Archive for April, 2016

“I think it’s great to have the Rams back in Los Angeles. Not having football in L.A. has been missed for the past 20 years, for sure.”
Eric Dickerson

Yesterday while I was eating lunch at a restaurant I saw that former Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson was on ESPN. I couldn’t hear the sound, but figured it had something to do with the NFL draft.

It turned out that the LA Rams not only had the first pick in the draft last night, but it was the first time in more than 20 years that the LA Rams where in the draft. Though the team was found in Los Angeles in 1946, they moved to St. Louis in 1995 where they became the St. Louis Rams.

There are a few things special about the above photo: first I took the photograph. I moved to LA in the early 80s and began working as a freelance photographer for Yary Photo while I was in film school. After I graduated I became director of photography there and was part of a small team of shooters who set up the portable bleachers and lights for the shot. When it came time to take the photo, I was the one pressing the release on the Mamiya RZ67 .

Two years later I was a 16mm cameraman working for Motivational Media in Burbank and shot an interview with Eric Dickerson at his Calabasas home and I took the 16X20 team photo that I shot and Dickerson was kind enough to sign it.  It’s one of my favorite mementos over the years. One of the things that makes it timeless is Dickerson is still the single season rushing leader. (A record he’s held for over 30 years.)

Another thing special about the photo is a fellow I played football with in high school is in the photo (Chuck Scott, on the end next to #3). He was playing his rookie year after being a second round pick out of Vanderbilt. (Today Chuck’s son Caleb Scott is a wide receiver at Vanderbilt, and another son Chad Scott is a WR at Furman.)

Another item of interest is Yary Photo was started by Ron and Wayne Yary who both played  football at USC. Ron Yary was the Outland Trophy winner in 1967 (top offensive lineman) where he blocked for the eventual Heisman Trophy winner—O.J. Simpson.  He went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. The football field at Bellflower H.S. (where he played high school ball) is named Ron Yary Stadium.

And that’s the rest of the story…

Scott W. Smith


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“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

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The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

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Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

Related Posts:
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith




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“I find violence very disturbing on screen. I hate Tarantino’s films … I hope people will challenge this more. It’s totally unacceptable to be making such films.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert (speaking after the release of Django Unchained)
Evening Standard 2013

British screenwriter Guy Hibbert began working on the script for Eye in the Sky in 2008—meaning it was an eight year journey to get the script written, the film produced and released.

The movie isn’t going to set any box office records, but I can’t imagine it getting some love come award season. Hibbert has won BAFTAs: No Child of Mine, Omagh, Complicit, and Five Minutes of Heaven. In 2009, he also won the World Cinema Dramatic screenwriting award at Sundance for Five Minutes of Heaven.

Born in Oxford, England in 1950, he dropped out of school at 15,  and at age 20  started a career in theater as a stage hand and a tour manager. And he began writing plays.  In his words, “I got a couple plays put on—couldn’t make a living out of it, and then moved into television.”

There he’s been able to make a living. And fast forward a little more than 20 years since his writing career took off and I imagine you’ll hear his name mentioned come award season for his script for Eye in the Sky.

Here’s some advice (from the above interview) to writers just starting out :
“Work hard. Learn everything. And go out and experience life—as a writer you have to have a story worth telling. So you have to live your life.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert

Related post:
‘Eye in the Sky’
‘Art is work’—Milton Glaser




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“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1994)

There are many challenges involved when discussing current films from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective. There’s the danger of giving away spoilers, it’s not a film that everyone has seen, it’s not an award winner, it hasn’t stood the test of time, there aren’t writer and director commentaries to glean information from, and it hasn’t yet been explored about in books.

So I won’t say much about Eye in the Sky—except that it’s one great example of superior filmmaking. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it’s one of my favorite films of this decade.

I won’t say any more about it until a few months down the line, but kudos to screenwriter Guy Hibbert, director Gavin Hood, the producers, actors, and production team for hitting a grand slam. For creating that rare movie that is compelling, engaging, and thought provoking—even after you’ve left the theater.

