Production and Progress

IMG_1397On the set of our newest film, ‘Godzilla II.” JK.

The above shot was one of the crazier weather moments I’ve seen along Lake Michigan where the entire city was blanketed in fog. An amazing visual sight that our entire crew snapped dozens of photos of, but a detriment to our commercial production that took place over the weekend. This was snapped while filming Day 3 of Digital Hydra’s forthcoming launch advert for Votimo–a social media platform for non-profits. The fog would clear for awhile for us to shoot and grab some amazing backlit cityscape.

My thoughts for this post are not so much specifics of “this is how we lit the shot” but more of an enjoyment of the growth my colleagues and I have exhibited in the past few years. There’s this very American idea that you can choose to be something, go out and become it. Or the variation that if you go out and consistently do something, one day you will wake up and be that thing. That’s kind of where I am ever so slowly starting to arrive.

I left this post as a draft about two months ago, and now am revisiting it after returning from DP’ing a low budget feature in London, UK. There were plenty of stresses within the production that I will be telling stories about for the rest of my life but I don’t feel like going there now. I’m just happy to be doing what I love and finding a way to make that thing support my family. I have always worked in my filmmaking endeavors under the idea that if I consistently create enough quality work, the rest will sort itself out. That ethos has taken me to a pretty great point–working with highly talented people and taking part in projects that are creatively stimulating. Now there’s a glass ceiling to elite (read Hollywood) level production that still needs to be cracked but I can touch that ceiling with both hands…meaning it is mostly a money and opportunity thing not a talent thing.

In 2010 a made a choice to switch gears from writer/director to writer/cinematographer. Most of this was borne of the observation that there were just way too many writer/directors around and if I wanted to work at the top creative level on other people’s projects I would need to explore some different skills. There are not many world famous writer/DP’s out there but I plan on being one of them. Those are the things I’m best at, telling stories in a dramatic structure and realizing visuals. I have contemporaries who are insanely more naturally talented in the photographic arts than I am (cough cough Ross Heran), and I will always be in awe of that talent, but over the subsequent 4 years I’ve been able to hone my skills and stand on my own in that world. I am proud of that growth.

I love visuals, and images, and videogames, and comic books, and I think this helps me visualize words on a page which has helped make up for any technical skills I was lacking. This past summer I shot two feature films over a period of 8 months. These projects really solidified my confidence in a lot of those cinematography skills. Especially the feature in London. I was away from my tremendously talented Chicago network, working on limited resources, and collaborating with people I had never met, but I was still able to realize the images required by the story. My experiences and ideas gelled and I was able to shake off the self doubt that plagues all creatives and do good work.

What I’m I getting at? I guess at this juncture I’m not entirely sure. Just that I love the opportunity to create images. We are a society that loves media and loves images and I adore using those images to tell stories. At Digital Hydra we often laugh at ourselves because a number of our commercial and music video endeavors always end up focusing around series’ of vignettes–telling stories. But despite the predictability that is what we love to do, even on these shorter formats. We love to share stories with the world and use those to communicate messages. Visuals are the universal language. Cave paintings, heiroglyphs, graphic novels and any number of media are a testament to that. The worldwide love for cinema is a testament to that. We can all speak image and we all love to be transported to another place that is outside our own life or helps us reflect upon our life. It’s a beautiful thing.

I suppose at the end of all this gushing about cinema I am just trying to say that I take that opportunity to heart and am thankful to have it. I’m not trying to brag or boast, just kind of take a moment and observe. Apologies if I come off like a windbag. You don’t get better by saying you’re great or slagging the work of others…I’m not saving lives or fighting battles or any number of things that are of vastly greater importance. But I am doing something that seems to work for a whole lot of people and I relish that opportunity. I’m not perfect, I don’t have all the answers and I’m just like anyone else who can only draw from their finite experiences to communicate something to the world. I do my best to create images that adhere to the highest standards of quality and sometimes I make mistakes. There is always a lot to learn and a lot to share. Whole new worlds to explore and I want to go there. Heading into the fall and on into 2015 I am looking forward to working with incredible colleagues and taking on new challenges…and hopefully making some people smile, laugh, cry or fall in love in the process.

Some images from “Love Online” shoot:

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Favorite Gordon Willis Moments

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This past Sunday we lost a Titan in the world of cinema. Gordon Willis, aka the Prince of Darkness, acclaimed cinematographer of films like The Godfather trilogy, Manhattan, and Parallax View, passed away at age 82.

He is one of my personal favorite cinematographers and a key contributor to many of the formative film works from the last 40+ years. He earned his moniker “Prince of Darkness” for his penchant for pushing the blacks in his photography. In a world where many people fear true black in their image, Gordon Willis embraced under exposure almost to a fault. He actually admits to this in the documentary “Visions of Light,” referring to a scene in Godfather Pt. II where might have gone too far. The shot, below is from that scene…you really can’t see much so I get where he was at. Kudos for having the stones to do it.

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Despite this trade-off, the darkness became his trademark and more often than not it helped yield some of cinema’s perfect images. His masterworks fall into the short list of some of my favorite films and remain the gold standard to which countless cinematographers, gaffers, and cameramen aspire.

82 years may be long or short depending on your standards, but one thing is most certain about the life of Gordon Willis. There are very few of us who get to do something lasting in our lifetime. Even fewer who do it exceptionally. Willis got to do both and multiple times over. In soft tribute, from someone who is an admirer and nothing more, here are a few of my favorite efforts from a cinematic master.

Klute

Klute Tuscarora Pennsylvania

The Godfather and Godfather II are my favorite Gordon Willis films from a plot standpoint but Klute (1971) might be my favorite visually. The compositions are unique especially in their use of line, depth cues and visual design. You also find some of the best silhouette shots movies have to offer, very often replicated in other exceptional films. You also see in Klute a fantastic balance of light and dark that earned Willis his nickname. We get just the right amount of light in to expose key elements and give them shape within the shadows. All of these elements create an ominous texture that permeates the story and completely immerses you in the world.

Standout moments for me here – the opening long take, when we first meet Jane Fonda and follow her through NY, and the climactic confrontation with the film’s antagonist.

