Aspect Ratios and Conquering My Lazy Brain

My brain is lazy.

When it comes to screenwriting, there are those who say you don’t need guys in front of classrooms to teach you to tell a story. “Just read scripts,” they say, “and you will learn all you need to learn.”

What they mean by that (I hope, at least), is not really just read.  Even though you aren’t in school, I think the statement assumes you will make a study of the scripts you are reading and notice things—from sentence structure to how scenes are set up to the shape of the dramatic action.

I think this works if, by nature or discipline, you are a person who tends to break things down, analyze, determine their essence. My husband, Paul, is such a person. He’s inclined to look at things—including narrative—in terms of its mechanics. Me? Not so much!  I love to get lost in a story, and before writing school I read hundreds of stories without worrying how they “worked.”  One of the things that school did for me was give me a kind of checklist of things to notice, on paper and up on the screen, and made my brain less lazy.

But now that we’re preparing to produce Lovers in Their Right Mind, (and I still want to direct that short film!) I want to think less like “just a screenwriter” and more like a “filmmaker.” And guess what? I’m finding out my brain is still lazy–about all the things that weren’t on the checklist! For example, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of media without really thinking about the PICTURE.  Not even the most basic part: the shape of the frame. Of course, I noticed when movies on DVD started to offer the option to “letterbox,” on my television, and I knew it was supposed to be better. I noticed when we bought a wide screen TV. But I didn’t notice that there were still variations in how wide. And I didn’t think about the choices behind why the film was originally shot in any specific way.

Now, with three weeks of a community college Cinema 1 class under my belt, my world has forever changed. I have a new item on my checklist of things to notice, and it’s called ASPECT RATIO. The “ratio” part of aspect ratio is the width of the frame divided by its height. I guess the “aspect” part is just how it looks. Here are some common aspect ratios that will probably look familiar:

Ben-Hur-aspect-ratio-comparison

Why shoot in one aspect ratio instead of another? There are lots of reasons. For a long time, televisions only could broadcast 4:3–so if you were creating for TV, that was a gimme.  And if you were shooting film and needed to save money by shooting with 16 millimeter film instead of the more expensive 35 millimeter…that also meant you were shooting 4:3.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of a movie called “Fish Tank,”  and in the Q and A session afterward, the director talked about the fact that she shot the movie in 4:3, even though she had other options. Her movie was about a single protagonist and Arnold felt that 4:3 was the best way to direct attention to one person, and to help convey her internal life  without being distracted by all the things around her.

fish-tank-movie                          (An image from Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank)

On the flip side, it seems intuitive that movies featuring vast landscapes or big space battles might opt for a wider format.

Think of your favorite movies. Can you say whether they were shot in 1.85 or 2.35, or something else? Are you curious? All the sudden I wanted to know.  Children of Men?   Strictly Ballroom? Or Brokeback Mountain*? What about the new release, Sicario that folks are talking about?

So I was thrilled to discover that there’s this whole ‘nother part of IMDb (Internet Movie Database) that (no big surprise) I had never noticed!  Once you select a movie, if you go over to Quick Links on the right and click on Explore More

Explore more

…you’ll see this menu, where you can select Technical Specs…

Technical Specs

…which will show you stuff like Aspect Ratio!

Fish Tank Tech Specs 2

So next time you’re playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you can look up St. Elmo’s Fire**, and see how wide they decided to make the screen to accommodate the whole Brat Pack… You’re welcome!

* The landscapes in Brokeback Mountain felt so sweeping and beautiful, I felt for sure it was 2:35, but I discovered it was only 1:85. Then I thought  how often it was focused on just the two people how  intimate it felt, and, and it made sense. As a romance, we want Lovers to have that tension between our two leads…so should we shoot 1:85?***

**I remember St. Elmo’s Fire feeling kind of close–with lots of apartment interiors and bars…1:85 stuff. But when it turned out to be 2:35, I thought about the size of the ensemble cast, and how some scenes had several characters reacting to what other characters are doing. Lovers is also a movie with a big families and parties and a big wedding reception. Hmmmm…should it be 2:35?***

***Don’t worry, our director, when we find her, will have an opinion!

 PS. Here’s a fun video from back in the days of pan-and-scan…

Financing Your Independent Film in 3 Easy Steps

So this is it: My first Lovers in Their Right Mind “Friday Process Post.”

Our movie is a about an African-American woman who falls in love with a Persian man, and has to decide whether to be with him at the risk of losing the support of her family and community.

The woman—whose name is Taylor—is in her mid-to-late thirties, so it’s what Janice calls a “film for grown-ups.” Grown-up films are “difficult” in Hollywood. Taylor is a black, middle-class woman. Black films are “difficult”—especially if they don’t portray certain tropes. And of course, films about women in general are “difficult.”

All of which is one way of saying, “You’re probably on your own finding money to make this puppy.”

So how does one “find” between one and five million dollars to make a film? That’s something we’ve set about learning for the past year.

Here’s an overview of the steps, going in reverse, LAST to FIRST. *

END GOAL:
1-5 million dollars to make your movie in an escrow account.

Let’s say your movie is going to cost three million dollars** to make. Three million dollars is not an amount you can get from your Aunt Lulu (if it is—you can stop reading—this article is not for you). It’s not even an amount you raise on Kickstarter with all your aunts and uncles and friends. Three million dollars needs to be raised, if not from companies, then from “high-net worth individuals” who are willing to INVEST in your film project. You sell them “shares” in the film, and after the film gets made and distributed, they get their money back, plus a profit called “return on investment.” There’s some legal stuff associated with selling shares. There’s tax forms and reporting that you have to do. It’s complicated, so you’ll lawyers and accountants and stuff—but set that aside for the moment, because first, you have line up those investors.

STEP 3: RAISE 1-5 million dollars to make your movie.

People with lots of money (so we’re told) are offered plenty of opportunities to spend it. If you want them to invest in your project, you need to convince them you’ve got your shit together. You need to show them who you are, what your story is, who is the audience for your story. You need to know the budget of your film and where the money is going. You need to pony up some market research and financial information about comparable films. All of this stuff is what you put into a packet called your BUSINESS PLAN. Also, because people with money are used to a certain quality, this business plan should LOOK GOOD. It should have photos and graphs and no typos and be printed in color. You should also have a version that’s electronically downloadable from a password-protected link on your WEBSITE.

Are you keeping track of all this? On top of the lawyer and the accountant, you also need a graphic designer and a website designer and a professional to “break down” your film script and assemble a realistic production budget. Assuming you don’t need to hire content writers or researchers, because you’re going to be doing all that yourself, you’re looking a stack of cash—let’s say $25,000—just to get to the place when you can legally ask someone else for a bigger stack of cash.

STEP 2: CROWDFUND your development money…

What? You don’t have an extra 25-grand sitting in your bank account? You’re going to have to CROWDFUND it, through a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Seed&Spark. Now is a time that Aunt Lulu—and all your aunts and uncles, your friends and casual acquaintances, and hopefully even a few benevolent strangers, can help out. The idea is if all these people kick in the cost of meal at their favorite restaurant, you’ll have enough cash to create your LLC, your Business Plan, website and lawyer stuff, etc.

But, wait! Why should any of these people – including Aunt Lulu and the benevolent strangers — give up dinner at their favorite restaurants for your project? Just like the investors further up the line, you need convince them that it’s a good idea, You have to show them who you are, what your film is about, and why it matters. You need to explain your plan so they don’t worry that once you get their money you’re going to forget all about the movie and buy a new waterbed and a trip to Hawaii instead.

But before you even do that—there’s something even more basic:

STEP 1: Build Audience and Awareness through Social Media

To do crowd-funding, you need a CROWD. You know how when you have a moving party, but you don’t invite enough people to help you move, it puts an unfair amount of pressure on the few people who do show up? If the only people who know about your campaign are Aunt Lulu and four friends, you’re going to fall short. Also, if you suddenly hit up Uncle Ed out of the blue and you’ve never even mentioned you’re a filmmaker, he might think you’re delusional…

So before anything else, you need to build an audience and build AWARENESS of your project. You should do this in many ways, like talking to people face-to-face… but also online, with SOCIAL MEDIA.

Yeah. You need to promote your project on Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And Tumblr.*** As I mentioned in my intro post, there is apparently some science to about how much you should post, and when, which I can hopefully tell you about once I’ve found out.

So that’s it. How to Raise Financing for Your Film in Three-not-daunting-at-all Steps!

* I am vastly simplifying here, and omitting about 27 other steps.

**An arbitrary, though realistic number. Our film has not yet been budgeted.

***Speaking of which, you can find this post and others on our dedicated Tumblr; and follow Lovers in Their Right Mind on your choice of Facebook,  Instagram and Twitter @LoversITRM

 

Lovers in Their Right Mind, Social Media and Me…

Lovers In Their Right Mind has begun its social media campaign.

Janice has done more than the lion’s share of the work—setting up various accounts like (Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter) and finding, creating and feeding them the constant flow of “content” we’ve been told is required to ultimately break through the white noise of people’s lives. Experts have told us that a good pace for posting on Tumblr is four times a day during the week and twice each day on weekends, which seems overwhelming.  As soon as I heard that, I began to see the Tumblr as an insatiable monster. In Olympian style, Janice has fed the Tumblr monster news articles, quotes, opinion pieces, photographs of food she’s cooked, people she’s met, events large and small. Her ability to do this I think is in part because she’s a journalist, and in part because she’s a naturally a bright soul, but mostly because she cares so damn much about this film.

However, even with her talent and drive, after a several weeks she is exhausted, and I have done little to help shoulder the burden. From the beginning we’ve been in agreement with general wisdom that a social media is a necessary component to getting an independent film made. I never mentioned to her, the resistance I feel to it. I think I assumed that when the time came–once the script was written–my misgivings would naturally disappear. They have not, and I’ve been forced to consider the roots of my feelings.

On the surface, there is the simple fact that I haven’t cultivated the skill for quickly creating quick content. I come from people who forget to take photos for months, if not years: Only sporadically does someone remember: we should have taken a picture! Thus our family history is largely preserved in biannual photographs of everyone awkwardly crowded around a Thanksgiving turkey, or squinting into the sun as we depart on the last day of a vacation visit. Until last week I had no Instagram, no Tumblr. Their interfaces are unfamiliar.

But simple lack of practice doesn’t explain the tight feeling I get in my belly when I think of “feeding the monster” day after day. It’s an anxious feeling, bordering–not to be dramatic–on repulsion.

Why would this be? I use Facebook. I love the instant Rolodex it gives me, I like the usefulness of how it tracks events and birthdays. There are days when the majority of my knowledge of the outside world is comes through Facebook (thankfully I have friends on both sides of various fences to curate). I like seeing my friend’s lives. And yet…

I instinctively feel I have to keep my distance. Something about it is a little “too much.” Each time I dive into that endless river of images and arguments and ego-pulls and information, I emerge scattered. My ability to find the right words—even to connect my thoughts—is diminished. Some writers might be able to transition quickly–to talk on the phone, hang up and write, dash off an email and then write. Some writers must be able to create social media content and then write.  I’m not that gifted, and I fear engaging in behaviors that might erode what gifts I have.

But it doesn’t change the fact that, if we want to make our movie,  social media is going to be crucial in getting that opportunity. It doesn’t change the fact that at a core level I want to share our story. I’ve been mulling this over, thinking “what can I contribute?” “What can I share that I can feel good about while I’m working on it, and good about giving to people?”

After a decade of blogging the answer seemed too obvious and easy… and it somehow seemed not enough, but it’s what I wish for when I read, click on certain articles, go to industry panels: I wish someone would bring me into their world.  I wish I could see underneath the polish and witness more of their path, things they’ve learned and who they actually are.  I can try to do that. I’ve devoted—continue to devote–a lot of my life to learning about film: writing film and making film and producing film. I can give that–some information, some experience, some honest and occasionally some unvarnished responses to that experience.  I can give you a little bit of me.

So that’s the plan. For Lovers In Their Right Mind purposes, we’re calling these “process posts” because, in concept, they’ll talk about our process and our progress. So that will be a lot of what I’m writing upcoming. It’s along the lines of what I’ve always written, but edited and used on these new platforms it will become my content. My contribution. I’ll do my best. We’ll see how it goes.

PS: If you’d like to see versions of these posts, along with photos and recipes and discussion of cultural issues related to our film, you can find us at on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr; and on Twitter @LoversITRM.