Archive for August, 2013

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Editing

August 17, 2013
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Couldn’t resist.

I have very mixed feelings towards editing. On the one hand, it’s the defining part of the filmmaking process and where the film actually becomes a film. On the other, it’s a massive ball-ache where you have to dredge through hours of footage, find ways to mask or fix continuity and sound issues and tread that fine line between systematic and creative approaches. And don’t get me started on NLEs and their buggy performance issues.

The strange thing is, my history with editing is pretty much my history with film and video production in general. Although I was innately a storyteller, I don’t know if I’d have taken to the craft of the moving image quite so readily were it not for the availability of consumer editing software.

When I started paddling in the pool of filmmaking, the first things I shot were fight scenes. It soon became obvious to me that the camera-sat-unmoving-on-a-table style of cinematography I was using was not only dull visually, but playing out the whole thing from this one angle made it doubly so. I realised I needed to shoot things from different angles and edit them together into a sequence. At this point I knew only what most people know about editing- that it’s just about “taking out the bad bits” (a definition so narrow, Victoria Beckham would have trouble walking down it). The only source of information I had on the subject was a copy of Jackie Chan: My Stunts on VHS and the brief sequence where he illustrates, amongst other shooting techniques, how continuity of motion was achieved with editing. This was “cutting on action”- one of the basic principles of continuity editing- and I had learnt it, even if I didn’t know the name, from a man who falls off things for a living.

(I couldn’t find the exact clip, but you get the idea…)

Since digital camcorders and consumer NLEs were new and I was shooting on Hi-8, my first attempts at editing were done between the camera and a VCR. Anyone old enough to have experimented with this method knows how much of a ball-ache it is to pause the recorder and frantically find the next bit of footage before coordinating the play/record button presses so things actually go to plan. I’m fairly certain that splicing on a moviola would be less stressful. Would I have chosen film as a career based on this experience? Doubtful. While it taught be how to plan a shoot and see something edited in my head before I shot it (both excellent and necessary skills that new filmmakers don’t always pick up right away), it was a real pain and just wasn’t as immediate a creative process as I’d have liked.

Needless to say, when I got the money together (courtesy of getting fired from my first full-time job and payroll accidentally paying me twice for the last month!) to buy a DV camera, a FireWire card for the PC and some editing software, things became much more malleable.

Urgh. Just urgh.

Urgh. Just urgh.

The first NLE I used was Pinnacle Studio (later called Ulead). It was a fairly simple drag and drop affair with clip boxes rather than a timeline and very limited sound options. But it enabled me to cut clips at a frame by frame level, assemble them into a sequence, add some music and shitty titles and create a digital file of my creation. It also allowed me to add a myriad of crappy transitions, but even then, naive as I was, I knew that starwipes were tools of the devil and stuck to straight cuts or dissolves if I wanted to transition from a scene. It was from using this less-than-impressive software that I learnt about the importance one frame can make to a cut- as Tarantino said in an interview it’s like the difference between a sour note and a sweet note in music. I also quickly realised by shooting these fight scenes that there were only certain places I could put the camera so things would edit smoothly. Person A needed to stay on one side of the screen and Person B on the other otherwise no one would know where the hell things were in relation to each other. Yep, the 180 degree rule. Again, from fight scenes. I realised if I wanted to shoot from the other side, I needed to either move the camera during the shot or cut to a direction-neutral shot in order for it to work. I also intuitively discovered cutaways and inserts by shooting these fight scenes, the former for bridging gaps in continuity and the latter for highlighting details. My education in editing had begun.

At this point, I still had no formal training. My interest was martial arts and kung fu movies and while the internet was definitely a thing and we had access to it, I was only interested in the martial arts fights amateur stunt teams were shooting and editing. So even though filmmaking was a topic of discussion on these sites, it was rarely beyond the concept of shooting angles and editing techniques.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I wanted to study film and video production properly and enrolled in a course at the local college. Immediately, I felt out of my depth. Everyone else had done some kind of course before. They knew the terminology, they knew the process and they knew Final Cut Pro- which was the editing system of choice at Reading College. I struggled to keep up, desperately trying to internalise lecture notes, read up on things I didn’t understand and try stuff out with my friends on our next fight scene shoot.

Eventually, after about eight months, I quit.

I got a full time job which I hated. I saved some money. I started to get over my depression. And I got withdrawal symptoms from not doing any filmmaking.

Realising I might have made a mistake in quitting, I bought a new camcorder since the old one had died, my first Apple computer (the hernia-inducing eMac) and a copy of Final Cut Express. I shot a short action film with my friends and realised I had actually learnt things from the course. I had learnt more about shots and composition, about continuity and storytelling and I had learnt a bit about Final Cut Pro. This was the first real project I edited in Final Cut and the process was several magnitudes of difference from Pinnacle Studio. I had a timeline, I had a viewer and a canvas, I had bins and filters and colour correction and audio tools. I could do L and J cuts (again, something I figured out for myself rather than being taught it) and I could do admittedly crude slow motion- I think that might have been the holy grail for me!

FCP screengrab

But Final Cut was a bit of a beast. Like before, it took ages to capture my footage from tape, but this time I felt compelled to log it as I went, setting in and out points, naming scenes and shots. This was something I hated, but it did mean I was viewing my footage as I went looking for the good take (this was 2003- I only had an 80Gb hard drive and DV took up 1Gb per 13 mins so it paid to be frugal).

Somewhere along the line, editing stopped being fun. It became a slog. That necessary evil that has to be done so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour- like changing the bedclothes before you hump in it.

And I started to hate it. Mostly.

I still enjoyed the magic of making something work and seeing it how the audience would and I still enjoyed editing when I was in the zone at 2am, trying to get the narrative to flow. But like a panda in London Zoo, I was rarely in the mood and frankly, it all looked too much like hard work.

Van Damme couldn't believe just how long this render was going to be...

Van Damme couldn’t believe just how long this render was going to be…

When I re-enrolled at Reading College (now the diet coke university TVU), I found myself to be far more experienced than many of my classmates. This meant that I could help them with the things they found difficult, but it also meant that I had the time to expand and develop what was being taught rather than scrabbling to just keep up. I still hated editing for the most part but I also acknowledged that editing was where the film actually became a film. And I wound up doing a lot of editing myself because I was much more comfortable with Final Cut than some of the others but also because I frequently shot stuff with the edit in mind. And for someone who wasn’t me, this was often a problem.

Editors are both craftsmen and creatives. They’re like engineers, using a complex series of tools to assemble something else. But they’re also like collage or mosaic artists, taking tiny bits and putting them together to make more complicated, much better pieces of art. It’s a real straddler of a role and it relies on having a range of raw materials to work with. The problem is, I would frequently save time or energy on set by knowing how I wanted something edited and only shooting the material necessary to make that happen. So when the editor sat down to edit it, he found that the footage could only really be assembled one way, thus robbing him of his creative involvement, or worse still if he couldn’t see that end product and only saw insufficient footage to edit it how he wanted. On The Good, The Bad and The Undead, a movie I co-produced, DoP’d and somewhat visually directed, the editor frequently found I hadn’t shot the coverage he needed to assemble the scene. I’d shot enough to assemble it my way, as per my storyboards, but I’d left no room for leeway or his creative choices. And I didn’t exactly deal with the situation well either. When he pointed out I didn’t have enough coverage for the main fight scene in the flick and said it flat-out wouldn’t cut together, I took the footage, cut it and mixed it overnight into a pretty good fight scene just to cuntishly prove him wrong. This antagonism was probably one of the reasons why that film took ages to edit but it left me with this feeling that if I was going to shoot things this way, I needed to be the editor. Not for any sense of auteurism, but because I didn’t want to annoy and frustrate an editor.

So for every project I directed after that, I did the editing. Even Persona, where Don Allen the producer really wanted to get someone else in to edit, I insisted because I knew that at the pace we would be moving I was likely to cut corners (and I did) and for an editor, this would be a nightmare. Strangely though, I have grown to like shooting coverage more and more in the last few years- in the main because I don’t need to plan as much as I used to and I can pace things better and add to the performances in the edit if I have a reasonable level of coverage. And if a particular shot is definitely what I want to use, I will structure that coverage around it, making it integral to the scene, but giving myself (or another editor) some degree of flexibility.

