Studio News from John, Part 16: Festival Strategies for 2021

I’ve been working with film festivals, in one form or another, for the better part of the last 25 years. They’re an integral part of the film distribution process, the final step on the journey of production, once you finish your beloved short film or feature it’s like a baby bird, and screening it at a film festival is the equivalent of pushing that bird out of the nest to see if it can figure out how to fly. Yep, that analogy works, because if you kick it out of the nest too soon, the film is like an egg and it will plummet to the ground and shatter on the earth below.

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It’s September, so right now all eyes are on the Toronto International Film Festival, which over the last decade has become the breeding ground for all sorts of Oscar-nominated and Oscar-eligible movies. Last year’s TIFF line-up included “I, Tonya”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, “The Disaster Artist”, “Darkest Hour”, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, “The Mountain Between Us”, “Stronger”, “Battle of the Sexes”, “The Breadwinner”, “Downsizing”, “The Florida Project”, “Hostiles”, “Lady Bird”, “Mother!”, “Molly’s Game”, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, “Faces Places, and “The Shape of Water”, among many others. These were just the ones that got a lot of traction during awards season. So if you want to get an advance peek at the Academy Awards nominations for 2018, or an idea about what’s going to be in your Netflix queue at this time next year, TIFF seems like it’s the place to be. So far, people are buzzing about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and Ryan Gosling in “First Man”, but I have a feeling those represent just the tip of the old iceberg.

While we’re in production on “My Love Affair With Marriage”, screening the film at a festival seems like it’s a long way off. But it’s not too early to start thinking about strategy. And I often hear filmmakers who are just starting out, all asking the same questions: “What film festivals should I enter?” “Which are the best ones?” “Which festival screenings will be the most important?” “Which festival screenings will increase the film’s chances for distribution?”

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Some filmmakers seem to adopt a “dartboard” sort of strategy, or they enter every film festival they can think of and hope for the best. But every festival has different rules, and sometimes you have to think about geography or the calendar in order to develop the best strategy for your film. Also, there are some specialized festivals for animation, or documentaries, or LGBTQ films, or countless other subjects. Is it better to narrow the focus and target one of these festivals, or take a broader approach and hope for the best?

Obviously, there’s a top tier of festivals, and that basically includes the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice International Film Festival. If you can get your film accepted into any of these, you’d be foolish not to follow through by screening it there. If you’ve got an animated film, then the Annecy International Animation Festival, Anima Mundi, Zagreb and the Hiroshima Animation Festival are probably in the top tier also. But they all have extensive rules to follow, forms to fill out, and a lot of metaphorical hoops to jump through.

Any of these top-tier festivals are so prestigious that they probably have rules regarding premiere status, meaning that they could choose to ONLY screen films that have never screened at another festival. So that means that a filmmaker has to pay attention to not only what month the festival takes place, but also what month their DEADLINE is. The Toronto festival takes place in September, but submissions open in February, and the deadline is in May. So if you’ve got your heart set on premiering at this festival, you’ve got to finish your film by late winter or in spring to have a serious shot at it. If your production drags into summer, then you’d have to either find another festival to premiere at, or wait 8 or 9 months until the next February. At that point it might be worth entering the Berlinale, with its October deadline, so you could be screening your film in February instead of just entering Toronto - that way if it doesn’t get into Berlin, you can still enter Toronto later.

One of the quirks of the rules is that the Sundance Film Festival only requires a U.S. premiere, not a world premiere, so your film could screen at one of those other big festivals outside the U.S. and still get screened in Park City. The last Sundance deadline is in September for their festival in January, so that’s another thing to factor into your calendar-based calculations. Signe and I worked together on the production of Bill Plympton’s film “I Married a Strange Person” and that film played in Toronto in September 1997, then it was in the Dramatic Competition in Sundance in January 1998. I remember driving up there with some of the crew (Bill, John Donnelly, Jen Senko) and staying at a cheap hotel, then meeting Trey Parker at a screening of his film “Orgazmo”. That was probably my first time at a big film festival, but Signe didn’t come along, because she was afraid that if she left the U.S. they wouldn’t let her back in. (You know they were very thorough at the Canadian border back then, with all the anti-Canadian sentiment in the late 1990’s - my, how things have changed…)

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Then we went to Sundance twice - with “I Married a Strange Person” in 1998 and “Mutant Aliens” in 2001, then Slamdance for the U.S. premiere of “Hair High” in 2004. I remember that Bill Plympton had a habit of entering his films into both Sundance AND Slamdance, even though they take place in the same town at the same time. And of course, you can’t have a film in both of those festivals, but I think he figured if his film couldn’t get into one, then there was still a chance with the other. This is where things can get tricky, because one day the studio got a phone call from the Slamdance Festival, accepting his film - but they wanted to know RIGHT AWAY if we could confirm the film’s participation, and of course, Bill was out of town. In my mind I could just hear him saying, “But we haven’t heard back from Sundance yet…” even though Sundance had become tougher and tougher to get into, even over the course of just those five or six years. Slamdance was offering us the opening night slot, very prestigious, something that could generate a large amount of publicity, but this was a limited-time offer and time was running out. This decision couldn’t wait until Bill got back from his trip, so what could I do?

