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Monday, January 31, 2011

Jack of all trades

As we’ve mentioned several times before, there are an incredible range of skills involved in making a movie. If you’re working single-handed, you’ll need to know all of them. You’ll need to be not just the director but also director of photography, lighting designer, editor, sound recordist, sound editor, foley artist, stunt coordinator, scriptwriter, continuity girl, graphic designer, set dresser, effects department, wardrobe mistress, property master, makeup artist, hairstylist and publicity manager. And you’ll need to get your own coffee.

imageIf you’re working on a live action production, unless you’re shooting a guerilla style documentary completely on your own, you’ll delegate some of these tasks to your crew. These are the people who will make or break your movie. Although the popular perception is that it’s the director who makes a movie, that’s a complete misconception. Movies are a team effort, and the best directors work with the same crew over and over again until they develop an almost telepathic rapport.

As a director, the more you understand about what each member of your crew actually has to do, the better. So if there’s a particular moody shot you have in mind, it helps if you have some idea of how you want it lit, how you want it framed, how it will cut into the edit, and what sort of music you’re thinking of. The more hands-on experience you have of each of these elements, the easier it will be to convey your ideas to your crew. You don’t have to be able to do it very well, but it helps if you can at least speak the same language as your specialists and use their technical terms.  Having tried each part of the process for yourself, you’ll be more aware of practical problems, and you’ll have some concept of what you’re actually asking for from your crew. Your crew will also appreciate that you are taking the time to see things from their point of view. And if you’re working professionally, your producer will be glad you’ve got some idea what’s going to be a big budget item and what’s straightforward.

This is one reason machinima makes such a useful training ground for filmmakers. Because you’re forced to deal with all aspects of a production, you learn to appreciate everything that goes into a movie. I’ve learned, for example, about how to carry a scene with sound when I can’t show what I want for whatever reason. I’ve learned about how to stagger an edit so that I cut to the sound of the new scene before going to the visual, and how that affects the way I would shoot the closing and opening of those two scenes so that the editor has what he needs to make it work. I’ve learned about how set design can hinder the clarity of a shot when it’s too complex, and how it can make it look dull when it’s too sparse. Perhaps most importantly from a personal point of view, I’m learning how to write differently: screenplays aren’t prose, they’re not theatre, and they’re not real life. I’m beginning to understand how words will come out when they’re filmed, and I’m learning how much of the story and characterization doesn’t depend on dialogue at all. That will make me a better writer, and I haven’t wasted anyone else’s time filming my early scripts.

I won’t claim for an instant that I’ve learned to do any of these jobs anywhere nearly as well as a specialist. In fact, if you put me on a movie set, I wouldn’t know how to operate most of the equipment, let alone get a decent result. Let’s not forget that the full expression is “Jack of all trades, Master of none.” But what I am learning is to understand everything that goes into making a movie, how to relate to the rest of the crew, and what I can do to make their job easier. That’s one of the keys to an effective and productive movie crew.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Friday, January 28, 2011


Chris and NinaModdingstorm is a new site for mods created by Moviestorm lead artist and self-styled “minor Web celebrity” Chris Ollis.

He’s so dedicated to his work that at the end of the day, he goes home and makes more Moviestorm art - except when he’s cuddling big cats like this one. Chris was our very first employee, and has been with us for over five years. He came to us from Codemasters, where he worked on a variety of games, mostly involving racing cars. However, he’s always liked doing as many side projects as he can fit in and is a man of many talents. Before turning his hand to Moviestorm, he was an accomplished Unreal Tournament modder; he writes for various animation and 3D magazines; he contributes all sorts of satirical material to b3ta; and he’s had a number of his sketches shown on various TV shows.

He started Moddingstorm as a way to release a wide selection of content at his own pace that has nothing to do with mainstream Moviestorm development. Already available is a castle constructor set and appropriate peasant costumes, plus some horses.  If action scenes are your thing, there’s a jumps and falls pack and a bunch of face wounds.  For extra detail in modern settings, there are desktop and laptop computers, with animations, and miscellaneous props including a goldfish bowl and an ashtray. If you want to try something more experimental, check out the flat people. And for horror fans, there’s an animated Cthulhu - my personal favourite, as it means I can finally make one movie I wrote nearly four years ago!

Chris has a lot more lined up. “First, I’m going to do female peasants to finish up the mediaeval stuff, then - not necessarily in order - retro sci-fi (think Buck Rogers), head gear, robots, moonbase, superheroes and a couple of moves packs. It’s great being able to focus on what I enjoy and just tinker around with things. At work right now I’m doing animations for whiteboards and sorting out missing animations for Valentine’s Day. This is just fun.”

Some of his mods are free, but most are commercial. Chris is open about the fact that his mods are more expensive than most user mods. “There’s a lot in one of my packs,” he points out. “They’re as sophisticated and rich as any of the official packs you’ll get from Moviestorm. They’re not just a couple of buildings or some props. . So yeah, I think they’re worth it, but I guess the real test is to see what the users think.” 

Moddingstorm also includes tutorials for other modders, covering some of the more advanced aspects of modding. Chris has always been active in the Moviestorm modding community, offering help and advice wherever needed, and he wanted to continue this. “I just hope this lights a fire under people. All the info people need to do stuff like Cthulhu is out there. This should help some of the users who want to take modding a bit more seriously.”

He’s also open to commissions.  As he points out, “free time is a rarity, but if you have an idea that looks like it could be enough fun…”




(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Investing in education

“If we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, January 25, 2011

Last Tuesday evening, President Obama highlighted education as one of the most critical elements in the economic recovery of America. He called it a “Sputnik” moment in education reform and innovation - except instead of competing against Russia to get to space, the country is competing technologically and economically against Asia, particularly China and India. Essentially, the education “arms race” is on.  As he put it, “the question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.”

Education reform will take many forms. More teachers, more respect for the teaching profession, more teacher training, more school funding, and new teaching methods with modern tools. Obama pointed out that “people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy”. It’s not good enough equipping them with what their parents needed to know, and that means having access to modern technology that fits with the way things work now.

Moviestorm is proud to be able to support this initiative, not just in the USA, but worldwide. Video is becoming an increasingly important part of people’s lives, and the ability to create and communicate through video will be critical in the coming years. Producing coursework with video as well as text allows students to add extra depth to their understanding of a subject, and using video as a teaching tool can be more effective than text in some cases. As one teacher told us, “This product can solve so many of our problems and I can see many applications where it would be useful to us.”

Video-based education can be used at all levels, from young children to university age, and in a variety of contexts.  While the most obvious use is in media-based courses, educators themselves are quick to point out many other uses for video tools. At BETT in London two weeks ago, we heard many and varied examples from teachers including planning rescue and emergency procedures, a character generator for police photo-fits, stage and lighting design for drama groups, storyboarding for drama, language teaching, and working with disadvantaged/ disabled children and children with learning difficulties such as Asperger’s Syndrome. “The more I play with it, the more ways I can see to use it, and the more places I realise it would fit with what I’m teaching,” says James Martin from the University of North Texas.

Clearly budgetary constraints are something educators need to worry about. Software-based solutions like Moviestorm offer an affordable way forward.  It’s much cheaper than having to equip students with cameras, lights, editing suites and studio space.  “This provides students with a great opportunity to write, direct and create films they couldn’t normally do on a student budget,” notes James Martin. And, as part of our commitment to education, we offer Moviestorm to educational institutions at a significant discount.

In his address, the President outlined Race to the Top as a way to stimulate educational reform. “When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.To all 50 states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”  If we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take—we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Know your limits

imageLow-budget indie producer Philip R Cable has a simple formula: “Overambition + Inexperience = Failure”. He was talking about low-budget professional productions, but it applies equally to amateur movie-makers.

This doesn’t mean you should stay permanently within your comfort zone. It’s good to keep pushing your limits and try to do more with each piece you create. But before you do, you need to know where your limits are, and not try to push too far.

We see a lot of novice filmmakers using Moviestorm. It’s a comparatively easy tool to use, and it can do a lot, so the temptation is always to try and do as much with it as you possibly can. Far too often, people set out to write full-length feature films, series in twenty episodes, huge special-effects epics with massive casts, or intricate psychological dramas. And then they give up, usually for good. They’ve tried making a film, got a little way down the road, and they’re daunted by the scale of what they’ve taken on.

It’s not surprising, really. Making films is, as we’ve said before, ridiculously hard work. It can be fun, but the glamour soon wears off if you don’t see results. When you’re experienced, results can mean getting a couple of good shots, or seeing a scene storyboarded, or trimming a few seconds out of a scene to make it play better. You instinctively feel that your movie is getting a step closer, and you can point at something that proves that. When you’re starting out, however, the only result that really matters is getting the damn thing finished. Every day you work on it and don’t finish it becomes another day of frustration, particularly when things go wrong. It doesn’t take long for the frustration to build up to a point where it’s just not worth it any more.

