Author: Jack Picone

The Best Cinematography: A Look At Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman liquor store

By the end of this year’s Academy Awards, Birdman winning Best Picture wasn’t much of a surprise. Earlier in the ceremony, it had already picked up Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Directing and Best Cinematography. The Cinematography award went to the film’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, giving him a record-tying two Oscars in a row in the cinematography category. Lubezki had won the year before for the stunningly shot Gravity.

Like Gravity, and other films Lubezki shot, including Tree of Life and Children of Men, Birdman is known for its long takes—single, seemingly unedited shots of several minutes or more in length. In fact, Lubezki and writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu worked very hard to make Birdman seem like it was shot entirely in a single, continuous take. This was achieved by combining several long takes and making their transitions as hidden and seamless as possible. For the most part, it was successful, and is considered a major factor in Birdman’s considerable award season praise.

While the film used camera tricks and illusion to make Birdman seem like a two-hour-plus single take, it still involved several long shots that are incredibly difficult to film in a practical setting. According to Lubezki, most shots are around ten minutes in length with the longest take around fifteen. Even a single one of these takes would be considered a daunting and possibly unnecessary task in a production.

How did the Birdman team (Birdteam?) pull this off? With lots of practice. A proxy set resembling the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre—where Birdman is set—was built in Los Angeles before filming began. It was there that Iñárritu and Lubezki blocked out each shot, playing Birdman’s jazzy, drum-based score in the background to help set the tone. By plotting and practicing each long take, the filmmakers were able to figure out how and where they could hide their shot transitions, as well as get an idea of where to stage their actors and place their lights. They realized for the more difficult shots, visual effects would be needed to help with the transition.

Zach Galifinakis and Michael Keaton in Birdman

Shooting and combining these takes were assisted in the mobility of the Steadicam, which Lubezki employed throughout filming. The cinematographer has become well known for his intense handheld shots, and Birdman was no different. He personally operated the camera for many handheld shots and relied on veteran Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff for Steadicam shots, working with him and directing him in real time to better capture the improvisational production of the film and respond to the actor’s movements and unpredictable natural lighting. A 2nd AC would also follow the operator for some shots to spot necessary camera moves.

The cameras used in Birdman included the Arri Alexa and, for the handheld and Steadicam shots, the Alexa plus. The Alexa M was used for some remote and extreme handheld work, using a custom-built backpack holding an external recorder, its batteries, and a wireless transmitter. The primary lenses used were Leica and Zeiss Master Primes. While many cinematographers would avoid using extremely wide lenses for close-ups, Lubezki, considered a master with wider lenses, did not hesitate to use the Zeiss Master Prime 12mm and similarly wide lenses even for tight close-ups in the claustrophobically shot film, creating many memorable and intimate images.

Michael Keaton shirtless in Birdman

Camera movement wasn’t Birdman’s only technical feat. Iñárritu did not shy away from using strong colors like red, blue and green to enhance the drama of the film. Blue and red were used in particular on stage in the play-within-the-movie. Scenes shot outside, with the theater exterior just yards away from Times Square and a memorable scene in the heart of Times Square itself, meant the filmmakers had to work around New York City’s omnipresent artificial lighting.

Lighting proved particularly tricky considering the long, varied takes—without the safety net of cutting, Lubezki had to hide his lights out of frame very carefully. In typical cinematic shots, not only do cinematographers take pains to hide the physical lighting equipment and cables out of frame, but also must maintain the angle of their source within a camera move—shadows or other lights could betray the artificial sources if a shot is not blocked and choreographed correctly. During Birdman’s long takes, with shots often showing 360 degree angles of the set, maintaining this lighting continuity was an epic struggle.

Not only did Lubezki find the right placement for his lighting equipment, he had his grip team constantly move them during the shot, with the lights dancing just out of frame and moving along with the actors, Lubezki, and the camera operator. They would move not only heavy, superhot lamps but also the gels and diffusions bouncing their light and shadows, all to maintain the illusion of a natural source within the shot. This needed to be done for every single take of nearly every single shot in Birdman.

Naomi Watts in Birdman

To minimize lighting equipment and allow for what Lubezki called “a ballet” of hustling and shifting crew members, Lubezki pushed the Alexa to a ISO of 1280 with the aperture open wide. By making the camera more sensitive to light in this way, Lubezki reduced the need for larger and more elaborate lighting setups, giving the camera, actors, and crew more freedom and room to move around within each tracking shot.

Lubezki and Iñárritu also employed the use of lens flares to add visual texture to Birdman. By having lens flares on the film’s copious wide-angled close-ups, Lubezki was able to soften the image, lowering the contrast and making the actors’ more intimate scenes prettier and more emotional.

Simply put, Birdman was more than just a string of gimmicky long takes. If the Oscar for Best Cinematography was given on a purely technical level, Birdman would be more than worthy of it. If the Oscar was awarded based on artistry and how beautifully shot a film is, then Birdman would be more than worthy of it. The Oscar, however, is given based on a combination of both these qualities. Birdman was more than worthy of it.

MIchael Keaton Emma Stone Birdman hospital scene

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How To Self-Distribute Your Film

Producing and filming an independent movie is laborious work, though not impossible. And while bringing your vision to life outside the studio system might seem difficult, you’ll find it’s exponentially harder to get that vision to the masses. There’s a reason there is a huge industry dedicated entirely to distribution—the dissemination of movies in formats of all types. Doing it on your own is almost impossible.

However, with technological improvements and the decentralization of the Internet, more and more artists have turned to self-distribution. Some have it easier than others. Comics like Louis C.K. and filmmakers like Kevin Smith have found success putting distribution in their own hands, but they also benefitted from built-in audiences and closer sources to financing. If no one has ever heard of you, let alone your movie, you’re in for a serious undertaking. Here are some tips to help you along the way.

1. Get Attention

While streaming and video-on-demand are growing in popularity, booking movie theaters is still vital for most unseen movies to get seen. If you haven’t picked up a distributor after major festival screenings, it’s probably up to you. Your first goal should be to find a talented graphic artist who shares your vision. Make art—posters, flyers, etc.—for your film that catches the eye while also conveying its tone or mood or theme. You’ll also need a skilled editor to craft a movie trailer that will get your movie noticed. Art and trailers aren’t just necessary for social media or buzz, they will also grab attention in theater lobbies and as windows to your film on streaming websites. Most importantly though, they’ll help you raise money.

2. Get Money

Distribution is more expensive than you would probably guess, and depending on your production’s budget, could actually cost more than it did to make the movie. Renting theaters and paying for prints and ad materials rack up big costs. You may also find the need to hire assistance even if you’re distributing on your own. Use platforms like Kickstarter and more traditional grassroots campaigns to raise initial startup cash. Use your sweet trailer and posters to make people want to get involved. Find those interested in what you have to say or patrons of the arts or wealthier citizens who would like to see their name in the credits!

3. Get Ads

You’ve got the art and you’ve got the money to make prints so it’s time to get the word out. Theaters want ad materials well in advance because if people aren’t seeing your movie, it’s costing them money too. Ideally you could keep them in good shape and reuse them if you’re moving from city to city, but it’s hard to keep perishable material safe in the hands of strangers. You’ll probably just have to pay for more copies, so be prepared. And remember to get them early.

4. Get Social

Social media is the best way to gain buzz around your film. Use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—anything you can get your hands on that will get your story to the masses. Share your trailer and your cool poster. Post photos from the set or from your tour or time at festivals. Post your thoughts, even if unrelated to the film, just to keep your name and the name of your project in the air. Also, use your networks to find your audience. What cities or types of people seem to gravitate towards your project? When you self-distribute your distribution is limited—that makes efficient targeting very important.

5. Set Good Dates

Choosing the right release dates for your theatrical and online releases are key. You want to avoid the Fall and early Winter because the films with awards season buzz are already hogging the spotlight. You’ll also want to avoid sharing dates with major releases that are going to suck up all the audience, or, conversely, release concurrently with a film you think will turn off your potential audience so they’ll see yours instead. Counter-programming is a vital tactic used by distributors—if everyone is seeing the new sci-fi blockbuster, your low key drama would make a great alternative. And don’t forget to think small. If you’re doing one- or two-time screenings, choose Mondays and Tuesdays, days when an audience isn’t likely to be doing something else.

6. Go On Tour

Touring with your film may seem old school—it was originally done to save money on costly film prints, and has fallen out of fashion as digital prints have made distribution cheaper. But it’s a great way to focus resources and meet your audience in person, forging a stronger connection. Use social media and your art to keep locals in the know and go city-by-city, staggering your dates while building word of mouth.

7. Do Q&As

If you’re touring with your film, don’t just make it a series of run-of-the-mill screenings. Organize a Q&A, talking to your audience after the screening. Guest speakers make screenings more exciting and give people more incentive to come out and see it. You can also engage better with your audience and learn from them, increasing your buzz as well as teaching you how to better target a larger crowd

8. Stream

Once you feel your theatrical run has run its course, you should get your film online to stream. You can also make home video releases on DVD and Blu-Ray, though the format is quickly falling out of fashion. Distributing online later in the game is smart because it prevents potential piracy and forces people to come out to the theaters to see your film first. However, once you do go online, you’ll reach a much, much larger audience, especially considering all those who wanted to see your film but weren’t in the cities of your release. You can post on sites like YouTube, which isn’t as discriminating as companies like Netflix or Amazon, though it may give your film a less “professional” demeanor. But it’s a start.

9. Team Up

If you can’t make headway with the big companies like Netflix and Amazon, there are interesting and innovative organizations and companies you might have better luck with. Groups like Indieflix and Createspace back your film with screenings and streaming and help raise awareness of your project. Some, like Indieflix, have models that allow you to get paid for each minute your film is streamed. For self-distributors, organizations like these are becoming a must.

10. Be Prepared to Work

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. You may be physically and emotionally drained after finally getting your project on film or video, but if you’re going to distribute yourself you have to prepare for a great deal more effort. There’s a reason those with cash will pay someone else to do it for them. But if you’re an artist with no other choice, you’ll have to muscle through it. It’s not all bad though—self-distribution allows you to connect with your audience in a way many filmmakers never get to. And what’s making art and movies if not an attempt to connect?

2015 Oscars: A Look At The Documentary Short Subject Nominees

Oscar statue

The Documentary Short category often gets overlooked during the hype and blitz of the Academy Awards, but the films nominated for the Oscar are almost always powerful and important. Because they are cheaper to finance than features, documentary shorts often tackle subjects that are obscured from mainstream media, or tell deeply personal stories that resonate with a humanity that can be lacking in the movies of the other categories.

Documentary Shorts can come from career filmmakers or those making their first project after studying documentary filmmaking in film school. This is the first nomination for all of the producers and directors up for the Oscar this year. Their subjects are varied but united in their compassion for mankind, from thousands of war veterans to the life of a single infant. Here is a look at the other works these filmmakers have made before their shot at the golden statue.

Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry – Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 chronicles the crisis center that handles military veterans, which account for 20% of all suicides in the United States each year. In addition to directing Hotline, Ellen Goosenberg Kent has directed the documentaries One Nation Under Dog and No Dog Left Behind, as well as TV docs Wartorn: 1861-2010, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, The Addiction Project, The Music in Me, Too Hot Not to Handle, Middle School Confessions, and Brett Killed Mom: A Sister’s Diary, among others. She has also produced Real Sex for HBO.

Producer Dana Perry has also produced Sex: The Revolution, Paramedics, and Motown 40: The Music is Forever. She had directed Top Ten Monks, Boy Interrupted, The Drug Years, And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop, and VH1 Presents the 70s.

Aneta Kopacz – Joanna

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Joanna

Joanna tells the heartbreaking story of a mother facing a terminal disease who writes a blog for her young son, hoping to impart some lessons and wisdom before she passes.

