Month: April, 2011

At the Root of it All: Basketball

Basketball at its finest: in black-and-white

This is a picture from the 1969 Celtics championship season. What I’m immediately struck by is how much better basketball looks in black-and-white. And with the absence of modern lighting there is actually shadow on the court, something unheard of in today’s sports coverage. America’s obsession with overlighting causes us to forget the epic symbolism of light and shadow: the struggle between knowledge and ignorance, between the certain past and the unknowable future, between good and evil. Light and shadow work together to create and subvert expectation, a process that informs narrative at the very deepest levels. And for the characters in our lives they often signify the differences between the men we are and those we had wished to become. These struggles are generally more visible with more personal narratives, which is one of the reasons why the experience of watching college ball is so much more emotional than following the NBA.

This sense of struggle is why we love sports, and its presence makes this 1969 game seem quieter, more sincere, and more deserving of its place in history.

The Wide World of Color Theory

The fantastically choreographed work of director Busby Berkeley

I’m prepping for a project where we’ll be shooting a performance sequence on a white cyc stage. One significant visual influence for the project is the high-energy choreography work of the 1930s American director Busby Berkeley.

The director is drawn to the confluence of Berkeley’s work with the Constructivist movement that had flourished in the Soviet Union during the previous decade. Interestingly, both genres focus on collective form and the strength and poetry it is capable of delivering.

We don’t have nearly the time or resources to replicate a Busby sequence (though I would relish the opportunity), but we want to capture some of the feel of collective endeavor through human movement. One subtle way to achieve this is through the use of color, which ironically is one of the few tools that Berkley didn’t employ (his films were shot in black and white).

I’ve been experimenting with blues, greens, and their complements on the red and yellow end of the spectrum. My gut keeps drawing me toward a more pastel palette, though my brain resists this (I keep thinking about the colors of CSI Miami).

I know inside that I must override this resistance and go with my gut.

The Film School Quandry

Even though I finished film school almost ten years ago, people contact me on a regular basis for advice about whether or not it’s worth it: “Can’t I just start working in the film business?” Yes, you can. There are successful filmmakers out there who skipped the film school route entirely, but they are usually the exception to the rule. In a field where the odds of career success are stacked against you, I consider film school one of the most effective methods (albeit an expensive one) to level the playing field a bit.

If you move to Hollywood and start working on set, you will learn more about production in a week than you would have in a year at most film schools. That said, you will be working for other filmmakers instead of making your own projects. If you are a consummate overachiever, then maybe you can do it on your own. But for the rest of us, film school provides structure and feedback to develop your own voice and ideas, mentors to guide you, opportunities to actually make your own films, and a network of colleagues that you trust and who you will work with for decades to come. Very few people find these things in the film business on their own.

Not long ago a short film I shot screened at Sundance and the director asked me to join him and the other filmmakers for the Q&A after the screening. There were twelve or fifteen filmmakers standing at the front of the room, and when someone in the audience asked how many of us went to film school, all but one raised their hand. When I think back on my achievements as a filmmaker—the awards, the teaching, the opportunities, the Fulbright—I realize that none of those things would be part of my life if I hadn’t gone to a graduate film program. I’m a stubborn fellow, often to a fault, so chances are I would have tried to make it happen on my own, but I just don’t think it would have played out the same way.

To sum up: you don’t have to go to film school, but if you want to do this for a living, it sure helps. Plus, if you love cinema and can find the right program for you, it can be an incredible experience. Like everyone in this business, I’ve had days of doubt about my career choice, but I’ve never once regretted film school.

Stay tuned for future posts on how to get the most out of a cinema education.

The Proof is in the Pre-production

A scene from the film "Diana", directed by Peter Yu.

Just wrapped a short film for Taiwanese director Peter Yu. I haven’t seen the footage yet (we shot b/w 16mm negative, a rare treat), but I’m generally pleased with the piece. From a production standpoint, the real accomplishment is that we shot 24 pages in three days, which for a short project of this budget is almost unheard of.

From the perspective of the cinematographer, movies are really made during pre-production, not on set. There is so much prep work that goes into a project, even a short one like this, that by the time you step up to the lens most of the difficult decisions have already been made. Sure there are challenges along the way, but having already planned for the most formidable of the bunch allows us so much more flexibility on the day. Frankly, it allows the director and I to enjoy the shooting process so much more.

For me finishing a film is an embarrassingly emotional experience: it feels a bit like when I finished college, but not quite as frightening. The first 48 hours after wrap are a strange mixture of feelings of accomplishment and regret. Actors and crew members that you only met ten days ago feel like old friends that you will never see again. It’s an entire courtship, marriage, and good-bye compressed into a matter of days. After feature projects I always slip into a week of sadness. I thought this would get better with age and experience, but the neurosis of nostalgia is too strong in me. I feel older, and a bit wiser.

What’s next?