by Graham Sheldon | 5th October 2016
You wanna be a better filmmaker, so you wake up early. You drive to set. You spend the next twelve hours shooting. The next day it starts all over again and, if you’re lucky, this pattern repeats itself for years and at some point you find yourself with a career in film. But this is also a recipe for the destruction of your creative process. Read on for some alternative ideas on how to improve yourself as a filmmaker. Do yourself a favor and break the pattern. It is important to also look outside the set for ways to become a better narrative filmmaker. Here are seven things to do that don’t involve holding a camera and each serve only to make your work better: 1) GO TO THE THEATRE: Look at the image of the theatre above. The rectangle around the stage is called a proscenium and it should remind you of something. Looks like the frame of a camera, doesn’t it? We have the Greeks to thank for the last 2,500 years of theatrical productions, as their work spawned nearly all current art forms. Go to your local theatre, choose a drama, not a musical, and watch the blocking and lighting. As a DP, I am always fascinated by gorgeous lighting design in theatre. If I want to move a 1K on a set I can move it, but in theatre this is a complicated process. The results that designers get in the theatre are often extraordinary and can inform your field lighting work. Because of factors such as sightlines, but also the nature of the medium itself, theatrical directors are forced to focus carefully on the blocking of characters as they move about the stage. Directors in theatre always have an eye on composition, and the natural frame of the stage can instruct your work behind the camera if you are open to it. In film and especially TV, I see too many scenes where the character will walk into a room, stand there to deliver dialogue and march out of the room when the scene is over. Movement in all art forms needs to be organic, purposeful and driven by reason. There is a great deal to be learned from plays, but how to realistically block action is one of the most important takeaways for filmmakers. 2) VISIT AN ART GALLERY: Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Color, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest. – Leonardo da Vinci As filmmakers, we get 24 frames per second to tell our stories. Painters get one. When planning your next production, try to put yourself in the mindset of the painter. Ask yourself: can I do more with less? Can I tell the story I want to tell in a minimal way that leaves the audience space to think and to interpret. Paintings leave a great deal of power in the hands of the viewer. Consider that the time may be right to shift the power back to the audience viewing your work. 3) BREAK YOUR HABITS: Picture: Toni Lozano The film community, at least in indie film, is a wonderfully tight knit group of struggling artists, all working towards a common goal of getting. their. film. made. This like-minded community can be limiting at times precisely because it is so like-minded. The single perspective may promote a cohesive production if you are making films for a select audience. It may make for a congratulatory atmosphere if you are discussing films with your peer group. What it does not do is serve creativity. Change things up. Listen to a lecture from a point of view that is the polar opposite of yours. Submit your project to a festival that is far off the beaten path and travel there if you are accepted. Guide your audience at the Q&A to ask better, different questions that force you and your team to think and ask them questions. Do you have a favorite shot? Don’t use it on your next project. Favorite camera? Shoot with something different. You get the idea. Habits and robotic sameness are the death of the creative process. Change up your routine in all aspects of your life, not just on the set. 4) WATCH TED TALKS: All of them. 5) WATCH DOCUMENTARIES: Documentaries are an incredibly freeing storytelling medium. You don’t need a crew of 40 people and $500,000 to create one and they can tell gripping, personal stories that are every bit as engaging as narrative. There are also pacing lessons to learn from doc projects. Which moments in a person’s life do you dwell on and devote valuable screen time to, and which do you skip? What is and isn’t relevant to the central story? Docs have been known to tell stories spanning centuries in under 90 minutes, and somehow these stories are coherent and engaging. Find similarities in how docs tell their stories and apply them to your work. Docs are limited to the footage they have available to them and they find all sorts of clever ways to use non-literal representative b-roll to tell stories. Don’t have the budget to film the car crash? Perhaps there is a way to show the car crash without needing to flip over a car at high speed. Docs very often have these problems figured out. Watch documentaries for the technique and not just the story. 6) TRAVEL: Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. – Ibn Battuta Meet new characters that will find a way onto your page. Make friends that are outside of the film industry and gift yourself the opportunity to experience the world by plane, train or automobile. Understanding different perspectives on life is a valuable skill, and it is a skill you won’t gain without travelling a few thousand miles. 7) GO TO REAL LIFE: Your life shouldn’t be defined by your career, and I myself am guilty of forgetting this from time to time. Look for ways to deepen your work in the world around you, but don’t let the work consume you. While not always possible in this deadline-driven industry, some of my most rewarding creative breakthroughs have come after setting aside a project for a week or two. Coming back after a break gives you valuable perspective and a distance to the work that helps puts you in the mindset of the audience. What do you think? Are there other off the set activities that you think can make you a better filmmaker? Comment below!Read more
by Graham Sheldon | 6th September 2016
We buy the new camera, we buy the new light kit, we download the latest cinema color profiles and we show up on set and make something really, really flashy. The files are saved, edited and exported and we only missed one thing: storytelling. Most filmmakers, myself included, got into the industry because we loved watching movies. We thought, “Hey, I can do that” and so we try our best to make what we grew up loving. Easier said than done, right? Most of us are not creating The Great Escape right out of the gate or Jaws like Spielberg did at age 27 (not a typo). Most of us are just trying to tell a good short low-cost story, and this is where things fall apart. Cavemen sit around a fire telling stories. Note the lack of 3D camera. Artist: Margaret A. McIntyre I am asked again and again what is the best camera to shoot a particular film or documentary and the truth is that it Does. Not. Matter. If you have a compelling, nuanced, passionate, meaningful, powerful story then everything else will come. Storytelling has never been about the new gadget with the improved dynamic range; it’s about allowing the viewer to escape for a time into a fully realized world. It’s about changing someone’s mind. Filmmakers, like all artists, are a passionate group, but a group that, unfortunately, puts up self-defeating barriers. Here are a few: I don’t have the money. Use your iPhone 6s, spend $9.99 on Filmic Pro in the App Store, or don’t, and walk into your backyard and turn on the camera function. I’m not a writer. I hear this again and again, and I always respond the same way: filmmaking, and leadership in general, is about surrounding yourself with people who are better than you and who challenge you every day. Make a conscious effort to reach out to your betters and convince them to collaborate. There are dozens of resources online where writers post their material. Go to them and start sending emails to people in whose work you see potential and whose work inspires you to pick up a camera. I don’t have the time. If you don’t have the time, then you don’t really want to work in film. For everything in your life that is worth pursuing you will make the time. And you’ll find when you spend the time, the barriers will start to melt away. When the new gadget comes out, ask yourself this question: does this new technology help tell better stories? Oftentimes, new technology only distracts from the story. Remember 3D? Remember 3D the second time? Does 3D tell a better narrative? How about Virtual Reality? VR shoots now consist of mounting a bunch of synced cameras in a circle and staging a theatrical play in a 360 degree space around that camera. In the documentary world, VR consists of mounting the camera on a pole and carrying it around with you. Virtual Reality is not a tool of cinematography: VR is a tool of IT professionals and programmers. Just like Goosebumps books from the 90’s, VR gives the audience incredible control in defining their own journey, but also gives the audience the freedom to miss parts of the story that are important, even crucial. VR may be the future, but we as an industry need to find ways to give the power back to the director and especially to DPs during the film’s creation. Right now, I argue that the most gorgeous and vivid story-driven VR tech out there is Shakespeare in the Park in New York or London. Tickets range from $20.00 to free. “The Historian” – The Indian Artist is painting the story of a battle with American Soldiers. Artist: E. Irving Couse Focusing more on storytelling also makes you more competitive in the job market. I hate to say it, but there is a BIG pool of RED or Alexa shooters that can light a killer moody medium shot for TV or film. The pool becomes much smaller when you try to find cinematographers whose every single shot is motivated by the story. So, on your next project, start with the story and work outwards. If it doesn’t serve the central purpose of storytelling, of being a filmmaker, then it shouldn’t show up in your kit. Remember that, and I guarantee you’ll be surprised with what you create.Read more
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