Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Other Halves

                                              Local boy makes good!

Making an independent feature is a lot like reading Moby Dick, learning to play a musical instrument, or losing that ten pound spare tire that's been taunting you and the bathroom scale every morning for the past five years: lots of people talk about doing it, but very few actually get it done.

That's because -- like so many laudable goals -- making a film is hard. Really hard. It's always been that way, if for different reasons. Back in the cinematic Stone Age, it took me two weeks to shoot several thousand feet of 16 mm black and white film, followed by two years of editing to whittle it down to a watchable thirty minute documentary. Granted, editing was a primitive, extremely labor-intensive process back in the day. Rather than download digital files into a computer, then cut a film together using keystrokes in front of a nice bright monitor, I had a coded work-print struck from the negative, then physically cut each shot out and filed it in the editing bay -- which happened to be my bedroom at the time -- and only when the entire film hung there in pieces like some giant nightmarish celluloid centipede could the assembly and editing begin. Cutting one shot to another required splicing the film with tape or cement, then looking at the results on a hand-powered Moviescope. Once the rough cut was assembled, I lugged the picture and sound reels up to the college film lab to watch the results on an ancient, clattering upright Moviola,* then made notes as to where further cuts could be made to improve the flow. Once those changes were made, I'd view it again, which would lead to more, ever-smaller cuts, and so forth.  

When the rough cut was finished, I brought the original negative out of safe storage and conformed it to the work print, making those hundreds of splices all over again -- but this time while wearing white cotton editing gloves to keep the negative clean, and triple-checking every code number before making each splice. Since the film needed a number of optical dissolves, I had to A and B Roll the entire negative, which meant running three big rolls of film -- the work-print and two checker-boarded negative reels -- together through a film synchronizer to keep everything lined up properly.  

Needless to say, this absurdly cumbersome, mentally exhausting, and almost unbearably tedious ordeal slowed the creative process to an absolute crawl. Shooting and editing this film was the single hardest thing I'd ever done up to that point in life.

It's all a dusty memory now, long since gone with digital wind, but although ours is a very different world these days, making a feature film remains an epic undertaking for any director, whether he/she is working in big-budget Hollywood or the low-budget indie world. Sure, anybody with a good idea and sufficient motivation can go out and shoot a feature with their iPhone -- and for the right project, that's a valid (and maybe the only) way to go -- but if you want your film to look like a real movie, then it'll take more time, effort, help, and money.

Which brings us to Other Halves, a new feature film directed by a former production assistant I bumped into a few years back. Matt Price paid his dues working as an office and set PA for many years, but like all young people who come to Hollywood, he had big dreams. His goal back then was to become a writer, and I figured he'd probably make it one day.  What I didn't suspect is that he had the gumption and drive to co-write, produce, and direct an indie feature that's finally ready for release

But that's how it is in Hollywood, where nobody will deliver your dream job on a silver platter -- if you want to do something, you have to get off your ass and make it happen. That's a lot easier said than done, even with a little help from your friends.

Here's the story in Matt's own words:

"I co-wrote and directed the film, which we made for less than $50,000. A big part of staying under budget was that our main location (a start-up in San Francisco run by some old friends of mine) came free of charge, which saved us a ton of money that otherwise would have gone to location fees and set decoration.  

We raised the money the typical way: family, friends, and a few industry connections. We tried our best to be professional about the process, combining a budget, schedule, and design sketches into a pitch packet that outlined our production, post, and sales plan, and how any money would be divided once it came out.

We only had ten days to shoot, which is where my TV experience came in handy. I've never directed television, but working as a Set PA over the years gave me an opportunity to observe more than a hundred different directors shoot an average of eight pages a day without compromising the quality of the show. With a ninety page script, we averaged nine pages per day, although one day we shot fourteen pages. The only way to do that was by shooting with three and occasionally four cameras. That drove our sound guy nuts, and the DP had a heck of a time lighting for so many cameras, but again, that's how we got the number of setups we needed.

Post production went relatively smoothly. Our on-set sound mixer also did the mix in post, so he guided the audio aspects of the film from beginning to end. The editor was on set, to cut together some security camera footage that played life. Our DP was also the colorist.  Basically, everyone wore a couple of hats, so it wasn't so much a hand-off from shoot to post as a bunch of people shifting mental gears.

Our biggest issue was the fact that the film has lots and lots and lots of computer screens. We thought it'd be a good idea to make them green screens and deal with the content later, but that turned out to be a mistake. There were just so many screens that our editor didn't have time to replace them all. We had to hire some VFX artists at the last minute, which turned out to be our only cost overrun." 

You can watch the trailer here...

… or here -- and if you like what you see, can rent or buy a digital version for a pittance. Given my piss-poor internet data plan (which dings me fifteen bucks for every gigabyte over the monthly cap), I'll have to wait for the DVD version to become available, but when it is, I'll buy a copy to see the movie and because I know damned well how hard it is to make any kind of film, much less a feature. So I tip my cap to Matt Price, who figured out a way to make his own dream come true. Not many people manage to do that in this town.

I have the feeling we'll be hearing a lot more from him in the years to come.

Flatbed editing machines were an unaffordable dream at the college I attended...

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