Dirty Hands

The Myth of the Filmmaker Who Does Nothing but Dispense Brilliance

When I attended film school, the indie-film craze was ramping up. Filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Stephen Soderbergh were making huge waves in both indie and studio models, DIY filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez were burning up movie screens around the world with their independent visions. We didn’t know it but we were living in the boom time for indie film, a cultural explosion that really changed the visual language as it shaped the national conversation.

Why didn’t we all go out and do the same thing? The biggest reason was always money. Even Kevin Smith’s measly $27,000 budget for “Clerks” was steep to a college kid mired in student loans. Film stock costs money, processing and video transfer cost BIG money. Editing systems weren’t being handed out for free either. Plus, there existed a pervasive myth out there that when one is really successful, that somebody else will do all the “grunt work,” the seemingly-menial tasks that actually shape the overall creative vision for the film. I will repeat that as it bears being heard – the heavy lifting, “skilled craft” part of filmmaking is where the film gets made, not from a bedheaded auteur who doesn’t understand a lick of the technology. A good cast, DP, and editor can make a bad director look good, just by knowing what the hell they’re doing. I have seen it happen with my own eyes.

16 mm film reel

Image via Wikipedia

So now while indie film is (by and large) on a hiatus from being the maker of high culture, filmmakers have some time to get to know themselves and redefine their jobs a little better. When the big jobs with deadlines show up, chances are we’ll still have to hire a bigger crew but now’s the time to sharpen the saw and really learn the craft again, and this time on our own terms.

Get Your Hands on a DSLR and Learn to Shoot

Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, with Canon EF 50m...

The Canon 5D Mark II

Want to demystify cinematography? Get a camera and shoot. No, you won’t likely be positioning yourself as competition for Roger Deakins or Anthony Dod Mantle, but you will learn what it takes to construct a shot from a lighting and lensing point of view and when you’re lucky enough to have the budget to hire a crew, you’ll know if your ideas will work before you bring them up.

Since 1995, digital filmmaking has been slowly creeping toward the qualities previously attributed only to celluloid, and after the cinematography Oscar nominations for “Slumdog Millionaire” (shot on the SI2K) and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Shot on the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper) a few years back, it’s hard to argue that there’s an industry-wide bias toward either film or digital – whatever it takes to get the job done. Case in point, subway scenes for “Black Swan” were shot on the Canon 7D, a camera pretty much anyone can own for $1,500. “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle‘s new film also used DSLR’s extensively and to great effect. The truth about these cameras is that they aren’t optimized for film shooting, but the form factor of the sensor-block-as-camera is here to stay. RED’s new camera, the EPIC is barely larger than a Canon 5D Mark II when stripped all the way down, and filmmakers can expect a new visual language to grow out of these cameras.

They can be as small as they need to be, they work in far less light than even most film cameras, and their limited depth-of-field offers filmmakers the option of a kind of visual intimacy offered only by the most expensive cameras from just a few years ago.

Learn to Edit

Final Cut Pro

Apple's Final Cut Pro Software, $1,200

This is ten-year-old advice, almost to the day. It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when having an editing app on a laptop was pure science-fiction, and filmmakers only had a few horrible and expensive choices when it came to stringing their footage together. In the early 1990’s when I began film school, filmmakers could either cut on a cuts-only deck-to-deck video system or chop up physical film workprint with a splicer and physical tape. The Avid (and Media 100, et al) had just arrived on the scene, and they were low-res and impossibly expensive to rent; impossible to buy. As recently as a decade ago, it was routine to pay $2,400 per week to rent an AVID system, and that price did not cover the operator.

So back then, filmmakers had a good excuse for not learning how to edit. No matter how you approached it, editing sucked.

Now, to own some kind of professional-level editing software on any computer runs anywhere from $1,200 to free, depending on what is needed. Does that mean editors are obsolete? Absolutely not. Like cinematography, editing is a craft that can only be mastered over years of hard work and experimentation. But now each filmmaker can choose how to handle the editing of his or her film, no longer tethered to the expense of the edit box itself.

Personally, I’d prefer to work with an editor who isn’t me, especially on larger projects. But knowing how to edit and having done it numerous times really does improve my communication with an editor or let me know when they need to be left to their own devices. And if I’m working on a lower-budget project (as we all are these days), I’d rather own my own system and hire one person than pay a third party for the same computer I can pick up at Best Buy.

Learn Visual Effects

After Effects Practice

Image by macdavidpro via Flickr

About fifteen years ago, I did a tutorial in Adobe AfterEffects v.3. I found the interface to be clunky and the utility of the program to be questionable. The way I (falsely) saw it at the time, it was a glorified title generator that allowed the user to move letters or images around the screen in a cheesy fashion. I finished the tutorial and walked away from the program, one of the bigger mistakes I’ve ever made as a filmmaker. But at the time, as with editing, there was this deep-seated belief that “someone” was going to do all that messy VFX work for me down the line, that a serious director needed to be watching Elia Kazan or Terrance Malick movies or doing Meisner exercises with the cast, and the nerd squad in the basement would handle all of these menial, non-directing tasks.

