h1

The Division of Labor vs “Chaos Reigns”

January 1, 2010

In any hierarchical or corporate structure, the division of labor is integral to the successful completion of any project or ongoing operation. The division of labor is defined by the assignment of specific job expectations to specific individuals (not to “teams”, but to actual humans). Good management properly divides labor to insure the best quality outcome.


The self-cannibalizing talking fox from Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST

Worst Practices
Without division of labor, there is no organization. Team members run around, chaotically plugging holes in the dike, or inordinate amounts of work are piled on a few unlucky individuals, while the others spin their wheels on meaningless tasks, or do nothing at all. In either case, the quality of the work suffers, and everyone goes home unhappy.

Some indicators of a poor division of labor in an organization may include the following:

  • People don’t know whose job is whose, including their own.
  • Things frequently don’t get done, or “fall through the cracks”.
  • A key individual leaves the team, and all productivity halts.
  • People are often angry or resentful.
  • People quit a lot.

Every situation is different, and most organizations require at least a modicum – if not a significant amount – of flexibility. People get sick, people drop dead, situations change, the show must go on. That said, even an Act of God is no excuse for an unfair distribution of work. Even the most laissez-faire anarchist knows it’s not fun trying to get a difficult job done in a disorderly environment. Most experienced managers will agree that the morale of an organization’s workforce is absolutely key in maintaining productivity, getting things done right, and preventing attrition of valuable human resources.

The Benevolent Dictatorship
In many ways, making an independent film is exactly the same as running a corporation. Only, its a corporation where everyone works very long hours, for little or no money at all. Such a proposition begs two important questions:

Question 1: Why are people working on my movie if I’m paying them nothing or nearly nothing?

Question 2: If everyone is working for nothing, why would I want to impose a strict management style – won’t they resent me for it and quit?

The simple fact is that in the context of a labor of love such as indie film, the division of labor is your greatest tool in maintaining high morale, because it maintains productivity. Productivity means the movie is getting done, which is why your people are involved in the first place. If the production is inefficient, or gets bogged down in nonsense, the movie stalls, and morale is damaged.

Why are people working on your film for nothing? Because they want the movie to exist. With this in mind, the greatest gift to the independent film cast and crew, is the film’s completion – with as few compromises as possible.

Won’t the crew resent being told what to do and mutiny? Not only will they not resent it, they will appreciate it and work all the harder. Not designating tasks, or allowing individuals to designate their own tasks, is to invite chaos. Chaos can only hurt your chances of getting the film done and done right. People want to know what needs to be done, get it done, and go home feeling they did a good days work. What people don’t want, is to guess what needs to be done, or be obligated to figure it out for themselves. This type of unstructured approach has no place on a film set, where everyone is under the gun at all times.

It’s for this reason, the definition of job expectations and the fair the division of labor should be enforced with an iron fist of benevolent dictatorship. That’s not to say you should be a dick to people – you shouldn’t. But you should not shy away from telling people exactly what to do, what not to do, and make sure they stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll get what you paid for, which probably ranges anywhere from ‘nothing’ to ‘not much’.

Creative Veto
One of the endless pits many independent filmmakers (including myself) fall into, is assuming that every person on set – who is so generously giving of their time and effort – is a creative collaborator. It’s extremely important to recognize that is not the case. To open that door is to open a gateway to hell, where valuable time is wasted fielding an endless cacophony of input from everyone within a 50 foot radius. When every participant is indulged, the result is a kind of Jersey Turnpike mixed drink of seemingly good ideas, stitched together into one giant Frankenstein bad idea. A compromise of good intentions, but still a compromise, and one that will hurt the film.

In most filmmaking situations, the creative process is enabled by three basic vocational tiers, ranging from the purely technical/logistical (line producer, G&E, loader, crafty), to the ‘techno-creative’ (producer, cinematographer, gaffer, art department, stunt coordinator), to the purely creative (writer, director, actor).

Obviously, all the tiers are important to the end result and require immense focus. Every player in the process must understand and acknowledge whether the ultimate purpose of their role is to create or to serve the creative vision (ie, if you are a camera loader, you are not there to direct the actors, you are there to make sure the film is safely loaded into/out of the camera).

Since most people have creative impulses, they will want to share their ideas, if invited to do so. This type of free-for-all is a breeding ground for accidents and oversights, even by the most experienced professionals. If you set up an open-door policy with creative input from a crew full of people that already have jobs to do, you risk splitting their focus and taking away from their primary job expectation, thereby compromising the quality of their work. Don’t allow it. Shut it down if it starts to happen.

Get Enough People and Give Them Jobs
On a classic film set, the producer is essentially the boss hog, who determines what needs to be done to execute on the director’s vision. The assistant director (AD) ‘runs the set’, calling people to set, keeping things moving, and generally facilitating the flow of business. The director is hopefully only dealing with creative decisions, working with his director of photography (DP), actors, and other departments to make the movie all it can be.

On an indie set, you may not have the luxury of an assistant director, line producer and senior producer, but your set will benefit from having at least one individual to act as an intermediary between the director and the crew, who can delegate tasks, monitor the division of work, and make necessary adjustments.

It’s taken me a long time to realize the importance of a crew, and all that it does to make a film better. I have done many jobs myself, through preproduction all the way through post and finishing, that would have been done better by people who were not me. Some may say this was out of necessity, and sometimes it was, but usually it was out of laziness to find the proper person to do the job right. There is no nobility in hard work if the work is for nothing, or makes the final product worse. The will to do many jobs is no excuse for splitting your own focus on whatever your chosen function is. Even the master ninja will get his ass kicked trying to take on ten guys at once. Your film deserves better.

In cases where a crew is comprised of inexperienced people, the producer should figure out what needs to be done, chop it up, and hand out work assignments. If it’s not clear who should do what, this would be a good time to ask the lead crewmembers for input (ie, ‘who needs help?’). Just be sure to keep your hands on the reins and be the one to have the final say on who does what. Maintain the chain of command, or you may find your set is being run by the DP, soundman, or special effects person, as opposed to the assistant director and/or producer.

If there are people present with nothing to do, invent something for them to do, or send them home. If you have people waiting to work (ie, castmembers), try to keep them far away from set. They will only distract your crew, especially if they are attractive.

Conclusion
It’s a fact of life that making an indie is going to be an exercise in compromise, in one form or another. The challenge is to make something creative and beautiful, under these strict parameters of necessity. Dividing labor equally and fairly among your filmmaking cohorts is the first step in making the very most of whatever resources you have available, and ultimately get your project completed, which is what’s most important. Those cast or crewmembers you told to shut up and do their jobs will forgive you at the premiere.

Advertisements
h1

Making an indie for it’s own sake

December 27, 2009

Every time I’m on the cusp of production, and things start spiraling out of control, someone always poses the question “why now?”, as in: “why are you making this film in May instead of June”, or “why not wait till next year?”, or “Why not just make a short film instead?”, “Why not wait till you have more: money, time, experience, help?”

‘Why make this film now?’ is a perfectly valid question, and the honest answer is determined by the filmmaking motivation itself. To get there, we’ll first answer the question ‘Why make this film?’

Why Now? / Why at All?
Speaking very generally here, solely for the sake of discussion, let’s say one of the following is the driving force behind the making of any movie:

1. Commission: An individual or business entity pays a sum of money for creative and/or production services (instructional or industrial, music video, advocacy, commercial, television, studio feature, etc).

2. Commercial Entrepreneurship: An individual or business entity embarks on an independent money-making action (Girls Gone Wild, Video Professor, etc).

3. Art for Art’s Sake: An individual or partnership embarks on a creative project simply to make said project, with no regard for economic or commercial benefit (Tarnation, Four-Eyed Monsters, etc).

