Friday, October 30, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 3b: Long Closing Credits

Much like over-long opening credits, long closing credits say a lot about where the filmmaker's focus has been. Usually: not on the film itself. And since nobody wants a burger that's all bun and no patty, here are some words of advice from our countless hours sitting in front of short film submissions.

1. No bloopers. Seriously, we're glad you guys had a fun time making it, but keep the outtakes for your cast and crew who are better able to appreciate them. An audience is just waiting for the next movie to start.

2. No long moody fade-outs. If you have an original score or a song you'd like to use to send the audience on it's way, that's great; keep it under 30 seconds. Using the end credits as a kind of denouement is fine for feature films, where the audience has already committed a couple hours of their time, but if your film is 5 minutes long, we don't need 2 minutes to come down from it. We're waiting for the next movie to start.

3. No interminably-held stills of cast & crew names. As with the superfluous "starring" lines in opening credits, chances are good that we don't know any of the people in your end credits (hell, we don't know most of the people in the end credits of Hollwood movies!). So get your scroll on and be done with it. There's another movie after yours.

On the positive side, screen credit is one of a very few things (along with food and copy) that struggling, cash-strapped filmmakers can offer to those working hard for little or nothing. And crediting those who have made your film possible is extremely important, both karmically and for the more earthbound practicality of getting good people to work with you again. That said, if a viewer wants to follow up on who your gaffer was, they'll search for your website.

The truth is, if we're screening a block of short films and the credits start to run a little long, we'll just cut them off. It's not personal, and if you're just doing it to look professional, it really doesn't. It looks like you don't want your movie to end. And ultimately, if you haven't made a good impression by the time the end credits start to roll, well, it ain't gonna happen.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Michael Kupperman to Guest Judge November 7th Screening!

We are pleased to announce that acclaimed cartoonist Michael Kupperman will be joining us as a special guest judge at the November 7th Iron Mule screening!

Here's a little something about Mr. Kupperman:

Michael Kupperman lives and works in Brooklyn with his wife Muire and son Ulysses. His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in magazines from the New Yorker to Fortune, newspapers from The New York Times to the Village Voice, and numerous books, including many published by McSweeneys. His first book, "Snake'N'Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret," was also adapted by the author as an Adult Swim animated pilot which can be seen online; two strips from that book were also adapted into cartoons for the Comedy Central series TV Funhouse. Other television work including drawing a TV Funhouse cartoon for Saturday Night Live, and writing for The Peter Serafinowicz show on BBC2 in the UK. He can currently be found on Twitter, where his user name is MKupperman.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 3: Long Opening Credits

We have always been perplexed with above the title credits for short comedy films.

Sure, if you are able to wrangle a name actor to appear in your film, then you want to splash that name all over the DVD and in the opening credits of your film.

But if you're making a short comedy and we put the DVD in the player and have to sit through a series of credits such as "Joe Nobody" and "Melissa Who" in a "So-and-so film," then we know pretty much right off the bat that this film is not for us. If we don't already know who these people are, then we don't care. You're just eating time. We'll watch the end credits if we're curious who was playing which role.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But most of the time, above the title credits show us that the filmmaker is misguided about what is important in a short comedy film.

We don't care what the names of your actors are. We don't need an expensive DVD cover with their names plastered all over it. On that note, we don't need anything on your DVD cover since we're going to watch it anyway (more on that in a future post).

The only reason for names to appear before the title or before the movie begins is if there is a contractual agreement that they appear there. For those of you who don't know, that's why you see actors' names in certain positions in the credits of Hollywood features and why they're listed the way they are on movie posters. An actor's contract may insist that his or her name appear at the start of a movie in a certain position. Other actors' agents may know this and also fight to get their client placed in a specific place as well. These choices are not creative, or even in the power of the filmmaker much of the time.

So if a filmmaker is doing this on his or her own, he or she is merely trying to appear professional by doing what he or she sees in Hollywood films. OK for your feature. You want to look like you're playing with the big boys with the opening credits of your feature. But for a short film, you're just eating up valuable time.

We often receive film submissions with long opening credit sequences in the 2-minute range. We even received one with a 5 minute sequence! We felt that no matter how good that movie was, we couldn't justify screening a movie that had an opening title sequence longer than many other very good short comedies we've shown. Luckily though, the movie wasn't any good, proving, as we mentioned earlier in this post, that filmmakers who spend time on long opening credit sequences don't understand how to make good short films.

We would like to note that an opening credit sequence that is used to set the mood of the film or reveal plot or character information is perfectly fine. A funny opening credit sequence would be great too. It's just that filmmakers who submit to us with long opening credit sequences tend not to do that kind of thing. Because, well, you know (see above).

