On hiatus

It’s been six months since we posted Episode Four, and we’re well aware that Episode Five is long overdue. Unfortunately, we’re not posting here to release a new episode, but rather to announce The West Side is on hiatus.

The story is this: after eight months spent writing the series, we realized it was unlikely we’d be able to self-produce all twelve scripted episodes. As the story grew in scope from episode to episode, so too would the budget and time requirements, to the point where we wouldn’t be able to produce it ourselves. We looked at the first act, saw it concluded with a challenging setpiece (the gun battle that ends Episode Four), and told ourselves we needed to get through the first four episodes on our own. After that — if we’d applied ourselves fully and had managed to realize a compelling urban western, as we’d set out to — some kind of door would open for us, hopefully enabling us to continue the series.

We were ecstatic when, upon the release of Episode Four, even more than we’d hoped for happened: we won the Webby Award for Best Drama Series, and then were featured as two of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film.

These recognitions garnered us representation in LA and although we didn’t inquire very intently into commercial possibilities for our series, it seems the market for plodding black-and-white internet urban westerns isn’t a lucrative one. Who knew? The West Side is slow, edgy, and advertiser-unfriendly, and as such, we can’t exactly outfit Qasim in J. Crew or give Magner a Pepsi to drink. And that’s exactly how we’d always wanted the show: to stand out from a crowd of more hastily-produced and paced internet videos. The West Side wasn’t supposed to be commercial, and it’s not.

Thus we arrive at our current dilemma. Self-production can be a costly venture and if we continue shooting on nights and weekends in the same guerrilla style as before, we won’t complete the remaining eight episodes for many, many months. Years, even. So we’ve officially gone on hiatus, to explore full-time options for The West Side as well as other film and internet projects. We would love to finish the series — to allow our character arcs to play out, to flesh out the themes just beginning to take root in the first four episodes, to tell the story we’d spent eight months writing and rewriting — but unfortunately it’s just not feasible for us to wrap the project under the present circumstances.

Now, if by some miracle someone out there feels like funding the remaining episodes, by all means contact us; you’ll be surprised by how cheap this production is. And despite the lack of product placement opportunities, there are still plenty of ways to monetize the content. For the rest of you, if you think you might know someone who’d be interested in independent internet film finance, by all means… tell a friend.

Ultimately, however, the making of The West Side is not a story that ends with a lack of financing — money is the one thing we never pursued in this whole endeavor (until we tainted it with the previous paragraph). Instead, The West Side was intended to launch a couple of film careers, and in that respect it’s been an unmitigated success. Not that we’re established in any way, but now we have our feet in a number of doors and that’s all we ever wanted.

Online video is still a nascent concept, and we’re sure in the future many internet filmmakers will launch careers more rapidly and to more fanfare than we have — but it’s been a pleasure driving blind, as it were, not knowing where this ride was going to take us. For all of you who’ve watched the show to date, our sincerest thanks. We built our own niche apart from the rest of the internet video world, and we really appreciate you coming on the journey with us. Here’s hoping it continues soon.

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Case Study: Your Film Online

Independent Film WeekIt’s been awhile since you last heard from us, and while we don’t have any updates for you just yet — stay tuned — we are pleased to announce we’re part of IFP‘s upcoming Independent Filmmaker Conference here in New York CIty September 14th-19th.

We’ll be speaking on a panel Monday, September 15th at 2:30pm entitled Case Study: Your Film Online. On the panel, we will be screening an episode and talking about our film … online.

The conference is part of this year’s Independent Film Week; check out the schedule of events and get tickets to whatever tickles your fancy. Hope to see you there.

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28 days later

We're pleased to announce that Episode Four is now live, so check it out.

A lot has happened since Episode Three went live a couple of months ago, and truth be told it's been a bit of a whirlwind for us. That said, we managed to turn around this episode faster than any prior entry; we first rolled camera for Episode Four on May 10th, and here we are posting it 28 days later... all the while still working our full-time jobs.

We had the opportunity to premiere a draft version of Episode Four on the big screen at a panel put on by Filmmaker Magazine and IndieGoGo Thursday at the IFC Center. It was great to see our work on the big screen, and as you'll see, this is the episode to see in a theater. We'd like to thank Lance Weiler for looping us in and Scott Macaulay from Filmmaker Magazine for having us. If you'd like to read a bit more about the evening, it's covered here.

As we've said before, making these episodes ain't easy, and we couldn't have made this episode happen without the continued support from our friends and fans. Thanks to everyone for keeping us going, and as always, tell a friend!

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Where internet and film collide

This Thursday, June 5th, at the IFC Center here in New York, Zack and I will be on a panel fittingly titled “Where Internet and Film Collide.” As part of the night’s screenings, we will be premiering Episode Four. Here’s your chance (and, indeed, ours) to see The West Side on the big screen!

If you’re in New York City, come on down. Official details here, and note the start time is 8:30, not 8. The meat-and-potatoes:

Filmmaker Magazine, the IFC Center and IndieGoGo present “Where Internet and Film Collide,” a night of screenings and conversation centered around the convergence of filmmaking and web video, Thursday, June 5 at 8:30pm.

Held as part of Internet Week New York and hosted by the IFP, the night will consist of a number of exciting short form works that could only have been created for the web and then discussions with their makers about their creative and production processes.

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How we could just hang a man

Hangin

It’s been awhile since we talked about the technical aspects of our production, and while most of our entries in the realm have been on the shortcomings of no-budget filmmaking, we’re happy this time around to report on a success.

To our surprise, we didn’t receive a single comment on the hanging of the henchman Saul, as played by Omar Gonzalez. Omar was an incredibly good sport at our shoots—dealing with fake blood on his face and clothes, being repeatedly dragged across the floor, and doing his own stunt falls when shot in the back take after take—but despite what you see on-screen, we did not hoist him up by his neck and hang him from a street lamp. In fact, we didn’t hoist him up at all.

What you see on screen (or more pointedly, what you don’t see) is one of the many low-profile digital tricks we’ve pulled in The West Side to date. The street corner is real, the lamppost is real, but the rope and Omar are not there. In fact, we filmed him weeks later on my roof.

Hangin

After filming the street corner scene with our actors Brendan Donnelly and James Sampson, who looked up at a body-less streetlight during the shoot, we needed to insert a hanging, swaying Omar into the shot. Not wanting to actually hang him from the streetlight due to obvious safety issues, we were left with a background plate in hand and a need to film a swinging body somehow, somewhere. To approximate the low angle of the camera, we needed to get the camera below Omar; the elevator shed on my apartment roof offered one such opportunity. But because there was no structure above the shed, we wouldn’t be able to hang Omar from a harness, which we wanted to do in order to give us realistic swinging action. Instead, Omar stood on the edge of the roof and swayed in place slightly while we looped the noose over his head; Zack held the rope as if he were the lamppost. Then, in a separate shot, Omar sat on the ladder and swung his feet. In a third shot, Zack held a length of rope taut, with which we’d virtually string up Omar. The sky behind Zack and Omar served as our no-budget blue screen.

We brought a laptop to the roof to quickly superimpose Omar on the background plate and eyeball the angle of the body to ensure it would work. Then later in After Effects we composited in Omar, attached his swaying feet to his body, stretched the rope over the lamp and to the ground, and voilà. It ain’t perfect, but for zero bucks it’s a pretty good trick. As for the fact that no one commented on either instance of the effect—it closes Episode Two and has an encore in the opening scene of Three—we will take that as a compliment!

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We’re Webby Award winners

Webby Award

Two emails of note recently found their way to our inbox. First was an advance notice reminding us to renew our web domain, thewestside.tv, as its two-year registration expires this July. We registered the domain very early in the scripting process—as soon as we’d come up with the show’s title—and upon receiving the email, we wondered if it’d really been two years. While the site didn’t go live until a year after the initial registration—with us writing the full-length script, casting the whole show, and producing Episode One during that time—the email did prompt us to reflect on what, exactly, we had to show for our two year’s worth of sporadically-surrendered nights and weekends.

The answer, of course, was a lot: a story where there was once none, an actual online film, innumerable learning experiences. But then the second email arrived, giving us something more tangible to show for our efforts: the 2008 Webby Award for Best Drama Series.

Even after being nominated, we still didn’t know if we had a chance to win the actual award with only three episodes up and very little outside recognition, especially going up against the probable forerunner for the award: Lonelygirl15, recipient of a truckload of publicity, exponentially more web traffic, and a Wired cover story. But then the awards were announced today, and there we are, Webby Award Winner (we’ve issued a press release here). Predictably, Lonelygirl took home the People’s Voice award (congrats, LG15), but we’d like to thank the judges for recognizing The West Side’s merit in the film/video criteria: concept and writing, quality of craft, integration, and overall experience.

Here we are, two twentysomethings with a camera and a few friends, shooting with zero budget on New York City sidewalks over the past year, not fully knowing where it was headed, when “the web’s highest honor” (so says The New York Times) is bestowed upon us. We can’t help but feel like we’re part of a larger movement, thanks to the Internet: the actual democratization of film distribution.

For all of you who have watched and commented on our episodes, for the bloggers and filmmakers who have written about us over the past year, our sincerest thanks. This recognition gives us a much brighter outlook on a future as full-time producers in film, video, and online media, and despite this being our first production, we expect you’ll see many more from us in the years ahead.

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For all your new media needs

exit strategy

You might have noticed this logo at the end of Episode Three (or in the footer of the site) and wondered what it was. Exit Strategy is our freshly-minted production company, under the auspices of which we will be producing future episodes and projects. Hopefully there will be scads of both.

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We’re Webby nominees

Vote for us

In case you missed the diminutive graphic above, we’re proud to announce The West Side is one of five nominees for the 2008 Webby Award for Best Drama Series. The Webby Awards have been called “the Oscars of the Internet” by the New York Times, and we beat out many higher-profile, better-funded online shows for a nomination. With only two episodes up (as the third just went live this week) and far less resources at our disposal than most of the competitors, we’re grateful the nomination committee recognized our efforts.

Head on over to the Webby site and check out the other nominees, or, far more importantly, register and vote for the People’s Voice award. There are two different awards: the Webby (as judged by a panel of experts) and the People’s Voice (as voted for online by the likes of you). Winning the People’s Voice award is a long shot, due to having a much smaller fanbase than, say, Lonelygirl15, but it’s up to you to prove us wrong!

We’ll be making a PR push associated with this nomination, and we hope you’ll take the chance to tell everyone you know to vote as well! Hopefully this nomination will give us more momentum as we head into episode four. Winners are announced May 6, and voting ends May 1, so don’t delay! Thanks for all your support.

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Episode Three and the long view

the long view

What to say about Episode Three? First, the obvious: it’s here, finally. Please go watch.

But other than the obvious, we’ve been having a hard time figuring out what commentary to add. So instead of talking about why the turnaround time between Episodes Two and Three (which we originally anticipated to be fairly quick) ended up being equal to the gap between Episodes One and Two, we thought we’d talk a bit about the state of The West Side as it currently stands.

As you know by now, we decided to undertake this project on our lonesome—not because of a refusal to work with anyone else or to accept outside funding, but because we took stock of our resources and discovered that, other than a DV camera and two talented friends—one a musician and one an actor—we didn’t have access to much else. So here, after more than a year, with nothing but a camera, a few friends, and some talented actors willing to work for free on a project they believe in, we’ve managed to complete three episodes of The West Side and get them out there for the world to see. And really, whatever else we say about the project, it’s a source of intense pride for us, and the fact that we’ve managed to spring forth a story such as this, from nothing—when we could’ve been merely working our day jobs and casually kicking around ideas over the past year—is something we wouldn’t have any other way. Our imagined world of The West Side exists, the episodes are tangible, and you can click a play button; sometimes we’re giddy about that alone.

But when we say “for the world to see,” for the most part, the world hasn’t really seen The West Side. Not that we haven’t had any viewers—we’ve had many thousands of visits and have been more than happy with the commenting—but by world wide web standards where home videos of cats get millions of views, we’re not even a blip on the radar. We’re not really disappointed: as we stated on day one, we weren’t interested in gunning for viewership statistics or advertising revenue. But if The West Side can be considered our calling card, pretty soon we need to start handing out cards to a lot more people. And we’ve always had a plan in place for doing so: to initially keep our cards close to our chest, and only after we have a certain number of episodes up—likely four—will we lay all the cards on the table (enough card analogies?). By then we’ll have enough content to get viewers hooked (four episodes will add up to roughly half an hour of viewing), and our abilities as writer/directors should be more discernible than after only one introductory episode. This plan is one of the reasons why, to date, we haven’t farmed out our content to other video sharing sites, despite being contacted by a few (thanks for the interest—we’ll get back to you in an episode’s time).

So bear with us: Episode Four’s a doozy. Though… it might take awhile. While we already have scenes from Episodes Five and Six in the can (due to shared locations with Episode Three), we’re starting from scratch on Four. Which is both good and bad: good because it’s difficult to smoothly transition between scenes shot a year apart, as we had to do in Three, and bad because, well, we’d like to finish this show while we still have hair on our heads. But as ever, we promise it’ll be worth the wait.

On a final note, we’ve also upgraded the web site in a number of ways, and while most of the changes are back-end related (which we’ll post about in the future), some of them will be more readily apparent to you, such as click-to-play. First-time visitors (tell a friend!) don’t necessarily want to jump right into Episode Three, so we’ve added a feature that allows you to either start playing the current episode or pick from our oh-so-extensive back catalog.

And seeing as how we hope our episodes are worthy of more than one viewing—especially once later themes in the series come into focus—we hope you take the chance to revisit older episodes. As always, thanks for watching.

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Behind the scenes

We thought we’d show you rather than tell you about our longest shoot to date: a two-day session in Brooklyn encompassing scenes from episodes 3, 5, and 6, which wraps Episode Three and introduces four new characters. We’ll be in post-production on the upcoming episode for a few weeks; in the meantime, sit back and watch the behind-the-scenes slideshow or use the arrows in the lower right-hand corner to navigate through the images.
Photos by Cate Corley.

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At long last, Episode Two

We'd like to tell you Episode Two's been sitting in the wings for four months and we just forgot to hit the "post" button, but alas, the reasons for it taking so long are much more humbling. We won't bore you with details --- beyond saying that our attempts at building our own 2 TB RAID 10 ended poorly, we've gone through many more hard drives, our composer's PC crashed and needed to be replaced altogether, one of us moved (Zack, to Fort Greene, Brooklyn), family visited, we overate at Thanksgiving, blah blah blah. Then again, maybe we will bore you, but we'll save it for future posts! Regardless, we've suffered many of the pangs typical of an independent production, and we thank you for sticking with us.

In addition to the new episode, we've also made some changes to the site. Check out the new full screen option by clicking the icon in the lower right corner of the video player. Also, take a look at our Press page, which links to a couple recent interviews we've done and a few of the (mostly) nice things people have been saying about The West Side. And finally, in case you missed it in our last post, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and download the first two episodes to your iPod or iPhone.

All that said, we're proud to release Episode Two of The West Side. For those of you returning, we hope it's worth the wait; and for those of you just joining us, welcome (and be sure to check out Episode One). And as always, tell a friend!

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iTunes availability and two interviews

We’ve been hard at work finishing up episode two, and although you may not have heard from us for a while, we’re happy to report news on several fronts.

Our first episode is now available for download through iTunes. Subscribe to our iTunes podcast, and all successive episodes will automatically download to your iTunes (and any iPods or iPhones you may have).

Director’s Notes, a UK-based blog on “The What, How & Why of Independent Filmmaking” has just posted an interview with us in podcast form. Listen to the interview in its entirety.

And lastly, we were recently interviewed by the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium (C3). In their words, the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) “explores the ways the business landscape is changing in response to the growing integration of content and brands across media platforms and the increasingly prominent roles that consumers are playing in shaping the flow of media.” The interview initially ran in their private newsletter for their corporate and academic affiliates, but has now been posted in four parts on their blog:

Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four

Thanks to MarBelle at Director’s Notes and Jason Mittell at C3 for taking an interest in The West Side; these interviews will likely answer any questions you may have about the background, process, or future of the show. And if you’re interested in independent film and/or the changing media landscape, we highly recommend you pay a visit to both sites.

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Noise reduction shootout

Say you’re a no-budget film producer and have a lighting package valued at under $100 (hypothetically, here—no relevance to our production… really). You just might end up with some noisy footage from nighttime/interior situations where you didn’t have enough wattage to properly light the scene. You could try using After Effect’s built-in noise reduction, but it’s not a very effective solution. Thus you’d be left evaluating noise-reduction plug-ins, which is exactly what we’ve been doing… for some reason.

First, the obligatory disclaimer that you should always get it right during principal photography and not rely on “fixing it in post.” Noise-reduction algorithms, no matter how sophisticated, will always leave behind artifacts or soften the footage—not as significant a problem in our case as we’re distributing compressed video files on the web, but the higher-quality the distribution mechanism, the less viable noise-reduction is. What might look fine in a windowed 640×360 Flash video file might look awful in a theater. Then again, if you’re going theatrical, you probably have an actual light kit.

