You’ve undoubtedly seen posts of the following nature all over the internet forums aimed at writers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. (Facebook is the worst offender):
“Hey everyone, I’m a new writer/filmmaker/musician and I just finished a short story/short film/song: could you all visit my page and read/view/listen to it, and hit like? It will help me with my career”.
Newsflash for all the fledging Stephen King’s / Marty Scorcese’s / Dave Mathews’s out there: posting links to your so-so stuff in Facebook groups and begging people in that group to click the like button isn’t going to help launch your career. It will only tend to evoke a bit of empathetic pity from other misguided artist wannabes—if anything. Personally, I’d be more inclined to view your stuff if you asked me to take a look and give you my honest feedback, instead of just “like me, like me…”. The reality is, these people probably don’t even care if you watch or listen to their stuff—they just want their view count and like percentage as high as possible. They subscribe the specious notion that if they get their numbers high enough that important people who can help them with their careers will magically call them to set up a meeting.
Well, the reality is this is not a game whereby the person with the most likes wins the prize of a lucrative contract with a big publishing house or film studio or record label. Social media may be good for contacting others just like you to talk and to bitch about stuff, but it isn’t some wondrous new invention that can instantly make stars out of you if you post enough drivel often enough. The only one thing that is going to propel you in a successful career as a writer, filmmaker, musician or artist of any stripe is to be both good and lucky. Nobody can help you with those—you have to study your craft and practice incessantly for that to happen. But regarding who can really help you, you have to make connections with the right people (not just other struggling artists in the same boat). You have to meet the people who can help you polish and distribute and sell your art (we’ll talk about who these people are in a future blog).
I commented in an earlier post about how technology has made it easier to self-publish. Whether you’re trying to sell a novel or collection of short stores on Kindle, or distribute a short film on Vimeo or YouTube, or sell your songs on Reverb Nation, it has unquestionably gotten much easier to get your stuff “out there”. But the flip side of that is that there is so much stuff “out there” that it is getting harder and harder to get noticed. It has really become a landfill on which you are tossing your little nugget of gold and hoping and praying for the best, if you only post enough “watch me/like me” messages.
So to start with, you need to learn your craft and practice until you really have come up with a gem. A work of art that is appealing, is what’s going to sell. Slapping together a poorly-edited novel with a weak plot, or a film with no character arc and trite dialog, or a song that just doesn’t hook you and get your blood pumping and then uploading it to one of those mass distribution channels and then begging people to look at it and like it, just isn’t enough. I went to yet another local “premiere” held by a local “filmmaker” recently, and saw a film that was not a story, just a recounting of some awful things that happened to the writer as a child, and then while I was waiting for some entertaining and/or enlightening climactic ending, the credits started rolling. I was expecting either redemption or poetic justice, but saw only the ending credits instead. It was yet another WTF moment.
If only your family and friends and cast and crew members’ support alone could propel you into stardom, you wouldn’t need to worry about little things like telling a good story. You could just string together a collection of scenes or beats or riffs, and use some pretty camera work and some catchy music, and you’d be all set. But don’t complain about the injustice of the “system” when you’re still making latte’s for your day job instead of moving to a new home in Bel Air. There’s so much of that kind of fluff out there that it has jaded the average person. And those people who can and might be trying to discover new artists and their works aren’t going to dig through that landfill looking for your nugget. Those agents, publishers, film distributors, and art dealers might or might not have assistants searching the depths and crevices of the net for potential new talent, but all the noise out there makes it all the harder for them to find you! As I said in a previous blog: the signal-to-noise ratio on the internet is near zero. And if they did by some chance come across one of your nuggets, you may only get that one golden opportunity to have it looked at with a critical eye/ear, so don’t blow it by putting incessant substandard junk out there.
What do you have to do to rise above the noise floor? In whatever art form you work in, you have to tell captivating stories. You have to both entertain people and move them emotionally with some message. And you must never confuse the medium for the message (read Marshall McLuhan). If you don’t know how to tell stories, then you are not there yet as an artist. Have confidence in yourself, but don’t act like a best-selling author when all you’ve written is a handful of unpublished short stories. Nobody likes a poser!
There are filmmakers who believe that great lighting and camera moves are the most important factors in creating a good film. I see these folks in pre-production meetings obsessing not over the story, but over lenses and lights and dollies and cranes. Most of these types of filmmakers came up through the ranks of cinematographer (camera guy). They possess all that lovely and expensive equipment and they so want to use all of it in every film they make to justify their expenditures. This use of technology sleight of hand to try to sell a film that is otherwise devoid of good storytelling isn’t just a small-time indie malady—it happens on medium-to-large budget films as well. It’s a hallmark of the so-called “B” movie. When a filmmaker has a weak story, he or she too often thinks that just lacing the finished footage with complicated effects, impressive stunts, cool sound effects, and other “wow factor” ingredients is all that it takes to bring the quality level right up there. Some people might buy that, but I personally do not think a whole lot of people do.
