Guest Post: James Fair: The butcher, the baker, the amateur filmmaker – getting the language right...

What's in a name? A lot more than we initially suspect, frankly. We have been talking about "what is "Indie"" for decades -- and probably will for decades to come. My attempt to define "Truly Free Film" has lead me to be called on the carpet more than once for not making TRULY Free Film (we can talk about that in a future post). And that discussion is just for specific monikers. What happens when we start to get poetic and delve in to the realm of metaphor? Today's guest post is from contributor and filmmaker James Fair, and he shows quite well how much the choice of language matters.

Christopher J. Boghosian and Mark Savage both wrote great posts recently that used analogies to identify some of the challenges that face the filmmaker (the baker and the priest respectively). Last year I wrote a post for Randy Finch about why we should be careful with the language we use to identify ourselves as filmmakers, and I want to expand upon why I think it is important here.

This community is broadly dedicated to exploring and establishing new models of cinema to replace the rapidly diminishing old models. It seeks to reflect, understand and decipher the current issues facing the filmmaker. However, I believe that one potential conflict between the past and the future is the connotations of the language that we use to describe things. As ideas and concepts change, the meaning of language changes too...

Let me give you an example. Let’s take the ‘professional/amateur’ divide. Within filmmaking the common belief is that you are professional if you are paid and make a living from it, you are amateur if you don’t. But, working in a university, I meet many people who would argue that LITTLE of the film industry is ‘professional’, because it rarely requires examinations or formal training to work in many of the roles, which means that it isn’t strictly a profession at all, it is a ‘job’. The formal training is the distinction between the two, and plenty advocate that filmmakers don’t need to be trained. Describing filmmaking as an ‘avocation’ doesn’t seem as derogatory as a ‘hobby’ because of the connotations attached to the ‘calling’, as Mark Savage pointed out. The term ‘hobbyist’ doesn’t seem appropriate because filmmaking doesn’t often result in the pleasure and relaxation associated with ‘hobbies’!

Why is this important? Ultimately, I believe it is our human nature to want to classify things and identify our position within society. It is a way of understanding both others and ourselves. I am a ‘nobody’ filmmaker creates a distinction from a ‘somebody’ filmmaker. Therefore their situations are different. I am a ‘professional’ and you are an ‘amateur’ means you are not qualified to understand me. The titles position us within society and even within this community that Ted has created. Even worse, the connotations of these titles have the potential to divide us – the ‘amateur’ thinks they makes films for the ‘love of the art’ whilst the ‘professional’ is a ‘sell-out’. Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ attacks amateurism for being sub-par quality, unpaid and unqualified. However, I’ve seen great quality stuff from unpaid people and I’ve seen sub-par quality stuff from qualified people. Our lives are more complex than these labels give us credit for.

Therefore, using analogies and metaphors are useful constructs when trying to explain our unusual choice of career to others within society. They help us draw parallels with others around us and help understanding. However, as the debate that followed Mark Savage’s post showed, the choice of metaphor is critical, as they too come with connotations. In the last few weeks alone we have seen filmmaking sharing similarities with the baker, the priest, the gambler and the real estate agent. Can we be all or any of these things? They have such different connotations! Describing my role like that of a priest may help me secure funding in future, describing myself as a gambler probably won’t. This would be a really great topic for discussion here... what is the best metaphor or analogy and why?

Whilst I believe is that the success of the community depends upon the diversity of people; these titles shouldn’t be barriers to our conversation. The new models of cinema haven’t been discovered yet so all constructive voices can help us through the paradigm shift. We can all make valid contributions. We should identify with our similarities as filmmakers not our differences. There are occasional voices that aren’t constructive, who prefer to hide behind the anonymity of a false name when they troll abuse. If you have belief in your conviction, put your name upon it. The falsehood discredits your argument. The language you use and the way you choose to identify yourself informs the way that everyone else will perceive you.

James is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University in the UK. He is currently editing his feature documentary about the North African Sahara, due for release later in 2011.

Guest Post: James Fair: The Path To The New Model: Share Our Failures

Yesterday, James Fair guest posted here on "The Path To The New Model: Join The Community". Today he returns with an important recommendation for all us to share not just what works, but what doesn't. We can get beyond the repetitive culture of remakes of yesterday's hits. We can find new stories, new formats, and new ways of working, but it takes the willingness to be both FAIL and SHARE the experience. Perhaps the barrier to a successful ‘revolution’ is our own inability to share our failures. We are always keen to promote our successes to others but we rarely want to admit to the mistakes we’ve made. However, the mistakes are arguably more valuable if we can learn from them. Ideally we should all share our mistakes so that we can all collectively learn from them, but it goes against our conditioning. We don’t want to appear unsuccessful. We don’t want to admit to failure, yet it is a fundamental component of the scientific method. This method emphasises the construction of a hypothesis, and then a process of trial and error testing followed by conclusions from the findings, good or bad. Encouraging mistakes, understanding their causes. This then indicates progress, and a move forward.

Placing an emphasis upon success means that filmmaking gets locked into a process of repeatability – namely ‘hit’ culture – whereby filmmakers are always under pressure to repeat the success of something that went before. There is very little emphasis upon encouraging or understanding failings; there tends to be a rejection of anyone who fails to deliver the success. How do you deliver such success? The easiest way is to use the tried and tested model. And then we get into a situation where we have lots of movie remakes and sequels.

The ‘slow-climb up the hierarchy’ model, or the ‘fantastic short director who then gets discovered’ model result in one shared outcome – a filmmaker who finds themselves making a feature for the first time, with pressure and expectation on their shoulders. There have been very few steps established within industry that actually encourage new filmmakers to experiment with their filmmaking, and stay with them until they establish a ‘voice’. This may be why critics feel that conventional cinema is becoming so homogenous and boring, because the pressure is there to deliver a solid performance from the beginning. Little room for manoeuvre, little room for mistakes.

Digital technology has made amateur experimentation affordable, but it is only when we share the experiences (the good and the bad) that we collectively feel the benefit. It is an Open Source project in search of a new model – Truly Free Film – the same way that Linux is an operating system that benefits from collective contributions. I personally benefitted a great deal from reading posts upon this website when making a feature in 72 hours in Australia last year. In turn I contributed a series of posts about the experiences to complete the loop. These are the ways we can collectively move forward. Sharing the failures is contributing to a cumulative success.

James is a lecturer at in Film Technology at Staffordshire University. His latest feature, The Ballad of Des & Mo, was shot and edited in 72 hours at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2010 and was in the Audience Top Ten. The film screens this weekend (Saturday 12th Feb) alongside the Berlinale Film Festival – people interested in going along can register here or email james@hellocamera.ie

Guest Post: James Fair: The Path To The New Model: Join The Community

It is easy to speak and to write of community, but how do we actually work together to make it better? We are dispersed across the globe, some professional, some amateur, but all driven by passion for a more diverse and ambitious film culture. We have the tools. We have the know how, but we still have a long road before us. Stepping down the path requires us to put one foot in front of the other, and make some progress, even if it might be in the wrong direction. Today's guest post is from filmmaker and lecturer James Fair, a regular contributor to this blog and discussion.

The web is full of amateurs that can collectively fail a whole number of times until a pattern of success can be accumulated from the collective mass. A website like HopeForFilm/TrulyFreeFilm charts the various different experiments that people are taking and enables us to benefit from the cumulative thought. Can this be the path to a new model for Truly Free Film?

I don’t believe that this process is entirely new or exclusive to the Internet. History is full of examples where many people simultaneously chased identical goals, often experimenting along similar lines until circumstances played a big part of what technologies and processes were kept. For example, the history of the film camera has a variety of notable pioneers (Muybridge, Dickson, Edison, Lumiere to name a few), each influencing one another in processes of refinement and standardization until we arrived with many of the specifications that we have continued to use to this day (gauges, frame rates etc.). History has a tendency of simplifying the past with the fallacy of narrative. We forget the turbulence of emerging trends and technologies and formulate a neat recollection of how and when things appeared. Let’s look at playback technology alone; did you buy Betamax or VHS? Did you buy laser-disc or wait for DVD? Were you Blu-Ray at the start or did you gamble on HD-DVD first? If you bought into the wrong one of these technologies you made a costly mistake; such is the price of being at the cutting edge!

I have written a few times upon TFF about the ‘paradigm shift’ and the fact that we are encountering new ways of thinking about every aspect of filmmaking: production, distribution and exhibition. The most exciting and simultaneously daunting factor about these new ways of thinking are that the methods are not yet fixed and established. When the ‘digital revolution’ was being heralded at the end of the last millennium and the disintegration of traditional models began, few envisaged that it would take a lot longer to establish new protocols and procedures. We seem to have been left with the ‘age of uncertainty’.

In many ways, digital technology has developed an affordable culture of trial and error. Many people like myself are just shooting our features and seeing what sticks and works. This is the ‘amateur’ way, driven on passion and enthusiasm. Marshall McLuhan argued that this ‘amateur’ way led to some important discoveries that ‘professionals’ and ‘experts’ never envisaged because they had fixed modes of thinking that prevented them questioning the ground rules. McLuhan used Michael Faraday as an example of a scientist who made great scientific discoveries, because of, not despite of his lack of formal education. McLuhan included The Beatles as a further example of young pioneers who pushed boundaries, not because of any great formal knowledge of what they were doing, but because they were empowered to explore all music without limitation.

The unique benefit of the Internet is that these experiments are not taking place in isolation anymore. We have the cumulative effect of many minds all addressing the problems that we face. Critics, like Andrew Keen, argue that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is not very valuable if everyone is unknowledgeable in the first place. But here on Truly Free Film/ Hope For Film it appears Ted fosters a broad cross-section of filmmakers, all in a perpetual state of interaction so that good practice can be shared and understanding accelerated.

Tomorrow, we'll look at how sharing our failure can lead to our mutual success.

James is a lecturer at in Film Technology at Staffordshire University. His latest feature, The Ballad of Des & Mo, was shot and edited in 72 hours at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2010 and was in the Audience Top Ten. The film screened last month (Saturday 12th Feb) alongside the Berlinale Film Festival – people interested in future screenings & bookings can email{encode=" james@hellocamera.ie" title=" james@hellocamera.ie"}

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Reflections (Pt. 5 of 5)

By James Fair If I think back to the drunken bet in Dublin, when I said that I could make a feature in three days, I believe I have proven my point. I think the audience approval makes my point even further, as it was not only made in three days, but people also liked it. More importantly, I hope that we have helped demystify the production process and gone some of the way towards inspiring filmmakers to try different approaches.

However, the goalposts are now being moved, and people are asking whether it will have a life after the festival. I hope that it can, although it now competes alongside other films in the conventional fashion, jostling for distribution and exhibition deals. If we go back to the aims and objectives, we never designed a plan for what we would do at this stage, which was perhaps a mistake.

I believe there is currently a great deal of methodical examination of distribution and exhibition channels being conducted simultaneously by academia and by business. I have a constant concern that cinema is being marginalised in favour of more dominant screens, especially those of Internet and iProducts. As a filmmaker who fell in love with cinema in the darkened rooms of my local multiplex, I can’t subscribe to the loss of the collective experience of the big screen with no remote control. Whilst I am intrigued and excited by the emergence of technologies and concepts such as VOD and transmedia, I don’t currently use them and I don’t want to see their rise indicate cinema’s decline.

“Innumerable confusions and profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.” Page 8, McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin (1967) The Medium Is The Massage (California, Gingko)

McLuhan’s quote may be 43 years old but I genuinely don’t believe we have exhausted all avenues in cinema. I believe that we rely upon technologically spectacular advances to constantly woo audiences, and whilst that may have worked in the last century, it won’t work as effectively now. I feel that if we altered some of the ways that we made film, the audience could capture a sense of quality that didn’t depend on 3D glasses or special effects. It is because industry defines these elements as quality that audiences are desperately expecting to feel it, but they aren’t necessarily detracting a quality experience.

“Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money, as manufacturers typically believe. This is incompetence. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.”

Page 206, Drucker, Peter (2007) Innovation & Entrepreneurship. First edition 1985. (Oxford, Elsevier)

We can find solutions to many of our challenges through action followed by analysis. I believe that academic analysis by itself is of little world value and can lead to paralysis of activity, therefore it is important to create as well as criticise. I believe that film academia should stop standing on the sidelines of industry and actively engage in helping out during this paradigm shift. Whilst they are not there to be the research and development department of the studio, there is little value in them simply analysing cinema from a distance. Being truly innovative is to think of something and to make it happen. Thinking about it and not doing anything is not innovative at all; it’s just creative thinking.

It is for this reason that I have found it a pleasure to guest blog for Ted over the last few months. I think the quality of discussion upon the Truly Free Film blog is a valuable contribution to our community. It is important that we keep our contributions constructive. Machiavelli wrote, “The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order and receives only lukewarm support from those who would prosper under the new.” This has recently resonated with me, especially when I would receive criticism even though I never envisaged 72 as being anything other than an inspirational exercise. However, I’ve tried to see other people’s frustrations and loosen my own resistance to them.

For some on the outside, it appeared as if we were stealing a slot in a major festival without having made the film yet. It looked like we are saying that it doesn’t take three months to shoot a film, it takes three days. It seemed were ‘showboating’ and ridiculing the filmmaking process. We actually set out to create a transparent process that inspired other filmmakers, but I can see how that may have got lost in the message. Hopefully our continued presence here upon Truly Free Film, as well as Chris Jones and Randy Finch’s blogs, has meant that we’ve had a chance to get our undiluted thoughts upon the 72 Hour Movie project ‘out’ there.

Thanks to those that have supported us along the way. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ and the 72 Hour Project, please visit our website www.72hourmovie.com and join us at www.facebook.com/72hourmovie .

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Production (Pt. 4 of 5)

By James Fair Unsurprisingly, most of the fascination around the 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ surrounds the process of filming and editing it so quickly, especially in relation to the projects that can take months. In this post, I’m going to focus on how we turned it around in such a short time. I wrote a post for Ted a while back titled ‘The Shape of Things’ that explored the organisational structure of the 72, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead I’ll concentrate upon the necessary elements that must be present in order for the process to work alongside the organisational structure.

The simple target is to maximise effectiveness from the effort. People assume that you would have to work hard to make a film in 72 hours, but that is not as valuable as being productive and efficient. In fact, it is the opposite! To be productive and efficient is to achieve a significant amount with a small amount of work. Efficiency is the ratio of the useful work performed by a process to the total energy expended. If it is hard work, something has gone wrong. Quite a few films have been shot in such a short timeframe and even less. Corman’s version of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, in which Jack Nicholson made an early appearance, was shot in two and a half days I believe. Shooting rapidly isn’t that hard or complex. It just requires thoughtful consideration to the effective organisation of a good cast and crew, good location management, good scheduling and good direction.

Good casting is critical. They must not only cope with pressure but also thrive upon it. They must be consistent with performance. They must have patience and calm. They need to be rehearsed but not so much to be inflexible. They must know their lines and be capable of nailing the performance in approximately three takes. Any more than three and we are losing too much time on set and sending too much data to the editors. I was incredibly fortunate that all of the actors in ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ were extremely competent and unflappable, despite the huge pressure. This sounds like a staple requirement of an actor, but in reality not all are happy to be put under such stress.

The crew must have similar characteristics, buoyed by an enthusiasm and energy for the project. As a director I believe I encouraged this through leading by example. It was more ‘do as I do, not do as I say’ – the opposite of traditional direction. If a tripod needs carrying, I can do it. People criticise this approach by saying that ‘if you are carrying the tripod you are not directing the film’. This is rubbish. Carrying the tripod is directing the film. It is moving it where you want it to be. If you are still making creative decisions on the set of your movie, to the extent that you can’t carry a tripod, you are an ass. Something has gone horribly wrong.

I believe that good direction is good planning. Know where you want to put the camera. Know how scenes will cut together. Know the pace of the action and make sure you are getting it on set, regardless of how fast you are filming. The temptation with video is to shoot lots of coverage, but I believe this is lazy ‘dump-truck’ directing. Shoot what you need and move on, otherwise there are ramifications throughout the process. Shooting too much means time transferring it, cost to store it, time sifting through and editing it.

Good scheduling is essential. For every hour that we filmed, approximately two minutes would have to be used in the final cut of the movie. Our first day of filming remained in one location and we shot through just over a third of the movie, accounting for the slow start as we gelled as a team. The second day we had many more location changes but split into two units for a couple of hours and filmed sections of the script where the protagonists weren’t on screen together. The third day we fell behind early on, but the adrenaline and momentum of being so close to the finish line carried us forward.

All the way through this we were transferring files on location from the 16GB RED cards in regular data dumps, not dissimilar to the process of changing the film magazine. Occasionally we’d resort to using the RED drives instead, but we were wary of bottlenecking the data to the edit and paranoid about dropping frames. These were then couriered as quickly as possible to our edit team, who were located centrally in Melbourne. They would transcode the footage and send low-resolution versions for the editors to picture cut. They would communicate back to location that the footage had been ingested and in circulation that meant we could start to recycle the cards on set. Once the editors were done, they’d send the sequence back and it would be conformed at full resolution, along with a stereo sound mix that was being cut independently. This convoluted process requires a blog in itself, but that would have to be authored by Mike Fisher, our genius workflow manager courtesy of Sequence Post in London.

Ironically, the biggest problem throughout the process was dumping the film back to tape in order to be screened in the Australian Centre for Moving Image. The whole 72 Hour Movie project hinges upon the benefits of tapeless workflow, it simply couldn’t work if we had to digitise in real-time. Yet in order to screen the film in a traditional setting we had to go back to the conventional safety of tape! A classic example of how the possibilities of digital filmmaking production don’t always marry nicely with the traditional processes of distribution or exhibition.

I have never advocated making features in 72 hours to be the way forward for filmmaking. I believe that our project serves as an example that we can think differently about the process of filmmaking instead of unquestionably adopting the same roles and protocols each time. We all have different motivators for making films, perhaps storytelling, art, business or fame. We should formally acknowledge the different approaches to filmmaking so that alternative processes can be legitimately recognised as valid and viable for production. Perhaps it is the current inability to recognise and reward innovative filmmaking that is leading audiences to believe that cinema is running out of ideas?

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – The Script (Pt.3 of 5)

By James Fair. On a number of occasions, people have said to me that the success of ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was the strength of the script. I am naturally flattered, because I wrote it, but I am also a little embarrassed, because I do not view it with the same reverence and respect as others seem to. I’m not saying that the success wasn’t due to the script, I am saying that the script was part of the process.

Honestly speaking, I would never waste a developed idea for a film upon the 72 Hour Movie project. I cherish some of my script ideas too much to use them in such a hurried production circumstance. So I deliberately wrote a script that would suit the purpose of making it in 72 hours, using the process as a catalyst for the script.

I started with 40 cells in a Microsoft Word document. These cells would roughly translate to two-minute scenes of screen time, so an 80-minute film. I sat in a cafe with my assistant Irune Gurtubai and filled each cell out, not necessarily in consequential order. The only rule was that each cell should have a significant plot point that carried the story forward. From there, we sat for two hours and drank copious amounts of coffee until we had filled it out. That was the structure of the script. I then spent three weeks writing the actual scenes and dialogue, sticking as close to the structure as possible. It ended up being 46 scenes, which is deliberately one third less than ‘Watching & Waiting’, the film we shot in Galway. I decided to have longer scenes with more dialogue because the RED camera having interchangeable lenses would be a slower set-up than the fixed lenses of the Panasonic HPX500 that we used upon ‘Watching & Waiting’.

The first draft was then sent to a series of different script editors of varying experience for them to compile notes and return them to me. These editors were recruited through a variety of sources; previous colleagues, loved ones, friends and Facebook followers. They were spread worldwide – Finland, U.S.A., Australia, Germany, Ireland and England, which ensured the script would be universal. This municipal process also acted as an accelerant to my script editing, which can usually take far too long between drafts. Taking the notes into consideration, I would rework the script until I was happy with it; five drafts. My first film Peppermint had fifteen drafts!

It was the fifth draft that I sent Kate O’Toole after I had approached her informally through Facebook. I noticed that she was following us in our group so messaged her and she asked to see the script. We went through one more draft, where the character motivations and necessities were tightened up, and this became our shooting script. The shooting script was then amended in rehearsal if the actors offered ideas to strengthen their characterisation. I would act as a sounding board and was by no means precious. So when people commend the script, they are really commending the work of around ten people. This is not script writing by committee, as I wrote it all, but it was the functional product of a methodical process, created in direct relation to the process of filming it in 72 hours.

