Monday, March 10, 2014

An Open Letter to Past Andy

(This is a CC blog that I wrote in 2011, but never posted. As we prep CC Phase II, I thought it might be a nice one to quietly send out into the world.)

Dear Andy from the past,

     Let me start by saying... Enjoy your hair. Grow your locks long and proud and let the ocean breeze blow them in slow motion across your face. I don't want to freak you out, but hair is not something that you and I share. Don't fret. Thanks to trailblazers like Jason Statham, Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel and more, people will confuse your follicle-challenges with toughness. It's not a bad trade. Now, hair be damned, you and I share something far more important and that is what I'm here to discuss with you. You and I are both film nerds. However, you are a better nerd than I.

     Over the years, our tastes will fluctuate (not to worry, we will always stand by our favorites), but our love for the medium will never falter. Eventually, we even end up in Los Angeles, pursuing our pipe dream along with other dreamers we'll meet along the way. While there are many things I'd love to give you advice about (don't let your first college girlfriend stay in her room alone with P & Sauce!), I'm writing today for one main purpose: I want to say that I'm sorry. I have lost some of your wide-eyed film awe.

     I, along with some colleagues, seem to have developed a hesitance to talk about non-glamorous gigs or long shot jobs for fear of being perceived as braggarts or egotists. Things that I know you would not only appreciate, but be fired up about (A good friend doing special fx for a big time, weekly cop show; Two friends having a script being packaged and sent out to the director of Hot Tub Time Machine*; A friend directing 2nd Unit on an HBO show; Working with Stephen Baldwin; Taking a class in the studio where Golden Girls was filmed) have somehow become old hat and aren't celebrated by myself or our fellow film nerds. Perhaps it's because of the way this business works. As you'll soon learn, many- if not most- film & TV projects almost happen, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. Maybe because of this, there seems to exist this perception that we need to display a layer of cool and not revel in small steps or successes. In honor of you and the enthusiasm I know you'd show for things like seeing the house from The Brady Bunch in person, I have decided to say, "Fuck that noise!" I will now strive to save the calm coolness for when I've had a full career or simply moved onto a more realistic occupation. In the meantime, I will congratulate loudly our friends who work on blockbuster animated films, champion friends' low-budget features, smile wildly when I spot celebrities and high-five anyone brave enough to deal with Judge Judy in any way.

     In an effort to shift this horseshit paradigm of "cool," you and your friends will start a club to inspire and support fellow film nerds. It will be a club aimed at reigniting a passion and excitement for the more detailed techniques and experimentation of film, not focused on the larger triumphs. I bet you're curious to know how they created the glorious clouds at the beginning of The Neverending Story, aren't you? Exploring nerdy curiosities like this is exactly what this Cinema Club is all about. Not only a place to learn the how of movie magic, CC is also a place to try techniques on your own. It's a place to nerd out harder than you've ever nerded out before.

     It is the love of the film craft itself that is most exciting to me. Not the money, not the peaks of a hoped-for career. If I can revive one thing in myself from you, Past Andy, it would be your childlike excitement at all things filmmaking. Fuck hair. I'll take film nerd over that any day.

Sincerely yours,
 Future Andy

* Yes, that's a real movie and no, you didn't write it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Aspects of Perspective

A very dry & nerdy blog analyzing the breakdown of the first major cinematographic choice made for "The Wine of Summer"

We have just completed our location scouting on the feature, "The Wine of Summer." We scouted all week, all day, everyday, starting from the moment my plane touched down. It was an amazing and exhausting one-week tour of city alleys, country mansions, beaches and cafes.

There are a million things I want to share with everyone, but in the interest of keeping a focused theme, I am going to concentrate on one singular subject in this post: Aspect Ratio.

(I'm realizing that I will  have very little time for anything outside of production, so I recommend you read this post very slowly, as I don't know when or if I'll be able to put up another one.)

I have been very fortunate that in the last two years I have had the opportunity to work closely with two very talented Directors* who share a common trait: When creative ideas are presented to them, they genuinely listen and consider, but they expect the presentational concepts to contain true substance and reasoning. Simply saying, "I just think it's cooler," will not suffice. My first major creative presentation to Maria was regarding the aspect ratio of her film.

Walking around Barcelona, I noticed that my neck was constantly stretching backwards and my camera was constantly turning to its side. The alleys and streets are narrow and the buildings generally at least five stories tall. As a tourist, I constantly wanted to see up to the tops of the buildings, as though it was the surface of the water and I was at the bottom of a pool. This was disconcerting to me, as all modern film formats stretch the image left and right, not up and down.

