Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Knowing how to light a film shows you're a filmmaking pro

I've come to appreciate, in working as an actress, how very important lighting is to the overall look of a film.  Check out the lighting in Casablanca, in The Godfather, in the opening shot of Schindler's List.  In The Quiet Man, when Maureen O'Hara stands in the doorway of John Wayne's darkened cottage, one of the first times he sees her up close, a baby spot is hitting the back of her head and lighting her hair like a halo.  There is no way light would be naturally occurring in that doorway, but it's there to set a mood and frame a beautiful actress in a way that makes the leading man fall in love with her.

I'm thinking about lighting this week because I just watched a wonderful documentary on Jack Cardiff, whose 70-year career in cinematography had him shooting everything from The Red Shoes to Rambo, which is quite a span of work.  Cardiff drew his inspiration from Impressionist painters, and it shows.  His work is just breathtaking and was a huge influence on later filmmakers, like Martin Scorcese.
Scene from The Black Narcissus with Deborah Kerr

Lighting isn't only about illumination, it creates atmosphere and tells the viewer what they're supposed to think about the characters on screen.  Tellingly, carefully considered lighting is too often the first thing student moviemakers omit if they're short on funds or technicians.  It's always a mistake.  Lighting makes the shot.  It's the aspect of a film I notice first.

The documentary is Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff  by Craig McCall and it's available on Netflix.  Worth studying.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In case you missed the BackStage "List Issue"

Last August Backstage posted what they called the "List Issue," a collection of articles on everything from "5 Essential Components of an Effective Career Strategy" to "10 Monologues They Haven't Heard Yet."
Good stuff!  If you missed the issue, here it is.

Technology? I'm all for it!

No, I am not one of those people who can't wait to buy the latest gadget.  I prefer a paperback to an e-reader.  I don't play video games.  I hate it when my Word software updates and all the buttons are moved.  But this fall Apple has me swooning.  Not only did the IPhone absolutely blow me away with the voice technology, but they reworked Final Cut Pro and dropped the price into the "affordable" range.  Both are on my Christmas Wish List.

Digital technology for actors is awesome. Today we email headshots instead of handing out prints.  We audition over Skype or tape our auditions and upload for viewing.  We can email MP3 files of our voiceover demos.  And researching a role is easy.  Need an accent for a part?  Google can lead you to an example on the web.

Actress Judi Beecher pointed out some of the advantages of technology in BackStage last week and how it's changing the way actors ply their craft: "Because of the Internet, I now split my time between New York, L.A., and Paris. Most of my auditions, when I'm not in L.A., I put on tape. I booked "Warrior and Savior," which was shot in New York, while I was in Los Angeles. "Heavy Rain" I recorded in France. I've also gotten the majority of my auditions on my own. I read an article about the New York–based "Tango Shalom," by Claudio and Jos Laniado, on the Internet while I was at the Cannes Film Festival. I contacted the producer and was later cast as one of the main characters in the film. I have my own camera, microphone, and tripod, and Final Cut Pro on my computer. An actor needs to know how to do it all, as well as being a good actor. "

Too true. I'm hugely excited about learning to edit and create my own material.  I'm fascinated by the process of filmmaking, and I can really see this leading to other things.

Now I'm just waiting on Santa.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thinking about DIY publicity

A rigorous three weeks.  Up and back to New York three times.  New headshots by Lev Gorn Photography  (Terrific!) and auditions that didn’t pan out (bah!)  I never complain about going to New York though.  The city is so energizing.

Thanksgiving Day, closer to home, I happened to be out at a military hospital (it’s a long story) having turkey in the cafeteria and listening to a military jazz combo and a female soloist singing a knockout rendition of the old Billie Holiday standard, "God Bless the Child."  Wow, what a voice this woman had!

