Media Production Mentoring

Free online film school designed with beginning filmmakers in mind.


Short Film: Cyclical

This is a very personal project for me, exploring the cycles I experience of doing well and then falling back into self-destructive activities. The solution, I find, is not to try harder -- as if that has ever worked! -- instead, I must give up my personal ideal of saving myself. I cannot. And this project proved that again and again.

Behind the Scenes

I will not reiterate here what I cover in the BTS video above (there's far too much content). Watch it and enjoy. This post will delve into additional thoughts and comments.

Cyclical was blessed by the tremendous number of talented and funny people who participated. We laughed so much while making this movie. Probably the funniest moment was when we were getting the "leafleting" scene. My initial idea was to have one guy reluctantly take a flyer and the next flat-out refuse with his hand up. Then Megan asked if she could follow him. The result was hilarious! Megan admitted the idea was based on her own fear that people handing out propaganda would chase her down. Perfect. The full clip is fantastic, but I cut it up for pacing reasons. Here's the reaction of the four actors who have just seen the clip:


During another take, Megan was eating a pop tart and started eating the crumbs off her lap. She stopped when she realized she was doing it on camera. I told her it was perfect and hilarious. Because it was.


In many ways, these moments of levity made up for the private meltdowns and emotional freak-outs I had while stressing between shoots. This project was overwhelmingly heavy and difficult. Things kept falling apart and even when they were not, I was.

For years I've felt that I hate production, the act of being on set. There is so much pressure to get stuff done and get it right! But this film revealed that the issue is more pointed than that for me. Being on set can be fun -- like when we laughed and took fun pictures; it's the stuff I can't control that freaks me out, almost as much as relying on my technical abilities to use a camera (something I have much improved in over the last few years). There weren't any real technical difficulties with this shoot. The problems were all scheduling/availability issues or questions of if something would actually work. I did not count the number of times I was on the floor or my bed a puddle of raving lunacy. My poor wife.

I've got a lot of growing up to do.

The generosity of people never ceases to amaze me. Zero-budget filmmaking is cool because it forces us to use the resources available to us. But that doesn't mean we can't get cool stuff or great locations. We started out shooting at the park down my street (the same giant park where we shot Applejack) and just wandered through a neighborhood with apartments. Friends and family let me shoot in their houses, apartments and backyards. One friend let us into her art studio early on a Saturday morning so we could have access to restrooms while shooting in the parking lot out front:


I feel the most gratitude for the business locations that let me film in them. My family eats at Little Basil all the time. I've had their Chicken Pad Thai at least 200 times. It's that good. I think they let me shoot after their peak time -- 8:30pm -- because of our longstanding relationship. Headed West stepped up and let me film after my first location bailed on me; one employee was concerned that my film was cannabis related, as they are not a dispensary. It worked out and we got the few shots we needed. Thank you!

Initially, my plan for the beggar scene was to go downtown late at night and hope nobody bothered us (vagabonds or law enforcement). My wife suggested we go someplace closer. That's when I remembered the off-the-beaten-path storefronts in a shopping center 20 minutes from my house. It was perfect! We rehearsed the scene a few times just in case we only got one take before someone came along and kicked us out. Thankfully, no one interrupted us and we were able to attempt the complex single-take as many times as we needed. That ended up being my favorite shot of the film:


By the by, the establishing shot of the clock tower had a ton of shake in it because I grabbed it as an afterthought and didn't bring my tripod. I don't have any fancy image stabilization software, so I uploaded the clip to YouTube and used the Editor as a quick (and free) way to remove the wobble. It worked remarkably well!

One of the issues we encountered in a big way while shooting in "live" environments (places where we had no control over what others did) was the ridiculous amount of background noise. This was particularly bad at the park where a train for kids loops through and a water park bell clangs constantly from the hill. This is one of the many aspects of zero-budget video production that really hurts the overall production value. On the other hand, we happened to get one of our shots with the train, so that was cool. And having a bunch of people milling about the park gave it some nice depth.

