How I got unstuck on my sci-fi script

What is “just-in-time” learning?


Just-in-time learning is learning what you need to know right before you need to know it. For me, it works better to learn a skill right before I need to use that skill than learning a skill six months or a year before I need it.

Right now, based on where we are on Planet Burlesque, I am learning DSLR cinematography and color grading.

We need to test our workflow before we go into production, so we’ll do some test shots and color grade those shots. We’ll review the final shots and determine if that’s the final look we want to use for the project and make adjustments if necessary.

I’m also learning more about writing short films, even as I write the script. I highly recommend Kim Adleman’s book Making it Big in Shorts: Shorter, Faster, Cheaper: The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films (affiliate link).

After we shoot our short film based on Planet Burlesque, it will be time to learn more about video editing.

See how this works? A simple system for a simple guy.

I didn’t mention this on the show, but I learn these skills on and YouTube videos.

Writer’s block strikes!

Last week, I talked about systems for producing profitable films. However, it’s the writing, the story, the script that’s really important.

Wolverine and Captain America Comic Books

If you want a system, use this:

Write the best possible script that takes advantage of the resources you have.

Confession time

For about a week, I’ve been stuck working on the script for Planet Burlesque and writing the script for the short film.

I didn’t freak out about it and kept trudging through the story.

Then, out of nowhere, while driving, I envisioned the movie as a comic book – or a series of comic book panels.

While this isn’t a magic solution, it sure felt like it.

For some reason, I can visualize the story and story possibilities much easier as a comic book than visualizing the movie itself.

I know that’s weird, but it works for me.

Maybe someone reading this has a theory as to why.

My theory is it takes less brain power to visualize comic book panels than movie scenes. Comic book panels are static while movie scenes move.

I was thinking about our project as a comic book because we’ve always thought it would be cool if Planet Burlesque could be turned into a comic book.

And Funko Pop characters.

I don’t want this to be a conventional movie. If you’re doing a low budget movie, especially science fiction, you have to find a way to stand out from all the other indie films out there.

Visualizing Planet Burlesque as a series of comic book panels helps me imagine less traditional scenarios.

Team news

This past week, I got an email from Eric Shumacher.

Eric Shumacher

Hi, I just became aware of your site. Very cool. I’m an actor and filmmaker and my favorite genre is sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve also got a bit of a following in the western genre having played both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the latter in Alex Cox’s latest film. Alex is best known for his work as the director of Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, etc. I frequently lecture at sci-fi conventions and Comic-Cons and enjoy sharing tips about the creation process. I’d be pleased to be of help somehow.

Thank you, Eric! Welcome to Team Planet Burlesque!

You can find out more about Eric here:

As always


Make money with your indie film: the missing ingredient

The money-making formula

Alex Ferrari has a wonderful podcast for indie filmmakers called “Indie Film Hustle“. We had Alex on our show not too long ago.

Recently, he did a show called “5 Rules to Make Money Selling Indie Films

Indie Film Hustle podcast

These five rules are awesome! You really need to listen to the show.

But he left out one rule – the most important one!

The most important rule

You have to write a great story.

Don't tell boring stories!
Don’t tell boring stories!

You must write a great script and make an entertaining movie. If you don’t, you can push with those five rules as hard as you want, but – you won’t make money.

This means you won’t make a living as a filmmaker.

Let’s be honest

This is painful. But here goes…

Most indie filmmakers, science fiction or otherwise, do not write great stories or make entertaining or watchable films.

Not surprisingly, most of them don’t make money.

You have to spend the time learning to create great stories. Or partner with someone who does.

Just because there’s a formula doesn’t mean following it will always lead to success. Many will still fail – even if they stick with it.

I know writers and filmmakers who’ve been working hard for 5, 10, even 20 years with little or no success.

Just because Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and Mark Duplass made it, doesn’t mean you will. The bottom line is they have talent and made good, entertaining movies. That’s why they succeed.

You have to have a great story and a great script. No matter how good your social media is, no matter how good your marketing is – if the movie sucks, people won’t pay (much) to watch it.

Internet marketing works great if the offer is good. If the end product sucks, it won’t make any difference.

If you make a great, entertaining movie you’re much more likely to be successful. This is not guaranteed, though.

This weekend, I’m working on the script for the first short film set in the world of “Planet Burlesque“: the film we’ll be producing in 2017.

Recently, on Twitter I asked who else is working on scripts.

I heard from Cathy Y – @grlnxtdr29.

She has 2 completed movie scripts, 2 outlined play scripts, 1 outlined movie script, and 1 “almost done” movie script.

The three movie scripts are an Indie short, a RomCom, and a Vampire thriller.

Check out her Twitter account to see what she’s up to.

As for me, it’s back to work.

As always


Our new movie project for 2017: Planet Burlesque

What is Planet Burlesque?

The secret is revealed: our movie project for 2017 is titled Planet Burlesque”.

Planet Burlesque

What kind of science fiction movie is “Planet Burlesque”?

Your first clue, after the title, is the movie poster

The artist known as “Bubba”

William “Bubba” Flint is an editorial cartoonist, general cartoonist, and painter.  His paintings are usually “lowbrow“.

We discussed the role of his movie poster in the movie-making process. A good movie poster helps communicate what the movie is about and helps you spread the word about your movie.

I’ve talked about putting a list of resources together for your movie. And when you add people to your movie project, they often have resources you can add to that list.

Bubba has a 1965 Volkswagon Bus. This is a wonderful vehicle that could add some visual appeal and humor to the film project.

VW van or bus
“Rusty Pete”, the PlanetBurlesqueMobile

As an artist, Bubba might be able to contribute to set design and help with the look of the film to make it more interesting.

Nothing is worse than a low budget movie shot in boring locations with white walls.

When you’re making a science fiction film, the audience might expect it to have more visual style than a typical drama or comedy.

Luckily, Bubba watches a lot of science fiction for the visuals. We are so lucky to have him on this project.

The visual look of the movie can help set the tone. I haven’t settled on the tone for this movie – yet. We’ll work through that as we go.

The story so far…

The movie is set in the present day with three cosplay burlesque performers.

One of the characters is a Vampira kind of character. Another character is a retro space girl and the third is a steampunk character.

For now, we aren’t going to reveal where the “Planet” in the title comes from.

This will be a “fish out of water” story with three burlesque performers in North Texas.

The movie poster does capture at least one tone for the movie. But, I want the audience to be surprised by what happens.

There is nothing worse than making or watching a predictable movie.

This movie will NOT be set in a post-apocalyptic setting – just the opposite. I want the movie to be FUN!

The return of the short

Last week I talked about making a short (or two or three) set in the world I want to create for the movie.

Bubba points out that this is similar to an artist creating a sketch or small painting before they make their large painting.

Making these shorts gives me a chance to play with the tone and work out the details of our production workflow.

We can also post the short films online and get feedback before making the feature.

These short film also give us a chance to try out different looks for the film.

Speaking of different looks…

The Love Witch

“The Love Witch” is an independent horror feature, written, produced and directed by the talented Anna Biller.

The Love Witch movie poster

Anna’s film is a sort of homage to a lot of fun horror films from the ’60s and ’70s. The visual style is striking.

If you’re looking for a film that takes set design, wardrobe, and visuals to another level, check out the trailer for “The Love Witch”.

This movie, (at least the trailer), inspires me to really push the visual style on my project.

Bubba’s role on “Planet Burlesque”

Our talented poster artist has agreed to work on the project and would even like to act in it.

I have a few ideas about that.

This is going to be a lot of fun. And isn’t that one of the main reasons we make movies? To have fun?

If you want to reach out to Bubba, you can friend him on Facebook. He also posts his work on Instagram.

His cartoons are in the Dallas Morning News, Katy Trail Weekly, and White Rock Lake Weekly.

Social media for “Planet Burlesque”

As always


Make a short film before you make your movie

My original plan: no short film

Charlie Chaplin

I was planning to skip the “make a short film” step and go right into pre-production for my feature. Luckily, fate intervened!

Listening to the On the Page podcast, I heard about Kim Adelman’s Making it Big in Shorts: Shorter, Faster, Cheaper: The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films (affiliate link).

The motto is in the book’s title: Shorter, Faster, Cheaper.

Kim Adelman used to produce short films for the FX Movie Channel and, amazingly, got shorts accepted by Sundance four years in a row.

Many successful feature directors got started by doing shorts – it’s what got them noticed.

Some successful filmmakers still make short films where they can experiment. This gives them complete creative control.

Plan a short film that you can shoot in a weekend which is a low barrier to entry. Get it done quickly to be sure you finish it!

Making shorts is great practice for your feature film effort.

You can make mistakes on your short film when your investment is super low.

If your first short film effort is terrible, don’t make your movie just yet. Make another short film.

As you produce shorts, you can build your team of cast and crew. These are the people you will be able to count on when it’s time to make your feature.

Enter you short in film festivals. Film festivals are great places to network and get noticed.

Adelman’s book contains a lot of great  advice. For example:

  • Be sure you’ve got a good twist in your short
  • Avoid opening credits
  • Make your script as good as possible before shooting
  • Be sure it has  good sound
  • Your film must also have good acting

One chapter,  Fifty Filmmaking Tips, is chock full of useful tips for the independent filmmakers.

My favorite tip : Don’t shoot locations with white walls. This looks amateurish.

Pull the furniture away from the walls so your shots can include foreground, middle ground, and background. Pay attention to this when you watch TV shows and movies.

More short film tips

Your short should be related to your feature. This might be a secondary character’s story or another situation in the world you’ve created.

Be careful if you decide to shoot the first few minutes of the film – it may not really be a short.

Don’t be tempted to shoot a short version of the movie. It won’t work.

I highly recommend the book. And it’s short!

In addition to the the book:

  • Watch a lot of shorts – science fiction and otherwise
  • Make sure the short tells a satisfying story – many do not!
  • Keep it moving. Don’t dawdle.
  • Don’t give the audience a reason to quit watching
  • Make sure the short has an active protagonist – many do not! Sci-fi shorts, especially, are guilty of this. Some have great special effects, but without an active protagonist you can identify with, viewers will not be engaged.

Alrik Bursell’s short film, Brother, is a great example of a short film with an engaging story populated with interesting characters.

You may need to make more than one short before you make your movie.

Making short films will only make your feature better!

Once again: Shorter. Faster. Cheaper!

As always


The Cube: How to make a movie for $500

The secret of the 500 dollar movie

How did Scott McMahon learn how to make movies for less than 500 dollars?

Scott McMahon
Scott McMahon

After finishing film school, Scott worked at Sony Playstation in the early days making introductory videos for their games.

Working there for 12 years, Scott ended up as the head of their cinematic division.

Scott learned that in film, story is king. With video games, game play is king. The content the cinematic division created included pre-rendered video that played before the game or between game sequences.

After a rushed launch of Playstation 3 which didn’t include enough titles for that platform, and coinciding with a soft economy, Scott found himself without a job and trying to produce independent comedy.

Although that didn’t work out, Scott learned how movies are produced and marketed in Hollywood.

When the DSLR movie revolution and digital distribution happened, Scott jumped on board and produced “The Cube”.

Scott observed that the returns for self-distributed movies on digital platforms are pretty modest. As a result, he decided to produce “The Cube” as cheaply as possible.

The Cube movie poster

Scott had to find a way to create a movie that was affordable and allowed him to shoot around his full-time job.

Because he had been working in the industry for a while, he had accumulated enough equipment to shoot his movie.

He shot “The Cube” with a Canon Rebel T3i (60D) which has the same specs as the Canon 7D.

The science fiction film “The Sound of My Voice”,  a Sundance favorite, was shot with a 7D and looks amazing.

The T3i has a flippable LCD screen which makes shooting easier, especially if you’re acting and directing – like Scott.

Since he already owned the equipment needed to shoot the movie, the bulk of the $500 budget went toward a Buddha statue.