When you’re starting out, aim small. Simply getting a film finished is an achievement. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a couple of minutes long, and doesn’t have much in it. Review it critically afterwards, and decide what you’re going to work on for the next movie. You don’t have to make the movie more complex - watch a bunch of sketch shows like Monty Python or Little Britain and see how much you can do in a short space of time with a single set, a tiny cast and no effects. Instead, you could focus on getting better camera angles, better dramatic performances, better lighting, or better editing. You could experiment with different ways to lay out the set. If you’re using a machinima or animation tool, you could start messing around with mods and creating your own props or costumes.  But don’t try to do all these at once. You’ll quickly get overwhelmed and feel you’re getting nowhere. It’s much better to get to the end of something, and then move on.

Think of filmmaking like any other endeavour that requires skill and practice. You wouldn’t go into a gym and start trying to lift massive weights. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano and expect to be able to play the Grieg Piano Concerto. Your first driving experience won’t be on the starting grid of the Indy 500. Those are great things to aim at, and with sufficient dedication, you can, perhaps, get there. But you do it one step at a time.

Ambition is a wonderful thing. It’s what drives us all to do more and to do better. But over-ambition will kill a film stone dead, and probably stifle a budding filmmaker’s talent for good.

Unless, of course, you’re Ed Wood. In which case, we salute you!

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The essence of action movies

image“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.”

It’s a tried and trusted formula from French master of the thriller, Jean-Luc Godard.  Well, that’s all very well, but what do you do with them once you’ve got them? They can’t just stand around talking. Well, they can, but then you end up with a dreary existentialist monologue, and that may work as an arthouse film, but it’s not an action movie.

In the 1930s and 40s, before the advent of TV, movie serials were a popular format. They were often very short episodes, sometimes as little as ten minutes, and had to hook people fast, and deliver excitement, thrills and action relentlessly week after week. Director William Witney summed up the genre succinctly. “In a door, into a fight. Out a door, into a chase.” That’s the essence of the action film. It’s a chase punctuated by fights.

It’s basically the same formula Raymond Chandler used when writing his classic pulp novels.

“If you’re stuck, have someone burst into the room with a gun.”

The trick is to keep the audience’s attention by making the fights and chases not just exciting but meaningful. They have to be interested in what’s happening on the screen,  and they also have to care about the outcome. Those aren’t the same thing at all. Some modern audiences seem to be conditioned by games to expect fight scenes to consist of hordes of mindless enemies to be mowed down almost with impunity, and that’s what a lot of blockbuster action films deliver.

To make an exciting action scene requires interesting choreography, strong camerawork, tight editing and, of course, great sound. Snappy dialogue can help, but isn’t essential. Shooting effective action is a whole topic of its own, and I’m going to leave that for another day.

However, none of that matters if the audience doesn’t care about who’s going to win, or what would happen if they don’t. You need to set up your action scenes carefully beforehand and put them into some kind of context so that the audience has something to relate to. Even the best filmed action scenes are unengaging if the audience doesn’t have an emotional investment in it. Who is fighting? Why are they fighting? What are they trying to achieve? What are the consequences if they fail? And, perhaps most importantly, whose side is the audience supposed to be on? That has to be carried by your dialogue.

You’ve basically got three types of dialogue you need to include.

First, you have simple exposition to explain what’s going on. Keep this short and to the point. The audience doesn’t want a long-winded conversation setting up the back story. They just need enough so that it makes sense. If your hero is breaking into a mansion to retrieve a stolen jewel, that’s the key plot point to get over. Add in enough extra to make your villain slightly less one-dimensional, and get to the action. If you’re going to add twists to it that depend on the back story, tell more as you go.

Second, there’s dialogue to convey character.  You need just enough to let the audience form their own impression of the characters and their relationship. This is one reason why terse, laconic action heroes work so well. They don’t talk much, but when they do, it carries weight. If you’re going to add in the usual element of the hard-bitten hero falling for the damsel in distress, just have him change the tone of his remarks to her. You don’t need him to talk about his feelings in detail.

