Archive for the ‘Challenge’ Category

Trailer competition update

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

beeThanks to many readers, I think there’s a pretty clear game plan emerging for how to do The Nines Trailer Challenge. Several people have offered specific help, both advice and hosting. Bless you. Your email addresses have been duly noted for future follow-up.

Here are the questions I asked, and the answers I got.

1. What’s the best video format for sending out the trailer footage?

For good quality, DV or Motion JPEG are platform-agnostic choices that will end up in solid web video. I’m meeting with the editor tomorrow to start figuring out just how big the files would end up being.

Some participants will want smaller files for an easier download experience. MPEG-4 is super-compressed, but can be up-rezzed acceptably. It will never look as good as the DV footage, but that’s a trade-off that some people will accept.

There are other possible formats, but at a certain point, the paradox of choice kicks in. Offering the footage in six flavors could actually make it less useful, increasing confusion and limiting torrent seeds.

2. One clip, or many?

Almost everyone felt that separate clips in a .zipped file would make life simpler. Some readers suggested distributing project files for Final Cut or Avid. My gut is that a folder of clips is pretty much just waiting to be dropped into a bin, so there’s no great advantage in creating separate templates for FCP or Avid (or whatever editing system you chose to use).

We’ll also include portions of Alex Wurman’s musical score, perhaps as a separate download. Using the “official” music won’t be a requirement.

3. Should it be a competition? If there’s a competition, how long of a deadline?

Across the board, yes on a competition. A week would be enough time; adding in a second weekend might be even better. At this point, the start of August is looking like a possibility, but the exact dates are TBD. The prize would be bragging rights, and inclusion on the DVD if we can clear rights issues.

4. What’s the best way to get the footage out there? Torrent? Download?

A torrent is pretty much a must for the big (DV) file. With good initial seeding, a clear start date, and fair practices on everybody’s part (i.e. keep seeding), it should work out. But I’d still like more information and examples of people who’ve done this thing successfully.

In terms of traditional downloading, generous offers of bandwidth should help with getting the smaller files distributed — and possibly setting up the initial torrents.

Calling on the hive mind

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

beeOne advantage of having a brilliant and devoted readership like mine is that I can occasionally reverse the Q&A process and appeal for your insight. Here’s the situation…

At Sundance, I talked about my plan-slash-pipe-dream of releasing the underlying footage of The Nines simultaneously to its DVD release. Essentially, you could load it into your Avid or Final Cut system and it would show up neatly divided into bins. From there, you could cut your own version — or better yet, mash in other content to create something unique: The Nines vs. The Grifters, or Donnie Darknines: The Koalapocalypse.1

Yes, you could do some of this just by ripping the DVD, but having the original material allows for much more sophisticated re-cutting, just as the a cappella version of Jay-Z’s The Black Album enabled a thousand remixes and reinterpretations.

There are legal and political hurdles to be sure, but all of that’s months away.

Right now, we’re surprisingly close to having an official trailer.2 After seeing vastly different approaches–comedy to thriller to existential drama–it became clear that no matter what the tone, there are approximately 15-20 shots which were in nearly every version of the trailer. Which is a pretty small number. Which raises a natural question…

Why not let people cut their own trailer?

Surprisingly, everyone who could veto the idea hasn’t. So I think we’re going to do it. But that means there’s a lot to figure out, much of which falls well outside my area of expertise. I know this blog has a significant readership beyond aspiring screenwriters, so I’m hoping that editors, web-heads and other folks with useful insight will de-lurk and offer some of their genius.


My hunch is that most of these trailers will end up on YouTube, where the ideal input format is MPEG-4, 320×240. It’s certainly compact. The trouble is, editing systems like Final Cut would rather ingest almost anything other than .mp4. Which leads to my first question:

1. What’s the best video format for sending out the trailer footage?

We’re trying to strike a balance between a few competing goals. First, it needs to look and sound pretty good, both as edited, and ultimately, as re-compressed by YouTube. Second, it needs to be fairly compact, so that it’s feasible download (or torrent) the footage.3 Third, it should be something fairly industry-standard. No doubt there is a clever proprietary format out there, but if it requires special plug-ins, people are much less likely to bother.

2. One clip, or many?

Would it be more efficient to offer one long clip (perhaps with chapter marks) or a folder of the individual clips? The latter seems more convenient — you could just drop it into your system as a bin. But does more clips mean more chances for things to go wrong?


Beyond the video format, there are other questions about the smartest way to do this. Such as…

3. Should it be a competition?

I suspect many people would participate just because they thought it was interesting, but my experience with the Scene Challeges is that even a phantom prize gets a lot more people invested. Assuming the trailers end up on YouTube, would a standard tagging scheme be enough to help identify the contenders, or should there be a forum for people to list/hype their entries?

3A. If there’s a competition, how long of a deadline?

Assuming the footage came out on a Thursday, would the following Monday be enough time? I suspect there’s a sweet spot between enough time and too much time.

4. What’s the best way to get the footage out there? Torrent? Download?

I’ve barely torrented, and have never set up any seeding situations, so I’m almost fully ignorant on the best ways to make this sizable file available. (In coming up with solutions, you can safely assume we have almost no money to spend on this.)

No doubt there will be other smart questions asked amid the answers in the comments thread. If you’re addressing any of the technical issues, it would be helpful if you mentioned your experience, or provided links. Thanks in advance.

  1. Just typing that makes me eager to shoot new koala footage.
  2. Once the official trailer comes, you’ll find a link here, and no doubt a lengthy talkback on a certain site.
  3. I’m going to guess and say that we’re looking at about six minutes of raw footage, if that helps the back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Blood stains and clown pants

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

I had a hunch there would be a lot of entries to the second Scene Challenge, but by the hammer of Thor, I never expected 162.

