Frugal Filmmaking and Techno-fetishism

iphone video filmmaking

“You want to learn about filmmaking? Then just get out there and shoot something!”

Such is usually the refrain when professionals are asked how to ‘break in’ or what the best way is to learn. Much like in any other creative field, e.g. ‘Writers write. To get better at writing, write more.’

There’s a vast cottage industry of courses, tutorials, books and workshops, designed to assist, accelerate or encourage. But nothing will ever teach you more craft than actually doing it, doing it often, and failing well.

But while writing is limited in the tools and toys you can obsess over, the right kind of screenwriting software, pen or notebook, none of them significantly affect the quality of the final result.

Not so in filmmaking, where an arms race of techno-fetishism reigns. Go to any popular online forum for filmmaking on the cheap and you’ll find the same thing: A keen, often young, filmmaker asks a question about how to get the best results with their limited equipment, only to be derided for their ‘choice’ and encouraged to spend hundreds or thousands more for better equipment.

“You’re not shooting in 4K?! What even is the point?!”

“Don’t even bother, I’m a professional wedding videographer and I’d never use anything that rubbish!”

“Shoot on an iPhone?! What a joke, you can always tell!”

That last point particularly sticks in my craw. Sure, you might be able to tell, but does it matter? Filmmakers have shot on VHS, or SD digital footage or Super8 and made creative films, launching their careers, allowing the limits of the technology to act as incubators for their creativity. Now most of us walk around with a phone with HD video shooting functionality; tiny supercomputers with videographic, audio and processing powers far exceeding what filmmakers had access to, not even 20 years ago.

So, all you really need in the beginning, to learn, to create, are some friends and at least one decent smartphone. If one of your friends also has a phone? Great, use it to record sound separately. A third phone? Fantastic, now you have a second camera angle! And when you’re done, use free editing software on either phones or a computer, stitch it together, watch the result over some drinks with your friends, and learn from your manifold mistakes. Then go out and do it again, but better.

Technology might limit the perceived ‘quality’ of the result but, like with anything else, it’s the narrative, the creative choices, that will shine through. Keep it fun, keep it creative, keep it utterly yours and you’ll far outstrip yet another 4k yawnfest that someone’s moaning isn’t getting enough hits on Vimeo.

There are some cheap tools I’d recommend to improve the process, but I’ll cover those separately. For now, let this be the message: As a budding filmmaker, you have your tastes, your instincts, your influences; beyond that you need little more than the device you may even be reading this post on. Go. Go forth and create.

What exactly is a blog?

GonzoThere was some discussion on Twitter the other day, about how a blog differed from a journal; that many blogs were in fact mere journals, filled with the personal thoughts and observations, and that there should be a different nomenclature for them.

You know what though, the differentiation is at best paper-thin. Unless you’re writing a commercial listicle for salary, ad revenue or exposure, a blogpost is no different from a journal entry. At the end of the day, it’s gonzo self-published article, and that’s a good thing.

Gonzo journalism, popularised by Hunter S. Thompson, puts paid to the fallacy that any writing can be purely objective. There will always be an element of subjectivity, to a greater or lesser extent. One might pretend otherwise, claim the writing is devoid of such trappings, but unless it’s the driest recount of facts, that’s nigh-impossible. Gonzo takes that idea to it’s logical opposite: if you can’t remove the writer from the writing, why not embrace that entirely?

Blogposts frequently instinctually blur this divide, as per the original observation, where a factual post is heavily tinged with the personality and prejudices of the writer. And why not? The blog is after all a personal domain. It may not be a safe space, it is public after all, but it is the digital yard of the writer. Those interested can visit, but none are compelled to stay.

So why not embrace this attitude, this gonzo sensibility? Why not accept that facts and guidance are useful, but do we really need another article telling us, for example, which rules of writing we should or should not follow? More interesting is what the topic means to an individual, what their perspective is, how it makes them feel. That’s where the individuality comes in: Everyone’s tastes and perspectives will be like nobody else’s. What’s interesting is when those tastes and perspectives appeal to the reader, making them think or empathise or just enjoy the ride while it’s happening.

So, embrace the gonzo, I say. Don’t try to write a dry recitation in a failed attempt at objectivity. Even if nobody ever partakes of your creations, find the joy of the writer in the written word, regardless of what you end up calling the result.

Christmas Presents for Writers 2014

It’s that time of year again: You have a writer in your life (and this could very well be yourself) and you need to buy them a Christmas present. Stat. Or it might also be their birthday soon and you’re stuck as to what to buy them. Have no fear, we’ve got you covered.

Stationery

Let’s not beat about the bush, writers of all kinds are utter addicts for stationery.  Now, you could go with the traditional Moleskine, but I’ll tell you what, you can’t go wrong with a pack of index cards and some Sharpies.

Sustenance

Writers are terrible at looking after themselves, yet they need regular fueling if they are to continue their good work. They’ll need some snacks of course, but when we say sustenance, we really mean caffeine. Tea drinkers will always need a better mug, but coffee drinkers? What they need is a coffee subscription and, take my word for it, an Aeropress. Best coffee maker I ever tried.

Books

There are about a million books for writers of every ilk, so I’ll restrict myself to three: Rocliffe Notes : A Professional Approach to Being a WriterThe 21st-Century Screenplay and Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer. All three are excellent, and all in very different ways. And let’s face it, they’ve probably already got all the others…

Media

Movies, music, books, movies… (yes I know), writers are continually seeking to fill their creative tanks. You could go with a voucher for either Amazon or iTunes, but they will (possibly) love you forever if you gift them a BFI membership. Similar to that, for a slightly different cinematic experience, the excellent Prince Charles Cinema also does memberships.

Software

A tricky category, but a lot of writers use inferior, free software for their scrivenings. You could either a) beat it out of them or b) buy them Scrivener (perfect for writers of prose and screenwriters wanting an excellent outlining tool) and/or Fade In, which is excellent screenwriting software.

Gadgets

There are millions of gadgets out there that purport to aid the ailing scribe. But really, unless they don’t own a laptop yet, you’d be better off getting them a backup drive to save their most excellent work from disaster! And, for when they need to concentrate in that ever-so-hip coffee shop? Some decent headphones wouldn’t go amiss.

Other

Feedback is always good, but if you don’t feel up to the job, Script Angel do gift certificates. Finally, you can’t buy it online, sadly, but you know what writers need, even crave? Some time and encouragement. If you have a writer in your life, this Christmas make sure that amidst the commercial fury of the season, they get some undisturbed time to write. And when they’re done? Ask them about it and look interested in their response! Cheap to you, manna from the heavens for the writer!

What to expect from Pitchfest 2014

Some might argue that the most valuable part of the London Screenwriters’ Festival for journeyman screenwriters is the Pitchfest. Some writers even book a ticket for LSF just for the networking and access to Pitchfest, to pitch their projects and hopefully move their career forward.

So, how does it all work? First of all, have something you want to pitch! Now, this can be something that isn’t yet finished; this can get you very useful feedback in terms of how and what to pitch, and what to focus on in future. However, thinking positively, you really want polished work to hand so that if you’re asked for it you can smile and send them something you have some confidence in.

The next step is to look at the list of execs, producers, directors and agents at PitchFest. You’ll want to be quite focused in who you pitch to. Some pitchees will have restrictions in budget, medium or genre, so make sure you choose carefully. Pick several. Then, when the PitchFest schedule comes out, find out which slot(s) have the greatest concentration of your ideal pitchees.

Then, the big day; no, not PitchFest itself, but the opening of the booking system. This year that’s on October 18th at midday. Favoured slots will book up fast, so it’s a bit like trying to book Glastonbury tickets, except your entire career may depend on it. Okay, kidding. Maybe. A bit.

Then, the day itself. If you’ve never pitched before, queuing for the doors to open for your slot will be terrifying. You’ll panic that you can’t remember your loglines, pitch or name, that you’ve forgotten your business cards and one-pagers. You’ll fret and worry and panic. Then the doors open. As you all file in, you will see a large hall with a clock at the end and along the left and right walls, the execs, agents, producers and directors. Unless you were at the front of the queue at the door, there’ll already be a queue forming in front of some the pitchees in the room. So, you have to decide: Do you queue there too? You should, if they’re on your must-see list. But if not, consider one of the quieter tables, if the fit is good. That can also work as a great warm-up, to get you used to the idea of pitching, before facing the lion.

This was my revelation last year: Far from being monsters, sent to chew up you and your work and spit them both out with disgust, these are professionals who love what they do. And they want to love what you have, they want to meet you and like you and like your work. This epiphany made the rest of pitching much less stressful to me.

So, you have five minutes, and five minutes only with each person. After that you have to move on and go and pitch to someone else. You have five minutes to convince them that you and/or your work are perfect for them. If they’re not interested, they will often give excellent feedback as to why. And if they are interested, they’ll either ask for your card and/or one-pager, or give you their card for you contact them after the festival.

And that’s it. Keep doing it until you get the success you want and learn from each pitch you perform. And bear in mind that often Sunday slots are empty and you might get a chance to slide into a second session if you’re very lucky. And finally: If they suggest you get in touch with them to talk about your project? Do actually do that!!

So, good luck pitchers. May the odds be ever in your favour.

First Trailer for NBC’s Constantine TV Show

Okay, I was fairly excited about the new Constantine TV show before, especially when I learnt the pilot was to be directed by Neil Marshall. But now having seen the trailer that excitement has reached nigh-fever pitch. Are there a few things, tonally speaking, that I’d have done differently? Sure. Does the story draw some pretty clear lines to the middling efforts of Keanu-stine? Sure.

But this is a valiant effort, and by the looks of things a very watchable one. And in terms of tone and theme, much closer to Vertigo Comics’ cancelled, yet much-loved, Hellblazer series, than that tone-deaf reboot Constantine.

I recently gave the collected edition of the new comic another go, thinking that at first I might have not given it a sufficient chance, that I had pre-damned it with expectation and hope. Hope that a DC Universe all-ages superhero universe version of Constantine could deliver the same power that Hellblazer did. That hope was futile.

As it turns out, David Goyer understands the character of John Constantine much better than Ray Fawkes does.