I have written scripts before and I have studied scriptwriting in two university modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I think I may be good at it, but I genuinely believe that we delivered ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ along very formulaic lines. It is a generic romantic comedy, but an audience still love stories that are told well, regardless of their genre. I wrote it faster than any other script I have ever written and I did fewer drafts than normal. I believe that the script followed the ideals of necessity and dilemma very closely, and that meant that it connected well with audiences.

The story follows a middle-aged Irish couple that arrive in Melbourne on their second honeymoon, yet their luggage doesn’t arrive with them. The premise meant the characters losing their luggage in the first scene removed the problems of wardrobe changes. Their flight from Ireland to Australia meant the two protagonists could look tired and bedraggled as part of their jetlag (regardless of whether it was a result of shooting a feature in 72 hours). This premise also considers the demographic of the MIFF audience. Whilst there is a great deal of younger people who would’ve been interested in our process, we wanted to have a story that identified with the festival audience. I find it a little strange that studios are so fixated with the 15-30 demographic when they are the exact audiences that are most likely to pirate material and most likely to be out drinking or partying instead of watching movies. I thought of my parents – they have no idea how to pirate, they wouldn’t agree with it ethically and they hate going out to bars because the noise is too loud and they are filled with pissed kids. Have we explored all audiences fully? Are we blind to the potential of other audiences because we are so fixated with the system the way it is now?

Whilst the script was critical in securing our star, Kate O’Toole, it was the process that had particular impact. She’d joke that actors get paid big money for the inconvenience of sitting around and being bored. But in all seriousness, if you are an actor, isn’t there an appeal in spending a high ratio of time on-set actually acting instead of waiting around?! Organising a shoot to be faster means it can be cheaper for producers and more rewarding for actors, but it requires the maximisation of effectiveness from the effort inputted, something I’ll explore further tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Getting Funded (Pt. 2 of 5)

Fourteen months ago at the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland, my producer Gary Hoctor and I sat opposite Ted Hope. We were pitching our 72 Hour Movie project and Ted was listening intently. The majority of the producers and financiers we met in the large hall that day listened intently, but unfortunately none could offer us money. Admittedly, Ted helped us a great deal by giving a few pointers, along with fellow American Richard Abramowitz; many of the Europeans only offered tea and sympathy. A year later our 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ was in the audience top ten at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). So how did we get from the rejection in Galway to Melbourne in those twelve months? The project we pitched in Galway was a unique package. Gary Hoctor’s company Hello Camera had been invited to shoot, edit and screen a feature-length movie in three days at MIFF 2010, one of the largest film festivals in the southern hemisphere. The screening at the festival was guaranteed. We had a few key partnerships lined up. We had developed a proposal and treatment. All we needed was some cash to get the project going. But the ‘unique selling points’ of the project were also the sticking points for potential investors. “We don’t want to finance a process, we want to finance a product” was a common complaint. “We can’t really commit without a script” was another. This was all understandable. We were approaching companies with something that did not fit neatly into their core business. Whilst our innovative project got us a slot at the festival, our non-existent business plan didn’t indicate how people would buy into it.

Describing the 72 Hour Movie project as innovative has become a nice way of saying that ‘it isn’t usually the way we do business’. In a market that is currently risk averse, financiers are looking for sure-shots not belly flops. Despite the 72-project being offered a guaranteed slot at a major festival; that is never the start point of a traditional deal, whereas it might be a possible end-point. The financiers always ask the same questions which are based upon their experience of potential markets and previous successes. If your project doesn’t fit into that model – forget it. If you are being truly innovative, then all traditional avenues are most likely closed to you. You are rewriting the rulebook and you are on your own. Whilst our project wasn’t so unique that it was incomprehensible, it was different enough for most funding streams to walk away. Therefore we had to become innovative in all areas to succeed. What began as a project for innovative production workflow in a tight timeframe became an innovative project in production finance also.

We worked out a strategy of who would be interested in our project. What were our assets? We have a platform for exposure. So who wants to advertise on this platform? Who would want to be associated with film, digital technology, innovation and workflow? We developed lists upon lists of potential sponsors. We developed a matrix of what we could offer them, from the whole deal to the sponsorship of a crew meal. We went about organising meetings and pitches. This took up most of our time in 12 months before production and we only found one third of what we had originally intended. But we got enough from a gamut of sources to make it happen, from research grants and corporate sponsorship through to private contributions from our Facebook supporters.

But let’s go back to why a lot of people couldn’t see what the point of our project was. “So what if you can film a feature in three days?” “If the story is shit then there isn’t a product. Furthermore, if it were a good script, I’d rather raise more cash and see you film it properly than rush it.” These arguments seem valid from the traditional perspective. The major cost problem within film and television tends to come from two particular elements – the writing and the star performer, and both are seen as ‘must-haves’ if the film is to succeed. The cost of actual production isn’t the greatest headache, so the three days seems pointless.

However, this is a very linear approach to thinking about filmmaking. It is based around the dilemma of the production triangle, a concept whereby we all live with our wants and needs challenged by the parameters of time, quality and cost. If you want something fast and cheap, it won’t be good quality. If you want something cheap and quality, you’ll have to wait. If you want something quality and fast, it won’t be cheap. You can only ever have two sides of the triangle.

It would therefore seem inconcievable that you could make something of quality that quickly and cheaply. But like I said in yesterday’s post – the problem is that the creators cannot determine the quality, the audience dictates quality. Just because you spend $100million on a movie, it doesn’t mean it will be any good. We asked investors to believe that we could break that triangle, shooting quickly and cheaply yet still making something of quality. Common sense would suggest that it isn’t possible, but there is no common sense in a paradigm shift, all traditional ways of thinking are challenged!

Whilst it is valid to use the quality of a script as an indicator of financial feasibility of a project, it should not be the deciding factor. Firstly, placing too higher emphasis on the script is what drives up the price of writers! Secondly, and this was the case in the 72, the script won’t always be the starting point of the process in future. Technology enables us to make films cheaper and quicker than ever before, and it is that immediacy and transparency of process that created quality, not the script. The process is the product. With the 72, followers could invest as much or as little time and attention in our process as they would like. They could engage and discuss story ideas, suggest locations and put forward their music or their acting resume. There was a sense of ownership and growth in the process that meant people had an invested interest in seeing it succeed. The idea that we can engage and collectively share an event only moments after it was made has the same level of appeal that audiences had 100 years ago seeing the places they recognised on the silent screen. The process can be magical too... but more importantly, the script was dictated by the process; not vice versa, as I will explain further tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – The Aims & Objectives (Pt. 1 of 5)

By James Fair One month ago I led a team of filmmakers (of varying experience) into shooting and editing a feature length movie upon RED in 72 hours, and then screening it to a festival audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in Australia. The purpose was to demystify the filmmaking process and illustrate that it could be done differently. The film ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ has been deemed a success by those involved as it successfully played to a sell-out audience at the Australian Centre for Moving Image and made it into the Top Ten Audience Favourites of the entire festival. This is no small feat considering we only screened once, with only a fraction of the budget of the other films, and filmed within three days of our screening. Over five posts for Truly Free Film, I want to share some of my findings from the process.

Let me provide you with some context. I first found myself making a feature in three days at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2008, after I had made a drunken bet with a producer in Dublin that it was possible. Once that film was successfully completed, we screened it out-of-competition at Berlinale in February 2009 and whilst there, MIFF invited us to repeat the feat in Melbourne. As micro-budget filmmakers we didn’t feel that we could turn the opportunity down, despite the fact that making a film on the other side of the world with no money is pretty hard.

From the very outset, producer Gary Hoctor and I roughly organised certain aims and objectives that would infuse the culture of the project:

Do as much production through freeware as possible.

  • Communication will take place through Skype.
  • The script will be written and drafted in Celtx.
  • We’ll share documents through Google Docs.

Make a quality film.

  • Shoot on RED at 4K resolution.
  • Try and get star power.

Be transparent about the process. • Develop a website (built by www.pointblank.ie) that is content heavy with our tweets and vlogs. • Develop a Facebook fan page where we will post news and interact directly with supporters. • Write guest blogs for various established sites (TFF included) that will help channel new audiences to us, whilst offering the chance to get our ideas across.

Exploit the project more than before.

  • We needed more publicity in order for the project to have value outside of Melbourne. ‘Watching & Waiting’ was a success but had little impact outside of Galway.

These objectives were our guiding lights throughout. You’ll notice that there isn’t a great deal about the film in there, other than ‘shoot on RED’ and ‘try to get star power’! It seems a little ludicrous to write an aim like ‘make a quality film’, as if anyone writes ‘make a bad film’. It was a general assumption that we wanted to make a good film, but these two objectives were things that we felt identified a tangible barometer of our success. I don’t actually believe that ‘quality’ can be defined by the image resolution of the picture or the 7.1 sound mix. I think this is a misunderstanding with a lot of filmmakers – they believe ‘quality’ can be translated as ‘good production’, ‘neat finishing’ or ‘smooth camera movement’. Quality is an attribute assigned by the audience, not something that can be bought by the producer. I decide whether I think something is quality or not, not the packaging of the product that I buy. I think has film has been quality if I feel like my $20 ticket was worth it.

I digress. These aims and objectives were essential to us because they became points of reference throughout the production. When problems occurred (and they always do) we had a set of common goals that we could refer to. Interestingly enough, I can identify one textbook mistake with our aims and objectives that are causing headaches now – we never had an exit strategy with what to do with the film once done. And now we are faced with the same predicaments of regular filmmaking; ‘where do we go from here?’ In our defence, it felt like a probable jinx to plan a future for the film beyond the production as it could have gone horribly wrong, but it seems a little stupid to hide behind superstition in something otherwise so methodical.

Aims and objectives are a critical part of the scientific method. I have become increasingly attracted to this approach to filmmaking as we delve deeper into the paradigm shift of the digital evolution. I believe the rules are changing within the film industry and therefore I see great value in identifying a hypothesis and then working towards it through trial and error. Otherwise I believe it is difficult to establish effective results, and we find ourselves trying to draw conclusions from examples that don’t necessarily present the whole picture.

Let me give you a clearer example. My motivation was to prove a feature film could be made in 72 hours, and I identified ways of fulfilling it through the redesign of organisational structure. But let’s say your hypothesis was to make a film that made a clear and demonstrable profit of 125%. How would you do it? Can it be done? I believe it can, because I believe anything is possible. But can it be repeatable? Can it be done so that I can do it and you can do it too? That is harder, right?

