To counter any cries of “sexist,” let me start by explaining the title of this blog. Frank Capra famously used the phrase “One man, one movie” to describe his ethic as a filmmaker: that he believed it to be a director’s medium. It is that phrase – an emblem for the auteur theory of film criticism – that I am playing off of here, and the reason I didn’t just write “one person, one movie.”
I have been absent from this blog for more than three years for a lot of reasons, but perhaps mostly because they were getting so few views. However, I’m in a much better place in my life now, and I just got an email of one reader, bless his heart, who decided to follow this blog in spite of the fact that there hasn’t been any new post in three and a half years. My work seems to get more traction these days, and even if that is pure sentimentality for the senior citizen, I will take it. Let’s see if it does better this time around.
Image: Nixon’s Nixon courtesy: Spokane Stage Left
The focus of this blog, just as a reminder (like I say, it’s been awhile), is microbudget filmmaking. For those of us who are bursting with creativity but short on refinances – my life’s story – but who just have to make movies any way they can. It is the way I’ve been making them for thirty years now.
This particular entry deals with staying creative during this time of quarantine. In this case “one person, one movie” refers to making films alone. You are the crew, and you are the cast and everything else in between. I have made several films on my own. Two of them have won awards. And they have kept me active and happy in my time off the day job for the previous three months.
image: Bikini Frankenstein, courtesy of Retromedia.
There are several ways one can go in solo cinematic efforts. There is the monologue. There is the comedy sketch approach in which one performer plays all the characters. There are those using miniatures, still images or. your pets. There is the stock footage approach. And there is animation.
There are probably a dozen other ways to go as well that my puny imagination hasn’t thought of yet. Those I leave to you.
The monologue approach is the most basic and probably the easiest way to go. It requires some basic knowledge of lighting to make it look slick. My example below, as you will see, is wanting in that area. The idea, obviously, is to point the camera on a tripod to where you will be performing, using a standing lamp or some other surrogate for yourself to frame up and focus on. Start the camera rolling then step in the place of your inanimate surrogate and perform. Then move the camera in for the close up (or whatever angles you may want to use to keep your monologue from being static) and repeat the previous steps. The rest is all post, like editing and posting any film.
The example below is a monologues for the Spoon River Anthology project spearheaded by the beautiful and talented Adam C. Sharp.
The second type, that I call the comedy sketch approach because the only films I’ve seen made this way were played for laughs, such as some of the brilliant sketch work of Tracy Ulman. Although there is no reason some genius could not apply the technique to a unique project with a serious or disturbing tone. In fact, I’d love to see it.
I don’t have an example of this type of solo films, but the technique obviously is the same process as above for the monologue approach. Simply do the same process for each location and character. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Films using stills or miniatures, or really any inanimate subjects, involves shooting those objects and cutting them together, the narrative generally is carried by narration or voice overs for the various characters. I’ve also seen films using household pets as characters, which is basically the same process, even though the subjects are not inanimate. Of course getting animals to cooperate is the real challenge here, but if you make it work the “cute” quotient will make your film irresistible.
Here is another film I made for the Spoon River Anthology project using public domain sill images found online strung together to my owmn narration.
I subscribe to Story Blocks, an online stock footage Service. While these snippets of video are generally used in dramatic films for images that are too expensive to produce on your budget, and to add production value beyond your means. But it is possible to make an entire film completely out of stock footage, no cameras involved. The entire project is produced in what would traditionally be post-production.
This example also includes some original shots done alone in my apartment, but the bulk of it is stock footage. It was made as an entry for a local timed filmmaking competition called the Fifty Hour Slam. It’s not one of my more successful pieces, obviously it was made very quickly. But it does illustrate this style of filmmaking (with some cheating). I also created all the voices and sound effects myself.
Animation is the method here with the most scope. You can create scenes as large or small as you like, limited only by your artistic skills and how much effort you are willing to put into it.
There are many kinds of animation. Generally these days they are produced entirely on the computer. This requires expensive software and steep learning curves. There is traditional cel animation using drawings. There is 3D animation using models or puppets (ie., Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, or the dinosaur effects in films like the original King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). And there is the paper cut-out method in which characters are cut out of paper and manipulated against a background, saving a lot or re-drawing required for the cel method. The most accessible example of this is the original South Park shorts made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The television show that it inspired was done with more contemporary methods, but it still emulates the look of the paper cutout style.
All the animation I’ve done have been very old school, using either a white board and dry erase markers or simply drawings on paper. They have all been solo efforts, except for music and sound work and actor voice overs. Although I have done several in which I did all the voices myself, and used stock music (see my previous blog post to watch Ron Ford’s Nightmare Circa 1966 for an example of this).
