A Strange Sound

Sons Of Magdalene

Move to Pain

Played 76 times

Music for the Weekend: A Strange Sound by Sons of Magdalene.

Call me a helpless romantic of the 80s. I was listening to this Sons of Magdalene album (which is not from the 80s) at 6:00am yesterday, looking out the windows of the subway train onto a gray, rainy and awakening Chicago. I was heading downtown to our rehearsal space for Six Angry Women, ready for another three hour session of improvisation and study.

After three weeks of intense one-on-one rehearsal sessions with my six actresses, this Tuesday was the very first time they all met each other for the first time. I’d laid down some ground rules, the most important of which was that they could not tell each other about their characters. I have to admit I was really nervous on my first day of group rehearsals, as I’d never done this approach before. Usually when I go into rehearsals I’ve got fully broken down script, and here all I’ve got are six very real and very vibrant characters.

Honestly I feel like a newborn baby learning to take his first steps. I’m tempering my need to scientifically analyze and trying to create exercises in rehearsal that will get us to the place we need to be. After two sessions, I’m more than happy with the work we’ve done. Our previous three weeks of work has really paid dividends, as I have the luxury of putting six fully-formed characters in any situation, and watch how they react. It’s really empowering for both me and my actors, and at this point it’s my charge to give them very well thought out and clear objectives to explore. That is my next responsibility, which is to fashion the script around these objectives.

I really admire these six ladies for all the extremely hard work and long hours they’ve put in with me to make these characters. They’re all completely different and unique from one another, and they’re all very real. I must admit that this improvisational approach to filmmaking is incredibly exhausting, even more so that just sitting down and writing a full screenplay and storyboarding it out. At least with the latter approach I have certainties, whereas here I’m faced with the unknown every morning. It’s scary but exhilarating, but the energy required to create something new every day and every minute is immense. I have to find ways to relieve the intensity of the process, or else we’re going to get burned out quickly. I have some ideas, and we’ll try them out on our next session this Saturday morning.

My cinematographer flew in last night and we’re already building our visual strategy and blocking patterns. Watching a lot of movies and pulling photo references, just as we did on Lilith, but unlike Lilith we really don’t have a template to build on. We’re building it from scratch. The film is going to be highly stylized but if done right, it the style will never formally announce itself. As everything comes together, it should coalesce into a new vision, a strange sound indeed.

Have a wonderful weekend.

The work on ‘Six Angry Women’ begins, two decisions already made.

Back home from LA, got a day’s rest, and jumping full speed into working on 'Six Angry Women.'

As a reminder for those just joining in, in a bout of inspiration that I will write about further, I’ve greenlit my own production of a feature film that follows the deliberation of an all-woman jury for a fictional trial where a young black man is shot dead. The case is an amalgamation of incidents like the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings. I have no screenplay for the film, only an outline, and the script will be built through improvisation during rehearsals. We’re gonna Mike Leigh this movie into existence.

We’ve set the shoot date for November 6th-11th. Yes, that’s a six day shoot for a feature length film. It’s insane, but that’s how I roll. I’ve found three of my six angry women and have to be fully cast by October 1st, which is when our rehearsals begin. We’ll rehearse for five weeks. My DoP, Faroukh Mistry, who shot Lilith, will be coming in early and during rehearsals we’ll figure out our shot list and visual strategy. We’ve already made two creative decisions that are written in stone: we will film in black-and-white, and the movie will be shot in a 4:3 format.

These choices are both instinctual and symbolic. I just felt the 4:3 format, the “square” aspect ratio, was fitting because all of these police brutality / racial profiling / shootings are being chronicled on television, and the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite our widescreen flat-panel televisions at home, is still considered the classic “tv” aesthetic. It also is symbolic a myopic, sheltered point-of-view, which for me is important when it comes to showing each juror in their own self-justified world. I also love the format, used brilliantly in films like Meek’s Cutoff and Wuthering Heights. Both films feel like a pressure cooker of tension simply by their choice of aspect ratio. Aesthetically I also love having the black bars on the sides, it’s a bit of a jolt since we’re so used to widescreen now.


Wuthering Heights dir. Andrea Arnold


Meeks Cutoff dir. Kelly Reichardt

The decision to film in B&W is a purely symbolic one. The court-justified shooting of unarmed black men is a black-and-white issue that has tons of moral gray inbetween. To film it in vibrant color seems like an affront to the issue at hand. To do it this way would also reinforce the starkness and bleakness of the situation. I’m inspired by Robert Elswit’s work on Good Night, and Good Luck and Roger Deakins’ work on The Man Who Wasn’t There. Lofty standards, but Faroukh’s a kick-ass DoP who can do it.


The Man Who Wasn’t There, dir. The Coen Brothers


Good Night, and Good Luck, dir. George Clooney

Locking in on decisions like this early on makes so many future choices clearer. The location we choose, the set dressing, the costumes, the makeup, the blocking and the framing will all be driven by these two choices. We will not step down from these choices, they are set in stone, and were mutually made after a long discussion between me and my cinematographer. It’s a bold choice, but then again after being honest about why the choice was made, it’s not that bold at all.

Tons of work ahead, and after a long lull this blog will pick up some steam as we plow forward into the great unknown!

The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots

Absolutely engrossing, educational, and reaffirming my previous statement that Paul Thomas Anderson is the most important living filmmaker of our times.

Watch, watch again, and let us learn.

(Source: vimeo.com)

noah-andrew ASKED:

So amazing reel. I'm a film student and my first major short film will be taking place in a night club. I love the images you have in your real of the women in the night club and I was wondering what camera, lenses what not you used to create the image. THANKS!


Thank you for the kind words about the reel - it’s amazing and weird to see eight years of work condensed into under three minutes!

The night club images you’re talking about were achieved through a very meticulous lighting scheme that’s worthy of a greater discussion when it comes to low-light photography, which I seem to have a natural attraction to.

First things first, for those reading this anew, revisit the sequences in the reel - they can be found at 00:15-00:18, 00:46-00:49, and 01:08-01:10.

These sequences, which were lit by my DoP Faroukh Mistry, were meant to replicate some level of blacklight lighting, but I really didn’t want to push the neon aspects, rather I wanted to really bring out that intense blue. There were two cinematic references for these sequences, the first being the nightclub sequence in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, specifically the scenes where Naturelle (played by a vibrantly sexy Rosario Dawson) is dancing. The scene, lit by Rodrigo Prieto, is quite harsh in its lighting, but I loved its polarity.

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The second reference was from one of my all-time favorite movies, John Boorman’s Point Blank with Lee Marvin. The nightclub sequence in that film is one of the reasons why I even wrote a nightclub scene in the first place.


Lee Marvin kicks so much ass in this film it’s unreal.

I loved the kinetics and use of black in Point Blank, but it didn’t read enough color, so the goal I set out to Faroukh was to achieve a happy median between both references, where we had the color vibrancy of the former and the menacing darkness of the latter. I think we pulled it off quite well.

image

From a technical standpoint, we shot true anamorphic on RED, using Elite Anamorphic lenses, and for lighting we relied primarily on space lights, a few select Kino-Flos and a well-placed disco ball along with some existing par cans in the club space (we shot in an actual nightclub). Production Design supplied practical lighting within the frame. All lights were equipped with a specific cocktail of gels that were sandwiched in. I’d have to ask my cinematographer for what specific gels but we played in the realms of blue and magenta. The camera was placed on a Fisher dolly. Here’s a pic of the rig from the shoot:

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DoP Faroukh Mistry on the set of ‘Lilith.’ Photo by my brilliant 3rd AC Woo Tang. Yes, that’s his name.

The key to these low-light club sequences is to give yourself enough data so that you can bring yourself to the desired image later in color correction. A lot of times filmmakers rely upon the sensitivity of the digital sensor to give them the exact image they want, and this, truthfully, is playing with fire when it comes to this kind of photography. Shooting digital in the dark means you risk your highlights becoming ‘electronicky,’ where you’ll start to see noise and pixelation in your edges and blacks. To avoid this, we generally light the scene at a higher exposure, and then crush the blacks in post-production. This is not very complicated, it’s a matter of moving one slider over on a program like Color (we used DaVinci Resolve, manned by super talented colorist Patrick Inhofer). Crush the blacks and then play around with your saturation and gamma to give you your desired effect.

