122. Don’t shave the day of production.

This one is getting specific.

I began growing a beard in 2005. I have shaved it once  since then for a 2007 Halloween costume.

In the upcoming film, As Dreamers Do, I am playing Roy Disney, who was not known for having a beard.

Since I have been attached to my facial hair for some time, I thought about shaving the day before it was required of me on set.

I decided against it, and the little Japanese flags dotting my face agreed it was a good call to shave a few days early as I imagined I would have become a cautionary tale (and annoyance) to our makeup department and director.

So the takeaway is thus: prepare for your role well in advance, including appearances.

A return to narrative.

Thought #1: I hope I remember the login for this blog…

Thought #2: Oh, good, it’s been saved. I’ll have to count the number of digits and guess at…never mind, just log in.

A lot has happened since the last blog post. Mostly documentary making, novel writing, and Kickstarter running/consulting. Oh, and I became a father.

Not much in the narrative vein aside from working on two TV pilots and two short films.

Since Greyscale was the “Ryan wears so many hats he is a hatrack” project, I was able to speak to most elements. While I’m not finished with sharing what I’ve learned from that watershed project (especially because it’s still ongoing with festivals and searching for distribution), I will have to narrow down my experience to personal lessons instead of coming off as criticizing any lessons learned on this new project that I’m about to launch into tomorrow.

The movie is called, As Dreamers Do, and it’s a biopic feature on the early years of Walt Disney before he left for LA and became the icon he is today.

The primary role I’ll be taking on is that of Assistant Director, which means I’ll have my fingers in just about every pie. I’ll also be taking 2 of the 15 shoot days and playing one of the major supporting roles as Roy Disney. It’ll be fun to get back in front of the lens, and I’m sure things will move much faster without me directing and acting full time.

I’ll talk more about the project as it progresses, but I don’t expect many updates until after we wrap since this is a consecutive shoot of 15 days instead of a nights and weekends endeavor.

Once again, we’re making a movie!

Getting Started #2: Story with a capital S.

Yesterday we went over needing to know Why you want to get into film.

Today I’d like to stress the importance of Story.  I’ve learned there are two aspects to every creative position involved in a film: The Proficiency of Craft and the Understanding of Story.

Proficiency of Craft takes time, experience, and research to hone, whether you’re a writer, director, DP, editor, actor, etc.  They each have their own paths of expertise, and while it’s beneficial to have at least a cursory knowledge in the other fields to hold an intelligent conversation with the people in those positions on set, your team will be the strongest when each person is working within their wheelhouse of Craft experience.

But.

The whole of the project benefits from the shared Understanding of Story on both the general principle level and the specific-to-the-project story.  The director’s job is to be the caretaker and the one to guide the Story, but the better every department knows Story the more cohesive the crew can act to give a focused finished product.

The lighting and appropriate lens usage, the editing and framing choices, the performances and score supplementation for the proper emotional balance… all work together to serve the singular Story of the piece, so the more educated each member of the team is in Story, the better off the project will be.

.:What is Story?

In short, Story is the Why of each project.  I won’t wade too deep into those depths or get too terribly philosophical because there are folks far more educated on the theory of Story and how that applies to our daily lives and our art.  But, for the sake of brevity I’ll distill the three areas a neophyte should focus on paying attention to.

1) Theme – Knowing the theme of the story will inform a lot of creative choices and let you know what the work is trying to say.

2) Structure - The vast majority of what you watch in theaters falls under a very similar structure, so when you see something that falls into the minority, something feels off, and unless you’ve studied the structure, you’ll probably not be certain why.  Warning: as with pulling back the veil on most every illusion, movies will by and large start feeling very formulaic, and you’ll note the theme being stated within the first 5 minutes, the inciting incident happening around 12 minutes in, and the first to second act change around 25-30 minutes in… but unless you want to make your work accidentally off-putting, it’s worth learning.

3) History – Study great films of the past.  I really recommend skipping the weak ones… not so much because the bad techniques might rub off on you (although they may), but you’ll recognize the general similarities between your work and theirs that inhabit making a film and despair for your own work… Study the greats (read that tidbid from Walter Murch).  Nothing is original.  Originality is just mashed up sources to an unrecognizable digest that’s processed through your experiences and setting.

.:How do I learn Story?

Read! I highly recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, and Story by Robert McKee.  The former is a digest and much easier to read through, the latter a textbook.

Watch! Continue your Netflix education.

Write and shoot! Nothing teaches you like hands on experience.  I don’t care if you’re using a camera phone and are acting things out with your dogs in place of characters from The Godfather (just don’t expect someone to color you brilliant after posting that to YouTube… post responsibly), learning from your mistakes is a big step forward, but there are many rookie gaffs that can be hurdled if you give due diligence for reading and watching before you set out… just don’t be afraid to set out because you don’t feel ready because you’ll never feel fully ready (and those that do feel fully ready aren’t letting themselves be stretched by projects).