I decided to do something very unorthodox, I called up the Sundance Festival and spoke to a programmer. I knew that he couldn’t tell me whether Bill’s feature had been accepted, because doing that would be against the rules. But at this point in time I think someone had recently published an article which claimed that based on how many films get submitted to Sundance, and how few programmers they have to review the submissions, mathematically it was impossible for their programmers to even WATCH all of the tapes and DVDs they received. Thankfully, I didn’t mention this on the phone, I just explained that we had an offer on the table from Slamdance, and I knew Sundance wouldn’t tell me if the film was accepted for another week, but MAYBE he could give me an idea what our chances were. When the programmer heard that the Slamdance Festival was offering us the opening night event, he bluntly said, “You should take that offer.” OK, message received. Thanks for the hint. Bill came back in a few days and I was able to justify accepting Slamdance’s offer on his behalf.

In the animation world, as I mentioned, we have the Annecy Festival and the Ottawa Animation Festival. Annecy takes place in France in June, and doesn’t require features to be a world premiere, just a French premiere. (So even after screening “I Married a Strange Person” in Toronto and Sundance, we could still screen it at Annecy.) But their entry deadline is usually in March, so that’s something to consider when you’re close to finishing your animated masterpiece. It’s all about timing. The Ottawa Festival takes place in late September, with an entry deadline in May, so you can factor those dates into the mix as well.

But then you could set up another one of those Sundance/Slamdance situations, especially if you also want to enter the Toronto Festival, since you might not be able to screen your film in both Canadian festivals. And you don’t want to risk screening at NEITHER of them, which could happen if you take too long to accept the offer from one festival because you’re waiting to hear from the other. In that way, screening at festivals is a bit like dating, you can’t keep one potential mate on hold while you wait to hear from another one, that just isn’t fair. It’s better to move forward with one partner (or Canadian festival) even if you think the other one is smarter, prettier, funnier (or has more festival guests) because if you keep holding out too long for the perfect match, you could find yourself alone (or with no screening at all).

Signe told me that “Rocks in My Pockets” was completed in 2013, but the film didn’t get in to the Toronto Festival. Her next best option was the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. You may not have heard of this festival, but it is very well regarded in Europe - so she waited for nine months for this festival’s call for entries to come around again, and “Rocks” premiered at Karlovy Vary in June, 2014. But the film won the International Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) when it screened there, so that long wait turned out to be a very smart decision in the end. Then the film screened at the ANIMATOR festival in Poland just a week later, and festivals in Switzerland and Greece just two months later, and this started a solid festival run of TWO YEARS that took it all around the world.

So sometimes even when a film is finished, it makes sense to wait for the right festival for the premiere screenings. That’s right, plural, because even though your film can have only one “World Premiere”, it can also have a European premiere, a North American premiere, a U.S. premiere (not to mention an Australian premiere, South American premiere, and so on…) Pretty much any time you can work the word “premiere” into your press release, it’s a good idea to do so. But by the time you find yourself promoting the “Central New Jersey premiere” it might be time to take a long hard look at what you’re celebrating. Still, that’s a nice problem to have.

Right now it looks like “My Love Affair With Marriage” could be completed some time in the year 2020. But the key question then becomes: during which month? Which film festival will it make the most sense to enter first? Believe me, it’s not too early to start thinking about this. Right now Signe has completed the animation for two segments of the film that could be released as individual shorts, which would then also function as sort of “teasers” for the entire feature. Would it make some sense to screen either of these in festivals, to try to get some advance attention or publicity for the feature? It’s one possible strategy. These shorts represent two of the songs in the film, and they’re called “Mother’s Song” and “Virginity Song”.

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It’s still very early in the production process of “My Love Affair With Marriage”, but we are trying to keep good relationships with film festivals when they ask to screen some of Signe’s earlier films, because in just a couple of years, we’ll be filling out entry forms for this new feature and we hope that there will be some awareness and recognition, which could lead to acceptances. It’s impossible to predict what might happen, when or where the new film will screen, but I do like our chances.

Studio News from John, Part 15 - Oscar Rules are Meant to be Broken!

PART 1 - New Rules for 2019 and Beyond

There have been a few recent news stories about changes being made to the Academy Awards - something about a "Best Popular Film" category, which sounds like it needs something else to distinguish it from "Best Picture", in my opinion.  Isn't the film that receives the most votes for Best Picture therefore also the "most popular"?  It got the MOST VOTES, after all!  Or is this award going to reward the film with the highest box office, because if you ask me, that blockbuster, whatever it is, has probably been fairly well rewarded already.  So I'm not sure I understand yet where the Academy is going when it's trying to make a distinction between "Best" and "Best Popular", unless perhaps "Best" rewards the creative process and "Best Popular" rewards the connection made with the fans, but even this sounds like a problem, because it's sort of admitting the majority of movie fans aren't knowledgeable enough to spend their money on whatever "Best" really means.  

Then there's the other issue raised when the Academy announced it would be relegating some of the lesser awards to a presentation that would take place before the TV cameras started rolling, or perhaps during commercial breaks.  So, if you've enjoyed seeing who wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short, it's possible that in the future, you'll have to read about it in the news the next day and you'll no longer see that award given out during the televised ceremony.  As someone working in the animation industry, and as someone who occasionally has a vested interest in which film wins the Animation Oscars, I strongly oppose this plan, to relegate animation to the same status as the craft awards, such as visual effects and sound mixing, which are given out now on a different DAY, but hey, at least those nominees get a lunch out of the deal, and a visit from a sacrificial hot actress. 

Now, my personal suggestion would be that if the time allotted to giving out the awards on TV is no longer sufficient, there are other methods of creating more time.  They could cut, for example, the detailed explanation of "Film Editing for Dummies", because we all know by now what editing is, so there's no need to over-explain it, or some of the vapid dialogue that passes for "jokes" spoken by the presenters.  Or there's usually some interminably long montage that's suppose to pass as a "Look at Music in the Movies" from 1920-2018, with many more clips used than the number necessary to prove a point.  We get it already, the movies have music in them!

