Jack Arnold, 1957, adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel. This, my friends, is cinema:
I'm thinking about getting into Directing, do you have any tips for first-timers?
Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been getting around to answering my backlog of messages. Feels good to get back in the game!
First and foremost, the most basic tip I can give you is to prepare, prepare, prepare. You can never, in my opinion, prepare too much. Break down your script, create shot lists, create acting objectives for each scene, storyboard complex sequences in advance, and rehearse if you can. Some argue that preparation kills creative spontaneity, but I’m in the camp that it actually promotes spontaneity because you’ve covered the basics before you’ve even stepped in front of the camera. You are free to make adjustments based upon the moment, of what your actors and environment are giving you, of what your instinct is telling you (more on that later). But to go into a shoot unprepared means you’ll be spending valuable time figuring things out logistically rather than spending time with your actors and key crew. Prepare, prepare, prepare and you’ll be freeing yourself to really be in the moment.
Next tip. I think back to my first film and I think the best thing I learned was to get as much coverage as I could. For the uninitiated, “coverage” is collecting as much footage as possible of each scene, and this includes wides, angles, perspectives, close-ups and inserts. A good wide master-shot will ensure that you’ve filmed the scene in its entirety, and that in a worst-case scenario you’ll have the scene in its full for your edit.
But there’s a downside to master shots, which is that they tend to be flat, long and boring. Unless you incorporate interesting movement, layers of production design or choreographed action into your masters, they will tend to read almost flat. You’ll need to have close-ups and inserts to build narrative and interest. But as a fail safe, a master shot is a great insurance policy for a first time filmmaker.
My next tip is to manage your energy on set. Think of production as a battery. Each day you start at 100% and as the day presses on, people’s energy will drain. As a director you’re going to have to be at 100% all the time, but you have to be mindful that your crew and actors will be fading as the hours pass. Manage their energy wisely through scheduling and pragmatism. Rehearsals are great but avoid doing too many - actors will tend to put their energies into their first few rounds and you’ll want to preserve that raw power. Do a walkthrough at half-speed and if you’re shooting digital, you may even want to film your rehearsals. If it’s a complex sequence, then you’ll want to schedule a rehearsal before the camera shoots so that when you’re on set, you’ll be able to fine tune without expending too much time and energy. Avoid numerous takes on things like inserts - shoot them as a series instead.
The two things you’ll never have enough of are time and money. When you shoot, try to consolidate wherever you can without losing your inherent style or objective. If you can say two things in one shot and still keep it visually interesting (think of using a camera move or having your actors move in the frame as opposed to two shots), then you’re saving both time and money. Each setup costs you precious time, so be judicious with what you can do. Early in the shoot take note of your setup times and keep a mental log of what your shots will demand in terms of time and manpower. That long, single take with a steadicam will take time to light, choreograph and execute, so if you’ve allocated the same amount of time to it as you did for an insert of a man picking up a gun, then you’ll be in trouble, and you’ll fall behind. So either incorporate the man picking up the gun in your steadicam shot, or ditch the steadicam shot and do it as a series of shots under a similar lighting scheme. Know what is important and what can be sacrificed. Be precise but avoid being a perfectionist. As Michael Mann once put it, “a perfectionist is someone who cannot distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.” Directors should be exacting in their overall vision, but they should have the wherewithal to know what is worth investing in and what can be consolidated or even excised. Those decisions will usually have to be made in the moment as you’re running out of time, you’re losing light, your talent is going into overtime, and a rainstorm is on the horizon. Believe me, it always happens, so be prepared for it.
Of course the very best tip I can give you is to listen to your instinct. Your collaborators will be bringing you thousands of decisions to be made each day, and you really have to go with what feels absolutely right to you. Being decisive is very different from being stubborn. You have a vision for your film, and every decision you make should be in service of that vision. If it doesn’t feel right - and you will know when it doesn’t feel right - then you have to act on it and devise an immediate solution to correct it. And if you don’t have an immediate solution, have the humility to ask your crew for their input. Your cast and crew are there to facilitate your vision - they are working with you, not against you - but it is your responsibility to steer them in the right direction to achieve the results you want. Hence the title of the job - director. Create a situation and environment where your collaborators are able to exercise their talents to the fullest as they bring your vision to life. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is dependent upon your ability to stick to your convictions and provide directions to making those a reality.