The whiteboard method is easier and less time consuming, since you are only re-drawing a potion of the image for each frame. However, the dry erase marker images tend to get very messy very quickly, and often keeps you from being able to get the detail you may want. Also, colors tend to smear and blend in the board, which is why most of my animation has been in black and white. The paper drawing method is much cleaner but involves a great deal more work. Each frame involves an entire new drawing.
Here is an example of my whiteboard animation, which I think has moments of true elegance, but also falls short in some scenes due to the messiness of the medium, forcing me to draw with less detail than I would have wanted. Notice that color is used very sparingly to avoid the messiness of the colors blending.
And here is an example of my animation using paper drawings for each frame. It won a quarantine solo film competition sponsored by North by Northwest Productions in Spokane, WA earlier this Spring.
In my previous blog I went into great detail about how I created my white board animations, so I won’t go into detail here. The curious can consult the previous entry of this blog.
I am currently working on a more ambitious puppet animation project, so I do not yet have examples of my own to post here. However, Here is my film that won the Fifty Hour Slam Quarantine Edition earlier this year. It uses a combination of fridge magnets (a very similar technique to the paper cutout method in execution) combined with white board technique. I also did all the voices in this film.
Here is an example of a paper cut out animation. It’s sound work is poor, but it does serve as an example.
Not every film can be made solo, obviously. But when life hands us the need for isolation, it’s a way to exercise the creative muscles while remaining safe. Let the medium dictate the material. Find stories or subjects that are enhanced by a small scope, or that are informed by the stylized vision of the world presented in your film. The rest is up to you and your imagination.
There is no such thing as a moving picture. Film or video, it is always an illusion, a trick of the mind, imagining motion in a succession of rapidly glimpsed sequential still images. In that sense, all film and video can be correctly labeled “stop motion.” That which we call animation is stop motion in its purest form – that in which every frame, every still image, is touched and manipulated by the artist’s hand. It also perhaps offers the artist the most control.
That is what I am discovering as animation seems to be the direction of my creative pursuits at this late stage in the game. I am no graphic artist, and yet, I feel it is the way for me, at least for now.
More on that after a lengthy digression.
It has been nearly a year since my last blog post. For that, I apologize to anyone who may have cared. There is a very good chance that I am the only member of that particular club, but I found I missed this very personal forum a great deal, and I hope its readership grows. But that will never happen if I don’t write them.
The reason for the break had to do with my living situation and some turmoil therein, and feeling overwhelmed and kind of direction-less for a time. And some bouts of depression. Things I don’t think are appropriate to go into here too deeply, but an explanation was in order.
However, things really changed with the new year. 2016 is turning out to be the best one in quite a few for me. In January I landed a role in a very odd, very cool film called MOPZ which was made for Adult Swim TV, and was the brainchild of mad genius Todd Rohal. The conceit of the film is that a 1950s horror film is being set up for air on late night TV, and is being fast-forward scanned for quality assurance. We shot nearly a feature film worth of material, and it all races by at 3 or 4 times the normal speed so that the whole thing plays out in under 15 minutes. The story is set in a high school in which a lazy janitor makes a robot to do all his work for him. But the robot goes berserk, as robots are wont to do, and mayhem ensues. I played the always-yelling evil principal who get his just desserts. It was a pleasure and an honor to be part of such a unique and cool project.
Next I was cast as the lead in the two man show “Nixon’s Nixon” playing, you guessed it, Richard Nixon. I don’t believe I ever worked harder on any role and I am told I knocked it out of the park, though we played to small houses most nights, it was very satisfying run.
Then in July came another big break. I landed a decent speaking role on “Z Nation,” the zombie-themed television show that is shot in Spokane where I live. I can’t really say much about story, (it airs in late October), but it was a terrific and very funny script by Tye Lombardi, who has been with the show from the start in various capacities. I worked all five days of the shoot, and should have lots of screen time next month when it airs.
After that I did another two man show, one I have been pursuing for about 3 years now – Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited.” It depicts a kitchen debate between an ex-con “preacher” and a suicidal professor on the existence of God and the validity of suicide. I was finally able to get the project off the ground due to actor Edward Casto, who stepped up to play the extremely tough role after two others had baled before him. We are now working on other projects together.
So, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Microbudget Cinema in general and, this time, animation in the specific. The Z Nation gig also gave me a little spare change to play with, allowing me to buy a DSLR camera and to start doing some animation in my kitchen – something I had been fantasizing about for some time.
There are two reasons for this obsession. With animation I have complete freedom artistically and the results are all mine, sink or swim. The other reason is that I have everything I need now to do them in my kitchen. There are no limits on what kind of story, no limit on costumes, sets, special effects, any story I want – no limits! And none of it costs me anything but my time.
