Remembering a Year

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Yesterday I had a slight mishap with my phone that led to me looking at emails I had sent over a decade ago. It took me a few minutes to understand what was happening and by the time I did I was hooked.

I can’t say I would recommend this for most people but for me yesterday was tremendously positive. It confirmed something I have suspected for quite some time: my memory is not as good as I believe it is.

In short I have a distinct sense of a five year period of my life when I lived in Washington, D.C. My memory of events has me doing little with next to nothing to show for it. The emails from yesterday paint a different picture, in some ways positive and others less so. But to be clear – there are some glaring holes in my memory of projects I was involved with, for months, that I have no memory of. This is disturbing.

This made me stop and reflect on the past year – questioning what exactly have I done. Several months ago I started making a list, after seeing Steven Soderbergh’s again, in an effort of better remembering what I actually watch. I am continually amazed when I add to this list that films I watched only a few months before have been all but forgotten (until I read the names, to be clear this isn’t an article about me suffering from some form of memory loss).

Below are a list of sorts of  projects I worked on this past year – in the hope that someone, somewhere finds this interesting or helpful.

Nearly one year ago I participated in the FilmSupply Challenge. It was a interesting competition in that participants were given access to both FilmSupply’s catalogue of stock footage and The MusicBed‘s selection of music to create either a trailer for a movie, a commercial or a title sequence.

I chose to make a film trailer and although it was difficult to find unrelated clips (with no dialog) to string together to tell a story I am proud of my results. The rules of the competition make it impossible for me to share my trailer but one of the judges, FilmRiot‘s Ryan Connolly, made a trailer that I can share.

I will say, seeing the winners of the competition, if I had better understood the freedom of creating audio content for these videos I would have done something different. All things considered I am happy with what I did – but more importantly it was an great exercise in editing and storytelling and I am happy to have been able to participate.

While attempting to put together the trailer for the FilmSupply Challenge I also adapted my unpublished novel into a screenplay. The Stowe Story Labs in Vermont have a fall narrative lab (and were promoting but decided not to hold a November adaptation lab) that I scrambled to apply to. Numerous film/video related ventures offer fellowships  to help with the cost of tuition to attend the labs. I was not awarded a fellowship, so despite being accepted I found I was unable to attend which was disheartening.

What might seem like a negative experience was, unexpectedly, quite positive. In addition to having proper motivation to stay up late and write I was made aware of other writing programs in and out of the state of Vermont (and film/video related entities as well).

Becoming clued in to the Story Labs was due in part to attending the White River Independent Film Festival. There I met several local filmmakers who helped steer me toward wonderful resources (and people) in the state. I also became aware of the Vermont Media Alliance at the event.

I had the pleasure of volunteering with the VMA from June until December last year. In addition to playing a role in organizing, reshaping and formatting their website and social media presence I was able to connect with numerous people in the local film industry. It was particularly amusing to be corresponding with the head of the Stowe Story Labs, David Rocchio, both as an applicant to the Labs and as a potential partner via the VMA – simultaneously.

Being able to see the infrastructure and resources in place in Vermont from an “insider’s” point of view gave me a better sense of what is possible (and what is not) in Vermont. I am particularly proud of two interviews I was able to do while working with the VMA.

The first is with Matt Lennon, a filmmaker who lives and works in Middlebury, Vermont. The second is with composer Zackery Nicolosi. The two of them worked together to create the trailer for the Middlebury New Filmmaker’s Festival. I was impressed with the way Mr. Lennon was able to use sections of the many different works to convey emotions and give a sense of what to expect from the festival. The music that Mr. Nicolosi wrote to accompany the visuals is moving and unexpected. Take a look below –

I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredible efforts and work done by Phoebe Lewis on behalf of the festival. In addition to helping me wrangle these two for interviews she organized all of the communications between the VMA and MNFF and bantered with me via social media far more than I deserved.

From attending events, working with the VMA and generally benefitting from the hospitality of those gracious enough to spend time chatting with me, I have been able to get to know a few Vermont filmmakers whose work I admire. Below are a handful of videos from some of these filmmakers.