All of that said, we tested two leading After Effects noise-reduction plug-ins: Neat Video and DE:Noise. Both plugins are $99, although Neat Video also sells a “Home” version (resolution limited, no 32-bit color processing) for $49. This isn’t going to be a complicated comparison like this noise reduction plug-in test (note that it says “Short Version”—how many pages is the “Long” one?!). Instead, I took took a few of our noisier shots from episodes one and two and ran them through each plug-in, tweaking as much as I could the various options on display. We examined the results in After Effects, on our Sony production monitor, and, for good measure, on a 24″ LCD screen scaled up to 1920×1080. Note that the extreme contrast of The West Side tends to amplify video noise, and the fact that it’s black-and-white also adds to the perception of grain, as DV tends to be noisiest in the chroma channels, which normally only carry color data and are sampled at a quarter the rate of DV’s luminance values… in fact, now that I think about it, there may be a better way of taking DV to black-and-white than merely desaturating it, anyone have any suggestions? Regardless, several of our shots looked clean when we shot them, but by the time we’d desaturated them and bumped up the contrast, they became a morass of electronic noise.

RE:VisionFX DE:Noise is a brand-new noise reduction plug-in from the respected RE:VisionFX folks (they make Twixtor, ReelSmart Motion Blur, RE:flex, and a host of other best-in-class plug-ins). Version 1.0 was released a bit over a month ago, so it seemed like perfect timing for The West Side’s needs. Neat Video is the video version of Neat Image, a well-regarded noise-reduction package for working with still images. The latest version of Neat Video, 2.0, was released in April; there is no Mac version at this time, however (one is planned but no release date has been set—Neat Image is cross-platform software, so I would assume Neat Video will catch up sooner rather than later). Due to our lack of budget, I ran this test using the demo versions of each plug-in, which are limited only by the watermarking they overlay on the rendered files. I’m not going to upload a ton of frame grabs, but here is an example comparison (with a levels effect applied to emphasize noise):

noise1.jpg

In this particular shot, and in my testing of several others, Neat Video won hands-down. Neat allows you to sample the grain pattern from a select part of the image (ideally a solid swath of color, such as a wall or sky), and then analyzes and applies the noise reduction with that pattern in mind. DE:Noise offers no such selection, and is instead more of a temporal noise-reduction solution as opposed to an adaptive one. I would expect version 2 of the plug-in to add more options as 1.0 seems a bit light on tweakability.

My only complaint with Neat was evident banding in the sky in some of the outdoor shots, but that might be solved by the Pro version’s 32-bit color processing. In fact, in its default setting, Neat applies too much noise reduction; images take on an overly-smoothed, plasticky appearance (it’s easy to dial down, however, by reducing the percentage of noise reduction and/or upping the sharpness setting).

At this time Neat is available for Premiere, After Effects, VirtualDub, and Sony Vegas, but one can assume that when the Mac verson is released, Final Cut Pro will be added to the mix. My testing was by no means scientific and I may have missed out on some of RE:Vision’s options, but we’re more concerned with choosing a solution quickly and moving on than we are with exploring and listing extensive pros and cons of each. In our case, Neat Video is a far more effective and flexible noise-reduction solution than DE:Noise, and I would assume that you’d get the same results in your own production.

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Pitfalls and progress

techgame.jpg

You may want to refrain from reading this post unless you have a vested interest in learning about the number of technical hurdles one can run into while no-budget filmmaking. Here are updates on several fronts:

Data Recovery:

Our last update ended with our dead hard drive—containing the entirety of episode one—in the hands of a data recovery service. Our own attempts at restoring the drive proved fruitless, as software-driven data recovery on a Mac RAID 0 drive is not what it could be (Disk Warrior and Data Rescue II don’t fully support RAID 0 files at this time). Unfortunately, the data recovery guy at Tekserve also couldn’t recover anything. Furthermore, he told us that DriveSavers might be able to recover some of our data, but not all of it, and it would likely cost $2k or more. Considering that figure is more than twice the budget of episode one, we were thus faced with batch recapturing the footage from the DV tapes and reconstituting Episode One ourselves. To do this, we used…

Adobe Premiere Pro CS3:

