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Calling Final Cut on My Film

25 04 2011

So, for of those you who didn’t know, I began the process of producing/directing my first short film (well, at least first one of actual substance and production value) last summer.  The film, entitled Beyond the Door, is based on a Philip K. Dick short story of the same name.  Being a huge fan of Dick’s work, I was elated to find that this particular short story was in the public domain and that no serious effort had yet been put forth to make it into a short film.

The story plays out like an old Twilight Zone episode and is confined to one primary location and three actors: perfect for a short film.  I began adapting the story into a screenplay in April of last year, finalizing a draft in July.  I then began the process of getting locations, cast and crew secured for the production.  Being new to the whole producing/directing side of filmmaking, I got many pointers and help from longtime collaborator Dan A. R. Kelly (www.danarkelly.com), who ended up coming on board as my co-producer and first assistant director.  I’ve had the pleasure to shoot the last six shorts Dan has directed and will say there’s no one better than Dan for help in getting a short made; he’s one of the best at producing great product on tight budgets and constrained timelines.  Keep an eye out for his latest film Banks of the Vltava, which is currently in the festival route.  Next screening for it is 10 p.m., April 30, 2011, at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in Wilmington, N.C.

The one location needed for the film was a suburban house setting.  Luckily, my eldest brother, John Mandrano, is a landlord in Greensboro, N.C.  He owns many historic properties in the Aycock district which he rents at greensborohistoricrentalhomes.com.  One home he has on East Hendrix Street is currently not in rental because my nephew, Art, is living there while attending college.  I talked with John and explained that we were hoping to film over Labor Day weekend.  He had no problems with allowing me to film there and even helped along with my brother, Patrick, to move furniture he had in storage into the location which definitely helped the production design!

Cast and crew were the next order of business.  To me, the most important decision, was who was going to shoot my film.  With producing and directing (in addition to the writing and editing) I knew I didn’t want to try and shoot the film myself.  So, I asked Jeff Stepp (steppfilms.com), a very talented DP whom I’ve worked with on several occasions to shoot the film for me and he agreed.  I think’s Stepp’s photography on the film, which we shot in black and white and in HD (we wanted film, but budgets are always a consideration), looks amazing.  Between Jeff, Dan and myself, we rounded out the crew with some University of North Carolina School of the Arts students, graduates, UNC-Greensboro grads and some of my co-workers.  I couldn’t have asked for a better crew on my first film as a director; I hope to work with all of them again in the future.

As for cast, I needed two men and one woman; two principals and one supporting.  I held auditions and knew immediately from her first read that Lisa Sain Odom out of Greenville, S.C. would play the part of Laura.  She had an amazing audition and elicited exactly what I was looking for in the character of Laura.  However, after the auditions, which took place over a weekend at Altair Casting in Winston-Salem, I still hadn’t found the perfect fits for the characters of Larry or Bob.  I had remembered Reid Dalton’s audition from an audition several years prior for a project that never came to fruition and had been impressed with Elijah Chester’s performance in a spec piece I shot for Dan for Massify.  I contacted both of these actors; I met with Reid at Greensboro’s Cultural Arts Center and Elijah sent in an audition video.  I had Larry and Bob – the cast was in place, the crew was in place, the locations were in place – the ball was definitely rolling!

We shot the film completely over Labor Day weekend 2010.  The first day was a 13-hour day, the second a 16-hour day and third was a 15-hour day.  Everyone was working for minimal pay, funded out of my own pocket, but all gave it 110%.  Outside of badly spraining my ankle falling down some steps outside on the first day before the first shot, everything overall was very smooth and we got some great footage to take into post.

Once in post production, I decided to edit the film myself.  It took some time syncing all the video and audio because, though we shot HD, we were using double system sound with slate.  Once everything was transcoded and synced, I began the process of actually cutting the film together.  Picture was more or less locked by November.  From there, the multi-talented Jon Fredette took over for sound design and scoring.  The sound design was completed for the most part by late-December.  Being state employees, we got off for Christmas break, so we took a break from the grind of post-production over Christmas and got back to work in early January.

The sound from set was, for the most part, useable.  There were a couple lines, however, as with any film that needed to be ADRed (automatic dialogue replacement).  So, Jon went through the process of scoring the film and we brought in each actor for an ADR session when available.  All parts were complete by late February.  Since then, it has been tightening up, working with sync, lowering levels, raising levels, adding bits of sound, cutting some picture, etc.  I can’t thank Jon enough for the many hours of time he has put into this project.  If you live in North Carolina, you should definitely check Jon out if you need a sound guy at jonfredette.com.

Finally, last weekend, I had a DVD burn that worked for me with no glitches, problems, sync issues or needed changes.  I called a final cut and began the process of submitting the 17-minute film to festivals.  The first batch of submissions went out last weekend and, though there are still some credits to add, we have our IMDB page up at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1907623/.

I have, admittedly, left out information about the plot itself because I hope you will get a chance to watch the film when available.  Hopefully, more posts on the film will follow.  Also, please, please check out some of the Web sites I’ve listed in this posting.  If it weren’t for these wonderful, talented people, my film would not have been able to be made.

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My First (D)SLR

8 04 2011

Panasonic Lumix GH2

So, I’ve worked with DSLR cameras pretty much since they came out.  Most of the projects I have worked on have been with members of the Canon line: 7d, 5d and T2i.  There are definitely some drawbacks to these stills cameras being using for motion capture; however, the quality you get for video is really inspiring in a lot of ways on another level.  They, quite inexpensively, give you the opportunity to utilize a shallower depth of field compared to standard ENG cameras, are better in low-light situations and are compact and durable, though not quite so ergonomic.

I bought my Panasonic HVX-200 in January of 2007 and it’s been a great camera for me.  It’s a solid, prosumer ENG style camera that, at the time I bought it, was a real workhorse for independent productions.  I’ve shot many industrial, commercial, Web promos, live performances, weddings and everything in between on the HVX.  In addition, I’ve lensed seven short films, many award-winning, on this camera.  Yet, I’ve never been necessarily enamored with the picture quality and performance of the HVX.  It’s not bad by any means, but it does leave something to be desired.  For one, you can only truly shoot 24p in 720 mode, not in 1080; the kit lens on the HVX is not high quality; I hate, hate, hate that you can’t manually dial in a color temperature based on Kelvin increments and the LCD and LVF are complete crap.  As with any camera though, there will be downsides.

In working with many DSLRs, I have really come to appreciate the distinctive “look” to some degree.  However, with the Canon line, there have been enough setbacks of one form or another (limited continuous capture, overheating issues, aliasing, bad moire), that I have not yet purchased a DSLR of my own – at least until now.  I caught wind of the Panasonic GH2 late last year when it came out.  It’s a micro 4/3 sensor camera which in sensor size is extremely close to a 35mm motion picture film frame.  In addition, Panasonic had made some major changes that give it an edge over some of the other DSLRs on the market including: the ability to continuous capture indefinitely, no overheating issues and much improved handling of problematic patterns that cause aliasing and moire.

As with anything before I buy it, I spent many an hour watching sample footage, looking at camera tests and reading reviews.  Finally, I was sold; this was the DSLR I had been waiting for (it’s mirrorless so in some regards its not a true DSLR, hence my (D)SLR title).  In looking on Amazon, B&H and other camera suppliers, however, I noticed that this camera is basically impossible to get ahold of right now.  Everywhere had them backordered!  So, of course, I checked eBay to see what they had to offer, but everything was price gouged by about $300.  I wanted the camera, but not that bad.  Finally, a camera company in Washington state listed one with the 14-42mm kit lens on eBay and since they were a Panasonic dealer, they couldn’t gouge the price.  So, I jumped at the auction when I saw it up for a “Buy it Now” at retail value.

I just got the camera in yesterday and have only been messing around a little with it last night and this morning.  I have to say though, I am pretty damn impressed.  Here in the office, I’ve been shooting under available light at 1600 ASA equivalency and the image is way less noisy than the HVX even at that high an ASA.  The color space is impressive, the aliasing and moire have been greatly reduced for a DSLR and it really has a pretty damn good dynamic range.  It was holding highlights at a solid 3 stops over and even holding pretty well into 4 stops, which is not bad for the price.  I’m not getting rid of the old HVX just yet (I did list it prematurely, but then took it down) just because some clients would probably rather see the larger, more impressive looking HVX on a commercial shoot than this little still camera.  All in all, I am very happy I bought this camera.  I can’t wait to outfit it with a Kessler Pocket Dolly, Shoulder rig, follow focus, mattebox and extra lenses.