And lastly, dialogue is used to change pace. After an intense action scene, slow it down while they talk. Let the audience catch their breath and digest the implications of what just happened.

imageWell-written dialogue does all of these simultaneously and maintains the balance between action and talking. There’s a perfect example in Raiders of the Lost Ark. After their escape from Egypt on the boat, Indy gets his arm bandaged by Marion. He complains that she’s hurting him, and points to his elbow as the only but that doesn’t hurt, so she kisses him there, which then develops into a full-on kiss.  In about 90 seconds, we’ve had the setup for the next part of the plot, seen the relationship between the two protagonists develop, and then it’s right into the next action sequence where the Nazi submarine arrives and Indy has to elude them.

Or, as William Witney might have put it, out of the door and into a chase.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Monday, January 24, 2011

Murphy’s Law

A little while ago, we talked about how long it takes to make a movie. The answer, of course, is “longer than you think it will, however long you think it’s going to take.” In software development, there’s a long-standing adage that to work out how long something will take, figure out your best estimate, and add 50%. This holds true even if you’ve just added 50%.

The simple fact is that Murphy’s Law holds as true in movie-making as everywhere else, whether you’re making machinima, live action or anything else. What looked like an easy scene to shoot will give you endless problems. You’ll fluff your lines, and a simple closeup just won’t come together. The character won’t stand out against the curtains in the interior, and you’ll have to change his costumes or redecorate the set.

Even if everything goes smoothly on the creative side, expect unexpected technical issues. Your computer will run out of disk space. Your microphone will unaccountably stop working. You won’t be able to read a critical file. Your computer will update itself and reboot right in the middle of your final render. You’ll have a power outage, and that’s when you realise you haven’t saved for the last four hours. You’ll discover you picked up the wrong cable, and you’ve got a male connector when you needed a female, and you lent the adaptor to someone.

If all that goes right, the outside world will do its best to get in your way. There will be roadworks right outside your house when you’re trying to record foley. The cat will be sick. Your aunt will call up and chat for hours about her new slippers. You’ll plan to go to the supermarket to pick up some milk while a scene’s rendering and you’ll get stuck in traffic for half an hour, then you’ll end up in the aisle behind the person whose credit card is rejected, right at a shift change, and by the time you get back you’re no longer in the mood for making romantic comedy.

imageAnd, of course, the more people involved in your production, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. If you’re working in machinima, you can’t do the scene because Jo’s aunt called her and she hasn’t recorded her line of dialog, even though she promised it a week ago. If you’re doing live action, you’re all standing around waiting because Billy’s stuck in traffic and he’s got the gels for the lights. And then when you do finally get going, Nicky gets a phone call and has to leave because his kid’s fallen off his bicycle, and now you’re missing an actor. Belatedly, you decide to step into the role yourself since it’s only a bit part, but then you realise he’s taken the costume with him and he’s also got the spare camera batteries in his pocket… and then it rains.

Don’t try to kid yourself that you’ve taken all the necessary precautions. All this will happen, no matter what scale of production you’re working on. Terry Gilliam’s Lost in La Mancha is a look behind the scenes that’s both funny and tragic. His star nearly died, his equipment was washed away in a freak flood, and the entire production was a disaster. He had to abandon the entire movie a week after shooting started, and ended up having to reclaim nearly $15m on insurance. It’s a film every budding filmmaker should watch. Whatever calamities befall you will seem like nothing in comparison.

So don’t get frustrated when things go wrong. Just be pleasantly surprised when they don’t. Allow for the unexpected, and always have a backup plan. And then add 50%, because, as everyone knows, Murphy was an optimist.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Friday, January 21, 2011

Segways and sockets and stairs - oh my! Latest mods

It’s been about a month since our last roundup of the latest free and commercial mods for Moviestorm, and there’s quite a lot of new stuff to choose from.

As always, please note that we don’t support mods. That’s entirely between you and the modder.

Let’s Ride!

Creator: KV (Si Stanisauskis)
Cost: Free
Contents:  Gyro Scooter, Skateboard, Static Skate board
Get it from: Machinimods

This is one of those fun little mods which you just feel like you have to download, even though you have absolutely no idea when you’re ever going to need a Segway in your movie. Well, unless you’re planning a remake of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, in which case it’s obviously essential. And while the skateboards obviously aren’t up to what you’ll get from a Tony Hawks game, at least you can get people sliding around the set. And it’s free, so grab it and enjoy.

