Lesson 2 – Action!
Hi boys ‘n girls! This here is the second installment of free film school. In this lesson, we’re going to deal with what is probably the single most important thing to making you a successful filmmaker; actually getting off of your duff, picking up a camera and just doing it! AltaDefinizione
Matter of fact, if you already have a camera of some sort, why don’t you take a little break and go out and shoot something. Go ahead! I’ll still be here when you get back. Then we can talk story some more, but right now, go shoot!
Okay, you’re back. Wasn’t that fun? That’s the best reason for doing anything, you know? Having Fun. Matter of fact, that is the secret formula; Fun equals Success!….but, there I go jumping ahead again.
You know there are so many worn out old quotes about motivation, but some of them are actually true. Woody Allen said: “80% of success is just showing up”. There are so many wannabe filmmakers who think about it, talk about it, read about it, dream about it, write about it… but they never actually do it! They never show up for that first shoot.
The longest journey begins with a single step, and the most successful filmmaker must begin with shooting his first film or video. Today with high-definition cameras even in smart-phones, there’s really no reason why anyone who wants to do it, can’t make a movie. It all boils down to; do you really, really, really want be a filmmaker? Yes, you do? OK, Why? What is your motivation? I’ll give you a hint for the best reason there is; starts with an “F”… and ends with an “N”… the only thing missing is U! Corny, huh? I know. Well, this film school is free, but you will have to pay the price of having to put up with my lame sense of humor and godawful puns. Still cheap.
So today, I want to relate the reason why I began making films. I figure if I explain to you how a guy who never even picked up a video camera in his whole life suddenly decided to make a film that went on to sell enough to, not only recover production costs, but to generate a steady income stream and continue selling all over the world, maybe that will inspire you to do the same. I almost entitled this segment of free film school “How I Did It”. I’m specifically thinking about that scene in Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder finds a book in his grandfather’s library. I love me some Mel Brooks movies! I figure “Action!” is more appropriate for film school to encourage folks to simply take that first step… so, ACTION!
I got started in digital video production in a very strange way. Not really because I wanted to, I was ordered to. You see, I was managing a few restaurants in Waikiki as Director of Operations. One day,. the owner of the restaurants, my boss, told me to make a TV commercial. He wanted me to hang a large flat screen TV at the front entrance of the restaurant and run a commercial on it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He also told me to get it done as fast as I could and, oh yeah, don’t spend too much money!
Well, I had never made a commercial before, but I knew someone who produced a documentary on the Waikiki Beach boys and I knew he could film and edit. So, I called Eric Jordan, the talented producer, cameraman, and editor of “Waikiki; Riding the Waves of Change” and of the soon to be released documentary, “Paving the Wave” Eric is also one heck of a nice guy. Eric lives in Yuba City, California, but he just happened to be coming over to Hawaii in a couple weeks.
Eric listened to me and agreed to film and to edit the commercial for a reasonable price. I was happy. My over bearing boss would be off my back. I could relax. Then Eric said those fateful words “but you have to write the script and direct it. You can send me the script by email”.
Well, I had never written a script before, but I went ahead and started writing one. I just wrote what I thought the camera should see, step by step. I tried to give specific directions on paper for how the camera should move in or move out, fade in or fade out, and sent it to Eric by email. Now, of course, I did not have a clue about traditional script format, or that I should be using courier font, or really, any kind of clue at all. I just knew what I wanted the commercial to look like and I put it down on paper. Sometimes ignorance can be a plus. You don’t know how you’re “supposed” to do something, so you just go ahead and do it!
Eric read the script and he liked it, so we set up the shoot. The day before the shoot, the owner gave me his input “I want you to show a close-up shot of the lobster tank and have a waiter dipping live lobsters out of the tank!”
Well, that would have been all fine and dandy, except the cheap bastard I worked for had a grungy looking lobster tank 20 years old. It was tucked in the corner of a dim and dingy waiter station, all built up with crusted salt. The damn thing didn’t look at all appealing in real life. It definitely would not look good as a close-up on a big screen TV!
