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Friday, November 2, 2012

3D: Here To Stay


The summer sci-fi thriller Prometheus by filmmaker Ridley Scott was moderately successful as an addition to the Alien Anthology. It is particularly intriguing not for how well (or how poorly) it fits in with the rest of the Alien franchise, but rather for its success in a new form of cinema: the 3D film. Cinephiles heatedly discuss the validity of 3D as a serious format, and many insist that it is just a fad; but any Hollywood-conscious cinematographer will assure you, 3D is here to stay. It makes sense that 3D isn’t taken seriously; there has yet to be a film that really feels like it is supposed to be in 3D . . . until Prometheus. In order to understand how Prometheus is supposed to be in 3D, it is beneficial to first look at what makes 3D tick.
The obvious is, of course, that 3D is, well . . . 3D. It is three-dimensional; it has the appearance of having volume in space. The brain’s natural reaction to 3D is to treat it as such: as the real world, in which our eyes look about. We look at what we want to, at me, at the wall behind me, at the person sitting to your left or your right. This is all fine and dandy until a filmmaker gets their hands on 3D technology.
Filmmaking is all about control. It is a language of shorthand that moviegoers understand without even realizing it. For example, a cut between a character passing into a doorway and a view of them emerging from another is not questioned. It does not cross the mind that these shots may have been filmed hours if not days apart; the cutting and correct joining of these shots is a shorthand way of compressing time.
Herein lies the challenge of 3D. The brain deals with it in a fundamentally different way from 2D film, so that simply shooting and cutting a 3D film just like 2D causes problems. For example, the average duration of a single shot in a Hollywood film is six seconds, and it should be . . . for 2D. But in a 3D world, each cut to a new shot requires the brain to readjust to a new place, most importantly by refocusing. Doing this every six seconds for two straight hours gives many people headaches.
Another way that 2D shorthand becomes unnatural in 3D, is the control of the camera over something that the human eye is used to having its own control over, namely, the iris. The irises in the camera and in the eye are what cause some things to be in focus while other things aren’t. Using the camera iris to dictate what is in focus is a useful trick in 2D. It literally focuses attention per the filmmaker’s intentions. But not only does doing this in 3D cause the eye to be confused over its inability to focus freely, it imparts a cardboard cutout appearance.
Prometheus may not be a perfect Alien prequel; it may not even be a good film story. But it is the first film I have seen in 3D that seemed to be consciously aware of how 3D is different in these two important aspects. Prometheus used lots of deep depth of field (all in focus) shots that allow the eye to focus at will, and which frankly are stunning in 3D on the big screen. Prometheus also adopted a slightly more reserved cutting cadence thanks to a tendency towards tracking shots in lieu of frantic cutting, which gives the eye time to focus and explore the 3D space. The result is a 3D film during which the audience is not constantly reminded of and put off by the fact that it is 3D. Instead, for the first time a 3D film begins to impart an immersion subtly deeper than that of 2D; this makes sense, but 3D’s strengths must be played to for it to be immersive in this way.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

1: Believe You Can Do It


Welcome to my blog. My name is Caleb Genheimer, and I am a filmmaker. I have created this blog as a space in which to compile a concise collection of my own filmmaking knowledge, from basic concepts to advanced filmmaking strategies.

While the primary purpose of this blog is to be an accessible technical resource, I deemed it important to deal in this first post with the non-technical . . .

Believe You Can Do It.


It may sound cheesy and trivial, but self-confidence is often the first major hurdle, rearing its ugly head far before you are faced with any technical problems. I'm here to tell you that you can do it, but more importantly, I'm here to point out that

YOU need to tell yourself that you can do it.

There will always be an infinite supply of rationale for why you can't make that movie right now. "I don't have the equipment I need." "The script is no good." "I don't have people to help me." "I need better actors." The list goes on . . .

Ignore all that.

The truth is, all that is needed to make your film is you.

For all the cinematographers out there, I know the immediate reaction to this statement is "but Caleb, surely I at least need a camera." 

No, you don't. 

There are lots of other people that have cameras. The DSLR revolution has left us with a plethora of great cameras at our fingertips. I'll bet you can instantly think of three people you know that have video-capable DSLRs. If not, go mug a hipster and take theirs. Don't worry, they'll still have Instagram.

Now get out there and make movies.

Don't say that it is more complex than that . . . it isn't. Go. Do it. All those excuses in your head are just hurdles you'll have to deal with. Dealing with them after you've decided to make your film is somehow easier than thinking you have to deal with them beforehand.

Finally, you'll remember that I said that this first installment wouldn't be practical . . . I lied. Let's look at a few basic principals that, when  applied from the very beginning of your film project, can make the whole process easier in the long run.

1. The Script.

Scripts are good things. They define your film: how long it will be, how many characters there are, what locations you will need to find, what special effects are needed, etc. Therefore, my suggestion for any film project is to write a script. Obviously, if you know how to write a proper movie script, that is ideal, as a properly formatted script has some advantages. For example, one script page equals more or less one minute of screen time. Also, traditional scriptwriting forces you to deal with only the stuff that will end up on screen. What do I mean by this? Let me elaborate.

When writing a novel or other kinds of fiction writing, you have the privilege of being inside a character's head. You can write "Jack was thinking about bacon", and the audience immediately knows    what Jack is thinking about. But how to do this in a film? You can film Jack, frame him just right, light him beautifully, even hire Dustin Hoffman to play the part of Jack, spend millions on production . . . but how will you show your audience that Jack is thinking of bacon? I suppose Jack could just come right out and say "I'm thinking about bacon right now", but even then, how do we know that Jack is telling the truth? There could be thought bubbles, or Hoffman could narrate his inner thoughts, but neither of these are normal tools in a filmmaker's tool belt. What I am strongly hinting at is, of course, the fact that what Jack is thinking must be figured out by the audience based on what he does and says. That is the power of starting your project in the form of a traditional movie script. You see, movie scripts are just action and dialogue. Doing and saying. By starting with a movie script, you force yourself to tell the story with these two tools right off the bat.

Of course, there are other ways to plan out your film besides a written script. Maybe all you need is an outline, and maybe that outline is in your head. Sometimes I work this way, it depends upon the project. But there are reasons that most good films began as a script. If it helps, think of the script as a way to organize and plan your film. This segues into the next point.

2. Location Location Location.

Locations seem to often be another big hurdle. Don't let them be. At the very least, think about what locations are realistically available to you as you plan your film. At best, find locations, then come up with a story that fits.

"But Caleb, I'm the next Kubrick! I want to make a two hour space epic with lots of rocket ships!"

Okay. That's fine. I'll be honest, if "out of this world" locations are really your "thing", then you'll figure out ways to make it work. I remember going to a Star Wars exhibit at my local science museum right after Episode I came out, and I looked at an actual Star Destroyer model that was used on the original trilogy. It was cobbled together out of grey glued together model kit parts. There were airplane wings, NASCAR racer parts, and probably some other stuff too. On one side, I spotted a sticker for the battery manufacturing company that my own father worked for back in the day. "so what," you say? Even Star Wars, one of the most popular "other-worldly" trilogies is just a bunch of cobbled-together and repurposed bits from our world. You just have to find the right bits . . . the right locations (or the right pieces to build them), and you're golden. Just make sure you're capable of building a rocket ship set in dad's garage before you go and plan that two hour space epic of yours.

Smalltime filmmakers should always be very intentional when it comes to location, from the very beginning of a filmmaking project's conception all the way through until locations have been secured.

If you don't want to face location problems, come up with a story set in locations that you know you have access to.

I wanted to make a film this semester while I am out in New York City. Before I even had characters or a story idea, I looked around Long Island City and Astoria where I am living. I saw convenience stores, news stands and grocery stores on almost every corner . . . sometimes two or three in one city block. I decided to write a script set in a convenience store. Now that I am into location scouting, I'm glad I picked this location setting. Even though I was turned down by many proprietors, I was able to find a few willing to let me film, because there are so many stores around.

3. Characters and Actors

Good actors will find a way to make a decent script good, a good script surprisingly awesome. Good actors are out there, you just need to have something that they want. Most good actors want a good script, and a character with lots of lines and screen time. I've given myself a somewhat arbitrary and silly rule that you can of course take or leave . . . but I find it useful: one speaking character per five pages of script (or five minutes of film). The script for my current project is seventeen pages long, and I expect it to trim down to under fifteen minutes of screen time once all is said and done. How many characters do I have? Four. There are two dominant characters, and two supporting characters.

Put simply, if the film is short, don't put too many characters in it.

This ensures that the characters that are in the film have time and space to develop. Developed characters will connect to the audience more readily. In terms of finding actors, depending on the project, it can be as simple as dragging along a couple friends, or as complex as contacting a local talent agency. At least in NYC, I've found criagslist to be quite successful for finding grown-up actors.

Incidentally, another thing that good actors (indeed, everyone) wants . . . is FOOD. Even if you don't pay them, feed them. Food has many benefits, but I'll write more on food and its magical powers another time.

For any "serious" project (that is, any project you take seriously), I would highly recommend finding actors. Yes, this means interacting with, organizing and *gasp* trusting other people with your precious project. Entrusting others with parts of your project is a good thing. Not only does this take some work off your shoulders, it also makes you immediately responsible to someone other than yourself. If you don't finish the film project, not only would you be letting yourself down . . . you'd be letting down your actors too. This is a scary and wonderful motivator that, once set in place, can turn any project "serious".

Finally, lest you use all these things as excuses for not starting another film project, here are a few free resources related to the topic.

Celtx, a free screenwriting software (use it myself): http://www.celtx.com

A good book on screenwriting is Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434. To those who don't condone the purchasing of books, there's always your local library.

An easy way to find locations is to keep your eyes open, take pictures and write down addresses.


Coming up next time: The Camera and Controlling Light
(a.k.a. Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO and Neutral Density Filters)



Remember, YOU need to tell yourself that you can do it.

-Caleb