Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Moving On...

Rock and a Hard Place was a passion project that taught me so much about filmmaking. That's a huge positive. However, the film has struggled to find a home. My last festival submission didn't end the way I'd hoped.

The Hamilton Film Festival turned down Rock and a Hard Place:
Audio was really, really low on this and wouldn't hold up against the other films. Good performances though.
I know exactly what they're referring to. The audio was a serious issue on this film. It was low in places, not in the entire film, but that was enough to hurt its chances for festival inclusion.

I've put a lot of energy and money into festival submissions with no positive results so, I'm releasing it into the wild. It's been a long road and the film needs to be set free in order for me to move on to my next film. I'll take what I've learned and apply it to all of my future projects.

To everyone involved on the film, from cast and crew to all of our crowdfunding contributors, thank you so much for everything. This film would not exist without you.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's a wrap!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

What I Learned On My First Long Short

I used that oxymoron on purpose since my last short, Rock and a Hard Place, was the longest and most technical of my films thus far. To steal from Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Though I’d rather start with the negatives and end on the positives.

Make sure everyone knows his or her role

I wanted to up my game with this film and went so far as to launch a crowdfunding campaign to at least offer participants a stipend. I’ll get to that campaign in a bit but first I have to tackle what caused me a lot of difficulty. My DP on this project wanted to be a director, whether he is conscious of it or not. The role of a Director of Photography is to give the director the shot that’s needed. Yes, there is always room for discussion, preferably a bit more than, “That’ll look like shit.” A good director will use the talents of those around him or her; they’d be stupid not to. However, a clearly defined role allows the director to direct and not worry about how the shot will be set up – he needs to trust the DP to do that.

If the DP hasn’t even read the script, well, you’ve got a really big problem. There is no excuse to come on set unprepared. Every actor knew their lines and through my direction and some discussion, nailed their scenes. So much time was lost on discussions about what a scene was to look like. I put a shot list together that was completely ignored. A Director of Photography is NOT a cameraman; he is the person in charge of setting up the shots. If a shot is going to look like shit, it’s because the DP can’t do it right or at all. I gave in too many times because it was wasting so much time to argue.

Know your role and clearly define the role of every single person on set.

Everyone has a process

Try to recognize your talents’ processes quickly so you can accommodate everyone’s way of doing things. Since this was my first production with several actors, all having key moments in the story, I felt overwhelmed at times with overlapping processes. Even professionals have feelings and I felt comfortable dealing with situations that arose.

Shit happens

Equipment breaks. Pieces of equipment are missing. People get stuck in traffic on the way to the shoot. These are all expected to happen. In fact, count on them happening. They’re inevitable.

However, when you break to hear what the sound quality has been for an entire day and it is, to put it mildly, terrible, then you’ve got a major problem. This was 100% my fault. The sound engineer was happy with sound but somewhere between recording and downloading it turned ugly – very ugly. I ran out of funds and had to contend with fixing the audio on my own. This will never happen again.

Stacey Iseman and Ian O'Neill
Checking out footage

Check everything. Then check it again. Make sure to build in extra set up time at the beginning of each day so that you can catch these snafus early. The sound issue could have been avoided had I done a test shot and sound check ported to a laptop before rolling cameras and sound. Big lesson learned.

Agree to disagree and move on

Everyone wants to direct but more importantly, everyone has an opinion. As the director you must listen to everyone about ideas they have regarding their responsibilities. If an actor wants to share an idea, listen. However, once you’ve made a decision, move the production forward. It is not wise to linger over such things. Remember your shooting schedule – people have to be other places.

Case in point, someone on set told me I was wasting time by telling the actors how good they were. I listened to this person. I disagreed with this person. I continued to give anyone…actor, sound, lighting, grips…anyone doing a good job positive feedback. I sat alone in a room and created this story. I had characters speaking in my head. I played out scenes in their entirety in my mind. After witnessing these professionals use their skills to bring that story to life, I was almost overcome with emotion. It was an incredible sight watching these characters come to life. After watching the first heavy, dramatic scene play out and yelling cut, I walked to my actors and hugged them.

I listened to the complaint about wasting time. I considered it, then dismissed it. I continued to give the actors positive feedback and my thanks for great work. If I were an actor doing a job, that would mean a lot to me. It would mean that I was doing a good job. That’s an important message to impart.