Signe Baumane's "Teat Beat of Sex" now out on DVD!

Our good friend, animator extraordinaire Signe Baumane, has just released a DVD of her "Teat Beat of Sex" series!

Signe is a highly accomplished NYC animator, who seems to know absolutely everyone in the animation world. We've screened several of her films, and they always get a very strong reaction from our audience. Signe's (often surreal) work deals with sex in an explicit, yet charming, honest and fresh way. This series is a good example of Signe at her best.

Signe is an independent filmmaker who distributes her own work. She's always making new films and bringing them to festivals and getting them seen by audiences around the world. She's an inspiration to all us independent filmmakers who are trying to make original work and get it to an audience. So help support a real independent filmmaker by checking out the website and ordering a DVD!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Notes From Our October 3rd Screening

Thank you to those of you who made it out last Saturday to our October Short Comedy Film Screening Event Extravaganza. For those unable to make the show, here's how it all went down:

After introductions were made, hosts Jay Stern and Victor Varnado told us a little bit about their journey last year to Estonia, where the Iron Mule Festival was invited to do a show in an industrial warehouse. Since words could not describe the splendor, Victor thankfully cut together a two-part series culled from their video diaries of the experience. Although Jay and Victor seemed unimpressed (and at times, downright baffled) by Estonia's post-Soviet squalor, inexpressive audiences and gun-toting waitresses, we got a good chuckle out of it. And after the screen faded to a "To be continued..." we headed into our first block of films for the night.

"Every Seven Minutes" by Josh Bass started us off on the right foot as we began a program of horror comedies, just in time (well, a litttle early) for Halloween. The audience laughed and nodded in familiarity with one of the most terrifying sounds in the modern world: the alarm clock. Next up was Michael Goldberg's "Boo," his NYU thesis film about a babysitter's run-in with a persistant, oversized and possibly spectral trick-or-treater. Michael was in the audience and came forward to take questions about the film, his curious method of auditioning only one person (and then asking for a callback!) and his animation work for Sesame Street. Shouting corrective commentary from the audience was previous Iron Mule contributor and star of the film, Eliza Skinner.

Our Guest Judge for the evening was James Urbaniak, star of such films as Henry Fool, American Splendor and the animated series The Venture Bros. Jay asked if he had any thoughts so far, and boy did he! Flipping through his notebook, Mr, Urbaniak shared a few brief and pithy remarks he'd jotted down about the films. Despite having mentioned, when he was introduced to the audience, that he'd been to a few shorts programs before and "they can be spotty affairs" (it's true, they can be), he seemed to be enjoying himself.

And on to the next block of films which began with more footage from Estonia, this time featuring a dance party with wall-projected "art films," strangely-colored drinks and white face paint. By the end of it, the experience seems to have left our host-heroes exhausted, disoriented and ready to go home, but at least the audience was having a good time. Then came "My Apartment," by dpShorts, a collaboration between dp and Kasey Williamson, who were in the audience as well. The jaunty rap song that narrates the main character's tour of his tiny Manhattan bachelor pad got at least one request for a soundtrack copy, and possibly a sing-along. Though that didn't happen, Kasey and dp were on hand to answer questions about the source of the project (a friend complaining that he hadn't seen dp's new apartment yet), and also their other collaborations which will be featured at the next three Iron Mule screenings. Afterward, Guest Judge Urbaniak offered high praise for "breathing fresh life into the tired rapping-white-guy genre."

The final block of films began with Iron Mule's first featured short from France! It also happens to be our first submission from France, but any accusations of francophile favoritism are beside the point because the film is funny. "An Angel Stops By..." is a story about a porn director struggling with temperamental talent, a tyrannical producer, and an eager priest who must help him clean up his act before the angel of death takes his life. Continuing in a more morbid vein, "Gazoontite," by Jack Ferry, follows a young man who learns that tuning out the world can have its advantages, even if its achieved by rather gruesome means. The first film in the block piqued Mr. Urbaniak's interest in the possibilty of French porn, and the latter film he called "mythic."

Our Wanna Be A Star film for October (for more information, see our website) was entitled "There's Never Enough Cabbage," featuring audience winner Floria Chi and directed by Dan Simon. A disturbing tale of childhood trauma and vegetable imprinting, it was also a fitting end to our program of the hilarious and the horrifying. Star Flora Chi was on hand to draw the name of next month's winner: Jami Simon. Jami will be familiar to that night's audience as the cabbage-eating mother, and we look forward to seeing her again next month in "Aluminum Siding," which will be directed by Michael Goldburg ("Happy Trails," IM 7/09).

