Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing "Camera Story: DC215"



Tonight, in Charlotte, NC, my short documentary Camera Story will screen at the 100 Words Film Festival.

There's always an interesting debate on writing credits in documentaries. Some dismiss this entirely, some say it should really go to the editor, and some say that only certain kinds of docs should have a "writer" credited.

Me, I think all documentaries are written, and any documentary I work on has a lot of the writing process in it. I make structure outlines. I write an approximation of what might be said in interviews, before the actual interviews, just to better understand what I'm seeking. I script voiceovers, and often the overall content of a piece. Sometimes the shot list comes from the rough screenplay.

Usually, though, this isn't directly like writing a script for a nonfiction piece.

When I heard about the 100 Words Film Festival, however, I realized that a film intended to have exactly 100 words needed either a careful script or a really obsessive editor. Both, I suppose.

So I wrote a script exactly as you would for a fiction piece ... and counted word by word.

Lessons learned:
  • 100 words is really short.
  • Compressing a beginning, middle, and ending into a 100-word text is a challenge.
  • Think of visuals and text as partners and rivals. Let the visuals support what is said, but don't forget they can undermine the words as well.
  • Take care not to let the viewer get ahead of your meaning or the words become boring. Consider which word reveals the key meaning and decide where that word must go.

Monday, November 17, 2014

100 Words About 100 Words

My short documentary Camera Story will screen on Saturday at the 100 Words Film Festival.

[85 words to go. These don't count.]

You can read about the Official Selections, or read a preview of the festival, or read the festival's Twitter account, but you'll need to get your tickets right away.

[56 left. I'll try to get to the point.]

The thing that's interesting is that usually you make a film, then you try to get it out to an audience. Usually. But this time, I actually wrote the film based on the concept of the festival.

[81 down. Just 19 words to go. Big finish.]

It was not easy. You try writing a 100 word film.

[No, really. Try it. It's pretty fun. Write it, film it, and submit it next year so I can see it.]

I'll wait.

[There you go. A bit of tension. Now, defuse the situation.]

They have a cool poster, too.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Why Film Festivals?

You can finish a film and post it to Vimeo and get it out to your audience in just an hour or so.

So ... why do film festivals still exist?

Well, we could talk about the festival experience, about the power of seeing a film as a community, about the sense of a special time and place, about creating scarcity and creating timeliness ... but let's set those aside for another time.

I'd like to argue that the reason film festivals are valuable is exactly the reason so many are frustrated with the experience of submitting to them: the gatekeeper process.

To me, the reason festivals still have value is exactly their strength as gatekeepers. Now, for many people ... that's a huge downside. Someone makes a judgment, and your film is kept out. Believe me, I've been on the receiving end of the "We've had more submissions than any previous year ... so we regretfully suggest you set fire to your film and go away ..." letter a lot of times. A lot. Many, many times.

As much as that can sting I feel better if I look at a festival schedule and -- whether I'm included or not -- see that they've done a serious job of making an interesting festival with seriously interesting filmmakers included.

So, yesterday my short documentary The Readymade on the Corner screened at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles. It was a good match to the themes of the festival. Probably some good films were kept out, but the listing I saw for the event seems right on target -- very current films addressing urbanism, architecture, street art and the desire so many have for a walkable, bikeable, new and exciting urban life.

"Readymade" addressed, in the form of a very short mystery, how one urban art experience came to exist. It asked a question people interested in that film festival could relate to, and possibly in an unexpected way. And bringing that to the festival is, in my opinion, good gatekeeping, good programming, good curating.

Now, up next is another short doc -- very short, actually -- showing in North Carolina.  My short film Camera Story: DC215 will screen at the 100 Words Film Festival in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, November 22, 2014. You can get tickets here:

http://www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/100-words-film-festival 

Creating this involved writing a script exactly 100 words in length, then filming the piece. The film didn't exist, even on paper, before I saw the listing for the film festival. It was made for the festival.

Now, that's even better gatekeeping -- the curatorial process inspired me and many (or perhaps all) of the other filmmakers in the fest. The challenge the fest set resulted in new films.

Here's why I'm taking this angle: the 100 Words Film Festival has put up a list of some of the filmmakers participating in the festival (I'm happy to be on it) and I feel it shows great gatekeeping.

https://www.facebook.com/notes/100-words-film-festival/filmmakers-announced-as-tickets-go-on-sale/1553243364893924 