And while dedicated writers know a little more about the importance of story structure, they still come up short quite often. How many times have you writers had an inspiration for a really great story, but didn’t know how to end it (or even to start it)? Perhaps at some critical turning point you weren’t sure wether to go down one path or another, so you just slapped together something just to finish it? It probably would have been better to just set your script aside and worked on something else until that epiphany hit you (and it hits all good writers who have the patience to wait for it). But we all so want to have more immediate gratification and get more stuff out there faster. Art is not a competition or a race. It might be controlled too often by business interests. But at its core, it is an expression of the mind, heart and spirit.
I’ve dabbled in songwriting, and found similar urges to take short cuts to hurry up the process. I used to mock the old Beatle’s songs for the simplistic lyrics that mostly were variations of “she loves you” or “I love her”. Of course the Beatles franchise made billions of dollars with their “silly love songs”, so what’s wrong with that? Artistically-speakingm nothing really. But the Beatles went through several distinct definitive phases. They began with the commercial art phase where everything from their costumes and hair to their publicity releases, to their lyrics, was about creating fan buzz and satisfying the record label execs. I don’t think many folks would try to argue that their first couple of albums were beautiful works of art. And that’s okay in my book, because they did evolve over time, and then the art started shining through. The storytelling became more obvious by the time they got into their Magical Mystery Tour/Abbey Road phases. And since they were pioneers, people were much more patient with their evolution. Musicians today who try to make a lucrative career out of mere flashy appearance, ear-numbing waves of sound pressure and shocking lyrics, are more likely to be left in a perpetual state of wondering when someone is going to recognize their art and their careers are going to take off. Again (and I cannot stress this enough) whatever your medium is: you have to be good at telling stories. I’ve gone through this again and again. You need to know how to do this. And though the technique differs from art form to art form, you have to introduce and develop, create conflict and resolution, excite and deflate at the right times, have rising arcs of understanding and expectation, and an exciting climax. Your audience has to come away having really felt your work, not just glanced at it.
Truth be told, there is no absolute solution to creating great art that can also make money for you. There is no self-help book nor class that can teach you how to bare your soul and channel what comes out of your heart into beautiful works of art that other people so very much want to own and to look at and listen to and to touch (and to pay handsomely for the pleasure). Creating art is something no one can teach you. You can be taught about the tools and materials of the trade, the importance of good work habits, how to get started, basic technique and structure, and maybe you can even acquire some hints on how to unblock your creative juices. But no one can tell you how to create art. It flows out of you or it doesn’t. That is the intrinsic nature of art.
As for making a living as an artist: we all know it is very tough. With the exception of the most gifted (and lucky and also well-promoted) artists at the very top, it just doesn’t pay that much. At the lower levels, we do it for self-growth. There a lot of competition out there and therefore it is a huge challenge just to get noticed by the right people. I have a niece who is studying ballet. It is the love of her life right now, but she is fully aware that unless she lands a spot with one of the top ballet companies in the country, she will probably be fortunate just to make slightly less money than a secretary. Whatever career she might have in ballet will be brief, grueling, at times painful, and inevitably it will end before she would like it to. She would then try to find a job teaching dance and maybe eventually opening her own studio. It’s sort of a parallel to being a minor-league athlete.
You will inevitably face a decision point somewhere along the way regarding “selling out”. By this I mean becoming involved in commercial art. This is the world where economic and financial considerations weigh on the creation of the “art”. For filmmakers, it might mean literally making commercials. For musicians it might mean composing advertising jingles or it might mean working at a music store and teaching music to kids. For writers, it might mean writing (or re-writing or copywriting or editing) for a newspaper or magazine. It will almost always mean there is some business person looking over your shoulder telling what to do and what not to do.
But don’t feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil if you follow this path. Everyone needs to make a living somehow. Some of the more interesting up-and-coming local filmmakers and actors I know have unrelated real-world jobs like teaching kids, writing computer software, managing networks, and waiting on tables. That doesn’t take anything away from them either as human beings or as artists. Just because you create your best pure art during your off-hours from your day job, that doesn’t invalidate it or dirty it up in any way. You just have to learn to separate the two worlds in your head. Don’t be thinking, as you’re putting the finishing touches on a watercolor painting you hope to have displayed in a gallery, something to the effect of “Hmm, this nice titanium white is rather expensive, so I can save maybe a few bucks by using that cheaper stuff they sell at Target.” Keep your two worlds separate and distinct in your head and you’ll be okay.
I’m pretty certain of one thing though: you cannot beg people to either look at nor to like your art. Your friends and colleagues will do that for you out of loyalty. I don’t believe that those view and like counts on your short film or novel or song mean very much (unless you get into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of hits, and then YouTube (or whatever) is willing to attach advertisements for cars or deodorants or baby food or whatever on top of your stuff. And generally those “high view” videos tend to be of talking dogs or boxing cats. The notion that all you need to do to be a success is to have your video go viral and that your Facebook buddies can make that happen, is a specious assumption. There are other, more effective means of promoting your work (more on that in a future blog). But you really should first focus on honing your skills before your start seeking out those people who really can help you.
It is narcissistic and fallacious thinking to believe you can cajole and plead your way into a career as a writer or filmmaker or musician or photographer or whatever, without having anything of quality to show. When you are really producing the good stuff, then and only then, focus on developing those valuable contacts who can help you. And after all that, if the fame and notoriety doesn’t follow right away, and if you have to wait on tables or give music lessons to kids, or make wedding videos for a living for the time being, you are definitely in good company. Most of us “artists” have to struggle to survive. In my humble opinion, that only makes us better.
On yet another drink-a-thorn with a few of my independent filmmaking colleagues (anyone see a theme here) an interesting topic for discussion was broached. The filmmaking folks in my circle of friends consist mainly of directors, producers and writers, so naturally the question revolved around the working relationship between the three. We talked a little about how things are done in Hollywood, but since most of us will never do more in Hollywood beyond taking the celebrity tour, we stuck mainly to how things are typically done and possibly should be done, and even could be done under various circumstances in the small-budget independent filmmaking world affectionately known as “indiewood”.
In that soul-crushing world known as Hollywood, the producer assigned by the studio exec is typically god on most productions. Only very famous and well-respected directors are allow “final cut” over a film they direct. Otherwise, they are just the person who executes the screenplay according to the wishes of the producer. And in Hollywood, the writer usually is long gone once the studio has bought the rights to his or her script. The final production shown in theaters could be something entirely different from what the writer intended. But unless you’re talking about an academy award winning screenwriter, the writer is generally considered just a provider of raw material for the movie and nothing more. If he or she writes a sensitive, heart-wrenching drama and it gets turned into a slapstick comedy, well that’s part of the soul-crushing aspect of Hollywood. Complications can rear up when say the director is also the writer, or the writer is also an actor and maybe an executive producer (or nephew of a rainmaker executive producer). Ah there are so many permeations. But for the sake of this discourse, we will stick mainly to talking about the low-budget/no-budget world of indiewood.
So in this beer-fueled discussion, I find myself the advocate for the writer. Two of my colleagues are directors who have also written and directed their own works. Another colleague is a producer. So I have this stack of screenplays I believe with all my heart are very good, but as an inexperienced director I want to shop them to a director I can work collaboratively with so as to make sure the intentions of my stories are faithfully put into a finished production, but without having to worry about dealing directly with actors, nor having to work out every camera angle and movement. One of my director friends says that I cannot have my cake and eat it too. If I hire a director to make my script into a movie, I must trust him or her and relinquish all my (as he calls it) backseat driving urges. There can only be one director and he makes the decisions on how to interpret the script.
Now hold on, my producer colleague says. The director reports to the producer and unless the director is Marty Scorcese, he doesn’t get the final cut power. My director colleague retorts that this ain’t Hollywood, and the producer is not the representative of the money people. The indiewood producer is just responsible for paperwork, and s hedging locations, and signing checks and arranging the food and coffee. At this point, I chime in with my own “this isn’t Hollywood” retort and express that the writer is the one who has slaved over every action and every word to get it all perfect. Since in indiewood, quite often it is the writer who funds the production, he should
This topic came up as a result of a question from a friend at a local pub with a bunch of other friends, after a reasonable yet significant level of inebriation had been achieved. My friends are well aware that I’ve started a blog that does quite a bit of analysis under the guise of being a “critic”. So the question posed was, “Boris, you’ve done production sound, hell you even worked in a real recording studio, you’ve written and directed a short film that’s still in post, written several novels and screenplays that are just sitting on a shelf (albeit several of the screenplays have been registered with the WGA-West—for what it’s worth), you’ve cooked for your friends a few times, shared some interesting photos you took whilst galavanting around the far east, you play a little guitar, ride a Ducati… Yada yada blah blah blah—so how does that qualify you to be a critic of people who have been producing art, music, food, film or whatever for years? What gives you the %#$@ing right to write about other peoples’ blood sweat and tears, in areas you’ve only dabbled in?
In a sense, I can see the logic in that. How could I possibly know what goes into making a feature film, or putting on an exhibit of paintings or photographs, or a piano recital (when I can barely play chopsticks on the ivories), a dance performance (when the best I’ve ever danced is to wave my arms around like a chimpanzee, whilst my wife pulls her hair down over her face to hide her identity). But then I remembered that there are very good art, film, music and food critics out there who never mastered what it is they critique. There’s even that old saw that if you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you criticize it (actually critics critique stuff, and only occasionally when it is really bad stuff do they criticize it—there is a bit of a difference you know).
