Tag Archives: film

Why I left Vimeo Pro (again)

I received the following email:

You’ve lost 15 of your videos.
Renew Vimeo PRO now to get them back online.
Hi Ptara Motion Pictures,

Because your membership has expired, your account has been downgraded to Basic, and you and your viewers have lost access to 15 of your videos.

Why? Your Vimeo PRO membership paid for the ongoing costs of video storage. Since you’ve downgraded to a Basic account, we can only store 10GB of the videos you uploaded as a paid member.

To get them back as soon as possible, renew your membership now.

Continue reading Why I left Vimeo Pro (again)

3 ways to work with a writing partner

Ptara logo above wordcloud artwork

Or, “Three Ways to Collaborate on a Screenplay.”

A lot of people offer advice to screenwriters. We don’t. We write scripts in house, produce our own stories, and provide services to film production companies. So, screenwriters are not our target market.

So far, apart from a few student projects where working as part of a team was part of the grade, I tend to write alone.   I’m not looking for a writing partner, and unless I were hired to work as part of a team I don’t know if I’d work with one.

However, if you do write screenplays, and you have found your writing partner, I can tell you what seems to work for others.

1. Taking turns.
I found this one reading Joe Eszterhas’s autobiography. He did this with a friend and said it was a lot of fun. The resulting film wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but oh well. Taking turns is as simple as it sounds: One writer writes one draft, then sends it to the other writer for the next draft, bouncing it back and forth until they’re both happy with the final result.
2. Alternating scenes.
I also read a book by two comedy writers who’s movies I enjoy, called “writing movies for fun and profit.” I laughed at Ben Garrant and Thomas Lennon’s films (the Pacifier, Night at The Museum, even Balls of Fury), but their scripts were much better than that book. Some jokes just have to be performed to make sense, I suppose.

Anyway, since the book is mostly written tongue in cheek (their films grossed a billion worldwide perhaps, but they’ve only seen a tiny fraction of that), I can’t be sure that this is really their working method, but it might work. First, you sit together in a room, and rack your brains until you come up with an outline. Then, each writer writes a scene for part of that outline. They claim the outline is the hard part. After you’ve written the odd scenes and your partner the even scenes, you switch and polish off the other writer’s work.

3. Lyrics and rhythm.
I often hear teacher of music composition express doubt that creative collaboration is possible. When confronted with great collaborators, they assume one artist wrote the lyrics and the other composed the melody, or something like that.
This can work in musicals, as illustrated in Topsy Turvy, and sort of reflects the way the famous 1930s Wizard of Oz was written.With a non-musical script, it’s a little more tricky. But, it can be done. French films have two kinds of writing credits, one for the story line or treatment, and one for the writer who does the dialogue.

Now, before you approach me or anyone else with one of these, consider that all work best if you know your writing partner well, or if you have an existing working relationship with the writers. Do you share the same taste in films and stories? Do you have a story that you both want to tell in the same way? If you’re not on the same page, it probably won’t work.

Also, unless you’re both loaded, you’ll probably need some money to sustain yourselves while writing, or extra patience while your partner tries to find time to write. The reality is multitasking celebrities usually get ghost writers to write for them, and even a full time screenwriters would normally take 3 months, 6 months, even a year to complete a script. The mythical stories about someone writing a draft in three days leave out all the months that went into preparing that first draft and the additional months that went into writing the more careful second draft.

5 Remakes that pass for originals

We’re growing tired of remakes.  Some rehashes claim to be better than the original, but we’re not sure “better” is the right word.

Do we need another Karate Kid, another Dr Doolittle, another Ghostbusters, another Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, another Steel Magnolias?  What was wrong with the first film?

(The second Karate Kid was okay,  but “Pick up your coat” is incredibly lazy compared to “wax on, wax off.”)

However, some remakes add something, and in some ways improve upon the original.  A few, in fact, are so good that we sometimes think that the remake is the original. Continue reading 5 Remakes that pass for originals

The carrot and the stick are for donkeys

A lot of people ask whether it is better to lead with a carrot or a stick.  Well, Mu.  The carrot and the stick are great for leading a jackass, but a person with direction will benefit from knowing where they’re going.

We can sometimes get people to do what we want if we offer enough money, and most of us have had to take a at least one job just because we “needed” the money.  But, unless you’re in sales or banking, you’ve probably been at least partially motivated by something other than money when you chose your profession.  And, even if you work for a hedge fund, you probably can’t do your job if you’re constantly thinking about the financial rewards.

