Seven Production-Design Tips for Low-Budget Filmmakers

Among the most neglected key elements in low-budget films are production design and art direction. That's a problem because production design impacts all aspects of your project. It is the detailed blueprint you follow to make your vision come alive.

I've been fortunate to spend significant time with some of the world's top production designers, and they are all truly amazing people. We formed a group called 5D Institute, which became the World Building Institute, at USC. It's all about immersive film design. Read about it.

Film school students at least tend to make an attempt at overall design, but self-taught independents often are so wrapped up in the story and technical stuff they forget about the aesthetics. You don't have to be a production designer to at least put some thought into what the camera is seeing, over and above the action. My purpose here is encourage you to spend more effort on getting your overall design right without breaking the bank.

Your art department will most likely have the production designer and art director combined in one person, who may also become set decorator and set builder. Do not neglect this part of the project.

Great production design includes aesthetic psychology, my term for studying the impact of design on audience emotional experience. It can seriously aid in your storytelling efforts. Good design works in cahoots with set decoration, lighting, and camera work to create the mood necessary for your story. If you don't do it well, you can easily creep out your audience … and not in a good way.

The environment where your action takes place has a significant impact on the audience's emotional response. Sure, I know. Yopu don't have a budget for it. But that is no excuse. Production design costs you nothing … if you organize it yourself. Set decoration can be done on a shoestring … if you're clever. It may involve some social engineering to get volunteers to do the work and artful negotiation to get the stuff you need.

Early Design Drawing

This is a design from production designer and storyboard artist Greg Chown

I once was assistant art director on an NHK film project that had a fair budget, but the art director loved to scrounge. He managed to borrow — for free, mind you — about 4000 plastic flowers to decorate a child's fantasy garden set. We built the set out of Styrofoam blocks we shaped with rasps and blades. Oh god, that was awful work with styro-grit in your hair and eyes and clothes. It looked beautiful. But that is another story.

Often, simple production design entails securing a location, cleaning it up, putting some pictures on the walls, arranging furniture, and setting up the lighting. Sometimes it involves a little painting. It goes without saying that you need to have permission to paint anything, and you can always paint it back when you're done.

But you don't want to limit yourself to mundane locations that happen to be available, like your brother's apartment, or the University Gym. Try to find places where you can set up and leave up securely for the time you'll be shooting.

Here are seven ways you can increase production values through ingenious production design.

1. Location Scouting
You won't be hiring a pro location scout. Do it yourself.

Getting the right locations is part of your overall production design. I know you have lots of things to do, but this is important. No one knows your vision like you do. Try to give yourself several days to find nearby locations that can be used as is. For example, every city and almost every town has a few real Gothic locations. Be careful of graveyards—as awesome as they can be, people get pissed off if you film there without permission, and that is not easy to obtain. Find churches and get permission. Don't do gross, bloody scenes there. Universities are rotten with Gothic locations used by the big boys — and why not you, too? Just go through channels. If you live in Europe you have awesome locations everywhere.

Who would expect a location like this in Connecticut?  
Who would expect a location like this in Connecticut?

Even if your script doesn't call for it, think about finding interesting locations that won't detract from the action. For example you could have two lovers meeting in front of a lovely Victorian home or by a mountain stream. This sets a feeling for place. There are more cool houses and streams than you'd think, and it's usually a piece of cake to ask the owner if he or she minds you shooting on the sidewalk in front of the house. Parks make interesting places to shoot as well, but if you have recognizable people in the background, you need to get their waiver, especially for kids. Use good sense.

Locations of natural beauty is one reason Vancouver is such a popular place to shoot. But no matter where you live, there are interesting natural places to shoot. Research them. Okay, the Midwest can be a challenge, but there you will find woods and streams, and you may have to make do with a sunset scene in a farmer's field with a horse in the background. That could actually be killer romantic.