So to be honest, I think that you can never know what goes into an artistic effort of the magnitude of making a full-length feature film, or publishing a four-hundred page novel for real (on real paper, and sold in real bookstores), or performing in a musical or dance recital, if you haven’t done it. But if you are a serious artist, you wouldn’t be critiquing it. And if you had mastered the art, but then had to retire early for some reason (such as a career-ending injury or old age for a dancer) you’d probably be teaching. Only the lowest of the bottom feeders attempt to make any sort of career (paid or unpaid) of critiquing other peoples’ work.
But someone has to do it. If you hear the friends, family and close colleagues talk about someone’s artistic products, they will gush with praise (and hit that “like” button” in a heartbeat) even for something that is absolute and obvious rubbish. So it falls on the likes of those of us who operate at the periphery of the art world and hang out in the shadows of artists both great and mediocre, to take on the sometimes not-so-well-received task of telling it like it is.
So does that make me qualified? My short answer is yes. My long answer is hell yes. And if you don’t like that I referred to a home movie a friend of yours shot with a $100 camcorder, out of focus, and that sounded like the on-screen characters were in a tunnel, and like the lighting was done using a flashlight—that’s just too darn bad. That’s just what I do. And if you put some tune you created out on Reverb Nation that I feel sounds like a two-year-old vomited her strained peas onto a $100 Casio digital keyboard—again, too bad. That’s what I do. And if like a certain English professor at a certain local major university, you run a writing Meetup group and boast about your self-published novels on Kindle that had all the plot and character development of a child’s finger painting and I said that here (I have not!)—you quite possibly deserved it (but I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things about your work in the Kindle review section sir).
I call em as I see em. If you don’t like what I have to say, and you really want to beat the crap out of me, I’m the guy at the exhibit/show/concert/recital who looks like an English Bulldog. But conversely, I will give kudos to someone who has worked hard to improve with each new work they put out there. After all, we should all strive to be better at whatever we do every day. And I recognize good entertainment value, even if as an art form, the work has come up a bit short (like if you posted a YouTube video with two cats boxing). Stand-up comedy is in fact a high art form and a difficult one to do well. And done well, it is highly entertaining—so much so you might accidentally tear a muscle in your side from laughing.
But fair warning: the thing I will most tear into is posers acting like accomplished artists. At least I’ll be the first to admit that my guitar playing qualifies me for playing in a garage band with four other significantly inebriated grown-up adolescents. I have a good friend who plays a little better than I do and is waiting for Eddie Van Halen to return his calls (you know who you are). Go figure. And then there’s my cooking. While my wife says it is very good, a professional chef would probably mistake a plate I had prepared for one needing to go into the dishwasher. And then there’s the photography. I get laughed at for having one of the nicest DSLR’s available (a 5D3) and not knowing what 90% of its capabilities are. But I’m learning. And then again, I never pretended to be the heir apparent to Ansel Adams, as a few photographer acquaintances of mine seem to think they are.
So what I do think really about the necessary qualifications to critique some form or other of art? In my humble opinion (hopefully that word humble will make you back down a bit on your anger level) to be a critic, you need to have had some basic exposure, and a little education (even just reading a few books I think counts), maybe have an aptitude of an advanced amateur, and definitely a sincere interest in and respect for the art form. You can’t be a good critic of country music for example, if you think that every country music song is about a guy’s wife taking the dog and the pickup truck. So I will recuse myself from critiquing that particular “art form”. I love to recognize artists who really produce fine work and put on a great show. And I will recognize a great effort that falls short in some area. But I will just as quickly come down hard on the posers who think because they are a little more talented than Joe The Plumber, that their work should be on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Seriously, I will always accept an invitation to get a personal demonstration and education as to what is involved in creating a form of art (as long as it doesn’t take place in a secluded alley late at night). I want to learn more and to understand more about what you professional artists really do in your studios and on your stages in your professional artistic endeavors. I definitely make every effort to improve myself every day by practicing a little guitar, shooting some pictures or video footage and editing it, and writing novels, screenplays and of course this blog. Hell, I’ve even helped a neighbor with his home brewing. It is all both fun and very educational. Life is a mega adventure to me and like a shark, I need to keep swimming in order to breathe. But please don’t take it too hard if I didn’t gush with praise over something you spent all of a week working on during breaks from watching South Park reruns. It’s all part of the game of life.
I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.
There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.
While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).
But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.
A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.
I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.
In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.
The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.
The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.
I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.
Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.
I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.
If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.
And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.
To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.
To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.
In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.
The comparisons are obvious. The sound mixer is responsible for recording the sound for a film just as the Director of Photography is responsible for recording the picture. There are similar technical issues involved. Whenever I have to train a new boom operator, I tell him or her to think of the boom microphone as a “camera for sound”—you aim it correctly to frame the sound properly. And you move in and out, sideways, up and down, back and forth, with the camera to match the perspective. You have close up dialogue and wide angle dialog. It might not be as technically complex as being a camera operator, but the finished film quality is very dependent on the boom operator doing his or her job well.