Other solutions are also possible - start the award telecast earlier, for example.  What's wrong with 7 pm E.S.T., who says that the show has to start at 8 pm?  I realize it's a ratings game, but come on, let's make an exception for these important awards.  Or instead of a "Red Carpet Arrival Special", which serves no purpose other than as a long-format advertisement for various fashion designers, try giving out the awards right away.  Let the E! channel run all the red carpet footage they want, they're going to do that anyway, right?  ABC should start the show at 7 pm and give out the first award (and it can be for animation, or visual effects) no later than 7:05.  Oh, yeah, I think we should dramatically cut the host's opening monologue too, if it will get more of the award presentations broadcast on television.  

Anyone who thinks that the Oscar telecast should be ONLY three hours long (which seems rather arbitrary, all things considered, plus it always runs longer anyway) could then just tune in at 8 pm and catch the major categories they don't want to miss.  I mean, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture, you know they're going to save those for the end.  Maybe they can hand out Best Supporting Actor and Actress at 8:05 or 8:10 this way.  And the hour between 7 pm and 8 pm would then be devoted to things like visual effects and sound mixing and, OK, Best Animated Short, so those would no longer slow things down in prime time.  See?  Problem solved, just cut the red carpet crap and start the whole program an hour earlier.  You're welcome.  

The reason that I've spent so much time over the past two decades studying the Oscars is that I've been through their submission process almost annually.  I'm always working for someone who has an animated short or feature that they want to qualify for a nomination.  After all, a film can't win an award without a nomination - but most people don't realize that a film also can't get a nomination unless it first qualifies.  And there are many ways to DISqualify a film, and only one way to qualify it.  On top of that, each year there are slight changes to the rules for eligibility, so I have to keep an eye on them every year, figure out what the changes are, and then make sure that all of the traps get avoided. 

There are even other reasons to qualify a film, beyond the possibility of getting an Oscar nomination and then maybe a statue.  In the animated feature category, for example, the number of nominations given out depends on the number of eligible films, so even if you represent an animated that has ZERO CHANCE, creatively speaking, of winning an Oscar, and I don't mean to be cruel here, but pick your favorite terrible kids movie, like "The Emoji Movie" or "Norm of the North" - if you make that film Oscar-eligible, it could be a big help to the animated feature community at large, because it could tip the scales and make five nomination slots available that year, instead of three.  At least that would be good karma, if you're the director of a terrible film, maybe you'd sleep better at night or something.  

But the best reason to make sure your film is Oscar-eligible is still the possibility of getting a nomination.  Signe's last feature "Rocks in My Pockets" didn't get a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, but it was eligible.  So following all the rules and submitting paperwork to the Academy helped insure that in the Oscars given out in 2015 (for the films released in 2014) there were five nominations instead of three.  "Rocks in My Pockets" was also chosen to represent Latvia in the Best Foreign Language Film category, so there was also a chance that it could have received a nomination there.  It didn't, but it COULD have, and that's almost as good.  

And so we're taking steps now to make sure that "My Love Affair With Marriage" will qualify for the Academy Awards in either 2020 or 2021.  Yes, believe it or not, that work has to start now, especially where the Academy's rules are concerned.  If I've learned one thing over the years by submitting applications for qualification, it's that the preparations have to start well in advance, like during production of the film, and that waiting until a month before the submission is much too late. 

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PART 2 - Tips for filmmakers on how to follow the rules (and maybe bend them a bit...)

The Academy has a lot of rules and regulations, and it's better when submitting any film to be aware of as many of them as possible.  The rules define what length a film has to be for consideration as a feature film instead of a short, for example.  Anything over 40 minutes is a feature, for their purposes, and anything under is a short. (Which sort of suggests the question about which category a 40-minute film would be able to qualify in...)  There are also rules about what constitutes an animated feature, or in the case of an animation/live-action mix, the film has to contain over a certain percentage of animation in order to qualify in that category. 

Another important rule is that the film has to be released, not necessarily nationwide, but at the very least it has to be exhibited publicly at a real theater within L.A. County, for at least 7 days, with at least three showings a day.  And along with the submission form, the Academy now requires proof of this screening, which used to be just a letter from the manager of the theater, but now they also require a copy of the theater's billing block, which is what gets sent to the local newspapers to announce the screenings to the public.  This means that over the years, some people probably tried to either forge letters from the theater, or tried to screen a film without telling the public about it.  

What's weird now is that for short films, the Academy now requires that they be advertised in the newspapers, just like feature films are.  For many years I've been able to help animated shorts get qualified by calling up certain theaters in L.A., and asking them if they'd be willing to screen a short before one of their features for a week.  99% of the time their answer would be a resounding "NO", but once in a while I could find some helpful theater manager, or one that might charge $50 or $100 for his trouble, but that's just the sort of entrepreneurial spirit I admire.  This sometimes led to odd pairings, like I remember that we screened a film called "Nosehair" in front of the James Bond film "Goldeneye".  And I remember one time where we paid a theater $50 to screen a short before a feature, but it went over so well, they sent the check back.  

Back then, all we really needed to submit to the Academy as proof was a letter from the theater manager to say that this screening took place, but now the Academy requires that the short film appears in the newspaper billing, right along with the name of the feature.  This is very easy for Disney or Dreamworks to arrange, especially if their short film is screening with one of their own features, like the way they screened "Bao" with "The Incredibles 2".  It's much harder at the independent level to get a short film both screened AND advertised.  Plus, who goes to the movie theater to see a short film?  I don't see why this requirement exists, because it's highly unlikely that anyone would read the newspaper to find out where a film like "Mission: Impossible" is playing, and then suddenly change their mind based on the fact that a short film is playing before another feature, like "Christopher Robin".  