Be creative. Consider offering a product placement in your movie for permission to shoot, let's say, in a gorgeous vineyard or amusement park. Having some dialogue in a farmer's market might fit your needs. Perhaps agree to flash their logo or sign prominently in your film. Remember, bad location choices usually lead to audience boredom. They can kill a great performance. Use your head.

2. Build your sets to create the mood you need
If you need a castle, build one. Seriously. For under a grand, you can build an awesome stone castle interior using ingenuity and vacuformed plastic modules and components. There are companies that maintain a stock of vacuformed set pieces. Cool stone walls come in 3.5-by-11-foot lengths. Gothic windows and architectural components can be assembled into believable castle interiors, or barns or caves or even sewer tunnels. With creative lighting, they can give you amazing believability. Here's a link that can get you started looking.

Such prop pieces are available on-line at very reasonable prices. 

Such prop pieces are available on-line at very reasonable prices.

It does help if you don't just paint the stone with whatever paint you can get your hands on. Here's a tip. For stone walls as well as aged exteriors of all sorts, Gesso the surfaces. If you can't afford that, paint them all in flat white. Next, get yourself a collection of alcohol-based shoe dyes. Seriously. You dilute the dyes with alcohol and spray them on the rock. Layer similar colors to indicate sun bleaching on wood. On rock, try layering browns amd grays, and near ground add some green for moss or algae. To imply subtle plant growth in cracks, use model railroad terrain plants.fa688e41d6dc2de1020a960476126c9b

An old but useful trick is to dust all the crevices with black tempera powder, then lightly spray with water. This will add shadow depth. Experiment. I learned by casting blocks of plaster of Paris in rubber molds made for scale railroading, and then making them look real. Experiment.

Another trick I discovered uses iron dust. I got mine from a place that mills truck brakes. They gave it to me free. After painting a faux concrete styro wall, I sprayed on cheap hair spray (don't use the good stuff) and while it was wet I sprinkled some iron dust over it. Then I sprayed the iron with an instant rust solution you can buy in faux finish departments. The results can be amazing. The iron rusts and it runs down the paint, making your prop wall look ancient. This approach is great for horror films. These are just fun examples.

3. Get professional advice
Depending on the kind of set you need, you might want a real designer. Social engineering can come in here very well. You can sometimes get an interior designer to come in and offer you two hours of consultation for a screen credit. You can get a hell of a lot of advice in two hours. You may have to sweeten the deal with a walk on or extra position. I recently paid an excellent designer $175/hour just to come in and offer ideas on how to come up with a Zen contemporary interior look. Remember, this is not a no-budget film. You can do this.

Often, you can get student designers to work with your for their resume. Again, a little charm goes a long way. Offer the same screen credit. It costs you nothing. They can often give you advice on lighting as well. Too many low-budget films give little thought to professional lighting, and it makes a huge difference. We'll talk about color-grading later in this series, but a well-lighted scene gives the color-grader nice material to work with, and your final look will benefit grandly.

4. Use lighting as part of the set design
Invest in good lighting. It can hide a multitude of sins. It's not cheap, but it can be reasonable. Remember, good set lighting sets the mood, directs audience attention, and makes an ordinary set look extraordinary. At a minimum, your DP needs to know the basics of three-point subject lighting and have an eye for it. Work with your DP. You need a grip in charge of lighting, and you need to make sure they have an eye for it, too.Quick Lighting Tips from Full Sail 

Quick lighting tips from Full Sail

Consider atmospherics. In a night scene shot under a street light, enhance the visuals with mist or fog to enhance the light beams. Camera filters can help here. Flares can be added in post, but should be part of the plan up front. The DP can oversee it all, but you need a grip who honchos it. Good lighting can make a bad film fair and a good film great.

Here are some good resources to get you familiar with lighting aspects you may not have considered.

Creative scene lighting.

An excellent 3 point quickie from Full Sail Film School.

And here's a DIY kicker to the video above.

