Battle damage

First of all, I have to change my schedule to Thursday. It is getting harder and harder to write on Wednesday, too much projects to be finished by the middle of the week. As you’ve noticed sometimes I need to skip the week’s entry for the same reason – too much work.

 

Ok, let’s get back to business.  Today I will tell you a little about  post-production phase.

So the final shots finally arrived and  according to your previous execution plan, you can start working on them… not.  First you have to estimate the damage done on the set. Yes, usually most of the shots have many issues, and are made in a simply wrong way. So you have to analyse them frame by frame, and figure out necessary modifications to your original plan.

The next thing you have to take care of is to make sure the shots are color corrected. Remember – corrected, not color graded. This means the colorist evened out the black and white levels, removed improper white balance etc. Don’t try to work on the graded material, as you will never be able to match the colorist’s artistic work on color by eye.

Then you have to make sure the shot you have, matches the offline edit, that the format of files is the one you should use. Working on the 8bit source frames made by editor’s rookie assistant is a waste of time if the 24bit RAW source material is available. Always check your formats and try to work on the best possible. The more information it holds, it’s easier to match the CGI into it. If your shots are to be transferred to the analogue film tape – you just can’t use 8 bit source – you need a float point information on color. But be mindful of the disk space and your computer’s abilities. Sometimes you just don’t need RAW 4K source material if your final image is to be shown on YouTube 720p :)

Ok, let’s assume you’ve got your shot from my previous post – The hero walks into plaza, with blueboxes closing the streets in the background, the villain is taking off and flying away in hovercraft, and there is a big Si-Fi cityscape in the background. There is a camera on the crane movement with a lot of parallax change during the shot.  How to bite that shot? What’s need to be done to accomplish the director’s vision?

Let’s assume you have all the assets created for you – the villain’s hovercraft is 3d modeled, the matte painting of the city is done, and you have all the documentation from the set on your disc ready to use. The shot is in proper format, it is color corrected and checked for it’s duration against the offline edit. The edit can’t change at this point! Not a single frame can be changed, or you will need to do a lots of work over again. So make sure everybody knows and agrees to that.

This is a time to track the camera movement in 3D. That’s what I usually do first, with shots like this. This is where your on set notes comes in handy. The more information you put into the tracking software, the more precise is the result. The wide lens crane shots are usually easy to track. Remember to mask out every moving object (like our hero walking) before you track it – it usually helps a lot. But this days tracking software is extremely efficient – so most of the time you will have good results quite fast. Check your scale – put some test object into the scene, try to match their height against any object you measured on the set. You are looking for very precise match. Watch your scene from other angles in 3d view-ports in your software – is the path of the camera matches the one you had on the set? The software sometimes flips out the movement – it looks good from the camera point of view but in fact it does not match the real movement and you will have very weird results during working within 3d software.

Next you have to put it into 3D software. I am a 3ds Max user so I will reference to that from time to time – but from my experience this apply to any 3d commercial software on the market like XSI or Maya.  When you imported your solution, it is a good practice to spend some time on scaling it and matching your 3d environment – as it is rarely the case you can use it as it is right from the imported data. Don’t mess with the camera itself – move and scale all the imported data at once – the points and the camera as one object. Check it every time you change something – does it match the source material? Is the movement EXACTLY as in the tracking software?

Now you can recreate the on the set scenery in you 3d soft. It’s rarely necessary to do a detailed copy of everything. At this point you will use simple box proxies for buildings, trees, and what is most important – the CGI hovercraft. Take your measurements from the set and try to get the overall scale of your 3d scene. If everything matches you are good to jump to the animation phase. Remember that you don’t need to match every CGI element in one scene. 3d Tracks are rarely that good  - so you can prepare different one for the hovercraft and different one for the streets or the background. But let’s assume you matched the scene good enough to do it in one 3d scene – it’s still means you will need to render every piece separately – just to have a control over every element in composition.

When you start animating, it is best to use simple proxy models at the beginning. You can use primitives for that, but if you work with directors without experience in 3d creation – they tend to force you to show them final model on every preview. Don’t let them do that! You have to have the comfort on animating with simple objects for smooth display  while you work. But having a good looking proxy 3d model is a key to make them happy.

When animating flying objects – which is particularly easy – the key to success is a “feeling” of weight and mass. Many times I’ve seen WWII bombers flying like jetfighters or heavy SI-FI hovercrafts flying like RC helicopters. Many times directors or inexperienced supervisors force you  to “make them go faster!”. That’s usually means they feel something is wrong with the animation, but the speed is rarely the case. It’s the mass and weight “feel” your animation is lacking. In my opinion – it is better to stick to the real life speed. That’s why I care of the scale so much. I can just check the plane’s typical speed, watch some air shows to compare my 3d results and then show it all to the director. It’s usually enough to convince him. It’s harder with Si-Fi – there is rarely anything to compare with. But try to imagine the mass of the vehicle, it’s type of engines, watch some real life vehicles with similar properties – like Hurricane jet, or light helicopters. The real life reference is the key to good animation.

When you work on the animation with directors or supervisors – be prepared to make fast previews, and make a lots of them. Make adjustments on the fly. Do the main vehicle movements animation as long as your client is fully satisfied with it. Then, only after his approval (have it on paper or in your email just for sure :) ) – move to another step: the extra animations.

The trick to bring life and detail to your animation is all those extra parts and bonus movement you can add. In our case, our hovercraft should have flaps, landing gear, antennas or even the villain pilot moving during take off. It is most important when we see the vehicle for the first time and the audience is focused on that. Don’t overdo it, usually small movements are enough – the ones that are noticed on the subconscious level.

Ok, next week we will talk about interaction with the on set environment. See you.

Let’s rock!

This week we will have a small walk-through the set, and I will show you what you need to accomplish as a CGI supervisor.

The first thing you need to do on the set is to grab a cup of coffee and have a chat… with the director and DoP. You have to make sure you understand each other and that they are willing to follow your plan of execution. It is common mistake for directors and DoP to change everything on the set, and you shouldn’t let them do that at all costs. Because the cost of such a hasty decisions will be actually much higher when you start to fix such a mistakes it in post production. After introductory talk-troughs you have to wait a veeeery long time to your shot to come. In the meantime you can talk with a set decorator and help him put all the blueboxes in place. Then right before the shot you will need to grab the DoP by his sleeve and talk him through the lightning setup and exposure for the scene. Yes – lots of talking involved being CGI supervisor.

The blueboxes have to be set up and lighted in such a way that the surface is evenly lit and in the middle of the exposure. The EVENLY LIT is a key. Literally. The more even is the BB surface the easier is to key it out. Make sure you avoid any folds and shadows on the canvas. You set the lightning for the BB first, you set the exposure fixed, and then you treat everything in front of it separately as a different lightning setup. It is VERY important that the distance to the bluebox is big enough that no light or shadow from the front setup hits the blue canvas. It can ruin your key. The light used for BB have to be white, 5600K. No blue filters on light please!. In some cases you will use green screen. It is matter of preference this days, and usage of blue and green costumes and props in the scene. But it is possible to key out blue on blue if the front blue color is much darker then the BB itself. So choose your color as you will see fit for a scene and affordability.

We used an example scene last time – a hero walks into the plaza watching the villain escaping using flying hovercraft. Plaza ends with few narrow streets and there is a Si Fi cityscape behind the buildings. The main camera is on the crane following him so we have a parallax change in the shot.

We planned to close the narrow streets with blueboxes. You will have to photograph every street one by one. You do that by following the line of sight of the camera to get closer to the streets  - you need to have more detail on such a picture than the camera records. Try to use matched lenses – at least close to the ones used in main. When you are close by the street, make a picture from the main line of sight and from few different angles to get more detail on the building fronts. If you will use angles wide enough you will have a possibility to use some software for rebuild the street in 3d, but it is not applicable for all situations so don’t count on it. But make a pictures just in case. Repeat it for every street separately (you use that technique in cases when you need to get the background behind the bluebox back in the scene) Then you can do the same for the whole plaza from the position of the main camera. If this is a crane shot, you will probably need to take pictures from the highest position of it, but if this is impossible and you recording more then HD resolution you will have the ability to use main reel for the stills needed.

There is no much to do with lights on BB when shooting in open spaces like that, but if you have a place where you can hide a lamps in front of the bluebox – you can have a lamps set up to lit it when necessary. This way you gain control over exposures. But remember – avoid lightning the bluebox from behind – this way you change it into a soft box lamp and in digital world you will have a big pixelised mess out of it in your software.

After the BB are set, and the set is lit by the DoP – you have to take pictures of it using HDRI half mirror – for your CGI elements lightning. You can make panorama with your photo camera but it takes forever, and it is also time consuming to compose them in photoshop (or similar software). It is wise to use the RAW float point format for HDRI images – you will prepare them with no time with it – but there are plenty of other time consuming techniques you can find all over the net.  You will usually need only to set the mirror in front of the main camera and make few pictures with few different exposures just in case you will need them. Set it where your CGI object will be in the scene. – it is common mistake to take pictures of HDRI mirror close to the camera for no particular reason….  You can also get yourself a ball painted in 50% gray color to take pictures of it for the lightning reference. But this time you should use main camera to photograph it right where the 3D element will be in a scene.

Now is the moment when you have to work a little with the director on the interaction between the actor and the CG element. The actor should follow  the imaginary hovercraft with his sight (head in this case) with proper speed and timing. It is not easy to make it right on the set – so make different versions of the timing and get the clear two takes for each speed. After the shot is taken you will usually have some time to make additional measurements, pictures etc. before the set would be broke down. Try to avoid taking too much of them before the shot to avoid pissing off entire crew – use every possible free time for those to not disturb the flow of the shooting day. The very important thing to write down is the lenses used – in milimeters and also the model of the lenses – you can find a presets for it in your software in many cases, which helps a lot. You should get the full shooting documentation for your shots from the production team – but this is many times impossible, forgotten or the documentation is a mess. So it is best practice to double it and write your own notes. Sometimes you will need to take a still shot from the main camera of the lenses distortion chart using reference checker table – especially when wide lenses are used. you can prepare one yourself very easily – all you need is a checker made of lines crossed 90 degrees on the sheet of paper You will need to match up distortions  in post, and it really helps 3d tracking, so don’t forget about that.

I didn’t talk about 3d tracking, as in this case, with wide shot and a good parallax, the urban environment and the architectural detail – most of the nowdays tracking software will track it with ease. We will talk about 3d tracking one day.

You can also notice that I didn’t talk about the background replacing. As long as you dont use motion control camera, you cant do much about it on set – we will talk about it in post production phase in detail. If you have motion control rig (lucky you!) – you can set a bluebox in front of the actor to avoid using rotoscopy in post, and have a clear second pass of the plaza without the actor. But don’t make the assumption that you can do it with the crane without motion controlled by a computer and servos. You won’t. It is just impossible to make the exactly the same movements with the crane or dolly cart by hand. So YOU WILL use the rotoscopy masking and your ass will pain from hours in front of your monitor, and your head will explode doing it.

Every CGI artist have to face the horror of rotoscoping the shots by hand. Without it you can’t be one of us :)

Every CGI shot is different and it is hard to tell what you will need in particular case. The rule of thumb is to go to the set with a plan, but also make sure the production team knows it and are prepared for it. Make sure they understand the importance of making every step in a proper way with your acceptance and guidance.

Next time we will talk about post production phase. And we will start from rotoscopy masking :)  See you!

It’s a kind of magic

This week I will give some detail on the CGI creation, one of the most challenging parts of the post production process. It takes years of experience to master the process and to make convincing effects, but if I knew some of the knowledge you will read her today, I would get to my current level much faster.

We can split CGI effects to many types, where most common are:

-on the set mistakes correction – like removing forgotten plastic bottles, wires, cables or rookie assistant standing in the extras crowd while rolling.

-background extension - very common this days, it is cheaper to close a street block with a bluebox and add the rest of the street later in post

-adding 3d elements – a wide range from simple coffee mug to digital characters

-matte painting – digital version of very old technique  - replacing any element with new one painted by artists - usually used for backgrounds.

- Atmospheric effects – from simple flare to complex dust and explosions.