Well I’m sure that people have these personal aims in their mind. But do they have the objectives: the ways of achieving it? Do they approach the movie with the 125% as their starting point? Or do they start with the assumption that the only way they are going to make that profit if they start with a good script? My point here is about process. We always use pretty much the same process regardless of our aims or objectives.

Revisit our objectives for the 72 Hour Movie project. Where did we ever write that we wanted a good script? That was the first hurdle that we came across when it came to getting funding for the project, because everyone wanted to fund a film, not a process. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

The Shape Of Things: Towards A New Organizational Structure

Today's guest post is courtesy of James Fair. When I wrote ‘Linearity is the Enemy’ for Ted last month, I briefly mentioned how I felt the ‘family tree’ style organisational structure of filmmaking could look more like a ‘mind map’. I want to clarify my point a little further and follow it with why I think it is relevant.

In Figure 1, I have drawn what many consider to be the model that represents filmmaking structure best. It is a hierarchy of roles that symbolises where the responsibility lies. At the top are the people responsible for the most things, and they then delegate sections of that responsibility to other people ‘below’ them who then assume the responsibility as a proxy. This model is established, tried and tested, and works. It has evolved over time, adding new responsibilities as they emerged, like the sound department. The model was defined early on and has survived political, social and technological changes worldwide. But is it the best model?

What would constitute the best model? The one that generated most profit? The one that enables the greatest artistic vision to unfold? The one that turned out the most films for the least money, i.e. quantity over quality? Could the best model be the one that reduced the time between concept and completion to months not years? Despite filmmakers working on a project-by-project basis, with numerous different outcomes and motivations, there is currently only one model that consistently gets used. It gets used because it is established, regardless of whether it is the best for the job.

When faced with the challenge of shooting, editing and then screening a feature film in three days as part of the 72 Hour Movie project, I could simply adopt the same model and insist that everyone just works harder and faster than they normally would. Instead, I reassessed all of the responsibilities that would need to occur within the project and reassigned them to whom I felt could do them best. I admit that I have built much of these on the basis of the skill sets that I know various people within my crew possess, as opposed to a model that was built with no knowledge of the crew and then forced onto any given individual. Still, I have altered the roles from their usual titles and given them new responsibilities and remits, designed to support the task of making a film within a short timeframe. As the traditional ‘director’ for example, I have given myself the horribly managerial sounding ‘Project Leader’. I am supported and work closely with Gary Hoctor, the Project Manager (the closest thing to a producer). The strange titles go on throughout the crew, from the obvious (transcoder) to the obscure (shadows). The titles aren’t important – it is the fact that the new roles do not carry the same responsibilities as the existing roles, and therefore they require new titles.

I visualise this organisational structure to be different from the existing model (see Fig.2). Instead of being situated at the top of the project with a series of people ‘underneath’ me, I visualise the Project Manager and I to be at the centre, surrounded by the crew. The roles split out to various other roles, but unlike the vertical communicative routes of the old ‘chain of command’ system, there is a horizontal communication that I believe reflects our collaborative effort more truly. The visual impression of the existing model looks much like a river, with a source and a flow of responsibility towards a delta of runners. It is linear and sequential. The visual impression of the new model reflects a whole entity, in which we are ‘in it’ together, and the process is collaborative. Obviously there is some semblance of order and priority otherwise it is chaos. There is a greater emphasis placed upon the opinion of those closest to the centre, but the need for feedback is factored in to the model, so that the Project Leader or Manager has a greater idea of the effectiveness of the whole effort. I’ve witnessed disgruntled runners as the greatest catalyst of on-set problems under the existing model, damaging morale whilst finding no way of resolving their concerns.

You can dismiss these models as idealistic rubbish if you wish. I imagine I am inviting blog abuse from some of Ted’s readers! You may feel that the design of the model is insignificant as filmmaking operates quite flexibly anyway. I’d agree, but I believe that the titles and the models are not being portrayed as flexible; they are being portrayed as fixed. However you learn about the industry, from educational institutions through to informal training on the job, you are taught ‘how the industry works’, as if it is an unchangeable entity that evolves through necessity to cope with whatever demands are placed upon it. You start at the ‘bottom’ and you work your way ‘up’. Why do we not question it more openly instead of adopting it without a second thought? Yes it may already work, but what if it could work better?

Thinking differently about the organisational structure means that we might think differently about the process too. A major difference between the existing model and the model that I visualise is that my performers are a part of my crew. I don’t perceive them to be a separate entity just because they are in front of the camera. Perhaps it is the existing distinction that means we treat them differently, and probably why few film schools in the UK teach directors how to work with actors, preferring instead to teach technology. We may begin to think of directors and producers differently too, perhaps like the captain of a sports team instead of a great individual artist (who don’t always give credit to their collaborators). Who knows what differences may emerge from thinking about it differently?

Of course, when our 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ goes up onto IMDB as a result of the Melbourne International Film Festival screening, we will have to switch responsibilities back to their nearest equivalent titles, just because the roles are fixed upon their database. This fixed way of thinking means that others may never do things differently, even if it could hold more opportunities for filmmakers.

James is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University and is currently in Australia, where he is preparing the 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’. The 90-minute film will be shot and edited in three days and then screened to an audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Visit www.72hourmovie.com or www.facebook.com/72hourmovie for more details. He openly admits he can’t draw diagrams very well.

Linearity is the enemy.

Today's guest post is from James Fair, a filmmaker and educator I had the pleasure of meeting at the Galway Film Fleadh last year and recently met up again in NYC.  You might recall him from a prior post "University Challenged: Educational Approaches To Filmmaking". This summer I will direct “The Ballad of Des & Mo”, a feature film shot, edited and screened in 72 consecutive hours as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in Australia. The plan is to shoot it upon RED One, to cinematic quality with dollies, tripods and tracks. If it goes well, you should never be able to tell that it was made in 72 hours.

‘Why do this?’ I hear you ask. Well, I am fascinated by the organisational structures that digital can offer to filmmakers, and I enjoy experimenting with alternative workflows and roles within filmmaking. I am not convinced that trying to use new technologies with the antiquated organisational structures of a struggling industry is effective. And it seems that the MIFF organisers agree that this is a valid point for us to explore at their event. My argument is that linearity permeates all areas of film production. To be linear is to be direct, undeviating and sequential. I believe that independent filmmakers have a fixation with linearity, and it is an obstacle they need to overcome.

Across the independent filmmaking blogosphere there is a debate raging. Having worked out how to make films cheaply, filmmakers are now trying to find a way to get people to see them. “How can I use the internet to find my audience? Should I go for festivals, video-on-demand, or both?” I believe that these questions are being asked AFTER the film has been made as opposed to BEFORE, and as a result, many are failing.

Perhaps it is inherent in the indie-filmmaker’s artistic belief that a director has a ‘vision’ to share with the world. This is a valid standpoint, but too often the initial priority of the independent filmmaker is to get their vision MADE, and if successful, the priority then shifts to getting it SEEN. But if you shift these priorities into reverse order, the way you get it SEEN often impacts on the way you get it MADE. I believe that this is a problem sprouting from linearity. We are taught that a great film starts with the script. Courses, conferences and books all say pretty much the same thing. But what if you start with your audience and then build your script around it? Sceptics will say that ‘film can not be made by focus groups or committees’. I’m not saying that they should be either, but I do think you should have a good idea of who will be listening to your story when you tell it and it should inform your writing.

[caption id="attachment_3859" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="James Fair with the rest of the Galway 72 team"][/caption]

Another example of a fixation with linearity is the production roles. Traditional models suggest the organisation of film production is similar to a family tree: director and producer at the top and then spawning various roles until the runners at the bottom. Why is it not shaped differently? Why is it not shaped more like a mind-map, where directors/producers are in the middle and routes sprout out and interconnect around them? I ask myself why a director is a director and a producer is a producer. Not in a philosophical chin-rubbing way, but in a pragmatic way. Specialist roles suited the factory-like processes of the studio system, but on a project-by-project basis I believe I am wearing many hats - director, producer, editor and many more. Even the equipment is not specialist anymore because great cameras are affordable to many. I see loads of people with a 7D or a 550. Today people have an exposure to cheap digital filmmaking technologies in a far greater way than in the days when it really would take years and expense to perfect your ‘craft’ on celluloid.

Admittedly the 72 Hour Movie does have a sub-division of skills otherwise it would be chaos. But a large part of the crew is a versatile team of generalists, who are capable of turning their hands to a variety of tasks instead of standing around when their own job role is not needed. More importantly there is horizontal communication across the process, where anyone can talk to anyone else without the bottlenecks of a linear ‘chain of command’ vertical system. It is this transparency and flexibility that helps us achieve our task cheaply and quickly.

Furthermore, linearity suggests that there should be a period of pre-production, production and post-production. Yet in the past I have needed a post-house to work with me during pre-production on my production workflow, and in 72 Hour Movie project the editing will be running concurrently with the filming (we work upon the industry standard of a non-linear edit system and shooting non-sequentially).

Some people will be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘I know this already’ and they are acting upon it. New terminologies are emerging for the roles; like ‘story architect’ and ‘predator’ (producer/director/writer/editor). But linearity is still prevalent within even the most knowledgeable sages of the filmmaking revolution. It is a condition of the human mind to create sequential narratives based on our beliefs of rationality and cause and effect. We have all seen the lists and steps that you should take to reach success as a filmmaker. This is linearity, pure narrative, and it often doesn’t give enough respect to the complexity of filmmaking. There isn’t a formula for success in this field, or we’d all be doing it (and cynics will tell you that it is a lottery of chance, nepotism and money).

The industry is unpredictable, so as independents we must be flexible and innovative, not restricted by over-organisation and rigid, linear thinking. We must be ready to exploit unexpected opportunities. How do we do that? We must explore things laterally not vertically and challenge our most basic assumptions. We must stop looking to blogs for answers and start looking to them for provocative questions. Ironically, we must, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960’s, stop looking to the future through the rear-view mirror. The answers don’t lie in the past when you are in a paradigm shift. We must share our findings; we are in this together.

James Fair is the director upon the innovative 72 Hour Movie project to be hosted at Melbourne International Film Festival this August, where he will lead a team of filmmakers to shoot, edit and then screen a FEATURE LENGTH MOVIE in three days (www.72hourmovie.com). He is also the Award Leader of the MSc Digital Feature Film Production at Staffordshire University, UK.