5. Consider shot composition as part of design.
On a low-budget film, people wear different hats. Your DP and director (you?) need to be aware of shot composition at all times. It's part of the overall production design. Tighten up those shots and keep the camera moving, but make sure it has something interesting to look at. That's one reason location is so important. You don't want blank walls and open space in the background while shooting action. Move in for the close shot if the background doesn't serve your purpose. Remember, everything must be focused on the story. A big wood fence behind the actors in a fairly wide shot will not serve you well.

When designing a shot, remember two rules: the rule of thirds and the golden spiral. They are related. The rule of thirds says an image should be mentally divided into nine equal parts. Visualize the scene divided into thirds horizontally and vertically—that is, two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Important key composition elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Aligning your subject with these points/lines creates visual tension and interest. I would add that it also establishes an aesthetic comfort level for the audience. Many cameras have a thirds grid you can pop up.

Keep in mind Fibonacci’s ratio (aka the golden spiral, phi, or divine proportion). You should know this stuff; I'm just reminding you how important it is. If you look at a lot of student and low budget productions you'll notice that people who should know better tend to forget it. Here is a very nice video look at the golden mean on Youtube.

The rule of thirds is really simple to use, but it isn't always the best way to go. It takes an artist to determine which rule to use—and when to ignore it.

Also your shots should be composed with depth in mind. Talking heads against a wall are way too common. You can create atmosphere by focusing on your actors while having mild, slightly out-of-focus action in the background. Keep some perspective lines in mind as you compose your shots.

Juxtaposition can be be obvious and not subliminal. Ironic juxtaposition costs nothing and can seriously add to your film. Off the top of my head, I'm visualizing a road-rage situation where one car has run the other off the road into a field next to a barn. Behind the barn is an auto garage. The word garage is written in very large white block letters on a dark weathered background. But from the camera's POV, The G and A are both blocked by a barn behind the two cars. So all we see in the top right sweet spot is these large white letters, perhaps slightly out of focus: RAGE. Most people won't actually register it consciously, but they will unconsciously and it will add to the tension in your scene. You have to be cunning with these shots. Do not overuse  them and keep them as subtle as possible.RAGE

Brilliance is in the details. Professionals pay attention to all the details, but amateurs rarely do. Push the extra mile. Don't be sloppy. Nobody said making a movie was going to be easy. It definitely is not. That's why there are so many failed filmmakers out there. You don't want to be one, and your key to success is doing everything right.

6. Aesthetic Psychology
This is my term. I'm a psychologist, so I give myself license. But I googled it and there is a journal: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Every successful filmmaker knows that a great film leaves a variety of emotional impressions on the audience. That is by design. It falls into two distinct camps. The screenplay dynamics create emotional responses. But what is often neglected is that the production itself enhances those emotions, as with the RAGE sign. The use of color, noir lighting, positioning of scene elements, scene behavior (yup, scenes can behave—for example, imagine the effect when a downpour begins just as you hit a precise moment in the action.) Just because you are low budget doesn't mean you are low creativity. Do not settle for anything less than fabulous. Cut every scene that isn't exactly what you want. Watch with an impartial eye. What do you think of the way your film looks? Is it intense, exciting, dark, creepy, boring…and was it intended to be what it is? I cannot believe the crap that people put out, thinking it's movie gold.  I want to smack them upside the head; do not be one of them.

So It's probably worth your time to familiarize yourself with some things we have learned about aesthetics and then you can apply this to your Production Design…good ideas here.

If you're interested in further research on this topic, here is an interesting presentation on the psychology of aesthetics.

And then there is this study of neuroaesthetics from Marcos Nadal.


7. Print your props
Rapid advances in 3D printing make it possible to design props in Autodesk 3ds Max or NewTek Lightwave and have them printed via online services. The cost is modest if you don't need real metal, etc. This is a way you can get the exact prop you need. For example, let's say your female lead wears an iconic or mystical pendant. You could go to a jewelry designer and spend a small fortune having one made…or your production design department can draw it up and have a 3D student model it in Max and you send it off to the 3D printing Company.print unique iconic items for your characters to wear. 

