I recently wrote about my experience shooting my short film HAUNT, which you can read about here. One of the coolest things about my job working for Fotodiox Inc. is that they allow me to borrow any gear I need for my personal projects as long as I make videos discussing how I used the gear. Here’s a video I recently put together for Fotodiox’s YouTube channel discussing what gear I used to make HAUNT, plus some of the tricks I came up with to create certain shots.
All photographic undertakings require some artifice and trial and error. The photographer or filmmaker isn’t so much capturing the exact right image or moment as he is capturing many images and moments and looking for the best in the editing stage. This has always been the case. It reflects the fact that we’re not the creator so much as the created, trying to capture a piece of creation.
Unless you’re doing work for a fellow pro, It’s all about how professional the equipment looks. I upgraded my event video camera from a dinky little HV20 (it produced great quality video anyway) to a new comparable Canon HD video camera. The difference between them? The HV20 was silver and looked like a soccer mom camera, while the new camera is matte black and has a cool looking lens hood. I’ve already received a bunch of compliments about how professional my gear is.
I have a friend who always wears a hat when he directs a film. He told me it makes him stand out and gives him more authority in people’s minds. I tried it once and it seemed to work, but I’m not much of a hat person.
The 24 frames per second “jerky look” has been the hallmark of cinema since it’s inception, so it has a lot of sway with people’s brains. Even people who have no idea about fps still know what “the cinema look” is. That being said, I’ve seen plenty of 30 and 48 and 60fps films that were just as engaging, dramatic and “cinematic” as films shot in 24p. The filmmaker’s palette is an ever increasing one, and I try to embrace it all.
I’ve always been under the impression that most well-known artists work exactly like most unknown artists. They just make stuff, and then make more stuff. Look at all of the films or photos or paintings or poems of any famous artist and you’ll see a bunch of stuff, some of it good, some of it not so good, but at the end of the day, it’s just stuff that they churned out, and then made more. Most artists are just humble craftsmen, and it’s really just society that selects a few to highlight every couple of decades.
There’s always been a conflict between photographic philosophies. On one side you have the photoshop and lightroom crowd who view photographing the image as a starting point for a more complex post workflow. Sometimes the results are stunning, sometimes gaudy and ugly. It all depends on the skill and artistic eye of the editor. On the other side you have photographers who view photographing the image as the beginning, middle and end of the process. They bring all the filters they need with and them and get the photo right on-site. These people tend to think of photography as a way to capture the world as it is, not to create an idealized or alien one. This second philosophy falls apart when you consider the wondrous complexity of the human eye and the comparatively primitive nature of the camera’s lens and sensor. Often the only way to capture an image that you can see just fine with your own eye is to shoot the best image you can on site and do subtle post work to get the image to look closer to what you could see. There are photographers all along the spectrum between these two philosophies, and to be honest, I’m not
Why do all the best films come out in the space of three months?! My wallet and I wish the studios would space them out equally over the course of a year, but there is something fitting about the quality of cinema climbing as we approach our holy days. Here are some mini reviews of the 2015 awards season films I’ve seen so far.
Every once in a while I see a film that already feels like a classic, and Sicario is one of those kinds of films. Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer who is frustrated by the violent drug crimes she encounters daily in her hometown. After a particularly violent encounter she gets pulled into America’s chaotic war on Mexican drug cartels by careless CIA contractor Matt Graver, played by Josh Brolin. Graver doesn’t seem to take his job very seriously: he wears flip flops and Hawaiian shirts, takes long naps between dangerous missions and jokes around in warzones–not the best guide to a world Kate has never experienced before. Both he and Kate follow leads on both sides of the border given to them by the enigmatic Alejandro, played with amazing subtlety by Benicio Del Toro, an expert in the field who may not be trustworthy. He is kind and gentle but prone to fits of violence, and there’s something in his eyes. All three actors deliver killer performances and the plot twists and turns until everything is thrown on it’s head, leading up to a devistating and poetic final scene. I don’t want to give much more away, so if you can handle some violence and language, watch this film! The screenplay is tight, the acting brilliant, and the cinematography and music are almost perfect. One of my favorite films of the year so far!
Compared to classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas, Black Mass is middling mobster film. It’s not bad, but it’s not that great either. Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a real life Bostonian mobster who the FBI turned a blind eye to for decades in return for his informing on other mobs. It’s a dark and scandalous story, and one that deserves to be told, but I felt that the script was a little too on the nose. Characters often deliver dumbed-down exposition rather than realistic dialog and the film never seems to know weather it wants to idolize or demonize Depp’s Bulger, who seems to be really enjoying all the makeup and scenery chewing. The slow moral decay of Bulger’s friend and FBI agent John Connolly–played by Joel Edgerton–who was largely responsible for allowing Bulger’s reign of terror, is well rendered and brings a little more meat to the proceedings, but the final product is nothing to brag about.
The good thing about Crimson Peak is it’s the most accurate screen representation of Gothic horror I’ve ever seen. The bad thing about Crimson Peak is it’s the most accurate screen representation of Gothic horror I’ve ever seen. I’m a big fan of director Guillermo Del Toro. His Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favorites, and I also have a soft spot for his first Hellboy film. Del Toro understands the importance of good art design in fantasy filmmaking and its clearly the star here–every inch of each set is intricately detailed, colored and lit, and the sets in general just thrum with energy. The actors inhabit these spaces competently, and the story is well told and paced, but I guess I just find Gothic horror a bit silly. In this genre the twisted passions and dark desires of human characters are supposed to be more haunting than anything the supernatural world can cook up, and Del Toro dutifully plays by this rule book, clearly loving the genre he’s paying such close homage too, but I just can’t get on board. What the filmmaker finds romantically haunting I find simply base. Sin is sin, whether it takes place in an dirty alley or an elaborate mansion, and in either case it’s fairly easy to understand, not half as dark or deep as Gothic horror or Del Toro claims it to be.
