It was the perfect shoot day.
We were filming outside in pristine conditions. The wind was nonexistent. There was no bothersome automotive traffic noise, and both the crew and talent arrived on time. Passersby were actually helpful, and all of the gear worked properly. There was plenty of help on set — extra, actually — and the sun cooperated like a member of the team. There was ample time allotted for the edit, and then … then … then.
I woke up,
into the sordid nightmare of a cluster—
Whoops! Was that out loud?
But, yes, rarely does everything work out as expected, and filmmakers must constantly adapt to challenges that can make or break their film. Take, for example, our most recent project: We filmed four narrative pieces designed to promote aspects of a university department, with each scenario using multiple actors and environments.
Here is the drama that ensued for one of the narratives.
We were scheduled to film in four locations in one day: at a store, an outdoor ATM location, a restaurant and in an elevator. We had a fixed date, and the shoots could not be shifted. We were using actors, extras, multiple cameras, lights, audio, etc.
Challenge 2: Our main talent claimed he was unaware of the shoot day — so we lost our star.
Challenge 3: It started to rain — er, pour. We could no longer film the ATM scene.
Challenge 4: Our restaurant contact didn’t arrive at the location to let us in, so we lost that location.
Alas, what do you do when everything seems to be going wrong?
What did we do?
PLAN AHEAD, IMPROVISE AND ADAPT
Meaning, make it happen. Failure is not an option. Here is how we navigated this bad weather.
For challenge 2: We made sure we had an “alternate” that fit the bill of the main actor and used him instead. He actually worked out better.
For challenge 3: We filmed at an ATM in the same building of the first store that had rejected us. Since we had already done a site survey at this location, we knew where all of the ATM machines were located.
For challenge 4: We had booked two restaurants, so when our first choice fell through, we went with the backup — which actually worked out better.
In a perfect world, everything works out as expected. But reality is often different, and that’s OK. You have to be able to adapt. I recommend having contingencies for everything — a plan B and C. Unfortunately, experience is often the best teacher, so when you get caught in a circumstance you can’t change, learn from it and move on. In the end, you are judged by the success of your piece.
WHAT ABOUT THE CREW?
Does the number of helpers you have on set make a difference? Yes, yes and yes. Skeleton crews can get the job done, but often under extreme duress.
Think of it like walking in water: The more people you have, the easier it is to wade through the water. The less people you have on set, the higher the tide. And should a key person fall ill, you are now walking under water. In that case, I hope you are related to Aquaman.
Having amateurs in key positions on set is also stressful because it puts an undue burden on the more experienced personnel. It’s OK to work toward being a Jack/Jaqueline of all trades, but each person should master one discipline as they learn the rest. It makes you more valuable/employable on set to have a reliable skill. When directing a shoot, your major concern should not be whether your audio person hit the record button, or if your gaffer accounted for the differences between the 20-amp and 15-amp circuits.
Whenever possible, separate the director from the director of photography. Be dogged. If you are the producer, don’t send an email and then call it a day. Make a phone call, or several. In fact, go in-person to talk to the vendor or prospective talent. If they don’t respond immediately to an email or phone call, they are not being rude — they are being busy. That tends to be the case with people who are worth interviewing. And just as DPs need to vet the gear before taking it out, the talent should know their lines or have been given the questions ahead of time.
So, put away the violin and sob stories. The dog didn’t eat your homework — he ate your career.
D’oh! My inside voice slipped out again.
To be successful in this business, you have to demonstrate that you can produce a quality product despite your limitations in personnel, gear or time constraints.
Because when life …
’Cause when life …
Hands you lemons, you…
Don’t say it!
You still have to finish your assignment, because no one cares.
What did you think I was going to say?
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
This question has perplexed theologians and scientists since the time of Aristotle. Where did it all begin, and how did we come into existence? More importantly, why is that metaphor being used in this video blog?
Well, the reason is simple. It’s about figuring out the precise stage in which to show your client an idea to get them to buy into it, thus leading to securing the contract.
Chicken or egg — a finished project, or an idea with the potential to become a finished project.
Something tangible versus something theoretical.
“Show me” versus “explain it to me.”
It really depends upon the imagination of your client. If their vision is limited, you may need to do a “rough” piece. That’s the chicken: a semi-finished concept that can stand on its own.
“Ta da! I’m here.”
This is known as a spec piece. Many companies will do a speculative piece, that is work without the guarantee of a contract to win a project bid. And this could be anything: a script, print ad, photo spread or a film project.
Why? It’s about that money, money, money!
Yes, a Rihanna reference. Stop staring.
