Monday, 4 November 2013

A Life in Pictures... the very punny name of a lovely book of portraits of the late Stanley Kubrick and his crew as they worked on his twelve films. But that's not why we're here.

A friend has asked me about recommendations for further education for his son who wants to get into the movie business. Since others have asked me the same, and because I've worked on the periphery of the game for 15 odd years, I feel it's about time I imparted what meagre knowledge I've gained to those who may have an interest.

First things first, which university or college to study film at? The obvious answer is the NFTS up at Beaconsfield, they seem well funded and I've heard only good things, but I've no direct experience so can't really vouch. In my post-production company, we get a lot of applicants from the London art schools. St. Martins, Chelsea, Ravensbourne all deliver very competent graduates. For budding animators, Bournemouth's reputation is second to none.

However, I not sure I'd recommend going to film school at all. I've no doubt I would have loved studying cinema and film production for three years, and probably would have done somewhat better at it than my bipolar law/social anthropology BA choice, but I just don't see the need. Let me explain: basically cinema is concerned with telling stories using moving pictures and sound. Telling a good story is an art that can can be acquired through any of the humanities. The technical craft is very important, and it would certainly be good to acquire a general knowledge of film production and more specific nouse about the craft you decide on; but the technical side of the business is in period of hyper-evolution as the switch from analogue to digital reaches completion, while the latter is still nascent, and the only way to stay competently informed is to be sweating at the coal face full-time. 

Knowing your way around the insides of an Arri 435 would have given you thirty reliable years as a focus puller until recently. Now, we're switching brands of digital cinema acquisition boxes twice a year or more to stay ahead of the curve. Last year's model is rapidly obsolete and with it the accompanying knowledge. The level of funding means that higher education establishments, let alone professionals, can't keep up with the technology which, while getting cheaper, is obsolete so much quicker. 

On the production side, knowing how a film gets made - what happens during principal photography, whether in studio or on location is obligatory. Understanding the etiquette of the set, being able to tell the best-boy from the dolly grip, and working out if you're really a morning kind of person can all be picked-up at the same time as learning how many sugars the director likes in her tea.

It'd certainly be useful to have an grasp of the complexities of raising finance, available tax-breaks, grants and loans, private finance, sales and lease-back, rights and distribution, international acquisitions etc. etc. but these too are shifting quickly according to changes in government funding, tax laws and regulatory policy around the world. (Yawn). So why limit oneself to learning just film, when a broader based education could serve an 18-20 year old so much better and produce a more informed filmmaker?

I propose studying history or english, philosophy or politics or fine art, or like myself anthropology. Three years studying any of those would give you a grounding on which to build an interesting and informative career telling stories.

In deciding between cinematography, editing and screenwriting, it's obviously critical to understand what each discipline involves. I confess that those were my three choices too. Coming from an artistic background I also considered production design. There's a lot of great writing about each of them, and I'll suggest a few.

Prior to that though, (and this is not really talked about) is deciding what kind of life you want to have. How would your character fit the roles? Do you like to keep busy all the time, or have intermittent periods of business with long breaks between? How do you cope with not knowing if you can pay the rent next month? Would you prefer a guaranteed salary? How are you with making creative decisions under pressure? Can you think clearly when exhausted? How do you cope with disappointment and rejection? How do you deal with apportioning blame when things go wrong? Can you communicate abstract ideas efficiently? Which do you remember better, pictures or words? Would you prefer to read a book, or look at paintings/photographs? Do you enjoy being around people? Are you content in your own company for days at a time? Do you hold court at a party? Do you prefer to observe from the sidelines? Do you like to tell jokes? Do people laugh if its funny? Could you improve on other peoples jokes? Can you explain why? Can you tell a story? Do you have them to tell?

The answers to these kinds of questions will help you choose whether you may be better suited writing, editing or cinematography. Although they all collaborate, their lives are quite different. A screenwriter for film may spend poor and lonely years at the typewriter churning out drafts of his own work or rewrites of other people's scripts before receiving any royalties, let alone ever witnessing their words voiced by actors on the big screen. A salaried TV writer may not have the same trouble, but the potential gains may be less. He has only to know people and their words, and the stories that form from them, but to achieve success he has to express them brilliantly . An editor will spend an awful lot of time in a dark room, trying to elicit the best possible story from multiple takes and myriad permutations, both alone and in collaboration with the director and/or studio, it's a technical craft, all done on computer these days, but requires considerable artistic aptitude. Editors I know tend to be busy most of the time. A cinematographer though may spend months without work before taking a job on a low budget feature, shot on location far from family and friends. He has to stay on top of technical developments in cameras, lenses and lights, maintain a competent camera crew and advise and assist the director on achieving the shots that she needs.