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Godfather/Godfather II

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In 1972, Willis followed up one masterpiece with another, the first Godfather. The gritty visuals and strong compositions from Klute (and the films of the 1970s in general) are present in the imagery in The Godfather. What stands out here is the kind of vintage color palette that the film lives in. I am a big fan of when you get to look “behind the scenes” and find out some filmmaking choices came serendipitously. The look of The Godfather falls a bit into this category. Willis, in another interview, sights his inspiration as a series of old photographs and random perusing leading up to a moment of “okay, the movie should feel like this.” The result is the golden world that gives Godfather its own distinct look and feel even though a number of Willis’ stylistic trademarks are present.

This is the movie that turned me on to working in movies. Godfather Part II arguably outdoes it’s predecessor and possibly includes work that surpasses what Willis did on the first film. Both are American classics and really a work that speaks for themselves. More so than probably any of Willis’ other credits, this film and it’s sequel will stand as testaments of the man’s legacy almost eternally. Well, at least until the world is overrun by machines and they eradicate film as an art form.

Favorite moments – any night scene in part I. Michael and Fredo silhouette shot in Part II. Vito Corleone/De Niro sequences in Pt. II.

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Annie Hall

New York on film in the 1970’s was a joy across many films. Woody Allen’s films like “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” are two gems within this period. Gordon Willis brought the city to life and did an incredible job capturing it’s texture, architecture and feel. Annie Hall is a great example of this. Note the similar style that comes through in the shot below in comparison with the Godfather silhouette. The understanding of where not to put light is so undervalued. This is where the power lies and where Gordon Willis’ finds himself the maker of countless perfect frames within cinema.

Annie Hall is a comedy and a stylized one at that but the feel matches the popular “gritty” street level feel of most of the movies of that period. I feel this is a nice contrast that makes the movie feel real even though it dabbles in surreal fourth-wall breaks and other measured absurdity.

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Just wanted to share a few of my favorites and a vote of appreciation for the man’s work. Gordon Willis’ artistry will certainly be missed, but his life and career have proven a lasting gift to film fans the world over.

PW

Musings on light and picture

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After my last post I realized that my infrequent posting has become even more infrequent over the past year or so. In an attempt to correct that–seems like this happens every few posts–I’ve reloaded WordPress on my phone so I can blog on the go.

Also going to try (potentially setting myself up for blogging failure) to blast out quick hit posts. Less detailed, still hopefully thought provoking and enjoyable.

So today I am talking about light and camera. My usual on set functions are as a Cinematographer. Anyone new to the term this means a few things but essentially the person responsible for the look of the film. Everything you see on screen runs through that person. The job requires artistic instincts as well as a great deal of technical understanding–I am more confident in the former–bridging the Directors vision for the project with the tech functions of camera and lighting.

Though I am still young in the game, here are a few opinions I’ve picked up along the way…

The camera should move three-dimensionally
Starting off with a caveat there is always a place for the picturesque 2D composition. Also the pan and the tilt. However, I find that there is greater cinematic energy when the camera moves three dimensionally through the film space. This means handheld moves, dolly moves, cranes, jibs, etc…not 3D like 3D glasses/Avatar…we experience life in 3D and I feel that moving in 3D through the film space enhances our movie going experience. This is why a lot of student and indie filmmakers opt for handheld work, it gives more life to the image and draws us into the illusion of on-screen reality. Cinema is rooted in the image being kinetic, a moving image. This doesn’t mean move the camera just for the sake of moving it, the cinematography needs to serve the story above all. I just find that moving in 3D adds both value and dimension (no pun intended) to the picture, this is why Hollywood films are constantly moving the camera. It also shows greater thinking about how to tell the story without the emotional break of a cut.

Goodfellas Steadicam Shot

It’s about where light doesn’t go

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AKA cuts (of light) are everything. This is where you notice real masters at work on set. A key grip who can set up an array of solids with surgical precision so that your big movie light only splashes certain parts of the set. The DP who can cut up a 10K to light four different characters…controlling light placement is one of the toughest things to master and something I work actively to better understand on every shoot. Working with experienced crew people helps a ton in this regard. They are the ones who have the knowledge. Increasing this ability will make you not only more effective but also more efficient in your use of available tools.

Shoot opposite the key light
This is a time-honored trope but a simple concept that even a novice can grip. You want to put the camera on the opposite side of your main light source. This will instantly add depth and dynamic to your composition. It allows the light to wrap around the face and uses contrast to draw out the shape of the person or object. Shooting on the key side results in less contrast and a flatter image–something you might desire under certain circumstances (beauty, glamour, wanting a flat image) but typically not so much.

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I know, two Roger Deakins shots in a row…see how all the light is coming from frame left and the right side of Daniel Craig? But our camera is where? Opposite side.

Always have an edge/backlight
Again, a lot of this is personal preference not rules for cinema. What sets us apart as creatives are our choices and decisions and I am choosing to share some of mine. An edge or backlight is used to draw the subject out of the background and is another tool for creating the illusion of depth. Remember, movies are presented as a three-dimensional world captured on a flat, two-dimensional screen. There actually is no true three-dimensionality to the image, our compositions, camera moves and lighting create that illusion by using sight cues familiar to our brain. My love of the edge light is probably born of my usually director Hamzah Jamjoom’s incessant demands for one on most of our projects but I have become a big fan. The edge serves its depth purpose but can also function as a key light in appropriate situations. This would be how you create silhouette amongst other things. Backlighting is badass and you can use bounce to fill to the face for some really interesting looks.

Establish scale early and often

Maybe not often but I am a sucker for turns of phrase. This is more of a general filmmaking note but it is a good thing for a Cinematographer to keep in mind. Very often in a movie you are working with sets or locations limited in terms of physical space, even more so on independent films. I am of the opinion that if you present the scale and the space of the environment up front, as on early in the film, the audience won’t need that information later on. This can help in hiding things but also it serves the emotion of the story. Typically as we get into Act 2 or 3, we are diving into more intimate moments (tighter shots) with our characters. Ideally, we don’t want to have to break from that emotion and intimacy to establish a space or a world. Ridley Scott dies this impeccably. His films and sequences within them start with expansive wide shots that set up the space and also inspire wonder. This situated us audience members is that later on, when scenes play entirely in medium or close up, we understand it as an aesthetic choice and not a filmmaking necessity due to lack of resources.

That’s all for now. Like I said, quick hits. More to come in the near future. Oh and here’s a still from a movie I shot recently.