Pitches are often made to companies offering astronomical fees to service their campaigns. Spec work is one way of securing that contract. Some clients need to experience a visual representation of the concept to understand it. Treatments, scripts and storyboards help to that end, but there will be no doubts about the look and feel when using a spec piece. One cannot begin to calculate the number of brilliant ideas that never make it into production because one key player could not see it.
The egg in this metaphor represents the potential of your original concept. It’s your treatment — that idea on paper (or in your head) that is the next great film/promo/commercial/documentary. This one doesn’t go to spec, so it requires imagination from you and your client alike, along with a healthy dose of faith that you can complete it to everyone’s satisfaction. These smaller projects are usually being done in-house or for lower sums of money. This is where treatments and storyboards might be used along with a demo reel or a previous project sample to assure the client or funder that you can deliver.
What are the pros and cons for each?
-Ultimate clarity for the idea you are pitching
-Greater chance for hire
-May not get paid
-Time/resource investments could be wasted
-Smaller investment made
-Can easily pitch several ideas
-Easier to change direction
-Potentially limited vision of clients
-More challenging to get high paying jobs
So, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
In this blog, the egg of course. You cannot complete any project without that initial idea, but if you want to increase your chances of bringing home that serious bacon, show the client the chicken.
Which are you, above or below?
Above or below?
“Whassit? Dude, you’re creeping me out”
No, the line, the line. Are you above or below the line?
“Are you cracking on my weight?”
Film and Production positions are often characterized as above or below the line. The “line” separates the creative leadership from the more task-based positions like the grips, gaffers, editors and camera crew. The purpose of this separation originated as a visual delineation of how money was allocated on a film set for the accountants. It has evolved into a hierarchal structure that now feels more or less like a medieval caste system.
“COOK! Bring me Hasenpfeffer!”
Looney Tunes, really?
This blog is not about job titles per say, it’s about developing yourself beyond lines and job descriptors. You can love the game, but if you follow the rules too closely, you might find yourself trapped in a rigged system.
Directors direct, editors edit and never the two shall meet. You can easily find yourself stuck in a room with no exit, or in a job you love that doesn’t garner you the respect you feel you deserve. So how does one transcend the game?
There are several ways…think of it like the game of Chess.
Every piece has value and a function, from the Pawns to the King. And it takes all of those pieces for the game to be played properly.
Most of us start out as Pawns, but you don’t have to remain one. You can change your position in the game by excelling in three areas.
- KNOWLEDGE: Learn how to jump three spaces and you become a knight, learn how to jump across the board and you become a bishop or a rook. And everybody loves it when a pawn becomes a Queen. You know how to edit, but can you shoot? Can you set up audio or create animations? Your versatility allows you to traverse the board in Chess and in life. Get more “edumacation.”
“That’s not a word and can you use backgammon as a metaphor…or Bid Whist, Call of Duty?”
- COLLABORATION: A King is technically the weakest player on the board, they draw their strength from the other pieces. Being able to persuade other people to join your cause is another way to get hired, promoted or remain the boss. It’s also the key to having a good work environment, everybody loves a personable boss.
- ATTITUDE: Can’t be stressed enough! The right attitude is the glue that ties everything together.
“I noticed you didn’t say a ‘good’ attitude.”
The concept of good, bad and fairness has no meaning within this game. Anyone can progress, regardless of circumstance or intent. If you didn’t enter the game as a Knight, Queen or Rook, be patient and keep moving forward.
“So which is better, being above the line or below it?”
Depends. It’s about following your passions. Above the line positions typically make more money and have more incentives, but a person who works below the line can command a larger salary if highly skilled in that position.
Examples of Above the Line
Producers • Director • Writer • Lead actors • Stunt Actors • Director of Photography (occasionally)
Examples of Below the Line
Camera crew • Assistant directors • Catering • Editor • Gaffer • Transportation • Grip • Makeup • Production assistants
Is it easy to change your position? No, but it’s possible and that’s the important thing. Think short term sacrifices for long term gains. The real question is, are you happy with the trajectory of your career? If not, what are you doing to change it?
The Ripple Effect
or as some folks call it, the butterfly effect.
“Please tell me you’re not talking about time travel?”
Well, I am…sort of.
This discussion is about how small changes to an edit can have a huge impact on the flow and story of the overall edit. As editors, we cut our pieces in waves (or passes). And in each pass, changes are made to improve the piece. If you look at the process of creating a sculpture, one can see parallels to this very same process. You start off with all of this footage that has to be sculpted down to a desired amount of time. Nine hours of video becomes a finished, two minute piece or 100 hours of footage becomes a two hour movie. How do we get there?
