Ender’s Game

I watched the movie Ender’s Game before and enjoyed it.  Recently I found a copy of the book in a used bookstore, so decided to see how the novel compared.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though found the movie tracked the book almost completely.  Personally, I don’t find that a bad thing at all, but I’ve read about people who complain that they don’t need a visual version of the book, they can see it in their own heads as they read.

That being said, the book is told from the close-in point of view of Ender, so we get to learn a lot of his thoughts.  Ender is a very introspective guy.  He knows he’s really smart and has basically been bred to be a military leader, but he hates violence.  Ender is the third child in a society that restricts children to a maximum of two.  Ender is actually his nickname because he’s the third, and final child, hence the end one.

Enders older brother Peter, is also an unbelievably excellent military leader.  Except that he revels in hurting and is vicious even when it isn’t necessary.  Ender’s older sister Valentine is even smarter than Peter, an even better military leader, yet is too kind.  She refuses to make sacrifices even when they’d lead to a better outcome in the end.  Ender, though, he avoids violence until he can’t, then he explodes so viciously that he not only beats his attacker now, but forever.  He punishes his attacker, destroys them, ensures they’ll never attack again.

The military snatches Ender up and puts him in a grueling training regime where he’s always pushed, always pressured.  Each time he excels, they change the rules.  Then he excels again.  He’s so successful that he winds up taking the dregs and castoffs and turning them into an army that goes on an unprecedented winning streak in their games, despite the constant rule changes.  To keep Ender off balance, they promote him to command school years before anyone else has.

Where he excels once again, constantly forcing the teachers to struggle to make things more challenging for him.  Ultimately they decide he is ‘the one’ so put him in charge.  He is ten years old.

The version of the book I read had an authors note in it.  I found it very interesting reading, as the author talked about several people who wrote him (this was before the ‘net; how many people can actually write letters any longer?) discussing how passionate they were about his characterization.  Many of them were themselves child prodigies and struggled to get adults to understand their thinking process.  Card wrote the children as children, but very smart ones.  Most adults treat children as a different species while Card treated them as small adults.

Should you watch the movie or read the book?  Well I’m going to say both, but it depends on your preferred way of consuming media.  The movie cuts out a huge side plot in the book where Peter and Valentine work, basically as bloggers, to mold a new world order for after Ender defeats the aliens.  It’s an interesting subplot, but very distinct from the military aspect, so may not appeal to those who enjoy that part of the flick.  All the main turning points in the movie are in the book, but there’s extra background and, of course, we’re inside Ender’s head.  If you are not an avid reader, then the movie will give you all the important elements of the book, in some cases nearly verbatim.  If you prefer reading, the movie won’t add much, except awesome visuals.

I recommend this book (and movie) to anyone interested in military, scifi, or a damn good story.

Rough Cut is Finito

After a very long couple of weeks editing my movie, I finally have a rough cut done.  It is very rough, with some rather rude elements stubbed in and other experimental attempts I doubt will make it to the final cut, but it has everything done except the singing scene.

This morning I was going to rework that scene, which I put off initially because I was bogged down too much with it, but my brain is fried and I can’t make any decisions any longer.  I plan on at least a week off before I look at it again, hopefully then I’ll be able to make some progress.  It’s only around two minutes, but it totally messes with my mind.

As my sound guy / mentor said would happen, I got to the point where I hated everything and everyone.  While the vast majority of the scene had several good takes and it was a matter of trying to choose the best among several worthy options, I had one scene were I felt everything sucked.  Every angle, how the camera was set up, how the actors handled their lines, the lighting, everything.  It was a matter of finding the least bad bits and attempting to stitch them together in the least offensive way.  I even had to drop some dialog because I couldn’t find any combination of sights and sounds that I felt would work.  The lines weren’t fundamental, thankfully.

But that was one scene out of nearly 80, and while there were several takes ruined by the camera boom or microphone being in frame (and, in principal, those elements could be excised), there were others that allowed me to easily work around.

The finished render came out at a bit shy of 68 minutes, so in this case, 84 pages worked out to around 48 seconds per page, as opposed to the supposed standard of 60 seconds/page.  That’s considered a very rough guide anyway, with probably more exceptions than anything, but that’s what the industry looks at.

I’ve sent links to the rough cut to a handful of people that I feel can look past the inconsistent audio and crappy singing scene and will wait for their feedback.  No doubt I’ll be cutting some elements and they may have suggestions for better ways to handle others, so I expect to make significant changes, but I don’t believe they’ll be draconian.  I also sent the link to some musicians for their thoughts.

I still have yet to learn how to do color correction, or making each take visually look alike.  I also have painfully blue skies during some of the night scenes that need addressing, which I believe color correction will help, and I have a couple of small insert shots to take yet.  I also have a scene I didn’t put in because when I started to cut it together I realized I hadn’t filmed enough.  Fortunately it’s something I could film myself, but unfortunately, all the leaves have dropped off the trees, so it might not look good.  I’ll see if anyone misses it.

It will probably be January before I start to close in on a final cut.  First I need to lock the picture, which won’t happen until I’ve received and incorporated the feedback from the rough cut.  Then I need to polish the audio, which I fully expect to be almost as much of a PITA as cutting the video together.  Then color correct.  Then add Foley, which is the background sounds you take for granted (e.g., the sound of people walking), ambiance sounds, like birds and crickets for outdoor scenes and top it all off with music.  I got a lot of work left to do and am still struggling with some of the most seemingly trivial things using the editor (it took me days to finally figure out how to adjust the audio volume for each clip; by then I was too tired to do it).

I feel pretty good about movie making and am planning on doing the first draft of my next project over the Christmas holiday (a horror concept, since horror is one of the rare genre with a reasonable track record of getting distribution with small budgets and no names).  But any future projects have to fund themselves, as the boss (wife) has made it adamantly clear she won’t be using our retirement to finance any further projects.  So it might not get past the script stage, as if I can’t find investors in my nascent production company, I won’t be creating the LLC for the horror flick (there are good reasons that Hollywood accounting is so arcane, though that does make it easy to abuse).

Two-Thirds of the Rough Cut Done

I’m pretty happy with the editing I’ve done so far on Treasure Hunt, having reached page 56 (out of 84).  I haven’t rendered what I’ve done so far, but the editing software says it’s running a bit past 49 minutes.  One minute per page isn’t working out terribly well. If this ratio keeps going I’ll wind up with 73 minutes (exclusive of any begin/end credits), but I don’t have any particular goal for length, just want something that flows easily.  I feel even better about my self-imposed goal of having a rough-cut done by end of next weekend, though there are two scenes that, together, have over 60 takes, which will no doubt take a good bit of time to sort out.

I’ve decided to put off reworking the singing scene until I’ve got the whole rough cut done.  I’ve already decided to rejigger a few of the earlier scenes anyway, given my increased experience.  I recut the library scene I did earlier, going from 2:53 down to 2:22, without sacrificing anything, just as John said I could.  No doubt he’d cut it still further, but then again, he’d do a completely different movie from the get-go.

I’m getting a lot more comfortable with the editing, but still don’t feel called to it at all.  I do feel I’m learning about lost opportunities, though, and believe it’s just the thing to be sure I get more little shots on any future projects.  But even if people judge I have some talent for editing, I don’t know that I’ll ever do it again.  Besides, I feel having another set of eyes on the material, not to mention someone with more patience (and passion), will lead to a better product.

I finally managed to make the behind-the-scenes page I promised earlier (better late than never, eh?), you can find it here.

Back to work…

Finally, Some Measurable Progress!

Not to say there haven’t been wrinkles, of course, but I spent the better part of yesterday doing editing (more below) on the flick and got to around page 13 (about 11 minutes on-screen; if this ratio holds, then the finished product will be a bit more than 70 minutes), which, when combined with the library scene I already cut together (to find out if I could edit at all) means I have probably 16 pages done with the rough cut (a fairly slavish following of the script), or perhaps close to 20%.  This gives me some confidence that I can have a rough cut done by Thanksgiving.

So what changed?  Well, I thought, Friday night or Saturday morning, I’m also able to do cuts with the mouse as well as the keyboard, and it was the keyboard that was giving me fits. I decided to see what I could do with the mouse.  It turns out that the mouse works fine, at least on the computer at our Virginia house.  I was a little worried that might not work back in Maryland, so brought that computer home with me (it’s also newer and faster (and, I believe, with more RAM and CPUs), so I’ll probably swap computers anyway).  Stupidly, I also brought the portable drive and the original media home with me, which means everything is in one house, just waiting to burn down.  I’ll feel better next weekend when I actually have backups again.