I love screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s style of writing. It’s super brainy and jams as much info into as little space as possible. It was perfect when paired with David Fincher’s sense of style and directing in 2010’s The Social Network, and it also works remarkably well in Danny Boyle’s new film Steve Jobs. The film centers on the infamous titular character as he navigates the relational complexities and pitfalls–many of which he was personally responsible for–of his work and social life as he also attempts to prepare for three milestone product launches: The Macintosh, The NeXT, and the iMac. These three extended yet fast paced scenes make up the entirety of the film following Jobs as he strides from room to room and converses and argues with character after character–it’s as if the conflicts of his entire life have been compressed into three moments in time. It’s certainly not a realistic approach, and often feels like a CliffsNotes of Jobs’ biography rather than a dramatic film, but it still somehow all works. Michael Fassbender is pitch perfect as Jobs and Alwin H. Küchler’s warm and often abstract cinematography, shot on grainy film, just sings. When I left the theater, I felt like I knew Steve Jobs, if not liked him, better. The ending is a bit of an emotional cop-out, but I’ll let it pass. If you’re at all interested in this guy or the history of Apple computers, this film is a must watch.
In the future the U.S. apparently has an elaborate and well funded space program and is running regular missions to Mars. An astronaut, played by Matt Damon, gets left behind in a storm and the rest of the film is about the elaborate attempts to “bring him home.” The Martian is the hardest of hard science fiction. Not once is the beauty or magic of space pondered–everyone is too busy talking shop. Damon keeps a regular video journal as he walks us through his attempts at survival as our NASA friends back on Earth have long discussions in board rooms about travel times and trajectories. It all sounds a bit dull but its actually a lot of fun. The characters aren’t complex, but their banter is well written and the audience is on board because the situation is so desperate. I heard someone say recently that The Martian is the kind of film America would make if we were a communist country: a film about a group of people more interested in their country’s success than their personal lives who selflessly band together to solve an overwhelming problem. It’s kind of true and feels unrealistic in our current self-obsessed culture, but it’s not a bad sentiment. We’ve never been Red, but we used to be a little more selfless.
I’ve always loved Halloween. Any day that celebrates imaginary monsters and the telling of scary stories is alright by me. When I was young my folks didn’t allow me to trick or treat because of Halloween’s pagan origins, but as they matured in their Christian faith, they began to realize that the holiday had become a harmless celebration of imagination. By that time though I was too old to participate, so for me Halloween has the added allure of a holiday I never really got to be a part of. This allure has influenced the stories I tell–I keep returning to horror themes in my short films. My senior thesis film used werewolf imagery to represent humanity’s sinful nature and my first major short out of college was a subversion of the slasher genre, where the masked stalker was the one in danger. Now I’m at it again with my new short film HAUNT.
I was home schooled all the way through high school, so I found my main social circle in the after school musical theater group I was involved in. I spent many lovely evenings sitting on the cold floor of a church gym chatting with my friends and working on blocking scenes, memorizing dance choreography, and learning three part harmonies. Most of my formative years were spent heavily involved in this group, and it did a lot to form the person I am now. While performing in over 15 musicals I agonized over numerous crushes, gained lifelong friends, and debated my way closer to my Christian faith. Lately I’ve reconnected with this group–much the same as it was when I was a kid only with new faces–and I’m now teaching film acting classes for them, which is a great opportunity for me to make films.
HAUNT is the result of a class I just finished teaching for this group. Combining my interest in Halloween with my experiences in youth theater and my Christian faith, the film tells the story of a teenage boy dealing with the loss of a close friend who was a strong believer. The film takes place over the course of one day, October 31, starting with play practice and ending at a harvest party lock-in. You can watch it below.
Making this film as part of a class meant that I was limited to two hour sessions and meeting in a multi purpose room in a church. Rather than shooting against a backdrop or on a green screen like I’ve done in the past, I instead wrote a script that fit the settings and actors I had. It’s probably my most personal film yet, full of little nods to things that happened to me and people I knew when I was a teenager, and it was a real pleasure to create. I abandoned my tripod, opting for a hand-held rig, and instead of using lots of lights, I shot with fast vintage C-mount lenses, giving me a cinematic shallow depth of field and the ability to speedily set up shots. It’s not a perfect film and I still have a lot of growing to do as a filmmaker, but I feel like it’s a step in the right direction. This is the type of film I want to continue to make, immediate and focused, with a unique plot and realistically communicated truth. Modern Christian cinema is really comfortable with working in worn cliche, which bothers me because cinema is such a flexible art form–you can tell any story in any way you want, and that’s exactly what I want to do!
EXTRA: Here’s an extended cut of the short film Attack of the Giant Woman featured in HAUNT. I shot it on black and white Super 8 film to differentiate it from the rest of the project.
November is almost here, and with it comes bright cold days and bare trees reaching towards perfectly blue skies. Everything is brown and grey and purple and seems swept clean for a moment after the leaves have fallen and before the snows begin. It’s a season of Holidays and family get-togethers, full of football, feasts and long walks to burn them off. My family loves to wander over bone yellow prairies, through oak savanas and down rocky ravines, exploring twisty stony forests after they’ve lost their cover of green. We visit abandoned military forts, old bridges and river overlooks, admiring the way the sun reflects off old stone and trees curve over and reflect in the brown water below. This is photography season, the best time for carrying a camera, either film or digital, and capturing all the joyous romping and beautiful scenery. Here are some of my favorite images from this season.