Sunday, February 26, 2017

Video production notes: Entrapment directed by Morgan Honaker

Five years ago, I taught a rather small video production class who wrote, story boarded, and shot a horror film at a local mansion in a small town in South Carolina. Morgan Honaker directed it, and I appreciated her perfectionist style under those essentially amateur conditions, never accepting any shot until it suited her. She says that she is embarrassed by this video now, but I still like its suspense and its abrupt and bleak ending. I could discuss problems with the acting, but given the tight time constraints, the impatience of those involved, and everything else, I still say that Entrapment is one of the best movies made in my video production class, in part because I showed it to a more recent group, and one of the students screamed twice in the course of viewing it.

Here's the link to the video.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Video production notes: "A body lying on the street": Third Night by Afterglow Films

About four years ago, Afterglow Films of my video production class made Third Night (directed by Ryan Gonzalez). The video concerns romantic obsession that reminds me a little of Vertigo:

Here's an interview with the director. In comparison to OK Keyes and Morgan Honaker, Ryan liked to shoot fast and loose, making him the more Godardian director of the bunch.

Also, here's a blog post about the long night in which Erik spent much of his time lying on the cold street in his pajamas as Ryan and his film crew shot the van accident (note: I changed names at the time to protect the guilty):

Video production class--day seven and eight--high definition roadkill

"That's not blood. It's just red."
---Jean-Luc Godard

1) How does one shoot a scene where a young man stumbles out of a house at night and gets run over by a van? After a long day of shooting tracking shots of soccer players running (using my car) and a chase scene through the hallways of the school, we loaded up the cast and crew in a van and drove across town to the house of a student whose family was kind enough to let us use the premises. I learned en route that a millionaire lived across the street who might call the cops on us if he sees a body lying on the street. Once there, at about five pm, with the light of the cold overcast day dimming fast, we videotaped Kyle in his pajamas repeatedly stumbling out the front door and gradually working his way towards the street.

Then we parked the van past the "accident" and asked Kyle to lie on the asphalt face down with one arm twisted sideways and not move. Over and over again, the driver stepped out of the van in horror, leaving the door open with the beeping warning sound supplying the only sound, and he would check for Kyle's pulse and step back, aghast, before finding the mysterious photo underfoot. As the director and the cameraman positioned the camera from various angles around the body, a car would appear down the street, and hesitate. Perhaps the driver wondered about this body lying there in the middle of the road with a bunch of cold students standing around it grinning. We had several self-conscious awkward moments like that until we could persuade the drivers to drive on by, with us shielding Kyle's body in the process. At one point, the millionaire did appear when we needed to shoot a take from the front of his lawn, but he proved nice enough and didn't mind. Afterwards, the family of the student graciously invited us in from the cold to eat some rice krispy cakes and peanut butter clusters in their home. After shooting one last take of Kyle stumbling down a hallway in his sleep-walking delirium, we finished for the day.

2) Today, the class began the switch into editing mode. I shared with them the scene in Donnie Darko where Darko's girlfriend Gretchen gets run over, just by way of example, then we discussed different basic editing concepts like classical cutting, master shot, sequence shot, cutting to continuity, matching on action, and such. Given that one student has much of the main footage on his MacBook, I was concerned about him having to do the lion's share of the editing once the principal photography ended, so we divided up the class into groups--one will help the editor, the others will fashion a trailer for the film, a making-of featurette, a short music video promoting the class, and a blooper reel. We also spent some time listening to various possible songs for the soundtrack off of one of the computers (mostly using YouTube), and it proved very difficult for the class to agree on a song. For the chase scene, for instance, we tried out "On the Run" by Pink Floyd (too psychedelic), the music for the parkour chase scene in Luc Besson's District 13 (too techno, a frequent complaint), Def Leppard's "Photograph" (bleh), and the theme song from The Exorcist (too well-known). I confessed to the class that any song by Coldplay makes me break out in hives. We may end up using songs by Radiohead and Muse. The director also decided to wait for a rough cut before matching more songs to certain scenes.

3) By the afternoon, we shot a brief classroom scene that kept being interrupted by piano and trumpet playing nearby. Then we watched of the raw footage of the past few days, and while much of it was fine, I was dismayed by the little mistakes that kept sneaking into takes (the corpse blinking, people looking at the camera, shaky pseudo-steadicam shots, awkward compositions, etc.). Given the set-up of the class, the limited amount of time to shoot, and the aleatory conditions around us at any given moment, it is very hard to not get impatient, to not rush the next shot, and we pay every time there's a small mistake magnified in the camera lens. It's frustrating to see all of the imperfections in spite of all of everyone's best efforts to avoid them. Then again, we have time to reshoot, edit, and polish for the next few days.

4) Lastly, we worked on a title. I've heard that Woody Allen comes up with his titles last in the process of making his films, but we need one sooner so we can incorporate it into all of the extensive DVD extras and featurettes. Students came up with Their Eyes Were Watching Kyle, Collision, The Lady and the Laughter, End of the Night, A Lesson in Obsession, Ms. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Obsessing and Love the Laughter (a popular favorite to be used for the blooper reel), Fixation, Fetish, The Most Dangerous Photo, Mania, The Sound and the Photo, To Love a Picture, Citizen Kyle, Kyle's Road Trip, There Will Be Roadkill, Avatar 2, and Follow the Laughter. We finally settled on Third Night for now.

Tomorrow, the class will begin to piece all of this fragmented footage together.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Video production notes: making Entrapment (2012)

Way back when, a long time ago, one of my video production classes made a movie entitled Entrapment at an antebellum mansion in a small town in South Carolina. Morgan Honaker directed it.

By the by, I believe the star of this film is now the president of the student body at Clemson.

Here's the trailer:

I haven't been able to locate the actual movie online yet, but here's the blog post about making the movie:

Today, the video production class finished the DVD containing the movie Entrapment.  The class will show the movie to the entire school tomorrow during the Interim presentations.  So far, the buzz has been good.  My significant other just now flinched at a jump scare while watching the movie, and the film has a delightfully bleak, surprising, and abrupt ending that leaves the viewer with a pleasant sense of hopelessness and Poe-esque entombment. 

My notes from the past few days:

"There's so much blood!" --Jude

1) Now, on the morning of the 9th day of the production, the class is busy editing the "Making of" video, the final movie entitled Entrapment, and the blooper reel, so I can pause for a moment. We've been shooting at the manor all week, but it feels like one long day.

2) A cold mansion on a wet dark morning.  The crew is in the small dining room filming a scene where Fiona hops out of a cabinet by the back door. I'm sitting in a decidedly chilly gun room that could use a fire in its fireplace. We keep the heat off to cut down on noise in the room tone.  I keep recording random comments from the crew in the Moleskine:

"You still need to turn around faster," says the director.

"He turned around before she said Boo!"

"Go back in your hidey hole, Fiona."

"Are we getting enough reaction from Jude?"

"I am not a chipmunk."

"Don't use the mic as a weapon."  They shoot another take.  Jude grimaces afterwards.

"He wouldn't have calmed down that quickly."

I point out that the "The goal is to end up with a better movie than the blooper reel."[Later, we realize that we will have to reshoot this scene.  Any shot that involves Jude and Fiona talking to each other for any length of time requires at least 15 takes, and the director wishes that she had taken more.]

Every time the crew changes places, the cinematographer grabs the camera and says "Moving!" She claims that she has some shots that she hates (but has to use anyway), and others that she loves. The class has a chronic tendency to start filming a scene without remembering to turn on the microphone.

3) In the afternoon, the sky darkens considerably as we prepare Fiona for the haunting moment when she realizes that she and Jude are now in the old photograph. It's not easy getting her to look properly freaked out, so she jabs her fingers in her eyes to make herself cry, and says "This is why I haven't cried in front of anyone since the fifth grade." I think of Kubrick tormenting Shelley Duvall for weeks and months in the midst of making The Shining.  Is directing inherently sadistic?

"Later, we're going to add in a loud bang," says the director. "Look up," she says to Fiona. "Turn your body forward.  Yell `Jude' and run out of the room."

The director bangs on the wall. "Do you know what to do?"

"Look bewildered and on the edge of mental breakdown?"

"Right." Meanwhile, I take pleasure in shooting footage from the bird's eye point of view from the landing over the stairs.

4) Still later in the day.  The crew works very hard to finish scene 2. Bored, I doze briefly in the parlor (oddly decorated with elephants and Santa Claus figurines), but not for long, because sleepers tend to end up on film. At one point, Jude fell asleep for 3 hours, so we placed some reflecting foil on his head.

5) I keep opting for a student to lie face down in a small empty fountain (except for some rank cold dirty water) at the side of the house to help create atmosphere in an early point-of-view shot, but no one seems inclined to do it. We all agree that a catering service would be nice.  Some hot chocolate?

6) "I'm not a character.  I'm a scaractor," says Jude in the midst of a "Making of" interview.  A football player, Jude chiefly acts with his eyebrows and his forehead with lots of squinting and rubbing his eyes. He has been working hard, but he distinctly does not enjoy the tender reunion scene that includes this dialogue:

Fiona: "Jude, you can't leave me like that again.  I don't want my closest friend getting hurt."

Jude: "I won't leave you, but we have to get out of this house."

I get the impression that he would prefer to not to have to look meaningfully into her eyes. We end up having to shoot this take over and over, more than ten times, with Jude getting more exasperated throughout. I tell him this is the reason why major movie stars earn 12 million dollars a picture.  Jude replies, "I would cut off my leg for 12 million, and buy myself a new one."  He also says he's going to "Tebow after this." Whenever I say anything critical about Scooby Doo, Fiona says she loves the show.  She finds the The Black Knight museum episode was especially scary.

7) By yesterday afternoon, the crew shot a nice action scene in which the two stars ran the length of a house (with two crew members following close behind, and the "Making of" director behind them) before a door slams and Fiona screams.  The movie contains several moments where ghosts (?) bang on or slam doors (using fishing line).  At one point, I slammed the front door so hard, plaster fell from around the windows. The owner (standing right next to me) was saintly nice about it, but if it had been my house, I would've kicked everyone out, especially since we were supposed to be finished the day before.

At one point, a door slowly shut by itself right after a take.  We figured the Captain, the original owner of the house, wanted to be included in the shot.

8) This afternoon, I read Portis' True Grit in the parlor as Fiona repeatedly gasps hysterically, twirls around, drops the photograph, and falls on the floor in the main hallway as the cinematographer lies on the floor with the camera and the two ghosts (with lighting equipment) contemplatively chew on some brownies as they look on. Everyone is eager to finish. Jude even points out in an interview that "The promise of getting done is a good motivator," although I have heard some talk that perhaps he has been intentionally been a difficult in a diva-esque way today. Jude claims that "Acting is very hard, and people don't know how hard it is."

When asked how she gets herself to look scared, Fiona confesses that she thinks of "horrible things, like heights and terrorists."  Both actors have much respect for the director, whom they call "Mein Fuhrer."

Late on the last afternoon of principal photography, we reshoot the first scene when Fiona and Jude walk into the house for the first time.  Then, we keep waiting for the director to say "That's a wrap," but first she and the cinematographer have to shoot another scene of the front of the house, and then get some more outdoor room tone (nature tone?) out back.  So, when she finally says the phrase in the bus, the moment ends up being a bit anticlimactic.

9) Over the weekend, the students found that mixing the sound, especially music, proved trickier and more time-consuming that editing the video.  They worked until 11 every night in the classroom.  Today, they just needed for Fiona to scream into the mic and then loop the scream for the last scene.  As they edit, we spend part of the time studying the symmetrical composition of each shot in the new trailer for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.  By this afternoon, the students were done and making copies.  For whatever reason, (lack of competition between groups? a perfectionist director? a detail-oriented cinematographer?) the class went especially well this year. I feel fortunate to have been involved.  

Friday, February 10, 2017

New strategies for teaching filmmaking: an interview with OK Keyes

OK Keyes has been helping me with my video production class for years. He's a PhD student now at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I hope some day the institution where I work will be smart enough to hire him on full time. His expertise in cinematography especially made all of the difference in the class. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for the film doctor blog:

FD--How do you try to resolve the tension in a filmmaking or video production class between teaching students techniques and letting them learn strategies by actually working on their movies?

OK--My teaching praxis is centered around this idea of teaching failure by example, through the process of taking, breaking, and making some Thing. I make mistakes purposefully throughout lessons, to engage students with the experiences they have with technology that challenge my false assertions. Teaching technology is a great opportunity proccess these moments of discovery, the "aha!" moment, that is a shared experience between artists and scientists (a bond that I think often goes unacknowledged, in both circles).

Instead of showing students the "right way" to use the camera, I encourage them to explore different buttons and settings and engage them with questions about their observations. Is the image brighter or darker? Sharper or blurrier? Noisier or crisper? In this way, the class is co-constructing their knowledge of the camera through observation, interrogation, and discussion. As a facilitator, I might suggest the buttons and sites of investigation, but ultimately the students are just as responsible for teaching one another about the knowledge they are creating together in that space.

So to go back to your question about the tension between teaching techniques and making movies, I want to acknowledge that I have grappled with this question for a number of years as a media educator. I have found that if I can help facilitate technological confidence through teaching an investigative approach, then even if the camera stops working or something seems strange with the settings, students will feel less like they are "doing something wrong" but that it is "something they can change." I have found the fear of failure to be one of the biggest barriers in filmmaking, especially with (high achieving) high school students. And so, if I can address that fear while teaching techniques and encourage students to take risks in their filmmaking; then they will trust theirselves (and their team!) while making the film and rely on me less for technical knowledge while in the field.

FD--What are some classic mistakes of beginning film crews? What is your list of terms like "happy histograms" as reminders to keep them on task?

OK--I think the biggest mistake is not having a clear sense of the roles of each group member. Certainly on a student production, there will be overlap, and someone inevitably will have to step in to be an extra or an extra pair of hands for a technical assist. But, I think it's very important to establish what each member is responsible for. Especially, since the mythos surrounding The Director in popular culture very often (although not always) creates an unbalanced power dynamic between that student director and their peers in the creative process. I try to use a keyword association for each role when explaining to students.

Writer - the story (characters/dialogue)
Cinematographer - the image (light/framing)
Boom Operator - the sound (field/foley)
Actors - the performance (emotions/movement)
Editor - the time (pacing/flow)
Director - the communication (translates between members of the cast/crew)

I have found a good strategy in helping to de-center the role of student directors is to position them as the point of intersection - they are the translator. They have to be able to communicate how the cinematographer is framing the image so the actors know if it is a closeup or a wide shot. They need to communicate to the boom operator if the actors are going to move so they can stay out of the shot. They have to be clear and concise in their directions. They are not responsible for the style of the shot, nor the quality of the sound, or even the expressions of the actors, but instead they are responsible for directing all the moving bodies - both cast and crew - through the performance. And keeping in mind, the performance is not just what's happening on screen, but very much what is happening behind the screen as well. An effective director is not one who exerts their sole vision over the entire crew, but one that can allow that vision to be influenced and transformed by the other artists in that space.

In terms of helpful things that the director can suggest as checks is to check with cinematographer. Thus, the cinematographer asks: Do you have a happy histogram? Is there anything I need to suggest to the actors to be in better light? How can I help? The cinematographer can ask the actors to look into the camera so that they can do a "spot check" meaning they can check the focus of their eyes in the camera to ensure the image is clear. The director can call quiet on the set so that the boom operator can check the levels of the actors' voices. I try to encourage the director to trust his crew. The cinematographer should be the one initiating the offer for a "playback" or a review of the footage. If the director is asking to rewatch every shot, then not only does it increase the amount of time to do a scene but it doesn't facilitate trust between the director/cinematographer/actors that the performance is being captured to the best of their abilities. Positive feedback and open communication are really crucial. If anything they should check in with the boom operator, by asking questions like: How is the background noise? Do I need to turn off the AC? Do you hear anything weird? Then, finally, consistency is really key. I recommend the following protocol to start a scene:

Director: Sound!
Boom: Speeding!
Director: Camera!
Cinematographer: Rolling!
Director: Slate!
Assistant: Stands in front of the camera and states the Scene / Shot / Take (Ex. Scene 1 / Shot A / Take 3) and *claps* in the shot to sync the sound.
(wait for person slating to exit shot)
Director: Action!
(everyone waits a beat)
[Scene begins]
[Scene ends]
(everyone waits a beat)
Director: Cut!

This is a good way to get in the habit of making sure that you have a "head" and a "tail" on every shot, as well as keeping track of every shot you have taken. I try to keep students on a "three take" rule, meaning that if you can't get the shot you're trying to in three takes, then it might be time to re-imagine or re-configure it. It's okay to go off storyboards if something's not working. But also if the group is trying to do something technically complicated, I want to encourage that and this rule can always be broken. 

FD--Why did you choose the academic route over working as a full-time cinematographer?

OK--I have always felt a real draw towards teaching, and when I finally had the opportunity to teach media production at the college level, I felt connected to the craft in a way I hadn't in a very long time. There is nothing I'm more passionate about than teaching media arts to students who might never have had access to that knowledge otherwise. In addition to now teaching teachers about media arts education, I am also teaching animation to incarcerated youth at Richmond Juvenile Detention Center, through a partnership with Art 180, a community-based arts program near Virginia Commonwealth University. I see media arts, especially filmmaking, as a powerful medium for self-expression and want to create as many pathways as I can for voices that often go unheard and stories that go unseen.

Plus, who said I gave up being a cinematographer!? I get longer breaks in the winter and the summer, and am still collaborating with several of my friends. We're in post-production on a film called Witch, that I worked on with a group out in Minneapolis called Oxford Comma Film Cooperative, led by the talented Vanessa Magowan Horrocks. Our last feature-length collaboration was a film called Keepsake (2014), which is still making its ways into festivals, which is super exciting! I might be doing less commercial work now, but I find that to be a lot less soul-crushing. It's been liberating to not have to rely so much on freelance work from gig-to-gig to survive, and I feel very fulfilled in the classroom. I get to be more selective about the projects that I work on, and can focus more on telling stories that I think are important and meaningful to me.

FD--How's the GIF work these days? (also, could you send me the link to that gif showing the guy's face morphing due to different lenses?) What is the scholarly importance of GIFs?

Haha! Well... GIFs aren't exactly bringing in the big bucks, but weirdly enough those are the moving images that I've accepted to more art shows and galleries. I have a collection of some of my favourite GIFs that I've made at this tumblr page: (seizure warning). There's a combination of glitched remixes and bullet-time photography, and even some video taken with an open sensor camera that had an Erlenmeyer flask attached as the lens. The short story is that I had a professor in graduate school who told me to "remove the humans" for my work for half a semester; a lot of the GIFs that went on to be shown in shows or used in my media performance work were the result of that process.

I find GIFs really helpful in showing specific scenes from films or techniques for the camera. In particular I have a couple that I love to use in teaching focal length.

I use this one for talking about the face:
I use this one for talking about compression/expansion of background:

FD--What do you see as the future of cinematography?

OK--Oh wow. What a question. I think we are going to see some really, really big changes in the way that people of color are portrayed on film - and I'm talking about in terms of representation but in terms of lighting/film stock/camera sensors. Bradford Young is a cinematographer I've been following for a while since his work on Pariah (2011). With the news that he'll be filming the upcoming Han Solo spin-off movie, I'm very very excited to see how his unique style and approach to color/light/saturation will influence the direction of cinematography for the next generation. I also would suggest checking out the work of Isiah Donté Lee, who went to UNC and was the cinematographer on Burning Sands (2017), which was accepted in Sundance.

In terms of technical, I think the drone becoming cost-effective for a lot of independent filmmakers is going to be a game changer in terms of closing the gap around the way that movement is handled between low-budget and high-budget films. While I certainly have come to appreciate well-composed still frames, I think this has become a type of compensation for independent films, where the director/cinematographer might have opted for a moving shot had the money been there for a Steadicam/tracking/aerial shot. I think the option of movement now means that those decisions can be more purposeful rather than a response to a limitation. In relation to movement, I also cannot stop thinking about the use of GoPro's in As Above, So Below (2014). That was such a big shift for me in how I thought about the found-footage aesthetics and how far they've come in the horror tradition since The Blair Witch Project (1999). I found the cinematography in AASB to be really effective at building an intimacy and vulnerability through the multiple lenses and perspectives in play throughout the film.

I guess, in short, I think there are about to be some really big shifts in the independent scene both in terms of the ways in which cameras treat bodies on screen as well as the type of movements those cameras can make.

FD--Why should every school have a media technology class as a serious part of its curriculum?

OK--Uh... is there a way to approach this question without being too political? I guess, in being careful with my words, I would suggest that American education has never really had a large focus on media literacy, as some European countries do (the UK and Finland come immediately to mind). But the ability to critically engage with media is only made possible once one understands how they are constructed. Think about how we teaching critical analysis of literature... we have to know how to read AND write in order to produce a critical analysis of a literary work. I think we can think of media in similar terms. Most folks understand how to "read" media by watching it. A film course can help unpack some of the meaning, history, and sociocultural context of the work. But it is a production course that teaches one how to "write" media. I go back to the original word for photography - photos (light) graphos (writing/drawing) - writing/drawing with light. In my experience as an educator, I have found that once students understand how media is made - how it is constructed - they can begin to see the ways in which all the media they interact with and consume in their daily lives is also constructed. They engage with it differently because their perspective about it has changed. That is the power of media arts education, in my opinion.

FD--How is the internet useful for new filmmakers?

OK--Something not working? Google it! Need to put together a crew? Post it on Facebook! Want to get hired for a job? Upload your reel to Vimeo! I think there is a great number of ways that new filmmakers can distribute their work as well as build networks and engage in self-directed learning. I have learned so much from tutorials on YouTube, too many to list here. It is also the space that I first started uploading my work in middle school and getting feedback from an online community I participated in. If it hadn't been for that early experience, I don't know if I would have ever been interested in picking up a camera, but here I am! There are also just so many useful tools for filmmakers from storyboard templates, to suggestions for affordable lighting equipment, to script formatters like the Google Doc Screenplay Plugin (which in full transparency, one of my middle school students introduced to me)! I think it's just a matter of pursuing what you are most interested in and seeing where those Google rabbit holes take you!

Once again, I could write a novel about the important role the internet plays in developing self-directed learning skills in young people, but I suppose that's what a dissertation is for! 

FD--Much thanks, OK Keyes, for your insights. I look forward to working again with you next year.