How I Thrived as a Filmmaker During a Pandemic (by making really bad films).

Pandemics, they’re the worst, amirite? We’re rounding nearly a year of a “new normal” and while hope is in sight, it’s still pretty far off. As a commercial director and filmmaker, this year has been particularly “interesting” for my career, but with a little innovation, some clever marketing, and a very open mind, I was able to make the best of it, and even, dare I say, thrive, even if not how I expected.

Flashback a year ago and I was just starting to hit a stride in my career. I had been in SHOOT magazines Top 30 New Director’s Showcase, had my first rep, and was directing broadcast spots for Nike, Google and Honda. Finally, I thought, years of hard work and dedication were starting to pay off.

Then someone ate a bat bisque and my life, like everyone’s, was put on hold.

A month in, when everyone stopped calling and all active projects were shelved indefinitely, I realized I had to make some creative moves. The first thing I did was put together a little documentary that I shot with a friend about these funky, rare cookbooks called Italy In Bocca. It was just a passion project, something I could shoot single handedly about a subject I hold dear to my heart (my stomach), and it just made me feel good to make something heartwarming when the world was falling apart; call it the filmmaker’s equivalent to baking bread. I built a simple little website for it, attached the World Foodbank to the project, worked with Atlas Obscura in promoting it, and started doing interviews with celeb chefs that now, like all of us, had time on their hands to talk to random strangers. The project raised some money, helped out some people in need, and ended up bringing in some welcomed attention that ultimately attached itself to some small projects. Little did I realize that this would be the beginning of a new way of filmmaking for me.

Starting with something you are passionate about can bring welcomed attention to new work.

It was clear that everyone was looking for new media, so I started reaching out to brands that I really liked, and creating content just on spec for them; mostly in trade for product or a very (very) small budget. Like most modern filmmakers, I am fortunate enough to be able to do a bit of everything even if not very well. From shooting, to editing, to even some light After Effects, these days it’s easier then ever to have full production capabilities in your living room. I tried being as creative as possible, working with whatever limitations the quarantine brought. For example, for Aegis, a data security company, my friend worked for, I was able to pitch the following idea, using a simple camera trick and remotely directing an actor on his phone, allowing me to safely turn one actor into five.

Shot on a cellphone with me on speakerphone you can easily turn one actor into five.

When I had a handful of these self produced projects completed I launched www.onemanonecamera.com, which was my answer to “contactless content creation”, a search term I saw skyrocketing in Google Analytics. Before long I was getting calls from all types of brands looking to do a wide range of work; from simple instructional videos, to fully budgeted spots. While my goal as a director naturally been to focus solely on bigger and more complex work, I now found myself happily playing all the roles in production, using every asset around me to its fullest, and getting to work with new brands every week.

Recently I just finished doing spots for Dosist, an elevated cannabis company, and Dennis Buys Cars, a crazy, used car salesman. Brand-wise they couldn’t be more different, but because I was able to offer a one person production team and hand-crafted concepts, they were equally eager to have content created for them. I don’t think I would have ever had the opportunity to work with either one of these brands before the pandemic; I don’t even know if they would have been on my radar. Now however I realize the best thing to come out of this whole shut-down has been how it’s opened up my eyes to new possibilities by just putting yourself out there, and sometimes trying to make the worst film possible ends up being your best option.

Good, fast, cheap; pick two doesn’t apply when you are trying to make a bad commercial on purpose.

I know a lot of filmmakers are going through strange times like everyone is. It can be depressing, unmotivating, and devastating economically, which is why I wanted to share my story, and offer three key concepts that not only got me through this time, but have let me further my filmmaking career during this crazy slump.

  1. Take Inventory

Taking inventory of what you have to offer is probably the best place to start if you want to see immediate results in creative productivity. For many of us, we were on some sort of path in our career, but when the pandemic hit, the road forward seemed to end abruptly. Taking inventory of what you have available is a way to cut a new path forward. What kind of gear do you have, or can have access to? It doesn’t have to be a RED or Alexa that you are used to shooting with on set, it could be your phone, a GoPro or even VHS. Anything becomes a tool when you use it as such. Do you have access to other professionals or actors now with time on their hands? How about locations? Your living room, a garage, a nearby park. Just taking inventory and making a list will spur creativity.

