Friday, March 23, 2012

Catapult Fully Functional... but not yet complete.

Weeks ago I posted my first blog post, about building a catapult (technically, it's a mangonel, I've since learned). Well, it's finally hurling objects at short distances (about 45 feet or so, with it cranked up at what I'd call "medium" tension).

Did we make it in budget? Sort of... Materials cost is just over 200 dollars. But labor is about 48 hours now, far beyond my initial estimates (10 hours). You could call that another 800 dollars at least, since most of the work was done as generously low-cost labor by a couple of friends.

But if I had to make another catapult  now, knowing what I now know, it would take maybe one day to complete it.

Lesson 1: Have the right tools. You need a good saw, not a battery powered one.
Lesson 2: Brace the base frame on either side of the twisted ropes whose tightly twisted form gives the mangonel its spring action. When those ropes are tightened, they have tremendous power, enough power to snap your whole wood frame if they're not braced with 4-by-4 wooden beams on either side of the rope.
Lesson 3: The mechanism which is used to twist the rope has to be very strong, made of heavy steel. Once again, the twisted ropes contain a lot of power. Make sure you have a heavy duty mechanism which can withstand the force as you crank the rope tight.
Lesson 4: Be very careful as you crank. Don't do it alone. You can easily lose a hand or an arm, and if the lever you're using hits you in the head, you will likely die.
Lesson 5: Use an old tennis raquette frame wrapped in a piece of leather for the "bucket" or "pocket" on the end of the mangonel's arm. Don't bother trying to make it yourself.

I'd say those 5 tips will save you half your time. The rest, you might have to learn yourself to really understand why it's more difficult than it might seem.

Special thanks to Kurt and Marshall for their labor on this excellent war machine. Now I can't wait to make it look really evil and use it in our upcoming film.

To get it firing stones long distances, at, say, 50 yards plus, it's going to need a thicker, more elastic rope and two strong bodies to crank the thing up.

Our first attempt at a catapult. I'm not disappointed, just more realistic now about what it takes. I highly recommend building one, if you have the means.

Here's a video of the catapult barely cranked up where the "bucket" breaks off:

Here's one of it shooting a bit harder...

I'll post another one when I crank it up to full power next week.

Friday, March 16, 2012

5000 Hours

 I saw a film called Birdemic the other night ( It's famously terrible. Thankfully, I watched the Rifftrax version (, which made it more bearable. It's easy to point out any of the many "things wrong" with the film, but I want to point out that it was created with sincerity and earnest effort on the part of most if not all the crew members.

My first thought is "where do they find these people?", but my next thought is "how truly awful that so many thousands of hours were wasted to create this unsellable, unbearable, tasteless junk."

5000 hours is (minimally) how long it takes to make a movie. 5000 "man" hours (includes many "woman" hours). When you consider all the many roles involved, crew members, cast members, preproduction, production, postproduction... it often takes much closer to 10000 or more hours. That's five working years of someone's life.

I assume something in the order of 5000 hours were spent creating Birdemic.

The quality of the film is, for the most part, entirely dependent on the set of persons on the filmmaking team. A good team will, for the most part, result in a good film, or at least in a film that passes for a low-grade late night TV feature.

But a team of morons and incompetents will inevitably, unambiguously produce an idiotic waste of time and money. Hence Birdemic.

Where am I going with this? Don't hire your cousins and your buddies to work on your film. Seek out the best crew you can find. The best writer, the best director, the best cinematographer, the best production designer, the best composer...

Then you'll have a great shot at having a decent movie.

And I don't believe that the amount paid to team members is the first nor even the second most determinant factor in the quality of their work. It's far better to employ a first-time (or even student!) director who's proven his or her genius on a short film or two than to hire a seasoned director who has only ever produced C-grade material. A top-tier student director will be hungry and enthusiastic about making a great feature, while an experienced hack will often only be working for a paycheck, and make a terrible movie.

The team for Birdemic must have been neither capable-but-inexperienced-students, nor seasoned-but-jaded-professionals. But don't imagine that means any less work was done. The 5000-hour rule still holds. And that's the tragedy. With the same amount of money, the same amount of time, more or less the same script (unbelievable, I know, if you've seen Birdemic, but the script could pass for a few foreign territories once translated capably into other languages), and just a little extra effort in scouting out some decent talent, this film could have passed muster for sales to some late-night slots on some international channels. Because with the same pay (I assume the crew was paid, even terrible terrible films often have paid crews) a better, smarter, more talented crew would have delivered a far more entertaining film.

Every time you hire a lesser crew member, you waste the time and effort of every other crew member to some extent. And if you hire several lesser crew members, every crew member starts to sense the low quality of the team, and the crew starts to lose hope that the film will matter. Then they care less. Then the movie suffers. And the further it goes, the further it goes. They're predicting that the movie won't succeed, and therefore isn't worth losing sleep over. And they're probably right.

Be a better producer. Do the legwork and find great crew. Don't waste a combined three-to-ten years of people's lives.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to create a Profitable Movie Concept

Arrowstorm Entertainment, our production company, is interested in bringing funding to movies. But people often pitch us unsellable, unmarketable, undistributable concepts which have only one possible "business plan", which is "we're going to win Sundance." That's a terrible risk.

Dramas, indie comedies, social conscience films, etc., have few channels which are looking to buy content. On the other hand, what we call "fanboy" genre films have many buyers and a great need for more content worldwide.

We are looking to fund "fanboy" films, which have a low risk and high potential for creating a real franchisable intellectual property. How do you create a fanboy film? Try creating concepts that have no less than 3, and preferably 5 or more elements from the "Periodic Table of the Awesoments." , more about it here at

Think I'm joking? I'm not. I'd say any random logline that you generate using this entertaining tool will be more profitable than 90% of the indie film concept pitches I hear. Is that sad? Pathetic? Yep. Is it more fun than making a film about a couple dealing with the loss of a child? I'd say it is.

This is, once again, film as business, not film as art or film as world-improver. To create great art or make the world a better place, just try not to spend much money while doing it.

Try out the Periodic Table of Awesoments. Post your pitches in the comments!