I can’t remember ever feeling more like I was a hidden character in the film, wondering what the right decision in that situation would be. And Helen Muran and Aaron Paul—brilliant.

So while I won’t give away any spoilers on the film, I will provide 10 links to past posts that are buttons that I think the movie hits in terms of screenwriting, filmmaking & life.

The Major or Central Dramatic Question
The Bomb Under the Table
What’s Changed?
40 Days of Emotion
What’s at Stake?
Earn Your Ending
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings
Screenwriting from Hell

Scott W. Smith



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“This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
Dick Clark
(After Prince’s appearance on American Bandstand in 1980)

“When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody

He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, but the world knew him as just Prince—or as the artist formally known as Prince.

And before Prince won Grammys and an Oscar Award (Best Song, Purple Rain), and before he was called the Prince of First Avenue (a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis), and before he sold 100 million records, and long before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—he was just another little boy struggling to survive in North Minneapolis.

He was born at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis in 1958. That was just seven years after the hospital opened during time of anti-Semitism, and was a place that offered Jewish physicians opportunities that weren’t always possible at other area hospitals. It was, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, “a gift from the Twin Cities Jewish community to serve and employ, among others, those not accepted elsewhere because of their race or religion.”

He grew up on the North Side inner-city of Minneapolis. His father was the leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio and his mother—who was said by Rolling Stone magazine to have “traces of Billy Holiday in her pipes” sang for the group. They divorced when Prince was 10.

“I didn’t have any money, so I’d just stand outside [McDonald’s on Plymouth Ave.] and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young. I was insecure and I’d attack anybody. I couldn’t keep a girlfriend for two weeks. We’d argue about anything.”
Rolling Stone interview by Neal Karlen in 1985

He went to John Hay Elementary school and in 1976 graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis. He cut his musical teeth performing at various venues in the Minneapolis area and recorded his first album in 1978. A decade later he was a worldwide music legend.

Though he spent time in other places like L.A. and Toronto,  Minneapolis was his home. He eventually opened Paisley Park  in Chanhassen south of Minneapolis, which is where he died this morning.

Plenty will be written about his musical genius, some about the controversies, but since I have a little blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places I’d like to just point out that a sense of place did play part in his success. From his early musical teachers, to the soul (and pain) of his childhood neigborhood, to those who supported his musical rise in the Twin Cities.

Prince was unique in his talent and his success, but Minneapolis has a long musical history. Back in the early ’60s Bob Dylan began his musical rise living and performing there. On Prince’s setlist for his 2007 Super Bowl half-time show he performed All Along the Watchtower written by Dylan. (Prince said in one interview that the Jimi Hendrix version of that song was an early influence.)

When I was living in the Midwest I did several video shoots in Minneapolis and worked with crew members who worked with Prince and enjoyed hearing their stories. There’s no question that Prince was talented—and eccentric. I heard stories that Prince would sometimes do a mini-concert at Paisley Park for the crew after a production wrapped.

I also have a feeling that Prince produced a lot of videos and music that will only see the light of day now that he’s dead.

And just to come full circle…I started this blog back in 2008 after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody and learning she went to school at the University of Iowa and wrote the Juno screenplay while living and working Minneapolis.

One of the things that drew Cody to Minneapolis was a graphic designer/musician. (I don’t know if she ever crossed paths with Prince in Minneapolis—but I’d bet the she would have loved the opportunity.) Anyway she wrote for City Pages and blogged until then-agent, now producer Mason Novick encouraged her to try her hand at screenwriting.

Which she did in the Minneapolis suburbs of Robinsdale and Crystal just a few miles north of where Prince grew up. (I’m all about seemingly unlikely places for talent to rise up.)  But where Prince grew up is still a tough place. Here’s a quote from a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune just a few days ago.

“North Minneapolis is a war zone. We are afraid. We are losing our young people to gun violence.”
Mickey Cook
April 16, 2016

It reminds me of one of my all time favorite lines in any movie—in the documentary Hoop Dreams the young rising basketball star is asked if he’ll remember them when he’s famous, and the young basketball player says, “You going to remember me if I’m not [famous]?”

Prince is going to be remember for long time. He’ll probably always be the most famous person from North Minneapolis. President Obama tweeted about Prince, “Today we lost an icon.” And while that’s true, Prince lived a very full life before he even turned 30—much less the 57 years he spent on this planet. It would be nice to do something in Prince’s memory that assures young people in North Minneapolis that they may not be famous—but they’ll be allowed to grow up.

Make a statue of Prince—but build up and protect some lives, too.

Related post:
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) “When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”—Diablo Cody
Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis
The Oscars Minnesota-Style
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ 

Scott W. Smith



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“A late February 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item speculated that, in cities where it had played, [The Outlaw] had been seen by about sixty-five percent of the total population.”
Turner Classic Movies

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When 19-year-old actress  Jane Russell was shooting her first movie (The Outlaw) she complained to her director about feeling uncomfortable posing for some photos that a publicity photographer suggested.

According to Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This the advice her director gave her is just as fitting today as it was over 75 years ago:

“You’ve got to protect yourself. If anyone asks you to do anything against your better judgment, say no, loud and clear. You’re in charge of you. No one else.”
Director Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby)

And it will remain solid advice for as long as 19-year-olds continue pursuing acting careers. Way back when I studied acting I remember a young actress in my class being invited to the home of a “busy” producer for an “audition.” When she arrived the producer wanted to know why she brought her boyfriend.

And you don’t have to have Russell’s 38-22-36 measurements, or even be an actress, or even work in Hollywood for that matter, to be put in an uncomfortable situation. So feel free to copy & paste the above quote and send it to whoever you think needs some direction from Howard Hawks.

Howard Hughes eventually replaced Hawks as the director of The Outlaw. Though Hughes had plenty of critics, and though it took him five years to eventually finish the film and get a wide release, The Outlaw became a box office hit.

Russell went on to co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Marilyn Monroe, and not only survived Hollywood—but lived to tell about it in her book Jane Russell, My Path & My Detours. She died in 2011 at the age of 89.

P.S. A few side notes to The Outlaw is Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) starred as Doc Holiday, and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) was the cinematographer for the Hughes directed parts of the movie. Jules Furthman (Rio Bravo, Mutiny on the Bounty) wrote the screenplay.

Scott W. Smith


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You must remember this 
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. 
The fundamental things apply 
As time goes by
Music & Lyrics by Herman Hupfeld
Featured in Casablanca (1942)

Last week I did a podcast binge of Karina Longworth’s  You Must Remember This—which is as its website proclaims—”a podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”

Great stuff.

When I first stepped foot into Hollywood—the actual city in Southern California—at age 21 I’d had exactly one film history class. I knew very little about the history of Hollywood—that almost mythical place known around the world as HOLLYWOOD in greater Los Angeles where movies were produced that have entertained people around the world for over 100 years.

Keep in mind that my first time there was in 1982, not only long before you could stream movies on the internet, but even before cable TV and VHS were ubiquitous. The most common ways to watch old movies was to catch them on late night TV or at revival movie house (only found in larger cities).

Via film school and revival houses, books—and later video rentals—I quickly got a sweeping overview of film history and its cast of characters. Within two or three years I also found my way onto the lots at Disney Studios and Warner Bros. in Burbank and Paramount in Hollywood.

I once worked on a film project at Rudy Vallee’s Hollywood Hills house (with its secret passageways) while Vallee was still alive and living there. His older housekeeper told me that back in the day Errol Flynn would ride his horse over from his house and entertain women in the playroom—sometimes on the pool table. (I’m not sure how comfortable that was—or how good that was for the felt—but that’s what I was told.)

And that’s a good a segue to the You Must Remember This podcast. Because a study of Hollywood history is one full of debauchery.  In the past week I’ve listed to I’ve listened to podcasts on Lana Turner, (podcast #5) Judy Garland,  Humphrey Bogart, (#14) Lauren Bacall, (#63) Eddie Mannix and George Reeves, (#61) Jean Harlow , (#59) John Gilbert, and (#66)  David O. Selznick & Jennifer Jones, each one a different variation of the core life in Hollywood themes; drug and alcohol abuse, nervous breakdowns, suicides and suicide attempts, sexual and physical abuse, gambling problems, extramarital affairs & divorce, dirty studio & governmental politics, personal grudges, paranoia, the rise and decline of careers, and the occasional mysterious death.

And, of course, a trail of great movies.

Longworth is a storyteller in her own right, and each podcast reveals a good deal of research she’s done to provide insights into the golden era of Hollywood. And it’s not all about hedonism, Longworth offers insights into the film business, including aspects like what separated the studios and the kinds of movies they produced:

“Of all of the studios that produced films and stars during the first half of the 20th century, MGM was in many ways the gold standard. For many years their movies were the biggest, their stars the starriest. MGM didn’t always make the best or most innovative movies, in fact, they intentionally targeted a sweet spot supporting productions that were neither highbrow or low, which guaranteed escapist entertainment that was never vulgar or insulting, that promoted no political point of view or message—other than a general endorsement of family life. That was proud to conform to the internal censorship of the production code. That transcended class difference, while always staying classy. Nearly ever movie that MGM made was engineered to be a movie that everyone everywhere would want to see. Or, at the very least, that no one anywhere would have any objection to.” 
Karina Longworth
MGM Stories Part 1: Louis B. Mayer vs. Irving Thalberg
You Must Remember This (#56)

At least from the You Must Remember This podcasts I’ve listened to so far, it’s a reminder that happy endings are more common in Hollywood movies than in lives of Hollywood greats.

P.S. An example of an MGM movie that everyone everywhere wanted to see was Gone with the Wind (1939). A film that still has more paid admissions than any film to date. Actually, more than 100 million tickets sold than Avatar. I don’t know if that fact is more shocking—or Errol Flynn and that pool table revelation. (I’m sure Longworth will get around to Mr. Flynn sooner or later, but his Hollywood demise, financial & physical decline, excessive use of drugs and alcohol, and eventual death at age 50 seems like a Hollywood cliche.)

Related posts:
You Tube Film School (Early Film History)
Roger Ebert on Old Films
The Father of Film (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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How a TV Show Gets Made

I promised more TV related posts this year, so here’s an excellent video by Estelle Casewell and Caroline Framke just put online less than 24 hours ago that I think you’ll find useful. It’s connected to the Vox article “We’re creating a world that feels true”: How to make great TV explained by FX spy drama The Americans by Framke.

Related post: Film vs. Tv Writing (10 Differences) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Despite its flaws, Pieces of April has a lot of joy and quirkiness; it’s well-intentioned in its screwy way, with flashes of human insight, and actors who can take a moment and make it glow.”
Roger Ebert 

Pieces of April is not a perfect film, but it’s the perfect film for low-budget indie-filmmakers to study. It’s a great example of writing a script good enough to attract some great actors, and embracing your limitations and getting the film made. And getting it distributed.

That’s why I’ve spent the first two weeks of April writing about a film shot on standard def video cameras 14 years ago.

Let’s pick-up where we left off in the last post

So after April (Katie Holmes) realizes her oven is not working as she starts preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, and after she found a small repreive from a couple who let her use their oven for two hours—now April has to find someone else in her apartment building to have mercy on her to continue cooking her turkey.

That’s when she has a ray of hope from Wayne (Sean Hayes), the man who proudly has the newest and nicest oven in the whole building. But even though he’s willing to help doesn’t mean that writer/director Peter Hedges didn’t find a way to add obstacles in April’s path and fill the “Tick-tock” sequence with conflict, and continue to push April toward the end of her rope.

