Archive for September, 2010

Casting & Read-throughs

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 29, 2010 by PoPS blog

Last week we wrote a script. The only way to truly know if what you wrote works is that little voice in your heart that tells you every half hour that you’re one of the worlds great geniuses and your words will be studied long after your passing. But if you’re smart you’ll only let that voice make .05 percent of your decisions, no matter how assured and British it sounds in your head. So now you need to subject the script to the studio standard method of discovering problems—the read-through.

It goes without saying that before you can have a read-through you need to find your cast. There are plenty of ways to do this. Question: Are you going to wade through the paperwork integral to the process of obtaining a SAG low-budget agreement so you can use card-carriers as your actors? If you are, you’re a better person then I. I’ve never been through the process, so if you’re looking for casting advice then this is all I got. Cast your friends. Especially if you’re making a series for no money. A lot of free time is given up to no-money production and your friends are the people most likely to stick with you through the YEARS it’s going to take to finish. It helps if they can act and it’s even better if they can adapt to your direction. If they’re interested and excited to be a part of the project, that’s the best you can hope for. On a side note, make friends with attractive people. They’re more fun to look at on camera.

If you still need other people to fill up roles after talking your good-looking friends into it or you would prefer to go through the casting process, there are huge numbers of people who want the chance to act for free. All you have to do is open a new tab on this browser, go to Craigslist, and post a casting notice under the Gigs section in the Talent sub-section. It has to go in GIGS because that’s where they keep the unpaid work. There are also a bunch of other free-actor sites like NowCasting or ExploreTalent. Or ActorsAccess, if you want to take it up a notch. Of course these actors are hoping to be paid, and the really talented ones are going to have to get some kind of back-end agreement for when you sell this thing, but the usual agreement is for copy, credit, and meals. The meals thing is a little flexible depending on how much of the day the shoot takes up. But I usually sweeten the pot in casting notices by saying that participants usually end up on IMDB (see the first blog I posted), that we have accrued a very loyal audience base, and that I can give them a copy of just their scene for their reel in whatever format they like. The only actual hurdle is that if someone is acting for free, they usually expect to be a lead. Posting that it’s a guest-starring role will limit the number of submissions you get but it’s honest and you don’t want to get your hopes up over a headshot that’s going to ditch you when they find out that they only have a scene or two.

The only other thing I have to say about casting is that it’s not very professional to have actors come to a private residence to read. It throws up so many red flags in the actor’s mind that you might get a lot of people seeing the building and then driving away before their scheduled audition time. Every city has some kind of rehearsal space that can be rented cheaply for auditions. Failing that, try your local community center, they’ll most likely be happy to help.

Once you have your cast, you need to get everyone together for a read-through. I find that these are much more fun if you feed everyone and have some wine or beer on hand. It doesn’t matter if the wine is cheap, as far as your cast is concerned, it’s free, and that’s all that matters. Pizza is the fallback read-through food of choice, but for our last read-through my wife made a mountain of pasta and garlic bread. Again, cheap and delicious. A good read-through is like an ambition-driven dinner party.

The main purpose of a read-through is to get everyone on the same page (Ha! Like a script page? That’s right, I said it). This is when you can see if the actors have the same idea of the character that you do, and if they don’t, you can guide them into the right frame of mind. It makes everything much easier when you get to set. This is also a great time to find out if the script works. The initial draft of episode 3 of The Platoon of Power Squadron had a really heavy scene in the last act. It was great in my head and on the page. It was powerful, I was taking a personal stand as a writer, and it was gripping. But at the read-through it was an atrocity. It seemed to come out of left field. The plot point still exists in the outline of the whole series, but I had to push it back several episodes. The problem was that we hadn’t earned it. I had a scene and a character growth-point that I was really excited about, so I rushed it. Because it felt wrong at the read-through I re-wrote the script with a completely revised act 3 for the B-story. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to this day that I did the re-write. If I had left it as it was, the scene I was so excited about would have felt totally out of place and ruined the entire episode, not to mention our credibility with our audience who entrusts us to make the right decisions for their characters at the appropriate times. The real moral of the story is that every turn of your characters and plot has to be motivated and earned.

Now you have your cast and a locked script. It’s time for the worst part of the entire process…SCHEDULING.

One of the most important factors in scheduling is finding locations. But I’m going to talk about that next week.

Jarvi out.

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PoPS video update 31-Making Effects

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 26, 2010 by PoPS blog

Writing, coffee, SAVAGE!

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 22, 2010 by PoPS blog

WRITING

So you have your concept, now it’s time to write your first episode. The first thing that you have to realize is that a majority of pilots are awful. I’m not talking about spec-pilots that never leave the day-job cowboy’s free-time writing room. I’m talking about goes-to-network pilots. The inherent problem is that the writing has to convey too many things at once and still feel natural and unforced. Generally, you need to wait until around the third episode of a show before the production team has calmed down enough for you to see what a show is really like. There are exceptions to the “pilot rule of terribility”—I just made that up—but the gems are few and far between. LOST, Firefly, and Wonderfallsare standouts for sure. The main problem is that the average pilot writer feels the need to explain EVERYTHING right from the beginning, so the episode is rushed and packed to the gills. The first episode of our show, The Platoon of Power Squadron (PoPS), suffers from a different setback. I tried to get around the “I-need-to-reveal-the-scope-of-my-vision!” inclination by attempting to artfully explain nothing. I posed a series of questions and waited until the last scene to reveal the particulars of their super powers in the hopes that the audience would be intrigued enough to follow it through to the end. That’s asking a lot, and I think the pilot suffered for it.

I think the best way to go about a pilot script is to focus on your characters (because that’s the only TRUE selling point of any show) and treat it like any other episode.

A lot of writers believe in detailed outlining. If you have an arsenal of character backgrounds, act-by-act breakdowns, and season arcs already in place, it makes it easier to face a blank screen and you have the ability to foreshadow any plot developments. But you can do it the other way too. Sit down and write.

Luckily, we’re not flying blind. Story structure has a time tested and commercially proven layout that unravels over 3 acts. Act 1: A problem is discovered. Act 2: Complications mount and everything seems hopeless. Act 3: A solution! Yay, everything’s okay!

The particulars of the problem can be anything, but the fact that there is one is really important. Unless something shows up in act 1 to give your characters an objective and let the audience know their rough destination, the episode is going to feel drifty and that can make audiences uncomfortable. It’s too much like real life. Audiences want to have a goal and see characters achieve it—or not achieve it, depending on the audience. But some brand of catharsis should be attained.

Also, a script should have more than one storyline running through it. I think the usual average is about 3. If there’s an episode of 30 Rock, the A-story involves Liz or Jack having a problem while the other one provides fantastic, snarky counter-comedy, the B-story will be Tracy having a problem maintaining his sanity, and the C-story has Kenneth doing something quirky. Sometimes the stories are interconnected and sometimes they’re not. With this many stories in a 22-minute show it keeps things moving and you can cut back and forth between them to keep things fresh for the reportedly truncated attention spans of the modern audience. And if each of the storylines has a 3-act structure, most of the writing is done. You just need to fill in the blanks and get some good dialogue in there.

Another approach is to find a theme for each episode and have each story reflect different aspects of that theme. Bryan Fuller’s shows revolve around this. Say you’re watching Dead Like Me. Let’s say George reaps a wealthy man and has to watch his family bicker over his money while Reggie decides to be extra considerate to their mother for an episode to “deserve” being the surviving child. Then Daisy teaches Roxy how to use femininity as a more powerful weapon than aggression and Mason causes a hilarious disaster instigating the reap-group to band together and bail him out. The theme, of course, would be personal worth as a member of a family unit. I just made that up, but now I wish that had been an episode. That show shouldn’t have been cancelled. Moment of reflection… moving on.

As to the technical aspects of formatting a screenplay, there are tons of books written on the subject and in the spirit of “no-budget” you should check them out of the library. They’ll tell you all about the INTs and EXTs and CONT’Ds. And screenwriting programs are awesome. They even have built in scheduling software which will come in really handy in a blog or two.