This is the only film credit Aneta Kopacz has to date, though she was given special thanks in the credits for Get Low, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray.

 

Documentary Short Subject Nominee Our Curse

Our Curse is a Polish film directed by Tomasz Śliwiński, whose child was born with a very rare and incurable disease known as the Ondine’s Curse. He chronicles the struggles he and his wife have caring for their sick baby and the toll it takes on their own lives. He and his wife, Maciej, have no other credits but the making of this heartbreakingly personal film.

Gabriel Serra Arguello – The Reaper (La Parka)

Documentary Short Subject Nominee The Reaper

The Reaper tells the story of Efrain, who’s worked in a slaughterhouse for 25 years, gradually changing his worldview on life and death. Director Gabriel Serra Arguello has worked as the AC on Tiempos Felices and the cinematographer on Año Nuevo and Xinantecatl.

J. Christian Jensen – White Earth

Documentary Short Subject Nominee White Earth

White Earth takes place in North Dakota during an oil boom that is attracting many people looking for employment in a harsh economy. Unfortunately the winter proves even harsher. The film documents the struggle of an immigrant mother and her three children facing the situation head on.

J. Christian Jensen often acts as his own cinematographer, and has shot and directed documentary shorts including Between Land and Sea, Solitary Plains, Alpha & Omega, and Out of Body.

Any winner this year will be deserving of the prize. Check out our looks at the nominees for Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Documentary Feature.

The Best Cinematography: Exploring The Light And Dark In Pan’s Labyrinth

Eyeballs in hands in Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is very much a Guillermo del Toro film. The 2006 historical fantasy is loaded with the Mexican filmmaker’s pet themes, and includes creatures and designs personally conjured up by del Toro and bearing his signature style. The look, in particular, of the film helped bring to life perhaps the purest version of del Toro’s vision.

The director of photography tasked with putting this vision on screen was Guillermo Navarro, who succeeded enough to win the Academy Award for Cinematography for his work. Navarro is a Mexican cinematographer whose credits include Desperado, From Dusk til Dawn, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Jackie Brown, Spawn, Stuart Little, Spy Kids, Zathura, Night at the Museum, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and Pacific Rim. He is known for his use of vivid blues and yellows that dominate his images. Having worked with del Toro before on the Hellboy films and others, he was a perfect choice to shoot Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Crew & Camera

Pan’s Labyrinth was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, its production being 78% Spanish and 22% Mexican. Because Pedro Almodóvar was shooting Volver at the same time, much of del Toro’s Spanish crew was unavailable to work on the shoot. He and Navarro had to put together a film crew with mostly strangers and inexperienced workers, and had no idea what to expect. It ended up working wonders for the team. Since the crew wasn’t set in their habits, Navarro was able to use them any way he saw fit. This was a great benefit considering the American grip & electric system they used in Mexico was much different from the system European crews were accustomed to.

Shooting in Spain also afforded the crew a 5 ½ day work schedule and a slower working pace, which allowed Navarro the time to set up scenes and shots in a more deliberate fashion. Principal photography was wrapped in three months.

Navarro went to Spain with his own Moviecam Compact cameras that he owned and used for all of his shoots, as well as his personal Arri 435ES lenses. Two lines of Zeiss lenses were used, Ultra Primes and Variable Primes, depending on what the shot called for.

A lot of the film’s equipment was homemade from Spain. Navarro got a lot of use out of a small crane nicknamed the “puchi,” appropriated from the English “push in.” The crane allows a single operator to move the camera in a variety of ways with great freedom. Navarro grew very fond of the tool, even purchasing his own for his work in LA. He often operated it himself during the shoot, with his frequent and trusted collaborator Jaromir Sedina simultaneously wielding a Steadicam. When a scene required more camera height than the puchi could provide, Navarro opted to use a taller Technocrane. For some of the tight, heavily forested areas where it was hard to find room for lights, the crew used a sausage-shaped illuminated balloon that could float over the set and light it from above.

Sergi López as Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth

Light & Dark

Navarro used three film stocks—Vision 250D, Vision2 500T, and Vision2 200T, depending on what was being photographed. The crew shot a lot of day for night, especially in the forests where it was very difficult to artificially light. By underexposing these scenes three to four stops, Navarro not only created night, but gave it an eerie presence that fit the film’s fantasy elements. He purposefully kept lighting effects that could only be attained with sunlight, which jarred the image when it passed itself as night, creating an aura of experimentation one might usually find in cinematography school.

Because of the awkwardly-shaped spaces of the fantasy sets, Navarro had to be creative with his lighting, finding places to put his lamps that also didn’t disrupt the image. A lot of light was strictly attained by bouncing it into the set. For certain scenes, the crew also drilled tiny holes into the walls of the set and placed little lights into the spaces. In the tunnel of the giant frog scene, Ofelia’s face was lit with a fiber-optic light attached directly to the camera.

For much of the film, Navarro used more darkness than actual light, using his lamps and bounce boards to bring just enough of the image out of shadow. Del Toro and Navarro are of very similar minds when it comes to the use of darkness, and Pan’s Labyrinth was the perfect project for their style. They frequently took advantage of modern film stocks’ ability to be highly sensitive to light. While they used an abundance of shadow, they still needed to carefully add a lot of light to make sure the highlights they wanted to show came through. The crew learned that for many scenes, they couldn’t even go by the light meter, as they were so far down in the F-stop range that it was irrelevant to measure.

Making it even more difficult was that the crew was using a digital intermediate and high-definition dailies, where contrast isn’t as defined as it will look on film. The crew had to rely on del Toro and Navarro’s gut intuition, and place faith in the fact that they knew what they were doing and weren’t permanently obscuring the beautiful imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth in shadow. Fortunately for the audience, their gut intuition was right.

Encountering a creature in Pan's Labyrinth

2015 Oscars: A Look at the Nominees for Best Original Screenplay

From birds to boys to everything in between, the Best Original Screenplay nominees for this year’s 87th Academy Awards are a diverse, intriguing mix. Most of the writers up for the Oscar have competed for the award before, so it’s anyone’s game. Here is a look at some other works by the Best Original Screenplay nominees and what led them to their Oscar-nominated screenplays, essential reading for any screenwriting student or aspiring screenwriter.

Birdman – Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo

While this is the first Oscar nomination for the other writers of Birdman, writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was previously nominated for Best Writing and Best Directing for his 2006 film Babel and is up for Best Directing and Best Picture this year.

He has also scripted his upcoming film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. AGI has also written his film Biutiful with Birdman co-writers Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo and all four nominees are currently scripting the upcoming Ed Helms television series The One Percent for Starz.

Boyhood – Richard Linklater

This is Richard Linklater’s fifth Oscar nomination, counting his nods for Directing and Best Picture for his 12 years in the making masterpiece, Boyhood. He was previously nominated for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, which were in the Adapted Screenplay category as they are based on Linklater’s original screenplay, Before Sunrise.

He’s also written most of his own films, including Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Newton Boys, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie and his upcoming effort, That’s What I’m Talking About.

Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

This is Frye’s first nomination and Futterman’s second—he previously got the nod for his work on Capote.

Frye is a veteran screenwriter, having scripted films since the 1980s. His credits include Something Wild, Amos & Andrew and an episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers. He was also script consultant on Lars Von Trier’s experimental film Dogville.

In addition to Capote, Dan Futterman has written for the television shows In Treatment and Gracepoint.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness

While this is Hugo Guinness’s first Oscar nomination, Wes Anderson has received five others, including his nods this year for Directing and Best Picture. His other nominations include two other Original Screenplay nods for The Royal Tenebaums and Moonrise Kingdom and a Best Animated Feature for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Anderson’s other screenwriting credits are exclusively for his own directed films, including Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and again for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Hugo Guinness’s story credit for The Grand Budapest Hotel is his only writing credit to date, but he also did art and voice acting for The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

This is Dan Gilroy’s first screenwriting credit, though he has been writing for Hollywood since the early 90s. His brother is successful screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy. Some of Dan Gilroy’s credits include Freejack, Chasers, Two for the Money, The Fall, Real Steel, and The Bourne Legacy.

Check out our other pages for a look at the careers of this year’s Best Documentary Feature nominees and Best Cinematography nominees.

 

2015 Oscars: A Look at the Best Documentary Feature Nominees

Oscar Statue
This year’s Oscar nominees in the Best Documentary Feature are an eclectic group—producers and directors of varying levels of experience. Their films are just as diverse, although all share a voice that says something powerful and critical to the human experience, a must for any documentary vying for the Academy Award. For students and aspiring documentary filmmakers who wish to learn more about the craft of documentary filmmaking, here is a look at those who might go home with the golden statue in an important yet somewhat overlooked major category.

Citizenfour – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky

Citizenfour movie poster

Citizenfour unravels one of the biggest stories of the decade—Edward Snowden and the NSA’s controversial surveillance program. This isn’t director Laura Poitras’s first time at the big show—she was previously nominated in the same category for My Country, My Country in 2006. She’s also worked on Exact Fantasy, Flag Wars, Oh Say Can You See, and The Oath.

Producers Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky haven’t had the honor before—this is the first nomination for both. Bonnefoy has worked primarily as an editor, cutting Hollywood thriller The International and European cult hits Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior,and Heaven. Dan Wilutzky was production manager on Bowling for Columbine, which won the Oscar in 2003.

Finding Vivian Maier – John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

Finding Vivian Maier movie poster

Finding Vivian Maier investigates the enigmatic life of private photographer Vivian Maier. This is the first Oscar nomination for John Maloof, but for good cause—to date, this is his only film credit. Maloof is actually a Chicago historian and collector, drawn to the life of Vivian Maier after discovering thousands of her negatives in an auction.

Co-director Charlie Siskel does have experience in documentary and producing, however. In addition to producing several Comedy Central programs like Tosh.0, Review, Crossballs,and Important Things with Demetri Martin, Siskel was also a producer on Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. In addition, he also assistant directed and was production manager for the Bill Maher documentary Religulous.

Last Days in Vietnam – Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester

Last Days in Vietnam

Last Days in Vietnam chronicles the chaotic, tragic American evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. This is the first nomination for both director Rory Kennedy and producer Keven McAlester.

Rory Kennedy is a prolific documentary producer, having produced Bobby Fischer Against the World, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Street Fight, and many others. She also directed Ethel, a documentary chronicling the life of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, wife and widow of Robert F. Kennedy.

Keven McAlester has produced and/or directed doc features and shorts including The Fence, You’re Gonna Miss Me, The Dungeon Masters, and Dance with Me.

The Salt of the EarthWim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

The Salt of the Earth movie poster

The Salt of the Earth documents Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who’s focused a lot of his work on the poor and suffering. Producer Wim Wenders is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having been nominated twice before for documentary features Pina and Buena Vista Social Club.

Wenders is also a prolific director in fiction, having directed films as Wings of Desire, Until the End of the World, The Million Dollar Hotel and Paris, Texas.

The Salt of the Earth’s director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, has also worked on Paris la métisse and TV documentary Nauru, an Island Adrift. This is producer David Rosier’s first film credit and nomination.

Virunga – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Virunga movie poster

Virunga tells the story of the battle between those tasked to protect the nature and inhabitants of Virunga National Park, a refuge for endangered mountain gorilla, and those who seek to profit from the oil lying underneath the park. This is the first nomination for both Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara.

Von Einsiedel has produced several documentary features and shorts, including Aisha’s Song, Little Voice Big Mountain, Superbob and Radio Amina, as well as two episodes of TV doc Earthrise. Natasegara is also a prolific director and producer, having produced documentaries Ministry of Truth and The Price of Kings series, which she has also directed.

What Does Amazon Studios Mean for Hollywood?

