Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

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Why the new ghostbusters film needs to be a success…

July 10, 2016
What did he just say?

What did he just say?

Yeah, you read that right. I’m actually encouraging people to buy a ticket for the new Ghostbusters movie.

Not “go to see it” necessarily, just to buy a ticket. And, if you’ll bear with me, here’s why…

Hollywood is a business. If you think the film industry is about creativity and artistic integrity, then firstly, you’re pretty naive and secondly, I’ve got some magic beans to sell you… Hollywood cares about money and primarily, they measure this by box office returns. Specifically, the opening weekend. So if a movie sells a lot of tickets and makes a lot of dough, it’s considered a success and Hollywood then starts to commission similar movies, sequels and films that contain similar elements in the hope of milking that cash cow til its nipples run dry. This is the reason we get the films we do- because we’ve spent money on this shit previously. After the first Star Wars came out, we got loads of scifi movies and after The Matrix we got loads of slick action films with wire-fu fight scenes and leather trousers. But in recent years we’ve had movies based on childhood properties- stuff you’d spend your pocket money on back in the 80s and 90s that studios hoped you spend your nostalgia dollars on now. And we did. Why the fuck else have we had four Transformers movies? Four predictably shit Transformers movies!

Which leads me on to Ghostbusters. A classic movie and a not entirely terrible sequel that spawned a cartoon series and an Argos catalogue full of toys, costumes, bedsheets and y-fronts. As properties go, it was ripe for the remake machine. Fans wanted more, some of the original stars were interested… then things changed. We got a reboot, which means things could be different. We got a new cast, which meant things were different. And that new cast had vaginas, which meant a particularly internet-vocal femphobic demographic got all-caps typing on message boards. And then the trailer came out and even those who were keen to give it a chance and/or were pro-female characters weren’t altogether willing or able to defend it. It looked like a cash-grab (because, like most films, it is!), it looked hastily-put-together and poorly-made and it… just wasn’t funny.

Very few people saw that trailer and thought, hell yes, I want to go see that. Which means very few people will pay money to see it, which means the studio executives will see a terrible bottom line, which means they’ll assume many of the elements that went into the film are box office poison and avoid using them for a while.
And I think one of those elements cast aside to the filing cabinet labelled “Try Again in 2030” will be a primarily female cast. Women are sorely under-represented in the media, both behind the camera and in front of it and in 2016, that’s something to be ashamed of. (And if you’re still cheering at that, get your immature, butt-hurt feminazi bullshit off my blog page and go back to 4chan!) Nowhere is this more obvious than in the way women are represented on screen. They’re in supporting roles or they’re over-sexualised… or both. Female characters should have a greater range of roles than “male character’s love interest/wife/mother/prostitute- interestingly, all roles defined by the place the male character goes into or comes out from- and if we want that to change, we need to do something.

We need to vote with our wallets. It’s the only thing Hollywood decision-makers really understand. If you want more female starring roles, and a wider range of female characters portrayed on screen, Ghostbusters needs to be something of a success, no matter how bad it looks. I’m not saying go see it if you don’t want to…

…I’m saying buy a ticket.

Executives don’t give a shit if you saw a movie, they only care that you paid for it. You’ve willingly bought tickets to see a movie that you knew was going to be shit before and hated it anyway, but this time you’ll spare yourself two painful hours and instead have voted for something worthwhile. And if you do go to see it, well, it might not be as bad as the trailers or reviews make it out to be (hey, optimism!). Or you might find some entertainment in doing a little Mystery Science Theatre number on it with a friend or two. And you won’t annoy anyone else in the screening because I doubt there’ll be many people watching it with you…

But buy a ticket for the film. If you want more female leading characters in movies, put your money where your mouth is. Besides, it’ll annoy the feminazi brigade and that’s got to be worth doing, right?

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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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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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Another Year. Another Chance At The Title.

January 2, 2014

Rather than do the traditional end of year summary- it was shit, not a lot happened!- I thought I’d share a mini epiphany I’ve had over the last few days of 2013. An epiphany that I hope will carry into 2014 and make me achieve more with the next twelve months than I have with the last…

You see, I started 2013 in much the same place and state of mind career-wise as I finished it. As I said before, nothing happened. Well, almost nothing. But that wouldn’t make for a succinct, somewhat melancholy lesson-learned kinda thing would it?

gw909-epiphany

So… yeah… I’ve had a little epiphany. Or a minor and possibly quite obvious revelation of sorts about me, my career and why the former is depressed and the latter is borderline nonexistent. And I thought I’d share it with the people who read this blog. And you, if you’re reading this and aren’t called Vince or Sam.

