Archive for the ‘My Artwork’ Category

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“We Are Not Sick Men!”

March 24, 2015

Not Sick Men

For those who are not martial arts film fans, the above quote might seem a little strange, but it comes from the 1972 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. Right at the beginning of the flick, some Japanese martial artists from a rival school give the Chinese students an insulting gift- a signboard with the often-repeated cultural slur “The Sick Men of Asia” calligraphed on it. In the very next scene, Bruce defeats a dojo full of Japanese students, shatters faces and cultural prejudices alike and proclaims on behalf of the Chinese people “we are not sick men!”

A key moment in Chinese cinema and martial arts movie history, sure, but why do I bring it up here? Because it’s a nice segue into the fact that action films are generally treated like they’re the “sick men” of the film industry. And, like Bruce Lee, they most definitely are not.

This isn’t to say action movies aren’t appreciated. Virtually every studio’s tentpole offerings year after year are action movies. They cost lots of money and they make lots back, both at the box office and then on download, disc and pay per view. They are important. But they are not respected.

I'll just leave this here.

I’ll just leave this here.

You see it all the time… Audiences, critics and other filmmakers alike all look down on action movies like they’re the cheap amusements of a bunch of undereducated morons. How many times do you hear the words “big” “dumb” and “action movie” slung conveniently together in that order? I have to admit, I’ve used that phrase more than once. How many movies are pardoned off as “guilty pleasures” because “you can turn your brain off” when watching them? As if they’re somehow beneath your aspirations and you feel embarrassed for liking them in the first place. Well, don’t be. Comedian Dara O’Briain has a similar defence of pop music in one of his stand up routines and the bottom line is that if you enjoy something, don’t feel bad about it. Not every piece of music is a Bach and not every movie is a Kubrick.

Action movies are frequently looked down upon because they are considered to be mere entertainment and not art, but that is bullshit of the highest order. Some films like Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s The Killer have very strong artistic qualities, certainly more than many art house dramas.

I think if other filmmakers took a closer look at action movies or better yet, tried to make one, they’d respect them a little more and realise a few things.

Like just how fucking difficult they are.

The main reason non-action filmmakers struggle with action films is because a lot of what they know and rely on as directors goes out the window when you’re shooting action. You see, with normal, non-shooty-kicky-boom-boom scenes, directors, editors and DoPs can fall back on the “Hollywood method” of shooting coverage (not to be confused with the “Hollywood method” of contraception which involves not having a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing blog and all…), it’s about shooting a master shot of the scene, followed by sub-masters, over-the-shoulders, close-ups and anything else that’ll give the editor all the options and headaches he could ever want. Thing is, coverage doesn’t work like that for fight scenes. If you shoot a master of the whole fight then cut in for character A’s punches and reactions, then do the same for character B and try to edit it together, it’ll look like shit.

(Above: Shit)

For a start, wide shots are difficult for the actors and stunt performers. It takes a lot of skill to perform multiple precise techniques in a full frame and not fuck up- that’s why it’s only skilled and experienced fight performers like Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao that take twenty plus moves in one take in their stride. Even if you have skilled fighters, you’ll also likely tire them out on the wide master, so that by the time they get to shooting their other angles, they’ll look as attractive as Adam Sandler on a stairmaster.

In recent years, american movies have taken to throwing out the master and just sticking to the close-ups, disguising the relative shot repetition (and potentially shoddy technique) with nausea-inducing wobble-cam. I’m looking at you, Paul Greengrass… Fast-paced and kinetic? Yes. Clear and expressive? Once I’ve recovered from synaptic overload, I’ll vomit out a “no.”

In Hong Kong, they choose the camera angle first and then choreograph the action with that angle in mind, because certain moves and techniques look better or worse or stronger or faster from certain angles and lenses. Each shot is designed to showcase a certain part of the choreography or story, the camera moves with the action and each edit point flows seamlessly into the next (meaning the last move of one shot is the first move of the next, allowing you to cut invisibly on action). This means you have to be aware of things like the 180 degree rule, the 30 degree rule and the effects of camera movement in order to pick your shots properly. For people like Yuen Wo Ping, Lau Kar Leung and Sammo Hung, they can make this shit up on the fly and it cuts smoother than Barry White carving out soft scoop ice cream, but generally, you need to know how the scene will edit together before you shoot it. This obviously limits the creative options in editing to a “when to cut” rather than a “what to cut to” which is why a lot of session editors hate it. I know that one first hand, which is why I prefer to cut my own shit for the lack of arguments if nothing else.

This “see it edited beforehand” process is also necessary for chase sequences, gunfights and anything that involves effects work- shooting Hollywood-style coverage on any of these will likely result in hours of useless footage and lots of money, time and cast/crew goodwill wasted.

It’s one of the few areas where even the most experienced action directors plump for storyboards. Not just to communicate to the crew (including a second unit tasked with the fun explody stuff and cutaway minutiae), but also to work out the editing for the sequence- knowing what shot goes where and when. Which is weird when you think about it, because like all still images, they can’t convey the passing of time or anything that changes over time, like movement. But short of doing an animatic, storyboards are probably your best tool for prepping an action sequence.

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film "Dead Meet"

Some of the storyboards for a fight scene from my new short film “Dead Meet”

Sometimes, particularly for a fight scene, it’s worth following up the storyboards by shooting a blocking tape- essentially a rough shot-by-shot edit-by-edit assembly of the fight to see what works and what doesn’t. It can give you a sense of pacing and progression that storyboards lack and especially for an inexperienced or otherwise faithless crew, it can also give them the confidence in both the sequence and you as a director.

(Above: Part of “Dead Meet”s blocking tape)

So if you’re one of those filmmakers who sneers at action flicks because no action film has won at Cannes or Sundance or some other festival where hipsters in black polo necks congregate, then I suggest you have a crack at making one. Shoot a chase sequence, a gunfight or a post-modern hyper-ballistic kung fu battle. And send me the link when you’re done! You’ll learn a shit-ton and probably have more fun on the shoot than the time you worked on that promo with all the supermodels…

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Or maybe not…

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Realism vs Believability

November 29, 2014

Internet Anger

So the first trailer for Jurassic World came out this week (as did a teaser for the new Star Wars, but I’ll comment on that later) and I’ll get my opinion out of the way first: I’m somewhere between “woohoo a new Jurassic Park” and “probably won’t bother watching it to be honest.” It looks well-made, seems to keep most of the core elements that worked in the original and gives the formula a new spin. But I also think, good as it might be, it will only disappoint people like me- people in their twenties and thirties who have a love of the original film, not just because of its myriad merits but also because of how it made us feel as kids and, in my case, helped sowed the seeds of filmmaking in me. A new film, just like any long-awaited sequel, prequel or ill-fated reboot, can’t live up to that. It’s like losing your virginity while a particular 90s song was playing on the radio and then trying to capture that excitement and magic with every subsequent partner by playing “Pure” by the Lightning Seeds as a mood-setter.

Anyway, enough about nostalgia, reboots and disappointed 30-somethings. This post is about something that happened in the wake of that trailer (and indeed after every film comes out really): the rise of the pedant. The nitpicker. The guys who split more hairs than a stylist with a laser and an electron microscope. Shit like:

“Dinosaurs don’t have opposable thumbs!”

(No, but how else are they going to make that “rraw, I’m coming to eat you” expression?)

“Why don’t the dinosaurs have feathers, are they just sticking to what experts thought in 1992?”

(Kinda, it’s called series continuity and audience expectation, arsehat.)

“Your dinosaur has the right teeth, but no forked tongue which it should have because something something science…”

(Oh God… It’s a fucking movie, people…)

I get it. You’re passionate and informed about something. You’re an expert on it. And you see a film about this subject so you’re all excited, then discover that it carries inaccuracies and errors… so you notice them. Those errors destroy for you that suspension of disbelief that movies need in order to function. Then, since we live in the internet age and anyone can make overreactive comments on message boards and twitter, you point them out and proclaim the film/filmmakers to be shit.

Actually, that last one I don’t get. I mean, I empathise, but it’s just a movie. The film and the filmmakers aren’t shit for letting those “mistakes” through the net. In fact, it’s quite likely they did it that way on purpose.