I used to follow the Robert Rodriguez Rebel Without a Crew rule book. The cardinal rule for low-budget filmmaking being “write what you have.” From locations to props to actors, if you already have access to everything in your script, you don’t have to spend money on it. I found that this way of thinking was limiting my scripts to a very small scale. At a certain point, you have to branch out and write what’s going to be best for the show. That will mean spending money on some props or tricks and spending a lot of time on the phone trying to get access to locations, but at the end of the episode, it’s worth it. Your episode wasn’t dictated by what you already had on hand, it was dictated by what was right for the story.

If you can’t seem to find a character’s voice, but you know their general personality, base them on someone you know in real life. It’s better if you know the person well because then more of their personality will filter into the character and less of yours will. It will give the character a unique point of view and keep all of your characters from coming from the exact same place.

If you’re writing a dialogue scene and everything is flowing really nicely, it’s easy to get lost in it and end up with an 8-page scene before you realize it. That’s way too long. A good rule of thumb to follow is that a single scene shouldn’t last more than 3 pages. More than that and you’re starting to push attention span limits. If you’re over 3 pages and it’s REALLY important that every page of the scene remains uncut, chop the scene in half, cut to one of the other storylines, and then jump back to finish the scene. That keeps things moving and you didn’t have to drop a word.

The total page count of an episode varies depending on the show. They used to say a page equaled a minute of screen time. Now I think everybody concedes that it runs faster—somewhere around a page and a half equals a minute, maybe? My scripts tend to run in the neighborhood of 10 pages fast. If I have a 35 page script, I’ll have a 25 minute episode. I think it really depends on how much description you use, how fast your dialogue runs, and how tight the final edit is. I hear that Gilmore Girls scripts were around 75 pages or more for a 44-minute episode. I think that’s pretty impressive.

At the end of the day, the particulars of this process depend on the person doing the writing. You’ll find out what tricks work for you the more you do it. The hardest part of the entire process is convincing yourself to sit down and actually write. Once you convince your brain that you’re just going to sit there until you’ve done some writing, it actually goes pretty smoothly; so turn off the tv, switch off your wifi, and stare at the blank screen and the blinking cursor. Eventually your mind will stop trying to distract you and start churning out the magic.

Any questions? Leave them in the comments. I’ll give you the no-budget solution.

Jarvi out.

also check out the page for the Jarvi Java Edit Blend roasts of coffee on Coffee by the Roast, and buy some coffee with my name on it. see that, ma? no grandkids yet, but we do have a legacy born of caffeinated deliciousness…

JARVI JAVA

and the last bit of cool news is that when i woke up yesterday, there were several emails on my phone telling me that Adam Savage from Mythbusters had tweeted a link to a video i made of my dad making one of his awesome benches. ADAM SAVAGE! my dad and i LOVE Mythbusters and Adam Savage watched our 15-minute video? this life-o-mine is gettin’ a little strange. here’s a link to that video…

Making a Jarvi Bench

catch you guys later.

PoPS update 30-Time Management

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 19, 2010 by PoPS blog

CONCEPTS–2nd post on the NexTV blog

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 15, 2010 by PoPS blog

CONCEPTS

Jake Jarvi here again. I’ll be checking in once a week and dropping tips I’ve picked up over the years about making movies without any money. Since we’re always working on the next episode of The Platoon of Power Squadron (PoPS), I’d like to just talk about whatever part of the process we happen to be on since that’s the part currently occupying most of my mind-grapes. However, we just finished shooting episode 4 and I’m elbows deep in editing and effects (when I’m not working at my day job or hanging out with my wife.) If I just start discussing editing right now, I feel like we’re approaching the process from the wrong side, so I’m just going to start from the beginning and talk my way forward over the coming weeks.

The very, very, very, very, very beginning of the process starts with figuring out what you want your show to be about. Here you have all the options in the world. A lot of first time filmmakers find something that they think is a really important issue or current event that will get a lot of attention. In the same arena, you have the filmmakers who want to stir up attention with something really controversial. Both of these are a fair way to grab attention and generate interest in your product…if you are interested in what you’re writing about. If you choose one of these options but aren’t personally interested in the story of your show, it’s going to be so boring. I’ve been to quite a few film festivals and watched more than my share of super-indy content, and you can tell—almost from the opening credits—that they think their story is important…to…the world; but it must not be important to them, ‘cause I’m bored as hell. This also goes for content creators who deliberately go out to make something quirky. If you’re going to do quirky, it’s gotta have heart. Surface quirk feels phony from the get go.

Do yourself a favor. Take a look at your dvd shelf and pull off the ones you watch the most; especially if they cross all mood-barriers. You want to watch it when you’re relaxing by yourself, when you’re with friends, when you’ve had a bad day, or when your sick. Whatever you pulled off the shelf is your genre. That’s what you should be making because you get the most joy out of it. And when you’re working on something for no money, the only thing that’s going to help you cross the finish line is the love of the game and your belief in the story you’re telling. Stack the deck in your favor and tackle a genre you love .

Now combine that genre with something you know a lot about. “Write what you know” is a cliché for a reason. You’ll have more to say about things that you’ve already given a lot of thought. Take PoPS for example…

I spent a lot of my twenties working various retail jobs, wondering what I was going to do with my life, and thinking that all of my “potential” was being squandered. That’s what I knew. Then I combined it with something I love, super heroes and special effects. I knew nothing about making visual effects when I wrote the pilot script from PoPS ep1, but I trusted that somehow they would work out. After teaching myself Motion and After Effects, most of them did. There are effects in the first episode that make me cringe, but at least they get the point across.

I knew that if I combined those two elements it would be a show that I would love to watch, hence, it would be a fun show to make. As long as it stays fun and exciting, unpaid actors don’t quit. Your crew still will, but we’ll get to that in a few blogs.

Once you have an idea that you like, don’t attack it right away. Think about it for a few days. Look at your elements and figure out what questions are raised by that particular combination of characters, conceits, and genres. Then you’ll know what matters to your characters, what your audience will want to know, and what kind of mischief you should throw at both of them. It will also probably tell you what your main theme is.

A main theme is important because you need to be able to talk about your show in two ways. If a friend of a friend or someone I meet in a bookshop asks me what my show is about, I say, “Super heroes in their twenties who don’t know what to do with their crazy super powers.” That sounds like a lot of fun and there’s a bunch of ways to interpret it. The person I’m talking to is already imagining all sorts of hijinks they’d like to see in that scenario. However, if someone at a festival or a potential investor asks me what my show is about, I say, “Unrealized potential. That struggle in your twenties where you have to harness your natural gifts and use them to get ahead. The super powers make it fun and commercial, but it also resonates.” [Update: April 7, 2011–It’s less than a year later and I already think this is spectacularly pretentious advice. Use the first description of your show always. That unrealized potential answer makes me want to punch myself in the face.]

If your casually hanging out with someone keep it short, their imagination will do the rest and could potentially make them think you’re super cool on top of it. If you’re talking to someone who can change your situation, you need to make it sound commercial, but also layered. Something worthy of study, if possible. Then it’s a legacy project too. And who doesn’t want to have a legacy?

No matter what idea you think of, there are tons of legacy-layers in there. You just have to think about it for awhile.

Next week, we’ll talk about writing tricks. This week, take a look at how I initially chose to present the PoPS concept in the first trailer. I hoped it would raise the right kind of questions to make the audience want to tune in.

Thanks for reading,

Jarvi out.

PoPS update 29-Effects Show

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 12, 2010 by PoPS blog

Day Job Cowboys Activate

Posted in Hypothesis the 4th on September 10, 2010 by PoPS blog

so we submitted ep3 to the NexTV competition, in which the judges are a bunch of real entertainment industry folks. part of the contest involved a “shortcut to the finals” option where people could vote for a show to make it past the initial selection process and head directly to the finals and in front of said industry folks. a large group from our audience came out on our behalf, voted, and pushed us into to the top of the list.

the fact that we beat the second runners up by a large margin led to Randy Becker, the President of nextventertainment.com, asking me if i would write something about self marketing for their blog. i sat down and wrote a short novel. he then asked if i would like to make it a regular thing.

