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27 April, 2010


Just to get it out of the way, the title is somewhat of a pun.  This post covers improvisation in filmmaking and lenses (and adapters).

One of the most taught lessons in film school is about preparation.  Preproduction sets the pace for everything else.  For our various projects, we had to submit tons of prep material for approval - scripts, script breakdowns, shot lists, storyboards and so on.  Typically by the time we got around to shooting, the film was already made on paper.  For college kids who were new to the process, this was totally valuable work but teaching it like it was the unbreakable law was a bit much.

I've learned in my years working predominantly in documentary, that forethought is great but unexpected things always happen.  In doc, you don't have the time to worry about the last minute changes or complain.  You have to adapt or you don't make your day.  So you go into these shoots with ideas of sequences, shots you want to get and other hopefuls but you always remain open to change, even looking out for it.  Surprisingly, in my own recent fiction endeavors, this way of thinking has come in handy and produced some good results.

This recently came up in a discussion with a good friend and colleague of mine, Bret the Sound Guy.  He had recently worked on a short with another D.P. and we were talking about the project.  The director and D.P. had come up with the idea that as the film progressed, they would shoot with wider and wider lenses (to support the themes of the film).  I made a joke about over-thinking the process and Bret and I got into a bit of a debate.  The thing I kept coming back to was the idea of organic filmmaking.  I've discovered a real joy in improvising on set and going with the flow.  Using mistakes to your advantage, finding little gems in what, at first, appears to be a problem.

Beyond the storytelling aspect, I've found that I like to carry these ideas over into the technical aspects of production like lighting and composition.  In a lot of documentary work - particularly in verité work - the camera is a part of the story.  The perspective and movement of the camera become character traits and there is no pretending that the camera isn't there.  Contrary to the modern belief that in doc the cameraman just gets whatever it can, there's a method to good doc shooting and this depends on the part the camera plays in the story.  I often like to carry that over into narrative work (when applicable).  This often shows itself in subtle punctuated reframing (à la "Boston Legal" - though not quite as frequent).  Today I saw rough cuts of scenes we shot Sunday for "Director's Cut."  Whether by accident or necessity, two shots where I had employed this sort of camera technique made it into the rough cut and they worked quite well.  Another sequence where three characters start arguing was completely shot this way and it really helped the tension.  Having seen the cuts so far, I can anticipate a lot of upcoming scenes where this style of shooting will really work.  And though it's not exactly how Elana first pictured the style, she's very open to the idea and willing to adapt her vision.

Now that was a good segue.  So I recently bought a Canon 550D to test the waters on the DSLR filmmaking revolution.  I knew early on I wanted to go with an APS-C sized sensor instead of full-frame because the former is almost identical to motion picture 35mm film.  Full-frame 35mm is wider and therefore has a much shallower DoF.  That sort of razor-thin focal plane can be problematic with my style of shooting and the fact that I don't often have the luxury of a focus-puller or setting marks or measuring at all.  In the recent Gevalia shoots that really turned me on to DSLRs for video, I had a great time but man, I wish I had more wiggle room than the full-frame 5D allowed.  I was constantly pulling focus because the slightest moves (like sitting up straight or an even smaller forward/backward motion) would have made the subject go completely soft.  So knowing APS-C was my choice, I had a decision to make between the 7D and the 550D.  As far as video goes, the two are basically identical.  The differences that allow for the almost double price tag of the 7D are all about the stills capabilities.  So, knowing that I would rarely be doing stills work, I went with the 550D.  So I tracked one down (one of the last in stock in the greater NY area) and picked it up.  Nobody, and I mean nobody had the body-only kits so for $100 more I got a kit with a very crappy zoom lens.  Piece of junk.  I decided to pick up a Nikon to Canon lens adapter and see how my old 70s Nikkors would fare mounted on this modern digicam.  And the verdict was... wow...  I haven't used the kit lens since.  I went and picked up more adapters (one for each lens) and began a search for other vintage lenses with character.  Got a couple of leads on some Russian primes that, from stills and footage I've seen online, seem to be very interesting.  Cool bokeh, nice contrast and consistency throughout all the stops.  Sharp enough, but subtly soft when it should be.  I'll be posting stills very soon with the Nikkors and whatever else I'm able to pick up.

Also to come are screen grabs from "Director's Cut."  Day 5 is Thursday and we're basically shooting every day (weekends off) through May 21st.  Reports and stills from the set to come...

09 April, 2010


Many art forms are the result of an individual's painstaking commitment to his or her craft; countless hours toiling over the piece, funneling their own emotions and experiences into this very personal expression.  In these such cases, like poetry and other forms of writing, music, and visual mediums like sculpture, painting, sketching, etc., it is always clear who is responsible for this work.

Film, however, is in a gray area.  Occasionally you have a movie where one person conceived and produced a work in its entirety - including shooting, editing and other parts of the process.  More frequently, however, the final movie is the result of many individuals' hard work and expression.  And yet, so often there is a certain credit that reads "A Film by [director's name]" at the beginning and end of the movie.  This brings up the question of true authorship.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately after a friend asked me who's responsible for the shots of a movie, the director or the cinematographer.  Is the D.P. just a technician that does what the director tells him to?  I've been lucky enough so far that all of the directors I've worked under have really allowed the process to be collaborative - thorough discussions of look and feel before shooting and then come time to roll camera, I am entrusted with the image.  A lot of this may be due to the fact that in documentary, there really isn't an opportunity for the director to nitpick my shots.  On "Director's Cut," the narrative feature I'm currently working on, my relationship with the director is similar to my doc work.  She has put so much trust in me that the process of shooting is stress-free and fast.  Prior to shooting, Elana and I figured out our style for the film and from then on, we just do it.  Elana does her director thing with the cast as my crew and I set up the shot.  Then she comes around to her monitor, smiles, and calls action.  So for "Director's Cut" the direction of the film is Elana but the compositions and a lot of other visual elements are very much mine.  As I understand it, the process is very different with other filmmakers.  James Cameron, I hear, is meticulous with his planning and shooting.  I think he even operates the camera.  While he doesn't set up the lights himself, I'm sure he has a heavy hand in that stuff as well.  AND he edits.  So perhaps "A Film by James Cameron" is appropriate.

I guess there is no single answer for my friend.  Different films have different hierarchies and different degrees of trust between crew members.  Sometimes, the singular authorship of a movie is valid.  More often than not, though, these "A Film by" credits ignore the crucial creative contributions of many key crewmembers.  I've found that also more often than not, I tend to think the more collaborative movies are better anyway.

A post by Dave Dodds.