This week, corporate juggernaut Amazon.com announced it would be producing feature films for theatrical release, a huge if not all-that surprising move for the company and its ambitious leader, Jeff Bezos. With Ted Hope as its creative chief, Amazon Original Movies plans to release up to a dozen features a year, making it a perfect case study for any producing student. In many ways, it’s a match made in heaven—Ted Hope is a wildly successful indie producer who also delivered a guest lecture at the New York Film Academy, and Amazon has a very popular streaming service that can distribute the films to homes after their big-screen runs. While movies traditionally took several months to transition to home video, and more recently, up to a year to streaming services, Amazon can have its movies prepped and ready to stream on Prime Instant Video a month or two after their initial release.

Pitches & Pilots

While their announcement that they’ll be producing their own movies is huge, Amazon Studios itself is nothing new. It actually launched in 2010 as an online platform to develop and crowdsource original content. Amazon made a loud call for aspiring writers, directors, animators, editors, storyboard artists and other artists to come together and make movies. Writers could submit spec scripts, treatments and pitches, and by doing so, automatically option their work to Amazon for free. Amazon instantly made these works public and anyone else was allowed to tweak or completely rewrite these works. If the end result was strong enough, Amazon would package and sell the project with a set commission for the original creator as well as anyone who worked on the successful draft.

This system was both innovative and controversial. Many writers claimed the company was taking advantage of artists who had no power and not many options. In many ways they were right, but it also offered opportunities to artists who felt they had nowhere left to turn. Amazon also held contests with large financial prizes as incentive for filmmakers to willingly give up the rights to their work. While Amazon Studios had a buzzy beginning, receiving and crowdsourcing thousands of spec scripts, it never really shook Hollywood in the way many insiders expected.

In retrospect, Amazon Studios may have just been a first step in a long-term plan Bezos had in his head all along. Amazon eventually started focusing its crowdsourcing on television pilots, and in 2012 began production on a slew of original pilots it planned to stream on its still-nascent Prime Streaming. While most of these pilots were from established writers, directors and actors as opposed to the undiscovered talent its Studios originally sought to promote, it was still a big step both for the company and Hollywood. Amazon’s Prime streaming service had finally come-of-age and established it as a firm and equal competitor of Netflix. Its initial pilot season was successful and Amazon has continued to release original content in televised form, winning critical praise and Golden Globes.

From Small Screens to Big

With its foray into TV a definitive win, it’s only logical for Amazon to try its hand at feature films. By self-producing content, it not only makes the question and price of streaming rights a nonissue, but allows the company to get the content into homes as quick as possible, a genuine advantage in an socioeconomic climate where many Americans would rather watch new films at home than at the movies. While Amazon could theoretically release the film day-and-date with theaters, giving consumers the option to stream a new release immediately, it has opted for a 4-8 week delay.

This may seem counterproductive to their interests, but is a shrewd move and could end up reaping big rewards. Netflix, Amazon’s biggest streaming competitor, has also announced its plan to produce its own movies to distribute, also following its success in self-producing television content. However, unlike Amazon, Netflix plans to release its movies, including four Adam Sandler features and a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the same day as their theatrical releases. After all, Netflix has the most to gain from streaming a brand new movie.

But theater owners disagree, and are still a powerful force to reckon with in Hollywood. They have been fighting instant on-demand tooth-and-nail as it obviously hurts box office and their own profit margin. Many have threatened Netflix that they would not screen their productions in protest. While this could cost the theater chains money, they have many other movies they can show, and it will hurt Netflix’s potential income on its produced content. Since Amazon is giving theaters a month or two head start to play their films for an audience unwilling to wait for it on demand, theaters will more likely show their films on more screens, making bigger profits for both parties.

The Reign of the Movie Studios

Amazon’s deal with the theater chains could give it a big edge on Netflix and position the company to become a powerful studio in Hollywood. But it will take a lot of luck and smart business for it to stand with the giants of Hollywood—the major studios. Almost all of the films to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood came from five major studios and a few smaller ones. Today, the majority of content to hit the big screens still only come from the Big Six, three of which were part of the original Big Five—Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. Universal and Columbia have grown from that era as well, with only Disney being the relative newcomer in the pack.

Indie films are considered independent because they are not produced by these major studios (though the studios’ power is so broad they may end up distributing independent productions.) These studios are nearly as old as Hollywood itself, forming a powerful dynasty that has been nearly impossible to shake. Some production companies have come close, taking a sizable portion of the market, though they still are dwarfed by the Big Six. These include Lions Gate, MGM (a former Big Fiver), CBS, and Dreamworks, which was created by the some of the most powerful men in Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg. But even with history, popularity, insider knowhow and a lot of money on their sides, they haven’t challenged the major studios in a revolutionary way.

So the question is, if Amazon Studios keeps to its plan and starts producing films, can it reach the level of Lions Gate or Dreamworks? An even bolder question is: Can it join the Big Six?

Is Amazon the Next Major Studio?

As long as Amazon keeps up with its plan, it’s more than likely to become at least a minor contender in Hollywood. Its foray into television has proven that it has both the creative and financial prowess to handle original content. Cracking the Big Six is a very big deal. Only Disney has been able to do so in almost a century of Hollywood business and politics, building its empire on an ambitious founder and a lovable cartoon mouse.

Amazon doesn’t have Mickey, but it does have Jeff Bezos, who has shown at every chance that he is as ambitious as Walt Disney. Bezos and his company also have billions of dollars, from a wide-ranging empire. Netflix might be the bigger streamer, but it doesn’t come close to Amazon in income. Practically no corporation does. When Bezos sets his mind to something, he usually becomes an unstoppable force with unlimited resources driven toward that goal. Under his guidance, Amazon has practically invented modern online shopping and revolutionized reading and the literary industry with ebooks and the Kindle. If there’s a company that can transform Hollywood permanently, it’s Amazon.

Then again, there’s the Fire Phone. Sometimes Amazon doesn’t get it right. But while the Big Six have been dominant for decades upon decades, the medium has more-or-less been the same the entire time. We’re living in a new millennium, in a new world. 20th Century Fox and its brethren may have been the rulers of the 20th century, but the 21st century may end up belonging to forward thinkers like Bezos, and innovative mega juggernauts like Amazon.

The Best Cinematography: A Look At 2015’s Oscar Nominees

Oscar award

The Academy Awards nominations for 2015 are out and as usual there’s a mix of powerhouses, underdogs, surprises, and sure things. For the Best Cinematography  category, the list of nominees ranges from potential Best Picture winners to foreign films with few other nods in other categories. If you are looking to better understand the craft of cinematography, the work of these six cinematographers offer a fantastic supplement to in-class studies.

Here then is a look at the careers of the six cinematographers up for the Oscar.

1. Emmanuel Lubezki – Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Emmanuel Lubezki is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having earned six other nominations, including for Gravity, which earned him his first Oscar last year. Lubezki is of Russian heritage and was born and raised in Mexico, and has collaborated on several films with Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Terence Malick. He was also nominated for his work on The Tree of Life, Children of Men, The New World, Sleepy Hollow and A Little Princess.

Other credits include the indie film Twenty Bucks, Reality Bites, The Birdcage, Meet Joe Black, and The Cat in the Hat. He has two upcoming films with AGI and Malick.

2. Robert Yeoman – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Pink boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Robert Yeoman is an American cinematographer and a first-time Oscar nominee. He has shot every live-action film of Wes Anderson. He’s also DPed Drugstore Cowboy, The Wizard, Dogma, The Squid and the Whale, Yes Man, Get Him to the Greek, Whip It, and Bridesmaids.

His next film will be the upcoming Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy.

3. Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski – Ida

Scene from Ida

Polish cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski are thirty-three years apart in age and have never collaborated before their work on black-and-white foreign-film darling Ida, but they clearly bring out the best in each other as this is the first nomination for both of them.

Zal has worked mostly on documentary features and shorts, including Joanna, Arena, and Paparazzi. His upcoming film is The Here After. Lenczewski has DPed Intermission, Margaret, and My Summer of Love.

4. Dick Pope – Mr. Turner

Timothy Spalling in Mr. Turner

Dick Pope’s work on Mr. Turner earned him his second Oscar nomination—the British cinematographer was also nominated in 2006 for The Illusionist. A frequent collaborator of Mr. Turner director Mike Leigh, Pope’s credits as director of photography include Secrets & Lies, The Way of the Gun, Nicholas Nickelby, Vera Drake, Me and Orson Welles, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Bernie.

5. Roger Deakins – Unbroken

Scene from Unbroken

Is this Roger Deakins’ year? So far, he’s always been the bridesmaid, with a staggering 12 nominations for Best Cinematography and not a single win. The English DP is a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers and has been previously nominated for shooting Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit, The Reader, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Kundun, Fargo, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Other credits include Doubt, In Time, The House of Sand and Fog, The Village, A Beautiful Mind, Dead Man Walking and Sid and Nancy. His next film will be another Coen Brothers effort—Hail, Caesar!

In addition, a portion of the film was shot on the Village Roadshows Studios lot shared by the New York Film Academy Australia on behalf of Screen Queensland.

Who do you think will take home the gold? Let us know in the comments!

How To Make The Most Of Pre-Production

A producer’s job is never finished, even after their movie has a definitive, final cut. But it does have a start—at the very beginning of pre-production, the work on a film before principal photography. And a smart producer will make sure they are making the most of this crucial time from day one. Especially when dealing with low budgets, every decision and every penny count. Here then are 12 things a producer can do during pre-production to best ensure a smooth, worthwhile film.

1. Start Saving Money

This applies to the producer, the director, and anyone else with a personal stake in the production. In a world where many artists and filmmakers live paycheck to paycheck, saving up a decent sum of money can take a long time, so start as soon as you know you have a project somewhere down the line. By saving up enough to cover at least a few months of rent and bills, you can then focus full time on the project without having to work a day job. You’ll also probably need some start-up cash to get the ball rolling on your project, just to get it to a point where you can start wooing investors.

2. Hire a line producer if you’re not micromanaging the budget

Film budgets, even for low-budget independent films, are both vitally important and incredibly complex. Unless you plan on having total control over the budget yourself, you will most likely need to someone to manage it for you, creating a proper breakdown of all costs and resources to the letter. Not only is this key to keeping track of a complicated film set, but essential to convincing potential investors that you have your head on your shoulders and are running a professional, competent project.

3. Hire a Lawyer

Find a lawyer willing to work within your budget, and willing to work for your budget. Having someone who knows their stuff, legally speaking, will help prevent any unforeseen expensive disasters when it comes to contracts, agreements and other paperwork.

4. Pick your format

Obviously, shooting digital is far cheaper than shooting on film these days. Choosing what you’d like to shoot—HD? 4K? 48fps?—as early as possible will help you start setting your budget sooner and more accurately. Choosing a more outdated format has its advantages as well; many production companies, film schools and individuals have stockpiles of outmoded technology they will be willing to give away at a sizable discount. If you are willing to put up with the extra costs and insist on shooting film, finding supplies of older stock can also save you a lot of money. Older film is typically grainier than fresh stock—but that could be just the look you’re going for.

5. Find your equipment

As with your format, finding equipment at a discount will go a long way toward reducing costs. You may choose what type of camera to use based on what is best available. You can work out a deal with a school you’ve attended or worked at, or go in on rental (or purchased) equipment with another production, or have a business front the money in exchange for producing an industrial or commercial video for them.

6. Find your crew

Obviously you and the director want to find a crew that will best realize the vision of the project. However, sometimes it pays to be practical. A lot of freelancing DPs and sound techs will own their own equipment. If you’re torn between two candidates, it might be smart to go with the one who can save you some money. Negotiating salary is also a key step in this part of pre-production. Even if someone is the best, if they’re asking for money you don’t have, sacrifices might have to be made.

 7. Find your casting director

Casting directors know what they’re doing, and it’ll take a load off your shoulders to have someone doing the grunt work of finding your perfect cast. More importantly, a casting director with a solid reputation will look great when you present your project to investors. (This also applies to finding your DP and crew.)

8. Storyboard!

It might seem odd to focus on storyboarding in the middle of non-creative pre-production work, but storyboarding will help with a lot more than setting the look for the film. Having a strict, detailed sense of what you’ll be shooting will help you get exactly what you require, whether its locations, lights, props, etc., and save you from having to spend money on extraneous elements you may never need. It will also keep you tight on schedule as you move shot to shot during production because producing rule #1 is and will always be Time = Money.

9. Get you insurance and permits out of the way

Acquiring insurance and permits can lead to a lot of red tape; it’s best to get it out of the way early. That way, if you hit any paperwork hiccups, you can have them resolved well before production starts, preventing any delays.

10 Find a caterer

This may seem trivial and silly, but it’s anything but. It’s indicative of an entire part of filmmaking that often gets overlooked—the little things. Finding a person or business to feed your crew may seem like a low priority when dealing with permits, insurance and expensive equipment rentals, but your cast and crew need to be fed, and if you overlook it until the last minute, any number of things can go awry. Giving yourself time to find the right caterer—someone close by, someone with a broad enough menu—will also help you find the best bargain available.

11. Lock your location

Get a great location scout. Get several, if you can. Look everywhere so that you know you didn’t miss the perfect spot that gives you everything you want for the lowest cost. Don’t just take into account how it looks on screen. Keep in mind traffic patterns, noise issues, potential problems with permits and insurance, and importantly, its distance to your crew, equipment, and, of course, your caterer. Travel costs rack up. Lock your location as early as possible so you can work on all of the above steps well before production gets underway.

12. Nail your lookbook

Your lookbook, or investment packet, should be as thrilling and as exciting as your project. Convincing potential investors to risk their own money on your artistic vision is a tough sell, and by hiring a graphic designer and offering as professional a lookbook as possible, you’ll show these investors you mean business. It can’t just look pretty, though—what’s inside counts as well. That’s where talented names—whether it’s your crew, your actor, or your casting director—come into play. And if you have everything else listed above taken care of—if you show your investors you’ve even considered the caterer—they will be much more likely to trust you with their money.

Learn more about production at the New York Film Academy Producing School.

10 Great Websites To Download Movie Scripts

If you want to write movie screenplays, you need to read movie screenplays – it’s just as essential as batting practice for professional baseball players. Reading in general is important, whether it’s novels, comics, or the backs of cereal boxes—even if you’re not paying attention, your brain is remembering hundreds if not thousands of subtle connections between language and storytelling.

Reading screenplays provides an added benefit—allowing you and your brain to see proper formatting in action. It’s also vital for aspiring screenwriters to see the difference between how scenes play out on the page and how they play out on the screen. Finally, while proper screenwriting adheres to a very rigid format, it’s extremely useful to see how various writers work within those rules and even use them to their advantage. Even if you know exactly what you’re seeing, your brain is actively learning and your subconscious is absorbing more and stronger information with every script you read.

By reading screenplay after screenplay, you will get a sense of how you can write your own.replica Rolex

Here, then, are ten websites that allow you to download professional movie scripts. Start clicking and start reading today—if not for your own sake, at least do it for your brain’s.

1. IMSDB – Internet Movie Screenplay Database

http://www.imsdb.com/

IMDB has proven a valuable resource for researching movie crews, casts, and trivia. IMSDB is just as useful for those looking for screenplays of all kinds and genres.

2. Go Into the Story

http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/free-script-downloads/

Go Into the Story is the official blog for The Blacklist, the screenwriting community famous for its annual top ten list of unproduced scripts. One useful feature of Go Into the Story is its bank of downloadable movie scripts.

3. Drew’s Script-o-Rama

http://www.script-o-rama.com/snazzy/table.html

The titular Drew has been sharing scripts with curious readers and writers for almost two decades now, and has a vast library from which to choose from. A great benefit of Script-O-Rama is that it holds several drafts of certain movies, an invaluable resource for those who want to see how a Hollywood film evolves in the writing process.

4. Simply Scripts

http://www.simplyscripts.com/movie.html

Simply Scripts has a wide, diverse library that also includes plays and non-English screenplays. It’s also constantly updated, providing scripts to current movies such as Interstellar and Foxcatcher.

5. AwesomeFilm

http://www.awesomefilm.com/

AwesomeFilm is another resource with dozens of scripts you can download with a single click, alphabetized for easy searching. If you’re looking for a screenplay to read, this site is, well, awesome.

6. Screenplays For You

http://sfy.ru/

Screenplays For You is a clean, smooth website with hundreds of scripts. You’re more than likely to find something from the genre you need—its library boasts everything from low-key award-winning dramas like Sideways to action blockbusters like Avatar.

7. The Daily Script

http://www.dailyscript.com/movie.html

The Daily Script offers a ton of screenplays in a very simple, easy-to-navigate layout. It keeps things homey for the typical screenwriter, even using Courier New as its primary font.

 8. The Screenplay Database

http://www.screenplaydb.com/film/all

The Screenplay Database is another useful resource with a large choice of scripts to choose from. If you’re interested in a certain type of film, the website also allows you to search its library by genre, to better allow you to window shop and find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.

9. The Script Lab

https://thescriptlab.com/

The Script Lab comes in handy if you’re looking for more recent screenplays. Its front page divides its library into the three most recent years of releases, so if there’s something from 2014 you’d like, for instance Birdman or Boyhood, this is the website for you.

10. Movie Scripts and Screenplays

http://www.moviescriptsandscreenplays.com/

You’ve got to love the straightforward title. Movie Scripts and Screenplays gives you exactly what it says, with a long list of manuscripts that you can also directly find with its search function.

All writers know that reading great material is an essential part of honing and building your craft. But if you’re ready to take the next step in developing your skills as a screenwriter with the most hands-on, intensive training in the world, check out NYFA’s screenwriting programs.  Looking for a long-distance way to take your writing to the next level? Check out NYFA’s online screenwriting program options.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Patrick Creadon

Bill Clinton doing a crossword puzzle in Wordplay

Patrick Creadon is an American documentary filmmaker, well-known for his movies on puzzles, education, and the economy. Born in 1967, Creadon started out as a child actor in Chicago, a career that included a leading role as Tom Sawyer in a made-for-TV film co-starring Anthony Michael Hall and Cynthia Nixon. By his early 20s, Creadon was shooting and editing for the acclaimed PBS series The 90s and eventually moved to L.A. where he earned a masters in cinematography from the AFI Conservatory. In 1997, his student film, Tendrils, was nominated for a student Academy Award. He worked as a cameraman and producer for several broadcast and cable networks before moving on to documentary features.

Wordplay

Wordplay movie poster

Creadon made a name for himself as a documentarian with his very first feature, Wordplay, in 2006. Wordplay is about crossword puzzles, and specifically, the New York Times crossword. The film is divided into roughly two parts. The first half of Wordplay focuses on master puzzlemaker Will Shortz, the editor of the Times crossword and long-time co-host of NPR Sunday Puzzle, as well as veteran crossword constructor Merl Reagle and several other puzzlemakers.

The film also interviews noted celebrities who have proclaimed their passion for puzzle solving, including Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls, Bob Dole, and President Bill Clinton. Other puzzlers who play in nationwide tournaments and have become renowned for their skills are featured as well; the film focuses on four in particular.

The second half of Wordplay concerns the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where the best of the best compete for a $4000 prize and the bragging rights of the country’s greatest crossword solver. The film was shot during the entirety of the 2005 ACPT and shows the mental as well as physical trials and tribulations of the competitors.

Wordplay was a critical and commercial success, grossing over three million dollars in domestic box-office, making it one of the most profitable documentaries of all time. It also managed nominations for Best Documentary from the National Board of Review, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Sundance Film Festival. A lighthearted romp and especially well received by audiences, the film even had enough cultural cache to inspire an episode of The Simpsons, guest starring Shortz and Reagle.

I.O.U.S.A.

I.O.U.S.A. movie poster

Creadon followed Wordplay with a documentary about a decidedly more serious subject matter, I.O.U.S.A., although he managed to keep a tone that wasn’t too maudlin, despite its release on the heels of the recession. The film partially profiles former Comptroller General David M. Walker and follows Walker and Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, travelling cross-country to discuss the national debt and its potential for disaster. The trek, which journeyed from community to community, was dubbed the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

Bixby and Walker describe four aspects of the American economy: savings, budget, leadership, and the balance of payments. The documentary premiered at Sundance in 2008 before a unique event where it was simulcast across the country in 350 theaters and then followed by a live town hall meeting that included luminaries like Warren Buffett. Creadon hoped to get the very important yet relatively unknown issues about the national debt across to everyday citizens, and screened the film in college campuses and community centers throughout and after the 2008 presidential election. The film was even screened for members of Congress at the Library of Congress.

I.O.U.S.A. was well received, making Roger Ebert’s Top 5 Docs of 2008 as well as earning a Critics’ Choice Award nomination and Sundance nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. Creadon followed the film with a book, which expanded on the documentary and elaborated on the statistics and details featured on screen.

If You Build It

If You Build It movie poster

Creadon’s most recent documentary was 2013’s If You Build It, which followed a radical high school program in Windsor, North Carolina, part of the poorest county in the state. Chip Zullinger, the Superintendent of Bertie County, brought in two architects to design a curriculum for the high school. They created what became to be known as Studio H, and aimed to teach students how to design and build with their hands.

The students collaborated and built a farmers market pavilion for their community over the course of sixteen weeks. Better yet, it was designed by the students as well, a first for the nation. Zullinger aimed to give the students an education that enriched and empowered them as well.

Creadon’s film, whose title is derived from the famous Field of Dreams quote, screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival’s Art, Architecture and Design Series and was critically well received, continuing the filmmaker’s three-for-three hot streak of acclaimed documentaries.

The Best Documentaries: The Films Of Errol Morris

Errol Morris is an Oscar winning filmmaker who has been making documentaries for over thirty-five years, and is one of the few documentarian directors that casual moviegoers can name. Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Morris studied history and philosophy in college before moving to filmmaking. The subjects of his documentary films have ranged from specific oddities to broad geopolitical topics like the Vietnam War.

Morris’s films typically rely very little on narration, instead using interviews to propel his narratives. Morris is famous for his specific way of interviewing and the later invention of his Interrotron to aid his style. The Interrotron uses teleprompters as a sort of teleconferencing two-way mirror, allowing both interviewer and interviewee to look into the camera lens while also looking at one another. The result is that the interview itself is more personal and conversational, allowing the subjects to remove some of the distance that comes from televised interviews, while also giving the illusion that the subjects are talking directly to the audience. Many of Morris’s later films use the Interrotron in their interviews.

Errol Morris with the Interrotron

Gates of Heaven

Morris’s first documentary, 1978’s Gates of Heaven, concerns two pet cemeteries. It started a trend of Morris’s to follow everyday people with intriguingly odd professions and passions. Floyd “Mac” McClure, one of the film’s subjects, made it his lifelong mission to give pets a peaceful resting place. This combination of quirk and heart is central to several of many of Morris’s works.

Vernon, Florida

Morris followed up Gates of Heaven with Vernon, Florida, a documentary about the town of the same name and its idiosyncratic residents. Morris was originally drawn to the town because of its reputation as “Nub City”—many of its residents would actually cut off their own limbs as part of a large insurance scheme. Morris planned to document this shockingly morbid story of fraud, but the people involved threatened his life, causing him to expand his topic to the town’s other citizens.

Vernon, Florida DVD cover

The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line is one of Morris’s best-known works, and documents the murder of a police officer in 1976, the investigation of the crime, and the man who was wrongfully imprisoned for it, Randall Dale Adams. The 1988 film uses various reenactments and interviews to propose other scenarios and famously helped lead to Adams’s exoneration. While The Thin Blue Line is held in the highest regard and often on short lists of the best all-time documentaries, it wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award because Morris famously referred to the film as nonfiction, reflecting its narrative tropes.

A Brief History of Time

1991’s A Brief History of Time follows another person with a quirky passion, but in this case the person is famous and the passion is astrophysics—Stephen Hawking. While the title and marketing of the film may make it seem like it is an adaptation of Hawking’s famous groundbreaking science book, Morris’s documentary is more of a look at Hawking himself. In addition to many interviews with people from Hawking’s family, career and childhood, Time includes a soundtrack by Phillip Glass, who has collaborated frequently with Morris.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Morris’s 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control centers on four people with offbeat careers: a lion tamer, a hairless mole-rat expert, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and a topiary designer. The film is upbeat and frenetic, its cinematography and musical score both illustrating and accentuating the quirk of its subjects. The four people narrate their own stories, with Morris intertwining each other’s narration and footage to highlight their thematic similarities.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Execution technician Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is the subject of Morris’s 1999 documentary. Morris was fascinated by what he perceived as Leuchter’s self-delusion and obliviousness to his own debauchery. Leuchter designed devices for capital punishment despite having no experience in engineering, and allegedly extorted the state into giving him work by threatening to testify on behalf of death row cases. He also supported Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel. Morris worked to discredit Leuchter’s work in the film.

Mr. Death movie poster

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War brought Morris an Academy Award for Best Documentary after its 2003 release. Scored again by Phillip Glass, Fog of War focuses on Morris’s interview with former Secretery of Defense Robert McNamara, McNamara telling in his own words the story of his early life, career at Ford, and how he ended up running the Vietnam War. The film gained great acclaim with its unique and potent perspective of Vietnam as well as its place in history within the context of the nascent War on Terror.

Standard Operating Procedure

The Fog of War started a loose trilogy of Errol Morris documentaries inspired by the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Standard Operating Procedure is Morris’ 2008 effort, focusing on the photographs of abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison and the scandal that followed after they were leaked to the public. The documentary seeks to tell a larger story, about the nature of the War itself and its relationship to the geopolitical atmosphere at large.

Standard Operating Procedure movie poster

Tabloid

Tabloid is another film by Morris that extrapolates a specific event to comment on a larger facet of culture. The event covered by the 2008 film was the tragic kidnapping and raping of an American Mormon missionary. Morris interviewed Joyce McKinney, the alleged rapist, as well as journalists involved in a battle between two British tabloids that had turned the case into a media circus.

The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld

The third entry in Morris’s unofficial War trilogy, 2013’s The Unknown Known focuses on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On its surface, the film seems to parrot Morris’s Oscar-winning Fog of War. Both films center on one-on-one interviews between Morris and a SecDef who presided over controversial wars. Yet while Fog of War is seen as many by Robert McNamara’s attempt to justify and apologize for mistakes he made during his tenure, The Unknown Known is more of a verbal chess match between interviewer and interviewee. Rumsfeld, famous for his carefully worded memos and vague answers to the White House Press Corps’ questions, plays that role again, dodging any inquiries Morris makes that he doesn’t want to answer. While the result is an interview where nothing much of note is actually said, the film still manages to paint a portrait of the documentary’s elusive subject.

The Unknown Known movie poster

 

The Best Cinematography: The Look Of There Will Be Blood

An oil derrick on fire from There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama, There Will Be Blood, floored critics in 2007 and was nominated for Best Picture. Inspired by Upton Sinclair’s ninety-year old novel Oil!, the film was set in the dirty, scorched earth of turn-of-the-century California and told the story of Daniel Plainview, a larger-than-life caricature of capitalism and American industriousness.

While Blood lost Best Picture, it did win Oscars for two of its most prominent features: Daniel Day-Lewis’s unforgettable performance and the film’s stunning, sweeping cinematography. That award went to the film’s DP, Robert Elswit, an American journeyman who has shot dozens of films in his career. Elswit, who grew up and attended film school in California, cites John Cassavetes as a heavy influence, and first worked as director of photography on the Rob Reiner comedy The Sure Thing.

Since then, he has shot everything from dramas to thrillers to comedies to Bond films and other action blockbusters, for directors including Curtis Hanson, Tony Gilroy, David Mamet, Philip Noyce, Brad Bird, Stephen Gaghan and Ben Affleck. He famously shot George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck in color, converting the film to black & white in post to give the look a greater range of shading. Most recently, Elswit filmed Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, the well-reviewed Jake Gyllenahaal crime thriller.

Despite all these varied projects, Elswit is probably best known for his collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson, since PTA’s very first feature, Hard Eight, and continuing to his present film Inherent Vice. Elswit has shot all of Anderson’s films, with the sole exception of 2012’s The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered one of the medium’s greatest living directors, and is famous for being improvisational and working on shots and scenes in the moment, waiting to see what the context of the day’s shooting will bring to the work. This style is especially difficult for camera crews in Hollywood whose jobs are quite technical, and who are used to preparation and precision. Elswit’s long-standing relationship with the director has been of great benefit to their collaboration, giving them decades of rapport and understanding and allowing them to work within each other’s orbits.

Daniel Day Lewis baptized by Paul Dano

Style & Influence

Elswit is a staunch and vocal supporter of shooting with film, avoiding digital as much as possible. He’s been quoted as saying that digital offers “no texture, no grain.” Fortunately for the DP, Paul Thomas Anderson is of the same opinion, and There Will Be Blood was shot entirely in film. Not only that, but only film dailies were used, with no DIs, or digital intermediates, unless shots were using the rare digital effect (mostly related to oil wells and removing anachronistic elements impossible to block out.) The possibilities of digital would give Anderson’s improvising nature a lot to work with—in his own opinion, too much to work with—and so he avoids it at all costs.

Hard Eight, their first collaboration, was shot in Super 35 but every film they’ve done together since has been anamorphic due to Anderson’s preference for its depth of field and look. Both Anderson and Elswit are noted fans of the films of the 1930s and 40s, many of which used anamorphic ratios. A specific point of reference for There Will Be Blood was John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, released in 1948. Anderson wanted to achieve Huston’s straightforward style, using simple frames and a small number of angles for each scene.

Lenses

Most of the film is shot with high-speed anamorphic lenses on a Panavision XL, all in 35mm. Anderson prefers the look of slower film stocks, which need much more light for exposure, and so most day scenes used Kodak 50D while night scenes used Kodak 200T. The Vision2 stocks were relied on for the relatively low contrast and usefulness in exterior shots, important to the on-location shoot.

The crew used Panavision lenses that were specially modified either for Blood or for previous films, like Solaris and Memoirs of a Geisha, including lenses whose optics were four decades old. Lenses were modified so that low-speeds could be used whenever possible, typically interiors that could be adequately lit. Others, including a modded 43mm lens, were used for their desaturated, low-contrast, low-resolution look. Anderson avoided zoom lenses at all cost, preferring to use the slower (and thus more expensive) setups needed for prime lenses, insisting that the looks framed by 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, and 100mm lenses were essential to the staging and design of the film.

The bowling alley scene in There Will Be Blood

Other modifications were made to the lenses to give the film its more vintage look. For some shots, the crew removed the anti-reflective chemical coatings from the glass, creating more organic-looking flares modern audiences are used to seeing. Alterations were made to the types of glass and even the roundness of the lenses. The crew has since remarked it was one of the most challenging shoots of their careers—some of the lenses were tested extensively before being used for a scene.

Concentrating on achieving the look they wanted through lenses, Anderson hoped to avoid using filters and other common cinematographic techniques. Elswit disagreed, insisting filters like the 85 are custom made and do not hurt the image—he had to lobby hard to use them in There Will Be Blood.

Location

Most of Blood takes place in the scorching sun of the American Southwest, in wide-open desert and plains in the brightest parts of the day. The preferred use of anamorphic lenses was ideal for capturing the expansive landscapes the setting provided. The production eventually settled on Marfa, Texas as the primary location for their shoot. Marfa retained some of the manmade structures that gave the period film its feel, like railroads and ranches, but it was its middle-of-nowhereness that really won over the production team. Elswit said of Marfa, “There aren’t many spots in America where you can stand on top of a hill and see absolutely nothing in all directions.”

The spot allowed production designer Jack Fisk to build and arrange the small town of There Will Be Blood in a way that allowed them all to be visually connected in a very physical way. The structures important to the story, like the oil well and the church, could both be dwarfed by their environment and feel like an essential part of the terrain.

Daniel Day Lewis and son walk in There Will Be Blood

Fire & Lights

One of Blood’s key moments involves a huge fire consuming the oil derrick in the middle of the night. The crew, using practical effects over digital, originally planned to shoot this important scene over two or three nights, extinguishing the fire and re-lighting it for the next evening’s setups. Unfortunately, they quickly realized that once the fire started, the dry, hot environment would not allow them to put it out. The entire derrick would have to burn all at once, and the crew would have to get all the shots it could in the space of a single night. This results in reduced setups and angles, and made it harder for the crew to match the varying colors of the night sky, as the shoot started in the magic hour of dusk and continued into the bluing and then black night.

Anderson also insisted on using actual flames for the reversal shots of the actors watching the fire, even though Elswit was confident he could recreate the look with practical lighting. Instead, the crew used real fire, protected by flame retardant suits the actors were obviously unable to wear themselves. The heat of the flames were strongly felt by the actors and allowed them to give performances more physical than they probably preferred.

For the several campfire scenes, the crew did use practical effects, including homemade flicker boxes designed by Elswit. Using dozens of smaller bulbs to soften the lights, and amber, yellow and red gels to attain the right colors, the crew was able to replicate the look efficiently. Recreating the impression of the period oil lamps and candles proved more difficult however, as the light level the practical props achieved were too low for the film stocks. Elswit was forced to artificially light these interior scenes in a way that kept the color temperature low enough to resemble candlelight but not too warm that the film dipped too far into the red spectrum.

Another tricky scene to light was early in the film when Plainview hangs from a harness in the shaft of a mine. Day-Lewis performed the stunt himself and needed to be lit at the bottom of the shaft. A truss rig was built to suspend the combination of 18/12K and 6K Arrimax Pars above the shaft, but had to be in angled in a way that kept Day-Lewis safely out of their path had they fallen.

Yet another problem Elswit came across was Plainview’s infamous wide-brimmed hat. The hat, though now iconic, cast most of Day-Lewis’s face in deep shadow. Elswit needed to light the protagonist’s face in a way that didn’t feel artificial. He relied mostly on practical and ambient light, and tried to hide as many lights as possible within the set itself.

Overcoming the difficulties of such a challenging set, under the guide of such a challenging director, was no small feat. However, the effort of Elswit, Anderson and the crew of There Will Be Blood is right there on the screen, and resulted in one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century.

Daniel Day Lews in There Will Be Blood

 

The Interview And The Demand For On Demand

When Seth Rogen first pitched The Interview to his buddy and future executive producer , he likely didn’t expect the film to eventually become a powder keg that would shake both the film industry and the American government. With its now infamous plot—Rogen and Franco assassinate a fictional depiction of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—The Interview managed to rile one of the world’s most unstable, unpredictable powers and led to the protest of Sony Pictures’ release of the movie. Sony was then hacked by a group widely believed to be backed by North Korea, releasing confidential data and emails that revealed a diverse array of Hollywood’s dirty laundry and offering lay people a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the studio system.