It's filled with interesting filmmakers:
Linda Midgett: Based in Charlotte, Linda is an Emmy-award winning director/writer/producer.  She has written and directed multiple documentary films and produced for networks including A&E, Discovery, and NBC-Universal. Her inventive film takes a fresh look at the current immigration crisis.
Mitchell Rose: The Washington Post acclaimed his work as “…in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – funny and sad and more than the sum of both.”
David Johnson: Filmmaker, photographer,author, lecturer and founder of Silent Images, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization devoted to telling both local and global stories of those who are most unheard.
Dana Wilson: Writer/director/editor/production coordinator/supervisor. A former producer on the ABC series Desperate Housewives, her comedic short showcases an entirely different kind of desperation.
Nick Confalone: Nick is best known for writing and directing six-second Vines. His work has been featured on CNN, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Cecil Stokes and Josh Summers: Cecil and Josh are award-winning producers with over 500 television credits on networks including A&E, ESPN, Food Network, HGTV, Ovation, OWN and Turner.
Anna Christopher and Regina Taufen: Bringing a trio of comedic films to the festival, the credits of this LA-based duo include the MTV series, Awkward, and feature films including Night at the Museum and Date Night.
Beverly Penninger and Alyson Young: Local filmmakers, their collection of award-winning films includes: Wild in Corolla, The Spirit of Sacajawea,and The Newport Effect.
Eric Davis: Locally-based writer/producer of documentaries, television and online content for more than twenty years.
Now, my short doesn't have a hope of winning anything against that crowd -- it's a pretty simple film and the goal was never "winning" anything, anyway. But, as they say, it's an honor to be in such great company.

I'm sure, like always, some great films were submitted but left out. But to me reading this list of filmmakers shows the programmers of this first-time festival had a great idea, provoked new work, and put it into a package that will make for great screenings.

Now ... imagine the straight-to-YouTube version of this challenge to make a 100-word film.

Possibly unwatchable, right? 500, maybe 1,000 submitted films being voted up quickly by the videomaker's friends. Good films lost with no votes, cheesy in-jokes rising to the top followed by Tweets pleading for more votes. There's a place for that, maybe, and there is something nicely democratic in having everyone's submissions out there a click away. But ... the result is typically a mess.

So, my answer to the "why festivals?" question is that the process, when handled well, is equivalent to the best curation museums strive to achieve.

As a viewer, I'm not here to hand out perfect-attendance awards. You made a film, and that's a quasi-miracle. On to step two, however: do I need to see it?

I want to see films that have some interest, some value, some character, some surprise, some connection to today. I want to avoid seeing films that depend on cliche and the current in-joke and that play out as clickbait.

Good curation, good programming, good gatekeeping is a strong step towards that. Film programs will still be hit and miss, of course, in the same way any room in a museum can be. But to get a screening, a program, a festival that far -- to the point that we can consider it curated art -- is a great result.   

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Screening at LABART


Today at 3 p.m., my short documentary The Readymade on the Corner will screen at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles as part of the Street Art Short Films program.

The venue is LABART, which is "the largest art gallery in the nation dedicated to street art." The gallery is at 217 S. La Brea Avenue.

You can get tickets at the door or here:
http://www.eventbrite.com/e/street-art-short-films-tickets-13694284975 

the readymade on the corner



Saturday, October 25, 2014

Readymade at New Urbanism Film Festival

www.imdb.com/title/tt3676122/

My short documentary The Readymade on the Corner will screen at the New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 8 at 3 p.m. as part of the Street Art Short Films program.

You can get tickets here:
http://www.eventbrite.com/e/street-art-short-films-tickets-13694284975

Camera Story to Screen at 100 Words Film Festival



My short film Camera Story: DC215 will screen at the 100 Words Film Festival in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, November 22, 2014.

You can get tickets here:
http://www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/100-words-film-festival 

The final film, in my case, is very short -- but I think it tells a story. The process involved writing a script exactly 100 words in length, then filming the piece. That's quite an interesting challenge!

Last Book Read: The Five Cs of Cinematography

Previously, I reviewed Gustavo Mercado's The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition and complained about two problems:
  • It disagreed, using a tone of certainty, with standard definitions of shots in the language of cinema.
  • It overemphasized "breaking the rules" to the point that it became vague.
Well, if that book stepped out of agreed-upon shot definitions ... where exactly did those definitions come from? One key source in beginning cinematography courses has been, for a very long time, the text:


Okay, great. But ... is that book good, or just omnipresent?
I'm glad you asked.

Who is it for?
Joseph V. Mascelli's book has long been a seemingly simple guide to practical cinematography. It focused on an approach breaking down the art into five components:
  • Camera Angles
  • Continuity
  • Cutting
  • Close-Ups
  • Composition
Well ... good. Anything that takes the study of a field often presented as magically complex and makes clear the elements we can actually get a handle on is a good thing. So this is for beginning cinematographers or anyone reviewing the building blocks of the field to develop a deeper understanding.

But ... ?

My issue with it has always been that the "Cs" would be better if restated as questions. For example, let's apply some "Ws" to the issue:
  • What are the camera angles commonly used in filmmaking?
  • What determines if one shot will edit well to another shot in continuity editing?
  • What factors determine how a shot can be used in cutting a series of shots?
  • Why, practically, is filming close-ups different from more general shooting?
  • What factors in shot composition have an impact on the edit and the film?
This, to me, would remove the book's major problem: Clutter. There's a lot of material seemingly under an organizing factor ... but not really addressed with enough Clarity.

