Monday, February 20, 2017

DEAR BROTHER Official Release

Almost two years ago, I walked into a bar to meet up with a good friend I hadn't seen in years.  We reconnected as if no time had past.  He's a fantastic and passionate actor, and we both have a lot of overlapping views about the world.  Suffice it to say, I just greatly respect him and his work, and we kind of feed off of eachother's energy when we're together.

While we're catching up, he tells me his buddy who he hasn't seen since college, is down the street and asks if it's okay if he joins us.  I tell him sure!  So come to find out, he's also an actor as well and his show had just finished up at the theater down the street.  So he shows up and we all start talking.  The two of them carry this rapport with one another and as I was sitting there listening to them talk, it became one of those conversations you just wish you could crawl deeper into what they're talking about. 

Rufus Burns and Tosin Morohunfola star in Dear Brother
We all started talking about working together on something— that we should collaborate on a short film.  And without missing a beat, the two of them stand up and start riffing off of one another as if it was an acting exercise.  They set up this fact: a brother has died.  The two of them are arguing about the brother's character.  I throw out a what if: what if it is minutes before the brother's funeral service, and with their wildly different views of the brother's character, they have to decide who is going to read their prepared eulogy.

It was a spark.  They played the scene out and it was magic.  In that instance, they had completely removed me from the bar full of people into a quiet side room of a funeral home.  As the two stood there, crying and hugging one another after this exercise, I kind of snapped back out of the trance and realized where we were again.

I furiously began taking notes about the story and the pieces I really latched on to.  The next day I drafted up an initial script that I shared with the two of them and all but begged them to agree to let me direct this as a short film.

Over the course of the next six months or so, we rehearsed a few times.  Each time, I had a whole docket of games, exercises, as-if's, and angles for them to play but for the most part we just kind of ran an open forum as creators to explore the material.  It was truly rewarding.

In the background, I continued to refine the script and when I felt like it was ready, I presented it to them and we scheduled the shoot after buddies Will and Alejandro agreed to help make the project happen.

I've talked a bit about this project in passing previously on the blog here, but I want to say this again.  This was one of the single most rewarding projects I've worked on to date.  It was like an aerobic workout for our craft and I think we all walked away from the shoot feeling like we lassoed the moon.

After some post production issues with the sound, the release was months delayed.  Once we finally completed it, we pushed it off to a hand full of festivals.  It garnered a few awards and it looks like we may be an official selection for the last festival we entered it into, but until we know that officially I won't say any more about that.

A couple weeks ago, I quietly released the film online just to add to my personal collection of public films on my Vimeo page.  I admit it's not a perfect film, but for the experience I got out of it, it sure is something I am proud to have gone through with the actors and crew, and I cannot wait for the next chance I get to work with these two actors.  For your viewing pleasure, I share with you Dear Brother:


DEAR BROTHER— A Film by Daniel Skubal from Daniel Skubal on Vimeo.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fresh Tools and Knowledge Hot Off My Last Feature Film

Knuckle down, folks.  This is a doozy of a post.  But I hope what follows helps bring some clarity to your own work:

In early September, I was approached by an old colleague of mine who had just returned from directing a feature film that was shot in Italy over the course of the summer.  Just coming off a two year feature documentary, I was in the market for my next narrative project and this came at the right time.

After some negotiating with my company, we worked out a deal where I waived payment on the project in exchange of providing two full billable weeks of editing time through my employer, and all extra work was to be done off hours.

Although the director asked to cut a few scenes himself, I knew I'd only be able to execute such a hefty project under these constraints with the help of an additional editor.  So I called on a buddy of mine who had availability in his schedule to help take on part of the responsibility of the workload and essentially push through work in half the time.

Once the team was together, I manually synced and organized all of the raw material myself to ensure it was organized properly.  There were a few extra pickup days scheduled during the first few weeks of post production, so I worked on all of the AE tasks, prepping the project as they finished principal photography.  As new footage came in, I would add it to the project and kept it managed across all the team's drives.

I had built a very aggressive schedule to have the film in picture lock by the end of the year (which gave us just 8 weeks of working time to get to that point), however due to the holidays and the director's wishes, we pivoted a bit on the plan and decided to put a couple extra weeks into the project to get it right, and instead worked on delivering the film in two large chunks.  So we delivered the first half of the film as "lock" to the sound mixer at the end of December, and picked back up in January to finish out the second half and build the full master timeline by the third week of that month.



I'm still acting as the post production supervisor of the film so I'm helping see it through to the end, but the majority of my work is done and I felt like now was a good time to reflect on the project as a whole, while it was still fresh on my mind.  There were a few major personal triumphs in this project.  The first was the big reason I committed so early to it and proved to be a successful experiment.

Language Barriers:
I don't speak Italian.  At.  All.  I took an Italian cinema course in college, and studied a handful of semesters of Spanish which, as a romance language, gave me a basic aural guide to understand some root words.  So this provided grounds for an interesting experiment that put Walter Murch's first commandment of editing: cut for emotion.  Could I cut a scene solely based on performance, inflection, cadence and how the takes made me feel?  The short answer is YES. 

To avoid a trainwreck of committing to a project I could potentially fail at, I chose to tackle this language barrier head on and the first scene I cut put this to idea the test.  I chose a pivotal scene that sets the plot in motion that was sure to have enough meat in it to play with and put my theory to the test.

Francesco tells his wife of a startling encounter he had earlier in the day.
The scene lands at the end of Act I, and our character comes home to his wife to tell her about an encounter that happened earlier in the day. He explains that his long lost brother he knew nothing about had approached him on the street to tell him his biological father has passed away and wants his help in scattering his father's ashes across Italy's countryside.  His wife pressures him to agree to do the trip.  The scene needed to succeed to set the tone for the rest of the film.  Due to the credit of the director and the caliber of the actors playing the scene, the task wasn't nearly as difficult as I had anticipated, and I was able to cut it together with virtually no issues.

While some of the film was shot improvised and loose, for the most part they followed a basic
outline and script for each scene that through repetition, I could learn the beat breaks of the actors in each take and then could really play with punctuating and accenting the emotional notes given in each performance.  Even though it was the first scene I cut, it ended up being one of my most favorite of the film.  I think this scene in particular made me tune into the electricity of the performances, and by stripping away things like factual information provided by the story, or even the added complexities that comprehending dialogue can add to the long list of decisions an editor takes into consideration in each cut, it sets contrivances aside that we typically try to prop up, and it simply puts emotion in the driver's seat.  Watching the director's reaction to the scene once I was completed with the initial rough really invigorated me to push this project and "plus it" in every way I could.


Remote Collaboration:

As I said, this project was on a pretty lean schedule, and while I was awarded 2 full work weeks to work through the edit, most of the heavy lifting needed to be done in on weekends, off-hours and holidays.  Bringing on a second editor was the only way I could survive, but that also brought along its own challenges.  The first big hurdle was the fact that I was not only responsible for managing the hard drive and project organization for my drive, but for the other editors' drives, as well as the director's in order to ensure that we could swap project files freely.

This wouldn't be so difficult if we were all operating under one roof, but we were each in remote locations.  The solve for that was creating a centralized project, and as rough edits and additional footage would come in from the director and other editor, I would update my project with that that new material.  I would then report where that material was filed, and on big milestones of the edit, would share that project with both the director and other editor.  This "master project" would then become their new source to work from.



The second big hurdle to solve was the actual collaboration process in moving each edit forward.  We used a mixture of online screenings of rough cuts through the wonderful review tool, Frame.io, as well as face-to-face sessions where we'd work through scenes together.  By the time we were ready to build the first full assembly edit, my second editor's contract had been fulfilled and it was on to refining the edit with just the director and me.

At which point, we blocked out several full day edit sessions, working through the key scenes first, and then circling back to the beginning and working sequentially.

I've been involved in large scale projects in the past that either didn't have a post supervisor managing the flow of assets, a collaboration plan, or any sort of guidelines in managing the material.  They quickly turned to disarray, files would go missing, confusion would come up as to which sequence on which project was the newest version to work from.  Just hours and hours of time wasted and all kinds of headaches.  So I made sure to run the collaborative process sternly to make sure that didn't happen.  And for the most part, we succeeded.  Things occasionally fell through the cracks.  A temp track wouldn't get shared, or temp sound effects would get organized a little differently between each person's machine, but the problems were minimal enough that we could spot them right away and squash them out.  So for that, I'm proud we were able to set that plan, execute it, and see the benefits of that system play out in real time.

Italian Cadence:
Because I had to manually sync all of the footage myself, and the crew ran cadence spoken solely Italian, I took it upon myself early on to learn the cadence and set terminology in order to inform my editing decisions.  I kept a little notes sheet next to me in order to help with that process:


Color Coding:
Color coding is nothing new to my process, but I’m just continually amazed at how well it works.  My process typically goes as follows.  Once the material is synced, I’ll duplicate my sequence and label it as the “Paredown”, at which point, I’ll parse away all of the pre-roll and false takes, and the remaining material goes through a color coding process.  This gives me two things: A firmer knowledge of every take by watching through everything, it also gives me an impression that I can reference later on and save time without having to go back through every clip.  My color code typically follows a stoplight’s colors.  Red (or Rose as Premiere calls it) is typically useless material.  It’s a pass for me to skip looking at, but still exists on my timeline if I need to get creative in solving a problem.  Yellow (or Mango in Premiere’s world) is passable material.  It may have great moments, but there’s something that’s holding it back from being fully usable.  Maybe it’s a technical flub, or the talent misses their mark, or they stumble on a portion of their monologue.  But there is still good material in it to work with.  Green (or forest in Premiere), is good clean material.  Lastly, I break the stoplight code a bit and use blue (Premiere’s cerulean color) for B-roll, inserts, MOS material, or sometimes I use it as MUST USE material.

