Archive for August, 2011

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Work is like buses…

August 29, 2011

Well, freelance work is anyway.

I made the choice to look for freelance work while I was studying at uni. Unlike many of my classmates who were looking for the holy grail of a video salary job (about as fruitful a venture as looking for a Page 3 calendar in Vatican City), I had all my own albeit low-end kit and I was quite the multi-skiller. I started out with music videos and low-end corporate work and eventually moved into fiction as my skills improved and I focused in on what I wanted to do.

At no point have I earnt a living doing this though. The type of industry pool I’m fishing in is full of budget-conscious and, dare I say it, tight marine life. They want everything to be shit-hot, done yesterday and cost fuck-all. They don’t want professional rates- £500 a day? More like £500 for the whole project, pre-prod and editing included! And of course, you don’t want to take it- you’ll be working your bollocks off for a pittance and they’ll probably balk at paying on time- but if you don’t take it, someone else will. There are always plenty of wannabees with a DSLR willing to whore themselves out as filmmakers and although they might not be in your league, they are your competitors. Just be sure to let the client know what you will and won’t do for that money…

I went off at a tangent there (I’ll save the rates rant for another time). Where I was heading with all that was that last year I decided that if I was going to suffer low income for video work, I was going to do so on my own terms. So I set up my own business making showreel scenes for actors. Without pimping the business too much (www.reelscenes.co.uk – there, pimp over!), I write, plan, shoot, direct and edit complete drama scenes for actors’ showreels and I’ve found it to be moderately successful since I started doing it this time last year. I’m averaging one shoot every six weeks at the moment, which fits in quite well with the day job I had to take to pay the rent.

Recently, however, I had two shoots in one week. One was a rom-com scene which had been on the cards for a while- we were waiting for one actor to become available and for everyone’s schedules to align. That diary equinox happened on Tuesday and we managed to scramble together a location and shoot the scene in a few hours. The other scene was a contemporary drama with a distinctly northern feel. The only time everyone was free was Thursday night and the only suitable location we could get at short notice was a small gym in north London. It took a good few hours, but the scene turned out a lot better than I expected.

The point of all this though is that between all of these shoot days, I was still showing up at my day job. In fact, I’d been working on Thursday during the day, finished at 8, got in the car with my Boom Op and drove to Muswell Hill, shot from 9.30 till about 2.30 and got back to Reading about half 3 in the morning. I then had a full day at my day job to look forward to and a 7am wake up call to get me there. At several points I wondered if this was a good idea, if I should postpone the shoot- after all, I’m 30 and not able to do all this dual-ended-candle-burning as I once was. But I’m glad I did- the shoots worked out great- and I’ve earnt a few brownie points with my day job as well.

The fact is, in this industry, freelance work is very much like the metaphorical buses. You’ll have busy periods and dead periods. Downtime and running-around-like-a-mad-bastard-time. And you have to be able to cope with that- not just in terms of the irregularity with which your bank account moves between red and black, but also with the idea that you may not get much sleep between jobs, might be spending days and nights travelling and the fact that you might be doing your body extensive damage with all the energy drinks you’re having to consume. If you have a family, you may also have to make some awkward decisions- missing school plays and anniversaries or turning down jobs that take you away from them for too long.

It’s not quite as simple as turning up to the same place every day, doing the minimum required of you and then leaving at the same time like clockwork so you can go home and fall asleep in front of the TV.

And, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way…

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Watch, listen, learn.

August 7, 2011

“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them ‘No, I went to films.'”

Quentin Tarantino’s quote is usually used as an argument for not going to film school, but if you ignore the anti-education argument (if you can- I know it’s tough), there is actually a nugget of wisdom caked in the rock of controversy-baiting. You see, there are several ways people learn things- including learning by doing and making mistakes (which making films allows you to do) and learning by mimicry (only really good for learning to play songs on guitar and learning lines). But there’s also learning by analysis- which is where our fast-talking director’s words of wisdom come in.

Usually, when we watch movies we do what we’re supposed to- we suspend disbelief, get engaged with the characters, follow the plot and feel the story. But, as directors and filmmakers, we should always try and watch a film a second time so we can actually learn from it. We can look at the sequences in the film and see which ones work and which ones don’t and analyse why. What made those shots effective, what effect the editing had on the story, what performances worked etc. By breaking down and understanding the film and it’s techniques, we can learn how to be better directors.

I’ve started doing this with a lot of films that I usually take for granted and it’s amazing how much you can pick up. And I thought I’d throw a couple of these ideas on here.

First up is Sam Mendes’ emotional 2002 masterpiece “Road to Perdition.” The pairing of Mendes and the late, great cinematographer Conrad L Hall produced some fantastic examples of visual storytelling.

There’s a shot early in the film when Michael Jr (played by Tyler Hoechlin) is at the end of a corridor looking at his father Michael Sullivan Sr (Tom Hanks). Emotionally and spatially, the son is distanced from his father- this is augmented visually by having the corridor and the son in shadow and Hanks in a brighter environment. Also, by having the son watching his father from the shadows you let the audience in on how unknowable the father really is. The two characters are also separated by the cinematic and practical use of the doorframe and door- obscuring Hanks from Hoechlin and preventing him from seeing Hanks clearly (although he does get to see the gun Hanks hides under his jacket). As a corridor, you also have the converging lines of the walls pointing our attention towards Hanks- meaning we’re subjectively engaging with Hoechlin and feeling the distance as he does.

But, it’s not just about analysing shots and cinematography. What about production design and the “visual identity” of a film? Zhang Yimou’s “Yingxiong” (or “Hero” for the less pretentious) is a great example of a a visual style being used through the production design, the cinematography and the grade to convey a story idea. For those who’ve never seen the film- and you really should- it’s a “Rashomon”-esque story where a nameless warrior (Jet Li) recounts the tale of how he defeated three dangerous assassins to the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Not to spoil it much, but there are multiple versions of these stories from different perspectives (a la “Rashomon”) and to help audiences follow the variations, the filmmakers use limited colour palettes. Now, these could be just simple random colours, but they’re not.

For the scenes in the calligraphy school, there are three versions with three colour biases. The first is biased to reds and ambers- perfectly fitting the passion and anger found in this segment as well as providing a great autumnal backdrop for the duel in the forest. The second is made up of cool blues and reflects the calm melancholy two of the characters feel in this sequence. The third version (a full reconditioning of the blue sequence) is white, brown and earth tones. This last version feels more honest and “real” than the others, perhaps because it’s a much more neutral and balanced colour palette. Some also say that for the home audience this last scene marks the impending death of the characters because white is ther colour of death in Chinese culture. Regardless, each of these colour palettes is created through the use of very specific production design and carried through post-production to the grade, all the time helping tell the story.

You can also find directing lessons in the less obvious shows and this is where you really learn something. In films like “Hero” and “Road to Perdition” the directing and cinematography are very much foregrounded- actively noticing them is part of the viewing experience. But for the 1985 classic “Back to the Future” a lot of Robert Zemekis’ directing work is built into the script itself and gives a very different, but equally enjoyable “wow” moment.

One of the things that makes “Back to the Future” (and in fact the trilogy as a whole) such a fun experience is all the repetition within it. Lines of dialogue, action sequences, characters (at various ages/generations)… these repetitions serve not only to tie the films together but also go some way to make these different time periods and characters feel familiar. In the first film, Biff Tannen (Thomas F Wilson) berates George McFly (Crispin Glover) with a knuckle rap to the forehead and a section of dialogue about who’s responsibility it is to pay for car damage and type up reports. Later in the film, the young Biff berates the young George in the same way over visitation rites to the local cafe and who writes up homework. This repetition isn’t particularly subtle and that’s part of the fun. Repeating things encourages the audience to recognise the connection, something that involves the audience in the film and in this case also helps create the comedy as the audience connect the dots.

There’s always the risk that over-analysing films lessens their ability to involve you and takes away the magic, but this is something of an occupational hazard when you’re a filmmaker. You have to learn to separate viewing films as an audience and viewing them as a filmmaker. If you just view films as an audience would, you’ll find it hard to learn and understand the craft of filmmaking, able to experience but not recreate or create that experience. And if you only view films as a filmmaker would, your appreciation becomes somewhat removed and clinical, with a focus on the technique and the psychology behind it. In addition, you lose that certain something- that unquantifiable magic quality you get from sitting in a darkened room, staring at a window into another world, willing to be entertained, involved and moved- totally unaware of how that magic was performed.

And that magic is the one thing we filmmakers need to treasure above all else.