And many many more. you can actually combine any of those types, but it is better to treat  them separately and combine as late as possible at the composition phase.

 

We wont deal with mistakes corrections here, as this is a dull and not very creative work and usually you have to improvise a solution for particular case with tight deadline. You will learn it anyway, usually the hard way – using all other techniques I will describe here..

So how do you start making CGI? Usually you should start it as early at the pre production phase as possible. As an example I will describe you a shot which will use all of the types described above and we will deal with them one by one – exactly as you should do it at the planning phase.

So imagine a shot where our hero walks down the alley to the fairly big plaza with a few streets coming in all directions. The camera follows him on the crane, first from above looking up and then goes down to the street level. At the end of the shot our hero is watching escaping si-fi hovercraft with a bad guy. You can see a si-fi cityscape in a background behind the plaza buildings. That’s the directors vision. – he knows he want that shot, even if there is no script yet! Yes, that’s right – you can plan this shot as early as that.

I will skip the art designing process, lets assume that a bunch of artist designed every piece of the shot – vehicle, cityscape, sky, etc. Let’s also assume we have the set already chosen. Now we need a plan.

The first thing, and fairly the easiest one to spot in our analysis is the plaza streets in the background. Renting city sets is very expensive this days, so it is reasonable to close every street with a bluebox. As this is a wide shot, we don’t need much detail on the buildings behind blueboxes, But we have a 3d movement – so we will have to camera map the photos of the buildings on a simple 3d model.of every street. We also need to take the photos on the set to complete that.

 

Next – the vehicle. It is a quite simple to add flying vehicles. The key to success is to create a good model, but even more important is to match the lighting from the set. The best way to do that is to use a HDRI images taken on the set using a half sphere mirror. We will get back to it later. You will also need to measure the set to set the scale right. It is a good habit to keep the real life scale in your projects or set a common scale for all artist like 1:10. Apart from this, the key to successful and convincing CGI vehicle is its interaction with the environment. The shadows have to match, the reflections have to match, the engines should move some dust on the background, the engines shock-wave can move some foliage. You have to think thorough how you will measure this on the set and how you will incorporate the shock-wave in real life conditions. Will it be a windmill or a pressurized air, or maybe pyrotechnics?  Maybe you can do it digital from stock? Or 3d using physics simulation? You have to take the costs and availability of equipment in consideration.

Next – the cityscape. You can use a 2d still image painted by hand by your artist, use a photos combined in photoshop, whatever technique suits you. But more important problem is the 3d movement of the camera. You can use 2d image on the very far objects, but it is much wiser to use a 2,5 technique, which is casting a 2d image onto simple 3d models – much like in our streets case. Creating different alpha matted image planes  moving with different speed dependent on the distance from viewer - also adds to the overall feel of distance.  The key to the good matte painting is the movement. Animated matte paintings are hard to create – with all the big resolutions involved – but can greatly improve the overall “feel of reality” in our shot.

Next week I will follow you thorough the set, with details on the supervisor responsibilities.

 

 

The free fall to reentry.

The most dangerous event of space travel is returning home.

As you probably already noticed that, I constantly reference the movie production to Apollo mission to the Moon. This is due to our studio recent interest of space and our first attempts to create a video game with such a theme. But it is also a great way to show the importance of a good plan and execution, keeping up the schedule etc.

So we spent some happy days on the set – our hypothetical “Moon”. We had plenty of adventures, discovered many things and it was very exiting. Now it is time to get back to Earth. If the Moon landing is the shooting stage, the reentry and safe landing is the premiere – so the journey back home in space is similar to:

THE POST PRODUCTION PHASE

It is truly a free fall – without careful plan, without proper execution, without some math and timing calculation – you will for sure miss the spot and burn in the atmosphere, splash into the ground or fly into abyss of film industry – broke. It is especially important at the beginning of your career – you can never get any funds in a future if you screwed up one of your first movies.

And the post production process is a key to success. Especially the editing holds up most of your decisions as a director within this phase.

The schedule usually looks as follows:

-The editing – in a properly planned film production, you should start it the very first day of your shooting phase. The daily reels can be edited the next day – so you can watch the roughly cut scene in the evening. This way you can plan additional shooting when you are still on the set. After the return from the set you should go for the 2 weeks vacation to recharge your batteries – and your editor will have the time to sort the material, synchronize the sound, and prepare the rough cut of your movie. After you get back from your favored beach, you go immediately to the editing room and you should not stop until you have a director’s cut of your film. You should then have some internal screenings and take notes – to find a weak spots in your movie. This is a hard moment for you. Many people will tell you of many mistakes an cons of your edit – but you have to trust your guts sometimes. I usually don’t care if I get one negative comment on something from one person. But if at least two people comment on the same matter independently – I will check  it. But I will not change it until I know they are right about it. You have to take a step back, have a distance, imagine you watch some dull movie on tv – this is the only way to spot the weak parts for yourself. One important thing about editing your movie – I discovered that whenever I feel strong emotion during first editing of a scene – I usually get the same response from the audience with the finished piece. Later when you make corrections to your edit you will lost that sensation – so look into it when you feel it for the first time and hold on to this as long as you can.

When you have your edit ready – and in best case scenario your producer loves it – you can start next phases simultaneously:

The color correction phase – is the next step to follow the editing process. You need some experience with it if you don’t want to ruin the quality – so find yourself a professional, or learn it before you start playing with correctors. The basics are easy to master – so it is good to know them anyway. You don’t grade – you just even out the material in this phase. I will get back to this in future posts for sure.

Sound editing – your sound team starts to do their magic. Can’t tell you much about it  - this is a role for a pro sound editor. If you don’t have such a specialist at hand – you are screwed. It takes years of practice to master it – and the movie with a bad sound usually ends bad. Period.

Music – your composer can start working on the music as soon as the final edit is done. Don’t try to force him to do this earlier – as synchronizing the beats with the edit is an enormous deal of work – and no composer will like to do it over and over again. Ask him nicely and maybe he will agree to write some themes for you to choose after seeing the rough edit.