It’s taken hours to go through them, winnowing it down from a list of 25 to ten to the winner. There were so many solid entries that I found myself needing to stick pretty closely to the rules: it had to be about a guy picking up his clothes at a dry cleaner. This standard led me to ding entries that felt more like a laundromat than a dry cleaner. It also sidelined many scenes that created a fascinating situation but weren’t really about The Guy himself.

Believe me, I enjoyed the riffs on what a dry cleaner could be. A couple of times, I found myself thinking, “Yeah, I’d see that movie.” But since the competition was about introducing a character, the winning scene had to be about The Guy, not The World.

After a final battle between several really strong contenders, I ended up picking two that were very similar, each of which had aspects I really liked. The first is by Craig Ugoretz:

  • An ornery, ancient Honda careens into the parking lot, screeching into a space. Out tumbles CLARENCE MALLOY, unshaven, egg-beater hair, stained wife beater. All that’s missing are the wavy smell lines.
  • He struggles out of the car, trying not to let any balloons slip out, and ends up slamming the door on his clown pants. He always does that.
  • Clarence scurries up to the counter, out of breath. The cashier eyes him, wary.
  • I lost my ticket. But it’s Malloy, a clown shirt? Bosco stains? Oh, and, I’m in a bit of a hurry.
  • He tries a smile. It misfires.

Let’s look at what Craig did. The second sentence gives us a bit of a visual on Clarence, but it’s the “wavy smell lines” that stick. Honestly, it was one of the few descriptors I still remembered after 100 subsequent entries. I like the balloons in the car, but it’s too easy to miss. Adding something more concrete around “balloons” would help slow the reader down, as would breaking it into shorter sentences:

  • He struggles out of the car, trying not to let any of the 57 balloons slip out. He ends up slamming the door on his clown pants. He always does that.

The action inside the dry cleaners doesn’t do that much, though Clarence’s misfired smile is a nice touch. It could even be the end of the scene, if we were to cut to Clarence showing up at his next gig.

The second is by Danny:

  • A dust cloud enters.
  • It slowly clears to reveal JOE SMELLS, wearing quite possibly the first pair of clothes ever made, and they’ve certainly never been washed.
  • Have your rates dropped yet?
  • The cashier shakes his head ‘no.’
  • How about coupons, or specials going on?
  • The cashier rolls his eyes and points to a sign reading: WE DO NOT CLEAN CLOTHES YOU ARE CURRENTLY WEARING.
  • Smells sighs. As he exits–
  • All right, I’ll check back later. Again. You should really think about changing your policies though. They make you look cheap.

Most of the heavy lifting is done by the dialogue, and it works well. Danny relies on a single description to set up the visual. I’d love to know an age, and at least one other detail to give me a picture of who this guy is. Since we need “first clothes ever made” to help tie us into the dry cleaners, I might break that off as a second sentence and add some more goodness right after JOE SMELLS.

  • It slowly clears to reveal JOE SMELLS, 32, the most confident homeless man in Phoenix. He’s wearing quite possibly the first pair of clothes ever made, and they’ve certainly never been washed.

Congrats to Craig and Danny. I hadn’t meant to split the prize — but I hadn’t anticipated 162 entries, either.

Given the setup, I guess it’s not surprising that I had my pick of clowns, wary cashiers and stinky patrons. But there were a few other trends worth noting:

  1. “A, but not A.” You describe a character as being one thing, then immediately negate it. “Friendly, but somewhat aloof.” “Impeccably dressed, yet his tie is askew.” There’s nothing wrong with this technique, but you have to be careful that it doesn’t verge on impossibility. I kept waiting for a tiny giant to show up.
  2. Laundronoir. I guess it’s natural that blood stains would be a common theme, but I hadn’t anticipated so many tickets from decades ago.
  3. Past tense. Several of the early entries were written in the past tense, common to novels. Screenplays are always written in the present tense. But it’s nice to see some new contributors who haven’t been exposed to screenwriting trying their hands.
  4. Smell-o-vision. Along the same lines, screenplays can only directly describe things that can be seen or heard. If you’re referencing smell, a character in the scene needs to make the reaction: “Candace half-chokes on the smell coming off him.” Or at least make sure the reader knows that this is just for his benefit: “He looks like week-old roadkill, and probably smells like it, too.”

Again, there were a lot of strong contenders, so my congrats to the many readers who contributed. If you want to comment on a specific entry, be sure to reference it by number, because there are several duplicated names.

Make your introduction

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Following up on last week’s article about How to Introduce a Character, I think it’s time for the second ever Scene Challenge. [Scene Challenge]

For the first one, Masturbating to Star Trek, you had to write an entire scene. This time, you simply have to introduce one character. And trust me, sometimes that’s harder.

Here’s all I’m giving you:

A man is picking up his clothes at a dry-cleaner.

The man is a principal character in your script, and this is the first time we’re meeting him. What’s his name? What’s the story? What’s the genre? You decide, to the degree it matters.

You’re welcome to write as much of the dry-cleaner scene as you want, but the focus is on the man’s introduction. The winning entry might be one sentence long. You may wish to consult the how-to for helpful suggestions.

Here are the rules:

  1. Post your entry in the comments thread of this article. Please don’t attempt fancy formatting. It usually just screws up the margins.
  2. All entries must be submitted by 8 a.m. PST on Saturday, April 28th, 2007. Remember that comments are sometimes held in moderation. Don’t submit twice. It will show up. Promise.
  3. I’ll pick a winner later that day.
  4. Winner receives bragging rights, which may be exchanged for a sense of self-worth. Liz used her win to make an appeal for meningitis vaccination.