Saturday, February 27, 2010

David Simon's Treme on HBO - why television is kicking Hollwood's ass

For those of you who never watched The Wire - shame on you.
Shame, shame, shame.

I'm forever puzzled by people saying there's nothing good on tv.  We are living in a golden era of television with the last ten years providing us with some of the finest shows ever produced.

The Sopranos started it all and raised the bar all those who followed:  Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Dexter, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Office, Rescue Me, Mad Med, Breaking Bad - I could go on and on.

While Hollywood continued to focus on big-budget spectacle, television became a nurturing haven for brilliant writers.  The long-format of a broadcast season allowed writers to delve into controversial topics and breathe nuance and complexity into their characters.

I'd take this year's Breaking Bad or Mad Men over any of the Oscar nominated films of this year.  And as much as I like and admire The Hurt Locker, I have to say that Generation Kill did a far better job of shedding a light on the horrors and contradictions of modern-day war.

Which brings us to The Wire, which I consider to be the finest television series ever produced.  David Simon created a masterpiece of institutional dysfunction and the people who bang their heads against it every day.  Whether you're a cop, a senator, a teacher, a drug-dealer, an addict, a student, a journalist, or just someone trying to make it through the day, the overwhelming reality is that society is broken and those who try to swim against the tide get crushed.

And now Simon has a new series on HBO that only he could tackle - the intricate social, racial, artistic and political gumbo that is a post-Katrina New Orleans.

When Treme premieres in April, do yourself a favor - watch it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spook Hunt - scene 1

Alright, here it is - the first cut of scene 1:

Spook Hunt Scene 1 from Todd Miro on Vimeo.

This cut has a first pass of my color grading, graphics and music (which I did my own dang self in Garage Band in about 15 minutes!)

We shot the scene in about 4 hours with about 7 different setups.  Lighting was fairly straightforward as I really wanted the sense of two guys at night around a lit dining table in an otherwise dark house.

Present for the shoot were myself (writer/director), Rob Weiner, (director of photography), Charles Yoakum & Rob Sandusky (talent), Kristin Nelder (audio/gaffer/camera advisor/production stills/and jack of all trades) and Ben Weiner (key grip/clapper/PA).

We shot with a Canon EOS 7D with a couple of rented prime lenses - a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4  and a Canon 50mm f/1.4  The fast lenses allowed us to shoot at ISO 400 most of the time.  For those unfamiliar with the 7D, (and what rock have you been living under) this amazing camera allows you to shoot full HD video (1920x1080) at 24fps with beautiful 35mm lenses and depth of field for around $2,000.  This allows for a very convincing film-look at a bargain price.  (For info on this camera and HD DSLRs in general, be sure to check out Phillip Bloom's incredibly informative blog.)

(Rob Weiner with the Canon 7D)

Monitoring was done through Rob's Panasonic BT-LH1710W 17" HD monitor, looking at HDMI out from the camera.  This was essential for framing the shots and finding critical focus.
(me looking at framing through the BT-LH1710W)

Audio was fairly straightforward: 2 wireless lavalier microphones (1 for each actor) fed in to a Zoom H4n digital recorder.  We used another Zoom on the table pointed at the actors as a boom mic.
(only follically challenged filmmakers need apply)

I slated every take to match sync between the camera and the two digital recorders.  I wound up hand-syncing in Final Cut (since there weren't that many shots) but I will eventually use Plural Eyes to sync when we start shooting more.

(enjoying a frosty beverage from craft services - oh wait, that's just a water from my garage - the travails of low budget filmmaking!)

(Rob extolls the virtues of alcohol to Charles...  Charles isn't buying it)

(Me pointing at nothing in particular. That's a director's job - to look like you're in control and know what you're doing even when you don't.  When in doubt, point at something. Rob is playing along, pretending to be impressed at my eloquent insights, but he really just wants to know when he can go home.)

After the shoot, Rob loaded the video files onto my drive (I prefer the GTech drives - rugged, fast and mobile) and then I transcoded them to ProResHQ to import into Final Cut.  The scene cut together very quickly as I knew pretty much what takes I wanted to use.  Also, being the writer/director/editor, I had already played the scene out in my head many times, so the actual cut went very fast.

This scene was fully scripted and blocked out ahead of time.  Rob and Charles added a bit of improvisation at rehearsal which we incorporated into the final shoot.  The rest of the movie will be very different as it is not fully scripted and we will improvise lots of it.  I have each scene written out with the beats I want to hit, but I want to allow Rob & Charles to explore the scenes as they happen to them.  This, combined with the infra-red POV camera shots should add some realism and immediacy to the scares that await them.

That's it so far - we start rehearsing the next scene in a week and will shoot it later this month.

There really are no excuses anymore to making your own high-quality movie.  The tools are incredibly cheap and offer amazing, professional results.  As technology has leveled the playing field, content is king, so story should be your primary concern.  If you've got a great story to tell I encourage you to get out there and do it!

(all photos courtesy of Kristin Nelder - thanks K!)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Spook Hunt - the beginning

Oh god not again!

That's what I said to myself when I first heard about Paranormal Activity.

What was that sound you heard?  It was the sound of my soul being ripped apart once again.  How many times was I going to let this happen?  How many times have I had ideas that I've played with in my mind, written treatments, maybe even had a few discussions with buddies saying, "Not this time - this time I'm actually going to do it - this time we're going to make this movie...", only to let it slide away like some elusive dream that you try to hold on to upon wakening, but it always is just beyond your reach to remember.

I can't tell you how many ideas for movies I've had that eventually have been made.

Years later.

By someone else.

This time I have to make a stand. This time I'm doing it - I'm making it so dang easy for myself that I have to do it.  I'm shooting it in my own house, with my friends, with gear we already own - no excuses!

 (actors Rob Sandusky, Charles Yoakum, and Director of Photography, Rob Weiner rehearse the first scene)

Spook Hunt came from a kernel of an idea that I played around with about 6 years ago.  My idea was simple - no one had really yet exploited the first-person found-footage horror genre that Blair Witch Project opened up back in 1999.  The beauty of this genre was two-fold.  First, the first-person POV of the camera placed the viewer directly in the path of the horrors unfolding on the screen, and second, the medium allowed you to use inexpensive gear without having to make excuses for it.

I also wanted to tap into the then emerging YouTube phenomenon by not only using it to generate buzz for the project, but by posting clips of the project as if they were found footage.  Basically, I would create 3-5 min clips about a guy documenting the weird things going on in his house.  Eventually, these would ramp up and get weirder and scarier until all hell breaks loose.  I liked the tension of having the YouTube followers not really sure if what they were seeing was "real" or not and I would play that out as long as I could before letting on that the whole thing was fiction.