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“To me, Kurosawa is the Beethoven of movie directors.”
Director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict)

“One of the hallmarks of Kurosawa’s style are his fluid camera moves… that go from a close-up, to a full shot, to an over the shoulder [shot] in a single unbroken take….What’s important here is every camera shot has a clear beginning. middle, and end.”
Tony Zhou

Tony Zhou has a voice, and a voice. And an audience. In fact, as I write this his Every Frame a Painting video on Kurosawa has over 1.8 million views.

Back in 2014 I became familiar with Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting You Tube channel and it’s one of the best ways to get bite-sized information on filmmakers and filmmaking techniques.

And while video essays have been around for decades—Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Chris Marker San Soleil (1982)—and probably since the silent film era, there is an entertaining as well as informative way that Zhou puts together his video essays that make them part of a new Internet-era way of communicating about movies.

He conveys information that normally would be buried in film theory books and tucked inside film commentaries and makes them visually accessible. Film is a visual medium so it makes perfect sense to marry film theory and film clips together in video essays.

What makes Zhou’s work exceptional is they are so well done. His does his research and takes his time on the edit (80 hours of editing on the above Kurosawa video). He’s a freelance editor in San Francisco and his professionalism shows. He also has a enjoyable voice to listen to and comes with a distinct point of view (his other voice) on each topic.

Ever since being introduced to his video essays I’ve been encouraged to start producing my own video essays as an extension of this blog, and a way to reach some new plateaus. So look for my first one this summer.

“ I would encourage anyone who would like to make films or video essays—or would like actually to make anything— go out and make it….It sounds so simple and so banal, but it really is one of those things where I didn’t realize until I had done it how gratifying it is emotionally and psychologically just to get it out of your system….The crazy thing is that if you make something like this it could be successful, it could not be, but I would argue don’t try to replicate anyone else’s success, just make something that you would want to watch. And the crazy thing about the internet is there almost certainly will be someone else out there who wants to watch it. “
Tony Zhou
Patreon Podcast Extended Interview

As far as copyright laws are concerned Zhou believes what he does falls under fair usage  (education, commentary, criticism) and is transformative in nature. He says some of his videos have been flagged and temporarily taken down, but he has not been sued and all his videos have been restated.  (Welcome any lawyers to chime in here.)

For those interested in technically how he edits his video essays, he uses Final Cut Pro X, in part because of the ability to use keywords. (For instance he could go though a bunch of Kurosawa’s films and tag all the dolly shots “Dolly” that would add the meta data so he could easily find so the all the dolly shots from the films he’s tagged.)

He also talks about writing, recoding, and editing simultaneously so the process is organic.  And it’s worth noting that Zhou did not attend film school. He was an English major at UCLA and simply loves watching and analyzing movies.

P.S. I do have a question for Zhou (or any of you editing existing footage). I have used Hand Brake and MacX DVD software to convert standard def DVDs to mp4 files. But I need a recommendation on converting Blu-Ray or iTunes moves to be able to edit them on Final Cut Pro X.  Put your solutions in the comment section or email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1994)

There are many challenges involved when discussing current films from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective. There’s the danger of giving away spoilers, it’s not a film that everyone has seen, it’s not an award winner, it hasn’t stood the test of time, there aren’t writer and director commentaries to glean information from, and it hasn’t yet been explored about in books.

So I won’t say much about Eye in the Sky—except that it’s one great example of superior filmmaking. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it’s one of my favorite films of this decade.

I won’t say any more about it until a few months down the line, but kudos to screenwriter Guy Hibbert, director Gavin Hood, the producers, actors, and production team for hitting a grand slam. For creating that rare movie that is compelling, engaging, and thought provoking—even after you’ve left the theater.

I can’t remember ever feeling more like I was a hidden character in the film, wondering what the right decision in that situation would be. And Helen Muran and Aaron Paul—brilliant.

So while I won’t give away any spoilers on the film, I will provide 10 links to past posts that are buttons that I think the movie hits in terms of screenwriting, filmmaking & life.

Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
Tension=Attention
The Major or Central Dramatic Question
The Bomb Under the Table
What’s Changed?
40 Days of Emotion
What’s at Stake?
Earn Your Ending
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings
Screenwriting from Hell

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I had to fully engage with the process and just choose to be broke.”
Writer/director  Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies )
2016 SXSW Keynote Address

This is a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s quote by filmmaker John Sayles about the difficulty of making money these days as an independent filmmaker. Joe Swanberg may be the most prolific filmmaker in the United States. Some filmmakers make six films in their career—Swanberg’s made that many in one year.

To date he’s made 29 (feature and short) films . I haven’t seen any of them—and you may not of seen any of them, or even heard of any of them—but you have to admit that making 29 films the last decade or so is a pretty impressive feat.

He’s made enough money (via small distribution deals, writing scripts for hire, and directing a project for HBO) to eke out a living including having insurance, and buying a house and with his wife. (From what I can gather they still ahem some student loan and credit card debt.)

The Chicago-based filmmaker also joined the WGA and the DGA, and his 2014 film Happy Christmas featured Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham in the cast.