The HVX still has its place for the time being, but this little camera has a very impressive picture and I can’t wait to test it more.  I’m glad I have the extra camera and have long considered a DSLR; its definitely been well worth the wait for the added video improvements that have come along.  Just for anyone out there considering, with the 14-42mm kit lens (worth getting now as there aren’t a lot of micro 4/3 lenses on the market yet and with the sensor size, 14mm is closer to 28mm, 42mm to 85mm, etc.) this camera is $995.95.  Yes, that’s definitely a big bang for the buck.





Pietro Germi: Unknown Master of Italian Cinema

1 04 2011

Pietro Germi - Italian Film Director

When you think about Italian cinema, several names generally come to mind: Fellini, Visconti, de Sica, Bertolucci and possibly even Benigni.  One name that is rarely mentioned in cinema circles, but whom is one of my favorite Italian directors, is Pietro Germi.  Germi, unlike some auteurs, was able to expertly master the mechanics of both comedies and dramas, while all the time keeping his own style evident throughout.  Even a couple years ago as Wikipedia was becoming very popular, Germi still hadn’t an article on his life and career.  The article that is currently live for him on the site is one that I took the time to write myself.

Germi was born in Genoa, Italy in 1914.  After a brief excursion into nautical school, he decided to enter the film industry.  He attended film school in Rome and performed many functions on various sets including acting, assistant directing and occasionally writing during his youth.  His first film as a director was The Testimony in 1946.  Following this film, he released a film every year or two for the next 25 years as a director and, more often then not, served as either writer or co-writer as well.

Germi’s first films were in the Italian neo-realist style with a deep rooting in dramatic content.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the neo-realist style, it generally covered topics that were true-to-life and the protagonists were generally the everyman type.  In addition, the films were generally shot in natural locations as opposed to shooting in a studio and the cinematography and direction had a grittier, more realistic style to it than a polished Hollywood film.  Most all of his output during the 1950s was in this style and focused on dramatic content, though he would later be more known for his comedic efforts.  Just to give you a Germi starter kit so to speak, I’ll recommend three of his films that I feel will get you on your way to either liking or deciding that Germi’s work is not for you.

One of my favorite films from Germi’s dramatic material is 1956’s The Railroad Man. In addition to writing and directing, Germi also played the lead role of Andrea Marcocci.  Andrea is, as the title suggests, a railroad worker.  He is happy in his career and spends many a night drinking with his fellow workers after getting off the job.  However, after nearly colliding with another train while trying to avoid someone attempting suicide on the tracks, Marcocci is laid off.  Further misfortune begins to complicate his life after this incident, and between his problems at work, his drinking and troubles in his family life, Marcocci’s mood gets more and more despairing.  However, his youngest son Sandro (Edoardo Nevola), wants to help his father and through Sandro’s love and support his father is able to find some form of peace.  The film is a complex study of the everyman through the life of this common railroad worker.  It touches on the human emotion on every level throughout the film and is an outstanding example of the Italian neo-realist style.

"Divorce, Italian Style" - 1961

In 1961, Germi moved into comedic material and would stay in this genre for the majority of his career following.  The film, Divorce, Italian Style, would be his greatest success, winning him a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award and garnering a nomination for Best Director.  The film tells the story of Sicilian nobleman Ferdinando Cefalù, played with precision by famous Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who hopes to marry his beautiful cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli).  The problem, however, is that he is already married to Rosalia, and in Sicily at the time it was illegal to get a divorce.  Determined to succeed, Ferdinando tries to manipulate a plan to get his wife caught up in an affair; then, when he “finds” her in the act, murder her and only receive a short sentence for an honor killing.  Mastroianni is brilliant in the part of Ferdinando and the film overall has amazing timing for comedic effect.  Following the international success of this film, many Italian comedies of the 1960s tried to emulate Germi’s style and there were a few direct off shoots of this movie.

