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Listen to Sherri's new radio interview on the show "If These Walls Could Talk" with the subject "What's Hiding in Your Favorite TV Shows?" Find out what you’re REALLY watching when you watch TV by joining Katherine Morris, the Setting Shrink, Emmy-award winning President of the Writers Guild of America, west, Patric M. Verrone, and Sherri Sheridan, Creative Director at Minds Eye Media.

The Digital Filmmaking Revolution

Susan Nixon from The Pearson Technology Newsletter, interviews Sherri Sheridan about her new book "Developing Digital Short Films" and the state of digital filmmaking today.

These characters were created using bluescreen dog heads placed onto the body of a bluescreen actor. The set was built using Photoshop collage techniques from travel photos of Prague. The moving clouds are stock footage from Artbeats.

1) What is Developing Digital Short Films about?
This book fills a huge gap in the knowledge available to students and amateur filmmakers who often have to do almost everything when creating their own projects. I’m talking about people who have a $400 DV camera, a $1000 computer from Costco and very little or no budget to make a film. This book explores how to tell a visual story using digital tools to tell stories in new ways. Most people love to go to the movies and would like to make their own films, but get stuck on how to tell a good story and how to make it look interesting. Most of the books on filmmaking and digital filmmaking, focus on the technical aspects of what camera to use, what software button to push, how to get your film online, the latest features in this software package - these types of hard knowledge subjects. Developing Digital Short Films takes the reader through an extremely critical creative preproduction process, which is usually completely overlooked by the majority of amateur filmmakers. The reason most independent films fail is because they did not do enough – or hardly any - preproduction.

2) Well Sherri why is the preproduction process so critical?

Because this is where the brilliance in the filmmaking usually occurs. Big feature films spend years in preproduction. The actual shooting only takes a couple weeks or months after the visual story planning phase.

A good story is universal in some way. Everyone can relate to it emotionally. Anyone who has a story to tell can use the visual techniques in my book to make a music video, play, novel, screenplay, musical, video game, photograph, song, ballet, opera, or painting. That is how flexible it is to apply universal visual storytelling techniques. Universal metaphors and symbols cross over into everything, and when you mix digital tools with these ideas you automatically get a bunch of fresh ideas.

Hitchcock use to say his films were already made before he touched a camera. He did so much preproduction and storyboarding that every shot was precisely planned – all the timing was worked out down to the second, with well thought out camera shot combinations, editing techniques, match cuts and narrative soundtrack layers.

Most digital filmmakers spend a very small amount of time writing a script or planning shot sequences, and have stories that fall apart all over the place on the screen or seem empty, boring, predictable or impossible to watch. My book helps beginning filmmakers really think about lots of visually fresh creative ideas. I took 1000’s of universal storytelling techniques and folded them into a step-by-step visual preproduction brainstorming process. These ideas all had to be universal storytelling principals to make it into the book. I researched films, stories, TV shows, animations, commercials, songs, and myths from all over the world, then put together lists of universal techniques that helped spark original film ideas fast.

3) Developing Digital Short Films looks like a textbook with lots of project exercises. What types of students would find this book useful in their classes?
Developing Digital Short Films is the book I wanted to be able to give my graduate 3D animation students. I was suppose to take them from a first semester Maya student to someone with a digital short film script and storyboards ready to go into production over the next two years. The films had to be under two minutes long because the students were learning 3D and that is all they could handle back then with the rendering times and processor speeds. These were their final thesis projects that needed to be planned out within 15 weeks. This was back in the late 90's at the Academy Of Art University in San Francisco when Kevin Cain was running the place. I was there for a few years so I got to watch a bunch of these students actually make their films. I started to really see what worked and what did not - along with everyone else since we were all learning to tell stories with this powerful new 3D character animation technology. Some of those students worked so hard on their films, and looked so happy when they turned out really good.

