering much of what was traditionally taught in film school. Now there many books, DVD, CDs and  online classes, free blogs and forums on filmmaking.  And at the same time the equipment has gotten cheaper and better over time. So the “Do It Yourself Movement’ is alive and well. (DIY director/writer Oren Peli whose sub $15,000 film opened just a month ago has already made $60 million dollars going into the halloween weekend.)

With good cameras, lights, and editing equipment costing less than just a typical year of film school one has to question if the film school model is outdated. But more of that in future posts.

But the 70s, 80s, and early 90s weren’t just about blockbuster and independent films being made. You had films that were full of social commentary (Driving Miss Daisy, Schindler’s List, Wall St), the quintessential romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally (1989), and  a favorite for many people The Shawshank Redemption (1984),

Of course, Martin Scorsese was there to make sure the light didn’t get to bright inside the theater; Taxi Driver (1977), Raging Bull (1980),  Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991). The multiple Academy Award winning computer animation company  Pixar was also formed during this period in 1986 and its first film was Toy Story.

Overall it was a great period for American films as a whole. And personally many of the films that I like to watch over and over again were made in the first half of this era (Diner, The Natural, The Verdict, Rain Man, Tootsie, On Golden Pond, Tender Mercies, Places of the Heart, Witness).

In this time frame is also when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) was released brining a whole new level of respect to Independent filmmakers as it made over $100 million and received much critical acclaim. Also on the independent side, Robert Rodriguez made a splash from the ultra-low budget side of things with his $7,000 film El mariachi (1992).

The motion picture business turned 100 during this period and there had been many changes over that time period. From the 80s on movies had new entertainment competition with cable TV and Beta/VHS/DVDs. The Internet and video games emerged during this time as well. But in many ways all of these changes were new revenue streams for Hollywood.

Speaking of revenue streams…

What started with JAWS was perfected in 1997 and into 1998 with the release of the greatest  blockbuster to date—Titanic. The James Cameron film connected not only with American audiences ($600 million domestic) but with a world wide audience that brought in almost $2 billion dollars.

In its opening weekend Titanic was number one in the box office and by the time its run was done it was the number one all-time box office winner and has stayed there ever since. It won best picture at the academy awards and 10 other awards tying a record of Oscars won by a single film.

The last decade or so  is where the film business began to turn into a whole different kind of business.

Once Upon a Time Hollywood… (Part 6)

Scott W. Smith

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I want to feel, sunlight on my face
See that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name
Bono/U2

I’m going to break up my posts on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to point out the significance of the U2 concert last night that was live-streamed via You Tube to seven continents.

I’m sure we’ll hear in the coming days how many people participated in watching the concert online, but I’m guessing into the milions. I started just watching to see and hear the quality and to see if they could pull it off technologically. They did and I stuck around for the entire concert. It was a late night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

For the last four days I’ve been posting a mini history of the Hollywood film industry. They film industry is in a lull now connected to the economy and I wanted to show how it’s always been an industry in flux.

But there are new technologies emerging that will provide many opportunities related to how we shoot and view movies and other forms of entertainment. Last night’s concert was a tour de force of current technologies mixed with great talent and creative energies giving us a foretaste of what is to come.
As a personal side note the concert brought back a few memories of my L.A. days back in the 80s when I did several photography, film and video shoots at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena where the concert was held last night. The concert itself reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s last Born in the U.S.A. concert at the L.A. Coliseum back in ’85 which I attended with around 100,000 other people.

And as Bono started into The Streets Have No Name I couldn’t help but recall a missed opportunity. I was a writer/director/cameraman and editor with a Burbank production company when their Joshua Tree album came out. On the morning of March 27, 1987 we got wind that U2 was going to be playing on a rooftop in downtown L.A. and thought that would be pretty cool to shoot and experience. Then we decided we didn’t want to deal with all the traffic and the crowd. Watch the You Tube video below to see the security risks involved. The police were doing their job, and the rockers were doing theirs. (Also this was back in MTV’s heyday when record labels dropped a lot of money producing music videos. One more example of how things change.)

Sure wish I would have gone. Life is full of regret and missed opportunities and what I’ve been trying to show in the last couple days and will show in the days to come is that the film industry has been through many bumpy roads in the past but there are new opportunities coming— but it’s going to require you embracing a new way of doing things.

Just keep in mind that five years ago You Tube hadn’t even launched. Can you even imagine what kinds of distribution channels there will be five years from now?

Scott W. Smith

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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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