I’ll never forget the day Adam Starr brought his drone to the set of Justice Is Mind. When I wrote the part in the story that called for a drone, I count myself lucky that Adam had one. In those days (2012) a drone for an independent film was a novelty. Adam had recently purchased a drone for a commercial shoot so thankfully he had one. As you can see from the image below, he did a great job. And with his VFX skills he transitioned from drone footage to special effects seamlessly.
Last weekend was a bit of a drone adventure for me. After my successful shots at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center earlier in the month, I went to a WWII event at Battleship Cove. I go every year, but this time I brought my DJI Spark. Although I’ve been working with the drone for a few months now, I never really put it through the paces. The image above was from the drone’s maximum height (without the remote controller). Yes, “Big Mamie” is a big ship! To watch the video, click this link.
The next day I went to Newport, RI and toured The Breakers. Although I took a picture of Marble House with the drone when I was at one of the “Cars & Coffee” shows, I had yet to video one of the Gilded Age “summer cottages.” After the tour I started to envision what I wanted to see from this great mansion that was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. For those that remember the opening credits of Dynasty, that was my motivation. To watch the video, click this link.
To answer what some of you may be thinking, yes, I always get permission to film at museums and the like. The drama you hear about drones is pretty much nonsense. Operating a drone is like driving a car. It’s called practice and being responsible. If I’m not sure about something, I’m not going to try it. One of the cardinal rules is pretty simple—always be able to see your drone. Today’s drones have so many wonderful features built right into their programming. For mine, I can just tap “return to home” and that’s exactly what it does.
As part of SOS United States takes place on the USS Massachusetts, I’ve always wanted to do some filming at the museum. My interest in The Breakers was obvious. What filmmaker wouldn’t want to film such a grand residence? Because these two locations are so unique, my aim was to get two different looks if you will. But there are those moments when you kick yourself. I was approaching the low battery warning and had one more chance to get a shot at The Breakers. I hit “tap to fly” and the Spark was moving forward nicely. After a few moments I hit return to home. But I forgot to hit record when it was flying! Thankfully, I had enough footage.
Of course I originally purchased this drone for First Signal. Although actor and crew scheduling conflicts meant moving the film to 2019, this actually gives me more time to experience the capabilities of the Spark. There’s lots to shoot in the region!
As for First Signal, SOS United States, and my other projects, I always have a plan b. This November I’ll be traveling to the American Film Market. I haven’t been to Los Angeles since Justice Is Mind had its west coast premiere in 2014. It will be great to make new contacts and visit with friends and colleagues from my days in “Hollywood.”
One thing I’ve often talked about is testing. Whether it’s a screen test prior to a theatrical screening or testing equipment prior to a live event, I’m adamant about testing prior to production or going live.
I still remember to this day, that despite testing equipment the day before, a major live event I produced years ago ran into a major technical problem during the show. What happened? Someone behind the scenes decided to “think” and change the program without consulting anyone. The result? A total screw up. Thankfully the embarrassment was resolved in short order and the venue credited us $14,000 for their mistake.
Production is time and money. If you don’t set aside time to rehearse, test and think things through, the results can be disastrous if not embarrassing. In the past two weeks I have witnessed two major meltdowns with camera equipment during auditions. How does that happen in today’s day and age? And why don’t you have a backup system ready to go at a moment’s notice? It’s called preparedness.
As for preparedness, I attended the Memorial Day services at Battleship Cove last Monday. Not only does this museum do a wonderful job in organization and presentation, it’s the location itself that brings forward the meaning of this national holiday. When you are standing on the deck of a battleship that fought in World War II, it doesn’t get any more real than that.
I’ve been to Battleship Cove on a several occasions. There’s always something new to learn and discover. When so many are engaged in the here and now, it’s important that we take the time to never forget how and why well over 50,000,000 perished in World War II.
With less than two weeks to go until First Signal’s table read, pre-production continues on a variety of fronts. At this stage of the production it’s more waiting to hear from certain parties for confirmations, etc. I will say the DJI Spark continues to perform well for the required drone shots.
Yesterday I attended the annual World War II Saturday at Battleship Cove. While there seemed to be less reenactors than last year, I found it just as engaging and interesting. If I come away with having learned a few more moments during that time in history, it’s well worth the visit.
By example, I learned some interesting details behind the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO). Sure, I was generally aware that the United States and China had some sort of cooperation during the war, but when it’s illuminated it puts it in perspective. That “perspective” continued after SACO dissolved which was followed by China’s civil war.
