In March 2021, I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Jim Cummings, director of Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and most recently, The Beta Test.
His style, acting style, unconventional dialogues, and most importantly his amazing films made him a huge inspiration, not only to me, but to countless emerging filmmakers.
Jim constantly questions the Status Quo of making movies with big production companies and shows us that there are better alternatives. That you can greenlight a project yourself, without being at the mercy of a few people in a room who don’t give a shit about your film.
The Beta Test was crowd-funded. Jim and PJ McCabe, his co-writer and co-director, used Wefunder to gather the budget for the film. The campaign was a huge success.
When I heard Jim was crowd-funding his new film, I knew right away I wanted to be part of it.
I invested $100 in the production of his feature film. My first time investing in a film. Now I just regret not contributing more 😉
Today, I want to talk about The Beta Test, though.
A few disclaimers before we go further.
I’m a huge fan of his work but I’ll try to be as objective as possible
The purpose of the article is to analyze and to learn a thing or two in the process. From a comfy chair, not being aware of all the things, sacrifices, and struggles that are needed to make a film like The Beta Test.
The film starts in an unexpected way. We’re almost like “wait, am I watching the right film?”.
In the first six minutes, we’re not seeing Jim Cummings or his onscreen wife, Virginia Newcomb.
More than that - the opening scene is actually not building up a narrative that much. It is connected and referenced in the plot later in the movie but in general, you could say that this first scene is its own sketch.
Something fun. Something to get us in the mood. Something impressive right at the front door. You could actually watch a film without this scene and would not miss a thing from the narrative.
That’s the first unconventional choice Jim and PJ made.
They are extremely efficient with shots in that first scene. I didn’t realize until the second watch that most of the scene is actually a one-take shot.
The contrast of cuts is so obvious here. That’s a very common cutting pattern used when approaching a climax of a scene or section of a film.
And the climax is unexpected, very visual, and very satisfying (in a weird way).
I’ve heard somewhere that Jim was inspired by the opening of Touch of Evil. Where we’re aware of a bomb under the car and waiting for the explosion.
The 911 call, in the opening scene, does the same thing. We know there's gonna be a domestic dispute. We just don’t know how bad it will be 😀
Using long shots is crucial here. Any additional cut would diminish the feeling of anticipation. They want us to experience it in real time because this way the tension builds up. We’re active observers of that first encounter.
The scene is followed by a data scrolling montage before cutting to the titles and finally revealing our characters. What an opening to a film!
When editing short films myself, I realized how important it is to introduce the audience to the grammar we’ll be using in a given film.
For example, if you want to use slow-mo shots later in the movie, it’s good to create such expectations and visual language early in the film. You don’t want to overdo it, of course, as constant repetition is the worst enemy of every editor. But you don’t want the audience to be like “Why the f*** am I watching this slow-mo sequence 100 minutes into the film”.
So that opening scene sets a few things up from that visual language side of things:
We get used to occasional long takes
montages and very quick cutaways
We fall in love with the classical music theme that will be used or referenced throughout the film.
Montages are usually used for one of two reasons: 1. To compress time and show progression 2. To show a thematic bond between characters and/or places
And we get a few very good montages in The Beta Test. My favorite one is with the “that’s exciting/we’re excited” montage about 26 minutes into the film.
It’s showing progression, leading to signing on a packaged client deal but also using the theme to thread it all together. We get a sense of who Jordan (Jim’s character) is when working with other people. We see how fake his interactions are. How everything is centered around getting someone to sign on the dotted line.
Now onto something that I bet wasn’t their first choice.
Something that we could consider a mistake or a jarring edit, in a place that doesn’t call for it, can be found 56 minutes into the film.
They’re cutting between very similar camera angles, which is usually disorienting to the audience.
A rule of thumb is that you never cut between the same shot sizes if the camera angle changes by less than 45 degrees. It’s an approximation of course and the rule is often broken to achieve a feeling of unease and to disorient the audience.
In this case, I don’t think the moment actually called for any of these but I think it’s this way for two reasons:
They didn’t have all they needed in one take,
And at the same time, they needed specific pacing.
If the moment was cut faster, the pacing would feel a bit off.
It’s a sacrifice we sometimes have to make. You’re choosing a “greater good” (or less harm) solution. To me, it’s always interesting to see “mistakes” like that because I always know there was a compromise the filmmaker had to make here. And discussions that lead to it are never easy.
Compare it to this cut where Jordan has his first imaginary interaction with a strange woman:
We’re cutting from a close-up to a medium two-shot. This cut works well because there’s a change in the shot size.
The cutting pattern that can be noticed a few times throughout the film looks like this. We have quite a long shot that is almost interrupted by an abrupt cutaway or change in shot size. I think it’s very effective in what it does. It really makes us understand Jordan’s emotional state.
When using this pattern they reuse the same sound effect a few times. In the shot below we can hear the sound of plates hitting a table.
The exact same sound effect is used in the later scene (below) when reusing the same cutting pattern even though there are no plates in the shot! But it works because we have experienced this audiovisual manipulation already.
David Mamet, in his book, On Directing Film, makes a point that each shot should have a clear purpose and not be too polluted with aspects that can make the point unclear (it’s a very simplified description).
For me, there’s one shot that doesn’t meet the criteria. Namely, the shot in which we get info about the packaging agreement.
It’s on-screen for a very short moment and out-of-focus with other text on it. The shot just didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if scaling in would solve the problem. And the fact is that maybe my experience would be better if I saw the film in a theatre rather than on my computer screen.
But I think a cleaner shot, focused on what’s important to deliver for the audience would work better here.
Characters in The Beta Test are very enjoyable to watch. Dialogues are super smart and make you laugh on many occasions. Jordan is a grotesque character. Just like in Thunder Road, Jim used a similar formula: they put him through hell. Made him do things he would never suspect of himself and the audience LOVES to watch it. I think that watching Jordan do all sorts of crazy things and over-exaggerating his emotions is the biggest attraction of the movie.
Dialogues like the one in the hotel are just gold.
One piece of feedback that I’d love to pass to Jim would be about the ending.
Again - this coming from a guy who has never worked on a big-scale narrative project (in other words - this is nothing more than just my opinion).
Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
I think the ending was confusing. We don’t really get a clear character arc for Jordan. We don’t see how everything he experienced changed his mindset or way of thinking. We basically see him being tempted once again (and I needed to replay that waitress note on a bill shot a few times to be sure that I read it correctly). There’s also a moment where we cut under the table to Virginia’s character holding a hand on her belly. I didn’t get the purpose of it and I’m on the lookout for hints on how it ends at this point.
In some movies, it’s fine to portray the character as unchanged (for example in Mother, 2020) but here, it’s just confusing to me. I don’t get this “goosh” moment that we often crave for in the ending of a film. No catharsis there.
Tom Cross (editor of Whiplash, La La Land, First Man) says that he usually edits the last scene first. So that he knows where everything is heading. I bet he still adjusts this last scene but that’s his thinking.
That would be a challenge I’d love Jim to take on for his next film. To leave us with a more complete story.
Even though I agree that it can be open for the viewer. Like in Once Upon a Time in America (my personal favorite open-for-interpretation ending). I’d love to have the feeling that the ending of Jim’s film was also carefully planned from the early scripting stage.
Overall I’m extremely proud of what Jim and PJ accomplished with their modest budget. It’s an amazing film that brings smiles/tears/thrills to thousands of people already and its scale is only gonna grow from here.
I’m also proud to be an investor in the film.
I always experience something special when watching Jim’s films. I watched The Beta Test two times already and I bet there’s gonna be another one. Plus, I’m preaching about his films not only here but in my face-to-face interactions, as well. Not because I get something out of it. But because I love them and I believe in what Jim is doing to the film industry and filmmaking community.
BTW, a few people asked me about how I got him on a Zoom call. The reality is not sexy. It wasn’t just because I supported the project. I just reached out, took my chances, and followed up. A few times.
Sometimes it’s about the right timing. When working on a feature film, the last thing you want to hear about is an interview request from some random YouTube creator from Poland.
But once the film is ready… that’s a different story.
So while it took me some time, I kept asking because I genuinely cared. Not because I wanted to interview him for my YT channel. That’s just a side product. I just wanted to talk to the guy who created Thunder Road. A film I fell in love with. It has been and still is, a very emotional film for me. Pretty sure I’m gonna rewatch it ten more times before I die.
As a tribute to The Beta Test, I created this shot deck poster. I’m currently working on a video where I’ll explain the process behind creating it so stay tuned!
Learn how to boost editing efficiency and build a habit of deep work in your editing bay.
It includes: - 33 short and concise lessons that fill over 3 hours of video content (plus any future updates), - regular live sessions, - the Discord community where you can connect with like-minded editors from around the world, - short PDFs, worksheets with the main takeaways from some of the lessons, - action steps that will help you implement your new knowledge into your everyday life.