PW

TOYCAR

Five Reasons Artists Should Love Social Media

 

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What up. Thanks for stopping by. I’m going to work on economy of language in this go around since my last post was a bit titanic in nature.

So from the title you can gather what this is going to be about, don’t really need to get too in depth there. What I would like to do however is preface with a note. Obviously if you have found your way here or looked at my work in the past, you know I am in the pursuit of many artistic endeavors. I would like to add that I am, at best, a slightly above-average user of social media. I use the outlets that I deem worthwhile for a variety of purposes–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn–but I do not consider myself exceptional in my ability to exploit or utilize them. Nor do I consider myself an early adopter of new media. This post isn’t about me. This is about an appreciation for what the world has become and a call to arms for those who doubt it’s power.

I know a lot of friends, artists, contemporaries, and the like that refuse to join various social networks out of some sort of undefined–and quite frankly unfounded–moral code. Posturing as if they are acting in defiance of the current system and that the masses engulfed by this phenomenon are a horde of mindless lemmings. They are wrong. By removing yourself from the social media conversation you aren’t defying anything, you are simply eliminating a tool that could prove paramount to your success.

This seems like as good a place as any to state that I am talking primarily about aspring/evolving artists not necessarily those who are already an established commodity. Jay Z could sit out of every social media endeavors this entire year and still have an album debut at #1–he doesn’t do that, but he could. Look up Banksy on Twitter. He’s not there because he doesn’t need to be. The point being that when you’ve reached a certain level of equity, the benefits of social media use become marginal compared to the success you’ve garnered through your established brand. Emerging artists don’t have that luxury. Emerging artists are building and evolving their brands and social media outlets are insanely potent means to achieving that brand development.

NETWORK
A bit obvious from their name that social networks help you network. But it’s still important. Do some people just use Facebook to post drunk pictures, baby photos and nonsensical quotes from their favorite songs? Without a doubt. But you know who can find you on Facebook through groups, pages, and mutual friends? Other artists. Tastemakers and moneymakers. People who can actually help you climb in your industry. I have “met” multiple directors, producers, gaffers, cinematographers, musicians, photographers, etc. through FB, Instagram or LinkedIn whom I have gone on to collaborate with, or meet on a set. I have had friends of friends of friends reach out to me for projects simply because the barriers to connection and introduction are all but non-existent.

It’s not novel thinking here but I am baffled by the wide number of people I come across in my and other industries who are missing out on resources that have been around for over a decade. Your network is only as deep as the people you know and are in contact with. If you limit that to the number of people you actually text, call, or run into on a daily basis you’re looking at a very finite number. Think about people you previously couldn’t reach due to geographical distance or time difference. Those barriers are gone. You now have access worldwide network instead of one in a 25-50 mile radius from your home or office.

We make art to express things, sure, but we make art primarily for other people to see that creation. Art requires and audience. Yes, Mom and Dad are glad to show up at your art show for the umpteenth time, but you aren’t really getting out there in the world when the extent of your “new audience” is Phyllis from down the block. Sorry Phyllis.

Some really successful articles on that:

http://theabundantartist.com/how-i-made-50000-selling-art-on-facebook/
http://www.artpromotivate.com/2012/09/facebook-pages-to-promote-art.html

It’s like striving to be a pro basketball player but you only play by yourself in your driveway, the people playing pickup in the gym aren’t wondering why you didn’t show up because they don’t know you exist.

EXPRESSION
The birth of apps like Instragram, Vine, Vimeo, and about a billion others have given artists new means of creative expression in short bursts. Even Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, and such offer writer’s new places to express themselves. We are telling stories and creating content in new formats without even thinking of it as art. This furthers the idea of connection and allows us to find inspiration in the creations of others without having to physically seek them out.

Here’s a great article about that topic.

INSPIRATION
This vast accessibility to countless other artists has created an explosion of inspiration. Inspiring imagery, inspiring writing, inspiring ideas and collaboration on those ideas is so easy now. I know of comic book writers who connected with admirable artists through sites like DeviantArt to bring their creations to life. Filmmakers can gather revolutionary stock footage that allows them to create and tell stories that were heretofore unachievable. Writers can share and edit stories in communal forums.

In this regard, Twitter is one of my favorite things in the world. I start each day learning about the world, learning about new techniques in my craft and connecting with the thoughts of countless other inspiring individuals who I may have never met and could not have accessed otherwise. This goes into some of my musings up top–people don’t understand what a lot of these platforms are actually created to do. The bulk of the technologically developed world has an understanding of what Facebook is, and social media naysayers seem to think that every “social platform” is a derivation of that concept. A place to share photos of you at parties and complain about politics–once again, that thinking is beyond archaic. Get in the conversation. The whole reason we have new social media platforms and apps released every day is because there are actually a variety of different functions that they serve. Some we don’t even know that we need until they are created. Obvious to those that use them Not so much to those that don’t.

BRAND BUILDING/MARKETING

LinkedIn. YouTube. DeviantArt. Pinterest. Twitter. Facebook. Yelp.Tumblr. Soundcloud. The list goes on…

Through current social networking tools artists have an unfathomable amount of free options that will help them build their brand. We have seen insane brands built with time, effort and a talent for maximizing these and other platforms. Look at the current run of YouTube TV for examples.. What used to cost quite a bit in terms of money, time and resources now can be accomplished in your Mom’s basement while watching House of Cards. As creatives, we already know how to build the content. Designers can design ads for themselves, filmmakers can create film and video content to put online, everyone can use the customizability of any platform to help create a brand.

This isn’t about exposure only. This is also about the Public Relations opportunities social media provide. People sometimes complain that on the social level, there is a fakeness about how we present ourselves through media. We only put up the good and happy moments, we control what we say, we sensor and edit our reactions to certain thoughts or topics–this is what you WANT to do as a business. An aside–I’m not going to debate art v. commerce here, if you are in the business of creating things for a living, you are a business whether you like it or not.

We want to create an equity in ourselves as creatives. We want people to look at us and say, “look how cool he/she is” or “check out this amazing artist/musician/photographer/filmmaker” I found. We are trying to create a brand through our work. A catalog of content or products that people want to attach themselves too and can learn more about. Presence across multiple social platforms gives us so many opportunities to achieve this. Facebook pages alive with the artist at work, Twitter interactions with like entities, Instagram accounts that simply make you look cool or artistic. This is only the surface level. Do you want people to think you are the next Andy Warhol? Jim Jarmusch? Tupac Shakur? You have the tools to make that happen without spending a single dollar on PR or advertising. When you can shape how you are observed by the world, you can shape who you are in the world.

EXPOSURE
We’ve basically broached the exposure idea in the topics above. The opportunity for to reach out across the world as an artist is something that has never been more attainable. Even one year, two years, five years ago the world wasn’t this small…and it’s only going to keep getting smaller.

My company has had clients from Europe, the Middle East, and all different parts of the U.S. track us down simply because we posted something like a “behind-the-scenes video” on the web, or created a small blog post about our work on our website. It’s something I probably still don’t fully grasp the power of. For people who communicate and profit from expression this provides so much value. Being an artist is very much about finding the appropriate audience–not everything is for everyone.

“He’s huge in Japan.”  This type of thing. We can now find communities, cultures, and individuals who “fit” our work. We can find our own audience.

I know that I’m not providing incredibly new information. I’ve said that several times over. My contemporaries, my students, my friends and relatives…many of these people are light years ahead of what I can do or comprehend about the tools in our modern world. I simply feel a need to express some things here. Express an appreciation and an excitement that I was born in this generation. That I am ALLOWED to be a creative thanks to many of these technologies and tools. I am so thankful for this fact. I guess what’s kind of amazing is that there is no one person to thank…it’s simply a societal evolution.

Thank you, any and all of you, for creating the conversation. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Moviemaking Matters – a long post about my last five years

MATTERS OF FICTION – Five Years After “Four”

Strap in. This is going to be a long one. But seeing as I only post about every three months, maybe that is a good thing.

If memory serves me correctly, which happens sometimes, then roughly nine days ago marks the five-year anniversary of the completion of the European leg of my DePaul MFA thesis film production “Four.” In October of 2008, I set out with a small crew of five DePaul film students to tell four unique stories set in four distinct international cities encapsulated in one 40 minute film.

The movie, “Four” was roughly based on the concepts presented in C.S. Lewis, “Four Loves” and explored different types of relationships all around the world. As a filmmaker, it remains something that I am proud to have created and reflecting upon the experience now some five years later I learned a great deal from the journey, the process and the creation of this MFA thesis project. You can check out a trailer below:

In honor of the project and the many individuals who helped to bring it to life, I would to take some time to look back not just on the creation of the film but on the lessons I have learned both from that project and in the subsequent five years. As “Four” marked my “mastery” of the lessons of film school, I feel it appropriate to discuss the matters that require attention when embarking on the adventure that is independent moviemaking.

STORY MATTERS

I was going to put this bit second but really, it comes first. The reason people make films, both fictional and non-fictional is to tell stories. Robert McKee claims that an audience clamors a “great story, well told.” I’m not in any position to say that I told a great story with “Four.” I believe it was a good story and I believe that our telling of it was unique and proved effective. The film was lauded in multiple festivals and was deemed strong enough to earn me my Master’s degree. But that’s not really a lesson learned. If I retold this story today it would be infinitely more refined and pointed, but it was what it needed to be at the time.

The lesson I learned with this film and where I believe it finds its strength is that up to that point it was the most personal story I had ever told. If you know me or have taken one of my courses or perused this blog, it is not hard to discern the types of stories I like at the theater. I like epic stories, robots, superheroes, thrillers and sci-fi films. “Four” was not this kind of story. It was an amalgamation of life lessons I had discerned from life experiences during my late teens and early twenties. I think that as a young filmmaker–not in terms of age but in terms of experience–it is important to explore the truths that we understand. I have never been a warrior, a star pilot, a god or a hit man, but I have been a friend, lover, father and a citizen of the world. I chose to explore that and I believe that these things resonated with people. This isn’t to say I couldn’t turn my understandings about the world onto a more fantastical story, but I think at the time it was important that this be the story I told.

Write what you know—not literally. Unless you want to. Even if you are writing a story about a Martian who falls in love with a Dragon slayer, the human experience is why we show up. To observe and better understand the human condition. If you leave that part out, you’ve just got a bunch of emotionally detached images that remain hollow on the inside.

BRASHNESS/NAIVETY MATTERS

Something many colleagues and I often lament is this kind of “innocence lost” type of feeling when it comes to filmmaking. This isn’t in reference to some sort of horrible trauma we’ve experienced but it’s an admiration of the fearless attitude that is often coupled with youth. When I set out to make this film, I had no fear of failure. It was the biggest undertaking I had ever been a part of but failure didn’t never entered into my mind and logistics were just details to be worked out.

Again, this isn’t a boast saying “look how awesome I was.” This is a look at a change in attitude over the past five years. Do I still think anything is possible on screen? You bet your ass. But if you said, here’s $20K go make a movie in four different countries, I would have to think long and hard about how to pull it off.

Experience breeds caution, which is very often the enemy of ambition. Once you understand “how things are supposed to be” or have dealt with some botched shows and production nightmares you get jaded. People bring up ambitious ideas and your first reaction becomes “we can’t do that” instead of “how can we make this work.” It’s detrimental to going out and making films by any means necessary, but it’s also a part of life. How many things did you do as a teenager or child that you know are stupid a few years later? Learning from our mistakes is both a gift and a curse. We get better and improve our product but the boldness to just go out and make something happen is diminished.

CAMERAS MATTER

There’s a lot of filmmakers who would argue strongly against this observation. Honestly this is why I put STORY first because a good story will outweigh any technical achievement. However, I have kind of evolved from a Writer/Director into a Writer/Cinematographer and I am very much into capturing exquisite, cinematic images.

I say cameras matter because at the time we shot “Four” the best camera I could get my hands on was a Sony PMW EX-1. For the lay people in the audience, this is an early model High Definition DIgital Camcorder. The camera captures great colors and in the pre-DSLR world was a solid “prosumer” option.

Fast forward not even a year later and DePaul has the RED One. DSLR’s come of age. There are a variety of options that drastically increase your ability to create “movie-like” visuals. Am I happy with the way the film looks? Absolutely. The exceedingly talented Noah Christopher was an outstanding DP and we achieved some great things in terms of image. But like a 2008 Blackberry against a 2013 iPhone 5, or a movie shot on VHS versus Digital, the format limits the shelf life of the movie.

Does the camera make the movie? No. Absolutely not. But if you shoot on film or its digital equivalent, the age of the movie isn’t going to show as drastically when the next batch of revolutionary HD cameras arrive a year later.

SOUND MATTERS

Sound is half the picture. I knew this then, I know it even more now. I am very thankful to Conor O’Donnell for adventuring across the world with us and capturing clean audio for the film.

Not a lot to discuss here but for young filmmakers–get a proper sound person on EVERY project. Give them the time, space and material to do it right and do their job well. It makes all the difference in the world.

ENERGY MATTERS

Now having been a part of hundreds of different film/video/commercial/etc shoots in the past 8-9 years of filmmaking, I have been able to observe a variety of different crews and sets. Something I have noticed is another intangible…the energy of the set and the production very often carries over into the post-production process and also the final project. I am a big believer that if you create an amazing experience in the creation of a piece of art, that energy can be bottled and transferred into the art itself. It lives in the piece and it resonates through it, exerting itself out onto those who expose themselves to the creation.

Have fun and be positive. Moviemakers can change lives but you aren’t saving them. It should be a fun experience. Don’t run your crew into the ground; treat people and locations with respect. With travel and other responsibilities throughout our production I tried to keep our days around 6 hours filming about two pages per day. Maybe a little less than some shows require to get the job done but it created a strong concentrated working environment for those shooting hours and allowed us to bond as a crew in the quiet moments.

Energy affects your cast as well. If your actors are feeling relaxed, they will be much more comfortable digging deep and crafting the performance you need to tell the story.

TALENT MATTERS

The above note allows me a good transition to talking about Acting and talent in general. Good actors are tough to come by and I was very fortunate to find a number of them in this project. Like myself as a director, most of my cast was fairly early on in their career path but the professionalism and dedication they brought to the project allowed the characters to come to life. I remain in close contact with most of the cast of “Four” to this day via social media and other means.

There is something truly moving about seeing words you have put on a page come into existence and go into new places thanks to the people who are performing them. Take the time to find the right people for the part, people who are going to do their job so you can do yours.

To my amazing cast on this project (by location): Levi Holloway, Francesca Brown, Ariele Senara, Meghan Kohl, Maggie Wimp, Brian Robinson, Patrick Murphy, Jack Lowe, Ciaran Davies, Miranda Craigwell, Richard Keep, Justin Mamula, Jah Bell…thank you all for the gifts of time and talent you offered to the film. Thank you for the lasting friendships we’ve created. Thank you for bringing our story to life for audiences all over the world.

SERENDIPITY MATTERS

Appropriately enough. Many of my talented friends mentioned above were found quite by accident, or by the cosmic forces of the universe aligning. This is tied into my naivety/brashness thought. Sometimes things just work out in your favor and greatness will come from it. Ask any artist. Happy accidents are wonderful. Be open to them, be ready for them but don’t count on them if you’re lacking elsewhere.

FRIENDSHIP MATTERS

This entire film was built because of a lifetime of friendships. A significant chunk of our budget was raised–before the days of Kickstarter and such–through a series of fundraisers put on by my collaborators and I. People from my childhood all the way up through graduate school showed up, partied and donated their hard earned money so that we could pursue the dream of making this movie.

Even on through production, it was friendships that made everything possible. People dedicated their time, their talents and their passion to “Four” and it shined through in spades. My European crew was very bare bones. Noah Christopher Jay Pepitone, Mattie Vandersteen, Conor O’Donnell and Alice Doyard were there for the scope of the entire adventure. We trekked across the world together making movies. In this single exploit, though now just a moment in time, I remain deeply connected to all of these individuals for the rest of my life.

In Chicago, filmed some months after the European leg of the production, our DePaul family came out of the woodwork. Ryan Linich and Hamzah Jamjoom joined our team of editors. Many of my usual collaborators mentioned on this blog and more others than I can recall at this moment brought their skills to the table to see that everything came together in style. I won’t go into names because I will invariably leave someone out. The point is that your network and your relationships are going to allow you to overachieve. They are what picks you up and allows you to reach for the stars, they will take your ambition and make it come to life. Treat them right and with the respect they deserve.

Network is everything. It is what will evolve you in your career and life as time goes on. 95% of my current business comes from pre-existing relationships and their connections. Honor these people and it will come back to you tenfold.

MUSIC RIGHTS (SOMETIMES) DON’T MATTER

Okay. Back to some filmmaking observations.

In all actuality they mattered to me in slowing down a potential distribution deal for “Four.” But I have noted over the subsequent years that a great number of indie filmmakers just kind of put in the music that they want when making a film. If you want to have Boyz II Men during your passionate love scene, as an artist I kind of say go for it. At least until you start having success and/or making money–then you need to give people what they deserve. But in the short term, when you’re trying to see your artistic vision through, do what you need to get the movie you want.

Now that being said, I also believe that original music and scoring are vastly important. My insanely talented cousin (network/friends again), the late Sean Murphy, created a moving score for “Four” that allowed this creation to be completely unique and really brought it to life. I was honored to collaborate with Sean and am saddened that we weren’t able to take our collaborations further.

Whatever the case–serve the story, serve the emotion and get the music in there that you need. You can handle the rest when you are the toast of the festival circuit.

FESTIVALS…???

Now speaking of festivals. This is where things have changed a great deal in these past five years. Festivals remain the most defined path to getting your movie out into the world. Take this world by storm and people will see your movie. Important people with the power to purchase your movie or move your career forward.

The other side of that coin is, you can really achieve a lot of this yourself thanks to the power of the internet. New models are popping up everywhere for self-distribution, digital sales and other modes of getting your film out to the masses. Artists and filmmakers can build extensive networks through social media, build hype around their film and get it in front of power players in Hollywood and elsewhere in the world without a single festival screening. Netflix, Distribber, Hulu, iTunes Store and other modes of digital distro were all in their infancy in terms of reach when I made this film. The model is changing and it is ripe for th exploitation if you play your cards right.

GAME PLANS MATTER

I saw this film through to the end because I had a plan. I had a target budget, a timetable and a plan in terms of execution. It allowed me (obviously with those mentioned throughout) to reach far beyond my capabilities and bring an idea to life. You need to know exactly what to do from preproduction all the way through distribution.

Distribution is one place where I fell short with “Four.” I was so focused on “getting it done” that I hadn’t thought fully of the future. We just kind of submitted to festivals and had moderate success but the lack of the long-term plan prohibited the movie from really getting legs.

How do I want to get the movie out there? What are the best places to show my film? What is my next film going to be? How does this fit into my career as a whole? These are all questions that you need to have answered before you leave the editing room so you can plan and more importantly budget to properly answer them.

MARKETING MATTERS

See festivals paragraph 2. One of the successes of “Four” was our premiere in Chicago. We sold over 500 tickets for our single opening screening which still kind of blows my mind to this day. A lot of that was the aforementioned network but we did have a marketing strategy.

We created a series of behind the scenes, making of and interviews with cast and crew that we released on a weekly basis leading up the film’s release. Coupled with the international intrigue of the movie this generated a lot of interest and allowed us to get press on the release and build a lot of interest amongst our social networks.

I was better at it then and had people–namely Mattie–editing videos and helping me out. Marketing is all about content and consistency. Meaning your content needs to be engaging and you need to build enough of it to consistently offer solid material. We got to share the creative process, parts of our adventure and parts of our personality that our peers and audience wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. I believe it created a personal attachment to our movie amongst peers and word spread to different levels of their own networks. It made for an amazing premiere night and a very successful release.

FINISHING MATTERS

Not finishing like mastering to Blu-ray or a film print–though this matters as well. Finishing the movie is the most important thing.

Sometimes it is more important than some of the elements of the movie itself. The reason? Movies of all shapes and sizes, from the biggest blockbusters to the smallest indie flicks starring one actor frequently never see the light of day. Ours is a business subject to Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” You need to be ready for that and you need to have the determination to see your project through even in the face of annihilation.

This is what separates those who work from those who dream. I know I am not God’s gift to the movie making world, I have talents that people seem to appreciate but there are also individuals who can execute things far beyond my skill level. I have no control over that and neither do you. Just like with sports, there is always someone better. What I do control is my work ethic and my ability to deliver.

Directors finish films. Though I’ve turned my talents to other aspects of filmmaking in these subsequent five years, this notion still matters. Even when you aren’t’ the director it matters. Who wants to give blood, sweat and creative energy to a project only to see it sit on a hard drive until the end of time? Nobody. Finish your movies. Be wary of those who don’t and stay in touch with those that do. They’re the ones who will get you there.

MOVIES MATTER

This is the end. Promise. Thanks for sticking around if you are still here.

Did this movie land me a three-picture deal at Universal? Nope. Did it make me into a millionaire? Certainly not. But even those it’s success was a small blip on the radar, it mattered a lot to me and I’d like to believe it mattered a lot to those who were a part of it. Why and how?

It earned me my MFA from DePaul University. This enabled me to teach at the collegiate level which is a true honor and a passion and a significant part of my current career path.

It made my wife fall in love with me. No joke. This movie is responsible for three years of marriage, two children and the things that truly make my life complete. I literally would not be where I am in the world or have the family that I have created without making this film. That matters to me. It matters a lot.

It made me a filmmaker. I had made movies before this. I have been a part of what I consider “better” films after we made this. But “Four” was the internal affirmation that I am both competent and capable in this world. It was the seminal point in my young career that has led to Emmy’s, festival awards, and many other opportunities and collaborations with an innumerable amount of amazing creatives. This was the threshold I needed to cross to become a professional. I’m better now, but I wouldn’t be if I didn’t make this film.

As I have said a billion times over in this extensive love fest for all of those who helped make “Four” possible, thank you, thank you thank you. People from all over the world breathed their creative essence into this movie and something magical came out. You all matter quite a bit.

Go make movies. They matter.

Four Poster

California Love – Silicon Valley and Maher Zain’s Ramadan

Hello hello. Lots of action in the recent months and just now slowing down and getting some time to sit back and digest all that has gone down. Late May and early June were spent on a two week production blitzkrieg in California. Our first stop was the Bay area, primarily San Jose and San Fran to film the forthcoming Arabic YouTube series “Here’s the Silicon Valley.” We then made our way to the greater Los Angeles area for production on Digital Hydra’s second collaboration with international superstar Maher Zain, a music video for the song “Ramadan.”

I’ll come back and post in more detail about “Silicon Valley” later on when the show gets finished. The short story is…the show is being funded and distributed by U-Turn, one of the largest YouTube channels in the Middle East. In recent years, YouTube has become the primary source of entertainment and higher quality TV programming for the younger generation in that region. People are seeking out more progressive content and the ability to create said content with limited censorship makes YouTube a strong avenue for production. It is an interesting model to look at as our own Western entertainment and TV content slowly migrates toward web-based and streaming platforms.

The show focuses around the “origin stories” of various high-level Silicon Valley companies. We shot three episodes over a IMG_0389one-week period focusing on Apple, Tesla and (coincidentally) YouTube. High points for me were visits to Steve Jobs’ former house and the garage in which he “invented” Macintosh, test driving Tesla Motors’ Model S and spending a few hours at the YouTube campus. The series was shot on the Sony NEX-FS700 for it’s slow motion capabilities. We also used Canon 7D, Nikon D900 and a GoPro Hero3 as B-cameras. In typical documentary/reality fashion, there was a lot of run and gun fast pace shooting. It really took me back to some of my DePaul University film school days. The show fits into a lot of my “why I got into this business” in that I was able to make exceptional images and see cool places all in the context of doing my job. I’ve attached a few photos here. Most of the lighting was natural or interview style set-ups with a little more creative flair.

IMG_0398

The now defunct Tesla Roadster.IMG_0404

(Below) a visit to Steve Jobs Garage.

On the heels of our blistering “HSV” shoot, it was off to Los Angeles to begin prepping for the massive Maher Zain “Ramadan” shoot. Directed by my business partner Hamzah Jamjoom, Ramadan is one of our biggest projects to date. This show was set to include a lot of moving pieces that most of us had little to no experience with. The biggest probably being a massive hot air balloon and a drone helicopter to capture aerial shots. Throw in the usual challenges of any film (or digital in our case) production and you’ve got quite the plateful in terms of logistics and potential setbacks.

