Archive for the ‘Principles’ Category

HD Camera Comparison: A different perspective

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006 has recently posted Adam Wilt’s coverage of a shoot-out between the big (at the moment) four prosumer HD camcorders: Canon XL H1, JVC GY-HD100U, Panasonic AG-HVX200 and the Sony HVR-Z1U. The test has been getting a lot of attention on the blogs I read and respect: FresHDV, HDforIndies, and DVGuru.

The article in question is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re in the market for a camera or interested in the advances in the latest prosumer video technology. Adam Wilt knows his stuff and is a superb writer on tech/video issues. Whenever I see an article by him, I read it. This one’s no exception.

Having said all of this this, I’d like to offer a somewhat different (dissenting? contraraian?) perspective about this and other camera shoot-outs.


Bubble, or the Three Faces of Steven Soderbergh

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Most of the press (and blogging) on Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble — which will be released in theaters and VOD tomorrow, and on DVD Tuesday — concerns the film’s collapsed release window. Important stuff, no doubt, but in the interests of counter-programming I thought I’d give a few words to the fact that this is now the second feature (after Solaris) that Soderbergh has directed, shot, and edited. It’s curious to me that few people have noted this fact, especially when it’s so rare in mainstream Hollywood productions.

Personally, I won’t be surprised if, at some point, Soderbergh eventually does everything for his films: craft services, acting in all the roles, hand-delivering the DVDs for Blockbuster to sell. Come to think of it, if he does everything then catering will be easy. He’ll just take himself out to lunch.

Anyway, until that time comes, here’s an interesting interview that was published in Film Comment around the time of Traffic, Soderbergh’s first film as Director and Director of Photography. This exchange in particular suggests that the experience of making that film prepared him for “experiments” like Bubble.

Why did you decide to shoot the film yourself which entailed having to go to the trouble of qualifying as cinematographer?

    Because the conversations on the set — “I want to do this,” “Are you sure you really want to do that?” — would have taken up hours.

Haven’t you worked with a DP who trusts you implicitly at this point?

    I have, but part of it is that if the DP were anyone else, it would have been very hard for me to convince the people paying for the movie not to fire them, really. What the fuck is this guy doing? But if it’s me, they assume there’s a methodology there that’s going to pay off. Are they going to call me and say, You’ve got to fire yourself? I’ve worked with some very good cameramen, and obviously I’ve learned a lot. I watched what they were doing very closely.

Will you go back to working with a DP in the future?

    I don’t think so. It would be hard for me and for whoever I hired. It’s a compromise in a way. There are numerous cameramen who are better than I am, and the opportunity to learn from them is lost. On the other hand, the speed with which I feel we are able to work and the intimacy it provides are worth it.

[I]n each film since [Out of Sight], your stock has risen higher.

    Let’s put it this way. It’s pretty clear to me that working as a director for hire agrees with me. I like it. The films that have come out of that, I personally like better than the ones that didn’t. However, that other stuff will need to come out occasionally. My m.o. is gonna be, when that happens, to do it for $250,000 instead of $10 million. Which I can do without a problem. I literally have the equipment and I can go do that anytime — and I will.

For full coverage of Bubble, check out the unofficial Soderbergh website (which he probably manages under yet another pseudonym).

Documentary Cookbook

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

UPDATE 9.1.2009: Looking for the Documentary Cookbook article for our students at Virginia Tech we noticed that it’s been taken down from the UC Berkley website and appears to have disappeared from the internet… except in this mildly abbreviated copy/paste job.

I first read the UC Berkeley Center for New Documentary’s “Cookbook“ essay over three years ago. It’s a fairly straightforward essay that investigates, through theory and practice, the question of how one can inexpensively produce intelligent, saleable documentaries. In its subject matter, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about the Cookbook — people have been making movies cheaply for years, and people have been writing about how to do the same for nearly as long. But a couple of things make the Cookbook a keeper (aside from the fact that it’s free, of course):

First, it’s written by working filmmakers, about working filmmakers, for working filmmakers. It’s very, very readable. A damn good read as far as these things go, in fact.

Secondly, it’s written from the conviction that all personnel on any film should be paid the going professional rate for the work they do. Salaries are not reduced, deferred, or eliminated from the budget in order to “get the film made.”

This second point is critical. It doesn’t take a genius to know that if you have access to a camcorder you could theoretically shoot a feature for about $10 (the cost of two 60 minute MiniDV tapes) these days. Making a movie on the cheap and paying all parties involved is much harder. The Cookbook’s focus, then, is on helping “journeyman filmmakers” (their term) find ways to make a living while producing vital work. Good stuff.

What makes all of the Cookbook’s ideas especially seductive is the reasonable, intelligent voice of the writing, which avoids the unrealistic cheerleading (or sketchy used car salesman vibe) you sometimes find in these You-Can-Do-It essays.

Of course, the question is: Can these ideas work for anyone? The Cookbook was written in 2002, and as far as I know it has not been updated since. How have documentaries using the Cookbook’s guidelines fared, both critically and in the marketplace? An email asking about updates and further thoughts, which I sent to its authors last week in preparation for this post, hasn’t been answered. I was hoping they would address what the Cookbook spends the least time discussing: distribution. After all, the key question these days is not “How can I get a movie made?” but whether or not it will be distributed.

I’m also interested in what the Cookbook has to say to narrative filmmakers. Obviously, the issues facing the genres aren’t identical. To name just one, documentaries are marketed on their content far more than narrative films, which typically rely on the use of one or more “name” actors. Since a $100,000 budget isn’t likely to cover the salaries that name actors command, productions in that budget range are usually at a substantial disadvantage in the search for distribution. For that matter, just paying your cast SAG scale would strain a $100K budget.

It’s for this reason that the Cookbook probably has the most application to filmmakers that are working “regionally”since they typically are working with fewer resources, a smaller crew/talent pool, and in a style that’s more humanistic than spectacle-driven. Reading over the essay again tonight, I was inclined to think of filmmakers like John O’Brien, Todd Verow or Caveh Zahedi whose films blend fiction and non-fiction, actor and non-actor and, script and improvisation in rewarding ways. Soderbergh’s upcoming Bubble is another film that springs to mind.

The Cookbook’s ideas aren’t radical. Or if they are, they’re not alone in their radicalism. InDigEnt‘s production model (as just one example) is not so very different from what the Cookbook proposes. InDigEnt productions (from what I remember) are made for about $300,000, and feature name actors (Sigourney Weaver, Katie Holmes, etc.). The main difference is that talent and crew are paid minimal wages up front and deferred the rest through profit participation. But that is a big difference and, in fact, is the distinction that separates the Cookbook from other models.

One way or another the essay‘s worth a read… I’d enjoy hearing your comments on it.

Japanese Manufacturing Techniques?

Sunday, December 4th, 2005

I’ve taught various aspects of filmmaking on and off for nearly ten years, and in this time I’ve seen a number of student filmmakers excitedly adopt a nearly Fordist model of production when it comes time to make their “big student film.” Where they once wrote, directed, edited, and shot, now one person writes, another directs, another shoots, etc.

Naturally, sometimes this produces a better film since, as students, they are able to focus their developing skills in the areas where each student is most experienced. But I’m troubled when the approach seems to be adopted for no other reason than because the filmmakers think it’s the way “real films” are made.

This is, of course, completely absurd. Movies like Tarnation or Primer, for example, aren’t less “real” because they were cut on iMovie or lit by their writer-director-actor-editor.

And even if these students equate “real” movies with studio films they’re not seeing the whole picture. While it’s undoubtedly true that large, task-specific crews and creative personnel were used to make Hollywood films during the Classic era, times have changed. Even making films for a studio today doesn’t mean that, by definition, a filmmaker can’t exercise principles of self-reliance. Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez, for example, shoot and edit their own films. Are they the exception? Sure. But the fact that there are exceptions at all says something.

If these students were making cars instead of movies would they consider Japanese manufacturing techniques any less legitimate than Detroit’s way of doing things? This summer in the library I ran across Richard Schonberger’s Japanese Manufacturing Techniques: Nine Hidden Lessons in Simplicity. Not being someone who’s studied logistics and transportation most of the book was over my head. Still, reading about Kanban and Just-in-Time was fascinating.

One thing that caught my eye was a breakdown of production line techniques, which I photocopied before returning the book. Here’s an excerpt:

Western Japanese
Top priority: Line Balance Top priority: Flexibility
Strategy: Stability – long production runs so that the need to rebalance seldom occurs. Strategy: Flexibility – expect to rebalance often to match output to changing demand.
Assume fixed labor assignments. Flexible labor: Move to the problems or to where the current workload is.
Need sophisticated analysis to evaluate and cull many options. Need human ingenuity to provide flexibility and ways around bottlenecks.
Planned by staff. Foreman may lead design effort and will adjust plan as needed.
Plan to run at fixed rate; send quality problems off line. Slow for quality problems; speed up when quality is right.
Conveyoritized material involvement is desireable. Put stations close together and avoid conveyors.
Buy “supermachines” and keep them busy. Make (or buy) small machines; add more as needed.
Run mixed models where labor content is similar from model to model. Strive for mixed-model production, even in subassembly and fabrication.

Obviously the metaphor isn’t perfect. Both the Japanese and Western models are trying to produce identical versions of automobiles (i.e., what’s under the hood of one 2006 Camry should be pretty much like the next) while, on the other hand, even the most “Fordist” studio approach still tries to produce different films (even if they’re only nominally different, like Miss Congeniality and Miss Congeniality 2).
Still, looking at it again, I think the Japanese approach has some relevance to the project of this blog: Ingenuity, a “foreman” that also leads the design effort, reliance on small machines. These are hallmarks of self-reliant filmmaking.
Finally, in spite of all the above I’ve written, I should mention that I like some of Ford’s ideas. After all, he’s the guy that believed that factory workers should be paid enough to be able to purchase the good they were producing. That’s one idea that, sadly, in this age of global “outsourcing”, again sounds quaint and unconventional.

First Post: Declaration of Principles

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance

The purpose of this weblog is to talk about and to encourage the practice of making high-quality films at a low-cost and/or with small-labor systems. A good term for this practice is “Self-Reliant Filmmaking.”

Self-reliant filmmaking is interesting for at least two reasons:

Less interference, more production: Self-reliance can let filmmakers bypass in whole or in part the common gatekeepers of cinema production (i.e., studios, production companies, etc.) and exhibition (i.e., major distributors). Needless to say, not needing a corporation’s permission to make a movie can free you to make more of them.

Handcrafting: We believe, quite simply, that the way something is made shapes the nature of the thing itself. Self-reliant films are by definition handcrafted, and this is a good thing for today’s cinema, which needs as many human, soulful works as it can get.

While some might consider this naive, we see examples of self-reliant filmmaking throughout the history of cinema — from the Lumiere Brothers’ first films up to works by some of today’s leading filmmakers, like Abbas Kiarostami and Lars Von Trier.

This weblog will discuss:

– Current and past motion pictures and/or filmmakers that are part of the self-reliant tradition

– Strategies and models for sustaining non-corporate, especially regional, filmmaking

– The distribution of this work, including the opportunities afforded by new technologies

– Tools of the self-reliant filmmaker, including the making, modifying, and/or hacking of equipment

In addition to the above, the weblog will serve as a forum for makers and critics to reflect on the philosophy, theory, ethics, and praxis of self-reliant filmmaking because, in all of its different embodiments, self-reliant filmmaking is both a practice and a principle.

Put another way, self-reliant filmmaking does not help the so-called “independent filmmaker,” it is what makes a filmmaker independent.