Stay calm

The toughest task on the shoot was keeping my cool when things seemed to be going absolutely wrong. I was angry, frustrated and worried. What saved the day was the people around me. I was so dejected when I heard the sound quality that I was going to cancel the shoot. I heard one of my actors say, “Well, we’ll do it better next time.” What an amazing person. It was all I needed to hear to pull everything together to get this film shot. As inevitable as it is that bad things will happen there is an equal inevitability that those around you will rally around you and help right the wrongs of the day. Always remember that. 

Think clearly

I had options that I did not use because I was not thinking clearly. I had a lot of people on set that could have taken on roles in the production to clear out some negative energy. I only thought about it after the fact. Always keep a clear head to enable good decisions, even in the face of controversy.

Get the f&$#ing budget right

I figured out what I needed, barebones, to make this film. I accounted for every person receiving an honourarium even if they told me no (I’m looking at you Parr and a few others, too) or they did not perform well or were a giant pain in my ass. It didn’t matter. I wanted people to earn something for their time, energy and expertise. I calculated for food and gear. Everything. Except for the cash I’d need to take care of any crisis that arose. Yep, no emergency funds.

Always have a set amount set aside in case of emergency. Big lesson learned.

Crowdfunding is a full-time job

I will be writing a standalone article on this but I still felt the need to share a bit about the subject here. I put everything I had into crowdfunding. It was a very difficult job. Even though I’d done my homework and I was organized and driven, raising these funds was so tiring and soul draining. I was successful in raising the funds for this film and came away with this thought, If this is what it takes to raise $2,500, what would life be like raising $2.5M?

This was a movie set

I was not in a friend’s house. I was on the set of my movie. Take control of the set. It is your set. You’ll be amazed how quickly you find your footing when you think this way.

You are a director

--> The greatest feeling during this shoot was that I carried myself as a director and was treated as such. It was an amazing feeling knowing that these professional actors were taking my direction and bringing the characters I’d created to life. This truly was an amazing experience. 

Have pre-shoot discussions with everyone

It’s amazing how a short discussion about the character an actor is about to play can be so significant. All the actors arrived on set prepared and it took but a little tweaking to get the characters down. I was incredibly impressed by every single one of them. Amazing.

Those short discussions with crew also paid off, for the most part. During these discussions you have to be aware of your gut feelings. If they tell you someone is going to upset the apple cart, listen and act upon it. Your shoot will be a lot better for it.

Be prepared

How can you expect everyone else working on the film to be prepared before arriving on set if you’re not prepared as the director. Being prepared will not nullify those nasty inevitable gremlins from appearing, but it will help minimize them.

I went over every aspect of the script, checked to ensure equipment rentals were on hand, everyone had directions to the shoot, and that everyone had rides to the shoot. I checked with actors to ensure the meals were sufficient. I knew who was staying at the location overnight. It was a constant vigil to make certain everything was ready.

I kept everyone up to date with emails before the shoot. I also sent out a shooting schedule which turned out to be a huge positive since my actors could then help me tweak it to suit everyone’s needs. I also sent them a shooting script ahead of time. Anything you can do to help everyone be prepared.

The information binders came in handy

On the day of the shoot I handed out binders to each performer and crewmember, in which was the shooting schedule, shot list and photos of the shooting locations throughout the house. Again, I wanted to give them tools to help them prepare for the shoot.


The ‘best of times’ were just that, the best!

I find it difficult to describe how it feels to be surrounded by people so willing to give their all for something that I envisioned. Remember, I wrote Rock and a Hard Place in isolation, characters and scenes going off in my head. Going from that to the set was such a thrill. I’m smiling right now just thinking back on it.

My friends gave up their home for two days so that I could film RAAHP. It was an extraordinary gesture that I’m sure they’re still reeling from. Friends jumped in as grips to do pretty much anything I asked of them. You just don’t know how good you’ve got it until you see friends grabbing a quick power-nap before I need them to do something else. They worked so hard for me and I cannot thank them enough.

I met new people who just blew me away with their talents and levels of commitment. Every actor on this set was stellar! I’d work with them again in a second. I learned from them and for that I can’t even begin to thank them. Biggest lesson I learned is that of collaboration. A movie shoot is nothing without collaboration. This was a great lesson that I’ll take with me to every project in the future.

I laughed. So did everyone else. In the midst of chaos we all had so much fun. Bloopers are the best. Now I know why they’re included on special features. Love them.

That’s a wrap

One of the coolest, most thrilling moments on this film was when I said to the entire set, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap.” Cheers and applause arose from the set and I remember feeling so good at that moment. I now know what it was I was feeling. Pride. I was so proud of everyone.