The script was written with an eye toward the locations and other items Scott already had. Exteriors in the Pacific Northwest (Portland) added a lot of visual interest to the movie.

Scott was able to make his film so affordably because he had no crew. Scott shot, directed, and acted in the movie.

Finding actors for the movie was easy – he used friends who were actors and reached out to others on Craigslist.

Since his lead actress was only available for a couple of weeks, it forced Scott to stretch his creativity to find ways to get the project done very quickly.

After casting, Scott had to rewrite some scenes so they would play better based on the actors’ abilities.

Scott advises getting actors to work for free is easier if you make their time commitment on the project short.

The shoot for “The Cube” took about three weeks of three- or four-hour days. One key for getting so much done in a short shooting day is to light the space – don’t light for each shot.

You can also use window light for indoor shots. Be sure you replace your indoor bulbs with bright, daylight-balanced lights.

For camera lenses, Scott used a 50mm F1.2 and a fast wide zoom. He shot 1080p and 24 frames per second. He adjusted the f-stop and ISO based on the amount of light in the scene.

Scott used an inexpensive lighting kit that is used for shooting green screen shots. This kit included a soft box he could use to fill in light as needed.

For recording dialog, Scott used a Rode Handheld Multi-Powered Condenser NT3 Microphone (affiliate link) on a boom. Later, he switched to a Zoom H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder (affiliate link) connected to lavaliere microphones hidden on the actors.

Half of the music for “The Cube” was written and recorded by Scott using GarageBand. He also spent about 80 bucks on music licensing from NeoSounds for the other half.

Scott edited the film with Final Cut 7 and mixed the sound with SoundTrack Pro. This proves it is possible to avoid paying an expensive editor and sound mixer.

Scott shot the film as flat as possible and avoided blowing out the highlights. He used Magic Bullet Suite to adjust (grade) the video.

All together, it took about six months to produce “The Cube”.

Now that Scott has produced his first 500 dollar movie, he’s working to make his next one and plans to make a better movie.

Film Trooper

Scott developed a platform to market his film and his method for making it. That platform is Film Trooper – a website and podcast.

Film Trooper podcast logo

Film Trooper explores how independent filmmakers can utilize online marketing and business strategies and techniques to sell their film. Filmmakers become entrepreneurs.

“The Cube” is the case study for Film Trooper – how Scott did it. It illustrates what worked and what didn’t work.

Film Trooper includes a podcast where Scott shares his ongoing filmmaking journey. This journey includes developing a better method for making and marketing low budget movies.

The Film Trooper podcast is a weekly show where Scott explores and curates the discussion of how does the independent filmmaker make a sustainable living just making their films.

The first year of its release, Scott made “The Cube” available on Vimeo on Demand. It took a while to make his money back.

Today, Scott distributes the film on Gumroad.

Originally, Scott’s marketing efforts for “The Cube” were aimed at filmmakers. Scott plans to relaunch the movie and market to a specific audience: people interested in Buddhism or suffering from anxiety. The movie will be relaunched on Amazon Instant Video.

“The Cube” is not available on DVD right now, but Scott will probably use Amazon’s CreateSpace to make DVDs on demand in the future.

How to Make and Sell Your Film Online: the book

Last year, Scott decided to write a book for independent filmmakers and sell it on Amazon.

How to Write and Sell Your Film Online

You can buy How to Make and Sell Your Film Online and Survive the Hollywood Implosion While Doing It: No festivals. No distributors. No budget. No problem (affiliate link) to learn more.

Scott’s advice

Do a short film. This allows you to see and experience the process.

Then check out the Film Trooper website or the book. You’ll learn the new way of approaching creating digital media for today’s world.

The big takeaway: Nobody is making money from the art itself. This goes for book authors, visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers. The art acts as an amplifier or advertisement to something more expensive.

In Hollywood, they make money by exploiting the intellectual property.

In his book, Scott explains how online entrepreneurs, working with a smaller number of customers, offer up more high-value products. You have to add more value to your intellectual property.

It’s a different world for independent filmmakers today. Check out Scotts website, podcast, and book to learn more.

As always