Speaking of China, Justice Is Mind has been picked up by China Mobile as a flat licensing deal. As I understand from our distributor, it’s now going through censorship and localization on their end. It will certainly be a milestone to break into the Chinese market. One does not need to be a filmmaker or read the industry trades to know that China is one of the leading film markets.
Given the tumultuous state of U.S. box office revenue this year, it’s imperative that these foreign markets are available to filmmakers. For Justice Is Mind and First World our primary foreign market is the United Kingdom. I have also noticed that viewership in Japan is picking up. But one driving force that continues to put films front and center is the importance of a marketing plan.
I can’t tell you how many times the marketing plan for an independent film seems to begin and stop at the industry trades. Never mind when you read the first cut to studio budgets seem to be in marketing. As I have often said you can have the greatest project in the world but if nobody knows about it nobody will care.
As soon as I finish writing a script, I start working on the marketing plan in terms of a target audience. With distributors relying more and more on filmmakers to assist in the marketing plan, there really needs to be one in place before the first scene is shot. With First World it was science fiction conventions. With Justice Is Mind it was law schools and universities that focused on neuroscience. With Serpentine: The Short Program it was the Ice Network. Yes, like the aforementioned, films have their primary target audience then they broaden out from there.
Amazon is a perfect example of that. Someone might have heard about Justice Is Mind from our primary plan, but found the film on Amazon. Their algorithm then points customers to other recommended films. At that point the plan is relatively complete. But it all starts with that primary plan to push consumer awareness then generally continues with social media and other digital marketing tactics on an ongoing basis.
It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago this month that we were producing Justice Is Mind. Yet here we are five years later with new markets opening. The greatest thing about the world of film is discovery. It doesn’t matter when the film was made, it’s about when a customer learns about it for the first time. In today’s world of VOD a film no longer has a shelf-life.
Today is Independence Day in the United States. We refer to it as the Fourth of July. 241 years ago the United States declared its independence as a sovereign nation from the British Empire. As we know, the United Kingdom has been one of our strongest allies for over a century and is referred to as the “special relationship” between the two countries.
As for the United States and United Kingdom, this past weekend I traveled to the Maritime Museum in Fall River, MA (the museum is now part of Battleship Cove). After seeing the 1953 movie Titanic, I learned that the model from the movie was on display at the museum. And as Battleship Cove had some new exhibits, it was time for another visit.
It’s impossible not to learn about the many joint cooperative efforts between our countries over the centuries. The United States connection to the Belfast built RMS Titanic is well known along with the numerous campaigns during World War I and World War II. The USS Massachusetts participation in Operation Torch in November 1942 was a joint United States-United Kingdom invasion of French North Africa. And, yet, for all the reasons our countries have fought side by side for democracy against tyranny, both nations are facing internal political turmoil that is testing the very fabric of our respective constitutions.
As an American citizen I won’t opine on events across the pond, but here in this country today it is as much a celebration as it is a contradiction. Oh sure there’s the requisite barbeque or the spirited trips to the beach, but top of mind of the majority of Americans is the direction in which this country is going. Like the RMS Titanic’s inferior rudder that made the ship very hard to turn in a crisis, the United States is most certainly heading towards an iceberg that represents the internal strife we are experiencing. While on the surface it looks like we can avoid it, like an iceberg, the menace is what lies below the waterline.
As I have been a member of both parties, I consider myself a moderate. Put simply, I believe in equal rights, not special rights. I believe in a strong military administered by the federal government, but that government has no business regulating my personal life. The current crisis isn’t so much about political party but extremists on both sides that are locked in a tug of war to win. In earlier years, it was the moderates that kept the ship on an even keel. Sadly extremists often don’t want to understand the other side. But understanding is the first step in diplomacy in reaching an accord. A democracy is not about winning your point, it is about moderating it.
Perhaps the time has come to look at our friends across the pond for some lessons. In the United Kingdom, France and Germany they have a multi-party political system. Is it perfect? No, of course not. But for too long in the United States there has only had two choices (this one or that one). Sure we have a nascent third party in this country, but it has about as much direction as the SS Californian did the night the RMS Titanic sank.
But the one thing we do know is the United States is built on a solid foundation of laws and guiding principles. Sometimes we waiver and falter, but at the end of the day we know what this nation stands for and what it represents. Today is a tribute to the founding fathers of this country and what they laid down over two centuries ago that resonates even more today.
With posts for crew on New England Film, Stage 32 and the official website (casting for actors to follow soon), the Serpentine project is moving forward. While it’s always great to work with new people, I naturally reached out to those I’ve worked with on Justice Is Mind and First World. As so many of us see in this industry, it’s about established relationships while expanding your network. Yes, there are those I have worked with for years, while I know there will be new people I’ll meet thought this project.
So while I work on establishing a crew and securing locations based on a general idea of when we are going to shoot, there is the casting of the skater to play Suzanne Wilson. This is unlike any other actor I have ever cast. Not only does this skater have to have a “nationals” or “worlds” quality, but there is also the interest and ability to act along with necessary enthusiasm of making a film.
As one elite skater I talked with this past week rightly asked, “How long does this take to film?” As this skater has been a part of a nationals and has competed internationally, sure they have seen TV cameras. But that’s a one take show. I explained the wide, mid, close and insert shots. The camera angles, lighting, sound and, depending on a variety of factors, several takes of the same scene (personally I don’t believe in more than four). In short, it can be a bit overwhelming for a novice as it is a repetitive process.
While the “Search for Suzanne” continues, my advice to anyone that wants to get involved in this industry is to visit a set. Perhaps the easiest way to get involved is to submit to student films at local colleges that offer film programs (they always need people). Some say to be an extra in a “big movie” but I don’t agree with that as the nuances of the process are lost when you are part of a cattle call. Student films can be a lot of fun and a real eye opener. Just remember as they are student films it can very much be learn as you go and the end result can vary widely and wildly. I’ve been involved in some excellent student films and others that I will never post!
But as they say it has to start somewhere. My first TV appearance was on The Montel Williams Show in 1994. A very nice production assistant knew it was my first time on TV and pretty much told me what to expect in terms of the process. I promise you, the more you see the process the more things you pick up. After a while you learn what everyone does and why they do it.
Speaking of acting, one of my favorite museums Battleship Cove hosted a World War II event yesterday with various exhibits and reenactors. Not only is it a great history lesson, but the passion these actors have for their craft are truly Tony worthy.
Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s there was an entertainment medium called the mini-series that produced some terrific programming. When I attended WWII Weekend yesterday, I was reminded of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Perhaps it was these two great mini-series that got me interested in the Second World War. For those that follow me on social media or this blog, you know I often tour museums like Battleship Cove or attend events like WWII Weekend. When I was in Albany, New York a couple of week ago I toured the now museum ship USS Slater.
For those of you that may be interested, I highly recommend WWII Weekend. This was my first time attending this event and I have to say they did a masterful job. To quote from their website, “WWII Weekend is one of New England’s premier living history events, providing the public with an interactive, educational and fun WWII experience that is difficult to come by. Participants will have the chance to examine and learn about multiple different kinds of World War 2 vehicles and weapons, as well as how the soldiers of that era lived, by walking through Allied and Axis encampments and interacting with the reenactors.”
First, I believe it’s important to take the time to occasionally experience one of these events or attend one of these museums. Even though our present world is currently gripped with a variety of regional conflicts, I think it’s important to remember that at two points in the last century nearly every country in the world was engaged in a world war. For me personally, it’s about learning something new and inspiration for my writing.
When I brought Justice Is Mind back to World War II, the amount of research I did was on the same level as that of the courtroom scenes and experimental science behind mind reading technology. It was after our international premiere on the MS Queen Elizabeth that several guests came up to me and complimented how we handled that element of the story, particularly the very end. Although that area of the screenplay was pretty well vetted, it only matters how it’s received by the public after it’s produced. With a film, there’s generally only one chance to get it right. To quote Bill Sampson in All About Eve after a film is released “You’re in a tin can.”
Although the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating doesn’t go back to WWII, when I was looking at field communications equipment at the WWII Weekend yesterday, a certain angle occurred to me which I could take with this story. In this new story codes and encryption are a key element to the final act.
The one thing I enjoy the most about being a writer is the research. Whether it’s learning about historical events and how they can be woven into a particular plot or about certain technologies and how they shape a story. Who would have thought that a program on “thought identification” on 60 Minutes would have resulted in Justice Is Mind?
Of course, as a filmmaker, one of the exhibits I found truly fascinating was all the vintage cameras. In today’s world we simply hold up our cell phone and roll as much “film” as you generally want. In those days they may have had to deal with springs and cameras the size of large bricks, but filmmakers and photographers from that era produced groundbreaking work under often arduous conditions.