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.


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7 responses to “When Is Too Much, Too Much?”

4 03 2009
Rob (14:39:07) :

Great post. I love thinking about why and how we produce things. I used to do take after take after take, on mini DV tapes. In the editing room, I would always end up using a take that I never thought I would use.

I recently built a big wooden rig to hold a camera above a bed. It took me hours to setup, but in the end I probably only shot 5 mins of footage. I remember feeling weird, like I had done something wrong, but I got what I wanted, so I was done with that shot.

6 03 2009
Luke Holzmann (03:21:38) :

You are absolutely right.

…unless you really like Kubrick… [smile]

Actually, I read something about a director who shot the rehearsals. He said he got the same affect that Kubrick got after 40 takes, but much, much quicker [smile].

~Luke

7 03 2009
BK Garceau (06:44:31) :

Right on, you can’t always improve by shooting more. And really, who has the time and budget to get an unlimited number of takes.

This past year I had a ton of EX experience, from music videos to a feature film. I love the workflow, it’s easy to backup and a very effective system overall. I noticed though on the music video I shot that for a 5 min piece I shot 5 and a half hours. A bit much, but as an the director/dp/editor, I knew what I was going to use – at least for the most part. The parts that suffered for me was when I was shooting the side character stories. I simply shot too much, from too many angles. But for dolly moves on the band, the stuff like that turned out really well.

As far a feature, with limited time and budget, we could only do so many takes. So it really depends how much of your resources your willing to allocate in different areas of production. Just as you mentioned early, shooting more can also lead to a longer post – and may not be ideal in cramped post schedule.

13 03 2009
Joseph Bierman (12:42:24) :

Sometimes those multiple takes are about trying to achieve a shot that matches the original idea of the shot, an idealized version that we never achieve because it doesn’t exist. The perfect shots are those bits we select in the post production process. They are perfect in context with other shots. Often they are actually flawed shots, or mistakes, but in context they work perfectly to help the scene along. Pursuing raw video village footage that is “perfect” is a fool’s or a very rich man’s game. Limitations in film, time or talent teach us the value of pre-production, but also the value of open minds and open eyes in the editing room.

16 03 2009
Mark Stuart (15:08:49) :

Right on! Wish my former boss would have read this a few years ago.

27 03 2009
Techy Gizmos and Great Films | The Editor (07:20:07) :

[…] on my other blog, Hollyn-wood, about what happens when you pick up a camera which theoretically enables you to shoot unlimited amounts and footage. As an editor, I like more choices as opposed to fewer, of course. But it may surprise you to hear […]

27 03 2009
The Editor - Techy Gizmos and Great Films | Film Industry Bloggers (08:00:29) :

[…] on my other blog, Hollyn-wood, about what happens when you pick up a camera which theoretically enables you to shoot unlimited amounts and footage. As an editor, I like more choices as opposed to fewer, of course. But it may surprise you to hear […]

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