The Train Whistle Ruins Another Take

The changing scene was originally set in a giant closet. But I couldn't procure one of those. Instead, I got into an incredible bathroom. Even with all the space (including a jacuzzi-style tub), my long lens struggled to get both girls in the frame. I purchased a new lens after the fact so I won't run into that again. The bathroom opened into a very large bedroom but, again, I didn't have space to get a feeling for the room. To compensate and communicate, I let the bedposts frame the shot. It was the best I could do with what we had (especially since we only had a few minutes before we needed to move to the next location). Out of necessity, I also ignored the fact that it was so bright out and the scene was set around 10pm. No one cares. No one noticed.


We were fast losing light when we shot in Izzy's apartment. The clip where Rex shows up and demands a drinking buddy was thus going to be a single shot. We took it a couple times and moved on. But when I sat down to edit, I liked moments from two different takes. So the next time I had Izzy over, I grabbed a similar bathrobe and snapped the cutaway. It worked.

(Root) Beer

As we approached the fight scene between the girls, they were convinced they couldn't do it without laughing. Their plan, then, was to fight silently, mouthing words but nothing more. This actually worked out really well and is an excellent example of how what is said doesn't matter. Words would cheapen the experience.

I don't have enough distance from this video as of writing this post to know how successful it is as a short film. I'm still too close to the writing and technical aspects to be able to see it as a movie. It's still just the pieces all put together. I'm happy with it, but like everything, I felt like I just had to stop and release it. You can tweak forever, so you have to just publish at some point. And now is that point.

As I mentioned in the Behind the Scenes video, I plan to release this film as an editing course. That is going to take a long time to put together, but keep and eye out. It's coming...

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor

P.S. See more short films by Luke Holzmann here:


What Titanfall Taught Me About Movie Making

I'm not good at shooters like Titanfall. But I've found I've improved as I play.

The same is true of filmmaking as well. You have to practice to get better. You don't even need formal training (just like video games; though, as in both, a few pointers now and then can certainly help). You need to become familiar with your tools. You need to hone your skills.

So, take a break from your hours of video games this summer and spend a few out shooting some footage. That practice will make you better when it comes time to shoot one of your projects.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Have Your Character Break Character

Let's say you want your audience to know that this girl is falling for a guy. Her character is already well-established as more of a tomboy, dressing in a funky wardrobe.

A Little Boyish

All you need to do to show that her feelings are changing is to get her to choose to break out of her normal style. Dress like someone she isn't. Do something she wouldn't do otherwise.

Lip Gloss While Waiting

This will work for guys as well. He normally bum around in shorts and flip flips? Put him in a tie. All you need to do is break character enough to be uncomfortable but excited.

Then, if you want to break your character's happy anticipation, do something to dash all hope. Then have your character undo what was just done...

Wiping Off the Gloss

It certainly wouldn't hurt to have your star give a few death glares now and again either.


 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


I'm Only Barbie

I heard the Christina Perri "Only Human" song on the radio. That inspired me to look up the video. I really liked the brief effect they toss in now and again:

Not Only Human

Would it be possible to pull off a similar look in a short period of time, with zero resources, and no fancy programs? Let's find out.

In a word: Yes.

Using a Barbie, a camera, a light, and some electrical tape, I got the shots I needed. Then I cut everything together in Sony Vegas Studio (not Pro) and did the effect work in Gimp (which is free and not a crazy 3D effects program like Blender).

Only Barbie

If something inspires you, try to do it yourself with the tools you have.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


New Free Sound Effects: Ripping Carcass

I've been dragging my feet on the next Editing 101 lesson because it involves sound. I need to record a ton of foley and sound effects and that takes time. But as I record these sounds, I'm publishing them as royalty-free/public domain on so you can benefit from my hard work. I hope I can save you a few hours on your next production!

Grab some royalty free sound effects now.

If you want the specific sounds:
  1. Ripping apart a carcass
  2. Eating juicy meat
  3. Small bones breaking
More to come. And, as always, if you need a sound, let me know. I'll try to get to it at some point.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


House of Cards Season 2

Season 2 of House of Cards feels much like round-robin writing or a Mad Lib. Each episode containes so many disjointed elements I was actively distracted and bothered by them. There is no cohesive flow. But we'll get to that in a moment.

Let's start with a minor positive. Unlike in the first season, Frank Underwood appears to actually do things intentionally at the start of Season 2. He takes action and stuff happens. The first several episodes are a blessed relief after the frustration of my previous experience. Then, with agonizing predictability, the story disappears to the point where Frank and friends no longer really do anything. It's like the Star Wars "prequels" which are brilliantly dismantled by Red Letter Media (please note: this ain't your Red Letter Bible. These videos contain f-bombs and lots of inappropriate content. But the clip above brilliantly demonstrates the disappointment of the characters in Cards. Compared to the content in the show we are discussing, you should be fine). Too much of the tale is spent waiting around for something good to potentially happen to our "protagonist." Maybe.

Despite the continued problems, the show maintained a certain level of interest. The show is well-produced. I don't recall much from season one (a bad sign for the quality of the story), but this season feels smaller. We don't get out much from the few rooms to which we are confined. In that sense, I felt a bit like Rachel and that hacker guy, trapped by house arrest and only allowed contact with a couple people.

Rachel. She's probably my biggest disappointment. Not because of her character but because of what the show does to her. I'm of course talking about the lesbian thing.

Girls are easy

I don't have a problem with lesbians in television or movies, per se. It's just that it's too often lazy and lame. I get that a show trying for sex appeal would have girls making out while naked. But it has to make sense. And these girls do not make sense as lovers. Not because it's not possible. I've read about girls who meet in church, are part of leadership, do lots of Bible study together only to end up physically involved with one another. That makes sense with how physicality works for women (see more in Why Gender Matters by Dr. Sax). But in the context of the story -- how they meet, what they do while together, their personal interests -- it doesn't fit. Rachel's lover is little more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Their "love" is tacked on for titillation, not story. bewbs! Really, there was so little about these two girls and their sexual attraction, it was the first glaring instance of writers adding in something that the next writer simply couldn't believe, which is why it never developed into anything more than a reason to cry for a few seconds when they had to break up for now.

But I think I get it. To allow for some religious overtones, we need to make them lesbian lovers who find connection in spirituality, helping kids, and making out. Only then will our post-religious, overly-ironic target audience accept this as "real" ... or, at least, acceptable for a show about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

This is a pet peeve, but if you're going to read Scripture, do us the courtesy of reading the whole passage. Don't just skip the last part of Ephesians 4:31-32 because you don't like saying Jesus Christ if it's not an expletive. Modern culture is woefully ignorant of the Bible and Christian thought. Please stop making us even more ill-informed.

Rachel, of course, leads to Doug. [By the by, there would have been much better Doug and Rachel tension had the girls just been friends from the Fellowship, both thematically and as part of the story.] Like Peter in Season 1, Doug is the only character I have any kind of empathy for in Season 2. He's the only one who actually struggles and has any kind of character arch. He's trying to be a better person, but his infatuation with this girl is messing with him. He doesn't know how to handle it. And that's good because it gives room for a story. You know, those things television shows should be about. But, like Peter, before we can actually explore such a story, that line runs dead.

What about Freddy? He goes through stuff, right? I mean, there's a whole episode devoted to him. Doesn't he have an arch? No. He makes ribs, suddenly has a kid of convenience, and loses. The end. I will say, however, that this was the one moment where I felt Kevin Spacey was actually allowed to demonstrate his ability in subtle acting.

He cares

What about the reporter guy? He's in prison or something. Not much story there.

Claire? She created a bill as a cover to a scandal which was a cover to a news thing and we're supposed to believe she deeply cares about it? Confused writers, perhaps? Meh. Nope, she's still there just as filler. And, unlike Season 1, I don't think Robin Wright has much opportunity to act.

So Season 2 of House of Cards is a character puff piece whose writers constantly had to fight each other to try to keep the story moving somewhere sane. They failed. We're conned into being interested by the meltdown around us, like gawking at a house fire. But who the characters are, why they do what they do, and the vacuous vacancy of anyone who actually accomplishes anything still leaves me wishing there was a story in there. A man who rises through the ranks of government by dumb luck while betraying and destroying others because it may -- or, just as likely, may not -- help his cause is not a story. We're left with this Southern drawling monster man in an empty room as he taps the table.


Because the entire journey is empty, lonely, and amounts to nothing more than a double tap. ...and not even a clever one like Zombieland.

As we look toward Season 3, I find the only thing I'm interested in is if (and how) Rachel and her lover are going to try to get back at Frank, and what he's going to do about it. Kill her in Episode 1? That'd be redundant. And lame. Much like what happened here. When Frank told me not to worry about the kitten because she'd have eventually grown claws, I didn't feel anything for the girl. Her death was implausible enough, the "shock value" was out of the blue enough, and her character was pointless enough -- nothing more than story convenience and skin from that girl -- that her death hardly registered at all.

What is House of Cards Season 2? A detached, cynical look at a world of business and politics and relationships between selfish, evil people who care about money and power for their own sake, not because these characters would do anything of substance with money or power if they had it.

Reminds me of a passage from Scripture: Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (I Timothy 6:9-10)

Perhaps the writers are teaching the Bible after all...

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Everything is awesome!

Pretty much.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Image Inspiration: A Single Lamp

Sometimes all you need is a single lamp.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Use Visual Analogies to Express a Complex Idea

In films, your audience typically doesn't know what's going on. That's why you're telling them the story. But too often there is a tremendous amount of information you need to convey to them. Where are they? When are they? What's going on? It's even worse if you're doing something sci-fi or technical, such as medicine or time travel.

You could have an actor say something incoherent and implausible (employing something like Star Trek's technobabble). This works if "how it works" doesn't matter one whit to the story. You can have your characters simply talk about the Turbo Encabulator and move on.

Conversely, you could make your movie about the incomprehensible nature of time travel, and simply talk in technical terms without regard for your audience. Feeling lost is part of the experience (a la Primer).

But many films walk somewhere in-between these two extremes.

This is where a simple visual analogy can work wonders. Have a character more in-the-know than your protagonist or curious bystander explain the situation to a four year old. Not literally. But what picture could you show a child that would help the kid grasp the situation? Find that, and your audience can follow along.

Example: Your characters have just managed to survive a harrowing trip through a jungle with robots or monsters or aliens in pursuit. The small band has made it into an ancient temple. There is a pause in the action.

Tom: Is this real?
Sam: Real enough.
Tom: So we're in a computer, like Tron or the Matrix?
Sam: Those were separate worlds. This one is more...

Here he interlinks his fingers.

And the audience understands.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Aside: How She Really Feels

I'm sure eventually Yamada will tell you how she feels. How could she not?

Then we hold on this shot for a moment, letting the irony sink in. See, this girl's been holding back her secret feelings from him for about as long as she's been alive.

Sometimes you gotta give you audience a chance to get it. Taking an uncomfortably long time to get to the next moment nudges your viewers to recognize what's going on underneath.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


Bookend the Montage of Change

We know that with just a glance we can show the audience exactly what's going on in our character's head. We've also seen how alcohol can show a character's deepest hurts. But often we need to get a character (not to mention the audience) from one state of mind to another in a very brief amount of time. Enter the montage. These sequences of images and moments can cover a tremendous amount of ground in very little time. And if you want your audience to know that the character has changed, it's simple. Use a bookend to flip your character's development from one side to the opposite.


Have your character politely refuse a drink at the start of the sequence.


Run through stuff that shows she is getting caught up in this new life. Then, end with a shot of her and a glass of champagne.

The Start of the End

It's that simple.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor


How Cardboard Can Save Your Shot

Cardboard "cookies" can help you produce some amazing lighting effects, like the photo I shared back in 2008:

A Light and a Cookie

Just as often you need large pieces of cardboard to block unwanted light. Back in my college days we used a box to block a window to make it look like night in the room:

Blocking Light from a Window

So I was a little surprised to see a shot from a 2013 film completely ruined by unwanted light. It took me a moment to figure out why the shot felt so odd. It was raining and the image was "off" somehow. What was it?


I've lived in Colorado long enough to have experienced sunshowers, but this wasn't one. The main character kept moving in an out of the shadow, causing the distracting harsh light to be all the more distracting. They could have "sold" the shot by simply getting a large piece of cardboard to cast a shadow where he was standing.

Or have him take four steps back into the shadows.

Remember: Simply spraying your actors with water does not "sell" rain. Watch for the little details and fix them. Sometimes it's as easy as getting a piece of cardboard.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor