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how do you articulate the visual voice of a feature film?


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#1 kevin baggott

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 02:04 AM

Hi good people. I'm a writer/director. I would really appreciate any feedback on the following question: "how do you articulate the visual voice of a feature film with your directors or by yourself?"

The problem I've been struggling with for the last couple of months is articulating for myself the visual design for a feature I will be directing in the fall. The last feature I directed I wound up playing the lead character (I'm a trained actor) so the film was more recorded then "properly mounted" as G. Willis would say.

Now the best formulation from a director that I've heard talk about this subject has been Sidney Lumet in his book. He finds his premise and from that he extrapolates the whole design of the film - his lens plot, lighting plot, shot structure, set design, costume, music, etc.

The problem I'm having folks is that I've not been able to extract a premise and I wrote the script. Now I also feel sometimes Mr. Lumet's films can be a little too schematic precisely because of this reliance on premise. For myself I really have more questions than answers in this new film. So I'm not really pushing any premises, themes, per se. I guess what I'm asking - is what other tactics have DP's used with their directors or by themselves to nail down the look of the film besides being guided by a premise? Or if you have found this to be the best way (a premise) then I would love to hear from you also.

Thank you.

Edited by kevin baggott, 21 May 2009 - 02:08 AM.

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#2 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 03:57 AM

Since you're an actor perhaps you should work from your characters' needs and how their world reflects or conflicts with those needs. Sometimes you really need to ask yourself very basic questions rather than worry about all complexities. Once you know this, you can begin to expand on your vision of the story and explain it to the DP, Art director, Costume people.


As one script editor says "the answers are already in the script, they just need to be discovered" - I think they meant rewriting and reworking the latent ideas that you've already have within the story, but you haven't yet brought forward.
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#3 kevin baggott

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 08:19 AM

Since you're an actor perhaps you should work from your characters' needs and how their world reflects or conflicts with those needs. Sometimes you really need to ask yourself very basic questions rather than worry about all complexities. Once you know this, you can begin to expand on your vision of the story and explain it to the DP, Art director, Costume people.


As one script editor says "the answers are already in the script, they just need to be discovered" - I think they meant rewriting and reworking the latent ideas that you've already have within the story, but you haven't yet brought forward.


Yes I hear you loud and clear Brian. Thanks champ! Kevin
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#4 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 08:58 AM

I think a lot of this will come from at length discussions with you department heads, over how you all FEEL about the script. From that feeling you can begin to extrapolate the visual language to capture that feeling. When I work with a director, I generally go through the script my self and think of how I see it, and present that, and then with them synthesize our ideas with the ideas of the art department, and often the actors etc. It comes from discussions, and in the beginning should be very vague, I think, in order to accept new ideas into it. And eventually, you get to a point, when you realize, hey, I want this scene to feel like x and to do that i'll use y and z techniques.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 09:49 AM

You create ground rules that will guide decisions made throughout the production, to narrow your choices down to something manageable and that gives the movie a visual structure. How rigid or obvious that structure is, or how intellectually-based, is up to you.

Sidney Pollack used to break a script's themes down to a basic conflict, let's say "ownership vs. freedom", and that theme would inform decisions made about visual design, maybe in terms of lens choice, shot size, who to cover, camera movement, etc. But obviously it's a matter of personal choice as to what the visual metaphors will be that enhances that story theme.

It's not so much that the audience has to know the first time a visual theme or symbol is presented that they know what it means -- it's really through repetition that the visual language is established -- the old rule that if it happens twice, it's a coincidence, but if it happens three times, it's a motif.

Sometimes you just need a basic concept to hang your hat on, so to speak. When I shot "Akeelah and the Bee", which for the most part is a straightforward drama, visually, not a hyper-stylized genre movie, my basic thought was that this was a character's journey towards enlightenment and knowledge, particularly self-knowledge. So to create this sense of a journey, I tried to give it a general progression from cold to warm colors, and from more mood into brightness, culminating in the final scene where the main character would be surrounded by lights. In a transitional scene in the middle, she visits a teacher in a location with warm tones and reads an inspirational quote on a wall, during which I faded up a light through the window as if the sun were coming out. This was the most stylized moment in the whole movie, when I hit that visual motif on the head, so to speak. Here are a few frames from the movie

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Yet as stylized as it all looks when you study it, the majority of audiences are not really aware, over the course of two hours, that there has been this visual story being told alongside the character's story.

But obviously you can make this sort of visual design even more subtle if you want. There are many times in "Akeelah" for example where we didn't stick to the color scheme progression, or where I had brighter scenes early on and darker scenes later on, etc. You still have the naturalistic elements to deal with in a script, like time of day, etc.

