This is a director’s nightmare: Everyone’s in position, the cameras are rolling, but something’s not quite right. You’ve been shooting the same scene for what feels like an eternity and no matter what you do, the actors’ performances are just not getting any better.
As I'm learning more and more, directing films is really about making decisions. What kind of performance do you want out of your actors? How do you want to frame up the shot? Do you want to use music in the scene? The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, in my opinion, making these decisions can often be a lot more complicated and confusing than it needs to be.
When Jack and I agreed to write the screenplay, we both knew that realising that (seemingly simple) and was going to be very challenging. Neither of us had written a feature length script before, and we both enjoyed procrastinating as much as the next writer. To combat this, we decided to set up a bunch of commandments or rules to help us along the way.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent a lot of time last year trying to learn as much as possible about the different aspects of my craft as a filmmaker and director. One idea that I came across again and again was that a director cannot work well with actors unless they have some acting experience. It's a simple idea that I think holds a lot of truth. Would you get up to conduct an orchestra if you had never played an instrument?
When I decided to make Play It Safe back in early 2011, I knew that I had a great challenge ahead of me. Even though I finished my first festival short back in 2005, the fact that I had never attended a proper film school weighed heavily on my mind. I've worked on many different projects over the last few years, but for the most part the production processes were nothing like what might occur on a Hollywood film set...
Good listening skills are crucial in the film business. In my experience, a good director will spend most of their time listening. During a production you will be listening to questions and thoughts from every department. Good listening skills will not only help you to direct quickly and effectively, but will also enable you to maintain crew morale. It’s one thing to work for nothing because you believe in a project, but it’s another thing entirely to not be paid and then not even be listened to by a director or producer. If I wanted to put up with that then I would go back to working in retail (and then at least I would be getting paid).
In my opinion, the technical side of filmmaking is often more complicated than it needs to be. This is because of the way filmmaking has developed over time. A lot of the methodology and terminology we still use today is based on the way things were done years and years ago. Take for example: the way the 16:9 aspect ratio was developed, the fact that your sound guy will probably still say “speed” to indicate that the sound is recording, and don’t even get me started on the different framerates we’ve been left with thanks to the differences between PAL & NTSC.
Aspect ratios are one of those things can seem a bit overwhelming when you’re getting started. I used to refer to some of the wider aspect ratios as “extra-widescreen” (and I actually still do sometimes, just for fun). I remember when we made Fraught back in 2006. I desperately wanted to present the film in an aspect ratio of 16:9 or wider but we didn’t have access to a camera that could shoot that natively. So we settled for 4:3. Now, I know of a bunch of things we could have done to fix that (especially since it’s a rotoscoped animated film).
With this post, I’ve done my best to explain what aspect ratios and resolutions are in relation to film and video. The rest of the post then explains the most common aspect ratios and lists some common resolutions for each.
I recently gave a talk to students at The MacRobertson Girls' High School. I’ve done a bunch of talks like this, so I knew what kind of lecture was expected. Generally, the aim is to try and get the students inspired and excited about filmmaking & other forms of multimedia. But as I prepared my materials for the lecture, I started to wonder if I could actually, in good conscience, recommend they take a similar career path to me. Sure, being a creative professional is exciting, inspiring, and incredibly rewarding. But it also has an incredibly significant downside. And I’m not even talking about the lack of stability, exhausting hours, general stress, or soul crushing rejection. I’m talking about simple heath and safety. To put it bluntly, my passion for film has ruined my body.
I’ve read stories where people like Kevin Smith recall seeing Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and then they thought “my god, I can make movies too”. The film that did that for me was “Mutual Appreciation”, directed by Andrew Bujalski.
I first saw “Mutual Appreciation” at the 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival and it was an absolute revelation to me. I’d never seen anything like it. I found the stories interesting, I was fascinated by its naturalism, and I felt like for one of the first times I was watching characters who I could really relate to. They were doing and talking about things that I did myself. How to be a young artist. How to make it. Growing up and finding your way in life. I saw “Mutual Appreciation” and something clicked. It was as if someone had suddenly given me permission. I felt like I could now make the kinds of movies I wanted to, and maybe here was a way I could do it.
One of the best film-related decisions I’ve ever made was enlisting the help of my good friend, Jack White, in writing the screenplay for my first feature film. Without him, I really doubt whether this film would have ever gotten made.
In my office I’ve got whole boxes filled with drafts for novels, novellas, screenplays, all sorts of crap, that I start but never get around to finishing. A lot of this stuff hangs around for years. I might pull it out every now and again to have a look, but I usually end up shoving it back in its box despondently. It’s a pretty terrible thing to see the result of years and years of work in such a scrappy state and know deep down that most of it is never going to see the light of day.
I never went to film school, so I had to learn all the protocols of filmmaking on my own. I didn’t actually learn some of the basics until about three years into my career as an indie director. By this time I’d already won Best Australian Film at MIAF and been commissioned to direct a short docco for the BBC World Service. But still, I didn’t know the basic protocol of working on a film set. This was because of the way I’d come up - fiercely independent, making up the rules as I went. This approach got me some terrific results, but it also had its limitations.
Inevitably, my (lack of) knowledge was tested, and in quite an embarrassing way. Back in 2008 I had somehow managed to score a roll as First Assistant Director on my friend Alan Lam’s final honours film. I thought I knew enough about filmmaking, indie production, and visual storytelling to be of use, but it was a steep learning curve when it came to working with the crew.
I believe that learning to work within limitations is an incredibly important part of being a filmmaker. On many (if not not all) projects it is simply a requirement. In addition to this, however, I believe that it can actually be a very big help to the creative process. This is something I learned early on in my film career and I still believe it today. Some of my best work has come out of the technical or logistical limitations I had to work with. So with every new project, instead of cursing the limitations and restrictions I face (even though sometimes it’s mighty tempting) I do my best to actually embrace them.
I don't normally post this kind of thing on the blog, but after working through a problem over a couple of days I figured some of you filmmakers out there (or just people who want to watch foreign DVDs) might find it useful. I had to read through a large number of blog & forum posts to get to this solution so I figured it might be handy to have it all in one place.