Sure, some of those facts were incorrect out of ignorance (either the writer’s research didn’t uncover them, or the research was relatively inadequate) but some were out of choice. Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs not having feathers, for instance, was a bit of both. In 1993, the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds was a very niche theory not accepted by most palaeontologists of the time and the idea that they had feathers was as dumb as all hell with no evidence to back it up. So when they made the film, they made the dinosaurs how everyone, audience and experts alike, expected them to be- scaly, scary and not in the least bit feathered. Even today, if you put feathers on a dinosaur, the average movie viewer won’t accept it, no matter how accurate it is. Which is probably why they chose to do the same thing in the new film. What kind of director wants their audience laughing at velociraptors dolled up like Priscilla Queen of the Desert?

Films are an illusion and in order for an audience to become immersed in them, they have to buy that illusion. These little details, regardless of their veracity, are there to help sell that illusion. It’s about believability not realism. Because let’s face it, a completely 100% realistic film with every detail and moment intact would be really fucking boring. It would be like looking out a window. The story would get lost in all the meandering minutiae and have no weight to it.

And that’s the main reason why these decisions are made. If the content in the film, whether it be accurate as possible or madey-uppy as all hell, takes the average movie viewer out of the story, then it needs to go. Case in point- Gravity. Well made and very well-researched in every other respect, when there were inaccuracies (the orbital heights of the spacecraft, the fact Sandra Bullock’s character can’t pilot the landing vehicle, the lack of space nappies…) they were more than likely there through choice. Having to explain what the space nappies were when Bullock de-spacesuits would slow the story down, distract the average viewer and be completely irrelevant when it comes to the story. Thus they put her in cycle shorts and gave us that visually arresting womb metaphor which did more for the story than foil pants would ever have done.

As a director, you are usually the one who has to make these decisions. And that can be tough. Whatever decision you make, someone in the audience is going to hate it. If you choose to have the hero take cover behind a car during a gunfight, there will be at least a couple of people who point out that 9mm parabellum rounds will easily go through a car’s bodywork. If you do the opposite and have them get shot through the car, the larger portion of the audience will be confused as to what happened and why. But you need to put the story first. If it’s important to the story, then it can stay. If it detracts from the story, it needs to change. Simple as that.

To paraphrase Spock, the needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the nitpicker. Besides, they enjoy complaining on twitter and while they’re doing that, the rest of us are enjoying the movie as the filmmakers intended.

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Life’s a Pitch

November 16, 2014
"...and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!"

“…and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!”

Writers and directors frequently talk about the importance of a good pitch. For writers, this is them in a meeting with a potential producer trying to get them to buy (figuratively or literally) their script/treatment/vague idea scribbled on a napkin in Starbucks. For directors, this is often the same audience but this time trying to get them to buy you and your take on this script you have/have been given to read. In both cases, it’s technically a job interview. As I mentioned before, auditions and interviews are prolonged and generally painful experiences for everyone involved, not just the dude in the spotlit chair, so it’s a good idea to get some practice in before you bank your career on your ability to hook an audience with your pitch.

But pitching as a skill also serves another useful purpose which I’ve only recently realised. If you’re writing a script and are having trouble sorting out story points (particularly character and event points- see previous blog), find a willing friend and pitch the story to them. This forces you to see the story from an audience’s point of view and tell it in a way that is easy to follow, compelling and full of narrative moments. And perhaps it’s because of this that the best pitching audience are film-watchers and not film-makers. The former will see the story in their heads as you tell it, filling in the gaps with their own images and actors and everything, whereas the latter are more likely to cast a practical eye on the story, thinking about cinematography or editing or budgetary concerns, knowing full-well you intend to film or write it.

Recently, I pitched a feature film idea I’ve been chewing on for a year or so to a couple of friends separately. Before these pitches, I really only had a basic premise, a couple of characters and some moments/set-pieces. I hadn’t started on a script- usually I like to get a rough structure in place before I fire up Celtx- and didn’t even have a brief treatment scribbled on the back of an envelope. What I had was in my head.

But when I was in the pub with my mate Chris (as accurately recreated above) and the conversation turned to what I was working on, the usual vagaries I might spin to someone else receded and I started to tell him about this feature film. And I did something I don’t normally do when pitching. I skipped over the “it’s like this film meets that film” back-of-the-DVD summary and started with the “we open on a dark side street…” The first scene description.

