Copy That (Part 1)

I’ve had a wide range of bizarre and usually misinformed conversations with people about copyrights. Having just copyrighted my most recent script, I thought maybe I should write a post about it. As with other posts that get into legal matters, this is merely meant as a guide and a primer. If you need legal help with copyrights, please consult a lawyer.

Intellectual Property Rights

Owning physical property, like real estate, is pretty straightforward. There’s only one property at 123 Fake Street in Springfield, California. I can’t be enjoying the ocean breezes of 123 Fake Street in California if I am freezing my butt off in Ontario. But what about something a little less concrete? What about “intellectual property?”

You may have a hardcopy collector’s edition of The Hunger Games trilogy sitting on your shelf in California. I may be huddling with a secondhand, tattered paperback edition in Ontario. But we are both able to enjoy (or slog through) the series at the same time. Why? While the book is a physical piece of property, the story is intellectual property. Its main value isn’t derived by owning the actual book.

Lots of things are intellectual property: books, poems, screenplays, computer code, movies, music, choreography, architecture, photographs, paintings, and sculptures just to name a few. Ownership in these cases has less to do with the physical object than the idea. Catniss Everdeen isn’t real. She’s an idea. You can’t water your garden with The Rain Song. It’s an idea. And you can’t smoke tobacco in The Treachery of Images. It’s an idea (not a pipe!).

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In all of these cases, the original manuscript or recording or painting becomes worth less as more and more copies are made. If I can download The Rain Song to my computer, I don’t need to hunt down Robert Plant to hear him sing it. The real value in intellectual property is being able to produce (and sell) copies or as those of us in the know call it… holding the copyright.

What is a Copyright?

Straight from www.copyright.gov “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” (Well, that was easy.)

Original

It may seem obvious, but copyrights are only allowed for unique works. If I write a screenplay about a modern day theme park full of dinosaurs created out of fossilized mosquito blood, it would be hard for me to argue that I wasn’t somewhat influenced by Jurassic Park. This flip side of this, however, is that copyrights do cover derivative works. Once you invent Jurassic Park or a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or The X-Men, all the spinoffs and sequels are still protected by that first copyright. That’s why movie studios are so interested in “intellectual properties” or IPs, as they say. You can make endless sequels merely by purchasing that first copyright. You can also see how well that initial IP did (say the New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train) before you spend a lot of money turning it into a movie.

Curiously, some things—titles in particular—are too short to be deemed “original” and can’t be copyrighted. Otherwise, someone would just start smashing words together and copyright every title imaginable. Brand specific words like lightsaber or frappuccino, however, can be trademarked, another form of intellectual property protection. That’s how you know the Halloween store’s “Pubescent Frog of Silent War” isn’t official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise.

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(image via: http://www.vorply.com/fail/list/names-of-products-gone-absolutely-wrong/9/)

Work of Authorship

You can only copyright something you’ve actually made. A painting of the ocean? Yes. A picture of the ocean? Yes. An audio recording of the ocean? Yes. A bucket of ocean water? Not so much. And despite what PETA thinks, no, a monkey cannot hold a copyright.

Interestingly, you cannot copyright facts, either. Something that is known to have happened is simply a fact. World War I happened. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The Allies won. And any information published about that is now public knowledge. So why have you heard about companies purchasing “life rights?”

Life rights give the purchaser access to additional information from the subject (a diary, for example), which may not be public knowledge. It also protects the purchaser from being sued for defamation. You can’t sue me for defamation if I gave you the rights to publish my story. You really don’t need life rights for public figures (who have a lot of facts floating around about them), dead people (who can’t sue you for defamation), and dead public figures (who are pretty helpless). Want to claim Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter? You’re gonna be A-okay.

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(image via: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-DVD/dp/B006DZUR5Y)

‘Fixed in a Tangible Form’

This is probably the part where people get most confused. While we’ve been talking about “intellectual property” and ideas, you can only copyright something once it is in a tangible form. You may have a great idea for a Nazis on the moon script, but until you write it down, or film it, or carve the plot into stone, you don’t actually have the copyright for it. Your idea must somehow be fixed—permanently and irrevocably set—into some kind of physical medium.

Could someone overhear you talking excitedly about your “brilliant” Nazis on the moon script, jot everything down on a napkin, and steal that copyright from you? Yes, they could. It would be unethical, but it wouldn’t be illegal.

Another way people describe this is that copyrights don’t actually protect ideas, merely the expression of an idea. Nazis on the moon is an (intriguing and ridiculous) idea. That scribble on the napkin is the “expression” of that idea. It is “fixed in a tangible form.” Now if you don’t have time to “fix” your Nazis on the moon idea by writing the screenplay, you could perhaps write a short story or a treatment and copyright that before you start talking about your idea in public. Then at least the basics of your story and the characters are satisfactorily “fixed.”

