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“We didn’t do any color filtration….”
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on shooting Ford v Ferrari

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Ford v Ferrari: To get that golden look (without filters or visual effects), you have to shoot at the golden (or magic) hour

Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron once said that the problem with filmmaking is there is “never enough time or money.” While I was reading this morning about the making of Ford v Ferrari that Cameron quote popped into my mind.

When I lived in LA in the eighties there was a remote area just outside of the edges of the San Fernando Valley called Agua Dulce.  Because it’s still in LA County (yet very unlike most of LA, movies like Blazing Saddles and 127 Hours were shot there. I did some rock climbing and photography there. Fast forward 30+ years and the surrounding area is no longer remote. That poses some challenges to those wanting to shoot there.

They filmed parts of Ford v Ferrari in what is known as the Antelope Valley at the Agua Dulce Airport near Lancaster/Rosamond/Palmdale, CA. An area now with a population of over 300,000 people.

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“At Agua Dulce, because of noise restrictions, we could only shoot until 10 p.m. — and since it was late summer, we couldn’t start rolling on our night work until 8 p.m.. So each day we’d have a two-hour window to complete our night work.”
Phedon Papamichael
American Cinematographer
“Lap of Honor” by David Hearing
December 2019, pages 40-42

If a $100 million budget has limitations (or $200 million in Avatar‘s case) then the chances are pretty good that you will not have enough time or money on the productions you work on. So what do you do? You embrace your limitations. It’s one of my favorite concepts: Embrace your limitations.

So all those beautiful sunset shots you see in Ford v Ferrari were shot in just two hour chunks.

On the director’s commentary of Rain Man, Barry Levinson talks about how they only had a few hours to shoot the sequence where Tom Cruise teaches Dustin Hoffman how to dance in a high dollar hotel suite overlooking Las Vegas.

The DP for the Levinson directed The Natural (1984) was Caleb Deschanel.  A film that had many exteriors filmed in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is golden.

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Decschanel also shot The Right Stuff which Papamichael said was an inspiration to him on Ford v Ferrari.

Another way of embracing you limitations is to know what you need to sell the shot. Years ago I shot an interview with a surfer in Atlantic Beach, FL. We were shooting an interior shot with the beach in the background. We had an HMI Joker light so we were able to not have the exterior background blowout. But it was a hazy day and small one-foot waves, so it was hard to tell we were at the beach. We embraced our limitations and simply propped up a colorful surfboard outside framing it behind her and it help sell that we were at the beach.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Have you ever wondered why it had to be so hard to get through school? Or just make it from day to day? Well, that’s because what you were building (your foundation) had to be strong enough to support the weight of whatever you could dream. And if you’re like me, you’re a huge dreamer.”
Tyler Perry
2016 Tuskegee University commencement speech  

How big is Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia? Well, as CBS’s Norah O’Donnell points out, if you take the Los Angeles/Burbank studios of Warner Bros., Paramount, and Disney and combined them together—they’d still be smaller than Tyler Perry’s 330 acres studio.

Scott W. Smith 

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“I’m not a movie producer, I’m in the feelings business. . . . I’m captivated by things that move me emotionally, and elevate me emotionally.”
Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind)
The Joe Rogan Experience #1370

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions

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“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” 
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“Hello darkness, my old friend…”
—Simon & Garfunkel
The Sounds of Silence (written by Paul Simon and sung by Simon & Garfunkel)

The last two movies I happened to see in theaters were Joker and The Lighthouse. Thankfully, I didn’t see them on the same night. If I had of seen Joker and The Lighthouse back-to-back on the same day I would have gone home and immediately signed up for the newly launched Disney+  and planned to exclusively stream Disney films for the next year.

A Joker/The Lighthouse double feature would have had me rewatching Taxi Driver just for a ray of light. (I find nihilism as a worldview depressing, but I can handle it in two hour movie chunks.) The truth is both Joker and The Lighthouse are highly crafted films that will find favor at Oscar time. I expect actors Joaquin Phoenix and Willem Dafoe, directors Todd Phillips and Robert Eggers, along with the writing and production design teams to get Oscar-nominations.

But I think The Lighthouse black and white cinematography of Jarin Blaschke is the single most remarkable element of not only those two films, but of any film I’ve seen this year. And I should mention that both Robert Pattinson’s character in The Lighthouse and the Joker himself belong in what I call “The End of the Rope Club.”

“I would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Here’s a little glimpse into how Joker and The Lighthouse were made.

P.S. As of this writing, the screenplay for The Lighthouse is available from A/24 at their “For Your Consideration” page (as well as the screenplays for The Farewell and Waves).

Scott W. Smith 

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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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