What does it cover?
The book addresses examples of those Five Cs, using a dollop of theory but mainly demonstrating a practical approach. It gets right into "types of camera angles" and "filming techniques" as, essentially, lists with examples.

How well does it work?
The "this is how we do it" approach seems to lack the balance of an effective "because doing it this other way leads to this problem..." element that seems natural here. In other words, it's a guide, but would be stronger with a series of warning callouts presented in a clearer way.

As in: shoot a Medium Shot this way, don't shoot it this way because X, Y, Z.

There are, in fact, many "don'ts" listed --
"Don't show a player looking off-screen, then cut to what he sees -- and pan the camera around and end up on the player. This will jar the audience, because a person cannot see himself as he looks about! What starts off as a point-of-view shot becomes a straight objective shot, as soon as the player is included."
And that's good advice, right? But read it carefully and the tonal issue of the book becomes clear: it suffers very much from the common problem experts experience when they begin to teach. Instead of being an expert on what material a student / learner needs, and then comprehending the best system to deliver that material, the book presents material (good material!) without a real understanding of the best way we will learn that material.

Think of the difference between "Here's the local building code ..." [ drops book on desk ]

versus

"We'll show you how to make a chair first ... and then how those techniques are applied to a shed ... and then the additional skills needed for a barn ... and in volume 2 we'll get to house framing."

Okay ... but should I read it?
That's a tricky question. I think the best way to answer it is to take a close look at the work of the book's author. I mean, if he's a great cinematographer, it will probably be a great book ... right?

So, what did Joseph V. Mascelli shoot? Could I see any of it on Netflix?

Well, you can probably find:

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

You can see the trailer for that here:
http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3415277849/

REALLY? HE SHOT THAT?
Yes. And a few other really, really odd films. I mean ... puzzlingly odd.

Recommendation
Read it in sequence with related books and form a bigger picture you can apply to your own practice.




Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hanging Downtown (Full Movie)



Hanging Downtown from Ted Fisher on Vimeo.

Here, finally, is the full 15-minute film "Hanging Downtown."

Please, after you watch it, go to:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2170278/

and sign in (there are several options, including using FaceBook)

and give it an honest rating.

Thanks!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Last Book Read: The Filmmaker's Eye

Last book read:

Gustavo Mercado's The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition.

Who is it for?
Mercado's book can be used in a class introducing the basics of cinematography or filmmaking, but can work as a refresher for more advanced practitioners of the craft.

What does it cover?
The approach here is to break down the "standard shots" used in filmmaking, considering both the technical and aesthetic concepts behind the standard approach. Then, as counterpoint, examples of breaking these standard rules effectively are given and discussed. So, a typical chapter is titled "Medium Close Up."

How well does it work?
I recommend this book, but I think two problems interfere with how effective it can be in a classroom or for personal study. If the reader is informed of those two issues, it is well worth the read.

Two problems?
The first problem: Mercado is incorrect in the definition of certain shots, and a student comparing this to more standardized practice will be confused. (I find this really puzzling myself, and pulled out several cinematography textbooks for comparison.) The book's definition of a "Close Up" is generally considered a version of an "Extreme Close Up" in general cinematography textbooks, and this sets up an examination of each shot that is very closed (and a bit too narrow) in definition.

As an example, if we study this book's example of a "Medium Close Up" we read:

"The size of the subject in this medium close up requires that the top of the head is cropped to give him the proper amount of headroom."

Well, that's a bit confusing -- we crop into the head to give headroom?

More importantly, however, is that this proposed definition:
  • the top of the frame cropped into the subject's head
  • the bottom of the frame is shown at the shirt pocket of the subject

is often considered a Close Up, and many directors would consider a looser framing as a workable "Medium Close Up." For example, if you turn on a typical TV news program, you might see:
  • the top of the frame just above the subject's head
  • the bottom of the frame at the shirt pocket

Mercado doesn't address this very common news/documentary framing -- it doesn't exist in the book, implying it wouldn't be acceptable. I would be happier with a more open approach -- obviously "standard" shots expand out into variations, and that's fine. So Mercado's implied "here's the right way" becomes an issue. If this is an issue that can be discussed in a class (or in one's personal reading of the book) that will be fine. But it's written as if the shot examined in the book is a closed truth, rather than one example of many possibilities.

The second problem, in my view, is that book puts so much energy into the "breaking the rules" aspect of the discussion ... yet some of the examples are nearly identical to the shots discussed as standard. The framing of the "breaking the rules" shot under "Medium Close Up" is essentially identical to the main shot presented.

So ... what does Mercado say makes it "break the rules"? That it is used "by itself" rather than in a progression of shots toward a Close Up. This is a strange interpretation, and really focuses on editing choices rather than cinematography.

But ... you like it?
Yes, I think this is a good book, and worth the space on a filmmaker / film student's bookshelf. Take the definitions with a grain of salt (and learn from where you personally disagree, or from examples that differ). It places a system of shots at the heart of the study of cinematography, and serves as a good introduction to a key concept.

Recommendation
Read it in sequence with related books and form a bigger picture you can apply to your own practice.