Long Tail markets emerge when the cost of production and distribution fall dramatically. Digital production and distribution did that for music five years ago and they're doing it for amateur video now, thanks to camcorders and YouTube. But what about classic filmed drama, from the TV serial to movies? You can shoot digitally and save on the film stock and processing, but surely the cost of sets, lighting and camera equipment is pretty much what it's always been, right?
Wrong. Kevin Kelly reviews a book of fascinating how-to tips on cheap filmmaking in his latest Cool Tools. Combined with the new low-cost distribution channels, from DVD to digital downloads, all you now need to be a filmmaker is talent.
[UPDATE: Scott Kirsner remindes me that he's got a good resource page for Long Tail video makers who want to get paid.]
(The below is from the email version of CoolTools; it isn't on the website yet. I'm not going to put it all in a quote-indent so it's easier to read, but from here on the post is all Kevin):
"The DV Rebel's Guide", Stu Maschwitz, 2006, 360 pages, $30: Available from Amazon
I don't think many people realize how often "stolen" shots wind up in big-budget productions. Many famous commercial directors have their own small 35mm camera packages for augmenting their million-dollar shoots. In my days at Industrial Light & Magic, I worked on a Pepsi commercial where shots nabbed without permits out of the back of a van were intercut with state-of-the-art visual effects.
Grip Alfred Wentzel pushes camera operator Sunel Haasbroek, wielding a Silicone Imaging camera, for the film Spoon. Photo provided by the film's directors, Sharlto Copely and Simon Hansen.
The Pickup Truck Loophole
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV, but I do remember one bit of legal advice that I've put to use a few times. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have a definition of what kind of shooting requires a permit. If you want to shoot on public streets or sidewalks, you will need a permit if you "put down sticks," which is to say, set up a tripod. As soon as you plop a piece of gear on city property, they want you to go legit with the paperwork.
One popular workaround for this is to eschew the sticks and shoot handheld. Reasonable, but not always conducive to the production value we're trying to exude. A much cooler solution is to set up your tripod in the back of a pickup truck. This is an amazing trick because it give you both a tripod and a dolly. You can actually drive down the street and get a real classy tracking shot following your talent, all without asking permission.
Time is your greatest advantage over the Hollywood big boys. If they want it to rain, they rent rain towers at hundreds of dollars per day and make it rain on the day they need it to. A week later it rains for real and they lose a day or move to a cover set. You just wait for the rain and shoot on that day -- and your free rain looks way better than their million-dollar rain! The DV Rebel melts down time and re-forms it into production value.
What's amazing about filling a room with smoke is that in person it seems so stupid and obvious. But look through your viewfinder and something magical happens. Through your camera, you don't see smoke. You just see a scene that looks more like a movie. Smoke is one of those dirty tricks that really works. It makes things seem larger than life. It gives your images depth. It gives light a physical presence in your film. And perhaps surprisingly, smoke can actually light your scene for you.
When the fire alarm goes off, that's just about the right amount of smoke to enhance your production value.
Watch that scene now. It's a solid scene, very well directed with a flair that would later become Besson's trademark.
You could never shoot this scene.
But now watch it again, and try this: Don't watch the scene, watch the individual shots. Pause the DVD on each one, and ask yourself this question: Could I create this shot? This less-than-two-second little snippet in time? Could I figure out a way to shoot that with my little DV camera?
The answer is yes (or it will be after you finish this book) for all but maybe a few of the most pyrotechnic-intensive shots. No single shot in the scene is so elaborate that you couldn't dream up a way to create it. And if you can create the shots, you can create the scene.
When the actor showed up promptly at two in the morning and we were exactly on schedule and ready for him to work, I realized that while we may be rebellious about many things (we had, after all, broken into the building in which we were shooting a gunfight scene using realistic looking plastic guns!), the schedule of the shoot day is not one of them. You own your cast and crew the respect of their time, and you'll make a much better movie if get all your shots in the can before the sun comes up.
Be a Rebel, Not a Jerk
If you're going to be impacting people's lives by blocking traffic or lighting assorted things on fire, get permission. But if you aren't hurting anyone, then make your movie by any means necessary.
The DV Rebel cannot pass a glass elevator, or an open-air escalator, or a tire swing, without pondering how it might be used to create a smooth establishing shot. I once made a dolly shot in an airport by resting my camera on the rail of a moving pedestrian walkway. If you can ride it, it's a dolly. If you can ride it up and down, it's a crane.