Transcend the technology

Filmmakers have warned of the “death of film” for a long time, even before I got started in the business. Rather, I think back then, film wasn’t dead, or dying, but it was certainly a grim outlook. These days, I’d say film is in hospice care; hanging on, but everyone who works with it knows where it will end. Maybe not today, but soon. 

I began my transition into the film industry with an epiphany: at Sundance 2002, I realized a career in film isn’t a fantasy. I was in the Eccles theater, surrounded by people who worked in or around the film industry, and I realized that industry wasn’t a dreamer’s dream. That industry was real: a place where many people in that crowd earned a paycheck. Suddenly, the future seemed less like a hallucination, and more like a real destination.

I later interned at Panavision Florida, and I quickly drank the Kool-Aid: film was amazing.

Quick aside: I’m a technology enthusiast and all around nerd. “Digital” was never a phrase that scared me. I live in a constant state of awe about the little miracles we’re surrounded by, because I remember them growing from infancy to teenagers. I remember dial-up, cable modems, ethernet, 802.11a wi-fi. I remember brick-shaped cell phones, clamshell Motorolas, PDA’s and the first smartphones. I remember the first time I saw a CPU was water-cooled and overclocked to reach 1Ghz (late 1999). Now, my wife’s PC has 8 cores, all operating above 3Ghz. People complain about how slow their smartphone is. Nobody even remembers the sound of a modem. That’s amazing to me, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

I love film, but probably for a simple, boring reason: it’s a tool. I love film in the same way a guitarist loves a guitar. Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, PRS, whatever… it’s the tool that artist uses to create what their passionate about. Reliability, history, experience/evolution, all play a part in what makes guitars awesome to that guitarist. Pickups have become refined, strings offer different feels and different strengths for the artist to select, etc.

Film, as a tool of filmmaking, has a number of edges still to this day:

  1. Archival format – take the film out of the camera, properly download and can it, and assuming you get it developed properly, that film will store those images for the next few DECADES.
  2. Still looks great – with modern film stocks, the grain is so tight you can scan it and still get amazing resolution.
  3. Decades of established support – we know how film behaves, we know how the gear behaves, we can diagnose problems without the “PC LOAD LETTER ERROR” type problems that plague a lot of digital shoots.

What seems to be the sin of film? Cost. Of course, we can make spreadsheet after spreadsheet which shows how little, if any, the “savings” are that you get from shooting digitally. However, for the most part, digital appears cheaper at first glance since film stock is so expensive, and the costs of correcting disasters with digital are only possible afterwards… like a tornado.

Anyone who was alive when the first photographic technologies first emerged has expired years ago. Since the 1850’s, we’ve captured and developed (pun intended) how we photograph anything and everything. From glass plates to flexible celluloid, kinetoscopes to cinemascope, Al Jolson to Al Pacino, what emerged from filmmaking was an art form intrinsic to the human experience: to share a life, fiction or non-fiction, with an audience en masse, such that the audience can survive what kills the protagonist, can feel the triumph or loss as our hero feels, and can walk away with the smallest out of body experience, however meaningful.

I think we all need to remember that history, and that mission, when we consider film and digital, if only for one goal: we must not become so obsessed with the tools of our trade that we forget the greater meaning of the form which we serve.

I don’t hate digital. I actually think digital is incredibly cool. However, I see a crop of emerging storytellers that are so engrossed in the fetish of those tools that I fear they’re forgetting their task. IMAX or PixelVision, RED Dragon or Thompsson Grass-Valley Viper, 65mm or 5Dmk3, they all have one thing in common: they’re supposed to be the tool by which you convey an experience, whatever its purpose (comedy, tragedy or whatever).

The guitar is meaningless if you’re a bad guitarist.

The guitar is meaningless if you can’t keep tempo with your band, or can’t perform on stage.

The guitar is meaningless if it matters more than the audience.

I find myself overhearing many cinematographers, camera people and directors fetishizing, fantasizing over the various digital cameras, and I always give them the benefit of the doubt; after all, I am a nerd, and I know what it is to “nerd out.” However, I bite my tongue when I hear the conversation devolving into blanket statements about the death of old technologies, especially when they have clear edges over emerging technologies. The film gods giveth (digital gives immediate playback) and the film gods taketh away (hours of hard work distilled to a few minutes of recorded digital footage “disappear” from a hard drive or card with no death sigh, no last gasp… sometimes, just gone).

“Film is dead” is often the battle cry of the indie filmmaker, in all their forms, because they think they can make the movie entirely by themselves. However, much like our guitarist, a filmmaker is a part of a “band”, and band morale is contingent on everyone working cohesively as a team. Beyond that, the filmmaker is part of a band with a goal of giving an experience to an audience.

In the end, a guitarist must believe he will continue to perform his trade regardless of which guitar he decides to use. He must transcend the fetishism of the tools which may change, bit by bit, over the years, and decide if he’s a guitarist only with THIS Fender Strat… or he’s a guitarist, and that’s that.

I’ll go out and say it: 5-10 years from now, I don’t think RED cameras will hold ANY of mainstream filmmaking, be it theatrical features or TV or whatever. That’s not a comment on the technology; the technology is amazingly cool. That’s my opinion on how they’ve functioned as a business, and even their founder knows their “revolution” served one purpose: it pushed the necessity of 35mm size imaging sensors onto the other camera manufacturers, and set the grounds for digital cinema to overtake film acquisition as the common tool. THAT’S IT. Prior to RED, we were using abominations like the SGPro and Letus35 “film adapter” to create DOF. RED saved us from that, hallelujah! Now, you can buy a RED MX body for a few grand, and good luck getting anyone to rent it. The sad thing: the RED MX was stable and functional when the Epic trickled out, and that whole market downgraded for the promise of 5K.

Cameras come and go. Do you want to go with them?

If you want to survive, don’t be the disciple of any single camera, any single technology. Skilled, talented artists can make any tool make magic, so long as the tool doesn’t undermine the effort. Be the disciple of the art form that got you drunk and led you away to play make believe with other adults for ridiculous hours.

I sometimes tell people, if they absolutely feel compelled to go to film school, to enroll and take classes only until you realize filmmaking is a team effort. Once you realize that, and you look at your classmates and realize who you’d want included on your future passion project, 14 hours a day for 16 weeks… and who you’ll call to hang out when it’s done? Drop out.

Your life and career must mean more than a camera. Your coworkers and colleagues matter more than any camera.

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What is a camera operator?

I think I started in film school wanting to direct. As time went on, I realized I was missing a great many skills required of a director, most of which were not technically specific to the title of Director. Love, life, family, meaning, loss, tribulation, failure… all the things a person picks up along the way to becoming a good storyteller were glaringly absent from my life’s CV up until then, and probably for the foreseeable future. However, the wonders of the visual world always had my attention, and a good friend of mine made me aware of the position of camera operator.

I knew life would share with me whatever was in store as it felt appropriate, so too would my career in film. However, the midterm goal was established, and I was thrilled to realize there was a title for what I’d really wanted all along: camera operator. Someone to  guide the audience and care for every thing inside, and outside, of the frame.

Who, or what, is the camera operator? In the last decade, we’ve seen a decline (at least at the Union level) in the requirement for a camera operator. I don’t blame changing technology or changing budgets for the reduction and marginalization of the position. Rather, I think the ethereal nature of that job is the cause of it’s almost fluid nature, appearing some places but not others. After all, as one mentor and camera operator put it, “doing my best job means the audience never detected I was there; they were so engrossed in the story” and the act of operating camera never distracted from that tale.

I think many of the people I look up to in industry have some interesting thoughts on the position. One colleague described the position of camera operator as “the most easily replaced or fired person on set”, because nowhere else is a single position at the overlap of so many departments who, when tempers flare, can convince the powers that be that fault rests with the intersection rather than the vehicles passing that crossroads. We can upset the electricians with late requests for lights to be moved, grips with last minute dolly changes, art department with not sharing with them important information about decoration malfunctions or mis-positions, directors for framing poorly, makeup and actors for not asking for a quick touch-up during long takes, etc. etc. etc.

On the other hand, another mentor once said, “[camera operators] are the editors best friend and the DP’s conscience.” We find diplomatic reasons to help back up a DP’s thoughts when conflicting with the director, and on a moment’s notice. We shoot from the hip, sometimes without a rehearsal, and must remind everyone of what shots are missing (for the editor’s sake). We anticipate the needs of everyone, from the dolly grip who needs time to lay track to the camera team who have to flip modes. The camera operator is the largest personality on set that doesn’t let anyone think they’re the biggest personality on set. Wallflower and ambassador, visualizer and prognosticator.

Most of this is who the camera operator is long before and long after their eye ever touched an eyepiece.

Even with the most diplomatic of skills, and even with the greatest of set presence, in the end, I think great camera operators look at an image and get a feeling like a young man in a moment of infatuation. We see an imagine, and either it’s love or not. The image may be great, wonderful, beautiful… but I think camera operators live for that moment of love.

They’re rare, and that’s why they’re incredible. Like I’ve mentioned before, when Nestor Almendros was operating the “house on the hillside” reveal shot in “Days of Heaven”, and when he came down, he had tears in his eyes and said, “…it’s just one of those shots.”

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Indie film and Kickstarter: Survival in the time of the celebrity pet project

In the 1994 movie “With Honors”, Montgomery Kessler (played by Brendan Fraser) decides to completely rewrite his senior thesis after realizing the negativity and cynicism with which he’s conducted his academic career. After his girlfriend (played by Moira Kelly) reads the new thesis statement, “Monty” responds to her enthusiasm: “That’s right… interactive cable TV is going to save the world… now I just have to figure out how.”

When I first read about Kristen Bell’s Kickstarter project for “Veronica Mars”, I was intrigued but also aggravated. Scouring the internet, not only did I see similar reactions of outrage from other film community pundits, I also couldn’t really get a clear picture of whether I should feel only a bit annoyed or fully outraged. In my mind, it came down to the question: was a “Veronica Mars” feature going to get made, if not immediately then eventually, prior to Kickstarter?

If Warner Bros. were just hesitating over the script, likely to enter the volley of submission, coverage, script notes, rewrites, submission, coverage, script notes, rewrites, ad nauseam, then I was preparing to enter full blown outrage. Warner Bros. just passively agreed to let fans contribute a production budget for something they were already prepared to underwrite.

If the script was dead in the water, unlikely to ever get produced based on the studio’s estimation that a “Veronica Mars” feature just wasn’t worth the money or energy, then I would still feel aggravated that a TV show with 3 successful seasons on the air would rake in the cash through crowd funding based not on the merit of an idea but rather on the support of a successful show displaying their darling celebrity endorsement. Literally, they hung a successful franchise’s name on a Kickstarter, posted a video with the celebrity star, and started the campaign. Nobody seemed to be enthusiastic over the STORY of the “Veronica Mars” feature, only that a “Veronica Mars” feature was a $1 donation away.

As of today, they completed their campaign with $5,702,153 donations from fans. As far as I can tell, nobody donating was offered a preview of the script, coverage of what they were financing, nothing. The fervor with which the campaign crossed the finish line seemed entirely fueled by star power.

I stopped thinking about the “Veronica Mars” campaign, possibly because I sought to dismiss my ire through empathetic reasoning: “Oh, if you were a fan of a show, and they did a Kickstarter campaign, you’d probably donate sight-unseen too!” If a Kickstarter showed up for a 3rd season of HBO’s hastily canceled “Carnivalè”, I’d probably be the first to donate.

Then, I read that Zach Braff created his own Kickstarter campaign for his own pet project: a sequel to the 2004 hit “indie” film “Garden State” which he starred and directed. With a modest budget of $2.5 million (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com), Zach created a heartfelt film that costarred the skyrocketing star Natalie Portman (Oscar winner 7 years later) with other characters played by Ian Holm (Oscar nominated in 1984) and Peter Sarsgaard (Golden Globe nominated). He even mentions in his Kickstarter that he was about to get financing, but instead decided on the crowd funding route.

“Garden State”, also according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, made $35 million dollars globally, plus a soundtrack that was certified platinum with 1.3 million copies sold. I only bring these numbers up to show that, for a $2.5 million dollar production budget film, they were extremely successful.

When you work in Hollywood, you have access to certain people whom you can likely get to be involved in your projects for an affordable rate, schedules permitting. Clearly this option isn’t available to everyone. I saw a movie at Sundance 2013 called “In a World…” written and directed by Lake Bell, who explained that she got Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz in the movie by simply calling them up and seeing if they were available that day. I don’t know if every project on Kickstarter has those sort of connections.

Now, I will play the devil’s advocate in acknowledging the repetition Hollywood seems constantly engaged in: sequels, reboots, prequels, remakes, restarts, all of the same property with very few “new” stories, unless they smell an adolescent teen series phenomenon they can option. So, perhaps even a bulletproof Zach Braff sequel to a film that earned 1400% of it’s production budget in box office could get a “pass” from the studios, much as a 3 season success like “Veronica Mars” could get set up for that aforementioned volley of “fix this, then we’ll talk…” phone calls.

One question that immediately comes to mind, though, is this: based on previous success of both properties, is it not probable that a “Veronica Mars” feature or even Zach Braff’s projects suffered from a business problem? Perhaps the story just wasn’t that great? Both people have enormous star power, but neither could find a Producer to champion these projects based simply on the names involved? I tend to think the issues with the story were what prevented two continuations/conclusions of their rather successful predecessors from going a “traditional route”.

I also have to accede that, yes, perhaps the stories were bound for an uphill fight, since studios may not have any interest in a sequel to a movie about a guy in love who moves back to New Jersey, or a girl who solves mysteries. Isn’t that what crowd funding is all about: give a chance to the projects that were ignored by those big, blind studio executives who can’t see the brilliance of the project? So we, the fans, give the project a “shot in the arm” so we can all benefit from it’s success?

For me, the controversy lies in the fog of campaign funding, the donation process, and the question: did they earn it?

When I donate money to the Salvation Army, I do so without the expectation of compensation; I don’t get a certified letter or receipt that some unfortunate, hungry person was fed that night. Well, that’s similar to the Kickstarter model. Yes, they have pledge reward levels. “Veronica Mars”, for example, as 5938 backers who donated maybe $1-9 dollars with no actual reward. They also have 8423 backers who donated $10-24, and will receive a shooting script PDF after production wraps. Even if the backers pledged the very base monetary values of those respective levels, “Veronica Mars: The Movie” earned $90,168 with effectively $0 cost rewards. That’s 1.5% of their production budget… free.

We can keep trudging against these numbers: 11,509 backers will get a $3-5 t-shirt and contributed 5.04% production budget. At the $35 backer level, they claim you’ll get a digital download copy “within a few days of the movie’s theatrical debut”, but here’s where the crowd funding process gets complicated. What happens when Warner Bros. decides they want a clean theatrical run WITHOUT a digital download “within a few days”? Warner Bros., as a distribution entity, did not enter into any agreement with backers for the download copy, and as per their distribution contract, that section may be left for the producers to sort out. I have a feeling the producers of the “Veronica Mars” feature will take a Warner Bros. distribution contract rather than fighting back, saying, “NO, we have an obligation to our Kickstarter backers, we HAVE to fulfill our agreement!”

Also, here’s a sticky part: they’re not under any obligation to do so anyway, so failing to deliver on that really just requires an explanation and an apology.

$80,000 of the contributions get a reward of Kristen Bell recording an outgoing message for your voicemail or sending you a personalized 0:20 second video. Free for them. So far, that’s over $170,000 with no cost of fulfillment.

In the time that “Veronica Mars” was overfunded by almost a 3:1 ratio, or while Zach Braff’s sequel to his wildly successful first film is already overfunded at $2,341,422 (with 21 days left), what other projects have died? Features or independent TV series ideas with scripts available for download, teaser trailers available or impassioned pleas from directors, writers, actors and producers, seeking a fraction of the money these people are earning, effectively obligation free, with this model?

I want to make one thing clear: I am not opposed to the crowd funding model. Quite the opposite. Up until a few months ago, I was actually trying to develop an idea for crowd funding and independent distribution of TV series’ and features. Maybe I still am, who knows. However, much like I brought up Monty’s quote from “With Honors”, I do believe that crowd funding is a component of the future of media and entertainment. Interactive media will save the world, as it’s already saving people from oppression, ignorance and misrepresented leadership. A part of me still fears the crowd funding model will run its course before the other Kickstarter projects think to team up with social media marketing companies to make their crowd funded projects go viral based on the MERIT of their project rather than the celebrities supporting their pets.

In the documentary “Hearts of Darkness”, Francis Ford Coppola finishes the movie by saying: “To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder.” Some people think, with this statement, he predicted YouTube. I think he predicted an entire direction for the industry.

In the future, I believe that the majority of entertainment will be greenlit by audiences who are “fans” of the shows they like, and they’ll contribute directly to the success of those shows by crowd funding contributions. As a result, they will receive that media, potentially “backer perks” for donations above the required levels, and the success of the show will be reflected by the financial contributions of the audience. If a show sucks, contributions will drop. If the show is amazing, word of mouth and viral social media will push it to more fans, increasing the budget and the sky’s the limit.

The key here is ongoing audience participation and interaction, because only through that model (or something similar) do I see the next wave of filmmakers, artists and storytellers emerging from the noise of sequels and shows-turned-features. Only from that open market will the next Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams or Aaron Sorkin appear. Otherwise, it’s all just a reboot, and the names pass us by. We won’t know the filmmakers, actors and artists with whom we identify and trust for great, meaningful stories. We’ll just know studios. “I can’t wait to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie” will turn to “I can’t wait to see that new Warner Bros. movie”.

In the mean time, I’m waiting to hear about a Kickstarter for the “Entourage” feature…

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Who will be left?

I promise, I’ll write my next blog post about operating camera. However, for this one, it’s about the Oscars and the industry.

Today, social media is abuzz with the drama surrounding the Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects (“Life of Pi”), Best Directing (Ang Lee for “Life of Pi”) and a visual effects house called “Rhythm + Hues”. As a very terse summary:

  • Outside of the Oscars, 400 people were protesting against lack of residuals for visual effects companies that created movies like “Life of Pi”, namely Rhythm + Hues who are going bankrupt
  • “Life of Pi” was recognized for cinematography despite the majority of the film being green screen or CGI (much like “Avatar”, also won for Best Cinematography). 
  • “Life of Pi” won best Visual Effects, but the team accepting the award were cut off by music as they were trying to mention R+H going bankrupt.
  • Ang Lee, answering a question about R+H going bankrupt, said he wished visual effects were cheaper.

Here’s a link to a visual effects blogger commenting on the drama: http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/an-open-letter-to-ang-lee/#more-3389

This part rang true with me: “[I wonder] if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers ‘would like it to be cheaper.'”

I don’t deal well with non-specifics, so I would pose the open question to Ang Lee: how much cheaper? Did you have a number in mind?

According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the production budget for “Life of Pi” was $120,000,000 (yes, million, decided to use all the zeroes for effect). From what I can tell, better than half of the movie was shot on green screen stages with LOTS of visual effects, or you really did take a tiger to the open sea, or you really did find a floating island such as in the movie.

“Life of Pi” has raked in roughly $583,000,000 worldwide. The “artists” you acknowledge made the movie what it was, but you wish it were cheaper? You wish it were cheaper for them to literally invent the ways to make that fantastical dream of a book come to the screen? Things that were never done before were too expensive? Ya don’t say?

I think that the “horror of unpaid overtime” cuts both ways. They ask for “cheaper”, but somewhere along the line, someone said, “sure”. From the looks of it, those people are now going bankrupt. I don’t know, perhaps R+H were mismanaging their funds, overextending themselves into a spiral to insolvency which residuals or back end points couldn’t save them.

However, another effects house will probably appear next week, and they will better be priced right for the next $120,000,000 budget feature that wants it “cheaper” or else they’ll die off too. In my world, they want a great look, the best equipment, precision and expertise… but we can’t afford your rate or rental. The rise and fall of visual effects houses, talented crew members, talented storytellers and filmmakers… once they’ve all fallen, gone bankrupt, left the industry broke and broken, who will be left? Probably a lot of film students who wax philosophical about the gorgeous cinematography of “The Master” but only shoot on DSLR’s.

In the tornado of social media passive aggressive outrage (of which I am certain I’m now guilty with this post), someone called this need for “cheaper”: the “race to the bottom”. The entire film industry seems locked into this race, crew members turning on crew members, shows striking and scabbing, people undercutting due to ignorance or malice. Hundreds of film students graduate annually, all calling themselves “professionals” and not realizing that means more than talent and skill; it means experience.

Unfortunately, the client isn’t necessarily asking for “experience” anymore. They’re not really asking for “professional” anymore, or necessarily even talent or skill. What do they want?

“Cheaper”.

I’ve read that Seth MacFarlane took a lot of flak for his jokes at the Oscars, but the one that nobody seems to be discussing was one of his first: that Hollywood accountants were working “harder than ever to prove that nothing made a profit.” Ain’t that the truth. I hear “Star Wars” will be profitable any day now. Meanwhile, with “Life of Pi”, it took in $583,000,000 in worldwide box office, had a $120,000,000 production budget… but we wish it were cheaper.

If we continue to agree to terms that make no sense, in the business aspect, then who will be left? Pay your crew, or better yet, agree to pay your crew what they need to get the job done.

Fast
Right
Cheap

Pick 2.

Not directly related, but my thoughts and prayers to Russ McElhatton and his family.

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I do not fear technology. I fear reluctance to adapt. I fear those who use fear.

“I think the time of overlap between theater and home television viewing of entertainment is near it’s end.” -Me

I’m working on a project on the side right now that I hope to introduce sometime in the next few months, but while discussing it with a good friend, I stumbled upon that thought which I think resonates for me. I honestly think we’re nearing the end of a 40 year cycle where media, theatrically exhibited feature films, are enjoyed in both home and theater as though the two are equal.

Expansion of consumer technology and acceptance of digital cinema has definitely foreshadowed a change in entertainment media, and we’ve already watched the limits expand from a modest iTunes Store to Amazon Video to Netflix and Hulu, countless web series’ and the egalitarian leviathan YouTube.

However, we’re also seeing an expansion in theatrical technologies, such as 3D and 4K projectors. I am suspending my personal opinions on 3D films (usually rather negative) to embrace the notion that 3D filmmaking and 3D exhibition can lead to newer technologies that revitalize moviegoer interest in cinema. Personally, I think as the technology gets better and less limiting (according to this study, 54.8% of audiences get physically ill watching 3D movies), eagerness to return to theaters will increase, as will new ways to protect the service sold to audiences, but with one catch:

You can’t see this at home. 

I believe we’re at a fork in the road, ending the overlap between theater and home video which started (very reluctantly) in 1980 with Universal Studios losing a lawsuit against Sony for sale of their BetaMax VTR. They feared the technology, citing the possibility of piracy should prohibit the sale of the VTR. Citing dual use (because a technology could possibly be used for copyright infringement doesn’t mean it should be prohibited despite it’s legitimate uses), the VTR was released, which gave way to VHS. Many will argue that in the decade following the lawsuit (which Universal claimed threatened the livelihood of cinema in America), Hollywood was revitalized and ultimately saved by one thing: home video.

The rise of small home video rental companies and the unification under Blockbuster Video helped pad so many big studios from failure, but the 1980’s also gave way to some of the most beloved films of all time, shaping a generation of future storytellers. My generation that grew up with Star Wars, Aliens, The Goonies, etc. However, how many people claim those films as inspirations but never saw them in theaters? Much of my generation, the next generation of filmmakers, I suppose?

Interesting, how the emotional connection is so strong, even in home viewership, that sequels and prequels can literally herald great success (as David Fincher went on to have after directing “Alien 3″) or great failures (as George Lucas is vilified daily for his Star Wars prequels). Home viewership won’t go away, and I even feel that it can and will outpace theatrical exhibition if modern cinema stays the same.

I think viewership at home and exhibition experience are on a path to split, and probably result in some interesting new markets. As home TV watchers find new ways to watch programs (for better or worse, thanks to independent filmmaking, affordable production equipment and a surplus of crew), I think the cinema will have to evolve in order to guarantee it doesn’t become just a big room with a screen showing things you could wait 3 months to watch at home… or watch at home the same day? We’ll see.  To go even more cynical (or more realistic): how many people choose to wait for RedBox, Netflix or just buy it on Bluray to watch at home on their 60” LED backlit HDTV at 1080p with 7.1 channel audio. Why? Because they don’t want to deal with unruly audiences interrupting their experience. Because they don’t want to have to go get an usher because kids won’t get off their cell phones. Because it’s more affordable for a family of 4. Because they enjoy the experience so much more.

Why see it tonight or this weekend? Because they want to get out of the house.

Why should cinema be strictly relegated to the reason to leave the house? Why is it less and less considered the reason TO leave the house? The destination? The anticipation? The unique experience through a storyteller’s mind, like an orchestral performance led by Mozart was a journey through an experience he created?

Look at the scope of history: centuries ago, orchestral performances written or led by legendary composers were not just an enormous industry, but a statement about culture and society, a reflection of social classes, a generator of jobs and so much more. Recording technologies engendered a split between performance halls and audience viewership. Interest in “going to see the orchestra” dropped but hardly disappeared. In modern days, I would suggest that people still want to go out on a Friday night for a new experience.

Modern cinema has to evolve. To stay relevant and successful, it must not just embrace newer technologies, but invent new technologies too! 3D movies have found new ways to enhance audience experience (well, 45.6% of audiences anyway), but they did so by evolving existing technology that had already cycled through innovative to exciting to  distracting to gimmicky. Home theater technology has evolved from CRT 4:3 480i televisions (37 inches weighed a ton) to wall mounted 80″ LED backlight HDTV’s that weigh a fraction and cost less annually. Home theater audio has added audio channels, fine tuned the experience for varying room sizes, etc. In the same period, what has projection cinema evolved? 3D with active shutter glasses (goggles), some digital projection (at 2K, slightly higher resolution than your home 1080p HDTV) and higher ticket prices.

Oh, and the AMC Stubs program.

So, here’s an idea, and if someone else doesn’t do it, then maybe I’ll have to start a new project: glasses-less 3D, strictly negative space, created on an enormous space with actual depth, placing viewers an appropriate distance such that parallax becomes negligible. Place them in theaters that have membership requirements and fiercely police the audience to protect the service (silence talkative people, eject people on their cell phones, etc).

Give me something to go see where I cannot see it anywhere else. Give me something new to fall in love with, take me on a journey from this world to your world. Give me something special, and you’ll get my ticket money.

Show me your passion. I’ll show you mine.

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Assigning emotions through the camera

In filmmaking, we experiment a lot with the audience’s emotions. In less daring instances, we safely assign emotions to each scene, almost like paint-by-numbers: the couple finally gets together, paint scene #31 red, music swells, increase audio mix to emphasize kissing, skin touching, clothes coming off, etc.

In other instances, we leave the audience to navigate the complicated emotional moment with very few cues. Perhaps the scene (or entire movie) has no musical composition like “No Country for Old Men”? Perhaps the composition doesn’t help much, nor do the audio/visual cues. As a result, the audience has to come to their own conclusions, and in the rough seas of personal experience, moviegoers walk out with a “what did you think?” mentality. When it pays off, and the audience puts things together, Billy Wilder would agree it’s a great thing.

As a camera operator, I spend much of my time considering the emotional value of a shot.  That emotional value usually results from an equation of variables, each representing a question: “Who is this character?”, “What happened just prior to this moment?”, “What helps the audience understand their headspace at this moment?”, “What does the audience still need to see to help tell the story?”, “What aesthetic options should I present to the director to bring out their vision?”, and many more.

On Christmas day, I went to see “Les Miserables” with my family, and for the second time* this year (that I can remember at this moment), the camerawork did a severe disservice to the emotional power of the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you give it a try, if only for the singing performances of everyone involved. For the most part, the musical performance scenes were not afflicted with abrupt camera movement (namely handheld). However, many of the emotional scenes were saddled with excessive camera movement, distracting me from the characters whose emotional experience were so fascinating, any distraction added to my frustration (and not in a good way).

Through the example of “Les Miserables”, here’s my deduction of the decisions for camera movement: the musical, as people who’ve seen it know it, drips with theatrical presentation. In deciding to bring it to screen again, the stagnant audience perspective (i.e. lower mezzanine, row AA, seat 42) was opposite of what was desired. They wanted the story immersive, hence the opening shot of a huge storm and giant sailing vessels hauled into docks by prisoner labor. More importantly, they wanted the camera (and the audience) inside the story: face to face with Jean val Jean, a 3rd party in his duel with Javer, a passerby watching young Cosette sweep the inn, or a citizen in the crowd calling for Fantine’s arrest. Theater is the proscenium, the stage and all characters singing to each other and the ocean of audience. Film, in this case, required more grit, more involvement.

Here’s where the decision fell apart, and where I would argue they lost sight of the cinematic opportunities afforded by the camera. I don’t think ALL of the camera movement (even the handheld) was inappropriate, but I do think that 10-20% of the camerawork did distract too much, and personally, any distraction is too much (yes, I do get pissed when you check your cell for a split second in a theater). The aforementioned multi-variable formula was ultimately disregarded, because the answer seemed predetermined by the overarching formula: we will immerse the audience, and handheld is immersion.

I worked on a student film a few months ago where I overheard the stunt coordinator (not a student, another professional they’d hired for a few hours) make a camera observation: “a bunch of us stunt guys have a Facebook group, and we’re constantly ripping apart movies that use overly-chaotic camera movement in action scenes. I recommend you try to keep it toned down.”

Go for a run, and I mean a full on sprint, turn your head left and watch the world go by. Does the world look jittery? Does it shake like mad? Handheld sure does, but your eye doesn’t. I read a study recently that said the human eye cannot track fluidly without an object to track. Simply put: unless you’re following something moving, your eyes cannot pan/tilt/move “smoothly”. Even if you move your head smoothly, your eyes won’t follow.

Additionally, I submit that handheld movement can, and often does, have a degree of anxiety with it that’s inherent to human physiology. We’ve evolved to track objects with our eyes, and perhaps the inability to track a subject, in real life or in a movie, creates distraction running all the way to our survival instincts. If we can’t track this subject, we’d better retreat to a safe distance so we can properly assess the situation.

Dialogue offers specific types of emotional cues, but we can track so many more: body language, facial expression, movement, etc. In film, we even go a step beyond our natural interactions to show camera movement, further informing the audience of our story. I’m not saying that intentionally conveying a desired emotion through camera is wrong, but I do believe that we need to be wary of what emotion we’re trying to convey, if it tells the audience what we want, and if we’re distracting the audience from so many other meticulously laid cues because we’ve determined a “look” that doesn’t play well with others.

I’m not opposed to handheld. Personally, I think that movies like “Black Swan” are an achievement and a great story told through handheld. I did 3 weeks of handheld last month, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about bringing intuition and planning into handheld movement. However, I do think it’s a tool whose use should be evaluated per scene, per shot. Cinematic can be handheld, and handheld can be a great story tool. However, the story is still paramount, and we should fight hard to avoid the sin of failing to apply the formula; of failing to determine the proper method for creating each piece of the film.

We all want to create things that become greater than the sum of it’s parts. Well, we should also shy away from creating things that are less than the sum as well.

*first time was “Hunger Games”

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Some of the bravest people I’ve met

I just wanted to wax philosophically for a moment. I used to joke a few years ago that when you work in film, people are amazingly uninterested in your job. Or perhaps people aren’t that interested in your job, and when surrounded by passionate filmmakers and film lovers, that we interpret that subpar interest as amazingly uninterested.

Last weekend, I was traveling to see some family, and I found that my discussions about work weren’t so much about camera operating, filmmaking, or the things I’m usually so passionate about and eager to discuss. Instead, a common question was about my work lifestyle and schedule.

“So you’re freelance?”
“Does that get scary?”
“Do you work for a company? Or do you mostly seek out your own work?”
“Are you worried that you might not get enough work?”
“How do you get work?”

The last question is obviously the magic question, because if I were able to answer simply, I’d be far more comfortable and stress-free. However, I think of freelance work as running your own business where you’re both employee and boss, marketing and accounts receivable, operations and human resources.

When I started working freelance, I approached it with a slightly trepidatious outlook: “Yes, I’m a camera operator in film and television.” Early on in your career you wonder how you have the audacity to call yourself the same profession as so many other reputable names you respect and emulate. As you work, as you get better, that statement becomes easier.

What doesn’t become easier are the dry months. The “things are slow” months.

I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest, SMARTEST, and hardest working individuals the American work force has to offer. I mean no disrespect to the skilled labor in other industries, but I feel like film and TV production crews get a marginal amount of the regard other industries do. Most of the time, we work 6 hours before lunch whereas most people work 8 hours total. We work an average of 12 hour days, and overtime after that. That’s 5 days a week, potentially for months.

A 1st AD once told me in film school: “Every filmmaker is bound together with other filmmakers and crews by one inalienable fact: there’s something wrong with all of us. We have something wrong with us, in that we want to work the hours we do, as long as we do.”

You may not know this, but the film crew labor force is hardly understaffed. If anything, it’s bulging with supply which has its own ramifications in our industry (rates plummeting, people undercutting, production quality dwindling). We have so many people running a business, just wanting to practice their trade and craft; their passion!

Why don’t more people follow that passion?

You can’t really argue job security, because if anything, the last 12 years of economic deflation has proven that job security means nothing in the modern workplace. National unemployment reached double digits just a few years ago. People who had shown devotion and loyalty, foregoing their passion in favor of the “safe” life were often unemployed and shell-shocked! Even now, as unemployment is slowly dropping, politicians are claiming that number may be new jobs, or it might be people stopped looking for work.

Freelance filmmaking has no security. You’re a serious injury away from retirement at any age, declining wages away from being shed by an industry trying to make sense of 21st century media.

The people I work with every day are some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever met, from the genius key grips who clearly played with Legos as kids, to the makeup artists who made amazing effects on a shoe-string budget, to the writers and directors who never gave up. I would guess we’ve all embraced the serenity of not knowing what jobs we’ll have next month, next year, whenever. If that notion is scary, then I ask: are you so certain you’ll be at your job next year? To brush against the morbid and morose, are you certain you’ll be alive next year?

The spirit I hope America’s workforce will embrace moving forward is one of awareness and passion. We are the architects of our own future, and we have only ourselves to blame. Paraphrasing the words of the late great camera operator/assistant Chip Monk, our time spent working is time away from our families, our children and our loved ones. What we do with that time better be important, and we’d better be proud of it.

So, to everyone fearing the freelance lifestyle, or anyone nervous to “take the plunge” in starting that business, opening that consulting firm or opening that baked goods shop, I’d offer this: yes, it’s scary, but at least you know it’s scary. For me, I have no fear of a pink slip, a corporate down-sizing or being “let go”. I have myself to thank for good years and myself to blame for bad years. I cannot cook the books and blame someone else, I cannot question why my savings is gone and not see myself as the culprit. Every success is mine to enjoy, every failure mine to learn from.

Yes, I do worry if the phone is going to ring. Yes, I have lean months. Life is even harder to budget, or perhaps your current mode of thought would make you think that.

Your life is your own, as is your job. Don’t question what could have been. Do what you have passion for, be responsible and be honest, in your work and in life. Inspire your kids, inspire your neighbors and friends, and leave behind something meaningful.

“I’d rather live with disappointment than regret.” -Andre Agassi

That’s lunch, walk away.

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Respect the Process – or RIP: the rehearsal

The other day on set, I’m flying a RED Epic and grabbing the slate before we start a take, and I momentarily ponder the slate: why do we still slate? The answer comes from shooting film and the fact we still record 2-system audio: clap the clapper on screen, the camera sees the frame contact is made, sync that to the audio of the clap, and boom! Sync sound!

However, so much of the work we do today is digital, which makes me wonder why we still slate? We used to:

  • Camera ready? READY!
  • Sound ready? READY!
  • OK, roll sound! … ROLLING!
  • ID! Scene 15 apple, take 3
  • OK, roll camera! … rolling… and speed!
  •  MARK! *clap* (remove slate quickly)
  • Settle… aaaand… ACTION!

On a well run set, that sequence should take only a moment or two, particularly the part from “roll camera, speed, ID, mark, settle, and action”. From “roll camera” to “action”, you’ve got actual film zipping through the camera at 90 ft/min (4-perf, 3-perf is 67 ft/min, etc). Let’s say a 1000′ roll of Kodak (since Fuji stopped making production film) costs $625 per roll. If we’re shooting 3-perf at 67 ft/min, that’s $0.625 /ft. Now, if we guess the average time from “Roll camera” to “Action” is just 5 seconds, but eats 5.58333… feet of film (and that’s not realistic, because the camera speeds up to 24fps, so that’s a few extra feet lost). 5.5833333… ft, or in Producer speak: $3.49.

I’m only going through this process to bring light to the monetary issue of shooting film, but not as a statement of it’s costliness but rather to bring light to it’s other “value” in the process of shooting anything. At 63 cents per foot, or $0.69 per second camera rolling @ 24fps, the cost of rolling the camera adds up quickly.

I’m not making a universal statement against the notion of “shoot the rehearsal”. Some magical things happen during a rehearsal that filmmakers sometime lament that they lost or weren’t filming when it happened. What I suppose I am lamenting is the disrespect or loss of the “process”.

The actors have had their scripts for days? Weeks? They hopefully know their lines, but they barely know where they’ll stand. They have in their mind how they want to play the scene, but do their co-stars know? Does the gaffer? Does the camera operator, or the focus puller? Does the boom operator know where to boom from so he won’t cast shadows?

All of these people should know, because the “take” ultimately should not be a secret kept until the last moment, and the suggestion that we “shoot the take” usually means (more often than not) that the director hasn’t envisioned the scene, or hasn’t communicated it with his actors.

I have a lot of respect for actors, so “shoot the rehearsal” also places their performance in danger. What if the actor reaches a truly jaw-dropping emotional place during the “shoot the rehearsal” take, but we miss most of it because we’re out of focus, or there’s a boom shadow on her face, or she’s not in her light? What would we have really lost on the “day” if we’d only taken the brief time to perform “the process”?

We’re all on set to help make the same movie. The quarterback doesn’t win the game, nor does the placekicker, nor does the linebacker. The team wins. The crew makes the movie, together, and the final film is the summary of it’s parts. The parts were manufactured, day by day, by a film crew with the same vision and support for that goal.

Now, in the digital age, the limiting cost of filmmaking doesn’t restrain people like film once did. We can roll for 5, 10, 20 minutes without fear of per-second cost. I can’t tell you how many shoots where people yell “roll camera… speed”, ID the shot with no urgency, clap the slate (sometimes unaware of the framing, missing the clap and we need second sticks) and wander off set before settling into action. The cost is hard drive space, pennies on the gigabyte.

Of course, as a Steadicam operator, I’m in the unique position (like a handheld camera operator, but even moreso) so protest against “shoot the rehearsal” on the basis that 5, 10, 20 minute takes on Steadicam are, to even the most seasoned Steadicam ops, taxing, exhausting and eventually painful.

When working as a Steadicam operator, one of the most common questions I get is: “How much does that thing weigh?” Depending on my mood, my response ranges from sarcastic to humorous to straightforward. When I’m “locked in”, I may be lifting anywhere from 40 to 80lbs or more. Now, that’s a fair amount of weight, but remember: I’m also not using my hands!

People ask “How much does that weight?”, which usually makes me think that they don’t THINK it weighs much, but they KNOW it does. So, they ask, considering that what I do looks as much like magic as it does marvelous engineering. Engineering redistributes the weight, counterbalances, spring loads it and makes it hang static in mid air with Sir Isaac Newton’s deft hands inertially holding it still. However, the weight doesn’t disappear.

No matter how brilliant the Steadicam, how great the manufacturer: the weight sitting on the dock, the weight on the arm, all weighs what it starts as. 40lbs? 80lbs? Not zero.

The next time you’re considering “shooting the rehearsal”, please take into consideration that the rehearsal is as valuable, if not more valuable, than the time spent rolling the camera. The value added is apparent in every shot in the movie, and greatly appreciated by every department who needs that time to do their job. We share your enthusiasm and excitement, we can’t wait to roll the camera too… but we must wait, we must rehearse, we must respect the process of coming together and putting that energy into the shots we need.

p.s.- in the mean time, I am going to start working on a camera accessory that injects metadata into the digital cinema files to hold the slate information, as well as embed a dummy frame with the slate information, so we don’t have to do the traditional slate method anymore.

Posted in filmmaking, Steadicam | 2 Comments

Equipment costs money: devaluation of gear/labor in the industry

I’ll admit here that I will speak freely about things I’m fairly acquainted with and blend them with hypotheses, assumptions and broad strokes that I won’t necessarily have evidence to back up. I’ll do my best to support my ideas with trends that lead me to my conclusions or avenues of thought.

I believe we’re seeing a devaluation of equipment in our industry, a reluctance to pay for quality possibly because the quality itself has (willingly) become confused. Technology rises, people flock into the film industry for whatever reason (so many directors, so many DP’s), and an investment suddenly proves yourself.

In North Dakota, I doubt someone thinks: “I’ll buy a Steadicam and that’ll get me on a big movie.” If they do, the notion is short-lived, the monthly payments exceed the income, or if they paid cash, then the scant work might lead the investor to think “I could sure use that $60,000-$100,000 someplace else.” However, in LA, purchasing gear to get into the film industry seems so en vogue that I wonder what’s coming next. Probably as equipment goes onto sets for free, so too do they expect labor for free. Oh, wait… they do.

First, here’s a story for you:

The story goes that Jim Jannard went to Panavision years ago, hearing they had a new HD digital cinema camera coming down the pipe to be named “Genesis”. He was so enthused by the idea, he asked to buy one. “We don’t sell cameras, ONLY rent them,” was their response. Allegedly, he offered a blank check to the company, who again refused, probably thinking “Who is this guy?” Allegedly, he was so perturbed by their obdurate stance that he set off to create his own camera. On the horizon, the RED One digital cinema camera would be born.

A digital revolution would be the first of two waves to hit the film industry. The second, in my mind, was close to follow: equipment gets you in the door.

Red One was popular (when it worked), and after a few months, the bugs were mostly worked out and the stability made it A cam on many projects. I remember first seeing a RED One in 2008/2009 (the sensor upgrades weren’t trickling out yet). Probably by 2010, I knew a number of owners. Many owners, I knew were working with their cameras as an “owner/operator” or “owner/DP”.

Years ago, I interned at Panavision Florida, and had the pleasure of meeting a few guys who owned Arri SR2’s or Panasonic SD800’s. They owned a camera and AC’ed or operated on the shoot, so they’d bring the camera in to build out an accessory package. Fast forward: the average RED One or RED MX owner had to have pretty much a full accessories package including lenses. Why? Because if you’re renting from one vendor for a cheap price, it’s hard to get another vendor to match the percentage discount on the accessories, knowing that person is killing your business. So, the owner has to build his kit completely, or find places to sub rent.

I’ve known camera owner / DP’s who went out for $350/12-hr day with their RED One/MX package (all accessories, support, a few lenses, etc). Now, a common practice for most equipment rental is 100-day payoff: pay off the equipment in 100 days, so 1-day rental should equate to 1/100 of your investment, or 1%. I’ll give them a break and say their investment cost $32,000 for the whole kit (they bought old lenses, an old fluid head, etc). So, a full rental should be $320/day for the kit. Their labor? $30/day. On a 12-hr day, that’s a whopping $2.14/hr. Maaaybe they discounted their kit to $192/day (student rate of 60% discount). Their labor rate = $11.29/hr.

The first wave is well under way: indie filmmakers aren’t interested so much in film anymore: film camera bodies aren’t heavily discounted by rental houses OR owners, same for film stock, developing, telecine, etc. Further, they’re now told, “You can’t just roll forever. You have to cut!” After RED One/MX, everyone wanted 4K ONLY. HVX200 with film adaptors wouldn’t cut it anymore, and besides, that’s not what’s popular. 4K is popular! And the owners gotta make that loan payment, so they’re cheap!

(Forget for a moment that as of writing this, most digital intermediates before film-out take place at 2K, or film out for exhibition prints at 2K. As far as I am aware, most digital projectors in theaters are not 4K).

Other manufacturers are getting onboard: Sony F65, Canon C500, and of course RED with the Epic.

Now, I get the call to come provide Steadicam for a shoot, either dayplaying or for the run of the shoot. Of course, they just filled out their camera package by hiring crew (so barely any rental). I quote my rental based on the 100-day payoff, and you practically hear them drop the phone. Suddenly, they found that other vendor described above: I can’t discount as aggressively as their camera vendor… but the caller thinks, “maybe someone else will?” Off, to Craigslist!

The best Steadicam operators have invested well over 6-figures in their equipment package, between sled, arm, vest, accessories, cables (some will say they own $15,000 in cables alone), wireless follow focus, cases, etc. I may have a live TV gig that requires a gimbal arm focus control, or a commercial that requires a vehicle mount. With the rate these digital cameras are coming out, we suddenly have to own power cables for all of them ($200-300 with every connector change, and backups in case one fails).

Upon hearing my rate with rental, a common response: “Wow, that’s more than the DP is making!” How should that statement predicate me lowering my rate? If he accepted $250 for a 12-hr day, does that mean I’m obligated to take less? Out of respect for my superior? If he came out for that rate WITH GEAR, that’s unconscionable and I can’t do anything about it.

This is no way to conduct business, my friends. Favors among friends are one thing. Evaluating a project as worthy of some goodwill is commendable. However, the difference between one-time offers and modus operandi become clear over time.

I would dare to say: we are willing participants in the killing of our industry.

