Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Cinematographer vs Director: Who's Job is it Anyway?

People told me I was doing the cinematographer’s job.

I was between shoots on making a short film when that night my editor informed me people on the shoot were calling me a control freak. Like, everyone was. Not just a few people. But everyone. I was confused, because I had actually given a lot of leeway and given up a lot of what I wanted since other people had really good ideas. So I didn’t understand what he meant.

Turns out that people were expecting that as director I should only have a broad vision of what I wanted and that the cinematographer would be in charge of deciding specific shots. The fact I wasn’t doing that made me a control freak.

I was like… says who? Anytime you hear about someone critiquing a director’s work, they talk about shot choices. Wes Anderson’s whole style is built on—among other things—style of shot choices.

But some of these people were more experienced than I was. And I didn’t want to cause any problems. So the rest of the shoot I laid off some.

But I wasn’t done with this. I immediately began doing research online about the particular divisions of roles between director and cinematographer. It didn’t take long for me to find several interviews on the subject. And they all validated my assumptions but also taught me new things.

Ideally, the director and cinematographer are collaborators on shots. Ideally. But ultimately the director is in charge and what he says goes. Regardless, the most important thing is that the director and cinematographer work out the shot list before you start shooting. That is the piece that my friends were getting right. You should be—basically—letting the DP alone to do his job on the shooting day. He’s an amazing craftsman who knows his job better than you. That’s assuming, of course, that your cinematographer’s actually read the shot list or script before filming that day. Which ours hadn’t. Still, it gave me a good sense of what I did wrong and what I could correct for the future.

Still. This was the internet. I preferred better confirmation.

Not long after, long-time cinematography veteran Ralph Linhardt came to my school for a private chat with our big aspiring filmmakers. There, one of my school’s minor celebrity student cinematographers asked: “What happens when you’re working for a director who wants the shot done a specific way, but you know it would be a better way? What can you do?”

Ralph said: “Ultimately, he’s the director. It’s his film. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing and you can’t deal with that you just probably shouldn’t work with him.”

Did I find this slightly gratifying? Yes.

So directors, make sure you respect our cinematographer enough to get them on board with your vision before shooting. DPs: make sure you can live with the director you have.

And have a breathing professional and internet army on your side.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Five Ways Batman v Superman Mistakes Can Make You a Better Filmmaker

Most of what I have learned about how to be a good filmmaker making short films has been by watching bad movies and figuring out why I don’t like them.

Which obviously brings us to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (BVS). Filmmaker student heaven.

My friend Kyle Trivanovich and I teamed up on a video review of this movie.  He has a blog on Technology and the Human Condition which you should check out.

Here are the best lessons you can learn from the mistakes made in BVS.


People need to connect with the characters and the world they live in before they will care about what happens to them. The scene with Clark and Lois at their apartment should have been where we got to know them and care about them. But instead the characters just recited angsty plot points, had a forced bathtub splash, and moved on. This was something the filmmakers did all throughout the movie, which weakened the story’s impact.


Make sure as a filmmaker you dig down deep into the issues you raise and really wrestle with them. There were so many great ideas in the movie. Should someone with so much power use it unilaterally? How can we have faith in people with power when they have let us down? The courtroom scene would have been a perfect opportunity to have people argue about these issues, but we only scratched the surface.


Zack Snyder is good at a very specific thing: making great visuals and action sequences. Screenwriting? Not so much. As a filmmaker if you have a strength, make sure you have a team that is strong where you’re weak.


One of the criticisms people have is that the movie is that it is so grim. People love dark movies, exhibit a: The Dark Knight. But the darker your movie is, the more it exposes any shallowness or silliness in your story. But the more fun it is, the less people mind the flaws you have. I made my first short films comedy based until I was good enough at my craft to do dark really well—and even then I made sure there was banter and fun mixed in.


Every filmmaker has tropes they overdue. JJ Abrams has lens flairs. Michael Bay has explosions, hot girls and American flags. Zack Snyder has melodramatic reverent visuals and slow-mo. Zack Snyder uses this to great effect to show the drama of these Godlike heroes, but he used it in so many shots that it lost its dramatic power. Be sure you use your signature flair strategically

There you have it! If you were disappointed in Batman v Superman’s but its mistakes make you a better filmmaker, then I’d say the trade off is well worth it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How to Get Free (or Cheap) Equipment for Your Film

This is the face of a man who spent all his money on film equipment.

Making films is expensive because you need expensive equipment to make your product. You can’t just use a paintbrush and easel, or music and your feet. Like I said in my first blog post, making a movie without a camera is like making ice cream without milk. Without milk you are not making ice cream. You may be making sorbet, which is great, but it’s not ice cream. If you want to make sorbet, you can ignore the rest of the post. For the rest of you, read on.

Now I’m hungry.

Good quality in production is the difference between being considered a professional and an amateur. If, like me when starting out, you are poor and unknowledgeable and technically illiterate and poor (and don’t forget poor), here is what I learned about getting the best equipment possible.


I was very particular about my choice of colleges. Particularly the location of the college. Specifically, I wanted to live in New York City, because, although I didn’t know that New York City was the independent filmmaking capitol of the world, I knew it was pretty darn close to it.

It was a big move. But it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

My college is not a film school. But one of the great things about it is it does have a media lab for the film students. Until recently it was run by students and gave them great on-the-job training. (I wish I had taken more advantage of it. But that’s another blog post.) If you have the opportunity to go to a film school or a school that has a good media lab, take advantage of that in every way you can.

Not everyone has the choice to go to a college in NYC like I did. I recognize that this was a blessing that I am grateful for.

But that’s another blog post.


I will go back to this again and again. Having film friends is important. Having friends is important in general. (Shout out Aristotle so I make my philosophy professor proud.) But when it comes to getting the best equipment, friends are irreplaceable for four reasons: 1. they will tell you what you should be looking for when you buy your own equipment, 2. you can borrow their equipment, 3. they will teach you the tricks they know, and 4. they might let you buy it off them for a cheaper price. Aside from what I used from the school, all of my films where shot one or more of these four ways.

If you want to make film friends. It is also helpful to live in New York City (or LA, but that’s a bit more the Hollywood scene than independent). Because there are so many film nerds there. You have a higher chance of making those connections here.

Basically, live in New York City is the lesson here.


Finally, the best thing you can do—if all these fail, and even if they don’t—is learn to do your own research. The internet is full of places that you can look at to give you the best deals or give you advice on. Look at amazon, look at craigslist dealers. Find the equipment that have the best reviews and within your price range and experiment as best you can. Research grants to fund your projects so you can get the top notch stuff. This is tough to do on your own and could take some expensive trial and error. (Grants less so.) I have never been good at research and experimenting, and that has held me back. If you can have a friend who can walk you through this it will be a better.

And there you have it. That’s how I learned to get the equipment I need. How about you? Any other tips you’ve learned on how to get access to good equipment on your films? Comment below.

If you’ll excuse me, it’s time to make some ice cream.

The Importance of Doing Research

Research is something you’re going to have to do when learning how to make films. Because there aren’t enough friends, classes, or time to experiment in the world to figure out everything you need to know about filmmaking as fast as you need it.

Research is something I hate doing. Partly because I’m no good at it. It’s like in gym where you enjoy it less with each injury you sustain. Using the internet to find what you need without knowing where to look is like trying to find a needle in an atomic explosion.  Google is like handing me a metal detector and pointing me to that same explosion.

I once tried to look for a new camera to buy. I looked on Amazon. I compared the types. I did research. I thought I knew what I was doing.

I had no idea what the differences were.

I talked to a friend. I took them two minutes to figure it out.

So how do you go about finding the best ways to do research?Some things are easy to find on your own. If you need a tutorial on how to use a particular camera or Adobe Premiere, those are good with a google search and one is as good as another.

Where things become a problem are when you’re looking for specialized knowledge and expertise or equipment. With that, the best way to get started is get your filmmaker friends to recommend places for you to look. My friends recommended several film sites such as “No Film School” for general tips on better filmmaking, and “Every Frame a Painting” to help me notice the artistry of film. Once you find sites like that, they typically lead you to other sites that are helpful.

At that point you also become much better at discerning what things are going to be useful to you when you do your own research.

Basically: get friends help, find useful sites, just bite the bullet and research.

Not every part of film is glamorous. But you can wear shades and help that out a bit.

Why You Need to Learn to Film By Yourself

Robert Rodriguez once said, "If you're just creative, you'll always have to rely on technical people. If you're creative and technical, you're unstoppable." I’ve learned that lesson the hard way many, many times. Technical skills was where I was weakest for a long time, and that disqualified me from a lot of opportunities.

Basically this is my humble pie post. Or, one of my humble pie post. Well, basically this entire blog is my humble pie post. Basically my whole life is one meal of humble pie after the other. It's amazing I've kept this great figure.

There was one time I was hanging out at one of my friend’s comedy shows. A comedian friend of his walked in and talked about how she needed someone to film one of her shows for a reel. My friend told her that I was good at filming and recommended me. It was a paying gig and she offered it to me if she could see my stuff.

I showed her the stuff I did, but she wasn’t sure she should take me because what I shot wasn’t well lit and I wasn’t able to mic up the audience. Lighting and sound were things I wasn’t very good at at the time and I knew it. We talked about it but I told her she should probably find someone else. I felt bad, not just for myself, but for my friend Robert, because he had recommended me.

Why was I weak at this stuff? Partly, I was too busy, I was at an academically strenuous college, was running the filmmaking club, and dealing with family stuff. And technical stuff is not something I am naturally gifted at. It was easier to specialize in the creative side and the organizing side of film and outsource the technical side to most of my projects.

But the problem is nobody needs somebody else creative or with ideas. They have ideas. They need editors, cinematographers to bring their ideas to life. That is what you will get paid for and that is what is going to get your foot in the door with people who can help you later.

The other problem is that—until you pay people—you can’t always get people to do stuff for you. On my first film I had to be cinematographer some days because my other guys didn’t show up. You need to be able to do that yourself when you have to in a pinch. I have had the worst time finding editors who could make the deadlines I needed. That’s nobody’s fault. They had opportunities to do actual paying work and had to put that stuff first. But I wasn’t able to pick up that slack.

Bottom line: learn to do stuff your freaking self. Don’t give yourself excuses. There is a thing called youtube that has tutorial videos. It is a beautiful thing. Use it. Love it. Live it.

Friendship is Magic: Why All Filmmakers Need Film Friends

Yes, this is what my filmmaker crew looks like. What does yours look like?
If you're going to be a filmmaker, you need good filmmaker friends. First, because it just makes life more fun. You all just love film the same way and have a lot of shared experiences. Second, good filmmaker friends hold you accountable and give you the tools you need to do well like no one else.


“Your camera is shit.”

That was the subtle way my youtuber friend Rachel told me I needed to get a new camera. If you don’t know her, she’s ilovekimpossiblealot, a big deal in the world of My Little Pony Analysis videos. We met through a mutual friend at my school and kept in touch. We’d done a partnership or two in the past. To me, she’s my buddy always willing to give me some tough love.

Don't be deceived. She is fearsome.

Film people are snobs when it comes to the quality of product. And rightfully so. Because the audience is too. They don’t think they do but when they see a bad quality product they respond.

If you are going to be a filmmaker you have no choice but to use the best equipment so you can get the best product.

That’s where my other friend came in.


Starting out, you’re not going to know your way around the equipment you need. You can do research on your own. But there are always going to be people who know more than you and it’s good to utilize them.

I know this cinematographer who really knows his way around cameras. He’s basically the Batman of the freelance DP world. Only a briefcase of lenses instead of utility belt. 

"I see now what I have to be come to film movies like him..."
He’s got those lenses off craigslist from guys in Russia wherever. We went to school together briefly, had a lot of mutual friends, and worked together on a couple of projects. One time we were chewing the fat before our actresses got there and he mentioned he was selling one of his old cameras and lens packs.

