There Really is No Excuse: Make a Film

“I’d make a movie if I just had a decent camera… microphone… lights… actors…. crew…”

How many time have you heard, or even said something like that? But none of those things are stopping you from making a movie.

The other day someone talked about a challenge to create a short film using just public domain or free sources; Video, audio or pictures.

I was intrigued and started thinking about this. So, there are several places online to find footage you could use. NASA is a major resource. Just about everything ever shot for any of their space programs has been made available for free use.

So I searched for little known stories from NASA. And I quickly found a story about the lunar landing with Apollo 11, one that I hadn’t heard of.

Then I was off into the archives from Nasa, looking for footage, audio and images. I did research on sites that took me through the events moment by moment.

In the end I cheated. I recorded a VO. The astronauts just sounded so professional that you couldn’t tell how stressed they were. Even so, I created an entire short film, with a complete story (beginning, middle and end) out of freely available footage.

There truly is no excuse. Free footage. Record audio on your phone if need be. Edit in one of the many free programs. You can make a short film now.

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The Reluctant Release: When They Don’t Want to Sign the Release Form

Release forms. No one likes them. But you need them. You need releases for people, places and for materials. A lot has been written about this subject, so I won’t go into it here.

What do you do when someone doesn’t want to sign one? I recently had this happen with a couple locations for my documentary project. Here’s how I tried to work through the problems.

Be Patient.

My first reaction was not patient, or helpful. Didn’t these people know I needed this? What was their problem? I’m nerdy enough that I almost always get a small shot of adrenaline when I get a form returned, or an email about a form. Weird, right? So, inevitably when I’m first reading it, I’m not calm and cool.

And of course the real issue is: what is their problem? Why would they say no? In my case the locations didn’t say no, outright. Both offered ways to get permission, but neither were acceptable. As I reviewed both, it became clear that one location simply didn’t completely understand what was being asked of them. The other was, as I would find out, going to be rigid and over reaching in their requests. Let’s look at the first location.

Try to get to the core issue. Get the facts. Why don’t they want to sign the release?

Be Clear.

I realized that the initial request had not been very clear. It had been handled through a 3rd party, so I was able to get into contact with the location myself and start to work through the issues.

I explained what the project was. I showed them what gear I would be bringing (a single mirrorless camera, not a full crew). I talked about risk, the fact that I would be attending the event anyway. We talked about the fact that the event was the subject of the film, not the location. The camera I would bring is the same as I would bring if I were a parent. There was no additional risk to the location.

Be Persuasive.

Once I convinced them that my presence would not be a major risk, I began to ease their other concerns.

It became clear that the location was concerned about being shown in a negative light. I’m not sure if they had a bad experience before, but I worked to put their mind at ease. I told them about the film, and why it was important. I sold them on what I was doing, on the purpose of the project. I reassured them that the location was just background for the film.

At one point the location said they didn’t have the power to give me permission to shoot because they were just the venue. I explained that while I had permission from the event and the people involved, because it was private property, I needed permission to shoot there. They asked to get written permission from the event organizers, which I provided.

Be Flexible. (Where you can.)

The location asked me to change a few things in the location release. None of them were important. I felt they were overkill, but I could easily put them into the document if it made them feel better.

I specifically limited the number of people in my crew to one. I specifically mentioned I would not hold them liable for physical injury to myself. (This was in addition to existing language already related to liability). They asked to only be shown in a positive light, but I agreed to not show the location in a negative light. I could do that because the location isn’t the focus on the film. I would be surprised if anyone could even identify it by the footage. The location is a neutral part of the film, just a venue.

It’s not always possible to meet every demand or request. Don’t give up more than you should. Don’t agree to things that might compromise your film, your finances, or put you in a legal bind.

Be Persistent.

After I made the changes, the location representative said he would sign the release. And then went silent for 2 weeks. The shoot date was rapidly approaching. I had an email saying they agreed to the release, but no signed release and no plan to obtain one.

I waited a few days and sent a email with a countersigned copy of the release. All they had to do was print and sign it. I suggested I could just get it from the office when I arrived. Whatever I could do to make it easy for them. About a week out from the event I sent another email, asking if they had seen the previous one and including the release again.