But it was not all peaches and cream (what does that even mean?).  I was making steady progress until I got to my ‘inciting incident,’ which includes singing.  Ahh, the singing.  The advice I got was to record the singing ahead of time, then have the actors lip sync to themselves as they acted it out, listing to the recording of themselves (we picked one person to be the ‘master’ the others sang to).  Recording that turned out to be… problematic. On several levels.  Though, I felt at the time, we finally got what was needed.  Yesterday I tried to overlap the four actors singing.  While there are certainly portions that sound OK (and keep in mind, this is OK to someone who’s half deaf and has tinnitus), much of it was terrible.  It might be possible, with someone who has a lot more patience than I do, to align the singing, alter pitch, etc. and make it sound good (the number of options is almost scary), but I gave up after a couple of hours and basically stubbed in something I can come back to later.

That sucked a lot of energy out of me, though, and I wasn’t able to develop any more momentum for the day (I’d spent at least 8 hours, probably closer to 10, by this point), so I wrapped it up.  I did, though, do a test render of what I had up to that point and, if I do say so myself, it was rather watchable.  Still with the camera audio and it’s annoying hum (I started to align the separate audio, but quickly got exhausted trying to get things to match, so (re)decided to cut the whole thing together visually then go back and do the audio), but not too bad, I felt.  One friend also remarked that she felt it was ‘watchable,’ which is the bar I’ve set for myself.

What’s next?  Lots more editing of course.  If I’m running an hour a page, then that means I have 84 total.  With around 20% of that done, I have 67 hours yet to go.  Since Thanksgiving is next week, I’ll have to push it, but I do think I’m getting a bit better/faster as I go, so I still think it’s not unrealistic to get the rough cut done.  That being said, I do have two scenes which, combined, have over 60 takes, which will, no doubt, slow me down.  So maybe not by Thanksgiving Day, but, I feel, by the time the holiday weekend is over.

I managed to find the pictures my DP took behind the scenes when we were digging holes in the back yard.  I’m going to try and get them (and my wife’s videos) posted in the next day or two, but want to keep the momentum going on the editing, so don’t want to distract myself yet.

So Many Sucks

OK, I’ve let things slide for a while.  I apologize for those of you who may be following along.

When last I wrote about my movie, I’d just finished principal photography.  I was pretty depressed about the whole thing and mostly convinced never to do anything like it again.  Which, as I understand it, is quite normal for directors when production is wrapped. Didn’t make it any easier or enjoyable, though.

I wound up with 625 video clips comprising over 128 gigabytes of data and estimated to contain more than 700 minutes of ‘footage.’  (The usual low-end ratio is 10 minutes filmed for every page of material, so I was already short of the expected 840 minutes, for better or worse (probably worse, but only time will tell).)  I already started renaming the sequential, zero information file names to scene/shot/take and was half done. In order to do that, I need to watch the video until the slate, which is that clapper thing you always see on behind the scenes stuff.  For the first week I struggled doing so and it was the weekend before I started to get my act together. I did manage to get copies of all the raw files on my during-the-week computer (our house in Maryland), but managed to leave the backups and originals in our Virginia house (moron!), so when I started the next week actually doing the renaming (I have a spreadsheet with the original file name, then the scene/shot/take information as well as comments about the various takes) I found that I had stupidly renamed a number of files to the same name (thus losing the other) and somehow managed to completely fail to copy some file all together.  That forced me to wait to get the original media the next weekend, so zero progress for two weeks.

Boy, did I screw up my file renaming!  It took me probably more than 8 hours (spread over several days) to have confidence that I had all the correct files (two were even corrupted, but fortunately the original media versions were clean) and they were named properly.  So I got all my data and am all set to start editing on Monday.

Then I wound up with a migraine!  I get them at irregular intervals and they can sometimes last for 3-4 days.  After decades of experimentation, I’ve found a drug cocktail that will minimize the pain from the headache (before, my only ‘treatment’ was to hide in bed praying to sleep, as that was the only time I was pain free), but it makes me a bit spacey and does little to stop the nausea (makes dieting easier, though).  That lasted through Wednesday. Thursday, yesterday, I finally feel good again, so was all set to finally start editing when I got home from work.

But first I tried to make a ‘behind the scenes’ page showing off some of the videos and images my wife took, but Youtube has made that a small nightmare for me.  When I first uploaded the video there was a page that allowed me to get an embedded link for each video. That page vanished when Firefox thoughtfully decided to restart itself and I haven’t been able to find out how to get those damn links since then.  Way to be user friendly Youtube! If a professional programmer can’t figure these things out without Googling, then it’s too damn complicated.

So I figured, well, I have one, surely I can recreate the others, so I work on my web page replicating the same embedded URL and changing the code at the end of the Youtube URL.  Simple, right? Except the clips that show up in my web page seems to be random compared to the clip that shows up when I reach it via Youtube. I had to take a break or I would have smashed something.  If you want to investigate yourself, it’s the most recent files uploaded here: https://www.youtube.com/user/mitakeet/videos

Now to editing… Finally.  Except (you knew there had to be one, right?) the Kdenlive software that I had successfully used earlier, now, when I go to make a cut, jumps around randomly instead of the frame where I told it to cut.  WTF?! I tried reinstalling it, no luck. Well, hell, I’ll just switch to the second most recommended editing software, they’re all supposed to look and feel the same, right? Except the operating system software to load the other editing software denied the editing program even existed!  I had to take a break a number of times to keep from destroying anything, so it was a while before I decided I’d try the Linux version of Davinci Resolve, a very popular Window-based editor. Except it isn’t optimized to install on Ubuntu (the flavor I use), so I had to use this script to convert it.  Which took, like, an hour to download and convert.

It installed, after I resolved a dependency issue (one of the ‘joys’ of working on Linux).  Great! Now I just launch it and start going through the learning curve to use it. I fire it up, it goes through a bunch of introductory screens, assures me my hardware has enough horsepower to get the job done, then…  hangs. Eventually I get a crash report. Well, that sucks. I rerun it, exact same issue. So now I’ve wasted the entire evening and haven’t edited a damn thing. And got steam coming out of my ears and want to smash things.  I blow off some of that steam to some friends, then watch some TV and go to bed. As I lay there, I decided I’d try my wife’s hated Windows laptop to see if I could edit with it (will try that this afternoon). I have no idea if it has the horsepower to do editing, but I might as well try.  The cost of buying a new machine is such that it probably makes better sense to hire an experienced editor instead.

But I’d really like to get the experience doing the editing, as I’ve been assured in many places that I will grow a lot as a director by doing at least the rough-cut version of at least my first film.

I’m also going to see if I can do editing on my computer in Virginia.  If that works, perhaps I’ll just bring it home (which robs me of an off-site backup, but maybe I can leave one of my portable hard drives there instead).  My goal of having a rough cut by Thanksgiving isn’t looking very feasible any longer.

Boy, do I hate computers!

Five Fathoms Beneath

I read Jen’s story twice, as she tweaked it to her exacting standards.  We’ve become friends during that process and I wish her the very best of luck with her novel.

I love this story. It’s crisp, well written and engaging while dealing with a very hard subject. It does so with sensitivity and grace and I hope helps people who don’t suffer from depression to understand that just because someone suffers doesn’t mean they aren’t people that can live rewarding and engaging lives.

The characters are all fully realized and individual (and memorable). I recommend this to anyone who wants to be engage irrespective of any relationship with depression. Though there are some tough patches, the story winds up very optimistic and I found it heartwarming.

Amazon link.

The author’s website.

My Goodreads review.

Principal Photography is Done!

For better or worse.  Hopefully more of the former and less of the latter.

Sunday afternoon we completed filming the final scene of “Shenandoah Treasure Hunt,” which happened to be the second scene chronologically in the script.  The penultimate scene filmed was the fourth scene in the script.  Filming out of order has me worried I might have missed something important.  Indeed, last Saturday I forgot a scene, somehow crossed it off my list even though we hadn’t shot it.  Crystal commented earlier in the week, when I sent out the call sheet, that it wasn’t on the list, so thanks to her we got it worked in on Saturday.

Saturday, once again, was beautiful, with clear, painfully blue skies while we were shooting the day-for-night scenes.  Then, naturally, when we switched to the actual daytime scene, it got cloudy and dark.  Fortunately, the DP was on top of things and compensated beautifully.

I got some production stills from him, but stupidly forgot to copy them to my portable hard drive, so won’t have access to them until next weekend.  I intend to collect a few together and create a web page.  No doubt the actors have taken quite a few, probably even videos, but we didn’t make arrangements to get copies to me.  Now they’re off to the four winds.

Once again, I suffered acute depression on the way home Sunday.  I feel better today, but on the ride home I was pretty convinced I never wanted to do this again.  So many compromises, so many things that felt rushed.  Averaging 10 pages a day seemed so easy before, but I think it’s much more realistic to aim for a max of 10 pages and accept an average of around 7-8 per day instead.  There were many times where we simply didn’t have time to do more takes, as then we wouldn’t be able to get in the rest of the scheduled scenes.

I think if I had some expert helpers and extra lighting equipment we could go faster.  Nate had to do 99% of the work himself; about all we could do is fetch and carry for him.  But if we had dedicated crew who knew how to set up lights, they could be working on the setup for the next scene while we’re filming, which should help make things more efficient.  Of course, that also makes things more expensive, so all sorts of trade offs.

On Sunday, I was confident by the end of this week I could cut together a rough version of the film, to identify any missing scenes or scenes that simply do not work (for technical reasons or otherwise).  Yesterday disabused me of that notion.  I have over 600 files that total almost 126 gigabytes (and take hours to transfer!).  I estimate a total of 700 minutes, or a bit more than 11.5 hours.  Which need to be edited into around 80 minutes.  That’s actually a pretty good ratio (perhaps too good, meaning not enough coverage for optimal editing), the usual is 10 minutes filmed for 1 minute in the final cut.

My new estimate for a rough cut is around Thanksgiving, which is barely a month away (how fast this summer has gone!).  Then I need to catch up on beta reading I committed to back in spring(!) and, finally, deal with my own writing I have queued up.  We typically take the week between Christmas and New Years to hang out at our place in Virginia, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be doing editing most of that time.

I’ve looked at a number of the ‘dailies’ and been pretty happy (indeed, looking through clips last night — so I can label them with scene/shot/take so I have some prayer of getting started with editing — helped lift my mood).  Unless there’s some egregious errors that are impossible to work around (e.g., I only one usable shot of a certain scene, and the boom mike is clearly visible in the corner of the frame; but I think I can crop it fairly easily), I don’t intend to do any reshoots or pickups.  Partly because the actors all insist they need additional compensation, despite what I made clear when this project got started, but also because they’re all busy and it might very well be January or even February before we’d have time to get everyone together.

While ‘watchable’ is a fairly low bar, it is, nonetheless a challenge for a first-time writer/director.  I tried to minimize that risk by having experienced script editors help me with the story, as well as experienced cast and crew, but it still needs to be edited together.  If my attempt at a rough cut is deemed inadequate (I hope not, but kind of expect so), then I will lobby my executive producer (wife) for some funds to hire an experienced editor to see if they can come up with something watchable.

As I work on cutting together the movie, I’ll also be thinking about material for a trailer.  Hopefully I can have something interesting by the end of the year, if not by Thanksgiving, and will be sure to make it available here.

Any lessons learned at this point?  Schedule fewer pages is number one.  Get the contracts signed before filming is another.  I’ve tried to look through the camera (well, look at the camera’s monitor) to see how the DP is framing things, but largely failed to do so.  I think that’s a major mistake on my part.  I focus on the actor’s delivery, but since I don’t know what’s in frame most of the time, I might not be catching something important.  I think, at a minimum, a shot list is important.  I had a list of all the scenes scheduled for each day (though somehow marked one off mistakenly, so even that’s not guaranteed), but missed a few shots I needed to get and had to remember to get them later.  If I had the shot list going into each scene, then I could check them off as we go and know nothing got missed.  If I continue with movie making, I’m going to hire an artist to do storyboards.  I think that would go a very long way toward assuring the vision in my head got captured, because I could show the DP what I had in mind.  I expect the DP to come up with better ideas, but they can only be better if he knows what I had in mind in the first place.

No doubt when I finally start getting the editing going I’ll identify other weaknesses, but these are the ones I know about so far.  This movie was intended to be a learning experience, and it has certainly lived up to that goal.  I think there’s a reasonable possibility, once I’ve got the movie assembled, that I’ll get excited again and want to continue, but as I type this, I’m straddling the fence.  Which is better than on Sunday, when I was firmly on the f-this side of the fence.

On to editing…

Three Quarters, In The Can

An update on my Treasure Hunt movie (crowdfunding link)…

Due to scheduling conflicts, we had to take two weekends off. We filmed last Saturday and Sunday and will do next weekend, then that’s probably it. There are some insert shots (someone holding a phone, computer, picture, etc.) and some transition shots (showing some iconic shots of the countryside while the characters are traveling) that need to be filmed, but I may not have the budget or time to do pickup shots or ADR (automated dialogue replacement), so it may have to be exactly the way it is.

The weekend was quite productive. We did, though, have a very long day on Saturday. Started at 7:30 AM (everyone was there on time, though the DP hadn’t slept at all Friday night) and I think it was after 9 PM when we wrapped the final scene. It was the day with the most scheduled pages AND scenes. And we dug a hole! The DP actually wound up digging most, he seemed to really enjoy it, but I don’t think the women did any at all. The DP wanted the hole deeper, but we hit a flat slab of bedrock and no one wanted to gamble another location would be better, so we covered the slab up with a little dirt and trusted to movie magic. We needed a couple of shots at the ‘blue hour’ (which was actually only about 20 minutes; it’s the brief time when there’s enough light to film things without lighting them, yet dark enough that ‘practical’ lights show up), which had us racing around a little, but it was almost all at our property.

The one location was at the Zirkle Mill. Naturally the day I choose to film is the same day that the next door neighbor decides to have a yard sale.  Thus, the parking lot we used, which I swear to you has been totally empty of cars for years, had a constant stream of people pulling in to park, then lazily lollygagging their way back and forth across the road between where we were shooting. Oh, there were also like 10x more noisy trucks on the road than I ever remember hearing/seeing since we’ve been there, which included two days we were putting in our driveway and were originally told we needed someone on the road with a flag (fortunately, they backed off on that before we left with the borrowed ‘road work’ signs). I was all set to quit and (possibly) try again some other day, but the DP insisted we give it some more time. He was right; we were eventually able to find the minute-long window we needed to get the shots.

The back of the mill was beautiful and the DP loved it so much he insisted on a wide angle shot that probably means we’ll have to do ADR of the actor’s lines. Boy, was that creek noisy! The DP almost was in the water he wanted to get so much of the mill in the shot. This is supposed to be the exact same physical structure that was there during the Civil War and which figures prominently in my plot and story.

We did a lot of day-for-night shooting. Almost all the scenes on Saturday are, in the script, at night, but I didn’t want to be up all night (neither did the actors) and we convinced the DP to shoot during the day instead. Naturally we had a largely gorgeous, clear, PAINFULLY blue sky, so I’ll have a lot of work in editing blackening that brilliant thing. We did a lot of walking on Saturday, from nearly one end of our property to the other. The driveway is a third of a mile long, so I expect we all did a couple of miles over the day. Which, of course, cut into the time we could be filming, hence the really long day.

I had to drop all my ‘bro’ scenes. The actor who was supposed to be the bro partner to my son sent an email around 4 PM Saturday (which I didn’t read for several hours) that he didn’t have a ride for Sunday. So I delete the parallel scene with the Velma character and am toying with revamping (the now deleted) almost final scene where the bros were going to dismiss the treasure. I’m now thinking of having Max go to the landlord instead, but haven’t made up my mind. Sigh. Getting actors for these scenes has been a nightmare from the very beginning. I’ve probably had at least a half dozen say ‘yes’ to a bro slot, only to back out later. I’ve never been able to get actors lined up for the parallel scene (they’re both meant to be background comic relief for an otherwise dull scene in the foreground; now no dull scene), though had come up with a way to film it later, so I had more time to try and get people (I had two tentative relatives, but they couldn’t make the scheduled day).

On the whole I think I got what I needed. Next weekend will be a challenge as well, it has the second highest pages, but half them are same location and scene, so I hope we can film it quickly.

While the process certainly hasn’t been without frustrations, on the whole, I think I’m happy with how things have been working out. I wish I had more focus to work on editing, so I could catch things we could recover from while still filming, but we’ve largely been so busy each weekend I doubt I’d have the time or energy to squeeze in any shots anyway. But I am learning a whole lot about movie making, lots of little things that can make things smoother. Like scheduling scenes with complicated wardrobe together, or, alternatively, if wardrobe is simple, scheduling all the shots from the same location/setup at the same time and have the actors change several times.


This post is devoted to providing background to how I got to the point where I created a crowdfunding page for my first movie.  It’s intended for the friends and family I haven’t contacted in a while (in some cases a very long while; sorry about that) to give them an idea of how I got from hither to yon.

With my failure of various inventions, business ideas, etc., I struggled for a long while to find something to get passionate about.  I thought to give writing a try, which is what lead to this website.

I tried writing novels for a while, but ultimately decided, as much as I enjoyed the process, I just didn’t see the economic payback (me being a mercenary and all).

Then, when a beta reader ‘complained’ that my first novel read like a screenplay, I decided to learn about movie making.  I’ve always been intensely interested in movies.  For decades, one of my best friends and I would get together to watch movies and then discuss them.  I love to watch the behind-the-scenes stuff and had read with some interests about the arcane rules of Hollywood accounting.  But I hadn’t learned anything about the nitty-gritty elements of movie making.

The more I learned about directing, the more I felt called toward the subject.  The same was not true for any other element of movie making, though much of what I learned about producing meshed very well with my broad business education (self-taught as well as formal with an MBA).  When I wrote my stories, I was basically describing a movie I had in my head, so the more I learned, the more I thought I could be happy as a writer/director.

But, after having learned about the dismal prospects of making a living as a writer, did I really want to dump more time, energy and money into another low probability project?  I mulled over this for a long time.  Though based largely on gut feelings, honed over decades of entrepreneurship (but mostly guesswork), I felt that the chances of making it as a successful novelist (somewhat arbitrarily designated as making $100K+ per year doing full-time writing) was one in 10,000.  I did note, as I did my research, that almost all the millionaire authors (very few, actually) were such because their novels were turned into movies.  Perhaps I could cut out the middle man and make my own?

After some deep analysis of the prospects of making a living as a writer/director, I came up with the gut conviction that the odds of success (basically, the same $100K/year income) was around one in 500.  Still quite abysmal odds, of course, but 20 times better than as a novelist.  Still, did it make sense to devote so much effort to something with such terrible chances of success?

When it comes to being a novelist, my education and experience really bring zero as any sort of competitive advantage.  Meaning, nothing distinguishes me as a novelist, when compared to the 10’s of thousands (perhaps 100x more, who knows) of other novelists out there.  However, directing isn’t quite the same.  Directors are managers, in addition to being the creative driving force.  As I researched directing, I felt more and more that my expensive business education and years of experience as a manger would give me a competitive advantage over other directors.

More than that, movies are about packages.  No matter how great a script is, without the money to make it, nothing will come of it.  Producers are the prime movers behind getting the money, and while I didn’t feel called to producing like I did to directing, I certainly know their motivation and can speak their language.  And I’m comfortable acting as a producer and tracking the 1,001 things that all must come together in order to take a script to the big screen.  As a writer, in addition to director, I’ve already increased the package when approaching any investors.  If I can get myself plugged in enough to find the right actors, then I have a huge head start over other directors, even experienced ones.

There is a massive Catch-22 to being a director, though.  In nearly all cases, no director is ever hired to be a director without having first been a director.  WTF?  Well, this conundrum is usually ‘simply’ resolved by producing (and paying for) your first project.  So I decided to research how cheaply I could make a movie.

In principle, you can make a movie for zero dollars.  That only works in very rare cases, and I wanted something people could watch.  After much research, I felt a few thousand dollar budget would let me have the potential to make something people could enjoy.  That depended, though, on getting cast and crew to work for ‘reel, beer and pizza.’  ‘Reel’ is examples of your talent.  In the case of a cinematographer, what their imagery looks like, lighting, angles, etc.  For an actor, how they comport themselves, emote, etc.  Everyone starting out has the same Catch-22, can’t get any experience without first having some experience, so, based on much of what I read, I felt I could get my start that way.

Not so much luck, though, in finding people for that level of compensation.  I got lucky during this research process in finding a mentor who has made several shorts and a feature.  He insisted it was possible to do things for reel, but if I could pay, even a little, I’d have a much better selection of actors, and it’d be much more likely they’d stay the course to get the movie completed.  I recalculated and figured a larger, but still small, budget, and started a campaign to get that funded.  That meant going to my boss and executive producer (wife) to get the funding allocated.  Well, she wasn’t very interested.  Over the years, she’d put in at least $50K in my various business ideas, inventions, etc. and had yet to see a cent in return.  Plus, after having just dumped a bunch of money into novels, she was skeptical I would have more to show for my movie making efforts.

Intellectually, I agreed with her assessment.  We were taking money that would otherwise go toward our retirement, so there were very real and fairly immediate consequences to diverting that to something with such a low probability of success.  However, after much navel gazing, I decided the only thing I could get passionate about any longer was the idea of making movies.  After much whining, pleading, puppy dog eyes and perhaps some sniveling and blubbering, I convinced the boss to back me in finding out if I have the potential to make a go as a writer/director.

But what to write and direct?  The first screenplay I completed, “The Dominatrix Wore Red,” while overall inexpensive to film, when compared to Hollywood blockbusters, was still way out of reach of the paltry sums I could rationalize extracting from our retirement.  The first one I worked on, but didn’t complete until later, had too much international travel for a first-time, micro budget feature.  I asked a friend for ideas. Since she’s obsessed with the Civil War, she naturally suggested that as something to explore.  I thought the idea of an adventure in treasure hunting that all happened on our own property could be just the thing.  I set to writing, got the input from a couple of editors, and started the casting process.  With my expanded budget to pay cast and crew, I’m happy to report I got lots of very good quality applicants, and was off to the races.

