Digital filmmaking and the paradox of choice

So there’s no confusion: I’m a digital guy.

I’ll take a CD over vinyl, cameraphone over Polaroid. When it comes to life, and filmmaking, I’m largely pro-technology, anti-Luddite. In fact, I have very little patience for aesthetes who blather on and on about the infinite advantages of the analog world, be it $10,000 turntables or Maxivision projectors.

Give me some ones and zeroes, and I’m happy.

But in the same week, I had two experiences that pointed out the downside of my digital zeal. As things get faster, cheaper and more flexible, it becomes harder and harder to make “final” decisions.

I recently had the good fortune to visit the two motion-capture films Robert Zemeckis is making: Monster House and Beowulf. (The former is directed by Gil Kenan; the latter by Zemeckis himself.)

Tom HanksFor those who missed all the stories about the motion-capture process when The Polar Express came out, here’s my incredibly simplified explanation. Motion capture uses real actors, who wear special clothing (unitards, basically) outfitted with reflective dots. They have similar, smaller dots on their faces.

(Compared with this picture of Tom Hanks from The Polar Express, it seems the dot-to-skin ratio has shifted greatly. On the set of Beowulf, you could scarcely see the actors beneath all the mo-cap dots.)

Rather than filming with traditional cameras, the crew uses special sensors that record the location of each dot in space, from multiple angles.

Computers then transform this data into 3-D models. The actors are performing on an empty stage; there are no sets or props or costumes until later in the process, when animators map this information onto the wireframes. So “motion capture” means just that — you’re capturing every movement made by the actors, from big (swinging a sword) to small (a sneer). Special sensors even record each eye-blink.

While he’s on the set, working with the actors, all the director has to worry about is the performances. It’s more like directing theatre than a movie. It’s only afterwards that he sits down to “shoot” the movie.

At first listen, this sounds a lot like how George Lucas shot the last three Star Wars movies, with actors working against green screens. But it’s actually quite a bit different. Lucas is filming the actors; Zemeckis is simply capturing the information. Most notably, Zemeckis doesn’t even have to decide where to put the camera. Sitting at a computer months from now, he can pick any angle. He could play a scene in close-ups, or wide shots, or have the “camera” do impossible moves. He could decide to make the movie 3-D. There are really no limits.

And this is the biggest potential problem with motion capture. With nearly infinite options, how does the director decide what he wants? Is there such a thing as too much choice?

These thoughts were on my mind as I went to ResFest at the Egyptian theatre in Hollywood. The film festival, which visits five cities each year, focuses on digital filmmaking, be it video, animation or hybrids of the two.

I specifically wanted to see the presentation about Panasonic’s new hi-def camcorder, the AG-HVX200. Rather than recording to tape, it records to P2 cards, which are basically four SD chips arranged in an array, with the form factor of a PCMCIA card. The cards are expensive, but they’re not really for long-term storage. The idea is that you immediately dump the footage onto your hard drive, wipe the card, and re-use it. In that way, it’s very much like using a digital still camera.

It’s definitely the camera I wish I had in film school. For a certain level of independent film, I think it will be a godsend.

I’d rate the audience for the presentation at about Geek Factor 7, with a fair number of nines and tens. During the Q&A, the second question was about the “true” resolution of the recording chip, which the presenter somewhat snippily declined to answer. I guess I sympathize. That’s sort of a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question. The raw numbers will never match the processed result, which leads to inevitable grumbling about how the camera doesn’t live up to its potential.

Anyway.

Comic Book GuyThe most annoying question came from a guy sitting behind me. I didn’t turn to look, but in my head, I immediately conjured the image of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. He took great umbrage at the presenter’s suggestion that one advantage of recording to P2 is that you can delete worthless takes in the field, freeing up more space on the card.

That’s heresy, he said, and irresponsible. You might need one of those 18 flubbed takes. I was alarmed at the passion of his conviction. He went on to say that he owned a post-production house, with several terabytes of storage at each workstation. So he would transfer everything.

Dude, I’m so happy you have so much storage. Maybe it can hold your ego. But I don’t think you understand how real filmmaking works.

We’ve all heard stories about how a director will shoot 20 takes of the same scene. What’s less often reported is the director doesn’t bring all 20 takes with him into the editing room. To understand why, we need to explain a little about film.

Film is expensive.

Okay, that was a short lesson. But that’s really the gist of it. When you’re shooting with film, you’re not only paying for the celluloid that runs through the camera, but also the processing of the negative, and the transfer (telecine) that lets you bring it into the editing system. All of that costs money.