Then, all of those tasks became what we think of when we think of filmmaking. Seriously, technology is quickly making movies more akin to live-action cartoons than it is to Italian Neorealism, and at a fast clip. Did you see “Beowulf” or “Tron: Legacy” or “Avatar?” It doesn’t matter that visual effects have yet to crest the uncanny valley – they’re making their way up the hill, getting closer all the time. One day, sooner or later (or even now), a filmmakers’ understanding of VFX will be the difference between getting the movie made and doing nothing. Think your movie doesn’t need VFX? Well, maybe not every movie needs a flock of killer-hovering-hawks, but if you have scenes where anyone drives, or your film involves any stunts, guns, exterior scenes that take place during the day or night, very attractive or extremely ugly people, special makeup effects, anything is broken or explodes or burns or freezes, any sets that could be larger or different, or any signs need to be replaced – chances are VFX can save you time, money, and up the ante while making everything faster and safer on set. So, although you work hard to get it right on set, VFX are becoming easier, cheaper, and worth considering.

And not to scare would-be filmmakers who assumed that life was too short to learn VFX (I used to consider myself one of those people) – but you’re now competing with a new breed of filmmaker, and that’s someone like Gareth Edwards, Toby Wilkins, or the Brothers Strause, all of whom came up in the VFX world and are now making their own films.The writing on the wall for me was this: the last VFX supervisor I worked with, Eric Hayden, is currently putting the finishing touches on his own feature (I’ll tell you more about it when he’s ready to show it) which extensively uses his VFX background to tell a compelling story. Remember “Midnight Son,” that ultra-low-budget horror flick I was plugging a month or so ago? Guess where that director came from.

Luckily, there are numerous ways to learn inexpensively (or even for free) about how to do VFX. The starting point for a lot of people is Video Copilot, a company that makes plugins, stock elements, and upper-level tutorials for VFX Juggernaut Adobe AfterEffects. Andrew Kramer fills his website with amazing FREE tutorials, presets, and even a Basic Training series designed to help kickstart one’s VFX knowledge. I am currently working my way through their free tutorials, and although I’m far from proficient at AfterEffects now as I should have been in 1997, I will get there.

And if you’ve never been to Video Copilot, you should go there now and just watch a few tutorials. If you find it useful, buy some of their products – you won’t be disappointed (and I don’t even know these people)!

Find Your Audience Before They Find You

This may be the single hardest challenge facing all filmmakers today, on both indie and studio levels. Luckily, filmmakers have some amazing tools at their disposal, and I’m not just talking film festivals. Facebook, Twitter, blogs (you’re reading mine right now, aren’t you?), Topspin, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, RSS, Podcasts and the like have empowered filmmakers to get their message out there more than ever before. Nobody knows what the Sasquatch-like “new business model for indies” will look like, but we all know that it will involve a heavy time investment online. Right now, mega-indie-producer Ted Hope is using his blog to brainstorm solutions to this very conundrum, and he will get there.

The thing that nobody can refute is this: Whatever film is being made, there is already an online community hungry for that kind of movie. So it’s not as much about billboards and print ads, which indies can’t afford anyway, it’s more of a soft-sell or a long-con to get that audience interested in a project that would appeal to them, followed by a way for them to see the film involving a cash transaction of some kind that ultimately pays for the work. Third-party advertising? “Event” public screenings, traditional theatrical, or just convincing a hardcore audience not to download off of a BitTorrent site – any of these things and a bunch of stuff nobody’s ever thought of will become the new normal for indies in years to come.

Stop Thinking and Start Doing

I’m writing this for my own benefit as much as for that of anyone who might read this. I personally think great filmmakers are made, not born, and the only way to make one’s self into that elusive creature is to do the heavy-lifting work one’s self. Many times. Age-old excuses like “I don’t know how to work with film stock,” or “sound mixing must be expensive,” etc. just don’t fly anymore. With a big investment of time and a relatively small investment of money, any aspiring filmmaker can be doing the job very quickly. Does this mean that if you don’t like shooting, don’t have the patience to edit, or don’t know a specular highlight from an ambient occlusion that there’s no hope for you? Of course not. I’m only arguing that a filmmaker who remains aloof from these crafts is putting themselves at a disadvantage, and at the mercy of others. They aren’t always particularly merciful.

And when dealing with that VFX person, editor, or cinematographer, it goes a long way to have any understanding how to use a motion tracker, ripple-edit tool, or follow focus. It’s good to mess with those things from time to time.


2 comments on “Dirty Hands

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ben Rock and Ben Rock, Will Bowles. Will Bowles said: Quite inspiring blogpost by my friend @Neptunesalad Dirty Hands: http://wp.me/pQLLB-o1 ,including a tiny insight into #Bloodsport2 […]

  2. Hey, Ben, all great thoughts! I really think the key, key point is learning to find and engage the right audience for your film.

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