Saturday, May 30, 2009

I'm going to go over this one more time. How to shoot a flashback.

I’m not a big fan of the flashback as a narrative device, but there are times when it’s appropriate.

If you’re going to shoot a flashback, the key is to make sure your viewers know that’s what it is.

The easiest way to do that is to follow in the footsteps of the directors who have gone before you. Film grammar has evolved a particular device that viewers understand to mean “here comes the flashback.” Basically, you start on the character’s face who’s entering reverie and flash to white over the course of three or four frames, then cut to your flashback scene.

Sometimes it helps to come out of white for three or four frames into the flashback scene, too.

There are a couple of other devices that help, too.

One is to use a camera move that’s consistent across both shots –– usually a push in –– so it feels as if the camera’s movement is continuous. Another is to use a continuous gesture on the part of your character. A head turn is always good. Have your character make the same gesture in the same framing in both shots and you can edit the two together as if it’s a continuation of the same gesture.

The look of the film can help communicate the temporal relationship as well. For some reason –– probably because papers yellow and old photos were sepia toned –– people associate warmer tones with the past. So it often makes sense to use those tones in the flashback as subtle clues that what you’re looking at is older.

Want a quickie demonstration? Take a look at ‘The Love Guru’. No, I’m not kidding. Marco Schnabel missed the boat on a lot of stuff in that one, but he did do his homework on the flashback thing.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Never underestimate some of the things actors will do to get a role.

I once had to cast a commercial that involved a comic misdirection: The spot featured an older man, and based on what he was saying on the phone, his kids imagined he had found a new love. The "reality" was that he'd gotten a dog.

There could be no misunderstanding what was required by the script. The stage directions explicitly stated that the man would call the dog over to him. Still, in order to find the best possible actor, I decided to eliminate non-dog people. Rather than ask whether each actor liked dogs--when you ask a question like that, there's only one answer you ever get--I figured out a more oblique approach: I asked each of the men auditioning the name of the first dog he owned. And just to be safe, whether he was allergic to dogs.

The man we eventually cast was great in the audition. His first dog was named Jerry and no, he wasn't allergic. But when he showed up on set and had to interact with the puppy, he froze. The poor man was terrified.

Silly me. It didn't occur to me to ask the actors whether they were afraid of dogs.

The puppy wasn't stupid. She figured out pretty quickly that even though the man was calling her over, he really didn't want her anywhere near him. Ultimately, I had to take the man through deep breathing exercises to help him deal with his fear. Then I had to smear his pant leg with bacon grease in order to coax the puppy to come over. The performance we finally settled for was disappointing, both on the part of the man and the puppy.

Why am I telling you this? Because some actors will do just about anything to land a role.

It would have been best all around if the actor had declined to audition when he realized he'd have to work with a dog. But I'm sure the allure of starring in a regional phone commercial was just too great. He convinced himself that he'd be able to overcome his fear, just as the woman who landed the role of the cowboy in another commercial I directed figured she'd have time to learn how to ride a horse like an expert between the time she was cast and the day we started shooting.

Over the years, I've developed some techniques that help flush out the liars. I've learned to bring a dog to the audition for roles that require interacting with them. And when it's impractical to have a horse at the casting session, I'll ask questions that only an experienced rider should be able to answer--for instance, about the his or her favorite type of saddle.

But there's another form of duplicity that in some ways is more insidious than claiming you can speak French, rappel down a mountain, or swallow fire.

Flirting.

I can't tell you how many actresses (and actors, too) have come on to me in the hopes of landing a part. Some have gone so far as to... well, I'll let you use your imagination. Let's just say that for an average-looking, kind of scrawny, balding, middle-aged guy, I'm incredibly sexy.

Only I know better.

I know that some actors will do whatever it takes to land a role. And I know that once they've landed it, it falls to me to get the most authentic performance I can from them.

Someday, I'll write a blog about the particular system I've developed for casting. For now, though, suffice it to say that as much as I love to believe that the Victoria's Secret model really would love to meet me for drinks afterward (and yes, this really happened on a beer commercial I directed), the reason I'm in the room is to determine whether she's going to create the most convincing portrayal for the role.

If she is, sure I'll go meet her for a drink. I mean, I'm not an idiot.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Everything you need to know about crossing the line. Mostly.

Back when I was in film school, a lot of breath was expended on something called "the line." For those of you who have a better use for $80,000 than shoveling it at blowhards like me who are happy to tell you how to do what a lot of them can't seem to make a decent living doing themselves, here's a quick recap:

The line is an invisible boundary, beyond which the camera is never to venture. If it does, all sorts of bad things will happen, most of which involve an editor shaking his or head sadly and claiming there's no way to save your film.

There are a lot of complicated explanations for what the line is and where to draw it, but as with a lot of things, I find the simpler explanations better. So here's how I think of it.

Most scenes involve an interaction, and most interactions are conversations. Two people talking. That's your line.

If the camera is looking at Bob and Jeff in the wide shot, with Bob on the left and Jeff on the right, then when you get to the medium shot, guess what? Bob stays on the left and Jeff stays on the right.

When you go in for a close up, even if Jeff isn't in the shot, he's kept spatially consistent. So if Bob is looking at him, he's looking to the right.

What messes up a lot of people is that they misunderstand the concept of interaction. The apes in at the beginning of '2001, A Space Odyssey' are interacting primarily with the black monolith. So the line is between them and it.

Where this gets tricky is when there are multiple interactions in a scene. The thing to figure out is where the main interaction is and let that drive the line.

Let's say Miss Rutkowski is confronting a room of unruly third-graders. One end of the line goes straight through Miss Rutkowski, while the other end goes through the room of 8-year-olds. When Billy and Steffie pass a note, their line is between them. But you know how the line falls between them because you've established their screen relationship in the wide shot with Miss Rutkowski. So if Steffie is on the right of Billy in the wide shot, you keep her on the right when you come into the two-shot.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But Brian, I want to cross the line. I want to shoot Steffie and Billy passing the note from behind, with the note in the foreground and Miss Rutkowski in the background."

So do it.

This whole line thing is just a way to keep from jarring your viewers. Keeping the main interaction consistent makes it easier for your audience to follow the story when you make a cut. If you have someone looking to the right in one shot and then to the left in another, your viewers are going to have a harder time following what's being said.

So if you want to shoot the note close up in the foreground, it's probably because you want to emphasize the note. You instinctively feel that the image of the note being passed is more important than the dialogue being said.

I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

As if being a good director wasn't hard enough.

I just got back from a week in New York, screening my latest film for ad agencies there.

At one agency, I got applause.

I don’t bring this up to brag, but rather to make a point. But before I get to the point, you’re going to have to sit through a little more background.

The film was the same at all the agencies. The conference rooms I screened in were more or less equivalent. The food was provided by the same caterers. And the people attending--copywriters, art directors, and broadcast producers--were all equally professional, experienced, and talented.

So how come I got applause at one screening and not the others? Here comes the point.

The set up.

In each of the screenings, I set up the film differently. In some, I talked about my experience as a director. In others, I talked about my background in advertising. And in others, I went into a bit about the film.

I’m not going to divulge which approach worked the best, not because I want to keep it secret, but rather because it’s not important. What is important is that the right set up creates a favorable expectation.

I was fortunate. I got to try out different approaches in person and come up with one that led to a really positive reaction.

But even if you’re not presenting your film in person, you’re creating certain expectations for it with every aspect you create. Everything––from the title to the poster to the typefaces you choose––contributes to the perception.

Don’t believe me? Look at Hollywood.

If you go by The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, all anyone seems to care about is a film’s opening weekend.

Guess what. Nobody who goes to a film on its opening weekend has seen it before. So they’re going not because it’s a good film, but because it’s a good marketing campaign.

Marketing creates expectations. In the same way that standing in front of a screen in a conference room does.

This is why Hollywood studios spend as much money on marketing as they do on production. And why so many films open well and then fall off to nothing.

Make a great film. But do an equally great job marketing it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Don't just work against the light. Work with it, too.

A preamble: If you haven’t read my previous blog--the one about working against the light--read that before you read this one. That one is about a fundamental rule. This one is about how to apply it.

Okay. The blog itself: Let’s start with something I said to do in the previous blog. I mentioned that the light comes from behind your subject. And I said that one implied light source makes for both prettier film and easier filming.

A few of my more astute readers raised an important question: “What do you do when you’re shooting two people having a conversation?”

Good question. Most people talk while facing each other, and most filming is done to show people’s faces. So in a scene involving a normal conversation, if somebody is backlit, the other somebody is going to be front lit.

Unless you move the light source, which you don’t. Any kind of movement--and I’m talking about props, actors, and cameras as well as light sources--needs to be motivated. There needs to be a reason. I’ll dwell on that in a future blog, but for now, let’s just call it a law with regard to a light source. The sun doesn’t change position in the sky in the middle of a conversation just so that the person talking looks better. Wherever the sun is, the sun stays. Same for lamps, candles, the moon, and reflections off the water.

So what do you do?

The simple answer is an old Hollywood rule: Put the woman in the more flattering light. Backlight is generally more flattering than front or side light, so that’s where she goes.

The not-quite-as-simple answer has two parts. The first is to light for the wide. The second is to place your actors so that if meaning can be inferred from lighting, the correct lighting falls on the appropriate actor.

Lighting for the wide is something you do anyway. The wide is often called the establishing shot because it establishes where you are, what time of day it is, and what conditions you’re operating under. In a park, late afternoon, winter. Under a bridge, night, raining. That sort of thing.

Once you’ve established your wide, place your actors. But don’t shoot anything until you’ve considered the other shots you’re going to get of them. You’ll probably do a close up on each of their faces, so think about how the light will fall on them when you get there.

You might find that one of them wants to be in shadow because it adds a nice menacing touch to the scene. Or maybe your beautiful actress has just betrayed your actor. She could have side lighting to emphasize what few flaws her porcelain skin has.

No matter what you decide, remember what I said about ambience. Ambience fills shadows. And in a close up, you have permission to fill them a bit. Our eyes see into shadows when we’re close enough to them, so unless you have a good reason for putting big pools of black on screen, brighten them up at least enough to show some detail.

It’s the details that make a difference. And I’m not just talking cinematography, either.