The last Germi film I’ll go into detail on is his 1963 film Seduced and Abandoned.  It directly relates in style and mood to his previous film Divorce, Italian Style. Agnese Ascalone (Stefania Sandrelli) is the daughter of a prominent Sicilian miner, Vincenzo.  She is found in the kitchen by Vincenzo and her mother being seduced by her sister’s fiancee, Peppino.  To uphold strict Sicilian mores, Vincenzo demands Peppino marry Agnese instead.  The  resulting demand leads the story through one hilarious situation after another.  Saro Urzi, who plays Vincenzo, was perfect for this role as the frustrated, comical patriarch.  In America, he is probably best known for playing Signor Vitelli in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Unfortunately, Germi would pass in 1974 from hepatitis at the age of 60.  His last film was the mediocre Alfredo, Alfredo with Dustin Hoffman and favorite muse Stefania Sandrelli.  There are many other films in this brilliant Italian director’s repertoire worth seeing, but if you just want a tast of his comedic and dramatic style, then I feel these three films are a good place to start.  In my opinion, Germi’s abilities as a writer and director were as reputable as any of the other illuminaries of Italian cinema and hope his work will reach a wider audience in years to come.





5 Things I’ve Learned Making Short Films

21 03 2011

I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a variety of short films and, in doing so, have had the chance to wear many hats from production assistant all the way up to director (even acted in a few, but I will never tell the names of those to protect innocent eyes from my sub par acting abilities).  Having been a part of a lot of productions, as with anything, I’ve been able to crew on some amazing films that have won awards and screened at international film festivals and I’ve also been part of some films that I wish “Allan Smithee” could take my credit on.  In my nearly 10 years in independent filmmaking, I’ve learned a few things along the way and hope these few tips will help you in your endeavors in making a short film on a little to no budget.

Me on set of a recent short I directed. My very talented DP, Jeff Stepp in blue shirt and the multi-talented Dan A. R. Kelly, a great writer/director who was kind enough to AD/Co-Produce for me on this film in the hat.

1. Short Films DO NOT make money

This is a statement that I can’t stress enough to anyone looking to make a short film.  If you think it is going to bring you fame and fortune, you are completely wrong.  So, why take the time to make a short?  Well, firstly, if you have the drive to tell stories then you need an outlet to do so.  Most of us won’t get several million dollars to put our stories out there the first few times we attempt to make films, but like a sickness, we still have the need to express our creative desires and find said desires an audience.  Secondly, you are not going to make an amazing film the first time at bat.  Making films is a deeply collaborative effort that takes practice like anything else.  Each film you make you will learn something from your mistakes and be better for the next project you work on.  So, in a world where practice makes perfect, financially speaking, short films are a lot more viable a training ground.  Finally, the people who will give you several million dollars to make a feature aren’t going to give it to you on a script alone.  They need to see what you are made of from a visual standpoint, and what better way than a fragment of the feature you want to make or a reel of visual work?  The more festivals you enter, the more awards you win, the more buzz you acquire will all lead you a step closer to those dreams of one day making a feature (and obtaining fortune, fame, etc.).

2. Multiple Locations = Multiple Headaches

Whenever I get a script for a short film, the first thing I look at outside of whether I actually like the story is what it’s going to take to produce/make the film in relation to shooting, special effects, production design and many other factors.  The more locations that need to be dressed, moved to and lit, the more money you are going to have to spend to make that happen.  If you are wanting to make a short, do everything you can to take the amount of locations to produce the film down to as low as possible.  What’s a magic number for a short film’s number of locations?  In my mind: one.  If you can stick to one location then you are going to have the extra time and funds available to focus on performance, shot composition and story structure rather than worrying how you are going to get 10 people working for $75 a day (or less) and a meal for 16 hours a day to commit to a few more days because you cant do enough company moves in time.

What if there is no way to tell my story without multiple locations?  I can see this point, some stories need more than others.  My advice would be to consider whether this is a good story to try to tackle at the time and on the budget you are limited to or do your best to consolidate as much as possible.

3. Films are a Visual Medium, Who Needs Sound?

What’s the number one thing that usually sucks in a short film?  The sound and sound design.  Why?  Because most people are too concerned with the visuals and figure sound won’t be too big a deal to “fix in post.”  Well, you’re wrong.  Yes, we work in a visual medium and as a cinematographer at heart, I feel this more than about anyone you’ll find (hell, I think we should still be making silents!).  However, no one is making silent movies anymore and, if they are, it’s probably not a very serious one; it’s probably an homage to a certain look with sepia tone and 16fps projection.

No matter how good your film looks, if listening to it sounds like the whole thing was recorded in a turbine one minute and a wood box the next, then people won’t be able to properly enjoy it and give your story the chance it deserves.  ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) is always an option, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “well, we’ll just ADR this” and then in post-production greatly regretted the decision.  ADR is a difficult process that still needs to be done by an audio specialist and it’s something difficult to mix properly with on set sound unless done under a very controlled environment.  Not to mention, it’s a timely process that will probably push your production’s final cut date back dramatically.  So, in short, don’t skimp on sound!  Hire someone who knows what they are doing, even it is a boom op/mixer all-in-one type.

4.  Don’t go with the Cheapest Camera (or DP)

It’s hard to write a great, engaging story.  Look at most of the films even on multi-million dollar budgets, only a few of them are truly great stories.  If you can have a real hit screenplay every time you sit down to write though – more power to you.  However, more often than not, our stories aren’t as great as we usually think they are in the end.  What’s this got to do with cameras?  Well, if nothing else, you can at least make that short film look damn good.  How do you go about doing this?  Don’t go with the cheapest camera or DP available (the DP part is more important).

For those of you new to film, what’s a DP?  The DP is an abbreviation for Director of Photography. This is the guy (or gal) who will help the director define the visual look of the film.  On set, the DP is in charge of both the camera and lighting crews and choses the lighting schema, camera lenses, filters, instruments and makes a plethora of other decisions that will get what the director wants to see on screen to the audience.  Being on a low budget makes it easy to go with the cheapest person for the job.  But, this is who will define the look of your film.  If they aren’t qualified or don’t have a good visual sense, then your film will not come out looking good at all and, this element of making short films, I think can be one of the easiest to achieve.

Furthermore, once you have the right DP in place, give him the proper instruments he needs to complete the job.  I know on a low budget you can’t always shoot 35mm with a full lighting and grip package, but on the other hand, don’t give him a K-Mart camera and a few incadescents from Lowe’s Home Improvement either though.  Talk with your DP and figure out what he feels he needs to complete the shoot and achieve the look you want.  If it’s too much, tell him, compromise – it’s what low budget filmmaking is all about.

5.  As a Director, Always be in a Good Mood

If you are directing a short film, then you likely are the writer and producer as well (and editor, special effects, composer, cinematographer, etc. sometimes).  Being on a low budget, you probably have a lot of people working for little or nothing to help you tell the story that you want to tell.  These people are doing you a favor and the least you can do is treat them with respect and keep the mood light on set.  There are going to be long days, difficult decisions and times you wish you could pull your hair out, but you always have to remember that you are the heart of the set.  A great director is someone who understands the whole art of filmmaking, every facet, from the photography to the acting to the way its cut together.  They are a foreman, a manager, a psychiatrist, a friend, a confidant and a believer.  Your attitude alone will affect the whole set and everyone involved.  If you are angry and difficult to please, then it will show readily to everyone on set and not help your picture get made.  Likewise, if you are friendly and can face the challenges of independent filmmaking with a good heart, then you will likely have collaborators that will stick with you for a long time to come and be happy to help you create your vision for low pay, meals, copy and credits.

There are obviously many other facets of short film production that could be covered, but I feel that these five simple truths are the ones that I found to be the most important.  If you are wanting to take the dive into short film making (for the first or hundredth time) then I think that if you can remember these words of advice, your life will probably be a lot easier through the grueling pre-production, production and post-production processes.  I wish you luck and feel free to share your experiences or “life lessons” in this crazy business with me too.  You’re never too old to learn something new.








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