And just as stray light can ruin a camera shot, stray sound can ruin the dialog. The sound mixer needs to scout the set, listening for air conditioner rumble, refrigerator hum, exterior traffic noises, and so on, and then think up solutions using sound blankets, or perhaps attaching omnidirectional body mics to get a closer, cleaner sound than the boom could get. Sometimes the choice of microphones and microphone locations can be daunting. The sound mixer has to come up with a sound plan, just as the DP helps the director come up with a shot plan. Sometimes, the perfect shot would put the actors in a position where a sound problem cannot be fixed (e.g. in front of a window where there is a dog barking outside in a neighbor’s yard). The director might decide to move to a secondary choice or might opt to shoot as is and loop the dialog later in an ADR session.
When I do production mixing on an unpaid gig, I tell the director I want to be including in pre-production meetings, and I want to see the shot list and storyboards so I can prepare. I do not want to just show up at crew call time and then have to ask the director or assistant director or DP just moments before the director calls for quiet on the set, what the blocking is, who the principal speaking actor is for a particular shot, and so on. If I’m being paid, I politely suggest this, but in the end, my reaction will be yes sir/no sir. Money does talk.
And speaking of money, I hear all the time that one reason DP’s should be paid is because of the substantial equipment investment they have made. Now I don’t disagree with that one, but have to tell you filmmakers that the production sound guy is right behind the DP in terms of equipment investment. Here’s a personal short list of mine (doesn’t include the innumerable cables, adapters, sound cart, folding chair, etc., and expendables like batteries):
Ten grand worth of gear to do a good job recording production sound on a variety of production types. And as mentioned, this doesn’t include all the miscellaneous accessories, adapters, cables, stands, cart, chair, batteries, etc. So we’re well over ten grand for a moderately sophisticated non-Hollywood production sound setup. And you do need this stuff to do a decent job. And sound guys have a lot of technical details to learn and to take care of. So when I argue that the sound guy should be paid if the DP is being paid, there is a very good reason for it. Now granted, a good DP possibly spends 2-3 times that much for his cameras, lenses and all those lights. But the issue is the same, if to a differing degree.
My own personal rationale for doing production sound (and I tell everyone who asks if I’ll work sound for them) boils down to one of three reasons:
- (a) I’m being paid for it.
- (b) It’s for a good friend who has done favors for me in the biz (found me paid work, etc.)
- (c) It’s a great script, it tells a wonderful story and/or sends an important message, the director treats me as a respected senior crew chief, includes me in pre-production planning meetings, location scouting, shot planning and/or other creative capacity such as script review, or maybe throws me an acting part (I am an aspiring actor as well). The one thing I don’t tolerate well is a director who lumps me in with the guy who brings the coffee or the gal who moves the chairs around.
For this latter option, it sort of implies I know the director and know he or she is talented and respectful. I always ask to see the script before I decide. I don’t want to waste my time and gear on a crappy home movie-ish shoot with a crappy script. And I will send my comments on the script back to the director to see what his or her response is (I am a writer as well). I am absolutely prepared to have a director tell me that they just want someone to do sound only and nothing more. That’s perfectly fine with me, but I will generally pass on working for free under those conditions.
In essence, a director can pay me in one of three ways: cash; being a good friend who has done favors for me; or including me as a respected senior creative team member or giving me an acting part. I don’t work for free, but I do have alternative payment plans.
Truth be told, I do see the Director of Photographer as far more of an artist than the sound guy. The DP really creates the image the director is looking for in telling the story. He or she uses light, exposure, camera motion, focus pulling, and a myriad of other techniques to set a mood and evoke a feeling in the viewer. The production sound guy just works tirelessly to faithfully record the on-set dialog and sound effects. So the latter (though invaluable to the finished art form) is more technician than artist.
But my parting thought is that any director who thinks he or she can get good production sound by having an idle production assistant aim a $150 shotgun mic screwed onto a boom pole and plugged into a Radio Shack pocket recorder is delusional. You will get what you pay for. That beautifully framed and lighted shot, that acting moment that took twelve takes to get right, that touching story beat, might just be destroyed by having the dialog sound like it was shot inside a tunnel.
So many filmmaking folks feel that there is some kind of tall wall between those in front of the camera and those behind the camera. Many of the crew actually stand in awe of the actors for their ability to transform themselves into a fictional character. Often the feeling of awe is reciprocal. I notice on set actors sometimes gazing with awe at the jumble of cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, microphones and audio equipment. I think both are justified in being in awe of the other. To pull off a decent film requires dedicated teamwork under the auspices of the director (creative) and production manager (scheduling and logistics and so forth). It isn’t often you come across someone who is both comfortable and confident, both in front of and behind the camera. Sometimes directors write themselves into a part and try to do both. As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, unless you are both very good at directing and very good at acting, this can be a formula for failure.
