Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Like The Boomtown Rats Said

It's a venerable tradition: the in-camera edit assignment.

Students in production classes all over the country do it, and it's been assigned for decades. A production team is asked to shoot a subject, but with no post-production: they shoot exactly what they'll show. It forces you to plan ahead, to know your story before charging in, and to get the essential shots.

Today, I was the subject of one of these. I had a reasonably good time. I'm generally a willing subject, and will usually do what the director suggests (unless it goes against my nature or ethics). Someone gives me a cue, I talk. Tell me to, and I walk. Pretend to teach someone here. Okay.

In a way, it was a good reminder how forced and acted documentary can be: I gave the crew what they wanted, I attempted to project my idea of myself, and it went the way it went. Nothing surprising will be revealed, I expect, and nothing outside the plan will emerge.

A good exercise, but a view into what is often the essential problem of documentary work: the mechanism includes a camera or two, a small crew, and an expectation of what will happen. Often, that's really a strange and ineffective tool -- if your goal is to find subtle insights into human nature.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Documentaries In The News

Two fascinating tales of terror. One: the Academy Award short list for feature-length documentaries. Two: an account of a few ... um ... alleged irregularities at the Queens International Film Festival. (Keep in mind, anyone can allege anything. I'm linking to the story as it has been published online -- but you'll definitely want to check out the facts for yourself.)

Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when we try not to deceive. Two somewhat shocking stories....

Oscar Short List of Documentaries Draws Controversy

Pressed for details, Mr. Toback said only that he had experienced something connected with the selections process, “which I put fully in the category of extortion that I did not go along with.” Mr. Toback added that he was “furious” at himself for “having chosen to be passive and quiet in the face of that extortion.”

Film fest head a fraud, many say
A New York filmmaker who served on the advisory board of the first QIFF and has worked with Castaldo on and off for the past several years, said he was conned out of $20,000 this summer. The filmmaker, who wished to remain anonymous as he is negotiating a big movie deal, said Castaldo offered to distribute a film he and his partner had made earlier this year. According to their agreement, the filmmaker allegedly paid Castaldo $20,000, with the understanding that she would take the film to Cannes. “She never went to Cannes,” he said. “It was one total ripoff. ... Everything was phony.” Castaldo allegedly tried to convince him that she had been to Cannes, showing him a website with video footage of her there. The filmmaker said he soon discovered that the footage was doctored. The website offers to Photoshop anyone into Cannes, he said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nothing To See There

My students are cutting a scene from a cancelled TV show. It's straightforward: a character walks into an office, talks to two other characters, is introduced to a guest, delivers a few key lines. It's shot in "single-camera" style, meaning the camera is generally on one character in one framing while all the characters run the scene. Next framing, repeat.

So the idea is fairly clear: assemble meaning from shots that are generally ready to cut together, but watch out for the inevitable small problems. Then find ways to keep the scene flowing nicely, to have it hit its key emotional points, and -- in this case -- to make the editing essentially invisible.

They seem to be enjoying it.

Above: my students are amused that I photograph banal details, like the floor.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Further Persistent Idiocy

The concept of "persistence of vision" was discredited decades ago. People who write about it are dumb. So, in the interest of public service I call people out on it.

To understand how long this has been discredited as an idea read THE MYTH OF PERSISTENCE OF VISION REVISITED from 1993 (a followup to a 1978 paper) which points out the idea has been proven wrong SINCE 1912.

So, who's "teaching" about the importance of "persistence of vision" today?

Filmsite by Tim Dirks

This ridiculous page cites the discredited idea five times to start its history of film. Is that surprising? No. Because if you randomly check ANY of the facts Tim Dirks publishes under his name, you'll find the level of research scholarship here isn't acceptable for a sixth-grade book report. Let's try a couple....

Hmmm. Right here on that same page he says "1860 The zoetrope, another animation toy, was invented by French inventor Pierre Desvignes."

Huh. Interesting. Let's check that. Oh, it was actually invented in 1834 by William George Horner, according to reputable sources.

Wait ... doesn't it also say that just above the 1860 entry? Strange. Confusing. Unclear.

Pick any other page. You'll find errors, misunderstandings, and generally an emphasis on the wrong things (for example, Dirks pushes an attempt to understand film history through a decade-by-decade approach, which is extremely ineffective). How do I know this? Because my students, despite my best warnings, often resort to searching Google for "film history" and Dirks' site shows up. So for years I've been correcting papers based on his "facts" -- and you'd be surprised how much I've learned from doing the fact-checking he can't be bothered with.

So, take care, people, and do some factchecking -- Tim Dirks isn't going to do that for you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hoop Springs Eternal

Above, a doc produced in five days. Watch it, give it a vote.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Olympian Effort

Our short film Hoop Springs Eternal will screen tonight at Olympia Film Festival. (It's made with Chris Corradino, Linda Goldman, and Maya Mumma, featuring Loren Bidner and Jenny McGowan.)

I think it's scheduled after Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth and before Sissyboy -- about 9:45 p.m. or so -- but there's no love for us on a schedule listing, however. Maybe they figure it's so good it should remain secret, thereby avoiding a stampede for tickets.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Me, Me, Me, And Then Stuff About Me

There's a lot going on, but in overly self-important news, read Part One and Part Two of an interview on doc production. Featuring me. Based on Actual Events.

More significant news soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

That's Not Lake Minnetonka

A little interview on What goes into making a documentary? in which I detail some of the process involved in our short documentaries. Part two tomorrow.

Just what you need, more words from me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Wiseman's "La Danse"

I've mentioned Frederick Wiseman as an influence a few times previously. I was fortunate enough to see him speak in 2006, and I think his body of work is monumental.

Great short article on his latest in today's NYT:

Creating Dialogue From Body Language

In “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” his 36th documentary in more than 40 years, Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into the stately and elegant Palais Garnier in Paris, observing rehearsals, staff meetings and, finally, performances of seven dances, including classics like “The Nutcracker” and spiky new work by younger choreographers. To say that the film, sumptuous in its length and graceful in its rhythm, is a feast for ballet lovers is to state the obvious and also to sell Mr. Wiseman’s achievement a bit short. Yes, this is one of the finest dance films ever made, but there’s more to it than that.

Monday, November 02, 2009

In A World Something Something, One Man Stands Alone

Today I'm giving a lecture on editing structure in film trailers. There's more to it than the text below, with lots of examples and ideas and such, but here are the basic background notes. For what they're worth.

Editing Film Trailers

A film trailer combines storytelling with persuasion.

Editing a film is about story structure.

There's a beginning, that brings us into a new world. It usually starts with a hook -- a short, very interesting part, like a well-told joke, that sets the tone for the film and shows us it will be good. Then we meet the characters, and learn about this world and begin to care about it. The beginning usually ends by revealing a big problem.

The middle usually involves the characters trying to solve this problem. Usually their struggles pull us into greater complications -- and usually raise the stakes or lead to even more critical problems.

The end is usually a showdown: we move toward the moment when a character's struggle -- internal or external -- reaches a major test or confrontation or decision. Usually there's some resolution after this, as the world settles after all the upset.

A trailer, however, has a different goal and different rules. The goal is to get people to buy a ticket to a film (or buy the DVD, or order the film on-demand) so we can't use "pure" story structure -- that would give away the ending -- and we have to use persuasion techniques to “sell” the film to the audience.

Persuasion techniques go back thousands of years. Aristotle identified three basic persuasion techniques:

  • Appeal based on authority.
  • Appeal based on reason.
  • Appeal based on emotion.

There are others that work -- and you've seen all types of them in commercials. These three are still the main persuasive appeals, though, and show up in film trailers.

When you see elements that tell us who the actors, director or producers are -- this is persuasion based on the authority of the filmmakers.

When you see lists of awards a film has won, or quotes from great reviews, that's an appeal to your reason.

When the trailer itself makes you feel a certain way, that's a persuasive appeal.

A typical trailer structure:

  • A hook - gets our interest, reveals the style of the film.
  • Reveal a new world. Now show us the big problem.
  • Show us the characters -- and the problem gets deeper.
  • 60 percent in, there’s a big reveal, often character motivation.
  • Then we drive toward a big showdown.
  • We end on a “final note.”