Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back to (Film) School

I have just completed a condensed film course at the London Film Academy. It was only a week long, but somewhere a time-dilation took place and we managed to squash in about 6 months of material.

As a result of my one-week course, I am now an expert in all aspects of film-making, and may now point at cinema screens and exclaim, "Oh, nicely done, Quentin" or, "What were you thinking, Mr Spielberg?" with a sense of fraternal entitlement.

I wish.

Instead, I now have a new-found respect for all crew and cast on even the tackiest, most inept atrocities committed to celluloid (Mr Boll - call me now so we can share a bottle of wine and weep together over the beauty of your work).

Most surprisingly, knowing what I know (that film-making is impossible) I realise that all films must be imaginary. All of them. Star Wars? I made it up, mate. Never 'appened.

You do not concur? How can I convince you? Ah! Let us examine the plight of the 'focus puller' as an example of film-making's impossibility.

The focus puller is the chap responsible for keeping the camera in focus at all times. As a humbler member of the pseudo-military film-making hierarchy, your average focus puller is not allowed to look into the camera viewfinder. Ever. It's practically a firing offense. He is also not supposed to look at the director's monitor either, as that's not a true representation of what is in focus. Despite this, he is expected to keep the camera in focus at all times, leaving the camera operator to concentrate on framing and keeping the camera-hogging boom-mike out of shot (anyone see the original cut of Arachnophobia? I swear the boom mike should have had top billing).

So what does this poor unfortunate use in order to keep the camera in focus? What sophisticated technologies does he employ to work his craft? Does he staple a bat to the side of the camera and listen to its plaintive cheeps in order to determine the distance to the actor's nearest eye? Perhaps he employs a laser sight with a specific focal range, like a redneck rifleman at an Obama health-care-policy press-conference?


He uses a tape measure.

The poor bugger runs around on the set, placing himself approximately where the actors plan to be, measures how far it is from there to the camera, then uses a pen to mark the position on his white focus wheel. He repeats this for every mark the actor plans to hit.

When the action starts and the (expensive) film stock is being recorded to, he wiggles the wheel around trying to match up to the marks he made previously at the appropriate times, ensuring that the in-between-points are also in focus. If the actors miss their marks by a bit - which they will - he has to... um... guess how far they are from the camera.

Yes, that's right. Guess.

This is only one small part of the insanity that is film-making. I can add others: having to load camera film with your hands thrust through holes in a small black bag (note: if you have a bit of fluff in the bag with you, it's likely to end up on film more than the actors or even the boom-mike).


Of course all these screw-ups (focus, fluff and the rest) are only discovered once the film has been developed. This is usually when the actors have gone home, and long after you've lost that 4 hour slot where the local council shut down Oxford Street for your car-chase.

I can now see why David Lynch said he's never using film ever again.

This insanity is not limited to the shooting period. Production is equally demanding. As a producer you need to be able to read a script and spot every single cost involved.

Say one scene in your opus, 'Cockneys Tighten Their Bottom Lips and Point at Each Other a Lot,' features a car chase scene in Oxford Street. The scene also has a live chicken in it. In the scene a car drives up the side of Next and onto the top of a double-decker bus, but note it also has a chicken in it.

As a producer, you need to look at that scene and spot that that you now require an 'animal wrangler'. You then have to find your chicken-specialist-animal-wrangler, ask if he's available, find out his hourly fee, factor that into the cost of the scene and return to the director to tell him he can only have one car in his car chase because the chicken costs too much to shoot. Or that the car will have to bypass next and drive up the side of Primark instead.

So production is also impossible.

While on my course, I was also surprised to learn that a director has relatively little to do with the cameras, instead focusing on the actors' performance. The overall 'look' is very much down to the director of photography's efforts.

I also realised that writers are rarely consulted in the development process after the screenplay is finished, regardless how much the film might be their idea. I think this might be a recurring theme throughout all aspects of the entertainment industry.

So, other than scaring small baby jesuses out of me, what else did I learn?

The course covered writing for cinema, how to direct actors without annoying them, how to ensure your shots are not ambiguous (you might see a piece of paper and know it's a death threat, 'cos you wrote the script, but the audience will just see a piece of paper), lighting, camera operation, editing, sound recording and production.

I'd love to say that all this learning culminated in a day of actual film-making, but that would be a lie. We filmed our scripts after only 3 days of lectures. For the shoot, we needed to have the final draft of the script worked out, discussed and agreed upon in advance, which necessitated home-work.

My group partner, Lucy Wigmore, and I made a short film called 'Sign Language'. It was the touching story of a poor, abused, emotionally fragile female hand, and a boisterous, initially insensitive male hand, and how the two of them close the massive emotional divide between them. It lasts just over 1 minute. I'm quite pleased with the result, but can't share it because there's a chance it could be entered into a festival (and festivals discount anything publicly available including YouTube, or HateTube as it is rapidly becoming).

Overall, this course made me realise how leisurely and stress-free our little corner of the entertainment industry is by comparison.

Just think; in videogames, if you screw up, you might have to stay late one evening to fix the mistake. In film, you have to explain to a producer and an irate director how the entire set has to be re-built from scratch because your hands were a bit fluffy when you loaded the film and Mr Lint now has a starring role.

Finally, I must thank our DoP, Mark Carey, from whom I learned a valuable piece of movie lingo.


'Ow. Ow! OOWWWW!!!'


'Please remove this crocodile clip from my finger. You have just clamped it to the hottest light on set.'

Sorry, Mark.


On an unrelated note, this is a lovely example of the sort of thing that got me into coding in the first place.