And to backtrack briefly, while you cannot copyright a fact, e.g. World War I, you can copyright the original expression of those facts, e.g. The Guns of August or Lawrence of Arabia.

lawrence of Arabia

(image via: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lawrence-Arabia-DVD-Peter-OToole/dp/B0050A2J86/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1517316046&sr=1-2&keywords=lawrence+of+arabia)

How do I copyright something?

The good news is, as soon as you fix your original work of authorship in a tangible form, it is copyrighted. As the author of the work, you have the exclusive rights to copy, sell, distribute, or create derivate works from it. You also have the right to prevent anyone else from doing the same thing. Things start to get weird when someone else tries to claim credit for your work, which is why it’s highly recommended that you register your copyright.

It’s extremely easy and cheap. Simply go to www.copyright.gov, follow the prompts and voila. The United States government has a record of your creation! The only downside is (being the government) they often take a while to get back to you.

If you’re in a hurry, you can register your screenplay with the Writer’s Guild of America. WGA West if you’re west of the Mississippi, WGA East if you’re east of the Mississippi. This is slightly cheaper and must faster, but they apparently destroy all of their files after a few years, so you have to keep renewing it.

I’ve also read about the “poor man’s copyright” several times. Basically, you mail a copy of your script to yourself and leave it sealed, using the Post Office’s postmark date as proof of when you fixed your original work in a tangible form. It is not a substitute for registering your work with the copyright office and according to Snopes, has never actually been tested in court. So in the U.S. at least, you’re better off just registering your work.

That gives you some basics about copyrighting your scripts. Next time, I’ll cover some of the other interesting copyright situations you may find yourself in as a filmmaker. Copy that? Over and out.

Get a Grip!

When all of the credits fly by at the end of a movie, “grip” tops the list of titles that keep people scratching their heads. What is a grip? What does a grip do? (Insert any number of punch lines here.) Grips have a wide range of responsibilities on set. Most of them involve lifting heavy things (sand bags, steel pipe, stands, cameras, plywood, lights, weights…) so these are some of the toughest guys you’ll see on set. But gripping also requires a lot of problem solving and smart working (How do you minimize the amount of heavy things you have to lift?) so grips also need to be well versed in film equipment, knot tying, construction, and physics. When there’s a twenty pound light swaying in the breeze above your actor’s head, you want to be sure the guy that put it there knows what he’s doing. So what exactly is a grip?

Gripping

Gripping is essentially attaching things to other things: attaching a camera to a dolly, a clamp to a pipe, a flag to a stand, a stand to a condor, or, like in this picture below, attaching some transmitters to a Ferrari.

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Although it’s a little hard to see, the camera is on the left of the car, outside the driver’s window on what’s called a “hostess tray.” The grips are using speed rail and short arms to secure it. Look at that nice sturdy triangle they’re building!

Grips use a wide variety of clamps, special film equipment (Cardellinis, cheeseboros, apple boxes, elephant ears, ducks bills, etc.), rope, ratchet straps, screws, and tape to make this happen. Of course, you want to be sure you’re using a nice soft suction cup (not a screw gun) on the Ferrari. You’ll also need to be sure the suction cup is strong enough. How heavy is the transmitter? How much wind resistance will it create? How fast is the car going? Some jobs require impromptu carpentry, building platforms for gear or people.

Once the gear is set, it also needs to be secured with ropes or safety chains. Anything that creates a lever needs to be counter-balanced with weights. Stands need to be weighed down with sandbags. And that brings us to the grip department’s second, but perhaps more important job.

Safety

Because of all of the heavy things grips schlep around, they’re in charge of safety on set. Obviously they need to make sure all of the lights and cameras are safe. (Will the camera fly off that Ferrari and hit someone? What about the antennas on the transmitter? How secure are they? Did someone remember to remove the tape rolls from the hostess tray?) But because of that, they take on a broader safety roll.

Are there fire extinguishers and fire lanes on your set? Is it too windy for the camera operator to go on the roof? Is the road closed to traffic? Does everyone operating on the dock have a life vest? And while different people have different responsibilities when it comes to safety, it’s ultimately up to the key grip (the head of the grip department) to make sure you have a safe film set. And if he says, “That’s unsafe, we’re not doing it,” well, that’s that.

Removing Light

A grip once explained his job to me this way. The electric department adds light. We take it away. Apart from all of the other things grips are responsible for, they also use a wide variety of flags, nets, and diffusion to control the light the electric department throws around on set. When you see behind the scenes photos, that’s what all of the random stands are for.

grip behind the scenes

(photo from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/monakr-rosemary-behind-scenes-nick-cavalier/)

Grips are extra busy on outdoor shoots. When you’re on a set, the electric department shows some restraint in adding light. Cable is pretty heavy, after all. The sun? Not so much. Here’s a “flyswatter.”

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We started filming a scene in a cloudy parking lot, but had several days of work. Eventually the sun came out. No worries, grip department to the rescue. The flyswatter is your custom built, movable cloud. (The “boom lift” or “JLG” brand name lift that the flyswatter is attached to is commonly called a “Condor” on film sets.)

Moving the Camera

Grips are also the only people who aren’t in the camera department that can actually control a shot. While the camera operator is in charge of panning and tilting, the dolly grip pushes the dolly that the camera is sitting on. It’s up to him (or her, I know some great dolly grips who are women) to get the speed right. In the below photo, the dolly grip is on the far left, pushing the camera.

dolly grip

(photo from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/art-of-behind-the-scenes-photography_us_5734d1b0e4b08f96c18281c4)

Cranes and booms, which may also be built on dolly track, may require the whole department to lend a hand. Pretty neat stuff.

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(photo from: http://www.cinematheia.com/spectre-opening-shot-technical-point-view/)

But Wait, There’s More!

On the last feature I worked on, I had the good fortune to work with the rigging grips. We would show up before the shooting crew to set up larger rigging projects that may take hours or days to finish. The flyswatter was one of our projects. Here is another.

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The electric department placed several lights on the condor. We built the box around them out of speed rail (1.5 inch diameter aluminum pipe). Although steel is stronger, you don’t want to put all of that weight eighty feet in the air. We ultimately covered the frame with blackout cloth and put diffusion on the front creating a very large, very powerful spotlight.

Film crews often black out windows so they can control the quality of light, no matter what time of day it is. Here is a tent we built over a sunroof. First the frame, then with the sides.

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Wind was a major concern. You can see the copious number of sandbags weighing down the corners as well as the hemp safety lines.

Another fun project was blacking out or tenting the entire side of a building. Here’s a time lapse of us removing the tents after the location had been wrapped. For perspective, each of those pipes is twenty feet high.

Another fun project was building this scaffolding on the stage. We used it to throw stuntmen out of a third story window.

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Here’s the same scaffolding after we covered it with green fabric. That allows the visual effects department to match it to the actual location, even though we filmed it in a studio.

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Here’s an electric car known as the “big rig.”

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In the first photo, you can see the camera with the camera operator, key grip (driving), and support crew in the back. There’s also a generator on the front to power all of the gear for the support crew. The grip department built all of the speed rail and secured all of the gear to the big rig.

Here’s another fancy car setup for filming vehicles racing down the road.

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One camera is on the tricycle. Another was on a crane known as the “Russian Arm.” In the first photo, the Russian Arm is the car on the right. The arm is extending to the left with the camera hanging down. In the second, the Russian Arm is the furthest vehicle to the right, the arm extending in front of it with the camera near the sedan’s driver side window.

The director and the support crew sat on the back of the pickup truck. The truck lights the driver and passenger for the scene and pulls the sedan. Again, these vehicles show up to set completely empty. All of the “gak” (that’s a technical term for stuff) was secured in place by the grip department. That’s some serious gripping.

So the next time you want to build a pretty awesome looking fort, blot out the sun, or safely race around the street on the back of a truck, get a grip.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lance

The vast majority of jobs in the film industry are freelance. That means you, as an employee, are only hired per assignment (commercial, TV episode, feature film, mayonnaise training video…). Technically, you work for Paramount or Fox or Comcast NBCUniversal, but only for a few days at a time. The closest comparable thing in the “real world” is an independent contractor. These people own their own businesses and enter into negotiations directly with a client. Roofers, plumbers, electricians, etc. are all often independent contractors.

There is a slight difference, however. Freelancers are technically employed by a company (just for a few days at a time). If an independent roofer falls off of your roof, he’s the one paying the hospital bill. If you fall off of a roof making a commercial, the production company’s stuck with the bill. While it leads to countless jokes and is confusing to literally everyone, freelancing is a distinct form of employment that affects things like filing taxes, applying for loans, and unemployment compensation. (For example, when a project ends, you no longer work for Paramount Pictures, but you weren’t fired.)

Supposedly, the term “free lance” comes from the Middle Ages when unemployed knights would hire themselves out as private ruffians. They were literally “free lances” AKA mercenaries. And that’s probably the most accurate description of what we do.Freelance cartoon 1

 

So what does the world of freelancing look like? Well, here are a few thoughts.

Who’s the Boss?

 People will sometimes describe freelancing as being your own boss. That’s patently false. As a crewmember, your department head is your boss. Even as a department head, the producer or director is your boss. And if you’re in a lucky enough position to be a director, art director, or even producer, the client is your boss. Point is, once you get into the trenches, there will always be someone above you telling you how to screw up your job. Negotiating these conversations (using your skills and experience to achieve what your boss wants) is one of the freelancer’s most critical assets.

The Schedule from Hell

Can you set your own hours as a freelancer? Definitely not. As with your boss, once you sign up for a project, your time is at the mercy of the production company (or client). Working a one day job? Production doesn’t care if they go for eighteen hours because they only need you for one day. You, however, may have another job tomorrow. And if you do have something to do, it’s incumbent on you to find out if your shoot will go for eighteen hours (production will often give you bad information) and have your own contingency plan. (Keep a babysitter on hold, notify tomorrow’s production manager you may be late/exhausted, and sell your concert tickets.) Again, once the job starts, you’re in it for the long haul.

