Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reflecting on reflections

Now that our project is basically completed, except for the critical component of background music (curses, Glassnote Music!), it's dawning on me that I must be completing a critical reflection in the nest few days. Though I was initially smitten with the idea of a director's commentary, having been thoroughly impressed by some such as The Talking Dead and the commentaries provided on one of my favorite television shows, House of Cards, after one mangled first attempt I realize that not only is providing an elegant director's commentary beyond the realm of my digital capacities, but also that I have much more to say about our project than the run-length of our two minute project. Thus, I decided, an engaging podcast would serve my needs and abilities much better.
This post will essentially serve as my first stab (or second, if you count my botched director's commentary attempt) at brainstorming responses to the compulsory questions established by Cambridge:
1. How do your products use or challenge conventions and how do they represent social groups or issues?
From the onset, our project tackles issues confronting LGBT characters, a community that is all too often stereotyped, irresponsibly or unilaterally displayed or altogether neglected by the media. As I discussed in a post while I was still researching the seed that would eventually blossom into Alma's Angel, I found that gay men have six times the media representation as lesbians and 18 times the representation of bisexual characters. (To make matters worse, gay men themselves represent only 3.6% of all media portrayals). In our production, not only do we document just how the scourge of bullying drives LGBT youth to sometimes suicidal measures, but we humanize and flesh out characters so that they attain a dimensionality beyond their sexual orientation of lesbianism and bisexuality. Also, as a Latina myself, I am continuously irked that though we are the fastest growing ethnicity in the United States, Hispanic characters comprise only three percent of appearances on television, and often as the sidekick or the confused, doofusy foreigner, or for women, the sexual firecracker. Alma Rodriguez, the instigator of the events in our film, is Hispanic, and she is certainly not maligned as a sideline character.
2. How do the elements of your production work together to create a sense of ‘branding’?
We extensively researched our target demographics within the film and incorporated elements that will help brand the production to our viewers. For one thing, our production centers around a very familiar realm in the lives of the 15-28 year olds in our audience: high school. This is a domain and setting that taps into the collective conscience of this particular audience. Our inclusion of music such as Daughter's "Medicine" also taps into our core demographic as an indie band that would appeal to this audience. Our A-level project, which we will start in the course of the next week, will also brand the film to our audience in a way that incorporates social media, an attractive web presence and website, and dramatic trailers that establish the mood of the film. 
3. How do your products engage with the audience and how would they be distributed as real media
Our product serves as a rallying cry for our audience to be sympathetic and supportive to the LGBT community. Rather than merely being a piece that would be viewed by an individual and quickly discarded from memory, we hope to evoke a form of advocacy that will enable viewers to share their experience in online forums and platforms, and donate to a real Alma's Angel foundation (much like Breaking Bad's "Save Walter White" page raised real-life money for cancer research). Plus, media such as cast interviews and photographs will be distributed exclusively online, allowing audience members to engage with our product even after seeing our film in theaters.

4. How did you integrate technologies – software, hardware and online – in this project?
As I mentioned before, our film would be showcased in theaters and later distributed through Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc., but it will feature exclusive web content that will enable audiences to engage along a spectrum of converged media, available digitally on computers and mobile phones alike. Online content, including cast interviews, background information about the movie, and a real-life Alma's Angel movement, will be featured on a website and across Social Media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat to allow our viewers greater access to our product.

