Now it’s about content …

So you’re set on a course of content development, now what? It’s no simple task. So here are some suggestions to aid in your content search and development.

EDC Camera bag

EDC Camera kit

Shoot images, still and moving, every day. If you don’t have a camera, other than your smartphone, you really need to question what you’re doing in this profession. That said, use what is available.  Capture the world around you. Resist the urge to shoot directly to Instagram and instead build good offload habits.  Choose one {lightroom} or {iPhoto}, then religiously tag and catalogue everything you shoot. Plus, back up every SD or CF card you use.  Then go to Instagram and post.

As documenting gets systemic to your life, start thinking in terms of ‘story’. Telling stories is the best way to present any material.  It doesn’t need to be elaborate or involve a cast of thousands, but it does need planned composition and structure … a beginning – middle – and end.

Comment and observe the world around you. The foundation for all of this content sits on written material, blog posts, scripts or narrations, all carrying the underlaying force of your stories. Images are essential and journaling with a still camera can be very powerful. But into that mix wedge the written word. You’re pre-planning with outlines and treatments, so pull some written content from the ideas that flitter across your mind into a blog post to fill in the story around your images.

old school research

old school research

Keep a notebook handy and like with the camera, grab the moment. But, also set aside time to just write up ideas. I think the best method is journaling. It captures the myriad of ideas you juggle and gives you a place to start when doing deeper research and development. For these ‘brain dumps,’ my new favorite tool is Evernote. It adds structure to projects through notebooks and then captured ideas, web content and random links can easily be posted to dated notes in a project file.

Regularly read and research to stay on top of what is going on around you and about your industry. Most of us have specific areas of interest that is fed by our general interest in media. There must be some specific ideas you are working on that require more ‘reading’. I used to recommend that students spend a day a week at the library but that is hollow advice these days. While the library remains a great place for focused research and deep background digging, the Internet presents a wealth of information and with some coaxing can be a great source point.



Facilitate sharing this content by bringing structure to the process through a RSS news reader. I use Feedly, but there are tons of them out there, all of them do basically the same thing … aggregate. The density of information on the net makes it difficult to focus. We tend to get distracted, so a RSS reader can give you access to a large number of posts in headline form where you can scan and choose.

You should look at FaceBook as a coffee shop rather than a news stand. At a Coffee shop you meet friends, usually the same people every day and the conversation is social. Where an RSS reader is a news stand giving you access to an ever changing list of topics. While these can be social, more often they are focused at news and information.

Out of these three, Image, Comment, and Research will grow the content for your network, as well as the idea for that next great project. js

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Monday’s Lecture project …

I’ve been on Sabbatical this winter term and part of that has been to build a series of essays on YouTube, focused on mainly digital distribution and how students can use the internet and social media to build audience and a network.

A couple of videos are already posted with new ones coming each week, hopefully by Tuesday. In addition I’m going to use this blog space to share other bits and pieces of research as well as the occasional rant like “the film essay.”

Please take some time to watch the videos, like, or dislike and add comments. I’m serious about the comments part because that is supposed to have an effect on analytics for the channel. I doubt this will pull enough views to effect ranking but your comments will be appreciated. thanks … js

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Film, Really?

The news this week is that Kodak and six Hollywood studios have come to an agreement about supplying film stock and shooting film. OK, so what does that have to do with the future of story telling?

A few giant corporations say they are going to keep using old technology. Does that mean Hollywood will release on film and we’ll come back to the theater? Of course not, wanting something and getting something are very different, your mother told you that right?

Reading this headline I wonder, have these people not been looking around at the movie market lately? It’s headed away from Hollywood’s studio style production and toward small internet based studios. Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and iTunes are all building movie deals and then there is Google’s YouTube and Vimeo that are allowing independents to become really independent distributers.

Grabbing ahold of an aging technology isn’t going to save it or the industry built around it. Hollywood’s financial design is broken and film stock isn’t going salvage that. I would argue Hollywood doesn’t need saving. Let these guys shoot on film but don’t try to make me believe that film is making that story better.

If you have the money, that is you’ve convinced a financial group that you can bring in half a trillion dollars, box-office release is possible. This base level feature film financial package is what will kill Hollywood’s distribution system. A growing number of people are not watching movies in the traditional manner. Nolan and Scorsese can stay on film that’s irrelevant we’ve found other ways to share/sell content leaving Hollywood holding the velvet rope.

I can see their desperation to find a viable market when Kodak, in the same announcement, admits that they need to try something new;

“in addition to continuing to manufacture motion picture film, Kodak said it would also pursue new opportunities to use film production technologies in new areas, such as touchscreens for smartphones and tablet computers.”  Bernstein_

Not sure I see what film has to do with a touchscreens, tablets or smartphones, or why they didn’t see this coming. But I do understand how digital media has seeped into the core of our entertainment and information stream. This is not going away regardless of what deal is struck. It’s also not the death of Hollywood nor the re-animation of film stock that is important

I don’t advocate the death of studio productions. Im not gleeful that this antiquated business model is faltering. The studio system gave us great stories and shaped this generation of filmmakers. But the world has changed bringing with it a technology that affords story tellers access.  That should be applauded. We should be thankful that it doesn’t require 35mm negative to make a movie and understand that an iPhone 5 can be a film camera.  Tools are not the issue and we need to stop making it about the camera, the actor or the studio.

Kodak doesn’t tell stories, actually the problem with Hollywood is that they don’t either any more. But story tellers need to have access to audience and when you set an entrance fee at $40,000,000.00 for production and again that much for marketing you are limiting the access for a lot of great stories.

Digital media is accessable to story tellers. The internet makes it possible to access an audience. Thanks Kodak and Warner Bros but we’ll take it from here.  js


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Breakdown the treatment …

Treatment evolves into a breakdown, or if you must a shot list but I avoid the term shot list because to focused on development of a list of shots might suggest one can skip over the story design and treatments are an essential part of the process.

working in Celtx

The screenplay is usually the initial stage of a film’s development and it becomes a filmmaker’s choice to build a document which is rigidly structured or loosely framed. I teach to structure as it allows control during pre-production. The planning process consumes a small portion of the budget however if given sufficient time there will be payoffs at the production stage.

The non-fiction filmmaker quickly finds scripting tedious as a tool in designing a production they see as primarily b-roll. Treatments allow you a level of production control equal to Singleton’s production breakdown model. As with a script breakdown you start with coding which is done by marking up the treatment.

location scout plot

In writing the treatment there should be well defined scenes setting out an image … what will be seen and only a suggestion of the dialogue or what will be heard … from this well written picture you’ll find a location which needs scouting. Location planning is pretty much an essential task, from which is built a survey.  To me this needs to be a paper document, with a detailed drawing of the “floor plan”, notes on site qualities, potential action lines and in contact information.  There should also be a detailed digital file folder with images and recordings as reference to the sketched material. This planning is the basis for your breakdown and the starting point for organizing ‘coverage’ for you production.

treatment marked up – scene 13

Line your treatment. Take a pencil and break it into  scenes or locations, make use of the survey work you’ve done so you can visualize the action in the context of location.  Generally you can apply an establishing shot to each lined out scene and that will start the visualization process.  However you might also find that you like to break down some of the very basic shot angles at this time as well. My treatments tend too have the scene broken out as a paragraph so the line and scenes are very simple to accomplish.

From the location scout and this lined treatment (or outline of plot points) you can develop an “initial sketch up” marking out camera placements on the location drawing ‘set-ups’ and lighting notes ‘lighting plot’.

Treatment sent you to a location and that will effect how you plan, basically a set up is just the camera placement, which will establishing the axis on which you’ll shoot. Filmmakers don’t think of a camera as covering 360 degrees from an original point but rather an “angle of view” defined by lens, iris and subject. A set-up placed on the survey is dependent on action or defined by the action characters take across or along the camera axis. Pulling a single shot from a single set up after all the work of finding and lighting a good angle is a monumental waste of time. If it helps think about shooting master scene and second angle is insert material.

Now for Schommer’s Three Rules of coverage. Rule #1 every set-up needs a second angle. Rule #2 every angle gets a minimum of four shots … Establish, Med. Shot, Close-up, Close-up. Eight shots over two angles of coverage gives your editor lots of places to cut on action, any action. Oh, rule #3 don’t break the rules.

Pull scene numbers from the treatment and then label camera placements on your location plot. Next create a list of the shots needed and rules dictate along the axis of that setup.