Before I bother Maria with any creative conversation, it is important to me that I am as informed on that subject as possible so I can offer objective pros and cons in addition to my own thoughts on the matter. She is juggling so many things as both a Director and Producer that I want her to able to focus on the essence of every decision and let the broader camera details fall to me. Regarding aspect ratio, I warned her far ahead of time that we would be having a conversation about it, but that I needed to do more preparatory work before we debated.  The aspect ratios I was considering were the three main choices:

1.78:1 (Generally known as 16x9)

1.85:1 (US & UK standard for theatrical distribution)

2.39:1 (Also known as 2.35:1 & 2.40:1; commonly referred to as "Anamorphic," though that term refers more specifically to the method of image compression [generally via the lenses] and not the actual aspect ratio)

I read up on the subject prior to leaving the US and once in Barcelona, I took relevant photos at some of our locations. I then took these photos into post and began cropping. I gathered some samples and began presenting to Maria. Personally I was leaning toward 2.39:1 (the widest of the options), but I was having trouble articulating why. It was important to me that I could rationalize it both to Maria and to myself as a support of the story.

I started showing her the options and something wasn't right. 1.85:1 looked better to her and even a little to me. 2.39:1 simply seemed to remove too much of the location's detail.
Below is a comparison (featuring our Locations Manager, Judit and our AD, Frankie) and you can see that 1.85:1 simply has more information:



Luckily our Production Designer (Jody Sekas) was there and pointed out that my crops were not accounting for adjusted framing. I was cropping each photo from the original still taken, not making any changes for how the frame would fall once I was actually shooting in each respective aspect ratio. I re-cropped and then it became more clear.

 1.85:1 (Adjusted)



Now you can see what you gain in 2.39:1, not what is lost. With this adjustment, the characters fit more comfortably within a space and have more breathing room. They are not boxed in. This leads me to the true deciding factor-- Characters in space.

As I mentioned early, I was concerned with the height of Barcelona's beauty. If I wanted to look up while walking the streets and alleys, wouldn't I want to frame our shots so the audience could look up as well? 

In short: No.

Locations are extremely important to Maria in this film. Our main character (James) finds himself drifting through Barcelona, intertwining himself in the lives of other artists while on a journey to find himself. I keep referring to him as "Dorothy in Oz" with Barcelona feeling magical, as fate is the main theme of the film. 

Visually,  "Stealing Beauty," "Midnight in Paris" and "Bright Star" are our main points of reference. In each of these the villa, the city of Paris and the summer home of Keats, respectively, are characters unto themselves. In our film, we have a villa that serves as one character, but the other "location character" is Barcelona itself. How do we make people feel as though they are on the journey with James?

Take a look at these two pictures:




This is my interpretation of these images:

In the top photo, you see some of the sky above and the ground below. You can see this Barcelona alley and you can see the gentleman walking in it. In that order. 

In the photo below it, you see the gentleman walking in an alley in Barcelona. You focus more on the the man himself and the buildings that he is passing than you do to the sky at the top. It feels more like you are following him, almost like you can reach out and touch the walls. Barcelona is about 2,000 years old and the buildings themselves have a unique texture. There are skies and alleys in every city, but walls like this are ridiculously rare. 

If we want you to focus on James and his experience in the city, then you should be at his level of the city. You should be grounded with him. The alleys that feel tight to James should feel tight to the audience. If he looks up, we can look up, but the audience's eyes should be focused on him and the parts of the city he can smell and touch. 

I believe strongly in the subconscious effect of the mise-en-scène. Composition, lighting, camera movement, color, etc. all have an effect on how people internalize what they see, whether they know it or not. This is one of the main reasons I love film so much. It is an exercise in the psychology of image design. Maria wrote a wonderful script that has a built-in feeling. My job, along with the Production Designer, Costume Designer, and other artists on the crew, is to create a visual language that supports the themes and emotions of that script, both overarching and moment-to-moment.

This is thus far my favorite shot from our scouts. Frankie (our AD) gives us his all.
There is, of course, no right or wrong with such things. We take an idea and we expound. This is simply me presenting to you the method I used to make one of the creative decisions on this film.

Your Spanish partner in film nerdiness,
- Capt. Andy

"There are no facts, only interpretations." - Nietzsche
* In 2010 I worked (not as DP) with Tracy Boyd, the 2nd Unit Director on "The Descendants" and currently with Maria Matteoli (as DP) on "The Wine of Summer."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Questions & Answers. Struggles & Cuddles.

Hey there, fellow film nerds. I leave this weekend for Spain to serve as cinematographer on director Maria Matteoli's film, "The Wine of Summer." While I'm sure that long days, stress, beauty & vino will all be plentiful, I'd like to report on some of my lessons along the way. I'm thinking of posting a blog about some of our experiences. We're shooting on the Epic on a tight schedule in a foreign country, so I assume there will be plenty to talk about.

