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GO SEE THIS FILM, NOW!

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Anyone who aspires to launch a directing career should get up from their computer right now and go out and see the Dardenne brothers latest film, “The Kid With a Bike”. It is still in theaters nation-wide, but it is in French with English subtitles, so it will be gone in a flash. This film won the Gran Prix at Cannes this year and deservedly so.

Like the five films I cited in my last blog, any aspiring filmmaker could make this film for little or no money because it is 90% people talking in rooms. The most time consuming and difficult shots in “The Kid With a Bike” are the long tracking shots of the protagonist, 11 year old Cyril, furiously pumping along on his bike, but they were all done with a handheld digital camera out of the back of a convertible, and could easily have been shot by any of my students in the film school at Chapman University. Yet, this low budget masterpiece generates as much suspense and narrative drive as a 200 million dollar studio franchise film, by getting us to identify with Cyril, and then dangling the possibility that Cyril, an unloved, abandoned child, could win, or lose, the good love of a very good surrogate mother, Samantha.

The outcome is never certain. Cyril is as prickly as they come. It is not easy for Samantha or the audience to get their arms around him. Eleven years of ricocheting between his unloving father and state-run homes have turned him into a hyper-kinetic, occasionally heartless, human pinball. But the Dardennes manage to credibly connect Cyril’s young life by a thin thread of love to the good Samantha and then dangle it over a black hole of neglect and privation. If the thread holds, he is saved. If it breaks, he is lost. The suspense is palpable. And yet it was generated almost entirely by shooting people talking in rooms. Because in this little film, like the five I cited in my last blog, what’s at stake is love, rather than life and death. For the no-budget filmmaker, love is the answer.

THE ACADEMY GOT IT RIGHT!!!

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The Iranian film “A Separation” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The Academy got that right, but, to my mind, they should have awarded it Best Picture. This film, written and directed by Ashgar Farhadi, makes “The Artist” look like a trifle.

Anyone who wants to launch a directing career should immediately see “A Separation” (while it is still in the theaters) because, in terms of production value, it is absolutely within the grasp of every aspiring filmmaker. It has the narrative drive of a freight train, but it is 90% close-ups and two-shots of people talking in rooms. There are no action sequences, no special effects, no crowds, no production design. If you had Farhadi’s talent, his cast and a capable crew that would work for nothing (and they exist) you could have made this film for $ 10,000. The rest would be history.

On a visual level Farhadi succeeds mostly because he fully understands, as I claimed in an earlier blog, that the most powerful image a filmmaker can put on the screen is the close up of an actor in the throes of intense feeling. The protagonist of “A Separation”, Peyman Moadi, as Nader, speaks volumes by raising his left eyebrow. At the end of the film a judge asks Nader’s ten year old daughter if she wants to live with her mother or her father after they get their divorce. She is framed a close-up against a grey wall. She starts to cry. To my eye, this shot is more powerful than anything in “Avatar”. All you need is a Canon 5D and an actress who can emote as honestly as the girl who plays Nader’s daughter, and you too can put the power of that image on screen.

But what makes “A Separation” a film for the ages is the script. Fahardi’s shining virtue as a film auteur is that, more than almost every filmmaker working today, known or unknown, mainstream or indie, he has the guts to make his hero hugely flawed and his villains amazingly sympathetic. Everybody who sees this film will experience it differently because it works overtime to be as open to interpretation as real life. But in the middle of film, I found myself very much on the side of the protagonist, Nader. His antagonist, Hodjat, struck me as the reincarnation of Mohamed Atta – the fundamentalist crazy who led the 9/11 hijackers. By the end of the film I had to admit, grudging, that Nader had brought much of  his grief on himself, and that Hodjat, while undeniably a little crazy in some scary ways, was just a small man doing all the wrong things for some very understandable reasons.

In my book, this makes “A Separation” as brilliant as “Rashomon” and puts Fahardi in the same league as Sam Peckinpah who is known to have said, “I never had a villain I didn’t love.”

Oscar Hype

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

 

 In my last blog, I explained why I don’t care who wins the Oscars. Bottom line? My personal experience working with hundreds of the 5765 members of the Academy revealed that they are predominately too male, too white, too old and too in love with the films they made in their Hollywood heyday — 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago — to be able to pick the best films and filmmakers of today. Over the past 100 years, the Academy has used the power of media hype to convince the world that all the pretty faces in the front rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar Night are representative of the membership of the Academy. This would make them as young, hip and diverse as any organization on the planet. But, in truth, they are none of the above.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s look at the article published three days ago in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/academy/. The Academy keeps it a secret, so to “unmask Oscar” LA Times reporters, Nicole Sperling and John Horn, “reviewed academy publications, resumes and biographies to confirm the identities of more than 5100” Academy members and found that “Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male…Oscar voters have a median age of 62…People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”

And, most damning, the Times found that only 42% of the members had received a screen credit in the last twelve years. So their careers are over. They are sitting at home. And how great were they at their job when they were working? Not that great – 64% of the Academy have never even been nominated for an Oscar. They are more Deadwood than Hollywood.

This seriously skews the way they pick the Oscar winners. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is what Dave Karger, who is a Senior Writer at Entertainment Weekly and arguably the world’s leading expert on everything Oscar, told Elvis Mitchell today on NPR’s The Treatment, “when I watch a movie I watch it with two eyes. One eye is for the way I would see it, and the other eye is for the way a 60 or a 70 or an 80 year old guy would see it” because that’s how the Academy will vote on it. So when Karger saw an initial screening of “The Artist” he ran to file an article predicting that it would be nominated for Best Picture. Karger and Mitchell agreed with assurance that it will win the Oscar. Mitchell quipped, “I always get the feeling that the film which wins Best Picture is the Best Picture of 1939.  This is why ‘The King’s Speech’ beat out ‘The Social Network’ in 2010.”

The world seems to think that it matters a great deal if a bunch of 60 or 70 or 80 year-old, white guys like “The Artist” and think it’s the best film of 2011. I’m sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

OSCAR NIGHT!!! Do You Care???

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The Oscar nominations have been announced! It is all-Oscar all the time from now until the big night, February 26! You cannot escape it. Every media outlet is abuzz wondering, who will the 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pick to win the Oscars. Do you care?

I used to, until I spent ten years working with hundreds of members of the Academy and got a sense of who exactly makes up this organization and who gets to vote on the Oscars. The Academy will not reveal any detailed information about the demographics of its membership. Why? Because they do not want the public to find out what I discovered when I was working my way up to becoming an episodic TV director.

I did this over a ten year period, toiling as an associate producer on more than a dozen prime time TV shows made at Universal and Fox. I was the last man on the TV assembly line in charge of the hundreds of worker-bee sound-FX, music and dialogue editors who “gang-banged” the hundreds of sound tracks for each episode which were then blended together into a final sound mix on a re-recording stage. Because I was the last man on the assembly line, every delay in preproduction and production came out of the amount time I had to complete the post sound. So by the time the show got turned over to me, the only way to get it done before the air-date was to “gang-bang” it – throw a hundred editors at it and work them around the clock.

The gang-bang would culminate in 24 hour long ordeal of sound mixing. And toward the end of that ordeal it would become apparent that what was holding up the entire process was dialogue track number 2 for reel number 2, commonly referred to as R/2/D/2. (Yes, that’s where George Lucas got the name for the robot.) Or it could have been R/3/FX/23 – reel 3, sound effects track number 23; or R/5/M/1 – reel 5, music track number 1. The bottom line was that whichever editor had built that track for that reel was incapable of doing it correctly, and so we could not mix the reel, finish the re-recording session and go home to bed.

In these cases, I would gather up D/2/D/2 myself, and, as the sun was peaking up above the San Gabriel Mountains, hike across the lot, up three flights of stairs and down the hall looking at the names on the doors to determine behind which of them lurked the genius responsible for prolonging this expensive ordeal. And almost inevitably, when I found his name, it was on a little gold plaque, with an Oscar on it and the initials AMPAS after his name. I would knock. The door would open, and there would stand a humpbacked gnome, under a very bad toupee, wearing a plaid jacket and a striped shirt, peering up at me through his Coke-bottle thick glasses. These, all too typically, were the circumstances under which I came face to face with yet another one of the individuals who have, because of their membership in the Academy, been deemed the ultimate arbiters of award-worthy filmmaking.

This concept is a monument to power of media hype. For almost a hundred years now, the Academy has been promoting itself of being the most discerning body of film critics on the planet, and they have done a brilliant job. They are geniuses in their own mind, and they have sold this entirely subjective rationale to the world.

How do you become one of these self-proclaimed geniuses? You get a credit as the sound-FX editor, assistant director, or camera operator on two theatrically released films and you get a buddy of yours who is already in the Academy to nominate you. That’s it. The Academy would have you believe that their entire membership is made up of all those pretty faces you see in the first rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar night. But the truth is that, like the dialogue editor who could not get R/2/D/2 right, the 6000 members of the Academy are mostly Hollywood deadwood. They have done their little grunt job well enough to earn their two credits, and they are not dead yet. These are self-proclaimed geniuses who determine who wins the Oscars.

Now, do you care?

Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part III)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

In my last two blogs I explained why if you can learn to identify those moments in the script when it makes sense dramatically for your actors to walking and talking side-by-side coming toward the camera, you are well on your way to understanding how to design the best moving shot for a scene.

A great way to acquire this skill is to learn when the converse is true; when this money shot – the side-by-side two shot – does not make sense. For example look at either clip below from Jerry Maguire and notice when Rod or Jerry stop and face each other or when Avery turns and faces Jerry while walking backwards in front of him. When this happens the side-by-side two shot falls apart. You must cut. Why? Because when we are in conflict with someone we want to get in their face and to do this we must stand in front of them (even if, like Avery, you have to walk backwards to do so). And when two actors are face to face, the best way to get two eyes on each of them is to shoot a close up or an over-the-shoulder shot on one and intercut it with the reverse close up or over-the-shoulder on the other. Yes, if you let them turn into a 50-50 profile shot you do not have to cut, but this in an inferior shot for telling the story because you can only see one of each actor’s eyes. The shot-reverse-shot configuration is the best way to tell most of the story in a movie because drama is conflict, and people who are in conflict with each other face each other. The center of the story is in the eyes of the person who is talking. When they stop talking the best way to put both eyes of the person they are talking to up on the screen is with a cut.

So when reduced to its simplest terms – the key to shooting with a moving camera is breaking down the scene and identifying which parts of the scene can be shot with both actors facing the camera and which moments must be shot with them facing each other in a shot/reverse/shot configuration. To begin to get a sense of how this is done look at the entire “Play with Heart” clip from Jerry Maguire starting from the very beginning of the scene when Jerry meets Rod outside the locker room. Cameron Crowe astutely has them in the side-by-side two shot, backing the camera up in front of them, at those moments when the conflict and the drama are least intense: (1) at very beginning of the scene when Rod is bitching about the quarterback and why he doesn’t have the 10 million dollar contract, which he thinks he deserves and (2) when Jerry gets Rod to assure him that “they both have their friend’s hats on” so he can hit Rod with the hard truth about his being “a paycheck player”. To be sure, there is conflict between Rod and Jerry at these moments. Without some conflict you do not have drama. But both of these moments are essentially the prelude to the two beats of peak confrontation, on which the plot turns. First, when Rod asks Jerry, “so why did you get married?” And then laughs derisively at Jerry’s lame answer: “Because she was loyal.” And immediately after this when Jerry, stung by Rod’s derision, tells him: “You’re a paycheck player. You play with your head. Not your heart.” Crowe gets it just right as to when Jerry and Rod need to be facing each other and when they do not. Learn to do the same and you are well on your way to learning how to shoot with a moving camera.

Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part II)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, January 19th, 2012

 

 

When you are making your low-budget, no-budget breakout film and you decide to move the camera you want to design the shot so that it eliminates edits.   In the final cut, the shot should play for as long as possible without a cut.  It is easiest to do this at the beginning of the scene, but you can also do it in the middle, or at the end or throughout the entire scene.

Or you can design your entire movie so that by moving the camera you never have to cut.  Hitchcock did this in 1948 when he made the film Rope.  Why?  For the same reason that Orson Wells designed the opening shot of a Touch of Evil so it goes on for about five minutes and covers a mile of ground, and Scorsese did the amazing continuous shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Brocco walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas and Spielberg did the shot of Tom Cruise and his family escaping an alien invasion in War of the Worlds which lasts for two and half minutes and covers five miles and which you can see in its entirety on seminars page of this website.   Why?  Because all these great directors love moving shots and one unique property of a moving shot is that it can go on, and on (for an entire movie) without a cut.  Whereas static shots run out of information and stop doing a good job of telling the story after four or five seconds.

