Filming the holidays with iMovie trailers

21-Dec-11 11:35 AM by
Filed under Potpourri, Trailers; Comments Off on Filming the holidays with iMovie trailers

When I first saw Apple's iMovie '11 demonstrated, I knew I had to have it. Even though I don't do much video editing, I had to play with this edition of the popular movie-making software's exciting new feature: a trailer-making workflow. By choosing a film genre and dragging and dropping predefined types of shots (wide, group, action), anyone could effortlessly make a coming attraction for the movie of their lives.

My first outing with this functionality was a promotional video for an annual fundraising event. Since the fundraiser had already been held by the time I got my hands on iMovie, I didn't have any footage of my own to work with. I instead downloaded existing YouTube videos and recut them for my purpose, using the "sports" genre of film. When I showed the final product to the original videographer, she responded, "I just saw your movie trailer and I LOVE IT!!  You created a great, professional quality, energetic piece. I might bug you to do this again with what we['ll shoot next year]!"

My most recent trailer is the only one I've shot for fun. On June 12, 2011, two friends joined me in my annual ascent of Mount Monadnock, the world's most-climbed mountain. It was a last-second impulse to bring my video camera, a Kodak Zi8, and I got several candid and staged shots throughout the state park. I originally tried casting it as a horror film, but in the end, it worked best as an adventure.

But the trailer that was most meaningful is the one I made as a gift. I spent Christmas 2010 with friends, and I wanted to show my appreciation for letting me into their home to share this special holiday. Over the course of a week and as innocuously as possible, I shot several clips of B-roll. Most of them were no longer than five seconds, though one, a Christmas pageant, was fifteen minutes. Altogether, I ended up with about thirty minutes of film, which I whittled down to a brief trailer.

When I debuted a rough cut to the friends, they were extremely moved, immediately wanting to watch it again — and again — and again! They shared it with everyone in their immediate and extended family, and I could tell from my online analytics that the video was viewed every day for at least a month. As its audience was not computer savvy, they had no idea that the quality of what they were seeing wasn't the result of me being a professional video editor. Thanks to iMovie, I was able to keep my secret!

Just in time for me to re-create this gift for my own family this year, Vimeo, my video-hosting service of choice, has offered these tips for shooting great holiday video. Their suggestions are simple yet effective and will give you plenty of grist for later editing.

Happy holiday filming!

Summer Shorts: The Life and Death of a Pumpkin

23-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
Filed under Films; 1 comment.

Few actors and directors are talented at multiple genres. Michael Bay, for example, is known for directing explosive action films that lately have not been very good; conversely, James Cameron was as skilled at the character-driven science fiction of Terminator 2 as he was the sappy romance of Titanic.

For this reason and others, it is often effective for a person or team to choose a speciality to focus on and master, building a reputation for quality in their chosen field. But from a creative perspective, such dedication can be boring, and the temptation to flex one's artistic muscles is ever-present. Still, I never expected the creators of the ludicrously funny Star Wars satire series Chad Vader to investigate the horror genre, resulting in the excellent Life and Death of a Pumpkin:

This film won multiple awards at the Chicago Horror Film Festival in October 2006, a timeline that places the short's airing at around the same time Chad Vader made his own debut. I'm guessing Blame Society Productions, the team behind both shows, was at the time experimenting to find their niche and eventually settled on the comedic styles of the imperial day shift manager. But the above short demonstrates their talent at a diverse range of cinematic stylings. The macabre perspective, tremulous voice, and bittersweet climax remind me of another award-winning horror short, Unloved, which has also been featured here on Showbits. Among those qualities is the occasional effort at injecting Blame Society's trademark humor into the pumpkin's monologue, suggesting that the film is not meant to be taken seriously — yet it works whether you view it as as genuine and satirical horror.

Who are some of the actors or directors that you have found to be as effective as Blame Society at crossing genres?

To Die a Funny Death

21-Oct-09 4:35 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on To Die a Funny Death

I don't particularly care for horror films, as they often call for something disturbing to happen to a protagonist I'm supposed to care about. What sort of sadism would lead somebody to enjoy such a film?