In conjunction with the Academy's rules, the film also has to be kept off the internet before the L.A. screenings start - the rules do allow for festival screenings before the theatrical run, but nothing streaming on Netflix or airing on cable, or posted on YouTube or Vimeo or any other web-sites.  Many films these days are produced by Netflix or Amazon or even premium cable TV stations, so this is a rule that may change over the next few years, but right now everyone still has to follow this to the letter. Even a film made by Amazon can't be played on their web-site until after it screens in an L.A. theater for a week, or it won't be eligible. 

Back in the day, we used to have to ship a physical copy of the film, on 35mm no less.  This was because there was a small, select group of people who watched all of the animated features and decided which ones deserved to qualify.  The rumors were that these screenings took place at Tom Hanks' house, but I don't know for sure if that's true.  Anyway, the best thing about the new digital age of filmmaking is that we don't have to ship a big, heavy 35mm print of an animated feature out to Los Angeles for the Animated Feature Committee to view.  Once in a while, I might get lucky with the timing, and there would already be a 35mm copy in L.A., like maybe I could have the print that screened in the L.A. theater sent over to the Academy in Beverly Hills, and getting it shipped across town is much easier to arrange than getting it shipped across the country.  

These days, the submissions (and the screenings) are done with DCP's, which are hard drives that contain digital copies of feature films in HD formats.  Shipping a small hard drive from place to place, like from NY to LA, is much easier and cheaper.  (However, smaller hard drives are more likely to get lost...)  But now there are more rules about making and sending the DCPs that need to be followed.  For example, a DCP can have up to 7 channels of sound, and the minimum necessary for Academy submission is 3 channels, though they prefer 5.  A couple of times, I've been asked to submit animated shorts for qualification, but the filmmaker was still using basic stereo sound, which is only TWO channels.  What to do?  Well, a couple of times we shipped a stereo-mixed film to a company in L.A. that makes DCPs, and asked them to make a new DCP with 3 channels of sound, only the center one of them would be BLANK!  It was a quick fix done at the last minute, and I got the film qualified, though I admit this was a bit of a sneaky trick. 

(To be completely honest, this trick solved a problem, but also possibly violated a basic Academy rule, which states that the copy submitted for qualification must be exactly the same as the version that screened in the L.A. theater.  In this case, the copy that screened in the theater had 2-channel stereo sound, but the copy sent to the Academy had 3-channel sound.  But since one of the three channels was BLANK, in my opinion, the two versions of the film were the same.  That allows me to sleep soundly at night, anyway.)  

For "My Love Affair With Marriage", since Signe is already aware of the Academy's rules about sound, that makes my job a bit easier.  The sound mix for her film is already done, and it's already been made in 5-channel sound.  So when the time comes, all we'll need to do is to make a DCP with this mix, and we should be fine where the Academy's rules are concerned.  Unless, of course, the rules change between now and 2021, or any new technology forces new requirements to be met. 

There are a number of different deadlines to be aware of, also.  There's the date that everything has to be received at the Academy - the form, the film, and all the paperwork - which is usually October 31.  But before that, the Academy has to receive an OSF (Oscars Submission Form) and a complete version of the film's on-screen credits within 60 days of the end of the film's run at a commercial theater in Los Angeles County. This means that if you screen your film in L.A. in January, let's say, you have to do some of your Oscar paperwork in March, when the main deadline is in late October.  Who the heck is thinking about the Oscar submissions in February?  That's when the award ceremony for the PREVIOUS year is held, but if you're a filmmaker, you have to be thinking ahead here.  And if you screen in January and you forget to fill out the paperwork in February, that's it - you can't change your mind or suddenly remember to do this in September and still qualify.  This is probably why most studios release their best movies late in the year, because when they released good movies in January, somebody kept forgetting to fill out the Academy paperwork until it was too late. 

Finally, there's a new rule about submitting a digital copy of the film, along with 300 DVD copies to the Academy - Hmm, I've never seen that one before.  I bet those will be sent out to the voting members of the Animated Feature branch, for voting purposes.  Those DVDs have to be in paper sleeves with no artwork or contact information on them.  Wow, that's a lot of work, making 300 DVDs.  Or even if you hire a company to make those, that's an extra expense in order to qualify your film.  Sure, for a big company like Disney or Dreamworks, that cost is considered minimal compared to all their other production costs, but at the independent level, that's a big unexpected expense.  And it's a write-off, you can't sell those DVDs for a profit, or do anything with them to get that money back.  

Let's say you follow all of the Academy rules to the letter, and you manage to make your film Oscar-eligible.  That's great, but then you're only halfway there.  There's no guarantee the film will get nominated, but as I said before, it's got to be qualified in order to stand a chance of getting a nomination.  In the case of animated shorts, the Academy hosts branch screenings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for all the eligible shorts.  Any members that vote in this category can attend one of the branch screenings, watch all of the eligible films at once, and then vote for their favorites, which ideally narrows the list of Oscar-worthy shorts down to a list of then, which is known as the "Short List".  From this list, another round of voting picks the five shorts that get nominations.  

Ultimately, it's a long, complicated process that can be difficult for filmmakers to undertake, especially when new rules and requirements pop up that didn't exist before. The best we can do is pay attention each year and review the rules to see if anything is different, and then adjust our plans accordingly.  OK, so maybe I've never broken an Academy submission rule, but I've probably bent a few of them here and there. 

