Archive for November, 2012

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The “Karma Palace” Bar Scene Technique

November 26, 2012

There are lots of little skills that I’ve picked up over the years. One of which is unlikely to be taught at any film school because it’s not the accepted professional way of doing things. But it’s something that I find myself having to resort to again and again on low budget shoots.

Assembling a film is a giant jigsaw- if there are any pieces missing, the picture isn’t complete. Having said that, there’s only one correct way to assemble a jigsaw and a movie can be built in all manner of ways from whatever bits you have so I think the analogy isn’t altogether sound… Anyway, sometimes you have to know what your pieces are in order to make the picture. Because that way it doesn’t matter how or when you actually acquire them.

Yesterday I was shooting a comedy scene for a sketch show promo. Good little script, simple setup. Two parents sat in a restaurant with their 2yr old kid, some fast paced dialogue, reactions from the kid, few hours tops. Simple enough.

Only it wasn’t because we had a few problems…

We had the restaurant for a few hours but we had to be out before it opened at 11, no longer- not a major problem, but it did mean an early start. A friend had kindly provided his littl’un for the scene, but obviously, the longer we have him the more likely he’ll play up (the tyke, not my friend!) and bearing in mind that they say you shouldn’t work with kids or animals, there was always the chance he wouldn’t play ball at all. And one of the actors was coming in by train and because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t be with us til 9.30.

So I planned to do the kid’s “reaction” shots first- just let the camera roll and see what looks and gestures we can get. After a few minutes of a level one grizzle-fest, we started to get some usable reactions, playing with a toy car etc. He even took his dummy out and made some noises (writing his own dialogue!) so what we got was ultimately very good.

Since we still had some time before our male lead arrived, my next plan was to shoot our leading lady’s close up. We could do that without the kid or our other actor and get someone (probably me) to read the lines. This is the sort of thing a film school wouldn’t teach or even consider a likely option. In professional eyes, if there are three artists in the scene then they should all be on set at the same time. Which is fine if you can pay for everyone’s inconvenience, pay actors, crew and locations and shoot whatever group coverage is your whim. It’s probably obvious, but I can’t do most, if not all, of that. So I have to think from the edit backwards rather than from the coverage forwards.

Then we had another problem- our leading man’s train is late. A lot. Which means by the time he gets here, we’ll be out of the location and packing my car with kit. So the shoot has to be abandoned and rescheduled for next week when we won’t have jr anymore and will just be shooting the two shots, his close-up and finding a way to get an opening dolly move in there without seeing the kid yet showing that he’s present. That last one will be the challenge taxing my brain for the next few days, but none of this would be possible without an understanding of the various jigsaw pieces and the way they go together to make up the scene.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but Emily (my AD) and I have got pretty good at shooting things this way over the years. Not that it’s our first method of going about things, but it’s always nice to have a plan Z when plans A through Y have gone tits up like a pornstar on a trampoline. I like to call it the “Karma Palace Bar Scene” technique after the student film I directed where we had to employ such a technique in order to get a scene finished- a scene with three characters and two extras in a bar that, due to scheduling problems, had to be shot in bits over four shooting days (the wide shot is the only one where they were all present at the same time). When you watch the scene you can’t tell unless you’re really looking for such clues.

I’ve had to employ this little cheat on roughly half of the productions I’ve been involved in. Each time it’s given me and Em a minor headache and confused the hell out of the actors, but each time it cuts together well enough that an audience is unaware of the trickery involved.

And after all, isn’t that what filmmaking is? A trick?

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“Skyfall” and Knowing When to Stop

November 22, 2012

I don’t normally use this blog to review films but having just seen the latest Bond flick, I thought I’d share my thoughts on it and an important lesson the flick holds for the filmmaker.

First off, I really liked Skyfall– something that surprised me. In fact, if you’d have asked me my favourite bond movie a week ago, I’d have probably said Brosnan’s finest, Goldeneye. But even that has been surpassed now. Skyfall holds the crown.

Why? Because, unlike most Bonds, Skyfall is a character movie. Yes, there are action sequences. Yes, there are cool set pieces and exotic locations and even more exotic women. But at the heart of the film, it’s a dramatic story about a man coming to terms with who he is and a woman facing up to her past. Even among the ranks of high performance thrillers that’s a strong narrative through-line, but in a franchise whose past entries laboured and idolised the superficial and the escapist, this stands out like Sean Connery in a white tuxedo. To be fair, Casino Royale had a strong character spine but you always knew where it was heading. Skyfall just manages to keep the inevitable slightly out of sight, allowing things to surprise you and yet feel familiar.

Skyfall is also the best-looking Bond. Ever. Roger Deakins deserves every accolade he will likely earn for this movie. In fact, if he doesn’t earn an Oscar nomination for this, I’ll be most upset. From the neon silhouettes of a Shanghai skyscraper to the bleakness of a rustic mansion in the Scottish highlands, every frame is beautifully composed, masterfully lit and evocatively textured. When the great Conrad L Hall died, I always wondered who Sam Mendes would choose as his cinematographer du jour and in Deakins I think he has found a DOP to compliment his directing style perfectly.

The film also completes the Bond origin story. At the end, we feel we’ve come full circle and are ready to slip into Dr No with no hesitation. For me, this sort of storytelling is always a winner- returning to the point you came into the story at the end of the movie, only now armed with the knowledge of how you got there. It’s why all the non-linear narrative films of the 90s worked so well- there’s an inherent satisfaction to having all the pieces slot together and complete the picture. Without spoiling too much, by the end of the movie, key characters and production design elements from the established canon are firmly in place and you really feel like you’ve witnessed the birth of this franchise and its iconic character.

Which brings me on to today’s lesson.

Skyfall was the best Bond film yet. And if they’re smart, it will be the last one they ever make.

I know that won’t be the case- the film’s earnt way too much money for the producers and investors to bow out now, so undoubtedly there will be another Bond (whether the credits promise it or otherwise). Audiences will want more, investors will want more and in all likelihood, many of the cast and crew will want more.

But this will be a bad thing, story-wise at least. You see, Skyfall completes the franchise so perfectly that anything more will feel like draining the cash cow until its udders produce nothing but powdered milk. The performances were so strong and the story so definitive that if another film were to follow it, it would not be able to step out of it’s shadow let alone surpass it. They have reached the peak and the only way onwards is downwards.

The lesson, which the industry part of film production will undoubtedly ignore, is to know when to stop. Know when you’ve created the definitive version of something and leave it at that. Move on, do something different. George Lucas never understood this with Star Wars, James Cameron never understood this with The Terminator– and look how those franchises turned out. Yes, they made for a nice quarterly statement for the studios and many of the folks involved, but aside from all the extra Benjamins, I’d say the franchises are worse off for it. It always comes down to the same thing- the storyteller is likely content to end it there where the natural full stop is, but the well-greased and huge corporate movie-making machine will keep on running until the public stop paying for it.

Just ask yourself, as a filmmaker- what’s better? To go out on a high and leave them wanting more? Or to have a few more zeros in the bank account?

Tough call.