Michael Fisher –

Ben Silberfarb –

Jon Andrews –

Matt Lennon –

Bill Philips –

Sadly there are others, like Ethan Murphy, whose work I cannot find online to share with you. Then there are those that I was not able to become acquainted with, like Nora Jacobson and Jay Craven but given their contributions to the Vermont film community and the impact of their work I and including two trailers below –

In March of 2017 The MusicBed held their Film Initiative which I participated in. I have been working on a science fiction screenplay for more than a decade and when I saw how this competition worked it seemed like an opportune time to try and put together a visual submission that would take me outside of my comfort zone.

In an act of kindness the good people at The MusicBed put up the package the 2016 winner of the competition submitted. I was able to download and study that submission in order to have a real sense of what was expected. I can no longer find the page they had which contained the interview and submission but on Shane Hurlbut‘s site there is a blog post which contains most of the information (and the short film that was made after winning – I have posted it below).

I’ve never attempted to distill any piece of writing into minimal text and a few broad images and the process was helpful, to say the least. Problems with my script became apparent immediately, as did solutions. In using images I found online I was able to better conceive of the story I wanted to tell – as well as the themes and issues I had been struggling to articulate and explore. I would encourage any writer who does not tend to think visually to experiment with this process as it does force you to think differently and, for me at least, the results are pleasing.

Sadly I did not win the competition but, again, the process was so helpful to my writing that I do feel like I won in some ways. Perhaps that is corny but anything that improves the work is a good thing.

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I’ve tried not to make this a self-centered post, I may have failed. My hope was to point out a few of the experiences I had this past year (I did apply to the FilmicPro competition but I submitted a previously completed work so no real lesson was learned there) in an effort to show how even in failing I feel like I succeeded.

I think it is easy when there are no immediate, tangible results to gloss over a period of time and think, “Nothing happened,” but rarely is that true. I wrote and shared numerous short screenplays this past year in a hope of getting something, anything made. The only short film I completed was one I made by myself – without a script. I did have the experience, for the first time, of writing with someone specific in mind to direct and then having the ticklish conversations that follow when they don’t want to work with you.

It’s a process and I can honestly say as much as I didn’t like many parts of this process over the past year, I think, it’s gotten me to a better place. There is concrete evidence that things did happen and being reminded of that is helpful.

The Canon C200 and PremiumBeat

This morning I saw a blog post on the website for PremiumBeat https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/first-short-film-canon-c200/

PremiumBeat is a curated royalty-free website that also happens to have a blog about things related to filmmaking. They are one of several sites that offer a blog of this kind and I often read posts such as the one I linked.

This post in particular caught my attention, less because it is about a shiny new camera and more because of the two videos that are contained within. The first is a short film made by Canon with director Andrew Fried and director of photography Byrant Fisher – called “From Dock to Dish”. You can watch it below:

First and foremost I think this is an excellent video. A few months ago my wife and I began watching the four part documentary Cooked on Netflix. We had previously seen two seasons of Chef’s Table (which Mr. Fried is both a producer and director for) and it seemed like a natural extension of our now food-oriented television watching. Both shows are excellent but Cooked caused both of us to start thinking about what we eat, why we eat it and where the food truly comes from.

This video takes a look at that particular chain regarding fish and it’s as entertaining and interesting as any episode of Chef’s Table I have watched (I have now seen all three seasons and Chef’s Table France).

The blog post also contains a second video, which offers behind the scenes interviews and footage about the making of “From Dock to Dish” which I think most people would find interesting. This is largely a promotional film for the C200 but a good deal of the content is about the hows and whys of capturing the images to tell this story. I enjoyed it greatly and I hope you do, too.

(Don’t) See it Again?

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Typically I try and only share films I like and try and convince others to like them, too. So what gives?

I’ve read a number of articles about Arrival and they all say something similar — this is a great movie. Most people who praise the film are saying things along the lines of “This is smart science fiction for people who are tired of explosions.” I am assuming this is targeted at the recent release of the Independence Day sequel (among other films).