Occasionally, I see someone else make the transition from one side to the other, and I find it interesting for various reasons. Firstly, a lot of people working crew just assume they can never be an actor. They assume (and rightly so) that acting requires some innate talent that while it can be honed with lessons and coaching, cannot be created out of nothing. But a lot of people don’t really know what latent talents lie hidden beneath layers of personality shaped by that dull grinding day job. There is often an actor waiting to be “discovered” and nurtured in that person who moves the lights around or decorates the set. And conversely, there are often actors who have a good eye for lighting or ear for sound, who when called on to lend a hand, can turn out to be quite proficient in helping out the crew after his or her’s parts have been filmed.
Some crew folks have great personalities, a fantastic sense of humor, and often ham it up behind the camera. Why shouldn’t they at least give it a whirl? And on low-budget indies, one would think directors would always be on the lookout for cheap (read: free) fresh new talent. But unfortunately we local small-time filmmakers tend to make this transition more difficult than it need be by insisting potential actors go through hoops before working for food. We too often require formal things like a headshot, resume, demo reel, and references even for someone being cast in a role with three short lines, before we’ll even consider auditioning them. It seems a tragic waste of potential to be overlooking those who simply never considered taking the time to put all those “hoops” together. But there are progressive directors who just seem to instinctively know they like someone for a part. And quite often these directors are able to elicit a more credible performance than they might from spending many hours reviewing paperwork and holding auditions.
I recently was working sound on a production, and had as usual been goofing around and hamming it up during breaks with my mates. I hadn’t realized the director had been watching. He approached me later in the day to ask if I was interested in playing a short role with maybe a half-dozen lines for a character that he thought I just might be perfect for. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, but also curious, so I jumped at the chance (fortunately there was another guy there qualified to take over the mixing). It was quite an eye-opening experience. I learned how really difficult acting is. It was not just about memorizing a script—that was the easy part. My bigger problem was getting heavily into the character I was playing and practicing it until I felt I was that character, and then staying there for hours as delay after delay in shooting pushed the schedule back. By the time they got around to shooting my scenes, I was rather tired and no longer “in the moment”. I had lost my edge. There was a huge lesson to be learned about peaking too early. I managed to fix this somewhat with an extra large coffee. If you’re wondering how it turned out, it’s still in post, but the director told me he was quite pleased with the footage.
I’ve heard other stories about astute directors noticing crew members and also guests hanging out on set, who were carrying on off camera in a certain way. After a brief discrete chat, and a script tweak, there’d be a newbie on camera as an extra or maybe with a small speaking part. Different people react differently when asked if they want to be on camera. Some are just not into it at all and run for the hills. Kudos to these directors who have open minds and aren’t afraid to take chances on occasion. It’s great for the local film community as a whole to give people an opportunity to contribute in different ways. But I’ve also known plenty of directors who won’t give anyone a chance unless they go through the official channels (acting agency) and jump through the formal “loops” (demo reel, resume with proper headshot, and references, etc…) And that’s a real shame since many of the best performances you’ll see in micro-budget Indieworld are pulled off by folks with little or no formal acting experience or training. Danny Trejo supposedly was discovered after he was released from prison and turned up on set as a guest of someone he was helping with a drug addiction problem as his sponsor. The point is you never know where the next new talent might come from.
Having myself directed several shorts, I feel it is not just my duty, but a smart thing to think outside the box and consider all possibilities. That tall geeky guy holding the microphone boom, clowning around—he might just be perfect for a geeky nerdy character who clowns around in the same way. In this small-budget indie film world, we have a golden opportunity to not be hampered by artificial lines of separation imposed by guilds and unions and studios. So keep your eyes and ears open all the time, because fresh, exciting, undiscovered talent might just be as near as your own set.
Having started my involvement in filmmaking as a “sound guy” doing both production mixing/recording and post production sound editing, ADR and re-recording mixing, I have seen some changes over time with respect to the role of a dedicated sound person either in production recording or in post production. For some filmmakers, whether or not to have a dedicated production sound mixer has always been a modus operandi: some filmmakers tend to want to keep the production crew small and tight, and avoid the need to sync up sound files to video or film clips at the beginning of post production. Many filmmakers feel that there is no longer a need for a dedicated specialist to rig microphones and monitor levels. And on the post-production side, the primary editors have gained skills in sound editing, sufficient enough to warrant eliminating the need to lock the picture and then send it to a post sound person. There is some merit to the arguments that the entire filmmaking process can be tightened up by not having a dedicated sound person on crew. But there is also potential peril.