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14)

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s that new girl in #13, says she’s got a problem…She white, she got her youth, her whole privileged life ahead of her. Oh, I am looking forward to hearing about her problems!”
Evette in Pieces of April script written by Peter Hedges

One of the things I love about Pieces of April is it was one of the first (maybe the first) feature films that I ever saw that was shot exclusively with a small video camera. I believe  it was a Sony PD-150. (A standard def camera you can pick up these days on eBay for under $500.)

Prices of April came out 2003, just four years after The Blair Witch Project hit theaters—a film shot on multiple formats including standard def video and film. For decades before that independent low budget feature films had a long running tradition of being shot on 16mm, including the somewhat contemporary sub-$25,000 films The Brothers McMullen (1995) and Clerks (1994).

My favorite scenes/sequences in Pieces of April show where solid writing and acting were enhanced by the camera technology, and I’ll explain why after the clip.  They start after April (Katie Holmes) discovers her oven not working the morning she starts preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family. As she begins seeking out another apartments in her building where she can cook her turkey it leads her to meeting Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).

The scene does what you want a scene to do (fulfilling the What’s changed? question) and  moves the story forward. The scene starts and it appears that it’s going to be another dead end for April with characters not interested in helping her. But by the end of the scene she has hope. It starts out negative and ends positive.

According to Hedges on the director’s commentary White and Whitlock only had one day to shoot all their scenes—five or six total—and they had never worked together.  Most of the scenes take place in a small kitchen where the small camera (which recorded to mini DV tapes) helped improve the scene two-fold:

1) Because it was tape verses film being used it allowed cinematographer Tami Reiker to shoot the rehearsals/blocking. This allowed the editor Mark Livolsi to steal reaction shots. Back in the film only days, to keep film and developing costs down, many measures were used by low budget filmmakers to keep film usage down, including limiting shooting coverage (wide, medium, close, reversal shots, etc.)  and hiring actors who could nail each set-up in one or two takes. (Time is still money, so one of the dangers of shooting digitally these days is thinking that because you’re not shooting film—or even tape— you can do as many takes as needed. But that mess up not only your schedule, but add time in edit because there is so much material to wade through.)

2) Because they were shooting in a real life small apartment, the small size of the cameras (sometimes they used two) allowed them to shoot in tight spaces where a larger cameras wouldn’t have fit. (And flying the walls out wasn’t an option.)

Of course, though the technical quality of digital cameras 15+ years ago (with 1/3 sensors) lacked image quality, Pieces of April is a great example of doing what you can with what you have. It’s a movie that on the strength of the talent involved holds its own against movies today using state of the art equipment with budgets of 20, 50 or even over 100 million dollars.

P.S. Other movies reported to be shot on the PD-150 were David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004), and Open Water.  I remember renting a PD-150 for a shoot back in 2000 for a project because it was a big money saver verses hiring a 2-man Beta SP crew. On the flight for the shoot in the Pittsburgh/Ligonier Valley area I remember reading the PD-150 manual since I was going to be operating as well as directing. My first thought was that there sure were a lot of menu options. There were other differences from shooting 16mm— being very light and quiet were two big differences.

I went to film shoot back when students only used film and so I felt the PD-150 still looked too TV/video-like. But I saw the possibilities and in 2004 ended up buying the Panasonic DVX 100 (also a standard def camera, but had a nice 24p look) which eventually replaced the PD-150 as the darling of indie filmmakers for a season.

Small HD cameras started hitting the scene a couple years later and had a good run until the Canon 5D came out, and since then there has been an explosion of relatively low-priced/high quality cameras. But despite the onslaught of 4K and 6K technology, it’s still about the story—Pieces of April proves that.

Related Posts:
Bob Dylan & Your Filmmaking Career “Now you can buy a consumer-model digital camera and the image looks great.” Edward Burns
How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
Off Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Ed Burns
A New Kind of Filmmaker   “One of the benefits of being outside of Hollywood…”

Scott W. Smith

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