I know it's difficult to think of these things ahead of time, but I would love if anyone has any questions, to incorporate them into these (theoretically) forthcoming blogs*. I'm not sure if I'll be posting these blogs to this site, or on the Red Epic forums, but wherever they may land, I'd like them to be helpful to as many folks as possible. So if you'd like to see some samples of lighting setups, hear about schedules, location scouts, etc., please send me an email ( and I'll do my best to post the most interesting things that I can. Or perhaps I'll just post pictures of the various alcohols I imbibe to decompress from each day. Either way, it will be useful information.

- Andy

* Disclaimer: Bearing in mind that I will likely be exhausted most of the time, I reserve the right to change my mind and never, ever write another blog again for as long as I live.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writers Are Corporations, My Friend

An Epilogue to the CC Champions Contract and Prologue to a new long-term Agreement with my closest business associate.

Champions Contract Epilogue:

Over the last several weeks, I submitted myself to a grand and dangerous experiment. You might have read about it here. Well, the deadline has passed and the results are in: The good news is that I reached my goal and do not owe Andy any money. The bad news is that Andy also reached his goal, so my gamble did not net me any financial gain. Of course, I kid – I am proud of the Captain. I am proud of myself. I am proud of us.

So where does that leave me? I now have a first draft of a new feature-length screenplay. Exciting, no? Well… it’s a piece of dog shit. 132 pages of total crappola (sic) and to read it you’d have to rip it out of my cold dead hands. Sloppy, clichéd, and tenuous -- at best. But, on the other hand, it’s 132 pages I did not have 6 weeks ago. Today I look at my new steaming pile of final draft courier ink-splattered bastard child -- ugly and crying and looking to me to save it. I consider flushing it down the toilet, quick and dirty. But I don’t do that, because… I’ve been here before. I know that I need to nourish the bastard, bathe the bastard -- raise him to be a good and proper little bastard who plays well with others. Because I know if I work on him enough, he can one day transform himself from a bastard to a Champion. This is the process.

The Champions Contract with Andy was indispensable to me. It wasn’t necessarily the threat of financial punishment that made it work – although that did help. No, the important thing was the partnership – the idea that we were both going through this together. It worked like this: Sometimes we’d meet together at a coffee shop and force each other to write. “Write, motherfucker, write!” we’d chant relentlessly, Deer Hunter style. “You make your father cry daily,” I’d whisper warmly in Andy’s ear if I caught him slacking. And so on. These antics did not help our standing at Lulu’s Café, but it did help us stay off the Internet-thing and stick to our work. When we weren’t writing side-by-side, I’d randomly receive a text-thing from Andy urging me that if I wasn’t writing, it was no thang – after all, the world needs more waiters or corporate desk-jockeys. That shit worked. Forest Gump voice: I was writing!

Prologue to Personal Agreement:

But what happens when Andy is no longer around to motivate me – when he becomes King of some obscure tribal island whose pygmy natives worship him and his relatively impressive manhood? Who will threaten me with a life of unfulfilled promise and stomach-churning regret when this scenario inevitably manifests? Why, my closest business partner, of course – myself.

Yes, I’ve decided to treat myself as I would my most valuable business partner. To me, this means putting a value on my daily work. Holding myself responsible when I don’t live up to the promises of my personal brand, but also rewarding myself when I live up to the company’s standards. When I don’t write anything for a day, I’m dragging down the business, but if I write 7 pages – I’ve held up my end of the bargain. At the end of the day, the question becomes: Am I the type of person I’d want to get into business with?

Let’s break it down into numbers: Say that each completed page is worth $1000 (if the average WGA minimum for a feature-length spec screenplay is around $100,000). That means if tomorrow I write 5 pages, I’m earning $5000 for the business. But, since these are first draft pages, let’s say they’re worth $100 per page. Still, that’s $500/day, $2500/week, $10,000/month, and $120,000/year. All of a sudden, by writing 5 pages every day, I’m making myself a 6-figure/year investment. This is how I run my business.

In accordance with my new business philosophy, I’ll even allot a moment to celebrate my efforts, when deserved. You know, just a few minutes when I can relax and smile and feel good about myself. This is important, too, because, as a writer, the vast majority of the work is bad work, embarrassing work, work that makes you doubt yourself completely. But, when I do manage to create a couple nice moments or string together a couple of good words or sentences, or… finish the first draft of a screenplay, it’s just as important to recognize that, to tell my partner – me: “Thanks for pulling your weight in this thing. I’m glad we’re partners.” And I’ll respond to me: “Yeah, thanks, whatevs.” But inside I’m beaming.

In sum, what works for The Onion Man might not work for you. But I would urge you to try making your own contract with a fellow CC Champion, even if that champion is just yourself.

Godspeed and write motherfucker, write!

- Onion Man

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Hello everyone!

I know that the last year has left you aching with anxiety, sweating in your sheets asking yourself: “When will Jacob be finished with the complete version of the Me and the Bears video that filled me with such joy during the maiden voyage of CC Cinema Club? When will he finally let us taste the fruits of his many months spent in pursuit of a lifelike post-apocalyptic stage for his nebbish cosmonaut?”

Sweat no more, the time is now:

So you see obvious differences: A tighter edit, color as opposed to black and white, a couple cool transitions, some car removal at the end, and the centerpiece: a new run cycle where there is actually stuff happening. All these things probably amounted to an extra 120 hours of work spread over the course of the last twelve months.

"120 hours," you ask yourself, "and that shit isn’t even 3d? Probably could have been way better if you ask me." No doubt. Half that time was spent cutting out the character because I didn’t shoot against a green screen and trying to motion capture real camera shake that was ultimately thrown away. The other half was spent following internet tutorials to teach me how to do pretty much everything you see in the frame, and then cobbling them together. But it’s done, and now I can move on. This is what I’ve realized while learning After Effects by just jumping into it: There’s a million ways to do everything, no one way is the right way, and in the end you stick with what you think looks best with the skills you have and the amount of time you’re willing to put into it. I think this is the case for everyone, even the pros.

So this is where I’m at now: it’s no longer about waiting for the right feeling and acting on it, or waiting for the elegant technique or solution to come along so the process is easy. It’s about jumping into it and doing it. Here’s the catch: once it’s done you have to be honest with yourself and truthfully appraise it, and then learn from your mistakes. Your mom will love it, your co-workers will like it, but you have to be the hardest on yourself or you will never progress.

I’ve encountered this most deeply in my cinematography abilities. I was blessed to have a chance to work with cinematographer extraordinaire Bobby Lam years ago on the “I don’t know” video that most of you have seen but talent does not pass through proximity. I’ve tried shooting my own projects from that point on mostly because these talented, working people are doing just that...working. I’ve received unparalleled support in the club from Kevin Rosen-Quan and Andy Rydzewski for the next two honest attempts I made at making videos: Perseus, and the soon to be released Faustine music video. Chris Hagerthy and William Mendoza certainly taught me invaluable lessons in post process and I’m still learning.

Perseus really threw me off because it was the first time it became clear to me how far behind I was, how much I let go when I blew my time at USC (see Kelly’s blog post for explanation). But I feel so fortunate to have my friends here to help me do these things that no reasonable person would spend their time helping with. So here’s the call to arms:

Let’s be honest with each other.

We need to start looking at we’re making and honestly appraising it without backstory, without the “you know, I didn’t have the best equipment or enough time to get it right” party line. These are the things we need to figure out: how do we get that equipment, how do we make that time...we’re adults now and we should consider our work just that, work.

We are not competing with each other, unless that’s what drives you and if that’s the case compete to your hearts content. I know full well that community thrives in this industry and we can all help each other by being open about what we think about each other’s work. Will it hurt sometimes? Guarantee it! But as Marcellus Wallace said: “That’s pride fuckin’ wit you.” So from now on let me know what you really think, I can take it.

So, I’m gearing up to do something big right now: a short script I finished early in the year that I want to do real, RED camera, wardrobe, know, like something you would actually want to sit down and watch. Sam Zvibleman: You’re an inspiration, you bucked up and and made your short and it looks real. That’s what we should demand from ourselves as well. Like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey details, sometimes the call to follow that journey is delayed by indecision for weeks, months, sometimes years. I certainly fall into the third category. But my path is clear now, and I know what needs to be done. Hopefully we can push forward on this path together.

Here’s the original Me and the Bears video if you want to compare:

Here’s Perseus in case you missed it. It makes no sense and the shitamatography is dreadful, but I love my miscarriages and children equally:

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Champion's Contract

Many of us in the 'arts' are familiar with the seductive powers of "Procrastination." She is a sultry enchantress whose grip is tight and fierce. Yesterday, while in her soft clutches, fellow CC'er Sam Zvibleman & I lounged in the sun and discussed the pros and (mostly) cons of pursuing a pipedream as a career. A major part of this talk centered around the problem of procrastination. Sam whipped out his writing tool and began to go to work. Below, I present to you the fruits of his loom:

For those of you who can't read Sam's writing, here's the summary: By August 7th, Sam and I owe each other an 87 page (the shortest reasonable feature) screenplay. It will not be read or judged. It's main purpose is to be a vomit draft. The only goal here is to meet a deadline. For every page under 87 that we provide, we owe the other person $10. As of last night, I owe Sam $790.

We would like to invite any and all of you to form your own Champion's Contracts (or join ours) and face your fears by threatening yourselves with financial punishment. After all, what is art without suffering?

- Andy