Now we have a new generation of NLEs. Final Cut Pro X was hated by many professionals on its launch (I have to confess, I didn’t like it much either) but over the last year I’ve grown to like it, even as I find its new ways of doing simple things frustrating and liberating at the same time. One thing I have found though, is that I’m a faster editor with it. I used to be a slow, picky perfectionist with editing, but FCPX is very much a slam-it-together-and-see-what-sticks NLE and I’ve found this means I put together an assembly quicker and then spend my time tweaking and tidying it rather than plodding through it on Final Cut Classic. L and J cuts are actually easier, stuff doesn’t go out of sync as often when I’m in full-on tweak mode and thanks to the codec-agnostic engine and background render, the whole video format thing is something of a non-issue.

Given that the tools are somewhat improved, you might be surprised to learn I still have my love-hate thing with editing. I’ve mellowed somewhat and I like it a bit more because I’m better at it with the new tools, but it’s still Vicks in my Vaseline.

I’ve always thought that, as a director, when working on a project you end up making your film several times over- each draft of the script, each bit of concept art, the storyboards, the shooting script, your vision of the film in your head, every subsequent edit and revision… each is a new stab at telling the story. And I think a lot of my negativity towards editing is because by the time I’m sitting there with the timeline, the script, the continuity notes, a big bag of crisps and a 2 litre bottle of pepsi max and everything else in front of me (or next to someone else who’s going to do much of the donkey-work), I’ve already made the film several times and really can’t be fucked to do it all again.

But then that magic happens. That moment when a scene comes together and feels natural and effortless and… good… and suddenly you forget all the waiting and the procrastinating and the software bugs and the format issues and the swearing and the frustration and realise that you’ve made a film. And it works. And you keep going because you can’t wait to see how this thing unfolds in the next scene.

And by the time you stop because the screen is blurring and your eyes hurt like someone’s poured lemon juice in them, it’s 4.30 in the morning and you have work at half 8 and you really really should get some sleep…

…I’ll just finish this next scene… I’m in the zone…

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The Role of The Female Director

August 10, 2013
This is Dorothy Arzner. Go look her up now.

This is Dorothy Arzner- one of the first successful female directors. Google her. Now.

After the last few posts, which have frankly all been me banging on about work (or the lack thereof), I thought it would be a good idea to write something more profound and less ranty. So I picked something political- which I don’t normally touch with someone else’s splintery barge pole- and something relevant to the world of the film director.

My friend and film critic Luke Owen recently wrote a post for Flickering Myth about the Bechdel Test and how it isn’t as sound as many people think. For those who don’t know or can’t be bothered to click the link and read the article, the Bechdel Test is a three point criteria to see if a movie has a fair creative treatment of female characters. It pretty much goes thus:

1) Does the film have at least two named female characters?
2) Do they actually talk to each other?
3) When they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than men?

As many self-identifying feminists will point out, it’s surprising how many films fail the test. As Luke pointed out in his article (just read it, I’ll wait…), it’s surprising which ones fail and which ones pass. For instance, “Alien 3” with its strong female lead fails the test because there are no other named female characters for her to interact with. Mysoginist shit like Michael Bay’s teenage boy spank-bank “Transformers” passes because Megan Fox’s character talks to another female character and they discuss how pretty she is.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

Apparently, this is okay according to the Bechdel test.

While it’s obvious that the Bechdel Test has all the causal validity of an ontological argument (look it up- but if you’re religious, feel free to type your knee-jerk rebuttals somewhere else), the issue itself- the representation of women in film, both as characters and as creatives- is entirely valid.

While the 20th century has seen some amazing progress in civil rights, from race and religion to sexuality and gender, it’s fair to say that we still have some way to go on all counts. Even my generation, which grew up in a world where everyone was supposed to be treated equally, have those who hold poorly-formed prejudices. But certain industries are locked into antiquated elitism and the film and TV industry is arguably one of them. Most studio heads and executives are male. Most of their subordinates are male. For a woman to get into those hallowed ranks, not only would it be a case of dead-man’s-boots on the scale of a small natural disaster, but her contemporaries would have to let her stay and not black-ball her at the first opportunity.

As a result there are relatively few female producers. There are even fewer female directors and writers. There are fewer still female DoPs. Maybe it’s the same problem that female comedians have- that their male counterparts’ material is about anything and everything, but their own material is nearly always about being a woman.

I think the same thing happens with female directors. The female voice is so marginalised in film that when women do get the chance to direct or write, the stories they want/feel they have to tell are about that marginalisation- they’re about the role of women in the world. Whereas male directors have the luxury of audiences knowing man’s “role” in the world (thanks to our male-dominated history) and thus are free to squander their storytelling opportunity by indulging in explosions, pop-culture references and titties.

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What we’re getting to here is the ultimate conundrum with equality as a concept. True equality is where gender just flat-out doesn’t matter. Characters in a fictional story could be male or female (or something in-between!) and it would make absolutely no difference to our understanding or expectations of said story either way. Sadly, as a culture we’re not there yet. And in all likelihood, never will be if you believe in biological pre-determinism. So instead, I think what we should aim for is equality of identity- where every identity is equally valued and equally represented. I’d like to think we’re staring to see progress in this regard but I suppose it’s hard for me to judge these things since I am a) male, b) white, c) English and d) upper-working class- everything that makes me part of the most media-privileged demographic on the planet. I’m like the largest demographic personified.

And that in itself can be a problem. The general consensus is that you have to be part of a demographic in order to create media about/for it. For instance, it would be frowned upon if I, an English white man, were to make a film about Afro-Carribbean culture in 80s Harlem (actually “frowned upon” might not be the right phrase, since “full-tilt confusion” would probably prevail). I couldn’t direct a movie about the women’s rights movement in the 60s or the Zionist ideal in Israel for much the same reasons. In all cases, it could be deemed inappropriate and borderline disrespectful for me to even try. These are stories that should be told from a viewpoint from within the issue (or as marketing types are more than willing to cynically accept, from someone who could have been within the issue) and as such are off-limits to someone like me.

No wonder it is that when these marginalised groups get a chance to tell a story on a large stage, they choose to tell these ones. Because these stories need to be told and society has deemed it that only they can tell it because of the colour of their skin, the God they believe in or the number of X chromosomes they have. And that’s totally fair because someone has to tell these stories and carry the flag. But what of the female director who just wants to make a big budget action flick? Hollywood probably won’t let her. They’ll be more than happy to let her direct a film about being a woman in a man’s world, but won’t let her helm a flick that has Tom Cruise shooting his way through a building.

Which I think is wrong. Stories are stories. Storytellers are storytellers. It shouldn’t matter where/who the story comes from if it’s done well and it sure as hell shouldn’t matter whether or not the director’s genitals can get caught in a zip.

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When You Dread a Job…

August 2, 2013

Over the years since I got into filmmaking, I’ve worked on a wide range of projects- from short films and web series to music videos and corporates- and in several capacities- from runner to self-shooter and director. I’ve directed half hour dramas and crammed shooting into a couple of very long, stressful days, I’ve shot through the night and then through most of the following day with no sleep and I’ve shot and edited multi-camera gig videos, sifting through and syncing hours and hours of footage. But there’s one thing that fills me with dread…

Wedding videos.

[Shudders]

Nothing against wedding videos or those who do them for a living (you’re braver than I am!), but I hate doing them. Actually, hate isn’t quite right. Fear is a more appropriate term. I fear/hate wedding videos in the same way that a lot of people fear/hate spiders.

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The two scariest things in the world…

I know what you’re thinking. Why? (If you’re not thinking that and are hoping for directing tips since this is a directing blog and all, I hope you don’t take disappointment badly.) Well, I think a lot of it can be divided into two areas- all the issues associated with event filming and all the issues that come from working with clients- combined into a nice, round ball of awkward.

Event filming is very challenging, whether you’re filming with one camera or several. This is mainly due to you having no control or influence whatsoever on what’s going on- the event is going to carry on with or without you and you have no chance to reshoot things.

If you’re filming outside and the lighting changes, tough.

If the interior event you’re filming has very dim lighting for ambience, ditto.

You can’t change it. Because you are not in the slightest bit important. In fact, you often have to try and be invisible. It’s an event for the people attending, not a film shoot for you and your creativity and that can be tough if, like me, you have a preference for shooting drama, where you’re used to doing takes and controlling everything. Sometimes you set up a camera- manned or unmanned- and the subject moves off their spot, forcing you to change and potentially miss something important. Audio can be missed or mis-recorded, natural light changes erratically with no ability to retake and editing becomes about trying to create a narrative with random material that often has little narrative beyond the obvious sequence of events. Clients also frequently want “everything” filmed, something which is somewhere between impossible and bloody difficult since it requires omnipresence and little opportunity to edit creatively.

On the subject of clients, they can come with their own difficulties- as anyone who has done any paid work ever can testify- and usually those difficulties circle around expecting more than they’re willing to pay for and not understanding the production process (expecting a video to be a moving, talking version of their SEO-and-buzzword-saturated website copy for instance).

Wedding videos add a personal element to this because the client is in it and they often have a different self-image and memory of events to what the camera sees and the edit shows. For example, the bride might love her dress and believe she looks like an angel but when she watches the wedding video, the unbiased, non-rose-tinted eye of the camera captures her in all her looking-like-a-wedding-cake glory.

"I'm a beautiful angel!"

“I’m a beautiful angel!”

And as the filmmaker, there’s a limit to what you can do with angles, lighting or post filters to hide that fact, short of comping in Kate Beckinsale in her place.

Actors are used to seeing themselves on screen and have usually got over seeing their imperfections or characteristics to a certain extent, but the average person still cringes when they see their face in a picture or hears the sound of their own voice, no matter how many selfies they post on Instagram or how many Vine videos they share (See, I know about modern trends! I’m cool and on the pulse!).

I also hate the money/work imbalance wedding video work comes with. Wedding clients are frequently willing to drop thousands of pounds on the stills photographer but won’t stretch to a fraction of that for video. This isn’t to devalue the role of the photographer, but it’s fair to say that producing a video of similar quality takes substantially more time and potentially more financial investment in terms of kit, especially since you might be shooting with two or more large-sensored cameras and lenses. I think it’s because good stills are valued as an important memento, where video is asked for because its technically available. Maybe it’s also because video tends to show reality, warts and all, where a still can be doctored and photoshopped much easier and thus is more pleasing. Anyway, it frequently means that the video guy is doing a lot of work, earning less money and then is splitting the cash with a second operator because doing it solo is both harder and virtually impossible to do any justice to the event.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, unsurprisingly, I’m shooting a wedding in the immediate future and I’m dreading it. Oh, I have no doubt the day will go fine and the client seems like they’re on the level, but if I could go back in time and turn the job down I would.

Strange thing is, I don’t get this with other shoots. Not with drama, not with corporate gigs and not with corporate events- despite them having much the same issues as a wedding video. I suppose everyone has their areas of confidence and areas of fear with work and if I was some kind of Jedi master I would say to face your fears and overcome them, but sadly I’m not Yoda and I ascribe in this instance to the “if you don’t have to do something you hate, don’t do it” mentality.

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I suppose if it was fear out of ignorance- ie I’d never shot a wedding before- then I’d be all conquer-fears about it, but I have shot weddings before and nearly all of them have been a sharp pain the sphincter so I think from now on, I’ll be turning weddings down if they come my way.

I hate turning down work, particularly when I’m all kinds of poor, and a freelancer can never afford to turn down work… but I’m in this game because I love it. I love making films, I love shooting, I love telling stories. And if I’m not loving work, then I don’t think I should do it. Money really isn’t that important to me- if it was, I’d have sold my filmmaker soul to the porn gods long ago.