Imagery and Allegory

27 03 2009

I’m going to talking about a few personal appearances I’m going to be making at the bottom of this post. Stay tuned if you’d like to see me talk about storytelling techniques that I use in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.

Page from MAUS

A few years ago, there was a great graphic novel series called MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale. It was an allegorical tale, set in Nazi Germany and World War II, which described Art Spiegelman’s father’s struggle to survive in Poland during that war, and Spiegelman’s attempts to connect with his father though that recounting. It was a fantastic novel and one of the many observations made about the piece was that it drew its horrific power from the fact that it was a WWII story told with animals (in this case, mice and rats) playing the parts, rather than humans.

There is much to be said for this analysis. Obviously, these aren’t real mice or real rats — they act and speak just as their human counterparts acted and spoke. And the same goes for films as well.  On its simplest level, Mickey Mouse and say and act in ways that humans never would. And the film FRITZ THE CAT, which put a cat in the 60’s/70’s in the middle of the sexual revolution that many people only wished they could experience, is very different example of that. And the upcoming WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE allows filmmaker Spike Jonze to talk about the fears and desire for adventure that fairy tales are full of, but that we rarely experience in our normal lives. Hell, nearly every Pixar film (and that would be every single one of them).
Now, courtesy of photographer Lou O’Bedlam’s (Luciana Noble) blog, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a trailer for the unfortunately (but humorously) named Japanese film CATSHITONE. It appears to tell the story of some foot soldiers in Iraq (or some nameless Middle Eastern country, I can’t tell from the trailer because I don’t speak Japanese) who are played by rabbits.  That’s right, rabbits.

CatShitOne Army Transport
You can find the trailer to this film on YouTube.

There appear to be two rabbits, trapped in combat alongside a bunch of other alien-looking creatures, as they move through the war-torn Middle Eastern landscape. They watch as a group of alien-looking creatures beat and kill a bunch of other rabbits. So, like MAUS, the two sides of the conflict are clear — there is Them (the rats or the creatures) and there is Us (mice or rabbits).

One of the challenges of any film or project is to get the audience to somehow project themselves into your story and to feel what the characters who you want them to care about are also feeling. On HEATHERS we spend several cuts manipulating the story so that the audience empathized with Veronica, who was doing some pretty heinous things. But the audience was never going to enjoy our film if they couldn’t make that connection.

If only we had made her a rabbit.

My point here is that projects are successful when audiences get involved in them. Normally that is done by having characters in the films/projects that the audience can empathize with. And that means that they have to get them. Often, this is made more difficult by an actor’s persona. If they’re prettier than we are, we’re not going to feel the same way about them. If they look more scholarly than we are, we’re not going to feel the same way about them.

But we all can feel pretty much the same about a rabbit or a mouse. We know we’re not like them, so we can project our own feeling onto them. They are the proverbial “empty vessel” and, though the filmmakers of all of the above-mentioned films work hard to give the characters emotions that we can resonate with (think Marlin in FINDING NEMO, or Bambi in BAMBI) we can more easily do that when the characters start off without any of our preconceived notions.

As for me, I’m looking forward to CATSHITONE. It will probably resonate more with me than WATCHMEN did.

My new book, The Lean Forward Moment

The Lean Forward Moment

I mentioned at the top of this post that I’ve got a few talks coming up. On Saturday, April 4th, at 1pm, I’ll be speaking at the San Francisco Apple Store about “How To Tell Better Stories”, using the shaping story techniques I talk about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT.  The event will cost you either one zillion dollars or will be free — your choice. If you’re interested, come on by at 1 Stockton Street downtown.  Afterwards, come on up to me and let me know that you read the blog.  I’d love to meet you.

I’m also going to be at the annual NAB conference in Las Vegas.  NAB is a collection of people and companies from all over the entertainment and broadcast industries, who go to panels and visit exhibitions of the latest sound, camera, editing, broadcasting and assorted other gear. It’s where we learn about who’s making what, and get to talk about whose using what. And, aside from the fact that it’s in Las Vegas (a city I’ve never particularly loved), it’s a great experience. I’ll be doing a book signing at 2pm on Monday, April 20, a talk about Storytelling at 11am at the Final Cut Pro Users Group booth on Wednesday, April 22nd, and a few talks at the Avid Booth on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning (I’m an equal opportunity speaker). Times to be announced later.

For those of you who don’t want to pay to get into the exhibition space, you can usually pick up free tickets from great and generous vendors. One place that’s being especially generous is Tuvel Communications.  If you go to the NAB site and type in the Exhibits Passport Code TP01, you’ll get a free ticket to both the exhibits area and to the opening keynote by Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications.

And, please, if you get down there and find me at one of the events, tell me that you read the blog.  I’ll get a thrill out of it.

When Is Too Much, Too Much?

3 03 2009

Sony's PMW-EX1

Sony's PMW-EX1

Or, just because you can shoot a lot, should you?

I hope this isn’t too muchb “inside baseball” but there was a meeting of a lot of the production faculty here at USC last weekend where we got a chance to sample the new workflow using our Sony HDCAM-EX1 and EX3 cameras. (Ironically, two days later Avid announced a great upgrade to their Media Composer product, to MC 3.5, that makes it possible to edit the XDCAM-EX files natively, but that’s a story for another post.) It is a transition that we started making this past fall and is slowly taking over the film school. Our higher end classes are using the F900 or the EX-3, but we are definitely making the move to HD and digital capture across the entire school.

The really interesting point came in a long discussion that we ended up having about one of our key undergraduate course — called Production III — which moved to the EX-3 this past fall. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to take a little detour to tell you how the class is set up, since it’s germane to the central question of how do we move into the file-based capture world.

The class, called CTPR 480, and is a course in which four teams of about ten undergrads each, make a short film in an intense collaborative format. Each film has a director, two producers, as well as two cinematographer, editors, sound recordists/designers, production designers and one AD. They use other students help to fill out their crews. So this turns out to be the class in which these students learn how to work in very detailed ways in a particular specialty, as well as to work collaboratively with a large group of people. (A trailer for one of these 480 films can be found on YouTube). Up until last semester, the students shot on 16mm film, with a total allotment of 4400 feet of film — or about two hours worth of original shooting. This gives a shooting ratio of about 10:1, since the films have a maximum length of 12 minutes without credits.

The bad news about this, is that students are always stressed about the amount of footage that they have, and they sometimes tend to shoot in tiny little bursts — a line at a time, precutting the film in camera. The good news about this is that it requires the students to really think ahead of time about what is important to their overall story — once they run out of film, they simply can’t get anymore. The entire class and faculty can watch all of the dailies every class and really look at how the students are progressing week to week.

But what happens when there is no longer a physical/cost limitation on the amount of film that can be shot because they are capturing digitally with a file based format? In other words, if they can shoot 26 takes of a set-up, with no film cost penalty, what changes in the class? And, if I can be presumptuous, what changes in the filmmaking process?

Well, the first thing that the teachers in the class learned is that they will shoot 26 takes. If they need to do ten more takes to get the perfect dolly move, they will. But, what happens to the actors’ performances over that length of time? What happens to the crew’s?  What happens to the rest of the shooting schedule? And, from my point of view, what happens to the post-production schedule which hasn’t changed at all?

To move this out of film school, what happens when you remove one of the barriers to excessive shooting, but not the others?

AS anyone who has ever been on the set with an indecisive director can tell you, shooting take after take after take, doesn’t insure better takes. In fact, it usually insures the exact opposite — you may end getting a dolly without a bump, but a performance suffers. You may end up getting a great performance from one of the actors, but the other (who peaked after take four) goes downhill. And when you get into the editing room, does the indecisiveness really end? What about trying a version with a small smile? What about one with a quizzical frown?

Nope, in my opinion, though there is a lot to be gotten from experimentation, it rarely helps to broaden the boundaries of what you want as a filmmaker, to the extent where your collaborators can’t figure them out. I describe my process as “crawling up inside the head of my director” and it helps me to be creative in a way that can advance the overall project. It’s the way a good director can get my artistry without going all over the map.

But if the inside of the director’s head is a huge maze of constantly dead-ending corridors, I’m not going to know what to do, and it will be hard for me to create in a way that the filmmaker is going to consider helpful. I can cut a sequence 80 different ways, but only ten of them might be helpful to the overall story. What I’d really love my director to do, is to give me the outlines of the territory of the film so I can deduce those ten ways and do them in the most effective way. If I’m trying to cram five months of work into two months, then I’m going to have to eliminate at least 70% of those dead ends. Since each change expands the work exponentially (since it affects the way I cut the scene before and the scene after that change).

And that’s just in the editing.

So, the idea that unlimited footage equals better filmmaking is a complete sham (unless you have unlimited money and time, as well as an unlimited capacity for getting bad results). Just because you can shoot 26 takes, doesn’t mean you should.