Here is an example online resource: http://www.shapeways.com/create

You can print all sorts of weapons, including a light saber. Some companies have tons of props available pre-printed. In fact, the latest version of Robocop wears a 3D-printed suit.

You can send off your 3D designs in .stl format to online 3D printing companies  

The trick is to make them look believable, and that involves weathering in most instances. Google ways to weather objects. In addition to the gesso/stain trick above, it can involve such things as dry-brushing, worn decals, tea stain, paint chipping. The latter can be achieved by painting a base coat, say rusty metal, then spraying with hairspray again — so useful — and then painting on the top coat. Dry with a hot hair dryer. You can then use a metal toothbrush on the dry top coat to chip off bits and pieces, revealing the rusty metal undercoat.

Wrap
These are just a few ideas to get you started thinking creatively. Google is your friend here. My purpose is to inspire you to go deeper into production design on your own project. It's not about big budgets. It's about creative application of what you have and what you can scrounge. It's about thinking aesthetically on each shot. It's about working smart, making the acting, storytelling and technical stuff interact with your created environment to enhance the audience experience.

Okay, I've started working on a piece that's all about sound design. I used to be a sound engineer at American University, and I've been talking to sound professionals as well. I think sound design is absolutely critical to a movie's success, and I have a ton of tips on what you need and how you might do it all.


Previously in this series:
So You Want to Make a Movie
Casting Your Low-Budget Movie

Opening: Insurgent, The Gunman, and Those Danged Zombeavers

This week, another YA franchise sequel opens, Pierre Morel aims to do for Sean Penn what he did for Liam Neeson, and zombie rodents are in very limited release.

Insurgent

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What's it about? "Divergent" protagonist Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) continues to fight the power in this film adaptation of the popular YA book series. Who the devil made it? Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, RED) takes the reins for this installment, bringing cinematographer Florian Ballhaus along for the ride. Editor Nancy Richardson (Warm Bodies) returns to the franchise, but co-editor Stuart Levy (Foxcatcher) is new to the Divergent series. What are the tech specs? It was shot to ARRIRAW with the ARRI Alexa XT rocking Zeiss Master Anamorphics, Angenieux Optimos, and Hawk V-Lite and V-Plus lenses. [IMDb] The DCP is 2K. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 34%. Metacritic: 42/100. Where's it playing? Everywhere, including some IMAX engagements. Will it make any money? Oh yeah. It made more then $4 million last night, and is gunning for a $60 million opening weekend. 

The Gunman

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What's it about? A mercenary sniper (Sean Penn) finds himself on the wrong side of the crosshairs after a high-profile political hit in the Congo. Who the devil made it? Director Pierre Morel is an ex-cinematographer (The Transporter) whose District 13 and Taken stand as two of the most influential 21st-century action movies. Can The Gunman do for Sean Penn what Taken did for Liam Neeson? What are the tech specs? Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano (Non-Stop) shot raw with the ARRI Alexa XT and Red Epic through Panavision C-series lenses. [IMDb.] The DCP is 2K. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 15%. Metacritic: 38/100. Where's it playing? Everywhere. Will it make any money? Well, the reviews and the R rating won't help; it'll be lucky to take $8 million over the weekend.

Zombeavers

What's it about? In the annals of animal-attack horror films, the beaver does not figure as a compelling adversary. However, other animal-attack horror films have not had zombie beavers. Who the devil made it? Director Jordan Rubin's comic cred includes stints writing for The Man ShowCrank Yankers, MTV and an Inception spoof for the Academy Awards. Editor Ed Marx cut Swimming with SharksJeepers Creepers, and a ton of low-budget horror features. What are the tech specs? Online sources indicate DP Jonathan Hall shot with the ARRI Alexa and Angenieux Optimo zooms. HOAX Films was the principal VFX company, but Rubin says the show largely eschewed CG, opting instead for practical beaver puppets from Creature Effects. Is it any good? Maybe! Rotten Tomatoes: 63%. Metacritic: 49/100. Where's it playing? Spotty limited release in 10 theaters from coast to coast, including L.A.'s Los Feliz 3 and New York City's AMC Empire 25. Will it make any money? The ludicrous premise, coupled with a cheerfully ridiculous trailer, should attract a small crowd, at least on digital platforms.

