What can David Lynch teach you about making films?
The IFC Center in NYC is currently screening a remastered version of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, a 2006 experimental film written, directed and co-produced by David Lynch.
The film’s cinematography, editing, score and sound design were also by Lynch, with pieces by a variety of other musicians featured.
Released with the tagline “A Woman in Trouble”, the film follows the fragmented and nightmarish events surrounding a Hollywood actress (Dern) who begins to take on the personality of a character she plays in a supposedly cursed film production.
Inland Empire marked several firsts for Lynch: it was shot without a finished screenplay, instead being largely developed on a scene-by-scene basis.
Shot entirely in low-resolution digital video by Lynch himself using a handheld Sony camcorder rather than traditional film stock.
He basically grabbed a Sony PD150 (not the nicest camera out there) went and shot a movie and grossed over 4 million dollars at box office.
Now, this movie isn’t for everyone, and only die-hard Lynch fans tend to love it, but you can’t argue with the fact that one of the main reasons he was able to do it was because he had his own digital camera.
When Andrew Rottkamp entered college at the University of Delaware, he was a finance major.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I picked finance,” he jokes. “But I had a feeling right from the beginning that it wasn’t the right program for me.”
Luckily, when his junior year rolled around, he wound up taking an art class that focused on video.
“I had so much fun. Outside of the class, I began shooting films. I felt like ‘this is what I’m supposed to do,’” he says.
He made a plan to go to film school after leaving the university and began researching his different options.
“The DFA looked like it had much better value for the money,” he says. “In some cases, it cost 50% less than other schools, and actually had better reviews than they did. When I visited, everyone was so welcoming and friendly. I learned about how it was so easy to check out equipment. I was sold!”
Rottkamp was able to enter into the Advanced Digital Filmmaking program, thanks to a motocross video he had made with friends in college just for fun. Once he began the program, he realized his favorite part of the process was directing. As an extremely visual filmmaker, he gravitated toward finding the right visual elements to express a script.
“Learning how to manipulate and break down a script in class was incredibly helpful,” he says.
He had an unforgettable filming experience while shooting his thesis film – and one he doesn’t plan to replicate anytime soon!
“In my short film, a man finds his best friend dead in the woods. A battle breaks out. In the end, you realize it was all inside a video game,” Rottkamp explains. It was a cool concept, but one that required the use of a BB gun.
“We were only using BB’s, but still, someone called the cops,” he remembers. “The police showed up and wrote us up for having a firearm. We had to go to court! The judge went easy, and there were no repercussions, but I learned a valuable lesson about getting permits to shoot.”
Unfortunately, the project is abandoned until getting the proper permit. But the hold-up hasn’t held Rottkamp back in his career.
“After graduating from the DFA in December 2014, I realized I really needed to build my portfolio, so I threw myself into freelance work for a year,” Rottkamp says. “I shot weddings, too. On one of those wedding jobs, the friend I was working with had a connection with someone at HBO, and asked if I might be interested in applying for a job there. Absolutely!”
Rottkamp took on a temporary position at the popular network in January 2016, analyzing metadata for on-demand content. “I definitely feel that the DFA helped make me the right person for that position,” he says. “I knew all about transcoding, workflows. Exactly what they needed.”
Then, in June 2016, HBO offered Rottkamp an official position doing “Master Control,” where he monitors the outgoing feed for live TV. In the long run, he hopes to be involved in content creation.
Meanwhile, he creates content by continuing to make his own short videos outside of work. His favorite, a music video he’s currently wrapping up, is for a song called “Little Sister” by Terry Little, for which he created the basic storyline.
Additionally, his experience working with camera gear has inspired him to build an online store selling designer camera bags. “It’s been an incredible learn-as-you-go experience,” he confides. You can visit it here at:
Rottkamp plans to continue to grow the online store while also making more short films and staying on at HBO. His days as a finance major a thing of the past, he is now “Doing what (he’s) meant to be doing.”
What’s the biggest way in which the Digital Film Academy has affected student Ayanda Chisholm’s life?
“Definitely the WebTV class,” she says. “I had never considered doing a web series before. Now I’ve completed two episodes and plan to finish an entire first season.”
The web series, titled The Young, Black, and Gifted, focuses on a group of youths who form a coalition to fight police brutality. Just recently uploaded, the series has already begun to attract hundreds of views.
“Some of the best advice I’ve gotten at the DFA was from Patrick,” Chisholm says, referring to DFA President Patrick DiRenna. “When making a film, he says to focus on ‘Emotional complexity and clarity, with a simple production.’” This formula has served Chisholm well and inspired her to create work that lands an emotional punch but won’t break the bank production-wise.
About the series
The series was created with an all-DFA crew, with the exception of the make-up artist. “It came out almost exactly as I imagined,” Chisholm muses, a statement rarely heard in the film world where finished projects often fall short of their original concepts. “Actually, it came out better than my vision.”
You can view the first two episodes of her web series here:
This recent success aside, Chisholm was no stranger to script-writing and filmmaking prior to entering the DFA’s Advanced Digital Filmmaking program.
“I’ve always been an avid movie-watcher, movie-lover,” she says.
She began as a playwright, writing her first short play in middle school, where it was performed for her classmates. Once she got to high school, she began to transition into film. But, like most early filmmakers, she experienced her fair share of growing pains.
“I made one short that got into our school’s ‘New Works’ festival,” she remembers. “But while watching it, I realized that the girl who had done the editing hadn’t synced up the last minute of video and sound. It was really frustrating to see.”
It was around that time that Chisholm began to delve into the editing process herself. “I began editing in my sophomore year and have been obsessed with that ever since. Writing, directing, and editing.”
It was through this love of editing that Chisholm found herself joining Reel Grrls, an all-girls filmmaking group offering Adobe training. Taking the Adobe program made Chisholm eligible to apply for Adobe’s Youth Voices Scholarship, a worldwide contest granting scholarships to 25 winners to further their education.
As part of her application, Chisholm created and submitted a one-minute film entitled Black Beauty in the White Gaze. The piece dealt with society’s tendency to view beauty through the ideals of the white community, often showing disrespect to black women. The piece struck a chord with judges and Chisholm became a 2015 Adobe Creative Scholar.
At that point, Chisholm began to research different film schools in New York City, where she knew she wanted to live. When comparing schools, the DFA’s offer of free use of equipment, including a RED camera, registered as a huge perk other schools weren’t offering. Once visiting the school, Chisholm just felt it “seemed like (her) scene.” She moved from Seattle to live with her best friend and began studying at the DFA in August 2015.
Now fully immersed in her DFA courses, Chisholm talks about her professors – all industry professionals – and how their classes have resonated with her. “The cinematography instructor took our class to MoMA to study the different paintings. Once back at the school, we tried to re-create the lighting in those paintings using our equipment,” she recalls. “Also, the directing class is so much fun. Every week, we’re directing a different scene.
“(As film professionals), the instructors are able to offer great insights into the industry.”
I want challenges, to be able to work in different genres
In addition to continuing with her web series, Chisholm hopes to be able to make a living doing what she loves. “I want challenges, to be able to work in different genres,” she confides. “I don’t want to get stuck in a ‘practical’ job.”
Most importantly, Chisholm has something many filmmakers just starting out don’t have: a clear mission.
“I want to explore narratives that aren’t usually told, amplify voices that are usually not heard,” she says. “Someday, if I reach that point, I want to be able to open doors and offer opportunities for others. Help film to diversify as much as possible.”
Years ago, Jose Martinez took an intensive, one-month filmmaking course. He gained filmmaking experience, but quickly realized that in order to keep the ball rolling on his career, he needed to connect with like-minded people with whom he could collaborate on future film projects.
When he found the Digital Film Academy, he knew it was the right place for building that kind of community.
“I developed a really good network at the DFA,” he says. “We all help each other out with our different projects, help to move one another forward in our careers.”
Thanks to his prior filmmaking experience, Martinez was able to enter the Advanced Digital Filmmaking Program. In addition to connecting him with a group of filmmakers at his same level, the program offered another big perk: free access to a Red camera. Martinez has been able to make good use of this, checking out the Red for shoots.
