Manger Things

This past summer, I wrote a Christmas short film, a spoof called Manger Things, and in the Fall, I produced it with Elisa Booker, the Children’s Director of my church here in Brooklyn, Trinity Grace Church Park Slope. The young guys over at Infinity Finite on YouTube, Ethan and Christian Locy, directed and shot it. Ethan directed. Christian shot it.

Check it out, right now!

If you’d like to read more about how this was put together, then read on!

Continue reading

Leadership Sets The Culture On Set

There was a great letter from the ASC president Richard Crudo to the ASC members following the February death of Sarah Jones. You can read the whole thing here. What I want to focus on is his admonition that it is indeed the cinematographers – the leaders – who set the tone and the culture on a set. A few key quotes:

Those who make motion pictures for a living work long and hard at jobs we love, sometimes making significant sacrifices along the way. But we’re not curing cancer. We’re not even curing a hangnail. Twisted individuals for whom money, power, ego and prestige are the ultimate goals, however, treat the obsessive pursuit of these superficial rewards as being tantamount to conquering a fatal disease.

And…

As directors of photography, we have always been responsible for the safety of our crews, and it is incumbent upon us to find ways to be more decent…

I take it one step further. The entire leadership team, from Producers, to Directors, to First AD, and Cinematographers must engender this culture of safety. But it’s not really about safety. It’s about the value of humans. Human life, at it’s simplest; but also human thriving – quality of life, if you will. It’s not about a base set of rules that are bureaucratic and boring and hinder-some. It’s about an all-encompasing culture that values people and their enjoyment of their job. 

Film (and also theatre) is by nature a creative industry. As Crudo says, we are not curing cancer. We are making entertainment, and if we’re lucky, sometimes we’re making art. Entertainment and art are valuable, but these are not a real cause for holding the same hours as the medical profession. Do we really need to work 12, 14, or 16 hour days? To save money? Sometimes. But on a regular basis? No.

Indeed, studio television shows have come to the realization that they need to find a work-life balance or their best crew members will almost certainly burn out and the turnover ends up being more costly than simply shooting an easier schedule. There’s something to be said for the shorthand that develops on a set like that.

But a different mentality exists for many studio and independent film producers.

As film producers, we can tend to think that because our shoots are more limited – anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks to 3 months – we can ask our crew to PUSH. REALLY. HARD. It’s a limited time, right? They can rest when we’re done, right? No. No, because many of our crew are not about to go into post-production. They are actually, likely – hopefully – heading to their next gig. I say hopefully, because we hope for them that they are all able to make a full-time living at this film thing they love, right? Someone of them might even have less than a day to recover before hopping onto a flight or into a car for their next gig. That is the life of our below-the-line friends. For producers and directors to ask them to push really hard for three weeks straight is honestly kind of ridiculous and unreasonable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, “Don’t ask your crew to work nights.” I’m also not saying, “Never ask your crew to work long days.” I AM saying, “Don’t ask them to treat every single shooting day as an emergency.” If they know you value their health and their sanity, then when the REAL emergencies arise, they will be more willing to sacrifice. They will trust you, producers and directors. They will. I promise. Especially if the culture that has already been engendered on the set, by you, is one of quality of life.

It really is true that the leadership of a team sets the tone and the priorities on each set. While it’s great for camera crews to take ownership for their own selves and their crew members, as many have been quickened to do in the wake of Sarah’s passing, quicker, more permanent change has to come from the top down. I know several DPs who take that responsibility seriously and who treat their crew like family. They are leaders of integrity. They treat their teams like family. It’s time that producers and directors across the board embrace the culture of quality of life. And set that tone on their sets. 

On the sets at which I’ve been a First AD, a producer, or a director, I have indeed tried to do this. There have been times when I’ve asked for more from my crews (humbly). And there have been times when I’ve lost my temper (and apologized). But I hate when my time and my worth is undervalued and so I am loath to do it to others. So I when I challenge other indie film producers to do the same, it’s not coming from a pie-in-the-sky perspective. I know the cost of valuing people’s quality of life. I’ve actually done the math as a line producer. It’s not that much more money at the end of the day. But it is worth so much more to your crew, and to your integrity.

Building Sustainability… On Location and In Education!

When we shot “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher,” we did our best to produce the film in a sustainable, green-minded way. Some of the things we attempted include:

  • Using Bio-Diesel
  • Reusing Clothes for Costumes
  • Eco-friendly Flatware
  • Shooting On-location
  • Shooting Digitally
  • Being Carbon Neutral
Using Bio-Diesel

We secured a bio-diesel donation from Tulsa Biofuels for our trailers and trucks. In the future, film producers who’d like to make use of bio-diesel for their diesel vehicles and generators should take caution: bio-diesel has a specific freezing point. So if you’re planning on shooting in cold months, find out what the specific freezing point is of the bio-diesel that you’re using.

Reusing Clothes for Costumes

Most actors in the film either wore their own clothes or clothes that had been rented from costume shops or purchased from second-hand stores. We also incorporated organic and sustainably manufactured pieces that were donated. In the future, I might like to see any wardrobe that has been built specifically for a film be donated to an organization like Dress for Success or simply Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Sometimes “sustainability” can be akin to helping those less fortunate.

Eco-friendly Flatware

With our catering department, we used mostly local produce and products as well as utilizing ceramic plates and stainless steel flatware. Also we used eco-friendly cups, plates and utensils for our craft services department. However, I’d still like to run the numbers on the difference between manufacturing a few eco-friendly plates (etc) and the amount of water and heat it takes to clean 45 ceramic or glass plates for each meal. It may not add up… Somebody want to do that and get back to me?

Shooting On-location

This is an easy one for independent film producers. Because it’s often difficult to rent studios, shooting “on location” is often a default. But the good news is, that default is also the sustainable choice. Using existing locations means that sets aren’t being built that will be trashed eventually. Ideally, we’d have the resources [read: money] some day to gut-renovate a dilapidated location and leave the place better than we found it! What a dream that would be! But for now, we’re happy with not creating more garbage.

Shooting Digitally

We shot on digital hard drive cameras, as opposed to film. For me, the jury is still out on whether this saves energy or not. Film is rarely trashed – most filmmakers keep their film “in the can” in safe storage, under lock and key! But it sure does take a lot of energy to power hard drives! Also, I can’t deny that shooting on film requires more people, more time, and more money, so shooting on hard drives makes a lot of sense financially; but I have yet to be convinced that “shooting digital” is the more sustainable choice.

Recycling When Possible

We had recycling bins distributed all throughout the set at each location – in our catering tent, in our roving production office, in our trailers. Even with this accessibility, it was still a challenge to get our crew to recycle diligently. Part of the problem was that, in the beginning, no-one was assigned to bring the recycling to the recycling depot. Admittedly, as Line Producer, that was my job (to assign that job to somebody) and I eventually did just that, once I was aware of the problem. This being my first time on a set that was attempting to be “sustainable,” it’s just not something that I’d had to think about before; but I will certainly think about it in the future.

Being Carbon Neutral

Through a donation to a company called Native Energy, we were able to offset the entire film-making process, from development through post-production, and then some! So not only is the film carbon neutral, it’s actually carbon negative. When all else fails, this is a great way to support sustainability.

Regardless of my thoughts and opinions, successes and failures, regarding my recent sustainable filmmaking efforts, I do intend to continue making progress toward not only an economically sound method of independent filmmaking, but also a sustainably profitable method of filmmaking. The two ideals may be difficult to marry, but I’m committed to the challenge.

And because of my experience and commitment, as well as plenty of other experiences with film production, I’ve been asked to be involved in a mentorship program at the University of Western Ontario, specifically for the Building Sustainable Value Research Centre at the Richard Ivey School of Business (aka “the Harvard of Canada”).  I’m listed among some pretty amazing people and am totally honoured to be participating!

On Being A Better First AD

Back in May, I was the First AD on a series of commercials for Microsoft – specifically, for several computers that sport the new Windows 7 operating system. We shot in a studio for four days and to be honest…

It was my best experience as a First AD ever.

I’m not sure what the difference was. Perhaps it was the director, who treated everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) with kindness and respect. Perhaps it was the crew, who were all so comfortable with their jobs and comfortable with their rate of pay, that they just showed up on time, with smiles, did their work and rarely complained. Perhaps it was the gaggle of awesome PA’s we had? Perhaps it was being in a studio? Perhaps it was the shooting schedule?

Or perhaps it was me. And not because I’m amazing (which I’m not) but because of two disparate experiences I’ve had that, combined, have made me a more comfortable (possibly better?) First AD. Those two experiences are:

  1. Producing a feature film
  2. Working as a background actor

In 2008, my husband and I co-produced a feature film with two friends and business partners. Along with producing, each of us had at least one other key role. One was also the writer and lead actor, one was also the director, my husband was also the editor, and I was also a line producer and costume designer. It was the experience of producing and line producing (the two are not always the same job!) that made me a more knowledgeable First AD. Knowledge isn’t always power, but it certainly can add a level of comfort. And comfort can breed confidence. Comfort certainly doesn’t breed fear.

In 2010, my husband and I moved to New York City where I determined that I didn’t want to First AD, I didn’t want to Line Produce or UPM or Production Coordinate. I just wanted to be a simple artist. I wanted a part-time job that wasn’t taxing or emotionally draining and I wanted to spend the rest of my time writing and working on the Short Film that I’d just finished shooting and was ready to edit with my Los Angeles-based editor. This all sounds kind of selfish in hindsight (especially considering that there are plenty of people with my skill set who can’t find work); it seems nearsighted to avoid looking for the best-paying work I can acquire, but I felt strongly about persuing my passions (and still do).

So what did we come up with for me to do? Background acting! But first! First, I had to get over my pride. “I’ve produced a feature film!” “I’m usually a First AD!” “I’m actually a director!” These lines echoed in my head each of the first half-dozen or so times that I found myself on a set as a background actor (aka expensive organic prop). I had to get over that pride and be okay with my choices.

Once I did that, I was able to open my eyes and learn. I began to watch the First ADs, I began to watch the other crew and (given my experiences) I could actually understand what was happening (many background actors are clueless about the process). And as I watched, I learned.

It’s mostly tacit knowledge: things like, how different ADs run their sets, how different shows plan their days, how different gaffers like to communicate with their DPs, and how long a 2/8 page scene really should take!!! Also, to be frank, as a background actor in New York City, I found myself on bigger sets than I ever had been as a producer or First AD. And being on bigger sets gives you a better perspective of how smaller sets should run.

So now, I recommend that everyone who wants to be in a key creative or technical position in “Hollywood” work on big sets and work on small sets. It doesn’t matter what your position is as long as you pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Anyway, back to being a First AD. I’m kinda energized for the position now.

Anybody shooting anything?

Secret Millionaires: Red Carpet Event

413555_243669202385315_1550357753_o

On the set of the Windows 7 shoot.

A few months ago I was in LA for work (I was the First AD on a Windows 7 commercial, more on that later) and I was fortunate enough to be there for a red carpet event for Secret Millionaires, the web-series I shot with my talented friends Dan Amos and Elizabeth Pennington.

Secret Millionaires had been nominated for the Mingle Media Audience Choice Award by the fans at 2011 New Media Film Festival.

What an honour!

Thankfully I was not working on the night of the event, so I borrowed clothes and jewelry from my former roomie (Pennington) and we did our hair and makeup and drove off in a classy rental car (mine for the week) to downtown Hollywood for the red carpet. We were hoping for the win!

We didn’t get the top spot, but we came close. You can see a video here of us all on the red carpet.

Snazzy group, eh?

Netflix for Theaters: MoviePass

In this Gizmodo article we learn about a subscription program for movie theaters.

Part of me is excited; part of me is nervous. Having worked in professional theater, I know what a boon subscription offers can be for stabilizing earned income. And in general, it’s been proven over and over again in my experience that what’s good for one theater is good for other theaters.

So can this effect transfer into the film industry? I’m sure that someone somewhere in Burbank or Culver City has run the numbers: the number of movie-going public in America, the amount who own netflix already, and a projection of who would use and recommend the use of both… It’s either going to be a life-saver of the film industry or a catalyst for major change.

As an indie filmmaker, I’ve been watching the whole digital distribution revolution with interest and while I don’t think I’m in a place where I can yet effect change, I am wholeheartedly invested in the changes that do occur. Some would argue that I should be working to effect change if I have preferences about how the dice roll; but do I want to put the time and effort into changing distribution channels yet?

I lean towards waiting.

What do you think?