If there’s an act of God (inclement weather, a location falls through, an actor is taken hostage by the mob…) your job may push. Producers understand that you may not be available when this happens, and they won’t hold it against you. But you won’t earn that paycheck…

And of course, once you buy tickets to a sporting event, schedule a vacation, or plan a date, you will inevitably get a call for the most exciting job of your life. My wife’s friends (who have filled in for me on many dates) have started subtly suggesting I purchase more tickets to the ballet.

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Right of Refusal

 The idea of being your own boss and creating your own schedule originates from the idea of that you have a right of refusal. If you work for a normal company and your boss assigns you a shitty job, you can’t really get out of it without quitting. But if you’re a freelancer, you just don’t take the shitty job. Great in theory, doesn’t always work in practice.

For one thing, refusing a shitty job is contingent on whoever calls you for a job being honest about its shittiness. (Unlikely.) But questions like, “Who’s the director?” “How many locations are there?” “How many cameras are there?” and “Who’s the client?” can give you an idea of what the job will be like. (Pro Tip: If the person calling you can’t or doesn’t want to answer your questions, it’s probably a shitty job! I have also noticed that the number of phone calls and emails I receive before a job is directly proportional to how shitty a job will be. Sadly, at a certain point, it’s too late to back out.)

Then there are the market forces. A job you’d never take “in a million years” might not look that terrible in early January when you’ve drained your savings account over the holidays and haven’t been employed for three weeks.

Finally, if you turn someone down enough times, they’re going to stop calling you. That’s not always a bad thing. Some people just attract shitty jobs. But you never know who they’re going to talk to. It’s s small world and a smaller industry…

Rates

 Rates are fairly standard by region and they tend to be higher for freelancers than full time employees. But part of the reason for that is, if you work for eighteen hours Monday, you’re probably not going to be working on Tuesday. It’s also important to clarify rates with new employers before you start. How is overtime calculated? When does it start? Are you paid for travel or mileage? Do you get a prep day? A wrap day? What about a kit rental? Depending on your department, this might be a slider, lights, lenses, filters, microphones, mixers, monitors, transmitters, tables and chairs, tents, props, or vehicles. Union crews don’t have to worry about this as much because everything is covered by a contract (except kit rentals), but it’s up to the crew to make sure the contract is followed.

Also, if you’re starting out, it’s a really bad idea to undercut other crewmember’s rates. It creates a race to the bottom, and you won’t make any friends. You’ll also quickly learn that you’d make more money at Starbucks.

On the plus side, rates are a good way to weed out some of those shitty jobs. For one thing, if a production manager offers you a shitty rate, it’s an indicator that a job will be staffed by inexperienced people with low standards. On the flip side, if you know this will be a shitty job, inflate your normal rate a little. If they say no, don’t take the job. If they say yes, hey, all least you have some extra cash for your pain and suffering.

Paperwork

 If you read this post about taxes, you know what the bulk of freelancing paperwork entails. In addition to that, it’s entirely up to you to worry about heath care and retirement plans. If you get in a union, you’ll at least have a group plan, but you’ll still be amazed at the amount of paperwork required to maintain it. And sadly, there’s no H.R. office down the hall that you can visit on your lunch break.Freelance cartoon 3

 

Speaking of H.R….

It’s hard to talk about the film industry without bringing up Harvey Weinstein. With big personalities, small crews, and offices that constantly change locations and bank accounts, it’s not surprising that the film industry is a high-risk occupation for sexual harassment. The past few months have shown that men are pigs in all industries, but the film industry has no overarching governing body to enforce best practices. All of the unequal power dynamics that existed before Harvey was outed still exist today. Sadly, it’s up to you to look out for yourself.

Should you Freelance?

Depending on what you want to do, you don’t really have a choice. When you envision a film crew on the sidewalk, everyone (grips, gaffers, sound mixers, PAs, etc.) is freelancing. Most scripted TV employs freelancers, but shows with permanent sets (talk shows, game shows, late night shows, multi-camera sitcoms) will have a full-time staff. If you want a full time position, you need to find a brick and mortar studio with an open position. But recognize that it is your workplace and job description from there on out.

The real perk to freelancing is the variety of jobs, people, and places you get to experience. For some personality types, it’s the only way to live. But it is a lifestyle choice more than a job description. Hopefully this post gives you some good food for thought before you join the circus.

P.S. Resumes

The majority of freelance work comes through recommendations. And freelancers get it. If someone asks you for a resume it’ll look pretty weird (usually just a list of credits).Freelance cartoon 4But if you apply for a “real” job after freelancing, you’ve got your work cut out for you. For one thing, most people don’t understand what freelancing is (a euphemism for unemployment?). And most jobs now require you to submit resume information online. How do you type in your employee history when you’ve had twenty-five employers in the last year? It’s not fun (though it’s not impossible). I highly recommend taking a resume writing or career-coaching course if you do go in that direction.