These are just a few tips that I think can help out. There’s tons more tips but I really think these are the utmost important ones.
…and I find this speech from Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network to be searingly poignant to our situation today.
We are human beings, and we have value.
The appreciative smile, the chuckle, the soundless mirth, so important to the success of comedy, cannot be understood unless one sits among the audience and feels the warmth created by the quality of laughter that the audience takes home with it.
I thought of this quote last night as we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window projected on a giant screen that we put up in our apartment complex parking lot. A group of about thirty-five watched the film, eating popcorn and delicious Greater’s ice cream brought in from Cincinatti.
The screening was wonderful - it was a pleasant 70 degrees with a cool breeze, and to watch that particular film in the middle of an old urban apartment complex made it especially poignant. When the movie finished we all discussed it, and it dawned on me that the entire night is an experiece that will completely escape anyone who watches the film on an iPad or iPhone. I’m not dismissing that form of viewing, but we should still seek always seek cinema as a social medium (not social media), where we feed off the common energies of an appreciative and captive audience.
With projection techology being increasingly affordable and of exceptional quality, I like the idea of doing pop-up screenings all over the country. I recommend everyone reading this blog try it out. We used a projector borrowed from a corporate office, a set of Bose Roommate speakers that I’ve had from college, and a giant canvas tarp that we nailed to our decks. Get a bunch of friends to come and have them bring their friends, and hold your screenings periodically. Your following will grow. Have someone do a small lecture on the film before the film starts, all done to build the appreciation of cinema. Hit play and enjoy the show. It took 20 mins to set up and 20 mins to take down. Everything was donated, and it cost us a few dollars per head. Nobody made a profit - that’s not the intention. The intention was to simply enjoy movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed, with a group of people on a large screen. I loved every minute of it - Grace Kelly never looked more beautiful - and our next screening will be before Halloween, a double feature of horror films, including Lilith.
The so-called “digital” is not a mere technical medium, but a medium of thought. And when modern democracies turn technical thought into a separate domain, those modern democracies incline towards totalitarianism.
As we get into the first days of sound mixing Lilith with Director of Sound Chris Stangroom at HOBO Audio, it dawned on me that the final audio mix is something that seems to be downplayed in the grand scheme of our film education. It’s something that you just write a check for and somehow, almost magically, your film comes back to after a few days sounding like a real film. We rarely know the names of award-winning sound re-recording mixers, and are often gossiping about Anne Hathaway’s dress whilst the Oscar is handed to the winner of Best Sound Mixing, namely some soft-spoken guy who is just as shocked as anyone to be sharing the same stage with said Anne Hathaway.
Hey a sound engineer can dream, can’t they?
But what does a sound re-recording mixer actually do? The lame answer to that question is that they simply adjust the volume. Turn down that dialogue, turn up that music, and make that explosion ear-splitting (Hey I think I just described the sound mixing process for Transformers: Dark of the Moon). While adjusting the volume (or levels) of the collective sounds of a film is one part of mixing, there’s actually so much more to it than just knob twiddling.
Think of a band playing on stage. The drummer is pounding the living hell out the drums, the guitarist is shredding within an inch of her life, and the vocalist is screaming at the top of his lungs. The performance all about pure, raw emotion, leaving it all on the stage. Now imagine all of those individual performances being channeled into a single speaker. The result is a brutal mishmash of disparate parts working together in intent, but each fighting for a piece of your ear. You can hear drums, vocals and guitar, but the only thing that distinguishes them is their inherent properties, and collectively it sounds like white noise.
Now take that channel and exercise a simple, basic mix. Relegate the drums to the back by turning them down to 4, place the guitars in the middle by turning it down to 6, and place the vocals in the forefront by letting it ride at 7.5. Within an instant, you’ve created separation and depth to the recording, and each instrument has a space to occupy.
And now try to be creative. Reverse the properties by letting the drums be the lead at 7.5, put the vox in the middle, and let the guitar swim in the background at a faint 3, like a ghostly whisper in the far distance. It becomes a totally different song and a wildly different feeling that is conveyed - the emphasis on the drums promotes aggression and boldness, and the guitar is a creepy whisper haunting the vocals.
