Monday, March 24, 2008

Lloyd Kaufman On Low Budget Software Development

Lloyd Kaufman isn't a programmer, technologist or CTO - he's a maker of independent films, and the author of the racy*, yet useful, book Make Your Own Damn Movie. He is by all accounts an expert at making movies on a tiny budget. I think much of his advice on that topic also applies to doing software development on the cheap.

Here are some lessons that I think Lloyd would offer to the software world (apologies ahead of time Lloyd, if I'm wrong on these). Pardon some of the language/content below - it's simply not possible to quote meaningful chunks of his text without hitting on something that's not family friendly.

  • Advice:Finding Investors. Kaufman has one primary rule for finding investors to his movies:
    Tell everybody who will listen about your brilliant idea for a kick-ass movie
    Translation: Stop thinking of individuals as those who want to steel your idea, and instead, think of them as people who might want to get involved and actually invest in it.
  • Advice: Hiring. The first job Lloyd requires you fill in your movie isn't the lead actor, cinematographer or sound guy - it's the Production Manager.
    [The Production Manager] can be a tough slot to fill because whoever does this job actually has to work and not just dick around being "artistic" all day. The production manager has to solve problems. If you're shooting a scene that requires a six-foot jadedonkey phallus, the production manager has to make sure it's there when you need it. If you're shooting on location, the production manager has to make sure everybody knows where it is, how to get there, what time people need o be there, how long you're allowed to shoot there, every last detail.
    Translation: Imagine if every software development project had a person who's primary goal was coordination of the team? He insured everyone had the same version ofPhotoshop , a desktop computer maxed out with RAM and that the schedule didn't call for a release on the same day half the team is on vacation. There are plenty of places to skimp on a project - this isn't one of them.
  • Advice: Fake It.
    Should you let the budget that you've attained dictate the grandiosity of your screenplay that you write? Common knowledge says that if you've got a five-dollar budget, you shouldn't attempt to recreate the roman coliseum games in all their splendor and glory. But common knowledge is for assholes. I say that if that's your story you really want to make, a box of assorted animal crackers can be bought for $.98, monofilament can be pilfered from your Dad's fishing kit, and those little green army men can be easily turned into gladiators with the aid of a handy disposable lighter.
    Translation: Back in the day, a mapping application might call for you to hire GIS experts and license thousands of dollars worth of data - today, you can rig up an application using Google Maps for free. Get creative.

  • Advice: Be Prepared For The Dip.
    Without a doubt [pre-production] will be the most stressful time as a filmmaker, which puts it high in the running for the most stressful time in your life. It is during these last few days that details will mount up. But, instead of your project beingsubservient to your will and control, it will feel as if you are a slave to your own creation. You will see this gigantic avalanche of problems and details rumbling toward you and your first inclination will be to run away. After all, you haven't actually shot anything yet. You can still pull the plug on this whole enterprise, return your investors' money and go back to the nice, quite life you led before you had the insane idea to make this damn movie in the first place.
    Translation: Expect a Dip in your project, especially when the project details are really starting to show themselves. Software always seems simple when you talk about it, and gets complicated when you actually start building it. Know this. Expect this.
  • Advice: Simplify It.
    If a character in your film is a homeless one-armed black castrato with a Ph.D. and a facial tic, there is a person out there who is that character. In Hollywood, they'd pay Mel Gibson $20 million, erase his arm withCGI, and hire teams of black castrati and astrophysicists to train him for 6 months...[and] his performance would never come close to the real thing
    Translation: Don't demand a Enterprise Cluster with infinite growth capability and a 8 tier architecture, when a $5.00/month sharedPHP server will do the trick.
  • Advice: Tweak It.
    Many screenwriting books will refer to a screenplay as "a set-in-stone blueprint for your film." Adhering to this definition is one of the biggest mistakes first-time filmmakers make. They think that ifsomething's in the script, they have to shoot it, even if it sucks. In reality, the script should be a mere flow chart of your film, one of most flexible aspects of the production. The script isn't finished until you're literally unable to make any more changes; that's when you've struck your composite print.
    Translation: As a low budget development effort, the main advantage you have over the big guys is your ability to change on the fly. It means that nothing is set in stone, and everything is up for tweaking.
  • Advice: Peer Review It.
    The hardest thing to do in the entire editing process may be letting somebody else watch your movie in its raw, unfinished state. Unfortunately for your ego, it's one of the most important things you can do. It simply isn't possible for you or anybody who's been working closely with you on your project to keep watching the movie with fresh eyes. You're going to discover what works and what doesn't (or if anybody can even understand the damn thing at all) and that means sucking it up and bringing in an outsider.
    Translation You'll need to do usability testing to make sure your brilliant software package, is in fact, brilliant. And you'll want to beta test. This also means having other developers look at your code, which is where your ego can really get bruised. But it's definitely worth it, as anything from stylistic improvements to gaping security holes can be discovered this way.
  • Advice: Market It.
    The sad truth is that we cannot teach you how to sell your movie. Troma has staggered on for three decades now and much of our success has had to do with the fact that we owned the negatives to our films. This allowed us to derive immediate and continued revenue as new technologies came along

    The other major technology to come along in the early 1980s was the home video. As soon as it started to become popular, Jack Valenti and the major studios freaked out and refused to release very many titles, fearing that home video would be the downfall of copyright law. Theyenvisioned a world where everybody and their decrepit grandma would be pirating copies of Ocra, The Killer Whale and bankrupt the studios. Companies like Vestron and Media Home Entertainment rushed in to fill the gap, discovering a huge new market for independent films. While the Hollywood studios did their best to ignore this new development,Troma was able to make an assload of cash selling video rights to movies like The Toxic Avenger and Bloodsucking Freaks to distributors around the world.
    Translation: Look for creative ways to market your software, especially for gaps left by the big guys that aren't being fulfilled.
  • Advice: Enjoy It.
    A lot of people will tell you about the constraints under which they are placed by a low budget. I, on the other hand, have always found it liberating. The more money people put into a film, the more concerned they become over what happens to will find that the more money you have to work with, the less creative freedom you have.
    Translation: None needed.

There's plenty more to learn from the book. And provided you can stomach the raunchy content, I think you'll find it a really enjoyable read. Oh, and it's probably also a useful book if you're actually interested in creating a film, too.

*I'm not sure racy is quite the right description of the book. Maybe NC-17? Whatever the right classification is, this is most certainly a book for adults. Whatever you do, don't buy it for eager 14 year old film making daughter, or you'll have a lot of explaining to do.

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