“There are a lot of filmmakers I know who are making very sincere attempts to make work that is commercial, but they don’t know what that means. They pitch me a project: ‘I’m tired of doing the arty thing. I’m working on a screenplay now that I think I can attach some famous people to and actually make some money.’ And then they tell you the idea and you’re just like, ‘Never in a million years is a) any famous actor going to want to do that movie; or b) is any distributor going to want to put it out. You are so deluded right now. You don’t know what ‘commercial’ means.’ And these are smart people, but they shouldn’t be thinking about ‘commercial.’ They stand a better chance of making money by following their own whacko artistic vision.”
Writer/Director Joe Swanberg
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Esther B. Robinson

Related posts:
How to Shoot a Film in 10 Days
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns 
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood (Edward Burns)
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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“From the moment I read Wil Haygood’s article about him in the Washington Post, I was moved by the real life of Eugene Allen.”
Oscar-Winning Director Lee Daniels

When I heard Wil Haygood speak last week about his journey writing The Butler: A Witness to History, I was reminded of a personal experience I had back in 2003. I was producing a TV program for a group in Chicago and on my shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel the older black driver and I talked about Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey—two world famous people with Chicago roots—and I told him I bet he’d seen incredible changes in his life and he simply said, “Yes, I have.”

Just five years later there would be more change when Senator Obama (also with Chicago roots) was elected the first black President of the United States. If that driver lived to see that day his story somewhat echoed that of Eugene Allen, the former White House butler  Haygood wrote about who witnessed that arc from segregation, to the Civil Rights Act being passed, right up to Obama being elected.

Haygood was speaking as part of the Humanities Speaker Series at Valencia College (whose West campus is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse parts of Orlando, Florida).  Back in 2008 Haygood was a corespondent for the Washington Post covering Senator Obama’s campaign trail. After hearing Obama speak in North Carolina he believed the tide was turning in favor of Obama getting the nomination.

“I get back to my newsroom and I tell my editor Steve, I said, ‘Steve, Steve—Obama’s going to win.’ He said, you’re tired, you’ve been on the road too long. I’m going to bring you off the road to get some rest. I said, no listen to me., Obama is going to win.  And because he’s going to win, I want to tell a parallel story. I want to find an African American who worked in The White House in one of those service jobs, and I want to tell their story. Because when Obama wins it’s going to me the world to this person. And my editor leaned back and said, well, who are you going to ne looking for? What type of job would this person have held? And I said, Steve I really don’t know. I think I want to find somebody who worked in The White House who shined shoes, who did the laundry, maybe a maid, and this last phrase fell out of my mouth, I still don’t know where it came from, I said, or maybe a butler. And I said I want to find one of those people who was working in The White House before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed in this country that freed blacks.”
Wil Haygood

His editor said he needed him back out on the campaign trail, but gave him five days to somehow find that White House worker. Haygood’s next hurdle was how to find that person. Here’s the compressed journey of how Haygood hunted down that story—one that had never been told before.

—He called The White House but was told, “Because of confidentiality rules we don’t divulge who works at The White House.”

—He called his Washington, D.C. sources and was told it was a great idea, but no one knew such a person or where to find that person.

—On the fourth day he received a phone call from someone whose daughter was at a party in Georgetown and heard he was looking for someone who worked in the White House before the Civil Rights Act was passed. She gave him the name Eugene Allen, but had no idea on his contact information.

—He went to a library and started going through phone books of Maryland, DC, and Virginia looking for Eugene Allen. He made 56 phone calls and struck out 56 times looking for a Eugene Allen who worked at the White House.

“I was stubborn, because I wanted to prove to my editor that such a person existed. So students listen to this—I kept at it. I kept at it. On the 57 call I said, ‘Hello, my name is Wil Haygood, I’m a writer at the Washington Post and I’m looking for Mr. Eugene Allen who worked for two presidents at The White House.’ And the gentleman on the other end said, ‘Ah, that’s me. My name is Eugene Allen. Except sir, you have your facts wrong. I didn’t work for two presidents, I worked for eight. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. So by my math, that’s eight.”
Wil Haygood

Allen’s life was a real life Forrest Gump-like experience. He not only worked for eight Presidents, but had a front row seat to some of the best (and worst) moments in modern American history, as well as seeing/meeting/serving a whole host of iconic Americans: Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King Jr.

Haygood’s article A Butler Well Served by This Election ran in The Washington Post November 7, 2008. Allen was invited to the inauguration and went escorted by his son and Haygood.

“He saw the first African American President take the oath of office. And he leaned over to me and said ‘This is the first inauguration I’ve ever been invited to.’ He also said as we were leaving,’When I was in The White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this.’ He used the word dream twice.”
Wil Haygood

Something else that I imagine Allen couldn’t dream was that his life (and Haygood’s article) would be the inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler , starring a whole host of stars; Forest Whitaker, Oprah, Cuba Gooding Jr, Venessa Redgrave, John Cusack, and Terrence Howard. Allen died in 2010 before the move came out in 2013.

Haygood wrapped up his talk last week saying that Allen gave him a gold plated tie clip that  John F. Kennedy had given him. He added that he was wearing that tie clip, and ended saying that Allen’s house has been designated a historic landmark, and made this observation:

“In a way the story is almost spiritual. For it says in the Bible, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. ‘ I like to think that the butler is up there in heaven with Dr, King, with the Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall , with all those he served who are up there are well. The butler, the man who used to sweep up the movie theater at The White House. And I’d like to think that he’s walking around saying to them, ‘Hey, would you like to watch a movie tonight? It’s about a butler.

Special thanks to John Watson at Valencia for securing a copy of Wil Haygood’s talk for me to pull exact quotes.

P.S. I bought Haygood’s book and he signed it for my high school English and creative writing teacher Dr. Annye Refoe who not only helped put me on the track where I have earned my creative living the past 30 years, but who being a black woman raised Sanford, Florida showed a class full of white students  A Raisin in the Sun and discussed the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Later as work would take me through Watts in LA, Overtown in Miami, Cabrini Green in Chicago, Harlem in New York—and really everywhere—I’ve never stopped seeing the world through the lens she provided.

One butler, one writer, one teacher really can make a positive impact in the lives of many.

FullSizeRender-3

And I’ll close with this the video below of the multi-media performance of Three Black Kings I shot and edited a few of years ago with artist Gary Kelley. It was performed live by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Weinberger.

Related posts:
25 Links Related to Blacks and Filmmaking
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting
President Obama, the Man & Iowa Seeds
Nelson Mandela, Robben Island & Nudging the World
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’ (That other movie)
The Perfect Ending Valencia College’s connection to Game of Thrones

 

Scott W. Smith

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“During the ’60s and ’70s the mainstream included independent films within its own structure…What happened is in 1979, maybe ’80, I could see something happening where cable was coming up, and video on demand was coming up.  At the same time Hollywood as an industry was beginning to move away from the more independent films and focusing on where the money, which was young people. Which meant you were going to have things like—not so much on story, but explosions and special effects. What I got concerned about is some of the films I like best were the more diverse storytelling. So I thought, well, what could I do? That lead to the idea of a lab. And I got the NEA to give me a grant to start it all. The only thing I could contribute outside of my own time was the property I had here in Utah in the mountains. And so I thought, well, I can give that. But the marketplace was pretty well locked off by the mainstream industry, so there was no place to go. So I thought how can we follow this out and do something more? Maybe we create a festival. And at least create a festival where the filmmakers could come and see each other’s work. I would say in the first year, 1985, we brought maybe 30 films, maybe 10 documentaries. What I loved about this was it was so independent, because that’s a word that’s always meant a lot to me. I think there’s value in that word. Because out of that word comes diversity. And I felt that the most important thing that the festival should have was demonstrating the diversity of film as possible. The first years there was just a few films, nows there’s 12,000 submissions. You worry you get so big that you lose the heart and soul of what you were about in the first place.”
Oscar-winning director/actor Robert Redford 
Yahoo! News interview with Katie Couric 

Two things stand out from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; first that looking at the list of award winners you see a lot of diversity, and that “Netflix and Amazon dominated this year’s Sundance” according to a Vulture article by Kevin Lincoln. So while there may be a limited release of some of those films it appears downloading and steaming video on demand is a growing market for Independent filmmakers.=

Side technical note: When you’re shooting an interview (like the one with Redford) make sure the talent doesn’t hold a plastic water bottle because they have a tendency to squeeze it a little throughout the interview making that crinkly noise sound when plastic crumples.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m a craftsman. I don’t know if you’ve seen Jiro, the movie about the sushi chef… There’s a little bit of that feeling of, ‘Finally I’m starting to understand certain things.’ I’m starting to understand how to use certain tools. And there’s tons of things that I need to learn and that I need to practice and that I need to experiment with. I think in that sense the Oscars don’t really mean much. It’s more that I’m trying to improve my craft.”
Two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Bridman)
Deadline article by Matthew Grobar (12/23/2015)
Lubezki is also up for an Oscar this year for shooting The Revenant

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“If a film is over two hours it’s an epic. [laughs] If you verge on two and a half, you are certainly an epic.” 
Paul Thomas Anderson

“What was nice about [The Treasure of the Sierra Madre] was that it’s kind of a play wrapped up in the clothes of an adventure film. It’s essentially a dialogue, a dynamic between three guys. [The film’s] traditional straightforward storytelling was what I was influenced by, and it was something that seemed to apply when trying to make a big story on a limited budget. You know, it was kind of like, well, how expensive is it to get your cameras outside? It’s not expensive. And you get a good location, all right, so you’re an epic. [laughs] What’s next are the smaller scenes and taking care of it from the ground up, if you know what I mean. [The Treasure of the Sierra Madre] is really so much about the way those guys beat each other up, and the paranoia and that madness that happens. It so simple and economical.”
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Giant Ambition by James Ponsoldt
Filmmaker magazine
Winter 2008, page 42

P.S. There Will Be Blood earned Anderson two Academy Award nominations, and it was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards. (It won two: Best Cinematography, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.)

Scott W. Smith

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