A typical scene assembly after using the color coded paredown of footage.  (I realize the music track is unlinked, deal with it.)
It’s a great sketch to visually illustrate each scene’s material and to reference when you find yourself starting to refine rough edits in scenes you haven’t reviewed in months.

I don’t know many editors who use this regularly, but any AE, or collaborative editor I’ve worked with, I’ve taught them this trick and they’ve come back to me sometimes years later to tell me that they’ve adopted it into their own process.

Some editors solely use markers with little notes baked into the clips.  If that works for you, do it.  I usually do that as a second layer of defense on large form projects, when I have the time and liberty to make those extra notes.  I find that most useful in long interviews to help earmark subject changes in extra long takes.  For me though, it’s bitten me in the ass (especially when I used to cut primarily on Final Cut), that meta data doesn’t always stick to the metadata of the clip, but instead is saved locally on your machine.  So when you’d share the project with someone, all of that work would be lost.  Thankfully, Premiere’s better about that, and if you’ve got the ability and an AE, their application Prelude does wonders in expediting that process before even firing up Premiere.

Dynamic Health Chart As A Tool:
Setting a schedule and enabling all team members to stick to it (as best we can) was crucial to pulling this project off and not letting it go long tail.  I looked into ways we could kind of keep tabs on the progress of the project as a whole without having to hit the breaks and talk it out every time a new scene was accomplished.  There are online system organizers and project trackers like Trello that could be used, but we just needed to get the ball rolling and I didn’t want to have to have everyone sign up for yet another account just to use the service.  So I developed this handy tool that gave every team member the status of the project and where everyone was working.



I called it the Dynamic Health Chart, and it was created as a Google Sheets that everyone could see and update live.  There’s something just satisfying about having a checklist and crossing things off one by one.  It makes you feel accomplished and instills vigor to keep going.  I liked this chart for that very reason.  It served as a very visual, complex checklist that we could see our progress on any given day at any given time.

Each scene is plotted out in story order.  Under each scene there are five cells that show if the material has been imported, synced and verified by the post super (myself), what editor was assigned to the project, if the rough edit has been completed, what current version the scene is on, and if it has been placed in the master timeline or not.  Nixed scenes were still left in the chart but blacked out as “dead content”.  I then set up a color code to mark the status of each cell.  (Sticking with the simple stoplight code that I use for parsing material in my timeline), red is waiting to be worked on, yellow is being worked on, green is completed, and then breaking away from that, dark green is a lock, and magenta is held up (either waiting for new content from reshoots, shared project assets, or is simply waiting for review).

See nearly 4 months of progress in a few seconds:



The Editing Time Quotient
I may be a little more meticulous at keeping track of my hours than most editors, but when the majority of time needed for a given project is coming from my free time, I want to use it efficiently and try to keep myself on track.  Our office uses an hour-tracking tool called Harvest, which we manage per project.  In the past it has helped us keep track of scope creep and profitability.  Each project is broken out by basic phase:

- Hard drive management/project organization/AE work
- Editing
- Color Grading
- Sound Mixing
- Mastering
- Administrative

For this instance, I used solely the editing data from previous narrative projects as a baseline estimate for amount of time per scene.  The next thing I did was calculated total runtime of footage per scene.  To start, there were 52 scenes in the film (four were off the bat nixed, and a few were eventually rolled into a bigger sequence with intercutting).  Some scenes only had 5-6 minutes of raw footage, others had close to a couple hours.  I took all of that information and built a total hour estimate for what I thought we’d need to collectively edit the project and get it to picture lock.  We then figured out how many hours each of us could put into the project per week.  I then broke out the Dynamic Project Health Chart and assigned each editor their scenes based on the proportion of time they could contribute in total against the total projected hour estimate.

I believe initially I had projected out the project taking somewhere around 320-330 hours to picture lock and we ended up finishing in 346.  For going past the schedule a few weeks, an additional 16 hours isn’t too far off.  That’s about a 5-8% offset. 

And all the while, we were logging our hours spent working through each scene.  So what did I do with this data?  I built a spreadsheet (of course), that logged the scene, the editor, the estimated runtime of raw footage, the actualized time it took each editor to complete the first rough of the scene, the runtime of the edit of that scene and the true gold nugget: the efficiency quotient that’s calculated per minute of raw footage.  This gave me an accurate estimate down to the minute of how long it was taking to sift through and edit every minute of raw footage.  I could then average these per editor and now that I’ve begun this log, I can more accurately project out future narrative projects.

While I still have about half of the logged hours to crunch into this spreadsheet, at last count I was hitting about 650 minutes per hour of footage, or 10.97 minutes spent per minute of raw footage to get it into a rough cut.