Therefore, when you expend precious dollars doing a moving shot make sure you get the maximum bang for your buck and design the shot so it does – however briefly – the same thing that Hitchcock, Wells, Scorsese, and Spielberg did so brilliantly in the shots cited above: eliminate edits.  This is how you begin to put yourself in their league.

And this is why the side-by-side two shot is your go-to money shot when you want to shoot a dialogue scene with a moving camera.  As I explained in my last blog, this shot does the best possible job of telling the story because it shows you both eyes of both actors and in a dialogue scene the center of the drama is in the eyes of the person who is talking.

But the other great thing about the side-by-side two shot is that, theoretically, it never has to cut.  The shot can last as long as the actors can continue to walk forward backing the camera up in front of them.  This makes it the ideal shot when the space permits; which is why Cameron Crowe used it in Jerry Maguire in the scene cited in the last blog in which Jerry and Avery break up.  The scene takes place in the monstrous meeting hall of a convention center.   Crowe also used it later in Jerry Maguire when Jerry meets Rod outside the locker room after a game and they cross a wide open space on their way to the team bus while Rod complains to Jerry, “The only reason I am getting my brains blown loose is because you weren’t asshole enough to get me my 10 million three, f***ing months ago.”

The side by side two shot works in both these scenes from Jerry Maguire for two reasons.  First, location.  You have got the real estate to pull it of.  And second and more importantly, there is a good, dramatic reason for the actors to be walking and talking side-by-side.  In the Avery/Jerry scene, Avery turns her back in anger on Jerry while she distributes press kits throughout the convention center.  In the Rod/Jerry scene Rod bitches at Jerry while walking to the team bus.  Jerry, trying to be a good agent, has to tag along and absorb Rod’s abuse.  Once you can identify these kinds of dramatic moments which take place in these kinds of locations you are well on your way to learning how to shoot dialogue with a moving camera.

The Power of the Static Close Up

Posted by Gil Bettman on Monday, December 26th, 2011

It is a well known fact that the static close up is the money shot of a dialogue sequence.  Yet novice filmmakers, like my students in the film school at Chapman, often forget this.  They are too caught by the trend in contemporary film to shoot with a highly energized, constantly moving camera.  All they want to do is make the camera fly around like Tinkerbell.   That’s great; but moving shots are complicated and burn up a disproportionate amount of precious time and money.

Go ahead; move the camera!  But never forget that the cheapest and easiest shot – the static close up – is also the most powerful shot in cinema.   It completely levels the playing field.   A close up in a no budget wonder like Paranormal Activity can be just as compelling as a close up in a mega budget monster like Avatar.  If the script is solid and the actor is delivering a great performance the best way to captivate an audience and tell the story also happens to be the cheapest and easiest.  Simply put the camera in close on the actor’s eyes and hold it there.  This is the no-budget director’s secret weapon.

As animals we are bio-programmed to look into a person’s eyes when they are talking or emoting, because the eyes are best source of the data our brain needs to successfully compute the full meaning of everything which is happening in front of us.  The closer you put the camera to the actor, the bigger the actor’s eyes on the screen, the more data is there for the audience to consume and be affected by the story.

Serge Leone understood this.  In 1964 he had next to no money to make A Fist Full of Dollars.  His lead was an unknown Hollywood contract player named Clint Eastwood.  But Clint had charisma, and Leone realized that when Clint was exuding it, if he put the camera close enough to Clint’s eyes – closer than almost anyone had dared to put it — it would wow the audience.   The rest is history.  Leone’s understanding of the power of the simple static close up made Clint a megastar, created the spaghetti western, and the turned the Fist Full of Dollars trilogy into an international boxoffice phenomenon.   Thus did an unknown director, with next to no money, a passable script, and a lead actor with charisma become a giant in the history of cinema.

Anyone reading this blog can do the same.  And amazingly, in 2012 it is actually easier to do than it was in 1964, because it requires much less money.  Serge Leone had to pay for 35 mm stock and processing.  Now all you need is $ 3000 for a Canon 7D SLR camera, and a DP with talent and you can produce close ups that look just as good on 40 foot high screen as any in A Fist Full of Dollars or Avatar, for that matter.  Truly, the dream is closer at hand than ever before.  You just need the right script, the charismatic actor and the static close up.