CGI – actually your team can start working on the CGI at the pre production phase  - with concept arts and storyboards. It is a good idea to start early, do some research and development, be active during the shooting phase and cooperate closely with the team on the set – so when the first material arrives – the CGI team can work on it at once – even before the editing. It is good to reach for their opinion before you choose a particular take in your edit – this can save you a lot of time later. Right after the final edit is ready – the CGI team can start working toward the final version of shots. It is a very, very bad idea to reedit your cut after your team starts working on finals. You will get yourself killed by them if you try this :) You have to do some math at this stage. Count the shots you have to modify using CGI and multiply them by 2 weaks each per one person of the CGI team. Then double it. Then add 20% of this time. Now you have rough estimation on how the CGI creation gonna take with save buffer. And it still can go wrong. keep that in mind. You just can’t get 600 shots with full CGI in three months with 5 artists team. It is impossible. It take more then 10 years of practice to estimate this – and I’m still miscalculating from time to time. If you are a beginner - don\t try to force yourself to use CGI in your movie because all the big players do. They have the experience. The bad CGI is like bad sound – it will ruin your movie. Learn to make film the classic way – so when you start adding CGI one day, it will be only used when necessary for the story and you will know what quality it should have. We will get into detail of CGI creation next week.

Color Grade – after the CGI is done your colorist can start grading your movie – finding a proper mood for a scene is critical – and colors do just that – create the emotional subconscious background for our brains. Watch out this process closely  - it is a directors responsibility with a close cooperation with DoP to choose the color scheme.

Sound Mixing – one of the most enjoyable parts of post production. You sit in the screening room on the comfortable couch  You are watching your movie being almost ready, and having fun from sound editors arguing on something you have no bloody idea of.

Finalizing and final screenings – this part can go forever. This is a pure technical effort to wrap it up, make titles, adjustments, transfers for different medium, trailers… etc.. There is a lot of technical mumbo jumbo in the air, and you wait and wait forever for the quality controll pass. The deadline for the premiere is in few days, everybody gets nervous, you watch your movie thousand times with everybody in the team to spot any mistakes (and you will usually spot a lot). You have to correct them super-fast, you have to render the project over and over again…. it is truly comparable to the reentry of the Moon orbiter into the atmosphere. There is no window for maneuvers here – you have to hold on tight and pray. Otherwise you get burned. Lots of movies were dumped at this point.

The premiere – it wont happened itself by magic – your production team and distributor have to prepare it in advance, check the provided movie for any problems with screening, have a copies at hand (if you are screening digital –  have a copy on a few different containers). You have to prepare the poster, the setup in theater, the party, call the media etc..  It is quite a logistic nightmare.

The price –  when you watch it with full audience for the first time in a dark, you can sometimes feel their mood. It is magic moment. It is worth everything. The sound of the sincere applause at the end titles is your biggest price. And hopefully, full account with lot of zeros after the number will follow :)

Next few weeks we will focus in detail at some aspects of post production process. So stay tuned.

 

The long journey

Long space travel is boring. In the contrary days spent on the set are one of the most exiting moments I ever experienced. It is a pure fun for me, but it is also extremely exhausting work. As a director – you have to be focused all the time, and share your strength and enthusiasm with everybody. If you can’t stand it don’t expect anybody will. That’s why in professional film there is so many assistants, chairs, and all sorts of comfort for the director. Not because he is famous “god of movies”, but because he have to work hardest.

Your main responsibility on the set is to lead the actors. Everybody else should now their tasks by now, or be led by your first assistant and the rest of production stuff. But… that’s is rarely the case. It is a good habit to check every core member’s task completion one by one. It is a kind of tour I take before starting of the new scene. I will usually start from set construction and decoration, then talk through the set up of light rigs, sound and next few angles of camera. Then there is time for rehearsal with actors (I get to that in a moment), and this is also the time for DoP to trial runs for camera. Then the actors go for makeup and costume, and you watch over the shoulder of DoP setting the lights. When actors are ready, you do the final camera rehearsal  and off you go with rolling. That’s the perfect world at least.

The rehearsal is probably one of most important tools of the director, and most of the time you don’t have the luxury to make it as long as you would like to. It is a good idea to set up rehearsals before shooting, and do it in every spare time you have as long as you are not satisfied with your actors performance. Thanks to that, you can easily reference to the actor’s memory to tell him what you need while the camera is rolling.  I tend to work on details during the rehearsals then let the actors loose while rolling. I don’t care to much for written dialogue as long as the meaning is the same and the performance is convincing. But if my actor changes his lines I work with him slowly to tell the written dialogue at least twice exactly as in the script. The best situation is when actor make all the changes in the lines during the rehearsal then during the actual shooting, as you will have many problems editing the scene if actors change too much between takes.

I won’t talk too much of how to lead the actors the best way (not yet –  in this post anyway), as it could take a book to write it all. And there are plenty of good books on directing, and every single one states something different. So read as many as you can, but what you really need is practice. You have to try it out yourself, try all the techniques on actors, friends, anybody who want to try. Practice it anytime you can, practice it in your mind.

The most important rule of thumb is – don’t ever try to show yourself how to play the role. Never. Actors will only get confused, as even if you are a great actor yourself they can’t mimic your performance. That is just impossible. The basic rule is to make them use their own imagination to the level they feel the emotions you need. The body will do the rest – it will express the emotion. Well trained actor can do that easily but that doesn’t mean you can skip this most important part of your workshop. You have to set the mood for them, you have to give them the image of the situation they are in, what happened before, who they were, and who they are now (as a character), and especially what are their needs and goals in the scene.

Don’t be worry if you don’t get it in first few takes. it usually takes ten or so takes to “catch it”, and you should always try to get two “perfect” takes for given angle. But don’t over do it. After a dozen tries it is better to take a little brake, as you will loose a tension. Change the angle or try some new footwork, or different emotional approach. It is also better to do the wide angles first, and then the close ups. After dozen or so takes of wide shot, actors are usually well warmed up and in the mood, so their expression is at a peak level – that’s what you want with close ups. It is a good approach to let the actors play or improvise few minutes before the “action”. This will set them inside the role.

Remember – if your acting and inscenisation is pure – no super duper camera move will save it. The story is a key – so remember to keep your focus on the action, and keep the image at second place.