Each shot is tagged by scene and shot number which can be tracked throughout the production. This “shot list” ties the treatment to the production plan and offers a level of confidence that if all these shots are captured you’ll have coverage. Then move to the second angle, create a new set of numbers and repeat. If your setting lights add that plot information to your survey as well.

location plot w/setup for scene 13

Non-fiction film doesn’t always lend itself to running a scene multiple takes, so you need to look for repititative action in your subject. Find setups that will cover the repeated action while allowing you two angles. It’s matter of covering the action in detail from one setup and then doing getting second angle on the points of repitition from the second angle. This requires detailed knowledge of the process being filmed. A third angle will offer another edit point for continuity issues and often is an establishing shot bringing subject into or out of a scene without close-ups. So yes you can break the rules with a stand-alone angle if this gives better coverage for complext subject action.

… next is a discussion on scheduling using this breakdown as a list of shots in viewing order and the locations survey / plots it’s a simple enough process to design how you’ll approach this shoot. js


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Why Production planning …

I teach video production and every class outline contains a list of outcomes sitting there like a menu stating that on completion of this class you will know X.  Outcomes, in this context are an academic concept, an assumption made that a graduate will be expected to demonstrate competency in most if not all of the outcomes provided the instructional design was sound.   I’m not going to belabor the point, it’s academic and I don’t want this discussion to devolved into a debate on the value of film school. It is only a starting point in a series on the value of  per-production aimed at people not always focused on outcomes.

With nearly every class there are numerous production exercises involving working with different camera packages,  acquiring. transferring and then manipulating media.  In my classes the process is more important than the product, particularly at this stage in the course work. While there are video projects to complete I’m not as interested in the video as I am in the paperwork developed to manage the production. This often comes as a surprise to students and they don’t completely understand the reasoning behind doing something they have discounted as busy work and unrelated to the job of movie making.  This is precisely why I’m so interested in it.

I’ll over simplify this for the sake of getting started on this essay by saying,  if you can’t put it down on paper you’ll never get a chance to capture it on video. Ninety percent of professional work is getting produced with someone else’s money and to get at the money you’ll have to convince someone your project is not just viable but a fit for the client. It’s still too expensive to use video as the main “pitching” tool so we rely on text.

Over the course of a couple of posts I’ll layout stages to the production planning process. Steps that need to be completed for a project to be successful. OK there are exceptions to the rule and rules are made to be broken, but there needs to be foundation and understanding of the rules before exceptions are made or rules are broken so think of this as that foundation.

Treatments are where we start.  For this discussion treatment are the written image of an idea … “what is going to be seen and the essence of what is going to be heard”. The greatest failing in treatments is when the writer sets out to tell what they are going to do rather than what is going to be seen.  When it works a treatment presents all it’s readers with the same basic image of the project … the story is laid out as visual elements.

Scope of the work and complexity of the project are going to show through in a treatment plus the writer/producer can layout the story in images and begin the process of designing the elements that will need to be captured.  This is not a script there are no individual shots laid on the page, and you should stay away from techno-jargon.  Rather tell the story in broad strokes, in master shots with only the detail that is necessary to bring that picture to life. It might help to start with an outline that sets down the beats of the story and then describe the images that illustrate these beats.

I’ve skipped over the research component not because it’s unimportant, it’s not, or that it’s easy, it’s not that either. Research is essential to understanding how you’ll approach a project and often a long and laborious task.  Production planning really starts once you have determined the idea is viable and now you need to organize it’s elements to help convince others of this fact and this is started when you write the treatment …  js


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Another blogging assignment …

So this week TV160 students were asked to post lunch spots to their blogs. While on the surface this might seem like a ploy on my part to gain some new dining info you should remember these are college students and there are things like Yelp out there.  But it was interesting how many are sushi fans, though not many vegetarians in the bunch so they totally missed Bamboo’s Green Machine.

asian veggie Binh mi

This group might appreciate a tip some good sandwiches at a great price … so here is a link to the Best Baguette.  No not a french restaurant but Vietnamese Binh Mi .  There are lots of choices with animal flesh, my choice; Asian Vegetable. Regardless of filling it’s the marinated veggies and jalapeño that make it. Baguettes are bake fresh so your binh mi is tucked into a crispy warm roll.  Forget the Subway hype here’s lunch for 3 bucks and truly heathy … js

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Shooting a master …

The blogging question posed to students this week is define master shot as a filmmaker’s tool.  First that is not a request to regurgitate wikipedia definitions and further I’m not interested in definitions at all.  I am looking for a discussion on what happened to a trusted production method and is there still a use for it.