“I only cut on Avid!”
“I only cut on Premeire!”
“Final Cut Pro is my tool!”
Well, I’m here to let you in on a secret. It ain’t about the software. It’s about the editing decisions used to tell your story. That’s right, a good storyteller could make a masterpiece using iMovie or (insert other low-end editing software).
There are way too many arguments about which editing software to use and not enough about how to tell a good story via editing. There are many seasoned editors out there that know the nuts and bolts of their chosen platform, but cannot tell an interesting story.
“I liked you better when this was about butterflies.”
All science fiction geeks know that if you go back in time and step on a butterfly, you may alter the course of human history, because small changes in the past can have a ripple effect that causes different outcomes in the future.
After your first editing pass is complete, you become the Time Lord for that project.
“Oh no he didn’t reference Dr Who!”
Every editing platform has a time based container in which you edit your clips. Some programs refer to them as sequences, other as projects and oddly enough, some call them timelines.
Timecode – Timelines start at zero and go forward in time.
In either case, you see the beginning, the middle and the end all at once. So when starting an edit, you should approach it with the mindset that it will take several passes before you reach the desired future/outcome.
You can bounce around an edit and work on any part of it, thus making you a Time Lord.
Tip: You may go through a project 10 times before you have picture lock (are done). With each pass, you will make minute changes that hopefully improve your piece. This is where a second set of eyes comes in handy.
And not your grandma, parent, sibling or a significant other. In fact, rule out anyone who loves you (sorry nana), because their affection for you may taint their opinions of your piece. And yes, it’s great having your ego stroked (so do show them eventually), but the criticisms leading to positive change will most often come from your teachers, advisors and trusted peers.
Breaking up is the second hardest thing to do, because asking for help is often the first. No one likes to feel less than, but it’s not the early bird that catches the worm…its the one that avoids crash landing into the pavement.
You better ask somebody!
In regards to video and film production, here are the three tell tale signs that you are a wet behind the ears, entry level, amateurish, born last night, babe in the woods, fresh out the womb Rookie. Eh too much…Let me preface this by stating that a good film is denoted by its balance: Balance of shot composition, color grade, lighting, script, acting and audio. When one of these elements is amiss, the audience notices. They may not be able to articulate what they find wrong, but they are aware that something isn’t quite right. It’s like listening to music, if one instrument is out of tune, the listener knows it even without formal training from Julliard.
After teaching production courses for five years and observing quite a few low budget feature length film projects produced locally and nationally, one cannot help but to notice some striking similarities…in their failures. Or should I say, similarities in the choices someone new to the business makes when it comes to how they treat the core elements within their films.
THE WIDE SHOT
When a filmmaker is first learning to tell their stories, their focus is slanted toward having every scene covered. So there will be an abundance of wide shots(angles) in their pieces. The lack of close-ups and medium angles, can make the viewer feel less apart of the film’s dynamic. Changing angles is a way of creating depth and conveying emotions that play upon our own built-in set of assumptions.
When a shot is tight, we assume it’s a serious moment. When a filmmaker racks focus from background to foreground or tracks/jibs from one direction to the other, we feel pulled into that direction with purpose. Filming upward shows vulnerability and downward denotes power. I could go on, but the point is that without these methods, the film will feel hollow and less meaningful.
THE CLOSE UP
Once a new filmmaker discovers the power in a nice close-up, they tend to forget about the wide shot. And when said filmmaker discovers how to create a shallow depth of field, it’s over…for the viewer that is. After watching these films, you leave the theater (television or computer) trying to wash the over-abundance of close-ups from your brain while making an appointment with the eye doctor to make sure all those “in your face” blurred shots are not a symptom of glaucoma. Now, one reason for this phenomenon is that when one is filming and editing, the video display is much smaller than when compared to a large screen television or movie theater screen. So would-be filmmakers fail to realize that a medium shot on the big screen is more like a close-up and that a close-up is more like an extreme close-up.
Please take note that the last “actor” in your film is the LOCATION itself. Your background helps to ground the viewer to your piece. So compositionally speaking (yes, I invented that word), there may not be enough emphasis placed on the MEDIUM and MEDIUM WIDE shot.
The last tell tale sign of a rookie, and arguably the most important, is the treatment of audio. You cannot use the camera mic as your source of audio.
Camera mics are omnidirectional and pick up everything. You need a directional mic that is relatively close to the mouth.
Omindirectional mics have a wide pick-up pattern:
Directional mics have a narrow pick-up pattern:
This could be a lav mic or a boom mic.