Medieval Suburbs

Creator: Shirley Martin
Cost: $2.99
Contents:  Door, 3 Barns, Hay Pile, 8 Houses, Gibbet, Ladder, Shutter, 3 Wagons, Watertower, Wheel
Get it from: Mods’n'more

The Medieval series continues to expand. This set gives you enough to build a small village or the outskirts of a town. In combination with the upcoming castle set from Chris Ollis, this has great potential for a variety of European or fantasy settings. The gibbet, waterwheel and tower add nice touches which look great in silhouette or to add interest to a location.

Medieval Interiors

Creator: Shirley Martin
Cost: $0.99
Contents:  3 rooms
Get it from: Mods’n'more

And another in the Medieval series. They’re quite simple, but would suffice for a variety of settings.

Spiral stairs

Creator: Rampa
Cost: Free
Contents: spiral staircase
Get it from: Moviestorm forums

This is a tower with spiral staircase that will work well with the various Medieval mods. It has a built in nav mesh, allowing the puppet to walk into tower from the set. The
ramparts are removable, and there’s also a damaged version for battle scenes.


Creator: Lucinda McNary
Cost: Free
Contents:  Children plus 15 play animations
Get it from: Lucinda

These children, who look to be about age 6, and dressed in modern clothing, aren’t actually characters. They’re animated props, so they don’t have the same range of expression and movement that the regular characters do, and they don’t talk. However, for some scenes, they may be perfectly adequate, particularly as background.

Also check out Lucinda’s alien babies - also free. You can see them in her movie Santa to the Rescue.

Modern Decor

Creator: Mike Cornetto
Cost: Free
Contents: Sliding door, vase, VCR, shelf, assorted ornaments
Get it from: Mike Cornetto

This is Mike’s first mod, and includes a selection of items to add detail to contemporary sets.

Household details

Creator: KV (Si Stanisauskis)
Cost: Free
Contents: plug sockets, light switches, thermostats, smoke alarm, skirting board, dado rails, door surrounds
Get it from: Machinimods

Another free pack of useful household details for those who like spending time making their sets look just right. The thermostats come in both analogue and digital versions, and both those and the smoke alarm have LED lighting. Combine this with Mike Cornetto’s Decor pack for a fully dressed home interior location.

Victorian held props

Creator: Shirley Martin & WarLord
Cost: $2.99
Contents: 1 Candle (2 Variations), 1 Lit Candle (2 Variations), 1 Magnifying Glass, 1 Mirror (3 Variations), 1 Wineglass with Wine (2 Variations)
Get it from: Mods’n'more

The twelfth in the Victorian series has those essential props for Dickensian mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and evenings by the fireside.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, January 20, 2011

KV - comic master of horror

Si Stanisauskis, better known to Moviestorm users as KV, is a single parent in his early 30s from Rochdale, near Manchester in North-West England. After a variety of janitorial jobs, he now works as a teaching assistant at a local primary school by day. At night, however, after putting his three children to bed, he creates horror films and comedies using Moviestorm.

KV derived from the name he used when he was involved in music production. Si originally called himself King Villain, but then opted for the less controversial DJ KV. When he shifted into making movies, he dropped the DJ and decided to stick with just KV.

Si started making movies about 18 months ago. He’d been making music for years, and wanted to make his own music videos. His first attempts were simple slide shows interspersed with screen captures from various visualisers, but he soon tired of that. His first movie software was Antics 3D, but when he realised they were no longer supporting consumers, he moved quickly on. He tried iClone and CrazyTalk, but then gravitated towards Moviestorm and its faster production environment. “I liked its simple approach,” he says. “I could just get in, quickly build my sets and characters, and start filming. I think of it as my home for production.”

His tally of 54 videos so far is impressive by anyone’s standards. “I soon realised I could do much more than music videos,” he says with pride. “I’m a massive fan of horror, and I figured out I could do a lot by combining good sound design with the visuals.”  His horror series Dr Cross was well received by fans, who commented on the eerie sound. It took him three months to make, as he learned how to push Moviestorm to create the effects and the look he needed. He’s upbeat about the amount of work he put in.  “I’m often up until silly o’clock in the morning,” he say. “I don’t mind the limitations. I see them as challenges.”

More recently, he’s been focusing on his silent comedy character, Norman. Clearly inspired by Mr Bean, Norman’s bumbling antics have charmed viewers. “He’s fun to make,” says Si. “He started off as my demo character for the props and things I was making, and he took on a life of his own. This year I did a Christmas movie about him. It took me three weeks, working through the night.”

Like most amateur moviemakers, Si has several projects on the go at once. He also makes free mods for Moviestorm, and has been teaching himself about low-poly 3d modeling. His latest release was a set of normal household set dressing. “They’re little details that Moviestorm is lacking. If you’re like me, adding all those extra details can make all the difference.” He’s also working on more eclectic items like an aquarium and a bumper car ride, and he recently made a hoverbike for Dean Wells, which can be seen in his demo reel, Boom. Si stresses that making mods is a hobby, and he has no plans to sell them. “I like sharing,” he says. “I just hope I don’t get too distracted - I want to make movies too!”

This year, Si’s planning to follow up on his existing work and develop the series he’s already created. There’s a new episode of Doctor Cross, which he says will bring in a new perspective on the story so far, and he’s working on more Norman stories. “I feel sorry for him. I can’t help it, he’s a really tragic character. He needs to get his mini back. ”

In closing, Si notes that his approach to film-making has changed over the last year.  “I’m always impatient to get in and start shooting,” he says. “My first films were all improvised. I’d just get in, see something I liked, and see what I could make of it. Now I’m a bit more organised and try to plan things a little. I’m still impatient, but now that I’m working with other people occasionally, I try to finalise the script before I start filming. I had one disaster last year while making Infected. I cast all the actors, and then lost the script, so I had to write it all out again from memory! I’m sure I lost some of the best bits in the process.”

In many ways, Si epitomises the spirit of the amateur filmmaker. “After a day at work, and then looking after the family, it’s my break into sanity,” he grins.

Read more:
KV: Moviestorm page | Mods | Facebook


(5) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Satisfying, but never fun

The movies are a glamorous business, comparable only to being a rock star, a supermodel, or a racing driver. However, talk to any indie filmmaker and they’ll tell you it just ain’t so. That’s an image carefully crafted by Hollywood at enormous expense, and it only applies to the tiniest fraction of the industry. The top stars and directors may have lavish lifestyles, but few others in the industry are so lucky. And even then, the reality behind the glitz is rarely as magical as their legions of PR agents would have you believe.

I’ll quote from one of my favourite movie authors, Philip R Cable, who has produced more low-budget movies than I can count.

“I have never worked on a film that was fun. Satisfying, yes, but never fun.”

I don’t agree with Cable. It can be fun making movies.

That’s one huge difference between the kind of movies he’s talking about and the amateur filmmaker working more or less solo. On a professional production, you’re working with a team of people, and tension will inevitably rise. People get frustrated and irritable, and then they get less creative and the film suffers. As the director or producer, you’re spending a lot of time dealing with people, and you need to keep calm and allow for that.

As a solo animator or machinimator, you can make your movie when it’s convenient for you, and when you feel in the mood. You don’t have a cast and crew standing around fed up, bored and hungry while you sort out some problem with a dolly track, while your lighting guy is chafing to get the shot in before the sun goes behind the tree and your assistant director is persistently reminding you that you only have one more day on this location and you still have three more shots to get. And you’re not permanently operating with a spreadsheet in the back of your mind keeping tabs on the production budget and the schedule so you can make your release date. When it all gets too much, you can walk away from the movie, do something else, and come back when you’ve figured out whatever was going wrong.

I think of filmmaking like I think of cooking. I love cooking, and I’ll cheerfully spend the evening or the weekend in the kitchen or browsing recipes. But most of the time, I only cook when I feel like it. I don’t have to make dinner every day, and I don’t have kids depending on me for three meals a day; I’d find that immensely frustrating and tedious, and I’d soon lose any desire to cook for pleasure. I’d certainly never want to work in a restaurant.

When you’re an amateur movie-maker, it’s still hard work, but it’s no longer relentless hard work, and it’s completely under your control. That makes all the difference.

(3) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shooting The Proposal - a machinimator’s view of live action

Shortly before Christmas, I told you about FML Film Club, which I’m hoping will get me into making movies on a regular basis. My plan was to make a short Moviestorm film every month and take it along to be critiqued by other local film-makers. In the event, it didn’t work out quite like that. Instead, I found myself roped into a live action film crew with a bunch of people I didn’t know. Since my experience with live action film-making is pretty much zero, I volunteered to write the script, and offered to let them shoot the film at my house.

