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!