Premiere Pro CS3 on the Mac should really be renamed Premiere Pro Beta. After Premiere Pro 3.0.1 stopped recognizing our DV camera, I decided to revert to 3.0 in case the update somehow severed the connection (it turns out the culprit was in fact updating to Mac OS 10.4.10… I think). However, the CS3 installer is buggy, and it wouldn’t reinstall Premiere Pro alone, thus requiring a fresh install of the entire CS3 suite. Also, you have to run a terminal script (CS3Clean) if you want to completely uninstall CS3; the Adobe Uninstaller, despite its name, does not in fact uninstall everything Adobe. Even after this, however, the CS3 suite still wouldn’t install on our Mac. After several aborted installs we found that Mac OS 10.4.10 won’t accept an install of the suite at all. Adobe, you might want to look into that. Thus we reverted to Mac OS 10.4.9 (requiring an operating system reinstall) in order to (re)install CS3. In the end, it wasn’t necessary—the same capture bug reared its head. Turns out the workaround is to turn your DV camera on and off until Premiere magically recognizes it (you may have to close CS3, turn the camera off, restart CS3, and not turn the camera on until the capture window is up). Still, even after we batch-captured episode one’s footage all over again, we still had problems getting the shots into…

Adobe After Effects CS3:

The much-touted Dynamic Link and cut-and-paste functionality between Premiere and After Effects is the reason we’re editing in Adobe’s NLE instead of Final Cut Pro. To date, it’s been a terrific (and cost-effective) way to offline/online the show. However, be cautioned if you batch recapture your footage in Premiere, because After Effects does not recognize the “subclip” file scheme that Premiere generates. This may or may not be because episode one was originally captured and edited in the Premiere Pro CS3 beta, but I suspect it’s more likely that Adobe’s individual clip capture generates different filenames than a whole-tape “Scene Detect” capture. Thus we had to paste the Premiere timeline into After Effects and copy-paste our shot-by-shot color correction onto the 70+ shots that constitute episode one. However, many keyframes were off by a frame or two, the 24p cadences had to be re-interpreted on an individual basis, and any clip that had an L-cut applied (when an audio edit leads or trails the video edit) was off in duration. However, episode one is now triumphantly reconstituted, and backed up on three separate external drives in two different apartments. We’re not losing it again, thanks to our new…

RAID:

RAID level 5 offers the best balance between speed, cost, and safety when you’re dealing with 4+ hard drives. Simultaneously, eSATA is the latest, greatest interface. But an eSATA RAID 5 setup is basically impossible on the current Mac OS unless you have a PCIe/x controller, which is an impossibility on a MacBook Pro (yes, The West Side is produced entirely on a laptop). An eSATA expresscard for laptops that supports RAID does exist, but… it doesn’t have Mac drivers. Thus RAID 10 was our next choice; however, it’s not easy to set up a hardware RAID 10 on a laptop, either (using the Mac’s software RAID would be easier, but we don’t like that idea as much, for portability and stability reasons). Also, if you want a RAID 10 solution that offers an interface in addition to eSATA (USB2, for example), good luck finding an existing solution out there. After much legwork, we did eventually set up a 1TB (four 500GB drives, mirrored and striped) hardware eSATA/USB2 RAID 10 array setup for only $700, but how we did it justifies a whole blog post in and of itself. Suffice to say it’s no fun to get a defective drive in the mail that requires you to pay return shipping while you wait for the replacement, when you’re trying to reconstitute episode one and capture footage for episode two—and are dead in the water until you get a storage system back up and running. Still, our storage problems are out of the way now. Which leaves our…

35mm Adapter:

Part of the look of The West Side is its shallow depth-of-field, which we’ve achieved by using a Go35 35mm lens adapter (we’ll post details of our complete gear package soon, for anyone who’s curious). Our adapter is a static adapter, meaning the internal diffuser does not vibrate (unlike the expensive models). After much shooting, we’ve learned that most adapters move the ground glass not only to eliminate a static grain structure, but also to eliminate the appearance of static spots on the diffuser. Despite repeatedly cleaning the diffuser, we couldn’t eliminate many of the spots. Even after replacing the diffuser with a brand new one, as we just did (very carefully–thus the latex gloves in the above picture), we still couldn’t eliminate the persistent spots we’re getting on the image. One solution would be to shoot with a different adapter: as a commentator on episode one noted, the P+S Technik Mini35 is likely superior to our Go35. However, the Mini35 costs $10,000 whereas our Go35 retails for $650 (and we got a discount). Due to the fact that our show is served up as compressed video on the web, however, the spots aren’t that noticeable (at least no one’s complained about them to date). Maybe down the road we’ll find an AE plugin and clean them up. But right now we’re more concerned with…

Episode Two:

While all of this has been going on, we’ve still managed to shoot episode two. We have a couple remaining inserts and an effects plate to shoot, but other than that, it’s in the can. We’re capturing the footage now to our new RAID setup, and can’t wait to get cutting. In the meantime, we’ve also updated the web site with a Press page, for anyone who’s curious about what they’re saying about us out in the series of tubes.