I did not waste a minute offering to buy it.

We negotiated a payment plan and there I had my camera. I’ve used that camera and lenses for project after project since.


Filmmaker friends also force you to watch important movies you might otherwise not watch but you should. For example, I love lots of types of movies, but the artsy, pretentious films are a harder swallow for me. Even though those movies are important for your development as a filmmaker. 
Thank you, Upstream Color, for being my trump card when I need to explain what I don't like about indie films.

When you have filmmaker friends, if you don’t watch these films, you will spend a bunch of your hearing this:

“You mean you haven’t seen that?”

That gets old real fast. It's a great incentive.


Even more important that all of these though, is that other filmmaker friends love movies as much as you do. There is a reason you are all in the business you are in. It's because you've seen the magic that film can bring and you appreciate it in the same way.

As you grow up you learn that this is true: there's nothing better than sharing what you love best with others who love it as much as you.

That's why filmmakers really need filmmaker friends. To share that love together.

And there you have it! How about you? What are some ways that having film buddies has helped you make better films? Sound off in the comments below. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

How Teen Titans Taught Me to Write Screenplays

I learned screenwriting to save a girl.

Unless your film is just a bunch of pretty nature shots and your friends standing around wearing profound expressions (so basically like every Terrence Malick Film—only without Hollywood stars) you will need a screenplay for you film. (Even Terrence Malick probably has a screenplay. Although it’s likely just a page long.)

I have no idea what's going on... but I'm sure it's profound.

There are two basic things you need to be able to do to write a screenplay: you need to be able to tell a good story, and you need to be able to write it in the correct format. Good storytelling is hard. It can't be taught; it has to be in your blood. But even if you love storytelling like I do. I was not disciplined enough to force myself to go through the hard processes of learning to do it in a way that someone else would accept my work.

This is the thing I will keep going back to in this blog. Filmmaking at every stage is hard. You need a motivation to push you to do the hard work at every step of the way and force you to do the crappy work. Sometimes it's an unexpected one.

I got mine when I got my heart broken by the show Teen Titans.

That's right. Not Titans Go. The good one. Back when it could be funny and dark and have something called character development. Back when we could have this:

Wow... did they just, I think they just... yeah, they just.
Rather than this:

Watching the show, I fell in love with all the characters. But mostly the relationship of two characters: Beast Boy and Terra.

Teen Titans was one of the few comic series’ I had not read. I had no idea how tragic their love story was going be. I just loved the sweet love story that they had at first. Then, they ripped my heart out and used it to play ping-pong.

Maybe it was because I was going through real heartbreak at the time. But this loss of a fictional character upset me a lot. So I dedicated myself to bringing her back. And not just in fanfiction. No, I was writing a full screenplay for a Teen Titans TV movie I would submit to Cartoon Network. Never mind that I had never written one before. Never mind that the show was canceled. Never mind that I had no connections to the industry or ways of getting them to look at my script.

And my friends call me a relentless optimist now.

I worked on it every day. I wrote it and rewrote it. I realized how bad my dialogue was and rewrote it. I researched proper script formatting. I re-researched it and realized my first research was wrong. I learned to type. I had not been able to type with all my fingers before, but writing this script forced me to learn.

I showed it to a producer friend of mine who then told me how to:

a) keep my dialogue from being too wordy.

b) make sure the action doesn’t stop for the dialogue.

I went back and rewrote again.

When I finally finished my producer friend had said she would show it to some people. But when I tried to contact her she dropped off the face of the earth. Seriously. She just never responded to e-mail or phone. I never heard from her again.

After that I just submitted the script to Cartoon Network and hoped for a miracle from God.
It never came.

But God—because I believe God was guiding things—used that to get me started on my filmmaking path. Because what did come was another TV spec script. Then another one. Each time I got a lot better at how to tell a great story with great characters and great dialogue in the right format.

Then came a little script called Kelly vs The Philosophers.

But that’s another blog post.

