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Film Evolution: Phase 4

May 5, 2012 by  
Filed under /Editorials, /Film Schooled

So to RECAP

PHASE 1: 1895 CINEMA IS BORN – the first phase of every filmmaker wherein we shoot everyday life, devoid of narrative and capture a ton of moments on film, a small percentage of which is genuinely usable, entertaining footage.

And then…

PHASE 2: 1902 FILM AS THEATER – Capturing limited stage-like drama (wedding videos, church plays, a friend’s joke, etc) – these are films with a linear plot as the action happens.

And…

PHASE 3: 1903 EDITING IS BORN – Shooting with Post-production in mind, telling a narrative with shot selections, and shooting/assembling your film in a non-linear fashion.

All filmmaking books are not created equal.  And if it’s an academic text, run as if your life depends on it.  Because it does.  You actually run the risk of a third-degree hernia in your Medulla Oblangata or worse!  Becoming a PhD in Film studies.

You know that t-virus that zombies carry which turns their victims into zombies, too?  Well, Film Scholars also carry it.  Their dissertations and doctoral theses and books will render most filmmakers unconscious.  They’re the lucky ones.  The others will go on to become film scholars themselves.  It’s a vicious cycle and needs to be Kony2012’d and soon!  Don’t believe me?  Read for yourself the opening paragraph of a friend’s book…

“Positive church relations with the moving pictures did not spring forth overnight.  A history of theological resistance to images and amusements colored the uncertain reception that church leaders gave to the novel invention.”

Whoa!  Settle down!  Breathe deep!  You’re okay. You’re oooookay!  Come back.  It’s okay.  Sorry, but you didn’t believe me.  I don’t even know if that paragraph was in King James English or what?  DON’T RE-READ IT!  Geez are you crazy?!?!  Now a few of you out there actually fully appreciated and understood that paragraph.  I suggest a strict diet of “3 Stooges” and bad reality programming (redundant?) like “Toddlers & Tiara’s” to pull you back from the academic edge.

Perhaps you don’t understand the Film stratosphere so allow me to elaborate.  First you have FILMMAKERS. Those out there making it happen.  Living the dream.  Beneath that layer, those who can’t make movies (or are done making movies) called FILM TEACHERS.  And below that, are people that can’t make movies and can’t teach movies called FILM CRITICS.  And after several more layers and layers of scum and garbage you have BLOGGERS.  And well, I wouldn’t wish that upon any of you!

There are a lot of good books on filmmaking, though.  One of them that tops this somewhat dubious list of Amazon’s Must-Read Books on Filmmaking is actually a good one called, “Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7000 became a Hollywood Player.”

It’s a fascinating story of how Robert Rodriguez shot “El Mariachi” on film for $7K and sold it to Sony and made a bazillion dollars off of it.  Even MORE inspiring because he did it in the early 90s before the Canon 5D or Final Cut Pro or any of the tools we’ve come to know and use which make filmmaking a delightful breeze on a summer morning with spinach powered 4×4 trucks full of hopes and unicorns.

Anyway, one of the things he talks about is that before he ever went to film school he made about 20 or so short films using friends, family or whomever was available.  He wrote scripts, shot them, edited them, and premiered them for his family.  He credits this repeated process with being the absolute greatest film training program he could have undertaken.

What he has described is Phase 4.

PHASE 4: Increasing Your Film Language (1908)

D.W. Griffith enters the film scene.

He makes over 500 films to his credit.  For a period of about 3 years was doing a film (one ten minute reel) a week – THE ULTIMATE FILM SCHOOL. He is called the father of early film “language”.  Not that he discovered all these film techniques, but that he used them all together to good effect.  Closeups, Cross-cutting, etc.

Early filmmakers were hard-core, dude!  They would write a script on Saturday and Sunday.  On Monday they’d go out with their crew and film it for a few days.  On Thursday they’d edit it.  Friday they’d premiere it.  Saturday they’d start over on the next one.  Working with the same cast and crew made it easier to repeat the process on a weekly basis.  But in so doing, D.W. Griffith made 500 films in 3 years.

To borrow from the modern vernacular:  “That’s hawt”

This is a film trailer for D.W. Griffith’s feature length masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation” (1915).  The subject matter is a whole bucket load of white supremacist, but the mastery of the technique is notable.

Again, there was no USC Film School in 1915.  There was no NYU.  No Full Sail.  No Director’s Commentary on the DVD Bonus features.  This trial and error approach gave Griffith the on-the-job skills that he needed.  He tested techniques over and over each week with his crew.  He taught himself how to tell a story visually.  He learned when to use a wide shot, when to use a close up, when to cut and when to dissolve.  He was increasing his film language.

Dolly shots, panning shots, crane shots, tripod shots, handheld shots, steadicam shots, mounted shots (helmet, cars, airplanes, dogs, etc)…each one of these shots says something very different than the other.  For example, in one of the STAR TREK movies they used a lot of steadicam shots on board the Enterprise because that floating sensation of the shot was a device they wanted the viewer to feel the “floatiness” of space.

The handheld nature of Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN opening beach scene gave it a newsy, documentary immediacy to it.  A slow tracking shot or dolly-shot adds dimensionality to a 2D image because we get to see the foreground, midground and background moving in relationship to one another.  We associate dolly shots with high production value and artistry.

I’ve known quite a few filmmakers (usually students) who have made one or two short films and then decided they’re ready to make a feature film!  They may be Idiot Savants.  But more often than not, they’re just idiots.

Go make dozens of short films.  Experiment.  Do a comedy, a film noir, a murder mystery, an action flick, a silent film, a documentary.  Play around!  If it doesn’t work, move on to the next short.  And grow!  Add tricks to your filmmaking tool-kit.  Add technique to your skillset.  Add to your film language.

And for the love of God, do NOT hang around Film Scholars.  Woo woo woo, nyuk nyuk nyuk.

You’ve been warned.

TOMORROW: Phase 5 – What’s that sound?

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