Posts Tagged ‘independent film’

Acting 301

18 Dec

They are generally the only ones recognized when the film is complete, and they are involved the least. Film projects can motor on for months or even years before all of the script writing and financing is together. Pre-production starts and the mountain of planning begins, and eventually someone is cast… usually a week or two before the start of production.

If you are lucky, you’ll get a rehearsal, but often you’ll get a few conversations and maybe a read-through before the day of the shoot. They get to show up after everyone one else, and leave before anyone else. (Unless extensive makeup is required.)

Directing Aris Juson and Emma Pelett on the set of "Splinter Cell Extraction."Directing Aris Juson and Emma Pelett on the set of “Splinter Cell Extraction.”

Then, once they are on set a brand new conversation happens. Up to this point, all of the conversations are logistical. Where is the location? What camera are we shooting on? Where will the crew park? What’s the lighting package? What are we having for lunch?

Once the actor shows up, the dialogue switches from technical to emotional. It is a completely different vocabulary and it requires the director to jam the gear shifter from 5th to “R.” (Assuming “R” means Race.) You not only have to get the actor to a vulnerable place, you have to be vulnerable with them. It can be a scary place if you are not used to it.


Francis Ford Coppola on the set of "Apocalypse Now."

Good actors are raw, and all their senses are on fire. They are trained to let their beating hearts be exposed, and looking into their eyes can be just like looking into the sun. And the more open they are, the better it looks on camera.

It is no surprise that most directors are terrified of this. (Whether they admit it or not.) This is why they often hide in video village, safe from danger. They look at the actor like another piece of equipment, and often fumble around looking for what button to push to make the actor feel. It is an arms-length, mechanical response to a machine you don’t understand.

It reminds me of the first few times I had to hold an infant. It was this wiggly little thing, all soft and blubbery, looking at me as if I had some answers. I didn’t speak blubber, so it started crying. I gingerly held it out in front of me and tried to mimic what I had seen good dads do – starting with not referring to it as “It.”

If you identify with this when it comes to actors, I have written out a few tips to getting into the same space as actors and getting the performances you need.

Be warned: It might not be easy.

1) Create a safe space.
If you really want your actor to drop their guard and open up, you have to let them know it is safe to do so. But just telling them it is a safe place is not enough. I find it is best to station myself as close to them as possible. (Sometimes I am bumping into the AC.) Get eye level and lower your voice. Speak calmly and smoothly and before you tell them it is safe with your voice, tell them with your eyes.


Paul Thomas Anderson getting up close and personal with Daniel Day Lewis on the set of "There Will Be Blood."

2) Breathe.
You will not believe the power that the breath holds. So many actors, and people in general, walk around either breathing shallow or holding their breath. I have seen actors shudder as they flood their body with air. You can watch the emotion ripple through them. It is important to have them breathe in through their nose and out through the mouth. Make sure they loosen the jaw to let the air flow. This can take some coaxing because a lot of actors get so locked up that they don’t realize they are clenching their jaw. The actor’s tool is their body, and the breath can give them access to it.

3) Don’t deny anything.
As the actor is breathing, the tendency may be to think calming thoughts. This can be helpful, but what you really want is for them to breathe in the feeling. If they are nervous, have them breathe that nervousness in. If they are angry, sad, frustrated, or whatever, have them take it all in. Especially if they are feeling all this because of what day they might’ve had. Have them bring it all into their body, and pour it out into the work. You’ll be stunned by what you see.

4) Pull, don’t push.
The actor is not another piece of equipment that you are using to light the scene. They are a living entity. The worst thing to do is to try and push them around until you get the result you want. Pull them into the emotion. I do this by putting myself into that place ahead of them. If I need them to be joyful, I will flood my system with that joy and invite them to it. If I need them to be broken, I will break with them. I’ll let the tears flow and walk them towards me.
jungle_girl_club_pull.gifThis doesn’t mean that I am always talking slowly and calmly. Sometimes I have to yell. If I want anger, I’ll show them that anger. But not at them, with them.