And it all starts with New Year’s Eve. Like most years, I often wind up at my friend Phil’s house party on NYE. That’s assuming I even feel like going to a party and not working my way through a DVD box set, refreshing Facebook and slowly crying into a tube of Pringles. Okay, it’s never been that bad, but you get my point. Anyway, I was at Phil’s and usually these parties have quite large guest lists- Phil’s a talented and subsequently-busy DoP which combined with our uni friends, his housemates and his housemates’ friends means that there are often lots of people for me to not remember the name of all evening. I tend to go because it gives me a chance to catch up with our uni friends- many of whom I don’t see or speak to very often. Well, once or twice a year at Phil’s parties usually.

I suppose that technically counts as a mini-mini-epiphany, really. That it’s my fault I don’t keep in touch with people and thus have what can only generously be described as an insular social life. That and Facebook, because let’s face it, whose social life has actually improved since that data-mining, sponsorship-and-adverts time-waster poked its way into our real lives and nullified the need to go out and, God forbid, actually talk to another human being using actual words instead of smilies, non-commital clickable affirmations and dubious abbreviations?

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Just me then? I really am a sad old bastard…

Anyway, me being shit at keeping in touch has a root- I avoid these things because I don’t like highlighting to people how much I’m failing. I’ve always feared failure, not out of some Pavlovian parental displeasure (they were always very encouraging!) but out of a sense of who I am and what I have the potential to achieve. Every time I turn up at these sort of gatherings I’m faced with assessing my career and life successes against everyone else’s and, in my own head at least, I always come off worse. I’m also not one to bullshit, so every “how’s things?” is automatically followed with the honest-but-understated “not great.”

The actual mini-epiphany though occurred specifically on this occasion though. A friend of mine from uni has been working his bollocks off this year, not on films but on music. Despite being on the same film course I was, Graham’s passion and skill was always with music. We all wondered many a time over those three years why the hell he wasn’t studying music in some way rather than poncing about with lights and cameras. Seems he wondered that too since after graduation he started pushing forward with his music career. This year, the fruits of his labour started to show- he released his first EP. I would insert a shameless plug and a link to where you can buy Chris Sagan’s EP “This Machine” but I’m not that unsubtle.

Ahem.

Buy this here!

Buy this here!

Soooooo…

Anyway, Graham (aka Chris Sagan) has followed his dream, his skill and his inevitable path. He’s worked hard to get to this point and hopefully will do well from here on. It showed me that faith in yourself isn’t enough. Knowing you have the skills and the potential and convincing others you have the skills and potential aren’t enough either. You actually need to work at something. Put the effort in, sacrifice the things that others get distracted by, take risks and shout about your achievements.

It made me realise that I haven’t got anywhere with my directing career because I haven’t put the effort in. My lack of success is my fault. So it is with that in mind, that I’ve decided that this year I will:

1) Put serious effort in to my career
2) Sacrifice things if necessary
3) Take risks
4) Shout about my achievements

funny-bucket-lists

And in addition, I’m going to try and be happy this year. Tough one I know. Don’t know quite how I’m going to achieve that (Chocolate? Hookers? Chocolate covered hookers?) but I reckon it’ll happen as a result of doing the following:

1) Pushing forward with my production company and making this thing work for me so I can…
2) Ditch the fucking day job. Ditch it like the soul-sucking whore it is.
3) Don’t fall for other people’s half-arsed promises and bullshit, even if I want to. You can’t rely on them for anything except disappointment.
4) Make an impact by getting the sort of directing credit that no-one can ignore. Which really means…
5) Throw caution to the wind, put the hours in, ignore the suffocating (non)advice of the well-meaning faithless and MAKE A FUCKING FEATURE FILM!

Yep. That’s the plan for 2014. Lose the suffocating normal job, earn money doing what you love and do the thing everyone advises you against. By making a FUCKING FEATURE FILM. Because I’m dumb as well as ambitious…

And at the very least, cheer the fuck up. Because I can be a real miserable bastard…

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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.

michael-bay

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.