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.
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.
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.
The great director Frank Capra (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) made personal movies within the Hollywood system, touting a philosophy he called “one man, one movie.”
The idea that a feature length movie could be a personal work of art was a radical one in 1930s America. However, Capra had the industry clout to do and be that after his IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT surprised the industry by winning the Oscar for best picture. But it was a rich man’s game.
Now, it’s pretty much the go-to attitude of micro-budget movie makers. Only you don’t have to be famous to practice the One Man (or Woman) One Movie philosophy anymore. Now we have the Internet: a world-wide forum to get our stuff seen.- How cool and convenient and amazing is that?
This blog began as a celebration of the earlier, more naive, less skilled and less jaded movies of the early days of digital filmmaking. They were creative days, when backyard auteurs could walk into their local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video store and see their completely personal micro-budget, backyard opus on the shelves, to be rented by movie-lovers looking for something new. What a thrill that was.
That little tickle to the ego is gone now. But the spirit of what those filmmaker did is alive and thriving. Consider them – people like Kevin Lindenmuth, Jeff Leroy, Ted Newsom, Ron Bonk, The Polonia Brothers, and, er, myself – as pioneers, paving the way for the auteurs making feature movies with whatever means they have today. – And getting them seen online.
Consider a couple examples that I know of just in my local area (Spokane, WA). Jesse James Hennessy, a director who specializes in gory horror, but often with a playful twist, is making a web series called MR. DARK. It is a dark drama about a detective with second sight. It is designed to be cut into a feature film when all is done. James Allen Teague is another filmmaker in the local area. He is making a feature-length thriller called MAGDALENE BLUE in fits and starts as locations are secured and cast and crew are reorganized every month or two. He will get it done. I know him.
The same thing is happening all over the country. And around the globe.
This blog is here to celebrate micro-budget filmmaking and filmmakers, be they from the VHS days, or doing it right now. Let’s keep the One Man (or Woman) One Movie spirit going. Let’s give Hollywood a reason to be scared.
If you make feature length movies without major sponsorship and with budgets under $50,000, I want to hear from you. I want to know what you’re working on. You can comment here or contact me at my retro-nineties VHS email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT: SELLING POSTERS: THE MOVIE IS A BONUS
Not so long ago, filmmaking was a rich man’s game. A member of the economic 99 percent had little chance of getting his or her movie made without the patronage of some one-percenter.
Truth be told, in the mainstream, that is still the case. However, thanks to game-changing technological advances, those with less-than-unlimited resources do have a pathway to get a film made and to have it seen by thousands worldwide. In the final shuffle, the hope is that talent and craft will win out over expensive flash.
In 1989 I dreamed of someday having the resources or the patronage to make my first film. A decade later I had five features under my belt as writer, producer and director, and all had been distributed around the globe. I did not become any wealthier in the intervening years, nor did I find a sponsor with deep pockets. No, digital video simply progressed to the point that it spawned consumer-level digital video equipment. The technology since has improved vastly, and become even more affordable.
That innovation began a revolution of folk like myself who had the hubris to challenge the reigning gods of mainstream cinema with their home-made, no-budget movies. And somehow, they succeeded – to a degree. For a time, those plucky cineastes contributed content to the Sacred Shelves at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.
Titles like “Vampires and Other Stereotypes,” “”Feeders,” “Things,” “Rage of the Werewolf,” “Riddled with Bullets” and “Shatter dead” shared space on those shelves alongside mainstream Hollywood movies, sorted alphabetically, with no assumption of lesser-value.
Names like Kevin Lindenmuth, Jeff Leroy, Todd Sheets, Hugh Gallagher and the Polonia Brothers, Mark and John, to name a few, started developing fan bases. Lindenmuth could be counted on for dark, character-driven horror dramas. Gallagher specialized in over-the-top gory erotica. Leroy had a penchant for elaborate miniature effects and action. Sheets was pure splatter, and the Polonias, probably the most prolific filmmakers of the era, covered just about every sub-genre in horror and science fiction.
It was a time of fearlessness and naiveté, walking hand-in-hand. It was a unique time in cinema history, when the mainstream had its first skirmish with upstart startups, vying for the same inches on the Sacred Shelves. Upstarts with less polish, but chutzpah to spare.
It was, in fact, the birth of crowd sourcing media content, which is rapidly becoming a formidable force in media marketing.
This blog exists to celebrate that time and its players in the brief, ambitious, naive period I am calling the era of Grassroots Cinema. Each post will highlight some movie or some filmmaker from that era, and maybe some interviews and guest posts as well.
NEXT: The making of “Hollywood Mortuary.”