If you'll excuse me... I have to writing that Oscar worthy screenplay no one will ever see.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Six Things You Need to Make Your First Movie

So you want to be a filmmaker. You were born with a camera in your hand yelling "action" when you wanted your parents to feed you (which may explain why they never supported your dream) You have the talent and the will, but where do you start? What stuff do you need in your utility belt before you can put together your film?

I was once where you are. I had next to no experience in film and little to no connection to the industry. I had to make do with what I had and fumble along until I came to a reasonable place. I haven't made it yet. (I have still have not won my first Oscar. Yet, if Leo can, there's hope.) But I've come a long way and I want to share with you the benefits of my experience.

Ready to go on the journey with me?

For those going on the journey to the Mordor that is the independent film industry, here is the checklist of indispensable things you need to bring on your way. They won't make the journey easy. But without them, it won't even be possible.


If there is one thing that you need by definition to make a film, it is a video camera. A movie without moving images is simply not a movie. It's a photograph or a radio show or the sound of one hand clapping. Now, this doesn't have to be an expensive one. If you let an old-timey filmmaker or film nut talk long enough they will talk about how "everyone can make movies on their phone now"--which to me is basically endorsing the use of phones to make your first movies. Now, the better your camera, the better your movie will look. But if you're just starting out and all you have is an iPhone 6, don't let that keep the world from experiencing your life-changing work. (I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt, here.)

The beautiful thing is, if you've got a camera, and you go out and shoot footage, you are a filmmaker. You have found a way of looking at the world that no one else has and found a way to show it to others.

Well done. Now keep reading.


Unless the movie you are making is one long take with no cuts, you need some way to edit your different shots together. Again, the better the software the better your work will be. But until you can afford to buy Adobe Premiere (or unless you want to go old school and cut and paste actual film), feel free to start small. If you're doing simple, short videos for quick upload to the internet, "KnowMe" is a great video editing App. If you have no other options, I will allow you to use iMovie or Windows Media Player. Just don't let anyone know you used them.


Trust me.

Lie, if you have to.

It's not worth it.


Real talk: you will not be making money on your movies right away. Probably never. But I don't want to take away all your hope. Because then you might stop reading my blog. And, anyway, if I'm deluding myself that I can make it it's not fair for me to not delude you too.

Regardless, at first you will not be making money off of it. So you will need some other source of money. Whether it is your parents while you're in school (Thanks, Mom! :) ) or a day job when you graduate, your your parents after you get fired, you will need food and shelter until somebody discovers your brilliant work at Sundace. So be sure you find a good job or good parents until that happens.


skynet. .

The internet is where you find how to properly format your script. It's where you can do research for you story. It's where you can get educated in filmmaking techniques without going to school. It's where you can share your movies on youtube or submit it to festivals. It's where you download software. Basically, unless you know people who can teach you, give you stuff, and show your film to others, you need the internet.


You can't pay people yet. So who's going to be in your films? Yup, your buddies who like you enough to stand around for hours in a silly looking outfit while you frame the right shot. These are the people who will--if, God willing, they get into the film industry later--will give you the opportunities you need to get in yourself. They will be doing it because they like you. Does nobody like you? Find people to like you. And it will only work if they like you before you need something from them. Every great opportunity I had was because of someone who liked me and wanted to help me out. Because I needed a lot of it.

But that's another blog post.


But the most important thing you need is love. You need to love making films; you need to be unable to imagine not making them. If you love it that much you'll find a way to get the other things.

Making movies is a hard business. You have to be willing to work long and hard. You have to be willing to embarrass yourself and call in favors and let other people laugh at you. When you've organized everything and then everything falls apart and everyone blames you and thinks badly of you, you have to think it was worth it. When you are spending your weekends on getting that last shot because it will make the movie that much better instead of sleeping in and hanging with your friends, you have to think it was worth it.

Here are two things every filmmaker knows: making movies sucks. And it's totally worth it.

If you guys are still here, congrats. You might just be filmmakers. Follow me. Mordor isn't going to conquer itself.