One review in particular focused on the fact that this story is about a woman who uses her brain to save the world. What is not to like about this premise? A woman uses her brain (and no weapons) to save the world from an alien invasion! I wanted to love this move and sing its praises. Upon watching the film I had the depressing thought, “Did I just watch what everyone else did?”

I feel there are two major failings of Arrival.

Reason Number One: The premise of the film is excellent: aliens arrive, we make contact and realize we have to figure out how to communicate with them. Call in a linguist (with a scientist in tow) to figure out how to communicate before trying to ask the important questions. It’s a wonderful approach and makes sense and I’ve never seen it done in a film about aliens before.

Where the film falls apart, and the opening makes this clear, is that this movie is not about the interaction with the aliens. It is not about this process of learning to communicate, it’s not about the aliens at all, really. This is a movie about time travel.

When things go wrong and the world is on the brink of war/destruction/something bad our heroine is given the entire language of the aliens to decipher. In doing so she learns that understanding their language changes how a person perceives time. She no longer perceives time as linear but is able to move in and out of moments of her life. Effectively her consciousness is now able to travel through time.

So, and this is such incredibly lazy storytelling that I am amazed at the praise for this film, in order to save the day our heroine’s consciousness travels forward in time to ask General Shang what she did in the past to convince him from starting WWIII (I don’t mean to be flippant with that term, the stakes are global so I feel the term is not far off the mark). General Shang then tells her (in the future) what she did in the past to convince him to cease and desist so that her past self can then do this very thing. That the climax of this film boils down to “I just have to remember what I did in the future and do it now” should have had reviewers sharpening their knives.

Time travel doesn’t have to be overly complicated and burdened with quantum theory and paradoxes — because this is a movie. That being said when time travel is treated only as a means to move the plot forward it often feels unnecessary and unrewarding. The way it is used in Arrival is one step removed from employing the trope of “and then she woke up”.

Reason Number Two: The story being told is of how our main character, due to this change in her perception of time, is able to experience her future. What troubles me is that she makes an emotionally and morally complex decision about having a child with the knowledge of everything that will follow. What she does not do is inform her soon to be (husband?) romantic partner of this choice and that it will entail watching their only child die from an untreatable disease, until after they have had the child.

The father is not in any of the scenes from the future where the teenage daughter is dying in the hospital, or any scenes for that matter, so in a way he is spared this. I assumed that he was not in any of the future scenes because they are shown at the beginning of the film and therefore would give away the story — since everything hangs on the viewer thinking that her daughter dying happened before the events of the movie unfold. Perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps the character is incapable of living through what he knows is coming. Neither scenario seems tolerable.

Perhaps if you aren’t a parent this withholding of information is a minor issue. But imagine for a moment that you are in the shoes of Jeremy Renner’s character and try to imagine your significant other telling you that the child you had together is going to die of a terrible disease and that they knew this before you conceived the child. And now, when the child is seven or so, they have decided to tell you all of this. Perhaps I am overly sensitive but for me this turns Amy Adam’s character from a hero to something of a villian. This is an unforgivably selfish act, especially since this film is not concerned with rules pertaining to time travel (whether or not things can be changed — so that there is no debate as to whether her knowledge actually changes anything).

The voiceover in the beginning that only makes sense at the end of the film, that the aliens coming wasn’t an ending but a beginning…it all sounds really great and clever until you look at how she handles this information.

For me these were two major sticking points that took an interesting concept and turned it into an unpleasant and unrewarding experience. Forest Whitaker is criminally underused in the film. I was thrilled to see his name on the poster and upon seeing the film understood why he was in so little of the trailer. Jeremy Renner is in substantially more of the film but I’m not sure many have noticed as he is stuck firmly in second position.

Arrival has a great atmosphere and a unique premise. Ultimately using a storytelling device to cheat the audience of a proper resolution and handling the morally complex idea of having a child with someone and not telling them of the (known) horrors to come, makes this an unrewarding film.