I may have bumped heads with my DP along the way but I have to say that the film looks amazing! I still cringe at missing so many shots and angles, but what we got looked great. The movie has a look and feel to it that lends itself to the genre of thriller. I worked my ass off on the sound and though it isn’t perfect, it’ll do. The end result is a film that I am proud of.  

Chomping at the bit for my next film.

Stay tuned.

The Best Actors in the Biz!

Peter Campbell

 Stacey Iseman

 Vincent Marciano

 Aieron Munro

 Tyler Parr

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What I Learned On Short Film #2

After the fun and success of my first short film, Happy Birthday, You’re a Zombie, I threw myself into Upon Reflection, a longer and more technical film.

The idea for this film came from a tutorial I watched on Indy Mogul about shooting a subject and their mirror reflection at different times then marrying them together; gives the illusion of two distinct subjects. The effect looked really cool so, I started feverishly writing notes and plotting and staring out the window until Upon Reflection was born.

As with my first attempt behind the camera, there was a score of lessons to be learned in the making of this, my second short film.

I was happy that everyone to whom I showed the script was impressed by it. This experience drove home that my wheelhouse is writing; I’m sure I’ve surpassed Gladwell’s supposed 10,000 hours of performance/practice. Even so, I have always maintained that writing is a craft never mastered so, consider my 10,000 hours extended to unlimited.

Karen Dance pours while Peter Campbell watches. A view of the high-tech equipment used on the shoot.
This attempt had me reaching out to actors, people who have been in stage or film productions before and it was clear that not everyone is at my ‘no budget’ level. Many of the actors I approached either had scheduling problems or were no longer working ‘gratis’. It was the best thing that could have happened because I ended up asking Peter Campbell, who originally was to play the lead detective, to take the lead of the man and his reflection. He was amazing! As were all of my performers. That is a certainty to which I will always cling; actors act – and they’re damned good at what they do.

I made the mistake of falling in love with certain locations and shots. I saw a large bathroom for the main scene and searched high and low for it. There was nothing available without taking the route of permits, insurance and paperwork. I stuck with that vision far too long which delayed the shoot for months; that and the lack of a committed actor for the lead. I also saw a crane/jib shot in the production and no matter how I tried to figure out a way to do it – rent or DIY – I couldn’t justify the cost. Still, I hung on to that shot and it cost me something more precious than money – it cost me time.
Karen Dance prepares to add the blood effects to Peter Campbell

If I ever again fall in love with a shot, I’ll make sure the calculation is done more rapidly; either find a way to shoot it or quickly move on to an alternative. Hell, I’d cut out shots before I’d stall myself like that again.

I lost control of my shoot. Before shoot day I finalize the script then create a shot list (I’m not a storyboard kind of guy). I stick to my shot list like a lifeline, that is, I did, until this shoot. I was challenged about many things, not the least of which was actor motivations. I saw this as a simple script to screen jump but I failed to see it from an actor’s point of view. That is one of the most important lessons I learned on the set of Upon Reflection; every actor needs to know what happened to their character leading up to any shot. I answered many questions I hadn’t considered while writing the script. To be candid, it threw me. I wasn’t prepared to be peppered with characterization questions. Time was fleeting and my shot list was abandoned in order to get the shoot completed on time. 
I give some instructions to my two detectives, Sandy Morrison and Jane Pokou
That was a mistake. A very big mistake. I failed to complete many shots and that left me scrambling in post to make up for them. There were places that needed close ups, one shots of a two shot conversation, blank spaces that were absolutely critical for the effects I needed – missed because I wasn’t prepared for what wasn’t written on the page. That will never happen again because every shoot from this day forward will start with a table read; a gathering of the actors to sit and go through the script so they can ask any questions they have before we get on set.

In keeping with my budgetary restraints, I wore many hats in the making of Upon Reflection: writer, director, cinematographer, camera operator, sound, lighting, props, continuity and editor. That was the biggest mistake of all, taking on so many roles that I couldn’t give them my full attention. My goal is to direct a feature that I’ve written. To do that, my focus has to be on the writing and directing. Upon Reflection was written to push me on both of those fronts but fell short because I took on too much responsibility. So, if you’re reading this and are looking to gain experience in lighting, cinematography, camera work, editing…anything other than writing and directing, then stay tuned for word on my next project. Trust me, if you work for food, I’ll be needing you.

Poor Peter had to endure the sun and a photo bombing from Sandy.
I lucked out on this film and was able to meet some new, talented people, Peter Campbell and Jane Pokou, who I hope to work with again. And, I was able to call on friends who’ve worked with me before and who did a tremendous job for me. Laura Marks continues to impress me with her acting. Karen Dance is an amazing makeup artist and I highly recommend her for any film. If not for Tony and Raquel Heayn, continuity would be terrible and I would have no stills of the production. They also helped set up all my sets. My wife not only acted in this film, she helped in so many ways. A great big thank you to everyone for all their help. I hope we can all work together again, soon. And, I know that I will learn just as much from my next project. 

Karen really does love what she does!
Sandy checking out Karen's excellent effects.
This is how Laura Marks studies her lines - on a smartphone. Very smart!

Tony Heayn looks on, ready to pounce into action for continuity, set up or breakdown.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What I Learned On My First Short Film

I’ve been shooting as much of everything as I can. It’s one thing to shoot your tree being removed, some birds at the park or the dogs playing in the yard, it’s a completely new experience to write, direct, shoot and edit your own short film. Though I learned a lot from the 24 hour film challenge I entered last year, I’m not considering that my first short film. Happy Birthday, You’re a Zombie is my first short and it is very short; just over one and a half minutes long. 

The most important thing I learned shooting this short is that I have a lot more to learn. A lot more! Though I’m well versed at screenwriting, I’m as green as they come behind the camera and as a director.

My friends and family are priceless! When they committed to help then showed up on time and ready to go, it was the greatest feeling in the world. It gave me confidence and it let me know that these truly were people who wanted to be there. They wanted to help, to be a part of what I was trying to do. It inspired me to do my very best. 

My wife is a Saint. She filled so many roles on set that I should have credited her as not only the zombie, but wardrobe, makeup, props master, candle wrangler and a heck of a lot more. I could not have completed this film without her.

Lighting is the bane of a filmmaker’s existence. Therefore, lighting is now the bane of my existence. I’ve been a photographer for thirty years but learned that shooting stills is far easier than shooting film with existing light. I shoot in one direction using settings gleaned from the available light and the shot looks great. Turn the camera around to shoot in the opposite direction and the shot looks like hell. You are constantly checking to ensure consistency in your lighting and it is a hell of a chase.

You can never have enough lighting. I MacGyvered a light that I never used, but I was so happy that it was there just in case I needed it. I had four lights available and I would have been comfortable, and happy, with even more.
Timing is everything. In a time when digital means you’ll never waste film, there should never be a shot not covered. I still kick myself for not getting more (and better) coverage of the amazing zombie makeup by Karen Dance. I may never have used it in the film, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use it in a reel or that she may have wanted some footage to use on her reel. There were a few instances during edits that I wanted to reassemble the team and shoot just a few more angles, a bit more footage. Something I hope to avoid on future shoots.

My creativity has to extend beyond the idea, script and shooting to problem solving. The aforementioned lights were one such dilemma. I had no budget for lights and used a 500W halogen worklight indoors with a reflector to help extend and/or diffuse it. The Dollar Store is a lifesaver. Home Depot should be renamed Problem Solving Depot. I created my own dolly using two eight foot long channels laid on the ground side-by-side and used string to pull a $17 Walmart skateboard across them, the wheels of which I swapped out for Rollerblade wheels. I was forced to think on my feet and come up with affordable solutions to what seemed like problems only lots of money could solve.

My parents often said, “You’ll never get the jail for asking.” They were right. Sometimes it’s hard to pluck up the courage and ask your friends, loved ones and even strangers to help you with your film projects. I took my parents’ advice and asked a lot of people for help because truly, the worst thing they could say was no. No one gets hurt. No one goes to jail. And, I’d never hold a grudge against anyone for saying no. But, now I’d beat myself up if I didn’t ask. And, one more time to all the people who helped me on my film, a great, big thank you!

I’m sure more lessons will penetrate my brain as the weeks go by. And, I look forward to it, both the learning and the filmmaking.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pointing In The Right Direction

In 1985, before I left on a vacation to Jamaica, I gave my dad a little pep talk about an impending round of medical tests he was facing. Dad hated doctors and hospitals. When I returned home from my trip, I couldn’t find anyone. This was a time of pre-cell phones so they weren’t a call away. I checked with a few friends but got no leads. No one left a note for me either. I thought back to those tests and then headed to the local hospital. Unfortunately, he was there.

Dad died a few weeks later.

My dad’s brother had come over to Toronto from Glasgow, Scotland. I felt horrible that this man, who had longed to visit his brother, had done so under such terrible circumstances. When he went home, I sent almost every photograph I had of my father with him. It was the least I could do.

