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Posts Tagged ‘documentary cinematography’

Building a Walk-n-Talk in 5 Easy Steps

03 Apr

Every once in awhile, a director loses his mind and decides to try to shoot an extended walk–n-talk like the ones so commonly used in Aaron Sorkin shows:

Or like this opening scene from Goodfellas.

If you are a perspiring film director, have completely lost your mind, and insist on shooting something this difficult, make sure you listen to your AD or Producer or client, and let them talk you out of it. I recently ran into this, and like most directors, I was too thick-headed to listen, and decided to proceed anyway. So, in a grand effort to make your life easier, here are 5 steps to building a successful walk-n-talk.

Step 1:  Pick Your Path

The very first step to making a creative walk-n-talk is to pick an interesting course to walk through. Unless you are walking through a parade (which isn’t a bad idea), or a skateboard park (another great idea… hm, I should be writing this down), try to pick a path that is very interesting. Lots of corners work well, and stairs are a nice touch. One note of caution, though: Remember you are going to have a steadicam operator, 2nd AC, boom operator, steadicam guide, and possibly a director all walking in one big clump. Make sure your corners and stairs aren’t too tight.

Another thing to remember is that sound is a big issue. You are going to have several people shuffling along with the actors and you just might pick up the squeak and slide of all those shoes as they fumble across the floor.

Here is the path we took through the governor.

The path we took for filming "The Record Keeper."

Step 2:  Get a lot of extras

This is a common mistake made on lower end productions.  I know that it’s a big pain in the tookus to wrangle a large group of extras when you don’t have a lot of resources, but trust me, it will make your walk-n-talk sing. In the previous clips above, notice how many extras those shoots had and how often the actors interact with them. Don’t be afraid to loose your principals in the crowd either. Let them disappear behind a small group and reemerge somewhere else. This can actually work well as a story telling tactic.

One of the best ways to create tension in a scene is to frustrate the communication between your characters. If you have a crowd making noise or getting in the way of one of your characters, the scene can become a ton of fun. It will make the audience lean forward and really tune in to the scene.

Step 3: Get a crackerjack steadicam operator

I cannot over emphasize this. Doing long moves like this are very difficult and if your operator doesn’t have some chops, then you will be in for a very long day. There is nothing worse than watching your actors absolutely killing it, and suddenly your horizon goes horizontal and is never corrected, or the tops of their heads get cut off.

Caution: This shot is not level. Do not pass "Go." Do not collect $200.

A good tip here is to ask for a steadicam reel before your operator shows up. If he doesn’t have a reel, then there’s a good chance he/she hasn’t been at it for very long. Be wary.

Step 4:  Have a good actors WHO KNOW THEIR LINES

This falls right in line with Step 3. If you have a cracker jack crew and operator but your actors can’t seem to get their lines straight… Well, then that is going to suck like there is no tomorrow. What you have to remember is how heavy a typical steady cam rig is. We were recently shooting with an Arri Alexa, and the entire rig ended up weighing in at around 50lbs. That’s a lot of weight for one guy to sling around, and you will kill your operator if they have to keep redoing it because of ill prepared actors.

If your actors are really struggling, here are a few things you could try to help out.

  1. Suggest firing them. No no no, just kidding. NEVER do that. That will just make it worse. Actually, do just the opposite. Don’t tell them anything I just wrote, tell them you have all day and it’s no problem and that the steadicam operator is at the top of his game. Try to take the pressure off by telling them you think you already have a usable take. (Yes, you might have to fib a little.)
  2. Make sure they understand their lines.  This might sound obvious, but if your actor is saying something that they don’t really understand, or is contrary to their character, or is just way over their head, then it can be a hindrance to them remembering what to say.
  3. Have them make the lines their own. This is one of the best tools I know of to help an actor out. They may have a real hard time saying, “She sells seashells down by the sea shore” while walking up stairs and handing documents to passerby’s. Just make it easy on them and change the line to “Jill works in Venice.” Problem solved.
  4. Break up the shot. Have the actors pause at some point so that you can cut away to an over-the-shoulder or something similar.

This brings me to my final point.

Step 5:  Stop Walking

Yeah, I know. After all this talk about picking your path and what not, you’re going to think I’m giving you contrary advice by saying this, but here me out. One of the best ways to break up a walk-n-talk is to have your actors stop at important points and have a quick bit of dialogue. This does a couple of things for you.

First, it gives the audience a break so that they don’t get seasick. With all those dynamic camera moves around corners and up stairs, it can leave you feeling a bit woozy. Give the eyes a break and have the actors stand still in a two shot or slide into a simple over-the-shoulder.

Second, it gives you a cutting option. During these breaks you can cut to a reaction shot or a reverse over-the-shoulder and now, if your actor is having a hard time with his lines, or your camera op just can’t keep up, you can split the action into smaller pieces.  Yes, it will break up your precious unedited take, but chances are, your project will be better for it.

 

Two Paths Diverged in the Holly-Woods

05 Feb

I was born into a family of high achievers. My father never graduated high school and taught himself how to be a mechanical engineer and went on to become a tool and die machinist. He also was a superb athlete and often won motorcycle races, did first descents of many rivers in the Northwest in a kayak, holds spear fishing records in Oregon that will never be broken, and learned how to ski – while on a hang glider.

My dad. Happy and bloody.

My mother was similar in this, but her pursuits led her into biblical studies where she now has more knowledge of the Bible than anyone I know and today teaches Bible studies and preaches on the weekends. She also excels at fitness, and at 66, still swims everyday and practices yoga. She looks better than women half her age. She is one hot mamma!

My mom eloping with a sundae.

It was destiny, I suppose, that I become a high achiever too. After growing up in that environment I just assumed that everyone else in the world was wired the same way. Since my ambitions were primarily in the film world, I was sure that everyone who worked in that industry also wanted to make big Hollywood movies with big Hollywood budgets.

I was in for a rather rude awakening.

One of my first mentors was a man who had grown up in the industry. He spent his childhood hanging around people like Steve McQueen and The Rolling Stones, and I assumed that his goal would be to work with people like that again. The reality was that he was tired of that industry and just enjoyed playing with cameras and doing small corporate videos. His ultimate dream was to have a small little office where we would all hang out, and we could “push our desks together.” I began to harbor deep resentment against him because he refused to aim higher.

From that day forward, “pushing our desks together” became a personal euphemism for someone with no goals.

The good folks at Option Talent have showed me how real professionals push desks together.

I have been toiling in this industry for several years now, and I have stumbled across many people like this. In fact, MOST people are like this. A lot of people enjoy the craft of film, but don’t like the politics, the stress and the time away from their families that the bigger projects require. These are good reasons. The big lesson I had to learn was to not be angry with them for being who they were. It has taken a long time for my maturity to grow enough to accept this. And now as the projects are getting bigger and bigger, I find myself in this situation more often.

I’m learning now, however, to accept it as part of growth. We are all on separate paths. It is inevitable that we will come together and separate along the way. It’s nothing to be resentful about (unless you’re in a business partnership, but that’s something to discuss in another blog).

As you move along and say your “hellos” and “goodbyes,” be mature enough to celebrate the great things you built together instead of focus on the pain of separation. Be big enough to support your colleagues who excel ahead of you, and humble enough to thank the ones you leave behind.

Besides, you never know, your paths may cross again. And when they do, you’ll be glad you supported each other way back then.

 
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Talk To Me

11 Oct

When you get started in this business, generally you’re a lone freelancer trying to climb your way onto bigger projects. Eventually, you get there, but there is a big difference: You’re no longer alone.

The larger the projects get and the more successful you become, the more people you will have around you. The biggest and most common mistake that is made is you tend to forget to communicate with all interested parties. You’re used to being the lone gunman and since you’re doing it all, you don’t really have to tell anyone anything. (And when I say “you” I mean “me.”)

I have seen so many projects stall, friendships lost, partnerships dissolved and fights erupt over a small miscommunication issues. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the vision of the project and forget all about your assistant, or your DP or worse – your client and just go charging ahead. Meanwhile they are trying to figure out why they have been left out of the conversation.

Take a minute and look down your crew list. Who have you forgotten? Pick up the phone or send that email, and don’t forget to CC all the interested parties.

The project you save, might be your own.

 
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The Power of Movement

27 Sep

I have never met a director or cinematographer who says that they don’t fully understand the power of a moving camera. Yet, when I watch a large percentage of projects, it is clear to me that this part of the film was never fully thought through. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful a moving camera can be, but how little I see it used in film production. The film industry has invented some wonderful tools for this, but I’m always surprised at how often the camera remains dormant on its tripod during the length of many films.

My first mentor opened my eyes to this. He made a statement that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “Life is movement.” What he meant was, life never sits still: The planets spin, animals run, plants grow, even the earth moves. Why then, do we lock down the camera?

When I am on set I often hear comments like, “We don’t have time to set up the dolly” or “Let’s just go hand held. It’ll be easier.” I think there might be this idea floating around that once you start moving the camera the cost will drive up, more crew will be required, and too much time will be needed to execute.

I would like to dispel this myth.

Camera movement, no matter if it’s on a dolly, jib, steady cam, tripod, or helicopter, will always evoke some sort of feeling. Take a look at this quick film clip. Here is an actor standing at a window with a locked off tripod. Ask yourself: What kind of emotion does this shot convey?

The camera is placed low, so it does put the character in a heroic or powerful pose, but what else? How do you feel as an audience member? Are you pulled in? Are you feeling the weight of a scene? Is he happy or sad? The point is, in a lock off position like this, every emotion on the screen is completely left up to the actor. If you have an amazing performance, then you could shoot this with an iPhone and I’m sure it will be phenomenal, but what if you don’t have a good actor? Whether you do or don’t, there is still so much more that can be pulled out of this scene by adding a simple move.  This next clip is the same actor with an added dolly move.

Notice how much more emotion is on the screen by that simple move! I’m actually feeling amped up as I type this! The audience is moving closer to our character and going on a journey with him. He could be realizing something, or he is about to make a big decision, or he is mourning the loss of a loved one. I promise you that if you add a move like this in combination with a great actor’s performance, you will have the audience in the palm of your hand.

Now, before you say that a dolly move like this takes too long, think again. I set this scene up in less than 60 seconds. It was shot on a Cannon 5d mk2, with a home built dolly system and no lights.

Levy Moroshan built this small skateboard dolly out of a piece of aluminum with four skateboard wheels attached to the corners. (Total total cost: $16). He mounted a Manfroto head to the plate and shot with a Cannon 5D MkII.  We placed it on a wooden plank, and stacked it on two apple boxes. A couple of practice moves later and I was able to nail the shot with almost no effort.

Now, compare that last shot with this shot.

What kind of emotion does this convey as compared to the first shot? Usually, I will use a move like this when I want to distance the audience from a character, or when I want the character to appear more alone. Imagine if the man in the frame has just lost his father, or has just assaulted his wife. Both shots could work very well for this.

Here is an alternate shot that displays a completely different feeling.

How does this make you feel? This is a very fun and universal kind of move. Shots like this are great for the opening shot of a scene, or for use in a montage. Imagine if the man by the window is assembling a sniper rifle and this is the first time we reveal his location. You can also use this to build emotion. Imagine if the man is mourning a loss, or is making that important phone call to the president. The slow reveal builds anticipation, and if you REALLY want to up the tension, slow the move down to a snail’s pace. The audience will feel like they are listening in to a conversation and peeking around the corner.

Here is the key to deciding what movement to choose. Ask yourself what is being told in the story and what kind of emotion you want to communicate. Never choose your movement based on convenience. If you do, you’ll discover that sometimes even a static shot is the perfect solution. Stanley Kubrick’s use of the lock off shot in “The Shinning” was absolutely brilliant. He used wide, locked down shots that just hung there, and it made the audience feel very uncomfortable.

I don’t care what level of production I am doing, I always try to incorporate movement because it can lift even the dullest of projects to a higher level. It takes very little effort, and myself as well as my clients are always pleased with the result.