See it Again – Jupiter Ascending

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What You Should Know

This film fits into many categories but “Space Opera” seems to work the best. How do we define “Space Opera”? Wikipedia gives us:

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms “soap opera” and “horse opera“, the latter of which was coined during the heyday of silent movies to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and they continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, and video games.

This definition, as most definitions of genres, is fairly judgmental. Which is not to say it is incorrect. Jupiter Ascending features everything listed above. Does this have to be a negative? Jupiter Ascending is a – repeat after me – enjoyable film to watch. Feels weird doesn’t it? Especially in this age of superhero films that are often not enjoyable to watch.

The Wachowski’s once again made a science fiction film that delivers in terms of story and special effects. One of the things they do so well is to make special effect heavy movies that don’t call attention to the special effects (Not every time, I am aware!).

Case in point, Channing Tatum’s character wears special boots that effectively allow him to speed skate on air. This may not sound interesting or good to you, but it’s fun and if your inner child doesn’t stir while watching him glide on the air then your inner child is either stunted or boring.

Why You Should Reconsider

This film, much like Cloud Atlas suffered from negative press. I cannot point to a specific example where it was obvious but I believe this was, in part,  because of the directors personal lives’. People were very quick to judge Jupiter Ascending based on the character’s names, the basic concept, a complicated (or convoluted) plot – without seeing the film. All of which could be leveled at “The Matrix” and yet upon watching the films you see that they are incorrect.

This film is enjoyable, it is interesting and it has a heart. Notable criticisms from the online group Screen Junkies with their “Honest Trailer” focused on how the story ends. I won’t spoil the ending but to dislike and take issue with the ending is to not understand the story and what it was trying to achieve.

The acting in the film is good, it is what it should be. Characters that are supposed to be somewhat larger than life are and the everyday “normal” people are just that. Mila Kunis’s extended family feels real, which given the material is very impressive.

Which brings us to two aspects of the film I do not normally discuss, costumes and special effects. “Jupiter Ascending” is lavish, it’s lush. They created worlds and cultures and races. The things that people praised Neil Blomkamp for regarding Elysium seemed to fly over everyone’s head regarding this film. The film has moments of gritty reality and overdone pomp and they all work. They are appropriate and do not pull the viewer out of the story. The effects sequences are as seamless and perfectly integrated as those in the first Matrix. In short (if Cloud Atlas hadn’t come first) this is a return to form for the directors.

Misconceptions

I’ve stopped reading reviews for the most part so all I can glean is that people thought this would be a more straightforward story. That it would be less “Space Opera” and more…space story? I don’t know. Channing Tatum’s character is strange as other other characters in the film but given that the film addresses other life in the universe it makes sense. If we can accept this idea with Star Trek can’t we do so with a film like Jupiter Ascending?

Back when we rented our films from video stores I recall a particular phrase was used often to promote new films. Either on the box or the poster or in the trailer for a film they would say, “If you loved _______, you’ll love ______”. Which if you think about it is a pretty great way to sell a film. If I were going to use that line to promote Jupiter Ascending I would say, “If you loved The Fifth Element, you’ll love Jupiter Ascending.”

The Trap of Perfection and Being Ready

The number of projects I have not begun, have begun but not completed or have nearly finished but essentially abandoned is large. When my defenses are working properly there are many wonderful reasons for all of this unfinished work. None of them are terribly original or interesting. In nearly every case the actual reason is the same: what is/was in my head did not/will not be as good when I make it. Perfection is a trap.

Today I was looking through the folders on my computer, for what I no longer remember, and I stumbled down a rabbit hole of past projects and memories that lead me, much like Alice, on a strange and mysterious journey. The journey concluded when I went to my YouTube page and saw that the last video I uploaded was two years ago.

Now, to be fair, YouTube for me is an afterthought. If I make something and want to share it I use Vimeo. The lack of commercials and the overall straightforward nature of the site is why it has become the place where I publish video content. Yet I do try and publish on YouTube because I can use all the views I can get. I am unknown and would like to change that.

