The Sketch Cut

I'm in the US right now, and have been collecting footage since shortly before my departure. Collectively, I have recorded 3 hours, 36 minutes of footage from my iPhone, GoPro and Canon 7D. I have spent somewhere between 10-15 hours editing that footage on planes, in airports and during downtime. Assuming the higher number of hours, that's a whopping 4.2 minutes of editing per minute of recorded footage. Considering I'm not even close to finishing this current chunk of editing, this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

There are two criteria for improving this process
- A smoother process should increase quality, not decrease it through corner-cutting
- Improvements need to be applicable to any video I edit, not just this one

In essence, I need to be faster and better, which ultimately should be one and the same, doing more quality work in less time. Sure part of that is just raw speed; trimming clips, rolling edits, etc. But that's not where the bottleneck is.

Enter, the Sketch Cut.

What is that you ask? It doesn't exist yet. But I need a process for faster editing, and the process needs a name. The following is a summary of my advice I think I should give myself.

Import and tweak as early as possible.
At the first logical and convenient moment all footage should be copied to my computer, imported into Premiere, junk clips discarded, in/out points set, marked with any applicable metadata, backed up and finally SD cards should be formatted. This last step saves space, and saves time that would be spent working out what hadn't been imported next time.

The right kind of metadata.
Does a less sexy word exist? Metadata, the thing that every filmmaker knows is important, but doesn't really want to use. Of course some metadata is automatic such as timecode, GPS or time-stamping, but much more useful information can be applied by hand. I'm now marking all narrative clips, so I know where the story is without the need to scrub through all the footage.  

Don't let junk reach the timeline.
It's so tempting to jump right in and start editing, but in the end it will only cost you time. Before footage is allowed on the timeline it must be trimmed, marked as good and have all metadata applied. Some footage can also be deleted if it's just junk.

Search Bins.
Premiere has a handy feature called search bins, these bins are smart folders that can have criteria. Any piece of metadata can be used as a search term. I now have bins that finds slow-motion footage, anything marked narrative and anything that isn't marked as good. This helps sort through footage much faster and saves additional time.

A project template to rule them all.
Making a template is tricky because unless you work at a studio the question "What will I need from a template tomorrow?" is a hard one. This deserves its own post and I plan to share what I'm using for for a series, along with a more generalised short film template. It's easy to overdo it with a template, so it's important to keep in mind the purpose of a good template: Save time and stay organised while not adding unnecessary steps.

Time will tell just how effective this new process will be, but from the short amount of time I've been applying it to this current project it's served me well.
 

Astronauts, Luck and Becoming a Better Filmmaker.

You can't just choose to be an astronaut, wish as hard as you like but if the thought never gets from your head to some actual action, it simply can't become a reality. However, if you look at all of the requirements of being an astronaut and work backward to find a way of achieving those things, you'll either succeed or know why you've failed and can try again. The same is true of any aspiration.

We humans are helplessly bad at predictions, by our very nature we filter out information we don't like and create optimistic, warped conclusions. We evolved to do this. That doesn't mean that you should shoot any lower, quite the contrary. It means the mental map you built to get you there doesn't show the rivers, valleys or volcanoes that will slow you down or stop you in your tracks. If you can learn to avoid excluding negative information in your decision-making, then maybe you can simply walk around the volcano before finding yourself engulfed in lava.

Analogies aside, my point is that making a good plan is the only way to reliably achieve ambitious goals without a good amount of luck.

I'd rather rely on logical reasoning than luck, any day.

With that in mind, I'd like to briefly explain why we're making the films we are, and not shooting for the stars just yet.

We want to make some incredible films, we want to make a whole bunch. But to do that there are some things we want to get good at first. The quickest way to reach that goal is to be wrong.

Ideally, we'd like to be wrong a lot, in many different ways, in a very short amount of time.