And while the levels are the primary tool, there are numerous filters, reverbs, and plugins that manipulate the four basic properties of sound: amplitude, wavelength, frequency and velocity. Taking charge of these properties changes the quality of the sound, making the drums sound like cardboard boxes or conversely like sheet metal, or taking a pristine clean vocal and making it sound like it is being warbled through a megaphone whilst knocking back a liter of Jack Daniels.
Just about anything can be done in a sound mix, but with literally millions of options available to a re-recording mixer, restraint must be applied, and service to the story must come first. Just as a cinematographer chooses a specific type of light or shadow to create a visual canvas for a character’s emotional state, so too does the mixer choose a filter or reverb to reflect the emotional quality of the aural world. Within the four elements of the mix - speech, ambience, sound effects, and music - the mixer determine what element emphasizes the truth of that moment, of how it interacts with the other elements, and finally what overall effect it will dramatically have upon the viewer.
It’s not an easy job by any means. It requires a keen sense of observation and a deft understanding of human nature, of how we react to sounds and what kinds of emotions those sounds provoke, both in isolation and in juxtaposition with other sounds. Many films tend to go straight literal in their mixes - loud and bassy means anger or aggression, and soft means vulnerable or romantic. The fact that for the last decade the Oscar for best sound mixing has gone to an action film (with Ray being the lone exception), our acceptance of sound cliches are at an all time high. This is lazy, purely what we expect from sounds, and yet the best (and most unrecognized) sound mixers will often play with our expectations, and furthermore manipulate them without our even knowing them. They’re like sonic ninjas.
Take this photograph taken recently during the bonehead hockey riots in Vancouver last month:
Now if we were to mix the sounds of that moment according to cliche, we’d emphasize the riot sounds, add emphasis to a swelling score that leads us to feel the climax of the moment, and place the sounds of the officer screaming at the forefront because he is the closest to the screen.
But an adventurous mixer will try something different, and try to interpret the moment from an emotional standpoint. Maybe muffle and bury the crowd sounds in the deep background, and bring the sounds of the kiss up. Perhaps emphasize a low rumble that replicates the flow of blood in our ears. With the music, perhaps put a delay and echo on it to make it sound like a dream. And the voice of the cop and float in and out of audible range, perhaps gaining definition when the couple separates lips, and going back into garble when they engage one another again. This emphasizes the overall feeling that while the world is a cacophonous blend of clanging shit, all that these two know is each other. The sound mix can emphasize that without being literal.
Coming across creative sound mixing is a treat, and it is exceedingly rare. One of the finest mixing jobs I’ve ever heard is on the highly - nay criminally - underrated film Copland, directed by James Mangold and mixed by Allan Byer. Take a look at this clip and you’ll see (and hear) what I mean. In this scene Freddy Heflin (a brilliant Sylvester Stallone) gets shot near his ear, rendering his hearing almost deaf. The sound mix in this sequence gets the pure feeling of sensory loss and disorientation across, and it’s absolutely haunting.
That’s absolutely magnificent. Even in Italian.
P.S. Remember to contribute / promote the Lilith Kickstarter campaign, and to check out the trailer! Thanks!
After the articles on the film came out yesterday, we had a huge influx of new followers in the past 24 hours. The blog has been growing by about fifty new followers a day for the past few weeks, so there are a lot of new folks hanging around. Welcome!
Given that there are 272 very lengthy and exhaustive posts on this blog, it can be pretty daunting to catch up. I got an email from a reader who said he went to the archive and started reading from the very first entry, and that he’s been reading for six straight hours. That’s dedication! Thank you!
While it would be great for all my new readers to devote an entire day and the health of their eyeballs to catching up with the progress of the film, I wanted to create a more concise archive of the blog so that new readers can get up to speed. Unless of course you want to read everything, then that’s totally okay with me. :)
For the newcomers, the Lilith blog is broken up into four phases: pre-production, production, post-production and distribution, which is where we are at now. Peppered in-between all these are subcategories like 'Hot Topic', where I tend to ramble on about an issue that is germane to film and media, or sometimes it can be completely random (my dislike for Sarah Palin is clearly evident, soon to be followed by Michele Bachmann) . There are weekly 'Music for the Weekend' entries where I try to post music that I’m listening to, or to promote new bands that are still under the radar.