Now before you start following links or Googling me the sad truth is I have made very little content to share with the world. Largely it is because I am a stay-at-home dad who mostly shoots videos of his children. I share these videos with family members who say they watch them.

So why am I writing all of this? Where is the bit about perfection?

I came across a video I made in 2007 today. It is called Marty. I am embedding it below. It is less than two minutes long and it would make me happy if you watched it now.

I’ve shared it on this site before but since I had forgotten about it, I am sure you did, too. Now, this is a very short film with almost no story that I made when I knew much less about how to make short films. Yet, it is one of a handful of short films I have made. And I think it is okay. Not amazing but not terrible either.

This past year I have gone to a number of film screenings in Vermont and I’ve connected with numerous filmmakers and watched their work online. What I have taken away from these experiences is fairly simple – it is better to make something and have it be “okay” than to make nothing. Pretty standard stuff, I know. Yet, how many of us are not making things, not sharing things because we feel it isn’t good enough? How many times have you sat down to write but stared at the wall, picked up your guitar only to put it down again, or closed your NLE because you felt your project wasn’t good enough.

I’m not a self help guy and I certainly spend more time feeling like a failure than a success. But, if I have learned one thing in the past year it’s this – people are winning awards making things I would be embarrassed to share. Don’t take this as me being snobbish or looking down my nose at others. Take this for what it is – these people are getting recognition and awards for doing – while I am forgetting videos I’ve made and staring at the wall.

“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”
Joss Whedon

Film and Digital – Operation Avalanche and Workflows

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Today I read an article on the Filmsupply blog – https://blog.filmsupply.com/articles/operation-avalanche/9

It is mostly an interview about the film, Operation Avalanche, that delves into the technical aspects of how they made the movie. I won’t spoil those details here other than to say their workflow was unusual. In order to properly emulate the look of 16mm film from the 1960’s they shot on digital cameras and did a transfer to 16mm film that they then degraded.

To answer the obvious question – why not just shoot on film? The answer is cost.

Why am I sharing this? Let me post an excerpt from the interview below:

Do you think it will ever be possible to achieve the full effect in digital without the 16mm intermediate?

JR: We tried. Honestly, I think if we could do it, then we would have done it. There’s something that happens — is it the uncertainty principle? It’s that thing you can’t predict. We could have given it to Conor, and he could have re-created exactly what happened in that shot from earlier in the movie. But those mistakes never happen twice — the way the colors shift in an unpredictable way, the way the highlights go a certain way.

AA: The way a hair would lie on the scan. You can’t design for that.

JR: You could intentionally do it, but you’d just be copying something you’d seen before. People are wired to pick apart images now. We spend all day looking at images and thinking about how they originated. We’ve developed a powerful vocabulary for seeing an image and knowing where it came from and who took it. That’s in our lexicon now through how much we learn by looking at images all day long. People are savvy to the point where they can subconsciously tell — whether they know it or not — if they’re looking at something from a certain era or a modern thing that’s trying to be that thing from a certain era.

Stranger Things is a great example of that. It has the look of an ’80s movie through and through, but you know it’s not an ’80s movie because you’re not watching it on film. Film does all these weird things that look like mistakes, but you can’t plan them. Through this process, we discovered that if you want something to look like it’s on film, the only way to get that look consistently is to actually use film.

What they say here, especially at the end, is of interest. As much as shows like “Halt & Catch Fire”, “The Americans” and “Mad Men” (the later seasons) achieve a film look – there are moments where the audience knows, somehow, that these shows are made differently than works shot in the 1980’s (and 60’s). This inherent knowledge is interesting and while it does little to settle any arguments about what format you should capture your work on it does speak to another concern which is distracting your audience from the story. If the audience is thinking about how your movie looks like film but isn’t film while they are watching then you have to wonder if it is worth attempting this trickery.

Take a look at the interview, it is an interesting, albeit technical, read.