The launch – our rocket goes toward the moon.

“Houston we got a problem…”

Let’s  get back to the basics of film making  – this time we will try to give you some advise on working on the set. I said “we” as I asked Blackstork Studio’s Lead Artist – Marcin “Kebab” Mielczarek – to be my guest on that topic. His attention to detail and knowledge of equipement, his technical skills mixed with artistic experience makes him the most invaluable member of any team I worked with.

Here are his thoughts:

“What’s fascinates me, but also annoys me the most in movie making, is the fact that film is a collective effort. You don’t have 100% control over every aspect of the production. You have to let it be a live creature and somehow conscious being. What scares me the most is that you have to find a way to control that being. That’s usually my responsibilty on the set.

One of a first thing I learned working in the field, is to prepare the “Plan C”. Why to begin with plan C –  not A and B? Because usually this would be the one you will stick with after the plan A and B drops out. And they will drop out eventually. So your plan C should be the most realistic one. The less experienced you are, the faster you will kill your plan A and B by making mistakes or by forgetting some important equipment.

You have to realize one important thing. With the very first day of your shooting phase, the time for preparation is over and you are left only with the things you actually have on the set. There is no time and space for planing now, it is time for make things happen.

Right on the set you cannot waste your precious time to wait for lost equipment, or calling your friends to rent you lights or memory cards for your camera. If you forget to measure how high is a trains chimney, your precious RED camera on the crane would be smashed  (with no replacement to use) and you will lost 300.000$ for all the vehicles and extras you rented for that day. True story by the way – made by so called “professional” team here in Poland.

Even if your production is as small as one camera, one actor, and no lights, you would be surprised of tons of details you have to take care before you roll, and how hard is to make it right if you forget any of it.

Give a close attention to obvious and simple things, as they tends to do the very opposite – complicate stuff. Transportation, vehicles park, power supply, organizing seats in cars and pickup schedule, catering, light bulb replacement. broken connectors, cables replacement, broken shoe lace… the list is endless. Write down all of them before you start.

Keep your team well fed and happy. Keep them hydrated and rested.  If you are changing location – be mindful  of traffic, maps, possibility to get lost, communication between teams.

The lack of maintenance of equipment is a most common mistake on the set. You have to find somebody responsible for it, otherwise you will be forced to do it yourself and you will waste a lot of time for it, and make everybody wait for you. This pisses people off. Take care to charge all batteries and have a replacement. Don’t forget to take proper charging sets with you. Have you prepared a free space on your hard drive for your day’s reels? Have you checked every cable, every connector and adapter? Remember – it is easier to replace the small and cheap adapter, then the long and expensive cable, especially with HDMI standard.

Somebody have to take care for all of it. Imagine you have a perfect weather for your shot, everybody is ready, you have ideal mood set – and then you realize that every battery is stone cold. That you forgot to check that the day before!  Or you didn’t match your follow focus rings with the lenses – and your very important Depth of Field change during the most important scene is screwed up every try. 

You have to remember to be flexible and to not accustom to your uber perfect plan. No plan is perfect, and you have to adjust it constantly to the changes you will encounter. Usually every weaknesses and pros of your team is clearly shown in the very first few days of your shooting phase. You have to adapt to that, and you will be able to at least predict their productivity and real skills for next days. Is not that they do not work well.  It is that it is extremely hard to predict the actual conditions on the set, the real experience of the particular team member and his “battle awareness”. What they talk about themselves or show in the portfolio, could be drastically different then their real skills.

After few days you will see what can possibly go wrong – so you should think your plan and schedule thorough, and make adjustments. Sometimes it’s as easy as switching the order of shots to film, sometimes you have to drastically throw out some angles or change them. Consider it as ill fitted puzzle – and you have to make best image you can out of it.

That is a place for your Plan C. As we sometimes called it “Fuckup plan”. Watch your uber plan and ask yourself a question “What could possibly go wrong” for every single detail. And make a plan how to avoid it or how to fix it in the field – so your story would not suffer.

I wish you your Plan C remain unused. The good Plan C is the unused one. You should be happy for your well spent shooting day without “fuckups”. But you will have a comfort that anytime you screw something up – you have the ace in your pocket – the Plan C.”

Make sure you don’t need Plan D and F either, and see you next week.

 

The epic shot

This week’s theme was supposed to be the production phase of making movie, but I want to skip it – as I want to share some of my thoughts on last two days experiences.

I’m curretly in the middle of the big reenactment event in small town of Hel on the far northern shore of Poland. We changed it for full week, into Normandy town during Allied invasion in summer days of year 1944.

I’m currently directing spectacles for open public, with lots of firefights and scenes from battlefields of D-day and beyond. I always try to make them as historically acurate as possible but with film quality drama. It is hard to acheive it in live event as we have only one try – we have to set the right mood with every piece – inscenisation, acting, synchronisation of pirotechnic, music and live comment. With all of those problems to solve on your mind, it is easy to forget about basics of drama, and that the story you tell with this live scene – must be emotional. You have to grab the audience hearts and hit it hard with your scene-play.

Last two days experiences showed me clearly that one of the best ways to acheive it is to use the epic shot – the emotionaly reach scene that is very close to the audience –  whenever you use a camera or do it live – like saving soldier’s life by group of medics – but with big epic batlle scene behind it. We have a joke in Poland – “What is a difference beetween polish war movie and american war movie? – in polish movie two guys are sitting in the foxhole and talking about their emotions and there is empty wood behind it, and in US made movie two guys are sitting in the foxhole and talking about their emotions and there is wood behind it filled with explosions, dying soldiers, tanks and planes fighting”.

We made a scene here yesterday, with a french family slaughtered by both US Army and German machine guns by mistake – with only two small children left alive – the audience saw a medic, who want to calm down the shocked kid – he holds him with his arms crying, giving him chocolade – and behind them there are dying civilians on the road, German and US soldiers in shock for what they did, medics patching the wounded and screaming girl. The scene was epic – and made the audience cry.

 

I’m short of time so – see you next week.

The count down starts…

The basics of film-making continues..

