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Yes, you can make an Oscar-nominated film with a MacBook Pro on your couch

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Filmmaking is a lot different than it used to be, and we’re not talking about the Golden Age of Hollywood between the late Twenties and early Sixties; the film industry has transformed hugely even in just the last 20 years. Not only has film (yes, actual film) been replaced by digital cameras, but the way movies are edited has also changed.

Gone are the days when editing had to be done in an expensive studio. Computers are powerful enough these days to handle top-of-the-line video editing software that’s capable of producing Oscar-worthy films. Don’t believe us? We talked to Oscar-nominated director Shawn Christensen about directing, writing, and starring in his film Curfew. A man of many talents, Christensen, spoke to us about editing the film in his living room with a MacBook Pro, how technology has changed filmmaking, the kind of tech he uses, and how he went from a rock star to a director.

Shawn ChristensenDT: You were in a band before (Stellastarr*) before, so how’d you become a filmmaker? Is the band still active?
Shawn Christensen:  Not really, no. We never officially broke it off, but we don’t rehearse or make music, at least right now… When I signed a record deal [in 2003], I was an aspiring actor, and I was just booking commercials and I was represented by a couple agencies, and that was what I was going to do. When Stellastarr* happened it was kind of the thing where life happens when you’re making plans, so I was in a band for a while, and when I was on tour with the Killers – they were opening for us, no one knew who they were yet – I could see that they were a great band and that they were going to be huge … and I could see that we weren’t. So, I started dabbling back into film again and writing screenplays and a couple of them sold. That’s kind of how I got into filmmaking. Now I’m not so much into filmmaking; I’m into directing.

What is the first piece of tech you touched today?
My iPhone, I use it as my alarm to get up.

Curfew’s the only live-action short nominated for an Oscar that’s an American production. What’s the reasoning behind that? Is it more expensive to do things in the U.S.? 
Funny you say that, since Curfew’s the cheapest film out of all of them. It’s actually expensive for me personally since it’s out of pocket, but Curfew comes in because of all the music I had to pay for, it comes in at about $50,000, but the other films are at least $150,000 and up. A couple of them are U.S. filmmakers that went out of the country to film their films and they have subtitles, and aren’t U.S. productions ultimately. I don’t know what the short film branch is thinking, if they want to be more worldly or if they just want to go with their hearts, but ultimately it seems that only one U.S. film seems to make the cut every year.

What’s on your work desk?
A mess. I have my wireless keyboard, the laptop, a bunch of Cheez-It crumbs from snacking at four in the morning. I don’t use a mouse anymore. I use the touchpad on the laptop mostly. I don’t know why. It’s pretty simple. 

What kind of computer do you use?
I use a MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM. I literally just use it edit my movies, my two short films that I made in the past year. I basically edit them on my laptop with a 30-inch [Apple] monitor attached to it. 

How would your computing setup change given the large budgets that an Oscar win would theoretically give you access to?

That’s a good question, because I find with my little laptop and with the amount of RAM that I have, I find it fairly easy … I can make a whole feature on it with no problems. I guess if it was a feature, I would probably kick up the RAM to 8GB or 12GB, and of course we’d have a lot more cloned drives going on because there’s a lot more information. And we’d probably – because we’re doing Curfew as a feature and we’ve talked about the editing suite – we’ve talked about having two setups, very similar to what we have now: two laptops, two 27- or 30-inch monitors, and connected with a row of hard drives, 2TB drives would probably be enough to take care of the whole thing.

So that’s your dream setup? That’s not what you’re using right now?
No, well, I edited Curfew like in my bedroom or in my den on my laptop. But if I was to do a feature and there’s money behind it and we want to make it as professional and well done as possible, yeah we would take out an office and probably put two stations up.

I’m assuming you’re using external hard drives to back up your work. How many do you use? 
With Curfew, it’s overkill honestly; I think I have about five drives ranging form a half terabyte to two terabytes that have pretty much the whole project on them, or at least most of the project on them, but I don’t need them. It’s just like wasted space. I should just erase three of them and use them for something else.

During this process have you lost a chunk of work or have there been any technical errors? Did your computer ever crash?
No, not yet. Maybe I’m a little compulsive about backing it up. I don’t think I’ve lost anything where I’ve had to actually resort to a backup. At least on these last two short films. 

It sounds like it went pretty smoothly in terms of the editing.
As far as the actual workflow, yes. But as far as the time it took to do it, it took me a few months to put it all together, I had another editor in L.A. who did the first couple cuts, and then I took it from there. As far as the workflow, there weren’t any issues; it was just a matter of making it the best film possible. Because in the end, all that stuff’s just a tool, you kind of have to use the tool to the best of your ability, so my problems weren’t in the technology side, my problems were in the fact that I didn’t get certain shots I should’ve got and that sort of thing.

What kind of software do you use for editing?
I use Final Cut 7 for these last couple of films, and also I use Logic. There’s a song in Curfew that I had to write, and I used Logic for that.

Is that the song in the bowling alley scene?
Yeah, it’s just something I built onto Logic and made it as long as I needed it on the movie, then threw it in the film and didn’t think about it until now, when people are actually requesting the song, so now I have to go back into logic and remix it and finish it and write lyrics and that sort of stuff. There was another song in the movie and the band wouldn’t give me the rights to use it … I’m a sitting there in front of Logic making beats and making baselines, and guitars, and synths and just trying to get the other song out of my head and make something that a little girl would want to dance to. It was actually pretty tough to be honest.

Has the availability of super powerful computers lowered the barriers to entry in film and made it more competitive? It used to be that you needed a huge budget to make a good movie, and with you, you can make it on a MacBook. How do you feel about that?
It’s good and bad, because HD is really what we’re talking about here. The HD technology has really changed everything. It used to be that if you wanted to make a film, a 35mm film, that camera is very expensive. But now you can make films that look like 35mm, and the cameras are really, really cheap. The Canon 7D and the Canon 5D are go-to cameras at this stage. But it’s bad because there’s such access to it, and you also get a lot of crap. It’s good because more artists could express themselves who didn’t have the means before, so it’s mostly good.

But I think my first short film, more of a student film, was shot on film, but we edited it on a Mac tower. I think it’s been easy for me. For example, for HD in filmmaking you can do a hundred takes and not really have to worry about it outside of time consumption; but in film, you only have so much on the reel, and you have to swap out the reel, and you only have so much footage every second that goes by you’re causing money to go out the window, whereas with [digital], you can do as many takes as you want to get what you need and you can play it back right there the second you do it. 

When you travel, what’s in your bag, gadget-wise?
My laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad. Those are the three things that I pretty much take everywhere.

Is there anything on your gadget wish list right now?
Yes, the iPad Mini. It’s the perfect size.  When I held the Mini, the iPad suddenly felt like a light laptop, whereas the iPad Mini felt like its own entity. The size of it and the thinness of it felt like its own thing, whereas the iPad to me, I have it and I love it, but it always feels like it’s laptop light. The iPad Mini … I can’t associate it with anything, it’s just its own thing.

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Jennifer Bergen
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