The way to lead people, the simplest way, is through telling them your destination.  We call this the power of Ptara. Continue reading The carrot and the stick are for donkeys

Apocalypse Now Redux: review

Walter Murch, yes the Walter Murch, travelled all the way to Aberystwyth to take questions on his film, Apocalypse Now.

Okay, so Murch was only the sound stylist, right? An editor, not a director, star, screenwriter or even a producer. Producers take home the best picture award, directors get to be thought of the auteur, actors get famous, screenwriters can say they thought it all up, but without people working below the line there’s only so much you can do.

Continue reading Apocalypse Now Redux: review

List of movies

Love them or hate them, here’s a list of movies. It’s not a good list, or a bad list, just a list.

Some have won awards and become classics. Others have been largely forgotten.

Some we watched on the recommendation of friends.  Others we had to see for class. Still others just happened to be playing at a one screen cinema.

Some we like and can recommend. Others we find boring and annoying.

However, our taste might not be the same as yours.

(Some related films and listed as a group. Consider seeing these as double or triple features, or with a festival pass.) Continue reading List of movies

The Disaster Artist (review)

At Ptara, I directed two microbudget feature films. Make that nanobudget.

One had a crew of two (excluding the three actors, who also crewed, and a few kids who helped out on sound one day), the other was basically me editing a large variety of footage to make it coherent. There were challenges in both, and everyone learned a lot.  And, what these films lack in production values is made up for in performance and story line.

By contrast, Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” had a budget that was about 1000 times either of my films.  He worked with much more expensive kit and a more experienced cast and crew. Yet, “The Room” was filled with continuity errors, bad acting, and an incoherent plot.

Continue reading The Disaster Artist (review)

Our own version of Tay

I hate the tech-heavy narcissism of the Internet.

Yes, Shakespeare mentioned the theatre in his plays, but none of his protagonists were full-time stage actors.  Montaigne acknowledged what he was doing, but he didn’t go on  and on about the craft of writing essays.  Did Caxton repeatedly publish books about publishing?  No.  Not even film is this self-reflective of a medium.

In many cases, the medium has become the message, but not in the way that Marshall McLuhan meant. It’s not just that the Internet and social media have influenced the way we talk, they have become almost all that some people talk about.  The medium is narcissistic. Continue reading Our own version of Tay

Above the line or below the line

Above the Line: In a film budget, departments whose key members are traditionally recruited before the film’s financing is in place and before the budget is written.  These include development (costs and investment recoupment), story and screenplay, direction, production, cast, and any associated fringes. – Ptara’s guidebook.

Michael Wohl may the the world’s foremost expert on Final Cut Pro, but when it comes to film accounting, the guy gives out false information.

As you can guess, I’m a fan of Wohl’s, but I’m disappointed in what he said is the difference between “above the line” and “below the line.”  His blunder prompted me to write this, because if someone of Wohl’s calibre can get it wrong, so can thousands of others.

Michael Wohl, in his film on film production, defined above the line as “craftspersons essential for making a movie.”  He included in this editors, composers, cinematographers, and production designers.  While I concur that these craftspeople are essential for most films, as essential as any above the line talent, I have no idea where he got the idea that they are above the line.  Most of the “craftspersons essential for making a movie” are in fact BELOW the line.

Below the line does not mean beneath the line.  The line does not differential people by creativity, pay scale, importance, level of talent, or break people into any other kind of value judgement.  Above the line is basically a section of a spreadsheet, nothing more.

Yes, the imaginary line existed in the days of accounting books before spreadsheets, but the difference was just as arbitrary.  The line exists not for moviegoers or moviemakers, it is there simply for accountants and others who deal in film budgets and film finance.

So, why are most craftspeople below this line?  Is it because accountants only like actors, directors, producers and writers?  No, it’s simply because it’s simpler to write a budget if you break it down into pieces.

If you watch the credits to a feature film, you can see hundreds of names of people.  While on Dara Says we only tended to have five people on set most days (and two or three on some days), on most feature films or even music videos you’d be hard pressed to see a set with fewer than twenty people on it.

When the principal photography is complete, a lot of other people are involved.  Michael Bay has five editing assistants in his editing room, and they hold video conferences with another team at ILM who do the CGI, and then there is a huge team who deal with the music.

Then there’s all the equipment, from computers and software to cameras and lenses to batteries and storage devices to real and virtual instruments, headphones and microphones and recording boxes, not even mentioning all the costumes and makeup and props.  Most of these devices and materials don\’t even show up in the credits.  But, all of it costs money, and all costs need to be accounted for.

It’s easier to deal with massive amounts of information if you can summarise it.  So, accountants will separate the information into departments.  These departments are broken down so that there are fewer than 50 numbers to deal with on a top sheet, this way the budget can be easily presented to people who are not accountants.

In the script department, you’ll have the screenwriter’s pay for the screenplay, but you’ll also have any costs involved in copying and distributing the screenplay.  (This may include print-outs, photocopies, and even a runner who goes between the screenwriter and the director.)  If the screenwriter has a typist, that will be here too.

In the editing department, the editor may have an assistant, a runner, and some money put aside for editing equipment and a room to work in.

The camera department will include not only the people who handle the camera (and the cinematographer and/or director of photography), but also the equipment including cameras, lenses, and perhaps storage drives.

Now, even with all the small numbers being compiled into these departments, the budget is simplified further still into sections.  (There are also sections within departments, but there’s a lot involved in writing a budget.)  Some departments are called “post production” because their jobs can’t really start until the first scene has been shot.  An editor could start editing stock-footage before the first day of principal photography, and will usually start work before photography is completed, but will tend to start work at least a day later than a cinematographer.

A cinematographer can start testing out cameras and locations before a line of dialogue is written, but normally won’t start work until the screenplay is done.

If you’re seeing a trend emerge, you might be on to it.  Look at a film budget, and you’ll see it generally broken down into when people become involved in a project.

Above the line talent are those who tend to be involved from start to finish.  The actor or director may be called upon to give interviews on talk shows to promote a film, and that’s likely to be part of their contract.  The writer might write what they say in those interviews.  The producer will be there from start to finish, buying the rights to the story and finally making sure the finished film gets sold on cable TV five years later.

Below the line tends to be separated into three main sections, those involved mainly in principal photography, and those involved primarily in post production, as well as a third section which involves expenses that are indirectly involved but still essential (like insurance and legal fees).

Above the line tend to be involved before the money is in place, and stay involved after the money is all gone.  Their personal lives are more likely to be in the tabloids, and they’ll be able to sell a film even if they don’t have talent (in the case especially of models or sports stars turned stars.)

Foreign markets might buy the rights to a film that hasn’t even been made yet because there are name brands in the above the line talent.  They may also avoid the film because there are scandals involving those people.  Therefore, you might say that above the line tend to be more famous, but not all are (some of my favourite writers are people who no one has heard of.)

Tax credit awarding governments and academics sometimes determine the nationality of a film based upon its above-the-line talent.  If the crew and editors of a film are all Eastern European, but the cast, director, writer and producer are British, it may count as a British film.  Anyone who was actually involved in film production might find this silly, but that’s just how the money people (and some academics and critics) see things.

These differences are more important to the money people than those making the film.  I think it’s essential to have the best below-the-line people you can get, and I sometimes don’t like the term below-the-line because of the connotations it sends out.

Above the line is before the deal.  Before the studio gives the green light to a project, they want a great leads, a great director, a good screenplay in place, and it will all be packaged by a producer.  This is your before-the-deal team, some of whom may be retained with deposits like options or pay-or-play deals.  And, while below the line talent may occasionally be involved, it’s usually the above the line team that brings in the money.

It’s important to note that the entire department of an “above the line” role will occur above the line in a budget.  So, the producer’s and director’s assistants, though they might not become involved in a production until the heads of other departments have already begun work, will still be “above the line.”  The line exists for simplicity sake.

So, it all has to do with money, not importance, talent, skill, or anything else.  The terms above-the-line and below-the-line existed before the film business, and both have different meanings in other industries.  However, if you look at the meanings in business and advertising, their film meanings might start making more sense.  Above the line in marketing is the big-media advertisements, and marketing below the line is the grunt-work like the door-to-door sales reps.

The creativity of writing a budget

A yellow flower, common in gardens in Aberystwyth, processed in photography so the colors stand out.
Simple solutions come when you look at things differently.

Creative accounting is wrong, but it’s not wrong to be creative when accounting.

We were putting together some numbers for a project, and the budget started looking, well, bloated.  We hoped to keep total costs down below a certain threshold.  But, the budget for our project was starting to balloon to one and a half times the maximum I hoped it would be, and I hadn’t even finished costing the marketing yet. Continue reading The creativity of writing a budget