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a local performer – at a community or dinner theatre or, in this instance, a hospital cafeteria – and thought, “Why isn’t this person cutting records or on television? They’re terrific!”  Well, the difference, I can only assume, is visibility.  Producers, directors, and agents tend to be risk averse because their professional reputations are on the line.  They go with talent they know has already worked successfully somewhere, even when the role doesn’t call for a name star (or the name star is totally wrong for the part!)  A frumpy Scottish maiden lady can sing in her kitchen her whole life, but once she gets positive reviews on Britain’s Got Talent then overnight she’s selling recordings.  Did her voice suddenly improve?

Current Website
Actors need visibility and, lucky for us, the Internet now provides many low/no cost, do-it-yourself tools for those who can’t yet afford a publicist.  When I decided to work on the on-camera side of this business, for example, one of the first things I did was set up an Actor Website that would offer basic information about me – including résumé and headshots – showcase my films as they came along, and allow me to post news.  A basic website isn’t expensive.  There are many business hosting sites that for a very small monthly fee offer templates for building a site, help you set up your domain name, help you with search engine optimization, and provide statistics on traffic to your site.

New Website Under Construction
I went with Yahoo Small Business.  The website I built was simple and serviceable and allowed me to get something up quickly.  I had the option of allowing advertizing on my site for click-through income – and many actors add this feature – but I didn’t want to feel caught up in the need to sell some widget or service so I left that off.  (The purpose of the website was to “sell” me after all.)  YSB allowed me to add an email address that serves to direct people to my website. Another advantage was that I didn’t have to stick to the template.  It can accommodate the custom site I now have in the works and all the tracking and SEO services will remain.

The second thing I did was to start building an Email Distribution List to issue major announcements and, ideally, generate media coverage when I had major news to announce. I was lucky in this regard as my day job gave me access to a media list-building service, but I could also have built the list one name at a time through internet searches or IMDb Pro, targeting production companies, producers/directors, and reporters from online and print publications that cover the business.

Issuing news releases is very important, especially for small production companies seeking to build a reputation. In many ways it’s easier for a production house because producers can announce every step in the production process – considering the script, hiring a director, beginning casting, beginning filming, production wrapped, film submitted for/wins awards, becoming an LLC, etc.  An actor can announce being cast in principal roles in major productions, signing with an agent, a move into a major market, etc.  (If you’re a star a publicity house will make an announcement every time you change your clothes.)

Online DIY publicity tools overlap somewhat, but each serves a distinct purpose.  The thing I always try to keep in mind is that they are visual and generate more attention with photos, illustrations, and links to additional information.  More tools below…

DIY publicity using Facebook

Almost every actor I know has a Facebook Page, but I wonder if they really consider how best to use it.  One mistake I see them make is mixing professional contacts with family and non-business friends, and leaving their comments public. That runs the risk of posting something embarrassing or impolitic to their good buddy that is then read by a producer or casting director who doesn’t know them well.  Bad.  They also randomly collect hundreds, even thousands, of “friends,” which makes building business relationships almost impossible.  For career purposes, especially early in your career, FB isn’t about you it’s about your connections.

An acting coach gave me this advice about FB and it made me look at it in a whole new way.  Here’s what he said: Keep family and non-business friends on a separate FB page, because your family know and love you no matter what you say (well…almost.)  On your acting FB page, limit your friends to 100 carefully considered people who may be able to help you in some way with your acting career (hire you or pass your name along) and that you really want to know better; then rebalance the list periodically, taking people off who seem to be focused too much on something other than acting, filmmaking, or stage (i.e. your focus.) With just 100 focused friends you'll be sure to see their posts and have a chance to find common ground.

He also said not to post more than once a day and be sure it doesn’t sound like an obvious commercial or is a photo of your food (total self-focus can be annoying to others.) Do comment, however, on friends’ posts every day (they get a FB alert so they won’t miss it), but avoid responding to controversial, non-business-related issues, like politics.

