Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Basics

Year 15 started out great. Good food. Good people. Good movies – well, at least two good ones.

I dreaded putting the first DVD into the machine, as it looked to be by actors about acting. Nine times out of ten, those are painfully bad. The experienced screeners in the room groaned as we wrote down the title, so imagine how happy we were when it turned out to be fantastic! This wasn't a movie about actors acting – it's about actors NOT acting. Nice job, guys. I'll see you at the next meeting.

We have enough submissions to split into two rooms and when the other group emerged at the end of the night they said, "We have the topic for your next blog – Beginning, Middle, and End."

I knew exactly what they were talking about, so let's start off this year with the basics.

Artists, by nature, are rule breakers. No risk, no reward. I'm right there with you. Go for it!


If you plan on re-inventing the wheel, keep in mind, your finished product has to do what a wheel does. A stone block is not a re-invented wheel. Whatever you come up with has to fit on a cart and make it move with ease or you have failed.

Some artists, especially young ones, think they are going to re-invent storytelling. They are going to do it in a way that's never been done before. Really? In the 3,000 years mankind has been writing down and performing stories they have never come up with what you have?

Okay. I say go for it. From your hubris something new might very well emerge.


When you're done, your story has to be a story. It has to fit on a cart and make it move with ease. It has to have a beginning, middle and end or you have failed. You might have failed valiantly. We might applaud your effort – but we won't be showing your effort to the public.

Sometimes these type of experiments are near-misses. If you dig into that sucker with an eye toward the basics, you will probably find a buried traditional structure. Bring that to the surface and you're golden.

In our screening room we saw a lot of DRRRAAAAMMMMAAAA! I have bruises on my head from how beaten I was with the seriousness of what we watched. Counterpoint, people! If your film is serious, find the humor. If it's funny, find the pathos.

Cello is the slow music instrument of choice it seems. I think I counted three films with slow, dragging, dramatic music over slow, dragging, dramatic action. I slowly dragged my pen around the PASS choice on our forms. One nice standout, music-wise, featured some happy banjo playin'. During an establishing shot of a man walking up stairs to a house I commented about how that would be different with the slow music we had in earlier films. As it was, a possibly boring shot was made entertaining. Nice.

We had one film with grandiose, feature-style credits. Looked great. Cut them. It's called a short for a reason.

Art department. This is where a lot of low-budget projects fall down. It's fine to shoot in your apartment, but remember – just because you're a starving artist with nothing on your walls and barely any furniture, doesn't mean your characters are. Dress up the shots a bit. Pull actors away from flat walls. Stick a plant back there. Keep the receipt, hide the label, and return it to OSH when you're done. It's free.

Pet peeve of the year. Filmmakers, STOP SHAKING THE CAMERA! It doesn't make the movie look more immediate. It doesn't make it "documentary style." Documentary filmmakers do their damnedest to make handheld shots look smooth. You should do the same.

I don't particularly like this style in major motion pictures either, but at least when they do it, they are working with heavy cameras, remote focus pullers, cable wranglers and dolly grips. When all of this moves there is some weight behind it. When you're bouncing behind your actors with a palm-corder, your film becomes less about the story and more about the camera and how cheap and self-serving you are as a filmmaker.

Please: Move the camera with majesty.

Question: What's with so many films coming out that are too dark to see? This isn't just indie stuff. I couldn't see J. Edgar, and Tom Stern is no slouch. There has to be a technical thing in the digital world I don't know about. Okay, there are a million technical things in the digital world I don't know about – but one of them makes for movies that are too dark to see. Let's stop doing that.

Prediction: With all the great SLR cameras out there, I have a prediction of what I'm going to be complaining about for years to come. Focus. A better camera is like a better, more powerful, piece of software – it's harder to use. Yes, just like the software, you can make it easy, but at the cost of professionalism. Like anyone in the modern world, I can point and shoot a video camera. Like anyone else who has made a little movie to throw up on the web, I can get the coverage and even edit it.

That doesn't mean I'd hire me as a Director of Photography. Technology makes things doable at an affordable cost. Skills, talent, and experience make them worth watching.

Thanks for reading.

No comments: