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Talking About Sex

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Want to make a film for no money which gets theatrical distribution and launches you into the elite cadre of working directors? Do as Stephen Soderbergh did with “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, or Alfonso Cuaron did with “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Write a script which is at least 50% people talking about sex.

“Sex has been a topic of unerring interest to mankind throughout the ages.” So stated Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan in the opening line of his opinion which lifted the obscenity ban on James Joyce’s classic novel, “Ulysses”.

And yet, Hollywood never gets sex right. They rarely get it right when they show couples having sex, and I will explain why in a coming blog.

But they also almost never even dare to make movies in which people talk, honestly, and at length, about sex. Despite the hot buzz on the surface, this country is deeply puritanical down to its roots. So films about sex are risky, and Hollywood is risk-adverse. Yet, as Justice Brennan wisely observed, sex is a topic which people (including the puritans) the world-over, are, to say the least, fascinated by. Obsessed with, is probably more accurate. This opens up a huge window of opportunity for every no-budget filmmaker. Do as Soderbergh and Cuaron did. Put a sexy girl up on screen, talking honestly and openly about sex with a sexy guy, when the subtext is very clearly, “Are we going to have sex?” and people will pay good money to come see it. The successful release of “Sex Lies and Videotape” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” proves this emphatically.

The hard part, as always, is the script. But, as I have explained in my previous blogs, make that which is at stake love. Create a likeable protagonist who, as the story advances, can either win or lose more and more good love. And have this take place in a believable human context which necessitates honest conversations about sex.

Soderbergh hits the sweet spot in “Sex, Lies and Videotape” by making his protagonist, Graham, impotent. So, as Graham (the very sexy and handsome young James Spader) openly admits to Cynthia (the very sexy and young Laura San Giacomo) he “gets off” video-taping women describing their sex lives. And then he tapes her. And Soderbergh puts it on film and picks up the Audience Award at Sundance.

In “Y Tu Mama Tambien” Cuaron lights the fuse on a sexual time bomb when his female lead, a beautiful 30-something woman, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to have one last fling and gets in a car for extended road trip with two sixteen year old boys who have just one thing on their minds. They light a joint and start talking. Cuaron puts it on film and then gets hired to direct the next mega-budget Harry Potter flic.

People talking about sex costs next to nothing to put on the big screen. As anyone who has made a movie can attest, nothing is cheaper and easier to do than shoot static two-shots and close-ups of people talking. But that talk can propel a movie to greatness if a lot of good love is on the line, and the guy is sexy and the girl is sexy and the subtext is “Are we going to have sex?”

Run Your Hero Off a Cliff

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Both the Dardenne brothers, and my other hero filmmaker of the moment, Ashgar Farhadi, front load the stakes in their love stories. They fully understand that the more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the greater the narrative drive and suspense. So they don’t wait around to put a lot of love on the line.

At the very beginning of the Dardennes’ latest film, “The Kid With a Bike” when we meet the protagonist, Cyril, he is biting, kicking and fighting his way out the grasp of the counselors in a foster care farm and hurling himself out of windows, over walls and down the road on his bike, determined to reunite himself with the father who has cast him off like an old shoe. The Dardennes immediately run their young hero off a cliff and leave him there flailing in mid-air like Wily Coyote. We see the abyss open up beneath him. We pray he won’t fall, but we know he must, and we know the landing will hurt. Nothing hurts like a parental slight, and the slight Cyril’s father seems poised to deal him would destroy any one of us. So we dread its inevitability, even as we pray that it can be averted. This all happens in the first act and launches the audience headlong into the film.

Similarly, Farhadi starts his masterpiece, “A Separation”, in medias res. When we meet the main character, Nader, his wife, Simin, is putting an emotional gun to his head by threatening to divorce him unless he leaves Iran with her. Nader insists that he must stay in Iran so he can care for his father, who is increasingly crippled by Alzheimer’s. Unmoved, Simin moves out of their apartment, leaving Nader alone to care for his ailing father and their twelve year old daughter, Termeh.

Now the gun which Simin has pointed at Nader’s head is loaded with the bullet of Termeh’s love. Clearly, Simin’s agenda is to divorce Nader, leave Iran, and convince Termeh to come with her. To do this she must first win out over Nader in a contest for their daughter’s love. To compete, Nader must keep working at the bank so he can offer his daughter as much in material comfort as his angry wife whose family is very wealthy. At the same time, he must fulfill the role of mother and father for Termeh and serve as competent 24/7 caregiver for his father. Or he might lose his daughter forever.