FB is where you want to connect, find out what you have in common with others in the business, and build relationships.  If you have 3,500 "friends," and each friend has 3,500 "friends," it’s going to be very hard to make that happen. For one thing, with 3500 friends, their posts are hitting your wall so fast and furious that it's like a Twitter feed.  You'll see their posts only if you happen to be online when the post comes up.  And it works the same in the other direction with your posts.  Keep your friends list small, comment frequently, look for things you have in common. Facebook is two-way communication.

Also look at your FB privacy settings.  I set mine up so that when I comment on a friend’s post, only that friend and others on that particular thread will see it.  It isn’t broadly public to my own list.  My own postings go public, but I try to keep my follow-up comments specific to each person. If I want to talk about something specific or a non-business issue, and I know the person reasonably well, I shift to email.

Here’s what else I do…

Other DIY publicity tools for actors and filmmakers

A lot of actors and production companies post video clips to YouTube or Vimeo, but not as many think to establish a Personal Channel, which is super easy to set up and has the advantage of eliminating distractions from ads and random kitten videos.  My personal channel, to which I’m now giving more attention, will hold my reel and a repository of clips that I want to highlight, submit with my résumé for auditions, or link to from other outlets. You can give a personal video channel a custom look and the overall impression is much more professional than open posting of clips to the web.  I like it.

A Blog, like this one, gives me a chance to dialogue with others who are in the business, or interested in the business, and is easy for interested others to find with a web search.  As with a personal website, many actors use a blog as a means of earning money on the side via click-through advertising.  I don’t, because for me the blog actually is a personal journal.  It helps me stay focused, clarify my thoughts, express frustration, whatever – but all related to acting.  It keeps me on track.  If I mention a product or service, I don’t get paid for it, and that’s okay because I’m an actress and not a retailer.  Remember to link your blog posts to your FB and/or Twitter page to draw traffic back to the blog.

Many actors are on Twitter, but I'm not yet convinced that it’s worth my time and focus because it strikes me as largely one-way communication.  If I were a big star with a huge fan base I guess it would be useful for giving brief news flashes a personal touch.  But I’d have to be very careful about what I said in those few words, or with what was said by a publicist on my behalf.

When I was exploring Twitter I subscribed to several name actor feeds only to find myself disappointed in the person who came across in those all-too-brief remarks. An actress I admire posted only bland commercials for her work that clearly were written by some hired PR person.  Blah.  An actor I always considered funny and curmudgeonly sounded shockingly crude (and I suspect that was really him.) I found it affecting how I regarded that person as a professional.  Actors need to keep that in mind.  Twitter isn’t necessary starting out; maybe it’s something to think about for later, but carefully.

One easy thing you can do, and this applies especially to producers, is share information and visuals.  Your movie just wrapped?  Take 3-4 production stills or flattering screen shots of every member of the cast and email them to the cast members. Create a movie poster and send a digital copy to all cast and crew.  Encourage everyone to post these to their websites, blogs, and FB pages with a link to your movie site to draw traffic. Cast and crew members need stills for their online sites.  Accommodating that is appreciated and reaps benefits down the road.

Here's a very important tool: set up a Google Alert to track mentions of your name (production company, film, etc.) on the Web.  It’s free, takes a second to set up, and it allows you track what is being said about you and comment and make a connection when appropriate.  It can give you a heads-up when you’re generating buzz.  This is a must-have.

Finally, a gadget a lot of actors are using to direct casting people to their information on the Web is a QR Code printed on their headshot.  I’m still evaluating this.  I find it vaguely off-putting to be bar-coded like a can of soup.  True, it allows those with  IPhones and some other devices to scan your  code  and be directed right to your website or other information online.  But why not just print your website in small type under your name on the headshot?  (And use your name and contact number as the file name on your digital headshot?)  Again, I may need convincing here.

With all of these tools, the key consideration is the time it takes to maintain it vs. the size and specificity of the target audience.  Are there other tools out there?  Other ways of using those I’ve mentioned?  Please write and let me know.  One day I’m going to hire a publicist and every time I change my dress you’re going to hear about it.  Until then I need all the DIY help I can get.