Again, Story is deep, deep waters, but if you’re just starting out, these are some basics I feel pretty secure in saying is a good start.

Getting Started #1: Why?

I only have so many words in me daily, and since November they’ve been given to my first novel, so if you’ll forgive my lack of consistency with this blog, I’d like to share a new series of posts for anyone interested in getting started as a filmmaker (and yes, I know most of the lessons learned are by someone that was just starting out, but I’d like to cover the first basic steps).

Film is difficult to transition from hobby to vocation.  Many people are passionate about filmmaking, and the thing about passions are that they are usually the things you would pursue even if unpaid… which is a necessary precedent to start off with but one that’s incredibly hard to transition away from, especially if you’re wanting to continue to tell your stories.

A brief aside, I’ve learned the person with the funds is the one that picks what story to tell.

But let’s say you’re still firmly in hobby-land.  Film interests you greatly, and you’d love to make it your vocation.  How do you build a following?  How do you get invited on to other people’s sets?  How do you even make a film?

There is one crucial question you need to ask yourself before you take your first step:

Why?

Why do you want to make films?  There are plenty of filmmakers out there now that the cost of admission equipment-wise has plummeted.  I don’t bring that up to discourage, but more to stress the importance of knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Knowing why you’re pursuing film will help you find others like you with the same why that can compliment your skillset, effectively creating a family and crew that you need in order to get started.  Eventually when your Why leaks through your film, an audience has a better grasp of what the film is about and will click in and eventually become your most vocal supporters–your base.

It may be because you can’t imagine yourself working in a cubical farm for the rest of your life.  It may be because you see how much culture is shaped by media and you want to toss your voice into the cacophonous mix.  It may be because you just enjoy being on set and seeing a finished product come to fruition.  I don’t know, it’s your why.

If you aren’t sure what it is right now, I think that’s all right as long as you know to search out why you’re making film.  The one caution I can offer is that if your Why is because you want to become famous or boost yourself, you’re not going to stand out, nor are other people going to share interest the Why of You.

As this series continues, I’ll get more technical and how you can even make a film if it’s just you wearing every single hat on the simplest of projects.

 

For extra credit, check out Simon Sinek‘s brilliant TED talk that got me on the path of Why.

8 more lessons from running two successful Kickstarter campaigns.

After managing and/or running two successful Kickstarter campaigns back to back, I learned some lessons the hard way, and was delightfully intrigued by other quirks.  I’d like to share some of my newest lessons learned.

Lesson #1 – Get to know the 5 backers you’ll meet on Kickstarter.

1) Family/Close Friends with disposable income – These people will support you with sharing your project and with money, regardless of getting anything in return (some will even choose “No reward” just so you can make the most of it) just because you are the one behind the curtain.

2) People involved in the project – Some people who have given their time and effort will continue to do so monetarily because they still want to see the creative endeavor they have already invested in come to completion.  They want to see you succeed, but they also want to be able to point to something they worked on as a finished product.

3) 2nd Degree Backers - People that you don’t know, but know someone who pledged are a good metric that your campaign appeals beyond just your circle of friends and family… or that your friends and family have really loyal friends that will part with some money for your sake.  Generally it’s easier to pull in these types if your video is clever/entertaining and you have a product that they deem to be worth the donation level.

4) Kickstarter junkies – These are the people that you see that have the subheading “John Doe is backing XX other projects,” and they’ll find you based on searches for keywords (like Steampunk), when your project falls into the category “Recently Launched,” “Ending Soon,” or simply people searching “Fiction.”  The Dashboard will tell you how much you raised from Kickstarter clicks ($831 for The Wind Merchant/Greyscale), and external referrers like Facebook, E-mails, and Twitter ($3,415, or ~80%).

5) Bleeding Edge Buyers – If you have a product that is reasonably priced on the market or is a one-time opportunity, people like to have exclusive things or say that they’re a part of the first wave before anybody else has the product.  This usually works best if it’s an ingenious tech idea, the creator already has a platform of people to market to, the price is less than what the item will be when released, or the niche caters to something they care about and want to see succeed.

There could be more, but I think most backers safely fall within at least one of these categories.

Lesson #2 – What you are selling will drastically effect when and where you will receive support.

If you’re not selling something or are pricing things at a premium from what the market expects, you’re probably mostly going to cater to categories #1 and #2 above.  If your video is amazing you might get to #3 and #4, but pricing things more along the lines of what people expect will pull in #3-5 more handily.

For instance, I opted to support both segments.  I made the book available for $5 digitally, so anyone that wanted to read had a very low hurdle (even on their computer via .pdf if they didn’t have an eReader), and even tossed in some music from Leave Me (although I thought the millions of people who have watched and enjoyed the film would pull in more than a single $1 contribution for the sake of getting the score of the short film), but I’d also like to think that the strength of the short and the plea in the video caused those people to contribute more than $1.  I also priced a paperback at $25, signed (along with an audiobook which normally goes for more than a paperback).  Yes, $25 is a lot for a paperback book, and the people that backed it were people that would be willing to help me out if I asked them directly (I assume), but it’s personalized and a popular reward level on Kickstarter, so I got a decent number.

