Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Things I learned at the IFP Filmmaker Conference: Day 3

Sorry it's taken me a while to get to part 3. I've been (you guessed it) busy. Catching up on work, and on my own writing, since returning from this trip.

Anyway, after the heaviness of Day 2 of the conference, with its emphasis on the real world and how we're all being screwed by larger forces, it was good to hear about things that are more fun. Such as …

#5. Alec Baldwin is a real person.

As I walked to Lincoln Center that morning, I passed a poster promoting a series of film screenings at the center, for which the music would be played by a live orchestra. (One of the films in the series, fittingly enough, was 2001: A Space Odyssey.) I lingered at this poster just long enough to notice that the artistic director of the series was Alec Baldwin. “Hmm,” I thought. I continued to walk around the corner toward the entrance … and happened to see the man himself getting out of a car, carrying a duffel bag and looking dog tired.

No, I didn't bother him. I figured he was on his way to work and didn't need to be hassled. And thanks to the wraparound sunglasses I was wearing, I was able to pretend I didn't recognize him. Frankly, I was surprised he was by himself. I didn't think someone that famous would have the luxury of being able to walk around in public unaccompanied.

There's not much point to this story, except I just wanted to say … I saw Alec Baldwin.

#4. Humor is still good.

The first panel of the day was basically an interview with Derek Waters, creator of the short film that became the Comedy Central series Drunk History. The moderator, Brent Hoff, had previously given an award to that film (which had already been on the Internet) instead of one of the “films about Cambodian children with diseases caused by corporations”, a decision that apparently still makes people angry to this day.

If you haven't seen it, the premise of Drunk History is simply that a (genuinely) drunk person tells a story from the history books, intercut with actors solemnly acting out the drunkard's crude account. Waters said he got the idea from noticing that drunk people always want to tell stories. So he thought of something that people would never tell when drunk – in this case history, which is often told seriously and with no passion. His theory was that there are three stages of being drunk:
  1. You're my best friend, life is great!
  2. Have I ever told you the story I just told you ten times?
  3. I'm a terrible person, life is terrible.
(He said that the second and third stages are when you need to be recording.)

He said that a brand new idea made out of something people are familiar with is what tends to be popular. Slightly contrasting this, he also advised the audience to “make stuff you believe in” and said that any time you put your voice out there it's a success, even if only ten people see it.

This panel helped buttress my belief that it's OK to do what you believe in, and that it's OK for indie cinema to be silly.

#3. You should make more material than just the film.

In a panel on building “buzz”, one panelist pointed out that “your audience has an insatiable desire to watch short clips.” Another panelist, Marc Schiller, said that filmmakers should be developing more original content for the web, but that they aren't doing this because they're just trying to get their film finished. (Though he did point out that for documentary filmmakers this is easier, since they already have more footage than they can use in the finished film.) He said that you can't make this stuff at the last minute, when the film is finished – it needs to be part of the process.

This isn't a new idea. Way back in the day, I remember reading somewhere that during the making of Jurassic Park, they filmed extra material for use in a CD-ROM. And I think they shot extra scenes during the making of the Matrix sequels for use in the tie-in video game. But I guess indie filmmakers are still catching up to Hollywood in this area.

This gets us into the area of that familiar buzzword “transmedia”. Instead of just having the film, you can have added material providing additional character development.

#2. Apparently, there are still reasons for an indie filmmaker to shoot on film.

Even as a native of Rochester, and as the child of a father whose 29-year career at Kodak put me through film school, I approached the “Want the Film Look? Shoot Film” panel with skepticism. Although I'm starting to miss the experience of watching actual film in public, I don't miss it much as a filmmaker. To me the rise of digital video cameras is the greatest thing to happen to indie filmmakers since the invention of the Bolex. When you shoot on video, you don't have to check the gate, you don't have to worry about the camera scratching or eating your film, you don't have to hope that the lab doesn't wreck your footage. As a film student, I had to worry about all of these things. Then I got my grubby mitts on a miniDV camera in 1999, and never looked back. And neither did nearly everyone else.

But the panelists had plenty of reasons not to give up on film. One is that it simply has a higher resolution than even the best video cameras. While high-definition is taking the leap from 2K to 4K, film is more like 6K, is still a reliable basis from which to create master copies, and lacks the compression issues that occur with high-definition video.

The panelists also approved of film because of the discipline it imposed. For them, the short time limit of a film reel and the unwieldiness of film equipment requires crews to be more organized and efficient.

I personally can do without the unwieldiness of film equipment – I'd rather be able to shoot quickly, and spend more time working with the actors rather than being muzzled by technical restrictions. But I can't argue with the fact that film looks better, and has remained a stable standard even as video renders one format after another obsolete.

One more point that did surprise me – the panelists said that the “video village” separating from the directors from the actors was actually slowing the process down. The ability to instantly review your footage has apparently interfered with the filmmaking process, allowing everyone to look at the last take rather than allowing the DP to maintain autonomy.

I've personally never been on a set with that kind of setup. But about a year ago, I did see a documentary about the making of David Cronenberg's recent film Cosmopolis, and was kind of shocked to see my hero Cronenberg entombing himself in a video suite in a completely different room from the actors, rather than being on the actual set when the cameras rolled. He appeared to be entirely happy with that working method, but where's the fun in that?

#1. The making of the story can be the story.

“There's an audience not just for your product, but for how you make your product,” said moderator Ward Emling on a panel about local film offices. In the earlier “buzz” panel, the documentary Our Nixon – made of old home movies from the Nixon administration – was cited as an example of how the creation of the film can be the story that interests people. The narrative of you creating the film, with you as the central actor – that has the power to gain free exposure and get audiences to identify with the film's journey.

I wouldn't have thought that that kind of auteurism was still in fashion at all. But as Marc Schiller put it, “you can only say 'go see my movie' so many times.” You have to get the audience to identify with something, and if they haven't seen the film yet, then I guess it makes sense that the filmmaker him/herself has to be the warm-up act.

While Day 3 gave me a lot to think about, Day 4 would turn out to be the real crash course.

To be continued …

No comments:

Post a Comment