When physical threats were made to the cineplexes and theatergoers planning to see The Interview, however, the danger of the situation became impossible to ignore. Most theaters pulled the film entirely before its December release, robbing viewers of a chance to see Rogen and Franco make dick jokes—but controversially—and robbing Sony of millions of potential box-office dollars.

And, suddenly, Video on Demand became relevant again.

Not that VOD hasn’t been relevant, but the so-called challenger to theater-released blockbuster movies has been a virtual nonfactor for so long that it had become more of an afterthought to most average consumers. While VOD and streaming has largely replaced post-release home rentals and the straight-to-video tactic B-movies and indie films have used for decades, the technology has rarely been used for brand spanking new releases of A-list Hollywood movies—movies that most believe would make much more money on the big screen.

Occasionally, smaller films by bigger names, like Steven Soderbergh, or buzzy cult flicks like 2014’s Snowpiercer, are released on video the same date it’s put out in theaters—giving audiences a choice to go out and see it or stay home and sit back on the sofa. If anything, they proved that some audiences would still choose to pay extra for the experience of seeing a movie in the theater. The general theory, though, is that studios will make more money restricting that choice, forcing viewers who want to see the movie first, as soon as its released, in the theaters. Since the Golden Era of VHS, contracts have been fought over by teams of lawyers to determine when a film can finally be released on video after its initial theatrical release. The time period in between used to be several months, though as clunky VCRs were replaced by DVDs and DVDs by Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray by Netflix and other streaming sites, the gap between theatrical and home release can be as little as a few weeks.

Studios, making more money from the more expensive tickets of theaters, have been reluctant to shrink the gap any smaller. If audiences realize they have the purchasing power to dictate how they receive their entertainment, they will in theory start demanding their On Demand. Between a recession that refuses to go away and a culture increasingly glued to smaller screens they have more control of, this fear of the studios is very much rooted in reality. They’ve seen what happened to the broadcast networks and what is happening to cable companies. Choice is winning the consumer war. Rather than fight it, major industry players are trying to figure out how to profit from it.

Unfortunately, the massively influential theater owners of America complicate this. As rapid and overwhelming as the streaming revolution has been, people still go to the movies and buy tubs of popcorn bigger than their heads, and theatrical releases still take in billions of dollars every year. Theater owners have the infrastructure the studios don’t, and control what goes out and to whom. They also arguably have the most to lose as consumers become more homebound, and have been fighting On Demand tooth-and-nail. When studios have brandied the notion of releasing major motion pictures On Demand before or concurrently with their theatrical releases, theater owners threatened to pull the film in question—as well as other movies in the future—threatening, basically, to take millions in profit from the studios. The theater owners, scared and desperate, have taken an Us or Them stance, leaving studios, their films, and audiences, in the middle.

Which is where The Interview comes in. Because of vague threats of physical violence to the theaters and theatergoers who would see The Interview, the major chains decided to pull the film. In other words, in the middle of their battle of Us or Them, theaters took out the Us.

Sony, despite reeling from its hack attack, had two problems with The Interview being pulled. For one, it was very bad publicity. Many people found the withdrawal of the film a political misstep, a “letting the terrorists win” scenario. Even President Obama publicly decried the decision. And it was Sony’s name everyone remembered, not the vague bureaucratic union of theater owners. Secondly, Sony now had a big-budget comedy starring two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, a movie that was garnering unprecedented free publicity from the media, a movie that out of sheer curiosity the entire nation wanted to see—and no way to make any money off it. With the theater owners taking themselves out of the equation, Sony was free to release The Interview On Demand.

The Interview was now the most high-profile Hollywood film to get the small-screen treatment before a major theatrical release. It was also surrounded by an unheard of level of buzz. And with HDTVs and high-speed Internet finally the norm for most of the country, this was, in essence, Video on Demand’s moment to shine.

So did VOD shine? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Probably.

In its first weekend On Demand, through YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and a website dedicated solely to streaming the film, The Interview made $15 million, an incredibly high amount for an online release. It was undoubtedly a win for the digital medium. Now that it’s proven itself and broken a cultural and mental barrier that “real” movies come out in theaters first, the industry is wondering whether this will become the new normal. As of now, most signs point to…. not yet.

Studios actually make a lot more money through VOD per viewing, as the infrastructure is considerably cheaper and they share a lot less of the profits with theater owners, which can take up to half. However, theatrical releases traditionally make more for studios in that audiences have to pay once to see it on the big screen, then again when renting it for home, then again through TV or cable or in-flight screenings on airplanes, etc. But the culture is changing—millennials in particular are driving subscription-based entertainment. Flat fees are becoming the norm even for computer programs like Photoshop, and perhaps presciently, eBooks. Audiences are becoming repulsed by the idea of paying for something more than once, and studios are realizing it.

But going to the movies is a tradition that’s been entrenched in our culture for decades, and it will most likely be a while before it’s routed out. And while The Interview is a high-profile comedy with big movie stars and a ton of buzz, it isn’t Avengers 2. It’s hard to imagine a megahit spectacle like that getting a same-day release on VOD anytime soon, unless audiences do radically shift their behavior and theaters consequently lose their bargaining power.

Maybe that would be for the best. There will always be a place for movie theaters—they replicate an experience that isn’t quite possible in the average living room, even with bigger and cheaper and better technology. But maybe theaters will need to find a new identity. Become an experience worth leaving the house for. IMAX and table service and vibrating chairs have been steps toward a direction like that, but something as simple as enforcing no-texting rules and cleaning the sticky off their floors could go a long way for fickle consumers. Movies as a Good Time seems like a marketable niche—Alamo Drafthouse has made a name for itself in this vein.

For now, though, movie theaters are content with handing out some recyclable 3D glasses and audiences are content on waiting in line for overpriced tickets in a crowded, sticky theater. VOD is still considered its own medium as opposed to an alternate to the multiplex. But after The Interview, the seeds of change have been planted in everyone’s minds from Us to Them and everyone in between. Right now it’s hard to see audiences turning their backs on the big screen once and for all, but then who would’ve thought ten years ago that those silly red Netflix envelopes were going to totally transform the industry? Who would’ve thought that North Korea would draw the line at Seth Rogen? Just like the movies—anything can happen.

Learn more about producing for film, television, and media at the New York Film Academy.

The Best Cinematography: A Look At Slumdog Millionaire

Composite image from Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire was an expected David that became an unstoppable Goliath during the 2009 Academy Awards, picking up several Oscars including Best Picture and Best Cinematography. Accepting the Best Cinematography award was the film’s director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle. Mantle has worked with Slumdog director Danny Boyle before and since his win, has shot 28 Days Later, Millions, 127 Hours, and Trance. He’s also a frequent collaborator with Lars Von Trier, having DPed on Dogville, Manderlay and Antichrist. Some of his recent work has been the nuts-and-bolts sci-fi flick Dredd and Ron Howard’s adrenaline-fueled biopic Rush.

Slumdog’s win in the Cinematography category was seen as a big win for digital filmmaking, as large portions of the film were shot digitally. However, a lot of the movie was shot traditionally, in 35mm. Part of the reason the film mixed formats was Danny Boyle’s eccentric style—he is a visually inventive director who likes to push against the boundaries of traditional filmmaking. He and Mantle were also not new to digital—28 Days Later was shot in the lower quality MiniDV.

However, there was a more tangible logic to the decision, especially concerning the scenes set in the Mumbai slums. Shooting on location in the cramped, crowded real-life slums was important to Boyle, who wanted to faithfully capture the mood and place of the community. Feeling that large, Hollywood-sized 35mm camera rigs would draw unwanted attention and disrupt the natural routines of the neighborhood, Boyle tasked Mantle with finding a suitably low-key digital camera setup.

Quickly realizing MiniDV was an inadequate format for naturally lit on-location shoots, Mantle eventually settled on using the Silicon Imaging SI-2K Digital Camera. The camera had 11 stops of range allowing for a broad latitude of highlights and shadows while still remaining small and compact enough for Mantle to bring into the slums. The camera was an advanced novelty at the time, recording uncompressed raw footage to a nearby laptop in 2K quality as opposed to capturing specifically formatted images.

Children running through the alley in Sumdog Millionaire

Once they selected the SI-2K, the crew got to work customizing it for Slumdog’s shoot. The camera’s body—its processing hardware—was replaced by laptops that could be worn in discreet backpacks, greatly increasing the mobility of the lens itself. The crew also attached a gyro to the lens, allowing Mantle to move the camera in all sorts of directions at quick speeds without jarring the image, creating a look somewhere between handheld and Steadicam. Mantle operated the camera this way himself, which many cinematographers opt not to do, and has been praised for his ingenuity and skill with the unique rig.

Before shooting, the new camera system was tested in hot saunas to replicate the Indian climate. They quickly realized the heat and humidity were very dangerous to the expensive equipment, and forced the crew to pack the camera’s laptops with forty-five pounds of dry ice being continuously replenished each day. All of this extra effort was well worth it, and Mantle achieved the emotionally intimate look at the Mumbai shantytowns that Boyle had hoped for.

The SI-2K was primarily intended for these difficult scenes—Boyle planned to use 3-perf Super 35mm for the majority of the shoot. However, the director was so impressed with Mantle’s skill with and the look of the digital camera that it was used for more and more of the shoot. The cheaper, easier medium also allowed Boyle to experiment and get more footage than the budget could have afforded had they kept to 35mm.

Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire

Other cinematographic techniques used in the film include the replication of India’s game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The TV phenomenon has a look all of its own, with lighting and camerawork unfamiliar to most film styles. The game show was the narrative centerpiece of the film, so combining the looks was essential for the crew.

Slumdog Millionaire also concludes with a Bollywood-style dance number at the very end of the film. While the rest of the movie is much more resembling of a typical Danny Boyle, Western-style production, the filmmakers felt a Bollywood number would fit and was somewhat expected in such a thoroughly Indian story. Its energetic direction and upbeat style matched the tone of the film’s happy ending and the sequence feels surprisingly part of a whole, and not a jarring post-credits gimmick.

The movie used five different film stocks in total, combining them in a way that was both seamless and diverse. The brightly enhanced colors and dynamic use of shadows and range created a distinctive look for the film that also enhanced the emotions of the young characters, tying Slumdog’s cinematography in with its storytelling. Its cohesive mastery over these filmmaking techniques makes it no surprise the film won both Best Cinematography and Best Picture.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto dance in Slumdog Millionaire

From Film School With Love: 007 Ways to Write a James Bond Film

The new cast and title of the 24th film in the official James Bond series was announced this past week. Spectre, Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig’s followup to smash hit Skyfall, is a call back to the supervillain agency of 60s era Bond films, when Sean Connery and his jetpack would face off against bald badguys who stroked fancy white cats. Now that the dark and gritty Craig-era James Bond movies have broken the rules and started the series from scratch, it seems the producers, stars, and screenwriters behind 007 are willing to reconnect with their campy past.

While most details about Spectre are being tightly kept under wraps, the filmmakers undoubtedly are sticking to what’s worked before. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and you want your name in the credits for Bond 25, here are 007 things to include in your script when writing a James Bond film.

1. Choose Your Title

While Bond films occasionally have stark one-word titles like Spectre, Skyfall, and Goldfinger, most titles tend to have fun with wordplay and include lots of prepositions. First, pick something badass and cool, like fire or ice. Then pick another noun, something simple yet epic, like dawn. Find a verb to connect them, typically related to at least one of the nouns, like burn. If you’re feeling adventurous, include an adjective. Finally, fill in the blanks with a preposition or four and bam! You have your title: Fire Burns Hottest at Dawn. Something that sounds wise and slick, but the more you think about it, isn’t really either. Or if Sam Mendes is directing again, just call it Dawnfire.