So when he’s finished shooting a scene from a given angle, the director tells the script supervisor, “Print 3, 5 and 7.” That is, tell the lab that we only want takes 3, 5, and 7. The rest of the film negative will be processed and stored, but the other 13 takes won’t be given to the editor. (In case of emergency, such as an unforeseen glitch in the printed takes, the editor may occasionally have the lab go back and print alternate takes. But this is rare, and costly.)

Note that directors will sometimes say, “Print everything.” This will incur the wrath of the producer, who watches the film processing budget soar.

So what Comic Book Guy failed to understand is that filmmaking traditionally hasn’t transferred everything. Many decisions are made in the field. Permanently deleting a take from the camera may be more extreme, but it’s not sacrilege. In many cases, it makes sense. Anyone who’s ever snapped a self-portrait with their cameraphone knows that the delete button gets almost as much use as the shutter.

paradoxBoth the Zemeckis tour and Comic Book Guy’s misguided rant reminded me of a book I read a few months ago, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. As consumers, we’re conditioned from a young age to think that the more options you have, the better. But that’s not really the case. Study after study shows that the more choices you offer someone, the less happy they are with their ultimate decision.

That’s because we have a desire to optimize: we want to know we’ve made the best pick. But we psych ourselves out. The more options there are, we know it’s less likely that we’ve made the ideal choice. A restaurant is a good example. If the menu only has eight things, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know which one you want. It’s a quick decision. But if the menu has eighty things (think Cheesecake Factory), it’s a much more complicated decision-making process. Schwartz would argue you’d be less happy with the exact same meal in the second scenario. I think he’s right. The restaurant patron who says, “I want a salad” before he opens the menu is likelier to have a good meal.

I was a vegetarian for seven years. At most restaurants, there was exactly one thing I could order. And I was happy.

Coming back to digital filmmaking, I think this paradox of choice is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Zemeckis has made a lot of movies, so I’d assume he’s able to make up his mind pretty quickly and decisively about what angles he wants to use. But a filmmaker with less experience could find himself paralyzed — or worse, beholden to outside influences (like the studio) pushing for more close-ups, new shots, or whatever. It’s hard to turn someone down when they ask, “Why not give it a try?”

I’ve already seen this happening in the editing room, where the rise of non-linear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro has made it possible to work much more quickly. As the guy sitting at the right hand of the editor, I’ve definitely benefited, but it’s had a dispiriting effect on the editors themselves. They’re no longer the arbiters and gatekeepers they once were. Ironically, they’re a lot more like screenwriters now, where nearly everyone can offer an opinion on what should be changed — and too often, does.

So what’s the solution?

Self-discipline is a start. The director who only prints the takes he actually intends to use is making his life much easier. I think the Dogma philosophy is just an expansion (or, reduction) of that instinct. By depriving yourself of certain things, you can focus more closely on what’s left.

But the bigger need is to properly value the most precious resource in filmmaking: creative thought. It doesn’t show up on any budget, but it’s the single biggest factor in whether a film will be great.

Presenting a filmmaker with 100 options isn’t a help, but a hindrance. It means she has to consider 100 possibilities, or devise some system for winnowing them down into categories. That’s creative brainpower she could spend on some other, more important aspect of the film. Worse, the 99 unchosen possibilities will still weigh on her mind. In many ways, she was better off not knowing what she was missing.

Again, I’m a digital guy. But I think one of the best aspects of digital is its binary nature: yes or no, black or white, one or zero. To flourish, I think digital filmmaking needs to embrace some of this discipline.

We shouldn’t use technology simply to push back the decision-making process. Rather than cheering, “Anything is possible!” we should celebrate that “New things are possible.” The groundbreaking movies of the next decade won’t be the ones that use the most technology, but rather the ones that use it most intelligently.


What happened

On Sunday morning, I woke up, fed my daughter, and read the Los Angeles Times. There was a good article about Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which managed to shoot in Los Angeles at a reasonable budget, largely because of smart planning.

Yet another reason to admire Joss Whedon.

I headed out the office to blog about this very article. But when I clicked over to johnaugust.com, I was alarmed to see that instead of the familiar brad icon, I was instead greeted by a colored screen and the text, “BunnySlippers ownz u.

I’d been hacked.

I’ve had my share of technological frustrations with the site over the years, with comment spam and servers going down. But this was different. This was the first time an individual had broken into the site and destroyed things. It was a defacement, like finding someone had spray-painted graffiti on your house.

But it was also more than that — this hacker had gotten into the system, and rooted around. For all I knew, he was still there, waiting for me to fix things just so he could mess them up again. How much had he really gotten to? Had he been able to trace back from the server to my home computer, my Amazon account, my PayPal?

I was pissed, but I was also unnerved.

Had it been my house, rather than my website, I would have called a locksmith to change the locks. The digital equivalent was changing the passwords, which I immediately did. I also shot off a support ticket to the web hosting company, asking if they could help me figure out what the fuck happened.

Then I started cleaning up.

I’m a big believer in the broken windows theory of policing, which stresses taking care of the small incidents of vandalism to forestall greater crime down the road. So the first thing I did was to replace the hacker’s splash screen with a simple “be back soon” page. (You can see it here.)

I then backed up my entire site, along with the database. From a quick look-through, it didn’t seem like any major damage had been done. I could have started the site up in a just a few minutes, but I was concerned that the same hacker could have brought the whole thing down again. I needed to know what he did.

I should explain now that the hacker’s name was not BunnySlippers. This is my Josh Friedman-esque pseudonym for him, because I don’t want to give him the ego gratification of this long article using his chosen handle.

BunnySlippers sounds lame, so I think it fits.

I googled “BunnySlippers” and found he was listed on Zone-H, a site that tracks defacements. It’s like a leader board for script kiddies. The ethics behind Zone-H are obviously questionable, but that’s not the issue here. What I quickly learned is that BunnySlippers had hit a lot of sites at exactly the same time as mine.

This was a huge relief. It meant that he wasn’t targeting my site out of some grudge or special interest. Rather, I just happened to have some vulnerability he was able to exploit. In all likelihood, he’d never even been to the site. He’d written a script that crawled around the internet, looking for a certain configuration to exploit.

But what was that vulnerability? I had a list of the other sites he’d hit, but they were all offline, like mine. But by using archive.org, I could pull up old versions of those sites. I quickly saw that most of them were using WordPress, the software that drives most of this site.

So I upgraded my WordPress installation to the most recent version. It was kind of painful. I’d held off doing it for a few months, because I knew it would break certain features, like comments and archives. (Although in fairness, the Archives were already pretty useless.)

In about an hour, I’d gotten the site working pretty well. There are still some significant things to fix, but it’s at least usable.

The question remains, will the site go down again? Maybe.

The truth is, I don’t think you can really stop someone who’s determined to hurt you. As I’ve learned from every horror movie, psychos are relentless. You shoot them, and they come right back — if not today, then in the unnecessary sequel. That’s part of the reason I’m not stomping my feet and cursing BunnySlipper’s name. Antagonizing him isn’t going to help.

With the help of my web hosting company, I’ve been able to learn a little bit more about my defacer, and how he did what he did.

Warning: From here, things get a little technical and jargon-laden. I’ll try to pretend I’m writing for CSI, where I immediately explain what the big words mean, even though the actual characters would never need to.

It turns out the weak spot was a file called “xmlrpc.php.” It’s a web service that helps move data, and is part of the standard WordPress installation. Its vulnerability had been documented, but I’d missed it. BunnySlippers had used it to overwrite the file “index.php,” the main file which generates all the pages on this site.

By tracing BunnySlipper’s IP address, we can see that he’s Brazilian. (Or at least, his computer is in Brazil.) Following other threads, I’ve found pages that suggest it’s not a single person, but a crew of three people. Hidden in a subdirectory of a German website, you can even see their logo.

Yes, logo. That’s where the graffiti analogy really comes back into play. This guy, or group of guys, isn’t trying to break into air traffic control, or steal money from a Swiss bank account. They don’t perceive themselves as malicious. It’s about getting the respect of others in their community, and recognition for their incredible computer skills.

But do they deserve it?

Using a known exploit to deface the start page of johnaugust.com isn’t such a feather in one’s cap. Other than wasting my Sunday afternoon, it didn’t really accomplish much. There was no political agenda, no artistic statement. It was just annoying.

It was graffiti. And now it’s gone.


Is the Screenwriting Expo any good?

Expo LogoMy question is about the Screenwriting Expo and other industry seminars. I realize that you are speaking this year, but is it really a worthwhile event? It seems like just another one of the money-sucks preying on desperate fledgling writers. Thanks!