Recording ROOM TONE and laying a base track is my final piece of advice to avoid “Rookiedom”. In a poorly constructed film, you will hear SHHHHHHHH in the background audio on one angle and zzzzzz on another. A base audio track of the natural room “sound” will help hide audio discrepancies when changing camera angles. So always record about 2 minutes of ROOM TONE for each location in which you record. This way you avoid making “The Amateurville Horror” (it’s the Halloween month, had to do it).
We are getting down to the wire in the last few weeks of class for this semester. Let me ask the students a question, if I place six different teabags in cups of water in front of you, how do you tell them apart. As teabags go, they all look the same.
Its simple really, you heat them up.
The next few weeks you will feel the pressure and be revealed to not only your colleagues, friends and instructors, but most importantly to yourself. You will find out what you’re made of in a hurry. Life is filled with obstacles, can you problem solve and sacrifice to reach the finish line. Do you quit on a class or do you “get er dun!” no excuses. It’s a difficult process, but necessary to help refine you into the professionals you will become that are worthy of the Wayne State mantel. Look at your challenges as opportunities for innovation. Motivational speaker Dr. Myles Munroe once said, “…when man asked God for a chair, he was shown a tree.”
It’s up to you to find a way to finish strong using the resources available to you.
So don’t give up and I’ll see you at the finish line!
“…you can tell a good story in 6 words: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Hook, intrigue and then interest.”
The key to any movie, promo or commercial project is its “Big Idea.” Folks will often shroud a poor concept with shiny adjectives in order to sell it. Much like accessorizing an unattractive outfit or airbrushing a bad drawing, the temptation is to try to fix weak concepts with great cinematography or editing. All stories should have a rise and fall; a beginning, a middle and an end. The trap is in rushing an idea that has not matured. In Walter Murch’s book, “In The Blink of an Eye” story is one of the six main criteria he says all good editors must utilize in telling their stories.
“I want to film a movie about this bipolar mouse that can talk and spends the entire movie fighting with herself. People can identify with her different personalities because they will be able to see themselves in parts of the rodent and then the aliens come…”
Let’s try it in six words: “Unstable mouse saves humanity from aliens. “ If you can get behind the core idea, then the rise and fall can be developed. Story arcs can be generated and the three acts can be cemented.
What are the components for good storytelling?
There can be multiple Story arcs in a film, but they all have the same basic tenants listed below. Some sort of conflict propels your storyline into its final resolution.
In a three act film, you will have one main story arc that carries over the entire film and then multiple small arcs that advance the plot.
Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (For a two hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)
Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act II would last approximately 60 minutes.)
Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act III would be the final 30 minutes.)
I’ll get more detailed about this in a screen writing blog. The bottom line is that you need to consider all of these elements when telling your story. Pretty pictures do not make your project great, it’s the writing that centers around a well thought out idea. When I was in art school, it was instilled in us to never take shortcuts with the base drawings for our artwork. To work out the structure, proportions and overall design first and then come in with the markers, paint and/or pencils.
To put it more succinctly and to quote one of my old professors, “Never render a turd, because it will still be a pile of…” you get the idea.
“Eh, no. Not that number. My number was 35. “
“Oh, well I’m 32 and…”
“Wait wait wait, let me explain. This has to do with mortality.”
If you had asked my 12 year old self when I thought I would die, I would have told you that if I were lucky, I’d make it to 35. That was my dream, because for me, that was surpassing the odds. It was clear that as a black youth during the early 70’s, that the deck was stacked against me. No one told me I had a short life expectancy, it was just understood. I didn’t come from a bad neighborhood; both my parents were gainfully employed. Heck, my father was one of the first black engineers at Chrysler and GM. A real trailblazer, but Detroit is a city of pockets. Nice areas next to “not so nice” areas. A melting pot of varying skill sets and morals. I often felt like “the Beav” with “Good Times” friends on the “Brady bunch” block with both the “Sanfords” and “Jeffersons” as relatives. The media didn’t help my perceptions. There was a climate of failure ascribed to black male youth. Prison or dead by 25. When I turned 26, I said out loud, “I made it!”
Through the first set of hurdles anyway.
I had many friends who did not. Elementary and Junior high school was about survival. I saw more violence during those years than I’d care to admit. It wasn’t until I arrived at Cass Technical High, that I found out things could be different. College life, however, was sobering. So was my first work experience as an adult. It was also about survival and based on a similar set of principles. You had to work hard and pick which battles to fight and which ones to walk away from, knowing all along that ultimate success may not be in the cards for you. When we were 12, we all had a number, a time when we thought our lives would expire. An age when we’d thought that if we reached certain milestones, than certainly we made it. But what is making it?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had dreams, milestones that he hoped to see. His life was cut short as were so many others’. His dreams inspired a nation. Maybe making it has more to do with the footprint we leave behind in the minds of those we inspire. My 12-year-old daughter tells me she will live into her late 90’s, and swears I’ll still be around living in the north wing of her mansion. I prefer her vision of the future over that of my 12-year-old self, and I’m glad to see how far we’ve come evidenced by the hopes and dreams of our children.