2. Choose Your Locales

Bond movies must take place in a minimum of three places around the world. Obviously London should be one of them so we get our requisite Moneypenny and Q action. When choosing which parts of the globe you want 007 to trot, keep your chase scenes in mind. If you want airboats fanning across a swamp, make sure you’re in New Orleans. Moscow makes for great tank chases. As Skyfall has shown us, Istanbul has the perfect rooftops for a jeep/motorcycle/train/bulldozer pursuit.

3. Choose Your Puns

James Bond doesn’t tell jokes, he’s killed too many men for that. He does, however, love his puns, almost always involving either sex or murder. Make sure you’ve got a few lined up for your script. The key is constructing them in a way that any actor playing the super spy is forced to deliver them in the most painfully forced way possible. At least one of them shouldn’t really make sense at all, like when Bond kicked a villain off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only before quipping “He had no head for heights.” What?

4. Choose Your Gadgets

It’s really important to get the gadgets from Q-branch right, because Bond is going to find himself in a situation where that specific gadget will be incredibly useful, before he discards it and never mentions it again. Those crocodile-shaped motorboats are expensive, James!

5. Choose Your Bond Girls

Unfortunately, the rather condescending term Bond Girl is pretty much applied to any actress in a 007 film that isn’t Judi Dench (when, let’s be honest, she’s the greatest Bond Girl of them all.) Your Bond Girls should have either ridiculously stupid names, like Strawberry Fields, or names that are completely transparent references to sex, like Holly Goodhead. They can be Bond’s love interests, villains, or—typically—both. Don’t get too attached to them though, because one of them should die early on to raise the stakes for our double-oh.

6. Choose Your Climax

No, not that climax, that’s step seven. This climax is your big final showdown between Bond and his villain, with an optional doomsday machine thrown in the middle. This epic fight should be in a palace made of ice, or the inside of a volcano, or a supermodern submarine. Please don’t make it the Moon. If you’re struggling with this one, try to picture what would look best exploding into a million pieces, and then use that.

7. Choose Your Climax

So it’s come time for the end. Before the Daniel Craig era, nearly every Bond film ended with Bond and his love interest cuddled together after an explosive climax. Most of the time they’re in the water, because Bond looks sexier wet and women’s dresses become see-through. (James Bond may have a lot of class, but his films typically don’t.) You also have the option of having M, Q, and the British government somehow spying on Bond and his lover in some way. After all, even M16 wants to get their money’s worth when it comes to cinema’s most dashing secret agent.

 

12 Massively Over-Budget Films That Every Film Producer Can Learn From

When students at film school study producing, one of the first things they learn is how to make a budget film. That practice seems to go bye-bye in Hollywood though, considering how many films, from budgets of all sizes, overrun their allotted costs, sometimes by tens of millions of dollars. A budding film producer would love to make a free film, but that’s not the kind of magic that Hollywood can make. Producing is never easy, especially keeping the reins on a movie budget from ambitious directors. By the time a movie makes it to a new DVD, or if you watch movies online, to your smartphone, there’s a chance it’s in the red. The following are twelve movies that couldn’t keep it in their wallets.

1. The Lone Ranger

Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted epic western The Lone Ranger to be the new Pirates of the Caribbean so badly. Johnny Depp wanted a new funky hat. But even after massive rewrites, a mid-production shutdown and re-tooling, and a budget that inflated from an early, wistful $70 million to a whopping $225 million, the film was unable to earn any widespread acclaim. Or its money back. Depp got his hat, though.

2. Waterworld

There was no way making a movie about a global flood and steampunk villains riding the Exxon Valdez would be cheap. But even the original $100 million budget couldn’t cover a $22 million dollar set (that was destroyed by a hurricane soon after it was built) and Kevin Costner’s $14 million salary. The budget ended up at $172 million, and Waterworld became the most expensive film ever made up to that point. Hoping to help cut costs, Costner even started drinking his own pee.

3. Apocalypse Now

The legend of how disastrous Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot ended up is so epic and well known it’s even got its own movie about it. Between Marlon Brando’s enormous $3.5 million salary and Harvey Keitel being replaced by Martin Sheen and needing all his scenes reshot, the original budget of $12 million more than doubled to $30 million. It was actually the studio’s accountant who coined the phrase “The horror… the horror….”

4. Titanic

Titanic’s box-office kept growing until it became the biggest hit of all time (until 2009’s Avatar). Its budget also kept growing, starting at $100 million and eventually ballooning to $200 million, seemingly alongside James Cameron’s ego. You might say that the movie’s costs were… titanic. Like the name of the movie. And the boat.

5. Tangled

After the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, Tangled is the most expensive movie ever made. Originally meant to be another notch in the belt of Disney’s animated films, Tangled became a Frankenstein’s monster of constant rewrites, a revolving door of directors, and retool after retool in hopes to reach a wider audience. After six years of development hell, the budget ended up around $260 million dollars, and cash-strapped studio executives hoped the next Disney Princess would just please be bald.

6. John Carter

Box office dud John Carter is one of the most expensive movies ever made with a $250 million budget. While its originally intended budget isn’t on public record, it’s generally acknowledged that the Disney epic overshot its allotted capital by a staggering amount. This is based on its pre-production hell, rotating through several directors and producers, including Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau, as well as the fact that Pixar director Andrew Stanton reshot practically every scene in the movie. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and two completely different filmed versions of the same film don’t keep a movie under budget.

7. Almost Famous

With its CGI robot-dragons and its brick-by-brick reconstruction of the Roman Coliseum, it’s no wonder Almost Famous is on this list. Wait, actually, none of that is true. Almost Famous is a low-key coming-of-age story set in the 1970s classic rock scene, a semiautobiographical passion project by Cameron Crowe. Between Crowe’s obsessive filmmaking style and a music budget that had to account for some of rock’s biggest classics, Almost Famous ended up costing $60 million, $15 million more than it was supposed to. No wonder they wouldn’t let Crowe call his film “Untitled.”

8. Heaven’s Gate

Considered one of the biggest film fiascoes of all time, Heaven’s Gate was Michael Cimino’s sweeping follow-up to The Deer Hunter. A perfectionist to OCD-type levels, Cimino constantly rebuilt giant sets (including building an irrigation system to keep the grass in one scene green) and would shoot fifty takes or more for even the most minor shots. Having worded his contract in just the right way, the studio was powerless to stop him as the budget grew from $12 million to almost $30 million and Cimino earned the on-set nickname “The Ayatollah.” Cimino would even spend hours on a single take until the right cloud drifted into frame, just like the real Ayatollah would. While many critics believe there is a masterpiece buried somewhere in the original five and a half hour cut Cimino submitted to the studio, the three-hour version that hit theaters bombed spectacularly and took United Artists and the 70s New Hollywood movement down with it.

9. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

With a built-in fanbase and state-of-the-art photorealistic animation, it’s somewhat a surprise Final Fantasy wasn’t a bigger hit. What isn’t a surprise is how over-budget the production was, blowing its original $70 million allotment out of the water and costing $137 million. Almost all of that money went into its CGI, with its protagonist Aki Ross having over 60,000 strands of hair individually created and the production utilizing a render farm of one thousand high-powered computers to process the animation. It probably would’ve been cheaper to just use real spirits.

10. Hugo

Studio executives should know better than to give Martin Scorsese some new film equipment to play with. Scorsese’s 3D children’s film set in 1930s Paris overran its $100 million budget by almost $70 million. Scorsese and his producers should have remembered that old Italian proverb: “More dimensions equals more moolah.”

11. Evan Almighty

Originally budgeted at $140 million, Evan Almighty became the most expensive comedy ever made with a $200 million budget. Between Steve Carell’s $5 million payday and two of every animal, the movie’s numbers were so overblown that its studio passed the project to rival Universal, and director Tom Shadyac quit Hollywood altogether and retreated inward to find himself. When a movie with bird poop jokes causes serious existential introspection in its filmmakers, you know something is seriously wrong.

12. Cleopatra

Cleopatra’s final costs ended up twenty-two times its original $2 million budget—adjusting for inflation, it cost $339 million. Ornate sets recreating Ancient Rome and Elizabeth Taylor’s $7 million payday contributed to the massive costs, making the film the most expensive ever made up to that point. A remake of Cleopatra starring Angelina Jolie has been in the works for years, but the stigma of the original’s price has scared anyone from moving forward with the project. Who would’ve thought that a woman worshipped as a goddess who bedded legendary emperors would have ever inspired such extravagance?

The Best Cinematography: Hugo And Martin Scorcese’s 3D Wonderland

A scene from Martin Scorcese's Hugo

In 2011, the Academy Award for Best Cinematography went to Robert Richardson for his work on Hugo, a 3D children’s film that just so happened to be directed by Martin Scorsese. It had serious competition that year, beating out films directed by David Fincher, Terence Malick, and Steven Spielberg as well as that year’s Best Picture—The Artist. One look at that adaptation of a children’s book about the turn-of-the-century filmmaking and visual effects pioneer Georges Méliès, and its Oscar is no surprise.

While a 3D film loaded with visual VFX might seem like a bewildering choice for a gritty auteur like Scorsese, he’s actually a perfect fit for the film. Centered on the wonder of filmmaking and the magic Méliès brought to the medium in its earliest years, walking film school Martin Scorsese was a no-brainer to helm the movie. In many ways, he was Hugo himself, a little boy enchanted by the wizardry of filmmaking and optical effects.

Scorsese, one of the most prominent and powerful of analog film’s champions, embraced Hugo’s story of experimenting with the medium, choosing to shoot the film not only digitally but also in 3D, an obvious first for the director. The result is widely considered to be the best use of three dimensions and one of the most beautifully shot 3D films of all time. Unlike most of its contemporaries, it even amazes on the small screen, maximizing the potential of 3D DVD.

Soldiers with spears in Hugo

Scorsese wasn’t interested in 3D as a gimmick, remarking “I found 3D to be really interesting, because the actors were more upfront emotionally. Their slightest move, their slightest intention is picked up much more precisely.” Together, he, DP Richardson, and the visual effects team used convergence, the moving of the image through the dimensions to the point of appearing as if it’s breaking past the screen and coming toward the audience, to compose their shots. The film was built and storyboarded from the ground up, considering convergence and depth in every frame. Thinking ahead and factoring in the extra dimension even allowed filmmakers to move the images as opposed to moving the camera, giving the medium an entirely additional set of “camera moves” in addition to dollies and zooms.

Because Méliès essentially invented the concept of trick shots and using the camera to create images that aren’t being strictly photographed in reality, greater care went into the VFX of the film celebrating his life and work. Despite being at the forefront of computer imagery, digital filmmaking and 3D technology, the visual effects team took multiple approaches to Hugo and worked closely with Richardson and the cinematography department.

This included using optical and in-camera effects, much like Méliès did himself. For the recreation of the great train wreck, the film used meticulously-detailed miniatures. When Sacha Baron Cohen is dragged by a moving train, the platform he’s standing on actually moves in the shot and creates the illusion it’s the train pulling him along. Practical effects like this are sprinkled throughout the movie both as playful nods to Méliès as well as to create another texture to a digitally shot spectacle, which could easily look flat and empty if not shot with care.

Snowing in Paris in Hugo

Scorsese and Richardson also paid homage to the period and history of film in its choice of color correction. The overall look and color of Hugo takes its inspiration from the look of Autochrome, a color process the Lumière brothers pioneered when black-and-white was pretty much all there was. While also commenting on the early days of moviemaking for those who study film to geek out on, it also added to the mood and setting Scorsese was trying to set.