The first one I did was a story that has been a worm in my brain since childhood – a vivid nightmare I had when eight or nine about confronting mortality and my fear of death. The film pretty much just flew off my fingers effortlessly and the final result – think what you may of it – vividly captured the picutescape in my mind. It is the first film I ever made that is pretty much intact from the images in my head. I immediately fell in love with the medium. You can see that film, “Ron Ford’s Nightmare, c. 1966” below.
My next project was created to help pad out the length of a horror western anthology called Boot Hill Tales coming soon, which will also feature my 2011 western “Man Without a Saddle,” one of my best live-action films, in my opinion. I found a folkloric creature coming from American slaves before the civil war. The tale of the Plat-Eye wrote itself very quickly. A “Plat-Eye” in legend is a murdered and resurrected slave that is tasked with guarding the master’s buried treasure to keep it safe from Yankee invaders. If you want to see that, ask me for the link and the password and I’ll be happy to let you view it. But I am not posting it outright since it is in several festivals.
Other animation projects will follow. I have a feature length project I am mounting that will take some time to do. But it will be worth it, I think.
My animation has a very rudimentary look that I adore. It reminds me of the work of Windsor McCay, whose work has always been iconic to me. This is not high-tech computer animation. In fact, the computer only comes into play for editing. I have my camera on a solid tripod facing a white board in my kitchen where the light is good. I draw on the white board with dry erase markers and change the drawings incrementally frame by frame to create the illusion of motion. Instead of the video function, I have the camera set on still images to create JPG files which I transfer from SD card into my computer and lay the images as single frames into the timeline of my editing software. I am using K-Den Live, which is quite user friendly. I save often and render my projects every 30 seconds or so to avoid crashes. Then the MP4 file generated from that render is laid onto a clean timeline and I continue adding frames until the project is done. Any spoken dialogue I record first to match the animated lip movement with the audio.
And there it is. Animation suite in a box. It should keep me out of trouble for a long time to come.
So the moral to this tale is challenge yourself and keep expressing yourself . If you have a story, let it out. There is always a way to tell it.
In the mid-nineties, Kevin Lindenmuth was my hero. He self-financed, wrote, produced, directed and edited a feature horror film, “Vampires and Other Stereotypes,” which was filled with Hollywood-quality prosthetic effects. More than that, he got it distributed worldwide on VHS, the then-reigning format for home viewing.
Imagine my thrill when he asked to be in his second feature-length film (which turned out to be even more popular, and to spawn two sequels), a dark, original vampire drama called “Addicted to Murder.” I shot my scenes in LA and Kevin cut them into the rest of the footage, which was shot in New York.
I was inspired and greatly motivated by his ambition and drive, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
So I did.
Kevin’s love of dark tales began in some disturbing childhood events.
“My father was going to medical school in Chicago, and one of my earliest memories was walking into a white room and seeing all these headless bodies,” Kevin reminisced. “I remember asking, ‘Where are their heads at?’ Their heads were all covered for the medical students with white fabric, and in the white room it looked like there were all these headless corpses. For some reason, I was at his school and had wandered into a room I wasn’t supposed to go into…”
Kevin also remembered other childhood traumatic such as a babysitter who would have sex with her boyfriend in the same room as him. He also remembered being held hostage by spinsters when his ball bounced into their yard and he and some friends tried to retrieve it. “That was scary,” Kevin remembered.
Other influences Kevin cited were the horror films on TV and the 1960s supernatural soap opera, “Dark Shadows.” As people who know me well know, that show was one of my prime corrupters, er, motivators, as well.
Kevin started, like most of us microbudgeters in those days, making super 8 films in his back yard.
“’Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the first feature I did on my own, but I did make lots of Super 8mm films when I was a kid, mostly stop-motion animation stuff. Then, in college, there were the student films, which were weird, like “Roadkill,” where it was this guy’s job to hit and run people during the day.”
However, the payday and liberation from his day job did not come from his first feature effort. New strategies had to be considered.
”While one of the more well-known Brimstone titles, ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the least lucrative of them all,” Kevin explained. “That is primarily because it cost the most to produce. That was the only movie I got money from an outside source (parents!). I still haven’t made money back on that film!”
Long before social media, Kevin struck on the idea of farming out segments of his anthology films to fellow filmmakers throughout the nation. It had the additional happy effect of drawing us all together into a community, myself among them. I don’t remember much destructive competitiveness, bickering or pettiness among any of us. We were all thrilled to get the boost of Kevin’s growing horror movie machine. And Kevin was able to make quality product at a budget that afforded him a profit. Most of us remain good friends.
“A year after I shot ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes,’ I wanted to do another movie, as did Mick McCleery, who starred as the demon in that flick,” Kevin continued. “Mick was a really good filmmaker. So we came up with ‘Twisted Tales,’ an anthology. He directed an episode, I directed one, and the third was directed by a friend of Mick’s, Rita Klus, who helped work on ‘Vamps.’ That was the first collaboration, and that went smoothly.”
