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Oct 11 / Darryl Shreve

The Rookie

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.
Pianolistening
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.

watruf4_2

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.

Ghana_wide  Ghana_Med  Ghana_Close

THE AUDIO
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:

600px-Polar_pattern_figure_eight.svg

Directional mics have a narrow pick-up pattern:

Shotgun-Polar-Pattern-500x500

This could be a lav mic or a boom mic.

micboom

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).

Just sayin.

Apr 11 / Darryl Shreve

As the semster ends

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.

tea

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!

Just saying.

Mar 20 / Darryl Shreve

In six words

“…you can tell a good story in 6 words: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Hook, intrigue and then interest.”
Ernest Hemingway

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…”

“Whuh?”

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.

Screen Shot 2013-03-19 at 11.16.53 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-03-19 at 11.16.40 AM

 

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.

Just saying.

 

 

Feb 21 / Darryl Shreve

What’s your number?

“Uh…

248-547-8…”

“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?

Jan 9 / Darryl Shreve

A Back 2 School Special

Bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz, bzzz

Swat!

Bzzz, 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.

Tree_rings_Co

Remember that as “educational” gardeners, we need to think long-term when it comes to cultivating and shaping their future.

_DSC6662_001b (Medium)
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).

Bzzz, bzzz…

Swat!

Now…If I can get five more minutes.

Just saying.

Dec 16 / Darryl Shreve

Message in a Bucket

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.

Elmina Castle was erected by Portugal in 1482. It was given back to Ghana by the British in 1957.

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.

Just saying.

Dec 6 / Darryl Shreve

The Nuts and Bolts of Sound for Video

Spoiler alert, your head may explode from reading this blog.

Sounds are vibrations. They can travel through the air, water or other mediums.  People that create videos or music use devices to capture the sound and then place it into a new medium, like a movie or an audio CD.

Lets simplify it even more. Someone sings and the sound goes into an ear. Now let’s get more complicated.

Sound can be captured into a device that records audio. It can be recorded with the video or separately into a field unit and then synced later. The recording source could be a camera, a field recorder or a computer.

This gets even more complicated when trying to get the best sound. There are many pieces of equipment to choose from offering different types of services. Note the diagram below for one such scenario.

Your expertise with each device will determine your success rate on shoots. Below are a few types of audio gear that are commonly used with productions.

 

MICROPHONES – Audio is transmitted using one of these devices.

 

MIXERS – You can mix several different audio sources into one (mono) or two (Stereo) audio channels and then send it back out to a record source or speakers.

 

COMPRESSORS/LIMITERS and AUDIO EFFECTS UNITS – Applies effects to an audio signal. Can be configured different ways, but usually a signal is sent from a mixer to the unit and then back into the mixer before finally going out to the record source and/or speakers.

 

FIELD RECORDER – Records audio only and is synced later with the video.

Again,  sound is a vibration and its sound wave is often represented by a sine curve.

I sense your head is starting to hurt now. Well, the diagram below probably won’t help with that. It illustrates what a sound wave looks like. Amplitude has to do with the height of a wave and frequency has to do with how frequent the wave occurs in a second.

As the oscillation (revolution of the s-curve) of a frequency increases in one second, so does the pitch. The amplitude signifies loudness.

If we look at how other creatures communicate it might make more sense. A whale sings, a dolphin clicks and a cat meows. All at different frequencies and amplitudes. Researchers have discovered that these songs or clicks are instrumental in the identification of other animals and organized foraging of food. These vibrations of communication are not just limited to mammals, look at butterflies, caterpillars and ants. Maybe those Disney and Pixar movies with the talking animals and insects aren’t too far off after all.  Vibrations at selective frequencies play a key role in how we all communicate (and yes, I have been told that I spend too much time watching the discovery channel).

So when thinking about sound, understand that what you are really hearing is a series of vibrations, much like the exploding of heads from reading all of this “geek speak”, but hey….I did warn you.

Just saying.

Production tips for good sound:
-Set analogue audio sources to 0dBs on the audio meters. Meaning, the bulk of the audio should rest at 0, but can peek a few decibels higher.
-Set digital audio sources to -12dBs on the audio meters for broadcast sources.
-Set digital audio sources to -6dBs on the audio meters for Internet sources.
-Never record anything without using headphones attached to the record source.
-Treat sound like an object and use it to create depth.
-Your film score (music bed) and sound effects are two different things, but they work together as the score to ground your video.
-Try to keep your mic about 8 inches from your subject’s mouth.
-Use windscreens and “socks” when outside. (Cuts down on wind noise)

 

Nov 29 / Darryl Shreve

Can you hear me now?

“…people will watch a poorly shot video with good audio, but not a well shot film with bad audio”

Had to get the above phrase out of the way that we film instructors toss out at the start of every audio lesson.  And this was true up until the Y-generation (Y standing for YouTube, of course). Visual “tweets” that are quick and easy to create pervade our senses.  Folks inundate the Internet with their kids and cat videos shot from phones and webcams. The standard for those types of videos has dropped. The expectation for professional videos, however, is still high and rising.

So has this golden rule for audio changed?

Nope.

Intelligibility with audio is still essential. A poor score (sound that is added to a film to give it a mood or make it feel real, like footsteps, or a car starting) can make or break a piece. Is it reality that makes video sound important? It might have something more to do with our perceptions than reality.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Thanks, George. Thanks. This argument that was started back around 1710 causes one to question the idea behind our very own existence. Scientifically speaking, sounds are vibrations. They can travel through the air, water and/or other mediums.  The human ear picks up these vibrations and interprets them into distinct sounds. So if there is no ear to hear the sound, did the fallen tree make a noise? If we are out of sight, are we really out of mind? It can be argued that our existence is proven by our senses and that hearing is one of the key senses. When sound is done poorly on video, the viewer feels less grounded in the reality of what’s trying to be created. Film and video projects are smoke and mirrors, designed to make the viewer feel a certain way by controlling what they perceive to be as true. It is why we shoot doctors in offices and kids on playgrounds.

If you were filmed once, what backdrop would best define you? Is it work, home, or possibly a favorite store? And what would be the score of your life, Mozart, Alicia Keys or Kid Rock?

When telling a story through video, audio becomes a crucial element in convincing the audience to become lost in your reality.

So what you really should be asking is, “Can you perceive me now?”

 

Nov 19 / Darryl Shreve

The Importance of Critiques

“Just as iron sharpens iron, a person sharpens the character of his friend.”

I can remember going through some of the worst critiques of my life during my undergrad days at a private art college. Spending all night on my best painting or design, only to have the instructor write on it with a black felt tip marker, which forced me to then redo it on top of the new assignment due the following week.  All during a semester in which I took 10 classes.

“Yadda yadda yadda,” my grandpa used to say, “You young-in’s got it good; I had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow, barefoot while carrying my younger sibling horsey-back style.” Exaggerations aside, the workloads I had to endure still exist. They are designed to weed out the weak and make the strong better. “Iron sharpening iron” refers to a person using an iron blade to sharpen the edge of another iron blade. It implies weaker metals won’t work. Metaphorically speaking, you need people in your life who are not afraid to put you through the fire, because this will ultimately improve your concept, increase your skill-set and maybe, just maybe help to refine your character.

For this reason, critiques are an integral part of the creative process for production as well as in many other fields.

So for those receiving the critique: Understand that “good” is subjective, but a valid critique can make any idea better. In sports, athletes are trained to push their limits of endurance. Hence, ”No pain no gain… Give me 10 more!” The critical review process does the same.  Although unpleasant, having an idea deconstructed can only serve to make it stronger. A wise man once said, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” It’s good to hear different ideas.

For those giving the critique: Understand that not everyone is made of iron.

My daughter once asked me what kind of bird would I want to be. Trying to boost her ego, I told her, “something small enough for you to carry if you were a bird”.

Her reply, “Dad, eagles don’t carry eagles.”

Nov 8 / Darryl Shreve

Does Size Matter?

1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480i. When it comes to video, size can matter.  A large screen size and a high number of pixels usually equates to a better image.  With the advent of high definition (HD) TVs and HD programming, people have come to expect a better quality image on the big and small screens.  Gaming consoles output Blu-ray quality graphics and more and more web sites/engines like Youtube and Vimeo offer HD viewing options.  More to the point, inexpensive cameras and phones can now film in HD. So a better question would be, when does size matter?

First, let’s break down how this all works.

We view video and films through digital signals. HD signals are much larger and offer much more clarity. Plasma TVs, LCD and LED-LCD  TVs , computers and smart phones are driving viewer expectations. The blue box below represents a standard-definition(SD) digital signal.

Films are shot anywhere from 2K to 4K. Look at how much larger the 4K signal is compared to a SD signal (the blue VCD box below).

Videos downscale well, but they don’t upscale with clarity. So what does this mean? Simply put, a larger video signal with more information will look good on larger screens and anything smaller. Conversely, a smaller image will only look good on a smaller screen. It doesn’t have enough information to upscale properly.

Why is that?

Pixels.

A video signal is made up of thousands of pixels (dots) and each dot is made up of bits (colored dots), hence a Standard-Def video signal might have a screen size of 640X480, 300,000 pixels and an 8 bit color mode. Which does not upscale well to a TV that is designed to host a 24 bit signal and several hundred thousand additional pixels. This is the reason many older films have been remastered at a higher quality.

Note the difference below in image quality based upon the number of pixels represented on screens with different native resolution sizes below. This is a SD signal and it does not upscale well to HD.

If you are watching an older TV program on your 1080p HD television, it will look something like the image above on the right. Its not the TV, its the signal being sent to it. So going back to the original question, when does size matter?

When you’re buying a new Television
You need to consider what you watch. Do you watch primarily network television and use a Wii? A 720p TV might be good enough for you. If you watch HD cable, satellite, Blu-ray movies and/or game with a newer gaming system, you might want a 1080P television. Companies, however, are starting to make 4K TVs, while many movie theaters still don’t have 4k projectors. Sharp has demonstrated an 8K television in Europe (goodbye theaters).

The only problem with 4K and 8K TVs is that there aren’t any broadcast signals available for these TVs (yet). 1080i (i stands for interlaced and means that every other line of pixels is deleted and replaced by a duplicate of the remaining line. So 1080i is really 540p scaled up to a 1080 screen size) is the largest signal output through today’s TV bandwidth, but you can download a 1080p (p stands for progressive and offers more pixels than interlaced signals) streaming signal from various devices and sources (Apple TV, Google TV, etc.) I would advise making sure your new TV has a refresh rate of at least 120 Hz and a high contrast ratio. I like plasmas for this reason. They tend to have a refresh rate of about 600 Hz (great for watching sports) and the highest contrast ratios (great for watching films). LED LCDs with a 240 Hz refresh rate would be my next choice. They output more light and do well in bright rooms.

When you’re shooting a video or film production
Let’s face it, you want to record, edit and output at the highest resolution possible for all of the reasons listed above. Its easier to downscale than upscale. Filmmakers are shooting in 4K and 8K for productions meant solely for the web. So if you can’t shoot at a high resolution, just focus on good composition, audio and storytelling. That is the root of any good film or program.