At first I was a little embarrassed to reveal how long it actually takes me to get through footage, but I came to realize that number is truth.  It’s the actualization of what it takes for me to thoroughly vet and familiarize myself with the material and gain enough confidence in making selects and assembling them together.  It’s just the facts.  And for future work, it means I can justify our hourly estimates when building out budgets for post production.

For someone who doesn’t consider myself the most organized post production super/editor, this is one thing I am passionate about and proud of to have developed.  I’ve gotten to roll in this quotient into the estimate process of approximately a half dozen projects over the last couple projects and it’s been surprisingly accurate.  Occasionally there’s an outlier of a project that just kind of cuts itself because the material is just so dialed in, but in working on averages here, there are also other projects that take a bit longer than the quotient.

Keep in mind with all of this though, there’s a variable to this quotient that can’t be calculated: the feedback and fine tuning process.  That’s why the quotient just is calculated up to the rough cut, because that’s when the project is in my control.  Once it turns into a collaborative process working with the director/producers and we begin refining the project, it’s a wild horse that can’t be tamed.  The best you can do in that phase is to have a set expectation on the number of rounds of revisions, or in the case of most narrative work, just have a clearly communicated set of boundaries with the director.  “I need to be done by 6pm tonight.”  “If we want to have picture lock by the end of the week, we should probably try to get in one more full day session together before I build and organize the master timeline.”  Statements like that can just help navigate the sometimes very gray and ethereal looseness that occurs during this phase and it helps make everyone accountable for making set deadlines.

I’m sure I will continue to refine the quotient and the process, but for now it’s a unique and valuable tool that gives me a pretty great visibility into actual time needed to pull a project off.

A Project Worth Doing:
As with every project I take on, there's always a rich number of takeaways that I can grown from and implement into the next one.  This one is no exception.  I've spoken with many editors who would turn down projects like this.  It's too low budget.  Too small.  It won't help their reel.  It doesn't further their career.  They're waiting for that whale of a project that they know will land them an Oscar nom.  That's fine if your work is at that caliber, but I bet it's not.  You need to be conditioned, and build your craft as a discipline.  The old adage is that you need 10,000 hours to master a craft.  I think realistically it's something closer to ten times that number, but my philosophy through my entire career has been aimed at committing to being a life-long learner.  And this project was just right for me where I am in my career.  It provided just the right amount of challenges, the stakes weren't too high (i.e. budget scale, the schedule, the team's working relationship, the general demands of the project).  It was just the right sized bite for me to take and enjoy through the process, and to walk away being just a slightly different, more honed human than I was going into it.  Because what I've learned is that even the best projects are going to have their problems that you will need to be able to have solutions prepared for, far before you're even asked for them.  And the only way to confidently suggest and enact those solutions are to have given them a "trial run" on a previous project; to understand and speak to how that given solution could solve the problem in front of you.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Respice Finem

I've spent the last year working on a screenplay.  It's a feature, and carries more complex characters than my previous works.  I should also mention that it's a period piece, which has added its own level of glacial slowness towards gaining momentum... but I'm trying to embrace it.  In previous screenplays, I've been hurried to vomit that first draft out on the page as quickly as possible without stopping to question the material, and at that point I just close my eyes and hope that I only need to do one or two re-writes on it before it's a masterpiece.  (I know, it's naive but I can't fight my subconscious on that).  On this project, I'm taking a different approach and trying to have it all figured out ahead of time before putting pen to paper.

About 10 months ago, I ran into a stuck point— Writer's Block.  It stemmed from what I believe is the actualization of an old writer's tale that you should never verbalize your story until it's completed in private.  I had to do this, as I've been working with a partner on this project and I needed to fill him in on the details of what I'd figured out up to this point just to make sure we were in agreeance with the general direction of the story.  But as I was explaining this story aloud, my confidence in what I thought was a surefire structure waned and it felt like maybe it wasn't as strong as I suspected it would be.  The suspicion was confirmed when I shared the scene-by-scene story with another friend of mine who felt like the need wasn't clear enough.  It deflated me a bit, and I've sat idle on it for close to a year now trying to find my point of passion to regain momentum in writing and research.

This week, I had a little time to go back over some old material and I think I'm starting to diagnose the flaws here.  The character is interesting, the premise is promising, the setting is unique and the obstacles are in place, but the previous critique was right on— his intent isn't super clear.  Aaron Sorkin talks about the recipe for drama is intent and obstacle.  Without both, you don't have a story.  Things just passively happen, or even worse, NOTHING happens.  What I thought was the intent of this character is a little too hazy to carry enough weight.  It's heady and is a delusion of the character.  Furthermore, because I'm drawing from real life events, I had kind of an omniscient view of this character's timeline.  And because I knew this character was towards the end of his life, I was assuming the character could feel that as well... but when I think about it... this guy is a fighter, his ambition is great, and he refuses to consider his mortality until it's grabbed him by the collar.  So with that insight, I've got to pivot on an attitude change.

Another thing that's got me thinking on this narrative again is a little note I found while digging in the backlog of unfinished blog posts here for Living In Cine.  It was a writeup I started several months ago that I had found reading a short story by Tolstoy.  It was on the phrase "Respice Finem" which translates to "Consider the end", or to the character in the short story, it represents a rally cry to live so that your life will be approved after your death.  After considering where I am in the writing process, the phrase changed meaning for me.  I considered the end for my character, and I loved how it worked as a theme in a very tragic sort of way, but was blinded by it as a blanket idea, which now needs to be weighed against a man who wants to live and succeed.

My plan is to comb back through some research materials I had yet get to a year ago, and between that and re-arming myself with Syd Field and Aaron Sorkin philosophy fresh on my mind, I think I'll be ready to saddle back up and get this first draft written.  And if it takes another year, so be it.  I'm not under any sort of deadline with this, I'm not being paid for it.  It's for myself, and it's timeless enough that I don't need to rush.  With this project at least, I'm going to try to embrace the ebbs and flows and allow it to take as long as it needs to.  I see the  pitfall in that thinking... no constrictions, deadlines or accountability may mean the project won't ever happen... but I think I can curb that.  The story itself is my carrot on a stick to see it through.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Self-Musings On The Creative Mind

I've been thinking a lot about the journey we all go on as artists.  This past December, I went to a relatively small filmmaker's conference in Austin, TX with the video team at my office.  I think we all got something a little different out of the experience but we all agreed that it was incredibly fruitful.  For me, aside from reconnecting with a lot of film folks I've met over the years, I most enjoyed hearing all of industry professionals talking about their craft and individual approaches to putting their artistic sensibilities to practice.

It left me with an invigorated sense to do... to just tear through the fabric of time, set the world ablaze, and thrust myself forward into unknown territories of the disciplines I practice.  It was a kind of nervous energy that crashed a bit when I went back into the regular day-to-day routine... but it felt like a mental awakening similar to when I would read daily on my train ride into work.  And while I haven't had a direct focus to put my energy into, it's left me looking at my career from a macro level.  While doing this though, a few of the best ideas have continued to resonate with me.

A few of the biggest gems I walked away with:
"Plus-It" — David Salter, an editor for Pixar and Disney, introduced me to the idea of "Plus-It" which is a long-said mantra at Disney from decades ago when Walt was still kicking around.  He would challenge his Imagineers to always Plus-It on anything they were a part of.  It's so simple but its implications in a team-based project tap into the true spirit of what collaboration is all about.  Krista Morgan, a fellow blogger, goes into further depth on embracing the idea into a practical setting.

"Memetics" — Two of The Daniels, who created the film Swiss Army Man, gave one of the most engaging talks on the idea of Memetics, which is kind of a sociological explanation of how ideas can catch on in a given culture.  And just as fruitful, they also peeled back the curtain into their creative process a bit by creating, for lack of a better term, a stream of consciousness "thought cloud" that used the principals of memetics to explain why a given internet meme had stickiness.  The whole process lit up my mind and got me thinking about my work in a whole different way.  I even have been throwing around the idea of returning to my thesis I started years ago and after some due diligence and research, bringing the idea into the fold.

"Every sound opens a story" - Paula Fairfield, the sound designer for Game of Thrones, among other works, gave a great talk on storytelling through the use of sound and anchoring decisions in a train of thought.  This is Paula's way of Plussing It, and the whole approach means that no matter what avenue of the industry you are chasing, a rich complexity is added as soon as you can justify and defend your decisions as an artist in practice.
"Hate the edit. Don't hate the editor." - Andy Baker, a creative director at Nat Geo, gave me a refreshing reminder that not everything I'm tasked to do is going to be a masterpiece, especially when performing in a vacuum without a script, or perhaps with too tightly crafted of a script and the mechanics of the story are too loud, or telegraph too much information for the audience.  It reminded me that I can be a good editor but maybe just not be in a position to succeed given some set of circumstances.

One of the other big pieces of value from that trip was the meetings we held afterwards as sort of a company retreat.  In a few day's time we held a self-exploration and discussion about sensibilities, identity and the type of work we want to go after as a company.  Dedicating a few days towards that forced me to think about the type of work I'm attracted to, how I approach storytelling and the philosophies of emotion.

What that did for me was galvanize the intangible web of sensibilities that have been swirling around my work, and brought a whole new clarity to the idea that the best stories are the ones that are most human.  It's very much the Judith Weston approach to drama in appreciating the many facets of the human condition, and embracing the flaws we all have in pursuit of sharing these truths with an audience on a quest to find, renew, reveal, and ignite the very nature of themselves.

And so in my pursuit of bettering myself, I'm going to attempt to dedicate a majority of my work this year towards putting these ideas to practice, getting faster at my technique, abandoning some of my OCD thoroughness, going after some creative risks and moving from a safe "Construct" to a more "Abstract" approach.


Also, I need to get back into practice of regularly reading again.  There.  I said it, so I'm accountable to do it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Screenwriting Growth

Not much in this world gives me more joy than learning and having "breakthroughs" in my understanding of what I'm passionate about.  I like to think.  I write a lot of notes.  Most of them are kept private to me in quick emails, google documents or jots on scraps of paper.  I do this until they've had enough time to gestate into a fully formed idea, and over the years it's just become my working process.

The focus for me lately has been in my further understanding of screenwriting as an artform.  And over the last few weeks a few big breakthrough pieces I've stumbled across have opened up the floodgates in my thinking.  Somehow, every time this happens, it almost always is perfectly in-sync with something I'm needing to solve in a current project I'm working on, and this is no different.

Since the start of the year, I've began plotting out and exploring a screenplay that I've been collaborating on with a fellow colleague.  While in the past, I've typically been able to knock out a first draft in a matter of weeks— this one, I've been taking my time on and really trying to see the whole forest before I venture into the woods.  I carefully wrote the first 20 pages or so, but felt like I was wandering into some bad territory in the story, so I deleted the last 6 or 7 pages and took a step back.

Something that has really helped me keep my head on straight has been the mixture of Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (which I've been kicking myself for not reading earlier), as well as this tool I devised for myself to keep things straight and in order for the events of my story that I've been calling "Screencards".  It's really nothing more than some cards with the major "formulaic" beats of the story, and a little reminder of what each piece should contribute to the structure as a whole.  Think of it as the blue print or "training wheels" to help plug in what you know about your story.  It's the most commonly-identified beats (maybe identified with different names) within a screenplay structure that writers can settle on.

I don't necessarily prescribe to the idea of formulas in the long run, but understanding how well-written screenplays function and the things they have in common with one another is certainly not a bad place to start as far as I'm concerned.

I'm sure once I've been around the block longer in this world of screenwriting, I won't need them, but for now just having a place to pin ideas that says "This part of your story needs to generally do X" helps free me from worry about "what happens next".

So I've been pinning the ideas I knew I wanted to have, and probably once a day, I'll visit the board, shuffle some things around and maybe a new spark will hit me that causes me to form an even clearer picture of what I'm after here.

Once I felt like I had exhausted my current ideas and pinned everything up, I took a break from the process and circled back to that Syd Field book I mentioned.  Aside from his brilliant explorations and observations, a couple major things have really stuck for me.  He says that before you should even think about putting pen to paper (or ehm, E-ink to screen, I guess?) that you should have 5 things figured out, in this order of importance:
1) Your main character
2) Your ending
3) Your beginning
4) Plot Point 1
5) Plot Point II



Well strike one for me, I suppose.  I solved 1, 3, 4, 2 (kind of), THEN 5 in that order.  But it's caused me to question a lot and poke holes in some ideas, and reaffirmed other ones.

Another thing that was fascinating was his description of "sequences".  I've always used the term as a catch-all for a nondescript duration of edits.  For me a sequence could be three shots in succession, or it could be 3 scenes, depending on the context.  But he defines the term as a clustering of scenes serving one objective, i.e. "Our main character attempts to do X".  On the surface, it was rewarding because I had never really heard a screenwriter address the idea of the sequence (which maybe just makes me a newbie in the craft), but I think what really stuck out to me is the attempt at reducing the daunting task of writing an entire 120 pages screenplay.  By clustering scenes together and saying "These 4 scenes are about INSERT OBJECTIVE", each scene is just the WAY that that objective is achieved or revised, and you've suddenly reduced the number of things to think about from 4 to 1.

It sounds silly, and way too intuitive, but reducing the complexity of the job helps open you up to focusing on the more creative material, which I think is what Syd is attempting to achieve here.

The other big lesson I'm learning here is that beyond simplification of the process, patience is the other takeaway I'm hearing from this book.  I've always heard about screenwriters who spend a year or more working on a single screenplay, and my assumption was just that they were too exacting in their first draft.   And while I'm a proponent of opening your mind and letting words flow from your fingertips as subconsciously as possible, I think I've perhaps neglected the other end of the spectrum; the consideration of the grand idea and structure of your story.  It takes time, it really does, to write a genuine original piece without fudging and faking certain aspects that you don't yet understand.

And it's been a compounded experience for me, as I'm a writer often drawn to period films concerning lifestyles and careers that are different from my own experience.  This takes even more research to accurately portray their world.  I think as I'm writing this, the reason I'm drawn to these types of stories is not in the exploration of "what it was like back then", but more from my yearning to bridge how human and similar their experiences were back then to ours today.  Really, I'm going against the grain of the thesis I was so fired up about when I first started this blog; the anti-romanticist.  Life is real, messy, gritty.  It's not easy.  We all deal with problems, and even though something that seems so different and distanced by the span of time from how our lives are in modern society, it really isn't so different.  We're saying the same things as we were 100 years ago about politics, religion, economics, the world.  The context is different, but the content is the same to a large degree.  I just think that's cool.  That's probably the closest thing we can get to an emotional time travel right there: connecting emotionally to past events by drawing comparison to similar instances in our modern day life.  You're being reminded by both the unfathomable expanses of time, as well as the finitely minuscule separation we have from our ancestors.  We're both totally foreign from our ancestors, and at the same time we're mirror copies of their fears, dreams and comprehensions.  It's truly incredible.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The A to C and Audience Engagement

I like to read what interests me, that sounds like common sense but I say that because sometimes that takes me to interesting places.  In this instance, I'm talking about improv comedy.  I've never done improv comedy, but it sounded interesting to me. and I wanted to read about it.  So, awhile back, I bought The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, where they break down their school of thought and theory in improv comedy, and some of the games that they play.  I finally got to read through it this past week and barring a review of the whole book, there were a few ideas that I really connected with.

One principal that came up was "A to C'ing", which I had never heard but I'm sure some of you are familiar with.  Essentially in improv, you're constantly heightening the stakes, and building off of ideas.  Everything put out into the world by your partner, you're supposed to treat as a fact and then propel your thoughts off of that.  It's constant listening and response— an often overlooked portion of good acting.

The A to C idea is that if your scene partner introduces idea A (let's say they say the word 'truck'), rather than jumping directly to a B idea (a direct word association or knee-jerk response, like "driver") you go to the C idea, take your B idea and compound that (something like "screw").  Suddenly the subject of your train of thought evolved from a vehicle to a tool.  It's an unexpected move (which is often where the comedy lies), but has a train of thought that could be followed logically, creating an organically complex evolution of concept.

In the editing world, I see A to C'ing as a method of avoiding on-the-nose storytelling where we are talking about the idea and showing it at the same time, and instead drawing correlations, metaphors or emotional representations on screen of the subject matter.  So let's say we're talking about domestic abuse, rather than showing someone getting abused, or even "aftermath" of a bruised and beaten person in the fetal position looking out the window, we show an insert shot of a tea kettle whistling.  It's in a home setting, so there's a trace to the original idea, and the whistling is emotionally disturbing enough that the dissonance of that conveys an emotional thread that is true to the subject matter.  It's better storytelling.

A to C'ing is great because it goes back to a principal of storytelling that I believe separates the men from the boys, so to speak.  This idea I'm talking about is playing to the audience's intelligence rather than feeding them emotions.  You allow the audience to fill in the blanks and on a primal level, they become more empathetic and emotionally available to the story.  They're engaged and receiving an award for slight cognitive work.  It's active rather than passive storytelling.  I've often described it as "staying ahead of the audience" so they're constantly having to keep up.

I wrote recently about how the feature documentary I've been editing had a big change in its last revision where this very principal reared its head.  Essentially, we had a convention of voiceover in the edit that framed our entire story from the perspective of our protagonist.  Because we went that route, on the surface it gave us the ability to hear the character's thought process and psychology as he goes through his journey.  It became a trap though for two reasons.  One, it became an outlet for information that wasn't 100% clear visually in the raw footage.  So audience feedback was mainly focused either on wanting more information, or wanting less dependent on their personal taste.  The more we tried to address those issues, the less satisfied the audience was with the story.  The second trap was that the voiceover attempted to answer psychological questions and in turn, alienated the audience by telling them what to feel.  So in turn, our feedback was focused on the distaste for our protagonist because what he was feeling was not in line with how they felt.
So the solution was stupidly simple.  Remove the voiceover convention and suddenly test audiences stopped asking to learn more about the backstory and instead began actively participating in the here and now of the story, and rather than being told how things felt, they could perceive and deduce their own opinions on the conflicts of the protagonist.
We moved the story from a passive framework to an active one and the audience perceptions of the film completely changed.  Suddenly they engaged deeply with the material and were having meaningful discussions after the fact.

I'm not totally poo-pooing voiceover.  I think it's a valid convention to introduce when necessary, but perhaps not in an intimate film such as this one.  It is a very clear lesson for me though in the value of audience engagement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An Epihpany In A Year Long Project But A Life Long Understanding

In working with this feature doc I've been editing, and my recent reading of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", the theme of "purpose" has come up and all the questions along with it.  What is a good life?  What is the most primal want I have?

For me, I think I'd hope to approach everything with 'balance'.  People call it Chi, or aligning chakras, or simply "having a level head"... for me it's about trying not to get too excitable about the high points, and keeping your head down and reassuring yourself you'll get through the very low points, and reflecting and gleaning value from both situations.

Things outside your control aren't worth dealing with, and the things that are, deal with them orderly and calculated way.  Balance is in doing right by your family, living a fulfilled career (taking risks when you can, and pulling the plug when it's not working), helping others move forward in their lives, and leaving behind something worth talking about with others.

Maybe for me, that's partly what this blog is.  No one knows about it now, and while this is going to come off as completely narcissistic, I suppose in a way, I one day hope people could look back on my ramblings here, and see the seeds of the ideas that have influenced my taste, my sensibilities and the types of stories I'm drawn to in my future work.

If anything, I hope this gives some other aspiring nobody out there permission to think freely, allow yourself to ramble and make bolder statements in a forum that is fairly unpopulated.  It's like screaming into a pillow, or praying for some.  You talk out what's on your mind, talk in circles, poke holes in your own constructions and what shakes out the other end is a clearer understanding of concepts, abstract thought, and philosophies.

I think there's a stigma in free thought, or at the very least, a lesser perceived value in it than it than there once was.  We're encouraged to be witty and concise with our online content.  Fuck that.  I want to say what I want to say with no limitation of characters, and no worries of people picking apart an idea.  A sculptor doesn't know how to sculpt until they shave just a little too much off and have to start again.

 I'm making mistakes and I'm thankful for that.  This blog is my sandbox.  Not everything I say in it is going to be truthful forever.  I'm sure if I went back to some of my original posts, when I was swooned by idealistic theories of storytelling based on whatever kick I was on at the time, my claims would appear a little too bold and uninformed for them to be 100% true...

But I can't negate their value.  I needed to believe in something in the start of this journey; I had to work with some direction for my compass to point in order to find my way.  And those ideas evolved.  They lead me to other terrains, they've opened up doors, invited me into more fertile lands and new epiphanies.  They're just as valuable to me as the conclusions I've come to currently.
I've come to value stumbles, because with unassuming reflection, they become lessons that last forever and cause impressions upon your future work.  You essentially are growing more valuable at every step of the way.

This week, we went through a major change in the edit of this documentary I've been working on.  My intuition upon completing my footage log and starting the structure assembly of the edit nearly a year ago was that there was enough information in the visuals that voiceovers and interviews were unnecessary.

Then when I began editing, after the tracks were laid for the opening of the film, I skipped to the end  and began cutting the final sequence so I knew what to work towards.  I ended up with a very impactful ending that was right in line emotionally with the logline we had drafted up.  The problem was, it required voiceover as a vehicle to give us our protagonist's perspective in the story.

That meant a commitment to that tool for the rest of the film... my instincts told me no, but the edit felt like it was necessary.  I began to sell myself on the idea.  Suddenly, we were then given permission to inject context and exposition, as well as the protagonist's emotional state in times when we wouldn't have been able to otherwise.
We got cozy with the idea, and wrestled with it to squeeze as much out of its abilities as possible.  We said what we wanted to with it and at that point, we thought we were working towards a good destination for the film.

Flash forward nearly 6 months later, 9 revisions, 6 screening sessions of varying success, maybe 15 hours of voiceover logged after the fact, and a swimming pool's worth of coffee consumed, we drew a pretty hefty conclusion: voiceover was a mistake.

The problem was, we committed to a more indie/art house lean into our later drafts of the edit.  As such, the story is told in an intimate, and breathing voice as it examines a friendship and a failed road trip.  The voice over widened the scope too much, and called attention to an opportunity to otherwise explain all loose ends within our narrative.  And the more we tried tightening up our story and the more screenings we had with individuals in that art house camp, the more it became clear that voice over was a contrivance and a distraction.  We needed to tighten the boundaries of our sandbox so as to not even allow the opportunity for outside information beyond what was able to be derived from the screen.  Less is more.  This was the biggest lesson in that old film school adage "show it, don't tell it". We were creating a vacuum to a film that would thrive with open interpretation.

After our internal screening today, our suspicion was affirmed and I believe this is the right direction to go.

So we're now attempting to make a sprint towards this year's Sundance deadline, and hopefully that will put us in a good place for the film and take me one more step in understanding this crazy craft, giving me a little more equity for the next story, and will eventually lead to that legacy I was talking about earlier.  Perceptions of your own work evolve no matter what: either you end up somewhere unexpected, or they travel in a circle and you end up back where you thought you would.  Either way, whether your expectation is met or is completely derailed, you're growing.  Growing towards that more balanced self with a greater understanding of your storytelling abilities and hopefully a more realized comprehension of the human condition (because that's really what good storytelling is, right?)

I can't call what we've been working towards WITH the voiceover a failure, or a mistake even.  It lead us to the conclusion we're at currently.  Had we not gone down that road, and explored every avenue of it, we wouldn't be able to confidently say that our presentation of the story in its current form would be the most ideal iteration.  So, I'm thankful for the gallons of coffee consumed while banging our heads against the wall trying to make the mechanism work.  It has a time and a place, but not for this particular story and there's a peace in admitting that.

Who knows, maybe another epiphany will strike and we'll realize the avenue we're headed down isn't ideal either.  But I assert that I'll bring balance to that situation.  If it truly is right, we'll vet it and see the value for the newest conclusion and appreciate even more the depths of exploration we've gone through in getting to that point.