There are others who tell it better than me though. Books that I loved and strongly recommend:

"In the Blink of an Eye" by Walter Murch. Coppola's editor brilliantly explains the way we perceive the edit, his philosophy on cutting, and the use of shots within scenes to develop story. A short, brilliant and utterly compelling book full of entertaining anecdote.

"Story" by Robert McKee. This is still the number one screenwriting book. Its got a lot of fans, and quite a few detractors. It's fairly hefty but as you would hope, a good read. He elucidates the paradigms of myth, and drama. Analyses story structure and character arcs, and how to break them down into scenes and acts.

"Masters of Light" - Interviews with several of the greatest Directors of Photography of the last fifty years. From Robbie Richardson and Conrad Hall to Vittorio Storaro. The very best of their craft. There's also a DVD called Visions of Light, it's a bit tricky to get hold of but features interviews with cinematographers from times past.

Buy and read those three books now and you'll definitely not regret it, no matter what you decide. There's innumerable more books on the subjects out there, you could easily spend days in a library (as I did) or friendly bookshop reading them. 'American Cinematographer' is a fantastic magazine and great look behind the scenes at the latest Hollywood films. I can't think of any good mags for writers or editors, but a general sense of the business of movies through specific news can be had by buying a copy each of 'Variety' and 'Screen International' from a well stocked newsagent.

Also, two of my favourite books, both written by iconic directors struggling to make a movie in the jungles of South America are "Money into Light" by John Boreman, and "Conquest of the Useless" by Werner Herzog. Both riveting and frequently hilarious reads. The respective movies are also both brilliant - respectively 'The Emerald Forest' and 'Fitzcarraldo'

While I was deciding what I wanted to do for a career, I found an old copy of the BSC handbook, which contained addresses and phone numbers of DoPs and camera crew. I sat down and wrote to five or six of them, explaining why I liked their particular style and whether they could offer me any advice. To my amazement I actually got a written replies from Alex Thompson and Brian Tufano, and I was utterly astonished one day to get a phone call from the late great Jack Cardiff, he was in his nineties by that point, and he generously talked with me for half an hour about his career. All you have to do is ask.

I found this exercise really useful:
Think of your second favourite movie (don't want to risk ruining the first). Without re-watching it, write down why you enjoyed it. Then as best as you can remember, write down a synopsis. Then write down all you can remember about all of the principal characters. Do you recall any dialogue?. How did the film start? How did it end? How do you think the story, the characters, the lighting and camera, and editing effect your enjoyment? We're any of those factors prevalent? That might take an hour.

Next, watch the film again. What had you forgotten about it? Had you forgotten whole subplots? Had your memory done away with important characters? We're the start and end as you remembered? Why do you think you remembered some bits and not others? That'll take another two or three hours.

Then, (this is the bit where you need a good remote control, a big pad of A4 paper and a lot of patience) start the film again. For every single shot write a quick line describing it. i.e. track forwards into medium close-up of hero in car/ close-up shot foot on pedal/Cut-away vfx shot of interior car gearbox grinding/slow wide crane up above cars on track/ mid-shot of race starter with flag. If you do this for every scene in the film, it'll take four hours or more, but it'll give you a very good understanding of how the camera operator, and the editor together use cuts between differently composed moving images to compile a seamless story. 

If you do all of that deconstruction, and it hasn't ruined the film for you, it should give you a pretty good insight into how a story is told in the form of a movie, by the writer, the DoP and the editor. Do the same for you least favourite movie. Work out critically what makes one good and the other bad.

My final bit of advice is (to borrow an overused slogan) Just do it. You don't need expensive kit to make a movie anymore. You can do it with a smartphone and a laptop. Write a short story set in one or two locations with two or three cast. Light and set decorate in a morning, shoot it in an afternoon, edit it in two days.

Which bit did you enjoy most? 

So Dylan, I wish you the best of luck with your Life in Pictures.

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