Science has the answer. According to a recent article, "Horror film gene that makes some scream while others laugh", it's a matter of brain chemistry. The COMT gene weakens our ability to control our emotions: the more copies of the gene you have, the less your restraint, and the more affected you are by unpleasant pictures. In the study, participants with just one COMT gene (which is about half the population) "were able to keep their emotions in check far more readily", while just one COMT gene predisposed viewers to be "significantly more startled by frightening images than others."

The article doesn't live up to its headline before closing by saying other variables influence the situation — which seems obvious to me, and not on a neurochemical level. The horror genre features ample entrails and other viscera, and some moviemakers mistakenly use this visual device as a substitute for plot, tension, character development, and depth. As a result, we're presented with elementary storytelling awash in senseless violence, all masquerading as a horror film. For some people, likely reactions to such cinematic sludge are boredom or nausea; for others, it's laughter. The film may not have been designed to be a comedy, but it inadvertently is, and we can't help but derisively observe by how far the filmmakers missed their target.

Need proof? The Internet Movie Database classifies Manos: The Hands of Fate as horror. This representative of the genre is #9 on the IMDb's Worst 100 Films, voted there as a result of its popularity from being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Anyone who's ever seen Manos knows there's nothing to fear here.

Good comedy is hard to do; so is good horror. A failure at one can result in a success at the other — so long as you have the genes to appreciate it.

So Bad It's Worse

Star Trek: The Motion Comic

05-Sep-09 1:00 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Three years ago, I reported that a new Star Trek animated series was in the works. No news on the project has since crossed my radar, leading me to assume that JJ Abrams' reboot of the series led to a reprioritization of studio projects. Novelist Dayton Ward recently confirmed the cartoon's status and provided links not only to more details, but also to a sample script and an author's commentary podcast.

Though I wasn't eager to have the series leapfrog 150 years, I'm not sure I like the path the known Star Trek universe is taking, either. What I was looking forward to was a new animated series. I think the successes of Pixar and DreamWorks have done much to diminish the perception of animation as an immature medium, and I'd like to see how the changes in technology and culture in the thirty years since Trek's last animated outing would affect the series.

Once again, Dayton Ward to the rescue. A few years ago, I hired artist Tom Vilot to turn a photograph into a painting; I was very pleased with the results. Another artist has now taken the similar approach of starting with a live-action still and drawing over it to produce this fan creation — Star Trek: The Motion Comic:

Converting a popular franchise from live action to still life was also the unique approach that gave us Bored of the Rings, and crossovers such as implied by the above video's end are also nothing new: Predator, Batman, Robocop, and others have all crossed paths at one time or another. But sometimes, it's the original application of an existing idea that leads to success. Star Trek: The Motion Comic is a dramatic (if occasionally stilted) work that reminds me a bit of digital comic books that were available for PCs, back when the shiny CD-ROM was still new andswa attracting publishers with its multimedia potential. I'm almost hesitant to see the promised continuation to this crossover coalesce, as horror doesn't seem like a good fit for this crew or genre. Still, I hope the inspired artist does create more episodes — though given the four months he says it took him to create this eight-minute clip, I wouldn't blame him if he doesn't.

In what other crossovers or media would you like to see Star Trek appear?

Play Misty For Me

17-Apr-08 3:19 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

I read Stephen King's The Mist concurrent with its adaptation playing in theaters. I was hoping to go right from one to the next, but the movie's cinematic stay was brief, delaying me until last month's DVD release.

I am not normally a fan of Stephen King, but I was eager to see film based on its similarities to one of my favorite video game franchises, Silent Hill. I hoped The Mist would meet the expectations that the mediocre film adaptation of Silent Hill left unfulfilled. Both properties are about normal people who suddenly find their world encroached upon by another — a dark, murky dimension filled with unspeakable horrors. Indeed, the same siren terrifingly heralds hell's transition, and the scene in which a Mist monster first broaches the survivors' safe harbor almost perfectly parallels a similar introduction in the first Silent Hill game.

Laurie Holden in Silent Hill Laurie Holden in The Mist
Actress Laurie Holden, having patrolled the streets of Silent Hill,
retired from the force to teach in Maine, bringing The Mist with her.

But director Frank Darabont commented that "The story is less about the monsters outside than about the monsters inside, the people you're stuck with, your friends and neighbors breaking under the strain." The internal politics of the townspeople stranded in a grocery store enveloped in mist are certainly the film's focus. The characters in the movie are more distinct than their literary counterparts, with unique personalities and backgrounds. It's easy to understand the different reactions each has to the crisis: fear, anger, disbelief, action. It makes me wonder: how would I respond to such a threat?

The Mist

One brave, stupid man walks into the mist. Guess how much of him walks out.

A store clerk posits that it was to impose order on such chaos that religion and politics were invented. Mrs. Carmody manifests that power when she founds her own cult within the store, quickly gaining disciples seeking salvation. A friend of mine interpreted this portrayal as an anti-religion subtext, but I didn't see it. Though Carmody's cult is extreme and violent, we the audience are given no reason to question the effectiveness of her methods in these desperate times. Does she offer salvation by coincidence, or, were the situation to persist, would we see her religion prove true? The answer seems clearer in the book, whereas the movie leaves the audience with more questions.

There were two more concrete elements from the book that didn't make the cut: one, Mr. Drayton and Mrs. Dumfries deal with their desperation in a rather intimate way; and two, the different experiences of the grocery store inhabitants and those of the pharmacy are explained. Given that the original Mist was a novella (halfway between a novel and a short story), the level of detail that was preserved in translating the story to film is admirable compared to similar efforts involving longer texts, so I assume these two aspects were cut by directorial mandate and not the confines of the medium. Neither thread was critical to the overall plot, but both would've offered something substantial to the film's development.

Silent Hill

The Silent Hill game and movie came out in 1999 and 2006, respectively.
The Mist bookends them with a novella and film in 1980 and 2007.

By contrast, two other aspects were introduced. Neither the nature of the mist nor the role of the military were confirmed in the book, left to the speculation of both the characters and the audience; but in the movie, they're more substantiated. There is also a completely new ending, which I suspected would be the case, as the book's final chapter was too open-ended to offer the typical moviegoer the closure he expects. I found the film's conclusion predictable yet disturbing — and consistent with how King treats his protagonists.

The Mist was a good film with some nice character moments, clever nuances, and unsettling effects. Having already read The Mist made for an odd experience of seeing the movie for the first time and yet knowing what's going to happen. Some scenes that were intended to be scary I instead found myself laughing at, though I admit it may've been a nervous laughter. Though the source material is always better, I'm unsure that means it should come first. By watching a movie first, I've ruined half of the more detailed book, whereas a book ruins all of a movie. A novella like The Mist may not follow those rules, but I know there will never be a perfect way to experience the same story a second time, even in a new medium.

Legends of the Fall

08-Jun-07 3:09 PM by
Filed under Films; 3 comments.

I don't often watch trailers of films I've never heard of (self-defeating, I know), but something about the title of I Am Legend struck me as familiar, so I loaded the preview of Will Smith's latest film. It's about the supposed last man on Earth, wandering a desolate New York City. Oh, but wait — "he's not alone".

So it's a horror flick. Yawn. I was hoping for something a bit more sci-fi and culturally declarative, like last year's Children of Men (not that I saw it, but great concept). Except for vaguely resembling Y: The Last Man (why can't they make a movie of THAT?), I don't know why I was drawn to this trailer.

Some cursory sleuthing revealed the answer: the movie is based on a book by Richard Matheson. Aha! Mr. Matheson has written several other books that were adapted to films: What Dreams May Come, Bid Time Return, and Stir of Echoes among them. I've read the former two books and consistently showed the second's film adaptation — Somewhere in Time, starring Jane Seymour and my hero, Christopher Reeve — in the film studies course I used to teach. Considering the poetic, romantic, philosophical themes of those two titles, I'm surprised to discover Mr. Matheson wrote horror as well — though given that the main character of I Am Legend spends most of the book alone, I suspect this novel, like his others, lends itself well to a first-person, introspective narrative. I've not read the book, but I'm interested in seeing how well the author, style, and genre translate to the silver screen, considering what I consider to be his past successes.

See also: Reinventing the Reel comments