But to do this, as aforementioned it’s important to give yourself enough data to play around with. With post-production overall, it’s always important to remember this VERY KEY rule, which is that it is easier to take away information from an image than add to it. Repeat that mantra in your head a couple of hundred times to really register it.

In post it’s far easier to make something dark - removing information - than make it brighter or try to pull up highlights from an already shadowy and underexposed image. When we shot the club sequence, the room was pretty brightly lit (which we also had to do because we were shooting anamorphic, which requires more light just to get us to an exposure somewhere between 2.0 and 2.8), but we had all of the data encoded in the lighting - our color highlights, textures and shadows. All we had to do was crush the blacks and pull up the blue in post, which was about one minute of work. It brings up a general philosophy of filmmaking which I subscribe to, which is that you should make every conceivable effort to capture your film in its entirety in camera, and leave the absolute minimum to post-production. This both for aesthetic and cost purposes, as the more manipulation of the image in post means the more risk of your film looking like a CGI image - it loses its human quality. And of course making all of these changes in post-production is insanely expensive, as skilled colorists are always in demand and booked solid, and their time doesn’t come cheap. You may have the temptation to color your film yourself, and I would temper that desire unless you are well versed in color theory and use of the software. Coloring is a highly developed skillset - you may have a general idea of how you want your color schemes but achieving them is an entirely different ballgame. Leave that to your DP first and foremost, and then use the skill and art of the colorist to really bring that native scheme to vibrant life.

Of course on a student film or a low-budget indie you will be forced to wear many hats and you will very likely be coloring your own film, and if this is the case then follow my advice and capture as much as you possibly can on set, and leave your post manipulations to an absolute minimum. Your film will benefit from the time spent lighting a scene properly, as will your actors and their performance. Everyone wins when you exercise craft.

Color Correction - the Final Balancing Act.

Last week, my cinematographer Faroukh Mistry and I spent four days at Twitch Studios in NYC color correcting Lilith. I had done some rudimentary color correct work on the film to prepare for festival screeners, but this was a next-level process that really fine tuned the image to be exactly where we needed it to be.

I had mentioned a few posts before that the first and most important step to color correcting was to basically shoot good footage, which is what we did on Lilith. Because of this, we had a tremendous amount of latitude in terms of where we wanted to go with the image. The simplest solution was to generally crush the blacks on the image, to take the milkiness out of the native blacks on the camera capture.

But before we get into the nuts and bolts of color correcting, let’s take a few steps back and talk some basic color theory, because without theory then we’re correcting blind. We’ve all seen a color wheel at some point in our lives, whether it be at a paint store or in our high school art class. Here’s a quick refresher:

Looking at the color wheel, we have three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow (green for digital, i.e. RGB - thanks @kevinmichaluk!). The combination of all three when we use paint forms black (i.e subtractive color mixing), and when we combine all three in terms of light, it forms a pure white (i.e. additive color mixing). For the purpose of RGB film color correcting, we will stick with the additive color mixing parameter.

Where we go from these three colors are broken into three subcategories: lightness (i.e. light vs. dark, or white vs. black), saturation (intense vs. dull), and hue (e.g., red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple). You’ll see on the color wheel that the hues are broken down into primary, secondary and tertiary levels, although the human eye can detect over 2.7 million distinct hues.

At it’s most basic, the idea is that complementary colors are the ones directly across from the color on the wheel, e.g. blue and orange, purple and yellow, and red and green. The idea stems from Issac Newton’s original thesis that “hot” colors such as red, yellow and orange, become tempered by “cool” colors like blue, purple and green, and the resulting balance is the most aesthetically pleasing. In many ways this works, but with the aforementioned spectrum of hues, it’s not set in stone.