But for those who want to get into the meat-and-potatoes of the film, here’s a quick guide:
Pre-Production: Screenwriting:The Script
The Script, Pt.2 - Manga Influence.
The Script, Pt.3 - Twelve Angry Men
The Script, Pt. 4 - Receiving Notes and Feedback
Pre-Production: Director’s Choices and Casting:Locations - Building a Different Kind of Hell.
Film vs. Digital
The Sonic Universe of “Lilith” - Music by Dälek
The Leading Lady of ‘Lilith’ - Meet Julia Voth.
Art Direction and Production Design - Devil in the Details.
Production: Notes from the Shoot.:Four Days Down.
From Page to Screen.
Scheduling and Trying Not to Kill Everyone.
Calling “Action!” and all the movie magic that leads up to it.
Problem Solving: the Core of Directing.
Directing Scenes of a More Intimate Nature.
It’s a Wrap.
Post-Production: Editing and Sound:On Editing: Marx and Murch.
Pacing the edit.
The Edit: Ins-and-Outs.
Little Noises, Big Sound.
Editing a Scene from Lilith
Editing: Creating Eerie Movies.
Letting go of the edit: the next level of language.
Scoring with Dälek.
Sound Design: The True Third Dimension.
Sample of Dälek’s Original Score for Lilith.
So that’s 272 posts whittled down to 30 (some are taken out of chronological order for ease of reading, especially in the Production section), and that should get all the new readers up to speed on where we are. I’ll update this post maybe once a month so that it becomes a progressive digest. While the 30 posts are pretty good, if you read everything then you’ll get the little nuances (like my penchant for pictures of cats) that make this production so kooky and weird.
Again thank you everyone for your continued support and interest, it means the world to me!
Played 130 times
Music for the Weekend: Closedown by The Cure.
I chose this track because as mentioned in the last post, we’re pretty much closing down the third act of the Lilith journey, post-production, and entering the final act, which is promotion and distribution. I know that business matters can tend to be dry and humorless, but they’re as important as any decision in the creation of a film. I’ll try my best to make them entertaining and to never lose sight of the fact that most business decisions are indeed creative decisions.
And speaking of promotions I’d be remiss if I didn’t promote a herculean endeavor by one of my Lilith collaborators, Nancy Telzerow. Nancy, the actress who plays Flora, the mother of Julia Voth’s character in Lilith, has for the past year created the ultimate homage to her acting muse, Meryl Streep. Inspired by the film Julie and Julia, wherein a young woman cooks and documents every recipe cooked from Julia Child’s legendary cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Nancy decided to create 24 vignettes of Meryl Streep’s best works. She’s called it A to Z with Meryl and Me, and she completed the series a few months ago.
Nancy creeping out as ‘Flora’ in ‘Lilith.’
This is dedication, and I can personally attest to Nancy’s drive and focus, as she delivered such an amazing and creepily nuanced performance for me in Lilith. Nancy’s one of our finest actors, and with Lilith I’m hoping a wider audience can bask in her talents. In the meantime, you can see Nancy’s A to Z with Meryl and Me on her YouTube channel here.
And if any of my readers knows a way to get a hold of Meryl Streep, please forward Nancy’s work on to her! :)
Have a great weekend!
I remember when I was a kid I visited my Dad’s village in India for the first time. It was a tiny rural farming community that at the time didn’t have television, had a single road, and entertainment was done the old fashioned way, which was to tell stories on the porch. That was in the early 80s, and now everyone in the village has a cell phone.
Back then I was a snooty American kid who didn’t want anything to do with his mother culture, so I drowned myself in my Walkman, listening to my favorite Skinny Puppy and Ministry tapes. One of the locals sat next to me and asked what I was doing with this thing on my ears, and I let him listen. I still remember to this day his reaction. His eyes opened as big as galaxies and he looked at me. He pointed in the middle of his forehead and said: “the sound is right here!”
It was a telling moment that always reminds me of the spatial magic that sound can create. Stereo sound is all-encompassing, and when engineered correctly in concert with a 2-D image, it can create an infinite level of depth and immersion. It is, for all intents and purposes, the true third dimension to filmmaking. In that regard, filmmakers have been making 3D movies for almost a century.
I’ve spent the last few months with dälek and the creative geniuses at HOBO Sound Studios in NYC building up that third dimension for Lilith, and its been an incredible and fulfilling experience. We’ve been adding dozens of layers of tiny sounds and massive beats, giving texture to already-textured images. I can never underestimate the leap that a film takes when it is properly sound designed and cleaned up.
When I say cleaned up I’m talking about one of the most labor intensive aspects of filmmaking, which is the removal of extraneous sounds from the dialogue tracks. It’s a detail which should never be overlooked, and no expense of time or resources spared.
Essentially we’ve worked so hard to build an edit of the film, but the edit is not continuous piece of footage - it is an assembly of disparate parts and moments that were all shot at different times, so if we listen closely to the ambient background noise, the sound from each clip will always be different. Air pressure, wind, birds, airplanes, even the cadence of the performers changes. So along with the eventual adjusting of levels (which we’ll get into on a later post), the sound has to be meticulously cleaned up to make it harmonious, to make it sound like it was all recorded at the same moment, to make us believe that the edit is a chronological progression in real time.
Believability is also built in infinite details of the sonic world. Try this little exercise - step away from reading this blog and close your eyes for ten seconds. Listen to the thousands of small sounds in your environment, from the hum of your computer, to birds outside, to cars in the far distance. There are tons of elements that make up our natural world, and the more we build into our sound design, the more our film will replicate our everyday experience. My Director of Sound on Lilith, Chris Stangroom, has together with his team at HOBO Audio built a meticulously detailed environment that give veracity to an otherwise absurd premise for a film, a girl trapped in hell.
Director of Sound Chris Stangroom working the big board and ProTools for the sound design of ‘Lilith.’
It’s been such a joy working with Chris as he builds the environment and the creature sounds of the various inhabitants of hell. I hear an arcane and bizarre sound coming out of the speakers and Chris demystifies it for me, showing me an alchemical mix of polar bears, lions, birds, and even his own voice twisted into something dark and tortured. Just another moment of movie magic.
I’ve tried to inculcate an artistic, interpretive approach to sound, and I can say I’ve honestly tried to do that with every department in the film. We’re making a movie about a girl in hell, so we needn’t be so literal in our interpretation of the surroundings. Yes they will have the depth and detail that makes it believable, but every sound should have a motivation, and sometimes even a metaphorical meaning. Any sound designer can make a door creak, but how that door creaks can tell a completely different and fascinating story, and it is this richness in detail which a creative mind can bring to the table. Walter Murch gave a ceiling fan the sounds of a helicopter in Apocalypse Now, and transformed the overall impact and meaning of the sequence, and the way we experience cinema. The marriage of interpretive sound with image, along with the tools of the picture edit, creates a confluence of experience and emotion that only the artifice of cinema can provide. Such is the power of focused, open, and creative post-production work. It’s as creative an endeavor as writing, directing, photographing or acting, and to call post-production folks terms like ‘engineers’ and ‘programmers’ is a cold disservice. They are artists, true artists, through and through.
I’ve been blessed with some of the most creative collaborators I’ve ever known, and it’s been two months of sonic exploration and discovery. I absolutely loved every minute of the process.
What magic lays in this machine? Besides the fact that it fucking moves BY ITSELF.
With sound design complete, all that remains on Lilith is the final audio mix and color correction. I’m not downplaying the importance of these last two steps, and nor am I downplaying the level of detailed work involved in those two endeavors, but in terms of adding or subtracting material from the film, Lilith is finished. It is the story which will appear on the screen, in image, performance, and sound. I burned two copies of the film on Friday morning and shipped them off to the Toronto International Film Festival. Premiering at Toronto would be a nice way to reward everyone, including me, you and everyone who has ever worked on or supported this film, for all their hard work and dedication. I’m confident that we’ve put our best foot forward for Toronto, and I hope whoever watches it will appreciate the love and meticulous attention to detail and craft that we’ve committed. Fingers and toes crossed until we hear the word, which won’t be for another few months.
But life goes on, and distribution, a trailer, and other goodies lay ahead!