Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Max Howard Teaches our Students How to Produce a Hollywood Movie

Max Howard and Bucks animation students. From left: Felix Deacon, Ellouise Benjamin, James Hatton, Jack Copley, Max Howard, Kalim Momen, Alex Williams, Georgia Nichols, Anton Alfimenko, Ben Gray
Earlier this year Producer Max Howard came to Bucks to talk about how to produce an independent animated film.  He talked in detail about how films get financed, walking our students through all the steps necessary to get a film off the ground and into theatres. With a wealth of experience at major Hollywood Studios, and also with a number of independent animated features under his belt (plus one coming out this year - The Hero of Colour City - there are few producers better qualified to explain how the system actually works.

Good animators are good actors

What does an animator do?
Max himself began his career as a child actor, and he started off his talk by explaining that "all animators are actors". If an animator "does not understand the nature of the performance, then they are not acting". In other words "it’s not just how to move it – it’s when to move it." Common mistakes among rookie animators include "moving the character too much". As Max put it: "a good animator understands when to do nothing".

What does a producer do?
Max went on to ask the question "What does a producer do?" He explained that there are a number of different kinds of Producers. For example:
  • Line Producer – this person does the "nuts and bolts" of the production. 
  • Associate Producer – This person assists the Producer, or the job title could "be a thank you" to some VIP who helped out with the project.
  • Co Executive producer – "who really knows" what this means? Could be anything!
  • Executive Producer – This title should really be "non executive" because they may have almost nothing to do with the project at all. Sometimes investors get credited as producers if they put up a bit of cash.
Max Howard at Bucks

Time and Money
Max explained that making films is about managing time and money - this is the vital part of the producer's job. A good producer has to “balance the film’s creative vision with the resources available”. And, of course, there is "never enough time, and never enough money". So, a good producer is someone who gets the balance right. In the end, "it’s how you use the time, and how you spend the money".

The Lion King - oddly unpopular

Some animation history
Max took us back to the second Golden Age of Disney animation, back to the early 1990s in Hollywood. Pocahontas was the next film slated to come after The Lion King, and both films were being made at the same time.  But, curiously, it was Pocahontas that was the popular project among the artists. "No-one at Disney really wanted to work on The Lion King". Why? It was an unfashionable project, just another talking animal movie. Even the composer, Elton John,  was "old, bald and fat". So what made the difference? The opening sequence, The Circle of Life "changed everything". Suddenly everyone realised they had a movie, something that could be a hit.

The Problem of Pocahontas
On Pocahontas, the animators (and the studio) came across an unexpected problem - Pocahontas's hair, which was becoming a character of its own, time-consuming to execute. The animators were spending too much time just animating the hair, and this was busting the budget. Somehow, the studio "had to tame Pocahontas's hair". They never did, and costs rose, but what, asked Max, might have been the solution? Max suggested that the studio "should have pretended that we tied her hair back to show how she was culturally tied back by being stuck between two worlds". This would have solved a technical problem with a story solution. The moral of the tale is this: "when you look at your project, a restriction can sometimes be a way of doing something smart".
Where every story begins

Planning a Feature Film
Max explained that there are "Three things to remember when planning a feature film":
  1. Story
  2. Story
  3. Story.
So, what the "Three ingredients of a great story"?
  1. Great story
  2. Believable world
  3. Engaging characters
Lots of film-makers, said Max, think they can solve the problem of story by "getting themselves a writer". But, he said, it does not really work this way. The process is not so simple. You can’t just “get yourself a writer”. After all, "what will they do? Take dictation?"You have to do the hard work yourself, and figure it all out. But, he added. "Start with a great story and you have a chance to succeed".

Budgets and Money

Max explained that in the "Low budget independent film-making – you must have your planning figured out". People often say that their film is "for everyone", but this is not true. "Animated films are not for everyone". So you have to figure out – "who is your movie actually for?" What is the audience? He then showed us the opening sequence of The Iron Giant – a film Max produced - which introduces all the main characters in a very funny and appealing way.

Watch out for Chinese Dragons

Worldwide Box Office- and the Rise of China

Currently, the worldwide box office for movies is "$35.9 billion". Of this, the USA is one third of that at $10.9billion. This has changed, as a decade or so ago the USA was half of global box office. And things are moving east, and Max predicted that "within seven years, the number one box office will be China".  But, the number of foreign films released in China is limited by Chinese law. In response to this, DreamWorks are "building a studio in Shanghai, to skirt the restrictions on foreign movies in China". In China, explained Max, "you can buy anything, even bootlegs [of movies]. Perfect quality bootlegs".

The Business of Animation
Animation is big business. Even though it constitutes "just 7% of all releases worldwide, it generates  15% of all box office revenues". In other words, animation punches above its weight. Of course, it is "harder for independent animated films" than for big studio releases, but even so "life is easier for an independent animated film than it is for an independent live action film." And, the good news for animated film-makers is that the "barriers to entry for animation are much lower than they used to be". Even student film-makers have access to "low cost hardware", and "off the shelf software". Nowadays, "it’s about the talent, not the studio".

How a film gets made:

There are three main stages to production:

1. Development – how long is a piece of string? This stage can take a long time.
2. Production
3. Distribution – This is "often the hardest bit". You (the film-maker) "must understand how this bit works", else you will court disaster.

Max Howard talks to our students

Development - what is it?

1. Screenplay- your story. The key bit.
2. Visual Development - what is the Style of the film?
3. Schedule - how long will it take?
4. Budget- how much will it cost?
5. Casting- who will be in it?

It's all about the acting. Photo: Wikipedia

How do actors get into the character?
Max explained that each actor has their own way of getting into the part. For example, "Judi Dench starts by buying the underwear she thinks the character would wear...but she won’t tell you what it is". Other actors "find the shoes". Alex Guinness used to "go to the zoo and watch animals walk". Other actors ask "What foods do their characters like/dislike?"

The secret of reading screenplays:
Screenplays are "hard to read", even for experienced film-makers. They are, in fact, "not designed to be read". A common mistake with a screenplay is to make it "read like a novel? Is the writer telling you what the character is thinking? ". If so, this is an error. A screenplay is "designed to be heard and seen, not read". So what is the solution? Max suggests "do a radio play. Read it out loud together. Cast it among yourselves." Best of all, this is "a great time for the director to work with a group of actors. It's a great way of understanding the text."

How much will it cost?

How do you figure out how much your movie will cost?
You have to base your Budget on the Screenplay. You have to ask yourself:
How many:
1. Locations
2. Characters
3. Props
4. Visual Effects
A good producer will add all these elements up and cost them out. You have to "break the script down into sequences, and create a rating system – which shots will cost what?". You have your  "A, B, and C shots". In effect, you create "a Quota system". And you must ask "How much animation per animator per week?" Also, you have to ask, "How many retakes will the director get?". You must make the weekly production quota, and the quota must be realistic.

Some terms defined
1. "Above the line" – producer, director, writer, talent, composer
2. "Below the line" – production, post production. That's the rest of us.

Kinds of Production
Max explained that there are "3 types of production":
  1. Good, 
  2. Fast, 
  3. Cheap.
And as a producer you get to "pick two".

Pre Production
Pre-production includes doing Visual Development, of "Vis Dev". You will also so "Scratch voice recording". Animated films like to "cast famous actors". The reason for this is "part marketing, partly because they are really good". But, the problem is, there is generally "no chance to rehearse". Each actor tends to record the lines by themselves, in the booth.

Action! Photo: Wikipedia
By the time your animatic (storyboards filmed and timed out sequentially with sound and music) is done, explained Max "you have really made your movie. The director could go home …almost". But there are choices to be made. What kind Production do you want? "CGI? 2D? Stop Motion?". There are many styles to choose from.

Making the weekly Quota
This is vital and it is "all about good management". You have to "Manage, manage, manage. The big problem on a film is ...no work. If there is proper inventory, you will be fine. Manage the inventory and the productivity targets can be achieved." Every producer's nightmare is artists sitting around with nothing to do, burning hours and getting unhappy.

Once your picture is in production, it should be "a time and motion study." You must deliver your quota each week, on time. But remember when you plan your shots out that the "Quota is not the same in August, or a bank holiday weekend". Some weeks you will come up short because your artists are away. Should you "Close over Christmas?". Probably, yes. In the end "your schedule must be realistic."

Remember: The Producer's job is to "balance the film’s creative vision with the resources available. Its how you use the time and how you use the money you have. You must expect the unexpected. Shit happens."

Things to avoid
Try not to:
1. Introduce new hardware
2. Create new software
Why? because "Production is not for beta testing". The risk of failure is too great.

Post Production:
Post-production includes "Scoring, ADR, Sound FX, Do we have Foley at Bucks?" (No). Max explained that "Sound is so underestimated. You can add 30% to your film with great sound". Also, "Don’t make it [the sound] too cartoony". It should be the "same as live action".

Deliverables - what are they?
Deliverables include "all the elements that the distributors needed". They will want "Different file formats. Separate files. List of requirements…." All this can be exhausting. After all, "it’s the end of the production, and everyone is tired". But it still has to be done.

Distributors like QSRs (Quick Service Restaurant)

This bit is hard, and too often overlooked. Without distribution, no-one will see your film. Max asked "What is your USP (Unique Selling Point)?". This is important for distributors.  Also, do you have a "QSR" on board? That is to say "A Quick Service Restaurant". McDonalds can shift Happy Meals for you, and this will help with distribution. 

Things you need to get distribution:
  1. A "Locked" screenplay (no revisions allowed)
  2. Foreign dubs (ie translated into foreign languages)
  3. Press junket- press packs, Q&As, champagne for journalists.
  4. Premiere. A big, glossy, opening night.

How Distribution works
Cannes is still the centre of the movie business where distribution is concerned. Max "goes to Cannes to buy and sell movies. It starts on a Wednesday, and finishes 10 days later on a Sunday". His latest film "Colour City" is currently being sold, "but not by Max". It is a "USA/India co-production".

There are "four big sales markets: Cannes, Toronto, AFM, Berlin".

What are Pre-Sales?
Pre-sales are all about "Trying to raise the money to make the movie". If you can get distributors to "pre-buy the film", then "upon delivery, that money becomes due". The good thing about this is that you can then go to "certain banks who will let you borrow against the pre-sale, perhaps 80% of the pre-sale". This then gives you the cash to make the film. The bank "does not care how good the movie is"; they "just want to know that you have a pre-sale".

A completion bond co

Also, "you need a completion bond", that is to say an insurance policy to insure your film. There are "only 2-3 companies, who do this, and they all know the business very well". The cost of this bond is "3-4% of  your budget". Typically it amounts to "several hundred thousand dollars".

The trouble with bonding your movie is this: Each week, you "must file a report to the bond company". This involves taking a look at the "Schedule –vs- Actuals". Any difference between the two "must be articulated". And, if "you can’t articulate why…then the film gets taken away from you".

On The Thief and The Cobbler, where the Completion Bond Company ended up taking over the film, The Bond Co "thought the reporting was fictitious". In the end, "they finished the movie", much to the detriment of the film.

In other words, once your movie is bonded, "you have someone sitting on your shoulder". Worse, "if  you are late…you have ogres on your shoulder". Max "hates going down this route".  In the end, "Financing is always a challenge. Raising money is the hardest thing to do".

Final Thoughts:
According to Max, film-making is all about preparation. As he put it "If you fail to prepare, you will prepare to fail". So, to re-cap, you need:
  1. Great Script
  2. Great Designs
  3. Gifted Crew
  4. Realistic Schedule
  5. Accurate Budget
  6. Stable Pipeline
But then, there will always be the unexpected. Max quoted Pablo Picasso as saying: “If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?" 

Pablo Picasso: Creating the Unexpected
Finally, remember that modern audiences are impatient. "You have to engage the audience super fast – you have ten minutes maximum to get their attention". As for how a film will do, it's just a numbers game, and you can tell very quickly how it will do.  After all "We know on a Friday night how much money a film will make, within 10% of its final box office".

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