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Avoiding static filmmaking


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#1 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 12:30 AM

My second post for the night:

I've been privileged to be married to a Production Designer at the American Film Institute. I've worked as 2nd AD on many of their films, and I've been learning a ton.

For the last two years, I've been wrestling with this problem... and I still don't have a solid answer. Every film that I've seen from film school feels very ridged, static, and stale. Even with the scripts that I love, it never feels as if any of them have fluidity, or have time to breath.

I've blamed it on many things since I discovered this problem; too many marks on the ground with actors who can't hit them, not enough atmospheric inserts, not enough rehearsal, too much rehearsal, no improvisation, perfectionist DP, etc, etc... but I still don't think I've pinpointed it.

If anybody else has noticed this problem, or if anybody can help me avoid this in my own work, I would love some ideas!
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#2 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 01:11 AM

I haven't "went to film school" but I have taken many film classes with art students who have all sorts of different ideas about film making. The particular class of interest that I took involved going to class only 1 session every two weeks and filming in between those weeks and then screening the films at the next session. This was very fun and insightful for me...I guess that is why I have taken that class three different times.

Everyone has their own ideas about how a film should look and what constitutes a good film. There are many different theories and opinions, but there is really only 1 "rule" that I know of and that is the 180 degree rule. This rule should never be broken, not even artistically, but anything else seems to be open for creative license. If you feel that student films are too static then you add some dynamic to it. Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi is a very active independent film and it's definitely not "static" so maybe you can review some of the techniques he used, along with other guerilla shooter films to avoid what you dislike.

As far as the issue of "not enough improvisation", this is a point of disagreement among Directors. Some love improvisation like Michael Radford (Dancing at the Blue Iguana was entirely improvised), and some Directors hate improvisation in favor of strictly scripted...IE Kevin Smith's Clerks (although I think the dialog sounds unnatural and contrived but who am I to argue with a fan fav.) I personally do not favor improv due to working on ultra-low budget and having zero margin for error but I do think scripted dialog should be as natural as possible. I also have no problem with Actors paraphrasing a scripted line provided the sentiment of the script is there. BTW, I didn't know you could "reherse too much?"

There was a thread on here recently with an individual named "Nikki" where she came on here raving about how she didn't like how people in her school did things...best solution? Get funding or fund it yourself and do better. On your set, you can set the tone. No use tripping on other people's projects...just do better. I am currently looking to work on someone else's project until I am ready to start my short film shoot in August. I value all experience and I would NEVER question another Director's decision on his set. It's a code of ethics that would be wise to follow if you like to work on other's projects.
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#3 Glen Alexander

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 01:27 AM

...There are many different theories and opinions, but there is really only 1 "rule" that I know of and that is the 180 degree rule. This rule should never be broken, not even artistically, but anything else seems to be open for creative license.


For my film, there are no 'rules', 180 deg or otherwise.
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#4 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 01:35 AM

Matthew, thanks for the reply.

Of course I would never question another director's choice on set, but I don't think it's a problem to learn from their mistakes. I read Nikki's posts, and I hope that I don't sound anything like her.

The El Mariachi suggestion was a good one, and I'll be sure to check out the film asap.

As far as "too much rehearsal", I definitely think it exists. I think that over rehearsing actors can cause them to settle with a certain line reading, and they can lose some of the magic that happens on that first take. Of course, I would agree that too much rehearsal is better than too little.

And Glen, I think that rules are essential to filmmaking. Even if you have to break them once in a while, you should understand them 100% before you do.

Anyone else have other thoughts?
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#5 David Auner aac

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:11 AM

Everyone has their own ideas about how a film should look and what constitutes a good film. There are many different theories and opinions, but there is really only 1 "rule" that I know of and that is the 180 degree rule. This rule should never be broken, not even artistically, but anything else seems to be open for creative license.


Why not? If I want my cuts to be jarring? Why shouldn't I break that convention too? I like to refer to this kind of thing as convention not as rule. But even rules are there to be broken, bent and distorted to achieve the wanted effect. The only thing important is to know the conventions and rules and what effect braking them has.

Cheers, Dave
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#6 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:15 AM

For my film, there are no 'rules', 180 deg or otherwise.


Glen, I am not trying to dissent but what would constitute you breaking the 180­° rule? The main reason I follow it is because it is very confusing and frustrating to the audience if it is not followed. Maybe I could understand someone like Uwe Boll breaking it just to piss people off.
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#7 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 03:41 AM

Every film that I've seen from film school feels very ridged, static, and stale. Even with the scripts that I love, it never feels as if any of them have fluidity, or have time to breath.

I've blamed it on many things since I discovered this problem; too many marks on the ground with actors who can't hit them, not enough atmospheric inserts, not enough rehearsal, too much rehearsal, no improvisation, perfectionist DP, etc, etc... but I still don't think I've pinpointed it.

If anybody else has noticed this problem, or if anybody can help me avoid this in my own work, I would love some ideas!

I know exactly what you mean. I think the blame can only rightfully belong to the director and his/her lack of cinematic sense. This is absolutely understandable because they are still students or novices at their craft. But if you look at the work of the masters like Keaton, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, etc., they all have a sense of rhythm and pace that works for the story that they are telling and their own sensibility toward the cinematic. Some directors may have a slower pace like Kubrick, Ozu, Leone, Malick, and Tarkovsky, but they fill the extra space with mood, tension, beauty, poetry, spectacle, or whatever. Other directors like Keaton, Hawks, and Wilder are speed demons and like to keep the story moving as fast as possible. Whatever the method, they all hold our attention. I think as these young directors develop and being to trust their own cinematic sensibilities, their work will lose that static feeling. You can't overlook sheer talent either - how can you expect more than 1 or 2 Spielbergs to come out of every class, let alone 1 or two John Fords?
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#8 Glen Alexander

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:09 AM

I know exactly what you mean. I think the blame can only rightfully belong to the director and his/her lack of cinematic sense. This is absolutely understandable because they are still students or novices at their craft. But if you look at the work of the masters like Keaton, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, etc., they all have a sense of rhythm and pace that works for the story that they are telling and their own sensibility toward the cinematic. Some directors may have a slower pace like Kubrick, Ozu, Leone, Malick, and Tarkovsky, but they fill the extra space with mood, tension, beauty, poetry, spectacle, or whatever. Other directors like Keaton, Hawks, and Wilder are speed demons and like to keep the story moving as fast as possible. Whatever the method, they all hold our attention. I think as these young directors develop and being to trust their own cinematic sensibilities, their work will lose that static feeling. You can't overlook sheer talent either - how can you expect more than 1 or 2 Spielbergs to come out of every class, let alone 1 or two John Fords?


if you examine some of kubrik's work, you'll see the 180 deg 'rule' thrown out. you have to know what kind of affect you want and use it. kubrik uses it intentionally to create discourse and tension, keeps the audience on edge.
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#9 Glen Alexander

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:24 AM

- how can you expect more than 1 or 2 Spielbergs to come out of every class, let alone 1 or two John Fords?


forget lucas/spielberg and all that fluff/cgi, i'd suggest to watch a david lynch film.

btw leone couldn't make his films in spain anymore, there so much development down near almeria, it would tough to get wide expansive shots.
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#10 Glen Alexander

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:41 AM

Glen, I am not trying to dissent but what would constitute you breaking the 180­° rule? The main reason I follow it is because it is very confusing and frustrating to the audience if it is not followed. Maybe I could understand someone like Uwe Boll breaking it just to piss people off.


for my film, i'm junking all of the things you're supposed to do, all that bullshit you learn at UCLA/USC is for people who want to direct soap operas or pornos, not that that's a bad way to earn money, it's stale, formula driven.

i will use whatever means available that i have and can afford (most films don't need to be overloaded with cgi or effects) to tell the story. most people want to create a 'look' not for me, i'm creating a SPACE, fully three-dimensional in the physical and emotional sense. there will be no blue/green screens and my budget is tiny, but i as artist, writer, director, producer, DOP, computer guru, i have creative, visual as well as technical skills to step into any position on the set, sound, grip, camera, PA :lol: as well as collaborate with the actor help them understand what and how the SPACE is for the character. with the knowledge what can be done with natural lighting, proper choice of film stocks and lenses, the 'rules' don't matter.

Edited by Glen Alexander, 26 May 2008 - 04:45 AM.

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#11 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:02 PM

for my film, i'm junking all of the things you're supposed to do, all that bullshit you learn at UCLA/USC is for people who want to direct soap operas or pornos, not that that's a bad way to earn money, it's stale, formula driven.


I would be very careful with the style of shooting you're describing. Basically you're telling me you're going to shoot a student film? It is very very easy to say you're going to throw out all the rules, but even somebody like David Lynch (who you expressed interest in earlier) uses many MANY filmmaking conventions and rules. For example, if you break the 180 degree rule, you WILL confuse your audience. Is that really what you want to do?

It always seems impressive at first that you're the person doing everything, but for a calling card piece, that's not what people want to see. They want to know that you work well with others, and you can collaborate to make a decent film. I would strongly recommend finding help in the other areas.

Let me know how it goes.

This is all a little off topic... anybody else have any ideas about giving a low-budget film more life?
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#12 Jake Vander Ark

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:06 PM

but i as artist, writer, director, producer, DOP, computer guru, i have creative, visual as well as technical skills to step into any position on the set, sound, grip, camera, PA :lol: as well as collaborate with the actor help them understand what and how the SPACE is for the character.


Also, how do you plan to collaborate with your actor when you're busy setting up crafty? Or holding a boom? If you put this all on yourself, I can guarantee your actor will not appreciate it, and it will hurt your film.
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#13 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:17 PM

This is all a little off topic... anybody else have any ideas about giving a low-budget film more life?


Jake, one low-budget way to add "life" to your films is by creating a makeshift camera dolly. The Rodriguez example I mentioned earlier for El Mariachi was Ultra low-budget as he jumped in a wheelchair and had a friend push him down the street as he filmed with the camera on his shoulder.

This technique can create exciting shots when you are behind a character running forward or when you are on one side of the street filming the character running on the other side of the street (how Rodriguez did it.)

If you've studied Scorcese's Raging Bull, you can see another technique which is to utilize frame rate to acheive interesting effects. You can speed up, slow down, or a combination of the two. Even backwinding film can add some life to your clip.

Depending on your plot, you may also benefit from using Peter Jackson's approach in LOTR: Return of the King for looking over a characters shoulder and then panning around them to look at what they're looking at as he did at Gondor when looking over Denethor's shoulder and panning to show the army awaiting him over the Minas Tirith balcony.

Hopefully these have added some ideas that you can incorporate on the cheap to liven up your films.
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#14 Glen Alexander

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 02:59 PM

Also, how do you plan to collaborate with your actor when you're busy setting up crafty? Or holding a boom? If you put this all on yourself, I can guarantee your actor will not appreciate it, and it will hurt your film.


who said i would be all crafty? i said i can be if needed with no one on the project in front of or behind the camera having any concerns.

this is why no or bad preparation kills films, people just shooting 'stuff' with no idea of what the they are doing. we are already in prepartion three months before shoot, going through gear, scouting shots, costumes, make up, props, ideas, testing, evaluating everything as is comes up with both actress and crew. when we finally shoot it's all about the actress creating the moments and crew capturing the moment, i'm just the guide to help them.

i hire very good, very creative people who share my vision and let them be creative. i create the environment of the space and let the people i trust have creative freedom to explore the space. if they have any questions, technical or emotional they are comfortable asking me.

there is a direct relationship between behind the camera and in front of the camera, creativity in both is magic. great performers and uninspired crew, average film, uninspired performers and great crew, average film. average performs and average crew, average film.

i didn't say i would hold a boom and do everything on a set, although sean penn just about did on his last film. good on him! if i have to show the boom person where or when to hold it for optimimum sound and not be visible, no worries. if the CA is busy loading another mag and we need to get something spontaneous, i have no worries about loading a mag, pulling focus or whatever it takes.
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#15 Keneu Luca

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:50 PM

From my observations, the problems with most student films are, in no specific order:

1-most schools focus on the technical aspects, not the theoretical. They do not explore the complexities of the director-actor relationship. They do not explore the set-up and pay-off that goes into every scene, sequence, and film as a whole. They do not teach that the rhythm of a shot/scene/sequence is often a reflection of the characters state of mind. They do not show the students how to construct a film that invites the audience to discover things on their own. They do not demonstrate to the students how so much of a film is in the subtext - visually, in the text, in the audio, and in the actors behavior.

2- most students arent interested in actually thinking and contemplating about everything that goes with filmmaking, they dont seem to be interested in script construction and script analysis. They rush to get the camera in their hand and push the run or record button.

3-consider the actors who work in student films. They are usually just beginning their journey into acting, or have little talent and make a career of acting in student films

4-most student films are really filmmaking by committee - you have to justify everything to your teachers/instructors.

5-we have become accustomed to seeing fluid steadycam and jib shots in films - most schools dont use such equipment

6-consider how some shots in films are sometimes very brief, but electrifying and so important to the scene nonethless - most students see it as a waste of time to spend so much time and energy in setting up a shot that will last just 3 seconds.

7-many many many scenes lack coverage of various close ups of reactions and a change in the beat of the scene - the student film often relies on a master shot of dialogue, or perhaps there are just two shots, going back n forth.

8-students believe EVERY shot of two actors talking has to be over the shoulder, back n forth.

9-students dont realize that a single shot can move, contaning a change in beats on its own. This however is tough for a student to pull off, they often think every time something changes that a cut is needed. rather tahn move the camera, they have a separte shot planned. Also, moving the camera in a single shot sometimes requires complex lighting set-ups, which students usually cannot handle.

10-most students are more interested in showing off, rather than making choices based on actually telling the story, and this requires contemplation and planning

11-well, theyre students...

Of course there are excepions to all of the above.

Edited by Keneu Luca, 26 May 2008 - 04:52 PM.

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#16 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:56 PM

this is why no or bad preparation kills films, people just shooting 'stuff' with no idea of what the they are doing.


With all due respect, this being said by a fellow who is disregarding the 180° rule like it serves no purpose...along with every other convention.

I am not trying to be cynical but you remind me of many of the people who I met in the film classes I took in college. I am all about creativity but I also respect the system that has been in place for over 100 years. The biggest reason, I think, for many aspiring filmmaker's failure is that they think they are going to go take Hollywood by storm and change everything. Change happens slowly in any established field. Just like the RED-heads on here awhile back...they thought that a camera would create a paradigm shift and kill film. Everything in the film industry is not going to change over night. You MUST work within certain conventions to succeed...even Kubrick follows many conventions.
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#17 Keneu Luca

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 04:58 PM

I forgot to add, in respect to lingering on a shot versus cutting, most student dont seem to understand why you would choose one over the other.
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#18 Matthew W. Phillips

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 05:10 PM

I forgot to add, in respect to lingering on a shot versus cutting, most student dont seem to understand why you would choose one over the other.


In all fairness, Keneu, I don't think this is only a student mentality. There can be practical reasons to keep shots shorter like working with low-budget film gear that takes smaller mags or purchasing short end film. Not everyone has the money to have two minute establishing shots and whatnot.

One little side note, I'm not sure if this board allows you using avatars of copywritten photos. You may want to check on that.
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#19 Stu McOmie

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 05:30 PM

Studying Film and Video at the moment, I see that in my fellow student's work (and mine) all the time... I think it boils down to a few things. Firstly inexperience - most haven't been in a production environment before, or know how the production of films should be arranged - this means they're constructing their films as they would an essay, planning briefly the content and then executing the production in a linear fashion.
Secondly, they're in effect reconstructing scenes from films they've learnt about or been influenced by, without everything you can't see that went into those films in the first place. Lastly, there's a lack of natural talent, and I mean in the industry in general... due to it's size, mainly... There are thousands of rubbish film-makers, just as there are bands, artists, authors and actors ;)
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#20 Keneu Luca

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Posted 26 May 2008 - 05:30 PM

In all fairness, Keneu, I don't think this is only a student mentality. There can be practical reasons to keep shots shorter like working with low-budget film gear that takes smaller mags or purchasing short end film. Not everyone has the money to have two minute establishing shots and whatnot.

One little side note, I'm not sure if this board allows you using avatars of copywritten photos. You may want to check on that.


I never said anything that I wrote was a student only mentality. Sure there can be practical reasons that affect every aspect of filmmaking. You can say, "Yes my actors sucked, but its because I couldnt affod to pay any of them." Or, "yes my light kit was poor, but thats because I couldnt afford a better one."

As far as lingering versus cutting goes, Im not talking about cutting because you ran out of film in your camera.

I appreciate your concern about my avatar.
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