Once all the ballots had been counted, James Urbaniak announced the night's big winners. The Audience Favorite award went to "My Apartment," and the Judge's Award went to "Boo." Congratulations and beers were passed around as filmmakers, audience members and judges mingled in the 92YTribeca cafe before heading out into the warm October night. Thanks to everyone in attendance, and we hope to see you November 7th for our next round of the finest comedy shorts, featuring more from dpShorts, Jack Ferry ("Gazoontite") and others.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 2: In Praise of Story

Although we here at Iron Mule receive a wide variety of material, our submissions can usually be divided into three convenient categories: Mockumentaries, Parodies and Narrative (with a special, close-to-our-heart fourth category: Crazy-ass Bizarro Animation). This third category, the Narrative one, is the least common, and we’d like to take a moment to lament that.

For starters, we do not by any means believe that every movie has to have a story. Many of our award-winners, judges’ and audience favorites, have been from that mysterious fourth category, the plotless animated pieces that hurtle forward on the steam of their own creative hubris, seemingly making it up as they go along. However, being animation, the filmmakers have clearly had to consider every frame in detail. If only our live-action narratives received that much attention.

Though we are not expecting every film we receive to be structured around a story, it is actually much harder to NOT have one. Because, when a movie starts, a human audience will automatically seek out a story. It’s not our fault; it’s a survival instinct we’ve had for millenia, we can’t help it. If you’re eschewing a story, you’d better come up with something great to put in its place. And this brings us to the first category: the Mockumentary.

Rather than a story, the mockumentary often revolves around a subject or style the filmmakers think is weird (but in a cool way): exercise videos, infomercials, nature documentaries, art films, history. You name it, we’ve seen it mocked with a semi-serious tone. The problem is that these films tend to have only one joke: “exercise videos/informercials/art films/etc. are goofy and self-important,” and the audience will pick up on that pretty fast. Then comes the follow-up question, the raison d’etre for filmmaking (and storytelling): “Okay; so what’s next?” And more often than not, there is no “next.” So, if that’s all you’ve got, you’d better make it quick. We have certainly shown movies like this, structured around one punchline, but they are rarely over 5 minutes long, and often under 3. Mockumentaries also tend to exist because the filmmakers are cracking each other up. And while making each other laugh is a great place to start, it’s imperative that you show your movie (or, better yet, your screenplay) to people who don’t think everything you do is funny. It’ll save you a lot of time and money, and it’ll help ensure that your film works for an audience that consists of more than just your friends. Listen to what they have to say, particularly the criticisms, and then RE-WRITE IT. A few times. Always.

The pitfalls of a parody are a little different. A parody is, in many ways, almost always an inside joke. It comes from the filmmaker’s personal relationship with the source material. If he or she (though these films are invariably made by males) finds kung fu movies to be silly and poorly-paced and over-acted, then the filmmaker will make a silly, poorly-paced and over-acted movie as a bewildering “homage” to a genre he claims to love, not realizing that some people may find those movies pretty entertaining on their own terms, and not as camp. So a parody won’t work for anyone who feels differently about the genre being parodied. (Unless you actually have something to say about the material, or you’re using the source material as a metaphor to talk about something else, but that would be a satire. And that would require a story.)

As opposed to mockumentaries or parodies, narrative is exceedingly easy. You have a conflict; someone wants something they don’t have and other people keep them from acquiring it. For a short comedy, it helps if that “something” is a physical object or a readily identifiable goal: a job, a car, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, money, love, respect, revenge, etc. Even the most well-known and successful mockumentaries (“This Is Spinal Tap”) and parodies (“Airplane!”) have solid storylines. And the bonus: if done thoughtfully and with care, this NEVER gets old. We will watch stories unfold over and over until we die. However, we will quickly grow tired of hearing that ‘70’s cop shows are goofy, or that kung fu movies are over-the-top. If that’s really the subject you want to address, try sticking a story in there. It doesn’t have to have a by-the-numbers, three-act structure, it doesn’t have to be “conventional.” Just try giving one of your characters a simple objective. Then try telling this story to other people and see if they think it’s funny. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Which is why it’s even more baffling to us that so few of the films we receive even attempt it.

When we sit down to watch a submission (and at least three different people will, by the way), the first impression goes a long way. If that first impression is, “Oh god, another mockumentary,” or “Oh god, another parody,” your film has an uphill climb ahead. Not just with us but with nearly every other festival you’re going to submit to. A simple story, well-told, will have a much better chance of getting shown than a more ambitious ten-minute, one-joke parody that leaves the audience thinking, as with any bad joke, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”