so once a week i’ll be blogging about no-budget filmmaking and things i’ve gleaned from my years of doing it. i’m thinking the middle of the week, like, wednesdays. and then hopefully i’ll remember to re-post my entries here. i realize that i’m lame, but i like the idea of the guerrilla filmmakers of the digital video-internet generation being called “day job cowboys”. we’ll see if that gets nixed by Randy,

so here’s the first one…

AN AUDIENCE

My name is Jake Jarvi.  An episode of my show, The Platoon of Power Squadron, Part III: Transition won the latest round of the NexTV Shortcut to the Finals Voting Competition. Over the three weeks that we petitioned to get votes, over 4,000 people visited the site and voted on our behalf. I couldn’t feel more honored that people took time out of their day to come out and support our show. The reason we could get that many people to come out in the first place is simple; we have an audience. The reason we have an audience boils down to one simple word: Youtube.

A bunch of people reading this just rolled their eyes. Youtube has gotten a bad rap. People say time and time again that the Youtube audience only likes to watch cute animals and stupid people doing stupid things. There’s a lot of truth in that. Those are the videos that get embedded on Facebook and sent to friends in emails. It began as a lowest common denominator website, and before Google bought it, the quality was awful–they didn’t even have a 16:9 display window for the love of God. Vimeo was the place for filmmakers to display their stuff in high quality. But now that Youtube has the 1080p option, there are people doing some truly exemplary work there. And Youtube has something that Vimeo just doesn’t…a community.

It was our Youtube community that came out to support us. For three weeks we asked them to come out and vote. About a quarter of them did. That’s how we ended up here.

The ability to interact with an audience is a luxury that low-to-no budget filmmakers have never had before. What Youtube gave me is something that I had hoped for all of my life, but hardly ever dared to dream of actually having: critical audience feedback and a loyal following. These people know the names of my characters and they root for them. They speculate about plot developments and analyze for hidden meaning. For the first time I’m creating content for someone other than myself. I post a video and thousands of people I’ve never met tune in and talk to me about it.

I’ve been making video content since I was 12 and aspiring to get it in front of an audience since I was 21. Finally at 29, I have a worldwide audience, and Youtube made that possible.

But it’s not as simple as posting something on Youtube either. As discouraging as it is, a majority of people still don’t want to watch a web series. We had the benefit of casting a Youtube celebrity–a popular vlogger who calls himself wheezywaiter. A small portion of his audience tuned in and then spread the word about a cool super hero show amongst their friends. That’s how, over the course of three episodes, we grew our audience to over 17,000 subscribers.

Our episodes are about a half hour long and with our day jobs and the fact that it’s an effects show (and we’re doing all the effects ourselves), it takes months to complete an episode. So once a week I post a video telling our audience about our latest progress on the current episode. That’s another part of the process. Once you have an audience, don’t let them forget about you. You have to constantly interact with them and connect with them or they’ll forget you exist. That’s also the nature of the internet.

So get yourself a website, a Youtube page, a Facebook page, and a blog, and then keep up with all of them. Making content isn’t enough; you have to do constant audience upkeep. And the thing is, once you get started on it, you actually enjoy it. Like, a lot.  I know some of these user names by heart now. I know the ones that are really supportive and go out of their way to spread the word (one particularly supportive Youtuber has vowed to send a high priority email to Entertainment Weekly with the release of every episode) and I also know the user names of the people who show up just to shoot me down in the comments. That’s the other thing about an audience; it’s 97 percent people who love what you do, 3 percent viciously angry bastards. And I think we all know which faction aims their comments for maximum impact.

Once you have all those things in place, get yourself an IMDB page. Submit your work to at least two or three festivals using Withoutabox (who was bought out by IMDB), pay enough in entry fees (too many early-bird deadlines won’t get you there, I think it’s somewhere in the 60 dollar range), and you’ll get an email about setting up your project’s IMDB page. Nothing says legitimacy like IMDB. Plus, maybe a festival will accept you and those are always fun to go to.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I don’t make a living producing my own content, but I do have an audience. And that’s worth an awful lot. Especially when it comes to online voting contests.

I hope this short novel of self-aggrandisement helped in some way. Getting an internet audience can be agonizingly slow and frustrating, but in the end it doesn’t matter if they ever show up or not. You either keep making the content because it’s what you do, or you don’t.

Jarvi out.

so until next week–take it easy, guys.