Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Editing 50.2

So I’ve been chewing on my comments about editing for some time, and suddenly I find another post at one of my favorite blogs called Self-Reliant Filmmaking about the long take. Paul Harrill who is the blogs owner has some good points about editing and why some of the movies of late have been in a word not up to snuff. I agree that most of the filmmakers who do seem to cut quickly are first-time directors on modest budgets. Having done my own film in the span of 11 days I do know that time is your worst enemy. No matter how much time you have it isn’t enough. I was always pressured to move on and get to the next shot, yet my movie is not one with quick cuts. In fact it’s been labeled slow. If I had MORE time I would have blocked with the camera and the actors at the locations I was shooting at, but time was against me, and so I couldn’t. I was lucky to have a day before shooting started with the actors, so I’ll count my blessings and chalk it up to experience. My actors had a lot of dialogue to learn, and learn they did. There were few lost takes due to blown lines then I can recall, but at times it was hard on the actors and I sometimes had to modify the shot. I sometimes picked up shots mid-way through the actors discourse to hide a flub. It’s one of those things I learned from doing hundreds of instructional videos. It saved time, and we moved on.

This is not to say that my original way of shooting the film was any better. My negative cutter for one thing remarked that I had fewer cuts then other films he had done. I can see how a first time director can quickly move onto the other shot just because time is constraining you, and you just don’t have the time to dwell on it. Eventually when you get into the editing room you suddenly realize that you may have not covered the scene as well as you like, so you begin to salvage the scene any way you can. How is this done is all dependent on how you shot the scene. But then again my film wasn’t action packed, and dialogue was important. Chalk it up to all those film noir films I watched late at night.

As for the argument about the film Miami Vice. Surely Michael Mann isn’t a first time director, and yet the film was far from great. I agree with Paul Harrill’s argument that the film didn’t have much substance, but then again maybe the crime drama as a genre has reached its peak, and there was just nothing new to be added. Most of what Hollywood produces today seems to be less on originality and more on spectacle. It’s the old amusement ride syndrome, as I like to call it. Give the public something fast, quick, and fun. Make them enjoy the ride, and screw things like character, or plot. Just make it light and fun, and when you think amusement ride what do you think of, but quick jolts, and fast cuts which make the audience think they’re on the ride of their lives.

Well someone better tell Hollywood and it’s puppet masters that films aren’t amusement rides. I have no argument that film should be fun, but it’s a story first. If the story sucks I don’t care what they try and do it’ll still suck. Content matters, and it seems the film entertainment business is forgetting that. Film companies are too busy trying to compete with TV, cable, the Internet, and gaming that they’re forgetting that story is number one, and since all things are driven by the bottom line now it’s no wonder why films have suffered so poorly of late. Getting younger directors who know of a world with MTV, video games, and the Internet and you have a prescription for poor story telling and just bad filmmaking.

Time to get back to the classics, and relearn what we already know. It's the story stupid!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Editing 101

Okay so I've been catching a lot of newer movies that have been either coming out in theaters now, or are finally making their way to cable. The one thing that bothers me of late is the editing of some of these movies. I recently read this article written by Jessica Walter about "The lost art of film editing", and she has a point.

Way back in film school when we edited film we were taught film grammar. Like English film had it's own unique grammar. One can manipulate the image and make the audience feel a certain way by presenting it in different ways. Cinematography was part of it, but editing is where you put it all together. A simple example would be cutting from a long shot of a character to a close-up or extreme close-up of that character. It acts like an explanation point. The suddenness of the cut forces the audience's attention. It happens quick, and fast. Put certain music behind the shot and it becomes something like a jolt. Another example would be a sort of montage of close-up, and extreme close-ups which build into a jolting barrage of images that can make an audience feel dizzy or hyper.

A great book about film editing that every filmmaker should read is Walter Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye". It's all about film editing, and who better to write it then the editor or the sound editor of such films as: 'The Conversation", "Apocalypse Now", "The Godfather I & II", "American Graffiti" and a bunch of award winners too numerous to list here. It's a great book and it has a whole bunch of stuff that is valuable to a filmmaker editing his own feature.

Before NLE's there was editing the old fashioned way. Cutting celluloid and assembling the shots was done by using a movieola, which was a up-right editing machine. There you assemble the shots, and picked the shots you wanted in the film. For my film "Deadly Obsessions" I used a KEM editor. It's called a flat-bed editor, and it has a 12 inch screen where I can view the image. Now when I took editing I had a professor that drilled it in us that after cutting the film you should view it on a projector, and watch it on the big screen. Why you ask?

