Lessons Learned on a Film Set

Earlier this week I had the privilege of helping on set for the film Anomaly. There is an incredible lineup of talented filmmakers involved in this project, so it was an honor for me to be a part of it. To date it’s the biggest production I’ve worked on, so there was a lot to learn. As usual I took notes in my Moleskine of the things I observed every day.

AnomalyOn-set Continue reading

Accumulate Experiences

This is the first post in the series called Don’t Hog your Journey.

I was seconds away from clicking “Publish” on a new batch of photos when suddenly things started making a lot more sense… I had to rewind all the way back to September 2009, but it seems to be the right place to start this series.

A book publisher asked me to review a book titled The Power Filmmaking Kit for a small stipend. Since I never did get around to blogging about it before now, I have the advantage of seeing how it has affected me. Not even half a dozen pages into the book I read something that has changed my outlook ever since:

Good films are born from real experiences. Therefore, accumulate experiences. (paraphrased)

This idea got under my skin and challenged me to explore life in a new way. I’m realizing now that this has been the driving force in my decision making lately, so I figured it would be helpful to let you know where I’m coming from. For better or worse I have spent the last 18 months chasing experiences of all kinds. I’ve tried my best to capture them with my camera and Moleskine, and now I’m excited to share them with you here.

The first stop of our journey takes us to the Big Apple…

Perspective on VW’s Darth Vader Commercial

By now you’ve probably all seen the fantastic commercial by Volkwagen featuring the pint sized Darth Vader struggling to use The Force as he roams around the house. But what you probably never paid attention to were the camera angles they used:

Now, the thing I want to point out is how intentional they were in choosing the perspective for each shot. It starts with a very low vertical panning shot. This immediately distinguishes him as a prominent, powerful individual regardless of the fact that he’s probably 4 years old and 3 feet tall. That said, the right camera angle can in fact make you look younger, thinner, more powerful, and all that. The trick is to learn how to communicate that from the right perspective. (Hint: photographers would do well to study cinematography.)

Also, notice the camera height on the majority of the shots. Almost all of them were shot at the kid’s eye level, and that was by no means an accident. This helps bring the audience into his world and see things as he does. The number one mistake I see in photographs of children is that the photographer was too lazy to kneel down and see eye-to-eye with them. Do yourself (and your subject) a favor and put yourself in their shoes. Your images will be much better for it. (Hint: This also applies when shooting animals.)

There are two shots taken from a higher perspective, and there is very good reason for those as well. Around the 8 second mark he is wielding his powers against an object much bigger than him. By shooting from high above and looking down they exaggerate the proportions and communicate that this little kid isn’t one to back down from a challenge. He’s shooting for the moon. Then halfway through the commercial they include a shot looking down on him in the kitchen almost as if to remind us that his mom is just humoring him. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that these two scenes appear when they do. There’s a timing and sequence to it all.

Even the shot of him running past his dad is still on his level. Heck, his dad’s head is cut out of the frame because it’s not important. The story is all about the boy; there is enough context to communicate that the man is his father, but everything beyond that is unnecessary. Find your story or subject and then keep the audience’s attention focused on that.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

I’m not even sure where to begin…

I dream of being a filmmaker. For now, I’m a photographer.  And lately I’ve had an unshakable desire to pursue filmmaking again. Then this book came in the picture, and now I’m really not comfortable with things.

One of the decisions I made was that I need to attend one of Robert McKee’s Story seminars.  The only problem is the timing.  He only does two seminars a year in North America.  The first one is wrapping up today (likely as I am typing this); the second one happens in New York City this week.

When I first saw the schedule two weeks ago I looked at my calendar and my wallet thinking it probably won’t happen this year, but I haven’t been able to get the thought out of my head that I need to go.  I honestly can’t tell if it’s an act of faith or selfish ambition, but at very least I feel compelled to let my thoughts out.  Maybe God will use this simple post to encourage someone else, or make a connection, or kick me in the pants, or, or or…. who knows.  Either way, I’ve got to do something with this desire to make films, and this is a small step in that direction.

Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer

Two nights in a row I have successfully made it to the theater without having heard a word about either film I was about to see.  In keeping with this “unpoisoned well” mentality I will refrain from commenting.  …until after the link below.

SPOILER ALERT!! For realz, if you haven’t seen the movie then you shouldn’t read this one yet. Continue reading

Movie Review: Away We Go

I had been looking forward to seeing Away We Go since I first saw the trailer a few months back.  It seemed like it would be an enjoyable and simple story; and I fell in love with the song “All My Days” by Alexi Murdoch that is featured in it.  Last night I finally saw the film, and I thought I’d take a few minutes to write down what I gleaned from it.  More thoughts after the jump.

SPOILER ALERT!  I’m just sayin’… Continue reading

University of Barnes and Noble

About seven years ago I enrolled myself in the University of Barnes and Noble (UBN). It’s not very well accredited, and the classes are incredibly small; but they have some of the best teachers in the world and it’s far cheaper than any other college you’ll find.  For two years that was how I studied and learned everything I know about photography, animation, and visual effects.

The next five years were spent building my business, and I’m pleased to announce that Mud Productions turned 5 years old last February.  Lately, however, I’ve been feeling like I need a sabbatical. I’ve lasted for five years on the knowledge I had when I began, but now I want to pour myself into books and learn as much as I can so that I can take my business and my talent to the next level.

I think these feelings are very common in any creative profession. We hit a glass ceiling; we can see where we want to be but often feel limited by our experience, money, or knowledge.  We fight these feelings until the busy season comes and we are inundated with work.  It pays the bills, and we are thankful for the opportunity to do creative work, but that longing to do more and greater things hasn’t gone away.

…and so the cycle continues.

Until we reach the point where we are motivated to make a change, we will keep getting what we’ve always gotten.

For me, that point came recently and I’ve decided to enroll in another semester at UBN.  I’ve narrowed my curriculum to three main topics: Finances, Photography, and Filmmaking.

Quite possibly the hardest thing about studying at UBN is that you will only get as far as your self-discipline will allow.  Just because I have decided to read some books doesn’t inherently mean that I will be a better photographer or businessman.  Knowledge is useless until you put it into action.

For the next few months you can expect to see a lot more book reviews posted here. In an effort to put my knowledge into action I will undertake a small project and post it online every time I finish a book (this will be easy for the photography books, but I will have to get creative with the financial ones!)

What about you?  What do you feel is holding you back from doing what you want to do?

The Corroded Compass

I saw The Golden Compass last Friday in spite of all the warnings I heard telling me not to see it. I came away with a few thoughts –mostly from a filmmaking perspective– so I figured I’d channel them here.

I’m just gonna come out and say it: the film blows. Visually speaking, it’s quite impressive –it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but still, the guys who did the effects and animation deserve a round of applause. However, that’s all the credit I think it deserves.

If this movie succeeds at the box office it’s only because of its advertising. Even then I suspect the DVD sales will be rather pathetic. If last weekend’s box office numbers are any indication (a mere $25.7 million), the movie is far from being a success.

Based on what I’ve heard about the books, it’s an atheistic fantasy targeted at children. A sort of counterattack to Narnia, if you will. The first thing I noticed is that it was too broad and too shallow. They tried to create a rich fantasy world on par with Lord of the Rings or at least Narnia, but in doing so it felt too forced and superficial. This caused me to disconnect myself from the story at a couple points. I became disinterested and bored once I realized how shallow and illogical everything felt.

I thought maybe it was just me who didn’t “get it” until the movie was over. The music swells into something triumphant as the screen fades to black. In that moment before the credits began to roll I found myself wondering, “Is it really over? I feel like I’m missing something?” Then I heard about half a dozen people within earshot of me saying, “That’s it??” It leaves you hanging not in suspense but in confusion.

Granted, the movie is part of a trilogy. The story really isn’t finished yet, so in that regard it makes sense that it didn’t feel complete. However, a good storyteller (say, Tolkien or JK Rowling) knows how to lead an audience through parts of a story in such a way that they can stand on their own. That’s simply not the case with TGC.

My confusion about the film led me down another rabbit trail. “If this is aimed at children, then why am I having such a hard time understanding it?” Children’s stories need to be simple. There’s nothing simple about this movie.

As humans we have an inherent perception of the “story” built into us; this is especially true with children. You’ve got hero, the villain, and the reward. The hero must defeat the villain to get the reward. It’s good vs bad. Black and white. Simple.

However, the message behind TGC is atheism. Children are not naturally atheists; that’s just not how we’re wired. Atheism is complicated. When you take God out of the picture you’re left with a lot of explaining to do. That’s exactly the case with this movie. In order for it to make sense, it must be terribly complicated. And it is just that: terrible and complicated.

Where are the forceful men?

Over the past several weeks I’ve received many emails about the movie “The Golden Compass.” Christian activists jumped all over this film and the books that preceded it. They warned of an overtly atheistic message, and they told families to stay far away from it this Christmas season.

So what did I do? I went to a matinée showing opening day.*

I first heard of this movie from a well-intended Christian organization, and immediately I felt like we’ve missed the point. Rather than providing a solution all I heard was them telling us that we should avoid the problem. “Let’s boycott it. That’ll show ’em!” If that is our best defense then I suggest we go ahead and throw in the towel. We are inadvertently giving them the victory if we don’t even show up to fight.

If the Kingdom of God is “forcefully advancing” then we are lagging behind by choosing to hold our ground.

As for The Golden Compass, I say “Bring it on! Do your worst.” This sort of thing should cause us as Christians to rise to the challenge, not back away from it. Let’s turn our criticisms into creations, and show the world that God is the Author of creativity. Criticize by creating!