Rental houses now HAVE to discount to stay competitive: longer rentals for shows get unprecedented discounts on accessories, like 30%+ off Preston HU3 rentals on a longer show at the danger of the AC’s friend renting his Preston to production at 25% discount of 100-day payoff. Camera manufacturers donate cameras to sets or staff shoots with their own camera technicians with spare bodies. R&D is no longer done exclusively in the lab but rather on set! What a bargain: R&D is recouped as marketing expenditure in the form of renting out NEW cameras gratis! How can a Canon C300 owner compete with Canon! RED owner with RED! They reap the benefits of R&D without ever performing it. They get the feedback, incorporate what they can, and market it as “the camera used on “The Amazing Spider-man 3D”.

Of course, now the filmmakers who have seen some success since they embraced the digital revolution want to shoot film… but the bodies cost so much! And the developing, telecine, and film stock is expensive! Everyone has fetishized film, thinking it will create quality to enhance their story rather than use story to enhance the movie. A flurry of cameras that every filmmaker hopes before day 1 will look beautiful, and before day 2 just hopes it boots up properly. You get what you pay for.

Gear costs your production, one way or another.

OUTRO:

In 2010, “The Social Network” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and was shot on the RED MX. Allegedly, RED provided cameras to them directly.

IATSE created the Tier system to cater to projects of all budgets. Now, they have a “New Media” contract where the crew themselves negotiate their own rates; skilled labor without a collectively bargained rate.

In a 2007 study, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found the cost of storing 4K digital masters to be “enormously higher – 1100% higher – than the cost of storing film masters.”

Many new shows shooting HD are using Arri’s Alexa, shooting at 2K or 1080p. Why? I’d suggest the best reasons are: camera made by a camera company, exhibition is 1080p, works with existing accessories and designed with input from users.

More DP/owners are advertising that they own a Steadicam and will provide it to production included in their “rental”.

If you see a Panavision camera being prepped at Panavision, you’re most likely catching it before it’s shipped off to be on display somewhere.

Posted in filmmaking, Steadicam | 1 Comment

Rates and the industry: favors, loyalty, and conjuring numbers.

I work a lot of non-union gigs, and while I am gathering my days to join Local 600 (hopefully by October, I’ll be in), I hope that I can remain steadfast in future rates negotiations. I expect to use my negotiating skills as much once in the Union as I have booking non-union gigs.

Sometimes, I get a call for a job looking to book a Steadicam operator with gear, and the price they come in with is very very soft (e.g. my equipment’s daily rental is double what they’re offering for rate and rental on a 12 hour day). I know a lot of other operators tend to immediately beat the war drum, decline the job or possibly laugh the person off the phone. Others accept the job whether times are slow or not. My inquisitive nature generally says:

“I don’t think I can do that number, but out of curiosity, how did you budget $XXX for the position? Who gave you that number?”

The responses usually come in a variety of flavors:

  • “Oh, that’s all that’s left in the budget.” (and you said your shoot relied heavily on Steadicam?)
  • “Well, we had a guy that did it for that much a while back.” (and why isn’t he available?)
  • “That’s all we can afford, I’m sorry, I feel terrible for offering it to you.” (honestly, this is the response I prefer, because even if they don’t actually know how low it is, they’ve probably been beaten up all day by other people who hate that number)
  • “Well, that’s all we budgeted for it.” (I really dislike this answer, taking the ignorant route, basically has the attitude of “Seriously? You’re going to negotiate with me? You should be happy and feel special I’m even offering it to you.”)

A friend and fellow operator, Grant Culwell, once introduced me to the analogy of house building when it comes to filmmaking. When you’re hiring a contractor: you solicit a consultation, get a list of price quotes, you budget based off your preferred vendor/rate, and then you book the job. However, with too many jobs and all job positions on set, it’s become: call a vendor, offer a price quote, keep calling vendors until someone accepts it. Rarely do they call back a second time (assuming nobody takes that rate) offering more, and if they do, it’s still not enough because they never asked for a bid.

So, anytime someone says:

Well, we can’t afford to pay you, but you’ll get the invaluable experience of learning filmmaking and meeting people in the industry! We’re looking for passionate people who are in it for the art!

Be sure to use that analogy:

Please, come build a house for me, bring your own tools, we’ll give you some other tools and materials, but we can’t pay you… but you’ll get a lot of experience! Something for your portfolio of houses built! You’ll meet other contractors who know you’re working for free too! Come, build me a house because you love the art of architecture and contracting!” A house that they will then attempt to sell for profit.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but asking a stranger for a “favor” that exceeds help changing lanes in traffic seems anathema to me. So when someone calls, asking for a favor on this job, I’m left to wonder “What did you do for me to earn a favor out of me?” Favors are built on trust and loyalty, and I do them all the time. However, I do favors for people who I know, who I think are trustworthy, and who usually have already taken care of me. “Hey bro, can you come out on this 2-day industrial I’m DP-ing, it’s for a start-up company so there’s no pay, but they’re offering stock in the company for when they go IPO.” My response, depending on scheduling: “Sure, I appreciate all the work you’ve brought me, and I know you want to be shooting more, so I’ll help you out.”

Lots of people do it right, and I usually enjoy booking them and working with them. Lots of times, I get the call: “What’s your rate? OK, great, let me add that to my budget, can you put a soft hold on next Friday and I’ll call you back within 2 hours to confirm the gig.” I get the call back, maybe we’re all good, maybe they “cancelled the shoot” (could mean many things, I take it at face value), maybe they want to negotiate another rate? However, they never just assumed a rate they made up was acceptable. They called, they got numbers from myself and other Steadicam ops, and they budgeted and booked or negotiated based on that.

Should make you wonder what you’re quoting, as compared to what other professionals in your market are quoting. Many times, the person budgeting has nothing to go off… but sometimes, they’re quoting your rate to the next guy. Not a great way to be introduced to him, now is it? Why not give your “competition” a call? Get friendly, discuss rates.

PLEASE NOTE: In no way am I advocating inflexibility. Every business offers discounts in order to stay competitive, and so do we. Those discounts are at the discretion of that person. With the house analogy, not every house being built is the same budget: some are mansions and some are family homes. We bid for what’s appropriate, for ourselves, our businesses and our families.

You can save yourself, and your production, a lot of time and hassle if you call around, budget based on quotes, and then proceed with a vendor. Offer the low rate, and you’re probably going to book the “low price guy”. We don’t like that, because unless you’re very lucky, your product suffers and our trade suffers out of doubt in the skill of all tradesmen… which also leads to lower rates.

“Well, our last Steadicam op sucked, so that’s all we’re budgeting now because the Producer doesn’t think it’s worth it.”

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