So to do that we devised a system, we'd reverse engineer stories around production goals, so that we could focus on different areas of filmmaking and get our hands dirty way ahead of the competition (whoever that is). That way we can learn hard and fast, mess up a ton in the process and come out on top.

Here are some of the areas we've focused on in our productions:

  1. In Shadows - Fast turnaround times. We wrote, shot, edited, composed music, colour graded, sound designed and uploaded in a little over 24 hours.
  2. Coffee Break - Logistical nightmares. We had 72 hours and we wanted to make things as difficult for ourselves as possible, we shot in a single day in 8 vastly seperate locations, rigged explosives, shot with multiple cameras, created stunt tables and dust explosions. All for the purpose of seeing how we did under pressure.
  3. Stuck - Lighting. We spent a lot of time experimenting before we shot this short, and we learned a ton while doing so, we wanted a higher production value than all our previous shorts and I think we achieved that. An abstract narrative helped us focus on the production and less on the acting, (Sean will attest, he is not a professional actor).

For our next production, which had to stall for almost half a year while we all finished up certain things in our lives, we'll be moving up to another level. We're focusing on three things: Dialogue/Acting, Action Choreography/Editing and Production Value.

We want this next short to be a level above all that we've done before, in every way, from music to visual effects to title design. And we're well on our way to getting there.

This short is the second to last before things change. We have some great stories we want to tell, but for that, we need to finish our initial learning experiences. These good stories require more than just us and our sub-par acting. We need real actors, a professional sound recordist, many pieces of rented equipment, a set (we've already started constructing one) and some very difficult VFX shots. We're working on all of these and can't wait to show the world.

Until then, it's back to the land of mistakes.

Cinematography is not Photography

It's easy to see why many view cinematography and photography as the same art. They both use cameras and balance light, geometry and colour to create a meaninful image. It then seems logical to say that cinematography is simply "Photography but moving" and this is in essence, true. My point here though is not to say cinematography is more complex, but that it's fulfilling an almost fundamentally different purpose.

A photo has to convey everything in one fell swoop, a film has time to work with. When filming a scene for a film, individual shots do not have to look good or be meaninful. So long as the feeling drawn from a sequence of shots matches that which the writer or director intended.

I'm not a photographer, but I do occasionally like to try and make pretty things. Here's a few photos from a recent trip to the USA that I thought were varying degrees of interesting, if not always good looking. Shot on a Canon 7D and iPhone 6S.

Perhaps soon I'll dedicate some more time to taking good photos, as I don't thing it will take much time to extrapolate skills learned from cinematography and graphic design and apply them to a still image.

Time, Money & Filmic Props

I'm currently working on an ambitious and visually complex short film.

With only 5 minutes of prospective runtime and almost no audience, it would seem nonsensical to invest lots of my time and money building props that few people will see or care about. From machined plexiglass computer monitors to moulded foam armour, this short has singlehandedly doubled the number of props I own and cost several months worth of coffee.

I think most people could understand doing this on a personal level, as we all want to make great things that we can be proud of. But I also think there is some sound reasoning behind this decision that will pay off in the long run (I do someday want to live off this kind of work, and not lose money making shorts).

Great props are worth the work, here's why:

  1. Each prop adds value to future productions. If you create one stunningly crafted computer monitor, every future short that needs a similar monitor will have a stunningly crafted one. Having properly crafted props that last will serve you well, especially when they can be altered for different purposes.
     
  2. The skills learned are as valuable as the props. So far for this production I've learned how to mould plastics, properly cut plexiglass, shape foam with a wire cutter and now have a good mental estimate of how long these tasks take and how much it will all cost. Going into future productions, that's a ton of things that are no longer guesswork.
     
  3. Communication gets much easier. The people who make props full time are very skilled at what they do and unless you are aiming to study full time, you're unlikely to ever match their skill level. However, knowing your shit when talking to specialists is always a good thing. When you're not the one making the props you'll be able to get better results, communicate your ideas better and know the constraints that others are working with. So next time someone says it'll take several days to coat foam armour in spray paint, you'll know why.
     