When we correct for film, we’re going beyond simple aesthetics of color theory, which is important, but we’re also pushing for an emotional hue that corresponds to the performance on the screen while also maintaining a consistency of color that binds each shot together into a cohesive whole.

It’s no simple task, and even the slightest degree of difference can remove a shot from a sequence. When we first started correcting with colorist Patrick Inhofer, I had to always remind myself that we’re correcting a total film, and not specific shots. The first instinct when correcting is to make each individual shot as beautiful as they can be, and what goes to the wayside is the effect that the color shift has on the shots previous and after. Correct for one shot and a tidal wave effect is created, in that all other shots in that sequence must match, in one way or another, with the color choices made.

It would be rather elementary to use the aforementioned color theory and just make the images sing. We bring ‘pop’ into the composition by crushing the blacks, thereby increasing the contrast and as a result making the colors more vibrant. The RED camera didn’t record true blacks, so this was an absolute necessity. But in certain sequences I wanted to increase the dramatic impact of what was going onscreen, so I made the choice to push away from the conventional color theory and try something a little more radical.

As I soon learned, this can be risky. The minute I started asking for parameters outside of the native footage, the original color schemes shot by Faroukh started going out of whack, and some crazy colors started to seep in. Magentas and purples started materializing where there previously were none. Whites were hot and blown out. My intention was to have a sequence that not only respected Faroukh’s original work, but also amplified the emotional note that was being struck onscreen. It’s a fine balancing act, albeit a necessary one.

I also learned that such kinds of drastic moves really need to be done on set, and planned before anything is even shot. Had Faroukh known this was the direction I wanted to go in, we would have lit it accordingly. But truth be told, at that time I didn’t know that this was the direction I wanted to go in, rather it is a feeling I had after the edit and the music came together. It felt right, and I wanted to push with what we had.

What ensued was a mind-numbing dance of pushing colors by a fraction of a degree for almost two hours, struggling to find that right balance between expression and continuity. What we also wanted to avoid was the image looking like it had been fed through a post-production process, where it would look electronic and unnatural. In the end, and after a lot of frustration, we got it done. The sequence is bold and yet has a very natural place in the grand naturalistic design of the film. It took a lot to get there, but I’m glad we all stuck it out and got what I had envisioned. The movie is better for it.

Lilith is being rendered and once I get it back I’ll post some before-and-after stills of the color correct. It’s a very different film after correction, and it has a beautiful polish on it that wasn’t there before. It looks simply gorgeous, and I’m incredibly happy with how it’s turned out. As a final step I couldn’t ask for something more gratifying than seeing the film as it was meant to be seen.

This officially closes the post-production act of Lilith, and from here on out the final act will be exhibition, festivals and distribution. I hope you enjoyed the production travails of Lilith, and that it gives you the inspiration and some level of guidance on your own creative endeavors.

As always, if you haven’t already please do not forget to contribute to the Lilith Kickstarter campaign and promote the Lilith trailer. We have less than two weeks left, and while we made a lot of progress last week, we’re nowhere near our goal. Nothing is impossible, and all it takes is a few people to get the ball really rolling. Remember, five dollars minimum and you get a call from me - who knows, it might land you a spot on my next production!

Huzzah!

It’s been a rough 48 hours, and it’s always hard to swallow one’s pride. But as I posted before, it’s okay. Things happen for a reason. I’ve been to Sundance before and this was not the year. One festival does a film not make, but it would have been nice to screen at Sundance and see some old friends. Next time.

But what better way to dispel the blues by sharing some gifts. I sent out some screencaps of Lilith to my friends and it seemed incomplete without sharing some with my loyal and wonderful readers!

As for the progress, not getting into Sundance has actually re energized me to get back to refining the edit, and I’m cutting with a new sense of purpose. For whatever reason I’m seeing the film with a new set of eyes, and I’ve got some determination and moxie behind it.


The joy is that I get to see these images from the film every day, in my head and on my screen.

We’re still working on music rights and I’ve also commissioned some very talented artists to create the posters for the film, which I’m supremely excited about. I’ll blog about them in the near future.


Visions of hell.