Well because watching a film on a small screen can ruin you're timing. Shots that need to be longer are too short, and shots that are too long can be cut down. It was always a pain to do this because sometimes you had to double splice you're film. You did this because the projector would eat it you're film sometimes, or the splice would break mid way through the reel. A pain, but one where you had to be careful. If the splice worked you kept it, but most of the time you'd find out that a shot ran too long or too short. If that was the case it was back to the film bin where you would locate the frames that you cut and splice that back into the print.

Now of course this all took time, and now with NLE's all over the place people are cutting and re-cutting at breakneck speeds. Some NEVER show it on a projector, and then are sometimes stunned to see their shot, or shots not work up on the screen. Hence the lost art of film editing. Ms Winter's article closes with a sentence I really think is so true in today's cinema:

"The power of the gaze has been circumvented by technology".

I sincerely believe this, and hope that the trend ends, but with more and more film directors coming from the commercial world this may not end anytime too soon. Maybe it's time to re-learn the classics and ssee how the masters did it. After all old school doesn't mean it's old it just means it's done GOOD.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Keeping it Real!

Why do I do it? Why do I always find myself wanting to do another film? I mean it’s time consuming, expensive, and frustrating. Yet just like an addict wanting another fix I revert back to filmmaking. I’ve discussed the whys previously, so why go over old ground. The script I have is almost finished, and I concede that it needs more work, yet I have another idea, and something that is a bit more personal, and maybe more poignant. Should I scrape the first and try the second knowing full well that the idea will not fit in a low-budget format?

Maybe I should finish the first, and then take a stab at the second, and then come back to the first after I’ve either finished the second story or explored all it’s options. All this and not a single piece of film has yet to be shot.

I itch to get back to production. It’s what I’m good at, and once you line up all that needs to be done all one needs to do is follow through. Maybe that’s the problem my enthusiasm for production overtakes me, and I rush things. Then again I HATE talk. There is too much talk already in filmmaking. Not enough people follow through. There are too many wannabe’s and know-it-alls out there, so why not do something quick.

The key is to make it quick and smart. Utilize ALL resources, and maximize them to tell you’re story. Find a common thread that makes the story interesting to others. The best films are films that speak to us, and communicate their message through shared experiences. It has to be real for me. No flashy effects, and no monster on the loose scenario for me. After all we are all saints and sinners, and that fine line between good and evil gets thinner and thinner by the decade. Look to the classics for inspiration, and see what works and what doesn’t. Then take a look at your resources and see what you can use. A relative of mine once said to me that I write about stuff that is violent, and my response to him was that it was a violent world, and only a na├»ve person would think other. I’ve learned that conflict in drama need not be violent. It happens to us everyday, yet no books or movie of the week are made about us confronting our demons. Love, hate, prejudice, envy & our own desires can cause huge upheavals in our lives, and when well written, and presented a film can do the same. We don’t have to aspire to the same formula that Hollywood or for that matter society feeds us about what conflict is. The “happy ending” is only a myth. Life presents us with challenges constantly, and to simplify it seems pointless, and just plain wrong.

I’m not much of a movie snob. I either like a movie or not. I don’t over analyze something either. I’m not overly academic where I need to dissect a movie to explain it. Force feeding your audience seems to me another way of looking down at your audience. Sure I like pure entertainment for entertainments sake, but what do I want to say with the limited resources I have. In the end it’s all about the work, and I’d rather not waste my time on things the mainstream does better. Walking that line can be a frustrating and sometimes just painful thing to do, but all artists do. I guess I know what type of style I want, and I think I know what types of stories I’m most interested in, but one wants acceptance, and ones film to be seen, so we walk the walk. Always trying to be seen and heard yet not trying to sell ourselves out in the process.

The above photo is of the cast in our bed. While filming in the living room we had so many of the cast crash on our bed because it’s one of those water beds, and they loved the comfort. See what happens during production. The only time I saw our bed was at night when I’d crash into it and fall unconscious in it in a matter of seconds. We were an intimate cast & crew to say the least.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bruno Kirby 1949-2006

It's always sad news to hear of another passing, but after hearing that Bruno Kirby passed away on Monday due to complications related to leukemia I just had to write about him. Kirby was to say the least a great character actor. When he was on screen you remembered him. In 1974 he played the young "Pete Clemenza" in the "The Godfather II". He appeared in several movies & television throughout the years. He played 2nd Lt. Steven Hauk in Robin William's "Good Morning Vietnam", and he co-starred in "When Harry Met Sally" & "City Slickers" with Billy Crystal.

He also was in "The Freshman" with Marlon Brando, and in 1979 he was in"Donnie Brasco" with Johnny Depp. Recently he played a part in HBO's series "Entourage". He was an unforgettable actor, and he is going to be profoundly missed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Candice Rialson R.I.P

I had just found out that Candice Rialson had passed away earlier this year in March. It seems many did not know this, and so it comes as a shock to her fans. Ms Rialson was 54.

I'm always shocked to hear about another artists death. I was and still remain a big B-movie fan, and one of my favorites is "Hollywood Blvd." Ms Rialson also starred in Roger Corman's film "Candy Stripe Nurses" a favorite among many teenage boys. These films hold a special place in my heart because it was an introduction to filmmaking, and it was a young boys memory of adolescence. You know the time where those hormones kick in, and things go a little upside down for you. Hey! I'll be the first to confess that it was a young boys lust that really drove his interest in these pictures, but seeing these films today confirms my belief that these films had heart. Sure these films were exploitive, and geared to the drive-in circuit, but they were done in taste. Not like the garbage that is done today. Ms Rialson you will be profoundly missed.

If you want to read more about Ms Rialson's passing, and what she meant to a generation go to the following:
The Bleeding Tree, Code Red DVD blog, Johnny LaRue's Crane shot, and if you want to hear what some directors have to say about Ms Rialson go to Tim Lucas Video Watchdog.

My thanks to Neil from The Bleeding Tree for the info and the links he provided in his blog.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

At first you don't suceed.....

So at first you don’t succeed try, try again. That’s how the saying goes I believe, but how do you do it again when filmmaking is such a complex and trying endeavor. I mean it was fun when you were young and you picked up the camera and said to everyone “let’s make a movie”. It isn’t that simple anymore or is it? By making your first professional film do you suddenly throw up your hands and give up on creating another one. As a TRUE independent filmmaker not one that Hollywood labels as an “indie”, but one who is completely outside the system how can I make another film? I mean I don’t see any investors lining up outside my door willing to invest in my next flick. How do I move on, and continue to do what I really LOVE to do? So many questions and yet the answer is always in front of you. As an artist you use what you have on hand. If it’s limited locations, and limited equipment you make due with what you have and tell a story you think is worth telling. There will be a lot of people telling you what you SHOULD do, or what you SHOULD NOT do, but only in your heart of hearts do you know what you HAVE to do.

What am I talking about? It’s persistence of vision. If you do it long enough and good enough eventually the odds turn in your favor. I have always been a strong proponent in believing in yourself. There is little room for doubt. Doubt kills, and destroys dreams. Doubt will be you’re undoing, and for a creative type that is fatal. Sure we all face doubt every so often, and we succumb to it for a moment or two, but the artist in us tells us different. We overcome it, and channel that creativity into other projects. I don’t have to tell anyone that there are a lot of talented individuals out there who constantly strive to push their art forward. They are painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic artists, writers, poets, and yes, even filmmakers.

I know what you’re thinking. What now he wants to do art? Doesn’t he know it’s called “show business” emphasis on the word “business”. I’m fully aware what show business is, and I’m fully aware what art is. I’ve always believed that film is an art form. I bet you Godard, or Fellini NEVER saw their films as business opportunities. No they saw it as creating “art”, and that’s what separates us from the mainstream. We do it because we have no other choice. We have things to say, and we like creating our art. For some of us we can make a living at it while others strive their whole lives trying to reach perfection.

Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe it’s just as I get older I begin to see things a bit more clearer. I do this for my enjoyment, and I get a release out of it. I don’t do it for ANYBODY else. I do it for me. If I create something that resonates with others then great, but if I fail I will just try again until I think I’ve said all that I can say. Did you ever feel like you were shouting on a mountain top , and all you heard was the echo of your own voice, and the wind howling back at you? Sometimes that happens, but sometimes if you do it long enough some one else hears you, and all it takes is another person listening. I don’t profess to be a marketing genesis, or a great artist, just maybe a storyteller.

Look at all the great filmmakers, and tell me they don’t have passion in what they do. If they were not filmmakers what would you think they would be doing? Somehow I think the Godard’s, and Fellini’s still would be artists of some sort. If you have doubts about your abilities please be aware that it’s all part of being an artist. The quicker you overcome that doubt the faster you will create again. Failure is just one step in the course of learning who you are. After all it isn’t a failure if you’ve learned something new is it?

So that brings this back to me. How? Why? And what next? All I have to say is that I refer to you to the original phrase from which I began with. “At first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.

It all begins with an idea, and then moves from there. Ideas are plentiful, so there is no shortage in that, but an idea that others might find interesting is something I try to strive for. Something that would speak to the audience on a personal level, and communicate those feelings and desires. There lies the crux of my dilemma. I need to communicate what I feel strongly about and yet make it entertaining, and thought provoking. “Always leave them wanting more” is another phrase I’m familiar with. Maybe when I get it right I’ll let you all know or better yet you’ll let me know, but till then I’ll continue to plug away at what I love to do best, and in the process I’ll try not to take myself too seriously.

The above photo is of me and my father-in-law. After finishing the movie and watching it my father-in-law gave me a big hug and shook my hand. He was real proud that I had finished the film, and it was something he had seen being made. That alone made it worth while. My family and I miss him dearly, but I have that and at least he lived to see his son-in-law do something that he loved. It was always about passion with dad, and that’s a lesson I’ll always remember. Thanks dad!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Miami Vice

I know another review? But since I've been reading a lot about this film, and it seems as though everyone has an opinion I figured I throw in my 2 cents worth. I'll make it brief and to the point. After watching Michael Mann's 2 hour plus opus I had one thought. Interesting story, but sloppy. I know, I know can you do any better? I mean really who the hell am I to say that Michael Mann's film was sloppy? It's just an opinion, and I did go to film school, or at least that's what the diploma says so maybe I know something (just a bit, honest). I was interested in seeing the film because it was shot in HD. Yet Mann did use 35mm, and I know dollars to donuts that I can pick out the shots that are HD, and the ones that were 35mm. (I know freak right).

Now I don't have a problem with HD. Collateral looked great, and it had an interesting feel to the film. I also have to applaud Mann for experimenting on a $135 million dollar film. The man has balls and I like that he pushes the medium. Every filmmaker should do that. Some of the images are truly unique, and really look good. Dion Beebe the director of photography does an astounding job using hard lighting throughout the film. But as I viewed the film I though the film was done entirely in HD. There is a lot of shots that I thought were down right spot on. I thought it looked like film, and there was no difference. Well after coming home I found the latest American Cinematographer magazine waiting for me, and as I skimmed the article I saw that Mann & Beebe had shot 35mm and used Kodaks 500T rawstock as well as some other Kodak stocks known for their high speed. Well that explains the nice shots I saw. Some of the HD scenes seemed underlit, and filled with grain. Also some of the HD shots looked "flat" to me. It's the only way I can describe it. Maybe it was the lens they used or something, but something just didn't sit right with me. Now I was always told to avoid grain. My professor would drill into me that the more you increase the speed of a film by "force developing" the film the bigger the grain would be, and that's something you want to avoid. Yet that's what I saw in the film. Grain the size of "golf balls".

It would be great when the DVD comes out if Mann & Beebe would discuss the photography of the film, and explain the shots. That would be an awesome addition to the DVD, and something that I would seriously want to listen to. Maybe the studio is using HD as a selling point, and that probably would be wise, but honestly some of the photography I thought was sloppy. It's as simple as that. The photography drew attention to itself, and it's something that you don't really want the audience to notice. Some of the scenes looked like outtakes from the TV show "Cops". It added to the realism of the show, but in the end sometimes it distracted me from the film.

As for the rest of the film. I thought the actors were wooden, and sometimes the dialog came fast and furious. I had to think sometimes about where we were, and who are they talking about. Maybe it's me getting older, but I also felt that just maybe it could've been cut shorter. Don't get me wrong I have no problem with long movies, but style over substance happens too often, and Mann is known for his style.

In the end I did enjoy the film, Maybe it was the coolness of the theater, or maybe it was the very sexy looking stars up on the screen, but in the end it was an enjoyable afternoon out.

PS: What really got my interest was a trailer for an upcoming film from Martin Scorsese called "The Departed". Now that excited me.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Okay no more reflective crap! Back to business. The nuts & bolts of making a sub basement budget film. The above picture is some of the cast clowning around. I think it should be a still from my next film called “Force Four from Philly”. I had heard that it was a good idea to have a still photographer on the set, and make no mistake it is, but since we had limited amount of people I did the next best thing. I made EVERYONE a photographer. My wife and I gave everybody some disposable cameras so when ever the mood hit them or they had some down time the cast and some of the crew could take some pictures. It worked out okay, and hence some interesting and silly moments were captured on film. I’ve used the pictures for the web site, and newsletters that I’d send out to the cast & crew on the progress of the film. It’s not a bad idea, but if you can get a pro photographer so he or she can take some nice publicity photos of the cast & crew I’d say do it.

A word about the budget of the film. I’m not giving you hard numbers because it would hurt me in the long run. If a distributor someday wants to handle the film why give them more ammo on how much NOT to pay me because the film was done for X amount of dollars. Let’s just say that it was well under a million, and leave it at that. To get the film in the can as they say I had to pay for the film stock up front. Kodak only wants plastic or cash, and there’s no getting around that. Some of the actors were paid through the payroll company which took care of all the details such as taking out such things as disability, FICA, and other SAG requirements. If you go the SAG route I highly recommend doing this. There are a lot of details that you could get confused with, and it’s better for a payroll company to do it then you. After all you have a movie to produce, and accounting is not one of my strongest skills. The rest of the crew were paid as freelancers. This also entailed some paperwork, but my accountant took care of that after we were done. Yes it is a good idea to have an accountant. You cannot do everything, and since both I and my wife were busy doing other things it is necessary to seek out these people to help you. You can see now how the money flows before a single frame is even shot.

After filming was completed I had to deal with the lab, and since I was editing on film I got away cheaper. Yes I said cheaper because no matter what you think putting film to tape and then laying back the dialog track to tape is expensive. I did not have access to a digital work station and remember this was before Final Cut, and Avid Express, so film editing was the route I took. I purchased a used 6 plate editing deck, and started cutting. You can see why it took awhile to get everything done, but in the end editing on film helped me, and it saved me money. Later I would meet Tom Agnello from Agnello films, and if I had known about him sooner I would have saved much more. Tom is old school, yet he knows his shit. As he was doing my sound mixing Tom and I would discuss the expense of making a film, and since Tom has his own equipment he can produce more for less. I highly suggest filmmakers seek out Tom’s help, and services. He will not steer you wrong, and the guy is a masterful craftsman. How did I find him? Through AIVF. He had a want ad in the back, and so I shot him an email, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Oh! Come on shoot on film, edit on film, and it’s cheaper? You’re pulling my leg right? I mean come on film costs a mint, and who mixes with their work print anymore. Don’t they do that all in video now? Yes they do, but you’ll find smaller houses that still do it the old way. It’s tried, tested and it works, most post houses have moved to the video and digital arena, but ten to one they still have the old equipment. This probably will change as the years go by, and hard disk space becomes cheaper and cheaper. Don’t get me wrong working with DV is the way to go now, but if you have money to shoot in film do it, and then transfer the film to tape and or digital. Non-linear editors are everywhere and are cheap. I’ve seen some awesome productions that were done in DV, but if you dream of shooting in film all I have to say is storyboard, make a shot list, and keep the film ratio low. It is possible to shoot as low as three or two to one, but the lower you go the fewer mistakes you better make. Keep it simple boys and girls. Don’t have too many locations in your script, and don’t have a cast of thousands, and yes get a DP to help you shoot you’re opus. Oh! And one more thing and that is to rehearse your actors. Do a lot of run throughs and you’ll do all right. Okay I’ll stop preaching about the virtues of film. I promise.

I piled a lot of work on myself after the production that usually others take care of. Syncing up dailies, logging footage, and shooting inserts were all things I had to do, and that’s why it took as long as it took. Why subject myself to all this? Well one I had no choice. Money was tight, and the second reason was that I believe in order to be a GOOD filmmaker you should at least do it yourself once in your career. That’s why I love filmmakers like Lucas, Kubrick or Lynch. These filmmakers knew the mechanics of filmmaking. They rolled up their sleeves and did the grunt work, and you have to respect that. Also I like doing the grunt work. It’s kind of a Zen thing with me. Richard Linkletter is that type of filmmaker. When I saw Slacker I was impressed at his depth and knowledge of filmmaking. Call it a baptism by fire, or a sort of gauntlet, but the technical stuff in filmmaking is what makes or breaks a filmmaker. Snobbish you say? Maybe, but I really like a person who can create something from nothing, and that’s what filmmaking is. Sure you can pay people to do the mundane, but it won’t make you a better filmmaker. It’s all part of the process in making YOUR film. Who else is going to spend hours laying down “footsteps” in you sound effects track, so you can get the right “feel” for a scene? It’s you, and I guess that’s where my stubbornness comes from.

To this date I think I can re-work some of the film, and make it a bit better, but I’ve learned what I’ve learned, and I’ve moved on. I just wish I could do more films quicker. Maybe with DV I can, but the next time I do a film it’ll be done a lot faster and cheaper. By making the first film the way I did I learned invaluable lessons, which later I’ll be able to use on my other features. A stepping stone of sorts, but one that needed to be taken.