  4. New tools can create new creative options. For the armour in this production, we needed to cut intricate shapes that neither a saw or knife could manage. So without the money or time to buy a specialised tool I built one out of plywood and a strip of nichrome wire from a hair dryer. Now that tool has been used for several other props and will undoubtedly be used many more times. Expanding your  creative capabilities will help you think of more creative ideas and know what it will take to make them happen.
     
  5. Props should serve your story, regardless of budget. When you invest the time and/or money in your own original props, it gives you the chance to make them exactly the way you envisioned them when conceiving your story. In the case of this production, we wanted the 'computer screen of the future' not a bulky plastic one. With the ability to create your own props, you lose the restriction of having to use real-world objects and technology and often get something that would cost much less than the real thing (we spent £60 on the materials for three monitors).
     
  6. Originality is just kinda sweet. Having props that you know are unique and as well built as the props used in big-budget blockbusters can't help but make you a little proud.

I don't think this just applies to props either, you can apply almost identical logic to any area of filmmaking, from sound design to music to visual effects.

Here's roughly what one of the three monitors will be displaying, I'll update this with test footage once it's finished in a few weeks.

Auditory Storyboards

I'm in the midst of composing a score for an upcoming short, but unlike the last four, this one is different.

Sound is almost always the area that trips us up, I'm determined for that not to be the case this time. Our usual workflow for sound is this: Record Location Sound (often neglecting important moments) > Sync Location Audio > Edit > Record Foley, SFX, Write Music, Record Music.

This simply isn't a fast enough approach, we always run out of time during the sound design and music phase, having to accept sub-par sound to get a video up on time. So this time I'm going about it in reverse, based on the ease and relative tranquility we experienced when creating our unofficial music video for Resistance.

Reasons music videos are (in this case) easier:

  1. With little time to prepare, the music acts as an auditory storyboard. Allowing us to fill in the gaps as we go.
  2. Everyone knows when things are meant to happen. With everything laid out on a timeline already there is little room to miscommunicate movement and timing.
  3. Editing each shoot days' footage as you go acts as a progress indicator, letting you know if you're likely to fall short, or if you are missing vital shots or beats.

Now, this could all be done with an actual storyboard, but only if you have the time to create one, and an auditory storyboard comes with the perks of an animatic, without the extensive effort that goes into creating them. The one major downside of this approach is that it lacks visual details, for large shoots or more complex scenes this is unlikely a good approach, some would also argue that the music should be created in response to the edited short, not the other way around.

With that in mind here is my new approach to writing music for (some) shorts with quick turnarounds: After story is developed, write snippets of potential music > map out the short with temporary sound effects and music on a timeline > Develop music further until I'm happy with the direction its going in > Film and edit using the temporary sound and music as a guide for pacing and timing.

This is not an approach for everyone, but an interesting (and in our case very useful) way to approach scoring short films when spare time is all but non-existant. 

Hello World.

So this is a blog, I guess? I suppose I'll introduce myself.

My name's hopefully evident from the URL of this website, so I'll skip that. This blog is a place for me to place my thoughts, and translate the abstract wonderings of my mind into coherent sentences and paragraphs. I don't know exactly what I'll be posting yet, but I know it'll include thoughts on films and my misadventures in making films of my own. It's a place for me to write things directed at someone other than myself, which I think might be a useful learning experience. Hopefully, some others will find my developing methodology and the things I learn to be useful.

They say the first blog is always the hardest, or at least someone has, at some point. I'm sure of it.

So I'll leave it here, assuming this post will act as a footnote to let you know you've reached the first post ever written. Saying that, it feels like I should leave something special here to reminisce about in many years time. 

Voilà, the only photo on my desktop, of an orange. Taken with a 50mm lens and a cardboard tube for a lens extender.