Sometimes it takes a little jolt to spark the passion in your project. I’ve been obsessing about the details of Lilith and it’s been awhile since I just stepped back and look at what we’ve accomplished. In the most humble way possible, I think we’ve shot a beautiful film, and I think it has a tremendous and enriching life ahead of it. But I’m just not ready to send it out into the big, bad world yet. There’s still a lot of work to do.


Time for some good ol’ fashioned hyperviolence, ‘Lilith’ style.

Being in the film business for so many years now has given me a thick skin, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Sometimes it’s hard to shake being desensitized, and I have to remind myself it’s okay to show some emotions. But it also is a boon in that setbacks are the stepping stones to success, that no journey towards a goal will be without its hurdles. And most importantly, setbacks are a perfect opportunity for reassessment and an honest dialogue with oneself to make sure we are focused on working towards excellence.

Hard, honest work will never be denied. I feel good! :-)

EDIT: The Sundance line up was officially announced today, and my colleague Asif Kapdia’s documentary SENNA was accepted. Do support Asif’s amazing film at the fests and eventually in the theaters!

On Photography.

So I’ve taken a few days break from Lilith after my marathon editing sessions to get the Sundance screener together. After pulling twenty consecutive 19-hour days, my eyeballs needed a rest.

But always the filmmaker, my hobbies outside of my profession inevitably always lead me back to my work. To pass time I like to read (currently nose-deep in Cormac McCarthy’s chilling Blood Meridian, which Im sure I’ll write about later) and I like to take pictures.

Now I’m the furthest thing from a professional photographer, and I’ve never pretended to have any kind of real photographic skill. The sheer beauty of the images in Lilith are the product of my cinematographer, Faroukh Mistry. But before we shot the film I sat down for many hours with Faroukh, discussing the intent, design and aesthetic of the cinematography, a conversation I would likely be unable to have if I didn’t take the time to go out and take pictures.

As I’ve written previously, what differentiates cinema from photography is editing, where shots and sounds are stitched together. But in the bigger picture, photography is the origins of film, as the moving image, aided by the persistence of vision, is simply a progression of still photographs. So we’d be remiss to think that photography has no influence on how we tell stories. On the contrary, how we process and photograph stills very much informs how we tell stories in a visual medium.

Cascade.
My portrait of the Buddha, taken in Evergreen, Colorado.

When we take still photographs, we’re distilling the essence of filmmaking down to a single frame, and our challenge is to tell a story or register an emotion in a solitary image. We are stripped of the tools of cinema - specifically movement, but we can find ways to imply movement through exposure and composition. Mastering this way of interpreting the world visually is an invaluable tool for all filmmakers. In my honest opinion, every filmmaker must be a photographer, irrespective of the department. Doing so hammers down the fundamentals of visual storytelling, and pares our cognitive skills to the utmost basic. When we can tell a compelling story in a single image, everything thereafter - succession of images, sound, visual effects, editing - serves to amplify that base image. This is the absolute core of being a visual storyteller.

midnight, on a subway...
My old stomping grounds, NYC.

When we have the core of photography in our heads, we can best estimate how we will assemble shots and how those images will come together to provide the different layers of the film. But if I may make a suggestion, it is to first embrace photography as a film medium. Do not go out with a point-and-shoot digital camera and snap away. Digital SLRs and point-and-shoots have turned us into shutterbugs, where we don’t think about the composition because we can just take a thousand photos of the same subject. We have the instant gratification of seeing what we shot, and we all-too-many times think we can fix the image later in Photoshop. These are skills to be applied later. In the beginning, go out an buy a cheap, used 35mm film camera and in your free time, snap pictures.

Shooting on film makes you consider your compositions because of the limited resource - i.e., the film itself - and you don’t get the instant gratification of seeing what you shot, so you are forced to really put some thought into compositions. I’m not saying mull on a composition for twenty minutes before you shoot it, rather simply register in your head your thought and creative process before you press that button.