Currently, Martinez is working as both a photographer and videographer, and bringing in enough income that he no longer needs a full-time, regular job. He’s done work at weddings, parties, for restaurants, and even capturing images for business cards.
He’s also working on the completion of his thesis film for the DFA, a short about a young man’s internal struggle about whether or not to seek revenge after his brother is shot by a local gang on their walk home from school. “I love stories, and getting to see them come together during the process of shooting and editing,” he says. “My favorite things are operating the camera and editing. Magic happens there.”
Magic aside, the most challenging aspect of working on his thesis was shooting a scene at a gas station – not the easiest spot to set up a film crew in the bustling metropolis of New York City. Apart from the noise (a common on-set problem even in “quiet” locations), Martinez’s cast and crew had to be ready to go at 7a.m. on a Sunday, the only time the gas station would allow them to shoot.
Despite these occasional challenges, Martinez’s love of stories is beginning to take him places, both in his film career and literally. He recently got back from a 3-month trip throughout Central America, where he was both scouting locations for future shoots and shooting commercials for a telephone company in El Salvador.
“The company is called Claro,” Martinez says. “My cousin does administrative work there.” When his cousin heard about Claro’s need for a filmmaker, he was quick to suggest Martinez.
The gig is another valuable step towards Martinez’s future goal: developing his own home production company.
When asked what advice he would give to young filmmakers just starting out, Martinez simply says: “Keep shooting, keep uploading.”
When he was only in high school, Jimmy Zdolshek’s video production teacher encouraged him to participate in “SkillsUSA,” an organization that sponsors a competition to promote career and technical development. When the short Zdolshek completed within 6 hours as part of the contest went on to win 1st place, Zdolshek says it was one of the best moments of his entire life. The short then moved on to the National competition, where it placed 13th.
“I knew then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
Settled on his future career, Zdolshek began to search for a school that would help take his filmmaking to the next level, without breaking the bank.
“I didn’t want to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” he laughs. “Also, I wanted real hands-on experience, freedom to work with the equipment.”
When he discovered the Digital Film Academy, it was the perfect match. The school’s low tuition, coupled with its policy of allowing students free access to all equipment needed for a shoot both during their schooling and after graduation, made it exactly what Zdolshek was looking for.
Additionally, given his background in film, Zdolshek was able to enter the DFA’s One Year Advanced Digital Filmmaking Program. This was another factor in his decision-making.
Currently at the DFA, Zdolshek is developing two short film projects that he wrote. For the one, “Stay Your Course, Young Man,” he was thrilled to get the rights to the music of the same name by Sylvan Lacue and Jon Bellion. Getting rights to music to include in his films is a skill that he began developing even with his high school projects.
“It’s not as hard as most people think,” he says. “A lot of the bands I like are more underground. I get their emails and we work something out. Most bands are willing to compromise, especially if you’re working without a budget!”
In other areas of his career, Zdolshek has gotten to see more significant budgets at work. He just completed an internship with Market Road Films, working on National Geographic’s Explorer, the longest-running documentary series in history. While there, he got to do development and post-production work. He also got to work on Blood Antiquities, a series about ISIS trading in the Western market.
“One of my favorite things was when I got to handpick the stills from Blood Antiquities to send to the network for the IMDB page,” he says. “I got to work closely with the director.”
Just this past month, he began another high-profile internship, this time with Backroads Entertainment, which creates shows that have been featured on channels like A&E, MTV, MTV2, E!, the Travel Channel, Lifetime, and more. Recently, he got to put together a playlist for famed rapper 50 Cent.
When asked what advice he would have for filmmakers just starting out, Zdolshek says: “Just get your ideas off the ground. Sit to write, go into production, and execute it the way you want… Work as hard as you can, watch and read as many films and scripts as you can, and make as many things as you can.”
“And, oh, remember,” he adds. “Film comes first in life. Film first. Food second.”
To view the trailer to Zdolshek’s short Sleepwalker, please click here.
If you work in film, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “high concept.” This is Hollywood’s ultimate buzz phrase, the Holy Grail for producers. It’s so important, 99% of producers will make a deal with a writer who has a genuine high concept, even if their writing is terrible.
