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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

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