So think way back and tell me, what was your number?
Bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzz
Swat! Five more minutes, just five more…
Bzzz, bzzz bzzz
Sound familiar? It’s the start of a new year, and more importantly, a new semester for those of us whose lives are interwoven in academia. Production students, faculty and staff will need to get ready for the long road to finals. My advice is simple, “Always remember why you’re here.”
For teachers, it’s to help students reach their potential. And to remember that this potential does not end in our classrooms. It’s up to us to recognize that no student is a lost cause and that sometimes the real failure is giving up too soon on unrecognized talent. College is where young people will gain tool sets for both work and daily living. We need to challenge them to grow beyond us, because their time in our circle is just one ring in the core of their existence.
Remember that as “educational” gardeners, we need to think long-term when it comes to cultivating and shaping their future.
For students, it’s to acquire the skillsets to become employable. To make a commitment to finish strong. To be ready to do research and get to know the resources available to you. Treat each assignment like it’s the one project that will open the floodgates to future successes. Leonard Ravenhill once said that, “The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity.” So make sure you’re in a position to go for it. Most importantly, be open and teachable, because there is nothing more frustrating than trying to fill a glass that is already full. Yes, you may get chastised or feel offended when criticized, but realize that a tree gets pruned to help it grow stronger and in new directions. A teacher’s criticism can be more valuable then their compliments, because crisis leads to opportunity by way of creativity. Don’t be on time, be early, this goes to character.
And for those doing animation and video projects, buy an external hard drive, because the (to break the tree analogy record in one sentence) fruit of your work needs to stay rooted in your possession until ripe enough to be shared with others as seeds of thought branching out into newer limbs of expression (and the crowd goes wild).
Now…If I can get five more minutes.
There is something rejuvenating about breathing the air born from another country. Touching a tree or feeling the sand of a foreign beach slip through your toes. Here in Ghana, the sensations are more poignant. Partially because of information gleaned from interviews conducted with Ghanians about their political process, but more so because of its role as a major stop on the route of the Atlantic slave trade. This sordid past, however; is now embraced by a richer history of progress and modernization. Yes, there are poor here and a large disparity between the wealthy and disenfranchised, but “poor” is relative and “happiness” a decision that is often times steeped in traditions.
President Emeritus Irvin D. Reid, took a team of students, faculty and staff to Ghana to observe their presidential elections. One could not help but to make additional observations about the country and her people.
As with any society, there will be customs that are strikingly different from our own. For instance, Ghana (and other parts of Africa) use a unique method for bathing. We stayed in the campus guest housing (which operated like a hotel) for the duration of our trip. Upon entering my room, I was greeted by the sight of buckets in the bath tub. I assumed that the cleaning crew forgot their supplies and was therefore deserving of a complaint to the manager.
Well apparently, the buckets had a different purpose. The larger bucket is filled with water and then the smaller bucket is used for washing. This method of bathing probably goes back hundreds of years and in my arrogance and rush to judgement, generations of traditions were dismissed. I found that bathing this way was different, but quite functional. We pay the price with every decision of ignorance we make in stunted growth.
In Ghana, they also use their heads to carry most goods and wrap their babies on their backs. Absent of wheel barrels and baby carriages, these methods offer more support.
This experience with the African Democracy Project has caused me to reflect on other times when I may have allowed my own perceptions of how things “should be” dictate my feelings toward people or their customs. Wayne State is a microcosm of the world with a large international community representing many ethnicities, religions and customs. There are cultural differences as well, from urban to the suburban.
It is disheartening when we mistake tolerance for acceptance. If only we could truly walk in shoes not our own on beaches in faraway places, peace would be easier to achieve. Yes we like familiarity when it comes to friendships and colleagues, but considering that we all have something to contribute, why limit our personal growth by denying the knowledge gained from sharing experiences. The world is a large place, but it gets so much smaller with every person we accept and truly get to know. There is no suggestion here to agree and/or participate with behavior that goes against one’s principles, rather that assigning right and wrong to another person’s way of life, limits us more than it does them. Understanding the purpose of something different, can offer new pathways for problem solving in our own lives.
Our return flight from Ghana left us in transit for about 22 hours, so what better way to end my travels than with a nice steaming hot, bucket wash.