Richardson and Scorsese also relied on traditional camera techniques and framing to bring Hugo to life. A great deal of effort went into the complex mise-en-scene of the bustling train station the movie is predominantly set in. Framing and position is even more so important considering the depth afforded by 3D. Scorsese also uses the language of staging to call back to earlier sequences in the film, such as when Hugo is hanging from a giant clock hand, repeating the visual from one of Méliès’ works seen earlier in the story.

Using a massive budget and state-of-the-art visual VFX to recreate 1930s Paris, Scorsese, and Richardson made sure to show off their world with sweeping aerial shots. Aerial shots and bird’s eye views are also employed to orient the audience in the busy train station. Finally, understanding Hugo was intended first and foremost for kids, Scorsese uses low-angle shots looking up, the perspective of small children, especially with scenes of authoritative figures like Sacha Baron Cohen’s station agent.

For those who cite film as their passion as frequently as Martin Scorsese, Hugo is a must-watch. Using clever cinematography blended with amazing VFX and 3D, viewers are invited to enter a world both fantasy and historical, and take a peek at a medium both scientific and magical. Hugo is a children’s movie but it is for everybody—because anyone watching it will have the same child-like wonder Scorsese brings to even his darkest films.

Hugo hanging from the clock in Hugo

 

5 Hacktivist Documentaries Worth Checking Out

Hacktivists with a noble cause

It seems like every week another story makes the news about hacker groups and skirmishes in a worldwide cyber war. These stories and acts of digital sabotage have a wide range of purposes and renditions, spanning across the board in political, social and corporate spheres.

One of the more serious attacks in recent months has come at the expense of Sony, with feature films and personal information on employees and celebrities being stolen from their files. The Guardians of Peace, a hacker group of unknown origins, has so far taken credit, though many believe the attacks have come from North Korea.

With an abstract battlefield of ones and zeroes, it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate good guys and bad guys. Many individuals and groups are considered or identify themselves as hacktivists—hackers who use their skills in the name of social justice or for the greater good. Now more than ever has it become important for the public and the media to get familiar with the cyberscene and the major players involved, to better differentiate the various shades of gray this digital world exists in.

The following are five documentaries that cover some major hacktivist groups and individuals that have dominated the news. Feel free to add other relevant docs in the comments below.

1. Citizenfour

Citizenfour movie poster

Edward Snowden isn’t a traditional hacktivist but rather a controversial whistleblower that famously outted the NSA’s massive wire-tapping practices, possibly committing treason by doing so. On the run from his own country, Snowden has been trying to get his story out from nations who, for the time being, are protecting him, including Russia.

Produced by Steven Soderbergh and directed by Oscar nominee Laura Poitras, Citizenfour is a fascinating look at Snowden’s story with a much more personal perspective than most hacktivist documentaries. Poitras not only directed the film but was also one of the three original people Snowden came clean to, meeting in secret and going on record with his startling revelations. Citizenfour includes these actual recordings and tells the story of how—together with Snowden—this small group made history and risked their freedom to get the truth about America’s surveillance practices out to the public.

2. We Are Legion

We Are Legion movie poster

We Are Legion tells the story of one of the most famous hacktivist groups out there—Anonymous. Director Brian Knappenberger gives a biography of the international, decentralized network that has garnered headlines by attacking high-profile targets like the Church of Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church, MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and major government agencies, including those of the United States.

By documenting major events and hacks in the timeline of Anonymous, We Are Legion weaves a coherent story and supplies a context for one of the most prominent and mysterious organizations in the world of hacktivism, shining a light on some of the Internet’s darkest corners.

3. The Hacker Wars

The Hacker Wars movie poster

Vivien Lesnik Weisman’s The Hacker Wars gets to the heart of the hacktivism moment by exploring the motivations of hacktivists and the purpose they serve in the grand scheme of the sociopolitical world. Fast-paced and loud, the film reflects the youth and anarchic energy associated with the hacktivist movement, while also focusing on those who no longer hide in the shadows whether by choice, or most often, not. Getting the story from hacktivists who have been imprisoned or already are in prison or on their way, The Hacker Wars offers a unique perspective on the movement as well as the personal implications for those involved.

4. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz movie poster

Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and hacktivist who, in addition to working on the development of Creative Commons, Reddit, Markdown, and the RSS feed format, constantly championed charitable and social causes. He was a leading figure in the movement against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. After he was arrested and convicted for illegally downloading a large number of academic journals from MIT, Swartz was found hanged in his apartment at age twenty-six.

The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary by Brian Knappenberger, the director of We Are Legion, is a heavy, sometimes somber look at the life of Swartz, using home movies from his childhood and footage from his public life to tell his story. The documentary contains several interviews, including those of Swartz, and chronicles his accomplishments and the battles he fought as well as the controversial charges and allegations that led to his suicide.

5. We Steal Secrets

We Steal Secrets movie poster

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney directed We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a film centered on the hacktivist organization founded by Julian Assange. The documentary takes a wide-angle approach to its subject, starting with events in the 1980s and utilizing decades of background and history to detail the group known for collecting and distributing classified information from all corners of the world.

WikiLeaks and Assange came into the spotlight when American soldier Bradley Manning revealed damning footage of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although avoiding treason charges and the death penalty, the soldier, now Chelsea Manning, was convicted and is currently serving her sentence in a maximum-security prison. Interviews with Assange and Manning from other sources are used in the film, revealing an organization as complicated as the hacktivist world it occupies.

10 Reasons The Walking Dead Got Good

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published on November 26, 2014 to coincide with the season five midseason finale of The Walking Dead]

The Walking Dead takes its Christmas vacation this week with its midseason finale. So far, season five has been the best run of episodes yet. In fact, it’s been great, which is a surprise to anyone who watched the show in its earlier seasons.

Something happened near the end of season two and throughout season three, where the show started to find its legs and have glimmers of quality television. Season four was its coming-of-age, with the zombie series finally living up to its potential. Now, midway through season five, The Walking Dead and its stellar screenwriting has finally become appointment television, and The Walking Dead midseason finale is on everyone’s schedule.

The show always had some strong points—after all, we wouldn’t have watched it through its growing pains if it hadn’t. It had that badass opening theme by Bear McCreary. It had a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting. It had top-notch makeup effects and boasted the goriest violence on all of television. It had… well, that was about it.

Compared to the other AMC shows at the time—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and RubiconThe Walking Dead wasn’t exactly what people thought of when they referred to the new Golden Age of Television. But now the highest rated television show on cable can finally stand tall with, at the very least, its genre-show brethren Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. How did The Walking Dead get good? Here are ten reasons:

1. Characters Got Smarter

It makes sense that by season five, The Walking Dead’s characters started showing some of those delicious brains. In the world of the show, it’s been a few years since the zombie apocalypse, so most of the dummies and suckers of Georgia have been eaten or decapitated by eye-patched madmen. All that’s left is the cream of the crop. Smart characters make for great TV. There’s nothing more frustrating than yelling at your screen when someone does something stupid or goes into the wrong room. But when they’re doing exactly what you would do and still end up cornered and without options, nothing is more thrilling to watch.

2. Characters Got Deeper

Like late-90s video games, the characters of The Walking Dead finally jumped from two dimensions to three dimensions thanks to some key changes in the writing. Sometimes ensemble television shows have to start with broad stereotypes for the audience to keep up with the story, but it’s about time we started seeing different shades and depths to Rick, Daryl, and the rest. The last couple of seasons have focused as much if not more on character than plot, a sign of any great drama. Finding out that this band of survivors is actually made up of interesting individuals makes the choices they make that much more compelling.

3. Characters Got Names

Even better is that these added dimensions weren’t just added to the primary cast, but almost all of the ensemble as well. It’s hard to imagine that characters like Beth have been with the series since the beginning of season two, considering she didn’t get her own storyline until season four. Before that, Beth was just “Hershel’s Other Daughter.”

4. Plots Got Morally Ambiguous

Even from the very beginning, the question the series seemed to be asking was “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalyptic world order?” But the show struggled with ways to ask it. Even situations that seemed abhorrent, like having to murder Carol’s zombified little girl in season two, weren’t actually moral quandaries. She was no longer Carol’s little girl—she was a murderous zombie, just like the rest, and Rick realized she had to be put down hard and fast. But since then, the show has posed questions that don’t have clear right answers, and where no decision will end up a good decision but still need to be made. Characters must ask themselves what to do with hostages, who to leave behind, who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Watching smart, deep characters with names confront these moral quandaries makes for fantastic drama.

5. Plots Got Burned

The Walking Dead was typically as slow-paced as its title monsters. It even spent two episodes re-introducing us to The Governor in the middle of season four. Then, something happened. Actually, a lot happened. Quickly. The season ended with our heroes trapped in a boxcar prison by cannibals, looking like it would take several episodes for them to plan and execute their escape. It took less than one. Burning through plot is an extremely bold move for a series, as original plots are hard to come by. But it creates a thrilling sense that anything can happen and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. While that long-term prison escape could’ve been fun, watching it go up in flames along with that plot thread was way more exciting.

6. Characters Got Quiet

Do you know how we knew The Walking Dead asked the question “What morals must we sacrifice to live in a new post-apocalypse world order?” Because characters always asked that, out loud. All the time. Along with anything else they were thinking. The Walking Dead wanted to be a character drama from the beginning—the problem was, it had no grasp of subtext, treating its audience as dumb as its zombies. Too busy showing us bloody intestines and brains, it was telling us everything else. Now characters keep it closer to the vest, and the audience actually has to work a little to infer what they’re thinking from their actions and context and from what they’re not saying. You know, like good shows do.

7. The Show Got Courage to Try New Things

For the most part, the first three seasons are very similar. While The Walking Dead still has some wing-spreading to do, it’s gotten bolder experimenting with its tone and other aspects, like the aforementioned plot-burning. One great example is introducing the trio of Abraham, Eugene, and Rosita. Rather than try to adapt these larger-than-life comic characters to the moody realistic tone of the show, The Walking Dead embraced their cartoonish styles and had fun with these three. It injected a great deal of levity into a show that desperately needed it.

8. Episodes Got Focus

Along with playing with tone and plot, The Walking Dead has switched up its structure. Season 3’s best episode followed only Rick, Michonne and Carl on a side mission, and the writers seemed to take notice of its positive reception. Many episodes of the last two seasons play as little movies, telling complete stories with just a few focused characters. Rather than switching back and forth between plots, audiences got deeper into characters’ heads and tension builds more consistently, such as in The Governor’s Season 4 two-parter. The show has also been smart enough to switch it up to an ensemble-type show when the plot needs to race ahead. It’s a careful balance The Walking Dead has finally gotten a handle on.

9. The Show Got Better Mood, Music, and Direction

While most of the show’s improvements have been in its writing, The Walking Dead has beefed up its already decent direction. The last two seasons have combined mood, music, and cinematography to create a show that is as artsy and poetic as top tier dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. While the show’s theme has always been one of its highlights, the show has also learned to use music better and to stronger effect, though it sometimes still suffers from the Unnecessary Sad Montage.

10. Carol

Carol started the show as a background character with an a-hole husband. Even when her daughter went missing and ended up killed, Carol still remained on the sidelines of the plot. But somewhere along the way, all the crap her character has taken turned into an amazing set of armor and Carol emerged as a fascinating, multidimensional character, even replacing Daryl as The Walking Dead’s resident badass. She’s smart, tough, sexy, and watching her do her thing is a highlight of the show. In just the last season and a half, Carol has executed a surrogate daughter, thrown herself off a cliff in a van, and single-handedly wiped out a cannibal fortress. Meanwhile, Rick farmed some tomatoes.

Seasons 4 and 5 may prove to be the creative peak of The Walking Dead. Will the show continue this momentum into season 6 and beyond? Or will it end up like so many of its characters–dead on its feet, shuffling aimlessly until it’s finally put out of its misery.