– Corey
Los Angeles, CA

To be honest, I don’t know if the Screenwriting Expo is any good or not. I’ve never been, so I can’t vouch for it. I suspect some of you readers out there have been to it, and can give Corey the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

I’m one of the “Guests of Honor” at this year’s Expo, along with a bunch of other really good screenwriters. I’m not on a panel per se, nor am I teaching a workshop. Rather, I guess I’m just a featured speaker, or doing a Q & A.

I guess I should ask. I really have no idea.

Public speaking used to terrify me, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the past few years. Some of that’s just from success; it’s a lot easier to speak to an audience that’s actually interested in what you’re saying. But a fair amount of it is just practice. I’ve survived enough panels, roundtables and TV interviews that the experience isn’t as intimidating as it used to be.

Whatever it is I’m doing at the Expo, it happens at 2 p.m. on Friday, November 11th, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The event is listed as being free, so I assume you don’t have to register for the whole thing if you just want to come see me talk.

In general, I don’t speak at anything that charges a fee, unless it’s part of a larger film festival. I recognize that’s a fairly arbitrary rule, since I do speak to university classes, and college tuition can run $30,000 per year. But, like you Corey, I’m troubled and annoyed by the commercialization of screenwriter education. USC or UCLA might be expensive, but I don’t believe they’re profiting on false hopes and unrealistic expectations.

If any readers do come to my thing at the Expo, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. The few minutes after a talk are always chaotic, with a bunch of awkward hand-shaking, but I’m happy to do it.


Avoiding AD mistakes

questionmarkHow do you avoid the possibility of a line producer or AD misinterpreting what you wrote?

Do you get to meet with them and say, “These two characters are the same guy, I just wanted to make him a mystery in the beginning. So don’t schedule two actors for this.” Or, “This location is just a different name for INT. JIMMY’S HOUSE on page 10.”

Josh
Philadelphia, PA

Since many readers may not be familiar with the process, one of the first steps in pre-production is to break down the script scene-by-scene, making a list of characters, locations, vehicles and other production concerns. Usually, this task falls on the assistant director (AD), with a lot of input from the director and line producer, along with other department heads. The goal with a good breakdown is to have all the information nicely structured, so the AD can build a good shooting schedule.

The first rule of breaking down a script is to read through the whole thing first, so you really understand what’s going on. And most AD’s are pretty sharp, so they’ll catch these simple mistakes themselves.

But yeah, it happens.

I can’t think of a good example from features I’ve written, but on my first television show (D.C.), we ran into a couple of situations where the breakdown didn’t reflect reality.

A common mistake is not including a character who should be in a scene. It’s easy to overlook a character who doesn’t have any dialogue, and therefore has no words on the page to acknowledge his presence. (Note: If you have a character who doesn’t do or say anything in a scene, your first question should be, why is he here at all?)

From the screenwriter’s perspective, the best advice is pretty simple: introduce yourself to the AD.

This is unfortunately rare.

Since the AD spends most of her time on the set, and the writer spends almost none of his time on the set, their paths don’t otherwise cross that often. The AD’s primary relationship is with the director. She won’t think to pick up the phone and call you with a question, unless you already have some kind of rapport. So introduce yourself, and make it clear you’re on call to answer any questions, 24/7.

Once you have a relationship with the AD, she’ll ask, “Could this scene be day rather than night?” And if it doesn’t really matter, say you’ll be happy to change it. Consult with the AD about how she likes her scene numbers; there are several philosophies about how you add a scene between 94 and 95, and it’s important to be consistent.

And as soon as the first one-line schedule is published, read it. Go through the script page-by-page and make sure nothing’s been left behind.


Which side of the pond should I choose?

questionmarkAs a long time reader of your blog, I have finally decided to pose a question to you which for myself irritates and intrigues me. I am currently 18 years old and in the midst of a gap year before taking cinema studies and scriptwriting next September.

However the thing is, as I live in the United Kingdom, more accurately England, I often wonder what is the potential in the future in script negotiations, optioning etc overseas? Is this possible, and if not would it be required to move to the wannabe writer over-saturated Los Angeles or attempt to firmly establish myself within my own countries Film and television network?

– Paul
Birmingham, England

Stay in England, study film, then decide whether it’s British or American movies you want to make. I won’t even try to describe the differences between the British and American film industries, but you’ll have a gut feeling about where your instincts lie. (Hint: If you find yourself saying, “This would be perfect for Jessica Alba!” then you belong in America.)

You’ll be at no disadvantage coming to Hollywood at 23 or 24, though you may find the visa situation a little trickier if you’re not enrolled in some sort of university program.

Does a Brit have a chance?
Is film school necessary?