Personally, I make films for reason #3. That’s not to disparage reasons #1 and #2, mind you. Being entrepreneurial and making money by filmic means is perfectly admirable, but for me, creating a construct to do so is no more interesting than opening my own convenience store or starting a landscaping company (both of which are also perfectly admirable).

I prefer instead to focus on making the movies I want to see, as honestly as possible, and to consider the economic viability of the work and how it should be marketed, after the creative process is complete.

[This, by the way, is not the only way to make a film, it’s just the way I do it. Many fine films have been made with a dozen writers, a room full of meddling studio executives, multiple focus groups, etc.]

So, if the answer to ‘why you are making the film?’ is Art for Art’s Sake, we’re back to ‘why now?’

Logic
If one cares about his art, doesn’t he owe it to the work to be patient and take whatever time he needs to build the proper infrastructure and assemble the resources necessary to make the film all it can be?

I understand why people think this, and for many projects – especially those that require immense resources to exist (animated, epic, FX-heavy) – it really might be the right thing to do. In my experience, however, this wide open, wait-for-the-right-time approach is a death sentence for a project getting off the ground, particularly when the purpose of the work is the work itself.

The problem with this logic is that in the context of making an independent production, an open-ended or distant shoot date, removes present adversity – a critical component in mobilizing radicals in any anti-establishment or underground operation (which all independent films are). More time rarely leads to more money, what it does lead to is wavering attention spans and the inevitable attrition of your co-conspirators.

Without conflict, there is no story. Without looming deadlines, there is no urgent scramble to make things happen. With no urgency, the challenge of the independent feature is diluted, and your people are no longer afraid or angry. Without fear and anger there is no hunger for action – the lifeblood of the independent feature.

Your intention may have been to make the best picture possible, but you ended up with no picture at all. No good!

Going Against Logic
If you’re doing Art for Art’s Sake, you must strike while the iron is hot. The heat is the thing that drives it, and you have to harness that energy and quickly turn it into action. Waiting is not only a wet blanket on smoldering enthusiasm, but it also means delaying the creation of content while time passes. The longer you wait, the less time you are alive, the less stuff you have created, and the less potential you’ve realized (because you’ve had less practice realizing it).

My thinking on this is probably informed by the fact that I was 30 years old when I decided I wanted to make movies for the rest of my life, so there’s always been a ‘time-sensitive’ component to my decision making. I also have a background as a Jazz musician, the practice of which is predicated on the creative process occurring in an unpredictable, precarious context (both harmonically, as well as lifestyle). Suffice it to say, the instability of indie film and all that comes with it, has never been that scary to me.

Some people believe making a film without proper resources, experience, all the right preparation, etc., will result in a bad film. This thinking is totally reasonable for those who do not make films, but a wrong-headed waste of brainwork for anyone who does. Overcoming this kind of doubt is the ultimate test of your fortitude as a filmmaker. If you aren’t strong enough to believe in your work from inception, to have not only confidence, but overconfidence, about your potential – if you do not (privately) believe you’re making the greatest film ever made – you should consider opening a convenience store or landscaping company. You’ll still get criticized, but the bloggers will probably not flame you for being self-indulgent, being an inept story teller, or making a film that is too dumb or too smart for its own good.

It is essential for practitioners of any artform to actually practice their artform. To create. If that means tolerating frequent criticism and ridicule from individuals who create nothing, suck it up. If you haven’t the sack to circumvent your own doubts, your fragile ego will never survive what’s to come if your film is ever released.

Filmmaking is not some sort of mysterious witchcraft that only super-human rocket scientists in Castle Grayskull can do. Filmmaking is comprised of regular human tasks, requiring regular human skills, each to be performed by a regular human being. You will learn in the doing. Skill is not magic or genius, or athletic gift. Skill is perspective, and perspective is only gained through experience.

To put it in even more aphoristic, Steven Seagal-like terms: If, over the course of five years, a martial artist only ever practices form and never spars, he will not fare well in combat, especially against an experienced opponent. If a martial artist has twenty fights a day in that same five-year period, chances are he will have a good perspective on combat, and, at the very least, approach a more experienced opponent with less trepidation and emotional interference for having experienced combat so many times before.

The other possible outcome to that story is that the guy that did 20 fights a day for five years, kicks the living shit out of all comers. Only God knows how you will fare as you pass though the thresholds of experience, but hiding yourself away from the challenge teaches you nothing.

Similarly, taking meetings does not teach you to be a better filmmaker. Nor does reading blogs, or books, or listening to people tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I enjoy talking as much as the next blowhard, but nobody ever learned how to do anything, filmmaking or otherwise, by having a theoretical discussion about it.

The only thing that teaches any of us anything is the experience of doing it for ourselves, because the way each of us responds to a learning experience is totally subjective. Nobody, including ourselves, knows what we are capable of in this life. There is no reason not to assume the very best in ourselves and our potential. There is also no reason not to fight dirty, pull hair, bite, and kick our obstructions in the nuts, so we can achieve what we want in this world.

The Downside
Even the smallest features cost a lot of money and pride. If you only have a duct-taped video camera, one light, and $200 to make the feature of your dreams, you can still do it, but understand that what you lack in cash and gear, you and your colleagues will make up for in sweat and man hours.

You can get everything you need to make a movie for free if you shake enough hands and appeal to the right people in the right way, but that in itself is a fulltime job for everyone involved. Still, this is nothing you should shy away from. It’s done every day to great effect by much dumber people than you. Besides, there’s no greater character-building exercise than making something out of nothing. And if that something turns out to be something beautiful, the hard times will disappear from your memory… because it was worth it.

Conclusion
If you want it, do it.

Making a feature film under any circumstance is a God-awful, herculean task, but if you’re truly committed, and resolve to do whatever it takes to see it through to the bitter end, making your independent feature will be an incredibly rewarding, and life-changing experience.

Make the movie you want to watch. Use everything at your disposal to make it as good as it can be. Don’t wait. What you plan to do in some imagined future doesn’t exist. Make the film, and what you do now is forever.

h1

Piracy can be funny.

December 25, 2009

Hilarious and totally unauthorized pirated DVD version of my film, The Local.

The ease with which copyrighted property is stolen and distributed wasn’t something I gave much thought to before I had anything to sell the world. With the recent release of The Local, I now think about piracy all the time. I can find my work – as well as the work of many colleagues – pirated and made available all over the internet. One site even offers my film with Arabic subtitles – something our foreign distributor would probably charge us a lot of money to have done.

The most typical form of piracy for movies is the good old “DVD rip”. The pirate gets the DVD, recompresses it, and chops it up into little pieces (to be reassembled later) so it can be easily distributed over the internet. The movie parts are seeded in torrents and then shipped all over the web via file-sharing networks, getting gobbled up by movie hungry spend-thrifts everywhere, bringing joy to many, and costing the makers of “Transporter 2” millions of rubles, yen, etc., in imagined DVD revenue.

The image in this post is from a website offering bulk purchases of a pirated DVD version of my film, The Local. It’s rare that such a small release as mine would garner hard-copy piracy, so its with pride I present to you a new, improved back cover of the DVD, featuring an image of me with a burger stuffed in my face.

I was also pleased to see that the MPAA saw fit to go easy on us with a PG-13 rating, despite the film’s pervasive blue language, graphic violence and nudity. Even on the high seas of DVD piracy, its all about butts in seats!

I would love to own this pirated version of my film, but sadly, the geniuses at BLUCABIN are “out of stack”. Their unusual choice of syntax leads me to believe there would have been additional customs charges involved anyway.

Sorry guys, you’ll have to buy 200 copies of Crank 2 instead! Now rated PG-13!