One key to getting away with more stylization is to build it into the script, locations, props, costumes, etc. so that the more pedantic audience members don't question it -- like wanting a green motif for a character and putting her in a green dress or putting a green neon sign out the window to get it (as in "Vertigo"). For the logic police in the audience, you've realistically motivated the symbolic effect:

Posted Image

Posted Image

The thing is that it's all a matter of taste -- you make creative choices based on the script and you exercise personal taste in terms of how obvious you want this visual design to be. And you also understand that, unless you build everything from scratch on a soundstage, it's very hard to maintain 100% control, so in a sense, the practical reality of shooting everyday will naturally water down a strong visual design into something more subtle.
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#6 kevin baggott

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 11:06 AM

You create ground rules that will guide decisions made throughout the production, to narrow your choices down to something manageable and that gives the movie a visual structure. How rigid or obvious that structure is, or how intellectually-based, is up to you.

Sidney Pollack used to break a script's themes down to a basic conflict, let's say "ownership vs. freedom", and that theme would inform decisions made about visual design, maybe in terms of lens choice, shot size, who to cover, camera movement, etc. But obviously it's a matter of personal choice as to what the visual metaphors will be that enhances that story theme.

It's not so much that the audience has to know the first time a visual theme or symbol is presented that they know what it means -- it's really through repetition that the visual language is established -- the old rule that if it happens twice, it's a coincidence, but if it happens three times, it's a motif.

Sometimes you just need a basic concept to hang your hat on, so to speak. When I shot "Akeelah and the Bee", which for the most part is a straightforward drama, visually, not a hyper-stylized genre movie, my basic thought was that this was a character's journey towards enlightenment and knowledge, particularly self-knowledge. So to create this sense of a journey, I tried to give it a general progression from cold to warm colors, and from more mood into brightness, culminating in the final scene where the main character would be surrounded by lights. In a transitional scene in the middle, she visits a teacher in a location with warm tones and reads an inspirational quote on a wall, during which I faded up a light through the window as if the sun were coming out. This was the most stylized moment in the whole movie, when I hit that visual motif on the head, so to speak. Here are a few frames from the movie

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Posted Image

Yet as stylized as it all looks when you study it, the majority of audiences are not really aware, over the course of two hours, that there has been this visual story being told alongside the character's story.

But obviously you can make this sort of visual design even more subtle if you want. There are many times in "Akeelah" for example where we didn't stick to the color scheme progression, or where I had brighter scenes early on and darker scenes later on, etc. You still have the naturalistic elements to deal with in a script, like time of day, etc.

One key to getting away with more stylization is to build it into the script, locations, props, costumes, etc. so that the more pedantic audience members don't question it -- like wanting a green motif for a character and putting her in a green dress or putting a green neon sign out the window to get it (as in "Vertigo"). For the logic police in the audience, you've realistically motivated the symbolic effect:

Posted Image

Posted Image

The thing is that it's all a matter of taste -- you make creative choices based on the script and you exercise personal taste in terms of how obvious you want this visual design to be. And you also understand that, unless you build everything from scratch on a soundstage, it's very hard to maintain 100% control, so in a sense, the practical reality of shooting everyday will naturally water down a strong visual design into something more subtle.


Thank you David - very generous of you with yer time and knowledge. First off thanks for the frame from Vertigo. That scene of her in the hotel all in green is still one of the most thrilling moments I've ever seen in a film.

Yeah I wonder if folks like Pollack, Lumet and Kazan broke down their films in terms of premise because of their back ground in theatre and all of them trained as actors. For it's certainly how an actor goes about breaking down a script or a theatre director.

What you say makes a lot of sense to me. Has clarified a lot of confusion I had. Thank you.

I find it so appealing the way Lumet works. He pulls that premise out of the script and nails it to his forearm. Everything in the film to the design of the credits is awash in the premise.

We writer/directors - well let me speak for myself - rarely get to work. So the hands on experience - well those muscles are not all they should be. There are two major influences I have for the visual voice of the film so far and in many ways they're polar opposites. They are Tarkovsky - for the magical inexplicability of his scenes and Gordon Willis for the elegant simplicity of his work. What I'm hoping to achieve is the poetry of Tarkovsky and the disciplined shot structure of Willis. If that makes sense. Maybe their not so different after all.

Willis would have been great working for someone like Ford - I wonder how Willis and Tarkovsky would have worked together. I want the mad inspiration of Tarkovsky's work with Willis catching it all in his exquisite composistions.

I hope I said aspire to.....

Thanks again - Kevin

Edited by kevin baggott, 21 May 2009 - 11:09 AM.

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Tai Audio

Gamma Ray Digital Inc

Abel Cine

rebotnix Technologies

Willys Widgets

Broadcast Solutions Inc

Metropolis Post

Ritter Battery

Glidecam

Technodolly

Rig Wheels Passport

CineTape

Aerial Filmworks

Wooden Camera

FJS International, LLC

Paralinx LLC

Opal

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS