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This is a follow-up to my last post (The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words) and it’s advice that comes from three Oscar winners. And it has to do with how you as a director capture wide shots, medium shots, and close-up shots in any given scene.

Director Spike Lee says you not only want to hire a talented director of photography (DP), but one who is also efficient. That’s a big part of what is going to help you keep on schedule and make your days. And the lower the budget, the fewer days you have to shoot your film.

And it’s not only the shooting schedule that’s important. Lee says, “Actors come to the set ready to work.” They’ve already been through hair, makeup, and wardrobe so they don’t want to be sitting in their trailers while the DP tinkers with lighting.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese said that back in the ’80s when he was coming off a lull in his career he had smaller budgets to work. In one case he needed 75 shots in three days, but the budget only allowed for two days so they cut out 25 shots and scheduled to shoot 25 shots per day over the two days they had. The way they kept on schedule was to allow x-amount of time for each shot—10 minutes for one shot, 20 minutes for another, and 45 minutes for a more complicated shot. If they didn’t get what they needed in that time frame, they had to move on.

Oscar winner Jodie Foster drives home the point of how to be efficient in your shooting:

“There are a lot of things that waste time on movies. For example, you have five setups, you have one incredibly wide shot, and the other ones are five little pieces you’re going in for. Your wide shot— you can barely see their mouths move. So please don’t do 25 takes of the entire scene and print them all, and give your actors notes based on this wide shot. You’re probably only going to need one take or maybe two takes. Go in and get the other stuff afterwards and don’t waste all of your time getting the wide shot perfectly. Allow yourself to go in for the other shots.

“With movement very often, when you start a move and you know you’re going to keep this move, you want the beginning of the move and the end of the move. And that means you’re going to be stuck on this shot for the whole thing. If you make that decision that you’re going to keep that shot, then you don’t need those lines for any of the other pieces of coverage. So you don’t need to get everything perfect if you know that you have the money shots or the shots that are really in your head are working. So that’s where a lot of time gets spent, people want everything perfect and they don’t have an understanding of their cutting patterns or their potential cutting pattern. And they heard that old adage ‘Get coverage, get everything. Get every choice you possible have.‘ Large films can afford to not make choices. A little movie—gotta make choices and keep moving on.”
Jodie Foster
Masterclass, Shooting Your Film

So don’t worry about getting every take perfect (it won’t happen anyway), and have a clear vision going into the scene of what you envision the final edited scene to be. Another trick Lee has used throughout his career is to do scenes in one take. Steven Spielberg is a master of the oner–some that are simple and some that are quite complex. (Shots that often involve wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups all in one long take.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Close-up on Opie (Ron Howard)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in Hollywood history. He’s been a  child actor in a classic Tv show (The Andy Griffith Show), a young star actor  (Happy Days), an indie filmmaker (Grand Theft Auto), an Emmy winning producer (From Earth to the Moon), and an Oscar winning producer/director (A Beautiful Mind). He also had the privilege of developing a personal relationship with producer/director George Lucas who directed him in American Graffiti and produced Willow which Howard directed.

So with Howard’s over 50+ solid years of film and television experience here’s a very simple piece of filmmaking advice that I’m calling “The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words (via Ron Howard).” It’s advice that Howard learned first hand from Lucas, and advice that has always stuck with him and that he shares with others as they set out to direct. Here are 91 words that can change your life:

“George Lucas said no well-written scene has ever gone bad because the director staged it and shot it with a wide shot, a medium, and two close ups. If the scene’s well-written, you can just always fall back on that formula and you’ll have the material you’ll need to go into the editing room. Now, if you have an idea or a visual notion that’s more sophisticated that involves camera moves so be it, but you’re not going to ruin the scene because you shot it in a very simple way.”
Ron Howard
Masterclass, Frost/Nixon Staging Review

I learned about wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups in film school and it was called sequencing. Basically getting the coverage you need in a scene that when you go into the edit room you have a variety of shots that allows you to control pacing, visual interest, performance, and dramatic presentation. Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

What constitutes a wide, medium, and a close-up is somewhat subject—and there are variations such as an extreme close-ups)  but this will get you in the ballpark.

MEDIUM CLOSE-UP
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CLOSE-UP (reversal shot of the medium closeup)
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MEDIUM TWO SHOT 
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WIDE SHOT
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MEDIUM SHOT 
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EXTREME WIDE SHOT
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EXTREME CLOSE-UP (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)
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Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

Bigger budget films have tools at their disposal to make very complicated shots (dolly, crane, Steadicam, helicopter, etc) but it still boils down to wide/medium/close-up shots. Even films that where done in one take (Russian Ark) or meant to look like one take (Rope, Birdman) are still a variety of wide, medium, and close-ups.

Watch this evergreen advice played out from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show from the 1960s.

P.S. And wide/medium/close-up is scalable on every kind of production—from the largest blockbuster to the :15 second web spot.

 

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“I saw the beginning of the sixties as a real transition in the culture, because of the Vietnam war and the things we were going through, and I wanted to make a movie about it.”
Director George Lucas on American Graffiti

“References to Modesto abound in American Graffiti, right down to the Ramona Avenue address where Carol lives and where Lucas grew up. The cruising loop, Mel’s Drive-In, Burger City  … the radio station—all have real-life antecedents in the crowded nighttime streets of Modesto in the late 1950s and early ’60s.”
Dale Pollack
Skywalking:The Life and Films of George Lucas
(American Graffiti was shot primarily in San Rafael north of San Francisco)

“I wasn’t thinking about [American Graffiti] when I was writing [Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] but when I made the decision that I can use these [1960s KHJ] commercials—I can use this DJ stuff, we created a really interesting thing in the movie and I can kind of duplicate big chunks of that on the sound track album. And then that brought to mind American Graffiti— we can definitely do this. And then upon realizing that I realized how much the film had actually been influenced by American Graffiti between like characters in cars driving around all day seemingly aimlessly. Right down to the fact that Margaret Qualley’s Mason character Pussycat could be Suszanne Summers in the T-Bird. The girl [Richard Dreyfuss’ character] keeps seeing all over town. …But the thing is that ended up being a seminal album for me when I got it because I had just really started listening to oldies radio—that was during the 50s revival in the 70s—so I’m only like 13. I hadn’t even seen the movie. So  I’m loving the American Graffiti soundtrack on its own. I didn’t see the movie until it was re-released after Star Wars which was like ‘78.
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino
Soundtracking, Episode 155, podcast interview with Edith Bowman 

You could also argue that the Margaret Qualley character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is closer Mackenzie Phillips’ character in American Graffiti. The underage girl  that ends up driving the Modesto, California strip in cool guy Paul Le Mat’s hot rod.

P.S. The layers of Once Upon a Time go on and on. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips  who wrote the songs on the  Once Upon a Time … soundtrack.Twelve Thirty recorded by the Mama’s and the Papa’s which he was a part of, and California Dreamin’ with Michelle Phillips (the Jose Feliciano version was used in the movie).

This isn’t the place to dive deep into the connections between John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, but let’s just say there’s no prince in shining armour in that group. I prefer Tarantino’s “fable”—as he calls his movie.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“It’s not your job to create your vision. It’s your job to have a vision.”
Terry Gilliam

Two of the most unusual moviegoing experience of my life were the works of the same director. The first was when I was in high school and went to see Jabberwocky (not a good first date film) and the second was in my early twenties when I went to a screening on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank of Brazil. Both were the vision of writer/director Terry Gilliam.

Before Quentin Tarantino made his first film he’d seen enough movies to know there was a wide variety of ways movies could look. He particluarly studied low-budget films because he knew if he ever got his chance to make a feature that the budget would be closer Blood Simple than Heaven’s Gate.  He knew what he wanted his films to look like someday, but he didn’t know how to accomplish his vision. Just before he made Reservoir Dogs he was chosen to attend the Sundance Labs in Utah where one of the people he got to work with was the writer/director Terry Gilliam. (And this was at a time when Gilliam was coming off of directing The Fisher King.)

So Tarantino was able to ask Gilliam how he was able to get such a consistent look in his movies.

“Terry you have a direct cinematic vision in your movies. And it goes from movie to movie to movie —how do you do that? And he goes, ‘Quentin maybe because you’ve never been on a film set before maybe you don’t understand how it works so let me explain this to you a little bit. It’s not your job to create your vision. It’s your job to have a vision. And it’s your job to hire talented individuals, to hire talent artists who understand your vision. And you articulate it to them and then they take vision and they create it. . . .  Your vision is still a two-dimensional vision. They will take the different elements of your vision and make it three-dimensional. And then you’ll get back more than you gave them. And then you’ll know more about what you’re talking about. And then the vision will get filled in. You think you have to do everything and you don’t. You don’t need to know anything about sewing to have wonderful costumes in your film, you just need to express what you want to the costume designers. You don’t need a degree in engineering to have wonderful sets in your pieces. You need to be able to describe what you want. You don’t need to know how to take a bunch of different light stands to create a different effect. That’s not your job! You don’t need to know any of that. You need to have a vision, and you need to know how to express it.’”
Quentin Tarantino on meeting Terry Gilliam
UCLA talk in 2016

I hope when the DVD comes out on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood comes out that it’s full of clips of the behind the scene team at work helping Tarantino realize his vision.

Scott W. Smith

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Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida was once known as “The Harlem of the South” referring to the African-American renaissance going on in Harlem, New York mostly in the 1920s and 30s. A time of intellectual, social, and artistic explosion.

That creative expression was also experienced on a smaller level in the LaVilla area in what’s now part of downtown Jacksonville. There were clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for blacks in the “separate but equal” era of racial segregation.  The Ritz Theatre and Museum in the above photo was built in 1999 on the original site of the Ritz movie theater. (The sign is part of the original building.)  A young Ray Charles performed there and author Nora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked around the corner at the Clara White Mission while living with an uncle in the area.

The Ritz Theatre was one of the stops on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where black entertainers traveled between places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and Royal Theatre in Chicago. Dates vary, but that period appears to have lasted from the early 1900s though the early 1960s.

There were a couple of movie theaters in the LaVilla area including The Strand Theatre which was built as a vaudeville theater in 1915 and became an African American theatre showing movies. (To read more of the movie history visit The Lost Theatres of LaVilla.)

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The Stand Theatre

According to the book Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbera Tepa Lupack in 1914 there were only 238 theaters in the United States that catered to exclusively black patrons (compared to “32,000 white houses”). Most of those theaters catering to blacks showed traditional Hollywood movies. But after D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (a movie said to give rise to an almost dead KKK movement) there was a push to make what was known as race films or race movies.

John Noble and Rex Webster made The Birth of a Race as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film premiered in 1918 at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater. It was nowhere as widely seen (or praised) as Birth of a Nation—nor as technically proficient. But it was a response to make films that did not show a stereotypical view of blacks. One that resonates today. And one that was addressed in Robert Townsend’s 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle. (A film I’ll write about later this month since it influenced a young Quentin Tarantino.)

Producer, writer, director Oscar Micheaux (The ExileHarlem After Midnight) is considered the first successful African-American feature filmmaker and I like to point out that his first film (The Homesteader) based on his novel was shot in Gregory, South Dakota and…wait for it—Sioux City, Iowa.

Few of the race films in their entirety survive to this day. But I was able to see one this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. The Cade Museum showed all six reels of The Flying Ace (1926) which was billed on the original poster as featuring an “ALL ALL-COLORED CAST.”

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The film was written and directed by Richard E. Norman. I wonder if he ever crossed paths with Micheaux. Before Norman moved to Florida he lived in Iowa (I swear I don’t make this stuff up) and had a company called Capital City Film Manufacturing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. One of his business cards stated, “Director and Photographer of Successful Photoplays Featuring Home Talent, Des Moines, Iowa.”

Apparently he did advertising, industrial films, and recorded special events throughout the Midwest. He did well enough that he had his own laboratory in Des Moines to develop his film. He also was resourceful enough to make short films with local talent in various cities and then show the films at a local theater and make a lion share of the 60/40 spilt with the movie theater.

But he moved to Jacksonville, Florida and opened Norman Studios and eventually began using his talent to make race films. He also happened to be white. At the screening Sunday his grandson was on hand to introduce the screening of The Flying Ace. 

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Live music accompanied the screening of The Flying Ace.

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The buildings of Norman Studios survive to this day and a non-profit organization has been set-up to preserve its history. If you look at the map below you’ll see that Norman Studios was located less than five miles from where the Ritz Theatre now stands.

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Google Earth screen capture

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And because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s Tarantinoverse parts of The Flying Ace were shot in Mayport just outside of Jacksonville. The Navel Station Mayport is located there and if you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff you may remember that Wolfe starts out discussing Navy life in Mayport/Jacksonville and begins with a gruesome plane crash of Navy jet in the swamp area around Mayport. (See the top right area of the above map.) Here are the first few paragraphs of The Right Stuff:

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The wives of the young jet pilots were calling each other to see if they’d heard what had happened “out there” until an officer would arrive at one of the homes and begin with “I’m sorry….” I don’t recall that part being in the 1983 film version The Right Stuff. 

But perhaps it will be touched on in the Tv mini-series of The Right Stuff that is being set-up at Universal Studios Orlando. (Just a few miles down the road from where I’m writing this post.) One of the producers is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Rick Dalton in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Here are some other posters from the race film The Green Eyed Monster that Norman produced that perhaps can serve as inspiration to Tarantino’s 10th and final film before he retires from feature filmmaking.

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P.S. Yes, I am aware that other places considered themselves “The Harlem of the South” so no need to write me about that.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Long ago I embraced grown the coninsidence that happens occationally on this blog. Yesterday’s post touched on the period in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an influx of Haitian and Cuban refugees to Miami. I even included a photo I took during that era in Hialeah, Florida.

Early this morning I happened to be listening to an interview with actor/director Vincent  D’Onofrio who’s life was changed as a ten-year old in Hialeah went he learned to do magic tricks from Cuban enterainers who’d immigrated to the United States and opened  a magic shop near D’Onofrio’s home. It was his introduction to the entertainment industry.

The above still frame features D’Onofrio as Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket in an iconic scene with Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). It was D‘Onofrio’s film debut and he spent 13 months on the shoot and this is one of the key take aways he learned from director Stanley Kubrick:

“Once you’ve worked with [Stanley Kubrick] it’s difficult to move a camera unless it’s helping tell the story. You don’t move the camera for the sake of moving it.”
Vincent D’Onofrio
Podcast interview on WTF with Marc Maron

In a day and age where moving the camera is pretty easy to do, it’s especially good to think through why you’re moving the camera. Here are some videos I found online of the photojournalist turned filmmaker Kubrick at work on various movies.

Scott W. Smith

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Netflix released Steven Soderbergh‘s new movie High Flying Bird today and I actually watched it this morning before work. One of the remarkable things about the film is it was shot on an Apple iPhone 8, with the FiLMiC pro app and Moondog Labs lenses.

It’ll take me some time to process the film, but it’s a little bit Jerry MaguireHoop Dreams meets Moneyball North Dallas Forty. Add a dash of Willie Morris’ book The Courting of Marcus Dupree, the Ken Burns documentary Baseball and Spike Lee themes and the movie—to borrow Marvin Gaye’s enduring song— asks the question “What’s Going On?”

What’s going on in the NBA? What’s going on in professional sports?

It would appear that the movie, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, aims at ruffling feathers. We’ll see how that plays out. It’ll be interesting to see if LeBron James and other current NBA stars comment on the movie. It may even be more interesting what college basketball stars take away from the film, and what college economics professors have to add to the discussion.

But for now, let’s stick with Soderbergh’s role as a disruptor in the film business. He had a healthy enough budget ($1.5 million-ish) to shoot with Arri or RED high-end cameras but chose the iPhone partly because of how fast he could shoot with it. High Flying Bird was shot in 13 days with Soderbergh operating camera and directing, and a first cut was finished on a laptop with Adobe Premiere just hours after shooting wrapped.

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I watched High Flying Bird on an iPhone and it looked great. I’m not sure what it looks like on larger screens, but my guess is most watching won’t notice. But imagine what will happen in the near future when mobile phones have larger sensors to improve the image even more?

And even though technical people who only focus some problems inherent to shooting on an iPhone, may be missing the disruptive message of the movie matching the Soderbergh’s choice to shoot with an iPhone.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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