As for my own personal kit, I go pretty bare bones. I shoot my photographs on a beat-up LOMO LC-A, a Russian toy camera that is blessed with the glorious Minitar lens. The Minitar has a unique coating on it that produces images of astounding contrast and saturation, and using it with the minimal controls on the LOMO is like wrestling a wild boar. When you shoot on a LOMO or Holga camera, you absolutely have to rely upon your instincts and judgement, and for me this is an ideal exercise to sharpen my mind, my eye, and my aesthetic. It also reinforces my dislike of using a zoom lens in filmmaking. In my opinion, because the human eye does not have the ability to zoom, the minute we employ it in a film, we are making it very apparent to our audience that they are watching a film. We must make every concievable effort to suspend the belief of the audience, and not employing a zoom lens is my personal way of contributing to this. If I want to go in close, then I’ll use a dolly, because that’s what we naturally do when we want to see something up close - we walk up to it. I have to do that with the LOMO, and it’s produced some lovely images for me.

squinches?
The Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, India. Taken on a LOMO.

I also like to play with film stocks and developing. One of my favorite things to do is to shoot cross-process, i.e. to shoot on slide film (E6) and have it developed in standard color chemicals (C41). When you shoot cross-process on a LOMO, you’re wrestling with the extremes of photogrpahy, and your instinct and base understanding of the emulsion becomes paramount. I simply love it.

When we graduate to digital, this is where we learn the post-production end of things. After we transfer a picture, whether we captured it analog or digital, into a computer, play around with Photoshop. See what extremes of contrast, brightness, saturation and gamma do to the image. Once you understand the extremes, your knowledge of manipulation of the image increases tenfold, and rather than relying upon Photoshop to rescue your images, you can plan in advance as to how Photoshop(and in cinema, color correction / grading), can bolster your eventual image. This is using the computer as a tool, and not as a fixit solution.

And finally there is the social aspect of photography. Going out and shooting pictures forces you to interact with your environment, with people, and it forces you to become sociable and bold. If you really want that picture of a pretty girl, then go ask her. If you really want a picture of that group of police officers, then ask them. People transform through a lens, and the capturing of our existence is a priceless and neccessary exercise. It reminds you of the vastness of our world, and that we share it with so many unique people, creatures and plants. While filmmaking is often a world of artifice, when we embrace photography our inclination is to move the camera out of the studio and into the real world. Whether it is documentary or fiction, the most compelling stories are those told in a percieved natural surrounding, and the skill of pulling that off can only come through practice and genuine interaction with the real world. Photography (and not Facebook) is a bona-fide way to be a part of something far greater than you, and everyone should pick it up. It is the sketchbook of our times.

working hard.
Making roadside dumplings in Tokyo. Taken on a LOMO on reversal film.

Calling “Action!” and all the movie magic that leads up to it.

Having elucidated upon the management of a typical day on a film shoot, let’s dissect the basic building block of film production, the shot.

From a direction standpoint it works differently for each director, but the main goal is to accomplish three things: the performance, the image, and coverage.

Setting up a shot begins with reference to the call sheet and sides as to what we’re going to shoot. From there the key members of the departments all meet and the shot is described by the director. A lot of this information has already been discussed in pre-production meetings, but the breakdown on the set is to give as clear an idea as possible, according to the moment. The art department has to have this information far in advance as they have to build and dress the set accordingly, and the information they receive on the day of the shoot is to make small adjustments in accordance to the shot structure, actor blocking and the light setup.

For example, I would describe a shot in Lilith where I wanted Julia to dance in a club and then see a strange man (Damon Taylor, excellent) looking at her. Julia and I would walk through the sequence in its entirety, working out performance beats and blocking (movement). Once we achieve what we wanted, the marks were set and I’d walk through it with my cinematographer, Faroukh Mistry.

Now Faroukh and I had spent weeks developing a visual strategy for the film long before the shoot began. I would send him photographic references and he would send me films to watch, and vice versa. We’d spent many countless hours in New York City coffee shops discussing color, movement and mood, and Faroukh created different “cocktails” of lights and gels that would deliver the look that I wanted. On set, we had already determined what look we wanted for the shot, and based on the blocking, Faroukh would convey to the grip and electric team what he needed to achieve the correct mood and adequate exposure, and also how much track he needed to accomplish the dolly move.

This is where the craft of filmmaking comes in, as determining exposure and manipulating the properties of light becomes an exercise of painting with light and shadow. The grip and electric team works in concert with the cinematographer to place grids, diffusion, gels, cutters and bounce boards to create shadows and highlights. If the cinematographer is the painter of light, the grips and gaffers are his hands and eyes, and the set is their canvas. My key gaffer, Bliss Holloway, and key grips, Kevin Martt and Chance Madison, often spoke with Faroukh in an alien language that comprised of nicknames for the tools of the trade, including things like “pork chops,” “apple boxes,” “cookies,” “jokers” and “babies.” It was immense fun to hear it on the sideline, spoken without any hesitation.

This is where the most time is spent on a set, and it is of paramount importance to get it right. In film school we are given the basics of a three-light setup: key light, fill, and backlight. These three lights are always present, but what we do from there is what differentiates average cinematography from stellar work. There are many more layers to add that will deliver narrative impact.

My camera team, consisting of 1st Assistant Camera James Madrid, 2nd Assistant Camera Nadine Martinez and 3rd Assistant Camera Woo Tang (I know, most awesome name evar) were in charge of lenses, filters and focus, three elements which can deliver equivalent impact as the lighting itself. Lilith is a serious cinematographic work that consciously employs every facet of the craft, and the images speak for themselves. It is largely the vision of Faroukh, who deserves all the credit in the world for accurately translating my dreamlike desires into to film.



So while the lights and camera are being set and the dolly track laid down, I like to sit and work with my actors on beats and performances. This varies from director to director, but I like to talk with my actors about objectives in the scene. What is the reaction when the character doesn’t get what they want? What happens when they do get it? I have an idea in my mind what happens but since my actors are living and breathing in that skin, I want to discuss with them what they feel and think. We start pushing from what we think might happen to something more authentic, towards what would actually happen. We’ll do a few rehearsals and maybe throw in an opposite reaction to what we were expecting, and see how that resonates.

But the key is to ask questions, and knowing that it’s okay at times to not have an answer. When that happens, you just have to try it and see what happens. On a low-budget independent there may not be the luxury to have extensive rehearsals and retakes, but I would recommend at least trying a scene three times, even if the actor nailed it the first time. This is because great actors are trained to make adjustments, and as that I had great actors in Julia Voth, Bianca Christians, Lili Reinhart, Nancy Telzerow, Jeremy Kendall, Lauren Ondecker, Spencer Kim, Karl Toth and Damon Taylor (and all my non-speaking actors as well, too many to list but you can see them on the film’s IMDB page), I had the freedom to try different things with the confidence that we’d get something really interesting each time.

With the lighting, camera, dolly and actors set, we were pretty much ready to shoot the scene. We’d do a quick stumble through and rehearsal for dolly timing and focus distances, exposure, and adjustments, and we were ready to go. My AD would call for quiet on the set, the sound department would check in for speed and clarity, and then I’d yell “action!”

And then a magical thing happens. The outside world melts away and whatever is in front of the camera becomes reality. Of course there will be flubs and mistakes, but that state of imagined reality always comes when the camera is on. We’ll generally run through three or four variations of the shot, and then move on to close-ups of the same sequence for the purpose of coverage and options in editing.

I remember reading an article in Cineaste about the lovely Italian film I Am Love, where director Luca Guadagnino confidently declared “Coverage is for cowards!”. Oddly enough, part of me agrees with him, but it is a very, very dangerous game to play, especially on a low-budget film. When I watched Luca’s gorgeous film, I did notice some jarring edits, and this is likely due to the editor not having enough coverage to repair the edit / transition.

Coverage can be overdone as well, and it can result in the hodgepodge that was seen in that Texas Chainsaw Massacre clip that I posted earlier. The key is to cover what the director has laid out, but before that to collect a master shot (or a master shot broken up) of the sequence that covers it in its entirety. This way, you’re at least guaranteed you have that part of your film covered, and there won’t be any gaps in the storytelling. The downside with master shots is that they tend to look staged, and have a flat, almost TV-like quality to them if you don’t incorporate camera movement into them. But you always have the option of not using them, provided you covered everything else.