By the time Kevin finished “Addicted to Murder,” he was already in contact with many other filmmakers around the nation.
“This was from going to the conventions like Chiller and Fangoria, and also from magazines like ‘Independent Filmmaking,’ ‘Daculina,’ and ‘Alternative Cinema,’” Kevin said.
He began including cameos of other microbudgeters in his early films. Some of those include Scooter McCrea (“Shatter Dead”), Jeffrey Arsenault (“Night Owl”), and myself (“Rage of the Werewolf”).
“I also enjoyed killing (‘Fangoria’ writer) Mike Gingold a few times (‘Addicted to Murder 2,’ ‘Alien Agenda’), which was weirdly cathartic.”
Other anthologies followed, among them the franchise anthologies “Creaturealm,” and “The Alien Agenda.” My signature film, “Hollywood Mortuary,” started as a short film produced for one of the “Creaturealm” films – “Creaturealm: From the Dead.”
The video stores in the 1990s saw a lot of Kevin’s movies, which he tirelessly self-distributed, selling and reselling around the planet. But, as it did for all of us, things began to shift with the turn of the millennium and the rise of the cyber age.
“I made a decent living with the indie movies in the mid-to-late nineties, but in the early 2000s, even sub-distributors didn’t want to pay any money for independent films,” Kevin explained. “Also, my contact at Blockbuster decided to establish his own company (Maverick Films) and just funneled his own movies in there, so Blockbuster was out.”
Since that time, sadly for his fans, there have been no Kevin Lindenmuth horror films.
“The reason I stopped making the features was that I couldn’t afford it anymore and I didn’t consider it a hobby. Plus, I had to pay bills and survive. It isn’t like I became an indie filmmaker to make millions. Everything made on one movie went into the budget or budgets of the next ones.”
Kevin moved in another direction that has paid off better than the narrative features ever did.
“I went in the other direction and started making documentaries,” Kevin said. “It was an opposite process – making something out of a bunch of footage rather than shooting a specific bunch of scenes for a narrative – but far more people and far more income was made making the documentaries. And it is something I enjoy doing.”
“My recent one, finished a few years ago – ‘The Life of Death,’ – is getting a widespread release on DVD through Wild Eye Cinema next month,” [Actually, due next week. December 15 – RF] Kevin said. “That documentary, which features interviews with genre personalities like Tom Sullivan (‘Evil Dead” effects), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma), Bob Fingerman (‘Adventures into Digital Comics’), Jack Ketchum (‘The Girl Next Door’), Keith R.A DeCandido (‘Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity‘’), and past collaborators like Scooter McCrae, Debbie Rochon, and Sasha Graham – all talking about their perception of death. It’s one of my favorite projects so far.”
Kevin has also spent his post-feature filmmaking time writing books about filmmaking. Some of those include “The Documentary Moviemaking Course,” “How to Make Movies,” “Making Movies on Your own,” and “The Independent Fimmaking Experience.”
Kevin’s fans, however glad for him we are, still miss looking forward to his next dense, dark horror drama.
“I miss working on the narrative films, too,” Kevin admitted. “I’d love to make another horror film. In fact, I recently collaborated with Tim Ritter and wrote a Truth or Dare/Addicted to Murder” cross-over movie, which I’d love to do. But that’s sort of gone to the wayside [for now]. The main problem is recouping the money invested in these movies – and also the time. It’s been 25 years since I shot my first movie, and it’s not any easier or more lucrative. In the meantime, I do have a zombie book coming out called “The Dead Don’t Die,” that I co-wrote with Evan Jacobs (‘Walking Between the Raindrops,’ ‘Alien Force’), so the collaboration with other filmmakers is still happening.”
“I do think, though, that I’ll be making another feature in the next few years,” Kevin concluded.
You BETTER not be yanking our chains!
One of the most common problems I see with microbudget filmmakers is to break 180 degree rule. In other words, “crossing” or “jumping” the line. While the rule itself is fairly easy to understand, in application, on the set, when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking, it can become very confusing.
Some say that “the line” has become more malleable in recent years. That is certainly so in fast-paced action sequences which move so quickly that logic becomes irrelevant. But in almost any other case, to cross the line leaves a bad taste in the audiences’ mouth, and throws their heads out of the picture. Savvy movie goers will regard, at that moment, it as the work of an amateur, and they will stop caring about what they are watching.
So what is this line and why is it so important?
In any given movie scene, you, as director, must imagine a line running through the center of the action. Once a camera is placed on one side or the other of that line, it must remain on that side of the line for the rest of the scene. That means for every single shot needed to cut the sequence later.
To break this edict is to create jarring lapses in logic, pertaining to screen direction and eye-lines. A car traveling one way suddenly reverses direction. Two characters are conversing, but in their coverage, their close-ups, they both look off to frame left. Their words and emotions connect, but their eyes do not.
Wide shot and close-ups:
When the line is broken, it leaves the audience feeling uneasy. General audiences may not be able to articulate the problem, but they know something is wrong.
Keeping all this straight on a set gets confusing even in a scene with just two elements interacting. Imagine how complicated it becomes when there are a dozen or more elements to juggle. Imagine a scene in a board room with a dozen executives sitting around it, all articulating and interacting.
In the case of that example, a director would establish several lines of axis between the key speaking characters and those they interact with. The director can then change the line in mid-scene by essentially breaking the scene into many smaller scenes. However, each of these smaller scenes-within-the-scene must be set-up with some kind of master shot which shows the new relationship and establishes the new line.
If I am directing and the line becomes fuzzy or confusing to me, I will make a little overhead diagram of the scene, showing camera placement and the dotted imaginary line of axis. Then it becomes apparent if the line is being broken or not.
My older films are peppered with line-breaking incidents. They make me cringe whenever I see them now. Sometimes I have been able to fix a mistake by reversing the image in post, so that left becomes right and right becomes left. But if there is anything with writing on it in the frame – labels, posters, anything – it will be obvious what you did. So that fix is no panacea.
Don’t be like me. Don’t look back at your old films and weep. Spare yourself that future indignity. Keep your eye on the line now. Plan. Prepare. And keep an errant eye on the set.
Followers of this blog (and you know who you are, That One Guy) are already aware that my customary once-a-week post has slipped off for the last few weeks. I have been even more swamped than usual, what with directing one play, rehearsing one, and performing in another all at the same time. And that doesn’t include the two short films I am acting in. But I am back now, though the pace of my life hasn’t slowed down any. Gotta get back up there and ride that horse, dammit. Or something like that.
The subject of this installment is Chris Mackey, the only microbudgeter I ever met with a burning passion for publicity and promotion. That makes him unique in a crowd of unique folk who spend a majority of their energy in creative pursuit, for (most of the time) little or no compensation.
I met Chris early on in my movie making (for want of a better word) “career.” We met at a collector’s show where I was promoting one of my films. He later contacted me to do an interview for his fanzine, “Guestar.” That ‘zine continues today as a website (http://guestars.wordpress.com). I enjoyed his enthusiasm and banter so much that I invited him to play the Forry Ackerman-inspired self-styled publicist character in one of my first features, “Hollywood Mortuary” (1999). Type casting, right? That’s what I thought. However, Chris was a beginning actor and didn’t think he would be able to memorize the lines, even though I told him they need not be letter-perfect. The role went to a more seasoned actor, Joe Haggerty, but Chris would make his mark later as an actor, as you shall read later in this blog.
“The first movie [I remember seeing] in a theater was ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1969),” Chris said of his earliest genre influences. “My friends insisted on front row, and these apes on horses, I swear, Jumped over our heads.”
Like most of us in this rag-tag microbudget club, Chris became obsessed with those images on the screen.
““My mother would take me and my little brother to family- themed matinees during summer,” he continued. “Most memorable were ‘The Time Machine,’ (1960) and ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964). I would act sick and stay home to watch the morning movie. I would [also] turn my TV down at 11 pm and watch the late movies. [In those days] it seemed every network had one until 2 am. I haunted the school and city libraries for any books on film.”
Chris spoke about his early ambitions and his road to becoming a generator of publicity.
“[I] was going to be an artist, any kind really,” he said. “But, then we discovered I was color blind and I switched to black and white, with pens and brush ink. Then I was going to do comic-books, but [then I] found artists as good as me or better [who were] not making any money at it either. So I switched to publishing independent comics.”
Chris was heavily influenced by Mark Thomas McGee’s book “Beyond Ballyhoo,” which he read over and over.
“Then something clicked in my brain,” Chris mused. “Why are some movies boring and others try so hard to keep me awake for 90 minutes?”
Chris concluded that the difference was, in his words, “promotion and ballyhoo.”
“Movies need a title, a hook and moments [that make] you stay eating that popcorn and drinking that soda until the credits.”
Thus, in 1983, began the Guestar ‘zine, which has since morphed into the website Chris refers to as a “cyber ‘zine.” It is driven, he says, by interviews with (mostly) microbudgeters, and is filled with movie reviews, which Chris cites as his main love in doing what he does.
“Move reviews feed me,” he said.
He studied the way that Galaxy Press promoted science fiction at comicons and in comic book stores. He was also influenced by the promotion work done by Action International Pictures. He developed a philosophy to always praise, and never condemn. That, he concluded, was the secret to serving genre to the masses.
