Friday, December 13, 2013

End of the Year Reflection

Today was the last day of my Fall 2013 semester classes. It flew by in the blink of an eye but I sure did learn a lot especially in this class, Fiction Field 1. Despite the fact that this class caused the most stress and probably took a year off of my life (slightly exaggerating) I learned so much.

After this semester I have a much greater appreciation for films.  I now realize just how difficult it is to make an amazing film. I loved this class because we were given one main project and were assigned one main role. I was able to focus on one job as well as offer assistance to my teammates when they needed something.

Working in a team is definitely not my favorite thing to do but with this project I had to let go and have confidence in my teammates. I learned a lot from it and am now more comfortable relying on other people to do their own jobs.

This project really showed me how much effort is put into every aspect of a film. It also made me realize what I wouldn't want to do and what I would like to pursue in the future.

Thank you so much Arturo for all of the guidance and help along this learning experience.


Monday, December 9, 2013

End-of-semester Reflection


As the semester comes to a close, I have a lot to think about and a lot to reflect upon; mainly, the new-found appreciation I have for the field of film production. Before this class, I can confidently say that I already knew much more about the industry than the vast majority of my friends. I've always had an appreciation for the film industry and for those who work in it, but not to this level.

Last year, I took an intro to field production course, and I certainly learned a lot from it, but my overall opinion of film production was not at all affected through the experience. Fiction Field Production 1--through the semester-long project we had to complete--taught me a whole lot more about the industry than I ever would have thought possible.

What was so different about this class was the fact that, for the first time since I've gotten to this school, we were assigned a legitimate project that really put everyone's skills to the test. The project was simple (or so I thought): make a film that's based off a news story. The story can cover any topic and can be from any time period. Everyone in the class brought in a story, we voted on the two we liked best, and then we split ourselves into two groups.

With two groups of seven students, everyone was able to have their own crew position, instead of having everyone split the work evenly like in the intro class. The most exciting part was that we, for the most part, chose the group and position we would stick with for the entirety of the semester. As one who has never been particularly fond of preproduction work, I was ecstatic to be able to step aside and let someone else take care of it.

Now, while this was an especially exciting part of the project for me, it was also one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of the process. While it was no longer my responsibility to write, schedule, direct, or shoot the film (I was given the position of editor), it also meant that a whole lot of things were out of my control. Sure, I could give my input on whatever I wanted--and it was often well-regarded--but for the most part, the final decision on most things was not mine.

My point is that while it's nice to not have to bother myself with certain aspects of the project, it also meant that I had to have faith in my fellow group members. As one who tends to take control in a group setting, this was something I had to quickly learn to get over. From the very start, I had to constantly remind myself not to intervene in others' work and to trust them more than I usually would have in the past.

With everyone working on their own portion of the film, a whole lot more effort could be put into each aspect of the project, as opposed to when everyone had to split their efforts amongst everything. With every student putting forth a whole new level of effort into their work than I've ever seen before, I was able to really watch and admire everyone's talent while also taking the time to appreciate the amount of work they were each completing.

Yes, my job as editor had a lot of work that came with it as well, but to truly be able to see the amount of work that goes into the entire process of a film's production and the high level of skill that's required to make a quality product is unbelievable. I used to think we simply weren't using the proper equipment to make a good film, but it turns out that what it really takes is a group of talented students who are willing to put forth the effort. Duh.

Thank you, Arturo Sinclair, for a brand-new experience and for passing your knowledge onto all of us.

Here's the Facebook event for the screening this upcoming Saturday!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

I Love Lucy "The Christmas Episode" Is Back

On December 20th, CBS will re-air "The Christmas Episode" of the old program "I Love Lucy." Airing the Christmas Episode is a big deal, since the star Lucille Ball had mixed feelings about it and eventually the episode was taken out of syndication. Now it is back! However, not only is it back, but it is back and this time it's in color! The episode has been colorized and will be broadcast never before seen, in full color. Since last class we talked about color correction I thought this would be an appropriate post. There is some debate about whether or not this is a good idea, some people think it is a good idea for the episode to be colorized, and some say different: they would rather the show to be forever in black & white. I might have to check out the full episode on the 20th to see how it turns out. You can decide for yourself with the preview link below:


Rare photograph of the I Love Lucy set from above

Friday, December 6, 2013

Disney's New Short "Get A Horse!"

Having seen Disney's Frozen three times in the week and a half that it has been out in theaters, I am very clearly obsessed. But instead of raving over how many boundaries it broke in the Disney sphere, I'm focusing this post on the short that proceeds: Get a Horse! As I mentioned in my last post, although Frozen is the first Disney film directed by a women, Jennifer Lee is one of two directors. The second director is a man. However, Lauren MacMullan of Get a Horse! is the first woman to single handedly direct a Disney production. Now let's be honest, Disney short films have a strong reputation of being wonderful. And in my opinion, MacMullan held her own.

My favorite part of Get a Horse! is that it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo. In the Woody Allen romantic comedy set in the 30s, Jeff Daniels plays a movie character that walks out of the screen and into the real world. Similar to this concept, Micky Mouse breaks through the movie screen in Get a Horse! and plays between the two worlds.

Both pieces of work use color to differentiate between the worlds. I remember loving the idea of a character from a black and white film emerging into the colorful real world when I first saw the movie. Get a Horse! also did a great job contrasting the black and white screen with the colorful real world as a means to tell the story. MacMullan took it even further though when Mickey breaks through the screen and into the real world. He actually breaks the screen, ripping a hole in it. And through that hole, we can see the world inside the screen in color. I thought the idea was a very clever add on to the use of color in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

August: Osage County


Based on the multiple Tony Award winning play written by Tracy Letts, this new film adaptation has been bringing in a lot of Oscar buzz even well before its debut in the Toronto Film Festival.  It is a dark film with a lot a large range of dramatic and devastating characters which have been noted to only be reserved for the best actors for they are unlike you any characters you have typically seen before. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, and Benedict Cumberbatch are just a few of the world renown actors participating in this film.

Plot
The story begins with Beverly Weston, a former poet whose wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), has grown weak with cancer. When Beverly disappears, the couple's three daughters and their extended family come to Oklahoma. The couple's eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), is having her own marital issues. Middle sister Ivy ( Julianne Nicholson ) has a secret that would divide the family, while the youngest, Karen ( Juliette Lewis ), has a fiancé ( Dermot Mulroney ) who dies.


The film comes out on Christmas Day. 
Cant wait to see it!

THE 4 RULES OF STUDENT FILMMAKING



As our projects come to end, I thought it would be a good time to reflect upon my experience as a student filmmaker. These rules are essential for anyone starting their career as a filmmaker, but I hope they can also be helpful for those who have already established themselves in the industry. These rules, if followed perfectly, can result in a very high quality film. 

1. Know your job
        It's one of the basics but it's also one of the most important. There are many different positions on a film set and it's essential that everyone knows what their responsibility is. Filmmaking is not the combination of one or two elements but the cumulation of several people's knowledge and skill. Dialogue, performance, lighting, audio, continuity– these are just a few of the many components controlled by one or more people on a film set. If even one of these components is lacking, it can ruin a film. The given number of people on a set can range anywhere from 4 to 400, but it's essential that everyone knows how to do their job perfectly as well as where they lie in the hierarchy of decision making.

2. Prepare for everything to go wrong
        It's a natural law of filmmaking– what can go wrong will go wrong. Seriously. Some of my first times shooting in the field were a complete disaster. Camera batteries were MIA, the talent wouldn't show up, SD card's couldn't format correctly, we had no AA batteries for the Zoom mic... the number of things that can go wrong on a film set are infinite, a fact that is reinforced every time I go on to a film set. There's no way to completely cover yourself, but there are ways to prepare yourself for the future when things go array.
Double check everything. Make sure you have the most important things you need to bring to the set and then bring everything else you might not need. These things can vary depending on what your job is, but even having the most basic household items like tape, markers, and jar openers can save a film. 
Bring extras. If you're in the audio department for example, you should have extra batteries, XLR cords, headphones, and extension cords. If something goes wrong in your department it's on you and it's up to you to cover yourself. This rule can only be learned though experience so grab every opportunity you have to work on a film. 

3. Focus on the story
       Making a film look and sound awesome will not make an awesome film. When you're looking to direct a quality film you are not making it for yourself or your close filmmaking friends, but an expansive audience. An audience that doesn't care how hard it was to work with the actors or light a tiny bookstore. The audience only requires that what they're watching will compel them with a certain emotion and that they can walk away amazed by what they saw. Before creating a film, plan all of the technical things as perfectly as you can, and then step away from it all and make sure the story you are telling makes sense. Not only makes sense, but draws your audience in and keeps them there until the credits finish rolling. 

4. Have Fun
      Come on guys... we have one of the coolest jobs. We're storytellers. To create a powerful film can be thrilling, empowering, and hopefully rewarding. Things can get very stressful on set though, and it's important to remember why you're there. When you know that all your bases are covered and you're skillfully prepared, making films can be an extremely fun and engaging job. It's not an easy process by any means, but if you have good people to work with you're guaranteed to have a fun time doing it. 

A quality film is like a gourmet sandwich... Crafted by several high-quality ingredients.




The Difficulty of a Pilot Episode

As of late I have started writing the pilot episode for a web series that I created. The show is nothing special. Just two friends from high school who go to college together. But as this is my first time writing a legit show where there is development and characters and a full on story, there were some really interesting things I learned about writing a pilot episode that usually makes it the weakest of any of the episodes in a series. If I think back to some of my favorite shows, Psych, How I met your Mother, Family Guy, I find that the pilot episode is usually one of the least memorable episodes. Now that I am writing my own show I think I have figured out why it is so difficult, especially when writing a comedy.

1. Developing the Characters
In the pilot episode the author has a very limited time to portray a character and who he/she might be. You need to develop them in a way that lets the audience know who they are right out of the gate. There can't be any dillydally, you have to get right to the point. It needs to be established early on the type of person each character is.

2. The Plot
The plot is the key in any pilot episode, it has to run really smoothly, mostly because without a good plot people lose interest in your story really fast. (Apparently bad stories don't make good television).

3. It has to be funny
The biggest difficulty in writing a comedy pilot is the fact that along with having to introduce the characters, you have to make the story funny at the same time. Now that I have finished the pilot episode I cannot tell you how much easier it was to write the second episode. In the pilot the audience needs to have the characters mapped out for them. In the second episode, people already know who is who and know what each character is going to be like. This allows for a lot less build up and you can go right into the story.

4. Not everyone is going to think it is funny.
It is a very humbling experience to read your script to a room full of your friends and have some laugh their heads off, and others sit there without once smiling. This was something I had to deal with early on as I realized that in the world we live in you can never write or shoot something that is for everyone. By trying to appeal to everyone, you end up appealing to no one. The best chance you have is to hope you are really as funny as you think you are.

Well... there you go, here is a little bit of a reflection on my experience in writing a pilot episode. It was a really difficult but great learning experience because it differed so much from writing a sketch, where you can just take one funny idea and run with it.






Music Video Creates Feelings Without Dialogue

Music videos have a unique way of telling stories. I have found that not all music videos are of women dressed in skimpy outfits and dancing or of singers showing off what they have. There are some videos that actually have artistic merit to them. I was lucky to come across a music video that not only reflects the mood of the songs, but also tells a story of it's own. The video that I found just came out today and it is for the song "Instant Crush" by Daft Punk featuring the voice of Julien Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes.  Here's the video directed by Warren Fu:



This music video involves Julien Casablancas singing on a small stage and two wax figures in a museum. One wax figure is dressed up as an 18th century soldier and he has a strong resemblance to Casablancas. The other figure is a beautiful milk maid who catches the attention of the soldier. The video tells the story of the two inanimate objects growing affection for each other. They do not speak throughout the video but they still have a strong connection. They are eventually separated, but in the end they are reunited during a fire in a warehouse. The fire subsequently melts their wax bodies, but they are together.

This video is very touching even though the story is about a love between two inanimate objects. The way the shots are frames gives the appearance of longing between the characters. There are many close-up shots of their faces and you can tell that they have the same feelings for each other, even though their faces don't actually move. Overall I really thought this video was well done.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Modern Family

When I was home over my break I found my self sucked into a marathon of Modern Family created by Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan. Before break I didn't really watch much of the show because I didn't have cable but I knew my own family loved it and that within the Park School and my group of friends it is a strongly liked show.

Getting more into the analysis of the show, I absolutely love all of the characters. There is literally a strong character that  every person can relate too and the crazy dynamic it creates is that of a real family. Not only is the writing for the characters good but it is casted so well. My favorite character is Phil Dunphy played by Ty Burrel. I love his witty awkward but yet smooth humor. It's so easy to match personalities of my own family to characters in the show and I think that's what makes it so funny. Also the writing in general is great, the jokes have so many levels are delivered so smoothly into the normal dialogue. I was actually fortunate enough to meet Christopher Lloyd when he came to Ithaca College last year. He was such a funny and energetic guy that it makes a lot of sense that someone like him helped create a show of such caliber. He also talked to us about the writing for the show and that they're inspired from real events they all experience in their own houses but they need to modify them so they fit into the story line and match the specific characters of the show better.

Along side of the fantastic writing and casting of the show, it also gives off several great messages and seems to be setting the new norms. The first and most obvious social norm it is setting is the stance on homosexual marriage. They have put loving faces and characters to the movement that people can stand behind and think about when addressing this situation in reality. They also address relationships like Jay's and Gloria's. That age isn't a problem when it comes to love and the obstacles of remarrying someone. Finally they also show that the family at a whole is perfect because it is flawed. I think this is such a positive message because it's taking away expectations from society that shows like The Brady Bunch set. Overall I think all of these messages can be summed up by the fact that love is love no matter of race, sexual orientation, or age.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Morality's Place in Hollywood

If you had to ask me, at least a few hours ago, I would've said that there wasn't one. That morality and Hollywood were simply incompatible, that both could not exist at the same time. It seemed to me that Hollywood was run by a number of Gordon Gekko's and that "Greed is good". Sure, there are good, honest people trying to do good, honest things, but let's be honest, money is the name of the game.

That being said, the moral high ground IS in fact taken quite often, but less out of voluntary action and more the cause of the driving forces of impending blows to profit and "political correctness". Offend as few people as possible and reap as much profit as you can. I hate to sound cynical, because I certainly don't consider my self to be so, but I feel that this blasĂ© effort to do some good within the medium, which undoubtedly has the ability to help an influence people exponentially, to be frustrating. A little proactivity with the old moral compass goes a long way. 



That's why I was so happy when I heard that Disney and Pixar had made alterations to the ending the upcoming animated film "Finding Dory" after some of the creators watched a documentary called "Blackfish". "Blackfish" is a documentary that addresses the dangers of keeping animals, specifically whales, in captivity in places such as the Sea World aquatic park. The folks at Disney were apparently so moved by what the saw, that they decided to rework the ending of the script, which in fact had the main characters of the film at a SeaWorld type place. Of the change, the people at Pixar stated that they didn't want to look back fifty years from now and see that this film had become something of a "Song of the South". 


If you haven't really heard of  "Song of the South", there's probably a good reason, as Disney doesn't exactly broadcast its existence. That's because today, the 1946 Disney musical is largely considered to be somewhat racist. But I digress. 

Now, that comment about Pixar not wanting it to be a "Song of the South" does suggest that Pixar has their best interests in mind. But here's what separates this instance from others: there was no public outcry, no online petitions, no focus groups. Heck, the script wasn't even released to the public. All this was was a few people who saw a documentary and felt so compelled to do some good. 


Now, I have no idea whether "Blackfish is wrong or right. There are arguments from both camps, with SeaWorld even releasing a public statement on the matter:


"Blackfish is billed as a documentary, but instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues. To promote its bias that killer whales should not be maintained in a zoological setting, the film paints a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld – among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year, and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research. Perhaps most important, the film fails to mention SeaWorld's commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company's continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau."

But here's the kicker, I honestly don't care who's wrong or right. I feel that Pixar's heart was in the right place in this conscious, unforced decision to do what the people behind the film thought was right. That's enough for me.    

Fargo

It was long overdue for me to watch the Cohen brothers' film, "Fargo".  After a long editing session in the library, I headed back to my room and pulled it up on Netflix.  This 1996 film was billed as a "homespun murder story", but it is so much more than that.  The Academy award winning screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen fires on all cylinders.  It can readily be described as a thriller comedy, featuring both very dark and very hilarious moments.  It definitely satirizes and turns a mirror to the Minnesotan lifestyle that the Coen brothers grew up in.  "Fargo" currently has a rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, holds two Oscars (one for the original screenplay and one for lead actress Frances McDormand).   Joel Coen also received the award for best director at the '96 Cannes Film Festival.

This film takes place mainly in Fargo, ND and Brainerd, MN.  It follows the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) as he pays two criminals Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.  Lundegaard's big plan is to get his very wealthy father in law to pay off Showalter and Grimsrud to get his daughter back.  Then the kidnappers would receive half the ransom, while Lundegaard receives the other half.  Lundegaard is in financial trouble and is in desperate need of the money.  Well as one would imagine, things don't go quite to plan.  As the kidnappers make their escape things are all well and good, until a trooper stops them on the highway in Brainerd, MN for not having plates on their car (a car Lundegaard gave them from his father in law's dealership).  It is at this point that the shit hits the proverbial fan and guns start blazing.  I won't get much further into specifics (spoilers!).  Once the dust has settled, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) proceeds to investigate the situation.  In this pregnant police chief, we see a lot of the satirizing of Minnesotans that the Coen brothers' script is filled with.  These four actors pull off truly amazing performances, made easy by the beautiful script.  Macy did receive an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.

"Fargo" also pulls a lot of it's power from the beautiful cinematography.  All credit here goes to the great Rodger Deakins.  Every shot in this film is very intentional and well crafted.  Deakins has incredible wide shots, as well as strong close ups/reverse shots.
I could post even more stills from this film, hundreds of stills.  The shot composition is consistently strong, with everything being lined up with such care.  Deakins is also well known for playing with light in a profound way, which we see in all of the above images.  In particular I love the way the light falls on Buscemi and the way car lights play in the dense snow.  The focus pulling that occurs during the heavy snow is incredibly beautiful as well.  Overall I can not recommend this film enough!  Take a look at the trailer (best quality I could find) and then head over to Netflix to watch!! Don't wait for it to be taken off Instant!  

12 Years a Slave and White Guilt in 2013

When the credits began to roll at the end of 12 Years a Slave, nobody in the theatre made any sort of move to leave. There was no popcorn crunching, no soda slurping, just dead silence. In part, this was because it was a fantastic movie - probably the best of the year - but it was also because, as an almost exclusively white audience, nobody was quite sure how they should feel. 

12 Years a Slave, which is only the third film by director Steve McQueen, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who was captured in 1841 and sold into slavery. The film follows Solomon (the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will almost certainly be nominated for best actor this year) as he gets moved around from slave owner to slave owner, trying to stay alive and somehow return home to his wife and children. As I mentioned, it’s a spectacular movie - the acting, the directing, and the cinematography are some of the best I’ve ever seen - and yet I can’t think of film in recent memory that has had so much Oscar buzz while simultaneously being something that people are almost afraid to talk about. 

So, to clear the air, I’d like to talk about 12 Years a Slave. 

Racism is an incredibly daunting thing for me to write about, and the more I look up at the title that I’ve given this piece, the more I have to wonder if it’s something I have any right talking about at all. As a middle class white guy from Vermont, I have almost no first hand experience with the topic apart from what I’ve obtained over the years through different kinds of media. My parents are not racist in the slightest, and I was raised to constantly be disgusted that people could judge others based solely on the color of their skin. Just because I’ve read Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcolm X doesn’t mean that I claim to have any real connection to or knowledge of black culture. Who am I to judge a brutally honest film about slavery?

I’ve done a little bit of research ever since I watched 12 Years a Slave, and I’ve found lots of articles that both praise and criticize the film; many, understandably, written by black critics. Some, like Orville Lloyd Douglas’s, make fine points about why Hollywood should make more “black” movies that focus on more than just the topic of race and that don’t try to make white people feel guilty. I understand where he’s coming from; with 12 Years and The Butler hitting theaters around the same time, it feels like someone’s really trying to make a point. However, other people, such as Wesley Morris, argue not only for the artistic merits of the piece as a film, but for how McQueen pulls no punches in the portrayal of white people; this is a film about slavery where the slaves stand alone; there are no white men pushed into the foreground, no Lincolns or Christoph Waltzes, to save the day for them. I agree with this aspect as well. 

But I still believe many people are missing the point. When I’m asked how the movie was, I typically respond “it was incredible, but there was an unbelievable amount of white guilt in that movie theatre.” Someone on YouTube even took the time to create a series of parody videos on that very topic. But this shouldn’t be anybody’s response. I’m fully aware that race is still a very prominent issue in our country in 2013, but there is no reason any person - white, black, hispanic, asian, or anywhere in between - should feel guilty when watching this film. By all means, we can be disgusted at how Solomon is treated by white people throughout the course of the movie; we should be. But taking that guilt - the guilt that slaveowners should have felt over 160 years ago - and applying that to ourselves today is wrong. 

I’m convinced that 12 Years a Slave defies all boundaries of a normal Hollywood film in a few different ways. There’s no real target audience: while the art house crowd might eat it up, no matter who you are, this film is for you. It’s a film that spends a painfully long time lingering on the botched hanging of Solomon, with the man, front and center, desperately trying to gain some traction with his toes in the mud pile beneath him. It’s a film that takes its time, utilizing really long takes and interspersing certain segments with shots of nature. It’s certainly not your standard Oscar-bait film. It is not a “black” film, and it’s not a “white” film. It’s not even a wholly American film (both McQueen and Ejiofor are British). More than anything, it’s a human film. 


Perhaps that’s what some people are missing, and what gives me the right to talk about racism and 12 Years. It is truly impossible for any white person to know what it’s like to be black and vice versa, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that this is a powerful film that affects each individual that sees it. Disagree with me if you want, tell me that the filmmakers are playing to my innate sense of white guilt and I’m not qualified to talk about this, but you’d be wrong. When you see Solomon come home after 12 years to find that his family is barely recognizable, and you see that no amount of happiness can fix the years of hell that he was forced to endure, you don’t have to have any necessary qualifications, apart from one. You just have to be human.