Despite the challenges the shoot posed, we were able to capture some truly moving images and realize a great deal of the vision for the project. On both of these projects, as with most that I talk about here. I served as Cinematographer (DP, DoP) so that is what I will be focusing on in the post. To simplify the myriad of stories and insights I gained on this adventure, I’m going to try to break the shoot down into the major scenes of the video and talk about each. The video focuses on the fasting element of Ramadan, starting by moonlight with Maher and friends’ last meal before the sun comes up. We journey with him throughout the day across a vast landscape until he arrives at a large Iftar feast to pray and break his fast.

Fire SceneFirst up was our campfire scene. Shot on an amazing ranch property owned by Jim, our hot air balloon operator, this scene turned out the way I had hoped but did provide me with some cinematographic lessons along the way. Shooting on the RED Epic, we had the advantage of a high native ISO which allowed us to capture images with limited amounts of light. As such, I set out to light the scene entirely by firelight. Aesthetically, I am happy with this decision. You have rich warm tones coming off of the fire that are true to the scene that are being portrayed. Our Zeiss CP2 lenses provided some nice flares/streaks on closeup shots where we used additional logs to boost up the light coming off of the flames. We captured a cinematic look with very strong contrast between light and dark.

This scene begins our color/light journey that coincides with Maher’s physical journey to the feast. We start in darkness, bathed only in the warm light of the fire. As the day goes on we not only introduce light but also a wider variety of cool tones and other colors into the color palette. Ultimately we return to a more contrasty/warm toned look but things are brightened up by the people, the feast and the celebration that surrounds Maher and his friends.

BaloonAs day breaks, we introduce the aforementioned colors and we also move to our Anamorphic lens look. We wanted to present a great deal of scale in the video so we opted for a wide anamorphic aspect ratio. We shot on old Russian Lomo anamorphic lenses (35mm, 50mm, 75mm)  at 5K ANA on the Epic. I am very pleased with the overall image quality of the glass but dealing with older lenses presented a few new issues. The organic glass and speed of the lenses made them fairly difficult to focus at lower F-stops. The 35mm also featured some odd barrel distortion and bokeh when things fell out of focus. My talented AC Curtis Davis oriented himself fairly quickly with this unique characteristics and we were able to find the right sweet spots and lens combinations to get what we wanted out of the lenses. Definitely fell in love with the anamorphic look, width and some of the flares on our village scene.

Maher in BalloonThis is one of my favorite shots in the video.

Focusing on the artistic end of things I almost forgot about one of the “oh wow” factors on this shoot. The balloon and the drone photography. Drone support was provided by RVRD out of Hawaii and it was pretty much as cool as it sounds. The helicopter sounds like a swarm of mechanical bees flying through the air and is controlled by two operators. One to control the drone–it’s owner Jason Toth–and the second to control the camera. I alternated duties on this front with Curtis. As mentioned above, I like to enjoy the cool moments of my job and this was one of the coolest. Using an X-Box like controller, I could operate the stripped down Red (had limited weight capabilities) to capture all sorts of amazing images from high in the sky. Never let anyone tell you videogames don’t give useful life skills. Like a lot of great shots, many were left on the cutting room floor but all in it was definitely a worthwhile investment in terms of capturing the scope and scale we wanted for the video.

 Operating(Left) Operating via control and monitor. (Below) The helicopter at work.

Drone 1

A challenge presented to our drone (and for the production in general) was the unpredictability of the hot air balloon’s movement. Literally no crew member had ever filmed a hot air balloon before and we went in kind of assuming that we would have control over where it went. This wasn’t exactly the case. Thankfully, Jim, the balloon’s owner and operator, had a lot of commercial, feature and music video experience and was able to help us capture what we needed. There were definitely a few “uh oh” moments where the winds shifted and the balloon seemed hell bent on making it’s way towards our helicopter blades. Thankfully, these fears were never realized and we really captured some beautiful stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 11.36.11 AM

The above screencap doesn’t do justice to probably my favorite shot in the video. Moving from a flared lens to this rich and colorful image I just feel this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever had the opportunity to capture. The image is from our series of village scenes, set around the feat preparation that goes on throughout the day. These shots were captured on day 3 or the shoot where our team was really moving and starting to click. We shot fast and we shot well, meaning we got a lot done and got the quality of shots we wanted. This area is where we experience the passage of time and the anticipation of sunset as friends prepare for Maher’s arrival. Shot mostly with flags, bounce cards and natural light, the anamorphics really show through in these scenes with their special flares and wide frames.

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 11.43.17 AM

Our final scene in both story and on set was the Iftar feast. This was the scene where we were able to utilize the most lighting and bring the video to a climax. Utilizing production designer Julie Chen’s amazing set and rows of cafe lights, we then boosted up the scene with a series of Baby 5Ks and 2Ks through various 4-bys of diffusion to create a large soft, warm glow about the party. It was really nice to have some motivating practicals that fit what we were trying to achieve from an aesthetic standpoint. It was also fantastic to have the equipment and crew to bring out some larger soft sources and light up a good size area. See crude iPhone photo below.

IMG_0478This allowed us to speed through our shots and simply just move around and shoot almost 360 degrees. A big necessity as we started to run out of hours in the day to grab the shots we need.

Wrapping things up but I’m sure leaving things out…like most big shows this one took a lot to get in the can but all things considered has provided some amazing memories and moving footage to match. The Awakening Records team, Maher Zain and all of our cast and crew were incredible professionals willing to work long and hard to achieve the vision for the project. I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to have collaborated with such a talented musician and so many exceptional artists and craftspeople in the making of this project. Enjoy the finished product below–tearing up the YouTube charts with over a million views in each of the four languages (probably far more by the time you’re reading this). I hope you find as much enjoyment in watching as I did in crafting.

Cheers.

Pat

The “Tony Scott of Talk Shows”

Hello there…

Back again for another all too infrequent post. 2012 has come and gone and it was a good year with a lot of growth and development. My quest and desire to create exception visuals goes on and I think met with some decent success in the past year. Scoot on over to the “FILMS” link up top for some updates in that department. 2013 has come in with a bang and before I know it we are here at mid-March and I’ve been there and back to Hollywood in the creation of friend and comedian Matthew Aaron’s forthcoming talk show pilot “Dine and Dash.” Now we are still in development on the show so I’ll play details close to the chest but I’d like to talk a little about some of the technical aspects of the shoot.