I told the story from the beginning.

I introduced characters as they appeared, described the look and feel of things, revealed plot points and backstory as you would find it in the story and let the events unfold naturally. And in the process, I was able to see plot holes (either for myself or because Chris asked about them) and dramatic through line. It got me back to the basics of storytelling and freed me from all the practical concerns that come with directing your own script and the marketing concerns that a producer might focus on. It allowed me to tell the story on its own merits- something I frequently forget to do in a professional pitching situation.

It also feels collaborative. My ideas weren’t set in stone, so when Chris made observations or suggestions and got immersed in the story, I was in a place where I could take note of these things and work them in depending on what he responded to. Chris actually contributed to several key plot points as a result of this, as well as reminding me of stories or franchises mine might be similar to (and thus might want to differentiate myself from).

When I got home from the pub I quickly took down all the new notes while they were fresh and it gave me new motivation to crack on with the script. A few weeks later, I pitched the new story to my mate Mike (also in a pub- it’s where all the best production meetings happen!) and his reactions also built on the film’s structure, characters and moments. The whole project also swelled into a trilogy, which I now have mapped out. God only knows if I’ll actually get to make it, but still…

So pitching is a great way to hammer your story into shape, but does it work the other way? Does simply telling your story work when pitching to other film professionals, like producers and executives?

For the most part, yes.

Remember, that’s what they’re hiring a director for- to tell that story. If they just needed someone to put things in front of the camera or focus on the audience demographics, they could have found someone with less imagination and communication skills to do that. Obviously, you need to understand something of their interests (demographics, budget, key markets etc) and communicate your understanding so they have confidence in you, but your pitch should again just focus on the story and your treatment of it.

While I’ve not yet pitched to producers for feature film gigs, I have pitched to producers for web series like “Persona” and pretty much every music video gig (and quite a few corporate shoots) essentially involves a pitch of some sort. And it’s always the same: Tell your story, engage their interest and move them emotionally, intellectually or viscerally. Once they’re hooked and on board, address the practical issues, but always with solutions where possible.

Sounds bloody obvious now, but this is actually the director’s best method of pitching. Treat your audience, no matter whether they be filmmaking co-conspirators on the project or secular acquaintances, as just that- an audience and everything else will fall into place.

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A Plan B for Phase 3

October 30, 2014

For many comic book fans, the fall of a superhero is one of the most interesting things a franchise can do. Show Batman as an octogenarian, show Superman as a bad guy, show Peter Parker after he loses his spidey powers. It shuffles the recipe up and provides new angles for the characters as well as playing to our human desire to see good things fall and watch the world burn.

The big question for me at the moment, is whether the comic book movie studios can take the same karmic switcheroo.

Marvel Studios has just announced their phase 3 for all the big and small screen outings of their properties: nine big, full-budget feature films over the next four years, not to mention TV shows and mini-series. It’s strange to think that only a few years ago, this would’ve been unthinkable for a relatively small studio like Marvel (even if the house of mouse is now writing the cheques) to attempt. Comic book movies have always had a mixture of financial success and critical bipolarity, ever since Donner’s 1978 take on Superman. The average moviegoer enjoyed the spectacle and blockbuster nature of the flicks and comic book fans were always torn between disappointment at how their favourite characters were treated and joy for the fact those same characters actually got a big screen outing. Until fairly recently, there wasn’t really a way to have both- a successful movie that pleased fans and non-fans alike and made a helicarrier full of cash.

Then Marvel took the bold step of trying to make their own movies. Only problem was, their biggest, most well-known properties, both within the comic world and with Joe Public, were in the less-than-loving hands of studios like Fox and Sony and no-one wanted to work with Marvel on their own big screen vision for their remaining franchises. All they had was passion, determination and faith in their material.

Fast forward a few years and it’s obvious that faith and determination paid off. The box office success of film after film, coupled with critical acclaim from both fans and average Joe alike meant the Marvel movie train is a force to be reckoned with. Warners, Sony and Fox are all trying to ape Marvel with whatever comic book properties they have and can get their paws on- most transparently, the DC/Warner attempts to build a roster for a Justice League movie so they can clone a bit of that Avengers magic.

But there’s a potential storm heading their way and it’s something that could affect all these franchises and their outpourings, including knocking Marvel’s four year plan upside the head like a Mjolnir to the face.

If the average movie-going public tire of comic book movies, everyone’s fucked.

Comic book fans often shake their heads at this with all the blinkeredness of a fundamentalist preacher one day after the rapture didn’t happen, but it’s true. In the grand scale of things, the fans are a minority- certainly in terms of box office takings. They might be vocal and enthusiastic and buy all the merchandise, but when it comes to the quarterly bottom line, the comic book fans are not the primary audience at all. Most of the money from these films came from audiences who had no idea about the universe or characters beforehand. They went to see the films because they were big-screen blockbuster event movies and they looked like fun. Which they were. And people love them. But unlike the hardcore fans, the average movie audience is fickle, easily led and prone to boredom. Too many comic book properties vying for their attention and money could confuse or alienate them, particularly if they feel like they’ve seen them before (the remakes and re-imaginings of Spider-Man and Batman really don’t help). And if they lose interest, the Scrooge-McDuck pot of gold that’s financing these films will dry up like yesterday’s spilt Cristal. No amount of fan support will help finance a new Avengers team-up if that happens.

Iron Man Hobo

Marvel’s future fundraising method

The fact is that Marvel really isn’t helping itself here. Two or three blockbuster instalments every year might be fine in isolation, but Marvel isn’t the only contender in the comic book arena. Warners and Sony and Fox and all the independents are all going to be rushing to put their own properties in the multiplexes, Blu-Ray shelves and download charts in the hope of cutting a slice of that sweet, sweet pie and the end result is going to be over saturation and too much choice for the consumer. Something the average movie-goer isn’t that comfortable with.

It happened with Scifi in the wake of Star Wars and it will happen again. I just hope Marvel has a plan B.

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

I’ve been working on a bunch of scripts recently from the ground up and it’s meant focusing a lot on story and how it works. We often take story for granted, but there’s a system and structure to making it effective. There are various approaches to this, from the writings of Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell to the story process of Disney and Pixar…

… And, somewhat foolishly, I thought I’d put my opinions on the matter in the same box. So here goes…

As I see it, a story can basically be broken down into four elements- The Big Picture, Events, Characters and The World. Generally none of these are more important than the other (although your story and your budget might tweak your focus somewhat) but if you neglect one of them, the story is likely to fall flat.

The Big Picture

BigPicture

This is the overall arc of the story. It plots how things change, develop and grow, the fundamental themes and ultimately the story’s purpose (aka why bother to tell this story at all?). The Big Picture is the bit where you can distill the story into as simple an idea as you like, breaking it down into such tropes as “boy meets girl” or “naive youth goes on journey to save his world.” Essentially, The Big Picture is where you answer the question “what’s this story about?” in the broadest sense. It’s also where the story’s themes and subtext find root. For instance, Paul Verhoven’s Robocop is about consumerist America and the fascist power of big corporations (while the much-crappier remake is about drone warfare or something) and this thematic idea informs all manner of things in the movie.

The Big Picture isn’t about details, it’s about the general experience. It’s the message and feeling that the audience take away with them and it needs to be in the back of the director’s and writer’s mind the whole time because it’s what guides and shapes the film.

The Events

Events

This, confusingly, might also called “the plot.” It is essentially the series of obstacles, interactions, beats, moments and resolutions that make up the backbone of the story. These are normally the things beginners and non-storytellers focus on when trying to tell a story- but strangely, on their own, the events really don’t hold much of the audience’s attention (as anyone who’s listened to pub anecdotes can tell you). Much of this is because although they advance the story by providing constant changes in scenery and situation, they don’t emotionally engage audiences- that role falls to characters. The Events are a vehicle for everything else and without them, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

A certain amount of interest and drama can be created in the way and order the events are revealed- such as flashbacks or the ever-popular non-linear, out-of-order structure. But doing so in isolation just becomes a puzzle the audience has little interest in solving.

The Characters

Characters

The characters provide the connection between the audience and the rest of the story. They need to be appealing and/or interesting and, particularly for the protagonists, somewhat relatable. Primary characters need an arc and it’s this course of development and change that contributes to the core story. Secondary characters can get away with little to no development, but it’s still best to have some growth otherwise they lose some of their believability.

Audiences engage with characters, either because they relate to them in some way or because they have some appeal which keeps them interesting. Remember “appeal” doesn’t mean “like” it just means they are interesting to watch. Some of the most appealing movie characters in history are thoroughly unlikeable as people (bad guys are a great example of this), but engaging enough on screen to carry a film or their plot threads.

The World

World

The World is what surrounds the characters and provides the backdrop for the events. It’s obvious how important this is in a scifi or fantasy movie, where the world has to be created from scratch, but it’s equally important in more contemporary, realistic settings. For instance, both The Avengers and Cloverfield are action films set in contemporary, post-9/11 New York, but the worlds and their rules are completely different.

The World is where the rules are set and the other story elements are given context. By developing the world, you are adding depth and believability to the story, making the setting almost like another character in the film. And just like the characters, the audience needs to relate to it and or find it appealing. Is your world a worthwhile place to spend the next 90mins or so?

All events in the story should either come from the actions of the characters or the machinations of the world around them, so neglecting this aspect can seriously impact plot progression as well.

To see how all this comes together, let’s look at a film that most people have seen and are familiar with since it’s a cornerstone of our culture…

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

No, not really. That heap of self-aware cinematic dog shit is more the kidney stone of our culture. Let’s look at Star Wars. The first one, not the less-than-stellar prequels.

Nostalgia aside, Star Wars is hardly a well-directed piece of cinema. But it is a well-constructed story and much of that is down to the balance between the events, characters, world and the big picture.

Star Wars was intentionally designed as a classic hero’s journey, based on the works of Joseph Campbell and his “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This makes its Big Picture fairly easy to adhere to- naive youth gets pulled into a greater conflict by a wise old man, learns to be a warrior and ultimately defeats the great evil. The fundamental themes are good and evil, heroism and coming-of-age. If there is any subtext or parallels, it’s with classic stories of heroism, knights of the round table, samurai etc Essentially, it’s a fairy tale set in space.

The characters are also atypical of that source material. Luke is a naive farm boy who dreams of more and over the course of the story, he becomes a Jedi knight like his father (or at least starts to in the first film) and ultimately saves the day with his ability to fire proton torpedoes down thermal exhaust ports. As the protagonist, it’s him we follow and see grow the most. In the beginning, he’s uncertain and doesn’t want to disappoint his uncle. He also lacks self-belief, thinking that he’s not capable of doing anything to help the rebellion. By the end of the movie, he’s saved the princess, signed up to pilot an x-wing and even learnt to turn off the targeting computer and trust the force. It’s essentially a scifi reworking of the warrior’s journey.

Other characters also have arcs- Han Solo goes from being self-centred to helping the rebellion at the 59th minute and Leia learns to trust and respect lower-class heroes like Luke and Han. The other characters are somewhat static in their development, even if they do provide backstory reveals like Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Events are quite varied and fast moving. The first third of the movie follows the droids in their mission to deliver Leia’s message, the middle is Luke and Han’s attempt to rescue Leia and the final third is the assault on the Death Star. For the most part, each plot event is driven forward by the macguffin of the Death Star plans, who has them, who wants them and what they’ll be used for. Very few scenes are truly superfluous. Locations vary too, just to keep things interesting- from sterile space craft to desert planets, old ruins with hidden bases to the cobbled-together environs of the Millennium Falcon.

The World is where Star Wars really comes into its own. Aside from all the various planets and aliens seen or hinted at, there is all the implied history of the empire and the rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith. There are referred-to characters like Luke’s father, Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, alien languages (that frequently don’t get fully translated) and all manner of backstory (thanks to Lucas going a bit nuts on his yellow note paper). It helps that the effects were good enough to be able to put all this stuff on screen and make the world feel rich, believable and interesting.

So that’s my take on what makes a story work, the four story elements of character, event, world and the big picture. In my experience it seems to do the trick and at the very least gives me as a director something to work with throughout production.