It can, however, still stir up controversy.
“Ballyhoo isn’t dead. Just don’t put ‘em down, and we both shall flourish. Many a cyber cat-fight [has been waged] on Amazon over my soft reviews of stuff I love. Really.”
He also tried making his own films with his brother and his friends.
“I don’t like being behind a camera, but we made a few.”
Next Chris began organizing Star Trek and Star Wars conventions in his Central Californian home town. “A rival promoter offered me $60 an hour to play Darth Vader at a mall for a weekend, because only I was big enough for suit.”
Thus began a new chapter in Chris’s life.
“I have had 21 great chances to be in films,” Chris said. “I Played a mad scientist more than once, and a drunken ex-teacher in “Evil Ever After” (2006). [I played] Hugo Strange, a Batman villain, seven times in a web-series and documentary.”
I finally turned my camera on Chris when he played the cockroach in “Deadly Scavengers” (2001). This time, however, he was cast first and the suit was made to fit him. Sadly, most of his suit work was obscured by the producer who made the decision to cover up our fun rubber suit monster with generic images of real cockroaches, superimposed right over Chris! For me, my original cut is far more entertaining.
Chris also played an alien in my short film, “That’s How They Get You,” which was a segment in Kevin Lindenmuth’s anthology, “The Alien Agenda: Time Enough (2002).”
And then there is Chris Mackey the microbudget producer.
“I was offered the rights to a film, ‘Minds of Terror,’ for less than $300 that starred Conrad Brooks and Joe Estevez,” Chris said. “It was dumped because all [of the] violence was shot off screen or implied, and it had no nudity, I designed a poster and marketed [it on] on Ebay and Amazon and re-titled it twice and sold again. Now it’s about to get an MST3000-like fan-film riffing version for Christmas.”
“I’ve [also] line produced, just because it needed to be done, on films I wrote, like ‘A Dove among Pigeons’ (2011).”
Chris also produced and directed a horror western short film called “Boot Hill Blind Dead,” (2011) co-produced by William Combs. Yours truly, the author of this blog, played the lead character, who relates the tale of “the handsome Stranger” at a wild west roadshow. That film will soon be re-released as part of the horror-western anthology “Bloody Spurs,” alongside my own film, “Man Without a Saddle.”
Family comes first of course, and Chris’s family life often felt compromised by his movie making/promoting ambitions – a common problem among microbudgeters, and a key reason why my 25 year marriage failed 8 years ago. We often make promises to ourselves that we will end this madness once and for all. But it is always a temporary decree, because guys like us need to do this to be happy, no matter how meager the rewards.
“I said last year I would end my involvement in microbudgets. But, I’m writing even more and look for “Tribal Black Ops.” Next year.”
I sure will, Chris. I can’t wait!
The Pace of Things
Time is money, even in microbudget (or perhaps especially so). If you take too much time getting it in the can, you’re burning meager resources, and tempting the labels of pretentiousness and egotism. But if you move too fast, you can get sloppy and destroy any chance of rising above the dreck and challenging the attitudes and preconceptions that many bring with them to the screening of a microbudget film.
I’ve been at both ends of that spectrum. But mostly, I have been accused of moving TOO fast. I learned on the run, trying to please producers who gave me little to nothing and expected results yesterday. It’s the groove I fall into whenever I am on a movie set. Yet I look back now and cringe at some of the sloppy details, most of which could have been fixed while keeping on schedule and budget if I had taken a moment to step back and look at it coolly.
Of Price and When
The pace of your shoot is heavily determined by budget and deadline. Many of the short films I make now are for timed competitions (see Ron Ford’s Microbudget Blog, July 4, 2015), a challenge I find especially stimulating and feel particularly suited to, given my background. In those cases, shooting fast is everything. But still, without taking care and time to get good sound, images and performances, the project will have little chance of taking home awards.
Even if yours is a personal project, and costs you nothing but your time – that is, even when there is no incentive to move more quickly – there must be some sort of urgency to the pace of the shoot, lest cast and crew people become bored and move on to other projects. I’ve been there, too. One project I acted in in the early 2000s was never completed, and can never be now, though we would love to. We’ve all changed too drastically. – That is a tragedy.
Hurry Up and Slow Down
The only really answer to the question of how quickly or slowly to shoot your project is to strive to make the best movie you can, under any given circumstances. In other words, go in prepared, do your homework, take your time on the set, and try to get it right. But keep an eye on the clock. – Oh. And try not to panic.
Remember: Sound. Lighting. Performance. Those are what count. No matter how special your effects are or how revolutionary your ideas, if those basics aren’t up to snuff, nobody will give a damn.
NOBODY. WILL. GIVE. A. DAMN.
There is a narrow gap between being a confident director and being a dick. The winning microbudgeter walks a razor’s edge.
My two big passions in life are microbudgetry (folks call it film making) and Community Theater. They have many similarities. They have many very important differences too, but that is meat for a future blog. One of the qualities they share is a reliance on committed volunteers. People who will put serious energy into your project because they believe in it or because they are trying to build a body of work for themselves. These are worthy goals, and it is a healthy, reciprocal relationship, as long as everyone is laboring on spec.
COMMUNITY THEATER and MICROBUDGET MOVIE MAKING
However, if you do end up making the next “Blair Witch Project” and you get millions for your inspired microbudget effort – don’t be a dick. Be prepared to share the profits with those who helped you get it.
Too often I have been on microbudget sets where the director imagined him or herself to be the next Scorsese, just what Hollywood has been waiting for. These dicks (they shall not be named here) usually bring with them an unspoken assumption that cast and crew people know how lucky you are to be on the ground floor of this next wave in the cinematic art-form. And anyone who doesn’t suck wind at the power of that “artistry” clearly doesn’t “get it,” and probably doesn’t need to be on their set.
Consequently, many of these proud would-be film “auteurs” never finish their projects, because members of the cast and crew, feeling ill-used, will walk away from it.
These so-called artists are self-deluded dicks. They need to learn some manners. Don’t be that dick. Be prepared, great. Know what you want and be firm, absolutely. Be confident and be sure, but don’t for a second think you are better than anybody else. That’s solid advice in the world, and it’s true on the set, as well.
When you have sufficient budget to pay all your people, it’s a dream. Your cast and crew really appreciate it, even if the pay is little more than a token. And if you can pay them well, you can even afford to push them a little, make demands if necessary. Even then, of course, you should still be guided by the “Don’t Be A Dick” principal, but you do have a little more wiggle room.
However, if your cast and crew are unpaid, which is generally the case in microbudgetry, you had better be prepared to keep your ego in check and treat them with respect. They are donating their time and their passion. You should be grateful and you should show it.
Volunteers are to be wooed and nurtured. They are your companions in the project, they are a kind of family, and they are your friends. Let them know it every day on the set.
We micro budget guys invented shooting cinematically on video media. It is rapidly becoming the norm, leaving film behind as a fringe medium, suited only for experimental artists and nostalgia buffs.
On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as much as said that film is dead, when he remarked that he could not tell the difference between identical shots done on film, and those shot on state of the art HD video.
On a slightly later episode of the WTF podcast, movie makin’ one-man-band Robert Rodriguez confirmed the death knell. While discussing his 2007 anthology collaboration with Quentin Taratino, Grindhouse, Rodriguez said that Tarantino planned to shoot his segment, Deathproof, on film, to recreate the 70’s drive-in look and feel. Rodriguez, however, chose to shoot his segment, Planet Terror, on video and simulate the identical drive-in look in post-production, at a fraction of the expense and with a lot more control.
Along the way, and inadvertently, Rodriguez explained how working in video has affected even the traditional protocol of shooting a movie. Particularly in the use of long rolls to cover multiple takes.
“I just leave the camera rolling,” Rodriguez said (paraphrasing). He has the actors go through several takes of the scene at hand until, he is satisfied, before ending the roll. The takes are separated by slates while the camera still rolls. The director makes notes of which takes work and which do not en route, to save the editor endless headaches.
Then he moves on to the next piece of coverage needed for the scene and starts the process all over again.
It’s a neat and efficient system, suited to the new technology. I have done some version of in the past, but kind of instinctively and not as cleanly documented and organized as Rodriguez. Often on a shoot I will have the actors go right into the next take without stopping the roll. It’s recorded on a digital card, so there is no expense in letting it run, and the actors don’t get “cold” from breaking their momentum and having to start over again for a fresh take. When I work like this on the fly, however, I just put fingers up in front of the lens in order to separate each take – one, two, three, etc.I couple that with a verbal slate, just to clarify.
Nine times out of ten, we microbudgeters are our own editors anyway, so you can be a little looser about it than the pros, with their so-called “budgets.” After all, you were there on the set when it was shot. You know how it went.
Still, a few notes couldn’t hurt either.
I have a vague memory of my first viewing of “The Wizard of Oz” on TV as a small child, something that would become an annual event. I remember the Tin Man’s first appearance, and my brother and I getting very excited because there was a robot in it! “It’s not a robot, it’s a Tin Man,” my mother said. But tin or steel, a metal man is a robot in my book.
The point is, robots have always been cool, the stuff that fuels geeks to become microbudget filmmakers.
When I learned that a guy living not an hour from me, in a rural section of Eastern Washington, had the finest collection of movie and TV robots this side of anywhere, I had to see for myself. After a little field work, I tracked down electrical engineer and musician John Rigg and finagled my way into a visit to his “Robot Hut.” Quite an honor. He doesn’t do it for just anyone, or he wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I’d like to say it was my movie credits that opened the door for me, but it probably had more to do with my knowing the daughter of one of his best friends.
So my friend Mitch Tiner and I went to visit. Mitch is a great friend, and he does all the special effects make up and miniatures for my films. Sometimes he acts and does the music, too. He was as excited to see this collection as I was.
From the road, John’s ranch fits right in with those around it. But if you pull in and look at the far side of one outbuilding, you will see a giant robot display on the wall, emblazoned with the legend, Robot Hut.
Robot Hut video produced by Colin Malvaney for The Spokesman Review.
Inside are 4,000 plus robot items. Many of those items are life size, meticulous, hand-built, replicas of some of the most famous robots from movies and television. John built them all from scratch, many times re-building them three, four or five times until they met his exacting standards. The imperfect earlier models were sold off or given away to fans who couldn’t believe their luck!
You enter the building through an “airlock” anteroom, powered by a devise fans will recognize as Krell technology from “Forbidden Planet.”
That is the prelude to a perfect replica of that movie’s Robbie the Robot right inside the door, who speaks to you as neon tubes light up where a mouth should be.
Also in attendance are Gort, Tobor the Great, Maria the “Metropolis” robotrix, Johnny Five, Huey, Dewey and Louie (“Silent Running”) R2D2, C3PO, B-9 (“Lost in Space”), the walking tin can from The Mysterious Doctor Satan, the sentient machines from Venus that attacked in “Target Earth,” and many, many more.
And there are some pretty swell non-robotic items thrown in for the sheer fun of it.
Flying saucers from “Lost in Space”, “War of the Worlds” and “Forbidden Planet,” for instance.
And the one and only Time Machine from… “The Time Machine.” (Okay, not the one and only, it’s a copy, but it’s a pretty damn perfect one.) A second Time Machine John built was seen last season in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Rigg has been obsessed with robots his whole life, and possesses a natural gift for mechanics and building things. In 1980 he decided to recapture his youth and find the six toy robots that meant so much to him as a child. Along the way, he started collecting other robots as well, and then it became a sickness that many of us geeks can relate to. In John’s case, it was a glorious disease. These hand-built masterpieces are a testament to the films they are copied from – to their durability and to their ability to inspire the geeks and artists of the future.
Every microbudget auteur started as a movie fan. Most of us, enamored of one genre more than another. For whatever reason, the majority of us that I have known got there through a love of horror, science fiction or action movies. I am no different. I have been a horror guy for as long as I can remember. As I got older I learned to appreciate all genres, and now I am more inclined to follow directors than genres in my viewing selections. But when I was little, man, monsters were all I cared about. And among monster makers, Universal reigned unrivaled.
I will soon be teaching a class on Universal monsters for a local Community College outreach program. I have been studying up. preparing curriculum. What follows is part of that prep, but has much to do with why I am driven to make movies now.
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The term “horror movie” did not exist before 1931, according to film historian David J. Skal (“The Horror Show”).
David Skal also said, monsters in Hollywood are the “gangsters of the id.”
Like the gangster movie, the horror film has its roots in the Great Depression. Dark escapism was the soup du jour for a public whose carpet of security had just been pulled out from under them. Those shell shocked people were only too eager to dive into darker waters than those waded in the giddy Jazz Age ‘20s.
In 1931, “Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi, was burning up the box office on Broadway. Yet, Hollywood was reluctant to take the bite. The reason for that, at least as far as Universal is concerned, was that the studio head, Carl Laemmle, Sr. had a distaste for morbid content.
No American film before that time had featured a supernatural creature. In pictures like “London After Midnight” and “The Cat and the Canary,” the vampire or the creeper always turned out to be a hoax, with a person in disguise who had an agenda. It was always Farmer MacGregor, who was thwarted by those meddling kids. Papa Laemmle, however, was being pressured by his son and heir apparent, Carl Laemmle , Jr., to make the movie. He thought dark horror stories were just swell, and he was sure that “Dracula” would blow up at the box office.
MGM was also sniffing after the rights to the Broadway play, so Papa Laemmle bit the bullet and procured the rights to make “Dracula.” Papa had one proviso, however, that the great silent star and make-up maestro Lon Chaney must play the Count. That plan fell short, however, when Chaney died of lung cancer, just a few months after diagnosis. So the search was on for a new Dracula.
But that is another story.
“Dracula” was made with Bela Lugosi in the lead, and no matter what you think of that dank but creaky melodrama, it was a box office smash, vindicating Carl Laemmle, Jr., and making Lugosi an icon. The horror cycle had begun. When Papa stepped down a short time later and Jr. ascended to studio head, its survival was ensured – for a time at least.