2. Take Initiative

The second most important thing to do is create. Anything. Use everything at your disposal to make something. For me (because I like to eat) I found it easy to make something about cooking. It was something I knew I could shoot, edit, and distribute without having to rely on anyone else. If there was something I needed to do, like build a website, now was a perfect time to watch some tutorials and put new knowledge into action. Making something you know you can complete with what you have available to you is key in connecting with new clients and more work.

3. Take Chances

One beautiful about the world is falling down all around you is the ease in which you can take big chances. Normally if you are on some career path, you want to make “smart” choices. Work with the “right” brands, do the “right” work, so that you can move forward in a specific direction. For me this was an extremely liberating time, offering the opportunity to take wild chances not just on new brands and clients, but creatively as well. For Ooni Pizza Ovens I did an entire multi-tiered campaign from my kitchen and backyard, cloning multiple versions of myself to create a full cast of characters even, despite being very shy of the camera. Gulp.

It’s been a crazy, crazy year without questions. For me, that resulted in getting crazy with the work. I’ve been told before that if you want people to take you seriously, you need to focus on one direction and master it. It would seem that during this time, the opposite would prove true. Open up your horizons, lend your unique perspective to brands and subjects that you normally wouldn’t have considered. I feel extremely lucky to have made it through this rough time creatively, and done some unique work that opened up new doors to me, and what’s more, connect me with new people, especially when the world is set on keeping us distanced from one another.

Rs

Roberto Serrini is a filmmaker and editor based in Los Angeles and NYC. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com or his new contactless content creation production hub www.onemanonecamera.com

How To Get a Vimeo Staff Pick.

 

So clickbait, amirite?

This essay isn’t really about how to get a Vimeo Staff Pick. I am fortunate to have a couple of my films to have been showcased on Vimeo’s Parthenon of special Staff Picks, but I couldn’t tell you a recipe on how secure your acceptance. Besides, other people have offered their advice on the subject, so why add to the noise.

What I do want to discuss is why some of my films become Staff Picks, and other’s perhaps not.

I have upward of 600 films on Vimeo. Each unique pieces of work, a mixture of client driven and personal projects. Somewhere along the way I left the ranks of an office worker and dedicated my full-time to being a filmmaker. I say filmmaker because I direct, shoot, and edit. It’s totally consuming, and even when I’m not “working” I’m still working. Like they say however, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. That is true.

Even though I have some compelling work with famous athletes or well-known actors or insane SFX, there are a few films that really resonated with the Vimeo staff. What I find interesting is that they are all projects I did on my own dime, with my own crew, and were totally self-produced. I think this is an important point for any filmmaker.

This last film, “Heretic” is a short documentary about Douglas Little. Douglas is an amazing guy; he’s one of the creative visual geniuses behind sleep no more, an award-winning designer, but what put him on my radar was actually my girlfriend. She forwarded me an article about this guy who makes personalized perfume in his baroque upper west side apartment. He sounded absolutely mad, and I really wanted to meet him.

So I wrote him an email.

I basically said I was a filmmaker, and make short docs about people I find interesting. I asked if he would be interested in shooting a short doc in his apartment. He said yes.

I’ll pause here for a second to explain why these short docs are so important to me. I love narrative work, both commercially and otherwise. Docs though hold a special place in my heart. Living in a city like New York you are literally surrounded by people whose stories are always as or more interesting than most narratives. These are real people, who are your neighbors, your office mates, your friends even. Their stories are already written and all you need to do is record them. For me the short doc is an easy day at the filmmaking gym; just bring your gear and work it out.

For Douglas, along for others I’ve done, I like to keep the crew real small. Just 3 or 4 people. Maybe two lights if any. Good sound. It makes it fast and easy to move around, and easy on the subject too. I’m sure Douglas was open to having 5 people in his living room instead of a crew of a dozen.

I also move fast and cover everything. I have a set list of questions, but really just want to have a conversation with my subject. I find out what’s interesting about them on the spot. What’s fantastic is there is no consequence; there is no client, no one paying you, so it really doesn’t matter if you get something or not, you’re there to experience someone and no more. It’s the going commando of filmmaking and it’s amazing.

Finally you must have fun with it. The crew I roll with is all other filmmakers and shooters. Since there is no client it become professional playtime, meaning we get to use all the toys we never do on paid sets because we’re not exactly sure what they will do. Russian anamorphic glass you bought on-line, a weird 360 camera you want to cut your teeth on, even an old 8mm film camera you found at your grandparents. We get weird, really weird with it, and it makes for some very interesting footage. Weird angles, strange lighting, you name it, the weirder the better. Leave it to the editor to figure out.

That’s me also. I love and hate editing like most editors do. When it’s tedious, it’s life sucking, but when its good, it’s mind-blowing. When I do a personal project like this because there is no consequence to anything we’re doing, it becomes extremely enjoyable. I make some editorial decisions that are frankly horrible and I love it.

In the end what happens is a few things. You get to meet someone who is very interesting. You get to learn and invent new techniques and gear, and you get to try something new in post that may or may not make sense. It’s basically the Jackson Pollock style of filmmaking; throw it against the canvas and see what sticks.

Now I’m sure some people will say that a planned line of attack is a much better use of a filmmakers time, and yes, there is a time and place for that. However if you consider that it takes half a day to shoot, and maybe a week to edit one of these films, it really isn’t that much of a risk.

The result has always been rewarding, not just from accolades, but from the experience of meeting new people and working with my core crew. One film we did together about master mechanic Peter Boggia went on to win a few great festivals and even brought Peter and I over to Italy for a month-long, once-in-a-lifetime motorcycle trip. This latest film about Douglas has spurred a bunch of new work from new clients, which I wouldn’t have even know how to approach otherwise. What I’m saying is that while paid work is great, it’s usually the personal projects that stand out, and often get the new work knocking at your door. What’s more it doesn’t really cost anything to produce, other than some lunch for your friends.

So how do you get a Vimeo Staff Pick? No idea, but if you know please tell me. In the meantime just email someone interesting, grab a camera and a friend, and go make a short doc, you won’t be disappointed.

Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional Filmmaker who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.

Do You Need Film School

No.

Thanks for reading.

Ok, I’ll go a bit deeper.

I went to film school. It was fantastic. I would definitely say that going helped me become a better filmmaker/storyteller/human faster.

Did I need to go to be a filmmaker/storyteller/human? No. But that’s me… some people do need to go, they need the structure, they need to meet the right people. Some people definitely don’t need to go, they are already on their way to making film fantastically. Either way, Film School is definitely not going to hurt.

I studied Film Theory. They didn’t actually offer Production at my school which is a bit different than most academic entries into the wonderful world of going into debt, I mean, making films. I studies a lot of Plato, Eisenstein, watched a years worth of Buster Keaton, and even studied Pornography with Constance Penley. The idea here was to look at film from a psychological, and theoretical standpoint. Instead of learning how to make something look a certain way, we learned why something was a certain way.

I’m not going to say you needed a lot of marijuana to fully understand most of what was taught, but it was California…

Ok, so now I’m out of school, and never even saw a camera. How the hell was I going to make films?

Well, you just sorta do.

You get a camera and you start making films. You’ve heard this before. Like anything, your success depends a lot on you. Also like anything else, you need instruction despite what Robert Rodriguez or Tarantino might have you believe. Sure, you might be able to make a sound by just picking up an instrument, but you’re going to get to playing a song much faster if you have someone teaching you.

Enter the internet. That’s right, it’s much more than just a tool to watch porn.

The first thing I learned was how to edit. This made sense because if you make films, and you suck, which you do, no one will want to edit your film. You can find a cameraman, actors, even a lowly sound guy, but an editor? Good luck. I still have a love hate relationship with editing, even though it eventually became a very serious career for me before I had enough skill to call myself a director. Being an editor is also an advantage at any level of production, no matter what you want to do. It’s like being a composer that plays another instrument. You just get the big picture.

How did I learn? http://www.creativecow.net

Before www.nofilmschool.com and other sites whose sole goal was to replace conventional film school, creative cow was the place to get free instruction. You could, and still can, learn absolutely ANYTHING. Final cut? Check. After Effects? Check. Da Vinci? Check. The name Aharon Rabinowitz taught me more than any professor in college, and for absolutely free. Indebted is not the word.

I have a nostalgia for these tutorials from time to time. They were funny, with cheesy jokes, easy to follow, and were at a time when filmmaking was still so new, and the idea of not having to work at a bar, or hotel, or retail was still so far off.

The way this learning worked was actually quite genius. Say you wanted to make something “glow” in post. You would search for it, and maybe find a tutorial on how to make a light saber effect. Not exactly what you wanted to do, but once you learned the skill you could apply it any creative way you wanted to. If you were in a classroom, the teacher may show you a different “more correct” way to get the result of what you wanted, but this way, you were using tools that perhaps weren’t designed for what you were wanting to do, in a novel way. That created originality. It also allowed you to do anything you want and not feel like you were doing it “wrong”.

There are a dozen ways to skin a cat, and about 30 ways to roto an object out of a frame.

So for me, I feel like film school was a great addition to my career. I feel that if I went to a production school, I may have entered my chosen profession earlier, but, would have had way less of a unique voice. I think by studying the philosophy of cinema first, then teaching myself the technical aspect of filmmaking, my craft is just that, craft. Self made. My own. I would imagine if I went to USC perhaps I would have been on a set at 21, and being told to make film a certain way, having my style be given to me more than formed. Mind you there is nothing wrong with that, I just think personally feeling that I don’t have a cinematic voice and trying to find it years after forming my craft would be way harder than working at the front desk of a hotel for a handful of years before teaching myself enough to call myself a filmmaker and be hired to do just that.

So, do you need film school? No. Is it useful? Yes. Most useful is your drive to learn, which if you have a strong one, the sky is truly the limit.

Best Settings for Perfect Drone Footage. Me Thinks.

You know you’re doing something “right” when people take the time to ask you how you are doing it. Back in the day… when I was just starting out as a filmmaker, I would guard my secrets closely. It was a race for resources back then, and I didn’t want anyone to get my meat.

That perhaps is the worst sounding metaphor I’ve ever written.

Literary faux pas aside, and thanks to savvy people like Phillip Bloom and Vinny Laforet, I’m perhaps a bit older, wiser, and more secure now. I make a point of saying this from the top because I think it’s important you share your knowledge. Gaurding it is a false sense of security. There is already a kid younger then you that is better then you by the time you read this, so don’t worry about your meat, just go vegan.

Still not any better.

Enough old man gibberish (I’m 32 by the way;) onto the friggin’ settings.

The key settings for good drone footage is this holy trinity:

1) Proper camera settings

2) Proper Drone Operation

3) Proper Color Grading

There is no holy grail of camera settings that will guarantee you will have beautiful footage. Sorry kids, Trix are for kids (they still say that? I miss the 80’s. Shit. Im actually 35. Sorry)

1) Camera Settings:

We’re using the GoPro Hero 3, 4, or 5. The rundown is this:

• Turn your wireless off. It sucks up juice and can interfere with your drone/FPV.
• Use ProTune. Protune is the flatpass color space that will allow you to get the most range out of your footage. Highlights will be less blown out, shadows less crunchy. You will have to Color Correct and be a man about it.
• Shoot 1080p at 60fps. If you really want, 2.7k at 48fps. You want to over crank (slowmo) so that it will play back at 23.976fps in post. This gives you the buttery nice footage everyone creams over.
• Set your white balance. Usually I’m around 5500k. If you leave it on auto, you can have a color shift while filming which is a PITA to get out in post (PITA is Pain In The Ass BTW) (BTW is By The Way).
• Do not use GoPro color. Use Flat. Who the hell are they to tell you what is the correct color anyway? What is this? The 40’s? Am I allowed to ride the bus mister? (Seriously thought, if you are not comfortable with Color Correcting its not the worse thing in the world to use it).
• Limit your ISO to 400 if you are shooting daylight. You want to keep your grain down to a minimum and your shutter as slow as possible. Higher shutter can result in jerky footage and even result in the dreaded “jello effect” (will Bill Cosby’s past never stop hurting us…)
• Do yourself a favor and slap a good quality ND filter and/or Polarizer on you GoPro. You’ll be able to shoot at a lower shutter speed and you’ll thank me for it afterwards.
• Set your sharpness down to LOW. No one likes a show off. Besides, you don’t want your footage to look like your dad shot it on his MiniDV Z10 from the 90’s, or worse, an early Paul Thomas Anderson film
• Finally, choose your lens option. Superview is a gimmick. Ultra wide is ok, but listen here… you will have to take it in post and do some “optical compensation” on it to make it look like you’re not flying on a magic front door and seeing the world through a peep hole. The result is in a pretty severe letterbox, which can be dope, if you’re Quentin Taranteeno. The same goes for Wide (less of a letterbox) and Medium is usually the best option for best quality. I’ll explain more of this in the post section, just trust.

2) Fly Right.

I am happy to say that I get lotsa calls from creatives and filmmakers that need some aerial footage and they want me to knock it out of the park for them. Then they ask my rate, at which time I tell them. My day rate is more then a basic drone costs. Some filmmakers get confused about this, and some have the cajones to ask, “well, why wouldn’t I just buy my own drone and shoot it myself” to which I tell them, they absolutely should. That’s a much better plan, and I’m obviously don’t understand how money or commerce works, besides, what is this strange device near my ear with the small people inside?

Let me set the record straight. Just like you can buy a camera and “film” something, it doesn’t make you a DP. You can also buy scalpels on eBay for $5.74 but that don’t mean you a doctor, you dig? And doctors charge WAAAAAY more then I do FYI (FYI stands for For Your Information).The reason I charge more then my equipment is the following:

• My drones are not “stock”. They are the hot rods of flying machines. They have FPV, come with client monitors, are specifically calibrated to shoot film, all the trim has been manually set, and they have been tested over and over. So really, while you could buy a drone with what I charge, you could only afford the Dodge Dart of drones my friend.
• I come with at least two drones. Yes. Two. I own 6. I own 6 and come with at least 2 is because, well, they fly, so they can crash. And they do crash. They are machines, and nothing’s perfect. Especially if you are taking risky shots, then, you better have a backup plan.
• They are insured. Up to 1,000,000.00 in damage. Yes. A million. If I break them, or break you, then I have a company that pays you/them money. I’m a professional, and that costs money.
• Flying for one day is more like 3 days of work. No one considers prep-time with drones. It takes a day to charge the 20 batteries I bring with me to set. A whole day. And you have to babysit them because they have a tendency to explode by themselves, usually when no one is watching. They are dangerous, and have to be treated with respect, which takes time, and that costs money. Checking the gear thoroughly as well before and after is key, as they are potentially flying death machines. The day before and after is what you are paying for to assure they don’t take your head off.
• Finally, YOU ARE PAYING FOR MY EXPERIENCE MORE THEN ANYTHING. If you think you can buy a drone and fly it as well as someone that has been doing it for years, go ahead. Maybe you can. Maybe you’re a savant of the skies. But lemme just offer you this little nugget: years ago, when I first started, I went through 3 drones before I even took a job. And I’ve been playing video games since I was 6, not to mention am an accomplished rally and motorcycle driver. These are not as easy to fly as you think they are, but please, don’t let me stop you. You gotta learn sometime.

So you gotta fly right (jeez what an old man rant. I’m actually 37). What does flying right mean? Well, it means knowing three things:

A) Your craft

B) Your conditions

C) Your shot

A) This is the fun part, and where the experience really comes in. Every drone will fly differently, even if its the same model of drone, they all have a specific characteristic to them. On top of which, your drone settings will effect how fast they accelerate, bank, yaw, or rotate, and if they ease in or out of the rotation for you. On top of which the camera you are flying, the rotors you are using, even the type of props you use will effect flight. Sometimes I use PVC props as they are a little softer and make flying more like you’re driving an old Caddy. Sometimes you want carbon fiber props for speed and sharp controlling. You have to modify your craft and flying style based on the other two points.