To meet this test, Nader, hires a woman who is a virtual stranger, Razieh, to come to his apartment to care for his father when he is out working. Razieh is desperately poor, illiterate, and an absolute fundamentalist Muslim. And under her burka she is four months pregnant – a secret she hides from Nader. The hiring of Razieh is the inciting incident of “A Separation”. It happens twenty minutes into the film and it results in a world of grief for Nader.

In this, Fahardi is working from the same play book as the Dardennes. Show us a good man who wants desperately to be a good father and a good son. And immediately align powerful forces against him which conspire to take all the good love out of his life.

Again, if you make love what’s at stake rather than life and death you can power your film forward with as much narrative drive as any film made for any price. But part of the trick is do as Fahadi and the Dardennes do, and front load your script by putting as much good love on the line as fast a possible.

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.

JIGGLE IS GOOD

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Just to make sure I got it right in my last blog, I went out and saw “A Separation” for a second time. I got it right. If you aspire to break through like the Coens did with “Blood Simple” or Tom McCarthy did with “The Station Agent”, which is to say, if you will max out your credit cards to make an ultra, low budget feature with your name on it as writer and director, you must go see “A Separation”. This film should become your Holy Grail, because, as I said in my last blog, a movie on this scale is within the reach of every aspiring filmmaker. It is 90% close ups and two-shots of people talking in rooms.

Far too many of my students in the film school at Chapman University have been weaned on the big Hollywood franchise films – Batman, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. When they set out to make their first great film, they try to make a scaled-down version of one of these monster budget films. This is a formula for disaster. If you want to launch your career as a director you must think in terms of stories which can generate narrative drive by showing people talking in rooms. More about the key to this kind of small scale story telling in a later blog.

As a visual stylist, Fahardi is completely current. He knows perfectly well that contemporary audiences, whether they are sitting in a theater in Tehran or Topeka, will get bored and tune out if he does not present them with a kinetic image. So, when it enhances the story, he moves his camera. He does this the cheapest way possible – by hand holding the camera. Interestingly, when the story does not call for camera movement, he often continues to hand hold the camera and shoots many shots which are otherwise static with a hand held camera. By continuing to hand hold he introduces a slight jiggle into the shot which keeps the frame energized.

Thirty years ago, when I started my career as a director, this little bit of jiggle was unacceptable. If you were gunning to make a film which would be shown in theaters or on mainstream TV you expended a lot of time and money to make sure the product was jiggle free. Static shots had to be rock solid static and moving shots had to be mirror smooth. Then, starting with “NYPD Blue” and continuing up to “CSI”, mainstream TV cop shows went completely handheld. Audiences started developing a taste for a little jiggle in the frame. Then director Paul Greengrass pushed this trend into theatrical features by shooting all the “Bourne Identity” films handheld. Now what was once eschewed is considered a plus. A little jiggle is good.

Fahardi is completely down with this trend. Because jiggle is now good, the cheapest and easiest way to move the camera is now sexy. This is a win-win for anyone with little or no money to spend who wants to make a film which will rock the world. Fahardi has done it in “A Separation.” By following his example, you too can do it. Jiggle your way to the top!

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.

Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part I)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

If you are going to make it to the top as a director in today’s film industry you have to learn how to shoot with a moving camera.  All of today’s top directors move the camera as much as time and money allow.   In Avatar. Cameron never stops moving the camera.   On your breakout film, you will not have the budget to keep the camera in constant motion like Cameron.  But you must move it as much as you can afford, because if you don’t, your agent will not be able to use your breakout film to get you work.

When I teach a seminar it takes me about four hours to explain the basics of how to shoot with a moving camera.  But here is a simple tip to jump start the process.

Drama is conflict.  Nothing is more boring than watching two people agree with each other.  So every dialogue scene involves an argument, of some sort.  When people argue, they tend to stand nose to nose.  They get in each other’s face.  So if you want to move the camera, have one them turn their back in anger and walk away.

This is what Avery does in Jerry Maguire, when Jerry and Avery are on the verge of breaking up.  She asks Jerry, “What was our deal when we got together?  Brutal truth.  Remember.”  And walks away from him.   Jerry follows her, stating, “I think you added the brutal.” The camera now has to back up in front of them to keep them both in frame.

The resulting shot – the side-by-side two shot with both actors coming toward the camera is the money shot in any dialogue scene that you want to shoot with a moving camera.  The center of the drama in a dialogue scene is in the eyes of the person who is talking.  This is because human beings are hard-wired to look at that spot on a movie screen.  The beauty of the side-by-side two shot is that it shows the audience both eyes of both actors.   It presents the audience with the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted through the eyes.  So it does the best job possible of telling the story – without cutting.

Telling the story is of paramount impotence.  The extent to which you do that successfully will determine the extent of your success as a director.  But not cutting is also important when you move the camera.  Why?  We will get to that in the next blog.