Friday, February 18, 2011


I couldn't sleep the other night. Of all the things in my life that could legitimately keep me awake, my mind kept coming back to the submissions that technically have nothing wrong with them, but for some reason don't work. Yes, we here at Dances With Films are losing sleep trying to make you all better filmmakers.

If you read last week's post, you know how bothered I was with films that "lay flat," or "don't pop." As an artist myself, I have to wonder what they are doing wrong? I need to know the answer so I might avoid those mistakes in my own projects.

Okay, so maybe I wasn't as concerned about your work as I am my own, but we can all get better together, right?

I finally figured it out when, once again, artistic cross-training came to the rescue.

Those movies aren't working because the filmmakers have no voice.

Right now all of my novelist readers are saying to themselves, "Ah, voice... of course," while the filmmakers are saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

In fact, many novelists might say, "Ah, voice, of course... What the hell is that, anyway?" If you are trapped in a desert in need of rescue, start a discussion about voice and a gaggle of authors will suddenly appear to offer their opinions on the subject. Why? Because agents and editor all say they are looking for authors with a "unique voice," and then leave it up to us to figure out what that means.

Voice is kind of like pornography; you know it when you see it. The trouble with that definition is that we as artists have to create it (voice, not necessarily pornography). We have to know our voice when all we see is a blank page. It is so hard to define that many people say it can't be taught. They say it's one of those, "you either have it or you don't" type of things. I've never liked that attitude. I think human beings can accomplish anything we put our minds to, though we all have more talent in some areas than others.

So, what is this voice thing? In publishing, agents and editors say they want "a unique voice," and the unique part is key. I suggest that all artists have a voice, but that some have developed it more than others. They have discovered their unique voice. For novelists a definition of voice might be, "the way a story is told, from overall plot and structure, down to the choice of every word on the page." If an author is in the habit of using passive verbs and lays out a story with no twists or turns, then their voice is not going to be as compelling as one who drives a story forward with action in every sentence and leaves the reader wondering what's next.

Filmmaking is infinitely more complicated. First, we have to define who's voice we're talking about; the writer, director, or in some cases the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer, Spielberg, Imagine, etc.)? For many DWF submissions these are all one and the same person. That makes things easier. The current fad among major studios and production houses is to find a team that share the same voice and have them repeat it over and over again.

This wasn't always the case. I remember reading a criticism of director George Roy Hill that said his style was all over the place, like that was a bad thing. In fact, he was a master of "the invisible art of filmmaking." He found the unique voice in each script and enhanced it. In his day, that was a director's job and he was one of the best. His voice was an amplification of the writer's. Bravo!

Over the years, Dances With Films has discovered many filmmakers with unique voices. In 2006 the Stern Brothers gave us This Is A Business, and later 2-Minute 2-Step films Desmond Jones: Professional Background Actor and It's Hard To Apologize. The last link is to a YouTube version of the movie, where you can see a great example of their dry sense of humor and human observations. Others that pop out at me from our archive include: Attack of the Bat Monsters, Easter, Eve of Understanding, Interstate, Miss Ohio, Rigged, Shelf Life, Solitary, What's Bugging Seth?, and so many more.

If we have any hope of breaking out on the world stage as artists, we must all find in ourselves what makes us unique. Why are we the only person on the planet who can tell that story, make that film, carve that sculpture, choreograph that dance, etc. in such a way that it will touch the hearts and minds of all who experience it? The answer is not in our words, but in our voice.

On to this week's submissions:

We've seen a couple of films this year where the bad actors are bad for a specific reason – one that directors can correct if they know how to recognize it. That is, playing attitude. Let's say you have a scene where one character doesn't like another one. If the hater is playing attitude then you'll get the feeling they are saying the lines in a way to make you know their character doesn't like the other character. This is also called indicating. You can sense it behind their fa├žade. "I am saying this in a way that will clearly indicate to all the people watching that I don't like you," rather than "I don't like you." The fastest way to fix this on set is to tell the actor, "You're playing the obstacle, not the intent. You don't like the other person, but you have to deal with them, so instead of showing us how much you don't like them, just deal with them."

We had a film that made the classic mistake of pulling a gun and not using it. I don't recall what filmmaker said that if you show a gun, it had better go off – The first person to post the answer, wins a cupie doll. (Actually, my vote is for Chekhov re: Three Sisters, or maybe The Seagull). But the point is, a weapon of any sort makes a powerful statement. Use them with discretion.

On the plus side, we had a film that told an entire story with color timing and production design. For those who don't know, color timing is an old film term. Each of the three primary colors are developed separately in film, so by adding or subtracting more time for the process, you can enhance or suppress each color. Want to turn day into night? More blue, less red and green. Match this with the human eye's desire to see colors that are absent, and you have a powerful tool to manipulate the audience. This was done on stage in the 1970's in a production of Dracula (I think it was Dracula, might have been Sweeney Todd). The production design – set, costumes, lights – was subtly devoid of color, especially red. Meanwhile, over the actor's heads, yellow sidelights shined across the stage, but because they hit nothing, they went unseen. Yellow is red's complement (or opposite, my terminology may be wrong, help me out designers). So when the first blood appeared in the story it was flung up into this light. The audience had seen no color whatsoever for so long that the backlit red jumped out at them, giving a pop to the horror. The short film last night did the same thing, to the point where I couldn't help but say out loud, "red" just before a rose appeared. Nicely done!

Our next film was in black and white and thankfully, shot on film. Beautifully shot. As it was a morality play, the reason for the black, white, and shades of gray was perfectly clear. No one asked "why is this in black and white?" We knew.

Again, we had a couple of essay films, and again one worked, one didn't. The one that didn't work was really friggin' long – over 20 minutes – and didn't tell a compelling story. The narrator's voice was bad and poorly recorded. The one that worked was seven minutes long, told an uplifting story, and gave us some beautiful images. Brava.

If you read last year's blog, you know that I railed against bad sound. So far this year, submissions have been much better on that front. Thank you all for that! Last night we did have a movie where the mix was uneven – an impossibly quiet scene followed by an impossibly loud one, done by mistake not for effect. We also had a film where the combination of confusing story, mumbling actors, and a bass-heavy mix made it difficult to know what was going on. We could all hear it, but couldn't understand what was being said.

On a final note for the week; like all of the other screeners, I've been taking home features to watch and I have to say the quality of filmmaking has gotten much better this year. I've seen some terrific stuff. I don't know why – maybe the bad economy has weeded out people with more money that filmmaking skills, or maybe I've just gotten lucky in which films I blindly pull from the bin. Whatever the reason, keep up the good work, folks. Good movies make this job fun!

Thanks for reading. Comments appreciated.


Joe M. said...

I don't think I've ever seen a blog that gives us (those submitting films) a window into the selection process. It's nice to know you guys actually watch all the films and provide a little feedback. Looking forward to more updates... Thanks!

RSMellette said...

And for me, it's nice to know you guys are reading.

lgonda said...

Red’s complEment is actually green.

RSMellette said...

Thank you for both corrections. :) Trouble with blogging, no editors.

Green will definitely make red "go electric" when put together just right in light - red front light, green back light or cyc, but if you shine a green light onto a red surface, it will turn black, since there is no red to reflect.

Red and green light when mixed make yellow - which painters always think is so wrong, as yellow is a primary color in paint, but not in light.

And if you want to get really freaky, try filming red in black & white. When I was making Jacks Or Better I kept telling the crew there wasn't enough blood in shot looking down on a bloody floor. I was looking in the B&W monitor and saw nothing. The red was invisible. Suddenly, I understood why Hitchcock used chocolate syrup as blood in Psycho.