I told Eric what the owner wanted and I said “Eric, we can’t do this, that firkin’ thing is nasty, but I have an idea for something that will show we have live lobsters, and it will give the video a sense of place for all the tourists!” The day of the shoot, we took a big bucket of salt water and put two huge lobsters in it. We walked down to the beach and gave them to Fritz, a handsome Waikiki surf instructor. “Fritz”, I said “if you help me out, you can keep them both and treat your girlfriend to a lobster dinner tonight when you get off work.”
Fritz put on my mask and snorkel, waded out from the beach, dunked under the water and we filmed him several times, coming up out of the ocean with two live and kicking Maine lobsters in his hands, big smile on his face. During the shoot we had some outtakes of Fritz cavorting around like a school kid with those poor crustaceans. He was waving them around, and making fun of his co-workers. He shouted “This is my friend, Lumpy and this is my friend Bruce!” The fact that we we’re all laughing and playing around made the whole thing seem, not like work, but just like having fun at the beach.
Eric and I shot some more typical Hawaii shots of palm trees and canoes (Eric referred to these as “B-Roll Shots”), then we went back to the restaurant and shot the chef chopping veggies, flipping food around in a skillet with flames, and some shots of happy customers at a table. Everyone had fun with this shoot too. I held two shop lights for Eric and watched him with his camera work while we were in the kitchen. Eric said the incandesent bulbs would add more warmth than than just the flourescents in the kitchen ceiling. He was right. At the end of the shoot I could not believe how incredibly happy I was. It was really fun for me to do something other than waiter schedules, inventory, schmoozing customers, overseeing cooks, and schlepping grub.
Eric and I passed the footage back and forth by email and he edited the commercial according to my direction. A couple weeks later, Eric sent me the DVD. I popped it in the DVD player for the TV that I had mounted and started playing it at the entrance of the restaurant. I was amazed at the production quality that we had achieved with one digital video camera, non-professional talent, and ordinary shop lights! Folks walking by the restaurant stopped in their tracks and watched the whole thing. Many of them came inside to dine. It played over and over in a loop and business increased by 30% overnight!
My boss was so happy with the results, he told me to make another commercial for our other restaurant down the street and mount a large flat screen TV outside that entrance too. I called Eric and he told me the same thing “Well, I’m actually coming over to Honolulu again soon. Sure, I’ll do it, but you have to write a script and direct it again. By the way, I really liked the way the last shoot worked out so well, you’re pretty good at this!” I had to admit too, I was having great fun writing and directing.
I was like Frankenstein’s Monster with a big huge smile on his green face when he discovers fire: “Arrgggh, Creativity GOOD!”
The next commercial we made came out looking equally impressive. This time, I started picking Eric’s brain a little more about his camera work, about video editing, and about his experiences as filmmaker. I didn’t really know it, but the film bug had just bitten me. I knew I was having a blast, but I didn’t know that I was hooked.
About this time, I began to experience some burnout and disillusionment with my chosen career as restaurant manager. I had been working 6 days a week, working every holiday, working late nights for over twenty years. I was usually on call by phone 24/7. I was constantly used and abused by a megalomaniac restaurant owner who didn’t seem to give a rodent’s derriere how many millions of dollars I had made him. He would call me late at night, waking me up from a dead sleep, just to tell me to do something that had just popped into his head. Something he could just have easily sent me an email about, or called me in the morning. Final straw? He even tried to get me to do his son’s school homework report!
One day, while waiting for some menus to finish printing at Kinko’s, I started reading a book on sale by the counter to kill some time. It was written by a guy named Timothy Ferris. The book was called “The Four Hour Work Week” and it really put things in perspective for me. It made me question exactly why I was busting’ my hump for someone else, when I should be trying to maximize my own gain. It made me realize that I had been sacrificing any quality of life for quite some time. Here I was living in Hawaii, but when did I have time off to enjoy the beach? When I did get a day off, or took a few days off for “vacation”, I was still chained to the cell phone. My over-all salary looked pretty good, but when I averaged it out per hour, I barely made minimum wage! My blood pressure was through the roof, I was pissed off most of the time, and when I got home, I knew I wasn’t much fun for my wonderful wife, Jayne.