Why? Because it’s easy to sell a high concept, and unless a producer can sell a film, it’s useless. Writing can always be improved, fresh drafts written… but if a high concept isn’t there to begin with, the script probably isn’t marketable.
So now that you know how important a high concept is, how do you get one?
Below are 5 keys for creating your own high concept:
It has to be unique (without being weird).
There’s a fine line between unique and weird. A true high concept needs to be something never seen before. However, it can’t be a case of “We’ve never seen chimps roller skating in space, so that’s a high concept.” It has to be a unique idea that’s both interesting and conventional enough to achieve #2 on this list, which is:
It has to appeal to a wide audience.
Again, a high concept has to be marketable. To be marketable, it needs a clear and wide audience. Could you have a unique concept about an 80-year-old woman in a rest home? Yes, but it probably wouldn’t appeal to many people. That’s not to say you couldn’t make a great niche film – but, by definition, it wouldn’t be a high concept.
When it comes to audience, clearly aim for ONE of the 4 quadrants: men over 25, men under 25, women over 25, women under 25.
You must be able to say the idea in one line and have the listener “get it.”
Again, it’s about marketability. To pitch a film, you need a logline: one sentence that sums up your story. If you have a true high concept, that one sentence gives the listener a very clear idea of the movie, from start to finish. If someone in the industry asks what your film is about, and you need a full minute to explain, it’s not a high concept. If you can say it in one sentence and see their eyes light up, it is.
Use a genre other than drama.
High concepts are almost never dramas. That’s because dramas are more about execution than they are about concept. In essence, they are the epitome of a “low concept:” a story more concerned with subtlety and character development.
Try to think of a successful drama in the past ten years that was a hit. Most at least partially fall under another genre, like comedy. If you think of a recent hit that was pure drama, chances are, its logline doesn’t sound very unique, even though its execution was great. Dramas are generally serious and/or depressing. That doesn’t make for an exciting-sounding idea that has producers come running.
You need a story – not just a hook!
If you come up with an amazing ‘hook’ – a cool idea that’s not yet a story – people will be interested. But a hook by itself isn’t enough to be a high concept. It’s only the beginning of one.
To really flesh it out into a high concept, it needs some kind of story. For instance, the movie Saw was a huge hit and a high concept. But the logline couldn’t say: “A serial killer makes victims torture themselves to survive.” Ok, it’s interesting, it’s a great hook… but it’s also vague. Where does it go from there?
Look what happens when it changes to: “After two men wake to find themselves chained in a filthy basement, they realize they’ve been kidnapped by a gruesome serial killer and will have to torture themselves if they want to live.” Now it’s a high concept! We can see the whole story: beginning (waking up), middle (figuring out they were kidnapped by a serial killer and what he wants them to do), and end (deciding whether or not they’ll torture themselves). The genre is a clear horror/thriller, and it’s also clear that this will work for a wide audience. A producer can sell this.
Now that you know how to create a real high concept, start brainstorming ideas! A concept that fits all of the above criteria isn’t easy to come by, but if you do – it’s money in the bank.
What movies did you think were genuine high concepts? Let us know in the comments!
When Joe Rodman first entered the Digital Film Academy, he planned to become a director. It was only through the hands-on experience he got filmmaking that he realized his true calling was editing. “I fell in love with editing. You get to really see the story take shape in the editing room,” he says.
It’s a realization that has served him well. Since graduating from the Advanced Digital Filmmaking program in June 2015, Rodman’s editing has opened up multiple career opportunities – including work on the 59-minute film Grave-Digger, a selection of the upcoming 2016 Madrid Film Festival and recent award-winner for Best Supporting Actor at France’s Nice Film Festival.
Rodman also received a standing ovation for his work at the film’s premiere in Tribeca.
The film was shot using four different cameras, including the DFA’s Red camera, courtesy of Rodman. (The school’s policy of allowing students free lifetime access to equipment after their graduation helps them land jobs and get more experience, and also benefits their employers.)
Rodman knew early on that he wanted to have a career in film. While in high school, he began shooting 1 to 2 minute films, his favorite of which remains Starbound, a Star Wars parody shot entirely with a green screen. He also became certified in Adobe Premiere CS6 and mastered After Effects. After graduating and having a brief summer job at the Sagamore on Lake George, he continued his film education at the DFA.