Dine & Dash - Pilot

Photo Copyright Dustin Wissmiller Photography 2012

So a little background. Matt is an old friend who has a remarkably similar upbringing to my own. He lives not five minutes away from me when he is back in Chicago. He is an infectious comic personality and I have seen him grow as an artist tremendously throughout the years of our friendship. He is currently residing in LA and hosting the popular “Matthew Aaron Show” available on the web. Through the success of his podcast Matt has befriended a host of talented actors, directors and the like. Sometime last year, Matt approached me about directing/photographing a show he was trying to put together that would focus on gathering groups of talented individuals for some candid and informal conversation. We met several times over several months until at last the show began to materialize. He approached me and my company Digital Hydra in an effort to create a unique look–the “Tony Scott of talk shows.” Active cinematography, stylized lighting and cinematic camera movement. Needless to say I was more than excited to come on board and honored to bring some my own visual style, which happens to be heavily Scott Brother influenced.

So anyhow, after a slew of meetings and planning and development. We found our way to January 2013 and the filming of the pilot, now dubbed “Dine and Dash,” at the remarkable Scarpetta restaurant in Beverly Hills. We were privy to the company of an insanely talented cast for the first episode and the Digital Hydra team was able to put together a intense multi-camera shoot with a look that hopefully fulfills the desires of the show’s creator.

Dine & Dash - Pilot

Photo Copyright Dustin Wissmiller Photography

We conducted heavy research on how to tackle this beast in terms of both look and useability of cameras. We were assisted greatly by the folks at AbelCine Tech in Los Angeles as well as the staff of Daufenbach Camera in Chicago. Since the goal was to create something cinematic but we knew our six operators would be filming for several hours at a time, we were looking for a camera with a Super 35 type sensor but with the ability to add some ENG functionality and long form recording. DSLR’s were out the window for a variety of reasons and digital cinema cameras like the RED/Epic/Scarlet or Arri Alexa were a little to big both physically and in terms of cost. Eventually, through our talks with the savvy techs at Abel and Daufenbach, we found our way to the Sony PMW-F3 with a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm Compact Cinema Zoom Lens. Well, six of them.

Dine and Dash - The Cameras

The F3 gave us the Super 35 sensor we were looking for so we could get some selective focus and a cinematic look. It also provided a lightweight customizable body that we could outfit with the bits and pieces we would need for a show of this length and scope. In terms of a lens choice, we needed our operators to be able to zoom and focus without Camera Assistants so we were driven in the ENG (electronic news gathering) direction. This became an interesting dance because there aren’t a ton of lenses that function in the ENG style–servo zoom and such–that work with PL mount cinema cameras and capture the clean image that a 35mm prime or zoom does. Fortunately within the past year or so, Fuji released the Cabrio. A “first of it’s kind” ENG style cinema lens that would allow our operators the control we were looking for. The awesome team at AbelCine in LA not only tracked down the multitude of cameras and lenses we were requesting but also helped us address another question. How the hell were we going to operate for almost three hours without ruining both our bodies and the footage that was captured? My initial answer to “suck it up and be tough” proved ill-conceived after a test shoot in Chicago. The correct answer came in the form of the “EasyRig.”

DD_Pilot_BTS_Easyrig This is me with the rig on a c-stand. Below you can see a picture of Pete Mignin–one of our litany of DePaul Digital Cinema alumni who crewed the project–with another one strapped to his body. Essentially the rig makes you look like a Ghostbuster, which I totally got into, and takes the weight of the camera off your shoulders and upper body putting it into your feet or your core depending on how well you fit the brace. Slender man that I am, there was a little room for me to wiggle inside the harness and I got a solid ab and lower back workout. Anyhow, the rig worked out great and let us all operate with this gunslinger/Ghostbuster style the allowed for a great deal of control and some nice stabilization to our camera movements. If you are fan of Tony Scott’s work you know that there is going to be a lot of camera moves, multiple cameras and a heavy dose of style. The EasyRig allowed us to achieve these visuals without physically destroying ourselves or ruining the footage.

Dine & Dash - Pilot

The first shall be last and the last shall be first and that brings us to lighting. Meaning that without the lighting all this camera techno babble is about as useless as an (INSERT IDIOM HERE). So we’ve got these slick cameras, cool rigs and all the bells and whistles, or at least most of them, how do we capture a movie type look? You light it like a movie. Now obviously with a narrative film there are some liberties that you can take in terms of contrast and shadow that just wouldn’t work in a talk show format. You need to see people’s faces on a talk show and not have half of it underexposed like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Where we could bring in contrast however, was in the environment. We opted for a soft daylight key coming down from above that would give everyone at the table a nice exposure and a clean look. We used an offshoot of the “Menace Arm” rigged by Tim Otholt of Light Hollywood with an HMI Jemball hoisted over the table. The choice to use the muslin wrapped Jemball came at the suggestion of Operator and Gaffer Peter Mosiman, another fine product of DePaul University. It provided a quick and solid solution to getting a large soft source over the table and I was really pleased with the look. Some 19 and 36 degree par cans were positioned to edge the talent and we used practicals in the restaurant to keep some details in the background.

Dine & Dash - Pilot

We dual captured to SxS cards on the F3’s and sent an HD-SDI signal out to a series of PIX240 recorders that doubled as video village. Aside from a couple cables dropping in and out the PIXs provided a nice additional, S-Log recording of the footage. We wanted to send a 4:4:4 signal out so that we’d have significant room to color in post.

“Dine and Dash” was a pleasure to be apart of and it was surreal to see all if this Chicago area talent converge on LA in pursuit of a larger goal. Unbridled thanks to host Matthew Aaron and his team for trusting Digital Hydra to capture his vision. All of the show’s guests, producers and crew were both courteous and professional and meeting them was a tremendous experience. That’s all I’ve got for now. Hopefully the next time I write I’ll be announcing that the show has been picked up and we are gearing up for production on the first season.

Always up for some wishful thinking. Until next time, I’ll be out there trying to hit home runs and hoping Derrick Rose gets back for the NBA Playoffs.

For more info about “Dine and Dash” check out:

https://www.facebook.com/DineDashShow

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2460996/

Twitter – @DineDashShow
Me – @patrickwimp