A Serious Man Is Absurd


I saw A Serious Man last night, and I can’t say I liked it as much as some of the Coens’ other films, but it certainly is a funny and discussion-provoking movie. I’ve seen some reviewers describe the film as Nihilistic, which is a philosophy I believe the Coens explicitly rejected in The Big Lebowski. The Nihilists in that movie are ridiculous crybabies. Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos. I’m not an expert in the philosophic arts, but I think a much more accurate description of the movie—and a term that I don’t see discussed very often these days—is Absurdist. Nihilism rejects the possibility of meaning in the Universe. Absurdism finds it highly unlikely. It’s hard to find humor or drama in an absolute certainty in the meaninglessness of life. In an Absurdist world, the search for meaning behind events is considered absurd, because a person is highly unlikely to find it. That perfectly describes A Serious Man, and pretty much the entire Coen catalog.

The Ain’t It Cool News Quote Con

Mike Judge has a new movie coming out this weekend, and Miramax (yes, they still exist and make movies) has done a pretty large ad buy on tv shows and websites that I frequent. Based on the advertising, the movie looks suspect, but so did Office Space, and we all know how that turned out. What is annoying me today is the quote they’re using in the ads:


Haven’t we as a society become way too sophisticated for this kind of blatant fakery? Maybe you could get away with this in the early 2000s, but this is 2009 Miramax! Ain’t it Cool News posts reviews from nearly any idiot who goes to an early screening of a movie and writes them an email. In this case, it’s someone named McVicker, who as far as I can tell has never previously written in to AICN. Now, we can argue all day about the value and relative merits of professional film critics, but those people develop a body of work that you can use to compare to your own opinions, and you can start to figure out whether you’ll agree with a particular critic based on their past writing. This McVicker fellow gets his name from the principal in Beavis & Butthead. That’s all we know about this guy. And I’m supposed to get excited because a single pseudonym says this movie is his favorite comedy of 2009? And notice that in the ad the quote is attributed to “—Aint (sic) It Cool News,” with no author name. Is it because “—McVickers, Ain’t It Cool News” looks… ridiculous?

In general when you see a quote from AICN, you can assume that the movie is rubbish, because it has about as much meaning as a quote from Earl Dittman, or one of those “CBS-TV” local news people. And if a quote from a more reputable source could be found, they would use that instead. But since it’s a pre-release quote, and because I enjoy Mike Judge’s movies, I’m willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.

BAM and the Em Dash


Yes, I know BAM and the Em Dash sounds like a great title for a film, but this post is going to take a break from Obscure Topics in Film Editing and focus on Obscure Topics in Typography.

At least since I’ve lived in Brooklyn—and probably a lot longer—the Brooklyn Academy of Music has used an em dash (—) between dates rather than an en dash (–), which is the correct punctuation to use between dates. Every time I go there—or see one of their posters around the neighborhood—it drives me nuts. Three years ago I took the time to send a complaining e-mail to them. This was their response:

Hi Kyle,
Thanks for taking the time to study our ads in such detail.
We do intentionally use em-dashes even though we realize
that it is not technically grammatically correct.

The en dash is basically only used in ranges, so I guess they’re trying to drop it like an appendix. Apparently they think the em dash looks nicer, even though it clearly does not. It looks like a big ugly hunk of space that shouldn’t be there. Of course the bad kerning in the example above doesn’t help. Kudos to BAM for playing Eyes Wide Shut though!

Making Money With Short Films

About two years ago I wrote a post entitled Why Make Short Films? which has become one of the more popular posts on my blog. A lot has changed in those two years, and I want to write some more about what the average young filmmaker can expect when setting out to make films.

First off, unless you live in Europe, don’t expect anyone to give you money to make a short film. You and your friends will have to do this on your own. And yes, you need friends. You need talented people who will work for less than they’re worth, because you can’t afford to pay strangers the amount of money they deserve.

Keep the costs down as low as you can. Learn all you can about the camera options available. These days you can do amazing stuff with some cheap HD camcorders. Definitely shoot HD. DV is not acceptable. 720p is fine. It’s the default resolution of HD on the web. I used to be able to recommend cameras, but I just can’t keep up with it anymore. A very good Hollywood DP is planning to shoot a portion of a film I’m editing on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II; a DSLR still camera that also shoots HD. You probably can’t afford to pay your crew, but you must buy them meals. Having bagels and coffee on the set in the morning really raises morale, and lunch is essential. If you’re shooting late, order some pizza.