So here you are – you made your decision, and you officially started your production.  So now you will take the camera and go filming….

Not so fast hotshot! :) Before you go for it – there is a tons of work to do. The actual production usually starts with the first production meeting and making a schedule for all events that follow. You start with pre -production and many things mentioned before are already a part of that.  the schedule can be rough sketch many times even without specified dates. You will dig into it in following weeks, making it more and more detailed, and shuffling deadlines constantly.

The pre-pruduction phase usually takes at least four times the time for shooting phase, and post production twice the time of pre production bu no lestt than a mont – so for 10 days shooting you will need 40 working days, and 80 days for post. If you will find yourself thinking you can do it faster – slap yourself in the face to wake up :) It is much better to finish your job faster than to delay the deadline. Of course this estimation varies and it takes some experience to not miscalculate your schedule.

During the pre – production phase you should simultaneously prepare everything needed for shooting phase, and post production phase too if needed.

The designing process takes place in this phase – as was described in previous posts, so I will focus on the production tasks:

The very first weeks are spend on breaking down the script for every detail and right after sharing all the designing tasks to your team you can start with casting – having the real faces of actors at the early stage really helps the marketing and funds rising. The next important thing is a location scouting, and then acquiring all necessary permissions to film in particular location – which can take a lot of time.Having this two things set down early – gives you the opportunity to focus on enormous small tasks to be watch over with two the most critical tasks been taken care of.

The director can now start working with actors on script readings, rehearsals or any  stunt training. But be aware that is usually a luxury of high budget productions and many times you will have no rehearsals at all before the shooting day.

As your schedule takes shape, you  can prepare logistics – rent the equipment, buy supplies for designers works, and as shooting phase closing in – for the crew on set, talk through details with crew members, sign papers,  and in spare time –  what is most important to do all the time – rise more funds.

But we can’t forget to watch over the progress of the design process – at least a month before the shooting you need to see things take shape – set constructions, costumes and props should be made full scale during this time. The time for any research and development is well over now, and you need to make sure things are close to finish.

As for the preparations for post production – you have to set some time in your schedule for meetings with key specialists especially for sound and CGI  - ans it is critical for them to make preparations for all the work on the set, and they can sometimes start working on the early stage designs to be ahead of the schedule for post-production. Give them as many work you can as early as possible.

At the evening of the day before shooting starts – you should have every thing ready and at stand by – during the shooting you’ll wont have time for taking care of stuff you forget to do earlier.

Of course every production is so different that there is no way to tell exactly what’s needs to be done. So this weeks post will be shorter and less detailed than others.  But my advise would be simple  - start from big picture and from every of big question marks arises, work your way to the tiniest detail, and do it for every question you encounter. Be pedantic. If you will miss something – it will pop out in the worst moment of your shooting phase and you will be dare to kill yourself for not checking it earlier.

 

Next week the greatest of all moments in movie making -  working on the set.

 

The Countdown – give me a go or no go for launch.

This is the next part on basics of movie making. Make sure you check the previous two here:

Part I: http://www.blog.blackstorkstudio.com/?p=91

Part II: http://www.blog.blackstorkstudio.com/?p=106

If you like it – make sure you hit the “subscribe” button – you will get info on new posts to your email every Wednesday – as there is much more to come.

Why do you need several hundred people to get three guys to the moon..

The crew of your movie is an essential part of your success. I could tell you that you should take the best you can afford bla bla bla… but that’s not entirely true. The crew should be chosen based on people abilities and productivity and you should really ask around for people that have them and want to be involved. This way you can find out that many people can do many simple jobs needed for your shooting day – sometimes completely for free. Of course  - the more responsibility the better to have somebody with a lot of experience doing it, but I learned myself working as a grip assistant, that one experienced lead can teach a group of completely inexperienced guys everything needed for the job to be done – in no time. As long as they believe in  the project, feel part of it and understands what it is about – the crew composed with experienced leaders and less experienced but willing to learn subordinates can be highly productive. Why I am telling this, when you can just hire all of the crew? Because it is cheaper, or at least you can spend more money for highly experienced specialists.  It is also a good idea – at least if you can afford it – to let the lead specialist choose his team. They usually worked with some people before, and can rely on them, so listen closely to their advises on that matter.

Your crew had to be fully informed on the tasks and amount of time they have to complete it. Keep them informed – and be clear they can be needed anytime – so if they have to be on the set at 6 a.m and stay until 11 p.m. is because you need them to be at hand anytime you need them. This especially have to be clearly stated to extras, because some of them are for sure first-timers and do not realize how making movies looks like behind the scenes. It is a good idea to have reference monitor for the crew on the set, and the board in central place of the set with daily storyboards and schedule hung for them to see. They have to know what is going on and why they have to wait so god damn long :)

It is a good idea to constantly train your crew – you have to think about the future projects – as you probably will work with them next time sooner or later. So encourage your leads to share their knowledge.  And for the force sake talk with them, listen to their needs, keep them hydrated and fed. Don’t you ever forget about it – or they will never want to work with you. Respect to their effort is a key for their support. It does not matter that you pay them – don’t shuffle them around like cattle – without them you would be alone with your idea – and making movies alone is a nightmare. Movie making is a group effort – and that is the best thing in it. You spend days, weeks, months, and sometimes years with these people on a very hard journey.

As a great example of how much people could be involved in a modern movie you have to watch this behind the scenes documentary:

You have to remember that your crew isn’t only the technical staff on the set. Actually it is everybody involved in your movie. From day one of pre-production to the premiere day (even far beyond that as many people work on advertising and selling of your movie long after the premiere.) –  the people involved, are all part of your team, and you have to be their leader. Your 6 million $ actor is as much important as the guy who brings your coffee every day – because you wouldn’t be here without them. This is a very important part of being a director or a producer – leadership. The good military leader goes first, and shows he himself can do everything his team can do – but also he believes in his men training, and he knows that many of his men abilities are far better then his. Making movies is very similar to battlefields, so make sure you learn some of the military leader skills before you go to the set. That is what your crew need to be effective – the confidence that there is at least one man who know all the answers. And you HAVE TO KNOW ALL THE ANSWERS! Or at least know who you have to ask to know them :)

Oh, so flying to the moon will cost me billions of dollars? Wouldn’t it be better to shoot that in studio and tell everybody we did it?

The budget. The phrase that scares me the most. How much it will cost? Actually I’m not an expert on big budget issues. I can tell you how to make movies cheap. It is may be not very good for the industry, as I would like to make big money on making movies too – but in my country -most of the money goes to a void – or what is worst – to the pockets of people who do the least. It is really a great issue, because many Polish filmmakers tend to believe that they have to get as much money they can get for doing nothing while the production is still ongoing, than making movies that are have excellent content and earn money after the premiere.

So great budgets (at least for Polish standards), but very low end content – and movies just sucks, an the audience don’t want to go to the theater for polish movies anymore. So the industry spends a lot but earn small amounts. So nobody want to invest in it. Most of the time they have to lend an take bank debt or beg for funds from Government institutes. This leads to the situation when it is extremely hard to get any funds for independent cinema in here.

That is why we adapted – and we are the masters of making cheap movies. In the contrary to mainstream industry – I wan’t to spend every dollar on the best content I can have. One of my colleagues once told me – thinking will cost you nothing! Think though every step to have most of it with less money.

So first thing I would do creating budget is to specify everything I can do myself for free(and usually the list is quite long), and the most important things I have to pay for, to get them. This first thing is your contribution, your investment in the project so make sure you valuate it. How much it would cost if you do that for money? This way you, and your investors can see that your first budget estimation is not 0$ but usually at least 10-50K$ (for example my personal involvement in my feature movie project is by far at least 200K-300K$ for script, storyboards, production work, website, advertising , design, scouting,… oh the list is veeeery long. And that’s just me – there are already many people involved).

Lets be honest – many people will contribute their work that way just to have a chance to be involved in a movie production. They think it is free but you should not treat this that way. Think of it as their investment in your project, so make sure you will share the profits with them when you earn any money from your movie. I usually make deals with people for a small percent from income or high risk debt for small sum but with high percent return estimation.

But many times you just have to pay for something. For equipment renting or some very experienced specialist involved. It’s ok to pay for that. You should pay for that full price because it is usually worth it. But make sure you really need it. Do you need a crane when you can make a still shot? Do you need a 3D CGI when you can just buy stock footage of your Spitfire strafing down Germans and make it 2D composition – which is much cheaper? Think smart – you don’t have to be Mother Theresa and give all your money to every involved person for nothing. Make sure you get what you need, for your story to be great on screen. Don’t be shy to admit you are just  beginner and you need help for free. Don’t be shy if you are professional film maker and you want to do something extraordinary but you don’t have millions of dollars for it. Many people will just love your idea and will want to help. But make sure you give something back in return. If you earn money on the project – share it fairly. If you don’t earn  - share the fame – tell the world about everybody who helped you with gratitude. Put them upfront. Let them have this moment of greatness with you.

The more technical side of budget calculation is an usual question  - how in the hell should I know how much it will cost me?  Usually  the Mini-Maxi rule is the best way to estimate the costs. You have to interview every party potentially involved for the costs of their work or service and research the prices over the market. You have to prepare the script breakdown for that (I wrote about it in previous part) and a schedule for the whole production (we will get to that in detail next week). Then you need to take every single piece of your breakdown, and schedule, try to estimate how you will accomplish the task, how many people do you need for how much time, what equipment and designed elements are necessary, and make the math of the prices from the interviews and the research. Don’t forget to include yourself – you need to eat and pay bills too :) Then double the results,  then add 25% for taxes and there you have the “maxi”  solution :)  Simple isn’t it? This is what you show to the investors :) Never tell them you can make it for less.   But you need to be prepared –  YOU WILL make it for less. So you need to really rethink what is disposable, what can be made simpler and cheaper. Who will want to work for free, what you can obtain or rent instead of buying it. Cut out your huge payment – at least you know you can work for free as long as the production have money to feed you :P . Your insanely enormous  payment will come after the premiere :) . This way you have your “mini” solution. This a smallest amount you need to make it happen. Try to keep it for yourself or you will not get more :)

There is also an easy way to do it  - and it is good for early estimation – compare your movie with some other similar movie made recently and check its budget. Cut it in half. Then try to analyse what you can make easier and cheaper.   Split the calculated amount for every major task and crew type (f.e. 100K$ for camera unit, 150K$ for lights, 200K$ for sets, 50K$ for food 100K$ per day of shooting etc,) Then get more and more specific as your pre-production progresses.

 

Ok that’s all for this week – next week the final chapter of this series – but the biggest topic – how to make this all come to life – how to plan and execute our trip to the moon from day one to the premiere.

 

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The Journey to the Moon continued

Last week I’ve started writing this series about the very basics of movie making. You can use it as a reference  starting your very first movie – or revise your next project against this practical knowledge, if you find something is missing in your plan. Make sure you check my previous post here http://www.blog.blackstorkstudio.com/?p=91.

So let’s continue

From a sketch of a rocket to the building of a spacecraft

If you want to fly to the moon, why don’t do it with some style?

After you have done with writing your script it is time to forge it into reality by designing the world you created in your imagination – or recreate it from real world or history period.

Design is a process of create art representation of every little detail of your vision and after that – build it real scale (or smaller scale if you are making FX shots). You heard me.-  everything!

Every prop, every costume, every indoor and outdoor set should to be designed. Of course you can just take some clothes from the store or go to specific location and say – that’s it, I want it in my movie!  But it is still a decision!  But this way you usually miss the opportunity for supporting the story by adjusting or creating reality from scratch – to give it more kick on audience perception and emotion. The simplest example how it works is color. It was scientifically proved many years ago that colors influence our emotions, and you have the power to decide what color dominates the scene, or which color collections suits best to create the mood in your scene.

Sometimes small modifications to existing things can create entire new worlds. Modifying reality known to human is usually better then creating something completely new – because as I mentioned before – we are accustomed to see certain things and we seek something to compare our world with. Keep that in mind, as many artistic creations in movies were so beyond general audience imagination that the movie didn’t make any money. But in the time of CGI this border shifts more and more to oblivion, and soon you will be able to show any visual creation without the audience complaining on it to be too unrealistic.

The process of designing starts usually with script breakdown – which is the first major task for your production team. Somebody (hopefully not you – because it is very boring) have to analyse the script and have a file (later it can get to be a very fat folders) for every character, prop, location, costume, vehicle, haircut etc.  Then you have to decide how that particular thing should look and how to get it. It is easy for modern time indoor comedy, when you need a cup you just get it in the store. But if you are making historical period movie or si-fi you have to invent everything.

Sometimes the design process starts very early, right with writing the script and it is used to inspire the writer. You have to choose your style on that.

At this point the storyboard should come to life. If you have it – you can see right away what can be seen in every shot, so you skip designing unnecessary things, and you can focus your attention on the things needed. This is especially important with sets. You don’t need to build whole gigantic cruiser spaceship interiors if your story takes you on the bridge and two corridors only. The next thing is to draw (or photograph) every important element. The designers (or art team) shows many versions of one item to director (or sometimes producers, but it is director’s role to decide on this), and after his decisions they narrow his vision as much as they can or budget permits, so the production team have a pictorial reference for every item needed and sometimes for every important or complicated shot to be made.

The art is taken to workshops and stages where it is build or collected, properly labeled and described, and prepared accordingly to production schedule, on time to be used during filming. This is also a wider topic and will be discussed here very often.

The astronauts

Imagine what would “Apollo13″ movie look alike without people on board.

Actors are the essence of the movie. There were countless experiments to do movies without them, some of them were very good, but somehow nothing can replace the alive actor. Nothing is so touching to our souls like watching another person emotions.  You can make characters out of items, you can make excellent CGI character, but without good human acting behind it it would be artificial.

Your cast is the most important decision of your movie, because not everybody fits your character, and even if one do – he doesn’t always know how to act. But here is a thing – you, the director, are capable to make EVERYONE act. That’s right. It is just a matter of how much you know your craft and how much time do you have. But don’t expect your actor will be great at this without previous experience. That’s why always try to get the best you can. It is really the matter of having enough money, few calls and the actor’s schedule. At least most of the time.

You can also have brilliant actors hidden in theaters, reenactment groups or plain on the street. You just have to look for them and try their capabilities. It really depends on your working style and your budget.

Choosing an actor have one rule – he (or she) have to fit the character. Fit like a hat worn for 10 years everyday. It means more of his personal traits and character then his visuals.  Of course sometimes it’s good to do the very opposite – make him play the person extremely different from himself, but it is wise to try that with more experienced actors. The will to show their skill or break the previous “look” from past work is a great motivator. But it gets a much more directing experience to handle that.

The eye that records the journey

The technological monster is no match for the power of the act

All the effort you had taken so far would be useless without a means to record it – otherwise you would be making theater not movies! The choice of the cameras on the market is so vast that you should really choose carefully and do not rush for making a movie with your cellphone. Of course it is great to make movie with it, as long if it is your careful choice.

There are some critical things to keep in mind choosing your cameras:

- the medium – where you want it to be screened? Movie theater? TV? Internet or maybe a mobile device?  There is no need to use big  cinema 4K cameras if you plan to make 320×240 highly compressed mobile device material.  Also choosing the analog film tape instead of digital is a very high risk for your budget and takes a lot of experience to use it.

- the pipeline – again, what is the point of renting RED 6k camera if your old laptop can’t handle PAL/NTSC quality without your processor burning? Take in consideration how you will edit it in post-production, how much disc space do you have, how you will transfer it etc..

-the quality – after these two choices done – choose the best quality camera you can. You would be surprised what you can rent these days and what your friends have in houses. Set your goal and look for the best camera close to it.  Think ahead. Is HD will make a wilder market? Or this fancy 3D setup? Is it wise to use PAL analog camcorder where there is a buzz on digital cameras? So you think nobody will be so insane to make a feature movies on Cannon photo camera? :)  Those are some questions from my past, when I made A LOT OF BAD DECISIONS :) A least the last one wasn’t.  Keep it in mind.

-the glass – it is always wise to have the ability of changing lenses, but without some knowledge on it, it can ruin your day. Working with lenses takes time and precision. And not every lens are the same – sometimes it is better to use old analogue lenses instead of modern expensive ones. Learn and test your (or your cameraman) lenses well before going on the set. Know what do you need them for.

-lights and rigs – almost no camera can record all needed situations without some lights. And no fancy camera move is possible without good quality rigs. And you WILL NOT make a good sound recording without lot of knowledge and experience and high quality equipment. Those jobs takes a lot of experience to master, takes a lot of time on the set to set them up, and a highly experienced team. So give them all the money you can afford for their hard work, give them the best equipment,  because it is the single most valuable job on the set and it is worth every penny. This is one of the very things that make your production professional. Try to work with the best you can afford and pay them well. And one simple advise – learn their craft, try it yourself, so you will gain a HUGE RESPECT to them. Te director is as good as his team responsible for recording his vision.

Test your lights and rigs before you take them in the field, take spare parts and tools with you. Keep your equipment small and simple. Plan every light setup and camera move – so you wan’t have to spend fortune on renting and transport of unnecessary trucks of rigs and lights. But always take little bit more then you need. Have a plan B and C and make sure you have equipment for it.

If you can’t afford all this fancy stuff, don’t worry – redesign your shots to fit your budget. Remember – the story and the content counts. All the rest is auxiliary. One shot from a still camera, in broad daylight can be brilliant if you have everything in your script to fill it with content.

-the director of photography – you wonder why is he at the end of the list? He could be the most valuable man for your artistic vision, but he can be a nightmare come to life. He can make your life very easy, because he can handle all things I wrote above. But sometimes he can just be an artist with ambitions, so he will try to force you to do many things you don’t want. Be mindful who you invite. It could be your friend for life or you will want to shoot him after first day. Remember one very important thing. It is YOUR VISION. Not his. You are the leader. He can add to your vision with your acceptance, but he can never cut from it without your permission. You have to decide. The director chooses angles and camera moves. He chooses light and lenses. You care for the story, he cares to photograph it. Listen to him, but make your choice.

 

That concludes this week part, see you next Wednesday.