Point and Shoot

In the Kingdom of the Blind…

This was inspired by an argument I had recently with someone who will remain unnamed and who probably will never read this. But if THIS PERSON (no gender hint) does read it, maybe they will at least learn to appreciate my point of view while continuing to argue for anti-visual filmmaking. Or as I like to call it, “radio.”

So as a foundation, I should really explain the mindset I am proposing, which in my estimation is common sense but apparently it’s up for debate  – There are four things needed in any film, and if you don’t have all four you don’t really have a movie. They are:

  • A well-written script – As they say in the theater, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” You can fix a lot in post but like a fart in a flower shop, a bad script will cut through any smoke and mirrors you can muster.
  • Solid acting – You can (and will) cut around some bad performances or moments in any film, but if the lead actor is not solid and compelling and if everyone else isn’t at least decent, the project is destined to suck. And by “suck,” I mean it will not inspire/intrigue/artfully repel the audience to continue watching it. Attention to casting and working with actors is probably the most important thing to get right during the actual shoot (because it’s too late to fix the script at that point).
  • Decent sound and good music – Bad production sound can alienate any audience from a movie, but luckily there are cheap(er) do-overs in the world of sound. You can always ADR in a line, add sound effects in post, etc. Sound is really the only crucial thing that you can almost completely fix in post.
  • Finally… And this is my point: Attention to the look – You’re telling a story with pictures, right? PICTURES. You’re not making a radio play, and you’re not making an actor’s showcase reel where it doesn’t matter what it looks like.

And of all these things, it has become trendy to pay no attention to the visual, which is surprising nowadays when getting a good look is as cheap as it’s ever been. There was a time not six years ago when, in order to achieve the “film look,” would-be filmmakers would have to shoot on film. At a cost of $120 for 400 feet of raw footage (that’s 10 minutes worth of 16mm), then some for processing, then maybe $250 or more per hour to transfer that to video. Today, for less than the cost of raw stock for a student film in 1995, anyone can own their own camera system.

And yet the look is the last thing to have attention paid to it. I mean, is looking at people talking really that exciting? I would argue that even the most interesting scene is made MORE interesting by focusing on the look, the lighting, the composition. We’re filming a thing, which should be distinct from recording it, right?

And as I should get specific here, I’m talking about the “mumblecore” movement where a belief pervades that “it’s unvarnished and therefore true.” I’m also talking about people who read about the “Dogme 95” movement from Denmark, but decided that the only  rule that Lars Von Trier & Co. set down that was worth following was the one about working with available light. Or people who see films like “The Wrestler” or “Open Water” or whatever the Duplass Brothers or Kevin Smith make and decide that the look isn’t necessary – it’s all story or character and fussing over look is unnecessary.

We’re Losing the Light

I just don’t get it. People are enamored of working in film and making movies, yet they rail against the visual aspect of the job. And I would argue that the visual IS the job (or at least a quarter of it, see above).

Although Vincent Laforet, Stu Maschwitz, and David Nelson proved that you can make a decent-looking film with available light shooting on the Canon 1D Mark IV, the point wasn’t NOT to use lights anymore or to not concentrate on the visuals. I would argue that these guys sweated over the look of the film, as they are all primarily visual storytellers – they just wanted to see how far they could push it, and they still made a visual film (see below). Is this because they went commando and shot with no lights? No. It’s because they are all disciplined visual storytellers, and they knew how and when to push their limits. See for yourself:

A Face for Radio

Things like affordable super-low-light cameras and shallow depth-of-field give filmmakers a chance to experiment more, maybe even make more mistakes, but the cult of the amateur certainly has some pronounced drawbacks when it comes to making films that compel us to continue to watch and has the effect clogging the internet and even DVD shelf (though less so for the multiplex these days) with material that could look a lot better.

I hate to end this with a question, but I think it’s an important one for every filmmaker to ask and I’d love to hear your responses. What differentiates a film from everything else? What does anyone need as a foundation to make a film that will work for an audience? And why are you making a film, specifically, and not a radio play?

3 comments on “Point and Shoot

  1. Ben, I don’t disagree with your points, but I think your arguments about “mumblecore” or dogme 95 boil down to matters of taste, which are impossible to argue. The choice to make a film look “unvarnished” or “crappy” is just as valid a creative decision as making it look “beautiful” or “manufactured.” The way a film looks is important to the story, so we can argue that The Wrestler might have been better had it looked different but that’s just opinion, and has to be argued in specific instances rather than as blanket statements.

    • I actually wouldn’t change the look of “The Wrestler.” It’s pretty obvious that Darren Aronofsky knows how to make a film look good and chose the look he created for that film. Which is different than deciding that look is unimportant (which I think a lot of mumblecore films do).

  2. I think there’s a big difference between consciously going for a minimalist or unvarnashed look in order to craft a film in a particular manner, and just completley ignoring the visual aspect of a film. Doing the former is a visual style and whether or not someone likes it is a matter of opinion. But doing the latter, paying no attention to how your film looks, does seem ridiculous in a visual medium. If you just want to tell a story and how it looks is so unimportant that you’re going to completely and purposefully ignore it, write a book.

    I don’t think every movie needs to be filmed with all the bells and whistles and fancy tricks… Frankly, making sure the audience can see what’s going on and setting up interesting scenes can be enough to make a movie look good. You don’t need a whole lot of equipment or money, but I do agree that some thought has to be put in to how the film will look.

    So yeah, basically I agree with that you’re saying. Making a movie without considering the visuals makes as much sense as podcasting your story and not thinking of the sound quality. You want your audience to be able to experience the best possible representation of the story. Or at least, as a storyteller, that’s what I want.

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