Opening Weekend

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OK, so opening weekend of The Hunted was no Deadpool.  In fact, in contrast to a red carpet screening in London, years of planning and millions of dollars spent on perhaps the most ambitious transmedia marketing campaign in history, our experience went down something like this.

At about 1am on Friday morning of Feb 26th, Jess and I are surfing the net.  I had been working a triple shift doing PR for The Hunted (posting on Facebook), prepping to shoot an all-new Hunted episode, and creating an exploding CG briefcase for an upcoming movie.

Jess suddenly turns to me and asks, “Is the movie up yet?”

For no real reason other than the fact that I had some time off from work and there weren’t any blockbuster films being released that weekend (although I had completely forgotten about the Oscars), I had chosen to release the film at noon on Friday, Feb 26.

I had done all the research, scoped out every streaming platform, aggregator, and DIY service online, exhausted all the possibilities for a theatrical release, traditional distributor and/or sales agent, and finally determined Vimeo VOD was the best way to go.  We had been calling it a “soft release”, but for all intents and purposes, it was opening weekend.

“You should probably release it now in case someone is looking for it”, Jess added.

And instead of waiting for some cosmic fanfare or debating who might want to watch the film at 1am in the morning, I said “Sure, why not?”

And with a few mouse clicks, it was done.

Just like that.

After years of planning, the insanity of the shoot, the battles with SAG, the years in post production, the sleepless nights, the maxed out credit cards, the endless screenings, it all came down to a few mouse clicks to release it unto the world.

Up to that point, Jess regarded the release of the film with a sense of disconnect.  The movie had literally taken years off both of our lives and she was now trying to focus on her own side career as a scientific consultant.

But she suddenly reclined and spread her arms as if a huge weight had been lifted off her chest.  “It’s done!”

Yup, no turning back now.  No more editing, tweaks, or finessing.  All I could do now was to get the word out there.  I had already spent a week letting fans know the film was going to premiere on Friday, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough.

There is only one way an indie film can survive in a market over-saturated with media blasting viewers from all angles with Facebook, Youtube, Netflix, awesome blockbuster movies like Deadpool, and the biggest circus of all right now, politics.

I’m gonna have to spam the shit outta this.

Apologies to my friends, family and fans of the show who are tired of seeing Hunted posters and links plastered everywhere on Facebook, but this was the only way I was going to get eyeballs on the film.  It was time to put on my marketing hat and try to muster as much help as I could online.  Crowdsourcing to the rescue once again!

I had already checked in with a few of my publishing friends who had helped us out with advertising in the past.  John Mosby cranked out a wonderful review of the film in record time for Impact Online, and Abbie Bernstein did an extensive interview for Fangoria Magazine which should be coming out soon.

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I now have an ever-growing list of post-it notes for marketing ideas, film festivals and publishers to contact.  And this is on top of a huge stack of other post-it notes for things that probably should’ve been done before the film was even released.

One of the things I really hoped I could accomplish before this whole blitz is a redesign of the website.  I’d like to make it easier for people to find our episodes (over 100 online) and contribute to user content.  Right now, that means getting people to shoot their own episodes, and I’ve fired up our $1000 Youtube contest to help make that happen.

But I need to make it easier for folks to add content.  Not everyone wants to be a filmmaker.  I need to allow folks to add links to scripts, characters, news items, services, cast and crew, locations, equipment, etc.  And I’ve come up with an awesome idea for a thumbnail driven database that would accomplish all of this.  This is how I can extend the “long tail” of the show and make it self-sustaining.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I want to drop everything just to dust off my programming skills (I have a BS in comp sci) and I doubt I have the funds to pay a company to make this happen.  At the very least, I may resurrect a old bulletin board system I had in place years ago called “Slayer Central”, which I eventually had to pull because it was overwhelmed with SPAM.

But I wasn’t about to wait for all of this to happen before I released the film.  It was time.  And I know I’m going to make plenty of mistakes, but I’m continuing the mantra I’ve had through the entire film, “it’s not your best film, it’s your first film”.  I credit my Uncle Dick for that one.

Fortunately, we live in an age where you can Google stuff like “mistakes I made indie film Vimeo” and I learned one of the biggest regrets among Vimeo users was not setting up an email service.  Within a few hours I had signed up for a service called “MailChimp” and imported a really old email list I hadn’t touched in years.

It was around 2am when Jess finally went to bed.  I stayed up for another hour to make sure I did everything I could to be ready for the premiere.  I basically told people to drink lots of alcohol.  And just as I signed off for the night, I noticed our Vimeo account total read $4.99.  Someone had rented our film at 3am.  And for the first time in the history of this freakin show, over fifteen years, The Hunted had finally made money.

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Over the weekend, I closely followed the metrics provided by Vimeo, which are pretty cool.  They can tell you instantly when someone rented or purchased the film (for $12.99) and from what part of the world.  I considered limiting distribution to just the US to allow for future foreign sales, but I realized my main intention was to just get the film out there.  We saw rentals from the UK and France, but the trailer has apparently been seen in 39 countries.

Unfortunately, we also saw the downside of Vimeo.  The VOD service was clunky – forcing viewers to sign in just to watch the film.  And even though the service boasts multi-platform capability, folks were unable to find the film on their TV sets using a basic search.  I even encountered serious bugs on Roku, which kept me from playing my own film.  But still, Vimeo is the best bet around.  And I’m not waiting around for the next big thing to come out, whatever or whenever that is.

So how did the film do?  Let’s just say we’re not going to be breaking any boxoffice records.  But we can probably afford a really nice dinner at Benihana.  And I know this is just the beginning.  Publications will be coming out in the next few months along with word of the contest and film festivals.  At that time the film may find it’s way onto the larger streaming platforms.  But as far as I’m concerned, seeing that first sale somehow made it all worthwhile.

I didn’t watch the Oscars this weekend, but I was reminded me of a speech by Steven Soderbergh in 2001 that keeps me going – “I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music… Anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unliveable without art”.

I think it’s a bit presumptuous to call The Hunted “art”, but one thing you can say for sure is that we did it.  And I’d add one more quote from another filmmaker to finish off this post which turned out way longer than intended.  It’s a quote I’ve used on every email for the past 5 years – ever since I started this project…

“Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own, imagination is a force that can manifest reality”  – J. Cameron

Online Distribution – Attack Strategy Delta

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So how to choose amongst a gazillion different online VOD distribution strategies in a virtual landscape that changes on a daily basis?  Lots of freakin research and the ability to make a choice instead of waiting around for the next big thing to happen.

I know for a fact that Amazon is planning on doing something big – something cool for indie filmmakers.  I don’t know what it is or when it’ll happen, but I also know I can’t wait forever.  It’s been three years since we shot the film and I feel I owe it to the cast and crew to finally get it out there.

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Unfortunately, a big theatrical release isn’t going to happen, so I obviously want the next biggest thing.  And when it comes to online distribution, the next biggest thing is the four horsemen of the apocalypse – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Itunes.  Unfortunately, all of these are now virtually inaccessible to the indie filmmaker.

In order to have these sites even consider your film, you have to go through an what’s called an “aggregator”.  These are sites like Kinonation, Quiver, Distribber, and Gravitas.  Their job is to run quality control and filter out all the crap that you might find on Youtube.  And if you read the previous entry, Youtube is not an option.

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, you’re going to have to pay for this wonderful service.  At the very least, they will charge you around $1000 to QC your film (quality control).  However, they don’t actually QC it themselves.  They will send it to another service like Bitmax to make sure everything is broadcast quality.  And if it’s not right, you start all over again.

If your film makes it through QC, they will then charge you another $1000 just to show your film to Netflix, plus whatever service and negotiation fee the aggregator wishes to charge.  And still, there’s no guarantee that Nextflix will even accept the film.

If by some miracle Netflix does accept your film, word has it that it’s one of the worst deals around for an indie filmmaker.  They will pay you a flat fee for several years.  So regardless how many times its been viewed, that’s what you get.

The rest of the services – Itunes, Hulu and Amazon will take a cut of your profits up to 50%, and that’s before the aggregators take their share.  What’s more, this does not include advertising, so your film will most likely be lost in a sea of content.  You’re gonna have to be the one to drive people to see your film.

So if you’re the one who’s going to be doing all the social media marketing, why bother having a middleman at all?  Unfortunately, with no middleman, there’s no four horsemen.  Amazon will let you self-publish through CreateSpace, but the resolution will be SD, they set your rental price, and they will take 50%.

This is where the DIY sites come in.  They basically act as a hosting site and allow customers to pay whatever price you want for your film.  And there’s a lot of them.  Trick is, you want to find a service that is fairly well recognized, makes it easy for customers to make payments, and is viewable on virtually every device – Roku, Xbox, Playstation, iPhones, etc.

I trimmed down a rather extensive list of DIY services down to companies like Vimeo, VHX, and Daily Motion.  Vimeo came out the winner since they don’t charge a huge fee ($200 for pro membership) and only take 10% of what you make.  Also, they have more viewers, and I recognize a few other filmmakers there that I trust.

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So the attack plan delta is to release the film as a pre-release advance screening for rental and/or purchase, and whatever money is made on the film will then go to the aggregator mucky-mucks (Kinonation is my fave) to distribute to the rest of the known universe.  At that point, I may even put the film on Youtube.

I read somewhere that the greatest threat to an indie film isn’t security, it’s obscurity.  With so much content, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.  Put the film freakin everywhere if you can.  I’m also checking out film festivals now that we’ve fufilled our SAG New Media contract.  And if your film gets pirated, you should be thrilled.  You’re right up there with Michael Bay.  At least someone is watching it.

The real reason I created the feature in the first place wasn’t to make money (although I’m not writing that off).  It was to gain experience as a director and act as a springboard for the online series.  If the series can continue to sustain itself through user content, then I haven’t created a film, I’ve created a channel, a network.  And that’s the big picture.

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Once again, if you’d like to check out all the grisly details on the entire Internet Epic known as The Hunted Feature Film – from conceptualizing to chaos, click here.

 

VOD

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VOD – Video on Demand.  This used to be one of the last stops when it came to film distribution.  Now, films are breaking all the rules when it comes to traditional “windows”.  A theatrical release would be typically be followed by DVDs, Pay Per View, Cable, and broadcast TV.  Now films are released on VOD weeks after a film opens, or going directly to VOD.

VOD definitely spelled the end of an era for DVDs and broadcast TV as we know it.  Gone are the days of must-see Thursday and Saturday morning cartoons.  Now we can catch up on whatever episode of Friends or Space Ghost we want to see any time of day or night.

But if you think VOD has it all figured out, think again.  For the last ten years, I’ve attended an endless string of seminars and workshops from independent and big studio professionals trying to explain the state of affairs when it comes to monetizing online content.  And if I hear one more friggin time that “It’s still the wild west out there”…

The Hunted has been in the game since 2001, and it’s always been the “wild west”.  The only difference now is that the tech is better and there’s a gazillion more video hosting sites.  But at least someone is makin money.  Unfortunately, it’s not the filmmakers.  Not unless you count “kitty on a roomba” or a dude who has a billion subscribers who watch him play video games.

But how much are these guys actually making?  On Youtube, the average CPM (cost per 1000 views) is around a dollar.  To put that into perspective, if you made a film and 100,000 people saw it in the theater for $10, you’d make a million dollars.  On Youtube, however, you’ve just made a whopping $100.

No, the ones who are making the real money are the ones who manage the content, and have figured out how to leverage ad dollars, subscription and VOD.

Early in the game (around 2001) I predicted that once the viewing population had moved from dialup to broadband, streaming video would be a viable alternative to TV, and ad dollars would soon follow.  With more money, web content would evolve like the early days of cable – channels hosting old episodes of “The Love Boat” would soon become full-on studios like HBO creating shows like “Game of Thrones”.

And sure enough, everyone is jumping on the content creation bandwagon.  Only now, it’s online streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  Soon, we’ll be seeing content from everywhere – a Google original series.

And there are those who don’t even need to pay for content.  Youtube became the most watched channel virtually overnight and they never paid for a single video.  And thanks to better and cheaper software and cameras, content has become easier than ever to produce.  The average number of video uploaded to Youtube is 300 hours per minute.

So what does this mean for the average filmmaker?  There’s definitely money out there, but there’s so much content that when the money finally trickles down to the content creator, you might be able to afford a cup of coffee.  And not the fancy kind.

So the challenge is – wade through every video hosting site and aggregator in existence (and there are lots of them) and figure out what will pay you for even a fraction of the time and effort you put into your creations while getting you the most eyeballs on your content.

There are a million strategies out there for doing this and I had hoped to go into detail about the path I’ve chosen, but this is already long enough I’ll have to save that for the next exciting entry.

Distribution Fun!

I just spent 3 hours driving to North Hollywood with Jess for our first meeting with a distributor, but as I walk in the door of the building I get a call on my phone.  Turns out it was supposed to be a phone meeting and the person wasn’t even in the office.  Jess had taken the day off to play producer and she didn’t have time for this.  She rolled her eyes and grabbed my car keys as I sat alone in the lobby of the building for an hour talking to these guys on the phone.

In preparation for AFM (the American Film Market in Santa Monica), I had spent months researching traditional distributors – those who attended the various film markets and distributed films theatrically and overseas.  I sent out onesheets and emails, making calls, receiving rejection after rejection.  But this is how I eventually sold Ring of Steel, so I knew what to expect.

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My mantra at the time was, “you don’t have to get everyone to like it, just one.  The right one.”

This meeting was our first glimmer of hope.  It was a new company with an investment banker turned actress turned distributor who frequents the film markets and had contacted us repeatedly about the film.  There were enough red flags that my initial response was “no”, but it’s amazing how quickly confidence turns to desperation.

Anyone who has sold a used car knows what distribution feels like.  You go into it thinking you’re going to at least make your money back, but by the end you’re willing to sell it for scrap.

Years ago I saw an interview with Kenneth Branagh who was talking about trying to sell his film Henry V.  This is truly an amazing film with brilliant acting, but he told a story about wandering the streets of Hollywood like a homeless person with a film can in hand trying desperately to sell the damn thing.  I couldn’t believe it.

But now I can totally see it.  I had never had to deal with this side of things.  When we made Ring of Steel back in the early 90’s, the production company SGE already had a distribution deal with MCA/Universal, so no problem.  True, this is a $20,000 film as opposed to $1.5 mil, but how hard could it be?

But the landscape has totally changed since then.  Traditional distribution has given way to VOD (video on demand), which is quickly taking over the market.  In theory, I wasn’t even supposed to think about traditional distribution since our SAG New Media contract states that our initial release had to be online.

But a year ago, a distributor called us wanting to take the film to Cannes, which was very flattering.  We told them the film wasn’t ready, and that it couldn’t be in a festival anyway because of our SAG contract.  They told us that it wasn’t a problem.  They would release the film on their online channel without any hoopla, which would satisfy the SAG requirement.

In truth, the SAG New Media contract in all its vague-ness never specified what they meant by an initial online release.  Does that mean Netflix?  Hulu?  My personal Youtube page?  It was definitely a grey area, and I was willing to take the chance to give traditional distribution a shot since it seemed like the only way to make a profit.

Unfortunately, the few offers we got from traditional distributors (including the banker turned actress turned distributor) were pretty crappy.  They wanted a long term 10 year exclusive commitment with $10,000 up front to QC the film (quality control required for various online and foreign markets) and they would take 30% of the revenue after recouping expenses.

First rule of distribution is to never pony up your own money.  And I learned the hard way on Ring of Steel what recouping expenses meant when it comes to getting paid.  We were supposed to get 1/3 of the gross worldwide profits on that film, but the distributor claimed that they never made a profit, and any money they did make supposedly went into selling the film.

So the prospect of finding a traditional distributor looked slim, but I still wanted to go to the American Film Market.  I had been going to AFM for years.  I sold Ring of Steel there, had some great meetings, but I’ve never been there with a film of my own.  For the first time I considered buying a booth or daily pass – something I had never done before.  Maybe even pay to screen the film.

But two weeks before the market, I got a call to work VFX on a film that I couldn’t pass up.  Not just because I was running out of money, but because the film was Star Wars.  I spent 4 weeks working 14 hours a day 7 days a week on a film that I’m never allowed to talk about thanks to a crazy NDA.

It pained me to miss AFM, but I took it as a sign.  Traditional distribution wasn’t for us.  And not just because of the crappy deals.  Research has shown that folks nowadays won’t go to a theater to watch an indie film.  If we really wanted to, we could rent out a theater for a few weeks to show the film, but to what end?  What’s more, our film was directly tied into the web series, so keeping it online seemed to make sense.

So VOD… how hard could that be?  Unfortunately, releasing a film online was no longer an easy prospect.  Just a few short years ago it was no big deal to get your film onto Itunes or Netflix.  Now you have to find an approved aggregator to accept your film and pay them thousands to submit your film which may or may not be accepted.  Netflix is now the big dog and they know it.

The good and bad news is, online distribution models are changing on a daily basis and there are a million different websites, hosting companies and various strategies.  Unfortunately, none of them seem to involve making money.

What’s more, it’s gotten easier for people to make content.  The software and equipment has gotten cheaper.  Hell, you can now shoot and edit a film on an iphone.  So there’s tons of content out there.  And making money is taking second place to just getting eyeballs on your film.

So how am I going to make this work?  Looks like I’m gonna have to science the shit outta this.

Cast and Crew Screening

After three long years, I can finally say the film is finally freakin done!

…kinda.  I’m sure there’s tweaks still to be made, but it’s definitely done enough to show it to our cast and crew.

In one word, I was terrified.  I had been working in a vacuum for so long that I had no idea how the film was going to be received.  We had done several small test screenings so I knew it was at least watchable, but I also knew it was about as low budget indie as they come, and I wasn’t sure if folks knew what to expect.

Regardless, I was committed to finally do this, so now the big question was where to do it.  As it is, we’re still on a budget and have yet to secure a distributor, so we weren’t about to drop $4K to rent out a full size theater.  And we didn’t need a full size theater anyway.  I figured our cast and crew was less than 100.

But even smaller theaters weren’t available on a weekend evening, which is when most folks were available.  That’s when Jess pulled out her producing hat once again and managed to find an amazing deal on a screening theater at (of all places) SAG.

The last thing we wanted to do after shooting “The Hunted” was to have anything to do with SAG.  But the SAG Foundation is only loosely associated with SAG and was eager to help us with everything including the budget and details of the evening.

The theater itself is a relatively new space called the “Actors Center” which has 120 seats in a professional venue, available on a weekend night, and was extremely affordable.

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We decided on an arbitrary date of May 23, Memorial Day weekend, which is when Jess had time off from work, and Dave Baker was due back from shooting his new reality series.  At the time, he was the only other person with a definite schedule.

Unfortunately, when I finally pulled the cast list together, we had 130 invites.  And that was without any guests.  We hated to have to tell folks that there wasn’t any room for a +1, but after the RSVPs came back, it looked like we had enough room for everyone.

The most touching part of the event was my Aunt Dick and Aunt Sandy who flew out from the east coast to attend the event.  They’re just awesome people and they’ve supported the project from the beginning.  They booked flights even before the date was locked down.  My bro was unable to come, however, since his battle with cancer had taken its toll on his health.

Thankfully, Jess assumed the role once again as craft services and we bought enough liquor to ensure the hilarity of the evening.  I also set up a greenscreen so folks could take photos and place themselves on the red carpet that we couldn’t quite afford.

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We had a great turnout, although it turned out that many of our cast and crew were out of town shooting Capt America in Georgia, so it looks like we may have to do all of this over again at a later date.  Thoughts are that we may just do a screening at a local film festival.

As for the film itself, folks laughed in all the right places and even applauded where I’ve never heard (or even thought of) applause before.  Everyone said they had a blast and it appears the pictures confirm that sentiment: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.10152755011145672&type=1

Yup, just the shot of confidence I needed before we launch into the next step of this whole insane process… distribution!

Pickups

Jess remembers me running into our apartment one night at 1am, grabbing my camera, and running out again saying something about a helicopter.  Turns out a helicopter was scanning for an intruder in Venice beach, and I needed a shot of a helicopter.  It wasn’t until I was standing there in the middle of the street that I realized I could be hit by a car, mistaken for this guy, or accosted by the suspect.  But I got the shot.

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I had a whole shopping list of pickup shots which I would grab whenever I could – a shot of the Fox building with me crawling away, driving footage of hollywood blvd, driving footage of a suburban road for the background of the police chase, driving through downtown looking for a gated garage to break into, a timelapse of the costume shop, stills of an In-N-Out burger shop at night, a closeup of a scalpel on a hospital tray (which I shot at my desk), a closeup of a USB stick (also shot at my desk), a closeup of Susan pulling a sword from under her dress (which I shot with Jess in our hallway).

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The rest of the footage I was able to find online through stock libraries.  I also found some great timelapse footage and got permission from the filmmaker to use it for free.  But up until the very end, I was still missing the biggest part of the film.