2 days before the event I called them. I left a voicemail. I thanked them for agreeing to sign the release, and suggested I could just swing by the office and pick up a signed copy since I would be there already.

1 day before the event I got an email saying the document would be waiting for me at the office. I had started a month and a half before the shoot date trying to get permission. It had taken almost 6 weeks to get this done. But I needed this location.

Be Creative.

While I was in limbo about permission, I started working on Plan B. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

If the worst happened, I could go to the public street and shoot an establishing shot of the location. I could do interviews off site. I could fill in with B Roll from other locations. The only thing needed from that location that I couldn’t get without permission would be some recording from the award ceremony. My plan was to audio record it and then seek permission after the fact to use it. If I was not able to get permission, I would use voiceover to describe the events.

That would not be ideal, but it would be better than nothing.

If you cannot get permission, what can you get? Can you get a different person, different location, use a different audio element? What else can you do to communicate the same thing? We already know you’re creative or you wouldn’t be making a film. So be creative and work it out.

Which brings me to the other location.

This one I did contact directly. But they sent back my release and had altered about 80% of it. Most of the changes were things I was already doing, so it didn’t matter. But 2 parts were not OK. We went back and forth a bit, and it became clear that at least of of the points would not be something we could agree on. They would not bend and neither would I.

So now what?

Same scenario as before. Be creative. I was only looking for a few shots of awards, and to interview a few people who were going to attend. So I began to find other options.

My film isn’t about a particular event at a location. There are multiple events throughout the year. My film is the story of these kids going through the season. So, not being able to shoot at one location was not the end of the film, or necessarily a big deal. I would have liked to shoot there, to use footage I captured there. It would have made things easier. But I went to work on doing what I could while I was in town.

I contacted several other locations near the tournament, looking for a space to shoot interviews. There were some folks I was hoping to talk with who were available at this location, so I needed a place. In the end it was a contact made through someone I knew that opened the doors. Building relationships is important. I would be able to shoot my interviews in a location near the tournament, but out of the elements and in a relatively quiet space.

I also shot interviews with students before and after the tournament. This won’t be the only tournament that wasn’t represented in the film. I only attended 5 others this year. The difference is that I was at this one and could have shot video. Even though this wasn’t ideal, it also wasn’t a deal breaker. I made the most of the situation and pressed on.

Every project will have set backs. Every creative work will have hurdles, roadblocks, detours. The difference between finishing a production and giving up is how you handle the issues as they come up.

Peculiar – Digital Access Soon to be Available on Christian Cinema

B&W Peculiar Logo.jpg
The changes in SVOD platforms have made me take a long look at where the series has been available, and where the people who would most want to see it are consuming content.

I believe that even though the series is aging, the best outlet is Christian Cinema.

Assuming all goes as planned, all 10 episodes of Peculiar will be available on ChristianCinema.com through the Transactional Video On Demand (TVOD) platform. You’ll be able to purchase episodes or the entire series, and view it on your computer, TV or digital device.

At the end of February, Peculiar will no longer be available on Amazon Prime Video. And it’s already been removed from Youtube.

Check out the newly-cut-for-2018 series trailer for Peculiar:

It’s my hope that making this content (which was made for a Christian audiences) available to people who are looking for Christian content, more people will see it. Instead of just throwing it out into the world through any outlet possible, this more targeted release will put the show in front of more people who might actually want to watch it.

Amazon Video Direct Lowers Prime Streaming Royalty

I’ve pretty much told everyone who will listen that if you’re a filmmaker doing short films, AVD, not Youtube, is the place to be. Especially since the new YPP policy at Youtube is about to take effect. I have made way, way more off a few short films on Amazon Video than I ever did off of Youtube.

Apparently Amazon woke up to how sweet the deal was, and has just announced that they are drastically reducing the royalty rate for videos watched through Amazon Prime streaming.

Previously videos watched with Prime got $0.15 per hour of video watched (In the US). Titles submitted through AVD had a maximum cap royalty of $75,000 per year per title.

Some people were upset about that cap. But to reach it your video had to be streamed for 500,000 hours. If you’ve got content that popular, it might be time to work with a distributor that can bypass the Amazon Video Direct system and go directly with Amazon.

The new royalty rates eliminate that cap. Which is good, I guess. And the new rates are for all territories. Not just the US. The new rate is what AVD paid for other territories outside the US. And while the rate drops a lot, you can earn higher rates if your videos are watched a lot.

The new rates are tiered based on hours of viewing PER TITLE. Up to 99,999 hours you get $0.06 per hour. That’s right, the rate drops by almost 2/3 in the US. This will put me right about the Youtube payment range. Most short films will never hit this amount of viewing time.

If you have 100,000 hours of viewing, the rate increases to $0.10 per hour. Over 500,000 hours and you’re back to $0.15 per hour. But cross 1,000,000 hours and you drop back to $0.06 again.

In order to reach the $0.15 per hour rate again, you have to have 500,000 hours of viewing. So the cap is gone, but it takes longer to hit $75,000.

($75,000 in royalties? Who are we kidding? How many indie filmmakers hit 500,000 hours of viewing on Amazon?)

A 5 minute long short film would need to be watched in its entirety 1,200,000 times in a year before that title could make $0.10 per viewing hour, which is still 1/3 less than the original royally. A 2 hour movie would need to be watched 50,000 times to hit that same royalty rate.

So, why? Why is Amazon doing this? Here’s what they say:

“The tiered structure allows us to align the Prime Subscription Access rate with the level of customer engagement generated by each individual title or season (more engaging titles earn a higher royalty rate). By doing so, we offer a few advantages for providers, including elimination of the title-level annual earnings cap and expanded earnings potential in territories outside the U.S.”

I get it. I’ve seen some bad videos on Amazon Prime. And even though I have short films on Amazon, I know most people don’t sit down at the TV and look for short films. So Amazon is making it less lucrative for creators who pump out bad or short content, and focusing on content that keeps viewers engaged for longer; because it’s good enough that people watch more of it and because it’s literally longer.

But, man it stinks for short film creators. Up to this point AVD was a good way to make a little extra cash for your efforts. Not major money, but better than the alternatives. Now that Youtube has put the clamp on casual creators, AVD is still the best outlet for short content. But the paycheck is about to get a lot smaller than it already was.

YouTube Drops the Hammer on Casual Creators

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 11.53.58 AM

Got an email from Youtube today saying they are raising the bar on monetized channels. New minimum levels are 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours watched in a 12 month period. Pretty low overall… but it’s a hurdle for new/casual creators.

I have (had) 2 channels that are (were) monetized. One was for my show from a few years ago. It saw decent traffic when it was active, but no new content has been posted in years. I was just leaving the episodes online so people could find them. Most people see them on Amazon Prime, not Youtube. That channel is losing monetization. it will never reach the new bar for views or subscribers.

My other channel is more active, but I’m not sure I’m seeing 4000 hours of viewing annually. I’ve got several thousand views on some videos. I do not have 1000 subscribers. So, that channel will be de monetized soon, I’m sure.

This move really hits casual creators. I’m never doing a daily Vlog. I’m busy, and only post occasionally. I have chosen YT as the outlet for that because it is the 2nd largest search engine in the world and every month my stupid, little videos give me a very small amount of money. (Think fast food lunch, or afternoon Coke.) But hey, free money. And maybe someone can use the content, or is entertained.

So I put up with the overzealous content ID system, and the trolls and the ugly interface and the compression.

Youtube says that 99% of the channels affected by the new changes made less than $100 last year. They make it clear that their priority is for channels making a living off Youtube. Casual creators like myself are not considered.

I get why, to some extent. Youtube wants good, new, and consistent content to keep people coming back. more people means more advertisers. And after some advertisers to mad about being sown on some weird/bad videos, they have been working to protect that ad revenue. I can see why they would want more growing channels with larger audiences, and less small channels.

I don’t have consistent content I post every week, but a few videos on my channel have been really helpful to viewers. A few simple tech tips about how to use old lenses on modern cameras, and testing video gear, etc., have really helped some viewers. Or so they say in my comments. Youtube is removing the incentive to make any more of these. Or at least, the incentive to post them on Youtube… (Vimeo anyone?)

I wonder how this move will affect the ecosystem. Less casual creators, more intentional channels. Could be good, but will it, overall, lower the volume of video uploaded? Will that make it easier to have content noticed? What will be the fallout, if any?

Personally, what stops me from switching to Vimeo? Is the search function on YT worth it? I’m not sure. Let’s see how things progress.

Just a Few Hours Left in the Crowdfunding Campaign

Less than 7 hours until my crowdfunding campaign ends.

To be frank this one has been tough. I put in more work setting this one up than any of the previous ones. I had the “large” donors set up to drop their donations in the first few days. And I had built relationships in communities that will be the target audience for the finished movie.

When the campaign launched, I had several large donations come in. But almost zero small donations. When I did the campaigns for my TV show I had lots of small donations and almost no large ones. A couple of the communities I was in were a bust. I don’t know what happened to the rest.

But a few larger donations have come in outside the campaign. I am under $500 away from reaching the goal.

It’s not likely that I will reach it, but I will have enough to make the film, and tell these stories. Later, I will try to figure out how I misread my audience so much.

Sigma 19mm DN Art f2.8 Amazing Lens with a Video Auto Focus Problem.

The very first lens I bought for my Sony a6000 was the 19mm Sigma DN Art f2.8. For under $200 you get a lens that is super sharp. According to most reviewers, dollar for dollar, it outperforms the competition.

Flag over Washington (Half Mast)I have been very happy with it. I’ve taken some great pictures. On an APS-C sensor, the 19mm is a handy focal length for catching pictures of kids inside the house. It’s not too bad for wider landscapes. Or shots like the one above.

There is a problem, however, when you use it with AF turned on for video recording.

I didn’t notice it for a long time. If you’re running hand held, you might never notice it. On Youtube it’s not easy to see, unless you’re looking for it. And I wasn’t. The I pulled up the footage on my computer. How could I miss this?

But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t look at any footage on a tripod or slider without seeing it. What is it?

Here’s a video that shows the issue very clearly. Watch the edges:

Slowed down like this, the jitter on the edges of the frame is very visible. I pulled down a few videos I shot with it. (But not everything.) But every video I’ve checked has the issue. I’ve used the lens for several videos, but none were reviews of the lens. All were about something else, so I didn’t notice. they look fine where the center of focus is, where your attention is drawn. I don’t “pixel peep” with most of my gear. The center of the lens is sharp, and looks great. But with the autofocus on, the edges shake and jitter.

When I was researching this lens, every review was positive. I didn’t find one mention of this issue. Now there are a few posts about it. Some videos like the one above. I’d hate for someone who wanted this lens for video to not know about this issue, so I’m doing my part.

I love this lens for pictures. But I can’t recommend it for video.

Why I Entered the Rode Reel Competition Even Though I Don’t Expect to Win- And Why You Should, Too

The Rode Reel short film competition is one of the largest in the world. Entries from 88 countries are all under 3 minutes long and must have been shot using a Rode microphone. In 2017 the prizes total over $500,000. If you watch finalists from previous years, many of them are just amazing looking, amazing sounding.

How can you or I, average independent filmmakers, compete? Why should we enter if we probably won’t win?

Perfecting your craft. Experience always teaches you. I made my first actual short documentary film. I learned a ton in the process and got to experiment with a new genre. Every project you complete has the potential to help you learn and improve. Do you think those Rode Reel finalists just woke up and magically were amazing filmmakers? No, they worked and worked. This is a chance for you to become a better filmmaker.

Exposure. We all have a sphere of influence. We have an existing audience, whether it’s just family and friends or something larger. But entering the Rode Competition will expose your work to potentially thousands of new viewers. Viewers who will meet you for the first time, who might find your social media contacts, who might subscribe to your channels. Viewers who could be fans of your work. And those viewers are available for free.

Free T shirt. And maybe more. If you’re among the first 1500(?) entries Rode will send you a nifty Rode Reel T shirt. Sometimes they throw in some of their small products. Who doesn’t like free stuff?

Deadline. Most of all, committing to enter places a real deadline in front of you. Talk is cheap. If you are actually a real filmmaker, what films are you making? A deadline puts a real goal in place. I wanted to enter last year, but I never committed. So I never entered.

So, want to see my entry?

You can watch it here: https://www.rode.com/myrodereel/watch/entry/3102 Hope you enjoy it. If you did, please take a minute and put in a vote for the People’s Choice award.

Before I submitted my film, I watched some of the finalists for that category in 2016. They were awesome. None of them were telling a story of an event. They were more like showcases, testimonies with nice B Roll. After completing my Rode Reel entry, I know why.

Trying to tell an actual story in 3 minutes, a non scripted story, is extremely hard. My film has a beginning, middle and an end. (Spoilers) There’s a mid point crisis and turn into the 3rd Act. But it all happens in 3 minutes. So it’s fast. I cut so much good stuff out I’m seriously considering an expanded version at a later date.

It’s not perfect, but it isn’t terrible either. And I can guarantee my next documentary will be better because of what I learned doing this one.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

6 things I Learned Shooting My First Short Documentary Film

I’ve been working on a short documentary about my son’s last speech and debate tournament, specifically focused on the Team Policy debates in which he competed. It was a guerrilla style shoot. I had permission to shoot his teammate, but no one else. I could not disrupt the competition any more than any parent with a camera might. No extra lights. No extra people. Just capturing the event in real time with my Sony a6000, 3 prime lenses, and a Rode Smartlav+ microphone recorded into my phone. It was a true Run & Gun situation. Here are a few things I learned…

Story. Doing an actual documentary is different than most of the work I’ve done. I know how to shoot and edit a testimony video, but that’s not a documentary. Before the tournament, I spent time mapping out the structure of the short film. While I didn’t know what would happen, I did know the sequence of events, so I laid out the possible plan and tried to capture the actual events as they happened. As the tournament progressed, I could see how things would fit into my traditional story structure.

Pack Light. Because I was a one man crew, everything I needed was with me, all the time. I had gone through my gear, and left much of it at home. But I was still carrying around a medium sized camera backpack. And I still had gear I didn’t need. In order to grab my camera for a quick shot, I had to take off the backpack lay it down somewhere, open it up and pull out the camera. To downsize a bit more, and make access to gear a bit faster, I just ordered a camera sling bag. It’s large enough to carry a camera and a couple of lenses, etc… But smaller than a back pack and you can sling the bag around to the front, and access the gear on the run.

Invest in a zoom. Lens swapping is a pain. And real life doesn’t wait.

When shooting on a set, there is always time to swap out a lens. In between takes, you can switch over to a different focal length of the super fast prime you have. But in a documentary shoot, people aren’t waiting. Life is happening, the event is going on. Not only do you have a chance to miss the shot, but you might also disrupt the very event you’re trying to capture. During one debate round I was using my 19mm lens, and wanted a tighter shot. I was so nervous that opening my camera bag would be noticed by the competitors. I hope that didn’t happen, I tried to be so quiet. With a zoom, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Which zoom? On the Sony E Mount system, the reach and quality of the 18-105 F4 G series (SELP18105G) would seem to be a good fit. The longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, and I was wishing for longer options. It’s a constant aperture. I wish it was a bit faster, but it would only be a problem in the most dim rooms. I found that most of the time I was shooting f3.5 to 5.6. Of course the ISO was almost always at 1600 in the classrooms. Assuming I can continue to push the ISO that high, losing a couple of stops of light might be a decent trade off for the extra length. But at $500+, it’s out of reach for now.

Another option would be to adapt an older zoom of similar reach. You can often find vintage 35-105mm zooms for cheap. Just read the reviews on each one and make sure you have the proper adapter. Of course, you give up all automatic functions with these. I just ordered a Vivitar (Made by Koburi) 35-105mm f3.2-4 Macro lens for $26, shipped. I already own the right camera mount adapter. It won’t be as sharp or easy to use as the Sony 18-105mm. And I wish it was a constant aperture, but I’m hopeful it can fill the gap until I can swing the money. I’m sure I will still carry the 19mm and 35mm primes I have, but the 35-105mm could be my go to glass for future shoots.