Studio News from John, Part 14: Anatomy of a Set - Jonas's Room

It's time to take a look at the next set that was constructed for "My Love Affair With Marriage".  This is the set for Jonas's room.  In the film, the character of Zelma, 17 years old, will take a train to another city and visit the art gallery, where she meets Jonas, an older man (33) who discusses art with her and then offers her some wine.  Zelma goes back to Jonas' room, and this marks a turning point in her search for a soulmate. 

But let's save the story details for when you see the film, OK?  Instead, let's take a look at how Jonas' room was put together.  Signe had the idea that there should be a large set of stairs, which could be a symbol for progress, climbing toward a goal that represents personal growth, or falling down, out of grace.  The stairs were made from the leftover curved pieces that were cut out to make the arches in the art gallery!  Sturgis doesn't waste any scraps of wood in the set shop.  The curved pieces were placed on top of each other to make a unique set of steps.  

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The wooden pieces were then covered in paper-maché, and then given a base coat of black paint (though it looks blue here...) before the final pink color was added.  A little bit of the dark paint shows through the pink and this gave the stairs a different sort of texture created by the mix of colors. 

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Then the room itself was constructed, with a window on one side.  In the script, Zelma lies in the bed in the morning with her head on the pillow and watches the curtains move as air comes in through the window.  Just like the stairs, the walls got covered with paper-maché and then painted pink.  In the next photo you can see where the platform is going to go that will hold the loft for the bed, and then the stairs will be placed in front, to lead up to that loft. 

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And this piece will eventually become the bed that will be put at the top of the stairs.

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Next, since Jonas is an award winning artist, and one who is not shy about it, he has all his awards hung on the wall.  The laurels on the awards fit in with the theme of plants and flowers, and even the ones that look like crowns also resemble the spreading leaves of plants.  So the flower design runs through the whole room, and this ties in to the story, based on what happens to Zelma in this room, get it? 

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And the final element is a bridal veil, which I'm assuming will serve as the curtain for the room's window. 

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When all of the pieces are put together - the walls, the stairs, the bed and the artwork on the walls - here is what Jonas's room looks like:

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With some creative lighting, the room can take on an orange color, instead of pink, to reflect the look of a mid-day sun:

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That's how Jonas' room came together, and next time we'll take a look at how another set is being built, so stay tuned!

Studio News from John, Part 13: Anatomy of a Set - Art Gallery

There's a new set in front of the camera here at the studio, ready to be shot, and it's an art gallery. Here's the step-by-step process of how it was created..   

First, it began as an idea. Signe says that "in the Soviet Union religion was banned and the Soviet government solved the problem of what to do with unused churches by converting them into atheist clubs or art galleries. There was an old orthodox church in Riga that was turned into a planetarium with an adjoining café where all kinds of bohemians hung out. The café's nickname in those circles was "Dieva Auss" which means "God's Ear". In the Latvian system of metaphors Gods Ear is a heavenly place to be - it's warm, fuzzy and your wishes are instantly heard."

In "My Love Affair With Marriage" the main character, Zelma, enters a gallery where she meets an older artist and she is instantly seduced by his aura of success and importance. Signe based the visual idea of this gallery on the converted church. The space of Art is sacred to young, inexperienced Zelma and people associated with it can do no wrong.  Since this gallery used to be a cathedral, it has some high arches and niches in the walls for art, where the religious statues used to be.

Before we take a peek at the finished set, let's go back two months to look at the set being built.  Ah, March, it was a simpler time, before the President was getting indicted and before the Avengers fought the Infinity War...

 The whole set started with this sketch that Signe gave to Sturgis. From simple beginnings come very complex ideas! Sturgis used 3 kinds of saws to cut the shapes from wood found in a carpenter's trash bin.

The whole set started with this sketch that Signe gave to Sturgis. From simple beginnings come very complex ideas! Sturgis used 3 kinds of saws to cut the shapes from wood found in a carpenter's trash bin.

 The constructed set, with high arches and niches for the artworks, gets covered in paper-maché and with bricks made of cardboard.

The constructed set, with high arches and niches for the artworks, gets covered in paper-maché and with bricks made of cardboard.

 Signe places a sample piece of art to show us how the gallery might look when it's finished.

Signe places a sample piece of art to show us how the gallery might look when it's finished.

 Close-up of the right wall of the gallery with a hand sculpture in place. The paintings and sculptures exhibited in the gallery are created by the intern Joon Young Park. He did an amazing job!

Close-up of the right wall of the gallery with a hand sculpture in place. The paintings and sculptures exhibited in the gallery are created by the intern Joon Young Park. He did an amazing job!

By mid-May the whole gallery had been painted, bricks highlighted to bring out their texture, and all of the artworks were put in place.  

 The finished set, placed in front of the camera and lit for dramatic effect.

The finished set, placed in front of the camera and lit for dramatic effect.

 The left side of the gallery, with artworks placed on the walls and sculptures placed in the niches. 

The left side of the gallery, with artworks placed on the walls and sculptures placed in the niches. 

 The right side of the gallery, with artwork on the walls and the finished hand sculpture. 

The right side of the gallery, with artwork on the walls and the finished hand sculpture. 

And here's a short video, showing a pan over the entire gallery set:

Studio News from John, Part 12: Finished props

I posted the first look at some props from "My Love Affair With Marriage" back in November, (Studio News Part 7) and since then many of them have been painted, so here's an update on how they look now.

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Here's that big cat head, which turned out to be a cat-shaped room..  

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Here's that bathtub shape, which evolved into a man with a bathtub-shaped body, and it's full of eyeballs. I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for that. 

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This is that character that I said looked like he had a "split personality".  I guess I was right, and two heads are better than one. 

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And here is that figure carrying the suitcase and bag, he's got spiky hair and green skin now.  

Intriguing?  Of course!  It will be very interesting to see what roles all of these paper-maché figures play in the final film of "My Love Affair With Marriage".  

Studio News from John, Part 11: Noise complaints / Studio renovations

When you live and work in New York City, a certain amount of noise is to be expected.  After all, as Paul Simon once sang, "One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor."  I suspect Mr. Simon was using metaphor, but on a very practical level, he spoke the truth about people living together in close quarters.  (Why do they call them "apartments" if people are so close together?)  And by extension, almost every wall is someone else's wall, too - and on the other side of that wall, someone is probably learning to play a musical instrument.  

In Signe's building, her studio is right next to a recording studio, and this situation is just not conducive to a quiet, creative atmosphere.  Mostly this studio specializes in hip-hop music, which I personally don't listen to or appreciate, and this music is very focused on a driving, throbbing, shake-the-walls kind of beat.  Furthermore, it caters to a certain clientele that to fully appreciate the nuances of the music, has to engage in a certain herbal supplement.  (To me, if you have to get high to appreciate the music, there might be something wrong with the music, but hey, what do I know about it?)

So this has created a situation where the noise from next door is incessant, and the smell is often nauseating, and over the last few months has grown worse and worse, creating an interminable distraction that is simply not conducive to a creative atmosphere next door.  

There have been many conversations with the neighbor, ranging from friendly to combative, everything from the simple suggestion to use headphones to an attempt to coordinate schedules, so that the music (theoretically) wouldn't play during animating hours, or conversely so that animating hours could take place when the music isn't vibrating through the walls.  Then there were months of playing loops of forest noises:

rushing water:

and music found on YouTube that's designed to make us all smarter:

And happier:

in vain attempts to counteract, or at least overtake, the noise coming from next door.  Nothing has worked.  

The terms of the building's lease are, in my opinion, quite clear.  Every tenant in the building is responsible for controlling the noise AND odors coming from their space - and this applies to cooking odors as well as "baking" odors, legally there is no distinction between the smell of pots for cooking and pot for smoking.  Every single tenant has the right, according to the lease, to a peaceful working environment, and a responsibility to not interfere with the peaceful working environment of others.  But repeated calls to the landlord have not resulted in any punitive action, or change in the noise level.  Furthermore, it's the financial responsibility of a sound studio to employ proper sound-proofing, from a legal standpoint if not a neighborly one.  

The lease also forbids excess vibration caused by excessive noise - in the long term, this is much more potentially damaging to the building's structure than the noise itself.  

So, where does this lead?  Right now the solution seems to be to seal up all the gaps in the wall, to prevent any fumes from passing through (because apparently NOT smoking pot all day is unenforceable and therefore out of the question...) and to build another layer of wall on THIS side, with special sound-proofing panels that look terrible, but hopefully will cut down on the vibration passing over. 

The workers are here today installing them:

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This meant removing EVERYTHING from this long wall - the shelving, the pictures, the art, and moving the desks and cabinets to the middle of the room, and then after we'll have to move everything back, then look at this industrial, brown/grey paneling going forward.  It's a terrible sacrifice to give up an entire wall of the studio just for soundproofing, and we're not entirely sure if the panels will even have the desired effect, to reduce the noise from next door.

It seems like this is the last resort, in order to get back to a situation where Signe can once again focus on her animation, and not have to blare the sounds of a forest environment all day, just to cancel out the music coming from next door.  For the sake of sanity and the creative process, this is what has to happen.  It's a point of fact, nobody ever complains about having a studio next door to an animator - you never hear anyone say, "Why is my neighbor always DRAWING so loudly?"  Plus I've found over the years that animators are usually very quiet people who tend to, or are forced to, keep largely to themselves.  

Studio News from John, Part 10: Zelma's Bedroom

Time for an another update on the production of "My Love Affair With Marriage".  

A new set is in front of the camera now, and it's Zelma's bedroom set.  A couple of months ago, here is what the set looked like: 

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And now the walls have been painted, the wardrobe has been moved to the other side of the room, Zelma's bed has been added, and the room now has a window, which is great because it was getting a little stuffy in there, and the room really needed some more natural light.  Here's what the bedroom set looks like now:

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Here are some details about the room.  The walls appear to have plant-like tendrils on them, this is in sharp contrast to the straight lines of the walls, and this symbolizes the struggle between Zelma's natural, organic emotions and the rigid constructs of society.  Zelma is a teenager at this point in the story, and she's not sure what to do with emotions like love, and where those emotions are going to lead her.  Will she follow the conventions of society, and follow a straight path, or will her emotions take her on a more roundabout journey?  

If you notice here, there is moonlight coming in the window and hitting Zelma's bed.  This is more symbolism, since Zelma's body has begun following a certain monthly cycle, and what else follows a monthly cycle?  That's right, the moon.  

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And no, Signe didn't forget to clean up the set.  There are some clothes on the floor, and others in the wardrobe.  Again, a contrast between the order of society, with clothes on their hangers, and the free-spirited habit of leaving clothes on the floor.  (And here you thought your kids were just lazy - they're really just expressing their individuality!)  

Right now, Signe and Sturgis are doing some camera tests to shoot the background at several different angles and with different lighting (for different times of day).  

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Stay tuned for more production updates from the set!  

Studio News from John, Part 8: Fighting Scammers

As production continues on "My Love Affair With Marriage", there's not a whole lot for me to do while Signe is drawing, except to send out the W-2 forms to the actors who performed voice-overs (and who are all legally considered employees, as I mentioned in a previous post) and also 1099 forms to the vendors like the sound studios, the film's editor and consultants.  

So I've been spending my days on other matters - like getting stills and work-in-progress photos sent out to someone who wants to write about the making of "Rocks in My Pockets" in his book, or making sure that Signe's recent trips were properly credited to her frequent-flier mileage accounts.  And it seems a good portion of my day is now spent fighting spammers and scammers.  

Spammers are easy, I can deal with unwanted e-mail by marking mail for my "junk" folder, or by unsubscribing from as many lists as i can.  Then there are the phone calls, and I can't remember the last time someone called the studio and didn't offer to get us a better deal on our internet service, or get us to the front page of some Google list in some way or another.  

Do you remember the last time you were excited to get a phone call?  I think back about 20 or 25 years ago, when everyone started getting cell phones, for a while the attitude was, "Hey, someone's calling me on my cell phone, isn't that great?"  But these days it's more like, "Who the hell is calling me on my cell phone?  They've got some nerve..."  

Then there are the e-mails you get when your web-site has a contact form of any kind.  The spambots travel the interwebs, looking for these contact forms, and when they find one, they send you an e-mail that says something like, "Hi, I saw your web-site and I like it a lot!  But I can help increase your traffic by adding a link to it from my site.  Will you please do the same?" and these are pretty easy to spot because they're so generic, they don't make any specific references to WHAT they saw on the web-site, and the marketing they're offering is incredibly vague as well.  

But Signe got a spam that offered her $500 per month if she would run ads on her web-site, and she asked me to look into it.  She said she had a dream where somebody paid her money every month to do nothing.  I had to tell her that I didn't think it was real, that it was probably a scam just to get her to follow a link, and that spammers prey upon people like independent filmmakers with fantasies of easy money.  God knows what could have happened if she followed that link, the next thing we know, her computer could be infected with malware and her bank information's been passed off to Albanian hackers who will gladly transfer away all of her money to Russia. 

So now we've circled the wagons here, and we're trying to defend ourselves as best as we can, but the struggle continues every day.  Last month we were had an issue with the new scanner, and Signe asked one of our interns to find out if the scanner could output directly to Photoshop, which would speed up the process (and with 145 scenes to scan, any streamlining of the process would be an incredible help.)  The intern Googled "Epson scanner" and called the first phone number that came up, then before we knew what was happening, she had granted someone remote access to Signe's computer, and they were telling her that the computer was full of viruses and we needed to pay $100 for software that would clean it up.  Great, except that wasn't the issue she was asked to research, and I don't think she called the real Epson help line.  Thankfully, we didn't give out Signe's credit card number.  

These days, you can't trust a link that will protect your computer from viruses - when chances are good that following that link will GIVE your computer a virus.  What a scam, right?  First they infect your computer then they charge you $100 to get rid of it.  It might even be funny if it weren't so horrible.  The internet is like the new Wild West, it's a lawless place.  Having unprotected sex with a stranger is probably more virus-free than following a link on your computer. 

Sturgis got an e-mail reminding him to renew the domain registration for KickstartMarriageFilm.com - which is a URL we used during the Kickstarter campaign last year to help promote the fundraising efforts.  Since Sturgis is away in Portland, Maine appearing in a play, he asked me to look into it and renew the domain, since we may need it again in the future.  I'm going to re-print the e-mail here as a public service to illustrate our problem.  Can you spot the indications that this e-mail is NOT legit? 

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The first tip-off that something wasn't right was that link at the bottom - I clicked on it and it led me nowhere, to an invalid page.  I know, I shouldn't have even clicked on a strange link, I was really living dangerously there!  But what the heck is "Sochi2018"?  The winter olympics were held in Sochi, but in 2014!  And Sochi's in Russia, does this mean that Russian hackers are really trying to trick us?  

The second clue that something wasn't right was the return e-mail address, which has an "AU" at the end, short for Australia, and looks like it comes from some kind of travel club.  What does that have to do with domain renewal?  

The third clue is the "call to action" with the tight deadline and the veiled threat - if we don't respond to this notice by January 20 (and it was sent on January 19) we could LOSE THE OFFER, and by implication we could then lose the domain if we don't act RIGHT AWAY.  

Finally, after staring at this e-mail for about 10 minutes, I realized there was nothing legitimate about it at all.  Nothing added up, it made no sense and I had to conclude that it wasn't real, just spam.  Somebody looked up the domain registration via WHOIS and found a web-site that was up for renewal in a few weeks, and decided to send an e-mail to the owner on file, Sturgis, and try to get him to follow a link, or maybe renew the web-site with THEM instead of the company he initially registered it with.  

I went to the file cabinet and found the receipt from the initial domain registration, which was made through GoDaddy.com - and not some travel club site in Australia, as it turns out.  Sturgis gave me his GoDaddy account information, and I signed on to find out that the domain was due to expire on February 5 (NOT January 20) and was already scheduled for automatic renewal, so there was no need to panic, or follow strange links from spam e-mails.  

Right now we're not really using that domain, and going there just re-directs the user to Signe's main web-site.  But we could use the domain again in the future if we run another fund-raising campaign.  So we don't want to lose it - we could transfer it to Signe's SquareSpace account, but that takes about 12 or 13 steps, you have to unlock the domain, request an authorization code, review the DNS and privacy settings, etc.  It's easier just to let automatic renewal happen and then we can re-visit the hosting issue this time next year. 

On a related note, after the Kickstarter campaign was over last February, Signe and Sturgis wanted to move forward with making a new web-site for the film "My Love Affair With Marriage" and they decided that the simplest URL to register would be www.myloveaffairwithmarriage.com - makes sense, right?  Only they found out that this URL was already taken.  How was this possible, was there another movie being made with the same exact title?  

This is where I stepped in to do a bit of internet sleuthing - because we can use the WHOIS domain look-up in reverse too.  I found the name and contact information for the person who registered that domain, and they just happened to do that right in the middle of the Kickstarter campaign.  I also found out this person had registered several other domains, all of which had names similar to projects that were hot on Kickstarter last January.  She saw the KS campaign for the Yobo Hammock Stand, and she registered yobohammockstand.com - she saw the KS campaign for HANA Luxury Playing cards, and she registered hanaluxuryplayingcards.com - she saw the KS campaign for Tempus Spin Coin and she registered tempusspincoin.com.

Ah, so it seemed we were dealing with a Domain Squatter, someone who buys up a bunch of domains cheaply in hopes of selling them back to companies for a profit.  It turned out she had registered 57 domains, none of which were active.  She may have registered the URL discodogvest.com but the makers of that product decided to sell their merchandise with the URL "http://discodog.nyc" instead.  Good for them. 

Signe called the Domain Squatter (I won't print her name here), who said she needed that domain to help promote her line of pet food.  Right, because you see a lot of dog food these days with names like "My Love Affair With Marriage"... Does that sound like it comes in beef flavor, or maybe chicken?  Anyway, Signe offered her $100 for the domain name, but it seems like there was a difference in opinion over the URL's value, the Squatter figured it was worth $8,000 instead.  Again, it's the Wild West out there, with no laws against this sort of thing. 

Signe declined the Squatter's offer, she figured we could always use a slightly different URL, like www.myloveaffairwithmarriagemovie.com, or another similar variant.  But the good news is it's almost one year later now, and that domain will be coming up for renewal, so perhaps she won't renew it.  Since we last spoke to her, the Squatter appeared on ABC's "Shark Tank"  to pitch her line of dog food.  I haven't seen the episode yet, but maybe the Sharks offered her a deal, and she can now get out of the business of shaking down filmmakers and hammock makers by buying up the web-sites they might want and selling them back at 80,000% mark-up.  We should find out in a couple weeks.  

No lie, as I typed this up, there was a knock on the studio door.  Someone's knocking on every door in the building, handing out his business card for his printing services.  Compared to the people who are sending us phony e-mails and robocalls EVERY DAY, there was something about this guy that was refreshingly honest.  Unless, of course, he was casing the building for places with no security systems that he could come back and rob later.  Am I being too paranoid? 

Come to think of it, he did look a little bit Albanian...

Studio News from John, Part 7: Let's Learn About Latvia!

Most everything I know about the country of Latvia - which I admit, is not much - I only know because I've known Signe for so long.  I know that the capital of Latvia is Riga, and it's located between Estonia and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, and that it was part of the Soviet Union from the start of World War II until it declared independence in 1990.  

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I joke around with Signe by telling her that if weren't for a certain basketball player on the New York Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis, she'd have a real shot at being the most famous Latvian in NYC.  Who knows, maybe someday he'll be traded to another team and she can move up in the local rankings.  

 Kristaps Porzingis, at 7'3" the most famous (and tallest) Latvian in NY. (Sturgis Warner added to photo for size comparison)

Kristaps Porzingis, at 7'3" the most famous (and tallest) Latvian in NY. (Sturgis Warner added to photo for size comparison)

If you've been following Signe on Facebook, then you know she and Sturgis have been in Latvia for the last three weeks, and she'll be back in New York just in time for Christmas.  But it hasn't been a vacation, they've been supervising the Latvian recording of the dialog and songs for "My Love Affair With Marriage".  

If you remember Signe's film "Rocks in My Pockets", there were two versions released theatrically, one with English dialogue and the other with Latvian dialogue.  Her film was so successful in Latvia that it won Best Screenplay and Best Animated Feature in the Latvian National Film Competition, and also the Best Feature Film Prize at the Riga International Film Festival. Then it was chosen as the official Latvian entry to the Academy's Foreign Film category, which was a great accomplishment for an animated film. 

Obviously, with a story based on Signe's family history, which was set in Latvia, that film had a strong connection with the people of Latvia.  Since part of Signe's next film is set there, too, it makes sense to see if lightning will strike twice, and make a Latvian version of "My Love Affair With Marriage" also.  

This means that the dialogue and songs that were recorded in English earlier this year have to be re-worked and re-recorded with Latvian actors and singers.  So that's what Signe and Sturgis have been doing in Latvia, working with the film's Latvian co-producer, Locomotiv Productions.  

 At MUTE Studio in Latvia with Arnis Racinskis and LMND / Limonade

At MUTE Studio in Latvia with Arnis Racinskis and LMND / Limonade

For the songs, they called on the Latvian trio known as LMND/Limonade, which consists of Ieva Katkovska, Kristine Pastare and Iluta Alsberga.  They filled the roles of the Mythology Sirens, who sing advice to the main character about how to behave and fit in with society.

 Signe and Sturgis in the studio with voice actor Kaspars Znotins

Signe and Sturgis in the studio with voice actor Kaspars Znotins

And now they've moved on from the songs to recording the dialogue.  From what I hear, the work schedule has been very intense, but it's also been very exciting to hear the film's soundtrack coming together, now in two languages. 

So while we've all been rushing around here in New York., getting ready for the holidays, Signe and Sturgis have been hard at work!  I hope that they've allowed themselves a little time to relax and enjoy the trip, and I wish them safe travel back here on Christmas Eve.  

 There's always time to play a little game of "Fetch" with a dog.

There's always time to play a little game of "Fetch" with a dog.