1941

L.A. Repertory and Offbeat: Every career has its ups and downs, and you might think that a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, who's made some of the most commercially successful and critically lauded films of all time — many of them the same movies — would try to forget misfires like 1941, the shambling, uneasy star-studded World War II comedy he made in 1979. Though it at least recovered its costs, the film was a punching bag for critics and has been ungenerously remembered as a flop. Still, 1941 has enjoyed a healthy cult reputation, and growing fan base, over the years. After it was pruned for theatrical release, Spielberg's preferred cut of the film made it to home video, and a recent restoration of that longer version for Blu-ray release led the director to request that the film be once again be made available for exhibition, according to the Los Angeles TimesThis Sunday's screening at the Egyptian Theatre represents the world premiere of the film's "extended edition." Actors Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen and Dianne Kay are slated to attend along with producer Buzz Feitshans, miniatures supervisor Gregory Jein and co-screenwriter Bob Gale.

Trailer NSFW.

New York Repertory and Offbeat: Fans of giallo, that Italian subgenre of often-gory and/or erotic murder mysteries, already know the Anthology Film Archives kicks off its new film series The Killer Must Kill Again!: Giallo Fever, Part 2 this weekend with tonight's screening's of 35mm prints of director Dario Argento's classic thriller Tenebrae and Mario Bava's hugely influential 1971 slasher film A Bay of Blood. Meanwhile, even though we covered the ongoing Required Viewing: Mad Men's Movie Influences film series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens last week, it's worth pointing out Saturday afternoon's screening of a rare 35mm IB Technicolor print of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which recently deposed Citizen Kane on top of the influential Sight & Sound critics' poll of the greatest films ever made.

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Opening: a Remade Cinderella, Tough-Guy Liam Neeson, and a Very Scary Movie

This week, Disney reboots another classic, Liam Neeson takes on another action role, and a coming-of-age horror movie looks at teen sex.

Cinderella

What's it about? Cinderella, forever kind in the face of cruelty from her unloving family, including stepmother Cate Blanchett, meets a dashing stranger in the woods. Who the devil made it? Kenneth Branagh directed, Haris Zambarloukos (Thor) was the DP, and Martin Walsh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) edited. What are the tech specs? It was shot on 35mm film (Kodak Vision3 50D 5203 and Vision3 200T 5213) with the Panavision Millennium XL2 and Panavision Primo, C and G lenses. [IMDb] The DCP is 2K. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 65/100. Where's it playing? Everywhere. Will it make any money? Disney would love to match last year's Maleficent opening at $69 million; this one might fall a little short of that goal with $60 to $65 million.

Run All Night

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What's it about? Hit man Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) squares off against mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), who's gunning for Conlon's son. Who the devil made it? Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Non-Stop), DP Martin Ruhe (The American), and editor Dirk Westervelt (Journey to the Center of the Earth). What are the tech specs? Ruhe shot on film with the Arriflex 435 ES and Panaflex Millennium XL2 with Panavision C-Series, ATZ and AWZ2 lenses. [IMDb.] The DCP is 2K. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 55%. Metacritic: 58/100. Where's it playing? Around 2800 theaters nationwide. Will it make any money? With Taken 3 barely out of theaters, audiences may be suffering Neeson fatigue; the studio will probably tolerate anything over $15 million this weekend.

It Follows

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What's it about? After a young girl gets involved in a sexual confrontation, she is followed by an unknown forceWho the devil made it? Director David Robert Mitchell is known for 2010's The Myth of the American Sleepover. He retains his editor, Julio Perez IV, from that film. What are the tech specs? DP Mike Gioulakis shot with the ARRI Alexa and Red Epic using Cooke S4 lenses. [IMDb.] Is it any good? It's being acclaimed by critics as a creepy classic. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 82/100. Where's it playing? Very limited release. Will it make any money? The upside here is digital platforms, and a VOD release is already set for March 27.

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L.A. Repertory and Offbeat: Cinefamily is screening a new restoration of the classic Powell-and-Pressburger Technicolor opera The Tales of Hoffmann all weekend, but you may as well buy a ticket to see it Saturday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m., when legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, who oversaw the 4K restoration, will Skype in from Taipei for a post-film Q&A. Martin Scorsese and George Romero are huge fans of the film — Romero says they bonded over it back in the day when they were the "only two people" in New York City renting out 16mm copies of it.

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New York Repertory and Offbeat: Schoonmaker Powell is also introducing (via Skype) tonight's 7 p.m. screening of The Tales of Hoffman at Film Forum downtown, if that sounds good to you. Farther uptown, the Museum of Modern Art is wrapping up its Wim Wenders retrospective. And opening tomorrow at the Musum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, is Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, an exhibition that includes sets, costumes, props and more from the series, which starts its final seven-episode run on AMC next month. An accompanying film series featuring the movies that show creator Matthew Weiner required the cast and crew to view kicks off this weekend with Hitchcock's North by Northwest

Opening: Chappie, Unfinished Business, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This week, see robots old and new, check out a highly inessential Vince Vaughn comedy, or revisit the excellent ensemble cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the Second Best sequel.

Chappie

What's it about? A Robocop-style mechanized police force is tasked with taming crime-ridden Johannesburg, South Africa, but the sensitive, empathetic robot prototype Chappie is a lost soul among cyber-warriors. Don't miss the members of South African rap group Die Antwoord in supporting roles. Who the devil made it? Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9Elysium) delivers another sci-fi allegory with his regular DP, Trent Opaloch, and editor Julian Clarke, who is credited along with Mark Goldblatt. What are the tech specs? The primary camera was the Red Epic with Panavision C, E and G lenses. According to IMDb, the Sony PMW-EX3 made some appearances on set, as well. Since this is a Sony Pictures release, theaters will be screening a 4K (4096×1716 scope) DCP. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 30%. Metacritic: 42/100. Where's it playing? 3,000+ theaters. Will it make any money? Look for an opening weekend anywhere between $15 million and $20 million—not too bad for a reported $49 million budget, assuming it plays well oversees.

Unfinished Business

What's it about? Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco embark on a European business trip that goes awry in R-rated fashion. Who the devil made it? Director Ken Scott's last film was the 2013 Vaughn vehicle Delivery Man. Writer Steve Conrad is known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Pursuit of Happyness. DP Oliver Stapleton, BSC, and editors Jon Poll and Michael Tronick are all highly experienced pros. What are the tech specs? Stapleton shot on Kodak motion picture film; the release is a 2K DCP. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 9%. Metacritic: 32/100. Where's it playing? Around 2800 theaters nationwide. Will it make any money? Nope. The studio is looking at an opening of around $5 to $7 million on a reported budget of, ouch, $35 million.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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What's it about? In this sequel, entrepreneur Sonny (Dev Patel) considers expanding his lively retirement hotel to a second establishment. Returning cast members include Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith. Who the devil made it? Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and screenwriter Ol Parker return to the franchise. Ben Smithard (Belle) is the DP and Victoria Boydell (also Belle) edited. What are the tech specs? It was shot with the Sony F65. ("I kind of like to use something everybody else isn't using," Smithard said last year.) Release is a 2K scope DCP. Is it any good? Apparently it's not bad. Rotten Tomatoes: 63%. Metacritic: 51/100. Where's it playing? Some 1,500 theaters. Will it make any money? Analysts are expecting $7 or $8 million, giving this story a much happier ending than those above, thanks to a thrifty budget.

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L.A. Repertory and Offbeat: The American Cinematheque has you covered. If you're in the mood to see a masterpiece, check out Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise tonight or tomorrow night's Powell-Pressburger double-feature of A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus at the Aero in Santa Monica. If not, head to the Egyptian in Hollywood tomorrow night for a special ’80s-animation program of The Transformers: The Movie and G.I. Joe: The Movie (be warned: the latter film is screening on Blu-ray) with filmmakers and voice actors attending in person.

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New York Repertory and Offbeat: The Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual Rendezvous with French Cinema series is a great way to keep up with French film, including many titles you won't see in theatrical release. This year's series kicks off with 3 Hearts at Alice Tully Hall. Director Benoît Jacquot and star Charlotte Gainsbourg will give a free talk in advance of the screening.

Opening: Corpses, Con Artists, and the New Cronenberg

This week, see Will Smith co-star with The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie in a romantic comedy/caper film, check out Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's latest, or watch Christopher Walken do a song and dance in a musical shot by the Prince of Darkness himself, the late Gordon Willis.

Focus

What's it about? Will Smith and Margot Robbie are con man and con woman in a twisty caper film. Who the devil made it? The directorial team of Glenn Ficarra and Jon Requa (Crazy, Stupid, LoveI Love You Phillip Morris) was in charge on set. Xavier Pérez Grobet, known for TV series including LookingMarco Polo, and Enlightened, is the DP. What are the tech specs? It was shot in "Hawk Scope" anamorphic with the ARRI Alexa XT and Hawk V-Lite 1.3x lenses. According to USA Today, it is the first "big Hollywood production" edited (by Jan Kovac) with Apple FCP X, and Apple has posted a detailed look at workflow for the show. The DCP is 2K with 5.1 and 7.1 sound. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 57%. Metacritic: 56/100. Where's it playing? Everywhere. Will it make any money? The R rating ("language, some sexual content and brief violence") may hold it back; analysts are expecting an opening in the low $20 million range.

The Lazarus Effect

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What's it about? Precocious medical researchers (Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, et al.) discover a way to bring dead patients back to life. Who the devil made it? Director David Gelb is best known as the director and cinematographer of the hit 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of SushiWhat are the tech specs? DP Michael Fimognari (Oculus) shot with the Sony F65. Is it any good? Apparently so. Rotten Tomatoes: 15%. Metacritic: 32/100. Where's it playing? Everywhere. Will it make any money? Not a lot, but with a reported $5 million budget and a PG-13 rating, it will turn a profit before the weekend's over.

Maps to the Stars

 

What's it about? A Hollywood acting family has real problems. Who the devil made it? Director David Cronenberg, whose body of work runs the gamut from out-and-out horror to black comedy and satirical psychodrama, directed a screenplay by sardonic L.A.-based novelist Bruce Wagner. What are the tech specs? Cronenberg's longtime DP, Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC, shot 4K raw with the Sony F55 and Panavision PVintage lenses. It's being distributed as a 2K DCP. Is it any good? Rotten Tomatoes: 65%. Metacritic: 65/100. Where's it playing? Spotty limited theatrical release nationwide, plus VOD. Will it make any money? Negligible amounts, even with 2015 Oscar-winner Julianne Moore in the lead. Cronenberg told Indiewire, "It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult …. It's a hard sell."

L.A. Repertory and Offbeat: This Saturday night, director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) joins documentary filmmaker David Gregory at a Cinefamily screening of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's "Island of Dr. Moreau", which tells the crazy behind-the-scenes story of the 1996 sci-fi/horror production starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, from which Stanley was fired after just one day of shooting.

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New York Repertory and Offbeat: Ever seen Christopher Walken do a song-and-dance striptease to "Let's Misbehave?" On Saturday or Sunday, trek to Astoria, Queens, to view a restored 35mm print of Pennies from Heaven from the Academy Film Archive. It's closing out the Museum of the Moving Image's See It Big! Gordon Willis series showcasing the cinematographer's finest work. 


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