On the production side, it appears more and more often that a semi-experienced production crew member (sometimes a Production Assistant with nothing else to do) holds a boom microphone plugged directly into the camera. Technology is definitely a driver. In the early days of filmmaking, film cameras had no capability to record any sound at all—not even a guide track. And yes, I do go way back: to high school film class projects using a Bolex 155 (Super8) and college-level classes using a Bolex R16. And for sound, we used now-antique Nagra IV’s). When you hear a geezer talk about doing it “old-school”, pay attention and you might learn something about the history of filmmaking! We slated (both head and tail slates) liberally, and were fully expecting drift in those days. Post production was a completely different looking animal, replete with mechanical flatbed editing machines. We did the best we could to sync the soundtrack, but out-of-sync soundtracks was just par for the course in the early days of indie filmmaking and the audiences expected it. Not anymore! Nothing can kill the artistry of a film more than an out-of-sync soundtrack with crappy-sounding dialog.
But these days, camera sound recording capabilities have gotten so good, with 16 bit x 48 kHz audio file capability, XLR breakout boxes and physical gain control knobs built-in to many video cameras (almost nobody shoots to real celluloid anymore) that microphones are often just being plugged straight into the camera. There are even devices like the Sound Devices PIX series of recorders that can record both high definition video and multiple channels of high fidelity sound—in perfect sync! This alleviates the painstaking task of syncing video and audio in the first phase of post production editing. It also allows for instant review of a shot with both picture and sound already in sync (in the old days of Hollywood, the production mixer got the sound tapes to the editor at the end of each day’s shooting and then an assistant editor would do a quick and dirty sync up in order to show “dailies” to the director before going off for a few hours of sleep. In the Indie world the whole concept of dailies has been replaced by rewinding and playing back the footage from a video camera after each apparent “money” shot, to see if it really is the “money” shot, or if a safety take should be done.
If there is a “production sound person”, his or her role is often relegated to setting up lavaliere body mics and holding a boom-mounted mic plugged into the camera. The camera operator often is assigned the task of setting the initial audio levels. If there are no external gain controls then there is pretty much no hope of the camera operator making even a casual adjustment to the levels. While this strategy does “tighten up” the process of shooting a movie, it is not without issues and risks. First of all, the science of acoustics is complex, and while the person rigging the microphones for a low-budget Indie production doesn’t need to be an acoustics engineer, he or she should know the basic concepts of reflection, refraction and absorption of sound waves (as well as the DP needs to understand the same for light waves) in order to select the best microphone and placement technique and positioning. Nothing kills the quality of a a movie like echoic “sounds like it was recorded in a tunnel” dialogue. And then there’s a risk with the audio gain levels not being monitored and actively adjusted while the camera is rolling of clipping and dropouts when the dynamic range of a scene is wide (i.e. there’s shouting and whispering in the dialogue). It is asking too much of the camera operator to actively monitor audio levels while at the same time framing, focusing and moving the camera. At the very least, an external field mixer device should be used between the microphone(s) and the camera to allow a dedicated person to manage the audio levels. Using the automatic gain control setting on the camera’s audio inputs is not a good option for serious dialogue recording (except in guerrilla style run and gun and documentary filmmaking) as the sound often sounds artificially pumped and deflated. And finally, having a production sound specialist on set who understands the fundamentals of acoustics is a common-sense valuable commodity. This person will know which microphone to use in which situation, when and where sound blankets are needed, and where microphones should be placed to record the cleanest, clearest dialogue and minimize phase cancellation effects that can complicate post production and even ruin the dialogue to the point of requiring ADR sessions. You wouldn’t ask a Production Assistant to decide where to place a light or to style the lead actor’s hair. You shouldn’t relegate production sound duties to someone who is either under-qualified or too busy with the camera.
Technology is a driver as well on the post production side of things. Video editing software suites now include rather sophisticated sound editing and mixing capabilities. And the editors themselves are expanding their skills to include at least basic sound editing and mixing techniques. Often, the entire post production sound process is performed by the primary editor. Even when audio and video are not synced up in the camera or an A/V recording device, software such as PluralEyes makes an easy task of syncing the audio clips to the video clips using automated waveform analysis—as long as at least a crude guide track was recorded to the camera’s built-in microphones. The Indie post production sound specialist is without question becoming a rarity, just as jack-of-all-trades editors are becoming more commonplace. Very specialized audio problems such as difficult to fix noise in the audio track, may be turned over to one of these audio specialist for fixing. But even with noise removal, software applications (such as Noise Ninja, Lightroom, DeNoise, iZotope RX, etc.) are becoming more sophisticated each year. But sometimes, it takes a skilled human touch (and ear) to really polish and hone a professional soundtrack. Plus, the picture editor has so many other important tasks throughout post—often also being responsible for visual effects, title design, fixing things like shakes—without changing the timeline, and other tasks. It is often just good common sense to lock the picture and send it along with a rough soundtrack to a post production sound person for tuning and sweetening.
In conclusion, filmmakers should make a determination prior to the beginning of the production phase concerning what the needs of the production are. If the emphasis is on speed and agility (often the case in documentary filmmaking) and a small tight crew is a necessity (shooting in very confined conditions – like on a boat or in a car) then plugging one or two microphones into a camera with an external breakout box or an external A/V recording deck may be the best way to go. On the other hand, if you have the time and space and budget to have several camera and lighting guys on set, as well as maybe a script supervisor, makeup artist, hair stylist, set decorator, costumer, assistant director, production manager and a few PA’s for running gopher errands, then you really have little excuse for not bringing a dedicate production sound specialist on board to ensure the best quality audio is recorded on location. As for post production—you have the luxury of do-overs in post. If an audio editing attempt fails, the picture editor can simply undo and try again. Dedicated post sound guys may be called in for special problems and tasks. Filmmakers should always remember that sound is half of the artistic presentation, and that despite great writing, acting, directing, and cinematography, poor quality sound can ruin the entire feel of the movie. Filmmakers should not overlook the value of having sound specialists on board both during and after the production shooting.
RG December 2012
So the principal photography (AKA shooting) is done–what next? If you’re like most micro-to-small budget directors, you might not have reviewed dailies on a regular basis. You might have just reviewed them during a break on the first day of shooting, to make sure the camera and sound recorder were actually working right. If you do wait for the end of the production phase to really watch and listen to the footage, you might be surprised by what you have to work with, now that the actors and some of the crew members have moved on to other projects.
If the picture footage is really bad, your options may be extremely limited with respect to what you can do to salvage a finished product. Color correction and camera shake removal aside, there isn’t much that can be done if the picture is washed out or hidden in deep shadows for an entire scene. Hopefully, you’ve paid attention throughout the production phase, and consulted with both your DP and sound mixer to make sure they’re getting good stuff. Hopefully, the problems will be small enough that you can fix them in post-production. This discussion concerns what can be done to fix small production sound recording problems and to enhance or sweeten the soundtrack to really make it pull the film together as a whole.
Generally, audio post-production doesn’t begin in earnest until there is a picture lock created by the director (with the help of his/her editor). This doesn’t mean the post-production soundies have nothing to do–on the contrary, there is a great deal of work that precedes the sound editing done on the film after the picture editing is locked down. Audio files need to be ingested into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and possibly transcoded to a different format. The supervising sound editor will probably want to listen to the slates and a minute or so perhaps of each take to make sure what he hears is what he has in his logs. There’s a good deal of housekeeping that goes on, which I won’t go into in detail. But suffice it to say that while the director and editor are cutting the picture along with a basic sound track, the sound post-production crew are keeping busy getting ready to start their editing work.
And when you (the director) have (with the help of the editor) stitched together what you think is really the final cut–now is the time to meet with the sound editors (or possibly a single talented person does all of your editing work) to go over your ideas for fixing and enhancing the soundtrack. If you’re working in the digital video world ,more than likely, you have a basic soundtrack assembled from footage recorded direct to the camera. This audio is already in perfect sync with the picture, and while its sonic quality is generally not good enough or anything beyond a run and gun documentary production, it does serve a purpose in providing a guide track for the post-production guys. This guide track, along with sync pops will let the sound guys create an endless collection of files containing fixed/replaced dialogue, sound effects and music, which the re-recording mixer will be able to line up perfectly and then blend the final soundtrack. Simple? Well, yes and no.
So what kind of sonic magic can be done in post? Well, sound is generally divided up into three distinct stems: dialogue, sound effects and music. In Hollywood, there are usually three different teams of specialists, overseen by a supervising sound editor. In the low budget indie world, you might have but a single post-production sound person (who’ll do all the editing and mixing) plus someone to score the music (this is too much of a specialty, even at the micro-budget level to have anyone lacking music composing and performing skills create the score).
In Hollywood, the three stems are created in parallel, but in Indieworld they are usually done sequentially by the same person. First comes the dialogue editing. The gist of dialogue editing is to eliminate or minimize noises, enhance the voices, and to make the sound flow smoothly from cut to cut – normalizing volume so shots taken from different perspectives (and potentially with different microphones) sound like one continuous take. In cases where the dialogue recording is completely unusable, a form of dubbing called ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) is performed, whereby the actors come to a recording studio and watch their performances and re-say their lines. The editor then works to edit and sync these new lines smoothly into the dialogue tracks. It’s a tedious process, but it can be very effective in replacing crappy lines with good-sounding ones.
Sound effects tracks are built next. These are constructed from a combination of sounds extracted from the production recordings, sounds recorded by a sound effects recordist before or after the shoot, library effects either purchased or from a free library, and a simplified version of Foley sessions, whereby someone stands or sits in front of a microphone and dubs sounds (often sighs, coughs, hands pounding on a desk, and so forth) while watching the footage.
Finally comes the music. A composer/performer watches the (nearly) final footage and (with a director’s advice) creates music to fit the picture. The sound editor may tweak these tracks to fit the overall picture lock.
And then, the final step in constructing the soundtrack is to mix all these tracks together into a coherent whole – a process known as re-recording mixing.
It all sounds simpler than it really is, but if you want to have really great sound to match that really great picture, then you need to spend the extra effort on sound.