Edit the film yourself. It sounds strange coming from a professional editor, but anyone can edit a movie these days. The only cost should be your time. Again, do your research. If you shot 24p, learn everything about what that means for your workflow before you start shooting, and for God’s sake at least before you start editing. Cut it with whatever you feel comfortable using. I hear iMovie is incredibly full-featured these days, although I can barely make the thing work.

Once you’ve finished the movie, put it out every way you can. Don’t be a dope and hold back your premiere for fancy film festivals. Film festivals are 20th Century relics. Sundance isn’t going to show your short, and even if it is, nobody watches the shorts there unless a famous person is in one of them or was seen near the venue at the time of the screening. Apply to some local festivals, and some bigger names, but applying to every festival you can will cost you way too much money. I spent about $1000 sending Kalesius and Clotho to film festivals. It got me a few awards to put on the DVD box, but never any money.

Put it on YouTube. Get yourself enrolled in their Partner Program. I’m pulling in a few bucks a day with that. Put it on Vuze. It was a strange and unique set of events, but I made over $2000 from Vuze’s pre-roll ads in a single quarter last year. Since then I’ve made about a dollar a day. Try Revver. I made a few bucks from them a year ago, but haven’t seen any since then. Blip.tv supposedly has revenue sharing, but I haven’t seen any hits or cash from them at all. Make a DVD and sell it on your website. You can burn them yourself and print full-color discs with an awesome Epson R280. Or if you want to make less money but spend less time, use Createspace to get them on Amazon. I’ve sold one DVD of my collected short films. Try merchandising. T-shirts are the true heart of our economy. I have sold exactly no t-shirts of my own logo, but other films might lend themselves to catchphrases or funny graphics that fans would like to own.

At this point I have made back the cost of producing Two Night Stand, which I shot 4.5 years ago. Most of the cast and crew didn’t get any money, and I haven’t been paid for all the time I spent writing, directing, and editing the movie. That doesn’t exactly qualify as a raging success, but it’s more than I ever hoped for. The problem I’m having is that there is an insatiable desire out there for more and more content. I could make a lot more money if I continued to put out videos. Unfortunately I just can’t keep up the pace. If you can be prolific you are much more likely to build a steady fanbase who talk about and anticiapte your new films.

Seeing in Three Dimensions


As long as I can remember I’ve had a bad left eye. With both eyes open I can see just fine, but if I close my right eye I can’t read what I’m typing here. I’ve gone to several optometrists over the years, and they all told me if they corrected the left eye then I started seeing double, so I shouldn’t worry about it too much since I can read and edit movies just fine without glasses.

In December I finally went to an optometrist who made a real effort to correct the problem, Dr. Justin Bazan of Park Slope Eye. He came up with a prescription that seemed to work for me, but he wanted to make sure so he sent me to the University Optometric Center at SUNY. I went there yesterday and was subjected to a battery of tests by a large team of optometry students and doctors. Eventually they had me wear a pair of ridiculous mad scientist glasses with the prescription they had chosen.

Sitting down everything seemed normal. It was definitely sharper than normal, but nothing special. Then they had me walk around and I realized I haven’t really been seeing the world in three dimensions. I’ve been ignoring most of the input from one eye, and flattening everything out. I suspect that has something to do with why I was so bad at baseball. And I don’t want to read too much into this, but I wonder if the fact that movies have apparently looked as flat as the rest of the world to me is part of what drew me to movies in the first place. If they don’t look any less real than the real world that could make a real difference in the way I connect to flat images. It’s something to think about anyway. I’m curious to see how things change once I get my glasses (specialty lenses like mine take a little time) and can actually see in three dimensions all day. It’s very exciting.

My Particular Problems With The Academy Awards


It seems like nobody is happy with this year’s Academy Award nominations. I’m not happy either, but since I started making movies I can’t remember being happy with the Academy Awards. A lot of people are suggesting that not nominating The Dark Knight for Best Picture is a poor decision because it shows how out of touch the Academy is with mainstream America. I think The Dark Knight is a great film, but the idea that somehow an award for excellence should be determined by box office success is silly. Now, that is not to say that box office success doesn’t determine who gets nominated for these awards. Big, fancy, high-grossing films are the rule, rather than the exception, when it comes to best picture winners. But I think what gets me the most is that I’m supposed to care what all these people think.

In general I’m like a casual racist when it comes to the Academy. I know some of them personally, and I like the ones I know, but as a group I think they’re lazy and stupid and kidnap babies. I think it is a very good idea for the motion picture industry to give themselves awards for excellence. By all means, the Academy should get together and vote on their favorite movies every year. But I don’t want to hear about their decisions anymore. Excellence in art cannot be determined by popular vote. There are movies that I like, and there are movies that I don’t like. Sometimes my opinion aligns with the Academy and sometimes it doesn’t. But I don’t find their opinions instructive.

I might not care about what the Academy thinks of particular movies, but I do love to read film reviews. I read the New York Times and The AV Club regularly. I find them useful both before and after watching a film. Before I see a film, there’s the obvious benefit of being told whether a movie is worth seeing. I read those reviewers regularly enough to know how my taste aligns with them and sometimes even a negative review can indicate that I’ll enjoy a film if I happen to disagree with the reviewer’s general opinions. After seeing a film, a review can help me focus my thoughts about what did and didn’t work.

I liked Benjamin Button quite a bit more than most movie critics, even ones I respect a lot. The fact that a bunch of actors and filmmakers felt the same way doesn’t make the movie any better. A movie like Frozen River getting a couple Oscar nominations is not going to sway me from my opinion that I wouldn’t want to see a movie like that because I’ve seen enough movies like it already.

The Academy Awards can be a force for good. It can raise the profile of films that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks, but that’s not its usual mode. The usual Best Picture winner is something already sucessful, which doesn’t really need the extra exposure. A Best Documentary or Best Foreign Language award can definitely be a big boost, since those films have usually barely been released theatrically in the U.S. when they win, and it can seriously impact a small film’s success in a slow roll-out through art house theaters.

Luckily, I don’t have to watch the show this year because I’ll be out of the country, on vacation.

The Costs of Blu Ray

I’ve had an HDTV for almost two years now, and I’ve generally been content with the quality of HD television broadcasts and anamorphic DVDs. But when I saw I could get a Panasonic BMP-BD35 Blu-Ray player for only $250, I got myself an early Christmas present.

It arrived last night, and the first thing I tried was a blind A/B test of DVD playback. I hooked up the BD35 and my beloved Sony DVP-NS315 DVD player to the TV using component video cables. I saw almost no difference between them. The BD35 outputs 480p through component cables, and the 315 does 480i, but my Panasonic 9UK television does a great job removing 2:3 pulldown so the end result is basically the same.

It sounds like admitting I still watch VHS or something, but my TV is not even fully 720p. It’s 1024×720. I know, I know. It’s practically EDTV over here. It also doesn’t have an HDMI input, so I can’t test to see if the BD35’s upconverting is better than my television’s. I could get an HDMI input card, but on my Panasonic 9UK model plasma it can only do 1080i, not p, so I’m not that excited about spending over $100 to get something I can already do with component.

I don’t have any professionally produced Blu-Ray discs yet, so I tried burning my own. I don’t have a Blu-Ray burner or media, but I used Toast 9 to encode some of my own HD videos to AVCHD and burned it onto a DVD-R. It seems that most recently produced Blu-Ray players can read AVCHD encoded material from a DVD even though it’s not on a Blu-Ray disc. What I’ve seen so far is an increase in quality over SD DVD but I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly different. Of course there are a lot of variables in my experimentation so far. I don’t know anything about the relative quality of the Toast encoder. I do know it takes a long time to encode. It’s multi-threaded, so it’s pretty much maxing out all my cores, but it takes longer than almost any other kind of encoding I’ve done on this computer. My first tests were with DVCPRO HD 720p-originated footage, which at 960×720 is even lower resolution than my TV. Those didn’t show much difference from SD DVD at all. My 1920×1080 animated series (which originated as 12 megapixel stills) had a clearer increase in quality. The title graphics especially were much sharper. The US version I have will not play back video encoded at 1080p25, although I do get audio and a blank screen while it’s playing and a single tantalizing frame of video just as I hit stop.

Having a Blu-Ray player in my home got me excited about the possibility of producing Blu-Ray discs for films I work on. I looked into the manufacturing costs, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It’s about $4/disc to manufacture a short run of 1000. It’s not DVD-cheap, but it’s pretty good. However, the dirty little secret of Blu-Ray manufacturing is the dreaded AACS. DVDs had a quaint DRM system called CSS. It is still in use, but it was permanently broken nine years ago, and is absolutely no impedement for anyone who wants to make copies of DVDs. It costs money to add CSS to DVDs, and pretty much every large distributor still uses it. But the great thing about DVD is that CSS was optional. If I want to do a 1000-disc run of my short film, I only have to pay the manufacturer their fee, which has been subject to intense downward pressure over the years as competitors lowered their prices. Right now I could do it for about $1000.