5) The actor is a mirror of the director.
When I learned this, it changed my entire approach to directing. If you see an actor who is having a hard time connecting to their scene partner, then take a minute and see if you are connecting to the actor. If you’re not, then you must. If they are holding their breath, maybe you are holding your breath. If they are controlling all the moments, maybe you are controlling all the moments. It may seem counter-intuitive to stop controlling the moment if you are the director, but you need to let the story tell itself.
tumblr_my7zsicXTr1sh709to1_500.gifBreathe deep and let it go. Be what you want to see, and then bring it to your actor. If you do, you’ll experience one of the greatest joys a director can experience on set.


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Making a Storm

19 Feb

As you can tell from this week’s video, I’m looking a little worse for wear. Notice the bags under my eyes. I actually have a double bag under my left eye, which is a new look for me. I look this way because I spent three days in McCormick Park in St. Helens, Ore.,  filming storm FX. It was big, it was tough, and it was exhausting. Now a new phrase has been coined from my appearance: It was two bags deep.

Creating a windy rainstorm is difficult to do, especially on a budget. The big movies use jet engines and other nifty tools to create a massive hurricane effect, but in our case we didn’t have any of that. We were, however, able to make something very effective. This is how we broke it down.

First, there’s the rain. If you are creating your own storm, you might hope that you could use a little garden hose. That’s just not going to cut the mustard. Actual rain probably won’t do it either, so coordinating your shoot with the weather report isn’t the way to go. As you’ll see in the video Making A Storm: Part 1, rain provided by Mother Nature is sometimes thin and wispy. You need big, fat movie rain.

The mighty hydrant at McCormick Park in St. Helens, Ore.

To make our storm, we hooked up to a fire hydrant. We ran a fire hose to a couple of rain towers, and we made rain! Thick, wet, sloppy rain. It shows up great on camera. Keep in mind that if you do this, you need the right tools for the job. There are special fittings that attach to fire hydrants. I would highly suggest getting someone who is experienced at doing this. Working with fire hose can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. When that water flies through that hose, it could jerk about and snap a leg in a heartbeat, so BE CAREFUL.

Also, if you go this route, you can’t just hook up to any hydrant you want. You need to get permission from the city. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds. They’ll issue you a permit and will track how much water you are using. All said and done, we were charged less than $100.

Rain Tower on A Perfect Storm shoot

Another tip for filming rain is to remember your lighting. One of the best ways to get your rain to POP is to back light it with an HMI. Even if you are outside, try to position a light so it rims the drops. You’ll have sexy Ryan Gosling moments in no time.

Sexy Rain

Another thing we did for our storm is add wind. Wind is an interesting animal. If you just pelt someone in the face with a leaf blower, you’d think it would really read on camera, but it won’t unless the subject has something that flutters in the breeze. Trust me, if your subject is just a guy with a crew cut and a skin tight shirt, all you’ll see is some guy squinting.

Give this a whirl. Try putting some sort of debris in the air. We used all kinds of bits, particles, and dust and you can really see what the wind is doing.

Fuller’s earth looks great on film, but it sucks to work with. It’s the consistency of hot chocolate powder. Have you ever put a spoonful of that stuff in your mouth and inhaled? That’s what it’s like working with Fuller’s earth. If you decide to use it, think ahead about how to minimize the discomfort to your actors or damage to gear. (That crap LOVES to wedge into places like focus rings and battery slots.)

Before you start hurling sawdust in front of jet engines and demanding your actors look into the wind, think about their safety for a minute. You don’t want debris that will cause injury. Some of the things we were able to safely blow at the actors were big leaves, oatmeal, dry cereal, and cedar pet bedding. At first, I didn’t believe that the oatmeal and cereal would work, but by golly it looks amazing. (Your crew can eat it during lunch break AND it’s part of this nutritious breakfast.)

Here is a tip you can use to really enhance your storm.

To communicate the power something, instead of trying to show massive winds, reveal the effect those winds have on something else. On this shoot, we took a windmill and used it to demonstrate the power of the storm by how fast the windmill was spinning, and we made it seem as if the windmill spins so hard that it blows apart and almost hits an actor (no actors were harmed in the making of this film). Showing the effect of something is a great way to tell your story if you don’t have a lot of resources to create on a grand scale.

It’s also helpful to stay in tight on your actors. If you’re up close, you don’t have to do your FX or set dress for as big of an area, and you can imply bigger effects through the emotions on the faces of the actors; reaction shots of your actors will help sell how powerful the situation is. I know it’s really sexy to show a wide shot of a tornado blowing past, but if you don’t have the budget for several big fans, staying up close will save you a world problems.

Those are a few ways I’ve found effective for making a project look big on a small budget. If you decide to go out and shoot your own storm, I would love to see it! Please send me your links and let’s see who can out do Jan de Bont.

I would also love to hear your thoughts about other things that would be helpful to build a storm. I didn’t even touch on visual effects such as the ones Video Copilot recommends.

Please share your thoughts and info below!


Time is on Your Side

04 Feb

I decided to write this post based on some of the things I’m dealing with lately. Specifically, on the status of different projects and their release dates. You can read the post below, or watch it here:

A lot of film students come up to me and tell me about films they’ve made for specific festivals. I repeatedly hear stories about aspiring filmmakers trying to get their films done in a rush so they can make the festival deadline. And then they cross their fingers, hoping it all turns out okay. That’s usually not the smartest choice.

So often in this business, you think that the enemy is time, but the reality is, when you have no money and you have very few resources, the one commodity that you do have is time. Following are three pieces of advice about how to use time to your advantage.

Number One

Never, never rush a film for a festival. These festivals happen every year. There’s a million of them out there. All kinds of them a tailored to the type of film you’re making. Get it done right.

Number Two

Never submit a film to an industry professional before you think it’s ready. I know, I know. You really just want to get it to some film industry executives because this could be your big break, but I promise you this, if you send your project before it’s ready, the execs won’t be interested in the “new and improved” version.

Number Three

If you have a project that is almost finished, and business it getting in the way, like, say, a distributor is interested in distributing the film, don’t release it. Take your time.

I have a project that I’m working on right now, a web series; I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half. Right now, it’s four months after the originally planned release date. My client and I are waiting. We need more time to get all the visual effects and the sound design done.

Yes, I know, there’s a lot of pressure from the audience. Yes, I know, there’s pressure even from the client. But we have to make sure this is right. We get one shot at this. If we release this before it’s ready, guess what will happen… The distributors will go away.

That would kind of suck.

So, remember, when time is the only abundant resource you have… use it.


Open Your Ears and You Will See

14 Aug

Over the course of the summer, I have been deep in post-production on a web-series called “The Record Keeper.” Several people have come in and out of the office during this, and many people have been watching my edits.

After several months of hearing the feedback on the episodes and my technique, I realized that I had a unique approach to editing that many hadn’t seen before. In fact, it is so ingrained in what I do that I can’t imagine editing any other way.  I’m sure there are people out there who do this, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it.

The technique is simple: I edit for sound before I edit for picture.

This makes a lot of sense when you are cutting together interviews for corporate videos. You can see this in action on this video clip here:

When editing an interview, I try not to look at what is going on on-screen until I get the dialogue just right. Usually when people are getting interviewed they are a little nervous so there are lots of “ums,” coughs, repeats, restarts, etc. I cut all of that out and see what I am left with.

Once the sound is cut, the picture is probably jumping all over the place, and your client is really uncomfortable with the video. Not to fear! B-roll is here!

Just cover all those jarring picture edits with that sexy B-roll that you’ve shot, and all will be well.

I think at this point many of you are with me and probably have tried this before in corporate America. However, this works even better when you are editing drama. To see this live, watch the video here:

The day when my eyes were opened to the power of this technique was when I was delivering a film to a sound mixer. I was adding all the appropriate audio such as ambiance, room tone, a few effects and I noticed that as soon as I did that, I wanted to shift the timing the edit!

There were scenes that started to feel a little long, and some that felt too rushed. It was a perspective shifting experience. Now when I edit, I always try to build a soundscape first, and then add the picture. If you are wondering where I get my sound effects from, I get them from a few places. My main source is Sound Rangers. What I like about them is I can hand pick and download sounds one at a time. I don’t have to buy an entire library just so I can get that one woosh effect. Their site is easy to use for preview and purchase.

I also use the library from Video Copilot. The have some great wooshes, impacts and ambiance sounds.

You’ll really notice a difference if you are editing montages or scenic images. A whole new dimension will open up to you. You may find that when you are editing a storm montage and you add storm sounds, fabric flapping fx, thunder claps effects, and different wind noises that you may want to stay in that world just a little bit longer.