Known as the “vamp slaughter”, this was footage that was supposed to be provided by our fans.  Here was an opportunity to be in the movie – the ultimate in crowdsourcing.  All you had to do was shoot video of a vampire breaking into your residence and defeating him/her in some interesting way.

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We did receive a few entries, and they might’ve worked if this was the web series.  But this was the feature.  And I had forgotten how much cooler the show had become.  No, if I wanted this to work the way I hoped, I would have to write it and shoot it myself.

Fortunately, I was able to wrangle Brian Danner and his group, Swordfights Inc. to the task.  I brought in a huge greenscreen and we shot various fight scenes around the world which I would later composite.

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I was also able to grab a cameo from one of my fave Hunted alumni, Michael Coleman, to play a Russki vamp along with his pregnant wife and child.

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And thanks to Andrew Kelsey and his buddy Greg, we were able to pull off one of our most bizarre pickups running down the street in boxer shots beating up a Clockwork Orange vamp with a blowup sex doll.

You heard me.

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When it was finally composited and edited with music, “vamp slaughter” rocked.  It was a huge relief since this scene was the turning point of the entire final act.  And if it didn’t work, the entire film would’ve fallen flat.

And with that, the satisfaction of fitting the last piece into a ginormous jigsaw puzzle.  It was done.  Now all I had to do was get up the nerve to actually show it to someone.

VFX

This was the 800lb gorilla in the room.  My original estimate on the show was 50 VFX shots which were comprised of everything from explosions to a naked highfall.  It was a lot, but it was do-able.  Unfortunately, this number instantly jumped to 250 shots thanks in part to losing a major location, the helipad, which had to be shot entirely on greenscreen.

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Luckily, I had me, and I was willing to work for free.  But I knew that I still couldn’t do this alone, so I reached out to the community.  Once again, crowdsourcing to the rescue!  Unfortunately, all my VFX buddies seemed to be working or looking for work that would pay them more than a credit in an indie feature film.

I did manage to get a few interns from Zoic to jump on board, as well as a buddy of mine, John Cassella, who I helped to get started in the biz.  He has since worked on major feature films and provided me with a spectacular explosion for the office building.

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But there was a lot of tedious roto-type work that no one wanted to touch, including me.  There was the overhead shot with me flipping off the motorcycle where it was virtually impossible to pull a key.  That’s when I found Odesk (now called Upwork).  Here you can find artists all over the world who will do practically anything for a lower rate.

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Yup, I was outsourcing.  I had become part of the problem – the reason the whole VFX community was suffering.  But what was I supposed to do?  Besides, I helped to support a starving young roto artist in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Seriously!  And he’s good too.  All I can imagine though is some sherpa in a cave banging on a Macbook Pro.

As for me, I started with some of the easiest but more spectacular shots, like the naked high fall (which I needed for the trailer).  This was a simple 2 plate track with me jumping into an airbag and me jumping onto the ground.  But it’s probably one of the best gags in the film.

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All of the compositing work was done in Nuke with a fair amount of 3D done in Maya.  I had thought about using After Effects since it was supposed to seamlessly work with Premiere, but it wasn’t all that seamless to me and I’m not a fan.  The downside was that to do any work in Nuke, I had to export individual frames for each sequence.

I could go into detail about the rest of the effects, but suffice it to say there was a lot of them, some harder than others which I’ve listed here in no particular order just to give you an idea of what I was dealing with: a bunch of glowing eyes, added fangs, blood (CG and composited elements), computer screens, countdown timers, several CG and practical fire elements, materializing vamp babe, sword sparks, an exploding chair, an exploding wall, an exploding door, an exploding car, an exploding garbage chute (with Mikey’s feet I shot in our living room)…

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…CG ratchet, throwing CG pipe, throwing CG sword, muzzle flashes, a cop riding on a car hood punching a windshield, a pencil through the hand, impaled through chest with sword, CG truck hit, CG “In-N-Up” building, a theater marquee, filling an entire theater with an audience, exploding Vincent into a cloud of dust, broken sword paint-out (really freakin hard), and interactive steam (really freakin super hard to track).

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In all, I guesstimate there’s at least a few thousand man hours invested for a total of at least $100,000 in effects.  This would typically be the budget for a million dollar film.

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And then, there was the monster.  The shot I had been putting off the entire time. The rooftop scene (AKA helipad) 9000 frame greenscreen shot.  To make matters worse, it was a crap greenscreen that New Deal used for pyrotechnics, so there were burns and scorch marks all over it.  And better yet, one of my actresses was in an all-green jumpsuit with light colored flyaway hair.

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Had this been a lockoff shoot, it might’ve been easier.  But no, this was handheld.  And whose bright idea was that?  And to make things even more difficult, I would need to add an edge of the rooftop in the wide shots, which meant that I had to do 3D tracking.

Awesome.

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Actually, the crap greenscreen came in handy since it gave me more tracking points.  But it was still a nightmare.  Fortunately, Nuke’s tracker is pretty bitchin and managed to track most everything.  I then textured and pre-lit a rooftop edge in Maya and exported it to Nuke so I could do all the work there.  In all, the work took me over a month on this sequence alone.

But this still wasn’t the end of it.  VFX would also save my ass when it came to some very important pickups…

Color-correction

This is an area where I knew I was going to need professional help.  I’ve worked for years as a VFX artist doing color correction, but when it came to figuring out broadcast standards and what was needed to make my film “pop”, I was ready to make a few calls.

I called in an old buddy of mine, Greg Derochie, who had worked at Sony on Spiderman and had just finished his own indie feature.  So he already knew what a studio film should look like, but he also knew the tools to use on an indie budget.

And there were plenty of tools to choose from: Speed Grade, Davinci Resolve, After Effects, Colorista, along with RedCam’s built-in color-correction and Premiere’s tools.  In the end, I found most of the tools were either too expensive or a pain in the ass – requiring you to exit Premiere and open another program just to make simple tweaks.

I decided to use Radcam’s basic color-correct tool to punch things up a bit, and then a combination of Premiere’s tools and Magic Bullet to dial in the look.  Magic Bullet’s Colorista and Looks had some cool bells and whistles, but unfortunately it was a bit buggy and slow as hell on my machine – especially when dealing with 5K clips.

magic bullet

I paid Greg to come in for a day and show me the ropes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the budget to get him to CC the entire film.  But this is stuff I wanted to learn anyway.  He was able to show me around the software, teach me his methodology, show me a few tricks, and CC some of the key scenes.

I also picked up a few other tools which came in handy – Mercalli for stabilizing some of the shakier shots, and Neat Video which was able to degrain some of the lowlight shots that I had to punch up a bit.

In the end, I realized that there are no hard and fast rules for any of this.  It’s completely subjective.  So if you want everyone to look slightly blue in a scene, so be it.  I regret some of the choices I made in the past when it came to color-correcting the series, but it was the best I could do given the information I had at the time.  It’s all a learning process and I can’t afford to dwell on mistakes or spend eternity trying to make it perfect.

Movin on.

 

Music

This was the real surprise for me.  I had thought that anything I found online that I could use royalty-free was going to be your typical midi-type crap.  Turns out there’s some amazing stuff out there, fully orchestrated, at a price even we could afford.  PremiumBeat.com and Neosounds.com became my best friends.

Of course it meant creatively cramming something into the film that didn’t quite fit time-wise.  In some instances though, I would re-cut based on the music.  This is where not locking the cut came in extremely handy.

Jess also found that some older pieces played by military bands were free to use.  We pay taxes, so apparently they’re ours.  And one of the composers I had used over the years on the series, Kevin MacLeod, had a disco piece that was perfect for the scene on Hollywood Blvd.  I even pulled out my harmonica for a short piece which I recorded on my iphone.

Tex also tried to get creative and came up with a piece called “Dance for The Hunted” for the Loremaster montage.  It was truly bizarre, but I figured what the hey, it’s perfect for the crazy Loremaster.  Unfortunately, it was like 5 minutes long so I had to cut it down to 2 minutes.  But then we screened the film and people thought it was still too long (and they hated it).  2 minutes became 1 minute, then 30 seconds, then 10 seconds.  Finally we just lost it completely.

dance to the hunted.jpg

The only actual musician that I found to compose music specifically for the film was a sitar player.  We needed some background music for the first time we meet the Loremaster.  Everything we tried was either too dramatic, clunky or comedic.  We just needed some spiritualistic trance-type background music and it was virtually impossible to find.  Can’t believe we crowdsourced a sitar player.

But one of our biggest coups was a band that Andrew Helm knew from Vegas called Gambler’s Mark.  We had used a few of their songs on the SlayerCon episode, and there was one piece which Andrew thought would be perfect.  I had already decided the film was going to begin with “Ride of the Valkyries” and had even bought the piece, but when I plugged in “Greenroom” from Gambler’s, it was absolutely perfect.  I ended up using it multiple times and it became the theme for the entire show.

Sound

I was quite aware that above everything else, crap sound can completely kill your film.  And in addition to the nightmare that is sync-sound, we had some pretty crappy audio to contend with.  Wireless mics that didn’t quite work, and lots of echoes from improper boom placement or locations like a bathroom or YMCA gym.

bathroom

Fortunately, Premiere comes bundled with Adobe Audition that does all sorts of sweet repair work like removing harsh background noise – a real problem when we shot at New Deal Studios thanks to the noisiest electrical panel ever.

Removing echoes, however, is virtually impossible.  I was not convinced, however, and I spent months researching this.  Professionals claimed that it was like trying to un-bake a cake.  It couldn’t be done.  It wasn’t until the final few months of post did I find a plugin for Audition called Acon Deverberate.  It wasn’t perfect, but I really wish I had found it sooner.

In the meantime, I learned a few tricks like using EQ to cut low rumble, high hiss, or the exact frequency of a chirping cricket.  It was quite the education and I can see why you’d pass all of this off on a sound engineer who knew what the hell they were doing.

But I wasn’t trying to bust out a 5.1 mix or anything.  My first pass was to just to make everything audible and ensure nothing spiked over 0db.  It wasn’t until after I finished adjusting levels on the entire film that I realized the delivery standard for film was -6db.  Crap.

And even though I was able to clean things up quite a bit, I realized the only way to truly fix crappy sound was ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording).  Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money to spend on a sound booth.  And I wasn’t about to ask my cast members to drive across town to record a few lines of dialogue.

My solution was to have my cast send me their dialogue, recorded on whatever they could find.  Mostly it was just an iPhone, which worked fine.  Although Anthony had a whole professional voiceover setup at his place, so he was able to get me some pro stuff from himself and David Baker.  I couldn’t afford it, but I sent them both some seriously good whiskey for their effort.

I also had TJ stop by my place to dub a few of his more complicated lines during the torture scene and at the theater.  I used a Zoom mic on a tripod and hooked him up directly to my editing system with headphones for playback.  It was a seriously difficult scene to dub, but he did a brilliant job.

In addition to ADR, I was filling out sound effects, most of which I was able to find online.  This is also quite an art form because it’s not like you can find a single sword strike and use it for everything.  And then there were punches, gunshots, explosions.  It’s amazing how time consuming it is to find a sound for a vampire that doesn’t sound exactly like a jungle cat or dying pig.

lauren_eyes

I also added temp music to the rough cut and this is when the film really started coming to life.  Of course I was using some bitchin music that I’d probably never be able to afford, but the scenes suddenly had depth, pacing, tension and comedy.  This is totally gonna work.

The challenge with all of these layers, however (dialogue, effects and music tracks), was that everything is cumulative.  Each track can top out at -6db, but when mixed together, they completely max out.  So you have to choose what takes precedence.  And the only way you can do that is to use your ears.

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that balancing audio is completely reliant on your headphones and/or sound system.  Audio that sounded fine to me on my crappy headphones was completely blasted out by bass on a good sound system.  I did a lot of research, learned the difference between open and closed cans, bought a set of good speakers and amp, and did my best to make it sound as professional as possible.

But this is definitely a job for an artist – someone who really knows what they’re doing.  There are tricks like sweetening dialogue or punching a hole in the frequency of the music to be able to hear what people are saying without losing the music completely.  I made an attempt at all of this, but it was like shooting in the dark.

Mid way through this whole process, I got a call from our sound guy who said he just built a new sound studio in New York and I could be one of his first projects.  He could even give me a 5.1 sound mix for free.  But everything I read said that 5.1 was a real hassle, and I’d have to lock the film and somehow send him all my files before he started any work.

Yea, that wasn’t going to work for me.  I knew the cut was going to change throughout the process.  And I wasn’t sure this guy was going to be available for the duration.

Nope, I was on my own.