AACS is mandatory for Blu-Ray. It is expensive. And it is not subject to price competition. If I want to make 1000 Blu Ray copies of my HD short film, I can pay someone like Pacific Disk a $500 setup fee plus $3850 for the manufacturing. That’s a perfectly reasonable price, and over the next year it’s pretty much guaranteed to go down. But before Pacific Disk can make any copies for me, I have to get a license from AACS. It costs $3000 just to get myself registered with them. Then I have to pay 4 cents per disc plus a $1000 order fulfillment fee, so $1040. There also seems to be a $1300 charge for a content certificate. In all it could cost more to get the AACS that I don’t even want than to actually manufacture the discs. That price could go down, or it could go up. AACS is the only game in town, so they can do whatever they want.

Basically in order to make Blu-Ray disc manufacturing economical you have to do huge runs. And that requires huge marketing budgets in order to get people to buy the huge number of discs filling up your warehouses. For now it looks like Blu-Ray will be dominated by the big studios who just happen to run AACS.

Why It’s Not OK to Repost Videos

Last week Two Night Stand was posted on Dailymotion without my permission and I had it taken down. Now this afternoon one of the founders of Ragtube.com posted three of my videos on Ragtube.com without my permission, then sent me a YouTube message to ask if it was OK. Of course it was not OK, but I checked out the site just to see if I wanted to post it there myself. It turned out they were showing overlay ads during the movies. Ads that would generate revenue for this guy, but not for me. Why would anyone think that was acceptable? I requested that the videos be taken down, although as of now they are still up.

Wow. I just created a user account to check out Ragtube some more, and it appears that rather than requiring you to go through the trouble of uploading a video yourself, you can just hit a button and Ragtube will steal it directly from YouTube. That’s a clear violation of YouTube’s terms of use. Videos on YouTube are “not intended to be copied, stored, permanently downloaded, or redistributed by the user. Accessing User Videos for any purpose or in any manner other than Streaming is expressly prohibited.” I can’t imagine this will last long.

It might seem like because I’ve posted a video for free in one place that I wouldn’t mind posting it in another place, but that is really not the case. Here, in no particular order are my reasons why it’s not OK to repost videos from one hosting site to another.

  1. It is illegal. This is a no-brainer, but it bears repeating. Posting a video for free on one site does not automatically grant other people the legal rights to redistribute your film. Not only are they violating the copyright of the author of the video, but they are also almost certainly violating the terms of use of the site they’re taking the video from. I might not have lawyers, but YouTube sure does.
  2. Credit is taken away. Sure, there are probably credits in the video itself, but if it’s posted by someone else then it dilutes the authorship. It’s hard enough to get people to pay attention to my films, I don’t want anyone else taking credit without doing any work.
  3. Loss of control. When someone else uploads your video, you can’t do Quality Control on the video and audio, moderate comments, modify metadata, or choose a thumbnail. These are important aspects of the presentation of the film, and make a real difference.
  4. No income. If there is any revenue generated by the video, it should go to the author, not to some random person who happened to like the movie.
  5. There are better options. I understand that usually the motivation behind the reposter is simply to share the video with others. But guess what, that’s what web video is all about. There are better ways to share the video that don’t break any of these rules. The obvious one is to embed the video rather than repost it. You can also write about it and link to the video. There is no shortage of video sharing options.

So anyway, even if your intentions are pure, please don’t repost my videos. Feel free to share them though.

Vuze Improves

I had some troubles with Vuze (the peer-to-peer-video part, not the excellent part formerly known as Azureus) in the past, but last week I used it to submit my entry for the OpenCut competition and I saw some real improvement. For some reason my video was not compatible with Vuze’s re-encoding software, so you can’t just hit play and have it start as it downloads. I think that’s because it’s 1080p, and as far as I can tell most of their HD stuff is 720p. But I’m not really sure. Either way, Vuze seems perfectly happy to keep my 280 MB QT file on their servers and send it to anyone who wants it. I uploaded Two Night Stand, and it was re-encoded by Vuze, and it seems like great quality.

To download the full version visit vuze.com

Vimeo still has them beat as far as I’m concerned. You don’t need special software to download or watch anything from Vimeo. Of course it remains to be seen if Vimeo can keep paying for all that bandwidth. Vuze gets to exploit its users’ bandwidth, which obviously saves a lot of money. But if the cable and telephone companies change their business models and start charging residential customers for their bandwidth usage you can be sure Vuze won’t be quite so attractive.