Now that all of these technical hurdles have been cleared, we can get back to filmmaking. Imagine that.

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Censorship by any other name

on_location.jpg

The New York City Mayor’s Office of Theater, Film, and Broadcasting has recently proposed regulations that would hinder the ability of even casual photographers and filmmakers to operate in New York City. According to the proposal, groups of two or more would have just 30 minutes—including setup and breakdown time—to photograph or film any single location in the city; if you wanted to be at a site for any longer than 30 minutes, a city permit and $1 million in liability insurance are required.

This is clearly not good for independent artists and anyone interested in maintaining New York’s standing as one of the world’s creative capitals. If these rules were in place, The West Side as you know it would certainly not exist, nor would countless other works of photography and film.

According to Donna Lieberman (no relation), Executive Director of The New York Civil Liberties Union, “This requirement makes no sense, violates the First Amendment right to photograph in public places, and opens the door to selective and discriminatory enforcement.”

While the city undoubtedly needs new, written guidelines on public filming, it must be clear and thoughtful policy that promotes independent art and artists. This most recent proposal is not the best solution.

If you’re reading this in time (and you’re in New York City) come speak out at the Rally for the 1st Amendment in Union Square on Friday July 27th, 2007 at 6:30 pm.

Sign the petition

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The failure of the (hard drive) system

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Late last week, upon concluding some final tweaks to the visuals and soundtrack of episode one, I set up After Effects to render a final uncompressed export. To date, all we’d exported was the compressed Flash video file currently posted on the homepage; because we’d worked so hard to post episode one on our targeted date (Independence Day), we still had some tweaks we wanted to make before outputting the final files. This was to be our full-quality export used to generate other file formats (the iTunes podcast we’re working on, for example), and was to be the file we’d always have in the archives in case of future hard drive failure.

I hit “Render,” ready to finally be done with episode one. Then, five seconds later, in the middle of the screen, a little dialogue box with a red exclamation mark popped up. Sometime between tweaking the last few keyframes and starting the export, our external hard drive—containing all 280GB of The West Side to date—turned into a doorstop. And poof. Just like that, it was gone.

Filmmaking is often a case study in Murphy’s Law, but timing-wise, this was excruciating to the point of seeming like a surreal joke. If there was any one point at which our hard drive was going to fail, wouldn’t the worst possible time be exactly when we went to output the final export for our archives? If the drive failed one hour later, we’d be fine—at least we’d have the backup file. But now, instead, we have nothing.

This post will get a bit technical as we explain how, exactly, we just lost all of our data. As someone who considers himself well-versed in the technological side of filmmaking, I feel the need to explain how we were in such a precarious position, to avoid anyone posting a comment of the “always back up your data” nature.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to is this: as a no-budget filmmaker, what you don’t have is money. What you do have, is time. So while we’ve spent countless hours over the last year writing, casting, scheduling, and location scouting for The West Side, we haven’t spent a lot money.

Some things time can’t buy, however: a redundant storage system for all our data, for example. That takes money, and if we had it, we would’ve spent it long ago. But the fact is, we’re both in our mid-twenties—actually, Zack won’t even technically be in his mid-twenties until next month—and we live in New York City, which you might have heard is kind of expensive to live in. So it’s a lack of funds, not a lack of willingness to spend funds, that left us at the onset of production with a single LaCie 500GB d2 drive (Firewire 800 interface, 2X250GB SATA drives, striped as RAID 0). Months earlier, as I formatted the array for the Mac OS, I considered mirroring the drives rather than striping them, as the unit had failed in the past (after which I replaced the dead drive). For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of dealing with these issues, “mirroring” a drive means you have two copies of every file across two drives, so if one drive fails, you still have it on the other. “Striping” is when half of each file is written onto each drive—riskier, but it gives you twice the speed and twice the space. It was the latter consideration that prompted me to stripe the drive—and, in retrospect, we would have already run out of space if I’d mirrored them. So I’m not second-guessing that decision… although that depends on how this all plays out.

Hard drive failures go with the territory of digital filmmaking—video editing demands more of a hard drive than any other task I can think of. While I rebuilt the array less than six months ago, by no means did I think we’d get through the whole season of The West Side using this sole drive. However, until the day came when we spent the money for a new, redundant storage solution, our plan was to simply use the LaCie for editing, and upon completion of each episode, copy the critical data over to a cheap external USB hard drive as a backup. If my After Effects render had completed, we would’ve had that file to copy over. Instead, here I am writing this post, about to take the drive into a data recovery service and hope they don’t charge an outrageous amount to get our files off the drive. Unfortunately, they could easily charge more than our entire budget for episode one.

To avoid this fee, we could re-capture all the footage from the DV tapes onto a new drive (our project files from Premiere Pro and After Effects are stored on the internal hard drive, and I also have FTP backups of those). But much of the post work done on The West Side—chiefly our Foley (sound-effects) work—doesn’t exist on those DV tapes. We’d have to spend a week or two just to re-finish episode one, when instead we want to be working on getting episode two out there. Also, we edited and posted episode one in Adobe’s beta/prerelease software—more on that decision in a later blog post—and so I’m not 100% sure that everything would recapture correctly now that we have the final release of CS3.

Ultimately, I’m glad we were able to finish episode one for less than a thousand dollars. As a result, we’re not in debt and we don’t have to bother you with advertising on the site. But The West Side is no longer speculative—meaning, we have assets to protect and standards to live up to now that episode one’s live—so we’re going to have to eat a little less and spend a little more money on storage. Still, it’s a lot more tempting to spend that money on lighting equipment, lenses, or props—things that actually affect the on-screen production—instead of on a safety measure. If the choice of what to spend our money on is a matter of risk and reward, though, I suppose not having to write this post would itself be the reward.

Stay tuned.

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Two guys walk into a bar

Zack and I pushed through the doors of a downtown New York bar a year ago, having met as coworkers at MTV's Urge music service only a couple of months earlier. While merely out with some friends for drinks, we ended up discussing the current state of internet video and the possibilities it afforded aspiring filmmakers, which led to us agreeing on the spot to pursue an independent, serialized urban western. We sat down the following week to begin outlining a plot, and searched around to see if, in fact, an urban western had ever been done before (to our knowledge, to this day, no one has ever combined these genres in this manner). And thus The West Side was born, out of genuine enthusiasm for an idea innovative both in terms of story and distribution. Little did we know at the time that it would be a full year before the first episode went live.

It's been worth every minute of it. During the past year we've been confronted over and over again with the same choice: to take more time and make the serial better, or to go ahead and push it out faster. And every single time we made the difficult decision to write another draft, to find a different location, to re-shoot a shot, to spend the extra (little bit of) money. Now that we've launched, we hope all the extra time and effort shows. To us, visual storytelling on the web is not about posting a one-minute clip every day and pushing for max audience numbers and ad revenue---it's about quality of storytelling, regardless of delivery medium. If it means our ten-minute-long episodes demand more of the viewer than the typical internet video experience circa 2007, so be it; we hope it's ultimately more rewarding and worth your time.

It hasn't been easy; you'll notice on the about page that there aren't a lot of names in the credits. While we went with "written, produced, directed, shot, edited, and designed by"---which seems awkwardly long, really---the truth is that we left out a dozen more tasks that would normally be in the credits had someone else done them, from Foley work (recording sound effects) to color grading (monochrome in this case), from website development (including all the back-end and feed/subscription work) to acquiring all of the myriad props (mostly from budget sources like eBay). Not that Zack and I are trying to launch our careers as web-developing Foley Artists, but each of these things takes time, effort, and ability, and to have pulled them off successfully adds not only to our sense of accomplishment but also to our joy at having the series exist out there in the world today.

Also worth mentioning in this first post is the fact that our budget for episode one will more than likely add up to only three figures (which easily qualifies this as "no budget filmmaking"). To pull this off, we've had a lot of instrumental help from our friends, and we'd like to thank them not only for their help on the production, but also for their overall support and belief in us. It's a testament to everyone involved that, despite the hard work and long hours, we've all had a great time. It would be a cliche to say that we hope you have as much fun watching it as we did making it, but... it's true. And is it still a cliche if you point out that it's a cliche before you say it?

Thanks for watching (and reading). We can't promise that the episodes will go up quickly or regularly, but the goal is to make something worth waiting for. Let us know what you think, stay tuned, and please pass it on to your friends!

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The West Side is an urban western. Learn more... We won a Webby Award!