B) Conditions are the control in this science experiment. The wind is going to decide a lot for you, as is the temperature, as is the sun’s position. Generally, and this is a very general statement, you never want to do a shot going upwind; let the wind work for you, switch off your GPS control and float down the airstream. This will give you silky smooth shots. You can also push the speed limits for your craft if you fly with your wind. As for sun, you have to be careful of the dreaded “prop shadow”. This happens when the sun is about 2 o’clock above your lens; the shadow of your props can buzz the sensor and create this lame rolling effect that you cannot take out in post. So be aware, and do some tests if you have to.

C) Finally the shot you want to capture will be important in this equation. Sometime the other two things in this list make it difficult to capture what the director has in his mind. You have to be creative (and sometimes persuasive). Generally it is better to fly backwards at high speed; this way you don’t get props in the shot. That means chase shots become follow shots. If you’ve ever tried to fly out a window or door from inside to out, you will quickly realize that the cross wind will play a major part. Coming around corners of buildings even chasing a vehicle that passes you can created a bump in your shot. You will have to be ready for that.

3) Post Magic

So you’ve made it this far. Good for you! Usually I just hand off the footage I shoot to the production and they have the fun of treating it in post. I always like to give them a little breakdown of my preferred post procedures, because I really feel that the footage isn’t done, and my job isn’t either, until they treat the raw footage a bit. Color Correcting they can do any way they wish, but there is some little tricks to help it look its best:

• You should transcode your footage to ProRes 422 and make sure you interpret your footage to play back at 23.976fps. The H264 that comes out of the GoPro is fantastic for what it is, but it’s not great to work with in post. You’re not getting any more quality out of the footage by transcoding it to ProRes, but, when color grading, you are lessening the possibilities of artifacts, and ultimately, keeping render times down as H264 is very labor intensive for the computer to work with.
• You need to optically compensate for your fisheyed image. There are a few pluggins that can do this for you in FCX, FCP, Avid, etc. – what I use is good ol’ After Effects. Optics Compensation is an effect that comes standard and works like a charm.  Here’s how it works, see the pics below:
1) Import your footage. Slap on Optics Compensation.
2) POV is the amount you are reducing the fisheye effect. 50-60 is a good place to start. Also click on “reverse lens disorder”, thats what takes it out instead of adds it.
3) Your footage looks better, BUT, you’re not showing your entire frame as its zooming in for you so you have no black pixels on screen. Click on “optimal pixels” to see what I mean. Now you have a bow of black above and below, but all of your beautiful frame.
4) Letterbox that shit like the pro’s (trim your comp size rather then add black bars if you want my 2 cents. No reason to waste bandwidth on black bars. There’s probably a race joke in there somewhere but I’m too old for that shit. Im actually 58.)

Wow. Yous did it. Now you’re g’damn Terrance Malik you handsome sonnovabitch.

optic-compensation

• If you shoot super wide you will have a larger letterbox, if you shoot narrow you will have none. For my money, with “wide” you can get away without not letter boxing… sometimes. I always think it looks much more impressive taking out the fisheye and adding the letterbox. Cinematic and shit.
• Finally, color GRADE your film. There is a lot of great videos about the different between color correcting and color grading that I won’t bore you with, but I will say this, “color correcting is making one shot look like another so that all your shots look like they were filmed at the same place at the same time. Color Grading is giving your footage emotion, reason, and a unique characteristic that adds a personality to the footage that wasn’t there before.” Generally your footage will look all the same, you won’t need to color correct per se. But you should grade the film especially if you listened to me and shot “flat” with protune turned on. Crush down your blacks a bit, and stretch out your whites. Don’t add too much color back and you will have a beautiful film-like look. Another great plugin that I robbed from Phillip Bloom is Film Convert. It’s got a GoPro setting that basically takes all the guess work out. Also Lumetri in Premiere comes with GoPro presets that do a fine job.

And thats it folks. (I’m laughing inside, cause we’re at 2,370 words right now, so “that’s it” is kinda a joke. I’m staring at 40 people). There’s a few moving parts for making great drone footage, but once you get the hang of it, and you play with it a while, it will become second nature. Of course choosing the right track to edit to, and being an editing mastermind also makes what you shoot fly off the screen, but thats a whole other blog post.

In the end… this is one of the products:

Enjoy the settings! Happy flying y’all.

Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.