Master shot came out of old school production technique but as cut rates increased true master shots kind of went away. It’s understandable why in a world of action films and NLE the slow pace of shooting a master fell from favor, or got replaced by the ‘steady cam’ shot.  Now don’t mistake master shot for establishing shot. While they both present the viewer with a sense of setting that is all the establish does.  The master shot on the other hand is coverage of action from start to finish or at least the bulk of the scene and serves additional purposes.

A master at the very least moves everyone, camera, audio and actors. through the scene and for the less seasoned screen actor can work wonders at setting stage and preparing them for all the start / stop work to come.  The other thing a master shot does is firmly set the continuity of the scene. Directors who employ this technique are less likely to break the 180 degree rule. There are also lots more points to cut back to or from if an insert fails or pace isn’t working.

As a filmmakers tool this old chestnut still has some value and it would be a good idea for  the director new to production to start shooting a master …. js


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Location Survey …

Part one of the survey post is an image … this one is pretty iconic …


The 160 assignment is to first post a location image without any information and then find a classmate’s image and write a ‘visual’ sentence about their image in  comment section.

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Documentary pitches …

Listened to doc pitches in TV160 tonight and while they were full of holes and stumbled over thoughts the class offered up some outstanding project ideas.   I assign story pitches  for a couple of reasons starting with it’s really a good exercise at bringing visual concepts to verbal form and leads to better understanding of log-line but most importantly everyone gets insight into everyone else’s projects.

Classmate support for project ideas has never been an issue more often it’s difficult to get anyone to find fault in a peer’s work.  It’s understandable that students don’t like to criticize but it’s knowledge they need to acquire. There is value in looking for the holes in a storyline and offering a patch.  Done right everyone gains from this process.

To get good you need to practice listening as well as pitching.  I’ve set rules which are ignored in these first attempts. Only later will more structure be imposed.  For tonight it was enough to stand up and share an idea.  We got a plethora of good ideas pitched it was the method that faltered.

They come to the pitch with too many bits of an idea and then dump them all out  like a bag of apples to tumble around until eventually one is picked up and admired, usually for too long. A realization there are other points derails what flow may have been started. It ends with the same disorder that started it and our questions are about what wasn’t said rather than what was.

My advice is to find the story and focus the pitch on an element that will hook your ‘client’.  These are documentary pitches so need or problem must be coupled with an objective. Target audience is better implied then listed because two minutes is not nearly enough time to do more than peak interest and hope that leads to questions.

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MFT … About the Glass …

So this summer I finally upgraded my video kit.  Teaching at a film school gives you great access to camera equipment, in theory but in practice if I do my job right that gear isn’t going to be available very often.   Had been shooting on my iPhone and a Canon TX-1 either of which offer adaquate image acquisition  for most of the web based playback I was building. However  neither are any good at the kind of filmmaking I should be doing more of.  To that end I really needed a to move to DSLR.  Logical starting point … Canon 60D … that is what I was pointing most of my students to and Canon dominates this segment of the digital cinema market.

Researching DSLR cameras I came across the Panasonic GH2 … if you have seen the MHCC IM cage you know we like Panasonic… though I’d never thought of looking beyond the Canon line let alone software hacks to bump ISO and mega bit rate and yet here it was in a very convenient package.

Pro Photo Supply had one used, with 3 batteries, AC charger and original manuals and  I had it in hand before I really started to understand another very cool aspect of the GH2 … it’s MicroFourThirds sensor.

Micro four thirds (MFT) grew from an open source sensor re-design.  While most DSLR cameras had 3/2 formate, to mimic 35mm film, this new format used a 4/3 standard and greatly improved image quality. The GH1 and then the GH2 were part of a mirrorless system that took this design one step further bringing a more compact form factor to the DSLR. This also shortened  flange back … the distance from the back element to the pickup device … making it possible to adapted a lot of different lenses to the GH2’s camera body.  PL mounting Zeiss Cine lenses doesn’t result in a bulky lens flange adaptor or total modification.

OK crop is 40% of the half frame APS-C and twice that of a full frame 5D but when you’ve been using third inch CCD’s in video cameras this is not a real issue and was I clear about all the lens options this opens up for you?  Because it is really going to be about the glass. js


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