Over on my personal blog, I wrote a bit about the pre-production side of it. (You can also see The Table, the test film I made to take to the initial meeting to show people what FML Film Club was all about.) Pre-production on a live action shoot is nothing like pre-production for machinima. Everything has to be prepared in advance, and it all has to be absolutely ready for the day. It’s not a flexible work schedule. Even though we were only making a two-minute film, pre-production on The Proposal took longer than the six hours it took me to make The Table start to finish.

In fact, just setting up the equipment for the shoot took longer than it took to make The Table. There were seven of us in the crew. We started at 1pm, and we were more or less ready to shoot by the time the actors arrived at 2pm. I was also slightly surprised by how much all the kit was worth. I’m used to people who are worried about paying for machinima software that costs under $100 - by contrast, the camera and rig they brought was worth thousands, and they didn’t consider it particularly expensive. By the time you add in the sound gear, laptops, monitors, lights and everything else, it totalled up to a sizeable outlay, and that excluded all the editing, VFX and audio software they’re planning to use for post-production.

The entire approach to live action filming is completely different to what I’ve been used to. When I film a scene in Moviestorm, I set up the choreography and work on that until the entire scene plays as if it were on a theatre set. I then add as many cameras as I need to get whatever shots I want, and I’m effectively editing as I film. All my dialogue is recorded in advance, and I’ve preselected the best takes. There’s no hard line between post-production and pre-production. If I don’t like how it’s coming out in my final edit I can go back and change the sets or the costumes, change the actors, or reshoot at any time.

By contrast, live action filming is a much more rigid discipline. Everything you need has to be shot on the day. If you didn’t get what you wanted, there’s no coming back later - at least not without a lot of hassle - so every shot has to be perfect before you shift the camera and lights move on, no matter how many takes you need. At least that’s the theory - the director wants to get it right, meanwhile the cast and crew are getting fed up, and the first assistant director - me - is keeping an eye on the clock to make sure you can finish the shoot before you lose the light.

And getting that perfect shot takes a lot longer than you would think. We were plagued by extraneous sounds. With two nearby airports, aircraft noise was a constant problem, and whenever the planes stopped, the local dogs would start up. The sun was fickle too: with intermittent cloud, we kept having issues trying to match the lighting, and towards the end of the shoot, the sun started going behind the trees and casting unwanted shadows. Continuity was something I’ve never really had to pay attention to, but I soon became aware how important it was. We’d have to go back and check exactly when Tara smoothed her hair or which hand John was holding the ring in. And with every retake, the script drifted slightly from what was written, and we’d have to note down all the variations and decide whether to reshoot to get the line perfect or use the new version.  Each take has a noticeable set-up time as well. You have to get everyone in place, make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, then there’s the startup ritual before anything happens. “Quiet on the set, this is for picture… Sound… (Speed)... Camera… (Speed)... Slate… (Scene 1, Echo, Take 3… click)... [pause until Zak’s happy…] Action!) All in all, it was a slow, painstaking, and often frustrating process, just to get a few seconds of footage each time. And that, let’s remember, was with a minimal cast and crew. I reckon the shoot, from setup to getting the gear back in the cars and breaking out the beer and pizza, added up to 36 hours.

None of those problems face the machinimator. Once you’ve got your dialogue and choreography in place, you can guarantee it’ll be the same every time, no matter what angle you shoot it from or how many times you retake it. You don’t care about the weather, and you don’t have to worry about dogs. And you can stop whenever you want and take a break without wasting everyone else’s time. Yes, there are frustrations working in machinima, but overall it’s an unbelievably fast and painless way to make movies.

The thing that struck me most was how cumbersome it was working off a shot list rather than an animated storyboard. We knew what shots we were planning to get, but without a rough cut, we didn’t really know how long each shot would be, exactly when it would start and finish, and we were only guessing how well it would cut together. We knew, for example, we wanted a 2-shot at one point, but we were deciding on the fly exactly how to frame that. We were effectively relying on shooting plenty of footage and giving Dan, our editor, enough to work with. And meanwhile, the cast and most of the crew are standing around waiting to be needed. In retrospect, I could have made an animatic with Moviestorm in the hour while they were setting up, and we’d all have had a much easier time of it. That’s definitely something we’ll try next month and see how much difference it makes.

Our editor Dan now has two weeks to assemble the footage, add sound and music, put on titles and credits, and deliver the finished film in time for February’s club meeting. I’m looking forward to the results.

It was a lot of fun working with a live action crew, and I’m definitely going to do it again next month. I learned a lot from the experience, and I met some great people. I also learned to appreciate the ease and simplicity of machinima.

(4) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

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