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Posts Tagged ‘Spontaneous filmmaking’

”I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”
—Steve Martin

”Embrace your environment and try to seek out a handful of ideas. . . You don’t need to live in New York for that to work. Find interestingness in your own life ”
—Casey Neistat

The above Casey Neistat quote reminds me of the time when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa and drove by a grain silo in the winter with a small group of people ice climbing up it. I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t pull over and spontaneously start shooting footage. I missed a golden opportunity at spontaneous filmmaking. At least someone did a short doc on the unusual activity. Interestingness 101.

This post has a little bit of a back to the future aspect to it. After all, silent film great Charlie Chaplin was known in his silent film days for getting an idea and going outside that day with some actors and shooting footage for a short film. That’s a long way from Titanic where James Cameron (and his crew of hundreds) spending years planning, shooting, and editing that hit movie.

But have you ever challenged yourself to create something in a week or two?

When last was started, I hadn’t even begun the Casey Neistat 30-day filmmaking and storytelling online class, and now I feel like I’ve wrapped my head around spontaneous filmmaking. (I was very fortunate to find an interesting character.) Here’s how last week went down.

Monday, May 9:

I watched Casey’s first message about how he just walks out onto the NYC streets looking for ideas to explore. (“Whenever you step outside here, you’re just kind of hit in the face with stories. And I think that’s true for wherever you call home.”) He’s looking for potential stories that will be compelling and emotional. It could be the noise of a chop saw and how the incessant noise of the city makes it difficult to get clean audio for his video, or wondering what it’s like to buy a counterfeit hand bag in Chinatown. It took me about 20 minutes to come up with four ideas to explore for my first project;  Brutalist architecture, my dog, my old Panasonic HVX 200, and kayaking. I decided on kayaking because it seemed like the most contained topic. There wasn’t a story yet, but I figured I’d at least get some good visuals. I knew that beauty shots alone wouldn’t be interesting, but it was a start. 

Lesson 1: Just start. I’m reminded of the Goethe quote, “In action, there is power, grace, and magic.” Or the more well known Nike ad campaign—”Just Do It.”

Tuesday May 10: 

Woke up at 5 A.M. so I could shoot my kayak in the water at sunrise. (That wasn’t the plan, but my puppy was my alarm clock.) Because the iPhone doesn’t handle dynamic range well, I knew the actual sunset would not be the best shot because the sun blows out. My best shot was about 30 minutes before sunrise at a boat ramp. It’s when the sky is the most dramatic as it’s transitioning from darkness to light. I finally was in the water around 6:45 and about 10 minutes into my trip I came up on a guy named Blake fishing on a dock, and he changed the direction of my entire concept. He’s a Full Sail University student originally from Louisiana and knew a thing or two about alligators. He instantly became my main character, and alligators became my focus. I interviewed him with my iPhone while sitting in my kayak as he stood on a dock where I found him fishing bathed in the early morning light. (He was the only person around the lake the morning I went out.)

Lesson 2: Don’t pass up the obvious. I paddled by Blake at first, but then an imaginary, miniature Casey Neistat popped up on my shoulder and told me, “Ahhh, you might want to go back and interview that guy.” Glad I did or my concept would be dead in the water. 

Wed—Saturday May 11-14

I shot more beauty footage around the lake, and looked for gators. 

Lesson 3: The little Joby GorilliaPod Magnetic tripod comes in very handy when shooting with an iPhone 13 ProMax from a kayak. Holding any kind of camera on kayak has a built in threat of dropping your camera in the water, but the Joby clamp and magnetic thingy gave me a measure of security.

Sunday May 15

Before going out to shoot a sunset Saturday night, my wife said to be careful because it was gator mating season. I’d forgotten that fact. On Sunday, it hit me that I could make that my hook to the story. So I recorded myself on-camera saying, “Is it dangerous to kayak in Florida during gator mating season? Let’s find out.”

Lesson 4: Because you’re continually developing your idea, your brain is like a pinball machine. You just have to recognize when you hit the sweet spot. I needed something that I could hook a viewer within the first 10-12 seconds. The promise of a premise is the way people talk about it in developing features and TV shows.

I’m currently listening to the Dave Itzkoff audio book Robin on comedian/actor Robin Williams who had off the chart talent as a spontaneous performer. But Williams admittedly could not translate that skill into a traditional style of writing a script.

“To be funny in print is a very hard thing for me to do. I can do it in performing, because it’s straight up—kaboom! But when I sit down at the typewriter I feel like an autistic child.”
—Robin Williams

So if you have ideas you want to explore, but have trouble sitting down and writing a story, explore some more spontaneous ways to create. Casey Neistat and Robin Williams are examples of people who work/worked best spontaneously on the fly.

Some screenwriters dictate to someone writing down their ideas, and some people audio record themselves. There’s no one size fits all way to create. You don’t have to just sit (or stand) at a computer. In fact, you don’t even need to have a computer. Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen hand wrote some of their most beloved and award-winning screenplays. Judd Apatow wrote a screenplay on his phone during downtime from meetings and working on another film. While some resort to using notes on their phone or even emailing themselves ideas, there are several screenwriting apps for you phone or iPad/tablet. I bet there is someone in the world right now that is working on a feature film just spontaneously shooting actors with a smartphone.

The history of this blog owes a debt to spontaneity. Especially, when I was blogging daily I just had to jump in the water and start swimming. Even today it might just be a quote or something that serves as a nub for me to pick at until something more fully formed emerges.

Here are a couple of frames that are quick glance the video I shot last week. While I could have shot this with an Alexa camera and had a boom operator and sound team on a pontoon boat nearby, it wouldn’t fit my zero budget spontaneous experiment.

Now that I think about it, this style of just jumping into a story before it’s fully formed reminds me of the five years I participated in the 48 Hour Film project where you make a short film from beginning to end in 48 hours. I enjoyed that process. And the fringe benefit was I got to work with a great team of people all who volunteered their time, and each each with one some kind of award.

P.S. Much of the traveling I’ve done over the years I would classify as planned spontaneity. It’s a phrase I started using about 20 years ago when I backpacked across Europe with my wife. I had an overall idea of the countries we’d hit, but no real plan what days we’d be where, so we didn’t book any hotels or rooms. My wife (and others) thought I was crazy. But we did have a Rick Steves travel book, so we had a general idea when we’d go next. It was easily one of the best trips of my life. But buried within the spontaneity was years (decades?) of unofficial planning and dreaming to that the trip. Those that were close to Robin Williams said that what often came out as 100% spontinaity was stuff he had be thinking about a while. I’ve been wanting to do a kayaking story for about two years, so while it was a spontaneous decision last week—it was in the back of my head for a while.

Related posts:
Spontaneous Filmmaking with Casey Neistat

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”Seek out interestingness.”
—Casey Neistat

It’s not like Casey Neistat and I are hanging making films together, but yesterday I started his online filmmaking and storytelling class. It’s not a sponsored thing either. Just taking it to pick up how he does what he does so well. Part of his secret sauce is spontaneous filmmaking. Just walking outside and seeing what he finds interesting. Or in the case of the above airplane video—find what inside is interesting. That video shot mainly in an airplane seat has 77 million views to date, so there’s quite a few people who find what he does quite interesting.

But it doesn‘t have to be an expensive seat or an exotic location. He first got wide recognition for doing a video complaining about getting a ticket in NYC for not riding in the bike lane. His idea of spontaneous filmmaking is to just go hunt for a basic idea around you and see what unfolds. No overthinking it. No meetings to kill it. (Most of the productions I’ve worked on over the years are fairly well planned out. After a discouraging meeting once, an art director friend quipped, ””How many meetings does it take to kill a good idea?”) So for the first assignment for his class, I looked around me and came up with four ideas from my home, work, and commute. Please help me decide which would make the best spontaneous video.  

1)    Brutalist architecture—think concrete:

Orlando, Florida is not known for its architecture (beyond Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World). A while back I worked on an educational video of a college professor lecturing on Brutalism and it opened my eyes to an architectural style I didn’t understand. In fact, a building considered by some the ugliest in town (the Orlando Public Library) is an example of Brutalist architecture. I think there’s something to explore there since Brutalist buildings are scattered around the world.

2)    Sugar our puppy:
Getting a 9-year-old rescue dog is a setup for heartbreak. But Ginger made it thankfully to 14 and died in 2021. A little over a year later we made a spontaneous decision to get a puppy and it’s been wild two months. Puppies grow up quick so I’ve already shot a lot of videos and stills of her I could use.

3)    My old camera:
Casey stresses looking for ideas close by, and as I watched him talk I literally glanced to my left and two feet away was a box for an old Panasonic HVX 200 that I think I bought new 14 or 15 years ago. Loved that camera. I haven’t shot anything with it in years, but can’t quite come to terms with selling it (it’s worth maybe $200). Again, part of the concept of spontaneous filmmaking is not starting with a well formed three act structure. You just have a catalyst to get started. That camera helped pay a lot of bills for a few years. I don’t know what the ending would be, but the start of that video could just be memories of shooting with that camera.

4)  Kayaking through COVID:
I’d wanted to buy a kayak for years (even used a demo once), but didn’t think I’d have enough time to ever really use it. There are a lot of lakes and waterways in Florida, but time is a more limited resource. But I bought one the second month of the lockdown, and while working at home and a hybrid model for the last two years has provided me the opportunity to kayak over 200 hours in the last two years. This lake photo was taken this morning just after sunrise. Then it was off to the studio to edit. The best of both world.

So which one of these concepts would be more interesting to you to watch?

P.S. Here’s a trailer for the class. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I’m done. But I’m optimistic out of the gate. When I was much younger, I once asked for a refund after the first day of a three day production workshop I took. (As was the policy.) I felt like they covered ground I already knew. An older and wiser production friend told me, “Scott, you don’t go to workshops to learn everything—you go to learn a handful of things you didn’t know so that you can do what you do better.” That was (and still is) great advice. After that, every workshop or seminar I’ve gone to (or video watched) is an opportunity to pick up a few things. And, now that I think about it, that’s probably part of the foundation of this blog. Sometimes I’ll listen to an hour or two podcast interview just looking for that one fresh and interesting thing I can hold on to.

Here’s an example from just my first day in the class. Since Casey doesn’t start with a fully formed idea, while he shooting and walking around his mind is churning with not only the shot he needs for Act 1, but what ideas are there for Acts 2 & 3. Because even though it starts out loosely constructed doesn’t mean he plans on just letting the idea meander. He wants to stick the landing.

”The ending is always the hardest part of any story told. The ending has to be a bow that ties the whole thing together. . . .Without an ending you don’t have a story.”
—Casey Neistat

While that is well said, it’s not exactly a revelation. But what is a revelation is Casey’s success was built on starting videos without even knowing where he was heading. That’s pretty hard to pull off if you have a crew and a budget. But he could pull it off flying solo or with a friend or two. If you’re unfamiliar with Casey check out his film for Nike from 2012 that started without a plan other than basically let’s fly around the world until the budget runs out.

Related posts:

Work hard and be brave —Casey Neistat

Filmmaking is a Sport—Casey Neistat

Do What You Can’t—Casey Neistat

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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