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Make Better Videos, Part 1: Emulate Your Filmmaking Heroes

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In an effort to provide valuable information and to learn to make better videos, I am embarking on a series of posts that will unpack some concepts that I learned in college and need a bit of a refresher as I continue the daily journey of filmmaking. The first part of making better videos is an important reminder for all filmmakers, rookies to seasoned professionals: emulate your filmmaking heroes so that you can learn how to tell stories in new and exciting ways.

Emulate. A Dirty Word?
With an abundance of affordable technology in today’s modern digital world, anyone can make a movie. But like any artistic pursuit, each filmmaker strives for originality, to have their own voice and style that is devoid of influence. So, with this framing concept of originality, why is emulation so important to me?

First, to emulate simply means “to imitate in an effort to equal or surpass” (dictionary.com). It is the identification of a style or technique that you want to learn and then imitating what has worked in the past, building upon the accumulation of knowledge to do something of greater value.

Second, emulation helps you learn from the mistakes made by others, why they were mistakes, and how they can be used in different applications or contexts as solutions to new problems.

Finally, emulation goes back through the different periods of art, expressed magnificently during the Renaissance through the relationship of the apprentice and the master painter.

Apprentices started out doing menial tasks around a master painter’s shop, but would eventually start copying the drawings and paintings of the master. If considerable talent was shown, the master would promote the apprentice to work on background and minor details of original paintings, leaving the primary details and figures for himself. If the apprentice excelled at these details, then and only then, would the prospect of becoming a master painter and hiring apprentices be a reality. [1]

Identify Your Heroes and Their Style – How Do They Tell Stories?
As a lover of cinema, who are the master filmmakers that you aspire to be and are inspired by? Are you inspired by the timeless films of Steven Spielberg? The futuristic views of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers? How about the iconoclastic visions of Terry Gilliam or the comedic offerings of Kevin Smith? There are a million directors out there and identifying your heroes, why they are your heroes, and what you want to emulate is the first place to start.

From there, start looking at the different aspects of filmmaking and how your heroes use them to tell stories. Does a director favor one type of hero/villian relationship? Is the choice of dialogue wordy or sparse? Are there certain camera angles and shot compositions that are a trademark of the director? How is depth of field used to isolate or bring attention to details? How does the lighting change the tone of a particular scene? How is sound and music used in the context of storytelling? Is there music in every scene like Star Wars or is there room for the dialogue to speak for itself? How does the pacing and editing of a scene fit into the movie as a whole?

Using these questions as a starting point of analysis, start studying the work of other directors. Don’t just stop at gaining head knowledge of how a director works, take the time to grab your camera and try out different techniques. By emulating your filmmaking heroes, you will not only gain a deeper understanding of the filmmaking process, but in time you will make better videos, and shape your original voice.

A Shining Example of Emulation
I want to end with a story that has stuck with me for almost ten years. A friend of mine was mentoring a middle school student who had expressed interest in becoming a filmmaker. His desire and ambition led the young student to recreate scenes from Star Wars IV: A New Hope entirely with LEGOs.

Shot by shot, scene by scene, he used the same camera angles and composition, lighting, editing, music and sound effects. It was an impressive undertaking and to this day, I have no doubt that what he learned by recreating and emulating the vision of George Lucas has stuck with him through the years, especially as he continues pursuing a career in Hollywood.

With that, I encourage you to pick a scene from your favorite movie and do your very best at recreating it shot-by-shot. You might just be surprised at what you will learn about the art and craft of making better movies.

Happy filmmaking!

[1] The Renaissance Connection, http://www.renaissanceconnection.org/artistslife.html

Redefining Cinema In A Digital World

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As an independent filmmaker, it is a great time for cinema thanks to the technological advances of the 21st century digital world. While there have been numerous advancements made in the equipment and software needed to technically make a film, the most impactful changes have occurred in how a film is funded, distributed and promoted. Let’s take a look at a few ways that the digital world is redefining cinema.

Kickstart Your Funding With A Proof Of Concept.
One of the hardest aspects of making a film, let alone any creative project, is raising the necessary funds for pre-production, production and post-production costs. If you don’t have the benefit of being backed by a major studio in Hollywood, you are either self-funding your project with credit cards and savings or borrowing money from friends and family.

Enter a new way of funding: Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com). Kickstarter allows you to creatively raise money for your project by designating how much you want to raise and how you will reward and recognize financiers based on the amount they give. Additionally, you can add text, images or video that will help sell the viability of the project as well as your passion, dedication and motivation for creating the film. If you reach your goal in the set time, you receive the money and Kickstarter takes a small percentage to cover their costs. If not, the people that pledged money will not be charged and you can try again.

Recently I was talking with a friend who was the Director of Photography for a film project called Cardboard Dreams which was successfully funded through Kickstarter. He said that the secret of success was in the creation of a “proof of concept.” They filmed the first six pages of the script and the resulting footage was edited to show what the finished film would look like.

There are many examples of successfully funded projects on Kickstarter’s website and I would encourage you to take notes and get creative.

Where Can I See Or Buy Your Film?
It seems that as each year goes by, there are more and more online distribution channels for independent filmmakers. Video sharing sites like Vimeo (http://www.vimeo.com) and YouTube (http://www.youtube.com) provide great resources for people who want to broadcast trailers and short films in a wide-range of lengths and resolutions. But what if you want to sell your film and recoup investment costs? While you can go the traditional route of creating DVD and Blu-Ray copies, there is an intriguing option called Openfilm (http://www.openfilm.com).

At first glance, Openfilm looks and functions a lot like YouTube and Vimeo. But as you look into their different user types, some amazing functionality is added based on how much you are willing to spend. By spending $2.95 per month, you become a “Plus” user enabling you to accept donations from major credit cards through PayPal, guarantee TV placement through a partnership with TiVo, Boxee and HCC TV, and even sell mobile versions of your film. Upgrading to $9.95 per month makes you a “Pro” user and gives you added features such as selling digital copies of your film and even renting your film.

Openfilm appears to be a groundbreaking website for independent filmmakers who are looking to not only gain exposure, but to create a sustainable and profitable distribution channel.

Get The Word Out By Putting The “Social” In Social Media.
Social media is leveling the playing field when it comes to promoting independent film. There are so many different ways to get the word out ranging from Twitter to Facebook and everything in between, that it is almost impossible not to create an effective marketing campaign using these tools, as long as you follow a few simple rules:

  1. Fight the urge to spam people.
    Social media is about engaging in a conversation, not spamming people about how great your film is, or even how awesome of a person you may be. You are a person connecting with other people. If you take an interest in them, most likely they will take an interest in you. Crazy things happen when you respect and engage others.
     
  2. Have somewhere to send people.
    It pays to have an online landing page to send people to allowing them to learn more about your film, watch a trailer, buy a DVD or digital file or even find out how they can help spread the word. This can be as simple as a one-page website, a Facebook fan page or a profile page on Vimeo, YouTube, or Openfilm.
     
  3. Seek out people with online influence.
    By seeking out people who have online influence and engaging them in conversation, there is a tremendous opportunity to not only develop a great relationship, but to establish an advocate that would “advertise” your project to their sphere of influence.
     
  4. As the Hollywood machine continues to crank out “safe” movies based on superheroes, award-winning novels and sequels, there is tremendous opportunity for original ideas to be funded, distributed and promoted through these new and innovative ways. All it takes is the vision, passion and action of a creative and self-motivated filmmakers to realize that the power is in their hands, should they ultimately want it.

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