Film Marathons

Okay. I’m probably not the only one watching a lot more TV these days.

When all my mental energy is consumed by stress, I enjoy not having to decide what to watch next. So watching TV shows with 10+ seasons is helpful. But with movies, it’s trickier.

I like having movie nights. But I hate the exhausting decision of browsing 5 different streaming services and deciding between dozens of good options. So I’ve been rewatching some film franchises. Lord of the Rings. All the Marvel canon. The Dark Knight movies. Every Star Wars movie in one day.

I’ve seen a lot of posts of similar marathons over the past six months. But there’s one collection of films I have yet to see people binge-watch. There are over a dozen film and television adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. And I happen to have almost all of them on DVD.

In undergrad I developed the curriculum for an entire class on Robin Hood in Cinema during a Pedagogy course. Partly because I love galivanting through forests and I look fantastic in green tights. But also because the legend is surprisingly adaptable, and the manner in which it is retold says a lot about the storytellers.

Over the next month, I’m going to revisit each and every one of these retellings to dive into what Robin Hood can say about cinematic storytelling from 1920-2020. Tally ho!

Day 5: Stop-Motion

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day 5: Stop-Motion

Stop-motion filmmaking: an activity for sitting confined in a small space while closely tracking the incremental changes in a subject over a very long period of time.

This is what you’ve been training for.

And speaking of trains. I’ve recently acquire two tiny lego trains that I thought would be perfect for a stop-motion exercise. For instruction I referenced the LEGO Make Your Own Movie Book. It is not comprehensive, but it came with a LEGO skateboard, so that’s cool.

IMG_8093
A whopping 58 pages of rudimentary instructions

I also downloaded the app Onion Cam2, which allows you to do stop-motion right on your smartphone (for free!) It’s super fun, but I also learned that the lack of storage space on my phone means I’m limited to making very short movies. The constraints of no-budget film.

IMG_8091

I set up a tear-out backdrop from the book, lit with a desk lamp, and clipped my iPhone to a tripod. The app allows you to onion-skin, showing a transparency of the previous frame so you can judge how far to move each subject between frames. It’ll also export anywhere between 12 and 24 frames per second, depending on how much patience (or phone memory) you have.

The trains are great because, well, they don’t have limbs. So there’s very little you have to move between takes. All that to say is, this is not my most exhaustively detailed film.

But I still stand by it.

 

 

Dinosaur Screen Test

Recently, I’ve been working as a Gallery Attendant at The Andy Warhol Museum.

It’s a lot like working as a Parking Attendant. If the cars were worth millions of dollars. And never moved.

I spend a lot of time staring at Warhol’s art. Enough time staring at art while thinking about my own art, and the influence seeps through. Sometimes pretty directly.

Warhol made hundreds of screen tests. Short film reels of people sitting in front of a camera trying to act naturally. He’d slow the film down, play it back, and call it art. You can do it yourself in the museum, and watch the results online.

I’ve also been spending time doing object puppetry. How much movement does it take to make something seem alive? How many life-like features does an object need before someone can empathize with it?

The connection is simple. Screen tests for inanimate objects. Test how they live and breath on film, see how much a viewer will project onto a simple, silent, black and white clip of the object.

My first attempt, my plastic dinosaur/succulent planter, Susan the Terrible.

Reflections on Mastershots

Mastershots

I first read this book in high school, and it was central to developing how I understood techniques in filmmaking.  I had read books about the styles of films, about screenwriting, and beats, and story arcs.  But here was something different.  Here was a book that directly connected the movement and focus of the camera to the movement and focus of the actor.  It created and explained the visual techniques for camera placement as a powerful element of storytelling.  As soon as I read it, I began incorporating these techniques into my film work, and created some of my best shots.  (I was going to include some of these as an example, but then I rewatched the footage I made at 17.  SO MUCH NOPE.  That’s going to stay buried forever.)

Rereading it now, I still found the approach to be both effective and accessible.  Many theater directors about how they’re not trying to make a play like film, not trying to convey everything in a detail oriented, realist fashion.  This book tries to help the aspiring filmmaker not make films like film.  It coaches tricks and shot set ups and dolly movement to create moments on camera that lead the viewer into the scene.  The camera is more than just a recording device.  It’s a part of the story, a contributing tool for character, storytelling, and emotional impact.

And if nothing else, it also gives you really good insight for seeing what’s happening when you’re watching a movie.  It gives the reader the ability to sit there watching a movie and go “ooh, they’re panning the camera down with the actor to mask the appearance of the antagonist and enhance the surprise.”

At which point all your friends will throw popcorn at you and tell you to shut up and stop ruining the movie.

Reflections on “Making a Good Script Great”

Making a Good Script Great

Sometimes I doubt my abilities as a writer because I don’t feel like I’ve been focused on writing for very long.  It’s helpful finding reminders that I’ve been pursuing this track longer than I’ll admit.  This book is one of them.

8 years ago, while I was visiting universities as a prospective student, a Northwestern student gave me their spare copy of this book when they heard me talking about the short film script I was writing to make with my friends.  That film is still resting on a dvd somewhere in my closet, 27 minutes of grainy, amateur mayhem that represents the pinnacle of my creative work in high school.

After 8 years of sporadic practice in script writing, Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great represents a different tool than it did when I received it.  Outside of an Intro to Screenwriting class, it functions as a refresher of basic script elements to pay attention to- subplots, character developments, structuring marketable concepts.  As most of my current projects are in the rewrite phase, it didn’t supply anywhere near enough advice on picking apart and restructuring existing drafts.  I’m still searching for good book on early draft revision, something more specific than a Storytelling 101, but less nitty-gritty than Strunk & White.

Reflections on “On Directing Film”

On Directing Film

My only exposure to the works of David Mamet before now has been designing the costumes for a production of Glengarry Glen Ross in 24 hours as a favor to some friends.  I have complete respect for his work, but I don’t think my perspective on directing aligns well with his at all.

In his book On Directing Film, Mamet gives some advice on storytelling, framing, selecting shots, and preparing material before shooting.  It is all valid advice, but I don’t feel like it gets at the heart of directing.  Everything is a little too cut-and-dried.

During one of the first plays I directed, my set designer built a set of stairs in the center of the stage, as requested.  It ascended to the back curtain and then stopped, leaving a 10 foot drop off on the other side.  When I saw the set, I turned to him and asked

“How are the actors going to get down from there?”

His response- “Oh, they need to get down?”

You can work an artistic craft from an idealistic perspective as long as you want, but in order to succeed you eventually have to come into contact with the real world.  Directing involves an incredible amount of understanding of people, of yourself, of all the details of a crazy and overwhelming project.  Film students, even at Columbia, are going to need to need to deal with a widespread range of issues if they’re ever going to make it as directors.  If you show up and tell your actors that they can’t make the story, that the dialogue and the props and everyone else’s jobs are secondary because only the framing and the juxtaposition of shots will tell the story, then you’d better film quickly.  You might not have anyone show up on Day 2.

I’m far from qualified to teach a course on directing, but I feel the book needs some supplemental advice for realists interested in directing.  Here are a few lessons from my experiences in film and directing so far:

  • Don’t drink only Red Bull if you’re filming outdoors on a golf course for 10 hours in Texas in the summer.  You will get dehydration and heat stroke and possibly die.
  • Make sure someone double checks that the sound is not muted and that there is a memory card in the camera before you start recording for the day.
  • Don’t move any expensive equipment that isn’t waterproof over bodies of water.
  • Work out any issues with your cast before you start filming.  It is much easier to replace actors before they’ve appeared in scenes.
  • If you ask your cast and crew to stay late at a shoot, make sure they feel appreciated.
  • Be sure that the people doing the shopping understand how important it is to stay on budget.
  • Learn everyone’s favorite dessert.  Food bribes work wonders.
  • You can’t do everything.  Find people on your team that you can rely on to take weight (physically or metaphorically) when you need help.

4 Universal Concepts For Artists

Considering that I’m working on 10 different kinds of art at once, I’m really hoping to find underlying principles that make me a better overall artist.  Working on one skill that applies to 10 disciplines is a whole lot easier than practicing 10 separate skills.  Sure, voice training will make me both a better actor and singer, or better understanding of lighting will make me better at art, cartooning, and film.  But are there universally applicable ideas and techniques for artists?

I believe there are.  While I still have another, hmm, 322 days to study and analyze overlapping elements of art, there are some trends I’ve already begun to observe.

Universal concepts for artists:

Overstatement

This caught my attention when it came up yesterday in both my textbook on illustration and my voice acting class.   Knowing the core of what you’re doing, whether drawing an expression or vocalizing a character, is vital to experienced art.  By overstating a particular element, you push yourself to the extreme of what that element can be.  This is frequently followed by reducing that expression after finding the peak, and using that added control to enhance your art.  In cartooning, this can be drawing a comically angry face, then finding the core lines for that expression to convey a simpler and more believable anger.  In voice acting, I was pushed to shout a section of dialogue with added obscenities, then to tone back and use that found bitterness in a controlled rage for a more realistic character.  The same applies to dance moves, tempos in music pieces, art movements like Impressionism and Fauvism, and experimental writing.

Physiology

The vast majority of artists are human and have human bodies.  I apologize to non-humans making art out there, whether elephants, computers, or aliens wearing human skins.  This does not apply to you.  But human artists have bodies, and have to use them to make their craft.  Every form of art I’ve encountered so far has required specialized knowledge in some part of human anatomy.  Painters and illustrators are stuck learning all the visible parts of humans- skin, musculature, bone structure.  Vocalists have to understand internal structures- the diaphragm, the vocal cords, mouth shapes.  Musicians learn techniques for repetitive injury prevention, as do dancers, digital artists, and writers.  Actors learn whatever their part requires, which can be basically anything.  From Andy Serkis crawling around as Smeagol to Eddie Redmayne’s Academy-Award-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s ALS development, actors have to figure out a huge range of what the human body can do.  Whatever kind of art humans do, we are all weird, complicated, organic structures, and should understand how our meat-bags function.

Contrast

Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks this.  Contrast is a HUGE deal.  Light and dark.  Day and night.  Sweet and sour.  Good and evil.  Having differentiation between two things is one of the most fundamental parts of art.  If we want to get a little more intellectual, we can go with terms like ‘antithesis’- Shakespeare was a major fan of this- or ‘juxtaposition’.  Establishing that things are definitely different and then putting them near each other is how we get some really awesome art.  The Rite of Spring, Film Noir, mochas laced with cayenne pepper.  Even the new Star Wars poster.

Contrast Art
One of my favorite installations in the San Fransisco Exploratorium. Contrasting clean water fountains and toilet fixtures can make you think twice before drinking.

Self-reflection

Art is filtered through our consciousness.  Whether making it or observing it, our thoughts and experiences will shape our view of art.  By better understanding who they are, what they’ve done, and what shapes the way they think, artists can shape their art to better express their identities.  Understanding factors of their own humanity will also help artists to touch others.  Drawing on empathy and understanding from audiences and viewers can be highly powerful, in everything from writing to dance.

Finding the Framework: A Year of Creative Immersion

Over the past year, I have been researching the creative process.  This was partly for my own benefit, partly for understanding the drives of fellow artists.  Through all the books I’ve read, films I’ve watched, and lives I’ve examined, all I can tell is that creativity is wonderfully multi-faceted.

Sometimes, this can be unhelpful.  In exactly one year, I will begin applying to grad schools for my MFA.  The problem is, I still can’t decide which creative field to specialize in.  Years of deliberation and practice of numerous art forms have yet to lead me to a clear answer.

So.

It’s time to play a game.  Over the next year, from October 1st, 2015 to September 30th, 2016, I’m going to undertake 10 major projects, each in a different creative field.  When the year is up, I will begin grad school applications for whichever specialization has had the most successful project.

The projects are as follows:

  1. Write a novel
  2. Write a full-length play
  3. Perform in a play
  4. Perform in a dance showcase
  5. Produce a performance
  6. Release a music album
  7. Create a webcomic
  8. Create a short film
  9. Display an artwork at a gallery
  10. Learn to make macarons

While this division of effort will sidetrack energy from some of my strengths, I believe it has a number of advantages.  First, whatever track I choose, I will have hands-on experience in other fields, allowing me to better appreciate the works of different kinds of artists.  Second, creativity thrives on interdisciplinary thought.  The best way I have found to visualize it is through the theory of multiple intelligences.  Howard Gardner’s theory looks at intelligence as being broken into eight different modalities.  I picture creativity as a networked process nested right in the center of all eight of these.

Creative nesting

My projects are selected to draw on all eight abilities.  By spending a year in cross-disciplinary training, my creative ability should become far more well-rounded.  My success in each area will also give a rubric for evaluating my skills comparatively.

This process is going to involve writing about 150,000 words, researching, taking acting classes, dance classes, drawing classes, voice classes, rehearsing, reading, recording, reading, getting a headshot, designing business cards, learning an instrument, acquiring AV equipment, and countless steps I haven’t even anticipated yet.

Did I mention reading?  I’ve put together a list of 50 books to read, review, and reflect on over the next year, spanning all of the disciplines involved in this challenge.  I’ve picked 50 books not because I think that’s all the information I’ll need, but because it will allow me to read and write about one book a week all year, with one week off for Christmas and one off for tech week during Project #3.

All progress and creative revelations in this undertaking will be shared through this blog over the course of the next year.

More Be Not Afraid!

TWITTER21-1500x500

While helping produce a feature film this summer, I noticed something about how people perceive film crews.  When we set up in a park, a yoga group asked if we were doing a news segment.  When we were filming in a slightly sketchy neighborhood, some bikers asked if we were shooting a rap video.  It was when we filmed at a local high school that we were asked by students if we were making a movie.

It led me to theorize that when people see professional filming happening near them, they project onto the project the type of film they most want to be in.  People see cameras and think “oh, this is my big chance to be in (fill in the blank)!”

The most substantial proof for this theory: While filming in a residence, we were asked by plumbers working in the yard next door if we were filming a porno.

Let’s face it, for male plumbers, that’s probably a relatively common fantasy.  Right?

You can watch the trailer for Be Not Afraid right here!