A shotgun mic would help. Prior to the event I though I had worked out how to use a small shotgun (Rode VideoMicro) and record it into my phone. My goal was small footprint. I did not want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to set up a full size shotgun with an external recorder. I tested the small shotgun, and would have sworn that I had the cabling worked out. But the day before the event I was charging batteries, and set up the mic to test it once more, and discovered that it was not passing signal. I needed a special cable to convert the TRS connection to a TRRS for the phone input. (Rode sells one: the SC7). I didn’t have time to get the proper adapter, so I punted. I ended up using the omni directional Smartlav+ to record audio. And, while it’s not as good as… pretty much any directional microphone at a distance, it was a lot better than the on camera mic. With some post work, some of the audio will be usable. But a shotgun mic would have been a huge help.

A camera with an audio input would help. My a6000 is a solid mirrorless camera. But it isn’t perfect, and one of the flaws is that it lacks an external audio input jack. While I would probably still use the Smartlav+ with my phone, having an on camera shotgun, recording directly into the camera would be good. Even if the small shotgun had worked, mounting the mic to my camera and then extending the cable to my phone would have been awkward at best. A much simpler solution would be to shoot on a camera that actually has the ability to record external audio. Of course the simple solution costs hundreds of dollars.

Get permission. I mentioned that this was a guerrilla style shoot. I got verbal permission from the judges in the room, and competitors. But the competitors are minors. So in order to actually use the footage I shot I cannot show any faces of minors since I don’t have permission from parents. They cannot be recognizable. I won’t identify the location, or even the organization. I knew that going in, so I shot accordingly. It would have been infinitely better to have the written permission from the event organizers, the location, and every parent of every student in each round. That wasn’t feasible for this project. In the future, I want to do more to get permissions, so I won’t be as constrained on the shoot.

As I’m closing in on the final edits of the project, I’m fairly well satisfied with it. Assuming I do similar projects later what I’ve learned with help make them even better.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

Will the Karma be the Death of GoPro?

Last week GoPro recalled all 2500 of its Karma drones because they might randomly lose power and fall to the ground. There’s no doubt that a recall of this magnitude on it’s first attempt at a new market is bad.

Is GoPro doomed because of this? Massive recall. Major embarrassment. Major hit to the brand.

GoPro makes small HD sport cameras and tons of accessories. That’s what they are known for. They are like Kleenex or the defunct Flip camera. Their product name defines the device class. People buy cheap “GoPros” from China. No matter who makes the sport camera, people call it a “GoPro”.

GoPro owns the small sport camera market.

Unfortunately the recall comes shortly after other bad news:

“It was the second negative announcement coming out of wearable camera maker: a few days before GoPro reported declining sales and immense underperformance. Sales were down 40% compared to the same time in 2015.”

Flip died because they saturated the market and never really improved on their product. Other cameras/phones ate up what little market they had. My iPhone 5 was a better Flip camera than Flip ever made.

You can see GoPro trying to break into this new market as well as trying to improve the main thing they sell. That’s great for cameras and maybe even stabilizers, but the drone market is really full right now. it’s very competitive.

When the Karma was announced many people thought it would be “the” $1000-ish drone to buy. It had some cool features and you could take the stabilizer off and use it hand held.

Then DJI dropped the Mavic Pro announcement. And reports  Karmas were having issues started to surface. The reviews of the drone were not great. Drifting, gimbal tilt and other complaints began to circulate.

Turns out, people who buy a drone want it to work as advertised. The stabilizer and ability to use the camera on other things is great, but if the drone doesn’t work right… and now is recalled… It’s bad.

What’s next for GoPro?

According to their website they still plan to sell the Karma after they fix things:

“GoPro is committed to providing our customers with great product experiences. To honor this commitment, we have recalled Karma until we resolve a performance issue related to a loss of power during operation. We plan to resume shipment of Karma once the issue is addressed.”

It’s important to note, this isn’t a “send it in and get it repaired” recall. This is a “return for full refund” kind of recall. This is also a “We will give you a free Hero5 Black for your trouble” kind of recall.

They are serious about getting these back and giving everyone a Hero 5 Black. A free GoPro camera will go a long way to soothe hurt feelings. But it won’t fix the trust issues with the drone. And if the financials indicate the market for GoPro’s main product are slowing, they need a new market fast.

They can’t just fix the Karma, they need a new Karma that’s a “Mavic-killer” out within a year. Or they need some other new product. Otherwise, GoPro might become the next Flip.