This Is Not a Pipe

Photo manipulation is nothing new, and for anyone growing up in the digital age, Photoshop has morphed from a proprietary digital editing program into a verb. Now, with a few intuitive swipes on a smartphone, you can turn your mediocre vacation photos into vintage “instagrams,” crop, distort, color correct, add text, and even add special effects to your videos. While most of this computing power is used for cheeky fun, everyone holds in their hands the ability to make photo-realistic, doctored images. “It’s only true if there’s pictures.” Not necessarily.

Until recently, audio and video manipulation were only possibly if you had a large team of special effects professionals at your disposal. Doctoring video and audio recording simply took too much computing power. Now, that’s no longer the case. Two new technologies will allow you to manipulate video and audio recordings with the same ease as Photoshop.

The first allows simple drag and drop editing of audio files. The most of advanced of these, Adobe’s VoCo, will seamlessly enter typed text into previously recorded audio files. Without recording any additional audio, you can generate a new file of Neil Armstrong’s famous moon landing that reads, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for your mom.” As long as you have twenty minutes of previously recorded audio file, the program can generate whatever new audio you want. This is particularly troubling for public figures who have days worth of audio files easily accessible to the public. In theory you could make an actor, athlete, or politician say whatever you want. The repercussions should be obvious and disturbing. For a more thorough explanation and example, listen to this podcast from RadioLab.

The second technology (also discussed in the podcast) is a motion capture technology that allows for real time manipulation of video images. This is similar to the motion capture technology Hollywood uses to create anthropomorphic creatures like Gollum or King Kong. Here you can see a sample of an edited video of President Obama. If you look closely, you’ll notice some irregularities where the program could not satisfactorily meld the two videos. But the bigger point is that this technology is becoming cheaper, better, and more accessible.

Is this the end of trust as we know it? Can we no longer believe anything we see with our own eyes? That would be the case if you accept film as reality. But film isn’t real life. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I say it. Usually, I’m pointing out that theatrical feature films are more exciting, prettier, simpler, and more entertaining than real life. But for this post, I’d like to look at things from the other angle. No film, no matter how realistic or “unedited” it looks is reality. It’s just a film. Film isn’t real life.

In the commercial and theatrical world, professional filmmakers intentionally alter reality. They use all kinds of tricks to make things intimidating, pretty, ugly, or endearing. Makeup, costumes, and lighting turn a perfectly charming Emilia Clarke into the Mother of Dragons.

But these tricks are still in play even if you don’t use them intentionally. Here are two pictures of a friend of mine at a mud run.

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In the first, you can clearly see the falling rain. (No, those aren’t orbs…) In the second, you can see that it is still raining if you look at the water. But the change of angle and focal length means you can no longer see the falling rain. (This is the same reason why it sometimes looks like it’s barely sprinkling at rained out sporting events.) I didn’t hide the rain intentionally, but that’s the reality of the situation.

The important thing to remember is, consciously or not, all media is an interpretation of reality. When you’re on vacation and take a picture, it captures some part of the moment, but it isn’t a recreation of the moment. You’re limited by the abilities of your camera. You choose to photograph the Grand Canyon not the parking lot next to the Grand Canyon. You crop out the guy wearing that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt. And what about the people in your photo? Are they like my nephew, who for two years refused to smile any time someone pointed a camera at him? Or do they ham it up for the camera in the hopes of becoming an internet star?

This is nothing new. Film has been an interpretive art since its inception. Below are two of the earliest war photographs ever taken. These are from the Crimean War in 1855, twenty-three years before the first movie was made.

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Both show a scene of desolation strewn with cannonballs. But it’s the second one that would make photographer Roger Fenton famous. Simply put, it’s a more striking photograph. Fenton wanted to show the horror and destruction of war, but he was restricted by his cumbersome film equipment. His solution? Move the cannonballs onto the road to take advantage of the high contrast. Although it was much more labor intensive than Photoshop, it’s the same basic principle. He altered his photo for effect. He sought a deeper “Truth” that wasn’t reflected in “reality.”

In the late 1920s, surrealist painter Rene Magritte created this thoughtful painting called “The Treachery of Images.”

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If you don’t know French, the text reads, “This is not a pipe.” Of course it’s not a pipe. It’s a painting. It represents a pipe. Our brains conceive of it as a pipe, but it is not a pipe. The same holds true for all media.

A definition might be helpful here. Media is the plural of medium. The two definitions that come to mind are medium (size), as in the size between small and large and medium (fortune teller), as in someone who communicates between the living and the dead. Both of course share the same Latin route, medias, which simply means middle. It shouldn’t surprise you that our news sources are generally referred to as “the media.” They are the middlemen. They transport ideas from the source to us. But along the way, they must interpret it.

Media is also used in the art world to describe the material that an artist uses. You may see the phrase “mixed media on canvas.” This medium might be oil paint, latex paint, clay, canvas, silk, steel, analog audio recording, digital video recording, computer programs, or even food. The point is, the artist interprets the world through this medium. Film, as an artistic endeavor, is its own medium. But never forget that the six o’clock news, the news radio traffic report, and the Wall Street Journal all operate in artistic mediums. To explain in more detail, I’d recommend listening to Malcolm Galdwell’s Revisionist History podcast from a few weeks ago.

In it, he discusses this famous photograph from Birmingham in 1963.

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It seems to show a police officer unleashing his dog on a black protester. But it doesn’t. The man in the photograph wasn’t part of the protest. He wasn’t a “Foot soldier,” as the Civil Rights activists called themselves. And the police officer hadn’t unleashed his dog on him. If you look closely, both men seem surprised and the police officer is leaning back, trying to pull the dog away. But that’s not what the nation saw.

This photo highlighted the brutality of the Jim Crowe south. It represented the discrimination, the institutionalized hate, and the lynchings. It shifted public opinion to the side of the Civil Rights movement, and it was all done on purpose. Bill Hudson, the photographer, chose this picture over the hundreds of other photos he had taken that day. The editor of The New York Times chose to put this story above the fold rather than any other news of the day. This is what a medium does. It takes the raw data, curates it, interprets it, and disseminates a cohesive message. In doing so, a medium must disregard data that fails to support its message or obfuscate its position. In its quest for “Truth,” it must necessarily deviate from “reality.”

To further clarify, look at Ronald S. McDowell’s statue inspired by Bill Hudson’s photograph.

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The figure representing Walter Gadsen, the student, is considerably younger and shorter than he was in reality. The police officer is emotionless and inhuman, reminiscent of T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which came out four years before the sculpture was dedicated. The police dog’s mouth is wide open, bearing vicious, anatomically improbable fangs. But remember this is a piece of art. This is not a pipe.

The push and pull between film as art and film as documentation will never end. But as a filmmaker and consumer of media, it’s important to acknowledge that film is a medium. It is not reality. There is no magic bullet, no enforceable code of conduct, no ten commandments of filmmaking that will ever make film purely objective. Reality is reality. Film is film. The best thing you can do as both a filmmaker and a consumer is educate yourself.

It’s important to learn about technology, to learn what is possible and how to spot a fake. But it’s also important to learn about art. You know—art, that thing that gets cut when we want to tighten budgets. Learn about artistic conventions. Learn to read the meaning behind how a frame is composed, how set decoration reinforces the theme, and how story arcs are constructed. Understand that models and movie stars are just people, too. Appreciate the complex and tragic story of Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Common Man (examined here in another great podcast). See the allegory between Game of Throne’s White Walkers and climate change. Learn how Proust’s understanding of memory preceded neuroscience. Discover the 1920 play that introduced the word robot and the idea that robots are out to kill us. And, above all, recognize that just because you see a video of something doesn’t mean it’s reality. In fact it’s not reality. It’s just a video. And while there will be a degree of objective truth in it, there will always be a degree of the artist’s truth. After all, it is a video. It is not a pipe.

A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

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When it Comes to Characters, Fewer is More

I recently sat down to work on another draft of a script. I had an idea for a new character, a professional mentor for my protagonist, someone who was really in his corner. And the kicker was, right when the going got tough, she would die, leaving our hero on his own. It’s a pretty standard movie trope (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vitruvius, Mufasa), but I ultimately decided against it.

The problem is, it would have required me adding three more characters: the mentor, who was our hero’s boss, the mentor’s replacement, and the person who would appoint the replacement. Yes, I would have gained something, but at what cost? Like the timeframe of your plot, which I discuss in my previous post, you want your script to achieve its goal with as few characters as necessary.

Aristotle didn’t discuss a “Unity of Character,” but Greek theater had other conventions to restrict the number of characters in a play. Unity of Action also implies some Unity of Character. In any event, Unity of Character or the “fewer the better” has become an unofficial rule of thumb for effective screenwriting.

To be clear, you want the worlds you create to feel authentic. Your protagonist needs a family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, cashiers, and bank tellers. But it’s going to be easier to create that realistic world inhabited by three-dimensional characters if you have fewer, not more characters.

There’s a basic math problem. With any script, you’ve only got so much screen time. Do you want it to go to your main characters or a bunch of walk-on roles? Let me illustrate my point with two pictures of Amy Adams.

The first is an absolutely enchanting photo of Amy staring dreamily into space.

enchanted-3

Then we have a shot of her in the background(?!), out of focus, crowded out by extras, and upstaged by a bunch of Muppets!

muppets-screencap-2

Both pictures are the same size. One is a great photo of Amy Adams. In the other, you can barely see her. Fewer characters means more screen time for your lead roles.

The problem isn’t so much with secondary characters (the best friend, the love interest) or tertiary characters (the boss, the comic relief), but with bit parts (the valet, the cashier, the security guard). How important is the line, “Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.” or “Place all metallic items in the plastic dish.”? Blake Snyder calls this “place holder” or “Hi how are you I’m fine” dialogue. It’s the kind of thing anyone can say, and it contributes nothing to the story. Unless the receipt or the items going through the metal detector are critical to the plot, you don’t need to mention them. What if your security guard has some critical piece of information to deliver to your hero? Consider giving that line to a more important character. It gives them more screen time and makes them more integral to the plot.

Fewer characters makes the writing and acting better as well. Say your valet has one line. “Your car is ready, Mr. Anderson.” How do they deliver it? Earnestly? Concerned? Full of contempt? Deferentially? What kind of valet is this? A kindly old man who loves cars? A college kid with a summer job? An undercover secret agent?

The thing is, if your actor imbues this character with any personality, it will detract from the scene. The movie is not about them! But why would you write a character who you want to be as bland and forgettable as possible?

“But my protagonist is a rich snob who always stiffs the valet!” you’re saying. “I need that dialogue.”

Aha! Well, in this case, your “bit part” has a bigger role to play in your story. The way your protagonist treats your valet is a defining character trait. Gauging this interaction throughout the course of the script will show the audience how your protagonist has changed. Is he still stiffing the valet in the middle of the script? What about when the love interest is present? How does he treat the valet at the end?

Now that your valet has three or four scenes, it’s no longer a bit part. You have the opportunity to give him some personality. Maybe he even plays a role in your protagonist’s journey. Either way, the actor has something to work with, and your world is going to feel a little more realistic.

For my script, it wasn’t feasible to create three more fully fleshed out characters. I would have needed to add another ten pages or take screen time away from my main characters. For what it would have added to my script, it wasn’t worth it.

For your script, you’ll have to make your own judgment call. But remember, fewer characters means more screen time for the characters who matter. It’s going to make a more realistic world and engaging story. When it comes to good screenwriting, there are no small parts, only poorly written walk-on roles.

TAXES FOR FREELANCERS

Like all forms of employment, freelancing has perks and shortcomings. But without a doubt, filing your taxes as a freelancer is one of the most obnoxious and time consuming ordeals you’ll have to deal with. I hate filing taxes so much, I made a video about them last year. (President Obama did write me back, but he never paid the invoice…) The point is, never have I ever—not even in TVF 361: Working in Film as a Freelancer—received any education about filing taxes as a freelancer. So if you do plan on going down this dark and terrifying path, I’d like to give you some pointers.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a tax expert. Anything you learn from this article is for informational purposes only. Do your own research and consult with a tax professional for your own specific tax situation.

OVERVIEW

If you earn money, you pay taxes. You generally owe taxes to 3 governmental agencies: the federal government (IRS), the state government (in my case the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue), and your local city, town, borough, hovel, whatever. Usually, your employer takes these taxes out of every paycheck. That’s why when you received your first job in high school, you were shocked to find out how little money you actually took home.

SMALL PAYCHECK

However, even if your employer doesn’t take this money out, you still owe taxes! At some point, someone’s going to come looking for that money. It’s up to you to make sure you’re paying the right amount of money on time. Keeping detailed records is the name of the game.

As a freelancer, you’ll have 2 basic kinds of employers: W-2 and 1099. Both are named after the tax forms you receive at the end of the year.

W-2

When it comes to taxes, W-2 jobs are a little bit easier. These are the jobs where the taxes are taken out for you. In the biz, they are also called timecard or payroll jobs. These are the kinds of employers that most of your relatives and friends with “real” jobs have. For us, things are a little confusing.

The thing is, most production companies don’t want to pay for accountants. They use payroll companies to take care of their paperwork. CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew are three of the big ones. So even though you work for Mom & Pop Productions, The Josés Film Co., and Hollywood South, LLC, you might get W-2s from CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew. To make it even more confusing, Mom & Pop and The Josés may use the same payroll company. Then every job you did for both of those companies will appear on the same W-2.  (Last year, which was a slow year for me, I worked for 17 different companies and received 6 different W-2s.)

1099

If your employer just hands you cash or a check, this is called 1099 or invoice work. Generally, you’ll have to send the company an invoice, and then they’ll send you a check. This check will be for the full amount of the job. (If you invoiced them for $250, you’ll receive a check for $250.) Even though your employer didn’t take taxes out of your paycheck, you still owe taxes!

QUARTERLY PAYMENTS

You may think tax season is early April, but for freelancers, it’s always tax season. The thing is, you owe taxes as you earn money, not at the end of the year. For W-2 work, those taxes are taken out every paycheck, and you’re golden. But for the 1099 work, you need to estimate how much money you’ll make and send out those estimated payments quarterly. (Remember, you owe federal, state, and local taxes.)

The four payment dates this year are April 18th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th. The perplexing thing is that quarter two is 3 months long while quarter four is 5 months long. Clearly no one at the IRS had my mother for math, since “quarter” implies four equal parts, but I digress.

unequal quarters

Your estimated payments aren’t what you will actually owe because your tax rate is based on what you earn, and on April 18th, no freelancer I know has any idea how much money they’ll earn in the next eight months. There’s a lengthy form to help you estimate your quarterly payments (which I have found utterly useless) called the 1040-ES. I’ve included a link to it below.

FILING YOUR TAXES

If you haven’t had enough fun yet, there’s tax day! When you “file” your taxes, you’re squaring away all of those uncertainties you’d had from the previous year. You find out what you actually earned, deduct what you can, and end up with your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Some people use accountants or tax professionals. Most tax professionals charge more as things get more complex. Since I didn’t make much money when I started in this business, I began filing my own taxes with the help of TurboTax. So far, so good.

For the most part, you just enter all of the data from your W-2s and 1099s. Remember to report income even if you didn’t receive a 1099. (Keep in mind, Al Capone was ultimately arrested for tax evasion, not murder.) And remember to report those quarterly payments you made. The software will do the rest.

DEDUCTIONS

Everybody is allowed to take a variety of personal deductions. Charitable donations, student loans, and mortgage interest come to mind. Many people will take the standard deduction because it’s easier and often bigger than an itemized deduction. But as a freelancer, you also have unreimbursed business expenses. Even if you take the standard personal deduction, you have plenty of additional business deductions.

These deductions may include, clothing, food, work tools, mileage, and even your house. There are rules and regulations for each thing, but a general rule of thumb is, if you use it exclusively for work, it’s deductible. I’m writing this from my home office, where I do all of my paperwork. I could potentially deduct the utilities for this room, but I use it for a guest room as well. Sadly, no deduction for this one. But that rain gear I bought exclusively for set? Deducted. Flashlight, surveillance headset, and Leatherman? Deducted. That Box of Joe I bought for the locations department to ensure I had good parking on the last shoot? Deducted. Make sure you save those receipts!

Mileage can also be deducted, whether that’s driving to another state for a job or running out to pick up lunch for the crew. As with all of these things, however, you need to keep detailed records.

And of course, if your employer reimburses you for any of these expenses, you cannot deduct them.

STATE AND LOCAL

Generally speaking, state and local taxes operate similarly to federal taxes. There are slightly different rules for each, so you’ll have to do your own research on that one. But here’s one small positive; programs like TurboTax have software for states, and most of the information transfers seamlessly from federal to state forms. One caveat, if you work outside the state where you live, you may need to file taxes in both states.

Local taxes are generally the easiest. You’ll simply need to transfer numbers from your federal or state tax form onto your local tax form. Unfortunately, W-2 employers will deduct local taxes from where you work, not where you live. It may take a bit of arithmetic to figure out what, if anything, you owe your local government. (For example, my borough has a 1% tax rate, but if I work in Philadelphia, Philadelphia takes 3.5% of my paycheck. I’m never going to see that 2.5% again. However, I can use it to offset the taxes I owe to my home borough from my 1099 work.)

DEATH AND TAXES

Taxes suck, no matter who you are. But if you plan to make this filmmaking thing work, they’re one more unforeseen hurdle you have to jump over. The most important thing is to keep detailed records and save paperwork. And speaking of paperwork… below are links to some of the forms you’ll encounter in your illustrious career. Check them out so you know what you’re looking at.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that I am not a tax professional. If anyone who reads this post has other thoughts and comments, feel free to reach out or respond.

PAPERWORK

W-4

When doing W-2 work, the W-4 tells your employer what to withhold in taxes. You’ll receive this on set either when you’re hired or when you fill out your timecard. There’s an obnoxious worksheet to calculate how many allowances to claim (probably 1 or 0). If you claim 0, your employer will withhold more taxes, which means you’ll likely get a refund at the end of the year, but see less money in your paychecks.

I-9

When doing W-2 work, the I-9 verifies that you are allowed to work in the U.S. Most people only fill out a handful of these in their lives. You, however, have to fill one out every year for every employer. That is why I have my driver’s license number memorized. However, if you work for a new company, you’ll want to be sure to bring your 2 forms of I.D. (Click on the second link on the USCIS website to view the form.)

Timecard

Here is a blank, sample timecard from CAPS. Generally, you’ll only fill out your personal information and the hours you worked. Your production manager will help you with any questions.

W-2

You’ll receive this in January or February. It shows how much money you earned, what you paid in taxes, what you paid for Social Security, Medicare, state, and local taxes, etc. from the previous year. It’s very easy to transfer this information into a program like TurboTax. (This W2 is blank. Yours should come with numbers on it!)

W-9

This is identity verification for a 1099 job. (I-9 is to W-2 as W-9 is to 1099… where’s 3 through 8 in all of this?) Generally, you’ll need to send production one of these when you send them your invoice. Unless you are incorporated as a business, check the box that says “individual/sole proprietor” and fill in your social security number.

1099

This is what you get at the end of the year for your 1099 jobs. As with the W-2, it’s very easy to enter the information from this into a program like TurboTax. (And again, yours should come with numbers on it!)

Invoice

I’d say this is where you can flex your creativity because you get to make your own invoice, but that would probably just annoy your production manager. Generally, you just need your contact info, the company’s contact info, the job name and number, and days and hours worked. This is what I use. It’s not pretty, but I always get paid (except for the one I sent to Obama…).

1040-ES

This is the monstrosity that “helps” you estimate your quarterly taxes. In the least it shows you what is legally required and gives you a place to write down when you sent the money in.