Attaining music right is not rockin', and it sure isn't rollin' either

Our project has essentially turned into the waiting game. With the filming and editing completed, we are now simply waiting to obtain the rights to Daughter's "Medicine." What I didn't imagine was how infuriating the process could be - I sent my request a full week ago and have yet to hear back from Glassnote Music, the production company, since our last correspondence. With the final product's deadline looming, Elanna and I are growing a little desperate for their response.
The last communication I received was from a Mr. Chad Brown, who asked that we fill out a Licensing Request Form.
After asking for personal details such as my phone number, address, and name, the Licensing Request Form entailed answering the following information:
Recording/Song: “Medicine”
Artist: Daughter
Name of Production: “Alma’s Angel”
Distributor/Production Co: N/A
Production Budget: $0
Music Budget: $0
Logline/Brief Synopsis: After hearing about the suicide death of an LGBT classmate, high school junior Eleanora Jones sparks a movement, Alma’s Angel, to combat homophobia in her school and beyond.
Detailed Scene Description: Low angle shot of ALMA’S BEDROOM with the door closed. We see ALMA open the door (alcohol in hand), walk in, and close the door as she tosses her backpack to the side, taking swigs from the bottle. MUSIC starts playing. She kicks off her shoes and walks into the bathroom, turning on the tub. She then goes to the medicine cabinet and pulls out several pill bottles, downing an indeterminable amount from each, using the alcohol to help them go down. By this time, the tub is full and she steps into it, fully dressed. She closes her eyes, sinks until she’s almost under the water, and the screen fades to black.
Please attach script pages, if possible. Two minute opening:
Director: Lisa Burgoa and Elanna Heda
Cast: Lisa Burgoa
Type of Use
[e.g. background vocal/instrumental, end title, etc.]: Background vocal/instrumental
Type of Media
[e.g. all media, film festival, television, DVD, online, etc.]: Two minute film opening for school project
If DVD, number of units:
If for advertising, what brand, product:
Are you monetizing online [e.g. YouTube Partnerships or Monetization]?: No
Duration of Use [in minutes/seconds]: Two minutes
Term [e.g. the length of time of the license]: 8 months to 1 year
Territory [e.g. worldwide, North America, US, etc.]: United States
For the most part, completing the licensing form was much easier than I imagined, though Elanna and I had reservations with the last two questions. We weren't completely sure how long our term would be, so we assumed eight months to a year would be within the realm of reason. We also hesitated before putting the United States as the territory, since we know that our final product would be most heavily scrutinized in the United Kingdom, but eventually we agreed that would be our safer bet.
So far, waiting for music licensing has taken more time than the filming and editing of our production combined. Tomorrow, March 31, was the deadline I imposed for their response - if Glassnote Music does not respond by tomorrow, it is time to adopt to reach out again, and maybe ask Daughter's European label, 4AD, for their permission instead.
If anything, this portion of the project has taught me to adopt me that creative projects, and probably professional ones, too, are bogged down by obstacles such as bureaucratic  roadblocks and paperwork. Now that the more fun component of our project is over with, we are forced to contend with the surprisingly complicated process of attaining rights  to music.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On a high note: Planning our music

As one can probably notice, right now our production suffers from a deficit of sound. Sure, there are a few smattering here and there: my footsteps, pills rattling in their canisters, the water running from the bath's faucet. But other than those scattered noises, we need something more substantial in order to compensate for our lack of dialogue: a musical score.

This was something Elanna and I have discussed for a while, but now with our film edited together, the matter needed to be resolved. From the onset, Maria Mena's "Internal Diaogue," Daughter's "Medicine," and "Down" by Jason Walker were some of Elanna's favorites.

As I let Elanna know, "Medicine" was my favorite. Besides the fact that its lyrics deal with trying to procure an unhealthy solution to problems, it's haunting melody and soft flourish are much more appropriate for this sensitive scene than the other two, which strike me as a little more explosive than "Medicine"'s more muted solemnity.

I was smitten with the prospect of "Funeral" by Band of Horses or "Trouble" by Cat Stevens, but Elanna and I reached the mutual agreement that "Funeral" had a tune that was tad too upbeat, and that "Trouble" was too "folk-sy" for our target audience.
So that settles it: "Medicine" by Daughter will be our background track. After a bit of sleuthing online, I discovered that Glassnote Records was the band's production company, and their FAQ page directed us to a Mr. Mark Nichols for licensing of music of our project. I wrote him an email - hopefully, he gives us the clear soon and we can proceed with our project.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The camera (sort of) loves me: First day of filming

I can say in all honesty that I almost gave my life to this project. As in, I just about drowned during my first dalliance with the camera. Here are a few clips from the excruciating experience (note the pained expression):

 The things we do for art.

The rest of the filming was far more fun, even with the occasional mishap (i.e. that time when I accidentally kicked a shoe into Elanna's face).

One thing I  definitely did not anticipate was how many shots the most insignificant shot would take. For a millisecond shot of me turning on the faucet of a bathtub, we did three different takes. For a measly shot of me taking a (fake, of course) swig from a bottle of rum, we tried four different shots at different angles.

And of course, these were among our simplest shots. More complex sequences took even longer.

Continuity was another matter to contend with. As a viewer, I always took it for granted that in each shot a character would be holding a bottle in the same hand, or that they would be standing in the same exact spot. While staging theses scenes, we had to shoot and reshoot and reshoot, pouring over our footage to make sure we didn't commit and grievous from faux pas.

The most interesting aspect of our filming was that we were afforded with the opportunity to use a mirror in our shots, lending itself to creative frames and compositions (however, not without the added challenge of concealing the camera from the mirror). Here are a few of my favorites:
Overall, I'm rather proud of our finished product. Here is a tentative version, sans post-production effects, music, and finer editing:

It's official... We're overscripted

Elanna urged me not to share our entire script a few posts ago, but seeing as she posted it on her blog, I'm disclosing it below. As evidenced by our first filming session on Friday (which I would share, except my partner's phone cannot send large files to my email), Elanna and I grossly underestimated the duration of our first scene.

Two minute opening:
Low angle shot of a girl’s bedroom with the door closed. We see a Alma open the door (alcohol in hand), walk in, and close the door as she tosses her backpack to the side, taking swigs from the bottle. MUSIC starts playing. She kicks off her shoes and walks into the bathroom, turning on the tub. She then goes to the medicine cabinet and pulls out several pill bottles, downing an indeterminable amount from each, using the alcohol to help them go down. By this time, the tub is full (#MovieMagic) and she steps into it, fully dressed. She closes her eyes, sinks til she’s almost under the water, and the screen fades to black. Over the black screen, we hear a casual news report about HAPPY EVENT.

The Grayson family is very grateful they were able to find Spot after a large group from the community got together to search for him on Friday. They will be offering free ice cream at their parlor, Berries and Cream, tomorrow, Sunday March 12, to everyone who helped out.

Cut to ELEANORA making eggs in the kitchen.

In other news, 17-year-old Alma Rodriguez committed suicide last night.

ELEANORA whips around, dropping the egg-y whisk on the ground. Report takes over the screen.

The Harrison High school junior was reportedly being bullied at school for being gay and died from drowning herself in her bathtub.

ELEANORA walks forward, grabbing the remote.

A memorial service for close family and friends will be held on Tuesday at 4 in the Rodriguez's home. The school has refused to comment, and our hearts and thoughts go out to the family during this troubling time.

ELEANORA shuts the TV off, then clutches the remote to her chest. Fade to black.
Open to ELEANORA at the door to RODRIGUEZ house. She knocks. SISTER opens door.

Hi, my name’s Eleanora. I, um, I went to school with --

This is for friends and family only. We don’t want anyone from school here.

RAINA starts to close door.

Wait, please,

RAINA stops.

I know, I understand. I just wanted to say that I thought Alma was really brave. She put up with a lot of shit just for being gay, and I always admired her. I’m bi, and I never really told anyone and she just… I dunno. It’s my last year, and I want to make sure that what happened to your sister never happens to anyone again. Or, y’know, at least try.

Listen, I really appreciate that, but now isn’t the time. I just can’t right now.

I understand. I’ll go. I just wanted you to know.

RAINA closes door. ELEANORA walks back to her car, closes the door, sighs, and turns the car on. Cut to TITLE SCREEN.

Just filming the first sequence - essentially Alma drowning herself in the bathtub - took a total of a minute and 40 seconds out of our two minute intro. Obviously, we need to reevaluate exactly what we are doing. Granted, that's before we truly refine the refine the editing of our scene, but it's still such a substantial chunk of time that I find it might be better to just include the suicide in the opener. 

I'm not too thrilled at the prospect, since that would mean scrapping all of the dialogue in our script, along with two other vital scenes, but it looks increasingly like that's what we are going to have to do. Since for the A-level component of the project we have two film two trailers, I think perhaps we could still film  the next two scenes in our script and rehash them for our trailers.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Character Sketches

After formulating the script,we decided to set about fleshing out our characters. Part of the process was formulating their personalities, establishing backstories, and even researching the etymology of their names (my favorite!). Below are some of the character sketches Elanna and I came up with:

  • Eleonora Lee (or Nora, for short). We arrived at this name after researching "light," seeing as Nora will enlighten her community. We want her to be compassionate, spunky, though a little hot-headed, and driven by her desire to spread awareness about LGBT rights to carry on Alma's legacy and come to terms with her own bisexuality.
  • Alma Rodriguez - her name means "soul" in Spanish, reflecting her serenity and Hispanic descent. Though she was very courageous in being openly gay at her school, eventually the inhumanity and cruelty of her classmates drove her to suicide. We want Alma to be more than just a name dropped throughout the plot, so we will detail aspects of her personality throughout our production - her love of sunflowers, her affinity for large dogs, her self-consciousness about her smile. 
  • Reina Rodriguez - As Alma's older sister, she always  served as her protector. Though reserved and somewhat sullen, her inner sunshine peeks through the cracks and she demonstrates a formidable strength even in the face of the scrutinizing attention paid to her family in the wake of a horrible tragedy. 
We figured coming up with character traits will help us advance the plot and also direct the actors in our production. Though we still haven't cast our actors, knowing the character traits will definitely help us cast our actors.

Idea, plot, script? Check, check, check.

At this point, the planning process of our project is on the verge of completion. We have the entire script drafted - after careful deliberation and quibbling over each scene, we finally have a clearer picture on what we are going to film.

Here are some pivotal scenes:

Above, our character Eleonora discovers the death via news station about the suicide death of a fellow LGBT student. We wanted to inject a degree of sorrow for the death and stray from an overly melodramatic, especially since we need to tread lightly in order to remain sensitive but still make a statement. Rather than explicitly have her cry or have an outpouring of emotion, this was a viable alternative to have her break down and cry - we figured her dropping an egg whisk showed the point without being overly heavy-handed.  

This was another vital part of our script, as it helps advance both the character of Eleonora and Reina (who is written as "SISTER" in the script). It adds a motivation and a drive to Eleonora - an element of compassion that endears her to the viewer and gives her a driving cause - and also helps capture the grief of a family reeling from an untimely death. Alma, the girl who kills herself, becomes palpable - she is not just a name tossed around, but a girl who touched the lives of members in her community.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015


The other day in my Lit class, as we were trudging through Hamlet, I encountered a passage that was so profoundly beautiful it seized me by the heart and wouldn't let go the entire rest of the day.
It was the drowning death of Ophelia, rendered in Shakespeare's most beautiful plume. At once I was stricken by how serene the setting was, and how ambiguous the nature of her death seemed to be - was it a tragic accident, or a suicide by a woman driven mad by grief?
This breath-taking pre-Raphaelite painting in my Literature textbook was especially intriguing to me.
To me, this helps resolve one of the central struggles I encountered with our film, which was how best to tastefully, sensitively, but also artistically capture the suicide of a character in the opening seconds of a film (all discussed in my previous post). We had considered a death with pills, but I had qualms that capturing that would be too heavy-handed or lengthy, as the effects of an overdose are not immediate.
I also am compelled to pursue this route because it provides an opportunity to express two visual metaphors. Floating in a blue pool, with the tendrils of her hair flowing around her and her white clothes billowing in the water, the appearance of the character would seem like an angel floating in the blue ether of heaven. This would help confirm to the viewer the nature of a character's death, but place the image to the viewer's interpretation:  did she find the solace in the afterlife that she couldn't find in the terrestrial plane?

The other metaphor lies with the fact that LGBT youth are "drowning" in a climate of prejudice and persecution, suffocating under the pressure to repress their identity. The drowning presented in the opening seconds is a visual representation of the inundation of emotions that LGBT youth often have to experience.
While doing research for my project, I recalled a movie I had watched a couple of years ago: Harold and Maude. Though the film was a dark comedy - completely different from the genre we are tackling - it deftly addressed the issue of suicide. It's opening sequence, which implies the death of a character, Harold, through hanging, has an understated elegance which was appreciated by me and Elanna, after I showed it to her.

Though in retrospect the sequence runs an overly long, the effective use of a long shot, the shadowy, dim lighting, the obstruction of the character's face, and the juxtaposition of Cat Steven's jovial soundtrack with the melancholic, morbid nature of the scene all make for an interesting take on the taboo topic of suicide.
Another clip I shared with Elanna was a short film I stumbled upon a couple years ago while googling my name (yes, how narcissistic, I know). Titled "my name is lisa," the production is visibly amateur, though the acting is phenomenal. What compelled me to revisit this piece was not only its very delicate, sensitive tread on an issue as painful as Alzheimer's (something we want to emulate with our own production's serious subject matter), but its creative use of film techniques such as long shots. Elanna suggested we use a webcam for some parts of our production to simulate a video diary as our protagonist launches her online movement, and I find that this production very creatively established scenes, dialogues, interactions, and insights into a character's mind within that very limited scope.
Elanna, however, was unimpressed.
And, finally, all though this might be a tad bit premature as we haven't even started filming our AS level component, I started doing research on our A level component, which will be two trailer for our film. Since our trailers will be dramatic and feature the rise of a social movement, I thought NO, a 2012 Chilean movie about an ad company's attempt to usurp the dictator Augusto Pinochet, captured the revolutionary mood, call to action, and yet dramatic tone that our own production could model itself after.


I have to admit, this project may be one of the most daunting I have ever undertaken.  It's all I could do to not have a panic attack while combing through the rubric.  But my more optimistic partner, Elanna, succeeded in reassuring me of our competence - at least for now.

Already from the onset of the project, we had reached common ground with our creative visions. Both Elanna and I agreed we were more keen on exploring the dramatic genre, specifically dealing with the issue of bereavement after the tragic death of a child. However, my idea (which was so embarrassingly bad and fantastically melodramatic I hesitate to describe it, even here) was promptly discarded after Elanna helped me come to my senses, so we formulated a plot synopsis more in vein with her idea.

To give a highly abbreviated summary, our plot concerns a community left reeling when a 16 year old LGBT student commits suicide after being subjected to horrendous bullying at school. This rouses the anger of another LGBT student at her school, who embarks on a mission to stir a social movement - akin to It Gets Better or The Trevor Project -  in an effort to create a more accepting atmosphere for all sexual orientations. Our film - though not, for obvious reasons, our two-minute excerpt - would tackle the inborn prejudices that our protagonist would encounter along the way, including the bigotry of hyper-conservative parents and the cruelty of fellow classmates.

One of our principle motivators in pursuing this project is definitely due to our shared disillusionment with popular media representation of LGBT characters. As represented graphically below, the proportion of queer male and female characters skews more male in primetime programming, and though studies show a larger percentage of African American and Latinos identify as homosexual, the vast majority of media representation is "disproportionately white, male, urban and wealthy."


The demographics of television characters' sexual orientations, from "Pop Culture Freaks." (findings)
Source: Pop Culture Freak

By having our story line pivot on two central female LGBT characters, we are straying from the beaten path dominated by the flamboyantly metrosexual, white gay male portrayal. As we flesh out our characters further, Elanna and I are similarly adamant about not resorting to stereotypes levied by media on female queer characters, such as the butch, flannel-wearing man-haters. No, what we want to cultivate is a character whose sexual orientation is an aspect of a multi-faceted identity - giving her distinct idiosyncrasies, loves, desires, habit, and pet peeves that comprise a character who happens to be LGBT, and not an LGBT character.

Another challenge we face is tastefully and sensitively depicting the suicide of a teenager. Quite frankly, these discussions veered into the territory of the grievously uncomfortable, especially when we discussed which type was the best to express cinematically. We weighed the options; statistically, women tend to commit suicide in ways less immediately lethal (such as overdoses or suffocation through carbon monoxide), while men display more violent means of ending their lives (hanging and gunshot wounds).

In a way, I feel like we have a responsibility to the LGBT community and the real-life teens who have actually committed suicide due to their orientation to portray these deaths in a sensitive, nuanced way. This is an issue endemic to this population; LGBT teens are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as their straight counterparts. Given the suicides that captured national attention (or, more tragically, the ones that didn't), Elanna and I have to find a tasteful way to contend with this issue.
Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year old American transgender girl who committed suicide in 2014. Source: ABC News