Here's An Important Exercise For All Filmmakers

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When I was in college taking a course on film production, the Instructor gave each of us an assignment. Drawing inspiration from Dogme 95 He told us to think about our personal philosophies on filmmaking and then to write those viewpoints down in our own filmmaker’s manifesto. I enjoyed the exercise and think it’s an important one for every filmmaker to undertake. Even if you don’t formally write anything down, just thinking about your own voice and the films you like to make can be invaluable in finding stories that you are passionate about.

I’ve been thinking more and more about my current philosophies on filmmaking and how it’s changed and evolved since those college years. My recent two short films, Big and Tall and Hangry, are a significant shift in tone and genre from all of my previous short films. Whereas my earlier works were weightier dramas dealing with the break down of the family dynamic, Big and Tall is a family-friendly adventure story and Hangry is a comedy. In light of these last two shorts, I started thinking about how my approach not only to story has changed, but also to the technique of filmmaking itself.

So, here are a few of my own filmmaking philosophies. Perhaps you’ll agree with me. Perhaps not. And that’s okay. What’s important is that you use this list as a way for you to start thinking about your own approach to filmmaking.

ACCESSIBILITY

Although film is an art form, I don’t necessarily believe in art for art’s sake. I believe a film should be accessible to general audiences and provide some kind of entertainment value. All genres are acceptable.

MOVE THE CAMERA AND/OR ACTORS FOR BETER COMPOSITIONS

Careful consideration should be made to balance both camera and actor movement to create more dynamic compositions.

LIMIT COVERAGE. LET THE ACTORS PERFORM.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get the coverage you need to tell your story. Nor am I saying that you should shoot everything in one take. What I am saying is that if you are thorough in your pre-production planning on both camera and actor blocking, you will find that many times you can let your actors play out a scene and you don’t have to punch in nearly as much as you think.

UTILIZE FOREGROUND TO BACKGROUND

Don’t keep everything in your frame locked down to one particular spot. Allow them the freedom to move around. Bring things closer to draw the viewer’s attention. Move things further away to minimize their importance. Try moving the camera through the space.

EVERY SHOT SHOULD SERVE THE STORY.

Maybe you’ve seen a drone shot in a film that seems to come out of nowhere. It just feels out of place. It screams, “Hey look! We have a drone and we used it in our film.” If you use a drone shot, make sure there’s a purpose for it in your story. The same goes for films shot entirely in one take. If you’re going to use a long, one-take tracking shot, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that it serves the story first. You shouldn’t try and market your film based on gimmicks (“Shot entirely in one take!”). That only gets you so far.

GIVE DEPTH TO YOUR SHOTS

Avoid staging scenes right up against flat backgrounds. Give your scene some separation between foreground and background. Shallow depth of field or deep depth of field is acceptable.

RELY ON VISUALS TO TELL THE STORY, NOT DIALOGUE

Think of ways you can convey information to the audience about character and plot visually, rather than through dialogue. I love trying to move story forward through visual storytelling, but sometimes my approach is difficult for actors who are auditioning for me. For my short film Final Hit, I remember that there just wasn’t that much dialogue on the page and the actors auditioning had a lot of questions. Sometimes as a director, a specific expression or action is all I’m looking for to convey information. Consider what you learn from watching the opening scene of Dunkirk just by what you see on screen.

AVOID FLASHBACKS WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Flashbacks tend to slow the pace of the film and are often (but not always) unnecessary.

These are some of the main thoughts I have when I approach filmmaking. I’m sure if I revisit this list again in 10 years some of these items will have once again evolved. And that’s okay. That’s what being an artist is all about. It’s about changing and refining and exploring new avenues.

What are some of your own philosophies toward filmmaking? How would you define your own style and voice? Leave your thoughts in the Comments.

Cinematography With Gabe Mayhan

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I had an opportunity to attend this month’s Shoot & Splice, a monthly filmmaker forum presented by IndieMemphis and Crosstown Arts. The guest speaker was cinematographer Gabe Mayhan, whose reel includes shorts, features, documentaries, and broadcast projects. During a Q&A session, Gabe showed samples of his work while discussing his approach and thought process on each project. Here are some of the takeaways from his presentation that hopefully will help you on your next film project.

  • FILMMAKING IS COLLABORATIVE - There are many people on set who all contribute to the final product. Gabe was quick to point out how he couldn’t have done his job properly without a solid production designer who made sure that each set felt authentic.

  • HAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DIRECTOR EARLY IN THE PROCESS - Go through the script with the director. Get an idea of his/her vision. Gabe pointed out that with the feature Antiquities, the director wanted the entire film to “feel like Grandma’s pillow.” That led to a very warm look overall. It also meant that Gabe couldn’t rely on the existing fluorescent lighting at the antique store location. He needed practicals to motivate his tungsten approach. And so he discussed his needs with the production designer (see #1 above) and they were able to secure low-hanging tungsten fixtures and add them to the set (see image below).

  • DIAGRAM EACH SET UP - Gabe admitted that this technique doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s something he does for each project. He will go through the shot list and plot a diagram for each camera set up, noting the placement of actors, the camera, and all G&E. That way, on the day of the shoot, there will be no questions as to what gear is coming off the truck. Gabe noted that for low-budget indie features, you will be working on a tight schedule (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 days; sometimes 10-12) and diagramming each shot in pre-production will save the crew a lot of time on set.

  • EYE LINE SAYS A LOT ABOUT CHARACTER AND RELATIONSHIPS - For Antiquities, Gabe kept the main character’s eye line very close to camera, but always kept the eye lines of other characters further away from camera. Although it drove the Script Supervisor crazy, Gabe said this was a conscious choice on his part to subtly bring the viewer more into the main character’s head space. If you want to read more about eye line in the context of documentary filmmaking, read this post.

  • USE MORE WIDE ANGLE LENSES - Gabe said that he rarely shoots on a lens longer than 40mm. He touted the benefits of using wide angle lenses, like how they can help the cinematographer create great reveal shots (For an example, see the shot at 7:23 below). Wide angle lenses are also great for establishing spacial relationships between characters and communicating a sense of place. They put the viewer directly in the world that the characters inhabit.

  • CONSIDER SCREEN SIZE WHEN USING CLOSE-UPS - With today’s digital distribution models, people are watching more films on their personal devices, meaning that filmmakers can get away with super tight close-ups. However, if your film screens at a theater, bear in mind that a close-up that looked good on a TV or tablet might feel uncomfortable to an audience on a 50 ft. screen. Therefore, consider how your film will primarily be viewed when making your shot list and frame accordingly.

  • USE TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE - Apps like Helios are invaluable tools for predicting where the sun will be at any given time of the day. This will help not only your exterior setups, but also interiors where outdoor lighting is an important element in the scene.

Overall, it was an excellent Q&A session with a lot of valuable information for current and aspiring cinematographers.

Memphis Film Prize: Your Chance to Win $10k

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The Memphis Film Prize is back for its 3rd year. The kick off event is scheduled for February 8 from 6:30-9:00PM at the Cove Bar on Broad Avenue. The goal of the Memphis Film Prize is to showcase the city as a viable filmmaking destination and to promote the talents of the local cast and crew (But you don't have to be a resident to participate in the competition; you simply have to shoot within Shelby County limits). I competed in its inaugural year with my short film Final Hitwhich made it into the Top 10.

After registering, filmmakers usually have around three months to produce a short narrative film of their choosing. Judges select the top 10 films and those finalists are screened at the annual Film Prize festival, held each August. The winner of the $10,000 is determined by a combination of audience votes and judges' scores.

If you're a filmmaker in and around the Memphis area, I encourage you to get involved. It's a great way to meet other talented individuals, and you just may walk away with $10,000.

Why the Best Production Gear Won't Help You

The barriers of entry for all aspiring filmmakers are incredibly low. Never has it been so easy to acquire all the gear necessary to shoot and edit a good-looking film. But, as Walter Murch points out in his book In the Blink of an Eye, the ease of access to the technology doesn't negate the importance of learning the craft. Consider what he writes on page 116 of his book.

The hard truth, though, is that easier access does not automatically make for better results. The accompanying sense that ‘anyone can do it’ can easily produce a broth spoiled by too many cooks. All of us today are able to walk into an art store and buy inexpensive pigments and supplies that the Renaissance painters would have paid fortunes for. And yet, do any of us paint on their level today?
— Walter Murch

I've heard and read similar observations from cinematographers over the years when discussing the latest cameras and the incredible images they produce. Selling points like unbelievable low-light performance can lead would-be directors of photography to believe that all they ever need for any scene is practical lighting. And if they believe this to be true, then they never spend adequate time learning and practicing the basic principles of cinematography.

In the following video, two professional photographers argue that the quality of the work is not dependent solely on the quality of the equipment. Put in the hands of a professional who knows his/her craft, a cheap kit can produce better images than the more expensive equipment put into the hands of an amateur.

Also consider this video from DSLRGuide where he compares a Canon T3i with an Arri Alexa Mini.

What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree, or just have something to add? Be sure to join the conversation in the Comments below.