Memphis Film Prize 2019

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Here are a few photos from this year’s Memphis Film Prize where my short film Hangry competed as a Top 10 Finalist. My lead actor Percy Bradley took home the Best Actor Award.

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.

The Biggest Mistakes In Scheduling On-Camera Interviews

There are things in life that are certain - death, taxes, and the fact that your video shoot will fall behind schedule. Despite that inevitability, however, there are things you as a video producer can do to help your production stay on track.

One of the problems I see from less experienced producers is that they consistently underestimate just how long it takes to conduct a sit-down interview. The balancing act between budgeting and scheduling a video production can be tricky. I certainly understand the need to keep costs down (and therefore the temptation to cram as many interviews into a single day as possible), but there is always a point of diminishing returns. If you pack more and more interviews into your day, that only means that you have less and less time to conduct each one. And if you only have 10 minutes with each interview subject, you will only capture superficial, generic sound bites. You just don’t have the time for in-depth, quality thoughts and reflections. I always prefer fewer interviews if it means better quality for my finished video.

So, that’s the first thing you need to think about when scheduling your interviews: more isn’t always better. Your 2-4 minute promotional video doesn’t need 10-20 different interviews subjects to get the point across. Sound bites will end up sounding redundant. Start off by trimming the list of interview subjects. Go for quality rather than quantity.

Second, remember that the interview will always take longer to conduct than you think. Sure, you may think that the actual interview will only take 15 minutes, but what happens when…

  • you find the interview subject is camera shy and isn’t as eloquent as you thought?

  • the subject wants to repeat or rephrase everything he/she says?

  • the subject brings a list of bullet points he/she wants to hit, but keeps forgetting what’s been prepared?

That 15-minute interview has now ballooned to 45 minutes, or perhaps an hour. Now you have three other interview subjects on location waiting around. If you think you only need 15 minutes to actually conduct the interview, give yourself a cushion of at least 30 minutes.

To help tighten the schedule, minimize company moves. Find one location in which you can shoot all of your interviews. That way your crew doesn’t have to break down, move, and set up for every single interview. Sure, it’s ideal to have a variety of locations for each interview, but sometimes it’s not practical. If I have to shoot interviews in one location, I like to try and find a spot where I can turn the camera in different directions and find an entirely different look. That way, I can still obtain the variety I’d like, without the time-consuming set-ups.

Speaking of set-ups, that’s the other variable that usually isn’t given enough time on the schedule. I’ve been on shoots where the client and the producer have lined up an interview at one location at 9am, only to have the second interview starting at 9:30 at the other side of the building. They’ve completely forgotten about the time it takes to wrap the gear, move the entire crew to a new location, and then set it all up again.

I know what you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but I don’t have the budget to spread all of this out over three days. I need to get everything done in one day.” Well, I think you can still capture what you need to capture in a day and adhere to a realistic interview schedule. Now, assuming that you are producing a simple, straightforward promotional video for your business, here’s what I would do:

  • Pick one location for all of your interviews

  • Schedule no more than four interviews.

  • Block off one hour per interview.

  • Now you still have five hours left in the day to capture doc-style b-roll of your business, assuming that all of the action needed to capture happens in one office space.

If your project is slightly more complicated, like your business is spread out over multiple locations, or if it’s important to the video to have more than four interview subjects, then you will probably have to adjust your budget and your expectations. You might need to hire two camera crews to capture everything you need, or you may need to expand the amount of shooting days, or both.

If you work with an experienced video producer, you can avoid a massive scheduling headache, but if you have to do it yourself (for whatever reason), take the above advice and it will really help alleviate problems on the day of your shoot.

Have any other thoughts? Leave them in the Comments.

Here's How to Make Dialogue Scenes More Dynamic

At some point in your film, two people will be talking on camera. It’s inevitable. So, the question is, how do you shoot your dialogue scenes in a way that’s visually interesting and pleasing to the viewer?

INTERESTING LOCATIONS MAKE FOR INTERESTING SHOTS

If your actors need to stand still for a dialogue scene, find an interesting location in which they can have their conversation. If the location itself has a lot of character, or is unique in some way, you can create a lot of visual interest for your scene, even if the actors are relatively still.

Consider how Steven Spielberg shot this dialogue scene from Jaws. The scene itself is pretty straightforward: The Mayor and the Chief of Police are discussing whether or not to close the beaches. Spielberg could have shot this scene anywhere, but he chose to shoot it on a moving ferry. The uniqueness of the location provided a nice composition because although the actors are relatively static, the background is in constant motion.

CREATE DEPTH TO YOUR COMPOSITION

Sometimes a dialogue scene will have to take place in someone’s living room, or in a diner booth, or at a card table, or some other place where the actors are seated and locked into one position. Now, if you decide to shoot those scenes up against a blank wall, the composition won’t be very interesting. Give your shot depth by placing the table and the actors in the center of the room and staging the background accordingly. Angle the camera and the table so that the background falls off into the distance.

My latest short film Hangry is predominately a single conversation between two characters seated at a table. The crew strategically placed the table in the center of the room and arranged other tables in the background to create depth. We also made sure that the camera wasn’t directly facing a wall or any other flat surface. We used colorful wall art to break up the background, used the movement of the extras to add life, and removed a few practical overhead fluorescent lights to create variety between light and shadow, which added texture.

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MOVE THE ACTORS

There might come a moment in one of your films when one character answers the door, revealing another character standing on the porch. Now, what happens next? In a lot of the short films I’ve seen, the two characters simply stand there, one on the threshold looking out, and another on the threshold looking in. Then the scene simply cross cuts between over-the-shoulder angles.

To make this setup more interesting, try moving the actors in a way that makes sense to the story:

  • Does one character suggest taking a walk while they have their conversation? Now the two actors can move off the porch, on to the sidewalk, and you have a walk-and-talk scene.

  • Does one character invite the other one in to the house? If so, be careful not to place your actors in two chairs. You’ve just traded one uninteresting static shot for another one. Try moving the actors from room to room. Does it make sense for the homeowner to busy him/herself in the kitchen while the other person talks?

MOVE THE CAMERA

Whether you choose to use a slider, dolly, or stabilizer rig, adding camera movement to a scene in which two people primarily stand/sit still and talk, always adds visual interest. But what’s even better is when you can both move the actors and the camera. If you take the time to think through the scene, the purpose of it, the dynamics between the two characters, etc. you can create authentic blocking for your actors coupled with camera movement to create a very dynamic dialogue scene. Watch how Alfred Hitchcock staged this scene in the film Vertigo for inspiration on how to combine actor and camera movement.

Have any other thoughts on how to create a dynamic dialogue scene? Leave them in the Comments.