Overwhelmingly the most popular level was $50.  A hardback copy of the book with the donor’s name inside on the Thank You page… and it’s the only time I plan to ever print a run of hardbacks for my first book.  A limited edition.  Add that to all the other levels (replacing the paperback), and you’ve got something that might be worth something someday, isn’t available anywhere else, and won’t be available ever again… plus I tossed in my feature film as a thank you before it goes on the market, so I like to think that people were getting their money’s worth at this level.

The higher levels were people that either reeeeally wanted the artwork or had the money and wanted to push me further toward succeeding (all of the higher level donations of $100 or more happened before I met the goal).

Lesson #3 – Unless you are selling a product people really want, you’ll lose steam after meeting your goal.

I understand that I set out to raise $3,000.  I also understand that people will look at a campaign, see if it’s funded, and then decide you don’t need their help because you’ve met the goal… and the only reason someone would contribute beyond you meeting your goal is A) they want to support you a little more, or B) you have that unique product they want.

I also understand that people gave to see Greyscale completed, not to read a book by an unpublished author.  Greyscale was my platform, and the flattening of the line grew only slightly from people interested in Steampunk novels at a non-competitive price point, so I’m pretty sure I would have been in trouble if I had only banged the drum on the book and not brought the film into the equation (and probably would have even looked like I had given up on the film and moved onto book writing instead, which wouldn’t have sat well with everyone following me for the last 4 years… so I’m glad that wasn’t the case).  If I were an established author with a base of readers, I might have been able to pull it off, but it would have been difficult to get anyone more than my friends and family to support me.  The final uptick at the end was from asking for a few friends to post once more and showing up in the Kickstarter “Ending Soon” category, which adds a fun little amount of “this is your last shot to get something…” appeal.

Lesson #4 – Not everyone will pay.
A word of warning, some Kickstarter junkies back a ton of projects and then don’t come through when it comes to payment.  I fortunately only had 1 backer at the $25 level not pay, but a quick reminder that you won’t always get the full amount you expect from your donors.

Lesson #5 – All Survey questions are mandatory.
I didn’t read the fine print when I sent out the survey for information and asked a couple questions such as how they found out about the campaign beyond the usual questions (what address, do you want the book signed, etc).  I listed the questions as optional in the heading, but found out that all questions are mandatory.  I feel bad for forcing people to answer those questions, but you the reader get to benefit a little from the data I collected.

Lesson #6 – You can change things until it’s over.
It’s never too late to change your video or your updates.  You can add new backer levels, but once someone has pledged at that level, you can’t change it.  I thankfully read an update mentioning that you can change things on the main page until it’s over, so when you’re reaching the last day and you want people to be able to be directed to a homepage (like I bought www.TheWindMerchant.com), now people can google the phrase, find the old Kickstarter campaign since it has a higher search ranking currently, and then find the link to the main site easily.  If I hadn’t added that, I wouldn’t have been able to point people to the site easily from the Kickstarter page.

Lesson #7 – Videos matter.
A good video alone will get me to donate to a project.  But like with most YouTube video, I need to be hooked as soon as possible.  Production values matter, especially if I don’t have any ties to the project creators or even know the people that are friends with the creators.

Lesson #8 – Don’t give up, but don’t wait for the (assumed) point of no return to fix things.
Having backed 26 projects (3 active, 16 successful, 7 unsuccessful), there comes a point where a potential backer will look at project and see how much time is left to meet the goal and do some fuzzy math to guess if their pledge would be just a nice gesture or if they might actually contribute toward the project’s success.  My thoughts are to keep finding unique ways to make a project appealing if it’s plateaued before it gets to the assumed point of no return, by adding new backer levels, sweetening the pot somehow, or doing a new funny video and maybe posting it to Vimeo/YouTube with the link to the Kickstarter at the top of the details (because if people aren’t clicking on the Kickstarter link on Facebook after having seen it enough times, chances are they won’t click on the same link image again even if you’ve updated the info or video).

Finally, I’d like to make 3 points.  1) I think Kickstarter and crowdfunding is one of the many paths forward in cutting out the middleman and rewarding hardworking artists, but you have to either have a platform pre-built or a great idea that will spread in order to succeed.  2) I really don’t want to have to do a Kickstarter again for a long while unless I can offer a product for a reasonable market price.  3) I am incredibly grateful for everyone that participated in making The Wind Merchant & Greyscale‘s campaign a success, and I will not forget those people that took care of me when I needed the support.

I hope this helps you, and if anyone out there from Kickstarter is listening, I think a great feature would be to find what campaigns are being run by people on your Facebook friend list.  That way they wouldn’t need to post continually and can proactively search out friend’s projects to help out if they’re so inclined.

vcD,
-R