This book tells a person everything they need to know to think up cool visual ideas to evoke a strong series of emotional responses in the audience – that is what great filmmaking is all about – getting people to really feel things while watching your movie. It also tells you how to do it with almost no budget except for the software and equipment. You could put together a feature film studio for about $5000 dollars right now, including the computer set up, camera, lights, tape and software. This is first time it's been this cheap to make a feature film and within the reach of almost anyone who really wanted to make one. It's like when DVD players started selling for $29 at Walmart and suddenly everyone had one. The same thing is going to happen with digital home movie studios. Not as many are going to make feature films as own a DVD player, but there will be a lot of new filmmakers coming out of nowhere at the festivals.

4) What is the most exciting thing to you right now about digital filmmaking?
We just crossed over an extremely important threshold in May of 2004. The surprise hit at Cannes this year was a movie made by a first time director named Tarnation with a budget of $218.32 for 10 DV tapes and set of angle wings. This film got a standing ovation and was edited on iMovie. Members of the audience were crying they were so moved by this guy’s story. He grew up making fantasy films on an old camera about his crazy mom, digitized the footage and wrapped a story of his life around it. Gus Van Sant came in as an executive producer after the film was shown at Sundance. This means anyone can now make a hit feature for $200 if they can make people really cry or laugh.

DV cameras, computers and filmmaking software have just crossed a huge price point/performance barrier in the last few months. You can now get a terabyte hard drive for less than a $1000. I remember when a gigabyte drive use to cost $1000. That is a 1000 times more space for the same price ten years later. And you need about 200 megabytes per minute for DV. Digital filmmakers were waiting for the hard drives to get big and cheap, the chip speeds to get faster for real time editing and the cameras to get good and cheap enough – and that has just happened! Anyone with a few hundred dollars can now make a feature film that gets into Cannes and materializes into a lucrative film career – if you know how to tell a good visual story and evoke powerful emotions – and that’s what my book does. None of the other filmmaking books, screenwriting books or digital production books talk about visual story telling in so much depth with a process.

Most students have to learn computer skills now and the best way to get them into computers is to teach them something fun like digital filmmaking. Some schools are already gearing homework assignments to making short films instead of writing reports. I met a teacher from a tiny town in West Texas a few years ago who told me that her town had bake sales to fund the high school's G4 digital video lab. Out of 280 students in the whole school, 180 of them were enrolled in the digital video program. The teachers and community realized that students stayed in school longer if they got to take the digital filmmaking classes - which helped make their bake sale auctions very successful.

Colleges and High Schools all over the world are starting digital filmmaking and computer animation programs to help students learn in new ways. All of these new filmmaking students need to know how to communicate their ideas in a way people will want to watch them. This means telling a good universal story. Everyone loves a good story. Even documentaries and video games tell stories along with the evening news, music videos and commercials. Humans love stories – it’s how we learn and grow and share insights with each other.

5) You keep talking about visual storytelling could you elaborate on what the means?
One of the first shots in Star Wars uses wonderful universal visual storytelling techniques. Darth Vader dressed in a black suit steps over a dead white solider invading an enemy space ship. This is good against evil in a new form. Everyone relates to it – but a little differently. Good visual storytelling is built up in 100’s of layers full of depth and metaphor and symbol. It takes a little bit of time and planning to craft a film that thousands or even millions of people want to see. Boring visual storytelling (which is what most people do when they do not know what they are doing) lacks depth, story structure, subtext, suspense, emotional arcs, juxtaposition, and metaphor. This happens, then this happens, and this happens – its monotonous or its forced and faked. I talk about how you need to really get to the emotional feel inside each moment and shot, using things like systems of universal symbols and metaphors to communicate across time and cultures.

6) What does the future hold for digital filmmakers?

We are on the cusp of a huge digital video micro-budget filmmaking revolution. It is going to be bigger than anything the tech world has seen yet - and I've been in this business for over 12 years now. I predict that in 2005, someone is going to make a blockbuster feature film for under $25,000 using the types of techniques I talk about in my book. And these no budget films will open the floodgates for a new independent distribution model on DVD's, cable and micro cinemas. The only way you are going to be able to compete with 100 million dollar Hollywood blockbuster films on a 25k budget, is to spend a lot of time in preproduction, use your digital tools to show us something fresh and tell us a story that takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Video streaming on the internet for short films, and cell phone hand held devices, are also about to explode. There has never been a better time to be an independent filmmaker!

May 30, 2004