Wikinews interviews Jeremy Hanke, editor of MicroFilmmaker Magazine

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Wikinews held an exclusive interview with Jeremy Hanke, editor of MicroFilmmaker Magazine. The magazine, which is free to read online, was started as a resource for the low budget moviemaker and features book, independent film, equipment and software reviews as well as articles on film distribution, special effects and lighting.

He says that one of the goals of the magazine is to "connect low-budget filmmakers via a feeling of community, as many.....often compete so viciously against one another in film festivals for coveted "shots" with Hollywood, that they can quickly forget their similarities."

When asked if films made on a shoestring budget can really compete with those made for millions of dollars, he replied, "no…yes…and absolutely. Allow me to explain." And so he does in the interview below.


Wikinews waves Left.png((Wikinews (Joseph Ford)Wikinews waves Right.png)) Why was MicroFilmmaker Magazine started? How does it help the thousands of independent filmmakers out there with big ideas and little cash?

Mr. Hanke: As a budding low-budget filmmaker at the beginning of the new millenia, I found that it was very hard to find anyone who had practical articles on making films as professional as possible with little money. Most of the video and film magazines would talk about equipment that could range from $10,000 - $30,000 apiece, which clearly was out of the $7K budget for my first film, which had come from scrimping and saving while working as a commissioned computer salesman. As I did more research, I discovered that statistically, as many as 70%-80% of all Indie films were being made for less than $30,000, which, obviously, my first film’s budget definitely fell into. Hollywood considers anything below $100,000 to have such a low budget that it’s considered a no-budget film. Because of that low regard, no one was wasting their time making magazines or websites designed to help these less-than-no-budget filmmakers, despite the fact that they were (and are becoming even more) the majority of filmmakers in the world.
With no publicized help, I made my first two feature films over the course of four years with XL-1s and other equipment borrowed from local colleges, utilizing helpers that were of extremely varied experiences and drive. In the process, I learned a pile of things through hard knocks.
After these films were mostly completed, I remember looking online for any new sites that might have cropped up devoted to low-budget filmmaking. That’s when I found some devoted to microcinema—a boutique-style of video-making that’s largely composed of home videos and short parodies that are meant to be shared with friends and neighbors. The term originated in San Francisco and was designed to be similar to the micro-brewery movement, which encouraged home brews that were shared in communities. The concepts of a community of sharing and the emphasis on low-budgets were an encouragement for us, but most microcinema never tried to look professional or strove for high standards, so it fell short of the sort of help I was looking for.
Shortly after that, I found a company called Redrock Micro, which had built a 35mm lens adapter for less than $1K which allowed low-budget filmmakers to get film-like depth of field from $2000-$4000 cameras and SLR lenses. This was about 15 times cheaper than the closest competitor from P+S Technik. Not only that, but they had such a passion for low-budget filmmakers, that they were offering kits with plans and a key part so you could build your own 35mm adapter for $45. I was so blown away by an equipment manufacturer caring that much about low-budget filmmakers that it inspired me to create the first magazine aimed specifically to help other ultra-low budget filmmakers who had to struggle as much as I did.
As you can imagine, the name “MicroFilmmaker” came from a combination of the word “Microcinema” (with its low budgets and community approach) and Filmmaking (which we specifically chose over “videomaking,” because we feel that filmmaking is able to be accomplished with any medium, since “films” are a product, not a recording medium).
As I inferred, I wanted to connect low-budget filmmakers via a feeling of community, as many low-budget filmmakers often compete so viciously against one another in film festivals for coveted “shots” with Hollywood, that they can quickly forget their similarities. (We also wanted to remind them that low-budget filmmakers actually substantially outnumber their counterparts in Hollywood, which can be an amazing source of power if we all work together, rather than in isolated groups.) The best way we saw to do this was by providing a vast resource library of articles on low-budget filmmaking with a serious eye for stretching a dollar, in-depth reviews of software and equipment specifically evaluated from a low-budget perspective, DIY tutorials on building helpful equipment, listings of special readers-only discounts of different products, and an area for finding fully deferred musicians and score composers for your films.
Of course, one of the most unique things at MFM is something no other magazine offers: in-depth critiques of current low-budget films by trained low-budget directors and producers to help filmmakers become better at their craft. This last piece of our magazine’s offerings is the only thing that we charge any money for, because it is so specialized to a specific filmmaker’s film. (Although there is a charge, the amount is no more than the cost of a submission to a film festival with shorts running $25 and feature-length films running $50, which is used to provide a small reimbursement to the critic for their hard, detailed work and is substantially less than the $300-$500 most film analysis companies charge.)
With this publicly viewable critique service, we’ve had films submitted from every continent (with the exception of Antartica [sic]). Filmmakers have ranged from total film beginners to former Hollywood people who’ve become passionate about low-budget filmmaking, which is a really awesome swath of filmmaking humanity. It’s always cool when we’ll have a filmmaker submit a film that has problems and then, after the critique, change their approach for the next film so that the upcoming film has a much better score. We’ve had filmmakers jump from relatively low scores with one film to getting our coveted “Best of Show” award with the very next film.

Wikinews waves Left.png((J.F.Wikinews waves Right.png)) MicroFilmmaker Magazine is free to read on its website. Why did you choose this over the paid subscription route?

Mr. Hanke: There were so many scams on the internet that were designed to prey on filmmakers, that we didn’t want to make low-budget filmmakers—who had the least money to spend on making their films in the first place—have to pay to get the information to make their films the best they possibly could be. I and a number of my top writers are believing Christians and we wanted this magazine to be an act of service to the low-budget filmmakers, not a money-making scam. Clearly our readers have found it to be useful, because many people who have very different beliefs and values than we do regularly frequent our magazine’s pages and have asked for our help with all processes of filmmaking—even on films that are violently anti-Christian. We don’t turn away anyone that needs help and do our best to help in any way we can.
This is also the reason we chose to make MFM an exclusively online magazine. Because of its online nature, our operating costs are lower than they would be if it were printed, which allows us to survive on online advertising without having to charge our readers a dime. Additionally, while printed magazines can be more lucrative (even the ones that are paid for by advertising and not by subscription fees), they would not be able to reach the web’s global population of filmmakers that need help.

Wikinews waves Left.png((J.F.Wikinews waves Right.png)) Today, most of the films we see in theatres cost millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, to make. Do you think it's really possible to make films that can compete with these on a shoestring budget?

Mr. Hanke: I would say no…yes…and absolutely. Allow me to explain.
Can you get the same quality of image on a $5,500 Panasonic HVX200 as you can get off a $120,000 Grass Valley Viper? No, of course not. There are all sorts of compression and quality differences between the affordable cameras and the ones that Hollywood uses. (However, this is becoming less and less the case with the extremely popular wild-card camera company, RED. They’ve made a higher-quality-than-Hollywood camera in the Red One for about 1/10th the cost of a comparable Sony camera that Hollywood use. Additionally, they’re about to release an even less expensive camera in the Red Scarlet, which will be unveiled at NAB ’08.)
Now moving on to the “yes” part. When you take out the image quality differences, the amount of leaps in software and compositing abilities that are now available to the shoestring budget filmmaker are amazing. For example, there is now extremely powerful greenscren software that’s designed to allow you to key DV and HD footage and yields quite nice results. (I’m actually in the process of working on a book on this subject, and have found the growth in this area really impressive.) Additionally, a number of special effects programs either have been created for low-budgets, like VisionLab by FXHome, or have dropped their prices for low budget users, like Apple’s Shake, which dropped from $3,000 to $500. Many of these programs allows you to create everything from blaster fire to lightning and composite them in one place. And, for folks who want to use Hollywood quality particle effects, the quite impressive particleIllusion is only $300 and was recently used in the new Rambo film, as well as being used in many other Hollywood productions.
In addition to the software improvements, the 24fps recording of cameras like the DVX100 and the HVX200 when combined with the shallow depth-of-field created by the Redrock Micro M2 and other 35mm lens adapters gives digital filmmakers a way to create an amazing filmic look—even if they can’t do it with the really expensive cameras we mentioned earlier.
Finally, the “absolutely” part. The most powerful thing that allows low-budget filmmakers to compete with Hollywood films is content. The fact that so much quality filmmaking gear can be had at such a low prices means that anyone who is willing to put in the work to write a good script and shoot it well can have a film that can gain a following. Some of the best TV shows I have seen of late could easily have been shot as a low budget film. (For example, much of CBS’ Jericho, which might have been the most creative show to be introduced in the last twenty years, could easily have been shot on a shoestring budget as a film.)

Wikinews waves Left.png((J.F.Wikinews waves Right.png)) Distributing a movie can be one of the hardest aspects of production. Do you think that today, with the Internet, it's easier to go about doing this and make a profit than it might have been twenty years ago?

Mr. Hanke: Actually, yes I do. Today, something like 50% of all Indie films turn a profit. However, considering that many of the films that are made are still extremely esoteric avant garde art films, you can probably estimate that 70-80% of films that deal with any form of readily accessible narrative can turn a profit. (This is the huge advantage of shooting a $10,000 no-budget film as opposed to a $200 million Hollywood film. The $200 million Hollywood film has to sell $400 million in tickets to turn a profit, to cover both the production and advertising budgets. The $10,000 film often only has to sell $15,000 worth of DVDs, Amazon UnBox viewings, and art house shows to turn a profit.)
One of the easiest ways to take advantage of the internet to make your film profitable is to use the CreateSpace service (which used to be CustomFlix and is now owned by Amazon). They allow you to upload your entire film and high-rez cover art and then they just print a copy whenever someone orders it from or your website, issuing you a percentage without you ever having to buy pre-printed copies to sell. Additionally, they will let you create a rentable or purchaseable download of your film through the Amazon UnBox service, which further enables you to get your film out there and make it profitable. (Just remember to make a sexy website with a trailer for your film to encourage people to check it out. If you want a Flash site but aren’t Flash savvy, the new Adobe Encore CS3 actually has some very powerful abilities to create a professional Flash website with only your DVD menu creation skills required.)

Wikinews waves Left.png((J.F.Wikinews waves Right.png)) Do you have any advice for the amateur filmmakers reading this?

Mr. Hanke: Of course. Some of these may sound like blatant plugs, and I suppose they are, but they are the actual pieces of advice I would give (and have given) to a new filmmaker.
1. Audio may not show up in your video monitor, but it is easily the most important part of your film. Make sure you understand that and use a decent shotgun mic to get clean dialogue, or you will be killing yourself in post. (We have a number of articles on audio, mic positioning, and ADR s at MFM.)
2. Start with a short film. If you have a feature length film you’re dying to do, shoot a scene of it as a short first. This will allow you to make your mistakes on a film that hasn’t eaten up years of your life. (For example, if you screw up the audio I mentioned in #1, it’s a whole lot easier to redub a 5 minute film than it is to redub a 110 minute film. Been there, done that; please don’t make the same mistake!)
3. Read through all of the archives of MFM, as we have tried to cover the better part of four years of low-budget film school for free and have endeavored to make it easy to find things. (Additionally, read the critiques of other people’s films, even if you haven’t seen them, as you can often avoid a lot of first time mistakes by reading our detailed commentaries on these films.)
4. After you’ve done all you can to preplan, just do it—and give yourself permission to make the mistakes you undoubtedly will.
5. Finally, when you’ve edited it to the best of your ability, send in your film to be critiqued by MFM. There’s something about submitting your film to a place where it will be publicly analyzed that proves to someone that he/she really want to grow as a filmmaker. Once that fire’s in you, you won’t settle for making a film that isn’t an improvement over your last one.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

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