I remember telling my Uncle Jack, “Don’t worry, I’ve got the negatives.”

Years later, when I longed for photos of my father, do you think I could find those damned negatives? I looked everywhere, but they seemed to just disappear. I’d headed to my mom’s place and she and I looked through some of her old photo albums, the ones she could find. Still couldn’t find those damned negatives.

“These will all be yours someday son,” she’d said to me waving her hand over a stack of photo albums.

A stack of Polaroids waiting to be scanned
Mom died two years ago and when I was cleaning out her apartment I boxed up every photo I could find. There were hundreds including her and dad’s entire wedding album. It took me a long time to start sorting though them. I wanted to scan them to keep them safe. Were the images I found that impressive that I needed to protect them so the world could see them? Were they museum quality shots? Were they shot by professionals and worth a lot of money? Was Ansel Adams a part of my family?

No on all counts. However, I did feel the need to protect them for my family’s posterity. Could others find them interesting? Maybe, but the thrust was to ensure that my family had a photographic record of some of its early members. And wouldn’t you know it, I found those damned negatives, too.

Me and Dad.
I’m passionate about photography. I’ve been paid for my photographs but I still don’t think of myself as a professional. The marketing department of a camera manufacturer would call me a prosumer; not quite a pro but above an amateur. I’ve worked hard to improve at the craft of taking pictures. When I went through the hundreds of pictures accumulated by my parents I lost track of the number of bad ones. There were a lot of bad photos.

And I loved them. Bad, good and everything in between.

Part of my interest in photography was always seeing a camera in my dad’s hands. I remember the 8mm movie camera he had that he cranked to use. I remember the Super 8 movie camera he used with the cartridges. The camera I remember the most was his beloved Polaroid. I found out recently that my brother had it. Once I got the model number it took me a week to get my own. It was a Polaroid ‘Automatic’ 330 Land Camera which was produced between 1969-1971.

The O'Neills in October of '69. Dig those ties.
I can still see the spots in my eyes from the flash he used. Dad became a master at pulling the picture from the camera. He’d flip the little switch on the back of the camera to start the timer, dangle the ‘developing’ picture and wait. I can still hear the sound of the timer buzzing down, and when it stopped, he’d peel the photo from the chemical paper and there was his photo. It was a special moment, every single time he’d reveal the results.

He was no Art Wolfe or Yousuf Karsh; he was a man who loved to take pictures of the people and places in his life. He had little patience for manuals. No time to shoot with film formats that forced him to run to the drug store for ‘prints’.

Mom and Dad weren’t the only shooters to contribute to the pile of photos, their friends added photos and so did I. Those negatives I spoke of yielded some great shots of dad. I even scored one of he and I together. I discovered that when I started out in photography I was no Adams, Karsh or Wolfe either. The shoe box full of photos along with the bags and smaller boxes, all had blurry shots, heads cut off, underexposed, overexposed…all kinds of crazy mistakes. I smile when I look at them.

Bottom of Mimico Ave in Etobicoke. Painted streetcar stop. Traffic lights 'button'
I am so thankful that someone, anyone, skilled at photography or not, was there to take these photos. They show the city where I was born and the one where I grew up. Most importantly, there are many photos of family and friends. Though these may not be considered national treasures, they are historical documents to me and hopefully to my kin’s future generations.

I’m thrilled that my daughter has picked up a camera and started to shoot – and not just shots for her Facebook page. She’s trying to learn, just like I did after seeing my dad with his camera. This means more photos to add to the pile – good, bad and everything in between.

So thanks dad, mom and all those people who shall remain nameless, for picking up all those different cameras and pointing them in the right direction.

What follows are just a few of the photos I found in my mom's 'pile' of pictures. I hope this gives others the impetus to gather up their family photos.  

Andy (my dad) and his brother, Alex.

Alice and Andy O'Neill (my parents).

My grandmother Alice Paterick and her parents William and Elizabeth.

Loch Ean, Scotland, 1954. Third from the left in the very back row (slight profile) is my Grandfather, Thomas Adair.

Me and my brother Andy. Glasgow, Scotland, 1963.

Alex (Elky) O'Neill, my uncle. My mom, dad and me, downtown Glasgow, 1969. This shot was taken by my brother. How can I tell? Everyone but me is looking down at him.

My Grandfather teaching my Uncle Tommy how to fly. Love the push car.

Househillmuir Rd, Glasgow, Scotland. Some of my family.

Dad, doing what he did best. He was a great entertainer.