In Rodman’s words, “coming (to the DFA) opened my eyes to so much more.” In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of cinematography, he also learned about screenwriting, film budgeting, scheduling a shoot, and sound. Perhaps his most painful lesson came when, while shooting his thesis film, he didn’t bother to slate – AKA, click those sticks together at the beginning of each take. The end result was hours spent trying to sync his image and sound.
“It was painful, but the benefit is – I’ll never skip slating again!” he jokes.
At least he found a silver lining in the people he worked with on the film, particularly fellow students Lindsay Watson and A.J. Rodin. Watson was Rodman’s 1st A.C. and Rodin, his Director of Photography. “They were my left and right hand,” Rodman says.
It was also while shooting his thesis film that Rodman connected with Chris Cohen, the actor who would land the lead role in Rodman’s short and later write, direct, and star in Grave-Digger. The two developed a great working relationship, and Rodman lived with Cohen and his girlfriend for a month at the beach while editing the movie.
“I didn’t care about going to the beach at all,” he laughs. “In fact, I didn’t go once. I was so engrossed in the editing process.”
The film was actually Rodman’s first time using Avid to edit.
Rodman always has a film job in the works. As a consultant at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, he shot two weeks’ worth of conferences. Until recently, he was completing an internship with Emmy Award-winning producer Linda Yellen, where he edited the trailer for The Last Film Festival, the final film of the late Dennis Hopper. He also worked on the feature film Broken Ones, which had a budget of $200,000.
Next up on his list? A trip to Madrid, to see Grave-Digger at the Madrid Film Festival… but knowing Rodman, this won’t be an excuse for a vacation.
July 30th turned out another series of exciting, diverse short films from DFA students at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives!
First up was The Dawn, a film written and directed by yours truly. Despite his very sheltered point of view, the five-year-old protagonist pieces together the fact that his beloved mother has killed his father. The biggest challenge of making this short was working with such a young child, although hopefully his youth and innocence serve to create that much more of an impact once you realize his life will never be the same.
Next there was In the Bedroom, a short by Ananya Sudararajan, who also co-wrote and acted as DP for another short film in the line-up, Jam. In the Bedroom was more experimental than the other offerings. The camera remained in one position the entire time: at the foot of the bed of a couple whose relationship is on the rocks. This served to make the viewer feel almost as if they’re spying on a real couple from a hiding place, rather than watching a short film. After the male lead fails to perform in bed, he takes his anger and frustration out on his girlfriend; however, she’s the one who gets the last laugh.
Next up was The Potluck, from frequent screening contributor Pauline Gefin (and Jam’s sound recordist!). In the course of 9 minutes, the audience sees a very strained relationship between three former friends, and how catty two of the girls are toward the third, Victoria. However, when the hostess, Ashley, begins choking, she’ll find out who she can really count on. The short packs a great visual punch at the end, when Ashley puts a photograph of her and Victoria in a place of pride on her shelf.
Jam, the fourth short, came from Nacho Diaz-Guerra. This piece served to keep viewers guessing as different details were revealed. The three characters meet when young Alice buys back her grandfather’s watch from a pawnbroker and his friend. It’s clear that both Alice and the pawnbroker’s friend, Luke, have strained relationships with their father figures. In Alice’s case, we hear one side of a tense phone call; as for Luke, we witness his older friend’s constant badgering. In the end, Alice and Luke form a bond – and take a small revenge on society.
The last film of the evening,Thousands: Sonnets of the Sun, was also the longest at close to 29 minutes. This film, from Lucas D. Oliveira, was ambitious not just in terms of length but in subject matter. A true coming-of-age story, viewers were treated to an intimate look inside the mind of a young boy, Tolo, as he struggles to understand nothing less than the meaning of life and his place in it. His father, an African mask carver, has taught him the stories behind the masks, and how masks would be used in special ceremonies where children became adults. Of course, these ceremonies aren’t common in Brooklyn, where Tolo lives – but that doesn’t stop him from exploring their power and doing what he feels he needs to to get to the next level in his life.
Congratulations to everyone who screened! I’m looking forward to what’s next to come from this group of my fellow filmmakers.
Before coming to the Digital Film Academy, Danesha Holmes tried many different career paths. She always knew she wanted to work in entertainment, but didn’t know in what capacity. As a result, in addition to trying acting and stand-up comedy, Holmes spent time in retail, in customer service, as a personal trainer, and even as an EKG technician.
Finally, she came to grips with the fact that TV was what she truly loved, and decided to do what she had to to make it her career. Before she knew it, she was googling film schools in the New York area. When she discovered the Digital Film Academy, she knew it fit the bill.
“The DFA was the best of all available choices, and it got my foot in the door,” Holmes says. Their one-year program was a good fit for her and, most importantly, she was able to receive financial aid. “I got a scholarship, and that really made the difference. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to go.”
Part of Holmes’ financial aid package involved working off her tuition both by blogging for the school and by working as a receptionist. You can check out her blog posts here, under her pen name, Harley Page.
Most importantly, though, her experience with the DFA helped Holmes decide exactly which job in entertainment was right for her.
“By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a video editor,” she says. “I enjoy that environment, enjoy seeing the final product come together, and the creativity and the work that goes into it.”
Throughout her DFA courses, Holmes was given the opportunity to work with rough footage from hit TV shows like Monk and Hell’s Kitchen. She got to put together cuts from multiple cameras to create a finished product. She also completed a co-thesis with another student, Jazmin Young – a web series called Sabotage. The trailer and logo can be viewed below.
She now works for Leftfield Entertainment, transcribing and logging shows such as Pawn Stars, ESPN 30-30, Blood, Sweat, and Heels, and United States of Stuff. She recently interviewed for a promotion to assistant editor.
But her long-term goal? “To be a video editor and to own my own business,” Holmes says with confidence.
“The DFA changed my life completely,” she says. “It helped me choose my career path. I’m definitely going for the stars now. Thank you guys!”
Rarely is an indie movie’s premiere considered an ‘event’; at least, not compared to premieres of major studio blockbusters released amidst massive marketing campaigns and publicity. But Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, opening this weekend, is an exception to this rule.
The film has received rave reviews since showing at Sundance this year and is currently 100% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes after 94 reviews. If those facts alone aren’t enough to peak your interest, though, perhaps the concept is.
Boyhood is a film that chronicles one young man’s journey from ages 6 to 18. That’s not too unique, but the approach to filming the story was: the movie was shot over the course of 12 years, filming 3 or 4 days each year.
The result has been astounding critics and audiences: the viewer gets to actually watch this family of four age and repeat the same cycles at different stages of their lives. Nothing quite like it has ever been done before, the closest attempt being Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series that re-visited the same subjects every seven years starting in 1964, documenting their progression from hopeful children to somewhat dreary adults. Boyhood, however, is no documentary; it’s pure cinema.
The effect of seeing time pass in this way can be as unsettling as it is epic. After watching Boyhood, some reviewers remarked upon how it feels to see someone age before your very eyes – reminding everyone that we’re “here today, gone tomorrow.” The film is a surprising 165 minutes long – however, in keeping with the theme of time slipping away, viewers seem to unanimously agree that those 2 hours and 45 minutes fly by.
All this interest surrounding Boyhood suggests it will do quite well at the box office. Only opening in 5 theaters this weekend (Lincoln Plaza, IFC Center, and BAM in NYC and Arclight and Landmark in LA), the film is expected to sell out at every showing, averaging a $50,000 intake for each theater. This is well above the $35,000 ceiling most indie films hit when it comes to theatrical releases. That’s great news for the film’s distributor, Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films, who has amazingly bankrolled the project from its start in 2002.
The film stars Ellar Coltrane as the central character, Mason, and Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter, as his slightly older sister, Samantha. Ethan Hawke, who has notably worked with Linklater on the highly acclaimed Before trilogy, stars as Mason’s unreliable father, and Patricia Arquette rounds out the central cast playing Mason’s mother.
What do you think? Will Boyhood’s realism catapult it to further greatness this year? Or will it fail to live up to all the hype?
® GI Bill® Is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill