Project Highlight: “Up Here”

I’m very excited and proud to share the music video “Up Here,” which I co-created with Trey Morrow, is finally released for your eyes and ears to feast on! This was so much fun to work on; Chris Paul Smith, Hayden Bishop, and Van Morrow delivered great performances, and all of our wonderful extras were a riot. If you like the song, check out Atraxia on Facebook or head to their bandcamp page to download it!

This video was shot on the Canon 60D and a few shots on the 7D. The stop-motion animation was also done on the 60D… but that may be worth a whole blog post…

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Moby Loves Independent Filmmakers

For independent filmmakers and artists, the quest for new and royalty-free music sources is endless and exhausting. I was surprised, actually overjoyed, to find this resource from musical artist Moby recently:

http://www.mobygratis.com/

According to the site, these selections from Moby’s catalog are free to “non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short.” Moby has scored or had music featured in Heat (1995), Cool World (1992), Scream (1996), and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) to name a few, and now can also be in the soundtrack and credits of your independent film.

You must create an account on the site and “apply” for permission to use the track in your non-profit work. I requested one last week for a work-in-progress and received approval within several days. Awesome!

Sound Decisions

AudioWave

“Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience.” –George Lucas

“The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound.” –Danny Boyle

“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.” –David Lynch

Regardless of percentage, sound is a crucial part of your movie; in their heyday, even silent films were screened with specific musical accompaniment. Sound is also an often neglected topic for early filmmakers. Every semester I view student projects with good cinematography, creative visuals, wise editing choices, then audio that distracts from all of these. For many filmmakers it seems as though once we finally get a clear grasp on visuals, we suddenly realize there is another world we haven’t considered. I’m not crazy enough to suggest a comprehensive guide to sound design is possible in one blog post, and I don’t have the knowledge to do it anyway, but here I will provide a few simple tips that helped introduce me to the missing half of my films…

I break the basic components of film sound into:

  • Dialogue: Characters speaking to one another, or to themselves.
  • Ambient Sound: The “background noise” – sometimes it’s simply “white noise” (that hissing sound that fills all rooms), often it adds emotion or tension (i.e. the sounds of heavy traffic and honking, rainfall, or birds chirping in spring).
  • Foley / Sound Effects: Any sound an object makes, from footsteps to car engines to lazer guns. Sometimes it’s easy to assume what sound an object would make, othertimes you may have fun inventing the sound (especially for fantasy/sci-fi).
  • Music/Score: A simple strike of a piano, or an elaborate Hanz Zimmer score – music can fill your soundscape with extra emotion. Music can be a powerful way to subconsciously influence the mood of your scene.

Although sound decisions can be made all the way through the editing stage, you should start thinking about the sound in your film early, just as you would storyboard the visuals. Here are steps you can take at each stage:

Preproduction:

  • Research: Watch films (or scenes) with your eyes closed. Yes, it seems absurd at first. First try this with scenes you’re familiar with, then try “watching” one you haven’t seen. Listen to what exists around the dialogue. You will likely notice quick music transitions or a score that carries the whole scene. If there is no music, you will almost always hear ambient sound – even if you thought the scene was “silent.”
  • Ask: What sort of sound will your scenes require? Can sound save you production hassles and help you “sell” the scene, or will sound gathering be a hassle in itself? Imagine your elaborate dinner scene with the chaotic ambiance of a busy restaurant in the soundtrack while two characters eat in the corner. Your audience will never suspect the scene was shot after-hours or in the dressed-up corner of your apartment.
  • Ask: When will you be able to avoid capturing sound on set? It’s easy to replace the sound of an establishing shot of a sunrise, so when you’re on location you only have to focus on visuals. It’s much trickier to replace sound from a heavy dialogue scene.

Production:

  • Some sound, especially dialogue, may be recorded in production along with the picture. Even if you plan to dub your dialogue (ADR), good production sound is needed as a reference.
  • Use an external microphone (not the camera’s mic) so you can position it close to what’s most important and away from potential camera noise. This could be as simple as a boom mic or lavaliere on your talent, or as complex as a mixing board with several inputs.
  • Notify cast and crew know if you’re recording sound, with a simple “Quiet on the set!”
  • If a shot has no dialogue, but you’re recording sound anyway, position the mic towards what’s important (e.g. nearby traffic or a man’s footsteps)
  • Don’t forget to record “room tone” – a clean recording of ambient noise on set that you can use later to fill in gaps where other sounds have been removed.

Post-production:

  • ADR: Re-dubbing dialogue is a common practice in Hollywood, but it’s not for the faint of heart. This tricky process requires matching the natural feel of your location, authenticity of your talent’s performance, and the timing to match their lips on screen.
  • Foley: Adding or enhancing sounds that would’ve occurred naturally, but aren’t captured in your raw footage with enough intensity, is called “Foley.” You may record your own sounds, or pull from outside sources. I often pull from, and post sounds to Freesound.org for others to enjoy.
  • Music: This topic could use its own post, but for the time being let me note that a shift in music indicates a shift in the scene. This shift can be from one type of music to another, from music to silence, or from silence to music. Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn do a fantastic job explaining music as a transition in this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-IKKcrkprY

I’ve reached the maximum length I’m comfortable with for a post, but this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You may have noticed, I didn’t touch on equipment in this post… yes, I am intentionally avoiding that topic. My hope for the independent filmmaker is that this launches a new quest to discover the world of sound and its impact on the films you watch, and the films you create.

Sites I like:

Download/Upload Sound Effects:
Freesound.org

Royalty-free music:
Incompetech.com
Bensound.com

Forum:
Socialsounddesign.com

I also recommend browsing Archive.org; although organization there can be confusing, there are some great public domain resources in audio as well as other media.

Neglected Crew #2: Still Photographer

I’m not sure if it’s the collaborative nature of filmmaking or my tendency to hang out in coffee shops, but as a filmmaker I often find myself surrounded by other artists. I’ve enjoyed collaborating with musicians, actors, painters, and makeup artists, but often forget to ask people with more cameras to join the shoot. This brings us to today’s Neglected Crew: the Still Photographer. A “Still Photographer” takes photos, as opposed to the cinematographer shooting the film, who is occasionally credited as “photographer.” I thought I should clarify for those thinking “Yep, Still a Photographer,” as opposed to “Not a Photographer Anymore” or “Actually, I’m a Lawyer Now”…

Why you Need Behind-the-Scenes Photos:

I promote my projects during and after production, and usually run a temporary blog for cast and crew to follow the film’s progress. I may post immediately after a shoot, while some people may do so during a break on set. This helps me build a following for current projects, and build support for more films in the future. Good behind the scenes stills give cast and crew an immediate reward they can share with friends. People who didn’t take you up on that offer to “come be an extra at our crazy fun film shoot” may see your photos and decide to join you next time. If you have a grant, Kickstarter backers, or other investors, photos will show what you’re up to along the way and, again, provide an immediate reward.

My leading man on Bone to the Dog, Dan Fowler, took many of our most priceless production stills with a compact camera he diligently brought with him everywhere, even for scenes he wasn’t in.

A Bone to the Dog Blog Post

Here’s a shot of a blog post, showing a behind the scenes shot of Dan taking a behind the scenes shot… (Photo-ception…)

Why a Dedicated “Still Photographer” is Better:

Phones and point-and-shoot cameras are fantastic in many situations, and letting cast and crew double as photographers will often get the job done. If possible, though, find a friend with a great eye and a decent camera; these photographs will become your PR package, and you want to promote with a quality that reflects your film. Film shoots are full of great photographic opportunities for a photographer looking to build their portfolio, or for a seasoned professional if your budget allows. Respect your photographer as an artist, but be clear about what you’d like them to shoot and what you plan to do with the photos. In addition to candid production stills, your photographer can pull cast and crew aside for quick snapshots during breaks or as they’re being dismissed, and a group photo with everyone at the end is always appreciated.

Some tips:

Make sure your photographer turns off their flash or avoids shooting during takes; if you’re recording audio, make sure you can’t hear their shutter. Point-and-shoot cameras will usually let you turn off the fake shutter sound effects, and some DSLRs have a quiet mode which makes their shutter less noticeable. If the photographer hasn’t been on a film set before, keep them in the loop with other crew when explaining call times, schedules, safety issues, and various set etiquette.

Follow-through:
Once you have a still photographer, make sure you discuss with them how you’ll get the photos, how quickly you might need photos, and whether they will edit the photos. Consider also giving them credit for the photo, or allowing them to watermark their name on the photo. And of course, make sure you credit them in your film!

Read Also: Neglected Crew #1: Assistant Director

Say “Thank You”

This post, and the latest addition to my camera bag, comes from a “duh” moment I had recently on set after a lengthy location shoot following two consecutive rehearsal weekends. Each day we were on set, the gracious owners of our location vacated for our convenience, allowed us to rearrange their furniture and swap out their light bulbs, and even cooked lunch on the day of the shoot. Granted, this home belonged to our director’s parents, but that does not diminish our appreciation for their contributions to the film.

We expressed our gratitude verbally, and I’m sure it was not overlooked in various text messages and phone calls, but as we were packing up to leave, one of our actresses pulled a “Thank You” note from her purse and we all gathered around to sign it. If you’ve ever received a hand-written “thanks,” you know how far the gesture goes – perhaps more so as digital communication has become the norm. A note is a very simple and inexpensive way to follow-through on your collaboration with a person or business in a personal way.

Although this post is focused on locations, there are a lot of different people along the way who help make our films possible and thank you cards will only cost you some spare change. If your budget is tight and you have a lot of cards to give, here’s one you can print at home:

Film Reel Thank You Card

Print this card at home and fold it in half. Consider printing several per page, using cardstock, or decorating it to make it more personal. Get creative!

For something with a touch more professionalism than the freebie above, here are a few customizable designs you can get from me on Zazzle:

FilmReelWoodCard FilmReelGreetingCard FilmReelThankYouCard

With my feature film, I waited to distribute Thank-You’s after the movie was completed. For some of our locations, this was two years after they opened their doors for us. I can’t believe it never occurred to me to write something on set while all of the cast and crew is there to sign it, rather than scrambling to hand-deliver or pay for postage down the road. Later, when someone sees your note proudly displayed by the recipient, it could even spark a conversation about your film. Since these little gems are lightweight and don’t take up much space, I’m adding a dozen to my camera bag just in case. I have had good and bad experiences with locations, and a bad experience can ruin a location for you and for all of the filmmakers in your area. Do yourself, your cast and crew, and all other filmmakers a favor and tell your location how much you appreciate their willingness to be a part of your project.

To all locations out there: “Because of you, we didn’t have to build an entire set from scratch. Thank you!”

Burn

It’s that time of year again. It’s Spring: when days get longer, sleeves get shorter, and we all get reminded that the ball of fire in the sky will burn us at the slightest opportunity. Last weekend I was reminded after an eight hour shooting day which began with a windy morning, so we didn’t feel the heat, and carried on through a pleasantly warm spring afternoon. Only later did I realize my forearms and my nose were scorched.

The burn-of-the-day award goes to the crew member who dutifully blocked the sun from our actors with a large bounce. This reflector is the two-sided type, such that the black side was facing our actors and the silver side was redirecting unwanted sunlight directly into the face of the grip holding it in place. In addition to potentially blinding a grip this way, we also bounced sun into every shadow of his face. The insides of his nostrils are probably burning.

Reflector

After witnessing a few on-set injuries over the years, I made a med-kit a permanent fixture in my camera bag. The latest addition is a small tube of sunscreen. Here are some extra tips for avoiding sun exposure on outdoor shoots:

  • Sun is harshest when it’s directly overhead (11am-1pm); most people try not to shoot at this hour for lighting reasons, but even if you’re taking lunch it’s still worth reminding everyone to get out of the sun for a moment.
  • Sunscreen is greasy! Bring hand towels to wipe hands after applying, especially for camera operators and grips who will be handling expensive equipment
  • Cloud cover does NOT prevent sunburn (as my mother reminds us every summer)
  • Reflected sun will burn too; keep this in mind when shooting around light concrete, snow, & sand, near mirrors and reflectors, etc.
  • A wide-brimmed hat is a great way to shade your face and neck, preventing burn and unwanted glare. As a camera operator, a large hat often keeps the sun out of my face and off of my camera.

If you have a good sun tip, or cautionary story, share it in a comment below!