So there you go, the background to my request for crowdfunding a feature from a first-time writer/director.  My goals for this project are fairly simple: do I enjoy making it and is what I wind up with watchable (broadly defined is will people who see it willingly recommend it to a friend)?  If I don’t like making movies (I have, so far), then that’s the end of that.  If what I write/direct/produce isn’t watchable, then I seriously need to reconsider my efforts.  That said, movie making is, first and foremost, a collaborative endeavor.  Lots of people have integral parts to play. On the one hand, it can dilute some of the aims of the writer in the initial script. But on the other hand, with cast and crew that really care, they can make it better than it was on the page.  My goal with paying for the experienced cast and crew was to help ensure against my naive mistakes causing the end product to be worthless.  Time will tell on this, but I’m optimistic.

So what happens if I like making movies and what I turn out is watchable?  Well I have a number of projects in the pipeline for just such an event.  I think my second project might be a horror movie, as horror seems to be the only genre where a low budget independent movie has a realistic chance at distribution, hence profit.  I’m toying with a third project as a Civil War biopic on Jessie Rupert, the Angel of the Shenandoah.  Even though a period piece, I believe it’s feasible to film it ‘inexpensively’ (my arm-waving budget is $500K, so everything is relative) by taking advantage of lots of interest in the Shenandoah Valley.  I think I can make this profitable through self-distribution, so don’t think I need to rely on outsiders to pay back my investors.

A fourth project is one I came up with a year or so ago.  I’m big into road bicycle racing (think the Tour de France) and would love to tell the story of the domestique, those riders who support the team and its leader.  While I expect I’ll need a couple of million dollars to adequately tell that story, because of the global following of bike racing I think I can self-distribute it and get that budget back.

Then my Dominatrix movies.  They’re ‘cheap’ by most standards, with a small cast, few locations and no travel.  But most movies need to have at least one ‘name’ actor in order to have any realistic chance at distribution, hence profit (self-distribution is extremely time consuming and requires a substantial investment of money as well), and to do that it’s fairly commonly accepted that budgets need to be at least $2.5 million.  But if I can get this far, I should have enough of a reputation to get a realistic chance of getting these movies widely distributed.

If I’m still having success, I have other concepts I think would work very nicely on the big screen.  They’re much more expensive to film, requiring stunts, sets, guns, etc., but I think the stories are interesting enough to put butts in theaters.

A very long shot indeed.  Not quite lottery-like odds, which I equate to the chance of being struck by lightening, while dancing naked, on a golf course, at midnight, but slim nonetheless.  However, gotta play to win, and as someone once said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.  I’m taking this shot at movie making, and, if you’ve read this far, perhaps you’ll consider donating to the cause.

After all, someone has to get struck by lightening.  Why not me?

Less Funky

Saturday morning I awoke and it was like a switch was thrown.  Instead of feeling heavy each time I thought about Treasure Hunt (or, really, anything), I was motivated and excited.  So weird.  Anyway, I finally completed my crowdfunding website (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/shenandoah-treasure-hunt-movie#/) and began the arduous process of identifying people to email about it (Gmail tells me I’ve communicated with over 1,800 people, but only a small fraction of them will ever care about my movie).

My expectations for the crowdfunding aren’t that high; I really don’t have any experience with social media.  Pretty much my only efforts are blogging and I’ve never promoted any of them.  I used Google Analytics on one and was quite depressed to find that when I put out a new post I got a ‘spike’ of visitors that averaged a whopping 10.  I probably got around 1-2 unique visitors a day, and this was when I was blogging on nearly a daily basis.

I don’t Tweet, nor Facebook.  I used to LinkIn a lot, having been practically an alpha customer, but when they decided to have an IPO they made so many changes I lost any interest.  I comment occasionally on the news sites or blogs I follow, but don’t make any sort of concerted effort to promote myself, keeping the focus on whatever article/post I’m responding to.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see the value, it just means it’s not something built-in to go out an trumpet myself.  Assuming I go forward with this making movies idea, getting a social media manager is a very important step.

I haven’t bothered to check metrics to see if any actual humans were visiting this blog, not wanting to get depressed with the answer.  But if you are out there, first, thank you for visiting.  Second, please tell your friends about the crowdfunding page and I encourage you to be the first to donate.  I’d prime the pump myself, but doing so is strictly verboten.