So before moving on to the next shot, it is always important to confer with the script supervisor to make sure that everything was covered. It may take a few extra minutes to do so, but to move on without covering everything is an expensive and time-consuming mistake. My script supervisors, Belle Francisco and Jennifer Barklage-Dietrich did an amazing job of keeping everything in perspective and making sure I captured everything I needed to move on. It’s a tough, tough job, and the attention to detail to do the job correctly is immense.

Once everything is confirmed, we move on to the next set up, and the process starts all over again. And again. For days and weeks. But as arduous as it sounds, it becomes your life, and you miss it when it is over. The muscle memory of setting up shots becomes ingrained, and filmmakers seek the next opportunity like a fox hunting a rabbit. Maybe we’re all sadomasochists at heart?

On the “Lilith” set. Image by Jenni Burns

Four days down.

It’s been an exhausting first few days, and my cast, crew and I are already being pushed to the limit. But thankfully we all believe in the film we’re making, and the results thus far for Lilith have been nothing short of phenomenal.

Every frame of this film looks like a widescreen painting, and the performances are equally beautiful as the images. I could easily just say that, but have a look at a raw, uncorrected still image from the film and hopefully you’ll believe my words. :)

Tomorrow is a huge day of work, and likely one of the biggest challenges I’ll ever face in my young filmmaking career. But then again I’ll probably say that about every day on Lilith.

Going Anamorphic.

Making a film is never so easy as just placing a camera in front of an actor and having them say lines. I wish it were that simple. Film is such an intermingled web of forces that it’s damn near impossible to make one decision that doesn’t affect everything else. It’s one of those things as a director that can make your head explode, and I keep a little Moleskine book in my pocket just to keep track of the ripple effect of my decisions.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. A few posts ago I mentioned that we were shooting on a RED camera with Master Prime lenses, which will give us one specific kind of image. When we were working out the camera package, we came across an available set of Elite prime anamorphic lenses, which would give us the kind of vast, open and panoramic vistas seen in some of my favorite films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Kurosawa’s Ran. After mulling on it for a few days, we decided, for better or worse, to go anamorphic on the film. It will look absolutely stunning.

One would think that this decision doesn’t affect much of anything, but it actually affects just about everything in the film. When you go anamorphic you’re opening up your lateral frame to it’s widest aspect ratio - the slimmest letterbox - and you’re revealing far more information on the screen. In fact you’ll see just about everything.

No biggie, right? Wrong. More information on the screen means there’s more to light, which means you’ll need more lights to set up, which means you’re pushing your grip and electric team to get more done in the same amount of allotted time. More space on the screen also means that’s more area that the art department has to dress, which means they’ll need more props and the set dressers will also be required to get more done in the same amount of time.

Anamorphic lenses are humongous and heavy, and they require more room to operate, so it affects my locations and how I will shoot in them. Because the size of the camera rig with an anamorphic lens, I’ll lose about an additional 15-20% of space behind me to accommodate the rig.

So then, you may ask, why even bother going anamorphic? Because it is simply the most stunning image a film can produce. It is epic filmmaking, the widest frame possible, and given the expansive locations, the impeccable quality of our art department, and beauty of the actors we have, a film like Lilith deserves only the best. You have to calculate how much you compromise on one end and see how much you gain on the other. In my estimation it’s flat out worth it.

Plus I grew up on the films of Akira Kurosawa, who is in my humble opinion the greatest widescreen filmmaker of all time. Kurosawa set the Tohoscope (the Japanese equivalent of Cinemascope) frame as a stage for his actors to freely move around within, and he would masterfully break up the long horizontal frame into levels and quadrants, creating a frame of unparalleled depth. I’m drawing upon my favorite Kurosawa film, High and Low for my reference to widescreen use in Lilith, and it has been an invaluable source of inspiration and guidance.

I know in my heart that we made the right decision, and Lilith will benefit all for it. It will look simply stunning.